“I think I had something like a religious experience,” I texted Stardust, my beautiful, brave, devout Muslim activist guru friend, as I pulled into the Safeway parking lot and shifted my car to park. I was on my way home from my first, all women’s AA meeting. “About to pray. Can’t wait to hear all about it,” she responds.
I stared out the dirt streaked windshield of my Honda Insight. The silhouette of a homeless woman riding a bike passes across the horizon. She steers her wobbly bike with one hand, hunched over. She pulls a cart full of all her worldly possessions with the other. I breathe in through by nostrils and let the air fill my belly. Precarious. I think.
I have this out of body feeling as I sit there staring blankly in my car. It feels like that excited energy of figuring something out for the first time. It feels like legos snapping together. Hard plastic rectangles going “click, click, click” as the pieces find their place. It’s also calm, like a heart beat. A subtle, gentle smile spreads across my face.
I am not quite ready to be home, so I am sitting in a Safeway parking lot. I am not quite ready to leave this feeling or to figure out exactly what it is. I don’t want to pin it down and put it in a sentence that could be a sensible response to the question that Sugar, my sweet loving partner, will inevitably ask, “how was your meeting?”
A wise woman wrote, “I became an addict partly because of my wiring and partly because of the way the world is wired.” I am definitely “wired” for addiction. I am a middle child. My brother and sister both have a dual diagnosis of drug and alcohol addiction coupled with mental illnesses that often results in crippling psychosis. For the past 15 years, my family and I have been in and out of mental institutions, “half way houses,” MediCal sponsored treatment facilities, posting signs on streets for missing siblings. So, in many ways, I have spent my life emotionally engulfed in the chaos that addiction and mental illness wreak on families. I play the role of the “high functioning” child—a sensitive, whole hearted “go getter” with a blossoming career in social justice, a masters degree, a steady, high profile job. I tricked myself into thinking the addiction and mental instability couldn’t touch me if I moved fast enough, was successful enough, worked hard enough, achieved enough. I was wrong.
I recently got sober, gave up my job, moved and decided to start everything over. One of my goals in moving to this new city was to join a support group for addicts. I went on the AA webpage and searched for an all women’s meeting in the area. There was one across town at a Lutheran Church every Friday night at 6:00pm.
As I pulled up to the Church parking lot, I saw the basement door was ajar. It’s 6:07. I am late and feeling frazzled. I rush through the door and immediately step into a circle of 30 or so women sitting in plastic, blue chairs. The floor tiles look cold, pale and gray. A baby coos and crawls around the center of the circle. My eyes scan the room for an empty space. I panic for a half second feeling like the odd kid out as I don’t see a place to sit. There is only one chair open and it’s next to a young, gorgeous blonde woman. She looks gentle. She gestures to me to sit and smiles warmly. I walk across the circle and plop down.
I breathe in a feel my body ease into my plastic chair. It creaks a little I shift my weight side to side and start to get comfortable. The beautiful blond woman, our facilitator, is sitting next to me. She is reading words, verbatim, from a large white binder. This, I gather, is the “playbook” for how to run an AA meeting. In my role as a “high functioning” person, I tend to take care of people, especially during in meetings. I facilitate large group professionally and am constantly thinking about agendas, objectives, politics, personalities, making sure everyone is heard, next steps are clear, notes are taken, action items are reviewed. My workaholic mind doesn’t let go of these ideas easily, so I am happy to be sitting next to this beautiful woman, reading the “agenda” over her shoulder. It puts me at ease. All the nervous questions spinning through my mind, “how does this work and what’s going to happen next and who is charge and who is facilitating,” are answered for me in that playbook writ large in 14 point font.
The meeting begins with what feels like a blur of business items. Someone passes around a donation basket. I watch everyone take one dollar bills out of their pockets or purses and try to follow their lead. Their fingers grip the bills in the anticipation of the basket landing in their lap. I look in my purse and only have twenties. I am embarrassed and self conscious about this. I hide the bill in my sweaty palm and try to secretly slip into the basket when it comes my way.
The business items continue. Someone says something about literature being available on my table near some coffee. The facilitator asks if there are any guests or new comers. A woman two chairs down from me raises her hand. She introduces herself. I later learn that she is four days sober and feeling like she is crawling out of her skin. Her husband is a heavy drinker and doesn’t see the point in changing. I think about what a hard road this will be for her—facing all that booze and feeling alone—her most important partner not seeing the point in sobriety. I immediately feel thankful for Sugar. He is a “normal” drinker and gave up drinking in support of me. Sugar is my cheerleader and has made this so much easier for me. I’ll count my blessings many times during this meeting. For now, blessing #1, Sugar.
I raise my hand as well and introduce myself using what I learn as the AA introduction protocol, “Hi, my name is Ashley, I am an alcoholic and I have been sober for 3 months and 19 days.” “Welcome Ashley,” a chorus of female voices says in unison and the energy hits me right in the chest. Everyone claps and a few people hoot in celebration for my 3 months and 19 days sober. Sitting here now and thinking about these women and their generosity of spirit towards me, a total stranger, makes me well up.
The last business item is to celebrate sober and annual birthdays. AA celebrates 30, 60 and 90 days plus every year someone is sober. “Has anyone had a birthday in the last 7 days?,” the beautiful blonde facilitator reads from the white binder. She scans the room, finds no response and hands the meeting over to the “chair.”
The meeting chair is a woman wearing faded blue jeans, a loose blue shirt with an anonymous haircut that parts down the middle. She looks weathered and wise. She is leaning forwarding with her shoulders slumped confidently toward the group. I can tell by the way she holds herself that she has done this many times before. She opens the group and reminds us all that it is St. Patrick’s Day. (Side note: I just typed the word St. Patrick’s Day and felt a pang of longing. For a moment, I wished there was some whiskey in my tea! I remember drinking whiskey and tea after a long days work. I’d pour the whiskey from these giant bottle of Bulleit Burbon I bought for $49 at Costco. I used to mix tea, Bulleit and roll a spliff after a hard day of nonprofit work. I sat outside my trailer and felt like an irreverent cowgirl as I shed my pantsuit and put my moccasins. It was my favorite time of the day.)
Back to the meeting. Our meeting chair is half Irish and half Italian, so St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal for her and her whole family. She starts the meeting by reminding the group about how hard it is to get through the holidays when you are sober. She tells a story about her favorite Irish pub in San Francisco and what it was like on St. Patrick’s day. “There were Irish dancers and singing, but no one gave a fuck about that, because we were there to drink.” There is a hum of agreement. I feel my whole body relax as she tells her story. I understand my role at this meeting—I sit, I listen, I relax. This, I think, I can do. Stories, after all, are my medicine. I could listen to honest, revealing, soul shaking stories all day (and I usually do! Hooray for podcasts and noise canceling head phones!)
The honesty, openness, kindness, rawness and humility of the women in the basement of the First Lutheran Church are what gave me that feeling of lightness and “religiousness” I didn’t want to let go of, the feeling that I was trying to hold onto in the Safeway parking lot. The stories I hear for the next hour and half shake me in way I am still trying to understand.
I have more to say about this and some ideas about how it connects to the motherfucker in charge (you know WHO! BASTARD!) and how we all need to find our own Church basements now, but I will save that for Part 2. OOOOO…..CLIFFHANGER!
In my meantime, enjoy my latest invention for teething puppies, THE DOG POPSICLE. Game changer. See below.