Suellen C.

Archives: Personal History

Name: Suellen C.
Date of Interview: September 26, 2006
Sobriety Date(s): June 6, 1974
Current Home Group & Location: F-Troop, Cinnaminson, NJ
Locations lived in during sobriety: Essex County, NJ, Morris County, NJ, Burlington County, NJ

How and when did you get started in A.A.? Where did you sober up and go to your first meeting?
I took my last drink on June 6, 1974 and attended my first meeting on Saturday, June 7 at the Millburn Group in Millburn, NJ
How did you first learn about A.A.?
Because of my guilt about my problem, it seemed like everywhere I went there was a message about alcoholism. The April 1974 issue of Time magazine, (which I still have!) had a cover story about it, and TV was loaded with ads that annoyed me like “If you need a drink to be social, that’s not social drinking.” I had a vague and general knowledge of AA at that time, but I really thought it was for little old men in raincoats.
Did you have a sponsor when you first came in? What type of sponsorship did you have?
Upon contacting AA that fateful morning, a woman named Grace T. from South Orange was my first contact. She designated herself my sponsor, even though I had to ask her, just for the humility of it. That was NOT easy! Back then, a sponsor showed you the ropes for the first 90 days, then turned you loose. Quick study that I was, I thought she was shunning me, when in reality; she had sent me on my way to sobriety. I still considered her my sponsor and I wouldn’t go away. She was of utmost importance to my first five years in AA.
How many groups or meetings were in existence? Can you recall the formats used at some of these early meetings? How were they run?
In 1974 there were approx. 475 known groups in NJ. I lived in an urban area, the Greater Newark Metropolitan Area, so there were numerous groups. It was and is a very active area, with some of the oldest groups in AA located there. One of the oldest groups is the South Orange Sunday Night Group, a group that even Bill W. had visited often, when he lived in Montclair. One of his friends, Ed S, was a member there when I came in. I used to pick up Ed S on Sunday nights at his apartment on South Harrison Street in East Orange and take him to the South Orange meeting. He would lecture me about “Bill W. said this and Bill W. said that…”and being the typical newbie, I was pretty zoned, and confused about why I was taking this Old Man to meetings. I didn’t have a clue at the time that I was with St. Peter! He taught me a lot about The Twelve Steps. He told me all the answers are there. He knew the Big Book by heart, and quoted from it all the time. He would regale me with stories about New York and Akron, and what Bill W. and Lois had sacrificed for AA.
Open Speaker Meetings abounded, and were generally large meetings; fifty people or more. The Verona Group had huge attendance; a hundred people or more. The smaller groups were usually discussion groups. I only belonged to one: The East Orange Women’s Closed Discussion Group. To me, it seemed like a clandestine group of Worldly Women who snuck down church alleys to meet. It was very exciting to be with these women, as there were so few women in recovery at the time.
There was a Speaker/Discussion Group, the Maplewood Hilton Group, which I also belonged to - about 40 or 50 people. But it was not “discussion” as we know it today; it was a speaker, and then there were questions for the speaker afterward.
My home group was The Sanford Heights Group on Sanford Avenue in Irvington. I also belonged to The Essex County Young People’s Group, located in Bloomfield, NJ. They had an Open Speakers Meeting and a Closed Step Meeting, as well as a Beginner’s Meeting.
At South Orange and Maplewood Hilton, the setup of the meetings were assisted by the Al Anon spouses (remember, there were mostly men in AA at the time) who would then go to another room for their meeting. While we all went to help set up, the Al Anon Ladies were always there in support. We used to go pretty early to meetings; sometimes as much as an hour before. There was much more to be done back then; coffee was often served in china cups and saucers, ashtrays abounded, and snacks were always at the ready. Sometimes the donuts and coffee were the only thing people had to eat that day, so having some sort of food around was important. Cleanup could take close to an hour as a result, and many a new AA found sobriety by washing dishes and ashtrays. It was a great way to feel like you belonged, even though you were frightened and confused. I know that was certainly true for me. I was too afraid to talk to people, but I could stand at the sink and do dishes, and that is where I began to be able to speak to people. Often the long tables were set with paper or plastic cloths and were either cleaned or removed after the meeting. So you can see, there was lots to do!
