49+3: Finding A New Path

I went home this past weekend to see my Iowa family. After a long winter, a trip down Story Avenue, the gravel road we live on, is bumpy. The maintainers have not yet made it past my parent's home so it means you have to drive carefully. The path is the same as always, but the ruts are deeper.

My oldest brother, Kelley, was home. He turns 53 tomorrow. One of the things I noticed was that he was drinking coffee. I asked him about this as he's been a Mountain Dew guy for quite some time. He switched to diet Mountain Dew awhile back, but I'd never seen him drink coffee. It stood out after years of seeing him chug out of those green plastic bottles.

"You drink coffee?"

"Well, I go to alotta meetings, you know. A pop is $1.00. If I go to six or seven meetings, that adds up. They always  got coffee an' it's free!"

Kelley is a recovering alcoholic. Eight years ago, my parents forced him out of their home and he landed in treatment and then a halfway house. It took a mountain of effort to get clean and a mountain of paperwork to find somewhere to live, but he eventually landed in a subsidized apartment. His earnings and his budget are lean.

Kelley walks everywhere in the city he's in. He picks up pop cans and in warmer months, he'll find scrap metal that he will salvage. He watches the sales closely in the various grocery fliers and he does things like drink the free coffee and buy the pop when it's on super sale. He doesn't ask for much. The littlest of things make his day--like giving him a dozen eggs or taking him to Golden Corral on his birthday. That is the plan. The last I heard, Mom was making him a blueberry dessert, his favorite, and he was going to the Golden Corral.

I have to be honest. Kelley is not all that easy to talk with. His voice booms all the time. I think it's because of the years he's spent trying to make himself heard to our dad, who is hard of hearing. Though we try to suggest an adjustment in tone, it doesn't usually stick and so the conversation barrels on at it's usual volume. Kelley can get stuck in a particular train of thought. If something eats at him, it's really hard to re-route his thought pattern. I think this trait might not be unusual for those who struggle with addictions. I share these same genes, and I certainly know the pain of well-worn brain paths.

On this particular weekend Kelley was rightly proud that he would soon be getting his eight year chip from AA.

"It's no joke," he said. "I just went to a funeral of a meetin' buddy. He's been to treatment six times and it didn't stick. He stopped goin'. So I go. I go a lot. I don't want to die."

Staying sober is Kelley's full time job. It was clear it weighs on him. He talked of the drug problems that seem to follow many of his alcoholic buddies and all the people who've failed at treatment. He hasn't slipped yet in these eight years, but it's not without cost. Kelley is anxious, he can be hard to relate to, and his world is centered around his sobriety.

But the thing is, he's doing it.

As we talked, he kept circling back to the number of meetings he went to. He kept referring to those whose failure resulted in death. He kept talking about the money he saves by drinking the coffee. He is saved by the meetings.

I am proud of him because he is proud of himself. I could hear it as he talked. And maybe proud isn't the right word. He clearly understands for him, the way to stay above ground is to keep doing the work. To keep showing up for the free coffee one hour, one meeting, one day at a time.

Kelley and I were not close growing up. He struggled to make sense of who he was as the genetics of his future were working themselves out. I was an observant and sensitive teen who didn’t understand the anger and brash behaviors that were revealing themselves. I kept my distance. But as time does it’s thing and my own story has unfolded, I can see that perhaps we aren't so different.  My depression may not look like his alcoholism, but the way to work it seems the same. Find a new route, show up, do the work, save yourself, repeat.

When I am at my lowest I have to do what works. I show up and I write. I examine my story. I tilt it this way and that to make sense of where it is I have been and where I wish to go. Every time I sit my butt in the chair and begin the tapping that takes me inside, I am finding a new path and it's true, I am saved.

Writing is my free coffee.


It's Kelley's birthday. He is above ground and 53. For that, I am grateful.