My current circumstances have me involved with an AA group of younger people, mostly new to the program, located in an enclave of creative struggling. The meetings, held in what has become a de facto clubhouse, are reminiscent of my earliest days in Alcoholics Anonymous. Charged by artistic energy, the room has a lot of vitality, but there’s a thirst—you might even sense a desperation—to succeed in material terms.
I got sober in New York City. I drafted a sponsor and I got into the steps, but meetings were at the core of my program. I didn’t wander around too much, and my first experiences were confined to Manhattan below 14th Street. I clocked my first 90 days in what was once a Greenwich Village storefront, sometimes attending back to back meetings with people like me, who had nothing else to do. A few of them held night jobs in bars or restaurants, and those who weren’t genuinely unemployable were merely unemployed. Financial anxiety ran high. Financial anxiety has a tendency to do that among the jobless. There was a great deal of whining and complaining, not a lot of action, much talk of therapy and medicine, little discussion of the program. Every day, I went back for more.
The greatest single difference between AA life and a life outside of the rooms is the difference between drinking and not drinking.
Among the eccentrics and malingerers, the cowed and the ineffectual, the outright mentally defective (I fit comfortably into several of these categories) aspirations abounded. Many of these people had received expensive if not useful educations, and were now trying their luck against stardom on the stage or screen. They had rock n’ roll dreams, or were arranging pigments on canvases in a way that they hoped had meaning. I scribbled Trenchant Scenarios into a notebook. We strived. We were frustrated. We bitched. But we did stay sober.
The novelty of not drinking eventually wore off, and I found myself in the same room with the same people at the same time every day. I had an agenda of my own, preoccupied with money and for want of a better word, notoriety, and as far as meetings went, I figured I could get more out of that hour somewhere else.
One desultory afternoon, a tough guy I had known before I started going to meetings asked if I was headed that night to a place I never heard of. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “It’s a big men’s meeting. I don’t like it,” he said, “but you should go there.”
So I did. I found young guys and old guys and guys who were disabled, jailbirds and biker types and Wall St. dudes who lived in the suburbs and stayed in the city for this meeting. I don’t know how many go-rounds it took for me to get into the rhythm of this group, but its complexion was radically different from what I had known up to that point, featuring leadership, order and direction. The stronger voices, and honestly, some that were not so strong, had been sober for decades. They remained active members of this group, and were interested in continuing to get better.
One night a guy was telling his story, describing this big job he once held down, the mortgage he was paying, the kids who attended private schools, and how alcoholism stole it all. He had been sober a long time, but the man was clear: he had paid a steep price for squandering precious years to booze, for swapping responsibility for the oily companionship of Good Time Charlies.
His business collapsed, and the house was long gone. His divorce cost him a bundle. One of his kids still might not have been talking to him. He devoted years to recreating his shattered fortune, but now, in his late 50s, he’d probably never make the kind of money he did, and simply wouldn’t recoup his losses, not entirely.
But that wasn’t the point of his talk. He was sober and useful. He spoke about the group and the 12 Steps, and a Higher Power. He sounded like a grown up whose experience had shaped his vision, and at that juncture in his life, he was realistic.
My mouth hung open. How had he built the life he had while he was drinking? It took all the strength I could muster to show up for a bar gig that started at 6pm. I never had anything. I still had nothing. And I was determined to change that. There were scores to settle and money to make. I had a career to launch.
A few years later, with no career to speak of but with my feet more or less underneath me, I dipped into an uptown meeting. If it was structure I craved, here it was: they distributed nametags and ushers assigned seats. The meeting was standing room only (thus your ushers) with men in suits and pretty young things who were giddy with a year or two of sobriety. The speakers delivered stinging AA messages. They were entertaining, too. Alas, I detected the unmistakable pungency of a party line. Theirs was a singular brand of AA and, it was implied, their AA was making them more materially successful than that frowsy AA you found in other places. In the end, I decided to keep my distance, but I also had to admit that they were achieving important results. They were sober.
Even with a bunch of good program years under my belt, and in spite of the fact that I was working, and had even been hired on a project that seemed exciting at the time, I felt vaguely like a loser. As yet unable to crystallize a laser-like focus on money and success, I had been dispatched to Louisville, mainly to bribe a lawyer. A couple of other errands required my attention, and I took care of those, too. But the trip stretched out over four days, and beyond mulching the hotel’s leaden room service cheeseburgers and consuming its mediocre pornography, there wasn’t much to do.
Except feel sorry for myself, at which I was excelling. I supposed I could visit one of the local AA groups, although I hardly saw what good that was going to do. What were these local yokels going to tell me, Mr. New York City Writer Guy, on a shady mission from the north, about staying sober? I was close to picking up a drink, and why not? I was working for somebody who was clearly my inferior, this assignment made me feel empty and stupid, and I was as I had always been, and always would be: a failure. (When the AA literature refers to self-pity, this is precisely what they’re talking about.)
I somehow found myself in some shambling, late-night 10th Step meeting. Whether or not it was designated as men only, I do not recall, but there were no women there. I sulked while they did some reading, and then guys just piped up as they saw fit. They didn't raise their hands. No one called on them. Their comments were all targeted toward the topic, and what they were saying was that the problem was them. These dudes were doing written inventories twice a day, once when they woke up and once after lunch, because the boss had invariably pissed them off, or their wife had, or their kids, or they were feeling sorry for themselves (ahem) and they'd call their sponsors. If the sponsor picked up the phone, they'd have a one-minute conversation; if not, they read the inventory into voice mail, wolfed a sandwich, and went back to work.
Their jobs were far from glamorous. One guy was driving a route for a local soda pop distributor. Another had recently found work repairing ATMs. And they were grateful. In spite of the alimony and the continuing court dates, the ten year-old car that spent more time in the shop than it did on the road, they were grateful. They had no higher aspirations. No thwarted ambitions blackened their outlooks. This one gent started his share with "My name is__. I'm an alcoholic and I thank God and you good people of AA that I haven't had to take a drink of whiskey today." There was an impressive whoosh of air behind the W in whiskey. That was it. That's why he was there. He was happy enough about that, and his gratitude was going to get him through whatever life had to throw at him, at least for the rest of that day, sober. We closed the meeting (do I need to point this out?) with the Lord's Prayer.
That was a long time ago. I was impressed with the profound simplicity of the message these men carried and this is what I took it to be: The greatest single difference between AA life and a life outside of the rooms is the difference between drinking and not drinking. Money, I mean real money, and let’s call it what it is, power, have continued to elude me. Sobriety is still mine. And I found it at all of the groups I mentioned, regardless of my feelings about whatever else was going on in the room.
It’s only human to want to achieve and accomplish and be recognized for what we believe to be our truest selves. But bending the program into a means to a specific end is futile, and that’s not what I’m doing in AA. I might have felt that intuitively, but it’s a lesson I just can’t over-learn, because I’m butting up against it all the time. Still. Most of the program is counterintuitive, and so is a little bit of life. The thing that logically should happen doesn’t, and the unexpected often occurs, seemingly of its own volition. That’s the Higher Power. Our “success”, however we choose to define it, is inevitably going to be derived from that.
Harry Healy is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about finally learning to love the holidays.