A Journal of the Plague Year

I take the title of this essay from the 1722 English work of Daniel Defoe which is a fictionalized account of the last great Bubonic Plague outbreak in London of 1665. I am writing this piece in September of 2020 when the entire world is in the midst of its own “Great Plague” caused by the COVID 19 pandemic and many of us older people, as well as some younger folks, find ourselves under dire threat.

I know that I am not alone in spending a great deal of time thinking about the pandemic as it affects both family life and the world at large. There is also more than enough fear and frustration to go around and I have noticed that many online meetings do include a fair amount of sharing that is based on various reactions to this. It is now an “outside issue” that is very relevant to sobriety.

As a Secular person, who is in long term recovery from alcoholism, I found it somewhat ironic that in my 71’st year, after surviving many threats, both medical and human, that what might finally get me is a microbe that could not be more impersonal when compared, on first analysis, to that all too personal alcoholic condition that nearly finished me off at age 38.

As I said, as I was first considering this apparent irony, I was thinking that these dissimilar conditions could not be more distinct from one another. On the one hand, there was this indiscriminate microbe that had the capability of destroying the vulnerable in weeks with terrible efficiency and impunity. I was comparing that to the totally “personal” condition of alcoholism brought on, in my own case, by my own habits and predispositions. Unlike the virus, alcohol caused untold personal disaster long before it killed, with the condition evolving over a considerable period of years in most cases.  

When I started to take a deeper look though distressing similarities began to appear. In terms of outcomes, both the virus and the alcoholic condition do in fact have many things in common.

Here are a few…

  • They are both potentially fatal but vary in degree of severity based on yet to be fully defined personal characteristics.
  • Pro-active, self-generated, human interventions on both the personal and medical level, can vastly improve outcomes in both morbidity and mortality.
  • When interventions are lacking or ineffective the severity of the condition, in terms of prevention, is exacerbated and this results in needless human suffering and death.
  • Outcomes are greatly improved when coordinated group efforts are involved based on enlightened personal action.

  Over the years I have actively worked and attended meetings with many alcoholics and addicts who have regained their bearings and, with both the space to grow in a rational way and the perspective time can give, have gone on with successful and meaningful sober lives. However, there are situations where all attempts to help come to nothing in the end and, despite every best effort, the alcoholic succumbs.

Over the past year two friends of mine, one an old dear personal friend that I knew years before my own sober journey began and the other more of a “program friend” whose attempts at recovery I saw unfold over a shorter time,  have died of their alcoholism.

33+ years into my own sobriety I was assuming that I had seen it all and that I was “used” to dealing with tragic outcomes but these particular deaths brought me up short and made the writing of this essay a lengthy and painful process over this past, COVID 19 dominated, summer. I had to put it down more than once before I could face finishing it.

These personal things, related to the death of friends, were, for some reason, even more tough to take as I watched the totally unnecessary virus-related deaths due to “magical thinking” and malevolent neglect of the obvious medical facts at hand.

Thinking about COVID, while addressing the loss associated with negative alcoholic outcomes, proved to be a challenge I had not anticipated. The emotional impact of these events led me to some thoughts about the confluence of the outer and inner world as it relates to alcoholism and addiction.

The case of my dear old friend from the ’70s was a tragic, long predicted event that played itself out for well over 50 years. He was a person of physical strength (and not a small amount of courage) who came from a very long-lived family. What I saw kill others in their 30’s and 40’s took till his 76th year to kill this man.

The maddening persistence of his condition began here in Washington and extended over the decades and continents (he became a serial expatriate) and could never be brought under control despite some personal disaster and occasional attempts at abstinence one of which I helped within an attempt he made back in the ’90s, during one of his brief periods at home, at drying out and going to meetings. There were people ready to help and both the time and the money were available to begin to sort things out but in the end, as it always was with him, he basically said “ I want to drink” and went on in his heedless way.

His saving grace was a naturally sunny disposition (unless really drunk) which led to many good friends in various spots around the world, considerable intelligence, and great social skills that allowed him to not only be gainfully employed but highly valued as a person by those who knew him.

The last time I saw him in person, around 2011 or so, was at a dinner some old 70’s friends had for him at a small, boutique hotel near Dupont Circle in Washington where we used to gather years before. It’s an old-style place with no elevator and what started as a nice evening ended with three of us literally carrying him up a flight of stairs to his room. The consensus then was that, despite still having some of his old good looks, he was inching closer to the final stages.

His end came last year in a hospital in Thailand and I cannot fully recount the weeks and weeks of events leading up to that with friends of his over there pleading with myself and other friends here for advice and help in his last year of life. It was too messy and lengthy a course for me to describe but, as we had tried in better times, good friends on this end and elsewhere attempted to help as best we could.

