“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.