When Michelle asked me to write this article I was a bit nervous about it actually. I’m not a writer, nor am I much of a reader, but I do have extensive experience going to AA meetings. You see 16 years ago at 24 years old I got a DWI and lost my license. It wasn’t just any DWI, I had crashed my car and nearly killed two of my friends. I blew a 0.25 which for me didn’t seem that bad, but to the courts was bad enough to suspend my license for a year and mandate me to 28 days in treatment and three months of AA meetings.
At alcohol rehab I learned about my “disease” and how important it was for me to attend daily meetings and to just take things “one day at a time.” This sounded good to me as I felt as if my future was already looking awful and I just couldn’t face thinking too far ahead. After rehab I continued to go to outpatient treatment and I relapsed more than once. One night after a particularly bad day at work I showed up at a meeting completely hammered. To this day I can’t remember much of that evening, but it was a scene! My sponsor basically took me out of the meeting and brought me to his apartment. He fed me coffee and spent a few hours telling me what a loser I was and how I needed to get my life together. When I told him that AA just wasn’t working for me, he told me, it works if you work it! He then said it was time for me to get a coffee commitment and become more involved with my home group.
For those who don’t know about AA groups, the coffee commitment seems to be reserved for those like me who can’t seem to string more than a few weeks together. So I did it; I became the assistant coffee maker at my home group on Tuesday nights; the current coffee maker was not willing to give up the job. This meant I had to be there a half hour before the meeting started and stay later to clean up.
I kept my commitment for several weeks and before I knew it I had strung 90 days together and my homegroup presented me with my 90-day chip. I felt pretty good about myself and after that meeting a young new guy asked me to be his sponsor. I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but I was pretty honored and said yes. I began to be accepted into the “inner circle” of sober guys in my group. I had a set bunch of meetings that I hit every week and quickly became known around the rooms. I finally felt like I fit in somewhere. It was like high school all over again only this time I was a popular kid. There were a few miserable old timers with a few years sober who were talking sh** about me, saying I was on a pink cloud and stuff, but the truth was, I felt like I was on cloud 9.
Then I met her…she was stunning. She came into my meeting 20 minutes early and it was just myself, her and Jim, the coffeemaker. Jim was right on her like flies on a fresh pile of you know what. Jim sat down with her and they talked quietly. She started to cry. We learned she was mandated to meetings because of a DWI and that she didn’t believe that she was an alcoholic just that she had made a stupid mistake. She was forced to get an evaluation and the counselor had said she was definitely an alcoholic and she was in denial. The courts mandated her to 6 months of outpatient treatment and meetings, and she was facing losing her job because of having to attend treatment.
I kept making coffee all the while watching Jim as other members started trickling into the meeting. I was hoping Jim would introduce her to one of the female members of our group, but he didn’t. He spent the rest of the meeting sitting with her and the two of them left together after the meeting to get coffee. I had never seen Jim act this way before, but we had never had such an attractive, young woman come into the meeting before. Not a single one of the women from our group went up to her at any point during the meeting or after it. When I asked Jim how the coffee date had gone, he said, it was just fine with a snide little chuckle. I didn’t see that girl again for nearly 10 years.
I would like to say that the way Jim behaved with this young woman was rare in the rooms, but that just wasn’t the case. I began to notice more and more women being hit on aggressively in the rooms. I vowed I wouldn’t date anyone in the program, but most people didn’t take that vow. After attending literally several thousand AA meetings over the course of nearly 10 years, I can say that AA truly is just like a single’s bar, with the added problem of immense egos and narcissists seeking a place to become king.
Over the years I became more involved in the AA inner circles as my ego was continuously fed. I was asked to speak at meetings regularly and men and women alike were asking me to sponsor them. AA became all consuming in my life and my parents began to comment that they never saw me anymore. I was not advancing in my career because I was so focused on AA and when I spoke with my sponsor about pulling back and taking a few nights away from meetings to build a my life outside AA, he chastised me and said that was my “stinkin’ thinkin’” coming back to haunt me. I was offered a job as a counselor at a local rehab and was encouraged to take it to “ensure my sobriety” but declined thinking it was wrong to be paid to help people in this way.
Ten years of my life seemed to just pass me by as I lived “one day at a time” and while I stayed sober during that time, I became increasingly depressed and lonely. I had not built any real intimate relationships and still lived with my parents. I wanted to plan for my future; I wanted to finally become an adult. I wanted to meet someone, start a family and reap some of the benefits I was promised through a sober lifestyle, but when and how was I supposed to do that? My parents who were once concerned about my drinking, now were concerned about my obsession with AA and my lack of planning for my future. I then decided it was time to move on with my life, get my own place and begin to truly live again.
