What 33 Years of Sobriety Means Today

Looking from my back porch this morning.

Today I celebrate 33 years of continuous sobriety.  Last year I completely forgot about my 32nd year anniversary until someone reminded me.  I had been overseas working for a month and spent August 4, of 2016 navigating a 15-hour travel schedule back to home in New Orleans.  This year I have been thinking about my 33 years of sobriety a reasonable amount.  Some of the reasons include:

  • Over the past year I have been very actively engaged in regular Step Work, spending several weeks on each step, writing, thinking, discussing, living, and reincorporating the 12 Steps into my day-to-day existence.  Although every day in sobriety I have remembered that I am an alcoholic in recovery, over the years I have also done more intensive refresher courses, as it were, to continue to grow and travel along my recovery road.
  • This heightened sense of recovery in my daily existence has also led to an increased sense of gratitude.  I am 65 years old.  Without question, and with no intent for dramatic impact, were it not for my decision to follow a 12 Step program of recovery, I would have been dead long ago or locked up in prison for some alcohol related offense and living a life of forced sobriety.  I know that I am not tough enough to be that stereotypical skid row drunk, and that was my trajectory before sobriety.
  • I am also fully aware that everything – from the dog laying at my feet, to the back porch of my family’s home in New Orleans where I sit, to my formal retirement last year from a successful career, to my continuing professional activity today – none of that would be possible were it not for recovery.
  • After I was sober for a couple of years, my mother asked me why I still needed to go to meetings and maybe I could just have a beer occasionally.  Therein lies one of the greatest gifts of recovery – the 12 Step Program from which I will never graduate.  Re-doing my Fourth Step a few months ago brought insights about my character of which I could not conceive when doing my first Fourth Step in 1984.  Those insights allow me the opportunity to travel a recovery path today more aligned with a true self.  That process never ends.  As I proclaim in the title of this blog, recovery is truly a process and not an event.
  • I have the opportunity to travel paths that my “contempt prior to investigation” in active addiction would never have allowed.  My previous post is one such example.
  • And today, I truly have a choice.  I am no longer like the ball in a pinball machine after taking that first drink.  Today, I can choose to prioritize how I spend my existence, living intentionally and with meaning.

I long ago resigned from the discussions about whether AA is cult, alcoholism is a disease, etc. etc.  Those issues have no relevance to me.  As I am fond of saying “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to exactly where I am today, I would not change a thing.”  Today August 4, 2017, as I sit on my back porch in New Orleans and type these words into my laptop, 33 years after I checked myself into a detox center in Cincinnati, Ohio, I still would not change a thing.

Thank You.

Thin Places in Recovery

My Chair for Practices, Casma, Peru

I am a creature of habit.  My current morning practices include journaling, writing a note to someone, recovery step work, meditation and composing a gratitude list.  For the past three weeks and through the first of August, I am in rural Peru.  Before leaving on the trip, I was certain to pack all of my necessary supplies, take into account the likely lack of internet service so that I could continue these practices.  All has gone well and I foresee no problem in maintaining my routine.

A couple of other recent practices I knew I could not continue during my trip.  Since moving to New Orleans last year, every Sunday morning I have come to enjoy walking to Rayne Memorial and participating in the service.  Obviously that was not going to happen while in Peru.

Another practice I picked up over the past several months is my Wednesday 11:30 AM meeting with my fellow pilgrims in the School for Contemplative Living.  At these gatherings we have a 20 minute centering prayer/meditation and discuss a spiritual text for an hour.  I committed to my friends that at 11:30 am each Wednesday, I would join them in spirit in a 20-minute centering prayer practice from Peru.  That has gone well.

I have come to understand that a good part of the experience of my Sunday and Wednesday morning practices has more to do with being in community and relationship with others than just the physical process of the practice.  That has been a meaningful insight for me in the same ways that I was never able to get sober just by reading the literature or thinking about my addiction, but by being in community and relationship with others.

