Category Archives: Step 1

What’s Normal Drinking?

Suppose I give you an algorithm to figure out whether or not you’re a normal drinker.  I tell you to take the number of drinks you’d consume on an average Tuesday, multiply it by a rough estimate of times you’ve “had too much” and divide that by the number of drinks that would qualify as a “binge” for you; next add the number of times you’ve felt utterly disgusted with yourself the morning after.  If the square route of this number is less than 3, you’re fine – go ahead and drink!  If it’s over 3 – sorry!  You’ve got a problem.

Here’s the real test:  Did you read that whole paragraph, dude?  Did you even consider trying to estimate some of those numbers?  Then, guess what?  You are sooo not normal!  Not only do normies – people with a normal relationship to alcohol – not even have numbers for most of those inputs, they don’t give a rat’s ass about how much they drink or whether they get to.

Try the whole thing again substituting “strawberries” or “croissants” for drinks and you’ll see through a normie’s eyes:  “Take the number of strawberries you’d consume on an average Tuesday…”  Who cares?  Eat ’em or don’t – it doesn’t matter!

Alcoholics love to marvel at normie behaviors like not finishing a drink or leaving half a bottle of wine in the fridge for weeks, behaviors that strike us as incomprehensible.  But getting a handle on how weird our thinking is – why we see normal as strange – is not so easy.

“The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great illusion of every abnormal drinker.  The persistence of this illusion is astonishing.  Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”  (Big Book p. 30)

Before lasting sobriety, we keep trying and trying to find a way to drink normally.  But the effort itself precludes normalcy.  For instance, here’s a story from my Big Book study group, just after we read the above passage.  Dana – a repeat relapser who works from home – spoke up:

“The trouble is, I can control and enjoy my drinking for a long time. I’m really careful.  I’ll drive in the morning to the gas station near my house and buy just one of those little airplane bottles of Jack [Daniels].  I’ll drink it in the car and fucking enjoy the hell out of it.  Then I go home and get the kids off to school; I’m nice and not grouchy.  I’ll get set up for work, go have another little bottle, work for hours, chat with clients – I’m great. Before the kids get home, I’ll zip out and have another.  Maybe one before dinner and bed.  NEVER do I have two!  I’m just calm, smooth, efficient – doin’ my thing for weeks and weeks!  But then one day, I’ll get bombed and mess everything up.  Then I come back to AA.”

About ten of us made up the circle that day, but the room fell silent.  We all looked somewhat grave, considering Dana’s routine, each in our own world.  To buy just one little bottle every time did seem like terrific control!  To me it was like someone able to walk on a super-slick surface, keeping her balance and never slipping.  Who was I to say Dana shouldn’t walk there?  My mind clutched at the fact that she eventually binged with enough damage to come back to the program – which had to be bad.

A few of us asked about logistics.  Dana answered confidently.  I recall feeling a subtle mix of jealousy – Dana was able to drink! – and fear that I might decide to try something like that.  But most of all, I recall a fuzzy, confused inability to think, as though my mind were stuffed with wool.

Then Nora, another group leader, inquired tentatively, “How far is the gas station?”

“Five minutes,” replied Dana.

Nora’s forehead knitted. “And you make five or six trips?”

“About an hour out of my day, yeah.”

Nora spoke haltingly: “So isn’t… alcohol controlling you, rather than… you controlling alcohol — ?”

As if starting to awaken from trance, we all shifted, glanced at Nora on the brink of something.

“That’s true,” said Dana.  “I never thought of it that way.  I guess I’m not really the one calling the shots!”

Suddenly I could see it – Dana’s system was madness!  She was a puppet yanked by addiction to run back and forth, jump through hoops, throw away money, arrange her entire life around her addiction so she could function in the world.  At that moment, everyone, including Dana, saw it.

Brantly, our third leader, spoke up animatedly:  “This is not how people behave, you guys!  Doing absolutely anything, arranging our whole life to maintain a buzz because we can’t do life as life?!  That is crazy.  For normal people, alcohol is not the answer, so getting it’s not a question!  That’s why we need meetings, why we need the steps and god – because our brains make the insane sound totally normal!”

