Unfortunately, part of the path I chose comes with the understanding that not everyone will choose the same way. In the beginning, it seemed as if we all started strong. We had a purpose to achieve something. But the further we went from yesterday, the easier it was to forget who we were and where we came from. This is why the tell us to, “Keep it green.” keep it fresh.
The further we moved along the path, perhaps the memories became distant, and the more distant the memories became, the easier it was to forget what we went through, and after we forget where we came from, the easier it is to give in to temptation and slip right back to where it all began.
I admit that I was not ready. In my early stages, I was sent away with nothing around me to seem familiar. Everyone I knew lived hours from me and no on looked to contact me or see how I was doing. At the budding of my young adult life, I was sectioned away, or physically removed from my surroundings to better find a place where I could be reformed and rehabilitated.
I was amputated from a life, which was otherwise deadly—only the amputated section was me, and the life I had left was distant and dying. There was nowhere for me to run or hide. All I could do was rebel and fight back until I had nothing left to fight with.
The idea of being clean made little sense to me. I understood the extremes of addiction and drinking. I knew about the damage of excessiveness; however, I could not understand the concept of complete abstinence.
It was a surprise to me when I learned there was no drinking in Alcoholics Anonymous—at least, not in the actual meetings themselves. I had heard of A.A. meetings. I knew what an alcoholic was and I understood the definition of anonymous. But in my sickness and in my desire to remain sick; I thought Alcoholics Anonymous was a place where people, much like myself, who were dysfunctional in their lifestyle went to hide in the quiet of an unknown room.
I enjoyed the idea of sinking into a quiet—or maybe sad anonymity and finding me in a room filled without judgement. I assumed these meetings were somewhat bar-like. I imagined a mostly emptied room—no own around but us drunks—sitting at round wooden pub tables with black ashtrays, mostly filled with crushed cigarette butts, and matching wooden chairs at the tables with old men—maybe white haired or only graying, sitting in their silence with smoke lifting from the end of their cigarettes—a long ash dangling from the end of their smoke. I envisioned an emptied shot glass in front of them on the table. I envisioned everyone’s glass as empty with only the remnants of booze to wet the inside of the glass. Perhaps, the empty glass with the wet insides was a symbol of a drunken bottom, which each in the room could understand and relate to.
“This is where drunken men go,” I thought to myself.
I did not know people went to these meetings to stop drinking. I believed Alcoholics Anonymous is where people went to drink because they were not fit to drink in a normally functioning society.
Needless to say, I was disappointed at my first meeting. Perhaps my level of disappointment was equal to my previous enthusiasm that I had found someplace where I could subside into the beautiful word of anonymity and drink in a secret society. I assume my level of disappointment was equal to the surprise, which was shown to me by a man named Sal.
Sal walked me to the door of my first meeting. It was in a room called “The Fishbowl,” and there were no women in this meeting. All of the men were new, just like me. None of them looked as if they were in a good position to judge me and many of them, no different from me, dealt with more than one demon.
There were the obvious dope fiends with their slow manner of speaking and withdrawn features. Their junkie eyes seemed slightly removed or better—they seemed chemically detached, as if they were lost in the delicate cocoon, which only comes with long strings of heroin nods or in connection with ongoing visits to the methadone clinic.
And since drugs are illegal, I figured the dope junkies found their way to Alcoholics Anonymous to grab themselves a legal fix. I was told membership was free—and the word free in my mind meant that whatever the meeting rooms offered was free to take or share.
The Fishbowl was also crowded with twitchy speed freaks and crackheads. There were the cocaine junkies, and the fast talking, speedy-like eyes of street junkies. They street junkie is the worst kind of thief. These are the ones that could somehow slip through a crack in the wall and steal everything in the room. They sold anything and everything they could get their hands on. They were desperate, but yet, they were brilliant in their schemes, often conjuring fabulous lies to con innocent or unaware people from their money. I related most to this kind of junkie.
Else, there was the barroom drunk. The Fishbowl had its own section of men who remained loyal to their brands of scotch. There was a share of beer drinkers and only a few of the suave or the better postured wine drinkers. They came from fortunate backgrounds with high income homes and families that paid for everything.