This past Wednesday I sat down for my centering prayer in the courtyard of the house where we are staying here in Casma.   I had Russian Orthodox chant music playing in the back ground.  I am a novice at this sort of thing and generally tend to just try to focus on my breathing.  I often become rather restless about half-way through the 20-minute practice.

This past Wednesday, I quickly got into the rhythm of the breathing – the Spanish/Quechua voices from next door replacing the sounds of traffic at my regular practice space in the States.  Trying to empty myself as best I could and focus solely on my breathing, I was filled with a sense of well-being.  Knowing too that my fellow pilgrims in the US were practicing at exactly the same time came into my head and I emptied that as well.  The chanting caught my attention like never before for the sheer beauty of words of which I knew not the literal meaning but spoke to me fully.  A cool breeze flowed through the yard, as I continued to empty myself of all thought.  My eyes felt wet and I could feel tears moving down my face.  I entered a thin space.  And then I was back again.

I liken these thin spaces to pink cloud or mountain top experiences in recovery.  I have come not to expect them, but by putting one foot in front of the other, and following the next intuitive step on a path to true self, I can be ready to absorb the experience, the liminal space, when presented.  In the same way that the mountain top experiences of recovery can never be taken away, so to these liminal or thin spaces remain as well.  As certain as the “aha” moment when I realized that it was not that “I could not drink alcohol today” but that “I did not have to drink alcohol today” so too my Centering Prayer experience in the dusty courtyard in Casma, Peru, is now forever a part of me.  I am grateful for this gift.

A Bike Wreck and Recovery

I am supposed to be in Peru now, but instead I am still at home in New Orleans.  A short four weeks ago I was in a pretty nasty bike wreck.  A “frat boy type” was trying to do skateboard tricks on a bike path when he lost control of his board which then ran into my bike and I went down hard.  When I was laying there I knew that things were not okay.  At first I cussed like a sailor because I was well aware there was no way I could leave for Peru on May 23rd as scheduled.  I could not even stand up.  The “frat boy type” and his buds, as soon as they saw I was not dead, took off to escape any responsibility.  Another passerby helped me stand-up.  I could not put any weight on my left leg.  The passerby helped me get back on my bike and I was able to pedal the two miles home, make my way into the house and pretty much collapse.

I am now recovering well. Hip and leg x-rays revealed no broken bones, but the jury is still out on my left shoulder.  I had a bone scan.  Other than that, I am reasonably mobile and will leave for Peru tomorrow morning.

Recovery related things out of this include:

  • I can cut the “frat boy type” some slack.  In my early 20s as an active alcoholic, I would have acted the same – tried to get away as fast as I could and not take any responsibility.  Though I look forward to the next time I run into the “frat boy type” to give him a lecture on same.
  • Living Life on Life’s Terms.  I have tried to use some of this down time for reflection.  One thing I truly appreciate is that were it not for my past decades of sobriety, minimally, I would not even be considering a return trip to Peru, be retired and living in my favorite city in North America, and very likely would be dead from something related to my drinking and drugging.
  • Living into the Solution.  I am forever grateful that sobriety has given me a “glass is half-full” approach to dealing with reality.  I pretty quickly got past the “poor me” thinking to figuring out how to recover and move on.
  • Learning to Prioritize.  One thing I have learned in the past month is to better prioritize what I will do in life.  Since retiring some 9 months ago, my plate has overflowed with opportunities.  I have enjoyed having the time in the past few weeks to slow down and think on those things which are most important to me, rather than running from one place to another.

So, in less than 48 hours, my plan is to be in Lima, Peru.  Regardless of how the field season plays out, were it not for recovery, I would not have this opportunity, or any other that I have been blessed with over the years by living into a simple Twelve Step Program of recovery.

Did God Love/Forgive Judas? A Recovery Parable.

Okay, so the answer is an obvious yes, but the story is far more interesting.

At church this morning (Rayne Memorial) senior pastor Callie Crawford’s message was to be “Loving Judas” apt for Palm Sunday.

