Tag Archives: alcoholics anonymous

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.




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.

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.

Vegas Revisited

This post first appeared in October 2012 on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com.

Anyone who’s seen the movie “Leaving Las Vegas” might think Vegas the last place a recovering alcoholic should go on vacation. “Too much temptation, no?” my “normal” friends sometimes ask. Quite the contrary, I tell them. In my experience, anyway, Vegas has become a place to find not only gratitude but, more important, compassion.

Like many of us, I squandered plenty of time, money, and morality as a young, functioning alcoholic roaming The Strip back in the 80’s.  I drank too much, smoked too much, stayed at the same blackjack table too long, and sought the company of the all the wrong people in all the wrong places at all the wrong times. I came for the glitter and gold and left penniless, besmirched, and destitute. And like any good alcoholic, when given the opportunity, I went back for more, telling myself each time I returned that “This time, it’s going to be different.”

But that was the 80’s, and I was in my twenties, and the only people who thought I had a problem with alcohol back then were all of you—but certainly not me. The last time I took a drink in Las Vegas was in 1987, and I took it at the airport, at the last possible moment, before I had to board a plane and get out of town.

I’ve since come to the conclusion that, generally, there are two types of people in Vegas: Those who can (handle it because they can take it or leave it, all of it) and those who shouldn’t (because they can never get enough of whatever it is that draws them there in the first place–gambling, booze, drugs, sex, whatever).

Back in 2007, after a 20-year hiatus, I began making bi-annual trips to Las Vegas with my sponsor, who had bought a house in nearby Henderson. We basically punctuate our Midwestern golf season each year with a trip in late winter and another in early fall, and golf, above all else, is our primary purpose when we’re there. But you can’t golf day and night, so, invariably, after dinner each night, we usually find ourselves roaming one casino or another for an hour or three–rarely more, never less.

On my first trip back in ’07, I quickly realized both Vegas and I had long since been transformed. I was 9 years sober then and no longer a 20-something as full of lust as I was thirst. The Strip was no longer a strip but rather a cluster of higher rise resorts and casinos than my spotty memory could recall, and the surrounding desert itself was pockmarked with exponentially more residential housing than I’d ever imagined possible.

But that’s where the differences ended for me. Everything else about Vegas–the endless sea of visual temptation and boundless energy of the place–was in tact. If anything, the city seemed more intense and sophisticated than ever before. And at almost every turn in almost every casino, I caught glimpses of my former self: the drunken young man too loudly and proudly announcing his winnings (which he’d soon enough give back) at the blackjack table; the bleary-eyed but cocksure kid currying favor with the cocktail waitress who’d sooner give him a swift kick in the ass with her sore feet than give him the phone number he was soliciting; and all too frequently, the lone ranger wobbling out of a casino empty handed or bobbing and weaving down The Strip as though the sidewalk were made of Silly Putty rather than concrete. “There but for the grace of God … ” I’d tell my sober and wiser self, “There but for the grace of God.” Vegas became a source of gratitude more than a source of temptation.

Last month, only a week or so before my 14th sobriety birthday, I returned once again to Vegas with my sponsor, five other men in my line of sponsorship, and one of the men I currently sponsor. Like every other trip we’ve made since 2007, our days were filled with an overdose of heckling on the golf course, we ate well every morning and every night, and for a couple of hours before turning in each night, most of us tried our luck at the casino du jour.

But this time around, for no apparent reason, my eyes were turned not to the young men who reminded me of my desperate youth, but rather the men who represented what my future might well have been if I hadn’t found Alcoholics Anonymous. Mostly, they were men my age or older, disheveled and unshaven, feeding dollar bills or plastic cards into slot machines, hands often shaking ever so slightly as they hit the Repeat Spin button, over and over and over. Now and again I’d make eye contact with one of them, and wonder what they saw.

