The Alcoholic Mind


Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.

     On the 31st of October, 2013, I was fortunate enough to celebrate the 15th anniversary of my “last” drink. The 31st fell on a Thursday, and a few days later, at my Sunday evening home-group meeting, I came across the above cited line from Alcoholics Anonymous (aka the Big Book): “Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.” (23)
     I have read that line and considered its significance dozens and dozens of times over the 23 or so years since I first read the Big Book. But for some reason, this year, when I read it shortly after celebrating an anniversary God alone knows I never expected to celebrate, I found it important to remind myself why I so firmly believe that the “main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.”
     I recalled that at one time, back in 1996, very shortly after I’d celebrated 2 years of sobriety for the first time, I genuinely thought I knew exactly what it meant for the main problem of the alcoholic to center in his mind. In fact, less than a month after celebrating those 2 years, I had been asked to speak for 30 minutes at a meeting that was largely attended by “old-timers.” I distinctly remember announcing from the podium that, after two years of sponsorship, meetings, and Big Book studies, I honestly couldn’t “imagine” ever taking a drink again, not under any circumstance. Alcohol no longer presented itself as a solution, I proudly proclaimed.
     I had been sincere and earnest in making that statement, but no sooner had I finished thanking the chairperson for inviting me to speak than one of those crotchety old-timers came up to me and said, “Don’t let your guard down, Son. Don’t kid yourself and rest on your laurels. Whether you think so or not right now, alcohol is always an option.” I remember feeling a certain degree of animosity towards that particular old-timer for essentially scolding me so soon after I’d given what I thought was a rather “good” talk. In my “alcoholic mind,” if I couldn’t “imagine” taking a drink “under any circumstance,” then the problem must’ve been removed from the place where it was most likely to attack me—my mind.  And I’d be damned if I was going to let some angst-ridden old-timer bring me down.
     Within nine months of that talk—after deciding I didn’t really need to read the Big Book as often as I had been, after deciding fewer and different meetings would probably help keep the program interesting, and after deciding to take my sponsor’s direction with a grain of salt rather than a willing dose of desperation, (i.e. after knowingly letting my guard down and resting on my laurels)—I was drunk. And for two long years after that, I struggled miserably, if not suicidally, to make my way back to a more permanent life in the fellowship, which I finally did on October 31, 1998.
     I had known for many years—first intuitively and then more concretely by admitting I was powerless—that alcohol was no longer a solution in my life. What I had to accept upon return to the tables, however, is that alcohol, whether it presents as a potential solution or not, is always an option. I had nodded in agreement for many years that alcohol is cunning, baffling, and powerful—that it is a worthy opponent. But not until I had stayed sober for a period of time, chosen to drink again for a period of time, and, by the grace of God, found it possible to get sober again, did I truly understand the “cunning” part. The deadly paradox is that alcohol will ALWAYS convince me that drinking is an option, if not as a solution, then surely as an immediate source of relief (and surely a better option than suicide, which, in the absence of a daily reprieve, too often seems the only “other” path to immediate relief).
     A few weeks ago, I posed the question I’d been mulling over for months to the men I sponsor: What does it mean for the main problem of the alcoholic to center in his mind, rather than in his body? I posed the question because a number of them are between two and five years of sobriety, and I wanted to know if any of them suffered the same delusion I had once suffered at two years sober–that alcohol was no longer a solution or an option.
     I was pleased to discover that most, if not all of them, were not nearly as deluded as I had been, that they could, in fact, “imagine” taking a drink in the absence of a daily reprieve. More important, all of them seemed to agree—in ways and with a conviction it had taken me far too long to learn and embrace—that the most expedient way to provide relief to the alcoholic mind is intensive work with other alcoholics. I used to wish there was an easier, softer way. Today, when I’m with my own sponsor or any of the men I sponsor, I’m glad there is not.

Risky Business


It’s almost midnight on a Friday night, and I’m trying to read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity for the 10th time (never seem to make it past chapter 5, and philosophy was one of my majors in college) when I sense a flash from the iPhone carefully balanced on the armrest of my chair. (Yes, it’s become my electronic limb, and I suffer phantom vibrations in its absence. No, really, I do. I feel vibrations in my upper left quadriceps even when the little black box isn’t in my pants pocket.) Anyway, the screen signals a private message sent on Facebook. Yippee!!! Where I’m at in my personal biography (note that I didn’t say, “At my age”), any message sent shortly before or after midnight rarely heralds good news.

