Sharlotte walked into the A.A. meeting just as the Arizona sunset was throwing peach and orange colors on the walls of the cheap commercial space. A loose, dingy white T-shirt barely concealed the inner tube of weight she’d gained from a cocktail of psychotropics. Her thin, unwashed hair looked like an animal pelt pasted onto her scalp. Her skin was broken out, oily, her breathing audible from tables away as she sat down and made her third stab at sobriety in a year.
I was barely weeks into a life without wine in my hand. A mutual friend introduced us and within weeks I was taking her to art openings and she was bringing me to burlesque performances. She’d come to my apartment door on these nights, dolled up, smiling with perfect lipstick like a lady ready to party, hoisting a 12-pack of Coke Zero that we’d devour like our last supper. We’d play Scrabble or swap life stories and she’d laugh, tossing her head back and her mouth opening wide so her deep laughter punctuated the air. We counted our days clean and went to meetings. We counted our weeks clean and went to meetings. They helped me get through prolonged unemployment and the humility of staying on a friend’s proverbial couch. They helped Sharlotte face one sucker punch after another, the latest of which she told me about over dinner at a Thai restaurant.
Sipping a Diet Coke, she sunk back into the corner of the maroon booth. “My shrink says it’s PTSD. That’s why I still can’t work. And now on top of it my other doctor’s telling me I have colitis.”
The next week at our favorite coffee shop, her voice shaky, face sans makeup, she had more news. “My shrink says I might never return to work. She even told me to start filing papers to get disability.” She gripped her latte cup. “This isn’t how life’s supposed to go. I’m an over-achiever. I’ve always bounced back. My god, I want a drink.” Instead she devoured a pastry. By the time our lattes were near the bottom of the thick brown paper cups, her eyes were scanning her milieu. Back and forth, back and forth. A tiger pacing its cage. She picked up her purse, said, “I have to go,” and bolted from the café.
* * *
We count our days, weeks, months clean until one of life’s shit storms blows through, blasting our confidence to ashes, making us want to kick the table of sobriety out from under us.As we counted our months clean, we noticed the zealotry of many recovering addicts, the stuff that’s earned A.A. the moniker of a cult. Specialized language and symbols are like secret handshakes and code words. Hours once spent drinking turn into hours spent talking about not drinking, continuing to place alcohol front and center in members’ lives. Some members find themselves “hiding in meetings,” attending meetings rather than joining the rest of life, terrified of alcohol’s ubiquity, clutching to that safe zone as if it’s some inoculation against relapse. I think about other groups who face a terrifying potential return like cancer survivors. Do cancer survivors in remission spend as many hours or days or months thinking about the disease’s likely return? Do they reside in survivor support groups like addicts do the Anonymous meetings? Do they let the potential return dictate major decisions? A cancer survivor knows her remission could change course at any moment. She knows she’s not in control. She can go in and out of remission just as a criminal can weave in and out of prison. Recidivism. In and out of the bars like V. or Tastee did in Orange Is the New Black. Though they had a choice. When you look at it through characters like those, it looks like they’re unwilling to live straight, like they’re racing right back to what put them in the joint. Then there’s Brooks from Shawshank Redemption. In him, a kind and gentle man, is someone so accustomed to life inside that anything outside seems cold, the light too harsh, the pressure too crushing. What could he do? Live in the halfway-house community for the short rest of his life? For his decision that takes place on the beam he’s carved his name into anyone can feel compassion. The addict, though, empathizes with Brooks. We count our days, weeks, months clean until one of life’s shit storms blows through, blasting our confidence to ashes, making us want to kick the table of sobriety out from under us too. If we learn to weather that shit storm, we don’t become one of the seventy percent who relapse by day ninety. Or the ninety percent who do so within four years.
We take new steps every day toward a healthier life. We get to know ourselves, discover what the hell we’d missed while floating around in a haze for years. We get to know ourselves, discover what the hell we’d missed while floating around in a haze for years, and hopefully learn about ourselves. Self-awareness appears in my mind like a lighthouse. A baby blue beacon of a thing with a Shaker roof, three or four stories high. Instead of overlooking the cold, rocky shores of an isolated coastal town, though, it scans my psychic landscape, ready to strike at the first sign of thirsty thoughts. It’ll be there, scanning, for the rest of my life.
