AA Meetings

It seems that meetings and meeting formats are the number one way people get sent from search engines to this blog.  It would seem logical for me to write about that as a topic, but really it doesn’t interest me that much.  It seems like a beginner question, or a question someone would have when they have not yet been to a meeting.  That’s important, but I think the info they seek is easily found.  So often when I try to write about something here, I’m powerfully drawn to “when I was drinking” and “when I first stopped drinking.”  Those things are vital, vital.  But they are not my purpose here.  Please, anyone who is thinking of checking out a meeting, call your intergroup, get out your phone book, Google it, and get to a meeting.  It costs nothing.  Your picture will not end up in the paper.  There is no obligation to ever return, and people will help you or leave you alone as you wish.  You need not fear AA or AA people.  Millions have found salvation this way, millions have not.  Only one way to find out if you will be one of the lucky ones.  Go to a meeting.

Oldtimer spin.  I’ve lived for reasonable lengths of time in four distinct geographic areas:  suburban New York, northern California, and eastern and western Pennsylvania.  I’ve been to a few meetings in other places on vacation.  I’ve come to have a favorite meeting format which is, surprise surprise, the format I was “brought up” with.  Basically there is a minimum of reading and announcements at the start of the meeting, there is a speaker of 90 days or more of sobriety who tells his or her “story.”   I’ve heard this also referred to as “qualifying,” telling how that person qualifies to be a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Generally it is the story of that person’s life with emphasis given to alcohol before and after recovery.  In my favored format, this lasts from 15-30 minutes.  There is then a coffee break and then a discussion.  Again, in my favored format, the speaker gives everyone who shares (talks) some kind of feedback by making a short comment.  The meeting ends with a prayer said while everyone holds hands.  For anyone who hasn’t been to a meeting and who would be frightened away by such a thing, I’ll tell you that people can easily step aside and not hold hands, pray or not, or even just leave the room without a big show.

I helped start a group in my area that uses this format and that is my “home” group.  It’s been going for about two and half years now, and I’m happy we did this.  With a lead every week, we get to know all the people who attend on that level, which I like.  I find the discussion that follows more enjoyable than a disembodied discussion because we know where the person is coming from.  I really, really like feedback because sometimes without it, I get a sad or awful feeling that I and others are sort of speaking into a void.  I like actually speaking to someone.

This is my favorite format, but I have experienced others and lived happy and sober with other formats for years at a time.  Common variations are meetings where there is no “speaker,” just a topic brought up for discussion, and those where there is no discussion, just one or two speakers telling their stories.  There are also beginners meetings where the emphasis is on the first three steps and early sobriety, and specialized meetings centered on the Big Book, the Twelve and Twelve or other literature.  I consider it a testament to AA that it can exist over the entire world in different formats with one primary purpose.

Finally, some people become alarmed by something different.  In lots of other areas of my life, that could be me.  In AA I’ve come to like diversity and variety.  I’m not worried about AA on a larger scale, if it can survive without more precise rules.

PS – I should mention for the possible Googlers that there are “open” and “closed” meetings.  Open meetings are for anyone at all to attend for any reason.  In my experience, it’s very rare that non alcoholics attend these, but they do at times.  Closed meetings are limited to alcoholics or people who have a desire to stop drinking.  That does include people who are questioning their drinking behavior and who think they may have a problem with alcohol.  Anyone with questions should be easily able to direct those questions to an AA “hotline” for a discussion with a live person or to request that a person call back.

So Step Six (Step Six continued)

So Step Six- “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”-is AA’s way of stating the best possible attitude one can take in order to make a beginning on this lifetime job. This does not mean that we expect all our character defects to be lifted out of us as the drive to drink was. A few of them may be, but with most of them we shall have to be content with patient improvement. The key words “entirely ready” underline the fact that we want to aim at the very best we know or can learn.

I’ve wrestled through the years with “entirely ready.”  At first, when I first grasped the concept of what was being asked of me here, I figured that I would not ever be entirely ready and so I couldn’t work the program.  There were things I knew I did wrong, mostly relationships in which I didn’t do my best or bad habits, like procrastination, that I embraced, and  I was unwilling to even look at those as far as change.  I’ve heard other new people voice this same concern.  I see it as a bit of a cop out, even as I understand it completely.

