Tag Archives: action

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.

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Broken


People get broken. Broken hearts, broken bones, broken dreams, they break down, they break up, they break the bank, break promises … break, break, break, we all fall down.

People get broken a lot, in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons. Some good, some bad, some just because. But how do they mend?

Sometimes I think those of us who live a life of active recovery take what we have at our fingertips for granted. When we get broken, we have instant access to the healing process: people like ourselves who intuitively understand EXACTLY what we’re thinking and feeling.

The other night after dinner I asked a younger man, someone new to Alcoholics Anonymous and whom I was encouraging to attend more meetings, “Where else can you go for an hour and know, with certainty, that the topic of conversation will be significant?  Where else can you go and know that the people in the room have to care about you if they have any hope of saving themselves?”

There Is a Solution, Part II


Back on February 24, 2010, I wrote the following paragraph in a post titled “Emotional Pain: A Source of Hope, A Prompt to Love.” To this day, that paragraph offers as much solution as I can muster from my own experience in sobriety (and I’m committed to sharing only my experience):

“As my current marriage inches closer and closer to its own end, I hope to draw some valuable lessons from the losses I’ve both experienced and witnessed these past 50 years. First and foremost, I hope to wake each morning with a firm commitment to ‘trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.’ If past experience has taught me anything, it’s that a failure to rise up and DO is a sure-fire prescription for emotional suicide. I continue to wake each morning at 5 so I have time to meditate and hit the gym before I leave for work at 8. I endeavor each day to leave my emotional issues at home to the best of my ability and commit my focus to work while I’m there. I continue to play, read, laugh, and work with my kids in all the ways they’ve come to expect—as much for my sanity as their protection. And, I hope, to the best of my ability, I continue to respect, and maintain an appropriate level of civility with, my wife, whom I still count as a great friend. None of these efforts is perfect nor do I perform them in absence of that often gut-wrenching pain that accompanies impending loss. I’m not always fun, and I’m not always patient. But I force myself to try to be when I recognize I’m not. I’m far from perfectly civil or perfectly respectful; I’m just as capable of anger and resentment as ever. But any time anger wells up, I try like hell to squelch it (or call my sponsor), knowing full well if I indulge it, I’m the only one who is likely to suffer. I am way beyond those days when I could unleash my own wrath and enjoy it or walk away from it without consequence. Another sign of hope, I think.”

I’m not normally prone to depression … not in the absence of alcohol anyway. But these past 18 months, I’ve woke more than once with little or no desire to “trudge the happy road.” I hadn’t experienced that kind of debilitating malaise (the kind that straps you down and makes getting out of bed seem monumental) for well over 10 years. During the divorce, however, I woke many mornings feeling this way. I would often lie in bed after the alarm went off and play the “maybe-I-don’t-need-to” game. “Maybe I don’t need to meditate today; if I don’t, I can get an extra hour of much-needed sleep.” Bullshit! “Maybe I don’t need to go to the gym this morning; I’ll head to work early and squeeze the workout in at the end of the day.” Bullshit! End of day workouts haven’t “worked out” for me for years. If you’ve had a morning routine that works in sobriety and you find yourself playing the maybe-I-don’t-need-to game during tough times, start playing the NO BULLSHIT game instead. I learned to will myself out of bed and mindlessly back into my routines. They had worked for me in good times for a reason, a reason I didn’t need to understand. I just needed to learn to wake up willing to DO and not question. It’s no different than willing myself to a meeting. I don’t know why meetings work for me. They just do. They work their magic in spite of me, so I mindlessly will myself to meetings on a regular basis.

Some mornings I’d wake up suffering the Great Ache, that low-level ache in the gut that, left untended, could make me nervous and even nauseous with the realization that soon I’d be divorced, soon the kids wouldn’t be in the house with me every morning, soon my life would be a life I no longer recognized as my own. Again, my antidote to the Great Ache was, and still is, the same as my antidote to the maybe-I-don’t-need-to game: Get up fast and DO, do something. Once I’d willed myself out of bed, I’d will myself to meditate. Often times my meditations were worthless, my mind wandering or obsessing, my body failing to relax. Didn’t matter. Going through the motions of prayer and meditation, however mindlessly, was far more effective than staying in bed spinning yarns in my head and nurturing aches in my gut.

