I cut close to the bone tonight. Real close.
After eight months of sobriety, I finally had a “burning desire,” that urge to go out and drink again. I mean, sure, I’d thought about drinking over the past eight months, but it was always idle conjecture in my head. Never so bad I could practically taste and smell it.
But tonight the stars lined up just so, and that unique combination of self-righteous anger and hopelessness washed over me, pushing me ever onward to that bottle. As some might say, my ass was on fire.
Wait, let me back up. My name is Jim, Kaj to my friends, and I am an alcoholic. That means I have a disease that tries to convince me every single day that I don’t have a disease. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous tells me that “the alcoholic at certain times has no mental defense against the first drink. Neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power.”
A VCU student I know put it best when he said “I am an alcoholic, and that means there will come a day when my own mind tells me it’s a good idea to drink again. I know that day will come, but there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is rely on my Higher Power. Nothing else will save me.”
If I didn’t have one of those days today, I had something very nearly like it.
Without getting into too much extraneous detail, I let myself fall into a familiar pattern with my wife. She had issues with her family, and brought those concerns to my doorstep. Having a deeply rooted “knight in shining armor” complex, I soon found myself rushing to her aid. She, however, backed down, and I was left by myself, embroiled in a dispute with her family.
Drama abounded, together with a heavy dose of self-flagellation because I fell for this routine again, much like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football out of Lucy’s tantalizingly outstretched hands. To make a long story short, my emotions quickly bubbled over, in a fight that wasn’t my own, because my oversized ego wanted to be hero for the day.
Oh, I was also sick, which didn’t help. Some kind of flu bug or something was going around the Healing Place, so of course I picked it up and got sick over the weekend. So right after the little phone fight I had with Anne’s grandfather, I had to hit the sack, burrowing under the covers while chills raced through my body.
To make matters worse, this was the day they were delivering a new bed for John Tyler. While I was grateful for the bed, it unfortunately meant that I had to rest on some sofa pillows on the floor in a corner of his playroom. Just like the makeshift bed I slept in a year ago, when I was deep in my addiction at my Mom’s place in Charlottesville. At least, that is, before she put me out on the back porch like a dog because I kept coming home drunk. Dozing in and out of feverish slumber on this improvised mattress was just too familiar, too eerie.
All of which gave me a lot of time by nightfall to get into my head, a dangerous place to be at the best of times. And this was definitely not the best of times. Now that I’d managed to get myself all worked up, I thought, I figured I’d better get myself to a meeting.
As I walked out the door, I reached for my backpack, normally an innocuous act. Indeed, I take it with me so many places my son, John Tyler, calls it “Daddy’s purse.” But tonight, as I reached for the familiar straps, it was as if I was watching someone else do it. And then I heard that voice.
Yeah, you’d better take it with you tonight. If you go out and start drinking, you’re going to want that emergency $100 bill you’ve got tucked away in the inside pocket. No sense having to come back here to get it. That’d just be a waste of good drinking time.
I knew that voice. I call it the “cruel whisper of my disease,” and it’s the polar opposite of the “still, small voice” of God I’ve been trying so hard to hear. Worse, I knew the message that whisper carried to my mind.
Do the little things. Don’t pay attention. Set the stage, so when it comes time, you can drink and nothing will stand in your way. It will be you and me, alone again, just like old times.
I was so scared I probably would have pissed myself if I’d been drunk. Taking a deep breath and saying a quick prayer, I opened the door and stepped outside to the car. Turning the key, I headed out towards St. Mary’s Hospital, the site of the nearest 8:00 meeting and, ironically, the place where I detoxed eight months ago.
I drove fast. I didn’t really care that I was speeding. To tell you the truth, I looked in the rearview mirror almost hoping that I’d see those flashing blue lights to take me away from myself tonight. At least then I would have stayed sober, I thought.
Right then, I knew there were two parts wrestling inside of me. There was the part that was scared to death, that didn’t want to drink, and there was the part I had just heard, that was already at work in the back of my mind trying to set this thing up.
My disease is a monster in a cage, and the cage has no lock. I can open the door at any time. That I have chosen not to do so for 243 days in a row is a testament to my Higher Power and the kit of spiritual tools that has been laid at my feet. But all I’m ever given is a “daily reprieve, contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition.”
Another way of saying “reprieve” is “stay of execution.” I had to get to that meeting. I knew if I didn’t, I’d wake up tomorrow with my disease whispering in my ear again.
You had me where you wanted me. Now I’m going to take you where you don’t want to go.
As I pulled into the hospital parking lot I fished 50 cents out of my pocket. Healing Place Peer Mentors make only $60 a week, not enough for a cell phone. But I had to call Bob, my sponsor.
I darted into the hospital lobby and headed over to the bank of phones. They stood right next to one of the bathrooms I used when I was homeless. Hey, it was open 24/7, and they didn’t really pay too much attention to strange people coming and going at all hours of the night. A homeless guy can’t be too careful. Gotta keep moving, don’t wanna get noticed.
Picking up the receiver, I dialed the number. As I waited, the bathroom door mocked me. “Remember me?” it sneered. “You’re right where you belong. Right where you need to be.”
My heart quailed as I got Bob’s voice mail. “That’s right,” I thought, “he’s at the beach on vacation.” Steeling my nerves, I prepared to leave him a message, but not two words came out of mouth before the tears started flowing. “I’m having a really bad day,” I said. “I haven’t had anything to drink, and I’m about to go into a meeting, but I’m scared to death. You really can’t reach me. I’ll try to call you later. I just wanted to tell you this to tell on myself.”
Just leaving the message made me feel better. Now it wasn’t just me inside my head. I’d brought that first ray of sunlight to bear on my disease. I could feel it shrinking from the light, and I felt stronger somehow. As I walked away from the phone, I turned the right way, towards the meeting, rather than the wrong way, towards that drink.
Sometimes those little things can make all the difference.
I could see God’s hand in that meeting tonight. “Burning desires” or true newcomers are few and far between. It’s rare to see even one at a meeting. Tonight, I wasn’t even the only person with a burning desire. There was one other besides myself, and two real newcomers, all of which combined to make for a truly rewarding meeting.
Of course, at one point in the meeting someone read the exact passage from the Big Book that addressed my problem du jour.
And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation -- some fact of my life -- unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God's world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life's terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.
I was just where I needed to be.
I stopped off at the phone on the way back from the meeting and called Bob again. I was feeling much, much better, and didn’t want him to worry. He was, needless to say, very glad to hear from me. I explained about the situation earlier in the day, how sudden and intense that urge to drink was, and about how close I thought I’d been to taking that drink.
“But you didn’t do it,” he said, “and that makes all the difference.”
I told him how grateful I was, and thanked him for being there when I needed him. “You should be grateful,” he said. “A lot of people go through what you just went through and wind up in a very different place. But you did what you were supposed to do, you followed simple suggestions. Went to a meeting. Called your sponsor. Reached out for help.”
“You did your part, and God did His. He’s the one you should be thanking, not me.”
As usual, he was right.
I woke up this Easter morning clean, sober and vertical for another day. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, my wife and son were sleeping beside me.
As I walked out the door for my morning prayer and meditation, the clean morning air lifted my spirits. The struggle of the previous evening, disaster narrowly avoided, now seemed but a distant memory.
This could have been just another node about how messed up my life is when I drink, or how miserable I became after I relapsed. Worse, it could have been something written by my wife or someone else telling you how I went back out and died. But it’s not.
It’s a node about a simple program, and how it works if you take the simple actions needed to make it happen.
God is good. All the time.