One day at a time. Living in the present. Be here, be here now. Useful AA and beyond slogans. But … But for me an impossible task. The idea, though attractive, evokes something akin to the magical thinking required of me by let go and let god. Even more secular oriented notions such as live in the present create a sense of hope that has proven humanly impossible for me. At times, it has created a cudgel to whack myself about with you must not be doing this correctly or you’re not doing this hard enough. My self-critic can be quite harsh. Further, I now see clearly, that, as a lifelong procrastinator, living in the present and one day at a time, can readily become an excuse for putting off and for avoiding the hard things.
Avoiding and putting things off became a harmful mix, especially when combined with dependence on alcohol, that created seemingly insurmountable financial, relationship, and professional mountains surrounded by quagmires. It was all too common for me to hide a particular bill from my wife until it went into collection, when originally, there was ample money to easily pay this. I told myself that this would upset my wife and that I would tell her tomorrow, next week, next month, and thus the duffle bag of unopened mail hidden in the back of a closet grew stretching at the seams.
I consciously knew that collections would eventually result in garnishments and IRS audits would eventually turn into liens, but I could put it off until and hope that until never came. My dependence upon alcohol was certainly part of the insanity above, but I continued behavior such as this into my first couple of years sober. I told myself, at least I didn’t drink alcohol today and I’ll work on that rigorous honesty when. Bear in mind, I’m not implying that this is what the framers of live in the present, be here now, one day at a time, meant. However, in the midst of feeling overwhelmed throughout much of my first few years sober, I felt like just not drinking alcohol was enough for today and that by doing so, I was living one day at a time.
With time, I began to see through reflection and introspection the harm that my behavior, even sober, was causing me and creating for others who were close to me. But to look at the shame that I felt regarding much of my past, and the fear of a future filled with responsibilities that had gone unmet and felt unmeetable, was paralyzing when my only tool was to avoid.
I had a meditation practice, but living mindfully with shame and fear felt impossible. In truth, I lacked the willingness, the courage, and the internal motivation to truly live mindfully aware. My son often reminds me that I say “don’t ignore the obvious.” It was becoming clear that the obvious was that the way through was the way through. “Half measures” had given me shortcuts, workarounds, escape paths, but now “…availed me nothing …”. Lying had become habitual for me. Sober, these were more frequently by omission. But, I would still lie about a paperback that I had just bought, claiming that I had bought it a few weeks ago, or that a friend gave it to me, as readily as about whether I had scheduled a much avoided dental appointment or paid a particular bill.
I once, after considerable pressure from my spouse, did schedule a dental appointment, went to the appointment, sat in the chair complete with the bib the hygienist put on me, and proceeded to leave, sneaking out when the technician went to consult the dentist before even starting the cleaning. I was creating a plausible story to tell my wife while driving home when I realized that I still had the bib on! When asked how it went, I suggested without eye contact that it went okay, and that they had a lot of work today. Today, I have a denture and a partial after finally facing my reality. In case you are wondering, periodontal disease rarely resolves on its own.
What was different then and now? Then, the shame of what I had allowed to happen to my dental health by putting off and by putting off, the anticipated expense, the fear of where to even begin, much like my alcohol dependency, anxiety, depression felt insurmountable.
When I got sober, I made a commitment to myself to take the best care of myself as I could because I saw others in AA doing that. I followed through on that intention because I shared my concern and my commitment with a few others in AA. I could not be / had not been accountable to myself or my spouse, but I had become accountable to those in my home group. Doing this helped me learn to be accountable to myself and to my spouse. And doing so required me to be present with the shame of my past and the fear of the future.
Similarly, I slowly practiced being honest with my sponsor, sponsees, and friends in recovery about things that I was still unwilling to be honest with my spouse about. It took several years to repair financial damage, pay off creditors, pay off IRS debt. But it began with opening mail, looking at statements, and developing a payment plan. Making amends meant choosing to be honest about finances with my spouse about what felt insurmountable and what I thought would be the last straw in an already much-strained marriage at the time.
Thirteen plus years sober and I still get anxious when the mail carrier turns the corner on our block. And I still have the feeling in my gut that beckons me to screen and hide the mail. Informed USPS delivery helps provide external accountability. Deeply conditioned behaviors sometimes need external help and tools.
I still fear the future sometimes and I suspect that there will always be things in my past that I regret, but today, I can be live in the present with my past and with the uncertainties of the future using tools of meditation, living mindfully with integrity and intention, reaching out for and accepting the love and care of those around me in AA, in my family and with my friends.
Today 13 years sober, I just scheduled my 13th annual physical with primary care, ophthalmology, podiatry, and diabetes specialist, check-ins with my AA and my Al Anon sponsors. I just completed my annual work plan and review. And I’ll open the mail. All of it. Even the junk!
About the Author
Robert B. is a sober alcoholic in Madison, WI participating in AA and AlAnon at Fitchburg Serenity Club. He has been sober since April 21, 2007. He also began writing and sharing poetry on Facebook during his first year sober as part of his recovery from alcohol dependency, acute anxiety and chronic depression. He has found that creativity expressed primarily through writing poetry and playing various stringed instruments helped him heal and thrive.