Early in sobriety I attended AA meetings daily, as prescribed by my temporary sponsor. I was told to listen closely to others with many years of sobriety, especially the women, because eventually I would hear my own story coming out of other women’s shares. It’s important, because we learn that recovering alcoholics are not terminally unique; that there is a way forward out of the madness. If other AAs with similar stories to mine could get sober, I could too, if I followed the program one day at a time.
One of the women in my program was Norma. She was brusque, large, outspoken, tough, and sober 15 years when I met her almost 12 years ago. When Norma shared, she told it like it was. She was plainspoken and not above saying something or someone’s point was bullshit when it needed to be said (because ‘rationalizing’ one’s reactions or activities can be a gateway for AAs to drink again).
I was intimidated by her; I’d never been around anyone who was so brutally honest about drinking, but truthfully, I was intimidated by everyone in the rooms at that point, because my emotions and thinking were raw and jagged with fear, anxiety, and unsteadiness — I had had to replace the tranquilizing booze with things like yoga, exercise, meditation. Early sobriety can be a weird transitional time.
In the early days, I stayed quiet in the meetings, because my temporary sponsor told me to shut up, listen, and learn — after all, my ‘best thinking’ landed me in the rooms of AA. So I mostly observed Norma. I listened to her shares and learned from her experiences. She was also an expert knitter and I was intrigued that she could knit at AA meetings. But her knitting wasn’t a distraction — Norma’s needles would move so fast they seemed to blur and she would not even look at her work during the meetings, she was that engaged in the discussions.
Because Norma was consistently at these meetings I thought of her as kind-of a role model, especially with knitting, because I had picked up the hobby after many years, and was also bringing work into the meetings. Knitting soothes me, slows my thinking down, becomes meditative after a while, and I found it helped me focus more on the discussions in the meetings. But my knitting was slow and simple with subtle colored yarn, retiring; Norma’s knitting was complicated and textured, done quickly and with bold, vibrant yarn of different textiles.
Norma lived the example of a woman in sobriety with qualities I wanted — she’d learn to live many years without ‘needing’ a drink, she was fearlessly honest about her struggles living life on life’s terms, and she could knit a beautiful sweater in about three days. I needed a permanent sponsor; I thought she was the one I could learn the most from in the program.
So one day, I brought her a gift of unusual yarn I’d found at a local knitting store that I frequented. I gave it to her, and she appreciated it. She thanked me, and said she was looking forward to using it. I said that I admired her work and her time in the program, and that I’d like to talk to her about it. But she thanked me again, and then the meeting started — and that was all we said to each other that day. I thought I’d ask her about sponsoring me another time.
The following week, I was walking to the Sunday women’s meeting, and saw her walking up the sidewalk. She said hello to me, and said she was looking forward to using the yarn I gave her.
I asked her what she planned to knit with it, and she stopped where she was, turned to me, and said with exasperation, “you know, you’re just so irritating. Go on ahead. I really don’t want to be around you.”
Norma’s response shocked and surprised me — I honestly did not know where it came from. I felt my face flush, and my stomach turn over — but instead of getting angry, or upset, or reacting in like manner, something made me say, “I understand. I’ll see you later,” and I walked on ahead to the meeting room.
But when I got inside, I went into the women’s rest room, and sobbed. I took a bunch of deep breaths, calmed myself, and went into the meeting — Norma was already seated in the front of the room — I sat in the back, and made myself stay there the entire time. I don’t know how or why I said what I did to Norma, because I really didn’t understand what had happened.
The old me probably would have had a drink over something like that; instead, I waited after the meeting for my temporary sponsor, who was also in the room. I told her what happened — she gave me some good advice quoting the poet Miller Williams — and she said she’d love to be my permanent sponsor.
Even though the event with Norma was almost 12 years ago, remembering that event still troubles me.
From that moment on, Norma was rude to me; I didn’t speak to her that much afterwards, and I avoided meetings I knew she frequented.
The thing is, I never knew what it was that got under Norma’s skin. Last year, I tried to call her. I wanted to talk to her about it, because I wanted to learn what it was I did that was irritating — I wanted to correct whatever it was, if I could.
But I was too late. When I tried to call her, her number had been disconnected. I later discovered she’d died nine months earlier in her sleep.
I wish I’d had a chance to talk to her. Hearing hard truths is something I’ve had to get comfortable with over the past 12 years of working the AA program. I want to hear the truth — even if it is difficult — because I don’t want to be the person I used to be before sobriety.
Even so, Norma lived a life of transparency, accountability, and honesty. That’s what keeps me sober today, every day, and for that, I am grateful to have had her in my life. Maybe that’s the lesson I was supposed to have from Norma.
Oh — the quote my sponsor gave me from the poet Miller Williams is as follows (and I keep it close to my heart always):
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
“You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”