This is a weekly column about abstinence based twelve step recovery, finding small moments of beauty, and getting over your ex.
No one finds themselves at an AA meeting because they want to practice. No one walks in with their life still intact, feeling they could benefit from slowing down on the booze a little. They go because they’ve lost something: a relationship, a family member, a part of themselves.
They go because they’ve hit rock bottom, reached a place wherein it seems that life cannot possibly get any worse. The pain of it cauterizing any sense of pride or self-worth that they have left.
Then all of a sudden, they are introducing themselves to a room full of strangers bitterly uttering the words they swore they’d never have to say:
“I’m an alcoholic.”
People find themselves at an AA meeting because they want to stop drinking but have no idea how. They need someone or something to show them a better way.
That was how I ended up at my first meeting. And once again, this column is only my experience and no one else’s. It was the start of me trying to learn how to figure myself out. How to keep myself from going insane.
Sorry for writing with a little undue authority there. I just thought it sounded dramatic and cool.
I’d like you to now close your eyes and imagine what its like to attend an AA meeting.
Do you envision a bunch of fold-out chairs arranged in a circle in an old gymnasium? Perhaps, a big shiny percolator surrounded by Styrofoam cups and those paddle pops manufactured by the millions purely to stir coffee?
What about the people there?
Are you imagining grizzled old white guys in beards and blue singlets?
Maybe a few younger people circling around the edges with track marks and other abrasions up and down their arms?
People with their heads in their hands? Cigarettes and sighs? A lot of crying?
That’s what I imagined AA to be. It’s what TV shows and movies had sold me and some of it was spot on. But most of it was a gross oversimplification of what these meetings are and the kind of people who attend them.
For instance, someone usually brings everybody their own glass coffee cups and teaspoons from home.
The first thing I saw when I entered the meeting area was two large white linen banners with something like scripture emblazoned on them. The word ‘God’ in a Victorian font awoke no small amount of lapsed-catholic guilt in me.
Brendan led the way as we sidled between plastic tables and chairs towards the coffee station. A small circle of middle-aged men had gathered there talking jovially. Each of them warmly shook our hands in greeting and showed great interest when I told them that it was my first meeting. They each seemed to have something in their eyes. I couldn’t make out what it was. Maybe what I saw there was contentment. But the deeper I looked the more a sense of sadness and loss also stood out to me.
Brendan and I stood with our backs to the wall smoking and drinking coffee. I looked at the banners again, this time noticing that the writing wasn’t scripture but a sequence of 12 steps. And beside that 12 more rules. Brendan was looking at them too, then we both looked at each other.
Fuck, was this a cult?
Before we had a moment to verbalise that thought the meeting was called to session, and we hurriedly butted out our cigarettes and took our seats. There were around fifteen people; mostly older men but there were a few women and younger people too. And no blue singlets.
Some of the group veterans explained the nature of the meeting and how it worked. But I couldn’t focus enough to listen.
I was still thinking about what my ex had said on the phone. The way her accent sounded somehow jarring. The lack of emotion in her voice when she said my name.
Someone else began talking and my eyes snapped up at their voice. I learnt that this was an ID meeting, where people talk about their history with alcohol. First drink to last.
And then the sharing begun.
I considered for a long time whether to include people’s shares in this column. Whether these stories (even filtered through anonymity) would ever be mine to write down. I concluded that doing so would be inappropriate for reasons we will get into later.
At this first meeting I was taken aback by people’s bluntness and honesty. All the shit that was going on inside their heads. And how some of it described what I was going through almost exactly.
After five or so shares I was called upon to speak. By this point my feelings as to the cult-like nature of this gathering had melted away.
I wanted to be brave like those who spoke before me. With a nod and a smile from Brandon, I began.
Here is, to my best recollection, what I said during that first meeting:
I don’t really remember my first drink. I think maybe when I was 12 or 13 my friends and I drank from one of our parents liquor cabinets, but I didn’t really get much of a buzz from it. Later on, when I was about fifteen or so my friends and I went out for Halloween and my brother bought me a 6 pack of UDLs. I drank them on the oval of Ascot state school away from my friends.
