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Cleanliness is Next to Cultiness

by Mel Zee


In May, I left an A.A/twelve-step-based residential treatment centre after a two-month stay. It was an intense, rewarding experience, but left me feeling pretty confused. I learned a lot about myself, but I also learned that A.A/N.A in its entirety is not for me. In the same sense that the fundamentals of Christianity are both beautiful and humbling, so too are those of twelve step programs. I can read passages in the Bible and admit that they make a lot of sense, but I’m not about to go become a nun. And I’m not going to become a full-time resident in the house of A.A either. Twelve-step programs teach that we are not bad people for being addicts, but that we’re sick people—body, mind, and spirit. This was totally true for me. I was addicted to opiates and had given up on pretty much everything except getting high. In treatment, I worked through the steps, got honest with myself, and learned to trust others with my deepest, darkest shit and started to believe that my lifewasn’t the problem, my thinkingwas. I give so muchcredit to the treatment centre I went to for what I learned, but I still left there feeling stifled. I felt terrified—like I wasn’t doing everything I was supposed to do, when I was supposed to do it, and would, therefore fail. I started to feel angry (the way I’d imagine a disillusioned cult-member feels when they realize some of what they were told was an outright lie). I wanted to do everything I was supposed to do, but some of it just felt wrong to me. A.A is scary to a lot of people because it’s so cloistered. It tells you, “this is the way it needs to be done, otherwise you’re doomed to relapse and die.” And that’s fucking suffocating. The more I feared relapse, the more it was on my mind, and the more it was on my mind, the more real it became. The more real it became, the more it started to exist. And as soon as it really started to exist, I wanted to use because I spent more time focusing on my fear of relapse than on all the positive things that helped me stay clean in the first place. 


Part of the problem of twelve-step programs is that they tear you down, make you believe your brain is and always will be sick, and that you, in turn, cannot be trusted—ever again. This creates an environment where you must rely solely on A.A and its members for your sanity if you have any hope of staying clean. I understand the need for a support group, but the idea that, because I was once living in a dark hole of self-hatred, denial, blaming, and addiction, I can never be well again no matter how much work I do is just…well, depressing. And I didn’t want to accept it. I realized that I needed to fit it into my life. And I didn’t have to call it by any name or force myself to belong to any specific recovery group, I could take the things I’d learned that worked, and leave the rest of the shit behind. Some people will say that I’m still in denial, or that I’m a “dry drunk” (or “dry addict,” or whatever the junkie equivalent is), but I don’t believe that. My life has always been about either excess or absence, with no in between, and that has never helped me before, so why now would dropping my reliance on drugs and adopting a reliance on A.A/N.A be good for me? I can’t see that it would. Hear me out. 


Recovery means different things to me. It’s about everything, not just staying off drugs. It’s not about going to a set amount of meetings every week, or placing my sick little life in the hands of a sponsor who’s just going to reiterate the Big Book of A.A to me every time I have a different idea. It’s not about endless quoting from the A.A bible, despite whether it’s understood or not. It’s not about separating addicts from “normies”, and it’s not about being scared into pretending I’ve found a “higher power” when I really haven’t. Recovery does mean being mindful of my patterns, recognizing them before they make me want to snort shit up my nose to forget about my problems. Recovery means being honest with myself and others, so that I don’t have to escape into a secret world that gets way too comfortable, way too fast. Recovery means finding balance because a strict adherence to somebody else’s rules has never worked for me. Recovery means simple things too, like hanging my clothes up when I don’t feel like it because I know it’ll make me feel better when they’re off the floor. It means sitting and talking to a stranger, even if they’re weird and kind of annoying because I might actually learn something from a weird stranger. It means trying to appreciate every tiny thing because that exact moment will never happen again. It means phoning someone and asking for help instead of assuming that no one likes me and that my problems are silly. It means allowing myself to feel sad for no reason without shaming myself for not being happy in that moment, and not wallowing in what “could have/should have” been because that only makes the cuts deeper. It means helping my boyfriend’s mom do the dishes even when I’m so full I think I might die because I know it’ll make her night easier. It means accepting that, yeah, my body doesn’t look exactly the way I want it to right now, but that that’s okay because I’m trying to eat healthier and one day I’m going to be where I want to be, but that even if I’m not, that’s okay too. It means turning the t.v off after two episodes of The Sopranos instead of seven because I should probably do some homework or vacuum or something so I don’t feel shitty later for being so lazy.


