An AA Oldtimer Reflects on the Early Years of His Sobriety

By James Jester 12/16/16

I remember constantly going to meetings and saying, “I really don’t want to drink.” Then, in the evening, I’d be drinking all over again.

A Swiss orchestra playing for an audience.
The beauty of sobriety is that we have to decide ourselves just what we want to do.

Today, December 16th, 2016, it’s been 43 years, one day at a time, for me in our wonderful fellowship.

I’ve been thinking about my beginnings in AA – how very difficult the beginning was for me. Unfortunately, when I came to AA in 1972, I apparently hadn’t suffered enough - even though I was a blackout drinker from the beginning at age 17, wrecking three cars, enlarged liver, etc. Be that as it may, I didn’t get 90 days consecutive sobriety for the entire year. I remember constantly going to meetings and saying, “I really don’t want to drink.” Then, in the evening, I’d be drinking all over again. After a year of this, I had three different sponsors suggest that I try Antabuse. I didn’t want any part of that, thought it was a "crutch." But my sponsor asked me, "Why won’t you try the Antabuse, it could buy you time away from the first drink?" I finally got a spark of honesty, and told him, "I don’t want the Antabuse because if you drink on it, you could get very ill and even die, and I STILL WANT TO DRINK!" Something shifted in me, when I voiced that – I’d spent the entire year saying that I didn’t want to drink, but then reality hit this King Baby! I became, after that admission, willing to do anything to stay stopped, which meant that I went down to the Bowery and stood in line with folks - some my age, some older - waiting to receive their weekly Antabuse. I was assigned an AA psychiatrist who made it clear to me that "Antabuse will not take away your obsession to drink – only meetings and a belief in something higher than yourself can do that." I also got Helen W. as a sponsor at the Bowery Clinic; she was a no-nonsense serious lady who also was an artist. Soon after I began taking this sober action, I felt literally like I was on a "pink cloud." I felt like a ton of bricks had been lifted from my shoulders, and I felt a certain peace that I’d not had before. I count my days of sobriety from December 16th, 1973, the day I had the courage to get this help.

I was often told not to make any major changes in your first year of sobriety; I made major changes left and right and ended up in an opera orchestra in Biel, Switzerland! I’m a classical musician (bassoonist) and knew that the only way I could practice my craft was to be sober. After six months sober (with the help of the Antabuse and many meetings), I auditioned for the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy, and won a position in the orchestra for this summer festival. I must have asked 20 AA friends their advice on my doing this. Ten said, "Don’t go, you’ll drink," and ten said "Go, it’s a wonderful opportunity, just don’t drink one day at a time." I then realized that the beauty of sobriety is that we have to decide ourselves just what we want to do. I asked myself, will this help my life and my sobriety, or will it take it away? I decided I wanted to make music more than anything else on this planet, and I knew I had to stay sober to achieve this. (I found out later that the ten folks who said don’t go, had gone to Europe and slipped! We all share what works for us.)

So, I headed for Italy with a three-month supply of Antabuse, my Big Book, 12 and 12 and As Bill Sees It, all in tow. I loved Spoleto and the wonderful fragrance of Linden trees populating the town. Thomas Schippers and Christopher Keene were the conductors at the Festival and the composer GianCarlo Menotti was the founder and lived in the town. We performed Alban Berg’s "Lulu," which is a dark, incredible opera. Roman Polanski directed the opera and put in all sorts of bizarre film effects on stage. On opening night, Lulu shoots one of her husbands, and red paint literally poured into our orchestra pit, getting paint on expensive strings, etc. The orchestra threatened to strike unless Polanski removed this particular effect, which he did in subsequent performances. The orchestra was terrific – lots of Juilliard graduates, including myself, so it was a heady time for this alcoholic! The orchestra highlight for me was performing a Schubert Mass in the Duomo Cathedral at the center of the old town. I was performing principal and had several beautiful solos, thanks to this great composer. After the performance, GianCarlo (Menotti) came up to me with tears in his eyes, and told me he was very moved by my performance. Needless to say, this made my day! 

