Fitchburg Star - 12/12/2014
Seeking serenity together
Clubhouse a safe haven for many in 12-step recovery groups
Unified Newspaper Group
Perched on a hill along McKee Road is a red brick building that some may recognize as the former Camp Badger School. Just over 50 years have gone by since students last occupied the classrooms there, but learning still takes place within its walls.
Since 1981, the building has been the clubhouse for the Fitchburg Serenity Club, Inc. (FSC), a nonprofit corporation that provides meeting space for autonomous 12-step groups of alcoholics, gamblers, overeaters and other troubled souls. Here, recovering addicts and their families learn from one another rather than from a teacher.
Posters of the alphabet have been replaced with the 12 steps, motivational sayings with the Serenity Prayer, and portraits of past presidents with those of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The two are known more commonly as “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob” as a way of honoring AA’s tradition – upheld by other 12-step programs – of maintaining anonymity.
Each week, approximately 1,200 people attend the 80 meetings held at the FSC, said board president Mary F. Many come from the Madison area, and some travel on a daily basis from places like Sun Prairie, Monroe, Spring Green and Janesville.
What brings them together is the willingness to find peace and acceptance in their lives, one day at a time.
Especially around the holidays, many people need an escape from the stress of family get togethers, which can become a trigger for addicts. For others who may have burned those bridges, the FSC is the only place they can call home.
As with any meeting place, though, not everyone who passes through the FSC’s doors decides to return.
“There’s all kinds of hesitation – reasons to not come in here … Asking for help, not wanting people to know, embarrassment. It’s kind of a set up aversion to it,” Mary said. “But this is the place for desperate people.”
Jimmy M., board vice president at the 511 Club in Madison, also attends meetings at FSC that are geared toward a younger crowd. Mary and Jimmy are working to better connect the clubs and learn from each other.
“Twelve-step programs are going to further ask you to take responsibility for your life … (And) this becomes like a community support,” he said.
The FSC is entirely run by donations and volunteers. Aside from passing the basket, another way those who attend meetings can give back to the club is by becoming a member through a monthly $10 (or agreed-upon) fee.
Membership gives people voting rights for election of the board and all vital clubhouse issues, as well as provides them with their own in-house coffee mug.
In many communities, 12-step meetings are commonly held in churches, senior centers or other public places, but in Fitchburg, the gathering place is the FSC.
Scott J., who goes to about six meetings each week, said the club provides a “safe haven.”
“The club gives us a shelter. And that’s what clubs are about. It’s a safe place to go where there’s a friendly face and people that understand me, and accept me no matter what,” he said. “I’m just a broken human being trying to get better.”
Step by step
Coffee mugs, lined by the hundreds, cover a wall near the entrance of the clubhouse. Some are stuffed with notes, others wear a film of stains and some look like they’ve never been used at all.
Each is personalized with a first name and last initial and assigned a number so members can easily find them on the wall.
Scott, who has been around long enough to have No. 42, is one of the first to get in the building nearly every day to make coffee at 6 a.m. before the first group arrives.
“It’s just a bit of service,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in clubs, because the doors are open and the coffee’s hot.”
Scott didn’t talk much about his past, but simply said he lost everything dear to him – along with his self-respect – in one night’s drinking.
So, like many others, he switched to coffee.
Above the kitchen is a piece of artwork with words taken from the Serenity 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.” A key shown below it symbolizes willingness.
Distributed throughout the building are the meeting rooms – which look somewhat like classrooms – each with their own vibe depending on the group that occupies them. A large chalkboard on a wall upstairs was left over from the days of the old schoolhouse.
In another room, folding tables, dotted only by a few books, boxes of facial tissue and hand sanitizer, are set up in a square with chairs around the perimeter facing in.
Paul A. has been sitting there three to five days per week for the last eight years, but he’s been coming to the clubhouse far longer than that.
He attended his first meeting there in 1981, having suffered “extreme consequences” from his drinking.
“I had crashed my car into a pole and my girlfriend died on impact,” Paul said. “It was the culmination of many years of drinking and drugging, and it had already been out of control, but that’s when it kind of came to a head.”
