There are these moments that come every so often where I fall on my knees in a sort of tender, tearful reverence to the fact that I am sober and free from the hell of alcoholism. Sometimes it comes from reading a novel that recaptures haunting tales of destructive boozing and the interminable suffering that accompanies such compulsion. Or watching a film that might depict someone in the throes of addiction, and I shudder in relief, knowing I live clean now without the shredded memory of blackouts, the sleeping with strangers, the driving drunk, the opiate withdrawal. And sometimes it just comes, boom, out of nowhere, because my heart knows: goddamn, am I lucky.
It changes everything to look at the world through this lens. It makes every moment good enough, because nothing is ever as bad as being in active alcoholism, once you discover what a demon it is. Alcoholism eventually ceases, completely, to be sexy, glamorous, exciting, and fun. It is nasty, punctuated by such a debilitating fear that the idea of ever returning is one that I prefer not to entertain. And so – reverence for recovery. Because no matter how bad things might seem, how stressful, confusing, painful, irritating, unfair – to have true and deep emotional, spiritual, and physical recovery from alcoholism is to live life with an undeniable undercurrent of joy and gratitude. There is a sort of comforting, sweet innocence to recovery, at least the sort that I subscribe to, where even piercing moments of fear and anxiety are smoothed out by the magic of a spiritual awakening. I cannot imagine living any other way.
But I used to live another way, even when I was physically sober. I have lived sober and fallen on my knees in rage and hatred and bitter resentment. I have been sober and hated every minute of it.
I was lucky enough to first enter the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous at the tender age of seventeen. I was lucky to have some time sober here and there in my late teens and early twenties, while subsequently suffering with codependency, every form of an eating disorder, cutting, love addiction, image obsession, consumerism, smoking, sleeping too much… and every other possible form of substitution for drinking and drug use, that by the time I reached the ripe old age of twenty five, I was well versed in the twelve steps and had taken a cake to celebrate two years of sobriety but secretly fantasized about hanging myself with a jump rope. It sat coiled in a ball in the den of my father’s house, and I knew exactly where I could string it and where I could hang. Or, if not that, I could swallow every single pill in the house and wash them down with Bombay gin, drift into nothingness. I could drive my car off a cliff. I could split my wrists open with a sharp knife. I had lots of ideas. Instead, I chose to party again and let active alcoholism take its course.
Why was I still so miserable, despite being sober and involved in a twelve step program? Because I hadn’t changed, internally. You sometimes hear around the rooms that if you take the booze away from an alcoholic and they don’t fundamentally change their insides, they are even worse. We’ve all heard that drinking can be a form of self-medicating, and that is exactly what it is, if you are a real alcoholic. You are (trying to) keep asleep a beastly cloying terror and obsession. When you stop “treating” alcoholism, there you are, stripped bare, with all your rotten thoughts and feelings. And it takes profound courage and willingness to move through that muck and mire and make it to the other side. That is why so many of us alcoholics know what it feels like to get some time physically sober, struggle and feel cheated, and then relapse. We long for nothing more than the promised relief that we are told recovery brings, but we feel angry that it didn’t come to us. Why didn’t it come to us! Well, because it requires courage and willingness to not simply not drink, but to (at least attempt to) set down all the destructive things we do and allow the twelve steps to work. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it is very hard to stay sober or have any sort of quality long term sobriety if one is continuing to act out destructively in other areas.
Many of us struggling with addiction want to kill ourselves, or if not that, at least blot out our rotten existence with substances until we die accidentally, because real life, awake and sober and present life, hurts too much. But it doesn’t have to. Why do so many people struggle with staying sober and having some semblance of emotional sobriety? Because, at least for a while, it can be brutal. Picture every bone in your body being broken, and they all have to be broken again in order to heal properly. It’s kind of like that. I also like the metaphor of laying a foundation to a building. In the beginning, it’s all dirt and splintered wood and hammer and nails and it’s hot or far too cold and you’re exhausted and it’s ugly, and you can’t quite get a grasp of what is being built, and you wonder, how the hell am I going to do this. But then, over time, there stands a beautiful building. With a strong and solid foundation. And it needs upkeep, to be sure, but it’s pretty sturdy because the time spent on building it from the ground up was authentic and with effort. So it’s kind of like that. It requires real work, internal work, “soul surgery,” as a friend of mine once called it, and a lot of us don’t want to do that. Alcoholics like instant gratification – we don’t want to wait. But if you avoid it or move around it, eventually, your building will crumble.