We were all laughing by this time, at ourselves, at ten people’s incredible alcoholic blindness to the obvious.  Brantly held up his phone: “I don’t need an app to tell me it’s been 5,057 days since my last strawberry!”

Here’s the bottom line.  If you hope desperately to find a reason you’re not an alcoholic, you’re an alcoholic.  If you point proudly to periods when you’ve drunk normally, you’re not normal.  Normal drinkers may hide from life in other ways, but not through booze, so they simply don’t care. We for whom alcohol has been a lifesaving magic carpet are incapable of not caring.  Hence the fabulously ironic saying, “If I were a normie, I’d drink every day!”

Step one is the realization, an acceptance to the marrow of our bones that no way out of this maze exists on human terms.  Our faulty minds will always, always “choose” drinking — by however contorted a logic.  We can’t not drink.  Our relief must come from a higher power.

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Drinking, Recovery, Step 1

The Disease We Forget We Have

Late to a Seattle AA meeting 12 years ago, I was just backing into a parallel parking space when another driver zipped forward into the spot. I rolled back to make eye contact with the driver, whose stony stare flung back a challenge: “Are you really gonna make a stink about this? Cause it’ll get you nowhere.”  But then we recognized each other!  He was my friend from meetings! Grinning with contrition, he signaled that I could have the space.  I waved back “no big deal” and drove off – though for years I gave him shit about it.

My friend was still toxic – only about a year sober after three decades of relying on booze, pot, and crack to limp through a dark and confused life. Just beneath his jovial exterior he carried a huge chip on his shoulder, a certainty that everyone and everything had fucked him over so badly he’d never be okay.  That parking space was owed to him despite some rival bitch about to score it.

Over the years that followed, though, my friend underwent what I can only describe as a spiritual transformation.  AA became his home and family as he attended meetings almost daily.  When he finished the steps himself, he began to sponsor new guys, reading the Big Book with them and learning what it felt like to truly want good things for someone else.  His heart grew.  He became a man of great empathy and compassion.

And somehow through that process, he developed empathy for himself, an acceptance of his trying past, including all the suffering that had forced him to change and grow.  The chip on his shoulder melted away.  His shares in meetings emanated that elusive calm that evolves only from gratitude and humility.  When he spoke, people listened.

Finally, as a result of all that he had become in recovery, he quit recovery entirely and became desperate and miserable again.

Wait — what did I just say?  Why would someone do that?  Don’t we all know alcoholism is a lifelong affliction?  Doesn’t the Big Book plainly warn us not to ever let up on our spiritual program?

We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe.  We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.  (p.85)

My friend is far from alone in his abandonment of recovery.  Many of us get a good job, meet a good partner, buy a house, maybe pop out a kid or two, and expect to live happily ever after – without AA.  Some manage to, because they’ve found an alternate spiritual community: a congregation, sangha, even volunteer group.  A few die.  But the majority end up in either a tense, anxious day-to-day hell of frustrated ego, or a full-on relapse that promises relief but takes their job, house, family, dignity, happiness, and mental health instead.

So why do people like my friend, granted a beautiful life in AA, turn their backs on the simple regimen of meetings and service that saved them?

I’ll tell you why: we forget it was god who saved our lame, toxic, beat-to-shit asses.  We decide that, really, we did it!  Seriously – we just made a lot of bad choices back then, so amid the turbulence of all that wreckage, it seemed like the light of sanity came from god.  But now that we’re “winning” at life, we can see the change really came from our own smarty-pants-ness.  That’s right: we wised up, grew up, and climbed up.  And now that life has gotten so full and busy, who has time to waste on meetings and sponsees or prayer & meditation and all that 12-step shit?

That’s exactly what happened to my friend of the stolen parking space, who met me for coffee a few weeks ago.  But an unforeseen blow had upended his prosperity, so now he had this and that problem, but even worse, this other thing was about to happen, and then he’d really be in trouble!  He was physically sick, his face was broken out, and I noticed his hands shaking.

