AA how I loathe you

A text message exchange between me and my friend Ken …

Me: I just left the AA alkathon, too many guys in the meeting reminding me of my father. Oy. So triggered. There’s an over abundance of older men telling drinking “war tales.” I hate that.

Ken: Sucks when meetings go that way.

Me: Yeah, makes me pine for the Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meetings with all their meeting rules. Alas, I get triggered there for different reasons. I have the air conditioning jacked up in the car to try to shake myself out of it. Strangely funny …

Ken: Funny cause it’s 20 degrees out 🙂

Me: Yeah …

You know how I have a blog … Well, I found out the day before yesterday that another fellow blogger I used to correspond with took her own life. I didn’t mention it at dinner, didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to sully the evening. She actually lived less than 3 hours from me, but I was too scared to try to meet her. Not because of her, just because I am generally afraid of people.

We used to trade stories about the different psych hospitals for PTSD and DID. We had the same ideas and theories about how these places are run.

Then I just got out of the habit of emailing her, and now she’s gone. And I feel like somewhat of a disappointment. Like maybe if I hadn’t been so scared of the world I would have visited her …

Bizarre to pull up her last email to me with the knowledge that the person that wrote it is now gone.

Ken: You have no power over other people. She had her own stuff you could not control or change.

Me: The wise brain part of me knows that, and the other part of my brain feels incredible disappointment in myself. Then on days like today I feel ridiculous with all the effort I expend.

Ken: Are you making it into a meeting? If not the alkathon, is there another?

Me: I was on my way to one that starts in a few minutes. But I don’t know …

Ken: I think it would be a good idea to try.

***

And with that I arrive with trepidation to a meeting at the infamous “A-frame” as people like to call it, so named because of the architectural style of the church. A common question is, “Going to the A-frame for a meeting tonight?” The A-frame has meetings several times a week, sometimes several times a day, depending on the day.

I take a breath right outside the doors, and I can hear the twelve steps being read. I open the door, take notice of the familiar wood floors and strangely comfortable plastic folding chairs, then I take a seat near the side wall. There’s a fiftyish salt and pepper haired guy with an Old Navy hoodie chairing the meeting, and I close my eyes and take in the odd, but comfortable feeling from being present in that room. I’m consciously relaxing into the chair when I hear salt and pepper haired guy say (to the best of my memory), “This is a simple program, and I find that when you keep it simple it works. When people get into this therapeutic PTSD stuff, I don’t know … you know … I don’t know about that, just keep it simple.”

Well, shit, that got my attention. When salt and pepper haired dude finally noticed me with my hand up this is what I said, “I’m going to go out on a limb here, but with respect to the PTSD I want to say something about that. As someone who’s an alcoholic with PTSD I can say that the combination, for me, makes it difficult for me to be in these rooms as much as I would like to be. I wish that weren’t so, but it is. I wish that it was not the case that too often I get triggered by simply hearing about drinking or consequences from drinking. I am glad I did not know how almost unbearable my PTSD would get for me when I quit drinking. I want to be here, but sometimes I have to make the choice to leave when I’m getting triggered. Even so, I’m grateful that the program is here for me when I’m able to be here.”

As predicted there was the typical reaction to my share that one has to keep it simple, stick to the program, and that if you don’t veer from the program you’ll be fine. Such a belief is overly simplistic in that it conveys a presumption that the believer knows everything there is to know about what works for every possible person with this addiction. Let me take the opportunity to say that such a belief is beyond foolish, beyond embarrassing and devoid of taking in the bigger picture of the varied individuals that present as addicts.

And that is why too often I find myself driving past the damn A-frame when I’m not in the mood for the self-rightous words that I will inevitably hear over and over again in any meeting I find in that church in the shape of a summer camp.

The preschool room

The preschool room in the church is where we have our Alanon meetings. It’s fitting in a way as my connection to Alanon started at the same age of the children that inhabit this very room during the week. The blue sky paint and rainbows on the wall harken me back to the days where it all began. There are lovely crayon drawings on part of the wall facing me. My favorite is one of a personified sun that seems to grin at me from the top of the wall.

Many times I can set the reminders in that room aside, and focus on the here and now. Friday night was a notable exception. Our meeting chairperson read a piece about being grateful for the alcoholic and their alcoholism. I felt myself stiffen. I never imagined being grateful for my father’s alcoholism. I can hardly fathom it. My brain shuts down at the thought of it. I don’t know if I can speak. We’re going in round robin order today. The woman beside me is speaking for a long time, the long wait makes me crazy out of my mind because it is an all out effort to stay present, stay here. I stare at the clock: 7:59, 8:01, 8:04, 8:06 … good god, the wait is excruciating. I start tapping my chest as Doc has taught me when I get triggered. Finally, blessedly, she is done. I’m up.

