strong menThe men: craggy and weathered, in rumpled flannel shirts and work pants, arms crossed tight in the static haze of unfiltered cigarette smoke. These were East Tennessee men, loud and back-slapping, teeth stained tobacco gold. Sometimes they spit brown bullets into Styrofoam cups. Often, they cried.

They were stunning. I could have listened to them all night.

One of them didn’t know where his kids were. His ex had full custody now. Goddamn he missed their little voices, he said. The one with a gray crew cut and white shirtsleeves had been a lawyer. He’d lost his practice, his marriage, then his self-respect. A third, with shaggy brown hair and a wiry moustache, had been sleeping under a bridge until someone, it was unclear who, hauled his ass into a meeting. It was a complicated story, difficult to follow. I didn’t mind.

This is bottom, I thought, and exhaled pure relief.

Seven hundred miles away in suburban New York, a father was—I checked my watch—on his third Scotch by now. Soon he’d pass out for the night. His sixteen-year-old son was alone in his bedroom, doing homework. Good grades would liberate him from the cluttered, silent house. That’s how his sisters had escaped. He knew where his father was, the father knew where his children were—more or less—and they all knew the mother was dead, though no one would discuss it. Still, everyone had a bed to sleep in. Nobody was under a bridge. It wasn’t bottom. Not yet.

At meetings, hitting bottom wasn’t shameful. It was, unpredictably, a source of pride. The men wore their labels like badges, flashing them as each meeting began.

“Hi, I’m L. Alcoholic.” (Hi, L.)

“J. Alcoholic, Drug Addict.” (Hi, J.)

At twenty-three I was the youngest person and often the only woman in the room. The men treated me kindly, gently, as if I were something fragile. I suppose I was. Flighty and untethered, I had to brace myself against each strong wind. In meetings, I rarely spoke. To do so felt inappropriate. Disrespectful, even. What would I have said? That I drank with friends on weekends, sometimes to excess. But I didn’t have a problem. Not me. I’m here, I would have said, because the other group, the one for sons and daughters of alcoholics, turned into a place where forty- and fifty-year-olds sit cross-legged on a tile floor reliving their childhood traumas in endless, repetitive loops. I needed something more hopeful to cling to. Something gritty and reliable and real.

You, I would have told the men, you model strength. You hit bottom, and you climbed out. You help me believe others can, too.

I didn’t want to be a poser. I wanted to earn my seat in the room. So I quit drinking, learned the Lord’s Prayer, toted around a heavy blue book and pretended it spoke about me.

“Hope, Alcoholic.” (Hi, Hope.)

My father rarely called, believing I was fine. But the men knew otherwise. A young woman alone in the South needed looking after. They poured me cups of coffee, asked about my job. One of them sold me a used barbecue for a third of its value. Another—old enough to be my grandfather—strapped the grill into his red pickup and hauled it across town to my backyard.

“Can I pay you for the trouble?” I asked.

Pshht,” he said, pawing the air with a huge, tanned hand. “Just enjoy it.” He clasped my shoulder for a second before driving away.

For five months I sat with the men until, slowly, almost imperceptibly, I felt their strength becoming mine. It’s supposed to happen that way, but still. I was surprised.

That’s when I decided to tell the truth. After their honesty and kindness, it seemed only fair.

They didn’t believe me, of course. The word “denial” was used, though gently.

“I’m serious,” I said. “I’m not an alcoholic.” They nodded. They patted my arm.

Honestly,” I said. I wanted them to see.

They invited me out for coffee. They called my house at night. “Y’all kay there?” they drawled.

I knew they were checking to make sure I wasn’t drinking. I wasn’t, but it touched me, their concern. It felt paternal. Protective. Safe.

I let them think what they wanted. It was small price to pay. What they were giving me was much more than what they could take away.

Hope Edelman has published six books of nonfiction, including Motherless DaughtersMotherless Mothers, and the memoir The Possibility of Everything. Her articles, essays and reviews have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Bitch in the HouseBehind the Bedroom Door, and the forthcoming Goodbye to All That. In 2012 she was the featured writer at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference and later that year was inducted into the Medill Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University. She teaches in the MFA program at Antioch University-LA and in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival every July.

Photography by Paul Bilger