The Group as Lifeboat

In the back of the nondescript rectangular room is a small circle of chairs, enough to seat eight. The lights are mostly turned off. It is a twilit, quieting space. This is the second story, and the picture windows overlook a neighborhood street. Rain cascades over cars and drums buses as they swish and rumble on their way to other places. The west hills are veiled in darkness and punctuated with yellow blooms of light.

It is dinnertime for many. For those that enter and take these seats, it is time to get honest.

The women stream through the door I have unlocked; most of them greet each other and me with easy familiarity. As they settle, I fan out the meditation cards and stand in the center, stopping by each person as she chooses the card she likes. The colors are key to their choices; they are bright and textured with designs that attract the eye. It is misleading. The words relay ideas that require thought and ask hard questions.

The check in goes smoothly. After months of weekly group, the old-timers know it by heart, and the new ones catch on: name, drug of choice, sober/clean date, why here in addictions treatment, number of sober support meetings, and good or not-good events the past week. And then they begin, first with meditation cards, then with their own stories.

D. reads her card. What is the passion of her life and how can she give it a higher place? She turns the card over in her hands, looks closer, as though to discern the answer within hues and letters.

“I don’t know. Maybe someone else wants this card?” She laughs but no one reaches for it. “All I want is to get a job and quit couch-surfing, you know?  I don’t sit around and ask myself what is my passion. Okay, weed, heroin. Alcohol. Those have been my passions for about as long as I can remember. I’m thirty-nine.” She grabs a strand of dark hair in her fingers and twirls it unconsiously. “But that was three months ago. Today, I guess my passion is to…stay clean. Usually.”

K. asks, “How? I didn’t see you at the AA meeting you said you were going to. I told you I’d even pick you up if you called.”

D. casually tosses the card and I catch it.

“I was busy with my boyfriend. He needed help with something, the ducks. We feed them every Saturday at the pond. That’s good for me, too. A little walk there and then we hang out.”

K. bites her lip and the other women look hard at D., then away. Except one, M., who says only, “But he was high. And you used to sell weed there.”

D. shrugs but her eyes water. “Well, he has to quit. He goes to court next week. Who knows when I will see him again? Prison is a long time away. Another country away. First me, now him.”

I wait and let silence fill the room. D. grabs a tissue and presses it against her eyes. They are large and grey-green in the dim light. I notice she has worn different clothing lately, a t-shirt rather than a low-cut sequined top. D. looks small as she sits there, younger than her age despite the lines on her forehead and around her eyes.

“He’s been with me since way back, since I was twenty-five, since I first got into trouble dealing. You know, he’s got my back, I’ve got his.”

A small hiss of sound is emitted from the other side of the circle. R. looks straight at D. “But where are you both now? Almost the same place as back then. I think you need to cut him loose.”

I can see D. close the door,  step back into safety where words and reality sting less, are sometimes not even heard. I speak.

“I see you doing that thing where you disappear. If you disappear when you hear something hard you might do the same old thing as before. Same ole tape will play out. Your passions will remain the man and the drugs. You could forget about this new way.”

Nothing.

“Where are you now?”

She draws herself up tight in the chair, pulls her knees to her chest, and her face changes from empty to hard to as soft as I have ever seen it. Her voice is small like her. “I used to dance. I mean, before I was a dancer, at the clubs. You know, leotards and tights and sweet little ballet shoes. Recitals and stuff. That’s what I thought about when I read the card. Passion. I had it for dancing. So long ago. But by the time I was eighteen I did something else with it. For money. Drugs. Attention.  Whatever else came along with it. I stopped caring. At least on the outside.” Her eyes blink, close.

I lean in to the circle, towards her more fully. “I’m sorry it was like that. You did what you thought had to be done then. There is such sadness coming up now that you’re clean and sober… But you can choose to create a different life as long as you don’t use.”

Tears trickle down her face as her eyes open.”Stay clean, talk. Listen, too. But hell, it isn’t easy.”

A murmur ripples across the group. I see heads nodding. They give her encouragement, suggest that she start dancing for fun. In a safe way.

“Forget the overfed ducks, come to an AA dance next week-end, ” someone suggests.

“Turn on the music in the living room and let it go,” says another.

