Sobering Thoughts

Archive for the category “Recovery”

Promises, Promises

“It is by going down into the abyss that we discover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”

Joseph Campbell’s words are true for anyone.  However, for the alcoholic I think he offers even more insights.  When we come into Recovery we hear for the first time that others have thought and felt like we did; this shared camaraderie allows us – the great “we” – to admit we are in the abyss and together we begin the slow climb out.  These “treasures of life” we call the promises.  Not only are these little gems hidden ( We can look the world in the eye is a promise made in the 5th step) throughout the first 169 pages of the Big Book which is our basic text for Recovery, there are specific, more well known 9th step promises on page 83:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development,
1. We will be amazed before we are half way through.
2. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
3. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
4. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.
5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
8. Self-seeking will slip away.
9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.
11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves (spiritual awakening).

When you face the abyss and see it for what it really is, you can begin to look the world in the eye. I have slowly found that the light at the peak of the mountain is made more manifest by the darkness at the bottom; the person I am today is a tapestry of dark and light.  I try not to judge either and find that the treasures of the abyss are aluded until I accept help from my fellow travelers and consult with a power greater than myself. We call these promises, but for me they are guarantees, when I work for them.


Light and Shadows

“I will not dwell on the past or the future, only on the present. I will bury every fear of the future, all thoughts of unkindness and bitterness, all my dislikes, my resentments, my sense of failure, my disappointments in others and in myself, my gloom and my despondency. I will leave all these things buried and go forward, in this new year, into a new life.”

It really is this simple if the pledge I make is based on rigorous honesty.  These words are from a meditation book I have read now for 22 years (January 1 – Twenty-Four Hour A Day Book) and these words still resonate – while “we do not regret the past” we cannot be governed by it either.  We must do the work so that it, the awful its – resentment, fear, anxiety, and self-loathing do not become the life we live.  To identify the patterns behind these states and do nothing with what we find is to re-create and perpetuate the self-made prison of alcoholism.  We must uncover the its, the shadows of our old lives, so that they are merely frames on an new way of living.  Because I am a recovering alcoholic, I have found a way out and for that I am grateful.  I have been despondent drunk and sober.  But despondency is a choice.  All around me are people who know me and know how I feel and when I look at them and try to help them my own light shines too; they are a mirror.  It is because I am broken, and took action, that I have been repaired.  It was in my brokeness that I found the “sunlight of the spirit”  – in the rooms, in the fellowship, in the steps, and a higher power.


From the Gutter to the Curb

I have said for many years that there is not much distance from the gutter to the curb.  If I forget where I came from – not literally but figuratively – I can easily return to the comfort of the gutter where I would attempt to fix all problems with a bottle. Now that I have been around for awhile I see the problem; the view from the curb can be misleading as it can suggest you are cured.  Many folks sink into a pattern of behavior believing that they have all the answers and then impose them on others as “shoulds.”  When people say to me, you should, I often questions how they really know what is best for me or what God’s will is for me.  Many in Recovery have good intentions and sober experience, but they are still alcoholics and still capable of falling into old habits – a common myth exists that they are different than the rest of us. While I have benefited greatly from their insights, I have also seen their lack of humility – what I call the “you do this and I’ll do that behavior.” Image

They have more experience with sobriety, but our literature repeatedly tells us that sobriety is based on a daily reprieve and contingent on our spiritual condition which is generated by the hard work of climbing the steps.  The Little Red Book says we are “physically, mentally, and spiritually sick.”  This mental condition can exist long after we have recovered physically and no longer crave alcohol.  Today, my main goal in recovery is to achieve mental and spiritual balance and as someone who knows alcohol did serious damage to my nervous system,  I know that signifcant work must be done to restore the mental imbalance that resulted.  This is hard work, and at times seems unsupported by those who believe simply being dry is enough. Emotional sobriety requires that we honor our feelings, not just blame them for screwing us up.  When we know what we feel, we can change.  Our thinking about our feelings allows us to assess whether our feelings are accurate or based on old ways of thinking, usually patterns that began when we were young.  For me this was around 7 years old – to this day my first reaction starts as a 7 year old. In fact, many of us find that our alcoholism kicked in strongly when we had a marked emotional upheaval, a personality change as the result of prolonged negative thinking.  My go to response today is still negative and I have to stop and correct this.  Perhaps this is why I had such a hard time with gratitude lists… I need to be more pro-active and less passive.  I have found that a list of goals, a change list is much more powerful. One like this:

  • Try to experience life today, not judge it
  • When agitated reframe – remind yourself you are not a sinner but have a sickness
  • Elimate thinking that bases success on being a “good boy”
  • Stop validating the crazy stuff you believe is true in your head
  • Remember you have survived, the real goal is living…

Ironically, active participation in my own recovery makes me grateful. A therapist said to me recently, “you have a good spiritual life, but what you want to do is add to your prayer and meditation actual changes you want to see in your behavior.”  If I come to believe that my life magically gets better because I stop drinking, I begin a pattern of dilussional thinking that says I do not have a three fold disease – my physical addiction can go away but nothing then is restored in my mental and spiritual life. Sadly, it is the mental trigger that could lead me back to a drink if it is not treated daily to new thinking.  As I said, the curb has a view that can lead to spiritual arrogance.  Today I believe the only thing keeping me on the curb is my continued willingness to know that my thinking about who and what I am, must evolve.  The freedom from false-pride and an honest evaluation of how things are brings me the humility to see the world as it is in all its glory, not my limited view of its discontents.

