Moments of Clarity


By life-j

I’ve always loved hearing stories where people talk about their moment of clarity. That’s where recovery begins. A friend talked about how he was on a thousand mile drunken trip with a few cases of beer behind the passenger seat, and halfway to his destination he pulls over to the side of the road, slumps, and says to himself “I can’t do this anymore”, then turns around, goes home, goes to an AA meeting, and stays sober.

From blindly stumbling along my friend in that moment embarked on a path of self-reflection. There may have been rocks and boulders along the path; I can’t remember the rest of his story, but this was the beginning. My own moment of clarity was similar to this, but I’ll get back to that in a bit.

True self-reflection is at the core of recovery, whether we come to it from a sense of grandiosity or are feeling downtrodden, with a lack of self-esteem. Up until that point we’re like an 18-wheeler that has lost its brakes.

Our thoughts about ourselves are stuck. I am the way I am, and that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with me, so get out of my way; or I can’t do anything right, nobody likes me, I’m worthless, may as well kill myself. Or anything in between: we’re stuck. For a while drinking is the only thing which seems to give any relief from being stuck. For me alcohol was liquid courage, but eventually it only makes it worse.

JungBut something happens in that moment of clarity.

In the Big Book, Bill Wilson quotes Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist, that only a spiritual experience can change things. And while Bill wanders off into god-land, Jung’s explanation is entirely down to earth:

To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. (Big Book, p. 27)

Maybe it simply starts with the realization “I’m slowly killing myself”, or it’s like crawling down a slope and suddenly it turns into a precipice and your foot slips. Whoa! That was close. Or narrowly escaping a serious traffic collision. Remember that rush of adrenaline, and what to do with it afterwards. Just stand there shaking. It can be like all of this, and yet different.

But what is it that really happens in that moment of clarity? For some of us it changes our lives forever, for others it is a fleeting glimpse that is soon lost. Well, I’d like to suggest that we start collecting stories which focus on that moment. Maybe if we put them together in a book it can help us see a pattern.

Here’s mine:

I’d been drinking every night for quite some time, had a three week around the clock binge in the middle of it, when I was working for some people I really liked, doing some repairs to their house. I had some back problems, and since the husband was an orthopedist I asked him if he would mind having a look at my back. So at the end of the day he asked me into the living room and sat me down, and asked point blank if I had ever drank too much. I hadn’t really expected that, and since of course everybody at some point had drank too much, and while I was sitting there mulling it over, he asked me if I had ever been wasted for weeks on end.

Now to that I confidently answered no right away. It didn’t really register that he probably asked because I was obviously right in the middle of it. So he said okay, let’s have a look at that back. And he didn’t find anything obvious, but decided to send me down to Highland Hospital to have it checked out. So first thing the doctor there asked me was “have you ever been drinking too much?” Of course by then I had gotten wise to it, and could answer no right away.

But the whole thing got me thinking. Mostly because these were really nice people. I had worked for them off and on for a number of years. They were unusually nice people, both of them, I had a lot of respect for them in a way that reached to my core, and my drinking was never the same again, though for starters it got worse. I drank with a vengeance every night, but I really wanted to quit, or at least take a break, so every morning I would tell myself that tonight I’m not going to drink.

Well, by 4 o’clock I’d say “tomorrow I’m not going to drink, I just really need a couple of beers tonight to relax”. Twelve hours and a case later I’d hold my bed still long enough to lay down in it. And it didn’t register when I got up that I was telling myself exactly what I had said many mornings before, and would keep telling myself for another four or five months. This was the time of incomprehensible demoralization, as Bill calls it.

I’m coming to, I don’t know whether I am awake yet, or still dreaming. I get to see my life ahead of me.

My material life was still remarkably together, I still had my house, my truck, most of my friends I’d see occasionally, several of my customers had hung on, but it was about to change. The last three weeks I had stayed home, building a dollhouse for my girlfriend’s little daughter, drinking around the clock. The dollhouse actually came out very nice except it was half the size of a good size refrigerator, and I can’t imagine what they did with the damn thing after I was out of their lives, but I couldn’t deal with people anymore. This was the point, I guess where many lock themselves up and drink themselves to death, slowly, or quicker than they had imagined, as the case may be.

