Parallel Universes: The Story of Rebirth is a new book, a recovery memoir written by David B. Bohl. Today, AA Agnostica published a review of the book written by Thomas B. while here at AA Beyond Belief, we are posting a podcast featuring a conversation with David. I won’t go into a lot of detail here about the book, you can read about that at AA Agnostica. Instead, I will introduce the podcast with a few words about David, and my thoughts upon reading the book and speaking with the author.
David was relinquished by his mother at birth and adopted by a loving family. His adopted parents were always open with him about the adoption, and it was something he considered entirely normal. When he was six years old, he shared his story with some friends, and their reaction to this disclosure wasn’t what he expected. They reacted as if there was something wrong with him. Suddenly, he felt apart from his friends and somehow different. He also felt betrayed by his parents for allowing him to believe that his adoption was normal and good when the reaction from his friends made it clear, at least in his mind that it wasn’t. This experience instilled within David a feeling of shame that he previously hadn’t known.
Shame and a longing for a connection with others were among the driving forces of David’s addiction to drugs and alcohol, and this book is his story of recovery from that experience. It’s not a book about finding closure, but instead, it’s about finding perspective and learning to place oneself within the context of one’s own story. It’s a coming together, learning to live as a whole person.
John S: This is Episode 82 of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast, and I’m your host, John S.
John: In today’s episode, we’ll speak with David B. Bohl, author of Parallel Universes: The Story of Rebirth, a memoir.
John: David, how you doing?
David B. Bohl: I’m very well, John. How are you, sir?
John: I’m doing fantastic. Thank you. Are you up in Wisconsin?
David: I am. I’m in the Southeast of Wisconsin, Milwaukee area. Absolutely.
John: Beautiful state. You wrote about growing up around the lake and it reminded me of some of my drives through Wisconsin. It’s a beautiful area up there.
David: It certainly is.
John: Okay, so you wrote a book called Parallel Universes, a memoir of recovery from an alcohol and drug addiction. I must say that I was blown away by the foreword written by Jowita Bydlowska. What a great job she did! I’ll have to read her book, Drunk Mom.
David: She did do an excellent job. She understands this to a level that most don’t.
John: Your book deals with shame and the impact shame has on our becoming addicts. In the forward to the book, Jowita mentioned inherent shame, and she referenced the work of Gabor Maté. A critical component to your story is your adoption. Your relinquishment from your biological parents, and Jowita wrote about how those kind of events that happen even before we’re maybe even aware of them do have an impact on us. Just chemically, the stress that a mother might feel when she’s carrying a baby is passed on to that child while it’s developing, and I found that pretty interesting.
David: It’s interesting and it’s almost intuitive. Once one thinks about it, it would be silly for us to say, “Boy, I can’t imagine that that would have an effect on a developing individual later on.” It actually makes some great logical sense. But what I have to tell you is that, as I was undergoing the process, it didn’t even occur to me. What one grows up in an environment where they learn certain lessons, rather unspoken lessons, expectational lessons, a true life’s lessons, and they develop a perspective that guides them, and my perspective, of course, was that all of that was an outside issue. And particularly, when I came into the 12-step fellowships, it wasn’t discussed. I wasn’t encouraged to discuss it not only by the fellowships themselves, but by the way I’d been brought up in life. I was brought up in a happy, supportive family whereby there were no issues surrounding this, so why question it? But the fact of the matter is, as you suggested by Jowita’s beginning of the book, it had to be investigated. I had to take a look at that as it related to my addiction. Otherwise, I was never going to get that complete solution that I was looking for.
John: Right, and prior to the age of six, as you were growing up, you were loved and cared for in your home. You felt that adoption was a good thing.
David: Absolutely. I would even take it further than that. Not only was it normalized. I can’t remember a time not knowing. So, when people typically tell their adoption stories, they often tell about the time that they were told by their parents or their caregivers that they were adopted. I don’t remember that as an event because it was always part of growing up and it was proudly talked about. “You were adopted. You were chosen. We wanted you.” So yeah, it was always normalized in the family in which I was growing up, and as a result, we were all made to think that that would be a supportive experience. Yes.
John: And then something happened when you were six years old. You were with some friends and you were sharing with them the story of your adoption, and this I think, is what I would call a resentment. It was something that you re-lived later in life. It was something that had an impact on you. It was the shame, I think, that you talked about in your book, that their reaction was not what you expected. Their reaction was that you were somehow different. Would you mind talking a little bit about how that experience impacted you for, I guess, the rest of your life?
David: Absolutely. Well, it’s one of those things. When we think back to our childhood, we know and have learned from brain science today that we don’t remember things as though it was a movie playing. We remember bits and pieces and of course, this is literally the earliest memory I have from my childhood. It was at age six. I had brought a couple buddies home that I had been playing with that day and I had told them so proudly, and I thought this was a really cool thing that I was adopted, and I can still, in my mind, I can picture the looks on their faces. They just could not believe it, and it started to occur to me, right then and there, “Wait a minute. Maybe there’s something to this that I don’t know anything about.” So, of course, I brought these friends home to my mother who was working at home and I said, “Mom, tell them. Tell them. Please confirm my identity.” This is the language I use today, I didn’t use this at age six but, “Please tell them that I was adopted.” and she did proudly and matter-of-factly, because that’s the way we spoke about it. And it was at that time that I realized this is something different. This is something that’s not okay. These friends let me know that there was something wrong with this being adopted thing.
David: And from that, of course, I have a very complex mind as many of us do, it didn’t just end there. What actually happened was that I kept thinking, “Wait a minute. If this family of mine has been telling me this was cool all along and it’s really not, can I trust them? Is this something that I could trust them for? And can I trust the world to send me messages that would allow my perceptions to be healthy?” That kind of defined what I would say is the majority of my relationships going forward from that day. In any number of different forms, I was always wondering if I should be trusting individuals and the messages that they were trying to send. All the thing that goes along with it. Are they being manipulative? Are they trying to get a desired response out of me? Are they blowing smoke up my backside in order for me to behave in a certain way? And it defined who I was.