“If I had one of my own,” D. tartly reminds them.

“Well, damn! Dance in the rain if you want–with us,” says another and they laugh and shimmy a little in their seats, snap their fingers.

And so it continues. One thought leads to another as each woman takes her turn. I sit, keep watch. Guide the group as unobtrusively as possible, a navigator in a sturdy boat travelling into deeper waters, feeling the change in winds, sensing the balance shifts, staying aware of any danger signals.

It is a powerful current, this giving and taking, as it passes from person to person. It changes the space into a refuge, and the women undergo subtle alterations as they participate in the healing. Permission is given: they can say what they need to here. They can speak the truth.

This is an ancient way but I may be the only one in the room who knows this right now. It has occurred everywhere, across cultures. How many aeons have women gathered like this, spoken from the heart? Yet many have forgotten the formidable force of authenticity when shared with others who care.

Even now the new woman tries to keep emotion from her face. But there it is: frozen grief. Heat that looks like ice. Pain that has been turned so far inward that it looks like meanness. It is one of the looks women wear when they have been brutalized emotionally and physically and cannot find their way back to wholeness. The wounds leave a legacy of self-hate  and a pessimism that is so deep it refuses kindness out of utter disbelief.

And yet. They open their mouths and tentative truth emerges. They start to reach beyond the impenetrable walls. Nothing bad happens here.

So the women take turns, sharing about their lives, children they want back, the health they are working on. They talk about figuring out how to be calm in the midst of stress and strong when they feel weak. They pass on information, like how to start college, how to get housing and dental care.

They tell each other they don’t know if love exists, yet love is all they want. Love for their real selves (“whoever I am now that I’m sober”). To feel deserving of it. They speak of self-forgiveness and by doing so, they also forgive each other of the crimes against life, and themselves, that they may have committed.

The new member fidgets in her chair and looks at the clock. She wishes she wasn’t here. She wants to talk on her phone, get something to eat, get high with her lover or drunk at her favorite bar. A crazy bunch of women: what on earth can they do for her?

I ask her what she thinks. She raises an eyebrow and fixes on a spot just past my head, outside. The city.

“I never liked women. Can’t trust them. Never know what they will do. I’m not too sure I want to stay in this group.”

D. says. “I never liked women, either. But, then, I never liked myself. Come back next week.”

The hour and a half comes to a close. The room is warm but it isn’t the weather or the thermostat. It is the energy generated by a group of women who are some of our best renewable resources. They are coming alive.

They help me put up the chairs and say good-bye. They trail out in pairs, talking, laughing. The new woman straggles behind until D. catches her by the arm, encourages her just enough.

The February evening reveals its beauty as the lights are turned out. The rain sings in the distance. I shut the door softly behind me.

(Written for my Tuesday night Women’s Recovery group. You have been the one of the best parts of the job I have just  left. I am on to other work with other courageous women but will not forget you.)

6 thoughts on “The Group as Lifeboat

  1. Cynthia, again you have made me want to read more. What a special job you have been doing in your profession. It has to be a calling. And….to then be able to use words to share about it is another gift….thanks for sharing…..

    1. Sue –sorry I called you Maggie!–something got confused! But I do want to thank you again for your thoughts. The work is done by many across the country; I am glad to be among them. For me the work is a calling, as you noted, but that is another story altogether. I am always looking for opportunities to assist women, especially, in their struggle to rise up from the misery and tragedy of addiction. Hope leads the way; I just follow.

  2. Dear Cynthia,
    Our friend, Sue Nelson, recently forwarded your blog to me. I have read a number of your posts & just love your writing style!!! It is special to have shared a few years in a similar environment & so poignant to read your posts about your father.Glad to read that you are well & hope you will keep writing!!!!
    Love, Maggie

    1. Maggie, how good to hear from you! I’m happy you are reading and appreciating my writing and hope you will stay tuned. I do enjoy writing about my family and members, as well as the addictions treatment field and recovery from heart disease. But I also love to prattle on about random topics that intrigue or entertain me. I publish posts every two weeks at this time. Take good care.

  3. cynthia – this is perfection. i can almost feel every heartbeat and sigh; the pain is palpable, and the tentative hope. what great service you do and how well you write

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