Chapter 34: In choosing happiness

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May 17, 2014, Montgomery, Alabama, about 3 p.m.

Her eyes.

They are so blue, piercingly blue. I catch my breath audibly. But it isn’t just her eyes that get me —

it is the moment. I can’t believe it.

And in response, she laughs, kindly, cheerfully at me.

I am taken away by the very fact that here before me is the only living connection to the man long dead, the man I want to know more about than anything, the man whose research has consumed me for months. Finally, impossibly it seems, a living connection.

Still speechless I walk towards  Emmett’s niece. She reaches out her hand to me. It is warm, friendly; still holding my hand, she covers mine in both of hers.

“I am so happy to meet you,” I say.  But then, as the intensity of the moment washes over me, “I’m sorry,” I say, turning away slightly, and self-consciously. “I feel like I’m going to cry.”

Carol chuckles as she looks on the counter for a box of Kleenex.

“I’m fine,” I say to her, with a slight chuckle. “I am just so grateful and appreciative of the chance to meet you.”

Jule gestures to the sofa behind a coffee table; she takes the chair on the right; Carol sits next to me.

The first moment is a bit awkward; but Carol says she’s seen the letters and articles I’ve sent Jule, and is amazed at how much information I was able to find about the Wilson family. “We’ve really known nothing about them.”

“And my grandfather’s picture,” Jule says, nodding at the framed sepia-tone photo prominent in the living room. “I’ve never seen a photo of him before. It’s a miracle, really, all of this,’ she adds, gesturing at me, my briefcase, the fact we are all together.

Dr. Wilson on call at the W.O. Butler house, in Chipley, Florida, 1911. Original photo is courtesy of Jule Wilson Perry.

“I have so much more to show you, and to send you,” I say, opening my laptop. Carol leans forward expectantly. I show them the folder on the desktop with several articles from contemporary media that I found a few days earlier. Jule doesn’t have a laptop computer, so my habit has been to print out articles and mail them to Jule, then copy them in email to Carol.

“Two articles are interesting because they talk about your Father,” I tell Jule. “They describe what he looked like compared to Emmett. I was surprised to find out the twins didn’t look anything alike.”

Source: The Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. May 29, 1914

And this:

The Daily Northwester, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, February 12, 1913.

“So they were fraternal twins,” Carol said. “And Mama probably got her blue eyes from her father.”

Jule then reaches into an envelope on the table, and hands me a cardboard photograph of three children.

“I’d always thought that the two blond headed boys were the twins, but now we know better,” she says.

Emmett (left), Walker (center), Julian (right), in 1890, taken for New Year’s Day 1891. Source: Jule Wilson Perry, used with permission. Copyright EmmettWilsonbook.com

It is unmistakably Emmett. I turn it over and read the beautiful copperplate handwriting — Emmett’s name is on it, and the year 1891. I smile up at Jule, so full of gratitude and appreciation.

Emmett’s hand is not exactly clenched and not exactly relaxed. Maybe he didn’t like being dressed up with a fluffy bow around his neck, I say to Carol and Jule, who nod in agreement.

“But what’s incredible is Emmett’s expression. Every photo I have seen of him so far is the same look — serious, focused, maybe a little uncomfortable. And here it is again, even as a child,” I say.

Jule says this was the only photo she knew of with the twins together as children, though there probably had been other photos taken of them.

I ask Jule to talk to me about Julian — she’d already told me some things in our correspondence — but I am interested in hearing about Julian’s personality, if he had any hobbies, what he did for relaxation, his relationship with other members of his family.

While she talks, describing her father, she shows me several other family photos, starting with a group photo.

The summer place in Perdido Bay that Frank owned. Left to right: Everard Meade (son of Katie and Emmett Meade), Frank Jr., Katie [behind the dog], Emmett Meade, Julian Wilson, May Wilson (wife of Frank Jr. behind Julian), Jule Wilson Perry about age 11), and Jule’s mother on the end. Photo courtesy of Carol Ballard. Used with permission.

Jule remembers one aunt and uncle in particular, Uncle Frank Jr. (who lived in Pensacola and had a fishing boat) and Aunt Katie Meade (who lived in Virginia with her cousin Everard Meade). Fishing was a very big deal for Julian, she says and that was the thing he liked to do most for relaxation.

