Passing through the doors of my first 12 step meeting was terrifying. There was a cluster of people lingering near the entrance, chatting and smoking cigarettes (the classic cliché). I stood a block away, hiding in the evening shadows, trying to summon the courage to approach. I couldn’t move; every bone in my body was telling me to leave. Just get the hell out of here, go home and have a drink! Who needs this shit! I can get sober on my own! I don’t need to be around these weirdos, winos, and bums! It’s just a cult! They want to brainwash me! I can do this on my own! Run, motherfucker, run!
It seems to be a common experience for most people. That first meeting is always insanely frightening. Everyone deals with it in their own way. Some handle it better than others. But all of us enter through those doors for the first time with a level of anxiety boarding on a full-blown panic attack.
I smoked one cigarette after another, staring at the entrance to the meeting. Even today, I can remember how badly I was shaking with fear. For a person who had spent the last 32 years trying to drink away fear, I was confronting an epic challenge.
I took a final drag off my cigarette, dropped it on the pavement, and stepped forward toward the door. Let’s just see what happens.
You hear this word a lot in 12 step meetings. Everyone is always welcoming each other. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. It’s both annoying and sweet, sort of like your mother kissing you as a child; it annoys you, but you don’t want her to stop doing it either, even when you’re rolling your eyes.
The guy at the front door extended his hand, a big, stupid smile on his face. “Welcome.”
I reached out reluctantly to shake his paw. Why’s this asshole so happy?
That’s another thing about meetings. Everyone is always smiling! If you’re a frightened, trembling, drunk entering a meeting for the first time, it can really piss you off.
I stepped into the loud, crowded room searching for my friend, Guy. I decided that if I couldn’t spot him within thirty seconds, I was leaving. I wanted an excuse to flee.
“Yo, dude! You made it.” Guy was standing near a table loaded with snacks and coffee, talking with a small group of people. He waved me over. Shit, I have no excuse now. I have to stay!
I approached the group, avoiding eye contact with anyone.
“Welcome,” Guy said
He introduced me to the cluster of people who all repeated the “welcome” mantra while shaking my hand.
I had no idea what to say or do, so I just grinned like an idiot and tried to control my shaking.
As I glanced around the room, I realized there were probably fifty or sixty people there, everyone milling about, drinking coffee, talking loudly, and welcoming each other. Everyone seemed to be in a great mood like they were in a contest to see who could be the happiest. I didn’t feel anything close to happy, their joy only serving to darken my mood further. I began to judge every single person in the room, even Guy, for being complete phonies. No one can be this happy. This is all so fake and contrived! To hell with these toothy clowns!
After what seemed an eternity, the meeting started when someone began yelling: “Everyone take a seat.”
The herd of toothy clowns began jostling for places to sit. Guy pulled me towards two chairs near the center of the room. I was hoping we’d sit in the very back of the room, as far away from everyone as possible. No such luck.
Two people sat at the front of the room, facing the herd. Eventually, I would find out they were the secretary (the person who leads the meeting) and the guest speaker (the person who shares their story).
As the meeting started, the secretary introduced himself as an alcoholic then asked the room: “Are they any other alcoholics present?”
Every hand shot for the sky. A few people even started waving their hands in an attempt to draw the room’s attention. Look at me! Look at me!
Then the thought crossed my mind; if I raise my hand, people might look at me. The secret would be out. They would know. Would they laugh or point? Would they think I was a loser?
My anxiety began to boil over. The shaking in my body increased. Should I raise my hand? Do I dare admit that I’m an alcoholic in front of a bunch of strangers? My brain started to work overtime, racing for an answer. What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?
It was now or never. It felt like the test of a lifetime, and I was going to fail completely if I didn’t raise my hand.
I slowly raised my hand amongst the forest of hands that surrounded me. No one laughed, stared, or pointed. It only lasted a second, but I felt an enormous wave of energy run through my body, exhilaration, hope, anger, and terror all surging through my veins simultaneously. I didn’t realize it at that moment, but by raising my hand and admitting I was an alcoholic, openly and publicly, I was taking the first genuine step forward in recovery. In that split second, I had the opportunity to announce something incredibly painful and scary – I was an alcoholic and needed help.
