Waking Up: Recovering My Loving Heart

By David L.

My earliest memory is from when I was six or seven years old. I don’t remember anything before then. I walked into my kitchen with fear flooding and pulsating through my entire body, and my heart pounding loudly against my chest. My mother was sweeping up glass and the kitchen cabinets were all torn up. Cereal was strewn out all over the floor and even outside, with the door unhinged and the screen broken. My mother was shaking and crying while she swept the glass that was all over the floor. She turned to me and said, “David don’t come in here, go back to your room.”

The beatings started when I was nine and went on until I was about fourteen. My father would walk into the house and I could tell from the way he opened the door and the sound of his footsteps if it was going to be a long night. The predominant memories I have of my father are of him gritting his teeth and bellowing at me to lower my hands from protecting my face and him thrashing me over and over again. Eventually I learned to expect the beatings. My mother was no help. She molested me and conscripted me into a role between my father and herself, and my father would blame me for many arguments he had with my mother. My parents had cycles of arguments, with reoccurring themes and levels of intensity, but what was always for certain was that eventually my father would shout and yell at the top of his lungs for hours into the night and early morning. I grew accustomed to it and eventually learned to sleep through it.

We were weekly church goers, and sometimes more than that because my mother was on the worship team of the Baptist church we attended. I felt tormented from the silence and pretense I had to practice daily. I wanted to die as early as the age of nine. I never attempted suicide, but I thought about it a lot. The story I was taught growing up was that Jesus was born to die for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day to prove that he was God. And that I was in need of God’s grace because I was a sinner. God supposedly “loved” me no matter what, and I was chosen by God to either be saved or condemned. Only God actually knew which it was.

I knew and FELT all along that these stories were delusions. They didn’t come close to describing reality and couldn’t help me experience peace and happiness. What was more real and true for me than any story I heard about Jesus was the chaos and destruction I experienced at home. The predominant feeling I had in my home was fear. I had no idea what love and safety felt like. There was always an abiding sense of terror, heaviness in my chest, knots in my stomach, confusion, shame, and loneliness. The only relief and solace I found was outside my house with the few friends I had, and playing sports with my siblings, when we were allowed.

I eventually learned how to run well and earned a cross country and track scholarship to attend college in East Tennessee. I decided, based on a couple of experiences from my childhood, that I was supposed to be a pastor. When I began college my freshman year I was further conditioned to believe the message already given me — that I came from a “loving Christian family” and that I was to follow “the will of God.” Then one morning sometime in October of 2010, my sophomore year, I woke up and wanted to die. It was as if a switch had been flipped and I was suddenly overcome with racing thoughts of suicide and despair. My personality shifted, and I became intensely depressed and unable to get out of bed in the morning without tremendous effort. I experienced daily and reoccurring thoughts of suicide, imagining my funeral and dark violent fantasies about everyone I was around.

Shortly after this, during Thanksgiving break, I had my first drink. I waited until my grandparents went to bed and snuck over to my grandfather’s bar and poured myself some brandy. I loved the flush warmth that rushed to my face and the way the alcohol tasted and spread throughout my whole body. Eventually I was craving alcohol anytime I hung out with my friends at home or college. I soon had my first binge when I drank cup after cup filled to the brim with Absolut Vodka. My favorite drinks were Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. Eventually I was sneaking drinks, stealing liquor from my friends, and obsessing over it. I was typically a binge drinker, and occasionally a daily drinker.

The beginning of my journey into accepting atheism, or as I would prefer to put it, “non-theism,” as reasonable and true for me was when I began studying the work of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bible scholar Walter Wink in my junior and senior years of college. I saw in Bonhoeffer a minister and teacher who was able to question and challenge all the traditional teachings of the church in order to oppose the Nazis. Bonhoeffer’s life and theology are an example to me of someone who was honest with himself and others about his personal beliefs, even when it cost him his life. He developed his own concept of God and helped me to be honest about what I believed and didn’t believe.

