Timed perfectly a few days after my last drunk, I fell prey to my very own, complimentary twelfth step call. It was unforeseen – I didn’t even know they existed. My wife arranged it, and I reluctantly agreed to give it a listen. In the aftermath, I was saying ‘yes’ to everything up to that point, which was totally out of character for me. But even after the thousand “I’m sorry’s,” this one was a mega-biggie as far as I was concerned. This time I was going to any length.
Yeah, I guess I was kind of a dick.
A distant relative carried the message. He had made his way in and out of trouble and the program several times, but now was dry. He finally got it that alcohol was his main problem. Not John Law, his wife, his boss, or his finances. It had taken a lot to penetrate that thick head, which I later found out wasn’t uncommon.
We engaged in some small talk around the kitchen table that ended abruptly when he scrapped the topic and began his pitch, telling me what he knew about recovery. My wife finally exhaled. I thought I’d better brace myself; this might last awhile. Over thirty years ago, my twelfth step call went kind of like this:
“You know,” he began, “you’re really lookin’ like crap. Sorry – if you’re offended, I’ll get you a card. But if you think you’ve had enough, that you’re done with the booze, there’s something that can really help you with your drinking, man.”
Even though it was anonymous, I already knew what he was getting at. He was concerned, and truly trying to help me. He knew the kind of fear I was experiencing and that I needed some hope.
“You heard about my last drunk, when I crashed into that tree and got arrested again? I knew I had to do something, man. There was gonna be more trouble if I kept up with the drinking – it was just a matter of time. It really was getting worse, just like they said it would at those classes. I mean, I really didn’t think I was that bad, but I was on my way. I just couldn’t see it. None of us could.
“I’ve only been in jail a few times, and prison only once, but that was enough for me, man. No more foolin’ around. All those days behind bars and then, right back in the bars, are over.
“…now, they’re gonna want you to hit a bunch of meetings, but they’re not too bad. They’re way better than jail. They have real coffee, and some even have donuts. And some of them people are pretty funny, too – there’s some real nutcases that go there, ‘specially the old-timers. You can tell nobody got to them in time. Them stewed noodle-brains are dead serious about all that recovery stuff. They can go on and on forever.
“But a lot of people like us go to them meetings, too. You’ll fit right in, man. They said their drinking went from bad to worse until they surrendered and got with the program. They talk about their problems, and their drinking, and how their lives are better now that they’re sober…some, a whole lot better.
“I saw some guys I thought were dead or in prison; I hadn’t seen ‘em in years. I thought they vanished off the face of the earth. Then I start going to those meetings and one of them’s shaking hands at the door, dressed in clothes that didn’t have any holes in ‘em, and his eyes were so white they creeped me out.
“He says, ‘Hey, it’s about time you got your damn self in here’. He hugged my neck, and then said, ‘Keep coming back, man, if you want another chance at life. Looks like the one you’re livin’ is a freakin’ mess’.
“I noticed his beer belly was gone, his front tooth and its lower companions weren’t missing anymore, and I heard he had a nice ride, bought and paid for.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought…When he threw a buck in the basket, he had to look for one, with tens and twenties in the way. All’s I had was a couple quarters, if that…damn high cost of low living.”
I drew myself back and took a long breath. This was as long as I ever heard him talk, and longer than I’d listened to anybody in ages. And he was speaking in nearly complete sentences and, I hate to say, kind of making sense. I thought, ‘They must talk a lot there at those classes’. I was right – he wasn’t finished.
“This other guy I used to get arrested with owns a business now, and you oughtta see his old lady, I mean, wife, man. Blonde, blue eyes, with all the extras. Man – I didn’t think he’d ever stop drinking, much less have it made like that. I thought he’d be takin’ the Last Train to Croaksville.
“Right then and there, I thought, this stuff’s for real – a dude like that going from goat-head to loverboy, with a pocketful of dough…A guy can get up off the bathroom floor and straighten up and fly right. I’m tellin’ ya, I ain’t puked once since I got sober, and no black eyes, either…”
I remembered the holiday black eyes he wore on Christmases, and others with no holiday attached. He probably didn’t feel a thing, unlike sober people when they get a shiner. I wondered, ‘What the hell’s wrong with him. Is he ever gonna wise up?’ Near the end of my drinking, I began to understand and wondered if I’d ever get it together, too. He kept talking; he was on a roll.
“Some of them guys talk a lot about God too, but don’t worry about that, man. It ain’t a religion or nothing. I even met a priest there who said he was a drunk, and he said the same thing. A sky pilot in recovery, and he even cussed a little, which let me know he wasn’t all holy and stuff. He was one of us.
“They said it’s spiritual, and they call their God the Higher Power. If you ask for help in the morning and say thanks at night, many people don’t drink if they really wanna stay sober. Even if they thought they were a lost cause. Man, I tried it and I ain’t been drinking for over two years.
“There’s lots of literature, and it’s important too. They’ll want you to read it, but you don’t need no PhD in it to stay sober. But it really works when you run out of good ideas. The directions are pretty simple. Just do it. Whaddya got to lose?”
Then he braced himself for the grand finale. I had a feeling this was gonna be good.
“You know, man, they talk about drugs too, and say we shouldn’t use ‘em. They’re gonna tell you that you shouldn’t even smoke weed, but don’t worry about that yet, either. It’s just a suggestion…
“Maybe you’ll wanna try quitting; most of ‘em do, if they’re serious about it,” he said, suddenly taking a king-size bogart hit off a joint that was passed to him, doing the tssssst, tssst, tssst, tssssssst – ssshhffwooooohhh as he overloaded his toke and his burly chest swelled out. His eyes bugged out of their sockets like they were going to pop, and smoke almost flooded out of his ears. I leaned back into my chair, half-expecting a coughing fit. I had my favorite shirt on.
However, keeping his lungs full while trying to talk and stifle a cough, he whispered and grunted in pot-head jargon, “But I’m…not ready……to…do that……. yet.”
He eased into his stoner-goofy grin, and then nervously coughed when he maxed out. Smoke burst out beneath both cheeks at the corners of his mouth when he couldn’t reverse it. He stopped, contained himself and his mouth made a little ‘o’ and the smoke jetstreamed out like he’d done it a million times. His eyes teared up, but it was only cheap joy. He, of the bloodshot eyes, managed to look alternately serene and mischievous, and then regressed to pleasantly burnt-out. His natural state.
I thought ‘Wow’, but I didn’t say wow. It was important that he stay humble.
I didn’t know I was getting the message sideways – it was a very effective presentation and I bought the program. I don’t think Billy Mays could have topped that pitch on his greatest day. It sounded like it could work for me. I know it wasn’t your classic twelfth step call, but I never did drink again. I gave him an A+ for effort, thanked him all the way out the door, and then waited for the phone call from the detox unit to admit me with some apprehension. It sounded good, but I still wasn’t sure if I was ready for this big of a breakthrough in my life…
When I was speaking at a local treatment center a few years later I spotted him, looking much worse than ever before. He was just coming back again. Lucky for him. I guess he was missing something – it works if you work it, but it won’t if you don’t.