May 11, 2012

Who Saves Us? We Do.

“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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