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Sobriety Junkie

By: Greg Kayko

Greg Kayko is the single father of two young children, the sponsor of half a dozen (or so) men in the Midwest, and an avid but painfully average golfer. A self-described sobriety junkie, Kayko is also a managing editor at a large national media company and author of Realtime Recovery: Where Sober is the New Black, a personal blog that celebrates the many ways we “trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.”

Teach Him How to Drink

Apr 16, 2016


My dad was a plumber with an eighth-grade education, but his street smarts far surpassed anything I would ever garner from years in college and graduate school.

My dad was also a player. He worked hard, and he played equally hard all of his life. Sadly, the only real sobriety he would ever know as an adult came as a consequence rather than a gift. At the age of 60, he was initially diagnosed with colon cancer only to discover after surgery that the cancer had already spread to his liver—or vice versa. Doctors gave him three to six months at best; self-described "stubborn Polack" that he was, however, he lived for nearly two more years.

In the summer of 1977, four years before his diagnosis and at the age of 56—the age I am today—he boarded a plane and accompanied me to my freshman orientation at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He was a dyed-in-the-wool, first-generation Easterner, and the Midwest held absolutely no allure for him, as it did me. The weakened beer served in bars; the suffocating heat and humidity; and the absurd absence of casinos (tribal reservations were still just that back then … reservations), dog tracks, horse tracks, OTB parlors or professional sports teams in Des Moines left him shaking his head as to why anyone would submit themselves to life in such a desert of entertainment. Worse, he couldn’t understand why his only son had chosen to apply to colleges a minimum of 1,000 miles away from the “real world back East.” (Four years later, when cancer forced sobriety on his waning hours, I believe he came to understand that, as much as I loved him, it was the disease of alcoholism itself—the disease that would eventually consume me as it had consumed him—that drove me as far away from him as I could manage to get, even if that meant living in a veritable desert of entertainment for four years.)

Nonetheless, he did accompany me, and we would both learn a great deal from that trip. I would learn what I needed to learn to successfully transition to college life, and he would learn a bit about what my life at Drake would be like.


The evening after the first day of orientation (and after doing a little underage bar-hopping with other incoming freshmen I’d met that day), I stopped in to visit my dad in his dorm room. I wasn’t surprised to find him sitting in the room’s bay window with a 12-pack of beer by his side as he read all the information he’d gathered that day during the parents-of-incoming-students orientation.

“Learn anything?” I asked.

“Yeah, in fact, I did. Sit down.” I sat on the empty bed. It didn’t take him long to notice I was eyeing his stash. “They’re getting warm,” he said.

“Not a problem,” I said and reached over to grab one.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he said and then he went on to tell me what he had learned. During the parents’ session, the parents were asked to write down and then share the one thing they wanted most for their children to learn while they were at Drake. Apparently one woman spoke up and said, “I hope my son learns how to drink while he’s here.”

“I heard that, and I about fell out of my chair,” my father said. “I need to send my son 1,200 miles away to learn how to drink?” Of course, the woman went on to say that she hoped her son would learn how to drink responsibly, that somehow during his four years at Drake, he would learn that drinking alcohol was a privilege—and not a right to be abused.

This was, of course, a novel concept to my Polish-American, Catholic, working-class father, and, at the time, a pathetically silly concept to me. It would, of course, prove to be a moment of hyperbolic genius and a lesson neither of us would learn soon enough.

Four years later, and only four days after my graduation from Drake, I returned to Connecticut, only to learn that on his 60th birthday my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, that he was not expected to live long, and that, for all intents and purposes, it appeared his work-hard-play-hard approach to life had come at a nonrefundable price.

In the days and weeks that followed that summer, my father and I would play golf almost every day that the chemotherapy he submitted to reluctantly didn’t nail him to his bed. Sometimes, after our round, we’d stop in the clubhouse where he’d order a Coke and I’d blindly order a beer—or two or three.

Almost every chance we had, we would argue about whether I was actually going to leave Connecticut for Arizona and graduate school that fall—me insisting I would NOT … him insisting, of course, that I would. “We’ll come visit you there. At least you can drive to Vegas from Tucson,” he’d quip.

But his favorite thing to say that summer, in his gruffest foreman’s tone, was, “What are you gonna learn hanging around here waiting for me to die anyway? How to drink? If you didn’t learn the right way in college, you sure as hell aren’t gonna learn here. Not in this family.” Sadly, he would sometimes add, "The only regret I have in this life, son, is all the nights I can't remember."

And then he would reminisce about our god-awful trip to the Midwest together and the night he realized the woman at the orientation had it right: College should be a place where I would learn a lot of things, including how to drink responsibly.

But what is and what should be for an alcoholic and his son are two entirely different things. I wonder what our conversation would have been like if either of us had even remotely understood that we were powerless over alcohol and that, without a solution, our lives, as well as our drinking, would always be unmanageable.

Seventeen years later, at nine months of sobriety, I would return to visit my father’s grave and not only make amends to him for all the pain and worry my own drinking had caused him in his final years but also to forgive him for being one of the unfortunate alcoholics who hit bottom too late and consequently never came to understand the nature of his condition. Eight years after that, and two short months after the birth of my only son, I would visit his grave again, this time to ask him to pray with me that this child be the one to break the chain of disease and addiction that had for so many years both plagued and informed almost every biography in our family.

I Hope There's a Heaven

Apr 10, 2016


The day my son was born I drove my daughter, who was just shy of 3 years old at the time, to the hospital to meet him. Upon arrival, she hopped into the hospital bed with her mother and the newborn and seemed thrilled beyond description to meet her newfound lifelong friend and sibling.

Later, while driving in the twilight along the freeway on the way home from the hospital, my daughter seemed unusually quiet. I asked if everything was OK. She stared out the car window from her car seat and mumbled, “Tired.” Just what a father who has been up all night and running all day after the birth of his son—especially a 45-year-old father in recovery—wants to hear: His nearly 3-year-old daughter is as tired as he is and ready to sleep.

But not so fast. As we pulled into the garage and I got out of the car to release my daughter from her car seat, I noticed her eyes were red and her cheeks were moist—clear evidence of sobbing.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart,” I asked as I lifted her out of the car and gently set her on the floor, directly under the glow of the garage door light.

And then she uttered that sentence I will never forget nor the matter-of-fact tone in which it was spoken: “I think I lost my mommy.”


By all means, you should laugh at the spectacle of the 45-year-old man down on one knee—the editor, writer, former teacher, recovering alcoholic who is never without something more to say—fumbling for a way to respond besides, “Oh, no, sweetheart, no, that’s not true at all … I mean … No … why would you ever think … ”

This situation was not described or even remotely foreshadowed in any of the many how-to-be-a-father books I had read nor did my fading memory recall any episodes of Father Knows Best in which the know-it-all father offered up anything like a remedy to this type of dilemma. Hell no.

But it did prepare me somewhat for the situation I faced tonight, 10 years later, with my now 10-year-old son. That night 10 years ago, I learned the value of being prepared to Dodge and Question rather than always try to Answer.

Tonight, as we drove to the church where his now 13-year-old sister was attending her usual Wednesday night church group with a bunch of middle school friends and their mentors, the ominous clouds of an impending thunderstorm set my son’s mind to thinking a series of what-if’s …

“Dad, if we go on vacation, what kind of plane will we fly?” he asked, staring out the window sullenly, much as his sister had done that fateful night 10 years earlier.

“I don’t know. The usual, I guess. MD-80, 737, commuter planes, whatever they put us on. Why?” (Always end with a question.)

“Can those planes fly through clouds like those?” he asked and pointed out at the enormous black square of cloud and rainfall rising up from the earth to the heavens in his side view mirror.

“Yeah, sure. Or fly around it. What are you worried about?” (Notice the kind-of-an-answer quickly corrected by a question.)

“I hope there’s a heaven,” he said, making the logical leap only a 10-year-old mind is nimble enough to make.

“You’re afraid there isn’t?” (Notice the repetition of a question here, ANY question.)

“I figured out there isn’t a Santa Claus because you did such a bad job of hiding the gifts under the bed this year, and I know the tooth fairy wouldn’t leave all my teeth in your sock drawer, and I figured out last year that the Easter Bunny wouldn’t leave the price tag on the Easter basket, but I don’t know how to figure out if there’s a heaven.”

“You don’t figure it out,” I said, proud of myself momentarily for being so direct and honest. “You believe it to be true. We talked about the difference between knowing and believing, right? You know I’m here because you have evidence, right? You can see me. You believe your sister is inside the church because you trust what she said is true, right? But you won’t know it for sure until she comes out, right?”

“Yeah, I know, and I believe in God because I feel like he protects me.”

“That’s what I believe, buddy. That’s what my experience has led me to believe over a whole lotta years.”

“Did you read it somewhere, too?”

“Nope. I didn’t learn it in books, and I don’t believe it because of all the people who told me I should.”

“You said you believe it because of what you feel in here,” he said, pointing to his chest.

“Exactly.” I was somewhat shocked he had actually listened to me whenever it was I had said that—a minor parental victory that momentarily threw me off.

“I feel God in here, too” he said, pointing again to his chest.

“Well, good.”

“But I don’t know about heaven. I don’t exactly feel heaven in here. I don’t even know what heaven is supposed to be like.”

And at that very moment, I went academic. I made four years of college, the last two as a philosophy major, and three years of graduate school all pay off. Rather than engage in a discussion about the existence of heaven and hell, I jumped on the prime opportunity to beg the question and leapfrog directly to, “Well, what do you think heaven would be like?”

“Good, I guess. I don’t know.”

“Yeah, good is good. But what about specifics? What do you think it would be like?”

“I don’t know. Is it a place? What do you think it’s like?”

He had learned the Dodge and Question strategy all too well. He’s smart that way. A natural born con artist—or politician.

“I don’t know if it’s a place, buddy. I don’t think of it that way. I try to think more about what it must feel like.”

“So what does it feel like then?”

“You know how you feel when you don’t have any homework to worry about?”


“And how you feel when a ballgame is over and you had fun but you’re not overly excited about it anymore and you’re kind of glad it’s over because you’re tired.”

“Yeah, kind of.”

“Calm, right? Not worried about anything, not too excited about anything. Just kind of peaceful and calm. After that, I honestly don’t know what to think, buddy. I just think it’s peaceful and calm, and I leave it at that.”

“So if our plane crashes on the way home from vacation, we’ll end up being peaceful and calm?”

Thank God for cellphones and those critical moments when they ring—or vibrate. “Hang on, buddy. It’s your sister. …  No, it’s not raining or lightning. Just run out the front door. We’re in the usual spot,” I muttered in my usual grumpy dad voice.

“I don’t think it’s going to rain anymore tonight, Dad. I think those clouds are gone.”

And so, as his sister and her BFF appeared and my son complained about how slowly they walked because they were teenagers now, I turned to him and said, “You all good now?”

“Yeah, Dad,” he said. “It’s all good.”

Good is good, I thought. And for the first time in a long time, I looked right at him, and I wasn’t embarrassed to say out loud, “God is good, buddy. That’s all you need to believe right now. And all you have to do is be one of the good guys.”

“Right,” he smiled. “We’re the good guys.” Something we’ve been saying to each other for years apropos of nothing, except that good is good … and we’re the good guys.

The Absence of Hope

Feb 09, 2016

I took my last drink years ago on the patio of the Long Boat Key Club in Sarasota, Florida, while listening to the waves crash in the dark on the beach. The sky was dark but full of stars and stretched out to forever. For some reason, it struck me at that very moment that if I woke up again tomorrow—as I had on so many tomorrows before—and took another drink, my life would never get any better … and evidence suggested it was likely to get a whole lot worse.

I had already hit many bottoms: marital, legal, professional, financial, familial … but I’d never hit a spiritual bottom so low it trumpeted the complete and utter absence of hope. My life would never get any better, and it was likely to get a whole lot worse.

Drugs and alcohol get portrayed in many different lights: glamorous, dramatic, exciting, dangerous. But they rarely get portrayed as potentially signaling, for some of us, the complete and utter absence of hope. And as too many of us who have lost friends to addiction know, the absence of hope is likely the leading cause of suicide.

It isn’t hard for those of us who are addicts to know we are addicts and to know what it is we are addicted to. But for some of us, it’s almost impossible to take that first step in the direction of a solution.

I would implore any addict who knows he or she is an addict to step out of the darkness of denial and ask, “If I use again today, can my life possibly get any better?"

If the answer is an emphatic, No, take solace in knowing millions of us have discovered that, in the absence of addiction, there is always hope.

Love Eternal

Sep 18, 2015

Probably the single greatest gift — and the single greatest challenge — I’ve been given in sobriety has been the opportunity to parent my children, a 12-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. I can honestly say that nearly thirteen years ago, at the instant my daughter was born — when I was four years sober and 42 years old — I finally learned the meaning of the phrase “unconditional love.” A few years later, when my son was born — at a moment when I did not think it possible to love another human being with the same intensity that I loved my daughter — I learned that unconditional love knows no bounds, that the capacity to love any number of children once you’ve loved one is limitless. I’ve since learned to love many of my friends’ children as well, maybe not as limitlessly and intensely as my own, but certainly without condition. I wonder if I would have learned anything at all had they been born when I was still using.

Earlier this summer, while driving her home from dance practice, I asked my daughter how she and her “boyfriend” were doing. She had claimed a boyfriend near the end of the school year, and being the annoying older father that I am, I kept close tabs on her “relationship” with him … like every single day. As one would expect, I received the characteristic monosyllabic, pre-teen answer to my question: “Fine!” This, of course, merely pushed my generally annoying demeanor up a notch to sheer belligerence. “Sooo, do you l-o-v-e what’s-his-face?”

