by Chris B.

When I was barely 90 days sober, I used to go to coffee with old timers and newcomers after the Saturday Night Owl meeting. The meeting started at 10:00 PM and often went until after midnight at the El Cajon Alano Club on Washington Street. In those days the slogans were plastered on the walls along with the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. Smoking was almost equivalent to breathing.  Rot gut coffee was available in large urns and Styrofoam cups were plentiful. Sugar and creamer and artificial sweetener were on hand and sometimes borderline stale cookies were available. Along with the traditional AA slogans-Easy Does It, Live and Let Live, This Too Shall Pass, But for the Grace of God, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) Think Think Think, (I never took to that one…thinking was always my problem), there was one that read We don’t care how they do it in LA.  Southern California AA has its own brand of tough love, as I later learned. Raising one’s hand was frowned on and the Secretary would call on people randomly.  The person called on to share would go to the front of the room and stand behind a podium. If the meeting were large enough there would be a microphone and fifty or so pairs of eyes boring a hole into your soul. Always with great love, never with judgement.

In those days the slogans were plastered on the walls

After Night Owls we would adjourn to Vacarro’s coffee shop where we would have great philosophical discussions about the Steps and life in general. I was excruciatingly withdrawn and seldom uttered a word.  I had the gift of desperation and a sincere desire to stay sober, but I didn’t have a belief that I could. I listened intently to the banter and talk of the Twelve Steps and the wise pontifications of the ‘old timers’ who had as much as 7 years sobriety.   I still hadn’t gotten a sponsor.

At first I thought it would be easy (not to be confused with simple) and that I would be able to accomplish the miracle of sobriety on my own, armed with a Big Book, Twelve and Twelve, and as many meetings as I could stand, especially Step meetings where we would read from the Twelve and Twelve and discuss a Step each week. Maybe I’d meet God along the way or a Higher Power.  Wisely, they told me to leave my religion outside the door. My God was and still is Anonymous. The AA book tells us that it is impossible to define or comprehend that power. I believe that wholeheartedly.

I learned a lot at those after-the-meeting meetings, without having to actually ask (A.A.: Actually Ask, right?) for help.

Asking for help has never been my strong suit

Asking for help has never been my strong suit.  I’d almost rather die (almost) than admit there is something I don’t know or that someone else may understand better.  After a few months of sobriety, the fog began to clear and I started to let into my brain the concept that not only could I ask for help, but I must ask for help. My asking for help would allow someone to be of service.  I might be actually doing them a favor, so to speak. The program, aka the Steps, is designed to be worked with another human being; it’s not a research paper in the form of a Fourth Step for me to turn into my sponsor.  I was not an exception to this despite my fear of terminal uniqueness and my desire to save face.

One night at Vacarro’s one of the old timers, Jerry S., asked me why I never participated in discussions. He’d often look me directly in the eye and ask “What’re ya doin’ in there?” He’d describe me and others as “shifty-eyed newcomers.”  It was intimidating. I bolstered myself and responded to his question with what I thought was an honest and vulnerable answer:   “I guess I’m afraid of rejection” to which he flippantly answered in a nanosecond as if it had been on the tip of his tongue the whole time:    “That’s bullshit…you’re not afraid of rejection. What you have is fear of not being as good as based on a sincere desire to be better than” … and thus my inventory was taken, succinctly and pointedly.

I suppose that kept me from talking for another few months.  I was intrigued to know how he knew things about me that I had no idea of myself. There was no hiding from the steely-eyed gaze of these old timers, that’s for sure.

There was no hiding from the steely-eyed gaze

photo credits available upon request from [email protected]

During the next several months I found a sponsor, Ginny C., who was exactly the person I needed. With her guidance, I proceeded through the first nine steps. I did steps, but not because I wanted enlightenment or to walk hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe. I did them because I feared a life and death of alcoholism.  That was my motivation. Another wise bit of counsel was: “Don’t get good before you get well.” This proved to be helpful when I thought I had to quit smoking, take up exercise and become an all-around example of clear-eyed wholesomeness and spirituality. Or to put it into an A.A. slogan First Things First.

These days I find that what at first seemed like trite platitudes have proven to be the A.A. equivalent of koans and a rock-solid way of life.

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