Archive for the ‘Early sobriety’ Category

I was looking out my front door early this Sunday morning, trying to “look at nature” the way St. Jean Kirkpatrick suggests I do.  It’s a big part of St. Jean’s approach, this “looking at nature” aspect of meditation, and harder to do at the end of a suburban  cul-de-sac than in a quaint village in Quakertown, PA.  (I never know whether to be grateful or resentful that it was American Transcendentalism that helped get her sober.)  The snow is three-quarters gone, sticking icily to the grass and roads.  There’s a recurring patch of ice in the exact middle of the first porch step that forms in partial homage to the leak in the unfixed gutter above.  The sky is half-gray, a tongue of sad, orange sun beginning to crest at the street-end.

Pierre Fiore--Winter Thaw

What was nature telling me?  Something about the in-between-ness of things?  Something cruel about spring being far behind–no matter what Shelley had to say on the matter.

The forecast calls for rain.  That will get rid of the snow, I thought.  But then it’s bound to snow again, maybe late next week, in fact.  And it’s two weeks ’til Ground Hog Day, which is psychologically a turning point for everyone living in a temperate zone.  Although I can’t help feeling that for people more northerly it’s just some kind of sick joke.

Perhaps nature was obligingly mirroring my life.  It feels like that half this/half that landscape right now:  between things.   I am waiting for different weather.  Some days I am even waiting to feel “more sober,” like people I meet who have a year or more behind them.  The permanence and solidity of a nice, fat, round ONE seems far away, and I am envious of those who have it.  I am waiting to hear back from employers, waiting for a job that will change my day-to-day circumstances, not to mention my financial mess.  Throwing out those CVs and cover letters feels as satisfying as sprinkling the walk with salt, knowing I’ll have to do it again in a few days.  The not-winter, not-spring outside matches this restless dissatisfaction, I thought, unhappily turning from the open door.

Nature isn’t really telling me anything, of course.  It’s just out there, being itself, being January.  It would take an ego at least as big as Emerson’s to think so.  The snow just is.  It just is today.  For all I know, it will be today again tomorrow.  If not, there will be another January, another false thaw, another in-between.

I am at least as unteachable this morning as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.  It takes Murray’s character hundreds, maybe thousands of attempts at a single day to appreciate it.  His is the supernaturally actualized experience of “no matter where you go, there you are,”  and its metaphor is no more complex that what one might find in an eighth grade reading book.   Reliving the same day is enough to make one suicidal, which is the putative “crisis” of the film.   How much practice will it take me to take today on its own terms? Never symbolically checking the Weather Channel, never looking at the calendar wistfully?

It’s hard to find beauty in a temporary winter thaw, although I suspect the hungry birds have no trouble experiencing whatever equivalent to happiness birds enjoy at the sight of the receding snow.  And what if what I am waiting for never comes anyway?  Do I have the courage to accept the possibility of a life of todays?  It is not merely a question of a Kirkpatrick-y re-analysis of today’s possibilities, wonders, and beauties.  Believing in the comedic arc of the film would be convenient, but it is not brave.   Bravery can demand stoic responsibility for the present–Bill Murray running every day to catch the same little boy who falls from the same tree at the same time, not fruitless attempts to catch the girl of his dreams instead.  In the Serenity Prayer, acceptance is the yin to change‘s yang:  some days do not offer the potential of both.   Or, if we follow the wisdom of the film, change will only come with acceptance of the unchangingness of things.

This morning I woke up thinking about Houdini.  (Who doesn’t?)  Houdini the Escape Artist,  who made theater out of mortal danger and its destruction.  There is something sexual in the tension built by watching him or present-day magicians struggle with coils of rope or chain underwater, for instance.  The heart is racing for him; one finds oneself holding one’s breath.   Then, ah, the moment of release–the flooding triumph  as he comes up for air.  And all the while he has looked placid, while we have squirmed and squinted with anxiety.  There is an allure to these tricks, and an artistry to pulling them off for audiences.

But is it really escape that is the art of these antics?  To return to the sexual analogy, I think not:  no more than great lovemaking is measured by the orgasm.  If escape were the art being pursued, we would experience nearly the same thrill watching a woman escape from a pair of handcuffs as we do watching her escape from a iron cage, soldered shut as it hangs on a fraying rope over boiling water.  This kind of artistry is based on the aesthetic of danger, not on the aesthetic of escape itself.

