Love Eternal

Probably the single greatest gift—and the single greatest challenge—I’ve been given in sobriety has been the opportunity to parent my children, a 12-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. I can honestly say that nearly thirteen years ago, at the instant my daughter was born—at 4 years sober and 42 years old—I finally learned the meaning of the phrase “unconditional love.” A few years later, when my son was born—at a moment when I did not think it possible to love another human being with the same intensity that I loved my daughter—I learned that unconditional love knows no bounds, that the capacity to love any number of children once you’ve loved one is limitless. I’ve since learned to love many of my friends’ children as well, maybe not as limitlessly and intensely as my own, but certainly without condition. I wonder if I would have learned anything at all had they been born when I was still using.

Earlier this summer, while driving her home from dance practice, I asked my daughter how she and her “boyfriend” were doing. She had “claimed” a boyfriend near the end of the school year, and being the annoying older father that I am, I kept close tabs on her “relationship” with him … like every single day. As one would expect, I received the characteristic mono-syllabic, pre-teen answer to my question: “Fine!” This, of course, merely pushed my generally annoying demeanor up a notch to sheer belligerence. “Sooo, do you l-o-v-e what’s-his-face?”

(For the record, it doesn’t really matter to me who she dates over the years to come or who she marries, I don’t really care if she marries into royalty, the other-than-her-father man in her life will ALWAYS be known as what’s-his-face or what’s-his-name behind his back. I will, of course, be duly cordial in the little turd’s presence. I’m a recovering alcoholic, after all; I can fake anything.)

“I don’t believe in love, Daddy.”

There is nothing worse—as a father—than believing you have the upper hand in a conversation only to have it matter-of-factly stripped from your grasp like a rain-soaked football. My daughter—unlike her face value, what-you-see-is-what-you-get brother—is a master of causing Daddy to fumble.

“You don’t believe in love?” I repeated the declaration in an attempt to buy myself some time and in hope that she might elaborate.

No deal.

“I don’t believe in love,” she repeated without missing a beat and without elaborating.

“Ok, what gives? Did you and what’s-his-face break up?” I proceeded to crumble. “Did he hurt your feelings? Because if he did, I promise you, it’s the last time his silly little …”

“We’re fine, Daddy.”

“’Fine.’ That word again. Have I told you how much I hate that word? ‘Fine’ as an answer is one step above your brother saying ‘nothing’ when I ask him what he’s doing.”


One-word answers and statements will be the death of me.

“If you two are ‘fine,’ then why don’t you believe in love?” And here, I truly disintegrated. “I mean … wait … I don’t want you to think I want you to be in love or anything, especially not with him, he’s a Yankee fan, but I’m wondering what this not believing in love thing is about. Never mind him or anything. In fact, forget about him. He has no place in this conversation. We’re talking about love here. I want to know why you don’t believe in love. Don’t you love your father … your mother … your brother, well, ok, your mother and father then?”

“Of course, I do.”

A moment of solace, victory even, and then …

“Even people who don’t like their parents have to love them.”


“Then, what do you mean you don’t ‘believe’ in love.”

“It’s simple, Daddy. I believe love is eternal. If love is eternal, it can only exist in eternity. So, you can’t really know if you love someone until you’re dead.”

I felt a little relief. Her declaration about love was obviously just one of those purposefully twisted, testing-the-limits-of-logic-illogical, run-of-the-mill, pre-teen theories about something she clearly knew nothing about. … Wasn’t it?

“That doesn’t make sense, Sweetheart,” I said.

There. Much better. I could breathe now. For a moment, I became the painfully practical father and felt I had effectively regained the upper hand.

“Yes, it does, DAD!” She suddenly became painfully insistent. “If love is eternal, you can’t know if you love someone until you’re dead. You can care for some people more than you do others while you’re still alive, but you can’t know if that feeling is love until you’re on the other side.” And then, as if she were stating the most obvious, empirically verifiable fact known to mankind, she clarified everything. “If you still care about them once you’re on the other side, then you know you love them, and when they join you, then your love will be eternal.”

Having been a double-major in English and Philosophy with an undeclared minor in substance abuse, having spent many a late night during college and graduate school reading the likes of Joyce, Proust, and Celine as well Hobbes, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche while high as an untethered kite, a certain part of me, that part of my misspent youth which had never died or grown up, knew exactly where she was coming from. I was fully capable at 55 of understanding what she meant and forced to admit that her theorem was, at the very least, “plausible,” meaning that the propositions in her formula basically added up if you were willing to accept the basic premise that love is eternal.

