Near the end of my drinking career, I sat in my car and stared at the liquor store where I’d just bought the day’s pint of vodka. I clutched the paper bag in my hand, finding genuine comfort in it. There was promise in that bag. While I couldn’t remember what it felt like to drink out of celebration, I knew what it felt like to not drink by then—and it was a nightmare. I’d also given up trying to hide my drinking problem from the Russians who owned the store. They knew—and I knew they knew. For a while there, I used to jump around town to different liquor stores, spacing out my visits so that no one noticed. At a certain point, though, I just stopped caring. They had my bottle waiting for me when I shuffled in and I’d slide a 20 across the counter.
I didn’t know what could possibly pull me out of the drain-spiral my life was in. Unemployment wasn’t stopping me. Neither were my ignored wife or yelled-at children. No, I headed to that liquor store with the thoughtless, straight-line instinct of birds migrating for the winter. If I didn’t go to the store, I could feel it tugging at me, throbbing. I felt empty and anxious.
Later, that’s exactly how I’d feel about missing an AA meeting.
In recovery, you often hear that “AA was the last house on the block.” It’s no alcoholic’s first choice. No one starts drinking with gale-force intensity, thinking it’ll all be okay and AA will someday save them. Most alcoholics like me think they’re smarter than the bottle. I remember sitting in my first meetings, inwardly laughing at the people who said they looked forward to their regular Monday night home group or announced some anniversary meeting way across town. It sounded so desperate and bleak—so incredibly opposite the vivid-cartoon world of bars and taverns.
Well into my first few months of sobriety, I looked fondly at bars as places of possibility. In my mind, they were still magical. Truth be told, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d visited a bar and left happier than when I entered. Joyful drinking was long gone. So when I ended up on a folding chair in a church basement, I assumed my life was over and everyone around me was crazy. It was worse than sitting in that Russian liquor store parking lot, trying to do the math on whether the pint would be enough to get me through my day. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)
AA sort of settled in on me. In the meetings, I managed to keep everyone at arm’s length, but I was fascinated by them in the same way I’m simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by peeling sunburned skin. None of the promises, platitudes or pretzel-logic slogans made sense to me, but I kept going back and listening. I found myself not feeling terrible when I left. I’d go home and think about the things I’d heard. (One of the first things my wife asked was whether anyone in AA was still married.) There were a lot of horror stories, but I identified with every single one of them. Soon enough, I was volunteering to clean the coffee pot; I was raising my hand to read the steps and How It Works; I even brought home-cooked food to our anniversary meeting. I didn’t hide in the back row. I spoke when it was my turn. I cried in some of the meetings, feeling the sheer enormity of my alcoholism and how recovery was opening me up to just how much of my life I’d missed.
Around the two-year mark in the program, I felt somewhat cured. I knew that wasn’t the case—we’re always works in progress. But there was a certain amount of: Okay. I’m good now. I’ve got this. All the people kind of became characters on a TV show that had aired three seasons too long. I started shopping around for new meetings, which, truth be told, made me feel like I was cheating. I was slinking around and trying to make connections at other meetings. I wasn’t feeling any different, though. I know what they’re going to say, I thought. It didn’t matter where I went—it was the same damn script. Then, eventually, I allowed my life to get the better of me. I suddenly had a full-time job and real responsibilities. I was present at home, too, which meant chores and lunch-packing instead of sleeping off a hangover until 11. Much like working out, I had every excuse in the book for why I couldn’t make an AA meeting.
Around that same time, my sponsor and I hadn’t been getting together as regularly, either. We kept in contact via text but, combined with me skipping our home meeting, I started to feel like George Clooney in Gravity. I could feel my sobriety drifting off into the cosmos. I didn’t want to drink, but I didn’t necessarily want to be around sober people, either. I became irritable; I snapped at people; I felt anxiety slithering under my skin. I already felt like one of those old, crooked coat-hanger antennas barely bringing in a signal. Now, there was nothing but static. It unsettled me. And yet, I still skipped meetings, one week after the next. Friends from the rooms would text me and go: You okay? I laughed and said I’m fine. I was partially angry, thinking they thought I’d gone back out drinking or something. How dare they? I’d think, having imaginary arguments with people who were actually just checking in on me.
I didn’t return to my Monday meeting to warm my hands on other people’s experiences, strength and hope. I went back to show everyone that I was still very much sober. I walked in with the screw-you attitude reserved for bullied nerds-turned-billionaires at their high school reunions. I grabbed my four-month coin and sat back down. But as I looked around the room, turning the coin around between my fingers, I saw nods and smiles. People were genuinely proud of me. They’d seen me come in for the first time, battered. I had a parade of hugs and handshakes that night. Lots of welcome-back grins. No one had been concerned; no one was questioning my resolve. It’s as if they knew I had to take my sobriety out for a spin. I had to go out and question things in order to find my way back in. Now, I can’t go more than a week or so without a meeting or talking to my sponsor. Monday nights center me. They’re precious.
Not long ago, I was wandering my grocery store and locked eyes with one of the Russians from the liquor store. I froze. There was a brief flash of recognition in his eyes but, seconds later, it vanished. He couldn’t place me, and I suddenly swelled with pride. I’d like to think it’s because I’ve come so far that I’m a completely different person—but I’m not. Not yet. With every passing Monday night meeting, I’m further from being a guy who’s just trying to make it through a Monday night at all.