I was so scared my teeth were chattering on a warm spring day in Bellingham, Wash.
I remember walking back and forth in front of the church, hesitating in front, then moving on, back and forth, back and forth.
It was my first A.A. meeting. I got dressed up, if I am remembering right. A dress, heels, stockings.
This was over 30 years ago, and back then I think I dressed up for most everything — an airplane flight was cause for consternation about “what to wear.”
I don’t know when I decided to make the turn and walk down the stairs to the basement where the meeting was being held. I do know it took all my courage. Heart pounding, hands shaking, barely able to speak, I sat down in the only empty seat around the table.
Somebody offered me a cup of coffee. I mumbled “no,” knowing I’d never be able to lift the cup without spilling hot coffee all over myself. I kept my hands tightly clasped in my lap, and my head down.
We went around the table and introduced ourselves.
“I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.”
“I’m Sarah, and I’m an alcoholic.”
When it was my turn, I said, voice trembling, “I’m Kathy, and I’m here to learn.”
That was the truth. I was working on my first book on alcoholism, which would be titled “Under the Influence.” My coauthor, James Milam, told me I needed to go to A.A. meetings to learn more about alcoholism and addiction.
He didn’t tell me there was a difference between open meetings — open to A.A. members and people interested in learning more about addiction and recovery — and closed meetings, open only to A.A. members or people who think they may have a drinking problem (“prospective A.A. memberss”).
I had wandered into a closed meeting but, really, it didn’t matter. I was accepted. Enfolded might be a better word.
I don’t remember what people talked about, and I have no memory left of the faces around that table, but I will never forget the “feeling” of being in that small basement room with the percolating coffee pot in the corner. I felt safe. Strangely, weirdly, wonderfully “at home.”
Kind faces — young, old, weathered, wise — smiled at me. Warm handshakes greeted me. I felt the presence of something larger than myself. Some call it “God.” Some call it a “Higher Power.” Others call it or “G.O.D.” for “group of drunks.”
As I continue to search for that sense of belonging and at-home-ness some 30 years later, I sometimes add an extra “o” to the word God. I felt “good” in that room. I was a stranger, someone who didn’t actually fit in and yet the group members accepted me — even, perhaps, loved me — as one of their own.
After the meeting I walked up the stairs and down the street with a sense of peace ... and hope ... and gratitude.
Years later I heard a story that reminded me of my first A.A. meeting. It goes like this ...
Once upon a time, in the backwoods of rural North Georgia, members of an AA group listened respectfully as old John told his story once again.
They had heard the story many times before, but each time “Jaw-un” retold it, something special seemed to happen in the ancient shack that housed the meeting.
Wrinkled, wizened, dirt permanently embedded in the cracks in his hands, teeth stained with tobacco, John slowly shook his head as his face softened into a smile that still harbored a tinge of pain.
“Back when I was drinking,” he began in his accustomed fashion, “I used to think that I knew everything.”
Glancing at each face in the group of people sitting on the rickety chairs surrounding the old picnic table, he rested on their gentle smiles as tears welled up in his own eyes.
“A.A.’s great gift to me,” he continued, “what you people gave to me ...”
John searched for the words for a moment and then gently struck the table with his large, gnarled hand. “Well, dammit, you helped me be ... you made me ... teachable.”
“Teachable,” he repeated again and again, and with each repetition, old John struck the table with the palm of that work-ravaged hand, softly but firmly, as if to drive home the point.
Silently, as always, the group waited. Finally, as always, it came:
“Thank you,” John concluded. “Thank you.”
Kathy Ketcham is the co-author of 14 books and executive director of Trilogy Recovery Community. For more information, go to www.trilogyrecovery.org.