God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know better.
That’s my version of the serenity prayer. You see— I know what can be changed, what can’t and all that groovy shit. My problem is that I can be a dumb ass sometimes. I figure there are a lot worse things to pray for than knowing better and that skill can save you a lot of grief.
They say I have impulse control problems. Like punching the occasional asshole in the mouth or getting high at inopportune times. OK— getting high all the time. People take a dim view of that hobby and I have to admit that I wasn’t getting a whole lot done.
I had a moment of clarity while stocking shelves on the 11-to-7 shift: I had to kick my habit and kick it soon or my life wasn’t going to amount to much.
My habit wasn’t especially major as far as budding young junkies go but it was bad enough for me. I had done a lot of stuff that I didn’t like to think about. Addiction is a funny thing. The more you do, the more you need and before long living in a place with no water and power but hot and cold running dope seems normal.
I knew where there was a treatment center so I decided to go by and have a talk with them. Little did I know it was like a roach motel: you could go in but you weren’t getting out if you had insurance. As an added bonus, just for being a junkie, you got to stay six weeks instead of the four that the obviously less sick drunks were stuck with while taking the cure.
So I did six weeks at the treatment center where I learned the language of recovery. First I learned that I was full of shit because all junkies were full of shit. I needed to let other people think for me because my best thinking had gotten me to this place.
I learned about rationalization which they said I was good at. I learned about intellectualism which means you think too much. I learned about blaming and guilt and projection and grief and all sorts of treatment center psycho-babble. I learned that Jesus would heal me— if I got clean I would find out I wasn’t really a queer after all and that nobody under 40 ever really gets clean and sober. All the good recovery is at AA and the folks at NA didn’t really get it.
The only thing about that treatment center that wasn’t degrading, demeaning and detrimental to people at a very personal level was when they had outside meetings. People from the community would come to the treatment center for 12 step meetings to let the newbies see that it actually worked. It was at one of these meetings that I met some of the first people that weren’t Jesus freaks or talked like Nurse Ratchet.
I met some people from Narcotics Anonymous that weren’t thirty years older than me and that meant a lot. I wasn’t really a drunk. After I got my drugs I couldn’t afford much in the way of booze. Drugs are what I was into so I didn’t really warm up to AA meetings.
The time went by and I learned that what I was getting was what one of the other guys called McTherapy. We were in the McDonalds of rehab: you had the big mac(alcoholism) or the quarter-pounder(drug addiction), fries and a coke. Nothing else was on the menu. We didn’t really talk about our issues, we were slowly being taught that we were losers and would stay that way unless we went to AA, followed all the rules and maybe then we would make it.
All treatment at that center was formed around the first 5 steps of the AA program. Week 1 was about the 1st step and powerlessness. You suck, you are worthless and weak and you couldn’t manage your own life. You couldn’t argue with that. You were in an f-ing treatment center.
Week 2 was about the second step: we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. This was tricky. By not actually picking any particular religion they could say it was not a religious thing. I was the typical intellectual asshole who had issues with religion so I called my higher power Odin.
Week 3 was about the third step: we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him. Odin was pissed. He told me that I should kill the psycho-therapists with a battle axe but I couldn’t locate one.
Week 4 was about the fourth step: made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. We took a week and wrote a book about all the shit we had ever done wrong. I needed an extra note book, computer support and office supplies. It actually took me two weeks.
Graduation was when you went to someone with your fifth step in which you “admitted to God, ourselves and another human being the exact nature of your wrongs”. I went to a Catholic priest. He asked me if I was Catholic. I said no but Catholics have a tradition with confession and didn’t hold grudges like Baptists. We got along pretty well after that.
We talked for two hours. I think he was bored. When we got to the end, he said that there was nothing really shocking there. He told me that there were sins of the flesh and sins of the spirit. All of my favorite sins were covered in the flesh side and didn’t honk off God like sins of the spirit.
He told me that I had some serious issues. That’s what I thought when I checked into McTherapy but we didn’t really talk about any of them. He said that if I was serious about my sobriety, I needed to address those issues. He gave me the card for a shrink and told me to call him.
The Priest told me that he liked what he saw in me. I wasn’t court ordered or forced into rehab by the law or relatives. I had taken the initiative to clean up my life and that spoke well of me.
I stayed at the treatment center another couple of days until it was Monday. They didn’t let people out on weekends.
I did what they told me: ninety meetings in ninety days, I got a temporary sponsor and I went to the therapist.
I started making friends in the program. The first one was a guy named Doug who was a skater punk. We couldn’t have been more different people but we ended up brothers.
The therapist wasn’t so much fun. The first three times he let me get away with glossing over what was going on with me.
