So the one year sobriety birthday came and went without any great fanfare or epiphanies, which is exactly what one year of meetings and twelve-stepping should prepare you for. No sudden wisdom, no mariachi bands, no parades, no great rewards for finally learning to live your life like a normal human being…it was just Monday. Not only that, I was home sick from work. It was one unremarkable day. Unremarkable enough for me to sit and contemplate how easy it would be to take a drink…nothing new, nothing grand; just the knowledge that the meetings never stop, you will never be normal, you will always have to work your ass off for this…so what is the point of all of this work? Why not just say fuck it and go after some pointless fun?
Now, I didn’t sit there contemplating all of that shit, I’m just saying it was unremarkable enough of a day IF I wanted to do that. I was actually pretty happy and content with where I’m at, and had some good reflective chuckles about how differently AA’ers talk to you about your anniversaries than sober people. Don’t get me wrong, a year is great, I’m grateful beyond words to have this and everything it has given me, but when it comes down to it…yay, hooray, you aren’t drinking until you shit yourself or re-enacting the most gaunt and spasmodic moments of Leaving Las Vegas. And THAT realization and the comfort you have with it ONLY comes from working the program and relying upon the support that comes with it. It’s kind of like doing a masters program for a year with the sole purpose of FINALLY comprehending a single thought such as “keep coming back, it works if you work it”. If you are looking for soulful illumination and intellectual profundities beyond that…you seriously need to let go of some shit because you are setting yourself up for epic failure.
I won’t do my home group one-year speech until August 6, but last week I had the opportunity to do something that I think was far more critical, which is actually going to be the focus of this post. On Thursday I went back to speak to about twenty people and their families in the outpatient treatment program, back at the hospital where I did my stint last year. I invested a lot of time and emotion into that program, because I really wanted to turn things around, so I’ve spent a lot of time since then wondering “what will I say when I go back for my one year coin?”. The focus of my daydreams on that speech changed dramatically over the past twelve months; going from “yay me!” in the beginning, to the “if you aren’t already working a program by the time you graduate from IOP, you are in grave danger” theme that dominated Thursday night. So this is going to be a write-up of all of THAT…probably long as hell by the time I get done, but I really think it will be one of the only things of TRUE value I’ve managed to contribute to this blog…
When I was in the five week intensive outpatient treatment program last year (after my stay in detox), I do remember different people coming up to speak to us and get their six month coins. I don’t remember hearing any one-year speakers, but plenty who had six months…funny how that works. I probably wasn’t alone in the fact that I kind of felt sorry for them…they all had AA in common, and I figured they they must have lacked the initiative or the magic that I was feeling this early in my sobriety if they were still needing something like AA after six months. They were totally stuck. Looking back, this was just a simple sign of the greatest delusion shared by all addicts….the thing that many say is much deadlier than the drugs or alcohol…what ends up killing us is our “terminal uniqueness”. Or as I also refer to it- the “Unicorn Syndrome”. It’s easy for us to believe the science of treatment….the meds, the schedule, the group sessions, everything about the neuroscience of the disease….but when it comes to AA, we think “whooaaa….WHHOOAAAAAA!…they are taking this shit too far….that cannot be for me”. Each of us believes there is something in our intellect, our physiology or our sheer drive and determination that makes us unique enough to figure out an easier, softer path. We ignore the scientific fact, proven by decades of research, that we have a 90% chance of relapse (usually within 6 months) if we are not in a regular program after we first get sober. Even Russian roulette has better odds. We’re the Unicorn. The one who FINALLY gets this recovery thing in a way that does not require the tedium of a lifelong program centered on the indisputable FACT that we have a disease that will kill us unless we are able to find a way to abstain 100% from all mood altering substances.
