My friends and I were in the heart of Atlanta yesterday, crawling along in traffic by Centennial Park. We had made the drive to go to the Peachtree Roadrace Expo, where we would get our race numbers for the world’s largest 10K on Saturday, buy new running gear and take advantage of the free samples. Going to the expo always gets us pumped for the race.
As we inched along, we started to notice that the sidewalks were full of people wearing lanyards with white cards around their necks. They were nicely dressed in bright colors, kind of like a cruise crowd, and were coming out of shops and restaurants and hotels. Must be some sort of tourist group we decided. As we parked and made our way to the World Congress Center for the expo, we saw more and more of them. Usually the streets are full of folks in shorts and t-shirts excited about the 4th of July race, but we saw few runner types.
Coming into the building, I saw a sign saying “Happy, Joyous, Free” surrounding “Atlanta 2015”. A new Atlanta marketing pitch, I thought. Friendly volunteers in bright green shirts bearing the logo were all around, guiding the lanyard people to where they needed to go, and pointing the rest of us toward the expo. Being the inquisitive person I am, I asked one of the volunteers what was going on. She looked at me as if to say, “What rock did you just climb out from under?” and replied, “This is the 80th birthday celebration of Alcoholics Anonymous. ”
I am revealing my prejudices to say that I was shocked. If you had told me to imagine a huge group of recovering alcoholics in downtown Atlanta, I would have pictured sad looking shriveled up souls, huddled together in doorways, chain smoking and drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups. These folks looked – well, so normal! They looked like any other group in town for a fun week-end.
When we emerged several hours later from the expo, the crowd was even larger – I read that they were expecting 55,000 from all over the world – and there was lots of hugging and back slapping and folks calling out to old friends. One guy had a Canadian flag on his hat, and people were finding others from their part of the country. They were all ages, from 20-somethings with tattoos to elderly men and women in scooter chairs that threatened to run us over. Their theme – happy, joyous, free – seemed to throb through the gathering like an electric current.
I couldn’t help thinking how each person there had a story, probably one of heartache and loss, of reaching the bottom and pulling themselves back up. Even just walking through the crowd, I could feel the emotion, and the sense of acceptance and understanding that they shared as they greeted each other. Heck, I wanted to grab a lanyard and join in with them!
I would love to know how many of the AA members will be running the Peachtree on Saturday morning. I imagine a bunch. After all, the participants in both share a desire to live the best life that they can and have worked to be there. But my respect and admiration goes out to the brave people proudly wearing their lanyards and celebrating their freedom from addiction with others who have been down their same path.
So happy 80th birthday Alcoholics Anonymous! And thanks for all you have done to help the millions of normal people who suffer from this disease.