So, I’m coming to, and I see where it’s going. Pretty soon I’m going to get my house foreclosed on, I’ll probably get some money out of it, go rent an apartment, drink up the money, stay until I get evicted, move into a friend’s basement, stay there until they get tired of my ass and throw me out, and then I’ll be out in the street, sleep where I can, and be up and in front of the liquor store at ten to six with the rest of Y’ all.

Clarity of VisionI don’t even think the prospect of it in itself scared me all that much. It was the clarity of the vision. I never knew whether it was a split second or whether I lay there for a half hour, but it was as clear as if I was living through it, and it scared me stark raving sober. I groped around for a calendar, eventually figured out which day it was and circled it. I had quit.

I did have one beer a couple of months later. I was taking a lady out to dinner. What went through my head? I had quit. I don’t know. I’m never going to get laid if I sit here all tongue-tied, or something like that, maybe. A beer will help. I’m lucky, it was all I had. Those last couple of months I really hadn’t missed it all that much. Just the absence of the atrocious hangovers coupled with the slowly lifting fog had been enough to make life worth living. But this one beer set off a craving like I had never experienced before, since I had never let anything get in the way of my drinking. But after I dropped the lady off at her house, no I didn’t get laid anyway, I remembered that I had quit drinking. All the next day, and half the day after that it was all I could do to hang on. I pulled through, and a couple of months later, when I started entertaining the idea of a beer again I realized I’d better get myself some help. So I went to an AA meeting. It was a Wednesday at noon. But that beer was the best beer I ever had. It was the one that allowed me to experience a craving I had never known. It let me know that I was indeed addicted to alcohol.

Looking back, what happened? All I know is that at that moment I had the clarity and strength to stop. A gamma ray made it through the earth’s magnetic field and hit my brain in just the right spot? Only a slightly better explanation than that god did it. But maybe if we put our stories together we will see a pattern and understand more than we do now. Maybe we could put a book of stories together and I think it may be the sort of book which could be quite helpful to newcomers, too. So bring ‘em on.

Collected AA Articleslife-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there.

He has written a number of articles posted on AA Agnostica. You can read and/or download his book as a PDF right here: My Collected Published AA Stories.

11 Responses

  1. Hilary J. says:

    Thanks for that very relevant story, Life-J! My moment of clarity came when I was trudging through a blizzard to the liquor store at 10:30 pm, frantic thst I wouldn’t make it before they closed at 11. Needless to say I’d already had my fill, but was still desperate for more. That made me realize that I was an addict like any other, needing my fix at any cost.

  2. Adam N. says:

    The fundamental clarity experience I was most affected by, my own awakening, was when, after more than 2 decades of uninterrupted sobriety, I fully realized that Alcoholics Anonymous, with its 12 steps and AA-dominated treatment center industry completely controlling the world of recovery, actually stands directly in the way of us researching, discovering, and developing alternative, evidence-based treatment techniques, techniques which might serve to benefit more than the mere 10% of those who AA actually helps to free from active alcoholism and addiction. I, personally, have ceased trying to fit the round peg of Adam into the square holes of AA. Kudos to those who can still stomach the bullshit. I’m just not there anymore…

    • life-j says:

      Thanks everyone, and thank you Adam. I agree, you said it well, and this may be the next big thing for us to discuss. I am entirely tired of the bullshit myself, and I’m if not confrontational, then at least calling a spade a spade whenever religious stuff is read in regular meetings, such as Daily Reflections. I thought it encouraging that at the Toronto convention we had three professionals discussing some of these issues, and we were also looking at some other subgroups of AA which are not being served well by AA, not just the unbelievers.

      My concerns are two-fold, at least. One, the AA organization, while serving us poorly, is already established, and it would be good if it can be reformed, rather than starting from scratch. This is not an encouraging scenario, since much of AA is being financed by an outdated, evangelical book being sold in the hundreds of thousands to recovery centers. The other is that if I don’t go to the meetings and speak my piece, nothing will change.

