Dear Hope Nation,
A trigger warning: if long intricate profiles of people are not your cup of tea, you shouldn’t read today’s letter. Go grab a cup of coffee and find something shorter. This is a lengthy read.
Good. It’s just us now. We’ve cleared out the folks for whom reading more than 1000 words is a Herculean task and it’s time for us readers to hunker down. I almost wrote down “hunker down and enjoy,” but you’ll have to determine that.
Incidentally, I’ve published parts of this elsewhere, but not the entire saga. You are the first to read it as a whole.
You matter. I matter. We matter.
Larissa: An Introduction to a Fairy Tale of Sorts
Most of us are familiar with standard plot structure:
Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution
Typically, the resolution of the story leaves the protagonist a little bit better off than s/he was during the exposition. In the case of recovery narratives, though, the resolution is an ever-upward line. Almost literally, the sky is the limit.
No matter what kind of recovery meeting you go to, the narratives are likely to follow a predictable path. It’s not a bad path—in fact, it’s really good—but it is well worn by every other recovery story you’ve heard before. Briefly, the plot is:
Prologue—The speaker was the child of either very good or very bad parents, or, as in the case of many fairy tales, both. Cinderella’s mother, for instance, is dead at the beginning of most versions of that story, and our heroine’s father marries a woman who is okay until the father dies, at which point she becomes the Wicked Stepmother. Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and the dozen children in The Wild Swans face a similar fate. In the recovery tale, our speaker’s childhood often overflows with feelings of not fitting in, being worthless or having a sense the speaker is different than everyone else. Imagine—being the Other in your own story.
Act I—The speaker discovers alcohol/drugs and from the beginning senses a key has been fit in a heretofore locked door. Finally, freedom. Ease. Comfort. Think Cinderella at the ball. That alienation is gone, at least while the speaker is high or has a buzz of some kind. Our person in recovery has found a way to live that works, has embraced better living through chemistry.
Act II—Devastation. Despair. Destruction. The substance that made life livable has turned its power on the user, leaving her or him worse off than ever before. Like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, the spell has worn off, the horses have been turned back to mice. This part of the story is usually the longest and most emotional section, likely because it’s way easier to describe horror and loss than what is to follow in Act III. There’s a reason Paradise Lost is way more popular than Milton’s preceding work, Paradise Regained.
Act III—The resurrection. The homecoming (even to a home you’ve never been before.) The prince with the lost shoe. Prince Charming’s appearance. The recovery from addiction. Strings play, the lights brighten, life has become a glorious phantasmagoria. Typically, the speaker describes her or his pathway—AA, SMART Recovery, NA, etc.—and tells how much better life has gotten now that s/he has removed drugs and alcohol from life. From now on, life is clear sailing!
I’m going to tell you a story about my friend, Larissa beginning in Act II and continuing into a different Act III. Before I begin, though, I should tell you a bit about Larissa, or at least what I think I know.
Larissa was born and raised in Dublin, NH, where her father was an attorney and her mother was a psychiatric social worker. Larissa never complained about her parents, except that they got divorced when she was in fifth grade, and she felt that scarred her. Still, Larissa went to private school where she excelled at drama and softball, the latter earning her a scholarship to Iowa State, where she was named an All American.
After college, she drifted from corporate sales job to corporate sales job until she married at 28 and decided to become a teacher. Except for a year after the birth of each of her two children, Larissa never took time off from teaching. According to her students, peers and supervisors, Larissa was a truly gifted teacher.
Oh, yes. Larissa’s drinking. Since high school, Larissa had enjoyed a few (or more) beers on the weekend. As she aged, though, her taste for booze increased, until at 38, she identified herself as an alcoholic. You’ll learn a lot more about Larissa, her drinking and her Third Act.
Too Smart and Charming for Our Own Good
I just got off the phone with a dear, dear friend. Larissa is in her late 30’s, holds a graduate degree and works as a teacher, where she is seen by her students and peers as insightful, creative and a dynamite professional. Her classroom is always abuzz with excitement, and her students routinely say she’s the best educator they’ve ever had. Larissa has been married for 15 years, has a couple of great kids, and does volunteer work in her community, focusing on the elderly. In that, she is also highly valued and seen as near-saintly. She is smart and charming and any number of other adjectives.
One word in the previous paragraph is wrong, though, and must be amended. “Works as a teacher” is actually “worked as a teacher.” Friday, Larissa was fired from her teaching job—despite all her gifts—because Larissa is also a drunk, an alcoholic. There had been warning signs and written warnings, hand-wringing and hand-holding, pie-crust promises to change and repeated breakage of those pie crusts.