This one doesn’t disappoint. The message is riddled from start to finish with F-Bombs targeting me and everyone associated with a particular program of recovery, especially people with double-digit sobriety. The message is from a man who used to frequent some of the same meetings I still frequent and which he, obviously, doesn’t anymore. He begins by saying he’d read one of my recent blog posts about recovery and, to summarize, wants me to know how very “full of shit” we all are, that the people around the tables who criticized him for taking his prescribed medications nearly killed him (and many others) with their “bullshit, AA-PhD advice.”

He admits early on in our exchange that he’s drinking (at that very moment) and enjoying it. But tonight, even that doesn’t diminish his credibility with me. I know, for a fact, he has a truly valid and potentially lethal gripe. He further confesses he’s on a personal mission to destroy AA and everything associated with it so the expletive, expletive, expletives in the rooms that damn near killed him can’t harm anyone else.

My first instinct is to “de-friend” him or simply block his messages. Instead, I decide to see if I’ve grown up enough to respond in a way that will calm him down without becoming incensed myself. I begin by reminding him that I don’t represent AA or any other program of recovery, that I represent only my personal experience, and that my experience has always been to ignore people who’s advice is contrary to what’s in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. Big Book). There, it clearly states that we are not doctors or spiritual leaders:

Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization. Neither does A.A. take any particular medical point of view, though we cooperate widely with the men of medicine as well as with the men of religion.

Alcoholics Anonymous, Second Edition Foreword

And,

God has abundantly supplied this world with fine doctors, psychologists, and practitioners of various kinds. Do not hesitate to take your health problems to such persons. … Try to remember that though God has wrought miracles among us, we should never belittle a good doctor or psychiatrist. Their services are often indispensable in treating a newcomer and in following his case afterward.

Alcoholics Anonymous, 133

No one, no matter their length of sobriety, should be telling anyone in the context of recovery what to do regarding their medications, especially not a man who is clinically diagnosed with severe depression.

Unfortunately, my friend isn’t having any of it. His F-Bomb-ridden diatribe goes on for some time, until the only thing left for me to do is invite him to join me at a meeting over the weekend to see if he can’t navigate a different path within the rooms that have saved my life and done so much to make the lives of so many others worth living. The invitation—fortunately or unfortunately—ends our exchange.

The following morning, while I’m scanning some of the recovery blogs I check out when time permits, I come across a disturbing post titled, I Quit, which includes the opening sentence, “Not sobriety. AA. I’m an AA drop-out” (novodkaformama.wordpress.com). Apparently the author is at odds with her sponsor over the 8th and 9th steps. She admits she refuses to acknowledge the need to make any amends beyond the living amends she is making to her husband, her kids, her family, and her friends. Her sponsor feels she’s unwilling to go to any lengths for her sobriety because she isn’t willing to extend the list (I presume). Why this means the end of her relationship with her sponsor and why the termination of her relationship with her sponsor means she has to drop out of AA isn’t entirely clear. But again, it doesn’t matter. I know from experience that it happens … all too often.

Clearly, she is working the 9th step with those “to whom [she is] willing to make amends” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 76).  As time passes and her recovery deepens, her willingness may extend to more people, places, and institutions … or not. Either way, allowing people to drop out or slip away because they don’t conform to “our way” of practicing the steps is absolutely contrary to the solution as I’ve learned it … from the Big Book: “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little” (164).

Sponsorship is clearly serious, and often risky, business. I’ve been taught from Day #1 that all I have is my own experience, strength, and hope as it relates to my recovery. I sponsor eight men with varying lengths of sobriety, from one who clearly is not yet sober to another who has nearly as much time sober as I do … and all points in between. Do I refuse to sponsor the man who continues to show up drunk after brief periods of sobriety? No. I continue to work Step 1 with him because he continues to show a desire to stop drinking, the only requirement for membership in our program. Thank God I learned that from the people who continued to work with me during the seven-plus years I bounced in and out of the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous with little more than a desire to stop drinking and oftentimes less than a day of sobriety. Had those patient, loving, and tolerant souls written me off because I “didn’t get it” or “do it” their way right away, you’d be reading a different blogger right now.

