November 16, 2012

Leaving Las Vegas, sober-style

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.

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