Escapism is not supposed to be good for us, spiritually speaking.  It’s especially not good for addicts like me, who have spent large chunks of our lives retreating from realities.  One image of the alcoholic is of a selfish, and eventually resentful, dreamer who does not have the spiritual fortitude (or, more mildly, the spiritual tools) to face reality.  Is it therefore stubborn recidivism in me that asks, quite seriously, “What’s so great about reality?” Is it blind, selfish, and egocentric to champion the retreat from reality as spiritually necessary?

The problem of escapism as a spiritual or ethical strategy is that it evokes Houdini, rather than Daedalus, most of the time.  Houdini had always to “up the ante” in his tricks, like a gambling addict seeking higher and higher stakes or increasingly dangerous odds. These aesthetics are morbid.  As Houdini’s own end illustrates, the question is never if but when.  The point wasn’t escape; the point was that one day he wouldn’t.  Analogously, I confess I have found nothing sexy in the escalation of alcoholism, no matter how aesthetically a biographer might one day have posthumously painted my liquid game of Russian roulette.

Houdini, the alcoholic, the gambler:  these escape artists aren’t really interested in escape, only in the envelope-pushing that will one day erase the necessity for escape.

The real escape artists are not interested in envelopes and limit-pushing but in the distance from reality their starship imaginations can give them.  I mentioned Daedalus because of his early modern iconographic status as one kind of artist, just as Icarus is another (the one who flies too high).  In Renaissance terms, Daedalus escapes the dangers, but does not over-test his limits:  the image of playing it safe as opposed to the high-flyers who are interesting to watch for a while but who crash and burn.  I also bring up Daedalus because you can’t bring up Daedalus without Stephen Daedalus.  And that gets me to James Joyce.  And that gets me where I want to go.

Through the autobiographical projection, Stephen Daedalus, Joyce didn’t embrace a “play it safe” attitude at all, but I can’t imagine how he might sneer at the AA slogan, “life on life’s terms” or “god on god’s terms.”  Joyce didn’t want to play those reindeer games:  “reality,” as most people define it, was to Joyce an artistic snare.  Ireland itself, moreover, was not so much a Minotaur’s maze as a it was the Isle of Circe, capable of domesticating artists into serviceable swine.   The Irish artists of his day were pressed into political service one by one, including Yeats and Dion Boucicault and a dozen others.  “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow,”  says Stephen to a friend who admonishes him to “take life on life’s terms”:  “Ireland, first, Stevie.  You can be a poet or mystic after.”

Stephen’s ethical response to these deadly sirens was to employ “the only arms I allow myself to use–silence, exile, and cunning.”  These sound like ignoble implements unless you’ve ever tried to use only them as a response to life.  The only shame about Joyce, as opposed to his character Stephen, is that silence, exile, and cunning came with a tall whiskey chaser.

The tools of escape–cunning, exile, silence–permit distance from a world that does not permit the artist to breathe.  It is no mere accident of autobiography or history that Stephen/Joyce toys for so long with the idea of taking orders.  It was one kind of retreat that was, in the last issue, another snare.  But the vocation to be apart from the world is what the novel emphasizes in Stephen’s religious peregrinations.

AA is its own world apart, of course.  My fellow AAs and I say all the time of what happens in the rooms and halls:  “You could only hear that here” or “No where does this happen but here.”  Because of AA’s emphasis on spirituality as the “cure” for alcoholism, many AAs approach meetings with a  reverence (or greater reverence) that they might reserve for a religious observance or rite.  We are set apart:  a notion underscored by the language of anonymity and secrecy embedded by the Twelve Traditions and by the closed nature of some meetings themselves.  “What is said here, stays here,” says the chair, followed by rapping knuckles on the tables and a murmured response of “here, here.”