When I think of COVID in relation to this alcoholic death so far away I see an old man, lying essentially alone, oblivious to his surroundings, in the grip of a fatal condition that defied treatment in the end. When I saw the way people were dying from Covid-19 the horror of the details surrounding my old friend’s death, just prior to the pandemic, was amplified. It’s not just us affected when we die an alcoholic death. This much loss in my friend’s life became heightened, strangely enough, as the losses from COVID began to mount.  

However, there could have been a way to prevent at least this, very unpleasant, end. He could have been given more life and health if readily available preventative measures had taken hold and somehow reason had prevailed.

Death is death of course and the final word for us all,   but the conditions surrounding death, the unnecessary ones, can cause thought, and possibly improved future action, to ensue.

The second untimely demise that figured in this year’s personal malaise was of a very different order involving someone far younger who I knew for a far shorter period of time.

This tragedy involved a man from my noon meeting that I went to for many years before my permanent departure from the conventional program.

He was a very engaging, well-educated, person who fits the profile of the noon downtown DC groups and had great credentials and an interesting career that had started in the hospitality business in London in his younger years where some college binge drinking evolved into something far more serious.

I had watched and interacted with this man from the time he showed up, fresh out of rehab, well more than a decade ago, and had become friendly, in a distant sort of way, with him over the years. He was more than 20 years younger and I put some of the “distance” down to that when he never showed up for “old man’s coffee” with a group of us after the meeting. He was also, after all, a very busy guy.  

My overseas work took me away for much of the period I knew him but I heard from old friends from the meeting, from time to time, about “Slips”, domestic court cases, judges, negative custody rulings, unemployment, and an “in and out” pattern of attendance.  

I encountered him on the street one afternoon after he had been recounting one of his alcoholic misadventures at the meeting and caught him up short. I said something like, “You know, my friend, all you really have to do is stop. I don’t put up with most of this “program” bullshit as you know but I did figure out that abstinence was the key to this thing. You should give it a try.” I smiled and walked away.  

Not long after this he saw me again and thanked me for being so direct and, within six months or so, he did stop and then stayed sober for four and a half years. I in no way credit myself with his turn around but it became obvious that fear of his then-current peril, and at least a provisional commitment to abstinence, had taken hold. Many had helped him along the way and a warm hand of welcome had always been extended to him.

In a remarkably short time, his job situation totally turned around, the judge gave him visitation rights with his kids, his general health improved, and he entered a new relationship that seemed satisfying to both parties involved.

At the end of this very successful four-and-a-half-year period he disappeared from the meeting (in general a bad sign) and, not long after, stories of a rapid descent began to reach me. Around that time, I was just getting more and more involved with the wider implications of our Secular program and less and less involved with any aspects of Conventional AA but I still had many contacts from the meeting who I was actively engaged with and I would help when asked.

I of course was not at all surprised when a call in early 2018 came to help this man and, to make the tale of a long and difficult morning shorter, I helped another friend of mine take him to a good local detox at a hospital near me. The prognosis was grim and when asked I said so.

This past February, before COVID closed all International Business down, I was working for a couple of weeks in Istanbul for a client of mine and arrived back in the US in the middle of the month shortly before the crisis really became apparent here.

Within a few days of my return, I got an email from a friend telling me of the death of this man, without a lot of detail. He had died in late January at the same hospital, where I had last seen him checked into detox in 2018, of “multiple organ failure” due to alcoholism. He was just over 50 years old.

This was not the first such message like this that I have received and I know it won’t be the last but after the news that came in March of the spreading pandemic and the horrible images from New York City began arriving in April of unnecessary and widespread death, the news of this loss of yet another suffering alcoholic began to hit me harder and harder. It somehow seemed entwined with the other horrors that were appearing daily.

Sadly, as I indicated, over many years I have encountered stories like this where, even after some years of success, we see the patterns of abuse repeat themselves and see worthwhile people who we have cared for and grown fond of, go down to death.  

So, what can we learn from all this while the world suffers through this pandemic and whole populations are struggling to find ways forward that make sense and save lives?

What makes sense always makes sense and base rational fundamentals always remain so.

In the 1918-1919 pandemic (that my own father’s birth mother perished in) while there were no flu-shots or antibiotics for secondary infections and no blood thinners for blood clots in the lungs, there was the mask. Masks were as fundamental to containment as they are today, and people wore them. It’s the only thing that currently works, combined with distancing, for everyone.

In 1939, when they came up with the unwieldy bromides contained in the “Steps” there was no medical “treatment” for alcoholism other than the crude methods used on Bill Wilson at Towns Hospital in 1935, but the idea of abstinence as an absolute value worked every time all the time. That idea supported by an honest decision, meetings, sharing, and helping others is as valid now as it was then. It’s the only way I know how to help.

