Chapter 15: Irony and Uselessness

Standard

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.

Advertisements

Family Disease

Standard

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:

===

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.

====

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.

The Miracle

Standard

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.

===

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.

===

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.