Sentimental Education: In the Rooms

Emily Roiphe CarterIt’s an old crack, but when I heard it for the first time, it was the first time I’d heard it: “You don’t need rehabilitation, you need habilitation.” It was true, until I had to get sober I had neglected to learn almost all of the things that most people my age were already doing by reflex.

One of these things was sitting in a room with other people without being chemically fortified. Until my first AA meeting I did not know how to comfortably sit in a social arrangement with other humans. I either tried to get all the attention in the room or, if that was not immediately forthcoming, would withdraw into silent despair and resort to what I’d call the adolescent anthropologist stance, perfected and patented in all nations by J.D. Salinger’s protagonist Holden Caufield: “What a bunch of phonies. Unless I’m the phony. I am. I suck.”

A healthy person from a reasonably affluent country should have outgrown this nonsense long before their 20s start sputtering to a close. Twelve-Step meetings gave me a safe place to practice behaving like I was a reasonable human being in a room with other human beings.

I always thought it wasn’t just the desire for anonymity that generated the phrase “in the Rooms.”

Talking. Like most experiences we think are too bizarre and single-edition to even relate in language to other sentient beings, this one happens to millions of people every minute. We all have to find a way to negotiate the gap between self and other, our individuality and our groups.

If you’ve been drunk, high, or trying to get that way, your natural self has to take a backseat. If you have been adept at managing your addiction (until you weren’t) your idea of the social self probably involves a lot of manipulating, dissembling, lying and conning. If you are the type who just goes ahead and falls to pieces in social situations where alcohol is not present, you don’t just become anxious, you become downright frightened. How do you deal with all these reasonable adults who seem to have it together so much better than this societally marginal wounded thing that is your “self”?

Sentimental EducationThe rooms are a great place to go to get what’s called a sentimental education. The skills to deal with others and by Emily Roiphe Carter present a reasonable super-ego (social self) are usually acquired tooth and nail: in junior high cafeterias, on first days at new jobs, in a room full of strangers. In the rooms you are safe. Everybody at least tries to bring a real version of themselves. Fellowship means that everybody in The Rooms is assumed to be at least as screwed up as you are. It’s a great place to test new strategies for interacting i.e, “what if I don’t immediately romanticize/sexualize this encounter and turn a basic introduction into a three act drama,” “what if, instead of trying to make what this guy just said a set up for my devastatingly witty punchline, I just listen to what he said and respond to the content of his words…. it’s so crazy it just might work”…

One of the hardest things in this world to overcome is the social anxiety that goes along with just being alive around other living entities; and one of the hardest things to find is a safe place to do so. It took me many meetings, lots of deep breathing exercises, till I found myself able, for entire minutes, to simply listen to what other people were saying without being painfully aware that I was sitting in a room, trying to listen to people. Did they like me? Did they find me intelligent, attractive, charming? Did they hate me because I was ugly and self involved? What should I say or do next? There’s a reason the Big Book uses the term “bondage of self.” So I went the experimental route. See what happens if I don’t talk just listen. See what happens if when I do talk, I don’t do so to create a result but just to express a thought.

I think I have learned a bit, but I also think — sorry —that even at 55 I never stop learning. I have yet to be completely comfortable at parties or work gatherings, but I’ve learned to accept that as a side effect of being awake during my waking hours. Step by stumbling, unsure step I have learned how to relax, observe and participate. We are not the kind of people for whom this comes easily. We have to learn who our real “selves” are before we can just “be ourselves.”

The rooms provide a drug free, judgement free, school zone. And with all it’s pitfalls, learning can be not just fun, but downright exciting. There’s no better feeling than handling a situation that would have previously “baffled us.” There is no sweeter breath than the one you let out after you’ve taken an exam. And each day is full of a million little tests. We are learning how to pass them all the time.

Emily Roiphe Carter is a freelance writer and cultural critic living in New Haven, CT.

Last Updated on July 23, 2015