He was facing possible jail time, and attending 12-step meetings was his ticket out. For the next 10 years, he would come to the FSC on and off – a trend that coincided with his bouts of sobriety.
Somehow in 1991, at the age of 30, for reasons he can’t explain, the meetings started to stick.
“It started to make sense to me,” Paul said. “I started to see changes, and life got a lot easier,”
He hasn’t had a drink in more than 23 years.
“The solution for me had always been there, but I just kinda had to get around to where I was willing to accept it. And all along through there I was coming here,” Paul said. “It’s like an oasis … Or, they talk about it in the (Big) Book, it’s a daily reprieve.”
The Big Book, written in 1939 by Bill W., outlines the 12 steps, which include accepting powerlessness, seeking guidance from a higher power, admitting wrongdoings, making amends for them and sharing the message with others.
A place to call home
Jimmy also said actively coming to meetings and giving back to clubhouse is why he will be five years sober on Christmas Eve.
“It just works for me. It uplifts my life,” he said. “And without it, without a solution at all, the world would eat me up if I don’t have people like Mary in my life, a place to go, a place to give back to, it’s what I’ve looked for my whole life.”
Having attended meetings at the FSC since 1985, Mary believes one of the reasons people come back is the fellowship, especially in the moments when someone else tells their story and they no longer feel alone.
“That’s where the camaraderie comes from, too, and this feeling of family,” she said. “We’re all fighting the same battle.”
Scott said the bonds formed between those who attend meetings can be stronger than those with family members.
“I’ve formed friendships that are closer than belly-button family,” Scott said. “You find your brothers and sisters that you love dearly.”
He added that groups meeting at the FSC try to nurture these family bonds by avoiding topics of religion and politics, which often come up around the dinner table during holidays.That source of stress can cause people to reach for their addictions rather than for support in those who are also struggling.
For this reason, and since not everyone has a place to call home, the FSC provides annual Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. There will even be a New Year’s Eve party this year.
Scott has attended meetings across the country, but said a “home group” is where people really get to know him – and that’s what the FSC has been to him since the 1980s.
“If I don’t show up for a day or two or get out of my regular routine, somebody will call,” he said.
Learning how to live
Likening them to exercise, Paul makes meetings part of his morning routine – even if he’d rather sleep in.
“On the days that I don’t want to go, those are the days I really need to go,” he said. “Every once in awhile, and just often enough to keep me coming back, I go to a meeting where – it sounds so hokey – I witness a miracle.”
Paul said that often happens during first-step meetings, which occur when a newcomer attends or when it’s someone’s first meeting after their last drink.
“Everyone talks about how their lives are unmanageable and how alcohol screwed it up,” he said. “In those stories is the common ground that that new person needs to hear.”
Paul realizes that not everyone shares the same experience or has a similar outcome.
“But for the people that get it – because it took me a long time to get it – it’s a life-saver. It is truly (the) difference between jail, insanity, suicide or a life. A full life of,” he paused. “A full life. I guess that’s the best I can do.”
He reached over and flipped through the thick pages of the Big Book.
“The answers aren’t in the back of the book,” Paul said. “But it’s a process… (It’s) the journey, not the destination. And everybody does it at their own pace.”
The FSC describes 12-step recovery groups as fellowships of men and women who meet to share their experience, strength and hope that they may solve their common problem and help others recover from it, too.
Scott said he thinks one of the most important functions of the club is to “teach people how to live a happy, sober life.”
“It keeps me happy, it keeps me behaving. It keeps me out of taverns, (and) my kids love me,” he said. “Because we don’t have classes on good behavior and stuff like that, it’s just by example.”
“What the clubhouse does is it gives us a warm, dry place to sit and do that stuff,” Paul said. “You can’t do it online. You can’t do it over the phone.”
Scott remembers back to a time when meetings were held in the “mouse-ridden, dirty and cruddy” basement, which he said was painted “an icky yellow and icky green” – definitely not Packers colors.
He said the club has come a long way in terms of renovating and expanding the building, but it is still fundamentally the same.
“You see the newcomers come in and a lot of them make it, and some don’t, and some die, and it’s really sad,” Scott said. “And you see them married, and you see them have kids and see them have families … There’s a lot tears, and there’s a lot of happiness and joy. But it’s a home.”