"Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who helped you to become the person that you are? We just don't get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others..." ~ Fred Rogers, Dartmouth College Commencement Speech, May 2003.
On January 12, 2004, I was what is typically referred to as a "bottom". At the time, I was so sure it was the worst place I could ever imagine finding myself. No question, I was at a place that was miserable and unhappy and the landscape looked pretty damn desolate. The good news is that the only place I felt my life could go was up because I couldn't see how things could go much deeper.
I didn't want to be where I found myself. Alcohol had slapped me around and I was at that point where you hoist the white flag and admit you've been licked. As bad as it was, I couldn't have been in a better spot. Normally, admitting defeat isn't something any of us strive for, but there are those rare occasions when admitting you just simply weren't going to win over an opponent isn't a bad thing at all. It can save time and, in my case, it can save live(s).
There's no shame in such an admission of defeat. The shame would be to continue trying to fight something that is bigger, more powerful and deadly than anything you have in your arsenal. The wise thing is to recognize that your ass has been kicked, but good. I made that admission, and I gave up...which shouldn't necessarily be confused with giving in. I didn't give in to alcohol, I gave in to finding a way to get better - The answer, for me, was at the beginning of the alphabet and it began and ended with an "A". While I'm sure there are other routes to sobriety, I'd stake my life on Alcoholics Anonymous, because it saved my life and it continues to make things better.
On January 12, 2004 I had to admit to my parents, my daughter, Katie, my son, Justin and hardest of all, myself, that I was an alcoholic. It was such a painful, embarrassing thing to have to do, but it was also essential. I can't speak for what any of them were thinking at the time, because I was too overwhelmed trying to deal with what was in my head, much less what was running through their minds. I think we were all sort of shell-shocked. At least, I know I was.
My then 17 year old son, Justin, took me to my first AA meeting and I was beyond scared to death. I didn't want to go but something told me I couldn't afford not to and I was compelled to give it a try. I had no idea what to expect. The conversation between us on the drive to the meeting was very stilted. I mean, how awkward can it be to have to take your Mom to an AA meeting? How awkward it was to have to ask your son for a ride! I felt so heavy on the way to the church where I attended my first meeting - like everything was weighing so heavy on my shoulders and I just couldn't see a silver lining in anything. I was doing well to deal with the moment I was in and I wasn't dealing all that well with just one minute. I know that inside I was trembling as I got out of his car.
One hour later, I felt like the weight of everything I had been carrying while, not quite taken off my shoulders, was certainly much more manageable and I had something I hadn't felt in the longest time - I felt hope, and it didn't come from a bottle of expensive wine.
I can look back on that first meeting and smile because I know where it lead me and continues to take me and I know it's safe to believe in what the twelve steps can do if we follow a few small suggestions. The results can be nothing less than miraculous and I do feel like a living, breathing, smiling, laughing, blessed miracle.
The first few meetings were a little foreign to me, but my gosh I was astonished at the many people I was meeting with 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 30 years PLUS of sobriety under their belts. In AA, they say, "Stick with the winners!", and I saw lots of winners.
Over the course of the next two years, I have been through more changes than there is room to write in this small space. I've had to explore how I got to that low point that brought me into the rooms of AA, and I had to go back and revisit some very painful things in order to make peace with my past. Such a process is known as a "Fourth Step" and it's one of the most talked about, dreaded and delayed steps of the twelve. I know I put my fourth step off for a time - but eventually, with the gentle encouragement of a good sponsor and the right direction, you find your way there and you do the work that will take you to the other side and the other side is worth the work necessary to take you there.
I did my Fifth Step, which is deeply connected to a Fourth Step, at a restaurant downtown (Yes, it really was named "Hell's Kitchen!"). On a warm, summer evening in July, my sponsor listened as I went through my past and owned my part of all the things that I could remember that were instrumental in my evolution as an alcoholic. This involved a lot of writing, a lot of honesty and the rose-colored glasses had to be tossed out. I'd dreaded this step for the longest time, but my very wise sponsor knew it was essential that I get this out of the way sooner rather than later. She was so very right.
Like so many other people who spoke of fretting and dreading their fourth and fifth step, and then spoke of the peace in finally going through the process, once again, I realized first-hand that it was true. Good things come from hard work and honest introspection and apparently it's true that "Confession is good for the soul", because, as stated in the Fifth Step, "Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs".
Each step seamlessly paves the way for the next one and some how, some way, it all works if you work it. I don't believe in magic. I do believe in divine inspiration and I am one of those who do believe that AA is a divinely inspired program - for me, there's no other plausible explanation for it. I continue to believe in it, to work the steps and the steps continue to work.
Huge changes followed my joining the club. It was, by no means, easy street because most of it has been hard work, but the rewards have been mighty and numerous.
As I mentioned, January 12, 2004, I had to sit before my son and daughter and admit to them that I was an alcoholic. My son was initially compassionate. My daughter couldn't make eye-contact with me for several weeks and then there was a level of anger and resentment that both she and I had to work through on our own and, at times, collectively. I felt like a failure - as a daughter, a mother and a former wife. Katie felt that I deserved to feel like that and I know, though she never verbalized it, she couldn't have been proud to have me for a Mom in those early months of 2004.
