Sunday, July 24, 2011

Step One

Disclaimer: In the spirit of anonymity, I have modified my original document to remove the names of the people I've included in this narrative. There is no point in revealing their real names, and it wouldn't be fair to one or two in particular, to have their identities known. Their identities are not what are important anyway; it's the history, the relationships, and the impact on my personal life that need to be considered. So, if you know me then you know some of my life history already, and you may be able to pluck out the identities of some of the individuals included here, but do me a favor and don't speculate about who they are.

Step One: Admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.

Before I even opened this journal page, Dear Diary, I reread the chapter on Step One in the 12 and 12. I also reread my own journal entry from a few days ago; Do I Believe In God?

I think it is important to have established exactly what my Higher Power means to me before talking about the rest of the twelve steps. As AA is based on a solid foundation of spirituality with frequent references to God, my creator, and miracles, it helps to have that "minor detail" clear in my mind, right? Right.

I've been told the concept behind Step One is Honesty. If I am to be truly honest with myself and others, I must admit I am powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable. I do so admit! And in the service of honesty, I need to go back a few years to a revelation point, or "aha moment," that is important in my drinking career. Not a starting point, but a revelation point.

Ah heck, I'll gloss over the starting point as well! It isn't particularly dramatic, but it does perhaps set the tone.

I was very young when I started drinking beer, I'm sure as part of the male bonding ritual with my dad. I remember always begging for sips of his beer, because he would pop the top on a can, pour salt on the top, and then lick the salt just before taking a drink of beer. He taught me this fine art when I was probably 12 or 13. I remember many, many nights at Draper Lake when Dad and I would go fishing, and we'd always have the beer cooler with us. Aside from just liking salt, it made the beer fizzy in my mouth, which I also liked.

One night while on the lake I kept sneaking sips of daddy's beer, and in a slightly annoyed but yet amused voice, he said, "Leave my beer alone and get your own out of the cooler!" YES! That was exactly what I wanted to hear. I dug out a can of Coors Banquet, pulled off the pop top (yep, they came completely loose back in those days, circa 1965-1966), sprinkled the top of the can with a generous portion of salt from a shaker tethered to the cooler, and sat back to enjoy my first, fully my own, can of beer.

Beer was not an acquired taste for me. I've heard many people say they had to acquire a taste for it, but it was just the best tasting thing I could imagine when I started drinking at that age. I'm sure the salt had its influence as well, since every kid loves salt on everything, right? I know I did.

Lest you think Dad a totally amoral cad, he didn't let me drink as much as I wanted whenever I wanted. He made me go slowly, and usually only allowed me two whole cans of beer over the course of the night while we were fishing.

I don't remember much else about those fishing trips. In fact, I used to hate going fishing at night. I was bored (couldn't read in the dark), couldn't listen to a radio (because it would either scare the fish or disturb dad's peace and quiet), and the bugs were ferocious! (And I absolutely HATED getting sprayed with bug spray to keep them away.)

Dad was usually quiet on these trips, not avoiding conversation, but not usually going out of his way to initiate it either. I had little patience for fishing, and never understood its appeal to my dad while I was a kid. But I certainly never refused to go along once I knew I could have a beer or two during the trip. Much later in life I understood perfectly why Dad liked it so much. He enjoyed the quiet time to himself!

Although I don't have many specific memories beyond what I've already shared, I do have a very strong feeling of enjoying the time with my dad, and would have done so sans beer, I'm sure. I was one of those kids who bitched about having to go somewhere with his parents, but usually ended up having a great time once I got there. Fishing trips with Dad were like that.

So much for glossing over the beginning! Well, for the purposes of this narrative I'll at least flash through the subsequent years, to approximately 2004.

Late 2004 to early 2005 is when I started hanging out at the Hollywood Hotel at Portland and 39th St in Oklahoma City. (Back in the 60s it was a Holiday Inn.) The Hollywood was a gay establishment with a restaurant and three bars, as well as a fully functioning hotel. I liked the bar in the restaurant, the Topanga, because it was open and bright, and the south wall of the restaurant/bar was floor to ceiling plate glass, affording an outside view. I much preferred this to dark, dingy bars where I always felt I was hiding away from the general public as though embarrassed to be caught drinking, or caught being gay, for that matter.

It was at the Hollywood where I met the majority of my current circle of friends. I sat at the bar reading books on my Pocket PC. Yes, even back then I was an avid ebook reader. I became a regular there, and all the bartenders knew me. Soon, other regulars and I struck up casual conversations, which grew into regular meetings, and eventually strong and lasting friendships. Four or five acquaintances, and a few others by association, grew into the group we have today.

I would describe my drinking at that point as regular (daily) but not particularly destructive. I drank mostly red wine, having abandoned beer a few years before in an effort to lose weight. I always had a side drink of club soda to go with my wine. (One of the Topanga bartenders with whom I became friends, called me "Merlot Joe," as a way of remembering both my name and what I liked to drink.)

My drinking didn't interfere with family or work. I still attended family events and kept up with my nephew's sports activities. I was in my stride at work; well thought of, respected, and I enjoyed what I did.

My drinking began to accelerate because I was hanging out at the Hollywood more, and with friends who drank like I did. I was excited to be gaining a group of gay friends, something I'd missed since most of my previous "circle" had moved away in the previous few years. Some moved to the Washington D.C. area, some to Seattle, Illinois, and California.

