We all use the tools of the program in much the same ways
I LOOK AROUND THE room at my home group. About forty of us. A dozen or so have been regulars since this group’s first meeting ten years ago. Most of us have been sober for more than five years. A few count their sobriety in days, weeks, or months.
I tick them off in my mind: an eighteen-year-old girl still in high school; a single woman of twenty-two, employed, living alone; a young housewife with two children under the age of six; a man who has lived for eighty-four years, over twenty of which have passed in Alcoholics Anonymous; a pretty matron in her forties whose teenage children cause constant turmoil in her household; a man in his fifties recently laid off from a job he had thought was his for life; another in his sixties whose wife recently and unexpectedly died; one in his early thirties who hates the conditions on his job but is afraid to protest them; a woman in her seventies so busy with club work and golf and travel that she barely has time for a weekly meeting.
Financial standings among these individuals range from zero to affluence. Educational backgrounds cover everything from high school dropout to Ph.D. From all of them, we catch references to problems, sorrows, big and little triumphs. Often we sense heartbreak or uncertainty over “relationships”–marital, paternal, social, business, erotic.
For twenty-one years I have been a part of Alcoholics Anonymous. Indeed, the traditional four score years and ten have washed me up on the shores of old age. Yet, looking back upon the teenage girl I once was, I recognize the concerns preoccupying the eighteen-year-old at the meeting. Neither have I forgotten the ambitions and dreams that alternately spurred or lured me on in my twenties and thirties; I remember the mistakes I made and the fulfillments and defeats that accompanied or followed those years. I, too, have known the failures and the guilts and the joys associated with parenthood, when one is often too tired to speak civilly to one’s children–or to anyone else. I have experienced the frustration and anguish that adolescent rebellion can cause a bewildered mother. And I recall all too well the problems that now exacerbate some of our middle-aged members in dealing with aged and helpless parents.
In the twenty-one years I have spent in AA, I have wrestled aloud with whatever moral or emotional dilemmas I have blundered into in the course of learning to live with other human beings. I have complained while at the same time trying to accept the latest inevitability Mother Nature has allowed to descend on me.
Now, however, sometimes I think, “I must not unsettle my fellow-members by mentioning such reactions as spurts of anger when I think of how short a time is left to me, my dismay at realizing that instead of leaping up stairs and over obstructions in the path I must literally watch my step to avoid turned ankles or broken bones; the annoyances of fading eyesight, diminished hearing, the pain and despair of losing one lifelong friend after another to death.
I have decided to give up this misguided course of not saying what I am afraid “they” won’t want to hear because it would remind them of where we are all headed if we live long enough. The truth is that if I disguise the negative feelings that I am very naturally having at this stage of life, I cannot let “them” know about the surprisingly positive discoveries that the disadvantages of growing old have made possible. For example, I have finally learned that in relinquishing some goals because of lessened physical energy, I have been freed to achieve other and more satisfying ones that a deeper and more extensive Me has always known it wanted. It seems that when I was younger, the tiny, willful part of my mind that thought it knew for sure what I ought to do was able to tell the whole of myself what to “go for,” whether or not the basic Me wanted or could do it.
Also, since I can no longer dream of all I am going to do “someday”–because from the evidence I see more clearly that that “someday” may never come–I am finally learning really to live one day at a time and to appreciate and be alert to the beautiful, marvel-filled, albeit sometimes infuriating world around me. This is a startlingly pleasant reward.
And if I hadn’t acknowledged how finite, how limited my future was, I should not have been able to give up some of the old false gods whom I thought I had to obey, and instead to listen for and heed the dictates of needs and inclinations I used to try to ignore or at least drown out by the shrill voices of the tiny conscious surface of my being whose vocabulary is made up mostly of “I wills” and “I won’ts,” rather than of “Now let’s see about this” or “Is that what I really prefer?”
Looking over my AA group brought these thoughts to mind; and I see, astonishingly, that there are no gender gaps, no generation gaps, no social chasms here. Starting with the casting-off of the shackles put on us by alcohol, an experience we all share, in the years that follow we deal in much the same ways with all our trials and tribulations, using, as we so often say, the tools our program of recovery gives us.
The girl just reaching puberty, whose main preoccupation (aside from resisting peer pressure to drink or use drugs) may be whether you do or you don’t have sex and if so when and with whom; the young man or woman with a new family who feels he/she deserves a raise and isn’t sure how far to go in being assertive; the old person trying to budget a Social Security check to include a monthly trip to the slot machines at Lake Tahoe, and me coming to terms with the fact that my Future can at best be only a fraction of what is now my Past–we are not segregated. In AA, as we listen to one another’s anxieties and problems, we understand that it’s not what’s happening to you because you are whatever age you happen to be, or because you are poor, or because you aren’t attractive, or because you aren’t as smart as your co-workers; it is how you cope with it, survive it, and don’t give up and drink over it.
The “it” you survive can be anything: dashed career hopes, unrequited love, crippling disease, poverty, approaching death. Together we face it, equipped only with the vast, previously undiscovered resources of power within us, which faced and conquered alcoholism for us.
So let us not be afraid of unsettling or boring our comrades by talking about our reactions to whatever is bothering us at a given moment; for this way we learn how to live.