PORT ANGELES — The evening get-together is just starting. People walk into the room, eyeing the strangers who are already there. Each one takes a seat in the circle of chairs, until everybody is facing everybody. Yes, awkward.
Seven o’clock comes, and Craig Whalley turns to the woman beside him to ask: How was your week? After she responds, she turns to the person next to her to ask the same.
So unfolds a meeting of Life Ring, the international addiction recovery support group now holding face-to-face meetings in Port Angeles. The second meeting is tonight.
Whalley, who lived here for four decades while running his store, Odyssey Books & Gifts, serves on the board of directors of LifeRing; for many years he has convened one of its large online support networks. In 2010, he moved to Berkeley, Calif., to become the nonprofit organization’s volunteer executive director.
Now, at 70, he’s decided to return home. Whalley moved back to Port Angeles in November, and though you could say he’s retired — he sold Odyssey to staff member April Bellerud — he still feels called to work for LifeRing. Some 20 years ago, Whalley traded a virulent drinking problem for sobriety and peace.
On Feb. 1, Whalley convened Port Angeles’ first LifeRing meeting; he’ll continue the hourlong sessions at 7 p.m. every Thursday in the Wendel Room in the basement of Olympic Medical Center, 939 Caroline St. There’s no charge to attend.
For people interested in Life Ring but who can’t attend meetings in Port Angeles, Whalley hopes to start an online community especially for North Olympic Peninsula residents.
The international website, www.LifeRing.org, has information about meetings, internet forums and printed materials including founder Martin Nicolaus’ book “Empowering Your Sober Self.”
The network’s full name is LifeRing Secular Recovery; its philosophy boils down to three words: sobriety, secularity and self-help. So while there are meetings of people who care for one another, that’s where the similarities to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous end.
To participate in a LifeRing meeting or online group, you are not required to follow a 12-step program with its references to a higher power. You are not expected to label yourself an alcoholic or drug addict.
This network, Whalley said, supports each person in his or her own path to sobriety. Respect and “choice in recovery” — as in there are alternatives to A.A. — are watchwords. In internet or face-to-face meetings, participants talk about the challenges they confronted just in the past week, and how they met them — or not.
“People relapse,” Whalley said, “and people are overwhelmed with guilt and shame.”
In LifeRing, they’ve all been there. And members are uniquely equipped to give gentle encouragement because, he emphasized, this community believes every person is capable of overcoming addiction.
“It’s hard to do. It’s hard to sustain,” Whalley said, yet “You can do this” is his message.
He’s seen it work. LifeRing, which held its founding congress in 2001, has support groups in six countries.
Rachel Wilken was among the seven people who attended the Feb. 1 meeting. She has experience with various recovery programs, but found LifeRing, as well as Women for Sobriety, another secular network, suits her best.
Wilken, who grew up in San Francisco, started drinking at 14. She later got into riding and racing motorcycles. In 1992, as she and her boyfriend were planning a future together, he was shot to death.
“My drinking went out of control,” Wilken said. By 1994, when she was 24, she realized she had to “clean up, so I could start a new path, if only to honor his belief in me.
“I moved away and quit drinking. I struggled terribly at first,” she said.
It was Charlotte Kasl’s book “Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps” that changed her life.
Wilken found LifeRing years later — to her benefit, as she suffered through another bout with addiction. In 2010, she injured her back and went on opioid medication for the acute pain. She was able to quit.
But then, after using medical marijuana and receiving a steroid injection in her spine in 2016, Wilken began to spin out again.
“I tried to sedate myself with alcohol,” she said.
But again, Wilken got sober, though she acknowledges it was difficult and messy.
“I am once again completely alcohol-free, after a few months stumbling to get my feet under me. My back pain is the same but I’m also clean, and no longer have room in my life for the medical marijuana.”
LifeRing, Wilken said, offered the format in which to frame her personal recovery program.
Most important, Whalley said, LifeRing is a safe place, free of shaming and unsolicited advice. People in the online group or at live meetings can benefit from hearing others’ stories — and they see how much others care.
“The person in recovery does all of the work and LifeRing cheers them on,” said Byron Kerr, the network’s current executive director.
“We provide support and comfort to those people trying to get and stay clean and sober. We share ideas and strategies,” he noted, “but avoid specific advice beyond ‘don’t drink or use, no matter what.’ ”
About eight years ago, Kerr went into a residential rehabilitation facility for a 28-day “spin dry.” There, he felt forced to adopt the 12-step recovery structure.
“I stayed sober for maybe 100 days after the rehab. I did not succeed until I found support that respected my world view and made no demands that I change my world view,” he said.
“LifeRing only cared about supporting my sobriety.”
Whalley, for his part, acknowledges that many people benefit from A.A. and the 12 Steps; they’re welcome to attend LifeRing meetings as well, provided they bring an open mind and a generous supply of respect.
LifeRing offers an alternative, he said, to the isolation too many people suffer. Whatever your struggle, you don’t have to do it alone, he said.
In this safe place, Whalley said, “you see people blossom in acceptance.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.