*A 2018 Recovery Essay Contest Finalist.
With artwork by Mali Fischer.The Narcotics Anonymous meeting at the Unitarian Church is in chaos. In the parking lot, a few addicts are openly selling drugs, and inside, people are up and down, in and out, talking, laughing, coughing, itching, scratching and bobbing their legs, making the metal chairs tip and bang against the bare floor. One guy comes in late and plays “Lay Lady, Lay” on his overwrought guitar, so I have to strain to hear a woman tell us the story of how, on a cocktail of meth and straight gin, she ran over her husband’s head with her truck. Her husband has come to the meeting, too, and he laughs louder than the rest of us put together. I’m not sure if the story is very funny or if the husband has brain damage. He looks brain damaged, but so does everyone else, except me. I look normal, I insist to myself, clutching my purse to my chest. Everyone except me says the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the meeting. I refuse. If I don’t believe in something, I won’t say it.
I’m not like them. I’m a teacher, for God’s sake, and a mother, and rational. I’m only here because rehab makes me come, and if I don’t get my form signed every night, proving I’m doing ninety meetings in ninety days, they’ll kick me out, leaving me without a plan.
When I was three, I knelt in the warmth of a Sunnyvale summer and lifted the flap of lawn that encroached slightly onto the sidewalk. Underneath was the damp dirt between the grass and the concrete, and it was a world of delights: a writhing worm, a brisk ant carrying a crust three times his size; miniscule creepy-crawlies in a panic; a sow bug who curled into a perfect ball when I touched him. I lifted him into my palm then after a minute he unrolled and searched the space in front of him with his antennae. He had the plated protection of an armadillo and a hundred feet that moved in rolling precision across my hand. It was hard to believe such a thing existed, but there he was, as real as the grass. Carefully I tucked him back under the flap of lawn;. although he wore a suit of armor, I sensed our bond and my sacred duty to send him home.
Ninety in ninety is one of the outpatient program’s mess of requirements. They would teach me that addiction is a disease, that my attitude at meetings was created by my arrogance, and that I did, in fact, fit in. I had believed that my legal prescriptions were superior to parking lot drug deals, but a junkie by any other name…
When I first walked into its carpeted rooms, I nearly fell into my counselor’s arms, so dizzy was I with both relief and horror. This flex-time rehab had been recommended to me by the same doctor who’d prescribed 100 Vicodin every two weeks for fibromyalgia. After a couple of years under his care, I ran out of pills, but he was vacationing in the Holy Land with his family. I broke in to a friend’s house through the baby’s bedroom window and searched the cupboards for any old opiate – even cough syrup would work.
And, in the kitchen, behind the Ipicac, I found four expired Darvocet tablets rattling in their bottle. Darvocet is the Casper Milquetoast of opiates, so I swallowed them all and waited for the withdrawal symptoms of nausea and panic to subside. The racket in my head quieted, but a scary new noise replaced it, lifting fast and hard, and I wondered if the neighbors could hear it, because it was me, finally admitting what and who I was.
I was Laura, and I was an addict.
I would have to say this aloud, to myself and others, and know it in every cell.
I knew it for nearly a year, precisely how long I stayed clean.
According to my father, God fell under the same category as the Jolly Green Giant because he was a larger-than-life fictional salesman. The Jolly Green Giant sold vegetables.
“What does God sell?” I wondered. “Bibles”?
“No,” he answered, cracking open a beer. “God sells fear.”
He always let me take the first sip. “Why would I want to buy that?”
My father laughed like Johnny Carson, at that moment and most of the time, full-chested and charming. He looked like him, too. Handsome. Johnny and his friends had what my father worshiped: “a goddamned sense of humor.” Once in awhile, if I went to bed an hour early, I could get up and watch my father and Johnny buddy around with Bob Newhart or Alan King, and the men would laugh together with their eyes and mouths wide open, as if joy had taken them completely by surprise.
They say that relapse is part of the recovery process, but I was shocked. While walking barefoot through my living room I broke a toe on a bookcase, and thought nothing of the twenty lackluster codeine tablets the doc-in-a-box prescribed. But twenty wasn’t enough, so after a week I talked him into twenty more. Those were gone in two days. I checked myself into a Napa Valley hospital for a month of inpatient rehab. The program bussed us to the wine country’s Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where the alcoholics looked like my father and any of his wives; very few showed outward signs of wear and tear. In correct grammar they told stories that broke my heart, those of affairs, black-outs, loved ones lost forever, and one cautionary tale of a lovely woman with twenty years of sobriety who one day, after a fight with her husband, bought a bottle of Stoli, and awoke in the county jail, having killed – while driving drunk — a family of four coming home from church.
It was murder. She would spend her life in prison, and I was afraid for myself. I’d been pretending for months that the Higher Power requirement didn’t pertain to me.
That requirement was the center of all things Anonymous. Because we could not manage ourselves, we needed to surrender to something greater, stronger, wiser. God, for instance.
