Day Seven of Sobriety

Early Phone Calls

It was in the mornings that Lydia had been most aware of her alcoholism. The brushing of her teeth often resulted in her dry heaving and coughing into her bathroom sick; her head aching and spinning. On more than one occasion, Lydia found herself splayed on the bathroom floor, dizzy and weak. It was disgusting and messy. The headaches and the lethargy had so long been a part of her life they seemed the normal, casual, expected.

 

By the end of her first week of sobriety, Lydia was shocked what mornings could feel like.

Lydia stood hunched over the granite countertop, the coffee cup warming her hands. She stared at the pristine, white ceramic cup against her aging hands. Those hands had held husbands and babies. They planted gardens and cooked meals, taken temperatures and mended clothes. They had calculated algebra problems and molded clay dioramas. But they had never had a job. A job, job. Not a church volunteer canned food drive or a book fair at the school, but an actual got paid money for services rendered job. She never thought she would need one. But then Henry left. When she was drinking, she would have moments of panic, but she tried to forget. For the past couple of days, though, it was all she could think about.

Lydia had been betrayed. He left her. He promised her fidelity and friendship forever. Lydia knew her drinking had been a problem, but she only drank because he was never there. If only he had come home for dinner. If only he realized how much she missed the children, how alone she felt. If only he had cared as much about her as he had his job, she wouldn’t have had to drink.

She wanted to call him and scream at him. And she wanted to tell him what she was sober and cry to him and let him hold her. She hated him and she loved him. He abandoned her, but he was still her best friend. She wanted to tell him she had been sober for seven days, that this time was different, but he had heard all the promises before. He wouldn’t believe her. And she couldn’t blame him.

She couldn’t call him. She could call a friend, but she didn’t have any friends. Not real ones. She had lunch friends and shopping friends and mom of her children’s friends. But as she clicked each one off in her brain, there was not a single person she trusted with AA.

And then she remembered the list. Lydia walked over to junk drawer beneath the phone and opened it. There, atop the stapler, pens, and forgotten bills laid the white envelope with names and numbers scrawled on one side. Lydia gingerly picked up the packet and returned to her place at the kitchen counter. She ran her fingers around the edges of the white envelope, looking at all the names of the women. She turned the contents out and looked at the pamphlets as they tumbled out onto the countertop. “This is AA” “Is AA for you?” “A Newcomer Asks.” The pamphlets were all titled as if they were CBS afterschool specials. Lydia smiled.

She picked up the envelope and her coffee and walked into the living room. She wedged herself in the corner of the sofa Indian style, as if she were a little girl, and pulled a throw pillow up close against her chest. She looked down at the phone and slowly dialed the first number on her list. After the third ring, a woman answered, “Hello?”

“Hello. Ummm… This is Lydia. You gave me your phone number at a meeting last week…”

Day Two of Sobriety

Alcoholic Hobo

As the second morning of her sobriety turned into her second afternoon of sobriety, Lydia found herself increasingly restless. She had tried to watch TV, but TV had made her want a glass of wine. She had tried to clean, but cleaning made her want a glass of Vodka. Lydia didn’t want to go shopping or call up a friend, two additional activities that usually ended with cocktails. The country club seemed an equally bad idea, and also there might have been an incident the last time she was there. Sigh. There was, Lydia realized, little she did that didn’t involve drinking. By two o’clock Lydia found herself walking in circles from her living room to her kitchen to the dining room to the foyer and back to the living room.

With a sigh, Lydia grabbed her keys and purse and walked out the backdoor.

As she entered the club, Lydia saw it was a little busier than the day before. Several men were watching television and throwing cards and a small group of women sat around a table talking. She ordered a hot tea from the coffee bar and was about to go sit in the meeting room when she heard her name. One of the girls at the table was waving. It was Aiyana from the day before, the girl who had collected the phone numbers for her. “Hey. Hey Lydia. Over here.”

As she moved towards the table, Lydia suddenly as if she was an awkward teenager on the first day of school and the cool girls had just invited her over to their lunch table.

“How are you?”