(For the record, it doesn’t really matter to me who she dates over the years to come or who she marries. I don’t really care if she marries into royalty, the other-than-her-father man in her life will ALWAYS be known as what’s-his-face or what’s-his-name behind his back. I will, of course, be duly cordial in the little turd’s presence. I’m a recovering alcoholic, after all; I can fake anything.)

“I don’t believe in love, Daddy.”

There is nothing worse — as a father — than believing you have the upper hand in a conversation only to have it matter-of-factly stripped from your grasp like a rain-soaked football. My daughter — unlike her face value, what-you-see-is-what-you-get brother — is a master of causing Daddy to fumble.

“You don’t believe in love?” I repeated the declaration in an attempt to buy myself some time and in hope that she might elaborate.

No deal.

“I don’t believe in love,” she repeated without missing a beat and without elaborating.

“Ok, what gives? Did you and what’s-his-face break up?” I proceeded to crumble. “Did he hurt your feelings? Because if he did, I promise you, it’s the last time his silly little …”

“We’re fine, Daddy.”

“’Fine.’ That word again. Have I told you how much I hate that word? ‘Fine’ as an answer is one step above your brother saying ‘nothing’ when I ask him what he’s doing.”


One-word answers and statements will be the death of me.

“If you two are ‘fine,’ then why don’t you believe in love?” And here, I truly disintegrated. “I mean … wait … I don’t want you to think I want you to be in love or anything, especially not with him, he’s a Yankee fan. But I’m wondering what this not believing in love thing is about. Never mind him or anything. In fact, forget about him. He has no place in this conversation. We’re talking about love here. I want to know why you don’t believe in love. Don’t you love your father … your mother … your brother, well, ok, your mother and father then?”

“Of course, I do.”

A moment of solace, victory even, and then …

“Even people who don’t like their parents have to love them.”


“Then, what do you mean you don’t ‘believe’ in love?"

“It’s simple, Daddy. I believe love is eternal. If love is eternal, it can only exist in eternity. So, you can’t really know if you love someone until you’re dead.”

I felt a little relief. Her declaration about love was obviously just one of those purposefully twisted, testing-the-limits-of-logic-illogical, run-of-the-mill, pre-teen theories about something she clearly knew nothing about. … Wasn’t it?

“That doesn’t make sense, sweetheart,” I said.

There. Much better. I could breathe now. For a moment, I became the painfully practical father and felt I had effectively regained the upper hand.

“Yes, it does, DAD!” She suddenly became painfully insistent. “If love is eternal, you can’t know if you love someone until you’re dead. You can care for some people more than you do others while you’re still alive, but you can’t know if that feeling is love until you’re on the other side.” And then, as if she were stating the most obvious, empirically verifiable fact known to mankind, she clarified everything. “If you still care about them once you’re on the other side, then you know you love them, and when they join you, then your love will be eternal.”

Having been a double-major in English and Philosophy with an undeclared minor in substance abuse, having spent many a late night during college and graduate school reading the likes of Joyce, Proust, and Celine as well Hobbes, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche while high as an untethered kite, a certain part of me, that part of my misspent youth which had never died or grown up, knew exactly where she was coming from. I was fully capable at 55 of understanding what she meant and forced to admit that her theorem was, at the very least, “plausible,” meaning that the propositions in her formula basically added up if you were willing to accept the basic premise that love is eternal.

In fact, her declaration forced something completely unexpected on me later that night — the realization that, by my daughter’s criterion for love eternal, I wasn’t sure whom I truly loved in this life besides my children. I wasn’t really sure I needed two hands to count the people I had known whom I was “dead” sure I’d still care about once I reached the other side.

My greatest fear as a parent is not that my children will someday have to endure pain—more specifically, emotional pain. In fact, I know they will, that they in fact must experience it to grow, and I even hope they get a fare dose of it early so as to develop their second skin. No, my greatest fear as a parent is not that my children will one day be in pain. My greatest fear is that one day I will have to witness them in pain—physically, emotionally or otherwise.

And so, turning onto the freeway that evening, I suddenly decided not to dissuade her of the notion that love could only be tested in eternity. At that moment, it seemed a perfectly legitimate defense against unexpected emotional agony. My daughter and I are cut from the same cloth after all, which means she is prone to experience the simplest emotional pain in excessive and irrational proportion to the source or cause of the pain—proportions, in fact, that might very well lead her to “kill the pain” one day with drugs and alcohol or worse. If, by keeping my mouth shut, I could spare her the years of torment I put myself through because I didn’t have an appropriate defense against emotional pain, so be it.

I know this much for sure since that drive: I won’t be as quick to joke around about “love” with my daughter in the future, and I’m not nearly as likely to assign the word to feelings I’m experiencing without some notion that feeling has the potential to be eternal.



Speaking Out to Heal Within

You're Not Crazy (It's Just the Disease)

A Vet Rocks to Recovery

My hope for her

Mar 25, 2015

It's around 8:00 AM on a typical Saturday morning, and I'm driving to a meeting. I jump on the I-80 Eastbound just outside of Waukee, Iowa and head for West Des Moines. It's become one of my favorite times of week since I moved out here two months ago. At this time of day and week, there's rarely anyone on this stretch of interstate, and I can let my G37XS do what it was designed to do--jump up to 80 before we even exit the on-ramp and make a rapid but graceful ascent to triple digits ... at least for a mile or two before I reach the outskirts of the metro. At my age and sober, hitting triple digits on an open stretch of interstate, even briefly, is the thrill-meter-equivalent of a three-day bender on a yacht in the Caribbean with people who like to party the way I once did—In Excess. (For the record, I never once partied on a yacht in the Caribbean with anyone, but I fantasized about it plenty from my couch in the living room while watching the latest episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.)

But maybe that's not such a good idea this particular Saturday morning. It’s the first truly crisp and clear Saturday morning we've had this year, the kind of brisk but pleasant morning that heralds the approach of spring and makes you truly grateful you are sober and alive and fully awake and aware this early on a Saturday. It is so clear and so crisp and also so sunny, I'm lucky enough to glimpse a flash of sunlight as it reflects the chrome of an otherwise inconspicuous Iowa State Trooper patrol car up ahead and long before my G hits triple digits. 

The trooper is stationary, and as I approach, I notice a second vehicle a few car lengths in front of his. I'm initially surprised to see that both the trooper and the driver of the car are standing on the shoulder of the road. A moment later it hits me: This is not a routine traffic stop. This is a field sobriety test, as evidenced by the posture of the poor woman attempting to walk a straight line--arms outstretched and seesawing like a 747 trying to touchdown in a 40 mph crosswind.

It's 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning in Middle America, and the whole scene is so incongruous, so "not right" for this time of day on this deserted stretch of interstate that I have to slow down and stare. Of course she's seesawing. She's in high heels ... and a black skirt and a black and white check blazer and a white blouse.  I would guess her in her 40's or 50's at a glance, and, if it were any given weekday morning, I would have guessed her to be on her way in to work. But as I pass by and glance back in my rearview mirror, my somewhat rusty but never completely dormant alcoholic mind kicks in and clarifies everything.  Most likely this poor woman is not on her way to work but still dressed in the clothes she wore to work ... yesterday. Most likely she is on her way home from a Friday night "happy hour" that didn't end soon enough or ended in a place that isn't her own and where I'm guessing she didn't have access to a toothbrush or a "smarter" pair of shoes--bad break if you're getting pulled over for speeding or driving suspiciously at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning.

Once the pair melts into the horizon of my rearview mirror, my first thought is, “Thank God it’s not me.”

But within minutes of passing the trooper and Ms. Anonymous, memories of my own experience under similar circumstances and as a much younger man come rushing back. First and foremost, there is that moment of panic the instant you realize the flashing red lights are meant for you. If you are at all cognizant, you glance quickly around the front seat of the car as you pull to the shoulder and pray there's no evidence of your more-than-evident-to-everyone-but-you intoxication. And then there's the rehearsal in your head. "Hi, Officer, was I over the speed limit? I didn't realize ... blah, blah, blah." (If you are drunk and driving you don't realize you are probably being pulled over because you've over-indulged any number of telltale indicators you didn't go home after the second cocktail--weaving within your own lane, driving with your lights off, driving 10 mph above or below the speed limit, and on and on.)

Once the officer doesn't smile or say good morning and hits you with the stoic, "License and registration, please,” you begin to sense this isn't likely to go well and begin to pray you were driving faster than you recall and hope to "get off" with a speeding ticket. Once he comes back to the car, and you hear those fateful words, "Step out of the car," you don't know it, but he's very confident he has you dead to rights. I've never heard of a field sobriety test that resulted in an officer of the law saying, "Gee, Sir, your balance is better than a gymnasts," or "Why, Mam, I don't believe I've ever heard such an impeccable recitation of the English alphabet." (Hopefully you don't make the mistake of asking the officer if you can "sing" the alphabet rather than say it because you're having trouble getting passed the letter "Q" or "R" even though you're a graduate student in the English department of a major university--wink, nostalgic chuckle here. This makes your lawyer's job especially difficult if the officer is tape-recording or videotaping your roadside chat.)

There's nothing funny about a DUI unless you've put a few 24-hours between yourself and your last drink. The first conviction is the worst, to be sure. Being cuffed and pushed down into the back seat of a patrol car is never fun (no matter how many times you’ve experienced the downward plunge and faced the cage between you and the front seat), but it is especially demoralizing the first time. Suddenly, your I-don't-care-what-people-think-of-me cocksure swagger transmogrifies to "How am I going to face my ... fill in the blank: Mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, daughter, son, neighbor, boss?"

Whether you are "knowingly" alcoholic, a defiant "I-work-hard-so-I-play-hard" drinker, or just someone who worries about how much and how often you drink, a sudden gush of fear that now everyone will know you're drinking is out of control may occupy your mind on the way to the police station. Or, in the saddest of cases, you may be the one sitting in the back seat thinking, "Screw it, I don't care what they say about my blood alcohol level, there's no way I was over the limit, and the world just has it in for me."

Whatever the case, whether your default emotion is utter panic or deviant denial, you know that everyone in your world is about to get a new perspective on the issue of YOU and ALCOHOL, and you may very well need to plan a "geographical revision" of your current biography if you're unwilling to change your current lifestyle.

I've been trained since Day One never to judge other people's drinking, that it is never my place to label anyone but myself alcoholic. But it also doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that "normal" drinkers are almost never subjected to a field sobriety test at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning wearing yesterday's work clothes. When I arrived at my own meeting that morning, and there was a moment of silence for the still-suffering alcoholic, my heart truly went out to the Ms. Anonymous I saw on the interstate only minutes before. She would surely lose her license and probably have to jump through a number of hoops to get it back. Most of us know if she is truly alcoholic, returning her license one day will be the metaphorical equivalent of releasing a kamikaze pilot from a POW camp, returning him to his plane, and asking him to promise to fly straight home and never dream of dive-bombing the enemy ever again. Just not in his DNA.

What the law can't do, what her family can't do, what no period of untreated abstinence can do is "tell her story" the way another addict or alcoholic can. My hope for her then and now is that she be forced to go somewhere and talk to other people who's eyes were opened by the same experience, who might help her be grateful her behavior didn't seriously injure others, and who might teach her to find the courage to share that experience with others like herself and maybe one day find both the humor and the humanity in it. 



Conquering the hurdles of early recovery

Confronting cross-addiction

Overcoming the fear of step 5


Breaking Bad, Or, Ending the “What Ifs”

Oct 31, 2014

What is it about endings anyway? Why are they so difficult, even when they hold the promise of making our lives better? I’m thinking the end of relationships (romantic or otherwise), marriages, jobs, and, of course, addictions. In particular, I’m thinking of relationships and marriages that aren’t working, jobs that are hell to go to day in and day out, habits that are clearly unhealthy, and, ultimately, addictions that are killing us.

Some would posit that change, in and of itself, is the culprit, especially for those of us who are “prone to addiction.” I’ve been told time and again that “we” don’t like “change”—even if it’s for the better. I buy that. A promotion, for example, can be a tremendous source of fear simply because it raises the specter of the unknown and the possibility of failure. I know what to do in my current job; I know what’s expected of me; and I know how to do what I’m supposed to do well. (That, of course, is why you’re offering to promote me, isn’t it?) Even though a promotion may mean a raise in pay as well as status, it also raises the suddenly very real possibility I will fail, that I will not be as good at my next job as I am at my current job, and once I leave my current job, you may never let me come back to it if I fail at the new job. “What if?”

Changing jobs may also hold the promise of getting away from a co-worker or boss who causes us anguish on a daily basis. But what if people at my current job like me because I complain with them about the annoying boss or coworker— our common enemy? What if there’s no one to complain about (not likely) at my next job and no one has a built-in or automatic reason to like me? Worse still, what if I’m promoted and become “the boss” everyone else complains about. What if I become the enemy? “What if?”

Oh, woe is me. Change categorically sucks; even when the odds are in our favor it will be good for us.

Still others would posit that, ultimately, fear of being alone is the major motivator for staying in bad relationships and bad marriages—for failing to end them. I buy that, too. The end of friendships, love affairs, and worst of all, marriages that aren’t working anymore is fraught with misleading emotions.

First, there is that distracting memory of what was once “good.” Even though things haven’t been good for a long, long time; even though the same behaviors are repeated over and over to the same unhappy end; even though we know it’s insane to stay in the present situation, we think “What if …” Maybe tomorrow the old spark that originally united us will return and the relationship will right itself, right? What if we miss that opportunity, right? Even though that opportunity has been there every day for as long as we can remember, “What if tomorrow …”

And second, even if things don’t change for the better, there is that overwhelming fear that ending the relationship may leave us … alone … forever. Which, of course, is rarely the case. And, even if it is the case, being along isn’t always or necessarily a “bad” change. Some of us badly need to learn how to live well alone so that we can become “livable” partners in our next relationship. I’ve spent some of the healthiest years of my sobriety in relationship solitude. As my one-and-only roommate in sobriety liked to say, “There’s a lot of serenity in being single.”

