Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Love of my life
For as long as he could remember, she was there. From those early days sitting criss-cross applesauce on the porch shelling peas with grandmama, right along with the unmistakable scent of red Georgia clay was the hint of her presence wafting by with every humid breeze.
“I can't remember a time without that being a part of my life,” he said. And when he said it, he looked down at his hands and sighed. “I just can't.”
There was a sadness about him. This heavy cloak of melancholy that pushed against the agenda I'd planned before entering the room. See, this was supposed to be a congratulatory conversation. Me applauding his triumphant separation from alcohol.
But as soon as I came into that room and laid eyes on him, I could feel it. Yes, this was a good thing he'd done for his health. And definitely, abstaining from Jack Daniels for 16 full months after nearly a lifetime of being his best friend is no minor feat. So, yeah. I had all these lofty plans of shaking his hand hard and telling him how great it was. Reaching out with both hands and staring deep into his eyes to let him know that I meant it.
Because I did.
But. None of that felt right once I actually sat down. His shoulders were curled inward and his expression was lonely. Like some middle school kid chosen last in the kickball lineup, the kind you immediately want to hug and defend. Yes, Mr. Caldwell had crossed the 1- year hurdle with AA and had the improvements in his health to show for it. But still. He didn't seem happy.
I guess I'd sized him up with this assumption of what he'd be like and where his mind should be, you know? Imagining some gum chewing chap with a bunch of AA key fobs proudly telling it on the mountain that he's just taking it 1 day at a time. I was expecting a testimony of how now even the smell of alcohol makes his stomach turn a little, especially now that he's broken free of that stronghold. But that isn't what I found.
“You seem sad,” I finally said. “What you've done for yourself is so amazing. And you're doing so great, too. But you seem … I don't know … sad.”
Mr. Caldwell just stared at me for few moments without speaking. Then, instead of saying something in response, he just sighed and shrugged. His lips moved and I think he said, “Yeah,” but it wasn't audible.
“Is everything okay at home? Did something happen?”
“No, ma’am. Everything fine with my people, Miss Manning. My kids so happy I don't drink no more.” When he said that, the corner of the left side of his mouth turned up a bit.
“That's great, Mr. Caldwell!” I did my best to ramp up the enthusiasm to counter his somber mood. It didn't work.
“I'm okay,” he finally said. Then, to make sure I knew he meant it, he repeated himself, this time a little more firmly. “I'm okay.”
I leaned into my palm with my chin and squinted my eyes a bit. “You know? You don't seem so okay, Mr. Caldwell.”
And something about that—my body language and that last statement—unlocked something. I could tell. His eyes focused on mine some more and I could tell he was trying to decide whether or not to tell me something.
“Tell me,” I pressed. “Tell me what is making you so sad.”
Mr. Caldwell took a big drag of air through his nostrils, closed his eyes and then shook his head slowly. Then he just froze for a beat with his eyes still closed before parting his lips respond. “I … I just … “ He sighed once more and went on. “I just miss it is all.”
“Miss what? You mean drinking, sir?”
“Yeah. Like, I keep waiting for that point where I lose the taste for it but it ain't never happened. So when I see it or smell it or see folks drinking, I guess it just make me feel sad.”
“Like, you know how when you was little how your main memories are tied to how stuff smell or the sounds you hear? See, that's how it is with me and drinking. Like, I come from a long family of alcoholics. But not fall down drunk and cuss you out alcoholics. Happy, domino and card playing drinkers. Shit talking and laughing. Having fun. But drinking the whole time. Even with kids around.”
The image he'd painted was so vivid that I was at a loss for words. He kept going.
“My grandmama and my granddaddy drank a lot. I was raised around them and both my parents died from problems related to drinking. So I know that it's bad for my health which is what got me to quit, you know? That time they kept me in the hospital, I knew I had to quit so I did. But I guess as time go by I'm realizing that just about every memory I have involve either me drinking or being with somebody who was drinking. Going all the way back.”
“You know what, Mr. Caldwell? I never thought of it that way.” I said that because it was true. “For you, alcohol is like an old friend.”
“Naaah. It's even more than that. Alcohol for me? She family. As much a part of my family as anything. Even when I was a kid.”
“You started drinking as a child?”
“Naw, not at all. But my auntie’nem used to sit us on the porch and braid our hair down in cornrows. My mama didn't like cutting out hair so us boys always had braids. I'd be sitting right on the step between her legs. Every so often she'd fuss at me or my cousins saying, ‘You bet’ not knock over my damn drink!’” That made him laugh. But it was fleeting. “It's funny ‘cause whenever I smell some gin, I want to cry for missing my auntie so much. That mixed with Newport menthols. And then along with the smell of some collard greens cooking with ham hocks and the sound of somebody cranking a ice cream maker.”
And that? That made my eyes sting. Partly because I finally understood what he meant. But also because I knew there wasn't really anything I could do about it. I started to counter him with some canned commentary on the health benefits of no longer drinking but none of it felt right. Instead I just twisted my mouth and nodded. Because I got it.
I put my hand on his and squeezed it. “Thank you for giving me a new perspective, Mr. Caldwell. I get it.”
Finally, he let out an unexpected chuckle. “Sometimes seem like the ones you can't get enough of don't love you back, do they? I love her but she don't love me.”
“Yeah, she's funny like that.”
“But I miss her. Every single day. Even though I shouldn't, I do. And all the people I loved though the years that's associated with her. My whole world different. My whole life different.”
“In a good way?”
“I'm alive, which is good. I ain't getting DUI charges, which is good. But just imagine if whatever it is that connect you to all your favorite people, favorite memories and favorite things, you can't do no more. Or if you couldn't be around none of it no more. It's hard.”
“That sounds super hard.”
After that we just sat in silence. Him looking directly at me, face washed over with this complicated grief, and me squeezing down on his hand with mine. I kept wanting to say something or feeling like I should but nothing was feeling authentic enough. I stayed quiet.
Finally, Mr. Caldwell sighed and gently pulled his hand back. “I appreciate your concern, Miss Manning. I do.” He began sliding his papers and medications back into his little knapsack and then pulled the drawstring closed. Patting the bag, he said for closure, “Yeah. So I guess I'm sad ‘cause it's the end of a love affair. But not just any love affair—like the love of my life.”
“Wow,” I whispered.
“Sound crazy, don't I?”
“No, sir. You sound honest.”
In the 20 years that I have been a physician, I have asked the same question of countless patients struggling with alcohol use disorders: “Did you grow up with any drinkers?” To date, I have never once heard a response that included anything other than the affirmative.
This? Mr. Caldwell's story? It opened my eyes. He taught me a new layer of why it's so hard for people to let go of alcohol. And you know what else? Thanks to Mr. Caldwell, I will never look at alcohol abstention the same way again.
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, FAAP is an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches medical students and residents at Grady Hospital. This post is adapted from Reflections of a Grady Doctor, Dr. Manning’s blog about teaching, learning, caring and growing in medicine and life. It has been adapted and reprinted with permission. Identifying information has been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
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