Archive for the ‘Second Year Sobriety’ Category

 E, S, and H.  Experience, strength, and hope.  In recovery, I’m told that these are the things we’re meant to bring to the table when speaking with one another.  I share my experience, my strength, and my hope.  I listen to others and learn, identify, grow.  My individual story is meant to “disclose in a general way” how I was before and how I changed through recovery.  In the Big Book and the management of AA meetings, the emphasis on E.S.H. is supposed to curtail any speech designed as directive or advisory.  I can only share what I know of my own journey; I have no other role as guru, psychologist, minister, lawyer, or substance abuse counselor.

 

I was grateful when fellow recoverers took time to explain this aspect of the solution to me (for it is typical of almost every sane recovery program I’ve run across).  At the worst parts of my addiction, I had been “told” what to do by enough people.  Of course, all this (mostly well-meaning) advice did absolutely zip to help, and often made me feel worse.  But, much more importantly, dispensing advice and being The Sage on the Stage were hallmarks of my addictive personality.  Like an illusionist, waving my fingers in the direction of others’ problems and foibles took attention away from scaffolded fakery of my own shattered life.  Taking away my ability to focus on what others should be doing and sharing onlywhat I had managed to do myself…well, that was a giant step away from old patterns and the beginning of a new focus on self-improvement.A lot of former booze-hounds will admit to being armchair-shrinks when deep in their cups.  And, let’s not forget the always heady allure of melodrama.  If there wasn’t any, heaven knows I’d try to stir some up!  Or, as my best friend says, “Why have a small crisis when you can have an enormous one?”  All this hoo-haw and falderall and much-ado-about-nothing? Mine, courtesy of a disease that needs a very big curtain behind which to hide.  Advice-dispensing seems to fall squarely into this camouflage pattern:  if I keep enough attention on YOU, we can all forget about ME–while, of course, acknowledging that I’ve got it all together, and YOU do not.

 

It’s not that we do not need to give or receive advice sometimes.  For instance, AA has the much-loved and -hated, but ultimately time-honored, tradition of slogans.  We even have slogans that caution against giving advice:  “Clean house,”  “Stick to your side of the street,” and “Keep your fork on your own plate.”  Because they are designed to be cliche, the slogans can side-step vanity. I can’t take “credit” for any of them.   And, as they are shared by all recoverers, they are impersonal.  One doesn’t feel singled out by being told, “Take one day at a time,” because everyone has to take one day at a time.  At one time or another, we’ve all also asked for advice, maybe even begged for it.  If I ask for advice, that’s a pretty clear signal that my ears are wide-open for the message.

 

 

Perhaps the most famous literary advice-giver of all time is Shakespeare’s Polonius, the first murder-victim in Hamlet and one hell of a Sage on a literal Stage.  It has never failed to amuse me that it’s Polonius’ line, “To thine own self be true,” that AA prints on chips marking sobriety milestones.  It’s good advice, but, ironically, it’s from a guy whose advice leads on the one hand to needless and ultimately murderous pot-stirring or serves to make him look like a well-meaning but finally buffoonish patriarch.   Polonius also doesn’t take his own advice, and instead of being true to himself, fishes around in his daughter’s business (and Hamlet’s, and Claudius’) …with aforementioned disastrous results.  If the play does not quite suggest that all unsolicited advice is bad advice, it does not paint a happy ending for those who offer it, nor for those who follow it.  Having done no research, I don’t know if the context of the quote was simply misunderstood or ignored, but I assume the latter.  We take what we need and leave the rest, and it is–after all–a snappy phrase, if you can just forget who’s saying it.

 

Of course, it’s easy to forget when you’ve never known who said it, which is my point about the slogans…

 

I can only assume that the traditon of ESH was born from fertile spiritual earth of protestant evangelism, which puts a premium on the practice of “witnessing”–not merely as an exercise in prosyletization, but as part of the spiritual hygiene all good Christians should practice.  In the basement of the Baptist church that was my adolescent spiritual home, I sat in a semi-circle around my grandmother who led classes for new Christians–a requirement for full membership in the church.  A trusted church leader and teacher, she instructed us gently not only in the life-saving Bible passages that would ensure our eternal lives, but in the earthly mission vouchsafed to us as believers.   She explained that “witnessing” to others–that is, sharing the story of our conversion–helped strengthen our own faith, even as it brought the message of Christ to others.  It’s first goal, however, was always to re-confirm our own faith in the transformation that had taken place in our own lives.

 

Here are some things we were told from the book she gave us:

 

1.  Use every opportunity to witness to others, but do not force anyone to listen.

2.  Only share your personal story; do not preach.

3.  Once you’ve shared your story, let the other person ask questions and listen to her or his story.  Do not give more information unless s/he asks.

