"Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind... "
-- Big Book, Chapter 2, There is a Solution, pg. 23
Untreated alcoholism actively works to prevent my ability to "observe" my thinking. It obscures and distorts the logical sequence of thoughts which would allow me to connect action with consequence.
"There is a complete failure of the kind of defense that keeps one from putting his hand on a hot stove."
-- Big Book, Chapter 2, There is a Solution, pg. 24
It was listening in AA meetings, and then working through all 12 Steps, which finally allowed me to perceive the "alcoholic thinking" in my mind as it was happening. And once I could "see" it, I could do something about it.
It is a solution, however, which needs consistent reapplication. I continue to go to AA meetings and follow AA's suggestions because when I become lax about that my ability to recognize alcoholic thinking for what it is fades away as well.
That's been my experience, anyway.
When I was drinking, this brilliant thought would have given me a "Hell yeah!" response, as in, I would immediately have identified with the "people whom others were wrong about."
In other words, this would have struck a chord of victimhood and martyrdom, entitlement and bitter -- if nebulous -- resentment against the "them." (So often the villains in my ego-based, circular thinking.)
Now, sober, I identify with the cautionary idea behind this. I identify with the people trying not to slide unconsciously into judgment; making a mistake and confusing a part for the whole.
In other words, thanks to sobriety, I identify with the shiver.
It's not comfortable, but in my opinion it's the healthier read, and the place I want to be, when I read this.
In years past it was pointed out that I put this up on the blog a little late to be of any practical use to people. So here, while travel arrangements might still be in the works, (and thus this would hopefully be more helpful) is "Mr. SponsorPants Annual Sober Holiday Survival Guide:"
In reviewing this every year I find there is little I would add or change (it's not sloth! It's not!). Most often in sobriety I find that it's less about constantly finding new things to do as it is about remembering to do the things that work.
This was written to be a group of broad suggestions to cover whether you're newcomer or long timer, host or guest, travelling to family out of town or (God help you) having the familial hordes descend upon you, attending a work function, a casual gathering or a formal affair. Hope there is something helpful here for everyone!
Holidays, families and alcoholics. A potent combination, be it for feeling gratitude or copping an attitude. As the old joke goes, no one knows how to push your buttons like your family -- after all, they installed them. With that said, here is some of the best I can offer when it comes to holiday parties, family visits, and this whole wonderful/terrible time of year:
1. Remember, you don't have to go. Yes, yes, maybe you should go. Maybe it's a bad idea for your career, or it would be hurtful or disappointing to someone if you don't go -- those can be compelling reasons to get on a plane or show up at a party -- but you don't have to go. You aren't trapped, and you can change your mind at any time if you need to -- you can turn that car right around on the way to the airport or before you enter the parking structure. If you are a real addict your life is on the line, and though we can be prone to drama and selfish decisions, it's obviously better to stay sober, and after the fact determine if you might have been oversensitive or dramatic (a very real possibility), than to force yourself to go somewhere slippery when you're feeling frightened, resentful and trapped -- and then relapse. Because if you really are an alcoholic then your alcoholism really is trying to kill you -- and you may have taken the holiday off, but it hasn't.
2. Remember, you can leave. In the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a toast, in the middle of the cutting of a cake, you can, without drama, without a scene, excuse yourself and leave. If the occasion or the moment seems to indicate a reason should be offered, just say you suddenly feel ill and step out. It's not even a falsehood, though you may mean emotionally or spiritually ill and others may think the artichoke dip didn't agree with you. In fact, it doesn't matter if people in the moment believe you or not, or if you have to explain a little more later, or make amends after the fact -- it is better to leave quietly and stay sober than remain at an event and relapse -- because if you relapse, they'll most likely wish you had left. As I've said to sponsees, you can leave with a fork halfway to your mouth, if you have to. Which leads me to...
3. Remember, if at all possible, drive yourself and don't give anyone a lift -- not out of selfishness, out of self preservation. If you have to leave because you are freaking out and you think you might not be able to stay sober then you need to leave -- not wait for someone to dither around saying goodbye or getting their coat or finishing that last slice of pie. If you do have someone with you, hopefully you can explain in advance that you might have to leave abruptly -- not that you're planning on it, but that you might need to -- so help them have a Plan B for leaving if they want to stay, or perhaps agree that they're willing to leave on short notice with you. If you're the passenger, be ready to call a cab or walk to the bus stop or at least step outside for some air. Which brings us to...
