Monday, December 29, 2008

I needed a better boat, not an anchor, not a safe harbor

Twenty years ago I had my last drink of alcohol -- Hopefully, for good. It is still a bit of a mystery how I got here, in this sober world – how I have been able to seek and find help when so many do not or cannot, even if they want it. What I know for sure is that my life had become full of fear- terror, really, and liquor was my medicine, my life, my comfort, my curse, and so much more. It took me to places I never thought I would go -- Hazy nauseous experiences. Bold and spontaneous actions. Giving up of all illusion of control, being a victim, a willing victim, of circumstances and life and people -- especially of men.

Once during those years of promiscuity and desperation, years of of continually believing I was falling in love, that I was going to find the one man to save me – or maybe I was going save him - a man said to me “you need an anchor”. At the time I really didn’t think much of that, but it stuck in my head.

For years I had nightmares about water. Small waves, tidal waves, flowing water, calm water, and even ice – I was afraid of it all, in my dreams. Therefore it is interesting to me that, years later, I heard a boat analogy to describe addiction. The simple version is this: those who have a genetic predisposition to addiction start out life with a smaller boat, and it tosses them upon the big and powerful ocean. The experiences life throws them can make it even harder to stay afloat, and to navigate. If one is not an addict (or without other illness) the boat they come into the world with is larger, or built better, and they have better control over the journey (even when the oceans get rough).

In real life I loved water and loved to swim, in spite of my brother’s drowning. They say in dreams water represents the spiritual, or one’s emotional life. Over my years of being sober the water gradually became less fearful to me; at times I could put my feet in and wade; later, I was able to swim. Now I have some of the old dreams but much more of the new.

It was fear that got me sober, really. Fear that my life would never be what I expected it to be, fear that I was going to be a victim, again, of rape or worse, fear that while I wasn’t sure I wanted to live I was not ready to die either. I saw myself going down the road of losing what little self I had completely; I was tired of working, paying rent, trying to keep up the appearance of being “normal. I was drinking and smoking pot alone at night in my studio apartment with the burglar gate locked to keep people out, having been broken into. I was effectively locking myself in my own prison.

When I began my recovery, the neighborhood I lived in was not good; there were many liquor stores (convenient for me, since I didn’t have to go to the same store every day - didn't want the store owners thinking I had a problem) and there were frequent drug deals and gunshots in the area. I had a job that I loved, and I was still able to go to parties with my coworkers and no one thought it odd that I would pass out on the floor and get up in the morning and get on the bus to go home. They were those kinds of parties. Outside of that, though, I didn’t like going out anymore. Having been a victim of rape more than once, and in general not wanting to be bothered with strangers in bars, I drank at home. I was less into to the parties as well, because of the shame I felt about my behavior (often raging), the passing out, blacking out, and of course at times throwing up. I was thirty years old and in despair.

I’d fallen in love once again, or so I thought. This time the man was much younger than me, and he was sweet and kind to me. In spite of trying to cut down on drinking, I caused him embarrassment and treated him badly. I had to give him up -- but I pined away, wishing I was not such a mess.

Drinking at home alone, smoking pot, listening to sad songs, and watching old movies, and crying. These were my common pastimes. I knew there was something wrong with me but could not figure out what (even though I had called AA some years before, and had thought and even wrote that I might have a problem with the booze). Like depression, alcoholism/addiction is a disease that tells you don’t have a disease. Because it wants to destroy you.

My immune system was shot, I suppose, because I kept getting some bad sinus infections. When I‘d go to the doctor he would give me a shot of antibiotics before sending me home with more in pill form. One day I mentioned to the doctor that I thought I had some emotional problems, and I needed him to refer me to counseling. I don’t know why but he asked about my drinking, and I answered honestly. At that time my tolerance had changed; whereas for most of my drinking years I was able to consume large amounts of alcohol, but now I was able to feel drunk on two or three drinks. Not drunk in the wild and crazy sense but it simply felt normal. The marijuana also made me feel normal, and I smoked it daily for about ten years. I would keep a bowl next to my bed and smoke first thing, when I work up. I told the doctor that it was starting to scare me, because I was worried that if I were not able to get pot that I would drink in the morning -- and all day long. The doctor told me “You’re an alcoholic, call AA”. And he even told me a little about it, that there are open and closed meetings, that I don’t have to say anything if I don’t want to, and some other tips. I wonder, now, how he had such detailed knowledge.

