A Soul Sighting

By Dale K.

I’m not talking about the soul they say will never die and go to Heaven to be reunited with the dear departed.

No, I’m talking about the kind that Billy Joel sings of in his album, River of Dreams. “It’s gonna get dark, it’s gonna get cold … You gotta get tough but that ain’t enough … It’s all about soul.”

As a young man, I spent 30 months in the combat zone off the coast of Vietnam. Some of the time, it was little more than a party. Other times, the reality of war was personal and the peril was close enough to touch. For my troubles, I came home with a mostly empty seabag and PTSD. I was adrift in a world that denigrated veterans and held me to a standard that I could not reach. The PTSD seemed mild and, to a degree, quite manageable with counseling. I tended to avoid aggressive men. I preferred the company of gentle ones and women. I wasn’t exactly sure why. I recognized it as nothing more than a personal preference. It was just part of the essence that is me. It seemed to be just a part of my soul.

In the mid-seventies I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and prescribed Valium. I was happy to abuse my prescription and, after a while, the doctor refused to prescribe it any longer. Several years later, the anxiety was out of control so I sought counseling. After hearing about how much I drank (I only told her about half the truth), the therapist told me I needed to stop drinking for 60 days before I could continue the sessions. It was recommended that I go to AA.

It took many months of on and off drinking to understand that alcohol was exacerbating my anxiety. It was this realization that persuaded me to stop drinking for good. My solution had become my problem. With abstinence, my life improved considerably. By the time those 60 days of sobriety rolled around, I no longer felt the need for a therapist. There were problems to resolve, but I was learning how to face them sober. Eventually, my anxiety was replaced with serenity and that has allowed me to have a beautiful life in sobriety. I raised two wonderful daughters that have never known their dad to drink. I ran my own business for 22 years before retiring in 2011. Yes, there were a couple of divorces, but I overcame the heartache and learned from those, too.

I say all this to give you the back story. Now, I’ll fast forward a bit to the summer of 2019. Something happened that brought an old memory that I had buried for 50 years into the light. It terrified me and my PTSD went through the roof. I began to avoid others. When I did leave the house, I was hyper-vigilant, always guarding my six, agitated, staying as far away from others as possible and fleeing when the threat bested me. It seemed I was always in a state of “fight or flight.” My AA meetings were a little different. I knew these people. They weren’t as threatening, but I could still sense that I was pulling away from them. Let’s just say I was social distancing before social distancing was cool.

While at home, I found myself running the same thoughts through my mind over and over with no resolve. I was losing sleep. Usually I sleep like a rock for 7-8 hours. Now, I felt lucky to get 5-6 hours and it was always interrupted. I knew I needed help and the VA provided me with a therapist. One thing she told me early on is that my mind totally erased the memory because it was protecting me. At that time, I couldn’t cope with it. I recalled it now because I’m better equipped to manage it and I’ll be ok. They say that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Apparently, it’s also an incredible survival tool!

For the last five months, I’ve been self-isolating because of the pandemic. As much as I empathize with those who are suffering because of it, it has brought me some comfort. When I go to the grocery store others are avoiding me! What? They’re doing what I’ve been doing for months. The stress of going out in public was reduced to a very manageable level. This gave me the opportunity to relax and decompress. With that, I was able to think clearer and engage in more thoughtfulness towards myself.

While about a third of people are experiencing depression and/or anxiety because of COVID-19, I’m finding an old friend … serenity. How I accomplished this was by heeding the advice that was being given to me. I attended my weekly therapy sessions with enthusiasm and undertook a lot of self-reflection in-between. I stayed connected to my AA friends and the very large family I come from via Zoom meetings. I ate well. That not only included lots of fruits and veggies, but ice cream for my soul. I forced myself to stay in bed if I woke early. I paid close attention to my feelings. I didn’t judge or deny them. I just felt and considered them. I focused on my breath when anxiety rose its ugly head. I stayed busy with renovations to my home. I checked in on my neighbor and helped her when I could. I built a bird feeder and took hikes so I can connect with a very soothing Mother Nature. I rode my motorcycle a lot because it demands that I only focus on what is in front of me. It’s like a form of meditation for me.

All of this grounding helps me stay in the present. It’s only in the present that I can look at everything objectively. I’m not that person that was traumatized 50 years ago. Today I have strengths that I honed with therapy, the rooms of AA, my intact sobriety, the classroom of life and the love of my family. I can use those strengths to defeat or, at least, minimize the effects of trauma. I was a fairly well adjusted guy (some would argue this) before that memory stole my soul. Today, that memory is just a memory. I was hoping it would fade away, but I don’t believe that will happen anymore. Fortunately, it is losing its power over my present. In my 39 years of sobriety I’ve proven to myself that I’m better and stronger than this. I’ll not only prevail, but grow from this adversity!

