Divine Return Serve

Not long ago, I heard a birthday share, fairly typical as such things go, that contained the following claim: “I have 20 years today, and that is through no effort of my own. It was all God. Not me.” Without missing a beat, the AA continued, “I just had to suit up and show up. I just had to get honest. I just had to do the work with a sponsor.” Now, despite the minimizing effect of the repeated use of the adverb “just,” and because of the multiple “I… had to(s),” the first and last parts of that share are, on the face of it, at odds with one another.

We are told, ever and above all,to seek the will of our Higher Power in all aspects of our lives. Some of the language in the two primary canonical program texts, the Big Book and the Twelve and Twelve, seems to stress not only the primacy of this search in a recovered life, but also its complete sufficiency in sustaining such a life in the face of the trying miscellany and minutia of daily human affairs. Bill is quite explicit in stating this: “Those of us who have come to make regular use of prayer would no more do without it than we would refuse air, food, or sunshine… When we refuse air, light, or food, the body suffers. And when we turn away from meditation and prayer, we likewise deprive our minds, our emotions, and our intuitions of vitally needed support.” (12 & 12, p. 97)

However. It has been my experience that there are times when facing a decision, difficult task, or quandry in which, despite my having followed all the prescribed suggestions, having used all the tools in the kit, having discussed the issue with others, and so on, no guidance comes. Despite patiently waiting for divine inspiration, in its due time, I am left in a void, being blessed with neither reliable advice from others nor any sort of identifiable intuition suggesting a direction. Thus I despair.

But in that lonely place, i often hear a voice offering, not an answer, but something else perhaps more valuable. An ethereal, non-corporeal one that transmits a message with such ineffable wisdom that I can only believe it is divine. It says, “Child, I acknowledge your desire to include me in this decision. And never doubt that I will be with you. But, this thing is on you. You turn it over to me, I politely slide back it across the table to you. I have preserved your limbs and organs, your freedom from prison, and your relatively sane mind from amounts of poison that would have killed most people. For a reason. I know that it would be easier for you if I were to temporarily possess your body and guide it to and through the ‘right’ motions. But you are neither marionette nor automaton. Ultimately it will be the neurons in your brain, which are under your volition, that will send the electrical signals to your muscles instructing them to decide this or that, to go to or fro. You may choose poorly. If so, you will be in conflict with my will for you. And you will suffer, And learn. And grow. You will gain wisdom, and the flood gates of inspired intuition will begin and continue to open.”

Perhaps, though, when I hear these words, I am being deluded by my disease. Perhaps “these thoughts that seem to come from God are not answers at all. They [might] prove to be well-intentioned unconscious rationalizations.” Perhaps “my own wishful thinking and the human tendency to rationalize [that has] distorted [my] so-called guidance,” to the point that I “tend to force [my] own will into all sorts of situations and problems with the comfortable assurance assurance that [I am] acting under God’s specific directions.” (12 & 12, p. 103-104) Perhaps. But, I believe that only time and experience can give me the discernment to differentiate and extricate my will and my Creator’s.

The bottom line is this: in a great many situations, I must think and act for myself. To those of us not irrevocably opposed to some kind of 12 step ideology, recovery must be a cooperative effort between self and Higher Power. Each element is necessary, but not sufficient in itself, for true well-being. Suprahuman involvement is an essential element without which the journey is not possible. This, however, does not absolve the alcoholic from a crucial, intentional role. It has been my experience that only with both parts of this dyad can a whole life be had.

Interlock Antics

Most of us in some sort of substance abuse program have had, at one time or another, the entirely self-inflicted misfortune of operating a vehicle under the influence of intoxicating substances. This is, to say the least, frowned upon by the law. As a result, some of us have had unpleasant encounters with our local constabulary while impaired, often caught red handed, in flagrante delicto, bottle between legs in the driver’s seat, or, worse, taking a pull within visual range of an officer. The ensuing interaction, with us exhaling toxic olfactory vapors into the atmosphere while the lawman administers a battery of embarrassing tests, is one of life’s terribly humbling experiences. And for some of us, these brushes with the legal system have come with such frequency or at times of such extreme inebriation that the courts have deemed it necessary to require devices be installed in our cars that render further episodes of drunk driving, at least theoretically, impossible.

