Monday, December 6, 2010

Day 308: Serenity Now

Day 308's thing I've never done before was to attend an Alcoholic's Anonymous meeting.

No, this, shockingly, was not in response to my antics from Katy's birthday party (though it was quite fitting). I actually had made these plans 12 hours before even going to Katy's birthday. But it all transpired pretty quickly.

Here's how: Anne, a colleague and friend at work, somehow made it to Day 304 or 305 not even knowing that my blog, or this project even existed. When she found out, she asked the usual questions I'd become accustomed to answering.

"Everyday? (Yes.) "Something new?" (Indeed.) Everyday (Every. Day.) "What's the craziest thing you've ever done?" (That's hard to say, there have been a lot. Please see Days 37, 53, & 195).

"You should go to an AA meeting!," Anne said, after asking me to forward her the blog so that she could read it and see what I was talking about. We both chuckled.

I thought she was kidding. But she wasn't.

"I've actually been," she went on to say. "Not for myself. With my friend."

"Yeah, wow, that is definitely something that I've ever done before . . .," I started to trail off, and then I said, "But I don't know. I mean . . . AA? That sounds a little heavy. The blog is more for fun."

True, the blog hasn't always been fun, and my year hasn't been completely light and cheery, but I've never purposely put myself in a position to be so serious. Plus, AA is where people battling a horrific disease go to seek refuge and be around others who understand their plight. And they do so expecting to remain anonymous. Something about me observing this experience and then writing about it felt wrong. And I told Anne that.

Despite my every attempt to talk her out of it, Anne still seemed enthusiastic about introducing this new experience with me. She said she'd talk to her friend and see what he thought and she'd get back to me.

That Saturday, Day 307, when I was getting ready for Katy's birthday party, I got an email from Anne. The subject was: AA Anyone?

Last minute and totally random but if you're up for it, I'd be happy to take you to a meeting tomorrow morning.

I panicked, not at all expecting the offer to come so soon, if at all. I started to decline. And then I stopped myself. I really did want to know what goes on at one of these meetings, but I already had plans and going to AA after a night of drinking just sounded like a terrible idea.

But this is the year of saying, "Yes." So, I took her up on her offer and we made arrangements for she and her friend "T" to pick me up the next morning. They arrived when they said they would, promptly at 9am.

I thanked T repeatedly for allowing me to tag along to his meeting. I told him that my only exposure to Alcoholics Anonymous comes from what I've seen on television and the movies, specifically When a Man Loves a Woman, which makes me sob uncontrollably every time I see it, regardless of what point I join the film. T was friendly and said he was happy to let me see what a meeting is like.

When Anne had invited me to come along, she wrote in her email that she and T had hoped that I could, with my blog, maybe open up the experience and demystify AA a little bit. T mentioned that too as we drove to get coffee before the meeting. Once again, I feel the reach of Project 29 to 30 had been misjudged slightly, for I fear I might only be opening this experience to a small handful of people who read my blog regularly. But regardless, I am interested to know what happens during an AA meeting and promised to write the experience as best I could, leaving any snarky judgments (of which I have none) to myself.

We stopped for coffee and T told me about himself, and when he realized he was an alcoholic. He had moved to Atlanta and was working as a young professional. As he spoke, he described some of the Friday and Saturday nights he used to have. They sounded a lot like the weekends that my friends and I used to have when we first graduated from college and were making our own money for the first time. Wild. Fun. Painful.

Two things stood out to me during this initial conversation that I was too busy wrapping my head around to actually say out loud to this complete stranger that I'd just met and who had agreed to let me come with him to his AA meeting:

1. T was probably not the first alcoholic that I ever met, but definitely the first one who ever admitted to being one. And the only person that I knew who went to AA meetings regularly.

2. Our party habits, our affinity to cut loose on a Saturday night and get silly were essentially the same; the only thing that I could see that made us different was that I had the ability to turn off that desire the next day.

T said that was what separated him from his friends, and that was when he knew he had a problem. His wild Saturday nights turned into wild Sunday afternoon brunches that led to wild Sunday nights and either completely unproductive days at work on Monday, or a call-in sick day.

At that time, and even now, I've been wrestling with this idea that so much of what happens to us in life, or doesn't happen, is simply a result of luck. I can, and will, take credit for my successes in life but only up to a certain point, and then I just have to assume that the overwhelmingly fortunate circumstances I was born into are playing a role.

Once again, I couldn't help but feel so lucky that despite having abused alcohol myself in the past, I don't think that I have a problem with alcohol that I can't control. I can go to dinner, have a couple of beers, and go home.

T can't. How unfair. How unlucky for him.

When T realized he had a problem with alcohol, he told his family and friends, all of whom had different reactions to the news. Some, like Anne, were extremely supportive, and thanks to a friendship built upon more than just partying, their relationship has remained in tact. Based on our conversation, it seemed as though his family was less-so, not even completely believing that he has a drinking problem. I found this to be most surprising, like, why would anyone make up being an alcoholic? Regardless, getting sober for T, and for so many others, involved a complete lifestyle change, a complete friend overhaul. He had to change the places he went, his behavior on work trips; every mundane meaningless activity became different once drinking was taken out of the picture.