Every Sunday before our home group meeting, the men I sponsor and I gather to set up the meeting and then discuss the steps and traditions. Our meeting-before-the-meeting often includes discussions (but only in the context of the steps and traditions) that might be described as spiritual, medical, psychological, political, financial, marital, and as often as not, controversial. I‘ve had medical, legal, and financial problems in my day; I’ve also walked through divorce once as an untreated alcoholic and once as a recovering alcoholic. Nonetheless, I would never play doctor, lawyer, or financial planner with any one of these men, and the closest thing I provide to advice regarding marriage or divorce is the phone number of the counselor or the lawyer I used when I found myself in similar circumstances. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk at length about what I went through or what they’re currently going through on a daily basis; it does mean, however, that our discussions are framed by the steps and how the steps guided me and may guide them through their decisions and their actions.

The suggestions I share with the men I sponsor, like the suggestions I receive from my own sponsor, are never construed as proscriptions, much less ultimatums. In the end, we all make our own decisions on how to behave just as we make a choice every day on whether or not to drink. One can only hope that by working Step 11, both the advice we give and the actions we take are humbly and divinely guided by a power greater than ourselves.

Welcoming the Newcomer


This post also appears on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com.

In your opinion, what’s the most important thing you can say to someone who is new in recovery?

All summer, I’ve been soliciting your input, online and off, about the most important thing we can say to someone who is at the jumping off point—those sometimes-eager, most-of-the-time-very-suspicious people who are about to embark on the most fascinating journey of their lives and don’t even know it. So, what is it then … what is the most important thing we can say to the newcomer?

Here’s a sampling of the more custom responses I received:

“I hope it was bad. I hope it was so bad that you never make the choice to go back because you never have to drink again.”

“Don’t listen to your head. You can get and stay sober.”

“Don’t drink no matter what!”

“Are you done for good and for all?”

“Take one day at a time and seek support whenever you need it.”

“You are not weak; you have a physical allergy to alcohol.”

Accept the help you are offered and take it a day at a time.”

“It will get easier. It will get better.”

“Just stay.”

And then there were the more clichéd but always reassuring welcomes, such as:

“Keep coming back.”

“Don’t leave five minutes before your miracle.”

“You don’t ever have to drink again, and you don’t ever have to be alone again.”

And, of course, my favorites—the truly warm and heartfelt welcomes of the old-timers:

“Staying sober is easy: All you have to do is change your whole goddamn life.”

“Keep doin’ what you’re doin’, you’ll keep gettin’ what you’re gettin’.”

“Put the plug in the jug and find a sponsor.”

“Try taking some Good Orderly Direction.”

“Your best thinking got you here. Now try our way.”

“There are no big deals, and that is especially true of you.”

“Your life is none of your business.”

“Shut up and get in the car.”

At some point during my supremely unsophisticated data collection, however, I realized I might be asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what is the most important thing we can say to the newcomer, I wondered if I should have been asking, “What do you think people who are new to recovery actually hear?” What is it that truly resonates, permanently scratches the surface, plants the seed, sinks in, and, ultimately, makes a difference?

Personally, I heard all the niceties upon arrival at my first meetings—as well as the gruff and war-torn warnings. I was especially moved when my first sponsor told me I’d never have to be alone again. That was important. And I got it when old-timers told me I’d better change my playground and my playmates, or I’d never get sober. I also liked the idea that there was no problem big enough that God and I couldn’t handle it. Very cool. But I also kept getting drunk and high for the next seven years.

It wasn’t until I came back the last time, in 1998, and asked someone I respected a great deal to be my sponsor that my ears finally opened. They opened because he spoke one simple truth when he said, “There’s nothing more I can do to help you.”I was dumbfounded, and instantly full of fear. I had to listen.

This same person, who is my sponsor to this day, had tried to sponsor me before, or at least to guide me on my way, but I’d failed repeatedly to do anything he’d suggested. And he was right. There was nothing more he could do to help me. I was well beyond human aid. Nonetheless, full of fear, I was also flabbergasted. My ego couldn’t accept the idea that he wouldn’t reflexively leap at the opportunity to sponsor me … one more time.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know everything you need to know to stay sober, Kayko. Now it’s a matter of whether you’re actually going to do something about it.”

It was at that point that I finally heard not a cliché but the axiom that has come to guide my sobriety more intensively than anything else these past 14 years: “Are you willing to go to any length for victory over alcohol?” The man who spoke those words to me that day agreed to sponsor me for 90 days on a trial basis. (He never has told me if the trial is over.) He promised me a better quality of sobriety than I’d previously known, a greater sense of purpose, and a damn better shot at staying sober if I’d simply surrender my will every morning when I woke up and show the willingness to go to any length to maintain my sobriety on a daily basis.

