What they don’t tell you in AA

You make fast friends in AA the moment you walk in the door for the first time. What they don’t tell you is that not all of those friends will maintain their sobriety. However, there is no way to communicate that to you. It wouldn’t be fair, and there’s no real way to figure out who will “go back out” as they say.

They don’t tell you that “coming back” means you are “coming back” from “going back out” and drinking. No one will tell you this. You have to figure it out on your own. They often ask at meetings, “Who’s coming back, and wants to acknowledge it?” You raise your hand for quite a few meetings there in the beginning as you take the question literally. You think to yourself, “Well, sure I’m back. Aren’t we all coming back?” No wonder you had all sorts of attention from the old timers. They must have thought you were picking up a drink very regularly after meetings. One day you realize your mistake when another man raises his hand when you do, and starts talking about drinking the night before.

They don’t tell you that not every meeting will be inspiring or even useful, but you still keep coming back because you’ll miss out when it is useful or inspiring if you are not there.

They don’t tell you that some sponsors are megalomaniacs, and see themselves as bigger and more important than your doctor or clinician. No one tells that that there may be a time when you have to reach down into your judgement circle deep down inside of you to see if your sponsor is right, or if they are, indeed, a megalomaniac. You are afraid because you know that you are not known for your best judgement. After all, you don’t even have 90 days sober. But, after deeply considering the situation you decide that your sponsor is fucked in her thinking. You land here … taking Trazodone is not equivalent to picking up a drink. You do not have to change your sobriety date. No one will tell you that you will have this crisis.

No one will tell you that mentioning taking psychotropic drugs during an AA meeting will divide the room in half, and render the meeting a Girl Interrupted version of The McLaughlin Group. Without even realizing it, you unveiled one of the biggest controversies within AA, the role of psychotropic drugs in sobriety.

No one will tell you that when you tell your sponsor that she is fired that you will want a drink, and you will only have yourself to rely on during that crisis. You will have that moment when you envision yourself picking up the drink, and you will desperately want the taste of that Crown Royal. There will be no one there to talk you out of it, or help you. You will see the clarity in the midst of it with the realization that taking that drink could get you back to that very bad place you were in when you put down the drink. All you know in that moment is that you want a better life, and you are not going to pick up a drink because of a sponsor with flawed and mistaken ideas. In the end, it will only be your fault if you take a drink.

No one will tell you that people who occasionally come to AA are considered to be “around the program”  and not “in the program.” Sponsorless people and people without a step meeting in their repertoire are also considered to be “around the program.” There’s countless criteria for being “around” instead of “in.” No one will outline the rules for you. You have to observe and watch in order to figure it out. In fact, if you ask what the rules are someone is likely to say it’s a program of “suggestion.” Perhaps that’s the case to some people, to others it is a program of rules.

No one will tell you that there will be a day when you will miss the camaraderie, the terrible basement rooms, and the hope in the air. You will go back to the program in those times of wanting to return, but you will always return to that same place in your heart where you realize that AA is not for you. Sobriety is for you though. Sobriety is a heavenly gift, but the program of AA was not meant for you. You wish it was. You will spend the rest of your life explaining to people that you are indeed sober without AA. You cherish your sobriety, and “people in the program” will look at you suspiciously.

No one will tell you that years later you will run into that sponsor with the wrong-headed ideas about psychotropic drugs. All the statements that you had swirling around in your head for a long time after your parting will come to you in that moment when you see her. Instead, you will smile and hug her because you realize that she was only doing what she thought was right. She will walk away after a brief conversation with you, and in that moment, you will realize that this is sobriety.

The Irish chef

You spotted me in the AA meeting from afar, you with your brainy glasses and that Irish je ne sais quoi air about you. I had 30 days sober, and you had two weeks under your belt. They always say to never pair up like this in AA in early sobriety. How many of us who don’t heed this advice think that we’re the exception? We all think we’re special and that we’ll be the exception to the rule.

I was well-behaved at first. I greeted you, and then quickly exited the meeting. But then later that day I saw you at Starbucks. You were intently reading The Big Book. I was reading something else, and will always read something else other than the damned Big Book. We politely smile at each other, but then after a while you invite me to join you at your table. As we leave Starbucks one of the gals from AA walks in and sees us together. She gives us that knowing judgmental look, and I don’t give a shit. To this day, even with everything that happened, I would do it all over again. I would do it again because the soul does not find a kindred spirit in every lifetime.

Talking to you felt like I had a front row seat to your spirit. There is so much about you that I connected with that I have trouble writing about it because my brain can hardly handle the beauty of your kindred spirit.

Remember the time I was so jacked up by my boss at work that you asked me out to a cafe before a meeting? You gave me the book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It was just the book I needed, but more than that, you wrote me something lovely in Gaelic in the front of the book. Unfortunately, I no longer recall the translation of what you wrote, but I treasure that you wrote me something in Gaelic, could have been your grocery list, and I would have treasured it as well.

