In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I wake up at 8:50 A.M. and whip around the house frantically, not wanting to be late for my women’s Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: feed the cat, grab my knitting, splash water on my face, pour some half-perked coffee, and speed into town.
I am late, and the only parking place left in the church lot is handicapped. It occurs to me that I might park there, because I do, after all, have a handicap, or I wouldn’t be here. And I’d be using the space to attend a meeting that, I’m told, is the only cure for my malady. But, being a good citizen, I park down the street and dash to the church.
I’ve missed the introduction of the speaker, which is no problem, because I know her from past meetings. She has perfectly permed dark brown hair framing a thin, elfin face and is cute down to her corpuscles. “Jennifer,” let’s call her, is relating her recent drama: Last week she was at lunch with several high-powered attorneys and found that many of the menu items were cooked in wine, or flavored with beer, or soaked in a marinade that contained sherry. Clearly she could not choose these: though the alcohol had been cooked off in the preparation, the flavor of alcohol, even the few molecules left after cooking, could cause her to relapse. To add to her dilemma, she has developed a more subtle symptom of her disease: food phobias. She is afraid that any food she has never eaten — and even some foods she has eaten, but not in certain combinations — could put her into anaphylactic shock. The dishes with no alcohol all had ingredients she wasn’t quite sure of, like cilantro. Had she ever had cilantro? Better to avoid it lest she end up under the table choking on her tongue. After much deliberation she was able to order a chicken fillet cooked in a little butter, with broccoli on the side.
The AA members are wildly diverted by her story and chuckle merrily as she tells it. They understand her fears, because they’re alcoholics too! They all have these funny neuroses that are the remnants of their disease. And even when you’ve been sober for twenty years, your disease is still there. While you are at a meeting, it is outside doing push-ups. It’s like a phantom mugger, hanging back, ready to clobber you the minute you let your guard down.
Jennifer reads a few passages from the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book that saved her during this perilous lunch. The passages say that alcoholics often feel uncomfortable in the world. They obsess about unimportant things. They have groundless fears and are uneasy in social situations. They feel self-conscious, alienated, sad, nervous. They think too much. They think that thinking can save them from pain, whereas actually it is thinking that gets them in trouble. What you must do is surrender to your Higher Power and let him or her do the thinking. Jennifer says she finally realized that all of her fears about food were really a symptom of her disease, and that if she surrendered to God, she would be OK.
The audience claps enthusiastically.
I worked as a psychiatric nurse for years, and I think it’s entirely possible that Jennifer isn’t an alcoholic at all but suffers from some kind of depression overlaid with an anxiety disorder. I know from past meetings that she got sober twenty years ago, at the age of sixteen, having barely drunk enough in her life to float a goldfish. I think she comes to AA because she wants to be part of a group, to dramatize her life, to have an audience.
While the others relate to Jennifer’s story and talk about how the twelve steps of AA are the answer, I knit furiously and keep my thoughts to myself, because I’m not sure they are the right thoughts. I want to point out that the people in this group are pathologizing urges and feelings that are not solely the bailiwick of alcoholics. It’s not reasonable to ascribe every negative feeling or experience in one’s life to a desire to drink. And the fact that you’re helped by going to meetings or working the steps is not proof that you are an alcoholic, because anyone can benefit from imposing a comforting framework or philosophy on life. Throughout history people have gathered together in groups and convinced one another that they have found the answer to the human dilemma, and history has shown them all to be wrong.
Today Jennifer gives out the chips, which remind me of the gold stars handed out in kindergarten. One gets a chip for certain lengths of sobriety: one day, three months, six months, and so on. I don’t bother with chips anymore. I have enough twenty-four-hour chips to start a casino.
I came of age in the late sixties, a member of a counter-culture family, so it was natural that I should partake of the smorgasbord of drugs available to me. I began using at the age of thirteen, and by the time I was sixteen, I was drinking and smoking pot every weekend. I had also taken my fair share of LSD and dabbled in mushrooms and mescaline. I might have outgrown this spate of experimentation if not for my family’s rampant dysfunction and my mother’s death from cancer, which together caused me to seek relief in altered states. I had a high tolerance for alcohol and never had bad trips, so I was able to get wasted on the weekends and still do well in school. I earned a scholarship to Middlebury College and continued the pattern there.
When I graduated from college in 1977, my career prospects were grim. The country was in a recession, and there was not an abundance of jobs for people with a BA in literature who wanted to write. So I decided to go back to school and become a nurse. This delayed the progression of my alcoholism for a decade — first because I was so busy with my schoolwork, and then because working as a nurse gave me a new way of looking at the world and myself. In my white uniform with my hair pulled back in a ponytail, I felt competent, important, skillful, and grounded. I still privately thought of myself as a writer, but when people asked me what I was, I said, “A nurse,” with a degree of satisfaction. Nursing gave me financial security and geographic mobility. It also nourished my writing, because it was my entree into a world bursting with drama: accidents, births, illnesses, deaths. I married another nurse. He and I had a child and bought a home. It wasn’t till I had everything that my relationship with alcohol began anew.
