Sponsored in Part VI: Share and Share Alike
There’s a fat woman in a grey windbreaker sitting next to me, and we’re both checking our emails on our BlackBerries. Our seats are squished together and she keeps elbowing me while zealously firing off her responses, completely oblivious to the fact that she’s pushing me off my seat. I look over her shoulder as she scrolls down a long list of emails, each one with the same subject heading in bold: THE VOICE. Given the neighborhood – Studio City, a hamlet of development executives and other senior-level slaves of the entertainment industry – it’s possible that she’s one of the popular reality show’s producers, fielding pressing on-the-set up-to-the-minute updates about tonight’s live recording. Then again, given her windbreaker and Supercuts dye job to cover her emerging greys, I’m thinking more like audience member. She clicks open email after email as I squint my eyes at her tiny screen, angling for a view. And there it is: DIRECTIONS TO WARNER BROS LOT. Audience member hunch confirmed. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible she’s entertaining cousins from out of town (Ohio, Minnesota). Or maybe she’s the tourist, puttering around the city in a white rental car (2009 white Chevrolet Alero with Arizona plates is my guess), needing a meeting badly for whatever reason and this was the closet one to the Best Western Mikado on Riverside in North Hollywood with its plastic bamboo plants and stacks of sightseeing brochures fanned out on the counter top of the check-in desk.
Although I’ve been to this meeting once before, it’s been at least a year. The one time I came, they wrapped things up with the Lord’s Prayer (most meetings end with the non-denominational Serenity Prayer), which is problematic for me because a) I’m Jewish, b) I don’t know it, and c) even if I did know it, there’s no way that I could actually recite the prayer without freaking out in a fit of neurotic Jewish paranoia that some right-wing, pro-life evangelical fundamentalist cohort was hovering secretly in the church’s eaves prepping to convert me against my will.
And so, as we all linked hands, I pursed my lips in a tight, straight line. I stared down at the floor, trying my best to inconspicuously lift an eye to regard the circle of impassioned moving mouths as the words Our Father Who Art in Heaven reverberated around us, bouncing off the church basement’s dark-brick walls.
It was bad enough that I was sponsor-less. Now I was sponsor-less, and Jewish, in a room filled with 12-step Jesus freaks.
“Any idea why they say the Lord’s Prayer at this meeting?” I asked a woman while putting away my chair at the end of the meeting.
“Some of the meetings still do,” she shrugged, running a hand through her short, spikey red hair. “It’s an old vestige from the program’s early beginnings.”
“But I thought the whole point of Al-Anon was that it’s not based on any one particular religion?”
“It’s not,” she said. “The word ‘Lord’ is up for interpretation.”
“But it’s not. This is a very specific prayer. It’s about Jesus.”
“That depends on your belief system. It’s the same as the word ‘God’ in the serenity prayer.”
“No, it’s not,” I countered, my heart beginning to pound. “‘God’ can be anything. It’s not specific to any one particular faith. Lots of religions believe in a God of some sort.”
“God. Goddess. Lord. Great One. Zeus. Krishna. They’re all just different names for your Higher Power.”
“But how can I get in touch with my Higher Power if we’re reciting a Christian prayer that I don’t know because I’m Jewish? Why can’t we just stick to the non-denomination stuff so everybody feels included?”
She paused for a moment. “Look,” she finally said, waving and smiling at somebody walking toward her. “If it makes you feel uncomfortable, there’s a meeting directory on the back table there. Just go to another meeting that doesn’t use the Lord’s Prayer.”
“I’ve got a meeting directory,” I tell her. “That’s not really my point – ”
“Well,” she interrupts with a bright white smile, heading toward the exit. “Try and keep an open mind. It’s just a prayer. Like it says in the literature, take what you like and leave the rest!”
Which is why I’m giving the meeting a second chance. That and the fact they’ve got babysitting, perfect for when Mason’s going to his AA meetings. I suppose I’ve come today thinking I might get lucky. Perhaps here I’ll find my sponsor.
At the leader’s prompting, I switch my BlackBerry ringer to silent and tuck it in my black vinyl messenger bag, kicking it under my chair so I’m not tempted to check it every five seconds if I got bored during her twelve-minute share. She’s got a grey bob and wears an ankle-length denim blue skirt, belted, with a white and blue stripe button-down shirt. She looks like a window display at Talbots, and I’m instantly depressed.
I want a sponsor that dresses better than me, not because I’m such a great dresser, but because I’m not, and I want someone with a sense of style to which I can aspire. I want a sponsor that dresses like the blonde British girl on Girls, with long fishtail ponytails and huge hoop earrings. At the leader’s prompting, everybody who is available to sponsor stands, and I do a quick survey of the room: Talbots, Anne Taylor Loft, with a little bit of Patagonia tossed in for good measure. This is supposed to be a hip part of town, so why is everybody dressed like they’re going to a public school PTA meeting? And why don’t prospective sponsors ever stand long enough? By this point in my tenuous Al-Anon career, I’m convinced that it’s a trick. The 12-Step Sponsor Cabal wants you to make a mistake, to choose the wrong one, to fail – like I did with Ryan Gosling Almost Sponsor months before.
