Years ago, when I was first exploring sobriety, I started attending AA speaker meetings. They’d always follow the same plot line: A man or woman would stand up and tell their story. They described “what is was like, what happened, and what’s it like now,” to put it in AA parlance.
The first time I attended one, I was mesmerized. A woman who looked like a healthier and more stable version of myself walked up to the lectern, smiled brightly, and with no preamble said, “Hi, my name is Gwen, and I am such an alcoholic.”
Gwen looked as though she had come straight from work. She was stylish and poised — certainly a departure from the crowd at the more urban meetings I’d attended. When sitting in those meetings, held in an unmarked building in a run-down section of town, I’d find myself glancing around the room, noticing how different I was from the people around me. I found it much easier to identify with Gwen.
She described her childhood as idyllic and uneventful. Her parents drank only on holidays, and usually only a single drink each. Eventually, she made her way through school, married her college sweetheart, and launched a successful sales career, all according to plan. For a while, she lived the high life — traveling the country to wine and dine her clients.
But somewhere along the way, Gwen said, she lost herself.
She lost herself to other people’s expectations, as she tried to maintain her career while raising children. As her husband stayed late at the office, she lost herself to lonely hours of drinking, wondering how she could escape a life that was now suffocating her.
Her too? I remember thinking.
Gwen’s story pulled me in, especially when she talked about how the wine muffled the pain of parenting alone, dulling the edges of boredom and stress. She went on to say that her husband called one day from the office and asked for a divorce. He was in love with someone else, he admitted.
“So you won’t be home for dinner?” Gwen asked. More laughter.
But I could feel her heartbreak as she talked about what followed: A divorce that blindsided her and quickly turned hostile. Confused kids, acting out in every direction. Her humbling attempts to hold her family together.
She got the kids a puppy that Christmas, with no plan as to how it would be maintained. I laughed, thinking of my own trail of comfort pets.
But things got worse, as they tend to do in the aftermath of a divorce, and Gwen continued to drink. She shook her head when describing a scene where she’d arrived at a liquor store late one Saturday night, just after closing. She found herself banging on the glass door, just to see if they would let her in. The tired woman behind the counter, apparently used to this kind of behavior, calmly told her through the glass that she would call the police if she didn’t leave right then. And so Gwen left, crying and cursing and enraged.
It was hard to reconcile the sophisticated woman with perfect grammar speaking and the unhinged woman banging on the glass, drunk and belligerent. As I looked around the room, however, I could see people nodding. They’d been there in one way or another, shocked by what they were capable of in the throes of drink.
As if reliving the scene, Gwen bowed her head. After a moment, she lifted her eyes. “Friends …” she began, “Eventually, drinking became more important to me than anything else … And I do mean anything.” With a quick stab to the heart, I realized she meant her children.
But then, in a clear voice full of compassion, Gwen described her descent as if she were talking about a good friend. She called herself a high-bottom drinker, because from the outside, everything seemed OK. In truth, she was living in the mental chaos caused my excessive drinking. She managed to keep her job by claiming a variety of illnesses, but she was beginning to catch a glimpse of the oncoming train at the end of the tunnel.
Still, she couldn’t stop drinking. One by one, she listed what she eventually lost: Her house. Her dignity. Her self-respect. Her self-worth. She felt no joy in living, but instead sought oblivion, aided by the ever-increasing flow of wine.
Gwen said that late one night, she finally gave up. “I knew it was over,” she said. How did she know? I wondered. What made it different than every other time?
“I surrendered. I got down on my knees and I begged for help. I asked God to remove the compulsion to drink,” she said, “And he did.”
There was an audible sigh from the audience. “And since that day, seven years ago, I have never again had the desire to drink.”
I felt tears well up as the tension in the room broke open, enveloping the group in a warm flood of camaraderie and relief. Everyone clapped and some people cheered, overjoyed that a fellow drinker had made it out alive. She had called us friends, after all.
“How’d you do it, Gwen?” a young man shouted out.
“By working the steps,” she said, smiling. “And with the help of my higher power, and all of you.”
Now she told us of her life’s gradual upswing, and the mood lifted in the room. In a quick summary of her life in the hereafter, she said she’d met an amazing guy and was now remarried.
My mind conjured up a picture of Gwen beaming, swathed in white. She didn’t drink at her own wedding?
I vaguely wondered about the amazing guy she’d married. Did she meet him in AA? How did one date without drinking? Yet another reason why long-term sobriety didn’t seem possible. As Gwen left the podium, I worried about events far in the future. What if I found out I had only months to live? No one would blame me for drinking then.
After the meeting closed, Gwen stayed up front, surrounded by people waiting to talk to her or shake her hand. Just like a rock star, I thought.
I wanted to talk to her too. I wanted to tell her what an inspiration she was, and that I wanted desperately to succeed, like she had. I didn’t though. The line was long, and I felt awkward, not knowing anyone to chat with while I waited.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I replayed the scene of Gwen telling her story over and over again. Why was I so drawn to her?
Sometime before dawn, the answer came to me, as I lay half awake, dreaming of her gentle voice, her radiant smile.
Gwen had told her story completely without shame.