The Group as Lifeboat

In the back of the nondescript rectangular room is a small circle of chairs, enough to seat eight. The lights are mostly turned off. It is a twilit, quieting space. This is the second story, and the picture windows overlook a neighborhood street. Rain cascades over cars and drums buses as they swish and rumble on their way to other places. The west hills are veiled in darkness and punctuated with yellow blooms of light.

It is dinnertime for many. For those that enter and take these seats, it is time to get honest.

The women stream through the door I have unlocked; most of them greet each other and me with easy familiarity. As they settle, I fan out the meditation cards and stand in the center, stopping by each person as she chooses the card she likes. The colors are key to their choices; they are bright and textured with designs that attract the eye. It is misleading. The words relay ideas that require thought and ask hard questions.

The check in goes smoothly. After months of weekly group, the old-timers know it by heart, and the new ones catch on: name, drug of choice, sober/clean date, why here in addictions treatment, number of sober support meetings, and good or not-good events the past week. And then they begin, first with meditation cards, then with their own stories.

D. reads her card. What is the passion of her life and how can she give it a higher place? She turns the card over in her hands, looks closer, as though to discern the answer within hues and letters.

“I don’t know. Maybe someone else wants this card?” She laughs but no one reaches for it. “All I want is to get a job and quit couch-surfing, you know?  I don’t sit around and ask myself what is my passion. Okay, weed, heroin. Alcohol. Those have been my passions for about as long as I can remember. I’m thirty-nine.” She grabs a strand of dark hair in her fingers and twirls it unconsiously. “But that was three months ago. Today, I guess my passion is to…stay clean. Usually.”

K. asks, “How? I didn’t see you at the AA meeting you said you were going to. I told you I’d even pick you up if you called.”

D. casually tosses the card and I catch it.

“I was busy with my boyfriend. He needed help with something, the ducks. We feed them every Saturday at the pond. That’s good for me, too. A little walk there and then we hang out.”

K. bites her lip and the other women look hard at D., then away. Except one, M., who says only, “But he was high. And you used to sell weed there.”

D. shrugs but her eyes water. “Well, he has to quit. He goes to court next week. Who knows when I will see him again? Prison is a long time away. Another country away. First me, now him.”

I wait and let silence fill the room. D. grabs a tissue and presses it against her eyes. They are large and grey-green in the dim light. I notice she has worn different clothing lately, a t-shirt rather than a low-cut sequined top. D. looks small as she sits there, younger than her age despite the lines on her forehead and around her eyes.

“He’s been with me since way back, since I was twenty-five, since I first got into trouble dealing. You know, he’s got my back, I’ve got his.”

A small hiss of sound is emitted from the other side of the circle. R. looks straight at D. “But where are you both now? Almost the same place as back then. I think you need to cut him loose.”

I can see D. close the door,  step back into safety where words and reality sting less, are sometimes not even heard. I speak.

“I see you doing that thing where you disappear. If you disappear when you hear something hard you might do the same old thing as before. Same ole tape will play out. Your passions will remain the man and the drugs. You could forget about this new way.”


“Where are you now?”

She draws herself up tight in the chair, pulls her knees to her chest, and her face changes from empty to hard to as soft as I have ever seen it. Her voice is small like her. “I used to dance. I mean, before I was a dancer, at the clubs. You know, leotards and tights and sweet little ballet shoes. Recitals and stuff. That’s what I thought about when I read the card. Passion. I had it for dancing. So long ago. But by the time I was eighteen I did something else with it. For money. Drugs. Attention.  Whatever else came along with it. I stopped caring. At least on the outside.” Her eyes blink, close.

I lean in to the circle, towards her more fully. “I’m sorry it was like that. You did what you thought had to be done then. There is such sadness coming up now that you’re clean and sober… But you can choose to create a different life as long as you don’t use.”

Tears trickle down her face as her eyes open.”Stay clean, talk. Listen, too. But hell, it isn’t easy.”

A murmur ripples across the group. I see heads nodding. They give her encouragement, suggest that she start dancing for fun. In a safe way.

“Forget the overfed ducks, come to an AA dance next week-end, ” someone suggests.

“Turn on the music in the living room and let it go,” says another.

“If I had one of my own,” D. tartly reminds them.

“Well, damn! Dance in the rain if you want–with us,” says another and they laugh and shimmy a little in their seats, snap their fingers.

And so it continues. One thought leads to another as each woman takes her turn. I sit, keep watch. Guide the group as unobtrusively as possible, a navigator in a sturdy boat travelling into deeper waters, feeling the change in winds, sensing the balance shifts, staying aware of any danger signals.

