Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Thirty

VICTORIA

Sunlight warms my face as I look out the window, watching my family walk down the hill, talking and laughing together, as if it's a normal day, as if there's such a thing for us, and we are a typical family and have been this way all our lives.

Becca and Richard seem to have cleared the air and come to a truce. Curiosity has me wishing I could have gotten closer, followed them, eavesdropped. Their conversation is one that's been waiting to be hashed out for years. And I'm the reason they've never spoken before now, leaving them all to clean up my mess, and repair the damage my drinking caused.

Steam from my breath mists the glass, blurring the three of them into ghostly silhouettes. They're out of sight now, leaving, disappearing, achingly too far away.

Feeling abandoned and much too vulnerable, I wrap my arms around my body and look around. My room is pretty; the colors deliberately designed to soothe, decorated in soft shades of green and mauve and cream. The double bed is plush, the blankets thick and fluffy and comforting. Lexy was right. It looks like a spa here. I'll have to remember to tell her, and am relieved they let me keep my phone so I can.

My gaze lands on the serenity prayer hanging in a wooden frame on the wall. Walking over, I stand in front of it. I'm pretty sure they have it posted in every room. There is even a plaque in the lobby.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I read the words over and over, mouthing them to myself, hoping they will magically sink, soak, seep through my clothes into my skin. Cure me. Heal me. Change me. I'm desperate for something more, something else, somewhere other than the darkness of where I've been.

Serenity. Such a small, simple phrase with a big impact. I don't even know what it means, much less feels like. I don't think I've experienced it in my life. The drinking fooled me into thinking I had found it, but the glossy high haze eventually wore off, forcing me to come thudding painfully back down into the ugly reality and consequences waiting for me.

The hangovers were never peaceful. They were sour and excruciating and throbbing and violent. That will be one thing I won't miss about being a drunk and have a feeling this prayer will become my mantra and battle cry. An alcoholic's survival guide.

To distract myself from the loneliness, I unpack, but I'm done too quickly, and the silence makes me edgy, and I am not sure what else to do. It's 1:42 in the afternoon. I'd be blacked out by now. I haven't been sober in years, and don't know how to be alone.

I'm too awake, too aware, feeling way too much, and I have nothing to protect me from it. My thoughts sound urgent and loud inside my head, and each one wants a drink. Badly. Sweat breaks out over my skin from the craving. My old habits are definitely dying hard. A familiar screaming madness rises up in me. My palms are hot and itching, and I wipe my damp hands on the thighs of my jeans, tucking them deep in my pockets to keep from reaching out for something I can no longer have. I would normally be holding a bottle, and miss the cool, heavy pressure and grip of it, like a phantom limb.

A knock on the door makes me jump as if they heard what I was thinking, and alarms silently sounded, and they came running. Feeling guilty, I turn as it opens, assuming they have their own set of keys and wonder how many people have tried to escape. Quite a few I'd imagine. The staff probably doesn't want to leave us on our own for too long. I can see why. The interruption was just in time.

"Hey, anyone in here?" A brunette woman with a sleek bobbed haircut and warm hazel eyes steps in. She's a little shorter than me. "You must be Victoria." When I nod, she smiles. "I'm Andie." She holds out her hand. "I'm your sponsor."

No backing out now, I realize. I'd never make it past all the guards surrounding the grounds anyway. And how would I face my family if I left? Anxious and unsure, I shake her hand. "Hi."

"I understand if you think it's not nice to meet me yet. Hopefully, I can change your mind." She glances around the room, and I wonder if she's searching for a secret stash. "Looks like you're getting settled in."

"Yes." The air smells like Caribbean breeze diffuser oils. I think they want rehab to feel like a tropical vacation. "It's a pretty room."

Andie nods. "Not a bad place to get clean. I dried out in a place that looked like a motel in a horror movie so this is definitely a step up. I want to make sure you have my cell number." She pulls her card out, hands it to me. "Please put this in your phone. Call me day or night. I mean it. I'm here to walk you through all this."

I take the card from her. She stands there, expectedly waiting, and I realize she means right now. Flustered, I pull my phone out of my jeans pocket and nervously program in her name and number. My hands are still shaking from the shock of being here. She watches, making sure I save her contact information, telling me to send her a text, which I obediently do. She's smaller than me but somehow I'm intimidated. She already seems to know too much about me. It's unnerving.

Her phone dings. "Good," she says, as she programs me into hers. "Use it as much as you need to. I'm your life raft in all this, but I can only help you as much as you let me."

