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[ Personal Narratives ]

Girl Skulks into a Room

I am not a joiner. Worse — I’m a leaver. I love that rush of front-porch vacuum quiet when the door to a party has shut behind me. I love leaving group dinners at the point where you just know a couple of people are going to want to order dessert and drag the whole godforsaken thing out another half hour. Concerts, readings — I’ve even been known to get to the first intermission of a play and say well, I think I’ve pretty much got the gist of it now. There’s just only so much I can take of you people and your celebrations, your art, that thing where you want me in your life. It’s a lot, okay?

So when I tell you I went to my first AA meeting at 18 months sober because I was so lonely I thought I might disappear, you know it was serious.

It took me nearly that long to even realize I was lonely. First I had to pass through the just-got-sober part, where I felt safest holing up at home with a village mystery and an extensive if evanescent ice cream collection. And then there was the wonderment phase, where I realized that the vaguely tired feeling I’d had for years had actually been a constant low-grade hangover and that I never had to have one again. Soon after that I took up long-distance running, as I believe the newly sober are legally required to do in most jurisdictions. I preferred to run alone — shocking, right? — and it’s hard to be lonely when you’re focused on not letting your body expire on a hilly trail. Sometimes I would run with Terry Gross in my ear, but even she could get tiresome with her incessant questions. (Never mind that they were not directed at me.) Often I would just enjoy the feeling of having a body that I wasn’t actively destroying from the inside out — of knowing I could rely on it now.

And at some point after that, sober life was just life, you know? I was both thrilled and comforted to be living at ground level. My small circle of close friends got smaller and tighter and dearer to me, and occasionally I would even go places and do things with them for up to two hours. The social culture at my job was a boozy one and I withdrew from it with relief. (The work culture was on the boozy side too, and it took a little longer to extricate myself from that.) I wandered and I read and I looked at the path that had gotten me into trouble and on my way out of it. And everything seemed fine until I was heading into Café Allegro one mild summer afternoon and passed two twenty-something women on the bench outside. As I neared, I heard the one with a crew cut and tattoos say, “The thing is that a lot of those people didn’t know me before I got sober.”

Well. I am a person who likes to maintain some level of decorum in public, but it was all I could do not to march over and sit in her lap: “You’re sober? Oh my god I’m sober too!!! Do you want to sit here and talk about sober stuff all day? Because I totally will if you will. We’ll be friends! I know I’m nearly twice your age but I can still be your best friend, I promise. I have a car! It’s super reliable too. I’ll drive you places and let you braid my hair and everything if you’ll please, please just let me sit here and talk to you about being sober.”

Oh, the horror of almost initiating a conversation with a stranger! And yet I’d come so close. And even when I was safely settled in on the other side of the glass, I couldn’t stop watching those girls through the front window, especially when they laughed. Could they be laughing about the crew-cut one’s former drunkenness? Her sobriety? (I’d always heard that AA meetings were full of humor, which I wrote off as guerilla marketing.) I wanted to know so badly that tears came to my eyes, and I saw right then that I was a really, really lonely sober person. I had wonderful support in the Sober Internet, but no one I could sit on an actual, physical bench and swap stories with. Occasionally I would try to share something with a friend who drank — “I can’t believe I did ______,” or “I used to ______ and lie about it,” or “Remember that time I said ____? It was actually _____.” And the friend would generally respond by saying either “That’s not so bad,” or “Everyone does that.”

It’s true that as far as alcoholic misbehavior goes, mine was not particularly exciting. I didn’t physically harm anyone or get arrested or even dance on any pool tables. It’s also true that the sins I did commit were a dime a dozen among the crowd I ran with. But the more sober time I racked up, the more clearly I saw that those unimpressive fuck-ups and lost evenings had been acts of aggression against myself. That I’d hurt myself over and over, forever and ever amen. And I slowly realized this was something only a fellow-traveler, someone else who’d made it to the other side, could fully understand. And finally that day in June, I pressed on my eyes to shove the tears back in (this doesn’t work, by the way) and thought: I need people, sober people. I need to find my people.

