I sat in the back of the church basement while everyone chatted, hiding in a little alcove. I felt awkward and out of place, and after two weeks of coming to that church basement and others like it while trying to embrace sobriety, I wasn’t sure it was where I needed or wanted to be. I sat there, feeling petulant and angry, arms crossed and glaring at everyone around me.
Martel, a young guy with long curly hair and a funky hat, came over and sat down next to me. He asked me how I was doing, he cracked stupid jokes, and eventually I felt myself thaw toward him. He was relaxed and confident, his sobriety a comfortable mantle on his shoulders. Eventually another young man, Web, came and sat with us, and then a third young guy named Brian joined too.
While Martel told a story and gestured, I noticed his scars. “Are those your track marks?” I asked. He nodded, and stretched out his arm for me to look. Web extended his arm too, and less willingly, so did Brian. I showed them mine, my tracks marks still faintly bruised and the marks red and swollen: I’d only just stopped abusing my veins two weeks before, after all.
That moment transformed me. Sitting in a room of alcoholics, and unsure about my alcoholism still, I hadn’t felt welcome before that moment. I stayed in that room and others like it, and have now for over seventeen years.
Unfortunately, Martel did not. Years ago he relapsed, becoming a troubled ghost Charlie and I ran into on the streets occasionally, clearly high or drunk, slowly falling apart. Brian relapsed even before that, driving into a wall while high and being severely injured. Eventually, he succumbed to drug addiction and died. Web killed himself while high on crack because his girlfriend left him, shooting himself while parked in front of her house.
And yesterday I learned that Martel, that bright and shining young man that sat with me so kindly that day, has lost his long battle as well. The disease of addiction finally cut him down.
Three young men saved me that day, and now they are all dead.
Like Web and Brian, I’d said my goodbye to Martel many years ago when it became clear that sobriety wasn’t something he wanted. But I still am so, so sad to hear that he’s died.
Thank you, Martel, for changing my mind that day. For giving me a gift you couldn’t keep for yourself.