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Interview With an Old-Timer

Gene got clean and sober on July 4th, 1981.  He now has 35 years of recovery in the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

He agreed to meet over breakfast and allow me to interview him about the changes, as well as the consistencies, he’s observed in Alcoholics Anonymous over the decades he’s been sober.

Why don’t you tell me a little about your story?

Gene:  It’s a pretty standard story. I grew up in the suburbs outside San Francisco, in a normal lower middle-class home with two parents, two sisters, a dog, and a pretty healthy childhood with no abuse.

I ran with the neighborhood kids, and we all started getting loaded at about twelve years old. We stole whatever booze and pills we could from our parents, and bought what we could not steal. I shoplifted to get money to get high, and sometimes had sex with older men to get more money.

It seemed like right from the start, I went a little – or a lot – further than my friends to get high and stay high. And although there were lots of different kinds of drugs, especially free-base cocaine, alcohol was always at the core of it.

As getting loaded progressed, so did my troubles – at home, at school, and with the law – and then my problems with the law got real serious.

On Wednesday, July 1st of 1981, I stood before a judge who told me I needed to sober up, and that he was going to help me.  He said that I needed to come back to his court on Thursday, October 15th, with proof that I’d been to at least 100 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or he was going to send me to prison. That was three months before my 21st birthday, and while what he was asking seemed worse than prison, it turned out to be the best thing for me, exactly what I needed.

I went to those meetings, caught alcoholism “through my ears,” got a sponsor, worked the Steps, and was both supported and held accountable by the group. And I’ve stayed sober ever since. I’m just so grateful that I appeared before a judge who understood what kind of miracles can occur in AA, and who gave me a chance. I can’t imagine how disastrous my life would have been without his intervention.

Wow, what a great story. So, that was a little over 35 years ago. Is AA and the 12-Step world different now than it was then?

Gene:  Yes and no. In some ways it is, and in some ways it is not.

Let’s start with appearances. Back then, I was the youngest guy in the rooms. These days, I see lots of people far younger than I was coming into the rooms and getting time – I see them, at 21, taking cakes for three, four, five, and even six years clean and sober.  I also see more women, more young women, and lots more diversity – more people of color and men and women who are openly gay. It’s really great.

I also see a huge growth, an explosion, of different 12-Step groups, and I guess that’s good. When Cocaine Anonymous started in 1982, I went there, as well as AA, for a number of years, because I loved the high energy, and it was easier to talk about drugs in CA. But these days, I prefer early morning meetings, before work, so I go to AA because that’s where the morning meetings are, and these days, you can talk about drugs in most – not all – AA meetings.

Meetings have also gotten cleaner and shorter; those are both good things. When I first came in, you couldn’t even see the back of some rooms ‘cause the smoke was so thick. It’s been years since I’ve been in a meeting where smoking was allowed, and most have gotten rid of vaping as well. All of my meetings are 60-minute meetings, and they all used to be 90 minutes. I think it’s much easier for newcomers to pay attention for 60 minutes than for 90 minutes, and it’s easier on the smokers too.

So true. What else?

Gene:  On a more substantive level, the big changes I see include:

  • People seem more easily able to talk about “outside issues,” the issues (sexuality, incest, trauma, grief, illness, parenting, health, etc.) over which they drink and by which their cravings can get awakened. This allows them to hear those magic words, “me too” from another person in the rooms and they can heal together. I think it’s great.
  • These days, I often hear people at meetings say, “the newcomer is the most important person in the room.” When I got sober, what I heard was, “Kid, you need us a lot more than we need you, so you better show up and be on time.” I’m not sure which is better, but I’m very clear that that had I been told I was the most important person in the room when I was new, it would have fed my arrogance and grown my entitlement – not good things.
  • These days, it’s rare to see a wet drunk of an addict in active withdrawal in the rooms; I guess they all go to a detox first. Well, it may not have been pretty, but I think there was real value in regularly getting to bear witness to the suffering and the pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization of the wet drunk and/or withdrawing addict. It helped be want to be clean and sober.
  • Finally, the biggest change, and I think the most disappointing one for me, is that I see so many people coming into the rooms without the sense of desperation that seems necessary to really embrace the program and the work. So many people go to treatment these days; they’re given psych diagnoses, psych meds, and all kinds of therapy – none of which is bad. But what is bad, is that they’re taught that this is the way to combat their alcoholism and/or addiction, and that 12-Step is something they can add to it – like a condiment – like just part of that set of things like yoga, pilates, horse therapy, meditation, journaling, 12-Step meetings, etc. which helps, but is not essential to their recovery.

They’re also taught that if they relapse, they can just start over again, and as you can see on the news, people are dying in record numbers of this disease, and those people – the dead ones – will never have the opportunity to start over, so it’s better to just stay.

Yes – so many deaths – it’s so sad.  Anything else?

Gene:  Well, to end on a more upbeat note, here’s what has not changed: Every day, someone who is hopeless, isolated, lonely and convinced that AA won’t work for them walks into the rooms of AA and finds a Fellowship of men and women who understand, who say those magical words (“me too”), and who share their experience, strength, and hope. That newcomer hears the laughter of identification, the miracle of transformation, and has enough hope instilled to make it – clean and sober – to the next meeting. And that’s how recovery happens in the 12-Step rooms – one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic about what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like today, and how that same gift is available to anyone who does the work.

Thank you so much Gene, for your story, your experience, and your generosity.

Gene:  My pleasure.



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