Anyone who knows me knows that I love my dogs. I got my first puppy, Dionysus, when I had about 2½ years sober. I had moved into a little efficiency apartment in the Heights area of Houston. I was struggling with loneliness and isolation after sober living. One day, a friend in the program posted on Facebook that his dog had a litter. He lived close by and impulsively I thought, “Well, I’ll just drive by and look.” When I picked up the first puppy, she wriggled and squirmed. The second, a shockingly tiny thing with big, fluffy ears promptly fell asleep in my arms. I feel in love instantly. I took her home that day and never looked back.
So today, I bring you: Lessons in Sobriety that I Learned from my Dogs.
Forgiveness: It is embarrassing to say, but I seemingly made it to adulthood with fully grasping the concept of unconditional love and forgiveness. I just didn’t get it. Instead, I judged people. I held them to impossible standards. When they inevitable let me down, I walked away. I rationalized my behavior in the spirit of self-preservation without ever understand the chaos and hurt left in the wake of my actions.
I still had not learned this lesson when I got Dio. I stayed home for the first couple of days I had her, but eventually I had to return to work. I was a server, so my shifts were relatively short, and yet, almost every day, I would come home to damage. She chewed through my cable wire, speaker wires, multiple pairs of shoes, my couch cushions, and my linoleum tiled floor. One day she even ate the side of my door. I tried to protect my belongings. I bought her chew toys and bones to no avail. Every single day, everything I owned laid in perpetual danger of being destroyed. And every day it seemed I would come home to some new and totally incomprehensible form of destruction. I would get so angry, Dio would momentarily hang her head. I would instantly forgive her; she would instantly forgive me. One day, I realized that there was nothing Dio could ever do that would cause me to stop loving her. She taught me how to love unconditionally.
Acceptance: My little apartment had floor to ceiling windows in the front of the apartment. It was one of the selling points of the apartment. But I had not envisioned owning a puppy at that point. Now, had the windows been a normal height, my tiny Dachshund would never have been able to bark at the mailman, people walking their dogs, the neighbor’s cat, my landlord, bicycles, or any of the other countless distractions that exist in the Heights.
The barking is frustrating; I won’t lie. It tends to happen the most just as I am lying down for a nap. As much as I go “Dio! Shush!” She does not listen to me. Do you know why? Because she is a dog. And dogs bark at things. It is in their nature to do so. So, on some level I had to let Dio be Dio, an insanely protective, vicious, barking attack puppy.
Addicts are like that too. We have a shared bond of insecurity and fear, bad judgment and self-centeredness. These shared characteristics are what make us relate so well to each other, and yet, when I see them in you, it drives me crazy. Just sit through a whole meeting for once, dang it! No crosstalk. You can go an hour without smoking. Stop smacking your gum. No need to curse. Eventually, though, I learned that my taking your inventory is not going to do anyone any good. You will not listen to me. Most often, the life lessons we learn are a direct result of our own personal experience, not things told to us by other insanely controlling people. I learned to let addicts be addicts too.
Responsibility: Every family sitcom over the span of television has had the episode where little Johnny brings home a dog. He wants to keep it. The parents have the inevitable conversation about how owning a dog will teach Little Johnny responsibility.
Dogs require a tremendous about of time and money. Before we go any further, let me tell you that I am not coming at this one from a place of moral superiority. My love for my puppies is equally matched by my procrastination. Even as I type this, I know I am a month overdue for their vet appointment.
There is something about a dog, though, that will eventually warm the heart of even the most cold-hearted, miserly, and selfish addict. Anyone who has a problem sharing their resources should get a pet that requires much from them. Having dogs has taught me that my time and money do not always belong to me, that I have cute, lovable, little furry beings that are totally reliant on me for food and safety.
I remember the old Sandra Bullock movie, 28 Days, when they tell her to get a plant. If she could make it a year without the plant dying, she could get a dog. If the dog made it a year without dying, then she could get into a relationship. The movie is terrible, but the sentiment is good.
Learning to be a contributing member of society requires one to give of themselves. Sometimes this is difficult. Other people’s character defects can grind on us. Our own behaviors can push people away. But a dog’s love loyalty ring true. I honestly feel my sobriety today has been improved by the forgiveness and character of my fierce, little dogs.
I tell my students, in the event of the apocalypse, do not try to save me. I’ve watched enough movies with natural disasters, post nuclear fallout, and aliens to know that a mild manner hero inevitably steps out from the rubble to save the day. That is not me. I am the woman screaming and running as the building comes crashing down on her. I am the red shirted lieutenant that never gets beamed back up. So, do not give me the back pack of provisions or hand me a gun. Just shove me in the path of the nearest zombies and save yourself.
I do not deal well with life, and it doesn’t have to be zombies. In fact, its usually the small things that seem the most insurmountable at times: work, bills, chores. And when life hits, I like to run and hide. I use to think if I just shut everything out, nothing could hurt me. By the time I was thirty, my inability to deal resulted in my daily drinking, hoping that my life would simply resolve itself of its own volition.
