I attended my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. But I’m not an alcoholic. Really, I’m not. I can take it or leave it. I can stop anytime. What’s the problem? I know, I know, this is what all alcoholics say. But really, I’m not. Thank God.
I attended an AA meeting for my Loyola University counseling program class on Substance Abuse and Addictive Behaviors. Though I’m not an alcoholic, I’ve experienced family alcoholism, living between the ages of 14 to 18 with my father’s live-in mate who had a drinking problem. I’ve never sought counseling or support to explore how living with an alcoholic affected my life and family relationships. The AA meeting motivated me to consider doing that.
At the AA meeting, I was stunned as I walked in the door and blown away by an incredibly humbling, uplifting, honest, heartfelt, connective and redemptive experience, all within an hour’s time while the outside world was downing a sandwich for lunch. The participants carry a heavy burden, but also hold a treasure that few experience in a lifetime – a true connection to a community that has the depth, authenticity and spirituality that few relationships possess, and that I would contend is rare even in churches and other religious gatherings.
I found an AA meeting at a church within walking distance of my workplace, so attended a “Just Before Noon” session during my lunch hour. The previous day in class, I had asked my professor how we could know if meetings listed on websites really took place as frequently as advertised, because I couldn’t believe meetings would really be taking place several weekdays per week in the middle of the day at the same place. The professor responded that online listings could be hit-or-miss. But after class, a student who had been to meetings assured me that if a meeting was listed, people would be there, and to just look for a group of people smoking outside to know it was happening.
I tried to enter the church through the front doors. Locked. A lady approached and asked what I was looking for. I responded, “a meeting,” and went to try the side door. Locked also. I was thinking my suspicions were confirmed – these meetings are probably sporadically attended, erratic and unreliable. Then the lady pointed me to an adjacent building, a house converted into a church annex. That’s when I was stunned. The room was teeming with people, filling coffee cups, chatting and embracing like old friends. I was expecting five or six attendees max, if I was lucky, and already had been making tentative plans to find another seemingly bigger meeting – perhaps something at night — in case this one didn’t provide the fodder I would need to write a five-page reflection and theory interpretation paper.
Sixty people or more filled a room with an inner horseshoe table and outer seated audience, the 12 steps unfurled banner-style at the front. There was a lot of gray hair and wrinkles – many attendees were older and wizened. Some had spent as many years as a hard drinker as a teetotaler; one dapper man, dressed finer than all the others in a burgundy sport jacket and tie, told the group he was just two years short of spending the same amount of years as a teetotaler than as a drinker: 34.
But by no means was it strictly an over-the-hill crowd; there was a sizable contingent in their 20s, 30s and 40s. About 40 percent were women, same wide age range.
Another elder statesman celebrating his 44th year of sobriety, wearing a furry hunting hat over a mane of white hair, was introduced to cheers, came to the front of the room, and told an impromptu, 20-minute, somewhat rambling, disjointed and humorous version of his life story, including being sent away to school as a third-grader by his alcoholic mother, a top-secret job involving an Air Force base and eventually, accompanying his mother to an AA meeting, something he thought he didn’t need until he knew he needed it and couldn’t live without. He also talked about the shirt he wore, a “flannel shirt, buttoned all the way up,” which carried symbolism he learned from an AA mentor or AA tradition, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant. I’m guessing the flannel is for humility and hard work, rather than something like silk, and buttoned up signals no room for slacking or loosening up.
After Flannel’s powerful story, the floor was opened for anyone who felt moved to speak about their struggles, sobriety, temptations, fears, insights and triumphs. Introductions always took the form of “Hi, I’m Fred, and I’m an alcoholic” – whether sobriety had been for one month or 30 years – with the audience responding heartily, “Hi Fred!”
In 30 minutes, I heard so many stories of despair, faith, hope, grace and spirituality that I felt completely immersed, thoughts of work assignments, weekend plans and anything else falling away. There were confessions of near-suicides, slides into homelessness and self-absorbed stupors. Several confessed that they “didn’t know how to live” before becoming sober. They talked about acceptance of the self and giving up “striving for perfection” in their spiritual walk, realizing it was impossible, and surrendering to God, whatever He meant to each individual, as long as it wasn’t a bottle. They cautioned against attending AA merely “to comply on paper” – orders from the legal system – because even if compliance was checked off, they would fall. The woman sitting next to me added her own commentary to herself whenever a revelation hit a chord.
One man told about getting drunk on vodka before attending a court-mandated Mothers Against Drunk Driving meeting at a courthouse, where, to his surprise, police were present, and detected his drunkenness. He could not be charged, but a judge paraded him in front of an audience of defendants as a shameful example.
A woman professed her love for everyone she had met in the group – well, 90 percent, she clarified – and how terrified she was that she would be leaving them shortly to move to Texas, but had already found an AA group there upon a good recommendation. A large, powerful-looking man confessed his abject weakness, describing how he went to his pastor at this very church to say he was “out of control” and needed help, and how he was guided next-door.
This man gave out the “chips” at the end of the meeting, signifying various anniversaries of time for sobriety. Each person who hit a milestone earned rousing applause upon collecting their chip. The shortest length was three weeks.
I left the meeting into the winter sunshine and walked through the adjoining neighborhood, back to my regular life. It struck me how oblivious I was that this spiritual revival of sorts was happening every Friday here and hundreds of other places around the country, and how I probably encountered participants in my everyday life, like my fellow Loyola student who gave me advice in class.
As for my own experience with alcoholism, I did not know my “Surrogate Step-Mother” was an alcoholic until I had already left for college, and she called me one day to tell me about her acknowledgement and new journey and to apologize. She was a high-functioning, covert alcoholic, not a raging drunk. I knew she liked to have a glass of wine in the evening, but that’s all I knew. She could be irritable, moody, tempermental and rigid. She was an ambitious, driven, presumably hard-working professional. Who knows where and when she drank, and how clever she must have become at hiding it. To this day, I still don’t know what my father knew or suspected, or when. We’ve really never talked about it. Not long after Surrogate told me about her alcoholism, she and my father broke up. I have never seen her since.
That has left me with unresolved questions about alcoholism. This was a woman I lived with for four years during my formative adolescence, and knew several years prior. Did her alcoholism make her want to escape from everything and everyone she knew during her alcoholic life? Why did she disappear? Shame and regret? A desperate need to start anew? Did this explain the reason for all the turmoil in our cobbled-together family system, the kids vs. the “parents” bunker mentality we adopted? How did it affect my father?
It took a class assignment 30 years later to make me even think about exploring these dynamics, but now I think I will.