A Breath of Clean Air

I came to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous by way of a suicide hotline on October 24, 2001.  The woman who answered the phone was kind.  I told her that I had a problem with alcohol.  She asked if I had ever tried AA.  I told her that at this point, I would try anything.  I was desperate, I wanted to die; after all, I had called a suicide hotline.  She said there was a meeting very close to where I lived at 6:30 that evening, that it happened to be her home group.  It was called Clean Air.  It was morning when I called her.  That meant I had hours to wait for the meeting.  I spent the day in morbid reflection of my situation.  I had cast everything good out of my life because of my behavior while drinking:  my job, my appearance, the health of my marriage and the friends in my life.  The last straw had been the loss of the one person in my life who I thought would never abandon me, my best friend Christy.  In the week prior she had not returned my calls.  Finally I had heard from her husband, who said that they just couldn’t have me in their lives at this point because of my behavior.  I was devastated.  I thought of dying and nothing else.  I was an atheist; I had no higher power to turn to, nothing larger than myself to give these feelings over to.  I didn’t even know the concept, having turned away from the church and God as a rebellious young girl of thirteen.  I had a psychiatrist from whom I got my meds but I had not seen a therapist in years.  My husband was already freaked out by my drinking and behavior; sharing with him that I wanted to die would have sent him over the edge.  I slept eighteen hours a day and drank during my waking hours.  By the time I went to the meeting that night I was full to the top of despair.

Clean Air was my salvation.  I was relieved at once of the desire to drink, which was a miracle.  I had not gone more than a day or two without a drink in the last five years.  I became a very active member overnight, going to three meetings a day, having breakfast after the morning meeting, lunch after the noon meeting and dinner after the evening meeting.  I went to every function and group conscious meeting.  I got a sponsor and started working the steps.  Clean Air became my family.  I know I was insane, but they loved me just the way I was.  Some of them told me things I didn’t like to hear, in fact I left meetings and refused to speak to some people over some of their advice from time to time, but the wisdom of their words would always sink in eventually.

After eight and a half years around the rooms of AA I know that Clean Air is something of an anomaly, or at least it was during that time.  This was God doing for me what I could not do for myself.  I was protected from some of the behaviors that I have since experienced in other groups, specifically the rumor mills and the predatory men.   All I knew at Clean Air was love and support.  I had the impunity to practice my program and get well.  I won’t exaggerate here and say that there weren’t other sick alcoholics around me, there were.  I had my share of shady experiences, but no men ever tried to get into my pants and no one ever whispered stories into my ear about any one’s private lives.  Perhaps these things went on but I was delivered from them.

I spent five years at Clean Air.  I chaired meetings, sponsored women and led a speaker meeting for a year and a half, which was both a challenge and an honor.  I drifted away from the group when I moved to another area of Dallas, where there was a clubhouse less than a block from my home, but I returned to Clean Air from time to time.  My relapse began shortly before I moved away from Dallas in July of 2006.  I went to the Sunday morning meeting the day before I left Dallas and asked for a desire chip, sometimes called a 24 hour coin.  My sponsor was chairing the meeting.  I had blamed her for my relapse.  We had not spoken in more than a month.  She handed me my coin.  It was the last time I was to see her or Clean Air in three and a half years.

The Rumor Mill

Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone. The only condition is that he trust in God and clean house.  p.98 Alcoholics Anonymous

I post this here to burn this into my mind.  Regardless of anyone. Trust in God.  Clean house. I can get well regardless, even, of myself.  I can recover regardless, even, of a shit storm swirling around me, whether I created it or not.  The above line is from Chapter 7, Working With Others; our 12th Step, but it applies from the moment we give ourselves to this simple program.  We must first admit complete defeat, as stated in our 12 and 12.  If I haven’t admitted defeat, I am still playing God.

In Dallas, it’s quite possible my home group was host to the soap-opera rumor mill that exists in so many AA clubs and, well, anywhere a group of people gather.  I was never witness to such shenanigans.  I was selfishly seeking the solution with all the desperation of a drowning man, barely even paying mind to my own floundering marriage and peripheral relationships.  I had a few female friendships in the program, I went to meals with fellow alcoholics and frequently stayed after meetings for fellowship.  I was never approached by men and heard very little gossip about my fellow AA’s.  I was protected.  I heard about other clubs where “13th stepping” was the norm and felt gratitude that my home group was not one of them.  Clean Air was, as I have mentioned before, comprised of older folks with, for the most part, long-term sobriety.  The average member was there for recovery, not socializing or scoping out a date for Friday night.

