The Librium was supposed to prevent me from experiencing some of the side effects of alcohol detox, but I was still having terrible shakes, sweating, and nausea. Amy had not left my side. She said little but tended to me. She brought me chocolate malt milkshakes to ease the discomfort from the lack of sugar in my body, which the alcohol had caused me, and slow my weight loss. She wiped my hot forehead with cool, damp rags. She read to me about AA.
The next morning, a knock came. Amy met Kyra at the door and let her in.
“Hey,” said Kyra, tilting her head and giving me a sincere look of sympathy. “How’s the patient?”
“Amy,” I said, “Can you give us a moment?”
I wasn’t sure how she would respond to this, given her declaration of love to me. I worried she might be jealous of Kyra, but instead, she gave Kyra a tight hug, said, “Thank you,” and left closing the door behind her.
“Hey,” I said. “I owe you a thank you, too,”
She pushed my hair away from my forehead and said, “You don’t owe me anything.”
“No, I mean it. I owe you my life, Kyra. The doctor tells me that I would have died if you hadn’t found me when you did.”
She sat down in the chair beside my bed and handed me a small package wrapped in red wrapping paper and a gold bow.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Merry Christmas,” she said.
I unwrapped it to find a small, white ceramic angel.
“An angel?” I said.
“I just feel there is an angel in your story. “
“Thanks,” I said, but resentment settled in my heart at the sight of it–not for Kyra, but for an unjust God.
“Ok, well, Merry Christmas. I can take it back if you want.”
“No. I’ll hold on to it,” I said, setting it aside on the bedside table.
“So, what are you going to do next?” she said.
“I’m going to fight this, Kyra. I’m not going to ever let this happen again.”
When I had awoken from my stupor the night before, something had changed in me. I awoke with fight in me, something I had not had for many years. I felt that I was ready for a change. I wondered if Heath’s guru had been right if I would ever drink again. It seemed impossible, but the timing was uncanny, enough to want to try to fulfill his prophecy.
She squeezed my hand and asked, “How can I help?”
“I don’t know. The doc said that Alcoholics Anonymous had helped many of his patients, but I just don’t know if I can do that.”
“Why can’t you do that? If it could help, why wouldn’t you do it?”
I grabbed my phone and pulled open the web browser where I had been reading the Twelve Steps.
“There’s a lot of God stuff in here.” Even the word God caused my insides to burn a little.
“And you don’t believe in God?”
“No, I believe in God.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“It’s complicated. My life this last year has been shit. If God is so great, why would he let all of this happen to me? To Laura?”
I looked away. I knew that I would have to talk about this with someone eventually, but I was feeling miserable enough as it was.
“My wife,” I said.
“You’re married?” she said, pulling away from me.
“Not anymore,” I said.
“Oh,” she said quietly. “Ok. Just know that I’m here for you if you feel like talking about it. Is this what is standing between you and God?”
“Let me ask you this. Where are you with this God thing?”
“I was raised Catholic,” she said.
“I don’t practice anymore, but I believe in something. I don’t know exactly what that is yet, but I believe that whatever it is, it’s not what I was raised to believe. I believe in love, not all of that Heaven and Hell bullshit.”
I wasn’t sure I believed in any of it, Heaven, Hell, or even love. Love was what had caused me so much pain. In that moment, I believed I needed to make a change. I needed to do something different.
“What could it hurt to go to a meeting? Maybe you don’t have to believe all of it at first. Maybe you just need to show up.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Look, the bar is about to open; I need to get on over there. Do you want me to send Amy in?”
“Yeah. I think she and I need to have a little talk.”
“Ok,” she said, and she kissed me, not like the passionate kisses from our night together. Something more substantial. It scared me. Then she left.
A few minutes later, Amy returned.
“Hey, you,” I said. “Look, we need to talk.”
“No, we don’t,” she said.
“About what you said yesterday–”
“You don’t need to say anything. I know you love someone else,” she said, looking back at the door.
“That’s not it at all. You are seventeen! I’m 35-years-old. Even if I had those kinds of feelings for you, it would be so inappropriate. Can you see that?”
