Monday, September 22, 2014

A small branch of a huge tree

Two weeks ago I visited the local Alcoholics Anonymous outpost, in the town of Sosnavar, pop. 800 or so and a kilometer away from us, and was struck by the awesome superficial differences—and similarities—among the millions of members and tens of thousands of branches of this remarkable organization.

In Sosnavar meetings are held in a stone granary dating back at least a century to when the town was a large hacienda and everyone worked for the owner much like in an antebellum Southern plantation but without the formal institution of slavery.


Different venue, same stories
The windowless granary felt dank and cave-like. The only natural light filtered through a few translucent plastic roof panels, half covered with dirt and leaves. Later someone climbed on a chair to screw in the lone and anemic bulb, connected to an extension cord that went out the door, garlanded over a couple of trees and disappeared somewhere in the property next door. As soon as the bulb went on a moth began circling it, projecting its shadow on the stone walls.

When I got sober in Chicago, about a year after Stew, I got to attend a myriad meetings and meeting houses, where I ran into just as many differences in people and stories of recovery.

Some meetings catered to special groups, such as gay men or women, ecstatic evangelicals or dour atheists. Some followed a special format such as reading excerpts from the Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous or listening to individuals talk about their personal travails. A few took place in discreet meeting rooms of corporations or hospitals presumably to protect the privacy of prominent attendees. One "gay" meeting I used to attend in the basement of a Catholic Church was held by candlelight that gave it the ambiance of a séance.

For pure spectacle, though, my favorite venue was the Mustard Seed, a converted Chicago firehouse not far from downtown. The name, I presume, referred to Matthew 13:31-32: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and landed in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch on its branches."
 
The seeds that landed at this meeting house, though, were more like motley wildflowers blowing in from all social and economic corners of the city: smelly homeless men; all age groups including a few teenagers; folk with years of sobriety or just days; laborers in their soiled work clothes; natty professionals in Armani suits; Gold Coast dames in fur coats smoking nervously as if waiting for miracles to occur—which often did as when individuals were able to cast, or at least hold at bay, their personal demons. Meetings were held and still are 
from early morning until late at night, though at a different location. 


Home, as humble as it may be.
Yet I never ran into an AA affair quite as dismal or startling as the one in Sosnavar. As I grabbed one of a half-dozen plastic chairs, the type usually found at beachfront cantinas, a voice in my head whispered incredulously: "Jesus Christ, if someone walked in here feeling miserable about their drinking, this joint could drive them over the cliff."

The seven o'clock meeting didn't start until twenty-past, in accordance to traditional Mexican punctuality. Even then, attendance consisted of only three other guys aside from me. A fifth guy showed up later but he was drunk and incoherent. Everyone was cordial but somewhat surprised by the arrival of a six-foot-three-inch güero, a white guy. My attempts at chit-chat in Cuban Spanish didn't break the ice.

Still, I stayed out of respect and later, growing sympathy and solidarity with this group of men trying to recover from alcoholism. As dissimilar as we were in appearance and the Spanish we spoke, we shared a common affliction.

The props, though some damaged by water leaks and general lack of housekeeping, were typical of AA meeting rooms throughout the world: posters of the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions; a small book of daily meditations; framed photos of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the two founders of AA; a table, a few chairs and a wooden lectern from which hanged a sign with the name of the group and date it was founded—not quite two years ago.

Instead of the inevitable AA coffee pot this group had a two-burner hot plate, a sauce pan, a five-gallon jug of drinking water and plastic cups for instant coffee and tea bags. The draw from heating the water caused the bulb to flicker nervously and occasionally go out altogether, in which case there was a flashlight at hand.

Health concerns about smoking haven't reached Sosnavar and so there were tin cans everywhere filled with ashes and butts. In a room this large cigarette smoke was not bothersome, and when I heard my three companions' tales about alcoholism and their struggles to recover I realized that smoking was the least of their problems.

The guy with the longest period of sobriety—20 years—was named Cruz. Though he had deep lines crisscrossing his face and gray stubble from a skimpy beard, I couldn't guess his age. The ravages of the sun, backbreaking labor plus in his case a life of hard drinking, conspired to conceal his true age. He could have been seventy or fifty years old. Later I figured that whatever his age the feat of staying sober in Sosnavar, where there are no fancy rehab centers and until two years ago not even a local AA meeting or any kind of encouragement, should qualify him for a Nobel in survival and raw cojones.

He talked very little and kept his straw hat on except when he got up to the lectern to speak. His delivery was barely audible and almost prefunctory, which combined with his rustic brand of Spanish made it hard for me to understand. He chain-smoked, elegantly holding the cigarette in his left hand, between the thumb and index finger while flicking the ashes with his pinkie. His message was one which any recovering alcoholic could nod to, about how his pride always got in the way of admitting he had a problem.

Cruz concluded by thanking God and AA for the "good and happy life" he enjoys now. Looking at his ragged clothes and face I thought that was an ironic remark until I realized how much more of a disordered mess his life must have been before quit boozing.

Then it was Gregorio's turn at the lectern, who was a younger, much more talkative and affable fellow probably in his early thirties. If you listened to his mind-boggling life story through a partition you would have guessed he was at least seventy. From his father he learned to drink pulque, a cheap tequila-like type of booze derived from cacti, and later, at eight years of age, denatured alcohol that he mixed with Coke to soften the horrible taste.

I found Gregorio's vivid way of expressing himself as amazing as the details of his life. His delivery was not florid or dramatic but the descriptions were detailed and bone-chilling. Stories about entire nights of hallucinations when he felt his body gravitating off the bed and floating away while ant-like monsters crawled on his skin, plus, in his case, the less dramatic stories of mistreating his wife and kids.

"Ultimately I realized that suicide is the worst sin in the eyes of God and drinking was my own suicide," Gregorio concluded.

A round of the customary AA applause followed and then came my turn to speak. It felt like being shoved on stage to do a comedy skit right after a set by Joan Rivers or Robin Williams.

I stammered, hemmed and hawed, and cleared my throat several times before I explained how I had stopped drinking with the help of AA, my best friend Stew and Jim Winters, a friend with whom I have lost contact.

Anything I said sounded totally lame compared to what these guys had been through until I started connecting the links of denial, arrogance, resentments and other alcoholic traits that I and these lowly Sosnavar alcoholics had in common.

They nodded knowingly as I talked and I suddenly I didn't feel so out of place anymore.




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4 comments:

  1. I've always wondered about those meeting houses I've seen off in rustic burgs, not realizing that what goes on there is the same as anyplace else. Thank you for bringing us along.

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  2. And Gregorio said, "Drinking was my own suicide". Very profound. Touched my soul for those I've lost in that very same way..........from suicide and alcohol.

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