Tomb Therapy

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.

~ by Lorna's Voice on March 16, 2012.

34 Responses to “Tomb Therapy”

  1. It was very close and personal–no self-deprecation–just me and my humility. Thanks for reading.

  2. Wow, I felt like I was there after reading this. I’ve noticed something about your writing style. It’s seems that when there is a subject that is close to your core and is revealing something about you, your writing style changes. This blog was very emotional and descriptive and flowed so easily. I can’t descibe why, maybe it was the content, not sure. But it was different.

  3. Thanks so much. It is a great program. I stopped going years ago, but know that people who have been sober for 25+ years go religiously. They say it keeps them sober. What ever works, right?

  4. AA has been a life saver and a family saver for so many–despite the dreary places they sometimes meet or the heavy smoke which often hangs over all those in attendance.

    It takes a brave soul to admit their addiction and then work each day to beat it. Congratulations on this day and all the previous ones. 🙂

  5. Good to know. I bet you would like what I did with my story about my step-grandfather. I submitted to the Writer’s Digest contest. I took out the silly stuff and it’s much sweeter and sentimental.

  6. I thought this style was a welcome change. Gritty or raw it was the only way to express this. I liked it very much – really ,,,,,

  7. Raw and real. That’s what that piece was. That’s what that experience was…

  8. Some days when I think I cannot write anymore because it pains me so, I read something you’ve written and realize that “keeping it raw, keeping it real” are very important to me. As they are to you and suddenly I am inspired to press on. Thank you kindly xo

  9. It was a different style of writing for sure. I didn’t know how readers would take it, being so used to “zany Lorna.” I’m glad it’s gotten such positive feedback for such a gritty piece. Thanks, Izzy!

  10. That’s why I write this stuff, Janice. If someone can benefit from my life experience, then I lived them for some reason other than for just my education!

  11. During my time at AA, I found all types of people. I can’t say I got to know any them well enough to know about their childhood, but I can see how highly sensitive people need to “escape” from what overwhelms them.

  12. Y’know Lorna, I’ve known quite a few x-alcoholics in my time, who recounted ‘interesting’ childhoods. I found thru observation they are kind, sensitive and highly intelligent, made me wonder if the jagged end of life drove them to wade into addiction – jury’s still out on this for me, because I haven’t walked a mile in addiction’s boots, so I refrain from conclusions, cheers catchul8r molly

  13. Such good writing, so vivid, I was with you all the way. Sobering to see the journey from inside out as my ex is an addict and I never understood him. I still don’t. But I am learning. Thanks to you and your open, life writings. Thank you for sharing this, Lorna 🙂

  14. An unprocessed experience formulating as you walked down the steps. A gritty and raw write about a gut-wrenching moment that had a must do commitment, I loved it. I wanted to read more.
    Well done …
    Izzy

  15. Great!

  16. Love that quote. I often feel that we are in the midst of the “proving ground.” Some people wish to call it “hell.” I prefer to call it life–full of wonderful chances for us to stumble, fall, and learn a whole lot!

  17. This was in response to a writing prompt. But I’ve written about my alcoholism in prior posts, too. This post is the only one, however, that is so “gritty.”

  18. Thanks so much Ruth. All of that was a lifetime ago–1984–but also it’s as if it’s about an entirely different person.

  19. ‘remembering a different person’
    I like that you feel that way Lorna because you are a different person. That you share your rememberings makes all of us different, too.

  20. i always write my stuff before everyone else, and i can’t believe how everyone is writing about their own addictions. i did not have the guts to do that!!

    anything but

  21. Blessings on AA! The venues offered for gatherings at bargain prices save lives of not only the alcoholic, but the loved ones who have suffered under his/her destructive addiction.

    A little Catholic Priest in Northern Canada once told me he went to “open” AA meetings (ones where non-alcoholics can attend) because the spirituality there was what he wished for in his church.

    He added, “Maybe those AAs have it right – religion is for people who are afraid of going to Hell and spirituality is for people who have been there.”

  22. I just may have to jump in on this one. Thanks for the heads-up Lorna!

  23. You’re so very welcome, Victoria. And thank you. I wanted all my readers there with me. It was a scary, dismal, lonely experience, but one that was rife with possibilities. I’m glad I conveyed that.

  24. Lorna, you recreate the experience in such perfect detail that I felt like I was with you. One of the things that struck me was how a description of setting can create emotion. I felt my pulse rate go up as I walked down the stairs with you. My first experience of a 12-Step program was an OA meeting with a gay friend in the heart of the Castro in San Francisco. Same story–the basement of a church. I went with him because he wanted someone to support him. I ended up going for myself (to a different meeting) for a few years. The program offers so many good life lessons for anyone, and, God knows, we are an addictive society. Thank you for this one.

  25. Thanks so much, Simone. I guess it’s good to stretch my non-snarky muscles every once in a while… 😉

  26. Absolutely wonderful piece Lorna! You’ve given us glimpses of your versatility before, but here we get to see it in full. Congratulations too on making it to the other side. You go you!

  27. That’s what I was aiming for–I wanted as many people there with me as possible. 😉

  28. Thanks so much, Jacqueline. I am alone for most of my days. Words have become my companions (and then there’s Scrappy, but he’s the fluffy, silent type). 😉

  29. Yes, I did make it to the other side. It seems like I am remembering a different person…a different lifetime. Odd.

  30. This does reflect your versatility.

    It is often heard that addicts trade one addiction for another, so I can sense your fear. No easy task to make deep admissions in front of strangers, I’m sure. You made it to the other side.

  31. You are such a talented writer.

  32. I could feel the pall cast in the air that surrounded this place. The gloom is evident, and yet like that flickering light that doesn’t seem to want to just quit, the mood transforms. Nicely written. Excellent descriptive narrative – felt as though I was there.

  33. I know this isn’t like my usual posts, but it’s my best vivid recollection of that first AA meeting. I knew then that I would never drink again (or take up smoking!). I didn’t want to spend my life going to those meetings (although I eventually found a non-smokers’ meeting and felt a bit more comfortable).

    Thanks for reading this very different kind of post.

  34. Such a beautifully written piece. Thank you for posting this.

Silence can be just what the doctor ordered. You know I'm a doctor, right?

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