From the hills of Tiburon, Belvedere Island looks like a great green turtle with all of its parts pulled in. It's covered with eucalyptus, cedars, rhododendrons, manicured lawns.
I had come back to live in Tiburon. It was 1982, I was twenty-eight, and I had just broken up with a man in a neighboring county. He was the love of my life, and I of his, but things were a mess. We were taking a lot of cocaine and psychedelic mushrooms, and drinking way too much. When I moved out, he moved back in with his wife and son. My dad had been dead for three years. My mother still practiced law in Hawaii, my oldest brother John had moved even farther away, and my younger brother had, in the most incongruous act of our family's history, joined the army.
When my boyfriend and I split up, I had called a divorced friend named Pat who'd lived in Tiburon for twenty years; I had baby-sat for her kids when I was young. She had loved me since I was eleven. I said I needed a place to regroup for a couple of weeks. Then I stayed for a year and a half. (Let this be a lesson.)
She worked in the city all day so I had the house to myself, I woke up quite late every morning, always hung over, the shades drawn, the air reeking of cigarettes and booze. The whole time I stayed at her house, I kept drinking from her one bottle of Dewars. Most nights I'd sip wine or beer while she and I hung out, eating diet dinners together. Then after she'd gone to bed nice and early every night, I'd pour myself the first of sixteen ounces of Scotch. I'd put music on the stereo -- Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty -- and dance. Sometimes I would dance around with a drink in my hand. Other times, I would toss down my drink and then sit on the couch in reveries -- of romance, of seeing my dad again, of being on TV talk shows, chatting with Johnny Carson, ducking my head down while the audience laughed at my wit, then reaching demurely for my glass of Scotch. My self-esteem soared, and when the talk show ended in my mind, I would dance.
I took a sleeping pill with the last glass of Scotch every night, woke up late, wrote for a couple of hours, and then walked to one of four local liquor stores to buy a pint of Dewars. Back at Pat's, I would pour the whiskey back into the big bottle, raising the level back to where it had been before I started the night before. Then I'd put the empty in a brown paper bag and take off for the bike path to dispose of it.
There were many benches along the way with beautiful views of Richardson Bay. Some of them had trash cans next to them, but others did not, and I'd be frantic to get rid of my empty bottles. Certainly someone might interpret them as a sign that I had developed some sort of drinking problem. But sometimes I'd be forced to leave the bag on a bench where there was no trash can, and I lived in terror of someone running up to me holding out the paper bag, calling, "Oh, Misssss, you forgot something." Then they'd drop it, and it would shatter inside the brown bag, and the jig would be up.
I was scared much of the time. There were wonderful aspects to my life -- I was writing, I loved my friends, I lived amidst all this beauty. I got to walk with Pammy several times a week, along the bike path or over in Mill Valley where she was living happily ever after with her husband. Every night I'd swear I wouldn't hit Pat's Scotch again, maybe instead just have a glass of wine or two. But then she'd go to bed, and without exactly meaning to, I'd find myself in the kitchen, quietly pouring a drink.
Life was utterly schizophrenic. I was loved and often seemed cheerful, but fear pulsed inside me. I was broke, clearly a drunk, and also bulimic. One night I went to bed so drunk and stuffed with food that I blacked out. When I awoke, feeling quite light, I got on the scale. Then I called Pat at work with my great news: "I lost five pounds last night!"
"And I found it," she said. It seemed she had cleaned up after me.
- - - - - - - - - -
I made seven thousand dollars that year and could not afford therapy or enough cocaine. Then my married man called again, and we took to meeting in X-rated motels with lots of coke, tasteful erotic romps on TV like "The Bitch of the Gestapo." But it was hard for him to get away. I'd pine away at Pat's, waiting for her to go to sleep so I could dance.
I was cracking up. It was like a cartoon where something gets hit, and one crack appears, which spiderwebs outward until the whole pane or vase is cracked and hangs suspended for a moment before falling into a pile of powder on the floor. I had not yet heard the Leonard Cohen song in which he sings, "There are cracks, cracks, in everything, that's how the light gets in." I had the cracks but not the hope.
In pictures of Pammy and me taken then, she weighs a lot more than I. I'm skinny, insubstantial, as if I want to disappear altogether and my body is already starting to, piece by piece like the Cheshire cat. Pammy looks expansive and buttery and smiling. I look furtive, like a deer surprised in a heinous act.
I'm always squinting in these pictures, too, baffled, suspicious -- get this over with, my eyes say. Pammy's hair is no longer wild blonde hippie-girl hair. Now it falls in soft waves to her shoulders. My hair is in a long fuzzy Afro, a thicket behind which I'm trying to hide. Pammy gives off natural charm, like someone who is dangling a line with something lovely attached, saying, Come play with us -- we're worth it! While I'm saying, Go away! Stop bothering me!
I kept the extent of my drinking a secret from her. And in a show of control, played to an often empty house, I'd try to wait until five for the first beer. But this other person inside me would start crying, Help me. So I'd get us a little something to tide us over.
