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THE 2am CALL – ‘I CAN’T SLEEP’!
When I was discharged from hospital following a suicide attempt at the end of my drinking I made two phone calls suggested by the psychiatrist who examined me; the first was to Alcoholics Anonymous and the other to my GP to arrange after care. The AA contact in the phone directory was a chap called Andy (this was before today’s mobile phones, 24 hour help-line and website). Andy said he would send someone to see me and then he asked to speak to my wife and told her about Al Anon. A few hours later two men knocked at our door. The older man was carrying his Big Book; his young companion told me he had been sober for eight months, which I thought was remarkable. They sat in our living room and told their stories, answered my questions and invited me to a meeting. That was in 1984.
I quickly got a sponsor and he took me with him on 12 Step calls. We went to see a man whose kids let us in and we found him lying on a couch. He looked awful and was clearly very ill. My sponsor knelt beside him and said, “What is the most important thing in your life?” The man groaned, “If only my wife would come back to me.” He was surrounded by empty bottles and cans. He was dying of alcoholism yet his primary purpose was to get his wife back. My sponsor was a zealous 12 Stepper. I’d sometimes think, as he earnestly carried the AA message to some poor soul, “We’re wasting our time here.” But he persevered and none of those apparently fruitless calls failed - because he and I were staying sober. The Step says tried to carry the message and that’s all we can do; the results are out of our hands.
A year into recovery I also joined my intergroup’s 12 Stepper list and immediately began receiving requests from AA’s London telephone service, which covered the part of Hertfordshire where I lived, to contact suffering alcoholics. I would have up to three or four calls a month and they took me far and wide. One man sounded desperate when I spoke to him at lunchtime but when I called to take him to a meeting in the evening he answered the door and said sheepishly, “Awfully sorry, but my wife has asked me to babysit while she goes out tonight.” At death’s door at 1pm – cured at 7pm!
I visited another man who let me into his flat and while I was sharing my experience, strength and hope and explaining how AA worked, he fell asleep. Not knowing what to do, I decided to wait. Eventually he came to and with a look of alarm on his face demanded, “Who are you?” I said I was from AA and that he had phoned for help. “No I didn’t,” he exclaimed indignantly, “get out of my ****ing flat!” He’d obviously been in a blackout when he phoned AA. I learned a valuable lesson that afternoon – it’s best not to go on a 12 Step call alone as anything could happen. Fast forward 32 years and I’m still on my present intergroup’s 12 Stepper list but I rarely receive calls. There are more volunteers now, of course, but more significantly many newcomers arrive at meetings after logging on to the AA GB website. Also, in some areas treatment centres seem to have taken over much of our 12 Step work. ‘Clients’ are introduced to the Steps and taken to AA meetings as part of their contract of attendance, which means that AA members sometimes have limited opportunities to meet the suffering alcoholic face to face.
I was privileged to be a telephone responder for four years and was on duty on the ‘graveyard’ shift, from 10pm to 8am on Sunday night/Monday morning. I slept in a different room with the phone next to the bed so my wife was not disturbed. One night I answered the phone and said, “Hullo, this is Alcoholics Anonymous. My name is ****** how can I help?” The man said, “I can’t sleep.” I replied, “Oh dear, do you have a drink problem?” He said, “No, I just can’t sleep.” I said, “Well, we’re Alcoholics Anonymous and we try to help anyone with a drink problem, so why did you phone us?” The man said, “Oh, I tried some of the other help-lines in the Yellow Pages – I’ve just had a chat with the Samaritans – and your number was on the list so I thought I’d phone you.” I said, “Are you sure you don’t have a drink problem?” “Oh no,” he said, “I just can’t sleep – do you have trouble sleeping?” I was getting a bit exasperated by now and said rather curtly, “Only when someone phones me at two o’clock in the morning. If you don’t have a drink problem I really don’t think I can help” – and put the phone down. A few minutes later the phone rang again and it was the sleepless one. “I want your name,” he said. I answered, “I told you my name” and he replied, “I want your full name.” “What for?” I said. “Because I’m going to report you to your head office!”
Lots of calls late at night or in the early hours were from drunks and it reminded me of what I was like when I was drunk – you’d be talking to someone who wasn’t there. And I heard lots of excuses why someone could not be an alcoholic or didn’t think AA would work for them. I asked one chap if he’d like to go to a meeting. “Oh no,” he said. I asked him why not. “Because you have to stand up and say you’re an alcoholic.” I replied, “No you don’t.” And he said, “Well, they do on television.” He must have seen a programme with a scene set in an AA meeting, presumably in America. I said he could just sit and listen if he wished. I was sometimes told AA wouldn’t work because the caller was not religious and didn’t believe in God. I’d tell them that I was an agnostic, that the only requirement for membership was a desire to stop drinking and that they didn’t have to believe anything if they didn’t want to, just keep an open mind. Someone said he’d go to a meeting but he’d read that AA claimed to be the only way to stay sober and he wanted to consider other options. I quoted the bit in the Big Book which says, ‘upon therapy for the alcoholic we have no monopoly’ and tried to explain AA’s policy of co-operation with other agencies.
Occasionally I would have a heart-warming conversation with someone who was desperate to stop drinking and I was able to pass on AA’s message of hope. But I sometimes wonder if many of those other late at night or early hours encounters did any good. I just have to remind myself that ‘When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there – and for that I am responsible.’ I’m grateful that when I reached out for help Andy was there and that now I can be there too.