Tag Archives: alcoholism

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 Blame Game


PAUSE …

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 …

… PAUSE.

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 …

… PAUSE.

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.

Risky Business


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

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

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

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

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

Alcoholics Anonymous, Second Edition Foreword

And,

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

Alcoholics Anonymous, 133

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming the Newcomer


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t drink no matter what!”

“Are you done for good and for all?”

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

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

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

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

“Just stay.”

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

“Keep coming back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Try taking some Good Orderly Direction.”

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

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

“Your life is none of your business.”

“Shut up and get in the car.”

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

A Quick Challenge


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

There Is a Solution


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing here?

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

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

“No license.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

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

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

Tough to Love


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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