He didn’t talk about spirituality, he didn’t talk about miracles, and he certainly didn’t rattle off any kindly platitudes or hard-ass directives. In fact, he didn’t talk much at all. He simply asked me to do this: Go to four meetings a week, two of which he attended; call him once a week, preferably on Monday nights because that was the one night he had free; and seize every opportunity to help people who were newer to sobriety than I was. It was that last part that mattered most. He knew I’d attend meetings; he knew I’d call faithfully if asked to; but he didn’t know if I would be consistently willing to do something for someone else since I had shown so little willingness to do anything for anyone but myself in the time we’d known each other.

What I have learned since that fateful day I thought he was about to refuse to be my sponsor is that maintaining a spiritual defense is all about actions, not platitudes. I still don’t know if I understand what it means to be spiritual, but I know what spirituality looks like when I bump into it. It’s evident in those people who always seem to be looking for an opportunity to be of service rather than an opportunity to talk about how much they know. They pick up cigarette butts left outside meetings, they make coffee, they set up chairs, they volunteer on committees, and they give rides—no matter how long they’ve been sober. Sometimes they give talks, but they aren’t necessarily circuit speakers, and their talks usually focus more on service and gratitude than themselves. No matter how long they’ve been sober, they’re always looking for more to do because they know full well it’s easy to slip up and not do enough. The kind of spirituality I’ve come to know and admire is “ever-clear” and present in those people who are willing to go to any length to stay sober … one day and one more action at a time.

A Quick Challenge


In your opinion, what’s the most important thing you can say to someone who is new to sobriety?

There Is a Solution


Generally, my Sunday evenings are painfully, yet thankfully, routine. Painful because, at 5:00 PM each Sunday, after spending most of the previous four days with my two wonderful kids, I’m obliged to return them to their mom, knowing full well I’m not likely to see them again until Wednesday evening. I’ve never experienced the relief or release some parents tell me they experience when they get a break—however brief—from their kids.  Even when I remind myself that turning my kids over is a valuable exercise in acceptance, I still have to fight off a low-level solemnity every time I back out of their mother’s driveway.

Thankfully, I have men to sponsor, service commitments to fulfill, and a home group to attend. Once I drop the kids off, I head straight to the church where my home group meets every Sunday evening. By 5:30 PM, before I can become too sullen about my kids’ absence, I’m standing in the church kitchen making coffee while some of the men I sponsor break down tables and set up chairs for the meeting, which is regularly attended by 100 or so recovering alcoholics. By 6:00 PM, the meeting is “set up” and a handful of us retreat to the pastor’s library to read the Big Book and discuss the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. This goes on until about 7:00 PM when the meeting actually begins.

At 8:00 PM, after the meeting, that same group of men and I will break down the chairs, clean the coffee urns, set the security alarms, and, if we’re lucky, lock the place up by 8:25 PM and head to a local sports bar and restaurant called Legends, where as many as 15 to 20 of our fellow meeting-goers can be found on any given Sunday night, eating dinner and watching the sporting event du jour—whatever the season dictates.

This is the welcome routine of my recovery. It is the path I’ve been shown, the method I’ve been taught, the only way I know to stay sober. It is part and parcel of my solution and has been for many years. My Sunday evenings, painful as they are at the start, have become a metaphor for what helps me through most any difficult situation: unity, service, and recovery. The only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking, but membership alone, in the absence of action, has never done a damn thing to keep me sober.

A few weeks ago, my Sunday evening stopped being routine and got very real once I arrived in the restaurant parking lot after the meeting. That night, the Iowa air was cold but also damp and misty. As I weaved between cars and toward the entrance to Legends, I noticed a tall, almost phantasmagorical figure moving toward me. Clearly a younger man, he was none too steady and wearing a baseball cap under the hood of his sweatshirt, making recognition next to impossible.

“Hey, Sponsor,” he said.  I had tensed up more stiffly than I’d realized and could literally feel the muscles in my body relax a little as I recognized the voice. The somewhat ghostly figure was a young man named Jake, someone I had tried to sponsor on and off, with little success, for nearly two years. “Man, I can’t believe this,” Jake said. “I can’t believe it. I was telling these people about you today, telling them about when I was in AA and this sponsor I had, and, man, I can’t believe this. It’s no coincidence, right? No coincidence.” Clearly, Jake was drinking, smoking, and snorting, more or less uber-tweaking. Sober and healthy, he was a tall, somewhat imposing figure at 6’ 3” and at least 225 pounds, but now, bent over in the rain, wearing a baseball cap under a hood, he appeared gaunt and far too twitchy for a Sunday night.

