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 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.
Recently, I spent words lamenting my egregious fall from grace. It was egregious in the sense that I had all the tools at my disposal for such a thing not to happen. And it still did. Fall because I ended up face first in my own stink. Grace, not in the heavenly sense, but in the way a person views his or her personhood held up to the light.
In this instance, it didn’t look as shiny anymore. In fact, the worst part of any alcoholic’s misery is the glowing reality that self-respect has left the building. And when one lose’s self-respect they lose the ability to adequately respect others as well.
And so the question remains, what now? What steps lie ahead for this newly sober, recovering alcoholic?
The first part of that is the convergence of two things: my vacation and, more importantly, some of that vacation spent at my Mom’s. I’m here in part helping plan papa Sam, her husband’s, celebration of life service. Hence, I begin with words penned among the whispery poplar and birch that stand guard around their mini-ranch in central Alberta.
* * *
It would be easy to lose all track of time up here. Imagine a place so quiet that the ticking of the wall clock becomes almost intrusive. I can hear the blood race through my veins. Even the creaks of my aging bones become deafening in a place almost averse to sounds other than the rustling trees and the occasional lowing of happy cattle.
Such is life on a central Alberta ranch, or so it seems to a late middle-aged, suburban white guy on vacation. A guy could get used to this pace. Well, so says the man unaccustomed to the accompanying rigours and harshness of Canadian prairie life.
One’s vacation experience of a place is usually quite different from those doing the heavy lifting to help produce that experience. So, I suppose I should, more rightly, consider myself a prairie homestead consumer. A few days spent at Golden Spur Ranchetta being waited on hand and foot by my own mother. Home cooking, and the full package, magazine-ready, prairie experience. To be fair, I washed the dishes last night. That counts for something, right?
It would be perfection indeed if it wasn’t also the context in which I’m helping Mom lay her best friend to rest. It tends to bring some shadow to an otherwise sun-bright living room where I pen these words.
This is Mom’s place. It has her touch at every turn. Like stepping back in time, there are, everywhere, reminders of my own childhood. But this is also Sam’s place. A house that boasts numerous guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, amps, gear, and tools of the luthier’s trade. He loved his old-time cowboy music and did the tradition proud with his devotion both to the music and the lifestyle it portrays.
Most of all, this is their place. Sam and Doris. Mom and “Papa Sam.” Here is a life woven lovingly together with strands of two in a single tapestry. It boasts the simplicity and industry expected of prairie home companions. A picture, painted not by Thomas Kincaid’s dishonesty or Norman Rockwell’s wishful thinking, but by two hardy souls better suited to the task.
Golden Spur is a paint by number where God does the math. Two souls plus one hope plus one God’s watchful presence, now one less.
One less. But somehow, none the less for it. Sam’s spirit lives on here. In Mom. In the legacy of his hard work.
The quiet hours spent here among the poplar and birch give me ample room to stretch my rumpled, but healing, soul. I am faced head on with the unwelcome task of returning to normal life with a lot of relational work to do.
Addicts of any kind are profoundly self-serving. We need to be in order to keep and nurture our dirty little secret. Maintaining addiction comes at a high price. Our lust for euphoria takes prisoners. There is a desperation afoot that causes us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do. We hurt those closest to us in ways we can’t imagine, and usually can’t even remember.
Certainly for me, I become a man I do not know. Someone I do not like. I’m forced to live in a dark corner of my head that lacks judgement, wisdom, compassion, or boundaries. I latch onto whomever happens to be in the way and, like a rottweiler on a kitten, drag them under the water with me. It forces everyone into codependency, slaves with me to a burden not theirs to bear.
Then, morning after regret. The addict looks back over a smouldering wreckage with their name on it. Reputations, relationships, respect, sometimes even families, all lie in ruins – taken captive by someone blissfully unaware of the carnage that ensues through his inebriated wizardry.
Now, before this begins to sound like little more than addiction to self-pity, let me put on the brakes and reveal what is emerging in me. And, this time spent at Mom’s provides perfect respite for doing just that. In this gift of silence I have seen that the truest me, despite having lost its lustre, remains unblemished. Kicked around and battered a little, but largely intact.
For reasons known only to my Higher Power I have been continually surrounded by those who love me. They’ve stayed, even through my worst days. Few truths are more life-changing than to awake from addiction and see, through the smoke and chaos, the faces most precious, best known, eyes cast down and hurt, but still present.
Their faithfulness lends new life to one whose heavy lifting now is a daily return to sobriety with tools ready to rebuild wherever possible. Earning trust and respect, even if from scratch. So be it.
Mom, I wish I could be here under circumstances different than these. Nevertheless, I take these days, each and every one, as pure gift. In them I reconsider a life. My life. My one and only life. This great, albeit fragile, life in which I live, move, and have my being.
So, what now?
I lift up my head, newly clear and seeing far, and say in a loud voice: “Hi, I’m Rob, and I’m an alcoholic.” Better still, I’m a man beloved and embraced.
This time last year, my wife and I were photo-whoring and shaking fairy dust out of our heads. We had just returned from a head-spinning trip to the UK, and readjusting to life squeezed uncomfortably into North American shoes. That, and relearning to drive. Five weeks in the UK had given us sore, flat feet from miles of trudging London’s pavement skeleton. It meant over-worked iPhones bulging with pictures, heads full of Skye and oddly named places like Tu-Hwnt-I’r Bont, Llanthony, and Beddgelert, many pages of writing, and the faces of loved ones.
