The room is hot, or maybe it’s just me.
I’m sweaty, and my heart is pounding. I hate that I’m here. I want to run down the dark, musty hall, up the dim stairwell, and back up into what I consider to be freedom—the daylight that exposes my bloodshot eyes. The cool air that’s not cold enough to be the cause of my trembling hands.
It’s bright in here. The fluorescent lights are bearing down on me and feel like spotlights as every face and pair of eyes keep looking my way. It feels like they’ve surrounded me, like a cult in dark robes waiting to swallow me up.
I try to focus on the room itself. The walls are painted a pale yellow/green color. They are concrete and feel institutional. The ceiling feels like it’s lower than a normal ceiling and seems to be getting lower by the minute. My breath catches. I focus on what’s hanging on the walls.
There are multiple shabby posters boasting events, a couple of old pictures, and two wall hangings. The hangings are off-white and look like they’re made of canvas and rolled out. They hang from the ceiling to a few feet above the floor. The floor is beige in color and doesn’t look like it should be sat on; it lacks cleanliness. It feels like this whole place does.
I smell stale coffee and cigarettes. Lovely. I try to take a deep breath. I look at the hangings again. If I focus on something and look at it intensely, maybe I’ll just disappear into the background.
There are numbers with corresponding statements on each hanging. They go from 1 to 12. I don’t understand them. There’s one word that sticks out blatantly, though. GOD. God, God, God. I want to get up and run again, but my legs won’t move, and if they do, I’ll draw attention to myself.
This chair is so uncomfortable. It’s one of those old wooden ones with metal legs and cracked edges that you would see at school recitals. I guess that makes sense for a church basement. I’m pretty sure I’ve sweated through my jeans and am now stuck to this awful chair. Ugh. Now I really can’t run away. People might think I’ve wet myself, and they’re already staring enough. “Haven’t you seen a 33-year-old woman before?” I scream in my head.
A man sits down next to me. He looks to be in his late fifties. He has a kind face and a bald head with a silvery grizzle on his face. “First time?” he asks. “Yeah,” I mutter nervously, looking down at my hands. “Well, you’re in the right place. Welcome. I’m Benny.” He smiles gently at me, his blue eyes warming as they crinkle. A bit of unease leaves me. I feel a small safety net with this kind man next to me.
I look again at the walls and glance at the clock hanging at the front. It’s one of those cheap Wal-Mart clocks with a white rim, white face, black hands, and red secondhand. It’s ticking ever so slowly. More sweat drips down my neck. This starts at noon, and there looks to be four more minutes to go…four long minutes. Maybe the clock is wrong? I look across the room to the back wall, where another economy clock is hanging. Same time. I’d check my watch, but I’m shaking too badly from nerves and a lack of—well, the reason I’m here.
Below the back clock is a scarred, folding table. It hosts a giant well-used coffee maker, stir sticks, Coffeemate, and sugar, along with a tattered box of Kleenex. I’ve noticed a few of those boxes around the room. Is everyone going to cry? I’m sure as hell not. No one can see me cry. I put my chin up in defiance of those ragged boxes of white tissue and wonder at the people milling around. They sport small Styrofoam cups of black sludge and are talking and laughing. LAUGHING? I’m incredulous. Why would anyone be laughing here? Isn’t this where any chance of having any kind of fun again dissipates, and we no longer get to drink our pain away? They must be mad. I examine them closer and notice most are dressed decently and cleanly. All look to be fresh-faced, bright-eyed, and healthy; they’re quite comfortable here, chatting away with each other. Almost like a close-knit family. These people are not like me.
An old man is sitting to the right of the folding table. He’s smiling and shaking hands with everyone who comes in. He looks to be a fixture in the room, and most seem to know him. He has a round head with silvery hair that’s receded and a small-mouthed smile of false teeth. When he speaks, he touches his neck, and I realize it’s because he has an electrolarynx. He has big gold rings, which he raps on the table occasionally when gesturing or laughing. His voice is indiscernible, but his presence is not. The kind man sitting next to me says, “That’s Don Sr. He’s here every day and opens the room up. He has been coming here for over forty years now. He’s quite the character,” He chuckles. I look away, embarrassed he caught me staring.
