I believe that regular attendance at AA meetings is a key ingredient in helping me stay sober.
After all these years, could I stay dry without AA Meetings?
Mmmaybe. Terribly unlikely, but maybe.
(Though that seems like a foolish and suicidally dangerous experiment to attempt.)
But sober -- that state of comfort in my own skin, the ability to recover fairly quickly from the punches and slams of my fear and ego -- the internal alarm bell that goes off when I drift into self obsession. My spiritual equilibrium -- that I believe I need AA meetings to keep.
It is the example of other sober members in those meetings, their dignity through hardship, their honesty about their imperfections -- their successes and failures in using the "spiritual took kit" AA offers -- which instruct and inspire me.
And AA meetings are the place where I have the privilege of sharing my own hardships, fears and triumphs -- smashing through my ego and my never-completely-absent fear of "what will they think of me" (though as a result of regular participation in meetings now that fear is so small as to be almost non-existent), so that I can share in the responsibility of setting some kind of example -- paying back on my debt to all those people who helped me over the years.
If you're a doubter or a nay-sayer, this probably sounds like I use AA meetings as some kind of crutch.
I can see why you would think that. I do go on some, it's true.
But I assure you, from where I'm standing, AA meetings are no crutch.
There might have been a time when I greeted something like this sentiment with a sarcastic quip or, if I gave it much thought, outright derision.
Now I know that when I have a strong negative reaction it's more likely I'm afraid of something -- afraid that what I want to be true isn't, or that some good thing is true for everyone else but not for me, or that it's "too late" for... whatever. Usually this fear is a subtle thing, easily hidden under the noise of my reactive, faux-superior negativity -- but there none-the-less.
I prevent myself from clearly seeing what's at work inside me by mocking too loudly or rolling my eyes too hard.
Today I know how easy it is to dismiss something like this as feel-good pablum: Equal parts cheap sentiment and hollow motivational rhetoric, better suited to some hokey poster in a high school guidance counselor's office than any thinking person's actual philosophy.
But that is ultimately a fruitless, coward's position. It takes nothing to remain locked in our destructive ruts.
(And seriously, what even is that? Being too cool for hope. Too sophisticated for optimism. Too smart for any degree of faith at all. I'll say it again: Ultimately that is a coward's position.)
But one small action -- consistently applied -- absolutely can change your life.
One of the many, wise old cautionary sayings from the 12 Step rooms is: "If nothing changes, nothing changes."
But equally true is that if something changes, something changes.
Which, for people who struggle with addiction and strive to stay in recovery, one simple change can be the catalyst to completely change your life.
By the end of my drinking I did not have a great track record for showing up. I meant to show up. I wanted to do what I said I would (usually). I just… couldn’t get off the bar stool (or the floor). Or I stopped to have “just a couple of drinks” (I don't think I ever, in my whole life, said I was going to have a drink.) And one, predictable blackout later I was MIA.
So when I showed up in Alcoholics Anonymous my first sponsor, who had a good insight into just what kind of drunk I was, told me (this is almost verbatim): “You have a shitty track record for keeping your commitments in life -- and being honest about it. So when you take an AA commitment I expect you to show up for it, no matter what. And if you don’t, the next call I get from you better be from the hospital or something serious like that, because I am not interested in any excuses.”
Of course I smiled and bobbed my head vigorously in a “Got it! Yessir!” kind of nod, all while thinking, “You know what? Fuck you.”
But my defiance was (thankfully) all bark and no fight. When I took commitments I took them seriously. As I do to this day. And now that I’ve been around for a while, I am careful not to buy into some kind of “hierarchy of commitment” bullshit. I treat my Greeting Commitment as seriously as I do my Secretary Commitment. None of that “It won’t matter if I show up for that, there are a ton of people already standing there greeting.” for me. That way, I believe, lies a (literally?) slippery slope. I know myself all too well.
In some ways I’m still wired that if you give me an inch I take a light year. My ability to rationalize poor decisions is still very much alive and well.
So to work against that and remain comfortable in my own skin I show up for my AA commitments as my bottom line for being a man of my word today.
