Photo by Sarah Clawson Schuch
It was also suggested I find what’s called a sponsor, a sort of peer mentor, usually the same sex, with a few more days or years without drinking.
My first sponsor was an elegant woman, always well dressed and with manners far better than my fresh-out-of-college swagger. She told me when I arrived at a meeting, I should look around the table for the person with whom I probably had nothing in common.
“That person is your teacher,” she said. “Pay very close attention.”
Five years later, and only because I’d quit the drinking and drugs, I was offered the opportunity to achieve my dream. This was to purchase property in a remote rural area, where I could design and build my own home.
Without much thought, I abandoned Seattle for the rural wilderness. I happily camped until October, when I dragged an ancient travel trailer onto the property. Drinking water came through a hose that ran through the forest to a neighbor’s well, and the bathroom was a wooden shack above a deep hole in the ground.
In Seattle, I was used to going to support group meetings every day. When I first moved to the forest on the sea, the nearest gatherings were an hour’s drive away in each direction. After I’d been doing this for a while, a guy suggested I start a meeting in the area where I lived.
“I’M SURE THERE ARE OTHER DRUNKS OUT THERE,” HE SAID.
I contacted Intergroup in New York, the closest Alcoholics Anonymous has to an organizational body, and someone mailed me a bright-orange folder with suggestions about how to start a group. These were suggestions because A.A. actually has little organization, or just enough to help people like me start a meeting to help other drunks. Individual groups can do or be almost anything, and they are.
The village nearest to my campsite was about ten miles away. It consisted of a three-room schoolhouse, a liquor store, a gas station, a post office tucked into the side of a tiny restaurant, and a state park. The only space where a bunch of drunks might meet was a building on the outskirts that housed the funky fire engines that serviced our rural area. The building was long and narrow, heated only by a blast heater mounted on the ceiling. The fire engines sat at one end on dirt floors, and the other end held tables and a small kitchen with a coffee pot. I tracked down a contact person, a kind-faced woman with snow-white hair, and told her I wanted to start a meeting.
“Oh wonderful,” she said. “We sure do need that around here.” Then I explained it was essential I pay full rent, about twenty dollars a month. “But you’re helping people,” she said.
“Well, really,” I said earnestly, “I’m just doing this for myself.” She smiled, nodded, and handed me a key.
I scheduled the meeting for eight in the evening on Thursdays, made posters, and tacked them up on bulletin boards at the post office, the gas station, and the state park. Every Thursday, for weeks, I unlocked the door, brewed a pot of coffee, set out cups, and sat alone in the building, heated only by the overhead blower that barely touched the chill. The village had no streetlights. It barely had streets. It was fall, and outside was utter darkness.
And I was totally happy and thrilled, because at least I was sitting there sober on the edge of the wilderness in the embrace of darkness, brewing and drinking dark hot coffee the way I like it.
My solitary sitting went on for three or four weeks, and then, one night I heard a stir and tap at the heavy door. In came a tall man who looked to be in his early forties, although his eyes seemed innocent and his body ancient and bent. His hair was wild and tangled, and his beard straggly as his hair. He looked as if he would recoil from human contact, and I left him plenty of distance. I am five-foot-three and weighed a bit more than a hundred pounds, and this stranger was about twice my size.
“I’m looking for an AA meeting,” he said.
“Come on in,” I said.
HE SAID HIS NAME WAS CARL, AND I POURED HIM A MUG OF COFFEE. ALTHOUGH I HAD ARRANGED THE EMPTY CHAIRS IN A CIRCLE, HE SAT DIRECTLY BESIDE ME.
What brought him here, I asked, and in the utterly ingenuous manner that was to characterize Carl for the twenty-seven years that I knew him, he told me.
"After I got out of ‘Nam, I was a little messed up with alcohol and drugs," he said, “And that didn’t work too well for me. One night I got pissed off at my best friend, so I dragged a shotgun out of my truck and went into the bar where he was sitting and blew off the top of his head.”