4.  Be humble.  In the final analysis, this story is bigger than you.  Don’t try to be bigger than it.

 

It’s not really possible to imagine Polonius sticking to these general rules–taught to us Christian newcomers more by my grandmother’s behavior than by the book, in between the moutfuls of cookies and occasional peeps at the wall clock.  Such a philosophy and way of life was also antithetical to the pushy egotism that was the recipe-for-success in my professional life as an academic.  I am continuing unlearn a lot of that self-seeking in order to re-learn the sober sense I’d absorbed quite innocently in the church basement.  And perhaps that’s why the concept of ESH was simultaneously refreshing and deeply familiar, comforting.  Although it is a long journey from that insecure young convert to the sober, atheist alcoholic, good principles continue to make sense, however they are disclosed.

 

Early on, I recall asking someone for advice–actually, I asked her how she listened to others in recovery, asked her how to do it better.  She told me that she only listened to ESH.  If they’re saying anything else, she said, they’ve got another agenda–maybe not a bad one, but it’s not recovery.  That’s advice I continue to take.

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If you’re expecting something ironic to follow this provocative title, I’ll hate to disappoint.  This post really is going to be about how my sexual fantasies keep me sober.  And if you’re hoping to hear about my girl-on-girl pirate fantasy…read on.

Many moons ago, a friend of mine was dating someone new and was naturally awash with praise for the new Ms. Right.  But with darkened features, she added about her new love interest, “She doesn’t fantasize about sex..”  We stared at one another in mutual shock and, after a short beat, exclaimed at the same time:

“What does she do when she’s bored!?”

Now, admittedly, I was in my early twenties during this exchange and my hormone levels hadn’t been pummeled by a decade of graduate school and a steady supply of hooch.  Even so, I’m still shocked to think of someone who never, ever fantasizes about sex.  If I didn’t think it weren’t physically impossible, I’d certainly think that our culture makes it virtually impossible.

I fantasize a lot less than I did twenty years ago, but it’s still a pretty daily occurrence.  (Now that I think about it, it’s amazing that I had time to do things like learn to drive and read cereal boxes back in those days.)  My fantasy life is rich and complex–like the wine I used to drink or the bullshit I used to spill–and it would take me hours just to explain the costumes.  My fantasies range from the Tolkeinesque to more Austenian period pieces. The 21st century doesn’t do much for me, nor even reality as we’ve ever known it. As a matter of fact, I don’t go in for quick-and-dirty fantasies very often, and am usually asleep before I’ve managed to decide if the room I’m about to have sex in should have a fire place or not.  My partner will attest that a particularly involved fantasy of mine, inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace on the one hand and by Vita Sackville-West’s real-life romancing of Violet Trefussis on the other, had to be scrapped after several weeks of “work” because I couldn’t decide what either of us should be wearing.

Funnily, this may be the one part of my life where delayed gratification is my favorite sort.

But, let’s face it:  sex plays a big role in our lives and, therefore, in our recoveries.  The Big Book doesn’t blush at this, nor does St. Jean Kirkpatrick in any of her publications.  Relapse is often associated with inappropriate sexual behavior.  Witness the grotesquely sexist slogan, “Under every skirt, there’s a slip.”  My sex life itself –with real people, not with sorceresses or Russian countesses–has been a different kind of journey.  Just having sex sober was difficult at first, even with a supportive partner.  And developing a healthy, sober sexual self is an ongoing project.

But I’m talking about something much simpler and more straightforward.

What happens in our heads is a rehearsal for reality.  In recovery, you learn this quickly or you don’t stay very long.  Advice for anyone going to a party with drinking will include the following suggestions, “Imagine yourself at the party.  See yourself there getting a non-alcoholic beverage.  See yourself having a good time.  Most importantly, envision yourself leaving the party sober and feeling good about it.”  This is a very basic psychological technique used by counselors and hypnotherapists to help clients create an effective self-concept during problematic situations.

Sex is problematic no matter what, but even just images–fantasies–about sex can be problematic for a recovering alcoholic.  How often do media images couple sex with drinking?  How often have we been encouraged, especially as young people, to use alcohol to lower our inhibitions–to feel, in a word, sexier.  What I’ve seen of The Jersey Shore is a fantasmagoric exaggeration of both these problems–as it blurs the line between manufactured media image and “reality” tv.  See them drink; see them gyrate; see them screw; see them hung over.  And repeat.

So why not use our sexual fantasies to combat this pressure? these endless pictures?  Why not make sobriety play a big role in our imaginary sex lives?

