I am a grateful recovered alcoholic.
The first time I heard someone say that, I was taken aback, and thought it…odd. Grateful? For what exactly? We’re these sick, ostracized, mentally polluted and broken folk who have a lifetime of suffering and harm to make up for. We’re this ragtag group of ne’er-do-wells who can’t hold their liquor, their tongues or their morality in check. And you’re grateful? Today, I get it. If someone were to ask me that now, I would turn to them, without a hint of irony or sarcasm, and reply “Yes, I am grateful.” Because that’s where recovery has taken me. I am in a place where shame, guilt, remorse, and embarrassment regarding my alcoholism need not apply.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I am certainly not happy with having alcoholism. Or the things that came with it – the mental anguish, the relentless soul crushing, the emotional battering, the harms done to family and friends, the physical danger I put others in, the suicidal temptations, the endless barrage of self-harming actions, the feeling of uselessness, the self-pity and fear and anger that paralysed me, the utter self-loathing. Yeah, those things. I wouldn’t wish alcoholism on anybody. I wouldn’t wish the torturous lifestyle on others. It’s a cell, and I was the warden and executioner…and the prisoner. And I definitely was not thrilled with the feeling of having wasted so many years afflicted with this illness, this manner of “living” (surviving, really).
But grateful…I am. With all my not-fluttering-on-the-verge-of-explosion-from-withdrawals heart.
There is a song called “Oddfellows Local 151” by R.E.M, from their Document album. The song was written about a bunch of winos who used to live near the band. The winos lived in cars, and the band named them The Motor Club. They would sleep in the cars and drink all day and the band would drop them a five dollar bill or a bottle now and then. I was thinking about this as I listened to the album the other day, and how truly we are a sort of odd fellows club (and I include women in the term “fellows”, as in the “fellowship”) I mean, there is certainly something that binds us, a you-have-it-or-you-don’t kind of tie that keeps us hopelessly, and hopefully, attached.
I thought of this Motor Club, this group of sort of rummy rapscallions, the Drambuie damned, the malt liquor motley crew, and how they are on the outskirts of life and society, and yet have their own community. One based on a progressive, fatal illness, but still based on a commonality. It’s not ideal, and it’s not healthy, but at least there is someone there, without judgement, without reprisal, without a glaring gaze. The fellows keep an eye on one another, and give the faintest semblance of family. I see this displayed here in the city – underneath bridges, on street corners, in the roving trios and quintets of down-and-out addicts and alcoholics taking turns scrounging for loose change and taking turns hitting the beer stores. Dividing and conquering. Sharing the wealth of liquid gold. Covering each other with threadbare blankets in freezing temperatures. Trying to give a damn…watching out for their own.
And so how different is this from the fellowship that we create around us? How different is that Odd Fellows Club from the physical and virtual groups we keep in commune with? just take away the alcohol. Or, have it still afflicting a few members now and then. But there is still a bind of a common problem. That never dissipates. That is never erased, as it is forever etched on us like a lover’s declaration on a mighty oak. We are still lending a hand, giving a leg up, passing the pot around to give someone a shot at life. Laughter. There’s lots of that, something that many of us felt had vacated our souls. The laughter in sobriety is much cleaner, deeper, truer than when the hooch rotted our stomachs and spirits. We laugh and see the joy in even the cringe-worthy tales of drunken debauchery, close calls, and manic bizarre episodes. We laugh because we connect. We identify. We know what it’s like and that we don’t take ourselves so seriously. I can take my recovery seriously, but I bow to rule #62 here – don’t take myself so seriously. Spent too many years doing that.
In identifying with the rest of my fellow alcoholics, I have been able to see where I have come from and where I am now. I can see the old starting line in the eyes and sallow faces of the newcomers to the rooms, or the drowning of desperate words burning into my screen, sad pixel by sad pixel. I can see myself in the shaky voices, the tired eyes, the vibrating hands, the broken spirits, the heaving sobs. I can see myself in the hand-wringing of “do I belong here?”. I can just sense the frustration, anger and fear dripping from those who are still suffering. In the church basements or fresh off a Word Press blog. And I get to chart myself not against the others, but against where I need to be within myself. I do get to see the cheerful folks around me, who used to be like me, who drank like me, felt like me, hurt like me. I get to soak up their joy, their advice, their warm wishes, their hugs, the zest in their eyes, the galloping spark in their step. And I get to see humanity – darkness in the light, tough times, rough spots, death, divorce…all the stuff life likes to throw at us, sober or not. I get to see these people, strangers often, carry themselves with dignity and grace. I see the spectrum when I am out at a meeting, talking with others in cyberspace, or just having a coffee with a few folks. I sit comfortable in the chair of me.