But how? A Meet Up group came to mind, which made me nervous. The whole idea of Meet Up had always seemed sketchy to me. First, it involved meeting people. Second, it was based on hobbies, and as a drinker I really didn’t understand the notion of shared interests (besides drinking) bringing people together. E.g.: I like to can vegetables, so I find out where other people who like to can are going to be, and I go there too…and then what? It turns out to be a surprise key party? It becomes a Ten Little Indians scenario where we are picked off by a maniacal Canning Killer (in the kitchen, with botulism) one by one? Or even worse, we all stand around smiling awkwardly and saying “Canning’s fun! Boy, I really like it! How about those really grippy tongs — how great are those?” to each other? Could anything good come from that? I had my doubts.

Later that day, I told my husband, “I need to figure out a way to meet other sober people.”

“That sounds simple enough,” he said.

“You think?” I asked. “I’m not sure where to start. I think I need, like, a Meet Up group, but for alcoholics. I guess I could check the Meet Up website.”

He gave me a funny look. “Sure. Or, you know, AA? Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

Oh. Right.

And that’s how, a mere five months later, I found myself standing outside an Episcopal church in a tweedy, old-money corner of north Seattle. Well, first I was sitting in my car outside the church, and then I was standing next to my car, and then for a few minutes I was back in it, looking up movie times on my phone. My head felt light and my mouth was almost entirely out of spit. “Scared spitless,” I thought, which seemed even dorkier in the moment than it does right now. The church complex was large and many-doored, and I watched people come and go. I knew there was no such thing as ‘looking like an alcoholic’ — but still, I was disappointed that none of them looked like alcoholics, which would have made it easier for me to pre-assess them for friend potential and maybe weasel out of the whole deal.

Except I didn’t weasel or slither anymore. Not much, at least. You did the hard part a long time ago, I told myself. You can walk into a room and sit in a goddamn chair, missy. (Yeah, I call myself missy.) I got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk examining the three doors available for walking through. A small wooden sign with ‘A.A.’ carved in it hung from one doorknob. Yeah, but I don’t want to walk in there, I said to myself. You don’t have to want to, I said back. You just have to do it. And in I went.

Fortunately, I had made a detailed plan in my head of exactly how the meeting would go. First, it would be all women. The AA website might have been built in 1993 in a triple-encrypted and possibly dead language, but I’d managed to decipher the gender stuff in the meeting finder. So women only, and I had decided there would be at least 45 of them, and they would be seated in rows of folding chairs facing a podium where someone would stand and speak for most of the meeting (I’d also determined from the website that it was a speaker meeting). I would slip in, sit near the back, make as little eye contact as possible, keep my mouth shut, and lam it out of there the moment it was over — like auditing a college lecture. The friend-making part of my plan would commence later, once the mute and stealthy phase was over.

Pretty good plan, right? I know. So naturally, I walked into a room with a single round table, unoccupied except for an older man with a white walrus mustache. “Hello there, young lady!” he beamed. “If you’re looking for the Ladies’ Halloween Festival Committee, it’s next door.”

I have never, ever wanted anything as much as I wanted to say yes, I was looking for the Ladies’ Halloween Festival Committee. And I’m sure they could have used an extra lady to help make candle holders out of miniature pumpkins or whatever. But I was already answering, “No, I’m here for the AA meeting?” with just the annoying upswing in tone that the question mark suggests. He looked pretty surprised for a second, which in itself surprised me, because I figure anyone you see on the street could be an alcoholic, and it seemed like Wilford Brimley over there ought to know that even better than me. But he recovered fast, introduced himself, and showed me to the coffee (real church coffee in an urn, just like in the movies!) and cookies.

The next person to walk in was a young blonde girl in a U-W hoodie who greeted Wilford as though they’d known each other forever, though she was 21 maybe. “Just trying out a new meeting?” she asked when we were introduced, and my inner voice hissed, “Say yes! Say you are a Chicago-area radiologist visiting Seattle for a conference on radiology innovations, staying at the Marriott on Fairview, and just checking out a new meeting for fun!” But my faithless outer voice said, “No, this is my first meeting ever, actually.” Well, that got their attention, especially when I added that I’d been sober for a year and a half. “Wow, you sure picked a rough way to do it,” the teenager said, and Wilford heartily agreed. Oh, whatever, kool-aid drinkers, I thought, but I couldn’t sustain the bitchiness for very long because they were both so nice.

