Monday, October 26, 2009

“Jails, Institutions, and Death”

I like to go to a lot of different meetings. I have my homegroup, where I’m in service, and I almost never miss those meetings, but I really enjoy attending meetings that I’m not a regular at. When I feel myself dipping, having a hard time, one of the things I’ve discovered that works really well for me is to go to a meeting I’ve never been to before. It doesn’t matter if it’s AA or NA, I can hear my story told. I learned early on to listen for the similarities, not the differences.

Historically, there has been a lot of grief between the two fellowships. This is something of a tragedy, in my opinion. The disease is the same, even if the manifestations are different. We are all there to help those who still suffer, after all. We only keep what we have by giving it away. My sponsor has often suggested that, when I’m feeling low, one of the best things to do is to reach out to a newcomer. The need to help those who still suffer is one of the cornerstones of the program. Most meetings take a moment of silence at some point, usually at the end, to remember those who do.

I can understand the need for multiple fellowships. The experience of addiction manifesting itself as alcoholism is best related to by another alcoholic. The same applies for a meth addict, or a pothead. What sometimes gets to me is the idea that, because someone is ‘only’ an alcoholic, they can’t help someone who is a drug addict. Or maybe they think that they don’t have to. Too often, it seems to me like an excuse to act (or fail to act) out of fear. The sociologists call this a fear of the Other—someone who is ‘different’ than ourselves. For those of us with this disease of addiction, though, we are all far more alike than different.

Whether someone is a recovering alcoholic or drug addict doesn’t matter nearly as much in the long run. Without the program, the disease leads to the same places. Both alcoholics and addicts end up in jail. The AA Big Book is full of stories of institutionalizations. Whether you’re an alcoholic or an addict, the disease will kill you if you don’t maintain sobriety and work a program of Recovery. I’ve heard it said that we have about the same chances as someone diagnosed with cancer.

NA meetings seem to focus a little more on the nearness and reality of death that this disease brings. Spend enough time in NA meetings, and you will experience it for yourself; someone close to you will die. It is a harsh, harsh truth, but a truth nonetheless. It has happened to me.

For a long time, I was lucky. I was in Recovery for over a year before someone close to me died from this disease. I knew of people who had died. When I was in high school, my grandfather died from it, but at that time I knew so little about the disease, I didn’t fully understand what had happened. Also, my family is one of secrets, where very little is talked about that isn’t superficial.

I had attended enough meetings, though, to know that death would touch me at some point. I remember sharing in a meeting about this. I said that I knew it would happen, that someone close to me—someone I loved—would die from this disease. It scared me to realize that, and I said so. Two weeks later, it happened.

We had a newcomer at my homegroup. After he’d been coming around for a little bit, he asked me to sponsor him. I sensed in him a strong willingness; he seemed done. He had seen his share of insanity and was truly ready to learn a new way of life. I gladly agreed to sponsor him. He was my first sponsee.

I told him to call me everyday. He did, and I got to know him a little. He was an artist and a student. He hung out with the group after meetings. A sort of quiet guy, but he didn’t stay on the edges; he contributed to the conversation and was even able to be of help to some others in the group. We didn’t talk much when we talked on the phone, but I didn’t think much of it since using the phone is one of the hardest things for those of us in Recovery to learn how to do. I took the fact that he called me at all as a good sign. I took him to a candlelight meeting and he really seemed to relate to the speaker. I was hopeful for him.

Unfortunately, I’m not a mind reader. Six days after he asked me to be his sponsor, I got a call letting me know he had committed suicide. My only wish is that he had called me first, so that I might have had the chance to help him.

My higher power is a strong force in my life. Sometimes, I almost wish it weren’t so. My sponsor tells me that, when things like this happen, it shows the faith my higher power has in me to handle them. For my part, I felt a whole lot of not much. He was close to me, but also very new in my life. If anything, I felt guilty that I didn’t know him well enough to properly grieve his loss. My disease sure noticed the shock, though. Old behaviors showed up in force. Old patterns of thinking took back over. It took work to get through, work that I am still doing.

Knowing the disease kills doesn’t stop the feelings of loss when someone dies from it. It prepared me, but only partially. There are a lot of things in life that don’t make sense, and learning to let go and accept them anyway is a huge part of Recovery. I talked with his mother about his history. Like myself (and so many of us), he had been in jail. He had been institutionalized. I have no explanation as to why I survived my suicide attempts and he did not. Sometimes there are no answers.

Before he died, he gave me one of his paintings. It had hung in his last art show. It hangs now in my living room, a testament not to the disease that kills, but to a man I wish I had had the chance to know better.


  1. You have an amazing ability to write. Keep it up! Love you much. -D

  2. Wow; 8-syllable words & stuff.
    Good job, bud.