They called it the fish bowl. This was a meeting room behind a glass, sliding door in the rear of the cafeteria. I had no idea what this meant or why they called this room the fish bowl. I had no idea why I agreed to this place nor did I believe that any of this was beneficial for me.
I was a kid and, at best, I saw this as a move to escape the shower rapes and jailhouse beatings that would have inevitably come my way. Had I not chosen this as an option, I am not sure that I would have survived the cages and the guards and the raw viciousness of other angry men.
I think that first and foremost, it is important that I share at least a little bit of my understanding before this point. I had found myself in a predicament, I was caught with a real charge for the first time and while I thought that somehow (like always) I could find a way out of this problem, my moments in a small jail cell had proven otherwise.
There was no way out. The rear doors in squad cars do not open from the inside. Handcuffs can hurt when clasped on by angry officers and of all sounds heard in this world, only a few are more unforgettable than the sound of a cage door rolling shut behind you.
There was no escaping the outcome of my irreversible decisions nor was there a way to appease the courts or stop the one-way train that I was on. I was told what to do by jailhouse lawyers who were in the same holding cells as me. I was told what to do and what to say by other convicts who’d been through the system, countless times; yet, there they were – giving out free legal advice after being arrested again. Yes, admittedly, I was in need of help. I knew that drugs were illegal; therefore, it was to my understanding that rehabilitation time was going to focus on the understanding that drugs are bad and that I should “Just say No!”
Keep in mind, this was the “Just say No!” era with Nancy Reagan. This was during the time when there were commercials of a man with an egg and a frying pan. This was the commercial when someone held up an egg and said, “This is your brain.” Then there was a frying pan to which the man said, “This is drugs.” Then the egg was cracked and put into the frying pan by a man who punctuated the commercial by saying, “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”
However and to the best of my assumptions, alcohol was part of our culture. Everyone drank alcohol, right? As I saw it, beer was as American as apple pie. Everyone drinks beer. Alcohol was part of everything. This is a social thing, right? Why else would people bond and gather for a drink? Why else would there be so many different kinds of beer or scotch or whiskey? Alcohol was part of every sporting event. But me, I was a kid at the time and a few years away from the legal drinking age.
I was offered the opportunity to seek treatment and find the help I would need. Essentially, they were offering me an opportunity to escape the threats of jail as well as clean up my life.
I was told about these 12 step groups that were “anonymous” and there were two letters which defined this group. The letters were A.A. or otherwise known as Alcoholics Anonymous.
In fairness, I didn’t really know what an alcoholic was. At least, not really.
I saw nothing wrong with drinking or drinking to get drunk. In fact, drinking was something that always seemed like a good idea to me. Why wouldn’t people drink? Who would want to live their entire life and never have the ability to drink or scream out loud? But wait. No. Why would you even trust a person who doesn’t drink?
But . . .
This is A.A. which stands for Alcoholics Anonymous.
Perhaps my understanding of what an alcoholic means was hazy – but as for anonymity, I knew what this meant. This meant that we went without names. We were protected and in my estimation, what happened at these meetings was not to be discussed on the outside.
In my crazy assumption, I thought this was where old men went and sat at little tables with ashtrays in the middle, covered in cigarette butts. I pictured people drinking and sitting there as a way station because it was unsafe to drink anywhere else. In my preparation for punishment, I heard the powers that be offer me a chance to seek treatment for my drug use and A.A. meetings to help with my so-called drinking disorder.
I thought to myself, “So wait. Let me get this straight. They’re offering me rehab time instead of jail and A.A. meetings.”
I’ll take it.
I’ll do their therapy and go to meetings, where I can be “anonymous.”
Suddenly, this did not sound like a punishment at all. I was fine with this. I would take my quiet time in whichever hospital setting they had – which, in fairness, I had this wrong too.
I assumed rehab would be a hospital. But this was wrong. I envisioned people on medications, like Thorazine and mindlessly walking in the corridors with pajamas and robes with slippers on, drooling on themselves or talking to imaginary people. But no. This was not right either.
The reason why I took this program was to beat jail time; plus, I was going to be allowed at A.A. meetings. And you know what they do there, right?
They drink. But, that’s okay because this is “anonymous” and it’s all hush, hush, like some sort of alcohol maintenance or an equivalent to the methadone option for drunks.
There was a man named Sal who did my intake. This is when I was introduced to the fish bowl. I was unsure what was to come. Nothing looked as I expected.
There were some of the other patients who were wandering around the facility, which in fairness, this was an old hotel. This wasn’t a hospital setting. There were counselors and therapists. There were groups and one on one sessions.
Oh, but ah.
Night time was the time for A.A. meetings in what they called the fish bowl. I didn’t see a bar or anyplace where they would store drinks or anything like that. Of course, I wondered if maybe they would teach us how to drink here or how to time our drinking. So, maybe this meant I needed to learn first and get “drinking privileges.” Maybe they locked up the booze. Otherwise, no one would do anything but drink, which to my assessment, was that really so bad?
Could that be it?
Was I about to go to drinking school?
“Bet ya I get an A!”
Sal was giving me the rundown of the place. He was telling me about the rules. He told me that I would be given a job during the day, which was not hard by any means. I had to do dishes during the lunchtime shift and that was fine.
I was told there was no fraternizing allowed with the female clients who were housed on the other side of the building. I was told that certain violations would terminate my time at this so-called Villa and that should I choose to work the “program” I could change my life and live happily ever after.
I wish I had a camera for this part. . .
Sal began to tell me about A.A. and how I will be attending my first A.A. meeting on the same day of my arrival. An expression of excitement and relief took over my face. “Good,” I explained.
“So, you want to go,” asked Sal.
“I do,” I answered.
“But how does this work out?”
I explained, “Because technically, I’m underage. So, do I have to wait? Do I have to sign something? Or do I get to jump right in?”
“No,” said Sal. “You get to jump right in.”
“Yes,” I responded with excitement.
Sal interjected, “Wait a minute.”
“What do you think goes on in these meetings?”
I answered, “This is A.A. right?”
“So that means it’s Alcoholics Anonymous, right?”
Sal’s expression was confused to say the least.
“So, what do you think that means,” he asked.
“It means that we drink and we don’t tell anybody about it.”
(I mean, why else would anyone go to those kinds of meetings?)
Sal tried hard not to break out into laughter.
He said, “No.”
He told me, “I’ve been doing this for a very long time and this is the first time I ever heard someone say that!”
“You don’t drink.” explained Sal.
He told me, “In fact, you’re going to learn how to never drink again.”
Suddenly, the punishment set in.
I’d been had!
They tricked me!
Who’d have thought that any of this would stick.
Certainly not me.
I may not be good at a lot of things. I might not write to a commercial perfection. I might not be everyone’s best friend or be seen as a good person and I might not be the life of the party. I might have more flaws than most but the one thing I can do is the one thing that no one ever predicted I could do, which is stay sober, stay clean or quite simply – stay alive.
People do get better.