“I’d like to introduce you to Jesse. This is his first meeting.” Noah gives me an encouraging smile and moves off to the side and stands against the wall.
I get up slowly, feeling the muscles in my thighs stretch and my knees crack. At the sound, I self-consciously laugh out loud. “Sorry about that,” I say, trying to make a joke. I look to my left where maybe a dozen people are seated in folding chairs in the small room. For some reason I notice three of them: a guy about sixty with long, stringy hair and a full grey beard; a thin, prim looking woman about forty in black, horned rimmed glasses, wearing a green dress and a string of pearls around her neck; and a young kid with a buzz cut and facial piercings who looks to be maybe sixteen. Those three and everyone else just stare back at me. I’m one-hundred percent on display and out of my element. Plus, I feel like I’m some kind of a nut case for being here. Maybe I am. But one thing is for certain: no one laughs. I feel a hot blush rise from under my shirt up my neck and all the way to my ears. Tough crowd, I think to myself as I take three steps to the front of the room and turn to face them.
“Hey,” I say, stammering a little. Like most everyone in the world, speaking in front of people gives me the willies. I look over at Noah Langston, my sponsor. He gives me an encouraging smile, nodding at me to go ahead. I cough to clear my throat and start again, “Hi. My name’s Jessie,” I say, happy my voice sounds more confident than I feel, “I’m a Fruitaholic.”
“Hi Jessie.” The voices of unknown strangers drone back at me, filling me with trepidation. I’m suddenly petrified and not sure I’m ready to do this.
I fight back an urge to run and glance again at Noah. I’m sure he can read my mind so he gives me another smile and a thumbs up with both hands. Two thumbs up. I appreciate his vote of confidence. He’s serious about me taking this first step on what I hope is the beginning of the road to recovery. I take a deep breath and begin, looking down at my feet, somehow taking comfort in seeing my worn, black, tennis shoes.
“Hi. Like I said, I’m Jessie and I’m here to tell you my story.”
I glance up and make eye contact with a picture on the back wall that looks like a demented clown from a Stephen King novel. Thinking to myself, That’s exactly how I feel, I begin talking, “I’m forty seven years old and have been married twenty five years to a wonderful woman named Iris. I have three great kids; my son, Joe, and my two daughters, Karen and Kate, all three of whom live in the Minneapolis – St. Paul area and all three of whom are healthy, well adjusted people. I work at the same job I’ve had for twenty-three years, senior technician for Lakeside Industries, where me and the team I’m on maintain all the computer systems for the company. We make boots and moccasins – you may have heard of us. Anyway, Iris and I have lived in Long Lake out west of here near lake Minnetonka since we got married, like I said, twenty five years ago.”
I pause and let my eyes rove away from the clown to the opposite side of the room from where Noah is standing. I zero in on a photograph of downtown Minneapolis at night, the lights beautifully illuminating the city skyline (which for some reason fills me with a sense of comfort.) I am unable (or unwilling) to make eye contact with the people in the room. For now all I can do is to push back my fear and keep talking. I take a deep breath, let it out, and continue,
“So on paper, my life looks good, right? Well, it’s not. Several years ago, um, eleven years, eight months and five days, to be exact – I remember the day like it was yesterday – I began my love affair with fruit. It happened innocently enough at a neighborhood picnic, and it involved a huge bowl of red seedless grapes. I was talking to a neighbor when I casually reached in the bowl, picked out a grape, popped it in my mouth and ate it. No big deal, right? Then I grabbed another grape, popped it in and ate it. Then another one, then another, and another, and then more and more. Then I started grabbing grapes with both hands and stuffing them into my mouth, and then…well, I couldn’t stop. In a matter of minutes, I’d consumed every single grape. I remember holding the bowl in my lap, seeing it empty except for some water and a few left over stems floating in the bottom and thinking to myself, What the hell just happened here? Before I could come up with an answer, I remember Iris standing next to me saying, ‘Jessie, let me take that and then let’s get you home. You don’t look too good.’ She pried the bowl from my grasp, put her arm around my shoulder and led me away. She told me later that the neighbors were pretty freaked out.
“I’d never eaten so much fruit at one time before in my whole life and I’ll tell you one thing right now, I didn’t sleep too well that night.”
I quit talking as I finally got the nerve up to look around the room. Most people were watching me intently, encouraging me and nodded back; all except for one guy around thirty with a goatee and black framed glasses who had fallen asleep. It seemed most everyone in the room could relate to what I’d done in some way, shape or form. It gave me the courage to go on.
“I guess that bowl of grapes was the beginning. I can’t for the life of me figure out what caused me to do such a thing and my shrink couldn’t figure it out it out either. I started seeing him a few months after my first overdose on those grapes when it became plain that I couldn’t control my desire for fruit on my own. It was Iris’s idea. ‘You need help, Jessie,’ is what she told me, and I have to say that I agreed with her.”
By the way, my shrink’s name is Dr. Rosenblum, but I’m not supposed to use names in group. That’s what Noah told me anyway, so I didn’t during my talk and, to be honest, I’m kind of surprised I remembered not to blurt it out, but I did – remember, that is.
“‘You’re definitely addicted, Jessie, he told me after we’d talked awhile during our first session, “‘I’ve never had a case like this before, but you are clearly on your way to becoming an addict, a Fruitaholic.'”
I look up and glance out over the crowd again, “I have to say, the first time my shrink uttered those words, fruitaholic, I laughed out loud. I still do, on occasion, but the sad fact of the matter is this: He was right. I am a Fruitaholic. I’m addicted to fruit and that addiction has almost ruined my life.”
Again, sage nods from everyone. Even Mr. Goatee, who had woken up, joins in.
