Last week I was at an A.A. meeting where several people spoke very powerfully about the addicts they had met who had not made it. The men and women, young and old, who had succumbed to the disease of addiction. People shared about friends and acquaintances from A.A. who had tasted the nectar, this grace that A.A. blesses us with, but decided, incomprehensibly, to test their luck once again in the insane but intoxicating shadowy realm of drugs and alcohol. I shared about my friend Jen who I met at my A.A. home group. A home group is a meeting that you attend on a regular basis. You’re considered a "member"of the group. A regular. It feels very much like the neighborhood bar in that old T.V. series Cheers. My home group feels like the theme song from that show, a place "where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came". (Well, at least they know my name, that's something.)
So there is safety in a home group. A sense of peace and welcome and being a part of. Things that I was always searching for before I joined A.A. In A.A. we "come as we are" and I especially feel that in my home group. If "as I am" means with greasy hair, in peanut butter and pizza-stained jammies and slippers, then so be it. I know I will not be judged. And if I am, I really don't care. That is how comfortable I have felt in my home groups over the years. We can change our home group too. When I moved out of Manhattan the first thing on my to-do list was to buy a generator (as I had been forewarmed about the frequent weather-related power outages in my new ‘hood). The second was to look for a new home group. There is a flexibility in A.A., a freedom, a real sense of non-judgement which is gorgeous to sit in, if even for one hour a day.
When I first met Jen she was making the 30 minute-plus drive to attend meetings in my town, as "God forbid” she should go to meetings in hers and be seen. I get that. A lot of people do that at the beginning of their sober journey. The fear of being "found out" is strong, so why not see what sobriety is all about in a room where no one will recognize you? In early sobriety I would do the same thing, find meetings where I could be sure to be completely anonymous. I was ashamed of myself and my disease during my first few sober months. I didn't want anyone else knowing my horrible shameful secret. I was desperate to, but could not, on my own, stop drinking alcohol.
Jen and I had a lot in common and became friends. We both had 3 children all about the same ages, and we would talk about how our love for them might help to keep us sober if the fellowship of A.A. and our Higher Power alone was not enough. "Just think about the pain in your children's eyes if you were to drink again" I reminded her. We both had careers that kept us very busy and required a lot of travel. We would discuss the pros and cons of being a working and traveling sober mom. We bonded over what our “successful” lives looked like on the surface and the deep internal daily work that we both had to do to keep our demons at bay. Demons that cunningly speak to us in our own voice.
I remember like it was yesterday chatting with Jen at a mutual friend’s house. We were at a lovely home celebrating the sober anniversary of one of our A.A. friends. I think it was a big one, 10 years, or maybe 15 years without a drink. The gathering was beautiful, joyful, full of optimism and hope. Jen and I were standing in the kitchen, drinking coffee and laughing about the insanity of our lives in active addiction. Jen had about 90 days sober (which is a huge accomplishment) and was asking me what I thought would happen if I were to drink again. And if I were to drink again where and what would it be? I see now that this was a dangerous conversation to even be having. But sometimes I do discuss with my A.A. comrades what drinking again would look like for us.
I told Jen that if I drank again it would look something like this. I would be alone with a bottle of vodka on ice (with several more waiting to go into the ice once I had finished one) on a low floor of a hotel in Miami gazing at the ocean. She asked "why the low floor" and I told her that there is always the possibility, if drunk and on a high floor, that I might throw myself out the window to my death. At the end of my drinking career it was unclear how the ingestion of alcohol would affect me. That was part of the problem. I could sometimes still get relaxed and numb with some booze in my belly but more often than not, in those last drinking days, I would get angry and self-destructive. Maudlin and dark. Self-pitying and resentful. I surmised that if I were to drink again it would be awful enough but that I would surely make it back to the rooms. Even if I were to jump out of a second story window, in some dramatic drunken gesture "Goodbye Cruel World", I would most likely just break my legs. Then I would be rescued by some Good Samaritan and sent off to a rehab. There I would begin my sober journey all over again. From day one. We agreed, laughing, that me drinking again would not be as glamorous or as much "fun" as people might think.
Then Jen said to me "mine would be ice cold beer. On a hot day. Just endless ice cold beers, out of frosty long-necked bottles." She would also be alone. Me and my vodka, her and her endless beers, alone. No one to bother us or get in the way of the hot re-kindled romance with our long-lost love, booze.
Then I snapped us back into reality. I had not had a drink for ages and I realized that romancing a drink with a newcomer was not a good idea. "But look" I said to Jen. “We don't ever "need" to drink again. Here we are sober. And happy. And being good moms and good co-workers and good wives. There is no reason for us to go back to that hell. None at all."
Jen looked at me straight in the eye, suddenly very serious, and made a confession. "If I drink again," she said "I will die. I'm sure of that." And then she smiled. "No, NO," I said. "No you wouldn't. You have us now, you have the program. There's no reason to drink again. There's nothing left there for you. Only despair. And if you did drink again, for whatever reason, you would come back to the rooms. I know it. You would come back to the rooms" I assured her. "We both would."
"Well I’m not so sure." she said. “There are no guarantees in this life.”And with that we dropped that conversation and started up on another topic, work or kids or sports or movies. Something innocuous, lighter, less terrifying.
I sort of forgot about Jen for a few months. She was smart, savvy, driven, and she REALLY wanted to get sober. For herself, but also for her three sons who were all teenagers. Boys who needed their mom now more than ever. They needed her to help them navigate the churning waters of high school life, the college process, the sports teams and the "girl" problems.
I figured that Jen was fine, going to the meetings she had found in her own town and living her best sober life. Then, about 4 or 5 months after my last conversation with her, I got a phone call. Jen was dead. She had started drinking again. And she had died. Just like she told me she would. Her teenaged son found her dead, in her stunning home, in her comfortable bed, in a fancy-pants suburb of Manhattan. I was told that she choked on her own vomit while high on booze and pills.
It seems surreal to think about now. I went to the funeral with some of the other women from my home group who had also known Jen. The church was packed, eerily silent, all of us quietly horrified by this woman's death. Confused and infuriated by her decision to pick up a drink, once again.
The usual prayers were said, the life-cut-short eulogy, the tearful remembrances. And then her eldest son, who she had told me, full of a mother's pride, was quite talented in both sports and music went up to the pulpit to play guitar and sing a song that he had written for his mother. With the first few chords from his acoustic guitar all of us standing together in the back of the church started to weep. I was expecting something lovely but I was not prepared for the clear angelic quality of this young man’s voice or for the mature mastery of his guitar playing.
The song was beautiful. Heartbreaking. I was crying so I couldn’t catch all of the words but I do remember the theme of the song. It was about how he knew that this might happen. How he had always sensed this was coming. That he knew that eventually she would break yet another promise to him. To her three boys. A promise to stay sober. A promise to get her shit together. I sensed that a lot of the people in the church were furious at Jen that day. I was too, especially once I saw her three wonderful young men sitting there with their father in the front row of the church, heads bowed.
I'm not mad at Jen anymore. I can't be. I'm mad at the disease of addiction. Jen had the same disease that I have. That millions of us around the world have. And this disease, if left untreated, more often than not is fatal.
Jen taught me a lesson that I will never forget and that hopefully will help keep me, at least for today, from picking up that first drink.
I felt confident when I told Jen that if I drank again I would be fine, albeit banged up. I would drink to black out and maybe/maybe not jump out of a window. But I would make it back to A.A. eventually. "You would too" I assured her.
"Don't be so sure about that" she told me. "Remember that there are no guarantees in this life."
She was right.