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February 2009
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Life-Giving Stories

Talking to alcoholic women in recovery allowed author and theology professor Pat Nanoff to listen for the Divine in the everyday.


"TO BE AN ALCOHOLIC woman is to stand accused by society in the most shameful way," writes College of St. Catherine Associate Professor Patricia Nanoff in her first book, Rising from the Dead: Stories of Women's Spiritual Journeys to Sobriety.

This slim volume, which began as a doctoral project, is not an exercise in anger or accusation. Instead, the book is a gentle and nonjudgmental exploration of how storytelling, spirituality and service — the cornerstones of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step program — can lead women drinkers away from the self-centered confines of their addiction and toward a richer, fuller life.

Nanoff BA '81, MA '84 has witnessed women alcoholics' road to recovery firsthand. A licensed social worker who holds a master's in theology and a doctorate in ministry, she has worked as a therapist in private practice and as a consultant and trainer in the areas of chemical dependency and family systems. She currently teaches elementary theology to healthcare students, who likely have little background in the discipline, in the Liberal Arts and Sciences program on the Minneapolis campus.

"I hang out with healthcare workers and talk about God," says Nanoff, a tenured professor who became acquainted with St. Kate's and with theology as one of the first students in Weekend College. "That's my job."

Published in November 2007 by Haworth Pastoral Press, Rising from the Dead has gradually found a home in women's book groups, among recovering alcoholics and among the therapists, social workers and medical professionals willing to bring a woman-centered approach to the addiction industry.

Just as she describes the essential need for women alcoholics to accept their limits — to "let go and let God," as one of AA's famous aphorisms puts it — Nanoff is giving the book only a minimal marketing push. "Someone who needs to see the book will see it," she says, "and they'll be changed."

Why did you choose this subject for your doctoral project?

It came out of a conversation with my advisor. I told her an ordinary story that I had heard from an alcoholic woman. She said: "Oh, my gosh! You have to write that."

When I did my literature search, I found little written about alcoholic women. And what I did find identified "long-term sobriety" as only six months to two years. So I set about to study women in AA with long, long sobriety.

How did you define long-term sobriety?

Public drunkenness wasn't decriminalized until the 1970s. That's when we got this amazing explosion of treatment options and detox centers. The women I was interested in got sober before that or just at the cusp of that.

By its very name, Alcoholics Anonymous requires discretion of its members. How were you allowed in to this closed community?

I asked people that I knew with long-term sobriety, and they found people willing to talk to me. My education meant nothing in this process. The only credibility I had was that I spoke the language of recovery, from my work as a counselor.

What differences do you see between men and women who are alcoholics?

"As a teacher, I don't have to ratchet down my personality. I can be my full self. I feel completely alive."
There are no nice words to describe a woman who is drunk. Alcoholic women have to deal with shame in a different way. The women I interviewed seemed to come from a place of emptiness, as if they hadn't really claimed the fullness of their personalities. It seems paradoxical, because they're such big, loud women, but they're deeply shamed.

Now, I'm a theologian, and this is not a scientific study. But I personally think men's egos get blown way out of proportion, and women's egos become too small. These women had shame issues that collapsed their sense of self.

You say in the book that difficulties and losses can be a "gift" to women new in sobriety. How is loss a gift?

We want to think we have no limits, and that's dangerous. It's a physical blocking of God's grace. "Who am I? Who is God?" We get those basic questions mixed up.

Human beings cope with their limits all the time. It's an inescapable reality, no matter how much we rail against it. But alcoholic women really plumb the depths of what a limit actually is. There's nothing like waking up and saying: "I can't quit. I'm going to die." It's in that paradox that we discover grace. When grace fills the room, you have to empty out all the other furniture.

You seem to respect these women.

Totally! These are not apologetic women. These are women with redeemed narratives who have lived life out loud.

AA meetings focus on the principle of "one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic." What is the power of story telling in recovery?

A lot of pastoral-care literature warns women against 12-step programs and sees AA as dangerous because it requires you to face up to what you've done, to that bad behavior.

I think it makes a woman feel crazy when a therapist tries to talk her out of her experiences. Alcoholic women need to face what they've done. There's a great grace in being able to tell your story as you become aware of what you're really capable of.

You describe these sober women as "heroes."

Yes, prophets or heroes, or saints. Because they are reclaiming lives; they're healing the world one life at a time. And they do it without calling any attention to themselves. It's in a relaxed, no-nonsense, ordinary way. It's by continuing to tell their story and continuing to listen to the stories of the women following them.

The old-timers keep showing up at meetings, making the coffee and telling the story: what it was like, what happened and what it's like now. There isn't anything you can tell them that will shock them.

Why is it important that recovery happen in community?

You can't actually do it alone, because other people need to work the change in you. I can't heal my own shame until I borrow the eyes of someone who loves me. In a community I will learn to recognize myself in your eyes. But they will be loving eyes. Shame is not healed from introspection. Shame is healed from that loving regard that is then internalized.

Do you see AA as a Christian fellowship?

I see it as a spiritual fellowship. It behaves and operates like a religion, and it has some things in common with Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism. It's highly sacramental.

People new to sobriety receive a coin or a chip at various intervals. That is a concrete representation of a transcendent reality that has to do with you, the recovery community and God. That's the sacramental principle in the broadest sense.

How did your work as a theologian define this project?

I like to teach, and I'm a good teacher. My work is to apply theological principles to the language of healthcare. That was my work in this project, to apply theological principles to the language of 12-step recovery. I was standing at the wall and translating. And I think applied theology does that. It translates. It's something I've done all my life — between my alcoholic family and my Roman Catholic Church.

You write candidly about your family's experience with alcoholism.

I was a child of the 1950s, and my parents were both alcoholic, and very publicly so in church. It's a challenge for the children of alcoholics when their parents are held up in shame. There was a pretty deep wound there, which I think has been healed. Both my parents died sober.

What have you learned since your book came out?

I've realized that I never really listened in the way that I needed to. I hear God now in ordinary stories.

Where do you see God at work in recovery or specifically in Alcoholics Anonymous?

It is said there are no coincidences in AA. It means that the breath of God is moving through all interactions. And it's that sacred sensibility that is so striking in long-sober alcoholic women. They get that something sacred is at stake all the time.

Amy Gage is director of marketing and communications. Reach her at agage@stkate.edu or 651.690.6829.


Patricia Nanoff