Posts Tagged ‘sobriety’

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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 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.

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.

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

Pierre Fiore--Winter Thaw

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

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

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

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

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

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