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I have always taken notes in A.A. meetings. I started doing this very early on in my recovery journey. I would hear something wise or funny or hopeful while sitting in a meeting. Something I knew I would forget as soon as I heard it in my foggy and self-absorbed newly sober misery, so I would jot it down. Recently I started going through all these old notebooks. I was curious to see if those notes taken over 20 years of sitting in meetings still speak to me. And happily, all of them do. There are hundreds if not thousands of single sentences scribbled down in haste while I was slowly waking up and coming out of my drug and alcohol-induced stupor. While I was learning, at the ripe old age of 32, how to sit still and listen. Here are some notes from my journals over the years.


1999: "My mother always told me 'Son, there are two types of people in this world. Avoid both of them.'"

2002: “We are not bad people trying to be good. We are sick people trying to be well.”


2005: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”


2007: “There is a God. And contrary to popular belief I am NOT it.”


2012: “I could no longer stand the exhausting ceaseless mental grind of being actively addicted.”


2019: “My favorite drink? Free! My favorite bar? Open!”


2022: “I was not in a love affair with booze. I was in a hate affair with myself.”


The pages of all my journals from every year are covered from top to bottom with these notes, this wisdom, this audacious humor in the face of a serious, often fatal, disease. In these journals I also scratched down quotes from the A.A. literature. Page numbers and references to The Big Book, the Twelve and Twelve, Living Sober, As Bill Sees It. There are popular “Quit Lit” titles (that peculiar but popular genre of literature that is basically about breaking the bonds of any given addiction) from every year I have been sober. “Drinking: A Love Story” by Caroline Knapp. “Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions” by Russell Brand. “I’ll Quit Tomorrow” by Vernon E. Johnson. I found phone numbers of group members with times and locations of other A.A. meetings in my area. The journals are full to bursting. Every single page, front and back, is covered in ink and lead.


But there was one notation that I found a few times in the journal from my first year sober. A note that, no matter which way I looked at it, made no sense to me at all.


This is what I found, in three different parts of the 1999 journal:


These four words. Stacked one atop the other. In this order.




Ya Know?


And then, next to each word, was a tally, the slashes counting by five. Like what people thrown into dungeons use to keep track of their days imprisoned before they waste away and die.


What in the world could this mean? And why three times? Each entry over the year had the same words but different numbers after them.

May 12, 1999


August 23, 1999

November 7, 1999

I looked at the pages before and after these tallies, searching my brain for some clue to help me unravel this self-generated puzzle. It stumped me for several days until suddenly it washed over me in a wave of shame and amazement. I remembered. I knew what this particular cipher meant.


In my first few months of sobriety there was a man in my A.A. group who I judged unmercifully, who I chose not to like, simply because of the way he spoke. He was a bright man, and had a strong message about the joys of living in recovery. But I, Her Royal Highness, in her infinite wisdom and with her tragically judgmental mindset decided to judge him and the way he spoke. His speech was a jumble. A halting yet rapid fire brogue punctuated ad nauseam with those ahs and uhms and likes and ya knows. I began to resent him for wasting my time. Now, in hindsight, I am appalled at my behavior. I can’t believe I did this, but obviously as that journal proves, I chose to write down every time this man, I’ll call him Jim, said one of the four offending words. “Jesus Christ,” I would think to myself, annoyed.  “Here we go again. Just spit it out already buddy!” I would seethe internally. 


Why was I doing this? What was I thinking? What was the motive behind this mean and petty and decidedly unsober behavior?


And it dawned on me the other day, while leafing through my journal from my first sober year. There it was, the evidence. The “ah uhm like ya know” of it all. I see it now, and I felt it then. I remembered in a flash what I had been doing. I had been judging Jim and the way he spoke so that I could feel superior to him. And with this judgment, with my criticism, with my comparison I was trying to find fault with A.A. as a whole. Because if I could find fault with the program and its members then I could keep myself apart, separate, isolated. Maybe I didn't belong in A.A. after all.


These were my people, my tribe, and I knew that. But early on I didn't want this new family, these A.Aers with all their quirks and wisdom. I didn't want to belong here. I wanted to judge and compare and criticize myself right out of A.A. And so, in the very early months without alcohol, I took mean and catty notes about this lovely man Jim. About how he spoke, about how many times he said each offending word.


One day I must have been rolling my eyes during Jim’s share. After the meeting a stranger came up to me and said apropos of nothing “you know, Jim’s dad tried to beat that stutter out of him when he was a kid,” and walked away. And all at once my perspective changed so immediately that I felt an actual physical shift occur, deep in my being. My “feelings” about Jim went from judgment and resentment to compassion and love in the blink of an eye.


I had forgotten completely about this episode until I started rifling through these notebooks from over the years. 


And then there was this note, from the very same year. A quote I scrawled a few pages after my last “ah uhm like ya know” tally. It was something said to me by someone who I can’t remember at all, but I’m so glad I found it. “There only two steps you need to worry about right now. Step one: Come in, sit down, and shut up. Step two: Take the wads of cotton out of your ears, put them in your mouth, and start listening.”


Leafing through all of my “sober journals” I see that after the shameful tallies I took my first few months sober there are no other mean, petty notes scrawled down in any of my other notebooks. Not one. And so I see that I have made some progress. I learned a valuable lesson about judging someone in the rooms (or anywhere, for that matter) without knowing anything about their story. About where they have come from or what they have been through.


I was terrified that first year. I didn't want to be in A.A. I knew I couldn't go on drinking and I didn't necessarily want to be sober; I felt more lost than I believed humanly possible. And so I tried to talk myself out of recovery. And I would have, if not for the way I felt while sitting in a meeting. I felt safe. And it was a feeling of safety that I’m not sure I had ever felt before. So even though I would search for faults and flaws and fissures in the program, and the “ah uhm like ya know” people, and the  locations and times of the meetings and even the very rooms where the meetings were held (too small, too big, too hot, too cold, too empty, too crowded, too close, too far) I was, thank God, unable to talk myself out of getting sober.


And then I found this quote, in a notebook from my third year of sobriety. Copied out into the journal from that year in a cramped and rushed scrawl. These lines, written in a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter Scottie (before he drank and smoked himself to death) spoke to me then as they do today. The words flood me with gratitude and remind me that by sticking around for all these years in the program of A.A. I’ve been given back the life that I came very close to destroying.


“For what it’s worth…it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you're not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”


F. Scott Fitzgerald


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