Endings are difficult, I agree. And there are countless reasons we shy away from making them happen. But I would argue that it’s the “What ifs” more than anything else that prevent us from taking that “first step” toward making the clearly necessary endings happen. It is the “What ifs” that keep us from seeing change and the unknown as an opportunity rather than as a source of paralyzing fear.

Today, whenever I’m seriously contemplating a change in my life—and especially a change that means ending one thing and beginning another—I try to think about the first time I managed to stay sober for an entire week.

Bottom line … plain and simple … all other bullshit aside: By the beginning of the fourth day, I felt better than I had felt in YEARS! I broke the bad habit of making myself physically ill by drinking myself into oblivion on a daily basis, and, if nothing else, I felt GOOD. Sure, the first few days were hell—especially in the absence of a program or any support. But I could tell, moment by moment, that I was feeling better. By the seventh day, I actually had HOPE—hope that, rather than running on a treadmill to the gates of insanity or death, my life might actually, one day, improve.

Unfortunately, that first time around I didn’t believe I needed support or a “program of recovery” to stay sober, and I ended up drunk shortly afterward. But that’s not the point. The point is that the seed was planted.  The point is the memory of that week is probably the single most important reason I have been willing to quiet the “What ifs“ and make other changes in my life since.  More important, that memory—that simple source of hope I was given by ending something bad and taking the first step toward change—is probably the biggest reason I’m still alive today. 


Sep 23, 2014

Just the other day one of the men I sponsor (let’s call him My Guy) wanted to know if he should encourage one of the men he sponsors—a man who had been sober less than 6 months—to “work with” another man who had expressed a desire to stop drinking.

Silly question? I think not, especially in a “recovery culture” that places so much emphasis — wisely or unwisely — on a person’s time in recovery as a measure of their ability to help, or work with, others.

First off, I reminded My Guy that Bill Wilson had his last drink on December 11, 1934, and was barely six months before Dr. Bob Smith took his last drink on June 10, 1935 — “a soothing warm beer handed to him by Bill W. to steady his hands for surgery” (“Who Really Founded AA,”). When Bill and Bob met, they didn’t have the 12 Steps or a Big Book to consult, and they didn’t have a meeting to go to. They were the meeting. All Bill and Bob had on June 10, 1935 was each other.

Second, I reminded myself “practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 89). To suggest that one alcoholic with a desire to stop drinking cannot in some way help another alcoholic with a desire to stop drinking is, of course, ludicrous. The very notion flies in the face of the principles that bind all of us in recovery.

Nonetheless, I understood My Guy’s question the instant he texted me. The question wasn’t really whether His Guy could “help” the Other Guy; the real question was should he “allow” His Guy to “sponsor” the Other Guy.

I don’t know what it’s like in your town or at your meetings, but in my experience the phrase “working with others” is too often equated with sponsorship — as if “to work with is to sponsor” were a spiritual axiom of some sort. For nearly 16 years now, I’ve worn my sponsor like a life jacket. But he certainly isn’t the only person in recovery who has helped me or “worked with” me. Many men and women have aided my recovery — some with more sobriety than I have and just as many with less time on the wagon. Quite possibly, those who are new to sobriety help me the most because they challenge me to explain things, and remind me time and again why I do the things I do to stay sober, one day at a time.

The bottom line, always, is that any kind of work I do with other alcoholics, any contact I have with others who are on (or interested in finding) a path to recovery, will only serve to “insure” my own “immunity from drinking.” It’s the primary reason I still go to so many meetings and certainly the reason I take time to write about my experience in recovery. Sharing that experience makes it real, and making it real makes me all the more accountable not only to my self, my sponsor and the men I sponsor, but also to the very concept of a recovery that happens one day at a time itself.

So my answer to My Guy was yes, of course His Guy should work with the Other Guy. But My Guy and I were not Pollyanna about the situation either. We agreed we needed to remind His Guy that you “cannot transmit something you haven’t got”(164). His Guy’s first order of business with the Other Guy would be to introduce the new man to the fellowship that has grown up around the rest of us. Somewhere in that shared experience, we can only hope the Other Guy might find the strength to hang around until it’s his time to pass it on to yet Another Guy.


Other articles you might be interested in...

Sobriety Junkie: Welcome to the alcoholic mind


Aug 01, 2014


Sometimes just for a minute ...

Sometimes for an hour ...

Sometimes for days ... weeks ... months even, depending on the severity of the problem, the depth of the issue.

But by all means and at all costs …


At some point during our active "using" careers, many of us found it necessary to become expert at the blame game. For me to successfully camouflage the severity of my drinking problem, I had to sabotage the lives of others. That way, I could point the finger somewhere other than my own face when my drinking caused problems in the world around me.

But those of us who’ve genuinely worked the 12 steps, and especially steps 9 and 10, know that camouflaging the truth is as detrimental to maintaining our sobriety as failing to camouflage it was to hiding our addictions. The old blame game becomes an exercise in self-sabotage.

But how do we break such a deeply ingrained habit? Just because I don't drink doesn't necessarily mean I no longer lie, cheat, steal, con, or, at the very least, color the truth so it matches the world I see through my rose-colored glasses. How, once we've stopped using, do we suddenly become willing to search — as a reflex rather than as an afterthought or a sponsor direction — for the truth in all matters? And how do we learn to refuse, at all costs, to blame others automatically for all the problems, large and small, we endure in life?

As with most things in sobriety, when it comes to halting the blame game, I've found simple answers that aren't always easy to apply. To this day, however, before I allow myself to assign blame (and I am still as prone and egomaniacally inspired to assign blame as the day I began this journey), at all costs, I ...


And if I can, I change my location. I do whatever I can to take my head somewhere other than where it is the moment I sense that I’m somehow disturbed. If I’m inside, I go out. If I’m outside, I go in.  I go wherever I can to ensure my senses experience something entirely different. I’m not running, I’m not hiding, I’m just shifting my surroundings enough to shift my thinking. I do this to physically remind myself that everything —absolutely everything in this life — will change; that this, too (whatever disturbance “this” is), shall pass. If, as I’m so often told, I suffer a disease of perception, then a change in perspective should act as a figurative sedative.

After I pause and relocate, I try to remember two things our literature has taught me:

·        After all, our problems were of our own making(Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 103)

·        It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 90)

My divorce from the mother of my children is now four years old — plenty ripe to have taught me a few things. The monologue — sans obscenities —that charged through my head the day she announced she didn't want to be married anymore began something like this: "After all I have done for that woman ..."

Luckily, before my thinking went too far and became too self-serving, I managed to PAUSE.

And luckily, before I acted in a manner unbecoming someone with 11 years of sobriety (at the time), I managed to change my surroundings and my perspective almost immediately by calling my sponsor.

At that moment, I didn’t want to consider that I might have done something to her that inspired the divorce … but I was reminded that someday I would have to face that fact.

At that moment, deep in the emotional turmoil prompted by the idea of not waking up in the same house as my children everyday, I didn’t want to accept that there might be something wrong with me that was causing their mother to take flight … but I was reminded that someday I would have to face that fact, too.

And at that moment, I certainly wasn't ready to give her one iota of credit for what she might have done for me over the years—conveniently ignoring the fact that she was, after all, the mother of my children.

Luckily — no matter how deep the quagmire — the challenges I face in recovery are never as solitary as they were during my life as a practicing alcoholic. I have a sponsor, I have friends, I have the fellowship that grew up around me to help me seek the truth at all times. I have the ability to PAUSE, look around, and ask for help.

When I took a long, hard look at my behavior during the final years of my marriage, I realized pretty quickly I wouldn't have always been thrilled to be married to me either. My wife was younger than I was and the mother of two small and wonderful children. It should have been a time to marvel and experience joy for both of us. And for a time it was, until I allowed fear of financial insecurity (something I thought I had conquered long ago) to consume me. And once it did, I quickly became the Ogre who's return home at night went from being an event to anticipate, to an event to endure, to an event to avoid whenever possible, eventually permanently. When I took a long hard look at my behavior during the final years of my marriage, from 2007 to 2010, I couldn't help but accept the fact that my problems were of my own making.

And there’s a strange thing that happens once I accept the spiritual axiom that if I am disturbed, there is something wrong with me … there’s a strange thing that happens when I point the finger first and foremost at myself rather than at someone else: I discover that my first instinct is not to find blame but rather to forgive. When I instantly acknowledge my part in any disturbance (and we know we always have “a” part), I’m much more likely to accept the other person’s imperfection and humanity and look to amend the relationship, and much less inclined to deepen the wounds with rationalizations and accusations.

In the example that is my divorce, we quickly discovered that the simple solution to our discomfort was right under our noses: We made amends before the decree was signed and agreed to keenly focus all of our future interactions on the welfare of our children. It's the only right thing to do. No one says you have to like each other to do the next right thing. My ex-wife and I have had the good fortune of burying the hatchet and remaining friends. The relief that has brought to my children during the past four years is tangible. But I've worked with other men whose divorces were far more contentious, and they, too, agree that keeping the focus on caring for their kids softens their resentment and makes interacting with their former spouses far more tolerable and directed.

As I have found in so many situations in sobriety, once I acknowledge that I have a part in the problem — once I acknowledge that if I'm ill at ease with a person, place or institution, something is wrong with me — I have very little desire to "figure things out.” I’m much less likely to care about who was right and who was wrong. I’m much less likely to worry about assigning blame. Once I've recognized that I had a part to play in the drama that ultimately led to my own discomfort (whether it is because I or someone else initially chose to act badly), the only thing I'm truly curious about is how to end the discomfort and move on. 





The Alcoholic Mind

Apr 09, 2014

Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.”  Alcoholic Anonymous, page 23


On the 31st of October 2013, I was fortunate enough to celebrate the 15th anniversary of my "last" drink. The 31st fell on a Thursday, and a few days later, at my Sunday evening home-group meeting, I came across the above-cited line from Alcoholics Anonymous (aka the Big Book): "Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body." (23)


I have read that line and considered its significance dozens and dozens of times over the 23 or so years since I first read the Big Book. But for some reason, this year, when I read it shortly after celebrating an anniversary God alone knows I never expected to celebrate, I found it important to remind myself why I so firmly believe that the "main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body."


I recalled that at one time, back in 1996, very shortly after I'd celebrated two years of sobriety for the first time, I genuinely thought I knew exactly what it meant for the main problem of the alcoholic to center in his mind. In fact, less than a month after celebrating those two years, I had been asked to speak for 30 minutes at a meeting that was largely attended by "old-timers." I distinctly remember announcing from the podium that, after two years of sponsorship, meetings, and Big Book studies, I honestly couldn't "imagine" ever taking a drink again, not under any circumstance. Alcohol no longer presented itself as a solution, I proudly proclaimed.


I had been sincere and earnest in making that statement, but no sooner had I finished thanking the chairperson for inviting me to speak than one of those crotchety old-timers came up to me and said, "Don't let your guard down, Son. Don't kid yourself and rest on your laurels. Whether you think so or not right now, alcohol is always an option." I remember feeling a certain degree of animosity towards that particular old-timer for essentially scolding me so soon after I'd given what I thought was a rather "good" talk. In my "alcoholic mind," if I couldn't "imagine" taking a drink "under any circumstance," then the problem must've been removed from the place where it was most likely to attack me — my mind.  And I'd be damned if I was going to let some angst-ridden old-timer bring me down.


Within nine months of that talk — after deciding I didn't really need to read the Big Book as often as I had been, after deciding fewer and different meetings would probably help keep the program interesting, and after deciding to take my sponsor's direction with a grain of salt rather than a willing dose of desperation, (i.e. after knowingly letting my guard down and resting on my laurels)—I was drunk. And for two long years after that, I struggled miserably, if not suicidally, to make my way back to a more permanent life in the fellowship, which I finally did on October 31, 1998.


I had known for many years—first intuitively and then more concretely by admitting I was powerless — that alcohol was no longer a solution in my life. What I had to accept upon return to the tables, however, is that alcohol, whether it presents as a potential solution or not, is always an option. I had nodded in agreement for many years that alcohol is cunning, baffling, and powerful — that it is a worthy opponent. But not until I had stayed sober for a period of time, chosen to drink again for a period of time, and, by the grace of God, found it possible to get sober again, did I truly understand the "cunning" part. The deadly paradox is that alcohol will ALWAYS convince me that drinking is an option, if not as a solution, then surely as an immediate source of relief (and surely a better option than suicide, which, in the absence of a daily reprieve, too often seems the only "other" path to immediate relief).


A few weeks ago, I posed the question I'd been mulling over for months to the men I sponsor: What does it mean for the main problem of the alcoholic to center in his mind, rather than in his body? I posed the question because a number of them are between two and five years of sobriety, and I wanted to know if any of them suffered the same delusion I had once suffered at two years sober--that alcohol was no longer a solution or an option.


I was pleased to discover that most, if not all, of them were not nearly as deluded as I had been, that they could, in fact, "imagine" taking a drink in the absence of a daily reprieve. More important, all of them seemed to agree — in ways and with a conviction it had taken me far too long to learn and embrace — that the most expedient way to provide relief to the alcoholic mind is intensive work with other alcoholics. I used to wish there was an easier, softer way. Today, when I'm with my own sponsor or any of the men I sponsor, I'm glad there is not.




Sponsorship: A Sometimes Risky Business

Dec 18, 2013

It’s almost midnight on a Friday night, and I’m trying to read C.S. Lewis’s "Mere Christianity" for the tenth time (never seem to make it past chapter 5 and philosophy was one of my majors in college).  

