June 17, 2013

Demons be Damned—Stinging reality and comfort arrive together in 2013

This year, at about 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve—with my eyelids growing heavier and heavier—I made the following post on Facebook:

“To turn in before the clock strikes 12, at peace with all of my demons and all of my foes, seems a promising start to the New Year. The last time I turned in before midnight alone was New Years Eve '97. That night, the demons were dancing and screeching in my head and making me wish there were an easy way out for cowards. Tonight, I thank God for the fellowship and the many nights of comfort surrender has bestowed. Happy New Year to all.”

The next morning I noticed the post had received dozens of likes and more than a few laudatory comments about recovery and living sober. Which was great! In fact, that post probably received more likes and comments than any I’ve ever posted. As I read the comments, however, I realized how I had failed to acknowledge the principal source of my gratitude in that post.

It had been a day of emotional highs and lows. Though it was my kids’ mother’s day to have them, they spent the day with me because their mom had to work. We made a big, unhealthy breakfast together, went sledding, played board games, read, and finally flopped on the couch to watch bowl games and munch on more crappy food. It was New Year’s Eve after all. Around 3 p.m. their mom texted to say she was on her way to pick them up. An initial sadness and the usual departure anxieties set in.

Before she arrived, however, a longtime friend in sobriety, X, showed up to say hello to the kids and wish us all a Happy New Year … or so I thought. The four of us reminisced about the previous New Year’s Eve, which we’d spent together. At midnight that year, my daughter, the friends she’d invited to sleep over, X, and a few other friends who’d held on until midnight decided that, at exactly midnight, rather than watch the ball drop on TV, we were going to bang pots and pans in the garage and the front yard to drive last year’s evil spirits off my property—much to my neighbor’s chagrin, I’m sure. But a proper way to begin the new year nonetheless.

We wouldn’t be doing that again this year, and we acknowledged we were a little sad about it, but I assured the kids they’d have a really good time at their mom’s, just as they’d had at dad’s last year. Shortly afterward, we said our Happy New Years, and they piled into their mom’s van, my daughter getting a kick out of telling me over and over, “See you next year, Dad. See you next year.”

As I watched them drive away, I told X I needed to hit the shower. It was nearly 4 p.m., and I was due at a restaurant where my sponsor and his wife held their annual New Year’s Eve dinner in a little over an hour. The dinner was always a great time, had been for the 14 consecutive years I’d been going anyway, as was the party afterward at my sponsor’s house. X said he understood, that he’d head out, but he needed to tell me something first. And as bluntly and matter-of-factly as I type the words here, he told me, “I drank.”

We’d had a blizzard in the Midwest the week before and not a day above freezing since. I stared past X into the painful brightness outside the picture window in my living room at what I like to call a classic Midwestern ice bake. I felt equally frozen inside, much the way I’d felt the day—30 years earlier—my father had told me frankly and declaratively, “I have cancer. They give me three to six months to live.”  There are moments like that in life, moments that do not warrant a reaction. They’re freeze-frame moments, moments when nothing really means much at all, and what is simply is.

X had had his fair share of struggles over the past few years: with women, with jobs, with family and friends, even with prescription drugs, but in the dozen or so years we’d been trudging the road together, he’d never taken a drink. To me, as someone who’d spent seven years spinning in and out of sobriety before I’d finally surrendered, this was monumental, as close as one comes to a death sentence after that many years living sober.

X filled me in over the next 10 minutes or so. He’d finally cracked and drank a fifth of vodka rather quickly on Saturday night, blacked out and spent most of Sunday sick, had gone to a meeting before coming to my house, and felt confident he’d stay sober the remainder of the day. He had plans for the night with sober friends who were coming in from out of town, he said. I asked him to hang around while I got ready for dinner. He said, sure, he’d hang out and watch the remainder of the bowl game the kids and I had been watching when he arrived.

