When I first heard the term “geographic” in AA, I realized these people truly had my number. Growing up, I had moved with my family every two years because my father kept changing jobs. He wasn’t an alcoholic, but he had difficulty getting along with his employers and co-workers. So whenever things started to go poorly at his work, we would find a new city and start over. As my dad pulled geographics rather than solve his career problems, I pulled geographics right along with him, conveniently packing up and escaping bullies at school and avoiding messes I had made with friendships where I had been disloyal. Knowing we would not stay anywhere for very long, I began to live in a more and more reckless way, doing and saying things I would never have to worry about fixing. In college I continued the geographics, transferring universities when I got in too much trouble at the first one due to excessive partying. Like everywhere else I went, I ran into myself in the new location. The next school proved an even more fertile ground for trouble making and I got my advanced degree in it. Like my old man, I changed jobs like hair styles, each time marching off in a huff for not having been treated properly. I stayed at one job for three years and thought I deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor for doing so. My employers didn’t quite see it that way and could not wait to be rid of me. Finally, after getting sober, I managed to stay in the same home for 17 years. I kept one job for seven years and the next one for ten years. I had a number of conflicts with people, but I used all my AA tools to sort them out. There were people I avoided out of resentment, but eventually made amends and peace with them, and spent many years afterwards being on very good terms with them. My upbringing taught me how to walk away. But AA taught me how to stay. It took a lot of unraveling for me to finally believe that you could make a mess of something without having to high tail it out of town on the next train. You could make a mess and clean it up, right there in front of everybody, and it would be finished. You could start over without packing a single bag. When the going gets tough, the sober stay put.
Most AA meetings I have attended are located in settings that have very little Feng Shui going for them. There is typically an awkward entrance somewhere on the side of the main structure, down a dark concrete staircase into a low-ceilinged room. Florescent lights flicker above, casting yellowish shadows on a chipped linoleum floor. Stackable plastic chairs line up in an arc facing a card table where the meeting leaders and guests of honor sit. Behind them, walls are adorned with faded posters of saints, tissue paper flowers or First Aid instructions. The refreshments are set out in cartons and packets, a large container of Coffee Mate invariably forming the centerpiece. And yet, in these rooms, I have found the deepest, most abiding respite, relief and peace that I have ever known. Sipping cucumber water near a Zen fountain in a cavernous, Italian tiled, world class spa has not been able to reach as deep into my psyche as the homely rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. No bar or lounge, even crowded with friends, has been as welcoming and inviting a place as an AA meeting room filled with an oddball assortment of familiar characters. No matter how I feel when I arrive for a meeting, there is a calm that begins to surround me as soon as I sit down and the first person smiles at me. I am here. And they are here. We are here, and we are all the same. If I am crazy today, these other people understand. They know what to do and they will remind me, because I know too, I have just forgotten. When the meeting is called to order and we begin with the serenity prayer, I start to breathe and let all of the bad mojo evaporate out of my system. The readings, the introductions, the greetings, the prayers, the basket, the closing, all of these rituals are like gentle hands, shaping and redirecting me, a chiropractic adjustment for my brain. In the nondescript room full of plastic furniture and assorted low-budget decor, I am righted and lifted, released into the world anew, peaceful, happy, untroubled by my burdens, knowing exactly what to do. I am reminded that my environment alone cannot heal me, and even the most healing environment cannot compete with a healing program, practiced in the humblest of settings, the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Photo Courtesy of MX
The Big Book tells us we were “driven by a hundred forms of fear”. (p.62). In sobriety I have learned that true, primal fear (e.g. being eaten by a predator) was never the problem. It was the other 99 forms of fear (which often tried to impersonate virtues like caution, diligence, and preparedness) that caused all kinds of trouble. After I got to AA and started working the Steps, I realized how much fear I had carried. Before I understood what fear was, I experienced it as other states – anger, self-righteousness, vengeance, detachment, distance and many others. I actually believed that I was quite brave, but not in a courageous way. It was more like toughness, but even more precisely, it was bravado. I was like an aggressive dog that takes advantage of anyone who is easily intimidated. More important than the fact that I had these fears and was unaware of them, was the reality of what they did to me and those around me. I often could not have a discussion without starting to argue, even over the simplest of things. I developed a chronic paranoia that others were listening to me, out to cause me problems and wanted to expose me. Love was out of the question. Everybody was in it for themselves and I refused to be taken advantage of. Everybody was a suspect in my world. Every kind act a potential con. Looking back, I find it funny that when I first heard the Ninth Step Promises, I said to myself, “what fear of people?” I honestly had no idea what these words meant. I am still learning about fear and still not always aware that I have it. Sometimes I am very afraid of the future, even though there is no reason for it. It is all the “what ifs” that I conjure up while I am “thinking” or “planning.” This habitual worry is a deeply ingrained character defect. As much unnecessary suffering as it causes me, I know I am not entirely willing to let it go. There is a vague sense that if I stop projecting and preparing, nobody else will take the wheel, I won’t see a curve in the road coming, and I will crash. Thus, a fear of being fearless. It may never end. See, there I go again. And again!
