I left that first AA meeting with something I never had before: phone numbers. I showed David and Robert, and they validated the accomplishment. For most people, it’s probably a very small thing. But for the person struggling with addiction, that kind of trust is reserved for dealers and other connections. Anyone outside of that circle is suspect, especially those in recovery. I’d never sought phone numbers for this reason before. It felt weird, but good.
For years, I wrote off AA as a joke. Of course, the punchline ended up being on me, but being a conniving 22-year-old, I didn’t give a shit. My experience at that meeting is not common, so I’m not making a comment on AA at this point. That comes later. But for now, this is what happened.
I got into a lot of trouble my first few months after bootcamp. I had two severe alcohol-related incidents, one which led to some serious charges and a General Court Martial, the other with a suicide attempt. I ultimately got away with all my BS, all charges were dismissed, and thought I was free and clear, until I ran into the Senior Chief at the school Commands Drug and Alcohol Program Advisor (DAPA) office. I was signing my last paperwork with the First Class Petty Officer, just a routine hoop to jump through when my charges got dismissed. Senior Chief wasn’t having it, and he lit into me loud and clear. Just because the charges were dropped, he had the authority to order me to AA, once a week, for six weeks. I knew enough not to call his bluff: one does not mess around with Senior Chiefs. They might not be Officers, but they know everyone on the command, and can make ones life hell if they want to. I agreed, gave my best “I’m innocent but I want to be a good sailor” speech that usually worked. It didn’t.
“Did you just tell me you want to be a good sailor? Not one fucking thing you’ve done to date tells me that, you useless piece of shit. Get the fuck out of my office. Drop off your AA card at the front. I don’t want to see your scumbag ass in my office again. Are we fucking clear?”
“Yes, Senior Chief.”
I got the fuck out, knowing I didn’t fool him for a second. The next day, during chow, I went to the meeting. It was a small meeting, smoking allowed. The one thing I got out of it was discovering that coffee gave one a certain…buzz. I liked it, though it tasted gawd-awful. I never drank it prior to that, and I quickly became a convert. With enough sugar and cream, 3 cups was enough to get me going.
I didn’t intend to talk, but the coffee got me feeling like I had a small jolt of meth, which always made me talk my ass off. I gave them a highly-rehearsed sob story, and they all bought into it. This wasn’t a regular AA meeting, where I probably wouldn’t get that kind of sympathy. The meeting devolved into an airing of grievances: it was AA in name only. I also picked up a sponsor, who took me out fishing with his son while we drank a few beers. I cruised through the Senior Chief’s ‘order’, taking passive-aggressive satisfaction that ultimately, I learned how to control my drinking. So much for AA, and so much for controlling my drinking…
This time around, I remembered that experience and imagined that old Senior Chief giving me a stern I told you so. The joke was on me. I’ve come to love and respect that guy, since he was one of the few who openly saw through me and tried to help, the only way he could. In some strange way, it did help, and I was at the right place, as Joe had told me.
I had numbers. I wrote “Given to me by Fete, August 12th, 1992.” I had a feeling, one could say a delusional fantasy at the time, that this time I was serious. I was. I slept a bit that night, and throughout the next day. I actually felt guilty that I didn’t make a meeting the next day. David called to check on me, told me he’d keep tabs on how I was doing. He was a quiet, gentle person. I never got to know him well, as we attended different meetings. He assured me I’d be ok, gave me some “easy does it” and reminded me I didn’t have to attend everyday. I slept even easier after that.
Later in the evening, I got my first phone call, from Andy. My ringer was off, so he left a message.
“Hey. It’s Andy. From the meeting. Just calling to say I love you, man. Hope I see you Friday night.”
Picking up the phone, it weighs a ton. Getting your first call though, and a call is like a drug. I kept the ringer on after that. Up to that point, I got maybe one call a month, usually my mom asking why I haven’t called in a month. I’d been very aloof from my family for years. There’s not much to talk about when you don’t have much to talk about aside from drinking and the really good weed you got last week. That was changing, and I knew it. It made things a lot easier, as I look back on it.