David: And of course, throughout that process to the brain… My brain is very active and questioning oneself every day is really difficult. Questioning one’s identity, “Who am I?” every day, and “Where did I come from?” It’s a natural question for human beings to have, but this one had no answers. I had no access to any of those answers. So, it remained, I guess, I don’t even know how to characterize it. It remained a mystery, I suppose. There came a time in my adult life when I was actually able to get some more facts surrounding the relinquishment and I was able to assimilate them better into my life. And by the way, that’s the title, in part, Parallel Universes. There was a part of my life that was not assimilated for many decades, and once I did, I found out not only that I was whole, but that I could stay sober and sane and have a life that I never dreamed of.
John: Another thread that went through the book was the importance of forming connections with other people, and the difficulty in forming connections with other people. It seems like the shame you felt from that experience with your friends created an obstacle, in a way, of forming connections with other people. It was an obstacle that you would later, I don’t know if you would say overcome, but you used alcohol and drugs to somehow find those connections.
David: I think that’s a very good analysis, John, and I can tell you, I can remember when I started using alcohol at age 13. As I was analyzing this, I thought, “Well, did I use it as a social lubricant?” So many people, whether they turned out to be alcoholic or not, talk about using alcohol to lower those inhibitions and whatnot. Is that why I did it? I don’t think so. I did it because it was presented to me. I did it out of peer pressure. I was in an environment where I was offered the alcohol. And what I found, John, immediately is it provided a solution. It was a solution to that social anxiety. I literally felt connected, and this is the ultimate answer to your question. I thought those other people…I thought everybody drank like I did. I found the solution to life, it’s connection. We found this higher level with which to connect with one another, attach to one another, and alcohol was allowing us to do that.
David: And that was my initial hook with alcohol. We hear people say, “I knew from my first drink I was drinking alcoholically.” Well, in retrospect I can say that, but for different reasons. It gave me the attachment that I was missing, and it slowed my brain process down. I wasn’t constantly judging myself and shaming myself and beating myself up for being different, because in that moment, again, and the perception, the assumption, incorrectly, was that everyone was drinking like I was, that we had found this solution together. And that’s a very odd way to define relationships early in one’s life, because without that social lubricant, without that alcohol, that means most situations in life, one is not going to feel connected, one is not going to feel like they reached that new level with other individuals, and as a result, they’re going to feel separate or judged, or shamed, or whatever the case may be.
John: Right. And that is basically what happened as your drinking progressed as a young person. I’m thinking about the car accident you had and how you were reluctant to tell the person that you damaged their car. And then when you finally did, they didn’t accept your [chuckle] truthfulness very well. It’s like that initial desire for connection and using alcohol to get those connections was ultimately actually driving you away from and separating you from other people.
David: Absolutely. If we look at the criteria for substance use disorder and alcoholism, yes, I was exhibiting that criteria at that time, because it had a significant negative impact not only on relationships, but my sense of self, and it was a spiral, as you can see. If you want to feed shame, I had found the perfect way to feed shame. It was to think I could drink it away with alcohol, and then I would do something that would ultimately show to others that there was something wrong with me, and then it would keep going and going and going. Ultimately, not just that, maybe this isn’t the appropriate time to interject this, but I think about this a lot, and we’ve talked about the shame thing, but there was an excellent professor down at, I believe, the University of Houston, by the name of Brene’ Brown who years ago talked in one of her TED talks about shame , correctly, I think, identified shame as being different from guilt. Guilt is something that we feel about something we’ve done, and shame is about how we feel about who we are. So, guilt is, “Oh, I did something wrong”, and shame is, “There’s something wrong with me.” So, she talks about this, and I think that’s really accurate, and I think she opened up a great discussion.
David: But ultimately, I think it’s even more than that, because here is how the brain process works with regard to shame. So, yes, my brain starts out and says, “Yeah, there’s something wrong with me,” but then it keeps going and it says, “Wait a minute, something’s wrong with me and everybody is aware of it, but everybody is aware of it except me.” So, what happens, and then what that means is that this thing controls my behavior, but it does so beyond my perception, so I keep forgetting that there’s something wrong with me, and ultimately this forgetting is going to make me embarrass myself in some way to the world that is so painful, but also irreparable. So, therefore, as the spiral keeps going, “There’s something even more wrong with me than I could even contemplate.” Not only do I feel the same, but I’m powerless and I’m hopeless at this time. And that experience that you just described is exactly the start of that process. Now, it took me decades to deconstruct that thought process, but you’ve identified exactly what had happened. Here, what I think I’m doing, and at the time I was calling alcohol my medicine, and I still would in some types of narratives. It ended up not being, and it was coming back to bite me like a boomerang much earlier in my life than I ever could have imagined.
John: And the title of the book, Parallel Universes, it’s the existence of these two realities at the same time. “Alcohol makes me feel connected, but I’m not connected. I’m not an alcoholic, but my life is falling apart.” It’s like there’s part of us that’s aware of what’s going on, but we have this denial mechanism that I guess is a way to cope with whatever that reality is.
David: That’s right, that’s right. And the way my brain works, anyway, is it confabulates that evidence up front and then later on it questioned the very evidence it confabulated, so, “Oh yeah, so oh boy, I’m seeing these consequences. My friendships are starting to get pushed away. I’m doing things that are dangerous.” And the next day or something, once that panic has passed “Oh, I just overreacted. There wasn’t as much to it as I thought. I just took that out of context.” This is how we rationalize things with the alcoholic brain.
John: So, the whole recovery process for you seems to be that you’re bringing things together so that you’re one person, and where you’re in reality.
John: You have one reality.
David: Well said, well said. And that has been the journey. Obviously, the journey not only to sobriety, but to sanity. It’s assimilating all of those realities into one life that I can live with that doesn’t break me apart. And I do that, and this may not be understood to be a tenet of a 12-step philosophy whereby we’re trying to live in the present for 24 hours at a time, but I have to bring that reality as it reflects on the past, the present and the future. So, I have to go back and examine my perceptions in the context in which they were created, in those environments they were created. Otherwise I don’t have a chance of developing healthy perceptions and healthy coping mechanisms that would continue to allow me to be sober and sane and a connected individual, and obviously useful to other relationships in society.
