Sponsored in Part
It was Sunday morning and I was heading to Hollywood to try a new meeting where I was supposed to meet up with my husband’s sponsor from AA. He’s a double winner—someone in both AA and Al-Anon—which means not only is he struggling with his own sobriety, but that of pretty much everyone else he knows. That’s the thing about addiction—it hates being alone. It will do anything and everything to pair up with somebody else, will claw its way through entire crowds and pull as many people down as it can. Because it’s a popular meeting—and there are an endless number of meetings in Los Angeles—I drove around in circles for twenty minutes trying to find a parking space and wound up spending seven bucks to park in a lot across from the Starbucks across from the senior citizen center on Las Palmas where the meeting was being held.
Since it’s Hollywood, it’s often difficult to tell the difference between tired, wary, depressed people going to an Al-Anon meeting and aspiring, strung-out rock stars that have been up all night partying, playing guitar and snorting Ritalin while cutting their demo. At first I think the cluster of leather-jacketed, nose-pierced patrons bottlenecked in the entrance of the jam-packed Starbucks are the latter, and I don’t want to be late, so I turn back around and head for the meeting where I’m sure they’ll have coffee and snacks anyway.
But as I’m walking toward the meeting I see that everyone standing around the senior center entrance has a Starbucks cup in their hand, which must mean the coffee at this meeting sucks, which makes me a little panicky because I have a really hard time sitting still through anything for an hour and a half without being sufficiently caffeinated (which likely qualifies me for another program, but nonetheless).
The reason I was going to this meeting in the first place is because I really wanted to get a sponsor. I needed to get a sponsor. I’d been going to meetings for a year and still hadn’t found one. My husband landed his sponsor within a day of leaving rehab and I was starting to feel really competitive. My husband had already sucked up enough of the attention in our marriage—drug addiction, unemployment, a fancy rehab center that cost more than a semester of college. And now I envied that every time we got into a fight about us never having enough money or our careers going nowhere or our kids wetting the bed and shitting in the bathtub or how the fuck were we going to pay for preschool, he had someone to call. Then they talked it out and afterwards my husband seemed calm, sometimes even with a soft edge of serenity. I had no one to call except my shrink and he never answered the phone. I’d wanted a sponsor for months.
I tried many times to muster up the guts to ask somebody, and aggressively scouted potentials. I considered a few people—there was a celebrity I thought about asking because I loved her last movie and a guy who was going to beauty school in-between video directing gigs who was then going to start work on his novel who colored my hair for free after calling out my emerging gray roots in front of everybody at my regular Saturday meeting. But neither were appropriate sponsors (for obvious reasons). Anyway, I’d chickened out with both and then didn’t really know who to ask or who wanted to do it, and then couldn’t really figure out who had enough recovery to be of any real use. My fear of rejection kept getting in the way. I left every meeting with a new five-cent pamphlet (So far, I’d worked my way through humility; detachment; understanding alcoholism; understanding ourselves and one called ‘Just for Today’) and a colossal sense of failure made all the more pronounced by the fact that I didn’t have a sponsor to call and cry about the fact that I didn’t have one. So I promised myself that by the time my first “birthday” in the program rolled around, I would finally take the plunge. Come hell or high water, I was going to this meeting to get a sponsor.
That Sunday I was actually feeling pretty confident because my husband’s sponsor gushed about how “amazing” the meeting was and how cool the people were in it: “Dude, there’s a lot of recovery in that room. She’ll get a sponsor in a second.” So I went to the meeting with pretty high hopes, the Al-Anon slogan: “Even if you don’t like us, you’ll love us all in a very special way, the same way we already love you,” playing on a loop in my head as I glided through the senior center’s heavy glass doors.