I set her card on my nightstand next to the Holy Bible. I bet they have those in every room, too. I haven't read it since Sunday school with Grandma Rose and wonder what Jesus would think of me now. Am I too far gone to be saved? "I'm surprised we are allowed to have phones and computers in here. I didn't think we could."

"Some facilities don't let you, but we do. We have found that people respond better if they feel like they are trusted. You only lose it if you abuse it. You always have a choice. You can even leave if you want to." She studies me and I feel myself flush, fight the urge to squirm. Her eyes are too direct, and I have too many sins. "Something tells me you won't. Since you're already unpacked, I wanted to ask if you'd like to join us for support group. It's in about fifteen minutes."

I freeze. "Now?" My voice comes out on a squeak. "I just got here."

"You're already at rock bottom. You have somewhere else to go?"

Who talks to someone like this? I wonder, my mouth falling open. I should be offended, annoyed, and angry even. If I were anywhere else I might be. But, I'm in rehab, and I lost the right to be upset about someone's comments the second I walked through the doors. I don't know why it makes me laugh. It shouldn't. There's something about her I like. Her eyes remind me of my mama, somehow gently tough. She has deep lines creasing her face, that seem to be more from pain and suffering rather than age. She has the weathered feel of someone who has seen things no one should ever have to and survived it. War-weary.

I don't realize yet that this woman will become one of the most vital, important, and dearest relationships I will ever have. I don't know that in a matter of two years I will be a sponsor just like her. I don't know how hard and fiercely she will fight for me, and how drastically she will change my life.

All I do know is how desperately I still want a drink.

"No, I guess not." I'm still laughing as the words come out. Adrenaline is surging, making me jittery as I try to cope.

"There you go," Andie says, smiling. "It's good to laugh. People tend to forget how in all this. It's important to enjoy the simple moments."

"I haven't laughed in a long time," I answer, realizing it.

"You'll remember," she assures me. "I'm leading the group. And the coffee here isn't half bad. Come on. I'll show you around. You will need to know anyway. You'll be with us a lot. The women here will become as close as an annoying sister you can't get away from."

Following her out, I try to absorb my surroundings as we walk side by side down the hall. The sage green carpet is patterned with swirling gold leaves and acorns. Dreamy paintings of seascapes are on the walls. I think I hear Enya ethereally singing softly around us. Everything about this place feels like a cozy, warm cocoon, and I imagine they did that on purpose. Andie is still talking and I make myself tune back in.

"Just wanted to give you a little background on me since we will be spending so much time together. I was an alcoholic for eight years. Lost my job, my husband, my home. I alienated my kids. I didn't want to get clean. Didn't think I needed to. Everyone else was the one with the problem. But, I have a brother who loved me no matter what, and he rescued me. I was living in my car when he got me into rehab. I fought him. Cussed him out. Even punched him, and broke his nose, but he didn't give up on me." She looks at me. "You have people who love you?"

A few weeks ago, I would have been afraid of that question. I wouldn't have known the answer. Out of instinctive habit, I touch the locket around my neck, relieved to have it back. My wedding ring is securely on my finger. I blush, remembering the kiss Richard gave me, and press my lips together trying to hold onto the taste and feel of his mouth, already missing him.

"Yes." I'm surprised when I choke up. My emotions are so raw, so close to the surface. Even my skin is sore and tender. I'm used to being numb, nothing and no one. It's hard adjusting to feeling human again. "My husband and daughter," I answer, hoarsely. "I also have a sister." My face is hot. Embarrassed, I wipe my eyes. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm crying."

"Don't apologize. It's a good thing to know you're loved. It's hard to believe it after everything that has happened. Hold onto those people, Victoria. They will help you find your why."

"My why?"

"Your reason to get clean and stay clean. My brother helped me find mine. Some people have God. Others have art or music. Even exercise. Find something you're passionate about. Who did you used to want to be?"

My mind rewinds back to the day I ran from the ranch with Grandmother Rose's guitar, reckless and certain and determined, my entire being on fire with the love of music. "I wanted to be a singer," I admit, shaking my head. It seems like a fairytale now, childish and ridiculous and foolish. I can't remember where my guitar is. I hid it in one of my drunken stupors, unable to bear being reminded of how far I had fallen. "But, I haven't sung in years."

"Well, this is a great place to find your way back to that. You need more to live for than your next drink. We have a strict routine and schedule here. The main rule is that the AA meetings are mandatory. You can't make it through this without them. We have one at ten in the morning and another at seven in the evening. You must go to one every day. Since you missed the morning session, you go tonight. Do you understand?"

I don't dare argue. "I understand."

