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.


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.

Like most alcoholics, I have had my struggles with “privacy”–whom to talk to about my disease and recovery, whom to keep in the dark.  When I got sober, my immediate family knew about my alcoholism anyway, so that was done.  After that, I told close friends and other relatives.  As a lesbian, I have a lot of experience with these kinds of questions.  Like my sexuality, my alcoholism and even my recovery have been and continue to be “an open secret.”  Some people know; others may or may not know.  The revolving door of my friends and acquaintances, the very natures of gossip and talk and general communication all ensure that my control over this information is limited–perhaps even fantasmatic.  I have learned it’s best to act on the principle that everyone either knows about my recovery or is allowed to know.  And here’s why:

Trying to control the secret of my disease was a feature of my disease.  It’s as fruitless to try to control who knows and who doesn’t as it was to try to control my drinking.  This came to me forcefully when a woman very new to recovery asked me some advice about whether she should disclose her drinking and recovery to a close relative.  My thoughts crystallized, and I was able to say more or less this:  “Remember how exhausting it was trying to control drinking?  How much psychological and emotional energy we wasted on that?  I know that I don’t want to spend that kind of energy controlling who knows and who doesn’t.”  It’s not merely a waste of time, of course.  It’s dangerous.

“Coming out” as an alcoholic is touchy, of course, and I’m not hiring a float.  I wouldn’t recommend to myself or anyone else they disclose their disease merely for the sake of disclosure.  Under certain circumstances, doing so could be damaging or self-defeating.  I won’t tell the red-state, rural high school queer to go to the prom with her cheerleader girlfriend either.  But in most circumstances, a quick gut-check will tell me that the only thing I’m likely to protect by keeping my recovery a secret is my disease–however the “ism” is manifesting itself.

I’ve met some AA members who are insistent that everyone in one’s life should know–even, for instance, prospective employers who may not be enthusiastic about the prospect of hiring the newly recovered.  Sobriety is #1, after all.  Secrecy nourishes the disease, so (the thinking goes) we shun ALL secrecy, even if it seems on the surface self-defeating.  I’m sympathetic to this position, just as I’m sympathetic to LGBTQ activists who believe in the political outing of gay conservatives.  What’s the old ACT-UP matra?  SILENCE = DEATH

Yet again, I think the gut-check is in order.  The principle of honesty is not to prevent our lives from moving forward positively.  It’s there to defeat the disease and to help others who may need our help.  I am “out” as a lesbian for precisely this reason, and I’m “out” as a recovering alcoholic for the same.  Still, I’m not going to disclose either identity for disclosure’s sake.

All that said, it surprised me when I came into several discussions among recovering women in WFS (Women for Sobriety) that took for granted not merely the “right to privacy” when it comes to our recoveries, but virulently defended that “right” as almost necessary to healthy sobriety.  One conversation revolved around a woman’s boyfriend, who had disclosed her disease and recovery to his family without talking to her first about it.  Bad form on his part, I’ll grant, but her reaction (and others’ reactions on her behalf) were completely out of proportion.  “How DARE he!” they seemed to shout.  “He had NO RIGHT to tell others about your recovery!”  Oh, really?  What right?

Leaving off the fact that these were largely North Americans and that in the United States we still have an ongoing argument about whether or not our constitution recognizes a “right” to privacy… why wouldn’t this guy have a right to talk about his girlfriend’s illness with his close family members?  Pragmatically, if she’s recently sober, it means she was pretty recently drunk too.  As her romantic partner, he would have been in the eye of her alcoholic storm.  He probably needed to talk to his family about it all.  This is Alanon 101, no?  But not in the eyes of the other recovering women there, and I have been deeply surprised since to discover that I am very much in the minority among WFS members in my thinking that I do not have a natural “right” to privacy when it comes to my recovery.

