Living in a major city, I’m pretty spoiled when it comes to the sheer number of AA meetings around me. I’ve visited church basements, detox centers, VFW meeting halls, a bank, a grocery store conference room and, one time, a swanky hotel suite. I even attended a meeting at an old neighborhood bar that a local recovery community had reclaimed. It was as surreal as it was disquieting: all the original stools and tables were there, along with the burned-in reek of cigarette smoke. A dead TV set stared down from a high corner while people stood behind the bar listening to the lead. Shadowed into the linoleum were the ghosts of the pool tables. It was such a meta, big-city experience that I was bothered by how much I enjoyed being there.
It’s almost to the point where the harder a meeting is to find, the better. Maybe it appeals to my love of James Bond movies or something, like when Q hides his gadget labs in half-sunken freighters or exotic bazaars. All that’s missing are secret handshakes. Just knowing there’s always a meeting within 10 miles is sometimes enough to keep me sober. Two years ago, I’d imagined AA meetings were a half-dozen people crammed into a closet-sized space with cold coffee.
Unfortunately, when I drive outside Central Ohio, I’m not really wrong about that. The meetings grow thinner and painfully old school. It’s kind of like comparing the infinite number of TV channels today to how many networks there were in 1980. If you’re the only game in town, you don’t really have to worry about what you broadcast. You can get away with airing Mama’s Family.
The town I’m from is the size of a postage stamp. Once, while visiting some relatives, I went to the sole, once-a-week AA meeting. There were about 10 people sitting on folding chairs in the town hall basement. Most of them were in their 60s or 70s, arms crossed. They were fixtures. Everyone clearly knew everyone in town anyway, so the notion of anonymity was kind of a joke.
We listened to a young woman recount a teary, heartfelt story about her pill addiction and having to come clean to her mom. It was her first AA meeting ever and it was pretty brutal to sit through. I understood every beat of her story. She talked about how she’d had a sports injury, how she’d always been “the good girl,” and how feeding her addiction was like an out-of-body experience. She’d been prescribed Vicodin and discovered it went really well with wine coolers she bought at the gas station. Even as the wheels came off, she loved the feeling of having “a blizzard in the brain,” as she called it. She’d quickly found herself ransacking every medicine cabinet she could find. I remember the desperate look on her face as she hoped to connect with someone. Her life was unmanageable and this meeting was clearly her port in the storm.
When it was her neighbor’s turn to speak, he let out a giant sigh.
“I remember when all of this,” he twirled his finger around the meeting room, “used to be about alcohol.”
I cringed. Until then, I’d never seen lines drawn in the sobriety sand like that. I immediately felt defensive—not only for her, but for myself. I’d gotten something out of her story even though I wasn’t leaving a wake of stolen pills behind me. And then the person next to him chimed in, echoing the exact same sentiment about the AA good old days. By the end of the meeting, almost everyone in the semi-circle had made the girl walk the plank for bringing her painkiller problem into their room. I couldn’t believe how cold and territorial they were. I wasn’t surprised, weeks later, to hear she hadn’t returned. Her first AA meeting had been her very last. She’d been playing different songs on the AA radio and they hadn’t liked what they were hearing.
I’ve seen it a lot since then: the smaller the room you’re in, the more at the mercy of old-timers and their hurricane-strength opinions you are. The fewer the voices, the louder the words. For an AA newcomer, I think small rooms can be downright dangerous. Your role is clear: Be quiet. I remember a meeting where someone talked about struggling with a switch between his Lexapro and Cymbalta prescriptions. “This is really a conversation for you and your doctor,” an old woman yawned, kicking off a 10-minute lecture on the way things “used to be” in AA. I can’t imagine that the old AA rooms were actually real in the same way that I can’t imagine that the world wasn’t actually black-and-white in the past.
For many old-timers, there’s no space in the AA margins for painkillers or needles or eight-balls. It’s like there’s an undercurrent of “I’m an alcoholic, but at least I’m not a drug addict,” which really makes me sad. The best meetings I attend rarely ever mention alcohol, let alone any other substances. They’re about how we keep the mind and spirit clear. I don’t go to meetings to hear if anyone else was as talented as me at hiding red wine bottles under bathroom sinks; I go to hear other people talk about being at the mercy of something and how they’re finding strength in their vulnerability. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard myself in someone’s else story, no matter how far-flung their experience is from mine. I haven’t found myself shooting heroin in a McDonald’s bathroom stall four hours after getting out of rehab, but I can totally follow the dark, ugly logic that got them from Point A to Holy Shit.
In the smallest rooms, maybe it’s easy for old-timers to forget why they’re there. I don’t ever want to become the person who only wants to hear alcohol-only stories. Those people have the power to singlehandedly kill a newcomer’s sobriety. Show me someone who thinks they’re protecting the spirit of AA and I’ll show you an old-timer who’s terrified that the program they know is vanishing. To me, there’s no difference in any of our stories—alcohol or none at all. Maybe we’re all just orphaned puzzle pieces, scattered together. We don’t neatly fit together into some pretty-perfect mosaic, but we can take some comfort that we’re all in search of the boxes from where we came.
Whenever a newcomer gets shot down, they lose hope in all the same ways veterans have lost sight. The old guard has a genuine responsibility to listen. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be new and open up to a room of people who are all primed, if not programmed, to ignore you. And to keep coming back because you don’t have the option of going to another meeting across town? That takes more courage than setting foot in a meeting in the first place. Newcomers might not know what they don’t know about AA, but they certainly don’t need to be told their stories don’t matter. The number of people in a room doesn’t matter, but what’s being shared does.
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