Sylvie had been my best friend since we were thirteen. She was always the baby to my boss, and each of us had always been comfortable in our chosen roles.
But after a horrible public divorce where my name and my life had been splashed across the L.A. Times entertainment section for everyone to read, Sylvie took the lead in our friendship.
She insisted that we go away from the press together, away from my husband’s very public relapse, to a camp with no Wi-Fi access, only accessible by boat, to rekindle the strength of our thirteen-year-old selves, and gather experience, strength, and hope from our new 12-Step community; a group of people in various stages of substance recovery or in my case, recovery from a long, hard marriage to an addict.
Happy to be cocooned by my dear friend, I agreed, and so we made the day trip to Santa Catalina Island from Long Beach, California, our shared hometown.
Santa Catalina, the rightful land of the Tongva people, is an island of white sand and clear water, where massive pods of dolphins or great groups of blue sharks or wild bison, mule deer, antelopes, fox and shrews, and feral pigs, may show up at any time.
In my childhood, Sylvie and I crossed over to the island on a rickety old tug, the red and white Catalina Cruise ferry, that rain or shine, heat or cold, took two hours to get us there.
I’d plant myself outside on the main deck, away from those seasick and vomiting in the bathrooms down below, or the others who had no shame and would vomit straight over the side.
Undeterred by it all, I would happily eat my snacks and sip my Coke, bought at the ferry snack bar, as I perched on one of the fiberglass benches closest to the rail. I watched the whales, dolphins, California seals, and sea lions, as they trolled us moving like slick brown ribbons up and down through the water.
Sylvie curled silently next to me, safe and warm, tight against my side, never raising her head, as she sat absorbed in her teen heartbeat magazines, fantasizing about a life with Shaun or David Cassidy… until John Travolta knocked them both out of position the first time she saw him dance and sing in Grease.
We camped there in our youth with a crew of young girls, some wild like me, willing to do brave walks in the night to kiss boys from the camp down the road, or wear French cut bikinis and high cut Dolphin shorts, that at that time were considered too risqué – too sexually suggestive – for thirteen-year-old girls like us.
We spent our weeks searching the island for treasures, until covered in dirt, we bathed in the ocean salt, laid out on the beach to dry, and tanned California straight into our skin. We’d rise slowly from the sand – late day – gather our things, and head back to the freshwater shower at camp, rinsing away the grit of the day in the cool water, caressing our warm skin with rough towels and soothing lotion, before dressing and heading to the mess hall for bug juice, mock-tacos, and songs where we banged on the tables and cried by the campfire.
Our diaries those years were pages of coded entries that no adult could decipher: our hidden universe of tribal girls forever protected.
Sylvie and I arrived before sunset. We hadn’t been to the island together in years and a look passed between us that silently spoke of how happy we’d once been here. We stepped from the boat, off the dock, and walked to our cabin to settle in and join our group.
She sat quietly on her bunk unpacking and watching, while I made my standard, bossy, public service announcement to the non-campers of the group: that wild boars will come into the cabin and eat their candy bars, toothpaste, brown sugar body lotion, and their chewing gum whether it was sugar-free or Nicorette. Therefore: Please keep that shit wrapped up tightly and away from my sleeping area or hand it over to me now to store elsewhere.
I felt bad taking chocolate away from people who needed it over alcohol, or chewing gum over cigarettes, but I also knew that if they woke up with a 300-pound boar rifling through their bags because the “smells” weren’t secured, I’d have crazy, crazier than usual, 12-Step people to deal with – myself included in that count.
I did not tell them at this time that wild boars can be quite aggressive. That they won’t just eat your toothpaste, they’ll give you a nasty tumble. They’ll give you quite a bite. Nor did I share the bison warning from the Catalina rangers:
Caution Bison are wild animals. Bison are large wild animals that can cause serious injury and even death. They can accelerate quickly to 35 mph and jump over 6 feet. Never approach, touch, or attempt to feed bison. If you feel threatened, identify an escape route. Place a large object between you and the bison (tree, rock, vehicle), and give the bison a path to avoid you. Never box in a bison with people being both in front and behind it. Please report unusual bison behavior to the Conservancy Rangers at…
I wanted them to be cautious, not terrified. Their worlds were already full of addicts they could not control, or addictions they were fighting to control, and coming to this island and worrying about being trampled and bitten by a wild boar or bashed down at 35 mph by a rogue bison seemed counter-productive to their recovery.
