I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting long before I was an alcoholic. On a summer evening, when I was in my 30’s, after dinner with my parents at their house in Westchester, my father suggested that I keep him company at one of the meetings he was going to every night. He had been sober a few months after spending 28 days at Smithers, a New York City rehab.
In that short time, our family had come alive again. There were no more drunken fights and taunts, no more Daddy passed out in the living room, no more delirium tremens, and no more scary late-night racing to the local hospital ER. (My brothers and I were stealing the signs in the hospital parking lot, expressing our grief as larceny; we agreed that when he died, we would steal the largest one—the big red-and-white “One Way” arrow.)
The AA meeting that summer night was at a long wooden table under high windows in the parish house of the local Presbyterian church. As the last daylight faded, I listened to people I had never seen in my life talk with startling honesty about their problems and their feelings. One handsome man in a suit and tie confessed that he was afraid of what his son might be up to at college; another man was worried about his marriage because his wife had gotten a job and seemed to have lost interest in the household. The woman next to him talked about her anger at her boss who seemed to think she should be sexually as well as professionally available. Sitting next to me, my father confessed his fear that he might drink on an upcoming trip to Russia.
Somehow, I felt at home at that long table in a room that smelled of furniture polish and coffee. I raised my hand and thanked them all for helping my father. Even though I was not an alcoholic, I said, I had really enjoyed the meeting. No one argued; no one judged. The handsome man in the suit smiled in unconditional welcome. “Keep coming back,” he said.
That same sense of connection was present in the meetings I went to with my father in the ’70s, in the meetings I went to when I first got sober in the ’80s, and in the meetings I have been going to since 1992 when I had what I pray was my last drink, a glass of acid white wine. I have been to meetings in Vermont and California, Florida and New York City. Alcoholics often name meetings, and I have been to Jitters in Minneapolis, the Log Cabin in Los Angeles, the Dry Dock in San Francisco, Morning Glories in Cambridge, Mass., and the Shoes That Fit in Saratoga Springs.
In Vermont, AA members complain about snow removal, tree problems and balky oil burners. In Los Angeles they complain about the movie industry. In New York they complain about real estate. They all complain about their families.
Alcoholism and recovery are great levelers, and meetings can include Ivy League professors and high school janitors, housewives and homeless men, millennials trying to make it in New York City and men and women who knew Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous who died in 1971. A.A. meetings often welcome people who are drunk, and people with raging hangovers.
If you want to stop drinking, you can be a member of A.A. There are famous actors and half recovered alcoholics with uncontrollable tics, rich people who complain that AA won’t accept their money (there is a limit on annual giving) and people who are hoping that the meeting will end with someone paying for their dinner (it very often does).
Many meetings are held in grotty basements and dank church undercrofts where cockroaches roam and fluorescent lighting shows worn linoleum and patched folding chairs. It doesn’t matter at all. That sense of belonging with strangers that I first felt in the Presbyterian church parish house almost always hits me within a few minutes of walking through the rusty door. It’s more than the psychology of the group, and it has a power beyond what I feel in church on Sunday.
“The feeling of having shared in a common peril is one element of the powerful cement that binds us,” the book Alcoholics Anonymous explains in chapter 2, titled “There is a Solution.” “But that in itself would never have held us together as we are now joined.” The joining feels like magic. This particular magic, this freedom from anxiety, this temporary peace and feeling of belonging, is almost exactly what I looked for in the bottle when I was drinking. A drink could calm my mind and shift my perspective. A drink could make me feel at home in the world. In a dark bar I had what I thought was a deep and meaningful connection with the other drinkers—that is, I had it until the lights went on after last call and I wondered if I looked as drunk and shabby as they did.
The great psychologist Carl Jung famously explained to Bill Wilson that the only cure for alcoholism—the disease of drinking spirits— is spirituality. Only the spirit (spiritus) can conquer the spirits (spiritum). “You see, ‘alcohol’ in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison,” Jung wrote Wilson in 1961. “The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”
What creates this magical experience, this powerful, healing spirit, these “vital spiritual experiences” and “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements” that Jung described?
Clearly, it is not necessary to think you are an alcoholic in order to have this feeling of belonging in a meeting. Is it the spirituality of the group, the common prayers and litany, the shared relief of finding a way to stay sober? Is it the power of men and women with similar experience? Our stories are often very different, but we have all faced the same kind of despair.
It is all that and something more. As Bill Wilson wrote, “We have found much of heaven and we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which we had not even dreamed.” AA meetings are where we find that fourth dimension of existence.
Susan Cheever is the author of 16 books including a biography of A.A. cofounder Bill Wilson, and most recently Drinking in America, which shows how alcohol changed the direction of American history.