Penelope’s Story

From a 1975, Sydney, 12th Step home visit to a forty-five-year sobriety story shared at San Antonio in 2020. 

“PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail. This is our TWELFTH SUGGESTION: Carry this message to other alcoholics! You can help when no one else can. You can secure their confidence when others fail. Remember they are very ill.”(Alcoholics Anonymous, p89)

This story began forty-five years ago, but to tell it, we need to begin at a more recent point in time in September 2020 when I attended the San Antonio, Mostly Agnostics, A.A., Zoom meeting. I have become a regular attendee because the San Antonians provides an atheist friendly space for the alcoholic. As I looked at the computer screen, I saw many familiar faces in attendance, plus one or two I had not seen before. Then I recognised Penelope from the Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia. She had been sober a very long time, over forty-five years in fact. But she thought she would never reach that figure because she has been quite ill in recent years and thought she was doing exceptionally well to achieve forty-four years of sobriety last year. Although Penelope and I have lived in the same area of Sydney and surrounds for decades, I only recently came in contact with her through our mutual attendance at A.A. Zoom meetings. She has had more than her fair share of life’s ups and downs in her sobriety with her shares reflecting this long-term sobriety experience.

At the San Antonio meeting, Penelope spoke about her early A.A. days with her sponsor, Joyce from Crow’s Nest who put her at ease, treating her as an equal. Sometimes in many sponsor/sponsee relationships the sponsor will try to maintain the high ground using their longer sobriety experience. They talk down to the sponsee in a dictatorial language style telling them what they must do. And this is a style that does work for some in sponsor/sponsee relationships. But as Penelope explained, Joyce was very much of a different school of thought where she placed both herself and Penelope on a very level, inclusive sobriety playing field. This was reflected with Joyce’s gentler use of language style of equals using ‘we’ and ‘us’ terminology. As a newcomer, I much preferred this gentler language usage, which put me at ease with older sober members, creating a calm atmosphere where I naturally felt that unique alcoholic affinity with them. In time, I came to understand that the older sober member needed the newcomer, me in this case, just as much as I needed the older sober member to achieve and maintain sobriety. But while Joyce could be gentle, she also had a very firm side and when necessary spoke directly in a no-nonsense manner to the point of being blunt. Many Sydney A.A. members can attest to experiencing this side of Joyce’s character.

That day, as I listened to Penelope share and was drawn into her story, my mind cast back in time to my early days in A.A. I heard the name Joyce from Crow’s Nest, mentioned by both Bruce from Hydabrae and Bryan from Ryde, two long-term sober members of A.A. I met Bruce very early on at the Langton Clinic, Sunday morning A.A. ID meeting and we struck up a friendship. We went to meetings together where he introduced me to his long-term A.A. friend Bryan from Ryde. During my conversations with Bruce, I discovered that he not only knew Joyce but was in fact her first cousin. And more recently, during my conversations with Penelope, I discovered that she also knew Bruce years earlier from the A.A. meetings in Port Macquarie, NSW. We’re all connected to each other one way or another.

After the San Antonio meeting, I followed up Penelope’s story by emailing her and told her how her mentioning Joyce brought back memories of both Bruce and Bryan and my discussions with them over the years when Joyce would frequently be mentioned. In her reply email, Penelope told me that not only did she remember both of them but that Bryan had been the one to 12th step her into A.A. over forty-five years ago. She rang the A.A. Central Office in Sydney one Saturday morning asking for help and later that afternoon Bryan arrived at her home with his wife Robin. Penelope went on to say that she didn’t identify with a word Bryan said because his story was completely unlike hers and was more like her dad’s. But it was the fact that Bryan and his wife had given up their Saturday afternoon to come along and help her, that sold her on A.A. She couldn’t believe that someone would be so kind as to do that for her!

I am in regular contact with Bryan and met him later that same week at the Friday, Budgewoi, 10.00am, A.A., ID meeting. I told him I had attended the San Antonio Mostly Agnostics A.A. Zoom meeting earlier in the week and had been talking to someone he 12th stepped forty-five years ago; that got his attention. When I told him that the person was Penelope, his face broke into a broad smile as he recalled the memory of that fateful Saturday forty-five years ago. Bryan hadn’t been in contact with Penelope for a number of years and was delighted to hear that she was still going strong as he was aware that she had been battling a serious long-term illness. He also told me that Penelope had a brother, Terry who also got sober but Bryan hadn’t been in touch with him for a long time.