Of course, WFS members are primarily white, middle-class women.  We are predominantly middle-aged as well.  Most of us have college-degrees, whether or not we’re putting them to good use or not.  When we hit bottom, when we decide to get sober, it’s not usually because we’ve been court-ordered to do so.  Many, if not most, of us get sober from the comfortable seclusion of our homes. Possibly from the tan, bland chairs of an out-patient clinic for which our insurance might pay.  Possibly from the bed of a rehab clinic whose bill gets footed the same way.  We don’t often have our names in the police blotter, do not lose our jobs or children in ways that impact us financially, socially, and legally.  We’re not wearing ankle bracelets or making the beds of a half-way house.  So many women and men in recovery are subject to these realities.  Where is their right to privacy?

When it comes to alcoholism, privacy is a class privilege.  Socially and financially buffered, the “high bottom” drunks of the middle class can claim a right to privacy that others in recovery from the same disease have never had the slightest chance of exercising.  There is nothing special about someone who, by accident of birth or circumstance, is able to have some control over the disclosure of her or his alcoholism.  I can buy a special relationship with an attorney, then anything I tell her is considered “privileged.”  But I can’t just say anything to any lawyer and expect it to be a secret.  The middle and upper classes, however, have always operated subtly on the premise that anything that one can afford, one deserves.

Privacy is always the euphemism the privileged classes (middle class or white or Western or whatever) have used to describe their own right to keep information from other people.  Other people, people we don’t like, people not like us…they’re the ones with SECRETS.  Secrets are nasty, disturbing things.  We don’t like secrets.  We don’t even have them.  We just have…you know…PRIVATE things. Consider this:  when celebrities are forced into rehab and it’s splashed over the headlines, we call them trashy.  When a celebrity announces months or years afterwards that s/he has overcome addiction, we say, “Wow, that was really classy.”

It seems to me that for all kinds of reasons, most importantly the health of my sobriety, it’s dangerous for me to think I have a right to keep my disease “private.”  I may have the opportunity to do it, but it’s an accident of circumstance, not some human right that I’m exercising.  It’s definitely a choice that not everyone in recovery has.  I certainly choose not to put myself back on the path of control-driven anxiety for the sake of an imagined privilege.

I’ve had a few challenging days at a new job I’ve taken on.  With good training but no experience, I’m screwing up from time to time, and (because of the nature of the position) these errors have a pretty immediate, negative effect on people.  I’ve been coming home exhausted, literally jumpy, and unable to shake off mistakes I’ve made during the day, no matter how small in the grand scheme of things.  My employers say I’m doing fine, but it doesn’t feel that way.

Yesterday marked the end of a long week.  Instead of going home directly, I picked up my partner for a much-needed trip to the

What I imagine my self-recriminations produce in a hypothetical test kitchen. It's actually called "bat paste." Yum.

grocery–never my favorite task.  Walking around the busy, Saturday frenzy of the store, I was grateful not to be at home, stewing in my self-flagellating juices.  My instinct was to go home, squirrel away quietly in some self-involved task or more literally in my basement study; but, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in a year, it’s that my instinct for isolation should never be trusted. Cranky and exhausted as I was, concentrating on the price of clementines and trying to remember to buy cat litter were much healthier uses of emotional energy than going home to whip up a batch of masochist chowder.

I’ve also been in the midst of making plans to visit family out-of-town on one of my days off.  As the trip neared and my week got harder, I began to regret the decision.  My new job also means waking up at 4:15 each morning, and I’m having a little trouble adjusting to the very early hours.  Wouldn’t it be preferable to rest, take some time for myself?  It might, if I completely ignored the motive behind this “wisdom,” which is (again) to isolate.  I don’t know why my instinct is to walk through my interior landscape when it’s clearly a minefield.  My recovery hasn’t brought me that far.  I only know I do it, and I shouldn’t.   So, I’m making the decision not to.  Instead, we’re going to go to a big aquarium today to look at sharks and jellyfish and sea turtles.   We’re going to have lunch with family.  I won’t let myself jump on self-created grenades just because they’re there.

