Four years sober: Alcoholics Anonymous helps but it’s not the only weapon a recovering drunk has in the armoury

Demons & angels

From a deep inner darkness I emerged to find myself lying on my back on a pavement, bewildered and lost. The street was silent, iced in deep-winter frost, the night hazed in the orange light of the early hours. I had no idea how I had ended up here, or where I was.

Staring into the black hole of my memory, I faintly recalled sitting in a pub near Victoria station slamming down umpteen pints of Guinness and large Jameson chasers. Now here I lay. I made it on to my hands and knees, blinked at the world around me, and shuddered with relief when I realised I was a mile down the road from home.

Somehow, I had managed to cross a vast swathe of London. For all I knew, I had tripped through a rift in the fabric of space and time, but it seems more likely that, guided by the mystical forces that frequently watch over drunks, I traversed a couple of lines on the Underground, missed my suburban stop and got out at the next one down the line before falling to the pavement, where I had lain for an unknown period. This is speculation, though, because those few hours of my life are a void.

Some of that mile home I crawled on my hands and knees, some I stumbled sideways, hands scrabbling at walls, lampposts and hedges for support. I may have shed a tear or two – frozen to the bone and feeling broken, I wasn’t sure I’d make it home. I was relieved enough when I finally lurched through my front door to take a large whiskey before dropping back into that deep inner darkness.

This is not the beginning of a drunkalogue. It is a tale of sobriety.

That night was just one blackout among many over 35-odd years of remorseless drinking, but it was my last; my last blackout but not my last drink, because I carried on for another month or so.

Towards the end of those final weeks, I played the cruel trick – not for the first time – of passing out so deeply one evening that my wife and son, unable to detect any obvious signs of life in me in the morning, were considering whether to dial the dreaded three digits when my eyes flickered open and I blinked back from the abyss. This was not precisely a blackout, but it felt like something worse – like a premonition, as if the Reaper had breathed dank breath on to the back of my neck.

I had been warned and I knew, with a sense of certainty I had never experienced before, that it was time either to pay attention or prepare for the end.

And so to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It felt like a desperate measure but also inevitable. I had known for many years that I had a problem, and had tried and failed more times than I could count to control my insatiable thirst for oblivion. I embodied that definition of madness: smashing your head into a wall over and over and expecting to get a different result each time.

Into a decrepit room behind a church I shambled, parts of the ceiling caved in here, strange brown stains upon it there; a filthy carpet of indiscernible colour; orange plastic chairs; weak fluorescent light; the musty smell of damp; an unpromising environment. But the people, the energy – without having heard a word, I knew I had arrived among kindred spirits, scarred souls who had been knocked down but had somehow found the strength to get back up, still swinging, fighting for survival, for sanity.

While it undoubtedly felt like I was in the right place, I sat through that first meeting feeling utterly adrift.  So it’s come to this, I kept thinking as I observed the process of fellowship and unrestrained sharing. I am an alcoholic. Having spent most of my life taking great pride in my abilities at getting copiously hammered, considering myself to be in the premier league of wasters, this was a hard thing to admit, but there it was. It had the crystalline ring of truth. I am an alcoholic.

Around me sat one of the broadest ranges of people I’d ever seen in one room, everyone from gnarly-faced street drunks who had lost everything to hard bastards who had drunk themselves into prison cells via extreme violence to braying businesswomen who looked spa ready… City slickers, plumbers, lawyers, cleaners, nurses, tree surgeons, the unemployed, the rich, the poor, all life was here.

At the beginning of the meeting, the person in the chair said: “Don’t listen for the differences, but for what we have in common.”

And there was plenty of that, despite the myriad superficial differences. The most obvious common denominator was, of course, the seemingly unquenchable thirst that had brought us here. But there was also a certain mentality, frequently characterised by a lifelong sense of alienation, loneliness and rage, a desperate desire to control the uncontrollable circumstances of life, a deep emptiness, not to mention depression and anxiety.

Perhaps these are simply symptoms of the human condition that everyone must come to terms with, but for whatever reason, those present had ended up using alcohol as medicine, and while it had worked for a time, it had eventually stopped, and it was this that had washed us into this room.

It was a simple format: people told the story of how drinking had messed their lives up and how getting sober had made them better, each tale different, but always with those two elements in common – the destructiveness of alcohol abuse, and the healing of sobriety. Straight away, what I heard gave me hope. It appeared that even the most hopeless-sounding of cases could get it together by working the AA programme.

But, but, but…

People spoke often of God – although mostly hedged with the term “as you understand God” – and of submitting to a higher power. As an atheist, this kind of language made me feel uncomfortable, but I resisted the urge to run away, and worked to keep an open mind, to listen, always to listen.

