What is sobriety?
A simple question -- one posed in an email recently.
I think there are few absolutes in recovery, but for me -- and I'm going to go out on a limb and say for the overwhelming majority of people in the 12 Step Universe -- sobriety for an alcoholic/addict begins and ends with first maintaining physical sobriety. That is, complete absention from alcohol and "drugs" -- that collective descriptive which includes all controlled illegal substances used recreationally, from pot to heroin.
While it gets a bit trickier -- and counsel with qualified medical professionals is the only appropriate resource for this -- I believe that physical sobriety does also include prescription medicines taken only as directed for a legitimate medical condition, i.e. certain forms of pain management (post-surgery, for example), or to balance brain chemistry.
To flip that and put it in the negative, I believe if you are abusing medications, even if they are prescribed by a doctor -- and by abusing I mean taking more than you're supposed to, or taking medicines for a condition you do not legitimately have -- then you are not sober.
As I've discussed here many times before, I think the book "Alcoholics Anonymous," (AA's Big Book), uses the words dry and sober interchangeably, and that what we think of today as being sober -- the mental, emotional and spiritual balance beyond the physical abstention -- is better defined in the book "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions." (AA's "12&12.").
But the "quality" or our sobriety in this more metaphysical construct is for each individual to measure on their own. As far as "time" sober, it is the physical abstinence which is counted.
However, we are not trying to be "good people" so that we can achieve some sort of spiritual ideal -- we behave in a "sober" fashion because when we don't we tend to go bannanas, snap, and drink again.
And, to be clear, this physical abstention in and of itself is not a moral stance either. It is to prevent what AA calls the "phenomenon of craving" -- the physically rooted element to addiction which drives us to drink ourselves literally to death -- from being triggered.
As I understand it from AA literature, my own experience and the shared experience of others, that's sobriety.
Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
I am sober a few years now, and have recently become involved in a new relationship. It's pretty serious, and while I'm trying not to get too far ahead of myself, I feel like this is The One. The person I'm with is not an addict of any kind, and recently we were discussing our sexual histories. While they've had a normal, healthy, relatively active sex life, I... well, I have the past of someone with little-to-no self esteem and who was addicted to alcohol and hard drugs: A lot of anonymous sex in what I now think of as very sleazy places.
(In fact, as a separate issue, I live in fear that someone from my sexual history is going to show up in a meeting some day. I think I would freak out. I wouldn't know what to say to them and I might even leave the meeting rather than deal with it.)
The truth is, for a long time I've felt terrible shame about my past sex life, and have been pretty shut down around all things romantic (sexual) until this new person entered my life. When we were talking about the topic I completely froze up, and minimized my past to the point of falsehood, even though they know I'm in recovery. I am afraid if I am honest they will not look at me the same way and I might even lose them.
Ironically, just before I met this person I had actually been thinking about my history, and tried writing about some of it but found it was too shameful to put to paper -- but at the same time, thinking about it also made me want to go back to some of those places -- and then that wanting to made me feel even worse.
Any thoughts you have on this would be a big help.
First try this thought out -- and it's going to be really alien, so give it room to breathe when you do:
There is nothing wrong with the sex you had before. Nothing.
Now, maybe WHY you had it could be a manifestation of spiritual sickness, low self esteem, possible issues from your past -- any and all might apply -- but the sex itself, the debauchery, the "sleaze factor" -- frankly, that's all fine, as I interpret what AA suggests about our sex conduct.
There is nothing wrong with going to an orgy, an adult bookstore, or a sex club. Different people in AA may subscribe to varying moral codes or religious belief systems which deem these things "bad" -- you may yourself -- but in my opinion, and as far as AA's sexual inventory goes, there is nothing "wrong" with that kind of sex. (All AA suggests we should use as guidelines for our sexual behavior is to be honest, neither selfish nor self-seeking, trying to be considerate of others, and to avoid purposely arousing jealousy, bitterness or suspicion. That's it.)
Going to a "sleazy place" to prove what a worthless person you are -- or, conversely, to be objectified and validated to compensate for areas of your life in which you feel deficient -- or going there because you feel isolated and lonely and hope to substitute the low emotional-risk pleasure of physical touch from strangers for the spiritual nourishment of mental and emotional camaraderie (and even intimacy) -- okay, THAT'S messed up.
But the sex? That's nothing to be ashamed of.
Human sexuality is a strange, wonderful, terrifying, implacable and powerful creature; one which seems to resist bridles, leashes, muzzles and corrals with stunning tenacity, no matter how many societies and religions have tried to tame it.
