"Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand."
- Mark Twain
In early sobriety, something made me question the sanity of the A.A. group members. In fact, it freaked me right out. It was the laughter. Real authentic laughter. Before the meeting, after the meeting and even during the meeting. Someone would share some horrible detail of their addiction, like stealing and ingesting their dog’s pain meds, or drinking vast quantities of moonshine or hand sanitizer or mouthwash and everyone would sort of chuckle knowingly. My friend James* was trying to get sober and had emptied his apartment of all drugs and alcohol. In the midst of terrible withdrawl cravings and in an attempt to feel anything other than what he was feeling at the time, he took all of his girlfriend’s birth control pills. Nothing happened except that his girlfriend finally realized the severity of his problem. She shipped him off to a 60 day rehab where he got, and where he remains, gratefully sober to this day.
I’ve done it too, pre-sobriety, during periods when I was trying to "cut back" on my favorite sleep-aid, booze. Taken some lame OTC drugstore pills because the bottle boasted the warning "this pill may cause dizziness and nausea." Like James, I took them, in an attempt to just not feel what I was feeling at the time, usually overwhelming anxiety. I reasoned with myself that nauseous and dizzy and even throwing up would be a welcome relief from the weight of the chattering anxious monkeys running around in my brain. (Enter Nyquil, stage left.) And of course, if it says take 2 I will surely take 4 or 8 or more.
One of the darkest stories I heard early on also generated gales of laughter. It was the story of Paul* who went to visit his aunt who was dying in hospice. She was covered in Opiod pain patches and unconscious, so he peeled one of the patches off her leg. He chewed it and sucked it into pulp - all in an attempt to get high. Horrible? Yes. Pathetic? Yes. Heartbreaking? Indeed.
So why the laughter? In the face of such darkness? Because honestly, if we are unable to laugh at the insane lengths we go to in an attempt to escape reality we will cry. This is truly a life and death disease. But is a life without laughter a life worth living? Also, all of these stories are told AFTER the fact. We sit, safe and sober in the rooms, and we’re able to look at our past actions. We gaze in astonishment and disbelief that we did these things. The majority of these stories are not that graphic. I know men and women who simply drink too much. People like me who cannot stop drinking on their own will power. There are plenty of successful people who cannot go a day without a drink or drug but maintain an “I'm the master of the Universe" facade. There are housewives who drive carpool after polishing off a half bottle of wine. The teacher who just needs some Dutch courage to get through teaching a class. There’s the high school athlete who gets hooked on opiates and switches to heroin because it’s easier to score. The whoever doing whatever because they cannot sit in discomfort so they need to use. The stories are different but they have one thing in common: the reliance on a substance to get through a day, to get through life. That is the common thread that weaves us together. The misery of active addiction is the same. Whatever the poison we are unable to stop, it creates a mental, emotional, and physical prison that becomes, with time, totally unbearable.
But there’s something miraculously healing that happens in the rooms. No matter how deep a grave we’ve dug while in active addiction, there is someone who has gone deeper. There is probably someone who has peeled pain patches off a dying relative and then stolen the few dollars left in her purse. Someone who took his dog's pills and then yelled at it for losing them. We hear these stories and we feel compassion. We learn empathy. Because we understand that we too could have done any of these things. Every addict knows that feeling - what they would be willing to do to get high while in the grips of addiction.
I have never cut myself but I understand people that do. I am not addicted to pornography or gambling but I understand and feel for the people that are suffering those addictions. It's all the same thing. We crave distraction. We want out...of ourselves.
There is a passage in the big book on page 17 that sums this up perfectly:
We are people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful. We are like the passengers of a great liner the moment after rescue from a shipwreck when camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to captain's table. Unlike the feelings of the ship’s passengers however, our joy in the escape from disaster does not subside as we go our individual ways. The feeling of having shared in a common peril is one element in the powerful cement which binds us. But that in itself would never have held us together as we are now joined.
The tremendous fact for every one of us is that we have discovered a common solution. We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree and upon which we can join in brotherly and harmonious action.
This is the message of joy that this book carries to those who suffer from alcoholism. In between the grief and tears over those we have lost or those who continue on their personal hellish path of active addiction, we find joy in the fact that we are free.
And that is where the laughter comes from, the realization that we have escaped the vise-like grip of addiction. We laugh in pure amazement that by connecting with a power greater than ourselves and by doing some work in A.A. we were able to put down the drink, the drug, the whatever-it-is addiction that had taken over our lives and prevented us from finding peace and joy in the everyday. We can laugh together at the disease and the depths to which it took us. We laugh in the freedom of having untangled ourselves from the deadly tentacles of active addiction. We rejoice that we’ve been rescued and are now recovering. If the miracle of resurrection, of getting your life handed back to you on the very brink of self-annihilation, does not elicit joy and laughter... then I honestly don't know what would.
*All stories recounted are done so with permission.