Sponsored in Part: Two Steps Forward, Twelve Steps Back
My shrink broke up with me a couple of months ago—Wednesday, February 9th at 1:50 pm to be exact. His reasons for terminating our five-year therapeutic relationship were either selfless or selfish, depending on your perspective. About a month before he ended things, he accepted a full-time funded research position at one of the best hospitals in the world developing a cure for one of the most debilitating diseases to ever ravage the earth’s population. OK, so that’s the romantic movie version. In the real life version he took a full-time funded research position at one of the best hospitals in the world but will likely not find a cure for anything, least of all my broken heart.
My shrink was tall and beautiful and smart, with eyes so blue you could dive inside them and swim a lap. He was on the varsity swim team in high school and in college, where his stroke was the Australian crawl. At night, I liked to imagine him clawing his way across an Olympic-sized swimming pool wearing swim goggles and a green Speedo, drops of iridescent, chlorinated water rolling off his broad, pale back. My shrink was strong, virile, German. He had a tumbling crest of Gestapo-blonde curls and came from one of those tiny Minnesota towns with lots of Methodist churches and white people who wear snowflake sweaters during Christmas. He looked like one of those high-school-history book Vikings, only with a small visible triangle of tangled blonde chest hair when he wore wool v-neck sweaters. Anytime my shrink smiled or laughed at one of my jokes, a surge of happiness rose up inside me. But now he was gone and I missed him more than anything.
My search for an Al-Anon sponsor grew ever more desperate.
There was one prospect I got really excited about. He was bright and cheerful and sexy in a kind of Colin-Firth-in-A-Single-Man sort of way. Except Al-Anon Colin lacked the British accent and wore plaid shorts with ringer tees and carried a canvas Trader Joe’s shopping bag to our Saturday afternoon Living with Sobriety meeting. He was also a therapist working with troubled youth, which I thought would make for a nice transition. Years before moving to L.A. from Michigan, Colin was a flight attendant for Delta. He flew all around the world, docking for approximately 24 hours in each country, enough time to sample its street food and have sex with one (or two) of its natives. Now he had a serious boyfriend about whom he complained pretty regularly because he was fifty years old, unemployed, and still lived with his parents. I figured if Colin became my sponsor we could get together for Sunday brunch, read a page or two from Courage to Change, maybe do a little shopping in the new produce department of the Target on Colorado, and if the mood struck, hit the twelve-step literature study group at the LGBT center in Los Feliz.
But Colin reminded me just enough of my shrink to remind me that he wasn’t. He wasn’t half as beautiful or half as smart and he had an MSW and not a doctorate. Still, he was the person in program to whom I felt closest—which at that point wasn’t saying much—and the one to whom I made my first official post break-up outreach call.
“Hi Colin. It’s Malina.”
“Oh hi, Malina.” He sounded like he’d either just woken up from a nap or finished having sex with his boyfriend.
“So I wanted to practice making an outreach call?” I said in a shaky high-pitched voice.
I’d pulled into the underground visitors parking garage of Kaiser Permanente Vision Essentials in Pasadena to pick up my new contact lens order, and something about the dark, airless space, the green lines, and the 20-minute time limit sign made the whole thing less intimidating. But just barely.
“OK,” said Colin.
A long moment as I figured out what to say next.
“Did you call for any particular reason?”
“My shrink dumped me,” I finally said.
“Oh, you know, that’s really tough.”
“Yea, I’m pretty broken up about it.”
“I bet. I called my shrink the other day and got an outgoing voicemail message that he was in the hospital.”
“Is he OK?”
“For now,” he said. “But it’s been happening a lot lately. He’s almost 70 and in pretty bad health. I’m been putting it off but I really need to start looking for another shrink.”
“How long have you been together?” I asked.
“Twenty… twenty-two years, I think.”
“Twenty-two years?” I felt a hot stab of jealously. How come Colin got to be with his shrink for twenty-two years and mine dumped me after five? It absolutely wasn’t fair.
“I’m really upset,” I sighed. “It feels as though I’ve lost my best friend.”
So we talked for a while and he told me a bit about some of the juvenile delinquents he treats and that he wasn’t going to marry his boyfriend until he got a full-time job but that they were totally in love and were going camping that weekend in Big Bear to celebrate their three-year anniversary. Colin was paying for all of it but he didn’t care because he had a certain Abe Lincoln fantasy that involved his boyfriend, a paperback copy of the Gettysburg Address, and a log cabin in the woods with no Wi-Fi access.
And at the end of it all he said this: “Next time when you get a shrink—and I may be wrong about this—but maybe it might be good to remember that he’s just your shrink.”
A few days later, I was feeling forlorn and miserable, crying anytime a song came on the radio that had the words “loss” or “goodbye” or “never see you again” buried in any of its trite Top 40 lyrics. I found myself belting aloud the part in “Separate Lives” where Phil Collins sings,“Ooh, it’s so typical, love leads to isolation…” (In the video of the song this is where Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Nights character gets ready to defect). I was such a weepy mess, I couldn’t even get through Sheryl Crow’s rendition of “One Less Bell to Answer” on Burt Bacharach—One Amazing Night without bursting into tears, all because my shrink once mentioned that he owned a copy.
It was during the drum crescendo in Ben Folds Five’s live concert version of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” that I decided there that there was no way that Colin could be my sponsor. In fact, no male could be my sponsor, not even a gay one, because he wouldn’t be my shrink.
And then I met Lauren.