I suddenly realize I had said all I had to say. I look at Noah and he smiles an encouraging smile and gives me one thumbs up and motions me from the front. I go to my chair and sit down, wiping the sweat from my brow. I hadn’t realized I’d been perspiring so much. I take a deep breath and exhale. I am emotionally exhausted. Completely drained. Noah conducts the rest of the meeting, but I don’t remember a thing he says.
When it’s over, I stand up and make small talk with a thin, energetic, man named Randy who’s in his forties. He has a nicely trimmed mustache and more energy than any three people I know. The guy jumps around so much as he tells me about his job in finance, shifting from one foot to the next, that I get dizzy. When he mentions that he runs marathons for a hobby I have no doubt he’s probably won a few. I sit down and recover my equilibrium after he hops off to go talk with Mr. Goatee. Noah strolls up to me and says, “Ready to go, Jessie?”
Was I ever. I nod that I am, realizing that I’m falling into the nodding habit of the other fruitaholics. Maybe I really did belong. Maybe…but I am too tired to contemplate the possible ramifications.
“Can we go get some coffee or something?” I ask, “I’m kind of wiped out.”
Noah, bless him, takes me by the arm and leads me from the room. “Let’s go downstairs to the coffee shop. My treat.”
I gladly follow him out of the meeting room and down the stairs. I can’t believe how fried I suddenly am.
Leon Silverman is a meth-head who cleaned up his act fifteen years ago and decided ‘Give back to the community,’ as he purportedly once said, just prior to the beginning of a series of relapses that are still going on to this day. I met him once and he’s a nice guy, just a little hyper for my taste, but still a pretty decent person. Thankfully, the coffee shop he opened is still going strong. It’s in a two story, white frame house built in the twenties in the Linden Hills neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis. It’s called Jumping Jack Java (a nod to his favorite band) and the first floor is a hip, trendy, place with slanted wooden floors and mismatched, but comfortable, furniture. It’s usually packed with Gen Y’ers plugged into their electronic world, but it’s also home to all sorts of other folks. You’re likely to see young mothers with their kids parked next to them in strollers, businessmen conducting meetings or working on their laptops, people visiting with friends, folks sitting alone and reading, and sometimes even the occasional baby boomer hippie, nursing a cold cup of coffee, staring into space before putting pen to paper, jotting down a line or two of poetry. And, now that I think about it, just about every other kind of person and generational nametag in between. In addition to great coffee, it’s a pretty good place to settle in for an hour or two of people watching. But that’s not why I am now sitting at a table with Noah nursing a mug of French Roast.
The upper floor is composed of small meeting rooms and that’s where the Minnesota Chapter of Fruitaholics Anonymous meets every Tuesday night from seven to eight. After the meeting was over and Noah suggested we go downstairs, get a cup of coffee and talk, that’s where we headed. Noah was sipping a mocha and munching on a chocolate chip cookie, while I choose plain oatmeal (no raisins, for obvious reasons) to go with the French Roast.
“So how do you think it went?” he asks, blowing on his steaming mug, taking his time between sips, his dark eyes watching my every move.
I like Noah a lot. He’s in his mid-fifties, has a bushy brown beard and keeps his head shaved and oiled. He looks kind of like Alan Ginsburg. (In contrast, I’m pretty normal looking – just under six feet, have a bit of a paunch, thinning hair and am clean shaven; all in all, pretty unremarkable.) He’s a retired airplane pilot, happily married and enjoys swing dancing with Lois, his wife of over thirty years. He’s tall and thin, favors plaid shirts and black jeans and wears wire rim glasses, keeping with the Ginsburg look. (I like blue jeans, the aforementioned tennis shoes and tee shirts. The flannel shirt thing with him I kind of dig and have started wearing them myself.) He looks intellectual and he’s quite smart but doesn’t make a big deal out of it. In short, he’s a good guy and easy to talk with and we hit it off right away. He’s also kind, thoughtful and caring, traits I’m not possessed with in massive amounts – well, hardly any amount, to be honest, but Noah is working with me on that.
“If you’re willing to try to help yourself,” he’s told me time and time again, “And meet me half way, I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
I guess you can’t ask for anything more than that.
“I don’t know,” I say in answer to his question about how the meeting went, “Fine, I guess.” I really don’t have clue, to be honest. I was so nervous while I standing in front of the group that I mostly just spewed out a bunch of stream of consciousness stuff. If I had my talk on tape I’d probably puke listening to it. “What do you think?” I ask, stalling for time. In the back of my mind I’m wondering if maybe he’s gearing up to tell me he can’t do anything for me. After a performance like mine, I wouldn’t blame him.
But Noah isn’t like that at all. As my sponsor, he is sincerely committed to helping me come to grips with my addiction and to finding ways to help me cope with it. He takes a sip of coffee before answering, “It was Ok,” he says, a little hesitantly for my money. Then he takes another sip and sets his mug down before thoughtfully continuing, “You gave them a nice overview of yourself and your family and job and life. That was good.” I smile at him, thinking that he was going to complement me further, but I was going to be disappointed because he didn’t.”My biggest concern is that I don’t think you’re taking your addiction very seriously, or the meeting either, for that matter.”
Shit, no complement then. Well, at least he was being honest.
I laugh out loud, maybe, in retrospect, a sign that he was correct in his observation about not taking the meeting seriously, “What do you mean? I ask, trying not to sound defensive, “I did the best I could.”
“Well, for starters, you made a few jokes about being addicted throughout your talk. Now, don’t get me wrong, having a sense of humor about it is good. Really good, in fact. But in the beginning, like where you are now with getting sober and staying sober, well, your joking came across as disingenuous. In other words, like you aren’t taking your addiction sincerely and using jokes and humor to hide the truth.”
“The truth?” I stare right at him, trying to be assertive and probably failing, because deep down I know he’s right, “What do you mean by the truth?”