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People spoke often of making the effort to share at meetings – again, a concept that troubled me. While I might be happy to blat my feelings out in writing, I find it hard enough to share verbally with people I know, never mind rooms full of strangers. And yet I could see the value of the process: clearly those sharing got something out of it, but I also saw how much I gained from listening to these drunks tell their stories. If one takes, surely one must give… Again, open mind, patience.

And people spoke of approaching someone and asking them to be your sponsor, a person with whom you could work closely, forming a bond as you go through the famous 12-step programme, a process in which you share your deepest shit. Yes, open mind and all that, I kept reminding myself, but somehow I could not see this happening for me. For someone with the instincts of a hermit, the idea of walking up to a stranger and saying “Please could you be my sponsor?” is tricky, to say the least.

There were many little details like this that I struggled with, but I kept returning to meetings, week after week, month after month, because the one thing that I did simply take on faith – for no other reason than that it felt right – was the constant imprecation to “keep coming back”.

The first six months were extremely hard: simply being on this path gave me a certain high, but I felt fragile and shaky the whole time, trembling to my core as my body chemistry reconfigured itself, constantly staring down the urge to hit the fuck-it button and get a bottle or nine.

I gained strength from something an old-timer told me on one of the few occasions I managed to open my mouth and talk to somebody at a meeting.

“How long does it last, feeling this shit?” I asked.

“How long were you drinking?” he replied.

“Er, 35 years or so…”

“That’s not going to leave you overnight,” he said. “Keep at it.”

I did, and about nine months in, I felt a shift in my psyche, as if banks of dark clouds were slowly beginning to part, showing me at least hints of light beyond, drawing me on.

By now I had developed a strong meditation practice, sitting every day and beginning to learn how to witness the noise of my mind without going crazy. I didn’t want to use the word God – so many negative associations for me, coming from a messed-up Catholic children’s home background – but the process undoubtedly felt like it could pass for communing with a higher power.

Around this time, I was also practising Hung Gar kung fu, no longer at the club where I used to train, but on my own, and in a more meditative way than I had before. I sincerely believe the intense physical rigours of Hung Gar had kept me alive through the worst of my drinking years, but now, training alone, I heard the call of yoga with increasing clarity.

I had explored yoga half-arsedly for years, learning a few asanas, or postures, from videos and books, but it had never occurred to me to commit to it as a full-time practice. It would be a little while longer before I finally did so, bowing farewell to Hung Gar, but that is what I eventually did. Again, it felt like something spiritual was going on, and made me more comfortable with what I still saw as the God-bothering side of AA.

A year rolled round and I was astonished to realise I was still sober. I felt a perverse urge to celebrate by getting drunk. This kind of self-sabotaging mentality is another common alcoholic personality trait. But I resisted, knowing in my bones that there was no way I would be able to stop if I started, and went to an AA meeting instead.

And then a second year passed, and a third, and now, here I am today marking four years sober. I wish I could say I have been transformed into a being of great insight and equanimity, effortlessly bestriding the world with my straight-edge consciousness, but alas not – I am still down here grubbing in the mud for meaning.

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The difference is that for the most part I am pretty happy down here these days. Occasionally, I find a diamond, sometimes a lump of shite. These are the inevitable highs and lows of an ordinary life, and in learning to take them as they come, whether with tears or laughter, I am experiencing the odd flash of peace of mind, something I have rarely felt since, aged 10, I discovered the dark delight of drinking myself into a dead stupor.

I continue to have an ambivalent relationship with AA. While I still attend meetings, I have been unable to buy into the programme 100 per cent. I hardly ever say a word, preferring simply to listen, and have no inclination to seek a sponsor. I have heard many a speaker down the years say people such as me are doomed to end up drunk again, that the programme must be followed wholeheartedly and to the letter to work.

For a while, this worried me. I sat there feeling like an interloper, and redoubled my efforts to connect more deeply with the programme. It didn’t quite take. My way was simply to sit and listen, and it was working for me. I was sober, and that was more than enough. And then slowly I noticed that while the rooms are always full of people desperate to speak there are, in fact, also many others just like me, quiet loners drifting in and out of meetings. Some people talk a lot, some don’t, but we are all there, recovering.

This is one of the great strengths of AA: that whatever any one individual might say at a meeting, there are no rules. The only requirement to be there is a desire to stop drinking. You use the programme however you choose to stay sober. So now I am at ease with the way I do it. I play it a day at a time, and today, I believe, I am on track to put my head down sober. Will I ever get a sponsor? Will I ever become a regular sharer at meetings? Will my sobriety hold into the future? Perhaps, perhaps not; I have no idea.

