By Christopher Green
Now I will not say anything more about my friend because that person has the right to remain anonymous; that’s the whole idea. The only reason I bring this up at all is to explain why it is that I found myself going to an AA meeting after 27 years of sobriety, 25 of which went by without going to meetings on anything resembling a regular basis.
Perhaps a meeting once every five years or so has been enough for me, girded my loins, so to speak. But I made it a point to go when someone asked me for help.
Now before we get any further, I have to make this perfectly clear: AA is a great institution and it helps tons of people to stop ruining their own as well as their family’s lives. I will always, always take a person in need to an AA meeting no matter how I personally feel.
So I went online and was looking over the list of meetings to find one that I could get in and out of with relative ease. No long walks, no more than five to ten steps to climb unless there was an elevator. I also wanted to pick one convenient for both of us.
As it turned out, the first meeting that met those basic criteria was a meeting I attended on a pretty regular basis back in the 80’s.
It wasn’t my home group because, as you all know from my prior posts about AA, I never really had a place that I could call my very own. I never really found a place where I could feel truly comfortable.
Like I said, this was one of those meetings that I went to almost every week for the better part of two years. A place where a lot of people I knew went. It was a perfect fit for both of us. Halfway between our homes, late enough to not be rushed after work and it was a 12 step discussion group.
And the church where the meeting was held was all on one floor, a big plus for me. No climbing up or down stairs for me. It’s hard enough when you hit 50, but when you have to, like I do, drag some Oxygen along, it becomes imperative.
American Protestants have it way over the Catholic when it comes to modern church design. The Protestants, bless their hearts, seem to take comfort and ease into consideration when constructing their churches, especially ones put up after WWII. Catholics, well, they are still hooked on that awe-inspiring/comfort- be-damned motif.
For those who know me, a discussion group would just have to be my favorite kind of meeting. And this meeting had a starter table so that folks new to the AA experience could ease into it by discussing that crucial First Step; We admit we are powerless over our addiction – that our lives have become unmanageable. Here is a link to all 12 steps.
I don’t care where you are on the Addiction Scale, but if you find yourself attending a meeting as part of a plea bargain, which I believe happens more often or than not, that first step kind of applies to you.
This particular meeting organized their discussions around the twelve steps of AA. Now remember, I explained in one of my posts from last year that I had never truly given myself over to the AA program. It was that third step, the one that really spells out the God involvement and so my problem with AA.
The third step goes like this: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. First of all, the patriarchal thing still gets me a little crazy. Yea, I’m a liberal and if you can’t see how much ordering our society around the patriarchal model has fucked everything up, well…
As far as the God thing goes, well I stopped believing in the Catholic brand of God way back, long before I quit drinking. You see years after my parents divorced, I discovered that my mom went to see the priest at St. Clement, our parish when I was just a kid. She was looking for some comfort…
The one time that I do remember my dad beating on my mother was probably because my older brother went after him. Steve couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 years old. He was swinging and kicking at him, trying to get my dad off my mother who was in the bathtub. I don’t remember how that particular incident ended. All I do know is that my mom and dad were pretty much broken up by the time I was 6 years old.
Whatever the case may be, from that day on, my brother Steve has always been my hero.
Back then, in the early 60’s, divorce was not an option for a person of the Catholic faith. I think all she really wanted from the church was some practical advice about what to do with my father, a man who several times over the course of their marriage had beat her black and blue.
The answer, from what I gather (remember I was awfully young when my parents called it quits), depended quite a bit on turning the other cheek. I bring up St. Clement not only because of my mother but because it has a major part to play in this saga of mine. And, given the way things were back then, I bet she would have received the same advice from pretty much any church she went to to seek comfort. I am not picking on St Clement.
Now my mom was able to separate that particular priest from the rest of the church, but when I found this out, that was the beginning of the end for me and the Catholic Church and ultimately with God, the way I understood “him”. Remember, this all came to light for me while I was still drinking.
I mentioned a while back that I stayed with AA for the better part of two years, sucking in all the good stuff and trying my damest to ignore the assholes that inevitably show up in any large organization.
