Willing to go to Any Length

Here in Houston, as I assume in most cities, “How it Works” is read at the beginning of meetings. Over time, a particular line from this passage has wormed its way into my inner thoughts. “If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it…”(Big Book 58). While I have vague recollections of being asked the corollary question, “Are you willing to go to any length?” early in my sobriety, I have not had the question posed to me in a very long time. A little more than a year ago, I started asking it of myself.

Am I willing to go to any length? I think back to Bill’s now famous trip to Akron, Ohio. His business meeting had not gone as planned. At one end of the hotel hallway was a bar, the other a payphone. He picks up the phone and starts flipping through the phonebook, calling strangers, clergymen, at random to find a drunk to talk to. Can you imagine what this sounded like? “Hello. My name is Bill. I am an alcoholic visiting from New York. Do you know of any other alcoholics that I might be able to speak to?” What do you think the people on the other line thought? I surmise they probably thought he was drunk right there on the phone. It sounds like a drunk idea, talking to another alcoholic. I wonder how many numbers he had to dial before he got ahold of Henrietta Seiberling. I have thought more than once that the phone calls in and of themselves were probably enough to keep him sober. How many times does a man have to proclaim his own fallibility to a stranger before he realizes a drink is probably not a good idea? He could have stopped right there. Then where would we all be?

I think of the men going into Townes Hospital. I think of the famous picture “Man on the Bed” by Robert M. I test myself some days. Am I now or was I ever willing to go to Ben Taub, walk up to the ER nurse, and politely inquire as to whether there were any alcoholics with whom I could have a conversation. Whenever I contemplate such actions, and whether or not I would be willing to follow in those same steps, I get a little uncomfortable and squirmy.

Cause the truth is, I ignore phone calls. And Last Sunday, when the leader of a meeting asked for potential sponsors to raise their hand to the new man, I kept my hands folded in my lap. On Tuesday, on my way to my usual 10 PM lead, I complained to myself the entire drive there. I went to some length, sure. According to Google Maps, I went precisely 9.9 miles. But is that any length?

I am so lucky that I live in a place and time where AA is so readily available. I don’t have to call up ministers at random and ask for alcoholics. I don’t have to walk into Ben Taub to find an alcoholic because the Parc and the Right Step and any number of rehabs have nightly meetings. But I should probably pick up a phone if one calls me, right? So what does any length look like today? 90 in 90? Written daily tenth step? I don’t know.

So, I throw down the gauntlet. I ask you. What’s the most extraordinary action you have taken in the past month to support your own sobriety? What does any length look like today? Leave your comment anonymously here or post it on Facebook. Maybe you will inspire the rest of us.

 

 

Me Agnostic

I was recently told this: “I know they have agnostic and atheist meetings, but if you ain’t talking about God, you ain’t in an AA meeting. You’re in something else.”

The force of the comment literally made me take a step back. The purveyor of such words was a woman with more years of sobriety than I have existence on this planet. She didn’t know me from Adam. I’m sure she meant no real offense, and yet… I was rendered speechless. Out of nothing more than pure respect, I muttered something along the lines of “You may be right,” and extricated myself right out of the conversation. But inwardly, I feel confused and uncomfortable.

Have you ever a conversation that when it was over, you wish you could rewind to say what you should have said to begin with? So here it goes…

Excuse me, ma’am. I don’t believe in God. I haven’t since I was about nineteen. A series of rational circumstances led me to this decision. I did not make it impetuously. I neither evaded nor ignored the question of God existence but indeed thought long and hard about it. Nor am I angry with God. (Contrary to what Bill writes in “We Agnostics,” those who truly do not believe in God cannot be angry with him. For one to be angry with God, then one would necessarily have to first admit that God exists as a thing to be angry with.) I simply do not believe in an almighty creator of heaven and earth or a cosmic watchmaker or any sort of divine entity that watches over me in any significant way. I do not have faith.

I know people find God in the program, but I am not one of those people. And yet, here I sit with a few days under my belt, proof that belief in any higher power is good enough. The Big Book says, “We found that God does not make too hard terms with those who seek him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men” (Page 46).

I honestly feel that if AAs are going to walk in the footprints of God, then they also should not make too hard terms. You should not degrade my beliefs just because they do not align with yours. How I read those last sentences is, “To us, Alcoholics Anonymous is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek recovery. It is open, we believe, to all men.”

And ma’am, with all due respect to your very many, hard fought years, I show you this, a letter from Bill, published in the Grapevine…

“We still make no contact at depth with those suffering the dilemma of no faith. Certainly none are more sensitive to spiritual cocksureness, pride and aggression than they are. I am sure this is something we too often forget. In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking with this sort of unconscious arrogance. God as I understood him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging- perhaps fatally so- to numbers of nonbelievers… Boasting of my faith, I had forgotten my ideals,” (The Best of Bill From the Grapevine, 1962).

I am not sure if these lines were Bill’s way of making amends for some of the things he wrote in his early sobriety, but I like to think so. I remember early on a guy telling me that if I didn’t believe in God, it was okay, because I would by my first birthday. I more recently had a friend of many years look me in the eyes and correct my nonbelief. It’s really gutsy to tell another person what they believe in.

