Saturday, 27 February 2010

First Floor, Powerlessness, Unmanageability, Going Up!

The Twelfth Step suggests, firstly, that we try to carry this message to other alcoholics, having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, and then that we try to practise these principles in all our affairs.

In AA today, this first element is carried out in great part through the vehicle of sponsorship.

There are many models of sponsorship. Stalin running the Soviet Union is one. As my friend Tom says, with similar results, at times. Then there is the long-suffering Samaritans call-centre model. I've been at the receiving end of this type of sponsorship, and the result was a deepening of my self-absorption, and the perverse satisfaction of having taken someone else hostage in it. Then there is the preacher leading his flock to the New Jerusalem. The land ultimately settled is sometimes not as 'green and pleasant' as the vision would promise, however, and there can be a separation from the rest of AA—or the rest of humanity—and I'm reminded of the creepy preacher from Poltergeist II who leads his followers into an underground cavern where their souls are trapped for eternity.

The image which, right now, best reflects the role is lift attendant.

I am not the power. I am not the light. I just know how to operate the lift, because I was shown, and I can show you the twelve buttons for each of the twelve floors. And I can take you up to the twelfth floor, the roof terrace, where you can see the whole world from a single vantage point, the air is clear, and you are totally free.

If you want to stay on the ground floor—floor zero, be my guest, but I cannot stay down there with you for long. I have a job to do. If you do not want to come up in the lift with me, that is your business. Please make way for someone who does actually want to use the lift. The lift is here, ready, once you are sick of the lobby.

If you think there's anything else in the lift other than the twelve buttons, there is similarly nothing I can do for you. What else is there to press?!

The ground floor is hell. I've been liberated from alcohol and from myself—and that is what hell is, active addiction plus imprisonment in my own thoughts.

The roof terrace is great. But my work is bringing people up from the ground floor. The lower floors of the building are not easy places to be, but I have to go back there to find people who want to escape, because those of us who have been liberated are the only ones who know how to operate the lift. If we do not help, no one else can.

Many people, having been taken up to the roof terrace, just stay there, enjoying the view.

There are times when it feels as though all I am doing day after day is going up and down in the lift.

Self-pity can creep in, as I become jealous of those lounging on the roof terrace.

This is a distortion: even when I am working with others, sometimes, for three or four hours a day, that still leaves a lot of other hours in the day for the rest of what life has to offer.

There's nothing quite like the feeling, however, of knowing that I have been used as one of the channels for effecting change in another person's life. Of knowing that, with each person saved, a new lift is created for people to be delivered from hell.

In those moments, I know 100% that there is an infinite power in the universe, and it is that knowledge that supplies the genuine joy of living. And, without that, the roof terrace is just a roof terrace.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

"Happy talk, keep talkin' happy talk"

... sang 'Bloody Mary', appropriately, in South Pacific.

I've said in the past, "this is the only disease where you get better by talking." Talking is involved. But this is only part of the truth, for me.

Sometimes, AAs assert that time should be given over in meetings for people to say "what is going on for them", in case they "take it home with them and drink".

Sometimes there is great resistance to Tradition Five ("Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers"); any suggestion that group members, when sharing, confine themselves to carrying the message—their knowledge and experience of the Twelve Steps of recovery as set out in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (the 'Big Book')—is usually rebuffed with the assertion that people just need to be able to express themselves freely on whatever is "current" for them.

My experience: talking no more treats alcoholism than crapping treats diarrhoea.

"Does anyone have a burning desire to share?"

I loved this when I was new. A whole room of people looking at me while I squeezed out—with increasing articulacy and an increasingly honed ability to captivate and amuse—the emotional pus of my alcoholic infection: the trouble I was having with other people, my emotional nature and its control over my decisions and actions, the misery and depression that would ambush me, the worry and anxiety, and my low self-worth (this is the modern term for the "feeling of uselessness" the Big Book talks about). Does anyone recognise the middle paragraph of page 52 (the "bedevilments")?

All I was doing was relieving the emotional symptoms of my untreated alcoholism without treating the cause.

