Death in the Rooms of AA

By Daniel Isanov 10/09/17

You hang around meetings as long as I have and you’re going to see a lot of people die. Young people. People who you really liked. People who you loved, even.

A crow flying away from a group of crows.
We are all living on borrowed time. Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

We don’t have a lot of sayings in my home group — otherwise known at the “most fucked-up meeting in AA” — because we’re too disorganized for even the simplest trappings of AA culture, but there is one thing we say a lot: you’ve gotta step over the dead bodies. Is that morbid? I have always loved the morbid side of AA. When I was younger, it flattered my delusion that we were all tough guys instead of what we really were: a bunch of losers who God had found a way to make not-losers. Now, though — and maybe I’m just older — that morbidity seems more like just simple truth: many of us die, and we should get used to that.

My home group probably has more deaths than most because we collect a lot of the fringes of AA: people that don’t really work the program, people who still use but like to pretend they are working the program while they still use, newcomers who are just taking a rest stop before they plunge back into the the bloody fray of addiction. We got a lot of straight-up heroin addicts, too, which, I’m told, is not entirely common for the rest of AA. I wouldn’t know: any alcoholic who doesn’t think a heroin addict is his brother is no brother to me.

Anyway, the meaning of that saying is obvious. You can’t let it get you down. There’s just too much of it. But I think it also maybe means other things, too.

Let’s start with the love of death. When someone dies in our meeting, the crowd goes wild. We love it. Everyone adored that person. That person was great. In this, it reminds me a lot of my own Irish Catholic family: nobody much cares for you when you’re alive, but after you die, they love the shit out of you.

One of my favorite stories is about a guy named Neil who died of a heroin overdose. The meeting went nuts. Not only had everyone’s life been touched by Neil — a newcomer who was really much more of a pain in the ass than I can easily convey here — but many of them could see the trouble coming and tried everything they could think to help Neil, to no avail. There was weeping, even wailing. It seemed clear to me that a few people in the room had been in love with him.

And then Neil strolled into the meeting the next day, unaware of it all, just fine, still, as far as I could tell, a big pain in the ass. People were pissed.

My experience in AA certainly gave me a new relationship to death. For one thing, I’m not as impressed with it. You hang around meetings as long as I have and you’re going to see a lot of people die. Young people. People who you really liked. People who you loved, even. People who you really didn’t expect to see die.

It’s not that it becomes an ordinary thing. I wouldn’t say that. But it becomes an understandable thing. You live in a hospital, you’re going to see a lot of bedpans. You don’t have to like it, but it would be stupid to act surprised.

People will do that, though. Pretend that it’s a big fucking tragedy, a fundamental violation of the order of things. I’m not sure what their deal is, but I always want to say something smartass — and sometimes I do. My favorite thing to say lately is, “If you’re not used to seeing people die in the rooms, it could be that you’re not going to enough meetings.”

There’s one guy in my meeting who used to say — thank God he doesn’t say this anymore — “if you don’t work the steps, you’re going to die.” He would say it like that, too, in italics, all dramatic-like. He himself was a guy who didn’t work the steps, indulged in the marijuana maintenance program, and probably preyed sexually on newcomers. My attitude was that God had been trying to kill him for years and hadn’t yet figured out how. What I sometimes said, when he irritated me enough, was, “What will happen if I do work the steps, will I live forever?”

I have considered the idea that I think this way because I have a cold lifeless heart, but I don’t think that’s it. First of all, I happen to have faith in a power greater than myself — whom I choose to call “a power greater than myself” — and my experience tells me that this is not the end. Why would God teach me all this wonderful shit, show me all these miracles, and then let my molecules disperse into the ether? I don’t get it, and you can’t make me believe it. I don’t have a belief in God, mind you: I have an experience of God. Some days, I know this power as well as I know many of my friends, and that’s just not the way She rolls. She loves me extravagantly and she would never leave me alone forever in the darkness.

There’s a great American movie from the early 20thth century called Only Angels Have Wings. I think about it a lot. It stars Cary Grant as an Airmail pilot in South America who is constantly losing his friends to plane crashes in the Andes. The custom in that story when someone dies is to pretend they never lived. “It’s bad news about Joe,” someone will say to Grant in the bar later that night, and Grant will respond, “Joe? Who’s Joe? I don’t know anyone named Joe.” On some level, this is just bullshit machismo, but, on another level, this is a frank admission that the feeling we have for our friends, the people who have saved our lives and shared our pain is just too big to possibly express, that the only way to really adequately express it is to not express it.

I have my dead, just like everyone who participates in AA has their dead. I keep mine right here, in my heart, next to the rest of my friends. We are all living on borrowed time, all of us on this planet, but particularly those of us who have found a spiritual solution to the problem of addiction. Tomorrow is not promised. We’ve got plenty to do today.

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