Surviving Guilt

I was seventeen when my grandmother died. It was not a particularly traumatizing death: she was older, had smoked her whole life, and battled with complications from emphysema. It’s always sad when a family member dies, my mother and her siblings were upset, but it was not a shocking death. There is a sort of inevitable justice when someone from an older generation dies. You hate to see them go, but we all have to go at some point and at least they got a full ride’s worth.

During the funeral, I linked up with two cousins of mine, David and Brandon. David was a little older and Brandon a little younger, but we were all essentially the same age. I saw David fairly frequently growing up, Brandon a little less due to his growing up a few states away. I hadn’t really kept in touch with either of them as we all went through our respective disillusioned teen years. At the funeral, someone suggested that we leave the ceremony a little early and go back to my grandmother’s house. Frankly, we were bored by the proceedings and wanted to get out of the grave yard. Our parents needed to stay on the grounds for a little longer, but were fine with the idea, as everyone would be meeting back there for reception. 

The three of us talked a bit on the ride and caught up on our respective lives. Brandon was more into sports. He and I both played golf. Though I wouldn’t admit it then, he was better than I was. David was more into music. Though I played in a band, when David talked about the punk shows he went to, I felt insurmountably less cool for not having heard of his favorite bands.

We were all into booze and drugs.

To varying degrees. We all had some chemical experiments. I got the sense that I had traveled the furthest down the rabbit hole at that point. It’s hard to communicate to an outsider, but when you find a certain substance common place and others react with too much enthusiasm or trepidation you know who’s had more trips around the ferris wheel. It’s hard to say who was the most accomplished drinker. We were all experienced. 

I don’t know who suggested it first, but someone had the idea that we should go in and tap into the liquid resources for the reception. Being underage, we would have to get some drinks in before everyone got back to the house and be discreet about it. The idea sounded good to all of us. We poured some drinks and commenced to do what we did. 

The funeral proceedings ended up taking our parents and family members a while, so we had longer than expected with the bottle. By the time everyone arrived, there was no hiding how much we had drank either by the amount of booze drained from the bottle or our hazed condition. Our parents weren’t necessarily happy about it, but I don’t think there was a single family member shocked that we had drank. Given the day’s occasion, we were given a pass for drinking underage. 

I can’t speak for the other two, but I blacked out. I came to in a sleeping bag on my grandmother’s living room floor. My cousins were on the couches and floor around me. I certainly hadn’t expected, planned or wanted to drink to that degree, but it was the sort of thing that just happened. I felt guilty for drinking that way at my grandmother’s funeral, but it was the sort of thing that just happened.

To be honest, I don’t know if I ever saw Brandon and David at the same time again. I know I saw David at a couple of weddings thereafter, but we didn’t stay in touch.

Brandon and David are now dead. Brandon died a few years ago, he was thirty one. David died this past year, he was thirty six. Both as a result of the abuse of drugs and alcohol. I have been sober for over nine years. 

As I write that, I feel the guilt come on. There is no justice in that reality. When I think back to that meeting of teenagers at our grandmother’s funeral, we were all in the same boat. I distinctly remember that my own drug taking was a bit heavier than the other two. To think that of the three of us, I am the only one who survived, I am the only one who made it out of the mess of drug and alcohol abuse… Why am I the one who got sober? Why am I the one who got to live? I did nothing special to merit the gift; they did nothing wrong to merit the punishment.

I feel particularly guilty to their parents. Sometimes I see them express their pain on social media, how they miss their child who they outlived. Who I outlived. I imagine they ask themselves all the questions I ask myself, what could have been done differently? How could it have been possible for their children to grow older and see more of life? And yet, here I am, growing older, seeing more of life. I got sober out of what feels like dumb luck. I went to a twelve step meeting and listened. I’d been before and not listened. It’s hard to pin down why that even worked out for me when it did. 

I can’t pin it down to intelligence. Smart people die of drug overdoses. People who have displayed no intelligence their whole life get sober. Trust me, I’ve met both types. It’s not that I possess some greater will power. This is a common misconception about sobriety. I drank every day not wanting to drink. I couldn’t stop using my will power. I tried for years. I knew I had a problem. Anyone who reaches the everyday or truly self destructive level of drinking knows that they need to stop to live, but stopping based on your own mind just doesn’t seem to work. I wasn’t sent to any facility, there was no intervention, no dramatic event that preceded me getting sober. It just happened one day after years of it needing to happen. 

Why did it happen to me and not my two cousins? Why are they dead and why am I alive?

Of course, I’ll never know the answer to these questions. I can only know how I will respond in the absence of an answer. I can be grateful that I am able to live life today, even if it is possible because of an unmerited gift. I can share my story. I can do my best to try and help others who are getting sober. I can live my life fully. Play the sports I want to play; listen to the music I want to listen to; doing the work I want to do. Even if I don’t know why I have it, I can make the most of this chance that I’ve been given. It’s clear that living life is no guarantee, whether you are guilty or not.

Meeting Introductions

I am an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for a long time now. I got sober by attending twelve step meetings. As many people know, when you identify yourself in a twelve step meeting, you say, “My name is ‘X’ and I’m an alcoholic.” For many, this simple identification is a powerful event in itself. Many people who struggle with alcohol have a hard time admitting that they are an alcoholic, sometimes to themselves, but certainly to anyone else. The simple act of identification allows a person to name their problem, accept it for themselves, and recognize that they are amidst a group of people who all have the same issue. There are many different formats to meetings, but in some there is simply a group of people sitting in a circle who share their experience, strength, and hope on a certain topic. As we go around the room, everyone says their name and that they are an alcoholic.

It’s been a while, but I have also worked in a large professional organization. We had a lot of meetings in that setting as well–one on one meetings, team meetings, interdepartmental meetings, and working group meetings of people assigned to a special project. Often times we would start the meetings by going around the room and having everyone say their name and their job title and function, so everyone would have an idea of who was at the table and what they did. Everytime we had one of those meetings, as the introductions were going around the room, I would tell myself, “Don’t say ‘I’m Nate and I’m an alcoholic.’ Don’t say ‘I’m Nate and I’m an alcoholic.’ Don’t say ‘I’m Nate and I’m an alcoholic.’” I’ve identified in one way so many times, I didn’t want to fall back on the habit. The embarrassment and shame that would ensue!

If you work in a large professional organization where there are meetings where people go around the room and identify themselves, there is a good chance someone in that room who is repeating that same reminder to themselves. You have no idea who it is, but I guarantee you someone is living with that same low grade anxiety each time the introductions go around the room. What is more, to avoid the shame and embarrassment, I’m sure there’s a host of other identities that people are holding back. If you don’t feel that same twinge of anxiety, know that the meeting is starting out a little easier for you.