I sense a flash from the iPhone carefully balanced on the armrest of my chair. (Yes, it’s become my electronic limb and I suffer phantom vibrations in its absence. No, really, I do. I feel vibrations in my upper left quadriceps even when the little black box isn’t in my pants pocket.) Anyway, the screen signals a private message sent on Facebook. Yippee!!! Where I’m at in my personal biography (note that I didn’t say “at my age”), any message sent shortly before or after midnight rarely heralds good news.

This one doesn’t disappoint. The message is riddled from start to finish with F-Bombs targeting me and everyone associated with a particular program of recovery, especially people with double-digit sobriety. The message is from a man who used to frequent some of the same meetings I still frequent and which he, obviously, doesn’t anymore. He begins by saying he’d read one of my recent blog posts about recovery and, to summarize, wants me to know how very “full of shit” we all are, that the people around the tables who criticized him for taking his prescribed medications nearly killed him (and many others) with their “bullshit, AA-PhD advice.”

He admits early in our exchange that he’s drinking (at that very moment) and enjoying it. Tonight, however, even that doesn’t diminish his credibility with me. I know, for a fact, he has a truly valid and potentially lethal gripe. He further confesses he’s on a personal mission to destroy AA and everything associated with it so the expletive, expletive, expletives in the rooms that damn near killed him can’t harm anyone else.

My first instinct is to “de-friend” him or simply block his messages. Instead, I decide to see if I’ve grown up enough to respond in a way that will calm him down without becoming incensed myself. I begin by reminding him that I don’t represent AA or any other program of recovery, that I represent only my personal experience, and that my experience has always been to ignore people who’s advice is contrary to what’s in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. Big Book). There, it clearly states that we are not doctors or spiritual leaders:

"Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization. Neither does A.A. take any particular medical point of view, though we cooperate widely with the men of medicine as well as with the men of religion."

Alcoholics Anonymous, Second Edition Foreword




"God has abundantly supplied this world with fine doctors, psychologists, and practitioners of various kinds. Do not hesitate to take your health problems to such persons. … Try to remember that though God has wrought miracles among us, we should never belittle a good doctor or psychiatrist. Their services are often indispensable in treating a newcomer and in following his case afterward."

Alcoholics Anonymous, 133


No one, no matter his or her length of sobriety, should be telling anyone in the context of recovery what to do regarding medications, especially not a man who is clinically diagnosed with severe depression.

Unfortunately, my friend isn’t having any of it. His F-Bomb-ridden diatribe goes on for some time. Eventually, the only thing I can do is invite him to join me at a meeting over the weekend to see if he can’t navigate a different path within the rooms that have saved my life and done so much to make the lives of so many others worth living. The invitation— fortunately or unfortunately — ends our exchange.

The following morning, while I’m scanning some of the recovery blogs I check out when time permits, I come across a disturbing post titled, "I Quit." It includes the opening sentence, “Not sobriety. AA. I’m an AA drop-out” ( Apparently the author is at odds with her sponsor over the 8th and 9th steps.

She admits she refuses to acknowledge the need to make any amends beyond the living amends she is making to her husband, her kids, her family and her friends. Her sponsor feels she’s unwilling to go to any lengths for her sobriety because she isn’t willing to extend the list (I presume). Why this means the end of her relationship with her sponsor and why the termination of her relationship with her sponsor means she has to drop out of AA isn’t entirely clear. But again, it doesn’t matter. I know from experience that it happens … all too often. 

Clearly, she is working the 9th step with those“to whom [she is] willing to make amends” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 76). As time passes and her recovery deepens, her willingness may extend to more people, places and institutions … or not. Either way, allowing people to drop out or slip away because they don’t conform to “our way” of practicing The Steps is absolutely contrary to the solution as I’ve learned it … from the Big Book: “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little” (164).

Sponsorship is clearly serious and often risky business. I’ve been taught from Day 1 that all I have is my own experience, strength and hope as it relates to my recovery. I sponsor eight men with varying lengths of sobriety, from one who clearly is not yet sober to another who has nearly as much time sober as I do … and all points in between.

Do I refuse to sponsor the man who continues to show up drunk after brief periods of sobriety? No. I continue to work Step 1 with him because he continues to show a desire to stop drinking, the only requirement for membership in our program. Thank God I learned that from the people who continued to work with me during the seven-plus years I bounced in and out of the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous with little more than a desire to stop drinking and oftentimes less than a day of sobriety. Had those patient, loving, and tolerant souls written me off because I “didn’t get it” or “do it” their way right away, you’d be reading a different blogger right now.

Every Sunday before our home group meeting, the men I sponsor and I gather to set up the meeting and then discuss the steps and traditions. Our meeting-before-the-meeting often includes discussions (but only in the context of The Steps and Traditions) that might be described as spiritual, medical, psychological, political, financial, marital and as often as not, controversial. I‘ve had medical, legal, and financial problems in my day; I’ve also walked through divorce once as an untreated alcoholic and once as a recovering alcoholic. Nonetheless, I would never play doctor, lawyer, or financial planner with any one of these men and the closest thing I provide to advice regarding marriage or divorce is the phone number of the counselor or the lawyer I used when I found myself in similar circumstances.

That doesn’t mean we don’t talk at length about what I went through or what they’re currently going through on a daily basis; it does mean, however, that our discussions are framed by The Steps and how The Steps guided me and may guide them through their decisions and their actions.

The suggestions I share with the men I sponsor, like the suggestions I receive from my own sponsor, are never construed as proscriptions, much less ultimatums. In the end, we all make our own decisions on how to behave, just as we make a choice every day on whether to drink. One can only hope that by working Step 11, both the advice we give and the actions we take are humbly and divinely guided by a power greater than ourselves.


How best can we welcome the newcomer?

Sep 18, 2013

In your opinion, what’s the most important thing you can say to someone who is new in recovery?

All summer, I’ve been soliciting your input, online and off, about the most important thing we can say to someone who is at the jumping off point; those sometimes-eager, most-of-the-time-very-suspicious people who are about to embark on the most fascinating journey of their lives and don’t even know it.

So, what is it then … what is the most important thing we can say to the newcomer?

Here’s a sampling of the more custom responses I received:

“I hope it was bad. I hope it was so bad that you never make the choice to go back because you never have to drink again.”

“Don’t listen to your head. You can get and stay sober.”

“Don’t drink no matter what!”

“Are you done for good and for all?”

“Take one day at a time and seek support whenever you need it.”

“You are not weak; you have a physical allergy to alcohol.”

Accept the help you are offered and take it a day at a time.”

“It will get easier. It will get better.”

“Just stay.”

And then there were the more clichéd but always reassuring welcomes, such as:

“Keep coming back.”

“Don’t leave five minutes before your miracle.”

“You don’t ever have to drink again, and you don’t ever have to be alone again.”

And, of course, my favorites — the truly warm and heartfelt welcomes of the old-timers:

“Staying sober is easy: All you have to do is change your whole goddamn life."

“Keep doin’ what you’re doin’, you’ll keep gettin’ what you’re gettin’.”

“Put the plug in the jug and find a sponsor.”

“Try taking some Good Orderly Direction.”

“Your best thinking got you here. Now try our way.”

“There are no big deals, and that is especially true of you.”

“Your life is none of your business.”

“Shut up and get in the car.”

At some point during my supremely unsophisticated data collection, however, I realized I might be asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what is the most important thing we can say to the newcomer, I wondered if I should have been asking, “What do you think people who are new to recovery actually hear?”

What is it that truly resonates, permanently scratches the surface, plants the seed, sinks in, and, ultimately, makes a difference?

Personally, I heard all the niceties upon arrival at my first meetings, as well as the gruff and war-torn warnings. I was especially moved when my first sponsor told me I’d never have to be alone again. That was important. And I got it when old-timers told me I’d better change my playground and my playmates, or I’d never get sober. I also liked the idea that there was no problem big enough that God and I couldn’t handle it. Very cool. But I also kept getting drunk and high for the next seven years.

It wasn’t until I came back the last time, in 1998, and asked someone I respected a great deal to be my sponsor that my ears finally opened. They opened because he spoke one simple truth when he said, “There’s nothing more I can do to help you.” I was dumbfounded, and instantly full of fear. I had to listen.

This same person, who is my sponsor to this day, had tried to sponsor me before, or at least to guide me on my way, but I’d failed repeatedly to do anything he’d suggested. And he was right. There was nothing more he could do to help me. I was well beyond human aid. Nonetheless, full of fear, I was also flabbergasted. My ego couldn’t accept the idea that he wouldn’t reflexively leap at the opportunity to sponsor me … one more time.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You know everything you need to know to stay sober, Kayko. Now it’s a matter of whether you’re actually going to do something about it.”

It was at that point that I finally heard not a cliché but the axiom that has come to guide my sobriety more intensively than anything else these past 14 years: “Are you willing to go to any length for victory over alcohol?” The man who spoke those words to me that day agreed to sponsor me for 90 days on a trial basis. (He never has told me if the trial is over.) He promised me a better quality of sobriety than I’d previously known, a greater sense of purpose, and a damn better shot at staying sober if I’d simply surrender my will every morning when I woke up and show the willingness to go to any length to maintain my sobriety on a daily basis.

He didn’t talk about spirituality, he didn’t talk about miracles, and he certainly didn’t rattle off any kindly platitudes or hard-ass directives. In fact, he didn’t talk much at all. He simply asked me to do this: Go to four meetings a week, two of which he attended; call him once a week, preferably on Monday nights because that was the one night he had free; and seize every opportunity to help people who were newer to sobriety than I was.

It was that last part that mattered most. He knew I’d attend meetings; he knew I’d call faithfully if asked to; but he didn’t know if I would be consistently willing to do something for someone else since I had shown so little willingness to do anything for anyone but myself in the time we’d known each other.

What I have learned since that fateful day I thought he was about to refuse to be my sponsor is that maintaining a spiritual defense is all about actions, not platitudes. I still don’t know if I understand what it means to be spiritual, but I know what spirituality looks like when I bump into it. It’s evident in those people who always seem to be looking for an opportunity to be of service rather than an opportunity to talk about how much they know.

They pick up cigarette butts left outside meetings, they make coffee, they set up chairs, they volunteer on committees, and they give rides — no matter how long they’ve been sober. Sometimes they give talks, but they aren’t necessarily circuit speakers, and their talks usually focus more on service and gratitude than themselves. No matter how long they’ve been sober, they’re always looking for more to do because they know full well it’s easy to slip up and not do enough.

The kind of spirituality I’ve come to know and admire is “ever-clear” and present in those people who are willing to go to any length to stay sober … one day and one more action at a time.


There is a solution

Apr 08, 2013

Generally, my Sunday evenings are painfully, yet thankfully, routine.

Those evening are painful because at 5 p.m. each Sunday, after spending most of the previous four days with my two wonderful kids, I’m obliged to return them to their mom, knowing full well I’m not likely to see them again until Wednesday evening. I’ve never experienced the relief or release some parents tell me they experience when they get a break, however brief, from their kids.  Even when I remind myself that turning my kids over is a valuable exercise in acceptance, I still have to fight off a low-level solemnity every time I back out of their mother’s driveway.

Thankfully, I have men to sponsor, service commitments to fulfill, and a home group to attend. Once I drop the kids off, I head straight to the church where my home group meets every Sunday evening. By 5:30 p.m., before I can become too sullen about my kids' absence, I’m standing in the church kitchen making coffee while some of the men I sponsor break down tables and set up chairs for the meeting, which is regularly attended by 100 or so recovering alcoholics. By 6 p.m., the meeting is “set up” and a handful of us retreat to the pastor’s library to read the Big Book and discuss the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. This goes on until about 7 p.m. when the meeting actually begins.

At 8 p.m., after the meeting, that same group of men and I will break down the chairs, clean the coffee urns, set the security alarms, and, if we’re lucky, lock the place up by 8:25 p.m. and head to a local sports bar and restaurant called Legends, where as many as 15 to 20 of our fellow meeting-goers can be found on any given Sunday night, eating dinner and watching the sporting event du jour — whatever the season dictates.

This is the welcome routine of my recovery. It is the path I’ve been shown, the method I’ve been taught, the only way I know to stay sober. It is part and parcel of my solution and has been for many years. My Sunday evenings, painful as they are at the start, have become a metaphor for what helps me through most any difficult situation: unity, service, and recovery. The only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking, but membership alone, in the absence of action, has never done a damn thing to keep me sober.

A few weeks ago, my Sunday evening stopped being routine and got very real once I arrived in the restaurant parking lot after the meeting. That night, the Iowa air was cold but also damp and misty. As I weaved between cars and toward the entrance to Legends, I noticed a tall, almost phantasmagorical figure moving toward me. Clearly a younger man, he was none too steady and wearing a baseball cap under the hood of his sweatshirt, making recognition next to impossible.

“Hey, Sponsor,” he said.  

I had tensed up more stiffly than I’d realized and could literally feel the muscles in my body relax a little as I recognized the voice. The somewhat ghostly figure was a young man named Jake, someone I had tried to sponsor on and off, with little success, for nearly two years.

“Man, I can’t believe this,” Jake said. “I can’t believe it. I was telling these people about you today, telling them about when I was in AA and this sponsor I had, and, man, I can’t believe this. It’s no coincidence, right? No coincidence.”

Clearly, Jake was drinking, smoking, and snorting, more or less uber-tweaking. Sober and healthy, he was a somewhat imposing figure at 6 feet, 3 inches tall and at least 225 pounds. But now, bent over in the rain, wearing a baseball cap under a hood, he appeared gaunt and far too twitchy for a Sunday night.

Before I could ask him how he was doing or why he was there, a tall, wispy young woman in skintight jeans and black heels walked out of the restaurant and toward us. All too anxiously, Jake called to her.

“This is him,” he said, pointing at me. “The guy I was telling you about today, or whatever, maybe it was yesterday, this is him, my sponsor. My AA sponsor.”

“I told you,” the young woman said. “I told you. Wow! It’s a God thing, right? I told you, you need to call him.”

