Cleaning Up – Makeover From Within


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Prison.  Police shoot outs. Bankruptcy. Eating out of dumpsters. Violent assaults. Prostitution.

These are some of the things that many alcoholics and addicts endure or participate in as part of the lifestyle of addiction.  No one chooses those paths, per se, but as the illness deepens, so does the reaction to keep the lifestyle intact.  Many of us have seen these people in meetings or elsewhere – muscular dudes with tattoos, women with piercings everywhere and frantic hair, skinny folks with few teeth and unkempt locks.  We hear their stories and wonder how it is that they are even sitting there.

It’s quite amazing how most folks clean up.  It’s a testament to working a program, having the willingness and doing what it takes to stop and stay stopped when it comes to alcohol / drugs.  It’s astounding to watch these men and women in action.  It’s fantastic to see how these folks recover and take to it like a person clutching onto a life preserver.  Oh wait – “they”.  Who am I then?

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My sponsor James looks like a biker.  I don’t think I would have ever rubbed elbows with him at any other place other than a meeting.  And yet he is one of the kindest, gentlest men I have ever met.  Another spiritual mentor of mine, a big aboriginal man, lives on the street at times, and usually couch surfs.  He never complains. Some of the sweetest women I know in the program used to beat others senselessly and/or sold themselves in the name of staying on the line for the next buzz.

It is easy for us to see this kind of transformation and marvel.  It is a more black and white type of deal that made-for-TV movies are made of.  Destructive alcoholic redeems herself.  Where she once stole from the church plate she’s now the choir director.  The dude with biceps the size of rocket tanks and gold teeth who used to pound others into submission now a camp counsellor.  I see this kind of thing often and it’s inspiring.

But I then wonder about the other folks.  The teachers, cashiers, warehouse supervisors, waiters, stay-at-home moms, etc.  Those who have never felt handcuffs, who haven’t lost their homes, who haven’t stood before a judge, who haven’t been kicked out of their homes, who haven’t had to go home with strange men in their strange cars, who haven’t found their food from a refuse bin.  Are they any less amazing and rousing?

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I have seen many, many folks question their alcoholism because they didn’t fit into the category of “lost it all”.  Many discussions of hitting bottom come up around this.  Does someone need to hit some sort of catastrophic place where they have a warrant out for them or have been escorted out from their old job?  To “qualify” as a “real” alcoholic, does one need to have tire iron marks on their skulls or kept a nice cardboard bed under a bridge?  What about the nurse who drinks too much at home, has serious hangovers, but never drinks on the job?  What about the retail assistant who “parties” a lot but has never had a DUI?  What about the IT guy who blacks out only on weekends but keeps it in check the other days?

I used to compare my bottoms (yes, plural) to those around me.  Especially at treatment.  I heard fantastic stories of despair and violence and full on drama and then wondered if I was truly one of “them”.  I mean, I knew in my heart of heart for years I was an alcoholic, but now that I was surrounded by the “real” things – maybe I wasn’t that bad.  I used to wonder if I was meant to be there, that maybe I had it wrong and was just having a wee bit of trouble controlling.  Those guys were the true boozers, I was just going through a “bad phase”.  I think a counsellor sensed this internal conflict, because Joe pulled me aside one day and told me “you are where you need to be.”   That is, we all get there in our own way.  I had to see that while I didn’t have the full on drama that other folks did, it didn’t matter.  Because in the end, bottoms aren’t about where you land physically.  It’s about what’s inside.

We tend to confuse “bottoms” with “consequences”.  My consequences were getting pinched for a DUI, getting asked to leave the matrimonial home, not having access to my son, losing jobs, being unemployable, becoming broke, going to court, losing my license, etc.  But those weren’t my bottoms.  They may have contributed to my bottoms, but they didn’t define them.   Everyone has a bottom, and it’s all inside.  It’s emotional.  The sound of a bottom is this: “I can’t do this any more.  I need help.”  THAT is bottom.  It’s that crack in the ego that brings us the moment of clarity to see that we’re in big trouble.  My last drunk and bottom was me having a quiet evening, hammered, alone, and knowing that I was in trouble.  Big trouble.  Nothing happened that night.  Nothing at all.  It was a pathetic drunk.  Sad.  And then the thought that I couldn’t do it any more.  I was done.

