The meeting is on the first floor of the new V.A. building off Columbian Way near downtown Seattle. New as in old, but not as old as the building Amazon.com took over, whenever that was. It is still old though and group meets down one of the more ancient wings in the substance abuse clinic.
The waiting room there is busy.
Lots of people funnel through this clinic because lots of people have substance abuse problems. Problems like drinking beer, or smoking weed, or shooting heroin.
It’s all the same.
The V.A. policy is nothing that makes reality fuzzy is cool and anyone who tries gets ‘help.’
After ten minutes of looking through an ancient Sports Illustrated and reading about the home run push from five years previous which some guy who used steroids won, the group leader appears. She is a mousy woman, cute in her little academic hipster way. Today she wears a long black skirt and floral print blouse with her thick black glasses pushed back over her head of reddish impossible curls. She sets her Birkenstock clad feet on the cold black and white checkered linoleum tiles and calls, “0930 Support group meet in room C30,” and turns and walks back through a door marked with ancient fading signage reading authorized personnel only.
Once seated, it is obviously a men’s only group. The V.A. does not like to mix the sexes. Nobody ever explains why.
The Latino guy sits with his arms crossed and a severe look on his face. It’s the seat he always sits in.
He never talks.
He is balding and looks severe and argumentative. He is always in the room first like he waits in the hallway unconcerned for the authorized personal signage on the hallway door.
A beer bellied man nearing fifty takes a seat near the white board, he leans back in his chair as far as he can go without tumbling off. He’s on the pudgier side of life and has claimed to be a former Navy S.E.A.L who got sent to prison for something different every time he speaks.
He’ll have something to say before the session is out. A brag about his trailer on the water and his girlfriend in real estate that cooks steak for him.
Everyone claims special forces or combat ops or some other cobra-eating military job, as if there were no cooks or mechanics or clerks filing the paperwork with substance abuse issues.
Every person in this drug and alcohol addiction group sits with the rigid air of people who think themselves better prepared for any situation, winners in life whether or not they were pulled from the street, prison, or some other dead end situation,
First, maybe they can get away with it.
But look harder and the veneer is cracked and fading. Glasses held together with tape. Badly frayed pant cuffs. Abused calloused hands of a beaten down laborer. The years of inebriation take their toll and bodies destroyed from hard work and disappointment seeps through and fills in the cracks.
A glossy scalped black guy with gold rimmed glasses sits with the two older black guys who served in Korea and won’t talk to each, r anyone else, but never sit more than one seat from one another.
“Who wants to share?” the group leader asks.
Mr. Glasses says a bunch of stuff about blah blah blah and maybe mentions he’s been clean since April .”I haven’t used cocaine in over a week” and the room stirs. He says it like that’s a good thing, but today he stinks like stale malt liquor every time his lips flap the room becomes thicker with the stench.
Nobody says anything. It’s not their place to call him on bullshit. That’s his case manager’s job and only if he fails his piss test.
Vets can get away with drinking. It doesn’t show up on urine screens unless its within 24 hours.
If he gets busted, he gets kicked out of V.A. housing or if he is on the waitlist, he gets tossed to the bottom.
“That’s great Albert,” the group leader says.
She knows the dude’s been drinking. The entire group knows. The man is probably still drunk. She puts a check by his name to make sure his case manager gets a hold of him before he leaves.
She isn’t a social worker.
She is just a psychiatrist still trying to get her state licence. She doesn’t give more than one shit about veterans. She has her eye on the prize. A condo in downtown Seattle and a BMW and hopefully enough time left to freeze some eggs for later.
A few others sit waiting for their turn to talk. It looks good on housing applications to talk in meetings, it shows a desire to change and be good citizens, be sober and eligible for V.A. whatever. It doesn’t do to have people losing their beds for being druggies or drunks. It makes the V.A. look bad. It makes politicians looks bad. It makes people who have retirement to look forward to look bad.
But vets won’t talk unless forced.
They all try to look severe and beyond it, as if they don’t like to spill their stories out into the open. They know when they open their mouths to speak, the words just spill as if released from the turmoil of thought.
It’s cathartic like a long run, but even a long run needs to be forced every once in awhile.
The rigid balding Latin guy attracts attention by clearing his throat, he gets real jittery, checks pockets as if making sure he still has his lighter. He smooths down his shirt over his middle age paunch and paws at his receding hairline of salt and pepper hair.
He issues a short breath of frustration through his nose.
When he speaks it’s with a thick accent, maybe he joined up as Mexican, maybe he was Puerto Rican.
He doesn’t say.
The people in this group have one thing in common, they sit here because they know the slow moving mechanism that is the V.A. has us all. Has us all in a fantasy that maybe tomorrow can be better by trying something different today, acknowledging we are not supermen.
We can die.
We are not invincible.
“I called The Club, Walter told me there would be no work for me today. In the record heat I think I am okay with not working outside right now doing labor and busting my ass for ten bucks an hour, but now I don’t have money for a place to stay tonight. I am back on the street.”
He doesn’t look happy, none of us look happy. Life is a long slow slog that seems never ending, but sadly one day it will end and every day, every opportunity will be squandered, wasted, spent by service to our country and even that never lets go, never stops pressing us from behind. Crushing our souls and our hearts and our desires. We failed. We failed ourselves. We failed what we thought life would be.
The draftees, the volunteers, the war vets and peacetime guys all did one thing wrong.
The Latin guy looks at me. We make eye contact. For the first time I see that he is human also. I see his eyes get moist. I see he is going to cry. I find a spot on the carpet. It’s black. It looks like tar in a field of fading red paisley. I try to make it come off with my broken down Chuck Taylor.
It doesn’t budge.
I try to ignore what I know it’s going to feel like tomorrow morning when I wake up and reach for my bowl. I can’t avoid it. My life feels like a desperate attempt to pitch water out of a slowly sinking boat. I can never seem to get enough water out to see how bad my situation actually is. I thought if I could just get weed out of my life maybe the horizon would look less stormy.
But I can make it hurt a little bit less.
I get up and leave the room deciding to get fucked up as soon as possible.