DROWNING THE DYNAMIC DUO

by Regina Y. Leverrier, MD

When you are suffering from an illness, sometimes the experience can bring people in your life closer. But when that disease is addiction, it is a different tale altogether. In the throes of dependence, you slash and slice people from your life like an out-of-control samurai sword and don’t even realize what is happening until you sober up and see the damage you have done.

* * * * *

My best friend Beth, weighing over 200 pounds, swayed like a large ballerina in the wind as Tobacco Road’s house band, Iko Iko, wailed and jammed to the blues. Her body was pear- shaped—her breasts not so much small as her hips wide. Her burnt auburn curls brushed against her shoulders—one ringlet, cascading like a waterfall, caressed her forehead.

Her eyes were powder blue like a mid- afternoon Montana sky. Her eyelashes, coated in brown mascara, curled above the blue, and when she saw a man who captured her attention, she’d slowly close her right eye and reopen it—a silent flirt in a smoky bar. Her lid, covered in blue eye shadow, glittered as the lights shined from the stage.

She wore mostly black with a flash of pink or turquoise here and there. Her dancing outfit often included a cowboy hat, a wide belt, and cowboy boots. Red lipstick outlined her tulip- shaped mouth, which, when it broke into a smile, hinted at naughtiness and at the same time, comfort. When we left the club around 4 a.m. she strolled to her white convertible with the DR BETH license plates. Silver earrings dangled from her earlobes, and light from the street lamps made them flicker in the night like airplanes—or—if you were lucky—a falling star.

* * * * *

Beth and I met the first week of medical school at the University of Miami. I came up with the idea of tie-dying our plain white coats for anatomy lab.

“What a great idea,” Beth laughed. “Let’s do it. I want mine to be blue.”

We had a party at another girl’s apartment and created our new works of colorful art. I loved the way we looked going into the lab the following day. Swirls of blues, yellows and reds danced around the sterile, silver room, making the cadaver lab seem festive.

The next week six of us went to a bar on the water to celebrate turning our cadavers over and seeing their faces for the first time. We drank round after round of creamy drinks called Harbor Lights in curled glasses that looked like little vases. Made with Kahlua coffee liqueur, they tasted like dessert and reminded me of my first mixed drink in my friend’s kitchen when I was fourteen. The drinks warmed me inside and we all ended up wasted.

Later Beth and I ended up in the ladies’ room. A girl was lying face up on the floor; her shirt was stained with vomit and remnants dribbled down her chin. Her eyes were closed and her friend caressed her hair as she squatted down beside her. Beth rushed over, took the fallen girl’s wrist and began taking her pulse.

“Don’t worry,” Beth said to the girl’s friend. “She’ll be okay. We’re doctors.”

I laughed so hard I barely made it to the stall on time.

One night Beth told me she was taking me out for my birthday. When we walked into her parents’ house I heard, “Surprise!” I looked around the living room—all my friends were there. There was even a cake. Beth had planned the whole party for me.

“Why does every cake I ever get say ‘eat me’ on it?” I asked.

“Why do you think?” Beth smiled.

She “got” me.

* * * * *

Throughout our four years of medical school, Beth and I partied together most weekends and some weeknights. We shared many common interests: love of bars, dancing, and meeting men. I always met guys and had a blast when I was out with her. People in our class referred to us as the Dynamic Duo.

I could always count on Beth to be the responsible one. She always drove when we went out, as I was too drunk to drive anywhere. At the time I had a love affair with alcohol—and a fondness for cocaine—that Beth did not share. She did not miss school often like I did. She did not wake up with pieces of the night before missing, her head pounding while she searched through her purse to find evidence of how she’d made it home. I’d wake in the morning and think to myself, “How did my life become like this? This is not how I’d imagined it to be. What happened to me?”

As a child I searched for spirit—first through yoga when I was eleven and then to Jesus and church when I was twelve. I had a hole in my soul and was seeking something to fill it up. Fill me up. That year, I also discovered my calling— I would become a doctor and help drug addicts heal. The following year I began having anxiety attacks where my fingers went numb and it felt like my heart would beat out of my chest. I could not catch my breath, my mind raced, and I thought I was dying. Now I know they were panic attacks. At the time I thought something was terribly wrong with me.

At fourteen I stopped going to church and discovered a new spirit to fill me up. One warm South Florida night while out cruising around in a friend’s car, I finished a whole beer for the first time—Michelob in a bottle. As I stumbled out of the ’69 Camaro I felt a click in my brain— my first buzz. Everything changed in that moment. My thoughts slowed in my head and I felt safe in my own skin. I felt normal because of the alcohol. Click. By my senior year of college, drinking had become as normal a part of my day as breathing. My photographic-like memory and ability to cram all night before exams allowed me to graduate college Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in chemistry, an acceptance into University of Miami on academic scholarship, as well as full-blown alcoholism. That is how addiction enters a life— first slowly and then encompassing all.

