“I was surrounded by the world’s luckiest people in a culture that doesn’t believe in luck.”Kate Bowler
Shirley turned up at a beach meeting one Saturday morning. She had beautiful, long grey dreadlocks pulled back in a bun, and an impossible to resist smile. She’d just moved to Connecticut from the midwest and did not drive, so she was delighted to find out there was a recovery meeting on the beach right next to where she lived. Actually, Shirley was delighted about a lot of things.
After the meeting, the circle dispersed and she and I hung back, chatting. She asked what meetings I liked to attend, and wondered if she could get to any of them by bus. I offered to give her rides to a meeting or two a week. I was still early in sobriety and was not working yet, so my schedule was flexible in that I didn’t really have one. I was struck by how gracefully she received the offer. I was still in a place of feeling as though I deserved nothing, I was loathe to be an imposition on anyone, and would likely have walked five miles rather than feel as though someone was going out of their way for me. She smiled at me and said, “Wasn’t it lucky to meet you today?”
For the next several months, I drove Shirley to a meeting every Monday and Wednesday night. Every time I pulled up to her building she’d be waiting outside. When she saw me, she would clap her hands once and leave them in the prayer position while she beamed at me. I’d done nothing more than do the simple thing I said I’d do, but Shirley made me feel like I hung the moon.
When I think about that time in my life, it calls to mind the line from The Little Drummer Boy,
“I have no gifts to bring, pa rum pum pum pum.”
I felt like I had nothing to offer. I’d go to meetings, and I was the new person who didn’t understand what was expected of me or how on earth I was going to do this impossible thing. I was the crying girl, surrounded by happy people who seemed to have cracked some code that still remained a mystery to me. Not the code of how not to drink – I was doing that. The code of how not to be miserable while not drinking. In the span of a few years time, I’d gone from feeling like a capable part of the solution to an incompetent problem. At a time when everyone in my life was either angry at me, exhausted by me, or unsure of me, Shirley made me feel useful.
One of us was doing a great service. The other one was me.
Shirley lived all the way across town and the meetings I frequented were only about five minutes from where I lived. One night after I picked her up I had to run home before the meeting to drop something off. I parked outside the house and ran the thing in, then we drove to the church. When she realized how close I lived to where the meeting was, she reached over and patted my arm. “Imagine that,” she said.
On the ride home, Shirley would talk. She’d been sober a long time. Sometimes she’d reflect on someone we’d met at the meeting or what someone had shared, and she always said the same thing, “We don’t all get on the elevator at the same floor.”
We get dealt a certain hand of cards over which we have no agency. Just like at a poker table, you get what you get. Now, maybe you’re a skilled player and can parlay a mediocre hand into a jackpot win, but maybe you got crappy cards to begin with and no one told you how the game is even played. To pretend that race and gender and sexuality and socioeconomic status and class and ability and your family of origin don’t factor into the trajectory of our lives is ludicrous. Woe betide those of us born on third who think we hit a triple.
When explaining the difference between equality and equity, I always go to the ladder analogy. Equality is we’re all in holes, and we all get the same help – a six foot ladder. Problem is, not all holes are the same. Some of us are minor divots and someone of us are in caverns, eighteen feet deep. If I’m in an eighteen foot hole and someone gives me a six foot ladder, that’s the same as no ladder – because the point is to get me out of the damned hole.
Equity is we get the ladder we need to bring us to the surface. Maybe it’s a step stool and maybe it’s one of those huge extension ladders that painters use. That doesn’t mean some of us are getting more than our share or “extra help,” it means we are all getting the help we need.
The hole I found myself in felt bottomless. It was dark and deep, and the climb out felt impossible – but the reality is, I had a few supportive people in my life, I had a safe place to live, I had money in the bank, and I was in a town where there were a ton of recovery meetings, and loads of women to serve as mentors and guides. I had friends who were sober, one of whom I texted on my way to my first meeting who essentially got me from sitting, frozen in terror in my Subaru, into the room that saved my life. I had layers and layers of privilege and good fortune. Not everyone gets that.
Seneca famously said, “Luck is where opportunity meets preparation,” which implies some kind of agency and deservedness. Whatever. Sometimes luck is just luck. I got sober in a town where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a solid recovery meeting. I didn’t prepare for that, and I sure as shit didn’t earn it. It always strikes me as funny that the people most inclined to dismiss their own privilege (which is luck) are frequently the first ones to decry their own bad luck when life hands them a raw deal. If there’s bad luck, there’s good. Luck is luck is luck.
If we were at a meeting and someone shared something painful or traumatic, Shirley would lean forward, put her hands on her knees, and say under her breath, “Oh. What a thing.” If someone shared something wonderful or hilarious, Shirley would clasp her hands together, laugh and say, “Laurie,” – she always called me Laurie – “What a thing!”
Many people in recovery are fond of saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I mean… yes. But also, bullshit. That flies in the face of what grace is- undeserved. I get it – the notion that any of us does this on our own is nonsense. Help and grace often go hand in hand, but they are separate and not equal. No one gets any more or less grace than anyone else. God always wanted for me what God wants for all of God’s children. Health, happiness, peace, love. Grace is undeserved by definition, so the notion that God has more grace for some of us than others is appalling. What a shitty little god that would be. We all get the same grace, we definitely don’t all get the same help. And luck? Forget about it. The world is wildly unfair when it comes to luck.
I was lucky that when I hit rock bottom, I was with my cousin, who loved me unconditionally and who lovingly told me some very hard truths. I’m lucky that I was greeted by a swooper at my first meeting who made it her mission to see that I went to a second meeting. I’m lucky to have been reborn into a community of women who encircled me, protected me, scolded me, and taught me. I’m lucky that while I was drinking I didn’t die or kill someone else. I’m lucky I’m not in jail. That would be fair. I’m lucky I didn’t irreparably harm my body. I’m lucky to have found purpose and a creative life and love.
It’s an embarrassment of riches.
Don’t misunderstand me. All the grace and all the luck and all the help in the world are not enough without the willingness to do the work. I have worked my ass off. I continue to work my ass off. But I would be ungrateful and ridiculous if I didn’t acknowledge the leg up I had on any number of levels. I have seen people positively drenched in privilege who’ve had every intervention, resource, and support thrown at them and they cannot or will not do their part. I have also seen deeply good people who wanted recovery desperately die trying to get there, because their co-occurring mental health issues or trauma or life circumstances proved to be a hole too deep.
We are not all in the same hole.
I’m lucky, on this summer morning, 2,557 mornings into this second life I’ve been granted, to be waking up next to someone who adores me and is solid as a rock. Imagine that. I am lucky to be waking up at all. There are so many deeply good, kind, hilarious, brave people I’ve met along the way who aren’t waking up sober today. Or they’re just not waking up. Anyone sober is a survivor, because not all of us do. Not all of us survive.
My good fortune knows no end.
For seven years now, I’ve been awash in grace and help and luck – and I’ll take all of it. I’ll take it with gratitude, astonishment, and delight.
What a thing.