When I came to Gillette my experience changed.  This is a very transient town.  The median age here is early 30’s and I would say the median recovery age is 2 years.  The rumor mill turns at breakneck speed and “13th steppers” prowl with intensity.  That’s not to say there isn’t good recovery, there is, but it isn’t the norm–not in my experience.  I had to look for the solution, I had to create the fellowship that I craved.

I am no angel.  I have missed the mark.  I have written here that I relapsed just before coming back to Wyoming, and about a year after that I fell again in another area of my life.  It involved a man in AA.  As a result a rumor was started which, as a result of my actions is not completely unfounded but it is untrue.  My transgression with this man was brief and ended long ago but that false rumor is still alive in the rooms.  I have grown in the program and in my relationship with God but in the eyes of some of my fellows I am that lie.  I am that false rumor.  To them, I will not recover, regardless of how completely I trust God or how thoroughly I clean my house.  I will wear the red A on my lapel every time I appear before them or each time they hear my name mentioned.  Because of my actions, and because of a rumor.  Because someone, at some moment, did not practice restraint of tongue to withhold a lie.

I can say it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of me, only what God thinks of me, but I would be the one who was lying.  I have always cared entirely too much what others think of me, especially fellow AA’s.  Perhaps one day God will remove this defect of character, but he hasn’t seen fit to do so yet.  Perhaps he is waiting to do so until I can conduct myself like a lady without fear of what others think of me.    Perhaps there will never be a full answer to some of these questions.

Regina Spektor-Laughing With

Just a few minutes ago, Regina Spektor was chatting excitedly and laughing between sips of tea. Now, she’s shrinking to the far end of a sofa on the rooftop of the Gramercy Park Hotel, squinting her huge eyes and twisting her rotini-like hair. Inevitably, the subject of religion has come up. You’d think an artist whose current single mentions God 33 times would have her views on the concept all worked out, especially considering her well-known backstory: She’s a Russian Jew, whose family immigrated to the Bronx in 1989 for religious freedom. But no, she’s actually pretty wishy-washy on the whole subject: “I don’t even know half the time what exactly I believe,” she says, sighing impatiently. “I do know that in some moments, I’m sarcastic about religion, and sometimes, I’m in awe of it, and sometimes, I’m angry at it, and sometimes, I love it.”  (From  Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Regina Spektor)

g*d

I wrote this as a reply to a post in Daily Reprieve.  I am reposting it here for a friend.

When I came into the program I had been a long-time Buddhist practitioner. I was struck by the similarities between the 12 Steps and the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path:squeakybuddha

The Four Noble Truths:

1. All life contains suffering and unsatisfactoriness
2. Suffering is caused by craving (for base objects, goals, desires)
3. This Craving can be eliminated
4. The key to the elimination of craving is “The Noble Eightfold Path”.

The Eightfold Path:

Right View
Right Intention
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

The Eightfold path is further broken down into Wisdom or Prajna (Right View, Right Intention,) Ethical Conduct or Sila (Right Speech, Action and Livelihood,) and Mental Discipline, Concentration and Meditation or Samadhi (Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration.)

The cultivation of the path leads to Right Knowledge and Right Liberation.

My mind was spinning when I entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I was confused. Why had Buddhism not cured my Alcoholism? All the elements were there. Now I understand:

But the ex-problem drinker who has found this solution, who is properly
armed with facts about himself, can generally win the entire confidence of
another alcoholic in a few hours. Until such an understanding is reached,
little or nothing can be accomplished.

Buddhism is an atheistic “religion”. I don’t believe, either, that this was my problem. The 12 Steps need not be theistic! This power need only be other than self. Right view, intention, speech, action, etc.; that’s powerful stuff. When these actions are working in my life, I feel power working, particularly when I am practicing the miracle of mindfulness.

I do have a higher power today, and I choose to call that power God. This, for me, is shorthand for everything the Eightfold Path encompasses. I no longer share about my Buddhist beliefs in meetings. Nor do I share about my Jewish faith. My beliefs today are a melting pot; I have come to find that all roads lead to Mecca. Our book tells us to be quick to see where religious people are right. For so long I was quick to tell you where they were wrong. Who was I to say? Today, of myself, I am nothing.

The fellowship I crave (a relapse story.)