I know the twelve step thing seems too simple, it is boring and sounds like total mouth-breather retard level bullshit. It really is pretty stupid when you stop to think about it, because there is no way it should be successful for anyone besides the types of losers who sit in those meetings and yack ad nauseum about their eleventeen broken marriages and batallions of estranged children. I’m an ex-minister who used to have such a hatred of all things higher-powery that when Timothy McVeigh blew up that building my first thought was “I wish he’d parked that truck in front of a church on Sunday morning”….so this generic twelve step shit should definitely not work for me. But it does work. And how I know that is I haven’t had a drink or drug in over a year. So I know it works, and I know that the chances of you being pissed off just reading this if you’re currently struggling in that dysfunctional dance are very high. If it’s too much for you to handle, go find the easier softer way to get a year under your belt…just try not to kill yourself or anyone else before you end up at your next bottom. They never, ever, ever get any better the more of them you have. If you want to be successful with a program like AA all you really need to know are these five things:
#1– Don’t worry about the God shit. I know, you’re an agnostic or an atheist, or you are just so sick of organized religion and what it has done to you, the world, or both, that you fall under the category of “found the easiest loophole to prove I’m too unique for this program”. When I first started, all my higher power consisted of was my newfound ability to actually have the smallest inkling of concern for another addict or alcoholic because I knew how they felt and I wanted them to get better. It’s no more complicated than that….but you don’t even have to have THAT. Honestly, the higher power thing in no way matters at this point, but if you’ve got an idea of what yours is….bonus.
#2- Don’t worry about the steps. It will be a little while before they really matter. The most important thing to remember is the ONLY requirement is the desire to stop drinking/using. If you want to quit, and you are willing to go to any length to achieve it, at some point you’re going to engage with the steps. But I know, right now the steps sound ridiculous, generic, too involved, insurmountable, etc. You’re going to need to make things a lot simpler for yourself, and right now that starts with one thing…do you really want to quit? Maybe you just don’t want to quit yet…that’s a pretty natural reaction.
#3- AA vs. NA vs. CA and on and on…. if it has “anonymous” after it, it’s all basically the same program. Alcohol is only mentioned in the first step, so whether you’re drinking, smoking foils or chewing oxy’s…you are covered. I realize, especially at first, that you want to be around people with the same problem…but after you’re in the program for a while that matters less and less. The thing about AA is that it has infinitely more meeting times and locations…and it is critical that you get to meetings regularly. The easiest excuse in the world is “the only Narcotics Anonymous meeting within 25 miles of my home..and it meets at noon when I’m at work”. Long story short…bullshit excuse. Go to an AA meeting. And if they happen to be in the extreme EXTREME minority of “old timey” AA’ers who tell people to stick to alcohol-talk only…just say you’re an alcoholic. Trust me. It’s all the same program, your issue is not unique enough for you to skip out due to the EXTREMELY UNLIKELY CHANCE that it is even going to come up. Yes, it sucks to constantly go to meetings…some are miraculously lifechanging, some are just so-so, but once I’ve gotten off my ass and made it to one I have not regretted it….not one single time. How hard did you work to get fucked up and stay fucked up? Enough said.
#4- 90 in 90, Temporary Sponsors, The Crazy Old Men, etc….. There are several generations worth of urban folktales surrounding AA culture… you have to go to 90 meetings in 90 days, don’t leave your first meeting without having a temporary sponsor, the crazy old men just waiting for you to mention drugs in an AA meeting so they can yell at you…the list of things people use to talk themselves out of meetings is endless, and most are not based in reality. If I got hung up on 90 in 90, the first meeting I missed would have been my excuse to drink. You don’t really need a temporary sponsor….at your first meeting you’ll get a card with a lot of phone numbers on it….use them. Seriously. And sure, you’ll run in to crazy old men from time to time….this is a club where ruining your life was pretty much the standard before you joined…the lunatics are easy to spot. What you want to do is “stick with the winners”. They are also easy to spot, and one of them will make a good permanent sponsor.
#5- Stop Googling AA Statistics…yes, there are programs out there other than AA, and way more people fail in AA than remain sober in the long term. That’s just the nature of the disease….if it wasn’t, recovery wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar business. Drunks and addicts are the most egomaniacal and selfish people on the planet, and they are, ironically, also the most self-loathing and self conscious. They have a disease that feeds their ego by telling them either it’s not really a disease, or that they can learn to use responsibly….and in today’s culture of Dr. Phil’s and self-help sound bites, there are a million different programs willing to take your time and money and get you to believe your ego. You are too unique for what AA has to offer you. The label of “alcoholic” is too extreme and demeaning, and preaching a lifetime of abstinence is unrealistic. It is not in our nature to live the rest of our lives at odds with what our addiction keeps telling us…it takes a level of maintenance that forces us to live that life at odds with our ego. STOPPING THE BEHAVIOR is the easiest thing in the world…you make it past that initial detox and you’re on your way. It’s living sober that’s the issue. And there isn’t any easy way to do it other than one day at a time.
