The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Part VI, 446-51; Part VII, 597-600
So shall the earth, its galaxy and perhaps the universe itself eventually vanish, possibly to be replaced by another universe, different and possibly more beautiful than ours, evidence of the wonder of that which is infinite, the essences of which are love, beauty, wisdom, understanding and forgiveness.
“Free at last! Thank God Almighty! I’m free at last!”
The Rev. Martin Luther King
Recovery from alcoholism is best viewed as a spiritual journey. Often such a journey cannot take place until an alcoholic “hits bottom”, becomes so desperate that he or she is willing to do anything to be free from the addiction. Such moments are not unique to alcoholics but they often occur during the progress of the illness. Occasionally they have been described in literature and in poetry:
“In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet, to discourse of what there good befell,
All else will I relate discover’d there.”
Dante. Inferno, Canto I, H.F. Cary Trans.
Atisha (Atisa Dipankara Shrijnana (Ôtish Dipôngkor Srigên) (980-1052 CE)-Tibetan teacher)
An integral part of the rehab program was group attendance at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. Some of the meetings took place in the hospital. Others were held elsewhere and we went to them by private bus.
There was considerable variety among the meetings. Some took place in impoverished areas and usually were held in church basements although I remember another held in a sort of attic loft. Among those who showed up for such meetings were people who were living, or had lived on the street. Some had been to prison and even had a menacing look. But they knew, and we were coming to realize that, despite any differences, we all had something in common. We had suffered, each in his or her own way, and we were all recovering alcoholics.
There were other meetings in more prosperous parts of the city. There was a big meeting Sunday evening in the basement of a large church. Those who attended were mostly rather young and I was impressed with their contagious enthusiasm. Some of them even brought their dogs. This was aso called speakers’ meeting and there was a lot of cheering, clapping, yelling and general carrying on. At another meeting I remember most vividly an attractive, apparently successful young lady, after a brief account of her troubles, described in glowing terms how her entire life had turned around and how happy she had become. Her whole attitude, particularly her face, struck me with astonishment. It simply radiated joy. She seemed to have been touched by a higher Presence, to have received some priceless gift. Someone, or some thing had reached down its hand and rescued her from the abyss. Looking at her I said to myself, “I could become like that!”
Unbeknownst to myself, I had probably taken both the First and the Second Steps towards recovery in the program suggested by Alcoholics Anonymous.
It is difficult to separate, in my own mind the First and the Second Steps. The First Step involves the recognition that one is powerless over alcohol and that one’s life has become unmanageable. The Second Step takes place where one has come to believe that a “power greater than oneself” can restore a person to sanity.
How many times had I “convinced” myself how little power I had over alcohol! Yet I continued to drink, sometimes thinking, like so many alcoholics, I’ll just have one or two glasses of wine at a social occasion, never drink alone. And at times this seemed to work. I could go on this way formonth after month. I did not seem to fit the concept of an alcoholic who, after one drink or two, would go off on a binge for several days or weeks. And I would then say to myself, “See, nothing happened! I can do this if I am very careful about it.” And so I could, for a while.... But inevitably there came a time when, perhaps when I was traveling alone, or when my wife was away visiting friends, a time when I would think to myself, “Let’s just this once bring back a bit of the old days.” The days when I might drink and suddenly the whole world would seem mellow and bright, where the sun, shining through the window in the early morning, seemed to gain a new luster and where one had a feeling of being born again.
And that would inevitably lead to the ultimate humiliating downfall. And, having fallen, I would insist to myself and others, like any sincere alcoholic, that this showed that I was powerless over alcohol and that I had resolved to stop drinking. Had I taken the First Step? In view of what followed, year after year, this seems unlikely. I had not yet reached the point where I could be one hundred percent honest with myself. Time and time again I would convince myself that "this was it!" That this was positively the last time around, that I'd never have another drink. And I was wrong, again and again.
What made things so different this last time? Many alcoholics might say that I had at this point finally “hit bottom”, had reached a moment of truth. But was this really “hitting bottom”? I still had my job, my wife, my family, my house, even my dog. My medical expenses were paid by insurance. I had lost only my pride, but this I had lost many times before.
So what made this different? I confess that I don’t really know the answer. Perhaps I was older now and tired. Perhaps I was frightened because the doctors said that my liver might not recover from the harm that I had done to it and a nurse told me that she had seen people dying of liver disease and that, if given the choice, she would rather die of cancer. It was that painful and unpleasant.
Suffice it to say that I somehow realized that I had come to the end of the road, or perhaps to a new beginning. I had come to a full realization of how powerless I was. Alcohol had overcome me and I was its slave. Somehow I had managed to take the hardest, perhaps the most important step of all, the step that may be never taken and which, once taken, gives meaning to all the rest. The First Step on the road to recovery.
How many times in the past had I tried to do it alone, but without success. To taper off and, hopefully, to stop entirely. Indeed, I had managed to stop for a period of seven years but this did not last. Persons committed to Alcoholics Anonymous might have said that I had been on nothing but a “dry drunk”.
The truth of the matter was that during this period I was in denial and had not even taken the first step. I told myself that I wanted not to drink, but failed to internalize this wish and was using exterior means, particularly my wife, as a way of controlling my drinking. This may have been obvious to her but, to me it remained hidden by denial. I had developed two interrelated dependencies, one on alcohol and the other on my wife as a means of “controlling” my addiction. Thus when my wife was absent, visiting friends, or when I was traveling alone, I became vulnerable to a relapse. All this was obvious. But it was not obvious to me or at least if that were so, I built up every rationalization I could to avoid its implications. Very simply, I must have felt that I could somehow “afford” an occasional alcoholic “vacation” away from anyone’s control. It had not occurred to me that an alcoholic simply cannot be “controlled” by anyone other than himself and then only with the help of a “higher power”.
This, then, was the basic insight, the glorious truth brought home to me by Alcoholics Anonymous: No outside force can “control” you. Only you can do that. And, paradoxically, you cannot do that alone (or at least, as I have said, it is far too risky to try and the chances of success far too slight). You cannot do it alone but you very likely can do it with the help of a “power greater than yourself”, a “higher power”, whether that be God, as you conceive him to be, some other spiritual force, or simply the group of recovering alcoholics, including a “sponsor”.
The “sponsor”, ideally a recovering alcoholic with some experience in the program, is useful, not only for companionship but also for guidance. Alcoholism, by its very nature, is a “lonely” illness Although it may begin in a congenial social setting of a cocktail party or bar, it usually matures into solitary drinking, alone at some obscure bar hidden from one’s normal companions, in one’s house or even the garden, as was the case with the alcoholic Consul in Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, “Under the Volcano”, where he had several bottles dispersed under the shrubbery in a tangle of tropical plants. I would drink late at night in my ownbedroom, after the rest of the family had gone to sleep. There I would sit, watching a late night program on TV. I was doing that “just to get to sleep” but in truth I had withdrawn into my own little world of fantasy. And, as the withdrawal and “hiding” continued it is as if one were confined in some legendary torture room whose walls edge closer and closer. The room still may feel like a pleasant retreat and a source of comfort but very gradually it becomes more and more confining. The alcoholic’s world becomes smaller and smaller, hidden from reality and unbelievably lonely.
For, say what you will, the outside world, despite all its pretense of “understanding” that alcoholism is an "illness", often regards it as a weakness and a moral failing. “He did it to himself!” they often say. “Why can’t he realize that he mustn’t drink”. Or, as in my case, where I had been hospitalized a number of times and had still relapsed, “Why hasn’t he learned his lesson!” There is some truth in such criticisms. To get well, an alcoholic must cooperate, just as a diabetic must realize that he cannot eat sugar in any appreciable quantity, must continually test his blood and take insulin. So, if the alcoholic fails or willingly refuses to “cooperate” he must bear a large share of the blame for happens. An alcoholic inevitably feels the truth behind this, as well as the social stigma. This only increases his isolation,his
loneliness and his guilt.
