A story I heard in a meeting this morning:
A guy had hired a contractor a couple days ago. The contractor had injured his shoulder, and yesterday went to the doctor, who (you just knew this was coming while you were listening to it) prescribed a bottle of Vicodin. On the way home he picked up a case of beer, never minding the warnings on the bottle not to take Vicodin with alcohol and only to take one or two at a time. He thought his Vicodin would go much better knocked back with a few beers. Because at the end of a hard day, he deserved to have a few beers. And at the end of the evening, he was dead. The speaker said, shaking his head:
Four Vikes, and four beers, and he was dead.
I sat there thinking, hell: four Vicodin and four beers?—that’s, like, nothing compared to the amounts of shit I used to ingest. I’m one lucky so-and-so even to be here, mon, with the shit I pulled and the fire I played with? God-DAMN.
But as they say in (some of) the rooms:
It doesn’t matter what we used,
or how much we used,
or in what ways we used.
In fact: I went to my first meeting back in … maybe 1995? I was taking Stadol nasal spray for migraine, and I was taking too much and running out a bit too soon, and all I knew was that I Liked It. I liked how it knocked me out, how it felled me like a tall tree, with a big crash and then intense stillness afterward, and I didn’t like how I felt after I ran out—desperate, and a bit emotionally shaky. There was another thing they said in the rooms at that time that resonated with me:
One is too many
and a thousand never enough
I sat in the meetings and listened to the down-and-out stories—the ones that focus on the problem, not the solution—about what people drank or used, how much they drank or used, and in what ways they drank or used, and how they felt while they were drinking or using. And I thought, No way in hell do I belong here. I hadn’t sold my furniture; I hadn’t had my kids taken away from me; I hadn’t prostituted my body; I hadn’t gone to jail. I had no clue about how the steps and the meetings worked. Plus: all that focus on using made me want to use, and I buggered off to use my nice clean “safe” white-collar drugs another day.
I didn’t know that not all meetings were created the same, that I needed to look for the meetings that focused on the solution, and that I needed to look for similarities, and not differences.
And in the meantime, I got very lucky, and I lived.
I mean, who knows this guy’s medical history?… I was thinking, if he was a real drinker, maybe his liver was compromised, maybe he had hepatitis or even cirrhosis and his liver couldn’t tolerate the Tylenol; or maybe he was opioid-naïve and between the sedative effect of the alcohol and the respiratory-depressant effect of the hydrocodone, he simply stopped breathing. Option B more likely.
(I remember times when I’d lie in bed and force myself to stay awake, because my diaphragm’s ability to drag in another breath was actually a dodgy proposition. I’d tell myself I’d just screwed up and taken too much “this time,” but as long as I was using there’d always come a time when I’d screw up again.)
Those questions are for the coroner to figure out. What’s real is the bottom line: his family doesn’t have him anymore. No—actual bottom line: HE doesn’t have his own life anymore.
My son and I sat in our local bar the other night waiting for my husband to show up. We just think of it as our local place to get a quick supper—my son loves the wood-fired pizza—but this place is famous regionally for stocking an enormous selection of beer from all over the world; while he was alive it was my father’s favorite place to go when he came to the city to visit us, and in latter years he usually took me there for my birthday lunch. Despite the fact that I would have preferred to eat elsewhere, that was where he liked to drink, so that was where we went.
The waitress came to our table and put down three beer mats in front of my son and me. He picked one up thoughtfully and turned it over in his hands.
“Why are people so obsessed with beer?” he asked, regarding the bar with its row of decorative pulls, and, behind it, the cooler with its soldierly lines of colored bottles, and all the posters on the walls memorializing beer.
“They’re not. I mean, who?” I said, feeling the confusion that comes on when I am cornered into talking about substances with my kid. I always feel as though I need a PR person to help me craft my message and teach me to stick to it. But kids aren’t like that: their discourse is slippery, their questions slide all over the place, and they’re emotionally loaded.
“Well, why do they like to drink it so much? It tastes bad,” he said.
How can I answer this question to a 13-year-old’s satisfaction? How can I tell him that, despite (or perhaps partly because of) growing up in an alcoholic household, at 17 I started drinking not beer but malt liquor (which tasted even worse) because it was free, it was stronger and it took me out of myself—the place where I’d been trapped for nearly two decades—and it was the first time I’d ever felt free, that I could forget everything I needed to forget? How can I tell him that after going to my first meetings in the mid-1990s I knew that I needed to quit drinking and taking drugs and undertake the 12 steps but that the sole thing that prevented me was the idea of being in my thirties and never, ever, ever having a single beer for the rest of my life?
“Did you get drunk?” he asked me.
The first time I drank beer I got so drunk I was ill for two days afterward. I think there may still be some cells in my body that are green from that hangover. … I can remember being 17 and 18 and looking at other kids at parties and wondering, especially when the beer was free, How do they know when to stop? How does anyone know? I’m still asking that question.
Life without beer?—I’d never lived it. I’d never imagined it.
“Yeah, I got drunk, not all the time, but yes; and yeah, it tastes gross, but it’s a taste that kind of grows on you after a while… take it from me,” I said a bit drily. “People drink it because the alcohol in it makes them feel different. Remember how we talked about not using things outside ourselves to deal with feelings? …
“And when Dad gets here, you can ask him why he drinks it. Because I don’t drink it anymore, and he drinks it without it making him weird.”