The second time I really, truly tried to get clean, it was the soggy, cold spring of 2004. It was finals at school — the perfect time to go completely batshit — and I’d been up to no good.
Despite my best efforts, I was back to my daily eight-ball of cocaine and all the drama that went with it. My body hurt. I was out of friends. One morning, I woke up with a pool of blood under my cheek, soaking my pillow. I stuffed cotton balls into my nose and took an extra dose of Vicodin. This was normal, I told myself. Except that it wasn’t.
There was one constant in my life: a worn VHS of The Big Lebowski that I watched every day for months. I knew every line, shot, and scene. These sounds soothed me: pushing the cassette into the player, the distinctive click of the guide pins gliding into the reel, the first chords of Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me,” and the gentle warping rotation of the tape against the machine’s heads. Like the drugs I took daily, and the empty bottles that littered my floor, the movie was a constant. It helped me feel better, too — until it didn’t.
On this particular spring day in 2004, I woke up feeling like I’d eaten a bundle of human hair. It was a weekday, and the sky was a silver color that made evening indiscernible from morning. I hadn’t showered in three days, I was out of blow, and none of my clothes were clean. I paced back and forth, eyeing the television. I could just get stoned, watch my movie. Or I could call my dealer, head downtown, and get the whole cycle started again. Both choices made me sick. I paced and thumbed my cell phone. My door was open and I could see that it was starting to rain. I could smell my skin and my body, the first stink of coming down. My neck ached.
You can’t keep doing this. Not the first time I’d told myself that. I put my shoes on.
I was going to walk until it passed, which made sense, because I had a fresh pack of cigarettes and that was the way I measured time, the distance between smokes or lines or pills. I hoped that I could calm myself down or at least get tired enough to really sleep. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a dream that wasn’t a nightmare.
I walked, just smoking and watching my mind ping back and forth. You could call your dealer. You could be in Chinatown by now. My shoes led me up 43rd to Powell, and then, even though my sick feeling of shame was choking me, I went into the Catholic church on the corner and asked the receptionist if I could talk to a priest.
Because I’d reached the conclusion that I was beyond recovery.
The receptionist looked up at me from her keyboard, startled. The chain on her glasses glittered.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“I need to talk to a priest,” I said. My tongue felt like a wad of wool.
A young man behind her, hanging up his raincoat, turned around. The white square on his collar was the brightest thing in that office. It was like seeing the shield on Superman’s chest. I burst into tears.
The young man put his hand on my shoulder and walked me down a hallway and knocked on a door. “I have someone who needs to talk to you,” he said to the person inside.
It was not a priest.
Her name was Sister JoJean Cavalli. She got up from her desk and took both of my hands. She was small, a foot shorter than me, and looked soft, in the way that grandmothers look soft when they hug you or offer you a sandwich. I managed to tell her my name, and then we sat in two chairs while I fidgeted and looked everywhere except at her, wondering what the fuck I was doing here, and what was going to happen to me.
The thing is, my parents are atheists. The idea of religion, or even spirituality, was not part of my upbringing. Catholics, in particular, were dangerous because of their rigid doctrine on women’s rights, abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. The church’s history didn’t earn it any points either. For every lovely cathedral were hundreds of thousands of people murdered in the name of the Crusades, the Inquisition, or papal decree. For me, sitting in this nun’s office, surrounded by her books, was tantamount to climbing into Satan’s lap. It was the last place on earth I should have been. But it was certainly better than many of the places I’d been recently. At least, I thought, fiddling with the fraying cuff of my jeans, it was quiet here. I’d found a safe place.
“What brings you here today?” the sister asked me. She handed me a tissue.
“I should make confession,” I said.
“Are you Catholic?” she asked. I dabbed my nose. It would start bleeding again in a minute, if I didn’t stop crying.
“No. I’m not anything.”
“In that case, why don’t we just talk?”
For the first time in my life, I told my whole story to someone who really listened. I told the truth, although I’d forgotten how to do that. I told this sweet little nun about the rapes, the drugs, and every degrading thing I’d done to get as far from myself as I could. I told her that I was afraid and ashamed.
She listened, gently interjecting with questions every once in a while.
Then she asked, “How can I help you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think anyone can help me. My parents, my family — nobody knows what I’ve been doing. I couldn’t ask for help.”
“Then who can you ask?”
I scrubbed my face with my sleeve. I felt like a child, exhausted after crying for hours. My nose was at it again, and I was swallowing silver-flavored mouthfuls of my own blood. I stank, I knew it. My skin was the color of ashes. I felt weak and vile. I wished I could just stop existing, and even under the kind gaze of Sister JoJean I squirmed, knowing how disgusting I was.
“Do you think that God still wants me?” I asked.
“Oh, Claire!” she said. She reached to me and touched my hand. “Don’t you understand? God delights in you.”
That was the beginning of my spiritual journey. For the next four months, I stayed sober and went to church. I took the catechism class for adults and was baptized and confirmed. These things were not as important to me as the strong, golden light I felt inside myself. Instead of a howling void, I felt full. Satisfied. I deleted my dealer’s number. In mass, I cried sometimes, because I felt the presence of compassion and forgiveness. That kind of love was new to me. Until I experienced a connection to the divine, I had no idea that so incredibly hungry for it.