Over the next ten minutes the room filled up, by which I mean twelve people gathered at the table, whose roundness and smallness I would like to remind you were not part of my plan. There were a couple of fishing-cap older guys who talked Seahawks before things got rolling; an elderly retired doctor; a recently retired professor who deeply impressed me with his casual use of the word ‘attenuated’; a hippieish couple with identical round rimless glasses and long, gray-streaked hair; a wiry woman who was recovering from a bike accident at Green Lake; and one woman about my age in an arty scarf and nice boots. A perfect cross-section of north Seattle, more or less. It was clear that some of the older men had known each other for decades — had visited each other during hospital stays, even vacationed together with their wives. I felt as though I’d barged into a private gathering of old friends–not because anyone’s behavior even remotely suggested that, but because I habitually feel like I’ve barged into a private gathering of old friends, and this situation was perfectly structured to throw it into relief. When Wilford introduced me at the start of the meeting and I was welcomed with big smiles, I thought to myself, they don’t really want you here. They’re just being nice because they’re afraid you’ll go have a drink if they aren’t.

As if that would be so bad, for strangers to be kind to stop me from hurting myself. As if I would be taking something they couldn’t afford to give.

So there I was, a stranger at a small round table of old friends. A 44-year-old woman among mostly 70-something men. A defensively dressed and made-up person clutching an armament-gray Celine bag, surrounded by fleece and Tevas. My hands were shaking; my lower lip was, too. What to do? I did two things: kept my butt in the chair, and paid very close attention. I noticed that these AA people, at least, really did laugh a lot. I noticed that almost no one mentioned God or any other higher power, maybe not so surprising in such an unchurched city. I noticed how sad Wilford sounded when he described saying something thoughtless to the young worker repaving his driveway–how he was afraid he’d made the guy fear for his job, and deeply regretted it. I wanted to tell Wilford I thought he was being too hard on himself, but I’d also noticed that there was little back and forth of that sort. People spoke, and when they were done, they were done, and then we sat until someone else decided to speak. It was like an anthology of monologues, or the Quaker meetings I attended one summer in my twenties in an attempt to find peace of mind and drink less alcohol. Twenty years ago.

Speaking of alcohol, I noticed that almost no one talked about drinking, or wanting a drink, or how long it had been since they’d had a drink. If you didn’t know better, it could have passed as a meeting of just, you know, people with varying levels of manageable problems and conflicts, not alcoholics. It was clear that some of the older men had decades of sober time; as for the others, I couldn’t tell. But no one was in crisis, or if they were, it wasn’t over whether to have a drink. It was over career boredom, or a nagging toothache, or really liking a boy in your dorm who was sending mixed signals. (At which point the elderly doctor could not restrain himself from telling the young girl, to general approval, “Well, I don’t think this fellow deserves you!”)

I spoke too. I assure you I had intended to do no such thing, but in a pocket of silence my mouth part started talking. I barely remember what I said — something about time, something about fear. Something about loving what I used to hate. I know I said The Thing — Hi, I’m Kristi, etc. I’d never said The Thing before. I thought it might feel like a weight falling from my shoulders, but it was more like pushing a door open a little wider, wide enough to walk through without contortions. When I finished talking, they thanked me and we moved on and I wasn’t shaking anymore.

Afterward the bike-accident woman gave me a printed meeting schedule and circled some of her favorites. She’d been sober for 27 years and was still hitting five or six meetings a week, she said. Something about that scared me to death and my face must have shown it, because she laughed and said, “It’s not from desperation. It’s where I see my best friends.” Friends, right. I’d almost forgotten what had gotten me through the door. I need friends. I need friends who know what this is like, I wanted to tell her, but it suddenly seemed like one confession too many.

“Keep coming back,” they said when I left.

“I will,” I said. I say a lot of things. Sometimes I mean them and sometimes I don’t and sometimes I don’t know the difference. That gets better over time, I’m told.

