"If God is you co-pilot you should probably trade seats."
Regular readers know that I'll take my spiritual inspiration anyplace I can find it. In the earliest days of my sobriety, the sentiment "If you don't understand God, then that's how you understand God" was a great comfort. The fact that it came from an old episode of "Kung Fu" didn't phase me in the least.
(Caine was as quick with a spiritual nugget or a beautiful image as he was with a Crane Kick. I found it enlightening as a kid when the show was first on, and then nostalgic and comforting later, when I was newly sober -- though undoubtedly it would be irritating as hell to be trapped in an elevator with him: "Yes, it is like sunlight upon a stream, the water moves but the light only appears to dance. We, like the light, only appear to move." "Yeah, uh, that's great, Caine, thanks for sharing, but could you pull the Alarm Button now?")
Today was a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other day. One in which outwardly I was calm, okay, business as usual -- but inwardly I was anxious, and consumed with self judgment. Old fears and shames came to visit. Thanks to the 12 Steps I don't see them as often as I used to, and over the years I've learned to unmask them, or try to ignore them, but they still carry a knife, and know just where to stick it in. And turn it.
While my rational mind understands that this is a form of self obsession, and I took steps to get out of myself, (lunch with a sponsee, coffee with a sober friend, dinner with another sponsee and then went to one of my regular AA meetings at which I have a service commitment) being able to identify what is happening -- the self obsession, the self judgment, the anxiety -- does not always free me from the effects of these things right away. Identifying what's happening and taking the right sober actions keep me from being overwhelmed -- but it does not always take the knife away as quickly as I might like.
Does it even matter what set it all in motion today, mentally? Emotionally? A worry about the future, a wish for having made a different choice, the sting of a little rejection ... the news of the world ... I try to regain my perspective, which is of course an attempt to reach for humility. Sometimes that solution comes to hand effortlessly. Sometimes humility is a soft blanket -- but sometimes it's like one of those scratchy tags in the collar of a badly made shirt, and every time I turn my head it bugs me, and I'm mad for even having to have it.
But as I said at the top, I will take my inspiration wherever I can find it. And so, it's ...
St. Theresa of Lisieux to the rescue!
Yeah, I know, but roll with it.
According to a number of sources, when St. Theresa was a child, she was offered a handful of ribbons from which to select one. She responded, "I choose all."
Terry, that is my kind of thinking. My mother told me that when I was little she once scolded me with the old adage "You can't have your cake and eat it too" -- to which I responded "Then bake two cakes." Ah, the budding ism. So cute.
From a very religious family, as a girl Theresa was anxious to go into the nun business, as pretty much all of her sisters and one of her cousins before her -- so anxious, in fact, that she petitioned to get into the Convent early, a petition that was eventually granted.
Theresa came to speak and write of "The Little Way." She realized, sitting around the convent, that heroic acts and "great deeds" were not her path, but that she could still accomplish something worthy by making "... every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love."
If I'm not a rock star, if I'm not in Juarez, Mexico fighting drug gangs, if I'm not matching tissue samples for sick children ... I can choose to give greater meaning to the simple fabric of my life by "doing the least actions for love." To me, that means trying to have a loving, spiritual intent behind every small connection with others. Theresa's the saint, not me -- that's a high bar to clear. And AA teaches me that it's the action which transforms me -- and my own experience strongly bears that out. Yet if I take a page from Theresa's philosophy, those actions can be coupled with a loving intent which changes me -- heals me -- further. Yes, to be clear, the action alone will change me -- and when I first got sober any change was a good, healthy one -- but eventually the action alone is a sterile thing, and the intent becomes more worthy of consideration.
To build muscle you must add weights and thus increase the effort. Perhaps to build spirit we must do something similar.
Today, as those old pains and shames tried to gain traction I wrestled with some of the questions to which there are no answers (those questions always come down to to the foolish and fruitless "Why?" -- and in my experience God is not in the Because Business. Religion seems to be, but God -- not so much).
Theresa found her answer to those questions in, as she puts it, "the book of nature." She wrote:
"I have come to realize, that the radiance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the fragrance of the little violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy ... perfection consists in being what God wants us to be."
I take my inspiration where I can get it.
This stops the questioning and brings me back to what I know to be true: As a sober alcoholic the best of who I am is found in the 12th Step. As it says in the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" (AA's Big Book), when talking about working with other alcoholics, "You can help when no one else can." (BB, pg. 89)
Being sober, on some days, must be enough.
When I remember that as a recovering alcoholic I can be of service to someone with a terminal illness -- the very same illness I have been given a daily reprieve from, in a way that others cannot -- that knowledge frees me from comparing myself to "others." It silences old fears and shames, and excises the pernicious "what if's" and "if only's" chasing each other around in a circle in my head.
It is a way to STOP -- and return to being content with simply who, what and where I am. And that is what God wants us to be.