Once I’d made it through meditation, getting to the gym was much easier. I was awake and actually hungry for the energy I knew the workout would give me. By the time I shaved and showered, I was ready to be away for the day–somewhere I could give myself a mental and emotional vacation from the heartache. Work, golf, a trip to the park or grocery store with the kids, any of the simple activities that used to weigh me down in my drinking days, proved to be the best antidote to fear of the unknown in those final months before the marriage ended. Finally, as I have for the past 12 years, I hit 4 or more meetings a week and kept current with both my own sponsor and the guys I sponsor. Nothing has done more to insure my sobriety and my sanity than “intensive work with other alcoholics.” Nothing ever has; nothing ever will.

I don’t mean to suggest that doing what I’ve always done to stay sober made divorce any easier or less painful. Only that it did make the process more tolerable. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest for a moment that I “have” the solution. I only wish to remind all of us that there is one. It’s in our basic text, “Alcoholics Anonymous.” (Which reminds me of something I’ve heard Johnny H. from California say almost every time I’ve heard him speak: “If you want to hide something from an AA member, stick it in his Big Book,” implying most of us don’t spend nearly enough time in the book.)

So, the circumstances and challenges life throws at us may change (and certainly are likely to continue to change), but the solution doesn’t seem to waver much from its path. We’re handed a simple kit of spiritual tools when we arrive at AA. All we really have to do is will ourselves to pick it up.

Moment of Clarity #2: True Love


In true love, there are no victors and no victims—only the genuine pursuit of time well spent.

No Pain, No Gain


“No pain, no gain.” I’ve endured that taunt since high school. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’ve always had an extremely high tolerance for physical pain. I once caught an entire high school baseball game with a broken wrist and played left field in another on a broken ankle. I played high school football games with everything from
broken fingers to a torn quadricep. Add alcohol to this disposition in early adulthood, and you end up in your fair share of barroom brawls—replete with face-scarring, broken-bottle swipes, bloody noses, black eyes, and enough face-first collisions with concrete to permanently dimple any chin. Nothing to be proud of, for sure . . . unless, of course, you’re an active alcoholic in need of another tall, barroom tale to tell.

What did I “gain” from all of that pain? On the one hand, not much—not until later, in my late twenties, when I rigorously studied the martial art of Aikido for three years in Japan and learned, for the first time in my life, the true importance of conflict avoidance. On the other hand, physical pain does teach you one valuable lesson: Time heals all that can be healed. Most cuts, bruises, and breaks (if not critical or life threatening) do mend—less and less efficiently as you age, but mend they will.

Emotional pain, however, is entirely different. Time alone has never been enough to heal my emotional pain. For years, from the age of 11 to 38, I had the instant cure for feeling anything; alcohol—properly abused—could dim, dull, or dissolve most any emotion I didn’t care to confront: relationships failed, I drank; my father died, I drank; my wife and I ended our marriage, I drank. I will never forget the sunny morning I left my first wife after 8 years of marriage. I loaded up a newly purchased pickup with my feeble belongings, hopped on I-35 in Kansas City headed for Des Moines and cried all the way to Kearney, Missouri (about 20 minutes outside of KC) where I pulled off, loaded up the cooler in the back seat with beer, and began a three-year celebration of my freedom. That celebration ended one night in 1993 when I fought the law and the law won. That night also marked the beginning of the end of my ability to cure everything with a drink.

What then? What do those of who have never allowed ourselves to feel a genuine emotion do when suddenly, as full-grown but under-matured adults, we are forced to “feel?” If we hope to stay sober and survive, we do exactly what we should have begun to do the day we took our very first drink: Grow up.

For me, and I’m only taking responsibility for my own experience here, “growing up” has meant much more than simply trying to behave in a mature and responsible fashion. That would never have been enough to keep me sober. For me, growing UP has quite literally meant growing upward spiritually to a genuine relationship with a higher power I choose to call God. Time alone has never healed a single emotional wound for me, but time + prayer + meditation + action on a daily basis has made it possible for me to say, in all honestly, I am current with the souls around me and quite content to die in my sleep tonight if that’s what’s in the script.

In subsequent posts, I hope to talk more specifically about how that very formula (time+prayer+meditation+action) has delivered me on more than one occasion from the often dismal shores of emotional pain to the much brighter side of personal gain. I’m hoping that some of you, especially those of you with longer periods of emotional sobriety, will share your own strategies for dealing with emotional setbacks—strategies designed to benefit the newcomer. In other words, I’m hoping we can all join in an active discussion of the solution.