Before I could ask him how he was doing or why he was there, a tall, wispy young woman in skintight jeans and black heels walked out of the restaurant and toward us. All too anxiously, Jake called to her. “This is him,” he said, pointing at me. “The guy I was telling you about today, or whatever, maybe it was yesterday, this is him, my sponsor. My AA sponsor.”

“I told you,” the young woman said. “I told you. Wow! It’s a god thing, right, I told you, you need to call him.” She put her hand on my shoulder; I was caught in the crossfire between two tweakers. An otherwise very attractive woman, the all-too-rapid speech, the oily hair, and the adult acne were dead giveaways: this woman had not, and probably would not, sleep for days. “He needs to call you, we all told him you’d just appear someday. Now you’re here, this is too freaky; I knew it was going to happen, I told you, Jake. That’s how life flips, you know, you have to pay attention, right?” she said, and just as quickly, without a hello or a goodbye, she strode away toward what I recognized to be Jake’s van. There was another woman and a man in a wheelchair waiting outside the open sliding door of the death wagon. Together, they looked like a bad album cover in the Iowa mist.

“She’s nuts,” Jake said. “I’m chaperoning a couple of hookers and this other guy. He’s got brain damage from a wreck. Just nuts. Totally nuts. My life, right?”

“What are you doing here?

“Freakin’ crazy. Seriously. She’s here trying to collect. I said I’d give her a ride. Just friends. Trying to help out.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Still no license?”

“No license.”

“Risky business,” I said. “Especially if you’re all holding.”

I asked him how he was doing otherwise, what had happened to the sober house he’d been living in the last time I’d spoken with him, whether he had a job. I knew the answers to all of the above, but I wanted to hear his version.

“I tried, Greg. I did, man, really. I’ve tried everything. Treatment, AA, sober house, bible-based recovery, I’ve tried everything. I have. Everything. I just don’t think I can do it. I make it a while and then I don’t know … I just don’t think I can do it. AA doesn’t work for me.”

I’m no step-Nazi, nor am I a proselytizer. I try the best I know how to work with others, the way the chapter Working with Others proscribes in the Big Book. Normally, I would have been more patient and spent more time listening to Jake.  I would have encouraged him to come to a meeting with me. But I had been down this path many times before with Jake. Unfortunately for him, I had also recently read one-too-many blog posts (usually by someone new to recovery) about how AA doesn’t work. So, when Jake uttered those fateful words of contempt prior to “genuine” investigation, “AA doesn’t work for me,” I came a bit unraveled and suddenly heard myself saying the same words my sponsor had said to me more than 14 years ago.

“You haven’t ‘tried’ anything, Jake.” I said. “You’re like everyone else who says they can’t stay sober or that AA doesn’t work. You’ve been a lot of places—treatment, rehab, sober houses—and you’ve been to a lot of meetings, but all you’ve ever been is a visitor. You’ve never actually done anything.”

He suddenly looked rather despondent and much less excited to see me. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you know everything you need to know to stay sober. The only question now is whether you’re ever actually going to do something.”

“I’ve gone to a lot of meetings. I’ve read the book … with you even, at your house with other men. I tried AA and it didn’t work. I just can’t do it.”

“Did you ever work a step, Jake? Did you ever do a 4th and 5th step? Did you ever make a 9th step amend? Did you ever hold a service position? You say you’re chaperoning hookers tonight. Did you ever go out of your way to give a guy a ride to a meeting? Anything?”

Silence.

Jake was eventually saved by the bell from a prolonged harangue; his friends were growing increasingly restless, though our entire encounter couldn’t have lasted much more than 5 minutes. Before we parted ways, I made sure he still had my phone number in his cell phone and reminded him which meetings I went to and on what nights. We shook hands, and he promised to call, though I feared I’d sooner read about Jake than hear from him directly.

Last Friday night, however, two weeks after my initial reunion with Jake, I sat in a small group at another meeting for nearly 10 minutes before I looked closely at the guy across the room wearing a ball cap, a clean sweatshirt, and a freshly pressed pair of chinos. When we made eye contact, Jake shot me a smile and a peace sign. At least he was present and seemingly clean. After the meeting, we chatted, and he promised to touch base during the week. He never called, but at my prompting, he did respond to a text during that week and say he hoped to see me again on Friday night.