“Since when do you care about appropriate?” she said with a smirk.
“Yeah, I know, I haven’t been exactly a great role model, but this is different. These feelings you are having. They aren’t real. What could you possibly see in me?”
“They’re real to me,” she said. “Can’t you just let me love you? You don’t have to love me back. I don’t care.”
“Amy, can’t you see that I do love you. You’re the best thing to happen to me since I left Oklahoma. But it can’t be like that. We can’t be a thing. I don’t really know what role I’m supposed to play in your life, but this can’t be it. Can you understand that?”
She looked away and began to cry silently. I didn’t know what else to say. I cared for her deeply. I wanted to protect her from the cruel world she had known. If I’d been younger, or she’d been older, it might have been different. I reached out and touched her on the face, and held it up so that I could look her in the eye, tears streaming down it.
“Amy, I want you in my life. My home is your home for as long as you need it. Even if things were different, what good am I to anybody right now?”
“Do you think I give a shit about that? I owe everything to you. There is not a single person left in this world that gives a shit about me beside you.”
“Come here,” I said, making room for her on the bed.
Silently, she climbed into bed with me, and I held her close, patting her on the back gently.
“It’s going to be ok, Amy. You feel what you need to feel, and I’ll feel what I need to feel.”
She was quiet for a few moments, and then she said, “And what about Kyra?”
“Kyra and I are just friends,” I said, knowing it was more complicated than that.
“I don’t think she sees it that way,” she said.
The next morning, they released me from the hospital. Amy had gone to work, and there was no one to greet me when I got home. The first thing I did was open my liquor cabinet. I had drunk nearly everything already, but there were a couple of bottles of cheap whiskey. I took the bottles out and looked at them for a hard minute. I knew what I had to do. One by one, I poured them out and put them into a trash bag. The smell of booze hung in the air, but it gave me no pleasure. I knew I had to do more than this. I’d quit drinking before. The cravings always returned, and I had always felt powerless against them.
I pulled out my phone and looked up AA meetings in the area. There was a noon meeting at a nearby church. Then I looked up the steps again. I read the first one aloud. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
The word “powerless” jumped out at me. I remembered my vow to try something different, and without giving it any further thought, I grabbed my coat and hat and began my walk to the church. I thought of all the scenes from movies and television where people went to these meetings and told sad stories and cried, and people held hands. I thought of my buddy, Chris, who got sober and changed. It was like he became a born again Christian. I remembered that zeal in his eyes. I didn’t like it. It made me suspicious and uncomfortable. I didn’t want to get religion; I just wanted to stop drinking…stop hurting.
When I found myself at the church doors, I hesitated. I checked my phone again. The meeting was held in the basement. I started to open the door to the church, but I began to doubt. What if I didn’t belong there? What if it was really a cult?
But something gave me courage, like a nudge, and I walked through the doors. There was a directory on the wall, and I managed to find the door to the basement. I was early. I didn’t really want to be the first one there or be stuck with a stranger for fifteen minutes. I decided to go back out and smoke a cigarette. I hadn’t craved one since I awakened in the hospital, but I felt like I needed something familiar in my life, and a cigarette seemed like it might fit the bill.
I walked back through the doors and pulled out a pack that I had left in my coat breast pocket with a cheap plastic lighter. I lit up and took a long drag. I felt the let down of chemicals in my brain and relaxed a bit. Then a balding middle-aged man in jeans and a Berkeley sweatshirt approached me and lit one up himself.
“You here for the meeting?” he said, smoke coming out of his mouth as he spoke.
“Um. I guess,” I said.
“Yeah. I’ve never been to a meeting before.”
“Honestly? Yeah, I’m a little nervous,” I said, and I took another drag.
“I get it. I remember my first meeting. I was still in detox, sweating, shaking. I didn’t really want to be there. Seemed like a lot of bullshit to me.”
“What made you keep going?”
“I listened to people’s stories. They were getting better, staying sober.” He took another drag. “Some even seemed to be happy. I wanted that. Thought maybe if I kept coming, I might get that.”
