Sunday, August 19, 2012


Last week, I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Nope, I’m not an alcoholic. In fact, I rarely drink. But my brother “identifies” as being an alcoholic, as they say in AA. While our two families were on vacation together, I went with him to a meeting.
It was my idea to tag along, but I was a little nervous. Would there be dramatic speeches or tears? Would I have to say something? Would the AA members see me as an imposter and demand to know what I, essentially a non-drinker, was doing at their meeting?
The truth was that I wanted to support my brother. We have lived thousands of miles away from each other for years, so I wasn’t around him in the months before he decided to stop drinking. I didn’t know he had a problem until he told me he had started going to AA.
As someone whose idea of a drink is a Shirley Temple, I have no idea what that kind of addiction is like. I was curious about the meetings he goes to as often as twice a day. What is this AA thing all about?
The first thing I noticed is that AA members are darn friendly. No one was hiding in the corner or skulking around. Everyone greeted us visitors with eye contact and a handshake.
They looked like people you’d see at the library or at the post office. Regular people.
This was a town with a population of less than a thousand people, but 18 of them had gathered in a small church basement in the middle of the week to talk about their addiction.
It turns out anyone can join AA. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, said the leader of the meeting.
And a coffee pot. Apparently no self-respecting AA meeting is without coffee and some kind of cake.
In keeping with the “anonymous” part of AA, only first names were used. The speaker for the meeting, a man in his late 60s with black and gray hair, stood up.
I had my first drink when I was 5 years old at a family party and I didn’t stop drinking for more than 30 years, he said.
This man described his drinking days: living on Skid Row, panhandling in Haight-Ashbury during the 1960s, being thrown in and out of jail, doing drugs, breaking into homes and more.
I tried not to let my jaw drop as he spoke.
I got rolled so many times, it’s a wonder my throat never got cut, he said. I’m so grateful for AA, he said. Without it, I wouldn’t be here today.
I looked over at my brother. He held his AA “big book” in his hands and nodded with a small smile on his face.
Another woman who spoke looked like she could be the innkeeper at a B&B or someone’s grandmother. She talked about being in jail for a DUI. It’s no fun. Even other prisoners look down on a drunk in jail, she noted. She’s been sober for more than 20 years.
A younger guy wearing skinny jeans and Vans sneakers sat next to my brother. This looked like a guy you’d see at a Green Day concert or hanging out at Chefs’ Market.
I was searching for that perfect combination of alcohol and life, he said. I thought that if I could just figure that out, I could keep drinking.
It was impossible, he said, shaking his head.
Later, some members received sobriety “chips” marking their length of sobriety — some as long as 30 years.
The guy in the Vans stood up to receive his chip. The group applauded and shouted his name.
He had been sober for five months that night.
How long have you been sober?, I whispered to my brother.
Two years and four months, he said. He showed me an AA coin that he carries in his pocket. It had the number “24” on it.
One day at a time, he said.
After the meeting we walked out into the dark parking lot. I was overwhelmed. I came to the meeting wondering if I was making a mistake. I left thinking I wanted to go back.
That was a really powerful experience, I told my brother. I was amazed at their stories, but I was completely awed by the compassion and support of the group.
These people were nearly destroyed by addiction but survived. And look at them now.
I’m glad you came with me, he said.

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