It was in a career workshop, in early 2000, that I first learned about Al-Anon. Each week, a tribe of six women (including me) would assemble in a stodgy conference room to talk about what we thought was clotting up our careers. Some of the woman blamed their inability to be assertive while others griped about their micro-managing bosses. I spent the entire six weeks griping and moaning about how my family’s addictions were steamrolling not only my career but also every other nook and cranny of my life.
Eventually, a woman approached me after class and asked, “Have you ever thought about going to Al-Anon?” The truth is I had—lightly—considered it before but was stubbornly convinced that those meetings couldn’t handle my unique family situation. But at that moment, I waved a white flag and vowed to go; I figured I had nothing to lose.
For the next few months, I laid my burdens out across a Costco folding table for everyone to hear. It was in that dusty church basement—which had a bathroom that never had any toilet paper—where I discovered, for the first time, that I was not alone. A few months after my first meeting, a veteran Al-Anon/AA hybrid, known in recovery parlance as a “double winner” pulled me aside and asked if I’d ever been to an AA Anniversary meeting before, adding that he thought it would be good for me to hear the addict’s side of things, to “maybe even come to understand them a little bit better.” On the outside I smiled and thanked him for thinking of me but on the inside a thunderstorm was brewing. Has he lost his damn mind? I thought. What the hell does he mean that I should try to understand the addict? If there’s anyone that needs some understanding, it’s me! Where’s my anniversary party for all my years of putting up with their crap?
When my emotional shit storm settled a few days later, I surrendered, yet again knowing again that I didn’t really have anything to lose by going.
Every seat in the house was taken by the time I arrived at a middle school auditorium tucked away under the Verrazano Bridge in Brooklyn. So I had no choice but to lean up against a cinder block wall in the back. There I was, tossed in a crowd of close to 200, a melting pot of Russian and Irish accents, sun-crisped police vets covered in tattoos and fidgety little girls tugging at the bows on their dresses. Thankfully, I landed a spot right next to the cake and coffee table. The cake looked good, too. I thought, Not only is there cake but they also have Equal and non-dairy creamer for the coffee. How bad could this be?
Then I watched as, one by one, different speakers took their turn at the front of the room. I listened to stories decorated with the familiar addiction jargon—words like rock bottom, overdose, relapse, and recovery echoed from the windows to the walls—but somehow they sounded different here. A young woman, sober for 12 years, described getting clean as “living life beyond the madness.” Her voice would get thin and her eyes would well up when she acknowledged how unmanageable her life had become. I didn’t know her, had never seen her in my life, but the depth of her pain somehow punctured the layers of resentment and bitterness that were stunting my life. It wasn’t the details of her story that mattered because I’d heard all of those before; it was her willingness to be vulnerable that got my attention. Beneath the chaos of her addiction, sullied under every hangover and near overdose, was a human being that was hurting. Somehow, despite growing up solely surrounded by addicts, this had never crossed my mind.
It makes sense, of course, that after years of being disappointed, let down, and lied to, we retreat and lose sight of who the people (and we) were before they became consumed by the compulsions of addiction. It makes sense that we shut off and shut down because it becomes too painful to care and too dangerous to love. The addict gets lost in their addiction and we, as family members and friends, get tangled up in illusions, trying to maintain sanity under insane circumstances.
In my experience, circumstances like these had rarely given anyone a reason to smile. But that afternoon, as the festivities were winding down, I looked around the auditorium and saw rows and rows of happy, beaming faces. Bright-colored helium balloons wobbled above the crowd while addicts and non-addicts—there to cheer on their loved ones’ declarations of sobriety—embraced the serenity of the moment. If someone had told me years before that addiction in recovery could offer up a reason to celebrate, I would have thought that person was crazy—especially if I’d been told that even during the darkest of moments, when the addict was stealing, lying, and dying, there could still be a faint glimmer of hope. But there it was. I just hadn’t chosen to see it before.
A version of this post and the photo originally appeared on After Party Chat