With so many challenges presented by the holiday season, being grateful for the gift of sobriety can sometimes be difficult. Tonight I was at a Christmas party with my parents in Park City and everyone was drinking everything from eggnog and whiskey sours to red wine and single malt scotch. I didn’t really know anyone at the party and I felt trapped in this age vortex that was caught between people over 60 and their grandchildren and then me. In my forties, I felt more in touch with the kids than with the adults as one parental friend after another came along to squeeze my cheek and ask me the same questions over and over again. Boy, at that moment, a drink sounded real nice as a way to escape the tedious reality of being a good son and a good guest and a decent human being.
The Challenge of the Holiday Season
Is it tedious to be decent? Is it boring to be good? Did I have a drink? The answers to all of these questions is a simple no because I do not have to go there anymore. The gift of sobriety is the strength and the freedom, the spirituality and the acceptance, the love and the tolerance to walk through such moments with just a hint of grace and a smile. What do I do when confronted by the challenges of the holiday season? Actually, I reach for my tool belt, and I am always amazed at how well the tools of sobriety work and how applicable they are to almost every situation.
When thoughts of having a drink arise, when I want to escape and find instant relief from being restless, irritable and discontent, I pause and focus on taking three deep breaths. Unless someone is chasing me with a knife, I should always be able to find the time in virtually any situation to stop for a moment and take three breaths. What I have found in practice is that if I do not feel like I have the time to pause, almost always nothing actually is wrong with the situation. Nothing is really ever preventing me from pausing. Almost always, something is wrong with me.
Tonight, when my disease crept up behind me and began whispering of drinking, wanting to take me on a spin on the merry-go-round of self-destruction with those desperate thoughts of relapse, I simply stopped and sat down and took three breaths and said the Serenity Prayer to myself – “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.” Like a strange and inexplicable magic spell, I immediately began to feel okay again. The thoughts vanished like wisps of match smoke in the air, and I became connected again to my higher power. Even more resonant for my own sobriety, I became connected again to my gratitude; the spirituality of being grateful for tools that work.
I don’t have to drink or use drugs to enjoy my life or to have a good time or to survive a party that I don’t like. The prayer immediately connected me to the gratitude of having a life where my family wants me to be with them, where my parents love me and are proud of me, where I am comfortable in my own skin and I know that today I am a good and decent human being. How grateful I am to be able to write those words and know in my heart that they are true.
The Gift of Sobriety
No matter what challenges you face during this holiday season – the small burp of a lousy party on one extreme or a tragedy in the family as a loss is experienced or commemorated on the other – I promise that if you use the tools given you and work the 12 Steps, keeping faith in the principles within the program, you will be okay. Not always great and not always wonderful and not always happy, but you will be able to walk through situations that baffled you in the past, once giving rise to fear and anger, indulgence and nastiness.
Honestly, sobriety is the greatest gift that I have ever received in my life, and it was given to me by a loving God in exchange for nothing more than my showing up. The only absolute I embrace on this path is that I do not drink and use no matter what. Beyond embracing that certainty, I stumble every day and relapse on my character defects and act like an alcoholic. But I forgive myself for such mistakes and I move forward, doing my best to learn from each experience and do a little better next time around. I take baby steps because that is the only way it has ever worked for me.
In the heart of this holiday season, I wish you the very best and hope the end of 2012 signals a beautiful new beginning and the start of something wonderful in 2013. There is no golden ticket and there is no chocolate factory and there is no magic pill. But there are steps to be taken and if they are taken one at a time, everything within and everything I have learned and the quiet voice of my higher power tells me that it will all be a-okay for you. Even as this roller-coaster ride of life shoots up and down, it will continue to improve, and you will be amazed by how far this journey can take you and the places you will go. As Dr. Seuss reminded us in that lovely children’s book that works awfully well for adults, “Today is your day! / Your mountain is waiting, / So… get on your way!”
