Twelve Steps From a Breakdown By Cathy Beaudoin

A high-flying executive pretends to be an alcoholic so she can attend AA meetings in the hope of salving her soul; by Cathy Beaudoin.

Standing at the top of the basement stairwell, nerves made me shaky and ready to vomit. Afraid the typical Manhattan brownstone was a private residence, I peered through the gritty, ankle-high window. There were a dozen rows of plastic folding chairs and a table with a coffee pot on top of it. About ten feet away, at the curb separating the street from the sidewalk, a couple of scruffy bearded guys stood smoking. I glanced at them and when we made eye contact I wanted to turn and run home, to bolt my apartment door, grab a glass from the kitchen cabinet, and squeeze it until it shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.

“You okay?” one of them probed.

“There a meeting here tonight?” I asked.

“Yeah, you’re in the right place honey.”

I bristled at the word honey. I wasn’t his honey. I wasn’t anyone’s honey.

“Just head down the stairs. First door on the right.”

I feigned a courteous nod.

The two smokers were dressed in unwashed jeans and ratty T-shirts. Tattooed arms and necks couldn’t hide their wrinkled, leathery skin. I was still dressed in my work clothes, a finely tailored gray suit and starched white shirt. My sleeves didn’t hide any ink markings. Even if I believed in a visual homage to my life, there wasn’t anyone or anything I wanted to honor. Though blessed with medium height, medium weight, and medium length blond hair, I figured the only thing these guys saw was an uptight, brooding woman. After taking a deep breath, I headed to the basement. The nook at the bottom of the stairwell was dark, damp, and musty. The heel of my pump got caught in the grate covering a drainage hole. I rolled my eyes.

“Damn it.”

Then, like any good problem-solver, I twisted and yanked until the thing came loose. Hoping no one witnessed my struggle, I pushed open the heavy wooden door in front of me. Off to my right, I saw into the same room I’d viewed from the street. A thin man, wearing a loose-fitting, gray frayed sweater, black pants, and threadbare shoes stood just inside the room. His smile seemed genuine.

“Is this where the Tuesday night meeting is?” I cringed at the sound of my voice, the tone abrasive.

“Yes, Ma’am. It sure is.” The man settled into a long pause, as if inviting me to speak.

I remained tight lipped and held back a response. After all, I was a fraud and didn’t belong here. Isn’t that what everyone said when they first showed up? No one was about to believe I wasn’t much of a drinker and didn’t do drugs. Classic case of denial they’d say, though I knew better. My habit of going out for a beer on Friday nights hardly qualified me as an alcoholic. But I’d lived a long time with a fistful of sadness close to my heart. It built up from the grief around my mother’s death, which happened ten years earlier when I was away at college. The fieriness of our relationship was still with me, and caused my insides to bounce around like a ping pong ball. It didn’t help that my mother’s death triggered a deafening silence within the family, and I was left to fend for myself. At college, I buried my face in my books. At work, I took on a heavy load. At home, I did things like grab clumps of my hair and pull until it hurt. Sometimes, I’d drop to my knees and pray to a nameless, faceless god. Desperate to fix the hole in my soul, I didn’t know where else to go. And if I had to lie to fit in, well, wasn’t that what alcoholics did?

Not wanting to look at the man greeting me, I glared at the scuffmarks on the tips of my shoes. Even with my prolonged silence, he wasn’t ready to dismiss me. “First time here?”

I nodded and tried not to sound like a jerk. “I’m going to take a seat and wait, okay?”

“Sure,” he conceded. “Keep in mind, almost anyone here is willing to listen, that is, whenever you feel like talking.” This time, the man waited until I made eye contact. “This meeting attracts a good group of people. No fights. No arguments. No judgments.”

The message was reassuring, and some of the tension I’d been holding released. As I turned to step away, the man added, “A group of us go for coffee after the meeting, at the diner two blocks up on Lexington. Everyone’s welcome. We’ve all been where you’re at.”

“No,” I mumbled. “I don’t think so.”

“Excuse me?”

“Like I said,” I snapped. “I just want to take a seat.” I turned, marched to a middle seat in a middle row, and hoped no one sat next to me. The second my butt hit the chair, my right heel started to tap like the motion of a ten-year-old who couldn’t wait to go out and play.

What was I doing here?

