SEATTLE - With the fervor of a tent revival, the Cherry Fellowship Hall rocked with cheers and applause.
“I’m Amy ... I’m Jeffrey ... I’m Miranda, and I’m an alcoholic.”
Some had been sober 24 hours. Some more than 2 years. Others were cheered just at their ability to acknowledge their illness: alcoholism.
For the past 75 years, Alcoholics Anonymous has been transforming lives through its 12-step program. Sunday, the Cherry Street Afterfivers AA will be among 1,300 Seattlearea groups and hundreds of others throughout the Northwest at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center to celebrate AA’s anniversary. The conference is a precursor to a July international celebration in San Antonio, Texas, for the now-2-million-member organization.
For many, the anniversary is like celebrating the birth of a close friend who not only saved your life but transformed it.
“The fellowship will hold you up when you can’t hold yourself up,” said Greg, who told the Afterfivers group how he used to take his parents’ car and disappear all night to go drinking, but also how his parents now thank his AA sponsor.
Today, Greg is an AA leader and has visited the house in Akron, Ohio, where AA started. “It was pretty spiritual to be out there,” he said.
When two alcoholics known simply as Dr. Bob, an Akron doctor, and a New York stockbroker Bill W. created AA in 1935, one of its bylaws included keeping identities confidential to make it safe for alcoholics to admit they have a problem. In keeping with that policy, The Times is using only first names in this story and not revealing specific details about members’ lives.
The famed “12 steps” to recovery, which members follow and which have become a model for other addiction-recovery groups, were based on psychological knowledge at the time. They’ve held up for generations.
The first Washington AA chapter opened in Seattle in 1941, following an article in the Saturday Evening Post. Dale M. of Seattle requested information on dealing with his own alcoholism and formed a group with others who also asked for the same information.
Today, the chapters are individually named — ranging from Queen Anne’s Full Monty to the Kirkland Sober Cartooners — and there are groups solely for Koreans, Hispanics, youths, men and women, in addition to the many inclusive groups.
While the styles might differ, the message is always the same: acceptance, anonymity, support, accountability and relying on a higher power.
Over the years, AA’s influence has transformed the way alcoholism is treated, experts say. Before treatment centers came into use in the 1960s, alcoholics were sent to mental hospitals.
In the mid-1940s, Seattle was faced with massive jail overcrowding, most of it from the 2,500 alcoholics who were repeatedly arrested and spent time in a city jail designed for 85 men and no women. The city created the Seattle Police Alcoholic Rehabilitation Project, or “police farm,” a 32-acre site on the Duwamish River. It was the city’s first attempt to do something about alcoholism, and officials there brought in AA members to work with the alcoholics.
AA became connected to University of Washington Medical School in 1953, and the result was a program that became a national model for training doctors about alcoholism by using AA.
While AA’s reputation was growing nationwide, Ralph B. had ignored it during his time at the police farm. He began drinking by sipping his father’s wine at 14. Like his father, brother, uncle and numerous other relatives, he easily became addicted.
He was young, married and began calling his wife’s doctor, hoping for answers, though he now admits: “I was somewhat unclear just what my wife’s gynecologist was supposed to do.”
It wasn’t until much later when Ralph was fired for being drunk at work that he connected with AA through help from his boss, who rehired him once he was sober.
Today, after a college education, family and many successes that pushed him to the top of the corporate ladder, Ralph, now in his 70s and a marathon runner, remembers that first AA meeting as a relief. His “sponsor,” someone willing to help him through the recovery process, took him to the meeting held at the Bartenders’ Union Hall in Renton.
Carol W. was a self-described “lace-curtain drunk,” a secretive drinker who quietly drank at home, peeking out the curtains to see who was at the door so she could hide the liquor.
Now in her 60s, she was from a family of “social drinkers” who never regarded themselves as having a problem with alcohol, even though several had died of cirrhosis of the liver.
“We looked normal from the outside,” she said. But after a divorce, followed by her second husband’s death from cancer, she was lonely and drank to ease the pain.
One day she became a juror on a woman’s drunk-driving trial and decided to face her own drinking habits. She ended up in treatment and AA.
Back at Cherry Street, the recovering alcoholics sit around the table reading aloud from what’s referred to as The Big Book, the AA’s reassuring Bible that tells them that without alcohol, “life will mean something.”
One woman said when she first came to AA, she pretended everything in her life was fine, then got into her truck and drove to Bellevue, looking for a parking lot to spend the night.
“Do you know how hard it is to find a parking lot like that in Bellevue?” she asked. Yet, she’s improving. Step by step. The others nodded encouragingly.
“It’s fun being in here and watching someone rise from the depths of hell,” said Greg. “We’re walking the same road together.”