Nine-thirty. Late again! I ducked past Mr. Clayton’s open door. He was just back from a two-week business trip. And maybe I had been slacking off a bit. I wondered if he saw me come in. Still I was a pretty good executive secretary. I had worked 15 years at the world headquarters of International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation in New York, and I knew my way around.
Mr. Clayton had warned me about tardiness before. So when he called me into his office, I expected another reprimand. I liked him. We got along. Yet he looked embarrassed. His words stunned me.
“While I was away, Carol, you were reported to the head of personnel. Someone said you were … tipsy on the job.”
My mind reeled. (Who could have turned me in?) True, I liked to drink. But I never let it affect my work.
Mr. Clayton continued. “I don’t know if that’s true or not. But under the circumstances I want you to see Jeanne Conway, the director of special programs. If there is a problem, she can help you.”
He must have been reading the apprehension in my face (my first thought was, I’m going to lose my job) because he said, “Don’t worry about anything, Carol. You know the company has a program to help people on the job.”
I had seen the memos about the ITT Alcoholism Program. I’d thrown them in the wastebasket. They didn’t apply to me. I agreed to see Jeanne Conway just to humor Mr. Clayton.
I had a love affair with liquor for 25 years, since I was 20, but I thought I handled it well. I had few close friends; just drinking buddies. I drank mostly on weekends with my boyfriend Greg and my father. Once in a while I had a little too much. Thanksgiving weekend just two weeks past, for instance, a little too much celebrating and I blanked out, exhausted, on the couch. But that was a special occasion and very rare. Though I now attended Mass only occasionally, I figured I still had enough credits with God to get me out of any jam.
At work, with my private office, I never worried that anyone would notice if I had a drink or two at lunch. Sometimes I might have three, four, or once in a while five drinks … Then, of course. I knew I wasn’t myself. But I worked harder the next morning to make up for it. There were occasions when I couldn’t transcribe the sloppy shorthand notes I took in the afternoon. But after 15 years I knew my boss’ writing style. And he never complained. Except for often making me late, my drinking never was a problem on the job. Until today. And somebody else was making the problem.
In the afternoon I went to see Jeanne Conway—just once. I figured that would be enough. I tried to slip into her office without being seen. ITT had thousands of employees in New York, but if anyone I knew saw me, nasty rumors might spread.
“Sit down,” Jeanne said softly, when I went into her pleasant, warm-colored office. What am I doing here? I wondered. After we talked for a while, Jeanne asked straightforwardly, “You seem to be troubled, Carol. Let’s discuss it.”
Something in the gentle way Jeanne spoke made me open up. Maybe I just wanted to get our meeting over with. So I told her all about my drinking. about Greg and about Dad—even telling her how much Dad and I quarreled lately whenever we drank.
For the first time in years I had met someone who understood about drinking, someone who wanted to listen. When I finished, I felt refreshed. There, I thought, that’s all I needed. I don’t really have a problem. I expected Jeanne to make a few suggestions, maybe warn me about keeping up my job performance, then send me back to Mr. Clayton.
Instead she pulled some brochures from her desk. “I know of places that can help you,” she said. “Chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous meet all over the city, at night and on lunch hours. Or perhaps you would want to get away from New York, where no one would know you. There’s a lovely rehabilitation center in Pennsylvania, highly regarded.You would go through a twenty-eight day program …”
“Twenty-eight days!” I exclaimed. I’d never gone anywhere for 28 days. I certainly wasn’t going to some place for drunks. “Wouldn’t that be a waste of the company’s time and money?” What were they trying to do to me?“Not at all. Studies show that a company will save money, save time, increase productivity and decrease workers’ compensation by getting treatment for employees. Catching little problems before they become big ones,”Problems! I didn’t have a problem!
Jeanne handed me the brochures. “Think about it. Let me know what you decide.”
Wrinkling the brochures in my tightly clenched fist, I walked back down to my office. I felt insulted. She was telling me I was an alcoholic.
“Look what she wants me to do,” I snapped at Mr. Clayton, showing him the material. “Wants to send me to a rehabilitation farm…”
“I can’t tell you what to do,” my boss said. “But Jeanne’s a professional. I’d do what she recommends.”