Upon entering the Alcoholics Anonymous program and obtaining a sponsor, an alcoholic, now in recovery, may feel a sense of extraordinary relief andwell being. As has been said in another connection, he has at last “come out of the closet”, has joined a group of fellow sufferers, traveling now together on the long road to recovery. And he has a personal friend, who has been where he has been and suffered as he has suffered. A friend who has managed to escape the slavery of addiction and has come out into the sunlight of sobriety.
Despite its extraordinary value, sponsorship may also have a few pitfalls. Being a sponsor entails considerable responsibility and also some power over the sponsored person. Alcoholics Anonymous has no procedure for evaluating the skills or backgrounds of potential sponsors. Sponsorship is thus left to the two individuals involved. The arrangement is strictly voluntary. If either party becomes dissatisfied with the situation it can be terminated. This is a valuable protection for both parties. However, occasionally there may be situations where the relationship may be inappropriate and potentially harmful. For example, an occasional sponsor may refer to his protege in rather patronizing and perhaps derogatory terms as his “pigeon” or even boast of having several such “pigeons”, implying an excessive degree of control over his or her “flock” of subordinates. (The "pigeon" term was used to show compassion, not in any sense derogatory in AA's early history). Correspondingly a sponsored person may cultivate an unhealthy dependency on the sponsor.Thus one such person was heard to exclaim that he could not finish shaving in the morning without making several calls to his sponsor for advice. Some recovering alcoholics enthusiastically profess their inability to do anything but follow directions from someone else. They have, they say, forfeited the right to make any decisions for themselves. “I am my worst enemy” they say. “I must now do what I am told.” As has been often said, alcoholics are dependent persons almost by definition. They may become overly dependent on their sponsors, who, also being alcoholics, may be tempted to succumb to the intoxication that may come with a feeling of power over a vulnerable, dependent colleague. And the latter may be tempted to become over enthusiastic in his or her dependency, even to the point of self abasement, saying such things as “I can’t be trusted any more to do anything. My brain can’t be trusted. For it’s led me astray too many times. All I have to do or should do is learn from my betters, follow the program, don’t ‘intellectualize’ and ‘keep it simple’.”
All of this illustrates that Alcoholics Anonymous, despite its obvious merits, may at times have hidden dangers. The decentralization of the program and the autonomy of individual groups may lead some to abuse their privileges, distorting AA ideas to favor a personal agenda. Some members may abuse their control over vulnerable newcomers, advising them to sever all ties with family members and former friends, even ignore the advice of physicians who prescribe for bipolar or depressive ailments. Newcomers may be assigned sponsors rather than be permitted to choose whose advice they wish to follow. In extreme cases sponsors have encouraged or required intimate relationships with themselves or with others. Thus the AA program may be perverted into a cult, isolating its adherents and subjecting them to a regime of unthinking control. Although some may argue that such measures may be necessary to combat the insidious effects of a terrible illness which, if not placed in check, is usually terminal, the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, since the vast majority of alcoholics who have achieved sobriety within the program have done so without such a surrender of their personal autonomy. To be sure, recovering alcoholics must beware of going back to friends or an environment which may foster a relapse. And they should be careful with medications, disclosing their alcoholic background to prescribing physicians to assure that any needed drugs are subject to appropriate control. Similarly, especially during their early years in AA, they usually benefit by a close association with an alcoholic who has some experience in recovery. But care should be taken that these measures are not distorted by particular groups so as to avoid abuses which are inconsistent with the spirit of AA, inflicting harm on recovering alcoholics and damaging the program’s reputation.
That a person in crisis does what he is told may very well be the best and safest course of action, if his advisor is wise, maintains the proper degree of humility and respect and does not abuse the power he may have over the newcomer. I sense that most sponsors are able to do just this. The conspicuous success of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is the best evidence of that. But nonetheless the potential abuses, risks, dangers and responsibilities of sponsorship are always best kept in mind. If this is done then it is one of the most valuable tools of the program. But all this should not mean that a recovering alcoholic should turn his or her brain off, lose all freedom and become a mindless automaton. Nor should that person seek approval by self abasement, by seeking to dramatize his supposed failings and inadequacies in public. The program should, rather, encourage a gradual release from dependency, from the slavery of addiction, towards self sufficiency and self respect. Many recovering alcoholics maintain that continuing dependence on their higher power is what the Program is all about and that, if a person cannot have that, he or she is not likely to remain sober. There is much truth in this, yet one might add that a relationship with one’s higher power can and sbould develop and mature to provide strength, not weakness; companionship, not servility. That is the true path towards recovery and the wisest sponsors and those they may be privileged to guide are well advised to keep that in mind. In this regard the keynote should not be “Do this! Follow this rule!” but, rather, “Here’s what worked for me! Hopefully it may work for you!”
During the initial stages of recovery (i.e. immediately after detox) it’s particularly important to stick with the program and “keep it simple”. The body, deprived of alcohol, is hurting badly and has enormous influence over the mind. It will go to any length to get the alcohol back in the system and it may be many weeks, months or even years before it is restored to its original state. Although the recovering alcoholic may think he’s in control this is far from true. After a week or so he or she may feel so much better physically that a pink cloud mentality may set in, with all its rationalizations and illusions: “I’m O.K. now. Just had a slip. Will be lots more careful in the future. Maybe only one glass of wine, a beer now and then. I can handle it if I watch out to see that this doesn’t ever happen again.” Some practitioners have termed this the “flight into recovery”, itself a form of denial.
A recipe for disaster. One can almost hear the body chuckling in the background, “Little does he know! In a few days we’re going to get it all back again, just the way it was before”.
So this period, right after detox, is particularly hazardous. And the same is true of the period immediately after a discharge from rehab. A primary risk is that a recovering alcoholic might discontinue going to AA and working the program. For example, he or she may find issues dealing with the “Higher Power” or the socalled “God Stuff” uncongenial and uncomfortable. He may question whether his alcoholism has been “caused” by “character defects”. In denial, he may rely on issues such as these for dropping out of the program.
The reality though is that, if he wants to survive, he’d better stick with it and “keep it simple”. This means not trusting himself and paying attention to the advice of others who have more sobriety and experience. If this means, initially, a certain surrender of freedom, a willingness not to “intellectualize” then that may be necessary if it increases the chances of recovery. The main effort should be to stick with it, attend as many meetings as possible, find a congenial sponsor and, if there are aspects of the Program (like the “God Stuff”) which give concern, then take advantage of as many of the other aspects of the Program as possible to increase the chance of a good start towards recovery.
All this means then that a recovering alcoholic should try to find a meeting and a sponsor which is congenial to his or her particular needs. In a large, metropolitan community this is easier than it may be in a country town. Whatever the possibilities, one should be aware of the various benefits, and risks, of this extraordinary program.
Among the basic tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous is the concept that alcoholism is best dealt with by seeking to remove an addict’s “character defects”. These “defects”, it is said, lie at the root of his or her addiction and recovery is possible only if they are removed with the help of one’s Higher Power”. Hence Steps Four through Seven:
Step Four: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Step Five: “Admitted to God, to another human being, and to ourselves the exact nature of our wrongs”.
Step Six: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”.
Step Seven: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”
What is going on here? Is the recovering alcoholic being told that he drinks because he is “bad”? That his drinking stems from a moral “character defect”? That it can be stopped only if this “defect” is publicly acknowledged and, with prayer, removed by a Higher Power, now openly described as “God”?
Perhaps this may be best understood by a brief account of how Alcoholics Anonymous got started in the mid 20th Century. The story of the founders, Bill W.and Dr. Bob, are well known and need hardly be repeated. Suffice it to say that in those days alcoholism was rarely thought of as an "illness" but, in the popular mind at least, was generally regarded as a moral failing, resulting from a “defect of character”.
Bill W. was strongly influenced by a friend who was a follower of the so called Oxford Group, an authoritarian religious group which emphasized the healing power of public confessional of sins and other moral failings. If a sufferer enumerated his or her failings and, with the help and grace of God, had the courage and humility to admit these to the group, and offered to “make amends” to all those whom he may have harmed (Steps Eight, Nine and Ten) then he might find salvation.
Bill W. drew on the doctrines of the Oxford Group in his vision of Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet, in a curious way, the program, despite its origins in a controversial fundamentalist and highly authoritarian movement which, under present day standards, might be viewed as a cult, has worked for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands.