Relax, I told myself. It was one meeting. And there wasn’t any rule about coming back. After all, I wasn’t an alcoholic. My emotions swung like a pendulum. I wanted to scream. It felt like bugs were crawling underneath my skin. Was this a panic attack? No. No. I knew better. This was the darkness I lived with, and sometimes it was enough to make me want to curl up in a ball and die.

When the meeting started, every seat in the room was taken and some people stood against the back wall. I was flanked by a gristly bearded man who smelled like whiskey and cigarettes, and a petite woman dressed in a navy-blue pencil skirt and pink cotton top. I tucked my arms in close to my ribs and stared at the back of the chair in front of me. I hoped like hell these people didn’t touch me.

A big, burly man in jeans and a flannel shirt called the meeting to order.

“Hi everyone. My name is Frank, and I’m an alcoholic.”

His booming voice demanded recognition, and at least three quarters of the people in the room responded with a hearty, “Hi Frank.”

Frank wasted no time moving the meeting along. “Well, it looks like we have some new faces in the crowd. If you’d like to introduce yourself, just raise your hand. Ain’t no rule says you have to. If you do though, first name only. That’s how it works here.”

A couple of hands went up, and Frank pointed.

“Hi, my name is Andy, and I’m an alcoholic. I’m in the city for work and needed to catch a meeting. So, here I am.”

Almost everyone in the room acknowledged Andy. Frank nodded at someone off to my right.

“Hi, my name is Danielle,” a voice quivered. “I’m here because I’m a mess and I think I need to stop drinking and drugging.”

Danielle sounded like a train wreck, so I had to look. Her eyes were deep-set and vacant, surrounded by dark shadows. Her eyelids were painted with thick, black eyeliner, and strands of brown hair stuck to the corners of her mouth. The skin I could see was so pale it looked like she hadn’t been outside in months. I saw what I needed to believe. Compared to her, I wasn’t that much of a mess.

Frank did his best to reach out to her. “Everyone in this room has felt like you feel right now. You’re in the right place, Danielle. You have friends here who want to help you.”

I withheld an urge to state the obvious. These people weren’t my friends.

“Anyone else?”

Frank looked straight at me and I half lifted my hand. “My name is Becky, and this is my first meeting.”

A handful of polite claps followed, and Frank moved on. “Okay, next up is our speaker. Brian, come on up.”

One of the guys leaning against the back wall stepped to the front of the room. He was dressed in pressed Khakis and a blue button-down shirt. With his shaggy, dirty-blond hair and big blue eyes, he didn’t look like an alcoholic to me.

“Hello everyone, my name is Brian and I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for eighteen months.”

He took a deep breath. “I grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood in northern Jersey. My parents were both attorneys with jobs in the city. I took my first drink when I was ten, had my first blackout at fifteen, and was arrested for drunk driving at eighteen. By twenty-one, I was a college dropout, homeless, and cut off from my family.”

Whoops. I was wrong. Way wrong.

The gristly, bearded man’s leg touched mine and I glared at him.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

The leg-to-leg contact unnerved me, and I looked around the room for something else to focus on. I noticed a poster on the basement wall. It advertised the first step of the twelve-step program. Admit we were powerless… I pursed my lips.

“Huh,” I grunted. I wasn’t powerless. There wasn’t anyone who knew me who’d describe me as powerless. I was a strong, determined woman. At work, the men who evaluated me reminded me not to be so forceful when dealing with co-workers. Apparently, my directness bothered them. Mostly, I ignored the advice but still managed to be considered a valuable employee. Our lives have become unmanageable… hum, I’m killing it at work. Just got my annual bonus and a promotion. Hardly powerless, hardly not managing well. The decision to attend an AA meeting started to feel like a stupid one. No, no, a voice in my head barked. I wasn’t being entirely honest. Mine was a cruel existence, like Jekyll and Hyde. A high-functioning, respected professional at work, I toed the line of insanity at home. Tears filled my eyes, and I thought I was going to crack in half.

Brian was still telling his story. “I went to rehab nine times between the ages of twenty-one and thirty.” He shook his head, like he could hardly believe his own words. “It’s still hard. For one thing, I hate walking by bars. I’m an addict, and my addiction talks to me, saying things like you can do it, you can go in and have one drink. Right now, when my mind starts screwing with me, I have to find a place to get quiet, and stay still until the urge to drink passes.”