He does want to get rid of me, I thought, and this is how he’s going to do it.
Five o’clock couldn’t come soon enough. I had a few drinks that night. At home, I argued bitterly with Dad about household chores. About nothing really. For the next couple of days my mind was in turmoil. I didn’t think I needed rehabilitation. Yet something in me wanted to trust Jeanne, to do what she and Mr. Clayton thought was right. Maybe I could think of the 28 days in Pennsylvania as a vacation —away from Dad, Mr. Clayton and everyone at ITT.
On Thursday I went to see Jeanne. “I’m going to Pennsylvania,” I said.
“Good,” she replied, “I’ll make all the arrangements.”
The rolling, snow-covered hills surrounding the Rehabilitation Center would have been a lovely spot for a winter vacation. But I was too scared to enjoy them. What was going to happen to me?
Fortunately, the staff was wonderful. One doctor explained that medicine would help ease me through withdrawal. I was hospitalized for five days of detoxification. I didn’t even know what the word meant. It’s the “drying-out” period.
Friendly nurses served me three solid meals a day, plus snacks, and gave me lots of vitamin shots. By Saturday, I had survived six days without a drink…for the first time in years.
At last I was ready to begin rehabilitation, which included group therapy, work therapy (I was a waitress in the Center’s dining room), lectures and movies.
The fears I had brought with me to the Rehabilitation Center gradually eased. In time I began to enjoy talking to other patients. I likedbeing able to get up early without a headache and get to my waitressing job on time.
In therapy sessions, seven or eight of us were supposed to share our feelings and experiences, about drinking, family, friends, work. At first it was difficult for me. I wasn’t used to this. I’m a private person, and as a secretary, I’d learned to keep secrets. But the therapists helped us all relax and told us not to be ashamed of our alcoholism. We came to see it as a disease —one that could be overcome.
Finally I was able to admit to myself that drinking had been making my life unmanageable and narrower and narrower.
Christmas was approaching, and I realized with some trepidation that this would be my first Christmas without family, and my first Christmas without booze. Would I make it? I found I was praying again—very simple prayers: “God, help me make it through the day. Let me be satisfied with daily bread, not daily booze.”
When I heard about the Rehabilitation Center’s Christmas Eve Mass I decided to go. I was lonely and feeling a little sorry for myself. Something had to make this seem like Christmas.
During the Mass, a Jewish man sat next to me. At a social hour after the service I met a Protestant woman who mentioned that this was her first Mass. I looked around at these people whose only common bond had been the bottle. Suddenly I felt a closeness with everyone. God was at work in all of us. This Christmas, the Rehabilitation Center, not home, was where I belonged.
From then on I attended Mass at the Center regularly. For the first time in years. I wanted to be in church. It struck me, almost shocked me that getting free of booze—the time-consuming tasks of wanting it, buying it, drinking it, recovering from it —automatically left more real time for me…and for God.
God helped me—just as I had prayed—to make it through rehabilitation, one day at a time. And that, I discovered, is the way alcoholics recover and stay sober—by concentrating on today, by staying sober today.
Even when I left Pennsylvania I knew I could stay sober—one day at a time. But what kind of problems would I face at ITT? Would my job really be waiting for me, as Mr. Clayton and Jeanne had promised? Would I be able to hold my head up working with people who knew or guessed where I had been for a month?
That first day back I was almost as nervous as my first day on the job. In the halls people greeted me with friendly “hellos.” They’d missed me; they welcomed me back.
Mr. Clayton seemed a little distant. The look on his face registered uncertainty. He was strictly business.
“I’ll have some letters for you later. Now I’d like you to type this report, then…” He listed a string of things to do. Finally I looked up at him, smiled and said, “You haven’t changed a bit have you?”
He laughed. It had broken the ice. We talked awhile, and just before he went back into his office he said “You know, Carol. you look five years younger. You have changed.”
Yes, thanks to God and the people and programs He used to help me, I have. My world was opening up again. I would make it one day at a time.
This story first appeared in the April 1980 issue of Guideposts magazine.