I attended my first AA meeting while in treatment in March of 1994. My parents, my high school, and the state of NJ had all strongly suggested that I go away for 28 days in the middle of my senior year. I don’t recall anything about the meetings we went to in the community, but I do remember what happened each night in the facility. I was a few months shy of 18, so I was on the adolescent wing. Every evening at 8 pm, an adult from the other side would come over and tell their story. Every time…every time they would talk about how they wished they had an opportunity to get clean at 15 or 17, instead of creating a mountain of wreckage from which to struggle to crawl out from under. It was the one thing from rehab that really stuck with me.
It didn’t get me to stop. I came home and four days later went out with friends and drank a bit. The dam thus opened, it was back to weekends of hi-jinx, lies, pockets of chaos, and parental fits of disappointment. And then I got arrested again. Which got me back to AA meetings.
I was feeling pretty low when I walked into a meeting at the High Bridge Reformed Church one Wednesday evening at 745 pm. There were only 10 people in the room, almost of all of them old white men, which didn’t surprise me at all. But what shocked me, utterly stunned me to my core, was the smiling and the laughter that bounced all over the place. I was sure that people there would be ashen and gray and somber, and that shares would be about how “I can’t do this” and “I can’t go there” and “everything is pretty awful but I’m not drinking.”
One old man said, “You’re going to have a great life kid. Look at you, so much going for you. When I came in, I looked like a Greek God,” and he smiled and looked around the room, his eyes twinkling with mischief. “Just the other day I got out of the shower and my wife told me I looked like a god damned Greek” and he and the others howled with laughter.
I didn’t know that a naked Greek was supposed to look particularly more awful than a regular nude guy, but I appreciated the word play and the self-depreciation and the laughter and the overwhelming sense of welcome that those people put forth. I listened to their stories. I observed their faces. I could see how they carried themselves. They were happy, joyous and free. It was admirable and praiseworthy.
I went to a bunch of meetings. I had reservations. I had just turned 18. Was I really supposed to never drink again? Who the fuck would I hang out with? Where would I go? I felt like if I quit, I would just miss out on so much.
A little over a month later, I drank again. A friend put a beer in front of me, I said fuck it, and that was it. My story spiraled downward for another 18 months. I failed every class at two colleges over two fall semesters, got a bunch of traffic tickets in a 1970 Buick Skylark that had snow tires and no inspection sticker (cops saw me in that car and got a boner almost every time), and I couldn’t hold any job for more than six weeks. I went back to the same rehab in the winter of 95 and was highly motivated to get well.
I didn’t get to lock eyes with Madonna and the night I got home the cops threw me in a holding cell for a few hours over a bounced check for buffalo wings. The next day, January 12, 1996, I went to a noon meeting in Clinton. There had been a snowstorm of about three feet, but I knew that the meeting would be on, despite the conditions. I asked my Dad to drive me to the church, which was just a few miles down the road. I walked in and saw that there were at least 30 people there (the idea is that you would get drunk or high in a snowstorm, so you should go to a meeting in one too). I got a cup of coffee, sat down, waited for the meeting to start, and then I raised my hand and said “Hi. My name is Frank and I’m an alcoholic. I just got out of rehab.” I’m sure I said a lot more but don’t recall what it was. A lot of people came up to talk to me afterwards. It was mostly retirees with a lot of sobriety, though there were some working people and a few residents from the local halfway houses.
I cannot communicate how good they were to me.
I went to meetings every day, and that one every Friday. At 60 days sober, I signed an eight year contract with the US Army. People in AA told me to wait, that it was very risky to go and make big life decisions in the first year and that basic training could be really stressful. I heard them, but I was impatient. I had put myself on a shelf for almost two years and I had to do something.
I got a sponsor. He said, “Get a job, get shitty job, show up every day and don’t steal.” Radical stuff. I worked the morning shift at a gas station a mile down the road. I’d get up at 6 am and walk to do a three hour shift. I’d count the days and hours I was clean. I’d usually go to a noon meeting and then hit the gym. Maybe a friend would come over to watch basketball or play video games.
When I had 90 days, I was super excited. At the start of my Friday meeting, the chairperson would ask “has anyone recently celebrated an anniversary?” I had watched others celebrate 90 days, 1 year, 5 years, 29 years (and so on) over the last three months and I was impressed and happy and jealous. My arm shook as I raised my hand (and as I am writing this, dear reader, I got chills and shaky and a little misty eyed) and said, “My name is Frank and I am an alcoholic and I had 90 days on Sunday.”
