A memorable and insightful article written by an anonymous female professor at an American research university in 2002. The entire article is shown below, or you can view it on the University of Arizona website here.
Addicted in Academe
For scholars of literature, folklore, therapy, and popular culture, Alcoholics Anonymous offers riches: a written and oral genre (“tell me your story,” one drunk says to another); highly developed narrative codes (what it was like, what happened, what it’s like now); a central text ( Alcoholics Anonymous, known as the Big Book); and a recognizable semiotics (the coffee cup, the church meeting room with folding wooden chairs). Like folklore, AA loves a story, passes it on, and fine-tunes it for the neighborhood, the occasion, or the local slang. Like therapy, AA values the telling itself as discovery. And like all good narratives, the AA member’s story begins with a piercing conflict that may seem hopeless — for example, being an academic in AA.
My drinking began on an academic, or at least a literary, note. Like many good students, I wasn’t interested in alcohol while I was in high school, but I was interested in its glamour and its guarantee of a fascinating and sexual adulthood. My family and friends didn’t drink, so I knew about drinking only through movies and television, and through the Great Literature I was hungrily consuming for its capacity to spirit me away from a working-class neighborhood into the imagined places that were, for me, already more real: the cafes on the Left Bank, the taverns of Ireland, the clubs of New York.
At 15, while reading Hemingway one afternoon, I remembered that someone had given my parents a bottle of red wine for Christmas, a bottle now forgotten, sitting behind the truly medicinal bottle of whiskey in a kitchen cabinet. If I could sip some red wine while reading about Brett Ashley’s drinking in Paris and Spain, surely that novel’s brave, sad flavor would materialize in my mouth and heart. I sneaked the bottle and a glass up to my room, and the Pamplona vistas warmed for me on the page. It would take the sharp bite of feminist criticism, many years later, to spoil Hemingway novels for me after that heady, early experience of fiestas and dusty wine shops, brandy and Pernod.
I emptied the bottle slowly over a few afternoons, and never repeated the episode, nor tried to find another bottle, nor sought out a teenage drinking crowd. The experimental improvement of Hemingway would be only a whimsical story, except for its working-class teenager dreaming of European cafes, sipping bad wine to enhance an imaginary landscape, and curiously associating alcohol only with glamour.
Although no one drank in my immediate family, just outside the family circle lurked some loud and quarrelsome grandfathers, cousins, aunts, and uncles, whom we avoided or saw only dutifully at weddings. While the factory’s union wages were pulling my neighborhood toward respectability, those other branches of the family remained in service jobs in far worse areas of the city. The beer breath and sweat, the bottles on kitchen tables glimpsed through gritty screen doors — I misread the ugliness as economic class, not addiction.
An earnest scholarship girl, I continued to avoid the drink and drug crowds through college, though I loved the taste of beer and wine at weekend parties. I began to grow fond, too, of the boozy lore of the literary world that I was learning as an undergraduate. I loved the photos of Anne Sexton with her martini glass, of Faulkner with his bourbon. I loved the liquid buzz associated with the Algonquin crowd; years later, I thought it was my duty as a literature professor to get drunk in that very hotel every time I was in New York. When famous writers appeared for college readings, their indulgence at the bar before and after was part of their legend. Intensity, passion, excess: Scratch any language or arts department and you find a muted reverence for those creative qualities, requiring regular doses of alcoholic fuel. Even the dark closures of those stories, the suicides and wrecked lives of poets and writers, serve only as evidence that the quotidian world is too dull to take without an inch of Scotch.
When I went to graduate school, the excitement of literary culture took on an ironic contrast to the university’s tacky-looking doctoral students and gloomy job market. Graduate school was also my first experience of that elusive adulthood I’d been anticipating without expecting its lumps, loneliness, debts, and unhappy affairs. For consolation and solidarity, several of my friends and I did some heavy drinking in graduate school, but only a few of us drank differently — harder, more often, sometimes alone. At that stage, there were no clear alignments of sobriety, drinking, failure, and success. By the time I had my first job and a healthy roster of publications, I also had an affinity for liquid comfort.
