The slugfest began with my first 12-step meeting. I was 28. I was 42 when I put the bottle down and called it quits. After first acknowledging a problem, I spent more than a decade in the ring fighting a disease that knocked me down more often than not. A professional boxing match lasts 12 rounds; I dragged this fight out 14 years. Fourteen years in which I had drunk the fun out of drinking but kept at it anyway. In and out of the rooms of recovery. In and out of hospitals. In and out of relationships. Unlike Roberto Duran facing Sugar Ray Leonard, I didn’t have the presence of mind to throw up my hands and gasp “no mas.” At the end I was beaten down, but I had been beaten down so often it felt rather comfortable and familiar.
My hang up was simple: 12-step recovery asks you to trust in a Higher Power. How could I trust what I didn’t understand? Fresh off the 14-year battle to get sober, I tried journaling about what a struggle it was to adopt a one-day-at-a-time lifestyle that hinges on relying on a Higher Power. It came out like this:
Alone, I sit motionless in my chair. It’s dark. Not dim, but thick, heavy, black. If light is energy, the darkness that envelopes me is the complete absence of activity. Darkness so thick that it matters not if my eyes are open or closed. Darkness so impenetrable that even my dreams are robbed of color.
It hasn’t always been this way. As a child I knew light. Bright, sun-filled days at the park. The soft glow from a lamp as my mother read to me at night. Even as I slept, a nightlight thoughtfully placed by caring parents brightened my dreams.
But that was long, long ago. Black is all I know now. Not even the smallest fleck of light could pierce the thick, cold walls of the room I call home. I sit motionless and alone. I pray to die.
My prayers go unanswered. I still draw breath. Then, the smallest spark of a thought… “look for a switch… find the light.”
I arise. My legs, heavy from sitting for countless days, buckle at first then take strength. I move forward, arms outstretched. Five, six, seven paces. I touch the wall that surrounds me.
My hands search vigorously. Nothing. Nothing. Then I brush against it. Not a flip switch or touch plate like I knew in my childhood home, but a knob. A knob that resists attempts to turn it counterclockwise but has some give when turning it to the right. Apprehensively I give it a twist. It moves a full turn–360 degrees. Then resistance. As I release my grip it begins to click–the rapidly repeating click of a kitchen timer.
At first there is only clicking. Then a bright burst emanates from the center of the room. My eyes are ill prepared to handle this illumination. I blink uncontrollably as I turn to face the light. Dark. Light. Dark. Light.
Slowly the room comes into focus. Where I had imagined cold, dark walls stand rows of heavily-laden bookshelves. Tables dot the room–strewn with paper, pens, paint and brushes.
What I had called an empty, lifeless prison now beckons me to read, write, paint and create.
For hours I devour every distraction the room has to offer. My dark, depressed thinking leaves me. I am alive for the first time in years.
Abruptly the soft clicking stops. The light flickers and then all goes dark. But not as dark as before… now my thoughts have color. I remember the knob. I must get back to the knob.
Stumbling through the dark I find the wall and search madly for that knob. My hand finds its way. I turn the knob as far as it goes. The light returns.
This time I examine the knob closer. Hash marks and numbers are engraved on the underlying plate. Zero at the start, twenty-four at the end. Twenty four hours at a pop? Is that all I am given?
With this discovery come thoughts, concerns, and a tinge of anger. Why a timer and not a switch? Why am I a servant to the knob? I should be able to turn the light on as I please. Why this continual resetting?
I turn to the light bulb in the middle of the room. I hadn’t investigated this closely before. What kind of light bulb is it? What is its brand?
I try to examine it closer, but the light blinds me. How am I supposed to enjoy something I don’t understand?
Then more doubt and concern. What is it that causes this light to burn so brightly? Electricity? I’ve never quite understood electricity. I search the shelves for a dictionary. Finding one, I search for answers to my questions.
Electricity:A general term for a variety of phenomena resulting from the presence and flow of electric charge… well that was helpful. Even my big fat dictionary can’t clarify this mystery.
How can I depend on something I can’t comprehend? I hate the light. Light that had left me for so long. Light powered by a force that won’t reveal itself to me.
The timer expires. I knew it would. But this time I welcome the black. The blackness understands me. It never leaves.
I sit. I wait. My thoughts lose their color. I am alone. I am home.
When the only prayers you know are unanswered lottery prayers and the plea to die, trust is a little hard to come by. Fortunately I found a mentor who simplified things. He had me put organized religion on hold. Religion, he explained, is for people looking to avoid hell. Spirituality, he continued, is for people who’ve been there. It took time and guidance, but when I learned to go quiet and look within, I found a source of strength. My spirit began to awaken.