* * *
The blue beacon was just beginning to form when my sponsor took me on a sober women’s weekend retreat in the mountains of Prescott. I’d signed up for it two months before, back when the sunlight of sobriety still hurt my eyes. My sponsor, Denise, was like a kid looking forward to summer camp as she drove us out of the bloody heat and sepia-colored desert of the Phoenix valley north to a national forest. Sharlotte and I, by this autumn weekend, had grown cocky in our burgeoning sobriety. She had exercised her free will to stop attending recovery meetings en toto while I kept going, though to diminishing returns. Now I just looked forward to moist, green mountain soil, the smell of pine trees and ponds, and the cool mountain air on lone walks through the woods. When Denise caught onto my plans, eye piercing me beneath her dripping dishwater blonde hair after the first morning shower, I bid farewell to my plans like a child to her favorite toy. She instead extolled the virtue of this annual excursion. A hundred or so women from all over the Southwest met here to celebrate and support each other’s recovery from overeating, sex, gambling, histrionic behavior, drugs, alcohol. In the national forest campgrounds there were real wood cabins with bunk beds and tractor rides and zip lining. And if I was feeling down or doubtful, there were 24-hour meetings for small groups or one-on-ones in the chapel. It wasn’t time for solitude, Denise said. It was time to enjoy the sober sisterhood.
Liquefy it. Put it in cups and drink the Kumbaya Kool-Aid. It tasted like saccharine.
I followed her around from sober celebration to sober celebration, feeling less acolyte, more show pony. In the auditorium we sat in two putty brown, poorly padded, metal chairs typical of VFW halls and church basements to watch a play written and performed by my sober sisters. On stage they used props made of construction paper, tape and markers, along with a few books commonly found in meetings, to recreate a scene seen every day in sober groups across the planet. Some played the role of long-sober people, some were new, and others were struggling to remember why to remain sober. “Find your higher power. It doesn’t have to be God; it can be this chair.” “Embrace the suck.” The audience, scattered in small clusters among the seven or eight rows of chairs, nodded. Mmm hmmm. Uh huh. Southern gospel style.
Later came freeze-dried eggs and other institutional foods over breakfast with some friends Denise had known for most of her thirteen years in the program. They caught up. I listened.
“We had been friends for years! But they assumed that since I wasn’t going to meetings I was back to drinking or drugging,” one said. She gulped from a large plastic mug commemorating last year’s retreat.
“Right. No one even called me when they heard I had my baby. They sure loved to help during my pregnancy—but stop going to meetings and where are they then?” another said. She shook her long, wavy brown hair, forking up another bite of plastic food.
Denise sat there silent, face bent toward her plate. Could she detect my declining interest?
Her skin was broken out, oily, her breathing audible from tables away as she sat down and made her third stab at sobriety in a year.After the retreat, Denise backed out of lunch plans and left my calls and texts unanswered. I stopped going to meetings. They’d given me a good start in sobriety, but I alone had made wine a central part of my life; I would learn to eradicate it. Even when the shit storms come. Such as the time I finally landed a job, only to watch it disappear after four days. Still I did not drink. With the next oncoming storm, things weren’t as easy. I rode my scooter through it across the December Phoenix rush hour to take care of a computer problem that no, after all, the warranty didn’t cover. The people surrounding me in the mall and at traffic lights were laughing and smiling and singing in a festive holiday spirit, but Santa had put fire where my heart should’ve been, and didn’t it sound like a grand idea to pour wine all over it? I pictured myself pulling up to the neighborhood liquor store where I used to go, picking up a bottle or two, and walking up to the cashier, a young guy who didn’t know to tell me no. That’s where my fantasy reached the end of the tether. Instead, I drove back home through the rain, poured a fat glass of Diet Coke, and drank it on the cement square of my friend’s porch, looking out at the darkness, and belting out frustrated Living Colour lyric after frustrated Living Colour lyric through my headphones. Within twenty minutes of exposing my out-of-sight neighbors to a voice that would win no contests, the rage unclenched its claws. It dissipated like a hangover until the storm passed, leaving me spent, sober, relieved.
That’s the kind of stuff that drew such a powerful connection between Sharlotte and me. We were both learning what to do with life instead of drinking at it. We didn’t need meetings; we had each other. Until one day, her texts came closer and closer, almost palpable obstacles her mind was throwing in sobriety’s way.
“I’m a mess,” she wrote. It had been a week of similar texts. “I’m having a shitty day.” “Waiting for my shrink to return my call.” “I’m wiped out.” Her typing that Thursday grew increasingly illegible as the evening progressed. I walked out to the patio, cooled by the late evening desert. I dialed her up, keeping my voice calm.
In the initial phase the scientists divided the rats into two equal groups. Half remained in Rat Park. The other half was crammed into a typical lab cage. Each was given two containers: one of morphine-laced water sweetened incrementally with sucrose to entice their natural predilection for sweet things, another of unadulterated water.“Hey there. Whatcha doin’?”
She sounded like she had a porterhouse steak for a tongue. “I’m drunk.”
I slumped into my patio chair, fired up a cigarette.
“I hope you don’t hate me now.”
“Silly girl, I don’t hate you.”
“No matter how hard I work to overcome my PTSD, it might just stick around. What if it does? What if this shit never goes away?”
