How the hell did I get here is a question that comes about with a fair amount of frequency in the course of an alcoholic or addicted life. Wind up waking up next to someone you’ve never seen before in a part of town you’ve never been to: How the hell did I get here? Smuggling a vial of clean urine you bought from a co-worker in the waistband of your underwear so you can pass a piss test: How the hell did I get here? Getting shuttled around town in a 15-passenger econoline van so you can sit in church basements, drinking coffee-flavored motor oil and listen to grown men and women you’ve never met before talk about spiritual experiences: How the hell did I get here? Ask most people in recovery or active addiction if they’ve had any How the hell did I get here moments and they’ll be able to give you a laundry list of times in their life when they’ve asked themselves that question.
To the uninitiated, it would seem as if there should be an inverse correlation between sobriety and the regularity with which people in recovery ask themselves this question. After all, it’s only logical to expect that, after getting sober, the chaos and uncertainty that comes with active addiction would dissipate and be replaced with something approaching stability—that life would become predictable. I cannot speak for the whole of the recovery community, but I can say that, while there has certainly been less volatility and destruction in my life since I put down the bottle, the amount of time I spend looking up at the heavens and wondering how I’ve managed to get myself into the mess I’ve gotten into has stayed relatively constant, with AA clubhouses and church basements replacing barrooms and rehabs as the places most likely to trigger such a reaction.
Just this past Friday night, I found myself shutting the door to the cavernous great hall of a church where I chair a midnight meeting each week so that I could stand guard like a sentinel and inform a woman that she was no longer welcome in this particular room of AA. Part of the appeal and success of 12-step groups like AA and NA is the fact that the requirements for membership are virtually nonexistent and the threshold one must cross to be expelled from a meeting is inordinately high. People often cite AA/NA’s 3rd tradition, which states that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, as evidence of how low the bar has been set for entry into the program, but even that is overstating things a bit as that only applies to closed meetings. So long as someone goes to open meetings, all a person has to do to attend AA/NA regularly is not upend the tables during somebody’s share or spike the coffee with Amaretto and they’ll be fine.
Before this week, the only times I had ever been privy to someone in the program getting banned from meetings was due to illegal or predatory actions—robbing another alcoholic, taking advantage of addicts with low mental functioning or a deficit of street smarts, sexually preying on women (or men) in the program, etc. However, Friday was the first time I had ever been forced to confront a person who was clearly severely and persistently mentally ill, but who was also harassing people at meetings and generally endangering our relationship with the church itself. I could recognize that this woman was clearly not well—most likely suffering from schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder—but it was also impossible for me to ignore the fact that she was actively harassing literally everyone that came into the meeting and abusing the goodwill of other AAs and the kindness shown to all of us by the church whose space we used. For a number of reasons I don’t feel entirely comfortable going into the specific actions taken by this woman, suffice it to say that I had heard complaints from church management and most of the members of the group for a period of months before I decided I had to take action.
Fast forward to this Friday, where I am standing in front of the door to an AA meeting (but with a clear path to the exit of the church, so as not to make her feel trapped or cornered in any way) at 12:40 in the morning, waiting on a mentally disturbed woman to come out of the bathroom for well over 10 minutes, listening to her flush the toilet around 5 or 6 times and wondering, How the hell did I get here?
Eventually, the woman exited the bathroom and walked towards me. I asked her if she would mind stepping outside to discuss a few things. She refused and proceeded to try and come into the meeting. With my foot literally in the door, I informed the woman that she was not allowed to enter and that she had been banned from the meeting. The woman did not take kindly to this, telling me to get away from the goddamn door and threatening to call the police, which I informed her she was perfectly within her right to do. And then, with her face no farther from mine than the distance between an outstretched thumb and forefinger, she asked:“Why are you trying to rape me?”
I calmly informed the woman that I was not trying to rape her and that I was simply asking her to leave the church, but she quickly became fixed on the idea. “Why are you trying to rape me?”She asked, over and over and over again, to which I replied each time that no one was trying to rape her. “Why don’t you go in there [the meeting] and rape them?” she asked me, prompting me to respond again that I was not going to rape her. “Why don’t you go rape your mother?” she said, getting increasingly hostile and defiant as she went. “Why don’t you go rape your father?” I reiterated that no one was going to rape anyone, but that if she didn’t leave the premises, I would be forced to call the police. “Go ahead and call them,” she said. “I dare you.” I asked her if there was any way she would let me help her by calling a shelter or trying to get her into a rehab, but she refused, adding a “f**k you” for emphasis. It was at that point that I got out my phone and called the local police station to report a trespasser. By the time I had gotten from the operator to the main dispatcher and was beginning to explain the situation, the woman had left.
When asked by the officer on the phone if I wanted to press charges, I declined, because what good would that do? I mean, if she tries to come back again, I’m afraid we’ll have to because we’ll have exhausted all of our other options, but I certainly don’t relish the prospect. This is a sick woman who was probably the victim of sexual abuse during long stretches of her childhood and/or adult life. From what little I’ve heard about her through the grapevine, she is well educated and had a good paying, very respectable as recently as a few years ago, presumably before she had a psychotic break of some sort. I have sympathy for the woman, but unless she allows me or someone else to connect her with outside help, there’s nothing I can do.
After I got off the phone with the police and went back inside to finish up the meeting, I got started talking with a friend of mine in the program who, like me, suffers from relatively significant mental health issues in addition to his addiction and alcoholism. Unlike most folks I had talked to—who were just happy to be rid of this woman—my friend seemed genuinely disturbed by the whole situation. He could acknowledge that she was a disruption and that she was putting the livelihood of the entire meeting at risk, but he also couldn’t help but feel sick at the idea of kicking anyone out for a mental health issue. He didn’t say as much, but I felt the brunt of his discontent coming from a mixture of fear and experience with which I was all too familiar. It was that voice that lives within both of us—and within anyone in recovery who has suffered from mental health issues—whispering into our subconscious a question to which we have no answer: “what if it was me?”