This is a story about how I came to believe. I wish I could say it was a story about redemption, but it isn’t, really. It’s just a story about how I came to realize that, yeah, there’s someone or something out there that’s greater than me.
Let me introduce myself. I’m Allison. Allison Jeffrey. I’ve always wished my name was something glamorous, with perhaps a hint of androgyny, like Campbell. Or something breezy and sexy, like Jesse. Or even something symbolic, like Phoenix. But it isn’t. It’s Allison. A name that drops with a thud, like a phone book tumbling onto a neatly-clipped lawn from a second-story window. The only hint of allure that my name conjures up is that Elvis Costello song. And, of course, that’s only my first name. I don’t think anyone has done anything in the least poetic for Jeffrey.
I’m thirty-seven, curvy, medium height (five-foot-five, 138 pounds, if you want specifics) and my hair is red — a gift from Clairol, not Mother Nature. My hubby would describe me as a babe. I sling hash for a living and sling paint to live. Saying that I sling hash for a living gives my job a touch of anti-glamour chic that isn’t quite accurate. But I like the way it sounds. Slinging hash. Say it. See? It sounds wonderful. It does cartwheels off the tongue. Actually, I work for a caterer. I make biscotti and spring rolls and miniature quiches for lawyers and administrators to munch on at parties. I don’t make much money. I paint in my spare time, mostly still lifes of apples and pears and strawberries. I’m intrigued by the strawberry — its heart shape, its dimples, its jaunty green cap. I think it’s the perfect object, it’s beautiful and it tastes divine. It has depth. Sneer at my subject matter if you will, but it enchants me. And, yes, my paintings used to be more avant-garde, things my snooty art peers found more acceptable — you know, like a chair spewing meatballs and kitten heads or maybe gardening clogs planted in concrete — but now, I only paint for me.
I have a wonderful husband; he knows everything and he’s a dish to boot. He’s funny. He’s supportive. He’s there when I need him.
And, best of all, I have three years, two months, one week, and one day of sobriety, thanks to my higher power. Who up until just recently was Todd Stottlemyre. Now, those of you who are baseball fans and friends of Bill are probably shaking your heads and wondering how a baseball pitcher can be a higher power. Those of you who are friends of Bill and aren’t baseball fans are probably wondering who Todd Stottlemyre is. The rest of you are probably wondering about this Bill (Was he the president? Did she service him sexually in the Oval Office?) and asking yourselves “what’s a higher power?”
Five years, two months, one week and one day ago, I didn’t have a clue myself. But my story starts a little before that. Five years, two months, one week and five days, to be precise.
But let me take you back even further, to the beginning of my drinking career. It started in my twenties. I made it through college a teetotaler. My older sister was a drunk, and I had already decided I didn’t want to go down that pothole-scarred road. Not me. No way. I knew better. Then, after college, armed with my art degree, I got a job working nights at a newspaper. Not the most glamorous job: I did mostly charts and graphs, and the hours were terrible. But I got a decent paycheck, and it was regular, and I didn’t have to leave Houston. I got off from work late, around 11, and a group of artists, copy editors and reporters would go to Warren’s, a bar on the square, just this side of slumming. One night, instead of club soda, I got a glass of Chardonnay. I didn’t go back. I went forward. Margaritas, gimlets, sidecars, Wild Turkey straight out of the bottle.
Why, you might ask? Because in that glass, I felt like someone else, a gay Greer, a delectable Dallas, a bold Bianca — anyone but me, average Allison.
By the time I got married, I already had a drinking problem, although I sure as hell wouldn’t have admitted it to myself. No, I simply wore such high heels that I sometimes tottered and fell. (Damn Manolo Blahnik!) Once, a light pole jumped right in front of my car and did $2300 worth of damage. Of course, it had nothing to do with the shaker of gimlets in my car. Or should I say the empty shaker of gimlets? Sometimes, my memory faltered and I just didn’t quite recall how I ended up naked on top of that hairy bass player. Blackout drunk? Not me.
