Being reminded of the man he never wants to be again keeps this father on the path of a good life
The two AA meetings I attend most frequently are Big Book meetings. In these meetings, we move sequentially through the book, front to back. So I always know which chapter will be read at which meeting, and I’m usually able to read it and contemplate its contents ahead of time. I’m a dork that way.
Tomorrow at my home group, we’ll be reading a personal story called “Safe Haven,” from the low-bottom section toward the back of the book. I read it tonight over strawberries and ice cream. The standout line to me was this: “The process of discovering who I really am begins with knowing who I really don’t want to be.”
This single sentence, written by a man who had been imprisoned—literally writing his story from the penitentiary—now dominates all my memories of the AA meeting I went to this afternoon. There were a lot of reminders today of “who I really don’t want to be,” and the most vivid among them were provided by a gentleman named Mark who’d had 60 days sober on Friday, then went out drinking Saturday night. Today, Sunday afternoon, there he was, back at our meeting. We read “There Is a Solution,” an introductory chapter that occurs much earlier in the Big Book than “Safe Haven.”
The chapter talks about moderate drinkers who can take or leave alcohol as they choose. It talks about certain hard drinkers who may experience problems related to their drinking, but who are able to moderate or stop entirely when circumstances in their lives demand it—meeting their spouse, having kids, the warning from the doctor and so on. And it talks about alcoholics—real alcoholics like me and Mark and the “Safe Haven” guy writing his story from prison—who weren’t able to stop even when life threw them excellent reasons to do so. Real practicing alcoholics actually are more likely to get drunk under obviously damaging circumstances, the book says, because that’s really the only choice they have.
The night my daughter Sarah was born, I kissed my wife on the cheek at the hospital. I told her I was going home to get some rest, adding that I’d be back first thing in the morning. She told me not to get drunk; I told her I wouldn’t. I drove my 14-year-old stepson home, but on the way, I stopped at the grocery store for a magnum bottle of cheap white wine. “I thought you were going to stop drinking when the baby was born,” my stepson said. Yes, I had planned to stop. I’d said that and I’d meant it when I said it. I felt a little bad being reminded of a promise that was now shape-shifting into a lie, but I didn’t feel bad enough not to drink that entire bottle of wine in about 90 minutes. I woke up the next morning around 10:45, head splitting, room way too bright. My phone was ringing. My wife, the mother of my newborn baby girl, was wondering where I was. I felt a crushing pile of guilt. But guess what? I drank that night too.
The good news is, now, today, I am not that person. I really don’t want to be that person ever again.
The life of an active alcoholic is hopeless and futile. We take the first drink and every drink after that takes us. We are left with two choices. We can take a trip to an early grave, or we can accept and abide by spiritual help, which is the “solution” mentioned in the title of the Big Book chapter Mark and I read in the meeting today.
Mark said his spiritual life is lacking. He’s agnostic and he’s having a hard time with Step Two. For that 60 days, he stayed sober on willpower and self-knowledge alone. It wasn’t his first attempt at stopping drinking. I can identify with that. I stopped lots of times before I got to AA, always on the strength of self-will alone. I’d make it two weeks or a month. Then I thought I knew enough to try again. I really don’t want to be the guy who makes that mistake again.
I was agnostic when I got to AA, but by the end of my first meeting, I came to believe that the fellowship and the program of AA were both powers greater than me. To my great and joyful surprise, I made contact with God the second I opened my heart to him. I discovered that “who I really am” is spiritual, is obedient, is hopeful, is free, is an imperfect work in progress. That person who “I really don’t want to be” is doubtful, is selfish, is rebellious, is unreliable to his family, is drunk.
Sarah, that newborn baby girl who spent her first night on earth in a hospital while her dad was off alone so he could chug cheap wine, is almost 10 now. I took her to a birthday party for a friend yesterday afternoon. We were at the party for almost four hours. There was plenty of sun, sand and beer for the adults. I drank water and juice.
The person I once was, the one I really don’t want to be, would have relished the chance to spend four hours drinking beer someone else had paid for. I would have gotten loud, vulgar, mean, embarrassing. I would have stayed until the beer ran out and then driven drunk with my daughter in the back seat and picked up more beer to drink at home. And I don’t want to think about what might have happened after that.
The good thing is that I’ll never have to know because I have a program that gives me the choice not to take that first drink. It also gives me the power not to want to take that drink. “I cannot go back and make a brand-new start,” writes the author of “Safe Haven.” “But through AA, I can start from now and make a brand-new end.”
At the end of our meeting today, Mark held my hand as we all said the Lord’s Prayer. He was shaking with tremors. This might have been the first time at a meeting that I ever deliberately tightened my grip on someone’s hand mid-prayer. Mark messed up yesterday. But he has today. And if he thoroughly follows the path that AA has laid out for him, he could have the rest of his life.