John: And you know, something else that came to my mind as we were talking about connection, there was a section in your book where you wrote about a roommate you had, a female roommate. I think it was when you were getting back into school again. She was a friend, and you were both drinking, but she was honest about herself, and she opened up to you in a way, I think, that other people hadn’t. That was a connection you had with somebody that was meaningful to you. It was something that was helpful for you. You even wrote that your drinking lessened during that time when you had that relationship. Can you talk about that? Did you learn anything from that experience or draw from it later in your life and in your recovery?
David: Boy, I think that’s a great insight, John, and thanks for bringing that up. I remember it very well because at the time I was just plain lost. I guess people who struggle with connection sometimes say that they feel lonely, and I think for me it was beyond that. Yes, I felt lonely, like something was wrong with me and my thinking was different, but I felt lost. I thought, like many people in 12-step fellowships who are in recovery say, everybody else had an instruction manual, and I had no clue as to what to do. I had no idea what to think, I had no idea how to behave, and I was overly wrapped up in trying to guess what people’s expectations were, rather than being authentically me. And it was the safety of that relationship that allowed me to be authentic and genuine and a bit introspective to look at myself in the context of that relationship to see what that meant. So that relationship, and I thank that individual for that to this day, gave me the courage and the strength and the safety to build and to grow and to learn. And ultimately what it was validation. What we need to understand in this world, and I don’t want to sound preachy here, but in the media, we go right to a solution.
David: We want to go to a bullet point solution and tell people who’s to blame and how to correct it. And ultimately life’s a lot more complex than that. And what ultimately helps most is validating people’s experiences, not approving them or disapproving them, but validating, accepting them and saying, “Okay, given the context of that situation, what do we together need to do now?” And without putting all of that language to it, that’s what that relationship was about. It was about allowing someone to trust so that I could show myself to them and not be concerned about it. And ultimately, it’s the reason I wrote this book. It was about vetting the process. It’s not just about being myself, it’s about putting myself out there and allowing another individual to be suggestive or to be critical, or to really give me some constructive accountability and feedback in a relationship, and that’s what that was about, and it did teach me lessons later on. It took me a long time to learn those lessons, but they’re lessons that, as you suggested, are essential for me to recall today because that’s what it’s about. And ultimately that’s what we’re talking about. That’s what I’m talking about with this book.
David: It’s a vetting process. And a memoir, John, is really difficult to write, and anyone who’s done it knows so, and I don’t want to sound like I’m terminally unique here, but I think it’s even more difficult for someone who’s been afraid of themselves, or who has been irreparably damaged by some existential dilemma or some developmental interruption over life. The problem becomes even bigger because in order to accept oneself, they have to work really hard to get down to those causes and conditions and get to all those details. And I’m not talking about psychoanalysis on the couch, I’m talking about looking at causes and conditions in the context in which they existed. And so, to better know yourself, well that increases the chances of finding flaws. But if you’re flawed in the first place it’s an endless cycle, and it’s that emotional and psychological pain that comes that most people can’t endure that they bail out for whatever reason. They turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, they check out, they isolate, they do all of those things. And the lesson that I’ve come to learn is that when I feel safe, when I feel validated, I show myself to the world and ask them to vet me, to scrutinize, “Hey, is my thinking okay?” And ultimately, that’s what I’m doing with this memoir, which to me shows an unbelievable commitment to continuing the process, and I couldn’t be more delighted about it.
John: You mentioned the word safe and safety a few times, and there is a question that you said is probably the most important question that we have to ask in our recovery is “Am I safe?” Or “Do I feel safe?” You must have got to the point of feeling safe, because you were very honest in your book, and I felt a connection with you. I feel like I know you. You must have got to a point in your life where you felt safe enough to allow yourself to experience that vulnerability, and to write like that, to allow people to hear your story and to connect with it.
David: I did. I did. As a matter of fact, it was a process and if you allow me just a moment I can describe that process a little bit. Actually, I attribute it to a time where I came into secular 12 step recovery. There was a time where I was watching all of the wonderful, exciting things that were going on in Toronto with regard to atheists and agnostic recovery and the battles fought at the grassroots level. I got acquainted with some of the individuals up there, and I’d been in touch with Roger C who has published some wonderful literature that many of us read. And I noticed that many of the books that he’s published are on the AA Beyond Belief literature page and I appreciate that. I wanted to come up to meet these people in person and that sometimes is what I need to do. It’s wonderful that we can connect virtually, but sometimes I need to look somebody in the eye to be held accountable and to feel safe and that’s what I did. So, I told Roger, I was going to come to Toronto. I’d like to meet some of the folks and I was going to go to their Thursday night meeting and he said, “Great.” He said, “Would you like to give the lead?” And I said, “Oh shoot.” [chuckle] I just wanted to come and be… I wanted to be a secular AA tourist. I just wanted to be a guest.
David: But of course, I was taught never to turn down a request and I of course accepted graciously. And as I was flying there, I was purposely trying not to do any prep, but I decided I was going to jot a few notes down. An hour and a half plane ride later, I was still writing, and I got to the group and I shared my experience, strength and hope and ultimately, I felt accepted. It was one of the greatest release I’d ever had. I found that unconditional positive regard from individuals who could share a similar path, but ultimately, I found saftey. And that’s what started my venturing into, and I guess writing was secondary, investigating who I am. So, after that event Roger said, “You know, I’m putting together this this great book and I’m wondering if you might contribute to it?” And it was Do Tell! Stories By Atheists and Agnostics in AA ,and I actually have contributed chapter 15 to that book, and it was where I started to learn how I could feel safe and to be vulnerable at the same time. And that’s difficult in a recovery environment. That’s difficult when one questions who their very self is and it’s sometimes even more difficult for men, because of the way we’re socialized in community.
David: So that was the start of that writing process. And after I’d written that chapter, I realized how much more work there was to be done. And in order for me to stay sober and sane, I knew I had to do that work. But the great news is that the story of this is that I had found the safety within those fellowships, within those individuals who understood how this could be done. Who had offered me the hope that it could be done in a way that was in keeping with healthy behavior, that launched me on this path and here we are three years later. d I’ve done an immense amount of work and I am empowered to do even more.
