“Shawn met a woman, and she sobered him up,” my dad said. My aunt said. Everyone said.
“That’s not normally how that works,” I said, as gently as possible.
I understand the desperate desire for this to be true. The sudden death of his mom in a car accident, years of addiction, the loss of everything—his wife, his kids, his jobs, his house. I, too, want this new development to be true.
Even if I know it’s never quite that simple.
Chris got the call in the evening.
“His liver and kidneys are shutting down, he’s in the hospital.”
Chris ran to put on shoes, to go see his friend. Matt, who had been a best friend in high school and after, who had been so easy-going and quick to laugh, who had been right beside Chris as he spiraled into addiction. Matt who didn’t have to hide his vices like Chris did. Matt who was now dying because of them.
He didn’t end up going to the hospital that night; Matt was already unconscious. He died the next morning, just shy of 40 years old.
This one, of all the ways alcoholism and addiction have taken from Chris, hurt the most. The reality of what could have been, what should have been, was too close to home.
“The only difference between Matt and I,” Chris said, “was that I had people who told me enough was enough. Who will tell you to stop when everyone is living the same life?”
She sat at the table facing the judge in a floral dress and short-sleeve sweater. She wanted her kid back.
“I’ve been clean 90 days today. I don’t have anyone to be proud of me for that, but I’m proud of me,” she said.
She wanted to get out of town, but she doesn’t have a car and she needs a better job to buy a car. But all the good jobs are in Indianapolis. And she needs a car to get there. Everyone here is someone she used to use with, so it’s easier to just not go outside.
She’s a prisoner in her own home, trying to stay clean and sober and get her kid back.
“I’m doing everything I’m supposed to,” she said, “but I’m also stuck here.”
I’m proud of her, but I can’t say that from where I sit.
I wrote down this quote from a book I was listening to, but I didn’t write down the name of the book and I read so many books that I have no idea where it came from.
“I’ve been sober a month now,” Jeff said.
“All due respect, Jeff, but you’re not sober yet. You just don’t stink so bad,” replied Rhonda.
I stood next to a cornfield on a sunny afternoon in August. It was the kind of day you imagine summer in the Midwest will be: clear and blue, sunny and breezy. It was not too hot. There were puffy, fake clouds in the sky.
I thought about how long it takes to get the stink of addiction off. I thought about how it lingers forever.
I walked back home.
My cousin ended up in the hospital. His new girlfriend—the one who got him sober—calls to tell us he’s not doing well. She is adamant to the doctors, the nurses, the custodians: he has not been drinking.
She would know, of course. She’s the one who finally convinced him to stop. She saved him. Her love saved him.
At the end of July, we went to Matt’s funeral. It is filled with people from Chris’ past.
He doesn’t want to go.
He has to go.
The friends have gotten older, fatter, like all of us. They look tired. They look like their high school selves—in the same style clothes, with the same shoes and cars—but worn out. Drugs and alcohol don’t age well. These people are, in many ways, the same people Chris left all those years ago.
Arrested development describes a person who is “stuck” at an early phase of emotional development. It happens in childhood or adolescences as a response to an experience that they are unable to resolve. It freezes you in a mental state, in a specific period of time, and, while you age, you don’t mature or grow.
At the funeral, we are surrounded by these boys who look like men, but who do the exact same things they did twenty years ago. It makes me want to weep. I wish things were different.
Sometimes I cannot carry the weight of the grief and loss I see. From people who have died. From people who only think they are living.
On my daily walks, I pass crushed beer cans and empty pints of hard liquor in the ditch. I know which ones are new and which ones have been there for years.
I do not, most days, think they are my husbands. I know better.
But some days, I think they are.
“He was detoxing,” my aunt tells me when I text to check on Shawn.
“Never trust a drunk,” she replies.
It is, as I said, never quite that simple.