She put her hand on my shoulder; I was caught in the crossfire between two tweakers. An otherwise very attractive woman, the all-too-rapid speech, the oily hair, and the adult acne were dead giveaways: This woman had not, and probably would not, sleep for days.

“He needs to call you. We all told him you’d just appear someday. Now you’re here, this is too freaky; I knew it was going to happen, I told you, Jake. That’s how life flips, you know, you have to pay attention, right?” she said.

And just as quickly, without a hello or a goodbye, she strode away toward what I recognized to be Jake’s van. There was another woman and a man in a wheelchair waiting outside the open sliding door of the death wagon. Together, they looked like a bad album cover in the Iowa mist.

“She’s nuts,” Jake said. “I’m chaperoning a couple of hookers and this other guy. He’s got brain damage from a wreck. Just nuts. Totally nuts. My life, right?”

“What are you doing here?

“Freakin’ crazy. Seriously. She’s here trying to collect. I said I’d give her a ride. Just friends. Trying to help out.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Still no license?”

“No license.”

“Risky business,” I said. “Especially if you’re all holding.”

I asked him how he was doing otherwise, what had happened to the sober house he’d been living in the last time I’d spoken with him, whether he had a job. I knew the answers to all of the above, but I wanted to hear his version.

“I tried, Greg. I did, man, really. I’ve tried everything. Treatment, AA, sober house, Bible-based recovery, I’ve tried everything. I have. Everything. I just don’t think I can do it. I make it a while and then I don’t know … I just don’t think I can do it. AA doesn’t work for me.”

I’m no step-Nazi, nor am I a proselytizer. I try the best I know how to work with others, the way the chapter, "Working with Others," proscribes in the Big Book. Normally, I would have been more patient and spent more time listening to Jake.  I would have encouraged him to come to a meeting with me. But I had been down this path many times before with Jake. Unfortunately for him, I had also recently read one-too-many blog posts (usually by someone new to recovery) about how AA doesn’t work. So, when Jake uttered those fateful words of contempt prior to “genuine” investigation, “AA doesn’t work for me,” I came a bit unraveled and suddenly heard myself saying the same words my sponsor had said to me more than 14 years ago.

“You haven’t ‘tried’ anything, Jake.” I said. “You’re like everyone else who says they can’t stay sober or that AA doesn’t work. You’ve been a lot of places — treatment, rehab, sober houses — and you’ve been to a lot of meetings, but all you’ve ever been is a visitor. You’ve never actually done anything.”

He suddenly looked rather despondent and much less excited to see me. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you know everything you need to know to stay sober. The only question now is whether you’re ever actually going to do something.”

“I’ve gone to a lot of meetings. I’ve read the book … with you even, at your house with other men. I tried AA and it didn’t work. I just can’t do it.”

“Did you ever work a step, Jake? Did you ever do a 4th and 5th step? Did you ever make a 9th step amend? Did you ever hold a service position? You say you’re chaperoning hookers tonight. Did you ever go out of your way to give a guy a ride to a meeting? Anything?”


Jake was eventually saved by the bell from a prolonged harangue: His friends were growing increasingly restless, though our entire encounter couldn’t have lasted much more than five minutes. Before we parted ways, I made sure he still had my phone number in his cell phone and reminded him which meetings I went to and on what nights. We shook hands, and he promised to call, though I feared I’d sooner read about Jake than hear from him directly.

Last Friday night, however, two weeks after my initial reunion with Jake, I sat in a small group at another meeting for nearly 10 minutes before I looked closely at the guy across the room wearing a ball cap, a clean sweatshirt, and a freshly pressed pair of chinos. When we made eye contact, Jake shot me a smile and a peace sign. At least he was present and seemingly clean. After the meeting, we chatted, and he promised to touch base during the week. He never called, but at my prompting, he did respond to a text during that week and say he hoped to see me again on Friday night.

There are two things I’ve learned in nearly 20 years around Alcoholics Anonymous: surrender everyday and never give up hope … not until all hope has been definitively taken away. As long as there’s hope, there’s always the possibility of a solution.



Tough to Love

Feb 18, 2013

I can't imagine too many things more difficult than loving an alcoholic, except maybe loving an alcoholic who has acknowledged his problem but isn't yet ready to do anything about it. At least, that's what I tell my non-alcoholic friends when they suddenly find themselves faced with friends, family members, or partners who are clearly destroying themselves with booze.

I have had more than a few non-alcoholic friends tell me in recent years that they finally realize the problem in a relationship with either a husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, father, or lover is deeply rooted in alcohol abuse. Their descriptions of their alcoholics and the issues they face are uncannily similar.

These poor souls almost always begin with a description of what a good, kind, hardworking, and "otherwise loving person” their alcoholic is. I place “otherwise loving person” (OLP) in quotation marks because my first question to the unsuspecting non-alcoholic friend is, "And how often is he 'otherwise' these days?" 

I ask because I know: My family served up the same kind of alibi for me long after alcohol’s deleterious effect on my life was painfully apparent.

"He's really a kind and loving boy,” they’d say. “He just needs to learn to drink more responsibly." (Or, at least responsibly enough to stay in a marriage or at a job and out of jails, hospitals, and institutions.)

The book Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. The Big Book) says, “No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows.”

True enough. But have you ever noticed the lengths to which our loved ones will go (and often for a rather extended period of time) to help us deny we are damaged goods (i.e. bodily and mentally different from our fellows, or, more bluntly stated, alcoholic)? 

It is usually at this point, early in our discussions that my non-alcoholic friends try to make excuses for their OLP’s increasingly demonic behavior.

“She just went through a really yucky divorce.” (More than 50% of marriages end in divorce, yet 50% of the adult population is not alcoholic.)

Or, “He's having financial difficulties.” (Really? Who isn’t?)

Or, “She's under a lot of stress at work.” (Many would say she’s lucky to have a job!)

Or, how about the one I latched onto for nearly 10 years after the fact?: “He just lost his father. It's been hard on him.”

When my friends’ excuses for their OLP become too much to bear, I find a spare Big Book and point them to the passage that says, "Job or no job — wife or no wife — we simply do not stop drinking so long as we place dependence upon other people ahead of dependence on God. Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone.” (98)

Once we’re passed the rationalizations and excuses, the brutal truths are usually quick to surface. My friends acknowledge that, whatever the cause of the excess, their relationship with their OLP will never improve and may very well end if he or she doesn’t stop drinking completely. By the time they’re desperate enough to talk to me about the problem, they usually know in their hearts their OLP’s condition is hopeless. They know instinctually they love someone who will never drink normally again. It just takes them a little while to admit to it out loud.

Sadly, they also begin to share descriptions of their OLP’s Jekyll-N-Hyde-like behavior. Deeply remorseful every morning-after, their OLP quickly becomes defensive (if not abusive) at the first suggestion they actually do something about the problem (like enter treatment, or God forbid, go to an AA meeting). Or worse, their OLP turns the tables and becomes accusatory, suggesting my non-alcoholic friend and his or her role in the OLP’s life are the very reason they drink so frequently and excessively.

Possibly the saddest part of every encounter I have with friends who don’t understand alcoholism is their willingness to entertain the idea that they are to blame for their OLP’s drinking problem.

“Maybe if I acted differently when he promises to stop, he’d be more successful," one might say.

If they only knew how absurd that notion is (and if they get help, one day they will know), they might understand why I have the audacity to laugh when I hear them try to blame themselves for outcomes over which we are all powerless. More often than not, though, in these situations laughter is scarce, so I reach again for my spare Big Book and point them this time to the chapter "More About Alcoholism."

“Please,” I tell them, “keep this copy. The first one-hundred-and-sixty-four pages might help you … a lot.”

Until recently, my point of view in these discussions has almost always been that of recovering alcoholic sharing his experience, strength, and hope about the future. I dodge, respectfully, most requests for advice or direction. That is the job of professionals, I tell my friends, or the job of potential comrades at an Al-Anon meeting should they choose to “go there.”

Generally, I try to be honest about how formidable, but also how wonderful, it can be to trudge the road of happy destiny if only their OLP can find a way to hop on the path.

That’s usually my tune. A few weeks ago, however, when I was contacted by a colleague’s sister whom I’ve never met and who was struggling with her partner’s alcoholism, I found myself saying, “I know how you feel,” almost as often as I said, “This is what he’s up to.”

At some point in our email exchange, I suddenly realized that I’ve spent a good portion of my life on both sides of the fence. From my father to various women I’ve loved, to friends who have walked in and back out of the doors of recovery to a life of active use and abuse, I’ve had my fair share of OLPs.

Yes, even with all I know about my own condition, I’ve still found it possible to say things like, “Well, she’s drinking again, but I’ve never really seen her drunk.”

Or, “He may drink too much at times, but he certainly isn’t as bad as I was at his age.”

Or, best of all, “Maybe she came to AA at a bad time in her life, but now she’s able to handle it.”

And then it really hit me: The reason we make excuses, the very simple reason none of us wants anyone to be bodily or mentally different from their fellows, is that none of us wants to believe that any substance, alcohol or otherwise, could mean more to someone we love than we do. And maybe the admission is even more painful for those of us who once lived years and years of our lives knowing full well that nothing — and certainly nothing human — could mean more to us than alcohol once we’d taken the first drink.

Demons be Damned—Stinging reality and comfort arrive together in 2013

Jan 17, 2013

This year, at about 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve—with my eyelids growing heavier and heavier—I made the following post on Facebook:

“To turn in before the clock strikes 12, at peace with all of my demons and all of my foes, seems a promising start to the New Year. The last time I turned in before midnight alone was New Years Eve '97. That night, the demons were dancing and screeching in my head and making me wish there were an easy way out for cowards. Tonight, I thank God for the fellowship and the many nights of comfort surrender has bestowed. Happy New Year to all.”

The next morning I noticed the post had received dozens of likes and more than a few laudatory comments about recovery and living sober. Which was great! In fact, that post probably received more likes and comments than any I’ve ever posted. As I read the comments, however, I realized how I had failed to acknowledge the principal source of my gratitude in that post.

It had been a day of emotional highs and lows. Though it was my kids’ mother’s day to have them, they spent the day with me because their mom had to work. We made a big, unhealthy breakfast together, went sledding, played board games, read, and finally flopped on the couch to watch bowl games and munch on more crappy food. It was New Year’s Eve after all. Around 3 p.m. their mom texted to say she was on her way to pick them up. An initial sadness and the usual departure anxieties set in.

Before she arrived, however, a longtime friend in sobriety, X, showed up to say hello to the kids and wish us all a Happy New Year … or so I thought. The four of us reminisced about the previous New Year’s Eve, which we’d spent together. At midnight that year, my daughter, the friends she’d invited to sleep over, X, and a few other friends who’d held on until midnight decided that, at exactly midnight, rather than watch the ball drop on TV, we were going to bang pots and pans in the garage and the front yard to drive last year’s evil spirits off my property—much to my neighbor’s chagrin, I’m sure. But a proper way to begin the new year nonetheless.

We wouldn’t be doing that again this year, and we acknowledged we were a little sad about it, but I assured the kids they’d have a really good time at their mom’s, just as they’d had at dad’s last year. Shortly afterward, we said our Happy New Years, and they piled into their mom’s van, my daughter getting a kick out of telling me over and over, “See you next year, Dad. See you next year.”

As I watched them drive away, I told X I needed to hit the shower. It was nearly 4 p.m., and I was due at a restaurant where my sponsor and his wife held their annual New Year’s Eve dinner in a little over an hour. The dinner was always a great time, had been for the 14 consecutive years I’d been going anyway, as was the party afterward at my sponsor’s house. X said he understood, that he’d head out, but he needed to tell me something first. And as bluntly and matter-of-factly as I type the words here, he told me, “I drank.”

We’d had a blizzard in the Midwest the week before and not a day above freezing since. I stared past X into the painful brightness outside the picture window in my living room at what I like to call a classic Midwestern ice bake. I felt equally frozen inside, much the way I’d felt the day—30 years earlier—my father had told me frankly and declaratively, “I have cancer. They give me three to six months to live.”  There are moments like that in life, moments that do not warrant a reaction. They’re freeze-frame moments, moments when nothing really means much at all, and what is simply is.

X had had his fair share of struggles over the past few years: with women, with jobs, with family and friends, even with prescription drugs, but in the dozen or so years we’d been trudging the road together, he’d never taken a drink. To me, as someone who’d spent seven years spinning in and out of sobriety before I’d finally surrendered, this was monumental, as close as one comes to a death sentence after that many years living sober.

X filled me in over the next 10 minutes or so. He’d finally cracked and drank a fifth of vodka rather quickly on Saturday night, blacked out and spent most of Sunday sick, had gone to a meeting before coming to my house, and felt confident he’d stay sober the remainder of the day. He had plans for the night with sober friends who were coming in from out of town, he said. I asked him to hang around while I got ready for dinner. He said, sure, he’d hang out and watch the remainder of the bowl game the kids and I had been watching when he arrived.

What happened next took my by surprise. As I walked up the stairs, I thought about how I needed to tell X that this was really no surprise, that we’d talked about it and seen it coming for some time. There were things he was doing in his life that would’ve brought other people to their knees much sooner. I told myself I needed to go back down and be deadly honest with him. No holds barred. Tough love for his own good.

But that’s not what happened. Instead I got in the shower and suddenly felt like I’d been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat. My joints ached, my throat tightened, and for a moment I genuinely feared I might pass out. All of the sudden, I realized not only X but a number of others I’d known and loved in recovery would not celebrate this New Year sober, that many of them were also out there signing their own death warrants and thinking nothing of it. I thought of the alcoholic suicides I’d witnessed, and the close friends I’d carried to their graves early in my own sobriety. And I heard the old-timers voices in my head rattling off the various warnings, “Wake up, people! This isn’t the flu we’re dealing with here. It’s a disease, and it’s a disease that kills.” Or worse, “Stick around long enough and you’ll see, some of us have to go out and die so the rest of us can stay sober.” 

