I’ve been up in my head a lot this week. I can’t help it really. There’s been a lot going on. Every time I try to combat one errant thought or emotion, another one crops up. It’s like the Whack-A-Mole of the dysfunction. Fear. Bam! Insecurity. Bam! Economic worries. Bam!
But as I sit here, I know all these things I am feeling and thinking are not real. They are manifestations of powerlessness and fear. I have a friend who always says, “My mind is out to kill me.” The melodramatic nature of that comment makes it hard for me to take it seriously, but I understand the sentiment.
If this past month had occurred when I was still drinking, I would not have been able to quiet the self-loathing and anger that dominates my particle brand of crazy. I would have fallen into a depression, the kind that results in lost jobs and torched relationships. I would have spent the coming month locked in my apartment sure that only antiseptic isolation and lots of vodka would decontaminate my life of chaos.
That’s what’s so incredible about AA; recovery is completely counter intuitive. You think there’s no way sober is better than drunk, but it is. You think there’s no way confronting problems head on is easier than ignoring them, but it is. You think there’s no way this stuff could work, and but it does. And then, it works again. And then you stay sober long enough, you realize it not a fluke. It always works. Working steps works and gratitude lists work, service works, talking works. And that is how faith in the program and in ourselves slowly begins to grow.
I do not need to dull my thoughts today because I have enough recovery in me to differentiate the false from the true. I know which ideas are based in fiction rather than reality, fear rather than strength. Once I pause, once I allow second thought to enter the picture, I can then act accordingly. I can quiet the crazy and move forward. One thought at a time. One day at a time.
It is fairly rare that someone says something new in a meeting that I have not heard before, but this is exactly what recently happened. The observation came from a line in “How it Works.” “Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely” (58). The gentleman in the meeting said that his old ideas included a sense of worthlessness, of insecurity, and feelings of less than.
Even though I generally zone out as “How it Works” is read, for the past week, I have thought about little else. I have always thought those lines had to do with drinking, about my old thoughts with alcohol, about the thoughts of whether or not I could ever drink like a lady. Never once had I considered all the other old ideas I had been holding on to. Now I can think of little else.
Which brings me to Thanksgiving. Letting go of old ideas also means letting go of the family that exists only in my imagination. My family is not the Norman Rockwell idealized greater version of ourselves. We are messy and dysfunctional and alcoholic and brilliant and interesting and funny. My family loves with a big heart, yet shows it in ways that are often misguided and uncomfortable. We think we know what we do not know. Words and deeds, meant to help, often lead to hurt feelings, arguments, and the taking of sides.
I think on some level we all suffer from this misconception of what families and the holidays are suppose to be rather than what they are. There seems to be a certain level or denial or delusion that comes with the holiday season. We gift wrap hurt and cover it with large bows of dysfunction because anything less would be to acknowledge that life is not perfect. “Just smile through it and whatever you do, don’t drink.”
This Thanksgiving, though, my love and I did something totally different. Instead of the traditional meal with family, we went to a friend’s house. While the food was incredible, it was the people that softened me. My friend and her husband are both in the program. And so is her family. And so are our friends. Throughout the day, the program was not sidestepped, but embraced. Gratitude was on everybody’s lips and in their hearts.
I really do not think I have ever had a better Thanksgiving, and yet, it didn’t feel like a “real” Thanksgiving. So, even though I had an amazing day, there is a little asterisks by it as if to say, “Really fantastic runner-up Thanksgiving.”
And that is the idea I need to let go of absolutely.
Measuring my insides by other people’s outsides is bad enough; measuring them to my own expectations is a nightmare. If my life or my holiday season does not go the way that I plan it or wish it does not make my life any lesser than it would be otherwise. It does not speak to some sort of failure. Those are the ideas that exist only in my head. Those are the thoughts of envy and fear. They are the ideas of some insane form of unattainable perfection. They are the thoughts that will get me nil results because they do not amount to anything of value.
What does give me results, what does add value to my life are the same things that give me results and value the rest of the year: AA, my higher power, the steps, service. Those are the ideas worth holding on to. When I can stay in the moment and purely appreciate the people and love that continually show up for me, I realize I am so incredibly blessed. It is that feeling of gratitude that I need to carry forward into the remainder of this season.
Over the past couple of weeks, as the alcohol slowly left her system, she had been overcome with emotions. Feelings of anger gave way to self-pity, which quickly became elation. The day before, having gotten off the phone with her daughter, Lydia found herself in the awkward place of simultaneously crying and laughing. There was such a pall of depression and despair that clung to her life. And yet, for the first time in a very long time, there was also hope.
