The AA Tough Case

By Harry Healy 03/15/16

It’s not for people who need it, it’s for people who want it.

The Tough Case

The scar behind the bald man’s ear was pink, and it was shaped like a sickle. I leaned in as he mumbled through the yawning pauses in a six-minute soliloquy. In an AA room where the radiator was hissing in competition, I discerned that he was talking about a brain surgery he wasn’t all the way back from. I was impressed. Not with his elliptical, circular sharing, which he was aware of and apologized for, but with the fact that he had undergone the procedure at all. Through the many seasons of my life, I didn’t know a soul whose brain had been operated on. That year, I knew three. Bradley was the third.

Pat wasn’t my first flop and he’s not going to be my last, but that stark turnaround did kind of sting.

One desultory Monday holiday—it might have been Memorial Day and it might have been Labor Day, tough to distinguish although one comes at the beginning of summer and the other at the end—I found myself in the environs of a meeting I hadn’t attended in years. With little else going, I dipped inside. 

I keyed into an Irish brogue, always entertaining to a Yankee, and to the words the accent was wrapping itself around. This guy had kick-started his holiday weekend with a crack binge, rode it into the home he was sharing with his family, right on into the room where his wife was asleep, or pretended to sleep, tip-toeing in and out of their bed so he could torch jumbo rocks in the bathroom. I scribbled my phone number on an AA pamphlet. To my complete shock, the man called me. His name was Pat. 

Circumstances soon brought Bradley onto the same circuit of meetings I was attending, and I learned a little about him. Former superstar jock with the newspaper clippings to prove it, he was rugged and angry, and recovering from brain surgery seemed the least of his problems. His landlord was giving him the boot, and a lawsuit (or two) hung over his head, but that was okay, because he was broke. His arrogance and belligerence pushed people away, but he was well-versed in the pages of Alcoholics Anonymous, because this wasn’t his first bite at the AA apple, and it probably wasn’t the second. Or the third. He asked me if I could sponsor him.  

Pat spent a few nights on the street before begging his wife to take him back in, and she agreed. She’d been through it with her husband more than once. Back, forth, up, down, in, out, Pat had logged some years in the program, too. But the guy was going to meetings and he called me everyday, sometimes twice a day, for a couple of months—and when we still had answering machines, he’d leave detailed messages that my wife would overhear. She once commented, “You’re really putting in your time with old Pat, aren’t you?” I guess I was.

When I spoke to him, Pat would declare something along the lines of, I’ve got the 2nd Step, or I’ve got the 3rd Step, and at the eyeball to eyeball meetings we managed to hold, he’d drag along one of his kids and we’d eat hamburgers and talk about European football. Not one of my sports, and not a great use of our time, but okay. Pat seemed well, and happy. 

Bradley had a great deal invested in sounding good at meetings—a Big Book quote here, a self-serving admission there—but there was no disputing his progress. He put his work life back together, and according to him, was clocking big dollars. He had at least one girlfriend, and he turned his tough guy image into a kind of gravity that pulled in a handful of acolytes. 

Our intention this one evening—or my intention, anyway—was to talk about the 6th Step. I showed up at a café, clutching a battered copy of the 12x12, passages in the relevant essay under florescent highlight, at the urging of my own sponsor years before.

I opened the book, but Bradley had business that needed taking care of, and he flipped open his phone to make a call. I stared at the menu. In an oily tone that went on way too long, he soothed the nerves of a skittish client. He hung up and said, “Sorry, man. This is really important.”

A minute later Bradley’s phone vibrated to life. This time, he got up from the table and walked outside to pace and smoke, while I twirled spaghetti on my fork. I was done eating by the time he got back, and our meeting was over. 

What did Bradley need with the 6th Step, or with me? He was getting paid and he was getting laid, and I was an old married guy living in a cramped one-bedroom, a broke-down (and broke) writer struggling to pay his bills. Why in the world would he want what I had?

But I still had Pat, and so thrilled was he with this current vestige of his sobriety that he introduced me to his entire family—two sons, two daughters, one wife. “This,” said Pat, “this is the man who saved my life.”

Ordinarily not someone who blushes, I felt my face flush. I had done no such thing. I returned his phone calls and I ate bad hamburgers that he paid for.

Pat would have none of it. “Absolutely true. Don’t know where I’d be without you.”

His wife, a sweet, shy woman with an overbite—the perfect antidote to Pat—seemed embarrassed on my behalf. Her cheeks reddened, too. 

A week went by with no phone calls from Pat. Another week passed, nothing. So I called him, and one of his sons answered the phone.

The boy must have said, “It’s Harry.”

Pat, in the not too distant background, said, “Tell him I’m not here.”

I waited another week or two before calling again, and this time I got him. “Pat, what’s going on?”

“You know what’s going on,” he said.

I sure did. Pat wasn’t my first flop and he’s not going to be my last, but that stark turnaround, from being the hero who saved his life to the fool he forced his son to lie to, that did kind of sting.

Unless they ask, I don’t tell grown men what to do. But it would be irresponsible if I didn’t point out what they’re doing. And I never give advice. What should he do about his wife or his job? I don’t know (and I really don’t). I attempt to offer some program-oriented action, a fresh foray into the sphere of the spiritual, and that doesn’t mean moving to an ashram or being locked away in some monastery. Try more meetings. Get a service position. Become more involved with your own sponsees, if you have any. Terribly unfashionable suggestions like that. 

It doesn’t seem to matter what train wrecks these people have made of their lives, the delusion is so pathological and the arrogance so thick, they can’t conceive of an answer that doesn’t come from between their own ears. 

I’m talking about the dude who stored a home-brew porn video on his laptop, a command performance starring him and some hapless chick that his current live-in discovered. Were there fireworks? What do you think? What she was doing combing through his stuff when he wasn’t home is a separate matter, but I suggested there was something about him that wanted her to make that find. His phone calls stopped. 

Or the guy closing in on a decade in the program, always asking if it was okay to fuck newcomers. After the fact, of course. I told him that I thought it wasn’t. Another one bites the dust.  

Or the fellow seething with rage when he arrived at my house to cough up a 5th Step. “I hate his guts,” he said after one name. “I hope he dies,” he cursed after another. I thought maybe we should take a closer look at the exact nature of these wrongs. He never talked to me again. 

Another guy, must be in AA twenty-five years, is a week or two short of living in his van. And that’s the problem. The longer this goes on, the more dire the consequences. This man is the father of three. 

Bradley was involved in an unspeakable tragedy. People lost their lives. He may be a horrible person, but he would never have wanted this—not in a million years—and in a certain sense, he can’t be blamed. It was after all, an accident. But do I believe his marauding ego brought him to the place where something like that could even be possible? God help me, yes I do.

Bradley’s the outlier, the worst extreme. The more mundane cases are like Pat, who faded back to Ireland, and could well be sober, for all I know. But I listen for them at meetings, the hard cases, guys who have time and lives made miserable through self-sufficiency, the un-sponsorable. 

Like the man I met on Christmas Eve. His tale of woe played out the usual string—sober 17 years, no sponsor, no meeting schedule, no program really, just a ferocious suck of want that brought him a married girlfriend, fitting, since he was married himself, with children, two of whom were speaking to him. Thus the face that was wet with tears. 

I took his number and called him on Christmas morning. The only thing he could talk about was how perfect this woman was for him, and he for her, and oh by the way, she was battling cancer, but he was there for her. I’m sure he was. First conversation, last conversation. I wish the man well.

That was my latest salvo, and that one fell short, too. In the meantime, I’m at the meetings and my ears are open. You guys have my number. I’m around.

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