A boy who reminded me of Paul McCartney walked into a youth Bible study class trailing clouds of glory, clouds that turned to come-hither fingers like those that vapor up from freshly baked cartoon pies. I was 15, so I followed, led by my hips, and sat on the floor just behind him. For three months of Tuesday afternoons I imagined myself running my hands through his hair and fingering the sleeve of his flannel shirt. A hippie pastor in a batik tunic explained to the twenty of us cross-legged teenagers how the miracles in the Bible were actually metaphors, relevant even today, in 1970 California. “Dig this!” he’d enthuse, inviting us into analysis. What did it mean that only a little bread and two fishes could fill the empty bellies of more than five thousand souls? It meant that we who hunger for a little truth and love would find a cornucopia, if we had faith. The bush that burned, but was not consumed, taught us that although the Jews would be put through tests of fire, they would not be wiped out. We kids, too, would suffer, but we need not be destroyed. I thought of the black eye I’d earned from my mother the morning before because I hadn’t ironed my P.E.-required gym suit over the weekend and didn’t at all care. I snoozed arrogantly in the front passenger’s seat while she drove me to school, and the one-piece garment, dyed the color of avocado flesh, sat wadded up atop the textbooks that teetered on my lap. She could steer just fine with her left hand, so she woke me with the full force of her right. I survived the day; nobody would ask about my eye. I had faith in the power of It Never Happened, and eventually found a cornucopia of marijuana that sustained me through a dutiful undergraduate education. I never seemed to run out, just like the loaves and fishes.
My father had moved to Oregon a few years before, taking with him his Stanford PhD and can opener. I called him to talk about metaphors, convinced he’d approve of my intellectual interpretation of the Bible. I was wrong; he interrupted me with a hybrid laugh, mirthless but a bit surprised. “I don’t believe this,” he said. “You’re a Jesus Freak!” He popped open another beer and conveyed my fall from grace sotto voce to his wife. “Well, I’ll miss you,” he said, and hung up. When I won over the Paul McCartney boy, we quit Bible study and used our Tuesday afternoons to make out. I missed my father, so I called to say I’d given up the Bible; with grace he accepted me back into the fold. I never told him the truth: that I’d both joined and quit religion because of a boy. After less time than I’d spent staring at the back of his head, the boy broke up with me so he could go out with a girl who’d have sex with him. I hadn’t been ready for sex, and not for religious reasons.
For my 47th birthday I gave myself a trip to Hawaii to swim with the dolphins, perhaps my last chance to come to believe in a Higher Power. Look to nature, many sober people advised. Not finding the answer in acorns, I turned to an animal.
This could be it, I thought, as I stepped into the pool with ten other visitors and a dolphin named Papa. The trainer lined up us humans on a step in the shallow end. Our first encounter was a warm-up in which Papa would quickly swim the length of our queue, lightly rubbing against the downturned palms of our outstretched hands. I stood at the end of the line, a lucky spot, I figured, since Papa’s last impression would be of me. But the Higher Power business would elude me even in this promising water. Immediately before reaching me, just after touching the palms of the guy next to me, Papa veered off toward the far end of the pool. I was clobbered with disappointment. OK, God, I thought. I get it. You don’t exist or you don’t like me. Either way, I’ll never fully recover. Now, fuck off.
And at that very moment when I told God, or the blank space where God should have been, to fuck off, Papa’s slick head rose from the water before me, in fact only inches away. And he stared into my eyes, and stared, and stared some more, as the trainer blew her whistle and yelled at him to swim away. But he didn’t, or wouldn’t. With his glowing eyes he held my gaze for what seemed like minutes, until I gave up, gave in, and silently apologized to whatever Higher Power brought Papa back to chastise me — All right, already; I’m sorry, I’m sorry – and the dolphin sank back into the water and became a trained animal again.
In that moment of connection, and perhaps for a day or the better part of the day, I thought I had actually made contact with God, had received his attention. I was buoyant, so high I could see into the vale of an easy future where I’d be nurtured and protected. I was one of those Anonymous people I’d envied who didn’t have to come to believe – the belief came to them. A firefighter from the noon meeting had asked in a bedtime prayer for a Higher Power, and the next afternoon Jesus joined him for a walk in the park. An elderly woman named Fran from my women’s meeting had opened her closet one morning thirty years before only to find among the garments a breathtaking, strapping Jesus who assured her that she’d stay sober the rest of her life. And she did. He visited Fran from time to time, and he always looked good, sometimes rocking her on his lap, she confessed.
These lucky beneficiaries of close encounters had a tangible person who’d shown Himself to them. He’d chosen them; they were His favorites, and it hurt my feelings that He didn’t choose me, too, reminding me of the Paul McCartney boyfriend, my father, and other men who’d chosen someone else. I saw myself as unappealing, and I would feel better, less ashamed, during the times that I didn’t believe in God at all.
Papa had chosen me for a moment, it’s true; but he was fickle. The gleam in his eyes faded, he swam away, and soon I felt that the encounter was simply an anomaly, that Papa was disobedient, and that I was a bit of a fool.
