The “We” Part, Revisited

My WeI occasionally tell my students that we all have gaps in our education, things we misunderstood or never really grasped to begin with. Sometimes, we don’t even know we have it wrong. One night in college, I was up late studying biology. I was all alone. It was quiet. Something was not quite right. No one was around to ask, so I just kept staring at the textbook, flipping pages, staring again. According to my book, atoms made up cells, but that couldn’t be right. Cells, I knew, made up material things like people and trees, whereas atoms made up chemicals like oxygen and hydrogen. Yep. That’s what I thought. Sometimes, I tell my students, we just miss obvious things.

Last weekend, I went to my annual women’s retreat. It’s one of my very favorite weekends of the entire year. As usual, I heard many insights into recovery that resonated with me. One, though, (maybe because I fear everyone but me already knows it) has been keeping me up at night.

I have always thought I understood the necessity of the “we” portion of the program. When I was drinking, I felt isolated and alone. Towards the end, I didn’t speak to anyone that was not absolutely necessary: my boss, maybe the check-out person at the liquor store. I know I didn’t have any “real” conversations. The fact that I was chronically and fatally depressed or that my life was a shambles, was never openly admitted, not that I even had someone to tell had I wanted to. When I finally found recovery, I clung to the group, hanging on for dear life. I stuck to the middle of the herd, found a home group, got a sponsor I could be accountable and honest with, performed service work, went on twelve step calls. I did all that things one does when they are trying not to spin off the side of the record.

Last weekend, though, a friend altered my perception of the “we” part of the program. She said something in just the way to tweak it in my mind and bring about a new realization. My friend was re-working her steps. She had done her fourth step inventory, but had yet to meet up with her sponsor. But she had years of sobriety. She had some independence in the issue, so she went ahead and filled out the fourth column. She knew her part and could see the pattern of behaviors. And yet, she had no relief. The thoughts and emotions were still with her, rummaging around in her mind.

My friend realized that relief does not come from the act of writing the fourth step, but of speaking the fifth step. As she put it, until the words were actually spoken, the thoughts still took home in her mind.

Only after she spoke did I realize that my intellectual mind had always supposed something happened with the admission of resentments and faults to ourselves. One would think that simply the admission of transgressions to ourselves would give us something, some kind of relief. But it doesn’t. Half measures avail us nothing. It seems so obvious. I’ve heard it a million times. We admitted we were powerless…We came to believe… our wills and our lives… etc.

The “we” part is not a piece of the program, a part of it that encompasses the social or service portion of the steps. Over here are the meetings and service, and over there are the steps. They do not exist simultaneously but separate. No, the “we” makes up all the other stuff. The “we” is the atom and the steps are the cells. It is the core, the essential, the thing from which all the other stuff is made.

I think missing the group is why people who separate from the program, who think the lessons that they have learned in AA can carry back into the real world without the support of their fellows, never seem to hang on. It seems as if they should. I believe them when they say they have every intention of hanging on. But without the sponsor, without the group, without the speaking of the words aloud to another person, there is no connection and no relief, and therefore, no recovery.

 

 

AA’s Success Rate

AA Success RateI was having a conversation with a co-worker. He graduated last year with a degree in psychology and is currently making steps to return to school to get his doctoral degree. I went to him because I had a question regarding an article I was reading. The article labeled AA as a failure because it is undirected group therapy.

Here is what he replied: “AA just doesn’t work. It has like a 98 percent failure rate.”

So I asked… “Which AAs are included in the studies of failure? I mean, who’s counted? Court appointed, once a week meeting goers, does that qualify someone as AA? Or is it based on a people who already have a foothold in the program? Over what period of time was the study? Cause over the course of a lifetime, people who come and go, sometimes come back and stay.”

Now, I have to cut my co-worker some slack. He really is an intelligent and charming individual. He just doesn’t know what he is talking about. And here’s the thing; I don’t think most doctors or psychologists or normies do. The people who tend to know the most about our disease of alcoholism and addiction seem to be us, the ones who have it (or at least the ones who know they have it). Doctors and psychologists seem to have no more insight into alcoholism than they had eighty years ago.

So, here is my totally unprofessional opinion regarding recidivism. I started out in AA totally wasted with a zero chance of not drinking for the rest of the day. I mean every day I wanted not to drink, but every night I ended up drunk. By myself, I had zero chance. Then one day, a miracle happened, and I had just a smidgen more willpower or disgust or stubbornness or something than I had just a few moments before. I don’t know how long this miracle lasts. For some people, I suspect it only lasts a few minutes. So, in those few moments, I needed to do something.