I Remember Why

I remember…

itching, scratching, compulsively counting, paranoid thinking, pacing the room, hearing voices and talking back, feelings of hopelessness and despair.

I remember…

sneaking down the alley to buy liquor, switching liquor stores to avoid the label “drunk,” drinking every night until passing out, wanting to stop but knowing I couldn’t,  switching drinks for affect, and feeling like my head would explode if I didn’t drink.

I remember…

alcohol was my solution to everything because without it my head would surely explode.

I remember…

learning Alcohol was only a symptom of my problem.

I remember…

denying that my life was unmanagable and that I was powerless over Alcohol.


I remember…

accepting that I was an Alcoholic.

I remember…

because to forget is to die drunk.

I remember…

because that day my life began

when I finally asked for help.



(placed first calls for help March 17, 19, and 20 – 1991)

“The Rooms”

Most of us think that what lies “out there” beyond our reach is what we are really after.  We set goals and try to achieve them; it might even be said that because few people actually achieve these external goals we now reward everyone – on a stage recently every single child got a medal because he or she attended not because he or she had traveled over time and faced obstacles to reach the stage that day.  I was reading recently about Medieval Pilgrimages which became the model for what some call the hero’s journey.  If we have learned anything from these pilgrimages it is that as pilgrim’s traveled they had “the slow realization that the ultimate goal was not ‘out there’ but the awakening that of an identity that lies within.”  For an Alcoholic, coming to Alcoholics Anonymous is part of a similar journey.  When we arrive in “the rooms” we are able, through shared stories, to travel inward.  Many of us soon realize, by listening to others and working with a mentor (sponsor) that we had mis-perceived IMG_7635the whole point of living our lives, that, in fact, our instincts had “gone awry.”  When we enter  “the rooms” with regularity we begin to change; we are safe there as if we had returned home.  It is in “the rooms,” for the first time, that we are able to actually hear similar stories and the new message of Recovery.  Is is in “the rooms” that we dare to believe that we might have gotten it wrong and that we need to change something, in ourselves, that can right our relationship with God and other alcoholics.  In the hero journey this is called the “transformation” and in “the rooms” it is referred to as a “psychic change.”  In my experience real change comes when I stop thinking too much about outside solutions and judging others instead of getting honest with myself.  When I turn inward , I see the things that I can change and those that I cannot.   But it is the countless hours spent in “the rooms” of Alcoholics Anonymous throughout the country (meetings are everywhere!) that I have “ceased fighting everyone and everything.” When I take the action to stop fighting, I can feel the love and acceptance offered by all the Recovering Alcoholics around me.  When I get honest (Step 1), when I become open (Step 2), and make a decision (Step 3), I can take the necessary action toward achieve a  “psychic change” and live an emotionally sober life.  And when I go back into the real world , I can actually live and “practice the principles in all my affairs” which keep me from chasing those unattainable external rewards.  Then I return to “the rooms” to share this on-going story of triumph over failure that results from a psychic change, one I believe is initiated by the grace of a power greater than myself.  I must tell my story so “the rooms” witness that “I am in a different place from where I was yesterday” and sothey learn “Hope is born while facing the unknown and discovering that one is not alone.”  You are not alone today and finding “the rooms” will never leave you feeling hopeless again.

Things Tell Stories

deskAmid the myriad of books on my desk and shelves, at work, is a white box next to a tiger.  The box is made from a poem I wrote titled “I Folded You;” a student literally folded it into this box while I was sharing it during writer’s workshop.  What strikes me most about this memory is how much the student taught me about my own poem. What I mean is that the poem was all about a failed relationship and the need to control the feelings by folding them into a safe place to heal, but I did not fully understand this until my words were acted upon by this intelligent young person. Ironically,  I could not see what I had said until he showed me what I had said.  I think that this complex marriage of ideas and actions is how Recovery works.  I have found that my books lead me to my writing just as working the steps lead me to emotional sobriety.  For alcoholics, of course, we have the Big Book as our true guide that leads us from our reading to “right living.”  I have learned with each reading that these instructions ask me to go beyond the words on the page. They foster in me a need to build sustainable relationships with a higher power and other alcoholics.  When I get sidelined by life’s twists and turns, I return time and again to the Big Book to sustain my faith just as I do with the books on my desk at work.  When I look at these titles, I see how they are about reading, writing, and knowing the world around me in my daily life; Borges, Palmer, Tagore and many others sustain me until I can act.  The gift I received from this young man, however, was the understanding that “of myself, and only books, I am nothing.” Isolation’s cure comes when I share with another person, alcoholic or not, my goals and ambitions, ideas and plans, and fears and successes.   Self-knowledge is limited to my own confining perspective, my “thinking disease.”  If the box reminds me I was trapped,  dad’s tiger reminds me of the courage I receive from a higher power.  My hungry, intellectual curiosity can only be satiated by my spiritual quest.