AA can bring out a fundamentalist streak in many – alcoholics tend to be all-or-nothing types – so you often hear people saying that without the programme they would be dead. I am not one of them. While I believe that if I had carried on drinking I would indeed have been reduced to dust by now, I don’t attribute my sobriety solely to AA.

It was undoubtedly a significant early step in the process, but it is one component in a spectrum of practices that includes doing my best to make amends to my wife and son for the years of madness I subjected them to, and learning how to embrace their love and forgiveness; it includes meditation and yoga every day, studying words of wisdom both ancient and modern,  healthy eating and lots of walking in nature. I have even had some medical help along the way.

I believe it’s important to recognise that a change as profound as ending a lifetime addiction to alcohol does not come from one source alone, and that it’s inspiring to acknowledge one’s hard work in the process, something that can get overlooked in ceding everything to “God”. It’s an element of the AA outlook that often strikes me as disempowering. I am happy to accept that it works for many, but it’s not for me. I muddle along with a searcher’s limited understanding of the higher power of subatomic energy.

What I gain most from AA meetings is the constant reminder to keep doing the work and never to take my sobriety for granted, finding inspiration in the diverse tales of destruction and recovery. The stories that scare me the most – and they are told often – are those of the alcoholic sober for five, 10, 15, 20 years who took a sip and ended up back at the bottom of a bottle. Recovery is hard work; the work of a lifetime.

So here I am at four years: simply getting on with my life’s work, and in the early stages of it, at that. While every sober day is a gift to be grateful for, I am naturally excited to reach the milestone of another clean year, and felt the need to mark it with this outpouring of navel-gazing. But ultimately, the actual not drinking feels like embedded behaviour now, the craving – that terrible thirst – gone, and I am reasonably adept at riding out the rogue urge to get trashed that occasionally twitches in me like a phantom limb.

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It is in tackling the underlying demons of the mind where the real work is, because it is these that feed addiction. I’m not sure these cunning beasts are ever slain – I feel them stirring, prowling in the back of my consciousness, if I let my attention slip away from the work for even a day. I suspect the work is more about demon-taming than slaying, and that the taming is all about learning to be at ease in their dark company, drawing on their power instead of being consumed by it. A tall order; indeed the work of a lifetime.

For my first year, I was terrified people would find out that I had ended up at AA, that the shifts that paid my bills would dry up, that everything would turn to shit, that I would soon, in fact, have abundant sorrows to drown. It didn’t come to pass, and with that year under my belt, having brought nothing but good to my life, I gained confidence in my sobriety, and perhaps a little too much pride in it for my own good.

Through my second year and onwards, I dropped the fact that I was a recovering alcoholic into conversation a little too easily and often. It felt positive to develop the courage to be able to do so, but it also started to seem narrow, limiting and obsessive.

At the end of my third year, I crashed into a kind of anticlimax. It was the point at which I fully understood that being sober was not a novelty but my new, everyday, ordinary way of life. It required a significant effort to embrace this, but a necessary one.

This effort culminated in an interesting coincidence in my yoga practice a few months back, when, almost by accident but guided by an excellent teacher, I quivered my way up into my first headstand. I’d assumed I was years away from being able to do this, and was in fact inclined to be suspicious of headstands on neck-safety grounds. But the minute I “stood” there with my head on the mat and my feet in the air, it felt right.

This asana is often held up as a means of radically altering your perception of things. You are literally looking at the world upside down, but it’s said that standing on your head has the same effect on your thinking, clearing mental stagnancy and making you see things in a new light. Some even claim the gravitational rush of blood to the head refreshes the brain. I’m not sure about that physiologically, but it’s certainly an attractive metaphor.

Whatever the case, after two or three days of practising headstands, I decided – almost without thinking about it – to stop defining myself as a recovering alcoholic, which is what I had been doing. It’s a subtle, almost semantic shift, because I am still a recovering alcoholic and hope to remain one (as opposed to an active alcoholic), but I no longer feel the need to view my whole existence through that prism.

The effect has been liberating, giving me a wider outlook. Where once, for example, I thought I would inevitably have to specialise in teaching yoga only to recovering drunks, I now hope to end up teaching anyone who wants to learn. It’s a bigger way of thinking that is finding expression in all areas of my life, previously limited by the idea of “…but I am an alcoholic…”

This shift has, in fact, been an excellent lesson in the pointlessness of any kind of self-definition, which always implies limitation of some kind. After all, recovery really is part of a much bigger quest: the recovery of who I really am, the force that has always been there beyond the ego, beyond definition. So yes, today I might be four years sober – I might be this and I might be that – but primarily, I simply am. Please don’t ask me to explain. I’m not sure I’ll ever find out what that means, but I intend to carry on living fully engaged in the quest.

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