I’ve always felt like I was different. Like there was something going on between other people that I didn’t get. Even small social situations like getting on a bus or buying something from a convenience store caused me huge amounts of anxiety. But when I got drunk that feeling melted away. I could be articulate and confident, and I felt calm in any situation. Being drunk made me feel happy. It felt like my superpower. I felt like I’d finally found the thing I’d been waiting for my entire life.
That Halloween night at Ascot state school ended with me being beaten by a grown man in a gorilla costume. It was also the first time I was intoxicated in police custody. But I didn’t see any of this as a negative or bad experience. I thought it made me cool.
We started going to house parties and drinking almost every weekend. I was dealing a little weed on the side. But I found getting high to be a little boring. Beer and whiskey and cigarettes were my favourite feeling.
When I graduated, I did a gap year. I went to Malawi with the Anglican church to teach at a primary school. I did this purely for selfish reasons. I thought it would make me better than the other guys at my school. More mature and worldly. It had nothing to do with helping people in hindsight.
I was quite tall and lanky, and I had kind of a scraggly beard going on. Most people in the village where I lived didn’t clock me as seventeen, they thought I was in my mid-twenties. I soon fell in with a crowd of older men who loved to drink. Thanks to the exchange rate I had a ton of money and my mother had sent over enough for me to buy a motorcycle. I spent most of the six months I was there riding around getting drunk in various places and getting into trouble. Soon enough the American priest who was running the organisation took notice of this and that my students were failing their exams. After a violent incident involving me and some of my friends at the village bar, he pulled me into his office and told me it was best if I left the country.
When I got back to Australia, I was eighteen and could go out and drink whenever I wanted. And that’s what I did. I started a teaching degree, but I dropped out in the second year. I kept a few jobs, but I didn’t care for them or the people I worked with. I found I was always the last one left drinking amongst my friends and that I would usually go home to drink more alone. I found I liked being drunk alone just as much if not more than being drunk with other people. And then eventually that I liked being drunk alone more than I liked anything else.
I had a few relationships and my drinking caused issues in them.
I fell in love last year for the first time, but I ran into the same issues and we broke up. We talked on the phone while I was black out drunk, and I don’t remember what I said. But from what I gather I must have told her that I didn’t love her at all, that I hated her.
I got sober this year because I thought I might be able to get her back somehow. We still message each other a little bit. This week she told me she was in love with someone else and that I’d probably never see her again. I couldn’t deal with it. I knew that If I drank again now, I’d never stop. I’d never want or need to stop.
So, I decided to come and talk to you guys instead and I’m happy to be here. *
Speaking about it felt natural. Easy.
I looked at people as I spoke. I saw some of them nodding in my peripheries. Everything that had been weighing on me over that past week went out of my head while I was speaking. It came flooding back in after the meeting of course. But that little bit of respite was enough for me to begin to understand that I wouldn’t feel as bad as I had been feeling forever.
After the meeting one of the jovial men I had spoken to at the beginning approached me and thanked me for sharing. His name was Jack, and it was the story he had shared that I related to the most. He had also given up on drinking and found himself at AA when he was 25. That was over 20 years ago now. As he spoke to me, I looked into his eyes again for that sadness I thought I had seen before. But I didn’t see it.
Perhaps it was never there.
“You know regardless of how bad you think it is, It’s never too late mate. You can have a good life.”
You can have a good life.
If this column has raised issues for you about your own alcohol consumption and you’d like to talk to someone, you can contact AA General Service Office 24 hours a day on (03) 9529 5948. A family member or a friend may be a great option too. We’re never alone even if we feel like we are.
The worlds better with you in it.
*I know there are a few details in what you have just read that you may like me to tell you more about. We’ve got a few more instalments of this column to go so we might get to it.
Editors: David Farr and Grace Harvey