Lydia had every intention of answering in her customarily dismissive way, but to her surprise the simple, “I don’t know,” came out. All three of the women paused momentarily and then began to subtly nod in acknowledgment and understanding.

The two women with Aiyana were around the same age as Lydia. The one introduced as Tracy was an English professor at the University of Houston. June was a stay at home mom. Lydia was a bit surprised how normal the women seemed. They inquired as to how she was feeling and if they could do anything for her. For a few minutes, Lydia could have easily convinced herself that she was out to lunch with some of her closest girlfriends; well, only if girlfriends had been candid and kind.

After a few minutes, the group moved towards the meeting room. Lydia noticed some of the same people as the day before. Paul was there. Sammy was too. Tessie came in a little late and waved as she took her seat. Lydia tried to follow the readings, but she had trouble keeping up. It seemed like a lot of information. She watched as some of the people smiled knowingly and still others settled themselves in for the meeting, sipping coffee. Once again, Lydia was somehow surprised at how normal they all looked. She didn’t realize it yesterday, but as she looked over the faces, there seemed to be a general cross section of age and race and gender. Lydia realized she thought alcoholics were mostly hobos with scraggly beards and mended tops hats with flowers sticking out of the top. But these people looked like students and housewives and executives and mechanics, like people.

The meeting went by quickly. The topic was about fear. Lydia couldn’t figure out what fear had to do with alcohol. After the meeting, she thought about asking Aiyana, but changed her mind. It was getting late and she once again felt overwhelmed and exhausted. And hungry. As she walked to her car, Lydia looked up at the late afternoon sky and smiled. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been hungry.

Meditation Hesitation

Meditation Comic

 

This is how my Friday night tends to go.

Me: “What’s the meeting topic tonight?”

Him: “Meditation.”

Me: “Awww, man. Let’s just skip.”

Three hours later…

Me: “ I really enjoyed meditating. How come we don’t go every week?”

Repeat every seven days.

I’m gonna be totally honest. Of all the things I’ve heard in meetings over the years, the one that really still burns me up today is, “You know, if you aren’t meditating, you aren’t practicing the twelve steps.” What makes it all the worse is I like the girl who says it. I trust her and her recovery. There are few things as frustrating as hearing that one has a gap in one’s recovery from a person one actually respects. It makes them harder to blow off. Harder… but not impossible.

I think the fear is this- For my entire life, my brain has been in overdrive. It goes and goes and goes. I jumps from one idea to another to another in record time, so that often by the time my friend and I are finishing one conversation, I’m already three conversations in the future. For years, I drank to dull this process, to slow my mind, to relax, take the edge off. And it worked for a long time. Then then it stopped working.

When I made it into the rooms, my brain went into an extreme Back to the Future kind of overdrive. I could not stop thinking, feeling, experiencing, fearing. It was so uncomfortable. Exciting at times, cool, fun, but also terrifying. I always seemed to be walking a fine line between delight and delirium. When I stopped shaking long enough to listen, I heard other AAs had the same problem. “My mind is like a dangerous part of town. I never go there alone,” and “I came for my drinking and stayed for my thinking,” and “Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body” (BB 23). There was no way I was going to sit in a room and meditate. I was too scared of my own thoughts.

This mentality has not changed much, if any, with time. The idea that I would just exist, to be without distraction, seems like a really terrible idea. It’s like how the Big Book speaks about alcohol; “I recoil” at the idea of thinking in silence.

So, what do I do? I think about meditating. I think about not meditating. I’ve talked to my sponsors about meditating. I’ve talked to them about not meditating. I’ve asked other people how they meditate. I’ve done the “sitting in morning traffic meditation.” I’ve done the “meditation is listening during a meeting” thing. I’ve rationalized, justified, and ignored. What I’ve never done is actually meditate…Until recently.

On Friday night, on my side of town, there is a 9:30 candlelight meeting. I’ve always gone to candlelight meetings. I prefer them. When we first started going to this particular meeting, though, I was immediately like- nope, no way, cause in this meeting, they meditate. Not every week. But enough to make me look around for something else.

