Last Friday I went to a truly depressing recovery meeting. Usually it’s like happy hour without all the slurring. Last Friday, though, one guy raised his hand when the speaker asked “Did anyone want to drink today?” and shared how he’d been in and out of the program for the last 17 years. He’d known the speaker from their early days in recovery, but sadly only one of them had maintained 17 years of continuous sobriety.
Another member raised his hand to share how he’d been struggling with thoughts of suicide. Memories of riding home from the psych ward one year prior triggered these feelings of hopelessness, which he shared with the group because he likely had no other system of seemingly unconditional support. He also had 17 years of sobriety, but he did not have the coveted serenity.
I sat next to my sponsor at the meeting, and afterwards she told me stuff like that is never helpful to share at meetings. “How does that help a newcomer to hear someone’s been sober 17 years and still struggling?” she said. I’m not really a newcomer anymore, but it just seemed to me that the first guy was a chronic relapser and the second was mentally ill. It wasn’t an uplifting meeting, but it felt real and didn’t make me want to drink.
I’m feeling a rift right now. It feels too black and white in these instances. On the rare occasion when I do share at a meeting, I think carefully about what I’m going to say and keep my message vague but positive. But I have no issue with those who don’t and who seek support or possibly just attention at meetings. Meetings, afterall, are a sampling of personalities and problems. We can’t all be in a state of sober bliss.
I’m struggling with this now because I’m coming up on nine months and I don’t know if I see a future in the program. I’ve been asked to read a passage and share briefly at a meeting later this month. I’ve also been asked to share my story as a newcomer at another meeting. I’m nervous as hell about both because I fear public speaking more than death, but I am also honored. I will keep my message positive and focus on how the program helped me. Because, honestly? I do not believe I would still be sober without it.
Meetings showed me that I was not alone in the maddening inability to drink moderately. People who had been around awhile gave me hope that my life too would get better, which it already has in relatively short time. At meetings, I closed my eyes and took in the church-like smell of the room and felt completely safe and free from shame. I couldn’t have found this peace on my own anywhere near as powerfully. It was a gift I truly am grateful for.
But I never thought I’d have to go to meetings forever. Lots of people share they thought they could go to a handful of meetings and learn how to drink normally. I never thought or wanted that, but I sure didn’t know I’d be expected to to go meetings forever in order to stay sober. I stopped drinking and then got to a meeting because I thought “I need help to stay this way.” And I did get help. And now I think “meetings until I die? really?”
I don’t ever see myself as a meeting-a-day person. I’m tired of hearing “meeting makers make it” because I happen to know they don’t all make it. I also know some people drop out of meetings and stay sober without them. And some drop out and go back to drinking. There are no guarantees, though statistically I probably have a better chance staying sober if I go to meetings. But how do I reconcile the disdain for grey in a program that seems to only have room for black and white? I hate black and white.
I don’t have any plans to stop going to meetings, by the way. I’ll go to one this weekend and I’ll hit my home group meeting as usual next week. Two meetings a week is easy to make. And maybe posting this is reckless and I should have just kept my feelings to myself because I do not think this would be helpful to a newcomer. I do have some responsibility to pay it back, as it was given freely to me in a time when I needed it. But I’ll never be a good poster child for the 12-step way. I’ll always question why a person needs to go forever. I don’t believe my first priority in life is my sobriety because that implies that meetings are more important than family or work or even leisure time. I need to stay sober to be able to do all those things, but what about those of us that take a base and build on it outside of meetings? Isn’t God everywhere?
There haven’t been reliable studies on attrition rates for those who get sober in traditional 12-step recovery meetings. I happened to start going to meetings when the program was conducting a survey. I filled in the little circle marking that I’d been going to meetings for less than a month, but I haven’t seen a survey like that since. Even if they tracked such data monthly, it wouldn’t be a fair measure since quite a few who go to meetings aren’t going willingly. A big component of success in any program of change is willingness. Critics say that only 5% remain sober after a year, but that sounds insultingly low. This implies that 95% of those who go to one meeting are back to drinking their faces off within a year, but I think it’s more likely that those who want help get what they need and take off.
This begs the final question of why I’m so afraid to stick around. If the cut and dry and black and white irritates me, can I not handle that? Am I afraid of being brainwashed so that one day I find myself stifling others so they don’t scare off newcomers? Am I so fragile or full of ego that I can’t stick around long enough to help someone else? Because if I leave the program, I won’t be there for a newcomer. It’s also true that if every newcomer kept going to meetings for the rest of their lives, there wouldn’t be any free seats for newcomers!
Just something I’m struggling with at the moment. I share here because I can’t bring this up at a meeting or to my sponsor. And that bothers me.