Friends don't let friend with Sharpies near the passed out guy.

Friends don’t let friends with Sharpies near the passed out guy.

I mention all of this because I know people sometimes back out of the rooms feeling that they don’t fit in.  This is why when I talk to others or speak at meetings I discuss the feelings behind my drinking.  The fears, the resentments, the emotional trials and tribulations, the mental obsession.  I don’t talk about how much I drank, or how often or anything like that. I don’t want people to think that they have had to have their external life ground into pencil shavings to qualify as an alcoholic.

As fascinating as it is to see Toothless Tom or Wildfire Jane get up and speak about a past life that many of us couldn’t fathom existing in, I have to remember that all of us folk are just as miraculous.  Bankers, clergy, students, forklift operators, taxi drivers, executive assistants. And yet, while our stories may not thrill and entice dramatically, every story starts with that emotional and mental anguish.  Some of us have wanted to end it all.  Some go ahead and succeed.  Other fester for years in solitude.  But to rebound from that place of darkness while still raising children or working on a Masters or keeping a job is also astounding.  It is no less important or inspiring than the woman who came back from a life of rape, beatings and jail or the guy who used to steal cars and fight cops.

We are share about how alcoholism took us to dark places, separated us from the world, how it stole our dignity and integrity, how it robbed others of the gift of us.  We share so that others can see that all the self-loathing, low self-esteem, self-sabotage and feeling of worthlessness is universal in us.  We say “Yeah, I thought like that, I felt like that.”

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We don’t compare and contrast. We identify.

To reach the heart, we must speak from the heart.  And that is what we do out here in the blogosphere, in meetings, amongst one another over hot coffee and cold pastries.  As easy as it was for me to compare how a guy like James can turn it around and have a life completely different than his old one, I had to see that my journey was no different.  Or for those who haven’t suffered serious consequences (yet) from their drinking.  It’s not like one of those makeover shows on TV.  It’s easy to ooh and ahh over the surface changes – the cleaned up look, the physical self care, the new clothes – but it’s more wonderful to see the internal changes.  That’s where it all lies.  What’s underneath and how our lives have changed as a result of shifting our perspective, connecting with something greater than ourselves, and being of service.

So if you are new and you are wondering if you are one of us or not – please don’t look at the externals.  Don’t compare circumstances.  Don’t try to equate or put some sort of scale out for measurement.  Look inside.  Listen to what others have said about despair, pain, fears.  How that acts out in drinking and other outlets.  That is where you will perhaps see a mirror to your own life.  That is where you will find fellowship.  That may be where you decide that enough’s enough and to move on.  To heal.

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54 responses to “Cleaning Up – Makeover From Within

  1. Thank you for writing this, it is an extremely interesting post and whilst I don’t go to AA, the idea of “compare & contrast” was something I toyed with for years…… What you say that everyone’s personal “bottom” is more of an emotional thing really resonated with me – mine too was (3 months ago) drinking wine, at home, crying, realising I couldn’t go on like this. I am 86 days sober today 😊

    • Hey congrats on 86 days sober!!

      Yeah, one not need be in the meetings to do the compare game. We all had this idea of an alcoholic swigging out of a brown bag living under a bridge. I am sure that there are some guys who live like that, but the majority of alcoholics are folks like me and you and the substitute teacher down the street. It takes all kinds, and no one is better nor worse than the other. Me thinking I was better than them kept me in the game longer.

      I like your share there about just drinking, crying, and seeing that you couldn’t do it any more. That’s what it’s all about. That kind of surrender.

      Thanks for being here!

      Paul

  2. Thanks for this, Paul. It’s interesting…I think this applies to all facets of our lives. We use other people as a barometer for how we’re doing and then judge ourselves and moderate our behaviour based on what the barometer reading is. It happens in running (how hard we push ourselves), work ethic/motivation, relationships, debt, our own health management, etc. If we could, as you said, listen to other people’s fears, hopes, pain and then look within ourselves and translate, rather than just comparing apples to oranges…well, we’d probably be a lot happier. But we’d still have winter. LOL.

