Just over a week later, Jenny was sitting in her usual chair waiting for her next support group meeting to start. She had arrived early this time, as had Anthony, and the two of them had chatted companionably while they waited for the others to arrive.
Phil had been the next to walk in, and had greeted Anthony in his usual jovial manner. When he flicked a frosty glance at Jenny, and his lips pursed in more of a grimace than a smile, Jenny had felt her cheeks burn with shame. Even Anthony noticed Phil’s chilly greeting, and Jenny could feel him curiously watching the two of them.
The others had filed in not long after, greetings had been shouted, backs clapped and hands shaken. Jenny attempted to join in, which was difficult with Phil across the other side of the circle, glaring at her every now and then when he thought she wasn’t looking. She caught him shaking his head at one point. Ellen, who knew the whole sorry story, had given her an encouraging smile when she sat down beside her, but Jenny could see the pity in her eyes. It was all so mortifying.
After a few minutes, the chatter died down, and everyone looked at Maddison’s chair, which was empty. It was unlike Maddison to be late for one of their meetings, and there was a quiet rumble of concern throughout the group. Jonty was also still missing, but the general consensus was that perhaps it was to be expected, given what he had been through recently.
‘Shhh,’ Ellen held up a hand to silence the group.
Grayson stopped laughing at something Anthony was saying, and turned to Ellen. ‘What’s up?’
‘Shut the fuck up!’ Petra said. ‘We’re trying to listen.’
Everyone fell silent, and Jenny looked at Ellen and Petra on her right. Ellen raised her eyebrows and jerked her head towards the door to the hall. Jenny could hear the unmistakable sound of whispering outside the door.
‘Who is it?’ she said, looking at Ellen.
Ellen shrugged and pointed at Maddison’s chair. ‘Maddison maybe?’
They didn’t have long to wait. The door swung inward and Maddison walked into the hall. Following closely behind her was Jonty, looking thinner and paler than Jenny remembered. She couldn’t help but stare at his golden eyes, which seemed huge in his face.
‘Hi everyone, great to see you,’ Maddison was her usual warm and welcoming self. She motioned behind her, to the ghostlike creature floating along at her shoulder. ‘I’m sure you’ll all be delighted to see Jonty here tonight, joining our group meetings again.’
It took a few seconds for everyone to get over the shock of Jonty’s appearance. Jonty, no doubt realising the reason for their staring, looked at the floor. ‘Um, hello everyone,’ he whispered.
Anthony immediately got up from his chair, and walked straight over to where Maddison and Jonty stood, not quite within the circle yet. Everyone watched as he reached out his arms and enveloped Jonty in a hug, clapping him on the back gently. ‘Welcome back old chap.’
Suddenly, everyone else got up and filed over towards Jonty. Phil was the next, followed by Petra, Ellen, Suze and then Grayson. Jenny watched as each of them put their arms around Jonty, and her eyes filled with tears at their kindness. By the time everyone had filed past, and she was standing in front of Jonty herself, she hadn’t had time to think about what she was going to do when it was her turn. The others sat down, and Jenny stood in front of Jonty. They looked at each other, and Jonty smiled at her briefly. ‘It’s okay Jen, honestly. I know you can’t. Don’t worry about it.’
Jenny considered sitting down again but, before she could change her mind, she had reached out her own arms and was giving Jonty a hug. It felt weird, and grim, and scary, and a little bit wonderful – all at the same time. Jonty had put his arms around her in return, but had only let them rest very lightly on her back. Expecting him to smell like stale booze or cigarettes, Jenny couldn’t help but notice the waft of soap and shampoo when she inhaled cautiously, and she was almost tempted to lay her head on his shoulder and keep breathing in his lovely clean scent. There was a cough from the circle of chairs, and Jenny pulled away. Looking at Jonty she realised they both had tears in their eyes. She smiled at him, ‘it’s good to see you.’