“And did you?”
“I’m still here, aren’t I?” he said, gesturing to his body. “I mean, my life isn’t perfect, but I get to have some peace once in a while. I get relief.”
Others began to arrive. He put out his cigarette in a butt can by the door. “Come on, let’s go,” he said, opening the door.
He had put me at ease, and I felt like I might be able to do this.
The room wasn’t pretty—worn carpet, bad lighting. People began grabbing plastic chairs from a stack in the corner and setting them up in the middle of the room. I grabbed one and sat down in it. People began to talk as if they were old friends, both men and women, old and young, but I kept to myself.
Finally, a man in a suit and a gold watch took off his jacket, checked his watch and said, “My name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic,” to which the room replied, “Hey, Jack.”
He continued, “Alrighty, let’s begin this meeting with a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer.”
I took off my hat and bowed my head for the first time in a while. I remembered that Laura had a copy of the prayer framed in her bedroom in high school. It was familiar, but not enough to recite it myself, and I wasn’t really sure about praying anyway. All of these thoughts were going through my mind as we sat for a brief silence. Then the room of fifteen or so alcoholics spoke together.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
“Ok, let’s introduce ourselves starting on the left,” said Jack, giving a friendly pat on the woman sitting next to him.
“I’m Julie; I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hey, Julie,” they all said, and I joined in.
As everyone in the circle introduced themselves, I began to clear my throat, nervous to speak. When it came to my turn, I began to speak, but for a moment, I had lost my voice. Then I said the words for the first time, “Hi, I’m James, and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hey, James,” they said, and someone added, “We’re glad you’re here.”
I suddenly felt a sense of relief at having said this out loud.
When everyone had introduced themselves and affirmed exactly who and what they were, Jack spoke.
“I’m Jack, and I’m an alcoholic. This is a beginner’s meeting, which means that we read from the first few chapters of the Big Book,” he said, lifting up a book. “Tonight, we’re going to read about the real alcoholic. Does anyone need a book?”
I raised my hand, and someone grabbed a book out of a cabinet and handed it to me. The cover was torn. It had been well-used.
“Let’s turn to chapter two, ‘There is a Solution’”
As he read, I began to hear familiar descriptions. Descriptions that felt like could apply directly to me, perhaps not all, but many. After the reading, one by one, people began to share their thoughts on the reading and how it applied to themselves. As my turn was getting closer, I began scrambling for something I could share. I didn’t even know where to begin.
Then it was my turn. “My name is James. I’m an alcoholic.” I looked around the room. Some people were looking at the floor, but many were looking right at me. The man I’d met outside gave me a smile and a nod. “I guess I’ve known for a long time that I was an alcoholic. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten wasted and embarrassed myself…at parties, at school…even once at church.”
There were nods of agreement around the room.
“Right now, for the first time in my life, I’m without a job. I was supposed to start a new project this month, but I haven’t heard from anyone. I did very poorly on the last assignment–never delivered, and now I’m living off my savings. I just got out of the hospital. I overdosed on alcohol and pain meds. I would be dead if it weren’t for a friend who found me. I guess it’s kind of a wakeup call for me. I’ve tried to stop drinking before, but I never lasted more than a few weeks. I don’t know; I guess I feel like it’s time to try something different, and that’s why I’m here. I read the steps, but I don’t know about this God stuff. God and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms, ya know? But I have to do something different. I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t. I guess that’s all I have to share.”
Several people said, “We’re glad you’re here, James. Keep coming back.”
At the end, everyone stood up and grabbed hands. And we prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t pray, but I could feel something in the room, in our circle. Some sort of warmth flowing into me. Perhaps it was just the warm hands that grasped my hands, but perhaps it was something more than that.
After the meeting, the man I’d smoked a cigarette with said, “Come on. Let’s go outside and have a smoke.”
When we were in the cool air again, and in the overcast light of a Bay City January, he shook my hand and said, “I’m George. I’m really glad you came, James. What did you think?” he said, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it up. I did the same.
“It wasn’t really what I expected. I expected there to be more crying and sob stories.”