I would feel a moment of relief and satisfaction. "I'm glad I got that out; I would have taken it home otherwise." Because I was not treating the cause, all I did once I left the meeting was start producing more and more symptoms, sometimes the next day, sometimes on the way home, sometimes in the meeting itself, after I had shared!

I have shared, felt better, and been convinced that that was why I did not drink on a particular occasion.

I have also shared, felt better, gone to the pub, and got drunk.

There is no relationship between sharing my pain and drinking or not drinking: "If he gets drunk, don't blame yourself. God has either removed your husband's liquor problem or He has not," (p. 120).

To believe that I can prevent myself drinking by sharing my emotions suggests I have control over alcohol. And it's a great way of blackmailing a room of AAs into listening to me: "I'll drink unless you give me the chance to tell you how I feel."

Do the symptoms need addressing?

Absolutely: get to meetings early, leave late, go for additional fellowship after the meeting, hang out with AA people, talk, talk, talk, let it all out, express everything. Get a gang of friends in recovery—actually in recovery, i.e. in the process of working the Twelve Steps, not just people attending AA meetings—and talk out everything inside you.

This is not inconsistent with what I'm saying above: if you are bleeding, you need to tend to the wound.

Just because treating the symptoms does not treat the cause does not mean the symptoms do not need to be treated!

Why not in meetings?

When one person shares his or her experience on how to apply a particular Step, Tradition, or Concept, everyone can benefit.

I have sat for years in AA enduring the dumping of the symptoms of untreated alcoholism so that just one person in the room could get temporary relief. What is the benefit to the room?

Alcoholics are selfish, and selfishness, self-centredness: that, we think, is the root of our troubles (p. 62:1)!

Meetings provide an irreplaceable forum for sharing collective experience on how to recover from alcoholism, and our very lives as ex-problem drinkers depend on our constant thought of others (p. 20). Sharing is for others, not for myself.

Meanwhile, mopping up emotions can take place one-to-one at any time.

So, is talking any part of the solution?

Emphatically, yes.

A newcomer needs to talk, talk, talk. We need to listen, listen, listen, so we can work out how to present the program of recovery most effectively to that person and, most importantly, how to present alcoholism in such a way that the newcomer can identify himself or herself as an alcoholic.

The first three Steps (up until the Step Three decision and prayer) involve a close discussion between two alcoholics, one of them recovered, about what alcoholism is and what the nature of the solution is.

The recovering alcoholic needs to convey the exact nature of his wrongs in Step Five. I felt terrible for a couple of days last week. What lifted me was listing the exact nature of my wrongs in the situation in question and calling a sequence of people to confess those wrongs. And I was immediately healed.

Step Ten suggests we discuss matters at once with another person when we spot selfishness, resentment, dishonesty, or fear (p. 84).

Step Twelve is using the faculty of speech to convey the message of Alcoholics Anonymous.

That's the real happy talk.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

The Race

The story—as it appears on the surface
In February 1993, I joined Alcoholics Anonymous. I went to many meetings. I immediately started sharing (well, speaking, at least). I was given phone numbers, which I used in moments of crisis. I went for coffee for people after meetings. I was shown how to draw up a 'gratitude list', i.e. a list of things I should—or ought to—be grateful for. I bought a copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. I was told to read it. I started, but I did not really see the point, so I skipped to the stories at the back, looking for tales about young people (I was 21). I was told that, if I went to meetings, I would be alright. I then moved to Russia.

"Do not make any big decisions in your first year," they say. The decision had already been made, however, to move to Russia. It was part of my studies, and I had to go if I wanted to complete my course. No big deal, however: there were, then, AA meetings in St Petersburg, the city I was assigned to. And meetings keep you sober, do they not?

Within two weeks, during which I had no programme other than trying to find meetings, which proved difficult as the details in the International Directory of AA were all out of date, I drank.

