There is a beautiful nature and meaning behind the words, “True friends.” No matter how far back the paths go, no matter how far apart we are, no matter how long ago we spoke and no matter what concept or direction in life we choose; there are no friends like old friends.
Billy was an old friend. We knew each other from the meetings over by 31st Street. He was older than me by close to a decade and he lived a previously hard life during a hard time in a previously hard family. Billy’s Irish heritage was obvious in his appearance. He was black-haired as midnight, blue-eyed as cold steel, and pale skinned with a few scars on his face and slight patchy stubble that grew from an otherwise hairless face. It was clear at first glance that Billy was once a knock-around guy. He spoke with a raspy, somewhat high-pitched voice, as if to sound as to have smoked no less than two packs a day.
Mostly a drinker and only an occasional drug user, beer was his thing and cocaine wasn’t too far behind. Billy was wild, somewhat short, but quick to swing fists with anybody of any size. Although Billy had calmed over the years and even though his life was different as a husband, father, and a homeowner, it never took much to send Billy over the edge.
Born from an Irish Catholic family, Billy was one of seven children. He never spoke much about his brothers or sisters. He never said much about his father, a hardened, fast-mouthed, quick to fight Irishmen and the first of an American born generation. All else in Billy’s family was Irishmen bred and Irishman proud.
Billy took little time for school and spent more time out in the streets of quiet suburban town in Long Island, drinking on corners and popular spots in his neighborhood, causing havoc with his crew of drunken teenagers, and of course, Billy fought with anyone and everyone to show his anger through a display of tough physical violence.
Billy would say, “I never had a chance as a kid,”
“My entire family had the bug,” Billy explained. And by this Billy meant the drinking bug, or the alcoholic gene.
“We all drank and we drank proudly.”
Billy was a good man. He would often regard a friend of ours in conversation. This was another Long Island based man who shared a similar past as us. This man drank and drank with the best of them. He too had the gene and Billy would say, “Man, it would have been fun to run around with him back in the day.”
Although anonymity prevents me from mentioning names or any further description, Billy and I would laugh about our friend who removed the back seats of his Chevy Nova so that he could put a keg in the trunk and pipe beer up to a dispenser next to the driver’s seat, which of course, came in handy when drinking and driving.
Billy was smart, hard, and funny. He made no mistake about whom he was and where he belonged. He was also the first person I had ever seen physically straighten out another man in a 12-step recovery room for hitting on young girls that were fresh from the pain and new to sobriety.
The story was true and painfully simple. Using a terminology from the 12-step world, Billy used the nickname, “Pigeons” for the new girls that came into the meetings.
In an effort to stop another situation, Billy walked up quickly and moved without any hesitation. He approached a man, pushing him into the wall and invited this man to listen to a suggestion.
Billy told about a new girl that was coming around the rooms. She was a young girl, pretty, but in pain and unsure of herself. It seemed one of the members in the group took a liking to the young girl and offered to be a friend to her. Unfortunately, the man was married with a lengthy time in sobriety. The girl was fresh from the drink and when she learned this man was only using her, she slipped back to her old ways, picking up a drink and then dying in a car crash later that evening.
“Don’t be that guy,” Billy explained while releasing his hand from the other man’s neck and asked, “Understand?”
Sheepish and submissively, the man answered, “I understand,” and walked away with his balls removed by Billy.
Not long after, I heard that man went back to drinking.
You asked me, “What happened?”
It would be dishonest of me to say there were no signs of my upcoming downfall. My relapse came in stages and above any lesson; I know this one to be true. Every step I take either puts me one step closer to becoming healthy or it takes me one step further away.
I knew something was coming towards me. I knew because listening to my old thoughts was as comfortable as putting on an old familiar shirt. There was no surprise in my collapse and my relapse was certainly not an accident.
It was a decision.
I have heard relapse and say, “I slipped.”
But a slip is an unintentional action.
As for me, my actions were intentional. I did not accidentally slip on the floor and end up driving around in a minivan with stolen equipment. It was not by chance that I found myself on Rockaway Parkway, and no, I did not find a glass pipe accidentally planted in my mouth.
The truth is I knew something was going to happen. It was only a matter of time before I gave in. I knew something was about to happen because I began to forfeit my discipline. I forgave my laziness, and I overlooked the warning signs.
So in fact, my relapse began far before the night I picked up . . .
It is said the devil knows us better than we know ourselves, which is why his temptation is extraordinary. My addiction is no different. My addiction, in a sense, is its own person. My addiction has its own voice and its own opinion.
What my addiction lacks in physical body is easily made up in mental strength.
Some call it, “The monkey on my back.”
Some call it, “The devil on my shoulder.”
I call my addiction, “The beast” and my beast can be as pretty as the sunset or as evil as the darkest room in the darkest house.
What happened is I gave in.
But this was no surprise.
I have spoken with others, who like me, have lost their sobriety to bad decisions. Many times, I have heard people say, “I don’t know how it happened.”
