I found out this past weekend exactly what happened to me on July 24, 2007, the last day I drank. Because I spent most of that day, now seven month’s past, walking around with a blood alcohol level approaching .40 percent, it’s little wonder that I can remember only bits and pieces of that day’s events. But on Saturday, a former partner of mine took the time to drive down from Washington, D.C. to take me to lunch. And because I spent several hours of that last drunk on the phone with this man seven months ago, he was able to tell me all about it.
But first I got to meet his charming new family, a significant other of three years and a beautiful 9-month old girl. I was particularly happy to see the infant daughter. I tend to get along really well with little children, and I was very, very nervous about this lunch. It was the first time in my fledgling sobriety that I was meeting someone from my “former” life, and, quite frankly, I didn’t know how it would go. Being able to spend time with a baby, a gorgeous little girl with two precious little teeth in her mouth, would be a perfect icebreaker.
Well, it turns out I needn’t have worried. The lunch was delightful, just delightful.
But during the course of our conversation, my friend began to recount the events of my last day of drinking. Of course, he asked first if I was comfortable talking about it. When I said I was, he told me the tale. I had apparently called him out of the blue, from deep inside an alcoholic haze. I still had a cell phone back then, and the old “drink and dial” urge had clearly hit me one last time.
We talked about many things, it seems. Work. Family. My then-bleak situation. It’s plain to me now that my words were very troublesome and hurtful, and I have since made amends for what I did and said that day. But what struck me most was the story of how, at the end of the day, I finally found myself in a police car on the way to St. Mary’s Hospital.
That was the best possible result for me. I know that now, and I knew that even then. The problem was that I had no idea at that time how to find help on my own. I just didn’t know. I was not familiar with detox facilities or the commitment process, nor had I ever heard of The Healing Place, my home these past seven months.
Because I couldn’t see my way through to a solution, I was overwhelmed with a despair so complete I couldn’t muster the strength to take constructive action on my own. Instead, I chose to let my mind languish in thoughts of suicide, carefully planning the best way to take my own life.
Either I would be successful, I reasoned, or I would find myself committed to a hospital somewhere. The reasoning was hazy, to be sure, but it was there. I remember.
Of course, I gave little thought to what success would mean to my wife and son, nor did I consider the impact of my words on my friend as I laid out my plan over the phone. Alarmed, my friend ended our first call and got in touch with a crisis intervention hotline in Richmond, hoping to get me the help I needed. Instead, what he got was a counselor on the other end of the phone who was quite certain that I didn’t actually mean to kill myself, that I was just looking for attention, and that I would, in all likelihood, just sleep this one off.
Now, all of that may well have been true. Who can say what I would have done had my friend not reached out his hand that day? But my friend was unwilling to take that chance. Instead, he conferenced me into the call with the counselor, and had me speak directly to him. My friend’s words and my own hazy recollection tell me that this what was said:
“Jim, where are you right now?”
“Sitting under a tree in a park near Willow Lawn.”
“I’ve spoken with your friend here who’s very worried about you. He seems to think you are going to hurt yourself. Is that true?”
“I’ve been thinking about it, yes.”
“Do you have a gun?” “No.” “Do you have a knife?” “No.”
“Are you comfortable at that park?”
“Not really, no.”
“You’re not really going to kill yourself, are you? Aren’t you just going to fall asleep?”
“No. I’ve been watching traffic go by here. It’s going pretty fast, and I’ve thought about just jumping in front of a big truck. I don’t think I’m going to do that, though, because it would really mess up whoever was driving the truck. So I think I’m going to start heading downtown. The bridges over the river are really high down there, and I could just climb over the edge and let myself fall backwards. I’m scared of heights, but I think I could manage that.”
At this point my friend apparently jumped in, arguing that this was something more than a simple attention-grabber. A cry for help, yes. A maudlin play for sympathy, not so much. He convinced the counselor to call the police, and then persuaded me to give them the name of the street where I was sitting.
I distinctly remember looking up and reading the names off the signs. My friend and the counselor kept me on the line until the police showed up. And whatever they said must have been good, because the cop didn’t handcuff me or anything. He came over to me, helped me up, put me in the front seat and drove me over to the emergency room at St. Mary’s.
Over the next week or so, my friend followed up with calls on my behalf to the hospital, trying to find the best place for me to get help. And when he found The Healing Place, he called there to check up on them. Looking back on it, I’m reminded of the scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan, when Tom Hanks, fatally wounded, looks up to see the Allied fighter-bomber taking out the German tanks, and whispers “Angels on our shoulders . . . ”
The miracle of my past seven months might never have happened had it not been for my friend reaching out to me when I needed it most. This past Saturday, I was able to express my gratitude to my friend, not simply with my words, but by showing him how I’ve grabbed hold of the chance he helped to give me, and taken it for all it’s worth.
For that, I am grateful.