Is that Pat?!
No way that could be him!
It’s 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, and I’m walking through the gym - the same gym I started going to seven years before, when I first began my journey into sobriety.
It was already unusual to find myself there, because I now belonged to a different gym, and hadn’t been back to this one for at least three years. But for some reason on this morning I just decided to go back for a visit.
Now spotting Pat made it even weirder.
Man I hope he doesn’t recognize me.
I just want to get this workout in.
So I just keep walking, doing my best not to make eye contact.
It’s not as if I don’t like Pat, exactly….
I really hardly even know him.
I just don’t want to have an encounter right now.
So I finish my workout and head on home, relieved that Pat never spotted me.
But that night it bothered me.
You at least could have said hello…
Think of all that his brother did for you!
I had first met Pat at Ryan’s place last Easter. Ryan was a friend of mine from Rock Harbor Church who had really been there for me when I was going through a tough spot in my life.
Pat was Ryan’s older brother.
Pat had just arrived from Thailand, where he’d been hit by a bus and suffered a pretty severe brain injury. Now he was back home to continue his recovery and be with his family.
So when we met that Easter, Pat was despondent, and very, very slow. It had been tough to see someone suffering like that.
A couple months later, Ryan told me that Pat was getting help with an alcohol issue – one that had escalated after his surgery. Ryan thought maybe I could talk to Pat about my own experiences.
At the time I said, “Sure,” then just dismissed it, figuring nothing would ever come of it.
But now, the more I thought about it, the worse I felt about not at least saying hello when I ran to him in the gym. And I started asking myself why I was so determined to avoid him.
I knew that a lot of sober living programs offered fitness for their clients at that gym. So I was sure that Pat was dealing with some pretty hard stuff if he was stepping into sobriety like I had had to years before.
So I went back the next day, and sure enough, there was Pat. This time I wanted to go up and at least say hello. But I didn’t know the best way to handle the situation…
I remembered that when I was first getting started in sobriety, how uncomfortable I was with everything…
My self-esteem and confidence were at an all time low….
I just didn’t want to be messed with….
I didn’t even want to have to talk to anyone….
And the last thing I wanted back then was for somebody to ask me about how my sobriety was progressing.
So I imagined Pat was probably feeling about the same way that day in the gym.
So I started talking myself out of approaching him.
Who cares if you’re sober now?
What makes you think Pat wants to hear about that?
What will you say to him – “Too bad you can’t get sober like I did?”
What do you really have to offer him anyway?
So once again I decided to just keep to myself.
Until I hit the cardio machines, and there he was walking right in front of me!
Shit! He spotted you!
Now you HAVE to say something!
“Hey, Pat,” I blurted out, trying to sound surprised to see him. “It’s James.”
He looked at me like he didn’t know me.
“Ryan’s friend, remember? We met last Easter.”
It finally registered.
“Oh, hey, man. I didn’t recognize you.”
“How have you been? You look good!”
He didn’t really look good, but I wanted to keep it light.
“I’m doing OK,” he said. “I’m out here getting some more therapy since the accident. The gym is part of the rehab.”
“Yeah, your brother mentioned to me you might be coming back. It’s weird, because I haven’t been to this gym in years. I just decided to pop in this week to switch it up.”
Then there was an awkward pause, with us both just standing there, until he
said goodbye and went on his way.
But I left the gym feeling pretty good. I didn't feel nearly as guilty, and at least I’d said hello.
What I didn't expect was that the next day he was going to surprise me by walking right up to me.
“Hey James. I was thinking about our conversation yesterday and . . . well, I was wondering if you might be willing to be my sponsor.”
This was the last thing I wanted to hear!
It was one thing to have a friendly hi and be done with it. But now he was asking me to go WAY out of my comfort zone.
What is he thinking?
You're not qualified to do this.
You never sponsored anyone before.
You never even worked the 12 steps.
You don’t have anything to do with AA anymore.
You’re just not the right guy for this.
“Honestly, Pat,” I finally replied. “I've never really sponsored anyone before. I’m not even in AA. And I never even really worked the 12 steps.”
“That's OK,” he explained. “You don’t really have to be my ‘sponsor.’ I just need somebody that I can tell my treatment center to call to show that I have one.”
So reluctantly, I agreed to meet once, just to see how it went.
The first time we got together was at Starbucks.
We began with the usual pleasantries.
I asked about Ryan.
He asked about my family.
