Came to Believe
I was 36 years old the summer of 1986. I was broke and unemployed and living in an 8 X 16 hand-built slab-wood shack on five acres of black spruce bog about a mile back off the Alcan Highway, five miles outside the road village of Delta Junction, Alaska. I had a ten year old daughter and 28 sled dogs. I had no driver's license, being still embroiled in a million dollar lawsuit due to a DWI accident which had occurred four summers previously. I was partnered with a gay man ten years my junior whom we had just discovered was HIV positive. I had no running water, no electricity, no road, no vehicle, no prospects of anything changing and, so far as I was concerned, "no problems".
I don't know how the hell to talk about what all was happening in my life when I got struck sober. Even today, I still don't understand it. I was about to straighten up and fly right, as my mother used to say, imploring me to just quit being so purposely stupid and self destructive. But, I don't know why, I couldn't ever see how it was me that was messing with Kat. I always attributed all the problems, the bad shit that kept happening to me, to stuff outside of myself, mysterious forces that kept sideswiping me. I just couldn't get a handle on how any of it had anything to do with me, how I thought and felt, my values and opinions and the decisions I made based on that. My negative attitude was as strong as ever. Instead of a skate board, however, it had found a jet-propelled rocket and it took me on some really wild trips.
I was spinning in my cabin and I heard the magpies making a racket out in the dog yard and I glanced out the back window, looking out at my faithful companions. I had gotten one hopeless sled dog, named Darrell, after both my friend, the Bum, and a TV character, you remember, Larry and Darrell and their other brother, Darrell. Darrell-dog was always nuts on his line. He would jump around in circles, barking and biting his butt and turning summersaults, just hateful about being on a chain, and he always ended up so twisted up that he was choking. No amount of reason and explanations on my part could ever convince him to knock it off. No matter what I said or did, while I patiently unclipped him and straightened out his line, he always set right back in to chasing his own ass and howling every single time I put him back on his line.
That day I looked out there and Darrell was having a Mexican standoff with a couple of magpies who were hopping around, feeding out of his bowl and picking meat scraps off a bone I had thrown to him when I'd fed the dogs the night before. As distressed as he was about the birds stealing his lunch, he was helpless to defend his food as he had, as always, managed to get himself so fouled up on his line that all he could do was snap at the birds and growl and scratch the dirt, trapped just a few inches short of his bowl. I thought, "I'm just like that poor dumb dog. I'm always running around in circles biting myself in the ass, hollering and screaming, worried to death that I'm gonna miss a meal, trying to figure out why I'm getting strangled again and everything I do just keeps making my chain tighter and tighter. I end up bleeding from the ass, all tangled up, wondering how come these things always keep happening to me." I call this The Miracle of the Dog Yard. For some reason, I had another moment of clarity, just like the one I'd had a year earlier when I about drowned drunk in the middle of my own swampy trail, almost home.
I decided that moment that I was gonna go find out more about this alcoholism business. After all, I thought, maybe I can go and get some more information and bring it home and give it to my partner, Stephen, and then maybe he'll see that he's gotta do something about his problem. You see, I knew I wasn't an alcoholic. I could stop drinking any time. As a matter of fact, I could count on one hand the times I'd been drunk since my crawl through the bog. That had scared me so badly, I no longer felt safe if I was drinking. And, truth to tell, I was afraid of the next black-out because I was pretty sure that I WAS gonna kill Stephen, just to put him out of his misery, just the same as I would shoot a dog that was too old or hurt or I couldn't feed any more. Every time I even saw a can or bottle of beer or a shot of whiskey in a glass, I got all hot and tight and shaky inside. That stuff always made me sick every time I drank it and now it made me sick every time I even saw it or just thought about it. I had pretty much quit drinking and whenever I did have a drink I would just about shake, worrying about the next drink I might take if I wasn't careful. When I was bartending, I hated the smell of the stuff. I saw a skull and crossbones every time I poured a drink. Poison.
So, it certainly wasn't with the idea that I needed help, when I fired up our 4-wheeler, Suzi, and took off down our trail that summer night, leaving my daughter, Bryn, at the cabin with Stephen where they were spinning and weaving and listening to Patti Smith on the tape deck, to attend a 12-step program meeting. I knew this group of drunks met every Wednesday night at the fellowship hall of the Presbyterian church, the one with the creepy soft minister that I'd thrown out of my cabin six years earlier when he brought a Christmas box to my cabin behind the Buffalo. I don't know what was going through my head, really. I think I was more shocked even than Bryn and Stephen, who after all, were used to me going off on one weird trip after another. I didn't tell Steve that I was gonna go get him some help, but in my mind I felt like a scout out looking for the 7th calvary or a deranged castaway that up and jumps into the ocean, deciding to swim off to find someone to rescue her loved ones.
Now, I had gone to an ACOA meeting with my little sister, Mosie, down in Reno and it had been an awful spooky experience and I don't know what I expected to find this time, really. I had this picture in my head of a bunch of old men in shabby suits in a big hall, with one of 'em up at the front, standing behind a lectern, hollering like a preacher about demon rum and how god saved him from a fate worse than death. The meeting was scheduled for 7:30 so I waited till about five minutes after that, thinking I could just slip in and sit way in the back and if it was too weird I could just slip back out again. My heart was thudding and jerking around up into my throat as I walked up to that ratty old ATCO unit that the church used for a meeting hall, and my knees were playing a rock and roll tune, literally knocking together, as I went up the steps and opened the door. I felt like I might puke and my mouth was dry and cottony.
Life is so funny, you know. I had this whole picture in my head of what to expect, and then I got through that door and nothing I saw fit the vision I had of what it was gonna look like. There wasn't any lectern, for one thing, and rather than rows and rows of chairs, there was just one old broken down table with about ten chairs sitting around it and most of the chairs were empty. There was a tough looking old man making a pot of coffee and a hippie looking fellow setting up some books and a guy that looked like a freaking Eagle Scout shifting around nervously in his seat, and surprise, surprise, there were two fellows there that I had crawled around on the bar room floor with, who both cracked up laughing when they saw me walk in and called me by name and told me to come on in and sit down, the meeting was about to start. Oh jeez, there's no sneaking back out now. So, much against my better judgment, I sat down. The old fart poured me a cup of coffee without even asking me if I would like one and slammed an ashtray down in front of me and said, "Let's get this show on the road."
The hippie was in charge of chairing the meeting and he said his name and said he was an alcoholic and said that by the grace of God he hadn't had to drink that day and then he said they would start the meeting with the Serenity prayer for those who cared to join. Now, I had known that prayer for a long, long time, ever since those people in Lake Tahoe had given Mom a framed copy of it. That prayer had stayed on the wall of every place we'd lived after that and Mom had said it out loud, many, many times. But, when these jerks all bowed their heads and said that prayer, I just sat there and stared straight ahead. The hippie had said, "...for those who care to join,” and I was damned if I was gonna join anything. They were nuts if they thought I wanted to be a part of anything they were gonna do. I sure as hell didn't want them to think that I was a joiner. I was just there for a little bit of information. I drank the coffee, though, and I sure was glad when most of 'em lit a cigarette up. If I've got a cup of coffee and I can smoke my brains out, I can get through just about anything.
Then they took turns reading a bunch of junk, most of which didn't make much sense to me but I was alarmed, though not surprised, to hear the word god about a half a dozen times. The old man got up again and poured coffee again, all around. The hippie said, "Well, it looks like we got a newcomer tonight so let's all introduce ourselves," and they went all around the table saying what their name was and all saying that they were alcoholics, which I thought was about the weirdest thing in the whole weird world. I mean, wouldn't it be bad enough to be one without telling everyone else about it????
When they got all the way around the table, they all looked at me and I said, "Well, my name's Kat and I don't even know what the flock I'm doing here." They all laughed about that and the old man said, "You're right were you're supposed to be, Kat,” which I thought proved how stupid he was. Then the hippie guy started talking about powerlessness. Nothing he said made any sort of sense to me so I just threw all that into the bag of Stuff That Makes No Sense, but I was real polite, acting like I was listening while I was trying to figure out if I could get up and go to the bathroom and find a back door out of this place. The hippie ended up saying he didn't know how the program worked, he just knew that ever since he admitted he was an alcoholic he hadn't gotten drunk and for that he was grateful.
Worse and worser. These people were all nuts. Then a guy talked that I had partied with a lot a couple of years ago. He said he still didn't get the powerlessness bit, he still thought he was in charge of his life and it pissed him off every time he even thought of not being able to handle the booze. That sounded sensible to me so I kinda perked up and listened to him a little closer. He said that he was sick and tired of being sick and tired and the only reason he didn't drink that day was because he was afraid he'd end up in a straight jacket for sure this time. Pretty drastic, I thought. He ended by saying he was gonna keep working on this thing because he knew he had will power.