I didn’t get sober with a power that dabbles in the affairs of mankind, capriciously granting some pleas while ignoring others. Instead I found a source best accessed by asking what is to be learned from a particular twist and turn of life. Lessons, not wishes.
Along with the struggle to find a source of power, there was resistance to abstinence. At the end, I crawled yet again into a meeting and finally got a sponsor. But I didn’t quit abruptly. For two days I stopped each morning at the local Walgreens where I procured two miniatures of vodka, just like the ones they serve on airplanes. Not enough to get drunk, but enough to subdue the jitters.
Funny, it wasn’t until the end of my drinking that I even dabbled with airplane miniatures. When you drink only to get drunk, they always seemed so pointless–like giving a starving man watercress; in theory it’s food, but barely worth the effort.
(It’s at this point that the voice of my mother—my internal committee’s more vocal member–points out that while travelling back East she lunched on a most delightful watercress salad with a simple yet delicious bacon apple cider dressing that was more than enough of a meal to carry her through the afternoon. I try to salvage my point by interjecting that a one-cup serving of watercress only contains four calories and she was probably running on bacon grease, but now she’s off on a tangent about how the best salad dressings are made at home with simple ingredients one always has at the ready.)
By lunchtime on day two of nursing miniatures, my mind started spinning. Could I jump back into the ring and give it one more go? Not drunk but definitely not sober, I yearned for my erstwhile bottled friend. Checking my calendar I noted that I had no meetings after lunch. A half pint of vodka wouldn’t be detected as long as I kept a Big Gulp of Diet Pepsi and a pack of gum at the ready. Vodka doesn’t leave you breathless, but it’s one of the easier spirits to mask… or so I had convinced myself.
Leaving the employee parking lot on autopilot, I made my way to the closest Walgreens with a liquor department. Headed north on Alma School Road, through the older half of Mesa, Arizona, I passed the dingy oatmeal-tinted bricks of a mall begging to be refurbished. Pulling into the left turn lane I spotted my destination. The disappearing red letters against a fading white background beckoned. Relief from feeling life was just a 150 yards of dusty parking lot away.
For reasons I can’t fully articulate I paused. Maybe I was starting to bond with my sponsor. Maybe the literature I had read the past two nights was starting to sink in. Maybe there was a tap on the shoulder by something more divine. Regardless, I paused. Instead of turning left, I flipped a U-turn and headed back to work. There would be no liquid lunch that day. The next day, I started counting my sobriety. Thirty, sixty, ninety days passed, and the compulsion to drink was lifted.
Those two days of nursing miniatures were, I came to learn, the darkness before the dawn of an emerging spiritual state. Just as the night struggles to hold off the break of day, in that darkest of states the sicker part of me made a last gasp effort to repress the natural spiritual hunger for light. A hunger that could be suppressed by the faux spirituality of the flask or nurtured through infantile steps towards something more divine.
Though sober, I was not yet sane. Four years later I was going to know a manic state with consequences that would shame a hither to unrepentant streaker. But to get healthy enough to think meds unnecessary, I had to throw myself into recovery.
It is commonly suggested to attend 90 meetings in 90 days when starting sobriety. I adopted that adage as my own, and things improved so much during those first 90 days that I just kept going to meetings and working with my sponsor. And life kept getting better.
That’s not to say life was challenge free. Within months of getting sober I was contacted by the IRS about a handful of tax returns that were filed years after the fact. Taxes, interest and penalties came to over $120,000–roughly $118,500 more than I had in the bank.
Good thing I had a few days sober when the taxman came knocking. When drinking, I was vaguely aware that this day was approaching. My best thinking when drunk was that when the Feds caught up to me I’d check out of this peculiar impromptu theater called life. I had the gun, bullets and location already picked out. (Not that I needed “bullets” plural, but a fully-loaded chamber minimized the unnerving prospect of pulling the trigger and getting a click with no bang.)
Sober, I had the presence of mind to arrange a payment plan with the IRS. I didn’t have to splatter my brains in the middle of the orange grove adjacent to my house. I didn’t have to scar the people who loved me. I just had to send a payment every month and buy fewer Diet Pepsis.
Coming up on my second year of sobriety I got divorced. Later I married the woman I love and respect to this day. Life kept happening. And I stayed sober.
Just one little glitch. My new wife had never seen me manic or drunk or on one of those demented manic drunken binges that I had perfected during my previous marriage. So when I came up with the genius idea that meds for my bipolar disorder were unnecessary, she agreed as long as I agreed to restart if she noted any issues… and note she did.