I can’t tell you how many times I reached out to old timers, an affectionate way that AA’ers refer to guys, mostly guys, who have been working the program for decades, to ask how I could get around the third step if I didn’t believe in god.
I heard shit like “pray to the fucking tree, kid, if that makes you happy” so many times… Of course I stormed out of more meetings than I care to admit. But I kept going until I couldn’t take that relentless personal attack on how I viewed the world.
Now I do get the whole part about it being a good thing to submerge your ego into the program. A huge part of the AA experience, as I understand it, is to believe that perhaps the main reason you drink like you do is because you always put yourself over everything else, Nothing stood or stands in the way of you relentlessly getting to that all important next high.
It’s how the alcohol addiction, well, I guess all addiction, manifests itself and takes over your life. Whether it’s chemical in nature or because of some “flaw” in your character, the result is the same; you go out and get blotto all the time. It is your obsession and you cannot control it. Believe me, I tried.
Once you take that first mood altering substance, whatever it is, you are done. You can’t stop until you are wasted. Period. If you can walk away and get on with your life, then you are probably not an addict. You may have a problem, but you are not addicted. That’s where I draw the distinction.
I knew before I walked into my first meeting that I was defeated by the drink. And I firmly believed, and still do, that if I dared to take one drink today, I would end up right back where it was when I reached the bottom and sought the help of AA. Even after all these years, I dare not take that chance.
If I ever needed proof, all I had to do was look at my father and my aunt. Both were alcoholics and both stopped drinking for years at a stretch. But as soon as they took that second first drink, down they went to the bottom, right where they left off. It’s just the way it is.
That knowledge, fear, if you will, has done me good, right up to the here and now, twenty seven plus years later.
Remember the sitcom Cheers, that peppy song where you wanted to go, you know, where everyone knew your name. I think we all had that special bar, tavern, hole in the wall we could go and still feel welcome. Or at least not be judged because that judging thing crawls just under most drunks’ skin.
What it does, this judging, if you haven’t hit bottom yet, is drive you away, makes that chasm between you and the normal world that much wider. When that happens, guess what, you seek out, bingo, your home bar. It’s a place that whoever is working might not know you by name, but they will know what you drink.
I don’t think that longing changes when we stop drinking. In fact it gets stronger. A big part of drinking is the camaraderie, the cover you get from people who drink like you do. No matter how alone you feel, and I remember how desperately alone I felt in the last stages of my drinking, you can at least be surrounding yourself with people. You can feel connected to something even if it’s the most tenuous of connection.
Of course that is why, I firmly believe, the AA meeting process has survived for 80 years or so now. It’s a place to go and feel as if you are not alone in your struggle to stay sober. And they take the time to try and learn your name, talk about your addiction, share with you their war stories.
So here comes the irony. The second meeting we went to together just happened to be at St. Clement.
Now, until I found out about my mother seeking advice from a priest at St. Clements, I had some real fond memories of that church and school.
I went to first and second grade there, received my first communion which turned out to be the last sacrament I earned. One of my cherished childhood memories is of Sister Madonna, the head nun at that time, paddling a boy over the PA. We heard the smack, smack, smack and then the whimpering.
It was an effective deterrent.
The image of her swooping through the school, that rather heavy and large wooden crucifix banging against her upper thigh, reminding her she was a soldier of Christ, is burned into my mind. It was, pure and simple, a fine example of psychological warfare.
A little aside here: When I was a page for the Ohio House of Representatives back in the late 70’s, I met and fell in love with this woman who, for whatever reason, fell in love with me as well. I knew I was wrong for her pretty much from the start and I guess she finally figured out that I was wrong for her. I met her at a political fundraiser and it turns out she and I took the wafer the first time together. Yep, you guessed it, St. Clements. She had the picture to prove it.
I ran into Colleen about ten years ago and was glad to see she found herself someone who loved her for all the right reasons. I was still on that downward spiral when I met her more than 30 years ago now, and I think the attraction for me was that I thought she would pull me out of my downward spiral, save me from my wicked ways. Any recovering addict knows you cannot depend on someone else to pull you back to sanity; you have to do it yourself. I would have ruined her life.
