EMPTY CHAIRS AA

The Plague-Ground – “My Name’s Bob and I’m an…”

Thirty years ago today, I left Talbott Recovery Center in Atlanta where I’d been in treatment for four months for cocaine addiction.

I flew home to Toronto where Jean met me at the airport and took me directly to the plot of land on Georgian Bay where we pitched a tent and where we are today, sheltering from the pandemic in our cottage.

The next morning, I woke in our tiny tent, squiggled out of my sleeping bag, lifted myself out the front of the tent, stood up and……impaled my foot on a board with a nail sticking out. Ouch!

Jean looked at it and said: “Well, we’d better go to the hospital.” So off we drove the 20 km to Georgian Bay General Hospital where the nurse asked me if I was allergic to any drugs, and I said, not 24 hours after leaving treatment: “Yes, I can’t take narcotics.” But the bigger irony was that, after they patched me up, I didn’t leave the hospital. I just went to a different room for my Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, held there every Sunday at 11 a.m.

I was doing “90 in 90”, attending 90 AA meetings in 90 days. This is a way of making sure someone fresh out of treatment connects early and often with a so-called recovery community. Even though I’m an addict and not an alcoholic, the distinction blurs when you view addiction as using chemicals to dull your feelings.

In the intervening 10,958 days, I’ve steered clear of mood-altering substances of any kind. Leading the very long list of people and places like AA that have helped me is, of course, Jean who saw in me what I couldn’t and who took a very big chance. Life today is completely different from 30 years ago, and if Jean and the others weren’t there, I wouldn’t be here.

While I’ve changed, so has the world’s view of addiction.

Or has it?

I ask because even though it’s an illness and not a character flaw, disturbing numbers of people still believe – deep down where their words are spoken only to themselves – that addiction is not a state of being, but a badge of shame. And because what we believe is different from what we say, it’s no surprise that addiction remains one of the last great afflictions to be dragged out of the closet.

But like so many things in life, I believe that just talking about addiction can take away its hold over us. As I was told over and over in treatment: in our secrets lies our sickness.

That’s why I wrote this today, to talk about something that, for want of talk, continues to flourish, to destroy thousands of relationships, organizations, families and lives.

Doing “90 in 90” in those years before the Internet meant getting the booklet that listed all the AA meetings in a geographic area (and their subgroups: men, women, gay, sexually abused and even pilots and doctors whose meetings are deeply anonymous). It also meant calling around to make sure the meeting was still on. I remember Toronto had 200 meetings a week, so it was hard to believe when someone said: “I couldn’t find a meeting.”

My “90 in 90” days are long gone, and it’s been a while since I’ve been to an AA meeting. But I went to one last night, not in person, of course. But virtually. I found it online.

It turned out it was the weekly meeting of the same group that met in the hospital 30 years ago.  There were 32 of us on Zoom for the hour. We opened, as all AA meetings around the world do, with the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions. Then people checked in with how they felt. Most everyone knew each other, so the banter was easy, even though the subjects – lost jobs, sick parents, destructive kids and abusive partners – were the very stuff of alcoholism.

The best definition I know of an alcoholic or an addict is someone who ingests chemicals to repeated harmful effect.

Repeated……harmful……effect.

It doesn’t matter how much you use; it’s how much you hurt yourself and others that counts.

By not doing that anymore, I’ve saved myself and my world a whole lot of hurt.

So if you’re the one in 10 of us reading this who might see yourself in those words, I can tell you it doesn’t have to be like this.

It seems even a pandemic can’t stop an alcoholic who wants to stop, stop.

*          *          *          *          *

Get your tickets to the TWO upcoming RamsayTalks Online: May 14th  with Jared Diamond, “one of the deepest thinkers of our time,” and May 25th with Roger McNamee who believes tech is too important to operate without adult supervision.

