It turned out to be a wonderful birthday, not because of the messages or gifts or the special birthday supper, but because my friend Stephen phoned and asked me to go along with him on a 12-Stepping call. Stephen stammers very badly, so he finds these calls difficult but considers they are essential for him in his second year sober.
I was very happy — off we went and after numerous meanderings around a large state hospital, we found someone I shall call Jim lying in bed looking very remorseful and sorry for himself. He had accidentally drunk one bottle of brandy too many and fallen badly, breaking his leg in two places. Lying in bed with no family willing to visit and a rudely outspoken doctor telling him home truths, Jim had begun to wonder if he might be that rare animal, the unicorn. Alcoholics are rare as unicorns, as far as Jim is concerned.
So we sat down and I gave him some of my ice cream birthday cake and Jim told us why he didn’t think he was alcoholic and I nodded aimiably and Stephen went out for a smoke break because listening to delusion makes him furious. Then, while Jim ate more birthday cake, I talked about why I do think I am alcoholic, in simple but graphic terms.
Jim’s wife is of course to blame for it all. She tricked Jim into marrying her by pretending to be pregnant. Jim has significant trust issues with women. And with preachers, because his local minister has so much sympathy for the no-good wife. And Jim’s children have no respect for him and he does not know why that should be. Such insolence! And there are money problems and Jim’s wife does not respect his authority in deciding how the money should be spent. Jim deserves a little fun! There is a girlfriend but she is another reason why Jim has trust issues with women. Why would a single woman have an affair with a married man anyhow? Jim has too many opinionated and uncaring people in his life. His son from a previous marriage will not speak to him and that tears Jim up.
And then there is life, the universe and everything else. Why, asked Jim hotly, do we not know if nature or nurture are responsible for who we become? Jim holds with nature. It is all in our genes. Nothing to do with luck or choices. Everything is predestined.
As he spoke I could see that elusive unicorn running away between the trees, so rare, so misunderstood, so elusive. There is nothing more fascinating to the still suffering alcoholic than philosophy. What is the meaning of life? Who is responsible for evil? What does free will have to do with anything? Who can capture a snow-white unicorn running into the depths of the forest?
I went back to talking about alcoholism and Jim’s tiny red piggy eyes spilled over with that melodramatic remorse we all know so well. Everything is his fault. He has destroyed the lives of everyone who has crossed his path. It is all due to the seed of evil planted in his nature. Why will I not talk about original sin instead of AA meetings? How prosaic, how like a simplistic woman with a head full of ironing boards and recipes for ice cream cake.
So it was a tedious meeting for all of us. But just as we were leaving, Jim said he would like to go along with Stephen to an AA meeting. He feels he has nothing to lose. And he thanked us for taking the trouble to come and visit him. The shining rare unicorn had cantered back into the room along with bed pans and a tray of bland-looking supper.
Stephen and I didn’t say much on the way back home but we both felt very contented. A beginning perhaps for Jim, and for us the hope we had been of some use. A basic human need and as necessary as breathing or saying thank you when we wake up sober each morning.