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other than trying to find meetings, which proved difficult as the details in the International Directory of AA were all out of date, I drank.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!

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