Stepping Over the Bodies
Life on the front lines of the real War on Drugs in the recovery capital of the world.
The crusty old timer who seemed to model the sobriety-without-joy mode of existence growled in a Marlboro-scuffed voice, “If you want to stay clean and sober for any length of time, you’re gonna have to step over a lot of bodies.” This was cold comfort to the woman crying over her friend who died alone in a storage unit with a needle in her arm. Whatever, I thought. I stick with the winners.
Every Tuesday night we attended the men’s meeting which was known for its collective sense of humor and lack of sentimentality. A member who went by the name Captain Minky and identified himself as a “former aluminum executive” when referring to his time on the streets, brought in a pacifier to be kept in the meeting box and tossed to anybody guilty of whining. We had sensitivity corner, populated by a stern but loving group of older guys: A couple of Vietnam vets—one a SEAL, one a Ranger—and a power company high line guy. It was the real deal. Then, us young guns would gather the newcomers, carpool to a local restaurant and cram into a table for eight, twelve, or twenty depending on the night and sit down together. We would argue about anything, especially religion and politics. Nothing was off limits.
Many broken boys—among them a newcomer named Brad—came to the table for the first time defeated, shaky, full of fear and full of shit. They would do the deal, work the steps, learn to be of service and we would watch these broken boys turn to men, sometimes in a matter of months.
I met Scotty sometime in 2003. He was a foul-mouthed, Jewish tough-guy from Brockton, Massachusetts. Scotty was an anomaly. Under a cherubic, bright-eyed smiling face he carried a venomous and violent rage. My roommate Mike brought him around and introduced him to our circle of men. Scotty’s short fuse and tendency toward violence butted up against my priestly ambitions. We welcomed him anyway.
Brad, Mike and I pushed guys to do the work to recover. Scotty always pushed back. God, he was a pain in the ass. But wouldn’t you know it? He grew to love and respect me in a way that warmed me to him and his rough edges. Under his bluster and bravado he carried a vulnerability and a sensitivity that could disarm anybody. During a slow meeting drowning in self-pity he would elbow me, urging me to put up my hand and share, and say, “Come on. Drop some knowledge.” I was flattered, but would push back. “After you.”
We both shared a pain over the loss of our fathers. We were both wounded by losing them at that vital time of crossing into manhood. The way that men grow to love one another is often fraught with jealousy and competition, but under it there is a deep sense of mutual responsibility. Despite our saber-rattling, we knew we had each other’s back. The whole crew.
More than once, Scotty was enraged over some perceived slight I committed toward him. After one drama which spread over many days, we stood in front of the Crossroads Club one wrong word away from fisticuffs. Somehow I managed to talk him down without backing down myself and instead of throwing a punch, Scotty threw his arms around me and sheepishly said, almost asking, “I love you?”
I laughed and hugged him back, “I love you too you crazy bastard.”
“Let’s sit down and look at the sick girls.” Scotty and I often joked about this, since a clubhouse is not an ideal place to look for love. Still, we planted ourselves at one of the dirty white concrete picnic tables in the front courtyard and watched as the rehabs’ and halfway houses’ white vans, the druggy buggies, dropped off their charges. As the meetings began and the crowd thinned, Scotty and I would sit and talk about the meaning of faith, of surrender, of sacrifice. On that ash ridden sun-baked patio, we found god by hashing it out with each other. We came to understand what it meant to be saved.
After a Christmas fight, my wife at the time abandoned me to a room full of gifts to be wrapped for her four children and took the kids to see The Return of the King. I went steaming to the clubhouse. Scotty intercepted me and listened as I told him the story. She wanted to have Christmas with them before they left for a week with their father, but managed time so poorly – when was she planning on wrapping the gifts? The kids were leaving the next day! Scott smiled and said, “You know that we have to go to your house and wrap them before they get home right?”
Despite my protests, we spent the afternoon wrapping a towering pile of toys. My wife cried and the children leaped with glee when they came home to a tree packed with gifts. Scotty saved Christmas that year, and my marriage. Our Jewish Santa Claus.
Scotty made it through a year and the steps and started working with newcomers himself. One afternoon I struggled to put up storm shutters as Hurricane Jeanne threatened Delray and Scotty was there, holding the ladder while he plied me for guidance in dealing with Kyle, a particularly difficult newcomer he was working with. Scotty handed me the phone, “Talk to this guy. See if you can talk some sense into him.” I talked. And while I was talking, my fear of the approaching storm abated. I stopped thinking about my own problems and laid the foundation for a new friendship. I thought Scotty was chapping my ass, but he was offering me a gift. He came over during the storm and played charades with the kids and hilariously called my stepson out on cheating. It seemed we never stopped laughing.
