A thin layer of dust hung in the air as he lay there letting the effects take over, a slow cascade of tingles spread through his body and his eyes widened, his mind floating away into another dimension. Pangs of guilt wash over London, as he had promised that last time would be the last time, but slip ups come way too easy and staying clean makes things too real. Hours pass before he starts to slip back into reality. Jerod’s gonna be so mad. I can’t believe I messed up. Again! Now I gotta start all over.
“Well, was it worth it?” Jerod asks, giving London one of those looks that pierce into his soul, the kind that only a sponsor can give. He tilts his head and raises an eyebrow, waiting for a response.
“Uhh, sorta?” London admits, but can’t meet his gaze. He shuffles his feet and shoves his hands in his pockets, “I guess not,” he groans and scoffs at himself.
“You know what this means?” Jerod asks simply.
“I get to start over at day one,” in a flat tone London quotes the words he’s heard Jerod tell him time after time following every relapse.
“Exactly. You get to start over at day one,” Jerod says, nodding his head. “Come on, let’s get you some food, you look awful.”
They meet up with several other people from the meeting at a local restaurant and Jerod treats London to whatever he wants, which isn’t much. He never has much of an appetite when he’s going through withdrawals. They talk amongst themselves and London lets himself fade into the background, only nodding along or laughing occasionally but not adding much to the conversation. Finally, Jerod gets up to leave and this is London’s cue to leave as well since Jerod was his ride home. Jerod drops London off at his apartment and waves as he pulls off into the night. London takes a deep breath of the crisp night air and fishes his keys out of his pocket. He gets inside and looks around at the state of his place; it’s a mess. Trash everywhere, empty pill bottles strewn about, a huge stack of mail litters the table, and dishes encrusted with remnants of food sit on just about every available surface. Well, I guess I could clean, or I could just throw a show on the TV and get comfy and let future me deal with this mess. He argues with himself for a minute and then agrees to clean for a little while but resolves that he’s not going to wash the dishes because he doesn’t have the energy to face all of that tonight.
He starts to straighten up but soon finds his goal shifts from simply cleaning to cleaning and searching for any stashes he may have hid from himself while he was high. He’s not going to take anything, he was just curious if he had anything lying around; all he needed was to hold a pill in his hand and maybe that would scratch the itch. He makes progress cleaning and thoroughly searching anything that could be used as a stash container but finds nothing. He was starting to panic and feel pain shoot through his body, a tactic his brain used to convince him to use again. Phantom pain, his sponsor called it. Very persuasive. He dries his hands on his pants; they’d started to get sweaty as he got more and more anxious and less confident about making it through the night without calling his dealer. He scanned the room, frantic for something to distract him from his racing thoughts and his eyes land on a puzzle his sister had given him for his birthday. She doesn’t know me at all if she thinks I’m into puzzles, he’d thought when he opened it, but right now he welcomed the idea.
He grabbed the box and pushed his newly cleaned table in front of his couch so he could watch a show while working. He picked an animated show he’d never seen before and pressed play. Opening the box, he tore open the bag inside that contained the 500 pieces and poured them out onto the table. He started by sorting through and finding all of the border pieces because he didn’t know how else to start and found putting the border together to be oddly satisfying. Then he stared blankly at the pile of variously shaped and colored pieces lying in disarray before him and one piece with what looked like a steeple stuck out to him. This is where he started. An hour later he had worked out a system that seemed to be working; he’d made piles of pieces by color, then laid them all out facing up and worked from the castle until the castle faded into sky. He thought he would do the forest next and then the water below it. Three hours later and several episodes into the show, he secured the last piece of the puzzle in its place and sat back with a grin on his face. He smoothed out the puzzle, feeling each individual piece where it connected to the next one and felt a strange sense of gratification. It then suddenly dawned on him that he hadn’t thought about using the whole time he’d been working on the puzzle.
The following day when he called his sponsor he couldn’t wait to tell him what he did.
”So, London, how was your night?” Jared asked.
“Actually, it started out really rough but then I did this thing and I managed to resist the urge to text Dereck,” London reported excitedly.
“Well you’ve certainly piqued my interest. What’s this thing you did?”
“So for my birthday my sister, she gave me this puzzle and I thought she was crazy because I’ve never done puzzles! I don’t know why the hell she thought I would like it but that’s not the point,” London rambles and then refocuses, “So anyhoo, I started to get really antsy and I was having some hardcore phantom pains and man, they hurt! Then I noticed this puzzle just sitting there and I figured why the hell not. So I did it! I’ve literally never done a puzzle before in my life but it just made sense to me, you know? Like once I started I just couldn’t stop and somehow the whole time I was working on it I didn’t think about using, not even once.”
“Wow, that’s awesome London! Good for you! You had a craving and instead of giving in you found something else to focus your energy on. That’s great news!” Jerod said, actually sounding genuinely impressed, which is rare for him.
“So I’m heading to the store to get some more puzzles so I can have them for when I have another impulsive thought like that,” London informs him.
“I think that’s a great idea. Maybe check out a thrift store so you don’t spend too much,” Jerod suggested, always thinking of London’s best interests. “I’ll see you at the meeting later. You have a ride?”
“Yeah, Bob’s taking me today. It should be the last day I need a ride though cause my Dad said my car’s supposed to be ready tomorrow,” he explains.