Many people in recovery go through a phase of anger and then fascination with this question: Why me? Was it genetics, moral weakness, emotional instability, physiology, the haunting photograph of Anne Sexton (who also somewhat resembled Ava Gardner as Brett Ashley)? By now, I’m less interested in the DNA charts and psychoanalytic seismographs and more intrigued by those literary photos with the glasses in the foreground, the department happy hours elongated into unhappy nights, the conversations and silences around alcohol — in short, the culture and discourses of academic life that make addiction possible or probable.
No profession can make someone an addict, but every profession can enable addiction with its stories and romanticizations, and also with specific practices. The Very Famous Professor visits for a lecture and honors us by joining us for drinks afterward; his drunkenness is funny and endearing, and when he takes the wrong train home the next morning, his legend has accumulated one more knee-slapping anecdote. We tell ourselves the brilliance swings easily with the weakness for the booze. The Very Famous Poet appears at the New Year’s Eve party, where she is sloppy and incoherent long before midnight. My disillusioned girlfriend sobs and sobs in the bathroom, where I wash her face and try to make it up again, the foundation smearing over the tears. I tell her the famous are only human, and this writer’s personal failings are a cheap price for those incredible poems.
At conferences, the hotel bars swirl with action, though usually only of the verbal alcoholic variety. (A newspaper article about a Modern Language Association conference quoted a hotel maid who was puzzled at so much drinking and so little sex.) The jovial prof meets the graduate students for beers at the pub; the faculty cocktail party liquefies colleagues into post-political harmony. Phrases like “drinks at the faculty club” and “sherry in the library” resonate with privilege and class, the low-salary Ph.D. version of the Left Bank.
Academics can rarely afford expensive addictions or frequent retreats to fashionable detox spas. But like the doctor with access to drugs and the executive with access to an expense account, we have fat caches of time and perks that can be abused. Long periods of isolated writing and research are ripe for binges. We can disappear for days or weeks at a time, during the summer or over semester breaks, ordering library books by e-mail and picking them up at the office late at night. The stretches of isolation are punctuated by carefully orchestrated public appearances (the lecture, the class, the conference presentation) in which style can compensate for content. The more successful we are, the more likely we will be rewarded with our own eccentric hours and class times; our hangovers are manageable by the time we get to the 11 a.m. Introduction to Critical Theory.
And of course, there’s tenure — the pressure to get it and then the sudden freedom to let go of the discipline that got us there. The folklore of academics in recovery always includes stories of a groggy inability to finish the first book, and so being denied tenure, or the failure to finish the second book, and so being denied promotion. We drink when the manuscript is not getting completed, and then the drinking prevents us from completing the manuscript. On days alone with the computer and a stack of library books, I began to push happy hour up to 4 o’clock and then to 3 o’clock, and eventually to noon.
Like tenure, alcoholism can be generous in its early stages. Physical addiction often takes years; some “maintenance” alcoholics can drink heavily for decades before they suffer major consequences. And we have successful models, drunks like William Faulkner who are able to sober up periodically and be productive for long periods of time. Compulsive test-takers, academics may take the quizzes at the end of magazine articles (“Are you an alcoholic?”) and point to certain questions with relief: No, I’ve never missed a day of work; no, I don’t drink in the morning; no, I don’t drink every day; no, I don’t talk about drinking. But some questions we skip or avoid: Do you ever drink alone, have a blackout, have more than a few hangovers a year?
It’s as easy to be an accomplished and respected academic drunk as a failed and unemployed one. It’s possible to have a five-page vita, a public and chronicled life, and also a private, unchronicled life of empty bottles in morning trash cans, emergency flasks in the suitcase at the conference, scrawled notes from phone calls not remembered the next day. Or at least it was possible for me. I recognized that I belonged to a secret colleagueship whose members acknowledged each other in code, tapped out by our fingers on the restaurant table as we waited for the first drinks to arrive. We were the quickest to suggest “one for the road” at airport lounges; we stayed latest at the hotel bar during conferences; we grumbled with good humor but authentic alarm about early-morning committee meetings.
I was smart enough never to miss a class or a deadline, never to drive under the influence, and after a while, never to drink more than a glass or two with colleagues. I never wrecked a car or a marriage, seduced a student, or even made a spectacle of myself at a department event. Eventually, I drank alone.