You see, the reason I am grateful for being a recovered alcoholic, all the pain and harm aside, is that I get to be here. Here is a destination I never knew existed. I spent so much time there, that here was a place marker for the afterlife. Or another life entirely…one that I didn’t know existed or that I deserved. Without going through the sheer destruction that my old life produced, without the utter despair, without the hopelessness that my old way of living pounded on me daily, I wouldn’t have had the ability or option of getting help. If I were just a hard drinker, and not an alcoholic, I’d be drinking by now (doesn’t matter what time you’re reading this). I would probably be able to stop for things like driving, or having a job interview, or something important. I would probably be looking forward to pub night, or the hockey game, or some wine
guzzling tasting. But I’m an alcoholic, and that whole “stopping” thing goes against the grain, yes? So the ruination of my life brought me to a place where I couldn’t do it any longer, and the fear of drinking more finally beat out the fear of not drinking. Game, set, match. Jump over the net, shake hands with the opponent and have a Lime Fresca.
And if it weren’t for the treatment, the 12-step recovery, the introduction of a spiritual life, a family that held firm in their trust and love for me, the love for the Creator, finding out and connecting with my alcoholic / addict peeps…I wouldn’t be here. With you. With me. With hope. With love. My spiritual experience would be as shallow as a camel’s piss puddle. My ability to extend myself would go no further than tipping the bartender an extra $5 on my birthday. My ability to open up and reach out and connect with others would be restrained to a faint hello as I passed someone down the hall, my eyes to the floor. Being here with other Odd Fellows, plugged into the Universal Energy, has allowed me to open up. To taste happiness. To engage with life, with its inevitable peaks and valleys. To know peace like I have never been able to before.
That is why going through all the heartache was worth it. Again, I don’t wish it on anyone else. And my story is rather tame compared to the William S. Burroughs / Raymond Carver / Elmore Leonard type stories I have had the pleasure (see cringing, above) of hearing. But one need not wreck cars to wreck lives. A small moment of clarity amongst a whirlwind of pain may all that starts us in another direction. And I don’t get to pick that moment – it comes through when it needs to come through. The Creator’s plan.
So, I break down, get help, get well and continue to do the work to be here. Amongst you. Amongst the other Odd Fellows. Those who never really fit in. Because if there is one thing I have learned about alcoholics / addicts is that there is a sense of not fitting in any where, any time. At least that was my experience. I was an odd fellow before I was an Odd Fellow. Odd man out. Space oddity. A Fibonacci Sequence on a hopscotch chalk board. The unknown soldier, in an unknown war. The old square peg in a round hole. So imagine my thrill (and fear) of finding a group of people who felt the same as I. And from there, we can feel odd together. Until we learn to feel even – having an even keel, an even footing, a place to softly land and enjoy the rewards of coming to a communion of hope and serenity. Home, to the homeless.
It might seem strange to someone who isn’t afflicted with alcoholism or addiction to understand this whole sentiment of being grateful in having a progressive, fatal illness. It might seem strange that we love to (and in many cases, have to) meet up with people or to communicate with others who are in the same boat. It might seem bizarre that as people who don’t normally mix, we have found a strength and power that is greater than the sum of the parts. And that’s the beauty and majesty of this deal – we get to do this, and not only do we get to feel odd in our own way (monkey chatter will do that…bananas much?) but we get to feel the oddness as a group, as a singularity. And that is where I soak it in. That’s where I get to get that sigh of relief after missing out for a while. That’s where regardless of how tired I am, how much I don’t feel like seeing others or how much I don’t want to get on the computer and see what’s happening in the recovery world, I get a jolt of energy when I am done. It’s like I get charged in a way that I can’t ever get charged any other way. There is an energy and vibe which transcends the norm and puts me square in the middle of us, and puts me on the back burner, so that I can help someone along.
I could never have done this while drinking, or if I were a hard drinker and going at it now. Sure, I might be okay, I suppose. Perhaps I wouldn’t lose jobs, or get arrested, or have people wonder why I am acting in a manner befitting a Tim Burton character. I might even tell you that I am happy. Not sure. But I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be in a place where I am typing this, talking about this very thing. I wouldn’t be surrounded by people who should be dead. Or on the path to a little city paper obit section. I wouldn’t be grateful for having a quiet, Laura Ingalls kind of life. I wouldn’t be opening my heart to the Creator and to you and embracing the broken…and the cherished.
Here’s the final and very trippy thing about Odd Fellows. There’s more to it than a song and just a bunch of sloppy drunken yokels. You see, there is an organization, world wide, called the International Order of Odd Fellows. According to research, this group was started in 17th century England, and was a benevolent and altruistic club who’s purpose was to help others around the world. At the time, it was unheard of to show charity and compassion, and hence, they were labelled “odd fellows”. Today, they are recognized by their Triple Links logo, representing friendship, love and truth. These men and women teach and mentor and show others that they can elevate themselves to a higher plane, that they can lighten the burdens of others and help them during times of darkness. They welcome those in need and weary travellers and seekers who need rest. They open their arms up to whomever seeks them.
Sounds familiar. And although it was an illusion, I briefly had this very feeling when I was part of a drunken Motor Club. But I found it for real when I connected to you all, to the men and women in the church basements and community centres. I found it in the sobersphere. In the recovery forums. In the treatment centres, the detoxes, the homeless shelters. I found it in the hearts of men and women of charity and good graces. I found it in my own heart, connected to the Source to which all is created. I found the Odd Fellow who showed me the way, who told me they were grateful to be alcoholics and who cracked themselves open, to show me their light…and to show me that I had a light too.