“The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink.”
Alcoholic Anonymous, p. 24
Alcoholics cannot choose to not drink. We lack the power to decide whether or how much alcohol we’ll consume. If we had that power, we wouldn’t be alcoholics. We’d just be people who drink too much.
If that’s all there were to it, once we recognized drinking was destroying our love, life, and liver, instead of experiencing “a complete failure of the kind of defense that keeps one from putting his hand on a hot stove,” we’d yank back our blistered, half-cooked hands and just stop drinking. We certainly wouldn’t need a program of recovery or a spiritual connection to do so, and I wouldn’t need to write this blog.
Given our powerlessness, then, it really makes no sense to say, “I’m an alcoholic and I choose not to drink today” – though we often hear that very line spoken in meetings. Some saying this may be clueless about their condition. But others may be using shorthand for the power of choice we alcoholics do retain. As alcoholics we have one daily, hourly, by-the-minute choice that can make or break our sobriety, and this is what it looks like: we can work toward the solution, or we can regress toward the problem.
What’s the problem, again? We’re maladjusted to life. Drinking was our old solution. Take it away via abstinence, and we’re up shit creek without a paddle. Undeveloped emotionally, we’re Tiny Tim with his crutch cruelly kicked away. We still have to cope with and navigate everything that overwhelmed us before, but now try to do so exposed and unarmed.
So the choices we make in sobriety are really about how to render the real world comfortable, livable, and even a joy – by staying in touch with a higher power. We choose thousands of times every day, not only in our actions but in how we elect to perceive – and every choice will fall into one of those two categories: toward the solution or toward the problem. Which wolf do you feed?
When newcomers ask me, sometimes desperately, what’s going fill that empty chasm in their gut, what’s ever going to take the place of alcohol and drugs, the solution is hard to verbalize because it resembles a sense they don’t have yet, or a feeling they haven’t experienced since they were little kids. The solution is LOVE, for everything and everyone – and the unshakable conviction that love is everything. Mind you, when I heard that kind of stuff in early sobriety, I felt like, “What the fuck good is that?! I heard that crap in a Beatles song a long time ago and it doesn’t do anything! I need help NOW!”
Don Miguel Ruiz offers this gem of a prayer at the close of The Four Agreements:
Today, Creator of the Universe, …help us to be like you are, to love life, to be life, to be love. Help us to love the way you love, with no conditions…. Help us to love and accept ourselves without any judgement, because when we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty and we need to be punished.
That’s the destination: freedom to love ourselves and others. The steps are a means of getting there – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Everything we think we know from the past holds us back. When the fabric of our existence is shot through with fear, we can love only a select few and only on the condition that they be on “our side.” Ironically, the same guards we’ve built up to protect us from a threatening world constitute the source of our deepest pain, because they also cut us off from god’s love – love that can flow through us and invigorate our souls as we pass it on to others.
Do you know what hell is? Hell is being cut off from god, from love, from the energy that orchestrates our internal body and connects us to all that lives. A life of fear and resentment enshrouds us in a thick, impenetrable cell that will not admit the light of god. We can be busy knowing what’s right and who’s wrong, we can be fighting for ourselves and resenting everyone who gets in our way, we can chase whatever seems to grant us power – and all of it will lead to loneliness and despair! And if we die with those guards up, we’ll experience hell in the hereafter – unless love cuts through our shell and frees us to seek the light. (Or at least, so report my fellow Near-Death survivors who did go to hell.)
The 12 steps chip away at those countless false beliefs that made our shells seem necessary in the first place. We replace our old axioms with new, transparent ones – that whenever we’re upset, it’s because there is something wrong with us; that acceptance grants us the freedom to live and let live; that we need to know where we end and others begin; and that, when necessary, detaching with love is our responsibility.
I can’t choose not to drink. But I can choose to do what’s necessary to connect with a god who, one day at a time, graces me with sobriety. I can PRAY for strength and guidance. I can PRACTICE the self-care that nurtures me. I can PAUSE whenever I sense I’m headed down a wrong path – toward resentment, self-pity, or irresponsibility. I can ACT by walking out the door to a meeting I don’t think I need, where I do service I don’t admit is important, or pick up sponsees I don’t have time for. I can feel GRATITUDE for a beautiful life I threw away countless times in my drinking. I can OFFER kindness, encouragement, and help to those in need – i.e. everyone. And, most important, I can choose to LOVE whatever life brings me, moment by moment by moment.
It’s not about just not drinking anymore. These choices, I find, bring me heaven on earth.