I stayed in the detoxification unit of Woden Valley Hospital for six days. At one point, I was the only “garden variety” drunk in the place–everyone else was a heroin addict, talking about all the places they had robbed in my neighborhood. Really? What was I doing in this place? But there I was, being checked on every night to make sure I wasn’t having a seizure, spending days in lectures about alcohol-related brain damage (that scared the bejeesus out of me!), and–as the only one eating, because the heroin addicts weren’t–eating horrible food. I spent the week sweating, shaking, and crying–amazed that I really was having physical withdrawals from alcohol. My God, I really AM an addict!
The second night I was there, people came from Alcoholics Anonymous to talk to the detox group about “Living Sober.” One young woman who came had been in the detox unit the year before, and was coming back to celebrate one year of sobriety. She looked great, radiant with accomplishment, while others who remembered what a mess she had been before congratulated her. I was still sick enough to think, “wow, if I could just have one year of not drinking, then I could probably drink again.” I was still resistant to the idea of AA, still fighting. But why were these people coming to talk to us about how to stay sober? What did they get out of it? One of them drove me to a meeting, took one look at me, and said, “you’re having trouble with the God stuff, aren’t you?” He stopped the car, got out and picked a flower and handed it to me. “Just think about that flower,” he said. Then he gave me a copy of the Big Book, and told me not to worry about what didn’t make sense to me, just keep coming to meetings. I still have the book he gave me, 17 years later. I can still remember the first stories I heard at meetings, and what I was wearing, what I was reading. It was making a dent in my willful psyche, that’s for sure.
I went to meetings every day. I looked and felt horrible, but I listened. At one woman’s meeting, the leader was an enormous Aboriginal woman–a known activist, a formidable presence I had seen before. She saw me, shaking and sweating, and gave me a big hug–because she understood what I was going through. I often share that story now as a powerful example of how all differences disappear in AA as everyone works together for one single purpose: to stay sober and to help other alcoholics stay sober. I was impressed and overwhelmed with the simple acts of kindness and caring from these people, who would then tell stories of their own drinking escapades, some with which I could identify, and some that were way beyond my experience–but all of them carried the same message: stay sober, and life gets better, no matter what your circumstances. I was told to “look for the similarities, not the differences.” One of my greatest inspirations was a tough little guy named Dougie–with tatts of “LOVE” and “HATE” on his knuckles; he’d been in jail, he was bipolar, he had very little in life. But he was trying SO HARD to stay sober! I thought, “If he can do it, so can I.” Back at detox, the halls were filled with little plaques with inspirational sayings. At the moment when I finally let go and stopped resisting, one of them caught my eye: “I alone can do it, but I cannot do it alone.” For some reason, that one got through to me on that day: “Solid, I can do this.” So I accepted the FACT of my alcoholism: I wasn’t a bad person, I wasn’t immoral, I was just an alcoholic and I couldn’t drink like normal people.
When I got out of detox, I knew I didn’t want to come back to detox ever again–if for no other reason than the food was execrable. But I had learned enough that I knew if I drank again, I would end up back there. So I started going to meetings, I found a home group, I took a responsibility to the group (I washed tea towels), I took people’s phone numbers (even if I didn’t call). At one of the first meetings I went to after getting out of detox, I saw sitting in the crowd FOUR of my former students, including Greg, one guy who I had once had to kick out of class for being drunk. We all just laughed at the irony of it all (“So you’re one of us, too!”), and learned an important lesson in anonymity: who you see and what you hear in a meeting stays at the meeting.
I was very, very fragile those first few months, and the whole AA pattern was so new to me! I had always been impatient with meetings, with belonging to groups, I was extremely skeptical of about any talk of spirituality/religion/God, and at first I couldn’t understand why I had to do the Steps or how you did them. In those first meetings, I sometimes had to sit on my hands to keep me there. The whole counting the days of sobriety was so weird, as if I were in some kind of race that would have a finish. But I was WILLING–I was desperate, and I needed the help of people who had been there. Slowly, I began to accumulate the wisdom of the people in the groups: a priest who told me if religion alone could have gotten him sober, he wouldn’t need to come to these damn meetings; an ex-nun who gave me good practical advice about how to deal with situations where alcohol would be; and lots of those like me who were still trying to intellectualize the process, to find fault with the mechanisms of getting sober in AA. But I kept coming back, and going against the very fiber of my being, I started to see the wisdom of “doing” the Steps. Not just thinking about it, but actually trying to do them to the best of my ability. I got a sponsor to help me figure out how to consider my part in all my drunken behavior, and then to forgive myself. She also helped me figure out how to make amends to all those people who had been affected by my drinking. My family, of course, came first on that list, and especially my son. But rather than just come out and say “Hey, I’m sober now, so I’m sorry for all the things I did while drunk,” I knew I had to make “living amends”, to just take it one step at a time, and not to drink one day at a time. The happiest day of that first year was when my son said, “I’m so glad you’re not drinking anymore, Mom.” It still makes me cry when I think about it. I said the Serenity Prayer, I participated in meetings by speaking up–something that at first was surprisingly hard for me to do. As a lecturer, I could easily speak in public on any topic, but in meetings, I found myself quite shy–because this was about sharing my feelings and my behavior, being ruthlessly honest about my shortcomings and confronting the fact that all the will and intelligence in the world couldn’t keep me from becoming a drunk. I teamed up with a guy whose story was completely different than mine, and we went back to detox to do that “Living Sober” night many times. We made a good team, because we could cover all objections to the program!
After a year or so, I felt strong enough to have dinner parties again, and was amazed to find that other people had never drunk like I did–there was wine left in the bottles at the end of the meal! We took our first trip since I quit at the time I celebrated my first AA birthday–and so I was in a room in a church in Melbourne, with 200 strangers. I shared my story, and that whole room, whether they had had the same experiences or not, understood and welcomed me. I have never felt more safe than in a room full of strangers, all trying to stay sober one day at a time.
That’s how it works: just people getting together to share their stories, trying to stay sober. Period. All the other stuff–the spirituality, the Steps, the prayers–are all just tools of the trade. NONE of it is “required”–as one of the Traditions says, “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” And somehow, I still don’t know how, it works for lots of us. I still go to meetings, and I still marvel at the power in those rooms. And as Roger Ebert says in his wonderful little essay (http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/my-name-is-roger-and-im-an-alcoholic), I have no desire to get into any arguments about AA. If it doesn’t work for you, then fine, it doesn’t. But for this incredibly recalcitrant alkie, it has worked for 17 years so far. And I learn something new about life every time I go to a meeting. And yes, things got much, much better–not perfect by any means, but much better. I think I’ll keep coming back!