By Jim W.
It remains vital for me to remember where I got to on my way to where I am today. Was I, and am I, really a full-blown alcoholic? The answer is obvious now but I didn’t accept it for a long time. In my worst alcoholic out-of-control era in 2014 and 2015, what became “normal” for me could include passing out drunk overnight in my own back garden, with my concerned wife anxiously sleeping inside the house, unaware I was there. Or it could be under a park bridge (again hiding from home) with a bottle of vodka communing with the Canada geese floating on the nearby pond, yet still somehow showing up the next day to present a lecture to my class at the University.
While at one level I appeared perhaps to be “functioning,” at another level I was careening back and forth behind the scenes between derelict and professor. I had no idea how many people at work could tell how messed-up I was (or smell the alcohol on me), maybe because they were too nice to say anything, but my wife could certainly tell.
It still makes me cringe how I defended whatever I did to her, no matter how indefensible. The lies and inventions I needed to account for the lost time and focus wasted my mind’s abilities and eroded my own self-image, not to mention my believability. It all caught up to me before too long and consequences began to pile up–social, financial, physical, psychological, and legal. I was indeed an alcoholic. I very nearly lost my career, my marriage, and my place at home. Given what I was doing, it is still remarkable that I did not lose them all.
Several treatments and a transformative eight-month stint in a sober living house later, I am back full-time to my same job and marriage and home, and to a happier, “normal” life. The transformation, still not complete in any way, required a new outlook. The old outlook simply had failed, although I was too oblivious to notice for a long time, and when I did notice I was too dishonest to admit it. The sober living had allowed a recovery of my “normal” functioning, but a full recovery takes a real re-learning of the honesty and openness that might come naturally to most people. I am not one of those people, obviously.
Looking back, my alcoholism had a slow and apparently innocuous fuse. After decades of fairly normal social drinking, by age 50 I was gradually becoming dependent on alcohol, both physically and as a psychological escape valve, and then gradually but increasingly hiding those facts from everyone, and especially those I loved. I became more and more isolated by this “hiding” mentality, but it enabled me to continue my addictive path, functionally if not ethically or logically.
By age sixty I had reached my emotional and ethical bottom, been pulled into the light, gone onto extended medical leave from my position at work, and started the slow and uncertain process of recovery, a path I am still on and will continue to follow as I learn more about myself. I found giving up alcohol to be difficult in itself, after so many years, with multiple relapses and then the returns to dishonesty those relapses required. Learning, and re-training myself, was (and is!) slow. Despite the difficulty, the part of recovery I have found the most challenging, and yet also the most rewarding, is the path towards honest self-knowledge and mindful living. Life can be much richer than I realized!
As AA members know, the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous at their core form a program aimed beyond simply stopping drinking, towards a development of that self-knowledge, a mindful approach to daily life, and a healing of the damages caused by the addiction. The steps were developed from experience with many alcoholics, and also with those who managed to recover through the AA program in its early stages. While respecting that history, I have to admit that as an atheist, I initially found it frustrating to wade through the Big Book and the 12 & 12’s religious interpretations of how recovery and the world as a whole supposedly works; it seemed most, if not all, of the spiritual and practical benefits sprang directly from the remarkable fellowship of AA and its cultivation of gratitude and mindfulness, and the sense that each of us is but a tiny part of our interconnected universe.
I knew there were other viewpoints, but none of them seemed to have been broadly accepted for recovery. At one point I split up with one of my former sponsors over the pressure to adopt a faith-based view of the world, as I felt that for me, honesty (or my lack of it) was a huge problem in my alcoholic thinking. Pretending to “believe” in yet another way did not seem the way forward. How could I find a more spiritually fulfilling approach to recovery that worked for me?