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66 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – “My Name’s Bob and I’m an…””

  1. Dear Bob: That was a very moving post. Addiction is prevalent in my family – brother-in-law who drank himself to death by 39, brother who is a poster boy for recovery, now sober for 35 years, and a son who was in treatment during high school. Susan and I spent many hours in family week sessions for brother and son and it was an eye and mind opener about the nature and shame of addiction. You are absolutely correct – in our secrets lies our sickness. Thanks for the courage in writing this.

  2. Congratulations Bob. That is no small feat. I have family members who have walked that long walk to wellness themselves (and one who is finding her way right now in rehab). At 30+ years along, they still value their meetings, their Big Books and are ever-generous with their time, support, unconditional love for others who they help and get help from along the way. I am always in awe of the grit, determination and life-long commitment to themselves and to sobriety that they have. And I am very grateful that somehow, somewhere along the way, they found a way to love themselves as much as we loved them. Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. And Trish, thank YOU for sharing the above….”they found a way to love themselves as much as we loved them.”
      Yup…..Cheers. Bob

  3. Sandra Pierce

    “The best definition I know of an alcoholic or an addict is someone who ingests chemicals to repeated harmful effect”

    Bob this comment could also be used to describe another addiction equally as life destroying – food. My deceased Dad, a psychiatrist, used to say it’s the most difficult addiction to combat because unlike drugs or alcohol we have to put food in our mouths. We can’t live without it.

    I’ve struggled with food addictions all my life – from being 200 pounds to being anorexic to bulimic. And tired of hearing “AIl it takes is will power”. or “You just don’t work out enough”.

    I hope your openness about addictions leads to a conversation about all addictions.

    Your openness is just one of the many things we love about you.

    1. “All it takes is willpower.”
      Whenever I hear that, Sandra, I want to say: “Willpower? Willpower?! I eat Willpower for breakfast!!!
      And yet, I couldn’t stop…”
      Such is the nature of addiction.
      Cheers. Bob

  4. Well, that’s a bombshell post! Thank you for telling your story here. Congratulations for 30 years of successfully keeping the addiction at bay.

  5. And thank goodness for AA and those dedicated sponsors. We all know addicts to something or other and it’s so hard to watch knowing there isn’t a thing one can do about it until they hit the bottom and admit it.
    So glad you made it Bob. How boring our quarantined days would be!

  6. Way to go Bob. There is never any shame in talking about any part of the human condition. Well done. Ciao Amigo.

  7. Good writing. Very few of us can write with such plain honesty. Proud of you and glad to say we know each other.

  8. JENNIFER ANNE GYLES

    Bravo Bob and and congratulations on your 30 years. I have been enjoying your posts and greatly appreciate the insights and bravery in your writing. Intelligence AND emotional honesty. “In our secrets lies our sickness” has special meaning for a lot of us, especially for someone like me who has come to late-in-life revelations about early-in-life experiences. I met you when I worked at Burns Cooper Hynes back in the late 1980’s and reflecting on that, can’t help but be reminded of how different outcomes can be for some. The example of your life is inspiring. We should all continue to work on saving ourselves and our world from hurt.

  9. Michele Carroll

    Thanks for dragging that biggie out of the closet. When I think addiction I think of the children -all with very long ears and way more intuition than they are credited for. They know when someone they love is an addict and that is one secret they will keep. It will haunt their every waking moment and little do they know that their friends may be keeping the same terrible secret. Children who merely watch the repeated transformation from known and loved to different and still loved will carry that pain all their lives. Often it’s at the root of their own later addiction and the generational cycle repeats. No matter how deeply the addict loves, all too often they will not see the crater of hurt and the scars they are leaving behind. Adult intervention is the only way to break the pattern of harm. You were indeed fortunate to have the love of one strong woman to help you see it through. Thanks Bob Ramsay.

  10. So glad you brought up the topic of addiction Bob – it is still something many feel great shame about. Your honesty and bravery are exactly what people need to take steps to be brave themselves. My sister has struggled with alcohol addiction for the last 25 years, and after 6 failed attempts with AA, she finally made progress. She is now 2+ years sober and just got her AA cake and party. It meant so much to her.