For whatever reason, this time around, “There but for the grace of God … ” didn’t play in my head as it had on so many trips before. Sure, I’m grateful their lot in life isn’t mine. I’m grateful that, unlike so many, today I can take or leave whatever it is Vegas has to offer, and therefore truly enjoy the place. But this time around, gratitude for my own freedom from the clutches of alcoholism, for the daily reprieve a life of recovery affords me, simply wasn’t good enough. Instead, the phrase that kept playing back in my head was “still suffering alcoholic,” and my mind and my heart stuck on the word “suffering,” because like any recovering alcoholic, with just a moment or two of intense concentration, I can very easily conjure memories of the depth of that suffering and the sense of hopelessness that goes with it. I only hope that those with whom I did make eye contact saw not a countenance of judgment but rather one of understanding and compassion.
And if they didn’t, I realize now more than ever before that I have a life-long obligation to make sure every newcomer who walks into a meeting where I take up space knows the instant I extend a hand to greet him or her that I am and always will be an alcoholic who understands and has empathy for their suffering. Until that common ground between us is firm and secure, until the still-suffering alcoholic knows that I care and that I do not judge, I have little chance of sharing effectively the boundless sense of hope Alcoholics Anonymous has freely afforded me these past 14 years.

I can only hope that every time I find myself  “leaving Las Vegas” in the future, I leave with the same acute sense of purpose I left with this time, that sense that gratitude alone is not enough, that the only way to keep the gifts we’re given is to actively find opportunities to give those gifts away.

Look for the Good

This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com.

“I don’t waste my time looking for the bad in people, Gregory,” My aunt said. “Look for the good.”

Earlier this summer, back on the weekend before the 4th of July, I had the opportunity to take my children back to Connecticut to visit my mother and the other members of my family whom they rarely see. In fact, before this trip, they hadn’t seen their grandmother Kayko since December of 2010. For months they’d been anxiously anticipating the trip, which I, at the same time, was quietly dreading.

I wasn’t dreading the trip because I don’t love my mother (or my aunts and uncles and cousins who all remain in or near my hometown in central Connecticut). I was dreading the realities I knew I’d have to face.  I knew that my mother, at 86, and her sister and brother-in-law, who live right next door, had all suffered serious health setbacks since our last visit in 2010: diabetes, dementia, prostate cancer, and many of the other ailments that attend the realities of aging.

On our second night in town, my mother insisted we make the trek over to visit my aunt. I say trek because visiting my Aunt Pauline meant helping my mother navigate a flight of stairs, a curb, and a driveway: No small feat for a woman who had beaten breast cancer not once, but twice, lost a section of her pancreas to surgery on a benign tumor, and was now managing type 2 diabetes, which often caused her a great deal of pain in her feet and legs. Should I live to be 86 and have 1/10th the fortitude of people like my mother and my aunt, I will certainly count myself as blessed.

Walking into the bedroom where my aunt was convalescing (as I understood it she’d grown so weak and frail she’d only been out of bed twice since they’d brought her home from the hospital the previous October) was like walking into a scene from a 19th century Russian novel: the low lighting, the stillness, and the silence which was interrupted only by the soft-spoken broken English of my aunt’s home nurse, Maria, a Ukrainian immigrant who had once been a doctor in her homeland but now spent her days in America caring for the elderly in their homes. The only distinctly modern touch in the room seemed to be the chrome of the hospital bed my uncles and cousins had bought to make my aunt’s time at home more convenient and bearable.

Witnessing the irreversible deterioration of any elderly loved one is disheartening. Witnessing my aunt Pauline’s demise was especially disturbing to me because she was truly the matriarch of recovery in our family. We have a long standing joke in our family that all of the men are either practicing or recovering alcoholics and all of the women are either treated or untreated “Al-Anons.”  Some 40+ years earlier, when my uncle’s alcoholism had taken him to a bottom from which few thought he would ever recover (two bottles of gin a day in the basement of that very house), my aunt sought solace in Al Anon. Within a year, my uncle was committed to a VA hospital in Connecticut and told he would die if he ever drank again. At least that’s the way I heard it as a kid, and what I recall is that he emerged from that hospital sober and, thanks to God, AA, and a sponsor, has never taken a drink since. What’s more, the nuclear family within our extended family of alcoholics that had been the most decimated and demoralized by this disease would emerge to be the model for the rest of us who sought recovery–all, in my mind, because my Aunt Pauline took the first step of seeking help for herself.

What I remember even more clearly from my childhood years is that once my aunt surrendered to the fact that she could do absolutely nothing to save her husband but everything to save herself and raise her three sons, I never again heard a negative word about other people, places, or circumstances leave her lips. She was not only the matriarch of recovery in our family, she was the patron saint of unsullied optimism. A very strong but simple daughter of Polish immigrants, she was always cheerfully interjecting the most annoying of clichés into situations the rest of us took far too seriously: “Give him the benefit of the doubt,” “We’re only human,” “Nobody’s perfect,” “Forgive and forget,” and on and on and on. I can still hear her voice and see her smile as a younger woman to this day. Even as a teenager, I often wondered how a woman who had been beaten down psychologically and emotionally for so many years could emerge from the ashes so full of optimism and enthusiasm for life, and all just because she went to a few meetings a week with like-minded people.

