It's an old joke: Alcoholics are some of the only people who think they should get an award for running out of a burning building.
It's funny and true enough in its way, but also a little harsh, since addiction is like a murderous conjoined twin, trying with all its might to stay in the fire.
Not drinking is simple.
You just... don't drink.
But if it were simple as that I wouldn't need these steps, those meetings, and all of you people.
As I remind certain friends as their own milestones roll around, that's a long time between cocktails.
Not too far from where I live is a store which sells what should loosely be called "12 Step paraphernalia." (I had NO idea there was a second "r" in that word.)
I guess this "Sober Store" is the cosmic opposite of what we used to call head shops (before they invented pot dispensaries): Books, chips, speaker tapes, gift cards... all with a recovery theme. For the past ten sober anniversaries or so I go there on my "AA birthday" to pick up a chip for myself to put on my keychain. (Well, as close after the day as I can manage -- but not before! I remember so clearly when I was brand spanking new and someone in the meetings would say something like "I'm so-and-so and in two days I'll have six months" the old timers would shout out, "But you don't have it yet! One day at a time.")
Many meetings give out chips for sober anniversaries, and I think you can reasonably expect your home group, if it's a chippy one, to cough up a one, two or three year chip. But upwards of five the chip person is probably going to say "what the hell am I schlepping all these extra chips around for!" or something, and focus on the newer end of the medallion spectrum. Where I live there's a lot of sober folks with a good amount of time who are very involved in the program, but no meeting is going to burn through a lot of double digit sobriety chips.
So I go to this store, and pick up a simple medallion, as close to the "original" form as I can find (there was a whole thing about AA chips that happened something like fifteen or twenty years ago, all tied in with how AA lost the copywrite on the triangle-in-a-circle logo thing. So for a while they made chips with Bill and Bob's faces on them, which always struck me as lionizing them in a way which ran counter to some of our core spiritual principles; but also, get over it, Mr. SponsorPants, it's a metal disk on a keychain, not a billboard on the side of the Luxor in Vegas).
Regardless, for sentimental reasons I always choose one with the circle-in-a-triangle thing (that copywrite got sorted out). As plain as my first year chip.
Ritual and custom are funny things, and even simple ones make a difference.
Then I walk to this time-warp locksmith several long blocks down the boulevard. I say time-warp because it is perpetually 1982 when I go in there. Their very existence is a testament to... well, I don't want to drag the spectre of outside issues into this essay, but since the rise of the big boxers, little places like this -- funky, competent (mostly), sweet and kooky (four attributes I may put on my next resume. Hell, it's apt.) -- seem fewer and farther in between.
Sometimes there's a customer ahead of me when I walk in. Other times it seems empty, and I give the bell on the counter a soft pat, keeping my fingers on it so the ping is both gentle and brief.
The same fellow saunters out from the back, though he has a rotating staff of some sort that I've seen. The store is caught in a time warp, as is he, in the way that some of us sort of freeze our styling habits from the era which was either our best or our most true. For him: 1974. Shaggy hair and an oversized moustache and a t-shirt advertising a concert that, unlike the ironic posers thirty years his junior who might wear it, he most likely actually attended.
Even though I've been doing this for almost ten years I hardly expect him to remember me on sight. I pull out my keychain with "last year's" medallion on it, and offer my new one, saying, "Could you drill a hole in this please, just like this one?"
He looks at the medallion and reads it, maybe converting roman numerals in his head, or scrying out the Serenity Prayer on the back.
And of course somewhere in this interaction he recalls the last ten years of this exchange.
"We've done this before, right?"
"I'd be happy to. Congratulations."
He wanders towards the back, and there is the clinky-clank of someone rummaging through a box of drill bits, and eventually the sound of drill on metal, like satan's own dentist, and after a minute or two he returns and hands me back my chip, a key-ring-sized-hole drilled neatly through, just a tiny bit in from the edge.
"How much do I owe you?" I ask.
"Forget it. No charge."
"No come on, let me..."
"Nope. No charge."
One of the things I've learned in AA is that it is a circle of love and service, and it is as important to let people be of service to you sometimes as it is important to be of service to others. (Always being the giver can actually be about fear and control.)
"Allright. Thank you very much."
I then leave the store and cross the street to the bank, getting a roll of quarters, and wander up and down the street, randomly putting change into parking meters as I go.
(I don't think if he were to charge me it would cost ten dollars, but I've always been a big tipper.)
I feed the meters as a demonstrable act of gratitude for his kindness, and also because it feels like a pay-it-forward gesture that in this context the Universe appreciates.
Ritual and custom help us.
Naysayers would argue the point but really AA asks nothing of me, only suggests that if I want to stay sober and continue to grow I give back.
It's silly -- I mean really and truly silly, I want you to know that I know it -- but I get a tiny bit choked up as I dole out my gratitude quarters.
Not only is this action, every year, a tangible "thank you" for his annual, no fuss kindness regarding something important to me, but also an acknowledgment that I am part of something bigger than myself: A positive force which can help others - even in small ways - without expectation or fanfare. I don't mean lump-in-my-throat choked up exactly. Maybe pebble-in-my-throat is more accurate. (After all, to see a grown man with tears in his eyes fussing at the meter of your parking space is going to get a "Hey! You! Get away from my car!" a lot quicker than a "How kind! Thank you!")
"Gratitude quarters." My gratitude change. There's a deeper play on words available there, but I'm coming to the end of this essay, so I leave it to all of you to consider and play with.
Thank you for another year clean and sober.
We are all connected through the vast 12 Step family, in ways maybe invisible but sometimes quite powerful, and though we may never physically meet as we "trudge the road of happy destiny," rest assured I am grateful for us being on the journey together.
I quite literally could not do it without you.
And onward. One day at a time.