Fortunately, many approaches to recovering sobriety are now gaining in popularity and are easily integrated into an eclectic AA program. Some of my major helpers in recovery from addiction knew about these approaches and pointed me in the right direction. Reading about many of these concepts was a real eye-opener for me, a fundamentally non-spiritual person while I was drinking. From The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, I learned the value of being able to step outside my own chaotic and counterproductive head-chatter to find perspective into my deeper reflective self, and to get rid of my fears and demons by facing them directly and honestly. From Sacha Scoblic’s hilarious Unwasted, I took away a new perspective on what it is to be sober (and still have fun!) in a world that continues to promote drinking as a social lubricant. I have continued to benefit in what otherwise could.
By far the most influential new source for me has been Marya Hornbacher’s Waiting: A Non-Believer’s Higher Power. I could not believe my luck, when I first read it, in finding a fellow alcoholic and addict who had most of the same questions I had and had found insightful and life-changing solutions that worked spiritually for an atheist. I am ever so grateful to those thoughtful recovery folks who turned me on to these and other sources. Everyone should be so fortunate!
Eventually these insights led me to further forays into the very practical aspects of Buddhist meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practice. To me, The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche stands out for its skillful weaving together of the science of the mind and mindful spirituality, and practical advice about meditation. It is important to me to see how the meditative insights gained through a spiritual approach integrate with what we know from the real world.
I also found riveting the pithy insights into mindful and purposeful living in The Four Agreements (Don Miguel Ruiz). I still struggle with fitting these calming and directing influences and perspectives into my life regularly enough to keep me sane, but now find that there ARE ways to find acceptance, serenity, and gratitude in my daily life that do not require avoiding reality and responsibility. All these virtues require practice to become habit-forming in a good way; it takes time and dedication to succeed in the way all worthwhile things do.
Facing things the way they are, rather than the way I wish them to be, has become my mantra. Whenever I find myself drifting into negative or chaotic attitudes, I can bring myself back. It usually takes help, and fellowship, to remind me to bring myself back, in the longer term. My wife, now an Al-Anon member with a wonderful sponsor, has shared my recovery journey and the exploration of mindfulness with me and been a greater support than I can ever fully express, certainly vastly more than I deserved. She is still recovering from my damages to her world and continues to have other challenges.
And then there is my AA sponsor, and the AA fellowship in the various forms it takes, in the meetings I attend. I can draw strength from any and all of them if I am open to what they offer. It just requires the ability to step outside of my own self-centered focus and look at the big picture.
This is easier said than done over the long haul, and I have experienced multiple relapses. My last one was marked by much more honesty and openness, but only afterwards: I still had failed to reach out at the time I needed to before drinking again. I have gotten much better at staying involved and using my sponsor and home group (and other meetings) to talk about my failures and successes, but recognizing my first warning signs of squirrely thoughts, noticing returns to old habits common from my drinking days (mainly avoiding things I know I should be doing that I don’t want to do, or avoiding talking to people I don’t want to face right then), and then discussing those concerns immediately breaks a cycle for me that has repeated itself for years. Whenever I honestly face my “demons” and deal with everyday problems directly, I do feel better about it, but why is that often not what I think beforehand?
So that is my focus now, to open up and release whenever I feel the pressure or dissatisfaction building up, and prevent actual relapses before they happen. This seems to have been a life-long personal flaw and will take real sustained effort to overcome. The new element is that I definitely want to overcome it, and am already beginning to see success when I make the effort.
I now find I treasure the fellowship of AA and its culture of sharing experience, strength, and hope more than ever. Despite all of my wrong turns and subsequent treatments and betrayals of trust, I have friendly and devoted allies in many places, all of whom seem to genuinely want me to get to a happy and positive place in my life. All that has been required for benefiting from this large network of support is that I learn to be willing to ask for help, to face things as they really are, and to let others be who they are. I don’t have to agree with everyone, I just have to respect the views they have from their own experiences. I can expect no more from them in return.
About the Author, Jim W.
Jim W. is a field biologist and professor in his first year of recovery, and recently back at work after spending eight months in a sober living house. He is looking forward to having his first sober holiday in years, and will be meeting some new AA friends in North Carolina while visiting relatives. His home groups is Many Paths in Champaign, IL
The graphics displayed in this article were created and designed by Kathryn F.
The audio story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you are interested in joining him, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org