Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Other Me

It's 9:10am on a regular Monday morning, and I scurry into the convenience store to buy milk.

My thoughts are absorbed by the day; it's unusually full with work, customers coming by, a play date, an appointment and kids' activities.  I'm carefully choreographing the timing of everything, how I'm going to fit it all in, when I notice the woman in front of me in the line to pay.

She holds only one item: a gallon of cheap white wine.   She cradles it in the crook of her arm like a baby, and stares steadfastly at the floor.

My heart drops like a stone; thoughts of my day vanish instantly.   There is only one reason to buy a cheap gallon of wine at 9:15am on a Monday, and everyone in line knows it.  

It is her turn to pay, and she plunks the bottle down on the counter, rummaging through her purse with trembling hands.

"Anything else?" the cashier asks in a casual tone, but he is staring intently at her face.

She avoids his gaze and shakes her head.  "No," she replies in a whisper.  "Just this, please."

He places the bottle in a brown paper bag and hands over her change.   Her hands are shaking badly as she stuffs the bills into her purse and three coins fall to the floor.   Without stopping to pick them up she rushes out the door.

The cashier gives me a knowing, sad look as I pay for my milk.   Oh, if you only knew, I think as I give him a polite smile, that woman was me.    That woman still lives in me, just under the surface.     The Other Me.

As I cross the parking lot I notice her sitting behind the wheel of the car parked next to mine.  Her face is pressed into her hands, and her shoulders shake slightly.   I think she might be crying.

I reach for my door handle and sneak a glance her way.   The brown paper bag rests in her lap, and she is crying.    She turns her face away from me as she fumbles for her keys and starts her car.     I don't want to stare, to make her feel more uncomfortable, but it's hard not to look.   I give her a small smile as she looks over my way to back her car out of the parking spot.  I don't think she sees it, and as she pulls away I stand with my hand still resting on my car door handle, lost in thought.

I think about all the times I'd chat nervously with the liquor store cashier as I purchased my nightly supply, waiting until 5pm to keep up appearances:  Oh, ahahaha, do you think this red will go nicely with steak?   Perhaps I should get a white, too?   Or: I'm stocking up for an impromptu dinner party, it would be nice if my husband would give me a little advance warning, you know?     Every day a different liquor store, every time the nervous chatter, thinking my ruse was working.  

And then, towards the end, I was the woman with my eyes glued to the floor, trembling hands handing over crumpled bills, the sun still high in the sky.   I no longer bothered with the inane banter.  I didn't  go to a different liquor store every day.   What was the point?   I just needed my fix, and I knew that the cashiers and everyone in line knew it, too.

As I watch her tail-lights recede down the road, I send up a silent prayer.   Please keep her safe, I think, please let her discover, some day, that there is a way out of that living hell.  

I drive off and go about my day, carrying the woman - and the Other Me - close to my heart.


  1. Love, love, love this Ellie!
    So sad but true, scary that we are all just one drink away from returning to that hell!

  2. I can hardly even imagine the "Other Me" that you talk about. "This You" - Strong, successful, in control and so beautiful. Another amazing post, Ellie. I love your writing.

  3. oh my, that is heartbreaking. thanks for sharing so poignantly with us. Hugs.

  4. I had this experience just two months in, standing at the drugstore behind a shabby looking dude buying a jug of liquor at 11 a.m. Lord. Really puts things in perspective.

    I recognize all that inane banter. I still feel bits of embarrassment when I look back on it.

    I will pray for her and I am grateful to you for this reminder.

  5. I feel for her... memories and emotions wash over me with this story.

  6. Oh my goodness. What a powerful story on many levels. Congratulations to you for breaking that cycle and I too hope that she finds her way out of the hell she is in. Thanks for sharing this, wonderfully written x

  7. I'm a little nervous to ask this question, but I'm going to anyway. Feel free not to answer. What stopped you from attempting some kind of conversation with her, providing a resource like Crying Out Now so that when she is ready she could have a safe place to turn? Was it one of those times where it didn't come to you in the moment?
    I don't mean this to be at all confrontational, please don't take it that way... I'm just wondering.

  8. I thought the same thing as Amy for just a moment but then it occurred to me how humiliated I would have been if someone did that to me. No telling how she would have reacted.
    Then I thought maybe just handing her a card with a web link might not be too invasive...not sure how I would have felt about that....
    Just rambling. Great story.

  9. This one totally broke my heart.

    There is no "them."


  10. Amy - I just wrote this LONG comment in reply to your question, and then my computer crashed and I lost it ALL. UGH. So here is a shorter version of what I said...