There are more writings like this in "Mr. SponsorPants: Adventures in Sobriety and The 12 Steps for AA's and Others." Available as an eBook via Amazon.
Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
There's this guy in my meeting ...
Not Interested in Playing Police Every Time
First off, props to you for doing the initials-sort-of-make-a-clever-word thing.
Secondly, sincere apologies for cutting your email off with three dots. There's a thing with TypePad where if I copy/paste an email into the blog posting template it kind of freaks out, and for whatever reason it did that with yours, so allow me to capture the essence of your email with a recap (and if that bugs you worse than the guy in your meeting, sounds like you know your way around a four column inventory, and its a poor month indeed in which I don't appear on at least one resentment list):
There's a guy in your regular meetings, and he's got some time sober and all, but he does this thing that upsets everyone. (For what it's worth, it sounds like what he's doing would bug me too.) You've talked with your sponsor and you've talked with your sober friends and you've talked with other people in the meetings that are also bugged and you're looking for my take on it. I think that's a fair distillation of what you wrote.
Here's the thing, NIPPET. I don't think this is really about whether my take is that what he's doing is right or wrong, good or bad, sober or dry, or qualifies as either improvisational or kabuki theater. (Though I often find that unless its done very well, improv is pretty sloppy, whereas the masks and stylized movements in kabuki are fascinating. Hai!)
I am of better service to you if I suggest that evaluating "this guy's" meeting conduct here is worthless. He is an alcoholic, and as such, (just like you and I) is prey to any number of ego-based bad behaviors. At least he's in a place (meaning literally, the meeting, not metaphorically, his spiritual journey) where he might be exposed to some information which could help him do things differently. It has taken me, on some ego-filled behaviors, a long time to move from where I was to where I hope to be (meaning, metaphorically my spiritual journey, not literally, in a meeting.)
Odd how the Universe works, I was just talking with a friend about this very thing earlier this afternoon, and then I come home, wondering what I might have to say here on Mr. SponsorPants, and there's your email. You'd almost think there was some sort of guiding Hand or organizing principle of synchronicity or something at work sometimes... hmmm...
It sounds like there's been a lot talking about "this guy" but very little talking to "this guy."
And I want to hasten to add I'm not suggesting that the majority of the "talking about" wasn't done in a sincere effort to address the problem. (And a minority of the talking was, as is always the case with any of us, blowing off a little steam by convening the kangaroo court of character assassination. I love that court, we start with the verdict and then just go back and give the testimony which backs it up. So efficient. So fun. It's always the prime chance for any of us who fancy ourselves a wit to show how terribly, terribly clever we are -- and if it comes at someone else's expense, it's all in a good cause, right? Riiiiiight.)
But to borrow a phrase from our sister Program, it's time to start talking about the problem with the problem.
The hard part is that it's not any fun to do that. It's entertaining and safe to talk to other people instead of actually confront. You see, speaking for myself, I like to think of myself as a person who's comfortable with confrontation. Thus, when I have to confront someone I don't like, about a sensitive subject no less, and I encounter some anxiety about it, it's suddenly a lot harder to think of myself the way I like to think of myself. So behind the scenes my ego is madly coming up with reasons not to do the thing that will maybe show I'm not as bulletproof as I like to imagine.
(Underneath it all, is almost always my ego, stage-mothering better than Mama Rose could ever hope to. Rigorous honesty is as much about how I look within as it is what I say aloud.)
I must ask myself the tough question very often: "Am I using the language of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous to justify sick behavior on my part? To, as it's put in the book 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions' -- AA's 12&12 -- hide a bad motive under a good one."
More simply put, am I avoiding appropriate confrontation by talking about acceptance? Am I shying away from diagnosing sick behavior as sick by wrapping myself up in the concept of being non-judgmental? (And you might well ask, who the hell am I to say what's sick? And I will answer you, I am a man who has had a spiritual awakening as the result of working all 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I do not consider myself the sole authority on anything, but with diligent work I now have healthy instincts, a conscious contact with a Higher Power as I understand it, and a support system of other people working hard to be and have the same thing. It is not arrogance to claim my recovery -- though I would posit that it is ego to shy away from doing so.)
And here's the punchline, NIPPET: And then, if any of the above is in play, am I shirking my duty to be of service to another alcoholic by not speaking up about something? And the "another alcoholic" in this particular case is not the people in the meeting who are as upset as you. In my humble opinion, the person you might best be of service to is the person who's bugging you so much.
You asked for my take, and here it is:
I think you should invite "this guy" in the meetings out to coffee. I think you should share honestly with him that it was not an easy invitation for you to extend. ( Be sure and bring your Higher Power along and ask them to speak up if you lose the will or the words.) Try to speak in terms about yourself ("I" statements) and speak from love and service. Try to share how you've written about your part in this (and big props for that, NIPPET) and also what prompted that writing. Directly, as calmly as you can, speak to the issue. I very strongly suggest that you very strongly stress that you are very much trying to grow in your own recovery here, and not telling him what to do, or how to do anything, or that he is right or wrong, welcome or un.