In fact, her declaration forced something completely unexpected on me later that night—the realization that, by my daughter’s criterion for love eternal, I wasn’t sure whom I truly loved in this life besides my children. I wasn’t really sure I needed two hands to count the people I had known whom I was “dead” sure I’d still care about once I reached the other side.

My greatest fear as a parent is not that my children will someday have to endure pain—more specifically, emotional pain. In fact, I know they will, that they in fact must experience it to grow, and I even hope they get a fare dose of it early so as to develop their second skin. No, my greatest fear as a parent is not that my children will one day be in pain. My greatest fear is that one day I will have to witness them in pain—physically, emotionally, or otherwise.

And so, turning onto the freeway that evening, I suddenly decided not to dissuade her of the notion that love could only be tested in eternity. At that moment, it seemed a perfectly legitimate defense against unexpected emotional agony. My daughter and I are cut from the same cloth after all, which means she is prone to experience the simplest emotional pain in excessive and irrational proportion to the source or cause of the pain—proportions, in fact, that might very well lead her to “kill the pain” one day with drugs and alcohol or worse. If, by keeping my mouth shut, I could spare her the years of torment I put myself through because I didn’t have an appropriate defense against emotional pain, so be it.

I know this much for sure since that drive: I won’t be as quick to joke around about “love” with my daughter in the future, and I’m not nearly as likely to assign the word to feelings I’m experiencing without some notion that feeling has the potential to be eternal.

It’s 8:00 AM On A Saturday Morning

It’s around 8:00 AM on a typical Saturday morning, and I’m driving to a meeting. I jump on the I-80 Eastbound just outside of Waukee, Iowa and head for West Des Moines. It’s become one of my favorite times of week since I moved out here two months ago. At this time of day and week, there’s rarely anyone on this stretch of interstate, and I can let my G37XS do what it was designed to do–jump up to 80 before we even exit the on-ramp and make a rapid but graceful ascent to triple digits … at least for a mile or two before I reach the outskirts of the metro. At my age and sober, hitting triple digits on an open stretch of interstate, even briefly, is the thrill-meter-equivalent of a three-day bender on a yacht in the Caribbean with people who like to party the way I once did—In Excess.***

But maybe that’s not such a good idea this particular Saturday morning. It’s the first truly crisp and clear Saturday morning we’ve had this year, the kind of brisk but pleasant morning that heralds the approach of spring and makes you truly grateful you are sober and alive and fully awake and aware this early on a Saturday. It is so clear and so crisp and also so sunny, I’m lucky enough to glimpse a flash of sunlight as it reflects the chrome of an otherwise inconspicuous Iowa State Trooper patrol car up ahead and long before my G hits triple digits.

The trooper is stationary, and as I approach, I notice a second vehicle a few car lengths in front of his. I’m initially surprised to see that both the trooper and the driver of the car are standing on the shoulder of the road. A moment later it hits me: This is not a routine traffic stop. This is a field sobriety test, as evidenced by the posture of the poor woman attempting to walk a straight line–arms outstretched and seesawing like a 747 trying to touch down in a 40 mph crosswind.

It’s 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning in Middle America, and the whole scene is so incongruous, so “not right” for this time of day on this deserted stretch of interstate that I have to slow down and stare. Of course she’s seesawing. She’s in high heels … and a black skirt and a black and white check blazer and a white blouse.  I would guess her in her 40’s or 50’s at a glance, and, if it were any given weekday morning, I would have guessed her to be on her way in to work. But as I pass by and glance back in my rearview mirror, my somewhat rusty but never completely dormant alcoholic mind kicks in and clarifies everything.  Most likely this poor woman is not on her way to work but still dressed in the clothes she wore to work … yesterday. Most likely she is on her way home from a Friday night “happy hour” that didn’t end soon enough or ended in a place that isn’t her own and where I’m guessing she didn’t have access to a toothbrush or a “smarter” pair of shoes–bad break if you’re getting pulled over for speeding or driving suspiciously at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning.

Once the pair melts into the horizon of my rearview mirror, my first thought is, “Thank God it’s not me.”