In fairness, booze never played a big role in my sexual fantasies, which might seem unusual.  Maybe there was a glass of wine here or a drink there…before the main event, stashed in with the detail of the demure spectacles on the pirate’s lieutenant or the epaulets on the dragon rider’s uniform.  But when I decided to get sober, I determined that no part of my life was too small, too forgettable, or too “private” (as it were) for my sobriety not to reach.  Being sober meant making every part of my life reflect very consciously my new, sober goals.

So I didn’t just excise the booze or replace it with a glass of water.  No, my fantasies became vehicles for sober sexiness!  No longer did the pirate’s lieutenant merely display a surprising fastidiousness and introversion…oh no!  Now she gazed soberly at her sexual object across a room of lewd, drunken buffoons–her refusal to drink another important adornment to her strangely bookish allure, already so out-of-place in this den of saltwater theives.  And, wow, did this ever give me an opportunity for great back-story.  (Bookish pirates are hot, by the way)

Joking aside, I’m not making a point about sex at all–or, at least, my primary point isn’t about sex or sexual fantasy.  It’s just that when I decided to get sober, I knew that I would have to live out my sobriety in every thought, word, and deed.  I actually knew that long before I got sober, and it was fear of having to live like that, fear of becoming “one of those people” that gave my disease great excuses for a long, long time.  I knew there was no part of my life that would be overlooked by my recovery.  If I’d known it could be so fun, I probably wouldn’t have minded the idea so much!

My point is not that my fantasies somehow got me sober magically.  They didn’t.  I’m just saying that there’s no harm in fantasizing that the designated driver goes home with the hottie at the end of the night.  And for me, there’s even a benefit–the benefit of making sobriety conscious at every level of thought.  Finally, my sobriety touches every part of my life.

Especially my private parts.

The challenges of second year sobriety have been getting in the way of my blogging–not exactly.  One finds one has less to say, somehow–or not the right to say it.  But here I am, to talk about some of it.  And here it is.  The real wallop so far of my  second year experience is the roller coaster, as an acquaintance of mine put it. An emotional one, with highs almost as dizzying as the lows.

Another recovery friend, who volunteered some advice to second year recoverers, said to me, “beware of pink clouds and complacency.”  I really had no idea what he meant, because I hadn’t had a good pink cloud moment since my first three months of sobriety, and I didn’t feel especially complacent.  The pink cloud, by the way, refers to that feeling of beyond-well-being that we can get in recovery.  On the pink cloud, the world is one with me and I with it, and all is ridiculously perfect.

He was right, though.  Around November, I started to get into this emotional pattern of having a day or two of pink-cloudiness.  My children seem like heaven-sent scions of the world’s goodness; my partner the most beautiful, most exciting, most thoroughly perfect companion since Heloise or Elizabeth Barrett; my life the fine tip of an inverted pyramid of serendipity–all negatives and positives leading inevitably and felicitously to this one, nonpareil moment.  Pretty sure Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus is singing in the background somewhere.  This sounds fantastic, and it is, except that after two days of this, I begin the equally inevitable plummet.

After a day or so of irritability and resentment, I seem to begin the climb onto the cloud again.  I’m giving the 20/20 of hindsight here.  It actually went on for many weeks before I started to see the pattern, and in the meantime I’d begun to feel very frustrated and scattered, except for the brief days of cloud-climbing.  I can see now how complacency would be deadly in this situation.  I have enough recovery behind me to know I’d better not let negative thoughts slip by unanalyzed, but I have found the plummet from the great emotional height extremely challenging.

This mountainous psychological terrain has appeared during the holiday season, and its given its peculiar cast to both the highs and the lows.  The highs, I’ll leave aside, but of the lows, I think all of us might recognize–from Ebenezer Scrooge, onward.

I never ask anyone what they NEED for Christmas.  No one ever asks me, either.  You don’t get people things they NEED for Christmas–not typically–because mostly you can’t.  Those are intangibles or are material above and beyond my own means.  I’d love to give my brother a well-paying job and my best friend a work-visa so that she can stay in the country, but I don’t seem to have access to these.  And, anyway, the holidays seem built for the frivolous, the unnecessary, the “extra.”  Extra scarves and cameras that no one really needs.  Extra helpings of food at every gathering.  Extra booze, for those who can drink it.  Wants, not needs.

It’s the antithesis of recovery.  Recovery tells me that my needs are simple and almost always fulfilled.  Recovery tells me that, daily, I have way more than I could ever, genuinely “need.”  Recovery tells me that my greedy, alcoholic brain lies about this state of affairs and sees lack where there is plenty.  At last, recovery tells me that seeing the world through the lens of deprivation will lead to resentment.  Resentment will lead to relapse.

