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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


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.


Demons Be Damned

This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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