Editor’s Note: “With Thanks” is a recurring series that aims to share stories of gratitude from people who’ve been helped by others in big and small ways.
Andrew Zimmern is an Emmy- and four-time James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef and author. Thirty years sober, he’s also an advocate for those recovering from and struggling with addiction.
Here, he writes to a friend, who he refers to by a pseudonym out of respect for his privacy. September is National Recovery Month.
I didn’t always know what I know now. In fact, during the first 32 years of my life, I thought I knew everything. I was a self-centered, self-assured, ego-driven schmuck.
The truth was, when left to my own devices and managing my own life, I was almost guaranteed to mess it up. Making my own decisions — the real ones, not the “should I have a toasted or plain bagel this morning” decisions — got me into trouble. I made decisions based on self that would either lead to me hurting myself or other people. During my first week at the treatment center in Minnesota, they gave me a notebook and like a deranged Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” I remember writing over and over again that I felt hopeless and didn’t want to hurt people anymore.
At Hazelden (now Hazelden-Betty Ford), they tell you that the most important thing to maintaining lasting sobriety is to form a relationship with something bigger than yourself. For a guy who at that point had only really had a meaningful relationship with myself, the mere idea of finding something else, anything else, was a new and intimidating prospect. For some people, that relationship leans into one with an established God of your own understanding or some sort of religious practice. I was a Jewish kid from New York City, I didn’t pray on my knees, I had no faith in anything except my chemicals and that was deeply misplaced. I’ve never looked up to the sky and seen the clouds part and heard the voice of a man who looks like Santa Claus’s brother whisper in my ear. I thought I was doomed.
In a way, I was jealous of those whose higher power looked like the pictures in the Sistine Chapel – a grey beard with all the answers. As I went to the groups and the lectures, it seemed to be a running thread. Everyone who had gotten sober and maintained sobriety, all of them eventually formed a relationship with a higher power and had the gift of a spiritual awakening.
I know that appearance is not always reality, but in my heart of hearts, I thought recovery was for those people. For everybody else. I had always gotten what I thought to be the rough end of the stick my whole life. These others? They were going to be happy and figure it out. Looking back on it, that mentality of perpetual doom is what drove me, then homeless and living in an abandoned building in NYC, to try to drink myself to death in January 1992.
I remember the day at lunch when — finally giving into the prompting to talk to others — I shared this with you and Carty. I told you that it felt like I wasn’t going to have this spiritual experience that everyone else needed to get their recovery kickstarted. You listened, your big blue eyes staring back at me.
You were around my age, but I always felt like a child around a man when I was with you. You seemed to have all the answers. Book smart and street smart in one package. A sobriety sherpa who looked like a blonde grown-up Beaver Cleaver. You know how they tell you in treatment to stick with the winners? You felt like one of those winners.
By the time we crossed paths again, months later at the Fellowship Club halfway house in St. Paul, I was well into the motions of a clean life. I had my sponsor. I had a job. I was going to meetings. All the pieces were there, except the important one — the one we talked about. And we talked again about my existential recovery issue. How was I ever going to find a power greater than myself, personal to me, one on which I could predicate some real sobriety?
You pulled me aside and pointed to this list of the 12 steps on the wall. There, in the last step, was something I’d missed all the times I’d seen it. It said, “Having had” — past tense — “a spiritual experience as a result of these steps…”
It felt like I had been in a block of ice that had just melted away. I’d gotten the keys to a new car, won the race, beaten the monster at the end of the video game.
“You’re paralyzed because you’re waiting for a white light, spiritual experience like Moses on the mountain,” you told me. “You know, there is a rote way to have a spiritual experience necessary to have a happy, joyous sobriety. You want to have a relationship with a higher power, a real one, but you’re waiting for it to happen to you without working for it.”
The past tense was a guarantee — a promise buried in the 12th step, you explained. You told me to start at No. 1 and go through them slowly, doing the hard work along the way. At the end, probably before that, I would find the relationship I wanted, the one I was looking for.
After that day, I became an active participant in my own recovery. You gave me a gift that continues to pay dividends today. I had entered the house of abstinence, but you turned on the light to real recovery, Larry. I don’t think I’d be alive today without our conversations. In fact, I know it.
I thought it was strange the day you didn’t come home on time. You were working at a carwash down the street and only had a 10-minute walk back to the house. There was no reason for you to be late, but I didn’t think anything of it.
My counselor told me that night that you were dead. You’d left work early, drank all day, gotten into a car and drove down an up ramp, smashing your car into another.
I don’t ask a lot of questions these days about why you gave me the keys to the kingdom but didn’t open the door for yourself. I’ve stopped searching for answers because there isn’t one. Sometimes, it just happens. That’s addiction. That’s alcoholism. That’s the disease.
For a while, that higher power of my choosing was a tree. No joke. Then it was suggested to me that my higher power, perhaps, should be other people, and I liked that. To this day, it’s the pillow on which the Fabergé egg that is my sobriety sits. I don’t mess with it. I know how fragile it is. Liked I said, Santa Claus’s brother never parted clouds in front of me, but I get answers to the questions of my life every day from other human beings.
You were a fleeting mirage in my life. I know you were closer with others during treatment than you were with me. I was outer circle. But I want you to know that I’m grateful. I now have a life, a career and a family of my own. I would not be able to give back to others and have as much joy as I do in my life if it wasn’t for you.
I want others — especially those who loved you — to know that in your last months you were an other-centered person. You put your hands out wherever they were needed. You were taken too soon but contributed to this world immensely.
I’ve seen hundreds of Larrys, those with keys to the sobriety castle, in the 30 years I’ve been sober. I want to encourage those like you to remember to open the door for themselves first. And for everyone else to know that there are spiritual solutions to your human problems. As Bill W. wrote, ” they will always materialize if you work for them.”