I spoke up: “You need to go to meetings.”  He responded as if I’d just suggested he take up embroidery, but, well aware I was an embroidery fanatic, he’d prepared a strong retort.  He cited reason after reason that AA meetings could do nothing for him, even if he had time to get to them.

“Do you remember,” I interrupted, “when you first came to meetings and you could NOT STOP drinking, and you asked god to help you?”  He held my eyes a few seconds with a distaste remarkably similar to that parking space stare of bitter defiance.  “Vaguely,” he mumbled.

Nothing I could say seemed to get through:  “You can’t find answers through isolation.  God works through people.  We need to be connected.  Answers come when you ask.”  I practically begged him to find a moment alone to offer the simple prayer, God, please help me.  He all but winced at my triteness, promised nothing, and left.

So.  Imagine my joy when a couple days ago that friend blew into my homegroup accompanied by two of his best AA buddies and took a seat at my table.  We cracked jokes til the meeting started.  A ways in, I caught the chair’s eye and signaled, so he called on “the gentleman sitting next to Louisa.”  And do you know what my friend shared?  That for years he’d kept relapsing because he refused to admit he was powerless over drugs and alcohol, and today he was just as stubborn about refusing to admit he was powerless over life. “The truth is, I need to be here,” he said, looking around the room.  “I need you guys.”

For me, god is everywhere — in my home, in the wilderness, in every connection I make with another living creature.  But so is my big fat ego, which wants to Edge God Out.  I need meetings, now and forever, to remind me I’m still an alcoholic who, left to my own devices, will still try to fill that perennial empty spot with the wrong things.  Because you wake me up to the divine unity that heals me, I will always need you guys.

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, God, living sober, Meetings, Recovery, Sobriety, Step 1

Reasons I Wasn’t an Alcoholic

04Julesshakespear73Writing the final exam for my college Shakespeare course, I had to close one eye to read the questions, since I was seeing double.  Not puking also required an occasional surge of resolve, and I had the spins.  All unfortunate.  What concerned me most, though, was my handwriting: it looked more as if a third grader were reflecting on Shakespeare’s intent than a college junior – one who adored his plays and knew many lines by heart – at least, ordinarily.  That exam pulled my final grade down to a B despite many A papers.  I think about it every time I see my transcript.

What was wrong with that picture?  About three hours.  That’s all I needed to sober up. Wisdom acquired?  For an 8:00AM exam, one should stop drinking, not at 3:00AM, as I had, but probably closer to midnight.  Having learned that lesson, I’d manage better next time.  It was a mistake – not a problem.

When a couple years later I drank a fifth of 151 in a few hours and passed out so deeply, nothing could wake me, that was clearly because no one at the housewarming party had warned me about 151 – that you had to drink it slower!  Who knew?!  Another mistake.

When, at my wedding celebration, I hovered a couple of steps behind Michael Dukakis, governor and guest of honor, imitating his every gesture and doubling over with laughter (I might have peed my nylons just a little), it was simply a shamewine_cheese my in-laws lacked a sense of humor!  Though, okay – I might have had a bit much.  But the bride gets to make a mistake, right?

When a few years later I attended a wine and cheese graduate school function with my (new) partner, told inappropriate stories, shattered a fancy wine glass, and passed out face down on the floor of an upstairs room, it was just – whoops! – another mistake.  Good thing I wasn’t lying in my own vomit, because I was a pretty classy English professor!

So I learned to do better next time!  Well, actually, um, not next time, but the time after that.  I learned I really didn’t like getting falling down drunk, so the next time I… got falling down drunk, I didn’t like it again…once it was over, so next time I wouldn’t do it – til I did.

What those people who claimed I had a problem with alcohol failed to realize was this: I loved alcohol.  I adored it.  It fixed me, it fixed you, it fixed the world – so everything could be okay.  How could that be a problem?  I just kept fucking up on the amount, was all.  I just kept overdoing a good thing.  But it was a good thing!  That I knew.  No one was going phase me with this “Louisa, you’re an alcoholic” bullshit.  Maybe I was one but so what?  It was my way.  Nobody has the right to tell you to change that!