I started sneaking drinks from hidden bottles of wine and vodka and displaying the morose, erratic behavior characteristic of alcoholics. Aware of the success of AA in treating alcoholism, I began going to meetings and managed to stay sober for six months. I might actually have succeeded in my recovery had I not met a woman at those meetings who was a pill addict and introduced me to the miracle of opiates.
I had never before found anything that so completely eased my mental pain. Opiates did not make me nod off, as they do most people, but instead energized me and gave me long hours of productivity: one Percocet could keep me high all night. When my friend’s supply of pills ran out, I moved on to heroin. At first I just snorted it, but then the man who sold it to me taught me how to shoot it into my arm. For the next fifteen years I stole any opiate I could get my hands on. No medicine cabinet was safe from my depredations. I even stole drugs from my brother when he was dying of cancer. During these years I overdosed three times and went to rehab three times. After each crisis I would stay clean for a few months and then relapse. I divorced my first husband, remarried, and managed to keep my job and my nursing license thanks only to the invention of Suboxone, a drug similar to methadone but with fewer side effects.
Though Suboxone brought some semblance of order back to my life, I was still drinking, and my alcoholism gradually progressed to the point where I awoke every morning filled with an intense, free-floating anxiety that could be relieved only by a full glass of wine or a shot of vodka. I walked to my sister’s house for the drink and threw it back as quickly as possible. Since I worked evenings, I would then go home and shower and go to yoga. A few hours later I would have another “dose” of alcohol. (I thought of it as medicine.) On workdays I would not drink anymore, but on my days off I would drink straight through to bedtime, pacing myself so that I never appeared drunk.
In desperation I stole a bottle of clonazepam (a relative of Valium) from the closet behind the nurses’ desk at the hospital, in hopes that if I took a couple every morning, they would enable me to stop drinking. When one or two pills didn’t work, I took a handful. I knew there was a possibility I would die, but I didn’t care. I was sick of living as an addict. After I took the pills, I made a bed in the hayloft in my barn and lay down in it. I ate a coconut popsicle because my mouth was dry. Then I climbed down out of the loft (somehow managing not to fall off the ladder), called my sister in Pennsylvania, and told her I had overdosed.
I remember brief snippets of an EMT trying futilely to keep me awake. I remember I had on some lovely hammered-brass earrings, which they removed so my lobes would not be torn in a struggle. I never got the earrings back. They belonged to my daughter.
In the emergency room the doctors jammed a tube down my esophagus so they could pump my stomach. (For days afterward I felt a stabbing pain whenever I swallowed.) Then they made me drink charcoal. My aunt and my daughter came and sat by my stretcher while I dozed and farted and snored. I remember waking once and walking to the bathroom, where I barely recognized the wan woman in the mirror with the wild hair and the charcoal mustache.
Doctors came in and out of my room, and I penitently agreed to anything they asked of me. It was decided that I would travel by ambulance to a rehab facility sixty miles away. I shambled out to the vehicle and stood briefly in the warm air of a clear June evening, dimly aware that I had ruined my life, though the amount of tranquilizer still in my bloodstream enabled me to view everything with equanimity. The ambulance attendant helped me into the back and strapped me onto a stretcher, which was horribly hard and narrow. I anticipated an uncomfortable ride, but soon after lying down I fell asleep, and I woke only as the ambulance was turning into the driveway of the rehab center.
The next morning, lying on my lumpy, plastic-covered mattress in rehab, I was filled with the terrible, burning remorse familiar to all addicts.
Memory of this moment has kept me sober for six months. This may not seem like much to some, but it is a long time for me. I go to AA to remind myself of that horrible day in June, which is already fading in memory. I go because if I don’t become sober, I will forever be mired in shame and failure.
After the chips have been handed out, we gather in a circle and recite the Lord’s Prayer. When the amen has been said, we squeeze each other’s hands and say, “Keep coming back. It works if you work it, and work it, because you’re worth it.” I always hate this part; it sounds like some silly cheer or advertising slogan. Then people hug one another with great emotion. I approach the woman who is supposed to be my sponsor, but she gives me the cold shoulder, probably because I haven’t been calling her every day like I’m supposed to. I know that if I could throw myself wholeheartedly into the group, I would have more success, but I am cynical and proud and stubborn. I’m told these are symptoms of alcoholism.
