It wasn’t hard for me to say I was an alcoholic at my first AA meeting. On the other hand, it took me at least four or five meetings to walk up and pick up a white chip. The white chip signifies nothing other than the admittance that your “life has become unmanageable” and the understanding that by taking it you are expressing a sincere desire to stop drinking. I still have my white chip in a drawer in my apartment. It’s the only chip I ever picked up.
When I stood up, walked across the room, and took my white chip, everyone clapped like I had just won a Grammy or something. The guy in charge of the chips was young and thin. He hugged me and said something to me that I don’t remember. I saw him at a few other meetings. He always referred to himself as a “recovered alcoholic.” He hadn’t had a drink in five years. I wondered why he had to include that word “recovered” when he introduced himself. He must’ve been one of those people that couldn’t say he was an alcoholic, not like I could. What would he say if he had a relapse? He would have to take the word “recovered” out, I suppose, and say “I’m an alcoholic” like the rest of us. I bet he wouldn’t go to the meetings anymore if that happened.
I remember one meeting when we were going around the room and introducing ourselves. There was a man in a red shirt with sweat on his face. He was nervous when he spoke.
“Hello, I’m Dan and I’m an alcoholic,” he said, a little too loudly. “I just bought a twelve pack of beer. It’s in the trunk of my car. I think I’m gonna go home and drink it tonight. It’s been two and a half years since I had a drink and today I just stopped at a gas station and bought some beer. Two and a half years and I don’t want to drink it but I think I’m going to. I came to the meeting ‘cause I don’t know what to do. Please don’t say anything to me. I just want to sit here and think.”
“Thanks Dan,” the group said. Just like he asked, no one said anything to him. No one else who shared mentioned Dan. People didn’t look at Dan.
Maybe that’s because when Dan said he had a twelve pack of beer in the trunk of his car, I could almost hear a collective gasp fill the room. He might as well have said he had a dead kid in there. The atmosphere was a little heavy for the rest of the meeting. It was our great fear, and it was there in the room. That one day, just out of the damn blue, something makes an alcoholic go and start drinking again. It’s scary, knowing that in April you’re working on your third year of sobriety and in May you’re no better than the guy picking up that first white chip. That you can call yourself a “recovered alcoholic,” but you’re never really “recovered,” are you? The worst part was imagining how awful Dan felt, sitting in his chair and listening to people talk, knowing very well that he’d feel so much better after having five or six of those beers.
I don’t know if Dan drank the beer he had in his trunk. I’d like to think that he didn’t, that the people at the meeting helped him and they stood in the parking lot of the clinic where the AA meeting was and poured the beer out onto the asphalt. I’d like to think that Dan drove home with a great sense of relief, got home and slept, knowing there would never be a time when he wouldn’t need someone’s help.
The next day maybe Dan woke up in the dark of the morning, still going on three years. He might’ve sat outside, a little ashamed and a little saddened, in the warm North Carolina air, waiting for the new day to open like a spring magnolia.