I was fifteen years, three hundred and sixty-four days sober. It was probably about 9:00pm, and I was standing on the sidewalk in front of a dive bar.
Now, in my experience of bars (which, if I do say so myself, is vast indeed) this was the "just right" kind of dive bar. Cheap, strong drinks. Couple of pool tables (probably missing a ball or two, but it didn't matter, they were just there to lean against, mostly). Rough crowd, but not in the sense of how they came at you. No, this rough was the result of how life had come at them -- just right for not feeling judged and secretly considering myself a wee bit superior; in essence, perfect drinking companions. People went to this bar for the sole purpose of getting drunk. Even if they told themselves they were there to get laid, I'm pretty sure that was merely a plausible excuse -- a smoke screen to preserve some final shred of denial. In a bar like this, cruising was just what you did to pass the time between drinks and smokes -- for all the scenes in films and on television of drunks staring with maudlin intensity into their drink, let me tell you, that gets boring pretty fast -- so a little sloppy footsie was merely cheap entertainment. The agenda was drink and the objective was drunk.
If I had to guess, the way I felt right at that moment is probably the last thing a little bug feels before it slides down into a pitcher plant, and discovers at the bottom that the sides are too slippery to get back up. Apt, huh.
As I type these words I have been sober for 7834 days. So many of them have been full of joy and gratitude and fellowship that I am often dazzled and humbled by the embarrassment of blessings I feel I've experienced... and the stories of those days I am always happy to share.
But tonight, after talking on the phone with a good, old friend, far away, who is heartbroken over the relapse of a longtime sponsee who had had many years sober, ("I thought he was okay! He was okay! We had just talked and everything was normal and now..." And now he's in the hospital. Sometimes it feels like I type "in the hospital" a lot on this blog. Don't know why that should surprise me, now that I think of it. After all, at heart this is a blog about a terminal illness) I can't help but think back to that night, the evening of my sixteenth sober anniversary.
God, that sounds so dramatic. I'm sorry, I wish there was a way to describe these experiences accurately without sliding into what I fear sometimes are overwrought prose, but... I think milestones, like anniversaries of any sort, bring to the fore things which are unavoidably dramatic in their way; comparisons, reflections... and, beyond the "milestone effect," I suppose a life and death struggle is always going to be dramatic.
Which, for those of you reading this who may be less familiar with the threat of relapse, the challenge of long term sobriety, and how alcoholism is like being afflicted with spiritual termites, forever working under the surface to eat away at your foundation, is what I was engaged in, standing on that sidewalk on the eve of my sober anniversary: A life and death struggle.
But the most terrifying part of the story (for me anyway) is that although I was indeed fighting for my life, at the time I wasn't entirely convinced of that fact. Which is, at the risk of piling melodrama upon drama, how it gets you I believe.
That night, what I was actually thinking about, standing on the sidewalk, considering the door of the dive, was my name badge.
At the time I was just a little over 40, and I had the kind of a job in which you wear a name badge. Now, it is a saying I've heard around the rooms that there is absolutely nothing wrong with good honest work for good honest pay. This is certainly a beautiful and true spiritual axiom, shot through as it is with a kind of puritan work ethos which always makes me want to both salute the flag and iron a shirt, but it in my observation it is said more often by people with big jobs and larger salaries than it is by those with smaller jobs and humbler salaries.
And earlier that week I had sat in a meeting and heard a lot of men who I happened to know drove very expensive cars and lived in rather grand homes, pat themselves on the back and heartily congratulate each other for their rigorous honesty, as evidenced by how they always returned the extra if a cashier gave them the wrong change. Both as I sat in that meeting and listened, and then later, standing in front of the dive (and even now, for that matter) I didn't want to take anything away from those men, many of whom I held in great high regard. But in the meeting I couldn't help but feel a slow sour roll in my belly, as I considered that it is one thing to return the change when it is a solely spiritual exercise, good and right though that is, and quite another to return the change when it is the equivalent of the rest of what you have in your pocket. In theory, of course, on a spiritual plane these acts have the same beautiful value. Sadly, however, I do not live on the spiritual plane, I am stuck here on the physical one, with the rest of the name badge wearers.
