Taking steps toward sobriety

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The 12 steps leading to the front door of the Cloquet Alano Club may feel like 12 miles to a person struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. For someone else, they may mark a short and happy climb.

Still, the number of steps to get inside the building at 103 10th St., Cloquet,  are the same for everyone who enters, just like everyone inside is expected to follow the same 12 Steps to Recovery created by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

The journey that brings them there, however, is different for everyone.

“It takes people awhile to get here,” said Paul Carpenter, speaking as a board member for the Alano Society of Carlton County, the legally incorporated non-profit organization which owns the building. “People have to suffer for a number of years, they have to hit bottom. … Usually it’s losing a job or a spouse or a driver’s license. Limb or life sometimes.”

Trust, honesty, anonymity … these are the key ingredients that make the program successful, Carpenter said, adding that everyone who attends meetings at the Alano Club abides by the same maxim: “Who you see here, what you say here, when you leave here, let it stay here.”

Whether it’s alcohol, marijuana or another drug, Carpenter said it isn’t really about which drug a person uses and abuses. It’s more about changing the thought process, regardless of which drug.

“We don’t have a drinking problem, we have a thinking problem. Drinking is just a symptom of the disease,” he said, adding that alcoholism is widely recognized as a disease, with genetics and chemical imbalance both playing a role. “It’s more of a thinking problem that you resolve by drinking.”

Many times attendance at AA or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings is court ordered or part of a treatment plan; other times people go because of work or family. And sometimes people are just looking for a way out of the cycle of drinking or drugs or both.

Tom Proulx, probation officer for the Carlton County Drug Court, said the drug court program requires its participants to attend two AA or NA meetings per week.

“[The AA/NA meetings are] a very critical part of sobriety,” Proulx said. “Of course, it doesn’t work for everyone, but for those who it works for, it’s great. And having [the Alano Club] right there in the middle of town, and free, it’s just great. We do have some churches that have opened up their doors for other meetings, but this one has meetings at the same time, two meetings a day, so people know. It’s consistent. People need that.”

ALL ARE WELCOME

The Alano Club, like alcoholism or drug addiction, does not discriminate by income, age or gender. There’s no invitation and nobody’s excluded. Meetings are open to anyone.

“I’ve seen people ages 16 to 85,” Carpenter said. “All you need to do is start coming.”

The club holds 21 meetings a week. While the majority (15) are AA meetings, there are also three Narcotics Anonymous meetings, an Overeaters Anonymous meeting and two Alanon meetings (for family members) each week. (Find the meeting schedule next to this story.)

Inside, a large meeting room takes up about half of the ground floor. Several tables are grouped together in a circle so meeting-goers all face each other. Words like “honest,” “service,” “love,” “gratitude,” “willingness” and “open-minded” declare themselves in large red writing around the circumference of the room.

More than 50 coffee cups hang from a pegboard on the wall, next to a whiteboard marking different people’s “birthdays” — which refers to the date a person became sober and can be celebrated in days, weeks or even years.

Carpenter said the cups are like the people who attend the meetings: unique, yet there for a common purpose.

He estimates between 300 and 400 people use the building close to 1,300 times a month.

Meetings are free. Groups range in size from about 12 to 25. Each meeting is different too. On Tuesdays, the club holds a candlelight meeting at 8 p.m. On Wednesdays is the “basketcase” meeting, where they pass around a basket holding 100 different topics, Carpenter explained. Each person draws out a different topic and talks about it.

After all, for many, drugs or alcohol have been a refuge over the years. Now they’re trying to live without that, and it’s not an easy process.

“It’s like group therapy. You come here and you share and you listen and you learn.”

Sometimes it takes awhile to find a meeting group that you’re comfortable with.

Others try to go it alone. They quit drinking without treatment or attending meetings; they “white-knuckle” it, Carpenter says.

“Many people have quit, but if you don’t work on the rest of it — how you act and how you treat others — it will be that much more difficult to stay sober,” he said. “Nothing worse than someone who is over-expectant and under-appreciative. Acceptance is a big part of it, and serenity.”

A shellacked board hanging in the basement kitchen reinforces his words with the well known prayer: “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change … the Courage to change the things I can … and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

While that prayer appears more than once in the building’s simple decor and God is mentioned several times in The Twelve Steps, Carpenter wants people to know the Alano Club and AA do not advocate any particular religious belief.

“You don’t have to believe in a certain god,” he said. “You just have to be willing to admit there is a power bigger than you. All you have to believe is you’re not God.”

And a person has to be ready. That’s step one on the list of 12, admitting one is powerless over alcohol, that life has become unmanageable.

Being with people who truly understand helps a lot, Carpenter said.

While many people drink, most of them can quit whenever they want to. The alcoholic can’t.

“That’s where the fellowship comes from at AA. It’s the suffering,” he said. “It’s one thing to sympathize — another thing to empathize.”

