I Lied at Alcoholics Anonymous and Left With New Perspective

Put away preconceptions and skepticism to consider the power of a support group.

Posted Feb 21, 2019

James Barker/Unsplash
Source: James Barker/Unsplash

It was 2003 in Seattle one sunny summer morning—36th to W Government Way to Gilman, then Emerson, Nickerson, across the 15th Ave W bridge into Ballard, left on 50th, right on 17th… only about ten minutes of travel. By the time I parked on the street in front of the Swedish Medical Center clinic, I was 25 minutes early. I took the opportunity to walk up to the shops on Market Street for a sample of fresh bread and soup at Great Harvest and a quick look at Secret Garden Bookshop. Asked to be helped, I said little and averted my eyes. “Have you read Life of Pi? It breathes beauty. Check it out.” I was annoyed at the presumption and moved aisles before returning to purchase the book with Calvin and Hobbes in a canoe.

I must have been two or three minutes late and had some trouble finding the room. There were no fancy signs or schedules, and it was rather quiet throughout the halls. I wondered if I was in the right place. Then I saw a couple of middle-aged men shooting the breeze just inside a doorway. I peeked in, and they noticed. “Hey, son, come on in. You are welcome here. Coffee tastes like sh*t. Can I get you a cup?”

I had a split second to muster a reason why I was in the wrong place, but somehow these men, through cuss and sarcasm, drew me in. I found a seat around the rectangular fold-out table and accepted a small styrofoam cup of Community Coffee but was disheartened at the nondairy powder creamer.

I'd thought of what to say: “May I sit in and observe today?” I’d share, “My name is Blake Edwards. I'm a student in SPU’s graduate program in marriage and family therapy. I’ll just be observing today as part of an assignment.”

There must have been 15 men ranging from 40 to 80, and here I was at 22. I felt pity for each of them, and my eyes went slowly around the room imagining their stories, my hands placed over the leather-covered notepad that hid my true intentions. After a few minutes of boisterous chatting, a fellow named Willie took charge.

Aleksandar Popovski/Unsplash
Source: Aleksandar Popovski/Unsplash

“Okay, men, it’s so good to have each one of you here this morning, and it is good to welcome… what was your name, son?” “Blake,” I stammered and left it at that. I was suddenly very uncomfortable. He continued, “Leon, let’s have you go ahead and read.” Leon started, “Well, as you know, we’re here talking today about #7, but it doesn’t matter where each of you is. It’s okay. But we’ll keep learning together and sharing together.” He eventually got to #7, and I listened closely— “That we humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

One by one, the men went around and shared. They did so naturally and conversationally. They seemed to know each other well, yet they followed protocol. “I’m Garcia, and I’m an alcoholic. I don’t know. I’m still not a saint yet, you know? I’m not sure what to say. I haven’t thought about what I wanted to share.” The other men coached him through thoughtful gazes, hands on chins, a pat on his shoulder, encouraging grunts. “I know I do have shortcomings, hell, you all know that. And I’ve just been feeling it. Just kind of feeling some of my old feelings, finding myself thinking some of my old thoughts. I don’t know. I just wanted to tell you, I guess. You know?”

Nearly in unison, they acknowledged him. “Thank you, Garcia,” they chanted, with rhythmic tones, old man utterances, compassion. As they shared, I began to put away preconceptions, theories about 12 step programs, cultish accusations, skepticism. My mind was racing. I had to rethink my story. I was confused, even moved. But there was no time for clarity. All eyes were on me.

“My name is Blake Edwards, and I am an alcoholic.” I barely knew I had said the words until I had said them. I had hesitated to share the reason for my attendance upon arrival, and I think part of me now feared being seen as a voyeur. Frankly, there was also a less fearful, more daring part of me that just wanted to go all in on the experience. And so I joined them. I was not an alcoholic. I barely drank at all, an occasional pint of microbrew with a friend. Yet there was no denying me in that moment. I was an alcoholic.

Their gazes were not piercing. The burly men shone with gentleness and genuineness. Some patted and squeezed my shoulder as they left. Willie circled, “Blake, you are welcome here. Thank you for your presence. You come back to us, son. We will be here for you.” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. I felt emotional. I shivered with guilt and also, somehow, peace.

Zach Searcy/Unsplash
Source: Zach Searcy/Unsplash

That day I put away some of my arrogance—about addiction and recovery, psychopathology and treatment. Something rang true to me–of mutual support and the help of an imperfect but useful model. Let us not underestimate the power of warmth, acceptance, and unconditional care.

In accord with ethical standards, identities have been protected through alteration of unique identifying details.