My life consists of meetings. I have meetings with my therapist and my psychiatrist. I have my A.A. meetings and my group therapy meetings. I have meetings with my sponsor, meetings with my girlfriend.
“Try to get plugged in.” my sponsor says. “Get some guys numbers and use them.”
“Yeah, I know,” I say.
Reaching out—this is a big part of the Program. It’s all forced at first but eventually it becomes normal, like a reflex. My therapist calls it, “exposure therapy.” The idea is to “expose” yourself to the things that make you uncomfortable so that it will become easier. My brother says it’s about widening your comfort zone.
I go to a meeting and fail to get any phone numbers. After the meeting I think about talking to someone and the thought causes me to flee from the room like a man on fire. On the walk home I am hard on myself. The next day I talk to my sponsor on the phone.
“So you didn’t get any numbers, it’s not the end of the world. Did you try at least?” he asks.
“No, I didn’t try,” I say.
“Okay, well, it’s something we need to work on.” He says “we” and it is comforting.
I like my sponsor. He isn’t a hard ass. He’s patient. I’ve had sponsors in the past that didn’t have time for me if I wasn’t doing everything exactly as they say. That type of behavior just turns me off. I need to be allowed to think that I have free will.
I have a meeting with my psychiatrist.
“It’s my imagination. I can’t control it,” I say. “I’ll think that everyone in the world is in on something that I’m not part of. And then I think people can read my mind and it’s overwhelming and I’m frozen in fear.”
“Well there’s a number of SSRI’s you can take.”
This is a typical meeting. I talk about complicated problems and he winds up discussing medication. I guess that’s what I should expect. He’s just a psychiatrist, after all.
My girlfriend is a very understanding person. Or so she says.
“You’re lucky I’m so understanding,” she says. She says this all the time.
I do count myself lucky though. Not many people would put up with someone as neurotic as I am.
“Hello, darling,” she says. She is petite and beautiful.
After sex she humors me and we take turns reading from the Alcoholics Anonymous textbook.
“Rarely have we seen a person fail…” she reads. The words are comforting because they are familiar, but I do not fully believe them. I’m having a spell of cynicism.
“Let’s do something tomorrow.” says my girlfriend.
“I have my noon meeting tomorrow.” I say.
“That’s fine. We can do something after.”
“It’s Tuesday. I have my appointment with my therapist.”
She is indeed very understanding. But I think it is beginning to frustrate her, like she’s had about enough.
“I think my girlfriend has had about enough.” I say. My therapist searches my face for a clue.
“Has she said something?”
“No, but she looks at me in such a way.”
“So then you don’t really know. You may just be projecting.”
Most days nothing profound is said. A lot of the time it is just me rambling to fill the hour. Occasionally he’ll redirect or challenge me but mostly he just lets me go on chattering.
After therapy my girlfriend comes over and we watch a horror movie. We cuddle up on the couch. She has brought a tub of caramel corn.
“If you can catch one in your mouth we can do anything you want to do tomorrow.”
She knows I cannot do this. It has been tested.
I toss a piece of caramel corn into the air with tilted head and it smacks me right on the forehead. She laughs.
“Okay, same to you.” I say.
“Okay, but it might mean skipping your group therapy.”
She tosses one up and catches it easily. I do not want to skip my group therapy. Not that anything bad would happen, but nothing good would happen either.
I go to an A.A. meeting.
Me: “Dan, alcoholic.”
Group: “Hi, Dan”
Me: “I just wanted to tell on myself. I had the thought of a drink today. I just wanted to escape. Everything has got me feeling boxed in. So, yeah, that’s everything. Thanks for letting me share.”
Group: “Thanks for sharing.”
I feel relieved even though I had lied. I didn’t feel like drinking. I felt like dying. I suppose it was just a little white lie. Either way I feel better after my share.
After the meeting I get two people’s numbers who come to talk with me. Now I have something good to tell my sponsor. I am working the Program.
“That’s good. How do you feel?” asks my sponsor.
“I feel good, like I accomplished something.”
“You did,” he says. “You did accomplish something. Don’t belittle it.”
My girlfriend is proud of me even though she doesn’t really understand the Program.
“Are you going to call them?” she asks.
“Maybe not. It feels strange.” I say.
She understands this. If I had said I wanted to call them she would think it odd, I think. She’s at my place in jeans and a blue sweater. We start up and then we’re reading the Big Book again.
“Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics,” she reads.
I listen and the world fades away. I am allowed to be helpless. I am allowed my faults, my weaknesses. I am working the Program. This is how my life is measured.
“How’s your relationship with your girlfriend?” asks my sponsor.
“It’s good. It’s really good. Only I think she is getting bored with me.” I say.
“Well maybe you need to surprise her somehow.”
“I don’t think she likes surprises.” I say.
“Well you would know better than me,” my sponsor replies.
The idea of surprising my girlfriend sticks with me. It might go very well, I think. But at the same time I see how it could go bad. What would it be? Flowers? Jewelry? A reservation at a romantic restaurant? An engagement? I ran the possibilities and outcomes over and over in my mind.
“How have you been feeling lately?” asks my psychiatrist.
“I’m having racing thoughts in the evening.”
“And how long has that been the case?”
“About the time I started taking the SSRI’s,” I say.
The doctor hears what I have to say but is hesitant to give up on the medicine altogether. With his beard and thinning hair he cuts the dose in half and sends me on my way. I will take it but I will do so ironically.
Me: “I’m Dan, alcoholic.”
Group: “Hi, Dan.”
Me: “I’m struggling with dealing with life on life’s terms. I’m worried things won’t turn out how I want them to. I feel like I don’t have the courage to change the things I want to change. I don’t even know if they should be changed at all. I guess I need to pray for the wisdom. Yeah, I guess that’s my answer. I need to pray more. I hardly ever do. That’s it. Thanks.”
Group: “Thanks for sharing.”
The guy that shares after me is high on life. He’s belabors a point. His point is that he is good at working the Program, that others should emulate him. “That’s what works for me,” he says with false modesty. His self-righteousness tears at me like a garment caught on a rusty nail.
Despite this one person’s share, I do get the charge I was looking for. I feel more confident after meetings. It begs the question, ‘Why don’t I go to more meetings?’ I think it’s pride. I want to do things on my own. I want to prove to myself that A.A. isn’t my entire life like it seems for so many others.
“So you’re not enjoying meetings?” my sponsor asks.
“No, not really.” I say
“Well they’re not meant to be enjoyed. They’re our medicine. You have to take your medicine.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“No not ‘I guess.’ That’s how it is.” he says.
My sponsor seems to be frustrated by my lack of progress. I should have been asking him about doing a Step Five but I was still struggling with steps one and two. He must be tired of answering the same questions, I think. Oh, well. That’s what he is there for.
At group therapy everyone speaks but me and a middle-aged black woman. She has her reasons just as I have mine. My reason is that I’m scared. I don’t want to waste everyone’s time with my petty grievances. Everyone else’s problems seem so urgent. When there is a lull in the conversation I feel compelled to speak but I do not, neither does the middle-aged black woman.
A lesbian with a nose piercing always speaks about her marriage.
“It’s like I’m the only one trying. It’s just so easy for her and that’s my main problem with her. She doesn’t have to try but her not trying makes me jealous so that makes me think she should be trying. I feel justified. I don't know.” she says sobbing.
There isn’t much I can take away from this. It’s not all gems. But I do get something out of it, I think. Hearing people talk about their problems day-in-day-out does something for me. I guess that’s how group therapy works. That’s all I know about it anyway.
My therapist calls. I have forgotten our appointment. He says if I come right now we can still do it. I leave right away and arrive at 5:30.
“So how is your relationship?” asks my therapist. I feel as though he is prying. But that’s what I pay him for, I guess.
“Good, you know,” I say. “We see each other almost every day. We never fight. Everything is tranquil.”
“Do you still worry that she is going to break up with you?”
“No, I don’t know. Not really. I guess it was just a passing fear. But at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised. She seems a little distant sometimes.” I say.
“Maybe you could surprise her somehow.” This is the second time that has been suggested. Maybe there is something to it.
She comes over after my appointment. She sets down her things inside the door and convenes to the couch. She is looking at me as I change into a sweatshirt. She is expectant. I don’t know if I have what she wants. I sit down next to her.
“How was your day?” I say.
“I finally said something to Carol at work.” she says.
I immediately know what she is talking about. Wasn’t I a good boyfriend? I listened. I cared. She wouldn’t break up with me. She just wouldn’t.
“How are your meetings?” she asks.
“Oh, I don’t know. They’re fine. But I’m getting tired of walking the line.”
