Going To AA When You’re Not An Alcoholic

It was Walt’s turn when I walked in. Under different circumstances and different lighting I would have sworn he was Morgan Freeman’s twin if Morgan Freeman had spent his life treating gin like oxygen. Walt had been “off it” for twenty years. The guys said “off it” when they spoke of the time that had passed between their last drink to the present day – for instance, I had been “off it” for about 18 hours.

There were six people in the group that night; we were all crowded around a donated kitchen table in the basement of a Catholic Church. I was late because of the snow, and by the time I had arrived I thought I had accidentally walked in on a support group for seniors who suffered from debilitating coffee sweats. The heads around the table turned upon my arrival. Despite my evident lack of facial hair and the evident presence of pleated khakis, the men nervously sized me up, like I’d just walked in on someone telling the world’s worst secret.

There was a mutual, unspoken understanding that pleasantries wouldn’t be exchanged and I was to quietly take a seat.

Walt could tell a sad story, but I suppose twenty years of practice will do that. He’d been coming to this basement every Sunday since I was tucked away in the thick of the second trimester, presumably sober.

“She was my baby girl, didn’t know her but five years before they took her away. Haven’t seen her since. I had it and I lost it, now I gotta to keep the television on. But at some point you have to forgive yourself,” he said in a way that could convince you all of this happened on the way into the meeting.

“Amen, Walt,” everyone replied. I think there were some affirmative “goddamn its” thrown in there as well.

After a few members, I had the hang of it. The way it worked was that one-by-one each person stood in front of the group and told the story of their collapse. The job was always the first to go. That part typically involved f-cking up an impossibly expensive piece of machinery or getting into a brawl with a coworker. Without enough money coming in, the wife would send in the papers and take the kids with her if the state hadn’t already done so. With each loss the depression got worse, and so the drinking increased until they were no longer human. That’s how it went around this table, anyway.

This presented a problem. I sat there, nineteen, unemployed, single and childless. The formula for the being an alcoholic didn’t apply to me: them + hooch = them – (job – wife – children). While my formula was me + hooch = me + eating Taco Bell + the first half of a movie + falling asleep with hands in pants. But let’s be honest, neither party could do math.

Soon enough the stories piled onto one another, sympathies and advice were exchanged, and before I knew it I was up to bat.

I looked around as if maybe I’d be excused from this exercise. The men gave me a “c’mon pussy, let’s get this over with” look and I immediately scooted the wooden chair and stood before the group. Standing over the table I was speechless; all I could do was roll and twist the “12 Steps” pamphlet I had been given.

“My name is Dan, and I am an alcoholic,” I croaked.

“Nice to meet you, Dan,” the group mumbled. They didn’t say it with the new-lease-on-life singsong enthusiasm like in the movies. It was more like a choir of out of tune sleep talkers. I’d left my coat on even though I’d been there for 45 minutes. I don’t like to take my coat off because I feel like I can still make a getaway if it’s not on a hook or buried in a coat casserole. I looked around for something to say, but needless to say I was lost.

The faces that surrounded me were barely held together. These men had a disease I didn’t have. They were just the outer crusts of human beings; they had been folded and unfolded, drunk off champagne and mouthwash; men that had burst apart and were now picking up the pieces of their firecracker lives off the neighbor’s front yard while everyone except their families watched. Now, here they were gumming down cold coffee and telling the same sad stories over and over. I had nothing but sympathy yet nothing in common.

I needed something spectacular: A story about a bottle of gin, a baseball bat, one wrong look and a hundred dead cloister nuns. Or how I drove my car into the building that doubled as an orphanage and a puppy oncology ward. But I had nothing. Not even a good old-fashioned drunk youth in revolt story about how I drank five of my parent’s expired Michelobe Ultras and loudly played Mario Kart. This is a life you cannot fake; my face was too smooth, my voice too high and my oxford too pressed.

“I’m here because I was drinking underage. I had to go to court and the judge said if I came to AA for four Sundays I wouldn’t have to pay a fine,” I said.

That was it. I bashfully took a seat around the table of sadness, which by now was totally silent except for the sound of toothpicks being shifted from one side of the mouth to the other. The man to the left of me stood up, announced his name and disease, and then shamefully recalled the time he fell asleep at a stoplight and punched the arresting officer when he tried to wake him up.  Everyone sympathetically nodded and welcomed him, told him they were proud of him for coming. F-cking show-off.

No one spoke to me the rest of the meeting. We finished up with a prayer and then the men congratulated each other for making it through another week. The group congregated around the coat rack as pats on the back and phone numbers were exchanged. They spoke of mutual friends and how they didn’t live that far from one another. I pretended to compose a text message.

I didn’t need to get my coat. I said goodbye quiet enough so they wouldn’t respond and slipped out the door. I climbed the stairs and reentered the snow. I crossed to the opposite end of the untouched parking lot and called my dad. TC mark

image – InCase


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  • Guest

    them + hooch = them – (job – wife – children)
    i think it’s supposed to be them+hooch=them-(job+wife+children)
    distributive property and all that…

    • Guest

      not that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this! :)

    • Taina Uy

      you snarky nitpicker guest you!

      but enjoyed this tons. wishing you luck on the upcoming 3 sessions.

    • sam

      distributive property would apply if it were set up as ‘them + hooch = them (job – wife – children).’ the parentheses here (‘them + hooch = them – (job – wife – children’) function to convey the loss of job, wife, and children as a collective loss (which is subtracted from ‘them’). nice try.