“It’s plain and simple,” Noah says, taking another sip of coffee, giving me time to think about what he’s saying, “I don’t think you think you have a problem.
Well there you go, I think to myself, the cat’s finally out of the bag. Forget about being defensive. I’m opening my mouth to defend myself when Noah cuts me short, “When was the last time you had some fruit?” he asks pointedly, his eyes probing mine.
I wilt under his intense gaze, “Three days ago,” I confess, “Last Saturday night. I ate a bowl of strawberries.”
“Was that all?”
“And an apple or two.” I pause and then add, “Well, seven.”
“And nine bananas,” I whisper, “I drove to an all night convenience store and bought every single one of them that they had.” Noah looks at me sadly, slowly shaking his head and opens his mouth to speak, but I quickly jump in and interrupt him before he can say something like, See what I mean, “But that’s all I ate,” I blurt out, then hurry to add, “I swear.” For some reason I cross my heart, something I hadn’t done since I was maybe eight or nine years old. I can hear the pleading tone in my voice, a tone I’m not proud of.
Noah shrugs, reaches across the table and touches my arm in a show of solidarity, “I get it, Jessie. I really do. Staying sober isn’t easy. It requires, first and foremost, commitment on your part.” He sighs and sits back and thoughtfully munches on his cookie. Then he quickly sits up straight and slaps the table with both hands, startling me, “So we have a lot work to do. It’s going to require time and commitment.” He looks at me, challenging me and asks, “Are you up for it?”
I think back to last Saturday night and my losing bout with the strawberries and the apples and the bananas. I had ended up passed out on the floor with strawberry juice all over my face. The cramps in my stomach the next morning were unbearable. I had made a fool of myself in front of Iris, yet again. The entire episode had been another embarrassment in an increasingly long line of embarrassments.
I make my decision. “I am,” I say, crossing my heart (again!) “I swear to you, man, I really am.”
“Ok,” he says, grinning at me and rubbing his hands together, “Let’s get started.”
Most people would think being addicted to fruit was not all that big a deal. Hell, fruit is supposed to be good for you, right? Well, in one sense it is of course, especially when combined with grains and proteins – it makes for a healthy diet and everyone knows that. But the issue is not really fruit in its most, elementary sense – a basic food group. The real issue for someone like me and my fellow fruitaholics is the addictive behavior associated with our desire for fruit; when that desire (like the innocent enjoyment of a ripe pear or sweet, juicy, peach) becomes such a powerful force that it literally takes over your life; when your thoughts every moment day and night are consumed with fruit and ‘When will I get some?’ (Hopefully, soon) and, ‘How long can I go without succumbing to my desire for it?’ (Hopefully, more than a few minutes.)
Noah put it well as we are talking later that night when he says, “It’s not fruit in and of itself that’s the issue. It’s thinking about it all the time that’s the really problem. The desire gets in your head and overwhelms you. All you think about is, Where’s my next fix coming from? (He uses his fingers to finger quote fix.) He looks at me, his gaze deep and intense, “And do you know why?”
When he’s talking to me like this, it’s like a teacher-student thing. I kind of like it. His confidence is reassuring, but I still don’t have a clue as to where he’s headed, “Not really,” I say.
“Come on, Jessie. You’re a smart guy. Think about it.”
I appreciate his vote of confidence regarding my intelligence, something I would rate as a C plus at best. But I take a stab at answering him anyway, “Because that all I do,” I tell him, “I don’t do any work. I don’t really have meaningful conversations with people. I’m distant from those I love and who love me, and not a lot of fun to be around. In a nutshell, I’m trapped by my thoughts of fruit, constantly thinking about when the next time will be that I’ll be able to get some.” I’d read enough self-help pamphlets and addiction related books to take an educated guess as to what he was getting at.
“Exactly.” In my mind, I go ‘Bingo’ as Noah continues, “It takes over your whole life. All you do is think about where your next fix (finger quotes, again) is coming from; whether you’re awake and thinking about fruit or sleeping and dreaming about it. You understand what I’m telling you, right?”
I nod my head, “Yeah, I get that.”
“Really?” he asks skeptically, “I’m not sure you do.” I can feel perspiration suddenly forming under my arms pits. At the rate this evening is going, what with all the sweating at the meeting and now this with Noah, I’m on my way to becoming severely dehydrated. I take another sip of coffee and think about what he’s said. I hate to be challenged, especially when I’m trying to dodge the truth. ” He shakes his head sadly, “Apparently you don’t get it enough to be serious enough to do anything about it. Remember what you told me about what happened at work a year or two ago?”
Oh. So that’s what he was getting. That incident at Lakeside. The memory comes roaring back with a vengeance.
In the early years of my addiction I had been able to keep my cravings for fruit under control, especially at my place of employment, sneaking an apple here, a slice of watermelon there, and not making a big deal out of it around the people I worked with. But that all went out with the bathwater a year and half ago after I had a rather troubling experience with blueberry pie at a company dinner.
I had been approached by my boss, Ellen Downs, who told me she wanted me to give a presentation about the new data processing system we were going to be installing at Lakeside Industries the following year. All of the sales people would be linked to it and it would help manage inventory more accurately and..blah, blah, blah.
“Just give the audience an basic overview, Jessie, and try not to bore everyone to death. I’ll give you ten minutes.”
I assumed she was joking about the boring people to death comment (although with her it was always hard to tell), so I laughed a little and watched her reaction carefully. When she didn’t respond and stared back at me with a severe expression, I hastened to reassure her, and said with more bluster than was probably necessary, “Bore people to death? Me? Not on your life. It’ll be a great presentation.” I tried to sound confident, all the while deep down I was doing my best to believe the words I was saying, especially given my aforementioned fear of speaking in front of people.