Our hearts pulsated wildly, aglow in fresh memories.
One is surely blessed to be found by adventures of this kind even once in a lifetime. This was our fourth trip, but arguably our best. Like the others, this hop across the pond had under it a built-in rationale to guide it. For Rae, it was largely book research – this bridge, that pub, this street corner, that tube station. For me, I was in search of something. I like to think it was maturity, but one can only expect so much in five weeks.
I had some vague notion that a trip of this kind was what I needed for my ongoing pursuit of an even more vague notion – home. No small feat for anyone, let alone one as prone as I to internal homelessness. My extensive writing on the subject had produced a better understanding, but few certainties. Frankly, it just whetted my appetite to learn more. Besides, it’s a high-sounding reason to spend thousands of dollars traipsing around Britain. Rather noble, don’t you think?
For now, at least, such interior matters can wait for another time. A much more ominous discovery needs some attention. With that primer, I’ll just put it out there.
After fourteen years of sobriety, Britain and I sat down for a drink, or ten.
Well before our trip, a wispy, but persistent voice, had begun planting a series of tempting ideas in my head:
“Rife, you’re not an alcoholic, you simply lack self-control.”
“It’s been fourteen years, that was then. This is now.”
“Dude, relax, you’re on holiday. Splurge a little.”
I’m generally a good guy (unless people tell me that just to get me off their lawn). But, annoyingly, a complex maze of dark veins courses through the ore of my otherwise rich life. I smile, knowing full well something isn’t quite right.
To be in Britain is to be awash in street-lit, woody pubs, full of friendly chatter, darts, and tumblers of frothy beer otherwise known as pints. Scotland boasts famous distilleries on every bank and brae, in which is made the amber dew that bears her name. It is woven into the very cultural DNA of the places I love most.
It proved too much of a temptation. And I dove back in, head first, into a world that knew me well and had, apparently, been watching and waiting for my return.
It was simple enough at first. A gift shop on Lindisfarne sold various types of mulled wine, or mead. They handed out samples of the stuff like cocktail weenies at Costco. I would not discover until later how sharp its teeth would be as it slunk like a sweaty pole-dancer down my lusty throat. “See how I love you?” it said. “See how you’ve missed this?” it said. “See how you’ve grown?” it goaded, like the serpent from the tree.
For an alcoholic, to say yes to the booze gods, is to remove one’s clothing of pride, oil up the pole of self-respect, climb on, and plummet to the bottom of the pit known as despair. Most insidious of all is that we won’t see any of it this way.
“No, it’s all good”, we tell ourselves.
“I’ve got this,” we say.
“I’m not ‘one of those’ drinkers,” we boast.
“I just need to be discerning and exercise self-control,” we convince ourselves.
And, the whole time, our pants are at our ankles and a noose tightly around our necks. Even as we speak the words, we choke them out, while losing all remaining respectability.
The days following our return were met with rapidly deteriorating self-control. Almost like magic, beer left the fridge faster than I could replenish it. I bought bottles of wine in twos and threes for ‘us’ to enjoy. How thoughtful of me. I began drinking before, during, and after routine tasks convinced that it was merely heightening my pleasure, or calming my nerves, or congratulating me on a work day finished.
I began losing any sense of appropriateness, propriety, reason, even common sense. I had jumped into a vat of snakes and looked up, smiling, as they coiled around me.
* * *
Now, after much heartache, a shit load of counselling, a brief sojourn with friends, a lot of books, and a good support network, I am sober once more. And, in that sobriety, I gaze back into the past year and ache at the smouldering wreckage I’ve left behind. A wake of carnage, stupidity, and shame lays in heaps, along with my self-respect. And I begin again the arduous journey back to sanity; back to the reality of life without the crutches of inebriation and forgetfulness.
Despite my fallacious foray into the forest of dumb-fuckery, the shimmer of this journey has stayed with us, even if our feet feel a bit more planted on familiar, and yet somehow foreign, soil. Home is where the heart is say the poets. Home is where the mortgage is say the realists.
Home is your heart say the mystics.
And that home for me must be a sober one. It is deceptively easy looking up at the sky for answers when the ground is quicksand. My attention has harpooned itself too quickly in less than helpful directions. What I think my heart wants is rarely what it needs. And, I guess, my heart has been my quest all along.
This receding shoreline of self-awareness can be wearisome at best, downright haunting at times. But, while we’re busy gawking at life through the viewfinder, the truly panoramic views are found in the small, easy to miss things. In the dull, routine things. The faces of friends. The laughter at one’s own shitty jokes. How watering roses in my garden can’t keep up with the raw heat of a Yakima summer. Or, just staying sober because you love all of it.
Now, I’m challenged to add my wilderness wandering to my expanding story and pray that it helps buttress my inner fortress. That it makes me wiser, a better man, a truer friend, a more attentive lover, a more insightful guide to others in similar peril. All this and more makes for the skeleton of a life. We get to place the meat on the bones with every smile given, every embrace, every mistake or triumph, every tear released to its rightful owners.
It’s all of a piece. And, some of the time, all of a peace.