So, you walk into your first meeting. You hear them say, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to quit drinking.” and you think, “Yes, sign me up.” But there is no membership form. No dues or fees. “Just keep coming back,” they say, and you walk through your fear because you want to be sober. These people in meetings seem happy, joyous and free and it looks genuine, so you listen to their suggestions. Their stories are just like yours. They once were at their first meeting and now they have 30, 60, 90 days. Some people are picking up multiple year chips, which is mind blowing. 18 years sober? How on earth is that even possible?
I wanted to quit drinking long before I first came into the rooms of a 12-step meeting, but my desire was sincere once I made it there. For the first time, I wanted to quit and was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen.
Walking into a meeting for the first time can be intimidating. I went to my first meeting while I was in treatment. They would load us up on a van, take us to the local meeting and tell us to sit there and be quiet. The only thing we were allowed to say was, “My name is —. I’m an alcoholic.” Sit and listen, they said. I did, but it was confusing and overwhelming. One person would read the 12 steps, another would read the 12 traditions and then there were the promises and prayers and the entire group would say things after certain passages were read like they were privy to some inside joke I had no clue about. Everyone seemed to know what to do and say and understand this foreign language—12 step lingo I now speak fluently three years later.
I heard the same things over and over again: Get a sponsor. Work the steps. Respect the traditions. Do this. Don’t do that. Say this. Don’t say that. Keep coming back. It works if you work it.
It was overwhelming, but at least I had the other girls in treatment and counselors to hold my hand the first 30 days. I picked up a white chip at my first meeting and people clapped and congratulated me. I thought that was weird. I was in rehab, what did they expect? I wasn’t like those brave and humble people who walk in off the streets and pick up a white chip. Looking back, I guess my humility check was walking through the doors of rehab. Today, I still tear up when someone picks up a white chip in meetings. In my opinion, it’s the boldest, most courageous move a person can make. It’s hard and it’s humbling and we’ve all been there—if we are lucky. And that’s the thing.
The longer you stick around meetings, the more you realize just how lucky you are to have made it through the door. I’ve probably been to over 500 meetings and there hasn’t been a single one where I didn’t think about my younger brother who died when he was 29 years old from a drug overdose—my younger brother who never made it to the rooms. So, yes, when someone comes in, it’s something to celebrate. With a little over three years into recovery, I have given my number to countless women I’ve seen pick up white chips. I remember what it was like those first days, weeks and months.
When I got home after treatment, I was told to go to 90 meetings in 90 days. That didn’t happen because I was terrified. I would drive to the meeting location, circle the parking lot watching others walk in effortlessly, like I was used to walking into bars. My palms would be sweaty and I would be full of fear and anxiety. I eventually started parking and sitting in my car for the entire hour, like maybe it could work through osmosis. This seemed like a waste of time, so I started downloading speaker meetings and would listen to them in my car in the parking lot while meetings were going on inside. This lasted for a couple of months. Insanity. But I heard the message and every once in awhile I would somehow actually make my way into a meeting, arriving late and leaving early.
I do not recommend this nor do I know how I stayed sober those first few months. I finally reached out to someone who took me under her wing and treated me like a little sister in a sorority. That might be a bad analogy, since I was never in a sorority and most certainly don’t identify with the Greek life culture (except for maybe the partying), but you know what I mean. I found someone I looked up to. I wanted what she had and I listened to what she told me.
Today, one of the reasons I am so quick to try to connect with newcomers is that I remember how terrified I was when I was new. I want to tell them that it’s not scary and no one is judging them. You think, when you’re new, that all eyes are on you when you first walk into a meeting, but they’re not. You’re walking into a room full of people just like you. It’s scary and confusing and overwhelming—until it’s not. Then it’s the best thing in the world. It gets easier to walk through the door, just like it gets easier to reach out and call other alcoholics on a daily basis. The fear starts to go away and within that is this indescribable freedom that allows you to go anywhere and be comfortable.
If there was one thing I could tell 30 days sober Allison, it would be to have 20 seconds of insane courage and walk through the fear. I would tell her to do it on a daily basis until the fear is gone—and it will go away. Get out of your car and go inside. Speak to people. Say hello. No one thinks you are weird. I tried every way to walk under the fear, over the fear and around the fear, but eventually I just had to walk through the fear. The good news is there are people who want to walk through it with you for no other reason than they have been exactly where you are and want to help you to get sober.
Oh, and more good news: you find out fear is a liar. Everything you never thought was possible is on the other side of that fear.