4. Remember, you can leave and then return. Leaving doesn't have to mean leaving the whole event and going home or back to the hotel or wherever -- go for a walk, get some of that aforementioned air, sit in the car and scream (though the valet may look at you funny) -- and then once you've gotten your equilibrium again go back in -- with an eye on the Exit for Round 2, if you have to.
5. Remember, don't expect Program responses from people who aren't in the Program. There you are, flush with recovery and armed with a whole new language to identify how you feel and communicate it with people. Remember that the family dinner table is not a 12 Step Meeting, and if you start "sharing" rather than talking you may be met with "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." Or worse (in my book) patronizing smiles that are the equivalent of a pat on the head and a "isn't that nice, dear." Again: Don't expect people who aren't in a 12 Step Program to act like people in a 12 Step Program. (And what's the set up there? The evil alcoholic node in that sentence? "expect" -- expectations of family are some of the deepest -- and often least conscious -- and most lethal expectations an alcoholic can have. Yes, it's a high bar to clear -- an impossible bar to clear in fact, to have absolutely no expectations of people -- but if you're aware of the mechanism at work it helps keep the resentments from running you ragged.)
6. Remember, for most addicts, maybe = yes. If you think you might drink or use if you visit certain people or places then that's just a prelude to actually doing so. Be sure of yourself. If you're not sure, the stakes are too high to play a people-pleasing game and place yourself at risk.
7. Remember, other people find the holidays difficult and emotionally charged as well -- you're not the only one having a tough time of it -- watch for ego and hyper-sensitivity, and rather than sit in your own upset, see who and how you can help wherever you may be or whomever you may be with. Short answer: Want to feel better? Be of service.
8. Remember, "Please pass the gravy" is not code for "Please, now that you're sober, unload all of your pent up anger and frustration you've been stuffing for the past X years, right here right now, during dinner."
9. Remember, Alcoholics Anonymous suggests when dealing with resentments, we set them on paper. Even for those of us who are learning that we are not doormats it is not necessarily smart to immediately confront a situation head on. In fact, by writing out a quick inventory (and be careful where you leave that paper lying around if you're visiting home, Bucko) and organizing your thoughts and feelings you can then confront something and talk about the actual thing that caused your resentment, rather than get all tripped up talking about your feelings and anger. It's a very different thing to say "Please don't make jokes about my job" instead of "I feel angry when you make jokes about my job." The latter will just create a discussion about your feelings, and that's not what you're trying to do -- you're setting a boundary, not inviting opinions on your emotional sensitivity level. If you write out your resentment you can get clarity in your head before you open your mouth -- I've tried it the other way, to spectacularly poor results, I assure you. And all that is said with a giant IF in front of the idea that it is wise for you to "confront" anyone at all. Most of the time it probably isn't.
10. Remember, it is possible to look like you're listening intently to someone while you are actually saying The Serenity Prayer over and over in your head.
11. Remember, "love and tolerance is our code." If your family, or your boss, or your employees, or whomever, actually could do any better they probably would. For particularly difficult, toxic or challenging people try to consider that it is much worse to be them than to deal with them -- keep at the forefront of your mind that those who trouble us are spiritually sick themselves, and are deserving of our compassion (as difficult as it may be to summon for some) more than our criticism.
12. Remember, you may not have been such a winner yourself on past occasions -- it may take a while for people to "see" who you are today. Be patient, show who you are now rather than tell who you are now, and things will eventually change.
13. Remember, miracles do happen -- damaged relationships heal, wounded parties forgive, shattered families come back together ... it doesn't happen the way we may envision it, or with a clever soundtrack and excellent lighting as in your favorite independent film, but it really does happen.
14. Remember, breathe. Just three deep breaths before speaking can save a life. I am not exaggerating.
15. Remember, it is not your family's job to understand alcoholism or Alcoholics Anonymous -- it's yours.
16. Remember, it's not your job to diagnose everyone in your family with your magical sober powers, nor is it your job to whip out your spiritual took kit and try to fix anyone around you. AA is a program of attraction, not promotion. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut. If you're being an example you don't have to explain, and if you find yourself doing a lot or explaining you're probably doing a poor job of being an example.
17. Remember, AA is a "design for living" -- and what that means in the real world is that other people's behavior does not dictate my behavior -- you can't make me yell or behave badly, only I can make me do that. I am not a doormat, but I don't have to go to every fight I'm invited to, either. A smile and shrug is an excellent strategy for quietly deflecting things.
18. And finally, remember, bring your Higher Power with you -- you're not going in there alone. Why 18 and not a nice round number like 20? Dunno -- I only have 18 I guess. Happy holidays to all, and while whatever you celebrate and whomever you celebrate it with can make for a wonderful/terrible day, it is also just another 24 hours, and one minute at a time, this too shall pass. Cheers!