I made my way toward a little table in the lobby where a spread of coffee, carrots, hummus and cookies was laid out on a plastic gingham-plaid tablecloth. The coffee sucked, as suspected, but I drank it anyway because I was desperate. Then I helped myself to a handful of Trader Joe’s candy cane flavored Joe-Joe’s. Nibbling one self-consciously, I peered around at all the people talking to one another over dog-eared copies of One Day at a Time in Al-Anon and Courage to Change. People kept slogging through the door, their tight hipster pants slung low below their tan, flat bellies, gun belts with silver and brass grommets buckled around their hips, making beelines for one another like they knew exactly where to go, like they were the popular kids in the cafeteria and I was the loser eating my lunch in the principal’s office because it was less humiliating than eating alone. I stepped into the giant room where at least a hundred people were already seated and spotted my husband’s sponsor right away.
Because the whole program is based on anonymity, I’m not supposed to name names or use any specific descriptions or mention any conversations heard in any meeting. I feel pretty guilty writing about any of this, which is something that I struggle with a lot as a writer. But the alternative is not writing which is like not breathing which would make me dead. Al-Anon doesn’t want me dead. Al-Anon wants me better.
In any case, I’m pretty sure I’m not giving too much away by describing my husband’s sponsor as a dead ringer for the character Ignatius J. Reilly on the paperback cover of The Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius Sponsor was big and balloon-like, with an orange ski hat squished atop his round, bulbous head. He wore thick, yellow-rimmed glasses and had on baggy green pants that slid down just enough to reveal the cotton bulge of gray-checkered boxer shorts. A keychain clanging with at least a half-dozen keys was clipped to a black canvas belt.
“You must be Malina,” he said, extending his meaty hand.
“You must be Ignatius.”
He invited me to sit down next to him and a tall, lanky guy who, turns out, was one of the regulars at my Saturday meeting. He’d been one of the ones to spin around when my beauty school almost-sponsor called out my grays.
“So how are things?” asked Ignatius.
“Oh, you know how things are.”
I’d meant it sarcastically, but this is was probably not the best way to start a relationship with your husband’s AA sponsor. Ignatius responded with a terse clearing of the throat.
“Mostly we just talk about Sam,” he said, meaning my husband.
“Oh,” I replied. “So he never talks about me?”
Ignatius jangled his keys. “I’m not allowed to say.”
I carefully placed my plate of cookies on the floor and looked down the long row of chairs to check if there was anybody else having a passive-aggressive argument with their spouse’s AA sponsor. There wasn’t. It actually looked the exact opposite. People seemed engaged in sunny, upbeat conversation, hugging one another in that touchy-feely, 12-step group sort of way, the kind of meeting where all the women act like lesbians even if they’re not. One woman was massaging another woman’s back, and with her free hand was patting down her shiny curtain of long, straight, ’70s Cher-like hair. They were both wearing wraparound shawls and turquoise jewelry that looked like it came from the Albuquerque Airport gift shop. Further down, there was a short white girl with a navel ring and dreds that rested her head upon the shoulder of a guy wearing a red flannel shirt and dark sunglasses even though we were inside an auditorium. I didn’t want to be any of those people, but I also didn’t want Ignatius turning his back to me and getting up to say hello to about fifty other people while I sat in my chair next to the guy who knew I colored my hair.
Finally, the meeting got started. All the usual things happened: people shared, laughed, cried, there was a lot of nodding. People clapped at the end of each share. We recited the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions and passed around a little basket for donations. A once-suicidal girl thanked the program for saving her life. One guy raised his hand and said he wanted to share because he’d never shared despite being in the program for five years.
I thought about sharing, but this room was large and cold and cavernous, and Ignatius kept looking around like he was trying to ignore me, which I found pretty distracting. Plus, I hadn’t prepared anything. I know Al-Anon’s not supposed to be a performance, but I get really nervous anytime I do any sort of public speaking. My regular meeting is filled with extremely funny people and my breathing grows uneven and my heart usually starts to pound a bit while I’m deciding whether or not to raise my hand. If someone’s just shared and made everybody laugh, I generally hold off until someone’s share is not so great. The same goes for someone’s really sad or tragic share. (I was at a meeting once where a guy opened up about his sister’s sudden death and the Emmy-nominated star of a network TV series started bawling her eyes out; there was no way I was going to go after that). To avoid any potential embarrassment, I generally plot and plan my “share,” running over the week’s chaos and crises in my head. Then I edit, amp up every punch line, angling to produce something that will make everybody in Al-Anon think I’m the coolest 12-stepper they’ve ever met.
