Zen Mind, Alkie Mind
I didn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous to find God. I didn’t go to AA to get sober, even. In 1979, at the age of 21, I went to my first AA meeting looking for bad boys in leather jackets, Lou Reed wannabes. My best friend, who I’d met in OA-Overeaters Anonymous-was the one who tipped me off. There was a meeting in one of the cooler neighborhoods in my dying steel town, a meeting where the air hung heavy with smoke and stories about Patti Smith waking people out of their junkie stupors. The people who attended even committed a big AA no-no-they mixed their talk of drinking with talk of drugs, just as they had when they were using.
Did I want to go?
So I went to my first AA meeting the way most people I know did: for all the wrong reasons. Talk to most people who stick around AA for any length of time, and as the fumes clear from their brains, the story they tell of their early sobriety sounds less like an epiphany, and more like an earthquake they barely survived. No one marches proudly to a first meeting. There are courts and crawling and police and slithering involved.
I slunk to my first meeting. I didn’t think I had a drinking problem. In my 21 years, I’d managed to eat my way up to 170 and starve myself down to 74 pounds (I’m 5’3″), and when I entered Overeaters Anonymous, I was mildly overweight. You wouldn’t have noticed me on the street, either for my heft or lack thereof. But I was plagued with rage flashbacks over my formerly anorexic state, and I couldn’t control my eating. Overeaters Anonymous helped, though I wasn’t sure why. I learned that the program itself was modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, the granddaddy of recovery programs. This intrigued me.
OA was, at the time, overwhelmingly female. AA…well, it was started by a male stockbroker and a male doctor. If you pick up the book, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA’s famed “Big Book”), filled with AA stories, you’ll notice that it’s mostly about men and their drinking, circa the Depression. The text reeks of three-piece suits and hard liquor. There’s even a charmingly antique chapter titled “To Wives.” Decades after AA began, it still had a distinctly male cast to it. And for me, that was part of its appeal. I was horny and lonely and 21, and my old drinking and eating buddies weren’t cutting it anymore.
Also, AA stories are filled with dramatic brushes with death. In OA, you rarely heard much about that. (Now, with the uptick in anorexia and morbid obesity, I’m not so sure.) I’d never collapsed with a needle in my arm, but at my thinnest, I had passed out on a nurse taking blood-I hadn’t eaten in two days. I’d starved myself so much I gave myself visual and auditory hallucinations. The nurse in my high school had warned me that if I got one more flu, I’d be dead. During the worst parts of my anorexia, I had wished I was a heroin addict, so that I could be cool while I did my dying. I was a sick girl. I could, as they said in AA, identify.
But I wasn’t crazy about the prayers that bookended any 12-step meeting I attended-an Our Father at the beginning, the Serenity Prayer at the end-even if the invitation to pray the latter began with “Will all those who care to, please join me in the Serenity Prayer.” But though it had been years since I’d attended Mass without duress, and though I felt that talking about God the Father just reinforced the patriarchy, I said all the prayers. Said them out loud. Held every hand that wanted to be held. Because in the end, I wanted to belong, I wanted to be part of the Lou Reed wannabe club.
Which didn’t stop me from feeling like a big fake on two fronts. Drinking was number one. I didn’t have the requisite big story. I’d broken up somebody’s marriage when I was 17, but that was a mostly sober, if stupid, time. I’d slept with people I hadn’t wanted to sleep with-but, with one flashy exception, I’d done that without boozing it up either. My drinking story was mostly about hanging around in gay bars with men who weren’t going to sleep with me, and coming up with ideas for movies and novels I couldn’t remember in the morning. My big failures were mostly about the incompletes I pulled in my English classes-which, thanks to the loosey-goosey liberal college I went to, just sat there, not even affecting my grades. I never ruined a business. I never threw a pet out a window. I never drove a car up the steps of a children’s hospital. I never punched out a blind kid. In AA story terms, I felt like a piker.
Then there was the God thing. If you open the AA “Big Book,” the cornerstone of AA philosophy, the language is both explicit and mysterious. Nobody gets better from alcoholism without a reliance on God-on something or someone bigger than your drunken, sorry self. AA is a spiritually spacious enough place to add the words “as you understand him,” after the word God. But in the meetings I went to, in my hometown, people were quite open about their faiths, and the meetings reflected that. Nobody questioned whether the prayers should be said, or that somebody upstairs was listening.