But within minutes of passing the trooper and Ms. Anonymous, memories of my own experience under similar circumstances and as a much younger man come rushing back. First and foremost, there is that moment of panic the instant you realize the flashing red lights are meant for you. If you are at all cognizant, you glance quickly around the front seat of the car as you pull to the shoulder and pray there’s no evidence of your more-than-evident-to-everyone-but-you intoxication. And then there’s the rehearsal in your head. “Hi, Officer, was I over the speed limit? I didn’t realize … blah, blah, blah.” (If you are drunk and driving you don’t realize you are probably being pulled over because you’ve over-indulged any number of telltale indicators you didn’t go home after the second cocktail–weaving within your own lane, driving with your lights off, driving 10 mph above or below the speed limit, and on and on.) Once the officer doesn’t smile or say good morning and hits you with the stoic, “License and registration, please,” you begin to sense this isn’t likely to go well and begin to pray you were driving faster than you recall and hope to “get off” with a speeding ticket. Once he comes back to the car, and you hear those fateful words, “Step out of the car,” you don’t know it, but he’s very confident he has you dead to rights. I’ve never heard of a field sobriety test that resulted in an officer of the law saying, “Gee, Sir, your balance is better than a gymnasts,” or “Why, Mam, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard such an impeccable recitation of the English alphabet.” (Hopefully you don’t make the mistake of asking the officer if you can “sing” the alphabet rather than say it because you’re having trouble getting passed the letter “Q” or “R” even though you’re a graduate student in the English department of a major university–wink, nostalgic chuckle here. This makes your lawyer’s job especially difficult if the officer is tape-recording or videotaping your roadside chat.)

There’s nothing funny about a DUI unless you’ve put a few 24-hours between yourself and your last drink. The first conviction is the worst, to be sure. Being cuffed and pushed down into the back seat of a patrol car is never fun (no matter how many times you’ve experienced the downward plunge and faced the cage between you and the front seat), but it is especially demoralizing the first time. Suddenly, your I-don’t-care-what-people-think-of-me cocksure swagger transmogrifies to “How am I going to face my … fill in the blank: Mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, daughter, son, neighbor, boss?” Whether you are “knowingly” alcoholic, a defiant “I-work-hard-so-I-play-hard” drinker, or just someone who worries about how much and how often you drink, a sudden gush of fear that now everyone will know you’re drinking is out of control may occupy your mind on the way to the police station. Or, in the saddest of cases, you may be the one sitting in the back seat thinking, “Screw it, I don’t care what they say about my blood alcohol level, there’s no way I was over the limit, and the world just has it in for me.” Whatever the case, whether your default emotion is utter panic or deviant denial, you know that everyone in your world is about to get a new perspective on the issue of YOU and ALCOHOL, and you may very well need to plan a “geographical revision” of your current biography if you’re unwilling to change your current lifestyle.

I’ve been trained since Day One never to judge other people’s drinking, that it is never my place to label anyone but myself alcoholic. But it also doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that “normal” drinkers are almost never subjected to a field sobriety test at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning wearing yesterday’s work clothes. When I arrived at my own meeting that morning, and there was a moment of silence for the still-suffering alcoholic, my heart truly went out to the Ms. Anonymous I saw on the interstate only minutes before. She would surely lose her license and probably have to jump through a number of hoops to get it back. Most of us know if she is truly alcoholic, returning her license one day will be the metaphorical equivalent of releasing a kamikaze pilot from a POW camp, returning him to his plane, and asking him to promise to fly straight home and never dream of dive-bombing the enemy ever again. Just not in his DNA. What the law can’t do, what her family can’t do, what no period of untreated abstinence can do is “tell her story” the way another addict or alcoholic can. My hope for her then and now is that she be forced to go somewhere and talk to other people who’s eyes were opened by the same experience, who might help her be grateful her behavior didn’t seriously injure others, and who might teach her to find the courage to share that experience with others like herself and maybe one day find both the humor and the humanity in it.

***For the record, I never once partied on a yacht in the Caribbean with anyone, but I fantasized about it plenty from my couch in the living room while watching the latest episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.



The Warrior and The Princess

This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Renew magazine.

