Life on Life’s Terms
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
I stood there on my front lawn in handcuffs, to this day I’m not sure why. I had swallowed about a hundred Vicodin and an equal amount of Valium. It hadn’t fully hit me yet, but I was definitely feeling pretty mellow. I didn’t want a fight. I just wanted out.
A noisy argument with my wife had precipitated this little episode. Although I hadn’t threatened her physically, I’d frightened her enough to prompt a call to 911. There would be a domestic disturbance incident on my record now. I was furious. That was the final humiliation for me. Time to check out.
My poor, long suffering wife, who had stood by me for many years through all my drinking and drugging and infidelities, watched me from the porch. I looked back up at her from the street, knowing that I might not ever see her again. I chose my final words carefully.
“You bitch, you killed me,” I said.
And I felt well justified in that. This wasn’t my fault, you see. It never was. But someone had to take the blame. She happened to be handy.
So then, let me back up a bit now and explain how I got there.
Not all alcoholics grew up in alcoholic homes, but I did. I didn’t know anything was wrong with my world. I had nothing to compare it to. I just assumed that all mothers sat down on the end of their kids’ beds at two in the morning with fragrant, clinking glasses of bourbon in their hands, and spent the wee hours till dawn telling stories with no endings, while alternately laughing and weeping. Turned out… not that many.
My adoptive mother was a mean and violent drunk who suffered from paranoid delusions. When I was three, she became convinced that my five year old sister and I were conspiring to kill her. That’s ridiculous, of course. It wasn’t until I was at least twelve years old or more that I began to really wish she were dead. I withstood three more years of daily physical and verbal abuse before I left home at fifteen.
Whether I was naturally inclined to being fearful or whether it was entirely a learned response is a question I’ll likely never have an answer to. Either way, I eventually developed a general anxiety disorder, which is a fancy way of saying that just about everything scared the hell out of me.
That is, until I found alcohol and pills.
The first time I got drunk (and high, though I never really got into weed) I looked over at my best buddy Jim and I said something like, “You gotta get here man… to where I am. It’s wonderful.”
And it was. I was free from fear and anxiety. I could breathe easy and let my shoulders fall down from my ears. I liked it. I liked it a whole lot.
It wasn’t until I reached my mid-thirties that it stopped working. Not all at once – there were still bright moments. But steadily and progressively the lows were getting lower, and the highs were getting lower. The downpour of near constant anxiety had provided a fertile ground for depression to grow and flourish. I tried to treat it the same way I’d been treating my anxiety, with more drinking and drugging. It didn’t work.
Then came the arrest for cocaine possession. My life’s journey was supposed to lead to fame and fortune. That was the plan, anyway. Sitting in a jail cell across from another man defecating and asking if I had any paper he could wipe with? That was something of an unscheduled stop for me. And a wake-up call.
I started attending AA meetings, even though I didn’t see my drinking as the biggest problem at that point. They were everywhere, and honestly I didn’t see what difference it made which Anonymous meeting I attended. Addiction was addiction in my mind. I raised my hand as a newcomer and found a sponsor at my first meeting. He asked me to read some things in the manual they called the Big Book. I did. I saw that I did in fact fit a certain pattern that was typical of alcoholics. As for the Steps themselves, I had no clear idea what they were supposed to be about. The God as you understood Him thing I comprehended even less. I just took it for granted that this stuff worked. Why else would it have been around for all these years?
I did an inventory. My sponsor and I read it together. We talked about how I had been selfish, and self-centered, dishonest and irresponsible. (I didn’t note at the time how all this didn’t jibe well with the “alcoholism is an illness” talk I’d been hearing.) He sent me home with instructions to sit silently for an hour, and then to follow the directions in the Big Book for Steps Six and Seven. I did.
Nothing much happened. And I still had no clear idea what the God thing was supposed to be about.
I kept going to meetings. I wrote my Eighth Step list, and began making my Ninth Step amends. I was staying sober, but now I was constantly filled with the anxiety that I’d been self-medicating all my life. And the black dog of depression was turning up at my door more and more regularly.
My first sponsor relapsed. My new sponsor picked up where I’d left off with the steps. He got me writing Tenth Step inventories on pretty much a nightly basis. I never noticed that they helped much. I did, however, identify a whole host of new character defects. Grandiosity, low self-esteem, unreasonable expectations, envy, sloth, anger and all the other deadly sins, plus many, many more insidious faults and flaws. Mainly this just served to make me feel a lot worse about myself. I wasn’t directed to any effective tools for correcting these things.