I was one such unfortunate soul. Actually, I had been indescribably lucky. The statistical likelihood that I had not been previously popped for a DUI or killed someone given the sheer number of times I had driven drunk, often in an utterly obliterated blackout state, was astronomical. Cosmological. (As has been said, “God has special providence for drunkards and fools,” though by exactly whom is to this day uncertain.)

Thus began my monthly visits to the interlock installation/calibration garage. At a cool $60 per month. During this mandatory blow-to-drive, I was faced with a couple of conflicting facts: 1) I had to maintain gainful employment, and 2) I still wanted to drink. AA and/or rehab were, at the time, only on the periphery of my consciousness, and I was still woefully susceptible to the lifted skirt and perfumed inner thigh of the bottle. So, the challenge I had to address was how to drink and elevate my blood alcohol level to a satisfactory level in the evening, and then force it to unnaturally plummet to an interlock-acceptable level before I had to leave for work in the morning.

Unfortunately, human biology provides no natural means by which to accomplish this, and, having limited relevant technical skills, I was not about to try to tamper with the device itself. So, with the full support, encouragement, and assistance of my disease, I set out to develop an effective plan to maximize my drinking experience while avoiding probation violation and the subsequent incarceration resulting thereof.

As the laughably obvious option of simply not drinking was unthinkable, and estimating how long it would take the old liver to muck its way through a given amount of booze was at best a dangerous and unreliable approximation, I was in a precarious place. Saith the disease, “We can do this! Let’s be creative!” So it was to the arbiter and repository of all human knowledge, the internet, we proceeded.

First, I discovered through exhaustive research (i.e. typing various things into the Wikipedia search box) that only one substance has been purported, scientifically, to possibly, maybe, perhaps, speed up the metabolism and elimination of alcohol from the body. That substance is fructose, a type of sugar found primarily in fruits and vegetables. So, prodigious quantities of apple juice found their way into my drinking sessions. A chance stroll through a local market turned up a supply of bulk granulated pure fructose. Thus was the already sweet juice supercharged into something almost intolerably cloying. Nevertheless, I choked it down.

Next, I located an online BAC calculator in which I could input my age, sex, weight, drinking times and duration, and the quantity and proof of the drinks. Out came my BAC at any subsequent time the next morning. Take that, evil, cursed oxygen thieving device! Of course, this calculator was just marginally, if that, less approximate than previous spitball mental estimates, but the disease unhesitatingly vouched for its dead-on accuracy.

So, I calculated, measured, and rigorously scheduled my drinking. I gagged down glass after glass of fructose enhanced juice. And every morning, the terrible walk to the car. Turning the key. Blow. “Please, please God, let this thing start.” I’ve had few episodes in my life filled with more anxiety than those five seconds after that initial beep, waiting for either the all clear beep or the signal to start coming up with some lame ass story for my probation officer. Mostly, the strategy worked. A couple of times, it didn’t.

Of course, I always had the option of, on the one hand, jumping through all those ridiculous hoops and, on the other, simply not fucking drinking! But, at the time, that course was beneath consideration and thus utterly ignored. Now, many bristle at the notion that addiction has some sort of intimate relation to insanity. Whatever ones thoughts are on this obviously AA-based idea, that life, folks, was inarguably crazy. Nuts. Bonkers.

It is only through a hard won release from the worst of that crazy obsession that has allowed me to put my mind and efforts to infinitely more productive uses. And the ease and lack of drama that goes with getting from point A to B these days is well worth the cost of the few hours of joyless drunkenness each night I had to give up.

Originally published on thefix.com 3-8-18

Phyllophaga Totemus

In the beginning of all things, wisdom and knowledge were with the animals, for Tirawa, the One Above, did not speak directly to man. He sent certain animals to tell men that he showed himself through the beast, and that from them, and from the stars and the sun and moon should man learn.. all things tell of Tirawa. What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”-Eagle Chief Letakos-Lesa Pawnee

On a recent daily constitutional, I noticed the preponderance of a certain entomological critter littering my path. Really noticed it. Wasn’t the first time. These guys come out every year, and in great numbers. But on this day, I began to sense a connection with this so-called lower life form that could only be called mystical. That bug? Nay, that archetypal being? The lowly June Bug.