Basically, if one year has taught me one thing, it’s that you need to keep things as simple as possible. If you are just finishing an inpatient/outpatient program, the work that you do right now determines your success a year from now. And the work that you are doing needs to focus on a couple of things-
BRUTAL HONESTY– honesty is a pretty new concept for most of us, and it starts with the question….do you really want to quit? Are you really done? Or, do you have some more field research to complete before you make that decision? You don’t have to tell me or anyone else, that’s a question you have to ask yourself…and chances are good that you’ve never even let yourself be that brutally honest in your own head. When you no longer have fantastical substance-driven delusions to bullshit yourself with, the type of honesty you are stuck with is scary as hell. And you either do whatever it takes to escape it, or you do whatever it takes to deal with it. There’s really not a door #3 here.
RECOVERY IS REAL WORK– that’s basically the whole story. It’s like having another job in addition to everything else you do in your life. It requires maintenance for you to be successful…because you are just as susceptible to relapse after twenty years of sobriety as you were at one year. Just ask any of the people who go back out after five, ten, even twenty or thirty years of being sober….the one thing they have in common is that they quit working the program. This job never stops. And no, it’s not fair. It’s life. And living that life in sobriety, without that immediate chemical escape, is too much for your brain to comprehend…so you keep it simple. This is the genesis of that AA cliche “one day at a time”.
Upon entering the program you will discover very quickly that AA is nothing like it is portrayed in the movies or on TV (with very few exceptions)…not every meeting is a speaker meeting, people don’t just sit around talking about how much they used to drink and exchange battle stories …when you first start going, chances are good you have no idea what in the bloody hell people are even talking about. But don’t let that make you feel self-conscious. Just say whatever you’re thinking, or say nothing at all. Not a big deal either way. We expect to hear some disjointed tales of excess from you, but short of your story including selling dirty bombs to Al Quaeda to support your black market organ harvesting empire and white slave trade…which were all sparked by your addiction to meth that started at the age of 18 months…whatever you have to say isn’t even going to peg our radar. We are exactly like you, we know how it all feels.
I guess this is the point at which I interject “The Matrix” references…. When I talk to newly sober people and recognize the resistance, disbelief and disinterest in their faces when talking about AA, the only thing I can compare it to is “taking the red pill” in The Matrix. The initial relief and sudden rush of wisdom and reflective thought that comes with sobriety can bring with it a false, and dangerous, sense of self-confidence. In reality, the journey hasn’t even begun. The psychological and spiritual changes needed in order to successfully live sober are so vastly different from anything experienced up to that point in a person’s life that the only way to begin that journey is just to shut up, put the ego and pre-conceived notions to the side and take the red pill. Go to meetings. Go until they start to make sense….until elements of “how it works” starts to filter in and crack the surface of your brain. Trust me, I realize the absurdity of this, because your brain is doing exactly what it should be doing this early in sobriety….you aren’t close to being in control of it yet….the moments of euphoria, anger, fear, resentment and emptiness that come and go are all part of your brain healing itself. It takes a while for the red pill to wake you up from the dream…and hopefully in a year you’ll be sharing with a group in some treatment center thinking to yourself…”holy shit…they really have no idea they are living in The Matrix”.
Speaking of movies…and the brain….they say it takes six months to two years for your brain to heal. Now, this “healing” has absolutely nothing to do with finally understanding the science of the super-collider, or counting toothpicks like you were Rainman. It isn’t about intellect or problem solving skills. The healing that takes place is far more subtle and has everything to do with your brain’s “LET’S GO FAST! GO! GO! GO! GOTTA HAVE FUN! CAN’T GET BORED!” switch finally shutting off long enough for you to just be alive in the moment without it driving you crazy. Your brain is conditioned to only be satisfied with the neuron-bending highs and lows that come with substance abuse…and just because you stop the behavior doesn’t mean your brain is done doing that. This is where “your triggers” live.
Again, I’m a movie guy, my life basically consists of one long string of movie quotes and references, so naturally the next comparison I draw for people has to do with the actual act of going to the movies. That’s what your path to recovery is like….it’s like going to AMC Theatres.