A pretty, blonde middle-aged woman comes and sits next to me. She removes her coat and sets her purse on that awful floor, her long blonde curls falling over her shoulder as she does so. She rights herself, looks at me, and smiles, “Hi, I’m Pat. You’re new here?”
“Yeah,” I mumble.
“Welcome. We’ll be starting soon. When the other Pat,” she gestures to a slim, older woman wearing a bright blouse and even brighter scarf, sitting at another worn folding table at the front, “asks if there are any newcomers, just put up your hand and introduce yourself by your first name. Okay?”
“Okay. But I don’t want to share.”
My heart is racing faster now. Will I have to go up there? Tell them why I’m here? Tell this room of strangers how I’ve f*cked up my life so bad that I’ve had to come to this church basement at noon, on a Tuesday, because I’m so f*cking desperate to live and so scared of dying, and I can’t seem to do either?
I’m screaming in my head, “Get out!” but deep down, I know this is my last chance. I feel tears well up and quickly try to push them back. “Oh honey,” Pat says. “We’ve all been you once. Maybe not exactly, but we’ve all been here for our first time, and we’ve all put our butt in one of those chairs. It’s terrifying, but you’re going to be okay. You’re in the right place. There’s a light inside of you—inside all of us—and if you keep coming, it will start to shine again. And no, sweetie, you don’t have to get up and share.”
She touches my arm reassuringly, and the tears fall. Damnit! She pulls a Kleenex out of her pocket and hands it to me. “You’re going to be okay,” she says again. I feel a warmth in my chest. I don’t know what that feeling is, but for once, it doesn’t hurt.
It’s noon, and the meeting begins. The room is full now. I see people from what looks to be every walk of life: construction workers, business people, medical professionals, uniformed individuals, street people, etc. They look to be all ages, and they’re all behaving as if they’re equals. Selected people get up and read different sheets of paper. Their words are lost on me. I hear nothing but my heart beating and the occasional laughter from the group. I try to focus on what’s being read, but my nerves are distracting.
Pat nudges me, and I realize the “Pat” at the front has asked if there are any newcomers. I raise my trembling hand, “Hi, I’m Jess, and I’m an alcoholic.” I can’t believe those words came out of my mouth! I want to vomit and yet feel a weight lifted at the same time. Everyone turns to me smiling and says, “Welcome,” “Welcome,” “Welcome.” I try to smile back, but the overwhelm distorts my face, and the tears commence once again. That feeling I can’t distinguish washes over me more intensely as I comprehend these people are here for the same reason I am—to recover from a deadly disease.
I finally grasp that what I’m feeling just might be hope. Benny says, “Well done, Jess.” I smile shyly. Don Sr. raps his rings on the back table so I look his way, and with a grin of his porcelain smile, and a twinkle in his blue eyes, he winks at me. I’m reminded of my beloved, passed grandfather, and for some reason, I do know I’m in the right place.
Twelve-step groups are fellowships of people who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other so that they may recover from their addictions and help others do the same. We do so one day at a time. Some make it, and many do not. Those who do, teach us how to live life on life’s terms, and those who don’t remind us that our disease is progressive and deadly.
There is no cure, but we have a daily reprieve dependent on our spiritual condition. We use the tools of love, laughter, spirituality, unity, and the 12 steps to cope with life rather than using substances. That room has become my sanctuary, and those people have become my family. Without them both and the spiritual program of my 12-step group, I would not be here today. I have a life I never dreamed of, and I owe it all to my recovery from addiction.
My name is Jess C, and I am an alcoholic. My sobriety date is November 2, 2014. I celebrate every day surrounded by the friends I never had, the family I tried to push away, and the new family I’ve been blessed with.