The next day, David offered to take me to the Davis Saturday Noon meeting. I wasn’t ready for that, but we did talk a bit, so I guess it counted. I spent the rest of the weekend trying to sleep, which got better, and getting ready to get back to work. I still had an inner calm, as much a resignation as anything else, I guess. I just went through the motions of self-care, the kind of stuff I’d learned in Treatment. All of the cute phrases like “Easy Does It,” “One Step at a Time,” and “Keep an Attitude of Gratitude” kept going through my head. I tried to read the Big Book, but it was still hard to maintain focus for very long. The weekend was fairly uneventful, except for one little thing:
I did not drink.
That Monday, I just numbed myself out, like I did when I was a kid and had to get shots. Somehow I was able to shut my thoughts off, keep my head down and make the drive to work. I checked in at the front office, letting HR and my boss, Thomas, know I was back. HR told the desk to have me sit in the lobby for a few minutes.
That’s when my ability to shut off my thoughts disappeared. What was I going to tell Thomas? He’d been my mentor for almost three years, had seen me at my best and worst more times than I could count. He endured my endless rants and chest-beating when I was his loader, gracefully accepted my promotion which displaced him from the loading dock to pulling. When I moved out on my own, he gave me an old TV so I’d have something to watch. No matter how much I pissed him off, insulted his Later Day Saints spirituality, or acted like a general asshole, he always had my back. He’s the one that gave me shot loading trucks, and then taught me most of what he knew.
How was I going to face him?
He made it easy, came down to the lobby, stood there, looked at his watch and said, “Well, it’s nice of you to show up. Let’s get to work.” He turned, walked into the main floor without waiting.
That’s the thing that made working with Thomas easy: his sarcasm While most people were sensitive to that kind of management style, I thrived on it. It gave me license for my own sarcastic side, and between us it was no-holds-barred. The other thing was his encyclopedic knowledge of all things rock, maybe not heavy metal and progressive so much. But the dude knew every player, producer, label, there was to know. He’d frequently win impromptu trivia battles we’d have, and he’d totally smoke me when it came to Motown. The warehouse divided the music stations up so everyone, from country to hip-hop had their day. Classic rock day, Tuesday, was an endless competition between us and a few others who would generally tap-out after an hour or so.
For all my worrying, he just said the most Thomas thing possible: let’s get to work.
The walk back to the Supervisors office wasn’t the walk of shame I expected, either. A few people in the pulling department came out to tap me on the shoulder, and I got a few nods from the shippers. My crew, mostly women who worked in “the bins” where small automotive items were stored and pulled, we also pretty glad to see me as well. It felt like coming home, and they made it easy.
We had our usual Monday meeting when we reviewed the orders for the coming week, logistical challenges and staffing opportunities. At first it was a parody of training we’d gone through, but somehow we all bought into it: there were no problems, only opportunities. Rodney, Tony, Sheila, Garret and myself were the pulling leads, under Thomas as the Supervisor. We also consulted with CeCe and Brock, who were the returns leads: we sometimes had to coordinate trailers for shipping back items to the stores like engine cores. We also met with the trucking supervisors, who were contracted to manage the drivers and trailers. It was all a tightly-choreographed dance, and we somehow always made it work. I was the most difficult lead to work with, of which I was painfully aware of sitting in that room and silently eating crow. I’d been moved off the shipping dock to “tame” my more aggressive tendencies, and so far it had worked.
Of the Leads in my department, Shiela was the most supportive. She was in charge of the crew that stacked pallets of oil, which made the base for the pallets the shippers would build to be put on the trailer. As a loader and then shipping lead, I wasn’t exactly passive about what we needed from her crew, and one would think I’d burned my bridges with her long ago. Nowadays I’d be “cancelled,” and for good reason, as I confused assertiveness with being abusive. For the record, I’ve never blamed my drinking for my disposition: I was an asshole.
And yet, Sheila stood behind me. It was quite humbling.
Whatever the upcoming opportunities were, we had a plan for resolving them. We always did, and no one addressed the elephant in the room. When it was obvious I was about to, Thomas simply squinted his eyes and shook his head. I sat back, gave him an embarrassed look.
“Craig wants to see you,” was all he said.
