The Man in Black could be a man of few words.

    But they sure beat a Sunday Morning Coming Down. I’ve mentioned several music icons in this space. Specifically, I have identified a few who were ultimately victims of the disease. The thought occurred to me that I might need some new music role models. Not that I’ll ever completely forget where I came from.  But since the idea is that progress is forward, not backwards, I took a look at my musical catalog and looked for someone who made it out alive. Cue, the Man in Black.

    Johnny Cash was a complicated man, often described as a devout but troubled Christian. His heart was good but his behavior wasn’t always. His music probably describes the internal and uniquely human dichotomy of high-minded intellect opposing base instinct as vividly as anyone this side of the Apostle Paul. He had a decades-long battle with addiction, but he died a sober and old man. His humility and willingness to be honest with himself about his shortcomings are the touchstones of any successful recovery.

    Johnny Cash resonates with me personally because even at his most debaucherous, he knew that he was not being true to himself or his roots. There was a yearning in him for a place and a time he had been before, but did not know exactly how to recapture. As AIC put it, “have I run too far to get home?” For our subject today, the answer was thankfully no. He eventually found Peace in the Valley.

    Sunday Morning Coming Down.

 

Peace in the Valley.

 

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Day 47. Still Here.

June 10, 2011

Another original. Birds express expert indifference. Second only to cats.

     I’m still here. I’m not dead, relapsed, in jail, or in an institution. I have so far avoided the dreaded three-headed Hydra of “jails, institutions or death” referenced in the Big Book. But I am in a bit of a danger zone emotionally. Kind of just holding on in a strong head-wind some days, like my friend up there. My brain is still healing, which is so apparent in acute physical withdrawal, but easy to forget post-acute. Miraculous organ that it is, the brain eventually makes an adjustment and the most acute physical symptoms go away. During the period of being physically sick, those symptoms crowd everything else out.

    But when those symptoms go away, there is a sudden glut of emotions that cannot be trusted whatsoever. Because the physical manifestations of withdrawal are gone, the temptation is to think that this…is…what…sober…feels…like. But it’s not. I see too much evidence to contrary “in the rooms,” as we say. (It is an exercise in futility, by the way, to throw yourself into this program without having the lingo seep into your subconscious. So why fight it?) I see people who have years of sobriety. Decades. I see people who have buried parents, buried children, lost careers, lost every material thing they own, etc., all without picking up a drink. I saw a person today who tomorrow is moving home with their spouse, who has a terminal illness, to allow their spouse to die and be buried in the place of their birth. NEWSFLASH: I’m not there yet. But these people provide evidence to me of the potential for a serenity that I have never known.

    Which leads me to the reason I have been a little remiss here on regular posting. The best place for me right now is in the rooms. Not the rooms of the Notdisneyworld Sober Ranch. The rooms of AA or NA. Hearing people with more time than me talk. Because some of them sound terminally happy, and I want that. And even if I find myself in a lousy meeting (they do exist) listening to someone talk who does not have a program that I would like to emulate: hearing what those people have to say is better than listening to the stuff that’s inside my head right now. I’m writing some of that stuff down, too, but I want to give myself time to sift through that material to determine what’s real and what’s diseased thinking. I prefer, in other words, a little bit more distance between my brain and my keyboard, for the time-being.

    P.S., Go Dallas.

Salvodor Dali knows what I'm talking about.

    I wake up feeling more or less like I was run over by a bus, but sleep is impossible, so I make myself go to a 7am AA meeting. Which is just as well, because that meeting is supposed to be required reading here at the Notdisneyworld Sober Ranch, although in my current condition, I could get a special dispensation if I wanted it. But it really wouldn’t do me any good to toss and turn in bed for another hour, so I go.

