I met him in 1969. In the corridor of the Round Towner Motel in Baltimore. Maryland. Following a Broadway run, I was on a national tour with Lovers, the play that had brought me to the US. He was an Irish psychiatrist running the Psychiatric Emergency Clinic on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University Hospital.
But when I first saw him, having opened my motel room door to raucous laughter in the corridor, he was just a very handsome man on his hands and knees, telling a funny story to the great amusement of Eamonn Morrissey, my co-star, who was collapsing with laughter against the wall. They were both drunk as skunks.
Garrett always said that for him it was love at first sight. It took me two days. We went to the zoo. Strangely, animals bring out whatever honesty is in me, wherever it is hidden and however much I try to conceal it and call it something else. So I didn’t know then that this handsome, brilliant, funny, maverick, alcoholic, Irishman was to change me, love me and have my back for the next forty-six years. At the time I just thought it was a shame he was married, unavailable, that I had better believe we were ships passing in the night and get on with my tour.
I didn’t know then how persistent Garrett could be when he found what he wanted. Or how much fun it was going to be. Though not always. Or how, after six stormy years together he would finally hit bottom, get sober and devote the rest of his life to helping other drunks and their families find a path to sobriety and save their lives. That his understanding of the frailty of the human condition, his courage and compassion for those who suffered and for those charged with treating them, was deep, abiding and boundless.
It was AA that gave him peace and a philosophy he could live by and it was Beit T’Shuvah that gave him a community. He knew that alcoholism is a disease of unbelonging, that in Beit T’Shuvah he could look into the eyes of jailbirds, ex-criminals, struggling addicts, recovering thieves, and see his own struggle to belong. This man who had been a part of, been prized – and yes, envied too, by some of the most prestigious institutions in this country, came to believe passionately in Meister Eckhart’s statement, ”The God enters through the wound.” He believed it was the key to unlocking the iron door of contempt that imprisons the addict and, until and unless recognized by the medical establishment, would ensure that door remain forever firmly shut. Living by this belief, sharing it, as he did, so often and so courageously, did not always win him followers. Many dismissed him as a charming Irishman with a martyr complex. Charming and Irish he certainly was, but Garrett, for all that he was a Jesuit boy, had no martyr complex. His was a sophisticated intellect who understood that spirituality is an activity embodied in service to others and is as essential to our lives as water.
He was, as I told him, the centre of my universe. I loved him and I shall miss him forever.
They have since torn down the Round Towner Motel in Baltimore, Maryland. I think they should have kept it and put up a plaque. ♦
Read Garrett O’Connor’s hotly-debated article, “The Irish and the Drink,” here.