Later that evening, after we had all spent a half hour or so with my aunt, Maria offered to take the children out to the living room to watch TV. Pauline had already turned to my son and asked him, “How old are you?” at least three times, and it was beginning to freak him out. Eventually my mother, too, decided to take a break and join the nurse and the kids in the front room.

Alone with my Aunt Pauline I wondered if she even understood who was sitting beside her in the room now. To my surprise, within moments of everyone leaving, she turned to me and said, “You look good, Gregory, and you have beautiful children.” So, she did know who I was. Never one to accept a complement very graciously, I launched into a monologue about the kids. I told her, as I’d told so many others, what a gem my daughter Gracie was, how I honestly wondered if she weren’t simply an angel sent down to look after the rest of us. I told her what a good heart my son Adam had but that he also had a rather mischievous spirit and that he kept me on my toes every moment he was awake. And then it happened: The seemingly weak and heavily sedated Aunt Pauline lying under the thin veil of a bed sheet held the palm of her left hand up to silence me and became as lucid and firm in her tone as a perfectly healthy 20-something. “I don’t waste my time looking for the bad in people, Gregory. Look for the good.”

Within moments she lowered her arm to the bed, turned her head away from me, and, as if returning to a conversation in a far distant and possibly kinder place, said, “I like my room. I hope I never have to leave my room again until its time.”

It was in that moment I felt I understood why it had been so important for me to make this trip after more than a year away: To hear my Aunt Pauline affirm, one more time, that life is good–even as she lie dying in the room she loved so much. Her admonition was full of not only wisdom but also guidance. I’d been told many times in many ways by many people in my life to “look for the good” in others, but my aunt Pauline had just given me a reason that was more inspiring than any I’d ever received from mentors or read in books: To look for anything other than the good is an utter waste of time.

Relapse: A Means to One End or Another—Part II

This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

My sponsor loves to remind me that trying to understand irrational behavior with a rational mind is futile. Relapse, by definition, is irrational (and when repeated often enough presents itself as certifiably insane). Think about it: Most of us do arrive at treatment or the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous kicking and screaming. It’s the last place we want to be. It’s also usually our last hope. The pain has become too great (or the law too persuasive), and we say, “Uncle.” We admit defeat. We admit the problem is bad enough that, despite our pride and prejudice (we are not like those people in there, right?), we do the unthinkable: We ask for help.

For a time, we get clean and sober. Some of us even like it. Some of us love being sober so much we stay sober from the very start until the day they bury us (the sober minority). Some of us like it a whole lot, love it really, but after a while, for reasons beyond reason, we decide that — even though we feel so much better and our lives have gotten so much better and our loved ones love us so much more (or, at least, become much more willing to tolerate us) and we experience all these plusses and very few minuses — we decide that maybe we’ve overcorrected and we should test the waters that have bathed us in pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization just one more time. Why? Because maybe, just maybe (and especially given the volumes of brilliant knowledge we have gleaned nearly overnight about our condition and ourselves), maybe things will be different this time. Now that, to be sure, is the epitome of irrational thinking.

For those of us who make it back, one day the insanity of our relapse may present itself as a source of humor. I often laugh at the comic irony of my last relapse (which resulted in a 90-day drunk). I had been bouncing in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous for 18 months after once having stayed sober nearly three years. One morning, with about three months of sobriety under my belt and nearly two full weeks without a meeting (I planned to go later that day, I told myself), I went out to the pool at the apartment complex where I lived to enjoy my coffee and the morning paper. I was the first to arrive and grab a chaise lounge. Around 10 a.m. a young woman arrived with an inflatable raft and one of those ever-so-quaint 6-pack coolers. She parked her raft at the other end of the pool and slipped a bright silver can out of the cooler before jumping onto her raft. A Coors Light, the Silver Bullet, to be sure.

