On Sept. 5th I celebrate 43 years being clean and sober. And like the first meeting I attended on Sept. 5, 1972, the lead up to my birthday has things stirring inside.
My mother asked me to attend an AA meeting with her when she was perhaps six months sober. I was just a few months past my 21st birthday; she had gotten sober while I was out of the country and wanted me to understand why she had been the way she had been while I was growing up.
I decided I could go to a meeting and find out why she had been so mean. It was Father Martin’s chalk talk; a two hour presentation that filled the room near Annapolis, MD, to capacity. During the first hour he spoke about what the chemical composition of alcohol does to anyone’s body. During the second hour, he spoke about what alcohol does to an alcoholic.
For the first hour I took my mother’s inventory. During the second hour, I took my own. He described how the alcoholic might initially have a tremendous tolerance for alcohol, frequently seeming to drink others ‘under the table.’ But that wasn’t the good news I thought I had demonstrated; it meant that one’s body had an abnormal response to alcohol. And he described the progression to suicidal depression which I had been in the previous year as I closed the bars night after night. Even more horrifying, he said that for an alcoholic who stops drinking when that person picks up the next drink it is not as if they start over, or even start where they left off. An alcoholic’s body reacts as if they had never stopped drinking… picking up that much farther down the progression. I had proved it just two weeks before when, after a dramatic conversion to Christianity and six months without a drink, a half a beer had me stumbling into the furniture. Me! Who had been putting down between a pint and a quart of tequila a day the year before.
I turned to my mother’s program friend sitting next to me and said “I think I’m an alcoholic.” She took my phone number and for a month hounded me until I agreed to go to another AA meeting. The second meeting was celebrating another woman’s fifth sobriety birthday. I remember listening to her in amazement and thinking she was from Mars. How, in God’s name, did ANYONE go five years without a drink?
Slowly. One does it slowly. And, if we are fortunate, we get remade in the process.
I was so sure I knew God much better than all the AA people who rumbled about “God as we understand him” and then made it clear they did not understand God at all. But they were willing to trust a loving Presence that might not be there. They were willing to help each other no matter what time of day or night another drunk reached out for help. They were willing to tell the truth, every truth, the most terrible truths, to at least one other person. And to clean up what they could of the wreckage of their pasts. Bottom line, they were staying sober and I was not.
So I showed up. Haltingly. Resisting suggestions for as long as possible. Choosing meetings attended by those who looked the least like me that I could find. But I showed up and slowly started to experience love that did not have to do with age, or class, or education. Love that sneaks past our defenses; love that sustains us when unthinkable tragedies occur; love that reaches through us to the next person who has called out for help with cries without words. Love in which even/especially God is anonymous. Love that carries me still, after 43 years, into deeper service to my beloved Triune God.