“Hi, I’m Beatriz. Today’s topic – Grateful for the alcoholic Wow. This hits home for me. No question that I will always be grateful for my father, and what he gave me: a love for writing, literature, poetry, human rights … But I don’t know that I will ever be grateful for the alcoholism, and everything that came with it -his disappearance from my life- and everything that came as a result of that disappearance, and all the crime and so much more … Maybe there could be a day when I’m grateful for all that. It certainly would be a more peaceful place to be, and maybe it’s a sign of how much more work I have to do, and how young I am in this process … But no, I am not grateful for the alcoholism. I am grateful for all of you, and for this meeting. I look forward to it every Friday. Thanks for listening.”

We continued around the rest of the room with shares until the end of the meeting. The business meeting was up next with a short five minute break in between.

And that’s when I heard it.

I heard the voice of the old man, the old man with the bright green shirt and a constant cough. I heard his voice go up, and I dismissed it. I thought I was mistaken because this man had kindly passed me a box of tissues at my first meeting when I cried about my father. But then there it was again, unmistakably his loud voice … he was mad about something we wrote in our introduction to the meeting. I can’t make out what he’s saying because I have to run. I have to go. He starts shouting. It’s no longer just a loud voice. My mind starts to get scrambled, and I can’t think, can’t think straight, just have to go, go for the door. I need the door. But I feel heavy. The desire to run is not in concert with the rest of my heavy feeling body. I must be walking oddly. I just keep my eye on the door and will myself towards it. I manage to feel the door against my hands, and I push it open, and when I do so I just fall out with the door and stagger onto the sidewalk. I feel myself fall onto the concrete curb for a respite from my heavy feeling body.

I hear a voice call out to me, “Beatriz, are you ok? Do you need help?” Jack is part of our group, and he sounds so far away, like he’s speaking to me from the end of a long tunnel. I strain to hear him, part of me knows he must be near me though it sounds as if he is long out of my reach. I will later learn that he was sitting right beside me on the curb.

I try to stay there, stay there, right there. I do not want to fly away and disappear. I need to stay. I try to focus on Jack’s voice. I don’t know what he’s saying to me, but it’s a calm voice, and that is good. His voice is calm like the light breeze on the lake as you sit on your hammock. I try to focus on that. I think I can come back. He asks me something, I don’t recall what he asked, but I can tell I’m slipping away because my own voice comes out in a hoarse whisper. I can tell it’s barely even my own voice. I am barely present.

But then I hear him again, the old man with the bright green shirt and constant cough who once passed me tissues. He is now outside, and he is still yelling. Is he coming closer? I have to go. I cannot be here. Jack tries to keep me from running. “He’s not going to hurt you. He’s leaving. You’re safe. You’re safe here.”

And there’s the change. I feel the moment when I’m no longer in the driver’s seat. I’m now in the passenger seat of my own life, my own interactions with people I barely know.

I feel the little girl voice, and the little girl fear take over all of me. “I sorry. I so sorry. I not supposed to be here. I sorry I scared.”

“Where’s Beatriz?”

“She not here. She be gone. Please don’t call no police.”

“Why is that?”

“They not nice. They mean.”

“Is there anyone we can call?”

“Inside.”

“Inside where?”

“They be a man inside. He friends with Beatriz. He know about me.”

“What’s his name?”

“I forgot.”

“Don?”

“No.”

“Ben?”

“Yes! It’s Ben! That’s him!”

“Okay, we’ll get Ben. Do you have a name?”

“Yes. Letty …”

“Hi, Letty. I’m Jack. Can you give me some big belly breathing? You’re safe here.”

“I sorry. I not supposed to be here. Please don’t be mad at Beatriz. It my fault.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong. No one is in any trouble. Here’s Ben.”

“Ben! I so sorry. I sorry I got scared in your office when we was at your house. That was me. I sorry. It looked like my old room. That was me, not Beatriz. She tell the truth when she say it was me.”

“It’s okay.”

“Who be here now?”

“Well, there’s me – Jack, Lucy and Tina, all people who care about you.”

Just like that, I felt myself come back. I looked at Jack, and gave a yelp, a Beatriz yelp, and buried my face in my cardigan that somehow came off me though I don’t recall how it came to be in my hands.

Everyone introduces themselves to me as it is the first time I’ve met them. Perhaps they are not sure who they’re speaking with now …

Awkward hugs for everyone, awkwardness is from me, not them.

We go back inside the school to finish closing up. Lucy takes out a chair and implores me to sit while everyone else closes up shop. She asks for my phone number with her pen poised over her little memo pad that she pulls out of her Betty Boop purse. I give it to her. She tells me she’ll call me. I take her number as well.

Ben remembers I told him that talking about nonsense helps me. He offers to take random things out of my purse as conversation pieces. We all laugh, and head out the door.

Don sees a lightning bug. (Where did Don come from? Was he here the entire time?) He points it out to us. I’ve never seen them aside from pictures. Then he shows us a whole group of them further down from where we stand. It all feels surreal, and oddly special.

Then it’s just me and Ben. He asks me if I can drive. I say that I am not sure. Bugs are biting him like he’s Thanksgiving dinner, though they have no interest in me. “Let’s continue this conversation from our cars,” he says as he slaps bugs off his legs.