There was no fight: I suddenly realised I was going to drink, and I did not understand why, because I wanted to be and stay sober, I knew I was an alcoholic and could not carry on the way I was, but I had no choice in the matter. Going to the shop to buy the bottle of Hungarian brandy (that was what caught my eye) was like being marched at gunpoint. Once back in my room with the bottle, I resisted for up to an hour, me in one corner of the room, the bottle in the other. I was amused by the drama. I thought through the consequences carefully—and drank the contents of the bottle. As soon as I had the first gulp, I regretted it. But I drank the rest anyway. After all, it was good brandy, and, as I knew I should not be drinking it, I would probably have to throw it away if I did not drink it, which would be a shame, would it not?

I then managed to find the AA meetings in St Petersburg, through a long train of phone calls (which, itself, was not easy, as phone calls had to be booked at an office in the tower block I lived in; I had no phone at home. The phone calls were also in front of an impatient queue of people waiting to make calls themselves. So much for anonymity!)

And I discovered something very odd. Whereas meetings alone had been temporarily sufficient to keep me sober in the UK, they were no longer 'working' in Russia. I understood the language perfectly—that was not the problem. There were some strong people, and there was definitely talk of recovery and the programme. There were mostly Russians, but there were also some Finns, Swedes, Americans, and Australians, and I heard good things. In fact, I heard all of the same things I had heard in the UK. But every few days I would drink, sometimes on leaving a meeting.

Where am I going with this?
This is a race!
Against what?

These are the words of Harry M. Tiebout, M. D., a psychiatrist writing in the 1950s who advised many of the early members on the psychiatric aspects of alcoholism, from 'The Ego Factors in Surrender in Alcoholism'.

The connection between Ego and his own conduct had become explicit, as well as the relationship between not being stopped and Ego. He saw clearly that when he took that drink, he was the boss once more. Any previous reduction of Ego had been only temporary.

In treatment, the problem is to make that reduction permanent. Therapy is centered on the ways and means, first, of bringing the Ego to earth, and second, keeping it there. The discussion of this methodology would be out of place here, but it is relevant to emphasize one point, namely the astonishing capacity of the Ego to pass out of the picture and then re-enter it, blithe and intact. A patient's dream neatly depicted this quality. This patient dreamt that he was on the twelfth floor balcony of a New York hotel. He threw a rubber ball to the pavement below and saw it rebound to the level of the balcony. Much to his amazement, the ball again dropped and again rebounded to the same height. This continued for an indefinite period and, as he was watching, a clock in a neighboring church spire struck nine. Like the cat with nine lives, the Ego has a marvelous capacity to scramble back to safety—a little ruffled, perhaps, but soon operating with all its former aplomb, convinced once more that now it, the Ego, can master all events and push on ahead.

The real story
In January 1993, my ego was temporarily destroyed. I had realised that it was alcoholism that had killed my brother and that I was going the same way. I tried to stop drinking and, to my horror, could not manage more than a few days. Despite everything I knew, despite my fear of the consequences of continued drinking, despite the fact it was no longer fun, despite the fact that I showed extraordinary willpower in other areas of my life, I continually tried "the desperate experiment of the first drink" (p. 35 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous). Each time, the phenomenon of craving developed, and I passed through the well-known stages of a spree, emerging remorseful the next morning, with a firm resolution not to drink. This was repeated over and over (p. xxix).

By the beginning of February, I was done. I could not go on a day longer, and the thought occurred to me to phone AA. I had been surrendered. For a while, everything was splendid. The world finally made sense, I knew my place in it, and I saw that all I had to do was get on with what was in front of me, and everything would be alright.

Almost immediately, my ego started growing back: I started hatching plans. For my studies. For relationships. For how I was going to recreate my life. I started feeling extremely uncomfortable: restless (I did not want to be right here, right now; I wanted to be somewhere else, sometime else—where and when, I did not know); irritable (nothing was the way it should be, even when it was the way I wanted it); discontented (nothing was enough to satisfy me). The world would not play ball, but I was going to damn well make it. And I met roadblocks and brick walls wherever I looked.

