Kristi Coulter / Off-Dry / November 2, 2014
I went to my first AA meeting last week. And I also ran my first race, a 10K where the back half was mostly hills. Hey, guess which one was scarier?
I almost didn’t go at all, honestly, except that I had decided I would, had even picked a day and time and a neighborhood I’d decided would attract alcoholics similar to me. (If you’ve read my previous post, “Like a Canning Meetup But For Alcoholics,” you might recall that my prime motivation for getting into the AA game was to make some sober friends.) And I am so stubborn that once I’ve decided something, even I can’t get me to change my mind. So off I went to an Episcopal church in one of Seattle’s tweedier, old-money areas, mouth dry with anxiety, telling myself to just be brave and pull the band-aid off. The church complex was large and many-doored, and probably I would have ended up just crashing a choir practice or something except for a small wooden ‘A.A.’ sign hanging from one doorknob. I don’t want to go in there, I said to myself. Tough, I said back. In I went.
I’m a planner, and I had made a detailed plan in my head of exactly how the meeting would go. First, it would be all women–the AA online meeting finder might have been built in 1993 in a triple-encrypted and possibly dead language, but I’d managed to decipher the gender stuff. So women only, and I had decided there would be at least 30 of them, and they would be seated in rows of folding chairs facing a podium where someone would speak for most of the meeting. I would slip in, sit near the back, avoid all but light pre-meeting chitchat, keep quiet during the meeting itself, and lam it out of there the moment it was over. Like auditing a college lecture, right?
So naturally, I walked into a room with one biggish round table that was unoccupied except for a 70-something man with a white walrus mustache. “Hello there, young lady!” he beamed. “Are you looking for the Ladies’ Halloween Festival Committee? It’s in the next room.” I am not making this up or even embroidering–this is what he said, verbatim. A little voice inside whispered “Here’s your out! You can say yes and go be on this church committee thing!” But goddamn it, my outer voice was already answering “No, I’m here for the AA meeting?” with just the annoying upswing in tone that the question mark suggests. He looked pretty surprised for a second, which in itself surprised me, because I figure anyone you see on the street could be an alcoholic, and it seemed like Wilford Brimley there ought to know that even better than me. But he recovered fast, introduced himself, and showed me to the coffee (in an urn, just like at a TV A.A. meeting!) and cookies.
The second person to walk in was a pretty young girl in a U-W hoodie who greeted Wilford as though they’d known each other forever, though she was 22-23 maybe. “Just trying out a new meeting?” she asked when we were introduced, and my inner voice hissed “Say yes!” just as my faithless outer voice said “No, this is my first meeting ever, actually.” Well, that got their attention, especially when I added that I’d been sober for sixteen months. “Wow, you sure picked a rough way to do it,” the teenager said, and Wilford agreed. That was actually the only hint of A.A.-is-the-only-way attitude I got the whole night, and seemed to come from such a friendly, caring place that it was easy to let it roll off my back.
So, eventually the room filled up, by which I mean about ten people gathered around the table, which I would like to remind you was not my plan. There were a couple of fishing-cap older guys who talked Seahawks before the meeting; a elderly retired doctor; a younger, also recently retired man who deeply impressed me with his casual use of the word ‘attenuated'; a hippieish couple with round rimless glasses and everything; an outdoorsy-looking woman who was recovering from a bike accident; and a woman around my age in an arty scarf. It was basically a perfect cross-section of North Seattle. It was clear that some of the attendees had known each other for decades, and I felt as though I’d barged into a private gathering of old friends–not because anyone’s behavior even remotely suggested that, but because that’s my habitual way of walking around in the world, and this situation was perfectly structured to throw it into relief. When Wilford introduced me at the start of the meeting and I was welcomed heartily, I thought to myself, they don’t really want you here, they’re just being nice because they’re afraid you’ll go have a drink if they aren’t.
So what to do with that feeling, in that situation, about as far from my plan for the evening as possible? I did two very basic but difficult things: kept my butt in the chair, and paid attention. I noticed how often people laughed, an A.A. rumor it was nice to have confirmed. I noticed that almost no one mentioned God or any other higher power (also characteristic of this largely unchurched city). I paid attention when blustery Wilford talked about saying something thoughtless to a young man doing some work on his house–how he was afraid he’d made the guy fear for his job, and deeply regretted it. I wanted to tell Wilford I thought he was being too hard on himself, but had also noticed that there was no cross-talk of that sort. People spoke, and when they were done, they were done–like a Quaker meeting I’d once attended in my twenties. I noticed that almost no one talked about drinking, or wanting a drink, or how long it had been since they’d had a drink. If you didn’t know better, it could have passed as a meeting of just, you know, people with varying levels of manageable problems and conflicts, not alcoholics. And I recognized myself in almost every speaker–their vacation plans and their constant doing and striving and their dogs and their semi-bad days.
And yes, I shared. I assure you I had certainly not intended to do any such thing, but the outdoorsy woman asked if I’d like to and once again, my mouth part started talking. I barely remember what I said, though I do recall making them laugh once. And I said I love how much more time my life seems to contain now, though I’d hated it at first. And that I’d been really scared to show up that night, but was glad I had. When I finished, they thanked me, like they–we–thanked everyone who spoke.
Afterward the outdoorsy woman found me a printed meeting schedule and started listing off all her favorites. It came out in our conversation that she’s been sober for 27 years, and I had a flash of panic at the idea that she still goes to a meeting almost every single day. In 27 years I will be 71, and the notion that I would still be building my days around A.A. meetings terrified me and made me wonder if my sobriety is much more tenuous than it feels.
But then again, as she put it, meetings are where she met her best friends, and where she knows she’ll see them. And new friends are the whole reason I got myself through the meeting door, right? So just as I assumed sobriety would be an ongoing test of my grit and endurance when in reality it’s turned out to be largely a joy, maybe my assumptions about meetings need to be put on ice until I’ve actually attended a few more (of varying shapes and sizes). Who knows–maybe like her, I’ll find my people there, people who I can hang out with and talk to for hours. Sometimes even about being an alcoholic, maybe. We’ll see.