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  • I sit in this little room in a large AA clubhouse, perched above a bank in Georgetown. To get here you have to ascend two sets of 12 steps – some liken them to the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA. We’re a small group, here. Up until recently, this used to be the smoking room of the clubhouse, where we meet. After the big 7:00 AA meeting, with maybe 60-75 people, broke up across the hallway, while the after-meeting smokers were getting their last smoke in before hitting the road, we would start gathering in this room. Now they go outside to smoke, but we still gather here for our weekly “meeing”, if you can call it that. It’s certainly not your typical 12 Step meeting. We begin around 8:30, and go until we’re done – could be 10:00, usually it’s more like 11 or 12. We go until we’re done. There’s no set time limit on it.

    On any given week, 7 or 8 is a big crowd. Yet, here this group has met, almost religiously, every Friday night for nearly 20 years now. Here, suffering addicts have heard a message of recovery, and a number of them have eventually experienced it for themselves. That doesn’t happen here. That happens as they work with sponsors, or, in some cases, just happens when they’re ready to let it happen. But this is where they might hear a message that breaks through the confusion, the struggle, the pain. They’ll hear it amid conversations that take place in this room, this room that has no formal meetings, no people reading from scripts or talking about their day. Nothing resembling group therapy goes on here. It isn’t like that. It’s not a support group. In this room, conversations take place. There’s no magic formula to it, no real method to the madness – and, on any given week, just walking in here, to the middle of one of these conversations, the casual observer might feel like they’ve just walked into some real madness.

    A newcomer to the group, be it someone off the street looking for a hot cup of coffee and a place to warm up, maybe a bagel and a candy bar, or someone who wandered in looking for a regular AA meeting, no matter – they’ll be welcomed, and asked about themselves. What brought you here? What do you do? How is that working for you? We find out what we can about them. We share our own experience. What we were like before, and what happened. What our lives are like today. We talk about being grateful that we suffered addiction – truly – for it was our entrée into the rich world of the spirit that we know today. We don’t stay clean and sober, here. We recover. We live. We live our lives. We come here to carry a message.

    We’re a little different than what most hear in the many meetings out there. We don’t preach that you need to go to a lot of meetings before you can be ready for this. As soon as you are ready, which can be right now if you want it to be, if you are ready to let go of hell, you can begin to experience heaven. This is our experience. We live our lives. We don’t submit ourselves to a sentence of going to meetings for the rest of our lives to try stay sober, to keep off the drugs. It’s not like that. We come to this meeting to help the next person find a way out of hell. We’re not here for ourselves. We’re taken care of, by a loving and caring higher power, some choose to call God. Me, I call it the Universe. The universe of the spirit. The term God carries too many connotations that get misconstrued. Too much baggage with that word. My idea of God is much broader than this idea that many attribute to a divine deity. I don’t believe in deities. I believe in the power and the force of Principle, of Love, of Life, of Truth, of Intelligence, of Spirit, of Soul. These are the aspects of the universal spirit that healed me, that I came to believe in.
  • As I sit here, I remember that group where I learned this, way back when, back 30 years ago, just about to the day, when I wandered into that church basement, down those steps, brought there against my own better judgment, by friends who’d found me lost, between trains at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. It was a guy I was supposedly sponsoring in the program down in Maryland, and his new girlfriend, who was part of that South Philly group. They’d taken me to her mother’s house for dinner, and then brought me to that meeting. I was living in Maryland at the time, down in Billy’s basement, but I knew that bridge was now burned, and I had no idea where I would be going next.

    I wound up in St. Rita’s basement. Andy met me at the door. It was a 2 Speaker Sunday night meeting, and he said, “Oh, good, Pete, you’re here – you’re our first speaker.” I’d spoken many times, at many meetings, at conventions with hundreds of people - I had my story down pat - I could do this. Only this time, it was right after I’d looked into the abyss. Before they found me in that train station, I had experienced a moment of devestating clarity on that train, somewhere in the swamplands of New Jersey, that was absolutely crushing at the time. It had occurred to me that, despite everything I had done, all of my efforts at bettering myself, all the meetings I had attended in nearly 4 years of sobriety, all the service work, all the writing, all the meetings I’d helped start, the Fellowship I’d helped grow, nothing had really changed. I was still the same, basic, lonely person, and nothing I did going forward was going to change that. I was nothing. I was still lost, still scared of life, still a complete mess on the inside, still that same, lost kid I’d been at 6 years old, still as messed up as I’d been in my active addiction, still as crazy as I’d been when traveling all over the country under an assumed identity when I went AWOL from the Navy, 6 years before. Nothing had changed, and nothing would. This was a horrifying moment of truth for me. I’d gotten on that train with a ticket to DC, but got off in Philadelphia for a cup of coffee and to find a place to hide. That plan did not work out so well, as I found myself staring out at the crowd of 40 or 50 addicts in that huge basement room. I was supposed to tell them my recovery story. I didn't have one. I had a story about staying clean by going to meetings - that was all I had. And I knew it.

    I told my story, but I no longer believed the words. The words left my mouth, the same ones I had told to rousing response, but they seemed to fall to the floor with a dull thud. There was no ring of truth in them, not anymore, maybe not ever – I had been fooling myself all along. I was nothing. That group met me with nothing but compassion and understanding, but I did my best to stay away from them for the next couple of months. Something kept drawing me back there, though, and I eventually heard what they were talking about there. It took me awhile – several months – before I came around, got the message, and went through the 12 Steps, like they did there, and my life immediately got better. Just like they said that it would. And, it no longer mattered, because it was no longer about me. That was the real freedom in the message. That thing that had entrapped and enslaved us all, all of us who suffered addiction or alcoholism, it wasn’t the substances that were killing us, it was the obsession with our Selves. The 12 Steps, as they were laid out in that Big Book of AA, freed us of that, and the freedom was really unbelievable. It created an amazing energy among us, an energy that was contagious.
  • That group was so dynamic. I arrived there right when it was really taking off. So many sick and desperate people were showing up there, and the group was well-positioned to handle them. It grew to hundreds that year - the energy was amazing. I wound up suffering an injury at work, and had to take 6 weeks off to allow my finger to heal - I worked in a machine shop at the time. This gave me plenty of time to spend around the group, getting to know many of the members well.

    By that fall, the group was making a lot of noise that couldn't be ignored in the rest of N.A. N.A. was on a kick about using only N.A. literature in its meetings. AA material was considered "outside literature" and not allowed in NA meetings. In their interpretation of one of the 12 traditions, this was considered "outside literature", and wasn't allowed. Another tradition states that groups were autonomous, subject only to their own group's conscience as to how they conducted their affairs. However, when NA published it's own Basic Text for recovery, they changed the wording of this tradition, thus allowing the organization to dictate to a group. This group complied with the tradition and did not bring the AA Big Book into their meetings, but members sharing about how they got well would inevitably refer to the big book, since it was through it that their sponsors guided them through the 12 steps.

    At an Area Services meeting late that fall, the group was told to cease and desist of members even making mention of the AA Big Book when they shared their story, or they would be removed from the NA meeting list. The group members there stood up and said, "well, in that case, we no longer belong here", and they walked out. They couldn't edit their experience, or leave out one of the critical details about how they escaped hell. So, they (we) became what eventually would be referred to as Addicts Anonymous. We continued to grow and thrive for a time. However, a rift within the group had already begun. A number of members did not agree with the decision to leave N.A., so they remained, and complied with the Area Services order to not talk about the AA Big Book when they shared. This marked the point from which that growing, thriving group of recovery would never quite be the same as it was that one, magical summer.
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