The likely result of this will be terrible, NIPPET.
It's a safe bet that his knee-jerk reaction will likely be defensive. This behavior of his might actually get worse. Odds are 50/50 that he'll share "at" you (always a fun meeting to sit through when that's going on, eh?)
But maybe not. Maybe you can help. You have felt, according to your email, a deep need to do something about this situation. My suggestion is that the "something you need to do" is be of service to the man who bugs you by reaching about and talking with him about what's going on, not with everyone else in the room.
At the very least, you will have made an effort to address a problem and to be of service.
It might even actually help. As in all things when it comes to helping another alcoholic, we cannot be sure of the results, but we must always try -- it's in the trying that we are healed, after all.
And, if it doesn't help, then you've given him a chance to practice writing about his resentments, too. From what you wrote me it seems like you've worn your pencil down to a nub, NIPPET.
Maybe now its his turn.
A bit more than ten years ago I worked for a man who was a mean-spirited compulsive liar very spiritually ill. In that regard he was actually a great teacher for me -- no really, I mean that -- as I wound up writing a lot of four column inventories in the course of working for him, and thus learned a tremendous amount about myself.
This man was prone to hysterical outbursts and petty ego games. For example, a favorite activity of his was to call several employees and scream into the phone (literally) that they "had to have an emergency meeting right away!" The employees would rush over to the office, only to wind up waiting in the lobby, since after he hung up the phone he'd go out in his car looking for coke and "company." (And I don't mean soda pop and fellowship)
One of the things that helped me survive that gig, in addition to a lot of inventory work, was the fact that when I got it I already had another full time job. Working for Mr. Spiritually Ill was my second job, and I was clear about that going in. So without risking any of his considerable ire I was able to bow out of many crazy meetings and situations with him because I was working my "first" job. I had a buffer of circumstance between myself and the worst of his nonsense.
Yet eventually, after about a year of working both gigs, I wound up leaving the day job and only worked for Mr. Ill.
I did not volunteer this information to Mr. Ill.
Rigorous honesty is not compulsive disclosure.
Had Mr. Ill ever asked me directly if I was still working the day job, or how the day job was going, or anything along those lines, I like to think I would have told him the truth. I might not have, "we are not saints" after all. Progress, not perfection and all that -- but I really believe I probably would have answered a direct question with the truth.
And it's important for me to add that I didn't sweep into the office at any point and put on a little show about how my day at the other job had gone. No stories, no play-acting, no sleight-of-hand or misdirection. I just chose not to volunteer information to a toxic man who would then likely turn around and use it to make my life more difficult.
I did not believe then (nor do I now, actually) that the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the important ideal of rigorous honesty, means that in dealing with difficult people or challenging, even dangerous situations, that you do not use your god-given intellect, make the best decisions possible within the principles of the program and, in essence, play a good game of chess.
We're sober. But we're not martyrs and there's no credit awarded for needless suffering or foolish, pointless sacrifice.
A good friend of mine grew up in a rough part of Chicago, and, at the time this little story took place, his mother still lived there.
On his sixth sober anniversary (he was well past that when he told me this story) he picked up his 6 year chip at his favorite meeting, and, feeling a wellspring of good spirit and love for the world, rushed over to his Mother's to show her his chip and tell her about how this marked six years of continuous sobriety for him -- a miracle! While they were not estranged, she was a tough, salty old broad, and not one for sentiment. Or demonstrations of affection. Or leaving the apartment.
He burst in and found her, there in her housecoat, smoking a cigarette and doing some ironing.
"Mom! Mom! Look at this! Look! I'm six years sober!"
According to him, she put down the iron, looked him up and down, took a drag on her cigarette and said,
"So's the cat."
All of which is to say that certain anniversaries, while important and personally significant, may not exactly wow some of the other people in our lives. Those others lack either the context or the interest to feel with quite the same degree of emotion something which might be important to us.
Or in this case, to me, actually.
Today, with this posting of April 24th, marks one year of blogging Mr. SponsorPants.
As I said in the title, I don't think they give chips for this.
A little more than a year ago I was having pretty bad time of it. I felt dry not sober, kind of burnt out on AA and sponsorship and sobriety and spirituality. I was sick of meetings and overwhelmed by what I felt were too many and too much of all things 12 Step. Now, this is a terrible, painful and dangerous state for a sober alcoholic. One of the things I was doing right, however, and something I think that probably saved my life, is that I was talking about this -- in meetings, with sponsees, with my sponsor... I got early on that contrary action was maybe one of the single most important tools to embrace: If you want to save face, open your mouth; if you want to skip the meeting, go to the meeting; if you want to isolate, invite people for fellowship ... you get the picture. So I wasn't hiding this state from anyone -- and certainly, when I shared about it, I felt some relief in the moment.
