So, I got a call today from an old AA friend. He was calling from his Caseworker's office. He'd relapsed. Again.
I've known him for ten years or so, and he's had a really rough go of it. Sober, drunk, sober, drunk, in, out, in, out. We even used to work together, in fact, although I eventually had to fire him for drinking at work. Or being drunk at work. Pretty much the same thing, I guess.
Tell me that wasn't weird and ironic for me, considering all the drinking I used to do when I was at work. (Hey, I needed to pass the time till I could get off work and go out drinking.) When the Big Boss was sitting there in the room as "witness" while I was terminating my friend, it was very surreal. There were two conversations happening simultaneously. On the surface, the Big Boss heard the bullshit administrative reasons (they were legit, I don't mean I fabricated them wholesale) for the firing, but the real meaning of the words had everything to do with my friend's drinking, and both he and I knew that. We even laughed about how clueless that boss was, and how "Twilight Zone" the whole conversation was later, during one of his (all too brief) sober stretches.
I lied on the paperwork when I let him go, too. Made the whole thing about something else, rather than his drinking. I just couldn't do it -- I just couldn't make it about his drinking when I wrote it all up. I knew it would be hard enough for him to find a job after this one, and that kind of paperwork, that "ineligible for rehire" type stuff, would only make things more difficult. I know, and passionately believe, that when you shield an alcoholic from the consequences of his drinking you're not doing them any favors, but I still couldn't attach that to his written track record, job-wise. That was all five or six years ago now. He's been in and out of AA, sober and drunk, a couple times since then.
This guy's a really twisted mirror for me, since I see us as so alike. Except that I've stayed sober and he hasn't. I say that with not one molecule of boasting -- sometimes the written word does not convey tone very clearly, so I want you to know that. It's important to me that I'm clear on that point -- I feel no sense of "better than" when I think of him. I get frustrated. I get frightened. I worry for him and fear the (inevitable?) outcome. When he drinks he winds up on the street. When we say alcoholism is a progressive illness we're not just being poetic. "Over any considerable period of time we get worse, never better." ("Alcoholics Anonymous", AA's Big Book, pg. 30.)
Sober he's a charming, urbane, enormously likable fellow, and people love to help him. Drinking, he's an unwashed street person, shoplifting vodka from supermarkets and sleeping behind dumpsters. Literally. If this all sounds a little pat, a little too on-the-nose for an AA Sponsor's blog, well, as I said in another post here, nothing would make me happier than to be making this up for the sake of a dramatic story. With all my heart I wish that I were. I would much rather be full of bull than to find my friend, literally passed out and reeking of urine, by the dumpster at the supermarket, as I have more than once, in the past.
So why him? Or why me? Is it random? Am I smart? (No.) Is he stupid? (No.) Am I motivated and he lazy? Does AA only work for some people? I confess, after more than 20 years clean and sober and more than 20 years of regularly going to AA meetings under my belt, those are not always easy questions to consider. I could offer you answers that would make the crustiest of Old Timers smile and nod at me like a dutiful student who's learned his lessons. If you're new to AA, please don't be alarmed at reading that. I want to assure you that there is no party line. The inmates are running the asylum in AA, and we are, I think, an example of happy anarchy. But we're also human, and any group of people can become self-censoring or dogmatic -- traits I guard against in myself as I continue to "trudge the road to happy destiny" and also continue to regularly attend AA meetings. (And I guard against them not because I'm a good person -- I guard against them because I believe they are the Welcome mat at the door of Closed Minded Intolerance and Pride. And those things will, I fear, eventually take me to a nice spot by the dumpster at the supermarket. Reeking of urine, optional.)
But if there's no party line, there are ideas that seem pretty much universally agreed upon, tested as they've been against the sober (and relapsing) experience of many, many alcoholics over the past 70+ years.
AA suggests, "The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called willpower becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink." (The Big Book, pg. 24)
And once we take the first drink, the phenomenon of craving kicks in, and it's game over before you even take the field.
So if my friend and I are both alcoholic, and thus both reflected in the passage above, why is it 20+ years since I was dumpster material, and he's calling me today from his Caseworker's Office, having just come from the street yet again?
My head hurts. I want to stop typing. I want to say "I don't know." Or "It's a mystery." This whole post scares and depresses me.
This is what the Big Book says:
"Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty." (The Big Book, pg. 58)
Is that the difference? Is that why I'm sober and he's not? That I am capable of being honest with myself, and maybe he's not? (When I was new to AA I used to lay awake at night, so scared, torturing myself by thinking of all the lies I used to tell, and wondering, if I was "constitutionally incapable of being honest with myself" how would I be able to tell, since I was constitutionally incapable of being honest with myself.)
Or is it this?
"All went well for a time, but he failed to enlarge his spiritual life. To his consternation, he found himself drunk half a dozen times in rapid succession." (The Big Book, pg. 35)
Is it that my friend fails to enlarge his spiritual life?
I could continue to pull quotes from the book, all of which would be apt and on point, and all of which might help provide insight.
But ultimately, I think it's this:
Alcoholism is a deadly disease, and for any alcoholic, it's not about being good or bad, smart or dumb -- it's about seeing what it takes for each of us, for ourselves, to become completely honest with ourselves, starting perhaps with an admission to our core that we're alcoholics. And I believe that process starts and grows through attending AA meetings.
Then, once we've found a way to be honest with ourselves, going on to find ways to consistently "enlarge our spiritual life" -- and often that's not about some new trick, but rather it's about every damn day, one day at a time, fostering some sort of spiritual consciousness -- not just through prayer and meditation (as powerful and helpful as those can be) but through the boots-on-the-ground practical application of AA's most basic suggestions: Contrary action, being of service, carrying the message to other alcoholics ...
You know, my friend's a great guy. It's worth saying one more time, that for any of us, we're not bad people trying to get good, we're sick people trying desperately to get well.
I'm going to talk to him tomorrow. Tell him that I'm really glad he's off the street and that he's someplace safe. I'm going to say a little prayer before we talk that God will give me the right words to be helpful to him, because on my own I don't always feel like I know what to say, even after all this time. And I'm going to keep doing the deal, one day at a time ... because I also believe that not one of us has an immunity from what happens to my friend. There's a spot waiting for me down by the dumpster, no different than any other alcoholic. I might arrive by a different route, but what difference does it make what train you get on if they all pull into the same station?
Please God, I never want to get on that train again -- and please, God, let this have been my friend's last ride.