Tag Archives: Substance Abuse

Look for the Good


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Honesty: The Measure of Our Success


This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

It pains me when I hear people say that Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t work. It pains me even more when I hear members of Alcoholics Anonymous say that treatment programs are a waste of time and money.  Really? If someone joins a weight loss program and loses 30 pounds, then stops participating in that program and regains the weight they had lost (and maybe a few pounds more), do we blame the program, or the person who failed to stay with it?

And what exactly does it mean to be successful at recovery anyway?  I’m sure that government agencies and insurance companies would collectively give me a quick and simple answer: Total and continuous abstinence. And I would argue that abstinence is and should be the “goal” of most treatment centers and recovery programs. But is it necessarily a measure of success? Some statistics tells us the majority of those who enter a program of recovery–as many as 90 percent–will relapse at least once in their first five years. Does this mean that programs like Alcoholics Anonymous fail?

The book Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. The Big Book) tells us this: “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”

“Constitutionally incapable of being honest.” Nothing says it better. I’m not an expert on recovery nor am I’m professionally qualified to define what it means to be successful at recovery. But I do have my own experience, and my experience tells me that my own success at recovery (my own ability to stay sober 24 hours at a time) is directly proportional to my ability to be steadfastly honest with myself about my own condition and my daily behavior. The only way I’ve found it possible to do that is to go to meetings, to work the steps, and maybe most important, to sponsor other men and be sponsored myself.

Nothing else has worked. Waking up in jail without knowing why, being hospitalized, failing at marriage, the threat of losing a job, none of these were enough to keep me sober, though I’ve suffered them all and some more than once. It was not until the morning that I awoke (after nearly 7 years of bouncing in and out of this program) and admitted plainly and simply to my innermost self that I was powerless over alcohol, that my life would never get better (and that it was likely to get much wore) if I kept drinking, that my recovery could begin. No drama, no jails, no hospitals, no courtrooms. Just an honest and open admission that I was alcoholic and that for me to drink is to die. I could not have made that admission openly and honestly to myself and other human beings if it had not been for the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and my repeated failed attempts to stop drinking on my own.

In my world, Alcoholics Anonymous succeeds every time it introduces someone with a genuine desire to stop drinking to a level of honesty that person had not previously experienced … no matter how many failed attempts it takes to get there.

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


This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

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

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

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

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

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

Irrational minds see things irrationally, too.

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

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

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

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

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

Relapse: A Means to One End or Another


This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com

Whenever I have the honor of telling my story to a large group of people in recovery—after I’ve expressed my gratitude and announced my sobriety date—I usually open with something like this: “I took my first drink at eleven, I came to my first meeting at thirty-one, I’m fifty-two now and thirteen years sober. Do the math and you quickly discover, I’m an AA retread.”

For the sake of the uninitiated in the room, I’m usually quick to clarify that it isn’t necessary to relapse. In fact, I’m sponsored by a man who has been sober more than 30 years and never taken a drink since the day he walked through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous. Well, whoopee for him, I say. That hasn’t been my experience. I spent nearly eight years stalking sobriety before I finally surrendered to it. During those eight years, I put together as few as three days of sobriety and, surprisingly enough, as many as 3 years. The only good thing that happened during those eight years is that I kept coming back, again and again and again. Mainly because all of you planted the seed deeper and deeper each time I left and returned.

This year, where I live, we had an unseasonably warm March and with it a seeming rash of relapses.  I don’t think we had any more or any fewer relapses than usual and I certainly don’t think the weather had anything to do with it. (Real alcoholics don’t drink because the weather is good or bad; real alcoholics drink because the weather is.) Nonetheless, in a tightly knit recovery community like the one I live in, news of a relapse (too commonly minimized as a “slip”) and speculation about the causes travels fast and prompts community consternation. Where my experience comes in handy is when someone relatively new decides to drink or use again. Usually, within days of the news that they’ve “left the program,” someone will ask me, “What should we do?” This is not flattery. They don’t ask me that question because I’m so wise in the ways of recovery. They ask me because they know I’ve been there. The underlying question is, ” Hey, you got drunk a lot when you first came around. What could people have done that would’ve made a difference?”

The sad but true answer is “nothing.” I’m a real alcoholic. In the absence of a well-maintained spiritual defense, there’s little that can stand between me and the insanity of the first drink. When an alcoholic decides to drink (and the decision to drink is a conscious, if not always premeditated, choice), those left behind, especially those who are also relatively new in sobriety themselves, often forget or dismiss the most primal fact of recovery: That we are powerless over alcohol…our own addiction to it as well as that of others.

By the same token, I do remember the lasting effect of the calls and visits I would receive in the early stages of my lapses. Phone calls or visits in those first few days from those who truly cared sometimes brought me right back to a meeting—and if not immediately, then usually within days. It’s been my experience, however, that if the alcoholic doesn’t come back within the first week, they probably won’t come back for a good long while.

All we can do at the outset of a relapse is extend our hand and love up our brothers and sisters in recovery. If the still suffering alcoholic refuses the hand, all we can do is hope we’ve planted a seed that will grow into a burning desire to live a sober life and move on to the millions of other still suffering alcoholics who do meet the only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous: a desire to stop drinking.

In her May 19, 2012 blog post titled “Baby Chicks—Carry the Message, Not the Alcoholic,” Ashley Dane (Follow Your Bliss) opens with this stupendously/marvelously apt analogy:

I was thinking the other day of something I heard about years ago. It was a story about how important it is for a baby chick to fight its way out of the egg. It is quite a struggle, and the impulse for any kind-hearted person would be to help the little guy out. So someone did that, and the baby chick died shortly thereafter. Apparently, the struggle to emerge activated necessary muscles that the chick would need for survival outside the egg. It needed to strengthen its neck muscles with the pecking and squirming, its little legs with the kicking and scratching. It is the same for us. We develop muscles and skills in our emerging process in recovery that are critical to our survival in sobriety. That is why they say to carry the message, and not the alcoholic – if we carry the alcoholic, they may not gain the musculature they need for the future. It isn’t always easy to know the dividing line between being of service, and being an enabler for other negative behaviors.

Ashley Dane goes on to talk about the errant desire to chase after the unwilling. It’s a post well worth reading.

So, when someone I know or, even more painfully, when one of the men I sponsor and genuinely care about leaves the program to drink, I call (once, twice, maybe three times) to remind them my door is open. And then I remind myself (again and again) that I’m as powerless over their drinking, as I am over my own in the absence of a solution. I remind myself that the only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is a desire to stop drinking. I remind myself that I can’t instill the desperation that awakens that desire, only alcohol can. I remind myself that far more people need help than want it, yet we can only reach the wannabes. I remind myself, finally, that they will either drink their way back when the pain is great enough, or drink themselves to the gates of insanity and death. Ultimately, relapse is a means to one end or the other, but it is always a means to an end.

Sobriety Junkie


I just wanted to let everyone know I’ve launched a new blog titled Sobriety Junkie on Renew magazine’s website, reneweveryday.com. I hope to post there every other Friday while continuing to post here at Realtime Recovery as well. To find Sobriety Junkie, go to reneweveryday.com’s home page, click on Sober Voices, and then click on Sobriety Junkie, or simply click on the following link: http://www.reneweveryday.com/blogs/sobriety-junkie/.