My road to recovery began with AA. Early on, especially in my first year of sobriety, I leaned on it, clung to it. I would not have been able to make such a big change without the tremendous support I received. AA took me to school and taught me about judgment, acceptance, trust, and deception.
Judgment: When I walked into my first meeting, I was surprised to see people who looked like they were happy, healthy and thriving. Growing up, I knew people that had problems with alcohol but I still had a face of addiction in my mind and it didn’t look like me. Yes, there were people in the meetings who were visibly struggling, but it was not always clear. I quickly learned I had underestimated the reach and power of addiction.
We’re all possible candidates, no matter how much love we have received, no matter how much money we have earned.
We’re all possible candidates.
Those church basements, dining halls and conference rooms felt like classrooms. Anxious and afraid, I listened to stories, recited mantras, read books and took notes. The people in those rooms became my teachers and for one of the first times in my life, I understood the importance of learning.
We learn so we can identify and implement the positives and negate the negatives.
We learn so our lives can be more fulfilling.
We learn so one day we can become the teachers.
Even a case for Geometry can be made here because the learning of something difficult (for me, Math) is a reminder that we don’t know it all. There’s a big world out there and learning something we previously didn’t know is a gift.
Unfortunately, because of judgment, often times we don’t make space in our lives for learning. When I walked into the basement of building in downtown Baltimore I had to be open and accepting of each person because I never knew who was going to save my life that day. No, they weren’t physically stopping me from harming myself but their stories, smiles, and suggestions gave me life. They gave me hope.
If I spent my time judging people about how they got to where they are, if they’re telling the truth or exaggerating (thoughts that would run through my head from time to time) then I would miss the valuable lessons.
Acceptance: More times than I’d like to admit, I have looked at my life and said, “Wow, this isn’t how I planned it would look.” I’m ashamed to say that it is because of hubris, entitlement, whatever you want to call it, it’s because I didn’t think it could be me. I am so happy with how things are now, but I never anticipated experiencing many of the struggles I’ve faced.
The following statement is drenched in arrogance, “Well, I mean, I’m not an alcoholic.”
It has to be said in the “better than you” way that these statements are said. It comes from a place of perceived dominance and false security. It’s to say, “yeah I know those things happen, but not to me.”
Throughout my life God is constantly saying, “Oh yea?”
Believe it or not, I didn’t plan on being almost seven years sober by the age of 33.
The people in AA with me didn’t plan on their lives turning out how they have either but there can be beauty in the shared disruptive experience. We all experience some sort of destruction. It disrupts our perceived natural order of things.
Often times because of drinking, relationships fall apart, money is lost and pain is caused. It’s not something dreamt of as a kid, nor is it discussed in our ten year plans. The antidote to this way of proceeding is acceptance.
Often we might have a weak connotation with the word acceptance, but I look at it as full of power. I found the strongest people in the world in those meetings. Powerless over the control alcohol has? Yes. Powerful and able to accept that truth and make something out of life rather than dwelling on what could have been? Absolutely.
Often times when things happen to us we think, “Why me?” as if another person is a more deserving instrument. This stems from a seed of belief that God built a hierarchy which protects all the “good” people and wreaks havoc on the “bad.”
The sooner we get over this and get over ourselves, we’ll be able to live the serenity prayer.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Trust: Today it’s often perceived as weak and simple-minded when someone places complete trust in God.
Many people I’ve talked to say that faith takes the place of reason because basically your reasoning muscles are weak so you rely on trust instead of doing the work. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. I don’t think it is, and based on my experience, this is largely an unfair assessment because I see people who trust in God as people who are extremely rational because in my eyes, often times life is irrational.
Whether you believe in God or not, sometimes life gets to the point where we start to look for answers and yearn for guidance.
In AA, recovery doesn’t happen without trust in a higher power. An entity to which we can turn and with which we can struggle. It’s not a safety blanket or a cop-out, it’s a source of power greater than anything this earth has to offer. When you think about it if the goal is to initiate a transformation can you blame someone for looking up for guidance instead of just around in the environment that contributed to the need for the change? This doesn’t mean that people can’t help bring change to our lives, AA wouldn’t be anything without the people doing the work. However, addiction wreaks so much havoc that sometimes fueling the soul while working on the body and mind is a rational way to combat such irrationality.
For me, trusting in God is the only way I’ve been able to be sober for so long. This trust has empowered me to take time to pray or go to mass every day, read the Bible, self-help books and poetry, exercise and commit myself to continue working in schools (something that keeps me honest). I ask more questions now than I did when my faith was absent. I struggle with controversial Bible passages, pastors, and the myriad of issues that come with being a believer.
Thankfully this trust has also allowed me to see the beauty in the people around me, knowing that they are all a part of the bigger picture, no one better or worse than the other.
Deception: We’re great at tricking ourselves and that is both positive and negative. I learned this in both Africa and AA.
Deception for the better – I had to go to Africa and meet a man named Juma to learn this lesson. My uncle, a role model of mine, is an adventurer. He has climbed many of the world’s tallest mountains and is not afraid of a challenge. When the invite to climb Kilimanjaro came my way as a junior in college, I didn’t hesitate to accept. At that time I was in shape because of Cross Country and I believed I was ready to make it to The Roof of Africa.
In the months leading up to the trip, my father and the rest of the crew spent plenty of time in the gym and REI.
We were ready.
Fast forward to the final 24 hours of the climb which included the summit. Juma, our guide, gave us updates on how far we had to go and because we were tired, he was getting peppered with inquiries. Most of the time he would smile and say, “Forty-five minutes.” Two hours later I realized he had told us the same answer a few times now. I remember being so angry at him. I thought to myself, “Why would he lie like that? Maybe I was planning my nutrition by how long he said he had to go? How inconsiderate!” Sure enough, he got us to the top.
It was a very difficult day because after the summit we needed to descend because of the altitude. Later that evening when debriefing about the climb I came to a realization: Juma’s deception was essential.
Sometimes when we are faced with the gravity of the entire challenge ahead of us, we fold. I think Juma knew we were intimidated and knew we were nervous. By telling us we didn’t have much more to go, he made us think we could do it. I’ve implemented this strategy in my marathon training, often times before my early morning workouts. I say that I’ll run a mile and see what happens, maybe I’ll even run home if I’m not feeling well. Well, because it’s only temporary weakness, I never end up turning around after that first mile. Just like Juma, I think God helps us believe we are capable of more than we are.
Through AA I also learned how good I was at deceiving myself, but this time it was the negative kind that kept me at the bottom of the mountain. Meeting after meeting I heard people talk about how we often tell ourselves things like “Oh that will never be me!” or “I can back off when I want to.”
These false mantras lead to destruction because the reality is quite the opposite. So many of my brethren in the room that were there by mandate by the law or a significant other and maintained the same lie, this is temporary.
Like I said earlier, I didn’t think I belonged in those rooms and for some warped reason, I thought addiction was below me. Many of the older guys in the room would often chastise the ones who seemed to be in denial. They’d tell stories and say things like, “You say you will never drink and drive or you will never steal to support the habit and then your ‘nevers’ turn into reality.”
Thankfully that hit home with me because it illustrated how we’re not automatically safe from ourselves, it takes awareness and work. The intricacies of deception are vast and I certainly never want to be someone who can’t see what’s right in front of me.
A lifetime of sobriety seems daunting to me, but I’m just focusing on hanging on for another forty-five minutes.