After his brother’s suicide, he blames himself and drops out of AA
One thing I have learned in AA is that an event that seems insignificant at the time can have monumental effects later. Nothing, it seems, is quite as it seems.
Thirty-four years ago I was new in the Fellowship, full of fear, and with only a faint hope that AA could work for me. I was lucky enough to come into Group #1 in Kansas City, Which used a club that was open 16 hours a day and was the focal point of the social lives of many of the young members, who were desperate to “change playgrounds and playmates.” I spent much of my free time there.
One evening after the meeting a member came up to me and simply said, “Let’s go.” “Where?” I asked. He told me that another member of the Young People’s Group, Karen B., needed help. Her brother had just committed suicide and she needed a ride to her parents’ house. I had only been sober about a week and felt I was the least appropriate person to provide solace to someone in this situation. I felt very uncomfortable as she got into the car, and I mumbled something like, “I am sorry for your loss.” Over the years Karen and I stayed friends, though not particularly close.
As the fog cleared and I became more and more active in the Fellowship, I frequently talked to new people and developed a habit of buying prospects a Big Book and writing my name and phone number in it, with a note to call at any time if they had questions or needed help.
Then life happened and, as with many young people in the Fellowship, I made career moves, married, acquired a family, went back to school and just got busy. Life free of alcohol was like a playground and I crammed in all I could.
When I was sober about 10 years, around 1986, I got a call from my brother, Kevin. We were not close, and it was the first time I had heard from him in several years. He told me that he had just flunked out of graduate school due to this drinking, that he had borrowed $100 from our mother to buy a gun, and that he intended to kill himself.
My mind raced. Life was very busy, I had a family, was working full time, and was in graduate school working on an MBA. I told my brother where there was a meeting that evening, and that if he would go to it I would arrange for two of my AA friends to work with him. It just never occurred to me to go get the gun from him.
The next day I did arrange with my sponsor and another friend to work with my brother. I was going to call him and give him their phone numbers. Then the police called. They had found my brother’s body; he had shot himself in the head.
It is impossible to describe the guilt. I felt as if I had pulled the trigger. “Why didn’t you go get the gun?” became my constant self-question. I will never forget the pain of having to tell our mother that her son was dead. I was holding her hand as I told her. It went instantly as cold as stone.
With my brother’s death I went into a depression that lasted for years. It became impossible for me to attend meetings. I would walk out as soon as they started with the Preamble. I felt I was the biggest hypocrite in the world. I would sit for hours and imagine what it felt like when the bullet entered his brain. Guilt kept me from calling my sponsor or reaching out to others to help. I felt I had failed the Fellowship and had no right to ask for help.
This went on for well over three years. Finally one day my wife said to me, “You have to go back to AA or you are going to end up just like Kevin.” “I’ve tried,” I said. “I just can’t.” I had no idea what I was going to do, but I just knew that I couldn’t go to AA.
Shortly thereafter I received a phone call. The caller inquired if I was the John M. who was a member of Group #1 in Kansas City. I said I was. In truth, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to anyone about AA. I used my best rude self in a vain attempt to keep the call as brief as possible.
“You may not remember me,” he said, “but I came into Group #1 about 10 years ago and you bought me a Big Book and wrote your number in the front.”
That’s great, I thought, some jerk I talked to 10 years ago wanting to reminisce. “No, I don’t remember you,” I said. “I talked to a lot of people back then.”
“Well, I didn’t quit drinking after our talk,” he said. Of course not, I thought, “But through all my geographic moves I never threw that book away. I didn’t read it, but I did keep it. Then one evening I decided there was no hope for me and I decided to kill myself. I sat down in my living room with a gun, planned to take a few belts to bolster my courage and do the deed. I have no doubt that I would have done it. My eyes wandered up to my bookcase and I saw that Big Book. The thought occurred to me that there I was ready to kill myself and I had never so much as opened the book. So I did. I just wanted to call and say thank you, John, as I have been sober since that night and I am celebrating three years this week.”
“Look, I am really happy for you,” I said, “but I have to go.” And I hung up.
My first reaction to the call was anger. I helped get this guy sober, but my brother was dead? Then I began to think that maybe there was still some way AA could work for me. Maybe if this guy got a second chance, I could get one too. Maybe I did fail my brother, but I had helped another. And apparently he got sober just about the time of my brother’s suicide.
At that time Group #1 had two meetings on Thursday evenings, 6:30 and 7:45. I decided to try to go to the later one. With little hope and much fear I walked into an AA hall a totally broken man for the second time.
Now, I am not one for talking much about miracles, and I do believe that coincidences do in fact happen. But as I was walking into the hall for the late meeting, who should be walking out after attending the early one but my friend Karen, to whom I had helped give a ride on the day of her brother’s suicide some 13 or 14 years before. It was the first time I had seen her since my brother’s death. I was stunned to see her. The only words I could get out of my mouth were, “Karen, I can’t . . . ” before breaking down. Then she said those magic words that bond us all in the Fellowship. “I know,” she said.
We went to a private room and talked for 30 minutes or so. I have no memory of what was said, but afterward I went to the rest of the meeting and have been active in AA ever since. Once again I feel the Fellowship is among the great blessings of my life. The guilt didn’t pass instantly, but I was able to do a new Fourth and Fifth Step over the incident. I make amends to my brother by never ignoring signs that someone may be considering harming themselves.
My one regret in this story is that in my haste to get off the phone with the young man from Denver, I did not get his name. I would guess he has now been sober for approximately 23 years. All I know is that he took several geographical cures, one of which brought him to Kansas City, and that he got sober in the manner described above.
He doesn’t know that in calling me to simply say thanks for a Big Book on the occasion of his third anniversary, he may well have saved my life. He did just as much for me as I ever did for him, and he doesn’t even know it.