When I walked into my first 12-step meeting (Alcoholics Anonymous is the most well-known) in April 2007 fresh off a two-day drug- and alcohol-induced blackout, I’d being seeing a psychiatrist for a few years. My view on therapy was simple. Admit nothing. Talk about nothing consequential, lie when necessary. Get my antidepressant prescription. I sometimes get asked, “Why would you lie to your therapist? Why would you even go if you didn’t want help? You’re paying the guy!” I wanted help but was not in a position to accept help. I was not in a position to face my past. I was ashamed of my present and of my past. Shame knows no hourly rate.
This day would be different. I’d thought about not going, but I knew that I had to do something or the pressure would increase to go to rehab. Some step forward had to be taken. I wanted to take it, but I was also terrified. I’d never experienced such fear. Fear of losing my girlfriend and family. Fear of a life without drugs, alcohol, and what seemed like a near constant state of deep depression. Fear of rigorous honesty — something I’d never been a fan of, either as a lawyer or in my personal life.
My psychiatrist asked, “Have you heard of Alcoholics Anonymous? There is a group that meets right next door to this office.”
I looked at him skeptically. “Yeah, I drive by there, They all look like homeless people and sterno bums. They smoke. I hate smokers.” There is always a reason to not recover.
“No, Brian, there are all kinds of people who attend. Even lawyers. If you’re adamant about not going to treatment, I think it’s a good place to start. If it doesn’t take, then we can revisit in-patient treatment. There’s actually a meeting starting in a little bit. Let’s end the session, and you can go over there and check it out.”
Once again, I was resistant. I brought up my “law practice.” I’m a lawyer. I have clients who need attending to. I’m a busy guy. I’m above such things as 12-step in grimy, smoke-filled rooms of despair. (In reality, I had no clients left.) I remember his response as if it were yesterday. “Brian, yes, you have a law degree. Yes, you sometimes go through some of the motions of what being a lawyer looks like. But you are not a lawyer in this room. You have an addiction. And this is a good first step for many addicts. I don’t know if it’ll work for you. But for now, it costs nothing but a walk over there and an hour to just listen.”
As he was giving me the dose of reality, my wheels were turning with the fantasy. What I heard was, “You don’t have to go away to treatment.” It’s anonymous. Nobody will know. I could take the smallest of steps and stay in my comfort zone. What I didn’t know then was that even the smallest of steps into recovery are okay. In reality, even a small step can be life-changing.
I walk up to the door of the building where the local 12-step meetings are held
After pacing around outside the door for a long time, I finally peer in, down the long hallway to where people are gathering. I’m afraid of being recognized. My ego is still paramount in my worries.
When I finally work up the courage to walk into the building, each step into the unknown seems harder and harder. Who are the people I’ll meet in 12-step? My mind flashes back to one of my favorite childhood movies, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I suddenly imagine that as soon as I enter the 12-step meeting room, I’ll be carried away by a team of chanting Oompa Loompas determined to punish me for my bad habits. I have no desire to meet the Oompa Loompas on the other side of that door. I again consider rehab, but I’m even more embarrassed about the idea of my friends, other lawyers, and everyone who knows my family name finding out I’m going to in-patient rehab than I am about a small group of strangers scrutinizing my deepest flaws.
I finally make it to the door of the meeting room, and I can smell the fumes of stale cigarette smoke and day-old coffee. My eyes lock onto the 1950s tile floor, ingrained with the dirt of countless feet. There are other people milling around in the hall. Are these the people with whom I am supposed to share my darkest secrets? Will I be made fun of, teased, bullied, insulted? Who are these people? Skid-row bums? That’s my perception of 12-step. I think of Nicolas Cage’s character, Ben, living in the sleazy “no-tell motel” as he drinks himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas, and Dick Van Dyke’s character, Charlie, drunk, alone on the beach with no future in The Morning After.
Still not ready, I walk back to my car, and I sit there with the key in the ignition. I even start the engine. But I don’t go anywhere. Instead, I think about my next move. It’s all on me. My therapist couldn’t save me. Addiction is not a choice, but recovery is.
I shut off the engine and take the keys out of the ignition. There’s no way to escape my problems. I have to face them. I go back to the front door of the meeting room. Deep breath. Don’t look around. Eyes down at the floor. That fixed point. Watch the feet move forward. One baby step at a time. It’s the way I’m able to accomplish things in life. It’s how I was able to finish eight marathons. Facing any difficult task, my best self is that part of me that can place one foot in front of the other until a goal is accomplished. Don’t look left. Don’t look right. Don’t think about the finish line. Watch your feet, one in front of the other. Again. One in front of the other, back down the long hallway. Now open the glass door. People are looking at you. Don’t look at them. Fixed point. Open it.
I do. And I go in.
My blue short-sleeve shirt was soaked with sweat. I sat in the corner and listened. I raised my hand when the call went out for who was in for the first time. Two others were also attending their first meeting. They raised their hands, gave their first names, and said, simply, “I’m an alcoholic.” My turn came. “My name is Brian.” That’s it. I was sobbing. I cried in that corner for a few reasons. I instinctively knew I was beaten. I was ashamed to be there. I was ashamed of what I was. I was ashamed of the decades I couldn’t look at my reflection in the mirror. I heard my story over and over again in others’ mouths. Not the same facts exactly, but the same pain. The same fears. The same shame. I heard those with long-term recovery talking about their first time through the doors, what they’d learned. I heard hope. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to see what recovery looked like.
Even though I wasn’t entirely comfortable yet in that room, I felt I’d found the support of a group who understood. Who didn’t judge. Who told me I was not alone and would never be alone in my recovery. The first day of one-day-at-a-time had begun.
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.