She patted me on the top of my and said, “Good boy.” Just like you’d say to a dog. No getting around it, now that I think about it, why beat around the bush? She really was a jerk.
I was worried I was going to botch my talk and Ellen the head-patter would be mad and take it out on me by not giving me a much needed bump in my salary come raise time, so I did my best not to let my nervousness get the better of me. And, miracle of miracles, I also managed to stay sober and clean for nearly a week leading up to the event, with only the occasional lusting glance at rows of kumquats on display in the food line of the company cafeteria to tempt me, which I’m happy to say I valiantly fought off. And that was a good thing. In fact, I was pretty proud of myself, thinking maybe I had finally become strong enough to fight for (and maintain) my fruit sobriety.
The dinner was an occasion to celebrate the end of the company’s fiscal year. It was held in the beginning of October and was historically a chance for salespeople and managers to celebrate and blow off steam. The Big Wigs at Lakeside rented a huge banquet room at the four star Hilton Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. There were twenty five round tables and twenty employees seated at each – salespeople, managers of all levels, and support staff, including us technicians. The atmosphere was festive with classic rock music piped in through overhead speakers. Food and alcohol was flowing freely and in no time everyone in the room was happy and relaxed and loudly on their way to becoming intoxicated. Everyone but me. Not only was I a committed teetotaler when it came to alcohol (I just didn’t like the taste of the stuff), but I was also too nervous to eat.
Next to me Sam Jacobson, programmer extraordinaire and my best friend at work, slugged down half a bottle of Budweiser and let out a loud belch before slapping me on the back and laughing loudly, “Hey Jessie man, lighten up will, ya? Have a drink and get with the party. Don’t be such a friggin’ stick-in-the-mud.”
In response to being slapped, I choked on the water I was trying to swallow and sputtered, “I’m just thinking about that damn presentation – you know that talk I have to give.” I coughed and cleared my throat, “I’m worried about it, that’s all.”
“Hell,” Sam expostulated, “You’ve got nothing to worry about.” He looked around the crowded banquet room as he downed the rest of his Bud. I followed his gaze. The place was packed with people laughing, eating, drinking and talking at the top of their lungs. The music was cranked up to ten or eleven. The entire party was amped up loud and getting louder. “No one cares about what you have to say anyway,” he yelled in my ear, “They’re all too loaded.” He laughed long and hard before collapsing in a fit of coughing. Then he grabbed another bottle of beer from a passing server and took a long, deep swallow, definitely on the way to becoming loaded himself.
Funny, I thought, as I turned away and back to trying to control the panic rising in my chest. Real funny. I wished I could believe him. But I was a loyal little trouper. Ellen was counting on me to do professional presentation, which, of course, I hoped to do and, beyond that, I wanted to do a good job, if not for her and the few people who would be paying attention, at least for myself – I didn’t want to come across as a complete idiot.
If I could only get a little help…something to help build up my courage…something to help settle myself down. I checked my watch. The time for my presentation was rapidly drawing near. My nerves seemed to have suddenly taken over and were kicking into high gear, causing my stomach to turn cartwheels and my throat to constrict. I coughed again to clear it. It didn’t help. While my heart rate went up and sweat started beading up on my forehead, I scanned the room looking for an escape; a way out. Who was I kidding? I was trapped. If I bolted, I’d never hear the end of it and Ellen would have some harsh words for me (at the very least) plus, a probable demotion and dock in pay (at the very most.) I had no alternative. I had suck it up and give that damn presentation.
The sweat began in earnest, seeming to pour out of every pore.
A commotion behind me suddenly caught my attention. Through the swinging doors leading into the room came a parade of at least a dozen servers, each dressed in white and each pushing a heavily laden cart. I was about to turn away from them when I looked closer. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Dessert was being served and it wasn’t just any old dessert like your traditional bowl of melting orange sherbet or microscopically thin slice of dark chocolate cake. Not even close. It was much, much better. Laid out on those carts were thick individual slices of pie – blueberry pie to be exact, the sides of each slice dripping in berry juice pooling on its plate in purple puddles of splendor. The crusts were shining in a sugary glaze under the bright lights of the banquet room, glistening like diamonds in a high end jewelry case. My eyes locked onto them. Hundreds of plates of pie were being paraded through the room right before my very eyes. They were beyond gorgeous – they were a dream come true. I was unable to stop myself as I started to slip, at first just a little, then a little more, then a lot (damn, damn, damn!), before finally falling head long off my sober wagon, tumbling into a heap of wanton desire. I wanted each and every one of those beautiful berry filled delights. And I wanted them now. I grabbed the edge of the table with both hands and held on tight, fighting the good fight of sobriety as I tried to hold firm to my resolve to stay fruit free.
It occurred to me that while everyone was enjoying this, their scrumptious dessert, I was going to be standing at a podium on the stage in front of them, speaking into a microphone, talking about ‘The Future of Automated Servers’ which is what my talk was about. Even I got bored thinking about it. I needed some of that pie to help get me through the arduous task that lay ahead.
My eyes zeroed in on individual slices as the servers went around to each table, setting down plates of pie, lovely, mouth watering pie. Each plate of ambrosia was calling to me like the sweetest of dreams, one slice of pie to a plate, one plate to a person. Over four hundred of those beauties sharing the room with me. My, my, my. My delectable blueberry pie. From table to table the servers went, dispensing heavenly gifts around and around the room until all the tables were laden with dessert – slices of blueberry pie that, each and everyone, seemed to be calling to me (a cacophony of fruit), so beguiling they were, so enticing.