Greeters were ALWAYS at the doors of AA. ALWAYS! They shook everyone’s hand, steered the newcomer to an old-timer, showed them the coffee pot, and were the most comforting presence in my early sobriety, when I could barely look at another human. To have my hand shook as I entered a meeting made me feel human; like I was a part of the human race I so long ago left. There was little “hugging” back then; people shook hands. I needed a handshake far more than a hug when I was new. It signified respect - Being respected. What a wonderful, indescribable feeling – to have someone respect me enough to shake my hand.
There was the “AA Hug” – an embrace that included arms and shoulders, some back-patting with butts sticking way out and away so as to not become too familiar! Any breach of the AA Hug and you knew the person was up to no good and you stayed away from him!
Speakers stood at a podium. There was more often than not, a tongue-depressor taped to the podium in case someone had a seizure, which was not uncommon. This was before detoxes and rehabs were common, so it was not unusual at all for quite a few shaky drunks to be at a meeting.
The reasoning for speaking at a podium was for humility; it was considered a humbling experience to stand up while telling your story; an honor to be standing sober on your own two feet. It was common to dress more formally when one was on a commitment. Men often wore suits or business attire, women rarely went “casual” to a speaking commitment. We did not call it “service work” back then; it was called “Twelve Step Work”. You not only represented your home group on a commitment, you represented AA. You were expected to look your best (as best as you could…) since it was an honor to have this kind of commitment.
Each group had a Group Secretary. Each group had a local Post Office box. The Secretary was responsible for reading all the mail at the beginning of the meeting. Anniversary announcements were read, as well as news from New York. Anniversary celebrations were well-attended and there was usually a lot of festivity for anniversary night. Each Secretary was responsible for preparing and mailing anniversary announcements to all of the local groups; usually one or two dozen anniversary announcements would be mailed each month, of course depending on the size of the group.
Each group had a Membership List, containing names, addresses, and phone numbers of members. This was the form of communication at the time. When you became a member in good standing of a group, you received a membership list. This way we could send cards to people who were ill or celebrating a special event, Christmas and birthday cards. Letter writing was very common then, and individuals and the group as a whole would send notes and letters to friends and new people as a form of encouragement.
I remember being stunned by the amount of phone calls I got when I was new. At least two or three people would call each night and check up on me, order me to this or that meeting, or tell me when they were picking me up. My sponsor would pick up five women each night and take us to meetings. She would tell me to call her at “ten to seven” and she would tell me she would pick me up at “ten after seven”, then we’d drive all over the place picking up more women!
It was also not unusual for a carload of five old guys coming to get me at my house, and then dropping me off at 10:00 PM and disappearing into the night. I often wondered what in the world my neighbors thought! I was only allowed to pick up three people in my early sobriety: Ed S, a young soldier at the Veteran’s hospital, and Mary S, who had 25 years sobriety at the time. I was thoroughly instructed about never taking one man or one woman, never giving any man a ride home, never giving my phone number to a new man, and who to give “a wide berth”. I was sheltered and protected by the people of AA, men and women.
When was A.A. started in your town or area? How often were meetings held? Who were some of the people playing important roles in the formation of new groups?
As I previously stated, The South Orange Group is one of the oldest AA groups. By the time I got to AA in 1974, AA had a strong presence in the area, and there were numerous meetings every night; daytime and midnight meetings, too. The Al Anon Club in Newark was open 24-7, so there was always somewhere for a drunk to be safe.