Or am I the real problem – determined to seek out the dark side of Al-Anon as a way to avoid making any sort of progress?
Perhaps a little bit of column A and column B, I decide.
In any case, the leader’s share is vaguely inspiring, if only because she mentions having divorced her husband once, only to marry him again years later once he got sober and they worked out their marital issues. She’s got fewer expectations now, she tells us, she’s learned to accept him for who he is, and the fact that he provides her with zero financial security and she supports the both of them doesn’t bother her anymore. She doesn’t mention whether or not they get along, or if the husband has any admirable qualities, or whether or not she even loves him, or whether or not they have kids. I’m guessing no. I think about Mason. Would I marry him twice? Likely not. Maybe if he figures out what he wants to do with his life, preferably at some point before his 43rd birthday.
After a five-minute break we count off 1-2-3-4 and break off into small groups in the far corners of the auditorium. This is my favorite part of the meeting because everybody in our group will get to share. Nobody has to raise her hand, desperately angling to be called upon by the leader. Voice Audience Member is a “3.” I am a “4.” There are three long skirts in our little circle, a fleece jacket, a hooded sweatshirt, and a woman with beige Birkenstocks in desperate need of a pedicure that looks like she walked out of the television show Portlandia. There’s also a pretty girl named Sarah with long straight hair and big hoop earrings, sort of like the one the blonde British girl wears in Girls. But she looks much younger than me, in her 20’s, so there’s no way she could be my sponsor. I need somebody older, with more experience, somebody with some wear and tear on her face. I can’t have a sponsor with her entire life ahead of her. I need somebody who’ll make me feel that I’ve got my entire life ahead of me.
I realize, of course, that I’m picky and judgmental and non-committal and confused. Which all would have been perfectly useful qualities back before I met Mason. They might have come in handy, might have saved me from this entire mess. If I’ve learned anything in Al-Anon it’s this: vet any and all prospective alcoholic husbands before you get married.
We’re instructed to speak in whispers so as not to disturb the other groups, one of the upsides and downsides to this meeting. It’s great that we all get a guaranteed chance to share, but I can’t really give my performance my absolute all if I need to monitor my volume. I’m a big fan of hand gestures and somehow, when I’m forced to talk softly, I wind up cupping my hands in my lap. And I’m not really a hands-cupped-in-lap person. I worry that my share will suffer, that nobody will think I’m funny or smart, that my problems won’t be amusing or interesting and I’ll wind up flagellating myself later for having choked on the giant, daunting, proverbial Al-Anon stage.
Denim Skirt #1 shares first, but without much of a backbone to her story: musings on serenity, brief mention of the slogans When you compare you despair (I love this one, I really do) and People, places and things are not my business (another great one). Denim Skirt #2 had a major slip up this week, lost her temper at work, needs to work on keeping her emotions in check (“I should have called my sponsor, not taken it out on the Xerox machine.”). I suppress a yawn with the backside of my hand. Then it’s Sarah’s turn:
“I haven’t reached out for a sponsor, and I don’t know why,” she says, staring at the floor, shaking her head, her earrings swinging against her hair.
Relief buoys me like a foamy wave. Sarah, the coolest girl in the room with dangling earrings like the ones on a hit HBO series, doesn’t have a sponsor either. I’m not alone! We’re in this together!
Then just as suddenly, my heart slumps. If Sarah just shared about not having a sponsor, how can I possibly share about not having a sponsor without sounding like I’ve stolen her share? You can’t piggyback on someone’s share right after they’ve shared. You’re automatically setting yourself up for failure. Besides, people might think that I’m engaging in crosstalk, responding directly to her share, which is a big Al-Anon no-no. But the worst part, I think, is that how will anybody in the group empathize with my plea for sponsorship if they’re already invested in Sarah’s stellar opening-act admission of being sponsor-less in Los Angel-less? It’s like that scene in Annie Hall, where Carol Kane prods Woody Allen onstage to perform his stand-up comedy routine– after another comedian who’s already wowed the crowd. Allen begs with her, pleads. You can’t go on after another comedian, he tells her. How much can the audience laugh?
I could recycle my previous share from my Saturday meeting where I spoke about my parents’ recent visit – “It was like living in an insane asylum except we all should have been in separate units” – which turned out to be a real crowd pleaser. But I was pretty much over that whole episode and besides, what were the odds of it going over as well in this meeting?
In a panic, I hurriedly consult my untapped mental reserve of back-up shares:
CREATIVE 12-STEP ADVERTISING:
1. AA BUMPER STICKERS: a line of designer bumper stickers for alcoholics and their families. The obvious debut sticker: ALCOHOLIC ON BOARD and HONK IF YOU’RE IN AA. Of course, that’s not really anonymous, but obviously anonymity’s not really a high priority of mine since I’m writing about all this. And anyway, if you’re drinking and driving people have the right to know. They could sell the bumper stickers at meetings, sandwiched on the literature table between The Dilemma of the Alcoholic Marriage and flyers for the next AA/Al-Anon roundup at the Burbank Marriott. Better yet, they could dispense the bumper sticker at the DMV, with a tiny microchip-tracking device for anybody with a prior DUI. Lindsay Lohan could be the company spokesperson. This bumper sticker could be the biggest thing to happen to drunk driving since MADD. This bumper sticker could save lives!