Old Irish was meeting me for coffee after my monthly appointment at the barber shop. Joining him at the table where he'd set up camp I plopped my messenger bag down and pulled out my phone. I held it at arm's length and slightly upwards, looking up at it and smiling, tapping the camera button several times, taking a series of shots in rapid succession.
Old Irish: You take a lot of selfies.
I looked at my phone to judge the results. Finding them all wanting, I deleted this batch and repeated the process, taking several more and then reviewing them as well. There was one good one I liked, so I deleted the others and put my phone back in my bag.
Mr. SponsorPants: Do I? I guess... yes, I suppose I do. But this haircut looks pretty cool.
Old Irish: You know it's a Program about getting LESS self obsessed.
Mr. SponsorPants: Well, actually, it's a Program about finding a power greater than yourself -- but I take your point.
Old Irish: I thought you hated Facebook because you think it fosters envy and narcissism.
Mr. SponsorPants: I do.
Old Irish: So how, exactly, is taking a lot of selfies of yourself not a facet of narcissism? I hate how people are taking pictures of everything now. I go to a restaurant and there's some boob sitting there taking pictures of their food and I guess posting it online or something. I went to the grocery store the other day and someone was taking a picture of themselves in front of a pastry display! And you... why do you take so many selfies, anyway? You used to hate having your picture taken.
Mr. SponsorPants: Oh, hey, look. There are some kids over there. Why don't you go over and yell at them to get off your lawn.
Old Irish: Very funny. But you didn't answer my question.
Mr. SponsorPants: Nor am I required to, my dear friend. But I will. I take a lot of selfies because I am in an ongoing process of recovering from many years of self loathing.
Old Irish: Self loathing is just...
I help up my hand.
Mr. SponsorPants: I know. I know. Self loathing is just another facet of self obsession. True. Certainly very true in my case. I have no argument there. But knowing that I need to focus on the "self" part by addressing self obsession does not equal leaving the "loathing" part completely unaddressed.
Old Irish: I feel compelled to point out -- compelled, mind you, otherwise I would sit quietly and enjoy the day -- that you often yap about how service -- in your case, a fair amount of service -- was how the loathing part got addressed.
This was tender territory between us. Old Irish and I go waaaay back. He is a good fellow and a great friend and in my humble opinion works a terrific AA Program. But over the years very few people have asked him to be their sponsor, and once he confessed to me that it made him feel "less than" -- he wondered what was wrong with him that no one "wanted what he had to offer." Once he shared this with me I toned down talking with him about my challenges as a sponsor, as one of them was finding a balance between sponsoring a good number of people at any given time and also taking care of myself and my life. It was a balance I found through trial and error -- sometimes I think more error than trial, actually -- but though he and I are quite happy to spar a little the friendship goes deep and I would never want to make him feel bad around this issue. He has been of prodigious service in other ways (organizing AA conventions, fundraisers, volunteering at and eventually serving on the board of his local Alano Club) -- which is a perfectly legitimate way to get out of yourself and thus get much the same benefit as you might get from sponsoring people. And he has found a way to address the issue between us through a little lighthearted teasing, which is how we usually address things anyway.
Old Irish: In fact, God apparently knew just how very, very, very sick you were, and had to send you alllll those people to sponsor because it took that massive amount of ballast to pull you out of self obsession. Or try to, anyway.
Mr. SponsorPants: One "yap" and three "very's?" Really?
Old Irish: I call 'em like I see 'em.
Mr. SponsorPants: Look, I read this really interesting essay online by a...
Old Irish: Ohhh God. Okay, HERE we go.
He put his head in his hands in mock despair.
Mr. SponsorPants: Shut up. I read this really interesting essay about how people who are struggling with self loathing often find that part of it has to do with how they look. Or rather, how they think they look. Perception and all that. And of course any discussion along these lines is then judged as vanity. So then there is shaming and minimizing and the discussion is shut down... and sometimes... and... well, I don't remember it all exactly, but the point was that to shift that negative perception try taking a bunch of selfies till you find one you like -- and then continue doing that as a way to sort of take control of your mental picture of yourself. The essay was more eloquent -- made it sound more substantive, I guess.
Old Irish: That sounds like bullshit. No, let me correct that -- it sounds like a massive and ridiculous justification for self indulgence and taking pictures of yourself a lot which goes back to my original question about feeding narcissism!
I lauged a little bit.
Mr. SponsorPants: Ummm, you sound a little angry about this.
Old Irish: I'm not angry!
