At the church I attend, each year there is a Recovery Sunday where a recovering alcoholic is asked to share their experience strength and hope. I was asked to do so once. How could I pass up the opportunity to preach from the pulpit? Here it is:
As a recovering alcoholic for the past 25 years, I am honored to speak to you all today. Recovery is the only reason I am here. And I don’t mean standing in this pulpit, but I mean here physically at all. Without recovery, like Esther, I would be pleading that “my life be given to me.” Living in the process of recovery from addiction is summed up perfectly in today’s psalm “We have escaped like a bird from the snare.”
Typically, when you hear a recovering addict speak, they will tell you about their life of active addiction, what happened, and what it is like today. I will focus on what it is like today, some of what happened, and less on what it was like because recovery today is what is most important to me. Twenty-five years ago when I took my last drink of alcohol, I just wanted to stop blacking out, waking up in strange places, being sick and hungover all the time. Although I received those benefits, they really were just the very tip of the iceberg, on the road I was heading down.
So let me tell you what it was like. During my active days of drinking, I lied, stole, cheated, endangered other people’s lives and my own, rarely took any responsibility for my actions, always had a good reason why it was you that was the problem and not me, was completely unable to have an honest relationship with another human being, including myself, and ran around the country leaving a trail of destruction behind. I was professionally diagnosed as being both depressed and narcissistic.
Now, here is what happened. The first time I questioned whether I had a problem with alcohol was in 1973. I was living up north working in a cardboard box factory. Something was not right. A few months earlier I had left my hometown, looking to make a fresh start after accumulating an 0.7 GPA during my first try at college. I moved up north, and can not really tell you why, other than it was not my hometown. I drank a couple of cases of beer a week and smoked a carton of Lucky Strike nonfilters but was a vegetarian because I did not want to pollute my body. I came home one night from working second shift. I decided I would prove to myself that I was not an alcoholic. I would not drink that night. I took a shower, made my tofu bean sprout surprise, ate it, noted that after being home for some 90 minutes I was not shaking or craving a beer. I could not possibly have a problem. Having succeeded in my experiment, I proceeded to drink my usual amount for the night. That was my alcoholic logic.
Fast forward 11 years. I had bounced across the Upper Midwest, lived in South for a couple of years, then the Gulf Coast, then back to near my hometown where I worked as a mechanic in a paper bag factory. I knew that I was at the end of the line. I was physically destroyed, emotionally dead, and spiritually bankrupt. I had no answers left. My shopping list of grievances against the world was no comfort. As the saying goes, everywhere you go, there you are. I felt an impending doom coming on that I knew was irreversible. On August the third 1984, while trying to drill out some broken bolts from the drum of a paper bag folding machine, I reached the point where I could not go on any further. I stopped and specifically asked God or whatever wanted to listen, to remove the addiction from my body and the insanity from my head. As I was raised a Roman Catholic, I decided that being on my knees might increase the probability of my petition being heard. I dropped a putty knife on the ground, knelt to pick it up, and repeated my prayer.
When I stood up, I saw no vision, no great revelations, but I had, without knowing, taken the first step of the 12-step Program – Admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable. The biggest thing I remember from that experience was a sense of Hope, and that was good enough. In our Prayers of the People in the Book of Common Prayer, two Thanksgivings I always repeat are for Life and Hope. When I left work that night, instead of drinking, I checked myself into a 30-day detox program.
In detox, I learned some basic skills. One thing I remember is getting shot up with Dilantan an anticonvulsant drug to keep you from going into the DTs. What I remember about Dilantan is that it messes with your short-term memory. I was laying in a hospital bed, the only form of entertainment allowed was a copy of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. As I had been to college, I skipped through the introductory material and got right to the meat of the matter. I remember reading that the goal of AA was to have folks function as normal people in today’s society. And because of the dilantin, I could not get beyond that simple statement, so I kept reading that single line over and over. I realized that was what I was after.
That leads to the third part of what I wish to speak about here – What it is like today. There are several points that are very important about the concept of recovery. First, I don’t distinguish between types of addiction, but there are predictable things that happen right away in recovery. The food addict starts dropping pounds or the anorexic gains some weight. The gambler has money to pay their bills. For myself, I actually started showing up at work. Most of these very simple things, the nonaddict takes for granted. Shortly after I got out of the detox unit, I remember the foreman in the paper bag factory passing out the paychecks. He handed me mine and said “Another 40 hour week.” I proudly noted that I had not missed a day in 4 weeks. He responded with “Big Deal” he had not missed a day in 8 years. It’s kind of funny today, I tell my students – that when I quite drinking, throughout graduate school I was never late for class and never turned in a paper late – it’s not a Big Deal. But in the midst of the insanity, it is quite difficult just to put one foot in front of the other.
Another important concept to me, is the notion that recovery is a process, not an event. We never get there, we are always on the road. That to me is very exciting. Another very important concept for me about all this is humility. I do not in any way mean to paint a picture of I was horrible, I got the cure, now I am wonderful, and I did it all myself. I have often wondered, why me? Recovery from addiction is not a high success rate industry. I am certain many of you who struggle with addiction or have family members who do, know this fact all too well. I know that within about six months of leaving detox, there was only one other person from my cohort of 40 who was still sober. I know it has little to do with intelligence, desire, or how bad off one was. I am eternally grateful to the power greater than myself that has guided me through this process.
The best way I know how to articulate what it is like today is by reviewing the Promises of AA. After my first 10 years of sobriety, I realized that, without exception, those promises were true in my life. Let me review some of them with you.