But it wasn't long before he started talking about his program….
“You know, James, the only reason I’m actually here is for my family. I don't really belong at this halfway house where I’m staying. I’m 20 years older than anybody else there, and half of them are cokeheads.”
I didn’t respond for a minute, wondering what I should say. But finally I told him the truth.
“Look, Pat. It doesn't matter to me what got you here. And the fact is, I don’t give a fuck if you start drinking again or not….
“As far as I'm concerned, we don’t need to talk about your drinking at all. You're going to drink if you want to, and that's none of my business.”
He looked pretty surprised to hear me say this.
“But,” I went on, “I remember how hard it was for me when I first started getting sober. How isolated I felt, and how uncomfortable I was with the people in the sober living community. So I know what you're going through.
“I'm actually surprised you even wanted to talk to me, because I remember that back then I just wanted to stay away from people. So if you’re feeling that way, I understand. And that’s fine with me.”
Then I just stopped talking.
Pat didn’t say anything, but he looked relieved.
I think he’d assumed I was going to make him talk through all his issues. Or stay on top of him not to drink. When he realized I had no desire to do either, things got a lot easier.
We started seeing each other once a week, then twice. And this lasted all through the summer.
Looking back, I don’t remember us ever having a deep, serious discussion about anything - certainly not about alcoholism.
But I do remember that when we first started having these conversations, he seemed torn in six different directions, feeling pressure about his girlfriend, and his family, and about moving back to Thailand to be with her, or asking her to move out here, and about AA, and whether he’d really be able to hang on to his sobriety.
When I could, I told him about times when I had felt the same way….
“I know it seems like this is impossible sometimes. But really, if you just stay with it, if you stop worrying about everything and just do this one day at a time, I promise you things will slowly start to get better.”
Sometimes I just let Pat talk, and all I’d do was listen.
I remember one time we met and he was just really overwhelmed with everything. He was so anxious about what he should do next.
He couldn't stop talking about his girlfriend, and about not having a job, and how worried he was about all these different issues.
And I told him, “Those situations will still be here to deal with once you finish your treatment. And they will only get better the more you get better.
“But this is your time to focus on you. It’s all about making good decisions….
“Keep going to the gym everyday.
“Keep reading good books.
“Keep writing out your feelings and thoughts.
“And try to stay present, and positive.
“Pretty soon, all of these good decisions will start to compound.
“And you'll start to feel better about yourself.
“But it's a process, and it'll take time. It’s going to require you to be brutally fucking honest with yourself. Not criticizing yourself – just being honest about what got you here.
“You've made it this far, man. So just give it to the end of the summer when your treatment is done. Then see how you feel.
“I promise you’ll be in a different place with yourself. Then you can handle all those other things.”
The last time we met, before Pat returned to Thailand, Pat said that what he appreciated more than anything is that through our meetings and conversations, he was able to see how I handled different circumstances and challenging situations. I was able to remain sober, but still be real about how tough it was.
He thanked me for our time together. “It’s still difficult,” he said. “But I believe that on the other side of all these things is character, and hope, and confidence, and the possibility of a better quality life.”
At the end of the summer, he finally left….
I still think a lot about that time.
I honestly don’t know where Pat is now, or how he’s doing. But I do know that for that summer, he was starting to change. Things were starting to get easier for him.
And I think one reason for his progress was that he felt like we could talk, and he wasn't going to be judged.
It's sort of funny to realize that when I first saw Pat in the gym, I was plagued with those same voices of judgment and fear that Pat was.
Pat was terrified that anybody he talked to was going to put him down or reject him for what he was going through.
And those same voices inside me tried to convince me that I wasn't good enough, that I had no right to think I might be of help to him.
The only way either of us could find the courage to get together was by just “pretending” that I was his sponsor.
But by acting as if we were courageous, I guess we actually were….
So if you're ever in a situation where somebody asks you for help, you might want to consider that your concern and resistance are actually your fear that you’re not good enough, and that people will reject you for that.
If you start telling yourself, “I'm not qualified to help,” maybe that's just the part of you that wants to protect you from risk and pain.
So when that happens, remind yourself that it's not about being qualified. It's about being there for that person, listening to them with compassion, and responding to them with love and honesty.
If you can find the courage to do that, not only will they benefit from your support, you will benefit as well.
Because you’ll realize that it isn't so scary, that your are good enough, that you have a lot to offer, and that you have a gift that can make a wonderful difference in people’s lives.