A Breath of Clean Air

I came to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous by way of a suicide hotline on October 24, 2001.  The woman who answered the phone was kind.  I told her that I had a problem with alcohol.  She asked if I had ever tried AA.  I told her that at this point, I would try anything.  I was desperate, I wanted to die; after all, I had called a suicide hotline.  She said there was a meeting very close to where I lived at 6:30 that evening, that it happened to be her home group.  It was called Clean Air.  It was morning when I called her.  That meant I had hours to wait for the meeting.  I spent the day in morbid reflection of my situation.  I had cast everything good out of my life because of my behavior while drinking:  my job, my appearance, the health of my marriage and the friends in my life.  The last straw had been the loss of the one person in my life who I thought would never abandon me, my best friend Christy.  In the week prior she had not returned my calls.  Finally I had heard from her husband, who said that they just couldn’t have me in their lives at this point because of my behavior.  I was devastated.  I thought of dying and nothing else.  I was an atheist; I had no higher power to turn to, nothing larger than myself to give these feelings over to.  I didn’t even know the concept, having turned away from the church and God as a rebellious young girl of thirteen.  I had a psychiatrist from whom I got my meds but I had not seen a therapist in years.  My husband was already freaked out by my drinking and behavior; sharing with him that I wanted to die would have sent him over the edge.  I slept eighteen hours a day and drank during my waking hours.  By the time I went to the meeting that night I was full to the top of despair.

Clean Air was my salvation.  I was relieved at once of the desire to drink, which was a miracle.  I had not gone more than a day or two without a drink in the last five years.  I became a very active member overnight, going to three meetings a day, having breakfast after the morning meeting, lunch after the noon meeting and dinner after the evening meeting.  I went to every function and group conscious meeting.  I got a sponsor and started working the steps.  Clean Air became my family.  I know I was insane, but they loved me just the way I was.  Some of them told me things I didn’t like to hear, in fact I left meetings and refused to speak to some people over some of their advice from time to time, but the wisdom of their words would always sink in eventually.

After eight and a half years around the rooms of AA I know that Clean Air is something of an anomaly, or at least it was during that time.  This was God doing for me what I could not do for myself.  I was protected from some of the behaviors that I have since experienced in other groups, specifically the rumor mills and the predatory men.   All I knew at Clean Air was love and support.  I had the impunity to practice my program and get well.  I won’t exaggerate here and say that there weren’t other sick alcoholics around me, there were.  I had my share of shady experiences, but no men ever tried to get into my pants and no one ever whispered stories into my ear about any one’s private lives.  Perhaps these things went on but I was delivered from them.

I spent five years at Clean Air.  I chaired meetings, sponsored women and led a speaker meeting for a year and a half, which was both a challenge and an honor.  I drifted away from the group when I moved to another area of Dallas, where there was a clubhouse less than a block from my home, but I returned to Clean Air from time to time.  My relapse began shortly before I moved away from Dallas in July of 2006.  I went to the Sunday morning meeting the day before I left Dallas and asked for a desire chip, sometimes called a 24 hour coin.  My sponsor was chairing the meeting.  I had blamed her for my relapse.  We had not spoken in more than a month.  She handed me my coin.  It was the last time I was to see her or Clean Air in three and a half years.


The Gifts We Receive

I have these two beautiful women in my life.  I actually have four, but two of them are out of my sight, one in a treatment center and one in prison, I don’t hear from them often.  The two I speak of are here in town and I work with them face to face.  They attend the same meetings as I do and I am taking them through the work as I have been shown to by the wonderful women who have been placed on my journey of recovery.

I have been working with L1 since September.  She is in her sex inventory, a part of the work that I have found to be even more valuable and revealing than the resentment inventory.  It has been such a joy to see her develop a personal relationship with God.  She has had damaging experiences with religion and has been able to heal them by seeking new spiritual paths and with the simple kit of spiritual tools offered through the 12 steps.  She is a delight to work with.  We laugh and share our desperation simultaneously.

L2 is brand new, we have just begun the journey together.  She sent me a text the other night to say that she had begun her fourth step.  “Whoa, turbo!”, I replied, “You’re still on step one!”  I told her that if she needed relief and thought she was ready to go forward there was a way to take 1-3 and get on with the action steps.  1 and 2, after all, are proposals, and 3 is a decision.  She said that she was, indeed, ready.  She has said repeatedly in meetings that she has not crossed the bridge from reason to faith where God is concerned, but she told me this:  “He has put you in my life.”  This was all I needed to hear to be sure that she is ready to turn her will and her life over to the care of God as she understands Him. I told her that we will have to meet at my place, that I won’t have her on her knees in the cold clubhouse, giving herself to God while someone busts in the door unexpectedly.  She is as willing as I’ve ever seen someone know how to be, as willing as only the dying can be.  This is all we need to make our beginning.