I found it difficult to relate to Brian’s experience. Movement was the one thing that kept me from unraveling. Most nights, after dinner, I’d walk around the lower East Side of Manhattan. There, the streets mirrored my messy existence. The smell of curry mixed with the faint aroma of sewage, the narrow sidewalks cluttered with bags of garbage, they offered an intimacy not found on the main avenues in the city. I always picked a route with bars, tattoo parlors, and tiny second-hand clothing shops. If I saw a hipster wearing leather pants and a pound or two of silver jewelry, I made up a story about what that person’s life was like. The surroundings distracted me enough to keep my insanity from wrecking me.

I refocused on Brian.

“I’ve done it all. Quitting cold turkey, then having seizures. Puking more blood than a human should. I’ve had the shakes for days. Even with all the damage I’ve done to myself and the people around me, I still want to drink.”

My stomach twisted in a knot and my thoughts turned back to movement. On weekends, I’d always walk to a part of the city I’d never been to before. I liked exploring out of the way places, especially by myself. No one to disappoint me, or let me down. Once, I set out for the Meatpacking District. When I went there, it was far from being an upscale, trendy destination. Instead, it was home to brick factory buildings, loading docks, and back alleys. Industrial to its core, neither locals nor tourists had any reason to go there. The lack of weekend activity had me on edge, and I got more than I’d bargained for when a yellow cab inched its way towards me. In New York City taxi cab drivers didn’t inch their way anywhere, and the hair on the nape of my neck rose. When the cab stopped just short of me, I froze. No breathing, no heartbeat, nothing for a full ten seconds. The back door opened and the first thing I saw was a pair of long, thick, muscular legs. A man wearing a see-through, fishnet dress stepped out of the vehicle. I couldn’t help but stare at his long, floppy dick. The guy nodded in my direction, clutched an oversized purse, adjusted a wig of shoulder-length, jet black hair, and wobbled across the cobblestone street in a pair of four-inch heels. Creeped out by what I saw, I turned and walked as fast as I could to the nearest subway station. Like when I saw Danielle, I found comfort in thinking I wasn’t as screwed up as that guy.

I chuckled out loud and the woman sitting in front of me turned just enough to silence me with a stare. Then the gristly bearded man coughed up some phlegm. Brian was still telling his story. “Even now, I want to drink every minute of every day. But I can’t. I have a little girl, she’s five now, and she deserves a good daddy. And her mother deserves a better me as well.”

Ouch. Those words stung. A guy this messed up and he still found someone who loved him. I didn’t need to pay someone hundreds of dollars an hour to figure this one out. Terrified of rejection and abandonment, I compensated by wearing a suit of armor. It was easy to hide behind a heavy workload at the office and avoid meaningful interaction with people on nights and weekends. If I kept my brain busy, and my body tired, I didn’t need to pull my hair or punch myself until the physical pain overpowered my emotional angst. That’s when I realized I wasn’t all that different from anyone else in the room. I had a story too. I just wasn’t sure I’d ever share it.

“I hit bottom when I was sitting in a county jail cell,” Brian went on. “For breaking into someone’s house looking for booze and money. Meanwhile my daughter was home, waiting to light the candles on her birthday cake. She told her momma not to light the candles until I came home. When I heard about that, I made the decision to start living life like a good father should.”

It wasn’t until the woman sitting next to me handed me some Kleenex that I realized I was crying.

Though I didn’t talk to anyone except the greeter, I felt better after attending my first AA meeting. When I got home, I didn’t punch my thighs with my fists, or bite my nails down to the quick. However, I did find myself thinking about my mother. When she was alive, we never understood each other. I liked to bang nails, she bought me dolls. I was passionate about sports, she hated them. I liked hiking in the woods, she preferred lounging on the patio with a glass of iced tea. Unsure she loved me, I learned to carve out my own space at the opposite end of the house. It was only after she died that I wanted to reconcile with her. Whenever something good happened, I’d say out loud, “Mom, you’d be proud of me. I know you would.”

Then I’d look to the sky, remember the day my father laid a rose on her casket, and cry.

Still desperate to fix myself, I went to another AA meeting. When I got to the brownstone, the same two guys were standing at the curb, smoking.

Damn those guys puffed it up. We made eye contact, and I didn’t immediately look away. They don’t look mean and nasty, I thought.

“Hey, you’re back,” one of them said.

“Yeah.” I struggled for words. “I’m back.”

I felt my face turn red. Jesus, you’d never know I was an articulate human being at work. Just that day I coordinated a meeting for the billion-dollar purchase of a company with the investment bankers and outside counsel.

“Cigarette?” one of the guys asked as he offered his cigarette pack.