As I know you know, AA and the Big Book are wisely neutral on the topic (fueled in part by Bill W's guilt at his own challenges with fidelity? Perhaps. But if some Divine Agency can work through yours and my character defects, why not then Bill's as well?) Here are some quotes you'll no doubt recognize:
"God alone can judge our sex situation."
"We remember always that our sex powers are God-given, and therefore good..."
"We avoid hysterical thinking or advice" (on sexual matters -- though that's probably a good idea when developing anything from a fiscal plan to a grocery list. Can you imagine? "Carrots! My God! Why are you getting carrots? Orange food is evil! Evil!")
It sounds to me like you have two things going on which are working together to keep you in anguish:
1. You are confusing WHY you may have done what you did with WHAT you did. The "Why" may be the spiritually sick part (may be) which you must address if you want to stay sober -- not the "What."
2. You have a powerful shame-based interpretation of sexual behavior between consenting adults (and obviously everything said here only applies to two consenting adults.)
The first one can likely be addressed with some rigorous inventory work, discussion with a sponsor and other understanding AA's (eventually -- I understand how difficult it might be to bring some of this up with people face-to-face).
The second, while also helped by inventory work, etc., might be better addressed by speaking with a well trained therapist. You seem to have internalized a lot of judgments (good/bad boy/girl, good sex vs. "bad" sex) about your sexual desires and your sex life. If in fact we DO believe that our "sex powers" (1930's speak for sex drive, sexual charisma, etc.) come from God, then we are actively working against a full connection with a Higher Power if we judge ourselves too harshly in this arena.
Neither AA nor myself is at all interested in what religion someone embraces, but some faiths (obviously) have very strong, codified rules about sexual conduct (and I will refrain from a long diatribe about my opinions concerning the history of that). But if AA counsels us to "avoid hysterical thinking" and (to paraphrase) extremes of thought on this topic (from the Big Book: "one school would allow man no flavor for his fare, the other would have us on a straight pepper diet!") and you choose to turn to whatever religion you embrace for comfort or guidance on this -- and I am NOT suggesting you refrain from doing so -- be aware that the collected sober experience of AA's fellowship over the years is that very judgmental thinking (i.e. "hysterical" thinking) about sex can work not only against our serenity, but against our sobriety as well. I'm not suggesting any religion is wrong (or right). I merely want to counsel you to remember to take any religiously-based discussion of how much pepper you have in your diet with a grain of salt. For a recovering alcoholic to view our sexual history and current sex lives though a morally rigid lens may be slippery, so use discernment about who's counsel you seek in a House of Worship.
As to how to react in meetings to people who may show up from your debauched past, this is what I suggest:
Pray for a quiet heart and clarity.
Ask the person if you can speak with them privately for a moment.
Remember that they, too, may be freaking out at seeing you in a meeting.
Request that you both will keep the conversation confidential.
And then... do what AA suggests is always the best course of action: Tell the truth. NOT "Oh my god I'm so ashamed you saw me at the sex club in my Little Bo Peep costume, making out with that tranny hooker (who, by the way, says hello.)" THIS truth: "I'm having a hard time not judging myself for some of my past behavior. I'm working through a lot of issues around all that -- I want to welcome you to AA -- but on some stuff I'm raw and confused right now. But if there's anything I can do to help you with sobriety, I am happy and willing to do so."
Now hear this: I suggest you suck it up a little as well, if you see someone at a meeting from your past. If it's very early in their sobriety they don't need a big speech from you about your stuff -- just try to be as welcoming as possible -- you don't have to embrace, but be certain not to shun. Use good judgment about when to have a confidential conversation; obviously, right after they pick up their Welcome Chip is maybe not the best time.
Bottom line though, is that talking to them is good 12th Step work, and try (try hard) to remember that they may be a lot more freaked out than you are.
If you do the work on the shame about your past and your desires then you will heal, and be in a wonderful position to help other people facing similar challenges -- and that's what it's all about, alchemizing our pain into service.
If you don't do the work on the shame, then I fear it will remain a wedge your alcoholism can use to begin the slow and deadly process of isolating you from AA. You might start avoiding a meeting, then several meetings, then all meetings ... and then you could be in a lot of trouble.
Please be careful, please be safe, please ask for help, please remember you're not alone in dealing with anything, please don't delay.
As for lying to your new paramour, and whether telling them the full truth will mean they won't look at you the same, or you might lose them...
I have no idea. You may be right. If you do, it will change things. You fear for the worse, it's possible for the better, but you don't want to take any chances and I don't blame you.
I am no expert in relationships (that is such an understatement, as I typed it I think there was a little sonic boom over my computer).
