Welcome to Armageddon

September 25, 2020

“I’m going to tell you a true story, okay?”

Callie is looking at her phone but you know she is listening. You are driving her to rehearsal. She has a big part in Les Miserables. She plays the grown-up version of Cosette. Though you saw the movie you don’t really remember the story. Victor Hugo is not your thing. Being a musical, Callie has been practicing her song for weeks. You’ve heard her belting out lyrics from her room, in the shower, on the trampoline in the backyard, which she pretended was a stage. You couldn’t tell if she was good or not but her enthusiasm was infectious. It gladdened you to see her so passionate, so happy. Many members from your family are coming in to see her perform. Hundreds of other people as well. The tickets cost money and this is a real show. Up until yesterday Callie had been totally psyched.

One of her “friends” had disrespected her online, insulting her singing skills or some other shit. Usually a brick, Callie had been wounded.  Your wife told you as much. Now you felt it in your daughter’s sullen demeanor.

So you tell her a story…

“Before you were born,” you begin. “Back when I was coming up at my agency in Chicago, we were preparing for this huge presentation. It was my idea we’d be showing. I had written all the copy. And I had the game to go with it. I knew what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I had my shit down.”

Callie looks up when you curse. Good. You had her attention. No easy feat with a teenager.

“Anyway, the night before I rehearsed my bit in front of the team. I get done. My colleagues are pleased. One even clapped. Then the head account person –the guy who deals with the client- he proceeds to crap all over my work. He’s not happy with the creative, he says. It’s shit. I’m dumbfounded. Where did this come from? He’d seen it before.”

Traffic on the 101 is heavy but it allows you to turn and look at your daughter. “The guy says to me, in front of everybody, if you present that work tomorrow it will be Armageddon.”

“The end of the world?” Callie asks. “What did you do?” Callie’s eyes are one of her most beautiful features, big and blue, and they are wide open staring at you.

You laugh. “I told him I would make changes. That I’d do what he wanted.”

“That sucks,” your daughter says.

“It would have sucked,” you say. “Had I listened to him. The next day I delivered my presentation just as I’d planned it. My work. My way. And I fucking killed it. When I was done the client cheered.”

“Really?”

“Damn straight,” you say. “But the story’s not over. After the meeting ends, everybody’s shaking hands, patting each other on the back. I walk over to the account guy who’d dissed my work. He thinks I’m going to shake his hand. I look him right in the eyes, and I say, ‘Welcome to Armageddon, asshole.’”

Almost missing your exit, you swiftly change lanes. So caught up are you in the tale.

“Wow, that’s a great story, dad,” Callie says. “It’s all true?”

“Every bit, sweetheart.”

At the red light, you look at Callie full on. The middle child, she’s the sassy one. The daughter that gives your wife the most trouble. You choose your words carefully. “If people disrespect you or your work that does not mean you have to listen to them. Just be…”

The light turns green and you move the car forward. The word comes to you.

“Devastating.”

AA teaches that redemption comes from being of service. Letting go the bondage of self. This is true. Yet redemption also comes by shattering the chains from the bondage of others. You want your daughter to believe in herself, even when others don’t.

In the parking lot, Callie thanks you for driving her to practice. But you sense something deeper. You can see it in her eyes.

The fierceness has returned.

You watch Callie as she marches toward the theater, joining her other cast members. When she was a toddler, she had refused to walk upright, instead choosing to tread on her knees. The pediatrician had concerns. Your wife was worried. It’s not normal, they said. But you knew her day would come. And in your mind so did she.

The world is a stage and you just gave an important player some badass direction.

Sometimes Grace

September 22, 2020

Leaves in the pool…

You always try and view the Program through the eyes of a newcomer. Though many members feel otherwise, for you listening to the old timers has limited value. The rawness of someone in his first 30 days is why you keep coming back. You haven’t had a drink in 14 years and gave up pills soon after. You are looking for someone new. You slide back in your usual seat at the Living in the Solution meeting at the Loft, a small but airy room over the rec center atop a hill in Strawberry. You have a diet coke in one hand and three chocolate chip cookies in the other, both qualifying as “lesser addictions.” You have many more of those.

Joan, a 70-year old former model and fashion entrepreneur, is sharing about the ongoing struggle with her sister. She loves and hates the woman in equal measures.

You can relate.

Despite animus, Joan and her sister do not desire to break off relations. Instead they fought, enduring the pain each inflicted upon one another. Choosing it over abandonment. You guess sisters are different that way. They are bound in ways you’ll never understand. Your wife was tight as hell with hers.

At first you didn’t like Joan. She came off like a bored, rich lady in Marin (which she was); her petty shares struck you as “leaves in the pool.” She lamented the men who took over her company when she was too drunk to run it. Even though they had paid her millions. She cursed her sister for not giving her enough credit in building their fashion empire then blamed her for the drinking that lost it. Then there was the dog she almost ran over in her BMW, while drunk. Other indignities half remembered. Joan spoke in a drawl that made her sound both queenly and oddly still drunk.

This bothered you until it didn’t.