“Nah.” I managed a half smile. “I’m not a smoker. Thanks anyway. I’m just going to head downstairs.”

As I went down the stairwell, I remembered to skirt past the drainage cover. Inside the room, three women huddled together, drinking coffee. I avoided eye contact and went to a middle seat in a row in the middle of the room. Staring at the empty chair in front of me, I listened to the women talk.

“Do you know who’s running this meeting? I gotta get my paperwork signed.”

“Court sent you here?”

“Fuck yeah, you think I’d be here otherwise?”

“You know, for most people, it’s a choice to come here.”

“Yeah, well good for them.”

As the tension in the room increased, the nerve endings in my neck began to fire. A rush of adrenaline flushed through my veins. My focus turned to how different I was from this woman. Already a mid-level executive in a Fortune 500 company, other smart and accomplished women looked up to me. I turned and caught a glimpse of the court papers in the woman’s hand.

“What’re you looking at, bitch?”

I looked away, jammed my hands between my knees, and stared at my feet.

“Hey, I asked you a question.” But before I could answer, Frank stepped in from the hallway.

“Hey, not here. You can disrespect yourself and others as much as you want. But it ain’t happening here. Got it?” His voice reverberated off the walls.

“Sure. I got it, pops. What’re you doing after the meeting? I got a mouth that…”

“Enough,” Frank roared.

“Don’t get so testy, old man.” She shoved her papers at him.

“I’ll sign those after you make it through the meeting. Why don’t you take that seat right in front and chill out?” The woman grunted, opened her mouth wide and licked her lips. Then she sauntered over to the first seat in the first row and sat.

While I had a couple of good days after the second meeting, the weekend didn’t go so well. I spent Saturday on the couch, paralyzed and unable to function. That was followed by an eight-mile walk through the city on Sunday. Exhaustion was my best friend, and on Monday morning I had no problem adjusting to work mode. But this was no way to live, and I went to another AA meeting.

At the end of the jam-packed session, one of the smokers from the curb approached me. “Hey, my name is Rob. We’re going for coffee at the diner if you want to join us.”

I felt my chest constrict. “No. No thanks. Maybe some other time.”

Without making eye contact, I slid between several people socializing in the hallway, scrambled up the stairs, and hustled along the sidewalk as fast as my heeled shoes let me. It took four more meetings before I took the initiative to talk to someone. But it wasn’t like I went out on a limb. When the pleasant woman in the pencil skirt sat next to me again, I managed a polite hello.

“Oh, hello there.” Her smile seemed to come easy.

My right foot started to tap, and I wiped some sweat off my forehead.

“Been coming here long?” I asked.

“A couple of years. I took a break for a while but had a bad breakup with a boyfriend. Figured I could do the sloppy, crying drunk thing again or come to some meetings.”

Her story seemed to contrast with my own dating life. The last time I accepted an offer to go out with a guy was a year earlier. He was a computer consultant who took me to dinner, watched me eat while leaving his own plate untouched, and then made fun of the freckles on my arms. I figured there had to be better prospects, then promptly stopped looking.

“What about you?” she asked.

“Been coming for about two months now.” I paused, but the silence was awkward. “I guess I’m not sure why I’m here.”

“Ah, well… hopefully you’ll figure it out.”

I turned away and thought about my meeting with the CEO earlier in the day. Paranoid I may have been too direct with him, I wondered if I should’ve restrained myself when I challenged him on his interpretation of the financial results for one of our newest products.

It was another couple of weeks before I gathered enough nerve to go to the diner. First, I lingered after meetings, and watched as Rob and his smoking buddy Eddie took the time to listen to the newcomers and long-time regulars. Socializing seemed easy for them, and I burned with envy. What was I supposed to talk about? I’d never been inside a detox facility, possessed stolen goods, or woken up naked in some stranger’s bed. I could talk about building financial systems or developing risk-adjusted capital allocation models. But no one here cared about that stuff. They talked about what drove them to alcohol, and I didn’t see myself talking about how I resented my mother for dying before I got the skills I needed to cope with life.

There, I admitted it. I resented my mother for dying on me. And now It was time to stop blaming her. It wasn’t her fault.

The meetings seemed to be helping. Instead of roaming the streets, I went to the movies. I even went to happy hour with some acquaintances, though the conversation about summer beach rentals, boardwalk bars, and train schedules bored me. Where were the people who talked about books and articles in magazines like The Economist?

