Episode 98: Creativity in Recovery

Transcript

00:00 John S.: This is AA Beyond Belief The Podcast, Episode 98

[music]

00:24 John S.: A few months ago, I read a poem that was posted on our Facebook group written by Robert B. from Madison, Wisconsin. In his post, Robert mentioned that at the encouragement of his sponsor, he began to write poetry, which he’s been doing daily since he’s been sober. Since that time, he’s amassed some 4,000 poems. Intrigued, I contacted him to ask if he would like to post his poetry at AA Beyond Belief. That interaction resulted in this podcast.

Robert is fascinating. He’s a scientist, an atheist who practices meditation and follows the Eightfold Path, he’s passionate about his art, and believes that creativity is essential to his recovery. I began the podcast by asking Robert to introduce himself through his story and the conversation that followed covered such topics as grief, atheism, spirituality, poetry, music, science, and more.

Here’s Robert.

01:21 Robert B.: I didn’t start drinking every day until I was about 40. At that point, I was in a relationship that was ending and it was also after a marriage that ended, and I began to use alcohol to really help me manage my growing anxiety and depression. Even though I knew that alcohol was a depressant, alcohol helped me function for a while. But then I had to drink more and more, and I had enough consequences, professionally and then personally, that I saw my physician, I saw a psychiatrist, I saw a counselor, and I went on anxiety medications and antidepressants, and I stopped drinking. As best as I can recollect, I don’t think that any one recommended AA to me, and honestly, given my fierce atheism at the time, I wouldn’t have been receptive to it. But I stopped drinking alcohol, and I abstained from alcohol for about seven years. 

02:51 Robert B.: It was certainly true for me that I wasn’t harming myself and harming others, and some of the damage that I caused, it was being repaired, but that whole time that I was abstinent, I absolutely knew that I would eventually drink alcohol again because that was a part of my identity. I couldn’t imagine living without drinking alcohol, even as an image of who I thought I was. So, after about seven years, I was then in a new relationship, newly married, just built a house, professionally I was at top of my game, I had re-built a lot of relationships, especially with my son who had really been around my first bottom and probably bore the brunt of that. So, I talked with my wife and decided that having a glass of wine at dinner would be an okay thing to do.

03:46 Robert B.: A pattern for me has been deception, and lying, and hiding. So, she knew I didn’t drink when we first got together and she thought it was because of the medications I was on, and that was partially true. She didn’t know the extent of my bottom, and I began to drink again, and just like a glass once and then nothing for two weeks and then a glass out for dinner again, and I really felt like I’ve got this. Within a month, I was really beginning to drink daily, and within six months, I was getting drunk, and within a year, I was blackout drinking. My wife at first encouraged me to cut back and then demanded I stop. I just became more and more secretive about drinking alcohol.

04:50 Robert B.: I found myself within about two years of starting to drink alcohol again,that I couldn’t stop. I think that’s something that unless you’ve been there, unless you’ve gone through that progression of alcohol abuse to alcohol dependency, it’s hard to understand. I was dumbfounded because I had stopped once before and now I couldn’t stop. The consequences got worse, progressively worse, and I was suicidal because I just was filled with so much shame about the harm I was causing. It hit a turning point for me where I had written a suicide note and unexpectedly my wife had worked from home and she found me coming in the door at 8:30 in the morning already drunk.

05:49 Robert B.: And at that point, things hit the fan. I went to my first AA meeting two days later and really going with the intention and hope of salvaging my marriage. And I’ve been sober ever since. That was in the spring of 2007, and kind of like you were saying about your 30 years, it dumbfounds me sometimes, because some days it feels like I’ve always been this way, and other days, it feels like it’s brand-new. And I think where the poetry first emerged is I did not have sort of that euphoric pink cloud of being newly sober. It was a real struggle, I had a lot of cravings. Consequences seemed like they were just crashing down around my head every day, and I was just… I was having so much difficulty being with my awareness, but I was in that place of just sheer willpower that I’m not going to drink alcohol today, no matter what. And I talked with my sponsor and he knew that I liked to read poetry, I like to journal, and he suggested I try writing some poetry about where I was, and I’ve written a poem pretty much daily.

07:23 Robert B.: I tend to write early in the morning after I meditate, and I give myself 15 minutes to write, and then I post it on Facebook. And I think what sharing it did for me is it kept me honest, kept me from sort of tapping into my ego that likes to show off and impress. And I found that I could write just little, short snippets about my awareness and about this present moment. And over time, it just… It became a ritual. But I think… And I’ve been thinking a lot in anticipation of talking with you. I think a big thing that it did for me and continues to do for me is it lets me be with me, wherever I’m at, that day. And kind of like the daily reflection from yesterday’s Beyond Belief, it’s… I’m adding to my story every day, so it’s helped me move past the shame of the past, even though some of the poems reflect past, they end up coming back to this present moment in my life.