These little fellows have always perplexed me. Unlike other naturally occurring, chuckle inducing oddities (e.g. the platypus, or the two-tailed sperm cell, its two oppositely situated propellers ever fighting eggward, but against each other, causing the whole organism to spin in place futilely), this beetle is not a failed genetic mutation. Nor, arguably, does it have an irreplaceable role in any ecological niche. It consumes only certain types of plants, which would be otherwise consumed anyway. The shell on its back (which it can’t reach) serves as an incubator for other inconsequential insects’ eggs. Certain small, irritating mammals (moles, anyone?) sustain themselves in part on them. Not a terribly holistic view of all of Mother Gaia’s children, true, but would our world really be that different, worse if the waved light fly (Pyrgota Undata), for instance, were to lose its main source of nourishment and disappear from the world?

The June Beetle’s main activities seem to consist of: 1) locating a source of light, 2) taking brief, extremely awkward flight, 3) abruptly colliding with any proximate object, causing it to, 4) be knocked out of the air onto its back, where it, 5) lies, for a long while, struggling to uncapsize itself, after which, it, 6) repeats the whole process. Until it simply dies or ends up in the gullet of a lizard.

So, after seeing scores of these bugs on my daily walk, and repeatedly trying to help those diminutive brothers by toeing them gently right side up, only to find them right side down again on the next lap, I began to feel a sort of empathy for their plight. I identified with their seeming desire to stay mobile and fed (for me, to stay sober), their temporary success of being on their feet (for me, all too brief dry periods), and the subsequent backslide into immobility and helplessness (for me, of course, relapse).

I thought of the many Native American religions that include the idea of a Animal Spirit Totem, a non-human companion in the natural world meant to guide us and illuminate certain aspects of ourselves. And many people (not coincidentally, the reincarnated Cleopatras and Alexanders of the world), choose to believe that their spirit guides are flattering, noble creatures: the regal lion, the soaring eagle, the stalwart bear. Not me. I have been blessed enough to be kin to the scrappy little Phyllophaga.

The reason I continue to draw breath today is that, no matter how many times I was on my back (or, more accurately, ass), utterly submerged in the throes of withdrawal, unable to eat, sleep, or effect any kind of locomotion, I had a deep desire to keep kicking. Even with the prospect that, even if I were able to rotationally struggle myself upright, the walk or flight would be brief, and I would soon be right back helplessly looking up.

The June Bug, exhibiting that drive inherent in all biological life, continues to strive to live. To exist. To be. I was fortunate enough to have not suffered a completely broken will during the worst of my drunken days and weeks shortly thereafter. But even more so, that making it through that subterranean (with a detour through hell) tunnel did not guarantee that the cycle was over. Hope, that I had made it through that one, and despair, that, odds were, another one lurked around the corner. This ambivalence, the mental tension pulling in opposite directions, could have had one of two effects: self-immolation or self-actualization. Give up and coast to the bottom, or pick my sorry ass up and keep fighting. (Apologies, 12 Steppers, but both surrender and fighting have their place in recovery). Again, Providence graced me with the latter of the two, and here I am today.

So just as eagles soar above, lions reign over their surroundings, and sloths, well, just chill, the June Bug represent humanity’s constant struggle against circumstances and limitations. It is the real world manifestation of mythical Sisyphus. The Rocky Balboa of the non-human world of life. And though it flies (however briefly and clumsily) under the radar in terms of representation on inspirational posters, t-shirts, and calendars, it is a pretty good reflection of our own basic human plight. Indeed, I am the June Bug. Goo goo g’joob.

LG Squared – Early Step 3

Step Three, as we are all cognizant, suggests that we turn our wills and lives over to whatever higher power to which we take a shine. The Twelve and Twelve calls it the first action step. (Although calling making a decision an action is a tenuous stretch at best; is it any more active than admitting something or making a decision as in the first two Steps?) In fact, it’s the first to come with its very own prayer! With the subsequent steps, the literature provides fairly detailed instructions. Make this list with these columns, do these activities after sharing this list with another person, and so on. Not so with Three; the directions are, best case, vague. At least they were (and to some degree still are) to me.