      • Stefan

        nope, Guest was right. without parentheses it would be fine to put ‘… = them – job – wife – children,’ but as it is in the article if “wife” and “children” are greater than “job” the result from the parentheses becomes negative, and two negatives make a positive so it’d be them + whatever the result would be. (or, even if the combination of wife + children is not greater than the value of job, the amount ultimately being subtracted is lower.) 
        but as it is you’re trying to subtract the whole sum of job, wife, and children, so adding them together and then subtracting that total would be represented as “… = them – (job + wife + children)”. nice try though!

      • sam


  • Anonymous

    I loved this. Some people have a real problem with writing about AA but I find it very inspiring to go (with relatives who are alcoholics and in my own life at times) and to hear about other people’s stories of being there. It’s helpful to me to read things like this so thank you.

  • CUinNYC

    The Hollow Men.

  • yo

    I enjoyed this article.
     you still could be an alcoholic! just cuz you’re not old and wrinkly, with sad stories of losing wife, job, kids, etc doesn’t mean you might not turn out to be one of those sad stories. Don’t want to sound like a debbie downer but AA  says to be an alcoholic means you have a physical allergy (once you have one, you can’t stop, uncontrollable urge to keep drinking more and more) and you can’t really stay stopped when you’ve stopped. It also says alcoholism is progressive. I’m not trying to say you are an alcoholic, maybe you aren’t…just sayin’…

    • bbb.

      Okay, and what about the girl who doesn’t drink regularly and can stop for weeks/months, but gets black-out drunk when she does? Technically she has an alcohol problem too.

      • yo

        Yeah she didn’t stay stopped.

      • yo

        it’s not really about drinking regularly. People can binge-drink and still be alcoholic and it can start off with only drinking now and then or drinking every night or just drinking on the weekends, whatever. If the girl who gets black out drunk finds that when she has one drink, she craves more, and then finds that she can stay completely away from alcohol even if she does manage to stop for weeks/months, it’s quite possible she’s an alcoholic. Really though, people in AA aren’t going to try and convince this girl one way or another, they’ll just suggest she look at her drinking career honestly.

      • yo


    • Anonymous

      Great comment. It’s not about how much or how often you drink, it’s about what happens when you do.

      • Melissa

        mm. nah. not mutually exclusive, there, love.


    i really liked this and had a very similar experience.  mine wasn’t court-ordered but i went because i thought I might have a problem.  i didn’t identify with the members and their stories at all.  sure alcohol has ‘impacted my life’ but only to the extent i should have maybe been catching up on emails rather than drinking on a friday night.  still i worry that maybe I WILL be one of them in twenty years? or maybe i just hide it and function better than they do?

    and then i’m trapped again.  “i don’t feel like this is for me” “but maybe I’m in denial” “but you know you can stop drinking at any time” “but maybe i’m just telling myself that” “but…”

    it’s exhausting.  not to mention the confusion is compounded by the fact that the people attending AA almost want you to have a problem and to be one of them.  it also doesn’t help that so many “normal”  people i’m around likely meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse.

    a litmus test would be nice. a little response that says  “yup you can drink like everyone else” or “nope headed for trouble”  

  • http://twitter.com/mung_beans Mung Beans

    I had a really good time accompanying a friend to AA.  Everyone was super nice and they let me read the preamble 

  • Paul Timms

    I got sober when I was 19 (I’m now 24) and I’ve never once been to a meeting like this.  The AA I know is pretty joyful and inspiring, otherwise I wouldn’t have stuck around for so long.  Just trying to present a different attitude than the one in this article.  It’s not all bleak, basements, and old people.

    • Cmarks1990

      Yeah, we have women there too.

  • Cmarks1990

    Yeah, they don’t like it when you are there only to get out of trouble with the law. 

  • Bealtaine

    I really liked this article,it was well written.it did make me feel a bit sad though…:)

  • http://twitter.com/Flarfer Dave P

    Funny, I used to shop at the liquor store pictured in the teaser photo: http://bit.ly/u0vbkA. It’s in the one part of West LA that’s sort of dilapidated, with stripper bars and such. But the reason I don’t go there anymore has nothing with having gone to AA. I just moved.

  • Kelsey

    As a 23 year old woman in AA I find this incredibly inaccurate and offensive. For starters, when one is late to a meeting of any kind it is not customary to “exchange pleasantries” and rather arrogant to assume anyone should have. Second, I guarantee not one of those men in that room desired nor deserved your sympathy, but rather admiration for the things they had to overcome which you have apparently thus far been so blessed as to not have to face. Third, perhaps if condescension wasn’t dripping from your pores they might have been more inclined to approach you at meetings end. Lastly, the people of AA are far from perfect but as a result of the program they have committed to live by try to be helpful to those that need it and I encourage both the author of this piece and its readers not to be dismiss it entirely from one bad experience.

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous


  • Hugh

    “One drink is too much because 20 is not enough.” I’m 25 and have gone to AA meetings all over the city since I was 20. Some meetings are like this one; most are not. However, I’d like to stress that there is no singular path for alcoholics. You don’t need to lose everything like Walt (I hope you didn’t use his real name) to discover a problem with alcohol. An older friend who I worked with over the previous summer told me she was in recovery and thought I should check it out. I didn’t think I was an alcoholic, so at that first meeting I didn’t claim to be one. I was honest and told the group (of really attractive people, I might add) that I might have a problem with alcohol. They were warm and welcoming. See, it doesn’t matter if you could go days, weeks, months, even years without drinking–I know people with almost 20 years sober who slipped. Turns out the only thing that matters is if you can stop after one drink. I can’t. So for me, one bourbon is too much because there is no such thing as enough. YouTube “Craig Ferguson Speaks from the Heart” is a great example of what AA is like. And check out the Atlantic Group on Tuesday nights for an incredible experience.

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