True North and the Geographical Cure

By Kerry Neville 06/19/18

What it was like then: misery that had me researching the methods and means of suicide in the middle of the night on my cell phone, back turned to my husband, who was fast asleep, and to my children, asleep between us.

Figure with suitcase walking away and through archway into colorful sky.
This meeting is an anchor—while you might be strangers, you know me and I know you. PC: Mantas Hesthaven, Unsplash

The geographical cure: false hope that a change in circumstance might transform us. Always seductive, isn’t it? But as I have learned from Alcoholics Anonymous, a change in external position on the map doesn’t reset the compass and point us to true north, because we always meet up with the self we are, no matter where we are, by chance, by collision, by invitation. Bill Wilson writes in AA’s Big Book, “We meet these conditions every day. An alcoholic who cannot meet them, still has an alcoholic mind: there is something the matter with his spiritual status. His only chance for sobriety would be some place like the Greenland Ice Cap, and even there an Eskimo might turn up with a bottle of scotch and ruin everything! Ask any woman who has sent her husband to distant places on the theory he would escape the alcohol problem.”

Each time I believed a vacation, a temporary reprieve from present conditions, would be the cure, the fix I needed: Jamaica, Mexico, Greece, Romania, Italy, France, Wisconsin, California, etc., etc.? Each time I was sent off to “recover” from my eating disorder, self-injury, alcoholism, and bipolar depression, to distant, inpatient programs: Arizona, Maryland, Texas, and Pittsburgh? I’d get on a plane, 30 pounds underweight, spend a month or two bullshitting my way to well, not starving, eating thousands of calories (but only because I was forced), not drinking (but only because no access to booze), not cutting (but only because no access to sharps), and claiming to feel mostly content (Ha!) with my restored (Too BIG!) body, but not too content because such rapid reversal of position would seem disingenuous to doctors and therapists (I know I still have so much work to do but gosh, I am optimistic this time!).

Each time, I returned home and within weeks was back to restricting, purging, over-exercising, drinking, cutting, and lying. Nothing had changed at home (that is, within myself), so I kept traveling an insane circular route though a dark, abandoned, haunted house.

Samuel Johnson, in his 1750 essay, “The Rambler,” might as well have been giving the lead for a 12-step meeting when he wrote, “The general remedy of those, who are uneasy without knowing the cause, is change of place; they are willing to imagine that their pain is the consequence of some local inconvenience, and endeavor to fly from it, as children from their shadows; always hoping for more satisfactory delight from every new scene, and always returning home with disappointments and complaints.” 

Eventually, with honesty and a commitment to working my program, I found my way home. I did not disappear nor die, though for many years I tried to do just that. Difficult to remember that life from here: my now eight years stable life, my now divorced and independent life with a teaching job in Georgia; my own home with HoneyBea, my rescue dog; and purpose restored.

But also from exactly here: on an artist’s residency in Ireland, where I have just had morning tea with writers and painters and composers around a kitchen table — warm scones with butter and blackcurrant jam; where the night before, we gathered around a long, candle-lit dining table for fish, roasted potatoes, carrots, broccoli, and coconut custard topped with a purple-black pansy, and afterwards, in the drawing room where we shared our paintings, writing, and music; where Bernadette, at 93, stood before us in her long red dress, her cane left by her chair, and recited, from memory, poems from her latest, and sixth book—“think of when/ the end will come/and then”; where I believe that I, too, might live to 93, still creating more and forward; where, prefacing my reading, draft pages from a book-in-progress, I told my new friends, “I am not supposed to be here. I was given up for dead. And yet.”

At dinner, on the very first night of my stay, I noticed a fellow artist who had declined the kind offers of wine, and then the raspberry trifle spiked with sherry. So I said to him, as we were cleaning up dishes in the kitchen, “I don’t drink either,” because I am always searching for my tribe when I am not at home.

“Are you a friend of Bill W.?” he asked.

The next night he took me to the local 12-step meeting in the town of Cootehill and I was asked, for the next meeting, to give the "Lead," which, in 12-step terms, means recounting in ten minutes’ time the story of what my life was like when I was drinking, what happened—the transformation to sobriety—and what my life was like now that I was free.

“It’s easy to get lost,” I said. “Easier to stay lost so far from home. This meeting is an anchor—while you might be strangers, you know me and I know you.” As I was talking about my desperate drinking days, giving the drunkalog, it was as if I was telling the story of another Kerry—that is, the story of a fear-full woman, intent on wrecking herself in despair's ditch, and who would be dead by 40 by active or passive suicide.

What was my life like then? Locked in a room under 24/7 video surveillance with a thin mattress on the floor, eating bland spaghetti with a plastic spoon, though not really eating since I’d stopped that, too (a spoon and in isolation because I kept sawing my wrists with the tines of a fork in the hospital cafeteria). I kept trying to disappear and doctors kept locking me away. “We need to stop you from killing yourself,” they said. What it was like then: misery that had me researching the methods and means of suicide in the middle of the night on my cell phone, back turned to my husband, who was fast asleep, and to my children, who were curled up and asleep between us both. Plans, plans, plans. Misery that dogged me. What it was like then: impossible to ever be inside joy, to be part of the living, the loving, the longing for now and tomorrow and more of this life, and so I ruminated over the plans, plans, plans.

And so, my recounting of that Kerry at the meeting in Cootehill? She seemed a remote wraith, no longer dogging me, with her doomsday threats: "Just wait. You'll fall again." What she now says? "Thank you for saving me." I honor her and have compassion for her: she didn't know how to love herself, how to use her voice, how to take risks in this world.

But, too, what it is like now: years after my last dive into bipolar’s dark well and seven years sober, my thoughts can still wander off path and I can get momentarily lost, particularly when traveling away from home, alone, in distant places where I might not know anyone, might wonder if the geographical cure could work: maybe I can have a Guinness in Ireland? So I look for my tribe and go to meetings when far from home. In recovery, you seek fellowship no matter where you are. Because you are always HERE, NOW: one day at a time, even in the Irish countryside.

But, too, what it is like now: I am in right alignment to myself, which means often at an odd angle to the universe, which means sometimes wobbly on that off-kilter axis, but mostly truly good. Such a simple word: good. An alleged root of "good" is the Indo-Eurpoean "ghedh"—to unite, to fit. I am united with myself and fit into my own part of this world. That is, with my ragtag tribe of survivors who know what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now—but a “Now” that only is possible if I remained committed to honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness to find fellowship at home and abroad.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Kerry Neville was raised on Long Island, New York and now lives in Georgia where she teaches at Georgia College and State University. She is the author of two collections of short fiction, Remember to Forget Me and Necessary Lies, which received the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Fiction and was named a ForeWord Magazine Short Story Book of the Year. Her work has appeared in various journals, including The Gettysburg ReviewEpoch, and TriQuarterly, and online in publications such as The Washington PostThe Huffington Post, and The Fix. Follow Kerry on Twitter and LinkedIn.