“Hi, my name is Jessica and I'm an alcoholic.”
I couldn’t help but stare at the eyes of those present. Some were homeless, others were professors, law students, truck drivers and business owners. It was an eclectic crowd that spanned all ages – from twenty-something-year-old millennials to retirees. In some I sensed unease and shame, but most appeared comfortable and even at-home. Diversity aside, there was a single commonality that bound the members together - all were drug addicts or alcoholics, and some were both.
Last week, I was asked by my fiancee to accompany him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He is a medical student, and part of his training was a two week addiction medicine rotation during which he was required to attend a series of AA meetings. Interestingly, I work for a phenomenal organization called Project Tikvah, which aims to break the vicious cycle of drug addiction and mental illness in struggling youth and those facing incarceration. Although I frequent rehabilitation facilities on a weekly basis and have personal relationships with many people battling addiction - I myself had never been to an AA meeting!
It was humbling to see and hear people in a brutally honest, zero-judgement environment, spilling their hardships in an open room – naked and bare. There was little denial or shying away from their problems. Most shared their stories with ease, proud of their sobriety and second chance at life. Others related their story sprinkled with tears, struggle, heartbreak and defeat. This community, dedicated to the honest acceptance of life’s challenges, did not question its members’ motives or missteps. They’ve all been there. They left the judging to their probation officers. This was therapy. This was healing. This was a support network with the tools to overcome the odds of a deadly disease.
A young father of two precious children stood up and said that he is grateful for a second chance at life. Just 100 short days ago, he was considered “dead.” His pupils had dilated, his heart barely beating. His wife had resuscitated him back to life. He remembers lying on the kitchen floor, hearing his two children screaming in horror. How shocked, disappointed and terrified they must have been. For the past 100 days, he was unable to see his children, but today, upon graduation from an intensive rehabilitation center, he hugged them. “Dad I am proud of you” were the first words he heard from his 9-year-old son. As far as he was concerned, just hearing those words was worth sobriety.
And then there was Jake*. He had been clean for 4 months, but with his sobriety came a sense of loneliness. He missed the bar’s social scene. He missed spending days on end smoking and drinking with peers. To fill this void, he began looking for a girlfriend on Tinder. He started chatting with Michelle, a fun, pretty, smart pre-med Junior, who asked if he wanted to meet up and smoke. Jake, who was so desperate for company, neglected to share this struggle with his sponsor and met up with her anyway. His sobriety went out the window, as he began a week long bender down the University of Florida party scene.
This was Jake's first meeting since his relapse. He was overcome by intense waves of guilt and shame. He felt mortified, pathetic and beaten for losing this round of his battle. But instead of wallowing in sadness, he decided to share his struggle with the room, hoping that someone would learn from his experience, while garnering enough support and courage from the meeting, so as to not repeat the same mistake.
What struck me as remarkable was the sheer strength it took to publicly battle one's demons. I was mesmerized by the vulnerability, resilience and openness. It was not uncommon to hear people talking about the depths of their depression, suicidal ideations and even attempts. However odd this may seem, there was something so refreshingly honest about it. At the end of each story was an expression of thanks – “The greatest gift I received from these meetings is the gift of life.” It was as if everyone present had just witnessed something miraculous – the rebirth of a man – which, to an extent, is exactly what took place in this room every Wednesday evening.
The motivation to remain sober was overwhelming. As Andrew said, “I have been sober for 12 years, yet consciously have to decide each day not to have the first drink, so that I don’t become the man I despise.”
AA’s emphasis on the importance of being spiritually fit and practicing the steps of the program was the mantra of the meeting. The value of a sponsor, a higher power and accountability are fundamental to the success of the program. Alcoholism was said to be a neurobiological disease with a spiritual cure. However, unlike antibiotics, this cure is not something you can swallow and let your body do the rest. This requires physical and psychological stamina to avoid regression and relapse. Life in AA seemed like biking up a mountain, if you are not going up, you are inadvertently going down. Quickly.
As the session concluded the group leader began passing out different colored chips. Each color correlated with a designated time spent in sobriety; white was 24 hours, silver was 30 days, gold was 60, and so on. When Mark stood up and said, “Today I am celebrating 18 years without a drink” the room went wild. Chelsea was celebrating 5 years, Lisa 90 days and Brett only a few hours – yet each one received the same resounding applause. The warmth in the room was palpable, the love powerful and contagious. The cheering, energy and indomitable spirit of those around me struck a chord inside my heart.
It was at that moment I realized a powerful personal lesson. Celebrating one's achievements, irrespective of how big or seemingly small, should be acknowledged. Each step taken in the right direction is one step closer to your end goal. Recognizing, valuing and and welcoming growth deserves to be recognized. If people are quick to judge themselves harshly, then that should equally apply to celebrate their successes.
When the sobriety chip ceremony concluded, everyone stood up in a circle. As each person clasped their hands together with their neighbor’s, they commenced with a short prayer and repeated “it works you are worth it, it works you are worth it." There were lots of tears.
I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to all the members of AA, who so courageously shared the most intimate details of their lives to a room full of strangers. I genuinely feel blessed to have had the opportunity to learn from the raw and real struggles of those around me.
Although I am not a recovering alcoholic, I could relate to much of what was spoken about during the meeting. We are all recovering from something - whether it is the loss of a loved one, a difficult upbringing or a challenging relationship. Let the life experiences of others serve as a personal lesson: Irrespective of struggle, self growth and development should be a part of everyone's lives- addict or not.
To everyone in the room that night and all the young men and women I work with struggling with addiction: Thank you for reminding me that strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. Hardships without surrender, that is true strength. And as the Big Book (aka the AA Bible) so eloquently states, “Adversity truly introduces us to ourselves.”
*Names changed to protect privacy
To find out more about the wonderful work of Project Tikvah, see https://projecttikvah.org.