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