    We get back around 8:15. Our nurse arrives promptly at 9:00am to dispense medication, including my paltry little 3mg (!) of Suboxone. The worst I feel all day is in the morning between 8am and when the nurse shows up. It goes without saying that that time…passes…very…slowly. Our nurse gets a chuckle now when she shows up at 9 to find me in the group room lying in some state of repose, with the best hang-dog expression I can muster, so as to say: “before you do anything else, please tend to me.”

     Being a first-born (the world revolves around me; never forget this) and somewhat of a drama queen, I have perfected the hang-dog expression to something of an art-form.  Our nurse is the one person in the whole facility who does not have some kind of personal experience with addiction. We call them normies. I have to think that she occasionally (I went to school for like 100 years and I never spell “occasionally” right the first time) gets a kick out of  the theater of the whole thing. But if she does, she never shows it.

    She’s as patient as you would expect a matronly woman in her choice of profession would be. Reading between the lines, you should take my sentiment towards her to mean that she does in fact tend to me before anything else. The real trick is to evoke that kind of sympathy without it appearing intentional. Like I said, it’s art. I have 35 years of experience at this (and I have had a few good teachers along the way), so all you aspiring drama queens, take heart: you too can master the art of evoking pity. You don’t want to overdo it, but it’s not such a bad skill to have when the occasion (really?! two “c”s, one “s”, how hard is that to remember?!) calls for it. Keep reading, and you’re bound to continue getting these invaluable life lessons.

The People Problem.

May 17, 2011

Stupid lemmings. They haven’t even invented nuclear weapons. So stupid.

    Ah, humans. The Cadillac of the biological world. The culmination – depending on your viewpoint – of millions of years of biological evolution, or of creation by God, and in His own image. We are the pièces de résistance. The big cheese. The kings of the food chain, the apex predator to top all apex predators. We subdue and have dominion over all creation. Crocodiles, great white sharks, lions, tigers and Kodiak bears: they’re all looking up at us. Our intellect sets us apart from all the rest.

    Except when it doesn’t. We can be shockingly unremarkable when it suits us. Banal, conformist, and shackled by old ideas and prejudices. These things are nowhere more evident than when many human beings get together to form a group.  And we have determined that groups, meetings and fellowships are the best way to defeat addiction.

    Ironically, it is group-think that often puts us in this predicament to begin with. We start using for a variety of reasons, and get addicted for a variety of reasons, but many of those reasons fall under the group-think umbrella. Fitting in. Peer pressure. The phenomenon of thinking we don’t have a problem because we’re not as bad as that guy. Until we are that guy.

    So now that we know we have a problem, we turn to a group. A group with good values instead of bad. A group that eschews the ephemeral in favor of the permanent. Long-term fulfillment instead of immediate gratification. But it’s still a group of imperfect human beings.

    Truth be told, there is plenty to find unlikable about these humans, if I want to look for it. Not everything people say in groups is beneficial to every person in the room. Or any person in the room, for that matter. Sometimes what people say is downright contradictory, banal, or even stupid. Sometimes what people say is flat wrong. True wisdom is a rare commodity, as in life, even in the best rooms.

    This same phenomenon made organized religion unappealing to me for a very long time. As the Big Book puts it, it’s possible to miss the beauty of the forest for the ugliness of some of its trees. I would even say “many” of its trees. Because human beings are flawed creatures.

     But history is littered with flawed humans performing beautiful works. If we were to throw out every idea that emanated from a flawed human being, we wouldn’t be left with a whole hell of a lot. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, David of the Bible,Voltaire, Socrates, Plato, and on and on. All flawed. And if thieves, philanderers, adulterers, murderers and racists (as represented by my collection of historical figures) are capable of producing enduring works of wisdom and beauty, then a group of drunks is surely capable of saying just enough to sustain me for one more day.

