A Safe Haven

I joined Alcoholics Anonymous when I was nineteen or twenty. I was, as the Big Book puts it, “Hardly more than a potential alcoholic,” but I felt I needed help.

At first, people in my life were dubious. My parents didn’t want me hanging around at AA clubhouses late at night; they’re often not in the safest areas of town, and alcoholics are, well, alcoholics. An AA meeting is not exactly a hotbed of mental wellness and stability. Nevertheless, I persisted and continued going to meetings. I felt awkward in the rooms. I was typically the youngest person there by at least a decade, usually one of only a handful of women, and I didn’t have years’ worth of horror stories of what my drinking and drugging had done to my life. I met people who had been arrested multiple times as a result of their substance abuse, people with DUI’s in the double digits, people whose drinking had made them homeless, jobless, destitute. “I’m not like these people,” I told myself. And then, I would go to a party with my then-girlfriend, get completely plastered, have to be taken home early because I was an embarrassment, and wake up wondering what had happened the night before and why all my friends were mad at me.

I have a friend from the clubhouse I go to, let’s call him “James,” who works in the mental health/recovery field. I’ve known him for a couple of years, and I really admire the quality of his sobriety. He always has something insightful to say at meetings, and he never talks just for the sake of talking (like so many other men at AA do). We were standing on the porch last night, listening to the rain fall on the tin roof, and I blurted out, “I feel terrible.”

“Why?” he asked me.

I wished it were as easy as just telling him why, but words failed me. I didn’t even want to drink, though the clubhouse is adjacent to a rather sketchy bar I’ve visited a time or two, and the more I thought about it, the more appealing the bar became. Finally I just said, “I don’t want to be here, but I know I’m in the right place.”

“Yeah, you are,” James said. “What’s going on?” He sat down and gestured for me to do the same. He looked at me compassionately, and I wondered if I could really trust him. I base my trust in men by how willing I’d be to get in a car with them. My coworker Ben? Absolutely. He’s a great guy and I’ve driven him to Steak-n-Shake after work a time or two. My high school best friend Jon? Sure thing. We’ve driven all over Atlanta together. “Will,” the guy who always asks me if I want to “watch a movie” after the late-night meeting? Hell to the no. Would I get in a car with James? Probably not. Not yet, anyway.

Still, I don’t think of this man as a predator. He’s given me some solid advice over the years I’ve spent trying to get (and stay) sober. So, I started talking. “I have some mental health issues… Medication problems. This is a hard time of year for me because…” I didn’t want to tell him. It’s easy to write about the horrors of sexual abuse online because I don’t have to face my audience, and I have time to choose and edit my words. But I was talking to a man. The enemy, right?

But there is worth in telling my story, so I continued. “I was raped two years ago. The anniversary is one day from now.” (This was last night, so the anniversary is on the day of this writing.) “Every relapse I’ve had since then has been because I just wanted a couple hours of not thinking about it. I feel happy when I drink… until I don’t. It’s fun to go to the bar where my friend ‘Alice’ works and talk to her, but on the walk home, I just beat myself up and feel ten times worse.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” James said. “But when are you going to do something different?”

“That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m here, aren’t I?” I sounded more defensive than I really felt. Remember how he raped you and threw you away like garbage, the familiar tape played in my head. I started to cry and looked at the ground, embarrassed.

“I grew up hearing, ‘Boys don’t cry,’ and I believed that for a really long time, but I actually like crying now. It’s okay.” I could barely hear him over the rain on the tin roof. I bit my lip, trying not to completely fall apart. “Look,” he continued. “I don’t believe in traditional sponsorship. I don’t have one single sponsor, I have a network of people. And I don’t believe in this ‘men with men, women with women’ bullshit either. C’mon, it’s the 21st century. Do you have my number?” I shook my head no and pulled my iPhone out of my purse, fingers ready to put him into my contacts, terrified that if I gave him my number in return, I would receive unsolicited dick pics, as I had with another man from the same clubhouse who had ulterior motives when he claimed he wanted to help me. Yet simultaneously, a small flicker of hope went up inside my chest. Here was this man who had never said a mean or misogynistic word to me, who had never even spoken to me about his relationships with women, who seemed genuinely interested in helping me change my life. How many times had people told me, “Don’t leave five minutes before the miracle happens”? Could this be the first step in my miracle? We exchanged numbers. “Call me anytime,” James said. “I don’t live locally, I live in [city], but it’s not too far.”

“I know where that is,” I sad.

“I can’t get you sober. No one can. Only you can get yourself sober–you and your Higher Power. But if you feel like picking up a drink or a drug, call me first because there’s nothing I can do for you after you pick up.”