2. AL-ANON BUMPER STICKERS: Instead of JESUS IS COMING. BE READY! CALL 1-888-567-7352 or GETTING DIVORCED? THE PEOPLE AT DOMINGO LUNES AND ASSOCIATES LAW FIRM CAN HELP! Al-Anon bumper stickers would read: HONK IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR AN AL-ANON SPONSOR, or TEXT THE WORD “SPONSOR” TO #12857. You would never even have to make eye contact with your sponsor if you didn’t want to. It could be a virtual sponsor, the way people “date” people online, and then you cold skip all the hassle of having to approach somebody in real life and risk being blown off.
3. SOBRIETY TIME BUMPER STICKER: Ex: JASON: SOBER 10 YEARS, SIX DAYS… maybe with a little flap that you can flip over anew each day, like desk calendars in office cubicles and banks. And then other recovering alcoholics can beep as you pass by them on the freeway, the way people with college bumper stickers get excited whenever they recognize someone from the same school. These bumper stickers could prove a really effective way of creating a sense of community on the open road.
4. CLASSIC DRAMA TRIANGLE BUMPER STICKERS: Involve the whole family: THE VICTIM. THE PURSUER. ALCOHOLICS “R” US bumper stickers with stick figures (mom, dad, kids, dog) and everybody’s name underneath. Pamphlets. Key chains. The possibilities are endless!
* ALA-TOTS/ALA-TOTS: Because why should adults and teens have all the fun? Montessori method? Mommy & Me sessions?
* AL-ANON REALITY SHOW: Like Celebrity Rehab but with a focus on the fools that stay around long enough to suffer irreparable damage long after their counterparts have sobered up.
But in the end, my serious side and the longing for recovery wins out, and at the risk of sounding like I’m mimicking somebody else’s sadness, my share goes something like this:
MALINA: “My name is Malina.”
GROUP #4: “Hi Malina.”
MALINA: “I don’t have a sponsor.” (A quiet beat) I’m not sure why – fear of rejection is probably the primary reason. The fear of finding myself in another difficult relationship. The fear of making progress. The fear of not making progress. The fear of change. But I really need a sponsor. So I’m just putting it out there. Because the… (Searches for the appropriate word) quiet horror of living with a recovering alcoholic makes daily living pretty difficult. And I don’t really have anybody to talk to about it. I feel like an emotional hostage most of the time, scared that I’ll make one false move and my husband will go back to drinking. And I know that I’m not accountable for his sobriety, but he tries to make me feel as though I am. The constant threats. ‘I can always drink,’ he says. ‘If you leave me then I’ll go to the bar.’ When you marry an alcoholic you marry an alcoholic for life – no matter whether or not he ever drinks again. I’m not sure there’s a better way to say it: Living with a dry drunk sucks. And I know that he’s in pain – deep emotional pain – but is that just him being a jerk or is this alcoholism? And I can’t help wondering, where does the person end and the alcoholic begin?”
There’s no applause. There aren’t any laughs. But there’s a lot of nodding, some head shaking, and one woman squeezes her eyes shut and draws a long, slow breath as though deep in a meditative trance that has nothing to do with me whatsoever. Afterwards a woman comes up to me.
“My husband is a dry drunk, too,” she says, and I think this is going to be one of those helpful conversations. “I wish he would go to some meetings. But as we know, it’s not my place to say anything.”
“My husband goes to meetings. He goes to like five AA meetings a week.”
“Oh,” she says. “So he’s not a dry drunk.”
“He’s technically sober but he has all the behavior of an active alcoholic.”
“That’s not a dry drunk.”
“Yes it is.”
This is not one of those helpful conversations.
“The definition of a dry drunk is somebody who’s not working any sort of a program,” she says, tilting her head to the side.
There’s something familiar about her. The short spikey hair, the passive-aggressive grin. Then I realize – it’s Self-Righteous Lord’s Prayer Defender from a year earlier.
“He’s not working any sort of a program,” I retort. “He just goes to meetings. So far as I can tell, he’s not working the steps.”
“That’s really not your place to say.”
“I never said it was. Look, we’re just splitting hairs here – ”
“No. I’m right. I’m sorry to say, but your husband is not a dry drunk.” She says this as though she’s delivering a fatal diagnosis.
“OK,” I said, hoping she’ll disintegrate into thin air.
“Well, anyway, I completely identify,” she says, patting me on the back. “Keep coming back!”
Fat chance, I think to myself. Followed by: You annoying self-righteous bitch.
But then as luck would have it, or maybe it’s my non-denominational Higher Power sweeping down from up above, we all link hands and the meeting ends with the Serenity Prayer.