It was so frustrating to be in love with an unavailable married man that of course I found a second one. He was a dentist, who met me in fancy hotels, with lots of cocaine and always some Percodan to take the edge off. He was also doing nitrous oxide after hours, but he wouldn't share. I tried everything to get him to bring me a little soupçon of nitrous, but never got it. When he reported one night that his wife had torn at one of her eyes in despair over our affair and that he'd taken her to Emergency four days before, I thought, "God, is your wife a mess."
But a feather of truth floated inside the door of my mind that night -- the truth that I was crossing over to the dark side. I still prayed but was no longer sure anyone heard. I called a suicide hot line two days later, but hung up when someone answered. Heaven forbid someone should think I needed help. I was a Lamott -- Lamotts give help.
I kept walking into town on the bike path to dispose of my bottle and buy another; the path was where the railroad tracks used to be. I'd turn right on Beach Road and walk along the west shore of Belvedere Island, passing below the big concrete Episcopal church on the hill. I'd actually spent some time at St. Stephen's as a child. My mother and I would go there for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve every year, and I went with assorted friends every so often. It looked like a PG&E substation. I'd heard from family friends that there was a new guy preaching, named Bill Rankin, an old civil rights priest who had gotten this stolid congregation mobilized behind issues of peace and justice. I wasn't remotely ready for Christianity, though -- I mean, I wasn't that far gone. Still, I had never stopped believing in God since that day in Eva Gossman's class. Mine was a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus.
Then one afternoon in my dark bedroom, the cracks webbed all the way through me. I believed that I would die soon, from a fall or an overdose. I knew there was an afterlife but felt that the odds of my living long enough to get into heaven were almost nil. They couldn't possibly take you in the shape I was in. I could no longer imagine how God could love me.
But in my dark bedroom at Pat's that afternoon, out of nowhere it crossed my mind to call the new guy at St. Stephen's.
So I did. He was there, and I started to explain that I was losing my mind, but he interrupted to say with real anguish that he was sorry but he had to leave. He literally begged me to call back in the morning, but I couldn't form any words in reply. It was like in the movies when the gangster is blowing bubbles through the bullet hole in his neck. There was this profound silence, except for my bubbling. Then he said, "Listen. Never mind. I'll wait. Come on in."
It took me forty-five minutes to walk there, but this skinny middle-aged guy was still in his office when I arrived. My first impression was that he was smart and profoundly tenderhearted. My next was that he was really listening, that he could hear what I was saying, and so I let it all tumble out -- the X-rated motels, my father's death, a hint that maybe every so often I drank too much.
I don't remember much of his response, except that when I said I didn't think God could love me, he said, "God has to love you. That's God's job." Some years later I asked him to tell me about this first meeting. "I felt," he said, "that you had gotten yourself so tangled up in big God questions that it was suffocating you. Here you were in a rather desperate situation, suicidal, clearly alcoholic, going down the tubes. I thought the trick was to help you extricate yourself enough so you could breathe again. You said your prayers weren't working anymore, and I could see that in your desperation you were trying to save yourself: so I said you should stop praying for a while, and let me pray for you. And right away, you seemed to settle down inside."
"What did you hear in my voice when I called?"
"I just heard that you were in trouble."
He was about the first Christian I ever met whom I could stand to be in the same room with. Most Christians seemed almost hostile in their belief that they were saved and you weren't. Bill said it bothered him too, but you had to listen to what was underneath their words. What did it mean to be saved, I asked, although I knew the word smacked of Elmer Gantry for both of us.
"You don't need to think about this," he said.
"Just tell me."
"I guess it's like discovering you're on the shelf of a pawnshop, dusty and forgotten and maybe not worth very much. But Jesus comes in and tells the pawnbroker, 'I'll take her place on the shelf. Let her go outside again.'"
When I met him for a second time in his office, he handed me a quote of Dag Hammarskjöld's: "I don't know Who or What put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment, I did answer Yes." I wanted to fall to my knees, newly born, but I didn't. I walked back home to Pat's and got out the Scotch. I was feeling better in general, less out of control, even though it would be four more years before I got sober. I was not willing to give up a life of shame and failure without a fight. Still, a few weeks later, when Bill and I met for our first walk, I had some progress to report: I had stopped meeting the love of my life at X-rated motels. I still met him at motels, but nicer ones. I had stopped seeing the man with the bleeding wife. I felt I had standards again -- granted, they were very low standards, but still ...
Slowly I came back to life. I'd been like one of the people Ezekiel comes upon in the valley of dry bones -- people who had really given up, who were lifeless and without hope. But because of Ezekiel's presence, breath comes upon them; spirit and kindness revive them. And by the time I was well enough for Bill even to consider tapering off our meetings, I had weaseled my way into his heart. I drank, he led a church, and together we went walking every week all over Belvedere Island, all over the back of that great green turtle.