People

Chapter 2: Tell Me A Story I Can Use

DISCLAIMER: Cogniventus.com has not been approved of, nor endorsed by, and is not affiliated with, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. or any service entity of A.A.W.S., Inc. This website’s currently Featured Project, “FINISHING WHAT BILL WILSON STARTED,” is not AA Conference-Approved Literature; it is non-fiction commentary submitted here for non-commercial single-use, and gives Fair Use citations, for educational purposes, of limited sections of the 2nd Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1955, which has been in Public Domain since 1983.

Sponsor’s Note: We flash back to three years before the beginning of Chapter 1  and the singular event begins the story of my reclamation—through a continuous reconsideration of my relationship with AA—of personal potential 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 the willful ignorance. of several generations. 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?”

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Chapter 2

TELL ME A STORY I CAN USE

January 6, 1991.

We followed the sound of laughter and the smell of cigarettes into a dimly lit church basement. A dropped ceiling hung claustrophobically low; a concrete floor rose firm to the step, but cracked and sweating. As my eyes adjusted, two toothy smiles emerged from the nicotine fog, each brandishing a familiarity not yet earned. Barbara intercepted the eager greeters, and I took a wistful, panoramic look around the makeshift conclave. Far back and off to the left, an offertory table reverentially displayed Conference-Approved literature. Straight ahead, a refurbished altar pulled the eye upward towards a row of five kitschy slogans, each framed in faux wood and lettered in German Gothic. Dueling easel-stands on either side cradled window-shade tablets, one emblazoned with the Twelve Steps, the other with the Twelve Traditions, both in bold, self-conscious script. And on a mobile serving cart to the immediate right, convenient to the entrance, was enshrined the Grand Totem of Recovery, dispensing a healing potion of serenity and caffeine—the battered coffeepot. This was the Alcoholics Anonymous that I remembered.

Sober over ten years and transplanted from Virginia, I had yet to attend a meeting 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 in Organic Chemistry from The College of William & Mary, married the prettiest girl in town, and moved North with my Southern Belle 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. The nightmare was done, behind me. I was in a new place, living a new life, with new people.

One of those new people was my first intern, Barbara. Ebullient verging on giddy, she spoke in a gluttonous manner that sounded eerily familiar. Barbara also took a long lunch off property every Monday. Perhaps Friends of Bill W. have radar. Perhaps her grim devotion to that long lunch seemed out of step with her typically carefree personality. One afternoon upon her return, 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.

Although AA had once heralded my triumphant return to sober citizenship, I had never missed anything about it. My new intern’s lunch-time activities came as a timely reminder that nothing in one’s past truly disappears into that black hole of memory, but instead lingers along the event horizon, waiting to recalled and reconfigured when conditions ripen in the present. When I finally did break my anonymity to Barbara (more out of capitulation than camaraderie), I endured about a month of her wide-eyed solicitations to return to the fold. She played the service card without shame: “But you could help so many people!” Exhausted by her relentless cheerfulness, I made what would become a drastic, dangerous decision: to return to an AA meeting after a three-year absence.

We arrived just in time to find seats at the main table. After trudging through several minutes of still familiar 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 noble elder statesman; the enthusiastic newcomer; the freshly motivated rehab parolee—a troupe of supporting characters straight out of Conference-Approved casting. I settled comfortably into my chosen role as the passive observer.

But as I listened, recognition gave way to caricature: the noble elder statesman coughed out inane platitudes instead of gentle wisdom; the enthusiastic newcomer parroted the group-speak with mind-numbing fatuity; the freshly motivated rehab parolee hunkered down to brace 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,” Self-Help mumbo-jumbo, and disease propaganda freshly squeezed from the latest treatment fad. I cast a furtive glance at Barbara, trying to hide my discomfort behind a weak, pained smile. Her round, grinning face beamed back, as if to say, “I told you this was a great meeting.” This was not the Alcoholics Anonymous that I remembered.

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 would be joyful reminiscence instead becomes an uneasy contest of awkward stares. We all move on in our lives. The AA that I remembered had a harder edge. The Program that I was taught did not lead to the whimpering remission of a lifelong disease; nor to the milquetoast management of a chronic disorder; but instead, to absolute, unconditional 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, friends, and family could not, and would not. My AA was Woody Guthrie, Holden Caulfield, Ralph Waldo Emerson—fiercely individualistic, a thoroughly American inheritance.

