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The hand on my shoulder

My first meeting was on a Sunday in a Salvation Army hall; I was broken, tired, incapable and hungover. My life seemed to have disintegrated overnight. They talk about admitting that your life had become unmanageable – I didn’t even know what my life was! I had been quite successful (well, in terms of how I used to measure success): family, job, house, car and just about enough money to get by, but that was on Thursday. Friday morning was different. There had been a blackout. For me that means chunks are missing. I was in a cell on a blue mattress with no shoes and no belt and I was ill. I must have had a lot this time.

My first drink at 16, as a clumsy, awkward lad, was excessive; I passed out. I don’t know if you can be an alcoholic from the offset? For me, those first drinks were probably just the same sneaky experimentations that most kids try. What I do know is that the spiritual malady had been growing steadily in the background and it was there before the drink. I was brought up well, but I was like a coiled spring with my nerves; school was difficult, I was full of anxiety: what will people think? How will I manage? Pressure. Sometimes dread.

So, 24 years later and there I was – in a cell. I didn’t even really know what I had done. I knew I had been arrested for drink driving but I also knew that I had been shouting at my wife and that somehow this time I had really gone too far. Later I’d find that she had attempted to stop me driving off and that I had reversed my car up the street while she
was standing in the open passenger door. It hit her, but she managed to step back in time. It could have been so much worse, and I thank God she wasn’t injured. It was actually weeks before I was properly aware of what had happened.

In the morning I was released and had to ask the desk sergeant what my charges were. In addition to the driving, I had been charged with disturbance of the peace and threatening and abusive behaviour. My bail conditions stipulated that I was not to return home. I’m one of those drunks that has a mouth when loaded. Without a drink I am a quiet, mild-mannered type. I could make you laugh – I learned how to do this early on so I could join in – or rather, feel accepted. Most have been to a meeting where someone talks about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. That was me. For years the easiest emotion for me was anger; it had taken over. It lay under the surface and over the years it just drenched me. Resentments? I was soaked in them.

On release I went into survival mode. Survival sounds too organised – I was scrambling and grasping. My head was probably at the worst it’s ever been. So many thoughts all at once, basically a jumble of mentally ill nonsense. Suicide was an option. Eventually I was directed to a homeless hostel by my local authority. I lay on the bed there in complete disbelief: maybe this is what shellshock feels like? Saturday: The reality of the situation had hit home. I felt there was no way out. My mind was broken.

My first AA miracle happened there. I called my boss. I had no other idea what to do or who to call and so I called him. He listened and he was good with me. I told him what had happened. Here is the miracle: His best friend was in a Fellowship – this thing called AA, had I heard of it? Would I like him to get this friend to call me? Anything! The gift of desperation! I had nothing left and no place to turn – I was desperate and so because I needed help, it was given. His friend called me back. This stranger was gentle, polite and non-judgmental. He knew where the soonest, closest meeting was. He took his time and listened. Sunday: My first meeting was only five minutes’ walk from the hostel. My new friend said that no matter what, I should get to this meeting. I was so anxious that I would miss it I even set an alarm and walked there to check I could find it.

It was late July after lockdown – the air was humid and masks were still a thing. My glasses were steaming up. I had the shakes badly and was still in that period of temporary brain damage. I was about 20 metres away when the tears seemed to be unescapable. There were a few guys outside the hall, and they were smoking and chatting. Around four or so metres away, through the blur, a man stopped and turned towards me. I couldn’t hold the tears any longer and before I knew it there was a hand on my shoulder. The others had stopped speaking to each other now and their full attention was focused on me. I could feel it. The man introduced himself. I tried to reply but nothing came out. My hands dangled by my sides like two bricks. Some of the others took a step towards me, another hand on my right shoulder. It had been less than a few seconds since they had noticed my approach and without a single word exchanged between them, they had formed ranks and were preparing the very beginning of my recovery.

So, on a pavement in Perth, with empathy flowing around me like an invisible blanket, a bright shield that I couldn’t yet see must have instantly started to protect me from the darkness I was carrying. It was a powerful moment, perhaps the most powerful moment I have experienced.

The next words came from a man who was smiling. He simply said, “You are in the right place.” The hand on my shoulder became an arm that gently extended around me, and I was shepherded inside. My recovery began there and then.

Gatehouse Dundee