All the Ships

I walked into an AA meeting holding a cup of coffee.

It hit me as I was opening the door to the cozy room that this might have been interpreted as a sort of flippant irony– the fact that I was entering a space reserved for those trying to get over a substance addiction while taking a brain-altering substance myself. All sorts of scenarios played out in my head, including being called out, kicked out, or judged silently, which was almost the worst of them all. Normally this kind of anxiety would have been enough to turn me around and give me ample impetus to get the hell out of there. But, since this was the first time I had ever been to an AA meeting, I recognized it was probably my fear of the unknown, and not the actual act of drinking coffee, that was inducing my paranoia.

I’ve had drinks before but not frequently, and I have never felt like my drinking was out of my control. This much I knew about myself; I was at the meeting solely as a listener. However, I also knew that this didn’t by any means give me the moral high ground. Everyone is dependent on something to get them through dark times, be it religion, sex, video games, etc. It just so happens that some comforts can inflict greater harm than others. Alcohol is one of these comforts.

It was a small meeting, with five people at peak attendance. That set me slightly on edge; I had banked on there being more attendees so as to make my presence inconspicuous.

One member, Eric (name changed for anonymity), took charge as facilitator and gave us a rundown of how things would go. He would give an opening statement, and then we would be given a chance to speak to our own experience with substance abuse. He asked if we had any announcements to make. We didn’t.

Eric’s opening statement was lucid and encouraging. Having been to countless AA meetings since he first stopped drinking over a decade ago, he was a well of resources, adages, and reassurance. Like many who find themselves at the mercy of alcohol, Eric’s drinking began with family. He felt trapped in his home, and it didn’t help that other members of his family had already set an example by being alcoholics themselves. When he finally sought help and rehab, he made AA a cornerstone of his recovery by resolving to go to a meeting a day. By being a part of this community, learning that he wasn’t alone, and picking up technique after technique from peers, Eric built himself back up from the ground. This is not a success story, he stressed. Alcoholism is something you have to fight every day because the moment you give in to it, you lose everything you built up from the ground. “It’s like ships”, he said. “The first day you go to AA, you have a life raft. After a month, you have a canoe. After a year, you have a speedboat. After ten years, you have a yacht. But no matter what you have, remember that one big wave can take everything away.”

Ten years. People quit their jobs if they don’t think they’ll be promoted within a year. People give up on dreams of becoming famous or of starting their own business if they don’t see a glimmer of hope within the first six-months. To work on who you are every second of every day for over a decade takes more effort and resilience than almost anyone can imagine. That’s more than half of my lifetime.

When I walk into a grocery store, I do not need to consciously keep myself from wandering into the alcohol section. When my friends invite me out, I do not need to turn them down because I’m scared that I might cave in to a drink. My lifestyle is a privilege, and it is so easy to forget how lucky I am to not be going through something like what Eric has described.

After the opening statement, we went around the room and offered our own insights and anecdotes. I passed on my turn to speak, since I did not have anything to say. Once everyone had shared in some way or another, we filled out the rest of the hour session with a short, silent meditation, which contrasted with the vocal aspect of the meeting. I used that time to reflect on all the ships I had built myself – my confidence, my empathy, my friendships – all of which require patience, deliberate effort, and persistence to keep intact. I felt a life energy coursing in the air as we sat, drawing us closer with some kind of unconscious magnetism. We were all on a journey, I realized. A rocky odyssey across an ocean filled with high stakes and great rewards, and we were all anxious. But I also felt something else that wasn’t anxiety. I struggled to name that feeling, even as we finished the session with the serenity prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

As I walked out of the room and back into the smoky indifference of New York City, I finally put a name to what it was I was feeling. It was gratitude. Gratitude that I was granted this experience and wisdom despite walking in holding a cup of coffee, but also for something bigger. In a world characterized by stigma and prejudice, it is inspiring that we are able to find communities that encourage us to be better and work for who we are. It can be hard, especially if what it is you want to change was out of your control in the first place. But it doesn’t have to be lonely. I’m grateful to know that, no matter where I am, I can stick my head up above deck on my little sailboat and see that there is an entire fleet sailing beside me.