I nodded. I was alone in a dilapidated building in a remote location. Nobody knew where I was, and the nearest phone was in a booth half a mile away. And I felt perfectly calm. I filled our mugs with more hot coffee. Carl downed his in one gulp. He looked at me with those clear blue eyes.
“Well, I didn’t remember any of this, because it was like my mind was erased, but I believed what they told me, of course. That bar was filled with people, and I’m just glad I didn’t hurt anyone else. I went to prison, and most of the past twenty-six years, I spent in solitary. Toward the end of my time, they let me go to an AA meeting, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I just got out, and I’m living out here, and I need meetings.”
I asked Carl why here, on the edge of nowhere, though I’d already noticed that people tended to move to the outer edges of the West sometimes because they’d lost all other options. Carl paused. We were sitting almost knee-to-knee, and I noted again how clear his eyes were.
“My family settled here five generations ago,” Carl said. “But they want nothing to do with me now.” He leaned back in the chair, and his entire body slumped. He looked at me as if waiting to be ordered back to solitary. “What do I do now?” Carl asked.
“Do you know how to make coffee?”
“Well, sure, if you show me how to work that machine over there.”
“You’re the group coffee maker,” I said. “That’s your job.” And for the rest of Carl’s life, any time we ran into each other at meetings or around the village, he repeated that story.
The following week, another person showed up, and then another, and as happens around the world when drunks get together, each has a shocking or banal story of how he or she landed in this particular chair in this room on this day. Out there on the edge of nowhere, our youngest was fifteen and our oldest in his nineties. We were black, Native American, Asian, and white. Some had college or graduate degrees, and some never graduated from anything. One was a physician, and others, at least when they started out, barely made a living. When we reached about thirty members, which happened rather quickly, we started another group, and then another. I rotated out of the “founder” role, and others assumed their places in the various informal positions that comprise a group. We drove together to meetings and larger gatherings in other areas, and in summer, met around a picnic table and grilled oysters at the state park. Sometimes we met on my front deck, by now completed, or took a meeting to someone else’s living room when he or she became ill and could no longer drive. The second person to join after Carl had been a professional chef, and at holidays, we got into the habit of creating feasts so that people had a safe place to be. People drove from fifty miles away.
Out there in the forest, there’s quite a problem with meth. Sometimes sad-looking children and injured adults emerged from back roads that lead into the mountains. Someone had passed out, or suffered a bone-deep cut. They weren’t looking for recovery, and we didn’t talk about alcohol or drugs. One of us might soothe the crying children and offer coffee to the adults, and someone else would track down the volunteer firefighters to cart the sick or injured to the distant county hospital.
Soon enough, I found work in a city an hour and a half away, and then, for many years, my life was about commuting and working and helping other people raise their children and, always, the underpinning: going to meetings and helping the alcoholics who showed up, but really just helping myself. When I ducked into the local meetings, I’d see Carl there, and also around the village driving his snazzy truck, working on construction jobs, or drinking coffee with the other sober guys. His face always lit up when he saw me, and my heart always lit up when I saw him.
Once when I was in a veterinarian’s office, the vet pressed a cage into my hands. It was a feral cat, and if nobody took it, she said, it would be euthanized.
“It’s dangerous,” she said, “But maybe you can find her a home.”
I drove the forty miles to our little village, and then another twelve up into the mountains where I knew Carl lived. I hadn’t been to his place before, but in a small town, everyone knows everything, and eventually I found his dilapidated trailer jammed with stuff.
“Can you take this cat?” I asked. “The vet says don’t try to pet her because she might rip your face off.” Carl gently took the crate from my hand, assuring me ever after how happy she made him in his isolated aerie in the hills.
When Carl was diagnosed with an unusual form of cancer, people from the village drove him for care when he could no longer drive himself. As he faded, our rural hospice outreach tended to him. Even at the end, he still had that sweet smile and clear eyes in that fierce-looking face.
I sometimes travel, and I love AA meetings in the urban centers of the world where celebrities and the wealthy might share stories sufficient to merit Academy Awards. I also love meetings in far-flung villages across the globe where people don’t speak English and geckos run up and down the walls. Despite decades without drinking, I’m still nervous around strangers. But,