Drinking the Kool-Aid (Well, Grape Juice…)

Early in my recovery, I started attending a new church. For many reasons, it was a difficult transition for me. Yet it was clear the move was needed; for the sake my family as well as mine.

Before the first Sunday we attended, I went to visit with the church’s pastor: Pastor Larry. I explained my story. I told him about my upbringing. I told him about my desire to be a preacher. I told him about my alcoholism, being fired, and the need to find a new place to worship. I shared my struggles as they related to religious practice as well as those related to my recovery.

Pastor Larry listened. He heard what I was saying. Although I did not fully recognize it at the time, he was receiving me and welcoming me in a way that would profoundly affect the rest of my adult life.

Several weeks after this meeting, we were attending worship on a Sunday when the church shared communion by inviting those in attendance to front of the auditorium and the pastors and elders of the church served people. As I approached the front, I realized I was headed straight for Pastor Larry.

Pastor Larry was holding the tray with those little cups of “fruit of the vine.” In the denomination I grew up in, we always used grape juice. In this particular denomination, they used wine. However, they had a few cups in each tray that had grape juice for those who did want to drink even a sip of wine (several of this church’s members were also recovering alcoholics and addicts).

As I approached Pastor Larry—with the full intention of grabbing one of the cups of juice—he did something I will never forget. He turned the tray around so that the cups of grape juice were facing me.

This was a 4000 member church that had three services every Sunday morning. I had only attended for a few weeks. I had only met Pastor Larry once. But he remembered the content of our conversation. Our one interaction was enough for him to do whatever he could to support me in my journey of recovery.

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People often ask me how they can support the recovering addicts in their churches.

The first step is to be inviting; to be welcoming. The cliché is that the church should be a hospital for the sick, not a museum for the healthy. Inviting people who are hurting is a huge first step. Don’t turn away from people who are in the midst of great pain. Often times, there is no special thing that needs to be said; no magical formula that needs to be followed. When you see someone in your church who is hurting—say hello to them. Let them know they are right where they belong.

Another important step is to listen when people share their stories. Don’t explain pain away. Don’t make trite statements like, “Oh, everything will be all right.” Don’t moralize by saying, “You just need more willpower.” Just listen. And actually listen. Pay attention to what people are saying. There will be times when you hear something you can relate to. Relating is great. It allows all of us to know we are more alike than different. Be careful not to “one-up” someone else’s story. You do not need to match hurt for hurt; heartache for heartache. Mostly, people in recovery just need to know that can be open and honest. They do not have to hide their recovery from the people they worship with. Listening is valuable.

After listening, remember. Did you hear something that you can respond to? Was some small act of kindness suggested that you can follow through on? Did they share something and you find yourself  down the road able to perform a random act of kindness? What small thing can you respond to that shows you heard and that you care? I would have grabbed one of the cups of juice if Pastor Larry had not turned the tray around. But here I am 12 years later still remembering that small act of kindness.

Because to me, that act was not small. It was profound.

I’m glad I drank the grape juice. But I am even happier that it was offered.

Debating the Worth of My Existence

When news broke yesterday about the passing of Chris Cornell, I was saddened. Although I do not know him, I know his music. I love his voice, his poetry, his talent. I have spent many hours listening to his solo stuff, Soundgarden, Audio Slave, and Temple of the Dog. Knowing Soundgarden had reunited and was touring again brought a smile to my face.

I don’t really know why. Music does that to many of us, I guess.

But as more and more news began to spread, ultimately leading up to the report that it was suicide, the typical, and truly sad, predictable comments began to occur. The statements of “what a waste.” The jokes that are always in poor taste but pop up whenever something tragic happens.

I am used to this by now. In real life, tragedies happen and there is usually a manner of respect shown for the deceased and those left behind. But in social media and pop culture world, tragedies bring out the worst in people trying to bring attention to themselves.

His death is not occasion for a joke. His death is not the opportunity to decry all that is wrong with artists. His death is not the time to call it “a great waste.” His death is a tragedy. A wife is left widowed. Children are left without a father. Family members and friends will mourn his passing. And, in this instance, may even question if they played some role; if they should have done even more.

Chris Cornell’s death is no more tragic because he is a celebrity. But is no less tragic, either.

Cornell has spoken in the past about his struggle with drugs and alcohol. I do not know what his journey was like; if he was drunk or high that night or if he had been clean and sober for years. But that doesn’t matter.

But I do remember. I remember the places my addiction took me. I remember the nights when I was alone with my thoughts and it was not a great place to be. I remember the (mostly self-imposed) isolation. The days when my guilt beat me up for all the poor choices I was making and the nights when justification said “one more” couldn’t possibly make a difference. I remember receiving praise and compliments for my work yet believing in my self-talk which said I was not as good as the next person.

