I went to my first A.A. meeting about a year before I put the bottle down for good. I’d had a blackout the previous night and I was consumed with terror, frustration, and despair. I had done it again. I found an A.A. meeting list and I chose where to go very carefully. I arrived at a homeless shelter in Harlem at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday and slithered into the room reserved for A.A. and N.A. meetings. What I saw there was exactly what I wanted to see. Central casting could not have done a better job at picking the attendees. The room smelled of dirty hair and dirtier clothes and out of the 8 people sitting around (4 of whom were awake) I think I spied 12 teeth, total. That was all I needed to see. I didn't even wait for the meeting to start. I just gazed at those poor souls, all of whom looked just like what an addict was "supposed" to look like - and I bolted, happy in my conclusion that the stereotype held true. I didn't look like them. Not me, with my fancy address and my mildly fabulous job. The fact that I carried warm vodka in a Poland Spring bottle around in my purse for moral support didn't mean I was an alcoholic. I had teeth for God's sake, and clean hair, not to mention my carefully curated and spotless outfit.
So I tricked myself. On purpose. I chose that shelter meeting because deep down I knew I would see those people and in comparison I could walk away, head held high, a non-alcoholic. “Look at all my stuff" I said to myself. My apartment, job, friends, travels...as if all my "stuff" meant that I was not an addict. But I knew I was. And I sunk deeper and deeper into the muck of alcoholism until a year later when I called A.A. intergroup in New York City and said I needed help. That was the understatement of the year. What I needed was a miracle. I absolutely could not stop drinking. It was impossible. Anyone who struggles with addiction will understand that. Non-addicts will say "just don't drink" or "just don't use". Problem solved. If only it were that easy.
So I called the A.A. hotline and this smoky-voiced broad answered my call. She sounded like she lived on cigarettes and scotch and that her name should be Blanche. She asked me where I was. I gave her my location and she told me that there was a meeting about 20 blocks north called The Mustard Seed. She “suggested” that I go that evening at 7 p.m. and because I didn't understand that I could say no to Blanche, I went.
I arrived and went in. Or I should say I went down and in, because The Mustard Seed is everything I hate in a room. Basically subterranean, a urine-soaked stairwell entrance, crowded, low-ceilinged and quite claustrophobic. And that January 11th, 1999 The Mustard Seed was in a ferocious battle with hordes of New York City cockroaches, which is your normal cockroach, but amped up on steroids. The Arnold Schwarzenegger of cucarachas. They scurried over the baseboards but they could also climb up the walls and even onto the ceiling so there was a chance of one dropping on your head. Or, as I once witnessed, down the back of your shirt. I didn't care. I had bigger problems. I knew I had to stop drinking or I would lose everything. But tragically, the idea of life without alcohol was completely beyond comprehension. I knew in my heart that if I could not drink I would rather be dead. So, before suicide or drinking myself to death, I went to my first meeting, a move of complete and utter demoralization and desperation. My last stop before the graveyard.
I went to the meeting that day, and then again the next day and the next. I don't know why. Some might call it grace. My agony did not subside, in fact it flared up violently. It was as if my disease knew I was trying to stop and it was not having it. It seemed to throw everything at me, including cravings that were so intense my muscles would twitch and sleep was a distant dream. I was also sweating for weeks into sobriety. I was slowly detoxing as I sat in meetings trying to avoid the falling cockroaches. I could feel the sweat dripping down my spine, an endless trickle of misery. My disease was fighting back in a last ditch attempt to keep me hooked forever. I didn’t speak, I didn’t share, I just showed up on time and left as soon as the meeting ended. Then one day a guy named Jim patted me on the back as I was leaving and said "Hang in there kid. Keep coming back. It gets better, I promise." I didn't believe him but I returned the next day. I'm a real people pleaser and I couldn't let Jim, a complete stranger, down. I kept going back, over and over again, sometimes twice a day when the cravings became overwhelming. I would slink into that room and find a chair and sit on my hands so people wouldn't see them shaking. And you know what's beautiful? I know everyone saw what a complete mess I was and I don't think one person judged me. They only wanted to help. Everyone just seemed to have faith that if I followed this crazy program of Alcoholics Anonymous I could stop drinking. I had zero faith, but they did, and they carried me. These complete strangers. Homeless people, rock stars, business men and women, vagrants, doctors, parents, teachers, students. Old, young, rich, poor, tall, short, Black, White, Spanish, Asian, Christian, Jewish, Catholic, atheist, agnostic...they carried me with their faith. They had faith that I, like them, could stop drinking.
And here is the best part about my decade long experience of being a member of The Mustard Seed. I never once let that dark, small room bother me. Not even the cockroaches. I let it all slide because I knew those details didn't matter. A crowded dark room or a creeping insect is nothing when you're fighting for your life.
In the fog of early recovery it never occurred to me to wonder what The Mustard Seed symbolized. I just showed up there one night because Blanche ordered me to. And I guess I was that foggy for a decade because when I moved 11 years later and found a new home group I explained to a member there that I had gotten sober at The Mustard Seed in New York City. "Ah yes," they replied, "like the mustard seed in the bible." Of course I said "Yes, that one" and ran away to consult the internet because God knows I don't have a bible sitting around my house. The only use I ever had for a bible was as a coaster for my drink when in a hotel room.
I opened my laptop and googled "bible mustard seed." And what I discovered is that the mustard seed is all over the good book. Used as a symbol of faith. Who knew?
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."
"If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea' and it would obey you."
And finally, from the Big Guy Himself to his disciples:
"Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith like the grain of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
And that’s what not drinking felt like. Like moving a mountain. Not drinking felt like that level of impossible. My new squad at The Mustard Seed saw that I had zero faith in myself. I could not conjure up even a mustard seed-sized shred of hope that I was not doomed to die an alcoholic death. So these new friends lent me their mustard seeds. They lent me their faith and slowly their faith that I could stop drinking started to rub off on me. It took months and it was painful but each day that passed without a drink gave me the faith that maybe A.A. could help me, could heal me, could actually save my life. And what is even more stunning is that today I could go back to that homeless shelter in Harlem and relate to all the addicts in there. Every single one. And love them without judgement, without comparison, and with compassion.
You can see in this post's illustration what a mustard seed looks like. How tiny it is. How insignificant it seems in the grand scheme of things. But that tiny speck of faith was given freely to me by others and has taken root and grown within me. I have experienced a miracle. I no longer need to drink alcohol or do drugs. I live in the faith that I am in the care of a higher power. A higher power that doesn’t want to see me wasting my life away trapped in addiction. A higher power that will stay with me always, through all the joy and wonder and pain and excitement and boredom that life can throw at me. And it all started with a tiny, borrowed speck of faith, no bigger than a mustard seed.