When my husband, Peter, and I purchased and renovated an old Craftsman in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles in 2016, we wanted it to be a home with an open door policy — where friends and neighbors swing by for casual conversation, delicious meals are shared, and birthday parties are over-celebrated.
The fact that Peter graduated top of his class at Le Cordon Bleu helped make this a reality. Friends who’d previously tasted his creations were all too happy to come over, oohing and aahing over his light-as-air waffles with lemon zest whipped cream, or messily devouring his overnight smoked brisket drenched in barbecue sauce. And it turns out that saying “my husband is a professionally trained chef” is a pretty good recruitment tool when making new friends.
It was Peter who encouraged me to start a women’s meeting at the house. I’d been sober for about eight years at the time, and being a new mom while working full-time from home had made getting to 12-step meetings more challenging. So, even though a part of me wanted to rebel against his unsolicited suggestion, I had to admit it was a good idea. I excitedly emailed the women I thought might be interested, and the meeting began the following Thursday.
For the first several months we gathered around the dark, oversized square wooden table in our dining room — a housewarming gift from my mom, and custom-made by two hipster woodworkers with a small studio in East L.A. I wasn’t comfortable listing our home address publicly, which meant it wouldn’t be an official 12-step meeting. And the format was my creation, inspired by the recovery meetings that took place at a yoga retreat I’d attended in Big Sur several years prior.
There, dozens of us would come together before breakfast, bleary-eyed and clutching reusable coffee cups steaming with hot beverages containing one of our last permissible drugs: caffeine. Shoes piled up just inside the door of the room we’d later use to practice yoga and we sat cross-legged in a circle, listening to the leader read something that set the tone for the shares that followed. The meetings were open to anyone who struggled with any kind of addiction or codependency, and we only needed to say our name before speaking.
I loved the freedom that format allowed, not having to label myself as an alcoholic every time I opened my mouth, and being able to see how the disease of addiction manifests itself in so many different ways. The shares from people struggling with pornography addiction and eating disorders were intense and powerful, and not something I would have been privy to at the traditional 12-step meetings I attended.
So that’s the way Thursday mornings worked at my house. The meeting was open to women who struggled with any kind of addiction, whether alcohol, drugs, sugar, food, sex, love, controlling other people or situations, exercise, technology, working, or something else. I was thrilled when a few of my girlfriends who’d never been to a 12-step meeting started coming. It felt like I was sharing a best-kept secret, and like the walls that had kept my life somewhat compartmentalized were starting to fall away.
Somewhere along the line the meeting became nicknamed the “all the things” meeting, and women would introduce themselves saying, “I’m Brooke, and I’m all the things” — a light-hearted way of acknowledging how common cross-addiction is.
When my husband suffered a traumatic brain injury as the result of a barrier gate falling on his head at the studio lot where he was working as a location scout on an upcoming television series, I leaned on these women to support me through the aftershocks that followed: the intense physical and mental symptoms that forced him to take disability leave, the difficulty he had regulating his moods, and how that impacted every aspect of our lives together.
It was a scary time to grow our family, but when we found out I was pregnant with our second child together a few months following his accident we were both elated, and filled with hope. I knew there would be challenges ahead, but felt comforted by knowing I had a strong community of female support — and weekly couples therapy on the books.
One Thursday morning a freckle-faced pregnant woman showed up, invited by a friend who was a regular. She was about to have her first child and, after coming back a few weeks in a row, asked me to be her sponsor. I agreed to take her through the steps and share whatever experience, strength and hope I’d gleaned along the way. When her daughter was born and started struggling to sleep at night, it was as if the universe was sending me a warning signal of what was to come.
My baby boy and I returned home from the hospital just a few months later, on a Wednesday. I remember it was Wednesday because we barely slept that night and I knew the ladies would be coming over in the morning. I’d become so engorged that my son couldn’t latch, so my husband and I spent the night contorting my body into different positions in the hopes he’d be able to suck some milk down, and taking turns trying to calm him down when he couldn’t.
I felt like a zombie the next morning, wandering out of my room to greet everyone in baggy sweatpants over adult diapers, a nursing tank top with pad inserts to hide potential leakage, and a postpartum belly band carefully placed to avoid rubbing my C-section wound. We decided to stay in the living room that day, sitting on couches that faced each other and using poufs to round out our makeshift circle.
Still on painkillers and overwhelmed with fear that my little one wasn’t getting enough nutrition, the tears flowed freely when it was my turn to share. But I didn’t care how awful I looked or how crazy I sounded. It felt good to be seen and heard.
We continued to meet in the living room from that point on, and I cried every Thursday morning for the next several weeks, if not months. I’d solved the nursing problem by pumping and then transitioning to formula much earlier than I’d planned, but my second child wasn’t at all like my easy-going first — this one screamed nonstop until he was about four months old, meeting the criteria for colic (and then some).
My husband had gone back to working as a location manager. But right when our little guy’s disposition started to improve, Peter told me he’d been regularly ending up in strange places while location scouting and not remembering how he got there. He was scared and knew that a “mind over matter” approach wouldn’t work this time. He went back on disability and began receiving the professional treatment he needed to recover. Once again, my women’s group became my foundation for navigating a chapter in life I hadn’t planned for.
When the pandemic hit, we transitioned the meeting over to Zoom and, amazingly, the intimacy between us remains. Unlike other 12-step meetings I’ve been attending online, during the “all the things” meeting I don’t feel tempted to multitask — responding to work emails while listening to people share, or compulsively checking news headlines that fuel my already-high levels of anxiety. Each week, between 10 to 15 women show up.
Some of us are single, and struggling with the physical isolation that comes with living alone during a pandemic. Others have lost jobs, and are trying to balance having faith with proactively identifying what’s next. Several of us are dealing with the heightened financial and marital pressure created by an economy in the crapper and an indefinite lockdown. And a lot of us are mothers — hiding in rooms with the door locked, trying to get one hour of uninterrupted time to ourselves, when we aren’t homeschooling kids or deconstructing forts.
A few women are going through the early stages of divorce, and another was recently reunited with her baby after he was abused by his biological father without her knowledge and placed in foster care. One woman has been dealing with her father’s cancer diagnosis, and another had a family member hospitalized with Covid-19. Whatever the struggle, we’ve been supporting each other through it all.
Each Thursday morning for one hour, in little squares on a screen, we laugh and we cry together. There is no judgment. Instead, there are nodding heads, smiling faces and over-exaggerated facial expressions that convey love and support.
Every week, these women keep showing up and sharing with the kind of vulnerability that zaps me into the present moment and makes me feel less alone. They are giving me the strength I need to come out of my bedroom with a smile on my face and live my messy and wonderful life to its fullest, amid all of the uncertainty.
I look forward to resuming our open door policy — to having friends and neighbors over, and to the happy chaos that comes with having small children and a charismatic husband who loves cooking and throwing over-the-top parties. And I can’t wait to sit in a makeshift circle with a group of women who hide nothing from each other. To wrap my arms around each one of them without worry of catching or spreading a virus — a celebratory hug that signifies not only that we made it through, but that we will continue facing all the things. Together.