I recently read an article in The Guardian, a British publication, that broke my heart. It was written by an alcoholic woman who quit drinking 15 years ago but who has completely misunderstood AA as an ineffectual “self help” group.
She rightly explains,
Alcoholism is a strange condition. If you survive the drinking stage, and many don’t, it has relatively little to do with alcohol, which is merely the drug with which the alcoholic treats herself. It is, rather, a way of thinking, and continues long after you have stopped drinking. It is a voice in the head: a malevolent voice that wants you to die.
Much of the article describes with startling honesty the havoc this voice has wreaked in Tanya’s life — causing her to hide for years in workaholism and lie her way to extra morphine in the maternity ward to up her high (which I would call a relapse). Life, for Tanya, is miserable.
Almost none of the article offers a solution. She maintains,
[F]or the alcoholic there is nothing as prosaic as “better”. There is only a daily remission, based on how you deal with the voice in your head. (“Hello, monster. Where have you been?”)
…If I am unwary, she can plunge me into the deepest despair, and I have learned to construct an obstacle course to thwart her. It is made only of ordinary human love. Nothing else works.
What a tragedy that this woman has suffered for 15 fricking years with virtually no solution!
I wish I could tell Tanya: The path to freedom is encrypted in those 12 prosaic steps posted in your erroneously termed “self-help” group. Clearly you did not grasp the meaning of the first one: We cannot help ourselves.
You’re living proof of that. If you were to let quality people from AA into your life, you would learn from them that this “voice” your article discusses at length is a commonplace phenomenon we (not “they”) refer to as self-loathing, less-than, not enoughness, or simply the shadow side of a big, fat ego. Recovery defeats it.
If you could truly listen with an open mind in meetings and work the 12 steps diligently with a sponsor, you could heal more in a year than you could in decades of therapy or a lifetime of introspection — literally. Pride is all that blocks you.
I was much like Tanya when I first came to AA 22 years ago. I abhorred groupthink and its cousin oversimplification, and to me the 12 Steps, with their repeated references to “God” as a “He,” smacked of both. Their God, I assumed, had to be the same God as in the Bible, Torah, Quran or whatever. The words “as we understood Him” did little to mitigate that.
I was lucky, though. In early sobriety, I became so miserable without alcohol that living sober became utter torture: I hated being Louisa.
In those days, when I wasn’t working my meaningless data entry job, I found it impossible to get out of bed, at worst, or out of my sweatpants, at best. So annoyed was I by my happy alcoholic housemate’s assertion that my heart was suffering from a “god-shaped hole” that I went back to AA meetings and got a kick-butt sponsor just to spite him.
That sponsor impressed on me the crucial importance of seeking god, and seeking god changed everything. In my case (which, as my addiction memoir attests, was a weird one), god kept popping into my life via a series of paranormal experiences until I finally surrendered to the truth I live by today: god is real, everywhere, always.
My god is the god of nature and biology; the god of life energy; the god of love. It’s a goodness beyond our wildest imaginings, one that can upstage our ego’s grandiosity as well as self-hate. God can empower us to love others and life itself so intensely that just being is an overwhelming privilege. As my sponsor Nora says, “I feel more joy today just walking half a block to drop a letter in the mailbox than I did before in all my fanciest vacations put together.”
For me, this love of life’s poignant richness that drowns out my inner demon’s insults can be accessed only through god-aware eyes. To maintain that vision, I have be up front with god constantly: I need to live by the highest ethics I can muster, eschew lying, and follow the Golden Rule.
In good times, I must offer goodwill as if I had an infinite basket of it (cause I do). In hard times, I must never succumb to the illusion that my struggles are unique. AA meetings make both possible.
I’m just back from hiking 115 stunningly gorgeous miles along the Pacific Crest Trail with my sober friend, Sally. A little YouTube video I made of our trip is linked below.
God made this experience possible. First of all, without god buoying my heart, I’d never have found the gumption to take off into Washington’s very wild backcountry with my friend. Twice, on the trail, I had to draw on courage to accomplish more than I believed I could — once to cross a raging creek on a bunch of flimsy logs and once to get out of my tent during a midnight lightning storm at 6,5oo’ amid ruthless wind and sleet because my tent’s rainfly was getting torn off and all my stuff soaked.
In both cases, I witnessed my fright being eclipsed by a “you can do this” beam of certainty that is the antithesis of alcoholic self-loathing. It’s not ego, either. It doesn’t come from me. It’s about stepping out of the way to become a channel — letting faith power my steps and efforts.
Tanya, I wish I could gift that to you — what god, through my fellow alcoholics, has gifted me. There’s incremental suicide; then survival; then relief; and finally rejoicing — meaning you figure out what you love doing, and you freaking do it.
But the journey from one to the next is an inside job — and only for those who actively seek.
Music by http://www.bensound.com/royalty-free-music