Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's Not All a Party


"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

One thing I cannot change is when and how people die.

In rehab, there was a woman named Christina who was liked by some and barely tolerated by others. Reasons abound why she was an annoyance to so many. She whined and complained a lot. For sure she wasn't in great physical shape, but then again, many people in rehab were not. At least two that I knew of had cirrhosis, one of whom was in constant pain, her legs swollen like sausages about to burst in the microwave. Christina was overweight and had lower back problems, so she took command of the one big chair in our meeting room, padded it with pillows, sat on it, and then propped her legs on a pillow in another chair. I didn't pay much attention to that until it was pointed out to me that there were others (older and with the same kinds of back problems) at the Farm who never got to sit in that chair if Christina happened to be around.

I suppose people stop being empathetic to your pain when they see you never passing the same empathy on to others.

By the time Christina left rehab, at least half the people there would roll their eyes whenever she opened her mouth. Most everybody else just kind of tuned her out, me included.

It was a lot of other, little stuff, too. She felt sorry for herself, constantly seeking pity for the fact that her son might be moving out and leaving her alone at home to fend for herself. ("Escaping from her is more like it!" we hissed behind her back.) She complained about the food, which all of us ate family style three times a day (you're required in rehab to show up for all meals, even if you don't eat). Honestly, the food at the Farm wasn't bad. School lunches are horrible. This was edible, and sometimes even good. But Christina had her own personal rules about what was and wasn't palatable, so her son dutifully brought food up to the Farm for her every Sunday on family day. She kept a secret stash in her room, labelled items in the house refrigerator, and would always make a big production at meals about hauling out her special food to eat while we ate whatever was served.

It was kind of weird. She'd eat, say, little cherry tomatoes from Trader Joe's, but wouldn't eat larger tomatoes grown right in the garden at the Farm. And you bet--she didn't say "tomato," she said "Toe-MAH-toe."

Oy vey. I never asked if she was Jewish, but I think she was. A recovering Jewish alcoholic. I think she lost her faith in God long, long ago. She was a smart woman--she claimed to have a PhD (no idea if it's true, and I did hear some pretty wild whoppers while I was in rehab); but I'm pretty certain she wasn't exaggerating when she talked about having worked for years as a researcher at Stanford. But she'd lost her job, was living in Oakland, and was depressed because she couldn't get another job. Her husband was long gone. So all she had was her son. And he was "abandoning" her.

The dynamic between her and her son was fascinating. To me, the real story is the subtext. They occupied the same home, but seemed to survive by not interacting with each other so much as trading off the space. She was awake during the day while he slept in their bed; he was up all night while she slept in their bed.

What to make of that?

Of course that young man wanted to move out. What man in his twenties wants to live like that--because his mother was also drinking uncontrollably--when he needs to be striking out on his own, forging his own way in the world?

From what I could gather, Christina agreed to go into rehab because, perhaps, she believed if she sobered up, her son would stay at home. Those of us in rehab--there (except for the few forced by the courts) because we WANTED to be there, because we were sick of our addiction, didn't have much respect for that. For her, sobering up was just a bargaining chip. She repeatedly said she didn't think much of AA. We all pretty much figured her sobriety would end shortly after she left.

There were other things about Christina that drove us nuts. Her roommate (who eventually became MY roommate after Christina left) was horrified by Christina's lack of cleanliness. Christina collected clutter. She drank Diet Coke (not Diet Pepsi; it had to be Diet Coke, and rehab wouldn't even let it be caffeinated) like water. Seriously, on Sundays her son would bring up a case of it for her. She drank probably ten or more sodas a day. And, she left the empty cans all over the room. She had candy stashed in her drawers and her roommate would hear her in the middle of the night, crinkling the candy wrappers and crunching on the Peanut M&M's. Her drawers were stuffed with so many things that they wouldn't close, so bras and such draped over the lips of the drawers and spilled over onto the floor.

So, this was how we experienced Christina. People I love dearly couldn't stand her. And I barely tolerated her. I was nice to her, tried to encourage her in her sobriety, but I could handle Christina in only small doses. That's how it was. She had a way of sucking all the energy right out of you. At some point, self-preservation has to kick in.

When I got out of rehab, I made a point of putting together a phone and email list of people I met at the Farm. I saw no good reason to keep Christina off the email list. I sent around one of those "group" emails, letting people know I was back home.

Christina was one of the first who contacted me back, and she instantly asked for my phone number. I deliberated, and then decided I'd give her my home phone instead of my cell phone. We people in recovery are supposed to be here for each other. Surely I could answer the phone if she needed help.

The very next morning, I got a call from Christina. She was utterly out of her mind intoxicated, slurring, forgetting what she'd said from one moment to the next, repeating herself--you know how we are. The problem was that her son had decided to move out anyway. Her precarious sobriety, based on a barter, ended that easily. I tried to help, asking her if she was interested in going to a meeting together. She was dismissive. "No." She asked how I was doing, and when I said I'd been trying out different meetings and was thinking about asking an old friend to be my sponsor, at least temporarily, she cut me off. "No, Joyce," she said. "Tell me for REAL...how you REALLY are."

She thought I was lying. I guess she thought, because she hadn't been able to stay sober, that staying sober was just a bullshit idea, and so the same must be true for me. I was just giving her the party line. The realization made me sad. That's an influence I just didn't need in my life, me being fresh out of rehab. Because any drunk still using has to protect their addiction and doing so means they need to convince you alcoholism is a crock. I know. I used to do that shit myself.

I assured her I really WAS doing well in my sobriety and embracing my recovery whole-heartedly. She sounded disappointed. And then she told me she was doing well in her sobriety too, "except for today because of ... this," she said.

We signed off, telling each other we'd be in touch, go for a walk some time or something. You know, the usual blow-off. She did call me once and leave a short, confusing message on my answering machine. It sounded like she was drunk again. I couldn't bring myself to return the call.

Is that cold? Should I have done something? If so, what could that be? I had to protect my own sobriety. It's too early in my sobriety to risk my own, dealing with wet drunks.

Was that the right thing to do?

I heard from Christina's son today. She died last week, on May 3rd.

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