Spiritual retreat, in the form of meditation and prayer, is practiced by most recovery programs.  The desire and necessity to escape the cares of the world, the pain and guilt and ugliness that sometimes (or even frequently) accompanies just getting up in the morning seems to me a healthy response.  More radically, the founder of Rational Recovery (which rejects on almost every level AA’s approach to alcoholism) claims that addiction itself is the function of a healthy body:  it is natural for the body to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to “escape”.  The problem is–according to this theory–that the source of pleasure becomes the creator of pain in alcoholics.  (I’ll leave aside most of my thoughts about RR and AVRT, its program of recovery.  I’ll simply say that a rational answer wasn’t what I was looking for at the bottom of a bottle.)

It’s no wonder that Keats in his “Ode to a Nightingale” first thinks of getting drunk as the antidote to his tuberculor fever.  He rejects it in favor of writing a poem, of course, but the Romantics in general fall into the Icaran category of artists.  Mary Shelley didn’t let them forget that.  Her Frankenstein is a punitive narrative of art-gone-wrong, as it chronicles the good doctor’s failure to escape the wrath of the creation for whom the author fails to take responsibility.  He is no escape artist, just an egocentric jackass.

I am currently reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude in the mornings, which is a study in the ethics of escape.  May Sarton is not 2/3 of the artist she thought she was, but I think she was definitely all the artist she could be, which is all anyone can ask, really.  She describes her retreat as both self-indulgent and painfully ascetic.  Interestingly, she adds at one point that she feels “like a house with no walls . . . . [W]hatever good effect my work may have comes . . . from my own sense of isolation and vulnerability.  The house is open in a way that no house where a family lives and interacts can be.”  Isolation is a blessing and a curse for Sarton, who by turns celebrates and bemoans her self-imposed exile.  Were she a genius, the angst and gaiety she records would be inspiring rather than peculiar.  She cannot laugh at herself, which is the greatest self-indulgence of all.

The great escape artists ultimately write (and perhaps live) in constant tragi-comedy.  They can always laugh.   More significantly, they do not “face” reality.  Instead they show us how to endure it, escape it, play with it, avoid it.  Samuel Beckett reigns supreme among the escape artists.  Reality in Beckett is in the four-to-eight second pauses, when the meaninglessness of life seems to threaten the chatty serenity of the characters.  But as long as the characters keep up a shell game of talk, nothing much seems to bother them.

I think about the way 8-10 year olds who still believe in Santa Claus mount defenses against the reality of his non-existence.  It’s spectacular to watch their minds at work on the problem of intractable physical and logical evidence.  It’s delightful.  I can imagine that is is only the worst Scrooges and Grinches who would want to drag these kids out of this belief.  The comic characters in Beckett refuse in the same way.  Didi and Gogo in Beckett’s most famous play play little games with language and meaning in order to avoid admitting that there is no Godot for whom to wait.  But without the wait, there lives would be meaningless.  As it is, they find spiritual fuel in the postponement of suicide:

Estragon:  You say we have to come back tomorrow?

Vladimir:  Yes.

Estragon:  Then we can bring a good bit of rope.

Vladimir:  Yes.

[Silence]

Estragon:  Didi.

Vladimir:  Yes.

Estragon:  I can’t go on like this.

Vladimir:  That’s what you think.

Estragon:  If we parted?  That might be better for us.

Vladimir:  We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow.  [Pause.] Unless Godot comes.

I wouldn’t tell Didi and Gogo that there’s no Godot anymore than I’d tell the nine-year-old about Santa.  I like to watch their escape from reality:  what is the good of looking at it, except that it would bring despair and suicide. The laugh I get from watching them is at my own expense.  My head is as much in the sand as theirs.

Didi and Gogo are also capable of empathy and tenderness towards one another–traits missing from their parallel characters, Pozzo and Lucky, whose relationship has devolved into sadomasochistic parody.  I think it is their ability to retreat constantly from reality that permits this tenderness:  the illusions  of hope and optimism create a space for selflessness that is impossible if the cruel facts of reality are laid bare.

This is why I am surprised sometimes that “dreamers” or “idealists” are so often labeled selfish.  Even the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous skirts this line a little, as it compares the alcoholic to the actor who wants to run the show (c.f. pp. 61-62).  The thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death was just this month.  His fans thought him selfish for breaking up the most popular band on the planet.  His detractors thought him an irresponsible idealist who retreated into the equally blinding beds of Yoko Ono on the one hand and political radicalism on the other.  Yet it’s rare to see a more PUBLIC retreat than this one, or one that produced such global ripples.  Lennon, Beckett, Joyce:  they all knew the wisdom of dropping out, not only for sanity’s sake, but for the world’s.  Every spiritual adviser who has ever recommended solitude and meditation knows it too.