Some persons in the fellowship have suggested that to view alcoholism as having been caused byso called “character defects” is to “put the cart before the horse”. Although it is very true that, in the recovery process, the alcoholic seems to lose some of his or her “character defects”, such as lying, cheating, rationalizing, excessive irritability or even a tendency towards cruelty or physical violence, these “defects” may be results of the drinking, not its causes. They may be products, symptoms of alcoholism and, when the drinking stops, may gradually disappear. The key then is to stop the drinking. If that is done, hopefully with help from a “higher power”, then the recovering alcoholic manages to gain increasing insight into the effects that alcohol has had on his character and behavior in the past. He has, in fact been “bad” but he has been “bad” because he drank. He did not drink because he was “bad”.
There is nonetheless one way in which the “character defect cause” theory may have some validity. To understand this it may be preferable to refer to “characteristics” or “traits” rather than “defects”. First of all, it is generally recognized that alcoholics may have inherited some genetic characteristics which cause their bodies to react to or metabolize alcohol in atypical ways. In a sense they may have inherited a unique sensibility or allergy to alcohol. Recent research in England has revealed that single base-pair point mutations in a particular gene (Gabrb1), an important part of the GABAA receptor in the brain, has particularly a strong effect on the brain’s pleasure center (the nucleus accumbens) of laboratory mice, causing them to prefer alcohol containing liquid (primarily wine) over water at least 85 percent of the time. Other research seems to indicate that persons prone to addiction may have abnormalities in an area of the brain known as the medial forebrain pleasure circuit where the neuromodulator dopamine plays a crucial role. See a recent study by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Neuroscience Professor David. J. Linden, "The Compass of Pleasure" (New York: Viking Press, 2011); "Memoirs of An Addicted Brain- A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs" by Marc Lewis (New York: Public Affairs, 2012) and N.Y. Times, July 24, 2011, Sunday Review at p. 4. See also M. Szalavitz, “Unbroken Brain, A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction” (“addiction alters the interactions between the midbrain regions like the ventral tegmentum and the nucleus accumbens,which are involved with motivation and pleasure, and parts of the prefrontal cortex that mediate decisions and help set priorities....In essence addiction occurs when these brain systems are focused on the wrong objects: a drug or self destructive behavior like excessive gambling....) N.Y.Times, June 26,2016, Sunday Review p.9.
Continued use of alcohol tends to build up “tolerance” and the body “adapts” to the alcohol by becoming physically dependent upon it. The brain chemistry changes and there may also be physical changes in the neurons’ receptor sites, altering the balance of such neurotransmitters as glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) as well as the so called neuromodulators, such as dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine and norepinephrine. (For the effect this has on adolescents,, see “Why Teenagers Act Crazy” by Richard A. Friedman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Weill Cornell Medical Center, in New York. (N.Y. Times June 29, 2014 Review Section) reporting recent research indicating that the amygdala, which forms part of the primitive portion of the brain (nucleus accumbens), develops more rapidly in adolescents than the more rational areas of the cerebral cortex. Since the amygdala deals with sensitivity to fear and governs fear response, as well as risky situations, adolescents are more prone to experience fear, as in certain social situations, and have greater difficulty unlearning fear responses. Paradoxically they are also inclined to seek out risky situations and are thus prone to be “risk takers”. When they encounter fear, such as in social gatherings, they often respond by self medication with alcohol. or, most recently, with pharmaceutical psychostimulants like Ritalin or Adderall, sales of which increased more than five fold in the ten year period 2002-2012. For a recent very helpful article describing recent research on various centers of the brain pertinent to addiction, see National Geographic Magazine Sept. 2017, pp. 30 ff., available on the internet. This discusses Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) studies of addictive persons and treatments involving electrical stimulation of the prefrontal cortex, which is numbed by ingestion of addictive substances. Promising results have also been achieved by administering Buprenorphine to heroin addicts.. Programs dealing with substance abuse, such as Rational Recovery, have for sometime referred to the so called “addictive voice”, which in response to alcohol induced changes in brain chemistry and neurology, sends covert messages to a numbed cerebral cortex to have “just one” “just one more” or “that didn’t do any harm- guess I can now drink moderately, a glass of wine ‘now and then‘ just like the rest of the folk"
In a very helpful and wise book (E. Kurtz & K. Ketcham, Spirituality and Imperfection- Story Telling in Search for Meaning New York, N.Y. Bantam Books, 1992,1994,2002) the authors seem comfortable with the “character defect” characterization in AA’s Sixth Step but emphasize that everyone shares such “defects” since no one is perfect and to have “defects”, indeed, to “fail”, is nothing more than to be human. They also distinguish between “religion” and “spirituality” and, quoting Bill Wilson’s dissatisfaction with “religion” (his saying that the problem with organized religion as such is “their claim how confoundedly right all of them are” (Introduction at p. 5), state that AA “has always presented its program as ‘spiritual rather then religious.’”. The term “spiritual” describes a process whereby one recognizes one’s essential humanity with all its imperfections. If one chooses to call these “defects” rather than “characteristics” this may be merely a matter of semantics. Yet one might remain wary of the admonition to have “all” these defects “removed” (as suggested by AA’s Twelve Steps (Six and Seven)), at least if “removal” implies achieving, rather than striving towards, a state of perfection. Kurtz & Ketcham interpret "all" as avoiding self deception, denial, making a searching and fearless "inventory", "holding nothing back" (emph. in orig.; see id. at pp. 148-49). Recognizing one’s “defects” or “characteristics” begins a process of developing skills to cope with them and, with humility, increasing one’s understanding (including self understanding), love and forgiveness (including self forgiveness). We are not saints. Spirituality is a process, not a goal which, somehow reached, is an end. As T.S. Eliot suggests, in his Four Quartets, the end is only the beginning. An alcoholic can usually get nowhere at first except by avoiding alcohol altogether. In advanced stages, the body, now almost completely controlling the mind, has only one objective, to guarantee a steady and increasing intake of alcohol or other drug. And the mind, what is left of it, responds by causing the person to lie, cheat, steal, do anything to protect and conceal the source of supply. Even if AA is right in its original teachings that alcoholism results from character "defects", does not alcoholism in its relentless progress result in ever so many additional "defects"? Is it not in many ways worse even than cancer? Does cancer result in lying, cheating, stealing, shame, guilt, the death of the spirit or of the soul? With abstinence, many of the chemical and physical changes may be reversible but the inherited genetic characteristics must remain. AA teaches that the character "defects" may be modified or at least coped with by following a program designed to resume the process of developing the maturity which the use of alcohol has delayed.
In addition to genetic characteristics, there are what may be called personality traits. Studies have shown that alcoholics are often shy and uncertain of themselves in social situations, lackingself confidence and perhaps having doubts about their own abilities or self worth. They may be “loners”, uneasy in a crowd, overly sensitive and introverted. For persons such as these, alcohol may seem like a magic potion. After a few drinks an alcoholic may feel able to “fit in”, may feel more accepted, or even admired by the group. Given enough to drink he may even think himself the “life of the party”. Alcohol thus may become a welcome, even necessary, social lubricant. Other personality traits of a potential alcoholic may be a tendency to be obsessive-compulsive, rebellious, risk taking, pleasure seeking, perfectionist, inclined towards grandiosity, “thin skinned” or easily offended, easily depressed, having a low frustration tolerance level, inclined to bear a grudge, and, above all, a tendency to become dependent upon what those in Alcoholics Anonymous refer to as “people, places and things”, let along substances, such as alcohol and drugs. Interestingly, Caroline Knapp, author of an excellent book “Drinking: A Love Story”, recounted in a later volume “Pack of Two”, how, having gone into recovery from her dependence on alcohol, she thereupon developed a dependency on her dog.
