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September 1988

The Seed Sower

WHAT HAPPENED

Looking back, I can plainly see that it was a "do or die" time in my life, I'd arrived at about the halfway point of a two-month bender, which was the culmination of a two-year period of intensive drinking. I'd just been divorced and declared bankrupt, I was unemployed and didn't have a reason to stop the losses. I had lost a great deal of weight, could rarely eat anything of substance, and was existing on booze and cigarettes. Most of the time I was in that twilight zone between wakefulness and sleep that could be best described by the phrase, "drinking oneself sober." Later, I would learn I'd been a working alcoholic most of my adult life--until adversity and the vanishing guidelines for living helped usher me over the line into the squirrel-cage, Catch-22 situation so familiar to alcoholics. Of course, there was no comprehension of all this on my part.

My drinking was becoming more suicidal each day, and I didn't know what to do about it. As messed up as I was, I absolutely could not see that I was alcoholic. I'd never been cited for DWI or hospitalized or jailed for drinking. It seemed perfectly clear that my problems were caused by the economy, no jobs, my ex-wife, the barmaids who surreptitiously padded my bar tabs, the weather, and on and on and on. Truthfully, I didn't understand that I had a disease, that it was treatable, and that help was available. I knew I was many things and at this juncture in my life most of them were not very complimentary. And sure, my boozing was obviously causing some grief to myself and others, but, hey, man, did that mean a guy was, you know--one of those? Let me be insane or have a terminal affliction, but don't let me be one of. . .those.

Profound thoughts like this were wandering through my befuddled head on a sunny, cold January day, as I sat by myself one noontime in a large wooden booth in one of my resources, wallowing in self-pity. The joint was mostly deserted and provided the ideal ambiance for wallowing. Stale cigarette smoke mingled with pine disinfectant odor and made the perfect backdrop for the country western tune whining from the jukebox. Along with ample booze, what more could a person ask for?

Just as I was about to drift off into another poor-me, pour-me reverie, the front door of the place swung open and an Indian guy walked in. He wasn't smiling and I could see he was a killer--probably on parole or an escapee. He looked like a full-blood and he had that indefinable quality of masculinity that some men have. I idly wondered just who he would be bumping off next. I didn't like the way he seemed to be looking directly at me. Without taking his eyes off me, he walked up to my booth and said, "Mind if I sit down?"

Well, what are you going to say to a guy like that?

"Sure, go ahead," I replied.

"Somebody said you wanted to stop drinking," her said, without blinking an eye.

Terrified, I answered, "Good Lord, man, no! Who told you that?" He said it didn't matter, that someone who had expressed a concerned interest in me had mentioned it. He said he was working as a counselor for a small federally funded alcoholism program in town. (I would later realize that the visit to me in the bar that day was on his lunch hour and was more in the line of a Twelfth Step call.) When my offer of a beer was turned down in favor of a coke, I got interested, because it was obvious this guy was no wimp. When, after my curious inquiry, he told me he hadn't had a drink in fourteen years, I was truly astounded. I still had the notion that Indians couldn't stay sober, and yet this chap was saying he'd gone fourteen years without a drink. Not one drink! (I'd been thinking more in terms of maybe a weekend for myself to get everything in my life straightened out.) Explaining again that it had been a viciously false rumor that I wanted to stop drinking, I nevertheless thanked him for coming in. I really just wanted to stop hurting, but in my book that didn't seem to equate with not drinking.

The Indian handed me his name and phone number and told me if the time ever came that I was interested in quitting drinking to give him a call. His final words to me were, "Until then, I respect your right to drink." With that he was gone--out into the world of the straights who lived in that sober world beyond the door. But he'd planted a seed.

Three or four weeks later, when I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn't going to make it--wasn't going to sober up--I decided to deep-six myself. I wasn't kidding either. I went out and bought a gun and a box of shells. I tried to buy just one bullet, but the clerk was too sharp for that; he insisted it had to be a full box or nothing. Arising on the appointed morning, after spending a terrifying night hallucinating, I went to the closest gin mill for a few boilermakers to steady my hand--for purely practical purposes. Having accomplished this, I slid off the bar-stool to go to my rented room and end the nightmare once and for all.

But as I stood facing the bar's exit, I paused. I don't know why. Perhaps I'd arrived at that point in an alcoholic's life where, with a sense of deep introspection, they ask themselves, "Would I really want to give all this up?" More likely it was simply something buried within me that said I wanted to live just a fraction more than I wanted to die. So, I made a call--hoping no one would answer. But answer they did, and I was given orders to get up to a place--pronto--where I was going to get some help. Not able to make it on foot, I hired an old man sitting at the bar to drive me up to the address, which turned out to be a halfway house for alcoholics.

Now, I'm not much of an advocate for forced or mandated AA meetings, but they were part of the regimen at that house; if you didn't go, you packed your shopping bag and left. And it was starting to get real cold, so everyone went. I literally hung on by my shaky fingertips to this strange new world of not drinking. The AA meetings helped a little, though being an in-house meeting with few outside visitors, it didn't make too much sense to my still-foggy thinking. Then something happened that really made the difference: the Indian fellow, who'd had them make room for me at the halfway house when there was none, came by and offered to take me to some outside AA meetings. I took him up on it, and as a result, an entire new world opened up for me. I was hooked from then on.

I listened intently at every meeting--because I knew without a doubt that my very life depended on it. A different way of life was revealed to me, a life free of the bondage of booze. It wasn't only the Big Book and those wonderful suggested Twelve Steps of recovery from alcoholism that lit the way for me, but the knowledge gained from the meetings of what people did and were like when they didn't drink. That's what I wanted to learn more than anything--just what people did rather than drink.

I'm convinced my Higher Power deliberately put me in that particular watering hole on that crisp January day when a clear-eyed man came over to sit in my booth and explain that there was another way--a simple solution to my problem that worked a day at a time.

That was almost seventeen years ago. I'm still grateful for the seed-planting intervention by that most important of beings on earth--as far as an alcoholic is concerned--a strong and sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous, taking the time and energy to carry the message of hope.

Was this, in fact, an example of an Indian carrying the message to a non-Indian? I didn't think so then and haven't changed my mind since. I'll always believe that the fellow (whom I've been privileged to call a friend ever since)--whose ancestors were in this land before recorded time--spoke to me not as an Indian to a non-Indian, but rather as a member of AA, reaching out to a sick and confused still-suffering alcoholic. Dr. Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning, said it long ago: "There are two races of men in this world, but only these two--the 'race' of the decent man and the 'race' of the indecent man."

Thank God for the race of decent men and Alcoholic Anonymous.

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