I am humbled and grateful to be of service to these women.  I am also aware that God is doing for me what I could never do for myself.  When I was practicing my disease I could never have given of myself in this way.  I could barely have a telephone conversation with a friend without wanting to scream and hang up when they talked about themselves.  Now I can’t wait to hear what the people in my life have to share about themselves, even and especially the non-alcoholic ones.  It’s actually refreshing to chat with a “normal” person, to hear about the every day details of a life not concerned with daily reprieves or carrying messages, just day to day happenings and the kool-aid stain on the carpet.

I love our way of life.  It is infinitely more satisfying than anything I could have planned for myself.  It grows every day.  What first seemed a flimsy reed turned out to be the loving and powerful hand of God.

A Rough Landing

The plane has not crashed into the mountain, but the passengers are pretty jitzed regardless. I had to check my best friend into detox on Saturday. She woke me up at 1:30 in the morning to tell me that, even though she’s been claiming to be clean and sober since July, she has never stopped abusing her drug of choice, Oxycontin. She also got drunk last week and high with a friend she went to high school with. She’s 32 and has been sober for just a year since she was in high school, back in her early 20’s.

She is already telling the staff that she doesn’t want to stay, but I am her ride home. She is an hour and a half away from here; there is no residential detox or treatment in this, the wealthiest county in the state of Wyoming. I had to procure a bed for her in the neighboring city of Sheridan. She took more of the drug before we left town and was completely out of it when we got to the facility.

I had not seen this happening. Addicts are the best liars. I will not take her call. I have such a hard time saying no to her, which is why I no longer sponsor her. She will find a way out of there if she wants it bad enough, but it won’t be from me.

Expect a Miracle

This is a response to an email from a friend who just moved to another city.  He went to a group attended by members who were not so welcoming.  The second paragraph, in particular, addresses not-so-welcoming AA’s:

I heard L’s fifth step yesterday, it took from 1:00 until 6:45. She had 94 items on her 4th step. It was pretty amazing. She is an exceptional woman. I love her. We have developed something pretty special in the time that we have known each other and have been working together. C’s dad took him for the day, which was such a blessing. We would never have gotten through it in the time that we did with him there. He is a neat kid but he has issues. It was quite an experience for me, I learned as much as she did, I’m sure. I went out to dinner with a friend and then to the 10:00, the topic was resentments. I was a little disappointed in J, who seemed to gloss over the fact that there was a newcomer in the room. Had I been chairing the meeting I would not have chosen a topic from our fourth step–page 30 would have been the suggested topic, or something from step one on the 12×12. I like to read the passage about admitting complete defeat when a newcomer identifies themselves. When my turn came I talked about my first meeting and what the topic was: the slogans. I cried through the whole meeting, I was the last to share. The majority of the folks there said that “One Day at a Time” was the slogan they liked the best. I don’t recall exactly what was said by anyone in particular. I kept looking at the podium, situated off to the side of the room. Hanging from the front of it was a sign that read: “Expect a Miracle”. When the discussion got to me I introduced myself and said that would have to be my slogan since a miracle was going to have to be necessary to get me sober. I shared with the group last night that a miracle had taken place that night, and several since then. I pointed out the line from the Dr.’s Opinion where Dr. Silkworth says “You may rely absolutely on anything they say about themselves in this book”, and how I had indeed come to do just that. I said that I was grateful that I had fallen in with a home group in early sobriety that relied on the book, on sponsorship and that believed in the program and the solution. I said that all over the book it talked about the hopelessness of our condition but that we need only read a few more lines and we could always find hope and demonstrations of faith. I cannot imagine having gone to my first meeting and hearing of nothing but resentments. Wait, I think I did. I was 15. I left thinking alcoholics were a bunch of old coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking complainers. Something on that night in September of 2001 helped me set aside everything I think I knew for an open mind and a new experience. It was desperation.

As for not very friendly groups, what is my home group now was not very friendly when I first attended there in 2006. I see now that this was in my perception. I suffer from a disease of the perception. The book tells me: “He will show you how to create the fellowship that you crave.” I just had to ask, and take action. I did, and that’s what happened. It was all in my perception. I had to set aside everything I think I knew about the meetings and the fellowship. It was tough. It took me two and a half years. At first I had to drink about it. It was so painful. I don’t want that again. The experience will help me to avoid that again.

The Part You Throw Away

I want that beggar’s eyes
a winning horse
a tidy Mexican divorce
St. Mary’s prayers
Houdini’s Hands
And a Barman who always
Will you lose the flowers
Hold on to the vase
Will you wipe all those teardrops
Away from your face
I can’t help thinking
As I close the door
I have done all of this
Many times before
From Tom Waits’ “The Part You Throw Away”
From Blood Money (2006)

God doesn’t make junk.  Such a trite cliche, heard so repeatedly in the years I’ve spent in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous you think I would believe it by now.  I do, about everyone but myself.  I don’t think you are worthless.  I tell my sponsees, other women in the fellowship and anyone suffering from the pains of growing up that He loves every one of us like there is only one of us.  This I truly believe, with all of my heart–about you.  Me:  I am the chaff.  The excess.  The part you throw away.  The military threw me away because I have a diseased mind.  I gave away my gifts to anyone who would have them, only to find them in the waste bin when I walked back into the empty room.  One thing I will say about my sister, she never even accepted my gifts.  The act of throwing them away never had to take place.  They were pre-disposed.  I guess I never built up enough credit in that relationship to schedule the gift-giving ceremony.

