Karen J at University Presbyterian Church.
As she  enters her 60s, Karen J, is finding that her church, work, and AA friends are all starting to blend together. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Karen J lost a close friend this week. She left behind a book full of handwritten notes, little scraps of wisdom stuffed among the pages.

One of them stands out to Karen: “I don’t have to be right. I just have to be loved.”

Karen met her friend at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Both single, the two formed a solid bond and recently spent the holidays together, even while her friend battled the end stages of a cancer diagnosis she received in March.

The book’s title is “Alcoholics Anonymous,” but Karen said most AA people simply call it “the Big Book.” Written in 1939 by one of the group’s founders, it includes wisdom and stories from people who managed to quit drinking for good.

Karen hopes she’ll never have another drink again. So far, so good. On Jan. 22, she’ll have made it nine years without alcohol.

To celebrate, she’ll probably go out to dinner with friends from AA. For her birthday, her “belly-button birthday,” as she calls it, the group expands to her other tribes. As she  enters her 60s, she’s finding that her church, work, and AA friends are all starting to blend together.

“It feels great,” she said. “It’s like the integration of your life.”

I spoke with Karen at a Jim’s Restaurant near her home in Monte Vista. In keeping with her group’s tradition of anonymity, she asked to go only by Karen J.

Karen teaches English writing and literature at the college level. For the past 11 years, she’s been writing regularly on her blog, telling stories about her life and writing essays about faith and politics.

Her prose is simple and beautiful. She uses short words and sentences, with no obstacles to block the ideas flowing from her mind to the reader’s. She’s a better writer than I, but she was open enough to let me tell parts of her story.

Karen grew up in San Antonio but has lived in other cities like Minneapolis and Omaha, Nebraska. One of her formative moments came in 1980, when the National Organization of Women held its conference in San Antonio. That’s when Karen first came out as lesbian, at around age 19 or 20.

“I bought a pin that said, ‘Lesbian rights now,’ and started wearing it,” she recalled. “That was ‘coming out.’”

Of course, she had begun questioning her sexuality much earlier. She recalled reading early editions of Ms. magazine, a liberal feminist publication, as an 11-year-old in the 1970s. The magazine was an important early influence in her reading and writing life.

“I’m reading Gloria Steinem and I’m reading Alice Walker … and I asked my mother, ‘Do you think I’m a lesbian? Because I like women, I like girls,’” Karen recalled.

Karen had started drinking only a few years before she came out. She remembers having a few drinks at a senior cast party for a play in which she had performed.

“I was kind of a shy person – I still am,” she said. “All of a sudden it was like there was a circle of people around me and they’re all laughing at my jokes. I was like, ‘This is freaking magic.’”

For a while, drinking was about “chasing that high,” she said. Eventually, she found herself drinking more at home by herself.

She first got sober in her late 20s, in 1988, when she was living in Omaha. She had been seeing a therapist who helped her realize she had a drinking problem. That’s when she attended her first AA meeting.

“They had one gay meeting on Friday nights,” she said. “I walked in, and everybody was so cool. … They were like the cool people at the bars or the cool people in school. It was honest and it was scary, but it was good.”

After meetings, they would often hang out at a Village Inn restaurant, eating pie and drinking coffee. Sometimes they’d go out dancing. Karen had found a community in the group.

“Very few of us have exactly the same story, but we have the same feelings,” she said. “I think being able to relate to one another is the big thing.”

Karen J's friend left behind a book full of handwritten notes, little scraps of wisdom stuffed among the pages.
Karen J looks at handwritten notes in her deceased friend’s book “Alcoholics Anonymous,” or the “Big Book.” Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

For 15 years, she stayed sober. But one day, after moving back to San Antonio, she attended a party where someone passed around some homemade dandelion wine. She took a swig.

“About six months later, I had wine with dinner,” she wrote in her blog. “And then beer at lunch. And then I was drinking daily. In the meantime, my mother was dying of cancer. Is that why I drank again? I don’t think so. I think I drank again because I’m an alcoholic and I have a disease that will talk me into using again. Even if I have many years sober, even if I have a relationship with God, even if I go to a meeting a week or so.”

Her return to sobriety nearly nine years ago was a matter of “desperation,” she said. She was feeling physically sick, and her doctor was concerned about her liver. She started attending AA again.

Even now, she still sometimes thinks about drinking, but she doesn’t describe it as a craving.

“There are times I have thoughts, and I think that’s just natural,” she said. “There are times when you don’t want to feel the way you’re feeling and you’d like to do something to feel differently.”

She admits that she sometimes eats to feel better. But often, the best way to take one’s mind off these thoughts is to be around other people, to show them love, she said.

Even with the loss of her friend, she still has a network around her – at church, in her career, and through AA. She has her relationship with God, and she will always have reading and writing.

“I’d like to get better at taking pictures, and I’d like to write more,” she said. “I’m enjoying my profession, so right now, I’m OK.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.