This week, in Caroline Knapp’s book, Drinking: A Love Story, she spends a few pages talking about the meeting rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and her preconceived notions of what they were and were not. She also talks a bit about the stigma that accompanies the realization that one is “a real alcoholic”. Her first realization was when she confided to her therapist that perhaps she needed to stop drinking and, much to her surprise, he wholeheartedly agreed. She made arrangements to attend her first meeting. Her preconceived notion was that it would be a room full of young professional women, like herself, who would be seated in a comfortable room and would be given pamphlets about the dangers of drinking by a matronly women in support hose and orthopedic shoes (okay, I made up the footwear part, but it just sounded right). Her actual experience was much more pedestrian and she was mortified. It was not for her. She could not go to those meetings. She vowed to cut down on her drinking so that she would not have to go through that again.
It’s so interesting to share with others our initial reactions to our first AA meetings. Some of it is certainly couched in our pre-meeting perceptions of what it will be like. Depending upon how posh or how dingy that initial thought, our actual reaction could range from amazement to nausea. I was lucky. My expectation and the actual first meeting were polar opposites of Caroline’s.
I expected nothing. Well, that’s not exactly true. My twisted logic went something like this: Alcoholics are mostly homeless old men who wander the streets in dirty trench coats, carrying bottles of rotgut or Maddog 20/20 in brown paper bags, and stop periodically to alternately swig from the bottle and urinate on the grass. These are the people who need AA meetings. So….these meetings will be filled with filthy, smelly old men, smoking cigarettes and drinking tons of coffee to keep from drinking booze. If there are any women there at all, they will have bleached ragged hair, wearing too much makeup and smelling of cheap perfume. There will not be anyone there who is even remotely like me. I didn’t know any alcoholics personally (at least I didn’t realize at the time that I did) and I was sure that I didn’t belong in an AA meeting, but I needed to do something because if I didn’t, my life was going to fall apart.
I drove up to the Presbyterian Church in a suburb of my city. It was as far away from my part of town as I could get. I didn’t want anyone I knew to see me go into that meeting. I would just die of embarrassment if anyone saw me. The first thing I noticed when I pulled into the parking lot was that I was the only one driving a Ford Escort with dings and dents. I was surrounded by BMWs, Audis, Cadillacs, and at least two Bentleys…..clearly I must be in the wrong place, I thought. I checked the address I had written down three times just to be sure. Right place…maybe I had the wrong day….no, it was Thursday. So I sucked in my breath and went inside.
The meeting was in the church “basement” so that made sense to me….until I walked into that “basement”…it was really more of a social hall. The floor was covered in a thick dense carpet of jeweled hues. The walls were sort of a French Vanilla color and very clean…just a few pictures adorned them. There was a long table with chairs in the center of the room and the perimeter was lined with big comfy couches…the kind that you sank into. There was a complete kitchen and there were several coffee pots brewing. They had an enormous array of cookies and doughnuts from a gourmet bakery nearby. And the people…they were all happy and smiling, chatting in small groups. Men and women, young and older. Some were wearing suits and dresses. Some were wearing sports clothes that I could only describe as yachting wear. People came up to me and introduced themselves and welcomed me and I felt both calmer and frightened. Calmer because these people looked more like me than my preconceived notion. And frightened, because that meant that alcoholics looked more like me than my preconceived notion. Somehow, this lessened the stigma of being in an AA meeting, but that feeling of calm disintegrated when I looked across the room and saw the face of another professional person with whom I was closely acquainted. He walked toward me and I froze in place, not knowing what to do or say. He gave me a big hug and said, we are all anonymous here. Your secret is safe with me as is mine with you. And then I was calm again.
I have been to meetings in large metropolitan cities and small towns. I have been to meetings across the United States and in several other countries. I will tell you what I have found. No matter where I have gone, the twelve Steps and twelve Traditions of AA are the same. They may not all have cookies and coffee. They may not all have the same order or style of readings. They may be in church basements or temple, libraries or office conference rooms. Wherever I have gone, there have been men and women of all ages, races, and income brackets who have extended the hand of AA to the still suffering alcoholic because they know that the only way to keep what they have received is to give it away to another. And for that, each and every one of us is responsible.