Larissa has been to rehab three or four times, during the summer and during the school year. She’s stopped drinking plenty of times, but hasn’t figured out a way to stay stopped. Yesterday, Larissa’s students smelled stale alcohol on her breath, reported it to her principal, and she was fired. As she should have been.
As was I. Fourteen years ago, I was allowed to resign from one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, running an alternative high school program in a dynamic community with engaged kids. I just couldn’t control my drinking, couldn’t stop drinking, and couldn’t stop lying about my drinking. I was where Larissa is today, and it took me another three years of sinking before I finally found myself homeless. Then, I found my solution.
Talking with Larissa was like listening to tapes of me all those years ago.
“I never drank at school.”
(Although I drank enough almost every night to still be legally drunk when I drove into work.)
“Some people just metabolize alcohol in a smellier way than most.”
(Of course, some people just don’t drink, or don’t drink on work nights, or don’t drink enough to worry about metabolizing times.)
“Who are they to judge what I do on my own time?”
(Even if their concern is the ways what I do on my own time affects students, parents and co-workers.)
“I’m going to see a lawyer, because alcoholism is a disease. They wouldn’t fire me for having diabetes.”
(Unless I continued to take too much insulin or refused to eat so I was passing out in the classroom, acting shaky or confused or falling asleep regularly.)
“If it weren’t for my husband/kids/neighbors/parents/ad nauseum, I wouldn’t need to drink.”
(Although I would, because I’m an alcoholic, gifted at finding targets to drink at.)
“They’re jealous of what a good job I do, and how much the kids like me.”
(That may be, but they’re also worried about my judgement and decision making, impaired as I am by booze.)
Larissa will find another job. She’s insightful and gifted and attractive, and that’s what her references will say. They won’t say she’s a drunk. They won’t want to damage her opportunities because “She’s so great when she’s not drinking. If it weren’t for that . . .” Unfortunately, those ellipses never end without change, and that change doesn’t seem to come without work on our part.
No one ever passed on that truth about me, either. After all I was creative and energetic, if not attractive. From that lost job of mine, I eventually got a teaching job at a residential school, until I got fired from there, if not for drinking then for behavior brought on by drinking. Then I got a job as a clerk/salesman. Then I got homeless.
Larissa is cursed by good luck and bad genes. She’s got everything she needs to be successful—except for the ability to stay away from that first drink.
Larissa and I are both smart and charming, too goddamned smart and charming for our own good when it comes to booze. There, all the gifts and talents in the world won’t keep us sober, although they can keep us from getting sober.
No More Crises Because That’s All Life Is
A little over a week ago, I wrote about my friend, Larissa, who’d just been fired from her teaching job. Larissa is very smart, very creative and very deep into problem-drinking territory. In fact, by her admission, Larissa long ago had her visa stamped at the gates of alcoholism. Regardless, Larissa had called me for help and advice, knowing I’d been in her shoes, and hoping I could help her navigate her way into sobriety.
In a perfect world, I could have driven the four hours to see her, whispered magic words into an amulet, placed it around her neck, and she’d never drink again. In a perfect world, Larissa could have met me at her door, asking to go to an AA meeting, where she’d meet a woman who’d offer to walk her through the twelve steps of that organization as Larissa got used to living without booze. In a perfect world, Larissa could look at the mess she and her drinking had made of her life, put the plug in the jug and move on to a life without alcohol.
This ain’t no perfect world, as my friend Tonio K. reminds us.
I sat with Larissa for two or three hours, listening to the same words, phrases and rationalizations I’d told myself for years. It turned out Larissa had already found a new job, beginning in 10 days. Without wanting to betray any confidences (and of course I’ve changed enough details about Larissa to make her unidentifiable), I can give the gist of our conversation in a few sentences.
“So I just need to figure a way to be perfect for a couple weeks,” she said.
“Perfect?” I asked. “That seems like a pretty tall order.”
“Not perfect perfect,” she said. “I just need to not drink at all for a couple weeks, get a few good days in at the new job, then only drink on my way home from work. No more drinking on the way to work.”
“So ‘perfect’ means not drinking until you’ve had your job for a few days?”
“And not drinking on my way to work after that,” she said. “That’s an important part. There’s just one problem.”
One? Oh, yes, the problem of alcoholism’s progressive nature and its ability to infect our entire lives and personalities. I wanted to say this, but didn’t.
“What’s that one problem?” I did say.