    • Ah Jane…I can’t tell you how much I love hearing from others who can take this kind of message and open it up and translate it to other parts of life. That is something I am trying eagerly to introduce here, and you said it so well. I have of course written about comparison here, but for me, this is more about acceptance and fellowship and understanding that we ALL have underlying fears and such that hold us in a certain pattern of living and seeing the world. I can take this kind of assumptive power of mine (ha ha) and apply it to the CEO of the company or the guy living on the park bench. In the end, I just don’t know their stories and what battles they wage. In the end it’s about identifying, and that is something I am learning to do on a regular basis.

      Thank you for this new breath of life into this.

      Paul

      P.S Winter sucks

      • And this is why your posts are like meditation to me…they let me think about stuff that I normally don’t let myself have time to think about – or even think about thinking of. Thank you.

  3. Thanks Paul. Oh the people. I would never have associated myself with some of the people I love today. Sobriety is a gift. I wrote of those “other” people in a post called “They Don’t Know”. I love the family I’m surrounded by today 🙂 Take care.

    Art

    • Thanks Art – and I am going to look up that post right now. I wrote a bit about how these “kind of of folks” would make me uneasy in this post, but edited it out. And it’s true – I was in the elevator with one of those street dudes and at first I didn’t want to be there, but before we even got to the ground floor we were laughing at something and I gave him a few bucks and I actually hoped to see him again. Amazing.

      Thanks for being here and hope you are feeling better these days 🙂

      Paul

  4. Yes. Comparing only hurts . It goes so far as to cause me to downplay my own accomplishment of recovery because my bottom wasn’t visible. So it must have been easy.

    But it was just as hard for me to put down the bottle as it was for you or for james or for Robert Downey jr.

    Inside we are all the same.

    Thank you for this reminder.

    Anne

    • ” It goes so far as to cause me to downplay my own accomplishment of recovery because my bottom wasn’t visible. So it must have been easy.” yes!! That’s exactly what I was trying to get at. Just because our circumstance may not have been as dire or dangerous as others, it doesn’t take away from the fact that stopping and staying stopped from drinking was just as difficult. Thank you for making that point a bit clearer. I agree 100%.

      Thank you Anne..always love what you bring to the discussion.
      Paul

    • glad to be of service. I think that is why I have not fully understood the “high bottom” and “low bottom” labels, although I know what they mean…if that makes sense. Circumstances, sure. But the good thing about catching it before things truly fall apart is that you don’t have to spend as much time to repair that kind of damage.

      Hope you are well, my friend 🙂

      Paul

  5. Excellent, excellent post Paul. You hit the nail on the head. I would like to offer one slight difference in how I look at alcohol though… My buddy Dennis loves to say that the disease takes everything that is good in our lives before it kills us, much like what you describe. For me the difference is this: Alcohol took nothing from me… I gave it all up for a drink.

    That perspective really helps to remind me just how insane I can be when I add a little alcohol.

    • Thanks Jim. I appreciate that greatly coming from you. I really do enjoy how you framed the idea of alcohol not taking anything away, but how I gave everything up for it. A great spin that I will have to use in future (if that’s okay!) I agree with both you and Dennis that everything that I loved and appreciated in life was gone because of my drug-of-no-choice isolating me and keeping me from everything else – my writing, my family, my reputation, my work, etc.

      Thank you for being here and commenting!
      Paul

  6. The stories in the rooms are often out of the movies, but mine is rather mundane and pathetic. Everybody is spooked that I joined AA, except for a few. But my insides are a whole movie long, with all kinds of storms and falling off cliffs onto broken glass. I agree. It is all about the guy hiding inside the cranium.

    • I am so glad to hear that things are moving along for you, Rod. I think pathetic is the right word for most of us. While others might seem to be going out in a “blaze of glory”, really their worlds are crumbling within in a sad way.

      Thank you for being here.

  7. They found a rosary in the tunnel. I have mine in my coat pocket.
    It’s made of plastic and blows in the dark. It lights up the path to sobriety like the lights at the end of the Burlington Pier. The roughest thing I ever did was get a tattoo, and that was wild for a teacher who wore short sleeves. The real damage was done inside the soul.

  8. Terrific post.

    I had a relatively high rock bottom as I didn’t get kicked out of home, lose jobs, get arrested etc. etc. But for me those are all “yets”. At the end of my drinking my wife was getting to the end of her tether, an invitation to leave wasn’t far away. If I hadn’t wanted to change what would I have done? Walked away probably thinking it was “freedom”. And then what? I always drove drunk so sooner or later… a crash, someone hurt? Prison possibly. All those things were a mere arms length away the distant it takes to raise the glass to my lips.

