As Andy and his buddy share love with a struggling home group member, her story keeps it mighty real
About 20 minutes after 8:00 one Saturday, while sitting in my morning AA meeting, my mind kept wandering to thoughts of a friend in the program. I’ll call her Lily.
A little more than a week earlier, Lily had tried to kill herself. She swallowed the contents of a bottle of pills and she went to lie down for the last time. It was Lily’s first suicide attempt. Had her attempt been completed, she would have left behind a husband and two children.
When I heard the news, I had a vision of her kids, both adolescents, walking into the room and finding her. Right after that, it got personal. I had a vision of what that would look like in my own life. Suddenly, I could see my own kids—my 8-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter—walking into the house feeling carefree, only to happen upon my dead body. This could easily have happened had I kept on drinking like I did well into my 30s.
These visions were acute, they were sudden and they instantly brought tears to my eyes—tears of gratitude that I was able to get sober and get healthier.
Realizing I’d become distracted again, I shook my head once quickly and directed my attention back to the chapter we were reading in our AA meeting, “A Vision For You” from the Big Book. The opening paragraphs summarize the alcoholic’s progression from overindulgence to rock bottom. This is when drinking stops being fun. Then we fail at attempts to quit. We isolate and become lonelier as we turn to inferior companions and fall into still deeper oblivion. Finally we reach a new bottom, we experience an “awful awakening” and we face “the hideous Four Horsemen—Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, Despair.”
In my drinking days, I became well acquainted with these Horsemen. At every point described on this downward moving escalator to the end of the line, the Horsemen surrounded and taunted me. At my bottom, their hoofbeats shook the ground around me hard enough to knock me down completely.
I thought of my friend Lily again, how hopeless and cold her surroundings must have seemed when she swallowed all those pills, maybe cold enough to see the exhaled snorts of the horses’ breath in the air.
Lily’s children didn’t find her dead body. Her husband found her, and she was still alive. He called 911 and an ambulance rushed Lily to the hospital. They pumped her stomach and saved her life. This occurred on a Friday night into Saturday morning. The following Thursday, Lily shared her story at our 7:30 morning meeting. I did not find it necessary to take a drink that day. Hearing about Lily’s experience helped keep me sober. I found strength in her honesty; I found gratitude in her pain.
I talked to Lily after the meeting that Thursday, as I often do. We stood outside in the parking lot with my friend Robert. Fluffy clouds meandered across a sunny blue sky. Mid-conversation, Lily showed us the incision in her neck where, days before in the hospital, a tube had been inserted to help bring her back to stable condition. Silence fell momentarily as the gentle morning breeze brushed across our faces. We could all agree it was a great day to be alive. As we parted ways, we said we’d see each other at the 8:00 a.m. meeting on Saturday.
Today was that Saturday and it was now 8:25. Robert was sitting next to me and Lily was nowhere to be seen. We were still reading the early part of “A Vision For You.” The narrative told us about a businessman who had journeyed to an unfamiliar town, hoping to close a deal that would ensure financial security for him and his wife. The deal fell through and the businessman had no money to pay for his hotel bill.
This businessman was a sober alcoholic named Bill, several months past his last drink but still shaky. AA did not yet exist then, so Bill’s options in that time of stress and crisis far from home, were, a) to find a church, or b) to stop off in the hotel bar. It was an attractive bar, the text tells us, with a lively crowd producing audible merriment. I could picture this bar and the people in it.
Bill didn’t want a drink, the text says. Maybe just a ginger ale to clear his head. OK, maybe just three drinks, and that would be it. Fear and insanity sprang to life inside Bill’s head. The horses, kept at bay for months, stomped and snorted. I know it doesn’t take much to rouse these horsemen. They still visit me sometimes.
“We knew you’d be back,” says Terror.
Bewilderment chimes in, “Just sit down in the bar.”
“No matter what, you’re always going to want a drink,” says Frustration.
“You fail at everything,” adds Despair.
Bill, alone in that hotel bar, in that stressful situation, began to listen to the Horsemen. And they all told him to just take a drink. For a second, he stood still. But then he had a flash of inspiration and instead of continuing to think of himself and his problems, he realized he could find purpose and stay sober by helping another alcoholic—not later, right then.
Bill made his decision and took action. His sanity returned. In his mind, Bill thanked God, then physically turned from the hotel bar and walked across the hotel lobby to the glass-covered church directory. He selected a church at random, called the number and explained his situation.
This call led Bill to the home of a doctor named Bob, an active alcoholic who at that time was being mercilessly trampled by the Four Horsemen. When Bill made his decision to call and acted on it, he was saved, and Dr. Bob was saved—two lives saved. Had Bill walked into the hotel bar instead, very easily both alcoholics could have wound up dead, their purpose unrealized. Zero lives saved.
Shortly after their meeting, Bill and Dr. Bob cofounded AA, a spiritual program and Fellowship that now claims two million active members, including me, Robert and—as of two days ago, at least—Lily.
I wondered where Lily was right then. I hoped she’d make it to the meeting. As I tried to read along in the Big Book that morning, the words kept going soft-focus on me. I got a few quick mental flashes. An attractive bar; a woman with an incision in her neck sitting down for “just one drink;” a crying child at a funeral. I shook off these images.
Seconds later, the door to my left opened. In walked Lily. Thirty minutes late, but alive and well—and smiling. She squeezed my left knee as she slid by me and found a chair. Robert and I exchanged a quick, gratitude-filled smile. Thank you, God.
We belong to the same homegroup, Robert and me. Many of our members have decades of sobriety. Some of them had their last drink before I took my first breath. When I hear about close calls like Lily’s suicide attempt, or when someone I know goes back out drinking and then humbly walks back in the doors of AA to start over, or when I imagine what my life could have been like had I kept on drinking, I think about those senior members of my home group. Had they kept on drinking, they’d be long dead by now, every one. They wouldn’t have been available to share their experience, strength and hope with me when I walked in, hounded by the Horsemen. They had to be alive to pass on the program to me.
I have to be alive to pass it on to people I’ve never met who as yet may have no idea they need help. God saved me from a selfish early death. He saved Bill. He saved Dr. Bob. He saved Robert. He saved Lily. Her husband still has a wife. Her kids still have a mom. I still have my friend.
And today, miraculously—I type this with tears welling in my eyes—I still have my sobriety, my health, my family and my freedom. When I’m living my life correctly, four replacement Horsemen ride up to greet me: Humility, Gratitude, Acceptance, Serenity.