But in the big picture, I was feeling cynical and miserable. I was not, as they say, "walking in the sunlight of the spirit."
So, as is often the case, when in extreme pain I start demanding God help me. Humbly, of course:
"God, I humbly say that you better help me, damnit, because I'm in a lot of trouble here! I've been selling Your line of bullshit for 20 years now, and I am dried out and used up. Right now I feel like You're a joke and AA's maybe just a bunch of bullshit and that I've wasted a lot of my life -- hours and hours of it -- sitting with people and going through that damn book, listening to inventories, taking phone calls ... over and over and over. Going to meetings and all those damn commitments over and over and over. I remember feeling differently, but I only remember it with my head, not with my heart. I don't believe what I remember is true anymore -- so you better do something right now. Or else!"
Like I said, humble. (My God's pretty big, He can take it.)
Very shortly after I was screaming at praying to God, I was invited to a 12 Step Retreat up in the mountains at a Benedictine Monastery famous for its breathtaking views, gorgeous architecture and serene vibe. It was a Men's Stag Sober Retreat, and as is sometimes the case with these things, there was a registration fee, to cover the cost of food and the use of the facility. Money was especially tight for me at that time, but my spot was paid for with an almost last minute cancellation by someone else, who forfeited their refund and allowed their registration to be used as a scholarship -- hence my invitation to fill the slot at no cost. And a friend of mine who was going offered to pick me up at my place and drive us up.
So of course my initial reaction was, "Blech! Are you kidding? I am so sick of these guys and sharing and blah blah meetings and stuff, and now you want me to be stuck on the top of a damn mountain for a weekend and do nothing but that? Blech!"
Yeah, let's review, shall we?
I tell God I'm in deep spiritual trouble and I demand God help me, and then the phone rings and I get a free, all-expenses-paid spiritual retreat at a gorgeous monastery in the mountains, with -- literally -- door-to-door car service.
And my first reaction to this is "blech."
At the time I didn't even connect the screaming praying for help with this falling into my lap! As the literature says, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. And, occasionally with me, personally, it's not only sometimes slowly, but afflicted by blindness, ignorance, bias, impaired hearing and spoiled, stubborn self-obsession, too.
My reaction was "blech" but my mouth said, "Sure, yeah, I'll go." More than 20 years of saying yes is a hard habit to break. (Thank God.)
So up we go into the mountains, and as promised, the monastery was amazing, the monks ... um, monkish ... and the gardens ... wow. They seemed both wild and tended, with little statues and benches and such in hidden corners. As I meandered through them I kept expecting to stumble across either Mother Theresa or Jane Austen.
(Sidebar: One of the rules of the monastery was that you went "into silence" from 10pm at night -- or maybe it was 11, I'm not sure -- till the next morning when they rang the bell signaling the end of breakfast. They didn't force this on guests, of course, but it was the "way" and people were asked and encouraged to observe this practice. Thus, first thing in the morning, you roll out of bed: No talking. Silence. Silence while you get your coffee, silence while you have your breakfast ... no one's opinions, false cheer, baggage, blather, is voiced while you greet the day and center yourself. Then they ring the bell, and it's talky-time as normal. It is my humble opinion that should countries adopt this as a national policy, we would see world peace within the week.)
The Saturday afternoon of the Retreat some people went hiking, a few drove down into town to shop (Philistines!) and I ... I decided to walk the Labyrinth.
In the entrance hall of the monastery was literature about the founding of the building itself, the Benedictine Order, and the gardens. Among these was a sign and a brochure about a Labyrinth somewhere on the grounds. It went on to describe who put it together, what it was about, and the purpose of a Labyrinth against a spiritual backdrop such as this.
In short, walking a Labyrinth is a form of walking prayer and meditation. On the walk in you ask God (or the universe, or Whomever) your question, or offer your petition, and in the center you sit, and reflect, and then on the way out you try to listen for an answer. Many people write their Need out and leave it at the center, symbolizing their faith in leaving the petition with a Higher Power. Some bring a token with them too, something symbolic, and may take a token back out, though not one of the tokens left by others. That part confused me, but also pleased me, since the Monastery didn't really have a gift shop, and I always like a souvenir. (And I thought they were really missing out on that -- selling those robes would be a cash cow, let me tell you. Move over Snuggie, it's the Benedictine Body Muff!) The confusing part was how to determine what was an appropriate token to maybe take with you -- I'd seen enough episodes of "The Twilight Zone" to know what would happen if you took the wrong token or something. Baaaaad mojo.
So off to Walk The Labyrinth (it had capitol letters in my mind) I went, my prayer written out and my token to leave in my pocket. Not having seen it I pictured a lush maze, sort of like the one in "The Shining" -- all eight foot hedges and pristine gravel to crunch under foot as I Thought my demand question. (Another capitol letter, as I was planning on thinking very loudly).
On the way to find the Labyrinth I ran into one of the monks, who asked if that's where I was going.
