It was pretty easy to find the cafeteria, actually. It was a small private hospital, well laid out and well maintained. Plenty of signage, even if the woman at the information desk -- she looked like a volunteer, complete with courtesy-clerk smile and pastel cardigan draped over her shoulders -- hadn't been kind enough to direct me towards the elevators and point out the signs along the walls.
I wondered if she knew asking for the cafeteria meant I was going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
It was my very first.
At this hour, shortly before seven o'clock at night, the hospital didn't feel very busy. There was neither hustle nor bustle in any of the halls I walked down, following the signs marked with helpful arrows pointing straight, left or right, next to the word "Cafeteria." Many corridors were empty, others had but one lone orderly pushing a cart, or a nurse carrying a little tray covered with paper cups. It was 1986, long before America was a country that thought of itself as under siege, and I don't think I saw one security guard from Entrance to Exit.
I was wearing dress shoes, and mine were the only footsteps I could hear as I navigated the fluorescent and linoleum labyrinth -- click click click click. Having absolutely no idea what to expect I'd dressed up to go to the meeting. The clothes, from smart white cap to ridiculous, pale yellow pants (which kind of poofed at the thigh and tapered to fit snugly at the ankle -- think MC Hammer as lion tamer, designed by Chiquita Banana -- hey! 1986, remember?) were all stolen from the store where I worked. In the mirror at the store I thought the hat made me look sophisticated, but now, walking along -- click click click click -- I felt self conscious and unsure. Couldn't blame the hat entirely for that -- self conscious and unsure were my default settings then.
I rounded a corner, took one more elevator down, and there was the door to the cafeteria. It would make for a heartwarming moment in the story (and a tidy bit of foreshadowing) to say that, as I put my hand on the knob, I could hear jolly laughter and the pleasant murmur of fellowship coming through the door; but that sucker was solid, gunmetal gray and fire door thick, with one narrow window above the doorknob, lines of wire in a diamond pattern reinforcing the glass. People could have been screaming "Oh my God! Zombies! Run! Run!" on the other side of the door for all I could hear.
Turning the knob and walking through that door would be one of the bravest moments of my short and incredibly drunken life up to that point. Some may read that and doubt, ascribing such an assessment to hyperbole, an obvious bias, or my occasional penchant for colorful phrasing (which is, in itself, a colorful phrase, so count that your moment of zen, if you like). But this AA story is not about courage -- that's not what it's all about. When I speak at AA meetings (and I say this often) I am very careful not to take the language of recovery I use to describe how I am today and artificially superimpose it over how I was then. I don't need recovery terminology to describe how, with my hand on the doorknob, I felt very frightened and completely lost -- like a small child in a dark wood in a tale by the Brothers Grimm. But I was not a child, as most people would reckon it. I was 24 years old. My liver was distended. (My Driver's License read twenty-four but my liver panel said eighty-four.) I was beginning to have audio hallucinations -- they occurred often enough to frighten me, usually after a good 12 hour stretch of solid drinking -- but infrequently enough (the hallucinations, not the 12 hour stretches of drinking) for me to realize I was starting to hear things. At that point I hadn't gone to the bathroom normally for months. When I did, mostly it was blood. My hands shook and ... I did NOT want to open that door. I don't even recall a conscious reason why, except for the first time in years I hadn't had a drink in maybe two days, (the migraines didn't start till a day or so later) and I knew I was going to, if I didn't go through that door -- I knew I couldn't drink, I knew I shouldn't drink and yet I could just not fathom not drinking -- or not drinking for much longer.
On the way to the hospital I had passed a 7-11, and it was an honest-to-God, parting-of-the-Red-Seas-miracle that I hadn't pulled in and bought some malt liquor, as I had so many, many nights there before. I even lifted my foot off the accelerator for a moment, slowing down and thinking maybe I would go in and get some cigarettes -- and in only the haziest way did I suspect that this was a very bad idea. My foot drifted back down to the gas pedal, and the moment passed. Some miracles are tiny moments: The deciding not to stop, the turning of a corner rather than going straight, choosing aisle 7 instead of aisle 8 -- tiny moments, but no less powerful, lifesaving or Divine for their quick tick of the clock. But this AA story is not about miracles. That's not what it's all about.
I turned the knob and went in. The main area of the cafeteria was empty save for a few folks in scrubs. The meeting was held in the area to the left, marked "Smoking." Yes, the meeting was held in the Smoking Section of the Hospital Cafeteria. Talk about a different era -- if the years didn't weigh on me much before, the certainly do a bit more after typing that sentence. ("Mr. SponsorPants? Sure, I know him. He got sober sometime during the Pliocene Era, right? I heard they used stone arrowheads for Welcome Chips, and the service commitments were tending the fire and standing at the mouth of the cave to greet newcomers.") But this AA story is not about how long ago I went to my first AA meeting, or how long I've been sober. That's not what it's all about -- and dear God, if it ever is, then I'm in a lot of trouble. (It'll be "Abandon Blog! Head for the lifeboats he's going down!").
Maybe 25 people. Probably two-thirds men, one-third women. People my age and people with gray hair. Some smiles, some "Welcomes." Someone gestured to an empty seat next to them and I sat, my face frozen in Polite Smile Number 5. We were seated in a circle around a bunch of tables that had been shoved together in the center of the room. Big Books (and ashtrays!) were spaced evenly around the table, with enough for most people to have their own, or comfortably share with a neighbor.