If only I could live forever, I could get to be so good at all this.  I’ve learned the hard way and the not so hard way to be open and try for my best.  When I don’t, I suffer, sometimes a lot and sometimes a little.  Countless times it comes down to finally doing what I knew all I along I ought to do, but was not entirely ready to do.  Concept likes “no pain, no gain” ring painfully true, and it usually is a measure of my pain that determines my willingness to to be open and try.

So entirely ready is expressing the attitude that it’s best to take in order to begin.  As the years go by and the beginning recedes, new character defects and variations on old character defects become apparent.  So too have I had years of experience that have taught me on a gut level that it does work and it is worth it.  I can see new knowledge of things that are not right with me as a good thing these days, because I know these defects have hurt and hampered me and that I can work in meaningful ways and achieve real improvement.  Even as I engage in the bad behaviors, I’m aware of the alternative.  Maybe it’s similar to the way AA will “ruin” your drinking.  It has also “ruined” the self-justification and closed mindedness that can keep me happy in my shit.

If we ask (Step Six continued)

If we ask, God will certainly forgive our derelictions. But in no case does He render us white as snow and keep us that way without our cooperation. That is something we are supposed to be willing to work toward ourselves. He asks only that we try as best we know how to make progress in the building of character.

This sent me to the dictionary to look up “character.”  Some of the meanings are: moral or ethical quality; qualities of honesty, courage or the like; integrity.  So, in context, God asks that we try our best to make progress in being a good person. 

The number one first thought that popped into my head when I tried to think of this in terms of being an oldtimer is that boy, I should be so much better than I am for all the time I have.  This may be a result of meeting older newcomers who have used other means with which to evolve, so that even though they are new to AA, they have practiced the principles in other formats and are halfway decently put together.  It may also be because I’ve been having a hard time, which has driven me to these steps, which has driven me to this reflection, which will result in a better me.  I believe!

What is the work of becoming “white as snow?”  Knee jerk answers include go to meetings, talk to people, read the literature, pray.  Go a little deeper and meditate, do an inventory, work with newcomers, work the steps.  What else?

Experience, strength and hope (My story continued – What I remember of my Father)

So, my father’s side of my family. I knew my father himself for six years. He died when I was six. Facts I know about him: He put himself through college, the first in his family to go. He went to a school  known for partying. He sold ice cream on the beach to make money, and he boxed. I have pictures of him boxing. He was short, 5’6″, and chubby. He was funny. People compare him to Jonathan Winters regarding his sense of humor. As a child, he had spinal meningitis, and all the other kids in with him died (this according to my aunt).

Because I was so young when he died, the things I remember the best are the last things, and because he was an alcoholic, the last things are the worst things. I remember being with him in a post office, and a person working there telling him they wouldn’t call the police because he had his little girl with him (me). For some reason I think he was trying to use counterfeit money. But at a post office? It doesn’t really make sense. I asked one of my aunts if this was possible, and she said that, knowing him, yes, it is possible. I remember my mother screaming and yelling at him and taking me to my grandparents to stay. I remember walking in the front door with her, seeing him suspended by his arms between the coffee table and the couch, beer cans everywhere. I remember my mother telling me to go to my room, and her throwing the cans at him, yelling. I remember seeing him splayed out on their bed, telling my mother I saw “Daddy’s thing.” I remember blood in their bed, because he bled from lots of places. I remember my mother taking me to the hospital to see him, and being frightened because children weren’t allowed in (this was the 1960s). I remember my mother coming into my first grade classroom, pulling me out into the auditorium to tell me he had died. I remember asking her how she knew he was dead. I remember my grandparents driving me in their Cadillac, my grandmother telling me that my father had died because God thought it was time.

