A friend of mine died this week. Tracy found her. She died at home, in bed, which is probably the way she wanted it. She’d been declining for a while, and the process accelerated in the usual dismal way.
I first met Pamela Miller at an AA meeting. The year was 1988. I was probably drunk at the time. Lots of people have started going to meetings while they were still drinking; drinking tended to take the edge off some of the more grating AA aphorisms. Old-timers understood showing up drunk, because they had probably done it themselves, or something like it. Drunks lie in many different ways.
Pamela came in just as the meeting started, and she managed to find the most comfortable seat, a flowered couch with big puffy pillows. Pamela was a big woman, and she made the most of her girth. She spread comfortably. When it was her turn, she launched into a confusing and alarming story about her “near-psychotic break” that very afternoon. The story involved a confrontation with a motorist, another with a cop (female), unwise words that were exchanged, and a small physical injury that someone had incurred. She told the story with great gusto. It was not clear how much was fantasy. She was noisy and chaotic. She ended by saying, “but at least I didn’t drink.”
I found her terrifying.
A year later, I was sober, just out of rehab and looking for a sponsor. I was doing 90 meetings in 90 days, and every weekday I went to a six o’clock meeting in Berkeley. Pamela Miller was there. She spoke at almost every meeting. She made sense — emotional sense, practical sense. She talked over and over again about how hard it was to stay sober in a dangerous world. She said: “Don’t drink even if your ass falls off.”
That was my koan. Do what you need to do, but don’t drink. Eat a quart of ice cream, break up with your spouse, rob a few convenience stores — but don’t drink.
Seems simple enough. A lot of AA is simple. Newly sober drunks need simple. Eventually, if they stay in the program, they get a belief system too. Unless they reject it. Fine. Don’t drink.
After six months or so, I asked Pamela to be my sponsor. I had a therapist, and she was smart and sympathetic and calming, but I needed something else. Pamela was not calming. She took your side in everything. She cursed your villains, sometimes in terms you would not have chosen. She told stories about similar outrages she had encountered. She said “poor baby” and made tea. I drank a lot of tea.
The wisdom of the program is that men should not have women sponsors and vice versa. I can definitely see why that makes sense. On the other hand, I felt I had no choice. It was Pamela or vodka.
We usually met at her house. It, too, was chaotic. She had two children, and she loved them fiercely. She worked as a librarian at a large law firm. Her past, as you might expect, was checkered. She grew up mostly in New York. She had moved around the country. I pieced together the story over the years. I know she carved redwood burls with a chainsaw — it was her first husband’s occupation. She worked construction and knew about tools. She drank at Brennan’s, an old Irish bar right near the freeway. She adapted early to the computer revolution. She loved puzzles; she was in a club where people invented them. Her mind was quick and clever, battle-tested by thousands of double-crostics and industrial-strength anagrams.
She was a woman of strong opinions, and disagreement was futile. I once ventured the idea that male circumcision was not that bad an idea. “Mutilation,” she huffed. “Child torture.” I tried to argue. It was absolutely no good. The only thing to do was change the subject — and even then…
When a friend of mine ventured that nationally televised spelling bees put undue pressure on the children involved, Pamela disagreed. She loved spelling bees; once, when the network changed the time of broadcast and screwed with her DVR, Pamela suggested that bombing their offices might be a good idea. Pamela was not gentle with my friend. Eventually, someone, guess what, changed the subject.
But she was wonderful. I did all my steps with her. The fifth step basically involves telling your sponsor all the rotten stuff you’ve done — that you remembered, anyway — and you couldn’t lie, because you’d have that guilt-shrouded sin living rent free in your brain, making you crazy and, it was thought, more likely to drink.
You have to trust your sponsor with your secrets. “It’s your secrets that kill you,” goes the AA line, and I absolutely believe that. Honesty is a habit; the more you stick to the truth, the easier it becomes. I trusted Pamela because I had no choice.
I found that the program worked. Not entirely, because I will always be an addict, but better. And it was Pamela who brought me that. It was Pamela who made sure I went to meetings; who framed the issues in a more useful way; who took my telephone calls at any time in the evening. I was just one of her sponsees, and her phone rang a lot, and she always had time. She was just a miracle. Her sponsees adored her. I adored her.
I didn’t drink. Stuff got better.
But things change. After 15 years or so, I slowly stopped going to meetings. Part of was the God thing; I was an atheist. “Are you drinking?,” Pamela would ask. “Then don’t worry about it. AA doesn’t care.” And, officially, it doesn’t. But then someone at a meeting says, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and people in the metal folding chairs nod their heads and murmur, and I don’t say, “that’s demonstrably not true. Example one: death,” because even though you’re supposed to be honest, some kinds of honesty will alienate you from the group.
Pamela also stopped going to meetings. She too was a proud atheist, and she couldn’t abide the quasi-religious cant. But she, like me, was eternally grateful to AA. She took what she needed and left the rest, which is itself a AA aphorism.
Some time around there, Pamela started using her middle name as her first name. I thought “Dunn Miller” was a militantly ugly name, but I think that was part of the point. I’m not sure, because by that time we had drifted apart. There was a fight (I no longer remember the topic), and Dunn was as bad at ordinary human interactions as she was good at sponsoring.
She was a difficult woman. She was a kind, smart woman. She was the whole messy package of humanity rolled into one explosive bundle. I loved her. I didn’t speak to her for years.
But a thing happened: Tracy became closer to Dunn, deciding to help her because she was grateful for how much Dunn had helped me. Dunn had lost her job. Her mobility was limited. Tracy took her shopping, took her to movies. I went along once; I had lunch with her once. We were slowly making our way to some kind of understanding, but I was, you know, busy.
It’s all sad. I’ve still got to sort out the guilt, the fear, the love. It’s just there right now, sitting on my soul.
Dunn broke her femur, spent some time in rehab, came home, much demoralized, in pain. Her hard living — and she did a lot of that before she stopped — caught up with her. Tracy was buying her groceries, calling her periodically to check in. When Dunn didn’t answer the phone for two straight days, Tracy drove over to her house. Before she left, she told me, “I think she’s going to be dead.” And she was. There were no signs of any kind of death struggle; she went quietly.
My reasons for writing this are twofold. One, I wanted to tell you about Dunn Miller, because there will be no obituaries, no tributes on television. I have this tiny forum to encourage others to mourn with me.
And the second thing I have to say is: Are there people in your life from whom you’ve become estranged? Is there some argument, some outrage, some unforgivable exchange? Forgive anyway. Go to whomever and tell them how important they were, how much you appreciated what they did. Talk to the best version of that person. Offer grace.
Tell them. For god’s sake tell them. Get the fuck out of your brain and tell them. Because they’re going to die and you’re going to die, and that silence is going to hang in the air like a noxious mist. Maybe, if you’d be willing, do it in memory of Dunn Miller.
Oh, and: Don’t drink even if your ass falls off.
Photography by Tracy Johnston; Dunn Miller photo by Philip Cohen
Tech help by Michelle Mizera