Journeys of Sobriety

Kristin Gourlay
The author shows off a small, round, pink-purple chip she earned in AA

My first AA meeting after leaving treatment was in a small town in Kentucky.

At first glance, I doubted I’d have much in common with anyone in this two-room clubhouse. But I pulled up a chair at one of the long folding tables and tried to keep an open mind. 

A few members read sections from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Then the chair called for a moment of silence for all the alcoholics still suffering. I was not many days past that suffering myself. I closed my eyes and silently called out to them to come inside. Then he picked a topic and members began raising their hands. Some shared experiences about how they'd learned to cope. Some just needed to talk about a hard day.

Over time I would come to love this group: mechanics, farmers, lawyers, professors, retirees, veterans, teenagers, boomers.

Some had grown up in the hills of Appalachia, some in bigger towns. I would come to appreciate that the details of our lives were different, but the contours of our stories were the same. Whatever I shared, someone else had probably done or felt the same thing.

Before the meeting ended, the chair asked if there were any sober anniversaries. “Anyone celebrating 30 days?”

I raised my hand. Applause. The chair placed a 30-day chip in my hand and hugged me—a real, get-in-here kind of hug. I appreciated the fact that Kentuckians are sincere, not-to-be-deterred, huggers. 

After the meeting, I asked a young woman to sponsor me.

We'd meet for coffee a few times a week. She guided me through the 12 steps, giving me small writing and reading assignments along the way. For the first step, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable,” she asked me simply to write about how my life had become unmanageable. I almost asked if there was a page limit. 

As I worked the steps, my sponsor asked me to consider putting my faith in a higher power, a god of my understanding, to help keep me sober. I struggled with that at first, because I don’t believe in God.

But since then, I’ve met many alcoholics like me whose higher power is the collective wisdom of the group. AA may have a Big Book with some instructions, but truly the program relies on oral tradition. I like the image of a chain of people, passing along their strength through the years, holding each other up. Surviving.

Soon, I picked up my 90-day chip, and then my six-month chip, at the club.

I dropped them in a carved wooden box with a soft felt lining. With every anniversary I mark, I still love to hear the clink of those chips as they join the others. 

Kristin Gourlay is a Shatterproof Ambassador.

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