I was never suicidal. For that I am grateful. But there were many nights that I sat by myself and thought this world would be a better place if I was not in it. I loved my wife and my children. I loved the rest of my family. But really, would anyone miss me? Wasn’t I causing more trouble than I was worth? I was losing the will to fight to ever get well and I was hating the path that I was on.

Let me repeat: I was never suicidal. But there were a lot of days that I thought the only way I would overcome my addiction would be to die.

I don’t know Chris Cornell. He was a celebrity whose art I admired. However, maybe we can use the occasion of his reported suicide to ask people around us how they are doing—and actually want an answer. Maybe we can keep our eyes open for those who are isolating themselves. Maybe we can make sure to actually nurture relationships and not take them for granted.

Maybe we can reach out to families who are suffering loss. Maybe we can consider the power of our words and not speak them so carelessly.

Maybe we need to speak up for ourselves. Maybe you are the one who is hurting and you need to reach out for help.

I know the pain of being isolated. I know the uncertainty of wondering if my life is worth it. I know the difficulty of asking for help.

If you are hurting, please speak up. If you know someone who is hurting, please be kind.

When a tragedy occurs, avoid the temptation to “tsk” or to joke. Remember the pain that exists. Reach out and take care of those around you. Take care of yourself and speak up when necessary.

Remember that your life is worth it.

 

*The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK

Hoping to Hope

I so desperately want to hope.

I hope for peace.

I hope for being able to provide for my family.

I hope to remain sober another day.

I hope for people to quit being stupid.

I hope for pain and suffering to end.

I hope for answers.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

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One of the things I heard early on at AA meetings was, “You don’t have to believe; you just need to believe that we believe.” Early on in AA’s history, its members realized that not everyone who started the journey of sobriety believed in a Higher Power. Instead of making belief a prerequisite for attending, they told people to come. The message was, “If you want to be sober, come.” They knew the purpose of AA was sobriety so they shared it with everyone regardless of belief.

What people need when they try to live a sober life is hope. They need to know that today can be better than yesterday. I need to believe that. I need to have that hope.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

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On the Christian calendar, this is the season of Advent. It is the time of preparation for the coming of Jesus. It is a time of waiting, a time of longing. It is a four week season acknowledging the darkness of the world while hoping for the light that is to come into that darkness.

And this first week is supposed to be a week of hope.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

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This is supposed to be a great time of year. So many decorations. So many lights. So many songs. So many movies. So many great parties. So many times of worship and fellowship.

But it does not feel great. I am nervous. I am unsettled. I am angry. I am feeling inadequate. I am bordering on despair. How can the world be the way it is today? How can all the things that have happened still happen in our world? How can there be so much hate? So much violence? So much close-mindedness?

I want so badly to be hopeful and believe that the world can be made right.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

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The hope of Advent is that light is coming into the darkness.

It means we are in the darkness. It means we may not be able to see any light. It means we may be overwhelmed by dark.

The Light is coming.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

What Are You Going To Do Different?

“What are you going to do different?”

That is the question I was asked after my last relapse. I received the typical encouraging remarks: “Glad you’re back,” “It takes guts to admit a mistake,” and “You know I want to help you.”

But one person took me aside to ask that important question. What was going to be different? Obviously, what I was doing wasn’t working. If it was, perhaps I would not have picked up the drink that temporarily derailed my recovery.

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I was about three months sober. And the idea popped in to my head that I could drink again. It would just be one time. Okay, maybe a few times, but only on one night. Okay, maybe over a weekend, but still…that was going to be it.

I had two thoughts immediately in succession: 1. I need to tell my sponsor; 2. I can’t tell my sponsor, I am afraid of what he will think of me if I admit I want a drink.

Yes. I convinced myself that my sponsor, who had resisted giving in to any urges to drink and who volunteered to help me overcome my urges to drink, would think less of me if I admitted I had urges to drink. So I stayed silent. And I drank. And it was over a year before I finally quit again.

For me, the fear of speaking up mixed with my pride that did not want to admit weakness and concocted a brew more intoxicating than anything I ever drank.

When I finally decided to start working on sobriety got fired and had to start over, I was grateful for the encouragement I received at my 12 Step meetings. But I needed to face the question of what was going to change.

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Admitting that something needs to change can be a daunting task. If someone has begun the journey of recovery, a lot has already changed. When someone stops using their drug of choice, there is a significant physiological change. Behaviors and habits change so that the recovering addict is no longer around the temptation to use. Often, the people one spends time with will change. The places the addict will go change. There is a lot of change in recovery.

However, there is sometimes that one thing that doesn’t. It is not always from lack of trying. If you are living a life with 15 behaviors that need to change and you change 14 of them, you have done a lot of work. But to avoid working on that last one can be detrimental.

So when faced with the reality of a relapse, the recovering addict must ask, “What am I going to do different?”

This question is difficult because you may feel like you have already done a lot. You may feel overwhelmed at the amount of change that has already taken place in your life. But something happened. Something (or some things) was there that contributed to you picking up again.

