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 shuts behind me. I love leaving group dinners just before someone orders dessert and drags the whole godforsaken thing out another thirty minutes. I’ve been known to get to the intermission of a play and say, “Well, I think I’ve got the gist of it by now.” There’s only so much I can take of you people and your celebrations and 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 eighteen months sober because I was so lonely I thought I might disappear, you know it was serious.
It took me nearly that long to realize I was lonely. First I had to pass through the just-got-sober part, where I was safest holed up at home with a cozy mystery and vats of ice cream. 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 got serious about running, as the newly sober are prone to do, and, well, it’s hard to be lonely when you’re focused on not letting your body collapse and die on a hilly trail. Sometimes I would run with Terry Gross in my ear, but even she could get tiresome with her incessant questions. Often I would just enjoy the feeling of having a body that I wasn’t actively destroying from the inside out.
At some point after that, sober life just became regular life, and I was both thrilled and comforted to be living at ground level, instead of alternately high above and below. The social culture at my job was a boozy one, and I got off the happy hour hamster wheel with relief. My circle of close friends got smaller and tighter and dearer to me. I wandered and read and looked at the path that had gotten me into trouble. Everything seemed just fine. Then, one mild summer afternoon, I passed two twentysomething women on a bench outside Cafe Allegro. I heard the one with a crew cut and tattoos say, “The thing is, a lot of those people didn’t know me before I got sober.”
It was all I could do to not run over and sit in her lap: “You’re sober? Oh my god, me too! Do you want to sit here and talk about it all day? Because I totally will if you will. I know I’m nearly twice your age, but I can still be your best friend, I promise. Please, please just let me sit here and talk to you about being sober.”
Even after I was safely settled inside, I couldn’t stop watching those girls through the front window, especially when they laughed. I wanted to be with them so badly that tears came to my eyes and I realized that I was desperately lonely. I had friends on the Sober Internet, but no one to sit with on an actual, physical bench and swap stories. Occasionally, I would try to share something with a real-life friend: “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 “Well, that’s not so bad” or “Yeah, but everyone does that.” Then I’d feel even lonelier, because I’d tried to explain just how bad it had gotten and not been heard.
It’s true that as far as public alcoholic antics go, mine weren’t particularly exciting. I told secrets (mine and others’). I drove when I shouldn’t. I closed down bars on several continents and put myself in risky or just inane situations. I didn’t wreck my car, or get arrested, or fuck other people’s husbands. But the more sober time I racked up, the more clearly I saw that those unimpressive fuckups and lost evenings had been acts of aggression against myself. I’d hurt myself over and over. And I realized this was something only a fellow traveler, someone else who’d made it to the other side, could fully understand. That day outside the café, as I pressed on my eyes to shove the tears back in (this doesn’t work, by the way), I thought, I need to find my people. Sober people.
But how? Meetup came to mind, but it involved, you know, meeting up with people. Also, it was based on hobbies, and as a drinker I really didn’t understand the notion of shared interests (besides drinking) bringing people together.
I told John, “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 meetup group, but for alcoholics. I guess I could check their website.”
He gave me a funny look. “Sure. Or, you know, AA?”
And that’s how, a mere five months later, I found myself standing outside a Presbyterian 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. The church complex was large, and I watched people come and go through various doors. 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. I got out of the car and walked to the nearest entrance. A small wooden sign with aa carved in it hung from the 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.
I had researched local meetings on the AA website. This one was labeled as women only and as a speaker meeting, meaning most of the time would be devoted to one person telling her story. I’d decided, based on nothing, that there would be lots of people in attendance. So my plan was to slip in, sit near the back, make as little eye contact as possible, keep my mouth shut, and hightail it out the moment the meeting ended— like auditing a college lecture. The friend-making part of my plan would commence later, once the mute and stealthy phase was over.
