I’ve been at this for a long time. Not as long as many others, of course, but half of my life has been spent in these rooms.
You wouldn’t know it from looking at me — well, you probably would, but let me have this — but I’ve put in more than twenty years attempting (with varying degrees of both effort and success) to recover from my many varied addictions by using 12 step programs.
I’ve been in good meetings and bad meetings, I’ve had my fair share of relapses and setbacks, I’ve met some really interesting people, and I’ve tasted some really, really awful coffee. It can get repetitive. Even when a meeting offers something new that I haven’t seen before, a lot of it just seems like variations on a common theme.
And then I meet someone new. Ideally, someone misanthropic enough to both succumb to addiction and to think highly of themselves for it. The sort of person I can identify with. One of us.
They’re usually quiet, or a little bit nervous but not always, and they’re trying to hide it. They’re often somewhat confused, with that familiar “I’m not going to ask for help here, but I wouldn’t mind if someone offered” look on their faces. They’ll find a chair opposite the clock, or in the back, or closest to the door. They’ll mill around before the meeting starts, acting as if they’ve been abducted by aliens who forgot to lock the cage and now they’re just trying not to be noticed as human.
I know I should immediately approach these people and introduce myself. I should quickly go say hello. I should try to make them feel at home, try to see if I can answer any questions, provide some helpful tips and tricks. But sometimes I just like to watch for a moment. I know that sounds creepy, but bear with me. Watching these people navigate the early days of recovery helps me to remember what I had to do to find some success myself.
That was me, once. I walked into these rooms broken, alone, suffering for my mistakes. I thought I was terribly unique and deep beyond comprehension, a mind forged by pain and withdrawal and need. I didn’t think there was much point in sharing with the other people in the room, or even worse, listening to what they had to say.
I wasn’t just uncomfortable — I had contempt for AA’s friendly, jovial, enthusiastic people. If they’d dealt with half the pain I’d dealt with, they wouldn’t be happy like this. I’m miserable as a result of a thousand miserable situations and a thousand miserable coping strategies, they should be miserable too! These average people with their average problems!
I was not half as smart as I thought I was. I am, now, a little more than half as smart as I think I am. If that. It’s progress.
I find a kindred spirit in these curmudgeonly people. It isn’t every newcomer, of course, but these stand-offish, slightly contemptuous, and seemingly arrogant people are my people.
I want to tell them that I was once who they are now. I felt the same way about this program: it’s a punitive measure, an easy way for a judge to add a little more pain and shame. It’s a cult, some kind of religious exercise, rife with the kind of spiritual insights you find in fortune cookies or horoscopes. It’s a social club for middle-aged wine moms, they’re substituting a bible for a bottle, they’re deluding themselves. Anything made sense, except for the obvious: the program works.
I thought I was the smartest person in the room, or at least the most clever, if for no reason other than knowing the difference. There was nothing here for me. I don’t belong here and I never will.
And yet, at the insistence of these strange, friendly people, I kept coming back. I endured that slogan and more, and eventually took some of them to heart. I learned something new not just occasionally, but from everyone who had the courage to speak up, as long as I was willing to listen.
I could have learned all of this the easy way, of course. I could have been open-minded and respectful and curious. I could have worked to find similarities instead of cataloguing every possible difference between these odd, cheery, helpful people and myself. I could have engaged in some sort of critical thinking about how and why I might be wrong.
But that isn’t who I was — I wasn’t any of those things until I’d put in the work here. It’s who I am now, maybe, sort of, after a ton of effort and a lot of lessons learned the hard way.
There are plenty of folks in this program who are happy to help, especially to help people who are happy to learn. There are just as many who start this program by being inquisitive, eager, and respectful. I’m always happy to see either, and to engage with them about recovery or anything else — happy people make me happy, now, instead of jealous or spiteful or judgmental.
When I see someone with that particular air of unearned confidence, when I see the look that tells me this person isn’t particularly inclined toward even giving this a chance, that’s when I know I’ve found one of my people. One of the people who won’t tolerate an old-timer’s lectures, well-intentioned or not. One of the people who’d just as soon walk out of the room as reach out to hold a clammy stranger’s paw. The sort of person who has to find out for themselves, the hard way, what this program is all about.
That’s when it’s time for me to go say hello.