The old fart jumped in then and said something about you shouldn't try to depend on will power. "That's stinking thinking,” he said, "You're heading for a drink if ya don't hang on to the Higher Power with every thing ya got. Will power is what got ya so screwed up in the first place,” he added, his crepe-paper face slipping all over and his loose lips flapping and smacking. "Put the plug in the jug and give up any idea that you can do ANYTHING on you're own,” he spat out, and then he went on a long jag about ruined lives and broken promises and failed marriages and lost jobs due to trying to exert his will power. He was an angry old bird and he slapped the table with his hand and half my coffee jumped out of my cup. I jumped, too, as did the Eagle Scout and the hippie. Then, everyone laughed and another guy started talking. All he had to say was that he was an alcoholic and he was one drink away from a drunk and he didn't know how the program worked either but he was gonna keep coming back till the miracle happened for him. Well, that went right in one ear and out the other.
Then it was the Eagle Scout's turn to talk and he said his name was Dave, uh David, and he was a neurotic and he didn't like the concept of powerlessness, either, but he knew for a fact that his life was sure unmanageable. He was flipping through some book and then he stopped that and read a little piece about surrendering to win and then he talked about how that paradox just confused him. "I never had the drink problem like the rest of you,” he said, "For me, the problem is my thinking. But, it's the same thing. The harder I try to change the way I think, the more my old way of thinking kicks in. I can't change any of that until I give up the idea that I CAN change it. Self-will is useless. That leaves me with the problem of finding a power greater than myself. I still haven't figured that one out. In fact, the more I think about it, the worse it gets,” he stated, and everybody laughed again, except me. I didn't get the joke. And, honest, this guy made me even more nervous than the old fart. For one thing, he was shaking so badly while he was talking that I couldn't believe it. He had to swallow and hem and haw with every word he said. It was so obviously painful for him to speak that I couldn't figure out why he even did so. He was so clean cut it hurt, shaven and shorn, shirt and pants pressed, and his eyes behind his glass lenses flew around the room like a flock of swallows while he spoke. "But, I do know that since I started coming here, I do feel better, every time. It's hard for me to admit that I can't fix myself. I can fix just about anything else. But, everything I ever tried to do to make me better has ended in failure. So, I guess I qualify for the first step. I only wished I was dead a couple of times today, that's progress,” he finished, and everybody laughed again, except me, of course. The old fart said, "Well, you'd be fine if ya'd quit feeling so goddamned sorry for yourself all the time,” and then he went and made another pot of coffee while the last guy talked.
That guy said he didn't believe in the powerlessness thing at all, that he didn't used to have a problem with alcohol and as soon as he got a job again and got his family life straightened out, he'd be OK. He said something about being a retread, said he had worked all the steps and it didn't make any difference, he was still all fucked up. The old fart was back and poured every one more coffee and then he spoke again, saying, "Well, my name's Chuck and I'm a goddamned drunk and none of us are here for eating too many ice cream cones. If you don't think booze is your problem, you might as well go get good and drunk. For people like us one drink is too many because a whole ocean of the stuff is never enough. You probably never really got step one, that's why you got drunk again. Every morning I ask God Please and every night I say Thank you and if that's too simple for ya, it's probably because you're still thirsty. It's the first drink that gets us drunk and 'til you get that fact into your thick head, you don't have a chance in hell of getting it. You ain't sober, you're just dry. But, I got it and I'm gonna hang on to it and all I gotta do is trust God and give it away every chance I get."
I was sitting there trying to figure out what the hell IT was when I realized that everyone around that table was looking at me. I looked back at them and it got real quiet in that room except for the sound of the coffee pot brewing. The hippie said, "What about you, Kat. Do you have anything you would like to say?" and it got even quieter. I looked at the hippie and the old fart and the Eagle Scout and the guy I'd crawled around on the floor at the Buffalo with and the fellow that thought he needed more will power and this other poor sap that didn't believe in powerlessness and they were all looking back at me.
"My name's Kat,” I said, as I had figured that part out rightly enough. "I'm not an alcoholic but I sure am interested in learning more about this. The man I live with is gonna die if he doesn't stop drinking. My Dad was an alcoholic and the man I married turned into an alcoholic and I don't even like alcohol any more. I don't understand any of this stuff but ya got some pretty good coffee here." Everybody got a good laugh out of that. The old fart told me to keep coming back and then the hippie passed a basket and said we were self-supporting and no one had to contribute but everyone else threw a buck into the basket so I did, too. After all, coffee's a dollar anywhere ya go and I'd drunk about five cups of the stuff by now.
They closed the meeting by all standing in a circle and saying the Lord's prayer. I held hands but I didn't say that prayer. I thought about Dad teaching it to me and Cassandra that day when he was in a black-out and the Monster decided that we needed to learn catechism. I thought about him banging my head against the wall by my hair and I felt all hot and angry. "That's a stupid prayer,” I thought, real loud, in my head, and then everybody shook hands with every body and the meeting was over but people stood around and drank coffee and talked to one another. I edged out of there real fast and fired up Suzi and wended my way slowly home on the back trails, praying no trooper would catch me. That's just what I need, to end up in jail again. By the time I got back to my trail I had decided that the whole meeting was probably a waste of time and I wouldn't go to any more.
Stephen went to town to buy groceries and ended up drunk down at the Buffalo. The bags of food got broken open during his trip home on Suzi the next day and there were oranges scattered all up our trail, and broken eggs all over everything else. "Oh, Jesus, Steven, I thought you said you weren't gonna drink any more. Look at you. You're all fucked up. And, so is our food. I don't get it. Why can't you just go to town and come back without ending up drunk?" I hollered at him.
"I don't know,” he said, looking at me kinda halfway sideways, "I got Buffaloed."
I was seeing red again; didn't he know how important he was to me? To us? It was like with my father all over again except not only did I feel like I was losing the center of my universe, but there was the virus like a big fat suppurating sore unspoken between us. Didn't he realize he was gonna die on me? Didn't he realize he was a danger not just to himself but to others, too? But, just like he had told me before, part of him cared and another part of him just couldn't be bothered anymore. I got so mad I went back to another one of those meetings with all those sorry drunks. Maybe I'd see someone else I knew that drank and now they don't drink. Maybe I'd hear something that would help me make sense out of watching Stephen dying by inches in front of my eyes.
That old fart was there again, making coffee, as was the Eagle Scout-looking fellow and the hippie and a new guy that looked like he must be in the army and my fall-down drunk friend and some other guy that looked like he'd rather shoot his foot off than be sitting there in that ATCO unit on a fine summer evening. The old fart greeted me like long lost friends and told me to pour coffee. What was I gonna do, say no? He got the books and stuff out and the meeting was called to order with that same God Grant Me prayer, but again I wouldn't say the words. Just because I came here twice, I still didn't want them to think this was gonna get to be a habit. They read that same stuff about how it works and something about their traditions that I didn't really even listen to because I was feeling so insulted. Did they think I was stupid? They read that last week. I mean, do I look brain-damaged or something? Then they all introduced themselves again, like a 2nd grade Social Skills unit, most of 'em saying they were alcoholics. I just said, "My name is Kat and I don't know what the fuck I'm doing here,” which might have been the most honest thing I'd said in years, actually, and got to be a bit of a ritual as that is how I introduced myself for a long time. I'd die before I'd call myself an alcoholic, that's for goddamned sure.
The old fart was chairing the meeting and he talked about how it's the first drink that gets ya drunk, not the third or tenth. He said he was one drink away from a drunk, that when ya get hit by a train it's the engine that kills ya, not the caboose. I thought that was pretty witty. He said that he couldn't get it until he just let go and let God which left me to wondering what is this IT stuff these people were always talking about. He talked about losing his first family because of drinking and said he hadn't cared what happened to them, he was in love with the bottle. His blue eyes glittered when he talked and he just about spit his words and slapped the table again. He said the topic tonight would be turning it over. Then he opened the meeting to discussion, calling on each person one by one.
The nervous nellie Eagle Scout was nattering on and on and on about nothing and everything which left me free to think about the topic but all I could come up with was what it looks like when ya turn a rock over, or an old board, all pale grass and wiggly bugs and a damp rot smell so I couldn't hear much of anything. Everybody talked and everybody listened and we all drank coffee and smoked cigarettes except for the Eagle Scout, figures-eh? Every time I heard that word Alcoholic I flinched inside and froze up and felt like I was gonna toss my cookies. The old fart called on me and I said, "My name's Kat and I hate alcohol, and alcoholics, and more than anything else I wish I could figure out how to go to parent/teacher conferences,” which caused everyone to laugh for a long, long time. But, I went on to tell about all the times I was supposed to go talk to Bryn's teachers and would end up down at the Buffalo. That always made me feel so stupid. I mean, everyone else seems to be able to make it to their kid's schools and talk to the teachers, so how come I couldn't? I finished by saying that I didn't think my problems were all that bad but I was angry all the time any more especially at Stephen, and all my other drunk friends. I said I didn't know what I was gonna do about anything.
The old fart was smiling about a mile wide when he told me to keep coming back, it works. So, I was left to chew on that, what works? It, what? We all threw a buck in the basket again and held hands and they said the Our Father which was really a puzzle to me as half the people who spoke that night had said that these meetings helped them because they weren't about religion. "It's a spiritual thing,” I had heard them say. So, whatever IT was, it was Spiritual, but where does the praying fit in, then, I wondered.
