Generally, my Sunday evenings are painfully, yet thankfully, routine. Painful because, at 5:00 PM each Sunday, after spending most of the previous four days with my two wonderful kids, I’m obliged to return them to their mom, knowing full well I’m not likely to see them again until Wednesday evening. I’ve never experienced the relief or release some parents tell me they experience when they get a break—however brief—from their kids. Even when I remind myself that turning my kids over is a valuable exercise in acceptance, I still have to fight off a low-level solemnity every time I back out of their mother’s driveway.
Thankfully, I have men to sponsor, service commitments to fulfill, and a home group to attend. Once I drop the kids off, I head straight to the church where my home group meets every Sunday evening. By 5:30 PM, before I can become too sullen about my kids’ absence, I’m standing in the church kitchen making coffee while some of the men I sponsor break down tables and set up chairs for the meeting, which is regularly attended by 100 or so recovering alcoholics. By 6:00 PM, the meeting is “set up” and a handful of us retreat to the pastor’s library to read the Big Book and discuss the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. This goes on until about 7:00 PM when the meeting actually begins.
At 8:00 PM, after the meeting, that same group of men and I will break down the chairs, clean the coffee urns, set the security alarms, and, if we’re lucky, lock the place up by 8:25 PM and head to a local sports bar and restaurant called Legends, where as many as 15 to 20 of our fellow meeting-goers can be found on any given Sunday night, eating dinner and watching the sporting event du jour—whatever the season dictates.
This is the welcome routine of my recovery. It is the path I’ve been shown, the method I’ve been taught, the only way I know to stay sober. It is part and parcel of my solution and has been for many years. My Sunday evenings, painful as they are at the start, have become a metaphor for what helps me through most any difficult situation: unity, service, and recovery. The only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking, but membership alone, in the absence of action, has never done a damn thing to keep me sober.
A few weeks ago, my Sunday evening stopped being routine and got very real once I arrived in the restaurant parking lot after the meeting. That night, the Iowa air was cold but also damp and misty. As I weaved between cars and toward the entrance to Legends, I noticed a tall, almost phantasmagorical figure moving toward me. Clearly a younger man, he was none too steady and wearing a baseball cap under the hood of his sweatshirt, making recognition next to impossible.
“Hey, Sponsor,” he said. I had tensed up more stiffly than I’d realized and could literally feel the muscles in my body relax a little as I recognized the voice. The somewhat ghostly figure was a young man named Jake, someone I had tried to sponsor on and off, with little success, for nearly two years. “Man, I can’t believe this,” Jake said. “I can’t believe it. I was telling these people about you today, telling them about when I was in AA and this sponsor I had, and, man, I can’t believe this. It’s no coincidence, right? No coincidence.” Clearly, Jake was drinking, smoking, and snorting, more or less uber-tweaking. Sober and healthy, he was a tall, somewhat imposing figure at 6’ 3” and at least 225 pounds, but now, bent over in the rain, wearing a baseball cap under a hood, he appeared gaunt and far too twitchy for a Sunday night.
Before I could ask him how he was doing or why he was there, a tall, wispy young woman in skintight jeans and black heels walked out of the restaurant and toward us. All too anxiously, Jake called to her. “This is him,” he said, pointing at me. “The guy I was telling you about today, or whatever, maybe it was yesterday, this is him, my sponsor. My AA sponsor.”
“I told you,” the young woman said. “I told you. Wow! It’s a god thing, right, I told you, you need to call him.” She put her hand on my shoulder; I was caught in the crossfire between two tweakers. An otherwise very attractive woman, the all-too-rapid speech, the oily hair, and the adult acne were dead giveaways: this woman had not, and probably would not, sleep for days. “He needs to call you, we all told him you’d just appear someday. Now you’re here, this is too freaky; I knew it was going to happen, I told you, Jake. That’s how life flips, you know, you have to pay attention, right?” she said, and just as quickly, without a hello or a goodbye, she strode away toward what I recognized to be Jake’s van. There was another woman and a man in a wheelchair waiting outside the open sliding door of the death wagon. Together, they looked like a bad album cover in the Iowa mist.
“She’s nuts,” Jake said. “I’m chaperoning a couple of hookers and this other guy. He’s got brain damage from a wreck. Just nuts. Totally nuts. My life, right?”
“What are you doing here?
“Freakin’ crazy. Seriously. She’s here trying to collect. I said I’d give her a ride. Just friends. Trying to help out.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “Still no license?”
“Risky business,” I said. “Especially if you’re all holding.”
I asked him how he was doing otherwise, what had happened to the sober house he’d been living in the last time I’d spoken with him, whether he had a job. I knew the answers to all of the above, but I wanted to hear his version.
“I tried, Greg. I did, man, really. I’ve tried everything. Treatment, AA, sober house, bible-based recovery, I’ve tried everything. I have. Everything. I just don’t think I can do it. I make it a while and then I don’t know … I just don’t think I can do it. AA doesn’t work for me.”
I’m no step-Nazi, nor am I a proselytizer. I try the best I know how to work with others, the way the chapter Working with Others proscribes in the Big Book. Normally, I would have been more patient and spent more time listening to Jake. I would have encouraged him to come to a meeting with me. But I had been down this path many times before with Jake. Unfortunately for him, I had also recently read one-too-many blog posts (usually by someone new to recovery) about how AA doesn’t work. So, when Jake uttered those fateful words of contempt prior to “genuine” investigation, “AA doesn’t work for me,” I came a bit unraveled and suddenly heard myself saying the same words my sponsor had said to me more than 14 years ago.
“You haven’t ‘tried’ anything, Jake.” I said. “You’re like everyone else who says they can’t stay sober or that AA doesn’t work. You’ve been a lot of places—treatment, rehab, sober houses—and you’ve been to a lot of meetings, but all you’ve ever been is a visitor. You’ve never actually done anything.”
He suddenly looked rather despondent and much less excited to see me. “What do you mean?”
“I mean you know everything you need to know to stay sober. The only question now is whether you’re ever actually going to do something.”
“I’ve gone to a lot of meetings. I’ve read the book … with you even, at your house with other men. I tried AA and it didn’t work. I just can’t do it.”
“Did you ever work a step, Jake? Did you ever do a 4th and 5th step? Did you ever make a 9th step amend? Did you ever hold a service position? You say you’re chaperoning hookers tonight. Did you ever go out of your way to give a guy a ride to a meeting? Anything?”
Jake was eventually saved by the bell from a prolonged harangue; his friends were growing increasingly restless, though our entire encounter couldn’t have lasted much more than 5 minutes. Before we parted ways, I made sure he still had my phone number in his cell phone and reminded him which meetings I went to and on what nights. We shook hands, and he promised to call, though I feared I’d sooner read about Jake than hear from him directly.
Last Friday night, however, two weeks after my initial reunion with Jake, I sat in a small group at another meeting for nearly 10 minutes before I looked closely at the guy across the room wearing a ball cap, a clean sweatshirt, and a freshly pressed pair of chinos. When we made eye contact, Jake shot me a smile and a peace sign. At least he was present and seemingly clean. After the meeting, we chatted, and he promised to touch base during the week. He never called, but at my prompting, he did respond to a text during that week and say he hoped to see me again on Friday night.
There are two things I’ve learned in nearly 20 years around Alcoholics Anonymous: surrender everyday and never give up hope … not until all hope has been definitively taken away. As long as there’s hope, there’s always the possibility of a solution.