Down and Out in Antarctica

Down and Out in Antarctica - Page 2

By Hunter R. Slaton 01/18/13

On MLK Day, a sober alcoholic reflects on two very different experiences of doing service—one at the bottom of the world, and another in a church basement.

The author and his broom. Photo via

(page 2)

In January I was fired. I’d known it was coming, but not when. I was pushing my broom one morning when my nemesis, the executive chef, strolled briskly up to me and said, “Come on. They’ve decided to fire you.” We went to the HR office (yes, sadly, Antarctica has an HR office) and they went through the formalities. It was 9 am. They told me to pack my things, because I was scheduled for an 11 am flight back to New Zealand.

Fast forward a year. I was back in New York, and my drinking and drug use had gotten worse. My girlfriend, with whom I had reconciled after returning to the city, had thrown me out. I was sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the living room of my pre-Antarctica apartment, having been taken back in by my kind-hearted bartender roommates. In the morning, reanimating myself for my office job, I would mentally pat myself on the back if all I’d done the night before was drink to the point of passing out, watching Chappelle’s Show on DVD on repeat.

For maybe the first time in my life, I was accepting life on life’s terms, and not kicking back violently at “conditions,” as I had while on the Ice.

I tried to quit on my own and couldn’t. The most I could ever get was two and a half weeks clean and sober, at which point I would find some “special-occasion” excuse to drink and, invariably, use. The special occasions on my calendar began to proliferate. I went to my first AA meeting in December, at which someone bought me a "Big Book" and a “12 & 12,” both of which I would read when I was hungover. One passage in particular in the "12 & 12" struck me, as regards my experience on the Ice:

“We thought ‘conditions’ drove us to drink, and when we tried to correct these conditions and found that we couldn't do so to our entire satisfaction, our drinking went out of hand and we became alcoholics. It never occurred to us that we needed to change ourselves to meet conditions, whatever they were.”

Eventually, after a string of embarrassing, bad-decision nights, I gave up and “came in,” on April 20, 2006. I started going religiously to a couple of AA meetings, one in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan’s West Village, beyond a church yard that had a statue of Mary whose fingers old-timers would rub superstitiously on their way into the meeting, and above which a cherry tree flowered in a riot of pink.

On Mondays this particular group had a beginner’s meeting, a three-speaker panel that talked about topics relevant to early sobriety. They said, “service keeps you sober,” and suggested that newcomers get a service position. So, gamely, I signed up for a coffee commitment, and also pitched in in other ways at the meeting—which was where, a few months into sobriety, I found myself one Monday evening pushing a push broom across a dirty beige-linoleum floor.

The push broom was the same type of wooden, bristled broom I’d glumly wielded in Antarctica. But, unlike how I felt then, broken and miserable at the bottom of the world, here I was in a drab school basement, deliriously happy, sweeping the floors—the humblest of jobs, really—at a meeting I’d grown desperately to love. For maybe the first time in my life, I was accepting life on life’s terms, and not kicking back violently at “conditions,” as I had while on the Ice.

In the nearly seven years since, service in AA has—maybe more than any single other pursuit; more than the 12 Steps, even—truly kept me sober. I think it’s because doing service makes me forget about myself; and when I am in a state of having forgotten about myself, about my little plans and schemes, then I can be relaxed and open and engaged with other human beings—not resentful and bitter because someone has something I don’t, or I feel I’ve been slighted or disrespected in some way.

Service keeps me not only sober, but happy. Some of the best times I’ve had in sobriety have been listening to the whistling of the brewing coffee pot in a cold church basement in Brooklyn, and hanging out with the two other guys on the setup team; calling on what seemed like endless newcomers to share their day counts, as part of a secretary stint at a big meeting; and putting away the brooms and rinsing out the mops, turning off the lights and locking up, before going out into the brisk Manhattan night air alongside other sober men and women, past the worn statue of Mary and the blossoming cherry tree.

Hunter R. Slaton is The Fix's Rehab Review editor. He hopes one day to make it back to the Ice.