I know that Emmett’s family and friends tried at least two interventions with him to get him to stop drinking.
Both took place when his health was seriously compromised, when he had full blown cirrhosis. The first took place a few months before he collapsed in December, 1914, and almost died from kidney failure.
The second took place while he was recovering from this medical emergency, in February, 1915.
For some alcoholics, coming within hours of death is enough to scare you into sobriety. It isn’t always the case, though, as the demon rum is cunning, baffling, and powerful. The need to keep on drinking — the need to escape whatever it is that makes one feel terrible — is overwhelming.
Speaking from my own alcoholic experience, I just wanted to feel better, period. As soon as possible. And then, I didn’t want to feel anything anymore. I feel pretty sure that was what Emmett was thinking too, especially as his health was ruined, his family and constituents (and disappointed political supporters) were expressing themselves in his face all the time about his ‘situation.’
After talking with a few of the Wilson descendants, I get the feeling that Emmett’s family and friends neither really knew what they were doing with the intervention, nor how to address the psychological and emotional parts of being addicted to alcohol; that they had the ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’ part backwards.
They were desperately trying to save their loved one from himself, without recognizing that Emmett had to want to save himself, first.
It seems to me that it used to be completely normal for some friendships to die a natural death: People move away, move on to other interests, evolve into people you either don’t want to know or are no longer interested in keeping up with anymore. It’s just one of those things that happen. We need to make room in our lives for new things, new people, the new evolution of ourselves. Social media has changed this.
I’m not sure what I think about this — in some cases, I’m glad to have the second chance to connect with friends. But I’m uncertain about other past relationships, some of which may be best left in the past.
On Thursday, I was looking at a professional social media site, which occasionally features a row of photos of people you may know in your professional area. Occasionally, I take a look.
I browsed through, and a photo of a woman who I considered a ‘good friend’, and who I haven’t seen or spoken to in 25 years shows up. Surprise!
She and I were office friends who evolved into weekend-socializing and getting-together-after-hours friends. We worked closely together on a lot of projects, liked and respected each other’s opinions. But, the friendship ended badly, and rather quickly. I paused, looking at her photo for a few minutes, remembering what happened.
It still hurts, a quarter of a century later.
Here’s what happened:
We worked in the same department for a trade association. Her office was next door to mine.
One day, she comes into my office and just hands me a book, unexpectedly, out of the blue. This one:
I looked up at her, shocked. I just looked at the book, then looked at her. I didn’t know what to say. So, I didn’t say anything.
After an awkward moment or three, she said, “I don’t know how else to talk to you about this, but I think you need to read this.”
Now, this friend had never met my family, nor had she heard me talk about them (I was estranged from my parents at the time), nor did she know anything about them. I will also add that she was neither medically nor academically qualified to have made the determination that my parents were alcoholics.
I said, “What do you know about my family that motivated you to give this to me?”
She said, “Well, it is obvious in your behavior.”
I could feel my face flush with embarrassment and anger. I feel it now, as I relive this moment.
“What behavior?” I asked her carefully, not wanting to call her out for coming into my office, presuming something she didn’t know for a fact — and even though it was a fact — who the hell was she to do this?
She proceeded to take my inventory of character defects for me, right there, in my own office, my office door still ajar, in an everyday voice, as if we were talking about this project budget, or the artwork for a newsletter we were designing together.
I sat there, stunned.
I said nothing for several moments after she finished. What could I say? Truthfully, I drank a lot, but so did everyone else in the office. This was a hard-drinking office, too. Everyone went out to happy hour after work for at least an hour — this woman included — and we all would leave at the same time, too. I hadn’t had to be bailed out of jail, I didn’t have a DUI, I didn’t wear lampshades, I didn’t curse anyone out when I was drunk, but I did get giddy, silly, and talk a little too loudly on occasion, spill a little here and there. But so did others in our group. Why was she singling me out?
Have I done something embarrassing? I asked.
No, she said. But you need to read this.