Personality traits such as those mentioned are of course not exclusive to alcoholics but are shared by many others who apparently can drink, occasionally to excess, and never fall victims to the illness. But potential alcoholics bear the additional burden of certain atypical, genetically based deficiencies, which often tip the balance into illness, leading to addiction, where the body, in its effort to adapt itself to alcohol, changes its metabolism and chemistry to require alcohol as an essential ingredient. This chemical dependency then preys upon the mind, rendering it subservient to bodily needs. Gradually the soul, if there is a soul, is sold into slavery to a toxic substance. Ina
sense it is as if alcoholism, like some pernicious plant, such as the so called "strangler fig" or banyan tree, which has covered the images of so many temples at Cambodia's Angkor Wat, as if alcoholism gradually strangles and smothers the souls of those who suffer from it. The illness may begin with a Faustian bargain, alcohol bringing relief from some real or imagined ill and producing a welcoming "buzz". Then, it feeds on the fertile soil provided by genetics, certain personality traits, family characteristics and cultural surroundings. Growing larger it must have more and more alcohol to achieve a given effect and to do so it throws out its roots. At times it may experience an alcohol "drought", causing it to weaken and become sickly. From too much alcohol it may become toxic and even convulsive. But always it grows, the illness deepens and, inch by inch, day by day, week by week, year by year, it takes over the personality, shutting out the sunlight and enslaving the soul. The poet, Coleridge, an opium addict, was acquainted with this, having referred to "the Nightmare, 'life in death'" in his great poem about the Ancient Mariner.
Rather than viewing these traits or characteristics as “defects” and praying for their “removal”, it may be preferable for an alcoholic to learn about them and adjust his life accordingly, specifically stay away from alcohol the way a person might do if he were not able to tolerate sugar or shellfish.
And finally, one cannot escape the reality that the process of recovery involves a moral choice. A recovering alcoholic always has a choice, that is whether or not to take a first drink and, having taken that, whether to call a halt to the drinking before the resumption of his addiction precludes him from doing so. This then is the moral element, the moment of truth which spells success or failure. If an alcoholic persistently fails to persist with the program, it may then be said that he has a deficiency of character and that this is a “cause” of his failure to recover. In any event, little is gained by protracted speculation about the "cause" or "causes" of alcoholism, at least if doing so interferes with an alcoholic's efforts to do something about it. In most cases this consists in a commitment to stop drinking and usually this is best done with the aid of others suffering and recovering from the same disability.
Looking at Alcoholics Anonymous in this way may help remove some of the guilt which an alcoholic must inevitably feel. He may feel that society has said, “There goes a drunk! There goes a bad man!” or “Admit you’ve been bad! See what you’ve done to yourself, your spouse and family! Now promise never to drink again!” And the alcoholic, when told these things, may in his guilt, shrink further from others, retreat further into lonely isolation and seek consolation from his treacherous “friend” which lies within the bottle. Thus, if an alcoholic, rather than thinking of himself as a “bad” person, views himself as having inherited some unique genetic and personality characteristics or traits, and having been “allergic” to alcohol, has developed an addiction which, in turn, has indeed caused him to have character “defects”, he may realize that what has happened to him is not because he has been or is “bad” but because he is the way he is, a person who for various reasons simply cannot drink.
When it is suggested that Alcoholics Anonymous may have gotten things a bit “wrong way round”, some members of the fellowship may react with horror if not hostility. Throughout the movement there may run a strong streak of fundamentalism, stressing literal reliance on the original “teachings”. “Don’t have the arrogance to seek to “revise” the “Big Book”!” they might say. And, for some, this may be very right and proper. For one thing is clear. Alcoholism is a dangerous and death destined illness. If the best way out for a sufferer requires literal reliance on the original doctrine, then this is well and good. Indeed, this may be particularly helpful in the initial phases of recovery, since then the body, stressed by the removal of the addictive substance, remains in subtle control of the mind. Just as, when he was drinking, he may have preferred his whiskey or vodka “straight up” so, when first entering recovery, it may be safer for him to take the AA program “straight up”, that is in its traditional and time tested state, free of more modern interpretations. Recovery is the main thing, the only thing. Anything that promotes that end is good, if it “works”, as it so often does.
Inevitably, over the many years of Alcoholic’s Anonymous’ success as a program for recovering substance abusers, there has been an accumulation of practical insights into the art of recovery which are immensely valuable. Although these have at times been characterized by cynics as oversimplified cliches, they are in fact capsule descriptions of practical methods for addicts to deal with the problems of everyday life. Some of the more useful ones are as follows:
“Easy Does It!”
“One Day at a Time!”
An alcoholic’s life is by its very nature, chaotic (Step One tells us that “our lives had become unmanageable”). He or she must somehow deal with the necessities of life while attempting to accommodate the overpowering need for alcohol and often the equally pressing need to conceal one’s habit from others, if that is at all possible (which, often, it is not). The alcoholic is often obsessed with procuring bottles, concealing them, remembering their secret locations,disposing them, concealing and alleviating withdrawal symptoms, disguising alcoholic breath by mouthwashes and mints. The list goes on and on. Life becomes chaotic, completely unmanageable and out of control. As a result an alcoholic tends to develop an obsessive and compulsive way of life, trying to do many things at the same time (the term currently in vogue seems to be “multitasking”). By trying to do too much, little or nothing gets done.
When the drinking stops, these habits may continue into sobriety. If so, then an alcoholic may benefit from attempting to slow down, to do one thing at a time, live one day at a time. “Easy does it” becomes a very useful rule to follow.
But these admonitions fulfill an even more pressing need: In the first few days, weeks months or even years of recovery, an alcoholic may be inclined to look too far in the future and become discouraged at what must be done. “How can I give up drinking for the rest of my life?” “I can’t imagine how I could be like that person who says she has not had a drink for twenty years! How could she possibly do that?”
The answer to that is that one does it “One day at a time”. All that is required is that I don’t drink today. And “easy does it” helps to achieve that goal. Indeed, in an early stage in my own recovery, when things seemed to have become so confusing and chaotic emotionally, I can remember reducing this maxim to “One hour at a time” “One minute at a time”.
“Just do the next darn thing that has to be done.” Figure out which is the most important thing (after making sure not to drink that day) and do just that and when that gets done, do the next most important thing and so on. And while you’re doing those things, take it easy. “Easy does it”. The fastest and the best way to get things done is to take our time. Whatever time that takes. And, little by little, it’s astonishing what can get accomplished given enough time.
Another thing. Don’t be a billy goat and butt your head against a stone wall. This leads into the famous Serenity Prayer:
"God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
Courage to change the things we can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Another version of the same idea is the admonition to “Let go and let God” or “Turn it Over!” (to the higher power). All these versions come to much the same thing. Stop trying to change other people or things which cannot be changed or can only be changed with great effort andslight chance of success. Do what you can and then leave the rest alone. You are not the center of the world and other people have their own legitimate concerns and priorities. They may never change or may change only in their own good time or when they have some sufficient incentive for doing so. Trying to change them will only create frustration for you, may well irritate them and reduce the likelihood of their changing later on.
Alcoholics tend to be impulsive, compulsive and obsessive. Indeed, part of the mechanism of addiction may be an alcoholic’s unconscious tendency to take on tasks which are essentially impossible, or so difficult to achieve that frustration is virtually guaranteed. And frustration serves as a rationale for taking a drink. Thus an alcoholic is, in a sense, inclined to be a Don Quixote, hopelessly jousting at impossible windmills so that he may calm his frustration through alcohol.
In addition to this the use of alcohol may prevent a person from fully maturing, cause him to retain immature tendencies to assume that the world revolves around him, that it must accommodate itself to his needs. “I want what I want when I want it!”In therapy this emotional attitude is sometimes referred to as “spoon banging”, as with a small child, sitting in his highchair at the dinner table, screaming and banging his spoon for more custard- now!
So, from an alcoholic perspective, the world out there should change to meet my needs; I need not adjust to it. And if it refuses to change then the alcoholic may seek to change what essentially cannot be changed. In this he is doomed to defeat and his inevitable frustration and the self pity which often accompanies it may reinforce his drinking.
So the better thing is to turn the whole process around. Once having identified the things which cannot be changed, at least by you, to “go with the flow” or seek the best accommodation possible and leave it at that. Then having done one’s best to adjust, to then “get on with it” and focus on what you have power to do something about. And that something you have power to change may indeed be yourself.
