*A 2018 Recovery Essay Contest Finalist.
With artwork by Shaina Manuel.Sobriety was simple. It was really simple. All I had to do was not do the one thing I didn’t want to do. I had it figured out. Why even waste my time on something so easy? Why put any effort in today on something I could so easily do tomorrow. I’d stop drinking tomorrow. I’d stop popping whatever pills I could find tomorrow. Then tomorrow became another blackout. Tomorrow became not just a drink before work, but a fifth of whiskey on my drive to work. I’d forget tomorrow and the days that followed, only remembering brief moments in the shower and the acidic taste of bile in my mouth by lunch. The sad, lonesome, sometimes fearful look in my wife’s eyes. Tomorrow became another bullshit apology, another line of crap, another collapse to the floor from exhaustion and booze and just knowing what had once been so goddamn simple was now impossible. That became yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It became my only.
My wife’s response to each fallen promise hardened. There were tears, but not as many. “You can do this,” she’d say. “I just may not be here when you do.” The forever implications of those words still haunt me. Where did she find the strength to make it so clear? Survival, perhaps. What if I had relapsed one more time. Just one. Would my daughter even exist? My son, certainly not. I’d be hollow. I’d be filled with hollow pain and I can only imagine the amount of alcohol I’d use to fill that pain, to numb it, to wring its neck and bury it with everything else. Luckily, smartly, the adverb doesn’t matter, but I submitted. I finally acknowledged the simple task had grown beyond my reach. In fact, it had never been simple. I had been trying to build a house on quicksand. I had to stop, but I couldn’t, not on my own. I had cut the brakes and zip tied my wrists to the steering wheel. My wife said rehab. I said no. She didn’t flinch. I cried and said yes.
I watched through the rehab facility’s wall-sized windows as my mother drove away. It didn’t look like she was crying. Maybe she waited until she turned the corner, knowing I was watching. Maybe she didn’t cry, but she had before. And yelled. And cried. Sometimes enough is just enough.
“Have you taken anything or had a drink in the last twenty four hours?” Tim, the intake nurse asked. “We’re going to take a sample, so no need to lie.” I lied anyway. He asked a bunch of questions. “If I got sober, anyone can.” He told me that a few times in case I had forgotten. His shirt was way too tiny, like he had just lost a few hundred pounds and wanted to show off.
Then other Tim, the tech, took me upstairs where I was told to strip naked. My stomach dropped, my new reality settling over my eyes, but I obeyed. What else could I do? The last conversation I had with my wife, as we walked through Target picking out new underwear and a new toothbrush, as if I was going to camp, I told her I was all in. Whatever they told me to do, to not do, I’d follow. They told me to get naked, piss in a cup while naked, put my clothes and shoes in a giant heater, and pick a pair of used gym shorts to wear, so I did it. And they took my library books. If it didn’t relate to recovery, they weren’t welcome. Fuck you, George Washington’s biography. Tech Tim, as he watched the colors on my piss test come through, looked at me and said, “None of this shit is going to work if you don’t love yourself.”
That first day, and most of the second, they called me a narc. They whispered, well, they yelled that I worked for the insurance company and people shouldn’t trust me. Turns out my polo shirt and khaki shorts weren’t the proper attire for an addict; they were the attire of an undercover insurance narc. My hair wasn’t shorn to the skin or hanging to my shoulders. My skin was clear of tattoos. And they made fun of my shoes. I’m still not sure why. I thought they were cool. I talked only to a woman about to be discharged. She reminded me of my mom.
As people argued over which Nicolas Cage movie to watch my first night, I flipped through censored magazines in the common room. It was slim pickings. Not only were all references to drugs and alcohol ripped out, fellow clients used any good pictures for motivational collages. I basically read horoscopes from the early 2000’s and learned that Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise were having problems. They kept calling me a narc. Maybe I was angry. But at myself. In my head, I calculated the percentage of time I had left. And likelihood I would last the duration. After all, I could leave at anytime. I paid the bill, not the courts.
At 11:00, along with my recently prescribed antidepressant, the guy behind the counter offered me three little, yellow pills that promised to help with sleep. Of course I took them. Not only were they pills, I hadn’t fallen asleep without copious amounts of alcohol saturating my blood in months. I didn’t foresee a wafer thin mattress and three random dudes in my room helping with that.