I know that God accepts my gifts, but sometimes my fear is disproportionately larger than my faith.  I get a sneaking suspicion at times that He disposed of me because I turned my face away from His light.  Today I told my dear friend in Dallas, someone vital to my early sobriety that I wondered why He didn’t shake me up sooner in life, why He let me wander, so lost for so long.  I know a young man who has a beautiful relationship with his Higher Power, one that gives him great joy.  He writes music to Christ and finds great comfort in His words.  He is 22 years old.  When I have conversations with him I cannot believe that the words are coming from the mouth of someone just shy of half my age.  Granted, he has been through acute spiritual, emotional and psychological pain in his young life which have made growth vital to his existence, but I am still in awe of this person.  He is my spiritual superior.  He has strength of character beyond anything I have ever come close to attaining.  His belief and conviction thereof make me reevaluate my own.  He is 22.  There is a spiritual high ground, a moral high ground;  I have realized through my friendship with this young man that I am on an age-based high ground.  Hello, square one.

I digress.  Back to the business of self pity, which is really just a form of self-centeredness.  Reading Tom’s eloquent words:  I want the world handed to me.  I will ignore the beauty of life and miss the forest for the trees.  I will hide my true self at any cost so as not to get hurt.  I will repeat those mistakes over and over again.

Ripe Summer Wheat

Doing for me what I cannot do for myself.

I met with my sponsor on a Saturday.  We talked about everything I have on my plate, which is quite a bit.  I won’t share everything, as I’m not a big fan of dragging out the details of my personal life, but I will say that we talked about my three sponsees.  She told me that I probably needed to get this number down to one.  I didn’t argue with her, I never do.  Argument is quite lost on her, especially from me.  She’s 28 years sober and has, I suspect, heard it all.  Besides, she is constantly telling me that I have to have things my way.  She’s right, and contention would only lend proof to her hypothesis.  Although I didn’t verbalize my resistance to her consideration, I was internally distraught.  I am fiercely dedicated to service.  I could no more imagine getting rid of two sponsees than the same number of toes; they mean that much to my own recovery.  I value her opinion, however, and remembered a wise suggestion I heard early in sobriety:  when you can no longer be of service to a sponsee, it is wise to guide them toward another sponsor, if possible.  I began to think of each girl and of possible women to suggest for each of them.  I was at great odds.  We live in a small town with a disproportionately large number of men in AA.  A great many of the women in recovery are chronic relapsers or simply not interested in sponsorship, preferring to spend their valuable spare time with family, church, etc.

I knew a few women I was ready to call when I got a call from one of the sponsees.  She said she had something to tell me.  She had been drinking with impunity.  She felt uncomfortable saying she was an alcoholic in meetings.  She did not think she was an alcoholic.  I have guided this woman all the way through the steps and watched her flourish.  She has finished her amends and watched the Promises come true in her life.  She told me that she still feels like she has that insane thinking but that alcohol is not the problem.  She was crying, saying that she was afraid of what this confession would do to our relationship.  My heart was heavy.  I told her that it must have been awful to have felt like she had to keep a secret and I asked her when I had ever gotten angry or judged her.  She said that I never had, which was true.  I then told her that my primary purpose was to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.  I told her that I could be her friend, that was all.  I told her that I was proud of her for being honest, that it had to have been a great relief to tell me.  She said it was.  We have spoken a few times since.  She was at a low point a couple of days later.  I told her that, alcoholism aside, I know I could not have come this far had I not made my relationship with God the primary one.  I have had many setbacks along the way, and there will be more, but I advance.  Yesterday I got a cheery text message from her.  I believe that all will be well.

The same night she made her confession, I got a text message from the second sponsee I was to cut from the roster.  We were to meet the next day.  I had only just begun sponsorship with her about a month before and it was spotty.  She is new to sobriety and to the program.  She seems to really want it but on her terms.  The text message said that she would not be meeting with me the next day, that she was grateful for everything I had done for her but that she was switching sponsors.  She said that she loved me “too much like a sister”.  Whether this is true or not is none of my business.  I have not heard from her since.  It has been four days.  I have spoken to my own sister 5 or 6 times in the last year, so that’s about right.

I am amazed at how this turned out.  I was up in arms over this situation, and it took care of itself.  We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Are these extravagant promises?  We think not.