    Like you one of my greatest friends who is the gentlest of all men started his recovery path serving a life sentence due to the death of someone else. Hard to say murder or manslaughter as he can’t remember much of what happened. I’m so blessed to have gone to the rooms and met people like him – I’ve learnt so much from them and continue to do so

    • Thank you Graham for the share.

      I too have heard of men (and women) in prison for causing the death of another and they weren’t even aware of it. Tragic on both ends. That could have been me – and it could have been you. Any of us. And we all have so much to teach one another.

      Have a wonderful weekend 🙂

      Paul

  9. How true this is. It absolutely was “I can’t do this anymore” …no catastrophe, just the white flag of surrender. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, which is a cliche but once you hit that you point you don’t care. Comparisons don’t help when I look for differences. Finding similarities and ways to connect with others (and myself even) has consistently helped and more than I can convey in a comment.

    I have to comment on the passed out shirtless dude turned tuxedo’d cat. I can’t imagine someone drunk doing the art because of the attention to detail and patience it would have required. It’s really something to behold. I also love the “man I wish I didn’t get sober, said no one ever”. Great collection of thoughts and images, as usual.

    • Thanks Kristen. It may be a cliche, but it is totally true about being sick and tired of being sick and tired. I was there too. We all were, or else we wouldn’t be here. For years I thought I could handle it, but it was really handling me.

      I have to remind myself to keep looking at the similarities sometimes. I can be guilty as seeing “those” guys as separate, but although we are different on the external, we all have the same things going on inside.

      Thanks for this – have a great weekend 🙂

  10. As a stay-at-home mom who didn’t look so bad from the outside, I can relate to this. There was no great drama or big incident for me, but like Kristen, I had reached that moment when I felt, “I can’t do this any more.” When I first stopped drinking and started reading around about drinking and addiction and recovery, I found myself playing the comparison game with all the other stories I read… I was plagued by thoughts and doubts along the lines of “I wasn’t that bad.. I am making too big a deal out of this… I wasn’t a *real* alcoholic” etc etc. Now, more than a year alcohol-free (hee hee, so great to be able to write that), it doesn’t matter to me at all what the labels are, or how I measure up when compared with others. I am happier like this, so much happier, and that it is all that matters. My life looks pretty similar from the outside – no-one else would see a grand transformation – but I feel *so* different on the inside. There’s no way I would go back now.

    • Congrats on the year plus sober!

      That’s the thing – the internal transformation is the deal. We may “look” the same on the outside, but the inside job is where it’s at. We all transform in our ways. For some it’s actually getting and keeping a job, bathing, finishing school. For others it’s about being a better parent, moving up at work. And for others it’s being able to sit still in their own skin. To laugh.

      Thank you for sharing this – wonderful comments.

      Blessings

  11. Thanks, Paul. I have been absent for some time on my own blog, but I do keep up with reading yours…most posts. I am glad to see the questioning of the “bottom” and like most of us, we never know what it is going to take to get us to admit we have a problem. It’s kind of like looking from the outside at a person in an abusive relationship and saying, “Why in the hell won’t he/she get out? I would never put up with that.” And, sadly, it’s never that simple. For whatever ever reasons, we stay in our addiction. I didn’t I kept drinking because I loved the effects or the hangover; I just didn’t LOVE myself more at that point. But, that too, isn’t the whole reason. It’s merely a part of the whole. The longer I stay sober, the deeper I understand why I did. Some people in my life will never understand the before or the after of my disease. I am almost to the point where their opinions don’t matter. Not quite, but getting there. I am grateful though, for the chilly November morning when I had had enough. By the intervention of God and my angels, something clicked that day. It’s humbling.
    Hugs,
    Linda

    • Thank you for this wonderful share, Linda (all your comments are wonderful). It’s never easy to pinpoint things, but in the end I say I drank because I am an alcoholic and that’s what alcoholics do. The why’s aren’t quite as important as they used to be. Some spend their lives trying to figure out why instead of just living happily and free sober. But we often move out of that, and the opinions of others, and just forge on.

      Have a wonderful weekend my friend.