Walter Wink’s work on the myth of redemptive violence helped me to see into the self-destructiveness of my Christian conditioning and allow myself to stop identifying with it. During my senior year, when my dissatisfaction and emotional pain was so great that I seriously considered ways to kill myself, I found Buddhism. I also read a passage in Wink’s book The Powers that Be in which he discusses Jung’s ideas about introjection and projection. I eventually understood that, like many victims of trauma, I had introjected the violence of the world I had grown up in, while also projecting it out into the world in which I lived as an adult. This realization gave me insight into the ways I needed to be healed. A few days later I heard a person speak who eventually became my therapist mention these two words in a sermon. I sought this man out and finally disclosed to another human being what I had experienced as a child, all that I could remember. He handed me a book by Jeffrey Brantley entitled Calming Your Anxious Mind. In this book I found instructions on how to practice mindfulness meditation (from the Theravada tradition of insight meditation, vipassana) and body scanning.

As I sat on my sofa in my apartment on campus I felt the energy of my body and the pain, anger and sadness through the breath. The tears flowed and I finally, for the first time in my life, was in my body fully, and could experience all my senses. For the next four weeks I meditated daily and then upon returning home for Christmas break, I had insight into the pain and suffering I had experienced in my house.

I noticed how my father and mother were angry and sad a lot, and couldn’t express other kinds of emotions. I noticed it was as if they talked in scripts and their body language was labored and tight. They looked exhausted when they walked around the house. It was as if they were carrying a large weight in them. It was very sad. I left home after my father threatened to fight me, and thus began my journey into recovery. The day I left home was December 23rd, 2012, an important date and the beginning of me finally coming out of denial. Eventually I graduated from college, but couldn’t support myself. I was still occasionally binging, and couldn’t stop despite wanting to. I don’t remember the exact day of my last drink, but I do know I haven’t drunk since I left Johnson City, TN on March 9, 2014.

One evening in June 2014 I went for a walk and experienced an intense calm come over my body and mind. I sat and took a look at my life and started wondering what was wrong and what I was not seeing. I decided to move to San Antonio, TX where I found the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous after attending a “Heart of Recovery” meeting at the Shambhala Center in San Antonio. I found a sponsor who practiced Zen and Refuge Recovery. Refuge Recovery  applies Buddhist philosophy and practices to recovery, using the four noble truths and the eight-fold path.

My step work was from a non-theistic perspective, though I was attending meetings where everyone talked theistically and believed in God. My first step was simply taking a look at the cause and effect of my drinking experiences. Seeing that I eventually lost control and was overcome by the obsession of it led me to step two, which was simply accepting the idea that there was more to reality than just what I felt and thought. My third step was making a conscious wise decision based on the options that arose as I continued to practice a sense of curiosity about my life. After practicing the steps and living in Oxford House for 13 months, I started to notice changes in my life. Oxford House is a sober living program where addicts learn to live in homes with each other and share the bills, chores and responsibilities of the house together while attending meetings. Living in Oxford House and practicing the steps of AA with my sponsor were my first experiences of learning to fully trust people.

Eventually I found myself 18 months sober, but in a cycle of workaholism, working seven days a week and not getting sufficient sleep. A friend suggested that I check out the 12-step community of Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families. This fellowship and its literature galvanized my recovery, and I began to experience and feel a deeper sense of love for myself and clarity about my life. Tony A., the cofounder of ACA, penned the “Laundry List” of the 14 traits of an adult child, which is a description of behaviors and ways of thinking that children of dysfunctional families adopt in order to survive their upbringing. It is a personality profile of how children of addicts live their life.

Along with learning about my childhood conditioning, which I was unconscious about, I am also learning to become my own loving parent by telling myself the story that I am basically loving and capable of receiving love. I am learning to keep my attention and focused energy on taking care of my inner child through loving-kindness practices and meditation. I now practice ways of being alone and with others that allow me to experience deeper levels of trust, intimacy, and fun. I now know what love feels like.

ACA gave me an awareness of my inner child, an ability to be my own loving parent, and a desire to further explore meditation and Buddhism. Eventually I came to find that AA, as I knew it, was not for me, and I began to devote myself to Refuge Recovery, a path that emphasizes the practice of mindfulness. I eventually stopped attending AA meetings and as of the past year I have attended Refuge Recovery regularly.

