Late to a Seattle AA meeting 12 years ago, I was just backing into a parallel parking space when another driver zipped forward into the spot. I rolled back to make eye contact with the driver, whose stony stare flung back a challenge: “Are you really gonna make a stink about this? Cause it’ll get you nowhere.” But then we recognized each other! He was my friend from meetings! Grinning with contrition, he signaled that I could have the space. I waved back “no big deal” and drove off – though for years I gave him shit about it.
My friend was still toxic – only about a year sober after three decades of relying on booze, pot, and crack to limp through a dark and confused life. Just beneath his jovial exterior he carried a huge chip on his shoulder, a certainty that everyone and everything had fucked him over so badly he’d never be okay. That parking space was owed to him despite some rival bitch about to score it.
Over the years that followed, though, my friend underwent what I can only describe as a spiritual transformation. AA became his home and family as he attended meetings almost daily. When he finished the steps himself, he began to sponsor new guys, reading the Big Book with them and learning what it felt like to truly want good things for someone else. His heart grew. He became a man of great empathy and compassion.
And somehow through that process, he developed empathy for himself, an acceptance of his trying past, including all the suffering that had forced him to change and grow. The chip on his shoulder melted away. His shares in meetings emanated that elusive calm that evolves only from gratitude and humility. When he spoke, people listened.
Finally, as a result of all that he had become in recovery, he quit recovery entirely and became desperate and miserable again.
Wait — what did I just say? Why would someone do that? Don’t we all know alcoholism is a lifelong affliction? Doesn’t the Big Book plainly warn us not to ever let up on our spiritual program?
We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe. We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. (p.85)
My friend is far from alone in his abandonment of recovery. Many of us get a good job, meet a good partner, buy a house, maybe pop out a kid or two, and expect to live happily ever after – without AA. Some manage to, because they’ve found an alternate spiritual community: a congregation, sangha, even volunteer group. A few die. But the majority end up in either a tense, anxious day-to-day hell of frustrated ego, or a full-on relapse that promises relief but takes their job, house, family, dignity, happiness, and mental health instead.
So why do people like my friend, granted a beautiful life in AA, turn their backs on the simple regimen of meetings and service that saved them?
I’ll tell you why: we forget it was god who saved our lame, toxic, beat-to-shit asses. We decide that, really, we did it! Seriously – we just made a lot of bad choices back then, so amid the turbulence of all that wreckage, it seemed like the light of sanity came from god. But now that we’re “winning” at life, we can see the change really came from our own smarty-pants-ness. That’s right: we wised up, grew up, and climbed up. And now that life has gotten so full and busy, who has time to waste on meetings and sponsees or prayer & meditation and all that 12-step shit?
That’s exactly what happened to my friend of the stolen parking space, who met me for coffee a few weeks ago. But an unforeseen blow had upended his prosperity, so now he had this and that problem, but even worse, this other thing was about to happen, and then he’d really be in trouble! He was physically sick, his face was broken out, and I noticed his hands shaking.
I spoke up: “You need to go to meetings.” He responded as if I’d just suggested he take up embroidery, but, well aware I was an embroidery fanatic, he’d prepared a strong retort. He cited reason after reason that AA meetings could do nothing for him, even if he had time to get to them.
“Do you remember,” I interrupted, “when you first came to meetings and you could NOT STOP drinking, and you asked god to help you?” He held my eyes a few seconds with a distaste remarkably similar to that parking space stare of bitter defiance. “Vaguely,” he mumbled.
Nothing I could say seemed to get through: “You can’t find answers through isolation. God works through people. We need to be connected. Answers come when you ask.” I practically begged him to find a moment alone to offer the simple prayer, God, please help me. He all but winced at my triteness, promised nothing, and left.
So. Imagine my joy when a couple days ago that friend blew into my homegroup accompanied by two of his best AA buddies and took a seat at my table. We cracked jokes til the meeting started. A ways in, I caught the chair’s eye and signaled, so he called on “the gentleman sitting next to Louisa.” And do you know what my friend shared? That for years he’d kept relapsing because he refused to admit he was powerless over drugs and alcohol, and today he was just as stubborn about refusing to admit he was powerless over life. “The truth is, I need to be here,” he said, looking around the room. “I need you guys.”
For me, god is everywhere — in my home, in the wilderness, in every connection I make with another living creature. But so is my big fat ego, which wants to Edge God Out. I need meetings, now and forever, to remind me I’m still an alcoholic who, left to my own devices, will still try to fill that perennial empty spot with the wrong things. Because you wake me up to the divine unity that heals me, I will always need you guys.