Carol says that Jule attended The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, and that her cousin Everard and Aunt Katie were kind to her; seeing her often when she was in college, so Jule didn’t feel alone so far away from home.

Jule and Julian Wilson in the 1940s. Jule still has that lovely smile.

“The only time I saw my father cry was when he put me on the train from Montgomery to Washington, D.C., to go to school,” Jule says softly, as she hands me a photo of her with her father at a national park taken in the 1940s. “But he was always such a kind, quiet, peaceful man. I can say he was a happy and satisfied man; he loved our family very much.”

One of the packets of clips I sent to Jule a few months earlier included a copy of Emmett’s death certificate, along with two other corroborating reports that his death was directly related to alcoholism. I pull up the digital copy of Emmett’s death certificate on my computer while I ask Carol and Jule about it.

“I don’t remember that I met Uncle Emmett, but then, I was only a six-month old baby when he died,” Jule says, pointing at the date of May 28, 1918. “I might have, but I don’t know.”

The genealogy from Walker Wilson’s grandson mentioned alcohol as a problem with this branch of the Wilson family; but  did Jule know about this?

She shakes her head. “No. And that was probably the big reason why my father never mentioned his twin brother in any kind of conversation.” It wasn’t that Jule thought Julian didn’t love his brother, but it was probably overwhelmingly sad; frustrating. People even today don’t know how to deal with family members who have drinking problems, even with all the science and information available — imagine what it was like over 100 years ago.

Jule closes her eyes, rubs her forehead in thought as we talk about the relationship between Emmett and Julian. I’m worried if this is too much for her. She says no, it’s fine.

“Now that I think about it, with Daddy, it was more what he did not say about his brother than what he said.” She pauses a moment to gather her words carefully; she opens her eyes.

“Truth is, Daddy rarely drank, and now we know there was probably a reason for that. I know that there was also a sadness about Daddy when it came to talking about his family — and he never talked about Emmett, which seemed odd given that they were twins.”

I tell Jule and Carol that my own grandparents never talked about their family either — and I knew that several family members died of alcoholism.

Carol says that her grandfather would have an occasional beer, but only one, and that was it. Jule nods. “I imagine it was because of what he’d seen happen to Emmett.”

In the end, Jule said, it just didn’t seem like Emmett was a positive force in her father’s life, that he wasn’t happy, and perhaps that was behind her father’s choices to distance himself from a relationship with his twin brother.

I imagine this may have been a hard but necessary thing to see, much less live through in any family. I remember that Jule’s experience in social work throughout her career probably helped her understand the logic at Julian’s choice to set this boundary in his family, because there was nothing anyone could do to save his brother. It wasn’t just that Emmett couldn’t help himself — but according to addiction science, saving oneself only works when the addict decides to do whatever it takes to save himself.

“My father chose his family, and happiness, in the end,” Jule said.

And there’s a lot to be said for that.

 

Chapter 15: Irony and Uselessness

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You want to hear something funny? Or more honestly, ironic?

As I sat with my newfound information about Emmett Wilson, I was angry. Pissed, actually.

First, this guy. Emmett Wilson, who (from what I had read so far) was from a privileged family; a family who held respectable jobs in the community, a family who lost everything more than once, reinvented themselves, survived abject poverty, educated themselves, saved every penny — and gave those pennies willingly to Emmett so he could go to college not once but twice…

Second, a family with connections who went out of their way to bail him out of more than one or two bad career choices and help him obtain jobs of prominence, which Emmett did an honestly average job about…

Third, Emmett, a man with family and connections that gave him places to live, opportunities no average Joe or Josephine could have dreamed of back then, resulting in national prominence….

….only to throw it all away before his 36th birthday.

What an asshole.

He had everything and threw it away.

And who was this guy anyway? OK, yeah, so hooray, he’s my cousin. A distant cousin whom I’d not gone looking for; someone who just showed up in the middle of another project, who thumped me on the head in the middle of the night asking me to do him a favor.

Man, does this Emmett guy have some nerve, reaching out from beyond the grave for yet ANOTHER favor. I mean, what the hell? You have to be kidding, I remembered muttering to myself. And to him, if he was actually listening.

“Does this photo make me look like I have all the answers? Maybe I’m just uncomfortable in a stiff collar?”

I looked at his photo — the official one of Emmett posed with kind-of a frown/stern expression.