In the chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous entitled “We Agnostics, the authors state: “Some of us had already walked far over the Bridge of Reason toward the desired shore of faith.” (p. 53)
There are many bridges to cross in recovery. In fact, we do not cross the final one until we die. Sometimes the longest bridge and the one most shrouded in uncertainty is the one that leads to the doors of A.A. Once we cross that bridge and see what lies on the other side, we can never return unchanged. The side we came from becomes more and more of a wasteland. Every bridge, real or metaphorical, puts us in a state of transition, where we are neither here nor there, we are only crossing. As we cross we travel farther and farther away from where we came and it becomes harder to turn back. All of these things are true about recovery. Connecting with others in the program requires building social bridges that cross the expanse of our fear and isolation. Working each step is a bridge from doubt, confusion and resistance to completion, success and understanding. Reaching out to help Newcomers builds a bridge from our own shaky pillars to those who have yet to make their crossing. Extending that bridge strengthens our own foundation. Every new challenge, loss, disappointment, struggle and setback in sobriety requires us to cross another bridge. At some of these we balked. We thought we could find a ferry. But we could not. For a sober person trying to make his way in the world, the bridges facing him are rarely wide and inviting. They are often rickety or made of rope, hovering over giant ravines. It takes a lot of faith and courage to cross them. One is advised not to look down. I have crossed my own bridges and I have seen others cross theirs. Some have crossed their final bridge while I knew them, slowly fading in the rooms, then one day gone for good. They have passed across, cradled in the love of the Fellowship, hands held until their walking was done. I hope that I will make that final traverse in the way I have been shown. I hope that all my other bridges will lead me there when my time comes.
Two early messages the Newcomer hears in AA are “time takes time” and “it takes what it takes.” These are important lessons in sobriety. “Time takes time” addresses the frustration in early sobriety when progress seems very slow but the desire to change is very high. We are willing to go to any length and we are here to go that length, but time seems to creep. We look around at people with longer time in the Program and we want what they have – that peace, confidence, lack of struggle. They are settled in, they have arrived, but we are new to the game and not sure of our footing. We want to be Harry (in a dress or otherwise), but we cannot. We are entirely willing, but willingness cannot bring about the results we seek – only time can do that. There is no shortcut, no matter how sincere the desire. The saying “it takes what it takes” is used to answer the perennial question of why some alcoholics need to have such dangerously low bottoms, while others do not, or why some relapse several times before achieving lasting recovery and why others seem to have it easier. The answer “it takes what it takes” does not really answer these questions, because (a) they can rarely be answered and (b) the answers do not matter. Another way of looking at “time takes time” and “it takes what it takes” is to see them as synonymous. We cannot become physically sober until we are ready and we cannot become emotionally sober until we are ready. It takes what it takes to get to Step One, and it takes time to get through all of the Steps. It is all about acceptance of the past and living one day at a time in the present. It takes and takes. But all the while, it gives and gives.
Photo courtesy of MK
It seems that AA members get an endless chuckle out of the phrase” we aren’t a glum lot” from page 132 of the Big Book. It is followed by the statement, “we absolutely insist on enjoying life.” As with other interesting choices of words in the literature, we might be curious about the emphasis on “insisting” (we WILL have fun, damn it). The not-glum-must-have-fun passage adds that Newcomers would hardly find us appealing if we were all work and no play. To many normal people, the term “sobriety” connotes a kind of sanitized refrigeration, and the term “sober fun” evokes visions of a junior high school dance. In my experience, there are at least two reasons why we “insist” on enjoying life. First, if the goal is attraction and not promotion, we must at least avoid revulsion. Who would want what we have if it looked like a nonstop bingo game? We owe it to Newcomers to freely express our joy of sobriety, not in a false cheerleader fashion, but from our genuine happiness and gratitude. Second, getting sober is a lot of hard work, a lot of digging deep, a lot of on-going service. Once it has saved our lives, we might be so determined not to relapse that we bury ourselves in recovery to the exclusion of all outside pleasures. Our disease is cunning, baffling and powerful. It can trick us into believing that sobriety is not fun at all, and is therefore unsustainable. We must insist on having fun because our illness will tell us we cannot have fun (hoping we will therefore give up on staying sober). For me, the enjoyment of life in AA has taken many forms. Some of us need a little bit of physical risk to have fun – speed, heights, unpredictable and tricky sports. This is Extreme Sobriety. Others are happy just going to a comedy show and not being thrown out for heckling and drunkenness. Others still find a new inspiration to get on stage in performing arts and do what they never before had the courage or discipline to do. For me, the Fellowship is very fun. I know I will walk into my home group and be warmly welcomed, then teased to no end about one thing or another. The laughter is contagious and chronic. Sometimes the enjoyment of life in sobriety just comes down to be able to walk without weaving down the hall, talk without slurring my words, breathe without polluting the air, and party without humiliating myself. So I will keep having fun, especially if you insist.
Photo Courtesy of MK
At some point in my sobriety I learned that maintaing serenity would require moderating the ups and downs of my emotions. The old timers told me that controlling my excitement and over-elation would automatically lead to fewer emotional valleys. At first this seemed inherently wrong, like artificially dampening my normal enthusiasm. But there was nothing “normal” about my emotions. They were all over the map and capable of ambushing me from left and right at the worst possible times. AA offered me some tools to start getting emotionally grounded. One of them was the phrase “this too shall pass.” I learned to say these words to myself when Snoopy was doing his dance in my head because of some good news or accolade that had come my way. By telling my self “this too shall pass,” I was not killing my own buzz, I was simply cautioning myself, “easy does it.” Once I associated the manic highs with the painful crashes that inevitably followed, it was easier to tame the over-excitement. When the lows came, I would whisper to myself all the encouragement I had learned in the Program: “this too shall pass,” “progress not perfection,” and “one day at a time.” All these forms of self-care have become easier over time. When I recall how fragile my emotional state was during active alcoholism and early recovery, I think of being a “candle in the wind”. But I have kept coming back to AA, and that has given me the opportunity to stay strong and centered.
Photo Courtesy of MX