"Yes, Fa... Brother." I was doing that all weekend. I kept starting to call them all Father.
He gave me the best advice about a spiritual exercise I've ever heard in my life:
"Don't judge yourself. Don't judge your process. When you catch yourself judging, don't judge yourself for judging. Try not to try. When you catch yourself trying, or trying too hard not to try, don't judge yourself for trying. Just be open to all of it, and decide before you start that everything that happens is the right thing that was supposed to happen -- your thoughts, how you feel -- all of it -- is the right thing to be part of your question and part of your answer, whatever it might be. Have faith that this has worked for thousands of other souls, and so it will work for you, too."
Wouldn't it be cool if he walked on, I turned around and he was mysteriously gone? Yeah, but the truth is he actually had one of those yellow janitorial buckets on wheels and was headed off to mop something. Squee squee squee went the bucket wheel when he left, sort of ruining the moment. I suppose mopping something is very monkish, but I was looking for Big Stuff. Portents! Omens! Spirit Guides!
What I got was bugs.
The Labyrinth was on a patch of dirt, and it looked like something they'd made for an episode of "Sesame Street" and then decided to film somewhere else. Which is not to say it wasn't the real deal, but it was small and pedestrian compared to the magic maze I'd been expecting. Still, I missed the shopping trip and wasn't up for hiking, so ... might as well ...
It was hot. I could feel the place where my hair parted and my scalp was exposed burning in the sun. There were no birds, or shade. Just these rocks in concentric circles, twisting smaller, and the sun beating down, and what felt like a million bugs flying around and buzzing me.
Step step step ... in and turn and follow around and ... here and there I noticed what looked like things people had left not only in the center but along the way, too. I thought, "Wow, they were so moved and connected they knew to leave their little tokens here ... I'm only ..."
Caught myself and went back to staying open and thinking my question.
And my question, as if you hadn't guessed, was, "God, what now? What next? What should I do to change this? I'm on my way Out, I feel like I'm on my way Out and I'm scared because I'm not scared about that at all."
In I go, turn and twist, and judge and try not to and I giggle because I wonder if you can screw up your karma by jumping rows or short circuit the spiritual zap by moving some stones around and then I tell myself to shut up again and I go back to my question.
And I sit in the middle and I think and the bugs buzz me and I say, "You guys, come on, I'm trying to have a spiritual experience here!" And I leave my question and my token and I walk out, thinking, looking for something to take with me, trying not to think, and trying not to look.
And I got out of the maze, and I just reached down and picked up a rock, first one I sort of stepped on outside the Labyrinth.
And Mr. SponsorPants came to me. Not a person, I'm the person -- the idea. And I thought, "Wait, I want less, so I'm inspired to do more? NO. No no no. No thank you."
But as is the way of these things, whether you believe it or not, stuff like that won't let go of you.
So shortly after I got home, I started this thing. I had some pictures in my head of who and how it might help people trying to get and stay sober via Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps. I knew I would do it for a year (at least -- and I'm not stopping now). I knew I would do it every day -- and I did, for a while. Maybe the first three months, though writing it seven days a week just about broke me, so I took the weekends off. It's not what I first thought it would be, it's maybe not going to become what I thought it was supposed to be, but in doing it my Need was answered, and shortly after I started I didn't just remember what I believed, I believed it all again. And the comments and the emails over the past year came just as I needed them to, small things making big differences on the occasional tough day, and I'm grateful for all of them. If they were perhaps small to you, I assure you they were a big help to me.
My mom passed away earlier this past year. She had a good long life, and she was blessed with a good death. All of her kids were around her. Writing this blog kept the spiritual tools we use to deal with Big Things close at hand for me during that time, though I didn't write about her passing specifically here. I had a powerful experience the night I flew home from her funeral, and writing about it in Mr. SponsorPants made it somehow more real and -- knowing there were people that might find some of it helpful -- even more helpful to me. Which of course is the secret of AA anyway.
Whether we want to or not at first, whether our faith feels real or false, free or forced, like water or dirt -- whether we're sober days or years, we try helping other people and in so doing we ourselves are transformed, in an alchemy of love and service which never fails us and never stops healing.
I'm grateful for the inspiration and for the vehicle to share, and I've been by turns humbled and helped myself that anything here has been helpful to anyone reading. Mostly I'm just trying to pass along what was so freely, so generously given to me for the past 20+ years.
And finally, I think I actually was maybe on the way Out a little more than a year ago, and the experience leading up to, and the doing of, this blog was instrumental in revitalizing my faith in a Higher Power and in AA.
So, here we are, a year from when we started, and, one-day-at-a-time, I'm still sober.
And you know what?
So's my cat.
Posted at 01:11 AM in Who are you, Mr. SponsorPants, and what is this Blog? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)
Sing it with me!
