Responsibility after relapse

These days, my home group is a women's newcomer meeting. I suppose it’s meant for those early in sobriety. With four years, I attend anyway.

Four years is early to some. To others, it’s nothing. To others, I have only four hours. Ours is a daily reprieve, they say, and if I woke up four hours ago, I have four hours of sobriety. We're all newcomers.

Every twelve-step meeting begins with a series of questions meant to help newcomers identify themselves. Sometimes it’s asked, “Is this anyone’s first meeting of AA?” Other times, “Is it anyone’s first meeting after a drink?” At still others, the chairperson asks if there is anyone present in their first thirty days of sobriety.

At today’s meeting, two women raised their hands: yes, they were in their first 30 days of sobriety. These were women who I’d known for months, who I’d seen in meetings time and time again. As I do with most people, I’d already wondered about them, populated their lives, theorized about their particular neuroses. I hadn’t yet named their pets or childhood best friends, but I was pretty damn close.

(And no, if you’re wondering: I hadn’t actually spoken to them.)

If they were now in their first 30 days, that meant this was a relapse.

Part of me was surprised. After a few short months in their presence, I’d already gleaned support, wisdom, and encouragement from their shares.

Another part of me simply felt sad, grim – not surprised at all. People go back out all the time. Some take this to mean that AA has a low success rate. I take it to mean that we have a very successful disease.

One of the women who had relapsed spoke candidly about her decision to drink again. Thankfully, she said, it didn’t get that bad.

I wasn’t so sure that this was a good thing. The alcoholic mind uses information like this – it didn’t get that bad – to justify the next relapse.

The other woman – older, quieter, and agreeable - said nothing. After the meeting, she turned to me. “What’s your name again?”

“Anna,” I smiled. “It’s Liz, isn’t it?”

“Good memory,” she smiled back.

There were lots of things I wanted to say.

So ... it’s your first meeting after a relapse?

What happened?

Do you want to talk about it?

Are you okay?

Can I help?

At that moment, another woman joined our conversation, commenting cheerfully on the baby and the service dog in the meeting. “Lots of cuties here today, huh?”

I was relieved at the interruption. In classic introvert fashion, I sensed it was safe to abandon the conversation. Surely the other two could carry on without me.

I left the meeting uneasy, guilty, still thinking about Liz. Was it loneliness that got to her? I knew that she identified as gay. Maybe her family is less accepting than mine. I glumly returned to speculating about her life from the comfort of my own head. It's a lonely business, but it's safe.

At the end of many secular meetings, we conclude with the responsibility statement as an alternative to prayer.

I am responsible … When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that, I am responsible.

I typically stay silent during this statement, just as I do during the Lord’s Prayer. In some ways, I feel just as uncomfortable with the declaration of responsibility as I do with calling my higher power “our father.”

And yet: Was I responsible? The sadness I felt on leaving the meeting suggested that something had been left unsaid. That I had missed something.

No, I was not responsible for Liz’s relapse, for the fact that alcoholism had done what alcoholism does best. But the part of me that wants to know the other, that wants the other to feel known, felt disappointed – as if a very important date had just come and gone without notice.

I don’t know if I’m responsible, morally or otherwise, when others relapse – but I do wish that I’d asked.