Book Excerpt

Emotional Sobriety

From Section 2, Out of Isolation

Centrifugal Force

For some reason, my hand went up when Tom made the announcement during the break that the group was going to be taking a meeting to a hospital in Queens the next week and needed another speaker. I had been showing up at the group for a couple of months, quietly hanging around the periphery, blending into the crowd. But lately, I had begun to feel as if I was about to spin off the AA planet. I could feel the centrifugal force pulling me out toward the edges. I knew I needed to inch closer to the center, but I didn't really know how.

I had tried a week earlier to join the group officially, after an announcement had been made by the group secretary: "If you'd like to become a member of this group, please see me during the break." So I found a way to sidle up to her in the coffee line and casually asked how I could join. At that point, I was ready to sign whatever documents were necessary, pony up a down payment, or put my fingerprints in concrete. There was something going on in those AA rooms, and now that I wasn't drinking, I could see that I wasn't going to get it standing around in the shadows. Well, she looked at me and smiled, filled her cup, dumped in some milk and sugar, and said, "If you want to be a member of this group, just keep coming." I managed a smile, but quickly drifted back to the periphery, the anonymous edge. But I did return the next week and found myself raising my hand, volunteering to travel out to Queens with somebody I didn't even know to speak at a meeting in a hospital I had never even heard of. I was alternately anxious and relieved, already thinking of excuses for why I couldn't make the commitment, yet also feeling I had just taken an irrevocable step forward. So, Tom showed up at the appointed hour with a carful of sober alcoholics coming along for the ride. I tucked myself into the back seat and stared out the window the whole time, willing myself back to the lonely periphery.

At the hospital, we stood in a corner of a big conference room as the patients came in. My mind was in a desperate spin, searching for a way out. I went to the bathroom and threw cold water on my face.When I came out, the meeting was about to begin: Tom was reading the Preamble and making some introductory remarks. Before I had time to think about what I was going to say, Tom was announcing, "And our first speaker tonight is. . ." and hands were pushing me toward the podium.

I stood there in the bright light of the conference room, looking out at a roomful of people, wondering how in the world I had gotten there. It was a far cry from sitting in the dark in my apartment at four o'clock in the morning, drunk, listening to sad music, and scrawling incomprehensible poetry in my journal. I felt frozen. My mind was a total blank. But suddenly my voice began to work; a small chip at the edge of the ice floe I had become loosened and broke away.

"I remember once I got drunk in the afternoon and decided to run a stretch of rapids on the Housatonic River in a fiberglass canoe." I hadn't even thought about this story in ten years, but suddenly, there it was, on the tip of my tongue. "There was a quiet, shallow spot above the rapids where you could launch, and I tossed back a beer and put the canoe in the water. I could hear the rapids just a few yards away, and I could feel the draw of the water, tugging at the canoe." Standing at the podium, I shifted my weight from foot to foot. "That's when inspiration hit," I continued, "and I took a piece of cord that was attached to the back of the canoe and tied it to the belt loop of my pants. I figured if I fell out of the canoe, I could use the rope to pull it back."

In the bright light of the conference room in the hospital, staring out at a bunch of nameless drunks in hospital gowns and slippers, I described how I took a few strokes with the paddle and almost immediately was pulled into the strong current.My canoe bounced like a pinball off rocks on either side of the channel. I tried to steady it, but the canoe flipped to one side and I fell out. Luckily, I was able to grab a log at the edge of the channel and started to pull myself to shore. Meanwhile, the overturned canoe filled with water and was sucked back into the rapids. As I pulled for the shore, the rope on my pants tightened, and I was yanked along down the river like a shoe behind a truck. I was dragged under the water, over the rocks, out of control. Finally, the canoe hit a boulder at a turn in the river and lodged there, and I was able to slit the rope with the Swiss Army knife I had in my pocket. I dragged myself out of the river and sat on the rocky bank for a while. I had a few scrapes and bruises on my chest and my arms, but other than that, I was okay. So after I hauled the canoe back up to the car, I reached down under the driver's seat and pulled out the last beer. "It never occurred to me that I could have been killed," I said and sat down.

That was the end of the story. It was all I had to say. How and why that incident arose out of the darkness in that moment, I will never know, but it was the beginning. In that moment, I inched a little bit closer to AA and a little bit closer to myself. Even the car ride home from Queens was different; I was suddenly a part of things, no longer just a shadow figure pulled toward the edge by the centrifugal force of my own fears.

That was quite a number of years ago, and I have spoken at plenty of meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous since. The story I told that night is simply one among many stories of my drinking -- some more gruesome, some less -- that illustrate my alcoholism and my powerlessness. Yet no matter how long I am sober or how many meetings I have been to, I need constantly to inch forward, closer to the center, to avoid being thrown from the spinning wheel that is my life.

—Ames S., New York, New York