What is it that the psychopath, Hannibal Lector, teaches agent Starling in Silence of the Lambs? We learn to covet?  “We covet what we see everyday.”  Part of my day, every work day, is spent at an expensive, private school that no one in my family–past or present–could have afforded for their children.  The cars that line up for the kiddies at the bell tell the same, luxurious stories:  Infiniti and Lexus, Cadillac and BMW.  A few high-end Toyotas.  One grandmother drives her Jaguar in now and then when “volunteering.”  It’s not the easiest place in the world to feel materially satisfied, I confess.  And it pains me no end to admit that all the gratitude I feel on my high pink cloud can evaporate at the sight of some chrome or a lambskin coat.

So, the drop off my pink cloud has a particular direction–a very material one–this season.  I am acutely aware that all that separates me from these people who send their precious snowflakes to the $20,000/year school is a bank account.  I wonder if I’d have more of what they have if I hadn’t spent the last ten years inside a bottle.  I feel resentment and big, fat streaks of envy.  I go home in my five-year old, low-end Kia to my duplex (rented) and nearly seethe with irritation and jealousy.

I have worked at this place for half a year now, and until now haven’t experienced much in the way of material envy.  I don’t know if it’s my place in my recovery journey, the materialism of the season, or both, but it’s had my head in a vice for the past few weeks.  And it’s led to some cravings, which are extremely upsetting.  I cannot have the new car or expensive clothes I suddenly crave, but those well-worn neural pathways spark a bright, well-lit landing strip to the liquid oblivion I can have.  The animal reductiveness of this thinking frightens and depresses.

I really want to emphasize how blindsided I have been by all of this and how these experiences are helping me understand why so many of us relapse during the second year.  I admit I am very vulnerable at the moment, and it scares me.

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So, a week ago, I’m sitting on the floor amid wrapping paper and ribbon, watching the end of Scrooged (the Bill Murray bowdlerization of A Christmas Carol), and my  partner is crying happily at the reclamation of Frank Cross, the film’s Ebenezer.  I’m not surprised by this.  Not especially imaginative cat food commercials can make her cry.  But we begin talking about it, and she says, by way of apology,  “I don’t know why films like this make me cry.  They’re silly, but I can’t help it.”

And I found myself saying, very genuinely, “It’s because we believe those changes can happen every day.  Because they do.”  Normally, I’m more cynical than this, but I’m grateful that Shelley was right, that “speech created thought,” not the other way ’round.  Because I do believe that these Dickensian fables happen every day.  Because it happened to me and lots of other people in recovery that I know.  Okay, maybe not on Christmas between the hours of midnight and…whenever the ghost of Christmas Future leaves… and maybe there are a few more stumbles along the way.  But, in all honesty, 24 hours seems like plenty of time to have the change of heart that Scrooge experiences–to me anyway.

If we do feel disbelief at A Christmas Carol, it isn’t the supernatural elements in Dickens’ story that make it implausible to some people.  The crux of the story isn’t dreams or ghosts, it’s the capacity to change.  I think most people I know would believe in a ghost with a head like a candle before they would believe that a man set in his ways could decide to change everything about his emotional life overnight.

My favorite part of A Christmas Carol–written or performed–is Scrooge’s prayer (for what else can it be?) when he wakes to find himself spared death and with a second chance.  He says that the spirits of all three ghosts will “strive within me” and that he will “not shut out the lessons that they teach.”  I love that.  I love that he will lead a life of spiritual strife, not peace; that he will continue learning, not merely rest in knowledge handed to him supernaturally.  Dickens was no slouch:  he knew a narrative had to have closure, but  he also knew that spiritual growth was based on restlessness and openended self-debate.

As an aside, the Hebrew name, Israel, seems etymologically to have meant “fighter with God” or “God-wrestler.”  This linguistic tidbit has always energized me, somehow.

Scrooge is only a slight exaggeration of the materialistic, nonspiritual culture that we all recognize in ourselves–just as addiction is an exaggeration of the problems so many “normal” people have.  A good friend intervened for him, however.  And who would gainsay the commonality of that?  He embraces his second chance and his knew life.  Not so odd…  Scrooge is also said to have “carried the message” better than anyone else–doing for his fellows a jingly, jovial Twelfth Step throughout the non-Christmas seasons.  We know people like this.  Maybe we’re becoming them.

So there’s my Dickensian answer to my Scroogy greediness–or something of an answer.  To  keep striving with my better spirits.  It’s useless to imagine that I will be “above it all,” when every commercial on t.v. tells me that if I’m not buying happiness for myself and others, I’m not doing Christmas right.  These messages become problems when I let them enter my life unconsciously, unremarked.  I have to wrestle with them, and at this time of year, that can be an exhausting process.  Feeling envy or having cravings do not make me a failure–not debating these feelings would.

Christ said he did not come to bring peace, but the sword.  Merry Christmas, then!  There is a peace that is at the end of the struggle, however, and at this time of year, I wish it for all of us.