Reflections On a Weekend After Two Years Without a Drink

“Sir, Did the Rangers get ahold of you?”

Me, stupefied, “Did the Rangers get ahold of me? Um, no, they didn’t.”

“We’ve been trying to get ahold of everyone who rented a cabin, we have a problem, stinkbugs,” the kind woman with curly salt and sandy hair said as she motioned around the cabin that serves as the check-in station at the state park where I’d rented a rustic cabin for the weekend. The walls had many, but not an over abundance of, stink bugs crawling around.

I thought for a moment. Maybe they’d left a message on my house phone, which I never check and want to eliminate but my wife insists that we need one. There are some battles that aren’t worth fighting.

“You can have a look at the cabin. I’ve cleaned it twice today and we bug bombed it yesterday, but I don’t think you’ll want to stay.”

We drove to the cabin and I took one look inside and knew we weren’t staying. The place was crawling with bugs, hundreds of them on the window alone. It was already 6:30 and I was exhausted having spent most of the day preparing for the trip. My son took the news better than expected, but I was miserable.

We went into the nearest town and had dinner. The server asked for drink orders, my son asked for a Shirley Temple and my wife asked for her customary Cranberry and Club soda. I hesitated. I was thinking about whether I wanted club soda or iced tea when the server asked, “would you like to see our tap list, sir?”

I hesitated again, letting the words register. I didn’t really want a beer, I wanted to have a smart ass retort, something like, “I don’t think you have enough insurance,” or “I’d like to get home for Christmas,” but none came. And briefly, I felt awkward before I ordered my iced tea.

Perhaps sensing the moment, my son asked, “Dad, who convinced you to get sober?” after the server left the table.

“I did.”

“Why’d you want to get sober?” he asked.

“Because, well, because I wasn’t ready to die.”

There was a brief look of real concern on his face and I assured him that I hadn’t been in imminent danger, but that if I’d continued to drink the way I was I would surely have died from it.

Relief shown on his face, as he accepted that simple answer as a nine year old will do.

The weekend didn’t turn out as I’d planned. It was supposed to be an escape to nature. An escape to the country. A weekend of hiking, cooking over fires, sleeping in sleeping bags, seeing wildlife, and not being too close to other people. This was the way I’d envisioned the second anniversary of my sobriety date. But it wasn’t meant to be.

We made the best of it. On Saturday, I looked for another site where we could stay with our tent, but my son wasn’t really into getting in the car and driving for an interminable distance (anything more than 15 minutes) to sleep only one night in the tent. So I rebooked for a few weeks out.

My sobriety date coincides with my niece’s birthday and so I called the family to see what they were doing. Mom said that there would be cake. That was enough for me.

We still wanted to get outside and so we decided to head to Ladew Topiary Gardens in Jarretsville, MD for the afternoon before going to my brother’s for dinner. Mr. Grey kvetched, but went along with the plan, because when you’re nearly ten you do what you parents tell you to do.

Ladew was lovely. The grounds are broken up into formal topiary gardens as well as less formal meadows of wildflowers. It being late September, the wildflowers are starting to die, withering and turning brown. There is a certain smell that accompanies the late summer as it bleeds into early autumn that reminds me of home. Not the home I’m wishing to escape so often, but home where I grew up. The country.

I’ve been thinking a lot about moving lately. There is something that just doesn’t sit right about where I currently live. Part of it, I think, is that this house is the place were my drinking went off the rails. Every day is a reminder of what went wrong. Any time my neighbors have people over, I feel like I’m either missing out or I get angry at myself for how I behaved up until two years ago.

I know I shouldn’t do this. I know that there were underlying reasons why I sought the solace of inebriation. I know that it has nothing to do with geography, and yet, I yearn to escape.

I realized this morning, as I was taking a walk in my local park, Kinder Farm Park, that I’ve lived in my house longer than any other place in my entire life. We’ve been here twelve years. It is beginning to feel like an eternity. The only other place that I lived nearly this long was my home in Taneytown, MD, and that was only for 9 years.

So maybe it’s just time. Maybe its not about escaping, maybe I’m just a rambler who’s been stuck in one place for too long. I don’t know the answers.

But I do know this, even if I wasn’t able to escape and celebrate my two year sobriety anniversary, I’ve come a long way in two years. And as I said to a friend on Saturday, “things are markedly better now, and, well, they weren’t so good before.”

And that, is what recovery is all about.

Coming Out Publicly About My Sobriety

Coming out publicly about my sobriety has changed my life. I wish I could tell you that I’d planned it out, that I gave it careful consideration, that I’d done it with a complete understanding of what I was getting into, but I can’t. That would be a lie.

I maintained another blog for several years that had almost no focus (surprise, I was a complete mess drinking all the time…) and one day, I just posted that I’d been sober and going to meetings as a way to get the word out to my friends. Over the next few weeks I posted a few more times and thought a lot about whether to keep these posts as part of the old blog or to start a new one. When I had the clarity that I had a lot to say about my journey, and that my journey would be life long, I knew it was time to split out these posts and start this blog.