"Good. I'll be there with you. You won't be alone in any of this. Breakfast is from seven to nine. After that we have our quiet, reflection times where you will journal, take inventory, do your study work. Then we have meetings and support groups. You'll do weekly therapy sessions. We have yoga classes, meditation. A gym. A pool. We want you to stay active. Keeps the mind clear, and your hands from becoming idle. Staying a good kind of busy will help with the cravings. Channel them somewhere else. Lunch is at noon and dinner at six. No visitors are allowed after eight at night, and lights out at ten."

"That's a lot to remember." I'm breathless trying to keep up. Her pace is as fast as her words. The ring of keys she's holding jangle and clink together as we walk. They sound like notes in my head. Maybe the music isn't silenced after all. I used to hear it everywhere, in everything, and wonder if I can ask Richard to find my guitar and bring it here. I'll need something else to hold onto besides a drink.

"You have a schedule in your room, along with the pamphlets of all the activities and classes. I encourage you to get involved with the women here. You'll need them, even if you think you won't. I met my best friend in rehab. We got clean together, and still talk every day. For now, let's just start with one meeting, and take it from there. I've been sober sixteen years, forty-two days, and..." she checks her watch, "...nine hours. And still counting."

Astonished, I stare at her and she smiles. I like how honest she is. I didn't think I would. It's oddly refreshing.

"Recovery is possible, Victoria. I'm living proof of it." She brushes her bangs out of her eyes. "What part of the South are you from?"

My heart sinks, drops queasily into my stomach. I have a feeling I will be talking a lot about the ranch, my drunk of a father. His fists. The porch. "Tennessee." I hear the flatness, the death, and bitterness of my tone.

"I have a cousin who lives there. Out in Knoxville. It's beautiful."

Flashbacks of the old warped floorboards pressing into my sweaty cheek as Becca and I cowered under the bed crash into my mind. Wincing, I look away, not answering, focusing on the swirling gold leaves on the carpet disappearing under my feet.

Andie studies me. "Did I hit a nerve?" I don't look at her as I stiffly nod. "Good. Get used to it. That's why you're here."

Wounded and bruised, I warily look over at her. I'm already exhausted.

"You're only as sick as your secrets," she says as if I asked her something. Maybe I did.

"I have a lot of them," I confess, trying to warn her what she's getting herself into.

She stops abruptly and faces me, meets my eyes, holds them. Startled, I go completely still. I don't look away. I can't seem to move. I feel like I'm being seen for the first time in my life. One addict rescuing another.

"Who doesn't?" she asks gently, and my body flushes warm with a strange release of relief. "You're more than an alcoholic, Victoria. I'm going to help you remember how to believe that. You just have to trust me." She starts walking again and, feeling a bit shaky and stunned, I follow silently beside her, trying to absorb the chance she's offering me. We reach the end of the hall, and she opens a door. "Here we are."

Hesitating, I pause, but then take a deep breath, and follow her, forcing myself to cross the threshold. She's right. I have nowhere else to go and walk into a room that looks more like where a family would hang out rather than a support group.

Comfy, overly large couches and chairs are positioned in a circle, facing each other. A round mahogany table with coasters and Kleenex boxes is in the middle. Against the back wall is a coffee and tea station. Chocolate chip cookies are piled on a plate, and a box of donuts is next to paper cups, napkins, sugar, and creamer. I wonder if sweets can become a new addiction. You have to get a fix somehow. Trade in the high for something else.

There are ten other women in the meeting. They look over when I walk in. Andie introduces me. "Good morning, everyone. This is Victoria. She will be joining us today."

The women smile. Some say hello. I nervously nod. I'm not sure if I say anything. Feeling exposed, I don't look anyone in the eye for too long, fearing they all have X-ray vision and can see every mistake I've ever made. Guess I'll have to get used to that, too. Andie moves away from me to talk with an older lady with grey hair, and I realize addiction can get a hold of anyone, at any age. Left to my own devices, I stand by the coffee station, fidgeting with my hair, adjusting my shirt. A stained, tainted wallflower.

A swatch of green catches my eye and I notice a packet of Mint Medley herbal tea tucked in with the other flavors. My heart wrenches as I think of Lexy. I can still see how worried and frightened her eyes were as she wiped away my vomit, combed my tangled hair, dressed me. I was a pathetic, pitiful, helpless mess. My hands tremble slightly as I pick it up, the smell of mint wafting through the wrapper. The scent is painfully familiar and reminds me of too many disgusting, nauseating, hungover mornings.

I almost put it back but then decide to use it as a reminder of who I don't want to be ever again, and deliberately open it. As I drop the bag into the steaming water, I can't help thinking of the irony of Lexy making it for me, and now I'm drinking it in rehab. It's funny in a sick, twisted way how life works out.

