Friday, March 30, 2012

A Desire To Stop Meetings

"Is anyone here celebrating one year?" Slowly, I raised my hand. From out of nowhere came a shout of congratulations, followed by a round of applause. At the head table sat the chairperson, who noted this and stood, beckoning me to join him at the podium. Surrounded by warmth, support, and back-pats... given to me, a stranger to this group!... I rose from my fold-out seat.

The cheering grew louder as I approached the front of the table, where the chairperson stood to embrace me (hey now!), while handing me a metallic coin signifying that I had not taken a drink of alcohol for one year.

Nervously, I stepped up to the podium, and looked at the sea of enthusiastic faces. Clutching the coin infused me with a sense of confidence, and  I cleared my throat. "Hi. My name is B.S., and I used to be an alcoholic.”

Used to be an alcoholic?

Wait a minute. This guy is STILL an alcoholic. Isn't he?

I know... right?

The room became silent. I heard an empty styrofoam coffee cup tumble, bouncing in staccato on the linoleum floor. Not being sure what this was about, I noted that at least the people here seemed to be listening.

“I reached a point where my drinking was no longer working for me. So last year, on Mother's Day, I quit.”

Some began to clap, and one person even said “good job!” But the rest of the room remained quiet, faces frowning, as the scattered applause quickly evaporated. That's it? This person just quit? Just like that?

“Congratulations!” A leather-clad biker, who sat at the opposite end of the room, trampled over the murmuring of his colleagues in a deep, booming voice. “How did you do it?” Gregarious energy now pulsed through the room, as meeting participants whispered to one another, wondering aloud while awaiting my answer. Who is this guy? How did he stay sober? One day at a time? Didn't drink, and went to meetings? Asked for God's help in the morning, and thanked God at night for another day of sobriety? Worked the 12 steps out of the Big Book, with a sponsor? All of the above? Surely, it couldn't be “none of the above!"

“Well, I decided that the benefits of drinking were greatly outweighed by the costs. So I quit. That's pretty much how I did it.” My reiteration of this basic point served to reboot conversation between the participants seated at the table, who lobbed questions at me with ping-pong ball velocity:

So, you quit by doing nothing? A middle-aged female, furiously working on a mahogany-framed needlepoint that read Keep It Simple.

“Well, it's not like I sat on my hands. I used some cognitive behavioral techniqes, and...”

No meetings? 

"Nope... that is, unless you include meeting with my doctor, who advised that..."

No sponsor?

"Like I said, no meetings. Been to plenty of NASCAR rallies, though. Could've found a sponsor there..."

No Big Book?

I imagined the DSM-IV manual. Now there was a big book. Only, it didn't mention anything about alcoholism. Rather than say this, I shook my head instead.

You did it alone?? A lanky, teen-aged male, who was fresh out of treatment and had received his 90-day coin a few minutes earlier.

“Oh, hardly! My family and friends all support my abstinence from alcohol.”

How are they able to support you, when they're affected by alcoholism... a family disease? A young male, dressed in a shirt-and-tie, hair smartly parted to the right. I met him on the way down the stairwell into the church basement. He was one of two greeters, both whom had offered me a smile and hearty handshake upon my arrival.

“Disease?” Concerned, I looked at my own styrofoam cup, scrutinizing the edges for fingerprints and other impurities. Was the person who made the coffee contagious? Then the light flipped on. “Oh, I get it. Yes. My family does have a history of heavy drinking. One has been sober for over thirty years, and still goes to meetings...”

The young man beamed and nodded in recognition, saying something about "the family afterward." He thumbed busily through a bulky big blue book, while I continued:

“... but the rest of my family? Meh... they pretty much quit without A.A., once they hit their 40's or 50's. Overall, I'm just really glad that we've all pretty much quit drinking."

More silence. Maybe it's my delivery? I continued. "On the downside, our family get-togethers aren't nearly as eventful. Nowadays, the dishware tends to remain unbroken.”

Again, that silence. Boy, does my tap dancing suck. Can I get a chuckle?

Your family quit? On their own?

“There's that 'on their own' thing again! But if what you're asking is whether they quit together, then... hell, no! Can't see my cousin Jill being in the same room with Uncle Herb drunk, much less detoxing off the stuff...”

No, gahl-dangit!

An old, fresh-off-the-streets wino, stood up. His seatmates made waving motions in front of their noses, their faces contracted in tight disgust, as he staggered clockwise to face me.

"Yes sir?" Despite his crude frontier slang, I liked him. He reminded me of Uncle Herb. Perhaps it was the way he pointed at me, wide-eyed, while belching incoherently:

When they say tha' they quit... I mean... they DIDN'T quit... no. They say tha' they quit 'on their own,' not "on their own!"... no. What I mean is... I mean, they didn't do it on their own, but they did it on... on... ahhh, cold-flabbit!!!

Listening to this fellow, watching tears of frustration well up his eyes as he struggled to explain what seemed to be a basic culturally-realized tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous, I couldn't help but feel sad, as well. But this was no time for pity. The moment was now finally ripe for a gain in mutual clarity.

"I see. What you are really saying is 'they quit drinking without the aid of a peer-led support group."

Cold-flabbit!!! Glaring at me, the wino swayed back and forth lazily. The confused onlookers watched him stoop over his chair. Then, he nodded at me, and slowly sat down.