You came to realize that all difficulties were leaves in the pool: Yours, hers and everyone else’s. People fell in and out of love or had others fall in and out of love with them. Lost family and money (“romances and finances” as they said in AA) and more and so on. All was petty. But if a thing made you drink it might as well have been the apocalypse. You were wrong to have judged Joan. Furthermore, you had judged her wrongly. In a lovely turnabout, you and Joan became close. Developed a rapport. You admired her. She hadn’t relied on a man to get all she’d gotten. Despite the wine and cocaine (her drugs of choice), she’d done well for herself, by herself. She’d earned her house in Tiburon same as her seat in AA. Now you are glad to see Joan when she comes in the door. You save her a seat next. You smile at the smell of her perfume.

At the Loft, most of the regulars are at least 50, many much older. Words of death and dying take up evermore meeting time. Yet, Joan seldom goes there, another reason you liked her.  As for the specter of death, you’ve come to believe that if one is serene it too is just a leaf in the pool. But most people are not inherently serene. And you are no exception.

Joan concludes her share by saying she’s grateful for the “sometimes-grace” she’s received while dealing with her sister. It’s an ongoing struggle, she says, as most struggles are, but she is overcoming her resentment, and is staying sober, one day at a time.

Sometimes Grace.

This is what AA is all about. When things go sideways or even well, you don’t drink or use drugs. You keep sane. You know peace. You look forward to living another day.

Despite your troubles, the leaves in your pool, you’re glass is almost always half full. You are strangely happy. Was this grace? Unlike many AA’s, you doubt that it’s God. But you are certain the Program has something to do with it. People like Joan.

This afternoon, you don’t share your problems. Instead, you talk about your wife in favorable terms. “We have been married over 20 years,” you say, with genuine wonder in your voice. “And we have stayed that way, for better and worse. Through it all.”

For the record, you are petrified of death. How it will come for you. What you will have missed when it does. All the things you will never know. Those are the leaves in your pool.

Stray Cat Blues

September 15, 2020

Lying in bed you wait for the Seroquel and Gabapentin to kick in, drugs that were prescribed 15 years ago by the head of addiction therapy at Rush Hospital in Chicago. He’d said they were non-habit forming. Yet you cannot sleep without them. Go figure.

Despite being agnostic/atheist, you say a brief and scattered prayer, thanking a “Higher Power” (AA‘s euphemism for God) for keeping you clean and sober and forgiving you your defects of character. When you awake you will ask God to help you with these same things… Asking for help. Giving thanks. Prayer at its simplest. The least you can do. Taught early in recovery to fake it ‘till you make it isa strategy you still employ.

Before your eyes adjust to the dark you roll over, gathering the pillows to your chest as a child might a stuffed animal. In fact, you sucked your thumb until you were almost a teen-ager. Even now, during times of stress, you still chew your pinkie finger, gnawing on it the way your dog does his chewy. At work, you often caught yourself with a finger in your mouth. While no one ever said anything they surely must have noticed. You imagine it was one of the unsaid reasons they had to let you go. Firing The Man Who Chewed His fingers. It’s not normal. You pick at the callous, thinking, knowing, it will be there forever. The medication begins lowering its shroud, like the fog rolling over Mt. Tam. Soon you will be asleep.

Outside a cat yowls, piercing the night. At a skunk, raccoon or possibly coyote. Such were the consequences of straying. Or, maybe it found another cat and is fucking it silly. That could easily be it, too, another consequence of straying- a better one.

You fall asleep.

It’s easier to love the mystery than be smitten by a prophecy.

I used to wake up fearful, painfully wondering how I might endure the day, inevitably turning to drugs and alcohol to relieve my stress, thus beginning the vicious cycle of addiction another 24 hours. That was my reality. It is one every addict and alcoholic knows sadly and deeply. I was in the grip of a Higher Power that punished me and then saved me, over and over again. Evil spirits brought me to my knees, in a hideous caricature of prayer.

Is it any wonder Bill Wilson deduced that something stronger than spirits was required to relieve us from their bondage? He chose a spirit that was holy. God. Recovery is really just a grand replacement strategy (fellowship in place of barrooms, service before self, and so on), so I totally get the idea that only a supreme power can usurp another.

Only one problem: What if there isn’t a God?

In AA meetings, I joke that on good days I’m agnostic. Yet, measuring my serenity on a scale of 1 to 10, most days I wake up a 7. All days I wake up sober. How is that possible? Being reasonably happy and sober while being reasonably uncertain about God. Without question AA saved my life. With many questions did not God.

“God Is or He Isn’t.”

It’s one of several lines in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous I bristle at. There aren’t many mind you. But this statement has always felt religious, not spiritual. Dogmatic. God didn’t make such a claim. He, She or It wouldn’t. A person did. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Almost every thought, if not word, in Step 2 belies the absolutism of God is or He isn’t. “Came to” and “could” seldom precede demands.

God, like truth and love, is a big idea – the biggest. But they are all concepts, human constructs open to interpretation and gradations of meaning. In 12-Step Recovery, we are beseeched to make amends to people we have harmed “wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” The truth, therefore, ought to be parsed. A homicide may be murder or manslaughter, voluntary or involuntary. Which is truer becomes a matter of opinion. Conditional love is still love, is it not? Maybe not pure love but better than no love at all.  Big ideas are not absolute; they are flexible. As is God and the belief in God.