Still you may say: “But I will not have the benefit of contact with you who write this book.” We cannot be sure. God will determine that, so you must remember that your real reliance is always upon Him. He will show you how to createalcoholics the Fellowship you crave.  p.164, Alcoholics Anonymous

When I came back to my home town here in Wyoming in 2006, they didn’t “do AA” right.  I had gotten sober in Dallas.  My home group was, for the most part, comprised of members who had long term sobriety, were serious about recovery and believed in staying in the middle of the triangle of unity, service and recovery.  Sponsorship and working the steps were a given.  In this town there are no speaker meetings.  When I came to town it was not unusual to sit through entire meetings without hearing a single reference to our literature aside from the reading of the Preamble and p. 58.  Let me step back and say I was not in a good place when I arrived.  I didn’t want to come back to Wyoming.  I left here with the intention of never looking back and to return felt like failure.  I had been drinking again even before the boxes were packed to make the trek westward, though I knew in my heart that I could never stay away long from the solution.  The pain was too great.

I distanced myself from the fellowship in this town, resigned to the fact that it wouldn’t keep me sober.  I grew the distance between God and me and my disease progressed.  I never stopped going to meetings but I hung out in the nosebleed seats.  I showed up as meetings were getting started and left as soon as they ended.  I looked for the differences and not the similarities.  I binge drank when my husband went out of town for work, each episode ending up in worse consequences; a lost set of car keys, a missing ATM card, then finally a DUI-at 38 years old, my first in a long drinking career.  By this time I had a sponsor and had been putting some effort into working the steps again.  The DUI woke me up to a certain extent.  I redoubled my efforts and went to more meetings but I did not admit complete defeat.  In short order, about 6 months, I was drinking again.  In October of that year (2007,) I died.  I took an overdose of sleeping pills while I was in a blackout.  My husband found me and I was dead when the rescue squad got to the house.  They brought me back to life in the ambulance.

I was given an ultimatum:  treatment or divorce.  I chose treatment.  It was a good experience, but not the necessary psychic change that our book talks about.  Within a few weeks of my discharge I was drinking again.  I am a bar drinker.  When my husband went out of town for work I would go to the bars and get hammered, pick up a guy and take him home.  On one of these occasions my husband came home early from his trip.  He parked outside of our home and watched me take a man into our bed.  The next day I was asked to leave.  He called my best friend and asked her to fly in and drive back to Arizona with me where my mother lives.  I was cast out as a result of my actions.  Held accountable.  Finally.

I kept drinking when I got to Sun City, briefly.  I got another DUI while in a blackout, 3 weeks after I arrived.  Two weeks after that night is my sobriety date, February 28, 2008.  That is the day on which God blessed me with the gift of desperation.  I was done.  I was spiritually, mentally and physically bereft.  I was empty and ready for Him to take me.  I got on my knees and asked him to do with me as he saw fit because of myself I was nothing.  I started to go to meetings in Sun City.  They were attended by retirees, men and women with 20 and 30 plus years of sobriety who must have wondered how I ended up in their lovely retirement community.  They loved me and let me cry through their meetings without batting an eyelash.  I read my books and found a sponsor.  I found a job and became a worker amongst workers.  I renewed my lifetime friendship with my mother and spent time with my wonderful grandmother.  I admitted my brokenness.  I surrendered to God.  I began anew.

My husband was hurt by my actions, understandably, but he loved me.  It took time for him to let me back into his heart but he eventually did.  We reconciled and I came back to Wyoming 7 months later.  I went back to Arizona for 30 days to serve a sentence in a Maricopa County jail for my DUI.  The only thing more horrific I’ve experienced is the lost spinning fear that is psychosis, pinned down in 5-point leather restraints, certain sanity will never return.  I returned to Wyoming quite shattered, holding on to the last shred of strength of a long disintegrating rotator cuff.  I scheduled surgery for November.  It was the greatest physical pain I have ever experienced, and being on pain medication was one of the most frightening things I’ve gone through.

At first I was utterly helpless, but as soon as I could I started hitting meetings as often as possible.  I was quickly up to three per day when I wasn’t in physical therapy.  I became more diligent than ever before about my prayer and meditation.  I used my sponsor so much she probably felt as flat as a piece of paper.  Most shoulder patients take 6 months to recover and come off pain meds.  I did it in 3.  I put my sponsee feelers out and had 2 within a couple of weeks.  I poured myself into the program with all the desperation of a drowning man.  I did not feel withdrawal effects from the pain meds, nor did I feel cravings or any tendency toward addiction.  Then again, I never was a pill person.  I believe God removed any obsession.