Craig was the Distribution Center (DC) Manager. He was every bit as sarcastic and “assertive” as I was. I was also one of the few who could give it back to him. At times. This was not one of those times.
I walked upstairs to his office, which had huge windows that overlooked the rest of the DC. He stood with his back to me, his ubiquitous back brace hanging loosely around him. He always had that brace on, and had it fully cinched whenever he was on the floor. He expected, and got, the same from us. Without turning, he spoke to me. I’m pretty sure he enjoyed how far he could take his theatrics with me, and the tone in his voice told me he was about to have a good time.
“Sooo,” he said, about an octave above hi normal speaking voice. “I guess you’ve had an interesting couple of weeks?”
I said nothing, knowing it was rhetorical.
“We’ve had an interesting couple of weeks ourselves. Fifteen percent absence rate, a couple of on the job injuries. But that’s ok. Garrett worked some OT, covered the bins for you. I’m glad to hear you’re ok though.”
“I also hear you called EAP, notified Greg right away you were having…problems. Is that right?”
Again, I said nothing.
“I guess you’re still having a tough time. Let me ask again. You set up appointments with EAP and let HR know what was happening. Do I have that right?”
“There you go. I missed that voice of yours. But you usually have so much more to say…”
He finally turned around.
“Oh no. Everything’s fine. I’m just making sure you’re being taken care of. That’s the kind of guy I am. Besides, it’s between you and HR. I just need to know that you contacted them, went through Employee Assistance and all that so I can make my report. You know, to make sure we’re following all the laws and regulations.”
I’d never seen, or heard, him that pissed off. I still said nothing, and he walked up to me, stood maybe two inches away. I was a good three inches shorter than I was, but I still felt pretty small. His voice went very quiet, normal range.
“I know you went through a hard time. And I’m not gonna lie, I’m disappointed you couldn’t come to me. You’ve come a long, long way as a Lead. But you’re going to have to re-earn the respect and trust of a lot of people. You understand me?”
“You’ve put me in an interesting spot. On the one hand, I should fire you. I can’t, because HR reported you went through them. We both know you didn’t, but I’m not gonna fight it. If anything like this happens again, you’re gone. I don’t care what protection you have, I don’t care if I lose in court or wherever. You’re gone. Are we clear?”
I nodded again. He tapped my shoulder.
“Don’t expect a clean slate, it isn’t happening. Don’t confuse this with a second chance, because this is the only chance. I expect nothing short of perfect, Scott. No complaints from the crew, no more tantrums, no more posturing. You are to be as humble and quiet as I am.” He smiled, stood back a step.
“So, how are you doing today.”
I smiled, nodded, waived my hand horizontally in a slicing motion. “Placid lake, Craig.”
He did the same motion, nodded. “Damn right. Placid lake. Now go prove this wasn’t a waste of time.”
I nodded again, turned and left. I felt oddly elated, even though I’d been slammed pretty hard. The fact remained that I did have a second chance, though the warning was loud and clear.
I got home roughly on time, relieved that the day was over. Somehow, after not calling in for about a week, and then extending another week, I still had a job. One that I liked, and I wanted to keep it. I spent the day writing in my journal and then listening to music for the first time in what seemed forever.
I tried the stuff I was listening to just two weeks prior, but it was too much. I felt dirty and confused, as Pearl Jam and the Singles soundtrack took me right back to those drunken days on the porch. I went back to classic rock as well, like Santana’s live album Lotus, but it reminded me too much of my early stoner days.
For a brief moment, I was afraid that my new-found sobriety would mean that I had to give up the most important thing in my life. Instead, I went back to the album that started it all for me, Black Sabbath Vol 4. It was the first album I ever bought with my own money, on my 12th Birthday in 1975. Beer and pot were years away from me at that point, and I never associated Sabbath with drug use, which is as ironic as Kyuss being the inspiration for my recovery later on. Regardless, listening to that album, and all of them until Mob Rules, took me back to that time in my life before I even smelled the scent of sweet leaf. I let the lyrics course though me, bring up countless memories like a montage in a movie:
Long ago, I wandered through my mind
In the land of fairy-tales and stories
Lost in happiness I know no fears
Innocence and love was all I knew
It was an illusion
Heavy music had sometimes had a sedating effect on me, dating back to those pre-teen years when I’d spend hours with headphones on. Before the song was half-way through, I was in that twilight state between sleep and awareness. I let the music live through me, in my, let it carry me where it willed, without resistance. I came back to wakefulness to the high-hat cymbal announcing the arrival of Supernaut, awake and refreshed for the first time all month. I was already recovering what I’d lost.
