When someone was leaving rehab—we called it graduating—we would all gather in the great room for a goodbye ceremony. We would sit in a circle on dinged-up metal folding chairs, all of us a little too fidgety, a little too caffeinated, feeling something that was hard to pin down—some mix of worry and jealousy and excitement and gloom. Like everything in rehab, the ceremony was confusing. Someone was graduating and we were happy. Someone was graduating and we were sad.

During each of these rituals, two artifacts would be passed around the room: a thirty-day coin and the graduate’s now-fairly-worn AA Big Book. When the coin reached us, we would place it between the palms of our hands, locking them together with the coin in the middle, and we would close our eyes and transfer into the warm metal whatever goodness we had located inside of us during the days we’d spent sober. Shortly after, when the book arrived, we’d each write notes and then sign our names with the date scribbled beside them, knowing that that day, that moment, somehow mattered more than all the others.

When my friend John was graduating—a mouthy Staten Island Italian on his third stint in rehab, whose parents had visited him during Family Day and brought two massive trays of cold cuts from their favorite deli in New York—I wrote a note on the inside cover of his book. “You’re an amazing dude, John, and I know this time is different. I’ve heard the way you’ve been talking in here and you get it this time. You really do. One day at a time, man. I’m going to miss you. If you ever need anything, I’m here.”

After we had all signed John’s book, the counselor invited him to stand in the middle of the circle. He handed him his thirty-day coin. “We’re all proud of you, John,” he said, and then John studied the coin in his hand, pondering one side and then the other, slowly rubbing it between his fingers and his thumb, and then squeezing it into his fist. He looked at the counselor and then he looked at all of us. His eyes were wet and grateful.

It was a moment we all loved to watch, no matter who was graduating—the passing of the coin from one man to another, the way we imagined it must feel in his hand: permanent and real, solid and monetary. It was something none of us would ever lose, we thought. Something that held the very key to sobriety out in the real world. The coin seemed a fitting departing gift, too—a deposit, perhaps, or maybe the very first payment for a new lease on life.

 

Tim HillegondsSober since January 2005, Tim earned a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University in Chicago. His debut memoir, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN (Nebraska, 2019), will be available on October 1. Tim will also be a panelist at the upcoming Manuscript to Marketplace Writers Conference at Shepherd University, September 6, as well as the inaugural Shepherd University Society for Creative Writing Literary Fest, set for October 10-13. Find his work, and pre-order the book right here.

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