She had heard in the meetings that sobriety could only be reached when the pain of today exceeded the fear of tomorrow. That seemed to sum up so much for Lydia. She was worried about her impending divorce, about being poor and alone. The sensation was so acute, it made her body her body ache with the desire to drink. If she thought long enough about it, her palms would start to itch and sweat would break out on her upper lip. But it was also this gut wrenching, physical need to escape that had managed to keep her dry for the past two weeks. Lydia didn’t know much, but she knew anything that powerful, that existed inside of her, calling for her own self-destruction, was not good. She knew, in these moments, that if she gave in, she was likely to kill herself. And that terrified her.
The AA club had very quickly become a bastion of security for Lydia. As soon as she pulled into the parking lot, a wave of warmth and security began to replace her fear and insecurity. The club, though not especially lush, had a certain feel of comfort. Three overstuffed couches huddled in the far corner of the main room, next to a flat screen TV. Two tables sat in the middle. It was not uncommon for Lydia to see groups of twos or threes eating lunch, doing schoolwork, or playing a game.
But the people who attracted Lydia’s attention the most were the ones huddled over the hard covered, blue book. It was not very difficult to ascertain who was the sponsor and who was the sponsee. Lydia sat near them sometimes, sipping on her tea, trying at decode the meaning of their conversations.
Sometimes it would appear as if the sponsor and the sponsee were reading together. They would occasionally stop and point to certain lines of the Big Book and have a soft discussion followed by much head nodding.
Sometimes, the women looked like they were having fun. The conversation would revolve around a cup of coffee and a laugh. There seemed to be a comradery about these women and a genuine sense of care and affection. Lydia wondered to herself if she had ever had a relationship such as these women seemed to have. Certainly, she never had it with her own mother and she didn’t have any sisters.
But sometimes the conversations seemed earnest and serious. The two huddled together conspiratorially as the sponsee read from some sort of list or another. Sometimes there was crying. Sometimes a pat on the back. Once Lydia saw both women get on their knees and pray right there in the room. No one else took much notice, as if this sort of thing happened everywhere. But to Lydia, who was never much of a pray-er, this had a profound effect. Like her first meeting and her first sober phone call, Lydia wondered if she would ever get to a point where she would feel comfortable praying. It was right then and there, though, that she decided that if prayer would keep her sober, she would do it.
A few minutes later, as Lydia sat in the meeting, she decided it was time to take the step and ask a woman to be her sponsor. She knew the woman she wanted to ask: Tracy, the college professor. Lydia didn’t know what it would feel like to be beholden to another woman or what it might feel like to confide one’s deepest darkest secrets. A part of her recoiled at the idea, tempted to run away. But another part of her was curious. There was only one way to find out. And besides, the pain of today was greater than the fear of tomorrow.
A man I have come to respect, George G., always says, “Alcoholism is a threefold disease: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.” It makes me smile just thinking about it. Next week is Thanksgiving and it officially marks the beginning of yet another holiday season. The holidays are a stress-filled time with obstacles and pitfalls. In light of that, I decided to take a moment to write down some of the suggestions I have received over the years on how to remain sane over the holidays!
1. Read the Big Book: I had a sponsor who told me that every time, before walking into my parent’s house, I was to read page 66-67. It works. “We realized that the people who had wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick. Though we did not like the symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves were sick too. We asked God to help is show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended we said to ourselves, ‘This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.’”
The Sick Man’s Prayer reminds me that I never know exactly what I going on in the mind of anyone else. I have had times when I became angry or said hurtful and intolerant things because I was the one in distress. Oftentimes, it had nothing to do with the other person. They just happened to be in the direct line of fire. I try to keep this very thought in mind during stressful times. If something is directed at me, I think, “Is that a valid complaint?” If not, I do my best to let it go, and turn my thoughts and my hands to service. Which brings us to Number 2…
2. Be of Service: Being of service sounds like drudgery. I tend to think of it more like helping out, being a good sister and aunt. I always try to do something that is helpful. There are a lot of members of my family. Sometimes we are like a tornado. I try to lessen the blow of family gatherings by helping cook or washing dishes. Sometimes my service work is simply playing with my nieces or nephews so that my siblings can have a moment of quiet (that’s the best kind of service because it’s also the funnest!)
Being of service allows for two things. First, it makes me feel good about myself, like I generally made a positive contribution to the gathering. (Something that was not always true in the past.) Second, I feel like if I have to make a quick escape or if I inadvertently say something inappropriate, it gets tempered. “Did you hear what she said?” “No, but did you taste those mash potatoes she made? Yum…”
3. The Car: When I first got sober, I was prone to anxiety attacks. It felt like the room was suddenly closing in and I could not breathe. I learned the only way to end these attacks was to leave, sometimes unceremoniously. First, always drive yourself. Do not be beholden to someone else and their time frames. If you gotta go, then go.
