The following has been excerpted from Watch My Rising, an anthology that contains inspirational stories and poems, written by various individuals, about recovering from alcoholism and/or drug addiction. 

A now-or-never situation

“Shit or get off the pot!”

I knew that my daughter was right. I’d almost forgotten that she and her husband were in the front seat as I sat in the back trying to slow my racing heart. My daughter made it clear that if we were going in, we needed to do it now. I could only imagine what my son-in-law was thinking.

Time was running out and so was patience in the front seat. I’d been planning and picturing this for months. I was visiting California for a week and would be returning to Illinois soon. This was a now-or-never situation. There was a part of me that had believed all along that, even if we got here, the church or the woman wouldn’t be real. But I was looking at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. It was real. So was the green Subaru that pulled in and parked next to us and so was the woman who emerged from that Subaru. There was no mistaking those blonde dreadlocks—Anne Lamott had just arrived.

Seven years before I’d sat in a different parking lot, one that was, literally and figuratively, thousands of miles away from where I was now. As police cars screeched into that parking lot and blocked me in, I knew I’d been caught. Unexpected relief washed over me and I thought, Maybe this is the thing that’ll keep me from killing myself. It’s not like there hadn’t been other events and circumstances prior to that which should have put a stop to my drug use, but so far … nothing had.

I’d started drinking and using at 15 and had continued for the next 27 years despite the countless negative consequences. And then, there I was, getting arrested for calling in a prescription for Vicodin. I’d like to say that starting at that moment a light went on, a switch flipped, and I never touched another drug, but that wouldn’t be true.

It took me another five months, a nearly fatal overdose, and being put on probation before I would, for the first time in my adult life, spend 18 months free of any drugs or alcohol.

Finding the answers through books

As part of my probation I’d been ordered to attend 12-step meetings, have the leader of each meeting sign a paper proving that I’d attended, and bring the paper to my probation officer once a month. The people in the meetings went out of their way to make me feel welcome and I saw that their program worked for them; however, I wasn’t convinced that it was going to work for me.

Knowing that I needed something more, I turned to a thing that had, so often throughout my life, offered me entertainment and escape as well as answers: books. I read everything I could get my hands on that was written by or for addicts.

One Friday night when I had three or four months clean, I left a meeting feeling restless and unnerved. I’d gotten through the worst of the physical part of getting clean, but now I was being forced to live without the one thing that I believed made life possible for me to deal with. The one thing that made me a fun, interesting person. The one thing, other than my children, that I couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life without.

Not ready to go home, I went to Barnes & Noble instead. On the outside, I looked fine, but my brain felt like Bambi on that frozen pond. Thumper might be laughing, but I wasn’t.

I headed directly to the shelves of books on addiction. As my eyes scanned the books, my brain ticked off: I’ve read that one, I’ve read that one, I’ve read that one. I started to panic. How could I have read all of these books and still not found an answer? What if I read everything there was to read and I still didn’t have this shit figured out?

Just as I reached a point where I either needed to find a book I hadn’t read or find a paper bag to breathe into, a title caught my eye. The Harder They Fall: Celebrities Tell Their Real-Life Stories of Addiction and Recovery.

I snatched it off the shelf and read the back cover: Alice Cooper, Steve Earle, Mariette Hartley, Richard Lewis, Malachy McCourt, Chuck Negron, Richard Prior and Grace Slick were among the people whose stories were included inside.

Alice Cooper and Grace Slick and Richard Pryor—oh my! It didn’t get any cooler than that. I bought the book and cracked it open as soon as I got home. I started with the essays by the people I was familiar with, and then proceeded on to the essays by people I hadn’t heard of. All the stories had different characters, different settings, different details—yet the journeys were the same. Each one was inspiring and spoke to me, at least on an intellectual level.

Image of Anne Lamott, head and shoulders - Thanking Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

I finished reading about Dock Ellis at around two in the morning. One side effect of removing opiates from your system is a difficulty in being able to sleep. I was finally tired, but as I put the book down, the page turned and there, with fabulous blonde dreads and eyes of pure understanding, was Anne Lamott. It looked like an essay I’d like to read at some point, but not tonight. Then the William Cowper quote that she’d chosen for the beginning of her piece caught my eye:

“The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.”

I read it. Over and over. And I wept. It was the first time since getting clean that words had made their way around my brain and into my gut. I was terrified of what the clouds of a future without an anesthetized brain held for me.

I’m not a person who romanticizes events. I believe in coincidence, but not fate. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. But in that moment, I believed that Anne Lamott had left me a note—much like a note from a mother sent in a lunch box on the first day of school—an assurance that I could do this. And for the first time, I believed it.

First glimpse of Anne

My son-in-law had opted to sleep in the car during the service, but my daughter and I made our way into the church and found seats on the far right side. Anne sat in the section that mirrored ours. Had the sanctuary been a scale, she would have been my counterbalance.

Partway through the service Anne left with a few teenagers. I knew from reading her essays that she taught Sunday school classes and assumed that’s where they were headed. I held a card on which I’d written the things I needed to tell her and planned to leave it with someone if I didn’t get the chance to meet Anne. I also brought a copy of her book, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life for her to sign and a camera so I could have a picture of myself with her.

