In early recovery, there were three areas of my life that I quickly learned I had to let go of or yet another relapse was lurking close by and inevitable:
- Resistance to being an alcoholic and drug addict
- My old friends
- My conception of God
Resistance to Being an Alcoholic and Drug Addict
I will never forget the first time someone suggested to me that I might have an problem with alcohol. I was highly offended and briskly brushed her off. She had tried to delicately and kindly point out to me that physically I looked tired and was significantly underweight, yet bloated. The sugar in the booze I was drinking daily had me looking like a malnourished person with a serious bloated belly. Emotionally, it was evident that I was drained and disconnected. She suggested that perhaps my drinking was getting in the way. This caring woman then mentioned the family disease aspect of alcoholism- both Mom and Dad had battled the bottle for decades and she knew it. The courage it took for her to be honest with me and her care in presenting what she was observing, of course, enraged me. This was an identity I was unwilling to accept at this point in my life. Unfortunately, and unnecessarily, it would take almost two decades of low bottoms and extreme suffering for myself and those that love me in order to embrace the distinction between how I thought of myself and what my actual reality was. Today, my heart longs to thank this family friend who on that day tried her very best to reach a young, budding alcoholic. I was in my early twenties at the time. Gratitude for her has replaced the anger and resentment that once reigned.
My resistance to accepting myself as an alcoholic ran deep. I did not want to repeat the low spots I saw in my parents; I was not going to be like them. Today, through the gift of the twelve steps, I am proud and honored to be like my Mother and Father, despite their own battles with alcohol. At the time, my ideas about myself included being a very disciplined person. I had gotten myself through undergraduate school, gotten my first job, and was living on my own. I was boiling over with pride at my accomplishments and would often boast that everything I had, I got for myself through my own effort and will power. One of my favorite lines was “I didn’t marry it and my parents didn’t give it to me.” This notion of independence – of the one great I – was smashed by the inability to stop drinking. I was eventually confronted with the dilemma of knowing I had to let go of this self-perception of being disciplined. When it came to drugs and alcohol – I had a huge deficit of discipline. Another idea I had about my self was that of being fiercely independent. I really believed that I did not need help from anyone and could be a lone wolf. I loved that facade and fought to maintain it. Alcoholism beat me to such a state of submission that I had to face the fact that: 1. I could not stop drinking and 2. I could not to it on my own. I needed the help of others who were going through the same thing.
My Old Friends
One of the major stumbling blocks I ran into again and again (read: relapse) was figuring out when and how to let go of my drinking and drugging friends. It soon became clear that my circle of friends drank and drugged just as obsessively as I did. I did not want to leave my friends. In my head I thought they would be there for me no matter what, through thick and thin. That turned out to be very far from the truth. In the first few months of living clean and sober it was not comfortable for me to even begin to think about hanging out with people who did not drink or drug. So I repeated the mistake of thinking I could stay with my existing party animal crowd and not engage with the booze or drugs. I was certain that I would be different somehow and be able to resist the urge to use. This was obviously ineffective. I grew disenchanted, depressed, and lonely. For a long period of time, I straddled between the old crowd, new sober acquaintances, and loneliness. Some days the despair was so intense I would not leave the house. As my spiritual connection gained strength, through prayer and asking sober people for help, I noticed I had more bandwidth to be alone, to not have to engage with my friends who were still abusing substances like I used to, and to slowly open up to a new circle of people that would eventually become sober friends. This was not a process that happened quickly. My stubbornness to let go of the old crowd and my talon-like grip on hanging out at the same spots where I used to get high dragged me through many fields filled with land mines of pain and suffering. Eventually, my habits began to change and my thinking became clearer. I saw that I no longer had such a strong desire to be around my old alcoholic and drug addict friends (whom I still care for ). I realized I was standing – feebly – on a new path surrounded with people who were living clean and sober.
My Conception of God
The third domain of letting go for me was that of spirituality. I entered the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous with a lot of bias and prejudice on spiritual matters. When the higher power concept of the AA program was mentioned, I bristled with the notion that I could have a personal relationship with a God that would solve all my problems. For quite awhile, my strong sense of independence, pride, and prejudice closed me off from the necessary willingness and humility to truly begin any type of meaningful spiritual development. The battle of letting go of my old ideas of God had begun really without my awareness or acknowledged consent. I knew that the concepts I grew up with regarding God were neither ones I believed in nor had they served me in any way. As a child, my family attended church for a short time. What I heard there did not reflect what I was experiencing behind the closed doors of our home. That disconnect was something I could not reconcile. The God that was to be feared brought me no comfort. I already had a built in “I suck” belief that was further embedded by the church’s doctrine of me as a sinner and not worthy of God’s love. Today, I see where this church and its teaching has helped millions of people find a spiritual answer to the ups and down of life. It was just not a message that resonated with me and did not provide me with a practical application for daily living in sobriety.
Strangely, I did not want to let go of my old ideas about God. I was clear they did not serve me yet I had a deep belief that there was only one “right” view of who God is and more importantly how to be in a relationship with God was drilled into me. These old ideas bored into my soul and would not extricate easily. It has been a slow journey to let go of my childhood and mainstream cultural ideas and notions about God to get comfortable with my own sense of a power greater than myself and how that power and I can be together in a World that is often full of chaos and uncertainty. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous there is a classic line where Ebby Thatcher, Bill Wilson’s old drinking buddy, and Bill are sitting at Bill’s kitchen table discussing God. Ebby is sober and Bill is not. But he desperately wants to be. Ebby cannot seem to reach beyond Bill’s inability to connect with a concept of a higher power that is personal to him. So Ebby said “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” (pg. 12, 3rd ed.) This notion shifted Bill’s thinking in a way that opened up a spiritual connection for him. He entered detox for the last time and remained sober for the rest of his life. For me, it was absolutely necessary to be willing to let go of my old ideas about God and to be open to having a new experience. An open mind, a willingness to explore my own internal beliefs and biases, and the support of a sponsor who practiced spirituality as a way of life, were essential to me as I maneuvered this new spiritual territory.
Like the fall trees that instinctively know exactly when to release their leaves before the winter ice, snow, and winds come, I have learned to let go. If the trees were to stubbornly keep their leaves, they would be dragged down and die when the Nor’easter comes through. My spiritual practice is just like that too. I must be willing to let go – even when I don’t want to – before I experience the pain and suffering of clinging to old ideas and people.