This is the third in a series of five articles originally published at atheisticaa.com and reposted here with permission. “The Secular Alcoholic and The Moment of Decision” was posted on January 5, 2020, and “Meetings” was posted on February 8, 2020.
Just taking the first free breath at a recovery meeting can be liberating. A second breath, at a Secular Recovery meeting, often involves an exhalation of words and phrases where both thought and expression is freed from any intimations of the divine and the implied restrictions, often encountered elsewhere, of someone else’s arbitrary list of “things to do” that may be vital for them but may be of no use to you.
No matter what the context I found, very early on, that the mere act of speaking honestly for myself in the presence of others enhanced my own recovery, as well as my ongoing commitment to my sobriety, and seemed to elicit a mostly sympathetic, caring response that was mutually supportive both for myself and the other members listening. This all was more in the realm of “sensing” and the intuitive and, while fully rational, it engendered feelings that were hard, at the time, to define.
It was the “sharing” itself that seemed to relax the jittery doubt and unease of those early days and replace those feelings with a peaceful sense that all would be well if I didn’t take another drink. Slowly, daily, this proposition took hold and, always, it was the sharing at meetings that held that all together for me.
So, what is “sharing” anyway and why is it so effective?
Long exposure to this process has taught me to trust the wisdom of the room as a whole (not in the literal sense of believing every word of course) in terms of the “atmospherics” that develop when a group really listens to someone despite the variability and applicability of any particular remark. I believe that the “calming effects” that ensue are based on the human power of the group as expressed in the unconditional, non-judgmental, acceptance of what is being expressed. We calm each other by showing up and being present in this very singular way.
All of this strongly indicates to me that the consciousness of the collective is what is being expressed as a uniquely therapeutic human mechanism and is more of an aggregate, a composite, of jointly communicated experiences that are greater than the sum total of the constituent parts.
This line of thought is supported by my own extensive experience of listening and sharing at meetings and the realization that, for me, what I heard there was far more important, in the end, than what I said there. Numerous examples of this spring to mind but I will only cite several.
In these stories, the “collective” is represented and established through the mechanism of members’ individual expressions of their own experience. This is the way I learned about the power of empathy and its action on my own recovery process. The individual thus becomes emblematic of the collective and the process of identification enhances this effect despite the obvious personal differences.
One particular share, from my earliest days in the late 1980s, has stayed with me and was a hallmark, of sorts, for me in terms of identification.
This story came from a young lady who seemed “perfect” in terms of dress, intellect and professional demeanor. One day, in an anniversary share, (something like five years as I recall) she told a profoundly harrowing, moving story of a journey through the lower depths in New York City, the details of which I will not recount.
The contrast between the person telling the story and the tale of a former, pre-sobriety life, were so at variance that the thought that seemed to flash through the room, given peoples expressions, was something like, “If a person can recover to this extent from something like this then anything is possible.”
This story had a great effect on me and is one of the things that has kept me tethered to the notion that sustained abstinence can lead to truly remarkable transformations in the circumstances of one’s life. It only could have been transmitted to me through the agency of the sharing process.
Likewise, on the more extreme end of the spectrum, I once, 20 or so years ago, spent about 18 months in a meeting periodically hearing from a young man who had recently had a close family member murdered and who was suffering terribly from this truly horrific event. He was staying sober and sharing with great regularity.
His courage and his honesty still astound me. Almost daily, for a time, we heard him deal with the death itself, and then the arrest, trial, and conviction of the perpetrator. For him, as he described it, it was like Chinese water torture with every step of the legal process making him re-live the pain and suffering of his loved one on an ongoing basis. It was very tough to hear.
This brave man remained sober and centered through this and I vividly recall the joy and relief the entire meeting shared when the killer was finally incarcerated for life and the young man’s pain began to subside. Sometimes, in sobriety, through the emotion of the collective, we can feel that we have seen, and lived through, virtually everything.
It’s not just the dramatic or traumatic we learn from in sharing, the full spectrum of normal, day to day experience, is instructive as well.
Listening, over time, to others going through the seemingly mundane challenges of work, family and health issues and come out the other side whole and secure in their sobriety can lift us up out of whatever common challenges we may be facing and may diminish both loneliness and some of the lingering existential dread remaining from the active alcoholic past.
The personal progress people in sobriety make over time is remarkable in many cases and we see other members finding love, building careers and raising families. Mostly, these are things that would never have happened but for their sobriety. As recounted in the sharing process, the achievements of personal dreams and milestones serve as both markers and sources of inspiration for all who are privileged to hear them. Great attachments to people and their stories flow from such experiences and the deepening awareness of what sobriety really means often is of great value in the reaffirmation of our own commitments and goals.
Sadly, it’s not just the sharing of success stories that inspire and renew us, but the tales people tell of their struggles to stay sober, of “slips”. These things can benefit both the individual sharing and the group. The cautionary recounting of a relapse can serve as both an example and a lesson to those of us who have never had such issues while sober as well as people still struggling with the urge to take that next drink or drug. This type of sharing requires both sensitivity and wisdom to process and learn from.
The content of some of these stories, of relapse and renewal, often, but not always, has remarkable similarities to one another.
An almost invariable refrain of, “I stopped going to meetings”, always, despite its familiarity, makes an obvious impression. Tales of “isolating”, of “not picking up the phone”, make their own poignant point as well.
We often hear stories of, after a period of sobriety, being out with old friends, acquaintances or lovers, and someone, without thinking, handing an alcoholic a drink. The thought of, “well, I could just have one”, has brought more than one member back with horrific, follow on, scenes to recount. I always listen and learn from this.
These common alcoholic tropes and others, through their repetition, prove their truth. There can be few positive benefits from the sharing process more important to an alcoholic than to hear and believe these.
As we move on through decades of life in sobriety there comes a point, for some older members like me, when we start to benefit from different types of sharing than what resonated most for us when we were younger.
Things I heard in meetings long ago from my elders, in terms of health and aging, have proven to me that sharing, across time, can be useful in ways that were hard to anticipate at the time that I heard them.
Now that I am 70, and in less than perfect health, things that some of my long-departed good friends said in meetings long ago reverberate profoundly today. Their calm and intelligent demeanor, good grace, and wisdom come down to me today to help in inestimable ways with the inevitable and ultimate realities before me.
All these fellow members I have been discussing, young and old, new and with decades doing this, are part of the collective memory. They renew, repeat, and come back to me, again and again, to make me understand that, through the sharing process, I have been given the gift of great learning, of lives lived and lost, in a unique way.
Triumph and great sadness shared honestly and in full measure, in a manner, I could never have hoped to hear any other way, have greatly exceeded my own obvious limitations in terms of time, energy and capacity. They, as a collective, have become something else altogether.
The positive reinforcement of my own sobriety, my quality of life, through the sharing of others, cannot be underestimated. It has, for me, been both invaluable and essential.
About the Author
John Huey’s student work of the ’60s-’70s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf. After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has been widely anthologized and published since then. His first full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017.
Full information on his creative work, as well as his many Secular Recovery talks and writings, can be found at john-huey.com.