For me, 2014, the Year of the Horse, has been a game changer. It was the year I realized that in many ways I have become my father. It was also the year I came to realize my greatest opportunity in life might be to break the cycle of anger, addiction, and alcoholism that has plagued my family as far back as I can trace. And once again, this year, I learned that surrender is my greatest ally and benefactor.

On the 31st of October, at the tender age of 54, I celebrated 16 years of sobriety. A few months before that, I joked with my son on his 9th birthday that he was now 9 years sober since hadn’t yet taken a drink. (At least, I don’t think he has. I took my first drink at 11, and kids do things earlier and earlier these days, so who knows.) A few days after my 16th anniversary, my daughter celebrated her 12th birthday. On that day, I remembered that 12 years earlier I had come to understand, in a matter of moments, what it means to love unconditionally.

The greatest act of spirituality I can think of is the act of forgiveness. This was the year I sat quietly in the bleachers at a baseball game moments after my then 8-year old-son hit his first ever, over the fence, out of the park, home run—a walk off grand slam no less. I sat quietly because it was at that very moment—the moment other parents were jostling me, patting my back, and yelling, “Did you see it? Did you see it go over the fence? It’s a Grand Slam!”—it was at that very moment I realized I had become my father.

Less than an hour before hitting his first home run, while warming up, my son had seemed rather lethargic. I had chided him for failing to hustle, failing to show enthusiasm, failing to listen to his coaches … failing, failing, failing … to do what I thought he should be doing, as my father had chided me for failing to do what he thought I should be doing many years ago. And just as I had done to my father on numerous occasions—and with great pleasure—my son rose up and quieted my rant with one swing of his bat.

At that moment, the moment my son launched the ball over the fence with the bases loaded, I realized I had become my father and I forgave him.

Like his father before him and my father before me, my son exhibits a great deal of natural talent on the baseball field (a blessing and a curse). Already, though he’s only 8, I’ve heard numerous parents and coaches—some of them former professional baseball players–talk about his “potential,” a word I grew to hate between the ages of 8 and 18. Unlike my father, who would never know the joy and clarity of sobriety before alcoholism took his liver and eventually his life, I have the opportunity in sobriety to make my son’s experience of that word much different and hopefully more fruitful than my own. If nothing else, recovery has taught me to think of those who depend on me before I think of myself. In my son’s case, recovery forces me to focus not only on his successes and failures but also on how well he and I handle them together … until he is ready to handle them on his own.

IMG_2508 copy

After yet another day of baseball on yet another Saturday afternoon, the father of one of my son’s teammates sent me a series of photos of my 8-year-old in action. I eventually posted this one to Facebook and labeled it simply, The Warrior. I’m sure most who look at it chuckle over the artful overabundance of eye black that same father-photographer applied to my son’s cheeks before the game. It would become his signature look for the remainder of the season. Privately I labeled that picture the Warrior because I know that as an athlete and as a man, he’ll face many of the same trials and tribulations that I did and still do. Thankfully, to date, he’s never seen his “old man” take a drink or use any substance to handle any of those trials and tribulations. My greatest prayer is that in so witnessing, he, too, will turn to faith in a power greater than himself as a solution to life’s challenges before he ever thinks to turn to anything else.



Later that same day, after the baseball games were over, my son and I drove 45 miles north to Ames, Iowa to watch my daughter dance in one of her many dance competitions. Sitting in CY Stephens Auditorium on the Iowa State University campus waiting for her to take the stage and perform her solo for the first time in front of an audience, I realized how peacefully and purely I enjoyed watching her dance. She was out of my reach, way beyond “my” element, and certainly out of my control. There was nothing I could do for her even if I knew what it was she was supposed to do. I could not run back stage and tell her to show some enthusiasm or listen to her coach. I couldn’t even go backstage. And civility prohibited me from yelling out instructions or commands once she did take the stage. More important, I wouldn’t have known what to “yell out” even if civility didn’t prohibit me. All I’ve ever known to do where my daughter’s performances are concerned is to wish her luck and courage beforehand, enjoy the show, and applaud her performance once completed. Here was forced surrender and consequently a much more serene and peaceful experience of the moment.

That evening in Ames I experienced yet another moment of clarity. I realized the incentive my father provided me as a young man came not from the stern discipline and drill-sergeant-like directives he was famous for, but rather from his mere presence. Whether stern and disciplinary or supportive and loving (and he was all of the above at different times), his presence, the fact that he cared enough to be present, kept me fighting to improve as much as his absence robbed me of desire.