I wasn’t surprised by the sudden craving I felt when we passed the beer aisle at the grocery yesterday.  I’d been expecting it.  I’ve had lots of changes–all good ones, but changes nonetheless–in my life, and I knew the fall-out would be stress.  Even good stress is still stress.  And if I add that to the anxiety produced by adjusting to the new job….well, I’m an alcoholic!  Since when did my lizard brain NOT think that opening a bottle couldn’t make the day a little better?  I was also Hungry (hadn’t taken enough lunch), Angry (at myself for errors I’d been making), Lonely (because I thought no one really knew how I felt), and Tired (4:15 a.m.!).  When I felt the craving, I was able to smile and say, “Ah…there you are!  I’ve been expecting you…”  and simply walk on.

But my other thought was:  “Seriously?  It’s taken me this long to develop an interior dialogue with myself that isn’t an inebriate transcription of a Beckett play?  Has it actually taken more than a year to respond with some sanity to a common, self-destructive tendency?  Just one self-destructive tendency?”  Apparently, yes.  It takes this long.  In the midst of feeling proud of my ability to identify my emotions, trace their etiology, and formulate a healthy response, I felt overwhelmed by the smallness of this “victory,” and felt intensely humbled by the progress still ahead of me.

In AA, the phrase is “progress, not perfection.”  That’s meant to encourage me, and it does, but this progress stuff is hard!  and slow!  It would be more embarrassing to feel that it’s taken me nearly forty years to start becoming an adult, except that I know too many people (most of them outside of recovery) who aren’t bothering with the process.  I also feel immense gratitude to have the chance to change.  I nearly didn’t get it.

So, instead of playing with the painful loose tooth of my recent mistakes, I’m going to go look at fish.  And a sea turtle.  Just one:  an adolescent, loggerhead sea turtle named Denver.  As a turtle teen, so I was told last time I visited the aquarium, he hasn’t quite figured out how his breathing should match his diving depth.  I’m also told he’s just a little clumsy, and will get wedged in rocks and need some help getting out occasionally.  It’s kind of funny, and I’m not going to anthropomorphize the amphibian to make a metaphor either.  He’s a sea turtle, and therefore not prone to chop himself up as the main ingredient in a self-recriminating bouillabaisse.  He doesn’t worry about getting stuck and is unaware of any “progress” he’s making.  He’s fast enough for himself.

No metaphor.  I shouldn’t be more like the sea turtle.  And I’m glad for him he’s himself and not me.  Anyway, he’s stuck in an aquarium outside Cincinnati.  And there’s no wrap up here, no neat moral between the pages.  Just the humble acknowledgement that progress in recovery is slow, even glacial at times, which is frustrating.  I can’t predict that there won’t be spurts of insight again, as there were in my first six months, but I’m hoping I get more comfortable with the small, forward pace of real life as an adult.  Making better choices daily, maybe even “better” mistakes.   Sobriety, not for itself only, but as the first small step toward serenity.

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.


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.

For about the past eight months, I have been reading a few pages of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers before bed.  It’s a longish novel, and if you manage only a few pages, four-to-five nights a week, it really will take that long to read.  But it’s a romp.  The characters are round but almost entirely without any real interiority.  The plot is ALL, really, ALL.  Fast and ridiculous.  Modest in the bodice-ripping department, as befits  mid-nineteenth century novel, but there are plenty of unripped (and partially ripped) bodices and swordfights and implausible intrigues to go around.  It’s a historical fiction, set by Dumas in the 17th century, and thus there are often playful swipes and slanders against historical characters which, by the nature of things, Dumas could hardly do for his own time in the jittery decades after the French Revolution and Napoleon.

Dumas cut his chops on the stage, and that might account for the staginess of scenes, the emphasis on dialogue over interior monologue, and the grand, sartorial style of his dramatis personae, all of whom seem to be more costume than character.  It’s fun, and you can tell Dumas had fun writing it.  Reading it is something like watching a very excellent maker of sand castles play on an empty beach with all the buckets he can find.  The novel wasn’t built for the ages and it seems something of an accident that it lasted this long.  Perhaps on his deathbed, even Dumas knew he’d pulled a fast one over the public, who thought him a genius.  Or maybe he finally believed his hype.  James Cameron will feel like that, no doubt.