When she turned and walked back to her own chair, she saw the looks everyone was giving her – a mixture of pride and awe, like a bunch of proud mothers watching their toddler take her first step. Jenny smiled self-consciously, and then sat on her chair – but not before she grabbed the bottle of disinfectant from her bag and thoroughly covered her hands and wrists. I’ll wash my clothes in bleach later, I’ll wash my clothes in bleach later, I’ll wash my clothes in bleach later, she repeated to herself like a mantra as she fought the urge to rip off her infected clothes.
Once Jonty was seated, and everyone had finished welcoming him back with small encouraging gestures and smiles, Maddison cleared her throat.
‘Welcome everyone, to what must be our….’ Maddison looked at her clipboard. ‘..our ninth meeting. Which means we’ve only got one more session to go.’ Everyone in the group shook their heads in disbelief.
‘It’s weird,’ Anthony said to the group in general, ‘the time has flown by. I mean, I feel like I’ve know you all for years, rather than just a few months. My psychia... er, Frankie that is, says that’s quite common.’
Jenny was nodding her agreement when Maddison started to speak.
‘Frankie’s right Anthony. In my experience that’s often the case with these support groups. There’s a lot of sharing of personal information, usually more than you share with anyone else in your life, and you view first-hand the personal growth – and setbacks – of everyone in the group, including yourselves. It’s nearly impossible not to make deep connections, and feel as if you’ve known each other for a lot longer than you actually have.’
Maddison looked over at Jonty. ‘Are you up to speaking today Jonty? You’re the last of the group to tell your story, but it’s quite understandable if you don’t feel up to it.’
Jonty looked at Maddison, and then at the expectant faces of the group. ‘It’s okay, I’m okay. I’ll speak. I want to speak.’
He cleared his throat a few times, and took a deep breath. ‘Okay, so, where to start… From the beginning I suppose.’ His voice was even quieter than usual, and Jenny found herself leaning towards him to try and pick up everything he was saying. ‘I’m an alcoholic, as you all know. Does everyone know what being an alcoholic means?’
Grayson, whose legs had been jiggling up and down even more than normal, cleared his throat. ‘I knew a lot a’ people addicted to the drink, in me hometown in Ireland. I saw a lot a’ families busted up, kids sufferin’. A lot a’ the drinkers, well they were the gamblers too.’
‘My mother drinks a lot,’ Suzanne added, almost to herself. ‘In fact, she used to send me off to the shops with a wad of cash when she was hungover. To get me out of her hair I suppose.’ Jenny looked over at her in concern, and Suzanne shrugged her shoulders as if she’d only just thought of it and it was no big deal.
Jonty nodded at both Grayson and Suzanne, and then looked at each of the group in turn. ’Alcoholism is actually medically considered a disease or, more specifically, an addictive illness. Alcoholics have a compulsive and uncontrolled urge to drink, which affects their health and their relationships, and pretty much every other area of their life. There are so many physical symptoms that alcoholics suffer, like liver disease and heart disease. Brain function is damaged, social skills are messed up, and serious psychiatric symptoms are common.
When drinking, an alcoholic’s behaviour and mental problems can lead to isolation from family and friends, and also to legal consequences. Did you know that around three to fifteen percent of alcoholics commit suicide?’ Jonty looked around the group.
Jenny took a deep breath. Jonty’s ‘story’ sounded more like an excerpt from an encyclopaedia. Which probably isn’t surprising given how often he’s recited facts from Google in our meetings, she thought to herself.
‘There are all sorts of drugs on the market to treat alcoholism, all with differing degrees of success, and usually with a long list of side effects. There’s Benzodiazepines, Disulfram – that’s a nasty one, it stops the elimination of acetaldehyde from your body, which is the chemical your body produces to break down ethanol, so it makes your hangovers even worse – and Naltrexone, and…’
‘Jonty,’ Maddison’s voice was gentle, but firm, ’I know we all appreciate learning more about alcoholism, but the idea of sharing in the group is to tell your story.’
Jonty bit his lip, and nodded. ‘Sorry, sorry. I get so caught up in the facts.’
