By Malynda Madsen
“My name is Malynda, and I’m here for support.” The introduction reveals a tone of uncertainty in my voice, as if I’m unsure whether I’m offering support or in search of it.
“Hi Malynda,” a chorus of voices reply. Then applause breaks out around the unusually long banquet table that seats 26 in the unusually long rectangular room that’s only slightly wider. The response is unexpected, and I start to blush. In normal social settings, I have a gift for masking my nervous energy, but that doesn’t work around other nervous people. Nervous people can see right through me, and in this room, I’m practically transparent.
The formulaic greetings continue at a quick tempo as each addict introduces himself to the group. “My name is Joe, and I’m an addict.” “Hi Joe,” the group responds in unison. Only one other person announces they are here for support, making two of us. Once the wave of introductions has made its way around the room, the volunteer chairperson takes the floor and begins reading without pause from the NA Handbook — the passage, “Why Are We Here?” An outsider might assume that recovering addicts are all speed readers and speed talkers, but a nervous person knows that when talking in front of other people, it’s best to get it done quickly, with your head down. There aren’t many comfortable silences in a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting. I imagine that is the reason for the scripted format.
The meeting is held inside the Dixie Alano Club in St. George. The club hosts 48 meetings a week, mostly AA and NA, but meetings for Al-Anon, Compulsive Eaters, and Overeaters Anonymous are also listed. The nonprofit’s primary goal is to provide a place for 12 Step Recovery programs. Today, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is being held in an adjacent room, and next to that room is a small kitchen and social area with posters on the wall: one citing the Twelve Steps, another the Twelve Traditions.
The building smells like coffee and hand sanitizer, and the atmosphere is equally jittery and clean. Sitting across the table from me is an older man with a turbulent look in his eyes who’s drinking a 24 oz. Monster energy drink. His hat reads “I’m a Veteran”; he’s mumbling to himself incoherently while keeping his eyes almost painfully on me. My upbringing has programmed me to avoid men who fit this description, but I hold his eye contact for a respectable amount of time before my eyes dart about the room. Four Monster energy drinks, an Arizona Iced tea, and a dozen Styrofoam cups of coffee line the conference table as well as 26 hard copies of “Living Clean,” the latest edition of NA literature. The passages in it are inspirational and poetic, and my eyes have already lubricated themselves twice during a volunteer’s speed-reading of its pages. “Each time we surrender, we find once more that the desperation that drives us to our knees fuels the passion that carries us forward … We find here what we were looking for all along: connection to others, connection to a Higher Power, connection to the world around us — and, most surprising of all, connection to ourselves.” As a spiritual seeker, I begin to wonder if any non-addicts have ever turned the pages of this manual. I begin taking mental notes.
I’m here because of a discussion I had earlier today with my friend Drew. We were at the dog park talking about spiritual awakening and why so many people find that waking up to their true nature feels akin to going crazy. I assert that it’s because society’s definition of “normal” is a narrow one with little room for vulnerability, emotional fluidity, and humility. It pushes people to mask what they authentically feel and to conform. “That’s exactly why I love NA,” Drew said, “once a week, I know I’m going to share a room with people who are honest. If someone feels like a piece of shit, they come right out and say they feel like a piece of shit. And no one tries to tell them not to feel that way, or they shouldn’t say that, you know? We’ve all felt like a piece of shit before, and that’s how we can look that person straight in the eyes and empathize. Shit. We can hug the shit out of that piece of shit, right where they are. That’s what people need! Not to be told it’s OK, but to be heard and accepted where they’re at.” I can always count on my conversations with recovering addicts to be food for the soul. That’s because people in recovery have spent a great deal of time reflecting and doing self-work. People who have hit rock bottom are the most honest people I’ve met. It’s like they’ve discovered something down there at the bottom. They’ve seen something about themselves that most people are working hard to avoid seeing, and since they’ve seen it, there’s nothing left to hide. After our conversation, Drew invited me to attend a meeting with him. He said that I could go as support and I would be accepted even though I wasn’t an addict. I was nervous about it, but my courage was increased by his. That’s what happens when you’re around people who are brave.
A woman is speaking about her sobriety date. I’m getting the idea that it’s more than an anniversary, more than a badge of pride. It’s an anchor that holds an addict firmly in the sea of sobriety. The more days one is sober, the more solid their anchor; to relapse is to be cut adrift. Many people state their sobriety date whenever they introduce themselves. It’s also common to choose a date that’s a few days after the last day they used, because the failure rate is high those first few days.
I begin to identify more and more with the group as I think about my own habits. I’ve been addicted to screens, a junkie for external validation. I’ve silently suffered from isolation while collecting “likes” and “friends” as if I were hoarding them. I’ve habitually attracted romantic partners who were emotionally unavailable. I joined a support group for it once; I imagine my therapist was a lot like a “sponsor.” He told me at the heart of my issues lies the universal problem: that society produces adults who are emotionally shut down. He told me to stay open, to be the change I want to see. He told me to be brave.
The table is now open for sharing and it’s getting emotional. If I could only listen to a person’s deep raw pain and not get watery, I’d make a damn good therapist. But I’m legitimately crying now. The tissues are more than an arm-length away, and I don’t want to be the only non-addict in the room who’s troubling the others to pass the tissues, so I let the tears roll. A few people at the table lock eyes with me. Their eyes are bright red and watery as well, and there’s a pause in the connection when our eyes touch, almost like a nod. I feel you. I understand. It’s goddamned uncomfortable, but it’s real. And it feels good.
I belong to a lot of clubs. I have a book club, a yoga studio, a rock-climbing community, and a mountain biking community. I belong to a student body at my university. I have work circles as well as a broader community of professionals that I belong to. Outside of my spiritual circles, none of these clubs have offered me the same level of trust, acceptance, and eye contact as this club that I don’t belong to. Hell, I’ve received more sustained eye contact in this last hour than I have my last three semesters on campus! I wish there were more clubs like this one for the “normal” community, because what I’m getting out of this today is precisely what I’d argue the broader culture is starving for: honesty and raw vulnerability.
It says in the Narcotics Anonymous welcome pamphlet that “If your stomach’s all tied up in knots, you’re probably in the right place.” They also say that no one comes through the doors of NA by mistake, so although I don’t belong to the club, I know that my being here is no mistake. My name is Malynda. I’m here for support.
The viewpoints expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of The Independent.
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