I left that place fast again but this time as I rode the 4-wheeler home I thought and thought about those men, all saying how one day at a time they were not drinking and how God was doing for them what they couldn't do alone. The old fart had said, "GOD. That stands for Group of Drunks, ya know?" That kept going through my mind. Stephen was icky sick when I got home, remorseful and sweet and he and Bryn were singing while he played his guitar, a new song he had just written called, David Bowie and the Barbie Maui Hula, a very silly little ditty with one line that went, "See the whales and the cocaine bills, piling up in Lahani Harbor." I had never been to the islands but I could see the whole scene in my mind's eye. Why couldn't he just stay like this, I wanted to know, tired and empty, but relaxed and nice. I just hated watching him, waiting for the build up to the next binge.
Summer wore on. For some reason I kept going to those meetings. I really don't know why. I would just show up, every Wednesday night, like I had nothing better to do. I always heard something to think about later and truth to tell I was sorta curious to find out: were these guys really staying sober? I asked around town, at the bars and the liquor stores, "Have you seen so-and-so?" I asked, trying to be real casual. I sure didn't want any one to know that I was going to those meetings. "No," I heard from several sources, "So-and-so hasn't been drinking. I heard he was going to those meetings." Oh, oh.
I couldn't believe that any one could actually stop drinking, I mean stay stopped. I felt real funny sitting in the bar. People would try to buy me a drink and I would go all wobbly inside. Believe it or not, I was ashamed to tell 'em I was trying to not drink. I had never worried much what people would think when I was falling over and throwing up and passing out in the bathroom and stuff. But, I was afraid they would call me light-weight and tease me and I knew for a fact that if one of 'em said, "Kat can't drink,” I would have to, just to prove 'em wrong. I lied and said I had the clap, no booze for me, ya know, I'm doing penicillin. For some reason I thought it was better to lie about VD than to cop to not drinking.
I went to the Buffalo with Stephen one day, just to have coffee, we had agreed. Brain Worms bought a round for the house, ringing the bell and hollering. Stephen ordered brandy and I froze all up inside. I wanted to scream. I wanted to rip his face off. I wanted to kill Brain Worms and break the bartender's arms. I wanted to rip the bar up by the roots and, oh shit, I dunno, drown it in the river, I guess. I sat and watched him drink that brandy and then he ordered another. I split. I couldn't sit there and watch it. I just couldn't. He went missing again and he came home finally, really sick, just as I was leaving to go to a meeting.
"I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry,” he said, again and again and again, crying and tearing at his clothes and hair, "I don't know why I do these things. I know it hurts you and I don't want to hurt you, I swear." I took Bryn with me that night. I wasn't about to leave her at home alone to deal with the mess. She seemed to enjoy herself. She sat up nice and straight and drank coffee, although she didn't smoke cigarettes, and when it was her turn to speak she said her name was Bryn and she liked it better when her Momma didn't drink and Stephen was drunk again and you wouldn't believe how bad he smells and then she smiled when everyone laughed about that. She wanted to hang out after the meeting but I chased her out of there pretty damn fast. We stopped and bought ice cream and took it home and ate it with Stephen who was a bit green and shaking badly by the time we got back.
Bryn went to a lot more meetings with me after that, she actually liked 'em. She bounced around a little bit but wasn't much worse, for a ten year old, than the adults. She read while people talked, or sat and drew. Sometimes she'd speak and sometimes she'd just say, "I'm with her,” and roll her eyes dramatically. The Eagle Scout started giving me books. He seemed to have a whole library about this stuff. When I read the first one and gave it back to him the next week it shocked the shit out of him. "Well, I SAID I would read it, didn't I?" I said. He gave me two more books and when I brought those back the next week he said, "Gee, you must read fast.” Right, asshole, and I'm smart, too. But, I just took the next book he gave to me.
I found out that they read that same stuff every week out loud, no matter what, at the start of the meeting. I didn't get this. Sometimes I thought I must be in a room fulla parrots, too. They said the same things, over and over, week after week, and they were always talking about the program this and the program that. I joked to myself I better be careful or I'm gonna end up programmed, like a computer. But, for some reason I always felt better after going to a meeting. I don't know why that was because my head would be absolutely going in circles during the most part of each meeting, every voice in there about screaming. I got headaches and I had entire conversations, sarcastic as hell, about what the other people were saying. "Oh, yeah, I'll bet,” my head would say when some man was talking about how his wife was rude or impatient or cut him off in conversation. "I'm sure, you were just innocently walking all over her and she told you to knock it off. Asshole. All men are assholes. How the hell did a dick-head like you even get a wife, that's what I wonder." Then it would be my turn to talk and I would say, "Well, my name's Kat and I wish to hell I had a wife to schlep the kids and pay the bills and cook for me and clean up the mess and worry about my fucking feelings,” and they would all laugh and poke each other in the ribs. I was so angry and preoccupied, I never knew what was gonna pop out of my mouth, but they didn't seem to care.
The old fart told me one night after meeting, "Kat, we are never supposed to diagnose some one else in this program but I can tell you for a fact, you're a drunk and you belong here. But, I'll tell ya what. I doubt you can get this program. You're too smart for your own good and you're too tough. I don't think you have what it takes to stay sober." That son of a bitch. "I'll show you, you asshole,” I thought. So, I hung on to what I call Spite Sobriety, my knuckles were literally white. I didn't want to stop drinking and I knew I wasn't what they called an alcoholic but I would show that Chuck and by god, I was gonna show Stephen, too. I had this crazy feeling that if I quit drinking, he might too, like by osmosis or something. I was nuts.
The next thing I knew, it was winter. Seemed like summer just whipped past. We had exactly one day of Fall that year, in early September. The storms came, the leaves turned black and fell off with no show of fiery orange and red and yellow to remind us to start getting our wood in, and just like that, it was cold and dark and blowing snow. Welcome to Alaska. This actually made life simpler for me, once again I could mush the dogs to work.
I didn't understand anything, any more, by this point in my life. My bag of Stuff That Makes No Sense just kept getting fuller and fuller. I didn't understand love when it hurt this bad and I didn't understand the careless indifference I used to protect me from those feelings. I didn't understand why everything kept getting worse. I didn't understand how Stephen could keep on using needles and telling me it was gonna be o.k. I didn't understand why I felt so crazy and out of control.
I didn't get this One Day At A Time stuff, either. It seemed like I had been living one day at a time all along, one minute at a time, sometimes. I never knew from minute to minute and day to day what I might be doing next. I always thought I had been very laid-back and, you know, flexible. I had never seen my actions as being erratic. I saw myself as a basically nice person who had intermittent homicidal episodes. I had gotten through life by making it one scene at a time and never looking back or forward. Somehow, with Stephen, I had fallen in love with the idea of having a future together and this had touched someplace in me that I'd lost in Lake Tahoe, when I was about nine years old. Deciding to buy into the whole idea of having a future together, the HIV and the drunken disorder had sideswiped me and I had become desperate. How was I supposed to live one day at a time when it was clear as mud we were dying, second by second? I cared about that man and that caring was dismantling my alibi system and my whole wall of defense mechanisms, brick by mossy brick. I started looking at stuff that I had let sit unexamined for years in my mind. Being a smart-ass didn't work any more. Saying I Don't Care didn't work, I wasn't that careless indifferent bitch I'd been pretending to be. Being tough didn't work, it was just killing me. I was dancing with Doctor Death and more than anything else in the world I was afraid of dying, of the unknown void, of losing the only thing I had ever had, my safe little make believe world in my head.
I read everything I could get my hands on about alcohol, about addiction, about human health and disease, about HIV and AIDS, about this thing I kept hearing called codependency which Stephen started calling Dododependency and this other thing called triangulation which Stephen and Bryn both called Strangulation. I sucked that information up like a wanderer in the desert lusts after an oasis. I absorbed those books and stories written by and about people like me; I couldn't get enough of it. The Eagle Scout looking fellow, "Dave, uh, David", as he always introduced himself, as if he couldn't make up his mind and wished you would for him, kept giving me more and more books and pamphlets, which I kept reading and returning every Wednesday night, after the meeting.
I quit saying "I don't know what the fuck I am doing here,” and started introducing myself by saying, "I am poly-addicted, codependent, adult child of an alcoholically dysfunctional family,” as if that string of words sounded less stupid that just Alcoholic. I don't know why those guys even put up with me. I was very angry and cussed and ranted as if possessed during meetings. My favorite word for men at the time was Dickhead, interspersed with Dick For Brains which also felt quite comforting rolling off my tongue. I remember one time Stephen told me, "You say Dickhead this and Dickhead that, and Kat, you're the biggest Dickhead in the whole valley. Just look at how you act, walking all over people, cutting them off in conversation, and just automatically rejecting anything that you don't know or understand. You act more like Dick For Brains than any man I ever knew." Well, of everything that Stephen and I had in common, our unusual upbringings, our strange life style, our anarchist view point, the thing we had most agreed on, all along, was that all men were assholes, just flat out Dickheads, ya can't trust one, they do all their thinking with their penises and besides that they just aren't fun people, hostile, paranoid, aggressive, because their sex organs hang out, right? And, of all the men we hated the most, of all the kinds of guys we loved to hate more than any other, we hated white men. White men, in suits, with head's fulla bad ideas, which, we agreed, were contagious. Property, private ownership of land, servitude, the superiority of white males, Christianity, Manifest Destiny, all that crap, it sucked, we knew. So, to be told that I was a Dickhead was a bit unsettling, kinda like being told I was the enemy. But, that's what it had come to.
