A member shares some powerful thoughts about AA’s patience, resilience and creativity during COVID-19
When I first read Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions with my sponsor some 10 years ago, I was struck by Bill W.’s description of AA members in the armed forces during World War II. Even though they were far from home and often in deadly peril, they were able to stay sober. With the aid of AA, they relapsed less and had fewer emotional binges than alcoholics back at home.
I pictured AA meetings in foxholes and burned-out buildings, on ships and in planes, with countless prayers being recited amid the horrors of war. In the darkness of a global catastrophe, those alcoholics found a light of hope.
Many on the home front faced hardships as well. My mother and her family were among them, confined to an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Life in the camps was a struggle, but many, including my uncles, went on to serve with distinction in the U.S. armed forces. Mom proudly held them up to me as examples of honor.
My family and the many others interned were eventually released, rarely speaking of their painful experience. They had to start over with nothing and still faced harsh treatment from their fellow Americans. My mom often said our family would just “get on with it” when faced with these challenges and obstacles.
Though they were Americans, they clung to a Japanese tradition known as gaman—patience, perseverance and resilience in times of difficulty. They set about quietly rebuilding their lives, though many internees, as well as their children, became alcoholic, as did I.
Growing up, I struggled with the idea of gaman. I never seemed to fit in. I was painfully shy and couldn’t shake the feeling of being an outsider, no matter who I was with. I was impatient, gave up easily and was over-sensitive in the extreme. Rather than encouraging me to engage and connect, alcohol and drugs provided escape. I could be alone but not feel lonely—or feel anything at all. Trouble wasn’t far behind: lost jobs, broken relationships, run-ins with the law and physical ruin followed.
I was on another weekslong bender once when I received a text from my younger brother. His message that my behavior was not the way to honor the memory of my mother and our family hurt me deeply. Out of this humiliation and pain, a Higher Power granted me the honesty to admit that I needed help, as well as the humility to ask for it.
Fitting in, for me, finally started when I went to my first AA meeting. Smiling faces welcomed, me but it took me a while to get used to these people who were my exact opposite: cheerful, engaged and at ease with themselves and the world.
They told me that as a newcomer, I was the most important person in the room. At the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted this kind of attention, but my newfound willingness overcame my reluctance, and I came back.
In AA I learned patience. I learned how to remain calm and cope with the many challenges of life and to expect gradual progress rather than instant perfection in myself and others. I learned to persevere by placing my sobriety first and doing the work of the program every single day, no matter what difficulties life sent me. And through the Steps I found tools to avoid self-pity and despair, leading me to greater resilience. The virtues of gaman finally came to me in the rooms of AA.
In my experience, AA is different today than when I started 10 years ago, with members facing challenges similar to what my family and those interned experienced during World War II. Confined and constrained this time by an outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 virus, we were stuck at home in isolation for many months. If we met, it was outdoors in small groups, socially distanced and wearing masks. Smiling faces were replaced by smiling eyes, but fear was all around, accompanied by anxiety and anger over the disruption of lives and social interaction.
Even with almost 10 years of sobriety in AA, the idea of using the pandemic as an excuse to hole up in a hotel room and get drunk actually seemed reasonable to me for a moment. I could pretend to have been exposed to the virus and have to isolate. Alcoholism is cunning, baffling, powerful—and infinitely patient. It will use whatever’s going on outside of me, bad or good, to tempt me, no matter how long I’ve been in recovery.
Thank God for AA. I remain sober today if I keep spiritually fit, stay connected to my Higher Power and carry the message. But how could I do this if I couldn’t meet people face to face?
Fortunately, AA cannot be stopped today any more than it could be stopped during World War II. A Higher Power is at work, inspiring resilient men and women in our program to persevere and find ever more creative ways to help each other. Despite a worldwide pandemic, AA members are quietly “getting on with it,” doing the daily work of the program. With internet technology, it’s easier than ever to attend an AA meeting pretty much any time of the day or night. And our reach now extends instantly around the globe. We benefit in learning how the alcoholics of other nations and cultures stay sober in AA.
I’ll admit that I was initially reluctant to join these virtual meetings because of my concerns about computer security, as well my worry that those attending would be distracted and not paying attention. But eventually I joined in.
Once again I got to see other AAs’ smiling faces, hear their stories and stay connected to my Higher Power through them. That this happens via a computer or cellphone doesn’t matter a bit. I’ve heard grateful newcomers say online meetings actually made it easier for them to join AA and get sober.
War, confinement, pandemic, alcoholism—all are forms of darkness that continue to plague humankind. But without darkness, we cannot see the stars. For many alcoholics, that starlight now shines in the glow of countless screens bringing hope and healing to those who still suffer, guiding us all out of darkness and into the light of recovery.
My phone just notified me that it’s time for another online AA meeting. Once again, it’s time to “get on with it.”