Last night I talked with a friend who’s struggling to stay sober. Larry, as I’ll call him, still has a house, a relationship, money in the bank and good looks. He just lacks a non-alcohol way to fill the emptiness inside him. I’ve cried out in that cavernous space, and I know the heavy reverberation of the echo. I wish I had a formula to help him stay sober, but the only magic words I know are, “Thank you, God.” Let me explain.
Ten-and-a-half years ago, when I was still drinking mouthwash, not for the bouquet but the buzz (and the minty-fresh vomit), I’d plotted my suicide and was taking actions to make it so. Luckily, I had a moment of clarity, went to the VA Medical Center in Manchester and approached the receptionist at the Urgent Care desk.
“Hi. My name’s Keith Howard, and I don’t really want to be alive anymore.” (A brief aside: that particular sentence is guaranteed to move you forward in any queue for medical care.)
Immediately, all the resources of the United States government were brought to bear to help save me from myself. Unfortunately, not all alcoholics and addicts are veterans, so untold thousands daily, gripped with a fleeting desire to get clean and sober, are told their names will be put on waiting lists, manifests of deaths in many cases. That clarity can be like dew on an August morning, evaporated with a drink or a drug.
After being ambulanced to White River Junction VA Hospital, I was treated for depression (duh), detoxed off alcohol and introduced to a program of recovery that remains central to my life. While I didn’t go through “rehab,” I learned at the meetings I attended that I didn’t ever need to feel again the way I felt. All I had to do was not drink, go to meetings and ask for help, a simple prescription and one that’s made it unnecessary for me to take a drink or mind-altering drug since May 21, 2007.
After a week or 10 days in the hospital, I moved into transitional housing for formerly homeless veterans in Nashua, NH. As it happened (as it was meant to happen), Buckingham Place—the homeless facility—was a two-minute walk from a noontime meeting at a local Episcopal church. I worked a second-shift job, attended meetings, found a guy who’d been sober awhile to advise me and picked up chips awarded for various lengths of sobriety. Twenty-Eight days. Two months. Six months. Eight months. One years. Five years.
Last May I got a 10-year medallion, and if I keep on doing what I’ve been doing, four months from now I’ll get an 11-year coin, simply by not drinking, going to meetings and asking for help. Oh, and one more thing, at least in my case—thanking the God-who-may-or-may-not-exist a hundred times a day. (That’s roughly seven times per waking hour, a description not a prescription.) All day long, whatever I’m doing, I’ve trained myself to be a transmitter of gratitude. “Thank you, God,” gets sent out into the universe, and being a conduit of thanks seems to help me stay sober. Go figure.
When I talked with Larry, he was drunk, of course, although he said at first he’d only had a couple drinks. (As a brief aside, “a couple drinks” was my description of two quick beers with pizza and friends or the alcohol intake that led to lying on the floor passed out with the nozzle from an empty wine box pointed at my face.) From my experience, alcoholics who have been drinking have a difficult time experiencing gratitude, except for inflicting it on others in a weepy, “Thank you so much for being the best friend I’ve ever had. No one else has ever understood me the way you do. What was your name again?” I’ll wait until the next time I’m having a meal with a sober Larry before springing this idea on him. Until then, I’m just grateful he’s alive and still has a desire to stay sober.