Another pitfall on the road to recovery may be an alcoholic’s unreasonable expectations of others and particularly of one’s self. If one is a perfectionist, always dissatisfied with what may be reasonably good when compared to something superb or even “perfect”, then disappointment and frustration is inevitable. The world is not “perfect” and no one in the world merits that description. High standards are commendable but impossibly high ones are an invitation to disaster. Parents have been known to instill such expectations into their children. Thus, if a child were to come home from school with a B+ or even an A- in some course, a parent, instead of complimenting the child, inquire, “Why didn’t you get an A or even an A+?”. I had a friend whose mother often reminded him that his older brother was always first in his class as well as an outstanding athlete. This may have left him with the impression that he would never receive parental approval if his achievements failed to match or even exceed those of his brother. In this he was almost doomed to failure for even if his brother were not “perfect” he appeared to be considered so. When my friend failed to “succeed” in his chosen career, his downward spiral may have been exacerbated by his inborn fear of failure.
In my own case, I remember an incident that took place just after I had proudly published my first book. One of my parents asked me, “Aren’t you concerned that somewhere in this big book there might be a “mistake”? The book may have been a “good” one- certainly I thought so and hoped others would concur. But it was not “perfect”.Indeed it could not be “perfect”. Any author who expects perfection is doomed to failure. Later on, I was always intrigued how, on receiving the first copy of my published book, it always fell open at a page on which there was a typographical error or misprint, as if the very words themselves were rebellious and wished to flaunt their defiance in my face. If I were to expect the book to be free of misprints I would inevitably be disappointed. And if I expected myself to be “perfect” or felt that I would not be admired by others if I were not entirely free of error, then I would be doomed to “fail”.
At times of stress I may have felt like one who, walking over some abyss on a “tightrope”, were to sense a subconscious parental admonition, “Aren’t you frightened that somehow you might slip and fall?” Indeed, one might even sense the touch of an unseen hand on the line, disturbing one’s equilibrium ever so slightly.
Life, like politics, is the art of the “possible”. If it is a game, the object is to hit the ball as hard as possible and keep it in the court as often as one can. But inevitably even the strongest player commits an error. Errors in life are inevitable and the best one can say is that they are invaluable in the learning process. They may become less likely with developing skill andexperience but they will continue to recur. The greatest have been able to laugh them off. Was it not Dr. Johnson who, when asked to “explain” some error in his masterpiece, the great Dictionary, replied that his mistake had been the result of “Ignorance, Madam! Pure Ignorance!” And did not another great man, Abraham Lincoln, sum up his life by observing, “I have tried to do the very best I know how.”
Almost by definition, an alcoholic is a dependent person, dependent on alcohol or some other substance. And, in an attempt to “control” his alcohol habit, he may be dependent upon some other person, typically his or her spouse, who unwittingly may cooperate in the process and thus serve as a so called “enabler”. Even in recovery, one’s relationship to a sponsor may well involve a considerable amount of dependency, hopefully of a healthy nature.
Current thinking about alcoholism takes the view that the illness is not only an individual disorder but is also very likely a family or group disorder.Thus it is best treated in a family setting rather than a setting focussed solely on the individual addict. When a person develops an addiction family members make some choices as to how to deal with this. For example, they may throw out or lock up the liquor supply, flush pills down the toilet, encourage the addict to “at least cut down” on drinking, attempt to restrict all drinking in the family to one glass of wine at dinner time, advise the alcoholic to switch from hard whiskey, vodka or gin to wine or beer. Thus they seek to control the drinking and, understandably, the alcoholic recognizes this and makes use of that control. The drinking may diminish or even cease for a time when the controllers are present. But, inevitably there comes a time when parents or a spouse may spend some time elsewhere, leaving the alcoholic to his or her own resources. This vastly increases the probability of a relapse. And even when the controllers are not absent, an alcoholic may become highly skilled at gaming the system, hiding bottles or drinking outside the home in obscure bars and restaurants, finding all sorts of reasons for taking short trips or absences away from home, episodes which may turn into more prolonged absences, disappearances about which the absent one has little or no recollection, since they may have been characterized by increasing blackouts.
In this way alcoholism develops as a group or family sickness. To achieve recovery persons other than the addict must somehow realize that by attempting to “control” they merely “enable”. An alcoholic’s chances of recovery are vastly improved if others come to the realization that they cannot “control” or “help”. Only the alcoholic can do this and do this for himself or herself. The family must let go, stand aside and say, “We will be here for you only if you work the program, help yourself. If you resume drinking you will be on your own. We shall not rescue you, nor will we welcome you back into our home.”
The physical dependency on alcohol, and the emotional dependency which underlies it, results from it and in any case reinforces it, may interrelate in subtle ways. In my own case, for example, as I have said I had become dependent on my wife to act as a type of “control” to discourage any “excessive” drinking. When my wife was absent, or when I was traveling alone, my “control” was no longer there and I was in that sense “free” to act accordingly. The result, inevitably, was a disaster. But I repeated the process time after time. And each time I would react with feigned or imagined shock and astonishment at the outcome. It was not Greek Fate which brought this about. It was myself and my dependency on an external “control”.
Although sobriety may have lessened my habit of dependency it has not removed it entirely. Even in recovery I remained somewhat lonely and may rely on others excessively for moral support. I try to avoid taking it personally when they fail to respond when I reach out to them, and am insufficiently sensitive to the fact that they have their own lives to live and that I am not the center of their attention nor the subject of their most significant concerns. My impression is that alcoholics, upon beginning recovery, are inclined to substitute their dependency on alcohol with something else.Thus it is not uncommon to encounter persons with substantial years of recovery who are grossly overweight. Others may have become dependent on pets, as I did with dogs. For a moving account of such a dependency see Caroline Knapp, “Drinking- A Love Story”)(1997) (recounting her alcoholism and recovery) and “Pack of Two- The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs”(1999) (recounting her friendship with and love of a dog). In recent times, dependency, indeed a form of addiction, on computer technology, the internet, email, etc. has become evident, influencing interrelationships and, arguably, even the manner in which people speak and think.
Among the multitude of other dependencies is one which may be the most elusive and baffling, yet perhaps the most important. It is the dependency on one’s parents’ family or friends. Essentially it is a distortion of a person’s normal love, respect and willingness to please others. As a child one learns how to gain parental approval as well as the possible consequences of disapproval. Grades are handed out beginning in elementary school and perhaps even in preschool or kindergarten. Although a child may decline being what used to be called a “goody goody” (like the old adage: “Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eat ing his Christmas Pie. He stuck out his thumb and pulled out a plumb and said, ‘What a good boy am I!’” ) he or she may still consciously or unconsciously yearn for a parent’s approval or for the approval of friends or society in general. And this may be particularly true in more recent times, when it seems that everyone, teachers as well as students, is being evaluated. And politicians are continually under the scrutiny of the press and the subject of public opinion polls. Everyone, it seems, wants good grades.
Here I can only speak for myself. I always wanted good grades and often received them. When I was young, and particularly before I began drinking, I think I pleased my parents. I reached out to friends and tried to please them and receive their approval in return. Inthis I had a fair degree of success. Yet, when I entered into recovery with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, I began to appreciate the Program’s reference to the tendency of an alcoholic to become a “people pleaser”. That is, to give the approval of others such a high priority that it overshadows what is really important, that is the overriding necessity of maintaining sobriety. It is as if one had developed a knee jerk reaction to “succeed” in the eyes of the world, to be thought “clever”, “witty”, “learned”, “original”, or be given some other sobriquet.
An obsession with the importance of receiving approval from others is particularly painful for an alcoholic for, as the addiction progresses, he or she is bound to fail, to lie, to cheat, even to steal. Attimes such a person may be in trouble with the law, such as for driving under the influence or some other serious matter. There may even be time in prison. Inevitably the result is public disapproval, censure, even condemnation and ostracism. An alcoholic, to whom the receipt of approval was so important, can become devastated by this. Consumed by guilt he or she may retreat further into drunkenness, descending on a long spiral of depression and despair. From this, there is only one way out and that is not to drink. If a person manages to do that and to remain sober then he or she will regain the respect and approval of the great majority of reasonable people. People may come up to you on the street and say, “I admire you so much for what you have done!” To paraphrase a comment of a noted sports figure “sobriety isn’t everything- it’s the only thing!” (Of course he spoke of “winning”, not sobriety).
