Saturday, 3 April 2010

Splinters, Rabbit Holes, and Wonderland

The manifestation in my consciousness of the spiritual malady that underlies alcoholism is, for me, best described by the phrase 'restless, irritable, discontented' (p. xxviii of the book 'Alcoholics Anonymous'). Restless: I want to be anywhere but right here, right now. Irritable: nothing seems right, even when it is right. Discontented: nothing seems enough, even when it is enough. This is less a set of emotions and more a state of being stemming from a perception: that, even when all is well, everything is wrong.

When alcohol worked, this was reversed: right here, right now was where I wanted to be. Even when everything was wrong, it was right. Whatever I had—as long as I had drink—was enough.

I did not drink solely to change how I felt or to escape the consciousness of my circumstances, although these were pleasant—and somewhat hit-and-miss—by-products of the effect of alcohol on my brain.

I drank to change the way I saw the world. One drink and the invisible goblins would set to work restoring the world around me to its rightful state, making innumerable tiny adjustments, until, after the third or fourth drink, I could rest. This is the effect on me produced by alcohol (p. xxviii). This sensation was indeed elusive: sometimes I caught it, sometimes I didn't; it was elusive also in that I muddled the superficial emotional shifts with this underlying change in perception: I thought that I drank just because of anxiety and depression, but, in truth, I drank—and drank to alcoholic excess—even when there was no anxiety or depression to treat.

But there was always the distortion of perception: and this is what alcohol really addressed.


For the longest time, I tried using the AA programme like a set of ordinary psychological devices to help me manage my life more effectively. And, externally, it did just that. But there was still a sense of wrongness: like watching a 3D film without the 3D glasses. At times, everything was perfect externally, but something was wrong deep inside, at a level beyond emotion and circumstance. When my emotions were out of kilter or my circumstances needed correcting, the noise of my thinking and the seismic tremors of how I felt were so distracting that I could not see the underlying uneasiness with the world, as though the whole planet were turning on a tilted axis. Ironically, I spotted it only when everything else was aligned, when my mind and emotions were quiet.

(This, incidentally, may be why, although we have stories in the basic text part of the Big Book ('Alcoholics Anonymous') like the crazy man who hits himself on the head with the hammer so he doesn't feel the ache (p. 23) and the thrill-seeking jaywalker (p. 37), our four main characters who display the anatomy of alcoholism without the emotional flesh—the certain American business man (p. 26), the man of thirty (p. 32), Jim (p. 35), and Fred (p. 39)—cannot blame their first or subsequent drinks on unusually warped emotion or circumstance. Respectively, we have a man whose physical and mental condition are unusually good, a man who has had a successful and happy business career, a man having a perfectly normal day, and a man without a cloud on the horizon. Strip away emotion and circumstance, and real alcoholics try the desperate attempt of the first drink (p. 35) despite the suffering and humiliation (p. 24) of whenever—last week or twenty-five years ago. No excuse. There must be something else going on.)

This is one of the baffling features of alcoholism as we know it—the utter inability to be at ease in the world, no matter how great the necessity or wish (cf. p. 34). I knew I ought to be at ease, that I ought to be satisfied, that the world ought to be enough. And, being a 'good boy' in AA (with my regular meetings, my sponsorship—in both directions, my periodic Step Four reviews of the tired old defects, my chatting through my problems with AA friends), I could not understand why I was consistently alienated from the world around me and drawn back to an AA that, cognitively, I no longer believed could alleviate this underlying uneasiness. After all, if it was going to, it would have kicked in by now, surely? Fifteen years is a long time to wait.

But something (or Someone) told me that the answer did indeed lie somewhere in AA, even though I felt, erroneously as it turned out, that I had exhausted its possibilities. The best description of this endless searching is this:

"You're here because you know something. What you know, you can't explain. But you feel it. You've felt it your entire life—that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there ... like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I'm talking about?" (The Matrix)

I had always known I was an exile from the kingdom (sorry, Camus). The kingdom had consistently eluded me ("the sensation is so elusive ..." p. xxviii). Alcohol (and a couple of other neat substances and behaviours) temporarily gave me a sham sensation that I was home. AA gave me a pink cloud (aka God's infinite grace) for a while, which, years later, I would nostalgically yearn for, while dismissing that yearning as unrealistic.

But I have now found the kingdom, and, though everything is the same, nothing is the same.

The splinter in my mind is gone.

I've been shown a path through the book Alcoholics Anonymous and the programme set out in such masterly detail (p. xxvii) in its pages that has released me from the Matrix. It has not taught how to manage my life, or the world, more effectively: it has released me from it. I still move within it, obviously; my feet are on the ground, because that is where my work is (cf. p. 130), but I am no longer of it.

"Do not try and bend the spoon ... that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.
What truth?
There is no spoon.
There is no spoon?
Then you will see, it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."

What I tried to do for fifteen years in AA was to satisfy the spiritual yearning with the material, the mental, and the emotional. It did not work. I was always left wanting.

What I have been shown is the attachment—at cellular level—to the world around me, my utter dependence for any shred of happiness or satisfaction on the kaleidoscopically shifting fragments of approval, respect, appreciation, belonging, validation. My attachment to things, to achievement, to fixes, to thrills, to sensations, to people, to patterns, to routine, to identities I had invented merely so I would have something to identify with.

"The Matrix is everywhere. It's all around us, even in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you pay your taxes. The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes, to blind you from the truth. What truth? That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is—you have to see it for yourself."

Steps One to Nine unhooked me, cell, by cell, by cell. And I could not be told: I had to see it for myself: my automated reactions, the endless banks of buttons inside me just waiting to be pressed, and how I would dance like a puppet for my masters: alcohol, approval, respect, appreciation, belonging, validation.

In 'The Matrix', the separation from the system is sudden. In AA, it is slower, and the process appears never to be complete. But it is just as inexorable.

"You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependant on the system, that they will fight to protect it."

Only when the system became unbearable was I willing to face the choice: one was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of my intolerable situation as best I could (drunk, or sober); the other, to accept spiritual help (p. 25).

"This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back ... You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up and believe ... whatever you want to believe."

I do not know how many chances we are really given: drunk, or sober. I've learned to take the opportunity now, because I never know if I will be passing this way again.

"You take the red pill ... you stay in Wonderland ... and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember ... all I'm offering you is the truth: nothing more."

Strip away illusion, and you are left with truth. Like the sun hidden in a cardboard box.

The world has become Wonderland to me. A world where the sky above Bethnal Green is filled with diamonds and clouds of butterflies fly out of people's mouths.

As a friend of mine replied with a grin when asked how he was, "Fourth Dimension, innit?


Adrian said...

WOW!!! Amazing! XXX

Jeff said...

i found this shocking, almost scary. it touched me as i read it.

stacey said...

this is awesome!