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I had the privilege the other night of presenting a white chip to a real newcomer, a young woman who had never been to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous before. For that, I am grateful.

A brief explanation for the uninitiated. In the Richmond, Virginia area, as elsewhere, AA groups have a chip system to mark sobriety time. A silver chip for 30 days, red for 90 days, yellow for six months, and so on. The chips are a nice way to acknowledge a member’s accomplishment, and provide members with a little more incentive to keep going.

But the most important chip requires no time at all in sobriety. You can even pick one up while you’re still drunk. That chip is the white chip, for the universal sign of surrender. All that’s required is a desire to stop drinking, which also happens, by the way, to be the only requirement for AA membership.

Last Thursday, two young women walked into my regular Thursday night meeting, called the Freedom Group, up on Church Hill. The meeting is in the basement of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, which sits directly across the street from St. John’s Episcopal Church, the site of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. While we all sat around talking before the meeting, we found out that one of the two women wasn’t sure whether she was an alcoholic or not, but thought that she might be. This was her first time ever at an AA meeting. The other woman was a friend there for emotional support.

Well, whenever there’s a real newcomer like this at a meeting, particularly one who’s unsure whether she’s an alcoholic or not, the tradition is to devote the meeting to a discussion of the First Step. What it meant to each of us to admit our powerlessness over alcohol. How we came to the realization that our lives had, indeed, become unmanageable. How we finally found our way into the rooms of AA.

When my turn to share came, I talked about how I had a chance to get my life together six years ago, and how I wasted that chance by comparing my way right out of the rooms. I couldn’t possibly be an alcoholic, my alcoholic mind told me back then, because I hadn’t lost my job, my house, or my car. Not like those alcoholics sharing their stories in there.

Yet.

So I suffered through my own long day’s journey into night, coming out alive on the other end only by the grace of a merciful God. To be sure, my sobriety today is strengthened by the fearfully vivid memory of my last days in active addiction, but it didn’t have to be that way.

And it doesn’t have to be that way for the young newcomer at Thursday night’s meeting. She doesn’t have to lose her job, her house, her car, or her life. Not if she takes to heart the stories of those who came before. We went through that pain so people like her don’t have to.

She was young, fresh-faced, still hopeful. I wanted so desperately to save her, to reach out and pluck her from the desperate life looming ahead. But I couldn’t do that. All I was able to do, all I’ll ever be able to do, is to carry the message.

I can’t carry it out.

That’s between her and God. To lift a line from Denzel Washington, all I can do is help arrange the meeting. So I did. I gave her a Big Book. I gave her my sponsor’s wife’s phone number. I gave her a copy of the “Where and When,” a small booklet listing the 350-plus AA meetings in the Richmond area each week. I pointed out two meetings in particular, "Friday Night Young People" and "Young and Sober" on Saturday. With any luck, fellowship with other young alcoholics may help convince her to deal with the problem now, like I should have done years ago.

Most importantly, I gave her my prayers. Feel free to join me, if you care to.

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