So, you can see I already had a well-developed sense of denial. I already had a higher power watching over me, too. Proof? He led me to my husband. Of course, I didn’t think that then. I just thought I was a gorgeous, savvy, charming, albeit sometimes shy, redhead, so why wouldn’t Jonah be mad for me?
But, let’s get back to five years ago. My marriage was in trouble. I had been sleeping around for some time. Don’t ask for an exact time line. Maybe six months. Maybe nine. That whole time period is rather fuzzy.
My hubby had started attending some kind of support group and reading books about addiction, and he left them about the house for me to see. I’ll Quit Tomorrow. Women, Sex and Addiction. The Dilemma of the Alcoholic Marriage. I ignored them and hoped he would quickly get back to Sara Paretsky and Stephen Ambrose.
I had taken to catting about even on weekends. I recall one Saturday, a typical one. We had a pleasant enough day, sharing The New York Times and eating migas while sitting in the orange-and-yellow plastic booths at the Cortes Deli, followed by a visit to the Butterfly Museum and an hour or so of gardening, Allison-style — a pail of fertilizer in one hand and a flute of champagne in the other. About six p.m., I decided to meet a friend for a drink at Leo’s, a restaurant that had the strongest margaritas in town and a kick-ass salsa. Jonah, who was cooking most of the meals by this time because it took me hours to prepare them between the glasses of wine, asked “What time may I expect you back?”
“Stop trying to control me,” I yelled. Now, you might notice a slight tracking problem here, a small blip in the logic meter. I didn’t. My response seemed perfectly sensible to me — at the time.
“Babe, I only asked you when you would be back so that I could have the steaks ready to go on the grill. You choose the time.”
“You’re just trying to control me. I spent all fucking day with you. Isn’t that enough? I’m a good wife.” Of course, my skills as a wife had not been questioned, but, as an addict, I often felt under attack.
“I’ve told you before that speaking to me in that tone of voice isn’t acceptable,” Jonah replied, an oak unswayed by the hurricane swirling around him. “I’ll have dinner ready at eight. If you’re here, fine. If not, that’s fine, too.”
“I’ll be here when I get good and damn well ready. You’re not my father,” I bellowed as I left, slamming the door behind me.
This scenario played out week after week after week. Jonah, a calm summer morning. Me, a flash flood.
One Saturday night, I didn’t make it home. I don’t remember much of what happened after we played out our Saturday ritual. What I do recall is this: Waking up. Waking up in a bed not my own in a room not my own in a house not my own and seeing a clock not my own flashing 11:13. 11:13. 11:13.
11:13 a.m. Busted.
During my stint as a wife, I had never stayed out all night. I always tripped home after two or three hours, or at the latest, shortly after the bars closed.
11:13. I could no longer deny my drinking had gotten out of control. And who the hell was that in the bed next to me? Did it even matter? I bet it wouldn’t to Jonah. Out all fucking night. He would no longer buy that I had just been out drinking and talking newspapers and art with co-workers and girlfriends. Damn.
Damn. Damn. Damn. I did not want to go home. I did not want to face Jonah. So, despite the fact that I felt like a raw egg smashed under a Doc Marten and all I wanted to do was take a shower and crawl into my own bed, I drove around the loop, the 610 Loop that goes around Houston. Drove it once, twice, three times, before I finally went home to face Jonah.
He was watching a baseball game. He didn’t say a word when I walked in. He didn’t even look up.
“Hi, honey love,” I said, trying to achieve the perfect cheerful yet apologetic tone. As if there is such a tone when you’ve stayed out all night. “I’m sorry I was out all night. I went to Anna Beth’s after the movie, we had a couple of bottles of wine, and I passed out on her so—“
“Allison,” Jonah swiveled toward me, looked at me stonily over one broad shoulder. ”Things have to change.”
So, that’s how I ended up at Hazelden. Rehab U. They couldn’t take me right away. I had to wait four days. I went on a four-day binge of champagne and gimlets. By the time I got to Minnesota, I was ready to sober up.
