I go to a lot of meetings. I tend to go to the same ones, see the same people and listen to the same shares. I do this because I know what to expect, and they know what to expect from me. There’s a familiarity in the incestuousness of repetition. It’s almost like going home to your insane family.
Yet every once in a while I get the crazy notion that I need to switch things up and hit another meeting or two. I usually come to my senses fairly quickly. Because when I venture out of my familiar territory, I almost always run into the dreaded “recovery” stereotypes that made my first few years of meetings almost unbearable.
In the beginning I had a hard time with the concept of “principles before personalities.” Overzealous Big Book thumpers would push my buttons, rigid rule adherers caused me major anxiety and chronic relapsers sent me into a judgmental free-for-all. But nowadays I have fine-tuned my bullshit radar and instead of letting those people and their behaviors get under my skin, I gravitate to those that do not make me cringe. In other words, I make a point of hanging out with the “winners”—those that actually have a program of recovery—and in doing so have found the support I need to stay off of drugs and alcohol.
Now I don’t usually tell people what to do, or give out unsolicited advice, but I’m going to share with you how to recognize these folks so that you too can avoid them.
1) The Over-Sharer
You know those people; they’re the ones that have no problem telling the entire meeting way too much information about themselves and what they’re going through. They usually sit up front by the speaker so that they’ll get called upon to share. Before the speaker has even finished qualifying, they’ve got their hand raised. Then they’ll stare down the secretary until they get picked to share and unload all their dirt. After a few meetings you’ll know more about them then you do about yourself. The only problem is that they never do anything to actually change their lives. Somehow they have missed the part about “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Run away or expect to hear them yammer on about the same issues for eternity.
2) The Bible Thumper (not to be mistaken for the “Big Book Thumper”)
These poor souls are easy to recognize because they usually have their “recovery” literature in some weird faux leather book cover that’s strapped to a bible. Most likely they will begin every share with something like, “First off I would like to thank my Higher Power who I choose to call Jesus Christ.” They will then mention their church, their pastor or priest, and how the only way to stay sober is to get on your knees and pray. After the meeting they will endlessly pester you to come to their place of worship “just to check it out.” Now it’s nice that they’ve found what works for them, only nowhere in any 12-step literature does it say that you have to follow a organized religion—in fact it clearly states “God as we understood Him.” Sounds like a personal choice to me. So when someone starts shoving his or her brand of “salvation” down my throat under the guise of recovery, I feel like I can smell their crack pipe just minutes away from being lit. I have never met anyone that stayed clean and sober with just religion. No matter if they were a Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, or Christian, a religious program is not a program of recovery.
3) The Excessive Highlighter
Ever look over at someone’s recovery book and see that every damn sentence has been highlighted with that same day-glo yellow marker? Yes, there’s a ton of pertinent information in the literature, but to highlight every word is nothing short of overkill. Can you say OCD? Same said for the “dictionary definitioner”—these people look up every word they read as if the definition is somehow going to unlock the “recovery” mystery. I could be wrong here, but how about you just read the book and do the steps with your sponsor?
4) The 13th Stepper
Even people outside of recovery are familiar with this term for smarmy men and women with a lot of time under their belts that prey on a newcomer’s vulnerability. Under the guise of “support,” these people strike up a relationship solely for the purpose of having sex. They are not your friends, nor are they following the principles of recovery. If you still need another reason to judge them, keep in mind that the arbitrary “no relationships for the first year” rule was surely instigated because of them. Really, you can’t work on your issues if you’re busy trying to not come off as undamaged goods to that hottie with a lot of time that keeps inviting you out for coffee after the meeting. So if that cool old timer is coming onto you after you’ve just introduced yourself as a newcomer, tell that predator to keep it in their pants. Not to state the obvious but having sex with someone with double digit sobriety will not keep you clean.
5) The “Prescription Drugs Were Not My Problem” Dude
We’ve all met him. He’s the one that smokes medical marijuana, or takes a ton of Xanax because a doctor prescribes it. He usually starts off his spiel with some line about how bad illegal street drugs are, but these other substances are “medicinal” and they’re what keeps him sane. Sadly, dude is in denial, like big time. He has just switched addictions and unfortunately he will be taking along anyone who starts to believe his misguided ideas. You can usually identify him because he’s slurring his words. This is what we refer to as “Keith Richards clean.” So dude, just do us all a favor and stop lying about your clean/sobriety date because you’re using.
6) The Sponsee Collector
You know the mega-sponsor that thinks the more sponsees he or she has, the better the program of recovery? I’m not talking about the legitimate awesome sponsors with longterm sobriety that naturally attract sponsees. I mean the folks with only a medium amount of sober time who actively collect people. “I’m your sponsor,” you’ll hear them say to a newcomer. But that new sponsee needs to probably get in line and take a number because the sponsee collector is too over extended to actually sponsor anyone correctly. You can spot them because they always share about the amazing step work session they had with their 20 sponsees just before the meeting.