But let me share with you from my mistakes:
Whenever I am dishonest in an important relationship I undermine it's foundation and I poison it just a little bit. My guilt, ruthlessly suppressed, is still there. The part of me that harbors whatever secrets I am holding is a part walled off from the very person I'm trying to be intimate with. Now, as stated above, I'm no expert, but what I've found is that walling parts of myself off is not conducive to building intimacy.
Yes, you may lose them. They may recoil in shock and horror. ("Bo Peep? It's over! Over! I mean Hansel, or even Gretel, sure. Fine. I mean, who hasn't, right? But Peep? Please. So puerile. So pedantic. Goodbye!") You're already starting behind the eight ball by having to tell them you lied to them -- though the fear of their judgment in this area may get you a little clemency. OR your confession might give them permission to tell you things they held back -- uh oh. What if there's some dirty laundry in both hampers, hmmm? Better get working on that shame thing asap, since the other side of the shame coin is not guilt, it's judgment.
I would not presume to tell you what to do. I only know that, in my experience, when I haven't been honest with people I'm trying to build a real connection with things don't seem to work out. (And after the fact, if my dishonesty comes out -- either through confession or confrontation -- trying to use "how scared I was" as coin to buy my way out of Liar Jail has been a spectacular failure. Good luck to you if that's your fall back strategy.)
Pray for guidance and ask for help from AA's you trust. That's my best advice on the relationship front. Trying to live AA's principles in our love relationships is terrifying, but also the most important place to do so.
Real love is hard enough to find. The true shame has nothing to do with who, how or how many you boffed. The true shame would be to let fear poison the start of what might be a beautiful thing.
Hope some of that was helpful!
First, let me express my deepest gratitude for all the kind and sympathetic comments on the passing of Lilly, the Evil Old Cat. They were a great comfort, thank you. I kind of couldn't address it again till now, if that makes sense -- but please know that the emails and comments were a real help and from the bottom of my heart I want to express my gratitude for them.
And now, those darn things I learned or was reminded of this week...
They texted me late in the afternoon:
I'm full of anger and rage. I'm going to a meeting in a bit. I honestly feel hate for everything right now.
Sober again for a few days by the skin of their teeth, earlier in the week I'd helped them flush a bag of pot down the toilet. They willingly disposed of everything left over from their most recent run, and are struggling to get to meetings and get their sober feet under them again.
Weighing the benefit of talking to them face-to-face versus talking to them right away, timeliness won out and I called after the meeting they'd planned on attending would be over.
Me: Hey. How's it going?
I could hear the shrug through the phone.
Me: How was the meeting?
Them: I didn't go. Well, I mean, I went but I didn't stay.
Me: Oh. What...?
Them: Yeah, I just... I went there, and I saw them all in their...
They described in withering detail a typically hipster, eclectic, damaged group of alcoholics at a meeting.
Them: I don't mean to judge but it was just so... I couldn't stay.
You don't mean to judge, but you are, I thought.
Me: Well, I'm afraid that saying 'I don't mean to judge' doesn't change the fact that you are, in fact, judging.
Them: Yeah, but it's not that exactly, it's just that I can't even... they mostly look like such pretentious fools, you know?
Me: Well they are.
He was genuinely caught off guard by my agreement with him.
Me: They are fools. I won't argue that. And some of them are not just pretentious, they're ridiculously pretentious. I won't argue with your 'what.' It's your 'why' that is the problem.
Them: What do you mean?
Me: You see pretentious fools and somewhere inside you assume it is because they are arrogant and ignorant. You see their foolishness and to you it represents how full of bullshit they are, how superior they think they are, and maybe how much better than you they would believe themselves to be if you made yourself vulnerable to them in the meeting, and how it's the same old same old there...
I thought to myself: And underneath THAT your shame at relapse and internalized inferiority tortures you with the fear that they are right... but if we get into that we'll get sidetracked with layers and such and that's not where this needs to go...
Me: I agree that many AA's in that meeting... hell in any meeting... might be foolish, or pretentious, or a lot of other unattractive and irritating things -- God forbid people in an AA meeting are also human...
Them: I know but...
Me: Quiet. Again, I do not quarrel with what you see. But for me the 'why' of it is different. We are foolish and we are arrogant and we are whatever we are because we are damaged and afraid, and we are in an environment which requires a level of vulnerability if we hope to get better. It is not the arrogance of superiority, it is the mask frightened children put on. It is the posturing of people who are so uncomfortable with themselves they overcompensate, and jockey for positions which don't even exist among themselves. It is the fear of rejection you are seeing, the fear of you (or any stranger) judging them, and for some, the fear of their own alcoholism. Do not see enemies, or assholes -- see frightened children, that's much closer to the truth. Not everyone in the room is like that of course... if you work the Steps you can be healed of so much, but it sounds to me like you're focusing on... hello? Hello?