    One of the things I need to get over is my idea that a thought – to have merit – must come from an intellect that is at least the equal of my own. Not only is this idea a fallacy, it’s repugnant to some of the ideas and some of the teaching of the very people I have placed on intellectual pedestals. Jesus Christ, MLK, Ghandi, and Jefferson, just to name a few, believed fervently in the wisdom of the “common” man. And who am I to even make a determination of who possesses a common intellect, and who does not? My mistrust of others is rooted in my own flawed determinations of who merits listening to and who doesn’t. I’ve been wrong several times about people here at the Notdisneyworld Sober Ranch.

    But on occasion, people will do and say unmistakably stupid things. And they will do and say unmistakably stupid things in groups. So, what do I do? Throw the baby out with the bath water? Or recognize that groups are made up of imperfect people, but people who can nonetheless be used for a higher purpose. A miraculous purpose even. Jesus didn’t spend a lot of his time with the intellectuals. He preferred the prostitutes, the dregs of humanity, the proletariat. Jefferson trusted the wisdom of the people (tempered by a representative republic structure, but that’s a story for another day).

    At the end of the day, though, the best reason to leave my prejudice at the door is that I am not qualified to make a judgment about who is worth listening to and who is not. The things I hear should be judged on the merit – or lack thereof – of the thoughts themselves, not on a judgment I make on the person submitting them. After all, I must consider the possibility that my own ideas might just as easily and summarily be dismissed as the judgmental and addled thinking of a drunk.

That's me on the left, the one with the white wooly coat.

    Something really is different this time, Dad. I don’t know how to describe it other than it’s different. Not just different between this rehab and the last. Something different from my whole life up to this point. I am starting to believe that – even if He didn’t intend for me to become addicted to drugs and alcohol (although, who knows, maybe it was necessary) – God has a plan to use my experience to help other people. He protected me up to this point, and I have every reason to believe that He will continue to protect me. That obviously doesn’t mean that life will be easy, but I truly believe that I have been spared for a reason.

    Truth be told, wouldn’t you gladly trade a decade of chaos, heartbreak, and addiction for a lifetime and an eternity of serenity, faith and hope? I think that’s an easy choice. My addiction was a gift; because without it, I would have lived a life of materialism, humanism and faithlessness. I would have wasted my life pursuing success as the world defines it.

    I don’t have any idea exactly what that means right now, but at the very least I believe that God has spared me from the end so many other addicts meet (described in the Big Book as “jails, institutions and death”). You and Mom have spent your entire lives praying for me. God has answered your prayers in a big way, albeit in a different way than any of us would have ever imagined.
    I used to need people to be around at all times to feel happy. But I think that God speaks to us more often in those still, quiet moments. I feel myself becoming a little isolated from people sometimes. Not in a bad way, though. My intellect has always, always, made me feel a different from other people. I could always feel lonely, even in a room full of people.
    I embrace that now; it feels like preparation. For what I don’t yet know. But I do know that great leaders throughout history have always felt isolated from the people they are leading. I know that grandiosity is a trait that alcoholics exhibit in spades. But I can’t get around the fact that – speaking very honestly – I have leadership qualities that I have thus far neglected. And I believe that God spared me for a reason. And maybe that reason was simply to raise my family and minister to the people in my life. But sometimes I feel like it’s something more.
    Who knows. But my point is that I believe that God will continue to protect me. Relapse is a scary word to all of us, and that is the ever-present danger for a recovering addict. But the God that spared me through active addiction can spare me from relapse, or – failing that – spare me even in the event of a relapse. And before you even say it, believing that is not the same as setting myself up to fail. It is simply acknowledging that the God that has power over death has power over addiction too.
    I love you guys, and I think I may have just written today’s blog post, without meaning to.

The Group Dynamic

May 14, 2011

    One of the single most important keys to recovery is the group dynamic. Newly recovering addicts are not the most stable people to begin with, brimming with raw and new emotions, lacking coping skills, and never too far from any number of a variety of potential mental, emotional or spiritual meltdowns. And in treatment, we take a bunch of these poor souls – usually total strangers  – put them together in a powder keg and hope that they don’t burn the place down. Hopefully the result is something south of a disaster. In fact, it is the best way we know of to get people like me well. The results can be miraculous. Or….