John: You wrote about… And this struck me, because I was at a meeting not long ago where we basically went around, and we shared our stories. And there were a couple people who said, “Oh, there’s nothing that bores me more than my own drunk-a-log.” But you wrote about how our stories are so important, and a lot of your book is your personal story. I needed to read that. I don’t know what it is, but there is something in that honesty about our addiction, our active addiction that is so healing. I guess, the telling of it when you share it openly, it helps build that safety factor, and you begin to trust people. It also helps the people who are listening to identify and relate, and they know that you’ve come out on the other side.
David: Well certainly. And that’s well said. Certainly, to get to that place of safety that I believe is essential for anyone to be able to do this work, to venture down this path, one has to be able to attach and relate to other people. I’ve worked in the addiction treatment business for over a decade and we give a lot of discussion and attention to the term ‘stigma reduction’. We keep telling people, “Boy, if we could just reduce the stigma, more people will come and get help. If we just reduced the stigma, we will find more appropriate funding to help these people.” And there’s nothing that goes further in terms of stigma reduction than someone honestly telling their story and openly and vulnerably and authentically telling their story. It reduces stigma in ways that no other way can. We can give all the scientific facts we want but we know that this being a cunning, baffling and powerful disease that that’s not always going to persuade people, because addiction does not reside in the rational part of the brain, it resides in the emotional part and the survival part of the brain.
David: So that safety comes from stigma reduction. And it’s my belief that sharing our stories is the healthiest way to get safe and to reduce that stigma. Now, having said that what I know also is that my story has evolved over time, because I’ve done the work. The story that I tell today is not the same story as I told 12 months into recovery. It’s immensely different. It’s more complex and it can be told from several different angles. And I think that I’ve seen other people in the fellowships have similar experiences though what I worry about is those who maybe tell the same story over and over again for whatever reason. And I’m not being critical of them, I’m just wondering if that’s helping with the safety and the stigma reduction part. That’s all.
John: You wrote about your first five years in the program where you were very traditional. You were wanting to connect with that higher power. I had that same experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is, the story is the same, the experience is the same, the facts are the same, what happened is the same, but my understanding of those facts and what I’ve learned from those facts continue to evolve. And I’m assuming that’s what’s happened with you. During that first five years of your recovery, you would share your story in one way, but where you’re at now, you have a different understanding. You’ve learned some lessons. You’ve got some more, I guess, understanding of that story.
David: I think that’s well said and I think the word that I would use, for me anyway, is perception, I have gained perception and perspective on what my experiences have been, and this goes a long way. And what we’re talking about here obviously is a concept that [chuckle] is so ingrained, at least in US society in this day and age, this concept of closure. Everybody needs to work for closure, John, is what I hear all the time and I hear it in my profession and I hear it in the world. And here is what I would say from my experience is that there’s no such thing as closure and when I work towards it, when I try to find that finality then I have a problem. That’s exactly what you just illustrated from your experience, how your story has evolved over time. We’re not looking for one final story, we’re looking at our perceptions and the best we can get, and at least not only the best can we get, but the ultimate thing that we should be looking to get is that perspective.
David: I want to see the context in which my perceptions were formed. I want to see the context in which I turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism, and I want to see the context in which it turned on me from it being a medication to something that was very unhealthy and what the consequences were for that. And that’s what I’m looking for, it’s not closure, it’s context. And that’s what we’re talking about, when our stories evolve, we’re getting new context into the story, that means we’re really doing the work. And to me, that’s where the excitement and the hope come into working with individuals and continuing to go on this journey because sometimes as many of us know, sometimes it would be pretty easy to set aside. And ultimately that was part of my story, setting some of these facts aside because I just couldn’t deal with them was not healthy in the long run. So, getting that courage, getting that strength and looking for that context is essential in working through these details.
John: You know, as you were writing about the recovery process, you went into a lot of detail about what I would call the amends process. You actually would go to your family, you went to you wife, and you went to your son and daughter and you asked them the question. Can you talk about that a little bit? I believe you asked them what you can do and how your alcoholism impacted them.
David: Absolutely I did, I did, and the way I defined the amends process is I literally looked up the word amends in the dictionary and it means to change. I believe that apology can be part of that because people talk about amends as an apology, but I think it’s change in behavior and it’s not just a commitment to change behavior, it’s exhibiting that behavior change. So, when I go to my family, I offered restitution. “What can I do to change, what can I do to better support you, what can I do, what are your goals and what can I do to better support them?” And those were the questions that I asked. So ultimately, I was asking my kids, “How can I be a better dad, how can I be more supportive of your lives, how can I take away the emotional pain through behaviors in the present and the future that can hopefully someday eclipse the experiences that I shared with you before?” And ultimately, that was the question, “What restitution can I offer at this time in terms of behavior change?”
David: And you alluded to it but the answer was seldom specific, the answer is almost always, “We just want you to be happy, we want you to be happy with who you are, we want you to be comfortable and at peace and have a mind that goes easy on you, so tell us how we can help you.” I mean that’s how the amends process basically worked for me in all but one case my family, friends, colleagues, were all supportive in that way. But to this day I still pose that question, right when I hear people talking about amends, I sometimes get confused and I associate them as I said with apologies, no no no, “What behaviors am I willing to change today to accomplish the goal that I need to set out to accomplish.” And that’s what’s important to me.
John: I think I found some of the more moving parts of the book to be that description of coming back to your family. Your wife in particular, she actually got involved in a 12-step program as well. Can you talk about that a little bit and how the work that she’s done has impacted your recovery?
David: Sure, I can and I’m going to preface it by saying I can only do that to a degree because it’s her story to tell of course. But at first, it was all about guilt because when I first got sober, I didn’t just wake up one morning and have a revelation. I went to treatment and I needed to go through detoxification, and I needed to go through stabilization, and I needed to go through an inpatient treatment episode in order to stabilize my life enough to even contemplate entering recovery. But as I did that, that program had suggested that my wife and family, “Well, as your husband and father are doing this, we recommend that you too… You all go and explore your own paths recovery.” So please go check out Al-Anon or Families Anonymous. Kids, go check out Alateen. This will help you to accept what’s going on and to obviously help you through the psychological obstacles that you’ve had.” And my wife immediately accepted that opportunity, so I think I went in on to a treatment center on a Tuesday, and I think Wednesday she had accepted that recommendation and started a journey of her own, and it did any number of things.
