Having just finished Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water – Spirituality and the Twelve Steps for the second time, I am suitably inspired. It is an insightful commentary on the wisdom of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and their potential for a probing, expansive, and transformative spirituality.
The steps dovetail wonderfully with the best spirituality. They are a template suitable for the best diving – a way of life not just for addicts, but for everybody.
In October, 2002, I quit drinking. But I’m only getting sober now. Let me explain.
Through a series of cataclysmic circumstances, I first came to sobriety while living and working in McMinnville, Oregon. It was a time characterized as much by chaos as it was possibility. I was in a personal Shangri-La on one level, experiencing life among kindred spirits, and hobnobbing with the Linfield College intelligentsia. I was making my mark in a town with an artistic spirit, positively electric to guys like me.
But, like many alcoholics before me, I stopped telling my story. Do that for any length of time and one grows smug. Over-confident. Or worse, blind. That most devious of all beliefs slithers into our thinking: “You know, I think I’m good, a drink or two would be just fine.”
To stop telling one’s story in the company of others, equally knowledgeable of your plight, is to let your story tell you. Stories are both descriptive and prescriptive. They narrate one’s past but shape one’s present, both of which promise a better future.
Dry drunks trade one addiction for another. Whatever “gets the job done.” Euphoria is still euphoria after all. It matters not from where it comes. Euphoric escape from reality into any available alternative is what we’re after. Booze isn’t the end. It’s the means to the end; for some, quite literally.
One of the most humbling undertakings of the recovering alcoholic is the more clear-headed journey back from foggy open seas to the shoreline, awash in all the stuff I threw overboard along the way. Regrets litter the beach of our lives. It is saying sorry to those I soaked in piss along the way.
The return to more stable footing reveals just how many lives were impacted by my jaunty revelry. And, life is friendships. Friendships are the wheat of life, bread in the making. To damage them, even under less fretful circumstances, should be immensely concerning. Returning to those who have supported and trusted you, believed in you, walked alongside you when you least deserved it, is the best and worst thing imaginable.
Steps 8 and 9, respectively, of the A.A. program:
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Shame and guilt are bed buddies. They intertwine limbs and sinew in an indivisible mess of carnage, stealing everything, giving nothing. They are also highly deceptive, rendering up the law of diminishing returns. The more shame one feels, the worse one’s behaviour becomes, leading to deeper shame, leading to a life in checkmate.
It is paralyzing.
It is also ubiquitous – the gift that keeps on giving. Guilt hides in every corner, shame slips in among the shadows where we can’t see things clearly. It guides our thinking, further clouding a brain still seeking a reboot.
But, to the recovering alcoholic, dismissing shame in favour of courage is our lot. It is, by far, the hardest work. Refusing to hit rewind and play all the old tapes for the pleasure of being our own whipping boy will always be in our job description. Those we’ve hurt, willingly or not, are seldom interested in adding any more pain, guilt, or betrayal to that which they generally feel already.
Some will applaud the new life of sobriety, the face a little less shiny and red, eyes more clear. Others may simply feel duped and deceived and happily dump us on the curb. The same fearlessness, directness, and gentleness will be received in any number of ways. Kick a hornet’s nest and there are always consequences, most of them unpredictable, all of them deserved.
A long-winded way of saying to any and all unfortunate enough to be in my addictive pathway…forgive me?And, to my Higher Power, whom I call God…thanks for grace and the knowledge that you love prodigals.
Six miles of damp, spongy pavement pounded out this morning. Running – the healing constancy of deep, rhythmic breathing. So good in this environment. It’s little wonder that Portland, Oregon is America’s running capital. Every back road, trail, and alley is afoot with runners. It houses Nike corporation and its disciples, of which I am, apparently, one of the faithful. I’m a committed convert to the marriage of time, distance, and pain.
Baffling to non-runners, it is, in its own way, contemplative space. And, these days in particular, as I struggle once more on the longest road, the one leading toward daily sobriety, it becomes apt metaphor in the slow process of change.
Hanging like a shadow over it all are those who would pooh-pooh this whole sober-running enterprise, suggesting in my case that it is classic avoidance – the via negativa of the dry drunk. In this scenario, one merely transfers addiction from one thing to another, trading booze for the self-emasculation of hardcore running.