(For those not familiar, in the Christian Gospels, Judas betrayed Jesus causing him to be handed over to the Romans for ultimate crucifixion.  Judas got thirty pieces of silver for the deed.  Other of Jesus’ followers did not do much better.  Peter denied/betrayed Jesus three times – and apparently the other disciples left Jesus on his own after his capture and execution.)

Callie is an exceptional preacher and storyteller and as always, I looked forward to hearing her preach. A sermon with this title could have included how we are all broken, in need of forgiveness, and loved, regardless.

But the sermon took a twist that caught me completely by surprise.  Callie asked us to consider the difference between the role of Peter and Judas – each who had betrayed Jesus.  Was either betrayal worse than the other?  What was the difference between the two?  She suggested a big difference was that Peter came back and continued to be in community with Jesus, to follow him, to discover the empty tomb. Judas at first tried to undo his betrayal, but ultimately committed suicide instead.

As a recovering alcoholic, the story had considerable meaning.  I always equated my drinking to a slow form of suicide.  My grief over betrayal, dysfunction, pain – I completely relate to being the Judas and just wanting to make it go away.  I am eternally blessed that by grace, ultimately, I followed Peter’s example, toward recovery, to travel the road, to experience a personal resurrection.

But the end of Callie’s sermon caught me short.  She talked about a mythical Second Coming where all the folks are walking into heaven and Peter is there to close the gates after everyone is in for the party.  But Jesus stands outside the gate and Peter tells him to come on in because the party is going to start.  But Jesus stays outside the gate looking into the distance.  When Peter asks Jesus what he is waiting for he replies “I am waiting for Judas to come on up.”

And I could so relate to being that Judas when steeped in my addiction.  The self-hate and loathing – only wanting to be anesthetized with alcohol and drugs so I had to feel nothing – so that I lived only in a perpetual coma.  Unable or unwilling to just surrender to my powerlessness and walk through the liberating gates of recovery.

I am forever blessed that on August 4, 1984 just before midnight when I got off work from the paper bag factory, I chose to check myself into a detox unit instead of getting drunk, my norm.  I was finally able to walk through the gates and join the party.  Today’s sermon left me with a profound gratitude for that event and a sadness for those still wallowing in the muck.  I walked home from church with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, and a renewed commitment to life.

By the time I got home, my wife had already packed our picnic lunch and along with our reasonably insane rescue dog, we went up to the Fly along the Mississippi River, spread a blanket and had lunch.  I felt at home.

 

Personal Responsibility in Recovery

I just finished reading the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  From the amazon.com description:

. . . a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.  The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years . . . J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck . . . Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

The punch line is that for Vance, he broke the cycle.  I bought the book because the story was a familiar. Vance grew up in the white working class Appalachian community of Middletown Ohio, just a few miles up the road from the white working class Appalachian community I grew up in of Norwood, Ohio.  Armco Steel was to Middletown what General Motors was to Norwood.  A bonus in the book was understanding the role that alcohol and violence played in our lives.  Ultimately, I found somewhat of a parallel existence with Vance.

The book has taken a good bit of heat.  For example, from the pages of The New Republic the reviewer concludes, and I concur, that Vance makes some rather sweeping sociological statements.  I suspect too that I would hated to have Vance in my classroom, as he seemed totally goal focused on getting out of school with little time for the process – but I also say that with the hindsight of someone who has recently retired from higher education, compared to the 30-something Mr. Vance.

The New Republic piece is critical of Vance’s emphasis on personal responsibility in the socio-economic dilemma of his hometown.  In fact, the New Republic piece is void of any discussion of the need for personal responsibility.  In my past as a practicing alcoholic, I readily had a myriad of reasons why I “had to” drink – abusive home situation, poverty, born on the wrong side of the tracks, to name but a few.  I successfully surrounded myself with a network of folks who would support my active addiction.  As well, I could find folks who considered the class system as the primary reason for my alcoholism.

Here is the deal – all of those socio-economic factors were true for me and they were true for others too.  However, it was not until I took personal responsibility for my actions that I was able to begin to see any possibility for recovery from my addictions.