Now, I want to clarify before going on that I’m a guy’s guy and A Coors Light holds about as much appeal for me as a glass of ice tea. Actually, I’d prefer an ice tea, and I’d be most appreciative of a Long Island Ice Tea before all else. (Let’s get all the white liquors on the bar into one glass; that, my friends, is a touch of class.) But something in my mind told me that a Coors Light might not be a bad idea. If this woman could handle a Coors Light at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, then why on earth couldn’t I? It really didn’t make any sense. She couldn’t have been a day over 25 and probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet in a winter parka. I was a three-letter high school jock and a man who, at one time, could easily handle a fifth of the finest booze in the bar one night and still make it to work on time the next morning. Surely, I had not tried hard enough to make this drinking thing work.

And so, without another thought, and certainly without even a passing nod to my sponsor’s phone number, I rose from the chaise (leaving my coffee cup, my towel and my newspaper behind because I’d be right back) and drove as quickly and directly as possible to the nearest convenience store where they sold beer, wine and spirits, and stocked up on all three, including a six-pack of my least favorite beer on the face of the earth: Coors Light. Less than 20 minutes after returning to the apartment, I had four of the watery beers down and two left to take out to the pool. No sooner had I repositioned my now mildly-buzzed ass in my previously reserved chaise lounge with the two remaining Coors Lights still in their plastic rings than my little inspiration came floating by on her inflatable pod of heavenliness holding, you guessed it, a bright silver can of Diet Coke.

Irrational minds see things irrationally, too.

I tell that story often at meetings mainly to establish that my Higher Power, for one, has a deliciously twisted sense of humor when it comes to playing tricks on an untreated alcoholic. And at that time, I was truly untreated and resisting everything about my sober life. Luckily, that relapse would lead to what I hope will remain my last surrender.

I wish all my stories of relapse could be so comic and ironic. Unfortunately they are not. About three months after that sunny summer morning by the pool in 1998, I returned to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. At the same time, two friends with whom I had both drunk and been sober for varying lengths of time, and who had also relapsed, returned to meetings. During the first six months of my sobriety, I drove one of them to a meeting nearly every day because his alcohol and meth habits had left him without a wife, without a job, without a car and living at his mother’s house. The other, a woman whom I’d actually known in treatment five years earlier and drunk with on only one occasion because her drinking frightened me, refused to return to the same meetings we went to because she didn’t wish to “be judged.” I share these facts because, although all three of us made some effort to return to a sober life, only one of us survived more than six months.

The young man, not yet 30, would eventually shoot himself in the chest in the front doorway of his mother’s house. A few days later I was a pallbearer at his funeral. A week or so after his funeral, the young woman, not yet 40, would drink a bottle of windshield wiper fluid after being released from detox and never return from the coma it drove her into. I served as a pallbearer at her funeral as well.  For reasons that made absolutely no sense, both had lost the one thing I was and am still able to find in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: HOPE.

It was at the young man’s funeral that my sponsor (who also sponsored the now deceased younger man) first said to me, after I asked the questions why and what could we have done differently: “Don’t try to understand an irrational act with a rational mind, Greg. If you stick around long enough, you’ll see that some of us have to die so the rest of us can stay sober.”

Another one of those disheartening clichés that is so true as to become axiomatic. Some have to die so others can stay sober. If you stick around long enough you do begin to see it. And you become convinced that relapse is a means to one end or another.

Who Saves Us? We Do?

This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

“Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.”

Those are the first two sentences of Joan Didion’s bestseller, The Year of Magical Thinking, which, some will recall, opens with the sudden death of her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne. On more than one occasion since I first read those two simple but deftly declarative sentences, I’ve found myself thinking, “Yes, in my sober life anyway, life often does change ‘in the instant.’” And those “instants” of change—however small or large, however joyous or deleterious—usually require some measure of reflection and ultimately some measure of recovery.

Like the instant on Valentine’s Day 2009 when my then wife—while standing on the third and final step of the short staircase leading into the kitchen of our house from the garage and under a dimming bare bulb I had been intending to replace for weeks—turned to me and said, “I’m not sure I want to be married anymore.” I distinctly remember deciding at that very moment I would not go to sleep that night until I had changed the light bulb. I distinctly remember telling myself to just “stay,” to stay in that moment and not allow myself in any way, shape, or form to react because I knew myself well enough to know that any reaction of mine would surely harm, and definitely not help, the situation.