Before we get back to the story at hand, one more quick aside. My best friend growing up was this kid named Richie. Now we were thick as thieves. Literally. When we made it into our early teens, we were both experimenting with drinking.
One night, in particular, we snuck out of my house; he was sleeping over. We wanted to find some beer in someone’s garage and we did. So we drank some warm beer and of course, the troubles started.
This was back when they were building I-90 which cut a swath through the neighborhoods of the west side of Cleveland and literally obliterated the south side of Lakewood. They finished this particular 2-mile chunk then just left it there, unused for years. It would later be connected to the east and downtown Cleveland and to the west, leading out to eventually meet the Ohio Turnpike in Lorain County. This completed but carless stretch included the bridge over the Rocky River Reservation or what we all called it, “the valley.” *
Here is a link to what the bridge looks like from above.
We decided to steal some grocery carts from this grocery store over on the Cleveland side of the I-90 divide. We were pushing these carts through the side streets of West Park, aimed toward the highway to nowhere, looking for beer along the way.
When we got to the on ramps that sloped down to the highway, we jumped into that carts, and throwing caution to the wind, rode down the ramp, laughing and giggling as mildly drunk 13 year olds will do.
When we started to get bored, we threw the carts over the side and into the Rocky River. It was about 125 feet up from the river below and made a big noise. Right about then, this Lakewood cop car comes racing after us. We ran over to the Rocky River side of the bridge, slid down the embankment and hid in the woods below the bridge.
We waited him out and I guess he didn’t want to get out of his car and slide down after us. And they had no jurisdiction down in the Valley anyway. When he finally left, probably at shift change, we waded across the river and climbed back up on the Lakewood side of the valley.
We got real muddy during the great escape and I guess guilty as the beer buzz was wiped out by the adrenalin rush which, of course, we got from getting away with our night of crime. On the long walk back to my house, we went by, you guessed it, St. Clement church. They were holding the midweek 6:00 AM mass.
We were both still Catholic at the time so we decided to cleanse our conscience by walking in and saying a prayer or twenty. But this big guy, a layman, who was standing in the vestibule, would not let us in being that we were muddy and all.
Who knows what would have happened if that guy wouldn’t have been running interference for God, as he understood him.
In the years that followed, this little incident was just another example of how some sanctimonious asshole can ruin anything at anytime. It also proved to be another reason I left the church completely just a few years down the road.
So with all that history, all that knowledge about St. Clement, I went to that meeting a few weeks back. Remember, none of this was running through my mind when I went to the meeting.
The funniest thing happened when I walked through the parking lot where we use to play before and after school. Don’t tell anyone, but I liked jumping rope with the older girls because they thought I was cute. This was the same parking lot where my dad would sneak out of church to have a pull on the bottle he always seemed to have hidden under the front seat of the car. The same parking lot where, I guess, my mom parked her car when she went to have that “chat” with the priest.
In a way, it felt like I was going home.
The feeling grew stronger as I walked into the basement public room located right under the Sanctuary and remember the Christmas parties they would put on for the kids, watching that awful stop animation Sinbad movie that scared the shit out of me when I was 5 or was it 6?
I was a bit overwhelmed by the experience. And if you know me, I rarely get overwhelmed by anything.
The meeting was okay, nothing special, no revelations, no program epiphany; just a straight up lead meeting. But for some reason, at the end of the meeting, I found myself walking over to the main table and asking the guy who was running the show if I could sign up and make this my home group.
I don’t know if it was “my higher power” or just the pull from my past or just a sense that it was time, but I finally, after over 27 years, found my AA home.
Now if I could just get the higher power thing worked out…..
* I wrote an article for the DownTown Tab back in the 90”s that detailed how this urban developed basically destroyed the west side of Cleveland for decades. It is now, almost 40 years after this part of the highway was built, that the west side is finally starting to redevelop. If I can find the article, I will post it up here on the blog.