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Alcohol Run: Barry the Bum

December 18, 2015

Captain Michael Morse, retired, Providence Fire Department

“Barry, you’re nearly sixty,” I said. “You have to stop drinking.”

It was mid-day, the week before Christmas, and Barry had been lying on the sidewalk, empty vodka bottles next to him, his painter’s pants soaked with his piss.

“I’m trying.”

“There’s no time for ‘trying.’ You have to stop.”

He gave me a lopsided grin, and the sparkle in his eye was all I had to see.

“You have no intention of stopping, do you Barry?”

“I said I was trying.”

Barry’s brother, Greg, and I worked together. Greg and Barry were brought up in the same home with the same parents, went to the same schools, had the same friends. They drank together, got in trouble together, got older together. But Greg grew up; Barry stopped growing when he took his first drink. Something grabs hold of an alcoholic and doesn’t let go until that alcoholic lets it.

“Barry, let it go. You still have time. Call your brother, maybe he can help.”

Barry looked at me like I was crazy.

“My brother? He don’t have nothin’ to do with me. Big shot fireman, got all the breaks. I got nothin’.”

“Nobody gave your brother anything; he worked for it.”

“Yup, and I drank my life away.” He laughed at that, not a healthy laugh; rather the cynical snicker of a person who thinks the world is not a fair place.

“No, Barry, you’re drinking your life away now. You still have time. Do you want people to remember Barry the Bum, or Barry the Man?”

“I been Barry the Bum so long I forgot who Barry the man is.”

He looked down at the floor of the rescue, the sparkle in his eye extinguished.

Sometimes I hate getting through to them. Sometimes I wish I could just keep my mouth shut. Then there wouldn’t be this raw moment. They’d go on in their alcohol fueled haze, living on the streets, begging for money, and dying before they got well.

But I can’t. One of the most important things keeping an alcoholic sober is helping other alcoholics. Even if that means breaking them.

On the other hand, a broken man who knows he is broken can start to rebuild. One who doesn’t see it doesn’t have a chance.

I helped Barry into the ER. The tech had him stand in the crowded room while she got some sheets and a chuck to put on the wheelchair, so that his piss didn’t seep into the seat.

We left him there, lost in thoughts only he knew, and travelled through the lonely streets of Providence. The holidays. Lonely men wandered, some with signs in their hands asking for money, others just walking. I wondered if my partner knew, as I did, how those men felt. Being alone in a world full of people is hopelessly depressing. Even the temporary magic that alcohol brings can never compensate for the comfort of others. Yet the idea of seeking out those others, rather than the comfort in the bottle, is overwhelming to a person in the throes of their disease. So they drink. And spend another Christmas alone.

Sometimes, when abject loneliness overwhelms fear, an honest attempt at sobriety begins. Every December, my AA group celebrates a lot of anniversaries, and that is no coincidence. The decision to get sober sometimes takes years, and the thinking that got many alcoholics through the holiday season in the past no longer seems feasible. Waiting for the holidays to be over to stop drinking becomes just another evasion tactic. Eventually, the fantasy of toasting the season with good will to men and drinking to be merry doesn’t hold up against far too many real memories of lonely, devastatingly depressing days and nights spent on the outside looking in.

Some of the happiest people I have ever met are the newly sober at Christmastime. Surrendering the drink to begin anew lifts a person’s spirit far higher than any elixir ever could. There is always hope, but for those fortunate people who find it this time of year, it can be truly miraculous.

As my partner backed the ambulance into the station, I closed my eyes and thought of sober anniversaries, and the hope of Christmastime, and Barry.

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