When I first came to A.A., I was pretty desperate, and wanted to get out of my life. I’d been drinking steadily at my Tenderloin apartment and been kicked out of my third marriage with no friends or anyone else that cared. I had a bottle of sleeping pills ready if A.A. didn’t work: Plan B was suicide. I ended up at a Grab Bag meeting on Pierce and Clay, in the basement of a church in the children’s kindergarten.
I ended up at a Grab Bag meeting on Pierce and Clay
The idea of a Grab Bag is that everyone puts a piece of paper with a topic into a hat and then they choose one item as a topic for the evening. I put in the question, “What if you really don’t believe in God?” They took that idea and answered it nicely.
Here were these people I’d never met, people from my neighborhood and my thought was, “I belong here.” When the meeting ended a bunch of folks came over and surrounded me with welcoming words. They said it was a disease and although I’d been drinking for 40 years, I’d never realized this. I took the pamphlets and as I walked out of the church, the sky was bluer, the grass greener and the words in my head said, “I don’t ever have to drink again.” My sobriety date is July 4, 1986.
I put in the question, “What if you really don’t believe in God?”
I was working for the State of California and found meetings before going to work, then one at noon and another later another into the evening. I made friends, got to know people and discovered a whole new community. Eventually I moved out of the Tenderloin to Park Merced and attended meetings along Brotherhood Way at my new location.
My sponsor recommended that I get into service quickly and I did. Mostly, I was active in neighborhood meetings, but I also joined the Public Information Service Committee. This meant going out to different places and talking about A.A. to people who didn’t know about our program. This is not leading meetings but sharing what A.A. meant for me. I continued, with this whole time my whole time in San Francisco.
Right after I came into the program, at three years sober, I saw a flyer that invited members to have a meeting with people from Russia. A fellow from Russia had a connection with the Russians and we had simultaneous meetings with members in Russia. Then I ended up going directly to Russia nine times. This entailed going across 11 time zones to carry the message. Another time we took the program to China and then to Cuba. In Cuba there were six interested members, but they eventually went out. Miraculously, the program survived and the last time I went to Cuba, there were 300 meetings and more than 3000 members. Last January I moved from San Francisco to be closer to my daughter after my cardiologist told me I was going to die. Thus far I’ve been doing just fine and feeling better than ever.
My daughter wrote me a note that said, “Atheists can recover.”
I knew I had been an atheist all my life. I eased myself out of a job as a clergyman in the Episcopal Church because I didn’t believe what I was teaching. At one point my daughter wrote me a note that said, “Atheists can recover.” I fully agree and found with a bit of revision and the 11th step, I could stay sober and still be an atheist. That has been my belief over the years and it’s been a full and wonderful life.
Truly a child of the 1010 Valencia Fellowship, I went to my first A.A. meeting just a week after 1364 Valencia relocated there. There was a four-day around-the-clock Alcothon. I served on the relocation committee to move to 2900 24th Street in 1999, following a midweek 10 p.m. meeting. It continues there today as the Mission Fellowship, where I still call Valencia Smokefree my home group (Fridays, 6 p.m.).
Book-based recovery was the only common thread
The complete history of 1010 deserves a series of articles remembering all the vibrant, fascinating details in depth. Dramatic divorces, suicides and unusual medical diagnoses played out over time. We held raucous business meetings over childcare, personality clashes, misspent prudent reserves, stained carpets, rodents in recovery. The pall of smoke reached down to seating level and the monstrous suspended ionizer would slowly build up a charge and release it without warning with a few ear-splitting, spine-tingling “Zzzzaaapppps!” Sleeping people would jolt awake.
All these circumstances fell away in the face of the rugged recovery found in each of the more than 40 groups which called 1010 home. Surprisingly enough, our individual groups maintained their special character. Book-based recovery was the only common thread. Personally, I think the autonomy of the groups and their individual relationships to the Management Committee (MCom) made this possible. The groups came together to put on the Alcothons four times per year.