These days when you go to the movies, there is a whole show that goes on before they even begin the previews. It goes on while you are settling in and there is all kinds of info on whatever horrible new pop sensation just got their start on American Idol, and behind the scenes on the set of whatever new tv crime drama Coke is sponsoring…..and this goes on until the lights go down for the previews. Well, if you are doing a stint in inpatient or working your way through an outpatient program, this is where you are at. You’re in the pre-previews. Meds are adjusting, the fog is beginning to lift a little bit, your swings of emotion are at least identifiable and you are able to verbalize them without totally breaking down or acting out. It’s at this stage where you probably fit into one of three categories….unless of course you’re A UNICORN, like we ALL ARE….your existential angst is too big to fit into these paltry constraints OR you’ve been through like six different rehab programs prior to this (which for some reason makes everyone look to you as “the expert” in the group), and you can recite some lesson you got from a process group that trumps my meager offering…..anyway……these are the big 3 in my experience…
#1- HAPPY!… You are just relieved to still be alive and you are going to take this sobriety thing and run with it. You’re experiencing the pink clouds, you have a new lease on life, you’re doing all of the homework they tell you to do and you aren’t missing a group. You’ve got a decent support system in place, and are ready to rock and fucking roll. When your case manager asks if you’re already attending meetings, you probably answer something like “I’m sure thinking about it!”…because so far, so good. You are amazed at the fact that you aren’t really experiencing any craving…even when you went with friends to one of your old stomping grounds to shoot pool. And when you made it through that okay, maybe you thought it would be nice if you were their designated driver going forward….you were sober now and cravings weren’t bothering you…so it would be nice to give back and make sure they were safe. You’re happy, which 99% of the time also makes you completely insane and oblivious to reality. If you’re already so healed you’re thinking about “how to be around alcohol”, you are definitely in the pre-preview. I give you shit because I was a lot like this…. a 100% relapse guarantee unless you are working a program before the previews begin.
#2- PISSED!… Maybe you’re that atheist or agnostic I mentioned…the angry ex-Catholic from a long, long line of hypocritical religious alcoholics. Or not. But you’re still pissed. You’re dealing with personal wreckage…people who are pissed that your recovery is “all about YOU” after you spent so much time making a huge mess that was also “all about YOU”. A cop, a judge, a wife….maybe someone forced you into treatment and you resent it, and maybe your loss of control over your own life means that all you have to look forward to after graduation is still being accountable to one of THOSE fuckers. The pink cloud people are idiots, you’d be happy just to feel like your skin fit. Complete abstinence is bullshit, maybe it shows just as much weakness as complete loss of control. You don’t know what you need in order to make it past the pre-previews, but you are pretty sure none of the shit up to this point has been it. Just being around people is annoying, and the prospect of HAVING to go to meetings so that the meeting leader can sign your little slip to prove you were there is incomprehensibly soul-sucking. These and a million other things…you’re the quiet guy with the crossed arms that generally doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot to say. A huge paradigm shift is needed in order to avoid either living as a dry drunk, or experiencing massive relapse….to be honest, I don’t know which would be more painful.
#3- SCARED!… You have no idea where you are going from here, and craving is a huge issue. Your entire support system up until this point may have consisted of nothing but other drunks or addicts, so there aren’t many people to lean on, or the home you are returning to is not a sober one. You’ve been here half a dozen times, and go through periods of numbness followed by extreme anxiety. I know this will sound crazy, but fear is a great motivator…as far as long term sobriety I’d put my money on you over the happy or pissed off folks any day.
Like I said, this is not an exhaustive list, but in my experience these are the common themes during the “pre-previews”. A cheesy illustration perhaps, but I’m telling you…this is where you start getting your ass to meetings.
The previews are basically…..the first six months after treatment. I know that sounds pretty shitty because six months is a long time, and if you’re putting in the kind of work that is needed, it can feel even longer. Essentially, this is where you are picking up the pieces. You are learning how to navigate the world. You’re getting the pats on the back, or you’re learning how to deal with the angry people whose lives you disrupted. Trust of others begins coming back, as does trust in yourself if you remain sober. However positive or negative it is, your financial forecast and job situation normalizes…that is to say, you’re learning how to live with it. If you started going to meetings when you should have, the weird old men have stopped seeming so weird, and the literature and meeting formats are making more sense. You’re getting to know people, they’re getting to know you, and you either have, or are close to getting, a sponsor. You feel like you belong, and sometimes it’s just a relief to have a place like that. Because sobriety is just weird….it takes a while for those triggers to settle down, and even after they do they always find a way to pop back up to remind you that you have a disease. Nothing is ever really “fixed”, but it is manageable.