Finally, I let myself cry for all of them right there in the shower … because I knew in a short while I was just as likely to be pissed at each and every one of them for passing on a life of freedom and awareness.

When I suited up and went back downstairs, for no apparent reason, I knew exactly what I needed to share with X. Rather than take his inventory, I asked him if he realized he might not be done. It had been my experience, years ago, that once I’d relapsed, once I’d realized how easy it was to put the blinders on, forget all the friends to whom I was accountable, and take the first drink, it became easy to do it over and over again … until I threw myself, with extreme humility, back into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Relapse, more than anything else in my experience, gave flesh and blood to the words “cunning, baffling, powerful.” I didn’t yell, I didn’t dramatize, I just asked him to keep that thought in his head—that it would be easier now to keep drinking than to stop if he didn’t humble himself, that once we relapse after a significant period of sobriety, “cunning, baffling, powerful” are no longer convenient words we impress upon newcomers, but rather the three heads of a beast whose mouths are dripping blood, and if we aren’t careful, one day the blood will surely be our own. I finally gave him a hug, told him to call or text throughout the night, and to be in touch the next day.

That night at dinner, I realized there were hundreds of years of sobriety in the private room where we were seated. Without a doubt, we were people who normally would not mix—except in the pursuit of sobriety. I sat beside one of the men I sponsor, and thought what a yeoman’s job he’d been doing of giving back. At a year-and-a-half sober, he was trudging through his first holiday season after a divorce. His daughter, who’d had a tonsillectomy earlier in the week, was at home resting, and once he finished dinner, he’d head back there to keep her company and take care of her. I was confident he’d stay sober. He was confident the New Year would be great.

On the other side of me was a close friend who, though she’d relapsed at 3+ years of sobriety, had her butt in the chair that night even though she didn’t really want to be there. She knew that coming to the dinner and being one among many was insurance against any demons that might be lurking later that night. All around the room sat a host of friends whom I would not want to miss.

Back home that night, in the still silence of the remainder of 2012, I sat in my reading room and, once again, thought about all the faces that had once beamed but were now absent from my sponsor’s New Year’s Eve dinner party. I did the only thing I know how to do for the still suffering alcoholic who chooses not to seek help. I surrendered and I prayed. I prayed for X, knowing full well the demons were still close by and would likely be screeching when his head finally hit the pillow that night. I prayed for those who would quiet the demons and still their dance the same way I had quieted them back on New Year’s Eve 1997, with one drink after another until the last drink turned into darkness and a long night of unconscious distress.

Around 11 p.m., I realized I was pretty damn tired, that there were no pots and pans to bang, and that I wasn’t going to miss anything by missing midnight. So I gave thanks for the only peace I’d ever known and realized the only way I’d ever found it was to try and help others find it as well, and then I wrote …

“To turn in before the clock strikes 12, at peace with all of my demons and all of my foes, seems a promising start to the New Year. …”

Empathy: A necessary ingredient

Dec 14, 2012

A friend recently told me that I lack empathy. She also hinted that, since I am male, the problem might be endemic, if not incurable. In the old days, and certainly during my drinking days, such a comment would have prompted me to become defensive at best, abusive at my worst.

Not so today. Today, the comment simply prompted me to take stock.

I’ve spent most of my adult life writing, editing, studying, and teaching the English language, so the word “empathy” isn’t foreign to me. At the outset, however, I struggled to understand how my actions communicated a lack of empathy. So, like any good high school student asked to understand an abstraction, I clicked over to and re-read the definition of the word empathy: “Theintellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

Concerning the matter at hand—the particulars of which really and truly are not relevant here—I was guilty as charged. As a 50-something American male born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, there was no way in hell I was going to intellectually identify with or vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of a 40-something American female. She was absolutely right; I didn’t get it. So, I promptly went to work making amends. After numerous text messages, two hours of Christmas shopping, and a promise to cook dinner on Saturday night, the air between us was—if not clear— at least less cloudy. We both agreed, in the end, it was not difficult to understand why I am twice divorced and living alone.

I can joke about the matter now, but at the time, the criticism hit particularly hard. Not because it so accurately characterizes my long-term inability to live well with others, but rather because empathy is the very word I associate with the people I admire most in sobriety: Men like my sponsor and his cronies, men who—whatever character defects they may still endure and find it necessary to work on—never, ever fail to have empathy for the still suffering alcoholic.

And by still suffering, I don’t necessarily mean those alcoholics who have not yet found a path to recovery. More often than not, I mean those alcoholics who suffer before our very eyes. In many cases, the still suffering alcoholics are those who come in and out of meetings on a consistently irregular basis and never manage to embrace the simple kit of spiritual tools laid at their feet. They are close at hand, yet very far away.

These are the people for whom I cannot fail to have empathy—as distinct from shallow pity or even sympathy. I can’t help but feel their pain because I have had their experience and know what a horrible and frustrating journey they’re on. For the first seven years that I came around the tables, I was just as likely to leave a meeting and drink as I was to go home and call my sponsor or read the Big Book. Surrender simply wasn’t in the cards, though I’d already endured a healthy dose of desperation.    

Alcoholics slip away from sobriety long before they have a slip. The warning signs of an alcoholic’s imminent departure from the fellowship are all too easy to identify and equally easy to ignore or rationalize away. In my early attempts at sobriety, whenever I felt the need to change my regular meeting schedule, to ditch or upgrade my sponsor, to read anything rather than read the Big Book, or to find fault with the steps, I was clearly headed for a relapse. This pattern played itself out the same way at nearly three years of sobriety as it did at three weeks. I simply decided I could not surrender my liberty to drink no matter how good my life had become and no matter how much I loved the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In recent months, I’ve watched more than a handful of people gradually fade away from the program only to drink and then return to meetings, drink and return, drink and return, and drink and return yet again, just as I had done so many years ago. In the even sadder cases, I’ve spoken to those alcoholics who leave the program to drink and report back how wonderful their lives are despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—evidence so overwhelming they don’t even need a forest or its trees.  

It troubles me most, however, when I hear those who are fortunate enough to stay sober boldly judge those who have left. “He wasn’t working a program anyway,” some say, or, “She found her new higher power—a boyfriend who tells her she isn’t alcoholic because he’s a drunk himself.” I’ve heard more; I’ve heard worse. What I don’t hear often enough is, “I pray they make it back. So many don’t.” 

I know from my own experience that it was only a matter of one or two drinks before I began longing for the experience, strength, and hope of those I’d left behind in the program. I also know that it was foolish pride and fear of judgment that kept me from coming back sooner than I did. Luckily, when pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization destroyed me, I was welcomed back unconditionally by those whose empathy for the still suffering alcoholic never wavers … and the naysayers wisely kept their distance.

Every year around my sobriety birthday my sponsor and I meet for dinner to assess the year gone by and to map out goals for the year to come. Almost every year, he reminds me that the longer we stay sober, the narrower the path becomes and that no matter how secure we may feel, we’re still alcoholics with alcoholic minds that are always plotting ways to escape Alcoholics Anonymous. Without a spiritual defense and a daily reprieve, I’m just as likely to leave the path and drink as I am to stay on it. Passing judgment on, or failing to have empathy for, the still suffering alcoholic isn’t likely to fortify my spiritual defense.

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I’ve been around long enough to know there isn’t much I can do for an alcoholic who chooses to leave Alcoholics Anonymous and do what we do best and most naturally—which is to drink and to drink with a passion. The risk for newcomers is particularly high at this time of year when so many of us would like to believe once more that we are not mentally or physically different from our fellows, that things surely will be different this time. And for a time, probably a short time, things might be different. But if they are alcoholics of my type, they’ll quickly experience the progressive reality of our disease, and things will ultimately get much worse. I only hope that if and when they return, I can be there to greet them with empathy and neither ignore my own past nor close the door on it.

Leaving Las Vegas, sober-style

Nov 16, 2012

Anyone who's seen the movie "Leaving Las Vegas" might think Vegas the last place a recovering alcoholic should go on vacation.

"Too much temptation, no?" my "normal" friends sometimes ask. Quite the contrary, I tell them. In my experience, Las Vegas has become a place to find not only gratitude but, more importantly, compassion.

Like many of us, I squandered plenty of time, money and morality as a young, functioning alcoholic roaming The Strip back in the ‘80s. I drank too much, smoked too much, stayed at the same blackjack table too long, and sought the company of the all the wrong people in all the wrong places at all the wrong times. I came for the glitter and gold and left penniless, besmirched and destitute. And like any good alcoholic, when given the opportunity, I went back for more, telling myself each time I returned that "This time, it's going to be different."

But that was the ‘80s, and I was in my 20s, and the only people who thought I had a problem with alcohol back then were all of you—but certainly not me. The last time I took a drink in Las Vegas was in 1987 at the airport, at the last possible moment before I had to board a plane and get out of town.

Las Vegas TourismI've since come to the conclusion that generally, there are two types of people in Vegas: Those who can (handle it because they can take it or leave it, all of it) and those who shouldn't (because they can never get enough of whatever it is that draws them there in the first place—gambling, booze, drugs, sex, whatever).

Back in 2007, after a 20-year hiatus, I began making bi-annual trips to Las Vegas with my sponsor, who bought a house in nearby Henderson, Nev. Basically, we punctuate our Midwestern golf season each year with a trip in late winter and another in early fall. Golf, above all else, is our primary purpose when we're there. But you can't golf day and night, so, invariably, after dinner each night, we usually find ourselves roaming one casino or another for an hour or three—rarely more, never less.

On my first trip back in 2007, I quickly realized both Vegas and I had long since been transformed. I was nine years sober then and no longer a 20-something as full of lust as I was thirst. The Strip was no longer a strip but rather a cluster of higher rise resorts and casinos than my spotty memory could recall, and the surrounding desert itself was pockmarked with exponentially more residential housing than I'd ever imagined possible.

But that's where the differences ended for me. Everything else about Vegas—the endless sea of visual temptation and boundless energy of the place—was in tact. If anything, the city seemed more intense and sophisticated than ever before. And at almost every turn in almost every casino, I caught glimpses of my former self: the drunken young man too loudly and proudly announcing his winnings (which he'd soon enough give back) at the blackjack table; the bleary-eyed, but cocksure kid currying favor with the cocktail

waitress who'd sooner give him a swift kick in the ass with her sore feet than give him the phone number he was soliciting; and all too frequently, the lone ranger wobbling out of a casino empty handed or bobbing and weaving down The Strip as though the sidewalk were made of Silly Putty rather than concrete.

"There but for the grace of God ... " I'd tell my sober and wiser self, "There but for the grace of God." Vegas became a source of gratitude more than a source of temptation.

Last month, only a week or so before my 14th sobriety birthday, I returned once again to Vegas with my sponsor, five other men in my line of sponsorship, and one of the men I currently sponsor. Like every other trip we've made since 2007, our days were filled with an overdose of heckling on the golf course. We ate well every morning and every night, and for a couple of hours before turning in each night, most of us tried our luck at the casino du jour.

But this time around, for no apparent reason, my eyes were turned not to the young men who reminded me of my desperate youth, but rather the men who represented what my future might well have been if I hadn't found Alcoholics Anonymous. Mostly, they were men my age or older, disheveled and unshaven, feeding dollar bills or plastic cards into slot machines, hands often shaking ever so slightly as they hit the Repeat Spin button, over and over and over. Now and again, I'd make eye contact with one of them and wonder what they saw.

For whatever reason, this time around, "There but for the grace of God ... " didn't play in my head as it had on so many trips before. Sure, I'm grateful their lot in life isn't mine. I'm grateful that, unlike so many, today I can take or leave whatever it is Vegas has to offer, and therefore truly enjoy the town. But this time around, gratitude for my own freedom from the clutches of alcoholism, for the daily reprieve a life of recovery affords me simply wasn't good enough. Instead, the phrase that kept playing back in my head was "still suffering alcoholic," and my mind and my heart stuck on the word "suffering," because like any recovering alcoholic, with just a moment or two of intense concentration, I can very easily conjure memories of the depth of that suffering and the sense of hopelessness that goes with it. I only hope that those with whom I did make eye contact saw not a countenance of judgment but rather one of understanding and compassion.

And if they didn't, I realize now more than ever before that I have a life-long obligation to make sure every newcomer who walks into a meeting where I take up space knows the instant I extend a hand to greet him or her that I am and always will be an alcoholic who understands and has empathy for their suffering. Until that common ground between us is firm and secure, until the still-suffering alcoholic knows that I care and that I do not judge, I have little chance of sharing effectively the boundless sense of hope Alcoholics Anonymous has freely afforded me these past 14 years.

I can only hope that every time I find myself  "Leaving Las Vegas" in the future, I leave with the same acute sense of purpose I left with this time — that sense that gratitude alone is not enough, that the only way to keep the gifts we're given is to actively find opportunities to give those gifts away.

A Sponsor’s Guide

Aug 24, 2012 now and then I have what seems an intelligent notion. This Tuesday evening may have been one of those now-and-thens.

Every Tuesday at 6 p.m., I attend a meeting that is a combination Big Book study and meditation group. This Tuesday was special in a number of ways. After the usual meeting protocol (steps, traditions, etc.), the chairperson asked if there were any sobriety birthdays. My sponsor announced that he had celebrated 32 years the day before, on the 20th, and one of the men I sponsor then announced that he'd celebrated one year on Sunday, the 19th.

I couldn't help but reflect on sponsorship for a moment after that. I tend to fret a lot about whether I do right by the men who have asked me to help them work their way through sobriety one day at a time. (In fact, the only thing I fret about more is whether I do right by the children I'm trying to raise.)

