Around week five we were informed that, in addition to our hour a week spent together in this room, completion of the class would require attendance in at least three AA meetings. Although this news caused the rest of the room to groan, I was inwardly pleased. I’d been spending all the time I would have been at taverns, before the great sobriety experiment was begun, at home reading, and it was getting lonesome. Even if I hadn’t been great at meeting people while downing pints, it was nice to at least be in the company of others—sharing in the same sports event or level of intoxication. Here was my chance to recreate this imagined camaraderie, albeit a much clearer-eyed one, and perhaps the knowledge I’d acquired during those solitary nights would aid me in being the social butterfly I wished to be at times. I’d again be with those who shared my interests—even if those interests had changed from booze and weed to cigarettes, coffee and inspirational literature—and I might even meet a hot little filly to saddle up and ride home. We were handed schedules of local meetings, and I spent the rest of the class penciling the sessions I hoped to fit into my schedule, the first being an early-morning get-together the following Sunday.
I spent the night before as excited as a kid before the first day of kindergarten, and had to take an extra Tylenol PM to calm myself down enough to ensure I’d get a good night’s rest. I realized that the expectations I had were heavily inflated, as I’ve been setting myself up in this way ever since I was a kid, but I imagined a room full of rehabilitated Hemingways who had found the program instead of the barrel of a shotgun and reformed college whores who had given up their lives being half-carried home by frat boys in exchange for late-night coffees with sensitive guys like myself, and whose looks still held the bloom of youth. While I met no one who held up to my intellectual or physiological standards, I found it to be all-in-all a positive experience. I’d learned many times before how to make the best out of a disappointing situation—mostly the many times I’d thought for sure the beautiful girl I’d shared a few sentences with at the library or other random place had been my soul mate and had been let down. This feeling of being cheated out of something great was what I felt when I entered and judged from the t-shirts and ten-to-one male-to-female ratio that I would not have the mind-altering experience I’d hoped for. From the older generation’s BÖC all the way through Mötörhead, Metallica, Megadeath and Mastodon, heavy metal was represented well in the apparel of the group. The few females, instead of representing redemption for their sex, shared the look of housewives now regretting their lower-back tattoos and who were brimming with cautionary tales to warn their daughters with. I sat in the corner and hoped to get a few bits of information to take back to my class before sneaking out under the premise of taking a bathroom break. Soon, I would realize that this would not be an option.
The meeting, after the obligatory readings that open all such meetings, began with the questioning of the group as to whether there were any present for their first meeting. I meekly raised my hand, not wanting to lie by omission, and soon found the entire room turning towards me applauding. Someone came up to me with a white poker chip and another with a copy of the Big Book, which I’d already learned was the preferred nickname for their major text. The meeting suddenly gained life. The leader called for an impromptu introductory meeting, and for the rest of the hour every story told was directed towards me. I had always looked younger than what I’d been forced to prove so many times by presenting my driver’s license, and due to anonymity no one asked, so a lot of the advice centered around the fact that almost everyone in the room wished they had received the happiness they now had as early as I was giving myself the chance to—before they’d lost so much. I began to feel the narcotic effect of these meetings—the replacement of a chemical buzz by a spiritual one. By the end, I was filled with the spirit. I no longer wanted to argue over the semantics of whether I had a problem or not. I just wanted to be a part of this! I exited only after receiving a great number of encouraging words and handshakes, and was even more eager to delve into the volumes of inspirational literature I’d collected, to hold me at least until I could attend another meeting.
The reading I did when I got home took on new meaning. While I had once been curious enough about the program when I was younger to crack the book, I had never made it past the early description of the program. With my new motivation, I tore through this and was quickly engulfed in the treasure-trove of highly-confessional stories that make up the bulk of the volume. As I’d always been a fan of not only drinking but drinking culture, the stories of pre-Prohibition boozehounds caught my interest right away. It soon became confusing, however. My drinking had always been to achieve the end-result of intoxication, and from what I understood of my class materials this was exactly what labeled me as a problem drinker. This idea changed when my ideas were suddenly opened to the golden age of drinking, when alcohol was still in a stage of transition from sustenance to drug.
I realized that all of the tales of failure dealt with those who wanted more than anything to quit after one drink but could not. How could I relate to that? I had certainly wanted to have only a beer or two at times, and had been successful in doing this. At other times, I began with the intention of drinking until I could not think, and I had also been successful in doing this. I stewed this over in my mind while waiting for an explanation at the next meeting.