A server set a plate down in front of me. Oh my god, the temptation was so strong I almost gave in (and dove in, headfirst), but I didn’t. I was still fighting the good fight. Still battling to stay clean, holding onto the table with all my might. By now my knuckles had turned white, my hands nearly numb. I pried my eyes away from the pie in front of me and turned to watch my fellow Lakeside employees, wanting to savor vicariously the delicious eating of the pie, the tasting of the beautiful fruit, the wolfing down of that tantalizing dessert.
But what was this? No one was eating! Everyone was neglecting their pie, paying no attention to it at all. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. People had the chance of a lifetime to partake of this luscious, fruit filled experience and, instead, what were they doing? Well, they weren’t eating, that much was for certain. No. Instead, they were (of all of the fool-hearty things) just sitting around talking and laughing and drinking and carrying on as if nothing stupendous was happening. But something was happening: they were giving up their chance to top off the evening with a taste of heaven – of blueberries – of fruit!
In my increasingly confused and befuddled state, I wondered why no one was having their dessert. What was the delay? Were they waiting for me to begin my talk? I looked up to the front of the room where all the top level managers were seated at a long table. Ellen was holding down a place of honor near the middle and was animatedly talking to Larry Munson, vice-president of operations, her immediate boss and second in command of the company. They seemed very friendly with each other. During a break in their conversation she sat back and smugly looked out over the banquet hall, enjoying the opportunity of lording over all of us minions. Her gaze passed over me, and I could tell she refused to make eye contact. It was just the kind of thing she’d do. I checked my wrist watch. I knew it was time to begin my talk; she had told me I was to start when the dessert was served. I was confused. Wasn’t she going to introduce me? That was the plan. Should I just get up and go to the stage and start talking without any introduction at all? What did she want me to do?
Sweat beaded on my forehead and started running into my eyes. Next to me, my friend Sam was turned away and talking to one of the other technicians. I overheard something about the Vikings, our professional football team. Sam was a diehard fan. God, once some people started talking about sports…I knew he’d be no help.
I took a chance and loosened my grip on the table with one hand and wiped the perspiration from my brow. My vision blurred for a moment before it cleared. Then I detected a motion from the front of the room and looked. Ellen had risen and was making her way to the podium. She was wearing a brown suit and sensible shoes. Her short hair had been cut even shorter for the occasion. She looked like a librarian on that fifties television show, Leave It To Beaver.
I gripped the table more tightly. As she walked, she looked to her left, her beady eyes making contact with my rather blurry ones, and I swear she snapped her fingers at me. Maybe that’s what did it. Maybe something in my brain snapped (well obviously it did, as you are about to find out), because I couldn’t help it…Seemingly in another world, I loosened my hold on the table and slowly rose to my feet. I straightened my back and adjusted the lapels of my sport coat with what I felt sure was an air of confident resolve. Then, instead of walking with a firm and determined step to the front of the room and the awaiting podium and microphone, where I was supposed to turn to the assembled crowd of my peers to offer up my speech in a flowing, melodious voice – what I did, instead, was this: I lost my compose. I lunged to the table next to me and, like a squirrel frantically gathering nuts for the winter, I grabbed one slice of pie, then another, and then another and another, and stuffed each piece in my mouth until my cheeks bulged. I chewed frantically, swallowing as fast as I could to keep from choking, stuffing in more and more fresh pie until my mouth was jammed, the blue juice running down the sides of my face, dripping onto my shirt on its way to the floor. When I couldn’t get any more in I started stuffing pie into the pockets of my sport coat, and when they were full I stuffed pie into the pockets of my pants, and when they were full I somehow ripped open my shirt and started stuffing pie down my front as from one table to another I went, around the room, grabbing slices of pie and stuffing them in my shirt, and when I was done one table I went on to another one, stuffing pie wherever I could put it, in my shirt and in my pockets, in my mouth, gathering slices of pie like a manic squirrel (or a manic fruitaholic).
When my pockets were full and my shirt bulging, it looked like I had nowhere else to put any more pie. Except I did. All the pie I had been and stuffing in my mouth I had swallowed and my mouth was empty. So I casually grabbed a big slice from the nearest plate, opened my mouth wide, crammed it in and chewed that pie deliberately, masticating it on and on and on until I was finally finished. Then I swallowed and turned to the front table where Ellen and the Big Wigs sat, gave them a salute (flinging blue berries in an purple arc out in front of me) and started walking toward them. What I planned to do I, to this day, had no idea. But as I took my first step, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw it was Sam. “Buddy…” he said, anxiously, “Jessie, get a grip on yourself. Calm down.” He turned me around so I was facing him. Not a pretty picture I’m sure: me, with my manic eyes staring back at him. Me, covered in blueberries and blueberry juice and pie crust. Me, completely out of my mind. “Come on, Jessie,” he said, firmly gripping my shoulder, “Let’s get you out of here.”
And that’s all I remember.
I awoke in the emergency room of Hennepin County Memorial Hospital in downtown Minneapolis early the next morning. I thought I was alone – I deserved to be, but I wasn’t. My longsuffering wife, the ever patient Iris, was sitting in a chair next to the bed, right by my side.
“Jessie, thank god you’re alright. You don’t know how worried I was.” She stood up, leaned over and gave me a big hug before sitting back down. She took a hold of my hand and looked at me compassionately, taking the measure of her pathetic husband. It took a minute to get my bearings. When I realized I was in the hospital I was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of guilt. I had not only let myself down again, but also my loved ones. As if reading my thoughts, the next words out of Iris’ mouth were these: “Jessie, I’m so afraid for your physical and mental health. You really need to get some help.”
I nodded my head contritely and said, “I know.” I looked at Iris and tried to convince her with my eyes and my chagrined expression that I meant what I said. I must have been successful because for the first time in a long, long time, my long suffering wife actually smiled at me as she leaned over and gave me another big hug and told me how glad she was. She really did believe me.