My phone, which has been giving me trouble enough over the last few days that I ordered a replacement -- which is being shipped literally post haste -- chose that moment to die.
"Seriously?" I asked the Universe.
No answer was forthcoming, via cell or Spirit. "Okay." I muttered.
I sat on my sofa then, and for the hundredth time this week looked around for the cat before remembering that she's gone. The sadness surged, like a fast moving tide, as it likely will for a while to come, and I thought about how one of the gravest problems alcoholics -- hell, people -- have is the sure, but likely mistaken, assumption that we know what is going on inside other people. That snap judgment which seems so true in our heads when it happens. And that when we are at our most frightened and off-balance what we ascribe to others is the worst of qualities and motivations.
Earlier in the day I'd spoken to another sponsee about the 11th Step Prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. Grieving the cat, grieving the alcoholic, grieving the whole damn human race, it came to me, and I knelt in front of the sofa, hardly feeling foolish to do so anymore, and prayed:
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace -- that where there is hatred, I may bring love -- that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness -- that where there is discord, I may bring harmony -- that where there is error, I may bring truth -- that where there is doubt, I may bring faith -- that where there is despair, I may bring hope -- that where there are shadows, I may bring light -- that where there is sadness, I may bring joy. Lord, grant that I may seek to comfort rather than be comforted -- to understand, rather than to be understood -- to love, than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life. Amen.
Years ago that prayer used to subtly invoke my ego. I... yes, I will be the one to save the day. I will be the one to bring the joy and the love and the light! Me!
Yet even my ego, as solid and unyielding as granite, has been worn down some by the drip-drip-drip of my sober efforts. Today I think far less of being the special savior, charging in to change the day, and think more of how one can do the above when awash in sadness or uncertainty or fear -- not how is it possible to do so, but literally how does one go about doing it.
And while the world is uncertain and we are each so flawed, I am sure that if the spirit of that prayer is what we are sincerely trying to do -- even if our ego has a foothold in the process -- a way will be made clear -- perhaps just a dim flagstone in front of us, allowing us to move forward only a step, rather than a shining road to go sailing down -- but a way will be shown.
"...it is by self-forgetting that one finds..." That's the punch line, of course. It doesn't even matter, in the end, whether I succeed in the effort. In trying to do so, I am free of Self, and thus find...
and thus, Find.
There are no adequate words for what is past that.
When I was newly sober I used to be afraid of the expression "This too shall pass." It unsettled me.
In my drinking and using days it was all about trying to freeze a moment of exhilaration. If I could just get the right mix of chemicals in my brain and keep those levels steady then I'd always feel X and never feel Y.
(It's beyond a practicing addict's speculative ability to consider that a thing which never changes is either stagnant or dead.)
Certainly in early sobriety I understood the spirit of the phrase, the idea that no matter how difficult or dark it might be, hard times end, and better times roll around again. But in the classic alcoholic "fear of impending doom" mode, most of the time I had it backwards. "This too shall pass" was like a curse, promising that a good thing must expire -- inevitably to be followed by a "bad" thing.
Now of course I see it very differently.
Now I see that today's joy is tomorrow's gratitude -- which is like joy after it has ripened, and thus can, with care, live in my memory forever.
Today's error is tomorrow's humility -- that balm to my spirit; ballast against the way my ego bullies and drives me.
And today's pain is tomorrow's strength, tomorrow's empathy, tomorrow's tool for carrying a message of recovery -- or just simple understanding.
Actually, her name was Lilly, and she exited my life today much as she arrived: Solely on her terms.
20 plus years ago I already had a cat, a friendly fellow named Baxter only about a year old at the time. Even tempered and affectionate, he would willingly break cat protocol and come when I called (if I offered a treat as a result of this good behavior, I learned there and then that the difference between a reward and a bribe is sometimes... well... whisker thin.)
I was a couple of years sober, and as many young newcomers do, I'd been whining to my sponsor about wanting a Relationship. "A Relationship?!?" he said, his voice an insulting mix of doubt, alarm and scorn, "Fine. Why don't you start with a pet." Thus, Baxter.
The first year I had Baxter I was waiting tables at a little diner down the road from where I lived. It was an idyllic time, and I had just enough sobriety then to appreciate that fact. Meetings, work, home to read a good book with a friendly cat on my lap -- after eight solid years of blackout drinking and brutal hangovers, young as I was that fit just fine.