There are two things I’ve learned in nearly 20 years around Alcoholics Anonymous: surrender everyday and never give up hope … not until all hope has been definitively taken away. As long as there’s hope, there’s always the possibility of a solution.

Tough to Love


I can’t imagine too many things more difficult than loving an alcoholic–except maybe loving an alcoholic who has acknowledged his problem but isn’t yet ready to do anything about it. At least, that’s what I tell my non-alcoholic friends when they suddenly find themselves faced with friends, family members, or partners who are clearly destroying themselves with booze.

I have had more than a few non-alcoholic friends tell me in recent years they finally realize the problem in a relationship with either a husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, or lover is deeply rooted in alcohol abuse. Their descriptions of their alcoholics, and the issues they face are uncannily targeted and similar.

These poor souls almost always begin with a description of what a good, kind, hardworking, and “otherwise loving person” their alcoholic is. I place “otherwise loving person” (OLP) in quotation marks because my first question to the unsuspecting non-alcoholic friend is, “And how often is he ‘otherwise’ these days?” My family served up the same kind of alibi for me long after alcohol’s deleterious effect on my life was painfully apparent. “He’s really a kind and loving boy,” they’d say. “He just needs to learn to drink more responsibly.” Or, at least responsibly enough to stay in a marriage or at a job and out of jails, hospitals, and institutions.

The book Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. The Big Book) says, “No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows.” True enough. But have you ever noticed the lengths to which our loved ones will go (and often for a rather extended period of time) to help us deny we are damaged goods (i.e. bodily and mentally different from our fellows, or, more bluntly stated, ALCOHOLIC)?

It is usually at this point—early in our discussions—that my non-alcoholic friends try to make excuses for their OLP’s increasingly demonic behavior. “She just went through a really yucky divorce.” (More than 50% of marriages end in divorce, yet 50% of the adult population is not alcoholic.) Or, “He’s having financial difficulties.” (Really? Who isn’t?) Or, “She’s under a lot of stress at work.” (Many would say she’s lucky to have a job!) Or, how about the one I latched onto for nearly 10 years after the fact: “He just lost his father. It’s been hard on him.”

When my friends’ excuses for their OLP become too much to bear, I find a spare Big Book and point them to the passage that says, “Job or no job—wife or no wife—we simply do not stop drinking so long as we place dependence upon other people ahead of dependence on God. Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone.” (98)
Once we’re passed the rationalizations and excuses, the brutal truths are usually quick to surface. My friends acknowledge that, whatever the cause of the excess, their relationship with their OLP will never improve and may very well end if he or she doesn’t stop drinking completely. By the time they’re desperate enough to talk to me about the problem, they usually know in their hearts their OLP’s condition is hopeless. They know instinctually they love someone who will never drink normally again. It just takes them a little while to admit it out loud. Sadly, they also begin to share descriptions of their OLP’s Jekyll-N-Hyde-like behavior. Deeply remorseful every morning-after, their OLP quickly becomes defensive (if not abusive) at the first suggestion they actually do something about the problem (like enter treatment, or God forbid, go to an AA meeting). Or worse, their OLP turns the tables and becomes accusatory, suggesting my non-alcoholic friend and his or her role in the OLP’s life are the very reason they drink so frequently and excessively.

Possibly the saddest part of every encounter I have with friends who don’t understand alcoholism is their willingness to entertain the idea that they are to blame for their OLP’s drinking problem. “Maybe if I acted differently when he promises to stop, he’d be more successful.” If they only knew how absurd that notion is (and if they get help, one day they will know), they might understand why I have the audacity to laugh when I hear them try to blame themselves for outcomes over which we are all powerless. But more often than not in these situations, laughter is scarce, so I reach again for my spare Big Book and point them this time to the chapter titled More About Alcoholism. “Please,” I tell them, “Keep this copy. The first one-hundred-and-sixty-four pages might help you … a lot.”

Until recently, my point of view in these discussions has almost always been that of recovering alcoholic sharing his experience, strength, and hope about the future. I dodge, respectfully, most requests for advice or direction. That is the job of professionals, I tell my friends, or the job of potential comrades at an Al-Anon meeting should they choose to “go there.” Generally, I try to be honest about how formidable, but also how wonderful, it can be to trudge the road of happy destiny if only their OLP can find a way to hop on the path.