Bryan shared at Budgewoi that day and spoke about his 12th step call to Penelope, he was about two years sober at the time. He received a phone call from a volunteer at the Sydney, A.A. Central office on Saturday morning and even though Bryan and his wife Robin were supposed to attend a family function, the 12th step call automatically took priority. As was typical, he was very keen to make the call but then he faced a dilemma when he discovered that the person in question, Penelope, was a female. Bryan had been taught in A.A. that the golden rule for 12th step work is men for men and women for women as a safeguard. However, a male may participate in a 12th step visit to a female as long as he is with another female. Bryan asked the Central Office caller if there was a female A.A. member available to go in his place but was told that there wasn’t. It was going to have to be Bryan or else Penelope wouldn’t get a visit. As Bryan hesitated, unsure of what to do, Robin his wife who was not an A.A. member had been listening to him and understood his unfolding dilemma. She quietly suggested to him that she could accompany him on the 12th step call to facilitate the male and female requirement. Very much relieved, Bryan told the Central Office caller, “Yes.”, he would call on Penelope.

The addition of Bryan’s description of his part in the 12th step service call that fateful Saturday afternoon fleshed out the story further. This example of intensive work with another alcoholic, Penelope in this case, strengthened Bryan’s sobriety, ensuring immunity from drinking while at the same time offering Penelope the opportunity to also get sober.

But at the same time, Bryan needed Penelope just as much as she needed him, a shared, mutual need to stay sober.

In a later conversation, Penelope relayed another element of the day’s events when she told me that prior to Bryan’s visit, her initial call to A.A. Central Office prompted them to appropriately select a female A.A. member to visit Penelope. This member did call Penelope, but only to tell her she was too busy to visit her. This member drank again soon afterwards, it was one of Penelope’s first lessons in A.A. about being responsible. She could see that Bryan who acted on the call for help and visited her stayed sober, while the first  A.A. person didn’t follow through with the call for help and drank again; it’s not about what we say about sobriety that’s important, it’s about what we do.

As already mentioned, the 12th step call was a success with Penelope getting sober, achieving over forty-five years of sobriety, and sharing her experience with us at the San Antonio A.A, meeting in 2020, forty-five years later. But there is one more part to this story that needs to be mentioned. The year after Penelope got sober, she was able to share her introduction to A.A. with her brother Terry at Easter, when he joined A.A. as well. He now has forty-four years of sobriety and always asks Penelope what would have happened to him if she hadn’t come along? And what would have happened to all of us who followed in their footsteps?

The Penelope’s, Joyce’s, Bruce’s, Bryan’s, Robin’s, Terry’s, A.A. office volunteers, San Antonio A.A meeting hosts and innumerable, unnamed and anonymous A.A.’s, create and maintain a living, human, chain of 12th step, service. A service that maintains immunity from picking up the first drink by following through with commitment to carry the message to the still suffering alcoholic.

About the Author

PJ was born in Ireland into an imaginative and colourful storytelling culture before joining the Irish drinking culture at nineteen when he picked up his first drink. He migrated to Australia in 1989, rapidly accelerating his alcohol consumption when he joined the hard-core Australian drinking culture.

Alcoholic burnout followed in just four years and he finally put his last drink down, getting sober through the Sydney fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. He soon felt at home in the Sydney A.A. ID meetings where he was once again immersed in an imaginative colourful storytelling culture. After eighteen years of sobriety he finally shook off the shackles of the A.A. ‘god talk’, got honest with his atheism and sought out like-minded A.A.’s. Today, it is simply the power of human A.A. fellowship and the accompanying affinity felt through alcoholic storytelling that keeps him sober.

His sobriety hinges on him not picking up the first drink no matter what happens one day at a time, attending and participating in A.A. meetings that suit and trying to lend a hand in helping others to get and stay sober.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Cecilia M. Etheridge

    Hello PJ! It was good to see your tonight (this morning). I met both you and Penelope through our San Antonio Mostly Agnostics meeting and it’s been a pleasure to listen to both of you again in the Australia meetings. It is fantastic to be part of a world-wide fellowship of sober atheist/agnostic AAs.COVID has trapped us in our houses, but freed us in our ZOOM meetings.

    1. PJ

      Hi Cecilia, it was a great meeting and nice to have people from near and far away in attendance. A world-wide, freed, fellowship of sober atheists and agnostics, all courtesy of Zoom, as you said.

      Being able to share our experiences of being atheists and agnostics within A.A. has been a whole new dimension of mutual understanding and support. To just have a place where you can honestly express yourself with those who understand is a game changer for me.


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