People

Chapter 1: Tell Me a New Story

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Preface: We open with my recollection of the fateful day I returned to an AA meeting after a three year absence. This singular event begins the story of my reclamation, through a continuous reconsideration of my relationship with AA, of personal potential that was almost squandered by a lifetime of indifference. But this tale of personal redemption only serves to open a bigger story of AA’s reclamation—through a reconsideration of itself—of a spiritual inheritance squandered by 80 years of willful ignorance. If I accomplish my task, the reader—whether or not they are alcoholic, whether or not they are associated with AA—will be challenged to reclaim the best parts of what makes them human. The reader who asks the question “What is this Book?” will be faced with the reply “Who is it that is reading this Book?”

TEXT BONUS: Mythic Pragmatism as American Religion

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MVC: Since “Tell Me A New Story” is not a drinking story, “Bill’s Story” was moved to opposing pages in Chapter 9, “Relapse & Research,” comparing and contrasting a pre-Twelve Step alcoholism with a post-Twelve Step alcoholism—two radically different experiences unknown to the authors of the Big Book.

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“No one ever steps into the same river twice,
Because you are never the same person,
And it is never the same river.”
Heraclitus

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TELL ME A NEW STORY

Monday, January 6, 1992

1.1 Barbara and I followed the smell of cigarettes into a dimly lit church basement. As my eyes adjusted to the smoke, I took a wistful, panoramic look around the makeshift conclave. Off to the left, a cheap folding table offered up neatly assembled Conference-Approved literature. Straight ahead, a refurbished altar pulled the eye upward towards a row of five comforting slogans, each framed in faux wood and lettered in German Gothic. Dueling easel-stands on either side of the platform boasted two large poster-boards, one beaming with the Twelve Steps, the other with the Twelve Traditions, both in bold, self-conscious lettering. And on a mobile serving station to the immediate right, convenient to the entrance, was enshrined the Grand Totem of Recovery, dispensing a healing potion of serenity, sugar, and caffeine—the battered coffeepot. This was the Alcoholics Anonymous that I remembered.

1.2 Sober over ten years and transplanted from South Carolina, I had yet to attend AA in New Jersey, which disturbed Barbara, a loyal meeting-maker. My three-year sabbatical from all-things-AA was never planned; at the ripening age of thirty-two I received a graduate degree from the College of Knowledge, married the prettiest girl in town, and moved North to the land of industry, jug-handles, and diners. This was the time to silence my harshest critic: childhood potential—fierce drinking had put the American Dream on hold long enough.

1.3 My life from adolescence to the age of twenty-five read like a New York Times best-seller: I specialized in blackout drinking—epic, tragicomic adventures fueled by lawyers, guns, and money. I loved everything about blackout drinking.

© 2005 Michael V. Cossette

As the date of Bill Wilson’s first encounter with Dr. Bob, June 10th, 1935 has been designated as Founders Day by Alcoholics Anonymous. As just one  example of sober AA members re-encountering Alcoholics Anonymous after an extended time away from meetings, so too January 6th, 1992, could be chosen as a symbolic New Founders Day.

See History of The New Founders

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I loved the relentless, repeating, reassuring patterns: every morning washed clean of yesterday’s choices; every afternoon suffocating with today’s expectations; every evening abandoned to the inevitability of another tomorrow no different from today. I Know Why the Caged Bird really Sings: it prefers the safety of its dirty confinement to the risky cleansing of free flight. But I had slept walked through the drama with characteristic indifference: there were no tragedies in my world—everyone has a story; nobody likes a whiner.

1.4 That was done, behind me. I was in a new place, with new people, living a new life. One of those new people was my first intern, Barbara. Open, spontaneous, and ebullient to the point of giddiness, she spoke in a gluttonous manner that sounded eerily familiar. She also took a long lunch off property every Monday. Perhaps Friends of Bill W. have radar. Her grim devotion to that long lunch did seem out of step with her typically carefree personality. My curiosity piqued, I lobbed a few soft ones over the politically correct net, and she returned my suspicions that she spent that time at an AA meeting.

1.5 Although AA had once heralded my triumphant return to normalcy, I had never missed anything about it. After casually breaking my anonymity to Barbara, I endured about a month of her wide-eyed seductions to return to the fold. She played the service card without shame: “But you could help so many people!” Finally, exhausted by her relentless cheerfulness, I made what would turn into a drastic, dangerous decision: to return to an AA meeting after a three-year absence.