As I tried to pull away from a few meetings a week, my mind started to race and I was gripped by terror and self doubt. What if they were right? What if I couldn’t handle planning my future; what if I wasn’t ready to start a relationship with a woman? What if I found myself drunk again? Did I need meetings everyday to stay sober? On one hand that thought seemed crazy but on the other hand it seemed absolutely plausible that missing a meeting would lead me down the path to drunkenness. What if this really was ‘stinkin thinkin’? What if this is exactly how people go back out after years sober? After all that is what I was taught for nearly 10 years, and I had watched countless people leave the rooms only to fall flat on their faces.
It was a cool summer night when I was on my way home from a meeting and stopped by a diner to get something to eat. Remember that girl, the stunning one at the meeting many years earlier? There she was waiting tables. Though I had been there many times I had never seen her there before. I was certain she wouldn’t remember me, and when you see people you have met in the rooms it can be very awkward. She came up to my table and smiled that smile that says, yes I remember you, and she asked if I was alone or waiting for someone to join me. On a whim I said, what time are you off tonight? Instantly I felt like an idiot, but she took off her name tag, yelled to a man in the back and said, “right now” and sat down.
Sara and I spent two hours laughing and talking like old friends. She didn’t talk about the night that she had left the meeting with Jim but said her folks had hired a better lawyer and she had gone to a program out of state called the St. Jude Retreats to fulfill her court obligations. There she learned that there was no disease called addiction or alcoholism, and that she could overcome her alcohol problems as well as her emotional problems forever and never have to repeat those same mistakes again. She told me St. Jude’s assured he that she would never have to set foot in one of those awful meetings again, no offense.
As Sara and I started dating, I slowly built more and more confidence to leave the rooms. I was becoming more aware of how women were mistreated at meetings. The young and attractive women were treated especially badly by other women and were preyed upon continuously by the men. I began to question some of the steps and traditions and my eyes became opened to the hideous flaws that existed in this very secretive, secluded organization. I began to research alternatives to AA, and also began to research the possibility of moderate drinking. Sara and I would go to dinner and she would have a glass of wine, and her cheeks would flush and she was radiant. She wasn’t getting drunk, and it was clear she wasn’t an alcoholic just like she had said 10 years before. Then it occurred to me that she and I had nearly the same experience those many years ago, making a stupid, childish choice to drink and drive. I began to think that maybe I wasn’t an alcoholic either; and maybe alcoholism didn’t even exist at all. Once again I felt a grip of anxiety, is this that stinkin’ thinkin’ again, or is it just possible that I was finally growing up? I decided to stop analyzing and go with it. I asked her more and more about her experiences with this strange program she had attended, St. Jude’s. We found they had a home version available to order online and she bought it for me. I didn’t go through the entire text and workbooks but I began reading and was fascinated. Everything they were saying made sense to me and validated so many thoughts I had for so many years. I wasn’t an alcoholic; there was no disease called alcoholism and I absolutely had the power to change my life.
As Sara and I began spending more and more time together for the first time in more than a decade I looked toward a future filled with promise. My old sponsor who had recently relapsed warned me of getting too comfortable; that I was in real danger of picking up right where I had left off just like he did and that the top reasons that people relapse are due to relationship issues and overconfidence. This is when I truly realized that I had to make a clean break and that no one in the rooms would ever approve of me moving on with my life because that was not the purpose of AA. The sole purpose of AA, the organization, is to continue to prosper and grow. That is all. AA, the organization did not care about me; and it certainly hadn’t cared about Sara. While there were a few select people that called to check up on me after I stopped going to meetings, in just a few short weeks the calls stops altogether.
A week before our wedding I ran into a guy from my old home group who me asked how things were going. I could see the concern on his face as I told him about my upcoming wedding, my promotion, and how incredible my life had become since leaving the rooms. I didn’t tell him about the fact that I could now drink socially, but he left me by saying, “Just be careful, man, you know it is possible for things to get too good.”
It’s been five years since I left the rooms and married the girl of my dreams, and I’m here to tell you that things can never get too good, and that there are people just like me who lose many years of their lives lost in a cult called AA. I never went to the St. Jude Retreat House myself, but I could see that Sara’s life was forever changed by her experiences in their program and because of what she learned and has shared with me, my life has changed too. I have learned that there is value to planning your future, and there is value to building intimate relationships outside AA, and there is value to aspiring to lead a normal, happy life.