I said to him: “You have all the answers already. What more do you want? What do you want from me at this point?”

For two days, I was too pissed to work.

Instead, I went to see my sponsor, Courtney (who is also a genealogical researcher, by the way. Ironic?).

I recounted to her exactly what I found about Emmett, how I felt, what I was thinking, how used I felt by this Emmett Wilson, who seemed to use everyone and everything in his life, too, to get what he wanted, and then to just fucking die in the end, a useless, wasted life….

She listened quietly, patiently, as I ranted for probably about 20 minutes. Then she asked:

“Why are you so angry about Emmett? What’s he done to you, exactly?”

“Well, look,” I said, displaying the folders of information I’d collected. “This is just infuriating. This guy is a loser. He threw his life away; he didn’t care. How can you be given all sorts of opportunities to do well and just throw it away? It’s insane,” I shook my head at her.

“You sure are worked up over a guy who has been dead almost 100 years. I ask you again: What’s he done to YOU that makes you so angry?”

“I don’t get it,” I muttered defensively.

“Judy, don’t you see? None of this is about Emmett. This is all about you.”

I just shook my head, incredulous.

“Don’t dismiss the idea. Think about it,” she said. “You came from nothing; you had a family and friends who would and did give everything to help you, willingly. Or unwillingly,” she said with a chuckle. “But still, you had the resources. And what did YOU do with your resources during your early career? And when did you say you did most of your drinking?”

I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t actually because I felt my face burning.

“Did you appreciate them, your advantages?”

“I do now.” I said, sheepishly.

After a few quiet moments, she said: “They called you useless too. How did that make you feel, or do you remember?”

I did remember. I shifted uncomfortably; I started to assemble Emmett’s papers back into their folders.

“You’re angry because you are reliving your helplessness when you were literally, mentally drowning when you are reading all about Emmett and what he threw away in his life,” she said nodding at the papers in my hands.

My sponsor had my full attention.

“No. Just like Emmett, you didn’t appreciate what you had in those days because you couldn’t. You were out of your mind, insane if you will, putting the need for a drink first. Just like your cousin. And, this story you are writing. Think about this: Is Emmett’s drunkalogue the entire life story?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “His life was more than just being a drunk.”

Courtney smiled at me, kindly, and nodded.

“There is more to Emmett’s story than just ‘he drank, he died.’ I think you know this, too. How did he get there? What did he do about it? What lessons can we learn from his life that can help you today?

“And,” she continued, “would you still consider Emmett useless for having reached out to you, asking you to tell his story, if his story actually informed your own?”

Before I left, Courtney reminded me about being self-righteous in all of this: “We are lucky and blessed to have found AA, and that it works for us. But remember, there are plenty of people who can’t or won’t accept this program or any other program out there, for whatever reason. We’re powerless over other people, places, things…they have to do it for themselves.

“There’s another gift in the program that I think you need to work on,” she added, looking at me over the rim of her glasses.

“What?” I said, with surprise. “I appreciate all of the gifts of the program, truly…” I started. She shook her head.

“Really? What about humility?”

“What about it?” I asked.

“You’re also mad at Emmett because he couldn’t ‘get it’ and you did. A lot of people don’t, can’t or won’t get it. It’s a daily struggle, you know. And just because you could do it — and I know you work hard to stay there — not everyone can. Your self-righteousness is getting in the way of your own program,” she said, sitting back and looking at me pointedly.

I didn’t say anything because now I was mad at Courtney for calling me out — and correctly. We sat quietly for a few minutes; I couldn’t stay mad at her for very long because I always knew that she’d tell me the truth whether I wanted to hear it or not, and Courtney is precious to me. Eventually, I looked at her in the eye and nodded.

“I have a lot of work to do, and not just with this story. And I am sorry for being so rude.”

Courtney nodded.

“It’s fine. But don’t be angry because Emmett couldn’t or wouldn’t get it while he was alive — his death and story serves a purpose for you, now, today. His story, and how you found it or he found you or whatever, is a wonderful gift and opportunity to learn and grow.

“So, I wouldn’t call him or his life useless. But your reaction is pretty ironic,” she said with a chuckle, as our session together ended, and she walked me to her apartment door.

“Keep coming back,” she said, as she kissed me goodbye on the cheek.

Next: Emmett’s story, from the very beginning.

