My Fears Made Manifest
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.
Lauren, thanks for this powerful and moving essay. You cut through the bull… and call it like it is, which is something I and many others greatly admire.
The photo of Stacy has broken my heart. My dad was made fatherless by alcohol, and I believe it made him an angry bitter man. My father-in-law died before I met him, but stories of him “sleeping” on the floor convince me alcohol took its toll there too. When I visited my uncle in the hospital, the doctor took me out into the hall and told me, “You family won’t listen. He cannot drink ever again.” My cousin’s daughter died in her early forties of alcohol, diabetes and a heart attack. Her sister, disgusted and discouraged, had refused to see her just a week before. All of these families were heartbroken and forever wounded by this deadly drug. I’m sure it must be hard, but you are doing a great service by speaking to this as often as you do.
Thanks, Linda. I’m so sorry for your family’s pain. Isn’t it awful, but there is hardly a family I know that hasn’t been touched by this disease in one way or another.
Again, Lauren, another very poignant essay. I appreciate how it is such an emotional topic for you to speak of given your own losses within your family. I happened to read it last evening but thought I’d wait to comment after thinking about it for awhile. I’ve just re-read it also. Very powerful indeed.
The photograph of Stacey, who must have been a beautiful young girl, felt so very tragic especially as she died at such a young age. With that picture added, it gave much more gravity to your thoughts and feelings.
I would think that you must have felt like you were going into the pit of Hell visiting that woman in hospital. It would bring back your own feelings of going to the brink yourself when you were not able to resist the pull of alcohol’s unrelenting allure. Always allow yourself great pride in your moments, hours, weeks, months, years of sobriety. Those days will continue for you, day by day, as that is the way you have found.
I wanted to add that in recent months, I have been visiting someone in hospital. It is as a favour for another distant acquaintance. I knew both of them when in my 20’s. The person I’m visiting has been in hospital for 3 1/2 months, due to multiple complications resulting from alcoholism. I suspect he’s been drinking since his teens until now at age 67.
I’d had no contact with them for over 25 years except occasional chance meetings in my community. I was aware of serious problems with the entire family of three: husband, wife and grown son, living in squalor feeding their addictions of drugs and alcohol. When the parents both retired all their pension money was spent at the local liquor store.
The son has also adopted the same lifestyle as father’s poor role modelling. He has exceeded his dad’s addictions one step further with heroin and cocaine addiction on top of alcoholism. At 42, I doubt he’ll live as long as his dad has so far. This son also had a son when still in high school, who is just 17, He is also into drugs and drinking along with criminal activities as well.
The dysfunction and disruption of children’s lives just spreads like waves in a pool as it has in this family. I knew the 42 year old son when he was just four and at that time he was bright, happy and energetic. I’ve seen the son in the past month in the hospital visiting his dad and he is now bloated, his eyes look dead, he doesn’t work, is on assistance and is completely unproductive day to day. But the bottom line is how could he possibly have become anything else with the home life he was exposed to as he developed.
Even with the understanding of his dad’s serious illnesses, it has had no effect on his perception of how to have a healthier life.
There are millions of stories similar to this. I worked enough years as an RN in Critical Care Units to realize the devastating effects of alcohol. I believe that alcohol destroys love, it destroys relationships and as with your example, it destroys lives.
I do not drink for any other reason than it just isn’t beneficial for my brain cells. I need them all to be nourished with what will ensure they work efficiently as I age. And until I die, I will know that I have consciously taken care of this aspect of my health.
Hi Wendy, thanks for your comment. But I must correct you on one thing. You say, “I would think that you must have felt like you were going into the pit of Hell visiting that woman in hospital. It would bring back your own feelings of going to the brink yourself when you were not able to resist the pull of alcohol’s unrelenting allure. Always allow yourself great pride in your moments, hours, weeks, months, years of sobriety. Those days will continue for you, day by day, as that is the way you have found.” I did not feel as though I was in Hell. I felt as though I was in Grace. Although it’s heartbreaking to see someone in such a condition, I know she could get sober if she’s willing, and that’s a miracle. And I feel no pride in my sobriety, only gratitude. It’s a gift.
Thank you for your reply, Lauren, and your points are well taken. I always appreciate your willingness to share your experiences. I will agree my choice of the word ‘pride’ was incorrect as you stated and I am sorry if it offended you in any way. I completely understand your statement about gratitude being the way of receiving the gift of sobriety.
Offend me? Good heaven’s no! I’d just hate to have anyone think I’m walking around with my chest puffed out! 😉