The last few days have involved a combination of gratitude and morbid reflection. The inevitable losses that result from addiction somehow still never fail to shock me, though I have not had a drink in nearly 22 years and I've seen more than a few people die at this point. It wasn't until the news about Philip Seymour Hoffman that I thought about how many there have been -- which turns out to be too many to count -- I keep thinking of others.
Sometimes you see it coming, sometimes you don't, and for me, most of the times, I just don't want to. I'll make up reasons why this one or that one is an exception so that my friends will all live forever, or at least until after I go first. The people I've met in recovery are some of the most phenomenal people I know; some have come back from homelessness and prostitution to build lives they could once barely imagine. My own drinking story is less dramatic; think of your most self-pitying girlfriend and add in a bunch of booze (whatever was available/free) and poor decision-making and that's about as interesting as it gets. When I quit, I had reached a point where I imagined going on like that for the rest of my life, maybe never even missing a day of work at the job I hated and for sure never having any more money than I did then (which was in fact, substantially negative), or a relationship that lasted longer than four months, and I saw a way to change that worked for me.
When I was newly sober, Phil was part of a crew of my closest friends. He wasn't my closest friend, I want to be clear about that. We had many delightful conversations, but we weren't "I'll call you when I get home" kinds of friends. We were close with a lot of the same people (who I did call when I got home), and I often saw him on a daily basis. That was two decades ago. But it was a critical time in my life. I cannot overstate how much each person in that group meant to me, then and now; we were part of a greater thing, and we all helped each other whether it was deliberate or not.
Over the years, many in that group moved away from NY, including myself. In Chicago, I found a new group of people to break my daily bread with, and as we built our new lives, we all had less time to gather every day. I have kept in touch with those who aren't close by, and we've always found ways to keep tabs on each other, pre-social media and pre-email. We used the phone. We wrote letters! Crazy.
I'm not getting to it here.
It's been 22 years. Countless individuals have helped me change my life, countless more help me keep it changed. But there's a special place in my heart for the people I met at the beginning. And losing one of them feels different -- shocking, frightening, heartbreaking, cause for a broad, unbidden life review. The short version is that it's good now, life. I'm happy and well, I have meaningful work and healthy relationships with people. I'm also married to a sober person, and yet it's not until just now that I've stopped to really consider the flip side of that. We continue to do what we need to to maintain our sobriety, but it is part of our makeup to want to drink or use. Relapse happens. There's a lot of talk in the media right now that makes me want to scream, the idea that we can just suddenly decide to not drink or take drugs, and that it's a moral failing somehow when we can't. We drink and take drugs because it's what we're wired to do. I've said many, many times that I think it's just incredibly hard to be awake and conscious in the world. Shitty things happen kind of non-stop. People die. That's just the deal. Spectacular things happen too, which is the part of the deal that makes the other part of the deal worth shaking on.
But the feelings associated with the relentless input of life can often present themselves as unbearable, and plenty of people can have one beer or one hit off a joint and resist taking another. Alcoholics and addicts don't have that luxury, not in my view, but we're really, really good at making up stories about it. Maybe I should just speak for myself. I'm really good at making up stories about it. "Oh, I never crashed a car. Oh, I never drank as much as so and so did. Oh, it wasn't really that bad. Oh it's been a long-ass time now, I'm older and wiser and sure it will be different. Oh, I'll just take one extra painkiller, just this once -- it's prescribed!" And so you have one, but for an addict or an alcoholic, as they say, one is too many and a thousand isn't enough.
I'm still not getting to it. Maybe I don't even know what it is.
So Phil died, and our friends are crushed, and I'm in shock and yet I feel lucky and amazed that I'm here. I don't know how I got to be this age. (My 35th high school reunion is this year. Wha-huh?) That's shocking too, because not many people get to be this age without a lot of losses. Both my parents are gone now. I've been back in NY for a couple of years, where I grew up, where I drank and where I quit, fueling my bittersweet nostalgia for that time of early sobriety in particular, crossing Columbus Circle with eight or 10 friends through rain and slush and sunshine to our favorite coffee shop; we had a big round table in the window that was almost always held for us. I think of all those guys -- and it was a guy-heavy group, though I had many sober women friends too -- and how I had crushed on almost all of them for one five minutes or another even though I was in no position to be seriously involved with anyone at that time -- and according to some greater plan, wouldn't be for another ten years. (It worked out right.)
Maybe there's nothing to get to. Oh yeah, gratitude and morbid reflection. I think we exist in a culture where we still think in black and white so much of the time. So and so should have not taken drugs, obvi. This is right, that's wrong. You're happy or you're sad and if you're sad you should get happy. But that's not my human experience. I exist in a place where I feel at once profoundly conscious of what I've been given in this life, and also how quickly that goes. I feel grateful, giddy, on occasion, at the bounty that's been given to me, but it's not mutually exclusive of feeling impossibly sad. They coexist, more or less constantly. I'd much prefer an easier, softer way. I haven't found one yet, but I have found one that works for me.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of the story collections When the Messenger Is Hot, All This Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. Her work has been featured in McSweeney's The Future Dictionary of America, The Best Underground Fiction, and elsewhere.