08:38 John S.: What do you think it is about poetry as opposed to like writing an essay or a journal of specifics that allows you to communicate your feelings more effectively?

08:49 Robert B.: I think it uses a different part of my brain. Professionally, I do a lot of writing of scientific reports and grants and even some science writing for the public, and I’ve done a lot of journaling. And I think that writing poetry, especially after I meditate, taps into a different part of my brain. And it’s a part of my brain that is just trying to be aware. I’m not trying to explain anything, I’m not trying to justify anything or rationalize anything or convince you of anything. And I think by putting it into verse, even though I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem that rhymed, which is what I thought all poetry had to do at first…

[chuckle]

09:39 Robert B.: But by putting it in verse form, it… I guess I see it more as a moment rather than a whole story.

09:50 John S.: Yeah. That’s interesting. Yeah, it’s really a powerful way of connecting with another person, communicating the human experience in a way that a story might not, because I can just relate to the feelings and maybe I might have something else going on with me than you did at the time that you wrote it but still can relate to whatever feeling is being expressed in that poem.

10:21 Robert B.: Well, and I think feeling is another thing that sets it apart. When I write professionally, I’m writing to add to a body of knowledge. And I’m not seeking to do that with poetry; I’m just trying to as best as I can describe this feeling, this observation, at this point in time, and also accepting that I don’t have adequate words for it. So, I think I let myself reach a little more. And I would say that after about three years sober and three years of writing, I feel like I began to find a voice and a style that was really mine. At first, I wrote sorta haiku-like poetry and I was even pretty rigid about having three lines that were things I observed in nature and two lines that described my feeling about it. And I stuck with that to the point of realizing I’m being rigid. And at that point, I think my poems became a little more narrative, and I didn’t constrain myself to any particular length.

11:42 Robert B.: And I think the other thing that happened simultaneously was during that time, people around me were also dying, and so it let me explore what dying meant to me and what having people that I love and care about die meant to be, what being alive meant. I think writing poetry at that time was real essential to be with grief because I had some of the strongest emotions I’ve ever had in my life. And I could write them, I could share it, and I could let them go. I think that’s the other thing of posting it, or… I don’t think it has to be posted on Facebook, but somehow shared with other people and even shared somewhat anonymously with people, it became a way for me to let go because that… As a skeptic, as an agnostic, the whole idea of “let go and let God,” well, that wasn’t working for me. But I still needed to let go of things that I couldn’t change or couldn’t change now. And I think posting these was a way to do that.

13:00 John S.: Yeah. You know, when I was drinking, I don’t think I was consciously aware that I was drinking with the intent to subdue feelings or not deal with reality or feelings, but looking back, I can see that I did use alcohol as a way to medicate and suppress feelings that I just couldn’t handle, and grief being one of those.

13:30 Robert B.: Yeah.

13:31 John S.: So, in recovery, we need to, I guess, learn how to experience these emotions.

13:42 Robert B.: Mm-hmm.

13:43 John S.: And grief in particular, which I’ve had to go through in sobriety, I found that it was something that I initially tried to control, and found I couldn’t. And it was like I had to be comfortable… I guess I’m not… I don’t know if “comfortable” is the right word, but I had to accept that this is something I can’t control, and I just have to ride it, and I’m going to have a lot of ups and downs, and I’m going to be crazy.

14:11 Robert B.: Yeah, absolutely.

14:12 John S.: And nothing I have learned in AA was able to prepare me for that.

14:17 Robert B.: Mm-hmm. And I think the other thing about many of those emotions when I was newly sober, because like you, alcohol had helped just dampen emotions initially, and then I began to use alcohol to just completely escape. And so, then newly sober, and when I can’t use alcohol to escape and I had to find another way to be with those emotions, there was a time where I was so uneasy and unclear about how to be with emotions that it was like, “Well, how do people expect me to be?” And especially with grieving, it’s like I kept trying to be… I kept trying to grieve the way I thought people thought I should grieve. And by using meditation, using awareness, using writing poetry, I could begin to describe just how I was, and stop trying to do this in a way that I thought other people thought I should. because one of the things that is sort of a theme that emerges pretty frequently is this idea of the mask that I wear, and who am I, my identity. And for a long time, I focused on just being whoever you or who I was around thought I needed to be. And there was a part of me that knew that wasn’t going to work for me in recovery, that I had to be honest with myself, but it was scary. And I think poetry helped me be honest with myself.

16:05 John S.: And it must be interesting for you, as you progress through time, do you ever go back and read some of your previous work and see how you came through a particular period, or is that something you just… Do you just prefer just to stay in whatever moment that you’re in?