There was nothing to do now but sit back and wait, politely, while the pastor gave the sermon. I anticipated a sermon that would be full of “Jesusy” things that I, as an atheist, wouldn’t agree with and didn’t want to hear.

It remains a mystery to me why I doubted that I would find inspiration and wisdom from a source where Anne had clearly gained so much of her own. As I listened to the sermon, I was moved by words that were, like the “clouds ye so much dread” quote, not written by Anne, but words that she was responsible for my having heard. I didn’t doubt that the universe knew I was coming and knew what I needed to hear.

“Although we’d lost contact, my brother and I were once close,” the minister was saying. “I was at a culinary store that’s a couple hours from my home. An employee was demonstrating a cooking technique using salt blocks. I remembered that my brother fancied himself an amateur chef and thought it would be a great gift for him.”

She went on to talk about how, even though she thought about sending the salt block to her brother, she didn’t do it because they didn’t have much of a relationship anymore. She returned home, but couldn’t get the salt block or her brother out of her head. A few days later she made the two-hour drive back to the store, bought the salt block and shipped it to her brother.

“He called to thank me and we ended up spending several hours on the phone: laughing, crying, apologizing, and forgiving. That was five years ago and we’ve rebuilt our relationship. I almost didn’t send that salt block. I learned that day that if there’s something that you feel the need to do for someone, by all means, you should. Don’t let yourself ‘think’ away the ‘feel’ of it.”

Nutty and fabulous and crazy as shit

I’d had doubts about making this trip from the first time the idea went through my mind, up until this moment. Sometimes it felt like a divine mission, other times it felt stalkerish. However, during the sermon, any doubt I’d had about my quest to thank Anne Lamott disappeared. Even if she ran away screaming, I needed to see this through.

After the service, I approached one of the women who’d gotten up and spoken and was clearly also a recovering addict. I explained that Anne Lamott’s words had probably saved my life and had definitely saved my sanity.

“I have this card for her,” I said, as my courage and resolve began to flounder. “Could you give it to her, please?”

“No,” said the woman with a facial expression that gave nothing away. “You need to give it to her yourself.” With that she turned and walked out the sanctuary door and into the courtyard. My daughter and I followed.

After finding Anne’s essay that night, and being rocked by the quote she’d selected, it had taken me a few days to pick the book back up. At the time, I didn’t know what my hesitation was, but looking back, I think I feared answers as strongly as I craved them.

It wasn’t going to be easy. I’d been lying to everyone for my entire life. What she showed me through her truth was that the person I’d lied to the most was myself. Being radically honest with myself would be my salvation. It was, and always will be, the biggest factor when it comes to keeping myself from going down the path of self-destruction, no matter whether that path is paved with drugs or men or self-centeredness or any of the other things I’m capable of using to run my life into the gutter.

The churchgoer who’d decided not to be my personal U.S. Postal Service led us across the courtyard and into a small room where the Sunday school class was wrapping up. Everyone in the room, Anne included, stopped what they were doing and stared at us. Fortunately, our guide gave a brief synopsis of what was going on. I was at a loss for words.

How do you thank a woman who, without any knowledge of it, went from being a stranger to a saviour?

How do you thank her for finding the way, sharing her story, and in doing so convincing you that life could be a thousand times better without drugs?

How do you thank her for leading you and your estranged daughter back to each other?

Woman walking through dark tunnel towards light - Thanking Anne Lamott

How do you thank her for writing the words that provided a light at the end of a dark, hopeless tunnel and inspiring you to do the same for others?

You just do.

I don’t remember exactly what I said to Anne or all of what she said to me. I do remember her introducing me to a couple who was in the room.

“This is Barb and Kevin. They’re like us. Crazy as shit.”

Who says that?

Someone who’s fabulous and nutty and maybe a little awkward in the wake of a grateful stranger showing up to thank her. Someone who’s going to be just fine with the fact that she didn’t, in that moment, have something profound or eloquent to say. Someone who taught me that it’s okay for me to be imperfectly myself, too.

I made the decision to leave my camera and my copy of Bird By Bird in my purse. I don’t have a picture with her or an autographed copy of her book, but it didn’t feel right to ask for either. I was there to say thank you, not to ask for more than she’d already given me.

A monumental date

As we were saying our goodbyes, Anne mentioned that she’d recently celebrated the anniversary of her clean date. I knew that she started her journey many years before I did. What I didn’t know until that moment was that both of us celebrated the anniversary of that beginning every year on July 7.

Read more about addiction in AMERICA THE ADDICTED: Must we wait until we hit bottom?»

watch my risingWriter, stand-up comedian, and “non-traditional” student Billi Johnson-Casey has had essays published in Watch My Rising and Bluffs Literary Magazine and was the recipient of the Byron and Sylvia DeHaan Poetry Scholarship. She works as a writing consultant at Illinois Central College and will be starting the Publishing Studies program at Illinois State University in January.

Excerpted from Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology, 37 stories & poems about recovery from addiction. Copyright 2016 by TulipTree Publishing, LLC. Printed with permission from TulipTree Publishing, LLC and Billi Johnson-Casey.

image 1: Max Pixel; image 2: Zboralski via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY-SA / Cropped from original); image 3: Sandro Kharazashvili via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY-SA)