My mother told me later that had gone to the hospital many times to dry out. He had no contact with AA that she knows of. He promised many times to stop drinking. He developed cirrhosis and a wet brain. All this at the age of 33. If there are degrees of alcoholism, I would say he was severe. I feel that I also had this degree, and that I probably would not have lasted to 33 if I hadn’t stopped drinking. His early sickness and death were my first experiences with alcoholism. When I first went to AA, I was surprised to see older people there. I thought people died young from it. I once asked an oldtimer who had a wicked story filled with homelessness, drugs, war, near death and other atrocious things how it is that he lived so long. He told me, “I didn’t drink like you.” While back then some older men were not happy to see a girl teenager in their meetings, this man showed me a truth that what I was doing would kill me quickly. People sometimes say they had a “low bottom,” meaning not many harrowing things happened to them as a result of drinking. I had a low bottom in the sense that I didn’t get arrested, lose a job or family, flunk out of school, those types of things. I was going down hill so quickly, though, the bottom was far away in circumstances but not in time. My father’s quick descent may ultimately have saved me, because I believed that to be an average experience at that time.

All these details about him added to the feeling I had, which is so common among alcoholics and lots of other people, that I was different and didn’t fit in. I had no father, I had no siblings, and that was just not normal in the 1960s.

It is nowhere evident (Step Six continued)

It is nowhere evident, at least in this life, that our Creator expects us fully to eliminate our instinctual drives. So far as we know, it is nowhere on record that God has completely removed from any human being all his natural drives.

Since most of us are born with an abundance of natural desires, it isn’t strange that we often let these far exceed their intended purpose. When they drive us blindly, or we willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfactions or pleasures than are possible or due us, that is the point at which we depart from the degree of perfection that God wishes for us here on earth. That is the measure of our character defects, or, if you wish, our sins.

Just today, a few hours ago, I gave in to a huge pity party and tried to let myself feel, for a short time, all the frustration and sadness that I could possibly dredge up regarding my current situation.  My sadness is mostly centered around work at this time, but there are other things as well.  Some good transitions are happening, and I am mostly filled with gratitude.  But even as my children grow and succeed and move on, I can’t help feeling we are all just that much closer to death.  The last twenty three years of my life (and, thankfully and not coincidentally, all of my sobriety) have been mostly dedicated to giving my children the best environment I could in which to grow.  And they have grown.  And I am sad about it, a bit, even though I am mostly happy and grateful.  The thing I wanted most in life, to actively mother children, is coming to an end.

The work situation is filled with “if only.”  It’s particularly sharp and painful right now due to some changes there.  Interestingly, the changes, good and bad, that I’ve experienced there seem to cluster around six month intervals.  August 27 and February 27 have become time marking points for me and my work.  Today it occurred to me that regarding recent changes, I must must must give circumstances and myself time to  adjust before I can know how I feel.  Some people find this waiting strange, but I hate change, and even changes for the better upset me greatly.

I knew today, before I read this part of the sixth step, that my “if only” scenarios are me playing director and God.  I cannot know what is best for any of the people involved, including myself.  I cannot know if situations are unfolding according to some preordained master plan, or if it’s all random and cold.  If I was truly given supernatural control over events and people, I couldn’t undo what has been done, since I don’t know what is best.

Are my instincts driving me blindly?  Am I demanding more satisfaction and pleasure than is possible or is my due?  Is it just that shit happens?  My “if only,” magical thinking rails against reality and I suffer.  More than that, it makes me often unable to be as helpful and peaceful as I can be.

Prayer

I’m not big on prayer. I used to not pray at all, and I clearly remember desperate times early on in AA, driving, crying, praying because they told me to. Doing things because the people of AA told me to has saved my butt many times. In the beginning, I fell back on prayers I had memorized from repetition through the years, prayers like The Lord’s Prayer and The Apostle’s Creed. I remember reading somewhere in the literature how at times Bill W walked and prayed, repeating a prayer like the Serenity Prayer, for long periods of time in order to overcome serious depression.

At first in AA, I was even someone who would hold hands but not say the prayers. Somewhere along the line I got beaten down and softened up, and for many years now I have prayed along with meetings I attend. I pay attention to the prayer in the literature like the 11th step prayer. I sometimes reflexively pray, for instance, when I’m approaching work, and expecting a problem. My reflexive prayers are almost always gratitude lists – thank you God for this place and these people. Also a request that I be shown and have the courage to carry out God’s will and help all people I come into contact with that day. I do the same type of praying in times of big emotional distress. Gratitude and a request to do God’s will. Very rarely, I will make an actual request, but I always add the caveat, “if it’s Your will.”

