Earlier today, I was talking to a client about the pickle jar lady and I realized that I had never written about her, which is a shame because I owe her my life…
My sobriety date is December 17, 1994. I was in treatment over Christmas and New Year’s and if I remember correctly, it was one of the coldest and snowiest winters we had had in a very long time. I can remember standing outside of the cafeteria, smoking a cigarette in my pajamas and parka, holding one leg up and then the other, as the snow drifted around my slipper covered feet. Near blizzard conditions! And yet, it was painfully peaceful. Although I had a horrific detox, close to seven days, once I entered the rehab part of my stay, I settled into the daily schedule and routine and spent the nights listening to “AA people” tell their stories and then I would go and drink some decaf, smoke about two packs of cigarettes and settle back into one of my several Michael Chrichton books my friend had brought as a gift. During my entire treatment, I only had a roommate in detox, so I often snuck into my bathroom, put a towel around the bottom of the door, sat on the floor and read and smoked. That damn bathroom became my safe refuge for 35 days!
And then on December 23rd, life got a little tough. My cigarettes ran out. If you’ve never been to jail or drug/alcohol treatment, let me inform you that cigarettes are a commodity which could raise many dollars on the underground market of the hallways and cafeteria lines. No one was going to give up smokes for free, especially with 30 mile and hour gusting winds and heavy snow, limited the number of people coming in for visits. A quick call to my father educated me of the fact that he had no intention of bringing me anything “habit forming” and that he wasn’t going to indulge my addiction anymore.
I had only one option. Every night at around 7pm, patients who were in rehab and had signed up, receiving permission from their counselor, could leave the building by a staff driven van, and attend an off campus AA meeting. I knew these vans typically stopped at gas stations allowing the patients to buy cigarettes and candy. It was my only chance.
So…I bundled up in a heavy sweater, put my boots on and headed out for the night…in search of cigarettes…which was the first stop we made right across the street. I remember clearly because it was the first time I had been out in over a week and I was like a kid in a giant toy store for the first time. I bought a carton of Camel Wides, several Reece’s cups, a bag of Combo’s and a strong cup of REAL coffee. And then we were on our way into the blizzard. What I didn’t know was that down that slick street lay my most life defining moment yet…
I had never been to an AA meeting outside of treatment, so I didn’t know what was waiting for me. The driver let us off at the door a church and we all walked inside and down a small set of stairs into the basement. Before we even got to the room, I could see a cloud of cigarette smoke wafting out of the door. We went in to find several round tables set up facing a podium and in the back of the room, people were milling around a coffee maker. I quickly made myself a strong cup of coffee and sat at a table in the very back.
Several minutes later the meeting started. I don’t remember much about the meeting until the speaker, a small woman in her mid fifties, started telling her tale. Before she started, she placed an enormous pickle jar on top of the podium. True to the traditions of AA, I will try and leave much of her story out, but she talked about having a prominent career which she lost within a few years of the beginning of her drinking. I remember she said that at the end of her drinking, she was sleeping under a park bench. I thought she was lying. I couldn’t believe that this woman, who seemed to have it all together, seemingly a normal housewife with kids and a husband, could have ever been such a drinker.
Never once during her speaking did she ever mention the jar of pickles, until the very end. And right before she finished her story, she gestured to the pickle jar. “And that is why I carry this jar with me when I speak.” She said, “To remind me. That once I was a cucumber, but now I’m a pickle. And once you’re pickled, you can never go back.”
And I stopped. I mean I completely stopped in my tracks and stared straight at her. That bitch! I thought. How dare she! Because…she was so true! In that moment I realized she was exactly right. I was a pickle. And no matter how much I didn’t want to deal with it, things would never be the same for me again. I would never, ever be able to drink successfully again. I knew it in my heart and soul. It was truth. And I’d like to say she was staring right at me when she said it, but she wasn’t. She didn’t know me. I was alone in my realization. And I was alone as I went upstairs and stood in the blowing snow, smoking a cigarette as the church choir practiced Adeste Fideles inside, their melody chiming through the windows. After all, it was Christmas, and I was in treatment for drugs and alcohol. Merry Fucking Christmas!
And as we drove back to the hospital, something changed in me. I remember sitting in the back of the van, watching the snow fall heavy in the lights of night, cars swerving all of the street. And as we passed Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Arby’s, Long John Silver’s and probably twenty other fast food restaurants, where for five dollars I could buy any kind of deliciousness, I listened to the reporter on National Public Radio talk about how women in Azerbaijan were being pulled naked through the streets and raped. And I realized, this was as bad as my life had to get. I had a wonderful life, and as my father had said earlier that day on the phone, “you’re pissing your life away and you don’t even realize it!”
And when we returned to the hospital that night, I took a hot shower, put on my pajamas and sat on that bathroom floor and wept. For being a pickle and an alcoholic/drug addict pissing his life away. But most of all for so many more chances and the possibility for so many more Christmases. I wept for finally hitting my bottom…and realizing it!
Later, laying in bed, I pulled on my headphones and listened to gregorian Christmas chants on the radio and fell asleep, peacefully for the first time in many, many years. I knew things would get better, because I had finally accepted my place as a pickle!
And when I look back now, I’ve encountered so many pickle ladies who have helped me along the way during my journey. God bless those pickle jar ladies!!! God bless them for helping me to recognize and appreciate what has so beautifully been given to me.
Because we’re on borrowed time as it is…