Stephen quit drinking for a couple of months, and even started going to meetings with me, which was a real riot. Old Chuck and Dave uh David got nervous enough with me, what with my hollering and cursing and my anger and my daughter who had quite a mouth on her, herself. But, with Stephen around as well things got really convoluted. For one thing we had to smoke about a dozen joints first, showing up high, bloodshot eyes, giggly. Stephen's off-the-wall sense of humor was a bit much, too, although the old man took it in stride and talked turkey to us both. "You ain't never gonna stay sober smoking that wacky tabacky,” he told us, peering at us through his thick glasses. "Well," Stephen replied, frankly, "I never ended up in a black-out or on my lips due to pot." I wasn't so blatant. I didn't see where weed had ever been a problem for me, except buying it when there wasn't any around. I kept my mouth shut but began to pray in earnest that Stephen would get IT, whatever it was.
Bryn and Stephen set up another scraggly Charlie Brown black spruce Christmas tree that year and I watched them as if I were a thousand light years away. They whispered and wrapped presents while I sat silent and gloomy. I was so grim, even I didn't like me.
Life went on. My boss gave me a couple hundred dollars for back wages she hadn't been able to pay me during the worst of the days before she was finally able to sell out and I used it to put a down payment on a new 4-wheeler as we had about ridden poor old Suzi into the dirt. I was so surprised when I filled out the loan application at the bank, they actually approved the loan! The new machine was twice as big, twice as powerful and made our life in the woods much easier. Of course, I forever worried about getting arrested driving it around. Because of my revoked license, I was not allowed to operate ANY motorized vehicle on a public road, highway or thoroughfare. I got to be quite adept at getting around the Junction via the back roads and the trail system that predated many of the roads anyway.
I did some more meat cutting with the Bum that spring and got paid in shares, beef in five pound roasts which we had to eat quickly as our outdoor refrigeration unit was on thaw mode. We ate beef for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Bryn surprised me by asking if we couldn't have fish for a change. White trash dining at it's finest, we had chicken fried steak with eggs for supper, with plenty of white gravy. The Bum often came over around supper time and ate with us. He was aghast to learn that I was going to those meetings. "You want to know the difference between a happy drunk and a miserable alcoholic?" he asked me, not even half in jest. "Drunks don't go to meetings." I just gave him the ugly look but he continued on, "You used to be happy, remember? You used to be fun. Now you just grouch and growl around. If I had a dog that miserable, I'd shoot the poor bitch." Of course, he didn't know about Stephen, about the HIV, about my dreams of having another baby and binding Stephen to life. He just knew I snapped a lot and scolded and glowered.
The Eagle Scout, Dave uh David, hiked up my trail one night after meeting, bringing me yet another book about alcoholism. It was a very strange visit. He stayed for over an hour but he stood by the door and didn't even take his jacket off. He was so nervous that it made me feel nervous, too. He talked for a long time about his particular malfunction, his thinking problem. I watched David shake while he was talking and I honestly couldn't understand why he would do this if it made him so nervous. "Sometimes it isn't safe for me to be by myself,” he said. A bachelor, with no family and no friends to speak of in all of Alaska, it seemed like the meetings were about the only contact he had with other human beings. Jokingly, I told him, "You're a social retard. That's your problem." But, it was plainly not funny.
"I got drunk a couple of times when I was a teenager,” he told me. "I really liked the feeling of being able to talk and laugh and flirt with girls. It seemed like my shyness disappeared and I wasn't so concerned about what other people would think about what I said and did. But, I recognized that as alcoholic behavior and I swore I wasn't gonna drink. I had too many other things I wanted to be able to do. I didn't want alcohol to ruin my life." When he talked like that I was just flabbergasted. Imagine being a teenager and actually worrying about if alcohol was gonna screw up your life. Even though the thought HAD crossed my mind, I had paid it about as much attention as I paid to the teachers and cops and probation officers, all of whom it seemed were involved in some kind of cosmic conspiracy to keep me from having any fun. I looked at this guy like maybe he came from outer space. He was so square, I couldn't even believe it. Most of all I couldn't figure out why he had come to my place.
"This book tells me that I have to work with others,” he said. "I don't like you. In fact you scare me. But, you're the only one that ever read the book. So, I guess I'm stuck." How flattering. He was such a regulation citizen it hurt. He told me his whole life story, pretty much, in fits and starts, in a series of visits as winter turned into spring. After a while he would actually sit down and even take his jacket off, but he was still nervous as hell. I mean, here's this guy, he doesn't drink or smoke or cuss and he's scared to death of people. He comes to see me and ya never know what your gonna find around the old homestead but one thing for sure, Kat's gonna be chain-smoking Camels and cursing a blue streak.
"I kept trying to fix myself,” he said. "All through the Marine Corps, I told myself I was gonna learn how to fly. I built an airplane, from the ground up, working on it in all my spare time while the other guys partied and fooled around. I didn't fit in. I saved every penny I could to take flying lessons and then found out I was too uptight to fly. My flight instructor told me to have a couple of beers, to chill out, but that just made it worse. Then I felt out of control and even scarder. He had me smoke pot with him a couple of times and I really hated that. He used to holler at me, 'Relax, Goddamn it!' like I was nervous on purpose. I had all my hopes pinned on being a pilot, owning a plane, figuring then I would have something to talk to people about, so I wouldn't be so shy and awkward." His hands shook so badly when he spoke, his voice quavering around up into the stratosphere, it was painful to see.
"I felt like such a failure. When I got out of the service, I sold the plane. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to get married and have a family, but I had never even gone out on a date. I would see some girl I would like to get to know but I couldn't just go up and talk to her. Instead, I would day dream about the wonderful life we could have together and spend hours imagining how to talk to her. The next thing I would know, she would be engaged to some other dumb fellow. I hated myself. How come I couldn't do even this simple thing right? I ran off to Alaska with the idea that I could live out in the wilderness but that didn't solve anything, either. I'd sit at home, night after night, wondering why I don't just blow my head off and be done with it. Suicide seems like a good fix. The only reason I haven't so far is that I know it's a permanent solution to what might only be a temporary problem. I started going to those meetings a couple of years ago, thinking maybe in a month or six at the most, I could get this thing figured out and finally get on with my life. Now, I see that it's more complicated than that. I have all the traits of an alcoholic except for the booze. I know I'm smart but I can't do anything right. I have a positive genius for failure."
When he said that I laughed so hard my sides ached the next day. "A neurotic," David told me, "is a person who consistently snatches defeat from the jaws of victory." I couldn't identify with the social problems, dope and booze had always lubricated my interactions with others. But, I could identify with the loneliness, the isolation, the self-loathing. Most of all I could identify with the confusion of knowing you're smart but everything you do to make things better just blows up in your face and makes things worse. Boy, could I ever identify. What struck me most was his honesty in assessing his part in his difficulties. Alcoholism, I was learning, is a disease characterized by blame and denial. There is no problem here and it is all your fault. I sure could see how this had been true in my life but I couldn't understand how he could admit that stuff so freely. It seemed to me I would rather die than have other people know how fucked up I was. Rationalizing was second nature to me. I listened to him and was amazed to hear him blame no one but himself. Truth to tell, I always wanted to smack him uplongside the head and tell him to relax, too.
A weird thing started happening. When the Eagle Scout showed up, I always hid the stash box. No sense in rubbing his nose in it, I figured, and I found out that I could go whole long evenings without getting high. I really wasn't paying attention to it, but spent hours and hours talking to him and for once I wasn't sucking on a joint, too. It got me wondering, because when I wasn't high, it seemed like my head was a lot clearer. Then David would leave and I would think about everything, my weird life, the situation with Steve, my anger and dread of the unknown future, and I would get it all sorted out in my head exactly what I needed to be able to say to Steve. Next day I would tell him, "We gotta talk,” but we would roll a couple of joints first, and smoke 'em, and everything I knew I had to say would grey out and fuzz up and we would end up talking around in circles again. All I could say was I love you and I can't stand to see you in so much pain and poor Stephen, he would tell me he loved me too and he didn't mean to cause me so much pain and I knew he meant it. All of our survival skills, however, had us stuck in a dark and awful place.