A couple of days on the Ignatia unit took care of that. Two days without booze. Two days in which I felt as if my body had been packed in cotton balls and stored in one box in a tidy closet while my brain and emotions had been neatly packed and stored away in another.
The next stop was one of the women’s units, Dia Lynn. It was there, in one of many sessions on staying sober, that I ran into this higher power concept. All the counselors insisted that to maintain sobriety you needed a higher power. God, in layman’s terms.
“But I don’t believe in God,” I said to my middle-aged counselor, Irene, whose brown hair was cut in a pixie and whose body was no bigger than a peanut.
“It doesn’t have to be God. It doesn’t have to be Jesus or Buddha. When I came into the program twenty years ago to get sober, I was an atheist. I laughed at the whole God concept. That’s for ninnies, I said. But my counselor insisted. It’s right there in the twelve steps, she said. ‘Came to believe in a power greater than ourselves.’ It was an autumn day. The counselor gestured outside the window at the falling leaves. A leaf can be your higher power. That squirrel on the windowsill. So, that’s what I chose as my higher power. The squirrel. After a few years of sobriety, I ditched the squirrel for God. But you don’t have to.”
“I just don’t see the need. I’m spending thousands of dollars here to get sober and stay sober, and you’re telling me I have to have a higher power? What is this? Sunday school? ” I was pissed. “I could have gone there for a dollar in the offering plate.”
“You’ve had a higher power for years, haven’t you?”
I glared at her. “Oh, yeah? Like who?”
“Try what,” she replied. “Booze.”
She had me there.
“Look. I encourage you to try it. Try a leaf. A tree. Plate tectonics. Whatever works.”
“All right. All right,” I said sullenly. “I’ll think about it.”
And I did, because I really wanted to stay sober. But I knew the leaf was out, because I could never remember the differences between leaves. An oak leaf, a maple leaf, they were all the same to me. The squirrel wasn’t going to work, either. We had one in our yard who made a fool of himself trying to get to the bird feed and made a porker of himself when he succeeded. He was as much of an addict as I was. No way I was going to anoint him higher power. Maybe a rose. Yeah, that’s what could be my higher power, that’s who I could go to in times of trouble. I knew just the rose. A beautiful pale pink climbing rose in our flask-sized yard with the name of New Dawn. After all, it did smell heavenly. And the name, so appropriate. A harbinger of many sober days to come. So that night, when I did my gratitude list, I did so to the image of a New Dawn. However, it wavered. I couldn’t keep the picture in my head. It danced, it swirled, it skittered out of focus. Still, I really wanted to stay sober, and if my Hazelden counselor said I had to have a higher power, if Bill W., one of the founders of AA, said I had to have a higher power, I wasn’t willing to give up yet. I called Jonah, something I did several times each day during those weeks at Hazelden, and asked if he would send me a picture of a New Dawn right away.
He was curious.
“Why? You miss the roses that much?” he asked.
“No. They tell me here that I have to have a higher power to maintain my sobriety. You know, like God.”
“And you’re choosing a rose? Why not just let God be your higher power?” Jonah asked.
“Because I just don’t buy into religion. You know that.”
“But how can you doubt that you have a higher power? The MasterCard was maxed out, and yet your thousand-dollar plane ticket went through. If that wasn’t your higher power, what was it?”
“Can you just send the picture?” I asked.
“Why not a strawberry? You’re so captivated by them.”
“I already have a relationship with the strawberry, and it’s a working one. I don’t want to risk messing that up.”
“You’re very unusual, you know that?”
“Jonah, just send the damn picture.”
It arrived within days, bless Jonah’s argumentative heart. I put the picture on my bedside table. Still, it just didn’t work. When I spoke to the rose, it did not respond. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t imagine the New Dawn caring about my problems, caring about whether I maintained my sobriety. It remained inanimate. It didn’t give a hoot. What can I say? I’m a painter, not an animator.