Sitting in that auditorium choking back tears as my daughter performed, I realized if I knew as little about baseball, golf, math, and literature as I do about modern dance, I might actually surrender a little more and enjoy my children a helluva lot more. I might learn to be less the ogre, and more the nurturer they need when struggling to learn how to live life on life’s terms.

My father never had a daughter to learn from, and sitting there that evening I knew without a doubt I had a lot more to learn from the Princess on stage that might one day benefit the Warrior by my side.

The Warrior and the Princess Photo

Breaking Bad, Or, Ending the “What Ifs”

What is it about endings anyway? Why are they so difficult, even when they hold the promise of making our lives better? I’m thinking the end of relationships (romantic or otherwise), marriages, jobs, and, of course, addictions. In particular, I’m thinking of relationships and marriages that aren’t working, jobs that are hell to go to day in and day out, habits that are clearly unhealthy, and, ultimately, addictions that are killing us.

Some would posit that change, in and of itself, is the culprit, especially for those of us who are “prone to addiction.” I’ve been told time and again that “we” don’t like “change”—even if it’s for the better. I buy that. A promotion, for example, can be a tremendous source of fear simply because it raises the specter of the unknown and the possibility of failure. I know what to do in my current job; I know what’s expected of me; and I know how to do what I’m supposed to do well. (That, of course, is why you’re offering to promote me, isn’t it?) Even though a promotion may mean a raise in pay as well as status, it also raises the suddenly very real possibility I will fail, that I will not be as good at my next job as I am at my current job, and once I leave my current job, you may never let me come back to it if I fail at the new job. “What if?”

Changing jobs may also hold the promise of getting away from a co-worker or boss who causes us anguish on a daily basis. But what if people at my current job like me because I complain with them about the annoying boss or coworker— our common enemy? What if there’s no one to complain about (not likely) at my next job and no one has a built-in or automatic reason to like me? Worse still, what if I’m promoted and become “the boss” everyone else complains about. What if I become the enemy? “What if?”

Oh, woe is me. Change categorically sucks; even when the odds are in our favor it will be good for us.

Still others would posit that, ultimately, fear of being alone is the major motivator for staying in bad relationships and bad marriages—for failing to end them. I buy that, too. The end of friendships, love affairs, and worst of all, marriages that aren’t working anymore is fraught with misleading emotions.

First, there is that distracting memory of what was once “good.” Even though things haven’t been good for a long, long time; even though the same behaviors are repeated over and over to the same unhappy end; even though we know it’s insane to stay in the present situation, we think “What if …” Maybe tomorrow the old spark that originally united us will return and the relationship will right itself, right? What if we miss that opportunity, right? Even though that opportunity has been there every day for as long as we can remember, “What if tomorrow …”

And second, even if things don’t change for the better, there is that overwhelming fear that ending the relationship may leave us … alone … forever. Which, of course, is rarely the case. And, even if it is the case, being alone isn’t always or necessarily a “bad” change. Some of us “badly” need to learn how to live well alone so that we can become “livable” partners in our next relationship. I’ve spent some of the healthiest years of my sobriety in relationship solitude. As my one-and-only roommate in sobriety liked to say, “There’s a lot of serenity in being single.”

Endings are difficult, I agree. And there are countless reasons we shy away from making them happen. But I would argue that it’s the “What ifs” more than anything else that prevent us from taking that “first step” toward making the clearly necessary endings happen. It is the “What ifs” that keep us from seeing change and the unknown as an opportunity rather than as a source of paralyzing fear.

Today, whenever I’m seriously contemplating a change in my life—and especially a change that means ending one thing and beginning another—I try to think about the first time I managed to stay sober for an entire week. Bottom line … plain and simple … all other bullshit aside: By the beginning of the fourth day, I felt better than I had felt in YEARS! I broke the bad habit of making myself physically ill by drinking myself into oblivion on a daily basis, and, if nothing else, I felt GOOD. Sure, the first few days were hell—especially in the absence of a program or any support. But I could tell, moment by moment, that I was feeling better. By the seventh day, I actually had HOPE—hope that, rather than running on a treadmill to the gates of insanity or death, my life might actually, one day, improve. Unfortunately, that first time around I didn’t believe I needed support or a “program of recovery” to stay sober, and I ended up drunk shortly afterward. But that’s not the point. The point is that the seed was planted. The point is the memory of that week is probably the single most important reason I have been willing to quiet the “What ifs“ and make other changes in my life since. More important, that memory—that simple source of hope I was given by ending something bad and taking the first step toward change—is probably the biggest reason I’m still alive today.