A couple of radical changes happened in my life right about then. One was I got fed up with bartending and baby-sitting the drunks, two of whom were my new bosses at the Atrophy, who parked their asses on their bar stools about 5pm and starting drinking and joking around worse than a couple of little boys, talking about the good old days, during the War. They didn't mean WW II, they meant the Korean conflict and that police action in Viet Nam. I don't know why this offended me so. They were just a couple of old war horses, reliving their glory days. But, I just saw red, big time, and fantasized murdering them both, some night, with a small but deadly pistol, just plugging 'em both right between the eyes, maybe saying, "Long live Ho Chi Mien, hot damn Viet Nam, all power to the people, down with the running dogs of Imperialism,” as I pulled the trigger. I mean it, I could really see myself doing this. It would be so simple and wouldn't it shock the shit out of them? I found myself humming "Jenny's Waltz" from the Three Penny Opera under my breath and felt truly murderous. Dave uh David and old Chuck asked me why I didn't just go get a different job but the fact was I didn't know if I could. "Well, just try,” David said. There was only one restaurant in the area that didn't have a bar and it was owned by a Christian couple. Oh, right, I'm gonna just walk in there and ask 'em to hire me, I suppose.
But, I was a desperate woman. I knew if I had to pour many more drinks or listen to many more drunk men tell me how smart they were, I really was gonna kill someone. So, one morning, I went down to this place called the Delta Diner and asked the woman, the wife half of the couple who owned the place, if they were hiring, if they might need another cook. "Why do you want to leave your current job at the Trophy?" she asked me and I felt SO strange telling her, "Well, I quit drinking and it bothers me to be around booze." Were those words actually coming out of MY mouth? "Oh, that's wonderful,” she said. "I know that can't be easy for you. We'll figure out a way to give you some shifts, evenings, if you're willing to start out part time." I picked my jaw up off the floor and went to the Trophy and gave notice. I don't know who was more shocked, me or the bosses.
The next significant thing that happened to me, however, shocked me even more. I had heard that a bunch of women from all over Alaska were going up to Chena Hot Springs, to attend a spiritual retreat for women in recovery and this intrigued me. Being the sole female attending those damn meetings in Delta, I felt hopelessly out-numbered in the gender department. So, I sent in my money to register for this weeklong series of work shops and arranged for Bryn to spend the week with friends. I have to admit that I was pretty much petrified on the trip to the Hot Springs. I don't know exactly what I expected to find. On the one hand I called myself a feminist and had huge anger issues around men, males, generic. Dickheads, all, who needs 'em, right? On the other hand, I sure didn't much care for females, either, the bitches, gossiping sneaks, ya can't trust one for a minute, ya know? But, here I was, sleeping bag and back pack in hand, prepared to spend a whole week in the company of a bunch of women I didn't know and didn't know if I even wanted to know. Go figure.
I can hardly remember the week of the retreat. My brain was on overload within the first few hours. We had workshops on codependancy and sex abuse issues and anger and stress management and substance addiction as well as process addictions, like workaholism or sexaholism. Oh, shit, this too? Women were laughing and crying and ranting and raving and coming unglued left and right and hugging each other and making jokes and acting every bit as crazy as we would have been if we were all loaded. I met an Innupiaq woman from Barrow and I was able to talk to her about my experiences up there, that hot shame and rage I had felt watching the father of my daughter fucking young girls like it meant nothing. She understood, she grieved with me, for the girls and for our selves, who had been so messed up ourselves we stood stupidly by, with no voice, with no power to change the bad things we saw all around us. I met a street whore from Anchorage, a recovering heroin addict who had just begun to look at her own alcoholism, who had cleaned up from the junk and then turned into an untidy drunk. She laughed and laughed and laughed when I said I didn't think my pot smoking was a problem. "Listen honey, if it affects ya from your neck up, it's a problem. A drug is a drug is a drug. It don't matter if ya run it up your arm or smoke it, or stick it up your nose, or drink it out of nice crystal glasses or shove it up your butt or guzzle it out of a brown paper sack. You need to take another look at those steps and ask yourself honestly, 'How has this affected me?' You know, as addicts, we lie to ourselves first, then we buy the lie and we can sell it to others, then, because we believe our own bullshit."
I met another woman, from Anchorage, who had been a wet-brain drunk and a gun-packing junkie and had come out of a coma after having an after-death experience. "I'm tellin' ya, God looked me right in the face and said, 'Jane, ya got your work cut out for ya. It isn't time for ya to die yet. I want ya to go back down there and work with my children in the jail cells and the looney bins, the flop houses and rescue missions and shooting galleries. I'll be right beside ya the whole way.' And, He has!" she insisted. "I never doubt for a second that He's right here, with me, every day,” and she patted the space next to her, where, I swear, I could see a sorta blue glow. Jane told me I was blowing smoke up my ass if I thought I could smoke pot and get sober, too. "Throw that dope away and grab hold of god, however ya define that thing, get with the program and get to it." It, again. What the hell was this IT stuff, anyway?
I bought a bunch of books and brought them back from Chena Hot Springs to share with Dave uh David, what the hell, just to return the favor. Asked what was the most important thing I had learned up there that week, I racked my brains and came up with two. One was when a bunch of those women were all playing volleyball in the pool. They invited me to join them several times but I felt fat and stupid and clumsy and even though I wanted to play with them and even though they asked and asked, I just kept sitting in the shallow end of the pool feeling hateful, because it was just like being back in grade school again. Except, I could see clearly how it was ME that was keeping me from joining them. After about an hour of stewing in my shit, beating myself up in my head for being so stupid, it dawned on me I could just go over there and play, there was no law that said just because I hadn't, I couldn't. So, I did, and I even had fun after I quit worrying about being such a klutz. Major breakthrough here in the biting your own ass bloody arena.
Another big insight was in an anger workshop. The facilitator picked me to work one of the exercises, saying, "Show us your anger. Don't tell us, show us,” and I started banging my fists on the hardwood floor in the group room, making animal anger noises, thinking about Dad, about Stephen, about how much I hated booze and being powerless and the mess my life was in, grunting and yowling. Something snapped in me and I went into a red-out and the next thing I knew one of the participants, a licensed psychiatrist, it turned out, had stopped the exercise and took me out of the group room and walked me all the way around the series of ponds and hot springs in front of the lodge, telling me, "Just breath. Breath in. Breath out. That's right. That's good. Breath nice and slow. You're gonna be OK."
I had started hallucinating while I was banging away on that floor, slipping a cog while I externalized the rage, losing all contact with where I was, or who. A collage of scenes from my life had flooded over me and apparently I had started yelling, "Are they downstairs? Will they hear us downstairs. I don't want them to hear us,” which of course made no sense as we were on the ground floor of a single story structure. "Where were you?" she asked me. "What was going on?" But, I didn't know. My breathing was still all ragged and jerky and I was shaking bad, like coming off the worst sort of a drunk. "What were you remembering?" she asked.
I hadn't a clue, except for feeling small and scared and angrier than I'd ever been, and crazy out of control. I started telling her about Stephen, about the HIV thing, about my Dad and how hurt I was inside, every day, feeling like there was nothing I could do to change what was gonna happen, my feelings of imminent doom. The woman patted my head and patted my hands and kept reminding me to breath and talked to me the same way ya would a little kid. I told her all those things I hadn't told anyone, about battering Bryn and hating myself for that and loving Stephen so much I was afraid I would murder him if he kept drinking, about the rage I carried around like a bomb in my guts, that exploded when I least expected it, hurting Bryn, and Stephen, and myself. I told her about the hopelessness and despair and the guilt I felt because I didn't have the virus and Stephen did and it was like I had abandoned him because he was alone facing this horror, I couldn't really be there with him. I told her the crazy feeling I kept having that I wished I would go HIV positive, too, so Stephen wouldn't have to be alone with that but if I died, who would take care of Bryn?
This woman reminded me of the angel that came into that hospital that morning down there in Suckapimento, California, ten years earlier, and delivered Bryn. She acted as if she had nothing better to do in the whole world that afternoon and long into the evening than to listen to me and pat my hand and say, "It's gonna be OK. You're gonna be OK, I promise,” while I ranted on and on and on about all this stuff I'd had bottled up inside. I tell ya, I never realized how out of touch I was with my feelings. Even though Bryn asked me all the time why I was so sad. I would tell her, "I'm not sad, honey, I'm just tired." And, even that Bum-one, who had the sensitivity of a desert tortoise, was always saying, "Ya look like you're gonna croak. What the hell's the matter with ya, anyway? Ya never used to be like this, so nervous and angry and mean all the time. Those meetings have got ya all fucked up. Ya need to get good and drunk and blow it all out. That's your problem, you're suffering from a definite alcohol deficiency." But, I'd tell him, "I'm not angry. I'm not mean. It's just everyone else is fucking with me all the time and I'm fed up, that's all." Or, Stephen would say, "I didn't mean to cause you all this pain. I'm so sorry,” and he would cry and cry and cry, great racking sobs, snot running all across his face, while I held him and said, "It's OK, it's not your fault. I love you,” with only a bare glimpse of how angry I was, how hurt, how raw.