I sat there, and all I could think was, "I'm the only one wearing a hat! No one else is wearing a hat! Maybe I should take my hat off! I can't take my hat off, then I'll have hat hair!" (I was young. I was so terrified I didn't even know how terrified I was. I was detoxing. Be kind.) I remember very clearly deciding not to help myself to a cup of coffee because I knew my hands would shake too much when I held the cup -- or tried to hold it, I guess. It was a book study (hence the Big Books). I had no idea what that meant. People were nice and all, but I had carefully timed it so that I walked in just before the meeting started, so if it had even occurred to me to ask what a book study was I didn't have the chance.
The meeting was up to Chapter 2, 'There is a Solution.' I was zoning in and out, careful to look like I was listening, trying not to make eye contact, obsessing about my stupid hat, waiting for someone to light up a cigarette so I could too. They were in the part of the book which describes how the main problem of the alcoholic is in the mind, rather than the body, and talking about what an alcoholic might say when you ask him "... why he started on that last bender..."
I will never forget this:
It was a woman named Muriel reading at that point. She had salt-and-pepper hair, and a kind face, I thought. No makeup, but she had smiled at me when I sat down and it made her look very pretty. She read:
"Once in a while he may tell the truth. And the truth, strange to say, is usually that he has no more idea why he took that first drink than you have."
I imagine that all the air left my lungs in a whoosh, because it felt as though an invisible spear had just hurtled through the center of my chest. The reading went on.
"Some drinkers have excuses with which they are satisfied part of the time. But in their hearts they really do not know why they do it. Once this malady has a real hold they are a baffled lot. There is the obsession that somehow, someday they will beat the game. But they often suspect they are down for the count."
"That. Is. Me." The thought rang in my head like a bell.
(I suppose for the less poetic readers I'm willing to acknowledge that the ringing could have been the onset of another audio hallucination. I was pretty fried.)
But for the first time since I had started drinking alcoholically (which was pretty much from the first time I picked up a drink) I heard something which spoke to what it felt like at my very core -- and before that very moment, I couldn't even have described this truth. I heard and identified with something on a deep level that all the loving, tearful speeches from family, the disgusted confrontations with friends, the angry notes from roommates, the shocked comments from neighbors, the grim speeches from employers, had never been able to reach before.
As the meeting went on I heard people, who suddenly seemed like me, talking with real candor about thoughts and feelings like mine, which, until they shared it, I hadn't even been able to identify, let alone put a name to and say out loud. I heard people describe wanting to drink like I wanted to drink, and drinking like I drank. I head them share about what they did not to drink (and not to go crazy from wanting to), and how the wanting left -- or was leaving -- and about what they had found in AA. They all spoke for themselves and about themselves. No one lectured, or pointed a finger, or made a sales pitch. I remember marveling at how they seemed calm and kind and wise.
After the meeting a few people spoke with me. (Somehow they could tell I was new! Imagine!) I don't know what they said, but I remember how I felt -- it flirts with melodrama to put it this way, but it seemed like I hadn't felt it in a really long time: Hope. Not the "Gosh! Things are gonna be great now!" Heidi-on-the-mountain-with-a-goat sunny zippy kind of hope.
The kind that is just a little speck of light in a dark so pitch that you might not even have realized how far and how deep and how black it had become.
And believe me, when it's black like that, a speck is a beacon.
Lots of people up to that point had wanted to help me. On a deep level I knew I needed help -- though I wasn't sure what it might be or how I might find it. I only came to the damn meeting because my family had done their half-assed version of an intervention (I call it half-assed because I knew, in the predatory, shark-like way which all alcoholics have, that there was still some rope left. Inside me was love for them, and deep, deep shame, but also, inside me was the shark.) Thus with motives mixed, as much to keep working the rope as to try to get a help I couldn't even picture, I went to the AA meeting.
And what I found in that Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is what AA is at its very heart.
And that's what this AA story is all about.
The great discovery made between a failed stockbroker and a washed up surgeon that when one alcoholic, without any motive but to help, shares their own experience, strength and hope with another, that the listener might hear something in a way they've never heard before, and the drunk sharing is themselves profoundly helped and healed.
For free, without being subjected to anyone else's criteria or having to make a reservation, I walked into an AA meeting and that is what I found. No rules, no hoops, no deposit, no proof of citizenship or insurance required. No one cared if I was rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, owner or renter, Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Muslim, gay or straight, vegetarian or carnivore. All they cared about was helping me with my drinking problem, if I wanted their help. They didn't even care about my ridiculous pale yellow lion tamer pants. (1986! 1986! Okay? Jeeze.)
All the sturm und drang about statistics and labels and philosophies and agendas really, ultimately doesn't matter when you're a drunk hanging on by a thread, about 12 hours from your last drink and potentially five minutes from your next. In that moment all the abstracts are just that: Abstracts.
Populated by often deeply flawed, well intentioned people, working through their own dysfunctions and issues even as they try to carry AA's message of recovery to each other and to newcomers, every AA meeting is the opportunity for someone to experience what happened to me all those years ago.
The 12 Traditions anchor the whole dizzy, dyspeptic mess from aligning itself with causes or issues or movements or corporate sponsors. What other people or organizations outside of AA do with what AA offers strangely, ultimately doesn't matter either when you're that desperate drunk, needing some help -- any help -- walking through the door of the meeting.
The night I walked into an AA meeting I was a hair's breadth from drinking again, and young as I was, the way I drank I was going to wind up back in that hospital's basement ... but down the hall and in a room with much better air conditioning. (Ironically probably no smoking section in there.)
What's it all about?
It's about what happens in an AA meeting which can save a life.
I know, and I believe in it, because what happened in that first meeting I went to saved mine.