I think if I started at 0% and went to a meeting, I go up to about 5%. I start praying or else tapping into some kind of faith that maybe, just maybe, I can be sober for the rest of the day. I help someone. I am at 20%. I read the Big Book. 25%. Changing people, places, and things adds a few more percentage points. Sober living gives me lot more percentage points. Now, I’m up to 50%. I get a boyfriend, and I fall back down to 40%. I get sober friends who themselves are dedicated to being sober, and then I tell them everything that makes me cry at night. Back up to 50%. I get a sponsor. And I work the steps. And then I work them again. And then I work them again. And now I am 8 years sober.

I told my sweetie about what my co-worker said about AA not working. My love said, “I don’t care what he says. AA has a 100% success rate for me. And that’s all I really care about.” And he’s right.

I went that night to chair my usual meeting. It’s a small group, intimate. I’ve been sitting in a that room with some of these people a couple days a week for years now. I know them. I know their weaknesses and failures, their successes and growth.

About halfway through the hour, I looked out upon the group and started counting up years. B has 30-some years. S has another 20. B and A have 5. C has 4. J is closing in on a year. And R has come back and now has 5 months. And over there, in the corner, my sweetie has eight years.

Psychologists all over the world can tell me AA doesn’t work. What I know, is in that moment, in that meeting at 10:30 on a Wednesday night, ten people who normally would have been drunk weren’t. And to me, that’s 100% success rate.

The Flip Side (or The Show Running the Actor)

You Spot It, You Got It

On Thursday, I wrote about actor running the whole show. I’m writing about it again because I’m still living in it. I know some of you can relate. Just because I have identified the character defect doesn’t mean the defect and the accompanying anger magically go away. No, no sometimes it takes a little more work. Sometimes, I have to process it a little bit longer.

So, here is where we are at… I occasionally have the mentality that I know what’s best for all those around me. It’s for the best! I am looking out for them. I am being gracious with my help. I am being generous with my time and energy to help you; the least you could do is accept it. I don’t even really need a thank you. I just need you to do it because I am tired of hearing this same complaint or maybe I am just tired of having to witness the general disaster you have made out of your life.

But there is another side to this coin.

There is something really awkward about engaging in a character defect while someone is engaging in theirs. For instance, I get really angry when people talk on their phone while driving. The freeways in Houston are bad enough without the additional distraction of phones. And yet, there are some days when I have to make a call, and while I am driving is the most convenient time to do it. I get self-conscious about holding the phone up to my ear because I know the person driving behind me can see it. I know they are cursing me. And yet…

It’s the alcoholic double standard. I don’t want anyone messing with my life for any reason what-so-ever. I do not want any judgment or criticism. In fact, I would really like it if you just stood over there, off to the side a little ways. I’ll call you over when I’m ready to see you.

And yet, I am more than happy to stick my pudgy little fingers into whatever pie you happen to have going on. I remember a friend having a slight disciplinary problem with her daughter. In the scheme of life, it was nothing. A little backtalk, normal for any kid, but the kind of thing a parent worries about lest it snowballs. Anywho, she and her husband had a plan. Upon hearing said plan, I thought, “That’s never going to work.” Now, I don’t have kids. I do not know the first thing about the stresses of being a parent. I can’t even properly train my dogs. And yet…

The book tells me that when I try to control and manipulate, other people rebel. I know that to be true because when other people try to control and manipulate me, even when they are doing it to help me fix the general disaster I have made of my life, I rebel. It’s a deal breaker. And that’s my lesson. It’s a cycle. It’s a reverse. It is so simple, they even teach it to little kids. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I shouldn’t manipulate because I do not like being manipulated. I shouldn’t control because I do not like being controlled. And I certainly shouldn’t assume I know how other people are feeling because I am quite certain no one knows what’s going on inside me.

Letting people be is a difficult thing, especially when I only have good intentions. But the road others have to walk down, the lessons they have to learn, are not for me to decide for them. What I need to do is turn the mirror back around on myself and think about the lessons that I need to learn. There are enough things wrong with my life and with my relationships, to keep me busy for eternity.

The Actor Running the Show

The Actor Running the ShowYou know what I was thinking? There should be a Survivor where all the people on the island are alcoholics. Instead of immunity idols, there could be hidden bottles of Jack Daniels. High atop cliffs, there could be warm beds and hot food, and the contestants would have to figure out how to get up to them. I would love to see the social aspect of the show turned on its head. You want fire? Want it more than vodka?

“… any life run on self-will can hardly be a success. On that basis we are almost in collision with something or somebody, even though are motives are good… If only [our] arrangements would stay put, if only people would do as [we] wished, [life] would be great… In trying to make these arrangements, [the alcoholic] may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may me kind, considerate, patient, generous; even modest and self-sacrificing. On the other hand, he may be mean, egotistical, selfish, and dishonest” (Big Book 60-61).