I skulk out to my car and drive to pick up my mail and find a letter from the editors of the Massachusetts Review, rejecting a story I sent them. I feel bad and try to remember that I should turn all this over to my Higher Power, because he/she/it has it all under control, and in the end everything will work out, and I will have a life “beyond my wildest dreams,” as they say in AA. Then I think I’d feel better if I had just one shot of vodka.
Next I go to Ladies Workout Express, because on top of having this disease, I’ve gained weight and developed high blood pressure. My cholesterol isn’t too hot either, and my body-mass index is just short of “fat hog.” I am taking something like eight pills a day, for depression and various other afflictions. Because I have lost my job as a nurse, I have no medical insurance and have to pay out of pocket for my colorful array of pharmaceuticals. This has caused my savings to disappear with startling rapidity, so I am working part time for my sister, who owns a small bakery, and part time at an agency that provides assistance for abusive parents who are court-ordered to have supervised visits with their children. My sister pays fourteen dollars an hour, and the agency pays ten dollars an hour; it has been many years since I worked for anything less than twenty-five dollars an hour. I have gone over and over the numbers, trying to make them work, but they don’t. I take strange comfort in the fact that there are many others like me. America has become a country of the rich and the almost poor.
At the gym I grind away on the elliptical machine with my eyes closed and try out various mantras to make the time pass faster. I try Sober, sober, sober. I try Life, life, life. I try God, God, God. When I feel that perhaps fifteen minutes have passed, I look at the readout on the machine, which says I have been going for five minutes. Clearly the mantras aren’t working. So I go back to thinking, my favorite pastime.
At meetings I am always surprised by how people ascribe the most humdrum events in their lives to God. Of course, the great dramas and mysteries are ascribed to God as well. God is an equal-opportunity creator, author of both the magnificent and the mundane. Every other time I have tried AA, I finally stopped going because I do not believe in God. The only evidence I see of God is some people’s strong belief that there is one, and that isn’t enough for me. I believe I have stayed sober for six months because I have finally understood that my life will be more satisfactory if I don’t drink. It has become that simple. I do not credit a Higher Power. My Higher Power feels like a cloudy sky with one Canada goose flying south in autumn.
The closest I’ve come to God is walking to my sister’s house to deliver a bag of beets I have grown in my garden. She lives close to me on the bank of the Connecticut River, and there is a dirt road that runs behind our houses next to the railroad track, so that our homes are sandwiched between river and road and rail. The river was the earliest form of transportation in the region. The dirt road came next, and then the railroad track. As I walk, I feel immersed in history, imagining Native Americans in canoes on the river, farmers riding in rude carts along the road, steam locomotives puffing down the track. Digging in my garden, I come upon nugget after nugget of porous, fire-darkened rock, which I believe are the slag shoveled from the steam engines and dumped beside the tracks. They are black and depleted, the opposite of my rich, purple, juicy, nutritious beets.
I can smell the vegetation along the road on either side, and I look up at the branches of the trees that arch overhead and the old telephone poles with the brown glass insulators. Crows argue, and my cat follows me nervously, keeping to the high grass at the edge.
My sister likes beets. She boils them and pickles them and then slices them into salads. I do not like beets as much as she does, but I inevitably plant a row in my garden, simply because they are a worthy root, full of goodness and easy to grow in this northern climate. They are beautiful too, a royal magenta through and through. They last a long time if you put them in a bag with the dirt still clinging to them and set the bag in a cool place.
And suddenly I am simply nothing but a human being, walking on a dirt track and carrying a bag of beets, looking up at the sky and enjoying the smell of the fall air. I feel like a child again, awed by the simple fact of my existence. It is almost like being high, but more precious for the fact that it comes from the workings of my own body and soul. I allow myself to entertain the concept that God does exist. I think that if God is like a colossal computer who knows everything that has happened in the world, then with his giant Google of a mind he might do a search to see how many times this has occurred in the history of the planet: “woman walking in autumn with a bag of beets.” I feel connected to every human who has sniffed the fragrant air and walked the steady earth.
I read with interest Lois Judson’s essay on her chemical addiction [“The Closest I’ve Come to God,” August 2009]. I have been involved in healthcare for more than thirty years and am currently a psychiatric nurse, as Judson was until recently. Our profession can ill-afford to have its members stealing narcotics and overdosing the way she did. It saddens me to see otherwise good and decent human beings succumb to what I view as a genetically influenced disease.
It seems people need to reach their own personal low before they decide to change. Many in Judson’s situation become mired in self-pity and a victim mentality. I am heartened that she is taking charge of her life by working, exercising, and writing.
No thinking individual can accept God based on somebody else’s assertions or dogma. Each of us needs to discover God in his or her own way. Judson seems to be doing that, and my heart goes out to her.