That's why, I guess, so many people fall off the wagon several times before finally kicking the habit for good. And even then, being an alcoholic never goes away, and attending regular AA meetings is crucial to a recovering alocholic's success.

That's also why, when we arrived at the building for the meeting, T spoke to nearly every person there. These fellow addicts had, understandably, become a large part of his support system. Outside the door were a group of guys smoking cigarettes, and greeting one another. Again, drawing from my frequent viewings of When a Man Loves a Woman, I wondered if T, like Meg Ryan's character, had picked up a smoking habit. He said, "no," that he'd replaced his drinking with working out, a much better choice in the long run.

We walked into the room, which reminded me of a high school classroom, complete with bulletin boards and uncomfortable chairs. The scene was fitting because T was like the Homecoming King, shaking hands, and hugging everyone there. He was definitely very popular; I was glad I was with him.

I didn't get the feeling that anyone really cared that Anne and I were there, but as usual, when I know I am an outsider at a place, I automatically acted anxious and weird. This AA meeting was no different. I was looking around, wondering if I would recognize anyone (I did not), and what I would say if I did. And then I wondered if people would recognize me. And then I got freaked that maybe I'd have to introduce myself. Luckily, I did not.

The guy who led the meeting welcomed everyone to the meeting, saying his name, "B" and his addiction. He made some general announcements and then handed the meeting over to someone chosen to read the serenity prayer. He said, "Hi my name is E and I'm an alcoholic drug user." Everyone greeted him, "Hi E!"

These alcoholics are very friendly, I thought. I don't even greet my best friends with such enthusiasm.

E read the "How it Works," and the "12 Steps," of Alcoholics Anonymous.

As I looked around the room, I couldn't help but wonder what "rock-bottom" moment each of these people had suffered that led them here. Did they reluctantly check themselves into rehab at the pleading from a family member, or did they come, like T had, to this place on their own? And what leads them here, week after week? Year after year?

After going through some of the rituals of every AA meeting, E, the meeting facilitator, spoke a little bit about his own road sobriety. He said getting sober forced him to be honest with himself for the first time in his life; when he was drinking, he was always lying. Lying about how many drinks he'd had or lying about how late he'd stayed out. He said he was happy he'd arrived at a place where he doesn't have to be dishonest anymore.

B then opened up the meeting for others to talk. And one by one, T and several others shared similar stories of how their addiction had made them liars. Some said they'd lie about things that didn't even matter like what they ordered for breakfast or how many pieces of candy they ate.

The stories were interesting; some were sad, and some were humorous. They painted a picture of how alcohol had forced their lives out of control. I sort of wished that there was a similar meeting for non-alcoholics. I could use an hour-long group therapy session.

The drama queen in me was sort of hoping for a Meg Ryan monologue at the end of the meeting, and an Andy Garcia waiting for her in the back of the room, but there weren't any terribly emotional testimonies. Appearances can be deceiving, I know, but from what I could tell, most of the people at this meeting had been sober for a long time. Everyone seemed pretty comfortable in the meeting and comfortable with their sobriety.

B began wrapping up the meeting, thanking everyone in the room for their continued support as he reached a milestone 20 years of sobriety. His achievement was celebrated with applause and lots of hand shakes and hugs following the meeting.

Before that, though, everyone recited aloud The Promises of AA. While every person knew every step by heart, there wasn't a lot of feeling behind their words. It felt like they were just going through the motions, like kids in elementary school reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Kind of like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I've recited this a million times."

Then we got up, stood in a circle, held hands and recited the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, and The wisdom to know the difference.

We ended the circle time with the words, "'Together, Forever,'" and everyone gave the person next to them a little hand squeeze. I had to laugh, it reminded me of a prayer circle I used to do before competing in dance competitions.

After the meeting, we stacked our chairs, but hung out for a little while, chatting with some of T's friends all of of whom were very nice and welcoming. Anne and I left, without T, who was going to lunch with a guy in AA that he is now sponsoring.

We left in search of Sunday brunch with Bloody Mary's, but came up unsuccessful on the Bloody Mary's (thanks to drinking laws in Georgia that prohibit alcohol sales before 1pm on Sunday). Perhaps that was God's way of saying, "Did you not learn anything in the last 2 hours?"

But I did learn something. I learned a lot: Alcoholics aren't always the fumbling drunks portrayed in television and movies, recovery is a lifestyle, not a stint in rehab, and once again, I am a very lucky girl.

A special thanks to T and to Anne for opening up this experience for me. I truly am a changed person because of it and I really appreciate it.


  1. Good blog. You handled the subject with great sensiitivity. And, the movie you mentioned is definitely a rip your heart out tear jearker. I will never watch it again--too too sad!
    Love, MOM

  2. I knew this would be worth the wait. Honest, sweet, perceptive-so glad it was a worthy experience. If only all meetings we attended could be so eye opening!
    (But I think it’s time to find those elusive bloodys—or perhaps the alcoholic milkshakes…)

  3. Thanks for all the comments. Definitely a tough one to write and get it all right. Anne, thanks again and yes, drinks soon. On me!