16:23 Robert B.: Yeah. That’s a really good question, and if you had asked me two months ago, I would have said I don’t go back because I like to think of myself as Buddha boy sometimes…

[chuckle]

16:39 Robert B.: And so the… Staying present, for me, being present and fully present is what being sober means. And so, I feel like I was… I resisted that because it would take me out of the present moment. And I think when you and I first started connecting, I began to go back more, and I also began to go back more for my family, for my friends, when… My dad died about eight years ago, and when he died, I just kept having this sense of I didn’t really know who he was. I didn’t know why he was the way he was, I had a lot of unanswered questions about him because there were parts of him that were hurtful, and I saw him die without ever really overtly expressing any regret. I think he felt deep regret, but that was always a question that lingered.

17:50 Robert B.: And as my son and I amended our relationship, I just felt like I really don’t want him to be in that position at some point when I die. And these poems, for the last 11 years, are one of the best representations of who I’ve been and who I am and who I try to be. And so, I’ve slowly been going back, and for each one then annotating a little bit of it, just to explain where I was at the time, trying to pull out any hidden meanings. And so then my intention is that that will be… A collection of those will be something for him, for my stepdaughter, for any of my friends and family that are interested. And I think that’s why I could… When you ask about early, that’s why I could begin to see a pattern that for a few years, I held onto a pretty rigid structure, a whole lot like I hold on to a really rigid structure. I went to two meetings a day, a morning meeting and an evening meeting, daily my first year. I did a daily reflection, I wrote a gratitude list, I didn’t go to this place because it was too much of a trigger, I didn’t go to that place. Early sobriety, I had a pretty rigid structure. And it was useful.

19:32 John S.: Yeah.

19:35 Robert B.: But at some point, it was confining, I think kind of like at some point that three lines and two lines became confining. So it’s very similar to [chuckle] how I progressed in recovery.

20:02 John S.: That’s really interesting. That really makes sense, too. I think that a lot of us are pretty rigid about our program when we first come in. And a lot of us kind of expect or want or need, I think, “Just tell me what to do,” you know? [chuckle]

20:03 Robert B.: Right.

20:04 John S.: I just do… I remember, for me, I thought, “Oh, you got a book? Just give me the damn book. I’ll figure this out.” [chuckle] And then I got the book, I said, “Mm. Well, I’m not so sure about this.” [laughter]

20:14 Robert B.: Right.

20:15 John S.: But yeah. And maybe it’s because that our lives are so out of control that it’s like we need some measure of control for a little while. But then as you say, as we do experience our recovery, it does become a bit confining, and then we start, I think, branching out a little bit into the world. It’s interesting that you can see the parallels with your poetry and your recovery like that.

20:43 Robert B.: Well, and one of the other things that I was rigid about, and I think it’s germane to what AA Beyond Belief does, is at first, I was just tolerating AA meetings. I was desperate, and that’s part of why I tolerated, but I knew that my belief was different. And one of the things that, then again I think poetry helps pull it out, was I began to slowly realize that my belief was a negative. It was a lack of belief. And so if somebody was talking about a higher power, the only thing that I could talk about is what I didn’t believe in.

21:30 John S.: [chuckle] Yeah. But you’re a scientist, though.

21:32 Robert B.: Right. And I think… And that rigid structure that I talked about, part of that was what I observe as a scientist and what I feel inside. That, I think, helped me build some bridges between science and spirituality and…

21:51 John S.: Now that’s interesting.

21:51 Robert B.: Yeah.

21:53 John S.: That’s really interesting.

21:53 Robert B.: And I didn’t intend to build that bridge. I was completely comfortable in my dogmatic belief. [chuckle]

22:00 John S.: Right. Well, I’ve been all over the map with the whole concept of spirituality. I think I’m probably now at the point where I’m not really overly dogmatic about it one way or the other; I just see it as a form of language. It’s like poetry, isn’t it?

22:14 Robert B.: Right. Mm-hmm.

22:17 John S.: It’s a way of communicating. It’s a way of communicating the human experience.

22:20 Robert B.: Right.

22:20 John S.: Now it doesn’t mean it has to be the supernatural; it just means that… It’s poetry, it’s metaphor. It’s a way of expressing our feelings, I guess.

22:29 Robert B.: Well, and I found that that last couplet about sort of being with my feelings, the things that would show up often would become love and hope. And at some point, it’s like, “Well, I think maybe that’s what I believe in.” I think maybe I believe in love and hope. And sometimes I find that in nature, sometimes I find it in my relationships, sometimes I find it with my dogs, which I’m grateful they’ve settled again.