Recovery means showing my vulnerability to people and accepting that sometimes they’re not going to like me, and that whether they do or not, it doesn’t change me. It means reading a new book instead of the one I’ve already read because repeating things I’ve already done will make me stagnant. It means forgiving myself when I do read the same book again because sometimes life isn’t all about learning and growing, it’s about enjoyment and comfort, too. It means one piece of cake instead of two, but it means eating that goddamn piece of cake, too because cake is delicious and I need good things in my life, even if they’re as simple as flour and sugar. It means trusting myself and not changing who I am for others who don’t agree with what I’m doing. It means thinking for myself, making up my own mind, and believing that at the end of the day, I’m going to be just fine. It means allowing myself to be nervous about something and doing it anyway because a day will come when I’ll only remember the rewards of the scary thing I did and not how scared I was to begin with. It means believing that I’m entitled to my feelings, but that I can’t run away with them, no matter how real they seem. It means not taking myself out of the game because I think I’m not good enough because I know that’ll make me feel like more of a loser and I’ll end up wading knee-deep in that shit for way longer than anyone ever should. It means forgiving myself and others when we stumble because we all fucking do it and we’ll continue to do it no matter how much we think we know. It means accepting that I’m bound to fail at different things, at different times, for different reasons but that it doesn’t make me a failure, it just means I have to try something else.


Recovery means not getting lost in the tragedies of life because bad things happen sometimes, but it doesn’t mean life is bad. It means forgiving myself for some shitty things I said or did because sometimes we are all assholes, and often we don’t mean to hurt others, it just happens. It means focusing on this keyboard, these words I’m typing, and not what anyone else is going to think about this essay, or what I’m going to accidentally leave out because this moment is really the only moment I have and whatever comes out of it is what was supposed to come out of it. It means telling/showing the people around me that I love them because I do, and maybe they don’t know it right now because sometimes we all feel insecure and we need to be reminded that we are loved. It means learning as I go and not getting too wound up over the fact that I didn’t know yesterday what I know today. It means being gentle with myself and others because being gentle is so much nicer than being an asshole. It means not obsessing over how somebody else is doing something the “wrong way” because what other people do is out of my control anyway, and when I focus on others, I miss the things I’m doing wrong. It means letting things happen as they happen because they’re gonna happen anyway, so freaking out about it is pointless because it just makes the suffering last longer. It means being happy for someone who has something I want because if they can have it, so can I, but even if I never get it, it’s pretty cool that someonegets to have it. It means accepting that sometimes I’m going to feel shitty, that life can be hard and that things don’t usually go according to plan, but that I can learn something from every situation, even the really fucked up, heart breaking ones. It means acknowledging that people change, circumstances change, and I can change, too. 


I don’t call myself an addict like A.A/N.A wants me to. I wasan addict, with shitty ideas about life, myself, and other people. Now I’m an ex-addict with slightly better ideas about life, myself, and other people and I have faith that it’s only going to get better. The better it gets, the less I’ll feel the need to go back to the shitty place I was in before. I’m still super fresh in recovery and have no illusions of being “cured”, but I feel good about the way I’m living my life now. Part of my recovery is allowing myself to do what Ifeel is right, despite what other people try to impose. I’m not saying that my way is the right way, because I believe people need to navigate recovery on their own terms. But I also believe that some people need the rigorous structure of twelve-step programs and that they aren’t weak or stupid or brainwashed, necessarily, for it, either. It just didn’t work for mebecause I don’t want to live in fear of relapse or of “recovering wrong.” Fear doesn’t rehabilitate prisoners and I don’t believe it rehabilitates the majority of addicts, either. Freedom of mind, and the belief that I can do better than I did in the pastseems to. And I want that. I want to be free to stay clean however I need to, without drinking the kool aid.

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