This is how it goes: you end up at a meeting, but you don’t remember how you got there. People are sharing —“My name is Bill, and I’m an addict” —just like you’d expect.
When you say “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here,” everyone nods, and agrees:
“That’s how it was for me,” they say.
“No,” you continue, talking past the sympathetic faces; “I’m not addicted to anything —I don’t even drink that much.”
The woman next to you puts a hand on your knee. Not in a creepy way, but you jerk your leg back and smooth your skirt, wiping off her touch.
She’s not offended; she returns her hand to her lap, her smile serene.
“Seriously.” You’re annoyed. “I’ve never even smoked pot. Ever.”
Somehow, you end up with a sponsor.
“You think you’re alive,” your sponsor tells you. “You think you’re walking around making your own choices. But you’re not. You’re a slave, and the drug is your owner.”
Bullshit, you think. But you don’t want to be rude.
After coffee, your sponsor invites you outside for a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke,” you say. You can’t keep the smugness from your voice.
You sit there, fuming through every meeting, arms crossed, refusing to speak. The others try and chat with you over doughnuts, but you’re not chatty.
You do take a doughnut, though.
“I think your husband might be an enabler,” your sponsor says. “Do you know what that is? Enabling?”
Of course you know what enabling is. You’re not an idiot. Everyone treats you like a child these days, like you don’t know anything about anything. “I have a master’s degree,” you snap.
Your sponsor ignores your peevishness. “Does he support your recovery?”
“He thinks this is all bullshit.” And in your head: This is all bullshit.
Your sponsor nods. “That’s part of the problem, then.”
They give you a 30-day chip: a red coin that has “To Thine Own Self Be True” on one side, and the serenity prayer on the other.
I can’t wait to be done with this shit, you think.
You think of your higher power as Big Brother, always watching you and ready to punish you for any missteps.
“I’m not sure that’s healthy,” your sponsor says, and suggests you try finding a church or temple to attend.
What the hell, you think, and you drop in on a Catholic mass. They serve wine, which they pretend is the blood of Christ. That seems a little fucked up, so you don’t go back.
When you go before the judge and she congratulates you, you feel proud in spite of yourself. “You’re on the right path,” she says.
“Good job,” your lawyer whispers before the next case is called.
Clusters of people occupy the long wooden benches in the hall outside the courtroom.
Some look at you as you walk toward the elevator, but most stare at the gray carpet.
They’ve tried to dress up, you can tell —this one has a button-down shirt, that one’s wearing a skirt and nylons —but their clothes are dirty or wrinkled or ripped or just ill-fitting, and the hall smells of b.o. and alcohol and perfume and anxiety.
Losers, you think. You keep your gaze forward, and make it to the elevator.
“I think you’re holding me back,” you say.
“Fuck you,” your husband says.
He moves out, and later you hear that he’s staying with Teresa, who you thought was your friend.
“Just keep working the steps,” your sponsor says.
Fuck you, you think.
Everyone slips up, you tell yourself. Everyone. Relapse is part of recovery.
That’s what your sponsor says too.
You get another 24-hour coin —starting over —and commit to seven meetings a week. Your friends —the ones you still have from before you started the program —complain that you’re no fun anymore.
“I’m doing this for myself,” you tell them.
Soon, your new friends are the only ones you have.That’s ok, though; they share your new values.
You have reached the evangelical stage, and you are feeling judgmental. Anyone who’s not in the program —especially so-called social drinkers —they’re ruining their lives and hurting everyone around them.
You tell them so, and invite them to come to meetings with you. You talk about your higher power, and ask them to say the serenity prayer with you.
Your sponsor suggests you back off a little.
You decide it’s time for a new sponsor.
“I just think you’re holding me back,” you say.
You have another slip-up, and you’re back to starting over, with a new 24-hour coin. You feel like a loser. The judge orders you to spend a weekend in jail, where you reconnect with Teresa, who has sent your ex to the emergency room with a stab wound in his stomach.