I know that my only real job as a sponsor is to walk my sponsees through the steps as outlined in our basic text. I know that they can always up and find themselves another sponsor if they don't feel like they're getting what they need from me. I also know that I have a very experienced and competent sponsor myself who can guide me through most any situation I might encounter as someone else's sponsor. Still, with all of that knowledge and assurance at my fingertips, I often find myself wishing there were a handy little guidebook (GSO approved, of course) about what to do and what not to do as someone's sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Every Tuesday evening at around 6:50 p.m., the chairperson leads our group into meditation. Those of us who founded the meeting agreed a long time ago that the chairperson would lead the group into meditation by reading, slowly and clearly, all the elements of the Prayer of Saint Francis (aka, the Eleventh Step Prayer).

Tuesday night was no different, and it was during the recitation of that prayer as we went into meditation that it hit me—my now-and-then a great notion: This, the Prayer of Saint Francis, is exactly the step-by-step guide to sponsorship that I had been looking for. And so, here it is, for all to ponder. Let me know if you agree:

Prayer of Saint Francis

This is the version found in Chapter 11 (Page 99) of the "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions," a book published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace;

that where there is hatred, I may bring love;

that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;

that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;

that where there is error, I may bring truth;

that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;

that where there is despair, I may bring hope;

that where there are shadows, I may bring light;

that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;

to understand, than to be understood;

to love, than to be loved.

For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.


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Look for the Good

Aug 10, 2012

“I don't waste my time looking for the bad in people, Gregory,” my aunt said. “Look for the good.”
Earlier this summer, back on the weekend before the Fourth of July, I had the opportunity to take my children back to Connecticut to visit my mother and the other members of my family whom they rarely see. In fact, before this trip, they hadn’t seen their Grandmother Kayko since December 2010. For months they’d been anxiously anticipating the trip, which I, at the same time, was quietly dreading.

I wasn't dreading the trip because I don’t love my mother (or my aunts and uncles and cousins who all remain in or near my hometown in central Connecticut). I was dreading the realities I knew I'd have to face. I knew that my mother, 86, and her sister and brother-in-law — who live right next door — had all suffered serious health setbacks since our last visit in 2010: diabetes, dementia, prostate cancer and many of the other ailments that attend the realities of aging.

On our second night in town, my mother insisted we make the trek over to visit my aunt. I say trek because visiting my Aunt Pauline meant helping my mother navigate a flight of stairs, a curb and a driveway: No small feat for a woman who had beaten breast cancer not once, but twice; lost a section of her pancreas to surgery on a benign tumor; and was now managing type 2 diabetes, which often causes her a great deal of pain in her feet and legs. Should I live to be 86 and have one-tenth the fortitude of people like my mother and my aunt, I will certainly count myself as blessed. into the bedroom where my aunt was convalescing (as I understood it she'd grown so weak and frail she'd only been out of bed twice since they'd brought her home from the hospital the previous October) was like walking into a scene from a 19th century Russian novel: The low lighting, the stillness and the silence — interrupted only by the soft-spoken broken English of my aunt's home nurse, Maria, a Ukrainian immigrant who had once been a doctor in her homeland but now spent her days in America caring for the elderly in their homes. The only distinctly modern touch in the room seemed to be the chrome of the hospital bed my uncles and cousins had bought to make my aunt's time at home more convenient and bearable.

Witnessing the irreversible deterioration of any elderly loved one is disheartening. Witnessing Aunt Pauline's demise was especially disturbing to me because she was truly the matriarch of recovery in our family. We have a long standing joke in our family that all of the men are either practicing or recovering alcoholics and all of the women are either treated or untreated "Al-Anons." Some 40+ years earlier, when my uncle's alcoholism had taken him to a bottom from which few thought he would ever recover (two bottles of gin a day in the basement of that very house), my aunt sought solace in Al-Anon. Within a year, my uncle was committed to a VA hospital in Connecticut and told he would die if he ever drank again. At least that's the way I heard it as a kid, and what I recall is that he emerged from that hospital sober and, thanks to God, found AA and a sponsor and never took a drink since. What's more, the nuclear family within our extended family of alcoholics that had been the most decimated and demoralized by this disease would emerge to be the model for the rest of us who sought recovery — all, in my mind, because my Aunt Pauline took the first step of seeking help for herself.

What I remember even more clearly from my childhood years is that once my aunt surrendered to the fact that she could do absolutely nothing to save her husband but everything to save herself and raise her three sons, I never again heard a negative word about other people, places or circumstances leave her lips. She was not only the matriarch of recovery in our family, she was the patron saint of unsullied optimism. A very strong but simple daughter of Polish immigrants, she was always cheerfully interjecting the most annoying of clichés into situations the rest of us took far too seriously: "Give him the benefit of the doubt," "We're only human," "Nobody's perfect," "Forgive and forget," and on and on and on.

I can still hear her voice and see her smile as a younger woman to this day. Even as a teenager, I often wondered how a woman who had been beaten down psychologically and emotionally for so many years could emerge from the ashes so full of optimism and enthusiasm for life. And it was all just because she went to a few meetings a week with like-minded people.

Later that evening, after we had all spent a half-hour or so with my aunt, Maria offered to take the children out to the living room to watch TV. Pauline had already turned to my son and asked him, "How old are you?" at least three times, and it was beginning to freak him out. Eventually my mother, too, decided to take a break and join the nurse and the kids in the front room.

Alone with my Aunt Pauline I wondered if she even understood who was sitting beside her in the room now. To my surprise, within moments of everyone leaving, she turned to me and said, "You look good, Gregory, and you have beautiful children." So, she did know who I was.

Never one to accept a compliment very graciously, I launched into a monologue about the kids. I told her — as I'd told so many others — what a gem my daughter Gracie was, how I honestly wondered if she weren't simply an angel sent down to look after the rest of. I told her what a good heart my son Adam had but that he also had a rather mischievous spirit and that he kept me on my toes every moment he was awake. And then it happened: The seemingly weak and heavily sedated Aunt Pauline lying under the thin veil of a bed sheet held the palm of her left hand up to silence me and became as lucid and firm in her tone as a perfectly healthy 20-something. "I don't waste my time looking for the bad in people, Gregory. Look for the good.”

Within moments she lowered her arm to the bed, turned her head away from me, and, as if returning to a conversation in a far distant and possibly kinder place, said, "I like my room. I hope I never have to leave my room again until its time."

It was in that moment I felt I understood why it had been so important for me to make this trip after more than a year away: To hear my Aunt Pauline affirm, one more time, that life is good — even as she lie dying in the room she loved so much. Her admonition was full of not only wisdom but also guidance. I'd been told many times in many ways by many people in my life to "look for the good" in others, but my aunt Pauline had just given me a reason that was more inspiring than any I'd ever received from mentors or read in books: To look for anything other than the good is an utter waste of time.

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A Moment of Gratitude

Jul 27, 2012 get broken. Broken hearts, broken bones, broken dreams — they break down, they break up, they break the bank, break promises ... break, break, break, we all fall down.

People get broken a lot, in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons. Some good, some bad, some just because. But how do they mend?

Sometimes I think those of us who live a life of active recovery take what we have at our fingertips for granted. When we get broken, we have instant access to the healing process: people like ourselves who intuitively understand EXACTLY what we're thinking and feeling.

The other night after dinner I asked a younger man, someone new to Alcoholics Anonymous and whom I was encouraging to attend more meetings, "Where else can you go for an hour and know, with certainty, that the topic of conversation will be significant?  Where else can you go and know that the people in the room have to care about you if they have any hope of saving themselves?"

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Honesty: The Measure of Our Success

Jul 13, 2012

It pains me when I hear people say that Alcoholics Anonymous doesn't work. It pains me even more when I hear members of Alcoholics Anonymous say that treatment programs are a waste of time and money. Really? If someone joins a weight loss program and loses 30 pounds, then stops participating in that program and regains the weight they had lost (and maybe a few pounds more), do we blame the program, or the person who failed to stay with it? what exactly does it mean to be successful in recovery anyway?  I'm sure that government agencies and insurance companies would collectively give me a quick and simple answer: Total and continuous abstinence. And I would argue that abstinence is and should be the "goal" of most treatment centers and recovery programs. But is it necessarily a measure of success? Some statistics tell us the majority of those who enter a program of recovery — as many as 90 percent — will relapse at least once in their first five years. Does this mean that programs like Alcoholics Anonymous fail?

The book Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. The Big Book) tells us this: "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves."

"Constitutionally incapable of being honest." Nothing says it better.

I'm not an expert on recovery nor am I'm professionally qualified to define what it means to be successful at recovery. But I do have my own experience, and my experience tells me that my own success at recovery (my own ability to stay sober 24 hours at a time) is directly proportional to my ability to be steadfastly honest with myself about my own condition and my daily behavior. The only way I've found it possible to do that is to go to meetings, work the steps and maybe most important, to sponsor other men and be sponsored myself.  

Nothing else has worked. Waking up in jail without knowing why, being hospitalized, failing at marriage, the threat of losing a job — none of these were enough to keep me sober, though I've suffered them all and some more than once. It was not until the morning that I awoke (after nearly 7 years of bouncing in and out of this program) and admitted plainly and simply to my innermost self that I was powerless over alcohol, that my life would never get better (and that it was very likely to get much wore) if I kept drinking, that my recovery could begin. No drama, no jails, no hospitals, no courtrooms. Just an honest and open admission that I was alcoholic and that for me to drink is to die. I could not have made that admission openly and honestly to myself and other human beings if it had not been for the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and my repeated failed attempts to stop drinking on my own.

In my world, Alcoholics Anonymous succeeds every time it introduces someone with a genuine desire to stop drinking to a level of honesty that person had not previously experienced ... no matter how many failed attempts it takes to get there.

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The Not-So-Self-Evident Truth

Jun 29, 2012 now and then during my morning meditation, a thought worth witnessing passes through my head. One morning a few years back, for no apparent reason, I was overwhelmed by the assurance — not spoken in words but communicated as a certainty in ways I could no more recollect than understand —that, at the end of this journey — my journey — I would return to a "soft cradle of light." That light, bright but warm and reassuring, shown very clearly at a point between my closed eyes that morning. The memory of that light, and the comfort it bestowed, has pulled me through many difficult and uncertain times since I first witnessed it.

This morning, a new and seemingly self-evident truth paid a visit: "You can never be more — or less — than who you are right now." Hmm. Interesting, I thought. Very nice, and I moved on. To what, I don't recall.

The thought occurred to me again 90-or-so minutes later as I was driving along I-35 South on my way to the airport. "You can never be more — or less — than who you are right now." No longer in a pose of meditation but sitting upright and uptight while driving 80 mph down the freeway, my next thought was: "No shit, Sherlock. Doesn't take a genius to figure that out."

But, if this truth were truly self-evident, why do so many of us spend so much time chasing illusive dreams that can't come true or wishing we were something more than who we are right now? If this truth were truly self-evident, why do so many of us spend so much money seeking the assistance of professionals to help us figure out who the hell we're supposed to be?

For a simpleton like me, spending too much time wishing I were someone I'm not or wondering about what the future holds (good or bad) can prompt a kind of fear that is detrimentally physical and visceral. It's a fear that can make my palms sweat, my stomach queasy, my vision blurry and my legs uncomfortably weak. For years I didn't know how to handle that fear other than to drink and to smoke. Now that I've removed both of those options from my life, at least for today, I've had to develop alternative coping mechanisms. One method in particular has proven most effective, and it's the quickest and cheapest one. When fear and doubt about who I am, where I'm headed, or what I'm doing sink their ugly teeth into the mortal minute of my day, I stop and ask myself one simple question to calm my nerves and clear my head: Am I OK right now, right here, this instant? If no one or no thing is threatening my life, my livelihood, or my loved ones right now, right here, this instant, then everything about that fear is instantly proven to be folly. It is a fear that begins in my mind, it lives and breathes in my mind, and so it must be snuffed out of my mind. 

If I can breathe long enough to answer that question, “Am I OK right now?” there is no reason to doubt or to fear. Doubt and fear are defeated by default. All I have to do is believe that, right here and right now, and I can move on to the next right action.

"You can never be more — or less — than who you are right now" is a not-so-self-evident truth that should be plainly self-evident ... every minute of every day.

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Relapse — A Means to One End or Another, Part II

Jun 15, 2012

My sponsor loves to remind me that trying to understand irrational behavior with a rational mind is futile. Relapse, by definition, is irrational (and when repeated often enough presents itself as certifiably insane). Think about it: Most of us do arrive at treatment or the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous kicking and screaming. It's the last place we want to be. It's also usually our last hope. The pain has become too great (or the law too persuasive), and we say, "Uncle." We admit defeat. We admit the problem is bad enough that, despite our pride and prejudice (we are not like those people in there, right?), we do the unthinkable: We ask for help.

For a time, we get clean and sober. Some of us even like it. Some of us love being sober so much we stay sober from the very start until the day they bury us (the sober minority). Some of us like it a whole lot, love it really, but after a while, for reasons beyond reason, we decide that — even though we feel so much better and our lives have gotten so much better and our loved ones love us so much more (or, at least, become much more willing to tolerate us) and we experience all these plusses and very few minuses — we decide that maybe we've overcorrected and we should test the waters that have bathed us in pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization just one more time. Why? Because maybe, just maybe (and especially given the volumes of brilliant knowledge we have gleaned nearly overnight about our condition and ourselves), maybe things will be different this time. Now that, to be sure, is the epitome of irrational thinking.

