My academic advisor from school once told me something like “I make my decisions on what I will and won’t do every day as though this was my last day on earth.” I have long considered those words as a call for prioritizing my actions on a daily basis. What is really important in life?
Of late I have considered this advice in another way – to do something of meaning to/with/for another each day. The somethings can be as simple as an overdue phone call or email of support, an amend, a lunch, a walk, and so forth. I consider such actions as simple steps each day to get out of myself and be in community or of service to others. I know too that in being of service to others, I am also in service to myself. The greatest enhancement to my recovery is in being of service to others and sharing my experience, strength and hope. That is both a blessing and a responsibility to give back for what I have been given in recovery.
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. – Henry David Thoreau
I remember this Thoreau quote from high school. Thoreau was attractive to me in part because of his stance on civil disobedience. As a professional iconoclast and practicing alcoholic from a very early age, a selective reading of Thoreau fit my needs for rebellion. In recovery, the quote takes on a different meaning. As a practicing addict, I had lots of castles in the air and lots of excuses on why I was kept from building the necessary foundations. Until entering on the recovery road, I never considered my own shortcomings in the foundation building. Today, I can take responsibility for building the foundation.
In recovery, the “easier, softer way” is often meant as taking short-cuts and not truly working a solid program. I have come to view the “easier, softer way” in a different way – as taking responsibility and being accountability for my recovery and life decisions. I believe this approach is easier because the only person whose actions I need to worry about are my own and the results are more predictable. I do not need to manage all the actors on the stage. Rather, I just need to worry about my performance. The resulting foundations are perhaps more slowly built, but they are certainly a more sturdy support for castles. Ultimately, this is the easier, softer way. My life in recovery is much easier and softer than the constant tension, disappointment, and self-loathing of active addiction.
In my work life I supervise a small employee staff. A couple of times a year and after each major operation, we assess “What worked and what did not work” so that we can perform more effectively next time. I take the same approach in my recovery. I like that a myriad of tools/approaches are available for recovery. I believe that recovery is not a one size fits all affair.
What has worked best for me over the years is being mindful each day that I am in recovery from multiple addictions and that living actively into those addictions is increasingly contrary to everything about my life. For example, were I to choose to resume drinking alcohol today, that would lead to a guaranteed divorce and estrangement from family. There is no way I could do my job and drink alcohol. The AA Promises would follow quickly, but in reverse.
What has worked for me as well is a firm foundation in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I was thinking the other day that in my first year of sobriety, I attended at least 300 AA meetings. Today I attend 30 to 40 AA meetings per year. There have been periods in my 20 plus years of sobriety where I have not attended an AA meeting in over one year. But throughout that entire time, I have constantly had that firm base of AA with me.
I view my AA meeting attendance early on like going to school for remedial education on how to live without drinking and drugging – how to live life on life’s terms. Through time, my decreased attendance is not a matter of “graduating” but more as perhaps necessary “continuing education units” and more importantly being of service to others. When I sit down in a 12-Step meeting anywhere, I experience an immediate kinship.
And this leads perhaps to what has not worked – trying to fit my recovery into the recovery box of other folks. There are naysayers who condemn AA as a cult, have organized “secular sobriety” groups and so forth. On the other hand, there are those who rigorously apply the evolved decades of AA into a dogma of mandatory daily practices, meeting attendance, sponsorship and so forth.
I come back to the question – Is my recovery program working? I can answer an emphatic yes and am grateful for the many resources and opportunities, including this blog, to live into recovery and out of my active addictions.
I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult? – Hermann Hesse
In recent years, I have taken to tracking down the phrases that stuck in my head since my youth – to see if I remember them correctly, and consider why those phrases, and not others are perpetually imprinted on my brain. One example is the epigraph above from the novel Demian by Hermann Hesse.
I read Demian in 1968 and don’t recollect picking it up after. About 7 or 8 years ago while roaming around in a used bookstore on Decatur Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, I found a copy, and proved to myself that yes, I remembered the quote correctly. So why has that line stuck in my head for 45 years?
