Sitting at my kitchen counter, laptop in front of me, I tentatively type in the website address for a twelve-step program. Even within the walls of my own home, I feel as though someone is lurking over my shoulder, a scowl of disappointment on their face. I glance behind me just to be sure. Obviously, no one is there, still, I can’t shake the feeling. As the page loads, an all too familiar voice elbows its way into my head: Life isn’t that bad. This isn’t necessary. You’re over-reacting! What’s wrong with you? Slowly, I lower my head to the counter, the overwhelming chatter weighing me down.
Two months ago, my old college roommates had been snuggly seated on the beige sectional in my newly finished basement. The soft glow of Christmas lights came through the window resting on their familiar faces while the aroma of cinnamon-scented pinecones lingered in the air, their voices mixing together as they chatted about jobs, kids, life.
They had eagerly listened as I recapped my turbulent year in a scattered and fidgety way, trying to fit the enormity of what had happened into finite words and sentences. Last Christmas, I’d felt on the brink of my own demise; after decades of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking, my relationships a mess, something had to give or I was going to give up. I started therapy hoping to find a life raft, a way to keep myself afloat. Turns out life rafts are made of things like boundaries, communication, honesty, authenticity, and feelings, and these things, sometimes unpredictably, create war between you and your family. And war leads to fatigue and fatigue leads to estrangement. Yet I couldn’t stop, so I found myself on a battlefield somehow trying to save my life.
Looking at the floor, my shaking hands, the ceiling, the window, I desperately waited for their responses, a plan for how I would make it through this. One roommate made a suggestion, not the one I was anticipating. She said, "Sar, I've heard about this 12 step group, and I think you should attend. It's for people with family issues. I think it could help." An inner voice scoffed: Seriously?!? A support group! For family "issues"! How is that going to help you?
My laptop finishes loading, there’s a meeting tomorrow night, and it's only a few minutes away. The next night as I drive through dark, snowy streets to the meeting, it’s as though the incessant, irritated inner chatter coalesces into physical form in the passenger seat next to me. She slumps in her seat, brow furrowed, arms crossed in defiance. Her judgemental stare burrowing into my skull, giving me a headache. Her voice is slathered with disdain: Why are you doing this? What’s a 12 step meeting anyway? Do you even know? Things really aren't that bad. Do you really need a "support group"? Why can't you support yourself? Where are you? You’re probably going to get lost. You should be able to handle this. Without a meeting. Why can’t you figure this out? I shake my head trying to shake her away.
The entrance to the meeting is tucked in the back of a small row of retail shops, located in the backroom of a store that sells recovery items and literature. I drive past the front of the shop half a dozen times, scanning the sidewalk, doing my best to ignore the ongoing commentary in my head. Finally, I figure out where to turn in.
As I pull into a parking space, I quickly examine the parking lot. I notice dripping gutters, a rundown fence, the lone parking lot lamp creating unsettling shadows around the over-filled dumpster; the light above the metal door is flickering. I feel flickery.
People enter through the door, giving me a peek inside, but I sit in my car, lights off, waiting for the meeting to start. Don’t go in too early, then you’ll have to talk to someone, my inner voice chides. After several minutes, I step out into the brisk cold air and tiptoe my way across the icy black asphalt. I turn the doorknob slowly, cautiously sticking my head inside. The room is small, ten by ten feet, with a group of about six people seated in a circle. To my horror, there are no empty chairs, so I stand there awkwardly as the group members scramble to make room for their unexpected visitor.
I take a seat on the hastily added folding chair and check my phone noting the time. The meeting is supposed to be one hour long. Anxiously, I settle in. The facilitator reads from the program book, and while I hear the words, their meaning is hard to process. Instead, what I notice is these words feel softer and kinder than what I’m used to. These words don’t have sharp edges and prickly endings. When she finishes reading, she invites group members to share, and they do. They share things that feel like they should be kept secret, like feelings and the voices that reside in their heads. I am both terrified and relieved. My insides start to feel like my outsides as I listen to these people share their insides on the outside. I’m trembling; Get it together! You’re embarrassing yourself!
When the meeting finally ends, the older woman who led the group approaches me and introduces herself. She asks," What did you think of the meeting?" Without censorship, I confess, "This year has been devastating." I detail the struggle of the past year, and my desperation to fix it. To find my way back to some sense of stability and normalcy. She watches me steadily, listening. What are you doing?!? Why are you telling her all of this?! You don't even know her. She doesn't want to hear this. The voice inside drowns out my actual voice, and I abruptly stop talking. She waits to see if I am finished, then she smiles and says, "That sounds really difficult. Don't worry. All the answers are inside of you. Just keep coming back." Inwardly, the voice laughs. Mockingly. If the answers were all inside of you, you wouldn't be here. Outwardly, I nod like I know something. She smiles again, knowing something I don't, then she turns to greet another group member.
Driving home, my inner critic broods and pouts in the corner of my mind. This meeting feels like a beginning, as clearly as if I were standing at the base of a mountain at the start of a trail. As I pull into my driveway, quite unexpectedly and timidly, out of the shadows of my mind, I hear a new voice. A tiny voice that quietly and calmly says: I’d like to go back to that meeting.