This is the first time I’ve been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It’s in Lemon Grove, and I’m sitting in a large room with about 40 others. I’m a bit ill at ease since, I’m not here for the same reason as everyone else.
But then I relax and start to enjoy myself. The people I meet and listen to are friendly and have what I enjoy — robust humor. Beyond that, they also have what I admire — courage.
One guy relates what happened when he first attended AA and wasn’t quite ready to commit. A man there told him, “If you’re too young to be an alcoholic, you are. If you’re too smart, you are. If you’re too tough, you are.” The man then told him, “Come back when you’re ready.”
The speaker concludes, “God never knocked a drink out of my hand. What finally convinced me to be here was the booze — too much of it.”
The next speaker is a middle-age woman, one of the leaders of this chapter. She is animated and well-spoken. Words come quickly and clearly. She is not shy and a far cry from dumb.
She tells of her own experience with alcoholism and ends by saying, “I’m not sure who God is, but he knows me. He knows who I am, and what I am. I’m an alcoholic.”
The woman is Debbie Bailey, and she is why I’m here.
If you saw Debbie from across a room, she would not linger in your memory. She lives by herself in San Diego, is 57, permanently separated, childless and of a grandmotherly countenance. You would never imagine her as a “Texas Hold ’Em” dealer at a local card club. But if you were aware of what she has been through, your eyebrows would climb up your brow.
I puzzle over how to describe Debbie. And then I remember a boxer of an earlier time named “Scrap Iron” Johnson. Ol’ Scrap Iron would just keep wading in, attacking the other fighter’s gloves with his face. He took naps on many canvases, but he also won his share.
Debbie is Scrap Iron. You’d have to knock her out to stop her.
Debbie was raised in Kensington in a middle-class family, the oldest of four children — three girls and a boy. But that changed on May 2, 1970, when she was 12. Her 5-year-old brother, Warren, went with the youngest sister, Maureen, 8, to a canyon pond where the kids played. There, the little boy, who couldn’t swim, was pushed into the water by a larger boy and drowned.
Debbie’s mother and father rushed to the scene. As her mother fainted, her father had to wade out and retrieve the boy’s body.
The boy’s death traumatized and shattered the family. “We went from a stable family of six to five people just living in the same house,” Debbie says. “Nobody talked about what happened to my brother. Basically, we kids were left on our own.”
Other families have suffered tragedy, but then recovered and went on with life. Why didn’t Debbie’s?
“My parents didn’t seek professional help for the family; instead, they fell victim to their own grief, and the family suffered,” she says.
In the midst of a shattered family, Debbie persevered through a normal growing-up and graduated from Hoover High School. However, it wasn’t long before her sisters, three and four years younger, took to the streets. They were barely out of middle school when they got into alcohol, drugs and sex, Debbie says.
She tried to talk to the girls, but it availed nothing. “They thought I was an idiot for not joining them,” she says. Finally, the youngest girl, Maureen, slashed her wrists at age 12 and was hospitalized.
“I went to her hospital bed and tried to talk to her about it, but she would only turn her head.”
The incident compelled the entire family to seek counseling, but it was too late, Debbie says.
In late 1977, an incident happened that would haunt Debbie and helped drive her to drink. She was walking along El Cajon Boulevard and happened to see 15-year-old Maureen waiting outside a store.
“It’s December, and she’s in a halter top, jeans with holes, and barefoot. She beckons from across the street and tells me she’s waiting for a man inside to buy her liquor. She says she’s run away again. I say, ‘Please, go home,’ and she says, ‘Why? There’s nothing for me there.’”
Debbie says Maureen reached out for a hug, and Debbie embraced her, but reluctantly because she was dirty. That reticence would trouble Debbie later.
Six weeks later, Maureen’s body was found in a ravine in Ramona, presumably dead of a drug and alcohol overdose. The theory was that whoever she was partying with panicked and took her body to Ramona and dumped it. Forensics were made difficult because animals had gotten to the body. The cause of death was never made definite, and no one involved was identified.
Debbie was 20 at the time and had little experience with alcohol, because “I wanted to be normal.” However, soon after Maureen’s awful death, the accumulated baleful memories of her life crashed down on her.
One day, after her shift as a dealer in a local card club, on what would have been Maureen’s birthday, she sat down at a bar and, in answer to some strange impulse, started drinking red wine. The more she drank, the more wonderful it became.
“For the first time in my life, I felt free. I felt comfortable in my own skin. I wasn’t worried about anything. I loved it. In that moment, I knew why people drank.”
