Relapse and New Roads to Recovery

By D.G.

The Storm Before the Calm

I didn’t initially choose a life on the road. I started trucking in much the same way, and for basically the same reason, that I came into recovery: I had nowhere else to go!

In my hometown, farming or factory work (tobacco and textiles–two dying industries!) were the choices available to a young man with only a G.E.D. and I had already burnt those bridges with my alcoholism and addiction. Having driven big tractors and trucks on the family farm and ridden with my dad when he hauled lumber and machinery on a flatbed truck in the slow farming winter months, trucking was easy and normal to me but not something I’d considered as a career.

But 20 years ago this March, I came to the end of one of many ropes–and trucking became a viable option to escape the town I had made such messes in. I was a punk rock and heavy metal kid (and now a 42-year-old punk rock and heavy metal adult) that had discovered and embraced all sorts of ideas that didn’t fit into the highly religious and conservative norms of my home area.

skull
Photo by D.G. taken somewhere along the road

I once heard a punk lyricist state that “this music is for the kid who is too smart for his own good” (sound familiar?). When I graduated from my private Christian elementary school I was already taking advanced mathematics and college level literature classes, but by the time I quit high school I was failing consumer math and drawing sarcastic anti-authority doodles on my history and English exams, all the while playing and writing music and drinking heavily and taking and selling drugs. I don’t think I got dumber, I think I became disengaged. I had already experienced the deaths of friends and family from DUI and suicide, and later overdose and murder.

So a life on the road offered–and still offers–a way to make a legitimate living in “the system” while traveling and not having some boss breathing down my neck or a time clock to punch and a routine of drudgery.

I also found out the hard way that “wherever I go, there I am” … there’s no outrunning myself or the realities of my addictions and the world around me.

Over the years I’ve tried recovery in many different forms: AA, NA, sponsored, going it alone, heavy meeting attendance, rarely going to meetings, etc. And I’ve tried trucking in many different forms as well, such as long haul being gone for months, home daily, as an employee, and as an owner/operator. After many years of doing the in and out of recovery/relapse/misery shuffle, I finally got down to doing some work and gave in to the process of doing a fourth step inventory and trusting someone enough to do a fifth step, and followed through to the best of my ability with the rest. I stayed sober and clean for six years, long enough to learn about myself and build a new life! In that time I was married and divorced, remarried, and became a stepfather.

It was also long enough for me to gain some measure of self-acceptance and confidence, enough so that I stopped “faking” belief in the deity of my fellows and sponsor, and sought, as many of us do, a way to fit my round atheist peg into the square hole of belief-based recovery. I read several Buddhist recovery books and found myself embracing their non-theistic language and practical program for living. My sponsor initially encouraged me to learn to express myself, but it wasn’t long before it was clear that he really couldn’t fathom my lack of belief and my outspoken atheism often felt like an attack to him. Suddenly I was alone again–and the deeper I delved into Buddhism the more I found distasteful commercialism of the western fascination with eastern spiritualism, lots of “woo woo” new age mumbo jumbo, and what felt to me like pointless ritual. I’ll never forget circling a statue of the Buddha in Sedona, AZ, thinking I was following the instructions and suddenly realizing I was going the opposite of the prescribed direction (clockwise around the statue or counter-clockwise – I can’t even remember!) and saying to myself, “What the hell are you doing?” I laugh about it now, but at the time it wasn’t funny: I was at the end of another rope.

I disconnected myself from the fellowship and as life’s pressures built up in and around me, and without any perceivable way to cope or vent, I relapsed. Again. I started with a single drink and within a few months, my debit card records showed 28 trips to the liquor store in a 30-day period. Early in my relapse, I lost my mother to leukemia. I was there and present and did my best to be by her side, as she’d always been by mine, and be a member of my family. But I fought hard with my father, dealing with long-held resentments in very poor and sometimes violent ways. Both my wife and I were always anxious to retreat from the pain into a drink.