"You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life, the facts of life ... "
If you had a television between 1979 and 1988 no doubt at one point in your channel surfing you stumbled across Blair, Jo, Natalie and Tootie as they learned ... well, if not the facts of life, exactly, then tidy little life lessons from Mrs. Garrett and each other. Aesop was probably more subtle than that damn show when it came to stories with a moral. By the end of each episode, at least one of the girls had an insight into some important bit of morality or character development.
To be fair, the show was cutting edge in its day, placing women in assertive roles and center stage. It was no "Maude" but it had a viewpoint and a heart, and within the confines of saccharine family sitcom programming it tried to tackle edgier issues as the girls grew. When it debuted in 1979 I was 17 years old, and alcoholism had already awoken inside me -- I went from being a nice enough kid to something out of "The Other." Same face, but no soul. Sure, any 17 year old is going to be half out of their mind, given a brain stewing in hormones and a personality merrily boiling away in the peer pressure cooker -- but I was already nearly a daily drinker (if those damn parents would just get out of the way I could drink like I wanted to -- which was around the clock, actually. It was mightily inconvenient waiting for them to fall asleep each night so I could either raid the liquor closet or sneak out of the house -- or both.) All of which is to say that I was even less interested than most in a series about four girls learning how to be better people while away at prep school. But it would be on, once in a while, somewhere in the house. Damn thing was on the air for nearly ten years, and syndication beyond that, after all.
But I have a friend who is somewhat obsessed with sitcoms, and when invited over for coffee one day recently he had his new DVD of some season from, of all things, "The Facts of Life" playing on the television.
Rest assured, I mocked him with gusto.
He poured coffee, and the topic eventually turned to 4th steps and inventories and resentments, and how difficult it can be to see our part in something when we were also legitimately -- and heavily -- wronged.
So often the pat answer to that issue is "well, they (meaning the other party) did the best they could."
(You want to test how much you really believe that? Look into the eyes of a sponsee who is in the middle of writing their 4th Step and, after they share with you stories from a childhood of horrific violence and deep violation, a childhood in which, by comparison, being raised by wolves would have been safer than being raised by what passed for parents at that time in their lives, and see if you can say "well, they did the best they could" without dropping your gaze or choking on the words.)
Back and forth we went on this issue, and meanwhile, in the background, on the DVD, Blair was busy getting her life lesson from Mrs. Garrett. In this episode, Blair's cousin Geri came for a visit. Cousin Geri was played by stand up comedian, actress and cerebral palsy -- sufferer? I'm not sure if that's a fit with Geri -- Geri Jewell. Funny and charming, Geri had become the center of attention (for the duration of the episode) and Blair had let fly to Mrs. Garrett how jealous she was. There was something about Geri setting the table and being praised for it and Blair getting her knickers in a twist that Geri was praised so extravagantly while Blair was knocking herself out -- something like that. I wasn't really listening. But my friend seized on it.
"It's like that!" he said, pointing at the TV.
"It's like ... boarding school?" I can make big leaps, but not that big.
"No! No! The thing with the setting the table and cousin Geri. Geri Jewell. The cerebral palsy thing."
"I'm not sure you're supposed to call it a 'thing'." I said. He ignored me and went on.
"You have six people coming over for dinner and you need the table set for six, but you're running late and you need it done in a hurry and you ask Cousin Geri to do it but she can only get four settings out before people start arriving -- would you be mad at her?"
"Is that what this episode ... wait, is this like a math question? Six people coming to dinner are on a train heading east at forty miles an hour..."
"God, shut up. No."
"Because I was told there would be no math."
"No. Shut up. It's like that. That!" He pointed to the TV again. "You wouldn't be mad at Cousin Geri because she literally could not do any better given the conditions. She did the best she could, yeah, and she's not at fault, but the best she could do was actually not good enough." He pounded the arm of his chair for emphasis. "You didn't get your table set in time. But it's not about fault. It's about ... a lack of ability."
"So with the people we resent, sometimes -- the ones that caused real harm -- it's like ... it's like they have spiritual cerebral palsy. Given the conditions, they actually can't do any better -- they did do the best they could -- but when you say that it's not as if you're saying that the best they could do was good enough!"
I have a confession to make. At this point I bit my tongue so hard I might have actually drawn blood. Over the course of many, many conversations about his past and his resentments I must have shared my take -- and what the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" says on pgs. 66 and 67 -- about those that harm us being spiritually sick -- a hundred times with my friend. Two hundred. And there, over coffee, only half watching an old tv show, he gets his great insight from Blair and Mrs. Garrett?!?
It was just my ego, rattling the bars of its cage, wanting credit it didn't deserve. Wanting payment for work offered freely -- it's a high bar to clear sometimes, but there it is. Help without strings, help freely given -- that's the deal and no fair trying to change it after the deal is done. (Which is pretty much the punchline in the chapter "To Wives" in the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" -- AA's Big Book: "I've been knocking myself out keeping you alive, covering for you, getting the bills paid, doing everything I could to help with your drinking... and you find your big answer with a bunch of strangers?!?" But that chapter is a post for some other day.)
