Today, Thursday the 29th, I have 20 years clean and sober. Woot!
Here’s a journal entry I wrote 20 years ago after my first AA meeting:
1/29/1995: “I went to an AA meeting tonight. Was so uncomfortable and out of place, and felt I will never, never stop drinking so why want to? I know drinking so intimately. I know me with a drink – a glass of wine, a beer – better than I know anyone in this world. I love to drink. I love it like freedom and happiness. I want never to stop. I wish I could drink in the morning, at eleven, at lunch, at three, and on after five ‘til the night is gone.”
Writing that was a scared, deeply confused and unhappy semi-suicidal woman who thought her mind ought to be able to get her out of any jam. The last thing she suspected was that those people among whom she felt “so uncomfortable and out of place” would not only save her from slow death, they would teach her to transform living into something beautiful and joy-filled. I remember judging every person in that room by the standards my family had ingrained in me. Anyone lacking at least a BA, anyone with a working class job who wasn’t slumming ironically for the sake of some art form, was ignorant. As for the 12 Steps, it took me about 40 seconds to read them off the wall. How could such vague ideas accomplish anything? Sure, these ordinary schmucks believed in them, but I was way smarter and more special.
Wisdom, however, is neither academic nor cultural. It’s about living – how we respond to the passions of being human, like our desires for love, fulfillment, and specialness. It concerns how we deal with fear, anger, and the impulse to defend what we love. And it’s far more a matter of what we let go as false than what we cling to as true. The ordinary schmucks in AA taught me how to cast off the hoary crust of fear that had blocked me from the truths of god and my fellows, freeing me to be myself and to love you intrinsically because you are, at heart, just like me.
The first things the schmucks taught me were wisdom bytes passed down in AA, which made such an impression that I remember to this day where I sat relative to the person speaking. “I can’t fix my broken brain with my broken brain,” said a guy at the next table with unruly hair sticking out from under his baseball cap. “That’s why I need the help of something greater than me.” Whoa! I thought, no wonder I can’t get better! Too bad I reject everything to do with God! But then a few days later an overweight woman in polyester pants sitting to my left against the wall said, “If you can’t think God, if that’s objectionable to you, just think Good Orderly Direction. You can seek that – something deeper than your own thinking.”
There are countless other key moments when light bulbs went on for me. “My ego tells me I’m the shit, and my self-loathing insists I’m a piece of shit. But God grants me the humility to be right-sized – to be a worker among workers, a driver among drivers, a sober drunk among sober drunks.”
But even more important, what the schmucks have shared with me is their experience of living life. The first story I ever identified with was told by a guy (sitting near the door to my right) who ordered Chinese take-out that arrived without chopsticks. He knew he had a pair in the house, some nice bamboo ones, but couldn’t find them. He went bananas searching for them. He kept looking in the silverware drawer again and again, lifting out the tray and shoving stuff around. Furious, he checked all kinds of illogical places – the junk drawer, his desk, the broken dishwasher – while his take-out got cold. It seemed to be about a principle.
This was in maybe my second week sober, but I still hear that guy’s words every time I go bonkers trying to find something. “It’s just my ego refusing to accept what is” echoes in my mind. “It’s just me being human and flawed.” I’ve since heard countless stories of ways to be human and flawed, issues I once thought were mine alone. Incrementally, they push me toward acceptance of things I cannot change. But what about that courage to change the things I can?
The 12 steps grew from empty suggestions to a revolution in life perspective once I worked them with a hard-ass sponsor who pushed me to see beyond my story. They changed me, dredging up insights from the depths of my inner knowledge and compelling me to face them. When I didn’t like what I saw, I was willing to ask my god for help, much as I’d asked in the beginning to be relieved of the compulsion to drink. I was willing to work with god to become what it (i.e. love/Good Orderly Direction) would have me be. I write this now when I have almost no time in my week because of my commitment to follow through on that direction.
Telling the truth – the human truth. That’s what I heard the schmucks doing over and over once I’d awoken through the steps. They taught me with their shares that there’s almost always a deeper, more honest revelation underneath whatever story we’ve cooked up about ourselves and others. Pretty much any problem boils down to “I’m afraid” of not getting what I think I need or losing what I have. And any happiness boils down to “I love.”
I’m no longer the woman who wrote of clinging to her glass, to her liquid freedom and happiness that had, unfortunately, quit working. Some wisdom comes simply with age. We begin to see the old in the young and vice versa, see the broke in the rich, and to have compassion for people living though pains we have known. Whether one is in AA or not, pain can be the greatest teacher if it moves us to replace our defunct illusions with love and tolerance rather than tout them with righteous judgement. Gradually, we come to see the trajectory of birth to death resembles a meteor’s streak through the night sky: the small and insignificant burn bright, casting light where there was none, and then go out. We can’t begrudge anyone the color or angle of their flare. We are all miraculous and unique ordinary schmucks.
Thanks for 20 years, guys!