Oh boy, does that road get narrower.
I remember when I first got sober and started going to meetings, the crusty old timers in the rooms at that time (and man, did they ever intimidate me) sharing about dealing with their lives, their character defects, their commitment to applying AA's principles on a daily basis, with (mostly) real grace and humor. (Not all of them of course. As I've stayed sober these many years now -- and I think after 20 I can get away with that phrase and not be accused of grasping or grandstanding -- I'm keenly aware that as you remain sober in AA you can either be a shining example or a horrible warning -- so choose wisely, Grasshopper.)
And as they shared, with a mixture of amusement and maybe a little frustration, they would often observe that "the road gets narrower."
How keenly today I share those kind and patient souls mixed emotions as I've come to experience that myself. The road does, indeed, get narrower.
In one regard it's riffing off a phrase commonly used in AA, as it is part of a passage often read at meetings -- it's the very last paragraph in the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" (AA's Big Book) before the collected personal stories. I've heard it so many times I could probably recite it by heart, but when I can remind myself to listen to what I'm hearing I'm often moved by it:
"Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny. May God bless you and keep you -- until then."
It's a lovely, semi-poetic recap of the essence of the 12 Steps, and a promise, which for me, in more than 20 years has never been broken, that there will always be someone to help me do the sober deal. When I've truly needed it, I've never been alone in AA. (Unless of course I was having a lovely little pity party for myself, hiding out at home with the shades drawn, not answering the phone and convincing myself that "no one understands!" Sob! Of course if you push people away in AA you can be alone. We're sober, but we're still just people. Push us away enough and eventually we will go away. We'll always welcome you back, but we're not really that big on chasing you down.)
It's worth noting here, too, that when they wrote the above passage I believe "trudge" meant much more "to walk with purpose" than "to walk with a heavy burden."
So when people in AA share about the road, and the road getting narrower, it's a gentle riff off of that quote from the Big Book, and perhaps also just shorthand for living your life.
And the "narrower" part? Well, that my friends is an expression of the fact that, as we stay sober, the things that used to "fix" us seem to no longer fix us. The old coping behaviors don't help us cope the way they used to.
For example, when I was newly sober, I was really thin, because in the last few years of my using all I did was drink. Why eat? It'll just bring you down and it's a waste of good booze! After I got sober of course food became a great comfort to me. A great comfort. (Hmmmm ... maybe the road wasn't getting narrower, maybe I was getting wider!) Weight issues not withstanding, food, as an escape, doesn't work for me anymore. I still try to use it as an escape, of course, but sadly it just doesn't fix me -- or the fix is so fleeting as to be worthless.
This experience seems common among people in recovery. Sex, workaholism, food, compulsive exercise (always wished I'd gotten hit with that one), smoking... whatever your fall-back fix after booze and drugs is (or was), eventually it just didn't provide the comfort and release that it used to. The road gets narrower. And narrower...
And eventually there's really only one fix left...
No, that one stops working too, believe me.
The last fix left is the one that never stops fixing, and I'm afraid it is a spiritual one. (Who am I? How did I become this person? I laugh aloud sometimes, as I type things like that -- well, not in a crazy "I'm the Joker, Batman, and I'm hear to kill you!" maniacal way, more a bemused chuckle -- I hope -- that I write such things and mean them wholeheartedly.)
I say "I'm afraid" because it's not a very sexy answer. It's the kind of idea that's easy to mock -- and I don't mean you out there mocking it, I mean me, in my own head, when I'm riddled with doubt and fear and my alcoholic thinking is alive and well and my alcoholism has me by the throat. It's not a very "sophisticated" answer, either, and although it is elegantly simple it is not always easy to apply.
For example, I think the Dalai Lama is very cool, but secretly, truthfully, I don't want to have to do anything different in my life or make a lot of effort to be like him. I'll wear the fundraiser prayer bracelet or something, so everyone knows I'm down with Dalai, but I don't want to stop doing what I want to do, for the most part. In a grudge match between the King Baby inside me and the beautiful example of His Serene Holiness the Dalai Lama, well... let's just say that King Baby doesn't fight fair. The Big Book describes alcoholics as "self will run riot" which for me is the 1930's speak for "I do what I want to do, and I don't do what I don't want to do."
But that's the punchline! That's the road getting narrower. By all means, keep doing what you want (which I know can look like "need to do" in your head), within the framework of Steps and Meetings -- which is, after all, in incredibly wide and somewhat felxible framework. Stay within those broad boundaries and you'll be able to stay sober, which is of course ultimately the point (first and always, it all starts and finishes with staying sober).
But as you stay sober, and you keep doing your other little fixes (eating away the fear, shopping away the resentment, screwing away the loneliness) eventually, after a while, they sort of stop working.
Then, as you keep doing them they really stop working. And you find yourself overweight, or in debt, or sleeping with people and not feeling very good about the experience -- and the fear, or the resentment, or the loneliness, comes rushing back in almost as soon as you finish chewing or set the shopping bags full of stuff down on the table or put on your pants.
And then sometimes, if you persist, those fixes start to actually hurt. In many ways I have to say it hasn't been AA, or a sponsor, or even God that has schooled me the most... it's my "ism".
And what a harsh teacher it can be.
I sincerely hope that some of you reading this don't need to have nearly as many lessons from your "ism" before you change as I've had to have from mine. (But if you do, take heart, you're not alone in the incredible, stubborn, blind pigheaded willfulness of your learning curve. Hmmm, that sounded a lot nicer and more comforting in my head.)
When it comes to "fixing" here's the secret, and I learned it the hard way: I will never be able to change how I feel by trying to take something in. I will never be able to let go of the fear or the resentment by consuming -- be it food or goods or people. I cannot fill the hole inside by taking things in -- the only way to shrink the hole is to reverse the flow. It's by giving (of myself, of my time, or my experience, to help others) that I am healed and literally "fixed", that I am filled -- not by taking in. Damn these cosmic paradoxes! But really, that's been the secret for me -- and then, it's not that the road gets narrower, it's that my life gets bigger.
I wish I had a sexier answer for you. Given the background noise of life in the 21st Century, I'm afraid by comparison that seems awfully simple.
Oh well. It's the only answer I've got, because it's the only answer that has proven to always work for me.