      I’m aware, once a cucumber has turned into an elephant it may be too late to turn it into a pickle, or something like that.

      Best we can do at the moment is to see where the momentum of secular AA takes us. I think this is where all possible change is going to come from. Give it a few years.

      By the way, thanks for writing your book. the chapter around spiritual caulk I found really helpful.

  3. Cindi M says:

    I learned how to drink like the adults in my family, who started drinking at noon (or so), followed by happy hour, and all the way to bedtime. One day I got mad because they started before me. After a double-what-ever, I picked up the kids from after-school activities in a little red sports car. Realizing that I had just put us all in danger, I stopped drinking. After 25 sober years, I drank. I didn’t even think of stopping for 5 years, but four doctors said alcohol didn’t mix with my medicines and health problems. That worked for 10 months. Since then it’s really hard to stay sober. I’m using alternative versions of the steps, going to secular meetings and have one month of sobriety. I’m sober, just for today.

    • C J says:

      Hi Cindi,

      Being sober just for today works… just keep making a commitment on a daily basis that you’re not going to drink… NO MATTER WHAT!

      My thoughts and best wishes to you for your continued sobriety…


  4. C. J. L. says:

    “Well, I’d like to suggest that we start collecting stories which focus on that moment. Maybe if we put them together in a book it can help us see a pattern.”

    A book such as the author of this article suggest already exist and was written about ten years ago. Moments of Clarity: Voices From the Front Lines of Addiction and Recovery by Christopher Kennedy Lawford. Forty-four individual stories. From the prospective of someone with thirty years of sobriety, I highly recommend it. Available new and used from Amazon.

    • Roger says:

      And here’s the book C.J. recommended (click on it to see it at Amazon):

      Moments of Clarity

      • life-j says:

        Even though I have some issues with that this is mostly a book with rich and famous people, a number of the stories are very good, a couple of atheist stories, many go lightly with the god stuff, to where it hardly irritates at all though there are a few that do, one even talks about the good lord.

        But the book is refreshing in its style, quite close to spoken language, not sanitized like the big book, and has a recovery agenda instead of a god agenda.

  5. G.B. says:

    Today I am a woman, a AA member, who has been off alcohol for 23 years and I just recently have come to practicing an atheist AA way of life. Over the years going through life experiences and as abstinence of substance helped my conscience sober up I discovered a synchronicity, an energy coming from peoples thoughts and actions that can bring needed help to attention when the time is right. Simply said, things often happen when it was just the time for a person to pick up on it and go through an important conscious wake. Also beliefs, whatever they may be, have a strong influence in peoples way of thinking and reacting.

    Earlier in my life I was a heavy weekend drinker from age 15 to 25. I was brought up with alcohol as a culture, where you had to have it in the house and serve it – bar open – to visitors. Weekends where traditional party times, so also was getting drunk with the consequences from the loss of inhibitions. And then Monday would come back with its reality, where you had to survive it dealing with thirst and misery until liberating Friday came. But I strongly believed not to drink on week days, that had to be kept straight for going to school and go back to work. Every time I would get drunk, often going out in bars, I would act in ways that would take a toll on my dignity and would make me physically sick and sicker. It felt like I was going to loose my mind and die. I had to stop. When I was in my teens my sister brought her new faith on the scene and introduced me to the Bible. I believed in the God I was thought to worship, so I then lived a clash between my Catholic upbringing and protestant way of practicing religion. When I first wanted to stop drinking my faith in the God of the Bible played an important part in my first steps towards sobriety. I still had to find out later on that almost all in my life was tainted by a strong guilt trip. The religious principles I was trying to live by often came as a stumbling block rather than a comfort or adequate suggestions for a way of living that could work for me.