‘Epistemophilia.’ Everyone turned to Suzanne.
‘What’s that now?’ Grayson asked.
‘E-pi-ste-mo-phi-li-a.’ Suzanne repeated, this time pronouncing each syllable slowly.
‘Ah, yeah, so – what’s that?’ Grayson asked again.
Before Suze could answer, Jonty interrupted her and directed his answer at Grayson, though it was obvious no-one else in the group knew what Suzanne was talking about either. ‘Epistemophilia is an excessive love of knowledge.’ He smiled at Suze, ‘how did you know that term Suzanne?’
Suzanne blushed. ’It’s just ‘Suze’ now Jonty. And, um, well, you’re always coming up with facts and terms about our addictions. So I looked up the term for someone who knows a lot of facts. I was going to say it at a meeting a few weeks ago, but then you weren’t there and didn’t come back…’ Suzanne fell silent.
‘Right,’ Jonty smiled at her again, before his features resumed their serious arrangement on his face. ‘So, me. I don’t really tell my story much, even at AA. It’s so, kind of, boring I suppose. I’m such a cliché.’ He looked around the circle. ‘It’s especially boring compared to everyone else’s stories in this group.’
Jenny snorted with laughter. ‘Are you serious? I like to clean and tidy Jonty, it doesn’t get more boring than that.’ The rest of the group laughed along with her, except for Phil who looked at the floor and seemed to be examining the toe of his shoe. Oh God, I bet he’s thinking about the gym, and there’s me carrying a riding crop about to do who-knows-what to a nude gym instructor, pretty much in full view of anyone who walked in, and now here’s me saying I’m boring. What if I just stood up and told everyone the story? Shit, I’m going to do it, I’m going to stand up and do it…I’m going to open my mouth and…
There was a loud slapping sound as Jenny smacked a hand over her own mouth, and everyone stared at her in surprise.
‘Weird thoughts again, Jen?’ Anthony asked, and Jenny nodded in return, waiting a few seconds before removing her hand.
‘Okay, everyone,’ Maddison looked at Jenny kindly, before she distracted everyone else’s attention away from her, ‘we’re going to run out of time if we don’t let Jonty get back to telling his story. Jonty, please continue.’
‘Okay,’ Jonty took a deep breath. ‘When I was in my early twenties, I was an accountant. A really good accountant. I won the Crombie Lockwood Chartered Accountant of the Year Award. Twice.’
Grayson, an accountant himself, whistled in surprise. ‘Wow, that’s amazing Jonty.’
‘Yeah, it was. And I was married. To Phoebe. We met at University, she was studying Marketing, and I was studying Accountancy, so there was a bit of crossover. She was, is, super smart. I couldn’t believe my luck, on my wedding day. There I was, at the front of a big crowd of friends and family, marrying the smartest girl I knew.’
Jonty got a faraway look in his eyes, and Jenny felt herself frown. Confused, she looked at the others in the group – they seemed to be shifting uncomfortably in their seats too. Maybe she was just feeling embarrassed for him.
‘Anyway, I was at the top of my game, married to who I thought was the love of my life, when it all turned to custard. I used to take clients out for drinks, just a couple after work on a Friday. And then it was a few nights a week, and suddenly it was every night a week. Before I knew it, I was having a drink in the morning before work, and ducking out at lunchtime to top myself up. There wasn’t a day, or a time of day, that I didn’t drink.’
‘At first, I held it together. It wasn’t affecting my job, and Phoebe was busy at work herself so she didn’t really mind all the late nights I was putting in. She thought I was building our future, and she was happy enough. I’m not sure when it all changed, but suddenly life got really tough – I was late to work, I couldn’t meet deadlines, I lost a lot of clients for the firm, I started to get really anxious, and depressed. I kind of lost my sense of humour, too. It was weird, it seemed like one day I woke up and I just couldn’t get jokes anymore, the only thing I could concentrate on was drinking, and hiding my drinking, and when I could get my next drink.’ Jonty paused, and reached down to pick up the water bottle that was sitting on the floor beside his chair. He took a long sip.
