“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.” —Kurt Vonnegut
When I was in college one of my first roommates was a football player from Texas. Upon being placed on academic probation, he printed off a bunch of motivational posters and taped them to the walls of our dorm room. “GO WORK OUT.” “DO YOUR HOMEWORK.” In the past, the über-successful Oprah Winfrey has alluded to a similar method for reaching her goals. Once asked about how she motivates herself to keep jogging, she responded, “I recommit to it every day of my life.” As wallpapering our lives with daily affirmations would seem to make sense in remaining focused on our intentions, would it not also seem wise to recommit every day to sobriety, in combating the daily urge to drink?
Habit reformation is crucial to recovery and motivational posters or morning affirmations or asking your Flying Monkey Ninja God for sobriety can be beneficial in turning the oil tanker around. Belief in self and belief that change can occur are both critical, but at some point, we have to ask ourselves who we are trying to convince with our posturing. “I don’t believe in miracles, I count on them.” Not to single Oprah out, but she has not exactly been the model of personal health that the braggadocious “I recommit to it every day of my life” would suggest. And as for my roommate? He was cut from the football team before later leaving the school. Incessantly assigning recovery paramount importance in life only helps if it inspires actual progress. “It works if you work it.” To reap the benefits of change, you actually have to change.
There is a simple psychological exercise that asks subjects to close their eyes, and for one minute, try to not think about a polar bear. Go ahead, try it. What happens? We think of a polar bear. It is simple and sort of silly, but as author Oliver Burkeman explains, “the fact that you’re trying so hard to do something sabotages your attempt to do it.” Millennia ago Sophocles argued similarly that the more we try to be happy, the less happy we are likely to become. In A.A. the clearly-repeated objective is to pursue abstinence from alcohol with the same determination once used in attaining it, but relentless efforts to attain a definition of wellness set within rigid parameters of a book might be what actually hinders individuals from achieving any real progress. Moving forward as such is no different than going the rest of our lives by focusing primarily on a bug on our windshield; at what point do we divert our attention from something that is really quite insignificant and recognize the vast expanse of countryside? Otherwise, at its core, “recovery” simply becomes the trading-off of one addiction for another.
There is a primary religious experience within A.A. that many people never get beyond, trapped between the discovery of something greater than their past selves and achieving something more. Instead of congregating with others drinking, skeptical of anyone who claims happiness removed from drinking, members congregate with others not drinking, skeptical of anyone who claims happiness removed from not drinking. By their own nature, The Program’s steps are not a method for quitting drinking and moving on with life. They represent a cycle that leaves people perpetually “in recovery” whether or not they are still struggling with addiction. It is a simple trade-off, an emotional cup no longer requiring alcohol that is instead filled with an ideology instilled to counteract certain relapse, replacing substance addiction with confounding rituals and a realigned sense of personal power that asterisks accountability under the guise of ideological change. The problem is not that A.A. or any other treatment method fails to lead to consistent repeated results of sobriety, but that they are even thought of as being able to provide the solution in the first place.
For a long time there was a large part of me that was scared of not drinking. This had nothing to do with casual drinking and was certainly not tied to the euphoric feelings of binge-drinking that I might miss. I did not want to give up part of who I was. There is an unstable personality within me that likes going off the rails, causing mayhem, and being unpredictable. Indulging in that behavior makes for some fun and crazy stories: Yes, I know that I have to be up for work at seven in the morning, but I’m going to keep on drinking anyway because that’s who I am. I legitimately felt this sort of lifestyle was one of the few things separating me as an individual, and I held onto it not only because of the perverted nature of addiction and habit, but because I felt it made me who I was.
When I was out with people, if there was a drink to be had, it might as well of had my name on it because drinking was what I did best. In my mind it transformed me from being an intolerable bore to someone worth hanging out with. So what if I failed to remember any of it in the morning, or if guaranteed nausea was the only thing potent enough to get me out of bed the next day? That still beat what I felt sober life was. At least the drinking motivated me to “socialize” with people. And when no one else wanted to drink with me, it also helped keep me company. I did not feel lonely when I was drunk. When I was drunk, I was satisfied with whatever I had, and whatever I had seemed like the best thing in the world.
But when I drank I could be absolutely unbearable, to both others and myself. It was easier to not remember that, so I forgot. My insecurities would bleed like sweat from my pores, forcing a hand of overcompensation to help mask my underlying insecurities. This typically resulted in an ugly mess of a person going overboard at every opportunity. When I drank I allowed myself to become the type of person who did not care at all for what those around me might be experiencing. I became someone the sober me hates. When I drank I was neglectful of personal decency. When I drank I lacked respect for others. When I drank I became consumed by paranoid delusions, accompanied by unpredictable waves of jealousy, envy, guilt, shame, regret, and remorse. When I drank, I drank to extremes – to a point where blackouts and waking up in a pool of my own urine had become the norm.
