Sponsored in Part
Since it’s Hollywood, it’s difficult to tell the difference between tired, depressed people going to an Al-Anon meeting and aspiring, strung-out rock stars that have been up all night partying, playing guitar and snorting Ritalin.
I started to get the feeling I was doing this Al-Anon thing all wrong.
It was Sunday, and I was heading to Hollywood to try a new meeting where I was supposed to meet up with my husband’s sponsor from AA. He’s a double winner—someone in both AA and Al-Anon—, which means he has twice as many problems as a regular person. Because it’s a popular meeting, I drove around in circles for twenty minutes trying to find a parking space and wound up spending six bucks to park in a lot across from the Starbucks across from the senior citizen center where the meeting was being held.
Since it’s Hollywood, it’s difficult to tell the difference between tired, depressed people going to an Al-Anon meeting and aspiring, strung-out rock stars that have been up all night partying, playing guitar and snorting Ritalin. At first I think the cluster of leather-jacketed, nose-pierced patrons bottlenecked in the entrance of the jam-packed Starbucks are the latter, and I don’t want to be late, so I turn back around and head for the meeting where I’m sure they have coffee and snacks anyway.
But as I’m walking toward the meeting I see that everyone standing around the senior center entrance has a Starbucks cup in their hand, which must mean the coffee at this meeting sucks, which makes me a little panicky because I have a really hard time sitting still through anything for an hour-and-half without being sufficiently caffeinated (which likely qualifies me for another program, but nonetheless).
The reason I was going to this meeting in the first place is because I really wanted to get a sponsor. I needed to get a sponsor. I’d been going to meetings for a year and still hadn’t found one. My husband landed his sponsor within a day of leaving rehab and I was starting to feel really competitive. I envied that every time we got into a fight about us never having enough money or our careers going nowhere or our kids wetting the bed, he had someone to call. I had no one to call except my shrink and he never answered the phone. I’d wanted a sponsor for months.
I tried many times to muster up the guts to ask somebody, and aggressively scouted potentials. I considered a few people—there was a celebrity I thought about asking because I loved her last movie and a guy who was going to beauty school in-between video directing gigs who was then going to start work on his novel who colored my hair for free after calling out my grey roots in front of everybody at my regular Saturday meeting. But neither were appropriate sponsors (for obvious reasons). Anyway, I’d chickened out with both and then didn’t really know who to ask or who wanted to do it, and then couldn’t really figure out who had enough recovery to be of any real use. My fear of rejection kept getting in the way. I left every meeting with a new five-cent pamphlet (So far, I’d worked my way through humility, detachment, understanding alcoholism and understanding ourselves) and a colossal sense of failure made all the worse by the fact that I didn’t have a sponsor to call and cry about the fact that I didn’t have one. So I promised myself that by the time my first “birthday” in the program rolled around, I would finally take the plunge. Come hell or high water, I was going to this meeting to get a sponsor. I was going to get the most awesome Al-Anon sponsor ever.
That Sunday I was feeling pretty confident because my husband’s sponsor gushed about how “amazing” the meeting was and how cool the people were in it: “Dude, there’s a lot of recovery in that room. She’ll get a sponsor in a second.” So I went to the meeting with pretty high hopes, the Al-Anon slogan, “Even if you don’t like us, you’ll love us all in a very special way, the same way we already love you,” playing on a loop in my head as I glided through the senior center’s heavy glass doors.
I made my way toward a little table in the lobby where a spread of coffee, carrots, hummus and cookies was laid out on a plastic gingham-plaid tablecloth. The coffee sucked, as suspected, but I drank it anyway and helped myself to a handful of Trader Joe’s candy cane flavored Joe-Joe’s. Nibbling one self-consciously, I peered around at all the people talking to one another over dog-eared copies of One Day at a Time in Al-Anon and Courage to Change. People kept slogging through the door, their hipster pants slung low around their hips, making beelines for one another like they knew exactly where to go, like they were the popular kids in the cafeteria and I was the loser eating my lunch alone. I stepped into the giant room where at least a hundred people were already seated and spotted my husband’s sponsor right away.