The next year while I was cleaning up from Hurricane Wilma, Scotty’s sponsee, Kyle, was the one holding the ladder. These are the things that save the life of an addict. Help somebody else. Get out of your own head for a while. Self-preservation through self-sacrifice. You must lose your life to save it. We have the potential to become the instruments of grace for one another, if we only stay out of our own way.
When one of my guys was holed up in a crack hotel, Scotty was the one who said, “Let’s go. It’s Gentle Ben. We have to.” Our ill advised rescue mission resulted in a call girl answering the door and telling us Ben had gone out for something. Seductive in her negligee, she invited us in to party. We declined; that’s why you never do these things alone. A cop pulled us over as we left the hotel and Scotty’s criminal record in Massachusetts complicated things a little. The cops had been watching Ben’s room as part of a drug/prostitution sting. When the officers determined we were clean and actually on a mission to pull Ben out, he suggested we stay away, “But tell your friend he’s out of business. Tell him we’re watching.” I sent him a text and Ben was back in the rooms within a week.
Tuesday nights had become a formalized ritual. The Communion of Sinners. Brad, Kyle, and I would argue religion almost to tears. Evangelical vs. Episcopal and Catholic. We watched our sponsee families grow to the fourth and fifth generations. We stood by each other in weddings, funerals, divorces, graduations. We wouldn’t celebrate our belly-button birthdays, only our sober anniversaries. We handed each other medallions to celebrate years in recovery and we could stand in front of that room full of men and say out loud that we loved one another. Sensitivity corner knew what we were talking about.
I eventually got divorced and moved to New York in 2006. The community kept growing. Scotty hurt his back and began to drift away from the Tuesday night crew, claiming work obligations. I went home on a visit in the spring of 2007. Scotty had texted me on Sunday that he wanted to talk. I texted back, Will b thr Tue. Come w us. He answered, K. Love you?
I flew down to Florida and Kyle, that once difficult newcomer, was driving me to the clubhouse on Tuesday when I got a call from Mike, “I have some bad news.” My heart sank as I instantly thought our friend Kelly had gotten into trouble. She was a former heroin addict who had decided that recovery wasn’t for her any longer, and heroin addicts have a tendency to OD on relapses.
“Scotty’s dead. He overdosed on pain medication. Probably on Sunday. They found him today.”
“But he texted me on Sunday. He was supposed to come to the meeting today.” I turned to Kyle, “Scotty’s dead.”
We got to the meeting and sat together at the back of the room: Kyle, Brad, Mike, and my brother who was a newcomer. Brad was the first to cry, but one by one, we all caved. We all wept. Together. In a room full of two hundred men we sat together embracing one another and weeping for our friend. And for each other.
I had a relapse of my own in 2008. I never replaced my Tuesday night crew when I moved to New York. I began to drift from the rooms. It was different in New York. They didn’t do it right. I thought I was fine without it. I had a back injury of my own and was put on pain medication which set off the junkie in me. In true dramatic addict fashion, I hit my bottom in Peshawar, Pakistan.
I had a dream in a Peshawar hospital in which Brad, Mike, Kyle, my brother, and many others from Tuesday night were with me there in the yard, stepping over me. I was frustrated that they kept walking over me until I realized I lay in a shallow grave, watching them. Kelly, who had made it back in to the rooms, told me it was okay to come back. In the dream, she helped me up. Scotty, who didn’t make it back, walked behind her, struggling to keep up. I could hear him asking me, “I love you?” I woke up in terror, shivering and sweating with an IV in my arm. I had lost a lot of weight in 24 hours. I didn’t want to die alone in Pakistan.
So, I called Brad and admitted that I had fallen. He told me to get my ass to a meeting. I cut my trip short, hopped a plane, flew halfway around the world to get to our meeting. Mike picked me up at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale and drove me straight there. Sobbing, I picked up a white chip, handed to me by my brother, surrounded by Brad, Mike, and the guys. I felt shame at my slip, but I cried because I knew I was safe. I knew that Scotty had made the ultimate sacrifice.
I didn’t step over any bodies. I knew they were carrying me.
Rich Howard is a pseudonym for a member of AA.