This story is by Rebecca Lea and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I dropped into the toddler-sized seat of a dank preschool classroom. The judge had said “Samantha, jail or rehab.” A no-brainer. I had done my thirty days but was still shaky. I could use a drink. I smelled crayons. A dozen women poured into the tiny room. They were laughing and hugging. Someone stepped to the podium.
She introduced herself as Charlie and said she was an alcoholic and hadn’t had a drink in ten years. That seemed like an eternity, half my lifetime.
“Hello, Charlie,” everyone said.
Looking straight at me, “You’re new. Would you like to introduce yourself?”
With a nervous glance around the room, I said, “I’m Samantha, but everybody calls me Sam. I’m just here to get this paper signed for the court.” I waved it.
“Hi Sam. Welcome,” said the group.
“After the meeting,” said Charlie. “Anyone else?”
After some housekeeping and talk of anonymity, Charlie told us how she stayed sober all these years. I stared at the crushed Goldfish crackers on the floor.
“What lets me enjoy the endless gifts of sobriety today,” she began, “is telling my story – how it was when I was drinking, what I did to change it, and how it is now. Simple.”
“There’s always a reason to drink and for me it was Annie. Annie was my one-year-old angel. She’d be a teenager now but for a sixty second lapse in judgment. I was a rising realtor about to close the biggest deal of my young career. The phone rang. The tub was nearly drained. When I came back, Annie was drowned.”
Charlie paused. I saw a flicker of guilt mixed with pain as her eyes darkened then closed. I thought it must be heavy to lose a kid like that. What kind of mother would leave her baby alone in the tub? “I’d drink, too,” I said to no one.
“‘Accidental death,’ read the report, but I killed her.”
“What do you do?” Charlie asked. “Drown yourself, too? I did. In the bottle. It started out as a couple of glasses of wine a day, then a bottle, then almost two bottles to myself. Then it got too hard hiding all the empty bottles from my husband, so I switched to Jack and Coke. Fewer bottles. Then just Jack. But that left an awful smell when I threw it all up, so I settled on vodka. Odorless, colorless, looks like water.”
“I kept my job. My husband Ken travelled so he didn’t see all the drinking. I worked less and drank more. It was a bottomless cycle of waking up every morning and taking a couple of shots to calm the shakes. I planned my showings early. I finished by noon then met a turnstile of friends for drinks or sat at the bar alone until it was time to go home. Sometimes I made dinner, sometimes not. If Ken was home, we’d share a bottle of wine, but I had started without him. Often, I woke up on the couch and the next morning Ken was distant and gruff. We fought a lot.”
“Awful break,” I thought. “But maybe she just needed to ease up on the booze. Her old man needed to ease up too.” I spotted a beat-up coffee pot on a corner desk. Filling the Styrofoam cup, I glanced at the women as I went back to my seat. They looked normal. Their hair was brushed, and they wore clean clothes. They didn’t look like alcoholics. They didn’t slur their words or stink. They weren’t twitchy.
Charlie continued. “When Ken moved out, I was free to drink all the time. I stopped seeing clients. I stopped getting dressed except to go out for booze. I saw no one. I never answered my phone. I rarely bathed. Whenever I went into the bathroom – her bathroom – I saw her little body at the bottom of the tub. One day I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and saw a yawning abyss. It felt like I was being sucked into a whirlpool. Smashing both fists against the glass I railed against the shameful, lowly creature I had become. I could stop this consuming pain with one slice. I was drunk enough; I would feel nothing.”
Some of the women were nodding. Some were crying. A box of tissues was passed. Charlie’s voice softened to a tone of reverence that I found church-y.
“If you asked me if I believed in miracles, ten years and one day ago I would have snickered. I remember picking up a shard of glass that fell in the sink. It was triangular and fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. It came to a point, but the edges were smooth. I held it, looking at my reflection. I put the mirror down and took a silver flask out of my bathrobe pocket. Drinking deeply and with renewed courage I picked up the shard. I saw the dirty, stringy hair and the traces of vomit pasted on my chin. I saw the blood shot eyes, the yellow skin, the bloated face. Shame, hatred, disgust and a tremendous pining for what might have been, seized me. Grief swamped into me like a tidal wave. As I raised the point of the glass to my wrist, I felt a distinct push from behind. It came from the bathtub.”
I was raised to be polite or I would have bolted out the door at this talk of miracles. Something held me to my seat.
“I was knocked out cold,” said Charlie. “How long? I don’t know. Ken had come back to the house to get some clothes and found me. It was Annie. She pushed me. She saved my life.”
“This deep belief that my young daughter had reached out to me from death sustained me through the painful withdrawal from alcohol. I could not throw away the gift she had given me. After thirty days in detox I went to live in a halfway house with other recovering addicts. For the first time in a decade I considered the infinite possibilities of a life free from alcohol. They told me alcohol was a disease of the body and an obsession of the mind. I could never drink again but I just had to not drink today.”
When Charlie took a sip of coffee I thought, “All I have is a couple of drunk driving arrests. Never drinking again seems harsh. I just won’t drink before I drive.”
“Alcohol robbed me of my ability to choose’” said Charlie. “I realize how little I can control and how much I have to accept. I had to forgive others if I expected forgiveness, but first I had to forgive myself. This is still hard. I had to square things with my family and husband, even though we remain separated. I had to stop denying I had a problem and ask for help. Sobriety opens up a life full of possibilities.”
“The key is, I couldn’t have done any of this without God. If I had to take on all my lies and destruction, and forgive people who have hurt me, not be angry or resentful, and never take one sip of alcohol, on my own, game over. They call it a ‘spiritual awakening.’ I call it a miracle.”
“This sounds like a cult,” I thought when Charlie finished. I looked for an exit, but the women were forming a circle to end the meeting. Wiping sweat off my hands, I slid in between Charlie and an old woman, scanning again for familiar faces. I didn’t want anyone to recognize me and think I have a drinking problem. After a few prayers, there was a buzz of conversation and another round of hugs. I waited outside the room for Charlie.
“Are you the one in charge? Court needs proof I’m going to meetings.”
“No one’s in charge, Sam, except the Higher Power that brought you here. Yes, I can sign.”
“That’s some story! You really haven’t had a drink in ten years? How’d you do it?”
“Like you do any challenging task: you read a large book a page at a time; climb a mountain a step at a time; eat a one-pound burger a bite at a time. We stay sober one day at a time. Just don’t drink today. Go to meetings. Find your Higher Power. Simple but difficult.”
“All I have are a couple of D.U.I.’s,” I said. “Now I’m ordered to go to ninety meetings in ninety days. The stories you and the other women shared are so much worse than mine.”
“Those are called your ‘not yets’…”, said Charlie. “Don’t take my word for it, take theirs.” She passed a small navy- blue book to me. “Keep comin’ back,” she said.
Alcoholics Anonymous. I opened the book. The top of the page read “There is a Solution.” I needed eighty-nine more signatures.