Fighting the world for the fight’s sake is an extreme sport in which I’m not interested.  It is too much reality, as Beckett notes everywhere in his drama and prose.   Nothing would ever be imagined outside that reality, either.  Even though I know the basic reasons why, I am always surprised that more women and persecuted minorities aren’t drawn toward writing science-fiction, for instance, which offers the promise of Utopian spaces ungoverned by the painful social an political realities of the present.  Without time spent away from reality–escaping it, in fact–I can’t think about it, confront it, and change it.  Constant immersion in so-called “reality”–life on life’s terms–is caustic, draining, and does little to foster in me the qualities of empathy and tenderness I wish to bring to others.

There is something to be praised in an unflinching gaze at the miasma of reality.  Some men (and it is almost always men) I have met in AA will praise a former sponsor (a kind of AA mentor with more sobriety) for his “tough love”–men who will tell the newly sober that they are (and I nearly quote) “a lying, selfish piece of shit who has about a three percent chance of living sober.”  This works for some people:  it appears to be what they need to stay sober.  But I have not noticed that it has necessarily brought kindness, sympathy, or love into the world, the things that one might stay sober to have.

To me, this sort of sobriety is not much better than the Houdini trick, however much it may scald itself heroically on the “truth” of alcoholic reality over and over.  It is only my strategic escapes, my deliberate rejections of reality as unchanging that allow me to say, in the words of Beckett’s greatest protagonist, the Unnamable:  “I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.”

So today marks 40 days of sobriety.  And, indeed, I do see clouds parting and the audible flap of a bird’s wing (perhaps a labored one, heavy with its olive branched burden).  They have not always been an easy 40 days–especially the last 10 or so.  My obsession came back ferociously around Day 30, which I’m told is not uncommon. One day, one week, thirty days, sixty days, ninety days, one year… these are “anniversaries” celebrated in AA with little coins bearing the number of sober days one has achieved.  Apparently, some of us get squirrely around these notable dates.  I am not immune.

The past 10 days have been pockmarked with desperate moments of alcoholic obsession.   It reminds me painfully of a tragic little crush I had on a student of mine some years ago.  (Please, no rolling of the eyes at this dreadful cliche.  When Sting sang about it, you ate it up and suckled the spoon afterward.  And this one was a legal 23 years old, thank you very much.)  It wouldn’t have been so awful had the crush not been returned and had the opportunities to have pursued this passion been so damned numerous.  Ethics of all sorts were not merely observed but put into painful,  self-abnegating practice for the span of about 3 1/2 months.  Happily, and unspectacularly, my relationship to inappropriate peccadilloes places me archetypally alongside  the Jimmy Carters of the world and not the Bill Clintons.  I only sinned in my heart (and sometimes with my right hand… but you can’t blame a girl, right?)

Just so:  I have romanced this phantom bottle for almost two weeks.  Like my student, that bottle always seems to be showing up–quite physically.  Not as a pair of brown eyes gazing adoringly at me from across a desk, but at any party I attend, any grocery I frequent, even in my house (when some folks took advantage of the BYOB on the invitation).  Tantalizingly out of reach, of course, only because of my ethics.  What is the harm?  Surely one drink–maybe just two–could not hurt.  Think about how good it would feel, smell, taste–and, ah!, the thrill of getting away with it!

Play the tape to the end, I tell myself.  Look at the consequences.

With these temptations around me and the complacence that sometimes follows a mile-stone like the 30-day marker, surely I’d envy the enforced de-tox of Noah’s experience?  No liquor stores to tempt me there.  Every partygoer’s six pack would be under hundreds of cubits of God’s deluvian wrath.  But, no thanks, anyway.  I’d take some temptation over that period of time packed in with thousands of smelly animals and, worse, all the members of my extended family.  A tee-totaler might be tempted to ferment the first fruit dry ground offered after that experience.