But for the Grace of God

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When I close my eyes, I see it: The ancient scrapbook covered in gray dust, high on a shelf in a Florida library, long forgotten. And on the phone, I hear the excited voice of my friend Jacki the Archivist:

“We aren’t sure how it got there, but it’s been undisturbed for decades. It was part of a collection of mementos belonging to a long-deceased Florida lawyer named Kehoe.”

It? I ask.

“Your cousin Emmett Wilson’s long-lost scrapbook.”

I’ve fantasized receiving this message from Jacki since I began this research in 2013. This scrapbook is the major piece in the puzzle to tell Emmett’s story that’s still missing.

Emmett willed the scrapbook to his namesake, Emmett Wilson Kehoe, the son of his best friend and law partner, Walter Kehoe.

Emmett Wilson Kehoe, son of Jennie and Walter Kehoe. 1930, University of Florida. Source: Ancestry.com

But young Kehoe was only 12 when Emmett died on May 29, 1918.

And the scrapbook disappeared shortly after Emmett’s funeral. And it’s still missing, unfortunately.

Always the realist, Jacki has warned me: “The odds of finding Emmett’s scrapbook intact today are minute.” But I’m optimistic, because I’ve uncovered a surprising amount of information on my obscure and troubled cousin — once considered the Golden Boy of Pensacola politics — who succumbed at 35 to combined addictions of ambition and alcohol.

Emmett’s story isn’t a happy one. I doubt my ancestors would appreciate me writing his biography, even 100 years after his death. But I am compelled, because Emmett’s story is also my story: My long-dead cousin and I are related not only by blood, but also chemistry.

Emmett drank to escape. I drank to escape.

Emmett had three interventions. I had three interventions.

Emmett didn’t want to face himself, character defects and all, to find out who he really was minus booze in his life. It has taken almost a decade of continuous sobriety to be willing to face myself after drinking for more than 30 years.

Emmett’s struggle with alcohol killed him.

My struggle with alcohol almost killed me.

After Emmett died, my ancestors literally closed the book on him: They dispersed his meager belongings; shelved his memory, hid his truth. Tried to forget.

For years, Emmett had put his family through an emotional and psychological wringer; his death was probably a relief to them all. This may explain the disappearance of Emmett’s scrapbook. And I don’t really blame them.

Frankly, I’ve been trying to forget my alcoholic history. Sometimes I believe that if I can hide that part of my life, pretend it didn’t exist, then I, too, can move on.

Or can I?

I understand why my ancestors chose to bury Emmett’s memories along with his body, but ignoring an unfortunate truth only excuses it temporarily; renders it dormant to rise again, when you least expect it — as it was with Emmett.

Writing Emmett’s story isn’t only about coming to terms with Emmett’s truth — but rather it is about coming to terms with my truth. Perhaps Emmett couldn’t save himself; but now, 100 years later, he life story can save me from myself.

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Coffee with Emmett. May 20, 2014

It was a glorious Spring morning, May 20, 2014, the day I ‘met’ Emmett.

There was nothing to fear, but I was jumpy; my heart and thoughts racing as I walked through St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola, anxiously scanning the headstones with a travel coffee cup, a cemetery map, and a dozen supermarket red roses in my hands. Few were about save for a middle-aged woman on a brisk morning stroll with her terrier, and a caretaker carefully moving a buzzing weed whacker along granite-lined family plots. He nodded good morning to me across the rows, as I picked my way along the bumpy, but well-manicured turf in search of Emmett. He politely silenced his weed whacker while I paid my respects.

Why was I nervous visiting a dead man? St. John’s wasn’t a frightening place during daylight hours; I felt perfectly secure. Absurdly, I wondered if, when I arrived at Emmett’s grave, the ground would move and he would reach up through ground and throttle me for unearthing his unfortunate life story —

— but before I could parse my feelings, I realized I was standing in the Wilson family plot — and there was Emmett beneath my feet.

The concrete slab over his grave was covered by several inches of sand — from occasional floods during hurricane season — irregular tufts of weedy grass, and sandspurs. Emmett’s granite headstone was in good condition: The engraving clear, the stone mostly unchanged in almost a century.

Then, it struck me: No one has visited Emmett in decades. Maybe almost a century.

I remember thinking: Booze took everything from you, Emmett.

And then: There but for the grace of God go I.

