12 Steps on Buddha’s Path - Selections

Bill, Buddha, and We

Part One: Bill W.

“I am an alcoholic.”

 

 

1: Has It Come to This?

 

 

I walked down Hudson Street until I reached the corner. I stopped and looked up at the street sign: Bank Street. I checked my watch: 6:55 pm. I opened the notebook to see where I was supposed to be going: “St. Luke’s in the Village, where Grove Street intersects Hudson.” I moved on to the next corner and read the sign: West 11th Street. It was 6:59 pm. Forty-three electroshock “treatments” had left my mind so porous that I had to go through this agenda at every corner in order to reach St. Luke’s for the Monday night AA Beginner’s Meeting, seven blocks from my apartment in New York City.

I recently had signed myself out of one of New England’s most prestigious hospitals—highly esteemed, but highly ignorant about alcoholism. When the gurney wheeled me into the emergency room after yet another suicide attempt, the medical staff fought for my life. No one, including my closest friends, could understand why I wanted to die so much that I would swallow a bottle of sleeping pills or slash my wrists, which I had done in another attempt. So the hospital psychiatric staff did the only thing they knew to do for “severe depression”: they fried my brains with electroconvulsive “therapy” (ECT), leaving me with permanently impaired memory as well as the original depression that I now know was incubated within the disease of alcoholism. But none of my “friends” ever questioned my drinking. I was too intelligent and accomplished to be an alcoholic—wasn’t I?—to fit their stereotype of a drunk stumbling down the street in the Bowery. And if they wondered about my drinking, they’d have to look at their own, because I always hung out with people who drank at least as much as I did.

So I slithered into St. Luke’s—peeking out from under a large floppy hat that almost met my upturned collar. I was in disguise. I had taken a seat in the back of the room before I realized there was a coffee urn, and I didn’t want to get up again, because someone might guess that I hadn’t known the meeting had coffee and was a newcomer. Besides, my hand was shaking too much to hold a cup without splashing the coffee. I was like a teenager again, self-consciously sure that everyone was looking at me. When the meeting started, people turned their attention to a man in the front of the room reading something called the AA Preamble, so I risked glancing around. The room was crowded and smoky, but I didn’t see too many of the self-righteous Bible-thumpers or dere licts I had expected. There were people of all ages, and most were African Americans. Some were well dressed, but I focused only on the relatively few obvious street people. The man finished reading, smiled, and said, “I’d especially like to welcome the newcomers here tonight.” My heart sank and I thought, “Has it come to this?” Yes, it had. I had never thought I would find myself in a church basement with a bunch of drunks, but here I was. The chairperson asked if anyone new would like to introduce themselves, and I submerged even deeper below my collar, certain that no one would mistake me for a newcomer.

Then strange things began to happen. People raised their hands and told the most intimate stories about themselves, and others laughed. I was baffled. Why would anyone humiliate themselves that way? And why was everyone laughing? There was absolutely nothing amusing to me about facing a life without a civilized cocktail before or a good wine with dinner. The prospect was just too dreary. I was sure I’d never smile—much less laugh—ever again.

At one point I glanced at the front wall. About ten hand-lettered signs were randomly hung. It was bad enough (for my obsessive mind) that hardly any of them were straight, but these simplistic “slogans” made me want to gag: One Day at a Time; Think; and Live and Let Live. One of what looked like two oversize eye-test charts was labeled “The Twelve Suggested Steps”; the other was “The Twelve Traditions.” I didn’t know what they said, because I could see only the word “God” and some sappy euphemisms like “Higher Power” that didn’t fool me a bit. I had finally cut through my denial enough to consider the possibility that alcohol could be at the core of my problems, but now there was a new barrier to the future: all that God stuff. I was much too sophisticated to believe in a Creator God, and I despaired of being able to fit into a group that I instinctively knew was my last, best—and only—hope.

I went home that night and called the woman I had asked to be my AA sponsor (my spiritual guide in the program) that very morning, obviously a major mistake in judgment. I was totally steamed and whined, “Why did you send me to that meeting? I have nothing in common with all those people!”

She paused, then responded, “You’re right. You don’t have anything in common with them. They know how to keep things simple; you don’t. They know how to be grateful; you don’t. They know how to stay sober; you don’t. Keep going back.” Then she hung up.

I’d had my first lesson in that rare species of honesty known as tough love.

 

How to cite this document:
© Laura S., 12 Steps on the Buddha's Path (Wisdom Publications, 2006)

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