We, who have been trapped in the sheer unshirted hell of addiction, know unequivocally that we were slaves to our appetites. We might not have known it at the time, because our master was clever. Its like the saying “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.” Its hard to see the Devil when you are in hell, and the Devil seems like the only thing that will give you relief. That, in itself, makes the Devil your Savior, and now the truly twisted, Hieronymus Bosch -like reality of a person’s private torment comes to light. How terrifying to consider leaving one’s so called Savior. One believes that is the only source of relief, when it is, very simply, the source of all hell. Like Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. It is a depiction of hell, terrifying and awful. Temptations take us there. Addiction leaves us there, in that not so delightful garden.
This Devil (which, for the purpose of this blog, is our disease, our addiction) is also a shape shifting bastard. Not only can he convince the afflicted that he doesn’t exist, he can change to suit a person’s temperament. A person’s weakness is the Devil’s camouflage. Spiritually speaking, this is the most profound battle of all. It is why it is said that desperation is the greatest gift one can enter into recovery with. Anything short of that is still very susceptible to dark motives. A lot happens in the shadows where you can’t really see it happening. Recovery is all about light. We don’t always want to see whats lurking in the dark corners, but its imperative that we do, in order to overcome whats there.
I have friends who are still using. I can think of three right now who, I suspect, are using in private, and putting up a great front in public. They are still very functioning; they either own, or run, businesses, and are regarded as successful individuals in their community. However, there is something going on that is preventing them from fully inhabiting their own skin. Some part of them isn’t there. I remember, when I was in this same situation, a part of me was always not there- it was busy thinking about the time when I could check out, later, when I was alone. I’d have my wine, and my downers, and I’d numb out after work, and still get up the next day and go to work, running a fashion company. Until the time came that I numbed out at work, too. No one really knew. But I was unhappy, I was lonely, I was bereft, I felt like a leftover, unwanted in the fridge. I could say- I own my car, I own my home, I run a company- but what does that really mean when you are a slave? When part of you is always listening for your master’s voice, like the little dog sitting in front of the speaker, head cocked to one side? You can’t really pay attention to the life you try so hard to hide behind.
To me, its very dangerous how cunning the Disease is. Not the obvious dangers of the substances, and how many lives are lost to them, that is clear to everyone, and never stops an addict from using. Its frightening how it can tell you that its only xanax and wine, no big deal, its not like you are shooting up in an alley or anything. Or it says, ‘its just pot, and you need it, its the one little thing you need to quell the anxiety, its the only thing that works.’ Why would anyone fight that? Its comfortable enough. And its just enough to keep you asleep, sleepwalking through life, enslaved in velvet manacles. People who know they are doing dangerous drugs in dangerous amounts already know they are gambling with their lives. The ones who think they are managing it are in denial, and that can kill them. Just ask several of my friends- but you’d have to do it by ouija board now- wine and pills can and do kill. Pot- maybe not, but it still keeps you imprisoned. Life will never be what it could be, which isn’t death, just sleepwalking- not really living. Not really.
I think the people who truly run the last wheel off are lucky. They know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they must stop using. They come to understand that the Devil is not the Savior they thought he was- the comfort that the Devil offers is the source of all their suffering. They understand that the hell they are in is created by the Master of their appetites. A life where appetites do not dictate one’s every move is required. A life of recovery. All else, for us, is death.
I love to look around at the recovery community, whether at the ONE80CENTER July 4th party (over 1000 sober people) or at the big sunday meeting in LA last night, and know that I am surrounded by people who are FREE. Free people, who have liberated themselves from the slave master of addiction. Its a powerful thing, and it always always touches my soul. I am honored to be a part of it.
On February 11th, a dream came true. It’s one of those rare dreams that makes life better for others, and helps them make their dreams come true as well.
TEEN PROJECT’S THE P.A.D. VENICE DROP IN CENTER
Teen Project‘s The P.A.D. Drop In Center in Venice, California, held its ribbon cutting ceremony over the weekend and introduced the stylish resource center to the community. The center exists to help young adults who find themselves abruptly dropped from the Foster Care program at 18, with nowhere to go.