For those of us who make it back, one day the insanity of our relapse may present itself as a source of humor. I often laugh at the comic irony of my last relapse (which resulted in a 90-day drunk). I had been bouncing in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous for 18 months after once having stayed sober nearly three years. One morning, with about three months of sobriety under my belt and nearly two full weeks without a meeting (I planned to go later that day, I told myself), I went out to the pool at the apartment complex where I lived to enjoy my coffee and the morning paper. I was the first to arrive and grab a chaise lounge. Around 10 a.m. a young woman arrived with an inflatable raft and one of those ever-so-quaint 6-pack coolers. She parked her raft at the other end of the pool and slipped a bright silver can out of the cooler before jumping onto her raft. A Coors Light, the Silver Bullet, to be sure.

Now, I want to clarify before going on that I'm a guy's guy and A Coors Light holds about as much appeal for me as a glass of ice tea. Actually, I'd prefer an ice tea, and I'd be most appreciative of a Long Island Ice Tea before all else. (Let's get all the white liquors on the bar into one glass; that, my friends, is a touch of class.) But something in my mind told me that a Coors Light might not be a bad idea. If this woman could handle a Coors Light at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, then why on earth couldn't I? It really didn't make any sense. She couldn't have been a day over 25 and probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet in a winter parka. I was a three-letter high school jock and a man who, at one time, could easily handle a fifth of the finest booze in the bar one night and still make it to work on time the next morning. Surely, I had not tried hard enough to make this drinking thing work.

And so, without another thought, and certainly without even a passing nod to my sponsor's phone number, I rose from the chaise (leaving my coffee cup, my towel and my newspaper behind because I'd be right back) and drove as quickly and directly as possible to the nearest convenience store where they sold beer, wine and spirits, and stocked up on all three, including a six-pack of my least favorite beer on the face of the earth: Coors Light. Less than 20 minutes after returning to the apartment, I had four of the watery beers down and two left to take out to the pool. No sooner had I repositioned my now mildly-buzzed ass in my previously reserved chaise lounge with the two remaining Coors Lights still in their plastic rings than my little inspiration came floating by on her inflatable pod of heavenliness holding, you guessed it, a bright silver can of Diet Coke.

Irrational minds see things irrationally, too.

I tell that story often at meetings mainly to establish that my Higher Power, for one, has a deliciously twisted sense of humor when it comes to playing tricks on an untreated alcoholic. And at that time, I was truly untreated and resisting everything about my sober life. Luckily, that relapse would lead to what I hope will remain my last surrender.

I wish all my stories of relapse could be so comic and ironic. Unfortunately they are not. About three months after that sunny summer morning by the pool in 1998, I returned to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. At the same time, two friends with whom I had both drunk and been sober for varying lengths of time, and who had also relapsed, returned to meetings. During the first six months of my sobriety, I drove one of them to a meeting nearly every day because his alcohol and meth habits had left him without a wife, without a job, without a car and living at his mother's house. The other, a woman whom I'd actually known in treatment five years earlier and drunk with on only one occasion because her drinking frightened me, refused to return to the same meetings we went to because she didn't wish to "be judged." I share these facts because, although all three of us made some effort to return to a sober life, only one of us survived more than six months.

The young man, not yet 30, would eventually shoot himself in the chest in the front doorway of his mother's house. A few days later I was a pallbearer at his funeral. A week or so after his funeral, the young woman, not yet 40, would drink a bottle of windshield wiper fluid after being released from detox and never return from the coma it drove her into. I served as a pallbearer at her funeral as well.  For reasons that made absolutely no sense, both had lost the one thing I was and am still able to find in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: HOPE.

It was at the young man's funeral that my sponsor (who also sponsored the now deceased younger man) first said to me, after I asked the questions why and what could we have done differently: "Don't try to understand an irrational act with a rational mind, Greg. If you stick around long enough, you'll see that some of us have to die so the rest of us can stay sober."

Another one of those disheartening clichés that is so true as to become axiomatic. Some have to die so others can stay sober. If you stick around long enough you do begin to see it. And you become convinced that relapse is a means to one end or another.

Relapse — A Means To One End Or Another

Jun 01, 2012

Whenever I have the honor of telling my story to a large group of people in recovery —after I've expressed my gratitude and announced my sobriety date — I usually open with something like this: "I took my first drink at 11, I came to my first meeting at 31, I'm 52 now and 13 years sober. Do the math and you’ll see, I'm an AA retread."

For the sake of the uninitiated in the room, I'm usually quick to clarify that it isn't necessary to relapse. In fact, I'm sponsored by a man who has been sober more than 30 years and never taken a drink since the day he walked through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous. Well, whoopee for him, I say. That hasn't been my experience. I spent nearly eight years stalking sobriety before I finally surrendered to it. During those eight years, I put together as few as three days of sobriety and, surprisingly enough, as many as three years. The only good thing that happened during those eight years is that I kept coming back, again and again and again. Mainly because all of you planted the seed deeper and deeper each time I left and returned.

This year, where I live, we had an unseasonably warm March and with it a seeming rash of relapses. I don’t think we had any more relapses than usual, and I certainly don’t think the weather had anything to do with it. (Real alcoholics don’t drink because the weather is good or bad; real alcoholics drink because the weather is what it is.) Nonetheless, in a tight-knit recovery community like the one I live in, news of a relapse (too commonly minimized as a "slip") and speculation about the causes travels fast and prompts community consternation.

Where my experience comes in handy is when someone relatively new decides to drink or use again. Usually, within days of the news that they've "left the program," someone will ask me, "What should we do?" This is not flattery. They don't ask me that question because I'm so wise in the ways of recovery. They ask me because they know I've been there. The underlying question is, "Hey, you got drunk a lot when you first came around. What could people have done that would've made a difference?"

The sad but true answer is "nothing." I'm a real alcoholic. In the absence of a well-maintained spiritual defense, there's little that can stand between me and the insanity of the first drink. When an alcoholic decides to drink (and the decision to drink is a conscious, if not always premeditated, choice), those left behind, especially those who are also relatively new to sobriety, often forget or dismiss the most primal fact of recovery: That we are powerless over alcohol ... our own addiction to it as well as that of others.

By the same token, I do remember the lasting impression of the calls and visits I would receive in the early stages of my lapses. Phone calls or visits in those first few days from those who truly cared sometimes brought me right back to a meeting — and if not immediately, then usually within days. It’s been my experience, however, that if the alcoholic doesn’t come back within the first week, he or she probably won’t come back for a good long while.

All we can do at the outset of a relapse is extend our hand and love up our brothers and sisters in recovery. If the still-suffering alcoholic refuses the hand, all we can do is hope we’ve planted a seed that will grow into a burning desire to live a sober life and move on to the millions of other still-suffering alcoholics who do meet the only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous: a desire to stop drinking.

In her May 19, 2012, blog post, “Baby Chicks — Carry the Message, Not the Alcoholic,” Ashley Dane (Follow Your Bliss) opens with this stupendously apt analogy:

"I was thinking the other day of something I heard about years ago. It was a story about how important it is for a baby chick to fight its way out of the egg. It is quite a struggle, and the impulse for any kind-hearted person would be to help the little guy out. So someone did that, and the baby chick died shortly thereafter. Apparently, the struggle to emerge activated necessary muscles that the chick would need for survival outside the egg. It needed to strengthen its neck muscles with the pecking and squirming, its little legs with the kicking and scratching. It is the same for us. We develop muscles and skills in our emerging process in recovery that are critical to our survival in sobriety. That is why they say to carry the message, and not the alcoholic - if we carry the alcoholic, they may not gain the musculature they need for the future. It isn’t always easy to know the dividing line between being of service, and being an enabler for other negative behaviors."

Ashley Dane goes on to talk about the errant desire to chase after the unwilling. It’s a post well worth reading.

So, when someone I know or, even more painfully, when one of the men I sponsor and genuinely care about leaves the program to drink, I call (once, twice, maybe three times) to remind them my door is open. And then I remind myself (again and again) that I’m as powerless over their drinking as I am over my own in the absence of a solution.

I remind myself that the only requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous is a desire to stop drinking. I remind myself that I can’t instill the desperation that awakens that desire, only alcohol can. I remind myself that far more people need help than want it, yet we can only reach the wannabes. I remind myself, finally, that they will either drink their way back when the pain is great enough, or drink themselves to the gates of insanity and death. Ultimately, relapse is a means to one end or the other, but it is always a means to an end.

Who Saves Us? We Do.

May 11, 2012

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.”

Those are the first two sentences of Joan Didion’s bestseller, The Year of Magical Thinking, which, some will recall, opens with the sudden death of her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne. On more than one occasion since I first read those two simple but deftly declarative sentences, I’ve found myself thinking, “Yes, in my sober life anyway, life often does change ‘in the instant.’” And those “instants” of change —however small or large, however joyous or deleterious — usually require some measure of reflection and ultimately some measure of recovery.

Like the instant on Valentine’s Day 2009 when my then wife — while standing on the third and final step of the short staircase leading into the kitchen of our house from the garage and under a dimming bare bulb I had been intending to replace for weeks —turned to me and said, “I’m not sure I want to be married anymore.” I distinctly remember deciding at that very moment I would not go to sleep that night until I had changed the light bulb. I distinctly remember telling myself to just stay — to stay in that moment and not allow myself in any way, shape, or form to react because I knew myself well enough to know that any reaction of mine would surely harm, and definitely not help, the situation.

On that otherwise unremarkable Valentine’s Day (which may tell you something), I was a few months into my tenth year of sobriety, and my life — or more notably, the assumptions I’d made about my life in sobriety — did, in fact, change “in the instant.”

The resulting changes and the ways I handled them are chronicled at length in my personal blog, Realtime Recovery. That blog initially posed the question: How does one with double-digit sobriety walk through life’s ups and downs with dignity and grace? —more specifically, the dignity and grace I’d witnessed in the lives of those who were my seniors in sobriety. Ultimately that blog captures the ways in which my children’s mother and I have navigated divorce. We’ve done so about as successfully as you could hope to navigate such a disruption in your biography. We’ve done so by keeping our focus, first and foremost, on our children’s well being. Their mother and I had met in recovery, and despite a significant age difference and the fact that she is no longer “in” recovery, we continue to have the presence of mind to put principles before personalities.

What that blog does not capture, however, is the role that working with others has played in my being able to accept and adjust to a new normal, the ways in which those “others” have saved my ass when my ass was truly falling off. That — the mingled roles of service, fellowship and both sides of sponsorship — is what I’d like to capture in this blog. Working with others is, I believe, the glue that binds our long-term recovery. It is, I know, what has made me a sobriety junkie. 

Anyone in a strong line of sponsorship has heard it all before: You want to solve your own problems, you want to lessen the emotional pain you’re feeling (for whatever reason, however significant or relevant), then find a way to get out of Self. Find a newcomer to work with. Be of service at a meeting. Call another alcoholic and ask him how his day is going (and don’t tell him about yours). Do something kind for other people (and don’t tell them you did it). The clichés abound. To hear them is one thing; to act on and experience the magic and the majesty that is working with another alcoholic is to understand why those clichés are axiomatic.

At the time my then wife announced her uncertainty about staying married, my life as a recovering alcoholic seemed fairly stable and predictable, especially considering how chaotic all of our professional lives had become after 2007 and the fact that, at the age of almost-50, I was dad to a 6-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. I’d managed to hang on to a very good job, I went to four meetings a week, held a service position at my home group, sponsored one or two men in sobriety and played golf once a week with my sponsor. In the 18 months between her pronouncement and the divorce becoming final, however, a strange thing happened: On an increasingly regular basis, more and more men were suddenly asking me to sponsor them.

I’ve never been a “Step Nazi,” and though I’m a firm believer that meeting makers make it, I’ve never actively solicited men to sponsor — much to my own sponsor’s chagrin, I’m sure. So why did these men, some of whom I’d known a long time and others whom I didn’t know at all, suddenly decide I was someone they wanted to work with in sobriety?

The only reasonable answer I’ve been able to muster is simple: Vulnerability. During the first 10 years of my sobriety, I rarely allowed myself to show any sign of weakness, to share anything in meetings that might have suggested a chink in the armor that was my coveted sobriety. In meetings, I thought it necessary to discuss only “the solution” as I understood it so I would convey only a message of hope to newcomers in the room.  I saved my problems and my worries for private conversations with my sponsor. I rarely put anything on the line.

But faced with the loss of everything I held dear, faced with the realization that the day would come (sooner than I had ever anticipated) that my children and I would not sleep and wake in the same house every night and every morning, I found it impossible to keep my raw emotions to myself, or to confine them to a weekly phone call with the one man I trusted. As a consequence, I became accessible (or so they tell me). As a consequence of allowing myself to be vulnerable, it became possible for others to share their vulnerabilities with me. Thank God. If it weren’t for my brothers in sponsorship and the men I sponsor myself, I dare say the hours in each day over the past three years would have been far more interminable and far less fruitful. Nothing “will so much insure” healing like a good dose of fellowship.

And now it is time to give back. The book Alcoholics Anonymous says we are “people who normally would not mix.” Nothing could be truer of the men I’ve sponsored recently: a waiter, a therapist, an auto mechanic, a bill collector, an art director, a computer salesman, a photographer (or two), a cable guy and a network analyst. Unfortunately, right now, a few of those men are faced with situations almost identical to the one I walked through nearly three years ago. Our book also says “we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” Instead, we share the experience, strength and hope we’ve gleaned from it. And so, the night the first of those men shared the news that his wife no longer wanted to be married, I did what has become something of a ritual among the men I sponsor: I invited him and a few of his brothers in sponsorship over to “burn some meat” on the grill (and some salmon since we’re a bunch of old farts and some of us need to eat a little more healthfully). A manly thing to do in the face of an otherwise emasculating conundrum, right? Except we laughed and talked and cried in ways I’d never have imagined manly men capable of doing “back in the day” when most of us would have headed to a bar where we could quickly and easily bottle up the pain.

Who saves us? In the sober world where I live today, by the grace of God, we make it a habit to save each other “in the instant” and never a moment later.

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