Can we accumulate sobriety? Can we store up time in our sobriety banks against emotional recessions or depressions down the road? Does long-term sobriety automatically make for good sobriety? What makes for good sobriety, independent of length of time in the program?
These and other questions have been badgering me now for three long years. It has been just three years since I was carried out of my house on a stretcher by the local rescue squad in an alcoholic coma–this after almost sixteen years of continuous sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous. I’d been attending meetings regularly, sponsoring many people, starting meetings, speaking at anniversaries, staying very active, off-and-on working in the drug and alcohol field, getting divorced, remarrying a person in AA, reconstituting a family, etc. In short, I was living life on life’s terms (more or less) while staying sober one day at a time. What happened?
I got drunk. Really drunk. Almost died. But before that happened, other very, very subtle things happened. And they happened over a long period, at least several years.
Signposts to disaster
Number one: my disease got stronger, flexing its muscles every day. (It’s not nice, but true. Hard for alcoholics to remember.)
Number two: with the help of AA peers and sponsors. I’d enshrined my sobriety, encircling it with a halo of time. Sixteen long years–I had real time under my belt! I was Mr. AA Old-Timer! (Keep in mind that none of this was up-front or conscious. It all happened under the surface, so to speak. A form of pride. Remember what the Fourth Step says? Pride is the deadliest of the Seven Deadlies? It goeth before a fall?)
Number three: life happened to me. Yeah, okay, it was life with a capital “L,” at least three years of one tragedy after another. Our nest had just emptied of its four fledglings. Three out of four of these kids at one time or another had to come to grips with their own addictions. There were rehabs after rehabs, detention schools, and legal hassles. Several family members faced multiple life-threatening crises. There was the brutal triple murder of my spouse’s former in-laws, and all the attendant national publicity for months afterward. A beloved science writer mentor had a mental breakdown and was left disabled and unrecognizable as his former vivacious self. My second sponsor came down with terminal kidney cancer. I buried my third sponsor.
I left my home group because few, if any, remained who were there when I arrived years before. My poor spouse agonized through menopause. During deer season, a stray bullet crashed through our upstairs bedroom window. There were broken arms, hands, a hip replacement, corneal transplants, esophageal and carotid artery surgeries. I lost a favorite student, parents discovered cancers, a close friend of mine relapsed, tornadoes ravaged our county, war broke out in the Middle East.
Need I continue? Welcome to life on life’s terms, Mr. AA Old-Timer.
One afternoon while working alone in an associate’s home, I discovered a basement full to overflowing with every manner of alcoholic beverage–case upon case of the stuff! (Note: right about here I think it fair to mention a deep-seated reservation I had always carried with me that I could still somehow alter my consciousness without dying or otherwise harming myself. No, not with alcohol, but I thought there might be some other “safe” substance–you know, the way the Native American Church has its peyote.)
Well, if you’re the kind of booze-hound I am, and the stuff is all around you, and there’s not another human in sight, and you just want to get high, I calculate it will take about twenty seconds to unplug from your Higher Power and to uncork your Lower Power. That’s about how long it took me.
Later in an intensive relapse unit I had checked myself into, I discovered some wonderful things: I’m not made of marble. I am flesh and bone, and flexible. I can bend without snapping. And I don’t have all the answers (never did), even if you persist in making me think that I do.
This alcoholism is truly a disease, and one that gains its strength from telling me it isn’t a disease. It’s endlessly patient. And getting stronger by the day. I call it a hungry ghost, just over my left shoulder. Relapse is a process in which getting drunk and overdosing is just the final step.
But it needn’t end that way. I believe that one can be close to relapse–with shaky or crumbling sobriety–and recover from it safely. Way back in the beginning I remember hearing over and over again about dry drunks, progression, Higher Power, being only one drink away from a drunk. . . Believe me, I have a very different outlook on my tender (yet rugged) sobriety these days.
A daily reprieve
I understand now it is indeed a twenty-four hour contract only. Always and only twenty-four hours. I must re-sign this contract every morning and reevaluate it every night.
Is my spiritual condition this moment worthy of such a divine reprieve? Will I stay plugged in–and firmly so–to my Higher Power today? What can I do right now to ensure that connection? Can I see how I am always a beginner (never anything else)? How it’s so dangerous to be an expert with a mind clogged with all the answers? How “beginner’s mind” has the highest potential? And how “beginner’s mind” is what can always save me?