As a woman, I had to be more careful, even with colleagues who drank heavily. The stereotypes of the alcoholic professor are male. Think of Michael Caine in Educating Rita, James Dickey stumbling to the podium, the jolly, randy scholars in David Lodge novels. Indeed, the cultural profile of the alcoholic is male, which in turn animates the social taboo about the woman who drinks too much. In this particular version of the double standard, her looseness of tongue and body suggests moral and sexual looseness as well — trashiness, a word that, when pointed toward a woman, encapsulates our quaintest Victorian judgments about gender and class.
For me, the shame of drinking was tied to anxiety about these multiple exposures of class, family, and gender — specifically, exposures within academe. A common fear, among academics willing to talk about it, is the fear of being exposed, found out. More subtly ranked than the military, the academy bullies us into knowing our places — firstor secondor third-rate scholarship, institutions, publishers, minds, students. University life can’t cause alcoholism, but it can perfectly organize and synchronize its habits and fears. The more I drank, the more I believed I was only “passing,” in every sense of the word. Drinking washed down the fear and then left it on my breath.
In contrast, the classroom has always been for me the least fearful, most spontaneous, and most enjoyable social space within the university. While anxieties about research often made me drink, teaching kept me sober and responsible. I wouldn’t pick up a drink in the evening until my lesson plans, grading, and reading preparations were finished. Usually rewarded with lively class sessions and responsive students, I deluded myself for years that my drinking didn’t really count because it didn’t hurt or affect the educational work that was socially and ideologically worthwhile. I piously counted up my sober hours of grading and class preps, like any alcoholic counting bottles in the cabinet, estimating how much I would need and how long the stock would last. What I never counted was my attitude and emotional stability — the alcoholic’s cynicism and impatience that slowly affected whatever I could bring to a classroom and to individual students.
And what counted less and less was my inner life. I lost the ability to meditate, for that requires both honesty and depth, and addiction tolerates neither. Over time, I also lost the ability to grieve or to celebrate; weddings, funerals, birthdays, and death watches were equally unimaginable without alcoholic numbness or enhancement. Gradually, addiction creates a life of surfaces and self-deception. My teaching was my last illusion of living a successful life.
It’s no surprise that my drinking reached its crisis during a research sabbatical when I wasn’t teaching and when the solitary days of writing had begun to blur. Only rarely do addicts seek recovery before we are truly ill, frightened, and hopeless. About my last weeks of drinking I remember few details except the despair and physical sickness, nor do I clearly remember checking into the rehab hospital one night. I woke to the chatter of two nurses who pricked and tapped me for vital signs. The room rocked like a ship. Down the hall, a woman’s voice wailed over and over for Jesus. As I registered those perceptions, they catapulted me further into nauseated shame. There are crazy people here; I’m a professor at a respectable research institution; I’ve been institutionalized.
I was in rehab for five days and free of physical addiction within a week, but it would take me six months to stop drinking.
For one thing, even though I hated being a drunk, I cherished the habits and rituals of drinking. I couldn’t envision dinner without pinot noir, a conference without the hotel bar, a lonely evening without a brandy, a department meeting without the promise of a glass of sherry upon coming home. I feared I would never again have fun, excitement, companionship, or passionate sex. It took me six months to admit that I lacked both honesty and imagination.
It also took six months of experimentation, immersing myself first in my teaching, then in a number of intellectual studies about addiction, then in attempts at controlled drinking, fantasizing I could drink only on weekends or only at parties or only after 10 p.m. After half a year of relapses, binges, and bottles shamefully smuggled into my briefcase, I was beaten and depressed enough to try anything, even the method the rehab doctors had urgently specified: Alcoholics Anonymous.
I had been politely sitting in on AA meetings during those miserable months and had been horrified that this was supposed to be the solution. I was irritated by the pamphlets, the rituals, the hearty welcomes, the meeting schedules, and, worst of all, the clichés. One day at a time. Keep it simple. And then, even more appalling, the religious ones: Let go, let God; turn it over (to a higher power). In the Big Book, the patronizing chapter “We Agnostics” ends with an evangelical exclamation about the masculine deity of a sexist, middle-class faith. From the outside — and especially from the academic outside — that landscape of sobriety is a disheartening vista.