I gave him a Look -- any of you would have done the same, given the exclamation point at the end of that statement. He caught himself and, abashed, said it again, this time sans exclamation.
Old Irish: I'm not angry.
Mr. SponsorPants: Okay. The bottom line is that it makes me feel a little better about myself, in an area where for years I felt pretty bad. Is it superficial? Maybe. Who says I don't need to work on healing some of my superficial things too?
Old Irish: You remember that old Kevin Costner movie? "Dances With Wolves?" Well, if you had been a member of that Native American tribe I think your name would have been 'Dances With Rationalizations.'
I laughed really hard.
Mr. SponsorPants: Okay, that was really good. And my spirit animal would have been... a cup of coffee.
Now he laughed.
Mr. SponsorPants: And your name would have been...
I stopped myself. I was about to say 'Stands With a Scowl' but felt like it would have been mean-funny instead of tease-funny. It had begun to feel like there was a teeny bit of raw nerve on his part being exposed in this conversation.
Old Irish: Would have been what?
Mr. SposorPants: I got nothin' -- can't top yours.
He did a little mock fist pump in the air.
Old Irish: Yes!
Mr. SponsorPants: You may be right. Maybe I'm getting a little carried away with the selfie thing. I'll genuinely think about that. But also, I can't deny it hasn't helped change how I feel about myself in an area which used to be really toxic. I mean yes, you're right, I used to hate having my picture taken. Now it's not that big a deal - which is kind of an interesting shift, really. This selfie thing has helped maybe. Some. Or a little, anyway. Even if it is in a semi-superficial way. But now I feel compelled to say -- compelled, mind you, or I would just sit here and enjoy the day too -- that it strikes me as a bit of black and white thinking, maybe a little bit rigid, closed minded or extreme, to equate an exercise designed to address any kind of self loathing with... something negative.
Old Irish: Did you just call me rigid, closed minded and extreme?
Mr. SponsorPants: Not on purpose. It was more of a drive-by.
Old Irish: Hmph.
Mr. SponsorPants: It's like my smiling in the mirror thing.
Old Irish: You smile at the mirror?
Mr. SponsorPants: No, I smile at myself IN the mirror.
Old Irish: Oh my god, that sounds...
I help up my hand again.
Mr. SponsorPants: Stop right there! You've used up your allotted quota of being snarky towards...
Old Irish: I was not being snarky!
Mr. SponsorPants: You were going to say it sounds stupid or something.
Old Irish: Welllll... maybe.
Mr. SponsorPants: Of course it sounds stupid. And shallow. And is easy to make fun of. And it FEELS stupid at first, too. But never mind that there is science behind it...
Old Irish: Oh, please.
Mr. SponsorPants: No, there is. Something about endorphins but I don't want to get into it with you. You should try it though.
Old Irish: I'm not going to stand and look at myself in the bathroom mirror and grin like an idiot.
Mr. SponsorPants: What's that AA thing about contempt prior to... what was it again?
Old Irish: Shut up.
Mr. SponsorPants: Seriously. Why don't you try it? For thirty days. Take a full minute and just smile at yourself in the mirror in the morning.
Old Irish: A minute.
Mr. SponsorPants: Yeah, why not. What if you... oh my god! What if you ACTUALLY GOT SOMETHING OUT OF IT?
Old Irish: Shut up.
Mr. SponsorPants: Do as you choose. You always do.
I hoped I had planted a seed. The conversation had taken an unexpected turn, and I felt like we had, without realizing it, swum out into deeper waters than we realized -- it was as if, emotionally, I stretched my foot out to touch the bottom beneath us and found nothing.
Lots of the things I do... starting with going to meetings all those years ago... sound stupid or foolish. Or even selfish. I have found, as I've continued to peel the proverbial onion and get down to some of my nittier gritty, that I needed to be careful not to label things that were about my self care as something selfish or self obsessive. I also found that I needed to be careful not to label things that were selfish and self obsessive as self care. DAMN. Tricky business. That's pretty much why I need the good sober friendship of people like Old Irish in my life to challenge me on occasion, and meetings to give me a place to hear others' experience, and service to provide that all important ballast.
Is it ridiculous and frivolous for a man in his early fifties to even care how they look? Very likely. Does it feel like a healthy thing for me to explore? Yeah, surprisingly it does. Have I learned that there are all kinds of ways I need to -- and can -- heal as I stay sober over the years? Absolutely.
There are more essays like this in "Mr. SponsorPants: Adventures in Sobriety and The 12 Steps for AA's and Others." Available as an eBook on Kindle via Amazon. Download the Kindle reader app for free on any device or platform, from PC to Smartphone.