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When people find out that I don’t drink alcohol, some immediately ask, “You don’t drink … at all?” Often their mouths fall open; they stare at me dismayed, and with skepticism and curiosity.

This happens, occasionally, and given the opportunity, I’ll happily buy them a drink, get myself a coffee, and tell them about the first time I landed out of province on a weekend binge or how I ended up getting lost in my hometown of 20 years. I’d describe how I repeatedly drank away relationships, money and opportunities, sometimes forgetting to mention that all of this happened about 20 years ago.

Active alcoholics are suspicious of non-drinkers. Our culture can make it seem “normal” to have a drink to deal with daily stress, but for the active alcoholic it is unfathomable to live without alcohol. Booze can feel more important than water. I look forward to meeting them though as sometimes I have the pleasure of helping in their healing journey.

Often they show up out of nowhere and I have to decide spontaneously what my role in their journey will be. Sometimes, it can just be to buy them a drink. Once, while working the lunch shift at the diner, an aging local came in with the self-induced flu. His face was whiter then the six inches of snow that landed the night before. The stench of alcohol had yet to evaporate on his trek to the restaurant, wafting off his second-hand coat as I took his order.

He checked the time, then his wallet, next his pockets. He decided on the breakfast special: two eggs, over easy, bacon, brown toast, and ordered the coffee that was included in the $5 cost. I put in his order, than poured his coffee; I grabbed a cup of water on my way back to his table. I noticed his hands fumbling with the creamers as he prepared his double-double. I returned to the bar and proceeded to fill a 10 ounce draft glass with lager. Resting it gently in front of him, I stated quietly, “It’s on me.” He nodded, gratefully, while diverting his eyes.

I know how essential booze is; that’s why I don’t use it any more. It was necessary for my survival, too. It was a requirement to keep me from blowing my head off, slitting my wrists or jumping off a bridge. So if that’s where they’re at, well okay then, if they need a drink I might buy it. In other words, if they’re not ready to change, I won’t pressure them.

About a decade ago, I met a drunk who taught me this lesson. He was a cook at a restaurant where I took a part-time serving job. He was, shall we say, rough. I easily read the years of drinking and drug use written on his tattoos, wrinkles and scars.

One evening, when he was closing and I was about to leave early, he mentioned how he had not gotten booze for the night and he was not looking forward to spending his paycheque at the bar. (His fear: there might not be enough … money or booze) I looked at him expectantly. Cautiously, he asked if I would go to the Beer Store for him and grab him a six pack of tall boys. Pre-drinking before heading to the bar would ensure he had enough money to get him through the night. I hesitated. At this point he didn’t know that I was a recovering alcoholic; he didn’t know that I knew how much he did drink. I said yes. I questioned myself, but trusted my gut, which said, “Just buy the drunk a drink.”

I left that job to move onto bigger and better things but I would think of him often and wonder how he was doing. Occasionally I would stop by the restaurant to check in on him. We would chat briefly and maybe have a smoke, but he never seemed great, like he was headed down the rabbit hole, so I kept in touch.

A few months later I stopped by after work and we hung out. With a half-empty 26 ounce bottle of vodka in one hand and his head in the other, he asked me if I would take him to an AA meeting. I was shocked, he seemed less distraught then at other points I’d seen him. Apparently, a couple of nights earlier, he was found passed out on his apartment floor by his landlord and transported to the hospital. It was obviously a wake-up call for him.

I reluctantly and cautiously took him to a meeting the next night. I would have preferred he asked me to get him more booze. I didn’t think he was serious; I wasn’t eager to waste people’s time in the rooms of AA with someone who didn’t really have an honest desire to stop drinking (that’s the only requirement). I took him anyway, because he asked.

Today, that man is sober. He is part of a family, stepping up as a step dad and supporting two teenagers who have a struggling relationship with their own alcoholic father. He still has a reputation locally, but now as a local artist and one of the most skilled cooks in his area.

I work at another restaurant now, and just like most places in the industry we have a few staff that might need some help finding recovery.

The other night, when the restaurant was full one of my co-workers came up to me and asked, “You busy?”

“Yeah, a bit,” I said. “I still have quite a few tables. Why?”

“Well, I wanted to get to the liquor store tonight, but it’s closing in like 15 minutes and …”

“Wanna take my car?” I interrupted while handing over my keys. The look of relief on his face told me I probably made the right choice.

Maybe next time, he’ll be asking me a different question.

Kate Quinlan lives in Muskoka, Ont.

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