I had nothing in common with them. I could not understand their world or their gifted society. I saw them as a mark and figured if ever I needed to scam anyone—these specific few—the socially gifted, untainted, and the untouched few would be the target of my scams.
Then there was the all out drunk. They drank anything they could to maintain their survival. They drank mouthwash and hairspray. In fact, days before my arrival at an upstate rehabilitation facility, someone was taken to the hospital after drinking two bottles of hairspray.
Items like these are usually taken away upon arrival; however, the bottles of hairspray went undetected, and since alcohol is a main ingredient, the patient decided to drink both bottles to cure an internal need. I was not this kind of drink, nor was I anywhere near that level. But I did admire the dedication.
Sal walked me to the door and said, “You’re in a good place. We can help you here,” and he placed his hand upon my shoulder as if to comfort me. At the time, I was in no need for comfort. I thought I was going to an A.A. meeting.
“So how does this work,” I asked.
“How does what work,” asked Sal.
“This A.A. thing. How does it work? Do I start right away or do I have to wait for like special privileges?”
Sal’s dark eyebrows folded downward with confusion. The left corner of his lip curled back against the side of his face and his spiky hairline seemed to move forward.
“Privileges for what,” he asked.
I remember Sal very well. He was the fitting description of a stereotypical Italian American in the time of the late 1980’s. Sal was wearing an A-frame, or “Wife-beater” tee shirt beneath a silky sweat jacket that matched his sweatpants. His sneakers were perfectly white and the gold rope chain around his neck dangled with a large, golden Italian horn, resting on his chest and nestling in a sea of black, curly chest hair.
Sal had an accent which would come from a resident of Brooklyn, New York. He smelled from a mixture of cologne and hair product. He was kind, however, and sober for many years. He was so dedicated to his sobriety that after finding his way, Sal educated himself and became a drug and alcohol counselor.
After asking about privileges, Sal responded to my question with a question of his own.
“What do you mean?”
“You know . . . privileges. I mean, how does this work? Do I start right away or do I have to wait before I can start drinking?”
Sal’s head slid back on his shoulders. The look of confusion fell one step further.
“There’s no more drinking,” he told me.
“But it’s A.A.” I responded.
Sal tilted his chin towards his shoulder. “Exactly,” he said.
“Right, so that’s what I’m asking you. When do I start? Am I allowed to drink right away? Do they have classes on this stuff, I mean how does it work? Do I have to wait a week before I get my drinking privileges?”
This is when Sal informed me, “There’s no drinking in A.A.”
Then he asked, “What did you think A.A. was?”
“I thought it stood for Alcoholics Anonymous.”
Sal confirmed, “It does stand for Alcoholics Anonymous.”
“I guess I thought this is where people come to drink—only, no one ever talks about it because it’s anonymous.”
Sal pushed me through the door and instructed me to sit down and listen. He said, “You’re in the right place,” and shook his head at me, laughing at the sincerity of my ignorance, but yet, understanding the level of my sickness.
I admit that I was not ready. I fought back and I argued. I complained and failed to comply. In dedication to my sickness, I refused to conform or walk the line, and had I the choice—I would have left. If given the choice, I would have returned home, or found some way to alter my mind and sink into what I would have rather; a quiet or somewhat sad anonymity of drinking at a table with an empty shot glass in front of me and smoke lifting from the end of my cigarette.
It is strange to me because of all those I met who were dedicated (like Sal) or worked so hard at staying sober—it is my sobriety that outlasted theirs. It was me who defied the odds and Sal who proved the statistics of relapse amongst alcoholics and drug addicts.
My turn of events came on a snowy day. It was Christmas Eve 1989, and I was heading from the town of Hancock to catch a bus in Monticello. I was heading home. I was not returning home to stay. I was returning to say goodbye to my father. Suddenly, I understood something about this thing we call life. I came to the understanding that tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone and that death is eventual and inevitable.
I was beaten and numb. Time moved at a different speed and it was all too surreal. When I received word that my father was not well, I hoped the bad news was something else. I hoped the bad news was from the courts telling me that my time of living on a farm at a treatment facility was about to change.