    • I have heard that one too – haven’t heard it in a while though. Good reminder. (It wasn’t me who said it though!)
      And it’s true of course. They also say that when we get into the pits, most people get out. We tend to redecorate 😉

  12. Well said, Paul. And I can add my story to the mix: I had things happen in active addiction that were worse “bottoms” than my actual “bottom.” Because you are right, consequences are external, a bottom is an inside job.

    I hope lots and lots of people get to read this!

    • Thanks Josie. I can say the same – I had much worse things happen than what happened on my last drunk. And then there are the bottoms we get in sobriety…that’s another post!

      Hope you are well 🙂

  13. Once again Paul, your words have ‘struck a cord w me’….I was that nurse, drank every night, hung over at work but BC I didn’t drink on the job I thought I was OK….no way was I an alcoholic. … My rock bottom wasn’t anythg catastrophic. I had had enough, I finally surrendered. My experiennce (s) over the last year has been that no matter the story, we alcoholics and addicts all share the same thing. Pure agony and dispair. At meetings it still amazes me to look another recovering addict in the eye and silently speak to each other, yep I know exactly where you have been…..a silent understanding. My journey is mine, I was only a drink away from losing it all (kids, job, my life). I cannot compare myself to other addicts (or anyone for that matter) .
    Thanks Paul:)

    Katie

    • It’s true that for most folks, the “YET”‘s haven’t occurred. Or at least to more dramatic tones. A lot of the guys I know in certain meetings have come from dramatic side of things. When I go to other meetings, it’s the milder version, so to speak. But as you said, in the end, we are all the same. The window dressing is different is all. The fact we don’t have to say much and understand each other goes a long way.

      Thanks Katie for the fantastic comments. Thank you for sharing.

      Blessings
      Paul

  14. As usual dude…this is freaking brilliant and you’ve touched on a nerve. This metamorphosis that alcoholism and addiction are undergoing is a process that has been a long time in the works. To unmask the man under the bridge and find a human seeking a connection with other alcoholics or addicts is one thing, but to unmask the soccer mom or little league dad who “function” but are still suffering is quite another.

    We come in all shapes and sizes as do our “bottoms”…and those bottoms come from who we are, not how we live.

    Thanks Paul,
    Sherry

    • Very well said, Sherry. We are easy to shun the bridge dude, but we seem to change when it’s the soccer mom. Our perceptions become judgements and then we see the differences and not the similarities. I have as much in common with the guy who just came out of jail as I do the one who just came out of his Lexus. As alcoholics, and humans, the frailties and fears, etc. we share is astounding.

      Hope you have a wonderful weekend 🙂

  15. We really must be on the same wavelength this week, Paul. I love this line of yours: We tend to confuse “bottoms” with “consequences”. So f’n true. I have been writing a lot about the fact that yes, you can make hospital corners on your bed every morning, be a good do-bee all the live long day and STILL be an alcoholic. I sure was. But the fact that you maintain a functioning life keeps you in the clutches of alcoholism that much longer. A dangerous game. Thank you for echoing this message! For two years before I stopped drinking, I spent a lot of time surfing around the internet looking for a description of what I had become. I didn’t fit into the stereotype, yet I knew I was different from those around me in that I had a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol. I learned so much in recovery. My addiction is the same addiction as “those people” – we are all suffering from the exact same thing. I am extremely sensitive to addictions of all kinds now and feel saddened and annoyed when someone uses the word “alcoholic” with disgust. As if that person’s entire being has no meaning because they have an addiction. They just wipe out everything they are and replace it with this word, and mutter the word with such disapproval. Sorry for the long comment. I have a lot to say on this subject.

    • Comment away! I do the same on other people’s blogs…lol.

      You make some great points, and yes, we can often wipe out a soul by using a single word, and we do that probably without knowing it in so many other ways. And even as an alcoholic myself I am guilty of judging other alcoholics. How insane is that? But we all do it at some point. We even say “well, at least I am wasn’t as bad as HER”, etc. But that could have easily been me if I kept at it. That’s all it is – one more bad break, or continuing to drink and boom, we are there. Behind bars, in the hospital, etc.

      And yes, your post was bang on and on the same path…love when that happens!

      Cheers and have a great weekend!

