In a misty Santa Monica park, on top of a green hill, with the sound of fog warnings coming from the beach and dogs barking, there’s a rec center. In addition to what sounded like some pretty spicy dance classes, this center also has meetings of the 12 step variety. Meetings I needed very much when I first moved to the beach in 2009 in hopes of turning my shipwreck of a life around. My first time there I peered in the window and saw all these happy smiling people. Well, this certainly couldn’t be a meeting for drunks and drug addicts. Where was the crying? Where were the hobos with the red bandana knapsacks and pork pie hats? Where were the junkies in wheelchairs on death’s door? Being convinced I was in the wrong place, I quickly got out of there before anybody noticed me. What I didn’t I know was that was the right place and I would be spending a lot of time there in the months to come.
12 step meetings are crazy ass places. Drama. Laughter. Breakdowns. Breakthroughs. Bunnies. No, really, there was an actress from the 80’s who used to bring her pet rabbit to the meeting. Maybe the bunny had a drinking problem. It’s all the stuff people watch reality tv for but without the commercials. Unlike those televised travesties, meetings actually save people’s lives. I’m not exactly sure how but people who go all the time usually stop doing drugs, drinking, gambling screwing everything in sight or whatever else might ail them. Again, this magical juju is beyond my comprehension. Sure I can tell you the names of the kids on Full House or the order of the singles released on Madonna’s True Blue record, but mysteries of the universe are beyond my comprehension. What I did notice about these gatherings is the folks who shared about their struggles and the solutions to said struggles and did so on a regular basis managed to stay sober. One day after a gathering of these brave people, my heart was full. I left the meeting and as I walked down the fog covered hill, this song started came from the SUV of one of the people leaving the meeting:
I started laughing. Not only because of the song’s goofy jingly-jangly intro or the lyrical parallels to attendees of the meeting, but because it’s Cher. Diva, icon and former spouse to someone who used drugs and alcohol like I did, Cher is everything. I love Cher for the camp factor, for her music and because as a gay man in his forties, it’s the law. Cher is also the ultimate symbol of survival. Ain’t no Equal commercial or bad movie gonna keep her down! Just when we think she’s done, she comes back. With a few months sober and back from the brink of self-destruction, I could kind of relate. I could go on with the Cher metaphor (“I was once a ‘Dark Lady’ and now I ‘Believe”) but I won’t. What people like Cher, Madonna Cyndi Lauper and Boy George represented to me as a kid was individuality and strength, things I so desperately wanted. Meetings were the first place I felt like I could be myself. The real version. I could say, “hey, I’m not feeling good.” or “I need help” without giving a crap about what people thought. I soon began to find my life but bigger than that I learned I didn’t have to do any of this alone. And thankfully, my road to individuality and being able to share my problems was one that didn’t require headdresses or assless pants.
“It’s like you’re giving birth to a big sober baby!” a friend of mine told me when I was about to celebrate nine months of sobriety back in October 2009. I laughed at her metaphor but it was kind of true. Whatever was growing inside of me was not the same hopeless drugged-out, eternally hung over monster that I was before. The longest I had ever gone since the age of 20 was five months. At age 36, 9 months seemed like an impossibility. You don’t see that chip handed out at meetings very much and based on my own hellish days in early sobriety, I understood why. At seven months, I received my HIV-positive diagnosis, had a cyst yanked out of my face by the thorough yet sadistic Dr. Wong, attempted to piece back together my life after leaving a long-term relationship and basically tried daily not to drink or kill myself. Just getting to 9 months was like winning a race. Even though I knew I hadn’t graduated, the fact I made to that moment, really meant something.
It is strange that the life of a drunk, so free of schedules and oblivious to the concept of timing, suddenly becomes sensitive to every second when they stop drinking. Personally, I clung to tiny little glimpses of joy as proof perhaps this hell wasn’t going to last forever. I collected happy minutes and hours, reflecting on them, leaning on them when times got dark. Coloring with my nieces, devouring big slices of pizza on beach by myself, random laughter with friends in recovery- kept the lights on and kept me going. In Southern California, recovery milestones are met with lots of clapping, sometimes singing and cake. In the beginning I rolled my eyes and snickered at this stuff. After a few months, I found myself singing, clapping and even crying like my life depended on it.
Currently, I have people in my life counting days and collecting moments. Restarting sober lives, waiting for difficulties to pass, changing for the first time, learning to live without someone. Seems to be going around. And thank God. Hope, for me, exists largely in the human capacity for change. Also, watching others hang onto moments and minutes forces me to be grateful for my own. Mainly, it gives me the strength to keep growing and changing too. Fears and difficult stuff didn’t vanish in a puff of glitter just because I stopped being a drunken dipshit. Quite the contrary. But if I try to love this moment and be thankful for the happy minutes, it’s amazing how much easier it all seems.
I’m a crier, I’ll admit it. When my husband and I were first dating and he came to visit me in Los Angeles, I took him to see Waiting for Superman. I spent the last ten minutes of that film softly crying. Poor guy probably thought he was dating a person who forgot to take their meds. As he got to know me, he discovered I’m just a crier. That’s who I am. And thank God.
Two years ago, I was spending a lot of time going across town on a bus to get to school. I would listen to my iPod and cry the entire 60 minutes it took to get from downtown to Santa Monica. I was in school five days a week and there wasn’t a day during that first semester that I didn’t cry. My relationship had ended but we were stuck living together at a friend’s cramped apartment and I was trying to stay sober. Sometimes, the tears spilled off of the bus. One day, I called my mom from campus. Naturally, I cried about my life and about how hard it all seemed. She listened and cried too. She got it. My mom lived through an alcoholic marriage and two alcoholic children. But she encouraged me and cheered me on during that phone call. It was raining that day and I felt like I better get off the phone and head inside. We said goodbye and I started to descend the steps I was standing on. Upset and disoriented, I wasn’t watching myself and I slipped and fell on the slick steps. I bounced and landed on the pavement. A trio of hipper-than-hip black girls who looked like they should be in a magazine and not at a community college rushed over to my crumpled state. “Are you okay?” and “Oh my gawd! Did you hurt yourself” is what they cried out, generally concerned given the dramatic nature of my fall to Earth. And I meekly mumbled something like “Yeah. Thanks.” I pulled myself up and ran inside the library for more crying. That day, I remember wondering if I was ever going to stop crying or if sobriety meant I was doomed to a life of tears and falling down in front of cool people.
The whole thing seems comical now and embarrassingly perfect for that time frame of my life. And today crying is a release and shows that I’m alive and able to be emotionally moved by things. Like when saw Hugo on Christmas day, my husband and sister both saw me crying and sort of nodded to one another. They know I’m crier. That’s just part of who I am.