I wrote this as my contribution to Victoria’s weekly writing prompt, Addiction, on her blog, Live To Write Today. It describes my first AA meeting. This is not a funny post; there isn’t much humor in the humbling experience of saying,”Hi, I’m Lorna and I’m an alcoholic.” to a group of strangers. Think of this as seeing what a versatile writer I am…

Tomb Therapy

The cement steps leading down to the scratched metal door are nearly all cracked. Small chunks are missing from the top and bottom steps, as if they get more use than all the others. The stairwell leads to a basement where an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group meets. Sparse lighting casts fractured shadows on the stone walls. I know I’m in the right place even though there is no sign on the door. Last night, when I timidly asked, “Where’s the closest AA meeting,” the anonymous man who answered the AA hot-line told me this address. He knew this would be my first meeting and I would be apprehensive, yet he sent me to a crypt. I open the door to a dungeon-like room—windowless and grim. This basement looks more like a tomb than a therapeutic refuge.

Cigarette smoke shrouds the room in a blue-gray veil. Smokers can “light up” anywhere they please, and many of these recovering alcoholics take full advantage of their license to chain-smoke inside this unventilated basement. Before the glow is gone from one cigarette, a new one is lit. Ashtrays litter the room.

The walls of the basement are cinderblocks—rows of them stacked as if the basement is a fortress. Greenish-yellow paint covers the walls. The only disruptions in the solid walls are three doorways: the main entrance, the door to the unisex bathroom, and a “mystery door” in the front of the room, covered by a vibrant over-sized “Ten Tips for Safe Driving” poster.

Except for one stormy gray industrial wipe-your-shoes-off rug, the ash gray cement floors are naked. All of the dingy drop-ceiling tiles have splotches of varying hues of “gross.” Spaced evenly among the ceiling tiles, fluorescent lights flicker behind translucent plastic panels. Some bulbs don’t work at all; some bulbs spit and sputter as if gasping for their final breath. Dead flies make morbid polka dot patterns on the light panels.

The “refreshment area” is on the left wall toward the back of this claustrophobic space. Covering one banquet-sized folding table is a huge barrel of a coffee-maker with all the “fixings” for any coffee drinker. Fresh-brewed coffee competes with second-hand smoke to create a pungent aroma. A sporadic and brief puff of fresh air enters with each anonymous attendee. A sea of pink Crispie-Cream donut boxes covers another large table next to the coffee table. Sanka packets, a meager assortment of tea bags and a small hot-pot of water are available on a tiny table at the end of the refreshment area—a wink to the minority not craving caffeine.

Beige institutional-style folding chairs line both sides of the room, facing a podium in the front of the room. A clear center path separates one seating area from the other. Each row is aligned precisely and generously, allowing for easy movement in and out of the seats. The chairs are hard and cold, like everything in the room except the soft fresh donuts and the piping hot coffee and cigarettes—and the gentle sounds of “Welcome” and “I’m glad you came.”

In preparation for the meeting, two people tape flimsy poster-sized papers to the side walls. Each paper has a hand-printed slogan in blue marker: “One day at a time”; “There but for the grace of God”; “Easy does it”; “Live and let live”; “Just work the steps”; and several others. Most of the papers are askew. The masking tape lets go on the corner of the “Just work the steps” slogan, so “Just work” is the message tonight.

The blue-gray air fills with more sound. Seats fill. Others stand, lining the walls as if they are guards armed with coffee cups and cigarettes. The meeting starts. One by one, these anonymous alcoholics safely tell their stories of victory or defeat—sometimes both. Laughter, tears, and a choir of support transform this meeting room from depressing to encouraging. The basement no longer seems a claustrophobic tomb; it is a refuge where wounded people heal themselves and each other with plenty of coffee, donuts, cigarettes, and stories.

I rise from my chair. It scrapes the floor, announcing me through the blue-grey air. It’s time for me to officially enter the ranks of these anonymous alcoholics and “just work,” just like the poster says. My biggest fear is that I’ll have to start smoking and eating donuts to stay sober.