Funny thing about hitting bottom – when you’re down there, you’ve got two options: stay down or get up.
On this particular day, I chose to get up.
I was sitting in an AA meeting in Midtown Manhattan. A basement space with hard, florescent lighting and bad coffee. I’d been up and down with the idea of sobriety for a couple of months and wasn’t in a very good space on this day. It wasn’t denial. I was well aware that I drank differently than other people. And by differently, I mean more. And it wasn’t like ‘Otis the Drunk’ type drinking. For the most part, I managed my drinking well. I was once pulled over in Gainesville, Florida for making an illegal turn on an empty road. It was after midnight and I was leaving a club where I’d been drinking. When the officer pulled me over, she asked if I had any alcohol. I said no, of course, but she wasn’t satisfied so she asked me to take a field sobriety test. I obliged. And I passed. But she still wasn’t satisfied, so she employed a breathalyzer. I blew a .23. She slapped handcuffs on me and I spent a couple of days in jail. Anyway, that was years before sitting in this AA meeting in Manhattan trying to get a grasp of what it meant to be an alcoholic with suicidal thoughts. What it meant to deal with a serious problem. What it meant to surrender to God’s will and to stop battling myself.
I sat near the back of the room drinking black coffee from a styrofoam cup. Because it was a meeting in Manhattan, there were a couple of celebrities in attendance. For fifty minutes I listened to person after person talk about how grateful they were to be an alcoholic. And how their lives had changed so much for the better after they surrendered their will to a ‘Higher Power.’ I could barely contain my sarcasm and decided that what I wanted out of this meeting was an invitation to never return. I raised my hand.
The leader of the meeting pointed at me and smiled.
I stood up. “I’m Jim, and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi Jim,” the room sang.
I paused, looked down at the floor and then back up at the leader. “I’m an alcoholic, and I have to say that after hearing everyone speak today – I can’t help but think that everyone here is full of shit.”
Chairs squeaked on the floor. Eyebrows raised. People who weren’t looking at the back of the room when I was greeted, were definitely looking now. I continued, “I mean really. How can every one of you people be ‘so happy’ and ‘so grateful’ that you’re a fucking alcoholic. It’s a disease. It wants us dead. It’s an inescapable curse we’ve been stricken with. Happy? Right.”
I pointed at a person who’d shared earlier, “You know why I think you said you’re a ‘grateful recovering alcoholic?’” He shrugged. I pointed at someone else. “Because she did. You know why she did?” I pointed at someone else. “Because he did. This is all sick, man. Like some cult of wanting to ‘out-happy’ each other when the truth is we’re all fucking miserable and can barely get through each day without putting a bullet in our brains.”
I paused again. The room was deathly still. Every eye was upon me. “I am an alcoholic. I have no doubt about that. I haven’t had a drink in three days. I wanted to drink today, but ended up here instead. And after listening to all the bullshit in this room, I may never return. Because you’re all liars. It’s clear that it’s no different in here than it is out there.”
I sat down. “Thanks for letting me share.”
“Thanks for sharing.” The response back from the group wasn’t as tight and enthusiastic as when they greeted me. Many people continued to stare as the group leader did some final business before leading the group in the closing Serenity Prayer.
As chairs shuffled marking the end of the meeting, I walked straight to the door. I was sure I’d never return to this particular meeting and indeed had hoped that they’d ask me not to. If they’d only tell me to stay away, I’d be free to continue my path of self destruction without worrying whether there was any actual hope. I would be free to fade away.
But that’s not what happened.
As I made my way across the room toward the exit with my eyes to the floor, an older man stepped directly in front of me. I looked up. He smiled and said, “Thanks for sharing, Jim. Please – keep coming back.” Then he hugged me. I was thrown off. I mumbled something like “Sure thing,” half-heartedly returned his hug, and continued toward the exit when a woman embraced me, smiling. “Thank you so much for sharing. You have no idea how much you’ve helped me. Please keep coming back.” she said. After her there was another person. And another. By the time I reached the exit, every person in that room got to me, hugged me fiercely, and invited me to ‘keep coming back.’
My plan had backfired. I was in tears. Completely overwhelmed with gratitude for people I’d never seen before in my life who somehow saw something in me that was once in them–and who lifted me up away from myself and away from a drink to a place that was safe. Just for one day.
I went back to that meeting every day for a month, and never did pick up another drink.
August 3 marks twenty-eight years since my last drink, and even though I’m no longer involved with AA, I can honestly say that the people in those meetings in NYC saved my life. They taught me how to trust in the collective power of goodwill, in myself, and in God. I am indeed a grateful recovering alcoholic today. And I hope that gratitude continues for many more years. One day at a time.