Another fringe benefit for me was that Milan Turkovic, principal bassoonist of the Vienna Symphony, and an international soloist on this instrument, was in attendance for chamber music concerts at the Festival. After much thought, I decided that I wanted very much to remain in Europe and pursue an orchestra job. Turkovic became a good friend; he had the magazine Das Orchester, which listed all openings for orchestras in Europe. It was almost impossible to audition for orchestras in the United States, as I had just graduated from Juilliard, and most of the orchestras demanded "orchestra experience." I’d been rejected from auditioning for five or six American orchestras already, due to this caveat. So, with Turkovic’s help, I applied for orchestras in Herford, West Germany; Klagenfurt, Austria; and Biel, Switzerland. I told my family in Texas about my decision to stay in Europe, and they supported me in this decision.

So, with much prayer and a bit of fear, I gave up my flight back to the States and traveled by train from Spoleto to Rome, where I found a cheap pensione to stay for a couple of weeks before I traveled to Germany for the first audition. (This was 1974, so prices were incredibly cheap in Europe!) I immediately went to the English Church in Via Napoli, as I knew they had AA meetings. (Thank God for Intergroup’s International Listings!) This group literally saved my life. It was small – perhaps a total of 15 regulars, with lots of tourists making stops. I met folks from my home state of Texas, Hollywood film directors, expatriates, etc. Really a cross section of humanity, like all our meetings.

On Monday night of the second week in Roma, I got a call from my Father in Paris, Texas – my mother had a major stroke and was in serious condition. I was beside myself, but my father told me that he couldn’t afford to send me plane fare home, and to just keep doing what I was doing, trying to obtain work in music. After I hung up, I called my AA sponsor in New York, and asked him if I could possibly borrow money to fly home. He also couldn’t afford to do this and told me to stay close to the meeting and to fellow members in Rome. I remember walking through the streets of Roma around 2 a.m., crying and distraught. I went into a little church near the Appian Way, and lit a candle for my mom. Out of nowhere, a priest came over to me and although he could not speak English, he saw that I was in pain and was comforting in a quiet, sweet way. I DID NOT DRINK and I survived that night, telling folks at the meeting the next day the whole story. They were incredibly supportive.

Many times in my life, this fellowship and program have been major life savers for me. I still had Antabuse and my AA literature, and these were with me when I left Roma for West Germany, and then Austria for auditions. Neither of these worked out, and I was getting very nervous, having one more orchestra to try for. Luckily, all went well in Biel, Switzerland. I fell in love immediately with this town and the orchestra was quite good – mainly played operas and operettas in their small Stadt Theater, with orchestra concerts once a month, featuring international guest artists. There were AA meetings in Biel, as well as in nearby Bern, the federal capital. I had learned High German in high school, so remembered a bit of that. The problem, though, was the Swiss German dialect – practically impossible to understand. I was taking German lessons with Otto, the second clarinetist in the orchestra, but he insisted on teaching me only the High German, not the Swiss dialect. (He was from Berlin and hated the dialect!) I would go to meetings, both in Biel and in Bern, and folks were very happy I attended. In deference to me, they started the meetings in High German, but then very shortly they understandably lapsed into the dialect. Fortunately, I discovered an English-speaking meeting in Zurich and managed to get there once a week or two.

After staying sober going to these meetings and still on Antabuse, after a year and a half, the desire to drink came back full blast. I would throw the Antabuse down the toilet and say I’d drink in seven days. Fortunately, in the morning, sanity would be restored – I would run out to the garbage barrels, fish the AA literature out and then go down to the health clinic by the Bieler See (lake) and ask for more Antabuse. Unfortunately, they were running out of the drug, as this crazy American was depleting all their supplies! I called my sponsor in Roma, Jane, and told her my dilemma. To which, she said, "You have to jump into the fourth and fifth Steps, and do them by the book, listing all your resentments and fears." I did this (it was either do the fourth step or drink!) and then shared my fifth step with Gail, a Scottish violinist in the orchestra. Her dad was an alcoholic, and she knew about the disease. Sharing with Gail took all the drama out of my system. I was just an ordinary garden-variety drunk. I then took a week off from the orchestra and went to Paris, France for meetings at the American Church on Quai d'Orsay. At the end of the week, several AA friends came up and said, "Jim, YOU have to take responsibility for your own sobriety. You can’t depend on a half tab of Antabuse, or a meeting or a sponsor. YOU have to decide if you want to live or die, with the help of whatever your higher power entails." This saved my life. I was able to put away the "crutch" which had saved my life, giving me time to stop the periodic slipping, and stay sober on my own, one day at a time, with the major help of our fellowship. The rest of those 43 years is history.

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