Pass It On … To Yet Another Guy

This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at

Just the other day one of the men I sponsor (let’s call him My Guy) wanted to know if he should encourage one of the men he sponsors—a man who had been sober less than 6 months—to “work with” another man who had expressed a desire to stop drinking.

Silly question? I think not, especially in a “recovery culture” that places so much emphasis—wisely or unwisely—on a person’s “time in” recovery as a measure of their ability to help, or work with, others.

First off, I reminded My Guy that Bill Wilson had his last drink on December 11, 1934, barely 6-months before Dr. Bob Smith took his last drink on June 10, 1935—“a soothing warm beer handed to him by Bill W. to steady his hands for surgery” (“Who Really Founded AA,”). When Bill and Bob met, they didn’t have the 12 Steps or a “Big Book” to consult, and they didn’t have a meeting to go to. They were the meeting. All Bill and Bob had on June 10, 1935 was each other.

Second, I reminded myself “practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 89). To suggest that one alcoholic with a desire to stop drinking cannot in some way help another alcoholic with a desire to stop drinking is, of course, ludicrous. The very notion flies in the face of the principles that bind all of us in recovery.

Nonetheless, I understood My Guy’s question the instant he texted me. The question wasn’t really whether His Guy could “help” the Other Guy; the real question was should he “allow” His Guy to “sponsor” the Other Guy.

I don’t know what it’s like in your town or at your meetings, but in my experience the phrase “working with others” is too often equated with sponsorship—as if “To work with is to sponsor” were a spiritual axiom of some sort. For nearly 16 years now, I’ve worn my sponsor like a life jacket. But he certainly isn’t the only person in recovery who has “helped” me or “worked with” me. Many men and women have—some with more sobriety than I have and just as many with less. And quite possibly, those who are new to sobriety help me the most because they challenge me to explain, and remind me time and again, why I do the things I do to stay sober, one day at a time.

The bottom line, always, is that any kind of work I do with other alcoholics, any contact I have with others who are on (or interested in finding) a path to recovery, will only serve to “insure” my own “immunity from drinking.” It’s the primary reason I still go to so many meetings and certainly the reason I take time to write about my experience in recovery. Sharing that experience makes it real, and making it real makes me all the more accountable not only to my self, my sponsor, and the men I sponsor, but also to the very concept of a recovery that happens one day at a time.

So my answer to My Guy was Yes, of course, His Guy should work with the Other Guy. But My Guy and I were not Pollyanna about the situation either. We agreed we needed to remind His Guy that you “cannot transmit something you haven’t got”(164), that His Guy’s first order of business with the Other Guy would be to introduce the new man to the fellowship that has grown up around the rest of us. Somewhere in that shared experience, we can only hope the Other Guy might find the strength to hang around until it’s his time to pass it on to yet Another Guy.

The Blame Game


Sometimes just for a minute …

Sometimes for an hour …

Sometimes for days … weeks … months even, depending on the severity of the problem, the depth of the issue.

But by all means and at all costs …


At some point during our active “using” careers, many of us found it necessary to become expert at the blame game. For me to successfully camouflage the severity of my drinking problem, I had to sabotage the lives of others. That way, I could point the finger somewhere other than my own face when my drinking caused problems in the world around me.

But those of us who’ve genuinely worked the 12 steps, and especially steps 9 and 10, know that camouflaging the truth is as detrimental to maintaining our sobriety as failing to camouflage it was to hiding our addictions. The old blame game becomes an exercise in self-sabotage.

But how do we break such a deeply ingrained habit? Just because I don’t drink doesn’t necessarily mean I no longer lie, cheat, steal, con, or, at the very least, color the truth so it matches the world I see through my rose-colored glasses. How, once we’ve stopped using, do we suddenly become willing to search–as a reflex rather than as an afterthought or a sponsor direction–for the truth in all matters? And how do we learn to refuse, at all costs, to blame others automatically for all the problems, large and small, we endure in life?