So what exactly does this “turning over” look like? Is it simply lying in bed, waiting for my Higher Power (HP) to send directions or answers to my quandary? To somehow teleport me to a meeting, a la Star Trek? Me writing all my consternation and tribulations on a piece of paper and slipping it into some kind of God Box? Making a genuine effort to go on with the rest of the Steps? Or simply being diligent and intentional in trying to do the next right thing and leaving the results up to my HP? Some combination of all of these?

Yet I look back at my countless detox week ones, attending meetings when I was in places so dark, so horrible, so nightmarish that turning anything over, much less my will and life, letting go and letting God, all that, could not have possibly meant anything more at that time than executing a steady progression of breathing in, then out. In, then out. Repeat. In those desolate pits, if this surrender had required one-millionth of a microgram, one insignificant little iota, more than simple respiration, I would have completely unraveled. Later in the game, letting go might involve some higher impact, life changing concessions, but in the top of the first inning, consciously giving some assistance to what is normally autonomous brain function is all I could manage.

One day at a time is a wise and eminently useful concept (as are the pared back one-hour or one-minute at a time versions often employed in times of higher duress), but in the Stygian canyons of despair, I was forced to take things one breath at a time, no more. To continue to forcibly will my derriere to stay in chair, my hands to clutch the arms of said chair, my teeth to clench to stop the incessant squirming, every nerve ending writhing in anxious agony. Respire (and too often, excessively perspire). When rational thought had evaporated in lieu of a singular and incendiary obsession to get-the-f-out-of-this-room-away-from-all-these-b.s.-platitude-spouting-people. Most who have suffered through the virtual eternity of an hour long meeting after a week or month long relapse know this mode of existing. The effusive proclamations of how wonderful someone’s life is after a year of sobriety, while intended to be uplifting, actually inspires, at best apathy, and at worst feelings of spiteful envy.

But. But. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the program is that all present at such a meeting understand. They get it. They empathize. And thus meetings are a safe place where, if I can fight through the pain, much can be gained from simply being present and enduring to the end. Where nothing is expected. Where, if I am called on to share, I can simply decline and no judgment will be passed.

That, to my thinking, is the most pure expression of the earliest phases of this “turning everything over.” In, then out. That’s all. Surrendering all but the most primitive physiological need. Concentrate on acquiring oxygen, then dispensing carbon dioxide. The processing of the air, the circulation of blood, the conducting of the meeting, others’ opinions of me, the rotation and revolution of the planet, the expansion of the universe, everything else… will proceed as they will. It’s amusing to me that this most basic state of being is found in the most painful moments I will ever experience. I believe that this is precisely the place in which my HP’s influence can flow most freely into me, as my concentration is on one simple thing, and thus all other conduits are completely open and accessible.

Interlude – Hijacking!

The Wednesday night 7 pm meeting at the New Hope Group in Scranton, PA bore witness to an ultra-rare full meeting single-share filibuster, only the seventh recorded in AA history. After the reading of the preamble, How It Works, and administrative miscellany, Maya St. Lourdes immediately made it known to the chair that she had a burning desire and wished to share, eschewing the usual chair-randomly-calls-on-attendees format of the meeting. Thus began an awe-inspiring display of oration, topic swerving, and lung capacity.

As per chairperson responsibility protocol, elder statesman Henry Atherton attempted at several points during the prodigiously rambling stream of consciousness nonsense to politely interrupt St. Lourdes and suggest perhaps her thoughts might best be discussed after the meeting or outside the room but was utterly ignored by the loquacious alcoholic.

Approximately 75% of the marathon share dealt with recovery issues, but at certain points the topic went as far afield as Middle Eastern politics and the essential elements of a solid casserole. Although by the halfway mark of the meeting more than a third of the attendees had left, most of the remainder endured to the end, bearing witness to an achievement exceedingly rarer than, for example, a perfect game in baseball. Fifty seven minutes into the meeting, St. Lourdes concluded the diatribe to thunderous applause.