My anxiety was gone.

I laid the roses atop Emmett’s grave. I sat down next to him with my coffee.

“It’s good to finally meet you,” I started.

I left St. John’s feeling calm and resolute: I’d keep looking for Emmett’s scrapbook. I’d tell his story. Not from a sense of obligation, but because even though we’ve never met, I understand him. And in understanding Emmett, I understand myself:

His story’s tragedy is my life preserver.

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Jacki the Archivist and I are still looking for Emmett’s scrapbook. I hope we find it, because Emmett’s story isn’t complete without his words. His truth.

There’s a saying in the AA rooms: “We are only as sick as our secrets.” I’ve almost twelve years in recovery, and I’m still discovering the secrets that drove me to drink. The reality is that I live authentically when I can come to terms with all of myself, including those dark days of alcoholism. My truth.

That truth saved my life in 2007, when I took a deep breath and declared in an AA meeting that I was an alcoholic.

And so, with Emmett’s scrapbook, I would take a deep breath, and carefully open the cover —

And accept the truth, Emmett’s and mine.

For better or worse.

Family Disease

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My sponsor cornered me after a meeting a few days ago. She hadn’t seen me in awhile — weeks — which isn’t a good thing for alcoholics in recovery. “Where have you been? What’s up?” She asked. Demanded, actually.

So we sat down together in a coffee shop, and talked. She eventually got the truth out of me — I’d stalled out in writing about Emmett, and more critically, in my program. I didn’t realize it was happening until it just happened, I said.

My sponsor (a no-nonsense Sister of Notre Dame and psychotherapist) basically called bullshit on me. “The isolating and the procrastination with Emmett’s writing are symptoms of something else. And the problem is that something else could ultimately be a drinking trigger.”

My sponsor then told me just to start talking about whatever I thought was the beginning, and not think about it.

Here’s the paraphrased version:

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From January to May, managing Dad’s affairs because of his serious health problems and his resistance/outright refusal to take care of himself took over my life. It was damn near impossible to write when I was in the thick of everything for five months, and I hardly was able to get to meetings because of all the travel back and forth, and then, catching up on work and my family’s obligations when I was finally back home.

(Today, Dad’s health is better than it was before he was hospitalized and he’s on his own in an assisted living senior residence, as much as he can be. He hates it, but that’s a story for another time.)

By the time June rolled around, I figured I’d be back into serious work on Emmett’s chapters, and life would settle back down into normalcy. But I picked Emmett’s research up sparingly, and always with some weird dread, and when I did work on his story, it definitely was not with the same spirit and dedication.

More to the point, I wasn’t picking up anything with the same energy, feeling and spirit. I told my sponsor that I felt like I had turned into another person altogether — I snapped at everyone over things that used to never bother me, picking fights even with loved ones and friends, over inconsequential and illogical things. For instance, I got into a terrible argument with my husband, a non-Catholic, because he’s non-Catholic. We’ve been married 28 years. I dated him for 10 years before that. I’ve always KNOWN he’s non-Catholic, and it has never bothered me. But I digress.

My sponsor listened carefully — then told me to talk to my doctor because she said it sounded as if I was going through a kind-of PTSD after all the stress of my Dad’s situation — having to keep it together for so long, without really talking about it, and certainly not talking about it in meetings, since I hadn’t been to any in awhile.

I didn’t debate her or argue about her suggestion — I got my ass to my therapist two days later. Diagnosis: Anxiety post the family drama. Totally understandable, the therapist said. Talking about it has helped me calm down tremendously.

But something else that came out in the therapy that I had forgotten about — and stuffed down — which really is at the heart of all this:

In January, I’d had a conference with one of Dad’s doctors about his condition, and the doctor revealed that all the stuff that happened to my Dad is related to alcoholism.

Although Dad says he’s not drinking, the doctor said the previous drinking history was linked to his bouts with colon cancer, as alcoholism IS a factor in the disease. And, oh yeah, something else I didn’t know until this conference January: He has cirrhosis of the liver. So, in addition to the anxiety, I’m angry.

Deep down furious.

F.U.R.I.O.U.S.

Dad’s lack of care for himself, or for anyone else, has seriously, negatively, affected me and my immediate family. And he frankly doesn’t really care. He just wants to escape whatever it is that is bothering him, regardless. It’s easy to feel sorry for someone like that, but when the alcoholic behavior affects how I’m able to care for my children and be a supportive member of my own family…..

