Tag Archives: fellowship

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.

 

 

Breaking Bad, Or, Ending the “What Ifs”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pass It On … To Yet Another Guy


This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.