Tag Archives: Twelve-Step Program

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.

 

 

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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

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.

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.

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.

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


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.