So, fuck ’em, I said.

Besides, I could list off a million reasons I wasn’t an alcoholic.  I…

  • Didn’t drink hard booze after I turned 26 – except when I did
  • Didn’t drink in the mornings – except when I started before noon
  • Didn’t lose my job or house – only chose to downsize
  • Didn’t get a DUI – because the cops appreciated my doe-eyed apologies
  • Didn’t black out and wake in strange places – just miraculously back home
  • Didn’t suffer DTs – just shook wildly, maybe a smidge of amorphous terror

As the years rolled by, however, and I continued to make unfortunate mistakes despite my lack of a problem with alcohol, a few liabilities did crop up, so my phrasing had to change a bit, like this:

  • Though I occasionally collided with door frames, I did so reminded of life’s bittersweet irony
  • Though I occasionally fell down, it really didn’t hurt
  • Though I attended keggers in my mid-30s, I did so from a worldly, intellectual perspective
  • Though I hit a car head on, I’d slowed down so much it hardly did anything
  • Though I cheated on partners, I did so secretly so it kind of didn’t happen
  • Though I might enjoy a glass of white wine while I cooked dinner, or perhaps a beer at lunch or while journalling, gardening, vacuuming, folding clothes, building a fence, watching TV, doing the dishes, clipping my nails, or taking a shower, I didn’t drink all the time
  • Though I hated myself, that was my business – and a fine reason to drink more

I could have gone on like that forever, with an answer for everything.  I don’t know why I didn’t.  I guess gradually the old threadbare idea that I’d manage better next time wore thinner and thinner.  At the same time, the prospect of any next time, any next anything, grew increasingly dull and even disgusting.  Though I think what actually defeated me, what drove me to break down and hit bottom and finally say ‘uncle,’ was that last point: hating myself.  The hate grew so intense – such white hot, pure acid, unmitigated and inescapable hate – that I simply could not stand to exist another day – drink or no drink.  So it was suicide or… what the hell, AA.

Meeting snowflake

Those of you reading this sober may know exactly what I’m talking about.  Some reading just a tad hungover may experience a twinge of recognition and whip their Monopoly-style NOT-THAT-BAD card from a back pocket.  No one can diagnose another person’s alcoholism.  But a word I discounted back then was honesty.  Today I know honesty is not a true/false prospect; it’s a matter of excavation.  And digging takes courage.

On January 29, 1995, whatever it is I call god removed my mania for drinking.  I’ve not had a drop since.  What could be more miraculous?  Deep down, just under our hearts, we can all sense our source, our core, our truth beyond knowing.  I used to drink to bury mine.  Today, with the help of my fellows, I strive to live by it.

 

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Filed under Addiction, Alcoholism, Denial, Drinking, Recovery, Sobriety, Step 1

The Power of Powerlessness

About a year ago, I used to frequently pass a billboard claiming thousands of “stubborn” men who avoided seeing a doctor would die that year.  This photo isn’t from my street, but our local billboard met with the same (funny) response:

Stubbornness

 

While I don’t know about the billboard’s claim, I do know when it comes to stubborn alcoholics, even more will NOT seek out a program of recovery this year, which is why in the U.S. alone 2.5 million years of potential life will be lost, shortening by an average of 30 years the lives of those 88,000 who’ll die.*  Instead, despite an inner knowledge that they’re addicted to alcohol, millions will (yet again) marshal their willpower to decide not to drink so much.  Never mind how many times such resolutions have failed!  Never mind that they and everyone they live with can recognize night after night that they’re drunk as usual!  They’ll simply refuse to accept the fact that they’re powerless over alcohol.

The Big Book tells us, “The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker.  The persistence of this illusion is astonishing.  Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”**  But even more simply resign themselves to permitting the self-disgust, degradation, and pathetic caricature of chronic drunkenness to taint their inmost conscience and closest relationships for the rest of their lives.

Why?  Because they believe so ardently in the preeminence of their own minds!  They insist their brains have the power to enact choices of free will that, research increasingly indicates, they simply do not have.  For an addict, Emersonian self-reliance means, in fact, an imprisoning cycle rather than freedom of choice.