[chuckle]

23:05 Robert B.: But when I started to look at it, it’s like maybe it’s sufficient for me that I just tap into being loved and loving, and that that works. And I don’t know if I could have gotten there without the way I was writing poetry. I mean, maybe. But I know that was the vehicle for me, and it came out of that first seeming disconnect of, “I’m a scientist.” And then it was like, “I’m a scientist that writes poetry.” And then it became, “I’m a scientist and I’m a poet.” [chuckle]

23:44 John S.: Right. And the two go together, don’t they?

23:47 Robert B.: Yeah. They do. Yeah. Absolutely.

23:51 John S.: Because science is beautiful. Nature is. What I… When I was coming to understand that I’m an atheist, I was reading Richard Dawkins, and I was becoming interested in science and astronomy and all of this. And I just thought, “This is really beautiful. This is really an amazing story of how life has evolved and how enormous the universe is, and that we have a pretty good understanding of it. It’s incredible.” And it’s more amazing to me than any story that any religion has ever concocted. And that I’m part of it, that we’re all connected to nature, that we’re all connected to the universe, that we’re all made up of stardust, I think that’s just amazing. [chuckle]

24:40 Robert B.: Yeah.

24:43 John S.: It’s a… That, in a way, is my spirituality, I guess. That’s how I feel connected to the world.

24:47 Robert B.: Yeah. And I know… Water, especially lakes and ponds and streams, I see those and experience those as spiritual reservoirs. I mean, I study them, I know about nutrient dynamics, I know about trophic cascades and I can identify a lot of the organisms that are there, but even if I’m out in the field doing scientific sampling, I sink into a place where it’s like, “Wow, this is so damn amazing.”

25:28 John S.: [chuckle] Yeah.

25:29 Robert B.: And I get to try to learn about it. And one of the experiences that I’ve had is, especially during periods of grief or when I’m going through some big transition that incites a lot of fear, I’m almost drawn to water. I mean, I find myself sitting by a little stream nearby or a little pond, and I have this sensation that I no longer am separate from the pond or the stream; I just become part of the pond or stream.

26:07 John S.: Mm-hmm.

26:08 Robert B.: And that’s not something that I could articulate scientifically, but it’s something that I can describe poetically. And I think that’s where there’s some synergy involved. But water, especially ponds and streams, are just such a spiritual place for me. It’s a place that I feel part of rather than separate from. And I can just see this connection that it’s like, “Man, this is just stunning.”

26:37 John S.: Yeah. I don’t get out in nature very much anymore. I’m a real city character, it seems, and have been for quite some time. But I grew up in the country in Kansas and used to follow little creeks and streams, and find these amazing little spots where water would congregate into a little waterfall or something. And I’ve always been kind of attracted to more rivers, I guess, being a Midwesterner, because I guess the sense of where they go and the calming nature, watching the water go by.

27:13 Robert B.: Yeah.

27:15 John S.: Yeah, I’m not as in touch with nature as I used to be simply because of where my life is now, I guess, and what I do, but… And it seems like when my wife and I travel, it’s always to a city some place.

27:26 Robert B.: Yeah. [chuckle]

27:29 John S.: But yeah, I never heard… What kind of science do you practice again?

27:34 Robert B.: So, limnology.

27:35 John S.: Okay. And see, I had to look that up.

27:35 Robert B.: Yeah.

[chuckle]

27:38 Robert B.: And I do more of the ecological part of it, so I study a lot of relationships of animals to the different bodies of water and animals to each other, for probably 30 years. I’ve always, in one form or another, studied dragonflies.

28:00 John S.: Oh.

28:00 Robert B.: And both the naiads, the juvenile stages that live in the water, and the adults flying around. And again, especially with the adults flying, when I catch sorta those facets on their wings when they’re flying and they turn and the sun hits them just right, it’s like they stop being a predacious dragonfly and they become just something amazing that I look at. And it’s like, “Oh, my god, these things have been around since dinosaurs, and here they are, and I’m watching them, and I get to watch them.”

28:38 John S.: It’s nice that we can appreciate this kind of thing. One thing I did kind of notice when I was very first getting sober is that as I… I don’t know when it happened, but I kind of remember this drive. I was maybe sober six months or whatever. And it seemed like all of a sudden, I looked out at the pastures as I was driving down the road, and I could see all the flowers and the grass, and everything seemed green and blue. And it’s like I went from a black and white movie to color, and… [chuckle]

29:11 Robert B.: Yeah.

29:13 John S.: I almost wonder, “What was I… Was I just ignoring what was going on around me those years when I was drinking, or was it maybe my little pink cloud that I was experiencing at the time?” But I actually remember having a bit of a shift in my perception a little bit when I was first getting sober.