But then the worst happened. My drinking turned on me. Alcohol no longer became my means of escape but became the catalyst for new and prolonged damage. In my final days, my life was very bleak. I was broke, unemployed, unemployable. Even then, it was only when it became impossible to ignore the disaster that I put down the drink.
Those first days of sobriety were insanely scary. I was terrified. Knowing that living alone would result in my drinking again, I made the drastic decision to move into a halfway house. A couple weeks later, an AA gave me a job as a counter girl in a bakery. I fumbled my way through life for the first many weeks and months.
And every night, I would go to a meeting. Up there on the wall was the saying, “There’s no problem so big that a drink can’t make worse.” And I believed that. I believed that because my new life was so tenuous, one drink and it would all come crashing down around my head. One drink and I would be asked to leave sober living. One drink and I would be fired. One drink away from catastrophe.
And I think that is what people with time tend to forget. We get real jobs and real housing, and then all of a sudden life hits and we revert to our former habits. We forget that drinking makes everything worse. We start thinking that maybe we can escape reality just for a little while. All we would need is one tiny, little, sippy bottle of wine or a couple of beers.
Yesterday, life dealt me a blow. Though I had no desire to drink, I could feel myself wanting to retreat, run away, isolate. And I did, a little bit. Instead of cleaning my house and working on my writing, I crawled into bed and took a nap. When I awoke to a dark room and absolute quiet, I stayed there for an extra hour playing Trivia Crush unwilling to break out of my cocoon.
After a while, though, I did. I just swung my feet from the over the precipice of the bed to the floor and rejoined society. Because as much as I want to revert to my prior behaviors when times get tough, I know the old behaviors are just that, old. They do not work. Its not just that “There is no problem so big that a drink can’t make worse,” its ” There’s no problem so big that my mind can’t make worse.” Today I know I cannot run from life or isolate from pain. I have to face my monsters head on. So, as much as I hate it the idea, hand me the wooden stake and the garlic. I’m ready.
In my drinking days, I could never get enough of anything. I was a bottomless pit of needs and wants. I “deserved” comfort and forgiveness. I “deserved” love and joy delivered to me on a silver platter in return for all the love and generosity I supplied others. Cause isn’t that how life works? Tit for tat. I buy you dinner and next time you buy mine? I helped you with your work. Now you help me with mine. Never once was there a sincere, genuine gift made without any thought of reciprocity. No, everything had returned postage.
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace.
That where there is hatred, I may bring love;
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
That where there is despair, I may bring hope;
That where there are shadows, I may bring light;
And that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather
To comfort, than to be comforted,
To understand, than to be understood,
To love, than to be loved;
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is in dying that one awakens to Eternal Life. (Twelve and Twelve Page 99).
Therefore, that the first time I read the St. Francis Prayer (known to AAs as the Eleventh Step Prayer), I was in shock. I practically I looked around for an imaginary audience in order to say, “Do you see this? Do people do that? Do people love without love in return?” I thought that while the St. Francis Prayer may be all very good in theory, no one actually lived that way.
Occasionally, I speak to my students about how we can have gaps in our educational progress. We can get through high school, lead full, productive lives without ever fully grasping how a semicolon functions or why you can’t take a square root of a negative number.
I missed how to forgive. Looking back, I am embarrassed by how little I understood any sort of spiritual life. I was raised well. I went to church. And yet, I became a full-fledged adult who had no capacity for the faults of humanity. Instead, I had some odd philosophical, faulty wiring that told me that if I forgive people who had clearly wronged me, that I would be acquiescing my morally superior ground. Some acts are just unforgivable and if I forgive you, I have somehow lessened your sin to the level of forgivable sins. I use to like that saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.” I used the spirit of self-preservation as a mean to justify hurtful behavior. But the truth is, it is easier not to talk to people than to talk to them. It is easier to be indignant than to be kind. It is easier to become hardened than it is to remain vulnerable. And it is easier to be angry than it is to forgive.
It has taken me a long time to fully understand the wisdom of St. Francis’ words. It did not come overnight. I learned from feeling others love me before I had any capacity to love in return. When I wanted so badly for someone to understand me, I learned first that I must take the time to understand someone else. It came from me making mistakes and watching others either take the path of forgiveness or non-forgiveness. And it took me asking myself which person I would rather be.
I believe in the spiritual experience of AA. I believe that God can enter a person’s heart and alter their spirit. But I also believe a person can just make the simple choice to be better. I think we can just practice at understanding. We can practice at forgiveness. And tomorrow, if I don’t get the love I feel I am deserved… well, I’ll still love ya anyways.