But this is not true.
It begins with excuses. And then the beast replies “See? I told you so.” Next, the feelings change and so does the dedication.
This is when the beast is strongest. “Who cares? Let’s just go,” he says. Then the beast exposes doubt. He exploits insecurity, and he questions everything. The inner monologue changes and the beast begins to take shape. My beast spoke so well that it was hard to differentiate his voice with my own better judgment.
When he finally pulled off his trick, I found myself traveling through the streets of Brooklyn with white burn marks on my lips from smoking a glass pipe. My jaw was clenched tight and grinding back and forth.
White powder rushed through my blood, and it was as though I never stopped. All that I had worked for, all the trust I had earned, and all the work I had done was destroyed.
But, a slip?
A slip would imply my trip into Brooklyn was an accident.
A slip would imply that I was not responsible for my string of poor choices.
I didn’t slip.
I gave in . . .
Tommy walked down the stairs at the 34th Street entrance to Penn Station. He was wearing a long black coat with a gray t-shirt tucked into a pair of bleach-stained paints and there was a pair of old Converse sneakers on his feet.
His long reddish-brown hair dangled beneath a black hat and swayed over the back of his ears. His hair was almost straw-like, and far from the young strands they used to be. His face had aged and his eyes fell inward with dark rings beneath them.
Years of methadone had taken Tommy away and all that remained was a tall thin man with a slowed voice and an even slower reaction to the life as we know it.
“It’s not like you to stare,” he said to me
“It’s been a long time,” I answered.
“I almost didn’t recognize you.”
Tommy was never beautiful, but he had character. He was charismatic and his sense of humor was enough to earn him attention.
His first real girlfriend left him during his cocaine phase. The second left when she found needle marks in Tommy’s arm and Tommy’s third long-term girlfriend lost her battle to an overdose.
“You look good.” Tommy said.
He grabbed my arm. “You finally put on some weight.”
“You were the skinniest kid I ever met,” he told me.
“You were skinny even for a crack-head.”
“But look at you now,” he bragged.
“I remember when you were this scrawny little kid, running around the city with a nickel-plated.357 in your coat, and trying to act tough.”
“You still sober,” he asked.
“You’re a good kid, Ben Kimmel. I always knew you were a good kid.”
That was the last time I saw Tommy.
We knew each other between the times of innocence and consequences. The only thing that separated us was the steps we chose to take.
Tommy was sober once. When I asked him what happened, Tommy shrugged his shoulders and curled the left corner of his upper lip.
“I slipped,” he said.
As if it was an accident.
I knew Kenny before my arrest. He was much older than me and he had been in the game longer than I had been alive. He was a well-trained mechanic, which was why my father liked Kenny and forgave some of his sins.
I had never seen The Old Man so generous with someone like Kenny. The Old Man knew about Kenny’s past. He knew that Kenny struggled with addiction, but yet, The Old Man had a soft spot for him.
At the time, my hair was long. Kenny liked that. I was in the early stages of my addiction but to someone like Kenny, —I was nothing more than a punk kid looking to earn my wings.
Kenny slipped up one morning. He found himself on the wrong end of a needle and never showed up for work. But the following day, Kenny arrived with his cap in his hand. He apologized to The Old Man and explained what happened.
Kenny told The Old Man, “I slipped.”
My father listened, and at the time, I was envious of Kenny. The Old Man never took the time to listen to my excuses. But he listened to Kenny’s.
Kenny was thin. His head was slightly balding on top, but the scraggly black hair on the sides and back were shoulder-length and curly. He wore a beard and he had blue eyes. To the Old Man, Kenny was one of the best mechanics (when he was clean). But when the heroin spoke, Kenny listened, and The Old Man eventually let him go.
Kenny understood this. I know he did because he told me so.
After my arrest, and months into my term at treatment, I received a letter from my mother. She began with the usual opening. Then she explained, “I received a letter from Kenny.”
After The Old Man let Kenny go, Kenny found himself at his bottom. He was finally clean and free from withdrawal. Like me, Kenny was living in long term treatment center.
But sadly, Kenny contracted the AIDS virus . . .
He wrote in his letter, “Tell Benny I think he’s doing a good thing. Tell him I’m proud of what he’s doing and that my hair is shorter than ever. That should make him laugh.
Tell him I think he should stay straight and live a good life. He’s a good kid and he deserves it.
Oh, and tell him I know he doesn’t want to listen to what they have to say . . . . but he should.
Tell him it took me finding out that I was dying to understand what it means to be alive. ”
Kenny passed away before I completed my treatment. I admit my addiction has its own voice and personality but so does my sobriety.
The key understands the difference between the two voices . . .
I listened to a friend go back and test the waters. Now he’s in too deep and the idea of being clean (like he used to be) is too farfetched for him to consider.
“I slipped,” he told me.
You didn’t slip, I told him.
You gave in.
Believe me, there’s a difference