He chuckled, “Well, we certainly get some of that, but this meeting is more about solutions–sober living. Not about drinking really at all. We all have sob stories, James. We all have that in common. In fact, we all have a lot in common.”
“Yeah. I got that sense. I never really met anyone like me in this regard….alcoholic. I guess I always just felt alone.”
“Yeah, we all felt alone. No one lonelier than a drunk,” he said, looking out at the city horizon for a moment. Then he turned to me. “Doesn’t matter how many people are in the room. We’re alone. We’re different, James. We have this disease, you know? And people can’t really understand what we have been through. It only really makes sense to other alcoholics.”
I thought about what he was saying as I continued to smoke.
“Hey,” he said, pulling out a cell phone.”Let me give you my number. I want you to call me anytime, day or night. If you get an urge to drink or if you just need to talk to someone, give me a call.”
I put his number in my phone and sent him a text.
“Got it. You’re in my contacts now. Call me,“ he said, grasping my shoulder firmly.
I still didn’t have an appetite but was feeling good enough to take a walk, so I headed down the hill to Farid’s.
When I got there, I took my regular seat.
“Hey, James. Coffee and a scone?” said Amy lightly.
“You know it,” I said, smiling at her, hoping that our friendship was not messed up over recent events, but she did not let on that there was a problem. She was very professional.
“Coming right up. Do you want me to see if Farid is available?”
“Yeah, that would be great.”
She disappeared in the back and then fixed my order and brought it to me.
“Wow, that was quick. Thanks,” I said.
She placed my coffee and scone in front of me and said, “You’re welcome. Let me know if I can get you anything else.”
“James, my friend!” said Farid wiping off his hands with a towel and placing it behind the counter. “Why haven’t I seen you in so long?”
“Oh, I’ve kind of had a tough month.”
“I show up to work weeks ago, no Amy, no James. I think to myself, what has become of them. Maybe they have moved away!”
He pulled up a chair and sat down.
“Then, out of the blue, Amy has returned, begging for her job back. But who could resist her charms, my friend? She has been very good for business, this one. I say, ‘Of course, start immediately!’ and now here you are.” Then his smile faded as he took a good look at me. “You don’t look so good, my friend.”
“I just got out of the hospital. I’ve been sick.”
“Sick? With what?”
I debated whether to tell him the truth or not. He was one of my only friends in town, but we did not share our personal life much, but I decided to take a chance.
“Well, I had an overdose. Nearly died.”
Farid tugged on his chin and said, “Hmmm…I see, I see. Nearly died, you say?”
“Yes. Pills and booze.”
“Ah, I see. My brother nearly died the same way. He has struggled with it his whole adult life and much of his teenage years.”
“Me, too,” I confessed.
He sat down next to me, leaned in, and said very softly, “You struggle with alcohol? How can I help, my friend? What can I do?”
“Well, actually, I just came from a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous,” I said and took a deep breath.
“This is good. Anything to get you back on your feet. They do not have much of that where I come from. Men are too ashamed to admit that they have a problem. They think they’re too manly to ask for help, and so they live as drunks and die as drunks. Very, very sad, my friend. Very sad.”
Then he sat back in his chair and studied me very carefully.
“But why is it that I have not seen you in weeks?”
“Well, that’s the thing. I haven’t been at work for a while. I didn’t get the next project, after all. I guess I didn’t do a good enough job on the last project.”
“Ah, I am sorry to hear that, but this is temporary,” he declared with a raised finger in front of him. “You’ll get back on your feet, my friend. Farid has 100 percent faith in you. You will see. Let this AA help you.”
My heart warmed at his encouragement. I was glad that I had shared.
“I tell you what, coffee and scone on me, anytime you like, until you get another job. I miss seeing Your Highness in my humble establishment.”
“That is not necessary. I have plenty of money in the bank, but I promise I’ll come around more, Farid. You are a good friend. I am very grateful to you.”
“Well, let me at least pay for this one. It is the least I can do, my friend.”
“Ok. It’s a deal. You are too kind.”