Today I love AA in this town, and I believe that all of the pain I’ve been through has been instrumental in creating that love.  Pain, as they say, is the touchstone for growth.  I am, unfortunately, not the type who can breeze into a situation of change and just be comfortable with everything.  There have been changes since my surgery.  I no longer have those two sponsees.  I have only one now and she is shining on.  I have a different sponsor who is the perfect spiritual guide for me at this point in my life.  I have a growing relationship with God that changes every day.  I am not in any acute spiritual or physical pain right now, but that could change by the end of the day.  There are interesting things happening in my personal life that are letting me grow as a woman and as a spiritual creature.  There are also changes happening in my recovery I would have never seen coming.

Something else I would never have seen coming:  I like the fellowship in this town.  The people really are diverse.  I’m happy here.  I have created the fellowship I crave.  Imagine that.

It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us. p.90, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

Oh, and AA in this town has changed, too.  There is more of our literature in meetings and sponsorship is more active.  It’s exciting to see, and even more exciting to be a part of.

No Appetite for Food by Berel Wein

Yom Kippur is a day of serenity, fasting, prayer, contemplation, forgiveness and meditation. It derives its unique holiness from being all of these things. It is truly the “one day of the year” that the prayer services of the day mark it as being. P1000580But there is another dimension to this holiest of days. It is a day of freedom. In First Temple times, when the yovel/jubilee year arrived, the day of Yom Kippur that year marked the day of emancipation for slaves. The shofar sound of Yom Kippur was their call to leave their masters and become independent and productive people on their own. We are not privileged today with a Temple or with a yovel/jubilee year but the message of personal freedom still lies inextricably embedded in the holiness of Yom Kippur. We are all people who yearn for personal freedom. And yet we are all chained to different forms of coercion, some self-inflicted and others over which we have no apparent control. Yom Kippur therefore allows at least one day of freedom. A day when the cell phone does not exist, when the marketplace is shut down, when nothing physical can be accomplished, when we are left alone with ourselves and inhale the air of spirit and eternity. On Yom Kippur we do not concern ourselves with the immediate tomorrow but rather on the eternal tomorrow. For one day at least the near-sighted become far-sighted, freed from the bonds of everyday life that so constrict our behavior and thoughts. What a gift such a day is!

Repentance is one aspect of personal freedom. Judaism teaches that repentance creates a new person, so to speak. There is nothing more difficult in life than remaking oneself. We are troubled by what our families or our former friends will say about this new self that we project. It is difficult to adjust to a new person, even if the new person is the person itself. Therefore Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant stated that the loudest noise heard in the universe is that of a habit being broken. Physical addictions are terribly dangerous and difficult in the extreme to overcome. Such an addiction is a brutal form of slavery, especially since most such addictions are self-inflicted. But mental and spiritual addictions are just as dangerous and brutal. People are very reluctant to alter preconceived notions and their behavior patterns. The Talmud shrewdly states that after a time slaves become passive and seemingly satisfied with their role in life and comfortable in the lack of accountability and responsibility that this state of being engenders. Personal freedom always comes with a price to be paid for it. The price is the willingness of a person to remake oneself no matter what others in society will think about it. Yom Kippur allows one to begin this process of self-emancipation and to state openly to God and to ourselves that we are determined to become a new, different and better person. Yom Kippur can erase our old addictions and free us for great new accomplishments in life.

The great rebbe of Kotzk, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (Halperin) Morgenstern said: “There are really no fast days in the Jewish calendar year. On Tisha Be’av we are so overcome with mourning over the destruction of our Temples that we have no appetite for food – who can eat? On Yom Kippur we are in such an exalted state of spirituality that we have no necessity to eat!” Freed from our physical necessities for the day we are transformed into the new person that looks inside oneself for meaning and fulfillment. Dressed in white and without jeweled adornments, we are freed from fashion and conformity. Moses was told that on holy ground one must shed one’s shoes. It is a sign of humility and connection to the earth at one and the same time. Moses became a new person at that encounter with the burning bush, no longer the simple shepherd tending the flocks of his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, but rather the great prophet and leader that has no equal in human history and society. We also shed our expensive and comfortable leather shoes on Yom Kippur, for that is part of our declaration that we also wish to become a new person, attached to the holy earth and committed to a new spirit of greatness and responsibility that we pray will permeate us. On Yom Kippur, at least for a day, we become free at last.

Berel Wein is an American-born Orthodox rabbi, scholar, lecturer, and writer. He is regarded as an expert on Jewish history and has popularized the subject through more than 1,000 audio tapes, a four-volume book series, newspaper articles and international lectures. Throughout his career, he has retained personal and ideological ties to both Modern Orthodox and Haredi Judaism, and is respected within both movements.