It took a while for things to work out - there was no instant fix and all of the credibility, respect and trust I once enjoyed, didn't automatically return simply because I was suddenly attending AA meetings and falling asleep with a Big Book in my hands every night. It took work. It took time. It took love. It took God. But eventually, it really did start to return. I had to give my family something to believe in and that meant staying the course and apparently changes were happening inside of me that even I didn't notice but, after a while, my family started noticing them. I changed from the inside out and that takes longer to process than peroxide.
This past January 12, 2006, I attended my Thursday Night meeting at what is now my "home group". The first time I walked into that meeting two years ago, I felt like a stranger in a strange land and I was both. Now when I walk in that room, and many others, I see friends and smiles are exchanged, jokes are shared, laughter is easy and it is like walking into the living room of a warm and inviting home where I feel loved and I know that I am welcome. I am among my AA family who are, in many ways, as much a part of my life as my biological family is.
As I sat there this past Thursday, I couldn't help but remember the events that had taken place two years ago to the hour and how, at just about the same time as this meeting was about to begin, I was facing my son and daughter and telling them that basically their mother was an alcoholic. I could barely say the word back then. I was ashamed of it and I hated making that admission. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever saying it now - and I'm not in the least bit ashamed of saying I'm an alcoholic.
A few minutes after the meeting began, I looked up to see none other than Katie and Justin. My heart absolutely soared and I felt so happy. You have to understand that an AA meeting might feel like home to me, and while I now enjoy an enormous measure of support and kindness from both of my kids, sitting through an hour long AA meeting just isn't their "normal" scene. But there they were - my ducks, my ducks were all in a row; Justin sitting beside Katie sitting just one seat away from me. I felt goosebumps - only this time, the really good, happy kind.
After the discussion part of the meeting was over, it was time to hand out chips and my very special, wonderful sponsor took over. "Is anyone celebrating 30 days of sobriety? 60 days? 3 months? six months? One year? How about 3 - 7 years? 7 - 20 years? 20 - 70 years?" She purposefully skipped over 2 years - she said some very lovely things and I got up and accepted my 2 year medallion to warm claps, clasps and a big hug from my sponsor. As she was hugging me, I looked over her shoulder and I caught the eye of both Katie and Justin, who were smiling and clapping and I was so grateful to share this golden moment with these two precious kids of mine. I had tears in my eyes - the joyful kind - the grateful tears of someone who was given a second chance, a lot of love, tons of support and the Grace of a very loving, generous God.
Before I left for my meeting that same night, my parents called me into their room. I joked and asked them if I were grounded because they looked very serious! My Daddy, who has kept a diary of every single day of the past almost 46 years, opened his 2004 diary up to January 12, and he read from his diary about what a difficult day it had been on me and our family - and how worried both he and my mother were about me.
He looked at me and said, "You know, two years ago, you thought it was the end of the world, didn't you?". Indeed I did. That's exactly what I felt like. Bleak, dark and pretty much hopeless. He told me of how hard it was for he and my mom to see me at such a low place and, being a parent, I can only imagine how they felt because I know how I feel if something, anything, makes Katie or Justin sad and scared. I felt both of those things that day. I wasn't simply Katie and Justin's mother - I was Barbe & Maxine's daughter. They were so very worried and concerned. Alcoholism truly is a "family" disease and yes, sadly, the family can sometimes suffer as much, if not more, than the patient.
"But it wasn't the end of the world, was it? Your Mom and I want you to know how very proud we are of you and how far you have come. You have done so well and we love you very much.". And with that, he handed me the keys to his 2005 minivan which had less than 8,000 miles on it and told me not to even think about arguing the point. He had been to the dealership and bought a white 2006 Chrysler Town & Country moonbeam - an almost identical replica of the one they just gave me. "Don't argue with us! We both want you to have it - you're all we've got, we love you and we are going to do this. Period. End of discussion. Now get out of here, you'll be late for your meeting.".
I was stunned. I was beyond stunned. And yes indeed, I am blessed.
Thank you Katie, Justin, Mom, and Dad I love each and every one of you with all of my sober heart.
And a special thanks to Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, for giving people like me, a place and a way to grow and get better. Most of all thanks to God, for making them both such hopeless drunks that they had no place else to turn except toward a Higher Power.
The Big Book said that things would get better. The Big Book was right, and so was Fred Rogers when he observed that we don't get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others". My kids, my parents, and yes, even my former husband Tim, my sponsor, and so many wonderful friends present and past who, through the years, took a chance and "invested" in me. I'm going to try very hard and work diligently to give each of them more things to be proud of and less reasons to cringe. I want them to have a high return on their investments in me. I want to make them proud and serve as well as I am capable.
Katie, thank you so much for this card and this challenge - to "do one thing every day that scares you.". I've had a few experiences of doing just that. Remember when Christopher Robin said to Winnie The Pooh, "Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem and smarter than you think." That is so brilliantly simple and stunningly true. Most of the time, the hardest, most frightening part of all, is believing it..fortunately, that doesn't make it any less true.