May 27, 2022
5 mins read
I meet E. in 2011. A highly intelligent young man, he was at one time gainfully employed but by the time we become acquainted he's reduced to jobless couch-surfing.
E. is polite and well-mannered. But he is also depressed, angry, private, and resentful. He'd called me, drunk, when I was just days sober and clinging to that life. Writing this now I can say this was so so long ago, long before I knew that about ten percent of alcoholics get recovery.
Back when I thought people would get sober and stay sober. Most don't.
Before I knew how common relapse was. Before I knew how many people could die pretty quick instead of kinda slow (average age of alcoholics, fifty-four). Because you know, I come from that whole, “kinda slow” crowd. Long lives of denial, decades of pre-cognition while still drinking - and ugly, ugly alcoholic behavior, a pattern of sameness. Dying without getting sober, but at least dying a little later in life.
I’d spent late 2011 and early 2012 being as kind as I could to E., giving him rides to places now and then, but mostly just the odd conversation or hug. He didn’t seem particularly interested in my friendship, and I respected that. And you know, in 2011 I thought he was at the end of his rope, and ready to admit defeat, ready to get sober. I was wrong. Because in those months I watched him deteriorate in a way I couldn’t have guessed at. A nasty customer, soon coming to meetings drunk and angry, quick to tell us all how we were living our lives wrong. Sliding up to me on the bench outside while I smoked a cigarette and making inappropriate advances. Just ugly shit. I'd get up from the bench and go sit inside, where it was safe. Rattled, and disturbed.
Summer of 2012 he calls while I’m on the way somewhere, I'm on errands. He asks for gas money to pool with a buddy so he can go to a new town and work. This request is kind of surprising but I figure maybe he’s taking advice, asking for help before succumbing to the drink.
Now this isn’t the kind of help I give everyone, but I have a nice little series of simple guidelines to go by. My first sponsor told me: don’t rob yourself, don’t rob your family, and if you can: give help when asked. Whatever happens after is none of my business. I tell E. I’ll check in with my husband and I’ll call him after my appointment. E. tells me he’s going to pay me back. I laugh (with kindness) and tell him to pay it forward. I think of how many people I’ve seen doing just that.
After I pick up some cash from Ralph I have a few minutes to think about it and I realize E. is probably drunk. A while later I meet him, with a “friend” up at the park. They’re ostensibly playing frisbee, but they’re really just waiting for money. I can tell they’re fucked up.
E.’s walk to my car is that of a doomed man. He doesn’t want to walk to my car and take money and put it in a bottle or smoke it or snort it or whatever, but he has no choice. I know this. I get it. He gets to my car door.
Now a few minutes before I’d been unhappy about meeting E. and a friend alone, even though we’re in a public place. I know he’s capable of assault while drinking. Even if I’ve shown nothing but kindness to him I am not immune.
But when I see him up close every thought for my safety flies out my mind. He's not going to make trouble. His cheeks are flushed but his whole body is too. I have never seen so much shame suffused in someone’s face. He takes the cash and he pauses and the kind of crying I’m seeing is like nothing I’ve been this close-up to. He looks at me and we look in one another’s eyes. I say, “Good luck.” Then, “take care.”
And I drive off.
I never saw E. again.
Later that day the kids and I take the car to get the brakes fixed. I hadn’t planned on dropping the vehicle off, but the pads finally arrived and they wanted to do the work today. I hadn’t planned, this means I hadn’t set up a ride home. The kids and I walk the two miles back. I feel okay about not bumming bus fare from their piggybanks, as they’re perfectly happy to walk.
It’s nice for me too.
Sumner Avenue is a drag to walk along, only because the highway traffic is loud and there are no significant trees to muffle the noise. The three of us pass overgrown lawns and step over mossy cracked sidewalks and my sons talk to me and I listen to them, they are a meditation of joy and life, a vibrant tide like the sea itself. Finally the riverbank, scotchbroom and dandelion and poppy and vetch. We see a harbor seal in the river, delighting the children. They take turns holding my hand and they put their arms around me. They’re so tall now I only have to bend a little to smell the sunshine in their hair.
Nels says, “When I get older I want my mom to buy me a housssse… with a million kitties and a baby alligator, and they all stay in different rooms and no one trespasses. And a bunch of trained wasps. And a WOLF!”
Thank you most especially to my Recovery community because you get it when most people don't. And thank you to my family because it isn't true what we say, it isn't true that we have to get clean for our own reasons. Without you three I don't know that I would have found a reason because I felt so low about myself. I'd like to think I'd have dug deep to save my own life, but we'll never know. You were worth the effort and you gave me enough to cling to until I could really, really choose myself.