You asked me to the New Year’s Eve AA dance, and it broke my heart to tell you no. It was a dream come true to be asked by you, but I knew it was too soon for us. I wanted nothing more than to accompany you to the dance. Your face fell when I told you I could not accept, and my heart just heaved with sadness. I knew it would be the only time you would ask me out, somehow I just knew.

A couple of weeks later you disappeared, and I knew you were drinking again. I actually felt it a few days prior to your disappearance. I could feel the shifts in you when you were headed towards the demons instead of away from them. It always irritated you that I had that knack. Trust me, I wish I didn’t have it because I always knew when you were going to pick up a drink. My soul would tense up, and pinch me with a warning. I would berate it to shut up, but it was right every single time.

Thank you for introducing me to Christy Moore, the Gaelic language, and for your thorough explanation as to why you and your family do not like Margaret Thatcher. This uninformed American never knew. Right now, I’m listening to “The Irish Rovers” hoping you are well, but my soul is pinching me back so I’ll make it a wish and a prayer instead.

Will you be my friend?

Decades later I am still stuck in that moment at the Girl Scout hut when I determined that Carlene W. was the nicest girl in our troop. I wanted to be her friend, and being the direct person I’ve always been, I sat down right next to her during refreshment time with our Hi-C fruit punch and Nutter Butters and popped the question.

“Carlene, will you be my friend?”

Carlene just looked at me with the deer-in-the-headlights look that people have when they are too stunned for words. She stammered out a “sure” but I knew even then that it wasn’t genuine, and suddenly a saw a side of Carlene I did not like, an uncomfortable and aloof side. Carlene had always been nice to me, pleasant, not mean, and I had construed that to mean that we could be friends. We had nothing in common, no interests, aside from Girl Scouts, and we certainly did not live in the same neighborhood. As she lived near the country club, and her dad was the school principal. I lived in a mold-infested house between the housing projects and an arroyo that one should not enter alone after dark.

I didn’t understand that friends were made through mutuality of some sort, could be anything, but mutuality was essential.

Of course, Carlene and I never became friends, but the well-mannered girl that she was also meant that she was kind enough not to tell the rest of the world about my awkward request.

And today I find myself with the desire to ask that random nice person if they will be my friend, and then I remember Carlene and common sense takes over again.

I have a few friends scattered here and there, but I try very hard not to overly tax anyone. The friendships I have, even the small ones, are protected and treasured like the first apples of the season that you run over your face for their dewyness and newness and you just want apple picking to last forever.

Even when I acquire a work friend I’m elated inside. My insides get confused, and think I’ve acquired a dog or become engaged.

A few months back when I started the job I have now I knew I would get along well with my colleague as I had met him at a training years ago. Sure enough, we make a good team. I found myself wanting to go to lunch with him. Such a pedestrian thing, lunch, but I had thoughts of Carlene in my head any time I conjured up the idea of asking him to lunch.

And one day, I did it. I tried to be as casual as possible, and I asked the question, “Would you like to go the XYZ Cafe for lunch today?”

And he replied, “Sure, I’m always up for lunch at the XYZ.”

I walked back to my cube as I replied, “Good, I’m ready whenever, my afternoon has no meetings.” I had to walk away as I replied because I felt myself go teary as he said yes. These days every friendship is a miracle to me.

That was a few months ago. Now we take turns paying for lunch at the XYZ Cafe. We don’t socialize outside of work, though we know quite a bit about each others lives. He knows I have PTSD, though he does not know about the DID. Very few people know about the DID. It’s a small very-manageable friendship with lunch 1-2 times a week, and the Monday morning catch-up of our weekends. It’s small, but still important to me. Perhaps more important than it should be, but that’s what happens when you don’t have a lot of people in your life. You treasure those you do have, no matter how small.

The small friendships matter to me. Other people may call them acquaintances, but I don’t.

For example, I look forward every weekend to seeing Sue, the lady with the red hoodie, at the laundry drop-off place who washes my clothes every week. She’s missing a few teeth, and she’s generally very disgruntled with life. But somehow my cheeriness grew on her, and she cuts me a break on the laundry drop-off price, and is always friendly with me. When I ran in a race at the start of the summer she told me she was worried about me all day because of the record heat. When I go on vacation she’s always happy to see me when I return.

No, we don’t have each other’s phone number, and I don’t even know her last name. But I consider her my friend.

I go to AA, and a version of “Will you be my friend?” lives on in the ubiquitous phone number exchange. It’s an accepted practice to approach others in AA and ask for their phone number. I have yet to ask anyone for their phone number. I’ve been given numbers, but I can’t bring myself to do the asking yet.

Carlene still lives on in my head.