That makes you happy.
“He’s a fucker,” Teresa says, and you agree.
Teresa thinks recovery is bullshit. She’s been through the twelve steps at least a hundred times. She thinks it makes things worse. She thinks the two of you should move in together after you both get out, and share expenses, and get high every night, and cover for each other when probation comes over.
When your weekend’s up, she stays inside. Later, you hear that she got 10 years.
You have a new boyfriend.
“That’s great,” your sponsor says. “But take it slow. Is he in recovery?”
“Of course,” you say. You’re not about to mess things up with another drunken douche.
You let him move in, and everything’s fine at first, but then you discover he’s nothing but a sober douche.
“I’m a sex addict,” he whines.
“Oh, please.” You kick him the fuck out.
In your pocket is your 6 month blue chip.
“I don’t know why you have to ruin everything,” your mom says when you ask her not to serve booze at her 70th.
Your sister accuses you of acting superior.
Your step-dad has always thought you were a little bitch, ever since he tried to kiss you in the bathroom.
Your brother? Well, he hasn’t talked to the family for five years. You’re beginning to think you understand why.
Here you are, now, ten years sober, then twenty. Thirty years. You still hit at least one meeting a week. They never change the format. One day at a time.
You’re old, you realize, and you find yourself looking back a lot. You remember that miscarriage, and wonder. You think about your first husband, and your second, but you resist going online to track them down. You may be an addict, but you’re not batshit crazy.
Your nieces graduate from college. One of them gets married; the other has a child. Your sister alternates between bragging and complaining. You tune her out, most of the time, but you look at the pictures on her phone.
Your mom goes into a home, and then passes away.
At the funeral, your sister cries ostentatiously, and her daughters roll their eyes and comfort her.
“Mommy,” she sobs as the casket goes down. Then she gets drunk and passes out at the reception; her daughters help her new husband carry her out to the car when it’s time to go. The three of them argue.
Your brother shows up at the end. He looks old, and tired, and sad. He sits down and talks to you, but doesn’t really share much about his life. He’s gay, you realize. Well, duh.
At your mother’s house —vacant since she went to the home —you sort through her stuff and think about death. It’s been on your mind a lot, since your mother got sick.
No, even before then. You’ve spent the last few years looking ahead to your own death, and looking back at your life. You still don’t believe in God, but you’re tempted to believe in the afterlife.
Wouldn’t that be nice? A second chance?
Damn, your mom had a lot of crap.
That’s it. The whole thing. They know you don’t want a priest, but they send one to your bedside anyway. He’s nice enough, a young kid, 40 or so, and he doesn’t insist onpraying or talking about God. Instead, you chat about the way the town used to look, and how things were before the Google cars, when everyone had to drive themselves around the city.
Your sister’s there, and your brother makes it, only to stand uncomfortably in the corner without talking to anyone. The nieces come with their kids —your great-nieces and great-nephews —all grown up now. One of them has children of her own; the brats won’t keep quiet even for a minute, despite shushing and warnings about upsetting the old lady.
Someone props you up so you can see the sunset, but you drift off and miss it. Your last one, possibly, and you slept through it.
You wake up as your sister’s saying goodbye, and the nieces help her out of the room. Your brother putsa hand on yours, and then he totters off as well. Soon, the only people left are one of the great-nieces, painting her nails in the corner, and the priest, dozing in a chair.
What are you thinking about?
The clock is ticking down through your last minutes.
You’re remembering your first time. The spoon and the lighter. Shaking as you fumbled with the tourniquet, worried about getting the needle in just right. Then the warmth, the relaxed, mellow full-body orgasm. If you could score some now, it wouldn’t hurt anyone. It would be the last thing you feel, and it would be so worth it.
You look from your great-niece to the priest, but you know neither of them could hook you up in the short time you have left.
It’s the first time you’ve cried in decades.
Manek R. Mistry is an appellate public defender in Olympia, Washington. Most of his clients are inmates seeking a new trial or a lighter sentence.