About a quarter of the way through the novel, the reader realizes the farce.  Nothing genuinely bad can happen to D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  They’re covered in Teflon.  Even when they are injured, it never seems for long or very seriously.  If there is a plot for D’Artagnan to be poisoned, a character whom we just met and don’t really know will have sucked down the offending liquor before the hero can taste it.  If they need money–and frequently they do–it arrives somehow, in the nick of time, before anyone gets really hungry or needs a horse.

But they’re bumblers, and it’s funny to watch them bumble along, like Charlie Chaplin who comes out smelling of flowers while everyone else is up to his eyes in muck.  Their enemies don’t realize this, and that’s the fun.  They are not perfectionists, but optimists.  Nothing can harm them, so why bother with armor?  The novel is what Carlyle called “a superlative lollypop.”

We dismiss these books as fantasies and fluff or we would if it weren’t old and French and prettily written.  As moral fibers go, it’s pretty threadbare, and doesn’t have the kind of tough, unflinching durability of Dickens or Dostoevsky.  Bumblers who muddle through are not heroes; they are  papier mache.  Real heroes are transformed or are transforming.  They are nearly eclipsed by the genuine tragedy around them but come through, certainly not unscathed.  They get down at the crossroads and confess sins.  They forgive the unforgivable.  They do not rattle a sword about, fool a Catholic Cardinal, and run off with a young bit of stuff. Nor do we laugh at them.  Above all.

To bring this ’round, at last, to recovery:  what is wrong with bumbling and muddling through?  Are they not “real” or not “heroic”?  To model oneself on D’Artagnan is to assume that life–while it doesn’t precisely owe me–will cough up the goods reasonably enough if I show plenty of pluck.   Not realistic.  So, dumb, and therefore not heroic.

We have the phrase, “Act as if,” in recovery; we say, “fake it ’til you make it.”  Well, it’s not really D’Artagnan’s fault that the world he lives in just happens to be one in which he can’t fail.  He does, as it were, take “life on life’s terms”–it’s just that the terms are always in his favor.

Bumbling along, muddling through is, for me,  not nearly the pretty sight that it is for the Musketeers, but does that mean that it does not work?  I see so many people in recovery putting pressure on themselves–the pressure to be heroic.  A woman I know recently remarked that she’d been having a tough time with her sobriety.  At eight months, she has found herself struggling again–crying frequently, feeling lonely and despairing.  She has been going to lots of meetings during this period, being of service, reaching out.  Yet, she said (and I quote) “I’m failing at this.”  Where does this come from?  Does it come from the expectation that the world should be like that of The Musketeers, who never meet a genuine obstacle?  Or does it come from the self-imposed belief that we should always “rise above” our reality–that survival alone is not enough and must be accompanied by the beattitudes of grace and perfect serenity.  My acquaintance says that if she is not happy, joyous, and free, she is “failing.”

To me, she is anything but a failure.  She’s doing everything right.  It’s… heroic.  My hardest days are my best, because I am working my program hardest.

By contrast, I’ve been muddling through lately.  Not been as engaged in my recovery as I might be–not doing my meetings as much as I should, not reading, not meditating, not blogging (sorry, One Fan of Blog), but… you know… NOT DRINKING either.  I suppose I choose to think this is okay.  Everything will work out.   I genuinely believe that.  I trust my recovery to be there and trust myself to pick it up again.  Is this out of place?  Silly?  Deluded?

It’s not heroic–that’s definite–and it’s not realistic, maybe–not according to some.  There is no guarantee that things will work out, so operating on the assumption doesn’t seem very politic.  But there it is:  I believe in the unrealistic, nonheroic act of muddling through.  It just sounds better in historical novels.  With velvet uniforms.  And swords.  And in French.

For the active alcoholic or the newly sober, there are probably things in The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that will stick in the proverbial craw, confuse, or simply sound ridiculous.  Of the things that stuck with me during my painful, three-year relapse, the words “We don’t struggle” (BB, p. 86) probably caused the most blinking.  The phrase is part of a section from Chapter Six, “Into Action,” which is about the later steps and forming a relationship with God.  But they rang for me in a jarring, out-of-context way for a long time, including the first few months of this still-new sobriety.

