Guy walks into a bar. It’s clear he’s been there before. He pours himself into what appears to be his usual stoop at the tail end of a slab of burnt mahogany. Barkeep saunters over, and as he nods in his patron’s direction, he doesn’t ask so much as grunt “The usual.” To which our man — we’ll call him John, ’cuz that’s his name — whispers, “Correct.”
Half an hour and three drinks later, the now concerned though only disingenuously so bartender (who may or may not be named Sam, but that’s what it says right there on his very loud neon red bowling shirt) stares at our now bleary-eyed protagonist and emphatically declares, “You know you do this every night, right, John?” John slurps his concoction and then hisses, “Indeed I do.”
After an awkward and very pregnant pause, Sam asks the question he’s been wanting to ask for a long time now: “Do you think you might have a drinking problem, John?” At which point John slams a twenty down on the bar and says, “Keep the change.” After learning there is none, John looks the man who has “over-served” him for years as straight in the eye as he can, and mews as he backs his way to the door: “By the way? I don’t have a drinking problem. I have a thinking problem.” And slips into the night. The three drinks he’s had will make him legally drunk behind the wheel if he drives. But he doesn’t. His license has been suspended dozens of times, and he hasn’t had a valid one in years. He walks everywhere.
John’s been told the only AA meeting he was ever late for was the first one he attends. But he goes to it anyway, and sits in a church basement where he’s surrounded by people just like him. He has no way of knowing there are more than 118,000 AA meetings daily in over 180 nations worldwide. Nor is it brought to his attention that there is less than a one-in-30 chance that he will stay sober from that day on. And he isn’t told that half of the 20 or so people in that room on that day also suffer from some diagnosed mental health issue. He does know, though, that the smoking habit he’s decided to address on another day in another support group is likely to cut 20 years off his life. He’s 55, so he’s already concerned that time may soon be up.
Alcoholism. Drug addiction. Or as we are now taught to categorize it, substance use disorder, because the words abuse and addict are stigmatizing in that they conjure up notions of negativity and failure. Language does matter. But I digress. These are not character defects John is harboring. Or moral weaknesses. They are chronic illnesses for which there is no known cure. At his first meeting, John is told his disease is, however, treatable. As long as he’s willing to grow along spiritual lines? Not drink? And be of service to another human being? All will be well. “Don’t drink today. Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk about it,” he hears time and time again. Rinse. Repeat.
John stays sober long enough to know enough that he can’t do it alone. So he gets a sponsor in AA to take him through the steps. Moves into the local sober house, where he pees into a cup three times a week to prove he’s clean, and is required to get a recovery coach to help him navigate the multiple pathways to recovery. Starts going to a Refuge Recovery meeting as an adjunct to AA. It strikes a nerve in him. A good one. It is Buddhist-based, and teaches him to eliminate desire, and that the end of suffering begins the second you don’t think you have to be suffering. John thrives.
But he still wants more. He needs more accountability. And finds it in an online cognitive behavioral therapy program that requires most of his weeknight time. There’s homework, which keeps him tethered to the mooring lines that all of his supports have now become. He learns that acceptance breeds gratitude begets honesty with both himself … and with the new universe around him.
He gets a therapist. He has no idea two out of five SUD counselors won’t last five years in their chosen field, owing to burnout and a miscomprehension as to what an addict is, and needs. But he gets one with “lived experience,” and they click. He learns that it’s what was going on between his ears that made him bend his elbow so much. And learns coping skills like “urge surfing,” to help him handle the triggers he knows are out there. And not to be caught alone, because that’s what the disease wants to do to you … isolate you, and get you when your defenses are down. It’s been tough to stay connected during COVID, but he reaches out, just the same.
John is taught to understand that no one — least of all him — should underestimate the value of one addict talking to another. And that when you are in a room surrounded by others with a substance use disorder? That’s when the magic begins. And when he hears what he needs to hear. John is told not to leave before the miracle happens. He feels like it already has.
As he walks by the bar these days — usually only during daytime hours now, because at night he’s learned it would be too tempting — that was once his graveyard, he whistles. He knows it’s likely that Sam is in there. More importantly, he knows that he himself isn’t. And doesn’t want to be. He doesn’t go in … one day at a time.
John Anon is a made-up name. The author is deeply involved in the Island’s recovery efforts, and asked for anonymity. Given the nature of the commentary and the importance of keeping substance use disorder in the forefront, we agreed to share his words in the hopes of helping others.
Support groups for substance use disorder recovery.
First Stop M.V.: firststopmv.org
Health Imperatives M.V.: 508-693-1208, healthimperatives.org
HUB Table, 508-964-0940, firstname.lastname@example.org
Island Health Care: 508-939-9358, ihimv.org
M.V. Community Services: 508-693-7900, or 508-693-0032 for 24/7 emergency, mvcommunityservices.org
M.V. Groups of Alcoholics Anonymous, Island-wide list of meetings: aaonmv.org
M.V. Hospital, substance use disorder team: 508-684-4600, mvhospital.org
M.V. Substance Use Disorder Coalition: mvsud.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness, Cape Cod and the Islands: 508-778-4277, namicapecod.org
Online Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: aa-intergroup.org/meetings
Online In the Rooms recovery community: bit.ly/roomscommunity
Online Narcotics Anonymous meetings: bit.ly/nadirectory
Online Refuge Recovery meetings: refugerecoverymeetings.org
Online SMART Recovery meetings and discussion forum: smartrecovery.org
Pause a While, Alcoholics Anonymous call-in and virtual meetings: pauseawhile.org
Red House Peer Recovery Support Center: 508-693-2900, email@example.com
Vineyard House: 508-693-8580, vineyardhouse.org