That night I felt restless, knowing full well that if I was serious about this stuff, I had to start going to meetings. 90 meetings in 90 days is what I’d always heard, and on the inside I was definitely ready to take that suggestion. Which meant I had to overcome my driving-phobia, because those meetings were either in Vacaville or Davis. But that was for another day: for now, I just had to get to sleep, wake-up, and get my ass to work.
Again, work was pleasant enough. Thomas still pushed-back whenever I tried to talk about what had happened, and the other Leads avoided the subject as well. I also knew that there was a bit of a buzz going on, and I saw the eyes looking away as soon as I looked in their direction. For whatever reason, it didn’t bother me.
That night, I made it to the meeting, showing up a half-hour early to help set-up the chairs and get the coffee ready. I relished the applause when I raised my hand as a Newcomer, already anticipating the 30-day coin I just knew I was going to get, in just under 3 weeks. I found a schedule of meetings, but it was over a year old. I could have asked, but was still a bit too shy. I saw a Thursday Dixon meeting with a question mark next to it, and I decided to go check it out.
Wednesday was more of the same. My anxiety in sitting in my room after work was increasing, and I knew I couldn’t keep doing this. “90 in 90” was my goal. I was resolved to do something the next day, and find that question mark meeting.
After another calm day at work, realizing it was a little too calm, I went home and highlighted the route to the mysterious meeting, which was at 6 o’clock. As I figured, the church I got to was closed, the parking lot empty. I knew the chances were slim, but I just needed to do something.
I got frustrated anyway, and tossed my map of Dixon in the back seat, and drove around at random. Within a couple of turns I was hopelessly lost, but I kept going anyway. I knew full-well how small the town was, realized how small my own little world was, considering how I’d never been in this part of town before. The houses seemed a bit older, with pot holes in the street. I could see the rough and uneven sidewalks form the road. Still, the trees were also old, mostly oak. It reminded me a bit of the neighborhood from when I was a little kid, maybe four-years-old, in Lakewood, Ohio. It had that feel about it: middle and working-class housing, mostly brick with paint chipping on the porches.
I took a random right, and saw what had to be a school. Unlike the church from earlier, the lights were on and the parking lot was occupied, with a couple of motorcycles and maybe three cars. Standing outside were a handful of people standing in a semi-circle, plumes of cigarette smoke curling into the air. A couple wore leather jackets, obviously bikers.
I knew right away what was going on, smiled to myself. Going completely numb at what I was doing, again switching to auto-pilot, I pulled into the parking lot. At the glass double-door I got confirmation as the people opened it and went inside, a white sign taped to the outside with a circle containing a square, turned on it’s side, with two simple letters in capitals: NA.
I didn’t let myself think. I blew the smoke out of my own lungs, put out the but before I opened the door. Then I walked in, following sound of the voice beginning the reading, “What is the NA Program.”
There were about seven people inside, and I recognized Joe from the AA meetings. He was seated at the table, obviously the Chair or the meeting. He smiled when he saw me, met my eyes and nodded. Everyone else was in another circle, and I took an empty chair right in the middle. In all the readings took about 10 minutes, far longer than the AA meeting. I wish I could remember what was discussed, but I was overwhelmed at being there, and yet felt at home at the same time. It was trippy.
Before I knew it, it was time for the smoke break.
Joe sought me out right away, gave me a hug. Then he got a somber look on his face.
“Hey, Scott. How much clean time do you have?”
I knew by heart. “Thirteen days. Why?”
He tried to hide the urgent smile on his face, but he just blurted it out.
“Well, “ he said a little loudly. “I’ve been Chairing this meeting for like a year and a half. Will you, god please, will you please take over?”