“Maybe they judge made a mistake,” I thought. And that would have been fine with me.
“Maybe they want to send me to jail.” And that too would have been fine.
I would have taken anything. I would have taken my sentence, which would have been one year, plus 90 days, instead of a remanded sentence to complete an in-patient drug treatment facility.
I would have taken anything—I would have taken even my own death. I just didn’t want anyone to take my father from me . . .
John was also a member of the farm. He was a counselor—but more to the point, John was my counselor. It was him who drove me to the bus station. He understood my silence on the way over. Before this, I was just another obnoxious kid. I was another arrogant new-comer to The Farm. I was hell-bent against the system, belligerent, and disrespectful. I complained at barn crew. I bitched while I worked in the kitchen or during the ongoing cleaning details that came with living in a farmhouse.
John had disciplined me before, and because he did, I saw him as an enemy. He was on “Their side,” in my eyes. However, while he drove me to the bus station, he was a friend. He was not a senior member on The Farm or a counselor. He was concerned.
What I remember most about this day was the arrival at the bus station. John helped get my ticket and I excused myself to the bathroom. Inside, I did a quick version of my usual bathroom thing. I finished and washed my hands, but while washing my hands at the sinks in front of a large mirror, I heard the sound of an elderly man. He was crying out from the handicapped bathroom stall.
“Help,” he cried out. “
”Somebody help me,” he shouted.
“I made a mess.”
I could see the silvery legs to his walker beneath the blue, partitions for the stalls. His helpless voice cried out and echoed in the large, bus station bathroom.
“Somebody help me,” he cried out.
“Are you okay, sir,” I asked.
“I made a mess,” said the elderly man, “and there’s no toilet paper or paper towel in here.”
I felt the need to help on that day more than I ever felt the need to help anyone on any day throughout my life. I ran to get a pile of paper towels from the paper towel dispenser near the sink. I ran to another stall to fetch toilet paper. And sure enough, as I opened the door to the handicapped stall, there was the frail old man. He had soiled his underpants. I was not moved by the smell of the sight. It was more important to me that I help.
Outside, an elderly woman screamed through the door to rush her husband.
“The bus is about to leave!” she screamed through the door,
“I made a mess,” shouted the helpless old man.
“Hurry up, she screamed.
“The bus we’re going to miss the bus!”
“I made a mess,” he screamed. “Oh, please somebody help me.”
John came in to check on me. He arrived and saw that I was helping the man in the bathroom stall. Quickly, he ran outside and informed the bus depot of the situation, which also delayed the bus’s departure, and I was able to help an old man clean himself.
I helped because in some way—I felt as if I was giving back. I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I helped that old man, maybe I could buy back a piece of redemption and earn another moment with my father before he made his exit.
Mostly, I helped because it was painful to hear that elderly man shouting from inside the stall. It hurt me because, for the first time, I understood what it felt like to be truly helpless.
Same as the elderly man could not control his handicaps, I could not control the fact that my father was about to die. This above all was my moment of clarity.
“We gotta get going,” John told me.
He walked me out to the bus and said, “It’s gonna be alright.”
And then he hugged me.
He hugged me the way a father would hold his son or an older brother would hold his younger.
I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to stay in that hug for as long as I could. I wanted to hide inside John’s arms and cry. I didn’t want to be tough anymore. I just wanted to cry.
“We’ll be here when you get back,” John said.
Had it not been for this day—I don’t know that I would have ever given in. Had it not been for the elderly man I witnessed or the love that was shown to me—I might not have decided to change. And had it not been for the death of my father, or had The Old Man not seen me sober before dying and say “You look good, kid,” I might have fallen backwards like so many others before me.
This was truly my rebirth. This is where I made the decision to remain sober, but along the way, many of those who I thought would stay sober with me, fell, and went back to their life of addiction. Even some of my counselors and people who I depended and trusted fell back. Not everyone makes it. I get that.
Then again, not everyone knew my friend John.
Last week, he celebrated 29 years of sobriety.
And 25 years ago, that man saved my life.