"Got it." Flashing a peace sign in response, I continued. "And you are saying that this is ...improbable?"

Not improbable. Impossible.

An old man, seated to the right of the biker, whose hands were now in the process of burying a face full of barely-guarded laughter.

No such sense of mirth inhabited the tobacco-stained features of this old timer. If they quit on their own, then they are not real alcoholics. A.A. is for alcoholics.

“Are you sure? I read somewhere that there was no need to self-identify as an alcoholic... that the only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking. Isn't that a tradition?” But at that point, my words were lost in a rising din of cross-banter:

My name is Jim, I'm an alcoholic, and I say this to remember where I came from.

My name is Mary, and I'm an alcoholic... most certainly not by choice!

My name is Pete, and I say I'm an alcoholic though I don't yet believe it, because my sponsor told me I should fake it 'til I make it.

My name is Tina, same here... alcoholic. I answered four questions on the John Hopkins test.

The old man stared at the chairperson, who, through the rising commotion, returned the elder's gaze with an apologetic shrug. Clear voices now blossomed forth from the shroud of whispers: Who in their right mind would waste their time going to an A.A. meeting for the sole purpose of sharing a wafer-thin action plan of sobriety? Where are the steps? Where is the powerlessness? The insanity? Where is the God???

I looked back at the old man. His face was stoic. His verbiage was economical. What exactly are you doing in an A.A. meeting?

“Well, I had a desire to stop drinking...”

I came to these rooms beaten, licked, finished. I had to surrender.

“I see. You had a desire to stop drinking.”

I was powerless. Have you taken the 1st step?

“Well, no. I just have a desire to stop drinking.” My eyes darted back and forth. I noticed a pair of artist's easels on both sides of the front table, that contained the 12 steps and the 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. Maybe I should find that one tradition, so that I can better explain...

Are you an alcoholic? Or are you staying sober out of self-will? You sound drier than a box of corn flakes.

The abrupt cacophony of laughter was loud enough to coax curious glances from cigarette smokers, who stood outside and peeked from behind a slightly ajar steel door. I laughed along with the group, unsure of why, aside from a vague notion that this was some kind of “best medicine,” acting as a soothing balm to counter this yet-unidentified disease.

With equal rapidity, the laughter ceased. Seeing an opportunity to investigate, I addressed the sour, wizened comedian at the opposite end of the table. “'Staying sober out of self-will?' 'Drier than a corn flake?' I'm not exactly sure what you mean by that. Doesn't everyone here have the will to quit drinking? I mean, how are you supposed to otherwise stay sober?”

Unfortunately, my moment at the podium was over. The chairperson stood, gave me a quick handshake, and clapped hastily, while thanking me for having shared my experience. I stepped down from the dais as the next speaker, awash in a sea of relieved applause, strode to the lectern.

This speaker, and the next one, and the one after that, received two, four, and eleven-year anniversary medallions, respectively. They offered their own drinking histories. Unlike my own stuttered performance, theirs contained stories that were so graphic with depictions of drunkenness, I was catching a buzz just listening to them. Pretty impressive memories these speakers have, I thought to myself. Why, they must have gone over their respective pasts with a fine tooth comb... a hundred or so times! Nahhhh....

After the anniversary speakers finished their testimonials, the meeting ended with all participants standing to hold hands and recite the Lord's Prayer. Not being a religious person, I watched from outside the circle, entirely confident that I would in no way whatsoever be shunned by anyone for eschewing this ritual. Because, despite the inappropriate laughter and bizarrely-worded questions, I had met this group's lone requirement: the desire to stop drinking! Which, oddly enough, seemed to have weakened over the past hour.

“See y'all next year!” I shouted to the group, holding my one-year medallion aloft in triumph, as I headed for the door. My farewell was returned with a smattering of half-hearted waves, and more chuckling.  Good luck. Whatever works. Keep coming back. Your misery is refundable...

Much to my surprise, the stern old man met me at the exit. Still watching me with that gritty expression, he offered his hand with concealed deference. I gladly returned the handshake, while hearing his parting words:

Always remember that if your drinking gets too bad for you, we will always be here for you.

“Thank you,” I replied, as I exited into the clear, comfortably warm spring night, hoping that my drinking would never get too bad for me... oh, wait a minute. That's right. I already quit.

I haven't been back to that group since. Hey, what do you want? That silly Mother's Day thing keeps getting in the way, what with all the joy, family, and reminders to wash behind my ears which keep me busy.

Never saw the old man again, either. Though, on occasionally troubled nights, when my gaze rests on that ad for Maker's MarkTM a millisecond too long, I swear I can almost hear his offer to me, that night by the exit. And, just like that, voilĂ ! My urge for a drink goes away. I smile, and consider that indeed, this must be how it works.

2 comments:

raysny said...

Good job. I attended a meeting on my fifth anniversary. I went in ready to give them both barrels, but I just couldn't do it. The people were so sad and so scared; I felt bad for them.

B.S. Mechanic said...

Thanks Ray, glad you liked it! This post was basically a conglomeration of thousands of meetings attended, combined with the fanciful notion of an uninitiated person speaking from an A.A. podium.

I can appreciate your sense of restraint. Good to avoid giving anyone a reason to fling the old "dry drunk" label (gah...)