I finished my coffee, and was able to muzzle the ego and get to a place of happiness for my friend that something which had long troubled him was now, thanks to a very special episode of "The Facts of Life," maybe a little less troubling.
If Blair and Mrs. Garrett carried the message for him, then I'm just glad he got the message. God's sense of humor is nothing if not ... endlessly surprising. Wouldn't have worked for me, though.
I was always more of a Tootie man, myself.
Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that drinking is but a symptom of my alcoholism -- that the real problem is in my mind -- in how I think -- in the mechanism which blunts the memory of what happens when I start drinking, allowing (often ridiculous) justifications to take root and make drinking/using look like the right/deserved thing to do. Simply put it's either that I can't remember clearly enough what happens or I somehow think I deserve to pick up a drink.
My personal experience is that (for me) this is fact not theory. I can now, with some fluency in using the tools AA offers and the perspective gained from one-day-at-a-timing myself a bit of distance from my last drunk, see how truly slippery (pun intended) my thinking can be.
Further, as is often the case with addicts of all stripes, how I really feel about something can be muddled, obscured, denied, buried or dismissed by my "ism" -- the mental process gets so twisted on the way to justifying the drink that the emotional one is either suppressed into a numb void or cranked up to out-of-proportion hysteria. How I really feel is lost in the way my thinking uses/edits/fuels/distorts my emotions to justify self destruction -- hell, it makes self destruction look like something else entirely. (The words seem hyperbolic, but I reach for dramatic phrases only so I can try to convey in writing the wild internal pendulum alcoholism can feel like. Plus, I can be a big drama queen sometimes.)
So, I was thinking today, that maybe the key to some recovery is to listen less to the brain and more to the heart -- listen less to what I think and more to what I feel.
And then I had to laugh, because it hit me so strongly that, even with the good intention of trying to sort recovery from the "ism", this was perhaps a bit too much poetic, philosophical navel-gazing.
Sure, there's some useful truths in the observations above, but the real key to stringing together some one-day-at-a-times sober, the real key to recovery, is to listen a lot less to yourself and a lot more to others.
Walking down the street today, muttering and planning, muttering and planning ...
"... if they ask me to check my bag at the front counter when I go in I am going to say "No." In fact, I'm going to say, 'Hey! Do you know how much money I've spent in this store in the last ten years? I'm not some kid with sticky fingers -- I've seen other people with their bags here, why should I leave my bag with you? It's like when the owner's wife asked me to leave my smoothie at the front of the store when I came in that time ... ridiculous! I'm not some child, who's going to get his smoothie all over everything ... and the smoothie had a cover on it, for God's sake! You know, the last time you asked me to leave my smoothie up front when I came in on a hot day, I pretty much just turned and walked out! So, now you're really asking me to leave my bag at the front counter? How about you guarantee that you'll watch it so that no one else grabs it and walks out ... what's that? You can't guaranteed to watch it? Fine! Fine! Then I won't leave my bag, I won't stay and shop ... and you know what? I won't come back!"
Here's the thing:
A) I am nowhere near the store I'm thinking about, nor am I even on my way to it.
B) I don't have a bag with me -- nor am I carrying a smoothie. Nor am I even on my way to get one.
C) That time the owner's wife asked me to leave my smoothie at the front of the store was ten years ago. And although they have a sign about bags posted, they've never asked me to leave my bag at the front counter. I just keep seeing the sign and waiting for them to.
Alcoholism is relentless.
Topamax (Topiramate) (Vivitrol)
I think I would be pandering to sensationalism (which, frankly, is often a lot of fun to do) to open this with something like "These are the pills that some believe are a cure to alcoholism!"
But I don't want to pander to sensationalism so much. In fact, lately I'm weary of sensationalism. (It seems like every time I log into AOL the welcome screen has a story like "So-and-so rips blah blah" or "So-and-so slams blah blah" and "Such-and-such sparks outrage" ... that's a lot of ripping and slamming and sparking to read every day. Much of my fear about a hostile universe comes from within -- but not all of it. About the time that Olympic Gold medalist swimmer kid got popped for taking a hit off a bong I read an excellent essay about how America isn't addicted to trash tv or reality shows or even drugs and alcohol -- as a culture, we're addicted to outrage. I think there's something worth considering in that observation, but it would be a bit much to spin that into a whole entry here on Mr. SponsorPants -- especially since I try to loosely bring the spirit of AA's tradition of "no outside issues" to the blog.)
So, without sensationalizing -- and without another overlong parenthetical statement -- lets open with something like: There has been some interesting research and hyperbolic press coverage about some anti-spasmodic medications and some anti-depressants curbing or eliminating the craving for alcohol in certain alcoholics.
(Man, the sensational sentences are a lot sexier, aren't they.)