“We don’t struggle,” huh?  Really?   I struggled.  With everything, I struggled.  Before I had developed a drinking problem, I struggled with things–everything, it seemed.  Okay, maybe I was good at my job or good in bed or a decent cook; but, the things that really counted, like relationships and honesty and feeling comfortable in my own skin, were simply beyond me.


I have always been myopic–not metaphorically, but literally–and this created a childhood of pretense in terms of my relationship to the visual world.  What others could see–at what seemed telescopic distances–were, for me, Pissarro-inspired smudges and foggy outlines at best.

“Do you see that?”

“Oh, yes!  Neat!”

Only one of my high school teachers noticed that I had trouble seeing the board from my third row seat.  Only one, which shows you how well I hid it. So, yes, I struggled even to see, and became very good a faking it.   And somehow that dynamic spilled out into or perhaps simply created the space for understanding the rest of my life, the things that didn’t come easily or naturally, anyway.  I struggled, failed, and faked it.


Sobriety was supposed to make this all better.  Right.  We don’t struggle.  We don’t struggle?   Just deciding what to do with my day, especially sober, seemed impossibly difficult.  Whatever I was determined to do would probably be wrong, as I knew from experience.  I lived with the constant certainty of failure, which made even simple decisions sometimes excruciating. And now the mechanism that had for so long helped me fake it after failure, alcohol, was no longer available.  So, let’s see how The Big Book says it works, in context:

In thinking about our day we may face indecision.  We may not be able to determine which course to take.  Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision.  We relax and take it easy.  We don’t struggle.  We are often surprised how the right answers come after we have tried this for a while. 

Eh-hem–question from the myopic girl in the third row:  “So what do you do if you’re an atheist?”  Now, before I got to Chapter Six, which assures me that “We don’t struggle,” I had presumably to have read Chapter 4, which should have gotten me beyond my disbelief, my atheism.  P. 44 says, “But cheer up, something like half of us thought we were atheists or agnostics.  Our experience shows that you need not be disconcerted.”

I was disconcerted, but I had promised myself that I would go to any lengths to be sober, so I went in search of that holy grail:  my HIGHER POWER.  Where could it be?  The cupboard, the closet, the duffel bag I saved from college?  Do the doctor or the mountains have it–No, the Indigo Girls already looked there.  Crap.  Where the hell was my Higher Power?  In the end, I resolved that I should at least try to articulate for myself why I’m an atheist before giving up altogether this spiritual quest.  What ensued were a few nervous weeks of soul-searching (souls I believe in, metaphorically) and identifying my real beliefs and spiritual positions.  It was a little like trying to determine whether or not I was gay when I was 14.  The answer was similar: “Yep, I’m an atheist.”

I’m going to leave aside how I arrived at this self-assured self-knowledge.  And I’m also going to forego most of the objections people make about atheism and 12-step recovery.  Anyway, most of those encouraging suggestions to atheists boil down to equating atheism with agnosticism–an epistemological blunder that Bill W. & Co. make for reasons that make perfect sense in the 1930’s context of the BB’s authorship.  Real atheism, however, is as far from agnosticism as Pluto is from being re-declared a planet, no matter how much we’d like to see it happen.  The other silly suggestion to atheists is that, rather than believing in an anthropomorphized deity, we believe in an unathropomorphized one that we call variously, “The Universe,” “Spirit,” “Good Orderly Direction,” “The Power of the Group,” etc.  I put this undeniably slippery compromise into the same category with the insistence that Big Book isn’t really sexist, as if the entire chapter “To Wives” doesn’t by default limit the audience and the quaint use of the term “our womenfolk” is some kind of typo.  The Big Book is just sexist.  So’s Shakespeare.  Doesn’t mean I won’t learn anything from it–but don’t insult this chick’s intelligence!