It is a powerful current, this giving and taking, as it passes from person to person. It changes the space into a refuge, and the women undergo subtle alterations as they participate in the healing. Permission is given: they can say what they need to here. They can speak the truth.

This is an ancient way but I may be the only one in the room who knows this right now. It has occurred everywhere, across cultures. How many aeons have women gathered like this, spoken from the heart? Yet many have forgotten the formidable force of authenticity when shared with others who care.

Even now the new woman tries to keep emotion from her face. But there it is: frozen grief. Heat that looks like ice. Pain that has been turned so far inward that it looks like meanness. It is one of the looks women wear when they have been brutalized emotionally and physically and cannot find their way back to wholeness. The wounds leave a legacy of self-hate  and a pessimism that is so deep it refuses kindness out of utter disbelief.

And yet. They open their mouths and tentative truth emerges. They start to reach beyond the impenetrable walls. Nothing bad happens here.

So the women take turns, sharing about their lives, children they want back, the health they are working on. They talk about figuring out how to be calm in the midst of stress and strong when they feel weak. They pass on information, like how to start college, how to get housing and dental care.

They tell each other they don’t know if love exists, yet love is all they want. Love for their real selves (“whoever I am now that I’m sober”). To feel deserving of it. They speak of self-forgiveness and by doing so, they also forgive each other of the crimes against life, and themselves, that they may have committed.

The new member fidgets in her chair and looks at the clock. She wishes she wasn’t here. She wants to talk on her phone, get something to eat, get high with her lover or drunk at her favorite bar. A crazy bunch of women: what on earth can they do for her?

I ask her what she thinks. She raises an eyebrow and fixes on a spot just past my head, outside. The city.

“I never liked women. Can’t trust them. Never know what they will do. I’m not too sure I want to stay in this group.”

D. says. “I never liked women, either. But, then, I never liked myself. Come back next week.”

The hour and a half comes to a close. The room is warm but it isn’t the weather or the thermostat. It is the energy generated by a group of women who are some of our best renewable resources. They are coming alive.

They help me put up the chairs and say good-bye. They trail out in pairs, talking, laughing. The new woman straggles behind until D. catches her by the arm, encourages her just enough.

The February evening reveals its beauty as the lights are turned out. The rain sings in the distance. I shut the door softly behind me.

(Written for my Tuesday night Women’s Recovery group. You have been the one of the best parts of the job I have just  left. I am on to other work with other courageous women but will not forget you.)

Like a Dark Romance

Despite the sudden loss of weight the last few months, Vince still seemed too large for the office. He leaned deeper into the red cushioned chair, scratched the stubble on his chin and chuckled. I waited,  my mug of tea in hand. He had  just returned from a trip on the other side of the mountain with a new friend.  He looked like a scruffy-feathered crane, tall and bony with a head of soft, sparse hair.

“It did or didn’t turn out like you thought?” I asked.

“Well,” he said and spread out his large, calloused hands in the space between us, “I got back alive. I was humbled. I left thinking it was going to be a nice holiday experience, over the mountains, a chance to get to know more about K.T. and his family. Instead,” he shook his head, “instead, Miss C., I’m walking into this house where chaos reigns, the radio and three TVs and everybody moving, the dogs dying to meet me, the cats chasing what looks like a smart mouse, and an older lady-his aunt?-dancing in the kitchen in sweat pants, tank top and an apron.” He crossed his bony legs and folded his hands. “I had to get my bearings. Where’s the Christmas tree? Oh,  tilting to one side behind the exercise bike, next to the huge flat screen which flashes at me like an electronic billboard in Times Square. But it’s the day after Christmas, right? Things are not as usual maybe. And I’d said I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, my little house with my stereo system creating an island of peace and too damned much alone time. The only thing is, I wasn’t ready for it.”

“Ready?” I prompt.

“Well, there were the uncle and cousins racking up beer cans at one in the afternoon, and from the basement I could detect eau de cannabis co-mingling with the aroma of greasy fried chicken from the kitchen. I couldn’t figure which one made me break out in a sweat more. Smoke from cigarettes, the big fireplace and the weed made everything gauzy. Or it might have been me.