Sometime, in the not-too-distant future, life will evolve to some kind of new normal. The guy that will greet that future will be an even better version of the me that I’ve known in sobriety. It was dark and cold, but I was tough because I found my soul! Isn’t that what it’s all about?

A Secular SobrietyDale K. has lived in North Carolina since 2018. He grew up in Michigan and attended 12 years of Catholic school, but it didn’t “take.” He decided he was an atheist at the age of 13. He moved to South Florida in 1974. He first came to AA in 1980 and had his last drink in 1981. In the mid ‘80s a secular meeting was started in his home town of Boca Raton. He attended that meeting exclusively until he moved up the coast in 2010.

There he found traditional AA to be just like he had left it. In 2013 he discovered that AA had published a new edition of the Big Book in 2001. He was quick to read it and see the changes. Realizing there were none made to the “first 164 pages,” he decided it was time to make the changes himself. With that, he began writing his book, A Secular Sobriety. It was first published in June 2017 and has surpassed 1000 sales. It can be purchased on Amazon. A Secular Sobriety: Including a secular version of the first 164 pages of the Big Book.

The featured image for today’s article is a photo taken by Robin J Ramage in Port Dover, Ontario.

14 Responses

  1. Diana says:

    Thank-you for this wonderful article. Your writing is so personal and accessible. I will admit, once I realized I needed to stop drinking, I hoped that was all I was going to have to do. The real work continues on a daily basis and you write so well about what is involved in that process.

  2. Mary M says:

    Thank you Dale, now I know you a little better. I had my own PTSD event at a meeting in San Francisco many years ago when a woman spoke of her childhood abuse and I completely fell apart and truly didn’t know what was going on and went into therapy (again) when I got back to Toronto and all these terrible memories came forward that I had suppressed until I had enough sobriety to deal with them.

    I am so glad you got through such terrible times of isolation and fear. I can so relate to your article.

    Our brains are extraordinary.

    • Dale K. says:

      Thank you, Mary. I’m sorry you had to go through that. I hope you’re well on the way to recovery from it. It’s heartening to know that I’m not alone in this kind of experience.

  3. Joe m says:

    I empathize with all the feelings you expressed, Dale. I too found that song enlightening, in the middle of the night, yup. Your serenity shines through. Glad to have met you and know you. Throttle therapy rules.

    • Dale K. says:

      Thanks, Joe! I’ve been enjoying throttle therapy for 50 years. I can’t imagine life without it. Even after I’m too old to ride I think I’ll keep one in the garage so I can pat her on the rear fender as I walk by.

  4. Megan W Moyer says:

    Thank you for your post, Dale. And, thank you as well for your book. I just ordered it!

  5. Joe C says:

    What a delight to see Dale K’s name in my inbox. You never disappoint. One of the great benefits of our lock-down recovery is the International flair to meetings now and it’s great to see you arrive in any meeting I’m attending. You often leave the time to others for sharing and while I get it – lunch bag let down. As everyone here has noted, when you do speak up you have something thoughtful to offer. As Bob K (no relation to Dale K, folks) and others have noted, you’re good writing is easy reading.

    Thanks Dale; hope to see you online soon.

  6. Doc says:

    Thanks for sharing. Staying in the present rather than attempting to relive the past or projecting about the future has been important in my growth in sobriety.

  7. bob k says:

    Two of the notable things about this site are the diversity of the contributors and the high caliber of the writing. This revealing tale is remarkably well told. Among the power-packed phrases I really appreciated was:

    Other times, the reality of war was personal and the peril was close enough to touch. For my troubles, I came home with a mostly empty seabag and PTSD.

    Wonderful essay. Thank you. Visit us again.

  8. Geraldine says:

    I forgot to add in my previous comments that it was due to Vietnam veterans that I was able to get sober. The vets I knew spoke to me about quitting drinking long before I got to AA and also suggested I look into my traumas. I didn’t have a clue what they meant till I met another really important man who was the Director of the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center here who wanted to know what my deal was with Vietnam vets. Well, I couldn’t answer him other than saying they always understood me. Later I learned they understood me because we were traumatized individuals who recognized kindred spirits in each other because we had been traumatized. Wow. I’m so very thankful to them for helping me learn!

  9. Geraldine says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful piece, Dale. I especially appreciated you bringing up PTSD as I have it, too, just not from actual combat but from the war that was so often raging in my family home. I know my PTSD was behind my drinking and drugging for so many years till I sobered up on February 22, 1988. Since then I’ve had a tremendous amount of healing, so much like you mentioned here. Thank you for sharing your experience, strength, and hope so openly. It really spoke to me.

    • Dale K. says:

      Thank you, Geraldine! At some point in everyone’s life, they will deal with trauma. Getting the help needed is so very important. What would be better is if we would learn about it and coping skills before it happens. That would help to have a better outcome after it happens. The mental health field is far too stigmatized.

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