So, one Sunday, I sat on a sofa in the Dia Lynn lounge, drinking coffee, chatting with the other addicts on the unit, idly flipping the remote control past such visual delights as Suzanne Somers’ thigh machine, Gilligan’s Island, ice skaters, the usual dull Sunday afternoon fodder. I was giddy with my newfound sobriety, but still confounded with my lack of a suitable higher power. We joked about my problem as I clicked.
“You love shoes so much, maybe one of your favorite shoes could be your higher power,” Nancy, middle-aged valium addict from Idaho, said.
“Oh, sure. Make a pair of those sexy stilettos that were always letting me down be my higher power,” I said, winking.
“How about this tea bag?” Louise said, offering me a sodden, used bag of Lemon Lift. Louise was a junkie who had modeled in New York, until she no longer bothered to show up for bookings.
“Get that away from me,” I laughed, leaning away from her soggy gift. I clicked the remote again. This click’s prize, a baseball game. Since the Astros traded Billy Doran, I usually only watched if they were in the playoffs. I was a fickle baseball fan, and I shamefacedly admit that the derrieres of the players had a lot to do with the game’s attraction. Still, I knew the rules and I found it somewhat amusing. If forced to watch a sporting event, I’d choose baseball.
“Oh, look. The Cubs. Let’s watch that,” Nancy pleaded.
“Jeez. A sports fan,” I grimaced. “OK, but I don’t have a horse in this race. The Cubs and the . . . .” I looked at the screen again, “and the Cardinals? Boring. And, anyway, you live in Idaho, what do you care about the Cubs?”
“I grew up in Chicago. My dad took me to many a Cubs game.”
“Hey, don’t argue,” said Gina, a former groupie from Dallas who had followed one band after another around the world. “These men’s thighs are much easier on the eyes than Suzanne Somers’.”
“All right. You win,” I said. I went to put on a fresh pot of coffee, double-bagged, of course, and when I returned, the Cubs were batting. The camera cut to a shot of the pitcher. I was riveted. He was tall, with shoulders wider than Texas. He was the color of a cup of Southern Louisiana cafe au lait. He looked unshakeable. Serene. This could be my higher power.
“What?” Nancy asked. “Your cup of coffee?”
“Huh?” I didn’t even realize I’d said anything out loud. “Oh, no. Him.” I pointed at the TV screen.
“Todd Stottlemyre?” Nancy asked, surprised.
“He can be my higher power any day of the week,” Gina smirked.
“Sweetie,” Nancy said, giving me a stern look. “I think you have the wrong idea about a higher power. It’s not supposed to be a higher sexual power. It’s supposed to be a wiser power, a spiritual power. It’s not supposed to be someone that you want to sleep with.”
“Yep,” Gina said. “Any day of the week.”
“Hey, sex with him might be spiritual,” Louise tittered.
“This isn’t about sex,” I insisted. I felt like stamping my foot. They just didn’t understand.
“Damn, I’ll settle for a picture of him and a vibrator — at least while I’m stuck in here,” Gina said.
“Like you could sneak a vibrator in here,” Louise sneered.
“This isn’t about sex!” I said, my voice developing an edge. “Look at him. He looks rather godlike, doesn’t he? Composed. Strong. Regal yet powerful . . .”
“Sexy,” Gina and Nancy and Louise interrupted.
“As I was saying, regal yet powerful. Poised. Unshakeable. He has a . . . a quiet dignity. And I won’t have any trouble at all imagining him listening to my woes, lending an understanding ear, telling me that everything is going to work out. And look at his hands, so big — they certainly look like they could hold the whole world.”
“Well, I, for one, would certainly like to hold his hand,” Louise winked at Gina. “In a special place . . . if you get my drift.”
“I can see there’s not a darn reason to discuss this with you stubborn, gutter-minded floozies. Let’s just watch the game.”
I was chatting on the phone with Jonah a couple of days later when he asked about the New Dawn.
“It didn’t work out,” I said. “I’ve taken a new tack.”
“And that is?” he asked, a bit suspiciously.
