This is a particularly special time of year for me. You see, I went to my first 12 Step meeting on January 15th, 1988. And I’ve been going ever since. Although I had my first bipolar psychotic episode seven years prior and entered the mental health system, I consider this the true beginning of my recovery journey.
Before you think that I’m the kind of person that pushes 12 Step recovery, I will say, in the words of my fellowship, our program is predicated on the concept of “attraction, not promotion.” This is crucial since most people who are unfamiliar with the foundational element of “Anonymous” programs believe that we go around proselytizing and pulling people into our meetings from the street.
My introduction to the program came via a fateful meeting with my counselor, Dick Heffron, when I was in outpatient treatment at Horizon Health Services in Western New York. Dick knew my pattern of repeated hospitalizations that were preceded by a manic phase caused primarily from my substance use.
So, on Wednesday, January 13th he said to me, “Karl. I’m going to give you three choices. You go to rehab. You go to a (12 Step) meeting. Or you end back up in the hospital.” I took a moment to consider my options and thought to myself, “Well, I don’t want to tell my boss I have a drug problem. And I definitely don’t want to back to the hospital. So, I guess I’ll go to the meeting.”
He gave me a schedule. At that time there were only a handful of meetings in my program in the Buffalo area. I decided to go to one on the next Friday in Amherst called, “Changing Times” which was held at St. Pius Church.
That day, I was at work at Select Sound Recording Studio (one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had). I got out of work and when I got home I received a call from a “using buddy” who asked me to take him to score some weed. I said, “sure.” I mean, it couldn’t hurt, right?
I picked him up and took him to cop. In exchange for the ride he gave me a joint, which I eagerly accepted. Even though I had committed to going to the meeting, I didn’t say that I would necessarily quit smoking. When I got home, my parents had gone out, so I went into my room and smoked half of the joint. Intoxicated, I drove to the meeting.
It was a particularly frigid night. I parked in the lot, got out of my car and walked up to the door of the large fellowship hall. I looked inside and saw a bunch of primarily young people, talking and laughing. I thought to myself, “This has to be a church group. It can’t be a (12 Step meeting).” I guess I expected to see people with needles in their arms and broken booze bottles on the floor (or something like that). I turned around and went back to my car and got in. I was really nervous. I had told Dick that I would go to the meeting but I was unable to go through the door. So, I sat there until a car pulled up nearby and another young guy got out. I walked up to him and said, “Hey, what’s going on inside there?” to which he responded, “It’s a (12 Step meeting).” “Oh,” I replied and we walked in together. This was the first example of me learning that I didn’t have to do this thing called recovery all by myself (which I thought was how it had to be done).
Upon entering I was greeted by a middle-aged man wearing a blue polyester track suit (it was 1988, after all) and a cervical collar. As it turns out, he was to become my first sponsor. After this point, I don’t recall much with the exception of a young woman who was attired in a black leather jacket with tassels (1988 again) who went up to receive her orange 30-day key tag. I don’t really remember what she said, but I do remember that she was angry. “How can you be so angry?” I wanted to ask her. Little did I understand that when someone stops using, their feelings return unabated. But I do recall saying to myself, “If she can do it, so can I.” Plus, I wanted one of those cool key tags.I stayed through the meeting and I don’t think I spoke to anyone, however I decided that I would go to another one the next night.
When I returned home, my parents had come back. But in true fashion, I went to my room, opened the window, and smoked the other half of the joint. I couldn’t let it go to waste, after all! But I was done, I thought to myself. It was at this time that I put an album on the most recent album by one of my favorite groups, Rush, called “Hold Your Fire.” As I finished getting high, the song “Prime Mover” came on. This was an incredibly timely and apropos piece whose lyrics spoke to me then, and still do today. As the late, great drummer and band lyricist, Neil Peart states:
“From the point of ignition
To the moment of truth
At the point of surrender
To the burden of proof
From the point of ignition
To the final drive
The point of the journey
Is not to arrive
Anything can happen”
Neil Peart (1987)
Little did I know at this moment what lay ahead in the years to follow. We have another saying in my program, “Beyond our wildest dreams,” and let me tell you, isn’t that a fact, at least for me and so many other of my brothers and sisters in recovery.
Whether it be running two marathons, completing a century ride on my bike (at the age of 55!), going to China, not once, but twice, not to mention working in the behavioral health field for over 20 years, and the thing I’m proudest of, my 27 year marriage to my beautiful wife, Suzy, and my two incredibly wonderful daughters, Sarah and Lillie. And even our 7-year old beagle mix, “Princess” Sophie.
I am so incredibly grateful for all of the people who have helped me along the way, because like was demonstrated at that first meeting, I couldn’t have done these things all alone.
Yes, “anything can happen.” And I’m living proof of that.
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