Bottoms Up: When There’s Nowhere to Go but Upward

In Sacred & Profane by Donna Johnsonleave a COMMENT

The last few days have not been easy for me.

I woke up this morning with some sort of thick yellow gunk coming out of my lungs that looked like sewage from a radiation plant. My little cat, Solange, sits in the window sill staring at me with a mysterious, sphinx-like look that seems to say: “You need to do something about yourself. If you are not taking care of yourself, how are you going to take care of us?”

Her concern is not without cause. My entire body aches from being up too many days, drinking hard, and running fast. What have I been running from? Myself, of course.

The torrential rain outside my window seems to scream the words: “Repent! Repent! Repent!”

“I know! I know!” I mumble to my version of God, who really is all-loving and all-merciful, and seems to whisper in my ear, “You do not have to live like this.” And then, very gently, very slowly, the words, “You are better than this.”

I’m not so sure of that, but I roll over and open my eyes to see three pairs of eyes staring back at me. Two are those of my dog, Mallory, who sits, head cocked, blinking at me in that reproachful way she has that seems to say, “How can you lie there sleeping when we are so hungry?” Her gaze shifts to Boots, my 30-pound cat, who suddenly waddles rapidly over to me and lands with a thud on my chest, causing another intense coughing spell.

The rain continues. The air inside my apartment is thick with smoke and the smell of stale food that has been left on the stove for two days—a meal that was not even good when it was fresh but is now utterly loathsome. Yellow roses, now dead, lay crumpled on the floor like the remains of a wasted day, year, life. But is anything really a waste? It’s hard to tell in the state of mind I’ve been inhabiting for the last year—a hopelessness that says you cannot do any better, be any better.

This is who and what you are: alcoholic, addict, wastrel.

Alcoholism, cunning and baffling, is most of all a great deceiver: “Go ahead and have just one drink. Just to be social. After that you can stop.” That’s the deception that takes you down, down, down into the rabbit hole, inside of which you forget who you are. Not for nothing is it called a blackout: You have blacked out your life.

Then there are the well-intended friends who tell you what you did the night before: “You were hilarious, you were down on all fours in Market Square pretending to be a donkey! You were so funny!” Or perhaps, “You passed out and we had to carry you home!” As the memory of what they are talking about begins to sift back through with ruthless force, the previous night begins to play itself out on a life-size screen on which you have the starring role. The anti-hero. That’s you.

More insidious still, when you are feeling inadequate, which is most of the time, the great deceiver tells you, “Have a cocktail. It will make you feel confident, brilliant, beautiful, young.” Everything that you are, in fact, not.

For a while it seems to work. You are the wittiest person in the bar. You buy the most drinks for everyone, you leave the biggest tips, you are charming. And they all just love you—until the tips and the generosity come to an end. You reach in your wallet for cab-fare home, and—surprise, surprise—everyone but you has your money. Walking the 15 or so blocks home—for no one has time to give you a ride (“We’re not going that way…”)—you struggle valiantly to walk a straight line so you don’t get arrested. Into the handcuffs and slammed against the side of the cop car you’ll go, like the derelict person you knew you were to begin with. It’s the reason you drink, or one of them.

There’s a place they call “the bottom” in AA. I was there. After a few desultory AA meetings, I still drank. It was no fun anymore, just maintenance to feel a semblance of normalcy, whatever that means. Normal was never something I was very good at. I gave up, gave in, surrendered. There was nowhere to go but up and I had no idea how to get there.

My mother always told me she felt God’s hand was on me. I try to remember that.

From out of this dark pit comes a voice that is nothing short of a miracle: My favorite drinking buddy of all time calls me, out of the blue.

“I’ve been looking for you for years,” she says.

During our drinking days, we drove all around the city in her little blue convertible Audi. Drinking and driving, driving and drinking. I became so concerned about her, I called her daughter and they put her in treatment. She has been sober for five years.

I am having lunch with her today. If I need to go to treatment, I will do it. If I have to go to AA, I will. At least I hope I will. The self-destruct button is always closer than the one for recovery. But with three pairs of eyes staring at me woefully, three loving beings completely dependent on my care, I know I must try. With a lot of prayer, a lot of meetings, and a little luck I will succeed.

Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”

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