Obviously, the epigram is similar to the line on the Alcoholics Anonymous anniversary coins I collect (and Hamlet) “To Thine Own Self Be True” and reflect that perpetual trying to figure it out. What I also take and enjoy out of this idea is that recovery, life, and self-discovery are truly processes and not singular events.
To me, this understanding is one of the fantastic blessings of living in recovery. Each day is a possibility of new growth. That growth is not just limited to a self-improvement perspective, but rather includes a sense of the discovery of true self. When advising college students, I usually ask them “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and preface the question by noting I continue to ask myself the same question.
These are thoughts that are far from my mind when actively living into my addictions.
I listened to a podcast recently that triggered an issue I have often thought about over the years. The podcast discussed a celebrity who died of a drug overdose. The story told of the celebrity’s brilliance and compassion but their inability to deal with a deep pain. The statement of another celebrity suggested that such special folks are so sensitive and brilliant that they just are unable to deal with life.
Note that my comments below are not meant to dismiss or diminish the tragic deaths of anyone from substance abuse.
The podcast raised a couple of points for me. First, there is a certain romantacizing of the famous who overdose or commit suicide. Some consider the dead club of the 27 year olds rock stars as an inherent result of the business or the talent of the individual, rather than untreated chemical dependency. I ponder that my former colleague and blue-collar worker who put a gun to his head after several unsuccessful attempts at substance abuse treatment was simply considered a drunk bored with his life, nothing more exceptional than that. If empathy and sensitivity to the suffering of others were good explanations for the celebrity overdoses, then certainly Mother Theresa types should not live into their senior years.
I ask myself the question – Why have I stayed sober for a bunch of years? Why in my AA home group are there many compassionate and talented individuals who can tell horror stories from their past lives, but today are living into decades long periods of recovery? And at the same time, why are there those in my AA home group who cannot put together more than 3 months of sobriety, but many keep coming back to try again?
I ask these questions and I don’t have all the answers. My first day in detox nearly 30 years ago I made two very intentional decisions. First, I was not going to lie to anyone in the treatment center. I was not going to just tell the therapists what I thought they wanted to hear as I had done for years. Second, I was going to do exactly what I was told to do in recovery. Despite my delusions of grandeur, the horror stories of my familial dysfunction and abuse, I was a drunk like everyone else in the detox ward.
I know my decisions are part of the answer to my questions. I know that I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I know that I recognized that my substance abuse got me to a point where I was physically, emotionally, and spiritually bankrupt. But I also know that many folks in identical situations are not able to stay on a recovery road.
Regardless, a starting point in answering the questions remains the First Step of Alcoholics Anonymous – We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable. With that recognition, the next question is: So what am I going to do about it? We all, rich and poor, whatever our occupation and personal histories, must answer that question.
I need to remind myself of this truth often, particularly as it relates to my recovery. If I don’t make changes in my actions and perspectives, then I should not expect changes in how I address my addictions. In terms of alcohol and mind altering drugs, that change was successfully put in place a bunch of years ago. With my eating disorder, and many of the “isms” of addiction, I continue to grapple with the need to change.
I have long understood that for me, addiction is addiction is addiction – that is, whether food, alcohol, or drugs, I abuse the substance for the same purpose – a form of escape, not living life on life’s terms, a decision to simply exist and not truly live. I continue to find that being sober and drug free is a considerably easier proposition than being abstinent from my eating disorder. And because I eat compulsively for the same reasons I drank compulsively, I realize with increasing clarity the resulting “isms” are the same.
My long-term recovery from alcohol and drugs provides me with considerable insights, opportunities, resources to deal with my other addictions. At the same time, if nothing changes, nothing changes. One of the blessings of recovery is realizing that this is all a process, not an event. It’s not a matter of getting holy – rather, it’s taking advantage of the opportunity to continue growing and living into recovery, one day at a time, for the duration.