I had taken several trips to Paris, but I’d spent very little of my time there even remotely sober. Why would anyone choose to stroll and eat and dance their way through Paris nights sober? On previous trips, I’d been on the Parisian Party Program: eat in world-class restaurants, drink fabulous wine, kiss French men, and troll for drugs in hip nightclubs. Don’t worry about tours or galleries or learning the history—daytime was all about sleeping off what I’d done the night before. Headaches, dehydration, street noise, and a shortage of ice kept me complaining as I tried to sleep through the world’s most beautiful city.
But this time I saw Paris, actually saw it. Up early each morning, I would buy a copy of the International Tribune and work the crossword puzzle at a café as I wired myself up on croissants and café au lait. This time I kept my eyes open and reveled in my time with Randi as well as my time alone. Many times I stopped and let myself enjoy a feeling of profound gratitude.
My Internet search turned up several English-speaking 12-step meetings in Paris, and I decided to try one at the American Church on the Quai d’Orsay. The next morning, I navigated the Metro from the Marais to the Invalides stop, and as soon as I stepped outside the Metro station, I knew I was lost.
At that early hour, there was almost no one around to ask for help, and anyway I wanted a break from seeing pained expressions on Parisian faces when I tripped over my clunky high school French. So I tried to find my own way to the church and ended up turning a five-minute walk into a forty-five minute labyrinth.
Before long, as I stood on a corner trying not to look like a lost American, frustration and self-doubt joined the outing. I’m not an adventurer. I’m not self-sufficient. I have no sense of direction. Where the hell is this church? Forget it, I don’t need this meeting. Ugh, I look helpless. Why haven’t I kept up with French? What the hell was the point of taking it if I was only going to abandon it? Why is everything so fucking hard for me??
And with feelings of insecurity came the need for a drink. Does anybody drink in the morning around here? They have 12-step meetings—they must have morning drinkers. What if I found a nice café and started by ordering a coffee? Then I could say something like, “Hey, I’m on vacation, let’s make it a Café Calva, heavy on the brandy. What’s that, barman? You’re a master of the espresso martini? C’est magnifique! I’ll try one!”
Wait. How the hell did I switch so quickly from gratitude to coffee boozing? I had to get control of this head of mine. If I couldn’t switch off the static altogether, at least I could try to change the channel, so I repeated that Gracie Square wall mantra: “Get up. Get dressed. Get with the program.” And I visualized the day room. The memory of that cold, barren cell lined with the smell of sweat, piss, and disinfectant offered a dramatic contrast to France’s blooming spring trees and centuries-old architecture.
So I reminded myself that on that lovely Paris morning, I’d gotten up and had gotten dressed. Now, I’d better get with le fucking programme.
I refocused on finding the meeting and feeling grateful again. It was during that walk that I realized something enlightening about gratitude: I could make myself feel it by thinking about what’s good or by thinking about what isn’t bad.
Yes, I was aware that it was a stunning day and that I was walking along La Seine, the one and only river right in the heart of the city of a thousand dreams. And I was conscious of my good luck to feel healthy enough to walk it and to be well off enough to pay for the trip. But the flash of awareness that really perked my mood was actually about what I was missing.
On that morning, I wasn’t face down in a pillow soaked in saliva groaning as I negotiated with my stomach to please hold back the vomit because I just couldn’t bear to drag my wretched body to a toilet where I’d lie there, face on the seat, mouth breathing until another nausea wave passed. None of that was happening. I was lost in a foreign city, but I was standing up straight. Could I ever need anything more than that?
I found the church, a Gothic-style structure with a soaring green spire and joined my fellow sober folk under the high ceilings of the room inside. What could a 12-step meeting possibly be like in Paris? In fact, it looked like a 12-step meeting in New York. The big difference was the chic. Man, I thought looking around at my fellow group members. Parisians roll out of bed looking more stylish than I do in my best black-tie dress. But in the meeting we were all very much the same, sharing similar stories and repeating the familiar expressions that illustrate what we deal with in recovery: “I’m struggling today,” “I feel so fortunate to be alive,” and “My worst day sober is better than my best day on drugs.” I knew these people and they knew me. What a revelation: 12-step meetings were like McDonald’s, you could find them just about anywhere in the world, and they always served just what you expected.
The night before we left France, Randi and I stood front row center at the intimate Olympia Theater. With nobody between us and Sting, he sang to us and no one else. Randi cried like a teenager watching the Beatles step off their plane in 1964. I cried because I couldn’t believe that this could be my life.