“Todd Stottlemyre, this baseball pitcher I saw on TV.”
“Stottlemyre? Of the Cardinals? As your higher power?” He chuckled. “You make some strange choices. Why him?”
I explained my reasoning, then held the line waiting for criticism. I was sure it would come, even though Jonah was a baseball fanatic.
“If you’re going to choose a baseball player, why not Dimaggio? And if you insist on a pitcher, why not Nolan Ryan? He’s a great pitcher.”
“Dimaggio is out. After all, he couldn’t save Marilyn Monroe. And Nolan Ryan’s politics eliminate him from the running.”
“Well, why not Honus Wagner? Babe Ruth? Ty Cobb? Wait, scratch Cobb. He was a drunk, a bigot, and a mean, vicious man.”
“Look, honey love, I appreciate your advice, truly I do. But this is my higher power, not yours.”
¤ ¤ ¤ ¤
It was family week. Family week, for those of you who are uninitiated, is the week that we addicts are sent over to the family center to come face-to-face with family members of other addicts. It’s when we see the other side of our addiction, how our behavior can hurt our loved ones.
We were sitting in a circle, in a nondescript wood-paneled room, discussing the higher power issue. Or at least we were supposed to be. Stella, a wiry woman from Mississippi, was droning on and on and on. Stella was one of those women who did not like to relinquish the stage, one of those women who never shut up. Nearly everything about her annoyed me, from her choice of a higher power — a small leather pouch in which she carried her favorite talismans, an idea she had stolen from the Indians — to her tendency to blame everything bad in her addict’s life, and therefore her life, on his ex-wife. She was just finishing a long narrative that had started about her chosen higher power and ended in a smarmy tale about Her Great Romance with the Doctor that would be Perfect if Only His Ex-Wife Lived on Another Planet.
“That is so romantic,” one addle-brained woman cooed. “You should write a romance novel.”
I wanted to barf.
The next person to speak was a short, skinny, old farmer from Iowa whose daughter was in the program. He looked puzzled. And he was.
“I don’t understand why we’re discussing this. How can you doubt that there’s a higher power? How can you doubt that higher power is God?” His look of perplexity deepened. “I have never doubted God, not a day of my life, not a minute.” He paused and looked around the circle. He did not have to say that for him, God was Jesus. We knew. “Every morning when I wake up, every night when I go to bed, he’s there. How can you think a pouch filled with a dime store ring, a spool of thread, a Nehi top, and a piece of quartz is going to do a thing for you besides jingle in your pocket?”
He was not acting. He was completely baffled that some of us didn’t believe. I had never seen such quiet faith. My experience with religious folk tended to those who were self-righteous, those who loudly preached one thing and quietly did another. Folks who tried to convince you that their way was the only way. This guy wasn’t trying to convince us of anything. He just couldn’t believe that we didn’t believe. His faith shook me like a sheaf of papers under a ceiling fan.
I was in awe. I wanted what he had.
¤ ¤ ¤ ¤
I returned to Houston, to our sheet-metal townhouse festooned with climbing roses, to my job at the newspaper, armed with my newly acquired knowledge, my determination to remain sober, and my higher power, Todd Stottlemyre. I admit I was apprehensive. After all, drinking had taken up a lot of my life — heck, it had become my life. And I still didn’t believe: Todd was just a tool for me. I also was not happy about attending AA meetings — I’ve never been a joiner or a meeting-goer. And meditation — let’s not even go there. Goodness knows, I didn’t.
But I went to an AA meeting once or twice a week — sometimes even four times a week during those first months when the call of Wild Turkey was loud and relentless. And, despite my skepticism, each morning when I did my daily Big Book reading and each evening when I did my gratitude list, I envisioned Todd. And, no, it did not escape my notice that his name rhymes with God. I mentioned at a meeting or two that a baseball player was my higher power, and although there may have been a few raised eyebrows, no one ridiculed my choice.