1.6 Barbara and I arrived just in time to find seats at the main table. After trudging through about several minutes of the usual opening rituals, the meeting leader proffered an open topic. As the discussion moved around the room, each person in turn spoke from behind a well-cultivated persona that I recognized instantly: the elder statesman; the accommodating newcomer; the pensive rehab parolee; and a troupe of supporting characters straight out of Conference-Approved casting. I settled comfortably into my familiar role as the passive observer.

© 2005 Michael V. Cossette

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1.7 But as I listened, recognition gave way to unfamiliar caricatures: the elder statesman coughed out inane platitudes instead of gentle wisdom; the accommodating newcomer parroted the group-speak with mind-numbing fatuity; the pensive rehab parolee hunkered down against a hostile world of imagined relapse triggers. My mind struggled to metabolize what I was hearing: a tepid brew of John Bradshaw’s “inner child,” New Age mumbo-jumbo, and disease propaganda direct from the latest rehab fad. This was not the Alcoholics Anonymous that I remembered.

1.8 We have all heard that you can’t go home again. Main Street never looks the same and a trip to our favorite childhood haunt leaves us empty of even nostalgia. At our high school reunion that long-lost best friend seems like a stranger, and what we had hoped to be joyful reminiscence instead becomes an uneasy contest of awkward stares. We all move on in our lives.

1.9. The AA I remembered had a harder edge. The Program I was taught did not lead to the whimpering remission of a lifelong disease, but instead to absolute victory over alcohol. The Fellowship that welcomed me sprang from a handful of rag-tag drunks who gave the middle-finger to the world and banded together to help themselves when clergy, doctors, and friends & family could not, and would not. AA was kick-ass rock-and-roll—fiercely individualistic, a thoroughly American inheritance.

1.10 My brooding reverie was interrupted when the discussion meandered around to the question of how many AA meetings a person should attend after they accumulate sober time. Now this was something I could speak to! My return after a three-year absence seemed the perfect platform from which to pass on the good news that AA is not an end—AA is only a prelude to something greater. After careful consideration, I raised my hand,

© 2005 Michael V. Cossette

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introduced myself briefly, and broke character as passive observer with a precisely phrased encouragement that I had heard old-timers say many times,

“I didn’t get sober so I would have to keep going to meetings.”

1.11 Nothing particularly confrontational, I thought. My sponsor Frank—sponsored by AA co-founder Dr. Bob and part of the first group of alcoholics to get sober using the Big Book—had always warned that what works for you early in AA will eventually stop working and, should you cling to it for too long, will eventually start working against you. Anyone with over five years of continuous sobriety who had to go to more than one meeting a week to stay sober just didn’t get it. Being weaned from dependence on meetings was considered a healthy part of having solved the drink problem.

1.12 With freshly rekindled pride in my AA heritage, perhaps I was expecting the same sort of respect usually dispensed to old-timers. Maybe I was just naive. So I was totally unprepared to be shouted down with,

“You can’t say things like that at a meeting!”

The bobble-heads nodded their agreement.

Their disgust at my remarks was palpable; a look of horror spread like contagion across their faces. My proclamation appeared to arrive as a novelty, as if I was smuggling into a Union Camp contraband AA cooked up in the Confederate backwoods. And you could smell their fear that someone at the meeting was going to get struck down drunk by my words. Circle the Wagons! Protect the Newcomers!

© 2005 Michael V. Cossette

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1.13 As the slathering of verbal abuse began, I thought of my first AA meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. Horrendously drunk, I had stumbled into The Secondary Purpose Group drowning in a deluge of my own expletives. An old-timer named Gene suggested forcefully that I “take the cotton out of my ears and put it in my mouth,” a colloquialism popular at the time. After I suggested with equal force another place to put his metaphorical cotton, his reaction demonstrated what I would come to know as AA at its best: “You came to the right place tonight, Michael.”

1.14 Time is an ironic prankster: ten years earlier I was encouraged to stay at a meeting when too drunk; now I was being asked to leave a meeting for being too sober. Yes, asked to leave. During my drinking career, I had been kicked out of countless bars, two wedding, four funerals, an amusement park, several hotels, a Catholic Church, a Buddhist temple—even out of a moving car. But getting kicked out of an AA meeting was new for me. This crowning insult came during final announcements, when the self-appointed group conscience demonstrated that “Redneck” is defined by a state of mind and not geography,

“we-dont-want-u-cummin-back-and-spreddin-that-kinda-tawk.”

The bobble-heads nodded their agreement.