Then, she got up and left.
Then, I calmly picked up the book and put it in the trashcan under my desk.
I tried to get back into the project that had a big deadline, but my thinking was upset; I was upset.
I felt angry, betrayed. I was young and stupid then, and had never even considered the fact I was an alcoholic. That was the furthest thing from my mind: Alkies were homeless and useless pitiable folk in my thinking at that time. I was not one of them.
This changed the fabric of the friendship. I didn’t talk to her anymore unless it was absolutely necessary, and when I did, it was polite and formal. It wasn’t warm and easygoing anymore. I felt like she was judging me everywhere I went; I know she was talking about me to the other women in the office who were also friends or friendly to me — because they stopped talking to me soon after this happened. Word also got back to me that she had said things about me to others, that we weren’t friends anymore.
I’d remember that she and I used to talk about others in our office too; we’d giggle and say gossipy things that weren’t nice, and laugh how this person was on the outside of the social circle, tee hee. Suddenly, I was on the outside.
On reflection, this was my first intervention, and I behaved probably just as Emmett behaved — except I was still healthy, and my drinking was not to the point where it was being reported in the newspapers, as Emmett’s was at the time of his interventions. Although at the time I didn’t see this as an intervention, I eventually came to the understanding that she was trying to be a friend to me, and I couldn’t not acknowledge that.
About a month after this happened, I wrote her a note. In it, I apologized for my initial reaction to her visit, that I appreciated the thought behind it, that she was trying to be a friend and broach a difficult subject, and to be helpful. I didn’t know how to take it, I told her; it surprised me. But more to the point was that I truly missed our friendship, and I hoped that we could start over, talk sometime again.
I left the note in a sealed envelope on her desk.
I heard nothing from her for a few days. I figured that was my answer.
One afternoon, I had to take a folder to her office. She was in, I knocked on the door, and handed her the folder, asked her how she was, then left. As I left, she said to me, “By the way, thank you for the sweet letter.”
I smiled at her. You’re welcome, I said.
I stood there a moment, expecting that we’d talk about it, but she then looked down at the folder I’d given her. I was dismissed.
I knew she was really busy this week. Maybe we’d talk later.
But the next morning, I was bringing a draft of an article over to another woman in our department, and there was my friend, holding the letter I had written her in her hand, discussing my letter with this other woman.
I heard what she said to the other woman about me. It was hurtful. Then, they both saw me, at the last moment, realizing that I had witnessed my own character dissection, so to speak. I said nothing. I turned, and left.
I don’t remember much more of my time with that organization. I think I was numb the rest of my tenure as an employee. I do know that I resigned about a year later, as I headed off to grad school.
As I think about that day, 25 years later, I know that while this woman was neither medically nor academically qualified to ‘diagnose’ my situation, it also did not take a genius to see that I had a drinking problem. No one said intervention was easy. No one wants to do it. Few people have the courage to risk the friendship to take it on, and for that, I give her a lot of credit.
In grading her delivery, I’d give it a C-. I might have been more accepting of her message had it not been delivered so impersonally, or not caught unawares.
I admit also that I was at least 2/3 responsible for the demise of our friendship. I didn’t know how to take that kind of truth at that time in my life. I wasn’t ready to hear the message; I would not have stuck with the program. (Sometimes I wish I’d sobered up many years ago, but here again is proof that we hear it when we are ready.)
It still hurts like hell that my personal letter to her was shown around the office.
As I looked at her photo, I felt the hurt of this failed friendship all over again. I thought I had dealt with it, moved on.
Because it bothered me so much, I knew I had to get to a meeting and share about it.
I said that I was thinking about reaching out to this woman once again. Not to grovel; not to ask for chance to be friends with her, but I wouldn’t rule it out, because people can change in 25 years. I thought that maybe I would thank her for planting the seed that stayed with me all these years, which has helped bring me to this understanding, this person who I am right now.
I sure as hell won’t write it to her, though.