Too bad I was going to let her down. But it would be awhile before that happened. Until then, I really did make an effort.
At the time of my company party fiasco, I’d been addicted to fruit for ten years and it was obvious that I really couldn’t continue to try any longer to manage my addiction on my own. And if I ever needed a reminder that I needed help there were dozens of photos and videos posted on social media of me binging on pie, blueberries running down my face, sticking to my clothes, stuck in my hair and hands…blueberries everywhere. Believe me, it was a sight better off not contemplating for long, if at all. (Though the images of me with my purple face smeared in crushed blueberries with blueberry juice dripping off my chin occasionally pops up in my mind, even to this day. Unfortunately.)
But my predicament was made even more disturbing because over the rest of that year and into the next, I still was not able to make myself get the help I needed – even though I told Iris I would. Can you believe that? I still can’t. And I still can’t believe that Iris didn’t boot me out of the house, but she didn’t – she stayed by my side, ever faithful, trying to help in any way she could, all the while hoping I’d get better. But I didn’t get better because the fact of the matter was that I hadn’t hit rock bottom yet. That low point took another year to attain. Another year of binging on whatever fruit was available, and then quitting, and then binging some more and then quitting, and then binging some more…well, you get the drift. I still can’t believe it took that long. And more to the point, I’m surprised any one close to me (specifically Iris and my kids) continued to have anything to do with me. But they did, and for me to say I’m eternally grateful doesn’t even begin to describe the depth of my true feeling.
The final straw came eight months ago at my youngest daughter’s wedding. I had been clean for a few weeks leading up to the big day and feeling pretty good about myself – confident that I had finally turned the corner and could handle any fruit temptations that came my way. I should also say this: I dearly love my children. My oldest boy Joe is twenty four and works as a graphic arts engineer for a local media design company. Karen is twenty two and has just started teaching second grade in south Minneapolis. Kate is twenty and works in a used bookstore. She was born with Guillain-Barre syndrome, has limited use in the left side of her body and has trouble moving her arm and leg, but her affliction has not stopped her from leading a complete and rewarding life. She loves books, loves to read and has a ‘can do’ attitude that I’m envious of. (She gets it from her mother.)
Kate had been working at Old Thyme Books near Macalester College in St. Paul for nearly a year when she met Caleb, a twenty four year old graduate student in American Literature, when he came into her bookstore looking for an obscure book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Kate knew some sources on-line that Caleb was unfamiliar with and helped him find the book he needed. That was over a year ago. One thing led to another, they fell in love and decided get married. They wanted an outdoor July wedding and the beautiful Minneapolis Zen Garden near picturesque Lake Harriet in southwest Minneapolis was the perfect location. Iris and I were overjoyed for them.
The day dawned bright and sunny, the kind of picture perfect Minnesota summer day that makes you feel glad to be alive. The Zen Garden is a contemplative five acre secluded spot nestled between Lake Harriet and a nearby bird sanctuary. It’s also just across the street from the renown Minneapolis Rose Gardens, and the sweet scent of hundreds of roses in bloom filled the air adding to the splendor of the day. The wedding was set to begin at three in the afternoon. The kids (that’s what Iris and I fondly called Kate and Caleb) had written the words for their ceremony and a nondenominational minister would officiate. Three of their friends would provide music – a fiddle, a guitar and a standup bass.
Everyone was having so much fun and in such good moods, talking and catching up, that the ceremony didn’t begin until nearly three-fifteen. There were maybe forty people there – most of them friends of Kate and Caleb. Iris and I stood in front and off to the side, both of us smiling proudly at this, the first wedding of our three children. We couldn’t have been happier.
Did I mention earlier I had been sober for a few weeks? I had been and was feeling pretty good about both my sobriety and myself in general, confident in my ability to remain on the straight and narrow path of zero fruit indulgence.
About half way through the wedding, the musicians started a quiet version of ‘Seven Bridges Road’, a favorite song of mine. My mind started wandering and my eyes followed suit. My gaze traveled across the Zen Garden with it’s beautiful polished stones, reflecting pool for meditation, and the simple but elegant plantings of yew, cypress and blue spruce. I felt my heart lift with joy for my daughter. This is what Iris and I wanted for all of our kids, for them to be happy, and it looked like Kate was on her way.
Perhaps I let my guard down. Perhaps I let my over confidence in my sobriety get the better of me. I don’t know for certain, but what I do know is that I let my gaze travel outside of the peaceful Zen Garden, away from the charming wedding ceremony and over to the big community garden down the street. It was about fifty yards away, but even from that distance I could see where people had planted row after row of colorful annuals, verdant vegetables and…(oh, be still my beating heart) fruit. Luscious fruit. Lovely, gorgeous, scrumptious fruit. I could see canes of blackberries and raspberries and bushes of blueberries – all swollen and ripe, gleaming in the sun. Near to them were rows of strawberries with bright red jewels hanging by their stems, bursting with sugary sweetness. The entire garden was swollen with fruit in abundance and it was all out there waiting, beckoning for me to come to it and indulge.
I know my mind started to go blank and, in looking back, I should have been able to control myself. But I couldn’t. My heart rate sped up and my body was suddenly bathed in perspiration. I could feel sweat running down my back. I clenched my fists and forced them to my side. Then I put them in my pockets. Stay the course, I said to myself. You’ve been sober for two weeks. You can’t afford to give in. Not now. Not at Kate and Caleb’s wedding. Get a grip. Be strong. You can do this.
I fought a battle with my desire. I fought valiantly. But, in the end, I was unable to fight hard enough. I was too weak and, in the end, succumbed to my need for fruit.
