Sunday, February 9, 2014

cheap joe

After I graduated from college in 1983, I eventually found work as a counselor in a community based mental health outpatient facility in rural south Georgia. I stayed there until after my marriage and the birth of my son in 1987. My time at the center was a mixture of increased knowledge and understanding about mental health, psychotropic medication and the interaction between socio-economic status and the availability of quality medical care.

There are so many stories from this time in my life. But the one that stands out the most is about an alcoholic farmer who, in his mid-sixties, found himself court-ordered to attend the drug & alcohol group I co-led with my boss. I'll call him Joe, to protect his privacy. Joe joined us because he had received one too many DUIs. It was our ritual to welcome new members by giving them the opportunity to tell us why they were there. This was Joe's explanation:

"I am NOT an alcoholic and I do NOT have a drinking problem. I'm here because I'm cheap. When I bought my new Cadillac, the dealer showed me several optional packages for my new car. One of them optional packages included an automatic dimmer for my headlights. That was pretty fancy. A sensor would pick up on the fact that a car was headed towards you and it would automatically dim your lights if you had your brights on. I liked it, but I didn't want to spend the extra $600 on the package that had that in it.

"On my 65th birthday, I was driving home from a party my friends threw for me. A state patrol officer was driving towards me and I failed to dim my lights. He turned around and pulled me over. I reckon he smelled a little alcohol on me and he gave me a sobriety test and that's why I'm here. I was driving just fine, but I didn't dim my lights, which could have happened to anyone, any time. If I hadn't been cheap, I woulda bought that package with the automatic dimmer and I wouldn't be here today."

I had a copy of the police report from that night, so I asked him, "Joe, didn't you fall out of your car on to the pavement when the patrolman instructed you to exit the vehicle?"

Joe looked startled, but quickly recovered. He said, "That was because the cuff of my pants got tangled on the brake pedal. I was just fine."

The group was a seasoned bunch, at all different stages of recovery. There was a long silence as I let them absorb the story and think it through. I knew they would do the work for me. Bo was one of the guys who had been there the longest. He had killed his own three year old son in a DUI crash into a ditch. He was an extremely depressed man, but he was sober. He finally said, "That's bullshit and you know it."

Joe said, "Naw, I don't know it. I've been driving since I was old enough to reach the pedals on my Daddy's tractor. I've been drinking since I was in high school. I ain't never had problems before and I don't have a problem now. You don't know what the hell you're talking about."

Another pause, then we heard from Sue Ellen, who was addicted to cocaine. Her Daddy had been the county's district attorney for years and years and had spoiled Sue Ellen rotten. After a lifetime of getting everything she wanted, she found herself strung out and in jail. Sue Ellen was our best dressed group member. She leaned in and tapped her cigarette ash into the ashtray and casually asked, "Was this your first DUI? 'Cause they usually don't send you to this group on a first DUI."

Joe looked at me. He knew I knew, so there was no sense in telling a lie. "No, it was my fourth. But I wasn't drunk the other times neither."

This time, the group was silent, all looking at him. Sometimes silence tells the speaker he is full of shit.

Joe did eventually admit that he MIGHT have a problem. But that was months down the road. Recovery is an ugly and unpredictable thing. And it is never over.

The question for me - and for you - is this: What is our drug of choice? Alcohol? Crack? Food? Inactivity? Sex? Purses? What is it that we can't stop doing that causes us to lead a less than full life? And will we, like Joe, spend lots of energy on trying convince ourselves - and others - that we really don't have a problem? What lies will tell ourselves about the cuff of our pants? What will we rationalize by saying we were too cheap? How will we convince ourselves that we are JUST FINE?

Yep. Recovery is an ugly and unpredictable thing. And it is never over.

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