When I first moved to Charleston after graduating college, I took an unpaid internship for a small advertising agency. To make ends meet, I worked nights at a coffee shop.
That particular coffee shop was situated between an organic food supermarket, a yoga studio, and a day spa. So I never quite understood why it became the gathering spot for members of a local AA support group, consisting mostly of rough-edged men, many of whom were warring with addictions to drugs much heavier than alcohol.
Each evening, among our customers sporting yoga pants and toting canvas grocery bags, the AA crowd gathered on our patio. They smoked cigarettes and slurped coffee and tipped with heavy hands.
There were those who had been sober for longer than I’d been alive. And white-knuckling twenty-somethings just trying to survive rehabilitation by holding their breath. More than once our tip jar was stolen by customers who’d relapsed. One night a regular was found on the steps of the neighboring public library, dead from an apparent overdose.
Some of them opened up to me, their cheerful night-time barista with no lifelong struggles to overcome, no scars on her arms worth hiding. Over the sounds of steaming milk and singer-songwriter tunes, I heard stories of triumph and failure; I witnessed victory and defeat firsthand.
One of my daily encounters was with a man named Damon. He had eyes as stormy as swirling shots of espresso and a jagged voice. His skin was tanned and calloused and thick from years in the sun and bad decisions and worse consequences. I longed to peel back all his layers and see what stories lived inside.
It took months to win him over, but eventually, he let me in. I went from serving him coffee over the counter to bringing it to him at the end of my shift. We discovered each other in between sips of iced americanos.
Damon was the first man I connected to after the conclusion of a painful six-year relationship, the majority of which was spent struggling to get out of it, only to fall back in. I realize now it was my own sort of addiction.
Even though my time with Damon only lasted a few weeks, he restored a confidence in me that was shaken by countless infidelities. He assured me my lack of scars didn’t make me lackluster.
We talked every day until one day we just didn’t. And one day became two. And two became three. When I finally heard from him, he confessed that he’d messed up and had a beer.
I suspected it was probably more than that.
Damon continued to spiral in the only way an addict knows how–down and quickly and out of control–by lying and stealing his way to oblivion until he was finally arrested. And that’s how it ended.
I’ve now hung up my green apron for good, but I miss serving coffee to all those warriors. I miss seeing the fight in their eyes. I miss the connection I had with Damon.
Thinking back, I wish I could have done something to return the favor for the way he filled up my rehabilitating heart that spring. For making me see that some scars are beneath the surface, addictions take many forms, and not all support groups are held in Sunday school classrooms. For helping me break free from my own struggles, even as he was sinking back into his.
And most of all, for showing me how to love not in spite of flaws, but because of them.
Photo credit: LaurenLemons via Etsy