I spoke this past Friday at a meeting with more newcomers attending than I'd seen at any one meeting (that wasn't physically located inside some kind of institution) in a long time. The meeting was a step study, sort of a "dealer's choice" thing, where the speaker picks something from the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (AA's 12&12) to address. I had chosen the 3rd Step, specifically the last page, in which it talks about how, on our own, we must develop the quality of willingness. But sitting there looking out at all those new people (Sweet Jesus, have they gotten younger or have I gotten older? Sadly, both, I guess) in the moment I took some liberties with the format and gave a bit of a run up to Step 3 through 1 and 2. Personally I think it's generally important to respect a meeting's format, but hey, I also have faith that my intuition, when it's being used in the service of carrying the message, can be trusted.
After the meeting a young man approached me. He'd not been one of those who identified as a newcomer, but proceeded to tell me that this was his very first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. We got him set up with a Meeting Directory and a Big Book, and I chatted with him a bit and got his phone number. (Intuition again. Had I given him mine I sensed he would never have called). In the course of our chat I had to give him my heartiest congratulations. He's one of the few people I've met who had a higher blood alcohol level than I did when he was arrested. I blew a .31 -- generally a robust and impressive blood alcohol level. But he, the rat bastard, topped me by a whole .02 and blew a .33!
"Did you have to go to jail?" he asked.
"Well... my original sentence didn't include jail time, but I screwed up and they came and took me in on a warrant. I wound up doing a week in County and then they moved me out to a work farm for a month."
He brightened when I said that about my original sentence. "So for a first offense..."
"My arrest was more than 25 years ago, and the laws have changed. You need to get a good lawyer, and follow their advice to the letter."
We chatted a bit more, and I asked him if he had any booze in the house, or drugs, he said no, and he lived alone. I pointed out some meetings in the directory and, looking every bit the scared bunny, off he went to another meeting later that afternoon.
I called him the following day, and true to form with any alcoholic, the ego had, like the mighty phoenix, already begun to resurrect itself from the ashes of his fear and humiliation. Gone was the scared bunny, and in its place was a bit more of the fox, sniffing around for holes in the chicken coop.
In telling me about himself on the phone I got the usual mix, he gave me his resume and described himself with the kind of bravado that only an overpaid mid-20-something alcoholic can. Turns out he works in the financial industry, and at one point said to me, "You know, I am the kind of man who gets what he wants." Fortunately I don't have any kind of video phone set up, so I am free to roll my eyes with impunity. And I knew my job was to carry the message, not to voice my opinion about certain professions and certain personality traits and certain attitudes of entitlement and certain financial debacles in certain countries in which certain middle-aged alcoholic bloggers reside. If I want to blow off steam and rant at someone, a brand newcomer to AA is not the appropriate recipient of said ranting. The conversation went on and he described all of his blessings as the terrible burdens he felt them to be, and he played at being the existential victim of his ambition and success. "I don't even know who I really am! I've just done what I was told to do in school and in work my whole life! I started working right out of college and now I have this great house and when I'm fifty I'll have a big 401K, but ..."
"Okay, stop please."
He stopped. I felt so clearly my responsibility in this exchange.
"Let me throw something out there, and maybe I'm right or maybe I'm wrong -- it's just something for you to consider."
"Your life is exactly the way you want it to be. There is not one thing you have going on that you don't like or don't want, other than this arrest hanging over your head right now. And your life has been ordered that way for some time. Not five minutes ago you described yourself as the kind of guy who 'gets what he wants.' Your whole life is oriented towards giving yourself what you want, and overcoming obstacles to those things. That's all fine, actually, but if you're an alcoholic, you have a problem that's not going to respond to the same kind of drive."
"okay." The bunny wasn't back, but the bravado was starting to fade.
"And there is a pretty huge body of evidence that if someone is an addict of any kind, things get worse."
"yeah. I've seen that show, 'Intervention' and stuff. Well, some of it, I couldn't watch much actually."
"Hey, you may not be an alcoholic. Some people just abuse alcohol. But no one who blows a .33 is an amateur abuser."
"I know! But ... how do I know... ?"
"Well, one thing Alcoholics Anonymous suggests is that you try to control your drinking, and if you can't, you're probably an alcoholic. But I bet you already know deep down if you are or you aren't."
(Kids, he blew a .33. I know -- .31, remember? -- I know what kind of drinker is that drunk and, rather than be unconscious, or too sick to move, is up and out and mobile -- albeit not coordinated -- and gets behind the wheel of a car. Of course the other word for that kind of drinker is FELON but let's stick to the point at hand. In the moment I did not think I was selling to him, and in retrospect I still don't.)
Silence on the line while he pondered this question, and then:
"Yeah, but ..."
(God, if you are there, and there is any kind of Heaven at all, and if I get to go to it, I hope that I can spend the rest of Eternity and never have to hear "Yeah, but..." ever again. Thank you.)
He went on to describe -- again -- his many achievements and stellar accomplishments and fat bank account and big job title.
"Let me ask you, if you had been diagnosed with diabetes, would any of that help with treating your illness?"
"Well, it could get me good care."
Great. He's a literalist.
"Yes, fine, but would it actually treat the illness? Can you use your bank balance to adjust your insulin levels? Could you, through drive or ambition or willpower or earning potential treat that condition?"
"No, I guess not."
"Okay. Then if you are an alcoholic, you have a medical condition that is no more going to respond to those things than any other disease would."
"You think I should do AA."
"I think that if you are an alcoholic then you have a problem that you cannot solve on your own. And it is a problem that's been documented to get worse over time."
"But you think I should go to AA."
"What I think isn't important, really. You showed up in an AA meeting and you came up to me remember? This isn't some cold call trying to sell you anything. Why did you do those things? Don't answer that, I can answer it for you. Your pride will say, at worst, you were 'worried'... but the truth is you are scared, and not just about the arrest. But you're a little less scared than you were yesterday, and you'll be a little less scared tomorrow, and in my opinion you should look at that. Because maybe that's alcoholism at work. Maybe not. But you're the one that blew a .33, not me. Can you honestly say you think there's nothing wrong with your drinking? And that less than a week after what you described as a scary and humiliating night you're suddenly a little cocky and doesn't that strike you as ... odd? Crazy? Suspicious? Any of the above?"
We talked a lot longer, I'd only meant to call and suggest a meeting and then the whole thing turned into this big long conversation. While the he said/he said above is certainly not word-for-word, I think I'm close and I certainly have the spirit of the exchange, as I remember it.
I suggested he check out some more meetings before making any decisions, and to feel free to call me if he didn't want to drink but he was afraid he was going to, or with any other questions.
Then I hung up and thought about how amazing it is that I haven't blown a .3-anything in a long, long time.
And by amazing, I mean, miraculous.
Some days there are no words for the breadth of my gratitude.