The ultimate leap of faith, God remains improvable. “Coming to believe in a power greater than yourself” is a process, not an outcome. Many people have gotten sober without subscribing to an all or nothing God, including me. Scores have achieved long-term sobriety without God at all. They too wake up a 7.

Well before creating AA (let alone putting God into it), Bill W and Dr. Bob sat down to discuss their crippling malady. These intimate and honest conversations were crucial. However inadvertently, they had latched on to what is, in my opinion, the greatest tool in all of recovery: the power of one alcoholic talking to another. Kindred spirits. Fellow sufferers. Rubbing antennas. Call it whatever you want. But this, not God, was the wellspring of Alcoholics Anonymous. From here came the fellowship and sponsorship and a thousand million quiet conversations in Starbucks that has saved more addicts and alcoholics than God ever has. That’s what I believe.

For newcomers, skeptical of the “God thing,” even Bill W’s famously italicized line “God as we understood him” is still not enough to assuage doubt and cynicism. To them, I say replace the line with “God as we don’t understand Him (Her or It).” The pronoun bit goes without saying but it’s the “don’t understand” piece that changes minds. How can anyone understand something they cannot see or hear, let alone know? We knew what getting high felt like. We do not understand what getting God feels like. Why bother trying? That puzzle has been agonizing scholars for eons. What chance has a withdrawing addict? For me it is easier to fall in love with the mystery than be smitten by a prophecy. Love is abstract, too. Whether one has love or not few people doubt that it exists. In many a church basement I’ve seen written: GOD IS LOVE. One need not understand either of them.

There is a devout atheist at my gym. I know this because he always wears tee shirts proclaiming his atheism. I’ve counted three different shirts so far. It’s weird. Unsettling. I would feel the same way about someone wearing an overtly worshipful tee shirt. Promoting such a personal belief is off putting. That said, one of the atheist’s tee shirts made me laugh: In the beginning man created God and then all the problems started.Is it funny because it’s true? Maybe. Yet I still think wearing the joke on his sleeve is inappropriate.

Just because I’m not religious, does not mean I don’t appreciate the fables. I do. My favorite is the myth of Original Sin: the Christian belief that a state of sin has existed since Adam and Eve disobeyed God, consuming the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. Is this not a parable of addiction? You will remain content and happy as long as you don’t bite that apple. Oops. With free will we also got the baggage that came with it: pride, lust, envy and all the other character defects we addicts know too well. Since the dawn of man we have been trying to explain our impulsive natures. Maybe that’s why God was created in the first place. To teach us: “Just Say No.”

Look.

I have listened to the faithful, the agnostics and the atheists. And this is what I have come to believe: there is a fifty percent chance God exists and a fifty percent chance that he doesn’t. When all the rabbis turn to dust and the non-believers too it will still be 50 / 50. Is this a refutation of God? Or affirmation? Don’t know but this I do. If I could get those odds in the lottery I’d play it every day, twice on Sunday. Telling newcomers you might also remind yourself: Those are great freaking odds!

One can be content without drugs and alcohol, or a higher power. I am. I appreciate life’s great mystery. I cherish rubbing antennas with another addict or alcoholic. I try to replace the harmful things in my life with things that are better. One day at a time.

I wake up a 7 and can easily bump that number up. Or I can choose to be miserable. Free will is not purgatory, if used wisely. The closing lyric of U2’s anthem, City of Blinding Lights sums it up nicely: “Blessing’s not just for the ones who kneel… luckily.”

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Steffan has published two novels (available on Amazon). Having worked many years as a writer/creative director for several multi-national advertising agencies, he now serves as a Primary Counselor for the treatment of substance use disorders at Serenity Knolls in Marin County. Steffan has been clean and sober for 17 years. He usually wakes up a 7.

Eagles, Kings & Royals

September 5, 2020

West of you was trouble, turf battled over by Latin Eagles, Latin Kings, and a hillbilly gang called the Simon City Royals. Most every garage was tagged with graffito. It got worse every block. When the Cubs nearly did something right in 1969, Wrigleyville was a war zone. Latino gangsters literally stood on the sidewalks taunting fans or worse. If there wasn’t a game there was no reason to be there. If and when you ventured that direction, to catch a bus or visit the arcade, you stashed lunch money in your sock and a few bills in your pocket to pay off the muggers.

You’d accumulated a hodge-podge of friends, misfits like you, who hid in books and hobbies, and still others more doomed by their circumstances. Some would join gangs or defy them, always fighting or fleeing. Together you were a group of electrons in an unstable atom. Catching fish in the lake. Avoiding being caught in an alley. God only knows what glue held you together. Comic books. Films. Music. But soon came liquor, pills and weed; those false prophets that caused you so much pain while pretending to soften it. And through it all, those alluring and delirious creatures from distant, unobtainable shores, sirens that beckoned you to this day: Women.

More soon…