Many of the kids exiting the foster care program end up on the street, homeless, and resorting to crime in order to take care of themselves. These kids are put on the street without money, shelter, or a job, usually with no real training or skill, some with trauma issues that need psych meds to stabilize them. Its not hard to imagine the kind of trouble they could get into just trying to survive.
Teen Project, founded by Laurie Burns, has worked with many of these young adults, connecting them to available resources such as Teen Meeting Places Program, National Mentoring Program, Sober College Housing, Project Shelter Collaboration, and The Text Shelter Service, among others. She herself has taken in dozens upon dozens of at risk, foster kids, and has committed herself to their well being. Laurie herself was a child of the Juvenile Dependency System, and her experiences at the hands of the system, as well as the result of being dropped at 18 without any home or means of providing for herself, is what inspired her to be of service to the clients of Teen Project.
Justin Carroll of ONE80CENTER heard Laurie’s story and was so moved by what he heard that he committed himself to raising funds for the new Teen Project Drop In Center. He held a fund raising event at ONE80CENTER in Beverly Hills, where chanteuse Sarah Ault sang to a small audience of people who were clearly touched, as Justin had been, by Laurie’s story. And like Laurie, no one wanted another young person to ever go through what Laurie had been subjected to.
That night, ONE80CENTER was able to raise enough money (over $80,000) for Laurie and Teen Project LA that it funded the new TEEN PROJECT P.A.D. DROP IN CENTER.
The new center will be a place that homeless teens and young adults can come to who have no where else to go. Teen Project will then connect the teen with whatever it is they need- food, shelter, job training, medical assistance, substance abuse help,mentors, jobs- each young adult will be assessed and assisted as they transition into adulthood.
The Center itself is a lovely space. 8 interior designers volunteered to create colorful, warm spaces with clean lines, such as the mezzanine area. The walls are greyish blue with wallpaper that looks like paved stones, and hot pink cushions with slate blue carpet. The red Eames chairs in the reception area are a far cry from the institutional chairs found in most places that provide services to the disenfranchised, Such a small but well thought out detail instantly gives one a feeling of being welcome, and of being in the right place.
The overall effect of the well appointed space is that ‘everything is going to be okay’.
ONE80CENTER remains heavily involved on an ongoing basis with the homeless organization GETT LOVE, as well as its own non profit, 12 ANGELS, which helps find jobs for people in recovery. Fund raising is yet another aspect; Justin Carroll picks the charities for ONE80CENTER to champion, to help improve their effectiveness and insure they achieve their goals. This could be through fund raising, or it could be through aligning the staff and clients with the organizations to help in a hands-on kind of way.
As Laurie Burn’s cut the ribbon to the entrance of the new facility, one couldn’t help but feel the goosebumps standing up all along the back of one’s arms. Knowing the journey it took for her to be standing there, scissors in hand, really brought the concept of turning one’s life around to be of extreme service to others to light. And knowing the team of people who supported her vision, who were willing to contribute time and money to make it real, brings to mind the strength of community and the enduring feature of humanity (in spite of evidence to the contrary all over the news) which is to help each other. Teen Project is proof. For all the suffering there is in the world, there are people who have survived who want to help, and people who want to help the survivors.
As the Desiderata says- “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, its still a beautiful world.” It is.
Feelings. As I am writing this, the old song by Morris Albert is playing in my head. When I first started to get my feelings back, this was not the soundtrack I was hearing; it was more like thrash metal one minute, and poignant, heartbreaking the next, with a creepy Friday the 13th piano thing going consistently in the background of both.
To a normal person, this won’t make much sense, but its worth trying to understand, if you are in a relationship on any level with a recovering addict or alcoholic. To someone in recovery, this is a well known little slice of hell. Feelings. Most of us, for years, have been medicating against feelings. Maybe not intentionally; often, we don’t even know that is what we are doing. It just comes naturally- drink when sad. Drink when happy. Pop pills to sleep, to wake up, to perk up, to slow down. Cocaine to socialize. Heroin to deal with life. The list goes on.