Gabor Maté, in his book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, explains our predicament as follows:

We may say, then, that in the world of the psyche, freedom is a relative concept: the power to choose exists only when our automatic mental mechanisms are subject to those brain systems that are able to maintain conscious awareness…

Electrical studies of brain function show that… the interval between awareness of the impulse and the activation of the… impulse is only one-tenth to one-fifth of a second.  Amazingly, it’s only in this briefest of intervals that the [cerebral] cortex can suppress behavior it judges to be inappropriate. …[But] in the split second before the impulse emerges into awareness… the brain carries out what is called preattentive analysis… the unconscious evaluation of what [is]…essential or irrelevant, valuable or worthless.  The cortex is primed to select actions that will achieve [these] goals…

“Those habit structures are so incredibly robust, and once they form in the nervous system, they will guide behavior without free choice.”***

In other words, before we even know we’ve thought of having a drink, the brain has cleared the impulse.  The cortex may occasionally summon a “but wait!’ counter-insurgence, but more often the drink idea advances to GO and collects $200.  Maté calls this condition “brain lock.”  AA calls it the “curious mental blank spot.”  In either case, with an internal sigh of “oh well!” we take the drink (just this one time) and tell ourselves we decided to.Broken Brain

Our brains are broken.  They cannot be fixed.

 ~

I knew none of this when I came to AA wanting to die.  When I first heard the statement, “I can’t fix my broken brain with my broken brain,” so much became clear to me!  For one thing, I understood why I’d fought tooth and nail against “surrendering” to AA.  Who wants to admit she can’t trust her own brain?  No one.

The ego lays claim to omniscience, at least within ourselves: I know all about me.  My thoughts are accurate.  To admit a glitch in my thinking has rendered me unable to choose, unable to correct myself, unable even to see what I’m doing while I’m doing it – this goes against all instinct.  It’s on par with admitting mental illness or, as Step 2 forces us to swallow, insanity.

Yet a deeper part of me – my soul –  heard the resounding truth of that phrase.  I realized I had no answers, and that AA, no matter how foreign, offered one.

So I gave up.Step1

I admitted I was powerless.

And do you know what happened?  Miracles!

First, I quit drinking.  Second, I began to see I was maladapted to living, that I’d never developed the skills and insight to “manage” life’s choices.  Third,  I discovered it wasn’t too late to learn.

The remaining 11 steps reconnected me to the god of goodness I’d known in earliest childhood – to the nurturing powers of Love and divine wisdom.  To maintain contact with them, all I had to do was adopt the 12 steps as a way of life.

At first, mind you, that idea repulsed me, too.

Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant?  Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done?  Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer?  Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry AA’s message to the next sufferer? ***

Not early sobriety Louisa!  I did these things because I had to.  Today I do them because I get to – because they fill me with freedom and fulfillment.  Drunk, I blathered about climbing Mount Rainier.  Sober, I did it – 3 times!  Drunk, I dreamed of writing a book.  Sober, I wrote it – check the sidebar!  Drunk, I longed desperately to be liked.  Sober, I love more people than I’d ever have believed possible.

Mount_Rainier_from_northwest

Mount Rainier: click to enlarge:  14,411′

THAT is power, guys.  It’s just not mine.

~

The most important 1st step is the one I take today, the one I re-experience every morning, every hour.  My compulsion to drink is 100 times stronger than my cortex’s resistance.  Alcohol kicks my ass, has its way, calls the shots, rules my mind.  But luckily, it’s the same for you!  Alone, each of us has no power to fight this thing.  We bloat, soggy and mollified in the dregs of our lonely cups.  But connected to god and fellow alcoholics through AA, we tap into a Power that lifts us above the limitations of our broken brains – to heights we never dared imagine.

 

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* http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
** Alcoholics Anonymous p. 30
*** In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Chpt. 26

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Filed under AA, Addiction, Alcoholism, Drinking, living sober, Recovery, Spirituality, Step 1, Twelve Steps