My first thought was, “fuck you”. I went back to my usual way of living and drinking. But there came time for a trip with my job – I was working with Greenpeace and the toxics campaign was in Kentucky to bring attention to a highly polluted area. We were planning a large march and I stayed at the campgrounds helping out, making signs mostly. Though I wasn't at the office I tried to wait until noon each day to start drinking (there was plenty of beer everywhere). I remember waiting for noon, craving it. Almost everyone drank at least some, but I had been throwing up and doing other embarssing things. I had a big chunk of hash and I gave most of it away to someone while drunk; the next day I wanted it back.

The details aren’t as important as the feeling I had, which was growing and consuming me, that I was just going through the motions of living, that I was putting on an act, and not a very good one, of someone who had a life, who enjoyed life, who knew how to live life and take care of herself. In reality I was drawn to that other part of me, the dark part, that was getting stronger. I found the idea of living in alleys and selling myself for booze and money, attractive. I was always drawn to the underworld, I was always a risk taker and often enjoyed living on the edge, but this was going to take me further down – to a place from which there would be no return. And I literally could visulize it, and the sick part of me longed to embrace it. In my mind, I could see a crossroad.

Back in Chicago the drinking and crying continued. I went back to the doctor. He again told me I was an alcoholic and told me to go home and call AA. And this time I did. A woman called me back, and I agreed to go to a meeting. I was a little high from pot when I went to that first meeting with those two ladies, but I have not had a drink since. I was offended because while driving they were talking and gossiping and hardly paying me any attention; I thought they should respect the fact that this was a momentous occasion in my life. I think in retrospect, had they been very serious and attentive, it might have scared me off.

At the meeting people talked about being violent, going to jail, divorces, throwing up, blackouts, and shame. And they laughed about it all. They said “it’s the first drink that gets you drunk” -- I'd never even suspected such a thing! They said “when you drink, if you cannot predict the outcome, you’re an alcoholic”. And I knew that was me – because sometimes things were fun with no consequences, and sometimes I appeared calm, though I wasad twisted up on the inside. They said “this is the beginning of a while new life for you”, and I believed them. And it was.

Now, to say it has been all smooth sailing and wonderful would be false. For one thing I did not quit smoking marijuana for a year; there were months of being clean followed by getting high (also once took hallucinogenic mushrooms, the last thing was cough medicine with codeine - and I did not have a cough) I tapered off my daily pot smoking with the help of a therapist. I did start attending to the emotinoal issues, which were quite real. To say that I’ve gotten the life I always wanted would be false. To say that I’m happy, finally, would almost be true, however. The main thing is I have been, over the years, learning to be ok with myself.

It is hard not to go into a long dissertation about alcoholism; but what I do know is it's a mysterious and chronic disease that is always present. I know there is no cure. My dreams tell me so – in my dreams I sometimes drink, and I make excuses, I tell myself its ok to have just one, that no one will know, that it isn’t affecting my life. But in those dreams when I drink, or think about drinking – or smoking pot – I feel like I am a piece of garbage, not a human being at all but some kind of monster masquerading as human. They say if you drink you die. It’s true. Not physically but inside. Twenty years later I am still learning how to live. Happiness is not the point -- that much I know for sure. Having the things I want – a man, a house, a good car, vacations, a family – that is not the point. That much I also know for sure. These are things I have learned over years, and have spent years trying to accept. Recovery, for me, is about living a spiritual life. It comes from the inside, it’s about those sappy things like love, tolerance, forgiveness, and understanding – and learning to apply those things to myself as well as to others. It's about healing. It's about being able to give, at times, with no expectation of getting anything in return. For me, it’s not about religion; I like to say God is much too big for any one religion. I don’t always care for the term “God” (and often say “higher power” instead) but it’s convenient. I have not done everything you are “supposed to” in AA and I don’t believe it is necessarily the only way to stay sober – but that would be a topic for another time. But I will say that AA is one of the tools, the primary one, that I have used to get help.

I learned a long time ago that trying to live life doing the right things – what I consider the right things alters at times, but I have developed some core values – is more important than trying to be happy. And like Bill Wilson said, along the way there are “moments of real joy”. This is not a small thing.

So here it is December, and nineteen years from the last time I got high, twenty since I had alcohol, and I suppose one could say I found my anchor – something that keeps me grounded. However I would prefer to say I have built a better boat to travel in, or perhaps have learned to better navigate the waters.

A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for”
- John A Shedd