And the fact of the matter is, when I was new, it was learning to show up for AA that taught me how to show up for everything else.
Just walked in the door, got the cats fed and sat down to write this.
Spoke at a meeting a zip code or two over from where I live. While I suppose it's a nice way to wrap up a three-day weekend -- which already had more than my usual dose of all things 12 Step -- I've been speaking a lot lately and feel a little burned out.
(Miss Bobbie B., a powerful presence in my first few years of sobriety, and a gal who spoke all over the country for a while, used to talk about feeling a little empty after speaking so much, but that it wasn't for her to judge the requests -- "baby, that's just my ego talking" -- she said it was for her to say yes when asked and turn the rest of it over. I still follow her counsel to this day, lo these many years since her passing.)
But although I said yes, as per Miss Bobbie's suggested commitment to AA, I can't say I was especially eager. An evening in was what I would have preferred.
The meeting was nice, held in what appeared to be a cozy private library in one wing of a sprawling, Mission Style church, complete with a tiled courtyard, several fountains, saintly statuary and plantings which seemed both random and cultivated. The format was a Big Book study. Read for five minutes from wherever they are in the book, then the speaker shares for 15 minutes. The church was really quite beautiful, the landscaping in bloom, and the fountains serenely gurgling away around the courtyard. Big french doors with thick, beveled glass framed the scene as I looked out from my chair at the front of the room. It was so picturesque I could easily imagine Mother Teresa or Jane Austen -- or, given the Mission flavor to the architecture, maybe Zorro -- strolling past the fountain beyond.
Before the meeting started I went to the restroom to both use it, splash a little water on my face and say a prayer before I spoke, as was my habit. Ablutions and supplications accomplished I exited the bathroom. A woman was waiting to use it next -- it was a one-at-a-time either-gender sort of bathroom.
"Is it safe to go in?" she asked.
"As safe as it will ever be, I suppose." I answered.
"Did you poop?"
I blinked hard for a moment, but that was my only Tell. "Nope."
"Are you the speaker?"
"Yep." I was getting a sense that this gal, who was somewhat older -- which means she was roughly my age, I suppose -- very colorfully dressed in prints that, if you squinted, sort of went together, and make-up that I will charitably suggest was hastily applied -- was one of the interesting "characters" you often find at any AA meeting, regardless of zip code. My personal goal is to resist the urge to do a low-grade shun with these folks and aim for a sincere respect or warmth when talking with them, rather than that one-foot-out-the-door surface courtesy they are (understandably) met with sometimes.
"Do you live near here?" Each question came quickly on the heels of whatever answer I offered.
"Fairly close by. But this is my first time at this meeting." I was willing to answer her questions, assuming that, since she had been waiting to use the restroom her bladder would wrap this up for me before I felt the need to excuse myself. But that didn't mean I would passively suffer being peppered with questions, either. "Do you live near here?" I returned her question to her.
"Oh..." she waved in a direction and named a street. "Over along there."
"That's nice." I said.
"Are you a hairdresser?" She asked me.
I blinked again, then gave her a smile. "No." I said.
"Oh. It's just that... your hair..."
Ladies and gentlemen out there in blog land, I should probably say here that my haircut is nothing special, nor am I sporting any unusual colors or accessories, no excess of product; neither a cutting edge style nor a bold new trend is in evidence. While I did come of age in the '80's, my Flock of Seagulls hair remains far in the past, when the Gulls themselves were actually on the charts, which made her question all the more comical to me. I let her try and find her way back from this interrogational cul de sac she raced down. Wacky or not, she dug the hole, I wasn't going to help. But I was going to take some mild enjoyment watching her try and figure a way out. Her strategy was to try a new tack. "What do you do?"
This had never been a conversation. Enough was enough, I thought. "So many questions, one right after the other! You should be a reporter! Are you a reporter?"
"I think I'm going to go in to the meeting. See you in there!" and off I went, thinking that while she had the usual boundary issues many of our more kooky members display, she at least was blessed with a cast iron bladder.