After I lost my Bible study boyfriend, my grandfather survived a near-fatal heart attack. And my grateful aunties dragged me to a Southern Baptists service in Lodi, The minister ingratiated himself with enormous smiles and compliments to the parishioners, extolling the Lord’s blessings that would rain upon them when and if…and here the tone changed … if they repented and got down on their knees to beg for deliverance from the eternal flames of hell! He had become a demon, shouting preposterous accusations and threats, and the people around me, including my aunties, fell to the floor and crawled toward the pulpit, howling and wailing, terrified to the core and hyperbolically repentant. I turned away, embarrassed for them all, not knowing that one day I myself would experience preposterous fear when I learned from the Anonymous programs that one must “come to believe” in a Higher Power or face “jails, institutions or death.”
While driving to an A.A. meeting I saw a certain man’s face on a billboard and thought perhaps God Himself had placed it before me. For many years I’d held a severe grudge against that man (we’ll call him Dick) that made me grind my teeth at night. Although it diminished me to do so, I had been entertaining a fistful of revenge fantasies toward Dick for once having left my three-year-old son trapped in a hot car for two hours. I nurtured my grudge, tickled it, added sweet details, buffed it into polished plans to destroy Dick’s career, marriage or self-respect.
Dick had committed his crime on a hot day in late spring when the pre-school took the toddlers on a field trip to the university farm. Dick was a parent who volunteered as a driver, and was assigned his own child, my son, and my son’s best friend, Skyler. The boys were still so young and fragile that, by law, they had to be locked tightly into heavily strapped car seats from which they couldn’t escape. I don’t remember Dick’s son’s name, but my son is Sam – a grand name spoken honorably in the United States as well as his home country of Brazil from where we’d adopted him. It’s a name sweet enough for a child, cool enough for a teen, and sturdy enough for a man. We had intended all along for him to last, never giving permission to anyone to toy with his longevity.
But Dick took liberties. When all the parents parked in the dirt lot outside the farm, he remembered to release his son and Skyler, but forgot about Sam, who eventually cried himself to sleep while his increasingly hysterical best friend hounded the teachers. Amazingly, they paid no attention until they’d visited the barn and stables and settled down for a picnic by which time Skyler had become so shrill he couldn’t be ignored. They retraced their steps all the way back to the car and found Sam sleeping furiously, sweat drenching his dinosaur-themed overalls. I called Dick that evening for particulars. How long was Sam trapped? Did he have water? Was he disoriented? But Dick refused to answer, in fact he shouted at me, accusing me of intending to sue him, then hung up. That was our last contact and the beginning of a grievance that grew feverishly, fed by what it offered: a purpose, proof of my love for family and belief in best friends, transcendence above petty concerns like bills, housework, my drug addiction. I didn’t know how to live without it, but it was killing me as surely as if I’d swallowed rat poison.
I’d swallowed it all right, and waited for the rat to die. Heading to this meeting ten years later, I realized that as my grudge did pushups at the gym, my health was losing its hair. I felt sick in every part of my body and mind, which made me want Vicodin like I wanted air. I knew I had to find a cure.
So when I turned the corner toward the A.A. meeting’s parking lot, and saw Dick smiling down upon the building, I was born again, I thought. It was Dick’s face, sure enough, as big as a car, advertising his local hair salon. For me, it was a dolphin moment, a lightening strike of hope and joy. Coincidences like this didn’t exist in the secular world, and when the meeting began, the announced topic was “Forgiveness.” For several days I told people I’d had a close encounter with my Higher Power, and that in that hour I came to believe I would never crave Vicodin again. I sustained that belief over several days, and when the glow began to dim I opened my eyes wider, meditated and prayed, then grieved over the inexorably failing light.
I gave up a chemical bliss because it turned against me. Whatever spiritual bliss I’d sought as a replacement still shows up from time to time, in various forms, like a call from an old friend, a redemption story I hear at a 12-step meeting, or from a poem.
When evening quiets the neighborhood I pull the mower from the garage. I love this time of day when the sideways sunlight makes things sharper to the eye. Out of habit I lift a flap of lawn and observe a sun-withered earthworm, a couple of terrified ants and an already rolled up sow bug. I straighten my knees and get to work, eager to make the lawn look presentable, knowing but not much minding that what once I felt, I now can feel no more – and if I can, it’s only in fleeting moments that appear then disappear as if in a magician’s mirror and smoke. Long ago the sow bug had glowed under my gaze, not for a moment but for all the days of my early childhood. Today such creatures crunch under my shoes as I cut the grass.
But I live sober these years in the house I still own. I’ve come to believe in ambiguity; I believe in patient doubt. I believe that Vicodin is a power greater than myself. And, in flashes, I believe that I never completely lost the light of early childhood. So, for windows of time, the occasional dolphin or billboard glints as a flashback, and these moments – whatever they are, however they arrive — are higher and more powerful than pills.
But I will never live in absolutes. The human experience—at least this human’s experience—is complicated, so I try to live in the moment, making One Day at a Time the slogan that annoys me the least. I will always struggle with the notion that faith will save me. After all, the lovely woman with life in prison had faith in a Higher Power, and so did the family of four.