Because the whole program is based on anonymity, I’m not supposed to name names or use any specific descriptions, so I feel pretty guilty writing about any of this, which is something that I struggle with a lot. Still, I’m pretty sure I’m not giving too much away by describing my husband’s sponsor as a dead ringer for the character Ignatius J. Reilly on the paperback cover of The Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius Sponsor was big and balloon-like, with an orange ski hat squished atop his round, bulbous head. He wore thick, yellow-rimmed glasses and had on baggy green pants that slid down just enough to reveal the cotton bulge of grey-checkered boxer shorts. A keychain clanging with at least a half-dozen keys was clipped to a black canvas belt.
“You must be Malina,” he said, extending his meaty hand.
“You must be Ignatius.”
He invited me to sit down next to him and a tall, lanky guy who, turns out, was one of the regulars at my Saturday meeting. He’d been one of the ones to spin around when my beauty school almost-sponsor called out my grey hairs.
“So how are things?” asked Ignatius.
“Oh, you know how things are.”
I’d meant it sarcastically, but this is was probably not the best way to start a relationship with your husband’s AA sponsor. Ignatius responded with a terse clearing of the throat.
“Mostly we just talk about Sam,” he said, meaning my husband.
“Oh,” I replied. “So he never talks about me?”
Ignatius jangled his keys. “I’m not allowed to say.”
I carefully placed my plate of cookies on the floor and looked down the long row of chairs to check if there was anybody else having a passive aggressive argument with their spouse’s AA sponsor. There wasn’t. It actually looked the exact opposite. People seemed engaged in sunny, upbeat conversation, hugging one another in that touchy-feely, 12-step group sort of way, the kind of meeting where all the women act like lesbians even if they’re not. One woman was massaging another woman’s back, and with her free hand was patting down her shiny curtain of long, straight hair. They were both wearing wraparound shawls and turquoise jewelry that looked like it came from the Albuquerque Airport gift shop. Further down, there was a short white girl with a navel ring and dreds that rested her head upon the shoulder of a guy wearing a red flannel shirt and dark sunglasses even though we were inside an auditorium. I didn’t want to be any of those people, but I also didn’t want Ignatius turning his back to me and getting up to say hello to about fifty other people while I sat in my chair next to the guy who knew I colored my hair.
Finally, the meeting got started. All the usual things happened: people shared, laughed, cried, there was a lot of nodding. People clapped at the end of each share. We recited the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions and passed around a little basket for donations. A once-suicidal girl thanked the program for saving her life. One guy raised his hand and said he wanted to share because he’d never shared despite being in the program for five years.
I thought about sharing, but this room was large and cold and cavernous, and Ignatius kept looking around like he was trying to ignore me, which I found pretty distracting. Plus, I hadn’t prepared anything. I know Al-Anon’s not supposed to be a performance, but I get really nervous anytime I do any sort of public speaking. My regular meeting is filled with pretty funny people and my heart usually starts to pound a bit while I’m deciding whether or not to raise my hand. If someone’s just shared and made everybody laugh, I generally hold off until someone’s share is not so great. The same goes for someone’s really sad share. (I was at a meeting once where a guy spoke about his sister’s death and the Emmy-nominated star of a network TV series started bawling his eyes out; there was no way I was going to go after that). To avoid any potential embarrassment, I generally plot and plan my ‘share,’ running over the week’s chaos and crises in my head. Then I edit, amp up every punch line, angling to produce something that will make everybody in Al-Anon think I’m the coolest 12-stepper they’ve ever met.
Five minutes left in the meeting and the leader asked anyone who wanted to sponsor to stand. They never did this in my Saturday meeting, which accounted for much of my ambivalence in asking anyone. You just sort of had to guess who wanted to do it. Now, my sponsor was going to stand. This was the moment I’d been waiting for.