This was my dirty secret. I was a junkie for AA stories. When I thought about God, though, I thought about other people. The other people in the rooms. Their stories. How the stories all started the same way, and repeated, and repeated. That’s what addiction is: the same old stupid story, told in body after body. Cars crashed, marriages wrecked, jobs ended. That was the way every AA story began. And then, there’s the part that always woke me up: the day of stopping. That’s the day when you stop thinking of your life in the passive voice, when things stop happening to you, and you realize that you did them. As a writer, this fascinated me. If you stayed sober, you got to tell new stories about your life; you got to move from object to subject, from secondary character to protagonist. Ongoing recovery is a cliffhanger: I kept coming back to see if people had really pulled it off another hour, another day, another week.
By Christmas, I had joined the club, calling myself an alcoholic, though I hadn’t quite stopped drinking. In AA lingo, I was a “periodic,” someone who could go long days, longer weeks, without drinking, and fool herself that I had no problem, though the bottle sat square in the middle of my mind.
Then I went to a Christmas party, a big shindig at a local hotel, with booze and food and booze and food. The party marked the end of a temp job I’d had-one of three I’d had since I graduated from college six months before. The only thing I had to look forward to was more unemployment, more strange days in my parents’ big, sad house.
AA is a perverse little thing. One of the things they tell you in AA, that if you’re not sure you’re an alcoholic, go out and drink some more, try it on for size. In meetings, I’d hear people say piously, “AA ruined my drinking,” and I’d think, “What bullshit.” But as I ate and drank my way through the party, I kept waiting without results for the mixed drinks to give me that sweet wild lift. I kept waiting for the chocolate to make me wired and smart. I waited for the gin to take me to the place I used to go.
Someone gave me a ride home. In the living room, my father slept, while on the stereo, Charlie Parker, Dad’s favorite addict jazzman, played so loud that you could hear him four houses away.
I stumbled around the kitchen, looking for something to put in my mouth. I finished the dregs of one of my father’s drinks, a Martini with a lemon twist. All I could taste was metal.
“Oh, God,” I said. And put it down for good.
That was it for my epiphany. That was the white light moment that people often talk about when they tell their AA stories in church basements and synagogue social halls. The taste of metal, and Charlie Parker wailing in the next room, and using the name of the deity as curse word.
I stopped drinking and waited for God to show up again. Through the years I said the prayers. One of my 12-step friends confessed that for her, God was a black woman with a big lap, the Aunt Jemima of Jesus figures. When I imagined God at all I saw a blur. I was too much a self-aware feminist to see God as Big Daddy, even if I did say the Our Father. And I was too skeptical of the goddess culture to see Her as the Venus of Willendorf.
But I did do the things that are supposed to get you “conscious contact” with a God “as you understand him.” I did a “fearless and searching moral inventory” with a woman who looked like a cross between Joni Mitchell and Mimi Rogers. I made a list of my character defects, as AA suggests, and I burned it, as my AA sponsor, slightly Wiccan, recommended. Then I made amends-I sought out those who had been harmed by those character defects.
I was raised Roman Catholic in the middle of the 1960s, just old enough to memorize the Mass in Latin in first grade and then never use it again. I never liked confession-in fact, very early on, I began to make up my sins, just to see if the priest would catch me. He never did, which made me cynical and smug: I was a good storyteller.
When I made amends to people, it never quite worked out the way I planned it. I didn’t get that neat and tidy resolution that being in the confessional used to give me. People spilled or sprawled or spit at me. And yet somehow, I felt better than I ever did exiting confession.
But God wasn’t a piece of this, either. Making amends to people I had harmed, either on a periodic or a daily basis, didn’t show me my Higher Power. It just made my story that much more interesting.
Perhaps the central miracle of my sober life isn’t, in fact my own. It was-it is-my father’s sobriety. Three months after I gave up the drinking ghost, my father checked himself into rehab. He had wandered away from an important business lunch, driven without a license, smashed up a car, and finally, while detoxing, slit an artery in his head as he convulsed, reaching for a Diet 7-Up in a refrigerator.
Dad and I rarely went to meetings together. But we often encountered each other, with surprise and pleasure, like old buddies bumping into each other at a bar. Dad fell in love with AA, so much so that some of his friends referred to him as “the Mayor.” He dressed for meetings, with jaunty hat, and an extra handkerchief, he said, to wipe off the lipstick of all the ladies who wanted to kiss him hello.