Within eight weeks, I was completely frantic, and the thought occurred to me that alcohol would take the pressure off. I remembered how alcohol had once relieved my restlessness, irritability, and discontentment. How, when alcohol worked, right here, right now was where I wanted to be, everything was in its place in the universe, and I was satisfied: I just wanted that moment to last forever.

And the insanity of alcohol returned: there was a peculiar mental twist (p. 33) which convinced me that drinking for one night to take the edge off would be better for me than to struggle on, that, once I had blown away the cobwebs, I could approach my life once more with new resolve. There was a strange mental blank spot (p. 42), which should have been filled with the sure knowledge that drinking alcohol would only increase my obsession and hasten my perdition—but was not. There was a vague sense that I was not being any too smart (p. 36), but that was initially all. Then, the decision to drink was somehow made (as though a verdict were being issued by a unanimous jury and I were in the dock), and I realised with horror that it was too late. I started struggling and fighting against it, but I was already in the grip of something far more powerful than me. It was clear that the fight was merely for form's sake, that there was no chance that I would win out in single-handed combat.

And I drank.

The race is to establish a relationship with a power greater than ourselves rapidly enough to keep the ego in check
What does the book Alcoholics Anonymous say?
"We, in our turn, sought the same escape with all the desperation of drowning men," (p. 28)
"With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start," (p. 58)
"Without help, it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power—that One is God. May you find Him now!" (p. 59)
"Next we launched out on a course of vigorous action, the first step of which is a personal housecleaning," (p. 63)
"When we decide who is to hear our story, we waste no time," (p. 75)
"Now we need more action, without which we find that 'Faith without works is dead.' Let's look at Steps Eight and Nine," (p. 76)
"Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God's will into all of our activities." (p. 85)

These are the words of men and women who realised the terrible urgency of taking vigorous action in the tiny window of opportunity afforded by a temporary and involuntary reduction of the ego (commonly known as 'surrender').

When my ego is sufficiently reduced, God's grace steps in to fill the gap, and I am sustained in sobriety.

In that window, God's power—if I choose to access it—enables me to take steps to enable Him to shatter further my ego: the confession of the exact nature of my wrongs, the approaching of those I have harmed with a desire to make good, the turning of myself outwards to my fellows to be of service in the world.

And then, and only then, does the "flimsy reed" sustaining me show itself to be the "loving and powerful hand of God" (p. 28). Only then is permanent recovery possible.

Does this mean that the first Step Four inventory is going to be a profoundly insightful catalogue of the quirks of my psyche? Absolutely not: over the last 17 years I have discovered more and more with every inventory, and my first Step Four inventory appears, from where I now stand, to have been pretty damn shallow. But it was enough to give my ego a sharp and well-targeted kick in the teeth and spur me on to seek a relationship with God as the only power that could keep me from consequences of living a life based on self. If I had waited until I could perform Jungian psychoanalysis on myself, I would be dead, because I could not stand the strain and I would have drunk. God or no God.

Does this mean that, when we make our first set of Step Nine amends, all of our relationships are going to be healed and cured for all time? Absolutely not: the actual straightening out of the past takes plenty of time ("Yes, there is a long period of reconstruction ahead," p. 83). But if I had waited, I would be dead, because I could not stand the strain and I would have drunk. God or no God.

The scary part: by the time you realise you are in trouble, it is too damn late. The ego covers its tracks, and there is often no warning whatsoever.

I cannot count the number of people I have seen drink and disappear since I came to AA.

Yet, I have never seen anyone make daily progress in the three legacies of recovery (the Twelve Steps that summarise the programme of recovery set out in the book Alcoholics Anonymous up to page 164), unity (the Twelve Traditions—the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous), and service (the Twelve Concepts—service within and outside AA) and drink.

"If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution."
There is a race, and it is against the ego. How fast is yours growing back? How long have you got?

Are you harbouring resentments? (p. 66)
Is your conduct harming others? (p. 70)
Are you keeping certain facts about your life to yourself? (p. 72)
Are you afraid of facing your creditors? (p. 78)
Are you doing your utmost to straighten out the past? (p. 77)

Look at these pages for the consequences of not acting.

And act.

Act NOW!