But now, and this is really awkward, I’ve sat through a handful of these meetings. And I think I like them. I don’t wanna say for sure I like them, because that would make me wrong about this meditation thing all along. But maybe, kinda, sorta, I like meditation. Contrary to what I would have thought, my brain does not rev up, but actually quiets down. I find that the nights I attend this meeting, I walk away relaxed and more peaceful. And I always end up thinking, “I should do this more often. I wonder if there is a mediation I can follow online. (Cause you know there is. Everything is online.)

But then I don’t do it. Cause it still seems weird and scary and awkward. Anywho… (Take a deep breath), I’m gonna do it. I am going to, for the sake of experimentation only, find a guided mediation online and hold myself accountable to doing it every morning for ten minutes for the next two weeks. I can do two weeks, right? Right.

So, there it is: my two-week experiment with meditation. If you want to do it with me, I would love to hear from you. How much contempt prior to investigation do you have? Has it been easy or difficult to commit to the process? Why? For those of you still dubious about meditation, I am with you in spirit. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Unauthorized Principles of AA

Cartoon for BlogSo, maybe you know. Maybe you don’t. There are unofficial principles for each one of the steps. I call them unauthorized because AA has not adopted a specific set of principles as part of the “Practicing these principles in all our affairs.” AA has left it ambiguous. I am not a big fan of ambiguity, though. I don’t think many writers or thinkers or alcoholics are.

Here are the principles:

  1. Honesty
  2. Hope
  3. Faith
  4. Courage
  5. Integrity
  6. Willingness
  7. Humility
  8. Brotherly Love
  9. Discipline
  10. Perseverance
  11. God Consciousness
  12. Service

I first time I encountered these principles was at a women’s retreat. I remember walking in and somebody saying, “We are focusing on the principles this year. Every meeting will be about three of the principles. The principles for steps 1-3, 4-6, etc.” Sometimes, I wish I could see my face because I am told it is very expressive. While some days I think I am pretty good at hiding my feelings, I’m frequently told I’m not. So, while I’d like to think my face said, “Oh excellent, the principles. I meditate on them quite frequently,” I am sure my face read, “What the hell is she talking about? Damn these woods and their no internet!”

Once the meetings started, though, I became transfixed. The first steps seemed obvious: honesty, hope, faith. But by the time we reached integrity, I was sold. I had never thought of integrity as a principle. In fact, I’m not sure I had thought much about integrity at all. The same with brotherly love. While I knew patience and tolerance had to be my code, seeing it as a principle of my life, one of the twelve dominating themes of my existence, put love for humankind on a much more significant playing field. What was equally startling to me was there was not a single principle that I thought needed editing or revision. Oh, humility is not that important; let’s cross that out and put financial gain.

Since that retreat, the principles have become an integral part of my sobriety. Whenever I am acting out, I think of the corollary principle and know immediately what step I should be working on. When I am being dishonest, then I know I have a Step One issue. If I am in fear, I need to look at my Fourth Step. When I returned to college, perseverance and discipline became my constant companions. Don’t give up. Do what you are supposed to do. Don’t give up. Do what you are supposed to do.

I think this way of looking for answers through the principles may be a bit unorthodox. I am not sure AA traditionalists would approve. But the unofficial principles have revolutionize my recovery. In a world where my brain makes everything so confusing and arduous, the principles have had a way of keeping me focus with just a single word or two.

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I would love to hear your comments regarding the principles. Are they a part of your program? If so, how do you use them?

 

Part One: How I Became an Alcoholic

My German Big Book:

My German Big Book:

This week, I told three people (three people I did not intend on telling) about my blog. All three are in high school. All three of them are mature enough to understand the significance of my words. With each conversation, there was an opportunity to address my alcoholism. But I did not do so. I just stated that I had a blog and kept on movin’. In other words, I choked. I had a teachable moment but I did not accept the challenge. I regret my decision. So, for my three ladies, tonight I write for you.

I think, fundamentally, there are two separate questions. 1) How or why did I become an alcoholic? 2) Why do I write about my alcoholism in such a public forum? For the sake of brevity, I think I will address the first question in Friday’s blog and the second question in Monday’s blog.

How or why did I become an alcoholic?

