I immediately realized that AA was not some tragic milieu where people sought affirmation of their despicable natures by coming together to hate themselves in chorus.
No one arrives to AA on wings of glory.
I arrived to AA on Sunday, December 21, 2014 (and yes, in AA dates count: 659 days). The meeting I was attending took place at a park here in Atherton. I’d never been in this park so didn’t know there were various buildings located in the middle of it. A central parking lot served them all, and as I pulled in I could see folks milling around one building and figured there was my target.
Emotionally I felt in a dissociative sort of state, felt largely removed from the moment with only a bit of anxiety buzzing in the background. And no wonder. I couldn’t begin to measure the scope of how out of control I felt, how thoroughly screwed up my marriage was at present, how desperately I needed something right to happen. As it was all pretty overwhelming to consider, instead I just trained my mind on the simple mechanics of getting from home to location to meeting room.
Deeper down I knew there swirled a dark blend of bewilderment and anger and disappointment and epic self-loathing. What the fuck happened here, McWright? It was a question I couldn’t answer. A question prompted by years now of compulsive behavior that had proved utterly resistant to every manner and method of correction I’d thrown at it. When you’ve tried everything to change the thing that is slowly destroying your life…when you’re left with no more ideas nor solutions EXCEPT FOR the one you so desperately want to avoid…if you’re lucky enough in that hellacious pit to retain even just the last instinct for self-preservation…then there’s nothing left to do but to take the leap and explore your final option. I was going to walk into that building and into that crowd and declare myself an alcoholic.
The dissociative sense only grew as I made my way from car to building. It was now so strong that it felt less like I was the protagonist in this moment but more a viewer in the audience of the protagonist walking toward God’s knows what that awaited him.
There was a scattering of folks outside the entrance to the building, talking in pairs and small groups. Many of them held styrofoam cups of coffee in their hands, some smoked. Of course, I thought. I didn’t know all that much about Alcoholics Anonymous, but I was pretty sure coffee and cigarettes were the popular currencies. As I arrived to the entrance some guys standing on either side of it welcomed me, extending their hands and names. They seemed pleasant and didn’t scrutinize me nearly like I felt I deserved. I conjured a smile back for them and mumbled my name, but not slowing my forward progress for fear I might stall, pivot, and beat an immediate retreat.
As I entered into what proved to be a sizable meeting room, you could make the case that my life changed right there, at that moment and those that immediately followed. As I mentioned, while being generally aware of AA like most folks are—that it’s everywhere, there or lots of meetings, they follow a “12 step” program in their recovery, some liken it to being practically a religion—I hadn’t ever considered what specifically it was like, an AA meeting, who goes there, what happens, etc. What I experienced in this moment, on first entering this meeting, served to both immediately unearth a number of assumptions I had about AA, and to explode them right off the bat.
I’m not sure how to put it, so I’ll simply say the vibe of this place was nothing like I expected. I expected an AA meeting to be characterized, for instance, by a strong sense of solemnity, the atmosphere in the room being similar to that of church, or what you find in most libraries. Alcoholism is serious business, right? People coming here would be taking it seriously, thus a hush would reign that allows for serious reflection.
Shit, this place seemed like what you find at the start of a party while momentum is growing. There were lots of people all around the room gathered in pairs or clumps, most of them talking and chattering in animated fashion. Plenty of hello!s and hey, how are you?!s were happening everywhere. The look on people’s faces caught me off guard, as practically everyone was smiling, beaming even at each other. And most unexpected yet, I heard actual laughter happening—a lot of it. These people didn’t appear broken, didn’t appear morose, as I’d expected—not at all. They looked downright happy to be here, if you can believe it. And generally speaking, they looked like me, a group of seemingly upstanding, informally dressed professionals, and not the motley crew I expected of street people copping some coffee and heat in exchange for their half-hearted presence here for an hour. I mean, what the hell is going on here??
I’m not kidding: there is no overestimating how powerfully the vibe of this room affected me this day and in that moment. It was not the sad gathering of defeated degenerates collected to acknowledge the fatal nature of their flaws that I thought it was going to be, an expectation that made me think how utterly dreary it was going to be to join their ranks. It was not that at all, seemed exactly the opposite, even. While I didn’t process it right then, on some level I immediately began having a vision of myself as becoming a part of this kind of atmosphere.
It’s been said a lot that God works in mysterious ways, and on this day, for me, God orchestrated one small miracle after another in the hour that followed. So much so that I left this first experience completely excited to attend another meeting, which I did the following day, and the day after that, and for the next 88 days after that (new members are strongly encouraged to attend “90 meetings in 90 days” in order to jump start their program).
A few of those small miracles that day: the guy that sat next to me and became the first AAer I met, and how when he learned that this was my very first meeting, responded with a very honest, “Fuuuuuck!”; saying “I’m Matt, and I’m an alcoholic” the first time, at the beginning of the meeting when they ask if there are any new members there that day, and being applauded by the 150 people in the room, a few people right around me clapping me on the back, even; the share that day (which is when a member tells his/her story of what is was like, what happened, and what life has been like since) by a father of younger kids whose story mapped so much onto my own—of failing one’s family for one’s drinking, of one failed attempt after another to control one’s drinking through this clever strategy or that; last, of being approached right after the meeting by 2 or 3 guys who made it a point to introduce themselves, check in with me about how I was really doing, and give me their phone numbers if ever I needed to talk.
I left that meeting nothing short of dazzled. And an honest to God miracle did happen that day, just by me crossing that threshold. I went from abject despair—incomprehensible demoralization, as AA puts it—to possessing a small but powerful sense of hope, just like that. A hope that eventually grew and carried me sober as a saint to today, 659 days later.
It was almost like that iconic scene in The Wizard of Oz, only in reverse. I escaped the madness of Oz—its quixotic munchkins, harrowing witches, and bedeviling flying monkeys—and returned to the beautiful Technicolor land of the Normal just by walking through that door that day.