I was sitting on a bus yesterday at about 4:30 am, heading into Boston’s Logan Airport to catch a plane to Atlanta to celebrate the 80th anniversary of AA with about 70,000 other sober alcoholics, when it occurred to me just how completely uncharacteristic this whole idea would have been for me a decade ago.
Not the being sober aspect, because I always thought that I’d get sober someday, even though I had to nearly drink myself to death before I got there. It’s more the unlikelihood of me being part of something that I never, ever wanted to be part of that I’m now fully embracing. Because let’s face it, nobody comes to AA unless they absolutely fucking have to, at least in places where there are no celebrities to gawk at or it’s not regarded as some sort of bizarre status symbol (which is so wrong on so many levels I can’t even begin to enumerate).
For me (and most of my close friends in recovery), coming to AA and actually adopting the lifestyle runs completely counter to anything I’ve ever done and was about as likely to happen as me becoming Pope. For starters, I’m not a joiner, and asking anybody for help was completely unfathomable until I had no choice. Secondly, there was the whole God thang, which I allowed to run me out of the rooms the first time around. But after taking a vicious beating, I realized that my own ideas were pretty fucking awful and something had to change. So for me, it was AA or Amen. I gave it an honest shot and can say that my life has gotten progressively better.
But the fact remains that not only am I a card carrying member of AA (although there are no actual cards), I’m also one of those really enthusiastic kind of “brainwashed” types (in a way that I never thought I wanted to be), and that hadn’t really occurred to me until I found myself on that bus yesterday. Even the theme of the convention, “80 Years—Happy, Joyous and Free” would have made me burst out in cynical laughter a decade ago, but I have to admit that’s a pretty good description of where my life is now.
I’m not rich, my backup retirement plan is still “suicide at 73” (the age when my Mom got Alzheimer’s), but I have a life that I really love, and the only thing that could really fuck it up right now would be picking up a drink or a drug. The only thing that I’m really brainwashed about is that I can’t drink or take drugs and if I try to not be that much of a self-centered dick, my life gets better.
So there I was yesterday, at a time of night when I never would have been awake without a snoot full of blow a dozen years ago, getting ready to spend a long weekend “partying” with people who don’t get high.
And I know what I’m looking forward to, and that’s spending time with people who I don’t even know who really want to be there for the same reason I do: That we all escaped a fate that most of us considered worse than death: that complete fucking horror show of a life that an alcoholic or addict who wants to stop but can’t endures.
On the plane ride down to Atlanta, there was a guy sitting next to me that I didn’t know was sober. We made a couple of jokes back and forth, but mostly we didn’t talk until about 10 minutes before we began our descent into the Atlanta airport. Finally I asked him why he was going to Atlanta, and he told me he was “going to see some friends.”
I told him I was too, but my friends were going to be at a convention, so he smiled as he figured out that I was going to the same place he was. He was going alone too, but he also knew that he’d be in some great company.
One of the things we talked about was how gatherings full of sober alcoholics and addicts are so different than most conventions, and not just because no one is getting hammered. There is a deeper shared purpose that the Royal Order of Water Buffalo or the Shriners don’t have—that they had cheated death.
Too bad the Titanic survivors didn’t have something like this, we joked. But the reality is that they wouldn’t have had the experience of helping each other get better, and that’s what makes these gatherings so unique, I guess.
This convention hasn’t even started yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to rock.
July 7th, 2015
I just came back from the AA convention in Atlanta, and for all the cool stuff that there was to see and experience there (for people in recovery anyway), my main takeaway from the 80th anniversary event is the same one that kept me coming when I was showing up drunk at my first 100 meetings.
It’s the fellowship.
For all the hoopla that was packed into the three-day event, what I will remember most is the sometimes meaningful, often hilarious conversations that I had with dozens and dozens of complete strangers (wearing identifying nametags of course) outside meetings, in restaurants (or the CNN food court), or on the subway. There was such an overwhelming feeling of camaraderie that it took on an almost magical quality. Because of the dense crowds that were everywhere, the environment could easily have devolved into a Black Friday at Walmart debacle as people constantly bumped into each other, but I didn’t see even one minor incident—anywhere—which is almost unheard of with such a large gathering.
There was also an oft-repeated comment whenever crowds were bunched up on the subway or on the way into the stadium: “Imagine if we were all still drinking…” followed by a knowing headshake. One guy compared that scenario to a re-creation of Sherman’s March.
But fellowship wasn’t the dominant theme because there weren’t some pretty awe-inspiring events going on. The opening night (Friday) at the Georgia Dome drew about 70,000 sober drunks—which in itself is pretty amazing—complete with an Olympics-style flag ceremony that featured banners from 94 of the 190 countries AA represents (including two that I had previously thought of only as cow species, Jersey and Guernsey).
The second night was Oldtimers Night, where a dozen people out of a pool of 100-plus alcoholics with 50-66 years of continuous sobriety were randomly selected (via a drawing) to speak for five minutes to another crowd of 70,000. What was most surprising is how many of them still had as much game as any circuit speaker, and a few of them were a lot funnier than most would-be comics at an open mike night at the local Chuckle Hut.
And at the Sunday morning closing ceremony, there weren’t a lot of dry eyes when a remorseful inmate who was serving 15 years in a Georgia prison for killing a man in a blacked out drunk driving accident that he doesn’t even remember celebrated his four-year sober birthday.
Throughout the weekend, there were meetings, meetings and more meetings. From the mega-gatherings at the Georgia Dome to the panel discussions with 5,000 in attendance to the 100 person “little meetings,” there were a lot of topics covered in a number languages, and there were a ton of Al-Anon meetings as well.
There were dances every night with thousands of sober people, and a 12-person soul band provided the most surreal moment of the entire convention for me. I was about to leave the hall after listening to a bunch of Motown hits in a row, when the band ripped into a killer rendition of Guns & Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.” Just as the guitarist started playing the lead, about a half-dozen young Amish people—four girls with full length cotton dresses and bonnets and two boys with suspenders and hipster beards—came walking through the crowd. They stopped and started rocking out Amish-style—subtly tapping their toes to the rock anthem. But they were there and sober just like everybody else and it was fucking awesome.
A non-profit group called “Celebrations of Recovery AAtlanta 2015” rented out two venues (the Rialto Center for the Arts and the Balzer Theater) and presented plays, comedians and musical performers focused on recovery, and even featured an appearance by recovering alcoholic/coke addict Access Hollywood/CBS Sports guy Pat O’Brien. I went to one of the plays, “Our Experience Has Taught Us,” which was a history of how the Traditions came about, and while that may not sound as exciting as a 3-D Jurassic World, it was actually really funny as well as informative.
Besides the fellowship aspect, there was another thing that really struck me at the convention. There were no superstar speakers. This was no “Monsters of Sobriety” rock show. Even Clancy was relegated to a panel. Most of the speakers—including the ones that headlined the Georgia Dome events—were just ordinary drunks telling their stories of addiction, recovery and redemption, and they sounded a lot like people in my own group (but then again, I’m also fortunate enough to be in a group with a lot of great speakers). It was what democracy should look like and it worked beautifully.
I can’t wait for Detroit in 2020.
Photo courtesy of Johnny Plankton