The thousand pound phone
After finishing a fridge-full of booze the night before, I awoke on the first day of my sobriety shaky but still resolved to quit drinking, a resolve bolstered by the fact that there was no alcohol left in the house. I knew I couldn’t quit alone but the thought of asking for help sent sharp spears of terror through my soul. I’d gotten by for years (with the help of alcohol, of course) by hiding my vulnerability behind a tough persona. Now I faced exposing myself for the uniquely worthless worm that I was secretly convinced I was. (I didn’t understand until years later that thinking myself uniquely worthless was as grandiose as thinking myself uniquely worthy).
I found the number for the self-help recovery group* in the phone book but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the phone. Later I would learn that nearly all alcoholics wrestle the fear of phoning for help and I would laugh at my fight with the “thousand-pound phone.” But that day all I could do was pace the floor, smoking and imagining ridiculous scenarios in which I would get rejected: ‘Yes, we help alcoholics but not you (laughs),’ ‘Stop wasting my time! (slams down the phone),’ ‘What’s the matter with you? Don’t you have any friends?’ Finally sometime in mid-afternoon, I exhausted myself and made the call.
The number rang through to the Detox Centre which acted as an answering service for the self-help group. (The centre was part of Northern Addictions Services programming during 1980s and 90s. Today there is no Detox in Yellowknife.) I launched into my tale of woe only to be given a list of three names and numbers. It took nearly everything I had to make that first call and now I had to do it again. I worked up the courage with several more rounds of pacing. I got one busy signal, one answering machine (I was too frightened to leave a message) until, finally, I spoke to a woman who agreed to take me to a meeting the following night. Whew!
I have heard many alcoholics say they felt a sense of belonging and security from the moment they attended their first meeting. That didn’t happen to me. My first meeting was packed with what I thought of as crazy people who engaged in uproarious laughter in between bouts of serious discussion about how they were going to “clean up the wreckage of their past” by “making amends” for the way they had behaved while they drunk. The laughter seemed fake (probably because mine was) and while I could understand that they might need to make amends to people, I did not feel that I would ever have to. I had a long list of people who needed to make amends to me.
I went home that night feeling more isolated than ever. I still wanted to quit drinking but now felt that I had nowhere to go. In tears of desperation the next afternoon, I sought refuge in the office of my friend Mike, the man who had inspired me to quit drinking by telling me his story. “I know somebody you can talk to. She’s been around and is kind of tough like you,” he said.
Mike got Jen** on the phone for me and she to agreed to meet me for coffee in the Miner’s Mess (Yellowknife’s iconic coffee shop). “Look for a tall ugly blonde,” she said. I must have looked like a typical lost alcoholic because she stood up and waved me over as soon as I walked in. After getting us coffee, she sat down and scrutinized me. Then she told me exactly how I felt. Over the years, I have tried to remember what she said but I have never been able to. All I can remember is that for the first time in my life, I felt that somebody saw who I was and understood.
So it began.
*I have chosen not to publicly name the self-help group I joined out of respect for the traditions of that organization.
**Not the real name.
This blog has been inspired by reactions from readers of “Free Love,” my novel about recovery from alcoholism. I have often been asked why I chose to write about that particular subject. While there are several answers to that question, the most honest one is that I’m a recovering person myself. That opened the door to more questions. So I have started this blog to share some of my thoughts about alcoholism and addiction, based on my experience and observation.
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