“Well, he may be running,” say they, “but it doesn’t mean he’s dealing with anything related to addiction.” To such self-righteous do-gooders who feign any real interest in me preferring, instead, bookish platitudes I offer the following retort(s):
Um, f*** off.
Okay, that was overkill. Thank you for your concern, but…
Do you think I am unaware of this?
Despite the built-in danger of avoidance, is this not much better than alcohol-induced madness?
Give me half a chance to work through this on my own terms, please.
I’m back in A.A., working the steps. I’ve got this. Well, my Higher Power’s got me. So, relax.
Phew, now that that’s off my chest, some brighter notes.
I’m awash in the effervescence of expectancy. The more I consider who God has made me to be, the passions that drive me, the skills that help me, the more I prayerfully consider my options. What doors and windows are availing themselves through which to move into bigger sky? What new field of dreams might await my conveyance?
More every year, I believe that so much of this is more our decision than the theologians lead us to believe. Jesus tells us that we gain our lives by giving them away. But to give something away is first to own it. We cannot give what we do not own. Otherwise, it’s just passing something down the pipeline that found its way into our hands. Once we own ourselves, there is real sacrifice, but greater reward, in relinquishing ourselves to love and serve our neighbour.
God has given all of us a vocation. It is for us to discover it. Then, it is largely up to us how to fulfill it. For me, that may be changing. Imperceptibly at first, baby steps toward cave openings through which new shards of light are reaching out, tempting me in. Sitting here in this place, dedicated as it is to the rigour and welcome of the spiritual life, its delightful chaos, there grows in me a light. It is yet dim and inconsistent. But it grows moment by moment.
In a time and place such as this one is gifted with a bird’s eye-view of the bigger narratives at work in one’s life. That has certainly been the case since getting re-sober and, specifically, at a nunnery where my overworked mouth must be silent.
I am further gifted with precious reading time. Double up the task of discerning the peaks and valleys of a life with a reading list and I find myself reading something I’ve not touched in years. Perhaps it is a page turner only to those like me, but I’d forgotten that fact about “the big book” as it is affectionately deemed by A.A. Equal parts childlike, level-headed zeal, and complete lack of pretension put it alongside other great spiritual works.
And that is exactly what Dr. Bill and Uncle Bob’s magnum opus is. In the simplest terms of the novice, it is akin to Augustine’s Confessions or C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. As honest and probing as any other memoir-retrospective-guidebook, they have no other agenda than telling their life-changing story in a way that draws others like moth to flame into a message of freedom and sobriety. And, they roll it out like excited grade-schoolers at a show ‘n tell.
But what a show ‘n tell!
I am so grateful to be, once again, sober. Well, on the arduous road of daily sobriety and the mindset required to fight the good fight of staying that way. I am equally grateful for the timeless stories of lives changed under the care of Someone higher and greater than we, Someone I call God.
It’s a playground bully, unsatisfied unless fists are drawn and blood flows. The drunken uncle whose continuous taunts to pull his finger are more about his self-satisfied laughter than ours. It’s the immature dink in the office who is incomplete until he gets the final word, no matter how pernicious or insecure.
Trust me, it’s much more subtle than that. It’s the trickster fox, practiced at setting up a ruse to capture his prey. It’s the wild west gambler, poker faced, eyeing his opponents, cards held close, planning his next move. It’s the chameleon – deathly still, changing, adaptable, morphing effortlessly into its surroundings in self-preservation.
Writing about my first sober-wagon experiencebrought unassailable freedom. Alongside it came personal power, relief, even fluffy-headed joy. The first few months were characterized by a pink cloud of giddiness.
I told my story to whomever would listen. Upon closer inspection, cornering them at the entrance to the gas station toilets probably was inadvisable. It’s hard to tell a good story when someone keeps hopping around with forced grin, wide-eyed in panic.
I rode that cloud for awhile, yippee ki-yaying in sober delight over the bronc now under my sway. Skies were bluer, food tasted better, sitting at a desk seemed less toilsome, assholes were less ass-holier. The world in general was a happier place and I was a part of it.