That’s usually my tune. But a few weeks ago, when I was contacted by a colleague’s sister—whom I’ve never met and who was struggling with her partner’s alcoholism—I found myself saying, “I know how you feel,” almost as often as I said, “This is what he’s up to.” At some point in our email exchange, I suddenly realized that I’ve spent a good portion of my life on both sides of the fence. From my father to various women I’ve loved to friends who have walked in and back out of the doors of recovery to a life of active use and abuse, I’ve had my fair share of OLPs. And, yes, even with all I know about my own condition, I’ve still found it possible to say things like, “Well, she’s drinking again, but I’ve never really seen her drunk.” Or, “He may drink too much at times, but he certainly isn’t as bad as I was at his age.” Or, best of all, “Maybe she came to AA at a bad time in her life, but now she’s able to handle it.”

And then it really hit me … the reason we make excuses, the very simple reason none of us wants anyone to be bodily or mentally different from their fellows: None of us wants to believe that any substance, alcohol or otherwise, could mean more to someone we love than we do. And maybe the admission is even more painful for those of us who once lived years and years of our lives knowing full well that nothing—and certainly nothing human—could mean more to us than alcohol once we’d taken the first drink.

Demons Be Damned


This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

This year, at about 11:00 PM on New Year’s Eve—with my eyelids growing heavier and heavier–I made the following post on Facebook:

To turn in before the clock strikes 12, at peace with all of my demons and all of my foes, seems a promising start to the New Year. The last time I turned in before midnight alone was New Years Eve ’97. That night, the demons were dancing and screeching in my head and making me wish there were an easy way out for cowards. Tonight, I thank God for the fellowship and the many nights of comfort surrender has bestowed. Happy New Year to all.

The next morning I noticed the post had received dozens of Likes and more than a few laudatory Comments about recovery and living sober. Which was great! In fact, that post probably received more likes and comments than any I’ve ever posted. As I read the comments, however, I realized just how completely I had failed to acknowledge the principal source of my gratitude in that post.

It had been a day of emotional highs and lows. Though it was their mother’s day to have them, my kids had spent the day with me because their mom had to work. We made a big, unhealthy breakfast together, went sledding, played board games, read, and finally flopped on the couch to watch bowl games and munch on more crappy food. It was New Year’s Eve after all. Around 3 PM their mom texted to say she was on her way to pick them up. An initial sadness and the usual departure anxieties set in.

Before she arrived, however, a longtime friend in sobriety, X, showed up to say hello to the kids and wish us all a Happy New Year … or so I thought. The four of us reminisced about the previous New Year’s Eve, which we’d spent together. At midnight that year, my daughter, the friends she’d invited to sleep over, X, and a few other friends who’d held on until midnight decided that, at exactly midnight, rather than watch the ball drop on TV, we were going to bang pots and pans in the garage and the front yard to drive last year’s evil spirits off my property—much to my neighbor’s chagrin, I’m sure, but a proper way to begin the new year nonetheless. We wouldn’t be doing that again this year, and we acknowledged we were a little sad about it, but I assured the kids they’d have a really good time at their Moms’, just as they’d had at Dads’ last year. Shortly afterward, we said our Happy New Years, and they piled into their mom’s van, my daughter getting a kick out of telling me over and over, “See you next year, Dad. See you next year.”

As I watched them drive away, I told X I needed to hit the shower. It was nearly 4 PM, and I was due at a restaurant where my sponsor and his wife held their annual New Year’s Eve dinner in a little over an hour. The dinner was always a great time, had been for the 14 consecutive years I’d been going anyway, as was the party afterwards at my sponsor’s house. X said he understood, that he’d head out, but he needed to tell me something first. And as bluntly and matter-of-factly as I type the words here, he told me, “I drank.”

We’d had a blizzard in the Midwest the week before and not a day above freezing since. I stared past X into the painful brightness outside the picture window in my living room at what I like to call a classic midwestern ice bake. I felt equally frozen inside, much the way I’d felt the day—30 years earlier—my father had told me frankly and declaratively, “I have cancer. They give me three to six months to live.”  There are moments like that in life, moments that do not warrant a reaction. They’re freeze-frame moments, moments when nothing really means much at all, and what is simply is.

X had had his fair share of struggles over the past few years: with women, with jobs, with family and friends, even with prescription drugs, but in the dozen or so years we’d been trudging the road together, he’d never taken a drink. To me, as someone who’d spent seven years spinning in and out of sobriety before I’d finally surrendered, this was monumental, as close as one comes to a death sentence after that many years living sober.