We think of Noah’s forty days and forty nights as that period of prolonged terror mixed with faith.  The Bible reads like a Weather Channel account, of course, and no word is spared for what Noah et al. enduring spiritually during the trial.  Faith that the waters would recede was all anyone had.  The narrative is silent about the difficult, resentful prayers that might have been on the survivor’s lips, the gallows humor that might have abounded, the petty spats, and the sleepless nights.  But forty days doesn’t sound like all that much; Chilean miners have endured more.

But it wasn’t forty days, as our amnesiac Sunday School-trained minds will misremember.  Those were only the days of rain.  The Almighty’s watery fury takes a long time to abate.  If Genesis is to be believed:  it takes exactly a year.  And if you’re Noah, you’re grateful for the initial reprieve, but you spend the next eight and a half months sending out ravens and doves in the hope of discovering dry land.  Forty days is the time of terror and half-certainty of death:  the months after are the long, bitter battle with and for hope.

To read the passage of Genesis describing Noah’s post-forty-day experience is to confront a certain resentful weariness with the process of trusting God’s will.  “And God remembered Noah, and every living thing . . . and the waters were asswaged” (8: 1).  Remembered?  Seriously?  Was Our Lord off playing golf or out moonlighting in some other universe?  Noah is cautious in his approach to what’s going on outside the ark.  The dove brings back the olive branch?  He still stays.  The dove doesn’t come back at all?  He still stays.  It’s dangerous out there, and God doesn’t seem in such a hurry to “remember” Noah.

I won’t get into what happens afterward.  God decides flooding isn’t in His best interest from now on, but we still get bad human behavior in the form of hubris and the tower of Babel hard on the heels of Noah’s holy fidelity.  But like most things in the Bible, I’m usually more interested in what is NOT said than what is.  For instance, what happened to the Ark?  It was not merely home for a year; it was the physical vessel of salvation.  It was most certainly a mess, however.  C’mon:   “every beast after his kind, and every cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth… every fowl… every bird” are going to make for a Biblical manure heap after 365 days.  (Of course, creationists have some pretty interesting theories about this.  If I didn’t have to pay, I’d like to see The Creation Museum’s exhibit on this one.)

My analogy with my recovery goes only so far here, I know.  But all that animal dung and mess reminds me of my past–the pain I’ve felt and cause, the ugliness of addiction, and the smell and wreck that still clings to my present life.  The Ark got Noah through the rain and the flood’s aftermath, but what does he do with the wreckage?

What would an AA member do?  I tell you exactly what she’d do:  she’d take an inventory.  She’d catalog all the scat, every last bit of it, then humbly ask God to help her get rid of it.  If she’d hurt some people in the Ark, she’d apologize and do her best to make amends.   An AA-attending Noah would sweep that Ark out and make it useful or maybe turn it into a museum for generations to come.  It would be a monument to salvation.  This is the untold AA-inspired narrative of Noah’s adventures post-Ark.

Now, if we’re following Women for Sobriety founder Jean Kirkpatrick’s program, we get a different story.  St. Jean isn’t much for inventory taking; it was one of the ways WFS broke definitively from Alcoholics Anonymous.  Of steps Four and Five Dr. Kirpatrick had this to say:  “I began to wonder why I was feeling guilt and atonement for my physical disease.  Was I so immoral that I had to make this searching and fearless moral inventory?  …. I began to see that my problem was the lack  of self-confidence, a lack of self-esteem.  I didn’t need the heaviness of all this moral atonement, not now anyway, not if I were going to stay sober.” (102)   The WFS statement #9 most clearly articulates this position:  “The past is gone forever.”  Kirkpatrick was roundly criticized for this position, but defended herself with the simple statement that she did not “see any value to be had from a constant reiteration of past misdeeds and misconduct.  I do not have to talk about my past continualy to know it is there.” (154)

A Noah–or let’s say Noah’s wife-would look at the Ark, be grateful for the safe passage it wrought, and either sink it in what was left of the oceans or turn it into kindling or break it up for building materials.  There would be no lingering over the remains.  Noah always struck me as being more or less pragmatic, and one can’t help thinking that the immediate needs for warmth and shelter after the deluge would prompt such exigent use of resources.