    During the pandemic, I’ve had countless friends and colleagues (especially women) tell me they feel their alcohol consumption is now completely out of control. This recent NYT piece sheds light on the particular problem for women: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/us/30IHW-drinking-women-coronavirus-quarantine-habit.html

    It notes: “alcohol is already marketed to women as a way of coping with the unrelenting pressure of being female in a society that judges women’s choices harshly… That was BEFORE many women were being asked to manage children’s home-learning programs, child care, work and households under social distancing orders that place most meaningful support structures out of reach…” and “I think mothers are saying, ‘I now have three or four full-time jobs, there’s no end in sight, and I’m expected to juggle it all seamlessly and cheerfully.”

    As a society, we already had our work cut out for us in dealing with the massive issue of addiction. But during and post the pandemic? It seems to be taking on a whole new, terrifying level.

  11. Breda MacLeod

    Bob, thanks for sharing this story. I takes courage to put this out there and your message is very timely. Thank goodness for people like Jean for seeing and caring when it was needed most and for you for having the courage to go through what you did to get to this place of joy in your lives. Namaste.

  12. I,ve been so proud of you for so long and even more kudos to Jean. Having been the wife of an alcoholic, not successfully, I totally appreciate Jean,s strength and of course, yours.

  13. Bob, as someone who had known you before and after, I’m very proud to have you in my life. You are a courageous person and you are lucky to have Jean in your life and the friends who took you to Atlanta 30 years ago. This is one of the most successful intervention I know of. As my people say, Mazel Tov! Wishing you and Jean a long and happy life.

    1. Thanks for connecting, Susan. Indeed, it has been a strange journey, and a happy one.
      I trust you are well and safe.
      Cheers.
      Bob

    2. And yes, Don…..I remember him well, though not as well as you, nor as painfully. The great news is, you and I are both still alive!

    3. I agree, Kirsten, the pandemic does seem to be taking addiction to a new and more frightening level. An Online AA meeting just can’t match a coffee face=to-face.
      Cheers. Bob

    4. Michele — I guess we children of alcoholics (my mother was one) know all about this generational cycle.
      Hopefully, I’ve been able to break it. Cheers and thanks for connecting. Bob

    5. Ah yes, Jennifer, Burns Cooper Hynes……and Robert especially….such a terrible tragedy.
      Thanks for connecting. Cheers. Bob

  14. Thanks Bob for this beautifully expressed, and brave message. I am full of admiration for your openness and honesty, for your strength and courage, and for Jean’s amazing support and compassion over the years.

  15. I am feeling the love for your choice of this topic as I trust you are, because it resonates with so many us. Addictions like mental illness are never beaten or over, they are just at bay. And that’s where the love of a good woman comes in. It takes fortitude every day to keep an addiction at bay and a mental illness steady as she goes, and I’ve seen the love of a good woman in my family make a hell of a big difference. I’m not going to say you’ve been lucky, because you’ve worked hard for where you are, and that’s by choices every day, not by luck, but maybe meeting Jean was the stroke of luck. 🙂

  16. Joanne Fraser

    Bob, what can I say, but as always, your words are powerful and raw. I have wonderful memories of our discussions, your openness and sharing. Thank you, and grateful for your friendship.

    1. Thanks so much, Joanne. Believe me, I DO remember those conversations…and how they helped. Cheers. Bob

  17. Franck Arnold

    Wow, thank you for your brutal honesty, and for sharing your vulnerability so openly. We need more people like you and Jean! Franck

  18. Bob – congratulations to you and Jean on this significant anniversary. Your journey is inspirational.
    look forward to reading your posts as a “human connector” at this time of isolation but this one harpooned me with its courageous and raw message. It triggered thoughts of my deep connection to a charity which supports paediatric/adolescent bipolar disorder. I know that many of these kids use alcohol and drugs to “put out the fire in their brain” and become addicted. The unbelievable toll on both them and their families is enormous, especially with limited mental health services accessible to them during the pandemic.

