I noticed him when he first came into the room.
It was hard not to. In lieu of pants he was wearing a trash bag as a kind of jock strap.
He'd also somehow managed to put his hoodie on sideways, which I had to give him credit for, since A) I imagined it was really tough to do and B) the zipper up the side did look kind of cool. Various ribbons, strings, scarves and an improvised headband (was that a ... garden hose?) completed his look. He might actually have passed for the result of some challenge on Project Runway involving "Things Found in Aisle Seven of the Hardware Store" -- and certainly he was, as Tim Gunn says "making it work" -- but this was 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and his ensemble, while creative and deftly pulled together, didn't quite match the hour or the day.
I was at the meeting early since I'm the secretary, and he came in well before the room started filling up, taking a chair in the back but getting up to refill his coffee half a dozen times.
If I'd had to guess, I would say he was far down the road of Crystal Methamphetamine psychosis. Might he also have had some other mental issues? Sure. When people are close to wet brain, or nearly shattered from crystal meth, they present with any number of symptoms which can appear to be other diagnosable mental illnesses. And whether they were there to begin with (in full form or only potentially) or are chemically induced, to put it bluntly, crazy is as crazy does. And this one was pretty crazy.
But we're AA, and we've seen a lot worse than that poor fellow. I just marked where he was sitting in my head and resolved to keep an eye on him during the meeting, feeling equally my responsibilities both as secretary and to the 12th Step.
For a long time during the meeting he was able to keep it together -- which is to say he couldn't possibly sit still, and went for more coffee or to the bathroom several more times, but was generally quiet. But then someone in his row got called on to share, and I believe he thought, since the person speaking was sitting so close to him, they were talking either to him or about him. That's one thing both mental and spiritual illness have in common: They mistakenly believe that something which has nothing to do with them is all about them.
I think the person sharing said something about things being "rough" -- and Project Runway piped up loudly with "Rough! Rough! Ruffles have ridges!" The person sharing continued on, pretty much unruffled (sorry), and I waited to see if Runway had released the pressure now and would quiet, or this was a ramping up.
The sharing went on for a bit longer, and out came "You know what? Why don't you die!" in response to something else. Darn. Ramping up.
"Ah well," I thought, at least he got half a meeting in. It's not very likely, but maybe a seed got planted." And then I stood up and moved back to where he was sitting, intending to tell him quietly that, he was welcome to stay if he could stop interrupting, but if he couldn't keep still he would have to leave the meeting.
But apparently he'd caused some mischief at a Starbucks up the street (we later learned), and a police officer wandered in just at this moment, looking for him. The meeting paused, some words were exchanged, and on the pretense of going to the bathroom he hopped out a window in the back, apparently into the arms of some other police waiting outside.
Without much more drama, the meeting picked up where it left off, and things wound down to their normal conclusion.
During the secretary's announcements at the end of the meeting, I felt moved to depart from what I usually say -- which is not much but to ask for the various other announcements we have to make, thank the speaker and ask someone to read and close the meeting with the prayer of their choice -- and explain for anyone in the room who was new to the 12 Step experience what AA is about in such situations:
"In an open meeting, everyone is welcome. AA doesn't kick people out. No one in AA has the authority to do that, just to be clear. AA is a program with a spirit of inclusivity -- love and tolerance is our code. Many of us were in pretty bad shape when we first got here. But although we don't 'kick people out of AA' the meeting does have to happen, and people have a right to feel safe. We may ask someone to step outside of a meeting if they can't be quiet, but they're welcome back if they can behave..."
I don't remember it word for word, but that's pretty much the jist of it. To my horror, though, as I was saying this, what it really meant just flooded through me, and I actually started to get choked up!
What a ridiculous, weepy old thing I've become.
I joked it away, of course (those old defense mechanisms are the best, after all), and things wrapped up on time. (I often think of the crusty old timers in my early meetings who were quite fond of saying "A good meeting starts and ends on time." Looking back, since that was before the invention of the VCR, they may have been about getting home to catch their favorite shows as much as they were about anything 12 Step related... but it's a truism of sorts. And certainly, in their commitment to custom and Tradition they made the meetings feel safe for me when I was new -- and today I feel that same responsibility for others.)
But the swell of emotion I had, while certainly attributable to my foibles, is also because what I said was true, and I felt that truth as I said it. There are a lot of places on earth people can go for all kinds of help for all kinds of problems -- but many of them require something in exchange for that help, be it an insurance premium or submission to an ideology. That's not to say there aren't good people doing good works all over the place, but what I have seen first hand in AA is that anyone -- anyone -- who wants help can find it there, for free, without strings, payment or agenda.
It is a powerful -- and yes, emotional -- thing to see and be a part of.
If Project Runway finds his way back to our meeting, he's more than welcome to a seat and as many cups of coffee as he'd like.
Trash bag jockstrap, garden hose headband and all.
No one is really judging -- most of us are all too aware how close we came to a similar fate -- though I think I'm more of a trash bag poncho and paint-bucket-sun-bonnet man, myself.