Her Pretty Little Neck

Art by Arsinoes Temple
Art by Arsinoes Temple (Click image to visit her on Etsy)

One recent afternoon, I was sitting at my desk feeling lonely and anxious when I noticed the sun was shining through the blinds in a way that felt perfect on my face.

I shut my eyes and basked in the light. For the next few minutes, I let everything go and invited God to mend the achy places in my heart. 

 Instead, he broke it open further. Which has been happening a lot, I’ve noticed, ever since I started asking God to help me grow in compassion. I should have known his answer would be to allow me to feel other people’s pain in a very real way.

The person on my heart that afternoon was a friend who relapses often and has recently been taken out again by her alcoholism. She’s someone I tried hard to help once and had to let go before I acted on the urge to wring her pretty little neck.

In the past couple of weeks, God’s been prompting me to call her again. And I’ve delayed, telling myself I wasn’t sure I heard clearly.

But sitting there with the sun on my face, I realized the real reason behind my reluctance: I enjoy my cushy life too much.

The thought sort of shocked me, but I knew it was true. I’ve gotten so comfortable in my safe little bubble of recovery that I’ve totally lost touch with the gritty, hard work of loving sick people who can’t love you back.

Sure, I sponsor women. But they’re all my friends, too. They’re perfectly nice, do the work, and make me feel good about myself. Meanwhile, I notice I no longer go out of my way to help the hard cases, invite newbies to lunch, or give my number to the jittery girl who just got out of detox.

It’s a scary realization, since there’s no quicker way to lose your sobriety than to stop giving it away.

So, I called my friend with the pretty little neck and left a message. It’s been a couple days and she hasn’t called back. No great surprise. It takes a lot of hope to pick up the phone, and I’m pretty sure she’s low on that.

She’s been in this cycle for years, you see. Rehab after rehab, relapse after relapse, and in between, promising periods of sobriety that often end in a seedy motel or in the ICU.

When she’s not drinking, she tries to find meetings where no one knows her—which is getting harder and harder. I can’t imagine how humiliated she must feel at times. To be that person, the one everyone knows can’t seem to stay sober. The one everyone knows has left in her wake a trail of people who tried to help and only got worn out.

Today, I’m wondering where she finds the courage to keep coming back.To try one more time. She might be the bravest person I know.

I also keep thinking about something Jesus said,  “What credit is it to you if you only love people who love you?”

And it dawns on me, even as I write this, that maybe God’s not asking me to help my friend, just to love her. Not because I can make a difference, but precisely because I probably can’t.

Maybe this is where compassion begins.


How to Drink with a Recovering Drunk

shutterstock_110184851Let’s say that Dave and I are meeting you and a few others for dinner at a restaurant with a great wine list. You know that I’m a recovering alcoholic, but you’re accustomed to having a glass with dinner.

The waiter approaches the table and makes much ado about a new Cabernet on their list. Then he asks, “Can I start you off with something to drink?”

I’m setting up this scenario to think through with you how to be more at ease socially around folks in recovery. I know it can get awkward—not quite like what you feel around a friend who just went through a devastating loss, but close.

So how should you respond?

You could pass on wine and order water for my sake. You could wait and see what Dave does, then follow suit. You could ask if I mind if you drink. Or you could simply order the Cabernet without asking.

Most people I’ve talked to would opt to pass on drinking, or feel bad if they don’t. What about you?

Here’s my take on our dinner together:

If I thought you abstained from drinking to protect me from temptation, I’d appreciate your intention. But I’d also feel needlessly coddled. A lot of my friends in recovery would feel the same way.

Of course, we know that people mean well. Thoughtfulness and sensitivity are never wrong. So when someone is overly cautious around me—apologizing profusely, say, because they mentioned a margarita—I laugh and let them off the hook.

Because you know what? There is no hook.

That said, though, I’ve been thinking lately that some of the awkwardness non-recovery folks experience around us might be traced back to a few understandable but inaccurate assumptions about how recovery actually works.

For example:

People think we stay sober by resisting the temptation to drink. If this was the case, few of us could achieve long-term sobriety. Instead, God eventually lifts from us our obsession to drink. We are given a daily reprieve from cravings and compulsions so long as we tend to our spiritual progress.

People assume we can’t be around those who are drinking socially. While no sober person wants to hang out with a bunch of people who are blotto, most alcoholics are comfortable at social gatherings where others are imbibing responsibly. Some of us discover we have more fun sober at parties than we ever did drinking.

People think we are against alcohol and would love to see it banned. Sure, we hate the damage that drugs and alcohol bring to our world. But we understand that normal drinkers have every right to enjoy alcohol, just as people without an allergy to peanuts have every right to eat them.

The miracle of recovery is that it transforms our relationship with alcohol. Here’s how our literature explains what it feels like to enjoy healthy recovery:

“We are not fighting it [alcohol], neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality—safe and protected. The problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.”

One qualifier: Probably nothing I’ve said here applies to a newly sober alcoholic. I know from personal experience that those early days of learning to do life sober come with unique challenges. If you’re unsure in a social situation where a person is on his or her journey, I say go ahead and risk a brief bout of awkward. Ask as privately as you can what kind of response on your part would be most helpful.

At least the person will know you care.

I do my best to try to alleviate potential elephant-in-the-room moments in advance. Something simple and direct is good: “I won’t be drinking tonight, but I really hope you’ll feel free.” Or, earlier in my sobriety, I might have asked, “Do you mind if we stick to iced tea?”

These days, if Dave and I are meeting up with people who know my story, I text or email in advance: “By the way, I hope you’ll feel free to imbibe tonight. Dave probably will, too—and I really don’t mind.”

I think I speak for most of my friends who have been in recovery for a while when I say we prefer to be at a table where everyone is enjoying themselves.

Just don’t look too surprised when we propose a toast with a glass of fine water.