“Excellent. Well, have a good day kiddo, and don’t hesitate to call if you need me. I’m just a phone call away,” Jerod says and ends the call.
London gets off the bus and walks another block before he arrives at Goodwill. He makes his way inside where he navigates his way through the aisles of rejected items and locates a shelf filled with puzzles. He takes his time looking at almost every one of them, making a pile of definitely’s and maybe’s, and then hemming and hawing over each one before deciding to add them to his final stack. He makes his purchases and then slowly walks over to the bus stop knowing he’s got several minutes to waste until the next one arrives. At the bus stop he pulls out his phone and opens up the game he’s been fixated on recently. His day passes quickly, and before long Bob texts him that he’s arrived to take him to the meeting. They get to the meeting and London immediately feels at home when he walks into the meeting room and sees all the familiar faces; an unlikely mix of people including lawyers, doctors, convicts, stay-at-home moms, young adults with menial jobs, but all of them addicts just the same. He greets a few of them while making his way over to his sponsor, gives him a hug, and then takes a seat. He plays on his phone until the meeting starts and then checks to make sure no alarms will go off during the meeting and that the phone was set to vibrate. He tunes in and out as people start getting called on to share, and suddenly his ears perk up when he hears his name called out to share next.
“Um, okay. Uh, I’m London and I’m an addict.”
“Hi London,” the room echoes.
“Um, so I’ve been clean for about two days now, for about the fifteenth time. If you’d asked me yesterday if I thought this time was going to be different I would’ve probably just shrugged and changed the subject. I’ve never really had much hope for myself to get and stay clean, but I might have found something that will help give me an edge this time around. See, I was at home last night after the meeting and my mind started racing and I started searching my place for any places I might have hid some pills, but I couldn’t find anything and believe me I looked everywhere. Then I was about to give up and text my dealer because I was just in a lot of pain and it didn’t seem worth the trouble to push through but then I noticed this puzzle I got as a birthday present a while ago. And it was the craziest thing! The whole time that I was working on that damn puzzle, I didn’t think about using at all. I don’t even think I noticed being in pain. It was like the rest of the world faded away and it was just me and this puzzle and it was so satisfying being able to see my progress and actually finish what I started for the first time in a long time. And it got me thinking that maybe that’s me. Like I’m a puzzle, and something out there is putting me back together one piece at a time and some day I’ll be a whole person again. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but that’s what I got,” London shared while staring at the floor, too nervous to check to see if anyone was listening or nodding along to what he was saying. But once he finished talking he glanced over at his sponsor sitting beside him and noticed an approving smile creep across his face as everyone in the room thanked him for his share, but then he nudged London prompting him to say, “Oh right, um I’ll call on Lexie.” And with that the meeting carried on, and London felt relieved that he could relax since he’d already been called on. The meeting ended and a few people came up to him to thank him for his share and encourage him to keep coming back.
Months went by and London developed a ritual of sorts. Every time he felt a desire to slip up and use, he pulled out a puzzle and worked on it until he either had to go to work or a meeting or until he was finished. Hundreds of puzzles he went through, never doing any of them more than once, but refusing to give any of them up so his whole apartment was flooded with stacks of puzzles. He went to meetings religiously and couldn’t believe it when he got his one month chip, then his 3 month chip, and was surprised when he realized that it was only a few days until he would hit 6 months. On the day he got his chip, he was asked to share how he did it and he explained his puzzling system and how before that he had relapsed time and time again, constantly letting himself and his family down. He also shared about how he’d worked the steps and had his regular calls with his sponsor and attended meetings and did all the things that the program teaches you to do. After the meeting, a nervous, fidgety guy walks up to him and shyly introduces himself, “H..hi, I’m Curly.”
“Curly? That’s an interesting name. Nice to meet you,” London said, turning his attention towards this guy who was clearly on something or just coming off of it. “How much time do you have?”
“Uh, well, I’m not really sure,” Curly said anxiously, scratching his arms.
“When was the last time you used?”
“Oh, uh, I think like 3 o’clock today? I was nervous about coming to a meeting and it’s the only thing that calms my nerves,” Curly explained.
“Okay. What’s your poison?” London inquires.
“H. Or oxy. Or fentanyl.”
“Gotcha, so whatever’s available then?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Curly shrugs.
“What’d you think of the meeting?”
“That’s um actually why I came to talk to you. I really liked your share. I’ve been trying for so long to get clean that I’ve lost track. I don’t get to see my little girl anymore because I’m high all the time and her mama told me I gotta get clean before she’ll even consider letting me see her again,” Curly realizes he’s gotten off track. He shakes his head and continues, “Anyways, I heard you saying that you relapsed a whole bunch of times when you first started out too but then now you’ve got 6 months and that’s crazy.”
“You wanna know the secret?” London offers.
“Yea, definitely!” Curly says looking hopeful.
“One day at a time, my man. We all do this thing one day at a time,” London says, patting Curly on the shoulder.
London does the same thing for Curly that Jared had done for him, he invites him to come eat with everyone and pays for his meal. While there, Curly asks London if he can be his sponsor, which London graciously agrees to do. It’s now been four years since that night, and both men are still going strong. Curly got back into his daughter’s life and London always has a puzzle going on his table. He’s got things he never would’ve dreamed of before; a steady job, a boyfriend, a nice apartment, he pays his bills on time, and he’s got the trust and respect of his family and it’s all thanks to that silly puzzle from his sister, which she never lets him forget.