“What do you mean? What line?”
“I have ten therapeutic meetings a week. I think it’s a lot for anyone to take.”
“But it’s important for you. It’s important for us.”
My misgivings about her feelings slip away. She is the one. She understands. I come to a decision. I decide I will propose. I will get a ring with my next bonus check. It won’t be much but I think she will be happy with whatever I am able to afford. I am excited.
Me: “I’m Dan. I’m an alcoholic.”
Group: “Hi Dan.”
Me: “I’m doing really well lately. I decided I’m going to propose to my girlfriend. Things just seem like they’re coming together—like they’re starting to click. It just hit me all at once: this is the girl I want to commit to! She is perfect for me. I’m just glad I didn’t lose her before I realized it. I think she will most likely accept the proposal. If I wasn’t I probably wouldn’t be sharing about it now. Anyway, that’s all. Thanks for letting me share.”
Group: “Thanks for sharing.”
After the meeting I am critical of my share. Why did I need to blurt out all that stuff? Did everyone really need to know about my proposal plans? It was all just a pat on my own back. Look at my happiness; I’m doing alright; I’m better than you.
I tell my sponsor I am doing well but that I may have been feeling a little too self-righteous lately.
“Well look,” he says. “When you find this new way of life it’s only natural to want to tell people about it. We just need to be careful of bragging.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing—bragging.” I say.
“Okay so what’s the opposite of self-righteousness?”
“Humility?” I say, a little unsure.
“Right, so here’s what you’re going to do: in the morning you’re going to pray for humility. You’re going to ask God to remove your ego from the equation. And then you’re going to try to be of service to others. Do this every day and I guarantee results.”
“Okay.” I say. It is a tall order. I don’t know if I can do all this. I don’t know if I care enough to try. Wasn’t my life already better than it had been? Did I really need to do more? Wasn’t going to therapy and sharing at meetings enough?
To get a jump on the praying I pray that night. I get on my knees and say the Third Step prayer: “God I offer myself to thee…” It all feels sanctimonious and I don’t really buy it. I don’t really believe that saying these words is going to change my life like some sort of magic spell.
I want to call my sponsor and say that it didn’t work but I decide to try a few more times. You hear it in meetings all the time: “Don’t leave before the miracle happens.” I don’t want to be one of the ones who does. I can easily see myself stop attending meetings if I don’t push on with the spiritual side of it.
“You’ve been on the same dose of Lithium for a while now. How do you think it’s been working?” asks my psychiatrist.
I don’t know how to answer this. It’s hard to weigh and measure my own thoughts.
“It’s been good,” I say.
“How has the speed of your thoughts been?”
“They’ve been a little slower, a little more normal since we decreased the SSRI. Can we just stop that altogether?”
Today my girlfriend comes over and I feel unworthy of her. Maybe my praying for humility has overshot the mark. I am extra sweet. I make us tea and sandwiches. She sits on the couch with a blanket on her lap. She seems distracted. I ask her if everything is alright.
“Are you invested in this relationship?”
I am taken aback. This isn’t what I was expecting.
“I am,” I say with heart-felt sincerity.
“Okay, I wasn’t sure,” she says.
She is happy now. She rests her head in the crook of my arm. I think this might be as good a time as any.
Me: “I’m Dan, a grateful recovering alcoholic.”
Group: “Hi, Dan.”
Me: “Things have just been clicking for me lately. I’ve been feeling charged by A.A. I’ve got four months sober and I’m getting ready to start working on my Fourth Step. I proposed to my girlfriend last night and she said ‘Yes.’ I mean, things are just going so well. I can’t believe the change from the hopeless pill popper I was four months ago. If I can do it, anybody can do it. Thanks you guys. Thanks for letting me share.”
Group: “Thanks for sharing.”
Again a tad self-righteous, I think. Oh well. I am working the Program.
Pete Able’s work has appeared in Tsuki Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, Wilderness Literary Review and Forge Journal. He is 33 and lives in Philadelphia.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised at how easy the words came. This piece is largely based on my life and I usually find it harder to write stories that are true.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: In college one of my professors said that some people write for revenge against reality. I think that motivates a lot of my writing.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Donald Barthelme, Tom Robbins, and Haruki Murakami.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I write mostly in a café by hand and then edit and revise on my laptop back in my cave, a studio apartment with little to distract.