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 significant sober time. Now this was something I could speak to! With over ten years of sobriety, my return to the fold after a three-year absence seemed the perfect platform from which to pass on the good news that AA is not an end, but a prelude to something greater. After careful consideration, I raised my hand, 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.”

Nothing particularly confrontational, I thought. My sponsor Frank—himself 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 in order to stay sober was greeted with suspicion, even pitied. Being weaned from dependence on meetings was considered a healthy part of having solved the drink problem—life after recovery, not recovery for life.

With freshly rekindled pride in my AA heritage, perhaps I was expecting the same sort of respect usually dispensed to old-timers. Perhaps 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 were smuggling into a Union Camp some 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!)

As they began slathering on the verbal abuse, my mind wandered back to my first AA meeting. Horrendously drunk, I had stumbled into The Original Williamsburg Group drowning in a deluge of my own expletives. An old-timer named Gene suggested somewhat forcefully that I “take the cotton out of my ears and put it in my mouth”—a crude colloquialism that was quite popular at the time. After I suggested with equal force and escalated crudity 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.”

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. Yes, “too sober.” During my drinking career I had been kicked out of countless bars, two weddings, 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-don’t-want-u-cummin’-back-and-spreddin’-that-kinda-tawk.”

The bobble-heads nodded their agreement.

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. What I was feeling was more than snobbish irritation. What I was feeling was 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 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.

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—years ago when I first entered AA, and decades ago as a child growing up in the Catholic Church: that unmistakable hunger for some greater truth, and the frustration that it was just within reach, but being deliberately and stingily concealed. 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.

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 that appeared to be directed at me:

“I need a sponsor.”

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 than a few people attending that meeting, I had unwittingly uncovered a boiling pot of dissatisfaction that had been percolating under a loose lid of feigned gratitude. A silent majority vaguely sensed there was something wrong with what they were hearing at meetings, but unable to fully articulate what. 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.”

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 didn’t mind helping people as long as I didn’t have to get too close to them or their messy little lives. Call me the long-distance mentor, the armchair social worker who likens a person in need to a spiritual vampire that sucks your soul out while thanking you for your help. They get better and move on; you stand still and get worse. There was a reason Dr. Bob called his charges “pigeons,” and I had no interest in sharing the fate of a Central Park Statue.

I had also seen cults of personality form too easily within the unpoliced halls of AA, where spiritual predators ply their trade as both despotic sponsors and sycophantic sponsees. AA’s one-on-one line of transmission magnifies and distorts personal connections even more effectively than it passes on an individual’s experience, strength, and hope. When people need help, and there are other people with an equal need to help them, someone’s going to get hurt. Abuse is built into any unequal relationship, no matter how well-intentioned the power-brokering protagonists, no matter how much they think they can keep a proper distance. I wanted no part of it. Still, the meeting-after-the-meeting continued long after the rest of the parking lot had emptied, and long after Barbara and I were due back from lunch.

Summer, 1991.

I would resist the call to return to sponsorship longer than I resisted Barbara’s prodding to return to meetings. I do not know what finally possessed me to revisit that dimly lit church basement and let those people into my life. Maybe it was time to revoke the unwritten contract that I had 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, we all have turning points in our lives, times when our personal history takes a drastic new direction. Some of these are planned and ritualized, their significance easy to appreciate at the time: we graduate, get a job, get married. Others become significant only after years have passed and the subtle contour of our lives begins to take on a new shape: we go back to school, change careers, get divorced. But then there are those events precipitated by what seems like a trivial decision. We have no warning that we are about to be edged out of our comfortable routine and into an epic adventure, and it may take months to feel the effects, and years to fully understand what happened. And all I did was take a long lunch with a pretty girl.

© 2005, 2012, 2019 Michael V. Cossette

Notes

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Chapter 2

TELL ME A STORY I CAN USE

© 2005, 2012, 2019 Michael V. Cossette

Notes

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Chapter 2

TELL ME A STORY I CAN USE

© 2005, 2012, 2019 Michael V. Cossette

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Chapter 2

TELL ME A STORY I CAN USE

© 2005, 2012, 2019 Michael V. Cossette

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Chapter 2

TELL ME A STORY I CAN USE

© 2005, 2012, 2019 Michael V. Cossette

Notes

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