As I wait for the tea to steep, I look up at the sign on the wall where the rules for the group are posted. No cross-talk. Give everyone a turn. No interrupting. No touching. Tell each other the truth. The last line strikes me, and I stare at it. How am I supposed to do that? I haven't told the truth in so long. It's too terrible and traumatic and ugly. What if I can't handle it? What if the others can't stand hearing what I've done? Where I've been? I start to panic. I don't know how to do this. What have I gotten myself into?

A bit frantic, I move to back up towards the door, but just as I do, a young woman with long dyed blonde hair comes up next to me, blocking my path. I distractedly notice there are streaks of pink and blue hidden within the light-colored strands. She reminds me of a mermaid. She doesn't look much older than Lexy, and I'm curious how she ended up here. She smiles at me as she prepares a cup of coffee. I don't think I smile back. I can't feel my legs. "I'm Kayla. Your first day?"

"Yeah." Still reeling, I notice she has a nose ring and a tattoo on her wrist that says breathe, and wonder if she needs the constant reminder. I think maybe we all do, and unconsciously let out the breath I'm holding. "I'm Victoria."

"Nice to meet you. I like your accent. It reminds me of that movie Sweet Home Alabama." I don't tell her I'm not from there. I can't seem to say anything at all as she stirs in cream and sugar, but she doesn't notice as she keeps talking. "I know this all is a lot to take in. You have that deer-caught-in-headlights look. I felt the same way when I first got here." She blows on her coffee, waiting for it to cool, watching me over the rim. "I can tell you're trying to figure out how old I am. Everyone asks. I'm twenty. My mom was a drunk. Guess I wanted to be just like her," she jokes, but neither of us laughs. "Had my first drink at thirteen, and never stopped. Until now. I'm twenty-six days clean. How many days sober are you?"

I realize not drinking literally comes down to counting the seconds and minutes and hours of sobriety. "Um....I'm not really sure. I haven't had a drink in fifteen days, but I've been in the hospital though so..." I shrug, trail off.

"Overdose?" she asks, and I blink, stunned at how blunt she is. She doesn't even flinch.

For some reason, I nod. I should feel humiliated but I don't. There's no judgment from her at all, only raw empathy. She's easy to talk to and doesn't seem to mind uncomfortable silences. I have the sense she also had to grow up in a house on fire, and learn how to outsmart the fist and dodge the blows. Just like I did, I realize, and have the urge to wrap a blanket around the two of us, to somehow keep us both safe from more harm. I feel as if I'm looking at myself twenty years ago. "How did you know that?"

"You still have the puncture marks on your wrist from the IV."

"Oh," is all I can manage, flushing hot. Feeling ashamed, I try to pull my sleeve down to cover the evidence of my attempted suicide.

Noticing the movement, she touches my arm as if trying to offer me comfort. "You don't have to hide anything with us. A lot of people in here have tried to end their lives. They think there's no other way out, and we've all done things we wish we hadn't," she says softly, and I think she's trying to remind herself as much as me. "Rock bottom makes people really desperate."

"Did you? Overdose, I mean?" I can't believe I'm asking the question. This is a typical conversation in rehab, I guess. Gritty, gross, graphically real.

She shakes her head, still unfazed and so matter of fact, the way someone responds when they've seen too much, and haven't lived a sheltered life. Innocence lost. Nothing shocks her anymore, and I wish I could somehow protect her from that, too.

"No. I was found blacked out at a bus stop. I don't even remember how I got there. I ended up spending the night in jail for resisting an officer. Can't remember that, either. My boyfriend wouldn't let me come back home or see my son until I went into rehab. But, I get my thirty-day sobriety chip soon. You will get one for your first twenty-four hours of being here."

"Twenty-four hours?" I repeat, confused. "Why?"

She picks up a cookie, bites into it. Her fingernails are painted with glittery purple nail polish. Everything about her seems to sparkle with the resilience of youth. "It's not as easy as it sounds. The first few days are the hardest. A lot of people leave," she says with her mouth full. "They can't handle it. You have to learn how to be you again." She points the cookie at me as if making a point. "Without the bottle."

I've never known how to be me. I haven't wanted to. It was the whole reason I drank in the first place. I think of the few moments alone in my room where I could actually taste the vodka on my tongue, and swallow hard. I miss the clink of the glass rim against my teeth. My mouth instinctively fills with saliva, already anticipating the burn and rush. The back of my neck under my hair is clammy. "Yeah, I guess I do."

"Don't worry," she reassures me. Swallowing the last bite of cookie, she licks the chocolate from her fingers. I'm surprised she can eat. Nerves are making my stomach knot up. "It gets easier. I can't wait for my chip. I'm getting clean for my son. He's two. I'm here so I don't lose him. His name is Adam. Want to see a picture?"

