At the beginning of most 12-Step meetings, the chairperson asks, “Is this anyone’s first meeting ever, anytime, anywhere?” Every so often, somebody nervously raises a hand. “WELCOME!!!” shouts everyone else. Should the newcomer not immediately have a stroke, the chair usually announces that the discussion topic will be the First Step: “We admitted we were powerless over [our drug of choice/destructive behavior/This Is Us], and that our lives had become unmanageable.”
The point of a First Step meeting is for people who have been around awhile to explain how they ended up in recovery, and how their lives have improved since that time. In reality, though, things quickly deteriorate into what I’ve come to call a Dead Hooker meeting — that is, people skip right past the messages of hope in favor of the lurid details of their addictions:
“So there I was, in a cheap motel room with a dead hooker.” [dramatic pause] “And that’s when I realized I might have a problem.” [hold for applause]
There is very little one can do once a meeting has gone full metal Hooker, other than grind one’s teeth and pray the newcomer doesn’t bail halfway through to go find an opium den. Occasionally, in a valiant attempt to avoid this phenomenon, the chair will pitch a different topic relevant to the newly sober, my personal favorite being, “Why did you go to your second meeting? What brought you back?” I don’t have quantifiable statistics in front of me, but I’m going to say this tactic has about a 60/40 success rate.
Believing themselves to be warded against exaggerated horror stories, people will talk about the warm, nonjudgmental attitudes they encountered, and the optimism that grew out of that. Unfortunately, there are a lot of hardline traditionalists out there who can’t handle even the slightest of deviations, and when called on to share, they will wrestle away control and steer the meeting straight back to Hookerville (pop. -1):
“I appreciate your topic, but I think it’s also very important that we talk about the First Step. In my case, family members had been trying to reach me for days, but I’d lost my phone after blacking out at a Tijuana donkey show… with dead hookers everywhere.”
It’s great that those of us in recovery have a safe place to tell these tales, and it’s a lot of fun to be able to laugh at some of the bigger mangles — we laugh, because most of us have gone through the same awful struggles and survived. And that’s the important part of our narratives, the part that often gets lost in the grime. We survived. And we’re not doing anyone any favors if we only focus on what we survived instead of how we survived it.
With that put to bed, I should mention that a spoonful of Hooker, shared specifically at a newcomer’s prompting, does help the boozelessness go down. Recently, while I was helping clean up after a meeting, a guy I’d never seen before came over and said hello, then admitted it was his first meeting. He was too freaked out to say anything earlier, but he’d heard a lot of good things, even if he wasn’t sure he could stay sober himself.
“Dude, seriously, I used to come to this meeting drunk,” I replied. “If I can stay sober, trust me, anyone can.”
The new guy looked at me warily, as if I’d just extolled the amenities of our marvelous jungle compound and asked if he’d care for some Flavor-Aid. So I hollered to my friend B., waved him over and was all, “In your own words, please recount how big of a train wreck I was when I first showed up here.”
B. looked New Guy up and down with a critical eye. “Well, you’re sober,” he said. “So you’re already ahead of Thomas.”
There was a moment of silence as New Guy stared at me, then B., then back at me again. Finally, he spoke:
“I… am… so hungover right now.”
And then all three of us laughed our asses off.
And really, that’s when things work out best: When the newbie sees people with their shit (mostly) together, who can truthfully say, We know where you’re coming from, but you don’t have to go back there; you can stay here with us if you want to. And sometimes they do, and they stick around and get better. And that is awesome. It is miraculous. It is worth its weight in dead hookers.