Death in recovery seems to be an almost too consistent occurrence. It seems the more tightrope walkers you get into the same room, the greater chance you have of a bunch of them not making it from one side of the building to the other. Most likely, if you’re giving recovery a shot, you will know at least a few people who just won’t make it and will die. The upside is that there are some who will be saved and go on to be examples. But it’s the people who have lost the battle that taught me my greatest lessons and gave me the biggest reasons to just stay.
Early in sobriety, I started to hear about friends of friends who went out and never came back. They would OD and die. They would get into cars while drunk and never drive again. They would take their own lives by shooting themselves in the face. They would decide one more time to stick a needle in their arm or to take a drink and they would just one day cease to exist. It wouldn’t matter how long they’d been sober or how well they were working their recovery. Their relationship with their higher power or whether or not they had worked some steps wasn’t important. It seemed that if any of them drank or put mind-altering drugs into their system, there was an above average chance that that person wouldn’t make it back into recovery for quite some time—if at all.
This didn’t seem to be the case at first. I really only spent time and got close to people who were remaining close to recovery. Then something unexpected and devastating happened. I was just about to celebrate one year of sobriety when my younger sister called to ask me some advice—a rarity in itself and something which threw me off. At the time, our father had been staying in a hotel in our hometown and my sister would drop in on him to bring him some food and booze. When she opened the door on this nice, spring day in May, she saw something different. His eyes were closed. He was mumbling and slurring his words. He had a bit of vomit on his shirt and seemed to be unconscious but was clearly still standing. When she finally could understand him, he was talking to my deceased grandmother, telling her that he’d be there soon.
After 10 minutes of believing that he was just really drunk, she found empty pill bottles and a note and called me. She called me first instead of 911 because we didn’t call the ambulance unless someone was dead. As she cried, I told her to trust her gut and do what she thought she was best. I couldn’t be there for 40 minutes. She called 911 and then waited as she heard the sirens wail into the weekly motel parking lot. She told me later that she was afraid he’d be mad for calling them, instead of grateful that she saved his life. I understood; she was right.
After getting off the phone, I rushed to the hospital a few towns away. I can’t say I was necessarily in a hurry. This wasn’t my dad’s first suicide attempt. By the time I had arrived, my dad had made it to ICU and was alive; two different shocks from the paddles had done their job. As I saw him lying there in his hospital bed, I was overwhelmed. I was mad at him, mad at the disease and mad at life in general. I cried into my hands as I thought that the only thing that could ease my pain would be a drink.
This was immediately followed by another thought: Look what booze has done to your father. You don’t want to end up in that hospital bed next to him. So I just sat there with this horrible feeling inside of me as I wailed at the world. For the first time, I didn’t take that drink that I felt I so badly needed and I had my father’s intentional OD to thank for it. I was able to see beyond my own feelings and play the drink through. Instant gratification had been beat. I was still sober.
Then there was Cisco—originally a boyfriend and later a friend for life. He was the life of the party, the one always cracking jokes, the guy with the most genuine smile around, the friend who scaled up a 76 gas station sign to steal the mannequin from the top. We’d probably had more than 100 White Russians together and he was the last person I ever thought would hang himself in his mother’s barn the week before Mother’s Day. I remember getting the phone call from a mutual friend. It hurt so badly that all I could do was laugh because every thought of him that came up was some crazy thing we had done together.
To imagine that he must have felt his only solution was to hang himself from that rafter is something that keeps my head straight more often than not. To know that his disease told him that that he was useless, that no one loved him, that he had to take his own life to shut up the insanity, is enough to remind me that my head is out to kill me.
Sarah’s death was more stereotypical in that one day she was in the rooms and the next she was pounding drinks after years of sobriety, wondering how to get herself out of the mess she’d created. It wasn’t much longer before she was found dead, right before she was gong to check into another rehab. Sarah was beautiful, smart, and funny and really had a shot at a good life. People always told me we’d get along but because of a conflict of interests—or rather one conflict of interest of the male persuasion—we never really had a chance to connect. But I watched how everyone around responded to her. I saw that she helped a lot of people and knew my experience with her was different because of our complex situation. When she died, it was hard for a lot of people—myself included.
I remember hearing around AA that when someone dies, it’s so that the rest of us get to live. At first this felt odd—like too quick a turnaround. Being dramatic in and out of sobriety, I wanted to allow the sadness to fester. Eventually, I saw the truth in this statement and it helped to save my life, just as Sarah’s death did.
Sometimes, I watch the teetotalers come in and out and wonder if I would get to come back. The thought lasts until I think about my dad, Cisco or Sarah. I don’t want to put myself or those who love me in that position, which means that some days, when I care less about the impact I have on myself, I think of the families who have been affected by senseless tragedies. At least today, mine won’t be one of them.
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