Occasionally, I get lost in moments of reverie. Sometimes the moments expand and I lose track of time. My favorite recollection is from my first career before I became a social worker. I was working in Manhattan in the advertising industry and since I had played softball in college, I joined the company’s softball team. I quickly learned that the team was part of the infamous New York City Advertising Co-Ed Softball League which spawned a men’s team and a women’s team, both of which I eventually played for. In the fall of each year about 50 of us (just a small sampling of all the players) made the trip out to the West Coast to play in the Advertising Co-ed Softball World Series.
This was heady stuff for a shy, naïve girl of 22 who was a secretary in a mid-sized advertising agency. But my prowess at the game proved to be a great equalizer. Once my teammates saw me on the field, once our opponents saw me execute a double play, gossip spread throughout the league. “Did you hear about that new second baseman that The “M” Company has? She’s supposed to be terrific.”
The times on the field were only one part of the fun. After the games, most of the players would shove their way into a tiny Irish bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The bar couldn’t hold us all, so the crowds would spill onto the sidewalk and even Third Avenue on the hot, humid summer nights. Easily a hundred of more of us, still in our shorts and tee-shirts, glasses in hand would drink, talk and laugh until the early hours of the morning.
Inside the bar, there was something else going on. It was on one of those hot summer nights that I got introduced to cocaine laid out right on the bar. The owner of the establishment, who was also the bartender didn’t seem to notice, or if he did, didn’t seem to care. I loved the feeling that the coke gave me from the start and I was soon snorting more and more of it, first only after the games, then alone in my apartment. The word addict never entered my mind, but that’s clearly what I had become.
When my mind skips back over those years, the memories have become somewhat dusty, like tumbleweeds kicking up earth as they roam across the desert. As I reminisce about the stills that
come into focus they are of me scooping up a grounder at second base and snapping a throw to first. Of me at bat, lining a double into a hole between left and center field and driving in a run. The groomed fields under the lights in Palm Springs at dusk. Hearing the waves crash as we are playing near the ocean in Venice Beach. Indelible memories. Happy memories. The ones that I tend to return to time and time again.
I don’t intentionally go near the lows, but they burst forth regardless often when I least desire. The times when I played ball most of the evening, partied into the wee hours, and had to get up for work the next morning. Or driving home at 1:00 AM across the deserted Triboro Bridge after a night at the bar with a bag of cocaine in my trunk, imagining what would happen if I got stopped by a cop. But then magically, the thoughts of those scary times are interrupted by visions of the manicured lawns of the fields in San Diego, or me standing on the podium at the banquet for the men’s league, accepting The Most Valuable Player award.
I have to work hard to convince myself that the lows were lower than the highs of the good times. And for every memory of a good time, there are at least two memories of hitting bottom stored in my brain.
And I have to work hard to remind my patients of the same. They tell me stories of great, fun times from their past, times when they were abusing substances, or gambling, or driving too fast and aggressively on the highway, or engaging in reckless, unprotected sex. They extol their adventures; applaud themselves for their ability to experience the sheer pleasure of their exploits.
Lost in their daydreams, I interrupt. I try to get them to come to a realization on their own. “Was there any downside to this behavior?” More often than not, the patients acknowledge that their behavior had some negative consequences, but they also tend to minimize them.
“Yeah I lost a tiny bit of money when I gambled in Las Vegas that weekend.”
“I had a little accident, but it was his fault. He got in my way.”
“I know I’m on probation at work for being late because I was hung over too many times, but I won’t be late anymore.”
Encouraging them to dig deeper, to really think about what happened over the years that they have been drinking with the guys at the bar, or playing blackjack in the casinos, little by little the enhancement of their adventures has been diminished and the dust in the photo clears. It takes a number of sessions, some cajoling and some confrontation. There is denial.
When a patient isn’t ready to let go of the self-destructive days that they regarded as the best times of their lives, then they’re not ready to move forward. It’s unfortunate, but the past can’t really be useful until we — the patient and I — find its place in the present.
Time moves forward. So does life. Give yourself a gift. Live in the present.