To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Part 2: Post 6: A Surprising Meeting

Yes, this blue square has writing in it; the words "Alcoholics anonymous." It's the cover of the AA "Big Book," which is, in fact, blue on blue, probably for the privacy of readers. The real cover is almost as hard to read as my version.
The AA "Big Book," and yes, it really is printed blue on blue.
 I can't remember if I've mentioned it, but yearlings are supposed to attend a certain number of 12-step meetings--AA, or related groups. We can choose any group we like, but there is one caveat. Evidently, 12-step groups come in two flavors: there are groups for addicts, like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous; and there are groups for friends and families of addicts, like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and...O-Anon? I'm not sure what that one's called, actually. Anyway, we've got to go to at least five meetings of each flavor. We don't have to tell anyone we've done it, we're on our honor.

I think the reason is two-fold. First, I imagine that most people who have problems with addiction don't want to admit it, even to themselves, so maybe if we already know something about these meetings it will be easier for us to get help if we end up needing it. I've heard addiction is a very common mental health problem, so chances are some of us will need treatment for it eventually. Second, I'm under the impression that a lot of what they talk about in those meetings can be applied to other situations, so maybe they're hoping we learn something. Some of the groups have open meetings, meaning you don't have to think you have the problem in order to attend. We're supposed to go to all five meetings for each program within a two-month span, if possible.

Not to drag things out any further--I've just been to my first AA meeting. It was....interesting.

I'd intended to get as many of the meetings out of the way as possible before classes started up, but I didn't get my act together. At first most of the meetings I found out about turned out to be a good distance away, farther than I wanted to bike. There are also meetings of various 12-step groups on campus, but they're all closed to curious outsiders, I guess to protect people's privacy. If the point is to be anonymous when you go, that wouldn't really work if all your classmates have homework assignments to go also!

Finally, I found an open AA meeting at a church in town, borrowed a bike, and went--and Charlie was there, looking odd dressed in street clothes. He nodded to me, once, and then ignored me. At first I thought--and this is completely illogical--that he was there to check up on me somehow, but then I realized he's a member. He's a recovering alcoholic. I'm not sure how to feel or think about that--I've heard of alcoholism, and I know people who drink more than they should, but I didn't know I actually knew any alcoholics. And I don't know what I was supposed to do about seeing him in a meeting--I mean, what the correct etiquette is. I figured I should probably let him be anonymous, so far as possible, so I ignored him back.

The meeting itself was interesting, and a little surprising. I don't know what I'd expected--I've seen TV shows and movies with scenes set in AA meetings, so I knew about the ritualized introductions (Hi, I'm So-and So, and I am an alcoholic), and not to tell anybody who I'd seen there. But I guess I didn't expect everyone to look so normal. I expected a lot of shame and grief, and maybe they have that on some other night, but this time mostly people were cracking jokes or talking about God and laughing a lot either way. A couple of things stuck in my head. One was how ritualized everything was, though nothing felt rigid or stilted. Sometimes everyone would actually speak in unison, apparently following some traditional format everyone (except me) had memorized. Another thing was how scared a lot of the members seemed of drinking again--but they didn't really seem scared of anything else. One man was sitting there talking about how he might end up homeless again, but he had a big, relaxed smile on his face. He kept laughing about his situation.

Bits of phrases stuck in my head, too: "you're only as sick as your secrets," or "no matter how far down the scale you have gone, you will understand how your experience can be of service to others." Or something like that. I'm probably remembering the quote wrong. But it made me wonder how far down the "scale" these smiling people had gone--how far had Charlie gone. Has he been a street drunk? Has he done something really awful? And is it really true that the worst of a person can somehow be of service to others? If so, I don't see what I can give, because I've never been anything worse than bored.

They talked a lot about service--about wanting to take a drink and instead helping somebody else--service in order to stay sober. That was something I didn't expect, either. I thought people went to AA meetings to talk, like to get something off their chests, to feel better. Like some of our group therapy sessions, maybe. But instead they seem to talk so that other people can learn something. Talking is service--or listening is service. I'm not really clear on it.

Anyway, the meeting was only about an hour long. We closed with the Lord's Prayer, and everyone milled around for a while afterwards, finishing their coffee.

I stood around watching. I'm not normally shy, but I felt very out of place and I didn't know what I was supposed to do. Charlie came up to me, and I half expected him to give me some word of approval or encouragement. The other half of my expectation was that he'd growl at me, but he did neither. All he said was "I'm telling my story at the speaker's meeting on Thursday at the Episcopal church, if you want to satisfy your curiosity, but don't satisfy anyone else's." And he turned to go.

How could he think he had to tell me not to gossip about him? At first I was really mad about that, mad and hurt. But then something in me softened somehow, and I followed him and caught his arm.

"Do you actually want me to go to that meeting?" I asked him.

"You can go to any meeting you like," he replied, but I persisted.

"No, I asked you a direct question. That's the rule, isn't it? You can be as evasive as you like, but if I ask you the right question, you've got to answer me." He could have told me he wasn't at work and so didn't have to do anything, but to my surprise, he sighed, and for the first time I saw him completely drop his mask.

"Daniel," he told me, "if you're an alcoholic, or if you think you might be, I'll tell you anything if it will help save your life--or mine. I have no secrets in these rooms. But otherwise--no, I don't want you to know." I let go of his arm and he turned and left.

[Note; yes, Charlie actually told me to write about this, years afterward. And no, I never went to the speaker's meeting. And while Charlie eventually told me parts of his story, I never once asked him about it. There is a lot about him that I still don't know.] 

[Next Post: April 8th: Where the faculty live]

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