Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Geese, The Chips and The Woman in Amber and Yellow

A note from Ellie:   Addiction is a disease that effects everyone around the addict:  family, friends, loved ones.   My friend DaMomma posted this on her blog, shortly after I had the first year anniversary of my sobriety.   She said this to me once:   "You can have unconditional love, but you don't need to have unconditional acceptance."    I think this is some of the best advice to give a loved one of an alcoholic or addict.    She told me the truth when I needed to hear it.   She stood by me and helped me, as long as I was willing to help myself.   She is proof positive that friendships, honest friendships, can survive addiction.   And thrive.    For another post by DaMomma about what it is like to care about an addict, please go here

Orginally posted at
August 23, 2008
Reprinted With Permission

When I pushed open the door to the small church rec. hall my first thought was that I had not been this nervous in a long time. And then I wondered just how nervous El must have been, all the times she walked into this room – before she was serious about it and then when she was.

Ellie smiled when she saw me, and I was struck by how lovely she was. She was wearing yellow and amber, and her hair was up in a pretty knot, and she stood next to me and grinned and looked the very opposite of hapless and out of place.

Her husband joined us and we sat in the front row, and at first I thought, “Oh, couldn’t we sit in the back?” – and then I realized that the back was for the people who had a real reason to be scared, and I should give them their privacy and stay up here.

Ellie spoke first, and when she got up and said those words – My name is Ellie and I’m an alcoholic – I waited for every clich├ęd drunk movie character I’d ever seen to wander through the room: Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Elizabeth Shue, sexy and gorgeous and stumbling. But she said it, and they said, “Hi, Ellie” and I didn’t see a fall, but a rise to an exquisite sort of grace. Ellie, glowing and funny and articulate: telling the story I had been witness to – and some of the parts I hadn’t.

After Ellie, there were others: each with familiar notes of despair and agony, and a descant of hope. As one man was talking -- in his sixties, stout, tattooed, the sort of man who’d wander into my life to fix my kitchen sink and never be heard from again – a cool gust of autumn wind blew in the window, carrying the honk of a flock of geese -- the sound of coming winter.

I knew then that this was it: this is as good as it gets. Wealth, power, fame, success: meaningless. You have achieved something when you know the despair of the world; when you are aware of and forgive your own basic faults, and those of the people you love; when you love the humanity of others and stop placing yourself in categories above or below, and are reminded of the divine simplicity of your own creation by the sound of geese passing by.

At the end, the presentation of chips. Anyone sober a year or more got to raise her hand. El quietly put her hand in the air, and I, of course bawled.

Anyone sober six months this week? -- A chip. Three months? -One? -- a young man strode to the front of the room to a roar of applause. A terrified smile and he took his chip.

24 hours? No one stood. See me after if you’re too shy, said the man handing out the chips.

And now the presentation of the one-year chips. Someone lighted the candle on Ellie’s cake, while her husband took the podium. She had asked me to be his backup, in case he flaked. Let me tell you, he flaked. He flaked beautifully. It was raw and sad and lovely, and just when I thought I couldn’t take another word he said, “You know, after seeing all this, I think … alcoholics are amazing people.”

And of course we roared, and wiped our eyes, and then cried again when the amazing person we were there for got her chip.

So I wasn’t called on to speak, which is good, because I don’t think I would have made it – but if I had, here’s what I would I have said:

When you find out that someone you love and thought you knew very well is an alcoholic, you find out that you were in a sick relationship. And it takes two people to make a sick relationship.   I don’t think that the people inside this room are any worse off than the world outside of it. The only real difference is that the circumstances that bring us here give us an opportunity to see what many people never see – our basic flaws and our basic goodness, the goodness in each other, the bad results of our best intentions and the strength to try again. When I understood how sick Ellie was, I knew that I had to grow and change, too. And in that, Ellie was my leader and role model. And she set the bar pretty god-damned high.

The meeting broke. We shared in Ellie’s cake, and told jokes that only alcoholics and their loved ones think are funny. I saw some of the people in the back of the room wander quietly away, and I said a prayer for them; that they would find themselves here some day, having lived through despair and learned that the only way home is through surrender, and friendship and humor.


  1. I don't cry easily - but I had to get tissues halfway through reading this. It's beautiful. I won't look at alcoholics/addicts the same again.

  2. It's so wonderful to get the perspective from the "other side" of addiction. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. I'm so glad you two have each other & we get to share just a small piece of your friendship & wisdom. Merci deux fois!