When group therapy attacks.

    Treatment under the best of circumstances is a controlled burn, like the kind they do with underbrush to prevent full-blown forest fires. On occasion, however, things get a little too combustible. That is the risk associated with losing good people like we have over the last two weeks (losing in the sense that people were re-assimilated into normal life; it’s not like people are dropping dead here at the Notdisneyworld Sober Ranch). 

    Because the group dynamic is a fragile thing. One or two personalities one way or the other can move the needle from the “healthy-group-therapy-dynamic” setting to the “inmates-running-the-asylum” setting, to, worse yet, the “OH-THE-HUMANITY-LOCK-UP-THE-SILVER-AND-HIDE-YOUR-DAUGHTERS!” setting. There is always going to be an ebb-and-flow to the quality of the group. But it does sometimes go bad. And when that happens, it always seems to happen fast. The staff here and our trusty clinical director talk about the group dynamic like salty old sailors talk about the weather. They stand around with ominous looks on their faces, twirl their crusty sea-beards, and mumble gravely about how there’s “trouble brewin’,” or “this one’s gonna be a doozy.” 

    I’m having a little fun with my analogy, but the fact is, for those of us for whom this thing here is life or death, the group dynamic is awfully damn important. In a good, healthy group, we feel safe sharing our feelings in a group setting. I have discussed in these pages how effective that can be. People support each other and lean on each other. That dynamic is a wonderful thing. But it can also be fleeting. When a group goes bad, the gossip starts. And people stop sharing because they stop trusting the other people in the room. Eventually someone will relapse. Then what you have is Melrose Place, and not much else.

    And when you’re sitting around with the people who are left, the ones who are serious about getting sober, and you’re wondering aloud who the next leaders are gonna be, the ones who will step into the void left by people like R and J, it occurs to you: those people will have to be us. Me. Because in any group dynamic, there are going to be those who prefer chaos, tension and drama. As I indicated above, people don’t end up at the Notdisneyworld Sober Ranch – or any other drug treatment facility – because they’re well-adjusted emotionally and play well with others. Quite the opposite. So it’s kind of up to those who have been here for a little while to keep that needle on the “good-group-therapy-dynamic” setting. This is all part our natural growth in keeping our paddles in the water. And we do have help: our clinical director, as I have mentioned, is a get-people-sober wizard. She guards the group dynamic like a mother grizzly guards her cubs. She – all 95 pounds of her – is not afraid to knock heads together for the good of the group.  

Do. Not. Fuck.With. My. Group. /shoots lasers from eyes

    So it is a fair statement that we have entered a new phase of my treatment. It is no longer a luxury for me to allow the group to be shaped by other people. I’ll need to share a little more. I’ll have to communicate a little more. I’ll have to participate a little more. And, to a certain extent, I’ll have to demand the same from some of my new friends. Because this is my recovery, and it’s too important to me to let someone else steer it.

    It’s just another day in paradise, and other than feeling a vague lack of profundity, today is a beautiful day. I suppose I’m being presumptuous to assume that anything I say is profound. In any event, I don’t suppose anyone is profound every day.

Not. Too. Shabby.

    I’m down to 10 milligrams a day of Suboxone. From 24 only 17 days ago. That’s a pretty steep decline, and explains why I have extreme lethargy throughout the day. It probably also explains some of the aches and pains that plague me, especially in the morning. Lethargy is the most prominent symptom of the “light” withdrawal  associated with the gradual step-down approach my doctor has taken to ween me off Suboxone. He will probably prescribe something to help with the lethargy for a few days to get me over the hump. One possibility is hormone therapy because past opiate addicts generally have low testosterone levels. My blood test confirmed this today.