These analogies do some epistemological violence to both AA and WFS–neither of which in practice either enshrine and endlessly rehearse the past on the one hand or bury it like an inconvenient corpse on the other.  But they do offer different paths for dealing with the wreckage of the past–even, in my case, just the recent past.  Do I search endlessly for the triggers that prompted the return of my obsession?  Do I firmly close the door on this uncomfortable hiccup and walk away with only the gratitude that the episode is over?  Are those who do not master and inventory the details of their personal history doomed to repeat it?  Or do those who continually inventory their pasts (distant and recent) only live in it?

I raise these questions with the most genuine of rhetorical motives.  However I deal with the frightening, if now receded, return of my drinking obsession, I am at least grateful for the momentary reprieve–a lull in the rain that can make the space for asking such questions possible.

Reference

Kirkpatrick, Jean.  Turnabout:  New Help for the Woman Alcoholic.  New York:  Bantam/Madrona.  1977/1990.

Alcoholics are pretty stupid most of the time.  This isn’t news.  We slur.  We forget things (like 2006 or if we’ve bathed).  We certainly can’t perform tasks that require higher order thinking very well…. or CAN we?  Recently, in fact, there have been some studies that show that high childhood IQ is a fairly good determinant of heavy adult drinking.  Perhaps the Think Tank is actually in the Drunk Tank?

Take mathematics, for instance.  I have always sucked large, reindeer sized turds when it comes to anything more than simple addition and subtraction.  I wasn’t terribly bad at algebra, but I struggle to help my 8th grader with her homework these days.  Drunks are notoriously bad at math:  think about our bank accounts and credit card statements.  And, see!   I said I was pretty good at simple addition or subtraction!  (Drunks are also charming liars.)  But we are especially effective at what I call Drunk Math or Alkie Algebra.  This kind of higher order cognition takes a good deal of math skill, memory, and careful planning–none of the things one associates with active alcoholism.  Ahhh… but if it has to do with our access to obtaining/maintaining our buzzes, we’re freakin’ GENIUSES.

An alcoholic is always painfully aware of (a.) how much booze s/he has access to at the moment, (b.) roughly how much booze it will take to get/maintain intoxication, (c.) how much money/access to more booze s/he has, (d.) how long it will take to (1.) get more booze and (2.) get drunk/more drunk, and finally (e.) which excuses and lies to make in order to achieve access and drunkenness (should this be necessary).

There are other variables that my fellow alcoholics could add almost endlessly to this list.  For example, drunks have rigid maps and schedules committed to memory:  the locations of bars and liquor stores and their opening/closing times.  (This is especially crucial to those of us who may live in states with strict blue laws or even dry counties… pity the thought!) We have to plan our days around irritating chores like work or driving or being in public places where drinking isn’t permitted.  We find ways around these obstacles of course–thus, careful planning is required.

We know that our bodies can metabolize roughly 1 ounce of liquor per hour, but know have a grasp on our higher tolerance level:  solving this problem becomes a complex exercise in experimental and theoretical math.

If you want to know what an alcoholic is “thinking,” on the surface it’s quite simple:  we’re thinking always, only about our next drink.  Even when we’re having the present drink, the next one is on our mind.  And that next drink is a site of emotional trauma and paranoia, because it might NOT be enough.  This is why, for me, the moment of almost complete happiness was the trip home from the liquor store with a heavily laden purchase in hand.  Putting the bottles away, having the cupboard stocked with alcohol was the closest I could come to a feeling of real security.  Hell, screw peace in the Middle East!  Give me a gallon of vodka and six bottles of wine in the pantry any day!

So, in keeping with 8th grade math, I thought I’d let a quadratic equation tell the story of alcoholic thinking and experience.  For those of you excellent alkie students who have graduated onto the more nuanced aspects of our inebriate algebra, enjoy the refresher.  And don’t hesitate to help your non-alcoholic classmates understand these principles!  You remember “FOIL” right?  First, Outer, Inner, Last?  Solve the following equation to arrive at the product E (the Experience of drinking):

(x-d + ac) (y – b) = E

where

x = booze

y = 24 hours

a = physical craving for alcohol

b = self-esteem

c = self-pity

d = alcohol immediately available

See… you thought it would be easy!  The mental gymnastics required simply to maintain our habit is staggering (and we have to do it WHILE staggering).  And, of course, one of the things that makes sobriety so difficult–once the physical cravings have been overcome–is the problem of filling the mental void left behind from these cognitive aerobics.  Newly sober alcoholics like me often joke morbidly about what to do with all this free time on our hands!