Fallout from the meeting included several attendees, including Atherton, heading straight for the local watering hole and an emergency group conscience meeting which saw the adoption of an egg timer system for member shares. A Meeting Enforcement Officer position was also created.

Desiderata For Step Two Belief Acquisition

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and for me, it has also been a formidable challenge to full participation in a 12 step based recovery program. One of the fundamental tenets of AA is that of spiritual inclusivity. Most members would agree that belief in some sort of higher power is essential to working the program and the subsequent recovery from an alcoholic hell. Per careful emphasis on this in the literature, the nature and origin of this power is immaterial, save that is in some vague sense more powerful than oneself.

And while many alcoholics come into the program with negative experiences with and prejudices against traditional religious theologies and deities, some are actually happy to import previously known gods into their recovery. However, some of these deities and belief systems, by design, by definition, stake an exclusive claim on truth and reality. That this god or that is the only real one. Monotheistic religions are, of course, examples of this conviction. So, according to this belief, any other AA’s higher power that is different simply does not exist. Is entirely fictional!

Add to that those newbies who have no established idea of any sort of higher power, those that are often told to simply sit down and write out the characteristics they want theirs to have – to, as it were, create a god ex nihilo from wishful imagination. By implication, then, AA recognizes a whole glut of powers-greater-than-its-members, many of which did not exist before their creation out of the vacuum.

What, then, is one to make of this pseudo-Meinongian pantheon? This twelve step Olympus whose denizen’s are either figments of some drunk’s imagination or heretical false idols? And this is ignoring those who choose to tap into things other than beings (e.g. AA as a whole, the home group, the Good Orderly Direction principle, inanimate objects, etc.) to provide the power necessary to recover.

At this point, I feel compelled to concede that for many people, over a long period of time, this approach has worked. Whatever AA’s actual efficacy rates are (who knows?), it has helped a great number of alcoholics precisely because of this nebulous spirituality. I have heard too many shares testifying to this to assert otherwise. The message has been transmitted successfully among countless alcoholics of wildly divergent theologies and canonically xenophobic higher powers.

But. There are those like myself who came into the program having been raised as, for example, a Christian, having been blessed with an innate sense of belief in and sense of the existence of one all powerful deity. I did not arrive with any sort of resentment against organized religion, like so many have, aside from the belief that some among its various congregations were knuckleheads. Of course, that charge could be leveled against any segment of society whatsoever. Indeed, in meetings, if often seems cool, de rigeur, to have a chip on one’s shoulder against Catholicism or Baptists or whatever. So prevalent is this sentiment among alcoholics that there is an entire chapter of the Big Book (We Agnostics) devoted to it.

So, this set up, from the get-go, a conceptual conflict in my mind between the program’s ultra-inclusive acceptance of all spiritual traditions and the unequivocally monotheistic nature of the Christian belief to which I subscribe. If I am true to my faith, can I, in good conscience, instruct someone (i.e. a sponsee) to turn his will and life over to the care of what I believe to be a phantom? A list of attributes concocted in his mind or an inanimate object? To expect that fiction (fictional according to what I consider to be a sacred text) to contribute the extra power required for recovery would be, essentially, to deny my own beliefs. And the Judeo-Christian world is not the only one that does not want to distribute true divinity among multiple powers. See Islam. See Baha’i. See Sikhism. So how am I to square the various theological commitments required by my faith with, like it or not, what has been a life saving program for many with beliefs at least similar to my own?

The answer at which I have arrived, after much thought and soul searching, is… wait for it… Don’t worry about it! There are many powers in this world greater than any individual. There is, indeed, an entire hierarchy of such forces: groups or mobs of people, legally sanctioned entities (police, courts, military, etc.), and biological imperatives are but a few examples. And if someone chooses to tap one of these powers for the strength necessary to recover, then the goal has been achieved. Embrace the hobgoblin, accept the diminutive mind, and live. At the end of the day, my, and presumably others’ participation in AA has one overarching goal: to be sober and sane and alive. It is not to proselytize or save souls That task belongs elsewhere.