    I'm glad you asked the question - NO need to be nervous here. :) I'll offer my two cents, but I'd love to hear from anyone else about what they think.

    Bottom line, for me, it's a personal safety issue. Even in the relative safety and comfort of my program of recovery (AA), I never approach anyone I don't know without help - I bring someone else with me. ALWAYS. I've learned the hard way that tackling this on my own can be tricky (if not downright dangerous, but I've never been in personal danger of injury) from a boundary perspective and also from a trigger perspective ... anytime I'm around someone who is actively drinking or doing drugs I need to have a wingman.

    Also, in the case of the woman in the store, I would worry that my approaching her would trigger some kind of episode - either anger, embarrassment or humiliation, and I don't know what she's driving off to do ... work? home? children? She may politely respond to me in person, but then go home and take her humilation out on her family/friends.

    ANY TIME I'm approaching someone who is struggling but hasn't ASKED for the help, it involves planning, reinforcements and a good support network for me.

    I play the scenario out in my head, too - let's say I approach her and she says she WANTS help .. (this wouldn't happen, but let's say it did) what then? To I bring this woman to my house? Let her get in my car? Even handing her a card is giving her personal information about me, and that opens a door that makes me uncomfortable.

    I know some people in AA carry "AA cards" that don't have any peronal information, but direct someone to an email account or the AA website. Most of the people I know who do this are men. I have learned the hard way that I can get embroiled in situations that, while they don't threaten my personal safety, DO threaten my emotional safety.

    I said this would be short -- oops! :)

    I'd love to hear from other people - anyone else have any other thoughts/advice suggestions about this?

    Hmmm... I think maybe there is a future blog post in there somewhere.. :)


  11. Ellie, you replied to me on FB but I had another question. I understand why someone in recovery would need a wingman, as it were. But, if it had been you and maybe someone like me, who, thankfully, hasn't had those demons to deal with, had seen you. Would it have mattered? I wouldn't approach someone who appeared violent or dangerous and offer to hug them, but say that it was ME who saw her/the other you crying. I would ask if you were OK? Did you need some help? Would that still not be acceptable? I am one of those weird people who want to reach out to those who are struggling and lighten their load, if at all possible. Still not advisable? I understand that I wouldn't know where she was coming from at that moment and wouldn't know if there was a possiblilty that she could go home and take it out on her kids or whatever...that's not something I would have even thought about. I would just seen her as a child of God hurting. That's why I love reading your blog. It is helping me to understand this disease and the pain it causes. I have tried to never judge others because it's not in my nature. And I haven't traveled a mile in their shoes. So I want to understand boundaries to helping. Sorry this is so long, but I am sincere in my wanting to help but not 'enable' or disrupt. Hope this makes sense.

  12. Marlene - You ask REALLY good questions - thank you. And I love this discussion, because it is so important.

    I don't have an answer, though. All I can speak from is my own experience, and I try to picture how I would have felt if I was that woman and someone like you offered out a hand, a hug, or kind words. The truth, as ugly as it is, is that it wouldn't have worked, at least not for me. I would have been polite and respectful, but deeply ashamed, embarrassed and possible even angry (on the inside). It's a sad reality, I think, that offering help to people deep in their disease, who aren't asking for help, is a dangerous prospect all the way around, especially to a stranger, but even within the loving confines of a family (as loved ones of alcoholics can attest to).

    I am like you - not judgmental at all, and always wanting to help. Other people's pain effects me DEEPLY. The hardest lesson I have learned, in recovery, is to understand when and how I can be of help, and even then there is very little I can do but wait until someone WANTS the help and then get them talking, etc. I have never had a time when I tried to help someone that didn't want the help where it didn't end badly for me and for the other person. It makes me sad, but it's true.

    Having said that, I'd LOVE other people to jump in and offer their insights/opinions - especially other people in recovery. You can post anonymously, if you want, but if anyone out there has any other thoughts to lend, I'd love to hear them. I am far from having the answer.

    Thank you for asking the good (hard) questions. It's so important to talk about this stuff openly.


  13. I love your blog, Ellie. I don't often leave a comment, but I want to almost every time. You are touching people, even if you don't know it. Thank you for posting. You have a gift!

  14. It hadn't even occurred to me that it could be dangerous situation, or like you said, she could be going home to her children. I guess it is quite complicated. Thanks for responding Ellie!

  15. Wow, such a deep and moving post. Thanks for sharing this one. I hope she is okay. I'll pray for her and for you also. Keep up with great and touching posts.