So, while we may feel helpless in the macro sense (as in the political world) there are some things we can deploy to help with the “plague” of both alcoholism and Covid-19.

However, while there will be multiple vaccines for COVID 19 available next year there will be no such luck with alcoholism and addiction so in our world of Secular Recovery we have an even tougher road ahead of us.

The challenge and the hope we face in dealing with the death of others is augmented, in a bittersweet way, by the efforts made to contain the damage that ensues from these alcoholic deaths and what may be learned therefrom.

While sometimes depressed and often upset by the fates of my lost friends I do know that some others can be saved if we keep our heads, stick to the fundamentals we have learned to deploy over long experience and try to remain hopeful despite the searing pain of continual loss.  

About the Author

John Huey’s student work of the ’60s-’70s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf. After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has been widely anthologized and published since then. His first full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017. 

Full information on his creative work, as well as his many Secular Recovery talks and writings, can be found at john-huey.com.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Andrea (formerly Coan) Harold

    This piece touched me greatly as my then husband and I got sober together in D.C. in our mid-30s and seem to have had some of the same haunts around Dupont Circle. My smart, charming, sociable, funny husband (when not drinking) sadly died at age 52 some years after our marriage had ended. Now 74 years old, I am still grateful that his “coat tails” brought me to sobriety perhaps ten years earlier than I would have made it on my own. I do not believe that those who lose the battle against addiction necessarily failed to “work” the program. Rather, I believe that the narrow program to which they were exposed failed to reach them with a remedy that met their needs. Thus, I reserve my loathing for the disease itself and for those I call the smugly sober who dare to presume that the “other” who couldn’t hold onto sobriety ought to have done as they did. I have struggled in conventional AA meeting when someone leaves the program and dies and the rooms just reek of self-righteousness. In my more charitable moments, I recognize this as fear but I am not always so charitable. Seems I had more to say that I thought. Thanks for the cathartic nudge.


    1. John Huey

      Thank you Andrea… These things are indeed abiding mysteries that linger in memory and are an occasion for reflection and, sometimes, for action of our own. As to the the departed I often need to respect their choices while wishing they had chosen another way for themselves…It sort of goes with the territory for many of us who have been around a while.

  2. D

    Thanks so much for this article, John. Like Andrea, I was greatly touched by your words. It brought to mind the lives I’ve been acquainted with that have been lost to our affliction. How I hate my helplessness as I watch friend’s continue in self destruction. I volunteer answering the phones at our local intergroup office. The most heart-warming calls are from people saying “I’m done. I’ve got to stop. How do I change?” The most heart-breaking are from family and friends asking, “What can I do to stop them? What can I do to make them change?” All I can reply is to say they have to want it and suggest they have that person phone to chat. It seems so little. My 12-step techniques I first learned 32 years ago. Are there better ways of handling things now? If someone could write about that, I’d greatly appreciate it. Thanks again, John, for sharing. You write so well.

    1. John Huey

      Thanks D …
      I wrote a series of articles here under the general heading of ‘Secular Recovery’ that might prove useful to someone if you want to take a look. In general, I have never had much use for 12 Step solutions and came at this with a different view though I did learn a few things from those meetings…Start with the one that has “Moment of Decision” in the title and read up.

  3. Vic Losick

    John, I listened to the podcast & just read your article. The pandemic & alcoholism are strange bedfellows on the one hand yet soulmates on the other. Like you, I probably would be felled by either a brush with the microbe or the sip of another drink. So I try to and remind myself of this on a daily basis. Thanks and be well.

    1. John Huey

      Thanks Vic…We live in mind bendingly strange times and it’s a wonder we are not all crazier than we are. Turns out that some of the decades long processes we have been through here were not bad training grounds for this.

  4. Bob K

    I suppose we were all driven to AA by our personal “Covid’s,” some set of frightening circumstances of health, employment, relationship, or financial disaster. During Covid-91, I felt very alone. In the current strangest of times, there is a sense of community — we’re all in this together, albeit some are in denial. One of the early benefits of coming to AA was an abatement of my “alone-ness.”

    Covid-91 was different for me from the 2020 crisis, in that it came with a lot of shame — “large promise, poor performance” perhaps. There definitely exists a similarity in the elements of isolation and the uncertainty of what was/is coming next. The essay calls attention to the potentially fatal nature of alcoholism, something not discussed a great deal in the affluent suburbs.

    Thanks for the piece. It’s thought-provoking.

    1. John Huey

      Yes Bob…We do love our myopic “happy talk” in Western Societies (in particular in my country) where we like to assume that everything will be OK and are shocked when it’s not which, all to frequently, seems to be the case. That said, if we are not idiots, we can sometimes learn from disaster when we encounter it and possibly put the information gleaned therefrom to good use. Thanks for the kind words.

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