29:27 Robert B.: Yeah. And I would say that that was true for me. It began to emerge at about six months sober. And it was almost like over a more protracted time, but sitting in the ophthalmologist chair and they’re going through and they’re giving you these new lenses to try to adjust your prescription, and I start to see detail that I just couldn’t see before. And for me, I think when I was drinking, especially when I was drinking during periods of alcohol dependence, I was just… I was losing some of the best parts of me. I just… I didn’t care as much, I didn’t seek as much, I wasn’t looking as much. And when I did look, I just didn’t see anything that excited me, and I think there was… A lot of my senses were just dulled and numbed. But also I think my… What I would call my “spirit,” the thing that had sort of always been me, it was also being numbed. I was just moving farther and farther away from it. And in getting sober, I’m getting back in touch with that now. And again, writing has been a way to do that.

31:00 Robert B.: One of the things that I would also say is that I don’t know if it’s the writing as much as it’s been the learning to write, kind of like with… I also started playing guitar and some other stringed instruments when I was newly sober just to have some things to do… Just to have some things to do instead of thinking about [chuckle] not being able to drink when I wanted to. And I think… I know it’s been true for me with music and I suspect it’s been true with writing, but it’s… For me, I think it’s been more about the learning to write poetry, learning to play music, has been more important than the playing music. That’s important to me, but I don’t think that we talk enough about creativity in recovery. And creativity could be how you cook, how you doodle, how you journal, playing music. But I think learning to do something that I didn’t know how to do before, that now because I was sober, I had the opportunity to do and I had the persistence to do.

32:16 John S.: And it is calming, isn’t it? It’s kind of meditative…

32:19 Robert B.: Yeah, it is.

32:19 John S.: To learn something new.

32:20 Robert B.: Yeah. And I play a couple of kinds of guitar, I play mandolin, I play banjo. And this month, it might be guitar; next month, it might be mandolin. I keep them handy. I play about an hour every day, and I usually play something that I remember playing, some chord progression, and then I let myself learn to play something, some new scale.

32:49 John S.: Did you not play music before your recovery?

32:52 Robert B.: No. I had tried to play guitar about 20 years before and I gave up after two weeks, because it was just too damn hard.

33:00 John S.: Oh, yeah, it’s difficult. [chuckle] It’s really difficult. And they say it’s harder the older that we get to learn an instrument.

33:06 Robert B.: Yeah… I don’t know. I took some lessons because I think the other thing sober I’ve learned how to do is ask for help, and that was useful. It was also incredibly humbling. Playing music was much more humbling than learning to write poetry because I kept having this mucky mind voice in my head that was like “You really suck.” [chuckle] And truth be known, I kind of did. But now, I think where I feel the most freedom is I just enjoy learning to play. I don’t worry about being technically proficient, but I just love learning to play, learning to play a new style. And so, I… When I share with groups, I go to a couple of different inpatient and intensive outpatient recovery programs and tell my story, and I right upfront talk about how important tapping into creativity has been for me.

34:17 John S.: I think it’s essential for me. Well, I work in accounting, which discourages creativity.

34:22 Robert B.: Right.

[laughter]

34:24 John S.: So, I need something. [chuckle] I need some outlets, so, I enjoy writing and I do write mostly for myself. Every once in a while, I’ll publish something, but a lot of my writing isn’t that good, and usually my writing is kind of emotional. But the podcast has been something that I have been able to kind of tap into my creative energies, because I knew nothing about podcasting before I did this. I knew absolutely nothing how to do a podcast; I had to learn everything from ground up. And I’m still learning and I enjoy it and I enjoy the process of learning how to listen to people and carry on a conversation and then how to do the editing and then how… All of that, it’s just… I really, really enjoy it and it’s… Well, allows me to learn, connect with other people, to relax. It’s just a nice outlet, [chuckle] you know?

35:20 Robert B.: Yeah. And it’s something that you share, and it’s… And I suspect that you have likely inspired other people to create podcasts in the recovery communities that they live and work in. I mean, I know we… Let’s say about two and half years ago at Fitchburg, a group of three of us just felt like we needed to help start a We Agnostics meeting, a freethinkers meeting. And part of that was because two of us were going to outpatient programs and inpatient programs and we would see people from those programs come to then the AA meetings and then leave. And leave still desperate for help. because I sat in one of those chairs, I almost left because I couldn’t see myself in anywhere in the steps. And yet I was just desperate to stay sober. And we started a meeting, and I just left that earlier this morning, I think there were 20-plus people there. And the coolest thing about it is then two other people from that meeting have started other meetings in the Madison area.

36:45 John S.: Fantastic.

36:46 Robert B.: And it’s like, “This is a cool way to grow this.”

36:49 John S.: It is. It’s totally grassroots. I love it.

36:51 Robert B.: Yeah. And I think all of us have had the intention, and I think it’s something I picked up on, and threads from Beyond Belief site, is we’re simply seeking to add another path…

37:11 John S.: Right.

