“Two Years?” The speaker looks up at me, his heavily tattooed elbows on his knees. A vein visibly pulses in the center of his forehead, and I’m struck for a moment at how much like a rock star he looks. I lock eyes with him for an instant. I am stunned and stricken by a shared emotion: Rage. Loneliness. Desperation. Fear. Loathing. But mostly, just rage. He sneers at me, his nose ring glinting in the light, too much light for the tired eyes and secrets of this room. “Shit. Man. Shit. I…Fuck man. What makes you special? You haven’t drank in two years?” His voice trails off and despite myself, my mind races away, spills freely away of its volition, and I’m suddenly…
Exhausted. The light hurts my eyes. Everything hurts. I never dreamed of such pain, never knew such a thing could exist. How a human could outlast such a pain, so large and so cold and so demanding, bludgeoning into my skull, unfettered by painkillers, drugs or alcohol. The doctor’s eyes were cold and flat – menacing. He leaned his large ass against the single chest of drawers in the room, which held despite his girth. It, like everything else, was securely bolted to the wall. Rehab, they told me. A place to rest, get my shit together, be medically supervised while I rode out DT and withdrawals. Hell was more like it. A freezing cold hell, with the AC turned down to polar as my teeth chattered and my hands shook and subzero sweat ran down my bank in rivulets of dripping agony.
He said something. I didn’t get it. I had drawn away into my own space, my own refuge, where the pain could not follow. A trick I learned, a fringe of discipline when faced with the bullies of my youth, when they hounded me for reading “Heidi” alone on the playground. A cavern within my own mind, where I could roam freely, and peer carefully out at what tormented me. I watched from that place as he shook his head irritably, shone a small light into my eyes and said more words I chose not to hear.
My wife called while I was hidden away. She was angry. Furious. Hurt. Betrayed. My foolish house of paper lies, built while intoxicated and secure in my own ignorance, burned to the ground. Money was missing, retirement funds, savings, rainy day accounts and vacation coins, all gone to feed my addiction. The bosses I no longer had at the job I never kept did not return calls on my behalf. They unknowingly added fuel to the fire of my paper house. Our pastor unwittingly fanned the flames as he stressed concern over my lack of participation in events for which I professed to have attended.
My son cried in the background as my wife silently raged. I shook the bars on the prison in my head, desperate now to be released as the sanctum of my youth listed with pain and remorse. I had been locked in before, but I had my key then. I could not find my key anymore, no way out.
Death came knocking one night to collect my debt. We stared at each other through the cage bars, gilded now with rust and rot, as old friends suddenly reunited with no warning. He held out his hand and I would not go. He nodded and tossed me a key, shiny and glinting in the moonlight of my nightmare.
I woke on the floor of the bathroom, the back of my head bleeding, from what I did not know. A nurse, large and black and female, hauled me to my feet and spoke to me as one would to a sick and rabid dog, hiding from his inevitable demise. Tears poured down my cheeks as I held her close, soaking her as she spoke the truth about what life would be like from now on. She told me that it would be hard, that all the shit people say about how things are instantly better is just that, shit. Things would not be better, she said. “It will get worse before it gets better.”
I sat in the T.V. room and waited. Someone told me it was my birthday and that I had been in that place for five days. I did not believe them. Time was no longer relevant, just a marker for an almost ruined life. I had almost nothing left. No career, no money, no freedom, no prospects, no leads, nobody to call in a favor to: Nothing much left. The doctor, sitting on the bed this time just before my release, had given me thirty to ninety days to live. “If you quit drinking.” Free of my own prison, I met his eyes and nodded. “Make the most of it.”
My wife came cautiously into the room with my son. I wept. I couldn’t help it. With shaking hands that I no longer trusted, I held him to me and marveled at how much I had missed. It was my birthday. I was forty. He was eight months. I looked into his eyes and promised him I would never miss another day. Not one.
Two years later, I look into the young man’s eyes in silence. I don’t know what to say. I see his pain, his agony and I feel his hurt. I am no longer yellowed from jaundice, and I ran five miles this morning. My liver is still ruined, and despite my outward appearance, I live on a razors edge between life and death. One infection, one botched surgery, one case of the flu, one hard blow to the abdomen and I will pass from this existence. I feel small in the face of his rage, his loneliness, his frustration. He is healthy. There is no immediate threat of death should he return to his vice, only the rejection of his driving privileges. I feel angry and helpless, and once again look at the old place, where I used to go when threatened, where I hid while the rest of me did what was necessary.
Despite myself, I begin to tell him the story of me, of what addiction took from me, but most importantly, what it did not.
I get home and my son is pretending to be sick in bed. I laugh when he demands a drink and a cookie and bring them to him dutifully, then flop out beside him to tell him wild tales of horses and pirates and trains. His eyes are big and huge and so much like his mother’s it hurts.
It’s a life worth living.