    1. Penny — “Put out the fire in their brain” is a good way to describe the feeling.
      Thanks for checking in. Cheers. Bob

  19. Bob, you are truly one amazing person and we are all the better for your successes in life. How fortunate for you and Jean to have met and to continue to have such a love for each other. So glad to be one of your many friends!!

    Keep up the valuable work you’re doing – you’re an inspiration and a role model! Bev

  20. What a wonderful, inspiring and brave share Bob! Now I understand why Jean strongly suggested AA when I was dealing with a family member’s addiction years ago.

  21. Wow. You are One.Courageous.Man! Happy to have met you. Congratulations on 30 clean years – without swapping one addiction for another.
    Such a topic for discussion. Addictions show themselves in so many ways – alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, shopping, sex, and I wonder..now… CoVid News addiction?

  22. Well done and so well said, Bob; honest and brave. With friends’ help and Jean’s love, you landed on your feet and have never stopped walking the walk. Your addictions to people and to words are a blessing for you and for us. Happy rebirthday and—onward!

  23. Bob, yes, I met you before and have recently (and happily) met up with you again. Let me say that the latter Bob is a very different and FAR more exhilarating conversationalist, honest and empathetic than the earlier Bob. And no doubt a Far happier soul. Jean deserves to be put in a niche with a candle lit in front of her………….celebrate as you both deserve. Lh

  24. Bob, You and Jean have had a remarkable journey together over the past 10,965 days – but who’s counting? If my memory serves me correctly, Jean was on the scene prior to that poignant day when you checked in, with a bit of assistance, to Talbot. That makes your story together even more remarkable. Thanks for your candor, your courage, your insight and your determination. Those qualities in you make all of us stronger.
    Ian

    1. Ian — In my book, I go into more detail about “a bit of assistance”, including your and Ron Estey’s intervention.
      A strange and wonderful anniversary, I have to tell you.

    2. David — You were there long before Day One……boy, when I think back to….well, I think my lips are still sealed!
      We’re all still alive and in relatively good health, and thanks for your friendship over the many many years.
      Cheers. Bob

    3. Charmaine — I’ve been lucky to avoid COVID-19 news!
      And luckier still to not be hooked on the Old Addictions.
      Cheers. Bob

    4. Many thanks, Franck. It would be great for all of us to get together for dinner when the fog clears!
      Cheers.
      Bob

  25. Patrick S. Shaw

    I want to meet Jean. She is awesome for seeing the real you. Jean, you rock. Bob, thank you for sharing this.

  26. Bob, you are a beautiful and amazing man of courage and I feel grateful and blessed to know you.
    May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace. May the good Angels surround and protect.

  27. ellen macdonald

    Hi Bob;
    Greetings from 3662 Grant Road, Souris PE. I am now enjoying retirement having celebrated my 70th on New Years Eve (past). I am inspired by reading about your journey.
    My daughter Ashling Kavavagh lives and works in London UK. I miss her very much. She describes herself as being EMac on the outside ( she does look like me) and D Kavanagh on the inside ( she has his mercurial personality). She is now 34 and says she is not coming back to Canada except to visit me. She has EU citizenship (as I do) from Dan who died in an accident when she was 10.
    I have a part-time teaching at the university here. The course is a preparation for law school. The students are all very keen. Getting accepted to law school is very competitive. I have an honorary doctorate from the university and am also a “distinguished alumnus” so the students are keen to get into my class. I learn as much from them as they do from me.
    I have a beautiful home designed to accommodate guests here with a long driveway overlooking to ocean. The house cannot be seen from the road which adds to the privacy.
    Are you still hosting your luncheons? If so, I would appreciate being added to your list so that I can coordinate one of my visits to Toronto to coincide with a luncheon.
    Lets keep in touch.
    I doubt that I can persuade you and Jean to visit but I extending the invitation. The air is prinstine ; there are many kms of hiking trails, wonderful fresh seafood and very friendly people. I attend AA once a week so if you felt inclined, you would be very welcome to our group. I look forward to hearing from you. All the best Ellen.

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