Tag Archives: Iowa

There Is a Solution


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?”

“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?”

Silence.

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.

More Than a Sufficient Substitute


For years now, I’ve listened to people in meetings describe our program as “a sufficient substitute.” I presume they mean a sufficient substitute for their drinking. And, I suppose, at its most fundamental and basic level, that’s an accurate description. But today, I find it hard to characterize our program as little more than a “sufficient substitute” because, for me, it is so much more.

On Friday, February 10, 2012, I found myself stuck (and heartbroken) at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. I had flown there the day before on our company plane with colleagues for meetings at our offices in Manhattan. We were due to leave from Teterboro at 4:00 pm that Friday and arrive 2 1/2 hours later in Des Moines, Iowa at 5:30 pm–in plenty of time, I had hoped, for me to attend the annual Daddy-Daughter Dance my 9-year-old daughter, Grace, and I have attended each year since she was 6. When we arrived at Teterboro that Friday afternoon for our return flight, however, we were told the company Leer had a hydraulic leak and that our only commercial options were flights leaving from Newark Airport and LaGuardia, the earliest of which would land us in Des Moines at 9:05 pm, exactly 5 minutes after the conclusion of the Daddy-Daughter Dance.

This was not an earth shattering event but one that prompted in me a dream-like desire to somehow circumvent the impossible. There had to be a way, I thought, to make it from Point A to Point B, from Teterboro to Des Moines, by 7:00 pm Central Standard Time. There simply had to be a way. The answer, the critical solution, just hadn’t presented itself to me yet. It was on the tip of my tongue, so to speak, but I couldn’t coax it out, right? There had to be an answer, an option, but what the hell was it? What was I failing to see, remember, consider? What …

I stood there in the lobby of Teterboro for a number of long minutes, oblivious to the conversations going on around me. I stood there in a circle with my colleagues who were carrying on multiple conversations that sounded like they were taking place in another room I was so completely obsessed with inventing a way to circumvent the impossible, when, of course, there wasn’t one.

For two weeks in advance of my trip, I’d feared the possibility of my not making it back in time for the start of the dance.  Who could count on leaving the New York Metro area on a plane–private or commercial–on time on any given Friday afternoon? Luckily, on Monday of that week, I’d had the presence of mind to concoct a plan B. I’d enlisted my daughter’s godfather–a close friend and a man I sponsor–to be ready and waiting for my call on Friday afternoon to confirm whether I’d actually land in Des Moines on time. If it looked like I were to be the least bit late–first for our ritual dinner with three of my daughter’s friends and their Dads at Biaggi’s restaurant on University at 6:00 pm or for the dance itself at 7:00 pm– Uncle Tom, as he’s affectionately known, was to suit up and show up as Grace’s “sufficient substitute.” The thought that I might miss not only the dinner but the entire dance, of course, had never occurred to me at all. Being late would be unfortunate, but the idea of being entirely absent was unfathomable.

Eventually I came to and realized this was the cold hard fact of the matter–I would arrive at Point B that evening moments after the main event had ended. So I began making the requisite phone calls. First, to my ex-wife and her mother, who, at that moment, would be helping my daughter primp and dress for the big event, and then to my daughter’s godfather who would have to step in and do what godfathers are “hired” to do: Play the role of father when necessary and in the father’s absence. To make matters even worse, none of them actually answered their phones, forcing me to leave messages and to wonder if those messages would be received soon enough to put our back up plans effectively in place.

At some point, one of my co-workers and I hoped in a cab and headed for Newark Airport where we’d hop on a plane that would depart at the same time the dance was due to begin and land in Des Moines only moments after the dance would end. Before we actually made it to Newark, my ex-wife called my cell. She’d already broken the news to my daughter who, when she eventually got on the phone, was unable to do anything but whimper and mumble through tears over her daddy’s inability to make it home in time for either the dinner or the dance. The sound of her voice sent me into a sad, gut-wrenching spiral that eventually inspired me to post the following lame video as a feeble attempt at an apology before actually leaving Newark and arriving in Des Moines.

I cannot sleep on planes, no matter what kind of plane, no matter what time of day. Instead, I either read or feign sleep and meditate. I’ve traveled enough to respect other people’s space in flight and rarely engage in conversation unless my seat-assigned fellow wanderer absolutely insists on a little small talk to pass the time.

That night, on the flight from Newark to Des Moines, I sat at the very back of the plane due to my last-minute booking. And thankfully so.  During those two short hours I was able to experience fully a sense of gratitude rather than merely wallow in self-pity over my not-so-surprising dilemma and the disappointment it engendered.  Given my rather raucous youth and the exceptionally reckless nature of my lifestyle before sobriety, I reminded myself once again that I was lucky to be alive, let alone free and gainfully employed. At the tender age of 52 and 13 years sober, I realized I was damn lucky to have children at all, let alone a 9-year-old daughter who was heartbroken her father with two left feet would not be able to accompany her to the Daddy-Daughter Dance that night.  And though divorced, I realized once again I was lucky to have a good enough relationship with my children’s mother, whom I had met in sobriety, that I could count on her to explain to my daughter that I would be as pained and disappointed by the circumstances as she was–rather than a vengeful Ex who would seize the opportunity to trash her former spouse.  And I realized if it weren’t for the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, I might not have had a reliable friend I could call and count on to make every effort in his power to help Grace make the best of an unfortunate situation. And from that point on, I realized once again, as I so often do, that almost all of the good things that have happened in my life have only happened in the absence of alcohol and that Alcoholics Anonymous is the only remedy that has made that possible in my adult life. That, my friends, strikes me as far more than a sufficient substitute.

And there’s more, as there so often is once we’re able to look beyond ourselves and our most immediate loved ones. Once I landed (promptly at 9:05 pm), I called Uncle Tom and Grace, who were just leaving the dance, and suggested we all meet at Maggie Moo’s Ice Cream parlor, a place the kids and I were known to frequent as regulars. And as I drove there, I was reminded that my friend and Grace’s godfather, Tom, had never married and, though close to my age, had never been blessed with children of his own (though he has always fawned over my kids as though they were his own).  And so, if not for my own misfortune this one year (and God willing, Grace and I will have at least 3 more Daddy-Daughter dances to attend), Uncle Tom might never have had the opportunity to dress up in his finest suit and take one of the most naturally grateful little girls in the world to that place where every little girl is always the Belle of the Ball, no matter who accompanies her. When I shared that thought with both Tom and Grace moments later over ice cream, it seemed to bring a smile to everyone’s face and, without a word being spoken between us, reminded Tom and me both how truly blessed we are to possess a means to a life that is far more than a sufficient substitute for the lives we once led.

Uncle Tom and Grace at the Daddy-Daughter Dance 2012