The last thing on my mind when I walked into my first meeting 15 years ago was becoming a lifelong 12-stepper. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to live another damn day. I knew I wanted to stop shooting heroin and it just seemed like meetings might help. I was really resistant to rehab, probably because my parents made me do several programs as a teen and they didn’t work (because I wouldn’t stop drinking and using drugs, imagine that). But those failed attempts at treatment had exposed me to 12-step meetings and somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered those crazy people telling me to “keep coming back.”
So, when I finally felt desperate enough, I came back. I had trashed my life to the point I also had to come back to live in my parents’ basement with my backpack and cat at the age of 24. And sleeping on my gross teenage futon was actually a step up from my junkie apartment. I was five days off heroin, on a ton of prescribed pills and still detoxing—hardcore—so it’s no surprise that my memory is sparkly and fuzzy. Still, my first meeting experience was pretty magical.
I’m a huge believer in vibes (which is funny because I’m also very skeptical of many things new-agey) and there was an energy in the meeting that night. It was warm, inviting and overwhelmingly kind. I’ve felt it many times since, in other 12-step meetings and conventions and groups of spiritual people. I believe it happens often when those who’ve faced trauma meet each other on the other side and reach back to help those who are struggling. Now I know it’s called empathy, or the therapeutic value of one addict helping another. Back then, I just thought it was the drugs leaving my system and a good vibe.
I’ve always been great at break-ups, like a super heartless bitch. When things got too messy and dysfunctional, I’d be like, “Fuck you, we’re done,” and never look back. Even when I was absolutely dying inside. That’s exactly how I got clean. My relationship with drugs hadn’t been fun for a really long time. We were a bad combo because I always wanted more and the damn drugs stopped delivering the warm fuzzy oblivion I fell in love with in the beginning. We grew apart. It stopped working for me and I was bitter and exhausted from the struggle.
I jumped right into a whirlwind romance with the 12 steps. It was my rebound relationship and I fell hard. I went to 90 meetings in 90 days, got a homegroup, a sponsor, a service commitment and a shit load of books. I have always loved to read and was great in school (when I wasn’t high), so I thought I could study my way into rock-solid recovery. I had a master plan to focus on one step per month for a year and then I would be miraculously cured.
I got totally strung out on the good vibes I felt in the rooms. I went to meetings every day for more than three years. I rebuilt my life (as much as someone can when they didn’t really have one to begin with). Recovery didn’t exactly work in the formulaic fashion I originally anticipated, but it worked. My life got really good. I maintained regular, if not nightly, meeting attendance until after my six year anniversary. Then I moved to California and everything went straight to hell.
Anybody who has relocated in recovery understands how unsettling it feels to walk into a meeting alone, in a new city—not a newcomer, but feeling like one. I hated the meetings in my new neighborhood! Everybody knew each other already, they weren’t particularly friendly when they realized I wasn’t a desperate, broken newcomer and, above all else, they were doing it WRONG. They clapped at everything, they gave cakes during meetings and they celebrated birthdays for weeks (or months) all over town. I was disgusted and lonely. It took me almost a year to find a meeting in LA where I felt the good vibes. I know now that it wasn’t the meetings, it was me.
In the meantime, I flew 1,000 miles to my old homegroup to celebrate my seventh birthday. That’s how we did it there. We celebrated one time, in our homegroup and the cake happened after the meeting. I was convinced that was the right way to do it. I couldn’t let go of those meetings I first fell in love with and accept that maybe the magic would come back if I would stop being so damn judgy. After several years in LA, I eventually settled in. I found the meetings that felt okay, I made a couple good friends and I learned to navigate a long-distance relationship with my sponsor.
I got into a groove with the meetings I learned to love. That lasted for a few years, then I had a kid. Everybody knows kids like stupid things like yards and good schools (so greedy), so I moved again. It was physically harder to get to meetings because of my family obligations and the few I did try in my new area were gross. Instead of copping an attitude because they were doing it wrong, I felt alienated because I couldn’t relate with anybody. I don’t know what I expected—maybe some welcoming, wonderful group of cool women with double-digit recovery, small children and interesting careers. Never mind that I got clean with an amazing group of men and women who were twice my age with lives nothing like mine. It’s like when my desperation disappeared, entitlement grew back in its place.
I was too busy feeling sorry for myself to think about being of service. I forgot what it felt like to be a strung out newcomer and lost sight of the fact that maybe I should go to meetings to give back. Then I got a wakeup call. After a particularly rough month, I realized it had been ages since my last meeting. Then I got a weird message on Facebook from a guy I didn’t recognize. He said he was friends with my sponsor, but I was confused because his current city was the same as mine.
It turns out, he was a recent transplant from my hometown. I had been in his first meeting! He came to my beloved homegroup nine years ago and stayed. I guess he felt the good vibe there, too. I moved shortly after he came in and we never really knew each other, but that meeting became his homegroup after I left. He remembered me coming back to celebrate my seventh birthday. Now he’s the secretary of a meeting right around the corner from my house. He asked me to come speak there and I couldn’t come up with an excuse fast enough, so I went.
When I walked into that meeting, I immediately felt the old good vibe. Several women celebrated early recovery milestones and I felt inspired and excited to see the way the meeting rallied around them. I loved what they shared. It didn’t matter that their lives were nothing like mine. It reminded me why we all come in and why I need to stay. I may never recapture that exact euphoria of my newcomer days, when every meeting was exciting and wonderfully full of promise and wisdom, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to be there.
I’m pretty sure most of those feelings were just the drugs leaving my system anyway.