Addiction in any form is a baffling and confusing topic. Many facets of society offer different reasons for how and why addiction starts. Some people feel one acquires alcoholism over time. Drink enough alcohol, and one will surely become an alcoholic. Some believe that alcoholism is a response to a traumatic experience or otherwise physiological unraveling. And still some others believe it is genetic, something that one is born with like brown hair or green eyes. I believe all three of these theories have merit. Ultimately though, Doctors and scientists have proven through MRIs (brain scans) that when an addicted person consumes drugs or alcohol, his brain kicks into overdrive, lights up like a Christmas tree. Clearly there is some kind of biological component to alcoholism.

But addiction does not just exist in the brain; the body physically becomes acclimated to this way of living. When an addicted person tries to stop drinking or using certain drugs, an acutely painful experience called “withdraw” can set in. Most alcoholics and addicts must check into the hospital or rehab in order to “detox” off these substances. To not do so is very dangerous. People can die from quitting abruptly; the change is too shocking to the system. This physical component often leads to a person continuing to abuse substances long after he has wanted to stop.  The necessity to continue drinking or using when one no longer wants, is the great paradox of addiction.

Think of it like this: you’re crazy hungry. You skipped lunch. Now, it’s after school and you are starving to death. Someone hands you your very favorite meal. And you eat and eat and eat. Have you ever eaten so much you felt sick to your stomach? Have you ever ate so much you felt guilty and gross and fat? Okay, alcoholism is like that but a billion times worse because it is alcohol and not chocolate.

Okay, so wait, back to the question. How did I, your lovely and talented Ann, become an alcoholic? I really don’t know. Yes, yes to all of it. What I do know is that I have a distinct memory of a conversation. It was a summer day in Boston. I am walking down the street. The conversation was not about me. It was about someone else, but my friend said, “You are not an alcoholic.” And I remember in my head thinking, “I’ve got you snowed.” Because I knew. I knew I was an alcoholic. I was eighteen years old.

It would take me another twelve years before I walked into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. We have a book. It is called the “Big Book.” My very favorite line is from page 152. It says, “He cannot picture life without alcohol. Someday he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end.”

The line says he (the alcoholic) cannot imagine life without alcohol. But in the next sentence there is a subtle shift. Now the man cannot “imagine life either with alcohol or without it.” A change has occurred in the man.

The passage goes on to say, “Then he will know loneliness such as few do.” I love the simple elegance of those lines because I know exactly that feeling. When one cannot continue the way one is living, and yet cannot stop, life feels impossible. Doing something, repeatedly, that one does not want to do is a humiliating and soul crushing experience. This feeling, this loneliness, I do not wish upon anyone. And yet, I know without a doubt, that emotion saved my life. Without that emotion, I might have never reached out and asked how to make it stop.

The end of my active addiction and the beginning of my recovery was both the worst and the best day of my life. That day was February 28, 2007.

 

To be Continued Monday.

Fear does not get to Win

The Fear Problem

Fear… “This short word somehow touches about every aspect of our lives. It was an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it,” (Big Book 67).

There lives, deep within my chest, a small black tarball of fear. I can feel it. It exists, not where my heart is, but where a child thinks her heart is. Smack in the middle of my chest. Right behind my breastbone. If I think on it, it grows. I can feel it blossoming right now, as I type this, winding like a slow vine throughout my body and into my fingertips. It says, “Don’t write about me. Don’t acknowledge me, because then I become real. I become real and they will know… They will know you are years sober and still I live within you. You have not conquered me.”

I remember walking into the rooms, dazed, reeking of vodka (really, they should stop telling burgeoning alcoholics that vodka doesn’t smell). I just wanted to stop drinking. Maybe not even stop entirely forever. Just stop for the moment. Stop blowing up my life. Stop getting into trouble. I sat there lost and disturbed as people spoke of how fear had invaded their daily lives.

And I thought, “Poor people,” cause I knew what it meant to be brave. I was seven feet tall and in total control of my life. I remember my sponsor telling me to list my fears on my first fourth step. I wrote something like 1. Drinking. 2. Cockroaches. And there the list abruptly ended. I had zero conception or understanding that I drank largely out of fear. I mean, I read it in the Big Book and my sponsor told me it was true. The rooms told me it was true. But I had no idea how to internalize that information. I didn’t understand that I drank out of a fear of facing reality. Fear of what others thought of me. And fear of what I thought of myself.