David: Number one it made me feel guilty, “Oh my God it was my behavior… Now they have to go treat themselves for my behavior? How insane is that?” So, there was a period of guilt of course, but what I learned is that we immediately had a vocabulary that we could share. We talked about goals and authenticity and vulnerability in ways that we were never able to share it before, and we obviously were able to treat each other with a little more respect. We got to know each other at a level that we had not gotten to know each other before, and trusted one another, and here’s how we get back to the trust, trusted one another that their journey was appropriate for them. And it’s been an incredible process for me because I’ve had that support in my family members, I also have had friends who have come out of the wood work as you imagine over the decades. They’re sharing experiences that they’ve had with people in their lives and we’ve had conversations along these very same levels that are… They’re ultimately validating, which means we grow a level of safety, that allows us all to do our work together and it’s been phenomenal.
John: Also during your early recovery, I think it was the first five years where you were really entrenched and it was a useful time for you. It was something you found valuable, but then there was also a period of time where you started questioning things in the program, and you started feeling maybe apart from or not as comfortable in the program as you are now. Can you talk about that evolution and some of the things about the 12-step program that you were questioning?
David: Absolutely. Well you’re right when I first came into the program I was… I was ready. I was ready. I heard the message, I needed some suggestions. So, I said, “Okay I’m going to do this, you people,” and of course I was introduced immediately to a 12-step program when I was in treatment. “I’ll do this but two things, number one, if you guys are lying to me I’m never going to be able to trust anybody again.” I knew that at that time in my life I knew it, this was all about trust. Secondarily, I knew that if this wasn’t the answer, I didn’t have an answer, I was probably going to die. If I couldn’t do this I had nowhere else to go, so there was a lot at stake. And I think the literature in 12-step fellowships talks about being enthusiasts, what I could call myself is an immersionist. I immersed myself in that program. So, in the first 365 days of the program, you know, I had a sponsor who said you are going to do 90 and 90. I did 450 meetings in my first 365 days. Now is that immersioning, is that insanity, is that control, well I didn’t know where else to go. I didn’t trust myself to do anything else, so I read only program literature I didn’t look at non-conference approved literature, and I tried to stay within those bounds. But after a while I got uncomfortable with that because the message was very one-sided, and the message was, rightly so, always one of hope, but I wasn’t always feeling that hope.
David: I just didn’t get it and I tried to do those things, I knew that that religious or spiritual component was going to be very difficult for me, but I tried to take the message of just suit up and show up and fake it until you make it and all the rest that and that’s what I did. And ultimately that may have been a stabilizing message and those activities that I do, I’m glad that I did them because I developed a community and a program for daily living that allowed me over time to quiet my mind and to stay sober. However, you’re right, there was a time where I started questioning these things. I remember this very clearly, John. Every morning I would start my day, and, in the shower, I would go through the prayers, I’d go through the prayers of the program, and they became rote after a while. I didn’t know how much I was feeling them, so I was questioning my own integrity. “Wait a minute, you’re saying these things but why are you saying them? Are you saying them because they’re real or what’s the deal? Are you really trusting in these things or what’s going on?” And I woke up one morning and I realized, “Wait a minute, the more I say these things, the worse I feel. I’m not feeling better, I’m not feeling more able to fight sobriety, I’m not feeling more connected, I’m feeling worse.” And then I had, the dawn ultimately was when I realized, I had nobody to talk to about this.
David: I went to people in the program that I trusted and they said, “Ah, keep coming back” or “You’re doing it wrong” or “You haven’t surrendered enough” or “You need to pray harder” or “You’re not praying rightly” or “You’re trying to take back your will” and all these things they put it back on me like I was doing something wrong and I didn’t see it, and ultimately what they did is they fostered that shame component in my very identity. “Wait a minute this is AA and I can’t even get AA, right?” “Everybody else seems to be getting it right, I can’t get this?” So, I had this crisis, I call it a crisis of faith, and I use that term in a different way because I think religion has co-opted the term faith. I had a crisis of faith. I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. But I thought I knew what I was doing all along, I was trying to stay sober, and as a result of staying sober, I was looking at those promises, and they were starting to come true, but I was being inauthentic. And ultimately what I realized was is that I questioned my integrity, and my integrity is simple but it’s threefold. Number one, integrity for me has to be that I’m incorruptible. I have to be honest, I have to be moral, I have to be valued, I have to be incorruptible. Secondly, I have to be solid.
David: My thinking has to be rational, it has to be sound, it has to be vetted by others. I can’t just live in a vacuum. And lastly, I have to be complete. I can’t be divided anymore, I can’t have issues that are bouncing around all the time that go unresolved, and I don’t mean about that finality, or that closure we talked about, I mean I need a path to resolve things. And I realized that I wasn’t there.
David: So, I didn’t know what to do, I actually went and talked to a psychologist friend of mine and I really respected her and within five minutes she said, “Maybe you’re not meant to believe that 12 step stuff.” Right? And again, go back to what I said before when I first came into the treatment and the program, right, “If what you guys are telling me isn’t true, I’m not going to trust anybody ever again, and I’m probably going to drink and I’m going to die,” and that’s where I was. That was my existential crisis. “How do I live in this support group that makes me… that allows me to feel worse because it’s triggering my shame? What’s the alternative?” And it was at that time that I started investigating secular groups and thankfully I did because they ultimately became my way, just like yours, to stay in this process, to stay engaged, to be held accountable, and to be available to a community of recovery that can sustain us.