‘I started getting sick a lot, so I took more and more time off work. I kept getting peptic ulcers. And my brain… I’d always been so curious. Sometimes I felt like my brain was dying.’ Jonty smiled at Suzanne, ‘I guess I’ve got some of that curiosity for facts back again.’
‘Phoebe had known something was going on for quite a while before she bought it up. I think she was hoping it was just a phase, and I’d get over it. But it kept getting worse and worse. She didn’t invite anyone, especially anyone from her family, over to our house – I’d always get drunk and do something awful…I grabbed her grandma’s boobs at a BBQ one day, and tried to bury my face in them.’
Jenny gasped, as did a few of the other women in the group. It was so unexpected coming from Jonty. Anthony sniggered beside her, and she saw Grayson wink at him. Even Phil was having a hard job supressing a smile across the circle. Men!
‘That was the last time Phoebe invited any of them over. She tried to help me, tried to get me to go to counselling, tried to buy me self-help books. She did her best. In the end she started issuing ultimatums. That she’d leave me, divorce me, take the house… I didn’t think she’d go through with it. Then one day, she came into the lounge. I was sitting on the couch, drunk, watching something on TV. She’d been reading an article in one of her women’s magazines down in the bedroom. She looked at me, and she said, “do you want kids one day?” I think I said, “of course. Can you get me a beer from the fridge?” She sighed and opened the magazine, and she read a sentence from it. Something like, “Alcoholism can lead to child neglect, and causes lasting damage to the emotional development of the alcoholic’s children. Children with alcoholic parents are likely to develop a number of emotional problems.”’ Jonty paused, and Jenny found herself looking over at Suzanne, who was staring into space.
‘And then she said, “you can’t even get it up anymore Jon, how would we even try to have kids?” I think I just ignored her.’ Jonty bit his lip, before he looked at the group again. ‘Alcoholism often causes sexual dysfunction. I don’t think we’d had sex in a year.’
‘Anyway, then she looked at me, like she was looking at me for the last time – which she was, but I didn’t know it at the time – and she said, “I want kids Jon, lots of kids, without emotional problems. This isn’t going to work. I think I’m leaving you.” And then she left. She packed up her bags, and moved cities to live with her sister. And we were never in touch again, except for a few emails sorting out how to divide some of our stuff.’
Jonty reached down for his water bottle and took another sip. The rest of the group made sympathetic noises.
‘She was right to leave me. I would have made her more and more miserable, and I would’ve ended up hurting her even worse.’ Jonty noticed a few raised eyebrows. ‘I wasn’t aggressive or anything, I was never a mean drunk. But the longer we were together, the more hurt she was going to get trying to leave. And we were still young enough, that she could find someone else, someone better, to give her lots of kids like she wanted. She did, you know. Find someone else. She’s got two kids now and another one on the way.’
‘So, shortly after Phoebe left, my boss called me in to his office. We both knew why. He asked me to sit down, and I refused, said I’d stand. Except I swayed a bit. I can still feel myself swaying, like I was on the deck of a ship. I should have sat down. He offered to fund the help I needed to get sober, but he said there was going to be a timeframe, because I’d lost so many clients and caused so much disruption in the office, that keeping me on long term in my current state would be the end of his business. I got it. He was a good guy, he was trying to do the right thing by me. I tried to attend some meetings, I even gave up alcohol completely for a while. The withdrawals were pretty bad, but I kept it up for a few weeks. But then I had a really stressful day, and I drove past a bar I used to go to a lot, and I thought I could just handle one drink, so I went in. I lost my job, I had no wife, I lost my house because I couldn’t keep up the repayments. Most of my friends had given up on me ages ago, and even my family blocked my calls, which were usually to borrow money, so I can’t blame them. I spent a bit of time on the street, I worked odd jobs when I could get them. And all the time I was still drinking. In the end, I drank to feel normal. Because any time I didn’t drink I was overwhelmed with guilt and remorse and anxiety, and this all-consuming crippling shame. That was, is, the worst bit. The shame. Shame at what I could have been, shame at what I’d lost, shame at how weak I was.’
