Brian was a zombie when we first met. He sat very close to another guy in about the same shape, neither of them able to speak. Whose idea to bring them to an AA meeting in pajamas, Xanaxed and drooling like infants? I’d reckoned out why I was there though. My sponsor, Dick C. had driven me to the institution, signed me in on the guest list, and passed me through the gates as part of my education. Dick had carted me around to several different meeting places during those early, and still a bit blurry, days of my recovery. You can help yourself stay clean, he’d explained, by sharing your experience, strength and hope with others.
I’d tagged along, for example, on visits to recovery “club houses” on the wrong side of the tracks. This was back in the day when smoking was still permitted in indoor public spaces but, even so, one would find clumps of jean-clad loungers mooching cigarettes or borrowing lighters outside of the halls. These were 24-hour meeting places where some soul could usually be found to share a cup of red-eye coffee. Most of the regulars had been in and out of institutions, too many DUIs to keep a license, and not enough cash to spend their time anywhere else.
Scarier were the jail-houses. We’d sit and watch the guards lead the prisoners in, some with their ankles shackled to chains, wearing orange jump-suits and state-issued slippers. Thirty years ago and I can still pull up a clear visual of some of these inmates. There was a giant I couldn’t stop glancing at, handsome with his hair in cornrow braids, hands big enough to wrap around a bowling ball. I’d spend a chunk of the meeting time wondering what it must have been like for the cops to handcuff and take this guy in, especially if he were high at the time. There were more places and people like these: a world I was only just becoming acquainted with.
But none of those scenes had impressed me like the one in which Brian appeared. I suffered some nervous chills walking those maze-like, antiseptic-drenched halls to get to the plain, beige room where the meeting was held, and I probably would have turned to escape if it weren’t for the outsized trust I’d developed in my sponsor. An occasional shuffling shell of a hospital-gowned human on the arm of a nurse would turn glazed eyes up at us as we made our way to the meeting. Dick, who’d made that trip many times, led us confidently and comfortably ahead. He’d gone through that trouble to give me a taste of what kind of bottom I could be scraping if I ever got dumb or desperate enough to take a drink or drug again. My system was still clearing out toxins and dealing with the concomitant withdrawals: my mind still very capable of fast-switching from take-it-or-leave-it messages on a dime.
Surely, Brian was just the kind of fellow Dick was hoping I’d run across: not much older than I, physically “normal” in all other respects, a mirror I could stare into should I have any lingering reservations that even one cool can of suds would drag me back under.
We’ve all chuckled at the theatrics of the stiff-legged subhumans in a zombie film.
Brian was fried in a way that no Hollywood pathos I know of has successfully evoked. The farthest reaches of drug and alcohol abuse is the self-inflicted emptying of a human being which, physically and spiritually, falls just short of suicide. Or it finishes the job. When the subject (the fortunate one) is given over to treatment, the doctors step in and administer nerve-numbing medication as a palliative, and this just deadens the patient more. We could liken this to the ugly scabbing of a scraped-away cancer in the hope of healthy healing to occupy that space. There was little, in fact, left of Brian to be found. Still, and remarkably, I sensed an intelligence, or at least an ember of curiosity glowing somewhere behind Brian’s red and watery eyes, which occasionally met and held my gaze for moments at a time. It was eerie, and that’s probably why I remembered him.
The meeting was cold and pathetic: my sponsor and I were practically the only ones to speak. I couldn’t see much good we were doing there. And when he and I walked out of the “nuthouse,” I didn’t expect to ever see any of those patients again. They looked too far gone for help, and I figured the only reason my sponsor had brought me to that isolated place was to put a scare in me.
Maybe 9 months later, I see this guy walk into the local Tuesday evening AA meeting, and he looks familiar. Smiling, handsome and confident, he introduces himself. Says his name’s Brian. Holy Shit, he lives, breathes and speaks! He had no idea (no recollection of) who I was, and I just might not have placed him had he not introduced himself by his name. Even then it was difficult to reconcile the smile, the taught facial features, with the flaccid mess of a countenance he’d brought to our first encounter. He spoke clearly and confidently, “talking the talk” as they say: let us know he was “a grateful recovering alcoholic…taking it 24 hours at a time…first things first.” Never did see him again after that meeting, though.
Brian was just the first of a long line of hypotheticals. Men and women who I’d watched impossibly brought back from the brink, and given a second or third chance. There are plenty of drunks who have died clean after 40 or 50 years of continuous sobriety, others slip back under and disappear. You wouldn’t know who to bet on by the looks they walk in with.
Witnessing Brian’s Lazarus redemption helped to convince me. It convinced me of what drugs and alcohol can take away and convinced me of what grace can give back. When I walked away from my first contact with Brian, I was following my sponsor out of the psychiatric hospital and almost didn’t make it out. The staff, mistaking me for a ward, closed the prison-like doors behind my sponsor, but in front of me. Even then, before years of fearless and thorough self-searching, I knew it wasn’t true when I turned to the nurse on guard and claimed: “Sorry, but I don’t belong here.”