Chatting over a cup of coffee was a big step forward for me. The coffee shop regulars included Danny, Eddie, and five or six others. Ironically, the only woman who joined up with the group was the one with a court order to attend meetings. Though she seemed to have her vicious streak under control, I dreaded sitting at the same table with her.

Once I decided to go to the diner, I was the first to leave the meeting. Walking by myself allowed me to sort through my feelings. Would I be truthful about not being an alcoholic? Would I be forthcoming about how much I suffered without the messiness of drinking? When I opened the diner door, a string of hanging bells jingled. I bit my lip, embarrassed to be someone from the AA meeting. Every set of eyes in the room shifted to me. The heavy smell of fryer grease hung in the air. An old man sat alone at a table for two. A brown sauce pooled on his plate next to what looked like a mound of mashed potatoes. Another guy, middle-aged and dressed in an ill-fitting business suit, sat across from a young blond with some sketches in front of her. A waitress said I could take any open seat I wanted.

“Well, uh, I’m meeting some people here.”

“Oh, those guys sit in the back room.” She pointed to the rear of the diner. “I don’t think anyone else is here yet. You can go and sit. I’ll bring you some coffee.”

“Okay. But I don’t drink coffee.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll get you a water.”

I took a seat at a table for four. What if no one showed up? What if only Danny and Eddie showed up? Why did I come here? My heel tapped the linoleum floor while the acid in my stomach churned. I dragged my fingertips across the greasy tabletop and wrinkled my nose. A hint of bleach wafted through the stagnant air. After what seemed like an hour, the bells on the door jingled. Five people from the meeting walked toward me. Eddie pushed a table for four next to mine, and the waitress brought cups and a fresh pot of coffee. I never got my glass of water.

“Well, look who we have here,” the woman with the court order sneered as she straddled the seat next to me. “It’s pretty woman from the AA meeting.”

“Come on Sherry, you can’t be talking like that here,” Rob pleaded.

“Hell, I can’t.” Her index finger wiggled an inch away from my face. “Pretty little rich girl got problems?”

My cheeks flushed and I wanted to snap the moving digit in half. “Fuck you.”

“Poor baby. Your daddy make you want to drink? Or is it self-pity?”

I winced, and then counter jabbed. “At least I’m not some skanky piece of jail bait.”

“Stop it,” Rob ordered. “Both of you, we’ll get kicked out of here.” Then he came over and stood next to me. “Sherry, go sit by Eddie.”

“No big deal, Rob,” I said. “This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come.”

Sherry pushed her seat back and stood. Then she leaned in toward my ear and whispered, “You’re in the same rat hole as me homey.”

She was right. The solace I ever found came from alcoholics telling their stories. The meetings, the diner, thinking I could fix myself. It was all one big mistake. I pushed my chair back and moved toward the front door.

“Wait,” Rob called out. The bells jingled behind me, and I scurried in the direction of my apartment.

When I got home, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror. I wanted to cut out the pain that settled underneath my skin and fingered a straight-edged razor. I imagined slicing through the outer layer of skin but cringed at the thought of pushing the metal blade through tendons and muscle. After touching the razor, I sniffed my fingertips. There wasn’t any evidence of blood, or an open wound. Thank god, I thought. This was hardly a solution to my problem. I put the razor back in the cabinet and vowed to go to another AA meeting. Next time, I’d go for coffee, promising myself I’d stay. As I dressed for work, I thought about the meeting I had with the head of the company’s international operations. We needed to talk through a hedging strategy to protect the value of various assets located around the world. It was the kind of work day I looked forward to.


  1. Interesting character... slowly gaining insight despite her denials...lives in a split world, successful at work but lonely and isolated due to sensitivity and judgement from bad experience. I like the 'movement kept me from unravelling' bit.. the description of AA also interesting

  2. I found this story very interesting. I feel there could be a continuation. It´s mentioned early in the story about her hair pulling and near the end about possible self harming. These indicate to me there could be more behind her problems than mentioned. Either way, a fine piece of writing and a strong character, with a future?

  3. Becky's struggle to understand the nature of her problems is very believable. Her approach of observing how others deal with their own (similar but different) issues is quite interesting...she knows she needs help but isn't quite willing to do what it takes to get there herself. The ending revealed a character teetering closer to the edge than expected, makes you wonder if attending the meetings will be enough. Very powerful. Well done!

  4. A fine and disturbing piece of observation. I liked the way it just hangs in the air, unresolved; so true for many lives. A very well handled story. Well done.