I had scored a bed in ‘The Penthouse’, the only four bed room in the facility. Apparently I had taken the spot of a legend. I don’t know if he left by choice or demand. He was loved by all, and I was already hated. And so quickly. Mostly because of my polo and lame haircut. Reading the magazines probably didn’t help. But I accepted. What was I going to do, tell them, hey guys, I don’t work for the insurance company. Boom, crickets. After lights outs, when the gentle effects of the three magic pills began to take flight and I honestly thought sleep would grant me a reprieve, the three people in my room became eight. Lights blared on and music sang out from a smuggled phone. The Penthouse was the gathering spot for those lucky enough to be invited. Seth, the frosty haired leader of the pack, had a girl on his lap and a smirk on his face as he repeated over and over again how I was a rat. I didn’t know what that meant. Somehow, in a matter of hours, I went from the new guy, to the lame dresser, to the narc, and now the rat.
And then came a penis. A decent sized, non-manscaped penis. Now, I don’t know if it was special for me, or offered to every new guy. But there it was, flapping a few feet from my face. Like much of that first day or so, I was more confused that angered. Was it intended to provoke me? To arouse me? To test me? I don’t know. It was Jim’s penis and I never got around to asking Jim what his motivation was for waving it around. But everyone laughed when they saw me see it. Maybe that was motivation enough. They said I’d probably tell in the morning. Tell who what, exactly, I wondered. I eventually fell asleep without joining the party. I’ve never spoken of it until now.
The next morning at breakfast, Brian, an ex-body builder who wanted to punch everybody, asked me “Where’s your room?” “The Penthouse,” I answered. “Fuck that shit. If people come in my room when I’m sleeping, fuck em.” I nodded, imagining rising from bed and punching a flailing penis..
I hadn’t called my wife. Based on the rotation, I got to use the phone on Thursday and it was Tuesday. Exceptions were made, but I refrained. I pretended it was for her. She got a break from the drunk. But that was bullshit. What was I going to tell her? I saw a penis last night. They don’t like the polo you got me. I should have shaved my head. The level of embarrassment for what I had become is still indescribable.
My first ‘small-group’ session was Tuesday afternoon. Six of us and a counselor talked. Talked about whatever we wanted. Brett became hooked on pills while working in the oil fields of North Dakota. He wanted out. Of the pills and the oil fields. Alex was just counting the days. He wanted to get out and rap and smoke weed. He figured out how much water he needed to drink to get his piss clean so the judge couldn’t send him back. Jeff, the counselor, cautioned against this, but didn’t flat out tell him no. Jim, of the previous night’s penis, spoke what was to be his catchphrase, ‘Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.’ His penis antics aside, Jim turned out to be a standup guy.
When eyes fell to me, I shared. Shared as I never had. AA meetings always intimidated me, so I typically clammed up. Not the people, their level of sobriety. How could they understand what I was going through if they hadn’t had a drink, or a pill, or a line in twenty years? That and I often stumbled in drunk. But in that room, people were fresh and raw and vulnerable. It calmed me. The room full of strangers made me feel less alone than I had felt in months, maybe years. It all poured forth. The middle of the night walks around my neighborhood when insomnia wouldn’t release its grip. The stashes of booze I kept everywhere, including the trunk of my car and the travel toiletry bag beneath the bathroom sink. How I’d not eat for days because nothing would stay down. About the pain in my liver and I often couldn’t lift my hands above my head because my side was so tender; the yellow diarrhea. About failed attempt after failed attempt after fucking failed attempt. A year ago we talked about kids and I wondered where I’d hide the pills once they were born. Now my wife locked the bedroom door. I had already failed as a father. How I’d often wake up at three or four in the morning and sneak to the car and drink as much as possible just to turn off my mind for five fucking minutes. Then I’d go to work, my coffee cup half full of vodka. I told them how I was no longer a good friend, or brother, had become a terrible husband. My friends hesitated to invite me places, knowing my attitude would be either indifference or indignant. My singular thought, always, was ensuring I had enough alcohol to last until I fell asleep. I considered that a successful day. Jeff thanked me. Jim stopped calling me a narc.
Perhaps because I didn’t know how to put it into words, or because it was a bit too abstract, but I left out how I spent long stretches of time studying myself in the mirror. Not quite hours, but maybe. It became an obsession, a form of punishment, penance. I watched as I disappeared; I did nothing but watch. There was a vacancy, a void, as if a squatter with zero desire for life had taken up residency. My skin hadn’t so much aged, as it had weakened. My eyes dulled, my smile false. I’d lean against the bathroom sink and say, ‘No more.’ A tinny, coward’s voice echoed in my ears. My shoulders and chest caved. I shrunk in every way possible. I had become ugly beneath the surface.
