Posts Tagged ‘addiction’

I’ve been speaking on and off again recently to someone very new to recovery–only days in, barely weeks. She is angry, beyond angry, and cynical and frustrated and resentful and…well, you get the point. Mostly, I think she’s looking for someone/something to blame and looking even harder for a way out. In short, it’s like looking in a mirror.

I don’t have to dig very far in my past to find the Me who was a walking defense mechanism. I don’t even have to look that far into my psychology to find these feelings, simmering like a black hot spring under the good earth I’ve been planting over top. I don’t count it as humility to be able to recognize these things in myself. It’s just a measure of my grasp on an unpleasant reality. On the one hand, I like to think I’ve traveled very far past the days when I lived as one, gigantic red nerve just waiting to cry or lash out. On the other, I live in the knowledge that, in some ways, it would take very little to get back there. One drink, of course.

I don’t believe in a “cure” for alcoholism, simply because I have not found a cure for stress or bad days or accidents or despair. As the phraseology goes: treatements, but no cure. Spending time, even very little time, with someone just days or weeks into her or his recovery is one form of treatment that is almost universally acknowledged among recovering addicts. When I ventured back into recovery circles in 2010, I didn’t realize I was a walking, talking memento mori–but that is probably the newcomer’s most important function in recovery circles. The newly recovering addict is a skull on the desk, the painting of the skeleton, the “remembrance of death.”

Hundreds of years ago, the pious kept these objects in full sight–particularly in their private rooms–to remind them of the inevitability, the closeness of death. In my twenties, I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around this medieval/Renaissance habit of scholars and theologians. At best, it seemed like a quaint, foreign custom. At worst, fetishistic. I identified more easily with Hamlet, whose reaction to a skull is just a commonsensical freak out, followed by a little ego trip and nausea. Skulls belong in graves, not on top of the furniture.

Raised a good protestant, I still don’t quite get the power of the fully physical representation of Our Last End. (Southern Baptism will teach anyone that the scariest place to be is your own head. No need to decorate the lobby with Halloween enthusiasms.) Now that I am some years (and many close calls) nearer to my own death, it’s somewhat easier to understand the practice. I also understand the memento in its complexity a little better: these were not blunt objects designed to conjure simply the last gasp and the shroud, but were to remind the owner too that we can hasten death; we can live in it. For the medieval miind (and those religious folks who essentially keep the medieval world alive today), sin is a form of death. John Milton went so far to allegorize Sin as the daughter of Satan and Death as their incestuous offspring. (Paradise Lost gets serious kink points for this one in my opinion.) To live in sin is to live in death. For anyone coming out of addiction, it is easy enough to acknowledge that there are ways of living that more closely resemble death than life, ways of being that bring on a wish for death rather than survival.

At the very beginning of my recovery, I was encouraged to write a list of all the things my drinking had done that had led to suffering for me and other people. I realized quickly that this could be a very short list (“It destroyed everything”) or a very long one (if I decided to name all the things my addiction ruined). What one winds up with will hardly be comprehensive–because addiction’s losses are hardly comprehensible–but effective, just as the scholar did not have to look at every skull in the world to know he’d die eventually. One was plenty. I was told to look at this list any time I felt like drinking or any time it occurred to me that I wasn’t “really” an alcoholic.

I never look at this list, by the way. I just know it’s there, just as the scholar knew the skull was there without having to look at it, perhaps having even forgotten it a little. These mementos of my addiction–whether represented in my own hand in a journal or freshly from the experience of someone new to sobriety–will occasionally catch me off-guard, however. Listening to them, I am emotionally transported to the pain and rawness of addiction and the hard scrabble work of early weeks in recovery. I do not want to go back there, but it is good to go back there. It is psychologically good, if a little painful, and warns me against complacency. It’s also less conspicuous than keeping a skull on my desk, which would be weird and I think, somehow, less effective, though I don’t ever rule anything out.

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‘Tis the season… AGAIN.  My expectations of the holidays this year were really high. (Uh oh.)  I confess that I  gazed with longing at the Christmas crud stashed in our garage when I was doing some summer cleaning in June.  Not even kidding.  Visions of sugar plums?  You betcha.

But, it’s all come to a flaming, fizzling heap:  picture Clark Griswold’s immolated Christmas Imagetree, only not so funny.  My alcoholic brother–who says he’s not an alcoholic–has been drying out at our mother’s since September like a fig that got left out of the pudding.  After a year and half of his erratic behavior (note the euphemism), my partner and I let him know that, without his acknowledgment of the disease and an effort to be honest about what it’s doing to him and to our family, we just can’t move forward with a relationship.  Now, dear ma-mah has determined that it’s not really his alcoholism that’s causing all his problems (it’s his Type 1 diabetes, says she), and all this squabbling between siblings is BEYOND inconvenient at the holidays.  The villain in this piece is me, by the way.

In addition to playing Grinch in the extended family’s Christmas pageant, I get to play Bob Cratchit at home with partner and kids.  A lampoon.eddiecontract I’d been depending on to pay for Christmas didn’t come through, and now there is LITERALLY no money for presents.  Maybe less like Mr. Cratchit, then, and more like the aforementioned Mr. Griswold.  Oh if ONLY I had a redneck cousin Eddie who could kidnap the nefarious spoiler of my generous plans to lavish gifts upon my family!

 

Leave it to this ungrateful alcoholic to think she’s the only girl in Santa’s lap.

It’s my expectations, of course, ruining the season.  Not my mother or brother or even the faceless bureaucrat who canceled my contract work.  The problems I have today would seem unfathomably simple to the woman who started this blog two years ago.  It is as if, now that I have a tiny bit of sobriety under my belt, I feel I’m “entitled” to expectations–that all that stuff about not having any, or having very few, is for people who don’t have anything at all (like I was, two years ago). But now, look at me!  Good job, repaired relationships, a foundation in recovery…. Surely an expectation or three at CHRISTMAS is acceptable?  It’s Christmas for Christ’s sake!

As it turns out… this not having expectations thing applies to me too.  And the rule doesn’t Imagetake a holiday break.  So, the only thing left to do is the NEXT RIGHT THING.

And here are a few of Next Right Things…. (You can sing it…)

1.  Be grateful for my ridiculously blessed first world problems.

2.  Remember that my best memories of the holidays were squinting at the tree and waking up cold in the morning and playing croquet in the snow–not of the presents or the perfect dinner or even the fact that everyone got along.

3.  Stick out an olive branch to my brother.  Apparently, he went to a meeting.  It’s not up to me to judge what that means, but it is up to me to say that if he’s willing, lines of communication are open.

4.  Go help my aunt, who lost her husband last month, clean out her house.  Now that the contract is in the waste can, I have TIME to do more of the next right things… write cards…spend more time with my partner and kids.  Sometimes I hide behind work.  Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something.

The moral of this Christmas play?

Expectatiions.  Duh. 

 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.

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.

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.