First and foremost, no AA meeting is held out in the open where the drunks could possibly influence normal drinkers or people with a high standard of dignity and conduct. No, we will walk down dark corridors, through janitor’s closets and strip malls, down into the labyrinthine belly of church basements, an abandoned room in a rarely frequented corner of the university health center, or the mildewed chapel in an assisted living home. We will trudge our way down these halls until we start to smell the familiar scent of Marlboro Reds and coffee, and soon we will see The Group.
The Group waits outside the meeting place, shaking stained hands and hugs with one another. Many of them seem off-kilter and over-enthusiastic, with big booming voices and huge smiles that stretch over their faces like an overfilled balloon. As soon as they see you, they know you are new. Most of them will make eye contact with you, but some of them will march over to you and introduce themselves. Some will leave it at the introduction, but some of them will take this opportunity to ask you invasive questions about your sobriety and impress you with their supposed mastery of the program. “The Twelve Steps changed my life,” they might say. “I used to be a gay prostitute. Now I wake up every day and praise God that the Steps are in my life and that I found The Program. The Program will change your life. Here is my business card/cell phone/home phone number. Call me if you want to CHANGE YOUR LIFE.” This person’s glassy eyes and leering smile scream “Jesus Freak” and reminds you of some of the kids on that documentary Jesus Camp. You consider picking up your bag and getting the hell out of here. This is not for you, clearly. You’re here because you have a drinking problem, not because you need to find God, and obviously these people think the two are one and the same.
As you begin to surreptitiously reach under your seat for your things, the meeting begins. The Group recites the Serenity Prayer, and you lip-synch the first few bars of “If Your Girl Only Knew” by Aaliyah (R.I.P. babygurl) because you don’t know the words. It’s too late to back out now. As everyone sits back down, individuals begin sharing their feelings and experiences based on the group topic, which is usually something like “Unity.” You’re sort of tuning the speaker out and scoping the room for hotties (there are none, unless you like the grizzled n’ bloated old man thing), until someone says something that sticks out, something that makes you suddenly realize and appreciate the fact that everyone is there for the same reason as you, and knows exactly what you’re going through. All of a sudden, you’re feeling your eyes get suspiciously prickly, and you wonder if you might be getting a little glassy-eyed yourself. Sure, some of these people have clearly put part of their addiction into the religious aspect of recovery, and cling onto these meetings and their “higher power” for dear life. You feel kind of sorry for these people, but at the same time you are filled with pride for these people you don’t even know who have managed to gain some morsel of control. Your head is whirling. You don’t believe in God, you’re not even sure you believe in anything. You’re a nihilist at heart, one of those “What’s the point of living or doing anything at all because our entire existence and then some is only a tiny insignificant speck of dust in the scheme of infinite time and space” types, and your mind is getting blown by the fact that these people sitting around you have managed to find something that matters and are holding on to it however they can.
Sure, for most people, sobriety isn’t an issue, and when you tell them you’ve been sober for eight months you can’t expect more than a “Wow. Why?” You understand that when you leave this room you will be back in the real world that sees you as a failure and only remembers you as a drunk, depressed, mess. You understand that the world outside AA sees your sobriety as a weakness, not as strength. And in this moment you realize that you “get it.” AA is not for fun. It’s not something you’re just attending to get fodder for your “writing career.” It is a sad place for sad people just like you. There is no more pretending that you don’t belong here. It’s ironic because this is the belonging you were chasing at the bottom of every can and bottle for the last seven years. For an hour and a half, you are in safe territory. You find yourself confessing your deepest, darkest sins that even your most hardcore drinking buddies don’t know about to total strangers and being relieved when they chuckle and nod at the conclusion, having been there many times before. You stand up and introduce yourself as an Alcoholic, and the chorus that welcomes you make you smile, embarrassed that you actually appreciate this hokey tradition. After the meeting, everyone will go their separate ways. You might run into one of them on the outside, and the two of you will exchange knowing glances before turning away and pretending you don’t share something significant and-ah, fuck it- sacred.