In doing so I’ve made myself accountable. Most of my good friends, people in my local fellowship, as well as thousands of people around the world have read my posts, many with regularity. By writing about my journey, I’ve let the cat out of the bag and sometimes that’s what’s kept me from taking a drink.

There is also something highly cathartic about writing — I think that’s part of what many find so incredible about the fourth step. When we put our thoughts down on paper (or in bits and bytes as we do today) they stare back at us in black and white. We can’t escape them.

There have been times when I was a little freaked out about being so public about my sobriety. Last spring, while I was talking to my new company I was waiting for the shoe to drop that someone had found my blog. I don’t know what I expected to happen, but I feared that this might hinder my chances at a new job.

There have also been times when I’ve worried that my openness may impact my family— more specifically my son. I’ve coached his soccer team, and I’m about to step up to be a Den Leader for his Webelos den. I have worried that people will judge him because of me. Still, I share my story.

See, if people do judge me, I don’t know about it — and more importantly, I’ve received nothing but positive encouragement from people who know that I’ve made a decision to be sober. I think that this represents a turning point in people’s attitudes about recovery. There was a time when being in recovery may have meant a moral failing in the eyes of some people, but I think that the majority of people don’t see it that way anymore. I may be naive, but my experience hasn’t shown me the judgement that I once feared.

If anything, my openness has helped others. I’ve had several friends and acquaintances who’ve asked me about my sobriety. Several have decided that perhaps they might give this a go. Some who have explored it have remained sober, and others have not. I don’t judge anyone who has chosen not to remain sober after talking to me — I recognize that we all have our own path. What’s important to me is that they know that they can talk with me — that they can ask me questions and that I am in a place where I can offer my perspective.

That’s why it’s important for those of us in recovery to tell our stories. If nobody knows that we’re sober, they won’t know who to ask for help.

When “We Agnostics” Fails Us

If you’re like me, the idea of an interventionist god, who is going to fix you, who is going to save you, simply does not resonate. And if you’re like me, you were probably told that you don’t need to believe in God to practice the 12 steps. You may have been told that there is a difference between Spirituality and Religion. And when you insisted that there was too much God talk in the steps, you were probably pointed to the chapter “We Agnostics” in the Big Book.

And if you’re anything like me, when you read “We Agnostics” you probably read it for what it is — A half assed attempt to cover up the religion that dominates the steps as written in the Big Book. Indeed the entire chapter seems to focus not on acknowledging that you don’t need an interventionist god to get sober, but rather to convince you that you do. The story of Bill Wilson’s conversion figures prominently in this chapter. So too do stories designed to prove that science and reason are not always right — such as the recounting of the widespread belief that man would never fly until the Wright Brothers developed the airplane.

When I finished it, I felt like it read as follows:

Yes, we were like you too. We were men of science and reason. We didn’t believe in God. But we couldn’t reason our way out of drinking and in our moment of utter defeat, we succumbed to the idea that we needed to believe in God to get sober. And you will too, just you wait.

And just in case you don’t get it, in the first paragraph of the next chapter “How It Works” we are told “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program.”1

Every time I hear that in a meeting I cringe because I know that there are many paths up the mountain.

My relationship with organized religion is complicated. I’ve written about my challenges with the phrase “a God of my understanding” in the past. I’ve struggled with the notion of spirituality without the heavy handedness of evangelical christianity (and make no mistake, the Oxford Group from which the 12 steps came was an evangelical group).

My last post explored the idea of Faith rather than Belief. After reading it, one of my friends on Twitter pointed me to the book The Alternate 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. I wondered if I would find it valuable. So many of the things that I’ve been pointed to on this question have failed so miserably that I had my doubts. But I knew that Paul was a kindred spirt and that there just might be something worth reading in this book.

So I bought it.

As I read the first chapter of the book, “What is Your Suffering?” I immediately felt at home. The chapter lays out the intent of the book, which is not to change the 12 steps, but to explain them in non-theistic language. As I read this chapter, I became excited that I might finally read the 12 steps without feeling my skin crawl. I felt that the authors were speaking my language and when I read the final sentence of the chapter I knew it. The authors write, “It isn’t important how we climb the mountain, as long as we commit ourselves to the journey.” 2

I found the book to be true to it’s intent. While the steps have been re-written to remove the theism that dominates the 1935 version of the steps, the intent does not change. The book provides clear guidance for those of us who wish to approach the steps without approaching god. The book makes clear the distinction between the religious and spiritual.

There are a couple of really great quotes from the chapter on Step 2 that really resonated with me:

“The word spirit comes from a Latin word that means breath, life, vigor. We call something spiritual when it represents life or when it enhances life.” 3

“Spiritual power comes from whatever gives us peace, hope or strength and enhances our humanity.” 4

This is what people mean when they say that anything can be your higher power. As Nietzche wrote, “He who has a why to live, can bear with almost any how.” Anything that is life giving, anything that gives your life meaning can be your “why” — a.k.a. your higher power. (That said, you’ll never convince me that a fucking light bulb or a doorknob is your higher power — you’re just being obstinate.)