Lately though, I’ve been rethinking and relooking at several aspects of the program, trying to go deeper, expand my recovery and relieve some pain. I’ve collected sayings, verses, poems, that kind of thing since I was a teenager, and it occurred to me recently that I can pray some new prayers. So many times AA people will respond to distress with the suggestion to “pray about it.” Praying about it, whatever it is, for me usually results in a gratitude list. So I looked online to try and find some new types of prayers to help me.

I have a binder at work that evokes painful memories. Yes, a binder. And being sad over such things is, I’m sure, more than half of my problem. Anyway I took the binder and printed out a few prayers that resonated for me. Now I try every day around lunch time to read one, and at any other time that I feel myself getting balled up.

Thursday I was having a harder time than usual, and as I was sitting in a particularly difficult meeting, I thought I would begin to write down a prayer. I wished that I had memorized a new one, but I hadn’t, and so I started to write down The Lord’s Prayer. I felt I was sitting too close to other people, though, nosy people who would read what I was writing and who would worry I’d gone around the bend. I went to my office to retrieve the binder, thinking I could sit there and read a prayer, but I decided others would notice that, too, and think it was very odd. And I really don’t want others there to know the depth of my angst. So after that meeting was done, I decided to start writing the prayers out long hand as a way of memorizing new ones. I’d like to have more at my mental disposal than the few I learned in childhood.

Here is one I’m trying to memorize:

If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love,
I have become sounding brass or a tinkling symbol.

And if I have prophecy and know all mysteries and
all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains,
but have not love, I am nothing.

And if I dole out all my goods, and
if I deliver my body that I may boast
but have not love, nothing I am profited.

Love is long suffering,
love is kind,
it is not jealous,
love does not boast,
it is not inflated.

It is not discourteous,
it is not selfish,
it is not irritable,
it does not enumerate the evil.

It does not rejoice over the wrong,
but rejoices in the truth

It covers all things, it has faith for all things,
it hopes in all things, it endures in all things.

Love never falls in ruins;
but whether prophecies, they will be abolished; or
tongues, they will cease; or
knowledge, it will be superseded.

For we know in part and we prophecy in part.

But when the perfect comes, the imperfect will be superseded.

When I was an infant,
I spoke as an infant, I reckoned as an infant;
when I became [an adult],
I abolished the things of the infant.

For now we see through a mirror in an enigma, but then face to face.
Now I know in part, but then I shall know
as also I was fully known.

But now remains faith, hope, love, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

1 corinthians 13:1-13

I actually wrote out the last two lines and put them on my office door to remind myself every time I go through the door what it is that I am really called to do.

Experience, strength and hope (My story continued – My Father Before I was Born)

Finally, regarding the family my father grew up in, there was his mother. She died when I was four, and I believe she was 54. I don’t know what she died from, and it’s another one of those sort of mysteries. I do know that she had electric shock treatments several times before she died. That had to be in the 1950s and 60s. Speculating about it now, I guess she must have had serious depression. That’s what those treatments are used for now, at least. I imagine that back then, ths was a treatment of last resort. This was all in the time before SSRIs like Prozac. My other grandmother, my mother’s mother, hosted my grandmother at her summer house before she died. She commented many times that there was too much work for my grandmother, taking care of my aunt’s children.

I’ve come to believe that mostly these mental illnesses are just variations on a common theme. I doesn’t matter for my day to day life if alcoholism is different or the same as any of the psychiatric disorders. I see mental illnesses go through a vogue, almost, with some types being more prevalent at different times. I also think that much drinking and drugging is self-medicating behavior. Not that it works. Mostly it doesn’t. But I think some of us have a diseased mind (and isn’t disease an interesting concept?), and mood altering drugs, legal or not, change the disease in some way that keeps us coming back for more, even when the consequences are negative.

So my father’s side of my family had many members who most likely had serious mental illnesses. I will have to get to my actual father soon. Years ago, I was in church, and I believe it was Christmas Eve. Maybe not. Regardless I remember the pastor asking what kind of legacy we are leaving our children. The thought has stayed with me that in regards to alcohol and alcoholism, I have thankfully broken that chain for my children. How that will work for them remains to be seen.