37:12 Robert B.: Through AA as opposed to something separate from AA.

37:16 John S.: That’s right.

37:16 Robert B.: because I’m sure it’s true for you, given your longevity and sobriety, but AA saved my life. And it was traditional AA for the first eight years.

37:29 John S.: Yep. Same here. 25 years, I was going to traditional AA. And it’s kind of funny, my perspective on the program has certainly changed in the way that I view things and the steps, and all of that has changed a lot. And when I was first experiencing the shift in how I view the program, I would look back on my past experience and think… Wrongly so, I would say, “That was wrong,” or “That was stupid,” or “That was… ” And now I say, “No, that was who I was at that time, and I got a lot of good out of it.” It’s just that something happened along the way why I started taking a different path [chuckle], but that was okay, too.

38:09 Robert B.: Right. Yeah.

38:10 John S.: So it’s just like we… It’s almost like, now that I’m looking back on 30 years, and god, it’s almost like we’re looking at three or four different people during that time, you know?

38:19 Robert B.: Yeah.

[laughter]

38:22 John S.: I can’t even say that the guy in 1988… I mean, that was me, I guess, but a totally different me.

38:30 Robert B.: Right.

38:31 John S.: Even the me of 12 years ago or whatever. So… And I hope it stays that way. I like the idea that I’m open to change, that I’m open to new ideas. I love learning and I think that in a way, my atheism has kind of helped me with that, because over the last five years or so, it seems that I’m more open to new information and I’ve been… I’m continuing to develop with my understanding of the program. And sometimes I go to extremes and I come back. I’m still in a process of evolution, I guess, as an atheist in AA. And I enjoy it, I love it, it makes it… It’s exciting.

39:18 Robert B.: Yeah. Well, and I know for me, I think my early period, there was a lot of militant atheism. I was that guy in the meeting…

[chuckle]

39:32 Robert B.: And then I think that began to soften, and I really started focusing on just… Well, and I’m hesitant to say this, but being begrudgingly tolerant.

39:46 John S.: Yeah.

39:47 Robert B.: And then I began to realize that I was being as dogmatic as the people I was accusing of being dogmatic.

39:55 John S.: Right.

39:56 Robert B.: And now I think I’m just more at peace with who I am and who I am in a meeting. I listen differently and… And it’s just become… I’ve got a bigger vocabulary than I had initially. I think it that’s another part of it. And the nice thing is that my home group, even though it’s traditional AA, it’s pretty eclectic. And so, it’s pretty common to hear references to the four agreements. And what I found is I tried, as I began to find a path through the steps, sometimes I would tap into the four agreements and that would be the way I would do a third step, is I would just be… I wouldn’t make assumptions, I wouldn’t take things personally, I’d be honest, and I’d do my best. And that was a perfectly reasonable and effective way for me to do the third step.

41:02 Robert B.: At one point, I began to realize that I was beginning to be Buddhist rather than know about Buddhism, because there’s a lot in Buddhism that I bring into recovery, and part of that was being intentional to follow in the Eightfold Path. I found that to be a great way to address several of the steps. And this is all stuff that, prior to recovery, I had read and read and read. And I could parrot it, but I didn’t know how to live it. And I think in recovery, I’ve begun to learn how to live those things.

41:50 John S.: You know, you talk about the Eightfold Path and it reminded me of a podcast I did with a friend from Kansas City who helped get a Refuge Recovery meeting going here. He’s an atheist, and he had a really hard time getting sober in traditional AA, and he started coming to our We Agnostics Meeting, got sobriety, and then he kind of helped this Refuge Recovery group get started. So I had this… I had a podcast with him, so one learned about Refuge Recovery and I read the book and everything, and I was really amazed at the similarities of the Eightfold path and Refuge Recovery and the process that we go through at the steps. But he was also helping me see some of the differences. And one of the differences that I found really interesting was that how you know in AA, we do like this linear progression through the steps?

42:37 Robert B.: Mm-hmm.

42:38 John S.: Whereas with the Eightfold Path, it’s like these are things that we experience and do simultaneously.

42:45 Robert B.: Right. Correct. Yeah.

42:45 John S.: And I thought that was really interesting. And it’s like, “Yeah, a lot of the steps are that way, too, actually.” And how we actually experience them, they are less linear anyway, I think.

42:54 Robert B.: Yeah. Well, and in one of my early meetings, and it was a step meeting and I think it was about step six, and I claimed that I didn’t think I was defective, that I had character tendencies but that my sensitivity wasn’t a defect. Sometimes it did mean I took things personally, but other times, it meant I could really show empathy and compassion. And somebody asked me in a cross-talk that wasn’t veiled at all…

43:29 John S.: Mm-hmm. [chuckle]

43:33 Robert B.: What step I was on, and I was like, “Well, my sponsor and I are talking about step two.” And then he said, “You know, well, the steps are in order for a reason, and so, don’t start doing step six until you’re there.” And I was like, “Okay. That kind of pisses me off.”