So, please. Please do not tell me what you think I need to, should, could, possibly, maybe, believe in. Do not tell me to put my cigarettes under my bed so I am forced to get on my knees and pray, just for a couple of weeks or so. And please, do not tell me if I attend an agnostic or atheist meeting that I am not in AA. Because I’m pretty sure I am. I earned my seat just as surely as you have earned yours. I would never dare tell you what I think you should believe in. All I ask is for the same consideration.

 

Has to be Smashed

For the past few years, maybe because I am a writer at heart, I tend to adopt themes that represent my current mindset in my recovery. (Or maybe they adopt me. Wink.) For two or three months, it feels as if most everything I am feeling or thinking somehow revolves around one central idea. Last spring, I started tossing around the idea of character development, specifically the top of page 72 in the Twelve and Twelve. The end result of that period of exploration ultimately became this blog. I realized if I am to practice principles in all my affairs then I needed to practice courage by following my dreams.

Lately though, my mind keeps returning to the idea of denial. This has not only been reflected in the choices of those close to me in the program, but choices by my family members, and indeed with myself. The power of the human mind to forget, ignore, rationalize, justify, and delude is astonishing. One some level, I think it might be one of the most fascinatingly interesting aspects of the alcoholic mind. How do we not see? Or if we see, how do we ignore?

While speaking with a friend last week, I had one of those oddly random memory flashbacks to my drinking days. It occurred perhaps ten years ago, not long after I had moved from Boston to Houston. I was at a local sports bar. Neon lights reflected in sticky veneer. Country music blared a little too loudly from a jukebox as if at any moment a rousing crowd of patrons would suddenly appear to two-step around the scattered pool tables and “Golden Tee” machine. I remember both my hands clasping a Guinness as I sobbed and hic-upped a longing to be “normal.” I remember saying it over and over again, a mantra to my alcoholism. It is one of those memories, that while tragic and tragically depressing, actually brings a hint of a smile to my lips. How ridiculous was I?

I am of the variety of alcoholic that believes I was genetically predetermined to have an acute and profound reaction to chemical brain stimulation. In addition to my predilection for alcohol, I possess a plethora of emotional and psychological baggage that will tell me at any given moment that while I may exist in this world, I am not of this world. My whole life, I have felt that I am an oddity. A tomboy with a speech impediment. An awkward teenager with a pocket full of secrets. A disillusioned adult with a drive towards escapism and obscurity. I have always been too overweight, too liberal, too outspoken. I don’t wear makeup. I do wear glasses. I shop almost exclusively at Old Navy and thrift stores and the back of Teresa P.’s closet.

The last thing I wanted added onto my list was anything even remotely close to straight edge, pious, abstemious, holy, or self-righteous. I wanted to be funny and light and awesome.

Only when I sobered up, when I stopped singularly focusing on myself, did I realize everyone is a bit weird. We all carry around a knapsack of strange and questionable qualities that help define us and differentiate us from others. What makes me abnormal is not my differences, but that my alcoholic perception tells me these differences are a negative thing.

“The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed,” (Big Book, 30). See? It’s not just the delusion that I might be able to drink like other people, but the delusion that I act, feel, or look like other people, that has to be smashed too. I can’t live my life judging myself by the actions and appearance of other people, because I’m not other people.

Every day I stay sober, I love myself just a smidge more, for I have learned it is neither the clothes nor the make-up that determine my self-worth. No, what defines me today is not what is on the outside, but what lives in my soul: service, friendship, honesty, gratitude, and love. (And maybe, just maybe, a little bit of fun, light, and awesomeness too!)

 

 

What is a Riddle that has no Answer?

Over time, Lydia became used to the hospital. From her bed, she could map the very slight difference in the movement of the sun outside her window as fall started to settle in on Houston. As the days got shorter, Lydia continued to heal. Shortly, she would be able to go home. But go home to what? That is what Lydia most often pondered. It was too late for her to go back to school. The semester was well under way. It didn’t matter much anyways. Lydia knew she would not return. It was not just that she had been in an accident, or that she had lost her best friend. As bad as that was, there was another, unspoken, unarticulated wound. But Lydia could feel it festering inside her.

The things that had at one time seemed important, no longer did. Sororities, clothes, classes, boys, all seemed so flimsy to her. What was the point if one day we all just died anyways? Tragedies happen everyday. You go for a check-up and it turns out you have cancer. You’re sitting at your office desk, when all of a sudden an acute pain grips your chest. Or you’re driving down a two lane highway when you get T-boned by a truck driving too fast… For the first time in her life, Lydia knew what it was like to fear.

The thought of going home, though the practical decision, only made her shake her head. There was no way. There was no way that Lydia could go back to her childhood bedroom and resume her same life. She had seen too much, aged too quickly. The cuteness of her previous life seemed so naive and hopeful, trite and useless. She knew her mother, a lethal mixture of boundless optimism and passive aggressive tendencies, would only further exacerbate the issues. Besides, there were too many memories of Tuck lingering there.

Lydia did not know what to do. She couldn’t stay where she was, and she couldn’t go back to where she had come.