One final note, is that this book really puts the onus of recovery on the individual. “What matters is to have faith in our spiritual selves – in other words, to have faith in the energy that gives us life.”5 This really resonates with me — after all is said and done, no one can do anything for anyone else. No one can make us better. We are not dependent on an interventionist god to make us better. We have to accept our responsibility to ourselves in order to get better.

So, if you’re like me, and you struggle with the god talk in the recovery community, I highly recommend you read this book. It made a big difference for me.

  1. A.A. World Services Inc. Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition (Kindle Locations 973-974). A.A. World Services, Inc.. Kindle Edition ↩︎
  2. Cleveland, Martha; G., Arlys. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery (Kindle Locations 205-206). AA Agnostica. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
  3. Cleveland, Martha; G., Arlys. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery (Kindle Locations 496-497). AA Agnostica. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
  4. Cleveland, Martha; G., Arlys. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery (Kindle Locations 502-503). AA Agnostica. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
  5. Cleveland, Martha; G., Arlys. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery (Kindle Locations 499-500). AA Agnostica. Kindle Edition. ↩︎

Belief vs Faith

I believe in facts; verifiable, indisputable, precise, truths. The sun rises in the East, at dawn, after the night. This is factual. I cannot disbelieve this truth. I can verify this with tools. Even on days when it is cold and rainy and I cannot see the sun, I know that it is true that it rose in the East, at dawn, after the night. I believe this because I have evidence.

I have faith in the idea that there is something bigger than us mere mortal humans. Some call this by name: God, Spirit of the Universe, Great Spirit, Allah, Elohim, Shén, Yahweh, Jehovah, Jesus, Shàngdì, Creator, Holy Spirit, Hu or Huwa, Krishna, Bhagavan, and Akal Purakh are all names for this unverifiable being or thing.

I cannot prove that this something exists. I cannot verify that it is out there. I do not know that it is benevolent, nor do I know that it is malicious. I have faith that it is good, but just as I cannot prove its existence, I cannot prove that to be true. Some people claim that they can prove the existence of a benevolent being, but, for me, the proof always hinges on something that really is unknowable. As an example, some people will say that what I might term a bizarre coincidence is proof of this god thing.

When we sit down to watch a movie, or to read a work of fiction, we engage in something called the willing suspension of disbelief. While we objectively know that what we are watching or reading is indeed fictional (i.e., made up to use the words my son uses), we suspend our mind’s disbelief and willingly believe that it is real for the time being. If we failed to do this, we would not enjoy the movie or the book because we’d be constantly questioning how our protagonist was able to do something that a mere mortal could not.

In some ways, faith is similar. When we have faith, we are essentially willingly suspending our disbelief. We are saying, yes, I know that i can’t prove this, but I believe it anyway.

I have a confession to make. I am closing in on two years sober, I attend 12 step meetings, and I have not completed the 12 steps. In fact, I not convinced the steps actually keep people sober. I’ve written about my struggles with the wording of the 2nd and 3rd steps in the past. By many people’s judgement, I’d be a Dry Drunk. Some would say that my chances are slim, or less than average. Some would say that the definition of insanity is, “attending 12 step meetings without working the steps.”

But I don’t see it that way. See, I am a person who wrestles with words. I listen intently at meetings. Sometimes I hear things that resonate, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I hear things that really piss me off. Sometimes I get pissed at the person who said those things. And then sometimes I find out that the person who said those things is actually really cool, once I get to know them.

I recall a man in a meeting talking about the difference between faith and belief. He spoke of how Mother Teresa wrote letters to God and often questioned the existence of God in those very letters. I’ve been wrestling with this for a a long time.

I have long seen faith as the dictionary defines it: complete trust or confidence in someone or something. And I’ve rejected this because this kind faith seems dangerous. Complete trust in someone or something leads to people following false prophets or worse, demagogues. Complete confidence in something unknowable leads to binary thinking; a type of thinking where things are black and white, right or wrong and there is no room for debate. This is Blind Faith. This is Televangelist Faith. This is dangerous and has lead to centuries of conflict.

And still, still there is this nagging idea that yes, there is something to this concept of a higher power. Yes, there quite possibly is something that out there that others call God — and it’s not little green men from Mars.

Last year I read Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. I cannot express how relieved I was to find another human being who claims to have known all along that there is this something but who also questions it and uses the F-Bomb, just like me. At this point, what I can say is that it is startling how similar my faith story is to Anne Lamott’s — They are not mirror images, but there are certainly reflections.

So I’ve been thinking about faith, and reading, and here’s what I’ve come to — Faith is the willingness to believe that something is true without tangible evidence.

When I’m not hearing how grateful everyone is or how acceptance is the answer to all our problems, I hear a lot about willingness in the rooms. I never fully understood what was so key about willingness before. I knew that I needed to be willing to address my short comings. I knew that I needed to be willing to stop drinking. But I didn’t make the connection between willingness and faith until recently. One cannot have faith without being willing to suspend disbelief.

Willingness goes a long way.