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.
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.
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.
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.
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.