As I lowered my hand, a single word popped into my head; welcome.
Meeting Saint Paul
Many of us have tried to get sober on our own, usually failing miserably. We convince ourselves that if we’re just strong enough, or intelligent enough, we can overcome our compulsion to drink. I tried this myself many times. I tried to get sober on my own, so often I lost count. At one point, I even tried acupuncture.
Somehow I convinced myself that if I could just find a wise old Chinese man to stick needles into my body, the obsession to drink would miraculously disappear. I tried it a few times, but sticking needles in me wasn’t going to remove over thirty years of addiction and self-destructive impulses. What I truly needed, and what I eventually found, was interaction with other people who were alcoholics just like me, people who understood the insanity of my mind and my deep need to self-medicate.
I first met Paul outside a meeting. I was standing around by myself smoking a cigarette, reluctant and scared to enter the meeting as usual (it took me several months before I was comfortable going to meetings, but I’ll get to that later). I was only a few days sober when I saw this stocky, handsome guy with a goatee walking in my direction. The first thing I noticed about him was the way he walked. He had swagger, a cockiness that announced his bravado long before he arrived.
“Hi, I’m Paul. Can I bum one of those?”
I fumbled for a cigarette.
“Going to the meeting?” he asked.
“I think so.” I handed him a smoke.
“You think so? Either you are, or you aren’t.” He said this with a devilish smirk, an expression I was going to become very familiar with over time.
“I guess so. Yes.”
He smiled and took a drag off his smoke. He looked like a cat teasing a mouse.
“You new?” he inquired.
“To the program?”
“Oh, yes. I’m new. Few days.”
“Fantastic!” He seemed genuinely thrilled. That was another weird thing I noticed about people in the 12 step community; everyone would get so excited when I told them I was “new,” like I had won the lottery, and they were eager to share the spoils.
Paul stuck out his hand like a proud father. I shook it, slightly embarrassed.
“Welcome,” he said with that devilish smile. “You’re in the right place.”
I had no idea why he thought I was in the right place, but he seemed to know what he was talking about, so I just shrugged my shoulders.
“See you inside.”
And as quickly as he arrived, he was gone, heading toward the doorway to the meeting.
Over the years, I have often thought that Paul showed up in my life that day for a reason, that some kind of divine energy had coordinated our first encounter. I know that sounds like bullshit, but there’s no other way to explain it. He was exactly the person I needed in my life at that moment in time.
I ran into him a few days later, at another meeting. That was the day he became my first sponsor, the person who would lead me through the twelve steps and guide me out of the bitterness, self-loathing, and fear that was at the root of my addiction. I call him Saint Paul because that’s what he was to me; an angel and a saint with a goatee, a sly grin, and a huge heart.
One of the most terrifying moments of my recovery was admitting that I was powerless over alcohol.
Step One in the 12 steps states that we are powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable as a direct result of our relationship with alcohol. While I was willing to accept that I drank too much and too often, the idea that I was POWERLESS over alcohol seemed a bit far-fetched.
The word “powerless” implies weakness. Who the hell wants to admit they are weak or dominated by something outside of themselves? Combine that with an over-bloated sense of entitlement and narcissism, asking me to admit that I was powerless over anything felt insulting and demeaning.
How dare you ask me to admit I have no control of something as small and petty as alcohol! Don’t you realize how special and remarkable I am? Perhaps I drink too much, maybe way too much. But I’m certainly not powerless over alcohol or anything else! Fuck you.
Paul asked me to write down everything I could remember about my experience with alcohol, the good and the bad — how it started, how it progressed, and how it ended up. Then I was to write out all the insanity that had occurred over the years and how that insanity led me to seek help.
That night I wrote out my confessional in a torrent of words that spilled out of me with shocking speed and force. I was amazed at how fast my tale of self-destruction poured out. Once I began to write, it was like a dam breaking. What emerged on those pages was a lifetime of fear and insecurity that I tried to kill with vodka, beer, and wine (and quite a few other things). When I reviewed it the story seemed bleak and frightening — a sordid tale of debauchery, stupidity, and recklessness.
