This post was originally published on January 19, 2016.
After I quit drinking, a counselor told me to get myself to a meeting. She might as well have told me to go to the moon. Where, I asked? How, I thought? She asked me if I knew any sober people I could reach out to. They would know the way, she said.
I emailed an acquaintance—someone I’d learned didn’t drink when I’d made a careless comment about not drinking being the death of fun and he’d responded that it beat actually being dead. He had a way of doing that, of dropping a bomb with a smile so that you didn’t think to duck for cover.
He took me to my first ever AA meeting at a clubhouse in town. I learned much later that he wasn’t a regular meeting attendee at the time, but he knew his way around a room. We settled into two chairs off to the side and he asked if I brought a dollar (I did) and said, “I don’t want you to get freaked out, but everyone holds hands in a big circle at the end.” I thought he was joking.
It wasn’t as bad as I thought. Even the handholding was kind of nice. I started going to meetings on my own after that first night. I liked dropping a dollar in the basket and listening to the stories and sneaking looks at people across the room. I still remember what some of them looked like and what their voices sounded like, even though I haven’t been to a meeting in more than three years.
This might sound like I’ve stayed sober on my own, skipping carefree through a sunny meadow of sober bliss. Really, I switched from weekly AA meetings to reading and posting on sober blogs multiple times a day. Blogging saved me then, but AA paved the way.
I didn’t realize lifetime attendance at meetings was emphasized, if not expected, until a couple of weeks in. I became friendly with a woman who was seven years sober and when I told her I wasn’t sure I would still be going that long, she said, “Yeah, I was like that too when I first started coming. I thought I could just learn to drink like a normal person and go back out.”
She’d misunderstood what I meant. I didn’t want to drink normally, and never would have thought AA could help me with that anyway. I had already more or less accepted the fact that sobriety would have to be forever. I’d already felt immense relief from taking alcohol off the table, so what I was really hoping to learn was how to not be miserable without it and also avoid the dreaded relapse.
I attended meetings for about the first year-and-a-half of sobriety, trying out as many as I could that fit my work and family schedule. My favorite meeting was at a church less than a mile from home. It was small and comfortable with the occasional colorful character, like the guy who showed up with a sleeve of cookies and snored loudly on the couch after eating every last one. My least favorite was the clubhouse meeting because some of the shares reminded me of people trying out their stand-up routines. I went to a meeting called Old Guys and Donuts only once, not because it wasn’t fantastic but because the time didn’t really work. There really were old guys and donuts, and both were very nice.
For those 18 months, meetings were a safe place for me to slip away and think about sobriety and nothing else. I never felt alone at a meeting, even when I was full of self-pity and worry. The stories I heard in the rooms were mostly hopeful and inspiring, only occasionally depressing and always real. We laughed a lot, which is something that’s hard to explain and better experienced firsthand. Anything you think you know about AA without going is probably wrong, or at the very least colored by someone who did not like it. It’s not for everyone.
It’s also not a perfect system. There are court-ordered people at meetings who would rather be anywhere else. There are still-sick people in the rooms, and I was once one of them. There are those who try meetings and simply can’t get past the things they don’t like about them.
I guess ultimately I was one of those people or I’d still be going.
There’s a saying in AA: take what you need and leave the rest. I took this literally. I’m still in touch with a couple of friends from there. When things feel rough, I remind myself of one of the annoying clichés I read on the clubhouse wall, like One Day at a Time or Time Takes Time. I talk to another alcoholic at least once a day. I still work a very loose step-based program because it helps me stay sane and ultimately sober.
I stopped going to meetings when the pressure of trying to fit them into a busy family routine was worse than any relief I got from going. In order to get more out of meetings, I figure I’d have to step up involvement and start sponsoring and chairing meetings in the spare time I already didn’t have. I basically stopped going around the time my little girl noticed I’d left the car in the driveway and started asking if I was going to a meeting in her sad little voice.
I agonized over the decision to stop going and saw an uptick in drinking dreams and fear of relapse when I did. I had to find other ways to remind myself I wasn’t normal but I also wasn’t alone, which might seem like a lot of work when there are daily meetings that provide that as well as free coffee and friends. But nonetheless, here I am three years later, still sober.
So far, no one has ever reached out and asked me to take them to their first meeting. But I absolutely would. I’d bring an extra dollar for them to slip in the basket and may or may not warn about the handholding. Some things you just have to experience to appreciate.