In February of this year, I attended a Refuge Recovery conference in Dallas, where I heard Noah Levine, the founder of Refuge Recovery, share about his journey and understanding of recovery. What he said resonated with me, and I now accept that my path is Refuge Recovery and ACA. The Refuge Recovery preamble summarizes what Refuge Recovery is all about really well, and it is true in my own life:

Refuge Recovery is a Buddhist-oriented path to freedom from addiction. This is an approach to recovery that understands: All individuals have the power and potential to free themselves from the suffering that is caused by addiction. We feel confident in the power of the Dharma, if applied, to relieve suffering of all kinds, including the suffering of addiction. This is a process that cultivates a path of awakening, the path of recovering from the addictions and delusions that have created so much suffering in our lives and in this world.

I recently discovered a new meeting place for my Refuge Recovery community and we will be starting a second meeting soon. I also recently attended my first “Mostly Agnostics” AA meeting. My impression of Mostly Agnostics was that the discussion in the room centered around feelings, trusting oneself and community to deal with problems in life, and learning how to be in relationships with others. The group I visited talked about how they became isolated in their active drinking addiction, and now in recovery they are connected to community and their feelings. There was no discussion or mention of God or Higher Power. People in the room described the inventory process and how self-awareness helps them to be in friendships and romantic relationships.

A little over a year ago, I entered into therapy, and was diagnosed with complex PTSD. This comes as no surprise to me, but it was truly helpful to finally hear a professional validate my experience. Complex PTSD is a diagnosis given to people who have experienced prolonged and intensive physical, psychological, and emotional trauma from people who were either primary caregivers or people who should have been trustworthy in situations of vulnerability. The nervous system of a person with complex PTSD is dysregulated from the abuse they endured and their own resulting hypervigilance. Their lives are often dominated by fatigue, fear, numbness, and confusion.

I have recently decided to begin pursuing a PhD in counseling psychology, and I plan to seek licensure as a professional counselor. I hope to to study and contribute to the ongoing research of complex trauma and the ways that mindfulness practices help foster recovery. Seeing the world through the lens of Buddhism helps me to have clarity and insight into the nature of my suffering. Instead of praying to a God to forgive or save me, I practice offering myself loving-kindness and compassion by sitting on a cushion, noticing the sensation of the breath, and stating kind words to myself. My practice is now daily, I sit for 20 minutes a day practicing Vipassana, and practice mindfulness throughout the day. I am learning to trust myself and trust others consistently, believing in my own potential for learning how to stop suffering, and welcoming the joys of life. I am beginning to enjoy my life for the first time and experience intimacy with myself and others. I wish for you who are reading this that you find your own path and learn through your own direct experience how to recover.


About the Author

David is a Jersey native who has been in San Antonio since June 2014. Currently he works as a Behavioral Health Tech and also a house painter. He intends to enroll in graduate school soon to pursue a career as a therapist. David has been sober since March 9th, 2014. He is a member of Refuge Recovery; he facilitates meetings in San Antonio and also helped start a second meeting in town. While David considers Refuge Recovery his primary community, AA and ACA are also home to him.

Artwork

The images displayed in this article were created by Kathryn F. 

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  1. SOMEN CHATTERJEE September 4, 2017 at 11:42 pm - Reply

    Hi David,

    Thank you for your story. I can relate to your story. Living cyber is very much important for me to connect like minded friends in recovery. I am also a non theist rather than an  atheist. Four noble truths and eight fold path gave me the insight to examine my condition one day at a time basis  and also Bill W gave me certain tools to stay sober.

    Somen C

  2. Gerald September 2, 2017 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    Thank you for making me aware of Refuge Recovery.

    Me, too, ACA has brought me awareness where AA could not – because AA is unaware 🙂

    My earliest memories, age two, are of my father beating me and my mother crying: fear, dread, & loathing. Thanks to the divorce, age three, Mom, Sister, and I weren’t all killed.

    After that, life “wasn’t that bad” … just bad enough to make me want to kill myself by age nineteen 🙂 That’s all 🙂 but not that bad.

    AA found me at age twenty. The traditions saved my life; I was lucky enough to land in an AA community that practiced the traditions.

    Then Prozac saved my life (I was still suicidal) and *WOW!* I entered a new world on Prozac: I entered Reality, r.e.a.l.i.t.y. for the first time since age four perhaps, and I knew then what it means to get in touch with my own body and a new sense of Self, just like we talk about in ACA.