We fitfully participated in an advisory-only steering committee which rose and fell every couple of years. Even though there was great sadness at the time for the loss of the Grant Street Alano Club and the local Industrial Club, there was never a sentiment to convert 1010 into a clubhouse, formal group or fellowship. The term as applied to 1010 meant simply a single location with a common landlord where groups shared members and a sense of identity.
Raucous business meetings over childcare, personality clashes and rodents in recovery
The groups paid rent to 1010 Inc., also known as The MCom, a never-incorporated non-profit. We individually agreed to abide by a few common-sense rules. The MCom never governed. It collected rent and carried concerns to and from the landlord, which became very great for both parties late in our tenancy. This loose-knit arrangement meant that at critical times no group felt pressured to conform to a larger picture. In hindsight I think it twice saved 1010 from a split large enough to threaten its survival.
The first of these was the transition to a smoke-free environment around 1995. We were slightly ahead of the municipal regulations. Tensions had been building over this for years. Our room had inadequate ventilation even without the smoking. There were militants on both sides of this issue. Some people would blow smoke rings across the aisle; others would defiantly puff in the three smokeless meetings right up until the secretary rang the bell. Some non-smokers would fan smoke back across the aisle. Others would turn up the thermostat so the ceiling furnace would blow right at the smokers, roasting them out of their wing.
We set a date to end smoking and I dutifully removed all the ash trays at 6 a.m., fully expecting an outcry by midday. To my astonishment, not a single complaint was lodged by any group! Only a few accidental light-ups occurred and were not repeated. We had expected a schism but found only unity. I don’t know if any group actually took a group conscience on this, but not a single group challenged the change. Had there been a larger entity debating this issue, the process would have gone on much longer.
The final, critical challenge came in 1999 when we were given notice to move. The MCom had just spent two-thirds of our prudent reserve on new carpet, paint and countertops the month before. Both the Treasurer and the long-time bookkeeper had taken unannounced sabbaticals. All the groups were brought into the discussion about how to raise money for a move and a lease. The neighborhood was shifting toward gentrification.
Some groups decided they could support the MCom with outside fundraising by donating goods for a two-week garage sale (outside support for a non-A.A. entity, the MCom, as landlord). With autonomy, the supportive groups could choose to act independently. Long discussions continued over the Traditions. It got worse before it got better.
Some members voted with their feet
We had money for a lease but were faced with a harsh reality. We had to build in order to acquire an appropriate space. The relocation committee brought the groups into it. For groups which agreed, it would mean private contributions from individual A.A.s, suspending the usual disbursements to general service, and passing a second basket for a building fund. Six months of bi-weekly business meetings followed, and a $22,000 debt took a year and a half to retire. Had the Fellowship as a whole debated this move as a body, we may not have reached substantial unanimity. Certainly not in time for a move.
Some members voted with their feet. But each group was able to act autonomously for its survival. One chose to move elsewhere. The City’s first dot-com boom put an end to it all with our amicable eviction.
I remember a girl who came to Smokefree in the cluster of souls who lived nearby in a half-way house. They were free to roam during the day and tended to make their way home around dinner time and would wander in at any time. We only chased one man away when he threatened someone.
I had seen Jan several times in the meetings. I saw her again one night in the H&I Psych Ward meeting at St. Mary’s Hospital. I’d never heard her speak until that night, and then only briefly. She recognized me and thanked me for coming up to the ward.
Weeks later, she wandered in mid-meeting at Smokefree and spotted me at my regular place at the end of the enormous table which jutted into the aisle. As she passed she put her hand on my shoulder very gently, leaned down and softly kissed my cheek. A few minutes later, standing (seats were full) with an unsteady cup of coffee, she said completely out of context: “I’m Jan and I’m an alcoholic.” Her greeting and her identification in the group became a fairly regular occurrence for a couple of years. And then she was gone.
I can still feel the joy of recognition as our eyes met in meetings. It was a beautiful little dance. I really identified with Jan. It can be something of an ordeal to write because it’s overwhelming to open a door to the universe behind the stories. But the Valencia corridor was a recovery oasis. An important point to make is that 39 of 40 groups — all but one — made the move to 2900 24th Street. Today, at 2900, the Fellowship is thriving.