Sometimes, in my journey to understand myself, I read and re-read sections of the Big Book. Though I always find myself relating and identifying, I sometimes simultaneously think, “Well, hold up Bill W. Isn’t everybody like that?” I mean, really, doesn’t everybody want everything to go his/her way all the time? What person out there would have the fatuity to ask for a little extra helping of heartache or failure? I’ll tell you who, no one. And if I could figure out a way to make my life better through some subtle arranging of things, does that make me alcoholic or just smart?

Here is what I’ve decided this week. It’s not the manipulation of things around me for my betterment that make me alcoholic in nature, it is the extent to which I work to manipulate these things and then my subsequent reaction to them that identify me. I really think, by and large, alcoholics are fascinatingly intelligent and cunning people. I listen to people speak in meetings and it almost seems as if we alcoholics are running giant sociological experiments on those around us. Will you do it if I ask? No. How about if I am mean? Coercive? Gracious? What if I cry or throw a tantrum or refuse sex? What if I buy you a drink or a fur or a car?

And then, when I do not get what I want, there is no acceptance. Instead, there is a foot stomp followed by renewed exertion. Somehow, I think if someone failed me, it is not that they fumbled, but that I have somehow failed to properly explain what needed to be done. So, I try again. “He decided to exert himself more. He becomes, on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still [life] does not suit him. Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying,” (Big Book 61).

The longer I stay sober, the more sure I am that Bill was right when he talked about how doomed this idea of collision is. I used to think that people would one day wise up to the fact that I was only trying to help them. Now, I know better. I’ve learned better. I’ve learned that the human experience lies in the fact that people need to experience their truth first hand, and that no amount or lecturing or warning is ever quite the same thing. I’ve learned that no matter how much I think I know about a person, I will never know exactly what is feels like to be them.

But I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’ll just have to experience it for yourself.

Driving the Road of Happy Destiny

Humility CarI have a love/hate relationship with my car. Before I got sober, I needed a car. I was looking at used cars, but couldn’t settle on one. For the price I wanted to pay, all the Hondas and Toyotas had high millage and no warranty. One day, I was talking to my brother. He said, “If I were you, I would go down to the Hyundai dealership and buy their cheapest new car.” I went down there that day, and did exactly that. I came away with a little black Hyundai Elantra complete with tape deck and cloth seats. (Yes, I have a tape deck in my car.)

My first couple of years owning the car was a bit rough. I’d never learned how to take care of anything, so oil changes, stickers, tires, all fell by the wayside. And yet the car kept going. I dented it a couple of times (once sober, once not so much). I broke the cover off of the vanity mirror. I lost my floor mats. My seatbelt jammed. I blew the speakers. And still it goes. Now the paint is flaking off, I have the beginnings of a hole in my floorboard, and my headlights seem to go out with surprising regularity. And still it goes.

And that’s the problem. Eleven years later, it still goes. No matter where I am or what parking lot I am in, I look around. My car is inevitably the worst looking car in the lot. I know because I look a lot. I size my car up against all the pretty, undented cars with paint so glossy it reflects the world back upon itself. It has become an obsession of mine. I look for the worse off cars too, and when I occasionally spot one, I fight off the urge to write a pithy, little note saying, “It’ll be okay, Life’ll get better.”

But then, I love my car. It is an awesome, little machine. When I could not afford for that car to break down, it didn’t. I remember taking a friend to Ben Taub psychiatric unit and driving that car home in the foggy, early morning calm of the desolate Sam Houston Tollroad, never being so grateful to be sober. I remember the first time my love came over in torn jeans to fix the thermostat. Some mornings, when I turn over the engine and it starts right away, I pat my car on the dashboard and say encouraging words.

And the truth is the only reason not to love  is because I feel like it is some sort of reflection of my place in society, or even worse, of my place in recovery. I feel like more established people or saner people have nicer, shinier things. So, its not that I am uncomfortable with my car, I am uncomfortable about what you think my car says about me. And that’s crazy! Its like not only do I think you think about me at all, but that you think about my car and what you think my car says about me. To get a new car would, on some level, acknowledge and validate that part of myself that places value not only in the material world, but on what I fear others might think of me. And that’s really awkward.

Over time, my car has become less a method of transportation and more an extension of my journey into my disease and back out again. And now I find myself, like The Giving Tree, learning a new lesson. Now I am learning the lesson of humility and gratitude. A lesson about outer beauty versus inner awesomeness. A lesson about dedication and perseverance and loyalty.

So, yes, I love my car… even if the window doesn’t always want to roll down.

You Better Double Up

5 Minutes After the MiracleA friend of mine had a sponsor when he first got sober. When my friend got thirty days, his sponsor said, “Thirty days? That’s really great. But we lose a lot of people between thirty and sixty days. You better double up on your meetings. You gotta take this thing more seriously.” And so my friend did.

When my friend picked up his sixty day chip the sponsor once again said, “Sixty days? That’s great. But we lose a lot of guys between sixty and ninety. You better double up your meetings. Take this thing a lot more seriously.” And so my friend did.