After her death and with my marriage crumbling, I literally just abandoned everything. Myself, my marriage and family, my trucking business, and every material thing I had built up over six years of sobriety. I sequestered myself in hotel rooms and drug houses and sought total oblivion through massive amounts of crack cocaine and whiskey. I figured I would die on this binge, and I was okay with that.

I destroyed my finances, abandoned and sold my business, and obviously the relationships with my wife, stepson, and family became incredibly strained and eventually nonexistent. Many of the people that I drank and used with, and bought drugs from went to prison or worse.

sunrise
Sunrise photo, North Platte, NE August 2016 by D.G.

Coming out of the Dark

But I didn’t die. After six months or so I ran out of money and options and tried to scrape the pieces of my life back together.

Accidentally wise enough (aka lucky) to never mix trucking with drinking and drugging, I still have an impeccable safety record and am easily employable in an industry starving (read: not paying enough) for qualified drivers. So I went back to work and attempted to reconcile with my wife. I tried going back to meetings as well but found I could barely stomach the traditional meeting’s “god talk” and book-worship and after twenty-plus years of trying I was just jaded.

But I discovered Roger’s excellent AA Agnostica website, and this one, and felt a glimmer of hope! At the time I was mostly trucking from the Carolinas to Brooklyn or Detroit and back, and just happened to land in Dayton, Ohio one Saturday morning in time for a We Agnostics meeting. Halfway through the meeting there I was, nearly in tears, as I shared that THIS is what I’d been looking for but had given up on ever finding. I was not alone anymore! I managed to get by that meeting twice and it was a refuge for me. I even wrote a short piece on using technology in recovery for AA Agnostica.

But, my home life and marriage were in shambles with the inevitable fallout from relapse (not only my own, but my wife’s as well) and even though I had found some hope, the pull of the drink and the drug was too strong and too recent, and I drank and used several more times before finally giving up.

I left that job (badly I might add), drank and used yet again, and crashed and burned hard. I found myself without a home and nowhere left to go. After initially refusing, my sister and father finally agreed to come get me on the condition that I “get my shit together!” I decided to use what little I’d learned about self-acceptance and who I am and what I love and start again. I moved back to the farm in Virginia, alone this time. I slept on the floor of my empty farmhouse for a couple weeks as I faced the realities of my relapse; I literally had nothing material left, deeply in debt, separated from my wife and stepson. So I filed bankruptcy, and my hurt but loving family members made sure I had food to eat and encouraged me to start over fresh.

I’ve never “liked” the congestion of east coast trucking, I had done it for bad reasons but it had never worked for me, and I deeply missed the Rocky Mountain vistas and open skies of the west. I couldn’t stand the evangelical and dogmatic nature of meetings in the bible belt of home and longed for more of what I’d found at the We Agnostics group in Ohio.

I looked for and found a way to kill two birds with one stone: a long-haul western states trucking job that had relatively easy access to agnostic meetings. I found that Kansas City had agnostic meetings daily, the host of the Beyond Belief podcast was there, and lucky me, a company I’d worked for and loved in the past had a terminal nearby.

I contacted John S. and he responded with an encouraging email, put me in touch with Doris A., and even came and got me as soon as I got myself close enough to K.C. to make a meeting. They’ve both been very supportive and I can’t say thank you enough to them or the other contributors here. As I previously wrote in my little essay on technology, podcasts, this website, digital format and audio books are invaluable to me as I travel and work. Yes I choose this line of work, not making excuses here, and the solitude and isolation are their own risks (and rewards), but I also know it can be a great danger to my continued recovery if I don’t reach out and stay connected.

