Op/Ed by Burl Barer, Member of Writers in Treatment Advisory Board
Fellowship [fel-oh-ship]: friendly association, especially with people who share one’s interests.
The 2019 Experience, Strength and Hope Awards event, celebrating recovery, was uplifting, inspiring and fun. This year’s Award recipient, Jodie Sweetin, best known for her role as Stephanie Tanner in the hit television series Full House (1987-1995), was honestly appreciative.
“To be chosen by Writers in Treatment for such an award is incredibly humbling.,” said Sweetin. “ I am so proud to be a sober member of recovery and am proud to carry the message of the 12-step community!”
She was honest, grateful and spoke from the heart, which is more than I ever did during two decades of active involvement in AA, a program of rigorous honesty. I lied every time I introduced myself at a meeting.
I’ve never been a drinker. The bartender at my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary thought it amusing to get a seven-year-old drunk on bourbon. As an adult, the smell of booze on a woman’s breath is a wilting experience. I have never enjoyed the effect of alcohol and if gifted a shot of 18 year-old single malt scotch, I would savor the flavor in well-measured sips without ever finishing it.
So, to say that I’m an alcoholic is a lie. I had to be honest with myself and others and step away from my very active participation in both AA and NA. Yes, I have enjoyed mind- and mood-altering substances for recreational purposes (always keeping in mind Dr. Leary’s advice on the importance of set and setting) but pain-killers do not amuse me. After all, if I am in pain, I’m not looking to be amused. Just to be safe and sure, I have had comprehensive psychological assessments and clinical diagnosis by true professionals confirming that I am not now, nor ever have been, addicted to drugs.
“Will someone please read, Why are we here?”
I knew why I was there – I loved the fellowship. I was force fed AA membership when, in the early 1980’s, my spouse compelled me into a rehab for self-medicating my ADD with non-prescription stimulants. Back then, in the primitive days of so-called “treatment centers,” everyone who went to “treatment” was told that they were an alcoholic and an addict even if the problem was that they got caught using something of which an authority figure, spouse or parent didn’t approve.
Some of the people in treatment with me simply came there because they wanted/needed a break from the fellowship of drug users – some of whom lived to use, not occasionally used to amuse. We were all forced to attend AA meetings and we all had to admit that we were alcoholics and drug addicts. If we refused to lie, we were “in denial.”
So, I lied. After all, here were people ready and willing to accept me and include me. No one stole pages from my Big Book when my back was turned, and no one pretended they didn’t have a Big Book to share if I asked them to front me a few paragraphs.
I loved the fellowship of the Fellowship, and as a professional researcher, I learned that AA wasn’t ever considered treatment for any condition, let alone alcoholism. It is a fellowship – a wonderful fellowship of people helping each other put off having a drink until tomorrow. Just for today.
All the great joys and benefits of that fellowship were manifested in full at the Experience Strength and Hope Awards. There I saw people laughing so hard their sides hurt, augmented by emotional memories of past pain overcome by compassion, support and fellowship.
It is ironic that only since leaving AA/NA have I come to understand what those in true recovery in AA or NA probably deal with on a daily basis. I am “recovering” from a traumatic brain injury and the destructive emotional impact of traumatic abuse in my adulthood, the effects of which increase every year. Just for today, I will not kill myself to stop the overwhelming soul-crushing clinical depression and fear-fueled anxiety that makes me hate myself and for which I assume others enjoy mocking me and inflicting emotional pain. Those symptoms decrease dramatically thanks to the life-changing, life-saving medication that my neurologist first prescribed in 2002 – Provigil, a medication originally created for people suffering from Narcolepsy, but was discovered to also have anti-depression and anti-anxiety properties in addition to activating the “alert center” of the brain – an area impacted by my injury.
The Experience, Strength and Hope Awards did something wonderful for me, and the sense of unity in diversity in the event’s fellowship was electric, passionate, and embraced everyone who strives to become the person they know they are in their heart of hearts. Each presenter and all participant – including John Stamos, Ed Begley, Jr, Leonard Lee Buschel, and several others, were living examples of authenticity and evolving self-awareness.
The famed civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome, says “we” not “I,” and the “shall” tells us that the paths of victory we shall walk are always in front of us without end, as is creation itself, and we experience it living right here, right now As individuals we are single, alone and often lonely. United in fellowship, we draw strength and confirmation from one another.
Is there a fellowship for people such as I? That’s like asking if there is an anarchist’s organization. There is an app called Wisdo where I go online to talk to those people who need someone to keep them afloat just for today – I share my experience strength and hope, and I don’t kill myself because I promised my mother that I never would. It is like walking out of a movie in the second act. I’ll sit through almost ANYTHING in a theater except “John and Mary” starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow.
“Show forth fellowship and love, consideration and generosity to every human being, welcome them all with unalloyed friendship, good cheer, and loving-kindness… when malevolence is directed your way, respond with a friendly heart and in return for curses, taunts and wounding words, show forth abounding love.”
Just as you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy pastrami on rye, you don’t need to be suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction to enjoy the fellowship, love and generosity of the Experience Strength and Hope Awards– it gave me strength and hope, and that’s an experience I can share.
Did you notice that I’m on the Advisory Board of Writers in Treatment? Yes, and I am proud to have that association on my resume. An inclusive organization does not exclude diversity.