When my friend picked up his ninety day chip the sponsor once again said, “Ninety days? That’s great. But we lose a lot of guys between three months and six months. You better double up your meetings. Take this thing a lot more seriously.” And so my friend did.

It turned out that regardless of the time my friend would acquire, the sponsor always responded in the same manner. “A year? That’s great. But we lose a lot between one year and two years. You better double up your meetings. You gotta take this thing more seriously…”

A couple of years ago, my friend passed away, but up until that point, every birthday meeting, no matter who was celebrating or how many years they had, my friend would speak the warning his sponsor spoke to him.

I like that no matter how seriously I take this thing, I could take it more seriously. I could understand my disease and me more. I could know the book more. I could help more, sponsor more. I can work the steps more. And with that, I can grow more. And be spiritual more. Live in the now more, have faith more. The idea pleases me.

I like the idea of doubling up on meetings. I think it is easy to let life become life-ish. We get spouses and homes and kids and meetings are harder to make. But meetings are where the miracle happens. Meetings are what keeps this thing fresh. Meetings are where we hear new ideas and thoughts, struggles and heartache and triumph. In meetings I get to simultaneously hear of the places where I do not want to go, and the person who I wish to be.

And I think my friend was right. We do lose a lot of people. There were many people around me when I first got sober. My entire halfway house, women in the meetings, friends, and friends of friends. We all had roughly the same length of sobriety. Now there’s not so many. In fact, there’s one. One of my friends still has her original sobriety date, eight years later.

Eight years. We lose a lot between eight and nine. I better double up. I better take this thing more seriously.

Which Person are You?

Program of ActionIts 4:17 in the morning. I’ve opened my blinds to look out onto the calm of the apartment complex. It is quiet. No dogs barking, no children playing. Just the steady hum of passing cars from the freeway.

I am struggling this morning.

Not with drinking. I don’t want to drink. I am struggling with something else. Anger, maybe. Disappointment. Sadness.

My love had open-heart surgery a few days ago. He had a bad heart valve that had to be replaced. It’s about as serious of an operation as one can get. It requires stopping the heart for several hours, cutting into it, replacing the valve with one from a pig, sewing up the heart, and then hoping it starts again. The operation takes about ten hours start to finish. It is terrifying and painful. But my love, he did wonderfully. He came back to me.

No, my lost emotion does not lie with my love, who is hopefully sleeping even as I am awake. No, I am filled with alternating rage and sadness at the people who I thought would show up that haven’t. The friends, the family, who I expected would be there with cards or love or something, a smile perhaps. I am angry with the ones that are absent. The ones that have abandoned him as he would never abandon them. I want to call them at four in the morning,  as they sleep in their warm beds and scream at them. I want to ask them if their heart is beating strong, if they can breathe. I want to tell them they are bad people.

I sigh, for I know what they will say, even without them having to say it. They will say they didn’t know. Or they would say they didn’t want to bother us. They will have a justification, a reason, unwilling or unable to admit that they are failures at compassion.

So, I sit here, angry, remembering all the things they AA has taught me over the years. And what I keep remembering is the line in the Twelve and Twelve that tells me, “We had refused to learn the very hard lesson that overdependence upon people is unsuccessful because all people are fallible, and even the best of them will sometimes let us down,” (Page 115). People will let me down, and it is in that moment, the moment of perfect abandonment that I need to be able to turn to my higher power in order to find a renewed source of strength and power to continue forward.

I know other things too. I know that if I am angry, there must be something wrong with me. I cannot help but think of all the times I have failed someone else, the times when I did not show. The excuses I do not need to hear because they come from within me; they are the excuses I have used when others needed me.

Today, I am learning that the offer of help is different from the action of help. I am learning that a text is not the same thing as a phone call is not the same thing as getting in the car and driving. I am learning that “Let me know if you need anything,” sounds different than, “If you want company, I can bring ice cream.” I am learning that sometimes when a person says they are okay, they are not.

I have learned from the ones who have failed us and from the ones who have shown up.  For the one who never came, there was the one I could not turn away. For the one who disappeared, there was another who sat with him so I could regain some sanity. There was the one that played with the dogs and the one who answered the phone. And then there was the friend and family who took off from work to sit with me for an entire day in the waiting room.

I think when this is over, I will have learned a lot about who I am and how strong I can be. But I think I will also learn how I need to rely on others. And I will learn how to be reliable for others. I will re-evaluate the person I am. I will make the conscious decision to be a person who shows up. I will make the decision  to become the person I wish to be. I will reposition myself away from the false friends and closer to the true ones. I will pay attention, so I can better differentiate when people say they are okay and when they actually are okay. And then, I will not wait for them to call me and ask for help.

I think at the end of the day, it is not just my love who will come out of this experience with a better heart.