During the three years after medical school graduation, my obsession with alcohol intensified, and I put it before everything. I craved anything with booze in it—from tequila shots to top-shelf champagne, imported beer to cheap wine, vodka and orange juice to rum and cokes. Beth stayed in Miami and I moved to New York City. My addiction progressed and flourished in a place where bars beckoned and winked from every corner and taxis roamed the streets in yellow ribbons—no need to drive. I went out drinking every night, which caused more and more problems with my training to become a psychiatrist. I was trying to help others with their substance abuse problems and mental illnesses but was barely able to function myself. I called in sick often, and when I was not at the hospital the other residents had to cover for me. In medical school I rarely made it to school on Mondays, so in residency I never scheduled any outpatients on a Monday, as I was always hung-over.

One weekend I flew down to see Beth and we enjoyed plenty of sun, drink, and fun in the Florida Keys. When we returned to her home in South Beach, she called a man who she’d hoped would be her boyfriend and we all made plans to meet. At that point my brain was in many fractured pieces from all the booze I had consumed, and as soon as I saw him we began kissing passionately right in front of Beth. I felt I had known him all my life. The rest of the night was shades of gray, but I ended up at Beth’s later that night. The next day, while she was at work, I slunk out of her apartment like a coward and stayed with the man for two days. When I finally sobered up back in New York, I realized I had betrayed Beth and knew she was no longer my best friend. I had destroyed our dynamic duo.

I practiced psychiatry as a wounded healer but three years into my residency, six months after that episode in Miami, I was given a choice by my residency director at the hospital: get help for my substance abuse problem or lose my medical license. Among many things, he told me one of my supervisors had found me drinking on the job. I’d never drunk during work or carried a flask or bottle with me—the alcohol he smelled was coming from my pores after a weekend binge in Key West with the man I lost Beth over.

At first I refused to accept the fact that I had a problem with my best friend, alcohol, but then I thought of all the problems it had caused all those years: losing Beth as my best friend, not showing up for work or school, and all the things I did intoxicated I regretted—often apologizing for things I did not even remember doing. I finally realized I was an alcoholic and needed to stop drinking.

For six months I tried to stay sober, only to relapse again and again. After failing to get clean on my own, I began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where they told me to “turn your life over to God as you understand Him.” So I prayed to God, who I no longer knew or understood.

“Dear God,” I pleaded. “Please help me stop drinking and using. I can’t stop no matter what I do. I don’t want to die. Amen.”

From the next day on I lost all desire to drink or use drugs. A miracle had transpired! I continued attending AA. I prayed and meditated, and also worked through the Twelve Steps, which gave me tools to live by. I bought a gym membership from a friend and began taking exercise classes. During the first couple of classes I gasped for breath and the next day my muscles ached with pain. But I kept going and it got easier, and I loved the feeling after I worked out—better than any high from alcohol or drugs.

My sobriety date is January 8th, 1992, six months prior to graduating psychiatry residency, and a little over a year after losing Beth. Over time she forgave me but our relationship was never the same. Looking back I realize that my alcoholism had caused many problems in our friendship over the seven years we were close. She often let them slide as her love for me helped her overlook my problems. “When you’re drinking and I look in your eyes,” she once told me, “it’s like you disappear.”

Addiction is like a tumor inside that you don’t know is there. It slowly grows and takes over your healthy parts, replacing them with malignant ones. Once a smart, caring kid who wanted to help others with their addictions, I turned into a selfish person who cared about one thing—when and where my next drink would be. I had a disease that told me I did not have one, that alcohol was not the cause of my problems, but the only solution. How can a healthy friendship survive something so toxic?

I have been sober for over nineteen years and to this day I miss Beth’s Johnny Cash outfits, her Lucille Ball hair and her Angelina Jolie lips. I have seen her many times since then, but I know she sees me in a different light. She married a musician named Reggie, which happens to be my nickname. I send her a card and letter every year sharing my life. I will always treasure our friendship like a precious gem tucked away in the jewelry box of my heart. Unfortunately, some things you do can never be undone no matter how many steps you work, climb, or take.

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A board certified community psychiatrist, Regina Leverrier is medical director of an inpatient psychiatric hospital in western Colorado. She has practiced for 20 years in many areas, including drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, correctional facilities, community mental health clinics, homeless shelters and one of the busiest psychiatric emergency rooms in the country. She competes in Olympic-distance triathlons. One of her essays is forthcoming in Living the Everyday magazine.