But then I got a new job, which entailed much longer hours and a terrible commute. The interview process alone scared the schnitzel out of me, but by now in AA I had at least learned to stop reflexively saying "no" to everything -- which, if you're not careful, becomes a non-verbal "yes" to many things. And so, one not-saying-no thing led to another, and (fools that they were) they decided to "give me a chance."
"Won't Baxter be lonely, with you away so much now?" a friend of mine in the Program asked me. (So often an innocent question from an alcoholic masks some self-serving agenda. Ah, dear Alanons, my heart breaks for you sometimes... but then I go back to thinking about myself, as that is the nature of the Beast.)
In this case, the self-serving agenda was the placement of a kitten; one of a litter who'd been born to a ridiculously inbred Siamese who narrowly lost out on being a show-quality cat because of some arcane pedigree standard, and thus her fate was to wind up living with my best-of-intentions alcoholic friend and his dizzying parade of alcoholic boyfriends. As an "almost" show cat there had been some scheme in the background involving breeding kittens to sell, so she'd never been fixed. The ongoing drama of serial relationships in the house made for lax supervision, so when the mood hit her, she slipped out and made the acquaintance of a...er... *cough* traveling man.
One short cat-pregnancy later: A litter of strapping healthy kittens, the very image of what vets call "hybrid vigor."
And last of the bunch, very last, the runt of the litter: My Lilly.
(You know, I don't think she ever forgave the Universe for that early kittenhood betrayal.)
Soon after, (the bare minimum of the appropriate time) my friend showed up on my doorstep, so cheerful and perky he made Mr. Rogers look like the Unabomber. (Heed me well: A perky alcoholic is a con in the making.) "Hi! I know you were worried about Baxter getting lonely with your new job, so... here you go!" He thrust an over-sized shoebox with air holes cut into the top at me and ran down the walk, jumped into his car and peeled out.
I looked at Baxter and shrugged, set the box on the floor and opened it... from inside exploded a tiny blur of fur, streaking across the floor and darting under the laundry hamper. Baxter, intrigued but un-alarmed, strolled over and peered under the hamper, then, deciding that a smell check was in order, began to poke his nose under as well. Several things happened at once: A sound like a tea kettle trying to cuss filled the room and Baxter got a swat on said smeller prompting him to jump back and look at me as if to ask, "Why is the dust bunny screaming?"
Tiny. Outraged. Gorgeous.
Eventually Baxter and Lilly reached the civil detente of two cats living together who, while not truly bonded, appreciated the warmth of snuggling with a fellow napper, and the tit-for-tat of occasional cross grooming. Baxter remained a mellow and friendly fellow till the end.
And Lilly never lost her edge. (Or her figure, for that matter.)
She was loud. She'd gotten that from her Siamese mother. Louder as the years went along. Her default was set at "Suspicious: DEFCON 3," and she was deeply committed to the twin feline modalities of remaining aloof and disdainful.
But late at night, after she did her tiny banshee impersonation, as I sat and wrote she would worm her way onto the chair with me, then move up and either sit on my shoulder like a parrot, her tail across the back of my neck for balance (so petite, she was) or would splay herself across my chest, head and paws over my shoulder, the rest of her trailing down across my heart like an occasionally purring fur corsage.
And in cold weather she would burrow under the covers, demanding in her best tea kettle impersonation that I roll onto my side so she could curl up inside my arms, pressing herself against my heart.
That's the way they get to you, you know.
Maybe two weeks ago I realized with a shock that she'd gone completely blind. And this last week the decline has -- had -- been steady.
As she got worse I could feel all the most dysfunctional parts inside of me wheeze into action: The denial, the procrastination, the avoidance... these are parts of the human experience, I know. And sometimes I think that alcoholics romanticize our disease and our dysfunction to a somewhat ridiculous degree. Are we using it as an excuse? An identity? A con (for ourselves or others)... ? I think that's an essay for another time.
But I can tell you that because I wanted to do right by Lilly at her end, I became acutely aware of these mechanisms chugging away inside me, how they thwarted clear thinking and, most alarming of all, how very deeply rooted they seem to be -- it was like I had to keep snapping out of it. The image came to me of the exhausted driver, nodding behind the wheel and then jerking their head upright in alarm -- that's what it felt like sometimes, as the mental fog of my dysfunction kept trying to uncoil its tendrils across my thinking.
That insight alone is worth further reflection and hard work. And self examination, both in talking with people and in writing, inventory-wise and here on the blog.
But I won't have a scornful little cat laying across my heart as I do, and as is often the way, even when you feel love, the true depth of our connections in life are sometimes only revealed after they have moved on.
Make no mistake, she was a real pain in the ass.
I'm going to miss her so much.