Most recently, a french cardiologist by the name of Dr. Olivier Ameisen, wrote a book detailing his discovery of a medication he used to "cure" his alcoholism. The book, titled "The Last Glass," became a best seller in France, (except of course the title was in French -- "Le Dernier Verre" -- because, you know, it was published there.) The book is being released here in America, retitled "The End of My Addiction" (not in French.) In his book, Dr. Ameisen wrote, "I detested the taste of alcohol, but I needed its effects to exist in society." From what I've read, I can identify strongly with how he felt and with how he drank. (Though, I hasten to point out that even though he drank "large quantities of whiskey and gin" Olivier went on to become a freakin' cardiologist. Me? Not so productive. I am fond of observing that some alcoholics are driven by fear and some alcoholics are paralyzed by it -- but the driven ones tend to own more property. And get advanced degrees. The rest of us are just trying to remember where the hell we parked the car.)
My knee jerk reaction to the idea of a pill to cure alcoholism is not what I would call "Yippee!"
But then I have to catch myself -- are knee jerk reactions how I want to navigate through life? Isn't one of the points of being sober to not be dominated by the world through my reactions to new or unfamiliar things with fear and anger (which is also just fear, but it wouldn't be very good writing to say "reactions to new or unfamiliar things with fear and fear").
My personal experience of alcoholism is that it's about more than just the pea soup of bio-electric signals in my brain, which, with just a little adjusting, could allow me to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. (Never mind that the whole idea of a single glass of wine strikes me as either repugnant or ludicrous -- but I'm an alcoholic, what would you expect?)
I believe, based on my years drinking and my years sober, that alcoholism is more complex than a pill might be able to address -- but I want to go slowly on this. I suspect that as deeply involved in AA as I am there is a little "sacred cow-ism" operating on this issue.
And I do think that it is a bit naive not to consider the interests of a huge medical-industrial complex in developing new products for sale -- though I'm certain that many people who work in the field of pharmacology are not just drawing a paycheck, but motivated by altruism as well (and I'm speaking of those working in a professional capacity -- many of my close friends worked in that field in a much more, shall we say ... amateur role. And I myself did a great deal of research -- though very little development, beyond my occasional smoking of carpet fibers when whatever it was I wanted to ingest spilled all over the rug). But despite the good motives of any individuals within it, I think it is fair to keep one eye on the fact that it is an industry devoted to making a profit as much as it is devoted to helping people.
And yet I feel compelled to add that millions of lives have been improved or saved by those companies, so again, I need to go slow -- tread lightly -- watch out for my jaundiced, cynical, anti-authoritarian rebellious knee-jerk reactions from torquing an honest consideration of these things.
And then I think of my friend, most recently killed when he was "asleep" in an alley -- he tried like hell to get sober, and he just couldn't get there -- could I begrudge him any additional assistance he might have to help him?
What am I afraid of? I'm afraid that it will become instead of rather than in addition to.
And I'm afraid of a terrible price being paid if that happens. But if it helps some who might not otherwise be able to stay sober ... who am I to nay-say it? Who am I to speak ill of something that might help another alcoholic just because I don't think it's the right solution for me?
When AA was new it worked very hard to make sure that people did not confuse Alcoholics Anonymous with the Women's Christian Temperance Union-- or any temperance movement. "Our public relations policy is based on attraction, rather than promotion" and "we avoid outside controversy" -- not only are we careful not to suggest that alcohol in and of itself is bad, we have been careful not to speak ill of other treatments people have used to deal with alcoholism -- for example, AA's official position on Rational Recovery-- the anti-AA if ever there was one -- had always been (to paraphrase broadly) "That's nice."
So although on a personal level I find the idea of a pill to "cure" alcoholism, at the very least, a troubling concept, I am going to flex my open mind muscles for now. While I doubt it is ever something I would try for myself (as if!), I raise my cup of coffee in a toast to anything that might spare an alcoholic from the suffering and misery that this disease can bring.
One AA meeting I go to during the week starts about half an hour later than the usual kick-off, and because of that, those thirty minutes are a friendly, warm, fellowshipful kind of time, where people drift in the door, get some coffee, and socialize. We refer to it loosely as the meeting-before-the-meeting. I think sometimes more people get more help during that half hour than during the meeting proper.
Just recently I wandered in extra early, and consequently there were only a few people in the room. One of them is a gentleman I had occasion to make amends to a few months ago.
You would think I'd learn...
I walk up and stand next to him, facing the same direction, putting us shoulder to shoulder. We're looking out over the room together, sort of generally watching people drift in the door.
ME: Hey there.
ME: How's it going? How are you doing tonight?
HIM: Good. Good thanks. I'm good.
We stand there, next to each other. He says nothing further. We watch the door. The silence plays out ...
After a too long minute or two, I lean in and lower my voice, conspiratorially.
ME: I'm good too.
He seems startled, then a small smile, slightly sheepish.
HIM: Oh! Oh, right, of course. Heh. Right. Right. Good.
What can I say? My side of the street is clean.