“But they were all welcoming me, the kid’s new mentor, right? We sat right down and started shooting the breeze. K.T. turned off the TV, and I started to unwind so why not go with the flow? The chicken and baked potatoes were pretty good, we played some gin rummy and his family seemed happy to have us.  By nine o’clock I was tired out, but K.T. and gang were just waking up. Out come the cartons of wine, a couple of cases, and the weed moved upstairs with two teenage girls, his sisters. I pulled K.T. aside. What’s with the kids smoking dope? He shrugged and got us a couple of Cokes from the frig. I made a salad for my snack, then sat watching from the dining room table. The group was loosening up and the jokes weren’t very funny.The cats kept trying to get in on the ham pieces in my salad so I finally went out on the porch and ate. The snow floated down. I could imagine the Cascade Mountains and felt good. But by the time I got cold and went inside, the party was cranking up. Cars started pulling in like someone had sent out an all-points bulletin. Some guy was yelling something raunchy and the older lady, his aunt, grabbed my hand with a gleam in her eye as she offered me a glass of wine. I waved  K.T. to come talk to me but there it was: a beer bottle at his lips. He stared back at me, then slunk away. So upstairs I went, lay down on the bed fully clothed and put in my earplugs. I wondered what he was thinking. Was I supposed to rescue him? No, I decided. The whole thing stank. And I was trapped.”

“You don’t appear to have known ahead of time that they drank and used drugs.”

“No, well, yeah. I mean, I’ve been watching over K.T.’s new sobriety, right? I knew his  history but I didn’t know we were going to end up at a place that had the feel of a corner bar with some circus thrown in.  I thought I was his sober buddy and we were getting away for a couple of days. I’d planned on enjoying the sights. But it was like I had chosen the wrong door and was back in 2005, with people working themselves up to bad news, the hustle on, alcohol a toxic aphrodisiac. I wanted out like a poker player with a stinking hand. I never did do great working against the odds. I always lose with drugs, alcohol and cards, you know that.”

“No, not good odds.”

He stretched his legs. He had gained some weight back since the last couple treatments for hepatitis C, but his face was haunted by chronic discomfort. His light blue eyes, however, sparked with life.

“I was so wiped out by the long drive and socializing that I actually slept, in spite of the great time they thought they were having downstairs. Until about 3 am. I could hear the TV next door. A DVD player hadn’t been turned off and bad music was in a loop. I pounded on the wall. No luck. I hit it harder. It was a nightmare of cheesy music in the darkness. I walked to the top of the stairs and heard the TV but nothing else. When I crept downstairs, there they were, all two thousand of them strewn across the floor and couches and chairs. It looked like an unholy battlefield, the place a wreck with bottles, ruined party clothes, mouths hanging open. I checked K.T. who was snoring in an armchair with a beer bottle in his hand. Then I went and grabbed my gear and left.”

“You just left, didn’t wake K.T. or leave a note?”

“What could he have to say to me? No note. I wasn’t feeling too good  about anything. Can’t say I did my job very well, keeping him sober. I let him stumble into it. Well, I couldn’t very well tie his hands, could I? He knew what he was doing.”

Vince rubbed the lines on his forehead, then sat up straight.

“But wait, the good part is coming. It’d been snowing. I knew it’d be dicey. I still had the chains on the tires so I headed up to the pass, sleepy and not sure if what I was doing was stupid or smart. The truck slipped around some. No one else was on the road. I had a blanket in the back but if I ended up in the trees I wasn’t going to do too well. I got more scared the longer I drove. I fully woke up. It felt like a demon was at my back, like something was chasing me up that mountain. It was so black and still out there. I rolled down the window to smell the snow and woods and slid on random ice. But there was no question that I was going home.”

Vince leaned forward, eyes locked on mine, hands on his knees.

“When I got up to the top of the mountain something happened to me. It was like this shining moment, a moment of beauty in the horror. I realized I was home free and I got it: I’d left behind the chaos and insanity. I was safe! That’s recovery, right? It’s  like some dark romance, trying to leave the old passions and searching for the new, trading the deadly pleasure of addiction for the freedom from selfishness that comes with sobriety.  I’d had one foot forward but one dragging. It’s hard.  I’d returned to the old den of thieves–my best years were stolen by the drama of addiction, the rippin’ and roarin’–but I got out in one piece. Five years ago I got to start over. Damn. It’s a thing of beauty, you know?”

“Yes.” My eyes prickled with swift tears and he smiled back at me.

Vince slapped his leg, looked at his watch and stretched. He got up, wobbling as he reached his full height. I looked away.

“It’s okay,” Vince assured me as he opened the door. “You’ve seen me sicker and you’ve seen me a lot better. I’m going to be just fine, Miss C.”

“I know you are,” I said and walked him out to the lobby.

(Note: Name and identifying features have been changed to protect privacy.)