You don’t have to be an Irish Catholic to be an alcoholic. But it certainly helps.
When I first started going to A.A. meetings I made lots of new friends. There was Thom the longshoreman, Marion the grandmother, Juan the drug dealer, even, surprisingly enough, Eli. At first glance, I discarded Eli as a friend, or an alcoholic, based purely on his clothing. Eli was a member of my daily 7:30 a.m. A.A. meeting. He was also an Orthodox Jew who lived out in one of the cloistered Orthodox communities in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with his wife and numerous “kinder”. He worked in the diamond district, heading there after the meetings each morning to “open shop.” Eli was the real deal, with his yarmulke, his payot curls, his tzitzit, that stringy talisman - all hanging out as proof of his faith. He spoke Yiddishy-accented English and had a gigantic furry disc-shaped hat, his shtreimel, which he would place on his lap, petting it like a cat, throughout the hour long meeting.
I liked the shtreimel; it was a bold fashion statement and I appreciated that. But I wasn’t convinced that Eli was really an alcoholic. “Orthodox Jews can’t be alcoholics” I thought to myself as Eli and I regarded each other coolly one morning before the meeting started. “What is he really doing here?” I wondered. Based on his shares Eli was definitely an alcoholic but I still had my doubts about him, and I was soon to learn that he had his doubts about me.
I’d been coming to a meeting called The Mustard Seed in midtown Manhattan for 40 days before I uttered the words “I’m an alcoholic”. Before that I had simply said “pass” or “I have a desire to stop drinking.” Finally at 40 days I confessed at my morning meeting what I had known for at least 4 years and said “Hello, my name is Blenderhead and I’m an alcoholic”. Uttering those words was so beautiful and so freeing that I almost burst out crying with relief. Now that I knew what was wrong with me there was at least a chance of getting better. I hoped.
After the meeting, amidst the hustle and bustle of everyone getting out the door and off to work, Eli sidled up to me and said (sounding exactly like Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof) “Congratulations. You’re one of us! You know you lost me a five dollar bet?” I was startled and then, suddenly, angry. “What?” I barked at him. “Have the group members been betting on my sobriety? Did you place bets on my chances of drinking or not drinking?” I was horrified and told him as much, instantly teary. “Oh no, no no no, nothing like that. We would never do something like that here” he said, suddenly quite serious. “No. I was convinced that you were some journalist narc sent from CNN or 60 Minutes. Like a young Barbara Walters or something, going undercover in A.A. You were going to pretend to be a drunk and then write a shocking tell-all story about us. And then everyone would know what goes on in those mysterious rooms in church basements all over the world. So that was the bet…is she a narc? Or is she a drunk?” I was so stunned I couldn’t say anything. It was so absurd. The question behind the bet was not even logical. An A.A. narc? But why? “Is that why you’ve been glaring at me?” I asked him. “Because you thought I was an undercover journalist out to blow the cover off of A.A.?” “Yes” said Eli with refreshing honesty. “But now that I know you’re a drunk like me I’ll have to pay up. They all thought you were an alcoholic. I’m the only one who thought you might be a spy.” I didn’t know whether to be insulted or thrilled so I ignored both options and sallied forth. “Why in the world did you think I was a narc? A reporter? What made you think that?”
“I don’t know” Eli said, giving me the once over from beneath his bushy salt and pepper brows. “For one the way you're dressed I guess." And he was right. I had been “dressing” for my A.A. meetings. Putting on these business-y looking upper east side influenced “ensembles”. Wearing makeup which I rarely do. Shellacking my hair back into some sort of school marm meets Wall Street player bun. I wanted to look put together in those early A.A. meetings. I wanted to look like a young professional, an Alpha, a winner. Someone responsible, clean cut, an individual who certainly does not need help. Someone who, truth be told, shouldn't be in A.A. at all. I wanted to prove to myself and everyone else sitting there that I was not an alcoholic. I wanted to look like a master of the universe. I wanted to look the opposite of what an alcoholic is “supposed” to look like. But I was coming to realize, after sitting in those meetings for just 40 days, that there really is no true description of what an addict should look like. I was coming to see that we, us alcoholics, us drug addicts “look like” everybody, everywhere, throughout time.
“It’s not just the clothes” Eli went on. “You never really talk. You don’t share. You're always listening. Concentrating. You take notes. And then you leave. We don’t really know you. You’re….ahhhhh…what's that word? You're…ahhh…” But I knew the word he was searching for. “Aloof?’ I asked him. “Yeah! Aloof. That’s it! So now you're one of us. An alcoholic. You said it yourself. I’m glad you’re loosening up a bit. But you still lost me five dollars!”
With that Eli gathered up his belongings and trundled out the front door. I was left alone to think about what he had said. It was true. I had been aloof. I’d been judging, cataloguing, comparing myself to everyone in the room. Trying to talk myself out of being there. But that had not kept me away. I had been there every day regardless of what my mind was telling me to do. There was some strong magic there. I could feel it pulsing among us. I was intrigued. And even though I was still convinced I was only staying there for a short time, that I would learn how to drink like a lady in A.A. and then leave, I knew that admitting to myself and others that I was in fact an alcoholic would make my time in those meetings so much more rewarding. I decided there and then to drop the facade, the outfits, the pretenses, the comparisons, the calculated apartness. I heard someone say in a meeting that being in A.A. is like being in a herd of sheep and as such you should always try to be right in the middle of the herd. It is the outliers, the ones on the fringes that often, tragically, get picked off by the wolf of addiction.
I’m so grateful for Eli. His thinking I was a spy was hilarious and illuminating. I learned something about myself which was interesting. I’m still wary of people. Even those I go to in desperation for help. I still want to live behind my cool as a cucumber facade. But this attitude, this stance in life, this judgmental aloofness is not going to help me stay sober.
So I’m relaxing into A.A. I’m cracking wide open which is wonderful but terrifying. I still miss my booze sometimes. My wine-soaked reveries and vodka-fueled "revelations". Booze was my very best friend for a long time and I mourn the loss of that friendship. That companionship. But these A.A. people are a good substitute. Eli became a friend. When we would see each other in the morning we’d give each other the once over with mock disdain and say “what are YOU doing here?” He called me Barbara, as in Walters, and that always made me laugh. I’ve made all sorts of new friends in A.A. People who I have absolutely nothing and yet everything in common with. I think this is what home is supposed to feel like.