That night, after a day of meetings and meals, we were all back in our cabin, ready for our first night of tranquil island sleep. I looked up at the ceiling, my top bunk dangerously close to a Black Widow spider, and thought, to hell with this. I grabbed my sleeping gear, jumped down to the floor, and headed out to sleep on the platform about half a football field away from the cabin. I watched as a dozen 12-Step faces peeked out from the cabin windows.
“What are you doing out there?” someone said. I threw my gear down on the platform and started arranging it.
“What about the wild boars?” someone else whispered as if a boar might hear them and suddenly show up on the scene.
“I’m perfectly safe!” I shouted back. “Would I be sleeping out here on the platform if I wasn’t?”
That’s when I saw Sylvie’s head pop up. “Are you sure?” she asked with her big innocent, trusting eyes.
Now, I love Sylvie. Nevertheless, I couldn’t tell her the truth – and you know why – because I wanted all those 12-Steppers to come outside and stop being afraid and sleep with me under the stars.
These were people who had spent years afraid to speak up, years afraid to break the rules, years afraid to step out, and up and shine. They were surrounded by people who, deep in their addiction, broke the rules, stole the funds, slept with the hookers, pawned the rings, pawned the guitars, pawned the computers, and destroyed lives.
Their relationships had been unpredictable and terrifying. They had lost the will to trust. Some would say my compassion was lacking if I was willing to lie and manipulate to have them sleep out under the stars with me, but the truth was: I didn’t want them to have one more fucking thing taken away from them due to fear and insecurity.
“Sylvie,” I said. “Seriously, would I be sleeping out here if it were a problem?” I paused and pointed towards the steps of the platform. “Do you really think wild boars can climb these stairs? Look how beautiful the sky is. Come sleep under the stars with me.”
She stared at me, weighing the years of my twisted pranks, my bossiness, my lies to get my way, all in that one moment.
I rolled my eyes at her before going back to my work at hand and listened, as the 12-Steppers, like timid wild creatures, took a hushed Group Conscience and then all moved cautiously out to the platform to sleep with me.
I watched as they placed their sleeping gear on the porch, gently fluffing and arranging their area, like cooing hens preparing to nest.
“Like this D.D.?” They asked as they put their blankets inside of their sleeping bags.
“Yes. Very good.” I said.
“Is it okay to be close to the edge?” Another co-dependent asked.
“Oh, of course,” I said as I brushed a leaf off the platform. “No problem. Totally safe. Look there’s a raised edge in case you roll.”
Soon, they all settled down. Smiling at their own bravery as they stepped out from the confines of the cabin into the big bold world. They were sound asleep in moments, content under the Catalina stars, believing that I was practicing the principles of the program in all my affairs and would never lead the flock astray.
I have to say I was pretty pleased with myself and actually continued to be pretty pleased with myself, until about 3 am. In meetings, we often talked about “letting God” vs. “being God” and though most people said they loved to let God handle their lives, I knew they were lying. Like me, most preferred to “play God” arranging, manipulating, and controlling, like I was right now because we believed we knew best and that… right there… is why we needed these meetings.
I woke to not a 200-pound, not a 300-pound, but a 400-pound male feral pig grazing next to the platform. He was truly massive. I’d never seen a pig that big. A dark smokey colour and a wide mohawk of bristled coarse hair across his back. His ivory tusks, curved, a good three to four inches in length, ready to rake a deep gash across an unsuspecting arm or leg, or any predator that got in his way.