As with most things in sobriety, when it comes to halting the blame game, I’ve found simple answers that aren’t always easy to apply. To this day, however, before I allow myself to assign blame (and I am still as prone and egomaniacally inspired to assign blame as the day I began this journey), at all costs, I …


And if I can, I change my location. I do whatever I can to take my head somewhere other than where it is the moment I sense that I’m somehow disturbed. If I’m inside, I go out. If I’m outside, I go in. I go wherever I can to ensure my senses experience something entirely different. I’m not running, I’m not hiding, I’m just shifting my surroundings enough to shift my thinking. I do this to physically remind myself that everything—absolutely everything in this life—will change; that this, too (whatever disturbance “this” is), shall pass. If, as I’m so often told, I suffer a disease of perception, then a change in perspective should act as a figurative sedative.

After I pause and relocate, I try to remember two things our literature has taught me:

  • After all, our problems were of our own making (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 103)
  • It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 90)

My divorce from the mother of my children is now four years old—plenty ripe to have taught me a few things. The monologue—sans obscenities—that charged through my head the day she announced she didn’t want to be married anymore began something like this: “After all I have done for that woman … .”

Luckily, before my thinking went too far and became too self-serving, I managed to PAUSE.

And luckily, before I acted in a manner unbecoming someone with 11 years of sobriety (at the time), I managed to change my surroundings and my perspective almost immediately by calling my sponsor.

At that moment, I didn’t want to consider that I might have done something to her that inspired the divorce … but I was reminded that someday I would have to face that fact.

At that moment, deep in the emotional turmoil prompted by the idea of not waking up in the same house as my children everyday, I didn’t want to accept that there might be something wrong with me that was causing their mother to take flight … but I was reminded that someday I would have to face that fact, too.

And at that moment, I certainly wasn’t ready to give her one iota of credit for what she might have done for me over the years—conveniently ignoring the fact that she was, after all, the mother of my children.

Luckily—no matter how deep the quagmire—the challenges I face in recovery are never as solitary as they were during my life as a practicing alcoholic. I have a sponsor, I have friends, I have the fellowship that grew up around me to help me seek the truth at all times. I have the ability to PAUSE … look around … and ask for help.

When I took a long, hard look at my behavior during the final years of my marriage, I realized pretty quickly I wouldn’t have always been thrilled to be married to me either. My wife was younger than I was and the mother of two small and wonderful children. It should have been a time to marvel and experience joy for both of us. And for a time it was, until I allowed fear of financial insecurity (something I thought I had conquered long ago) to consume me. And once it did, I quickly became the Ogre who’s return home at night went from being an event to anticipate … to an event to endure … to an event to avoid whenever possible, and eventually permanently. When I took a long hard look at my behavior during the final years of my marriage, from 2007- 2010, I couldn’t help but accept the fact that my problems were of my own making.

And there’s a strange thing that happens once I accept the spiritual axiom that if I am disturbed, there is something wrong with me … there’s a strange thing that happens when I point the finger first and foremost at myself rather than at someone else: I discover that my first instinct is not to find blame but rather to forgive. When I instantly acknowledge my part in any disturbance (and we know we always have “a” part), I’m much more likely to accept the other person’s imperfection and humanity and look to amend the relationship, and much less inclined to deepen the wounds with rationalizations and accusations.

In the example that is my divorce, we quickly discovered that the simple solution to our discomfort was right under our noses: We made amends before the decree was signed and agreed to keenly focus all of our future interactions on the welfare of our children. It’s the only right thing to do. No one says you have to like each other to do the next right thing. My ex-wife and I have had the good fortune of burying the hatchet and remaining friends. The relief that has brought to my children during the past four years is tangible. But I’ve worked with other men whose divorces were far more contentious, and they, too, agree that keeping the focus on caring for their kids softens their resentment and makes interacting with their former spouses far more tolerable—and directed.

As I have found in so many situations in sobriety, once I acknowledge that I have a part in the problem—once I acknowledge that if I’m ill at ease with a person, place, or institution, something is wrong with me—I have very little desire to “figure things out.” I’m much less likely to care about who was right and who was wrong. I’m much less likely to worry about assigning blame. Once I’ve recognized that I had a part to play in the drama that ultimately led to my own discomfort (whether it is because I or someone else initially chose to act badly), the only thing I’m truly curious about is how to end the discomfort and move on.

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.