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A Suburban Mom’s Ascent from Hell
Comments () | Published January 22, 2013
“I’m Maria, and I’m an alcoholic.” I choked the words out. I stared at the ground, not wanting to make eye contact with the guy from my church or the neighbor.

It took me a long time to set foot in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I felt ashamed of my closet drinking. I was embarrassed. I was on the church council, an uber-volunteer at my children’s private schools, and a community organizer. I had given up a successful legal career to be an at-home mother, and now that my children were teens, they no longer needed me in the way they had before. I had lost my sense of self, and I didn’t have any particular goals for my future. I sought solace in alcohol.

When I realized that I had been watching the clock at home to keep myself from opening a bottle before noon, I knew I had a problem. I had been parking outside an AA meeting site, but I would see people I knew walking into the building and drive away.

It wasn’t until my husband gave me an ultimatum that I agreed to go inside. He was afraid of how much my drinking had increased in quantity and frequency, and he worried because I’d been hiding it from him and others. After years of equanimity, we’d begun fighting. 

AA saved my marriage and my life.

I believe that AA is the best kept secret in this town. There are more than 1,600 meetings just in the Washington area…per week. This is a very competitive city, but egos get checked at the door to the AA community. In fact, I’ve never met a more welcoming, kind, supportive group of people here. 

From the day I walked in, I was accepted. “We will love you until you can love yourself,” the members said. These weren’t empty words. The love and caring was palpable. And it turned out that AA was not just a guide to recovery; it was a guide to living.

There are no dues for AA membership. The only requirement is a desire to stop drinking. No one with this desire is turned away. 

The demographics are diverse. The gems of wisdom come from ministers and homeless people alike. And I’ve told rooms full of near-strangers about my deepest, darkest secrets and still felt accepted. It’s somewhat ironic that even though alcoholism is a disease of isolation, AA is the most robust fellowship I’ve ever experienced.

It’s also a spiritual program, though not religiously affiliated. We turn our lives over to our Higher Power “as we understand Him.” For some, this Higher Power is God. For others, it can be the power of the AA group. Nobody dictates what the Higher Power must be, and that’s partly why the program appeals to so many, including atheists. 

AA is replete with slogans like “Let go and let God” and “meeting makers make it.”  But the one that has fed me the most is “courage is not the absence of fear; it’s walking through fear.” The only way I’ve been able to do that has been with my brothers and sisters in Washington’s least exclusive club.

Maria Leonard Olsen is an at-home mother from Chevy Chase, Maryland, with two teens and two dogs. She served in the Clinton administration and does pro-bono work on behalf of migrant farm workers.

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  • anonymous

    The traditions of Alchoholics Anonymous provide that we remain anonymous at the level of press, radio, and film. Maria has broken the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous with this article.

  • Maria Olsen

    I believe I broke no one's anonymity but my own, which is permissible. I am sorry if you were offended, but I was able to help many women who felt alone and afraid by exposing my disease this way. Thanks for reading. Maria

  • Kate77

    OK, you may be right, insofar as how you see AA. Everything is fluid. Rules (or what you term "traditions") generally stink. They force people to conform, usually to norms dictated by people who desire mainly to control others and repress their power and individuality. Maria is a woman with guts, who has taken back her best life, with the help of a community, but ultimately because she was ready.

  • Maria

    Thanks, Kate77

  • SereneSisterinNashville

    As a sister to Maria and millions of other recovering alcoholics across the world, I must agree that AA saved my life too. But more than that: It GAVE me a life filled with love and laughter again. For decades I denied my illness, thinking I was just a "party girl." But even as a teenager the parties stopped being festive and social, and instead turned into excuses to feed my addiction and numb my fears and unhappiness. In my 30s, I "hit bottom" and lost my friends, my family, my tenured job, my professional licenses, my house, my cars, and particularly my self-respect, dignity, and sense of humor. This desperation led me to the rooms of AA, where I too was welcomed and loved. "An addict, any addict, can quit using, lose the desire to use and find a better way of life." Six years later, my life is certainly not perfect, but I have hope that today - just for today - I don't have to drink and things will be okay. My worst day today is better than my best day while I was drinking. And most days are fantastic! Please -- if you or a loved one, colleague, neighbor or friend are hurting (from depression, anxiety, fear, anger or just boredom) and find yourself self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, sex/love/romance, overeating, gambling, spending into debt or relying on others to fill your life and make you feel better, please know there is always help in the many rooms of AA, NA, SA, SLA, OA, GA, DA or CoDA and many other programs. They all practice the twelve-steps and give hope that a power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity and that you can turn your life and your will over to that power and be guided out of darkness into the light. And for those of you also feeling the illness and pain of an addict, please know that there is help for you too - wonderful programs like al-Anon and ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), where a loving fellowship of help and serenity awaits you too. Life is just too short, often tragically too short, to live with or around a diagnosed illness and not get treatment. Find a doctor, find a therapist, find a church, but whatever you do, also find a 12-step meeting today, and find a new, better life!

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Posted at 10:34 AM/ET, 01/22/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Blogs