“It really will get better,” I said, the beginning of a string of platitudes. “I understand.” “Of course I still love you.” I wanted to add some levity, tease her by saying, “Next time you want to drink, call me up. I’ll drink with you,” but what if she called my bluff—and did call me? What if after driving over there I didn’t convince her to put the bottle down but joined her instead? Is my beacon sturdy enough to scan for that? Is relapse contagious?
To slow those thoughts growing out of control I tried to switch to her, to put myself in her shoes. Relief rang through her voice. Ah, what a cost, that relief. She’d have a helluva hangover the next morning. She’d be shaky and sensitive and guilty. Guilty in Technicolor layers. Guilty long after the nausea and headache and crying. I could empathize with those hangovers, having had thousands of them. But I hadn’t yet had one from this side of Rat Park.
Rat Park was the name of an addiction study done in the late 1970s. In it, psychologist Bruce Alexander and his colleagues Robert Coambes and Patricia Hadaway developed a veritable Shangri-La for rats: two hundred square feet for a colony of thirty-two rats, heated comfortably, cushy with cedar shavings, colorful balls, wheels, and other playthings. In the initial phase the scientists divided the rats into two equal groups. Half remained in Rat Park. The other half was crammed into a typical lab cage. Each was given two containers: one of morphine-laced water sweetened incrementally with sucrose to entice their natural predilection for sweet things, another of unadulterated water. The comfy rats in Rat Park drank sixteen times less of the morphine-laced water than the caged rats, preferring plain water. When the researchers added an agent to the morphine water, mitigating the morphine’s effects yet retaining the sucrose sweetness, even the Rat Park inhabitants drank it.
Continuing their experiment, Alexander et al. turned a third group of rats into the Skid Row image of addicts, giving them nothing but morphine to drink until they were sufficiently entrenched in addiction. The scientists then divided them equally between a simple cage and Rat Park. Then they gave them a choice: morphine water or plain water. The caged group lapped up the drugged stuff. The Rat Park group, however, went less and less to it. “The implications,” Lauren Slater wrote in Opening Skinner’s Box, were that “addictions in progress are not inexorable.” Addicts choosing to sustain their addictions are in fact “quite subject to free will.”
* * *
Relapse is rarely the knee-jerk reaction portrayed in Hollywood. There’s a long process back to lifting a glass or placing a bet or shagging a stranger in a public bathroom. Research looks at it in three major stages: emotional, mental, physical. The emotional trigger can be a bad day at work—or even a great one. Take Gary, for instance. He’d been sober a dozen years before his relapse.
“My girlfriend asked when we first started dating, ‘You can’t ever drink? Not even a little drink with me?’ I told her no, but then when I thought about it I figured I could handle a drink or two. That wouldn’t make me the raging alcoholic I was before. But it did. Within weeks I was back to drinking like I’d never quit,” he said.
Half a dozen years into sobriety, Denise succumbed. Having come down with a flu while on holiday with family, she simply wanted some sleep. It came. With help from a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream. She didn’t get drunk. She didn’t fall back into a drinking routine. She considers it a relapse, though. That solitary shot scared her enough to break her two-year hiatus from meetings, back to those people who had stopped talking to her, back to people who welcomed her back unequivocally. Seven years later that shot still gives her nightmares.
Her experience was exactly the kind of touchstone I needed in my fear of relapse by proxy. It was her tough love that fortified my resolve, strengthening it like steel against fear.
“Listen, you’re going to see people fall all around you for the rest of your life. You have to be prepared to walk over the bodies,” Denise said over sandwiches and salads after a meeting. “People are going to disappoint you by picking up a drink again. People you know will go to jail or die.”
Well, Sharlotte hadn’t continued drinking. And she never tested my resolve or called my bluff. The lines of communication grew dusty. No more art exhibits. No more burlesque shows. Maybe she thought less of me for returning to meetings after my paroxysm of relapse fear. She definitely thought my distance looked like judgment, even when we were together. Who could fault her for that? Sometimes the line between empathy and sympathy is gossamer. Sometimes it’s wide as a river. Sometimes it crushes friendships, and sometimes it changes your life. For now I could only stay on the side of sympathy, my blue lighthouse scanning my psyche in the Shangri-La of sobriety.
Maybe one day the beacon of sobriety will lead her this way, away from the bars of cages. I hope I’m still here to welcome her.
Special Guest Judge, Erin Aubry Kaplan
“With humor, heart and urgency, “Fragile Rat” describes the modern travails of addiction—and love—in language that’s honest, propulsive, and never cliched.”
– Erin Aubry Kaplan, is author of I Heart Obama (2016), and the collection of essays and reportage, Black Talk, Blue Thoughts and Walking the Color Line: Dispaches From a Black Journalista. She has written about African-American political, economic, and cultural issues since 1992, and is a regular contributor to Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Salon.com, Ms., and Essence.