Why Are You Here?

December 11, 2020

He was “a piece of shit junkie.” His words. Clean almost a year Jake begins a harrowing lead. His entire family are addicts (active or dead) and, not surprisingly, he had started using early in life, in the 5th grade, whatever he could get his hands on: weed, booze, cocaine, meth… Then he tried heroin. And like so many others before him, junk quickly became the apex predator of his body and soul. The warm embrace was a python. It did not let go. He tried to free himself from its grip; spent nine months in rehab, only to get loaded within days of his release. “It was the same as ever,” he said, “only worse.” Jake’s mother, a methadone addict, gave him a piece of advice based on her experience: “Just stop trying, son. It ain’t worth it.”

Remarkably, he did not listen to her. Instead, he took the “rock star cure” and spent a brutal week detoxing at the Four Points Sheraton. Luckily, Jake had some friends left in the world. From the hotel, they drove him to a rehab and this time it stuck – so far anyway, one day at a time. Jake credits the facility’s emphasis on AA for getting him this far.

As is custom, he must now choose a topic for the group’s discussion. “Why are you here?” He asks.

Great fucking question, capturing the long-term implications of sobriety as well as its immediacy. This meeting. This evening. When you share you typically respond to the speaker’s lead rather than the suggested topic. This time you answer the question:

“It was 7:40 pm, the sun was setting, my family was out doing their thing, the dogs were asleep on the floor. I was alone. I had a few hundred dollars, a car, my laptop, and my phone. I had everything I needed to get into all kinds of trouble. I didn’t want to drink or get high but I wanted something. Desperately. I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was… I never can.”

The Big Book calls it being “restless, irritable and discontent.” Yearning caused by the hole in your soul; something you used to fill with vodka and pills. Sober a long time now, there is still a cavity with a drain at the bottom and its pull is intense. You reckon with yearning every day and especially at night. AA suggests you ask God to remove its power, its gravitational pull, to fill yourself up with Him. God released you from the bondage of drugs and alcohol. Therefore, he can release you from the bondage of self.

“Alas, I’m not the praying kind,” you tell the group. “When the yearning washes over me I need to do something tangible. I need a safe place to go, a lifeboat. I need this group. That is why I am here.”

When Harry Met Humility

October 23, 2020

Toward the end of his life, in 1965, Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous put forward that his program came down to two main precepts: humility and responsibility. Admitting one was powerless. Then doing something about it. Alcohol had been the catalyst, teaching humility the hard way, through humiliation. Learning the value of responsibility began by recognizing unmanageability for what it was: chaos. Yet, that was just the first step. Sober for years, and nearing the end, Bill W was talking about more than mere abstinence. To achieve serenity, he posited, one had to be humble and responsible. Grace was thusly earned.

When you were a boy you had loved watching Kung Fu on TV. David Carradine played a peace-loving Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine, who wandered the old west confronting and confounding hombres and roughnecks with his Eastern Philosophy. Caine had great humility. Unfortunately, that was not a popular attribute in Tombstone. In every episode Caine did all he could to practice humility in the face of insult, bigotry and violence. Invariably, he would get pushed too far. A bad guy would step on his little grasshopper and that was it. Caine had no choice but to kick some ass.

Thank fucking God. Otherwise Kung Fu would have been a dull meditation on passive resistance. You accepted the show’s weekly lessons in humility precisely because you knew what was coming: fists of fury and flying kicks! There wasn’t a 12 year-old boy in America who didn’t feel the same way. The bullies liked the exotic fighting. You liked the revenge. Either way blood spilled. Humility wasn’t enough. Truth is, you’ve always known the difference between humility and humiliation. That wasn’t the tricky part. The first problem with humility was that it was for sissies, because they had no choice. That and it was boring. Bill W wrote AA is a program of action. Clearly, the definition of that word had to change too.

A man spoke at a meeting, named Harry. He was a bit older than you. Wore a rumpled suit. Thick glasses. He spent much of his allotted time talking about how important wealth had once been to him. He’d been a big shot and proud of it. The house. The cars. The stuff. Counting his money, measuring his worth. He drank to celebrate victories at work, over peers and competitors alike. Drank even more to wash away failures, which of course became ever more common. Yet, he said, when he finally did stop drinking, he became even worse. “Without alcohol in the way, I could really fuck people over.”  By his own admission, it took decades before he wizened up and acquired even a modicum of humility. Such was the intoxication of his pride. Listening to him share, you could still detect it. The way he mentioned his past achievements and former possessions, listing them like awards. Even after 30 years of sobriety and thousands of AA meetings he still couldn’t let go, not completely.

You could relate. You were always too quick to mention your past accomplishments, as if people were keeping score. Not so deep down you always felt they were.

Harry worked in retail now, far beneath his pay grade. Gone were the fancy cars, lavish homes and glitzy vacations. He found value by putting in a solid effort and going to bed tired. That’s what he said. He also admitted this was not easy for him. Many days he railed at his lot. Felt superior to his superiors. Beat him self up for all he had lost. Then, if he were thinking straight, he’d call his sponsor. God gives you what you need, Harry, the man would tell him. You’re responsible now. You’re practicing humility.

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.

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.

Play Misty for Me (2)

July 29, 2020

Continued from previous…

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This too shall pass your mother liked to say, even if she didn’t believe it. But she was right. Mist or fog, it evaporates. At times you embrace sadness, its depth and gravitas. But like an old friend he can overstay his welcome. Then you have to wait him out. Drag him along on your errands. Enduring his sourpuss and cynicism. Sometimes, you might ditch him on a hike. He couldn’t keep up in the gym either. If those things failed, you brought him to a meeting, tossing him center circle with everyone else’s shit.

Relief comes. And when it does you embrace it. Sing its song for as long as you can, feel your body electrified by it. Such joy is a blessing. And fleeting. A feminine spirit, she does as she pleases. An ephemeral pink cloud, you keep the window open for her.

You do miss the excitability of grandiosity. But ridding this was a fair price to pay for the leveling of valleys. Roller coasters are thrilling but no way to live. Soberly, you tread flat terrain.

But still…

There is the matter of your lesser addictions. Gluttony. Lust. It’s paradoxical, leaning in to them while turning away. You cannot resist the siren’s song.

More content coming soon!