    Interestingly, everything else checked out well. Liver enzymes, blood glucose, thyroid. A bunch of stuff I didn’t understand. And my resting heart rate was 47 and my blood pressure was 130 /81. I guess I can thank my parents for hardy genes. Of course, none of those tests demonstrate what is going on in the ol’ noggin, but at least they demonstrate a level of foundational physical health from which I can continue to build good mental health to complete the picture.

    I’m having a difficult time with a few people and boundaries. And it’s not necessarily the people I would have expected. It’s amazing how certain people who I do believe want me to get well have no problem blowing right through boundaries I set in an effort to maintain sobriety. Especially during this very early period when that sobriety is at its most fragile. They see drug addiction as a thing unto itself; the disease itself, rather than a symptom of a disease. The disease of addiction involves a lot more than just using drugs and alcohol. So it’s not just a lack of use that has to be maintained. I have to maintain a state of mental and emotional well-being the best way I know how. Right now that involves setting a lot of boundaries and sticking to them. Which takes some people aback. But as I am constantly reminded, this is my sobriety, not anyone else’s. And like a good friend once told me, I need to just not give a shit what anyone else thinks.

Butterflies cause hurricanes. Jerks.

    There is a randomness to life. Randomness, in fact, permeates every stitch in the tapestry of human experience (too much?). And we humans do our best to whitewash God’s hand from that randomness. We devise things like chaos theory, which describes how small permutations of initial inputs to large dynamical systems (weather is an often cited example) have vast and wide-ranging effects in the outcomes of those systems. The oft-cited example is that a beating butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane a continent away. Said yet another way, shit happens.

    But, although chaos theory gives us a what and a how, it leaves us wanting for a who or a why. Who made the butterfly and why is he here? Because of the randomness of the human experience, the odds seem stacked against the alignment of all the thousands (millions? billions?) of moving existential parts required to create those special associations we have with other human beings. Those associations which – due to specific factors of time, space and experience – are sufficient for us to bond with these special persons and become open to them changing us. And when certain events and people come together in our lives in a certain way, the role providence plays in directing those people and events becomes all but undeniable. Without that providence, how many ships would just pass in the night?

    Which brings me to J, who you already know. Today was his coin-out, a process with which you are already familiar. I think most of the people here were dreading J’s coin-out, because – as I have mentioned – J is a phenomenal person. He’s fun to be around, he’s funny. He’s the proverbial straw that stirs the drink (see what I did there?). He’s also kind, sensitive and considerate. So I don’t claim to be special in being sad that J is gone. But sad I am.

    The thing I can’t overstate is how important he has been to my recovery. Something clicked for me when I watched him give his life-line talk. He showed me what surrender looks like. What humility looks like. What vulnerability looks like. I have some pretty high walls up around the real me. I am emotionally unavailable, even aloof. Very few people see the real me. As a wise person recently told me, I am often afraid to let people see what I see.

     But J showed me the way. And I don’t think I even knew how important it was while it was happening, or even when I wrote about it. But something has definitely changed inside me. I don’t know how to describe it other than emotional honesty. For the first time in a long time – maybe in my life – I am being honest with myself. About a lot of things, but primarily about what I am feeling. Or in some cases, that I am feeling at all.  And I haven’t been able to turn it off since.

    As far as J goes, that was just the beginning for us. We were more or less inseparable after that moment. In this environment, 16 days feels like forever. So I feel like I’ve known J my whole life. Today was not an easy day, if I can be entirely honest and selfish for a moment. I was a part of the crew that took J to the airport. I gave my number to J’s dad, and told him to call me if something comes up. I don’t expect that it will, but the fact remains that a certain percentage of us relapse. And then we all hugged and cried and said goodbye. Then they were off.  The actual goodbye always seems so sudden.

    So it occurs to me once again I’m in a strange place with a bunch of relative strangers. I miss my kids. I’m coming off of Suboxone. I don’t have alcohol, cocaine, opiates or any of the other crutches I have relied on so heavily for the last 15 years. I have terrible feelings of guilt about my family, my kids, a marriage in shambles and a career that I took a flamethrower to. And I have this newfound ability to feel things that I haven’t learned how to control.