When it came time for me to read my story back to him, I fully expected Paul to look at me with equal shock and dismay. I was prepared for him to turn away, disgusted by my pathetic excuse of an existence. Indeed, my tale was going to expose me as the lowest form of human excrement that he had ever encountered.
Instead, he listened silently while puffing on a cigar, grinning, and occasionally chuckling at the craziest parts of my story. Otherwise, he remained expressionless.
When I finally finished reading all those many pages to him, Paul said simply:
Good job? That’s it? I had spilled my guts out in gory detail. I was expecting something along the lines of: “You sick bastard! Get thee behind me, Satan.”
But he didn’t seem shocked or disturbed at all. What I would come to learn was that my experience was more typical than unique. I was just another insecure man who turned to alcohol for strength and comfort, but once I took that first drink, all bets were off. I couldn’t stop once I started. Alcohol gave me everything I thought I needed, even when it was destroying my life. It turns out I was just another run-of-the-mill drunk, no worse or better than a million other alcoholics stumbling around the planet. I found it strangely comforting to know I was more typical than unique and that maybe I wasn’t quite the freak show I assumed I was.
Later that night, having shared my tale with Paul, I felt lighter, less polluted by guilt and shame. A part of me was released. A shift had taken place. For the first time in many years, I slept better than I had in a long time.
I cried so much in those early days that it’s difficult remembering what exactly I was crying about all the time. But I definitely cried an awful lot.
It would overwhelm me suddenly, unexpectedly, without warning. I would be watching TV, taking a walk, or reading a book, or eating an apple, and something would trigger the tears. I would begin to sob, at times uncontrollably, like a child who just saw his puppy get hit by a car.
Now that the numbing agent of alcohol was absent from my life, everything started to rise to the surface unabated. I would be flooded by emotions that I wasn’t aware of nor wanted to experience. But they came out, nonetheless, despite my best efforts to control them. Crying became a regular thing for the first few months of my sobriety.
Human beings need to express their emotions. It’s as natural as breathing. But as alcoholics, we often choose to suppress unpleasant and painful feelings by drinking them away. Even positive emotions like joy, excitement, and love can often feel prickly and overwhelming. They sting too much. Drinking away positive emotions is as common as drinking away bad ones. Either way, we prefer to remain as numb as possible, lest we feel too much. Why feel anything if we can just open a bottle and feel nothing?
I was frightened by the constant feelings that bombarded me like I was under siege. It never seemed to end. One moment I’d be calm and laughing; seconds later, I’d be weeping like a baby. It was weird and sort of pathetic.
I remember watching a movie one night in my apartment. The film was “Sister Act” with Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith. At one point, Maggie Smith’s character says to Whoopi’s character, “God has brought you here – take the hint.”
That was all it took. The flood gates opened. In that single line, I felt like I was receiving a message about my own life: God has brought you here (to sobriety), so don’t fuck it up like everything else in your life.
I began to sob and weep uncontrollably. I couldn’t contain it. I’m watching a comedy and bawling my eyes out like an infant.
And in a way, that’s what I was – an infant. I was so new to the concept of feelings and emotions that I was unable to process them in a reasonable manner. Crying just became a part of my day, often several times per day.
It took me a long time to learn how to process my emotions like a healthy adult (several years, in fact). I will never be an altogether “normal” person when it comes to emotions. Emotions still scare me. But one thing I learned in those early days of recovery was that emotions are simply a part of being alive. Running from them, numbing them, drinking them away, is never going to make them disappear. At most, emotions and feelings go dormant for a while. But at some point, they always rise back to the surface. It’s best if I just meet them head-on and deal with them then and there, as soon as they appear.
One thing I learned to appreciate about in 12 step meetings is that people are so damn willing and eager to share their emotions with others, out loud and proud for the whole world to see and hear. People laugh as readily as they cry in meetings. It was strange as hell at first, but over time I got used to being around people expressing themselves openly in meetings. Eventually, I got comfortable enough to do the same thing, too.
I was still a long way from opening up too much in front of other people, but I was starting to tap into something deeper within me that was struggling to get out.
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