In the months before I got sober, I picked up Audre Lorde, instinctively understanding that hers was a hand to reach toward while drowning. I focused on her journal entries, which were written while she was dying of breast cancer and anthologized in A Burst of Light.
Although struggling with a different illness, I knew that as a queer, black woman navigating AA, I needed to find a way to embrace a recovery program unapologetically created for straight white men if I wanted to survive my addiction. Returning to Lorde, whom I had last read as a teenager, signaled a decision to rally every resource at my disposal to get sober in AA — including a black feminist ethic.
Reaffirming that my alcoholism is as much the product of a sick society as of a natural propensity toward addictive behavior didn’t get me sober, but it was an important first step.
What I learned was that for all its faults, there is potential within AA to transform our notions of solidarity, spirituality, and justice. I was also reminded that recovery as self-care is “an act of political warfare,” as Lorde states it. I identified with the tension in Lorde’s writing between her acknowledgment that “something [was] going on inside [her body], and it [was] interfering with [her] life” and her unwillingness to reductively refer to it as cancer.
Instead, she also examines the “self-destructiveness implanted inside of [her] by racism and sexism and the circumstances of [her] life as a black woman.” Reaffirming that my alcoholism is as much the product of a sick society as of a natural propensity toward addictive behavior didn’t get me sober, but it was an important first step.
When Lorde writes that self-care is an act of “warfare” she does so following several references to war in her journal entries. She “battles” racism and heterosexism alongside cancer. There is an “actual war going on inside [her] body” as she contemplates the fact that “those of us who live our battles in the flesh” (us sick, black women) do not get to choose “the arena and the manner of our revolution”.
I take this to mean that caring for myself in recovery — getting to meetings, praying, step work — is as necessary a contribution to feminist liberation as any. More than that, self-care is not engaged in for its own sake but in the battle against forces that would rather see us dead, or at least miserable. So sometimes caring for myself will be difficult. It’s rendered almost impossible for the majority of people with substance use disorders by a capitalist system that drains those who generate productive labor (the “high-functioning alcoholic”) and spits out everyone else into prisons, institutions, and early graves.
I take this to mean that caring for myself in recovery — getting to meetings, praying, step work — is as necessary a contribution to feminist liberation as any.
Yet Lorde also asserts that “in order to win, the aggressor must conquer, but the resisters need only survive. Our battle is to define survival in ways that are acceptable and nourishing to us…”
This, then, is a central part of what self-care is to me — defining survival for myself in recovery. Only then can I use the gift of sobriety to agitate and care for those on the very edge of survival (because self-care is communal, too) and to fight for a liberated future.
Given AA members’ belief that the 12th step (helping other alcoholics) is a necessary requirement for continued sobriety, we develop strong connections. A form of complete solidarity where we urgently understand that our lives depend on each other. I initially struggled with this. Fellowship (going for coffee or dinner after meetings) felt cringy. Calling up newcomers was impossible. But reading Lorde, I was reminded that AA wasn’t the first place I was asked to think in this way. She wrote:
“For black women, learning to consciously extend ourselves to each other and to call upon each other’s strengths is a life-saving strategy… [It] requires an enormous amount of mutual, consistent support for us to be emotionally able to look straight into the face of the powers aligned against us and still do our work with joy.”
I understand that my recovery, and therefore my life, is fundamentally tied to the lives of others.
Throughout her essays in A Burst of Light, her commitment to solidarity with black Africans living in apartheid South Africa is also clear as day. She draws well-defined connections between their struggle and her own and espouses a theory of international feminist solidarity that has stood the test of time.
For me, AA’s 12th step has simply become solidarity in its most exigent form. I understand that my recovery, and therefore my life, is fundamentally tied to the lives of others. This understanding has committed me to helping anyone who wants to stop drinking and encouraged me to stay mentally healthy enough to do so. This visceral understanding of solidarity has spilled over into my feminist practice, deepening my commitment to others’ struggles in ways I couldn’t have imagined before I got sober.
AA’s potential for transformative justice is self-evident in its 12 steps. When Lorde writes, “[feelings] are not wrong, but you are accountable for the behavior you use to satisfy those feelings”, I am immediately taken to the first nine steps of the program..
Having accepted that my life was unmanageable and that I needed to hand it over to a higher power (more on that later), I was able to honestly evaluate the harm I had caused in other people’s lives and commit to making amends. This process was rendered significantly easier by knowing that similar things are asked of me in feminist organizing spaces.
Self-reflection, apologies that fully acknowledge the wrongs caused, changed behavior, a non-punitive approach to justice that insists no one be thrown away, and an understanding that accountability is an active, continuous project — not a one-time act.
Lorde’s writing also helps keep me accountable to myself in ways that are productive. Rather than self-flagellate for feeling the wrong things in recovery, I can simply try to react to those feelings with integrity to the values I’ve chosen to live by.
Lorde wrote that living with cancer forced her to “jettison the myth of omnipotence… along with any dangerous illusion of immortality. Neither of these unscrutinized defenses is a solid base for either political activism or personal struggle.” She found, instead, a powerful inner humility that proved more useful for her goals.
Having come to a similar conclusion concerning my own feelings of omnipotence through the first two steps of the program, I’ve made the different choice of surrendering to a higher power. Surrender is an unpopular idea, particularly when it’s to the Christian God I believe keeps me sober. But choosing to submit to my God forced me to ask questions of him I’d never asked before. For a time, I even contemplated discarding him and making black feminism my higher power. Yet the longer I held him to feminist standards, the more I came to believe that he exceeded them and was what I needed to stay sober.
In recovery, I’ve also started to pay more attention to what political factors influence our beliefs in our omnipotence and our loyalty to secularism. I observe and challenge the global neoliberal project that convinces us we can be all-powerful as individuals in order to justify the withholding of our basic rights by states and corporations alike. I concede that the “higher power stuff” makes AA seem cult-like, but to me, AA is a refuge from the cult of personal omnipotence that plagues everyday life.
Day-to-day, my practice of the program is simple. I read the Big Book, not Audre Lorde. But she has played a fundamental role in getting me to embrace the recovery program that has saved my life. In turn, I’ve been able to use my recovery to build upon my feminist praxis and transform the ways I interact with the world and with myself.