originally posted on 365 Attempts [at life]
I am in a room with about 60 people, most of them strangers. Some are in suits and ties. Others are wearing ratty t-shirts and sweats. There are piercings and tattoos and stilettos and briefcases. One man has shorts on and a reflective vest and a very long soul patch that curls under his chin. The woman beside me is dressed in a pencil skirt, blazer and soft, pointed leather boots.
Aside from me, all of these people have one thing in common: they are recovering drug addicts. This is a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, in a community center in downtown Ottawa. It’s Tony’s “home group” – the place where he came every Monday night for 10 years during his own recovery, before he moved back to Montreal.
The reason I’m allowed to be here, as I’m not an addict myself, is that it’s an open meeting. These take place once a month.
I’ve been looking forward to this one for years.
That’s how long it’s been since my last – and first – NA meeting. Like that one, this meeting also a “celebration,” which is when someone celebrates a milestone anniversary of being clean. They actually call it a birthday.
At these open celebration meetings, people give short speeches about the celebrants, and usually their sponsor and some of their sponsees speak as well. As well, there is one main speaker, who talks for about half an hour about an aspect of their experience getting, or staying, clean. Both of the speakers I’ve seen blew my mind. They shared stories most of us have only seen in dramatic films. They openly shared moments of unimaginable shame; tales of hurting their own children; huge, awkward, sometimes near-fatal mistakes they’d made. Their willingness to do this, for the benefit of everyone present, turned me into a blubbering mess both times.
After that first meeting, I was very close to wishing I’d been a drug addict too. I know that’s a glib and ridiculous thing to say, and of course I don’t mean it. But in that small, fluorescent-lit room in that retro community center, surrounded by people I may, in other circumstances, may have crossed to the other side of the street to avoid; may have judged and dismissed as unworthy, I feel a sense of acceptance I can’t put into words. It’s an all-permeating kindness, a “we’ll take you exactly as you are,” that I’ve never experienced at any church, ashram, yoga retreat or Buddhist mediation group. This spirit of encouragement, this wide open welcome, this sense of “we know how hard it is and we will never judge you for what you’ve done” is tangible. In this room, no matter your god, the colour of your skin, or whether you woke up in a gutter with a needle in your arm, you are treated with respect. If you’re okay with it, people will hug you. There is a lot of hugging in NA. That usually makes me cry even more.
Also, there’s the sponsor thing. The idea of being able to come in from an icier cold and a bleaker darkness than many humans will ever know, and ask for help from someone who has been exactly where you are… it just makes so much sense. And then, further down the road, to be able to give back – to do the same thing for someone who stands where you once stood. Why are we not all doing this? In that room, not a single person has an attitude of “cool” or “better than” or “I know more than you.” In its absence, I see how commonplace that energy is. This is not because people are intrinsically assholes. It’s because we are scared. We want to protect ourselves. We are afraid we are not good enough, and we try to nullify that fear.
In that room, no one had anything to prove. And when the person sitting next to you has nothing to prove, it’s very easy to remember that you don’t, either.
Speaking with some people here in Montreal, we’ve begun to riff on the idea of bringing the spirit of NA, or at least the NA meetings I’ve had the honour of attending, and create a kind of community/church/group that upholds it. A place where there is sharing, and learning, all in an environment of kindness and acceptance and openness. Where no matter who you are, you will be treated with respect. Where there might even be the option of becoming a “sponsor” to someone in need of guidance, and to ask for help from someone who once stood where you stand.
If anyone has any ideas about this, or wants to be a part of it, please get in touch with me.
And if you’re curious, NA groups hold open meetings once a month. They’re usually listed on the group’s website. If you’re lucky, it will be someone’s celebration. If you’re luckier still, there will be cake.