When a new meeting started, it was usually a quiet announcement – I don’t remember any one person playing an “important role” in the formation of a new group. We all know the joke about “it takes a good resentment to start a new group”, but I don’t really remember it being that way. It was more like a need or people’s desire for a new step meeting, or whatever. Humility and anonymity were stressed strongly. This was not always the case, however, we being who we are. I do remember a few annoying people who thought they were “Stars”, but their light didn’t burn brightly or for very long. It is usually the quiet people doing the background work, getting a new meeting under way, and seeing to it that the group thrived without their direct input.
What else do you know about the growth of A.A. during that period of time?
I came in on the cusp of detoxes and rehabs. I had a very exciting experience as a member of the Essex County Young People’s Group. Young People’s joined with other groups to go clean out the old TB ward at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morristown, NJ. It was to become one of the area’s first Detox Programs. We had many meetings there in its early days. Next came the Detox at East Orange General Hospital on South Munn Avenue in East Orange, just steps away from my old apartment where I did the a lot of my drinking! How ironic that now I was going there to bring the message of AA. Honesty House in Stirling was a rehab that treated women, a Detox and treatment center opened at Runnel’s Hospital in Central Jersey. It was a time of huge growth and new understanding and acceptance of alcoholism. Then the insurance companies discovered there was a lot of money to be made as a result of our malady, and we all know what happened to that!
What contributions did you, yourself, make to the growth of the Fellowship? (Don’t be unnecessarily modest!)
My late husband and I started a Step Meeting on Tuesdays for the Maplewood Hilton Group in 1976. The meeting is still in existence, now located in South Orange. When I lived in Mendham, my friend Rick M, Sr. Mary, who was an Al Anon member, and I started the Mendham Monday Night OS Meeting around 1980, another meeting that is still in existence. Another friend named Rick M. and I started F-Troop in Cinnaminson in 1992, as a Young People’s Group, but the young people never came, after all of our outreach to schools, colleges, churches…so we are just now F-Troop – for the Young-At-Heart!
Can you explain the differences that led to new groups being formed in your area?
I don’t know if it’s always differences that cause new groups to be started. In my experience it has always been a perceived need. Either a time was needed, or a day, or a type of meeting.
What controversies over issues addressed in the Traditions can you recall people wrestling with? (How were meeting spaces acquired? Was rent or other funding obtained by gambling sessions? Bingo games? How did the membership resolve these affairs?)
I have always avoided the politics of AA. Too many egos for me. In North Jersey, the Traditions were as important as the Steps. In South Jersey, there seems to be a complete de-focus on Traditions. I’m not really sure what this question means, anyway. Bingo???
Whenever I started a meeting, I just went to the friendliest church, usually my own, or a church that had an existing meeting, and asked if we could start a meeting. We were never directly asked for rent; we promised a contribution. We were always told to give whatever we can, even if it is nothing.
What individuals were especially prominent in your sobriety?
As I have already detailed, my Sponsor was the most significant person in my early sobriety. My sister Judy was my biggest outside-AA supporter, attending my first meeting with me, and celebrating my anniversaries with me until I moved away. Jack M, a man who broke my heart with his story, seemed to be at every door at every meeting I went to in my early sobriety. I don’t know how he did it, but every meeting I went to, there was Jack M at the door. He’ll never know how important it was for me to see a familiar face and get a welcoming handshake. Next would be John R, a man I remember from my childhood. He was always there for me, too. When I lost my 90-day pin and was devastated, he took his pin off his lapel and gave it to me. I still wear it today. Ed S, John M, who was my “escort” for my first sober New Year’s – a formal AA affair where he just made me feel like Cinderella; Jean A, who just couldn’t get sober for the longest time and then did – and she changed into such a beautiful person; Cathy T, my first pigeon; her Mother, who used to come to meetings in the summer in her gray winter coat and slippers, my pal Grace and her daughter, who I am still in touch with, Dave and Danny, who I am still in touch with; Mary S, who inspired me to want twenty-five years, and Rose, my beloved AA Mother.
How were new members contacted? What kinds of Twelfth Step work were going on? Are there any Twelfth Step anecdotes that stick out in your mind that you’d care to share?