  16. What is it with this comparison gene we humans have going on? You have described it so eloquently – it could have been a page out of my different book. I spent the first three months in therapy apologizing for being there because I wasn’t “that depressed.” I saw the broken hearts and souls in the same waiting room as me…surely I didn’t belong there, right?
    Truth be told, I left too soon. I couldn’t ever get over the feeling that I wasting the therapist’s time with my made-up problems. While I have never experienced the sting of addiction and subsequent sobriety, I will forever battle those danged internal battles we all wage in our own way.
    You always have a way of bringing it around to us and making it relevant…no matter where we are at in our own journeys.
    Bless you, Paul.

    • We all have our “thing” that we compare. I like the example you gave of being in the waiting room of the therapist (I have been in many waiting rooms like that). Wondering if I am “that bad” to be there. What I realized that for therapists is that every day folks see them (my wife is a therapist too). So I lost that sort of stigma early. But the comparison game is strong in us and I am not sure why. Maybe it served us at some point? Who knows.

      Thank you for broadening this discussion. I like when folks do that here, and take it out of the niche crevice that I tend to write in.

      Blessings
      Paul

  17. I had a high bottom insofar as the “trouble” I got into with my alcoholism (my health, however, did not lie and I was on a fast track towards dead), but what I loved and marveled at while in rehab was how much I was like the people who had done jail time and hurt other people during their active addiction. At the core, we are the same and that humility always makes me feel stronger for it, if that makes sense

    • Well stated, Judith. I learned a lot at rehab, and what you said was exactly it – I was no different from the guy who was on his 5th stint at treatment or the other guy who came out of jail or even the one who had wet brain (there is a big “yet”). When we spoke, there was a common language, and I learned quickly not to judge.

      Thank you for the wonderful share 🙂

  18. Hey Paul !
    Great stuff. I remember in the early days having that discussion with myself, doing the compare/contrast process, for I had not really “lost” anything yet, expect maybe my pride. I thought I was about to lost my relationship and that scared the heck out of me so I went to get sober for that. Of course I found that was not the reason to get sober or stay sober.
    Thank the wisdom of the writers of the Big Book and 12 & 12 because in the first step the idea of “the bottom the rest of us had it to point to where it hit them. By going back in our drinking histories…” Because many of us where not “last-gaspers” yet. Our lives were unmanageable and sanity was not our way of being while drinking or using. What I heard was where addiction would or could take me, and I didn’t want or need to go through hell to get clean and or sober.
    I had to set my ass in chair, I had to do the work or work the program that is suggested to “trudge the road of happy destiny”. Something click, the lights came on, and I realized all of what these people where saying made a lot more sense than what I was doing.
    Yes recovery is about changing the “inside” it is a inside job…

    • What you say is bang on and profound, Jeff. It’s amazing how many guys I know who were doing it for someone else or some other kind of reason, and eventually relapsed. This is an inside job and we do it for us and us alone. Everyone reaps the benefits of our recovery, but we do it for us solely.

      I knew that I was on the thin line of becoming one of those “lowly companions” the literature talks about. Getting pinched for the DUI was the best thing to happen to me. And from there, it was all about being honest and working that program like my life depended on it because it did. And still does.

      Thank you for this, Jeff.

      Blessings and have a wonderful weekend

      Paul

  19. The differenciation between consequences and bottoms was very helpful to me, and in the long run may have helped me not back out of the rooms. After much soul searching, and praying, I realize that my bottom, lying awake at three in the morning, knowing that my anxiety problem was revving up, and that I could stop drinking alcohol, but would eventually return, and that this would guide me eventually to CAMH again, was as real as any. The worst barrier for me was all the smoking at AA. Clumps of smokers at the door to the church basements, the heavy, cloying odour of second hand smoke in the rooms, the smell of smoke on my clothes when I returned home, my stinging eyes, and the asthma kicking in. Wasn’t the weed in some ways as bad as the booze, I thought. Shouldn’t these people work on their cross addiction? And isn’t it a fact that 90% of alcoholics smoke?
    How come I did not smoke, or even drink coffee and they clung to their extra large cups like kids with candy? All that is past now. My bottom has nothing to do with the smoking and their addiction. It is all mine, and I have to deal with it. The bottom line is that people suffering from a mental illness should not use alcohol, period. That’s the guideline, and I now agree with it. If I have to smell second hand smoke, and get smoked like a ham, so be it. It’s well worth the pain.

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