Fear is insidious and cunning. It fights dirty. It comes at once, full force, slamming into my body. Then again, waiting until I am lying in bed late at night, it subtly and mischievously burrows into my soul. Fear will tell me I am not good enough or pretty enough. It will tell me my life a foolish, quixotic endeavor doomed to end in a fiery ball of disappointment and failure. It will tell me I will drink again, so why not drink right now.

But then, I remember that fear is not real. I may feel it. It may exist, oozing out from the pit in my chest to momentarily hijack my thoughts, but it no longer gets to dictate my actions. That’s what recovery has given me: steps and people, a higher power, and the knowledge of second thought. It has given me time and perspective and understanding. Recovery may not have cured the neurosis, but it has given me a fighting chance. No, fear does not get to win, not today.

 

Life is not Something to be Endured

“When a man or a woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being. He has been set on a path which tell him he is really going somewhere, that life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered. In a very real sense he has been transformed, because he has laid hold of a source of strength which, in one way or another, he has hitherto denied himself. He finds himself in possession of a degree of honesty, tolerance, unselfishness, peace of mind, and love of which he had thought himself quite incapable” (Twelve and Twelve 106-107).

 

I’ve been thinking about this passage on and off for a couple of weeks. The sentence that keeps reverberating is, “Life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered,” but I felt the whole paragraph is so strong that it deserved to be reproduced.

I have really struggled with the idea that life is something to be endured. Not just recently; I’ve struggled with it my entire life. I remember being a kid and just yearning, begging for independence. I needed power and control over my own existence so badly I could taste it. By the time I became eighteen though, it was too late. I had become too used to self-medication and escapism; I could no longer exist in reality. My daytime life, my working life, my social life, all became something to endure in order to perpetuate the false. When I finally awoke from this nightmare twelve years later, I had to endure the crazy that was early sobriety. I was upset at a lot of people and things. I wanted to blame others, but you told me the fault lay squarely in my own house. I was broke, scared, lost. Over time, things got better. I went back to school, got a job, and did my best to become an adult. I endured my new found responsibility.

But then something happened. It was in October of last year. I was in the midst of a horrible job. Every morning, I woke up with a sense of dread and oppression at the next days, weeks, years. One Friday evening, my boyfriend stopped by to pick me up for an unexpected date. I had been sleeping off another horrendous week and hadn’t received his texts. I didn’t want to go out. I wanted to feel sorry for myself. He had a whole night planned. He convinced me. I relented.

What we did wasn’t important, nor might I add, all that extraordinary. But I do remember the emotions. I remember being happy, really happy, and laughing, really laughing, for the first time in weeks. I remember driving down the freeway, looking up at the night sky and thinking life is short and beautiful to not be appreciated. And I remember thinking I no longer wanted to live a life of dirt and disease, sadness and heartache. I wanted beauty and art and culture and literature. I wanted to live a life of joy and stars and laughter.

I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I had reached a whole new kind of bottom in sobriety.

It took some time for me to sort out the unhappiness that was my life, but over the course of the year I got a new job, a new apartment, and a new roommate. And I began following a new path, not the path of a career, but a path of the creative. I started to write again.

Some days, it is still hard to not get caught up in enduring life. I worry about money and housing and health. But the reality is, right now at this very moment, my life couldn’t be more beautiful. I am looking out the window at the last of the summer storms. I am in full anticipation of October and Halloween. I cannot wait for the first burst of cold weather when I can turn off the air conditioner and open all the windows in the house. It reminds me, though, of where I was, not just physically but emotionally, last October.

What if I never realized I had the power to change my life? What if I never realize that I could be happy? I still don’t know today why I thought the only way to live life was to endure it. I’m not sure if it is a quirk in my psychology or a byproduct of my alcoholism. I do know though, that it doesn’t have to continue that way. I have a friend who says, “I’ve been drunk and I’ve been sober. Sober’s better.” So might I add, is happy.

 

A little Nina Simone to help you smile.