She listened to all this and told me, "Of course you're angry. Of course you're scared. Anyone would be." But, I didn't get where I was angry, or scared, or sad. I just knew I was crazy, that I felt like an alien in my own skin, that I hated my life. I honestly didn't know that what was the matter with me was I had emotions that I didn't know how to experience, that I had spent my entire adult life trying to numb out because I didn't know how to feel sad or lonely or scared or angry or even bored without feeling like I was gonna crawl out of my skin. I honestly didn't believe in feelings, had so detached myself from my emotional being that when I saw other people expressing feelings, I figured they were faking it, just like I did, when something happened that I knew ya were s'posed to feel sad about and I would say Oh How Sad but felt nothing, NOTHING.
She listened and listened, walking me around and around, 'til I had wound down, then we just sat quietly together, looking at the ponds, watching the reflection of the pearlescent sunshot skies reflecting in that metallic silvery ripple dappled water. "What are you going to do?" she asked me.
"I don't know,” I replied.
"You might want to get some counseling,” she suggested. "You've got a lot of stuff going on and being newly sober, your coping skills aren't strong. You need to learn how to deal with all these circumstances, proactively, rather than just drifting. You'll need a lot of support, encouragement, validation." I thought that what I would need would be to have my brain surgically removed but I didn't say that to her as I could tell she was running a mental suicide assessment on me.
So, in addition to finding out that more than anything it was ME that prevented me from doing things, I recognized that I had a lot of issues other than alcohol that I was gonna have to learn to handle in more healthy ways, that getting high and just hanging, while it might look laid-back, was actually contributing to my demise, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Holy cow, what a revelation. I decided to stop smoking pot, just for the day, just to see if I could. I had always said I wasn't like actually addicted to weed, I just preferred doing it to not doing it. I didn't tell anyone about this big decision of mine, most of all because I didn't believe I could or would actually do it. It would be a terrible embarrassment, after all, to say I was gonna do that and then find out that I couldn't. I thought, well, I'll just give it a try.
Now, I want to tell you, if you think you are not addicted to marijuana and you have been a pretty much daily user of the stuff for twenty plus years, just for curiousity's sake, put that pipe, those joints, that stash box all away. Put it under your mattress and see how many times it flirts with you in a 24 hour period of time. Check out how often your hands turn to roll a joint without having consciously consulted with your brain. Watch how restless and irritable you become, and itchy, twitchy. Try to put a word to what you're feeling, even though the only one you might be able to articulate is BORED. Walk around in circles and try to figure out what you're supposed to do now that your got up and brushed your teeth and made your bed.
I found out that every single act throughout my normal day was somehow associated with getting high, planning when I was gonna get high, finding something to get high on, looking for someone to get high with or thinking about how much I would like to get high. As long as I was at work I was fine, although I found I had to sub-verbalize everything I was doing, sorta to keep on track, so I wouldn't space out while allowing my thoughts to drift over to the idea of having a joint. I couldn't concentrate, couldn't add tickets at work, couldn't make change out of the till, couldn't remember how to put together a soup. I was plagued by a relentless rage, whereas before I was only sometimes mildly irritated and once in a while wanted to murder people, now I felt so hateful, constantly, that I had to remind myself, literally, over and over, "They are not doing this just to piss you off." I hated my co-workers, hated the customers, hated the delivery man that brought us a load of lettuce and tomatoes, actually hated the lettuce and tomatoes, couldn't they see I didn't need this shit today? I felt hateful towards Bryn and the dogs and poor Stephen, who hadn't a clue that I was detoxing from the marijuana and nattered away, as always, while I squirmed.
I did this a second day and then a third and then a forth. It didn't get better, instead it got much, much worse. I couldn't sleep. I knew I was exhausted but when I climbed into bed at night, my thoughts would begin racing and I couldn't shut up the loud and many voices in my head, all clamoring for my immediate attention, all contradicting each other and all screaming right in my ear, especially my old friend Whatareyagonnado? I'd toss and turn and beat my pillow and break out in sweat and get up and have a cup of cold coffee and write, write, write. I was back to Big Chief pads, lined newsprint tearsheets in an old tablet, which I filled with a wobbly, large, unformed scrawl that even I could not read, sometimes, the next day. I wrote about my life and my kid and that crazy man I loved. But, I also wrote exactly what that junkie had told me, taking a look at how my drug use was affecting my life. I was as honest as I could be but I sure didn't like what I was starting to see.
I gave those books I got to Dave uh David and he read them and then we had something else to discuss. The only time I wasn't crawling out of my skin was when I was spinning or weaving or at meeting or when he came visit and we talked about all we were learning about addiction and recovery. Stephen was drinking again and not going to meetings and he made horrible fun of my new friend, the Eagle Scout, who agreed with Stephen when he joked, "Two years of meetings and ya still want to kill yourself, wouldn't it just be easier to blow your head off and get it over with."
David just said, "I guess I've never done things the easy way." One thing I will say for him, however, is that he had a healthy appetite. He always had seconds when he ate supper with us and he always licked his plate clean, a white trash habit displaying not just good manners but good sense when ya got no running water. One night when David was sitting up talking to me, he rummaged around in his jacket pocket and pulled a hand-tool, a planer, out and started shaving the jam of my front door. "What the hell are you doing?" I asked him abruptly.
"Well, this door sticks all the time, because the cabin settled and the door doesn't hang level quite, anymore. See where the door rubs when you open and close it? See how the jam catches the door? That's why ya have to hit it so hard when you're going out, why you have to slam it so hard to close it. It gets hung up. But, I'll just shave it here, and here, just a little bit, and it'll still fit snug but it won't catch like that."
I know I must have looked at him like he was a maniac. For one thing, I had never questioned why the door had become progressively harder and harder to open and close. I just adjusted to that fact, slamming into it with my shoulder and hip going in and out. In fact, I had jerked on the handle so hard, so often, that it was pulled loose and wobbly and after David fixed the jam, he took the handle apart and snugged it all up tight, too. Then he looked at me with such a What A Clever Boy Am I look on his face that I just blew up. "Hey, who asked you to fix my fucking cabin? I LIKE the door the way it was, that way I KNOW it's gonna stay shut when I close it,” which was probably a ridiculous thing to say, but it just jumped right out of my mouth without a second thought. Then David gave me such a hurt look that I felt awful, but I just stomped over to the stove and started making supper.
It got so that every time David came to visit, he was dinking around with something on my cabin. He cleaned my Coleman lanterns and replaced the carburetors. He scolded me when I was putting new mantles on them. I had broken the old torn mantles off, which are no more than ash, ya know, and tied the bright new white silk mantles in place and lit them off to burn them to ash, too. "Jeez, don't do that inside. Those things are radioactive. Didn't ya read the label? It says to do that only in a well-ventilated place. You don't want to breath that smoke, it'll ruin your lungs." Once again, I gave him the Don't Fuck With Me look. I mean, do you really think I am worried about radioactivity? Didn't I tell you that I was raised at ground zero, in Nevada, in the 50's, remember, ya dumb fuck, during the height of the above-ground and underground testing, when they were blowing nuclear bombs off all around us and telling us, Don't Worry, Ya Can Eat This Stuff, It's Harmless??? His concern for safety just baffled me. Did he really think any of us were gonna get out of here alive? "Everybody's gotta die sometime,” I told him. "It beats the hell out of dying of boredom." He looked at me and shook his head and said, "I don't think that means we have to speed the process, though."
Another time he came out and tore the 4-wheelers apart, changed the oil and spark plugs, checked the air pressure and pumped the tires up a bit. "No wonder you have a hard time starting these things, look at this plug. Don't you ever change the oil?" he asked. "The oil can't change unless it REALLY wants to,” I joked but he wasn't too amused, I think. He kept fixing things and I kept being totally unappreciative. I don't know what his malfunction was but for some reason the meaner I was, the more compelled he seemed to be to try to help me. He fixed my rain gutters where they had torn from the roof during break-up. He brought a propane lantern and piped it into the house from a propane tank he also brought, "So Bryn will have enough light to do her homework,” he said.
"Oh, great, now I have to buy MORE propane. Just what I need, another bill to worry about,” I said. I will never know why he kept coming over, up the trail, through the dog yard, to engender further insults. He brought fresh hay for the dogs. I cooked, and fed the dumb beast.
I had decided to take a night school course the previous fall and because I couldn't figure out what class I might enjoy studying, I had signed up to take American Sign Language. Our instructor was an odd-looking woman and after several weeks in her class, I realized why she looked so strange. One of her eyes was piebald, half green yellow and half grey blue. She had a very sweet smile and an enthusiasm about teaching that made going to classes a lot of fun for me. I was still smoking pot at the time although I wasn't drinking, and when I would get home from class at night, I would practice my signs with Stephen if he was around, and with Bryn, who was an eager learner. I had gotten a B in the class which shocked the shit out of me and we continued learning new signs from the book even after the class ended. Seeing visual representations of words, learning to express even complicated abstract thoughts with concrete signs got me to thinking about the meaning of words and I started using signs often in my daily life to clarify for myself what I was saying or thinking.