Untold thousands of dollars in legal fees, fines, and inflated bar tabs (another round, for my friends!), as well as numerous intensified health issues (immediately following my suicide attempt I was told that I might need a liver transplant due to the bottle of pills I had inhaled), and still, I did not want to quit drinking. I was functioning, sort of, but when I was drinking at least I was having a better time than when I was sober, and when that ability was taken away from me it also felt like my ability to have fun was gone. I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just addicted to having a good time. All of the pain I caused myself and others by continuing drinking was not what led me to quit. I did not quit when I hit my bottom, and I did not quit when I lost everything.
I had gone sober awhile and was beginning to get in a good pattern when I tested myself to see if anything had changed. I blacked out while drinking with friends, and kept on drinking after I woke up in the morning. The rest of the next day escaped me. I woke up the following day at a friend’s house, thankfully without having made a mess of myself. He drove me home and after collecting myself, I walked back to the grocery store to get some beer. As I was securing provisions for whatever was going to happen next, I balked at the embarrassment of hauling another bulky 24-pack case of beer through the checkout at noon on a weekday, so I only purchased some groceries. When I got home I thought about the positive momentum that had been building prior to dipping back into drinking. One month after returning to A.A. with nowhere else to go I had let it all slip away again.
When I was in the elementary school my fifth grade class took a trip to the Rocky Mountains to go skiing. In preparation for the trip, we were asked about our levels of experience so we could be divided accordingly. Some kids had learned to ski at a young age while others had never gone before. But there was one classmate who grew increasingly difficult as the two groups began to form. He proclaimed to be an expert based on the books he had checked out from the library and refused to be grouped with the beginners. “There’s an untold distance between knowing happiness and knowing about it,” writes Jennifer Senior in her New York Magazine article “Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness.” Sitting there, in my apartment, still sobering up without the case of beer chilling in my fridge, it dawned on me that what I had already learned is all I needed to move on.
Text-based resources are critical to understanding, and reading about other people’s lives continues to expand and enrich my own. But it was the ability to process what I learned and then employ it that was at the heart of the matter for me. I “learned” plenty, but was lacking action. I toiled in research, trying to find answers from recovery techniques and I kept coming back to stale white rooms with flickering fluorescent light bulbs overhead, but what spurred change was not the exact perfect combination of gathered information or some brilliant idealistic philosophical epiphany. It was making a decision about what I did not want in my life and acting on that decision.
Despite the many positives that can come from it, Alcoholics Anonymous provides a hypocritical model of treatment that does not reflect the same standards of honesty it demands of its members. The Program asks for individuals to take rigorous personal inventories of themselves without evolving to meet the demands of a developing society with changing needs. The issue is not so much that the broken 12 Step model remains the foundation for the American treatment system, the problem is that treatment of any sort is not capable of fixing people’s problems for them.
The same that can be said of A.A. can be said of all of the recovery models: They are starter kits. They provide individuals with a basic set of tools and a blueprint for how to use them, but none of them actually do the work for you. Some are deluxe models that give people room, board, and a safe practice environment to experiment with the tools, while others are one-size-fits-all versions to be learned at an individual’s own pace. Not unlike the kid who thought he could read his way through the terrain of a Black Diamond slope, I also had to understand that you cannot learn to ski from a book. Happiness, well-being, recovery – these will forever be abstract concepts or remain projections of what others make of them unless we proactively seek discovery for ourselves.
When I was at my inpatient facility I had to go to court one day, a few hours away from the center. I woke up early and did not return until late in the afternoon. When I got back to the facility, all of the other patients had gathered in one building. Some were crying while others were just sitting expressionless on couches. The previous night a young man, still a teenager, had taken his own life during a lapse in supervision. I did not know what to think then, and I do not pretend to have any answers now. We are all just trying to get to some sort of island, and however everyone best gets there is going to be up to them. A boat might work best for some, while others prefer swimming on their own. Some appear effortless in their journey. Some decide to sink.
Ask more of yourself. Prioritize real value in your life. Believe you can transcend the internal boundaries and limits of who you once were by not closing yourself off to change before you even try. Visualize yourself as the hero of your story. To quote Craig Ferguson, “We prepare for glory by failing until we don’t.” There is no one single reason why one version of myself turned left and another turned right. And what finally spurred change in my life might not have the same impact on anyone else, let alone myself at twenty-four, or that young man at eighteen. But now that I am here there is no turning back.