    I could stop drinking for periods of time but would relapse every once and a while and still get drunk every time, feel awful guilty and sick, and not knowing what to do to make this stop for good. While in my thirties my oldest brother formed a couple with a girlfriend who was a AA member. I was invited to attend a meeting where what caught my attention was all the literature on the table, I really love reading. I asked someone if I could take the plasticized poster with the twelve steps written on it and go sit down to read it. What I did and silently read and reread. I gave back the poster and told the nice man “I have been looking for this all my life” … This was my first moment of clarity that stayed with me, but I still had other things to live before I could go ask for help. One day I remembered how members of my family would make fun of AA and how it could make you doubt you could be perceived as a traitor if you dared to admit being an alcoholic. There where incidents with people in my environment that would unconsciously trigger fear, keeping me from thinking straight and take action. My God was supposed to bee the only cure I needed. I was married since age twenty to an alcoholic that was still an active drinker who wouldn’t want me to go to ask for help. Then just at the right time, it was my religious sister I opened up to, in despair, about the way I would hide to go back to drinking again. She was working as a janitor in the city public buildings and it was her, of all people, who suggested I try an AA meeting as she could see a little of what was going on in there. There was another moment of grace that showed me help can sometimes come where you would least expect it. I went there and it was the start of my real recovery with Alcoholics anonymous.

    When I started out the fact that God was in the picture was just fine for me. More important was the mention : “as you conceive” your God. I was well aware that there are some people who either believe their own way or do not. The welcoming message of AA saying you only have to want to stop drinking became very important to me. I could come in any way I was and so could anybody who needed shelter and help which was the most important thing. I was all for respect of one another and anonymity, no controversy. There was also examples of how the principles of the Association would try to go about faith and beliefs, the book titled : “We have come to believe” that could serve as a guide. It quickly came clear to me that I wasn’t going to be one to try and tell someone how to live their way of life, their faith or not, so long as they stayed with AA and became successfully abstinent and sober. I realize today that the issue of what I now consider as “the God of AA” issue worked its way in the back of my mind although I would avoid stopping to really think about it. I had my own issues and dreadful doubts to go over with my faith, my God. What came to disturb me most was the fact that a lot of the members I was sharing with in groups I went to would not want to practice the twelve steps as suggested. But whether it was about the God issue never came into light. In some discussion groups where some were trying to explain and make what they were reading practical there was often confusion, some sorts of superstitions or other; all sorts of sound waves.

    Finally I started staying at home and using other ways of healing, instead of AA principles, that would suit me better. Then came a time where I had to come to terms with my beliefs. Personal experiences and research brought me to not believing in God anymore. Recently synchronicity made it’s way to me again. A good friend and AA member reached out to me to share how she has found the sponsor she needs to help her in her present state of recovery. Her enthusiasm brought me back to good vibes about AA. It now was my turn to try and figure out a way with the practice of my twelve steps again, the AA way of life, by putting God out of the literature, out of the way. There came another moment of clarity pointing to me that I had to do something about it. I went to my computer search engine and typed : “God and AA”. there I found out about AA secular groups and the cause of atheists wanting to be admitted in AA’s Association.

    And here I am with you right now today.

    • life-j says:

      Thanks. Interesting journey. And one thing you reminded me of was this thing of being a traitor. My group of drinking buddies had something like that. Of course it was unspoken. Until I quit. I’d been the sort who wouldn’t take no for an answer when I offered someone a drink. So people had tended to either drink, or simply keep their distance. There were a number of occasions where I helped people fall off the wagon. So people were, in turn, all too willing to help me. I had to isolate for a while, and I wasn’t even going to AA yet.
      It’s been so long since I had my moment of (un-)religious clarity, that I can’t even relate to how it is going through that as an adult, and yet I have many friends here who have done just that. But although I was only about 8, I remember it distinctly. Of course it wasn’t so much in the form of religious considerations, it was just that the cognitive dissonance grew so loud I couldn’t ignore it: I can’t recognize the god they’re talking about in any of what is happening to me. No way I can go on believing this stuff. I can’t remember if it was at that time I realized how sick and twisted it was to worship someone dead and nailed to a cross. Never mind all the rest. Anyway, I guess this all belongs better in comparative religious studies.

  6. Phil E. says:

    In my twenties, I looked at another drunk, twenty years my senior that looked like a rough fifty years my senior. I predicted that was my future self, and realized there would be no second chance. Stopped drinking. That was 36 sober years ago. Whew! What a close call! Used the program, minus the god stuff.

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