“DT’s. I get them really bad if I don’t drink. Shakes, hallucinations, blood pressure off the charts. Don’t worry—I’ve got a bottle of Benzos. I was hoping I could come and stay with you to help me get through this. You could park my car miles away, and not tell me where the nearest store is.”
So Larissa’s plan was, in essence, for me to hold her prisoner with no medical support other than her “bottle of benzos” (benzodiazepine, a class of tranquilizers carrying their own addiction risk) and my kind and thoughtful ignorance of all things medical. I may not know how that story ends exactly (death, assault, pathetic lies, fractured relationships?), but I believe it’s always tragic. Still, I also know it’s the kind of plan I developed for myself, over and over and over, for years, although mine usually included the proviso: “And I’ll quit drinking not THIS weekend—I’ve got too much to do—but next weekend,” thus keeping the moment of truth always within sight but never within implementation.
Rather than throw a freezing wet blanket over Larissa’s plan, I asked her to call me each day, just to check in, to go to meetings and to try to find a woman locally who might be able to help her during these difficult early days. As I suspected, as I feared, as I goddamned knew when the phone didn’t ring it was Larissa. After a few days, I texted her “Daily phone calls?” and got back “oh right sorry my bad,” followed by more non-ringing phones.
I don’t relate this to embarrass Larissa or anyone else who’s struggling to find a way to struggle to quit drinking. I danced that same dance for years, making a decision to quit drinking and believing that decision was the same as accomplishing the goal. Ask anyone who’s decided to commit suicide yet is still above ground. “Deciding” is not taking the first step; it’s not putting on hiking boots; it’s not even getting out of the chair. Deciding is, for many alcoholics, a way to put off doing anything.
For a decade, I firmly intended to quit drinking, and each time a crisis erupted like an infected pimple on a teenager’s face, I’d change that intention to a firm decision, iron-clad until the pimple stopped hurting. Then I’d go back to drinking. Of course, one of the nice things about the disease of alcoholism is its progressive nature. The longer I put off doing anything, the more frequent the crises came until eventually my life was the crisis.
A Free-Association Scream (900 or so Words of Id-Driven Rage at Addiction Poured onto the Page without Editing or Re-Reading)
Larissa’s had another red-letter day/week/month with the same red-letteredness I brought on myself near the end of my drinking. Moving from mid- to end-stage alcoholism is distinguished by increasingly common losses (or throw-aways) and satisfaction with less and less and less in life. The border between the stages may come with the recognition that buying Sam Adams is a waste of money. Natty Daddy gives you what you want without all that taste and craftsmanship. (Or, in my case, Chardonnay is for suckers when Lavoris gets me drunk and gives me minty-fresh vomit. I quickly slid from brand-name mouthwash to Dollar Store generics, but that was less for aesthetic reasons than for its being easier to steal.)
This week, Larissa, who’s just started a new job—she’s charming and smart and pretty, in addition to being a nearing-end-stage alcoholic—wrecked two cars in one day, got her first DWI and has been asked to move out of her home. Like a child whistling as she walks past that house with the mean dog, Larissa tells me she’s got a plan for pulling things together. As she tells me about it, I taste the same “once-I’ve-jumped-over-the-canyon-and swum-the-Pacific” nonsense that had infected all my end-stage dreams, and I’d never faced the public and practical problems of holding down a job with no public transportation, no car and, oh yeah, no driver’s license.
After losing a second job for drunkenness or its aftermath, I quickly went through my tiny savings. (In the previous sentence, “savings” is a euphemism for “what remained in my checking account after I’d paid my rent and bought cigarettes and booze.”) When my girls got home from school, they had a chance to see the eviction notice on the door of our s-hole apartment in a section of Nashua just north of Dicey and west of Danger. Ah, memories. Feeling like a victim always, I assumed some deus ex machina would appear to rescue me. Didn’t happen. A week later, after the girls had packed up their things and taken them to their mom’s, I had a final night alone, alone except for a box of Chardonnay. I laid on the futon in the dark corner of the back room, cradling the wine except for when I lifted the spout up to my mouth. That box made me feel like a wealthy man indeed.
The next morning, homelessness felt like freedom. No more boss telling me what to do! No more wasting money on rent! Finally, I could drink the way I wanted to—desperately and self-destructively, just as God intended.
Larissa today is like a woman in a pool of freshly-poured Plaster of Paris. She can still move, although the cake-batter consistency around her presents a challenge. As time goes on, she’ll find life getting slowly but inexorably harder to control as the plaster hardens. The slow-motion thrashing she does will create a space for her inside that solid pool, until she’s as snug as a bug in amber, a bug with a taste for booze and little else.