Digressions complete, I should now admit that I did manage to stop struggling.  First, I stopped struggling because I was able to see the Big Book and those cool cats who penned it for the limited, flawed, historically defined, fantastic human beings they were.  This is harder to do than it ought to be, because so much of the human atmosphere around AA is evangelically charged by its practitioners.  That’s no accident:  Bill W., Bob S. and the first AA members were not so different from Paul and the early Christians, who were misunderstood (deliberately), surrounded by death, and felt certain they had found a way out of the hellishness of existence.  Paul has some pretty inane things to say as a result of his historical context, which weren’t at all inane at the time.  Bill W. & Co. are no different.  Neither am I.  I read the Big Book through my feminist, queer, atheist lens (thick lenses, thank you), and it still makes sense to me, though a different sense than it might to the guys who wrote it or to a Christian-leaning agnostic who reads it.

I stopped arguing with Bill W. just as I had stopped arguing with my alcoholism, and as I had recently learned to stop arguing with my atheism.  I stopped struggling, and a tremendous peace filled the place of that struggle.  What worked for Bill would work for me in part, but not in whole–just as the rotary phones available to him would work in a limited context, but won’t fit in my back pocket when I leave the house.  Simple.  But I spent a good deal of time complicating it.

So many things have wound up being this simple, thankfully.  For instance, that feeling of always being left behind, not seeing what others see… Well, it’s true that I do not see what others see, but that, as it happens, is not a “failure,” though it felt like one and still does sometimes.  Feeling left behind–that the world was sped up around me, that everyone was somehow “ahead” was also a misunderstanding.  It also happens that the failure there was not the inability to “catch up” to others, but the refusal to slow down and pay attention to what mattered to me.  In other words, I am learning to approach my life on its own terms, my beliefs and emotions on their own terms, and other people as radically separate from me (rather than as tacit lines drawn in the sand by which to “measure up”).

I also learned to pray.

I have said elsewhere that I’m not going to go into my beliefs, which would take another blog post to explain the rabbit-hole that finally led me to them; but, let’s suffice it to say that I believe in many things greater than myself (Higher Powers, if you will), including and definitely not limited to gravity and other laws of physics, great poetry,  cute kittens, the urge to pee, and the will of my mother on Christmas-related decisions.  Sometimes I find the need to come into contact with these things in a general way, to focus myself, just as Bill W. & Friends suggest we do.  And this is the way I begin my conscious contact, “Dear Lord, I pray…”  And this is how I end the communication, “In the name of Our Lord Jesus I pray, Amen.”

Yes, I do.

My mother and father, a quiet atheist and a mercurial agnostic respectively, obviously had nothing to do with my religious training, which was moderate Southern Baptist.  (The term “moderate” attached to Southern Baptist is almost like saying that I have a “moderate” case of terminal cancer, but in the context of my very southern, rural hometown, we were moderate.)  My grandmother, however, dragged me to Sunday School, presided over my eventual baptism, and until the day she died, modeled for me what a genuinely decent, fulfilling spiritual life looked like.  And she taught me to pray.

When I realized I needed to find a way of articulating my gratitude, hopes, and desires to The Ineffable (or just The Innumerable, as is my case), I tried talking generically, just journaling, even addressing It as “The Entity in Which I Do Not Deistly Believe” (which was a real step backward, in my opinion).  My instinct, taught from my earliest days, however, was just to fold my hands, bow my head, and pray as I had when I was a twelve-year-old.

So, I stopped struggling.  The God in Which I Do Not Believe is not going to be angry at me for addressing Him this way.  The things in which I do believe are, by definition, beyond such personal communication anyway.  If I am embarrassed by this, it is only the audience of one (myself) who is sniggering.  And what’s her problem, anyway?   I stopped struggling with it, and just started praying and feeling more peace with each communication.  It is a wonderful heuristic or therapy, prayer.  It will help me prioritize, help me stay quiet, help me find answers.  I don’t struggle, just like the Big Book says.

So many paradoxes in recovery, I find.  To defeat my alcoholism, I had to surrender to its permanent fact.  To find my spiritual center, I had to articulate and embrace my atheism.  To practice my atheism, I had to learn to pray.