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Inside a Dive Bar, the Miracle of Resurrection

Every recovery is a kind of rebirth. But it's rare for the path of sobriety to lead to a religious conversion and belief in the literal Resurrection.

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Sullivan's Tap was like a church, but we were worshipping the wrong God. photo via

By Heather King

04/06/12

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I came into sobriety thinking God was for simple people, stupid people, people who couldn’t face the hard realities of life. Almost 25 years later, I see I was the one who so couldn’t face reality that I had to drink 24/7, sleep with other people’s husbands and live in a cockroach-infested “loft” (that was after graduating from law school). I came to God out of sheer, crazy-ass gratitude for getting sober. The 13th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “If the only prayer you said in your life was thank you, that would be enough.” I wanted to direct the thank you to someone. That’s about as sophisticated a definition of God as I’ll probably ever come up with: God is the Person I thank.

You don’t have to be religious to know that on this earth there is a force of light and a force of darkness. You don’t need to be religious to feel in your blood and bones the paradox of the human condition. You don’t need to be religious to see that addiction is both your biggest cross and, once you get sober, your biggest gift. You don’t need to be religious to marvel at the fact that of all the people in the world who can help a hopeless, broken-down alcoholic, it’s another broken-down alcoholic who’s gotten just enough of a glimpse of light to have stayed sober a single day.

I got sober in 1987 and I got married and I moved from the Boston area to L.A. and I started working as a lawyer in Beverly Hills and I found myself in profound spiritual crisis. I’d achieved the American dream and I was in despair. I’d spent half my time in rehab highlighting the cornball phrases in the Big Book: “John Barleycorn”; “Ain’t it grand the wind stopped blowing, Ma?” I mean, please! I read Dostoevsky and Kafka.

But now sobriety was leading me to ask the deepest questions of our existence: Where did I come from? Why was I here? Where was I going? Why do we suffer? Also, since the day I learned to write, I’d wanted to be a writer, a dream my years of hard-core drinking had not entirely squelched; and I did not see any possible way of going from Point A to Point B.

Now I am grateful for those men at Sullivan's who, in all their brokenness, sat with me a while and shared mine. I wonder whether some small, unremembered act of kindness in those otherwise empty hours tipped the scales for me toward life instead of death.

So I started reading, and writing. After a while I also started going to churches, and fairly quickly I realized that a human being nailed to a cross was an image that resonated deeply in my addict psyche. The word attach has old German roots meaning “nailed to,” and I had been nailed to any number of things my whole life: people, places, things; resentments, shame, fear. I learned that the word religion comes from the Latin religare—to bind back together—and that religion was not something to tack onto life: it is life: our beating hearts; our desire to be useful, to belong, to leave the world a better place after we’re gone. Going deeper, I understood that “crucifixion” and “resurrection” are no weird religious constructs but universal archetypes that were clearly the foundation of my own drinking story.

I lived during the 20 years of my drinking in a state of excruciating, desperate longing— the longing of the leper, the paralytic, the demoniac, the ones who thirsted and crawled and dragged themselves along with makeshift staffs and withered legs; the hemorrhaging woman who touched the hem of Christ's robe and was healed. I quit my job as a lawyer to start writing and came into the Catholic Church at almost the same time. From the beginning, writing for me was nothing less than a sacrament (so much so that it eventually trumped my other sacrament of marriage).

That I found my way to work about which I’m passionate is the treasure of my heart but I have never forgotten where I came from. So I find myself thinking this Easter week about Sullivan’s Tap, a coffin-shaped bar located kitty-corner from (the late, lamented) Boston Garden at which, near the end of my drinking, I was a regular morning patron. Sullivan’s opened at 8 a.m., reeked of Lysol and, besides me, was frequented exclusively by broken-down men. It was like an old soldier's home where we all woke daily to the agony of some staggering wound and gathered for the administration of a communal anaesthetic. Our fingers shook with the effort of lighting cigarettes. Our hands shook as we raised the drinks to our lips. Our heads shook when we lowered them to sip. We drank methodically, the pace as steady as an IV drip. For a year and a half in the mid-'80s, those men were the only people in my life who witnessed the level to which I had sunk.

For quite a while after I had moved on to a different life, I thought of the company I kept at Sullivan’s as "lower companions" (as if I, a falling-down-drunk waitress at Charlie’s Beef ‘n’ Beer, were a "higher" one) who had served some rudimentary purpose but were irrelevant to the upturn my life had taken. It seemed to me that I could easily have learned everything I needed to know about life without undergoing the excruciating trial of alcoholism. Sullivan's represented the most sordid chapter of my sordid past, the most needlessly extreme suffering, the emptiest, driest desert of despair.

The amazing thing about sobriety, though, is that it can cast the events of your life in a new and different light, so that you are able to see that everything leads you inexorably toward something greater than you; toward love; toward being bound back together with yourself, other people, and the world.

For a long time, I thought those 20 years were wasted, but now I see that I had to be stripped of everything before I could admit that my way wasn’t working. I do not want to glamorize my fellow morning boozehounds—to say we had all badly lost our way would be an understatement—but now I am grateful for those men at Sullivan's who, in all their brokenness, sat with me a while and shared mine. Now I sometimes wonder whether some small, unremembered act of kindness in those otherwise empty hours—a word of welcome, a face not turned away in boredom or disgust—was what tipped the scales for me toward life instead of death.

Sometimes I think how like a church Sullivan's was: the bar an altar, the bartender a priest, we drunks the congregants partaking of something we were willing to die for. We almost had it right; it was just that we were serving the wrong master. But we knew enough to drag ourselves out of our fetid apartments and go to a place where we could see a human face and hear a human voice; where in spite, or perhaps because, of our blindness and brokenness, we were somehow able to comfort one another.

This Easter Sunday I’ll go to an actual church—but I’ll carry the men from Sullivan’s with me, knowing that in some mysterious way our smoldering mouths and bloodshot eyes and shattered hearts are forever part of one another.

Sitting in the pew, I’ll think about resurrection, too. Resurrection is no fist-pumping, boot-on-the-neck-of-our-disease triumph. It’s two steps forward, one step back. It’s consenting to bear our ongoing cluelessness, and to keep participating in life. It’s so utterly unlike what I thought it was going to be, so unlike what I thought I wanted, that recognizing it took many years.

So resurrection can take the form of a shared morsel of bread or a shared morning vodka gimlet. It can be a resigned sigh, an anguished tear, a hey to the person beside you, a dumb barroom joke. The crazy-ass thing is that you never know. Because resurrection could also be a seemingly random phone call from the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel in Akron, Ohio that—He is risen!—since 1935 has saved millions of lives.

Heather King is an ex-barfly, an ex-lawyer and a Catholic convert with three memoirs: Parched; Redeemed; and Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She lives in Los Angeles and blogs at shirtofflame.blogspot.com. Visit her website at heather-king.com.

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