Dimly lit rooming houses, emergency rooms, even rooftops— he keeps reaching out. And once in a good while they reach back
The man was sweating, shaking, almost incoherent in his pain. “We know how you feel,” my AA friend told him. “We’ve been there.”
I was so nervous I didn’t know what to say. This was my first Twelfth Step call, and I was green as new grass. At just over 90 days sober, I was in a dingy room in an old rooming house downtown in the middle of the night. The scene was just like the well-known AA painting, “The Man on the Bed.”
The call had come in at midnight. The groups in our town were enjoying the New Year’s alcathon in the meeting hall of a local church. A couple of men from my group took the call and elected me to go.
“Take somebody with you,” they said, so I grabbed an oldtimer from my group and off we went. The oldtimer griped the whole way about having to leave the party and about the neighborhood we were headed into. But he went, and fortunately he did most of the talking.
“Do you want us to take you to the hospital?” I managed to squeak out. The young man who had called for help just shook his head.
The call actually came from the man’s girlfriend. She was afraid he was going to die. She stayed in the opposite corner of the room while we talked. When we were finished, we gave her our phone numbers and she thanked us. I never heard from either of them again. I hope the kid found the program eventually.
A few months later, my sponsor suggested that I sign up for our local AA answering service. I was flattered that he thought I could handle it. Most late-night calls we received were from drunks who got the “midnight lonelies” and just needed a voice on the other end of the line. Well I certainly identified with that.
One of the saddest men I ever met called during daylight. I took my friend Kirk with me to meet the man. Kirk was a big guy and that made things easier. We went to another dreary boarding house downtown. We knocked at the front door and the man called to us from somewhere in the back. We went in. It was the nastiest place I’d ever seen. When we reached the little dimly lit room in the back, the guy was piled up in bed with his TV propped on his Big Book so he wouldn’t have to sit up to watch it. He was all alone in his misery. No, he did not want to go with us to an AA meeting, but he wanted us to come see him the next day. We declined. I heard later he drank himself to death. That certainly gave me pause.
Later, Kirk went with me on another midnight call. A man’s brother-in-law asked us to help. Let’s call the fellow W. He was a reporter, and over a few months I felt like I got to know the guy. We rolled up to the curb of a neat little house and the brother-in-law escorted W. out to us. He was drunk so we took him to the hospital.
God bless emergency room staffs everywhere. They deserve our respect and gratitude. After the usual interminable wait, they escorted the man to a bed where a tired doctor examined him. As the doctor did his work, W. moved and a half pint of booze dropped out of his trench coat pocket with a clank.
The doctor lost his temper when he saw the bottle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a doctor that mad. We were unceremoniously kicked out of the hospital! We went back to the neat little house where we had collected the man. His brother-in-law met us at the door and refused to take him back. I looked at Kirk and he looked at me. “What do you want us to do with him?” I asked. “I am really sorry, but I don’t care,” answered his brother-in-law. And he shut the door.
Later, W. moved to a town close by. He got help from the Veterans Administration and got sober. So at least his story ended well.
One Sunday afternoon a call came in and none of my buddies were home. We had no cell phones back then, so I went alone. Not a good idea, but it was daylight at least. The guy who had called the answering service was actually the buddy of the man who needed help, and the caller was almost as drunk as the man he was calling about. But this man was not at all interested in talking to me or anybody else. I found him in his dingy living room in a small house on the East Side. His tax refund check had come in and he had set in a good supply of liquor. As he finished one bottle, he dumped the empty into the large bucket at his feet and opened another. He had been drinking for a couple of days and told me, profanely, to leave him alone. I gave his half-lit friend the only advice I could think of: “Take his car keys.” The main danger now was getting cut from the broken glass in the large bucket.
A lot of calls come in from wives, mothers and even sisters. The guy I can expect to show up at a meeting after I’ve visited him is the one whose wife is mad. That can get results. Fortunately, Al-Anon meets at the same time so there is room for everyone.
A lot of the calls can be funny in a sad sort of way. Well, sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. The silliest such call came from a fellow who my sponsor and I had to talk off a roof. That sounds a little more dramatic than it was, but just a little. A friend in the program was a little too generous and he let the man stay in the small tool shed behind the pawn shop he owned. He called me one night because the guy had gotten falling-down drunk and then disappeared. I collected my sponsor and we came over to search the shrubbery and that kind of thing. There was a fire escape from the back of the building up to the roof and we found the guy off to one side up there peacefully passed out with his bottle cradled in his arms. Somehow we got him down with his precious vodka and off to the hospital. My car smelled like that cheap vodka for some time, which made my wife terribly suspicious.
I do not claim any great experience with Twelve Stepcalls. Once in a good while a man will actually get sober and have a good life.
Today a dear friend of mine, a miserable drunk (weren’t we all!), was in bad shape and we made several trips to the local emergency room and detox ward. He was so jittery and restless that we had to keep a close eye on him. He simply could not sit down. He would just wander off. At one point I had to chase him down in the hospital parking lot.
Another day we reached out.
While I am now unable to do the service I once did, my sponsor’s adage about the Twelfth Step is still apt: “It kept you sober.”