One of the final classes of my degree – the long, painful, exceedingly expensive (okay, also purposeful and rewarding) last 2 years of my life – is an introductory course on addictive disorders, their treatment, and the pharmacology of substance use. While dark, disturbing, and downright depressing, the subject matter is also curiously intriguing and interesting. Anyone who’s watched an episode of Intervention knows what I’m talking about.
There’s something about addiction that just tears people right apart, along with their career, family, and hope for a future. Yet, we’re drawn to this suffering, moths to the flame. Perhaps we wonder on some level how far we ourselves would have to go, how bad things would have to get, before crossing our own line. Isn’t it our way – as people and as society – to try to get as close as we can to self-destruction without actually doing it?
So, the class is a mixed bag.
One assignment sent me to an alcoholics anonymous meeting. I had never been to one before. Plus, I never agreed with their philosophy of recovery, being the stubborn atheist/humanist I am. I guess the whole concept of surrendering control of yourself to a higher power never sat well with me. Nonetheless, I looked forward to going and seeing what it was all about. The assignment was simple enough: attend a meeting, write about it and whether or not you think the program is effective.
It was about 2 in the afternoon. I don’t know why, but I was feeling nervous as I walked up to the building. Maybe it was fear that I would be “found out.” That somehow the fact that I didn’t have a problem with alcohol at all would be written all over my face and I would be some kind of outsider. Maybe it was that I just had no idea what was going to happen in the meeting. I mean, everyone sees them portrayed on TV or in movies… people sitting in a circle of chairs, taking turns talking about their daily struggles with sobriety, maybe praying, that kind of thing. But I wasn’t taking anything for granted. I knew how inaccurately therapy is portrayed in the media, so I was ready to be surprised.
It wasn’t until later that I realized why I was feeling nervous. It was fear of being judged. Did other people know what went on in there? What if they did, and saw me walking in, and thought – god forbid – that I was an alcoholic?
With a sinking feeling, I thought, ‘wow… what must it be like for someone with a real problem?’
Inside there was nothing to write home about. A bunch of chairs set up in rows, a podium and mic at the front, flanked by windows covered by large posters emblazoned with the 12 steps and the 12 traditions of AA. There was a coffee bar. $1.50 to indulge in an addiction that I actually did have. I was happy to have something to do as I took a seat in the back row, directly facing the podium. Sip, sip… don’t mind me…
There were a few people already there, some at tables behind me, some on couches lining the perimeter of the room, a couple seated in the rows of chairs in front of me. A man was at the podium now, he read some rules and something called a ‘daily reflection,’ not, of course, without introducing himself under his breath with the perfunctory “I’m an alcoholic” statement. At least the movies got that part right. There was a murmured greeting from the crowd. He went on about something to do with honesty and admitting powerlessness, periodically scanning the crowd, who now numbered maybe a couple dozen.
One by one, he called people to the podium. There was a couple – American – who had just got off a cruise ship that didn’t have any meetings on board. “Real glad to be at a meeting now,” he said. About a year sober, trapped on a cruise ship for 2 weeks with no way of avoiding booze. I believed him. An older woman was next. Then a ‘newcomer’ who was clearly in a rough spot in his life. He talked about treatment centres, relapses, boredom, mental agony trying to decide whether or not to drink on any particular day. Another guy said that he used to go to a bar, order a beer, and stare at it for half an hour trying to decide whether to take that first sip. Sounded like torture to me.
Everyone spoke eloquently. Some very convincingly. I got the sense these were experienced people. And then, the inevitable moment came. Podium guy looked for someone to come up to speak, and sure enough, gestured to me. Of course, I had thought of what I might do if this situation arose. Sure, I could pass – not speak, stay in the silent comfort of my seat – but then, this was an educational opportunity. ‘I’m here, aren’t I? Might as well get as much of an experience as I can while I’m pretending to be an addict.’
My introvert alarms were sounding as I stepped up to the mic. ‘I told you not to do it!’
“My name’s David,” I said, without the ‘I’m an alcoholic’ part – I couldn’t make those words come out, like they were cursed or something, or would sound too forced, or any of a million other lame excuses. I didn’t want to lie to these people, who had shared such painful stories that were, in all seriousness, pretty courageous and inspiring.
“Hi, David!” came the group’s reply. I couldn’t help smiling. I felt accepted. The nervousness started to evaporate.
“I’ll make this quick,” I said instead. “This is actually my first ever meeting,” I blurted, to cheers from the crowd. I went on to say that I wasn’t sure where I was in the grand scheme of things, and that I wanted to see what these meetings were all about, which were both technically true. When I was finished, there was more applause, and several encouraging handshakes on my way back to my chair. I felt welcomed, but still pretty awkward as I listened to the next few speakers mention what it was like for them when they first started coming to meetings. Speakers consistently made direct eye contact with me when talking about how important it is to keep coming to meetings. That nice feeling of being welcomed started to turn into a sense that I was being gently pushed. A vivacious, attractive younger woman was last to speak. She was a great speaker, very charismatic, very personable. She made a convincing case for following all the steps and reading all the AA literature. I wondered if she was routinely asked to speak at the end the meetings with young newcomers. Or maybe just at the end of meetings to provide those in attendance some motivation to return.
Finally, everyone formed into a circle, holding hands, and a prayer was spoken (the “serenity prayer“):
God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
It was pretty awkward to be the only one that didn’t know the words. The meeting ended and I think I was the first person out of the building, as if I had a limited time before my ‘clever guise’ wore off. I didn’t get out without a short conversation with the young woman who spoke last, she gave me a booklet with meeting times and locations for the whole month.
I did feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulders as I walked away. I think it was the whole pretending thing, and the mindset that I seemingly adopted to go with that ‘addict’ role. That feeling that I was being judged by ‘normal’ people. It was all very automatic, which is kind of frightening. We do this to people, society. Great job.
So, is the whole thing effective? From what I saw, it was keeping some people sober. Maybe their addiction just switched to having to go to meetings, but there’s surely a lot worse out there. I can tell you that I felt welcomed, supported. That if I really needed it, these people would help me. I don’t think that means that it’s going to work for everyone, nor should it. I still don’t believe in the same things they believe, and I don’t think I ever will. I think that the power to change, for better and for worse, is fundamentally within one’s control, not outside it. I believe in responsibility, on a personal and a social level.