And with that, Lydia opened her book and read.

What do Buy when you don’t know What to Say?

People come and go from her room. First her parents, then a myriad of friends. They all bring things, flowers and balloons and stuffed animals, material things that are supposed to relate some sort of thought, but only further accentuate that no one really knows what to say.

What do you Think about When you Don’t Want to Think?

Lydia woke with a start and had a moment of confusion, disillusion, realizing she was not under the fluffy, eyelet comforter at home. And for a split second, just the most minutest of moments, she thought she was back at her friend’s shore house on Jamaica Beach. A wave of gratitude, the understanding and inkling of waking up from a nightmare began to wash over her. As the smile was just beginning to travel from her mouth to her eyes, an unfamiliar sound, the sound of whirling and a beep, followed by additional beeps caught her short. Half propped out of bed, Lydia remained motionless. To move, to turn her head, to acknowledge the machinery behind her would only confirm what Lydia could not bring herself to confirm. As long as she didn’t know, didn’t really know, maybe it didn’t happen. So she sat there, in the dark room, unable to move or to turn her head. Alone and wishing and listening.

Sitting on the Edge of the Bed

Henry looked around his office. Little had changed over the years. The hospital had offered him a newer, more spacious office suite up on one of the higher floors, but Henry had politely turned them down. Despite being from Texas, bigger and better was not ingrained in his personality. What the administration couldn’t understand was that Henry’s office was the place of dreams realized. Henry could look around and see Lydia’s young, beautiful face beaming with pride as it had been the first time she saw his office. The chair Henry was sitting in now was the same chair he was sitting in the night he got the phone call that Lydia was in labor. He could remember the night he sat bolt upright from a dream with the answer to the question that had plagued his research team for months and that subsequently got him the cover of Texas Monthly.

Henry rubbed the corner of the desk as he always did when he was in deep thought. Once sharp, the edges had become smooth and glossy over time. He knew Lydia’s drinking had increased over the years. Increased, yes, but when, he wondered, did it get this bad? Henry thought back to all the nights he stayed at the hospital. Now with the kids gone… how long had it been? Had she been drinking like this for the last eight years? No, Henry shook his head. It was impossible. Or was it? The woman he saw last night…

“Excuse me, Doctor.” Henry looked up and into the fretful countenance of one of his research assistants.

“Not right now, Sarah.”

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Dr. Harrison sighed. “Yes, please.” Hospitals are notorious when it comes to gossip. Dr. Harrison had long supposed it is the death that lingers in the hallways that causes people to pass time with the frivolities of life. Handsome and successful, Henry had long ago stopped worrying about being the subject of such intrigues and suppositions. But from the worried look on Sarah’s face, Henry knew he was once again in the spotlight.

 

Henry knocked on the Girl at the End of the Hall’s door. It was late, but from his usual sojourns around the hospital, the doctor suspected Lydia would still be awake. “Excuse me. I’m Dr. Harrison.” Lydia looked up at the earnest face. “Umm… How are you feeling tonight?” Dr. Harrison walked over to the end of the bed and mildly perused Lydia’s chart. Truth is, Henry had long read the chart when first he became intrigued with The Girl at the End of the Hall, but at that moment, he felt at a loss for how to start the conversation. Fidgeting seemed the natural response.

The Girl sidestepped his question and instead replied curtly, “You are not one of my doctors.”

Doctor Harrison looked up, startled at the forthrightness of Lydia’s tone. “No, no I’m not,” He said. “I umm…” in that moment, Henry realized the truth was his best option. “I heard you reading aloud to yourself one night. I was wondering what you were reading.”

Lydia stared at the young doctor with his sincere face and bright eyes. After a few moments, she softened. “Robinson Crusoe.”

And that’s how it began. From that evening on, Henry’s routine changed. Every night, after wandering the halls for a few minutes, Henry would stop by Lydia’s room nonchalantly inquire after her health. If he felt brave, Henry would take her hand in his and check her pulse, quietly counting her heartbeats as the second hand swept a single revolution of the clock. Then Henry would sit at the edge of her bed as Lydia read aloud. After a while, they would inevitably lapse into conversation, maybe about the book, maybe about life.

Henry knew from her chart that Lydia had been in a terrible car accident. The boy who had been driving died at the scene. Lydia had been life flighted to the hospital with serious internal bleeding and broken bones.

Henry had learned what great and lasting loss was when his mother died. He could still remember the memorial service. He had sat quietly in an oversized chesterfield with his hands in his lap, staring at the patent leather shoes bought special for the occasion. Every once and a while, someone would come by and pat his head, offering platitudes and condescending consolation. Henry did not want the shallow pity of strangers. He wanted to yell and scream and curse God for the farce God had made of life. And on some level, Henry knew that Lydia needed that too: to yell and scream and hit and cry and mourn. And when that time finally came, Henry would be there for her. For her pain was his pain.

Until then, he would not ask. Lydia would only share what she wanted to and nothing more. And so Henry never asked Lydia. And so Lydia never told.

 

Maybe, he thought, as he leaned back in his desk chair, that had been a mistake.