Yeah.

F.U.R.I.O.U.S.

When the AA literature calls alcoholism a ‘family disease,’ it’s the truth. The alcoholic doesn’t think what he or she is doing bothers anyone else but themselves. That’s the key — the alcoholic isn’t THINKING, and certainly, the alcoholic isn’t in his or her right mind.

Anyway. I’m here to report that I’ve held all this shit in since January. A true constipation of the brain. No wonder I haven’t been able to write anything, or function like my old self.

But thanks to a good therapist, a good sponsor, and a good program, things are headed back to normal in Emmett Wilson book land.

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One good thing that has come out of this experience is a better  understanding about Emmett’s biography —  it isn’t just a biography of a long-dead distant ancestor. It’s also about my — our — family relationship with booze, and what we’ve done to live with it, for better or worse.

When I first started learning about Emmett and his relationships with his family members, I remember thinking rather tough thoughts about them — especially his brother Cephas and Emmett’s father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson. If you love your brother and son, and see that he is struggling, why didn’t they do something to help him? Something MORE?

And towards the end of Emmett’s life, most of his friends and almost all of his family members pretty much distanced themselves from Emmett, because he kept on drinking, even though I’m SURE both Emmett’s father, and Emmett’s personal physician advised him to stop drinking years before he died of alcoholism.

I’m sure Emmett’s family and friends were furiously angry and frustrated with Emmett, too. Emmett would always choose booze over every single opportunity that came his way.

The situation with Emmett and his drinking/health outcome is similar to the one I’m experiencing with my Dad today, 100 years later. The time away from writing about Emmett has given me a more objective view of his story, a better understanding of why family and friends acted/behaved/distanced themselves when they did. I feel as if I will be able to present Emmett’s family and friends with more understanding of the situation.

It’s not an easy situation to be in today; it wasn’t easy 100 years ago, either.

I’m sorry I’ve had this experience with Dad, but I’m also glad I’ve had it. I’ve learned a lot from it.

He Drank “to cover up the sadness”

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When I read this article in today’s edition of The Washington Post, I couldn’t help but think of Emmett. There’s so many similarities:

From pinup…..Source: Rolling Stone/Getty Images

Both were smart, talented, in the prime of their lives — but — both addicted to success and alcohol.

I suppose it’s part of knowing what it is like to be an alcoholic, and to love fellow alcoholic family members. You don’t want to believe that your pain and suffering is common. You want to think your loved one can have a different outcome than some unfortunate fellow or woman. But in recovery, one of the first things we learn is that none of us are terminally unique. And other than abstinence, there is no cure.

It makes me sad thinking David Cassidy and Emmett Wilson  had similar struggles, both drinking ‘to cover up the sadness’; both ultimately drinking themselves to death.

…to police mugshot. I wonder if Emmett was ever arrested for public drunkenness. Source: The Straits Times

I never knew either Cassidy or Emmett personally, but surely I’m not the only one who thinks both of their early deaths a damn shame.

Cassidy, like Emmett, tried to beat his disease more than once. But then, I also know that statistically, sobriety is harder to maintain, long term. The average length of an AA’s sobriety is less than 10 years. I know Emmett was unable to string together more than a few days of sobriety at a time; this was probably also the case with Cassidy, despite what we’ve learned about alcoholism since Emmett’s death in 1918.

Even though I count my lucky stars for my own sobriety, I know it’s only a daily reprieve. There’s many other addictions available to ‘cover up the sadness’ in my life besides alcohol (social media, shopping, chocolate), and they are an everyday struggle. What I’ve learned during my time away from booze is to, somehow, get OK with the struggle part of sobering up. The only way to do it is to learn the new behavior. Honestly, it sucks most of the time. Most of us AA’s would rather drink like ‘normal’ people, but we’ve had to learn to accept we can’t ever do that. What we can do, is try, one day at a time, to learn to be OK in our own skins for who we are. Mostly of the time, it’s only halfway, but that’s better than no way at all.

In closing, it’s a little ironic that David Cassidy kind-of sums up the sentiment in an old Partridge Family song, “I’ll Meet You Halfway.” I know he was singing about a love relationship, but I think it applies here, because we have to find a way to love ourselves so that we can save ourselves.