    A couple years later, I got off the Prozac and then the AA steps improved my life. I found ACA at thirteen years sober.

    After 15 years sober in AA, a radical change in diet cured me of my lifelong depression. Basically, I eat ultra-low carb, high animal fat Paleo. I have not spent a moment depressed in over eight years thanks to eating Paleo. The experience continues to be ten times better than what Prozac did for me.

    The Big Book methodology still helps, but I’ve needed many other kinds of help. If an AA group turns the BB into a holy text, the meeting into a revival, and the AA movement into a religion, then I cannot participate, but if they let me be who I am, then I’m happy to be there. Then they’re able to remind me of all the things I need to be reminded of.

    Thanks,

    Gerald in Japan

    • David Lawler October 24, 2017 at 9:02 am Reply

      Gerald,

      I so appreciate everything you shared. I would like to get in touch with you and ask you questions about your journey and perhaps learn some insights into my own current state of physical health. Please feel free to email me.

  3. Sharon J. August 28, 2017 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    Thank you!  Your story is amazing, encouraging and life changing.

  4. Glenn August 27, 2017 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    My story exactly. How many suffer in silence in AA meetings thinking that the solution to all their problems is waiting for the sky god to make everything right. After double digits in AA waiting, being depressed, anxious and desperate, I found ACA, therapy, Buddhist principles and meditation gave me what AA could not give me, a deep, lasting peace. My message to anyone who is hurting is to use every tool available to you. Your life depends on it. Don’t listen to old timers who say you only need AA.

    • David L August 28, 2017 at 7:13 am Reply

      Thank you for your reflection and sharing about your own experience as it related to my story. You articulated what I think any person in recovery should do: exhaust all options and get as much help as possible.

  5. D. G. August 27, 2017 at 11:16 am - Reply

    thank you for your story David! I too have found that Refuge Recovery works well for me and makes sense. I don’t have regular access to a meeting but the RR and Against the Stream podcasts and books  (as well as AABeyond Belief pod and the secular AA meetings I make it to in KC) are hugely important to me. Would love to connect with you if I’m ever in San Antonio!

  6. life-j August 27, 2017 at 11:07 am - Reply

    David, thanks for your story. Finally we’re beginning to incorporate our bad childhood into our recovery process, instead of sweeping it under the rug,  and pretending that mainstream AA style self flagellation will help. A lot of cognitive dissonance we’ve had to go through, all along, and even in recovery. I was scared for a minute that here was going to be another higher power story, but you moved past that. I am definitely a buddhism sympathizer, but still can not adopt it for my own life because I can not accept any dogma, no matter how benign.

    I am glad we’re seeing more of these personal stories like yours here which offer a much broader perspective on life than what is standard AA fare.

  7. Joe C. August 27, 2017 at 10:51 am - Reply

    Thank you David and Kathryn and team-AA-Beyond Belief. This is a story I relate to. ACA was a game-changer for me and my recovery in the 1990s. Transcendental Meditation was catchy at the time of my early recovery. There were sometimes a few audible “ohhhmmmm”s at the end of AA meeting ending rituals.  At the turn of the century mindfulness was critical in managing sorrow I was experiencing and it of course coloured my whole look at recovery as well.

    Mindfulness broke through some ambiguity between AA language and my core-beliefs  that helped me so much. Other 12-Step programs such as SLAA, NA and Al-Anon have enriched me, too; often starting with suffering but always ending up further ahead.

    We are lucky that the Internet connects people. I see recovery-fusion happening. In contemporary music, hip hop is infusing jazz, metal bands are trying folk music and there is less tribalism (purists). Die Mannequin is a female-fronted punk/rock band that released Neon Zero, an album more  techno and beat/driven. Some longtime-fans have turned on the music act for betraying their roots but sometimes you need to rage and sometimes you have to dance. I like the courageous departure. I still hear punk politics in the lyrics and rock riffs and guitar fuzz. It’s more contemporary than the acts sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll roots.

    The recovery world has more fusion, today. One-book, one way tribal close-mindedness is less dominating. Abstainence fixated members, like me, are more open to harm-reduction, alternative modalities and other mutual-aid offerings. I see less cynicism about what “they” call recovery down the road. Of course, maybe it’s just me.