He scratched his back roughly against the hardwood, shaking the entire structure. I felt my eyes widen in the dark as the enormous size of the beast registered. The realization of the danger I had put my little group in flooded my body. This was not a pet pig nodding his head for a snack. This was a wild pig capable of killing anyone on this platform. I began to recite the Serenity Prayer. I had bullied the group to join me and now I was responsible for the outcome.
He grunted, listening to my whispered prayers, then scratched and clawed at the ground before rubbing his giant cheek roughly against the raised edge of the platform. I silently hoped the group wouldn’t wake up but one-by-one they did. I could feel each body become rigid and alert, the way a parent knows when a child is truly asleep or faking it. Their terror kept them silent and still.
“D.D.” Sylvie whispered. “D.D.?” she said again.
“Yes,” I whispered back.
“They can’t climb the stairs, right?”
Now there is a moment in everyone’s life when they realize they should come clean. This is true for all co-dependents, and this is true for all addicts, but no matter how much I had mea culpa to God, I knew that this moment was not one of them.
“Of course not,” I whispered loud enough for all the 12-Steppers to hear. “You are totally safe. Go back to sleep.”
And because my voice always radiates authority whether in casual conversation, on the stage, or in a 12-step meeting, they followed directions without question and nodded off at what I felt was quite an alarming pace considering the situation.
I stayed awake. I watched as the giant boar made his way around the entire area eating roots and acorns that had fallen from the tree, nosing for grubs, and searching for more. I watched as he climbed halfway up the stair steps, sniffing at the bottom of Sylvie’s sleeping bag. I held my breath, praying Sylvie had gone to bed sans perfume, body lotion, scented lip balm, and that her sleeping bag held no remnants of the bag of chips she had been eating earlier before I had a chance to snatch them away.
I knew if that boar put his back legs on those steps, if he climbed all the way up, Sylvie was toast. She was a panicker, and though her high-pitched scream could possibly scare him away… it could just as easily engage him to charge. And, even if she rolled off the platform, she’d probably never get underneath. Her lifetime fear of snakes and inability to react quickly in a crisis, would allow herself to be trampled. She would lay limp and take it possum-like: accepting her fate.
After what seemed an eternity but probably only minutes, the feral pig put his front legs back on the ground and trotted off in the direction of the men’s cabin. I lay still – silent – listening – hoping that someone had told the men to remove their snacks and perfumed aftershave from their space. I waited a few moments expecting to hear a ruckus, and then, relieved that there wasn’t one, fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
I was the last one to wake on the platform that morning and when I opened my eyes, I noted the change in the co-dependent 12-Steppers immediately. My group felt like they were the bad asses of the camp. They’d braved the wild. They’d slept outside with the feral pig. They were walking around the camp shooing the wildlife away, as if they were cowboys out on the open range.
I watched as Sylvie, over by the men’s cabin, clapped her hands together three times to shoo a group of wild bison away from the cabin door. They bolted towards the hillside leaving the men in awe at the power Sylvie wielded over the wild beasts.
She turned, a pleased smile on her face, radiating confidence as she walked over to me. “Fucking co-dependent men,” she said, and her swagger was fantastic. I watched for trouble behind her back, pretending to focus on her words, nodding and smiling, but keeping a sharp eye out for the bison trio she had scattered, waiting to see if they had really gone on, or were circling back to trample Sylvie to death.
And so, as those of us in 12-step often do, I justified my behavior and did not tell the truth about the danger from the boar or the bison. Who was I to take away their newfound freedom and power?
Several years later however, I found enough strength to come clean with Sylvie while walking our local Nature Center one day.
“Dick!” she said in total disbelief before walking on ahead of me, her stride fast and furious, no fear of wild animals here. She turned the corner of the trail, and I could briefly see the curve of her cheek, the beauty of her smile, as I listened and waited for her laugh – always the sign that I was truly forgiven in our friendship – to ring out from the path ahead. I waited. Silently hoping. Much like the night of the wild boar – afraid – then alone – then humbled – praying for forgiveness and salvation, until it did.