I don’t know what “how were new members contacted” – if you mean where did they come from, most stumbled in off the street, or were escorted by some AA’s who took the Twelve Step call from Intergroup (North Jersey)with Hal and Lois at the helm for years, then located on Springfield Avenue in Maplewood. Some came from hospitals where they detoxed, some came from asylums, from ministers and pastors…some were ordered by families to do something or else.
Twelve Step anecdotes:
NEVER go on a Twelve Step call alone. It was all done so differently then, yet somehow the same. You went to a drunk’s house, sat while he/she cried and whined, fed them coffee, and tried to determine if the person needed to be in a hospital. If not, you came back when they were sober, talked to them and hauled them to a meeting.
Today, A.A. is well known to, and supported by police officers, judges and corrections officials. What kind of relationship did A.A. in your area have with local authorities? How has that changed since you sobered up?
I don’t really know what kind of relationship AA had with local authorities, other than for the most part, there was cooperation but never anything formal. That came shortly after I was sober; judges sending people to AA, sentencing them to rehab, etc. DUI used to be called DWI – Driving while under the influence. A friend who was sober SEVEN years when I came in, Dave E., was the person who eventually wrote the NJ laws on drunk driving and treatment of alcoholics in DUI situations. The inception of the DUI laws has been very instrumental in the safety of residents.
Treatment facilities nowadays frequently host A.A. and other Twelve Steps meetings. Did any of them use a Twelve Step format or incorporate meetings into their structure?
As I mentioned before, the treatment facilities were few and far between. There was Honesty House in Stirling, Alina Lodge in Blairstown, and detox was the focus of a center at Mount Carmel Guild on Straight and Narrow Streets in Paterson.
Insurance did not cover alcohol-related treatment centers early on, so it was tough to find treatment other than hospital detox. Those that were in existence did rely heavily on AA’s principles.
Did you seek the cooperation of other local community or professional agencies?
I am sure that there was community outreach, but I was not directly involved in that aspect of AA.
Today, radio and television public service announcements for A.A., as well as Internet Web sites, are becoming commonplace. When you first got sober, how did A.A.s interact with the media? Have you had any profound experiences sharing your relationship with alcohol with the public? What cautions might you have for young A.A.s today regarding media exposure?
Back then, there were few opportunities to “go public” with one’s recovery. I personally coveted my anonymity, preferring to stay within the framework of AA. I would caution anyone who is toying with the idea of “going public” to remember the Traditions of AA and to honor them. Media exposure is not for the new AA person.
During the early years of your recovery, how did the community receive Alcoholics Anonymous?
I don’t really know what the community thought. My best guess is that it was neutral to positive, but AA was small in comparison to today, and was met with guarded interest. At the time of my introduction to AA, there was still the argument of whether or not alcoholism was a “disease” as far as the medical profession was concerned.
Do you think your group(s) has had an influence in your community? If so, how?
By keeping drunks off the road! LOL! Seriously, the influence was helping people to get and stay sober, which had to help the community. But there was no direct influence; this is an anonymous program.
What do you remember of early conferences, assemblies, and conventions? Can you recall opening intergroup or central offices?
All I remember is great dinners and great dancing.
Have you had any contact with G.S.O.? Please elaborate.
Visiting the GSO in NYC early on, in its dusty old office, and being totally flabbergasted as if I had stepped into the hallowed halls of heaven. I just remember looking at the photos on the walls, long-forgotten now, and how nonchalant and friendly people were there.
Today, Conference-approved literature is available to help A.A. members deal with a wide variety of challenging questions. In the early days of the Fellowship all we had was the book Alcoholics Anonymous, common sense and your compassion. How did early A.A.s treat newcomers? How did your group(s) treat constant slippers? Thirteenth steppers? How were people, wishing to talk about multiple addictions during your meetings addressed? How about nonalcoholic drug addicts walking in off the street for their first meeting?
Wow! That’s a LOT of questions all rolled into one!