When I finally spoke with my wife, she asked why I hadn’t called sooner. My day is Thursday, I answered. You should have called. She was right, but I don’t think I said that. She asked about everything; I gave her the brochure version. I left out the penis. I told her the food was good and my counselor seemed to know his stuff. I left out how earlier in the day I threatened to kill Seth because he tied my running shoes to the hook on the back of the door. I left out that I had stormed through the halls, raged, ranting, and found him on the back ramp, smoking a cigarette and holding court. Now, my father has the ability to put curse words together in an almost poetic fashion. His threats, his insults, his tirades are frightening and witty, spontaneous yet calculated. It’s a skill that deserves acknowledgement. As I pulled nose to nose with Seth, my finger right against his eyeball, my words lacked that symmetry or fluidity. It was more shotgun blast than sniper’s bullet. I hurled questions, but didn’t allow him to answer. I told him to stop talking shit on every person and then acting like a jerk off court jester. Stop fucking the married teenager with a baby when I was trying to sleep. Stop wasting everyone’s time and just stick a needle back in his arm. And stop messing with my stuff. I didn’t tell my wife any of this. I still haven’t. I told her I loved her and I was fine. I obviously wasn’t. It would take me years to be fine again.
I told my counselor I didn’t pay three grand to deal with high school hi-jinks. Jeff understood, but said, “Being uncomfortable isn’t a bad thing. It’s how you respond.” I responded by telling a guy in recovery to stick a needle in his arm. Seth and his sidekicks got transferred from the Penthouse, and for a night I was alone. The next day Roger was assigned to my room. Roger’s mind was fried; he smoked cigarettes soaked in embalming fluid. He spent an hour going to the bathroom. For a good twenty minutes, I thought he hanged himself. Maybe he was just studying himself in the mirror. In small-group, Roger talked about rebuilding the Camaro he kept parked on the street in front of his house. It had been there for years, but he thought it had some life in it. He wanted to give it to his son. He said that as an afterthought.
To this day I wonder if Roger is alive. He told me some of the things he had done, and I understood why his kids didn’t speak to him. I stopped talking to my father for much less. But none of that bothered me. All I had was empathy and goodwill. If I could forgive this man of his sins, maybe those in my life could forgive me, or even better, forget. It was Roger’s bare honesty I admired. Not just his words and actions, but the way he carried himself. He was scared, and it showed. He was ashamed, and it showed. There was no cloak of toughness or bravado or deception. He didn’t like the man he had become, but he didn’t hide from that. He didn’t pretend.
On the last full day, my mom and sisters came to visit. I tried to be honest, but I told them I was fine and I’d probably be fine once I got out. The worst was behind me. We should all put down our walls. If I had gone this long without a drink, I could go forever. They nodded and smiled. Maybe my mom believed it.
Jeff pulled me aside before I left. “You should stay longer,” he said. “You need more time.” I’m fine. Really, I’m fine. “Keep doing the exercises and be honest with yourself.” We shook hands and I left.
Jeff was almost right. I needed a lot more time. For every one step forward, I tripped a mile back. I can’t say when, or even if something clicked, but another line from my wife went a long way. I had been sober for almost a month and she was five or six months pregnant. We were talking about the birth, our plans, the hospital, the car seat, all the stuff that makes up life. I asked who she wanted in the room. She said her mom. Then she looked at me and said, without a hint of drama in her voice, “And I really want you there, but only if you’re sober.”
That’s what I had done. Not just that she had to say it, but said it as if talking about the weather. The burden had become so regular, she no longer felt it draped over her shoulders. She simply lugged it from day-to-day. And I was going to give that to my daughter. For all the complaints about my father, all the fault I laid at his feet, I was going to saddle my daughter with the same, if not worse. Would she be born an afterthought? The serious complexity of recovery and sobriety finally, finally came into focus. This wasn’t a rough patch or something we’d look back on and laugh. This was no ignorance of youth. This was it, with it being everything. Was I to be a shoulder to cry on, a person to share laughter and fears, the one who came running when something went bump in the night, when friends at school were not being friends? Was I to be that person or anything less? I could no longer be anything less; I had played that role too long.