Although I now know many academics in AA, I suspect many more who badly need recovery are as alienated by the 12-step program as I originally was. Intellectual arrogance often impedes recovery; I was cocksure I could figure it out for myself, analyze and control my drinking, and certainly not rely on a club or cult for help. It’s also true that a solid anti-intellectualism within AA often impedes its access for those who need it most. The philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous can be interpreted — and in fact is often carried out — as fatalistic surrender. In my early days of sobriety, as I questioned and doubted and challenged the entire structure of recovery and its discourses of disease and discipline, I was told by some AA members that I was “exactly where I was supposed to be,” or that it was time to “stop thinking and start praying.” Our textbook and set of instructions, Bill Wilson’s Alcoholics Anonymous, was sometimes treated like a sacred revelation, its stiff 1930s language revered and justified rather than analyzed as a historical text.
AA offended me politically, too. I remembered an article I had read years before, with great and secret interest, about “why AA doesn’t work for women.” The argument was that the 12-step philosophy begins with the admission of powerlessness, a healthy step for white heterosexual men, but the last thing in the world women and members of minorities need to embrace. Moreover, the AA tenet “one day at a time” is hardly a call for social change. If anything, the focus on individual change in AA struck me as reactionary and bourgeois, cultivating the private sphere and neglecting the larger problem of addiction in our culture.
Given those vigorous objections, why did I return over and over to AA meetings, eventually taking the program seriously, using it as my path to sobriety, and why do I now continue on that path, years into recovery? I can’t argue that AA is the best or only means of dealing with addiction, but I can argue from experience that it offers a viable recovery not just from alcoholism but from the unhealthiest proclivities of academic life. By now, I can probably “do” sobriety without AA, but I would not like to do life without AA — especially life in the university.
Alcoholics anonymous is based on an irresistible pitch: “Let me tell you my story.” In spite of my qualms and gripes in those early months, I found intriguing people and compelling stories of lovers, children, and careers lost and sometimes reclaimed; journeys into homelessness and back; triumphs over violence and poverty; secret suburban lives. And though I often found deadly clichés, I also found thoughtful discussions, perceptive and humorous. Academics believe no one else is quite as smart as we are, as capable of brilliant insight or sharp analysis. But even early in recovery, I was impressed by the astuteness and honesty of comments during some AA meetings. Sick as I was, I realized how much of my supposedly liberal politics floated uneasily in snobbish assumptions about what kind of people are worth talking to.
And it soon became clear that no matter how chic or radical my politics might be, I would not be able to use them powerfully or empower anyone else if I was disabled by addiction. The argument about marginality and powerlessness is more complicated than the article on women in AA had represented it; addiction is itself the marginalizing factor, the disempowerment that has to be faced and named before empowerment begins.
I also wanted company, stories, listeners. For me, sobering up in solitude didn’t work, nor did the books on “rational recovery,” nor the medical and psychological literature on addiction. In truth, AA’s insistence on mutuality and cooperation struck some familiar chords from feminism. Despite the profoundly middle-class ethos at the heart of AA — the sense of personal responsibility, the “inventory” of faults and virtues — the program also reminded me, from the start, of a subversive counterculture, resolutely without leaders, profits, or the capitalist spirit. No one signs up or pays dues; at meetings we donate a dollar each to pay for rent and program publications; at my favorite lunch-time meeting, whoever arrives first is that day’s moderator.
More than that, AA thoroughly debunks the Emersonian mandate of self-reliance and masculine-style autonomy. The primary means of staying sober is helping another drunk do so; the primary mandate is that we ask for help when we need it and give help when we can. Considering the well-known sexism of AA’s history — its early assumptions that all the drunks were men and all the support systems were wives — it nevertheless shares with feminism a profound understanding of self-identity in relationship to others.
Because AA is such a vast organization and encompasses such a wide swath of the population, those of us who keep coming back eventually find someone to talk to. For me, it was someone who could talk about William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book that had been important to Bill Wilson, one of AA’s founders and the writer of its primary texts. I wasn’t willing to talk about God or a higher power, but I was willing to talk about James, a “legitimate” intellectual. More than willing — I was desperate by then to find a way to stay sober. I was ready to enter the discourse, so to speak. As we tell our students about any difficult theory, you work it until you make it your own.