John: And you talked about a few specific things that I found interesting. I think I am still at a place in my recovery where I am still learning to evolve into a more secular approach. I had probably decades of time really buying into all of it. So anyway, you mentioned a couple of thing. One of those was the discussion of defects of character and being re-traumatized. Can you talk about how you began to think about defects of character and that whole process of being re-traumatized in AA and how you kind of… [chuckle]
David: Sure, sure. Well, there’s this spiritual axiom in AA and in 12-step recovery. If there’s something wrong, there must be something inherently wrong with us. We have a part in everything that makes us feel bad is that spiritual axiom. And I understand it philosophically, but ultimately it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. And I can make any number of arguments about people who have been harmed by others, that it was no fault of their own, there was no spiritual axiom involved. They were just hurt and traumatized and abused. That’s just what happened. This notion that ego deflation at depth has to be part of everyone’s experience in a 12-Step Fellowship, I think is really quite dangerous, because not everybody has an ego to begin with that’s strong enough to withstand that process.
David: Some people come in with a fragmented sense of self, including myself, or almost no sense of self. Because I had adapted to everybody’s expectations so elaborately, I had no clue as to where I started and where I ended. To me, that ego deflation at depth notion was incredibly dangerous and harming. And no one ever pointed their finger at me and said, “We’re going to deflate your ego,” but that was the message, and that was the message at every turn, that message is in a lot of the literature and it doesn’t work. I had to check this philosophy because we talk about being termly unique. And it wouldn’t be unusual for someone, who if I asked them to be judgmental about me, and the fellowship would say, “Wait a minute, you’re starting to think that you’re different than us if you can’t take your ego deflation at depth.”
David: I had to check that. I had to vet that experience and I did, and I saw it in any number of different ways. And I also saw it in my profession. I work in the addiction treatment industry, and I specifically worked at a behavioral health hospital where we focused on dual diagnosis. Those with not only an addiction disorder but also a mental health disorder. And I saw a lot of people come in with PTSD and other, what I would say, developmentally impactful experiences in their life that might prevent them from getting there. And ultimately what we would do in treatment and I’m saying this in a general way. I certainly do not want to disparage any employers that I’ve worked for in the past. But what we do in treatment is it’s typical we will bring someone to a treatment setting and immediately we throw them into a group and we say, “Tell us your story. Tell us everything about yourself. Tell us the truth about your drinking and the consequences.”
David: And to me that’s one of the most traumatizing things we can do. We do it AA too. We ask people… When someone comes to their first AA meeting, we sometimes break out into a special first step meeting and everyone tells their story and we say, “Now tell us yours.” And this person sometimes certainly in treatment may be still going through detox, they don’t have the capacity to do this, but we’ve also immediately made it unsafe for them. And it’s that ego deflation at depth. We have this assumption that if you could just talk authentically about your story, all the secrets come out of the closet, and everything will be great. But here’s the point that nobody talks about. Sometimes it was those secrets that kept us alive. Those secrets were our coping mechanism. I’m not going to tell you how defective I am. I can’t do it because it is extensionally going to kill me. I’m going to keep that to myself, and I’m going to keep these secrets, and I’m going to adapt, and I’m going to do what you think I should do, but I’m never going to get down to that layer. It may have sounded a little complicated but, ultimately, what that notion is that we’re asking people to do things before they’re feeling safe enough to do them.
John: Yes, good point. Our group decided to stop that practice, when there’s a newcomer at the meeting, to share our stories. I think in the Midwest, that’s the common routine. You have a new person at the meeting, everybody’s shares their stories and they talk to that person. We felt like it was making that new person feel uncomfortable. All the attention was directed on them and we found that it would be better just to create a safe environment where they could get a feel for the group, our dynamics, and how we interact with each other. And I think that’s actually worked better for us. I’m wondering if maybe we are helping, in that way, by not putting people in a position of shame? [chuckle]
David: I would suggest that what you’re doing is brilliant, and I can take it back to what we talked about earlier. It has to do with… It has to do with that notion that we are creating this safe spot, and to create a safe spot we need to reduce the stigma. And the best way to reduce the stigma is for someone who understands, and has worked on their story, and can give a coherent narrative of their story, shares vulnerably and authentically their story. That doesn’t mean we should ask the newcomer to do it. But if we ask people to do it, with people who are more mature and more experienced in their recovery and are comfortable doing it, that will help to build that level of safety. But that doesn’t mean we should ask the newcomer to do it at the same time.
John: Right, right. [chuckle]
David: They’re in no position to do it whatsoever. I applaud your group. I think it’s brilliant. I think you’re providing that extra level of safety. Some people would say, “Well wait a minute, but you haven’t engaged that person.” And I would disagree entirely. I would say we’ve engaged them more because we’ve built a trust or started to build a trust that maybe never would’ve come, and maybe keeps people from staying in 12-step fellowships for any amount of time.
John: I want people to feel welcomed and comfortable there. And I think that the first step meeting that we were doing here in the Midwest kind of puts the people on the spot. I don’t know, but that’s what we decided to do. I want to say I found you very interesting. I could relate with you on so many levels. You describe yourself as an introvert but when you look at your career you were doing some things, like when you were working in Chicago, that were really almost extroverted behaviors. You talk about parallel universes, having those two components at the same time. It’s endlessly fascinating. Did you ever come to any kind of a conclusion? Any kind of understanding about what was going on? What enabled you to be the introvert insecure person but, at the same time, being so dominant on the floor in Chicago? [chuckle]
David: That’s an interesting question. And I’m not sure that I’ve resolved that yet. [chuckle] I’ve done an immense amount of work on that. As you’re reading this, you’re seeing something that I think a lot of friends and family of mine would attest to over the years. I would describe myself as introverted and they would look at me and they’d say, “Are you crazy? Look at what you’ve done!” You’re talking about your job, but I also used to be a volunteer at any number of organizations where I’d have to be at the podium in front of hundreds of people and I would give extemporaneous talks. An introvert would never do that, and an introvert would cave in on themselves and fret about it so much that it might lead to anxiety or panic attacks.