My thinking and behavior during my drinking days seems almost like that of a paranoid schizophrenic these days, especially the obsessive Drunk Math in which I was engaged.  I suppose alcoholics have this in common with schizophrenics, along with a tendency toward having A Beautiful Mind (though John F. Nash I’m certainly not).  It’s known that schizophrenics often self-medicate with alcohol–easily to the point of dependency.  I firmly believe that I have medicated my alcoholism with schizophrenia.

So, every alkie who’s been “in the rooms” knows the Serenity Prayer:  God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  I figure that beyond 12-step groups, new age shops and dust-catcher stores have these words plastered a-plenty all over mugs and magnets and pillows.  For all its ubiquity, it’s a tough order when you start thinking about it.

For one thing, “serenity” is rather an elusive little devil of a state of mind.  It makes a certain sense that Joss Whedon, when he developed his short-lived sci-fi series Firefly, named the spaceship in which the crew sets out on its various adventures “Serenity.”  (We learn that it is technically named for the last battle of a civil war that the good guys lost.  But I think this was post hoc exposition.)  Serenity is what you ride in during, not the destination of, the journey–or so I’m told, led to believe, and occasionally do realize when I’m not being a resistant cow-bag.  And like Whedon’s fictional spaceship, my Serenity is usually in need of repair, threatening to fall out of orbit, and being hunted across the universe by forces wishing to destroy it.  When it’s working, it gets me out of scrapes, helps me combat the bad guys, and is a nice place to invite people.  WHEN IT’S WORKING. (more…)

I read a wordpress blog two days ago that gestured toward the underwhelming claim that poetry was dead.  Now, why every person who has ever mastered anything more complex than the five-paragraph essay feels entitled to drive nails into this century-old coffin is beyond me.  Virginia Woolf was the first, or one of the first eulogizers, who, in her disingenuous encouragement to young poets, felt the need to remind them that their poetry would never be as good as that written in the centuries before, nor would it be understood by contemporaries.  Having condemned the poets of her generation to uncelebrated mediocrity, Woolf got on with the serious business of writing fiction.  Since then, it’s been a funereal march down the byways of obsolescence for present-day versifiers.

The common wisdom is that we don’t like poetry now–as if teeming generations before us loved it j(literally, it seems, to extinction).  The better wisdom is that we don’t like poetry now because we are no longer trained to understand it.  Regardless, in terms of literary output and interest, the 20th and 21st centuries are the centuries of the novel, not the poem.  I’ve always thought this curious, given our soundbite culture.  You’d think that with our 30-second commercial-spot-trained brains, a 14-line sonnet would appeal more than a 350 page novel.  A good friend of mine explained this modern counter-intuition thus:  We crave stories, he said.  After Darwin yanked us out of the spiritual womb of creation, after Nietzsche put a stake in God’s heart, after Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes looked at each other a decided that even the author needed to be rubbed out, we have a need for narratives that continue to make sense of our fragmented, unhinged existences.  Or, to put it in Joan Didion’s words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  Lyric poetry only captures an instant; it is not interested in fitting that instant into a pattern larger than itself.  This was and remains as good an explanation for the rise of the novel as I’ve ever heard.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  I believe that.  So does every person who has ever been helped by AA or another 12-step program based on the AA model.  (more…)

 

Glucose Molecule

 

You may remember from an earlier post a simple, scientific fact about alcohol:  it is the longest chain of glucose molecules a human can ingest.  It’s sugar… only it’s sugar like The Incredible Hulk is a man.  Perversely, when consumed, alcohol lowers blood glucose levels, which is one of the reasons alcoholics begin to crave more and more alcohol.  It’s a form of hypoglycemia.  When you take the alcohol away, the craving for sugar remains and the relationship to food intake is incredibly confused.  Withdrawal can lead to the kind of eating described below, which roughly follows the amount of sugar my body used to expect during the day from alcohol consumption:

My Detox Daily Eating Schedule:   (more…)