Five minutes left in the meeting and the leader asked anyone who wanted to sponsor to stand. They never did this in my Saturday meeting, which accounted for much of my ambivalence in asking anyone. You just sort of had to guess who wanted to do it. Now, my sponsor was going to stand. This was the moment I’d been waiting for.
About four or five people shot up from their seats: the girl with the navel ring and dreads, a guy in a baseball hat, a man with a swastika tattooed on his shaved head, and the guy who’d raised his hand to share because he’d never shared. Swastika was out for obvious reasons—although I probably shouldn’t judge—as was the girl with the navel ring and dreads because I was nervous she’d want to make out or something, and the guy with the baseball hat was sitting a mile away on the other side of the room and sat down before I could get a good enough look at his face.
The guy who’d never shared was the one sitting closest to me, which is why I decided that he was going to be my sponsor. Because I’m astigmatic even with my contact lenses, my peripheral vision is not so great, and he was pretty much the only one I could see clearly as I swung around to look at everybody. He had on this super cool nerdy brown argyle sweater vest that looked like it was fished from the dollar bin at Jetrag, and round tortoise shell glasses. He kind of looked like Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine in all the flashback scenes, with a quirky sideways half-smile.
Everybody linked hands and we ended the meeting with the serenity prayer. The serenity prayer is my favorite thing about Al-Anon. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can… Everything about it makes perfect sense. I feel instantly relieved whenever I recite it.
I kept track of Ryan as we filed out of the room—there were so many of us, it was like attempting to exit a South American soccer match without getting stampeded—and tried hard to evade the inevitable goodbye to Ignatius.
“So, how are the kids?” he asked, squished against me in the crowd.
“Great,” I said, adding a scoff for emphasis. “They’re actually the two best things about my marriage.”
Then another guy waved him over and Ignatius took off. A month or so later, Ignatius came to our house for dinner. He played games with my kids, holding them by their feet as they swung from his hands and laughed. But at that moment on that Sunday, all I knew was that the person upon whom I was counting to find my sponsor fled past me with such frantic haste. I could feel a bubble of warm autumn air as he brushed past me.
I caught up with Ryan right outside the doors of the senior center where a red-haired girl with an iPhone was snapping photographs of his feet.
“I have a shoe blog,” she told him. “Those are really amazing loafers. I’d love to post a picture of them if that’s OK.”
“Hi,” I interrupted. “I’m —”
Ryan held up his finger. “Wait a sec,” he said.
While Shoe Girl snapped a few pictures, I focused on his shoes, trying to figure out what is was about them that made them so blog-worthy (and why she took zero interest in my Minnetonka moccasins). Finally, she backed up a bit.
“I’m looking for a sponsor?” I said meekly.
“Oh yea?” said Ryan.
I didn’t think it was going to be this way. I thought I’d ask and he’d just say yes. He’d stood up, after all. Suddenly, my heart felt like a cement weight in my stomach. It had taken me a year to work up the nerve to ask somebody and now my advances were being publicly rebuffed. I could literally feel myself getting smaller in the room, shrinking down to the size of a six-month sobriety chip, like Alice in Al-Anonland.
Ryan looked away from me and fidgeted. He dug his hands into his pockets, and kicked around a Hacky Sack with the foot that was being photographed.
“I think if I were a woman I’d want a woman to sponsor me,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
Shoe Girl pressed her iPhone against her thigh. “It’s a rule,” she said. “You have to have the same sex sponsor.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “I know plenty of guys who have women sponsor them.”
“No.” She shook her head repeatedly. “They’re breaking the rules.”
“Maybe every meeting is different.”
“No. They’re breaking the rules.”
“I know a woman who’s been in program for twenty-three years that sponsors a guy.”
“She’s doing it wrong.”
I wanted to tell her to fuck off, but in Al-Anon we’re advised it’s better not to say that sort of thing. So instead I said, “Well, do you know any women that might want to do it?”
“Let me introduce you to my friend, Tamara L.”
