The Perils of a Fatal Disease

By Kristen McGuiness 06/29/17

One day, I will remember these moments as being preciously fleeting. My sobriety is in the now. And we can only hope that this now will last forever.

Serious woman sitting in park next to man
Losing an old friend to a relapse serves as a painful reminder to embrace sobriety and life.

I am at the park with my sober husband, our toddler, and our dog, who is perpetually pulling at the leash that I now hold. My child squeals as my husband chases her on the slide as I casually look down at Facebook on my phone and see the photo of a friend, another mother, a woman who would frequently text with me late at night while I tried to get my once newborn babe to sleep. Above the photo reads those three terrible letters: RIP.

I nearly forget about the leash in my hand as I hear my husband and child laughing in the distance. For as many years as I have now been sober, the reminder is always stark. My husband and I are living with a fatal disease, and at any minute, these lives we have created could get swept out to sea.

I met Sarah when her son was only six months old. My husband had known her longer than that, but at the time, my husband and I were trying to get pregnant and he and I would try to watch Sarah's son so she could catch parts of the meetings to which she brought him.

Later when I had my own daughter, Sarah told me about the child-friendly meetings in town, and the meetings that weren’t technically child friendly but where you could still bring a baby without reproach. I followed her lead, taking my newborn with me to meetings, wearing her in the Ergo and standing in the back, bouncing her up and down so that I could at least hear the speaker before she woke up and I would need to figure out how to feed and calm, usually rushing out the door and making it home where I could manage those first awkward days of motherhood in private.

It was on Sarah’s recommendation that I ran for secretary of a large Friday night meeting, where I would often bring my then four-month old, giving secretary announcements from the podium with baby in tow. My husband would come too, and we would take turns taking care of our infant and running the meeting. At the election, my husband and Sarah asked a bunch of people to vote for me, stacking the deck, but we all agreed the only way I was going to make it to a meeting every week was if I had a commitment I couldn’t shirk.

But by three months into my commitment, I could tell that Sarah was acting weird. She had a number of health complications that would have made parenthood and sobriety complicated under any circumstances. And then one night, I hugged her and smelled alcohol.

I reached out but we could never seem to connect. She stopped going to the Friday night meeting, and once my commitment was done, so did I. By that point, my own daughter was almost one, and I was feeling normal again, settling back into my old schedule, and no longer going to meetings where I might see Sarah. And then a few months ago, I ran into her at one of the women’s meetings she had suggested to me as being child-friendly. She was there with her son, who was now almost four. She was taking a newcomer chip. She looked exhausted.

But then she scooped her son up into her arms, and I thought, “She’ll be fine. She has him.”

Motherhood has not been the missing piece to my identity that in many ways sobriety was. My daughter enhances my world, she doesn’t complete it. But in Sarah’s adoring glance, I thought that perhaps motherhood might save her.

I should have known better. There is probably no more stressful activity on the planet than parenting. I was recently at my neighbor’s house. We had both endured a long week at the office, and had come home on Friday night to children who didn’t seem to appreciate that. As her children and mine ran screaming around their living room, as she struggled to get hers into the bath, and I struggled to get mine out of their house, my neighbor sighed that long deep sigh that only a mother knows. It is both grief and exhaustion and the knowledge that even if we could take it back, we wouldn’t. And then she reached over and took a swig off her Smirnoff Ice. Three months later, she probably couldn’t tell you what she was drinking that night. But I will never forget.

Because in that moment, in many moments, I would have killed for a swig of Smirnoff Ice.

But I didn’t. I picked up my screaming child. I took her home and gave her a bath. I got her to bed, and went to bed myself. I woke up the next morning, and went to a women’s meeting and shared about that glorious bottle of malted liquor.

And I stayed sober. Because I know where a swig takes me. It takes me to a liquor store. It takes me to a dealer. It takes me to a prescription bottle that never seems to contain enough pills. And it would take me to the type of motherhood that would be drenched in shame and neglect, in the desire to stop, and the long, treacherous craving that would never let me.

It would take me to the Facebook feed of another mother at the playground with her child, looking down to see my photo with those terrible letters emblazoned above it.

And it would leave my child in the same place that Sarah’s son now lives. Yes, he still has his father, and I hope lots of loving, extended family. But he will have lost those loving arms that once scooped him up, hoping that he might indeed save her.

I wish he had. I wish my own daughter could. But I know that my husband and I are living with a fatal disease. We have a choice every day. To take the best actions we can to ensure our sobriety – the meetings, the sponsors, the fellowships, the outside help and meditation, the time and commitment and grace that recovery demands – or we can stop showing up. We can think we’ve got this. We can become overwhelmed by parenthood or this terrifyingly normal life we have found ourselves in. We can get bored or angry or resentful or tired, and we can take that swig that will irreparably change our lives.

My husband and daughter come down off the play structure, and I am reminded to put down the phone; that one day, I will remember these moments as being preciously fleeting; that my sobriety is in the now; that my child is in the now. And that sadly, for both my husband and I, we can only hope that this now will last forever.

I have often described recovery to be like the book Flowers for Algernon (or the movie “Charly” for any Cliff Robertson fans), where an intellectually disabled man is given a drug that gives him superior intellectual ability. He goes from having the mental and emotional capacities of a child to becoming a genius. He falls in love. He rides motorcycles. He loves life. But then the drug begins to wear off, and he returns to his original state. By the end, he barely recognizes his fiancé, while he plays at a playground with the local children.

I know this is what happens in relapse. We fade away from the lives we created until we are no longer able to find our place in this world, until whether by accident or on purpose, the prescription bottle suddenly has just enough pills, and we no longer have to wake up in the lives we lost. Instead, we end up becoming painful reminders in other people’s sobriety.

My husband asks why I’m crying, and I tell him about Sarah. He doesn’t say anything. Neither do I. We just sit and watch as our child plays, and our dog finally settles at our feet. We don’t say anything about the lives we’ve created, the life that was just lost, or the life that has just begun. We both know it’s all part of the same holy and bitter process. And for the moment, we are present in the beautiful peril of it all.

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