I work, in an avocational sense, in the world of alcoholism and addiction. On a daily basis I spend time in a group, or one-on-one, with other alcoholics – and addicts.
Sobriety is rare these days. Where I live, most people drink whether they have a problem with alcohol or not. Yet a sober life has given me more gifts than perhaps anything else in my life – besides my husband and children. I share my sobriety with others who want sobriety as well. When we work together, we both have a chance to stay on a path that many fear to tread.
One thing I’ve been asked over the years by those new to sobriety has to do with the availability and socially-acceptable role of alcohol in our culture, and in our families. I have been asked how I can walk past alcohol in the grocery store, or stand to have it my house (rarely; when other people bring it here), or be at a restaurant where others are drinking. Doesn’t it tempt me? Many self-identifying hardcore addicts have expressed wonder and admiration for this supposed “strength” I have. A couple years ago in a meeting one woman said she couldn’t imagine how I stayed sober, when liquor was everywhere. “It’s not like there are crack stores you can go to!” she said in wide-eyed exasperation.
I responded, “But there are crack stores. They’re a little harder to find. But you know where they are. I don’t. But you do.” The room relaxed into laughter for a moment. Because it is true. Whatever has a hold on us, whatever has its hooks in us, we are so lovingly familiar with this person, or this thing, or this life. It – or he, or she – is as precious to us as a child.
Perhaps it does seem a mystery how an alcoholic can walk in safety in a gin-soaked world.
But alcoholism is not contained in a bottle, or in a location. Alcoholism is within me. Perhaps it was passed down though my family but even so, if they were to all expire my alcoholism would not die with them. Just as blaming others for my drinking is a false construct, so is the concept that alcoholism is a condition one can conquer by managing life’s circumstances – by carefully stacking the dominos just right so they fall where they should. Alcoholics are a great example of nearly inexhaustible attempts at this. They try to cut down. They switch types of alcohol. They start making bargains about when they can drink. Doctors tell them to stop but they decide the doctor doesn’t really know what she is talking about. They “mis-hear” or ignore these orders. They start talking about when they drink, or hiding when they drink, or making light of drinking. And so on.
Alcoholism as a social problem is a very old problem, and much attention has been devoted to it. Nevertheless, it has not been conquered by scientific research, intellectual analysis, or even the constant development of perfectly intelligent treatment strategies. Alcoholism is not conquered in a personal way by making a list of my “triggers”, or being around only such-and-such sorts of people, or making sure to perform rituals or stay out of certain places – or spend inordinate times in certain other places. Alcoholism is not conquered by a self-improvement program, either ruthless or gentle, where I supposedly surgically-remove all the unsavory parts of me that compel me to drown my troubles in drink.
I am reminded of a very precious passage in the Dhammapada:
Not by rituals and resolutions, nor by much learning, nor by celibacy,
nor even by meditation can you find the supreme, immortal joy of nirvana
until you have extinguished your self-will.
Most alcoholics die drunk. The wouldn’t call it that, and their families don’t like to admit it. Yet they will go to their graves denying alcohol had a grip on them. They die without ever getting more than a wheeze or two of sobriety. They die with their hands wrapped around the neck of their obsession while cheerfully denying they are even in a struggle. They die with a deep-down knowledge that something was amiss, but without ever having experienced a sense of freedom.
This is true for people who are non-alcoholic as well. They live and die in the grips of their attachment and their aversion. It is not difficult to see this in a person; I see it when this season they are still complaining about the same people, and circumstances, as they were last year. They are still blaming others, or circumstances, for their problems. They live in perpetual servitude to their desires, and they make bitter enemies of others.
Who is your real God? If I spent time with you, I would probably be able to make a few intelligent guesses. I would look at this – what do you practice daily? Who, or what, are you obsessed with? What do you complain about? Who are you frightened of?
My grandfather died last fall. He was on very large amount of medication and so was sleeping almost all the time. I rarely got to speak with him. Shortly before he died he and his caretakers were still trying to manage his drinking, and his diet. My mother told me a doctor of his recommended some quantity or habit of red meat, to help my grandfather drink less. I was surprised to hear this, and I said – “But – isn’t grandpa an alcoholic?” After a bemused pause my mother said, “Well, yeah.” Then we both laughed.
I don’t know what was in her laughter – but I know my laughter spilled out of me in Love. Love for my beloved grandfather – my last grandfather, lost to me now. Love for my mother, and for my aunts and uncles, and for a family who continues on in the way I remember from my childhood. Love regarding the silly games we play, that some consumption of red meat is any kind of treatment plan for an alcoholic! Love even for hubris, for pride. For trying to manage our Ego and our reputation right up to the moment of death. This is the human condition; untempered, this is how we are, or at least how we are by the time we are grown.
Obviously this leads at once to a great sense of freedom. I am free to love my grandfather, and miss him. He wasn’t any less of a human being for his struggles with alcohol, and if he did not come to terms with those struggles, he died with unfinished business as so many of us do. I loved him very much and I only wish we could have been better friends.
My legacy to my own children – and, should I be blessed, any grandchildren and so forth – would be honesty, and a spiritual practice. Like most parents and carers I would like to leave them some monies, maybe an estate, maybe a few beloved personal items. But in the end what I would like to offer them, if they want to take it, is a faith practice. In the end I believe as it is said – “My actions are my only belongings. My actions are the ground I stand upon.”
My actions are my practice. Sobriety is a practice; Love is an practice; Forgiveness is a practice. In the end perhaps my life won’t have a great deal to show for it, but if I’ve delivered these things to my children I will consider my time well-served.