The first 12-step meeting I attended was in a church in midtown Manhattan. Of course it’s in a church, I thought. I knew next to nothing about 12-step programs, but I felt strongly that they were full of sad people with boring lives, hoping to feel better through some intense, God-focused set of rules.
I was already going to outpatient rehab two nights a week following a detox stay for alcohol and cocaine addiction, but it was strongly suggested that I add 12-step meetings to my routine. I didn’t want to become a 12-step person, but I also didn’t want go back to life the way it was before detox. So I gave it a try.
I was sure that I was in the wrong room when I walked into that first meeting. I expected to see a bunch of crusty old men, mixed in with some social misfits who likely hadn’t seen the sun or cracked a joke in years. But what I saw was a group of average people, chatting and greeting each other warmly. Most of them were dressed nicely and seemed to be on their lunch hour, just like I was. This crowd could have been lifted from the waiting room at my dentist or a subway car at rush hour. They actually looked normal.
Warily, I took a chair at the back of the room and the meeting started. A pretty blond girl, probably in her early 30s, sat at a table up front and told her story. Her hair was in a glossy ponytail and her skin glowed. She talked about how grateful she was to be celebrating one year sober. One year! It sounded impossible. I had just a few weeks and I wasn’t sure I’d make it another day. But look at her, I thought. She’s a 12-step person. She’s talking about doing things like traveling, being with family and socializing with friends, all without drinking. And she’s happy about it. She even joked about things that had happened in her past. Everyone else laughed along with her. Was I really in the right meeting?
It was a revelation. That woman – someone with whom I could identify — got better and built a great life through a 12-step program. I decided I’d keep going to these meetings, just to learn a little more. I realized quickly that many people in 12-step programs not only have gotten their lives back, they’ve expanded them, doing things they had only imagined before. They stand up in front of crowds and perform comedy in clubs. They run marathons. They write books and plays and movies. They even have children who grow up with sober parents. All things that seemed to me like pipe dreams.
When I was drinking and drugging, I met a lot of people who hung out in bars and talked about all of great things they were going to do: climb a mountain, get a new job or jet off to Paris. Then I’d see them the next night on the same barstool, not training for a climb or researching a new job, and certainly not jetting off to Paris. When someone in a 12-step meeting says they’re going to do one of those things, I’m pretty confident that it’s going to happen. It often does. And I get the chance to share in their excitement and achievement.
Of course, not every 12-step member is the model of sobriety or sanity. There can be some unsavory types around and it’s important to maintain boundaries. “Stick with the winners” was a helpful slogan to me early on. I found people whose sobriety and way of living I admired and I hung close to them. Another thing I liked about the “winners” was simply the way they approached their lives. Accepting life on life’s terms, finding gratitude in the small things and being honest with people changes everything. As soon as I got to know them, I wanted to spend more time with them. They were funny and supportive and walked through life with a whole lot more peace than I ever had. Now my 12-step friends include a wider circle than I ever expected; they are musicians, schoolteachers, cops, doctors, stay-at-home parents, journalists, lawyers, actors, corporate executives and more. Early in sobriety I went to a meeting with a sign in the front that said “You Are Not Alone.” It was right. I was with the cool people.