A tale of two bus rides, two hospitals and the upside of ‘ifs’

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Tiny White Box new

“I don’t know which way; the ball just bounces.

I don’t know, maybe the cards just fall

Or maybe there’s some ancient chain of causes and effects

Got one man walking proud while another man crawls”

– Tonio K “It Could Have Been Me”

It’s seven a.m., November 8, 2023. Soon, I’ll board a bus to Boston to take the T and a bus to West Roxbury. There, I’ll walk into the VA hospital to be chemically knocked out. A surgical team will put an instrument down my throat. That mechanism will, I believe, snip off tiny bits of the nodule in my lung and, perhaps, a sample of nearby lymph nodes. These pieces of me—and how strange to think of a cancer as part of ME—will be sent off to mystics and sorcerers in the mountains—sorry, I mean pathologists in a lab. They’ll read my entrails and divine my future.

What a funny world, huh?


Sixteen-and-a-half years ago, I knew what the rest of my life held. The rest of my life would be over within the week. I was implementing a scheme, a plot, a plan.

This plan had three steps:

  1. Take a bus from Manchester to Hanover, New Hampshire, carrying with me a pack with dried fruit, a sleeping bag and a pair of sandals. In Hanover, I’d find the Appalachian Trail, which should be easy since it runs down Main Street.
  2. Take on a trail name—Night Train or Easy or Jingles or Soapy—and walk south until my fruit ran out.
  3. Kill myself.

I was drinking stolen mouthwash to keep away the shakes, the horrors, the D.T.s. Even Dollar Store mouthwash has 25% alcohol, higher than beer or wine and way easier to steal. After all, alcohol wasn’t my problem. Life was my problem and alcohol was a partial solution. Suicide was the final solution, and it was just a few days away.

In short, my life was at a tipping point, with all the weight leaning toward destruction. A nurse at the Manchester VA put her finger on the scale.

The Upside of Ifs

If the nurse behind the counter at the VA urgent care had told me to go to the fourth floor,

Make an appointment go to the Eligibility and Benefits Office to fill out reams of paperwork,

I wouldn’t be alive today

Instead, she saw the frightened boy within the scrawny, shaggy, smelly, drunken man,

The man who said,

“My name’s Keith Howard. I’m a veteran but I’ve never been here before . . . And I don’t want to be alive anymore.”

She told me to sit with her, have a cup of coffee and talk this through.

If the doctor in the loony bin had seen me as just another bum on his way down the drain,

A middle-aged man who lacked only antidepressants

To make everything better,

A homeless vet to be treated and released,

I wouldn’t be alive today.

Instead, he saw the man behind/inside the shaking body in front of him,

The man who wanted to be dead, yes,

But who wanted more than that to find a reason to live.

The man who needed recovery more than pills or processing.

If the Chemical Dependency/Substance Use/Addiction unit hadn’t invited me to join, although I didn’t really see the point,

If the fellas in that unit didn’t share their experience, their strength and their hope,

If the recovery center at the bottom of the hill didn’t welcome vets to join their meetings,

I wouldn’t be alive today.

Sixteen-and-a-half years ago, I took the first, very tentative steps on this road of happy destiny.

Thanks to recovery

I’m a man who can be trusted.

I’m a man who gives and accepts love.

I’m a man for whom the future, no matter how big, offers great depths.

A man who’s glad to be alive today

To help the still struggling discover the upside of ifs.


Today, the ball will bounce, the penny will drop, the cards will fall. No matter what the entrails reveal, no matter what the doctors determine, no matter the diagnosis, prognosis or possible treatments, sixteen-and-a-half years ago I was given another shot at life. 

Recovery gave me that chance, and many of you reading this have gotten that same shot. 

I suspect someone, maybe even you, is thinking about your drinking or drugging. Maybe you have a plan to escape life, to kill yourself. Please don’t.

I’ve been at that point, that place offering no friendly direction. I know, really KNOW recovery is possible, life can be made worthwhile. If you need someone to talk with, go to Hope at 293 Wilson Street. If that’s too overwhelming, give me a call (603-361-6266). Really.

Just don’t call me today. I’ll be offering my entrails to a VA surgeon, and looking forward to tomorrow and tomorrow and however many tomorrows remain.

You matter. I matter. We matter.


About this Author

Keith Howard

Keith Howard is former Executive Director of Hope for NH Recovery and author of Tiny White Box