On that otherwise unremarkable Valentine’s Day (which may tell you something), I was a few months into my tenth year of sobriety, and my life—or more notably, the assumptions I’d made about my life in sobriety—did, in fact, change “in the instant.” The resulting changes and the ways I handled them are chronicled at length earlier in this blog. Initially, I posed the question: How does one with double-digit sobriety walk through life’s ups and downs with dignity and grace—more specifically, the dignity and grace I’d witnessed in the lives of those who were my seniors in sobriety. Early on, I captured the ways in which my children’s mother and I navigated divorce. We’ve done so about as successfully as you could hope to navigate such a disruption in your biography. We’ve done so by keeping our focus, first and foremost, on our children’s well being. Their mother and I had met in recovery, and despite a significant age difference and the fact that she is no longer “in” recovery, we continue to have the presence of mind to put principles before personalities.

What my earlier posts do not capture, however, is the role that working with others has played in my being able to accept and adjust to a new normal, the ways in which those “others” have saved my ass when my ass was truly falling off. That—the mingled roles of service, fellowship, and both sides of sponsorship—is what I’d like to capture in this blog. Working with others is, I believe, the glue that binds our long-term recovery. It is, I know, what has made me a sobriety junkie.

Anyone in a strong line of sponsorship has heard it all before: You wanna solve your own problems, you wanna lessen the emotional pain you’re feeling (for whatever reason, however significant or relevant), then find a way to get out of Self. Find a newcomer to work with. Be of service at a meeting. Call another alcoholic and ask him how his day is going (and don’t tell him about yours). Do something kind for other people (and don’t tell them you did it). The clichés abound. To hear them is one thing, to act on and experience the magic and the majesty that is working with another alcoholic is to understand why those clichés are axiomatic.

At the time my then wife announced her uncertainty about staying married, my life as a recovering alcoholic seemed fairly stable and predictable, especially considering how chaotic all of our professional lives had become after 2007 and the fact that, at the age of almost-50, I was dad to a six-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. I’d managed to hang on to a very good job, I went to four meetings a week, held a service position at my home group, sponsored one or two men in sobriety, and played golf once a week with my sponsor. In the 18 months between her pronouncement and the divorce becoming final, however, a strange thing happened: On an increasingly regular basis, more and more men were suddenly asking me to sponsor them.

I’ve never been a “Step Nazi,” and though I’m a firm believer that meeting makers make it, I’ve never actively solicited men to sponsor—much to my own sponsor’s chagrin, I’m sure. So why did these men, some of whom I’d known a long time and others whom I didn’t know at all, suddenly decide I was someone they wanted to work with in sobriety?

The only reasonable answer I’ve been able to muster is simple: Vulnerability. During the first 10 years of my sobriety, I rarely allowed myself to show any sign of weakness, to share anything in meetings that might have suggested a chink in the armor that was my coveted sobriety. In meetings, I thought it necessary to discuss only “the solution” as I understood it so I would convey only a message of hope to newcomers in the room.  I saved my problems and my worries for private conversations with my sponsor. I rarely put anything on the line.

But faced with the loss of everything I held dear, faced with the realization that the day would come (sooner than I had ever anticipated) that my children and I would not sleep and wake in the same house every night and every morning, I found it impossible to keep my raw emotions to myself, or to confine them to a weekly phone call with the one man I trusted. As a consequence, I became accessible (or so they tell me). As a consequence of allowing myself to be vulnerable, it became possible for others to share their vulnerabilities with me. Thank God. If it weren’t for my brothers in sponsorship and the men I sponsor myself, I dare say the hours in each day over the past three years would have been far more interminable and far less fruitful. Nothing “will so much insure” healing like a good dose of fellowship.

And now it is time to give back. The book Alcoholics Anonymous says we are “people who normally would not mix.”  Nothing could be truer of the men I’ve sponsored recently: a waiter, a therapist, an auto mechanic, a bill collector, an art director, a computer salesman, a photographer (or two), a cable guy, and a network analyst. Unfortunately, right now, a few of those men are faced with situations almost identical to the one I walked through nearly three years ago. Our book also says “we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” Instead, we share the experience, strength, and hope we’ve gleaned from it. And so, the night the first of those men shared the news that his wife no longer wanted to be married, I did what has become something of a ritual among the men I sponsor: I invited him and a few of his brothers in sponsorship over to “burn some meat” on the grill (and some salmon since we’re a bunch of old farts and some of us need to eat a little more healthfully). A manly thing to do in the face of an otherwise emasculating conundrum, right? Except we laughed and talked and cried in ways I’d never have imagined manly men capable of doing “back in the day” when most of us would have headed to a bar where we could quickly and easily bottle up the pain.

Who saves us? In the sober world where I live today, by the grace of God, we make it a habit to save each other “in the instant” and never a moment later.