If she’s like me (and most of the other drunks I’ve known), she’ll begin to think of suicide, or at least an end to her existence, going to sleep at night praying she won’t wake up. Warnings from friends and family will increase.
“If you don’t stop drinking,” they’ll say, “you’re going to die.”
Promises, promises. Promises that never come true.
Six months after our eviction, when I’d found a series of depths below the deep, I realized there was no “bottom” for this drunk to find until my body thumped onto the bottom of a casket. Luckily, instead of continuing to drop, I reached out for help from the VA and a program of recovery. Many (most?) (nearly all?) aren’t that lucky, burrowing deeper and deeper into despair, finding it harder and harder to find lower companions, creating ever-duller red-letter days/weeks/months.
Like Larissa, I continued to be charming, if charming means “manipulative and dishonest with no regard for how I affected others.” Like Larissa, I continued to be smart, if smart means “manipulative and dishonest with no regard for how I affected others.” Unlike Larissa, I was never pretty, but I’m afraid alcoholism doesn’t leave much beauty inside or out. In women in their forties, booze seems to dissolve their looks, first slowly and then completely.
By the end, I was amazed if not amused that it takes as much energy to be a semi-employable drunk with a taste for mouthwash as it did to direct alternative schools, run an improv theater company and be a homeowner. The energy didn’t result in achievement anymore, barely resulted in anything, but I kept on needing it, or at least needed the booze that fueled my energy.
Readers know I’m not a God guy at all, not real interested in whether the Big Joker in the Sky is paying attention. Still, I pray 50 or 75 times a day, saying the same prayer over and over and over: “Thank you, God.” For today, I’m going to amend that prayer to “Thank you, God, and please help Larissa find a way to want to find a path to sobriety.”
Those of you who have a chattier relationship with a higher power, please feel free to embroider this message, and insert whatever other names are appropriate for you.
No Friendly Direction But Down—Six Feet Down: A Larissa Update
Larissa is at the end of her rope—and wishes it were wrapped around her neck.
I had lunch with her a few days ago, then talked with her last night and again this morning. To update you, Larissa will lose her driver’s license next Monday—the result of last month’s DWI—she’s been “asked” to leave her home in Dublin, where her husband and two kids still live. Larry just couldn’t take the lying, the not coming home at night, the drunken fights—in short, he can’t take Larissa. And neither can her kids, which break’s Larissa’s heart so badly the only thing she can do is drink.
She’s found a room to rent in the Southwestern NH town she’s now working in, and is happy it’s only five miles from her new school. Of course, the teaching gig she landed is only until the end of the year—precipitated by a maternity leave—and she hasn’t told her principal about the DWI or loss of license. She has faith no one in town will Google her name and find out about her arrest, but faith gets shaky in the evening. She worries at night, worries so badly the only thing she can do is drink.
Her parents are both alive, and she feels they’re still in her corner. For now. When she asked if she could borrow $20,000 from them to “start over,” they turned her down, which gives her premonitions they might turn on her, leaving her alone. That alienation is terrifying, so upsetting the only thing she can do is drink.
Larissa accurately diagnoses her condition.
“I’m an alcoholic”.
“I’ve lied to everyone in my life, and they’ve all left me. All I’ve got left is my drinking buddies—and they’re all creeps. I guess I’m kind of a creep, too.”
“I can’t picture a world without drinking.”
“Sometimes I feel like the world would be better off without me. At least my kids would have my life insurance money to start them off right.”
Suicide. Offing yourself. Doing yourself in. That seemed like the only option to me, and that’s where Larissa is now. Each night she passes out with the hope she’ll die in her sleep, and when she wakes up in the morning with a foggy and throbbing head, shaky hands and a bellyful of dread, she asks for the courage to kill herself today. So far, thank God, she hasn’t found it.
(An aside: when stunning statistics are released about deaths from the opiate epidemic or alcohol poisoning, I assume they’re at least 20 percent low, because addicts and alcoholics at the end don’t typically leave suicide notes. They’ve long stopped communicating with anything but their drug of choice and their death of choice. If I’d had a gun for the last six months of my drinking I’d have splattered my brains all over a wall. No note left behind, just a momentary regret I didn’t have another couple drinks before pulling the trigger.)
Larissa’s world keeps getting smaller. It will shrink and shrink until she can’t turn around. That world will be big enough for Larissa and a box of wine. No matter how far apart we are, we breathe the same air. No matter how close we are, there is still air between us. No matter how tiny Larissa’s world gets, it will always have room for a box of wine. Or a bottle of mouthwash.