Lauren was everything my former shrink was not—namely, a Jewish lesbian from Dallas with an undergraduate degree from Brandeis who now worked in the not-for-profit sector in L.A. She was a recovering sex addict, had been in Al-Anon for the past few years to deal with issues of familial alcoholism and domestic abuse, and spoke with a long, nasally drawl that was a cross between a Long Island housewife and Jessica Tandy’s character from Driving Miss Daisy. Her hair was a dark brown mass of split-ends and spirals. I had no real confirmation, but she looked like the type of person that wore really thick glasses when she wasn’t wearing contacts.
Lauren and I met while walking up the steps to a Monday night woman’s meeting that had apparently been cancelled months earlier.
“Have you ever been to this meeting?” she asked me, rapping on the front window.
“Not for like six months.”
“Hmmm.” She glanced down at her watch just as a squat Latino woman with a ring in her nose and a bunch of shirtless kids in diapers scampering around the building’s front yard charged toward us and waved us off the property: “No mas Al-Anon! No mas Al-Anon!”
Lauren flipped through the pocket-sized Al-Anon meeting directory in her hand. “This is such a bummer. I left work early and had to drive an hour-and-a-half through traffic to get here. I’m doing a ‘90 in 90,’” she said, meaning 90 meetings in 90 days. “I really need a meeting.”
“I think there’s a meeting at Las Encinas that starts in an hour,” I told her. “I’ve never been but my husband goes to an AA meeting there. He saw Dr. Drew the other day.”
Lauren looked down again at her watch. “Is there a Starbucks or anything around here?”
“Down the street,” I said, raising my venti black-tea-lemonade-unsweetened that I’d bought to make it through the hour-long meeting I hadn’t even bothered to go to for six months.
“Cool. You want to maybe go and sit for a bit and have our own meeting?” she asked.
So I walked back into Starbucks with the drink I’d already ordered; Lauren got a green tea. We picked a little round table against the back wall beneath a poster of a South African blend and sat down across from one another. Then Lauren closed her eyes.
“God grant me the serenity…”
I closed my eyes and joined in, keeping my voice down to a whisper. I came to this Starbucks pretty regularly to write and I didn’t want the baristas to think I was some sort of weird zealot who was going to go from table to table passing out pamphlet invites to the next cult-community potluck.
“Do you want to share first?” Lauren asked.
So I told her about my former shrink and my husband’s 18 months of sobriety and about how badly I wanted a sponsor but couldn’t seem to settle on one. And this is the most annoying thing about Al-Anon: at no one point during my share did she offer to be my sponsor. Because in Al-Anon nobody tells anybody what to do, nobody gives unsolicited advice (I mean, they can but you usually don’t want to hang out with any of those people), and nobody jumps in to sponsor you unless you ask.
All I had to do was ask. And Lauren was cool and spiritual and, like me, had gone to an all-girls Jewish summer camp as a kid, which is where she found out she was a lesbian one day during rest hour. She’d worked all the 12 steps—several times—and recited little Al-Anon slogans like “I’m going to bless this day” and “Give it over to God” and “It’s hysterical because it’s historical,” that actually sounded pretty convincing the way she said it. And we had similar hair. But she was already sponsoring seven other people.
“Doesn’t that get sort of exhausting?” I asked her.
“Not at all,” she said. “Because I have really solid boundaries.”
And she had boundaries.
“What happens if they all call you at the same time?”
“That’s never happened.”
“But what if it does?”
She shrugged as though the thought had never occurred to her. “One day at a time,” she said.
I didn’t ask whether or not she was open to sponsoring anybody new. What if she said no? Worse—what if she said yes? It sounded like she might say yes.
“I lost my therapist,” I told her.
“Oh, that’s hard. How long were you together?” I thought, if everybody wanted me to stop thinking about my shrink in relationship terms, how come they always referred to my shrink in relationship terms?
“Did he give you any referral?”
“No. He said he thought referring me to someone he knew would just remind me of him and make it difficult to form a new therapeutic relationship without all that baggage.”
Lauren shook her head affirmatively. “That would not be your problem,” she said. “You just need someone to talk to. I can get you a few names.”
“That’s OK. I got a few names from my other shrinks.”
“You’ve got two?”
“Three. I had three. The one who dumped me, the psychiatrist that I see monthly for meds, and my and my husband’s couples therapist. Now I’m just down to the two.”
“So you have options.”
“I guess.” I exhaled a wistful sigh into the palm of my hand. “I’m too crushed to find another shrink.”
“That’s exactly why you need a shrink.”
“Maybe I need a sponsor to help me get a new shrink.”
“Do you want a sponsor?”
“I want a sponsor. I’m just nervous about getting into a bad relationship with somebody.”
“A sponsor doesn’t have to be somebody you have a relationship with; it’s just someone that you do the steps with.”
“Yea, it would be great if I could find that sort of sponsor. I made a research call though.”
“You mean an outreach call?”
“Yea, right,” I said. “Outreach call. Outreach call.”
“That’s huge. That’s progress.”
“I’ll get a sponsor at some point.”
“You will. It will happen. All you have to do is ask someone.” I couldn’t tell if she was nominating herself as a candidate or encouraging me to look elsewhere. There were so many mixed messages in Al-Anon.
“Just give it over to God,” said Lauren, sipping the last of her green tea. “Shall we end with the serenity prayer?”
As we exchanged numbers and hugged one another goodbye, I made a mental note in my head to put Lauren on the short list of people I’d possibly maybe someday ask to be my sponsor.
If I ever muster up the guts to ask someone.