The shift in perception for me is, however profound the above conflict is in my overactive, think-everything-to-a-bloody-pulp mind, so, so simple. As hinted at above, it is simply a matter of case recognition: my God is the Power (capital P), others’ can be found among the many other higher powers (lowercase p) undeniably in the world.

And if the price is being in such a program and having such a life is to slide down the aisle of my faith to accommodate a slight apostasy, AA’s Lego theism, then I consider that a worthwhile bargain.

Post And Step The Firsts

As this will be the initial entry in this little experiment, and as the subjects at hand are substance abuse and recovery, and as the form of recovery with which I am most familiar is AA, let us begin with the first of the Twelve Steps. In particular, the first part of the step – that we are powerless over alcohol.

The phrasing and choice of words Bill used in formulating this step are, like many of the others, deceptively simple. As I was exposed to more and more meetings and the attendant shares, and thus heard the term “powerless” thrown around so frequently in so many contexts, I began to feel uneasy with the nonchalant, willy-nilly carelessness with which it was employed. Anyone with any kind of time has heard ad nauseum how so many members are completely powerless over ____. You name it. Circumstances, environments, situations, the world, and, of course, the ubiquitous blanket term PPT (people, places, things). Essentially, anything other than one’s own self (and sometimes not even that).

But is this suggested admission of nearly universal impotence textual, part of the program as originally construed? Was it the founders’ intention to enlighten recoverees as to their lack of any effective power outside their own personal space?

The definition of the word “powerless,” itself is mostly unproblematic. Just to fix it in place, let us go with the one found in the small red Anonymous Press Mini-Edition version of the book widely distributed in rehabs and prisons. To wit: “unable to produce and effect; ineffective; lacking power to act; helpless.” So far, so good.

But am I really powerless, according to this definition, over other people? Places? Things? Consider my teenage son and his messy room. I tell him to clean it up, or no Playstation for a week. Cruel and unusual? Perhaps. Nevertheless, he (a person) is inspired to pick up the piles of clothes on the floor (things), thus rendering his room (a place) respectable. By a simple vocal proclamation, I am able to produce an effect in this PPT. Power! In fact, generally speaking, if people are powerless over others, then such fundamental social institutions as law enforcement and parenthood could simply not exist.

So that’s the common sense angle. But careful examination of the official program texts reveals what, I believe, is the true scope of this powerlessness. Starting with the statement, as written, of the step itself, we notice the all-important prepositional phrase “over alcohol.” Indeed, further inspection of the canon illustrates a theme. In the Big Book, the Twelve and Twelve, and As Bill Sees It, the term “powerless” is found only by itself or followed immediately by “over alcohol.” Nowhere can the word itself be found in Living Sober.

It is not until we look at the Daily Reflections that we see a litany of things over which we purportedly have no control. January 3 gives us a list: what others think, past events, and others’ recovery. On August 22, we finally find the oft-quoted claim that we are “powerless over people, places, and things.”

Now, plenty of people claim this as a mantra. And plenty of those have 20 years of sobriety behind that belief. Can’t argue with that. For me, though, accepting this sentiment wholesale has had me, at times, flirting dangerously with complacency and laziness. One of the main reasons I got sober was that while drinking, I was a complete and utter non-factor in the world. I did not matter. At all. In any way. I did not want to pass on to the next plane without having had the slightest impact on this one during my time. To have been inconsequential lint on the sublime tapestry of existence. I believed I could leave a mark, some kind of mark. But I had to get and stay dry. Easier, of course, said than done.

In fact, one of the foundational parts of virtually every meeting in the world, the recitation of the Serenity Prayer, is all about this. My own paraphrase goes something like this: 1) There are countless things I have no control over or any business trying to control; to do so invites angst and discontent, 2) There are things in the world that I can affect; some are hard and some are scary, and 3) It’s not always clear which is which; To discern, then either let go of it or be brave and engage it, I need help.

The key, obviously, is the third part. Returning to the January 3 Reflection, we see that despite acknowledging a whole slew of things out of my control, a truly recovered, empowered life requires that I recognize that “I have the power to exert a positive influence on myself, my loved ones, and the world in which I live (italics mine).” To have, in short, the right kind of power.