‘I’ve given up the drink a few times over the years, but two years ago I was in a pretty bad car accident. It was my brother’s car, and I totalled it. I was charged with dangerous driving, and driving under the influence, and forced to attend rehab and AA meetings. I’ve been doing that for the past year, and I’ve been sober for pretty much most of that time. I’ve got myself a pretty nice little apartment to rent, and I’ve been doing well. I just don’t know what happened last month, I’m not sure how I fell off the wagon. But I fell hard.’
Jonty paused, and then looked around the group. ‘This is my last chance. If I can’t pull myself together and stay sober, for the rest of my life, then I’ll have no life to live.’
There was a hushed silence as Jonty finished speaking, and Jenny watched both Suzanne and Maddison, who were seated on each side of Jonty, reach across and squeeze his shoulders in sympathy. She had to fight the urge to get out of her chair, walk straight over and envelop him in another hug. Of all the urges she had on a daily basis, this was a very unfamiliar one.
‘I’ll tell you one thing Jonty,’ Phil said, giving him a smile, ‘you are definitely not boring.’
A few of the others smiled, and nodded their agreement.
Grayson turned back to Jonty. ‘Are you serious, really serious, about staying sober and finding a job?’
Jonty looked at Grayson, and nodded. ‘Never been more serious in my life, Irish.’
‘Well, a job’s come up at a small firm I know. It’s not an Accountant’s role, more like a junior accounting clerk position. Twenty to thirty hours a week. Could be a good start. Ya want me ta put in a good word for ya?’
Everyone looked at Jonty, whose face had gone so pale it was nearly translucent, as he slumped forward and buried his face in his hands. His shoulders shook, and there was the distinct sound of sobbing.
Grayson looked mortified. ‘Jaysus, sorry mate, I thought ya might want somethin’ like that.’
Maddison looked at Jonty’s slumped frame and then smiled at Grayson. ‘Grayson, I’m fairly certain Jonty’s tears are from happiness, not the reverse.’ She squeezed Jonty’s shoulder a second time. ‘He’s been through a lot lately.’
Jenny felt tears well up in her eyes for the second time that night, and when she looked to her right she was surprised to see Petra wiping her own eyes and sniffling into a tissue. ‘Fucking hell that was intense,’ Petra whispered in Ellen and Jenny’s direction. Jenny nodded back at her, but her eyes were drawn straight back to Jonty. She was almost transfixed. Like she’d suddenly seen something she hadn’t known was there.
Maddison cleared her throat, and checked her clipboard again.
‘As I said earlier tonight, this is our ninth meeting – which means we have one more organised session to go. Another support group will be starting a fortnight after our last meeting, which I invite any of you to join if you feel it would be beneficial. There are still several spaces remaining, and I would encourage you to do so. If you’d like to talk about continuing, please send me a personal message and we can talk about it in private.’
‘At our next meeting, I think it would be really beneficial for everyone to recap their journey to date – have a think about your initial goal for these sessions, and any progress you’ve made so far in obtaining this goal. It doesn’t matter how small or insignificant you feel your progress may have been, every step forward is a step in the right direction. And I think that you’ll all find your progress so far has been remarkable. I’d like to also cover off any setbacks you’ve faced, and your thoughts for moving forward, including any concerns you have for the future. We may need to go over time to cover everything, so I’ve arranged to hire the hall for an additional hour just for our last session.’
‘Thank you everyone. In particular, thank you Jonty.’
Jonty, who had stopped crying, smiled at Maddison through his tears and then looked at the rest of the group. ’Thank you. All of you. For listening and for… for making me feel welcome.’
Getting into her car not long after, Jenny sat silently for a few minutes without turning on the engine. Petra was right, that was fucking intense. She felt as if she needed to lie down and sleep, for, like, a million years or so. Except she couldn’t. Not yet anyway.
Tonight she was going to ring her parents.