Before I can answer she's setting her coffee down on the table and pulling her phone out of her pocket. She's one of the people here who didn't abuse the privilege of having it. She's beaming with pride as she shows me photos of a curly-haired little boy grinning from a sandbox, his face smudged with dirt and sticky from whatever it is children find to shove in their mouths. I can't help smiling at his simple joy and sweetness. I don't remember ever seeing Lexy smile like that. "He's beautiful."

"You have any kids?"

I nod. "A daughter. Lexy. She's eighteen." We're both aware of how close in age they are, and the choices Kayla has made.

"Hope she doesn't drink."

I don't think Lexy has ever had a drink in her life. I hope to God I haven't passed my addictions onto her. I uselessly wish that I could go back to twenty-two and never buy that first bottle of vodka. Or the second or third, or hundredth. "She doesn't. I probably scared it out of her."

"Let's hope so," Kayla murmurs. "Don't want her ending up here." The thought terrifies me. I'm not sure what else to say and quietly sip my tea, my hands shaking slightly. She must sense how overwhelmed I feel becase she changes the subject. "It's a lot to talk about over cookies and donuts, isn't it? You'll get used to it. And then you'll start to need it. Recovery becomes your new addiction. Don't ask me how that works. I still don't get it. But, it's definitely better than where I was."

"Okay everyone," Andie says. "Let's have a seat. Make sure your cell phones are turned off." She motions for me to sit next to her. The thought flashes through my mind that I could still try to make a break for it. But, I realize I no longer feel like leaving. I have too much to lose and find myself sitting in a circle with ten other women at my first AA support group. Kayla is across from me on the couch. It helps that I can see her, and I'm hoping it's also reassuring for her.

Andie reiterates the rules, and then opens up the space for sharing. She goes around the circle, one by one. I'm not sure what to expect and am relieved I'm last and can wait and listen as the women share about how they ended up in a place like this.

For the first few minutes, I sit there, guarded and closed off, wary, mistrusting, reluctant. I don't see how any of this will apply to me and can feel my own resistance, and even arrogance, that I'm somehow different than all of them. What could any of these women say to help me? They don't know where I've been, what I've done. I'm nothing like them. I'm not even sure I belong here.

But as we go around the room, their stories, testimony, tearful confessions shock me and pierce my heart. They are gut-wrenching, depraved, horrific, and devastating. They are exactly like mine.

I don't notice I'm leaning forward, identifying with their struggle, empathizing with their pain, listening intently, paying very close attention, crying with them, for them, in front of them. It's as if someone is shining a spotlight in my most darkest, dirtiest, dustiest corners, finally finding me, saying everything I've never known how to speak aloud. I'm in awe at their courage and willingness to be vulnerable and split wide open and bleed so freely. I can feel the relief radiating from them as they purge out their demons.

You are only as sick as your secrets.

I understand what Andie means now. Bringing out what is hidden into the light makes it lose its power over you. I can actually hear and feel their chains falling away. And as I sit there, surrounded by their grief and transgressions, I begin to realize that underneath the tragedy, there's a hope they cling to. They believe in redemption, in forgiveness, in the future. They have faith there still is one for them, that they can, and will beat the alcoholism, and get and be better. I start to accept I'm not alone, that I'm not the only one who fell into that slimy, bottomless pit, and couldn't get out. The bottle can find anyone, anywhere, at any time. And we each have our reasons for needing it and trying to hide in it.

It's my turn. I can choose to share or not. It's up to me. All of this is. Everyone is watching and waiting. The heat and weight of their gazes sear into me, and I anxiously look over at Andie. She's the safest face in the room. She smiles at me, silently encouraging. I don't know then that she will one day be at Lexy's wedding, how many nights she will stay up and talk me down from the sweaty, vicious temptation and cravings, be the hand and voice I will reach out and hold onto for years to come.

My gaze again fixes on the sign hanging on the wall. Tell each other the truth. I think of Richard and Becca, and the lies and burdens they both carried for me all these years. I look at Kayla who is here so she doesn't lose her son. The scent of mint drifts up from the tea gripped tightly in my hands, reminding me of my beautiful, young daughter who I dragged into hell with me. And lastly, I think of my father, and how I've been running from the curse of his addiction and abuse my entire life.

And, I find my why. I'm not going to let him hurt me, or the people I love, ever again.

Nervously, I clear my throat, open my mouth, and take the first step that will lead me into the first day of the rest of my life. "My name is Victoria, and I'm an alcoholic."
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