[chuckle]

43:50 Robert B.: But I think the other… Again, tapping back into sort of frameworks that I have as an ecologist, is I don’t see things linearly; I tend to see it food webs and things that happen across time and space. And so, yeah, that living an Eightfold Path simultaneously, it has been really useful for me. I think the first person that really brought the Eightfold Path… Well, there were two people, one, my sponsor, who is a former priest, but yet I absolutely knew he was just the right guy for me. When I did my first fifth step, he suggested that six and seven would be straightforward, since I had an Eightfold Path and it’s like, “Oh. Maybe I should read more about the Eightfold Path again.” But the other was Kevin Griffin, One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps. I read that when I was about two months sober, and that was a lifesaver for me, because it showed me a path through the steps that felt like it was going to be true to who I thought I was, whereas before, I was just like, “I don’t think I can do these, but I think I need the structure.” That rigidity that we talked about early in sobriety, I needed structure and it needed to be really clear and simple. And that book was a real turning point for me.

45:22 John S.: I’ll have to check that out. I’m so glad that you reached out to us and let me know about your poetry and I got to read some of that on Facebook. And we really would love to start posting that on a regular basis at AA Beyond Belief and share that with the rest of the community. It’s something that we’ve really been wanting to do for a long time. And this is just amazing, that this body of work that you have, and we’d just be so grateful if you would allow us to post that on a regular basis.

45:54 Robert B.: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Old stuff and new stuff.

46:00 John S.: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it’s just… It’d be a lot of fun just every Wednesday to post some poems and maybe on Sundays occasionally. And it’s just… It was always our intention with AA Beyond Belief to have a medium for people to express their recovery through their own talents, through their own… Whatever medium that would be, whether it be video, music, poetry, essays, whatever. And so this is a great way of letting people know that this is another way of communicating your recovery. So, thank you so much for sharing that, that’s just really, really wonderful.

46:36 Robert B.: Yeah. Well, thank you. Yeah.

46:37 John S.: And thank you for appearing on this podcast. And I’m really looking forward to getting to know you through your work and that we stay in touch online through our Facebook group. And one of these days, too, I will have to make another trip to Wisconsin.

46:51 Robert B.: That’d be great.

46:53 John S.: Are you going, by the way, to Toronto for ICSAA?

46:57 Robert B.: I am not, I’ve got some family things, but we have several people from the Fitchburg group that are carpooling.

47:06 John S.: Oh, cool.

47:07 Robert B.: Yeah.

47:07 John S.: Yeah, because that probably isn’t that bad of a drive for you, is it?

47:08 Robert B.: No.

47:10 John S.: Okay, yeah we’re driving actually from Kansas City, me and my wife, and it’s going to be like a 16-hour drive, I think, it’s… So we’re going to break it up in a couple of days, but I’m taking two weeks off work, and I’m just really looking forward to it, just to kind of get away.

47:24 Robert B.: Yeah.

47:24 John S.: Well, thank you, thank you so much.

47:24 Robert B.: Yeah, thank you.

47:26 John S.: Yeah. Thanks.

47:26 Robert B.: Take care.

[music]

47:40 John S.: That concludes another episode of AA Beyond Belief The Podcast. Thank you so much for listening. Hey, if you would like to join the secret Facebook group that was mentioned in this podcast, just send me an email at john@aabeyondbelief.org. You will need to add me as a friend, and that will allow me to put you into the group. Thanks again, everybody. Peace to all.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Share:

Comment

  1. Willow September 23, 2018 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Thank you both so much for this conversation – it was very helpful to me today.  Many things stood out – especially “science is beautiful”.

  2. Gerald August 3, 2018 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    Thanks: grief, me too, the AA program didn’t teach me what I needed to know. Unfortunately, or much worse than just unfortunately, grief & mourning are too often mistaken for self-pity by well intentioned AA members (who are trying to fit too much of Life into the small box of “selfishness, self-centeredness, that, we think, is the root of all our troubles) (surely not perfectly quoted here). Anyways, therapy, ACA, and just plain old spiritual news feeds on Facebook give me the kind of information on grief & mourning that is – very, very unfortunately – just absent in AA, just not there at all.

    Also, love it, getting to step six and saying, you know what, I’m really not defective 🙂 🙂 🙂 Now, I understand that you were talking about working all the steps simultaneously the way that Refuge Recovery looks at it, but I just want to say here that, for me, the most important kind of inventory I take is an inventory of all the positive things about me. The real number one offender for me has always been shame (feelings of low self-worth), not resentment. So, much more healthful & helpful to focus on the good stuff. The good stuff about me is the stuff I never saw before.