In recovery, we get to learn something that ‘normies’ already know how to handle. Or, handle in ways other than using substances to anesthetize one’s self. The first feelings are often an overwhelming sense of fear about the idea of committing to a sober life. We, as a rule, fear commitment. That is why we say -One Day At A Time. If we were not reminded constantly to stay in the day, our minds race into the future, about the weddings we will have without champagne, or New Years Eve, or barbeques without beer, or any number of future scenarios. We also begin to mourn what we feel like we are losing; so often, we forget the mornings waking up and not knowing where we are, or the wrecked cars, but we polish the past into a high gloss and want to believe that there is something we are letting go of that we will actually miss. More often than not, the thing we will miss is only an idea; this strange idea that by drinking or using, things will be…better. More glamorous. Colors will be brighter. Life will be softer. Or if we are creative, we feel that our art will suffer. Or we believe that we will lose all our friends with whom we drank or used. We feel we will lose our identity.
Our drinking and using careers do define a lot; while we are not what we drink or use, our lives tend to center around what we use, when, with whom, etc. The trick is to be willing to let all of it go, not just the drinking and using, but all the behaviors that center around it. When I first got sober, I still went to nightclubs with friends to dance and drink Red Bull. It was very unsatisfying, but it took me about a year to realize that; I kept thinking, as I did with drinking, that eventually I would get what I want from the situation. The truth is that I will never get what I want from a night club, as I will never get what I want from a drink. I want to be serene and childlike and full of wonder and awe, and that simply isn’t what is being offered at a night club. Happy hour is not offering happiness! Then I tried my hand at dating like crazy; that also did not yield any results. I frustrated myself, and it was a great lesson. All of my behaviors upon getting sober centered on NOT forging connections, and i had no idea.
All of my feelings resulted in an immediate action, with no pause in between to deliberate. Like a robot. I’m angry- I blame someone, and yell. I’m sad, I blame someone, and probably turn it into anger and then yell at someone. You hurt me, I hurt you back- whether it was a real or imagined offense didn’t matter. I’m afraid you’ll hurt me, so I will do my best to avoid getting close to you. I’ll drink so much Red Bull I can’t even speak, I’ll date you but not commit. I’ll facebook with you but never meet you. Programmed, like a robot, to react the same every time.
When I started to really connect to others, then the feelings really started to name themselves. Fears. Fears of rejection, abandonment, inadequacy. The look on your face was my higher power. I had no idea, since I was so busy avoiding you my whole life. I got to really investigate what made me tick, get real and vulnerable, and bring that to the table, to release myself from the bondage of judgement- of both you and me. I started to learn that showing up in the spirit of service to any and everyone put me in the right state of mind, allowed me to be present, not waiting for the other shoe to drop, not taking everything personally. I’m not here for me. I’m here for you.
And then a new feeling came about. Serenity. Wow. It sort of scared me at first. What do with it? And then it hit me- just be. Just be this. Its so worth trudging through the b*llshit. This unshakable feeling of calm, a deep knowing that I am divinely guided and protected. A real and vital connection with others. A strong impulse to help. Waking with a profound joy most every morning, eager to see how the day will unfold, as each day is always an adventure. There is always something new to learn, to overcome. There is always a new miracle to take my breath away. There is always someone new to love, to be nice to, to help. There is always the opportunity for a new revelation and chance to commune with the divinely animated universe. All this grace was all lying dormant underneath all the detritus that I had piled on top of it, like a lovely silk dress under a load of mismatched dirty socks. I like to think this is the real me, the one I was always afraid of being, but who really knows? I feel more organic and authentic than I ever have, but I only have 4 years sober. What will it be like in another 4 years? Thats the thing- I can’t wait to find out. No longer warped by that sense of dread, driven to distract myself from the truth, but the opposite- a complete surrender to it. And the truth, it really does set you free.