Grades and other types of evaluation are inevitable in the real world. But it may help in hastening recovery to focus on what your values are, your particular talents, your overall objectives. If you gain insight into such matters, then you will succeed in what you do and be admired for that. Do what you believe is worthwhile. If you have a love and talent to do that approval from others will follow as a matter of course. As Polonius said to Laertes in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”:
“This, above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
As dependent persons, recovering alcoholics are particularly vulnerable to the attitudes and values prevalent in their particular society. Attitudes towards drinking for example. These, historically have always been a source of considerable confusion, a confusion compounded by the financial rewards which come from the manufacture and sale of liquor. Countless advertisements have indoctrinated us with the idea that drinking is a sign of sophistication and social and economic success. We are invited to “wine tastings” and encouraged to become experts on rare and exotic vintages. We are told of the delights of various obscure malt liquors brewed by primitive Scots in remote glens. Ever since the 1920’s it has been suggested to us by the theatrical, movie and radio industry that socially secure folk observe the “cocktail” hour with the setting of the sun. “Do come over and join us for a cocktail!” And persons who may have lesser pretensions to “class” status may be told that regular attendance at a favorite bar is a sign of masculinity and independence, as well as in more recent times, an indicator of female empowerment. In summary, our society has in many respects lived in a sea of alcohol, deepened by continual suggestion and conditioning from the advertising industry. Dealing with this brutal reality is one ofthe more severe challenges which face a recovering alcoholic.
If these are the social attitudes towards drinking, what problems arise from society’s attitudes towards those who abuse alcohol, towards the “drunks” as they are called? Here we find hypocrisy. Although many or even most people are willing to acknowledge that alcoholism is an "illness", they may do so only superficially and have grave difficulty ridding themselves of the traditional notion that alcohol abuse is a “moral” failing, that an alcoholic is a “bad” person who has “brought it on himself”. “That person just can’t hold his liquor (like I can!)” An alcoholic thus becomes an object of scorn or pity, if not occasionally a laughing stock. In my own case, I well remember my father in law, who so enjoyed his martini at what he called the “magic hour”, turning to me, whom he knew had an alcoholic problem, and inquiring in a loud voice for all to hear, “And what will you have? Some GINGER ALE?”
Equally outdated and mistaken are the assumptions often held by hopeful spouses or other relatives that a family member has at least been “sent for the cure” or has “taken a cure” and, having been thus overhauled and set aright, like a restored antique automobile, is now “all right”. There is now no need to worry (well, almost no need!). He now knows he’s been “bad”, has received his “comeuppance”, has apologized to everyone and has promised that in the future he will “behave” and never do “that” again. Perhaps he’s finally “come to Jesus!”Lets hope so! We wouldn’t want “that” to happen again! (Falling off the “wagon” that is. Guess we should keep a close watch! By the way, do you think we should offer him some more GINGER ALE?)
The upside of all this is that everyone feels a little better about themselves, how broad minded and forgiving they are to “accept” someone as long as he has “taken the cure”. It may be a source of considerable self satisfaction to realize that one “never had that problem” and could hold his liquor along with the best of them, to be able to show such pity and charity to those who happen to have suffered from such an interesting and humiliating weakness. Of course one must take care not to be viewed as smug or self righteous. Well anyway, let’s welcome him back but also in the future keep a sharp lookout! He’s had, you know, a little health problem. Let’s not say what it was but then perhaps you know, may have heard something. But let’s hope that’s all over and done with!
Such attitudes reinforce and enhance an alcoholic’sever present guilt and humiliation. And, sad to say, such guilt may be enhanced by the Alcoholic’s Anonymous doctrine that drunkenness is caused by “defects of character”. The character defects are there, of course, whether they be lying, cheating, self pity, unreliability... the list goes on and on. But they are often for the most part the results of drinking rather than its cause. Vulnerability to alcohol also may well have a genetic or physiological origin but this is perhaps best described as a characteristic rather than a character “defect”.
Social attitudes also may present even more subtle challenges. For example, movies and television often seem to portray a standard image of family life, spousal or parental relationship. Movies made during the 1930’s and up until the middle of the twentieth century often displayed a “typical” family as living in a large, rather luxurious home. The children were generally respectful and well behaved, sometimes wiser and more well informed than their blundering parents. The father was a well meaning, lovable chap who always made a mess of things in the kitchen and failed at most home repair jobs, redeeming himself by throwing baseballs in the back yard and cheering the kids in Little League. And then there was Mom, in her apron, ever the competent homemaker, worshipping her husband but slyly amused at his antics.
What does one do if the realities are somehow different? If one’s wife or one’s husband has little resemblance to the model spouse? If one’s children are rebellious and disrespectful? If one’s “home” is a third floor walk up in a run down neighborhood? Or one’s days are spent in a boring dead end job at a minimum wage? And suppose that such conditions may well have been worsened as a result of alcoholic addiction. A job has been lost, perhaps more than one time, a home sold, a marriage broken up, only a few of the many mileposts along the downward spiral which leads an alcoholic to reach “bottom”.
Further aspects of the same problem arise from influences within the family carried over from childhood. For example, suppose that a parent happens to be “passive-aggressive” and uses guilt to manipulate his or her spouse or children. Or suffers from depression and has a negative, bitter or angry outlook on life. In all likelihood, the attitudes of such a “toxic” parent may carry over to the next generation, for parental habits are often imitated by children who at an early age lack that independence of thought and action to develop their own world outlook.Thus a child may end up, like some ghost of a long deceased parent, remarking to the world, “Don’t bother about me! I don’t matter at all! I’ll get along-somehow! Just go ahead and enjoy yourselves. Have a good time! I know I’m not that important- to any of you! Just go along now and have fun! Don’t worry about me!” That the term “ghost” may be an apt one is quite evident in one of Ibsen’s plays, “Ghosts”, where toxic habits and behavior carry over from one generation to the next despite all the efforts and resolves of the various family members.
Facing these realities, seeing the fantasies for what they are and learning to cope and recover, ever so gradually and indeed laboriously, may seem impossible but it can be done with help from others and from the Program. It may be possible for a rare individual to “pull himself up by his bootstraps”, as the old expression goes (or what my grandmother liked to say, “Go and get a good grip on himself!”) but the experience of countless thousands has shown that most persons need help; they cannot do it alone.
So recovery from alcohol is a continuing process. It has no end and, no matter how long a person continues with Alcoholics Anonymous, there is always something new to learn. At times what may be said at meetings may seem misleading, even wrong. But, curiously, even a remark which might seem controversial or mistaken may contain some hidden truth. This may be due to the “experience, strength and hope” which members of Alcoholics Anonymous have accumulated over the half a century or more that that organization has been in existence. There seems to be always something new to learn.
“People, Places and Things!” What about “Places”? Often this means that a recovering alcoholic should take care to avoid not only “People”, on whom he may have formed a dependency or former friends, like drinking companions, whom he may identify with earlier times and whose company might make him vulnerable to a relapse, but he should also take care to avoid “places” which in past times have been associated with drinking.This of course means any bar or cocktail establishment and, at least for a certain period of time, various social gatherings where liquor is served.
I have certain memories of “places”which fortunately I was able either to avoid or deal with successfully during the period of my early recovery. One was in an airport. Soon after I was out of the rehab I had to go down to meet a friend coming in on a flight from another city. As often happens the flight was delayed and I had to spend an hour or two waiting in the airport until it arrived. I was also hungry and walked into the airport restaurant. There were no seats available except at the bar and I sat there and ordered something to eat. As I had a snack I gazed at the long row of bottles behind the bartender. There were all my old friends: Kentucky Bourbon, Scotch Whiskey, Sherry, Drambuie or even (my favorite in the early days) Gin (How I had enjoyed the first sip of a very dry martini on a hot summer evening!) But now I knew them for what they were. Treacherous friends indeed! And I was able to avoid them.