One of the principles I learned in A.A. is to do more service when I am feeling shaky. The Big Book says, “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail” (p. 89). When I was going through a difficult divorce, I knew that one way to see more newcomers in my life was to join either H&I (Hospitals and Institutions) or Teleservice.
Teleservice takes very little time
My first commitment was Teleservice rep for my home group. The responsibility of the meeting rep is to make a weekly announcement about what Teleservice is and also to attend the Teleservice business meeting in order to learn how it works and bring pertinent information back to the group.
At the business meeting monthly I found an amazing group of committed people serving still-suffering alcoholics. I immediately took a couple of volunteer phone line shifts as well. In my years as a phone volunteer, I have talked to alcoholics from all over the United States. One time I helped a woman find a meeting near her home in Detroit (using my computer—she didn’t have one). On another call I talked to a man from somewhere near Dallas to help him find a meeting near his home. I have also helped countless people find meetings in Marin and SF.
It is unbelievably rewarding to know that I am helping, as The Big Book says, when no one else can
Sometimes potential volunteers tell me they are afraid they won’t know what to say if they take a shift. I say, “Act the way you would if you met a newcomer at a meeting.” I have the 20 questions available because I always ask a caller, “Do you think you have a problem with alcohol?”
Since my early involvement in Teleservice I have been a volunteer coordinator, the orientation coordinator, the 12-step worker list coordinator (where I taught a workshop on how to do a 12-step call). This year I am the chairperson for the committee. Teleservice is a straightforward and simple commitment which has given my sobriety more depth. It takes very little time and is unbelievably rewarding to know that I am helping, as The Big Book says, when no one else can. I can gain the confidence of another alcoholic when “normies” would not. My life has, in fact, taken on new meaning.
Service helps insure this A.A.’s immunity from drinking
As chairperson for Marin Teleservice I ask you, if you are a meeting rep, to please attend our brief business meeting on the fourth Tuesday of the month (7:30 p.m. at the Marin Alano Club). In January, the committee officer positions will all open up. They are all relatively simple and not time consuming. We need your energy, help and input—and the service will help keep you sober!
My husband asked me once, “How many women do you sponsor? Isn’t it a big burden?”
I laughed and told him, “Honey, you don’t understand. This is a team effort. It takes a lot of sober women to keep me sober!” My own sponsor, Bonnie, didn’t have a rigid format for working the Steps. When I was ready for the next one, she was available, even though she had a full-time job and was taking care of her mother, who was seriously ill for years. If I needed a deadline, for example, to finish my Fourth Step, she gave me a deadline. When I called her, she called me back. We went to the same home group, a Big Book meeting.
Your Higher Power probably doesn’t want you to have any sponsees yet because you are a screaming codependent
After a few years, we started going out to dinner together and she introduced me to her sponsor, Karin, and then the three of us started going out to dinner together, and showing up for each other at chip meetings. Before long I was sharing more of my life with Bonnie and eventually we became like sisters. Being a sponsor is not what I thought it would be when I first got sober. I imagined myself in a coffee shop surrounded by admiring newly sober women, with them listening to my every pronouncement, maybe even taking notes. We would read the Big Book together, go to meetings. They would ask my advice on how to make their lives better.
I didn’t have even one single sponsee for my first eight years of sobriety. A dear friend consoled me when I whined to him about it: “Your Higher Power probably doesn’t want you to have any sponsees yet because you are a screaming codependent.”
I call my sponsees and they call me when we are feeling restless, irritable and discontent + need an attitude adjustment
Unfortunately, he was right. Early in sobriety I was dragging people to meetings when they didn’t want to go, sometimes when they were drunk. One woman asked me to hear her Fifth Step and then immediately moved to New Orleans. My first sponsee was passed along to me by her first choice, a woman with terrific sobriety who was on the verge of moving to Arizona. “How about Kathleen?” the first sponsor asked.
So Rosemary and I started working together. She was an inspiration. She and her husband gathered an A.A. crew around them. They all went to meetings together, got chips together, and celebrated sober birthdays with dinners together. My program up to then had been very solitary and she showed me what fun an A.A. social life could be. She moved too, after five years, to Nevada, but we stay in touch by email.