7) The Over Committer
Having a meeting commitment is awesome and a really good way to get involved. However having a commitment at every meeting you attend is a little overboard. If someone is a GSR at the Monday meeting, the secretary for Tuesday, Wednesday’s treasurer, the literature person on Thursday, H&I at the county jail on Friday, chip person at that really large Saturday meeting, and the coffee maker for the Sunday book study, well, she’s over extended herself. Usually this is someone that doesn’t want to actually work a program. Though they’re actually help out a lot, just don’t follow in their footsteps or you will never get your step work done.
8) The In the Rooms Dater
I have a friend that dated so many women that he had to switch fellowships. He didn’t want to leave—he actually really liked the fellowship he was in—but he once told me there was nothing more terrifying than walking into a room where you have had sex with 90% of the women and they all hate you.
9) The Judgmental Writer
You know this guy. In fact you’re reading his stuff right now. He thinks he has this whole thing figured out, and for him, maybe he does. Just don’t take his word for it. Go out there and see what works for you. Maybe oversharing is the right way for you to get it all out so you can move forward? Maybe you need to date an entire meeting, or get a ton of commitments, or find “your lord and savior”? Who knows? Definitely not you, and until you explore every possibility and decide for yourself, you’ll never know.
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Originally published by AfterPartyMagazine April 14, 2016
It was at one of my first NA meetings, when I was newly clean off drugs, feeling really awkward, and all I wanted to do was use. I had just walked down the wheelchair ramp into the large basement meeting room of the church and, recognizing no one, immediately wandered over to the table with the coffee and cookies. There was a large woman setting up the paper cups, stir sticks, little packs of sugar, and that horrible powdered nondairy creamer. I went to grab a cup but before I could, the large woman handed me one.
“Hi I’m Melanie,” she said. “You new?”
“Thanks,” I mumbled as I filled the cup with steaming hot coffee from the metal urn. “Um, yeah, I’m new.”
“Welcome,” said Melanie. “You never have to use drugs again.”
I wanted to tell Melanie to shut the fuck up. I wanted to scream that I loved using drugs, I just didn’t love going to jail, or getting abscesses on my arms, or being homeless, or the million other consequences from using that I couldn’t think of but had lived through too many times over the years. Yet the best snappy retort I could manage was, “Uh huh. Is that so?”
“I know it’s hard right now,” continued Melanie. “But stick around. We’ll love you until you learn to love yourself.”
Her words were so foreign I couldn’t comprehend them. Learn to love myself, I thought, what the hell does that even mean? All I wanted to do was to be left alone, but at the same time I wanted sympathy and understanding. It was the typical conflicting duality of addiction at work in my brain; I need a hug, but don’t touch me.
Still I couldn’t understand why Melanie, a complete stranger, was being so nice. Plus all my relationships with women had been about sex, not love, and any kind of talk about love, self or otherwise, with a member of the opposite sex was really awkward. Feeling incredibly self-conscious, I avoided her attempts at eye contact, grabbed a handful of cookies and ran away without saying another word.
Over the years I would hear about self-love at meetings and my reaction would always be the same: I can love you, I can love the entire universe, my cats, my girlfriend, my family, even my damn car, but when it comes to loving myself…well, that was a deal breaker.
There was something just too foreign about the concept. Like that astral plane one achieves by mediating in an ashram for 20 years, it felt out of my league. I had no idea how to achieve it, and really I didn’t even want to try.
Back when I was a client in rehab, I was required to attend a few sessions with a therapist and when we stumbled onto my lack of self love, she insisted that every morning I do positive affirmations where I was to look in the mirror and tell myself what a great person I was and that I deserved love. The one time I tried it, I balked. It felt so disingenuous that I couldn’t do it. My usual morning mantra consisted of a much different sentiment: “You’re fat, you’re stupid, you’re ugly and nobody loves you.” There was no room in that crowded stanza of negativity for loving myself, so I just gave up and never really dealt with it again.
Yet today, a decade-and-a-half later, I was at a meeting and this scrawny girl who said she was detoxing from Suboxone was reading from Just For Today and there it was again: “We’ll love you until you can learn to love yourself.” Just hearing those words “love yourself” gave me great pause, and after I stopping judging the scrawny girl for not getting herself addicted to a real drug, I thought about what that concept means to me now. Even though listening to it being read out loud is still uncomfortable, it is no longer as confusing or just an ethereal goal that I will possibly obtain at some point in the distant future.
These days, through the principles of recovery, whether I’m conscious of it or not, I actually practice self-love. On a physical level, I take care of my body. I see my doctors and dentist on a regular basis. I work out at a gym and run or ride a bike daily. Twelve years ago, I stopped smoking and became a vegetarian. A few years later I started meditating, and recently I have begun the hard work of addressing my eating disorder and unhealthy obsessions with food.
On a mental level it goes much deeper. When before I was in too much fear to make any internal changes, dismissing them as being wussy or stupid, somewhere in all the step work and meetings, I began to grasp the concepts that made no sense at the time. Practicing small principles such as maintaining boundaries, being of service to others and giving from a place of caring and not ego built up my self-esteem, even when I didn’t realize it. After a while it all became second nature and while I no longer think of myself first and act accordingly, I do take care to not cause more turmoil by grabbing for those meaningless moments of immediate-gratification that two minutes later I’ll be regretting.
