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First Year Sobriety: When All That Changes Is Everything (1) Paperback – September 30, 1998
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
When All That Changes Is Everything: The First Ninety Days
Here are four brief stories about a variety of people in the first stages of their recovery. You'll go first to a large urban hospital and meet a group of alcoholics and addicts in "detox," men and women used to hearing themselves called "hard cases." Then you'll meet Susan, a soft-spoken young woman in the Midwest who's had a hard time convincing her family (and sometimes herself) that she is an alcoholic. Next you'll meet Pablo, a streetwise twenty-year-old man from Detroit who's spent his life trying to be Superman. And Charles, a seventy-year-old newly sober gentleman from Boston who often finds himself feeling like a child.
As different as these people may seem from one another, you may also get a glimmer of what unites them. And what may apply to you.
We're in a brightly lit room in a New York hospital. About twenty-five people, more men than women, dressed in hospital-issued blue pajamas, sit around two long fold-out dining tables that have been pushed together. Miguel breaks the silence.
"This place sucks," he says. A tough-looking guy in his mid-thirties, Miguel is full of submerged energy, like a volcano waiting to blow. He stares down at his hands clenched in his lap. His voice is so quiet he can barely be heard, but the people around the table who are listening (not everyone is) seem to be catching it. "I hate this place. I can't stand it. I want to run out of here every minute. I feel like I'm gonna explode if I don't get out of here." His glowering eyes lift to scan the room, then drop back down to his hands. "What the hell good is hanging around you bozos supposed to be doing for me?"
Sam, a black man of greater bulk than Miguel but with a far more easygoing manner, responds, "Hey man. Stick around to play Monopoly with me. You're the only guy here as good as me at it."
People laugh. Miguel is caught off guard. He lets out a long low whoosh of air, which seems to calm him down a little.
"I know what Miguel means," says Theresa, a dark woman who tends to take charge of these sessions. "This sobriety is a bitch. I mean, what did we always do before? We got high. That was how we handled anything and everything. My feelings make me wanna bust out of my skin, too, sometimes. Sometimes all I wanna do is go out and cop and get high." Theresa frowns, then pounds the table with her right fist, which startles two or three men nodding off at the end of the table to her left. They look up at her in surprise.
"But it doesn't frigging work anymore," she continues, "and we don't know what the hell else to do. So we're here to learn something. I mean, we're not here on vacation, man. Right?" A chorus of "Rights." "Jesus!" Theresa starts to laugh, turning again to Miguel. "I mean—look at you, man! I saw you when you were out there. You were a mess. I couldn't understand a word you said, and now here we are, sitting around like all this was normal, talking like regular people. Something the hell is goin' on here. It's better than it used to be. Stick around for it, man." She smiles at Miguel again, softens her voice. "Stick around."
An old man named Joseph looks down with watery blue eyes at his spotless pajama shirt and then looks up, bewildered. "I'm even clean," he says, mostly to himself, baffled that anything like that could have happened.
Jorge begins to rock back and forth in his chair. Theresa is annoyed. "Stop that, man! You like a crazy person!" These "group sessions" tend to make Theresa edgy, and she doesn't like it when anyone acts up. But Jorge won't stop rocking back and forth. Everyone in the room looks at him, some people out of boredom (a number of people in here dread "Group" more than anything else they've got to sit through in detox), some people out of curiosity. A man of indeterminate years—maybe forty-five, maybe sixty—Jorge has never opened his mouth in the whole two weeks he's been here. He rocks back and forth more vigorously now, his face a frown of concentration. "What the hell you doing?" Theresa is getting angry.
Jorge opens his mouth and makes a sound. Finally, the people around him hear what he's saying. "My name is Jor-ge"—he draws out the sounds "Hooor-haaay" as if testing his voice, jaws, tongue to see if they work. With a further effort of concentration, he manages, "and—I—am—an—alco—holic."
Those people who are paying attention suddenly applaud. Even the bored ones look at Jorge and clap their hands. They know something special has happened, even if they aren't sure exactly what. Theresa smiles and gets up out of her chair to hug Jorge, who doesn't smile, but stops rocking in his chair.
Susan sits by the bay window of her living room, her troubled look at odds with the peacefulness of the rolling Illinois landscape.