These last four months have been rough in many ways. Prior to my relapse, I had lived mostly debt free, was having the greatest financial success of my life, had taken month-long motorcycle vacations, was developing a relationship with a stepson who had come into my life suddenly, and had the trust and respect of my family and business associates. But even then, in many ways, I wasn’t being true to myself or taking very good care of myself and had no connection with others in recovery. I had unknowingly set myself up with more responsibilities than I was ready for–as husband, father, counselor, provider, protector, caretaker, business manager, driver, mechanic, bank, the list goes on and on–and I was angry, unsure, and felt unsupported and alone with the weight of the world on my shoulders, and I didn’t even allow myself anyone to talk to about it! It’s easy, in retrospect, to see how the “ease and comfort” of a few drinks (which for me inevitably leads to destruction) became so appealing.

“I’ve had a lot on my mind” since I’ve been back is quite an understatement! Dealing with loss, bankruptcy, facing another divorce fraught with confusing emotions, is a tall order on the road alone.

Some of you reading this understand what I mean when I say it can be an awfully awkward place when you’re familiar enough with recovery to be jaded about it, but desperate enough to need it regardless!

I’m so thankful for the atheist/agnostic meetings I’ve made it to and the people I’ve met there. I’ve been able to let my voice quiver and break up on the verge of tears when I’ve shared where I’m at and how it feels, and thankful that I’ve been able to just listen at times and not have to spout off, too. One kind member reminded me that what I was sharing, perhaps unconsciously, was an awful lot of loss and grief, and to remember to give myself time and space to grieve. I’ve also had the occasional friendly reminder from Doris to stay in touch (Hey D where ya been?) and some very calm, experienced guidance from John S. on step work and inventory.

near-frisco-co-along-interstate-70-late-september-2016-by-d-g
Near Frisco, CO along interstate 70 late September 2016 by D.G

New Roads and Taking Action

As the “fog” of relapse is lifting, I find myself in a new and exciting time in my life. Much like Julie B.’s excellent article, I am “(Re) Discovering Myself in Sobriety”. As my history (and waistline) shows, I’m prone to “picking up the fork” when I put down the drink and drugs. After a period of self-neglect and not eating well or at all, some indulgence was okay for a while, but now I’m really trying to eat better and take walks when I can, not only to lose weight but just to live differently: with self-care instead of self-loathing. I’ve nearly cut out smoking cigarettes altogether, but I don’t beat myself up for weaning down the nicotine levels using a vape pen. I love my work and the western mountain routes, I know it well, and I feel a great gratitude for an atmosphere of mutual respect with my employer.

I practice my “iPhone mountain and river photography” to share with family and friends as I travel. I play my old beat-up acoustic guitar. I’ve reconnected with my old sponsor, who was the first person I ever really allowed myself to trust fully. For now, we seem okay setting the theological debate aside and just experiencing the joy of friendship and reconnection, as we’re both somewhat natural loners. I had forgotten that our relationship was mutually important, that he missed me and was concerned for my life, and for me, it’s hugely important now having someone who really knows me and my history to talk things through with.

I’m still working on opening up with others and getting to know them and vice-versa. I’ve listened to hundreds of speaker tapes, some of which resonate with me and some horrible ones that might as well be church sermons with a call to salvation at the end, and which remind me to use what works for me and not get disenchanted, distracted, discouraged, or even too judgmental of other people’s problems and paths. I’ve even started to actually practice meditation rather than just read about it!

In addition to this website, a few books and podcasts have been important to me lately–and I’ll include them here for anyone interested.

AA Beyond Belief podcasts are, of course, excellent!

Sam Harris’ “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” book and podcast. (You can listen to chapter 1 read by the author on the podcast to get a feel for it. It’s both very funny and thought provoking)

“Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12-Step Life”, Joe C.’s daily reflection book (thanks, John!), has proven to be a great companion and food for constructive thought every morning.

“The Sacred Depths of Nature” by Ursula Goodenough is an interesting read on “religious naturalism” by an amazing cell biologist. She lays out some scientific basics for the layperson and summarizes at the end of each chapter a reflection of sorts on how as naturalists, we have a “story” which is better than the myths of religion and has the added benefit of being true and supported by real evidence! For example, she compares the religious notion of acceptance expressed as “thy will be done” in a more realistic (no “thy”) and beautifully simple wording of “what is … is.”