The discourses and practices of AA actually have much in common with more familiar therapies and spiritual disciplines. The premise is that healing takes place when the subject radically re-imagines the self, finding a healthier way to think about and situate the self within the world. The addict’s world is wholly egotistical; nothing else matters as much as the fix, the altered perception that will blunt pain and enhance pleasure. In contrast, recovery entails self-perspective, the acceptance of both responsibility and boundaries, obligations and limitations. Recovery requires positing something — whether God or goodness — outside the self, bigger than the self, which is worth centering one’s life around. The “higher powers” to which culture invites us to dedicate our lives — careerism, money, the academic hierarchy, sex — eventually point back to the self as the godlike center of meaning (my career, my brilliance, my money, my reputation, my pleasure). Maybe AA works because it counters the emptiness of egotism.
By now, I’ve met people who bring to AA a variety of spiritual paths, as well as atheists who use AA philosophy as a way of life. I still go to meetings where many people appeal to a masculine, Christian, personal deity; but others at those meetings are interested in Buddhism or a more eclectic, nondenominational power. For me, that higher power is ethics and morality, the voice that points to compassion, courage, and goodwill each time I would like to succumb to pettiness, passivity, and impatience. I need those ethics when I deal with slow or indifferent students, with heartless corporate-university politics, with disappointing colleagues, or with my own hunger for appreciation, love, and research time.
In the same way, I look forward to AA meetings as a comforting alternative to committee and professional meetings at the university. Yes, there are occasional clods and bores in both groups, but at AA assemblies, there are no pressures or agendas except figuring out how to live decently, honestly, and without recourse to booze. While my department meetings are fraught with doubts and anxieties about the profession and about our own institution, I’m relieved that several times a week I can go to a room where hope prevails. Only people who have been very sick with addiction can understand the sheer joy of staying sober.
It’s true that AA addresses individual problems rather than the larger problem of addiction in culture. But the same could be said of any therapy or medical treatment. More than that, the standard leftist critique of “fetishizing the individual” over-simplifies AA’s model of recovery. The paradox of AA is that while it focuses on the individual, it works only in the context of a relationship or a group dynamic, one drunk talking to another. And a social dimension is built into the 12th of the famous steps, which charges us to take action, to spread the word, and to keep an eye out for the next alcoholic. For me, that was the impetus to write this essay, and to “come out” to a student who is addicted and in trouble.
Most alcoholics — about 70 percent of us — do not recover and will die alcoholic deaths. Because addiction is so total in its effects and because recovery is so unlikely, it’s understandable that the discourse of AA is often that of “miracles” and divine intervention. But I am more impressed by AA as an institution and by its culture of recovery — its flexible structure and multiple discourses that enable vastly different kinds of people and subcultures to use it. When I want to think about an intellectual philosophy of AA, I can read Ernest Kurtz’s scholarly analyses of AA’s existentialism or Matthew J. Raphael’s cultural history of the program. If I need reminders of alcoholism as a ravaging disease, I can go to meetings at the local rehab center. At a meeting near the university, I can find people who filter AA through the lens of Zen Buddhism. But if I want to experience AA as a vibrant community, I go to the predominantly African-American meeting on the other side of town, where meetings feel like old-time gospel. If I need a hit of pop psychology and a coffee-klatch atmosphere, I go to the meetings in the suburbs. In most cities there are also specified meetings for women, men, gays, and lesbians.
Although everyone’s stories share the same plotline, AA is neither universal nor transcendent in its appeal. Treatment centers in New York City have found that for some immigrant groups, especially of political refugees, AA’s style of accountability to the group and sense of community doesn’t work. Yet AA members tell versions of the same basic story of recovery in countries throughout the world and in widely varying subcultures — the farming community, the prison, the Greenwich Village cafe, the meeting room at the MLA conference.
At the AA meeting I attended this week, we raucously laughed for nearly the whole hour over the topic of “euphoric recall,” our tendency to remember alcohol with nostalgia or romance, utterly denying the wreckage and despair it caused. By now, I expect to hear laughter at AA meetings as often as I hear melodramatic tales. When we drank, we thought our stories were tragically unique and that we each were exceptional cases. Sober, we fit our stories into a bigger picture. Academe fits into that picture, too, as a place where those stories can happen. The smartest kids in the class, some of us get into trouble and aren’t in the habit of raising our hands to ask for help. But asking for help is the turning point. After that, the story changes tone, from anxiety to hope, from tragedy to laughter. That story is called recovery. And that is where it gets good.
Anonymous is a professor of English at an American research university.