Then doctors found a lump of cancer in my father’s brain. The size of a baseball, they said, the cliché especially infuriating because Dad loathed sports.
But Dad got the picture. He threatened suicide. He urinated on a Barcalounger chair in his hospital room and didn’t even notice. One of Dad’s dearest AA pals was in the room when it happened. Dad’s pal acted as if nothing was wrong. And indeed, nothing was. The air smelled of urine, and they went on talking. If they’d been drunk together, they wouldn’t have mentioned the pee, either.
During that year, I staggered back to some kind of faith. It is either a good thing or a very bad thing that Dad got cancer just as new age medical folks were starting to make the mind-body connection. I bought it big-time. I wanted to believe that Dad’s brain was strong enough to talk back to the cancer. After all, he’d rewired himself for sobriety, hadn’t he?
Dad and I now visualized like bastards, imagining the cancer beaten back by a series of military metaphors. But that’s when Dad’s mostly dormant Catholic imagery came to the fore.
“I’m a piece of coal, and God’s dropped me from his airplane, and I’m plunging through the earth,” Dad said.
Meanwhile, AA folks attended my father in droves. It was not unusual to for a crew to show up at our house to literally lift Dad into a car to get him to a meeting. When Dad lost the ability to walk, Dad’s sponsor created an ad hoc meeting at our house. When Dad fell into a coma, AA members read to him in the hospital room, as the smell of his bedsores filled the room.
When he died, we buried him with his hat.
Even during the year of my father’s cancer, the idea of drinking didn’t really occur to me. The idea of suicide did, though, especially after my live-in boyfriend had a drunken romp with a man with herpes, in the house of a mutual friend. It wasn’t so much I wanted to die, as I just didn’t want to be alive anymore. I went to meetings in a state of fury. I spoke in tongues. I could barely hear what people said, but I didn’t drink.
I wasn’t angry with God that year, only cancer. I didn’t think God was all that interested in cancer. But every time I would admire His Handiwork, I would also spot some place where His Chaos was in full bloom. After my father’s death, the idea of God stopped making any sense to me at all.
When people first come to AA, shaking and dry and wrecked, they are urged to “use the group,” to “act as if,” to “fake it until you make it.” In the beginning, I found most of these slogans loathsomely saccharine. Now, I use them incessantly. I’ve gone from thinking that AA was mostly made of morons to becoming convinced that AA founders Dr. Bob and Bill W. managed to careen their way to a kind of elegant American Buddhism. Kind of Zen Mind, Alkie Mind.
Because when I go to meetings now, I feel more at home than ever. I live in a big city where it is possible to find all flavors of AA meetings, including those aimed at the agnostic. But that isn’t why I feel at home. I don’t believe in God, and I say so, and no one throws me out. Because ultimately, the only requirement for AA membership, as I hear in every meeting, is a desire to stop drinking. And I still want that.
Some people may thank me for my sharing. Still others, I am sure, think I will drink soon. It has been 21 years since I did, but they may be right. It matters less and less to me what I believe, and more and more to me that I show up, a day at a time, in my life, and listen to the stories of others doing the same thing. Occasionally, I offer advice, mostly in the form of-stories about my life. My most usual prayer is the AA short form of the Serenity Prayer, which is: “Fuck it.” This feels like enough.
AA is quite short on absolutes, but there is a portion in the AA “Big Book” that suggests that if you stick around, your life will change, and get better. Mine certainly has. I’m married now, to a man I love, and I have a mother-in-law I adore.
More than fifty years ago, my Jewish mother-in-law survived her time in the concentration camps by pretending to be Christian. She memorized the Hail Mary in Polish, and she has never, to this day, forgotten it. She never believed in the prayer, but it still saved her life.
Recently, my husband and I began volunteering at an animal shelter in a bombed out part of a city known for its drug trade. At the shelter, we walk a dog that, when we buy our home, we may adopt. She is a two-year-old beagle mix, already the mother of puppies, already abandoned once on the streets. She was distant when we first walked her, pulling on the leash, not the least interested in us. Now she nuzzles us, nips us, runs with us. Now yanks us forward, takes us where we don’t want to go. We avoid broken bottles and syringes and fast food wrappers, but we try to follow her lead. Last week, the dog yanked us down a solitary street-and suddenly, we were on a pretty patch of grass.
Her name is Faith.