A funny thing happens when you tell someone who knew you as a drinker that you’ve stopped: they say “Oh, okay.” Or “Oh, okay, cool.” Not always, but often enough in my case. Sometimes they say ‘Any particular reason why?” and you have the choice of saying Nah, I just randomly wanted to pull the tablecloth out from under my whole life. Or Oh, I just wanted to see if there was still a person in here. Or you could be like me and chirp, “Oh, just an experiment for more energy and better sleep!” like someone who makes life plans from Women’s Fitness magazine. It’s an easy path that allows you to keep people at a safe distance, where you can keep an eye on them, even peripherally, like a paranoid cow. 

The week after my AA meeting, someone asked me “Any particular reason why?” and instead of saying “I just thought it would be fun!” I said, “Just mostly, you know, alcoholism.” My heart rate shot up, like I’d done ten burpees. But he laughed. “Oh, okay, cool,” he said.

And a few weeks after that, I was having dinner with an old friend visiting from out of town, who asked how long it had taken me to decide to quit once I’d realized I had a problem. “Let’s see,” I said. “Twelve years, give or take?” My friend put down his fork. “What?” he said. “I’ve known you almost that long and I had no idea.”

I shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Well, why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I can maybe tend to be a little bit secretive.”

He looked at me for a minute while I looked at the tines of his fork, which I’m fairly sure he was contemplating using to stab me. Then he sighed. “Anything else you wanted to reveal? Do you have three children stashed away somewhere? Were you born a dude?”

“That’s pretty much it for now,” I said.

“Will you tell me if something else big happens?”

“Oh, definitely,” I said. “Maybe. Probably.”

He raised one eyebrow at me but he also put the fork safely back in his pasta.

“I love you,” he said with his mouth half-full.

“Thank you,” I said. “Same.”

I pushed that door open, and people walked through. My mom has twenty years, a woman told me. I stopped at eighteen, someone said at a cocktail party. I doubt now I was even an alcoholic, but why test that theory? A co-worker said More than one glass of wine and I feel crappy the whole next day. It’s annoying, but I know it’s kind of lucky, too.

One acquaintance, the archetypal too-long-at-the-party guy who could always be counted on to have one more drink, quizzed me closely during a work cocktail function: Not even socially? Not even wine with dinner? What do you do when everyone else is drinking? Aren’t you bored? Seriously, not even on vacation, not even at the holidays, not even on your birthday? What about next time you’re in Europe? Or Napa — couldn’t you taste and just not swallow?

I was working up a good mental eye roll. I also knew based on history that we were approaching the ten-minute mark after which he would give up trying to keep his eyes off my tits. I needed to move them somewhere safe, which entailed relocating my other parts, too. I made my initial escape noises, at which point he blurted, “It’s my fifth day sober.”

“Oh!” I said. I didn’t want to sound surprised, but the exclamation point inserted itself against my will. “How are you feeling?”

“Okay,” he said. “Like a fog is clearing.” I nodded. “It’s just hard to imagine not having the occasional celebratory drink,” he went on. “I’m hoping to eventually become a moderate drinker.”

Ah, moderation — just the ticket for adding extra vigilance and stress to the alcohol experience while still utterly failing to drink like a normal person. “It seems like some people are able to do that,” I said carefully.

“Do you think you will?” he asked.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

“Really? You don’t think about just drinking on holidays and shit?”

“Nope.”

“But good food is meant to be appreciated with wine,” he said. “You don’t feel like you’re missing out on a big part of life by giving that all up?”

I looked him dead in the eye. “I made and then broke a promise to myself every single day for twelve years,” I said. “I failed myself every. Single. Day. And now I don’t. Do you seriously think I give a fuck whether my food could taste five percent better?”

He looked miserable. As a vision of the future, I was a letdown. Near us, a group of guys clinked bottles of IPA. I suddenly felt exhausted. It was time to free myself from this situation, go home and kiss my dogs and make out with my husband, or at least kiss my husband and make out with my dogs. “It was nice running into you,” I said. “I should be heading home. Congrats on your five days, I know what a big deal that is.”

He sighed. “Thanks,” he said. “It is. It actually is a really big deal for me. And I just don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’m pretty fucking scared, to be perfectly honest.”

There was still some light in the sky. Though the window, I saw a couple walk away from a bench in the courtyard, leaving it vacant.

“Hey,” I said. “I have a little time. Do you want to go sit outside and talk?”

He did.