Noah Levine’s “Refuge Recovery” book and podcasts are excellent for anyone interested in an approach to recovery from a Buddhist perspective, without the dogma, woo woo, or theism. They have podcasts titled “Beware of Buddhism” and “Buddhism without Beliefs” (which is also the title of a good book written by Stephen Batchelor) to give you an idea of where they’re coming from. They actually have a growing number of meetings around the country as well.

I have two other old friends in recovery from back home, one who’s stayed clean and active for 15+ years and loves the history of the fellowship and its literature, and one who has struggled as I have but who is doing well today. The three of us share a close mutual friend that I used to live with, who died of an overdose. Our conversations are always as real as it gets and important to me.

A new world of possibility is opening up, and I don’t necessarily mean that in terms of ambition or grandiosity, which I also must be leery of. I’m someone who will take one walk by a creek at a rest area then spend hours thinking how I’ll someday be revered as a great naturalist and pioneer, ha-ha! And I’ve already experienced material success enough to know that it did not and will not keep me sober or content. No, what I mean by a world of possibility is this: that with mindful attention to reality, self-care, and giving and receiving support from my fellow people in recovery, maybe–just maybe–I can live a life that is useful to others, be content and appreciative within myself, and experience life, with all its joys and sorrows, while behaving with some integrity. It’s a damn fine goal if nothing else! It wasn’t too long ago that I was speeding headfirst into oblivion to escape the pain of living and okay with the prospect of dying that way.

See you all in Austin.


About the Author, D. G. 

D.G.’s mailbox is in Virginia but his location is nationwide; he attends We Agnostics meetings in Kansas City as often as possible and has also caught secular meetings on the road in Dayton, Ohio and Spokane, Washington. He’s an atheist, and loves music and mountains.

Photos: The three photos displayed in the article were taken by D.G. while on the road.

Audio Version

The audio version of this story was narrated by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is looking to start a secular AA meeting in his area.  If you are interested, please contact him at lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com

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Diana R
Diana R

Thank-you for sharing your story in such an honest and approachable way. I like how you describe your independent travels on the road and how you discovered a way to stay connected to others. I have found much peace and connection through this website and reading. As an introvert, I have learned that I need to be more connected to others for my recovery. See you in Austin!!

D.G.
D.G.

Thanks folks for the kind words and support and an opportunity to feel “a part of” this fellowship. I just left the 10am We Agnostics meeting in KC where we talked about relapse after being sober for awhile, divorce, and finding a welcoming home in secular meetings…I am indeed in the right place!

Doris A
Doris A

D.G. — Thank you for your inspiring, well written, and down-to-earth piece.  I have lost a HUGE amount from my drinking; and long-term recovery seemed elusive until a few years ago. But today I am sober and content, and am grateful that I can connect with people like you and others via technology.  I am someone that will always need face-to-face contact for my recovery, so I am happy that my town has a secular meeting.  But connecting with people on-line fills in cracks for me and helps make my social network feel broad and sturdy. I also loved that… Read more »

Bob K.
Bob K.

I liked the essay and I thought it contained a lot of message. One aspect touches on accessing ourselves to a variety of resources, some that lend themselves to our individual lifestyles. Speaker tapes for a trucker, and the internet for a dozen reasons, make a lot of sense.

I loved the presentation of the piece. Perhaps it’s my short attention span, but the beautiful pictures added to the flow. The people behind the scenes deserve a shoutout. This website is very nicely put together.

Thanks for your efforts, folks. My friend Roger remains irreplaceable, but you folks are doing terrific work!

bob k

Lech L
Lech L

Stories such as yours always make me reflect on how easily I got off.

Never got a DUI, never in jail, never hospitalized.

But it was bad enough.

Reading about your life shows me how bad it could have been.

I wish you all the best.