David: So, there was that unbelievably irreconcilable difference that couldn’t occur. And of course, I worked on this, and I always thought of myself as an introvert. When I first got sober and started doing the work, I started taking what is known in the behavioral health circles as the Myers Briggs inventory. It’s a way of looking at personality and characterizing personality in different forms, and it’s a four-part designator. And “I” stands for introvert, and “E” stands for extrovert. Every time I took that test, and I would venture to say I’ve taken it at least 50, if not 100 times in my lifetime. It always starts with the letter “I” and always says that I’m introverted. But as you highlighted, I have to be careful with that. I have to be really careful with that, because I have to ask myself, “Is that an adaptation? Is that a way that I stay safe? Or is that really the true David in his essence, in the past, present and future.” And ultimately, I sometimes don’t know the answer.
David: What I can tell you is that, adoptees because of this attachment disorder that some of us have, or this lack of trust, are diagnosable, clinically diagnosable later in life, as many things. So, the majority… I shouldn’t say the majority, of the adoptees who get diagnosed with a mental health diagnosis, the most prevalent diagnosis is ADHD. What I would argue is that, in many cases it’s genuine, and I don’t want to question the doctors and the mental health professionals who do that. But often times, it’s an adaptation. It’s a hypervigilance to a situation where, “Uh, Oh! Everywhere I go, I can’t trust anything, so I have to be hypervigilant, and my head has to do 360 degree turns all around me to make sure that I’m safe.” And that might lead to the symptoms, the criteria, of ADHD. So, I could argue that. I could argue that sometimes I probably meet the diagnostic criteria for anxiety for the very same reasons that I might meet ADHD. So, when you ask that question, yes, I think of myself as an introvert, but I have lots of examples where I’m not. So, as I’m writing this story, as I’m learning this story of these parallel universes converging, this confluence, is it possible that I’m both at different times?
John: Exactly. Exactly.
David: And the answer is absolutely, and it’s that duality. Again, I tie this back to, I’m not looking for closure, I’m looking for context. And the context is that duality. Yes, sometimes I can be very extroverted. And sometimes I find in… Especially sometimes in some of these settings when I’m in a one to one conversation with an individual, I can get very animated, and totally when I’m done with the conversation, forget what I talked about. And that would actually portend the label extroversion, right? You’re in the moment, you flowed with it, you’re animated, you’re energetic, you weren’t overly introspective, and it didn’t curtail your discussion. So yes, I think that’s a great point. And I think, I’ve learned a lot of that over time. And actually, just to share an anecdote with you, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of these YouTube videos. But there are a bunch of YouTube videos out there with people on this amusement park ride called the Sling Shot.
John: Oh yeah. Yeah.
David: And ultimately the Sling Shot is where, two people are strapped into this mechanism. And there are these two monstrous, or multiple monstrous springs on either side. And they’re pulled into this pit, and ultimately when they’re released, they’re hurtled into space, and they bounce around on these coils for a while. And I…
John: I’ll never do that by the way. [laughter]
David: Right. Something that I probably wouldn’t do, but at the same time I’m very intrigued about the ride. But I saw this video of these two sisters who did it, and it was typical of what you’re talking about in that duality. And these sisters may have been twins, they had so many personality traits that were similar. It provided a great contrast. And the one sister, as soon as it happens, she looked like she was in ecstasy. She had this peaceful smile on her face, her eyes were closed, it was like nirvana to her. This was the experience of a lifetime. It’s as though she had found some different dimension to life. And her sister next to her, is screaming every expletive she could ever imagine.
David: “Get me down.” “Stop.” “I wasn’t ready.” She just couldn’t take the journey. And this is happening at the same time. And ultimately that duality is what happens in my mind, and in many people’s minds, at the same time. This recovery thing is a great experience, but if I think too hard about it, it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. This self-examination process is wonderful, and it’s providing the basis for me to be more vulnerable, and trusting, and vetting myself to others, but at the same time it’s the scariest ride I’ve ever been on. I talked about that shame piece and the memoir being really difficult for people with a fragmented sense of self. All of that is there. So, what I’ve come to believe is that, these are great indicators of where I should look, but I have to go look for the context to figure out what’s going on. So, yeah, you’re right. The test may say that I’m introverted, but I’ve lots of experiences that would suggest that if I am, I’m not always introverted.
John: Exactly. I think I can say the same for myself. I was actually looking at that part of my life, last year. And I had come to the conclusion that I’m not going to put the label on myself, one way or the other, ‘because I can probably be both. Maybe I’m more introverted, but on the other hand, I do a podcast.
John: I do a lot of other things that aren’t so introverted.
David: Exactly. Exactly.
John: Talking about scary rides. I think where I’d like to kind of wind things up, and this must be a pretty recent occurrence for you. It’s discovering your biological family. Is this something that is just like in this last year that you’ve started meeting your biological family?
David: Well, it’s been relatively recent. Now, I’ve had some information about my biological family, but it was all non-identifying information. So, at the time I wasn’t feeling well, about the time, just shortly before I had to make a decision to do something to get sober. I got some health history of my family, because we were looking at whether or not I was susceptible to seizures, or if there were things in my family I needed to look at. And so, I got that information initially. Then I put that on the shelf. Because again, it was too… I was too fragmented to deal with that.
David: And of course, again, the expectations of the society were telling me, “Hey David, that’s a separatist issue. That’s not an issue. That has nothing to do with your sobriety. That has nothing to do with your mind frame. Don’t look at it.” So, I put it away for a while. But then I came back to this and once I started again on this latest venture in getting down the causes and conditions, I said, “Boy, I have to maybe not know everything,” because everything is not knowable, “but I have to know that at the end of the day I tried to get that information.” I need to. I need it for me, and I need it for my kids because my kids also deserve that genetic empiriological information. I don’t want there to be this huge gap in the family tree for the rest of everybody’s lives. I need to fill in as much as I possibly can. In other words, I need to find a context for what these experiences look like.
David: So, I went down that road. And I learned that I could petition the state of Wisconsin, and the judge granted me access to all of my social worker files with the state of Wisconsin regarding my adoption. So, I got to learn the name of my mother and I got learn the name of some of her friends and relatives. And although paternity was never established when I was adopted, my father’s name was not on the birth certificate because he denied that he was my father. His name was written in my mother’s writing on the social workers form and I got his name. So, I went down that route, and I did. I searched for family, and I learned sadly that both my mother and my father had passed before I started my journey, but as it turned out, there were other people involved. It never even occurred to me.