First, “We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.” To me this is a very liberating concept. I was a couple of months sober and was driving around at 11:00 PM on a Saturday night and I saw a police car in my rear view mirror. Typically, my m.o. would be to immediately plan some evasive action to avoid a DUI, unpaid ticket stop or whatever. But I was clean and free. That is one of the examples of an immediate benefit. But the more profound freedom came just a little while later. Early in recovery, I accepted that I can’t or choose not to drink today. The true freedom came when that changed from I can’t, to I don’t have to drink to escape a reality that I cannot deal with sober. That to me is the freedom from bondage posed by Esther and the Psalmist.
The second promise is that “We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.” I was maybe 10 years sober and I was sitting with a colleague at a professional meeting in New Orleans. The person bemoaned how his marriage was in shambles, his job was driving him crazy, and on and on. I articulated to him a sentence that had rattled around in my head for a while. I said “If every breath I have ever taken, and everything I have ever done got me to sitting right here today, I would not change a thing.” I contrast that with my active alcoholism where I had plenty of blame to go around on why I was in the mess I was in at any given point, and would be more than happy to tell you all about it.
The third promise is “We will comprehend the word serenity, and we will know peace.” I can say in all honesty that since the first day I got sober, I have never sat on the edge of the bed and wished I could just die or be filled with uncontrollable anger and resentments. When I worked in the paper bag factory there was a guy named Jim who was in charge of the production on a set of machines. He would always come in the maintenance shop and have these jobs for me to do. I was convinced this guy was just out to get me and make my life miserable. After a couple of months of sobriety, I came to realize that Jim was really not out to get me, but simply wanted me to do the job I was being paid to do – actually perform work as a mechanic. What I quickly came to see was that the problem was not out there, but within me.
Another promise is that “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” I have truly enjoyed this process. I know that someone out there is thinking “hey, you are telling my story.” And it is not because I am a good story-teller, or that I have a particularly good story to tell. Rather, by sharing our experience, strength, and hope, others still suffering from active addiction see that recovery is possible.
Another promise is “ We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.” I am a child of the 60s and 70s and the social movements of that period. I don’t want to take away from the many very positive experiences of that era. But I can tell you that it is in recovery, and especially the last 10 years, through the incarnational theology of the Anglican tradition, that I have more fully come to understand what it means to gain interest in my fellow humans. I had an experience on a Habitat for Humanity trip to South America over 10 years ago. About 40 of us were standing in a circle celebrating a Eucharist as the sun came up in the mountains. I looked around that circle and saw doctors, lawyers, mechanics, teachers, unemployed, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, gay, and straight. I realized that were it not for this trip, I would never have so much as spoken to most of these people. Were we back in home, we all would have scattered to our different church parishes, divided further by whether we went to the early or late service, and whether we stayed for Sunday school or went straight home. But here we were, all in community, with one common goal, being of true service to the image of God. There is a rabbinic saying I really enjoy. It goes something like “when a child is walking down the street, there are angels that walk before and after shouting, make way for the image of God.” That is a powerful image. I cannot imagine even beginning to have such a thought when fixated on addiction and the self-seeking behaviors that go along with that.
Which leads to the promise that “Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.” Is the glass half empty or half full? Am I focusing on what brings us together or what drives us apart? That’s one thing I have always found comforting in the Episcopal Church, the big tent that leaves room for all those images of God.
A very important promise to me is “We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.” This is perhaps one of the greatest rewards for staying sober. To me, so much of recovery is involved in a decision to live life on life’s terms as opposed to living in a totally anesthetized state, escaping reality, and waiting to die. Let me give you an example of this. During my active addiction, I had not a clue how to handle grief. My maternal grandmother, and without out a doubt, the most influential person in my life, died in 1976 when I was 24 years old. I remember very little of the circumstances. I had been on the road for a while and had come back home. I was wracked with addiction, guilt, escapism, self-hate. My mother insisted I go to see my grandmother who I had not seen in over one year. I went to visit her in the nursing home and took my 8-year-old niece along as a shield of sorts. Grandma told me she wanted to die. I could not look her in the eye. I made my exit. She died that night. I don’t remember much about the funeral. I remember being at the wake and going out for a smoke, then heading to a bar to commiserate with my girlfriend on how stupid funerals were. I never grieved.
About 9 years ago, our dog Greta. I wailed with grief. It was the first grieving I had ever done in my life. About five years ago, I went to my grandma’s grave for the first time and wailed with grief, guilt, remorse. I go back every year now. This past year, there was no sobbing or guilt, rather a visit reflecting on my love for this woman. I am fond of saying that the greatest gift my grandmother ever gave me was to teach me how to be a grandfather.
I savor this knowing, this how to handle situations that use to baffle me as the promise says, today with our children and grandchildren. When our one granddaughter was diagnosed with leukemia, I did not need to hide in alcohol, I was able to grieve, but also be in relationship with the child. I could not have done that as an active alcoholic. I would not have even known what question to ask.
By now, you might be thinking – well aren’t you just soooo special and wonderful. My wife and family can attest that I am quite human with lots of shortcomings. But for me, that is where the eleventh and final promise comes in. It goes – “We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” To me that is what the Amazing Grace is all about. This goes along with the third step of AA “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God. I have read and repeated that step hundreds, perhaps thousands of times over the past 25 years. About one year ago, the “as we understand God” jumped out at me for the first time. I realized that was an action step where I was going to have to understand God, not just as a static creed, but as a dynamic active part of my life. And that, my friends, to me is the most exciting part about recovery. It is a process, not an event, in the same way we practice spiritual progress, rather than perfection. To me, that is the reason to get up every morning and to go forth into the world.
The promises conclude: “Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us– sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.” Amen.