HELP IS NEEDED

Although a donation basket gets passed during each meeting at the Alano Club, the donations are generally just enough to pay the bills. Board members know they will have to look elsewhere to fund improvements to the building, either through grants or soliciting donations from local businesses and individuals.

“We’d love to have some good-faith revenues from places have felt the benefits of keeping someone sober,” Carpenter said. “Some of the big employers in town have certainly benefitted.”

Financial donations, grant money and in-kind services all would be happily accepted. A pool table would be much appreciated, so members who like to play pool don’t have to go to a bar where people are drinking to do it. Some of the furniture at the club has also seen better days. The Alano Society is also looking for an additional board member.

To get more information on 12-step meetings, Alano Society membership or make a contribution to support Alano Club operations, call the club at 218-879-9884. Alternative contact numbers are 218-464-7369 or 218-428-0098.

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FINDING A SPONSOR, BY R.N.

One of the most important and powerful tools to help people stay clean and sober in Narcotic Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous is the sponsor. This individual is there to offer guidance and support to the sponsee. The sponsor is not only the person to guide the member through the NA/AA program, but also there to listen. Being able to rely on a sympathetic ear can be particularly important when an individual feels on the verge of relapse. Sponsorship has always been important in NA/AA. Even from the beginning of AA, members found that one of the things keeping them sober was helping another alcoholic. The focus in NA/AA meetings is supporting one another. Belonging to these groups can be enough to keep a person clean and sober. However, many more members find a one-on-one relationship with another member to be even more beneficial. It may be easier to share with one person rather than a group of people.

This may sound obvious, but in order to find a sponsor in NA or AA, you have got to go to meetings. In order to get what millions of others have — sobriety — you have got to show up and figure out what is going on. You have to show potential sponsors that you are serious about your recovery. Stick around for the casual conversations before and after the regular meetings. Get to know what people are like. Look for people of the same sex who have a few years of sobriety. It should be someone you see working the 12 steps in their daily lives, one who has been active in service work, carrying the message of NA/AA fellowship.

A good sponsor is a person who can help you through the 12 steps and is not afraid to tell you what you “need” to hear, not what you “want” to hear. Also, look for a person who enjoys life and is not a complainer. Clean and sober people seem to enjoy life more than those who are not. Take your time making the choice (but not too much time) and picking someone to ask. It may be one of the best things you can do to stay clean and sober. You know you have a great sponsor if they have some requirements for you, things like required readings of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, meetings every week, and some service commitments. Sponsorship is a two-way street. If it is working for one of you, it is working for both of you. You cannot receive without giving and you cannot give without receiving.

~ In keeping with the the AA and NA policy of anonymity, the writer preferred to be identified in the newspaper only by the initials R.N.

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LOCAL AA, NA and Alanon MEETINGS

(A closed meeting typically refers to a meeting where attendance is restricted to AA members. If a meeting is not "closed" it is commonly called an "open" meeting. Unlike closed meetings, the general public, family, friends and non-alcoholics are welcome at open meetings.)

ALANO CLUB MEETINGS (103 10th St., Cloquet)

Sundays

9 a.m. Closed Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA (open topic)

5 p.m. Open Narcotics Anonymous, or NA (open)

6 p.m. Overeaters Anonymous, or OA

8 p.m. AA (closed, “Back to Basics”)

Monday

Noon AA (closed-topic)

8 p.m. AA (closed, “Daily Reflections”)

Tuesday

10 a.m. ALANON (closed)

Noon AA (closed, “Daily Reflections”)

6 p.m. AA (open, “Grapevine”)

8 p.m. AA (closed, “Grapevine Candlelight”)

Wednesday

Noon AA (closed, “Second Step”)

6:30 p.m. ALANON (closed, “Happy, Joyous and Free”)

6:30 p.m. NA (open, “Basement Candlelight”)

8 p.m. AA (closed, “Living Sober”)

Thursday

Noon AA (closed, “Big Book”)

8 p.m. AA (closed topic)

Friday

Noon AA (closed, “Big Book”)

6 p.m. NA (open)

8 p.m. AA (closed, “Big Book”)

Saturday

Noon AA (closed, “12x12”)

8 p.m. AA AA (open, “Basket Case”)

Potluck on the first Saturday of every month at 6:30 p.m., followed by an open speaker meeting at 8 p.m.


OTHER AA/NA MEETINGS:

Sunday

4 p.m. AA — Mahtowa Covenant Church

6:30 p.m. AA — New Community Building, Esko

Monday

6:30 p.m. AA Grapevine — Salem Church, Mahtowa

Tuesday

7 p.m. AA — Zion Lutheran Church, Cloquet

Wednesday

7 p.m. AA Meeting — Community Memorial Hospital, Cloquet

Thursday

7 p.m. NA Meeting — Our Savior's Lutheran Church, Cloquet

Friday

7 p.m. AA Open Speaker Meeting, “Happy, Joyous and Free” — Holy Angels Catholic Church, Moose Lake