The meeting was very nice. A monied crowd, so their problems were, while real problems, of the slightly more self indulgent bent of people who don't have to worry about making ends meet. When the share starts with, "So I was sitting in my hot tub, thinking about buying cocaine..." it's generally at a meeting where the survival issues are strictly related to addiction, and not to things like rent and bills. Financial struggle -- while more common than ever -- is not ennobling; nor does having money mean your struggles with addiction are any less deadly. In fact sometimes money makes it harder to get or stay sober. Addiction, like any other disease, is no respecter of class or cash. If you die of an overdose it really and truly doesn't matter if your corpse lies there cooling on dirty linoleum or Italian marble.
I spoke. It was what it was. The sharing was nice, if brief. The format was that everyone got to share for one minute. I feel like I've been to a lot of those meetings lately. No doubt some enterprising, recovering speed addict will come up with a meeting where the shares are 45 seconds, which will engender some kind of temporal arms race, until we finally arrive at a format in which we all go around the room and select one word which reflects our experience strength and hope for the night. The Five Second Share. Coming soon to a meeting near you.
It was early enough, and nice enough out, that I decided to walk home. I knew from looking at the Mapquest when figuring out how to get there (thanks, Uber!) that it was just a hair under two miles, and monied AA crowds tend to have their meetings in monied municipalities, so I knew the walk would be through city gardens which at one point would include actual rose bushes to stop and smell.
I was perhaps three short blocks and one gentle hill from my front door when I heard my name called from the shadows across the street.
"Mr. SponsorPants!" it was said (obviously my name, and not my monicker) with such a hiss that at first I thought it was someone's lawn sprinklers turning on.
Then again: "Mr SponsorPants! It's me!"
I know a lot of people. "Me" doesn't really narrow it down much.
They stepped into the light.
"Oh," I thought. "It's you." Forgive me, my friends. It's been a long weekend. I suppressed a sigh. "Hey there. Are you...?"
They stepped further into the light and I decide "Are you okay?" was a pointless question.
"I'm so glad I ran into you!"
What followed was the circular thinking and rapid emotional flickering of someone on Crystal Methamphetamine. Tears. Laughter. Voices. A deceptive moment which appeared to be rational, then back to Tears, etc. He spent a good amount of time complaining about the kind of help people were offering him. I did not waste my breath to point out how fucked up that is. Tears Laughter Voices a flicker of rationality and then back to Tears.
All I ever do when I deal with someone high or drunk or just generally out of their mind (my life is exciting!) is to pick one suggestion and then broken record it. It's only a fifty/fifty chance it will penetrate, or that if it does they will act on it, but at least it saves me from pointlessly trying to engage with someone who is unable to engage back.
"I think you should probably go home." "It's a good idea for you to go home." "You'll be safer if you go home." "Go home and get off the street." And this, the one that hurt: "Do you want me to walk you home?" Say no. Say no. Please say no, I thought with weary guilt.
"Do you think I should go home?"
"Yes. I think you should go home."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going home. I think you should go home."
Tears laughter insanity for another ten minutes.
"Okay. I'm going to go home."
"Good idea. Are you okay to...?"
"Thank God I ran into you. I was always jealous of you, you know. When you got that little job at that restaurant. Why don't I get a little job like that I thought? Why not give up [insert glamorous career here] and just have a simple, small life like that?"
I nodded. None of this fazed me. Whatever I feel or fear about my path in life, I sure as hell wouldn't trade it with him for his. I was low on patience, that's true, but not on compassion, I think. I felt nothing but sadness for his exhausting relapse cycle.
"You should go home." I said.
"I'm going home." he said.
"Here. Which way are you going? I'll get you started..." I knew generally the direction and started walking, hoping to sort of get him moving in my wake.
"Hey," he said. "Did you get a haircut?"
Exasperated, I stared in the general direction of the heavens -- sometimes I hope there's a God just because I need someone else to be in on the joke. What the hell was it with crazy people and my hair tonight?
He started to follow along a step behind me, and I chuckled all the way to his front door. And then felt nothing but weary gratitude for my life and my sobriety all the way home to mine.