Tamara L was short and stout and had whiteheads on her chin and wore a purple v-neck sweater and little crosses in her ears. I knew instantly this was never going to work. Again, I know that sounds really judgmental, but all the Al-Anon literature says that it’s okay to have flaws so long as you are ready and willing to have the “God of your understanding” remove any and all shortcomings. But that was step three and I hadn’t even began the steps, not really anyway, because I didn’t have a sponsor with whom to do them. I was a flailing, fledgling, deeply imperfect Al-Anon novice.
We stood around waiting for Tamara L to finish her conversation with another guy—mid-20’s, sports T-shirt, clear blue petulant eyes that looked like they were wounded and screaming in pain. Finally, Ryan politely interrupted Tamara L and gently pushed me toward her.
“Hi,” said Ryan. “This is —”
“Malina is looking for a sponsor.”
“Uh-huh. ” Tamara L looked up at me and nodded a few times like she wasn’t into it either.
In a flash, Ryan was gone.
“I’m looking for someone, you know, who I can maybe do a step or two with,” I told Tamara L.
Tamara L scrutinized at me with a long, sidelong glance. “No,” she said, shaking her head disapprovingly. “It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to commit and be serious about it.”
“I am serious about it,” I said, an edge of desperation in my voice. “My husband’s been sober for about a year but we’re struggling. We fight all the time. All he talks about is drinking. He still doesn’t have a steady job. He’s depressed. I’m depressed. Our kids don’t sleep through the night. I can’t finish my novel. I’m exhausted—”
“The first year of sobriety is always the worst,” she cut in. “Addicts get crazy that first year.”
“So….” It was small torture, like asking someone to prom, and I didn’t even like her. “…Can you be my sponsor?”
She hesitated a long moment. “Why don’t you read the chapter on ‘The Wives’ in The Big Book,” she eventually replied, referring to Alcoholics Anonymous, originally published in 1938 and credited to AA-founder Bill Wilson, or Bill W. as most in the program still refer to him. “Then let me know what you think. We can take it from there.” She wrote her number on the back of a card and handed it to me.
I got in the car and cried. Then I called my shrink and left a message, pissed off that he wasn’t there and feeling worse than before I left the message. Then I called my husband and picked a magnificent, venomous, rage-filled fight. If he weren’t a recovering alcoholic-drug-addict then none of this would have happened. I didn’t choose any of this. This wasn’t what I wanted. I’d been cheated out of a marriage that was rightfully mine. I felt despondent and adrift, selfish, cruel, angry and unreasonable. I was a fractured bone, a snapped ligament, a ripe, sliced-open vein. I was a broken blood vessel, streaking red everywhere I went. I was a Royal Al-Anon Fuck-up Failure.
And I had gray hairs.
After my husband hung up on me I parked my car on an empty side street and rung Rebecca, an old timer in my Saturday meeting. She had 17 years in program and seemed to have a pretty good handle on all this 12-step stuff. I’d thought about asking her to be my sponsor, but she was a bit self-righteous. She once called me out for mentioning the name of a particular magazine in a meeting—We don’t name outside publications—and repeatedly referred to herself as a ‘recovering asshole.’ She was also a Republican, which I thought was pretty weird because she had brown curly hair and wore Birkenstocks. She admitted to having Foxnews.com bookmarked on her computer. But in Al-Anon we learn to “Take what you like and leave the rest.” And Rebecca’s shares were always inspirational and motivational and she was really good at doling out reasonable and sound advice. So I told her about Ignatius and Ryan and his nerdy brown sweater vest and Shoe Girl and how sad and depressed and disappointed I was because I was never ever going to find a sponsor. I should just give up on Al-Anon, I told her.
She gently talked me down and told me to not be so hard on myself. Progress not perfection, she told me. She said that I should take my time in finding a sponsor, go to lots of different meetings, and listen to people’s shares, get numbers, call people. I would find my sponsor. It just might not be today.
“Don’t wait too long to get a sponsor,” she suggested. “But don’t rush into anything. And don’t pick one based on his sweater vest.”
Even if she was a Republican and a recovering asshole, I knew that Rebecca was right.
The next morning, I cracked open the Al-Anon directory and drove to another meeting.