In a recent TED talk Vance pondered how to give others the opportunities that he had to break the cycle of poverty, violence, and addiction.  That is where the role of mentorship in general, or sponsorship in 12-Step groups comes in.

Until I came to take personal responsibility for my recovery from alcoholism, I needed the poverty, the violence, the familial dysfunction to continue my active addiction.  In recovery, I no longer need those socio-economic factors to justify my existence.  I am grateful for the opportunity to now actively work toward a solution to those inequities in our world.  There is much to pick at in Vance’s book, but there is an essence of accountability and “getting sick and tired of being sick and tired” that truly resonated with me in those pages.  I suspect that others in recovery will have a similar experience.

Working the Fourth Step, Again

I am repeating the Fourth Step process – the first time in a few years.  I am using the set of questions contained in the Overeaters Anonymous Twelve and Twelve.  I believe in working and reworking the Steps as a part of my recovery.  The process always reveals new insights and helps me to move along my recovery road.  I am intentional this time around about taking a “moral” inventory and not beating myself up mercilessly as I did some 30 years ago when doing my first Fourth Step in Alcoholics Anonymous.  I am mindful of the fact that over those three decades I have in fact grown and matured.  I am less a person completely governed by “self-will run riot.”  The Fourth Step process certainly informs me of many areas and behaviors of my life in need of a reality check.

So for many of the questions, I was pleased to recognize and write that yes, I have in fact grown in this or that respect over the years but those questions continue to provide new insights.  Here is one:

           Are we snobs?  Do we pay more attention to VIPS than ordinary people?

My knee jerk reaction was – of course not.  I am very salt of the earth.  You won’t catch me at a restaurant with 9 pieces of silverware at a place setting.  But I also got to thinking about the question some more.  For example, my memory has never been a strong feature for me, and I have learned to be very intentional when meeting folks to really concentrate on their names so I don’t forget them.  So when I began to attend a new group meeting on Wednesday mornings, I made a special effort to remember everyone’s name.  Also, I help with a meal through the Open Table program for the underserved every Tuesday afternoon here in New Orleans.  In a given month there might be 30 or so volunteers that cycle through to help.  This past week there was a fellow I had met several times before and had to confess I did not remember his name.  Partially because he is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, with a somewhat thick accent and I am not certain I ever really got his name completely.  But this past week, we re-introduced, acknowledged that both of us had forgotten each others names, and now his name “Artie” is forever impressed on my brain.

But then I got to thinking about those who come to receive a meal, a voucher for a night’s housing, and some toiletries.  I know none of their names. Many of these clients who come for the services are more regular than the volunteers.  In these types of situations, I am more comfortable mingling with the clients than hanging with the volunteers in the kitchen and dealing with the food.  But I have never asked any of the clients their name.  A bit of snobbery – paying more attention to the haves than the have-nots.  Nothing earth shattering, but a truth learned on the recovery road.

A lesson too that the Steps, if I choose to use them, always provide new insights and opportunities for growth.

Giving Back in Recovery

I have strong sense of the need to give back in recovery.  The longer I remain sober, that sense increases.

Although the Christian New Testament line “It is better to give than receive” was used by my grade school nuns for every special collection and the Lenten box of nickels from the candy not eaten, there is more.

I object to what I refer to as the “Santa Claus” mentality of service work where those who have shower gifts like magic glitter on those who have not.  This practice is a rather self-indulgent feel good exercise.  And yes, it is true that in giving we do receive.  I have never done service work whether in recovery or any other context where I did not get more out of it than I put in.

More difficult is being certain not to take away someone else’s opportunity to give so they too then can receive.  That is something I enjoy about 12-Step programs in general.  I learn in the sharing of experience, strength, and hope, from a broad array of folks.  From those very first lessons in detox many years ago, to the continued growth today, including what I learn in the blogosphere, I have received much.

Today, I am grateful for and thank the broad scope of humanity (and canines) who have given me so much.