David: My mind never allowed me to go beyond that fact, “Why did my parents give me up, and what are they doing today?” Well, it never occurred to me I might have other siblings out there. And as I started my search, one of the first things in the social workers file that came to me was a half-sister from my mother’s side who was actually looking for me. Not only was she looking for me, but she wanted a big brother. I mean, it never even occurred to me that here I had this relationship, this parallel universe relationship that had been ignored throughout my life, and actually I’d been connected all along. And now I’m connected at a level that I never dreamed was even possible. We have a relationship and we are brother and sister, and we’ve shared a lot of details about the family and it’s been an immensely, I guess, enlightening journey by putting all of those facts, or all of those realities into the fold.
David: Without that, I’m not sure that I could have gotten as clean an assimilation of those parallel universes as I have now. But I have relationships with these siblings, I have that sister, another sister on my mother’s side, I have a relationship with a brother on my father’s side and the information keeps coming. So, I have relationships with aunts, and for a guy who never felt he was connected, I look at this and people from the outside look at me and say, “David you’re most more connected than most human beings on this planet. Do you realize that?” And of course, I need that feedback, I needed to be reminded of that because you know what? I am, I’m connected up and down. I’m connected in an intricate number of ways, and I think about the string theory of the universe, and I know there’s scientists out there who think it’s disapproved. But I have this graphic that I’m connected in all these different ways if I just acknowledge the reality of those connections, they can be healing as opposed to something that is harming or something that disallows my wellness.
John: That’s what I was thinking. I could see the healing from just having some understanding of your parents’ stories. When you were relating the story of your mother, it brought me to tears. But it’s good to cry sometimes, [chuckle] but having that understanding must have brought some healing.
David: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it wasn’t just that in a vacuum. I’m someone who studies life, so I actually went and… At the time I was getting this information about my mother, I went and read a book by a woman by the name of Ann Fessler. It was called The Girls Who Went Away. And it talked about the women in the United States who for that period of time, from the 1950s until 1973 when Roe versus Wade was passed, who society suggested their lives would be better if they relinquish these babies. And they’re told stories from the relinquishing mother’s point of view. So, it opened up an entirely new door of empathy to me. Whereas before my mind automatically would say, “Something was wrong with me. And if something wasn’t wrong with me, I was interfering in their life, and I was inconvenient” and all of these things. Well, it gave me a new perspective to consider perhaps my mother was as much a product of the times as I may be a product of these times. And knowing in context what societal beliefs were, what some religious beliefs were, what practices were in the social working industry, allowed me to look at my mother and her experiences in a totally different perspective, and it offered that context that I needed.
David: So, I came to learn… Without giving away too many details in the book. I came to learn that this wasn’t a selfish choice or an irresponsible choice that my mother made, it was made in the context of what society expected, what families expected, etcetera. And it wasn’t unusual for men in that time to deny what was going on. What I could tell you just as a hook is that today’s DNA testing is dispelling a lot of those rumors, and a lot of those secrets. There are a lot of secrets that people thought they might take to the grave with them, that are being unearthed by DNA testing. And not to be a teaser to my book, but that is one of the experiences that I had in looking at those relationships that existed, and that existed in my life, absolutely.
David: The other thing I would tell you John is what I’ve come to ultimately understand is… And I don’t want to be cute and use this term disparagingly. But, it is a miracle that I am still around. Given what I have learned about my family’s history with regard to alcoholism, and substance use disorder, and possible mental illness, I am fortunate to be here, and my children are fortunate to be here as well. We are survivors in the truest sense, and I am totally gratefully for having gotten that information to understand that at a level, at that simple level, but I understand that as as someone in long-term recovery. Recovering from a chronic illness that tends to kill a lot of people. It’s even more than that, and it’s given me a gratitude for what my genetic heritage has suffered through, and it provides, quite frankly, inspiration to me to keep doing the deal every day.
John: And all of this that you’ve learned, in your entire journey from the beginning to where you are right now, has been bringing these two universes together into one place, into what I would call a reality. The reality that you refer to as your higher power. And that makes so much sense to me. Because having that reality, that sense of reality of the truth is what brings you together as a whole person.
David: I think that’s well said. I could not have been more concise and said it more articulately myself. And it is exactly the philosophy that I need to live each and every day. I have to ask myself each and every day, “What is my reality today? What do I know today?” because I have a mind, for whatever reason, because of substance abuse disorder, because of relinquishment as a youth, because of attachment problems, because of trust issues. I have a mind that sometimes confabulates things, and sometimes has an unhealthy perspective on the way things are. So, I have to find that reality. And again, part of that higher power is reaching out to others and asking them to vet me and to check me on my reality. Is what I’m thinking within the realm of possibility, or am I just way out there on a plank? Right? So, absolutely. That gives me the strength each and every day.
John: Well, what a beautiful book. Thank you so much for writing it and for sharing your story with the rest of us. Do you plan on going to Toronto in August for the international convention?
David: I will be there. As a matter of fact, I pre-registered at the last convention down in Austin, so I’ve been ready to go. I have flights and lodging, and I look forward to that.
John: Fantastic. I’m going to go, too.
John: I’m 99.9% sure. I’m waiting for my boss to say, “Yes you get two weeks off.” Because my wife and I are thinking we’re going to drive from Kansas City to Toronto.
David: Oh, wonderful!
John: And kind of make a nice driving vacation. It’s been a long time since I’ve taken two solid weeks off together. So, that will be fun. I look forward to meeting you.
David: Absolutely. As do I.
John: It would be so much fun.
David: As do I John. Thank you so much for having me on today. I appreciate the opportunity that you’ve given me to share more with your listeners. The common thread that I think many of us have. And thank you for all that you do. And I mean this sincerely you do noble work in a space that people are looking for what you have to offer. So, thank you for that.
John: My pleasure. Thank you.
John: Well, that’s it for another episode of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast. Thank you for joining us everybody. I hope you enjoyed it. Parallel Universes is available at Amazon. I think that you’ll enjoy the book. If you think about it, please consider contributing a dollar or two a month to support the podcast by visiting our Patreon page at patreon.com/aabeyondbelief.