First, there were TWO Most Important pieces of literature: The Jack Alexander Article, and This Is AA, and these were of utmost importance in my understanding of AA. There was a lot of literature when I first got sober. There was a lot of hoopla regarding Hazelton literature – whether or not to have it at AA meetings. Some meetings had it and some didn’t. My most beloved treasure is my Twenty-Four Hour Book, given to me at my second meeting. Non-AA approved at the time, it was my lifesaver.
I already described how AA’s were treated upon their new arrival.
Constant slippers were treated like the rest of us – with patience and tolerance. There was no particular way to treat a person who constantly slipped, other than to be of support when they wanted help. Often people were told to go back out and come back when they had enough. Or some would joke, “If you aren’t sure you’re an alcoholic, go buy some Gallo wine, and drink it. Gallo will get you sober!”
Thirteenth steppers were dealt with by harsh disapproval and a good talking-to.
People with multiple addictions were rare at the time, the addicted themselves not always knowing they were dually-addicted. I was sober about three years or so before I even heard the term “dual addiction”, although people talked openly about their forays into sedatives, diet pills, and the like. AA was generally for help with alcoholism and other addictions were mentioned as part of someone’s story. The dually-addicted person was advised to get help for all addictions.
In what ways has A.A. changed over the years?
AA has become less formal and somewhat blurred by the ability of people to “rehab-hop”. “Slips” have become “relapses”, relieving the person somewhat from responsibility to themselves or their group. Some people have learned the ropes of rehab-talk and prison-gab.
Years ago, a woman didn’t tell the details of her story at the podium; that was reserved strictly for sponsors, or a Closed Women’s Discussion Group.
Sayings and phrases have come and gone in popularity. Many goofy things have been tried and gone by the wayside.
Sponsors have become “Temporary” when they were always temporary anyway. Now a Sponsor is a sponsor forever. That may be a good thing; I’m not making a judgment. I believe the Sponsor/Pigeon (another change – now it’s a “Sponsee”) relationship often blossoms into a deep friendship; at the very least, it often becomes a deep and long-lasting relationship.
AA used to be called “A Simple Program”. Then it became “A Simple Program For Complicated People”. Then it became “A Selfish Program”. Now I think it’s back to “A Simple Program” again.
Commitments are routinely broken, speakers not even showing up for their commitment. Membership lists have all been but abandoned; no one knows how to get in touch with anyone except their closest AA pals. Groups don’t have PO boxes anymore. (Don’t need them with computers) Flyers announcing anniversaries or group anniversaries seldom are distributed; you don’t know who is celebrating when or where unless they are a close AA pal. Early on, people went all over to group or individual anniversaries because they knew about them and it was so important to show solidarity and support.
Groups sent get-well cards to whoever was in the hospital or ill, no matter what group the person belonged to.
Twelve Step work was routinely done in hospital rooms. AA’s could walk into any hospital at any time of the day or night without restriction. Often, this was a way for someone to stay sober themselves – to just go to a hospital and ask for an alcoholic to try to help. Detoxes were always open to AA’s at any time.
People usually come to their first meeting pretty cleaned up now, thanks to treatment centers. Back then, it was exciting to watch a person get their first haircut, first new shoes, suit, clean clothes, a shave, get teeth fixed, etc.
“Thank You For Sharing” was adopted from EST in the early 80’s – and I see it starting to fade, finally. Men wear hats indoors – at a meeting. Casual dress, even sloppy dress, is accepted on commitments.
There is nowhere near the fellowship before and after the meetings; people show up late and leave early (myself included)
Everything comes and goes, and with all the changes, AA and sobriety, deep down, is still the same.

Links

Mt. Carmel Guild
The Mt. Carmel Guild in Paterson, NJ was an old relic of a place that took the best care they could of us drunks. It was the only place to go dry out where no money was involved. I would like very much to show what it is like now, hence the link. The Mt. Carmel Guild saved many lives and many families, and is very tangential to my sobriety. Thanks to the support of recovering drunks and the Catholic Church, the link shows it thriving now, and I feel that is important.