People Stay in AA Because Society Makes Us Lonely and Miserable

Isolation makes us easy targets for substance use disorder
Isolation makes us easy targets for substance use disorder Photo ("Lone Spectator") by Naparazzi via Flickr
About two years ago my alcoholism had entered the phase where I was actively planning to kill myself. After a stint in the hospital, I got much, much better and have been sober ever since. Believe me, as a journalist in this shattered timeline it isn’t easy. On top of a lot of therapy, my treatment involved a heavy dose of Alcoholics Anonymous, including meetings three times a day. Even after I left, I went at least once a week, got a sponsor, went out on calls to help others, the whole nine yards. I worked hard on steps and for chips because I am the Hermione Granger of bad life choices.

I haven’t been to a meeting in a year, though, and I have a lot of friends who are happy about that. I get congratulated by them for maintaining sobriety without becoming fanatically involved in religion or the “cult” of AA. Some of those same friends have horror stories of people in their lives that became as dependent on AA as they ever had been on alcohol.

But the reason that people become fixated on AA isn’t because they are some sinister force recruiting people. It’s because modern life and late stage capitalism make us lonely and miserable. AA, for better or worse, alleviates that pain.

Judith Shulevitz has a fantastic piece in The Atlantic called “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore,” and she quotes extensively from Emily Guendelsberger’s book On the Clock. To sum up aspects of both, the way we work in the ‘10s is starving us from very necessary human contact and time for leisurely personal interaction. One in five people work irregular hours, and the gig economy means that a great many of us have no routine days off, including holidays. One oi eight Americans experience food insecurity, and we’re told that the only real cure for poverty is more work. Employers increasingly expect 110 percent (aka the impossible), and with stagnant wages keeping many Americans from having surpluses or savings it leaves us desperate to comply in order to remain financially stable. That means that work becomes your primary life focus.

Point blank, Americans spend so much on work that they let rest and friendship rot on the vine. Even as someone who sets my own hours, the idea that I could lose two hours of writing time simply to go have lunch with a friend is terrifying, even if I could get said friend to ignore his own deadlines long enough to share a sandwich with me.

That isolation was one of the key parts of my illness’ progression. You have to understand how substance use disorder goes from manageable to deadly. Someone who eats healthy, sleeps regularly, exercises, has ample human contact, low financial stress, rewarding hobbies, and the time to pursue them is far less likely to descend into the depths of substance abuse.

They still can. I met plenty of people inside the hospital who had. However, the way substance use disorder progresses is that it slowly eliminates the brain’s ability to produce dopamine except for the substance. If you’re getting regular doses of it from healthy sources it progresses slowly or not at all. Friendship is one of those sources.

Social media has allowed us the ability to connect with people meaningfully all over the world. I have friends I rely on deeply, and them on me, who I have never met. That is amazing, but there is simply no replacing the physiological response to being in a loved one’s presence. Physical touch, whether it’s a hug or a handshake, builds a sense of safety and warmth. Those are exactly the kind of things that prevent us from falling into despair.

The realities of late stage capitalism turn making those kinds of connections into another terrible chore when they aren’t outright impossible. Who has time to plan a dinner party, or the energy to spend a weekday evening with friends knowing that the grind is waiting for you the next day? Who can risk simply taking a day off to do whatever it is you want to do, let alone two of you? The money machine comes first. We are all constantly reminded that the reason we are poor is because we are lazy.

That’s where AA steps in. Because it’s treated as a semi-medical organization (see my hospital stay), people tend to be more accommodating of strict regular attendance. Especially if it helps you be a better producer at work. The gatherings are big on touch and sharing, things that a lot of people lack in their lives because they spend so much of them working and servicing other people’s needs. AA is a place where you can go and have the floor without most people judging or resenting you for taking it. It’s a place where your needs get met at a time when we give the best of ourselves to faceless corporations.

That response is one of the reasons that AA has been called a cult since the ‘40s. Everything looks like a cult when we’re not used to watching a person seek out companionship as a lifesaving necessity instead of a luxury. It’s not just the support for not drinking, although that is a help. Partially because of American culture, it is hard not to have gatherings of friends where alcohol isn’t a main component. That makes it even harder for people with substance use disorder to get what they need from other outlets.

I stopped needing AA when I put the work into reconnecting with people. It was hard, but the alternative is dying. I started a local writer group. I sometimes go to lunch with other freelancers even if I’m on deadline. Occasionally, I’ll just wander off into the arboretum on a workday by myself so that I can meet people because I monitor myself for signs of depression and anxiety and refuse to try and bum rush through them, possibly sparking another descent. I make time on the weekends to do things with my wife and daughter, even when the never-ending gullet of journalism demands I pay attention to it first.

We have to learn to take back our time. Living to work is unhealthy, and it leaves you with few defenses when something like a chronic illness gets worse. Friendship and time to enjoy it need to be treated as necessary for a healthy life. They must become a priority. For a lot of people, the only way they learn to make that a priority in America as adults is to develop a problem so bad they require a support group like AA to survive. If we weren’t being worked to death, our time managed by others until it no longer belongs to us, we’d have the strong bulwark of other people’s strength to lean on.

I suspect that is one reason they deny it to us for their profit. Better to keep us crying in church basements about our disease.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner