You might have heard it said in a meeting, “my disease is doing pushups in the parking lot.” The intent is that their alcoholism is getting stronger even while they’re sober. It’s scary to imagine some muscular version of your alcoholism that only gets beefier as time passes, whether you’re drinking or not.
The concept is debatable, and it doesn’t make sense that alcoholism only gets stronger to one day overpower you no matter what you do. However, the saying has some merit in the way the Big Book describes the disease and from personal experience.
We’ll look at the merits of this saying and what it is trying to describe, which is that the nature of alcoholism is progressive and doesn’t improve.
Alcoholism is Progressive
The underlying premise of the saying is that alcoholism is progressive. Chapter 3 of The Big Book states,
We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but such intervals–usually brief–were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. We are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a progressive illness. Over any considerable period we get worse, never better.
This text is the basis for the saying that your alcoholism is doing pushups in the parking lot. The disease only worsens over time.
It’s up to debate that the text applies to someone who is currently sober and working at recovery. It appears only to describe a drinker who is on and off the wagon, unable to entirely stop. The constant flip-flopping then leads to worse outcomes after each binge.
You Don’t Regain Control
What’s not up to debate in the program is that alcoholics never get back the ability to drink moderately and enjoy it. The relief that AA suggests is entire abstinence and steps for how to be ok with that.
As Chapter 3 in the Big Book states about control,
We are like men who have lost their legs; they never grow new ones. Neither does there appear to be any kind of treatment which will make alcoholics of our kind like other men. We have tried every imaginable remedy. In some instances there has been brief recovery, followed always by a still worse relapse. Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing a making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet.
We are now pickles — there’s no way for us to become cucumbers again. The idea of alcoholism doing pushups is strengthened by the understanding that we have lost the ability to become normal drinkers again.
Sober Time Doesn’t “Buy Back” the Good Times
Many believe that when they get enough free time, they are building up reserves. They think that once they drink again, they will be able to return to the better times of their drinking careers and not the hellish parts that brought them to sobriety.
However, as the quotes above suggest, this is false. For a brief time, they might find they can get away with drinking without having the significant consequences of times past. But this short period does not last very long, and their substantial sobriety time did not provide the defense they hoped for.
Sobriety isn’t a mechanism to recuperate from destructive behavior. Sobriety is the solution to avoiding that bad behavior in the first place. We have permanently warped our minds in a way that we cannot ever return to moderate drinking, or at least not for very long. The only way for alcoholics to enjoy drinking is to drink in excess, and sobriety doesn’t resolve that fact.
A Relapse Puts You in the Same Place As Before
After we’ve built up sober time and relapse, we find we’re quickly in the same situation as before or worse. Anyone’s personal experience can attest to the fact that a relapse doesn’t usually lead to being back as bad off as before they got sober.
They might stop in time before new consequences arrive, but it’s because they know they shouldn’t be drinking in the first place. Other people’s relapses bring them further down the pit, and they lose more before they decide to sober up again if they get that chance.
The experiences of relapse harken back to the saying of the disease doing pushups since we’re in a short time as bad as ever. Our alcoholism seemingly is intense when we relapse because we barely get any chance to enjoy moderate drinking. It’s right back to where we left off.
Alcoholism Is Cunning
Remember that we deal with alcohol — cunning, baffling, powerful!Chapter 4, Alcoholics Anonymous
The pushups saying also has some basis in the Big Book’s insistence that alcoholism is sneaky. The thought to drink can come when our lives are full of success and there’s not a cloud on the horizon.
And why doesn’t it feel like our disease is doing pushups when we’ve got everything going well in our lives, and we can’t shake the desire for a drink when we know that will only destroy everything?
Stopping drinking is only a small part of the battle. The biggest task we have is staying stopped. It takes constant effort and diligence to remain stopped since the disease has a way of sneaking into our lives at any time.
When we reflect on this constant effort, it feels like alcoholism does get stronger even while we’re sober. There are tough patches in sobriety where we think that we need the program more than when we first got sober, despite our substantial sober time. We come across points where it takes even more effort in recovery to maintain our sobriety.
Does Your Addiction Get Stronger While You’re Sober?
The saying is debatable. The Big Book texts don’t expressly point to what our disease is doing while we’re sober in recovery. The texts describe alcoholics who haven’t found permanent sobriety yet.
However, personal experience of relapse and the often heroic efforts needed to maintain sobriety give the impression that our disease is, in fact, only getting more powerful in the background.
It is up to you if the saying holds any merit and can help you. It could potentially lead you to a defeatist attitude that there’s no point working at recovery since you’ll just get overpowered eventually. It makes relapse seem like an inevitability, which is not what the saying recommends at all. So it might be better for you to ignore the tripe if it only brings fear and defeatism.
The saying “my alcoholism is doing pushups in the parking lot” is often repeated in meetings, but it appears nowhere in the official literature. It is rooted in specific passages in the Big Book that describe the progression (worsening) nature of the alcoholic disease.
Personal experience gives some light to the belief that the disease is only strengthening even while we’re sober, but there’s no way to confirm this. It is merely a saying that appears to reflect reality.
If the saying helps you understand the nature of the illness, great, accept it as something for your use. Otherwise, if it only scares you with no benefit, don’t use it since it’s not a required part of any reading or a prerequisite for understanding the illness.