Additionally, my parents have a long driveway only one car width thick. On more than one occasion, I got blocked in. Nothing is worse than needing to leave and having to ask three other people to move their cars to get out. Not only does this make one’s leaving largely conspicuous, there is the additional stress of interrupting conversations and waiting for people to find keys and then while one is finding their keys, another decides to use the restroom… Just park in the street. This same system is also true for valet parking. Nothing is more irritating than having to make mindless conversation with a stranger as you are waiting for a valet to finish his smoke break. Park your car yourself.
4. Just leave: You know, I make this mistake all the time. I want to leave, but I feel guilty, so I stay. As my impatience and anxiety rise (as it always does) the party becomes increasingly more uncomfortable.
Leave the party. If you think you may be too uncomfortable with the whole, “I’m an alcoholic in the midst of an anxiety attack (or craving) and must leave immediately” excuse, come up with a few other’s in advance. Sometimes, beforehand, I say I already have another engagement. “I have to be somewhere at seven.” Then, if I end up staying later, I say, “Well, I was having such a good time, I called and told them I would be late.” This has the additional pleasure of making the host feel happy that their party is such a huge success.
5. Go to a Holiday Meetings: One of the things about Christmas is that everywhere I look, people have more presents, more fun, more everything than me. Even the glow from the Christmas lights makes everyone better looking than me. Envy is a killer, man. It’s useless and pointless.
Because of this, I always try to make it to a meeting on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Day, and New Year’s. Once again, there are a couple of different benefits to the holiday meeting. First, I think it is important for someone to be there to unlock the door and help the newly sober man or woman make it through his/her first holiday season. Second, this service works in the same vein as sponsorship. By being around the new man during the holidays, I gain gratitude for all that I have rather than wallowing in envy and self-pity.
My list is my no means exhaustive. These are just the ones I have personally come to live by. I know there are a ton more suggestions out there and I would like to hear them. If you want to contribute to the discussion, please post your comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am more than happy to keep your suggestion anonymous.
I hope everyone has a sober and safe Thanksgiving!
In the past week, I was confronted with two particularly acute displays of the alcoholic mind at work. While both incidents initially inspired a fairly strong emotional response from me, a little sleep and some separation from the tantrums have allowed me to see the outbursts for what they really are: alcoholic cries for attention and control.
As anyone in AA knows, the disease of addiction is three fold. There is a physical component- From the moment my brain registers the intake of a foreign chemical inside my body, it instantly demands more. But there are two more elusive parts to alcoholism. These are the emotional and spiritual aspects of the disease. I think the spiritual and emotional bankruptcies are the parts of the disease that most alcoholics like to disregard in the misguided attempt at supposed normalcy. I’ve come to the conclusion though, as have most of the AAs I know, that that alcoholic’s shared psychological defectives and behaviors are a very real manifestation of our disease.
My trying to figure out my alcoholism is much like the causality dilemma of the chicken or the egg. Was I born genetically prone to alcoholism and developed the emotional and corollary psychological issues? Or did my reaction to my psychological issues result in my dependence upon escape? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters which came first. Years of selfish behavior, putting our drinking before any and all others, daily participation in the process of demoralization and self-loathing has a lasting effect on the alcoholic. The idea that we, people who have such a capacity for caring, can also be the catalyst for so much hurt, leaves a profound scar on our emotional psyche. We have an uncontrollable need to dominate and manipulate all those around us, sure that if they only did what we thought was right, our life would finally meet our satisfaction. When they do not or when life inevitably fails to meet our preconceived expectations, we get angry. We eventually end up isolating, locking ourselves up in our houses so no one can see our growing insanity and self-destruction.
I like the statement, sober up a horse thief and all you have is a sober horse thief. It cuts to the chase. And yet, I think it is time to call it for what it is. Sober up a psychologically unstable, selfish, hurtful, dominating, manipulative, angry, isolating, self-destructive alcoholic and what you get is a psychologically unstable, selfish, hurtful, dominating, manipulative, angry, isolating, self-destructive person.
And that is what AA attempts to address. AA truly is not about the not drinking. It is about squaring one shoulders to all the years of bad acts. It is about taking responsibility. And then working daily to not repeat mistakes or fall back on the old behaviors of harmful and callous words or deeds.
This week, when confronted with these incidents of rampant alcoholic nuttiness, I wanted to respond. But then I remembered my old sponsors advice, “Do not engage.” I do not need to match crazy for crazy. I do not need to be brought down to the level of poorly chosen words and bad timing. I do not need to hurt others. Those are the acts of yesterday. I am in today.
Today when I am hurt, I call sober people and go to meetings and work with others. That does not come natural. I was taught that in the rooms. I learned that from the steps. Today, I rise above my lesser self. And tonight, I will sleep easy.