September 19, 2014

Getting Out of the Swamp

The questions I am most frequently asked concern the need to share the recovery process with others. "Why do I need to join a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)? Why can't I succeed on my own?"

I usually answer by giving my own history; and, to some degree or ther, another substance abuser can recognize his or her own story in mine.

In a recovery program we have two terms: Quitting and Staying Quit. Quitting is easy. Some of us have done it every few days or months. Staying Quit is not so easy.

At first, whenever I decided to quit, I could last quite a while without drinking. I was in denial and could find ways to prove that I didn't have a drinking problem. For example, I'd quit drinking for Lent.

Of course, not only wasn't I a Catholic, I was a self-proclaimed atheist; but I'd give up drinking for the forty days of Lent. So, while I advertised my pious sobriety, I reassured others and convinced myself that I was in control, and then I figured that I had earned the right to drink for the rest of the year. But as those forty days of Lent dragged by, I didn't stop thinking about drinking. This was like putting a thief in jail and asking him to reflect upon his crimes, and all the while he's planning the next big heist he'll pull as soon he gets out.

I also tried different tricks to prove that I was an ordinary social drinker. Since wine is associated with food and was free of the 'serious alcohol' stigma of whisky or beer, I drank wine. Then, since I was a good student and employee, I'd get drunk only on weekends. So I'd decide to quit. But then, another good excuse would come along and I'd take that first drink and start the cycle over again. As we say, One drink is too many and a hundred's not enough. Once I started, I couldn't stop.

I had certainly done enough research on the subject of trying to quit drinking alone and to stay quit. The first step for me was admitting that something was happening to me that was beyond what I could handle by myself. This was not an easy admission, especially for a woman who prided herself at being fairly intelligent with a decent IQ and a good job. It happened often enough for me to realize that given enough time and the right conditions, no vow, no solemn oath, no will-power of my own was going to prevent me from taking that first drink. And this scared me.

Fear can be a great motivator. I am one of those types of alcoholics who have to be in enormous emotional or physical pain before they admit that something is wrong. When my distress was huge enough, I went to an outpatient addiction treatment center and they pointed me to AA.

No, I didn't skip or dance or leap into AA. I crept in with my head down.

I was embarrassed and unsure of what I would encounter. All I really knew was that my existence was painful and I wanted the pain to stop. Drinking didn't take the pain of life away like it used to; it had only added to it.

In Zen, the first step towards Salvation is the step that gets us out of the swamp of Samsara. That step is the realization that we are drowning in our own misery and need to be rescued. But I wasn't ready to consider spiritual solutions. Someone in AA told me that there were two doors: one marked Heaven and the other marked Lectures on Heaven. I went through the Lectures' door every time.. I was content to consider the situation, studying the role instead of being the performer.

When I first came to AA I thought that it was normal to feel jaded about everything, not to really enjoy life but merely to survive it. I had asked myself, Is this all there is to life? and I had answered it, Yes. I was wrong about that, but it took some time for AA to show me just how and why I was wrong.

I didn't like admitting that I was an alcoholic or even that I had a drinking problem. Slowly, the people who were in recovery showed me that what I had was not just a physical problem but a spiritual one. And once I recognized that, something unexpected happened. In spite of myself, I began to heal. I'd show up at meetings and admit that I didn't have any worthwhile answers to my problems. I began to look inside myself for spiritual solutions to my problems instead of looking out into the world to find someone or something to blame. And I stayed sober. That was twelve years ago.

So now I try to help other people as I once was helped. The swamp of addiction is a miserable place to be.