    … AA was written by the kind of alcoholic who roars his way through other people’s lives – the tornado. Bill W., Dr. Bob – you know, reading their stories you pick up right away that these were calloused & insensitive people 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Perhaps one of the wisest things they included in the Big Book was that their description of the various kinds of alcoholics is surely incomplete.

    Well, anyways, so we have to put the AA program into context. There are many basic assumptions, in that context, and one of those is that the alcoholic has roared his way through other people’s lives, that he has made a life habit of using & abusing other people’s generosity, that he fights the world a certain way – the way that calloused & insensitive people wrestle with Reality, just for example – and that the cure for alcoholism begins with a Prodigal Son type of spiritual experience … starting with a punch between the eyes and a kick in the butt 🙂 🙂 🙂

    … Females are significantly less likely to fight the world this way, but then there are simply sensitive people, regardless of sex, who don’t fight the world the way Bill & Bob did, for example.

    And how I wish the AA program included a fair measure of self-affirmation plus an understanding of grief & mourning … ! 🙂

    Oh well, I can keep on wishing 🙂 …

    … So, I relate to being so desperate, in the beginning, that I would grudgingly accept the God talk, and grudgingly accept the Drill Sergeant talk, too, you know, a punch between the eyes & a kick to the rear 🙂 🙂 🙂

    (But hell no, I didn’t follow any Drill Sergeant advice any more than God advice.)

    And thank goodness I still held on to my Self. For whatever reasons, I did not let that Drill Sergeant talk bring me down. Or the God talk.

    And I do understand that the Prodigal Son experience, with a 2×4, is where a lot of calloused & insensitive people are going to need to begin their recoveries. They can’t start with self-affirmation and getting in touch with stored grief, for example. They’re the kind that needs that good ol’ AA-style ego deflation 🙂 🙂 🙂 , the strong medicine 🙂 🙂 🙂

    But I will make the distinction clear, in meetings, whenever it’s appropriate, and the Big Book actually says as much: your personality and your alcoholism are two different things. You’re alcoholic because of your abnormal bodily reaction to alcohol, coupled with the mental obsession. That’s it.

    (I.e., there is no such thing as an “alcoholic personality.”)

    On the other hand, you’re calloused & insensitive for other reasons, entirely independent of your abnormal bodily reaction to alcohol, OK? That’s just co-incidental, alright? 🙂 🙂 🙂 You’re callous & insensitive because you’re calloused & insensitive, OK? That’s it.

    … Thank goodness for the old timers, in my early recovery, that could speak the language of self-love but with the vocabulary of AA (!!!) I try to share the message of recovery in this way nowadays.

    Thanks!

  3. Thomas Brinson August 1, 2018 at 9:23 am - Reply

    Thanks so much Robert B. for sharing your story, which emphasizes how important writing poetry has been for you — what a brilliant suggestion from your sponsor !~!~! And thanks John for publishing this informative and fascinating podcast.

    I was writing poetry, bad unrequited love poems and rages against war, for several years before I received the gift of recovery, but in early sobriety, my poetry was key to express the ineffable positive feelings I was experiencing. Here’s an example from early recovery:
    Moonjest

    The thin, curved sliver of a wide-spread moon
    red-tinged like new blood in muddy water
    swoops swiftly, crazily tilted
    aiming to implant its scythe-like form
    into Jersey’s distant shore

    I am mesmerized 
    caught in awe and wonderment
    at how effectively it distracts me
    from the raging of head and gut
    battles of romantic inconsequence

    A mystical jester
    it plays a casual, taunting game
    cosmic hide and seek
    slithering here, then there–now gone
    among fast-moving, wind-splayed clouds

    Becoming somewhat bored
    in waiting anticipation for it to reappear
    I sigh a deep breath of regret
    and go tripping off into the nether regions
    of if only and maybe
    yearning I imagine holding close in sweaty embrace
    one . . . or the other . . . or perhaps then again maybe that one

    Lonely, alas, I am alone
    as heavily I close my eyes
    making histrionic poses
    of unrequited loves

    Looking up once more
    just in time I catch it
    winking me a final smirk
    of pure impermanence
    as with a sudden sharp swiftness
    it descends and disappears
    into distant hillscape
     I’ll certainly contribute, John, to a Poetry Corner when you start one here on Beyond Belief . . .

     

    • John S August 1, 2018 at 7:39 pm Reply

      Thank you, Thomas. That’s a beautiful poem. Your talent amazes me. Thank you so much for listening to the podcast and for sharing your poem. I really enjoyed making this podcast and it’s nice to post it here.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.