I never got that explanation. While I had gone into the first meeting expecting people I might hang out with or at least make eye contact with if I saw them on the street, and had been disappointed, my expectations were just as sorely met even after lowering them for the second. The people were not only repulsive, but shared not a hint of the first group’s inclusiveness. I would later realize the reasons for the difference. Sunday morning was the community-dominated group, made up mostly of people with years, if not decades, of sobriety under their belts, looking merely for a weekly recharge. This group was composed largely of inpatients, who were already edgy from the situation they were in and had nothing but annoyance for some well-to-do kid who had no idea what they’d been through. Until this time, I’d thought the rehab scene in Half Baked was a heavily-exaggerated caricature. That day, I found out how close to the truth it really was. I stuck around as long as I could stand, but everything seemed so much less interesting. The motivational reading at the beginning, stating the purpose of the organization and passed around for all to take turns reading, was only a dull recitation, with the inflection of having to be there present in everyone’s voice. I thought things might perk up once the personal stories began, but my hopes were dashed when the first speaker began. Mostly toothless, and with a nickname everyone seemed to know but which I made an effort to forget, he told of his early days in recovery, when he’d come to meetings high and get shamed into leaving when others smelled weed on his clothes. I took one last look around to see if there might be any hopes for redemption by an entertaining member of the crowd, asked where the bathroom was for show, and headed out the door.
When I got to the car, I realized that this second meeting had left me just as disillusioned as I had been empowered by the first. I probably should have thought more about this at the time, but the wisdom of future experience would teach me this: recovering alcoholics weren’t any nicer or more inviting than any other segment of society. Sure, there would be outgoing, well-meaning and hard-working people among the ranks of incurable addicts, but there would also be dicks, douche bags and generally lazy people. Having had substance abuse issues didn’t make them any more or less ethical than having gone to law school or having an interest in stamp collecting would. At the time, however, my mind was too worried about what I would say at my next class to think this deeply. The first meeting would be a breeze to explain, and bringing in the poker chip might have gotten me extra credit, if there was such a thing, but the second would bring about some difficulties. In reality, I knew that I’d heard enough in the first to spread out over two hours, but I was on a different plane mentally at the time. Since the big ball of lies I’d told at my assessment, I had tried to be as honest as possible, with myself and others. Now I would have to make up events to satisfy my own desires. I went into the next session with a lump in my throat.
Just a few minutes in, I realized that I had little to worry about. The instructor was so impressed that I’d been to two meetings, and had actually spoken up at one, that she had no further questions. She was too busy scolding the half of the class who’d come in bearing excuses as to why they had been unable to make their single required meeting. Because I was such a model pupil, my hesitation over attending another meeting was taken care of as well. The small-town guy, who had brought in excuses that included not knowing where and when the meetings were and who countered with not having a ride when it was pointed out that a schedule had been distributed, had his imaginary problems solved when I was volunteered to do everything in my power to make sure he attended at least one meeting. Considering that I’d have to give him a ride, our common genuine problem of not wanting to go alone—which I had because of my frustration with the last meeting and I assume he had because of his young age and the uncertainty of what he’d find—was solved as well.
On the way there, on the appointed evening, we opened up a bit about our personal lives. I let him in on the boring repetitiveness of the working life, and encouraged him to return to college, either the one he dropped out of or any other, as a way to at least delay the drudgery for a few years. He let me in on his own life, which was basically a replay of how I had spent my summers during college. I was filled with nostalgia as he spoke of makeshift parties popping up any day of the workweek, while more serious and planned affairs dominated the weekends. Being a Friday night, which at that time meant nothing for my social life, he mentioned a big happening that night and invited me to join. I was flattered at first, thinking I must somehow still appear pretty cool in his eyes, until I found out he wanted me with him mainly to buy him alcohol. I consented, hesitantly, to buying him a case and a bottle of liquor, and immediately regretted having already told him about my dash from the second meeting. With the teacher’s pet as his witness, he’d have no qualms about repeating the stunt and having us both lie about our attendance. I had trouble getting him to stay for even the first fifteen minutes, after which he ducked out for a cigarette and left me feeling obliged to follow.
