This past week I casually observed that I had gone six months without a drink…nothing, nada, zilch. That I went that long without getting drunk is not remarkable – I have had many such sober periods, some over two years. What makes this worth writing about is that this mini-milestone sneaked up on me without the breathless, white-knuckle anticipation of the past. For this, I must give Sparta partial credit.
Since first getting sober in the Fall of 2000, I have tried almost everything under the sun to stay alcohol-free. Getting clean was usually easy for me, as my relapses tended to be ugly and they brought me to dark, sometimes horrific, places that I was all to happy to escape – usually by throwing myself, depressed and bewildered, into bed to regroup. After a few days I would suck up my pride, get back to an AA meeting and, reluctantly, raise my hand as a “newcomer”. This process was so frequent and predictable that my life began to feel like Groundhog Day, where I would start my day not to the strains of “I got you, babe”, but to the incessant chant of the Serenity Prayer murmured by a roomful of recovering alcoholics. And these constant restarts meant, once again, that I had failed, that I had to start over and that I was no closer to Andie MacDowell than the day before. To say I would end up demoralized is a huge understatement.
AA always worked for awhile and Step One was usually easy for me – Yes, I was powerless over alcohol and my life had become unmanageable. And I always took up the AA doctrine with zeal. I would get a sponsor (I’ve had 13), work the steps (I have written 5 moral inventories) and put myself smack dab in the middle of the fellowship by being of service (staffing the Alano Club snack bar, managing SLE’s, etc.). In the end, however, AA was not enough and I would inevitably slip into a state of dissatisfaction and restlessness while badgering myself with the question, “Is this all there is?”.
Don’t misunderstand me. As I stressed earlier in my blog, I have the highest respect for AA and its many A-derivatives. I have witnessed many miraculous recoveries in such programs. But I have witnessed 10 times as many failures in the form of people who just weren’t ready, lacked conviction or were unable to buy into the dogma and single-mindedness of AA. In the end, that singularity of purpose and method is where AA and I parted ways.
Alcoholics Anonymous was established in the late 1930’s and in 80 years it has changed little. Other than the forwards, the text to The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (the first 164 pages) has remained virtually unchanged and the message continues to be: work the steps, be of service, find a higher power and have a spiritual experience (not necessarily in that order). Oh, and the obvious one, “Don’t drink between meetings”. AA was on the right track and many of its tenets are useful. But many hardliners in AA, including some of my sponsors, have rejected medical or other spiritual practices to augment recovery. If alcoholism is, indeed, a disease as the AMA concluded in the 1950’s, shouldn’t its treatment be subject to ever-evolving alternative cures as developed by science? There are a half dozen prescription drugs (besides antidepressants) which address or even specifically target alcohol consumption. But the party line within AA fundamentalists is that these are crutches and represent an “easier, softer way” (and implicitly, ineffective) to recovery. The mere mention of some of these treatment options can excite derision in AA meetings (despite the prohibition on cross-talk). I have witnessed it. The take away was that recovery achieved through other means was somehow inferior to a pure, by-the-book AA-based experience.
Sticking with the disease concept for a moment, the AA model was first launched in 1935 and, as I said before, it has changed little. What if the medical treatment for diabetes and infections had not changed since 1935? Hope for diabetes was dramatically altered in 1936 by the widespread use of Insulin (saving untold millions) and infections were finally addressed with the use of penicillin in 1942 (more millions). Had these treatment modalities been rejected by the mainstream when they were introduced, the toll of human suffering would have been enormous. To my mind, AA’s overt rejection of newer treatment methods for alcoholism is tantamount to scoffing at antibiotics while steadfastly applying leeches to the sick.
Beyond its narrow-minded methods, I was equally troubled by AA’s singular purpose, “just don’t drink”. Of course that is essential, as far as it goes, but I found that mantra as well as the fixation on sober dates tiresome – particularly when a relapse meant going all the way back to square one as a newcomer, with all the attendant shame and remorse. I remember a popular noon meeting in Napa, California that I attended regularly. There, was a gentleman of nearly 75 years who had over 30 years of sobriety. He attended that meeting every day and was held in awe by many newcomers, simply for the years of his sobriety. Outside of his sobriety, however, I saw little to his life that I wanted and it seemed that he existed solely to stay sober. On other occasions, I witnessed men with double digit-sobriety who relapsed and were so consumed with guilt, shame and embarrassment that they never came back. Some simply drank themselves to death rather than face their old friends in AA and start over at day one.
So, I try not to get too attached to my sober date. I do note that in the past four years I have been sober 95% of my days, and that percentage keeps growing. I take medications which assist my recovery and I practice many of the useful tools prescribed by AA. Things like prayer, meditation and fellowship with other alcoholics is essential to me. Moreover, I try not to make sobriety the end-all, be-all of my life. There is so much more to living and if I simply make sobriety an important part of my life without focusing on it obsessively, I have a lot more fun. Part of that fun is the purpose I have found in restoring Sparta.
Is Sparta keeping me sober? Not exactly. However the purpose and motivation that restoring her provides me has definitely taken the monotony and drudgery out of my sobriety. Reclamation and recovery works for me.