Since I liked the number 17, I scanned the list of sponsors’ names and found the seventeenth: “Ray W.” The list was written in various inks and in pencil on poster board and tacked with thumbnails to the paneled wall over the water fountain. I wrote down Ray W.’s phone number, sat through the hour-long Open Meeting at Clayton House in Jonesboro, Georgia, and drove back to my room, which I rented from a Mormon couple about three miles away.
AA is supposed to be anonymous, but in this small community, most people knew each others’ last names, where they worked, which Waffle House we all congregated at. Eddy started with a hair salon, though he branched out into tanning, and I helped him procure his first tanning bed in Griffin, a town about 25 miles south along Tara Boulevard. Tom worked at the phone company, and his live-in girlfriend Phyllis had magenta-colored Cleopatra style hair. They both smoked incessantly yet had brilliant teeth. (Pretty much everyone at Clayton House smoked but me.) I went over to their house once with a few others. Clean laundry was falling out of the dryer, which was in the kitchen, and they all smoked cigarettes as we drank cokes or lemonade or sweet tea. The collective laughter and in-jokes were the music we all listened to, its tones and rising pitches wafting across the room with the blue-grey smoke. Sandra was there, a woman in her late 30s, natural blonde, who still to this day typifies to me what serenity – as opposed to mere sobriety – is like. Woody had a dog grooming shop, and his trimmed beard and shoulder-length fine black hair, always combed, made him look like an afghan, except for his diminutive height.
Joe and Frieda were the first Mormon couple I had ever become friends with. They had a daughter in college and a college-bound son, who listened to the Grateful Dead most waking hours, and Joe seemed to have a gift for fixing the washing machine with parts that he extracted from their 15-year-old Dodge Caravan. As I recall, I paid them somewhere around $200 per month for my 10’ square room, and I had bathroom cleaning duties.
I used their phone to call Ray W.
At the time, I had not met Ray face to face. When I finally did, his appearance was underwhelming. He was 6’2”, thin and bent like a homeless man, and had dark black skin and graying and aging clothes. He wore dark glasses, and I can’t say I ever saw the whites of his eyes. When you don’t see the whites of someone’s eyes, you wonder if they even know you or think about you when they’re addressing you. At least I did.
And yet, when you get to a certain point in your life, when the misery is great enough, you do what someone tells you to do, especially if their names happens to fall under lucky number 17 on a list, a criterion as good as any to pick a sponsor. Ray told me to call him every night at 7:30 to check in. I did. He told me to go to a meeting every day. I did. (At least one.) He told me many other things as well, including insisting that I come to the Thursday night Spiritual Recovery Group at Southwest Christian Church in East Point.
It was on Thursday nights I met people like Bill and Julie. Bill worked for Delta Airlines, and they lived in Peachtree City. Bill and Julie, and many of their friends from SWCC in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, were the kind of people I had always assumed spent the better part of the day counting their blessings that they were not heroin addicts. But there we sat, in a room adjacent to the sanctuary (no smoking allowed, however), and one by one we went around the room, introducing ourselves by first name. There were maybe sixty of us.
“My name is Jerry, and I’m an addict.” Hi, Jerry!
“My name is Howard, and I’m an alcoholic.” Same refrain.
“My name is Julie, and I’m a sinner.”
Now, at this point, I think a disclaimer is in order. I read recently in a NY Times article, one of many in recent years, about the supposed overlap and equation of “addiction” and “sinfulness.” That’s not what I’m getting to here. I’m writing about how a person who recognizes that he is broken by alcohol or cocaine, and how a person who recognizes that she is broken by sin, sit in the same room and talk about what Jesus did for them. The same Jesus, and the same deliverance. In fact, I noticed that the people who had been in this group for some time, people with substance abuse issues like me, would often introduce themselves as, “Shawana, a crack addict and sinner.” Sin was at the bottom, not addiction, even though addiction often paraded around on the campgrounds that sin had the permit to.
And so this is how I met Bill and Julie, and Ray W. and Jim Dyer (the founding pastor of the church, and founder of this group), and Joe O. and Hendu and Cheryl and so many others, most of whom I can remember faces of if not names.
Ray W. told me what to do, and I did it. I did it half out of fear for what would happen if I didn’t, and half out of certainty that he knew what he was talking about. Ray was supervisor in a halfway house called S.O.A.R., a ministry that SWCC founded and funded. A lot of the guys I met in Clayton House were living there and would get jobs at a Waffle House or gas station, wherever they could walk to, since their driver licenses had been revoked.