We get in our cars, and continue talking via cell phone. I try to talk about something else, and I mention the house he just bought. He says, “Yes, it’s in a neighborhood near you so we can go to your favorite diner more often.” My heart jumps when he says this. I start to cry because if he sees himself having breakfast with me at my favorite diner then he just might still be my friend.

An Al-Anon Meeting

At the beginning of the week I consulted the Al-Anon meeting calendar, and honed in on the Friday 7:30 p.m. meeting. For years I’ve struggled with the concept of attending Al-Anon because I felt I did not belong there. After all, I have not spoken to my alcohol dependent father for 5 years, and before that it had been 3 years, and before that it had been at least 20 years. I had read a cursory amount of Al-Anon material years ago that led me to the assessment that because I was not an “enabler,” and since I was now “detached” I did not need Al-Anon. I believed Al-Anon was for those still entangled with the alcoholic, still trying to get them to stop drinking, and lost in the vortex of covering up for the loved one. Al-Anon was for everyone else but me.

The other part of the puzzle that kept me from entering those Al-Anon doors was my own problem with alcohol. The thought of sitting with people who suffered because of a loved one’s battle with alcohol made me feel like an interloper hiding their true identity as an alcoholic.

Lately, I’ve been ruminating about my father, missing him as if he left yesterday. It’s as if mourning his loss many years ago had been arrested, and now, after all this time, the loss was finally being felt.

I pulled up to the church, and waited in the car until the last minute. I encountered a woman in a lovely dark green wrap dress wearing cross trainers who whispered, “Welcome” as she held the door open for me. I asked her, “Is this the Al-Anon meeting?” She nodded and showed me to a seat. There was a long rectangular desk in the middle of the room with 13 of us gathered around it. The group ranged in ages across the spectrum, easily from twenties to seventies. I immediately felt comfortable with the orderly fashion in which the meeting was being run. It felt like a well-oiled machine, yet one that could take new and broken parts like me.

They went through the typical motions of reading the 12 steps, and there was a preamble that was read (of which I cannot recall much of the contents because I was anxious at the mere fact of being in attendance). They asked if this was anyone’s first Al-Anon meeting, and I raised my hand and introduced myself. I was immediately given a Newcomer packet of pamphlets with a local meeting schedule. And then people shared, and it was so different from AA in that there was accepted silence between shares. If no one wanted to share, or if there was a large pause before the next person shared, the pause just hung there like the damp air after rain. There was no cajoling, or putting people on the spot to share. I immediately relaxed when I saw this was the group format. I’ve always appreciated people who are comfortable with silence, and feel no need to just “fill the gap.”

During one of the silences I found myself thinking about some of the AA and Al-Anon differences. During the introduction that was read the reader mentioned that a person should try Al-Anon for 6-8 meetings in order to see if the program works for them. I also recall hearing the reader say that people could attend regularly or infrequently. She also said something to the effect of “take what works, and leave the rest.” I was aghast at hearing this because it’s so different from the way AA is presented in “How It Works,” a chapter from The Big Book, which is typically read in an abbreviated form at the start of most AA meetings.

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our directions. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. They are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a way of life which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.”

I finally have a window into beginning to understand my issues with AA. It starts with that first sentence, “Rarely have we seen a person fail …” That sentence conveys an immediate arrogance that has always set me on edge, though I was never conscious of it until I found myself comparing the differences between the two groups. That first paragraph in “How It Works” conveys to the listener/reader that AA is the only program that works for sobriety. And if you do not recover it is because you did not fully give yourself over to AA. I’ve always felt that the second sentence of “How It Works” is overly simplistic and presumptuous. Here’s the response I’ve always wanted to write to the first paragraph of “How It Works”:

“I have not followed all of your directions. I tried, but some of them asked me to check my brain at the door, and I could not do that. I could not completely give myself over to this program. However, I am in long-term recovery, and I plan on staying that way for the rest of my life. If you were a fly on the wall of my life you would see that I demand rigorous honesty of myself. I may be mistaken about a number of issues in my life, but it’s because I’m still working through deep-seated issues. I may be afraid of my past, but I will face it, and do whatever it takes to get out of this ditch. But I cannot give in to the AA group think. Perhaps my chances are less than average. That’s okay. I’m familiar with being an underdog. Tell me something new, we all know I suffer from “grave emotional and mental disorders.” Who the hell doesn’t? But I will continue to recover because I don’t give up.”

Since I did not feel the pressure to share I felt comfortable sharing. In AA I’ve been known to go for long stretches of meetings before I share because of the feeling of expectation. I’ve never liked feeling like I’m expected to do something. I can be as stubborn as a rat terrier going after his prey. But remove the expectation, and I’m likely to get there on my own. I talked about my missing my father, and feeling like I did not belong in the meeting since I was no longer entangled with him. I started crying at the mention of missing the good parts of him. I wrapped up my share quickly for fear of turning into a spectacle. Then an older gentleman got up and brought me a box of tissues.

I’ll keep coming back.