This is a useful maxim but it may also lend itself to misinterpretation. Alcoholics often attempt to become “experts” on this illness, reading up on all the medical aspects as well as the multitude of self help books, trying to analyze themselves introspectively to determine “why” they drink, who or what “made” them do so, and so forth. All of this may be but an evasion, a symptom of denial. For the truth of the matter is, what “made” one drink, if indeed that describes anything meaningful, is beside the point and speculating about it is little more than a distraction. There is one thing and only one thing of importance, to stop drinking and to learn how to stop permanently or at least one day at a time. So, it is said, “keep it simple”. “Don’t intellectualize”.
But this does not and should not mean that a recovering alcoholic must turn his or her brain off and become a goose stepping automaton, mindlessly following orders from a sponsor or from the group. To do that is but another display of dependency. It is better that a person not surrender independence of mind or act, yet maintain an attitude of humility and receptiveness to suggestions from others who have “been there- done that.”
And gradually, it is hoped the recovering alcoholic will gain strength, self confidence and increasing self reliance.
Experts will sometimes say that it is not at all unusual for a recovering alcoholic to have a “slip” or relapse. By a “slip” is meant taking a single drink in error or on impulse. A relapse is more serious and usually involves a resumption of drinking for some period of time. Traditional thinking suggests that a slip may well lead to a relapse.
Both slip and relapse are meant to refer to problems which may be encountered by a recovering alcoholic. They should not be confused with the episodic behavior of a binge drinker, one who is not in recovery and whose normal drinking habits are of an on and off nature. Suchpersons, sometimes referred to as being on a “dry drunk” when temporarily sober, may believe, even quite sincerely, that they are in recovery but the likelihood is that this is merely an aspect of their denial.
Turning, then, to slips and relapses properly speaking, how are these best avoided?
First and foremost, the best way in which to protect oneself is to remain with the Program, preferably going to meetings frequently. This servesas
continual reinforcement of the resolution to remain sober and confers the benefits of a supporting fellowship.
Aside from attendance at meetings, it is wise to cultivate a habit of continual awareness, whether it be a daily resolve to remain sober “one day at a time” or periodic focus on the Serenity Prayer. Particularly during the early years of recovery, when the danger of slips and relapses is greatest, this helps to remind the recoverer that the specter of alcohol is continually stalking its victim. Although Satchel Paige is quoted as saying “Don’t look behind! Something may be gaining on you!” it is well to glance over one’s shoulder occasionally, metaphorically speaking, for your mortal enemy may be closer than you think. In theserespects I recall reading about a famous tiger hunter in India who once went through the jungle stalking his prey. Suddenly he had an uncomfortable feeling that someone or something was watching him and, looking back, he caught a glimpse of a tiger stalking him! The same might have been true in South America where a jaguar is said to lie on the branch of a tree patiently waiting for its prey to pass underneath. Whatever the metaphor, it is well said that addiction is “cunning, baffling and powerful”. The only remedy is continual vigilance.
From a physiological standpoint, one must beware of being “ambushed” or “set up” by influences originating inthe more primitive areas of the brain, such as the so called limbic system, sometimes colloquially referred to as the “lizard” brain. This, a product of an earlier evolutionary phase of brain development, responds to physical needs like hunger and thirst and emotional stimuli such as fear, anger and sexual appetite. It is pleasure seeking, seeks immediate gratification ("I want what I want when I want it and I want it right now!") and, when balked in its demands, responds with child like rage. Ingestion of alcohol over a protracted period leads to physical and chemical changes which foster dependency. When the alcohol supply diminishes, the primitive brain seeks to distort the conscious thought process in other brain areas. For the addict, this conflict within the brain results in a divided self, one aspect craving to restore the alcohol and ambushing or “setting up” the other to achieve that end. Programs such as Rational Recovery claim to have developed techniques to enable a person to listen to the “inner voice” (referred to as “The Beast”), disabling it and preventing its further influence over the conscious self, the only "self" worthy of recognition. It is hoped that, once the "Beast" has been recognized, brought under control and successfully caged, there will no longer be a craving to drink.
And it should not be assumed that a slip or relapse becomes unlikely with advancing time and continuing sobriety. They may become lesslikely but they certainly are not unlikely. Over time the body changes, its alcoholic needs diminish and in this respect it has less influence over the mind. But the body, despite its change, continues to age. With advancing years organs such as the liver and heart are less able to perform their customary functions and, if a person, after years of recovery, resumes drinking the resulting relapse is likely to be far more severe than any of the proceeding ones. I found this particularly true in my case. I had been sober for seven years and, when I started drinking again, it was only a week before I was in the hospital with severely elevated liver enzymes. In this sense it is sometimes said that, even during recovery, the illness of alcoholism is “progressive.” The demon may be asleep but he may also grow potentially stronger. If awakened he can be a formidable opponent indeed.
One rule of thumb which may be useful in avoiding a slip or relapse is to be particularly aware of the danger when hungry, angry, lonely, and/or tired. (which AA has condensed into the slogan “HALT”). At such moments an alcoholic is particularly vulnerable to a self suggestion “I feel so bad! Surely one drink would help and would not be too risky if I am particularly cautious about taking another!” This rationalization is of course a delusion and is likely to be the first step on a downward spiral.
In addition to“HALT” it is also useful to be aware of “Reward” drinking: “I’ve just managed to achieve an extraordinary thing! I’ve got a promotion or a new job, I’ve just published a book! I’m married again! My child just got admitted to a prestigious college!” The list goes on and on. If the “reward” is alcohol (“Just this once!”) it may very well be deadly. The “reward” may quickly turn into punishment. In this sense, alcohol is the most treacherous and faithless “friend”. Some might say that it is Mephistopheles speaking softly to Faust, whose very soul is placed in peril.
A vitally important aspect of recovery is the insight that, for the alcoholic, there is no “cure”, at least in the normal sense of the word. Although alcoholism is properly considered an "illness" there never comes a time when one can say, “There, now! It’s over for good! That person’s been “cured”. He or she has nothing further to worry about.” Alcoholism resembles diabetes in at least two aspects: First, the illness can only be held within bounds by taking the appropriate steps on a daily basis (administering insulin to the diabetic, for example); and, secondly, avoiding a recurrence or relapse which would certainly occur if the patient were to resume consumption of the harmful substance (sugar for the diabetic, alcohol for the alcoholic).
Aside from abstention from alcohol, what are the daily needs of the alcoholic? Some may say, “Going to an AA meeting.”For others it may consist primarily in “Working the Program”. And the one may well involve or consist in the other. A good way in which to “work the program” may be to go to a meeting. The important thing is to develop some method by which the experience and wisdom of AA may be kept in the foreground. As AA members say, one must “keep it green”.
As time goes on those who are truly in recovery may eventually find that they are seldom tempted by alcohol. As the body gradually changes its overpowering need for alcohol may well diminish. Some of those in recovery may find that they may safely keep alcohol in their homes for guests or even assist in the serving of alcohol without feeling uncomfortable. I have found this to be true in my own case and yet I take care to avoid the smell of the drink, for this can evoke old memories. In away it is like an old racehorse sensing the smell of the turf once more. Harmless enough for the horse, but potentially deadly for the alcoholic.
An important part, indeed a vital aspect, of “working the program” is to keep the essential wisdom of AA continually in mind. “One day at a time”, for example. “Easy does it!” “Turn it over!” “People, places and things!” I have found the last of these particularly important. As I have said, an alcoholic is by his or her very nature, likely to be a very dependent person: dependent on others and seeking their approval, trying to go through life, getting “good marks” as if one were still a student seeking approval from the teacher. Then, if folks appear indifferent or unresponsive (since they may well be preoccupied with their own needs and concerns) an alcoholic may tend to take this personally, feeling that a rebuff was intended. The important thing to remember is that you are not the center of the universe. But this does not mean that you have to be lonely. If you work the program you will not only find friends in AA but you will find one friend who will always be there, caring about you, loving you and helping you whatever may come to pass. Each recovering alcoholic has his or her higher power. It need not be a Christian God, it may not entail going to Church, it may merely consist in the unending search for wisdom from some source other than oneself. And with it comes the serenity of knowing that one is never alone. For the alcoholic, perhaps above all others, has in the past known loneliness. As Coleridge, addicted to laudanum (opium) described his Ancient Mariner, his soul had “been alone on a wide, wide sea: so lonely ‘twas, that God himself scarce seemed there to be.”