Of course, I didn’t know then that the AA meeting directory is not known for being particularly accurate or up to date. But I started to get a clue when I walked into a room with one large round table, occupied by an older man who looked kind of like Jerry Orbach from Law & Order. “Hello there, young lady!” he said, smiling. “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 candleholders out of miniature pumpkins or whatever. But I was already answering, “No, I’m here for the AA meeting?” with that girly upswing in tone. He looked surprised, which in itself surprised me, because I figure anyone you see on the street could be an alcoholic, and it seemed as if he ought to know that even better than I did. But he recovered fast, introduced himself, and showed me to the coffee and cookies.
While I was helping myself to coffee to jack my nerves up a little more, a young woman in a hoodie arrived and greeted Jerry as though they’d known each other longer than she’d been alive. “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 and just checking out a new meeting for fun. But my outer voice went rogue and said, “No, this is my first meeting ever, actually.” 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 girl said, and Jerry heartily agreed. Okay, whatever, Kool-Aid drinkers, I thought, but I couldn’t sustain the bitchiness for very long, because they were both so nice.
In all, eleven people gathered at the round table. At least half of them were retirement-age guys, including an emeritus professor who deeply impressed me with his casual use of the word “attenuated.” Aside from the young girl, the rest were a mix of men and women around my age. They all seemed to know each other pretty well. 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 that feeling into high relief. When Jerry 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 table of old friends. A defensively dressed and made-up forty-four-year-old woman clutching an armament-gray Céline bag, surrounded by mostly older men and women in fleece and Tevas. My heart was pounding, and my eyes felt taut with held-in tears. I did the only two things I was capable of in that moment: I kept my butt in the chair, and I paid attention. I noticed that they laughed a lot. I noticed that almost no one mentioned God or any other higher power. I noticed how sad Jerry sounded when he described saying something curt to the young worker trimming his hedges, how he was afraid he’d made the guy fear for his job and regretted it. I wanted to tell Jerry 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.
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. I got the impression 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 or not to drink. It was over career boredom, or a nagging toothache, or really liking a guy in your dorm who was sending mixed signals. (One of the older guys broke the no-back-and-forth rule at this point, telling the young girl, “Well, I don’t think this fellow deserves you!”)
I spoke too. I certainly hadn’t planned to. I’m still not sure what made me do it. But in a pocket of silence I just started talking. I barely remember what I said — something about time, something about fear. Something about loving things I used to hate. I know I said the Thing : Hi, I’m Kristi and I’m an alcoholic. I’d never said those last three words out loud before. And honestly, I only said them to follow protocol, but as they came out, I knew they were true. I thought it might feel like a weight falling from my shoulders, but it was more like pushing a heavy door open a little wider—wide enough to walk through. When I finished talking, they thanked me and we moved on.
Afterward one of the women gave me a printed meeting schedule and circled some of her favorites. She’d been sober for twenty 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 people that you’ve stopped drinking. They say, “Oh, okay.” A verbal shrug. Not always, but often enough in my case. Sometimes they say, “Any particular reason why?” and you have the choice of saying, I just randomly wanted to pull the tablecloth out from under my whole life. Or, 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 peripherally, like a paranoid cow.
The week after my AA meeting, someone asked, “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, as if I’d been sprinting, but he laughed in a kind way and said, “Oh, okay, cool.”
A few weeks later, I was having dinner with an old friend who asked how long it had taken me to quit drinking 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 tend to be a bit secretive.”
He looked at me for a minute while I looked at the tines of his fork, which I thought he might use 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. “A lot.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Same.”
Once I pushed that door open, people started walking through. “My mom has twenty years,” a woman told me. “I stopped at eighteen,” someone said at a cocktail party. 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 classic 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. I made my initial escape noises, at which point he blurted, “Today’s my fifth day without a drink.”
“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 said. “I’m hoping to eventually become a moderate drinker.”
I’d shared that hope once. I’d tried for years to turn myself into a moderate drinker. It turned out adding extra vigilance and stress to a debilitating habit while still utterly failing to drink like a normal person was not the way to go. “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?”
“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 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 think I give a fuck whether my food could taste 5 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 scared, to be perfectly honest.”
There was still some light in the sky. Through 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?”