“Your Feature Film”
Life finally gets underway. The pats on the back are gone, the wary employer has chilled out, people have either moved on or started trusting you. No parades, no streamers….the realization comes that life is just life and you either live it sober, or you don’t. And there isn’t any great magic either way…it’s totally your decision. This moment is why you started going to meetings when you did….back when you were happy, angry or scared. If you didn’t put in the work, this is the moment where things seem so back to normal that total abstinence doesn’t make nearly as much sense. Your life is strong enough now to handle the occasional party, the wine with dinner, etc. There is now enough distance between you and the pain that brought you to treatment, that the tenets of a twelve step program sound as ridiculous and as unnecessary as they ever did. You are strong enough to do what no alcoholic or addict has ever done before…you can do it in moderation.
And that’s the way it goes and the way it has always gone. You either find a way to work on your sobriety, or you don’t stay sober. I know, there is the possibility that you are the unicorn, after all….it’s only 90% of the people who fail at this….who is to say you aren’t in the lucky 10%. SOMEBODY has to be.
It’s when you come to a year after first swallowing that red pill that you realize how much danger you were in when you left treatment, and how going to a meeting the very first night you left inpatient may very well have been the smartest decision of your life. Because THAT decision gave you everything that you have now.
Yes, I’m a smartass, I’m sarcastic, and I take great liberties when it comes to sounding like I’ve got my shit together and poking fun at the people who are still living in The Matrix. I talk that way to you, because we’re the same person. The first time I ever really connected with someone in AA was one night during my inpatient stay. We had groups all day and night, and in the evening some AA or NA group would bring a meeting up to the hospital. They were usually what you picture when you think of a 12-stepper, kind of off-kilter, all religiousy, some low-bottom stories. Then one night these two ladies from a meeting held in a Jewish Temple in a very affluent part of town came to see us. We’re still in detox, so we’re in pretty rough shape….the little hospital footies, unshaven, I was all broken out in hives from not having liquor in two days. These middle aged ladies come in…perfect hair, makeup, perfume…clothing and jewelry worth more than all of the cars I’d owned up to that point in my life. I immediately wanted to punch them in the throat for being condescending assholes, coming in like that to do us some fucking favor. And of course, when they began to tell their stories it broke me into about a hundred pieces. They knew what this hell was like. The self-hatred and shame. The fear. The lying. All of the things that bring you to a state of what we call “icomprehensible demoralization”. That was a turning point for me. It got me to meetings, and while I can’t say with the type of scientific exactitude required by the disbelieving Matrix-dwellers to assure them that meetings are the end-all be-all answer to this conundrum….I CAN say that I’ve gone to a lot of meetings in the past year, and it has been the only year of my life since about the age of 15 where I have not taken one drink or one drug.
I’m not here telling you all of this to sell you Amway or Jesus…I know this is a lot to hear and you’re going to do with it whatever you want. I understand that. You and me are the same. All I can tell you is that a little over a year ago I stood in my kitchen and somehow had enough clarity in the middle of an epic life-ending bender to make the decision to just give up and ask for help. With help, I stopped drinking, started going to meetings,and began doing exactly what people with a hell of a lot of sobriety told me to do. At one point during “The Previews”, I decided all I really wanted, all I honestly and truly asked for out of life was just to be some average schmoe…..a job, a house, my wife, living peacefully in anonymity, with the ability to just sit still and be okay with that. In my heart, that was really what I wanted my life to be. I’m not a huge “big book thumper”…I like to read some of the literature, but not always. However, on pages 83 and 84, it lists out The Promises…”if we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through…”, etc. Like absolutely everyone I talk to who has worked the program, these promises….for whatever reason, are real. I have the best job of my life, an awesome wife, I grow tomatoes, play golf and am one hell of a home chef. I go to meetings, I lead meetings, and I love getting up crazy early on the weekend to get my day started. Not only are the promises real, they generally give you even more than you were hoping for.
This doesn’t mean life is just awesome all of the time….life still happens and it can suck. But with the program comes the support and strength to make it through all of that, to learn from it, and to use elements of it to help others. At some point as you work the steps, sobriety becomes your new reality, and the gifts you get from it help you to protect it at all costs. Most of all, you learn how to be quiet and just be in the moment….at peace. No nagging fear, no guilt, no trying to remember what you did the night before or the regret that comes when you do. A new freedom, a new happiness…no running from responsibility or micro-managing the lies.
I don’t have any magical closing words of wisdom that will finally get you to run to the altar like a repentent sinner….this isn’t as complicated or dramatic as that. All I can tell you is that if you want what we have, and are willing to go to any length to get it, it is going to take work. But you don’t have to do it alone, and all you have to do to achieve it is keep coming back.
And with that I’ll pass.
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