by Chelsey Clammer
My first sponsor was a four-foot-two black woman who used to be a police officer. I do not remember her name. She would sit in meetings and knit sweaters for her grandchildren, pink and yellow cotton yarn twisting around her knobby knuckles. She asked one day if the theme of the meeting could be forgiveness. Her reasoning, she said, was because “I need y'all to forgive me because I forgot to take my medication this morning.” Immediately upon her confession about her mental instability I wanted her to be my sponsor. I could connect with that.
I want to say her name was Shirley. This was two years ago in Chicago, where I first got sober. I was in those meetings because I was trying to stick to my sobriety, trying to make it a permanent thing in my life.
I was fresh out of the psych ward where I spent the days sitting in group therapy and learning about my “hot thoughts.” The lot of us patients sat around in a circle, our common element that we were a bunch of suicidal people trying to understand what made us tick. What was making me tick was that I was drinking too much and was always wallowing in the thoughts of my dad who died of alcohol poisoning. I didn't want to say this in any of the psych ward group therapy sessions because then I would have to talk about my own drinking habits.
One day, though, a social worker called me into her office because she wanted to “assess” me.
“How much do you drink?” The social worker asked. She had a plump, chalky face and crisp blonde highlights. Gray streaks showed through. She looked tired, bored as she assessed my drinking habits.
“Oh just a few beers every other night,” I lied.
“That's almost a lot.”
Fuck, I thought. Even my lie sounded like too much. If only she knew how much I really drank—two bottles of wine a night, along with some start-the-night-right shots of whiskey—then she would probably throw my ass into rehab.
“Most people only drink a few times a week. But if you're drinking, let's say four times a week, then there is a chance you might have a problem with alcohol.”
Hell yeah I do, I wanted to say. I drank every night, and it wasn't only beer. I had my nightly habit of wine and whiskey, my 3pm starting time with happy hour Margaritas, and my morning hangover cure of a Bloody Mary. But I kept quiet in her psych ward office, stared at the yellow walls stuffed with our bodies.
She turned on her computer and went to an Alcoholics Anonymous page.
“Let's get you set up to go to a meeting when you are released.”
“I'm an atheist,” I said flatly. I knew that AA was all about god and spirituality, and I wanted none of it. I possibly had a desire to stop drinking, but only because I wanted to stop being hung-over. But I still wanted to drink, could not even fathom what my life would be like without it.
“It's okay,” she said, as if my atheism were a flaw. “There are AA meetings for atheists, too.” She made a couple of clicks on the computer, and printed a list of meetings I could go to. “Here, keep this and go to a meeting when you are released.”
“Sure. Thanks,” I said and pushed out of the chair. I returned to the group therapy room and stuffed the list into the trashcan before anyone could see it. I did not want to be an alcoholic like my father. I believed it was a despicable thing to be, and no matter how much I knew I should stop drinking, how much I knew the drinking was ruining my life, I would not admit this. I did not want to be like him.
But I am like him.
When I was released from the psych ward a week later, I did, in fact, get my ass to an AA meeting. The hangovers became too much for me to handle, as well as the morning depression caused by them and the way I could not stop thinking about my dead, alcoholic father. At my first AA meeting, I met Shirley, or whatever her name was. Her squat little body sat across from mine, and I peered into her face after her “I forgot to take my medication this morning” confession. She didn't say anything else during that meeting, but I walked up to her afterward and asked if she wanted to be my sponsor. I thought that's what alcoholics do. They go to meetings and they get a sponsor.
“Well sure, honey!” she said in her sprightly little grandmotherly voice and gave me a hug. I could see the top of her head, see the gray wiry streaks that were sticking up above a mass of black hair that was slowly turning gray as well. She had glasses that swallowed her face, thick lenses amplifying the wrinkles around her eyes.
After the meeting we went across the street to a Mediterranean restaurant. I did not have anything to eat as I was trying to lose weight, because I did not know what else to do with my time. I used to consume my time with drinking, with the obsession over the drink. Without that in my life, I turned to trying to control my body, to obsess over my physical form. Shirley had a pita sandwich. In between bites in which tahini and bits of falafel dripped down her brown chin, she asked me to tell her about my life.
I didn't know where to start, what to say about my life. Most of the time I described myself by saying I worked at such-and-such place, or that I was a runner and interested in writing. I couldn't tell if she wanted to know about my drinking habits or just what kind of a person I was. I decided to not talk about myself.
“My dad was an alcoholic,” I said. “He used to get drunk and threaten suicide.”
“What?!?” she said. As she was an old woman, I couldn't tell if she said this because she couldn't believe it or because she couldn't hear me.
“Well, he died from alcohol poisoning six years ago, and now I'm starting to accept the fact that I'm like him, that I'm an alcoholic, too.”
“That's good, honey.”
She finished eating quickly enough so I didn't have to spill my soul to her that day.
We never met again.
But we did exchange phone numbers, and I would call her in the mornings on my way to work. We would say the serenity prayer over the phone together while I sat on the train. It felt awkward, but also a little comforting. With so much loneliness I was feeling now that I had lost my drinking buddies, it was good to have someone who would sit and talk with me, even if we were just saying a prayer together, saying the same memorized words at the same time. It was not a conversation, but a belief in the fact that you do not have to be alone, that even when two people are so vastly different you can find your connections—like being an alcoholic—and go forward with it.
I do not know what type of drinker Shirley was. But what I did come to understand was that she hadn't given up on life. She had come to accept that her life had become unmanageable when she was drinking, and so she turned her life over to the will of some higher power and said the serenity prayer every morning. During our Mediterranean restaurant meeting, as I kept quiet and watched her eat, Shirley did tell me a little bit about herself, a little bit about the traumatic events she had gone through—a runaway son, a horrible divorce, health problems—and was able to get sober and stay sober after all of them.
That is what I wanted.
I soon moved to Minneapolis to get out of the city in which I had so many drunk memories. I never told Shirley I moved, never spoke to her again, never said that prayer with her again.
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women's Studies from Loyola University Chicago. She has been published in THIS, The Rumpus, Atticus Review, Sleet, The Coachella Review and Make/shift among others. She received the Nonfiction Editor's Pick Award 2012 from both Revolution House and Cobalt, as well as a Pushcart Prize nomination. Clammer is a weekly columnist for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as the assistant nonfiction editor for Eckleburg and The Dying Goose. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.