Iris told me later that she tried to help. “I knew something was up when I looked over at you, and saw you weren’t even paying attention to Kate’s lovely ceremony. I followed your line of vision and when I saw that community garden with all the fruit I knew something bad might happen. I grabbed you by the arm and tried to get your attention. I told you to try and get a hold of yourself. But you were in such a state you didn’t hear me. You were already mentally gone. Then you bolted from my grasp and ran…ran faster than I’d ever seen you run before, straight for the fruit in that garden. On the way you even knocked down a little six year old girl who was playing in the grass with her puppy. You didn’t even stop to see if she was injured. Thank goodness she wasn’t. You just ran like a man possessed, straight for that garden. At that moment I was afraid I’d lost you forever.”
She told me all of this later that night at the hospital – just before she left to go home after finding out I was going to be alright. “Will I see you tomorrow?” I asked. I felt horrible. I’d ruined the wedding. I’d let down Kate and Caleb, and I’d disappointed Iris.
“I’ll be back to pick you up at nine in the morning and take you home. Then we’re going to have a talk.” Her voice was firm and no nonsense. She shook her head in what I could only imagine was disgust (or maybe pity) as she turned on her heel and left my hospital room, saying nothing more, leaving me alone and all by myself.
Oh, shit. I’d really messed up this time.
That night in the hospital was bad and not only because I was dealing with my fruit hangover. I was the loneliest I’d ever felt. I also had a ton of guilt about how poorly I’d acted; how I’d ruined Kate’s wedding and let down Iris. But, I have to say, I still felt I was going to get through it Ok; that the consequences of my behavior would be negligible, just like all the other times in the past. After all, Iris was coming back the next morning to pick me up and take me home, right? If she was going to do that she must have already reconciled herself towards me and what I’d done. Perhaps even forgiven me, just like she’d done so many times in the past.
Shows you how stupid and self-absorbed I really was.
Iris showed up to my room right on time that next morning. She and the nurse got me situated in a wheelchair and Iris pushed it down to the hospital entrance and loaded me into our car. She said nothing to me from the time she entered my room, up to and including the entire forty five minute drive home to Long Lake. I tried to engage her in conversation but she was having none of it. By the time we arrived home I was finally beginning to realize that things weren’t the way they used to be or were supposed to be. Not by a long shot.
Once inside Iris sat me down on the couch in the living room. I barely had time to get settled when she stepped back, stood up straight and tall right in front of me and delivered her ultimatum, “This is it, Jessie. We’ve been married for twenty five years and for nearly half of them you’ve been an addict. You are addicted to fruit and you say you want to get better, but you don’t do anything to try to help yourself. I love you but I’m exhausted and worn out. I can’t take it anymore.” She was honest, blunt and to the point. I’ll never forget her words. She didn’t cry. She didn’t rant and rave or scream and throw things (all things she’d done in the past.) No, what she said was, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ Well, I thought to myself, she’s pissed and I don’t blame her. But I can deal with that. In fact, how much worse can it get? Plenty, I found out, because then she added, “If you don’t get help, I’m going to leave you. I promise,” she pointed her finger right at me to make her point, “I’m done putting up with you and your addictive behavior. You can’t get better on your own. You’ve proven that time and time again. You need professional help and you need it right now.”
And here’s me, still not convinced I’ve got that bad of a problem, spreading my arms wide, giving her a big smile and making a joke out what she was telling me by saying, “Hey there, honey, it’s not so bad. I was sober for two weeks. Give me a chance. I can do it again.”
I’ll never forget what she did. She said nothing. Instead, she pulled out her iphone and brought up some photos and videos that people had sent her taken the day before at the ceremony. She held the phone right in front of my face so I wouldn’t miss a thing. As she showed the pictures to me, I was no longer embarrassed my behavior. I was appalled. The image of a tornado sucking up everything in its path of destruction is an apt vision of me decimating that poor community garden, ripping raspberries and blackberries and blueberries and strawberries from their vines and bushes and branches, gorging myself whether the fruit was ripe or not. A shark tearing into a school of fish is also apt. But the real time images of me in a tuxedo on my hands and knees crawling through the dirt, wolfing down any fruit I could get my hands on as if my life depended on it (and in a way it probably did), is an image that will haunt me from the rest of my life.
I looked up from my seat on the couch and gazed into my wife’s eyes. She had put up with my behavior for eleven years now. I knew it was time to stop and stop for good. “I will quit, Iris, I swear to god, I will. But please, please, please don’t leave me.”
I stood up to hold her, hug her and gain strength from her presence. Iris would have none of it. She put up both her hands to stop me.
“You get sober and stay sober, Jessie. Then we’ll talk about what comes next.” She put both her hands on my chest and pushed me backward. I fell back onto the couch and watched as she walked out of the room, saying over her shoulder, “You’ve used up all the extra chances I’m going to give you, buddy. Get help, and get it now.” She walked into the kitchen and slammed the door, leaving me to myself.
Years ago I had basically quit going to my shrink (don’t ask me why). I called Dr. Rosenblum that day and had my first session with him two days later. I was willing to do anything to save my marriage.
We did a quick catch up that lasted about a minute before the good doctor got down to business. The first thing he reminded me of was this: “An addict feeds his addiction, whether it’s booze or drugs or, in your case, fruit, to not only satisfy his graving, but to give his life meaning.”
“That’s all?” I asked, thinking there had to be more.
He got mad, his eyes shooting daggers at me, “Of course not.”
Well, I at least I was right.
“There are all kinds of factors contributing to your addiction,” he continued, “And we will look into all of them. But, for you primarily, Jessie, your entire life is focused around fulfilling your hunger and desire for fruit. It has become the focus of all you do. Your wife, your family, you job, they all have become secondary to your figuring out ways to satisfy your desire. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
I nodded my head.
“If you don’t make a change. You will lose everything.”