What happened next took my by surprise. As I walked up the stairs, I thought about how I needed to tell X that this was really no surprise, that we’d talked about it and seen it coming for some time. There were things he was doing in his life that would’ve brought other people to their knees much sooner. I told myself I needed to go back down and be deadly honest with him. No holds barred. Tough love for his own good.

But that’s not what happened. Instead I got in the shower and suddenly felt like I’d been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat. My joints ached, my throat tightened, and for a moment I genuinely feared I might pass out. All of the sudden, I realized not only X but a number of others I’d known and loved in recovery would not celebrate this New Year sober, that many of them were also out there signing their own death warrants and thinking nothing of it. I thought of the alcoholic suicides I’d witnessed, and the close friends I’d carried to their graves early in my own sobriety. And I heard the old-timers voices in my head rattling off the various warnings, “Wake up, people! This isn’t the flu we’re dealing with here. It’s a disease, and it’s a disease that kills.” Or worse, “Stick around long enough and you’ll see, some of us have to go out and die so the rest of us can stay sober.” 

Finally, I let myself cry for all of them right there in the shower … because I knew in a short while I was just as likely to be pissed at each and every one of them for passing on a life of freedom and awareness.

When I suited up and went back downstairs, for no apparent reason, I knew exactly what I needed to share with X. Rather than take his inventory, I asked him if he realized he might not be done. It had been my experience, years ago, that once I’d relapsed, once I’d realized how easy it was to put the blinders on, forget all the friends to whom I was accountable, and take the first drink, it became easy to do it over and over again … until I threw myself, with extreme humility, back into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Relapse, more than anything else in my experience, gave flesh and blood to the words “cunning, baffling, powerful.” I didn’t yell, I didn’t dramatize, I just asked him to keep that thought in his head—that it would be easier now to keep drinking than to stop if he didn’t humble himself, that once we relapse after a significant period of sobriety, “cunning, baffling, powerful” are no longer convenient words we impress upon newcomers, but rather the three heads of a beast whose mouths are dripping blood, and if we aren’t careful, one day the blood will surely be our own. I finally gave him a hug, told him to call or text throughout the night, and to be in touch the next day.

That night at dinner, I realized there were hundreds of years of sobriety in the private room where we were seated. Without a doubt, we were people who normally would not mix—except in the pursuit of sobriety. I sat beside one of the men I sponsor, and thought what a yeoman’s job he’d been doing of giving back. At a year-and-a-half sober, he was trudging through his first holiday season after a divorce. His daughter, who’d had a tonsillectomy earlier in the week, was at home resting, and once he finished dinner, he’d head back there to keep her company and take care of her. I was confident he’d stay sober. He was confident the New Year would be great.

On the other side of me was a close friend who, though she’d relapsed at 3+ years of sobriety, had her butt in the chair that night even though she didn’t really want to be there. She knew that coming to the dinner and being one among many was insurance against any demons that might be lurking later that night. All around the room sat a host of friends whom I would not want to miss.

Back home that night, in the still silence of the remainder of 2012, I sat in my reading room and, once again, thought about all the faces that had once beamed but were now absent from my sponsor’s New Year’s Eve dinner party. I did the only thing I know how to do for the still suffering alcoholic who chooses not to seek help. I surrendered and I prayed. I prayed for X, knowing full well the demons were still close by and would likely be screeching when his head finally hit the pillow that night. I prayed for those who would quiet the demons and still their dance the same way I had quieted them back on New Year’s Eve 1997, with one drink after another until the last drink turned into darkness and a long night of unconscious distress.

Around 11 p.m., I realized I was pretty damn tired, that there were no pots and pans to bang, and that I wasn’t going to miss anything by missing midnight. So I gave thanks for the only peace I’d ever known and realized the only way I’d ever found it was to try and help others find it as well, and then I wrote …

“To turn in before the clock strikes 12, at peace with all of my demons and all of my foes, seems a promising start to the New Year. …”

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