I sobbed silently, my shoulders shaking. Remember how he raped you and threw you away like you were nothing… like garbage… like you were nothing. I couldn’t look James in the eye. People are staring at me, I thought. They must think I’m a freak. I’m totally f*cking crazy.

“Do you want a hug?” James asked.

I vigorously shook my head no; physical contact has terrified me for the past two years. I can barely hug my parents.

“Okay.” He looked at me intensely with a compassionate half-smile on his face. I didn’t know where to look, so I kind of looked over his head, then at him, then over my shoulder (in case of danger), back at him…

“I’m going to go inside and get some coffee,” I said.

He smiled.

When I was still learning the ropes of AA, I’d say things that were completely off-the-wall in meetings, things most people glossed right over, after an awkward pause, of course. I’d sit there and think, I must’ve sounded like such an idiot. These people must think I’m so freaking stupid. But there was a man, let’s call him “David,” who listened to me. This year, I had the privilege of hearing him share his story on the anniversary of his 27th year of sobriety. 

When I would reveal the depths of my despair to the crowd of blank faces, David heard me, and he let me know it. He’d get up from his seat, go to the locker on the back wall of the clubhouse room, and get an AA book for me, sometimes the Big Book, sometimes the 12&12, open it to a page, and tell me to read. It was always exactly what I needed, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Last night, he chaired the meeting. It would be his final meeting here in the Sunshine State, as he is moving away. After the Lord’s Prayer, I approached him. “Hey, David?” I said hesitantly. “I… I just wanted to say thank you. When I was new, you really helped me out with those readings. I felt like you were the only one listening to me sometimes. So, thank you. I’m really going to miss you.”

“You’re welcome, sweetie,” David said. “I know you can get sober. You have it in you. You just gotta do this thing.”

The meeting was about self-esteem. “If you want to have self-esteem, you have to do esteemable acts,” someone said. Fair point.

Self-esteem is a touchy subject for me. It’s pretty normal for someone with an eating disorder to have low self-esteem. I’ve hated myself for as long as I can remember. These days, I don’t hate myself as much. Progress is progress, no matter how small. Sometimes, I look in the mirror and say, “Damn girl, lookin’ good!” Other times, I write insults on my chest in Sharpie and have to scrub myself raw in the shower to get it off before Rebecca sees because I don’t want to upset her.

I think I’m a pretty good person. When I see a homeless man on the street, I run to the nearest 7/11 and buy him a snack and a bottle of water and hand him a $5 bill to go along with it. I routinely call my brother and parents to tell them I love them. I have an amazing relationship with Rebecca, one based on mutual love, respect, and trust. I don’t think I could have that if I were a bad person.

Yet sometimes, I feel like the lowliest lowlife on Earth.

I’m having a bit of a crisis of faith. AA encourages members to find “a God of one’s own understanding,” but how can I understand God? I voiced this concern during the meeting, all the while fearing that the others in the room were thinking I sounded like a moron.

“I grew up hearing how smart I am,” I said haltingly. “Hearing that I was smarter than, than all the other kids in my class… and stuff. So, I tend to approach things in life from the standpoint of logic… and God… God isn’t, like, a logical thing. God and faith are about feelings and love and trust. And I just don’t know how to do that yet. I… that’s all. Thanks for letting me share.”

“Thanks, Katherine,” the room said in unison. 

I’m not sure if I believe in God. I know I’m not God, and that a life run on self-will is a life run riot. When I try to do things my way, thinking only of myself and what can benefit me, I get into trouble.

After the meeting, a woman approached me. “I heard this at a speaker meeting and it changed my life. Maybe it can help you too,” she said. She handed me a folded up piece of paper. I opened it and read, “If God were small enough for us to understand him, He wouldn’t be big enough to solve our problems.”

This morning, I woke up covered in a little blood and a lot of Sharpie with Rebecca at my side. I can’t do this, I thought. Just let me skip this day. Let it be tomorrow already.

I visited my parents. I drank coffee. I ate a bagel. I tried not to think about it. I messaged my coworker and friend Chance, who is one of the kindest, most compassionate, thoughtful people I know, despite his tough-guy exterior. We talked about how cute cats are and how my roommate’s cat (who was originally mine) hates me. It’s a normal day.

I went to AA at noon and saw the same familiar faces. I picked up a red chip to celebrate thirty days of sobriety. It could even be a good day.

I try to remind myself that the past has no power over me, that I’ve already done the hard part: I survived.

It wasn’t me who was strong enough to go thirty days without a mind-altering substance. There was a force greater than myself giving me the strength, the courage, the serenity. For now, that’s enough.

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