Last night I was talking on the phone with an old friend from AA and as we talked I remembered something I hadn’t thought about in a long time.
When I was six months sober I went on a business trip to another province and stayed there for a week, doing interviews and attending conferences. I have always loved going to new AA meetings in strange places, so I called up a friendly woman and arranged to go along to an evening meeting.
When this woman whom I shall call Judy picked me up at my hotel, she seemed a little nervous. She told me as we drove through darkened streets that this group of recovering alcoholics was very special, that they were very loyal to one another, that they stood up for one another, that they did everything together and had great respect for the old-timers among them. I felt as if I was going to a gathering of saints with nicely polished haloes. Holy huddles make me antsy, so I didn’t say very much.
The meeting took a while to s tart. The chairperson welcomed us and told us how much he loved having 28 years of sterling sobriety. He dropped his notes, then he lost his place in the Big Book. He mumbled to himself. Nobody else said or did anything. The chairperson was blinking and swallowing hard, as if on the verge of tears. I couldn’t follow him when he did speak. Nothing made sense.
It dawned on me that he was very drunk. I glanced around me in a reflex movement of shock and dismay. Everyone else was staring hard at the floor.
Now I knew all about not interrupting anybody and the rule about there being no cross-talk. But this situation was, well, intolerable.
So I spoke up.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. The chairperson was startled and peered at me owlishly in amazement.
‘Don’t you want to get sober?’ I asked. A kind of jolt electrified the room and for a moment I wished the floor would open up and swallow me.
An Emperor who cares more about clothes than military pursuits or entertainment hires two swindlers who promise him the finest suit of clothes cut from the most beautiful cloth. This cloth, they tell him, is invisible to anyone who was either stupid or unfit for his position. The Emperor cannot see the (non-existent) cloth, but pretends that he can, for fear of appearing stupid; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they dress him in mime. The Emperor then goes on a procession through the capital showing off his new “clothes”. During the course of the procession, a small child cries out, “But he has nothing on!” The crowd realizes the child is telling the truth.
The chairperson began to hiccup. Then he said in a loud voice, ‘Why won’t anyone believe me?’ He got up and stumbled out of the room. A visibly shaken man at the back came forward and continued the meeting as if nothing had happened. There was almost no sharing. I think the meeting closed after 15 minutes.
While I was helping to dry dishes afterwards, the woman who had given me a lift came up. She was flustered and angry with me.
‘He deserves respect,’ she said. ‘Such a good man who has helped so many people. To be humiliated like that, shown up in front of everybody. We don’t interrupt one another in AA. Never.’
“I’m sorry,’ I said and I was. ‘It must have been terrible for all of you to see him fall to pieces like that. How heartbreaking.’
‘It was terrible,’ she said and her eyes filled with tears. ‘He came to our home for supper just after Easter and my husband said — but I couldn’t believe it. And then he was fine for a while, on so many committees, so unselfish. Then he had a fall down some stairs and we went to see him in the hospital and he insisted it wasn’t that problem, you know. And then he made these funny phone calls, accusing people of things – but he kept coming to meetings and we all loved him so much, we didn’t know what to do.’
Years ago a very wise Catholic priest told me that rules are made to be broken. He didn’t mean that rules aren’t necessary or binding for most of the time. He just said that there are exceptions to every rule. He was talking about civil disobedience and defiance of the unjust laws promulgating apartheid. The generally accepted rules in AA against cross-talk or interrupting others, personal confrontation, are there for a reason — but sometimes confronting denial may be the only way forward if the entire home group is not to become embroiled in the pretence.
I don’t know what I would do now. I might handle an issue like that more sensitively, might wait until after the meeting, might speak to others first. But I would still want to say something. It makes no sense for us to speak of ‘rigorous honesty’ if we are collaborating in a cover-up. And alcoholism is an open secret; only the alcoholic believes his or her own lies.