The door marked “Recovery” doesn’t always swing both ways.
I was reminded of this yet again this past weekend when I went to the wake of a guy that came into recovery at the same time that I did. It had been my second time around, but it was the latest in a series of attempts for him to get and stay sober after putting together nearly eight years when he was younger and then picking up booze and drugs again in his 30s. He never accumulated any significant time (more than a year or so) after that and last week he ran out of chances. He was 49, engaged to be married and had even gone to work that day, doing renovations to his sister’s house (he was a contractor). At the end of the day, he kissed her goodbye, told her that he loved her, and then started drinking, apparently heavily. Later that night, he choked on his own vomit and died.
While I’ve come to believe that anyone can get clean and sober with a little honest effort, not everyone is willing to do what it takes to maintain sobriety, and over the years I’ve watched a lot of people pay that ultimate price. For me, the best description of alcoholism and addiction is the short and not-so-sweet one: Progressive and fatal.
Dave (not his real name) and I worked together on a painting crew that, for most of us, served as a vehicle to have enough money to get drunk and high, pay rent and little else. Of the half dozen or so guys that I worked with on that crew the summer before I got sober (nearly 11 years ago), four are now dead as a result of the disease of addiction. The other one came into AA, stopped drinking and now works 80 hours a week with a pretty significant pill addiction, but that’s his business. Two of those men died from prescription drug overdoses (at least one of them was intentional), another went into cardiac arrest when he tried to detoxify himself from booze one too many times, and then there was yesterday’s victim. Or, as an old timer I spoke with at the wake said of chronic relapsers, “You’re only a victim of the disease the first time around in recovery. After that, you’re a volunteer.”
And Dave was not the only recent neighborhood death. Earlier in the week, the family of a guy who also previously had significant clean time pulled the plug on him following an alcohol overdose. While I didn’t know him well, I had sat next to him at my noon meeting the week before. This year has seen a string of what I call “celebrity deaths” in my recovery circles. These were people who had gotten clean and sober, stayed active in their recovery long enough to have those in the community get to know them, then drifted away from meetings as life got good and they assumed they no longer needed to do what got them sober in the first place. Nearly all of the deaths were from the effects of long-term alcohol and cocaine or pill addiction. (While writing this, I received a call from a guy who I sponsor who told me he just received the news that his 25-year-old cousin had OD’d on heroin and died.)
Sometimes when I go to meetings, I’ll hear people say that they don’t want to relapse “because they don’t want to change their sobriety date,” as if that were the worst consequence of a relapse. Fuck losing my sobriety date, I don’t want to lose my ability to live indoors, my business, my family and other relationships or my life (or at least the reasonably happy one I’m enjoying now). And there are many of us who feel that sudden death wouldn’t be the worst consequence of a relapse. As a female friend who spent five brutal years in relapse said once in a meeting, “They talk about jails, institutions and death. But there’s a fourth place, the one where I can’t get sober again. And I never want to go back there.”
I know what she means. Not just through my own struggles to get sober, but also because of the time I spend in my regular Wednesday meeting. It’s held in a dual diagnosed unit/detox, and the patients and outside participants (it’s an “open” meeting) sit side by side, with sharing open to everyone in the room. It seems that at least once every other week, someone raises a hand and says that they had a lengthy period of sobriety (from two to 25+ years) before picking up a drink or drug, and they just can’t get sober again; that their lives have been a string of detoxes and rehabs, their families are no longer speaking to them and they’ve lost everything.
The most memorable one was a few years ago. There was a patient that had once been nine years sober, had stopped going to meetings, and when 9-11 hit, he was living in New York. “I had the option: I could go home to my apartment or I could go to the bar,” he said. “I chose the bar and my life has been a nightmare ever since.” He told us that he had been in over 50 facilities and hoped that he could do it “this time.”
That scenario is a lot more common than many realize, and it usually begins when addicts and alcoholics stop going to meetings. These folks got sober after varying bottoms, their lives got remarkably better, they stopped going to meetings and they ultimately relapsed. Does this happen to everyone that doesn’t go to meetings? Of course not. There are people who never come into any kind of recovery program, stop drinking and go on to have full productive lives, never giving booze or drugs another thought. There are also people that came into 12 step, got sober and have maintained sobriety for long periods of time without meetings.
I’m just not one of them. There is absolutely no way I was capable of getting sober on my own (I tried for years before surrendering) and I hope that I never convince myself that I can stay sober without help. I don’t know whether the stars aligned or some other such crap when I got sober, but I know that willingness finally met desperation, and I have no reason to believe that this will ever automatically happen again. I must confess that there are (fleeting) times when I think that I’m taking this recovery stuff a little too seriously. And then I get a reminder like last week.
The six or seven men and women who died this year in my community weren’t just random faces in news stories or hearsay or characters in an afterschool special. While they weren’t necessarily good friends, some were people that I drank and did drugs with, spent time in meetings with and laughed with. Their deaths also make me remember the other “celebrity deaths” of the last decade, and many of those people were my friends, including my brother, who died of an alcohol and cocaine overdose five years ago.
When I first came into recovery, I heard a guy say something that has always stuck with me and that I often repeat. “If there’s one rock solid guarantee, it’s that someone in this meeting right now is going to die from this disease,” he said matter-of-factly. “And it just might be me. Especially if I stop doing what’s been working for me for so long.” Article Link…