Lydia did not know how it had happened. Well, she knew how it had happened, and yet she did not know how it happened. She knew the steps, knew the exact actions that led to her lying in a crumpled mass on the kitchen floor. What she did not know was how a seemingly innocent day could turn so quickly into a nightmare…
As part of her general dissatisfaction with her life, Lydia had started to methodically clean out the large house in Memorial. It had begun innocently enough on a lazy, Sunday afternoon. She had spent the morning reading and sipping tea, but then she turned a little restless, walking from room to room.
She eventually found herself standing in the doorway of her master closet. Once a room of pride, a space that spoke of indulgence and luxury, Lydia now looked upon the space as a choke around her neck. The designer clothes, the pristinely laid Choos and Louboutins, the large purses displayed as works of art, seemed not a reflection of affluence and ease, but a mausoleum dedicated to a former life of indulgence and superficiality. The sight disturbed her. Many of the clothes no longer even fit on her recently acquired fuller body frame, and yet there they hung.
Slowly, and with a feeling of grateful remorse to a past life, she carefully folded and packed away shirts after pants after skirts after cocktail dresses after ball gowns of clothes, once lovingly purchased and adored.
When Lydia finished her room, she moved on to her son’s and then her daughter’s. With each macramé school project and participation trophy, with each seashelled vacation souvenir and mother’s day card, a fond memory was ignited, appreciated, and then quietly closed. The items she did not feel were worthy of keeping, she threw away with no regret. With each passing garbage bag, she felt lighter, freer. The nicer items, the things she thought the kids might honestly want, Lydia set aside in one of two piles. If they wanted them, they would have to come get them. But her and Henry’s house, her house, would no longer be the exoskeleton of a time past. Lydia was living day by day, step by step, and all she wanted was for her surroundings to reflect her new founded simplicity.
So, it was with some confusion that it was a simple sweatshirt that had paralyzed Lydia that Sunday evening. A sweatshirt. Any other day, she might have simply folded it and placed it in his dresser drawer. Old, frayed around the edges, but perfectly worn in. When she and Henry first started dating, Lydia had confiscated the sweatshirt as a form of territorial display. She would wear it up to the hospital and kiss him in full view of the nurse’s station. Not usually a woman prone to jealousy, she knew from her own stay in the hospital that Henry was often sought out and flirted with. Lydia was not going to let him fall through her fingers. She was determined to fight for him, fight for him in the best way she knew how, in his Colombia sweatshirt and a tight pair of jeans.
But it was in that moment, in the moment when she raised the sweatshirt up to her nose to inhale his scent that she realized she had not fought for him. She had given him away, pushed him aside as she reached for another bottle. She blamed him. She accused him of desertion, but really, she the one that deserted him. She may have physically been there, but her mind was always fighting and struggling somewhere else. In her heart, in that moment, she could not blame him for leaving.
She looked up and straight into the sideboard mirror. The reflection startled her, for the woman who stared back was not the woman she had expected to see. She had looked in mirrors; she had to have. Always a woman properly put together, Lydia had spent hours applying make-up and coifing her perfectly styled hair. So, she must have look. But had she really looked? Lydia moved closer to the mirror, placed her hand against the cool glass. There, staring back at her was not the dignified and beautiful woman she envisioned, but an aged woman, worn and creased. Her hair, thought by her to be golden and lustrous, was a dried and brittled bleach. Her face was puffy and yet somehow simultaneously drawn. There were circles under her eyes. Her skin had a yellowed hue, the color of prolonged sickness and self-tanner. Instead of cathartic recovery gravitating through her arterial system, a wave of bile, anger, self-loathing, disgust, and hated swelled up from her stomach.
Without warning alcoholic desire screamed at her. It knocked her body backwards with a physicality that forced her to break eye contact with the mirror. Suddenly clinging at the neck of her t-shirt, she couldn’t breathe. She doubled over, trying to catch her breath. After a few seconds, Lydia looked up and ran from the room, the sweatshirt lying on the ground.
She sprinted down the sweeping spiral staircase to the living room. When she got there, she looked wildly around. Think, think. The bar wouldn’t have anything. She had cleaned it out. Think, think. The cabinet above the refrigerator! Lydia pulled over a counter stool and stood on it to reach one of her most favorite hiding places. None. The pool house! Lydia ran to the guest quarters and pulled open the refrigerator, once stocked for parties, only to find it barren. The outdoor kitchen. No.
Panic overcame her as she ran back to the house and furiously started pulling out drawers and looking in behind furniture. She couldn’t have gotten it all. She must have forgotten something, overlooked something, anything. Lydia ran to the kitchen. Sherry, cooking wine, something. Lydia spotted the bottle of vanilla extract. She grabbed it off the shelf. She held it tight in her palm and looked down at it. 35% alcohol. It would work. It would quiet the thoughts until she could get to the store. And then it clicked. In a moment of realization, Lydia realized she was of the variety of alcoholic that would drink vanilla extract. She closed her fingers around the bottle and sank to the kitchen floor.
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.
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!