Last week I attended my first AA meeting. I was told by the men in my halfway house who go to this particular meeting regularly to get there early if I wanted a seat. They all knew that I was attending to hear “Bryce,” the very first client on my caseload as a substance abuse counselor, who would be sharing his story in celebration of his one year clean from alcohol and drugs.
The guys were so excited that I’d be there, as if I had RSVP’d ‘yes’ to their version of a party. They were also very moved by my wanting to be there to hear Bryce, a favorite graduate among staff and the other residents. I told them not to tell him because I wanted it to be surprise, and when I got there early positioned myself right in front of where he would be speaking so I’d be within his direct line of vision, beaming with pride, kind of like watching your child in the lead of an elementary school play.
I watched as people walked down the stairs into the drab and vast basement in the bowels of a beautiful church. I didn’t like that it was so unwelcoming but as people started spotting their friends, hugging each other as if they were family, it became the most welcoming place in the world.
There were at least 70 metal chairs set in a wide circle of three rows. When my guys rolled in in small batches and spotted me, they surrounded me, their queen bee. The ones who came in a bit later stood around in groups, some who had never even met Bryce but who were there to represent the house. It moved me beyond words to see at least six who were on my current caseload, one who had just gotten to the house that day. Five former clients, all with clean time of their own, sat on the periphery and my heart swelled a little bit at the people they had become in their sobriety.
When Bryce saw me he smiled a wide smile and came over to give me a hug. He told those around him who I was and the role I had played in his recent life. As he began to share, rather nervously, he’d look at me every once in a while for my silent encouragement. I know his story of struggle and I wanted to mouth some of the critical things he had forgotten but he held his own hitting some major highlights of his trajectory into heroin abuse.
When he finished people who knew him from the meeting paid tribute to him with beautiful words. One burly man, clearly a regular at this meeting commented on how on the surface of things he and Bryce had nothing in common (Bryce has pink and blue hair and random piercings) but after hearing his story, they had everything in common.
I knew all day that I would speak and when I raised my hand and said, “Hi I’m Gayle,” a chorus of men and women joyfully said, “Hi Gayle,” as I know is customary in all AA and NA meetings. I said that I wasn’t in recovery and glanced around the room to make sure they weren’t hissing and pointing at me, silently banishing me to get the hell out of their sacred place. I went on to say, “Bryce was my very first client as a substance abuse counselor,” and continued on in praise and pride. When other guys in the house said beautiful words to him, I was reminded, yet again, of the bonds that will never be broken between them.
I had to leave the meeting a bit early and as I quietly gathered my things and walked towards the door Bryce yelled out, in front of a crowd that had swelled to ninety or so, “I love you Gayle!” “I love you too honey,” I said back, knowing that this was an uncustomary occurrence, loving every second of it.
The next day at work the guys asked me what I thought of the meeting. I told them how moved I was to have been there. One of them came up to me and said how it proved to all of the thirty guys in the house how dedicated I am to all of them and how they all were talking about it after the meeting and back in the house. I told him that his words, when he shared his own tribute to Bryce were magnificent and meaningful. I answered that most of all I am honored to be welcomed into their fold every single day and at how they allow me these glimpses into their own unique world and unbreakable bonds.