So there I was, later that same week, and I had been walking along, quite possibly muttering to myself, when I came upon the dive bar. I was feeling jealous, and ashamed of feeling jealous. I was feeling resentful, and I was judging myself for feeling resentful. I sternly accused myself of being self obsessed, and then grieved my all consuming ego, and the never ending tug of war it engages me in. In a handful of hours I was going to be 16 years clean and sober. Whoopee. And where had it gotten me? I was over 40, 16 years sober, and wore a name badge at work for God's sake!
STOP. Right there, for those of you that missed it? That's not me talking anymore. That question is the moment in the story when the killer enters the room. "And where had it gotten me?" That's alcoholism, talking to me with my own voice, pitch perfect in its impersonation and unerring in its aim for the jugular.
Snap your fingers, because just like that, the mental fog rolled in, and against that backdrop, with wicked craft, alcoholism rearranged the pictures of my life into a mosaic both pathetic and cruel. The conclusion I reached (and I remember this part clearly enough to give me the shivers now) was that AA had become kind of a joke, and that it didn't work for me anymore. Sly, huh? Not, "AA doesn't work" -- no, it was "AA doesn't work for you anymore." Lost in that fog, my life of gratitude and service became an exercise in futility. Suddenly, the only logical conclusion -- against a resume which included too many name-badge jobs in the past several years, and what that night seemed like a wheel-spinning life of trying to give back "what had so freely been given to me" -- was that I had been duped, or was stupid, or was too stupid to see I'd been duped. And now it was too late and I was all used up -- and while maybe AA was great in general, it "didn't work for me anymore."
So there I stood, more sad than self-pitying I believe, though to read it now you may not agree, teetering on the edge of the pitcher plant.
It is often said that there will come a time in the sober path of each recovering alcoholic where all that stands between you and a drink is your relationship with your Higher Power.
Unfortunately, standing on that sidewalk, I did not believe in my Higher Power.
Turns out I didn't have to believe for Something to throw me a rope. Because although my alcoholism had performed its dark magic, and suddenly every good thing in my life had no value, the very next thought I had was about some of the men I sponsored at the time (and some of whom I sponsor still). I didn't believe AA worked for me anymore -- but I did believe it worked for them. I believed wholeheartedly what I told them about sobriety, what we read together in the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" (AA's Big Book), the transformative process of the 12 Steps -- I believed all of that was Right for them, and would help them, and would ultimately save their lives in ways they couldn't imagine.
Thus, while I couldn't see any point to staying sober for me, I could see it for them. And I knew that if I drank, which, if I went into that bar that night I most certainly would, then it would put the lie to every true thing about recovery I had told them. And although I was in the depths of despair, consumed with sadness and jealousy and resentment and self pity, I just couldn't do that to them. Even though (on that night) I didn't think I was worth saving anymore, I believed my sponsees deserved their chance at saving themselves.
So I didn't go in.
In that moment when we each stand on the edge of the pitcher plant, I think there's always a rope. Today I do not believe that God picks and chooses who gets thrown a lifeline and who does not. The problem, perhaps, is that we cannot see it when we most need to -- so what is it that clears our vision in that terrible alcoholic darkness? For me it was my connection to the men I sponsored. God works through other people, and it was from the threads of all my sponsee relationships, which grew from being of service, as AA taught me, that a lifeline was fashioned and my life was saved that night.
Too dramatic a turn of phrase? If you think that, all I can say is, buddy, you've never seen me drink, and you've never seen what happens when an alcoholic with long term sobriety picks up again. And God willing, one day at a time, if I stay connected to the people in AA, you never will.
I went home that night, and called my friend, the one who had called me tonight, heartbroken about his sponsee.
And by the time I got home, the fog had started to lift, and just talking to him dispelled the last of it. I didn't even really get into what had happened earlier that evening. I just basked in the camaraderie of an old sober friend, who spoke the same language and fought the same fight and had his own scars to prove it.
Things don't look too good right now for his sponsee. But what I know is that from working with him, my friend will have his own rope, his own lifeline, when he needs it, there on the edge of the pitcher plant.
Stay close, and do not spurn these relationships which AA offers, as odd and clumsy as they first appear. In my experience God works through these connections with other people -- so you better give Him something to work with.
There are more essays like this one in "Mr. SponsorPants: Adventures in Sobriety and The 12 Steps for AA's and Others." Available as an eBook via Amazon.