1.15 Just keep your mouth shut and walk away, I said to myself. What did I care anyway? I was just visiting for lunch. Still, it bothered me. I felt more than snobbish irritation; I felt a direct assault on memories that had become as much a part of me as a hand or a foot. AA was the first group of people with whom I felt a deep

© 2005 Michael V. Cossette

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sense of protection and safety. No matter where I was in the world, no matter how long I stayed away, I thought I could always go into a meeting and be accepted, no matter what I said. It was almost unbearable for me to think that this was just another family that had let me down.

1.16 As I shook off my attack of gooey sentimentality, a shell-shocked Barbara followed me outside. Our getaway was halted by a balding little curmudgeon who had been eyeing me during the meeting. He buttonholed me in the parking lot, introduced himself as David, and presented an alternative view of what had just happened,

“I have been waiting a long time for someone to say that.”

His eyes radiated  a crippling déjà vu: I had that look before when I first entered AA: that unmistakable hunger for some existential truth, and the frustration that it was just within reach, but deliberately concealed from me. David told me a story that I would soon hear repeatedly, a story about AA members who were thoroughly following the Twelve Step Path and suffering more loneliness and despair in their sobriety than they ever had in their drinking. And they did not know why.

1.18 Encouraged by David’s advance, a handful of eavesdroppers broke away from the pack of drones that was milling around the parking lot. After nonchalantly angling their way over to us, one of them broached the awkwardness with a simple, tentative statement,

“I need a sponsor.”

© 2005 Michael V. Cossette

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1.19 If you scratch any person’s façade in just the right place, at just the right time, their hidden pain will come gushing forth. For more a few people attending that meeting I had unwittingly uncovered a boiling pot of dissatisfaction that had been percolating beneath a thin lid of feigned gratitude. They wanted more out of their sobriety than to be constantly recovering, to be held hostage by a lifetime mandate of repetitive meetings, self-serving moral inventories, and co-dependent sponsors. They wanted to tell someone, anyone, how much they hurt. And the most frightening thought of all: they now “wanted what I had.”

1.20 Now, being liked, disliked, or even ignored by people had never been a problem for me, but being needed was not part of my emotional repertoire. I had always enjoyed helping people if I didn’t have to get close to them or their messy little lives. Call me the long-distance mentor, the armchair social worker who likens people to psychic vampires that suck out your soul while thanking you for your help. They get better and move on; you get worse and stay still. I wanted no part of it.

1.21 I had also seen cults of personality form too easily within the unpoliced halls of AA, where psychological predators disguise themselves in the garb of authoritarian sponsorship. When you are working with people at a vulnerable stage in their lives, the potential for unhealthy dependency cannot be ignored, no matter how much you think you can keep a proper distance.

1.22 So I do not know what finally possessed me to let these strangers into my life. Maybe it was time to revoke the unwritten contract that I forged with my fellow human beings as a child: don’t demand anything from me and I won’t demand anything from you. Maybe I was just bored with the mediocrity of fortune and fame that I had been enduring since I quit drinking. Whatever the reason, the meeting-after-the-meeting continued long after the parking lot had emptied, and long after Barbara and I were due back from lunch.

***

© 2005 Michael V. Cossette

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1.23 We all have turning points in our lives, times when our personal history moves in a drastic new direction. We plan & ritualize some of these turning points, their significance easy to appreciate at the time: we graduate, get a job, get married. Others become significant only after years pass and the contour of our lives take on a new shape: we go back to school, change careers, get divorced. Then there are those defining moments triggered by what seems like a trivial decision. We have no warning that we are about to be edged out of our comforting routines and called towards an epic adventure. And it may take the rest of our lives to fully understand what happened.

1.24   I wanted to believe that my AA Homecoming was an aberration. I wanted to believe that I had overreacted, or carried the message of absolute, unconditional freedom from alcohol in too heavy-handed a manner. So, I went to some different lunch meetings, and then a few morning meetings, and then some evening meetings. I went to high tea in Princeton and low lockdown in Rahway…

1.25 As my orbit of curiosity increased, I tried to be a little more careful about I said, a little more attentive to the needs of the listener—without changing the core message. Not once did I feel welcomed into a Fellowship that had once encouraged me to think for myself. Not once did I hear someone utter a single sentence that rang familiar to a Program that once knew. Not once did I share my experience, strength, & hope without bringing down upon myself extremes of bristling antagonism or effusive support—usually both. Maybe AA had changed. Maybe I had changed. Maybe it was just New Jersey.

1.26 As my hard-target search area expanded…

transcription to be continued…MVC

© 2005 Michael V. Cossette

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