X filled me in over the next 10 minutes or so. He’d finally cracked and drunk a fifth of vodka rather quickly on Saturday night, blacked out and spent most of Sunday sick, had gone to a meeting before coming to my house, and felt confident he’d stay sober the remainder of the day. He had plans for the night with sober friends who were coming in from out of town, he said. I asked him to hang around while I got ready for dinner. He said, sure, he’d hang out and watch the remainder of the bowl game the kids and I had been watching when he arrived.

What happened next took my by surprise. As I walked up the stairs, I thought about how I needed to tell X that this was really no surprise, that we’d talked about it and seen it coming for some time. There were things he was doing in his life that would’ve brought other people to their knees much sooner. I told myself I needed to go back down and be deadly honest with him. No holds barred. Tough love for his own good.

But that’s not what happened. Instead I got in the shower and suddenly felt like I’d been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat. My joints ached, my throat tightened, and for a moment I genuinely feared I might pass out. All of the sudden, I realized not only X but a number of others I’d known and loved in recovery would not celebrate this New Year sober, that many of them were also out there signing their own death warrants and thinking nothing of it. I thought of the alcoholic suicides I’d witnessed, and the close friends I’d carried to their graves early in my own sobriety. And I heard the old-timers voices in my head rattling off the various warnings, “Wake up, people! This isn’t the flu we’re dealing with here. It’s a disease, and it’s a disease that kills.” Or worse, “Stick around long enough and you’ll see, some of us have to go out and die so the rest of us can stay sober.”  Finally I let myself cry for all of them right there in the shower … because I knew in a short while I was just as likely to be pissed at each and every one of them for passing on a life of freedom and awareness.

When I suited up and went back downstairs, for no apparent reason, I knew exactly what I needed to share with X. Rather than take his inventory, I asked him if he realized he might not be done. It had been my experience, years ago, that once I’d relapsed, once I’d realized how easy it was to put the blinders on, forget all the friends to whom I was accountable, and take the first drink, it became easy to do it over and over again … until I threw myself, with extreme humility, back into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Relapse, more than anything else in my experience, gave flesh and blood to the words “cunning, baffling, powerful.” I didn’t yell, I didn’t dramatize, I just asked him to keep that thought in his head—that it would be easier now to keep drinking than to stop if he didn’t humble himself, that once we relapse after a significant period of sobriety, “cunning, baffling, powerful” are no longer convenient words we impress upon newcomers, but rather the three heads of a beast whose mouths are dripping blood, and if we aren’t careful, one day the blood will surely be our own. I finally gave him a hug, told him to call or text throughout the night, and to be in touch the next day.

That night at dinner, I realized there were hundreds of years of sobriety in the private room where we were seated. Without a doubt, we were people who normally would not mix—except in the pursuit of sobriety. I sat beside one of the men I sponsor, and thought what a yeoman’s job he’d been doing of giving back. At a year-and-a-half sober, he was trudging through his first holiday season after a divorce. His daughter, who’d had a tonsillectomy earlier in the week, was at home resting, and once he finished dinner, he’d head back there to keep her company and take care of her. I was confident he’d stay sober. He was confident the New Year would be great. On the other side of me was a close friend who, though she’d relapsed at 3+ years of sobriety, had her butt in the chair that night even though she didn’t really want to be there. She knew that coming to the dinner and being one among many was insurance against any demons that might be lurking later that night. All around the room sat a host of friends whom I would not want to miss.

Back home that night, in the still silence of the remainder of 2012, I sat in my reading room and, once again, thought about all the faces that had once beamed but were now absent from my sponsor’s New Year’s Eve dinner party. I did the only thing I know how to do for the still suffering alcoholic who chooses not to seek help. I surrendered and I prayed. I prayed for X, knowing full well the demons were still close by and would likely be screeching when his head finally hit the pillow that night. And I prayed for those who would quiet the demons and still their dance the same way I had quieted them back on New Year’s Eve 1997, with one drink after another until the last drink turned into darkness and a long night of unconscious distress. Around 11 PM, I realized I was pretty damn tired, that there were no pots and pans to bang, and that I wasn’t going to miss anything by missing midnight. So I gave thanks for the only peace I’d ever known and realized the only way I’d ever found it was to try and help others find it as well, and then I wrote …

To turn in before the clock strikes 12, at peace with all of my demons and all of my foes, seems a promising start to the New Year. …