"I think the most unnerving thing," she says, "is that so many people never thought I had a problem with drinking. They just don't believe I'm an alcoholic. Sometimes I think even people in AA look at me as if I don't belong. I imagine everyone thinking, 'What's she doing here?' '' Susan pauses for a moment, looks out the window. "Sometimes this scares me. I mean, maybe I'm not an alcoholic. That's what it seems everyone wants me to believe. It's certainly what my mother said when I told her. 'Oh, Susan,' she said, 'you're always making problems for yourself. No one from our family ever had a drinking problem. You're just blowing it out of proportion'. ''
Any suggestion of crisis or a negative feeling, Susan says, had always been pushed down, minimized, never talked about in her family. "My dad is a retired army officer," Susan continues. "The fact that we're black—and that he had a black family in the midst of the all-white Midwestern town we lived in—made him feel we all had to try harder. Be an example or something. We weren't allowed to fight, express anger, sadness—act in any way other than what he decided was 'normal'.''
Susan heaves a big sigh. "So I became the best little girl in the world. The best little girl grew up, got good grades, did everything right. And felt less and less human with every passing year. Less and less like there was any possibility of finding out who I really was, much less being it." Right after college, Susan married a "respectable" man going through medical school—"someone my father might have picked for me"—and tried hard to become a model wife and later, after one, then two, then three kids ("My husband's religious background makes him shun birth control—sometimes I think he wants me to populate the world"), a model mother. She discovered, on some evenings out with her husband's doctor friends and their wives, that she could be a model drinker too.
"It was amazing what a few glasses of wine could do," Susan says. "It was like it didn't take so much energy and willpower anymore to be nice, charming, say all the right things. Wine was a miracle; a few glasses and I was all those things without trying. And I was a nice drinker. Funny, open, charming. Something in me released—relaxed. It wasn't such a chore anymore to be alive."
Susan looks out the window again. "I never drank more than three, maybe four glasses of wine at a time," she says. "I mean, I wasn't out of control. The idea that I might have a problem with drinking never occurred to me. And if anyone had suggested I was an alcoholic, I would have questioned their sanity. Alcoholics were people who slept in the gutter. I was doing just fine."
Certainly the outer parts of Susan's life continued to appear "fine." "I don't have much of a war story, really," she says. "It's enough to say that wine was so terrific at dinner that I figured, why wouldn't it be just as terrific at lunch? Or in the middle of the afternoon? Or after my husband left in the morning for the hospital, the two littlest kids were taking their naps, and my oldest was off in nursery school? These were just 'time out' periods for me, I thought. And nobody but me had to know about them. Afterwards, a few swigs of mouthwash and I was okay, good as new. . . ."
Susan eventually realized she wasn't okay, not because anything terrible happened—"It's a miracle that something terrible didn't happen to one of the kids, with me half-drunk all day"—but because of an inner despair that the wine couldn't seem to touch anymore. "After a few years, drinking wasn't making me feel better. It was deepening my depression, not lifting it. I started to feel suicidal. Something was terribly, terribly wrong with me, and I couldn't imagine what it was." Susan made a secret appointment with a therapist she'd overheard one of the neighbors talk about, a woman who turned out to be an alcoholism counselor. "Talk about a Higher Power," Susan says, smiling for the first time. "That was about a month ago."
Ever the obedient little girl, Susan followed the therapist's suggestion that she try AA in conjunction with therapy. "At first, I was appalled by everyone baring their feelings so publicly—in front of strangers! But then, I don't know, after a week or so of meetings, something started to release in me." Her brow furrows. "I guess I wouldn't have kept this up if I weren't ready for it. But I'm still pretty baffled by what's happening to me, what I'm feeling. Strangely, I don't miss drinking all that much now. What's throwing me is what's happening to me inside—feelings are starting to come up I never knew were there."
Susan sighs. "Nobody in my family has a clue what's going on. My husband treats me like I'm some good-natured but confused little girl. He thinks it's nice that I go to AA for 'support,' but he's convinced this is just a passing phase and I'll snap out of it. He couldn't possibly bring himself to think he'd married an alcoholic. As he keeps telling me, he's never seen me drunk. I'm too much of a lady for that. . . ."