There was cheering and thunderous applause. Really. People commented on it throughout the meeting, that they had never heard that for someone at 90 days. I felt special. A few years later, I would realize that while the people had gotten to know me and truly liked me, they cheered and clapped and hollered because they had seen people come and go, come and go, and that young people almost never stuck around. My 90 days were celebrated so loudly not because of the wonder of me, but because that it meant that some young person got clean in that meeting and that other young people, perhaps their children or grandchildren, could also do that one day.
At four months sober, I shipped off for basic training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky to become a tanker. I had been going to AA meetings every day, but now I would be without them for sixteen weeks. I didn’t feel any physical or psychological urges. The drill sergeants got us up early, made us do push ups deep into the night, punished us for things that weren’t our fault, marched us all over, joked at our expense, and generally tried to put us in a constant state of stress. I fucking loved it. I really did. After four weeks, my drill sergeant made me the platoon guide (leader). I had to look out for everyone else, and if someone hadn’t shaved or their bed wasn’t made or they didn’t have the right equipment in their ruck, they were punished and I was punished. So I was punished most of the time each day, at least for the next few weeks.
Because I was the platoon guide, I was moved out of the main bay where 20 other guys slept and into a room with the bookman. The bookman was the title of the guy who kept the training schedule. He was another recruit. His name was David Graham. He was 23 and had already been in the Army for 5 1/2 years. He had been in the National Guard in Texas but was going active. David had been trained on the M60 Patton and was told that he had to retrain on the M1Abrams. His recruiter promised him that he wouldn’t have to go through basic training again (or shave his head or do arm circles at 11 pm or get spit on when a drill sergeant screamed in his face) and that he would just have to attend a few classes when the new recruits were learning how to drive, load and shoot the Abrams.
Of course, David’s head was shaved and he had to do arm circles and was screamed at like the rest of us. He was pretty fucking bitter about it, and understandably so. One night, after we had gone through some horrendous ordeal because of some other soldier’s fuck up, David was lying on his bunk and softly uttered, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I was dead tired, but I shot up out of bed. “David, where did you learn that?”
“The serenity prayer.”
“My Mom is sober 11 years. I’ve been to a few AA meetings to support her. She says it all the time.”
“Get the fuck out of here. I’m sober five months.”
“You got sober and joined the Army? Usually it’s the other way around,” he smiled. And we talked and talked. It was pretty cool to have someone like David there with me.
I got on really well with Drill Sergeant Moses. I did such a good job at organizing the other recruits that he didn’t have to do that much work and he hardly ever yelled or punished us anymore. I was pretty proud of that and David told me that I was getting egotistical. That offended me, but I took in his words and walked down to the Drill Sergeant’s office and requested permission to speak.
“What is it?” Drill Sergeant Moses asked me.
“Drill Sergeant, I would like to go to an AA meeting.”
“What?!” (all these years later, the way I say what is the way he said what)
“Drill Sergeant, before I joined the Army I was a horrific alcoholic. I got sober on December 17th and now I have six months. Specialist Graham thinks I should go to a meeting because….”
He cut me off. “Shut up. I don’t want to hear anymore of this. You might fuck up my drinking.” And then he yelled, “THIRD PLATOON, RED LINE!”
And we all hustled into the hallway and stood at attention. The Drill Sergeant left us that way for a few minutes, then he came out of his office and walked up and down the hallway. And he looked us in the face as he walked and then stopped and stared when he came to me. Then he stepped back and said, “You are all in the Army. I don’t give a shit what you did or didn’t do before you got here. I expect that some of you were into some crazy shit. I don’t want to hear about it. I’m not your priest or confessor or your god damn shrink. You are soldiers now. My soldiers. I don’t want any of you feeling bad about shit that has gone before. Now,” and a Cheshire like grin slipped across his face, “you all best get to bed, because I’m going to work the fuck out of you tomorrow.”
So there would be no AA meeting for me in basic training. But I went to one the day I got back to NJ and talked about my Army adventures. And I was welcomed home.
- I posted this on Facebook on November 30, 2020. I was telling stories about my addiction and recovery leading up to my 25th year anniversary.