That was the first day of a 10-year spree for Debbie. “I got drunk every day. I was never afraid of doing or saying anything ever again. There was no thinking about repercussions, there was no thinking about consequences. I dealt poker while drunk. I did exactly what I wanted, when I wanted and how I wanted.
“All the ways that I had ignored Maureen, they just vanished into thin air. I was this great and wonderful sister. It made me forget that the last time I saw her, I was ashamed of her. I was ashamed of my own sister.”
Once delivered into the arms of alcohol, Debbie remained faithful to it. She married but says her husband was a heavy crystal meth user. Certainly not the man to lead her out of the wilderness. She started mixing booze with cocaine, which she says, “Made me a wide-awake drunk. I was up for three days straight drinking and doing coke.”
Eventually, the husband disappeared, never to be heard from again.
At age 26, Debbie was told she had to have a hysterectomy — and had to abstain for 24 hours before surgery. The operation had to be postponed three times because she couldn’t meet that condition.
Alcohol pretends to be kind to its abusers for a while. The stamina of youth is used to trick alcoholics into thinking they can handle it. But booze eventually beats down every body.
At age 30 in 1987, Debbie lost her job, drifted to Los Angeles and found work in a casino there. One day, she started drinking before work. “I had five or six shots, and I couldn’t get drunk.”
For the first time, she looked into the mirror behind the bar and saw what she had become. “I thought, ‘Debbie, you are disgusting.’ I couldn’t get away from me. I couldn’t get drunk so I couldn’t get away from me.
“I went into the bathroom and I started crying, and I’m in the bathroom curled up on the floor in the fetal position, and I say to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I’m an alcoholic.’ Then the words that came out of my mouth were, ‘God, please help me.’”
That was her turnaround moment. Why then? Why there? No one knows when an addict might look into the mirror. It’s enough that it can happen.
Debbie returned to San Diego and stayed with her mother for three weeks. She first had to endure two weeks of the DTs. “I didn’t go into a hospital. I did it cold turkey. I had the shakes, I had insomnia, I had itching that I just can’t even begin to describe to you.”
She made her way to AA, found herself among friendly ex-drunks who understood, and it became an anchor of her life.
She had a test early on. “The first time I found out that my boyfriend had been unfaithful, I actually went to a bar, ordered a shot of tequila and a beer back. I had them sitting in front of me, and then remembered I promised my sponsor that I would call before I ever took a drink.
“So, I called her and she just went nuts: ‘What are you doing there? Get the hell out of that bar! Get over here right now!’ And I did.”
Beginning in 1995, she spent five years in Mendocino County working for a woman on a farm. While there, she earned three associate degrees at College of the Redwoods. And she stayed sober.
She’s back working as a dealer at a San Diego card club. It’s what she can make a living at. She says she’s no longer tempted to drink, but she’s wary of even saying that because she can’t take sobriety for granted.
Debbie’s been sober for 27 years. That’s 9,861 days and 236,664 hours.
She also has not sought a new romantic relationship for several years. She says, “I needed to be in love for most of my life, but I don’t need to be in love anymore. It has freed me from dependence, and it has made me a better person with more interests and a larger life. I mean, I’m obsessive-compulsive. When I’m into somebody, nothing exists but that person.”
Debbie’s other sister went her own way and got deeply into drugs, including heroin, Debbie says. To this day, Debbie only knows that she’s on the streets somewhere. She gets phone calls from time to time, but Debbie realizes she can’t help unless her sister wants it. So she tells her sister they can have no relationship without the determination to get drug-free.
Do you feel guilty that you’ve pushed away your remaining sister?
“No, I do not. She doesn’t want help. She’s still out there.”
A lot of Debbie’s free time has been spent writing a children’s book that she thinks encapsulates the lessons of her life, scaled down to a small child’s level. It’s about an 8-year-old girl who is rescued by a family of orcas. Debbie says the theme is family love and reunification.
The book is titled “Orion and the Orcas.” It’s beautifully illustrated and passionately written, and available on Amazon.
In trying to explain the mystery of the alcoholic’s mind, Debbie says, “It’s not that we just don’t drink like normal people drink, we don’t think like normal people think.”
Alcohol can be the velvety taste of a fine wine, or it can be a yellow-eyed predator that scratches for claw grips in wounded psyches. Debbie says everyone who raises a glass gambles that it’s the first, and not the second.
Debbie Bailey’s life was crippled, but today she is whole. Tomorrow, she has to stay whole all over again.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org