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September 1988

Caught In a Trap

I hit my bottom two weeks after I went to my first AA meeting.

When I first walked through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous I knew nothing about the program except the usual false stereotypes. Everyone would be down and out, standing around in suits three sizes too big for them, eating free soup and crackers and spilling most of it on themselves because of the shakes. And everyone would be looking down at the floor in shame--no one would ever actually look into another's eyes.

The reality of that first meeting was a big surprise, and for the first time in many years I felt a little hope. I was very much moved by the honesty and sharing and I felt a deep sense of freedom when I said my name and admitted that I was an alcoholic. They told me that I wasn't a bad person who needed to become good--I was a sick person who needed to get well. And Alcoholics Anonymous knew how I could accomplish that, if I really wanted it. It was up to me. They told me I wasn't alone anymore and I knew they were telling me the truth.

Two days later I went out and got drunk. I stayed drunk for three days.

When I sobered up, I knew I'd have to go to more than one meeting a week if I was ever going to beat this thing. I decided to double up on my meetings. I'd go to two a week from now on, whether I needed to or not. I really wanted sobriety and I resolved to do what the Big Book suggested. My home group met on Tuesdays and Fridays and I was going to be at both meetings no matter what it took.

Tuesday arrived. I went to the meeting, admitted I was an alcoholic, met a man who really understood what I was all about, and asked him to be my sponsor. He agreed. It was a good start. I was on my way to sobriety.

One day later my wife went on a business trip. I went out and got drunk. I stayed drunk for three days.

On the evening of the third day--it was a Friday--my wife called to let me know that she would be returning on Monday, a day later than she had originally planned. I don't know how much of her conversation I picked up, but that bit of information simply went over my head. My concentration was on trying to sound sober. It wasn't working. She knew I was drunk and said she wasn't going to call again. She would talk to me when she got home. She also said something about how she felt about me and the state of our marriage. I don't remember exactly what it was, but it wasn't good. That much I was able to absorb.

When I woke up on Saturday morning something inside me was different. What I felt was almost a physical, solid thing in my gut that was sure and strong and steady. I totally accepted the fact that I was an alcoholic. I had admitted it twice before in front of a group of people, and I was being honest about it. But this was different. This was total and absolute acceptance and I knew what I was going to do. I was going to go to ninety meetings in ninety days starting on Monday and I was going to do whatever it took to start putting my life together again. It felt good and I knew I was finally on my way back.

I hit my bottom approximately thirty-six hours later.

Sunday evening arrived. It was eight o'clock and my wife hadn't returned from Seattle. She was usually back by late afternoon, and she hadn't called to tell me about a flight change or a business situation that made it necessary for her to stay over for another day. I listened to the all-news radio stations to find out if a commercial flight had gone down. I picked up the phone every few minutes and listened to the dial tone to make sure it was working. I was afraid. I didn't know what hotel she was staying in and I was thinking of calling one of her coworkers.

Then the telephone rang. It was my wife. Her voice was cold and distant.

"Hello, John."

"Thank God you called. I was really frightened."

"Are you drunk or are you sober, John? Because if you've been drinking, I'm going to hang up."

"I haven't been drinking." My eyes were burning from the tears that were pushing up behind them.

"I told you on Friday that I was going to come home a day later. You were too drunk to remember."

"I was going to call the hotel in Seattle."

"I'm not in Seattle, John. I'm in Minneapolis."

"Minneapolis?"

"Yes. I'm staying with friends, and I've had a wonderful weekend."

"What friends?" I felt sick to my stomach and my hands were shaking. We didn't have mutual friends in Minneapolis.

"I'm not going to tell you, John. This was my weekend. I had fun and I'm glad it didn't have anything to do with you. I didn't do anything wrong. I just had a nice time with people who like me and who care about me, and I'm not going to tell you any more than that because it was my weekend and I'm glad you weren't here. Goodbye, John. I'll see you tomorrow night."

"I may not be here when you get home," I said. "I'm going to an AA meeting. I'm going to do ninety meetings in ninety days and I'm going to stop drinking."

"I don't care what you do anymore, John. You do whatever you want. I don't care anymore. I'll see you tomorrow night, whenever you get home, if I'm awake." She said goodbye and hung up.

The pain I felt then I can feel now, and it is very difficult.

I put the phone back on the hook and stood looking at the large mirror hanging on the opposite wall across the room. I was looking at myself, and I was suddenly a boy again on the little farm back in the mountains where I grew up. My grandfather had a trapline that he kept during the winter, where he caught small game. We ate the meat when it was edible, and sold the pelts to the shops in town. When I was about ten years old, my grandfather decided it was time I went out to check the traps with him. The first trap we came to held a beautiful red fox by one of its hind legs. It had been there for about two days and was still very much alive as it lay there on its side in the blood-smeared snow. I'll never forget the look in that fox's eyes as it looked up in silence at my grandfather and me. They were full of a hurt that was deeper than physical pain. That fox was going to die, and knew it. And accepted it. And its life force--that essence of spirit that I believe all living things have--was wounded too. Wounded to the death. All that remained was for the final blow to be delivered.

Now, alone and in a very different place, far from the mountains, I saw that look again--in the mirror, on my own face. I fell to my knees and began to sob. For the first time in my life the tears weren't for myself. For the first time ever I truly felt the pain of another human being. I thought of the countless nights I hadn't come home because I was drunk somewhere and wasn't capable of calling to let my wife know that I wasn't dead. Or the times I had called and lied about where I was and what I was doing and she knew I was lying but didn't call because I just didn't care. I felt what I had caused my wife to feel and I cried to our Father to forgive me and to help me.

I don't know how long I knelt there, but I finally got up and went into the bathroom to press a cold washcloth against my swollen eyes. Then I fell into bed and slept.

I went to one hundred and one meetings in the next ninety days, and I followed all of the suggestions I was given. The Twelve Steps have become a way of life for me because I want to stay sober and to change and to do the very best I can in life. I've been sober for a while now and my life is a beautiful thing. I live it in gratitude to my Higher Power.

Difficult things happen because that's the way life is, but I'm getting better and I use the hard times to my advantage. It's like lifting weights. I use them to make me stronger. I don't drink and I go to meetings. I share and I work the Steps. I pray a lot, too, and it's working out, one day at a time. Because now I have a choice.

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