    Some people swear by meetings and others, be it social-anxiety disorder or lifestyle, don’t find a regular commitment out of the house works for them. Their recovery is found and maintained a different way. The Internet has exposed me so much more than was at my disposal in early recovery. Good luck convincing me now, that this forum and this personal story I just read is second-rate or inferior to gathering for a ritualistic meeting in a community Center.

    Thanks again; I look forward to other’s comments, too.

    • boyd p. August 28, 2017 at 12:17 am Reply

      Are you falling into the trap of ranking the many paths to recovery?  I am not qualified to make such evaluations.  I do feel empowered to share my journey focused upon finding “place” in the the cosmos.  Hope some of you had an ecliptic moment.  For me, holding hands in a circle, silently, affirming the strength of fellowship is important.

  8. Diane August 27, 2017 at 10:41 am - Reply

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. There are still tears in my eyes. I resonate much better with being a non-theist. It doesn’t carry the baggage of atheist. Thank you for talking about PTSD and it’s relationship to drinking. My drinking was medicine to stop my cycle of suffering in the present, until it became my future. At 29 years of sobriety, your story as a relative newcomer has benefited my level of sobriety. Practicing self love has taken me a long time. Your path increases my confidence that, we in the secular AA movement can attract and help the suffering younger generations. Again thank you for sharing your story and being present.

  9. Lance B. August 27, 2017 at 10:36 am - Reply

    Thanks, David.  I’ve often wondered why Tony’s laundry list feels so right to me.  And the feeling I had when one day I heard on the Phil Donahue show;  “We guess at what normal is”.    That was the truth which I never could have expressed on my own.

    Yet I really cannot say that I suffered the kind of abuse you did.  The home I grew up in was also church going and there were never fights or arguments.  I found myself envious of families which were more openly expressive of their feelings.

    Your description of how joyless and obligatory everything felt resonates with me.  Mother found solace in churches and in teaching Sunday school.  Both parents professed love for each other and I really think they had a profound sense of need for each other.  We children were sort of extraneous.  And somehow that resulted in the laundry list striking home with me.

    AA also provided some inspiration to begin loving myself–or maybe that should be people in AA sometimes talked about the need for self love.  And I formed the habit of thinking,  “I love you, Lance” whenever I had one of those gut wrenching episodes of guilt over a time I’d done something stupid and been caught.  Later I began to feel that same sense even for some times when nobody noticed my mistake/faux pas.   That sort of guilt is damaging to alcoholics and probably anyone.  Thus I suppose the christian idea of original sin and being forgiven has some relevance.

    I simply cannot believe the story, and do not get the relief others seem to feel from it.  But the AA fellowship where I can openly express my mistakes and flaws and find others identifying with me, seems a palliative and worthwhile use for some free floating guilt/shame.

    Your story of reclaiming love is certainly the objective of my recovery so thanks for pointing it out so clearly.

  10. Thomas B. August 27, 2017 at 10:20 am - Reply

    Oh, and Kathryn F., your artwork is most amazingly appropriate . . .

  11. Thomas B. August 27, 2017 at 10:19 am - Reply

    Thank you David for a powerful story of hope and healing. I am another nontheist, who practices daily mindfulness meditation. I also have Complex PTSD, which predates my PTSD from Vietnam. In fact, as a former southern Baptist who converted to Catholicism at puberty, I volunteered to go to Vietnam to have Charlie do to me what I was too afraid to do, kill me, because if I suicided I would go to hell forever and ever and ever, as a miserable sinner.

    I was fortunate to know Tony A. during my first years of recovery in New York City in the 1970s. I’ve experienced the Red Book to provide the most sound psychological explanations for addiction as well as to providing the most concrete and practical suggestions for the recovery process for many of us alcohol addicts.

    A major part of my daily practice today is choosing to be as compassionate as I can for ardent believers in the rooms of AA who may be suffering in the same ways as your church-going Christian parents did.

    • David Lawler October 24, 2017 at 9:09 am Reply

      I would really appreciate connecting with you if you are interested. Thank you for your comment!

       

      Davidlawlerpainting@gmail.com

      Please feel free to email me.

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