Magic in the Forest

“Into the Woods” is about people who have to go into the forest to find something – a slipper and a milky white cow.  The story and the music engage us, because we all have our own experiences of going into the metaphoric “woods” of our own lives.  I was struck when I watched it recently; it is rare that we choose the woods and even rarer that we willingly go without a struggle.  Perhaps becasue we all know that lurking in the dark forest are giants, those creatures of evil who are ready to crush or pounce on our ambition, so we opt for the stagnation of the familiar.  When I consider my own life I have often chosen “comfort over character” since it feels better or familiar.  Through practicing the 6th and 7th Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous I have changed though, maybe even learned the larger message of the musical.  But the truth is, it is really hard to be daring and couragous; it requires a faith maybe only possible if there is the hope of change.   However, what I have learned on my own recent trip to the woods (some of you have noticed my absence), is that I rarely remember on the journey that I am not alone.  In fact, many people are on their own journeys, fighting their own giants right alongside me.  The brilliance of this musical,”Into the Woods,” is that people collide with unexpected outcomes that can only be discovered in the heart of this woods.  Call it the “heart of darkness” if you will, a place where being forced  to see the character of the those around us, transforms us.  The woods then symbolizes all that I must give up; sacrifice and safety are replaced by bounty and freedom.  While there is great tragedy, there is also great joy in accepting what is left behind. Rarely have I known what lies ahead, but what has always defined me is the willingness to stay on the trail. Even as the forsest deepens and the light diminishes I march on and on and on… until an unexpected stranger or opportunity finds me to re-illuminate the path. And if you are wondering why a grown man is speaking about fairy tales let me offer you this: When I was a child fairy tales taught me right from wrong, but as a grown up they teach me that magic is faith, the belief that all things are possible.


Make A Wish

I remember so clearly those early days in Recovery when I wished I could stop drinking.

As the Big Book says:

“It may seem incredible that these men are to become happy, respected, and useful once more.  How can they rise from such misery, bad repute and hopelessness?  The practical answer is that since these things have happened among us, they can happen with you.  Should you wish them above all else, and be willing to make use of our experience, we are sure they will come.  The age of miracles is still with us.  Our own recovery proves that!”

These words from the founding members of Alcoholics Anonymous explain so much.  I did wish and then come to see, through the example of Sober people, that I could have recovery too.  Little did I know that a wish was actually a prayer.

True Grit

When I hear the phrase true ambition, rightly or wrongly, my mind hears the words true grit.  Now I have never seen the film of the same name, but love the word grit – defined as firmness of mind or spirit.  Rarely have I met an ambitious person who does not have a certain amount of grit.  However, as a man whose name literally means courage, it was not until I joined the Recovery community and began to work these progressive steps that I actually learned what grit really means: an “unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”    It has been my experience that you cannot get Sober unless you face your hardships. When you stare down the past past without regret, you come to a deeper understanding of the dangerous paths you have walked.  In retrospect this sounds relatively easy to do, but it was not.  When I am in a meeting the reminders are ever-present that pride and courage rarely co-exist; in almost every share you hear people trying to surrender their pride, by asking for help, so that courage can take over.  Despite the number of years I am Sober, my ego still tries to hang on to things.  It is not until I get humble (humility defined as knowing who you are in the moment and knowing you need a higher power), that I find courage.  It is not until I make that 3rd Step decision to “turn my will and my life over to the care of god as I understood him,” that I even recognize my own ambition.  Today I know that with God’s grace I can find my true grit.  I am grateful, as Bill W. said so well, that my “true ambition is the profound desire to live usefully and walk humbly under the grace of God.” It is, in fact, only during times of service to others that the dark corners of my past are illuminated and my true self revealed.


I had no idea when I first decided to join the Recovery community that I was insane. I had certainly lost “hope”  and sensed that I was “powerless” over Alcohol as it said in the 1st Step. However, “unmanageable” was not a word I could use to describe myself because I had not yet lost anything material. It has been my experience that until I lose things, I can live in an alternative reality that I create from my own lies.  I learned, and continue to learn by working the 2nd Step, that I am broken, that my life is made up of pieces that do not fit together anymore.  As I came to believe in a “power greater than myself,” I was able to see how my will was the culprit.  My will made only eg0-based decisions that allowed me to believe that life was a game of survival of the fittest and everyone was my enemy.  When everything is about survival, winning, and out-smarting your foes it becomes more and more clear that you are insane.  So,  I have had to learn how to align my will with God’s will.  It is hard to accept this reality, because it requires me to trust that God has my back, and this faith is a life-long pursuit.  It has also been my experience that people think this that  an individuals will does not matter; I couldn’t disagree more!  This alignment of wills has shown me that survival is not recovery.  Thriving is what recovery is about – learning in the Rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous to be in relationship with other people and then going back into the world to “practice the principles in all our affairs.”  Today I know that I have “come to believe that a power greater than myself” and that this power has “restored me to sanity.”  Sanity, which comes from Sanskrit, means “wholeness.”

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