And then, inevitably, I relapsed. I was physically sober, yes, but I was also alone. Outside of church, my support group was nonexistent — in church, I wasn’t able to talk about the things that bedeviled me. I couldn’t talk about my cravings, my flashbacks, or my anger and fear. I had God, yes, but by itself, that was not enough. I picked up again and within 48 hours was right back where I’d started.
It was a nightmare that took three years to wake up from. In 2007, I found another way to escape my addiction. I married, cut all ties with my old life, and disappeared into the West Hills. I wasn’t going to be a junkie anymore, I decided. I was going to be a perfect wife and mother and do yoga every day. I drove a gold SUV and drank green tea instead of coffee. I did cleanses. My son wore organic diapers. I was nothing like the sick, broken girl who’d wept in Sister JoJean’s office. I was a fly bitch and I had everything under control.
Although things were beautiful on the outside, I was still falling apart. It was harder to leave the house; I ordered our groceries so I wouldn’t have to walk down the wine aisle, or risk running into someone I used to know. One morning, my son sat up by himself and put a piece of cereal in his mouth and my addiction, long dormant, woke up. You can drink now, said the voice in my head. He’s self sufficient.
It would have been so easy. My husband worked nights. The baby couldn’t talk yet. We had money, and really nobody needed me. I picked up the phone. Instead of my connection, I called my only friend: a woman named Julie who seemed to have a few demons of her own.
“I’m going crazy,” I said. “I want to go score.”
She listened for a moment, then handed me off to her boyfriend. I didn’t know him — but he’d been sober for a while, like me. Unlike me, he didn’t seem to struggle with it.
“What would you say if I told you that you never had to use again, even if you wanted to?” he asked.
He told me that there was an AA meeting on my old college campus the next day. Did I think I could make it that long?
I’d already gone three years on my own. What was another 24 hours?
The thing was, AA was a spiritual program. And, for all my faith in God and my baptism and my sense of peace, I wasn’t ready to go back to the Catholic church. Kale and crystals weren’t the answer for me, either. I was relieved when I heard other people say, in the meeting, that they’d found another way to do things. I didn’t have to convert to anything, my sponsor said. I just had to be willing to try something different.
Which is how I ended up on my knees next to my bed a few days after my 26th birthday, praying to a God I wasn’t completely sure existed for me. My son slept in the next room, and I could hear his snuffling little snores. The rain hit the big plate window in my bedroom, coming in waves, as though some spirit was breathing on the glass.
I felt stupid praying. I didn’t like kneeling. I did it anyway.
“God,” I said. “If you are there, please show me.”
Nothing happened. The rain went on. I could feel my heart beating against my hands, which for some reason were pressed against my chest.
“Please,” I said.
And, instead of Jesus Christ or Zeus or the Mother Goddess or the Horned God or Buddha or Ganesh or anyone else from the vast pantheon of gods, I beheld The Dude.
There he was, in my mind, as though he’d stepped out of my TV screen in his schlubby bathrobe with an open carton of half-and-half in his hand. I felt warm all over, as though someone had carefully covered my shoulders with a blanket. “Abide,” said The Dude.
“Okay,” I said. I climbed into bed, laughed, and slept better than I had in a decade.
From that moment on, I prayed to The Dude. It felt silly, because it kind of was, but it gave me a break from my own thoughts. When I felt stuck, or frustrated, I asked The Dude what to do.
“Be cool,” he said.
And I endeavored to be cool.
The Dude has been a presence for me since those early days in AA, and although my spiritual experience grows and changes on a daily basis, I have never forgotten the sense of relief and comfort I felt at seeing his face the first time I asked a Higher Power for help. If it had been Shiva, with a flaming sword, would I have stuck with it? Who knows. I suppose I could have asked a doorknob to be my God, or my kitchen table. But The Dude made sense, in a way — he was, at that time, the only safe and comforting thing for me.
I have told this story many times in AA meetings, and writing it out, I’m astounded at the many ways God reached for me, while I was in my addiction. Now that I’m in recovery, I still feel that reach — it resonates with me. I can still conjure the sense of kneeling, the warmth and the sudden laugh that escaped from me as I realized exactly who the fuck I was talking to.
The Dude. Most certainly a lazy man, but most certainly a hard-working Higher Power. He was the right thing for his time and place, and his appearance in my life was serendipitous and hilarious. I am grateful, every day, to have a God of my understanding who not only fits into my head, but in my heart as well.
Catch you later on down the trail.
Editor’s Note: Claire Rudy Foster just published an amazing collection of stories, and they’re all included in her new book “I’ve Never Done This Before.” Im not telling you to buy this because it’s supporting a badass creative in the digital recovery space (although that’s true), I’m not telling you to buy it because we’re getting paid for it (we’re not involved), I’m telling you to buy it, because i’ve read it, and it’s wicked awesome, and you’ll think so too! -Matt Mendoza