Why is that? Why do we need such an overhaul? Why isn’t physical sobriety enough? Whether you believe alcoholism to be an illness or not, there is no denying that addicts tend to have a peculiar mind that often defaults on obsession, anxiety, fear, and guilt. There is often selfishness and shades of narcissism, or else there might be extreme codependency, self-doubt, and people-pleasing. There is more often than not low self-esteem, self-hatred, and fierce resentment. Sometimes we are diagnosed with depression or an anxiety disorder, and while that most certainly is valid, many find in the rooms of recovery that, after a while, the serious depression we were diagnosed with softens and lifts, turning out to be just another face of our alcoholism. What the western world calls depression and anxiety, the east may refer to as a form of spiritual sickness or the “monkey mind,” the untrained brain disconnected from the soul, that cannot stop thinking and seems only to stir up trouble. The founders of AA understood this, recognizing that alcoholism was not only a physical and mental problem, but a spiritual one as well. We are physically addicted, we are mentally obsessed, and we are spiritually void. That doesn’t mean you have to “find God” to get better (although many of us do) but it does mean that there is something deep inside of us, deeper than our brain and body that needs to be addressed and healed.
We live in an interesting time in society. Religions clash violently and people scream that atheism is the answer. Meanwhile in the west, millions flock to meditation and yoga and all forms of “New Age” spirituality. Some call it God, others Higher Power, still others, “just a feeling.” People look to the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., Eckhart Tolle, or Mother Theresa, and some swear by the heartfelt teachings of Brene Brown and Jack Kornfield. Whether you consider yourself religious or not is beside the point, and whether you are alcoholic or not doesn’t really matter – people are spiritually thirsty. People are seeking. People see the benefit of living with spiritual principles like surrender, forgiveness, gratitude, acceptance, presence, and service to others. And these are the very principles that save the lives of millions of alcoholics all over the world. The twelve steps are a path that lead to a spiritual awakening, or if you prefer, a psychic change, where something shifts inside of you and you are no longer so deeply governed by fear, self-hatred, and resentment. We don’t change overnight, but I am living proof, and I have witnessed it in countless others, that if we do the work, we will change and we will come to know what it means to live peacefully in our skin without a need to drink or take drugs (or self-destruct in any form.) I like to think of it in spiritual terms, but I have friends who prefer to think of the work as having nothing to do with a God or Higher Power but retraining the mind and rewiring those neural pathways. Fair enough – they’re still changing through the work.
Some of us still take prescribed medications for depression and anxiety, but many of us eventually find that we don’t need them after all. Some of us still do psychotherapy, but there is often an end game in sight because we are actually getting better. Some of us simply stick to AA while others of us need support for sex and love addiction, codependency, financial problems, chain smoking, or continuous issues with food. I have found that there is a delicate balance between removing those behaviors and allowing the twelve steps to work, because it is not so cut and dry don’t take a drink no matter what. We have to eat, we want to have sex and relationships, money is a thing, sometimes we slip and smoke a cigarette, emotions can get intense…
What I learned through getting some recovery around these areas was that the solution always always always comes through awareness, love, and faith. I no longer subscribe to the old idea that we are sick forever and will always have monkeys on our backs (or in our minds.) I believe our natural state is joyful, even for alcoholics. Will I always be an addict? Yes. Can I safely take a drink or a drug? No. Would it be a good idea to make myself throw up when I am a little too full? Of course not. But I try to not be so hard on myself about it all and make every little thing in my life into a syndrome that needs to be fixed by some external source. I have learned what real solutions are, and they are never to be tough and hard and rigid. It might be somewhat of a radical idea in our fast-paced, hard-working, perfectionist society, but today I subscribe to loving myself unconditionally. It might be the most spiritual principle of all – radical acceptance and compassion. Sometimes the Buddhists call it lovingkindness. Beating ourselves up is never the solution, even when we make big mistakes. Like how I finally came to understand that hating my body was an insane solution to trying to feel sexy and beautiful. Starving myself or eating until sickness was not an act of self-love and care, nor was drinking twenty drinks and taking enough Vicodin to kill a horse. Tearing myself apart for making mistakes at work or saying the wrong thing to a friend did not make anything better – it only instilled fear and shame. Instead, I have learned the value in giving myself and others a much needed break, while also maintaining responsibility for my life and my behavior and being accountable for my actions.
Time and time again I have witnessed that whenever I try to solve a problem through thinking, struggling, forcing, and fighting, it all gets worse. I grow disconnected and start blaming everyone and everything for my problems. I drift into self-pity and fear and resentment. I get aches and pains. I want to act out. When I let go and surrender and let things unfold naturally, without clinging, they eventually resolve, and I feel lighter and happier. I trust. I get into the present. What else can we do? Think we actually have total control over how the world functions and how our lives will unfold? Oh please. Spiritual principles, twelve steps, mindfulness – whatever you want to call it, this stuff bloody works, whether you’re trying to stay sober from booze or just hoping to have a little more peace in your life.
And so I fall on my knees in reverence, because today I am sober, today I’m not starving myself or bingeing and throwing up, or cutting into my wrists with a rusty razor, or sleeping with dozens of men or smoking two packs a day. (But I have, and if you are right now, don’t beat yourself up, sweet loves.) I don’t have millions of dollars or a “perfect” body or flawless skin or the best wardrobe or whatever it is we are taught to care about in this land. But I feel connected and full of joy and gratitude, and it runs deep. And it is all I ever really wanted.