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?
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?
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.
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.”
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.