The sign that impressed me the most was Frustrated, or Frustration, fingers spread, hands brought up into your face, palms out, alternating one hand with the other, smacking yourself backwards in the face, like hitting a brick wall again and again and again. My life was extremely frustrating at the time, it always felt like I was hitting walls and again and again I was finding out that the walls were my own. Life wasn't out to get me, I was. "I am my own worst enemy,” someone said in meeting and I kept thinking about that. "My head is out to kill me,” I heard, or better, "My head is like a bad neighborhood and I shouldn't go in there alone." My worst frustrations were almost always self imposed, I discovered. I kept writing and one day at a time, I kept not getting high. It was quite a job description. Only another addict can ever understand that kind of undertaking. Getting clean is a non-event, it requires consistently NOT doing all the things you have done for years to achieve a comfort zone. But, it's a series of events, too, as it requires you to try and try all manner of things ya never even thought to do, purposely leaving your comfort zone and going out and exploring the world of Real, without your safety net of chemicals.
I loved the sign for Dead, too, hands held out on the horizontal, the right one palm up, the left one palm down, then both flopped over so the right is palm down and the left is palm up. While I was signing Dead (rolling over in the grave) I was thinking "Turn it over" which I heard every meeting I ever went to, and instead of seeing bugs and dead grass and the pale dead white of turning over a rock, I was seeing my life as a zombie, a member of the Walking Dead and how I had to disrupt everything I thought I knew if I were to turn it over and rejoin the living. My head was always full of all manner of crazy thoughts like this.
I would sign Think or Idea or Imagine or Understand and realize there was a reason why these signs all came off the top of the head. My head was full of a thousand or more voices, my itty bitty shitty committee Jane had called it, but I was in charge, me, the Kat in the hat. I was the chairperson of the committee, I was supposed to be in charge, anyway. When my voices kicked in, I was learning to name them and thank them for sharing and make a conscious decision as to whether I was gonna believe or act on the information.
The sign I liked best, though, was the sign for Dumb, that is Not Bright, (not mute, which is a different sign, just because ya don't speak doesn't mean you're stupid). The V for victory sign bounced off your forehead backwards rapidly two or three times, or seven if you're feeling really DUMB. It wasn't so much about being stupid as it was about being hard-headed. I could learn, I discovered, if I just let go of the insane idea that I already knew everything. My brain lied to me all the time. It said, "I know that,” when in fact I was as ignorant and stubborn as the Alaskan summer day is long. So long as I held onto the bad idea that I knew everything, I was incapable of learning any differently. Sign Language was giving me a new way of looking at things. I know I created all manner of mystical meaning to these little discoveries, but, man, it was saving my ass.
The sign for Truth is the right index finger held up to the lips as if saying Hush and then extended out and down, to signifying talking straight; the sign for Lie is the same except the index finger is turned horizontally to the lips and then brought out and down, signifying talking crooked. Straight words or crooked words, those signs gave me a yardstick against which to measure the things I said. One of the characteristics of ACOA's, I kept reading and hearing, is that we lie even when it would be easier to tell the truth. We reach a point where we don't even recognize the difference between truth and fiction, honesty and absolute fabrication. I sure could grasp that. I had told so many lies, so many times, that I even forgot myself where truth left off and hyperbole or flat-out falsehoods took over. I liked this ACOA stuff because it explained my malfunction and it was kind of a no-fault contract.
Exploring being an Adult Child of an Alcoholic family system, I could see exactly how I had gotten so twisted and warped. The thing is, to work on that stuff, I had to admit that it was me that was the problem anymore. After all, I had lost Dad when I was nine and effectively had been gone from Mom since I was fourteen, so what exactly is the problem here anymore? To buy into the ACOA concepts, I had to be willing to accept my faults before I had any chance of changing any of it. I had always believed I didn't make this mess and hence I wasn't gonna clean it up, either. But, it wasn't Dad's alcoholism that was fucking with me, and after a while I was even able to see that it wasn't about Regan or Patrick or the Bum or Stephen, even. I was the drunk going through my life like a tornado, leaving a trail of damage in my wake, and only I could clean any of it up. I call this the Oops Factor. Ya start out looking at how everyone shit on ya and then ya start checking out how ya put yourself smack into the middle of the shit and if ya hang in there long enough ya even end up willing to admit that it's you that's shitting on everyone, that it's been you all along, for a long, long time. Oops!
But, I have to say that none of this came fast or easy to me. I got so paranoid about how much I lied, always to myself first, so I could go out and really peddle that lie, whole-heartedly, that I started calling myself Little Miss Information, very punny, eh? How can ya tell if an alcoholic is lying? Watch her mouth. If her lips move, she's probably lying. I got pretty fucking nuts trying to stay straight, even just with myself, and Straight is one thing I was sure I had NEVER wanted to be. It amazed me to see how fast I'd lie, even when it really would have been easier, and smarter, to tell the God's honest truth. I got so I didn't even want to open my mouth for fear another big fat fib would jump smack out and then I would have to wrestle around with that. Should I own up on it? Or, let it pass? Would it make any difference if I let it slide? Or, would this be the lie that triggered all my old denial and slid me back down into the shit? I tell ya, it's about enough to make ya want a drink.
The Adult Education program in Delta, which at the time was called Tanana Valley Community College, urged me to take another class. I don't know why, but they saw fit to give me yet another tuition waiver, elsewise I wouldn't have been able to even entertain the notion. They were offering a course called Substance Abuse Counseling and I thought that might be interesting. Why do we do any of the things we do? Life is what happens while we try to figure out what we're doing. The class was taught by that same old Presbyterian minister, the one I'd tossed out of my cabin so many winters ago, the one who had given Bryn a psych exam in 2nd grade and had been so puzzled by our family diagram. His name was Richard but everyone called him Bob so figure me that. Bob's a big cheerful jerk and always made me terribly nervous. This is how healthy I was getting. I had begun to realize that I got nervous because I suspect I might be a jerk, too. I was in no way cheerful, however, carrying a little black storm cloud around above my head at all times. My sense of humor is quite black, too, and I think I made him nervous, as well.
However, I was his most faithful student, reading all the material and showing up for class consistently fifteen minutes early. He was always fifteen minutes late so I felt like he owed me half an hour and I really made him work for his money. Dave uh David had decided to take this class also, and between the two of us we probably should have been teaching it. But, Bob would bob along each week, stammering through his lecture and digressing horribly. For some strange reason of his own, he always ended up talking about his experiences during the Korean conflict, as a medic, before he got bit by the God bug and called to the ministry. What the hell does this have to do with alcoholism? I dunno, neither did he, but my how he did ramble. I understand there is a 12-step program for people like him (and me?); it's called On and On-anon.
I passed that course with a straight A average and really felt like I was cheating. I mean, for me, it was like getting tested on my life experiences. By the end of the semester, there was one poor woman that STILL didn't understand the difference between passing out and blacking out. She simply couldn't grasp the concept of being on your feet, walking and talking, but drawing a blank on the whole thing the next day. You know, the light's on, but no one's home. She felt that surely these alcoholics were only saying they couldn't remember, like an excuse for all their misadventures. I got just livid with her. When one has spent a great part of one's life in the blank, it is irritating to sit and listen to some citizen insist that you COULD remember, like what, if ya just APPLIED yourself? Jesus.
We studied Maslow's heiarchy of needs and the Jennelink curve of chemical dependancy and the process of intervention. Bob kept saying that there had to be a conflict between values and behavior for alcoholism to get a grip on a person. Obviously he had never run with the valueless alcoholics down at the Buffalo. I kept thinking about my friend Schultzie, after whom I had role-modeled for years, who drank himself senseless on a daily basis and saw no wrong in that. Who the hell did it hurt? Contributing to the economy, Schultzie always insisted, spreading the wealth, trickle down economics for drunks.
I conceded that for an intervention to work there had to be a conflict between values and behaviors, that was obvious. But, how the hell do you do an intervention on someone who has no problem with destroying themselves and could care less if the whole world goes to hell, too? Debate was hot in class and it was a trip. I got to be the expert, I was the only admitted drunk in class, although I had my suspicions about the others. In fact, I got so that I saw addiction all around me.
Bob, for instance, I was sure, was addicted to bad ideas in an attempt to make stuff make sense. As this was a familiar malady to me, I could spot it in a flash. There was a woman in class who was all strung out on doing good deeds. I don't know what she had even done that made her feel so bad she had to go around being a saint to make up for it but she was the worst do-gooder I ever encountered and I wasn't at all surprised when she became a social worker. There was a guy in class that was addicted to being right and he would argue for hours about the most seemingly trivial points in class because he knew he was right but he had to have others agree with him. One guy was a food addict and another was so blatantly a workaholic I flinched. After a while I got to thinking I was lucky that I was just a run-of-the-mill dope fiend. At least I KNEW what had gotten me so screwed up.