I’ll meet you halfway, that’s better than no way
There must be some way to get it together
And if there’s some way, I know that some day
We just might work it out forever

I wish Cassidy, and Emmett, had been able to work things out for themselves differently.

I bit off more than I can chew

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The hideous animated thing my kids love to put out every Halloween. I keep it in a bin until October 31. It gets packed up again on November 1.

Once again, it’s Halloween. This is my favorite time of year.

And once again, I’ve become burned out.

This time, it isn’t about Emmett and the research. It’s because I over-volunteered myself on several projects. And you know what? I saw this train wreck coming wayyy in advance. I could have stopped it.

But I’ve come to recognize in recovery that even with almost 11 years of sobriety, I’m not really 100 percent sober. I still have drinking thinking.

In other words, I’ve substituted being busy — workaholism — for alcoholism. The workaholism is a placeholder for my lack of honesty with myself, and my fellows. I’m throwing myself into a flurry of activity and busyness because I’m avoiding facing something that needs doing.

And that’s not good. The placeholder can easily segue into drinking, if I’m not careful. It happened once before.

Granted, here in D.C., being a workaholic is not a vice. In fact, you get plaudits for nearly driving yourself insane with productivity. But for this alcoholic, the need to avoid doing the hard work, to find the easy way out/around rethinking things or relearning things is to procrastinate by doing something else.

I’ve figured out that something else is a need to feel achievement.

I don’t always feel like I achieve much with Emmett’s book, either. I am making progress, yes, but I’m a long way from a publication date, and so after four-plus-years of shuffling papers and organizing myself, I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished much.

I turned to something that would give me a sense of gratification and accomplishment: I volunteered to teach catechism to 7th graders at my parish Sunday school once a week.

For the past three years, I’ve taught that one class. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a great bunch of kids to work with. Most participate in the lessons and activities without complaint, and I have a good rapport with both the parents and the school of religion staff. I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ve gotten a lot out of it — so much so that in 2016, I was named Catechist of the Year, an unexpected and wonderful honor.

Catechist of the Year, 2016. That cold breeze you just felt was Hell freezing over.

Obviously, this gave me a great sense of accomplishment. The downside of recognition, though, can be a loss of humility, if one isn’t careful.

The recognition was sweet, and psychologically intoxicating.

Of course, I wanted more.

So, this past summer, when the Director of Religious Education asked if any of the catechists would consider teaching a second class — a new high school program — I raised my hand.

Like the alcoholic that I am, I thought that perhaps more volunteering would mean more accomplishment, more plaudits. It would fill the hole in my soul where I felt I wasn’t making progress with Emmett’s book. It would be a useful placeholder.

Right?

Wrong.

The problem isn’t the second class; the problem is that the teacher is now overwhelmed trying to save a pilot class that was too small to run in the first place (less than four students enrolled; and now only one or two are showing up). The DRE knew it, and decided to run the class anyway, despite advice to the contrary. She said I’d be great, the students would love me. And because I enjoy a challenge, and bought into that flattery, I jumped right in.

Three months later, it is foundering. There’s only one student, and today, I’m putting too much time and energy into trying to save an unviable situation, which is not my situation to solve.  I’m only a volunteer, and it has taken over my days.

Rather, I’ve let it take over my days.

I have to have an honest conversation with the DRE that this class/situation isn’t working, and why. Something inside of me resists, because I may lose the chance to win that damn recognition this year. She may not think as highly of me anymore.

I’ve forgotten one of the main sayings in our program: What someone else thinks of me is none of my business.

And damn it, I don’t volunteer because of flattery. But somewhere in the past six months, I’ve forgotten that, and used the privilege of being of service into something else, that makes me feel sick, and I’m near burnout over it.

I’ve lost humility and gratitude.

And the end result is that I am getting sick about it.

Today, I’ll have an honest talk with my DRE, and I will offer several suggestions for success. The DRE will need to resolve this problem, because it is hers to manage.

Today, I’ll work back towards resolving the central issue behind all of this distracting, over-volunteering crap, which is to focus back on Emmett’s research in a meaningful way.

Today, I’ll call my sponsor and get to more meetings, because that’s how I stay grounded.

And, hopefully, I’ll remember this lesson going forward.

 

The Miracle

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On Saturday morning, I said goodbye to a dear friend.