For me, the answer was easy. Well, easy in that the answer was plain. I needed to talk more about my weaknesses. I had stayed silent during my struggle because I did not want to admit that I struggled. I had convinced myself that I could do anything and everything I needed to do and to acknowledge that I couldn’t was to acknowledge that I was weak and needy.

So the answer was plain; it was not easy.

I had made a number of changes. I was doing a lot of things differently. But now I was faced with the reality that there was one thing I did not want to change.

I did not want to ask for help.

But I also did not want to drink again.

So what was I going to do different?

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What do you need to change? What is still present in your life that is making sober living a challenge?

You must first acknowledge it; name it; own it. It’s there. It is present. Denial is not going to help. Admit out loud to yourself what that thing is.

Then find someone you can talk to. If you are in a 12 step group, talk to your sponsor. If you attend church, talk to your spiritual advisor. If you are in counseling, talk to your therapist. Whoever that person might be, talk with them.

As you talk, start listing out practical things you can do to address the issue. It may be establishing a new routine, creating new habits, or just simply spending a little more time talking with people. It may be something more drastic, like looking for a new job or new place to live. I cannot tell you what that might be.

But I can tell you that if something is impeding your progress in recovery, you need to remove it. I can guess that you will need help to do so. You must ask yourself this question: do you want to give in to your addiction again?

If the answer is no, then what are you going to do different?

America Is Drunk. Or: How To Maintain Sobriety In An Election Year

Let’s face it: America is drunk. How else can we explain all that has gone on, especially in the political realm, in the past year?

But once we acknowledge that reality, those who are addicts have to ask the question: how can I maintain my sobriety when so much is taking place that makes me so badly want a quick escape? This may not seem like it is something that should be a cause for any extra concern, but it really can be. There are a lot of emotionally charged issues being expressed with increasingly volatile rhetoric. This season can be a trigger for many who are fighting to maintain their sobriety.

First, there is a lot of fear right now. Is our country really not great? Has it ever been? Are we about to lose millions of job? Will our economy fall apart? How many terrorists are coming into our country? How many unhealthy people have access to guns? Can I trust any police officers? Why do people want to keep talking about race and ethnicity? Will we ever be safe?

Fear is a legitimate response to these and other questions. And when you combine the hyped up rhetoric with media coverage vying for ratings and social media noise vying for being the most obnoxious you get a concoction that is stronger than any brew anyone ever drank.

People in recovery need to acknowledge the fear that exists. Because it is not going away anytime soon; at least, the noise that is working to generate the fear isn’t. Fear is a big factor in turning to the drug or behavior of choice. Most of my drinking was driven by fear; especially fear of confrontation.

When fear goes unchecked, unacknowledged, un-dealt with, it can create a sense of imbalance, uncertainty, and agitation. As we continue to hear messages of fear from the mouths of the candidates, the news media talking heads, and our friends on social media, we must be open and find safe places and people to speak to. We must find our meetings, our sponsors, our trusted friends and family members, our spiritual advisors who can listen to us and remind us that when we live in today, nothing is as bad as many make it out to be.

Second, there is a lot of anger. Have you noticed that there is little dialogue? It’s mostly shouting. And it is a lot of all or nothing shouting, at that. “Choose your side.” “Agree with me completely or you’re wrong.” “How could anyone be so stupid?” “If you vote (fill-in-party-name-here) you are not American.”

Anger is a driving force behind addiction. Those in recovery know this. If you are in recovery, you know the acronym HALT. If you are not in recovery, you can ask someone what it means.

 

(Or I could tell you: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. These are four indicators that a relapse could happen soon. If an addict is experiencing one, he or she usually sees that as a warning sign. If two or more are present, steps need to be taken quickly—attend a meeting, call a sponsor, etc.)

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Between now and November 8, there will be a lot more anger. For a number of reasons, angry rhetoric rules the day in our political discourse. For some, it is an easy decision to just disconnect and not pay attention. But there are those who are truly thirsty for knowledge and information who will be constantly bombarded with messages designed to make you hate “the other.” In order to maintain one’s sobriety, anger needs to be released; because anger is the dubious luxury of the normal person, but for the addict, it is poison.*

So how does one maintain their sobriety in an election year?

The short answer is: “Just like every other day in every other year.” We take our sobriety one day at a time for a reason. When we are focused on staying clean, praying, reaching out to others, and performing acts of service, we will be able to maintain our sobriety even during the most chaotic times.

But some days, we will forget that. Some days we will be scrolling through our social media feeds and find a meme that sparks something down deep inside. Some days a conversation with a friend or family member will really get us going. And on those days, we need to stop and remember:

Anything that threatens our sobriety is not worth spending time on. Do we need to be informed? Do we need to research what each candidate thinks about the issues? Should we vote as responsible citizens? Yes. Yes. And maybe. But we do not need to participate in conversations and social media mudslinging that serve only to make people more emotional and less rational.

 

 

*Paraphrase from Alcoholics Anonymous, page 66.