The fourth trip he jumped me: OK— cut the shit. Something happened to you. I’ve seen your records and I know. You were in the hospital. You were diagnosed with shock and post-traumatic stress. After that, you went downhill and six months later you landed in rehab so tell me what happened to you.
So I did and it fucked me up. I ended up sitting ass-on-the-floor hugging my knees crying like a baby. He prescribed drugs for me and I commented on the irony of going to rehab and then being prescribed drugs. He told me that they weren’t the fun kind and it was as much a part of my recovery as meetings.
He also told me to tell my sponsor about what happened and talk about it in a meeting when I was ready.
I asked him how did he know? He told me that he saw it the first time I walked into his office. Hypervigilance, drug abuse, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, anger— it didn’t take much insight if you knew what to look for. I was as post traumatic as some of the veterans he saw.
I asked him about the other stuff and he said we needed to put the fire out first. The rest of it wasn’t pretty but it could wait.
It took me a while to find a sponsor that I could really connect with. It took me a while longer to tell him what had happened. When I did the same shit happened. I was on the floor in a fetal position crying. He and his wife took care of me and said that this was something that the people around me needed to know.
The meeting I chose wasn’t one of the big ones. My sponsor had a word with a few people so my friends were there and some of the old timers who had been clean and sober for a long time.
The meeting started as usual with the readings and finally the chairperson said, “Is there anybody here that has something they need to talk about.”
I steeled myself and said, “Hi. I’m James and I’m an addict.”
The group said, “Hi, James.”
I said, “There’s something that happened a while back that my therapist and my sponsor told me that I needed to talk about. I don’t want to talk about it and it is going to mess me up but if I’m going to stay clean I’ve got to get it out.”
“Before it happened I was a weekend dope smoker. I had done other drugs but I had sort of evened out. I was 20 and going to college. Seven months later I was in rehab.”
“It was a hot summer night. It had been raining but it had passed and it was muggy and humid. I was out late on a booty call but I was stone cold sober when this happened.”
“I came around that bad curve on Oak Hills Road and there was a small truck off the road upside down. I stopped and put my emergency flashers on and got out.”
“I heard a sound right out of hell. It was a wail of pain, desolation and despair and it laid me low.”
“I grabbed my flashlight and ran to the truck and I could see that it was much worse accident than it first appeared. The truck had hit some things when it went off the road and had slammed into a tree upside down and sideways.”
“I went in through the passenger side to get to the driver and Jesus it was horrible. There was this little red headed kid just fucking butchered in this truck. He was wailing. He was crying to God, to his Mom, I wasn't even sure he knew I was there at first. He knew that he was dying and I did too.”
By this point the tears were rolling down my face. A few of the other people were showing some emotion too. My sponsor was on one side of me and Doug was on the other. They were hanging on to me and I to them. I got my sobs under control and continued.
“I crawled inside and I could see some kind of metal pipes had him impaled. He had on a seat belt and there was no way I could move him.”
“He was crying and begging please God I’m only 15, please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die.”
“I told him to hang on, I’ll go for help and he said ‘No— don’t leave me alone. I don’t want to die alone.’”
“So I stayed with him and held him as best I could. I prayed with him. His breathing came in short gasps and then it didn't come at all anymore.”
“When the cops showed up I was crying and had his blood all over me. They saw what had happened. They put me in an ambulance. They had to sedate me.”
“The paramedics said that I shouldn’t blame myself. There was nothing anyone could have done. He was impaled on fencing material and would have bled out in seconds if I had managed to get him out.”
“I’m sorry but I’m stuck in this. I don’t want to go to sleep because I hear that little kids cry in my nightmares and hear his voice. I tried to stay fucked up after it happened and my life fell apart. I don’t know how to get this out of my head.”
“Thanks for listening.”
One by one the people in the group responded. They didn’t tell me that there was a magic cure. They told me that I had to let go of that kid. They told me that I was a fixer— I liked to fix things for people and when I couldn’t, I took it real hard.
They told me that there was nothing to do but let it go and give it to God.
I told them that I didn’t know how.
They all hugged me and said keep coming back. We’ll help if you let us.
So I kept going back. I learned how to pray to a God of my understanding and little by little it began to get better.
I learned that it hurt me so bad because of my compassion. I learned that was strength and not weakness.
I learned a lot about myself and that I had it in me to give comfort to that dying kid.
With time I learned how to let it go.
The memory doesn’t happen very much anymore but it still comes back in the occasional nightmare. It still has the power to make me cry like a baby and beat my hands in frustration that there was nothing I could do.
But that’s life on life’s terms. Sometimes there is nothing to do but just be there and that matters.