During our short time in the meeting, and while he shared the news with his friends while waiting for me to rejoin him, he’d come up with a list of wanted items. Apparently, he hadn’t caught the notes of anxiety in my voice when I’d agreed to buy him only a few simple items. I empathized with him, knowing the feeling of arriving at a party with a great stock of liquor, but refused to shop from a list. I let him know that I would try to memorize the list as well as I could and feel no sorrow if any items were missing from the cart as I emerged from the store. Owing to a lifetime of creating and retaining lists in my head, I was able to complete his inventory, although I felt very uncomfortable at the check-out. When I’d been in the throes of my worst drinking, this would have been exactly the situation I would have tried to avoid through careful planning. Now, that I had no plans to personally drink any of the cart, I was both reassured and disappointed that I’d been so embarrassed to do this sort of thing for myself.
As I was dropping off the kid and helping him carry everything into the house—hoping there would be a grateful little hottie inside eager to thank the man who’d bought the supplies—I was asked to stay for a beer. It had been so long since I’d drank, and I had never really come to clarity on what the definition of an addict really was, so I obliged. I thought that my period of abstinence had been enough to prove I didn’t have a problem. Besides, as there were only a few guys hanging around playing cards in preparation for the real party, I realized there’d be no chance I’d get sucked into staying by any cute blondes, as I’d hoped. Feeling so good after the first, I had a second, and a third, before the feeling of being the weird older guy overtook me and I felt the urge to leave. On the way home, I realized that I had made it. All those people in the book I’d read had gotten their stories published for being unable to do what I’d just done—have three beers with “a few of the guys.” I wasn’t even upset that my hopes of being within twenty feet of an attractive woman were dashed. I was cured!
In the weeks following “the incident,” my co-workers had been very supportive to my tighter schedule. They had helped me get out on time so I could make it to class, and had even at times taken an item or two off of my workload. After about a month of this, however, I could tell they were getting annoyed with my special treatment. When a co-worker suddenly quit, and all of his duties were meted out, things reached a breaking point. I took on my share of new responsibilities in addition to having the old ones returned to me, and my schedule again caused me to work late nights, which didn’t lend itself to me practicing my new social drinking abilities. I finally got the chance to show off my restraint the night of my next-to-final class, but only after coming in early and busting my ass all day to earn the opportunity. I sent a late-afternoon text to a few people, and was able to lasso two into meeting me for drinks and dinner at one of our old stomping grounds, which had decent food and was on the way to rehab. As it was late in the game, and at least partly because I was so proud of conquering my illness, I forgot completely about my promise to remain free of all substances during my ten weeks. Somewhere in the stack of papers they’d had me sign was a consent allowing the instructor to request blood, breath, urine or spit—the big four—at any time. My group had luckily wound up with the greenhorn, who was too timid to take action on this lest there be a conflict. She had not been made for the job, and must have realized this fact between the eighth and ninth weeks. Her replacement was probably feeling the same feeling of frustration with being suddenly overworked that had led to me going out for beers and burgers that evening, only her outlet was to stand at the door of the classroom with a breathalyzer.
When my two beers showed up on the impersonal digital readout of the machine, I hoped I could make my case to the slightly-less-mechanic operator. My appeal was met with a just-as-impersonal request to leave the premises and call back the next day to schedule an appointment with my individual counselor. I was disappointed that they were treating me like I’d just finished a bottle of Wild Irish Rose and crawled out of the gutter, but assumed that at least my counselor would be a little more open to nuance. She was not. I walked into her office to see her plop down the fatal sheet of paper, with my signature and the penalties for breaking the contract highlighted in beautiful neon orange. Next to it sat an application for intensive outpatient work, and the closest thing to a conversation I could eke out of her was that the next session would begin in three weeks.
It was a rash decision to answer her calm request with a string of obscenities before walking out the door, but I wasn’t in my right mind at the time, and figured that I could smooth things over later, at work, when I was. Unfortunately, the situation repeated itself when I walked into my boss’s office the next day, only this time the highlighter was green and the words marked were the company’s drug and alcohol policy. A year earlier, bullshit and ass kissing, in large enough amounts, may have allowed me to get away with merely a suspension or a pay cut. The way the economy had turned, however, led to the company looking for ways to trim fat, and I must have looked ripe for the chopping block. I might have used the money I made from saved-up vacation time to develop a prototype of a less-cheerful color of highlighter, so those in my situation wouldn’t feel so much like they were being mocked. Instead, I merely fell into a pit of despair.