About four or five people shot up from their seats: the girl with the navel ring and dreds, a guy in a baseball hat, a man with a swastika tattooed on his shaved head, and the guy who’d raised his hand to share because he’d never shared. Swastika was out for obvious reasons, and the girl with the navel ring and dreds because I was nervous she’d want to make out or something, and the guy with the baseball hat was sitting a mile away on the other side of the room and sat down before I could get a good enough look at his face.
The guy who’d never shared was the one sitting closest to me, which is why I decided that he was going to be my sponsor. Because I’m astigmatic even with my contact lenses my peripheral vision is not so great, and he was pretty much the only one I could see clearly as I swung around to look at everybody. He had on this super cool nerdy brown argyle sweater vest and round tortoise shell glasses. He kind of looked like Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine in all the flashback scenes, with a quirky sideways half-smile.
Everybody linked hands and we ended the meeting with the serenity prayer.
I kept track of Ryan as we filed out of the room—there were so many of us, it was like attempting to exit a South American soccer match without getting stampeded—and tried hard to evade the inevitable goodbye to Ignatius.
“So, how are the kids?” he asked, squished beside me in the crowd.
“Great,” I said, adding a scoff for emphasis. “They’re actually the two best things about my marriage.”
Then another guy waved him over and Ignatius took off. A month or so later, Ignatius came to our house for dinner. He played games with my kids, holding them by their feet as they swung from his hands and laughed. But at that moment on that Sunday, all I knew was that the person upon whom I was counting to find my sponsor fled from me with such frantic haste, I could feel a bubble of warm autumn air as he brushed past me.
I caught up with Ryan right outside the doors of the senior center where a red-haired girl with an iPhone was snapping photographs of his feet.
“I have a shoe blog,” she told him. “Those are really amazing loafers. I’d love to post a picture of them if that’s OK.”
“Hi,” I interrupted. “I’m —”
Ryan held up his finger. “Wait a sec,” he said.
While Shoe Girl snapped a few pictures I focused on his shoes, trying to figure out what is was about them that made them so blog-worthy (and why she took zero interest in my Minnetonka moccasins). Finally, she backed up a bit.
“I’m looking for a sponsor?” I said meekly.
“Oh yea?” said Ryan.
I didn’t think it was going to be this way. I thought I’d ask and he’d just say yes. He’d stood up, after all. Suddenly, I felt like the biggest reject in the world. It had taken me a year to work up the nerve to ask somebody and now my advances were being rebuffed. I could feel myself getting smaller in the room, shrinking down to the size of a six-month sobriety chip, like I was Alice in Al-Anonland.
Ryan looked away from me and fidgeted. Then he dug his hands into his pockets, and kicked around a magically appearing Hacky Sack with the foot that was being photographed.
“I think if I were a woman I’d want a woman to sponsor me,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
Shoe Girl pressed her iPhone against her thigh. “It’s a rule,” she said. “You have to have the same sex sponsor.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “I know plenty of guys who have women sponsor them.”
“No.” She shook her head repeatedly. “They’re breaking the rules.”
“Maybe every meeting is different.”
“No. They’re breaking the rules.”
“I know a woman who’s been in program for twenty-three years that sponsors a guy.”
“She’s doing it wrong.”
I wanted to tell her to fuck off but in Al-Anon we learn it’s better not to say that sort of thing. So instead I said, “Well, do you know any women that might want to do it?”
“Let me introduce you to my friend, Tamara L.”
Tamara L. was short and had pinkish skin and wore a purple v-neck sweater with sterling silver jewelry. I knew this was never going to work. I know that sounds really judgmental, but all the Al-Anon literature says that it’s OK to have flaws so long as you are ready and willing to have the God of your understanding remove all your shortcomings. But that was step three and I hadn’t even begun the steps, not really anyway, because I didn’t have a sponsor with whom to do them. I was flailing, fledgling, an imperfect Al-Anon novice.