I was not exactly riding a winning streak when I stumbled into Alcoholics Anonymous. In fact, in the week before my first AA meeting, I had lost a job I loved, disgraced my family, betrayed people who had trusted me and found out what it was to be chucked into a police cruiser with my hands cuffed behind my back.
My wife had believed me when I said I was going out to do some grocery shopping. Then she got the call to come bail me out, stepping past reporters who would document my disgrace on all three news channels—with film at 11!
I had been out of my mind for years, faking competence and integrity while dropping lower and lower into a demoralization not only incomprehensible, but inescapable. I had lost every battle with myself, even putting pictures of my children on my dashboard so I could look into their eyes when the compulsion to binge became overwhelming. I wanted to remember how important my family was to me.
Yes, they were important, but I had more drinking to do. I drove past the turn for home, pulled into the parking lot of my favorite dive and put those pictures in my glove compartment—again and again. Then the worst thing that could possibly happen turned out to save my life.
With my wife waiting outside my jail cell, and with no way out of the mess I had created, my first instinct was to come up with a lie big enough to let me skate one more time. But I had finally run out of lies. I told my wife as much of the truth as I could put into words that night. It was the longest night of my life. We talked, we cried, and as my wife finally fell asleep, I thought of running again. I even thought of suicide.
But in that moment, when I might have made everything so much worse, I found myself praying. I had prayed before (to a God I didn’t believe in) to protect me from the consequences of my actions, of course. But this time I knew there was no escape. “God help me,” I said. “I can’t stop, and I can’t live this way.”
I didn’t see a “burning bush” nor hear a choir of angels singing, but somehow I felt relief even as I finally faced the truth. In the morning, I showered, shaved and went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I was finally ready to ask for help. I had some moments of clarity during decades of dangerous drinking, but I had never surrendered in the way I did that night.
I’ve heard a great many people struggle with the concept of a Higher Power even though we can see evidence of remarkable transformations in lives all around us. “Keep coming back,” old-timers say, “and sooner or later, you will be contacted.” Some are heartened by that advice, some are offended, but in my experience moments of contact and connection do come to those who allow the stories of others to come in and warm their hearts. As I came to really hear and really see those around me, I found myself increasingly aware of spiritual work to be done on a daily basis. I have been contacted often, but I find myself compelled to share one particular moment with an experience of a power greater than myself.
For 18 years, every Saturday morning I sat in a circle with other AA men. I set up the meeting for several years, placing 40 chairs in the circle, leaving another dozen or so at hand in case newcomers or visitors stopped in. The meeting started at 8:00 in the morning with no fixed ending time, as each man spoke in turn. Over the years, there was little we did not know about each other.
For example, I knew that one member, a local handyman fresh from the Salvation Army’s treatment program, was embarrassed by his lack of education and his difficulty reading. He stumbled over simple words, often giving up when he hit a word he could not pronounce. At the start, he requested that he not be asked to read “More About Alcohol” or “How It Works,” and the members obliged. In his second year in our circle, he made a decision to turn his reading difficulties over to a power greater than himself and took his turn reading at the start of our meeting.
It was hard to see him choke out “How It Works” word by word. He needed almost 10 minutes to complete the reading. At the outset, I was embarrassed for him and wished I could save him from what was obviously a terrible ordeal. After a few minutes, however, something in me changed. I saw a man willing to risk humiliation, willing to trust and willing to become fully visible to us. I saw honesty, courage, hope, faith, willingness and humility as he practiced essential principles in that circle. This was a man who only a year earlier had been in alcohol-related seizures on the floor of his apartment, a man whose heart had stopped beating, a man who once was hopeless.
As he fumbled along, word by painful word, I knew absolutely that a power greater than himself had restored him to life.
I have many AA heroes, but none I admire more than this friend who let us sit with him in his moment of trial. There was applause when he finished and heartfelt congratulations. I was moved as were many others, but I was also aware that I had changed as well. I heard the start of the fifth chapter of the Big Book read as I had never heard it before. Each word was significant and powerful, not merely the familiar passage delivered by rote in many meetings.
That experience also helped me to admit that I considered myself a darned good reader, one of the best actually. I had gained a certain celebrity in meetings for the delivery I was able to bring to our readings. I looked forward to being asked to read and felt a bit of resentment when the juicy parts were given to someone else. Had I considered myself “better than” others? Yes, I realized that I had. And here’s where I knew a power greater than myself was at work.
In the past, I might have been shamed by that realization and might have tried to brush it off or deflect it. Now, I welcomed the uncomfortable clarity with which I saw myself. I was glad to be able to catch myself being myself. I am always grateful when I have a moment in which I can see my ego at work.
Since that morning, I listen carefully, especially when a newcomer or someone in distress reads for the group. I like to think that I can see a spirit straining to break free as those familiar words bring to tears a reader desperate enough to find his or her way into the rooms of AA. What a continuing gift that morning has been to me.
Who knew contact would come in seeing a Higher Power at work in the life of a good man whose halting words carried a message I needed to hear?