Two things you need to know: one, as a child I was very religious; two, I was terrified of drunks.
I have no idea where my fear came from - my parents rarely drank, and there was no alcohol in the house except for the never-ending celebratory bottle of vodka that my grandmother served in tiny shot glasses if she had friends over.
Yet I was obsessed with drinking and thought there was nothing worse than shouting drunks on the street, sickly-sweet booze breath or wine-stained teeth.
At the same time, church was my other obsession. I was on a serious religious bender and would knock off prayers like other kids knocked off hopscotch blocks. I memorized litanies and sacraments. I could recite verses and hymns in my sleep - all of it adding God points to ensure eternity and grace and life after death. According to the nun who taught us religion, God was watching. Closely.
Naturally, the way to impress the nun and, more specifically, Him was to do good deeds. You could help your grandmother or your neighbour carry groceries. You could be nice to the jerk who called you names in school instead of smacking him. You could visit a local orphanage or even help deliver meals on wheels. I did all those things. I scored high.
But still, it wasn't enough. I needed to be more saintly than my friends, who were in close competition for the purest soul.
This is why when I saw two old drunks wobbling up to our polite group of good citizens waiting for the bus, I was the first person who raised her hand to volunteer to take the bleeding one to hospital to get stitches.
I was 12. Scared. But all I could think about was the nun who taught us religion. She was tough and unlikable, which made me want to impress her even more. When I saw that bleeding drunk, I thought about what the nun would say when she found out how good I was. Look at me: helping someone - a lowlife, a drunk! - I had hated so effortlessly my entire life.
The drunk followed me to the nearby hospital. I shouted at him to hurry up when he tangoed with an invisible dance partner on the crosswalk.
At the hospital, a nurse said my "granddad" was banned there. She gave me directions to another hospital across the city. We would have to go on a streetcar. I wanted to cry. But I thought my noble suffering was now greater, making my ordeal even more impressive.
On the streetcar, my bloody companion came to from his walking blackout and thanked me loudly and enthusiastically. He alternated between calling me an angel child and offering to take me to the zoo, inviting me over for a beer after this was over and flirting - talking about clinking champagne glasses in a hotel room. I hated him with all my might.
At the second hospital, the drunk was taken in and given stitches on his nose. They washed him up a bit and delivered him, slightly more lucid, back to me, his, er, granddaughter. We rode the streetcar back to where he lived and when it was time for him to get out, he hesitated. I sneered at him to go already when he thanked me again and tried to kiss my hands. He stumbled out of the streetcar and I thought I would never see him again.
The next day, I told the nun about how humble and good I had been to help that man. She asked me where my parents were when I was getting drunk with my grandpa. My family were not those kinds of people - alcoholics - and that was not my grandpa, and screw it - I said something along those lines. It was rude enough to get my mother called in.
Shortly after, I became cynical and jaded and left the church for good.
Fast-forward to today.
Today, I am 3½ years sober. How I got here is a long story and I can tell you I didn't learn what it means to be truly humble until I got here.
It took me a while to recognize I had a problem and needed to sober up because I cleaned up nice; because I got diplomas, jobs, boyfriends and because my family was not that kind of family. I hated that drunkard when I was 12, but years later I saw him right underneath my own skin.
Today, I live in the same city where I had my first alcohol-related hospital visit, and where I more than once passed out in a doorway. I live in the same city where I got sober.
I still don't go to church but I try to pray. I doubt there is life after death, at least not literally, but metaphorically this is a bit of what being sober feels like: as if I am living a new life. Finally, I try to live better this time around, even if nobody's watching closely.
Jowita Bydlowska lives in Toronto.
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