February 18, 2016

My Friendships, Part 6: AA Friends -- Continued

1978 was the turnaround year in my life. My wife and I had separated in November 1977 when I decided to stop living a lie and finally acknowledged that I was a homosexual.. We reconciled in early 1978 after she learned she had throat cancer. In March, I started my recovery from alcoholism. In May, the cancer took by wife's life. In the fall, my daughter left home for college. My son also was living on his own.

I started drinking at age 15 and continued until March 28, 1978 when I was nearing my 50th birthday. Thanks to the volatile combination of my alcoholism and my repressed sexuality, I spent at least a half-dozen nights in jail and I got expelled from Cornell Law School. I spent 34 years of increasingly heavy drinking before I admitted that I was an alcoholic.

I needed a lot of help during my first years of sobriety and fortunately I got it. In yesterday's post, I talked about my AA sponsor Joel Anderson. I'll mention a few of the many others who helped later  in this post.

AA Meetings
You can find an AA meeting in the  Washington area at just about any time of day or night, but the vast majority of meetings are held at 8:30, often in church basements.

I just checked the onliine resource for finding meetings in DC and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. I asked for the location of closed (AA members only) meetings starting at 8:30 tonight within 5 miles of my house. I got over 20 hits. A few were Spanish-speaking meetings;  others were listed as GLBT. Most had no special label.

For my first five to ten years of sobriety I attended an AA meeting just about every day, usually the 8:30 p/m. meetings. Since the start of my sobriety coincided with my living alone for virtually the first time, the evening meetings were an antidote for loneliness as well as alcoholism.

Somewhere between my fifth and 10th year in AA I began to question whether I was going to meetings almost every night because I needed them to stay sober or whether I was doing this mainly out of fear of being "home alone." I began experimenting with spending one night a week at home or someplace other than a meeting. Then I'd try it with two nights. I felt as though I had climbed Mount Everest when I was able to comfortably spend a Saturday night at home by myself.

My attendance at AA meetings began to slack off. It could well be that I haven't been to a meeting for five years, maybe 10. But I do remember that when I had what I've called "the summer from hell"  as a result of overdosing on sleeping pills, I scurried back to AA meetings. As I damn well should.

My  life today is still linked was AA. Many of my closest friendships have their roots in AA. I often find that our conversations are laced with "AA talk."

AA Friendships
Say those words "AA friendships" to me and this name and face will be the first to surface:

Tinsley Halter Cunningham

                     aka Dusty

One of my favorite AA meetings was in the basement of St. David's Episcopal Church which was a five minute drive from my house.  When I first showed up at that meeting, I was impressed with the observations of one member in particular. Yep, it was Dusty. He became my best friend and treasured mentor, guiding me as I explored my two new communities – – AA and gay.

His example and the thoughts he shared gave me the hope and direction that I needed to stay sober. He had a knack for helping newly sober people like me find the key to making AA work. He didn't pontificate. He had a gift for listening and then zeroing in on the real issues and  helping you to find practical solutions.

And best of all, he had a truly wicked sense of humor.

His name has come up often in this blog. Put "Dusty" in the search box and you'll find links to several posts.

Dusty usually came to these meetings with another AA newbie who, like me, was 15 to 20 years older than Dusty. and who, again like me, introduced himself at the meetings by saying "my name is John and I am an alcoholic."

The three of us ended up becoming very close friends. The other John turned out to be John Harper, the Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, which is known as the "Church of the Presidents." Dusty was an active member of the church and John turned to him for help with his problem with booze.

I was (and am) a lapsed Catholic, somewhere between agnostic and atheist. But given everything that was going on in my life at the time and AA's Third Step ("Made a decision to turn our will and our 'lives over to the care of God as we understood him") I figured my spirituality could stand strengthening.

So I followed Dusty into St. John's and joined him most Sundays at the 9 AM service. "Our" pew was the third row, right hand side. Name-dropping alert: Vice President George W. Bush (who I refer to as the "good Bush") sat in the row behind us often. I liked him because he was as bad as I was in singing the  hymns.

John Harper was known for his excellent sermons. During the years when I was in regular attendance,  AA's !2 Steps were reflected in John's sermons as much as the Ten Commandments.

I love this photo of John and his wife Barbie that  I took at some church retreat:


Barbie is one of my nearest and dearest friends. She is a month or two younger than me. When we were arranging one of our regular luncheon dates last month, I wish Barbie hadn't mentioned that she might be a few minutes late because we were lunching on the day of her weekly tennis game.

I could go on and on and on about other close friendships that have resulted from my years of active participation in AA.But I'm trying to keep these blog posts short.

In AA, I met people who openly discussed their deepest feelings and real issues and sought feedback from others, a dramatic contrast to the typical talk about news, weather and sports that mark conversations in the outside world. This "AA talk" resulted in deeper friendships developing more quickly and easily.

These bonds of friendship and the feeling of group solidarity were the most important reasons why AA worked for me. 

I'll end with this story. In 1986, I joined a group of  labor relations professionals organized by John Truesdale, the executive secretary of the NLR, for a three-week People to People trip to Russia and China. By this time, I had done a good bit of traveling in Europe and enjoyed attending AA meetings in London, and meetings for English speakers in Paris and several other cities. 

Back then, the State Department maintained a list of AA meetings and contacts in cities where we had embassies. Nothing was listed for Moscow, but for Beijing there was a note that on Thursdays anybody looking for an AA meeting should show up at 8:30pm at a specific intersection. Our itinerary had us in Beijing on Thursday, and I was intrigued by the note.

The front desk at my hotel arranged for a car and driver, and we arrived at the designated intersection shortly before 8:30. Sure enough, within a few minutes a man -- an American assigned to the Beijing office of a U.S. company -- showed up. We had no trouble identifying each other since we were the only Westerners in sight.

We walked to a place that was the Chinese equivalent of a coffee shop. We sat and talked AA for about an hour.

That was 30 years ago. But I still think about that guy, so determined to stay sober that every Thursday night he would show up at that corner and hope another AA member would come along.

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