Sometimes sober and more often drunk, she calls me. (By the end stage of alcoholism, “sober” and “drunk” are mere approximations. The dedicated last-gasper has always got enough booze in her blood to blow hot in a breathalyzer. Seeming sober is just one of the gifts of alcoholism.)
Larissa knows I’ve been within hailing distance of her world, but left that desperate chaos behind. She knows by some completely unmerited act of grace I found a program of recovery still central to my existence. She knows my life today is the best I’ve ever had. She calls me and seems to want the magic word, the talisman, the secret of sobriety, but I don’t have any secret.
I didn’t drink. I cleaned house. I had a man I trusted who wouldn’t co-sign and notarize my bullshit. I met with other alcoholics every day for a long time, and now do so at least three or four times a week. I worked with newly sober people. I tried to follow a program of recovery
Those aren’t secrets, for Christ’s sake. They saved my life, but they’re not magic words.
Oh, yes, one other thing.
I didn’t kill myself.
Please pray Larissa doesn’t kill herself, and does find a moment of vulnerability, a second of peace and a glimpse of clarity.
Recovery can work.
But not if you’re dead.
Mortui vero nihil nisi de(Say nothing but truth of the dead)
Larissa is dead.
The circumstances are unclear to me, and matter not one bit. Whether her death was ruled the result of a heart attack, liver failure, overdose or gunshot, Larissa’s real cause of death was simple: untreated end-stage alcoholism.
Larissa is dead.
Larissa and I were friends for seven years, a friendship that had its peaks and valleys. At many times, before Larissa’s embrace of the chaos that accompanies alcoholism like slaves chained at the ankles, we often talked daily and had lunch once or twice a month. Again, before Larissa’s existence started circling the drain like soap suds at the end of a bath, I got to know Larissa’s kids some, and her husband a bit better. By the end, her husband called a few times, hoping I had some magical words to get Larissa to go into rehab yet again. I didn’t have the incantation, for alcoholism’s dark magic is stronger than any mere words.
Larissa is dead.
“Mortuis nil nisi bonum” (“Say nothing but good of the dead.”) is of course the more common Latin phrase, but here my aim is truth. I loved Larissa, as did hundreds, even thousands, of other people. She was smart and charming and pretty. And funny, kind and dedicated. Energetic. Sweet. Insert any positive adjective and I’ll likely endorse it. She was one of the good ones.
Larissa is dead
If you’ve read this far in the Larissa saga, there’s a fairly good chance you’re in recovery yourself, This last part is not for you.
If you’ve read this far, you may have a loved one who’s in recovery. This last part is not for you.
If you’ve read this far, you may just like my writing. Thanks for that, but this last part is not for you.
If you’ve read this far, you may be worried about your drinking and hoped the Larissa Saga would end happily. You may have wanted Larissa to learn to control her drinking, to drink like a lady, and to return to a normal life. You may have desired that Larissa simply make the decision to stop drinking and then stay stopped. If that’s you, welcome! This last part is for you.
Larissa is dead
But you don’t have to be. Really.
Recovery is possible and available to anyone. It will take hard work, a desire to change your entire life and a willingness to go to any lengths, but you can get and stay sober, no matter how far down you’ve driven your life, regardless of the damage you’ve done to yourself or others, notwithstanding the emotional vacuum you’ve come to accept as life.
A little more than 13 years ago, I was at the same jumping-off point you are. I was homeless and hopeless and toothless, with no friendly direction available. I entered recovery inside a psychiatric unit, a place I found myself after telling a Veterans Administration nurse, “I don’t want to be alive anymore.”
Sobriety is available. Recovery is possible. You don’t ever have to feel this way again. Really and for true. Just pick up the phone and call the New Hampshire Alcoholics Anonymous Hotline (1-800-593-3330), visit Hope for New Hampshire Recovery (293 Wilson Street, (603)935-7524, hopefornhrecovery.org/). Hell, if neither of those work for you, give me a call (603)361-6266. I can at least give you a pat on the back, point you in the right direction and walk with you a ways.
Larissa is dead.
I loved her and miss her, but she’s dead.
I want you to live. Make that call. Click that link. Reach out for a new, freer and better life.
“In vino veritas” (in wine there is truth) is another Latin aphorism. For folks like me, in vino there is chaos, despair and a death-in-life existence. For folks like Larissa, “in vino mors est” (in wine there is death).
For you, if you are like me, “In vita convaluisset” (in recovery there is life).
Please. Choose life. Larissa can’t.
Larissa is dead.
Requiescat in pace, my dear sweet friend.