The next semester they offered a second level to the Substance Abuse Counseling class and I took it too, just for the hell of it. I got to liking this studying stuff. I was fascinated. I just could not learn enough about addiction. After all, it was my thing! Bob bobbed along but he had to work hard to stay ahead of me. David was as obsessive about this stuff as me and between the two of us I am sure we caused poor Bob several spiritual crises. I took particular delight in watching David take over the class, extrapolating on a theory 'til we were all quite dizzy and challenging the instructor on concepts quite obscure. The conflict between values and behaviors reared it's ugly head again and my opinion was that for most alcoholics and dope fiends, especially 2nd and 3rd generation, if we HAVE any values, we probably stole 'em somewhere and only hung on to 'em if someone else wanted 'em. We could swap values and belief systems faster than we did clothes or names or drugs-of-choice. Go ahead and try to pin one of us down. It's a thankless fucking task.
When Bob talked about rehabilitation, I kept insisting that for a lot of us it was more a matter of Habilitation, there was no Re- about it. The second step talks about being restored to sanity but if ya spent your whole life out there on the lunatic fringe there ain't no such things as being restored. Recovery then becomes a matter first of buying into the concept that there even IS a such of a thing as sanity, as right and wrong, as good and not-so-good. Oh, we had some lively discussions. But, for people who had been raised with beliefs and values and an integrated morality, it is difficult to even imagine what it's like for us that have been faking it all along. Do you know that old song, My Country, Right or Wrong? No man, but if ya hum a few bars, I can fake along with you. Thus, I started seeing myself as Chameleon Girl. In the meetings they told me to just fake it till ya make it, about the spiritual angle. But, fuck me running, I'd faked so much, so long, I no longer knew what I believed or didn't believe. So, I started that 2nd step all over from where it said Came To Believe. I came to meetings. I came to, slowly, over a matter of the first few years. I came to believe that I better look real closely to find out exactly WHAT I did believe. And, the only thing I believed for a fact was gravity. I will fall over, if I don't struggle to stay upright.
Gravity and supply-and-demand and I am an addict. This I believed. Everything else was by guess and by gosh. I investigated my belief system and the only thing I had ever put my faith into was drugs. I figured I better get a firmer grasp on a power greater than myself or my old belief system was gonna kick in again sometime, when I least expected it. I started going to church which is probably about the craziest thing I'd ever done yet. Actually, it was Stephen's idea at first, to add insult to injury in the world of weird. Stephen had suffered a varied religious upbringing from his Christian Lesbian aunts and his mama who was dragging the kids from church to temple, between stints at the dopeman's, during their younger years. We started reading the Bible out loud of an evening which is about guaranteed to make ya nuts if ya aren't already. We stumbled through Genesis, creation and the Fall from Grace, the Begats, the Flood, poor Abraham and circumcision which still just sounded like genital mutilation to me and Isaac and all the bickering between brothers and time passing and problems and miracles and on into Exodus and Moses and the plagues and Pharaoh and manna from heaven and the Ten Commandments but then everything got absolutely bizarre with the laws and rituals. Honestly, it's enough to make ya thinks that God doesn't care what ya do as long as ya come up with a blood atonement sufficiently icky.
Stephen had made another half hearted attempt at not drinking during our Bible reading stage and then gone missing one day after a particularly nasty bout of having his generator go on the fritz and the chainsaw bind up and the dogs set in to barking and yammering like no one's business. He showed up drunk and deranged as I was leaving down the trail to go to meeting. I couldn't stand seeing him, I thought my heart would explode. I was so hurt and sad and angry, I had no words. I opened my mouth and an animal noise I didn't even recognize came out. "Oh, please, don't cry,” he said, but the sobbing and growling and snot and gasping for breath had a life of it's own. I was so ashamed of the sounds that were coming out of me, ashamed that he would see this, ashamed that my pain would just hurt him more, and he was already in so much pain.
I fell to my knees, yowling, "Owhh, ohhowwow, owhhw,” over and over was all I could say or do, slamming my hands against the earth and screaming, "Why? Why?" Stephen tried to comfort me but I broke away from him, and stumbled on down the trail. Fuck you god, fuck mary jesus joseph, fuck all of you. I hate you. I hate life. Why can't I just die? I got to meeting and the topic was Conscious Contact With A Power Greater Than Ourselves. God and I were not on speaking terms and all I had to say was that I was mad as hell. I didn't say anything about crying, about the hot shame, about Stephen drunk again, about the pain. I'm a tough little cookie and it's none of their fucking business anyway. No one was gonna see my pain. I was used to not talking about the shit I carried around. I used to say I didn't believe in god. Steve would ask if maybe god didn't believe in me. Now, I thought that we were best off in mutual disregard. I won't shit all over you if you'll just please not shit on me. But, I knew inside that I had said, "I can't do it on my own anymore,” the same time I was saying fuck you god I was begging god-whatever to give me a hand here, I'm gonna crack. The Bible wasn't helping in the least, but I was working on step three.
Slopping over into Leviticus, I really lost it, especially the part about mixing not the silk with the linen nor the linen with the wool. Well, I'm dead in the water here, that's for damned sure. I'd been mixing the fibers all along and I had no ram to offer up to the Lord who says plain as day he is a vengeful guy. By the time we finally got into the New Testament and I had been attending church services for the better part of a year, I decided that I better find something that Makes More Sense than any of this Christianity stuff because trying to make sense out of stuff that makes no sense is a relapse trigger big time for this little pilgrim.
I got a burl Stephen hauled in from the woods and set it up on an alter and hung ribbons and feathers and beads and bells thereon and planted iris at her feet and called her AWA after the three breasted goddess in Gunter Grass's tale The Flounder and I said "That's it. There's god, as I don't understand her but am willing to believe, despite my doubts." I did my morning meditation out in the outhouse each morning, thanking god for my many blessings and asking to be guided, please, and then I threw kisses to AWA as her ribbons and geegaws twinkled and fluttered in the sunlight and breeze, and thus armed, I went out daily to do battle with reality, as it was. I do not recommend this course of action to any but the most desperate. If I could have found IT, whatever it is, in church, it would have been a lot easier, and simpler, but, I'm an addict and I have to make everything complicated, I just do.
I had often said I was a seeker, to describe my lack of religious conviction. I believed everything and nothing, equally. But, it dawned on me, I wasn't a seeker. I was more of a destroyer. I just loved to pick other people's most treasured beliefs apart and hold them up for ridicule. I admit that this was Not Nice. No longer content to destroy other's beliefs, I set in to find some of my own and I kept coming up with the folk lore of our Northern European oral tradition. These things I had heard so often I believed there must be some gem of truth therein, passed down from generation to generation, over the years.
There is a woman, see, and she has nothing except a pot, no food to cook, but she longs to feed the people. One day she gets up and says "I'm gonna make a soup,” and she builds a fire in front of her little hut on the pathway to the village and she puts lots of water in her pot and she lets that start to cook. "I have nothing to put into this pot, save this one old bone,” she says. In some versions all she has is a nail. In other versions, she has only a stone. She hunkers in front of her fire and stirs the pot.
"What are you doing, you foolish old lady,” a passerby asks her. "You cannot make a soup with just an old bone." (Or, nail, or stone.)
"I wish to feed the people and I have only this bone. But, I will make a soup nonetheless,” she says, and continues to feed small twigs into the fire and to stir the pot, the bone putting only a little flavor, a little color into the weak broth.
"Well, here is a small, half-rotten onion for your soup,” the man says and he goes along, leaving her to her own devices. Scarcely has she peeled and chopped the onion and added it to her pot than a young woman comes along, same thing.
"What are you doing, Grandma?" she asks. "You can't make a soup from a bone and a half- rotten onion."
"I wish to feed the people and I had just an old bone. But, now I also have this onion which makes a sweet smell and I shall make a soup nevertheless,” the old woman said, and she smiled and hummed in the morning sun as she continued stirring her pot.
"You are a foolish woman, Granny. But, here are two carrots I was going to fed the foal and you may put that into your soup,” the young woman said, and went along. The old woman cut the carrots up very slowly and watched them as they dropped pleasantly into her pot. And, so it went, all through the day. One man gave her a piece of sausage the size of her fist. A young man gave her a turnip he was to eat for lunch. An old woman gave her a handful of cat tail bulbs, another threw her a small cabbage. A boy heard about her soup and brought her another bone, from a freshly killed doe, telling her all soups are better with two bones rather than just one. A little girl brought her wild herbs she had picked in the woods and her mother gave the old woman some grass seeds. Everything went into the pot. The old woman stirred and stirred and continued to add small twigs and broken branches to the fire.
After a long time, the sun began to sink in the sky and the pot was full to overflowing with a most delicious rich and hearty soup. Many people came to her hut, bowls in hand, and she feed them each, saying, "And, imagine, we made this soup from just an old bone." The people ate and the woman was very happy. And, to this day, any foolish old woman can make a soup enough to feed the people if only she will begin. It never hurts, either, if you tell others what it is yr trying to do.
I believe miracles happen daily but usually we are too busy to notice. I know it was a miracle that I got sober. It has been over a decade since I had my last drink. I still have no idea how IT works. I just know that I'm glad it does.
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