Last week I received a request from one of the chaplains at the nearby hospital to visit a woman suffering from what may well be the last stages of alcoholism. This was her fourth time in hospital in twelve months.
I admit my heart sank.
Although I am part of a fellowship that understands helping other alcoholics get sober is the best way to stay sober oneself, such calls are often grim and sad. Still, of course, I agreed to go. I called a dear friend I’ll call Ms. H., since experience tells us it is best not to go alone on such visits.
When we arrive in the hospital we take the elevator up the appropriate floor. I am nervous, as I always am in hospitals, and say a little prayer that I can put my own fears and neuroses aside.
The hallway is blue, the light a bit grey. The woman, whom I’ll refer to as Jane, lies in the bed closest to the door, her neck crinked at what must be an uncomfortable angle, oxygen tubes up her nose, IV lines hooked up to her arm and the back of her hand. Her short, grey-blond hair sticks greasily to her head. Her mouth gapes. A blue hospital gown, obviously not tied up in the back, drapes loosely over her sagging chest and bulging abdomen. I can’t help but wonder if her swollen liver makes that bulge. Cirrhosis? Possibly. Probably. Her skin is yellowish. Red- purple bruises — pooled blood perhaps — cover her hands and mottle her thin arms. She lies on a pad designed to collect bodily waste if she has an accident.
We have trouble waking her. She’s on a lot of drugs for the pain. Among her other problems, she fell down the stairs and has a serious back injury. For a moment I wonder if we should simply leave and come back later, but at last she opens her eyes and focuses on us, more or less. We introduce ourselves and ask her how she’s feeling.
“Okay,” she says. From the way her eyes roll around in her head I suspect whatever drugs she’s on make her feel pretty fine indeed. She’s been without alcohol for four days now, but with all the pain killers, she probably doesn’t care.
We talk for a while about why we’re here and tell her a little about our own drinking history. My friend’s been sober for twenty-seven years, and I’ve been sober for seventeen. She nods. She’s probably heard it before. She says she’s tried to get sober, but she can’t. She gets lonely, she says. Her children don’t want anything to do with her. They’ve given up. They don’t want her around her grandchildren because she drinks. She drinks, she says, because they don’t want her around.
“Here’s the good news,” my friend says. “You never have to feel this way again. You never have to be alone again. You can be part of your children’s lives, and your grand-children’s lives”
“I don’t want to go to rehab,” Jane says. “You can’t get phone calls there.”
“Have you been getting many calls?”
She says she hasn’t. She doesn’t see how she can possibly live without alcohol. I point out she certainly can’t live with it. She is sure to die, and soon, from the looks of it, if there isn’t some sort of miracle.
Well, I believe in miracles. I’ve seen them happen. But I’ve also known a number of people, including both my brothers, who don’t make it. Alcoholism kills people. Lots of people — and not just from liver failure — falls, car accidents, suicide, homicide, stoke, cancer, accidents of all sorts. There are far more deaths related to alcohol than are reported, since many of the deaths are listed as something like ‘fall in bath’ without mentioning the person was hammered.
Women who abuse alcohol are 50% more likely to get breast cancer, and new research reveals that post-menopausal women who consume just two drinks a day double their risk for endometrial cancer, which is the most common form of cancer of the female reproductive system. They also suffer from greatly increased risks for liver, gastro-intestinal and pancreatic cancers. (Read more by clicking here.)
When I was drinking, one of my great fears was that I would end up alone, sick, homeless, filthy, demented and drunk. Looking at poor Jane, I see my fears made manifest. It’s chilling and heartbreaking.
“Are you done?” I ask her. “Have you had enough pain? Do you want to get sober?”
“I guess I have to,” she says, without much enthusiasm.
When Ms. H. goes back to visit the next day she sees the literature we left hasn’t been touched.
“I don’t want to go to rehab,” says Jane. “You can’t smoke there.”
Why one person gets sober and another doesn’t is something of a mystery. It’s about willingness, that’s for sure; willingness to go to any lengths to get sober. It’s about understanding the war is over and you lost. Alcohol kicked your butt and the only way to live is to wave the white flag.
And don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll live for a while with alcoholism. Meet Stacy Rhymes:
According to THE TELEGRAPH, liver disease, as a result of alcoholism will be Britain’s biggest killer “in a generation.” What an appalling waste.
I don’t know whether Jane will sober up or not. I don’t know whether she’ll live or not. I do know, however, that if I had kept drinking I would have ended up right where she is (if I even lived that long). Seeing the horror of that certainly means I won’t drink today.
If you think you drink too much, drink less. If you can’t do that, don’t drink. If you can’t stop drinking, for God’s sake, get help. Your life, and the lives of people you love, depend on it.