What happens now is I call my sponsees and they call me when we are feeling restless irritable and discontent and need an attitude adjustment. We go to meetings together and chat in coffeehouses, for sure, but it is usually about mundane topics like men, money, work or children. Once in a while we do get around to talking about the solution in A.A. Which of course is spiritual and has nothing to do with the problem.
I try to pass along what my sponsor communicated to me, in the sixteen years we have been working together. Mostly I try to live my life as a decent sober human being who insists on enjoying life. I hope I am not leading my sponsees astray by giving them stupid advice. My sponsor didn’t tell me how to be a good AA; she showed me how to be a good A.A. That’s what I try to do for my own sponsees.
The following is just my opinion. I don’t speak for Alcoholics Anonymous. But as a member, I was interested to discover recently that some of the first people who tried to help alcoholics (versus condemning us as moral degenerates to asylums or prisons forever) were English organizations in the mid-17th century. No wonder, then, that A.A. began with American members of the Oxford Group, a British Protestant group founded at Oxford University in the early twentieth century. I learned this from a new book Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium which also reveals more about alcoholism, its early classification as a disease and those who sought to help alcoholics recover.
One of the first to write about recovery from alcoholism was a Quaker (1784)
Before we talk about opium, let’s talk about gin: introduced to London from Holland in the mid-1600s. Prior to this time, Londoners generally drank only beer and ale. Gin was much stronger, distillable from bad grain (unsuitable for other consumption), cheap, and therefore more available to the poor and working classes, to alleviate, in part, their miserable working lives at the bottom of the class system. The gin craze spread, and with it violent crime, prostitution and malnutrition rose. The governing classes didn’t know what to do with the now-hungover, sick, half-dead laborers and their destitute families.
In 1689, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) was founded in London, whose members handed out pamphlets and engaged with the unfortunates, trying to help alcoholics and their families in a positive manner for the first time. SPCK is still in existence today. In sermons and poems, from the mid-17th century on, there were attempts to verbalize and understand what alcoholism and addiction were, beginning in Protestant England and quickly coming to the colonies in America.
I wonder that any human being could escape alcoholism, since humanity has been drinking distilled spirits for thousands of years
Here, the first person to write about alcoholism was a Pennsylvania Quaker clergyman, Anthony Benezet (1713-1785) who wrote The Mighty Destroyer Displayed, an account of the “dreadful use and misuse” of distilled spirits which you can read today online. In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous retains a Quaker element in the way we share from the floor during a meeting.
Benezet’s student and Founding Father Benjamin Rush wrote the landmark work of 1784 that treated alcoholism as a disease, Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body. Rush campaigned against distilled spirits and went on to devise a “Plan for an Asylum for Drunkards to be called a Sober House” in 1810. He was the first to suggest special care for alcoholics.
Milk of Paradise was written by Lucy Inglis and published just this year. I scooped it up and read it in a fever of fascinated engagement, especially because the author’s investigation goes beyond opium and includes the “ardent spirits” that I know well.
If you’ve read this far, here’s a little more about the milk of paradise. Opium does two things for humans—it reduces fear and pain. So it functioned as a medicine as well as a psych drug in order to get soldiers/warriors/fighters to be willing to go back into battle. And there’s evidence this began in Neolithic days, the beginnings of settled human existence 12,000-10,000 years ago.
All the more reason I thank my Higher Power for my sobriety today
In Italy, near Rome, Neolithic lake dwellers came by canoe with opium poppy seeds. They lived there briefly, from 5700-5230 BC. At about the same time, in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, Assyrians were brewing barley beer, so intoxicants were in use in the Bronze Age. What’s more, there’s a recipe for dosing crying infants with opium in an Egyptian papyrus from 1552 B.C.E. I wonder that any human being could have escaped alcoholism or addiction, given that humanity has been using opium and drinking fermented or distilled spirits for thousands of years. And all the more reason I thank my Higher Power for my sobriety today.