Minnesota isn't just the land of rehabs. Some of us have to stay sober there too. A report from the treatment heartland.
“Welcome to the land of 10,000 treatment centers!” I scoffed when I heard this, thinking it just another (not so) clever saying Minnesotans say. You never know if they are being genuinely nice, or phony nice, so they just call it, ‘Minnesota nice.’ If you are not following me here go see Fargo.
I’m a Minnesota transplant who’s been shipped off from Chicago to the Twin Cities to kick dope—again. I always knew people were sent up here for treatment, but I had no idea just how many myriads of treatment centers there were up here.
The first four months of my sobriety were spent in inpatient treatment. Three months after that: a halfway house. And sober living for nine months thereafter (It sounds excessive, I know). I turned twenty-three during treatment and was suffering a mystical crisis. I’ve always had a general antipathy toward all things spiritual (going beyond the benign ‘let go and let god’ mantras of AA). And though I was so certain that the best way to endure a meaningless life was with heroin injections every four-six hours, I was still ignorant to any notion that it may have been the cause.
Meeting makers make it to a lot of meetings—but they usually don’t make it.
After all of these stints, I navigated through the murky waters of AA in the Twin Cities. The “born-agains,” “the zealots,” all drove me mad, per usual. It was not easy to trudge along. At first, all of the obligatory fears kept me sober: my parents’ seventy thousand-dollar investment in my sobriety, and you know, dying? Those fears, in the past, had always been an unsustainable fuel.
Then I stumbled upon a group in South Minneapolis. In this group, a man told me, ‘I took action I did not believe in, and had gotten results that were undeniable.’ His words sounded promising, given my many metaphysical quarrels with AA. I felt like I could try that.
This group was comprised of men, women, old, young, gay, straight—an eclectic group to say the least. Any night of the week I could call a member of this eclectic group and their reply would be the same: that they have some sort of ‘service commitment’ to attend to. Service. That twelve-step buzzword that I’d always heard and wanted nothing to do with. I had always assumed it meant making coffee, stacking chairs, or perhaps being one of those phony door greeters.
What I realized was that these ‘service-agents’ were on a whole other level of service. Literally, Monday through Sunday—if so inclined—one could obtain a spot speaking at any one of those thousands of rehabs. For someone like me (anti-metaphysical), the treatment center spree presented itself as being both practical and effective—I wanted in.
I jumped on the treatment spree bandwagon. I really liked the idea of not having to go to as many AA meetings. I had gone to meetings, gotten sponsors, drunk coffee, and smoked cigarettes, which hadn’t worked in the past. Meeting makers make it to a lot of meetings—but they usually don’t make it.
I found myself speaking at the same treatment center I had been discharged from just a few months prior. I looked around the room and saw the dope-sick kids, their legs ceaselessly kicking, faces that were beyond pallid with dull-eyed thousand yard stares. As a panelist, I did my best to see the room from where they were sitting, which wasn’t difficult since not too long ago, I was that blob of grey-matter sitting in back of the room begging nurses for a leg amputation (Restless-Leg-Syndrome).
Something happened to me when I saw those despondent faces. My cold intellect melted and I finally felt a part of something greater. Perhaps this is when things finally became spiritual? I wasn’t sure. But I started to see the world through someone else’s eyes. As a selfish junkie my default was to look at the world through my eyes—only recognizing how the world affected me. The me’s, my’s, I’s, led to a self-obsession in the worst, most self-deprecating way. Whenever I was in a room full of people, I was the worst human in the room by a long shot—a reverse swing of the narcissistic pendulum.
This is where AA actually began to make sense. Service! Brilliant! How have I not heard of it before? Well I had. I was too judgmental and myopic to understand it. I went straight into twelfth stepping at about five months sober. And my ‘spiritual awakening’—or, as I like to call it, my cosmic shift in perception—resulted in me actually wanting to try and go through each step, no matter how ridiculous I think some of them are, or how lofty and metaphysical they sound. For the first time something other than fear was keeping me clean. That’s when it became effortless.
But anyone who’s tried to kick knows it’s not that easy, just sharing at a meeting doesn’t bring my life meaning. At around nine months sober my presence among the ‘service-agents’ began to dwindle. Twin Cities AA offered this spirited brand of service, and just like everything else that gives me relief from self-absorption, this catharsis too withered.
I would go and share maybe once a week, and I’d feel off. I was asking myself midway through the commitment, what the fuck am I doing here? It isn’t to edify a crowd of sick junkies about how awesome life is, or to impress unhinged girls who are two weeks sober. I also found myself, once again, cringing over what people would share, like, someone getting off of all their medications and being happier, or sounding like that ‘born-again’ I always despised. The service lost its initial allure.
An essential piece to my recovery is brooding self-examination, so I put the whole of this phenomenon under the microscope. Do the other ‘service agents’ ever feel this way? Like they’re going through the motions or just desperately hanging on to something that gives them relief? Do they question the effectiveness of what we’re doing? Is it any nobler than just going to meetings? Or did I just abuse the treatment spree?
I can only speak for myself and what I uncovered was that, no, what I’m doing is just as selfish as the next thing. That may sound stringent. But I cannot walk around with an air of nobility because I appear to be selfless and take time out of my quote unquote busy life (reading a lot of David Foster Wallace and binging on Masters of Sex) to just show up. I humbled myself by understanding that the commitments were never about how they affected me. I show up to try and be useful, without expectation. All of my judgments instantly vaporized. I can’t say for sure if being a ‘service-agent’ is the silver bullet that saves me from myself but I never thought I’d have 20 months clean (nobody else did either).
Though, over a year later, I am still in constant flight from finding life’s unconditional meaning, regardless if that even exists, I still speak at treatment centers throughout the Twin Cities, and my message is concise: AA helps me endure, and I find a level of calm in living an alert life, finally living it for others, not myself. And I did it by doing a shit load of work that I didn’t want to do, nor did I believe in, and I have experienced gratifying results in both the tangible and intangible realms. Today I know that I'll be okay, and that's all I need.
Zachary Siegel is a writer from . . . Minnesota. He last wrote about NA vs. AA.