After our Saturday night date on June 1, 2013 I started researching Al-Anon, reading about it online, looking up meeting schedules. I knew that Al-Anon was a 12-step program for friends and family of alcoholics. I wasn’t enthusiastic about going to a meeting, but I also knew that I had reached the end of my coping strategies: nine months with Johnny hadn’t taught me how to deal with his drinking. He still drank; I got upset that he drank.

Tuesday evening found me catching the bus to a beginner’s meeting at a North Berkeley church. I walked across the path that bisected the green lawn and entered the building, climbing the stairs to a hallway with doors on either side.

I found myself in a white room with rows of folding chairs in a semicircle, facing a small podium and the door. A wall of hopper windows at the back of the room tilted open to let in the late spring air. I took a seat near the end of a row and watched as the room filled with people. A woman went to the podium and began to read a welcome. She said that people who had lived with the problem of alcoholism could understand others who lived with it.

That seemed reasonable to me: I hadn’t known what I was up against with Johnny until I saw him slide from punctual, reliable, good-humored Johnny to a sarcastic man who did not bother to eat, shower or change his clothes and could not keep track of time.

The speaker went on to say that we could find contentment whether the alcoholics in our lives were drinking or not. I found this harder to accept: I wasn’t happy at all with the changes in Johnny’s behavior and condition. But when she said “living with an alcoholic is too much for most of us” I said a silent (“Yes!”). Then she read “Al-Anon has but one purpose: to help families of alcoholics. We do this by practicing the Twelve Steps, by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics, and by giving understanding and encouragement to the alcoholic.”

The speaker left the podium, walked to the end of the row and handed a printed copy of the twelve steps to the person sitting there. That person read aloud: “One. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

“Really?” I thought. “I’m not powerless over alcohol. I can take it or leave it. Johnny has a problem with alcohol and I have a problem with Johnny.”

The reader passed the paper to the next person, who read “Two. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

“Wait. I’m insane now? I’m not insane. I have a real problem. Never mind ‘Power greater than ourselves’”

“Three. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. I’m not turning over anything. I don’t believe in God.”

I had spent part of my childhood and teenage years in the Episcopal Church, drawn there by an opportunity to sing in the junior choir. I went through a fervent religious phase in tandem with singing the music of Byrd, Vittoria, Bach, Handel, hymns, Gregorian chant and service music by Healey Willan, augmented with stained glass windows and the poetic language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. But when I was nineteen my atheist father died and the church offered me no answers for what would happen to him now. I began to leave out sections of the creeds when I recited them, doubting many things I had once believed. Plus, I had been curious about sex and wanting to find a love other than God’s love, which seemed completely out of reach.

Now here I was in a plain room without the music, poetry and stained glass, hearing people talk about turning their lives over to God. They continued rolling through the steps. “Seven. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

“Why is this about me? Now if God wanted to remove Johnny’s shortcomings we might have something to talk about.”

The next two people read steps eight and nine about making amends.

“Unclear on the concept,” said the voice in my head. “I am the victim here. I am the one who has been harmed.” But underneath that I knew that I did not always use what Buddhists call “skillful means” — I suspected there might be better ways to respond to Johnny’s behavior than what came naturally to me: blaming, accusing, judging. When I thought I had made a mild suggestion that Johnny come up with a better way to handle his stress, he said “That’s some cold shit, baby.”

“Ten. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

“Uh-oh. Do you know what happens in my family if you ever admit you are wrong? Ridicule. Punishment. No thanks. It is not safe to admit you are wrong. People are out to get you.”

“Eleven. Sought through prayer and meditation…”

“Okay. Meditation. I’m down with that. Meditation is helpful. I can do that. Maybe I should go back to sitting everyday.”

“Twelve. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

“Geez, Louise. How is this going to help me with Johnny. This sounds like a cult…”

Someone began to pass around a second sheet in plastic. This one was called “The Twelve Traditions.” Someone read out number six, the designated tradition for the month of June, something about cooperating with A.A.

After the communal readings, the moderator said, “The meeting is open for sharing.”

A man raised his hand and received a nod. “Hi, My name is Bob…”

The entire population of the room except me chorused “Hi Bob” before he could finish a sentence. We were back in full cult territory.

I had a sudden flashback to an evening in high school when a girl I liked invited me to an est or Erhard Seminars Training meeting. Est looked like a cult, smelled like a cult, rows of people gave rapt attention to the speaker, repeating whatever words he asked them to repeat.

The “sharing” continued, each time with the same formulaic call and response between the sharer and the group: “Hi, my name is ex,” followed by “Hi ex!”

I found this pattern unnerving and longed for someone to say, “Please don’t do that.” But I tried to listen to the stories people told, hoping that I would find a clue to dealing with Johnny in one of them.

I don’t. People talk about gratitude and letting go. People talk about their Higher Power. People talk and talk, the beginning of each story punctuated by the ridiculous echo of the speaker’s name.

When the time for sharing ends, the moderator reminds us that the meeting needs to be self-supporting. I dig in my jeans for a couple of quarters when the money basket goes around. “This is like church,” I think.

The moderator chooses someone to read the closing statement. It contains a message to newcomers like myself: “A few special words to those who haven’t been with us long: whatever your problems, there are those among us who have had them too.”

The meeting closes with the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” People join hands before they recite it and when it ends they squeeze hands and say “Keep coming back. It works.”

I do not know if it will work. I do not know what to hope for. Without speaking to anyone, I walk out the door. No one notices because most people are staying for another meeting. I walk down the hall, down the stairs, up a block and across the street to the nearest bus stop where I wait for the last bus home. But I don’t have anything else to do, no bright ideas of my own for solving my problems with Johnny so I get up the next morning and catch another bus at 6:40 AM to go to another meeting, taking my guitar with me so that I can go straight to my busking shift.

Before I leave for the second Al-Anon meeting of my life I write Johnny a long email before six in the morning. He has sent an email at 3 AM while I am sleeping. He is still angry that I refused to speak to him when he called me from a bar. He is angry that I wrote to him asking him how he would like me to endorse a check repaying him the loan for my air fare to France. He is angry that I closed that email with “Sincerely” rather than “Love.” He is angry to learn that I have gone to an Al-Anon meeting where he imagines I have talked about him, that I have called him “an alcoholic” and “a rock musician.”

I tell him I did not break up with him, that we are in this together until one of us says that we want or need to break up. I tell him I will call him after my morning shift if he wants me to. I tell him I love him and, this time, I sign the email “Love, Sharyn.”

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