Those principals of recovery might seem like small things, but actually they’re huge and it’s what keeps me clean. Of course, I still need to work on my adverse knee-jerk reaction to hearing the words “self love.” When that scrawny girl at the meeting said those two words I actually shuddered, and I know that’s because deep down inside I still do not feel I am worthy. Maybe it’s the negative body image and personal baggage from my eating disorder, or perhaps I’m just not capable of saying that I love myself out loud. But, like taking care of my health and maintaining my self-esteem, I’m working on it.
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Originally published as “How Does a 50-Something Rocker Guy Learn to Love Himself?” by AfterPartyMagazine March 25, 2016
Monday morning, 7:30 am, my phone was incessantly dinging with text alerts. I groaned, stuffed the damn thing into the nightstand drawer, rolled over and went back to sleep. My friends know I am not awake at 7:30 am and there is no way in hell I am going to respond to their texts.
At 8:30 I’m woken again, this time by a muffled ringing. Whoever is calling got the voicemail, hangs up and calls again. Now I’m pissed. It’s one thing to be annoying. It’s another to be relentlessly annoying.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and retrieved the phone. There were four texts, two missed calls and a voicemail. All of them from the 415 area code, which is San Francisco, my hometown. I recognized all the numbers as belonging to friends in the fellowship, but the lone voicemail is from an ex-girlfriend who I haven’t talked to in years. This is not good news. It’s not like folks in recovery call en-masse to say that someone has graduated college, gotten a better job or is just doing really well and not using drugs. No, this kind of drama is always about tragedy. I didn’t even want to know who and what its about, but in the end I couldn’t help myself. I read the texts.
7:26 am, John: “Curtis died. I’m in shock.”
7:32 am, Anita: “Thought you’d want to know. Curtis killed himself.”
7:33 am, Carlos: “Curtis is gone. I’m so fucking angry.”
7:47 am, Tammi: “Call me, it’s important.”
I didn’t even bother listening to the voicemail. I already know what’s up and hearing my ex’s voice wasn’t going to make this situation any better. What I didn’t know was why the hell Curtis killed himself.
I got up and brushed my teeth and all I could think about was Curtis. I’ve known the man a long time. We met when I was a counselor in rehab and he was a client, and over the years since then we became friends. I watched him get off drugs and slowly put his life in order and the last I’d heard he was a drug and alcohol counselor. As I made coffee in the kitchen I seemed to remember him recently posting on Facebook that he was all crazy about scuba diving now. There were photos of him in the tropics. He was underwater in a diving mask, tanks on his back, surrounded by schools of brightly colored fish and coral reefs in the background. He got married a few years ago and I couldn’t make it back to SF for the wedding. Now I was hit hard with regret. Seems like I never have time for old friends. We always say we’re going to get together, make plans and then never do. Now Curtis was gone. Gone forever, and I’m having trouble actually believing it.
I looked though the address book on my phone. Searching for a mutual friend who was Curtis’ best friend. I didn’t have a number for him, so instead I logged onto Facebook and sent him a message asking what happened. Not the most personal way to inquire how a friend died. But it was all I had.
He almost immediately got back to me.
“He was depressed! But this was not expected. He left his house dogs and cars got his ass to the Golden Gate Bridge and fucking jumped…no note. When I speak to his wife later I may get more details. Just Gutted…”
I didn’t even know how to respond to this. Curtis made it through the hard years of early recovery, or so I thought. The last I checked he had over 10 years clean and sober. How the hell did this happen? What about all the seemingly happy photos and posts on social media? Him and his dog, him and his wife and kid, him in shorts smiling from a sandy beach paradise.
Curtis is not the first friend I have lost in recovery. Sadly he probably won’t be the last. But he is the first loss that I didn’t see coming. There have been others that just couldn’t get it. Relapsing and going out. Getting stuck out there, then when it got really bad—as it always does—they would come back and raise their hands at a meeting as a newcomer, again. But those addicts and alcoholics—you sort of always know they’re here on borrowed time, and the news of their deaths is never that shocking.
Judging by outward appearances, it looked like Curtis had his life together. He’d gotten off drugs, he worked in treatment, he got married. He even had pets. It just proves you never really know what’s happening when it comes to someone’s mental health. Still, I’d like to think he would have gotten in touch before things went south. But that’s probably just my ego talking. What the hell could I have done? With both our lives so busy, I can’t remember the last time we just hung out together outside of an event or a meeting, or even talked on the phone.
I can’t imagine the pain his wife and child are in. His family and close friends. I feel for them all, and I feel for Curtis. When the shock from loss calms down we can all start the grieving process. But for now it’s too soon, and so confusing.
I took my cup of coffee out onto the balcony. It was a bright sunny day in downtown Los Angeles. El Niño was supposed to be flooding the streets with rain, but all we’ve had are a few days of thundershowers. Then back to more of SoCal’s notoriously perfect weather. I raised my coffee in a toast to Curtis’ spirit in the sky. Why the sky? I have no idea. I don’t believe in heaven, but I have to believe Curtis is in a better place than the darkness that drove him to take his life.
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Originally published by AfterPartyMagazine March 3, 2016