I started perspiring. I didn’t want to give up all that was precious to me; Iris, my children, even my job. I had to make that change he was talking about. “What do we do?”
“We will begin right now.”
So I started going to regular, weekly, sessions with Dr. Rosenblum, once again, just like eleven years earlier. But this time it was different. This time I really was committed. And, I have to say, it was just like being in school again (kind of like with Noah.) I won’t bore you with the details, but the more I understood that not only did I want to change my behavior, but that I was actually capable of doing it, the better I felt, and the more things began to make sense. It all boiled down to winning my back my respect in the eyes of Iris and my three kids. In short, I began making an honest effort or, as we stay in treatment, putting in the work. I’ve only just begun and I’ll say this: I know I have a lot of work to do, but I have too much to lose if I don’t. It may take the rest of my life, in fact I’m told it probably will, but I’m committed to changing my behavior, dealing with my addiction to fruit and winning back the love of Iris and my children and the respect of the people I work with. It’s what my life is all about now.
It was Dr. Rosenblum who introduced me to Noah.
“I believe we are ready for the next step, Jessie,” he told me, after I’d been seeing him for about seven months. “I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet.” He handed me a slip of paper with Noah’s phone number on it, “I think he can help you and do things for you that I can’t.”
Later that week Noah and I met for the first time. It was at Jumping Jack Java and we were sitting at a table by the window, having coffee and getting to know each other. When he started telling me about Fruitaholics Anonymous and suggested that I start attending their meetings I coughed into my mug before sputtering, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I started laughing as I wiped French Roast from my face, “What kind of a lame group is that, for god’s sake?” I took a big bite of the ginger cookie I was eating to make my point.
Nonplussed, Noah said, “It’s a group dealing with the same issues you are, Jessie. They’re good people,” He looked me in the eye and smiled, “I think they might be able to help you,” he added, calmly.
After talking about it for a while, I reluctantly agreed, mainly because I was willing to do anything to get a handle on my addiction, even if it meant hanging around with a bunch of…Wait a minute. I was going to say, ‘losers’, but these were people who had the same problems as me. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too quick to judge. In fact, maybe they knew something I didn’t (well, that was obvious.) Maybe I could even learn from their experiences. I decided to give it a try. And, as long as I was trying, I was going try to keep an open mind.
That was five weeks ago and brings me to where we are now, me sitting in Jumping Jack Java talking with Noah after my first Fruitaholics Anonymous meeting, planning my future. I look across the table at his calm demeanor and say, “Dr. Rosenblum believes he’s done all he can for me and I believe him. I’m smart enough to get that I have a problem – a problem that has not gone away in the last eleven plus years. In fact, in spite of the effort of Dr. Rosenblum and the extreme patience of Iris and my kids and even people at work, it’s only gotten worse. Much worse. And it’s all because of me and whatever flaw there is in my makeup that leads me to act the way I do when I’m around fruit.” I look at Noah and he is silent, unwilling to interrupt what I’m saying. It’s one of the many things I like about him, he’s thoughtful and not judgmental.
“What’s Rosenblum say?”
“He believes I can get better, I just have to learn to control my desire for fruit.” I take a moment and shake my head sadly and add, “It’s hard, really hard.” I look Noah right in the eye and say, “I’m being as honest with you as I can be. The issue is this: My shrink tells me that I can eventually control my addiction. I tell him that I’ve tried countless times to get clean, but I can’t. Then he reminds me, ‘If you don’t find a way to fight your addiction, then you will lose your wife and children – those whom you love and care for. Is that what you want?’ And when it’s put that way, the answer is, of course, no.”
I stop talking and shake my head again, wishing suddenly for a wand to make my addiction magically go away. But it’s not to be. There’s no easy way out. I’ve got to put in the work and do this on my own. I shake my head again, conscious that all my head shaking is giving me a headache. I could use an aspirin. I fall into a deep funk.
My silence must have lasted for more than a few minutes, because I’m startled back to reality when Noah clears his throat. I look up at him. His kind eyes let me know he understands my predicament. He smiles and says, “You seem to be deep in thought, Jessie, where did you go?”
I have no idea and tell him, “I don’t know. It’s just all so confusing. I want to get better. I couldn’t stand it if I lost Iris. I’ve made a fool of myself with my kids, especially Kate. I’m a joke at work. My life is a mess.
I look into my coffee cup. It’s empty. So is Noah’s. I stand up and stretch, my knees cracking again, and say, “Let me get you some more coffee, my friend. My treat. I can see a long night ahead for us. We’ve got a lot to talk about. Can you stay and help me?”
Noah nods and says, “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
On my way to the counter I pass the kid with the piercings who was at the meeting. He’s with a girl with short, dark hair and purple streaks in it. She’s about his age and dressed completely in black. They are drinking coffee and talking. No iphones or ear buds or anything to distract them, just talking.
As I pass by he glances up, recognizes me and gives me a nod and says, “Dude,” and then goes back to his conversation.
I nod back and smile cordially and continue walking to the counter. The connection with him is a little thing, but it gets me thinking: There are people out there like Piercings and Ponytail and Green Dress and Mr. Marathon and Mr. Goatee who are fighting the fight of addiction, just like I am. If they can find ways to stay sober, find ways to cope with their desire for fruit and learn to live full and useful lives, maybe I can too. In the final analysis it all comes down to the fact that I have too much to lose if I don’t. Right then and there I decide to go to the next meeting. In fact, I promise myself that I’ll take it deadly seriously this time and tell them my real story, the one I’ve just told you – the one that includes the company party meltdown and the wedding disaster.
I’m nervous, but relieved to finally be taking my first, honest, small steps toward sobriety. I find myself at the counter and order two coffees and a couple more cookies, pay for them, and then hurry back our table. I’m eager to get started.