My dear friend, Michelle.

You’d have liked Michelle. She was a pistol. She was someone who lived life like a loose garment — she had poise, humor, smarts. She also had a way of getting right the point, of saying the right thing at the right time, when it mattered.

And, she was my friend.

I met Michelle 10 years ago at the 10:30 a.m. women’s meeting here in Washington, at the Del Ray Club. I was only a few week’s sober, bitchy, mad at the world because I felt broken and less-than, being unable to drink and escape everyday problems and life like a ‘normal’ person. I went to this meeting because my temporary sponsor told me to go, and while I was there, to just sit and listen, because I might lose the chip off my shoulder and learn something for a change.

I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t like women’s meetings in the early days of my sobriety, because it seemed like these meetings mostly involved folks dumping about their terrible week, or complaining about whatever drama was going on in their lives, and I didn’t identify in to anything they were talking about. I’d never had a DUI. I’d never done drugs. I’d never been fired from a job because of drinking, and I smugly didn’t think I had a problem.

These other gals, though? They had a lot of problems.

But not me.

I left the room, and before I made it out the door, this short redheaded gal with a black motorcycle-style jacket had followed me. She touched me on the arm, and asked where I was going. I told her I was going home.

“Why?”

I told her I wasn’t getting anything out of the meeting.

“Yeah. Me neither. Come on, let’s get some coffee.”

At a nearby coffee shop, we sat outside together, and I didn’t say much. I didn’t want to. In fact, I sat there fuming and irritated for the first five or 10 minutes. But Michelle had a way with people; and before I knew it, I was telling her about my last drink a few weeks earlier.

And that I missed drinking.

And that I felt like nobody understood that I felt as if I was falling apart inside, because I had no coping skills to deal with stress, or anger, or boredom. Because I would drink to deal with all of those problems, and I knew if I picked up again, I’d probably be dead in a year or so.

She nodded. “I get it.”

Do you? I asked.

Then, she told me her story — she was a CPA who owned her own business, but it wasn’t always like that. She wanted to be successful, but every time she felt pressure to perform, she’d have to take a drink, just to calm her nerves.

“For awhile that worked. For years,” she said, “or so I thought. Eventually, it just became easy, routine, to take a drink whenever I felt even the least little bit of unease, or discomfort. And then, one day, I realized I craved it, round the clock. I’d do anything for a drink. Including sacrifice my clients, my practice, my family. Nothing was more important than my feeling better.

“I drank to feel better,” she said.

So did I, I said.

At the end of our coffee meeting, she game me her number.

“Call me. And keep coming back to the meetings, OK? You’ll sometimes encounter a dud meeting, like today, but don’t judge the program by that one meeting. Because I don’t want to leave  before the miracle happens.”

What miracle? I asked.

“Wait and see.”

Michelle and I would go out and get coffee every now and then, and I saw her regularly at one or two meetings a week. Eventually, we became good friends.

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Last year, I switched to a new home group that was closer to my work, and had better parking (a big deal here in Washington). I didn’t see Michelle that often because my new home group wasn’t close to her, but we stayed in touch now and then by email and phone.

Then, summer came; everyone went on vacation, I shlepped kids to camps all week long, we went to different meetings, and we fell out of touch.

And then, two weeks ago, a friend sent me an email that Michelle had died. It happened quickly.

Apparently, Michelle had COPD for years (which I didn’t know). She went in for a doctor’s visit in late August, and learned that the disease had progressed rapidly. In typical Michelle fashion, she asked the doctor straight out about her prognosis; he told her she’d be gone by the end of September.

Also, in typical Michelle fashion, she got to work. She paid her taxes for 2017. She planned her own funeral Mass. She got all of her ducks in order. Everyone who was with her at the end said Michelle wasn’t afraid of death. She told everyone she’d lived a good life, she was blessed with a wonderful family and friends, and that every day she’d had on Earth was a miracle.

Michelle went into hospice in the middle of September; she died on September 21, peacefully, in no pain, in full grace.

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Michele modeled, for me, a way of life that I wanted to emulate. I feel blessed that God put her in my path, to show me the way. I also feel blessed to be an alcoholic, because if I weren’t, I’d never have had the privilege to be Michelle’s friend.

And that, my friends, was — is — the miracle.

I’m going to miss Michelle.