An important part of the Program is the concept of “passing it on” or helping others to recover from addiction. Doing so helps both the helper and those who may be helped. From the helper’s standpoint doing so serves as a continual reminder of the problems alcohol has caused that person in the past and the importance of working the Program or “keeping it green”. The benefit to those who are helped should be obvious.
The helping process should not be confused with what may happen, often early on in the recovery process, of an alcoholic’s purporting to “help” another addict, perhaps in a rehab, whom he believes is worse off than himself. Although he may have good intentions, his efforts may be but a symptom of his own denial, an effort to convince himself that “There’s really nothing seriously wrong with me! I’m certainly not like all these other people!” At its worst, this attitude may approach what has been called “schadenfruend” or deriving a secret consolation from what are perceived to be the greater sufferings of others. Thus a recovering alcoholic who purports early on to be a “helper” should be encouraged to focus on the rather obvious first priority, namely getting himself well and on the path to recovery.
Among the more encouraging aspects of recovery from alcohol is the emergence of what might be called a “new self”. For years the alcoholic has been held in bondage, a slave to a chemical, and now, with recovery, has come a new freedom, and with that freedom a gradual increase in maturity and self respect. It is as if alcohol had temporarily halted emotional and spiritual growth, or even stunted it. In the darkest moments it may seem to an alcoholic like a loss of soul, a gradual dimming of the light of the spirit.
And now, like some stunted yet still living tree, recovery, like the coming spring, has begun to grow new branches. The spirit moves again within the sufferer, who gradually emerges into the sunshine of serenity and happiness.
This process has been described by Alcoholics Anonymous as the “Promises”:
“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through.
Some may bridle a bit at what they might regard as a tone ofself righteousness in the Promises, as well as the reference to “God” instead of the more inclusive term “higher power”. Yet the passage does describe with a fair degree of accuracy the process in which the symptoms and effects of alcoholism gradually diminish. To me, it may seem overly moralistic to refer to these as “character defects” and, as I have said, to call these “defects” the “cause” of alcoholism, rather than its symptoms, may be putting the cart before the horse. Suffice it to say that when alcohol falls into disuse, the body and the mind gradually change, indeed, change “back” so as to resemble the state they were in prior to the onset of the illness (except, unfortunately in those situations where there has been some damage which is irreversible). If this happens one may have a sense of having been “reborn”, to have recovered the old self.
At times I have wondered a bit at my reaction to some problem or moment of stress. Somehow I can usually cope now with situations where, before, I might have flown off the handle or be plunged into deep depression. It’s not that I don’t become angry at times. Occasionally I catch myself “spoon banging” (“Why can’t they listen to me? Answer my Email? Invite me back if I have invited them over to my house? Why must I punch button after button to contact large institutions which play rock music or try to sell me products while they have me on “hold”? (“Your call is important to us! Please hold and the next operator will be with you momentarily?”) Why doesn’t anyone pay attention to me instead of just thinking of themselves?”) But then I usually am able to back off and regain some perspective, realizing the great truth of AA’s insight into an alcoholic’s dependence on “People, places and things”, a dependence which may persist but diminish over time. At least now I can see how I have reacted in the past and can get considerable satisfaction out of any progress I am able to make in that regard.
“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”
“Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
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Oh Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide, wide sea:
So lonely ‘twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.”
The greatest achievement is selflessness.
The greatest worth is self-mastery.
The greatest quality is seeking to serve others.
The greatest precept is continual awareness.
The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything.
The greatest action is not conforming with the worlds ways.
The greatest magic is transmuting the passions.
The greatest generosity is non-attachment.
The greatest goodness is a peaceful mind.
The greatest patience is humility.
The greatest effort is not concerned with results.
The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go.
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.
“What is the price of Experience [?]
Do men buy it for a song
Or wisdom for a dance in the street?
No it is bought with the price of all
that a man hath [,]
His house, his wife, his children [.]
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market
where none come to buy.”
William Blake- “Vala” p. 35 lines 11-14
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our own will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Aeschylus-lines 179-182 of the Agamemnon
There was a man who, in the loneliness, the pain, the unrelenting isolation of long life, longed for death. But he had been told by pastors, well meaning though perhaps ill advised, that death may be but the beginning of even greater torment, from which only those “elected” by God’s Grace are spared. Or those who, belonging to a sect or narrow religious community, had said that if he were not one of their number, he would suffer eternal damnation.
Notwithstanding these admonitions he had lived his life honestly. With the advancing years he had become increasingly aware of his faults, of countless errors made in the years which stretched in a long unbroken line behind him. He had not done as well as some, but few who had really known him would have doubted that, as time went on, he had improved. With time had come understanding and, with that, forgiveness, not only of others but of himself. He had learned, from the animals, love, simple and direct, without conditions. And he had felt an increasing sense that somehow everything was going to be all right.
And so, early one morning, he felt at last his strength slipping away. Despite his pain he had an increasing sense of peace and with that the gradual ebbing of the fear which had haunted his earlier days.
And then, at the end, he seemed to feel himself going down a long dark corridor towards an evening light. And soon he emerged on to sunlit meadow lands where, in the brilliance of the surrounding sky, love, understanding and forgiveness seemed to stream down from the heavens.
And then he met a wise old man who asked him that "if your soul were to vanish, return to that void from which it had come before your birth, and that it should be as if you had never been, but that your past life would remain, if not in books or other creations, then in the minds and memories of those you had left behind. And yet all these lingering remains, like flowers faded in the Autumn, should, in their beauty, have testified to the love of God, to his mercy, infinite understanding and everlasting forgiveness. Would this, then, have been enough. You yourself would vanish but would have exemplified the beauty, love and the splendor of the Almighty. Would this be enough for you?"
And the man said, “Yes, if this be so, then this would be enough for me. I should be content, if only for one brief moment in time, to have testified to the wonder, the beauty and the love of God.”
And then he heard a Voice which said, “Enter now into these gates for we have long expected you, home again, with us for all Eternity. Our waiting these long years is at last at an end. Rest now and rejoice, for wisdom and grace have been given to you. May your heart always be happy and may the sun shine down upon you for ever.”
[B]ut the true earth is pure and situated in the pure heaven-there are the stars also... and ... our own earth is the sediment gathering in the hollows beneath. But we who live in these hollows are deceived into the notion that we are dwelling on the surface of the earth; which is just as if a creature who was at the bottom of the sea were to fancy that he was on the surface of the water, and that the sea was the heaven through which he saw the sun, and the other stars, he never having come to the surface by reason of his feebleness and sluggishness,and having never lifted his head and seen, nor ever had heard from one who had seen, how much purer and fairer the world above is than his own. And such is strictly our case: for we are dwelling in a hollow of the earth, and fancy that we are on the surface; and the air we call heaven, in which we imagine that the stars move. But the fact is, that owning to our own feebleness and sluggishness we are prevented from reaching the surface of the air; for if any man could arrive at the exterior limit, or take the wings of a bird and come to the top, then like a fish who puts his head out of the water and sees this world, he would see a world beyond; and, if the nature of man could maintain the sight, he would acknowledge that this other world was the place of the true heaven and the true light and the true earth.
Plato, Phaedo, Par. 605
"Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,"
P.B. Shelley, Adonais
“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied:‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”
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From a poem, popularly known as "The Gate of the Year" by Minnie Louise Haskins, published in 1908, the original title having been "God Knows", part of a collection titled “The Desert”. The poem was quoted by England’s King George VI in his 1939 Christmas broadcast to the British Empire. Hitler had invaded Poland and England had entered the war with Germany These words. engraved on brass plaques, remain fixed to the gates of the King George VI Memorial Chapel at Windsor Castle, where the King was interred. When Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) was also buried there in 2002, the poem was read at her state funeral.
* * *
The Tibetan Mandala in the above illustration was created in May 2008 at the British Commonwealth House of Commons in London, England, in connection with a visit by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.