I returned to my passion for running, and by ‘returned’ I mean completely embedded myself in it. Three months later and almost sixty pounds lighter and some didn’t even recognize me. I ran almost every day, rain or shine.
Mostly rain. It was Oregon after all.
I was out and proud (no, not that one) and wanted the world to know.
But (come on, you knew this was coming), most recently, a closet door, busting at the seams, alcohol demons whining lustily behind it, finally split wide open. Out they spilled, like eavesdroppers pressed against the honeymooners’ door. They piled out with impunity, bent on destruction.
Thankfully, it was short-lived.
Demons, once out of their cells, tend to lose their bluster. Their muscles aren’t as impressive in daylight. They’re just naughty little boys good at hoodwinking, lying, and swindling us into places we’d rather not go. They’re mythic monsters only when we turn to give eye contact.
Fair enough. But, why were they still there in the first place? Hadn’t they been scolded and sent packing years ago? Here’s my discovery.
I fell prey to what is sometimes called Post Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS), or simply “dry drunk syndrome.” The problem has been recognized. The booze is gone. New habits are forming. But, at the inside of this Oreo isn’t yummy cream filling. It’s the allure of the addict quick-fix to all of life’s problems. When left unchecked, it will soon prove itself more powerful than ever.
“This term [dry drunk] is obviously an oxymoron as it implies that a person is drunk without ingesting alcohol.
Dry Drunk Syndrome is a condition where an alcoholic retains mental and behavioral traits associated with drunkenness even when he or she is not drinking alcohol.
Surely, one would think that the “dry” state is a critical objective for alcoholism treatment regimen. Unfortunately, the presence of this syndrome is actually an indication that an individual is in danger of alcohol relapse. He or she remains emotionally disturbed, mentally unstable and spiritually skewed despite quitting alcohol.
Thus, as an alcoholic, nothing significant has been achieved under a dry drunk condition aside from stopping the habit of drinking alcohol. In fact, the manifestation of typical signs of dry drunk syndrome is a red flag that should concern a recovering alcoholic.”
It appears that I may not have been as sober as I’d imagined. Not drinking? Sure. But, sober in the textbook sense? Perhaps not.
As any A.A. veteran will tell you, unless you’re actively pursuing a program of sobriety, you will not outpace the disease. It is still pursuing you. Relentlessly. You may not be drinking, but you can be damn sure it is still doing you, quietly biding its time until walls go down, the dam bursts, and you drown in a pressure-mounted swell of issues left untended.
How did I get here? What happened to almost fourteen years of sobriety? What was my brain telling the rest of me? Put another way, what the hell was I thinking?
In a nutshell, I stopped telling my story. And, when we stop telling our stories, we simply stop – growing, learning, being.
Our stories are equally descriptive and prescriptive of us. They help put shape to the varied experiences with which we struggle to find meaning. In a way, they are the foundation to a high-rise. They illustrate to the world what tickles our fancies, pokes our ribs, and gets our goats.
They can be our fairytales, falsities, nightmares, whitewashed witticisms, personae donned or doffed, big jokes, still bigger lies, the sob-stories – they all count. They are all bits and bobs of our total picture.
But, told often and well, our stories are prescriptive, too. They form buttresses, act as protective sheaths, and even offer advice. Who am I? Who am I not? What are my fears and how do I overcome them? How far will I go but no further? Who should I ignore (kidding…kinda)? To tell one’s story is to be reminded of one’s personhood, of what matters.
The twelve-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are revealing on many levels. The hardest steps are the early ones – admit our powerlessness over alcohol and believe that something/one greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.Many never make it. I did make it, but then, over time, forgot that I’d made it, and had to make it there all over again.
Recent events reveal that any previous sense of empowerment wasn’t ever going to be enough. In fact, anything at all other than constant awareness of the disease in humble surrender to a Higher Power, is an accident waiting to happen (demons in the closet, remember?).
So then, how exactly does a dry drunk dry out? The same way every other alcoholic does: Don’t drink.
But, just as central to this via negativa is the positive power of story-telling, even when that story doesn’t glimmer around the edges. My story, like any other, has a “once upon a time.” But, if I would see a “happily ever after” I must keep telling this tale to whomever will listen.