Jonah, too, had accepted my unorthodox selection, but he still didn’t get it. It was rather cute, the way he always offered me his Baseball Weekly if there was a mention of Mr. Stottlemyre. And while I always looked at any picture that Jonah showed me — it never hurt to reinforce Todd’s image — I simply didn’t want to know anything about him. Knowledge, in this case, could prove dangerous. After all, if I were to read a quote and my higher power sounded, well, less than bright, my icon would be tarnished. And if I were to listen to a sound bite of him on TV, well, what if he had a squeaky or whiny voice? What if his vocabulary was less than expansive? What if he insisted on speaking of the past in present tense, as so many baseball players do? You know, “I throw that batter a split-fingered fastball instead of a slider, we win.” Or worse — gulp — what if he used the word awesome? He would no longer be godlike. He would tumble from his throne. I could not allow that to happen. I had to protect my higher power, because he protected me.
He really did. He was always attentive, always willing to listen. He never said “Can you wait a minute? I need to get this guy out.” Or “Hold on, Allison, I’ve gotta take some warm-up pitches.” He always had time for me. He was supportive, and his advice was sage. For instance, when I decided I couldn’t stand to illustrate the latest fashion catastrophes from Rome or draw a pie chart showing how the Houston school district’s education dollars were spent, when I knew I wanted to quit my newspaper job and devote more time to painting, he didn’t say “Are you insane? How can you afford to do that?” No, he calmly asked “Can you give up those pricey shoes you love so much? I hear Manolo’s boots this fall are really something. Will your husband support you? Will you allow him to support you? Maybe you can find a part-time job.”
Occasionally, the old farmer would interrupt my talks with Todd.
“There is a God,” he’d say. “A real God.’
“For you,” I’d retort.
But I was growing stronger every day. I was more confident, my commitment to recovery was powerful. I not only wanted to remain sober, I — again, sneer if you must — wanted to be a good person. I quit my dependable job, got a part-time job at a caterer’s, devoted myself to my art and my marriage. I was — and this surprised me every time I realized it — happier without the nightclubs, the men and the booze. I still had a yen for Manolo Blahniks, though, especially since I no longer tripped in them.
In fact, a pair of Manolo mules embroidered with strawberries — a birthday gift from Jonah — rested at my feet. I was sipping cold fuzzy water, complete with a lime twist, and admiring Jonah’s extremely delectable form (how had I ever let demon liquor blind me to his many assets?) as he tied straggling Sombreuil roses to trellises he had built last year. Moon Pie, our new yellow Lab pup, tussled with the hem of his jeans as he worked. A couple of Dogface butterflies snacked on a scarlet salvia. It would have been positively Rockwellian if it hadn’t been for the sweltering Houston heat and the thorns that nipped at Jonah’s arms. Still, it made me think, maybe there is a God. Jeez. Where was my skepticism? Heck, next thing you know, I’ll be meditating.
Then, one morning a few weeks later, over coffee and biscuits, Jonah handed me the sports section.
“The Cards traded your boy to the Texas Rangers,” he said, piling homemade strawberry jam on his biscuit. “We can drive up and watch him pitch one weekend.”
“You know, this higher power thing is working out,” I said. “My other higher power is moving my higher power closer.”
“Jonah!” I nearly trilled. “Jonah, did you hear what I said? My other higher power. My other.”
That’s when I realized I really didn’t need Todd any more. I had come to believe, just like the counselor at Hazelden. There was a good and powerful force in the universe, and he — or she — was watching out for me. He had led me to the TV screen at just the right moment so that I could find a stand-in until I was ready for the real thing.
My faith still isn’t as strong as that old farmer’s, though I hope one day it will be. But I do know, just as surely as I know my biscuits will rise, that there is a God out there looking out for me. I’m not quite sure who he or she is, maybe Jesus, maybe not, but he or she no longer wears Todd’s face.
Are you wondering about Todd? I’ve given him the boot, albeit a kindly and gentle one. He was there when I needed him. He helped me come to believe. Oh, and yeah, he’s still a fine-looking pitcher. Fine. Great shoulders.