I prayed the Seventh Step prayer most every night, asking a God I didn’t understand or believe in to help make me a better person. I said the Third Step prayer at least a dozen times a day. Meanwhile my depression was starting to generate suicidal ideations. I began to dwell more and more on how much I needed some kind of mental relief.
Flash forward a year and I was again downtown buying cocaine. That began several cycles of staying sober for a year, or two, or even four once, and then succumbing to the desperate need for release from the psychic pain. Often the relapse occurred soon after I realized I’d been taking more than the usual notice of high seaside cliffs with sharp curves and long straightaways leading up to them.
It all culminated with the intentional overdose and the tawdry lawn show for my neighbors. I’d been taking antidepressants at that time, but they were no longer effective. I was involuntarily consigned to a lockdown psychiatric ward. While there, I volunteered to try electroshock therapy. After eight rounds, most of the previous two years of my life had been erased from memory. But the darkness of suicidal depression lifted. I was free to go.
Four months later the anxiety and depression returned. Soon after that, my wife found me drinking vodka in the garage out of a bottle I kept hidden in an old piece of luggage.
I returned once again to AA. There I was told that my relapses were the result of not doing the work, or not doing it correctly. “If your program isn’t working, why don’t you try ours?” my sponsor told me. I suspected it might be a little more complicated than that. I’d been involved in some biotech research years before, and I knew that blaming the patient for the failure of the therapy (or even for a high dropout rate) was unacceptable.
So what was going on here? Why wasn’t this working for me?
I dove into researching AA history, hoping to get a better understanding of what this thing was supposed to be about. And what I found fairly shocked me. Faith-healing. Classical AA theory, such as it is, described what happened in AA under the operation of the Twelve Steps as a kind of facilitated faith-healing. I learned that when the Big Book talked about miracles, the language there wasn’t metaphorical. Being probably beyond human aid, you need God the Father to work a full on miracle for you. And then you have to follow His direction, or His miraculous protection goes away. Begin with your best understanding of Him, and you will find Him eventually.
That was traditional AA’s message.
I had little doubt that supernatural miracles and telepathic guidance from the Creator of the universe were not the actual operative factors in twelve step recovery. Contempt prior to investigation? Not really. For years I had prayed for miracles and guidance. It wasn’t working.
So if outright supernatural miracles weren’t getting the job done here in AA, what was? That’s what I set out to learn.
What I found was us. Fallible humans struggling to stay mindful of our alcoholic conditions. Supporting and inspiring each other. Working together to build lives they didn’t have to run from into a bottle, or to puff up with artificial highs.
We’re all crazy, someone told me once, but we’re not all crazy at the same time. I began by borrowing the judgment of my saner fellows, particularly when it came to the question of whether or not to take that first drink. Then I set myself on a course to become someone who didn’t need to drink anymore. I found particularly good advice on that matter in certain Stoic philosophers and Buddhist ideas.
I learned about how to live life on life’s terms, something I now believe to be the central mechanism behind many if not most recoveries. It’s always changing, but here’s my current understanding of what those terms are:
As an alcoholic, life is not offering me the option to drink moderately. As a human, life will not grant me any reliable picture of the future, nor any permanence, nor any control over much but my own choices.
I will learn only by testing my limits and my ideas in the real world, and some failure will be certain and at times painful. I will not be able to change the things I’m having difficult feelings about by manipulating those feelings. Not with chemicals, or sex, or any other form of evasion or manipulation.
I will be separated from the things and people I love by distance and by death. And I will be forced to spend precious minutes in the company of fools, and one of them will at times be me.
But I will be able to appreciate and even to create some beauty. I will be allowed to love, and to forgive. I will be awed by you and what you can show me that I couldn’t see through my own eyes.
I will have my triumphs, and together we will revel in them. I will have my losses and you will console me.
And I will laugh in appreciation of our stumbling humanity, our courage, our insane hope in the face of everything that’s stacked against us.
Life on life’s terms. All in all, it’s a fair offer.
In AA meetings, the speakers often end their stories with a description of “what it’s like now.” I’d like to do the same. My wife and I are about to celebrate another anniversary. We’re honestly happy together. The business we own continues to support us well.
I began and finished writing two novels in the last fourteen months. I take great satisfaction in that, because I had never been able to keep myself at any project more than a few weeks while I was getting loaded.
I sought out and found my birth mother. She had been looking for me too over many years, as it turns out. She’s a woman of depth and determination and in possession of a huge heart. I love her very much.
Life isn’t always sunny now. But whatever it is, I’m there to greet it each day as some version of my better self. That’s all I ever really needed or wanted to do. The wisdom of others and the strength of the AA community made it possible.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.