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Saturday, September 26, 2015

When a medical student goes to Alcoholics Anonymous

"My name is Erica and I'm an alcoholic"

is not something I could imagine myself easily sharing, much less in front of rows--at least ten rows filled--within the confines of the St. Aloysius Catholic Church, much less to follow that statement with a personal speech interjected with casual fluency interspersed with shouts from the crowd. Yet it is what I witnessed alcoholics do this Saturday evening. As a medical student non-alcoholic observing the proceedings of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I was an outsider even before I stepped in. Crossing across the Harlem streets between Frederick Douglass St and 132nd St, I paused before the church with some uncertainty, before a man asked, 'Where you going, sweetie?" and as we both approached the entrance, I replied with awkward cheer, "here!"

At the entrance
Certainly he was not the first person to raise an eyebrow at my entrance--I, an Asian American twentysomething carrying my backpack, felt quite conspicuous in the midst of the middle-aged mostly black crowd. Thinking back to my visit to the Frick Collection earlier in the day, I started to reflect that my feeling of awkwardness was something these people experienced daily in entering the kind of 'white spaces' which have unconsciously become so natural for me. 

Despite feeling rather out-of-place, I also felt a great sense of camaraderie in the crowd--so that rather than feeling like an uninvited stranger at an official meeting, I felt like a new acquaintance joining a close-knit group of friends, whose inside jokes went over my head. And rather than a therapy session in which I imagined myself as a wallflower, I found myself smiling and nodding along with the shared stories like a (somewhat-clueless) audience member at a comedy show.

For their stories were reminiscent of those from The Moth radio hour where members of the public share gripping personal tales with a receptive audience--they were fun, casual, personal; they elicited laughter and cheers from the crowd; they were told with flair and comedic effect. A man with a blazer and T-shirt went up in front of the crowd, half-grunting half-laughing, "I am certified NUTS!" (laughter from the crowd) "I know I'm crazy," and, referring to his alcoholism, "I know I gotta get out." He goes on, "Alcohol removes," and with dramatic pointing, "Table.... Leg... (laughter). Brain... Kidney... Liver." And a woman with camouflage cap and shirt announces in clear, stately tones, "If it weren't for AA, I wouldn't be here today." 

The last speaker was celebrating her 14th Anniversary--that is to say, it was her 14th year as part of AA, and celebrated with candles and cake. She spoke with flair, spunk: "I was loud. I'm still loud. " And then, sincerely, "My baby teaches me to be better. You all teach me to be better." And, "Others help us see what we don't see in ourselves." As I approached her after the session, along with many others who expressed their congratulations, she turned to me with a bright smile and extended arms--"Are you new?"

I left with the feeling I get when I attend mass at a church and religion I don't "belong to," and why I attend in the first place: that the world is a better place, and can become a better place. That despite our differences, we all seek to be better. And that matters, for alcoholics and for me.