    J was a big part of me feeling comfortable here. He is a true confidant. I have others here, but he was like my emotional twin. After two short weeks he could read me pretty well. He knew when to ask if I was alright. And if I wasn’t, I would tell him so. I have known people for years that can’t read me like that. And to be honest, I don’t even know if I was all these same things for him. This might have been an entirely one-sided friendship. I hope not.

    Our attitudes, our preconceived notions and our prejudices are too often outcome determinative of the experiences we have in life. Furthermore, those attitudes, preconceptions and prejudices are often shaped by people – for better or worse. And, as far as I am concerned, J completely turned my attitudes, preconceptions and prejudices on their head. I’ll never be the same person, or at least I hope not.

   I hoped to have a life-changing experience when I checked into the Notdisneyworld Sober Ranch. I had to; I’ve got a lot of people whose lives depend on it. I didn’t foresee this. I have just witnessed the hand of God reach through time and space and rearrange some of the pieces on the board. I am thankful to have shared an orbit with J for a short while. And I’m going to miss him. Good-bye for now, J. I will see you soon.

   (Caw-Caw.)

Can't type. Palms sweaty.

    Belief…or trust? I would have described these words as synonymous until an AA meeting earlier this week. One morning this week – I forget which: my days all run together – at my 7:00 A.M. (!) meeting, an out-of-town guest spoke about the difference between belief and trust. The difference can be illustrated by this old story with which I have taken artistic liberties:

Tight rope performer: Today I am going to push a wheelbarrow across the high-wire.

Tight rope performer’s wife: Oh that sounds wonderful! Good luck, I have total belief that you can do it.

Husband: Do you trust me?

Wife: Yes I trust you completely. I absolutely believe you can do it.

Husband: Okay, then you’d be willing to sit in the wheelbarrow?

Wife: …

    Therein lies the difference between belief and trust. We say things like we “believe in God” all the time. The people in this world who are certain there is no God number relatively few. The believers vastly outnumber the non-believers. But how many of the believers actually trust God? I’ll ask the question another way: how many believers try to control events in their life? How many believers manipulate people to get them to do what they want them to do? How many believers have fear? Anxiety? How many believers fret about tomorrow? (/hand raised for all of the above.)

The wheelbarrow says put your money where your mouth is.

   The answer is relatively obvious, but I’ll spell it out anyway: all believers at one time or another do all of the things I identified above. And isn’t it impossible to do any of those things if we trust God? Trust in God, it seems to me, means the complete absence of fear. Of anxiety. Of manipulation. Of fretting. Of doing anything but living in the moment. This moment, the here, the now, today: those things are God’s gift to us. And by fretting, worrying, being anxious, manipulating, etc., we in effect say: no thank you, I’ll pass on your gift of today, God, because I don’t know that you’re going to be here for me tomorrow.

     My anxiety, worry and manipulation are all rooted in fear. Fear that either there isn’t a God, or fear that, if there is, he didn’t really concern himself with me. Fear is the primary emotion I was trying to squelch with my using. If, as I have suggested here, trust in God is tantamount to the absence of fear, then trust in God is also the absence of drugs and alcohol. For me anyway.

   Buon weekend.*

* this is the only phrase I remember from three semesters of Italian, and one of those words is the same in English.

Just For Today

May 6, 2011

In dark and silence, I humbly pray, 

A spirit at peace, if just for today.


As dawn pierces darkness, sun with light rays,

The light gives me hope, if just for today.


The bird with his song, has something to say,

His music soothes me, if just for today.


Wind over water, imbued with salt spray,

Calms all the chatter, if just for today. 


A child with laughter, keeps evil at bay,

And warms up my soul, if just for today.


Scared of tomorrow, it shames me to say,

But here in Your arms, it’s always today.


-SoulWornThin (J.M.)