When I bought my condo in October 2005, it became the "party condo." Quite a few people made use of the party condo practically every weekend, because the booze was always there. I started skipping my nephew's sporting events because I was drinking with friends.

But the "aha moment" to which I referred earlier occurred December 22, 2006. That is the day TP passed away, at the age of 56 (a year younger than I am now). It's hard to believe almost five years have passed. A lot has happened since then.

TP died from choking on a piece of grilled chicken. The story, as I recall it being told to me by his wife, LP, is this. About a week prior to TP's death, LP was working on the computer in the office and TP ducked into the room to say he was going to grill a piece of chicken and asked if she wanted one. She said no, but that he should go ahead. He did. A while later he came running into the room, blue in the face, and grabbing his throat in the universal "I'm choking" gesture.

He collapsed, and she tried to help, but even the Heimlich Maneuver didn't work. She called 911 and the paramedics did all they could. They managed to extract the piece of chicken from deep in his airway and revive his body, but he'd been unconscious so long there was no brain activity when they got him to the hospital.

A few days later, on December 22, 2006, TP's daughter finally made the decision to turn off life support, and he was gone. (I won't go into all the family drama between TP's daughter - from his first wife - and LP, with whom he lived. Suffice it to say, things were not cordial.)

LP kept me updated throughout the few days this was going on. I debated whether to drive to Kansas City to see TP in the hospital before he died, but LP said he was brain dead and there was no point. She tried to turn off life support much earlier, but the daughter intervened, preventing her from doing so until the daughter, whom TP had not seen since she was a toddler, was ready.

At the time, all I remember was being in shock. TP had contacted me a few weeks before, in a slump from recent business related losses and from recovering from a long illness; diverticulitis. He'd lost his private investigator business due to some embezzlement activities of his business partners while he was sick. He had actually asked me if he could come to Oklahoma City and stay with me while he attempted to get reinstated with the Postal Service.

His plan was to get rehired so he could work out the rest of the time he needed to qualify for civil service retirement. He was several years short of eligibility, since he'd left postal employment to start his PI business 15 years earlier (maybe longer).

I was used to his stories (lost his business?) and scheming (get rehired at the post office after 15+ years?), so I took his request with a measure of skepticism, thinking it very unlikely that I would hear from him for quite some time. Well, I never did. The next contact I had was with LP.

I never associated the date of TP's death with the holiday season that year. He died three days before Christmas. And I had a nuclear meltdown. I drank pretty much non-stop, except during working hours. I never drank at work, or during work hours.

There was a lot going on at the Hollywood Hotel for the holidays in 2006. One of my closest friends, JB, was the bar manager there. He was really busy keeping things running over the Christmas holiday period, but when I called him, blubbering like a baby, he dropped everything to come over and spend some time with me. He found me in my condo, sitting on the floor, going through photo albums and tearing out pictures of TP and shredding them, one by one.

I tried to explain to JB my relationship with TP, which was complicated. I truly believe that I had fallen in love with him when I first met him in the 1970s. I met him when he hired on at the post office after leaving the Marines in 1975; he was 25 years old, cocky, outgoing, and (I thought) very handsome.

TP and I became fast friends almost immediately. Although I didn't tell him for a very long time that I was gay, or how I felt about him, I know he heard rumors about me at work and stood up to a lot of teasing from his other friends about our friendship. He never let that interfere with us, though. I did eventually tell him I was gay. But the depth of my feelings for him I kept to myself for many years, for fear of losing his friendship. You see, we had had some long discussions about friendship and male relationships, so I knew without doubt he would never feel the same about me as I felt about him.

Had I known I would be setting myself up for so much self-torture in the coming years, I wonder if I would have made any effort to distance myself from him early on. A gay man in love with a straight man never has a happy ending.

But our friendship thrived. I loved being a part of his life, and being his confidant when he needed to talk, or a drinking buddy when he felt like getting out of the house. I was there for him through more than one divorce, and quite a few break-ups with a number of women over the years. We might go as long as a couple of months without talking, especially if he was in the early stages of a new relationship with a girlfriend, but we always gravitated back to each other.

I remember one time TP said to me when we were drunk, and he was crying in his beer over a recent break-up: "Do you know why I like having you as a friend, Joe? Because you never try to cheer me up! If I'm in a bad mood, or sad, or whatever, you just let me be. You're right there with me, but you don't try to cheer me up. I really like that about you."

A dubious compliment, perhaps, but I was proud of it. Over the years, I had fallen into a supporting role for TP, and that often meant just being a companion, even a silent companion, during his down periods when he didn't want to talk but didn't want to be alone, either.

For the better part of 10 years, we maintained a steady relationship along these lines. I kept journals back then, too, all hand written and gravid with longing for a fair-weather breeze to turn our relationship in a direction more to my liking. It never happened, though. The realization that my wish for something more was never going to happen finally started to sink in, and I got depressed.

I finally felt like I had to separate myself from TP, or I would lose myself in him completely. I recognized the futility of lingering in such a hopeless situation, and I couldn't shift our friendship onto more level ground without putting some distance between us first. Very likely a great distance, not one of space, but of time. I was used to not hearing from him when he fired up a new relationship with a woman, so I waited until the next one came along. The separation was a bit easier to manage that way. He wasn't suspicious when he didn't hear from me for days on end, or when I was abrupt if he called me.

It took a few months, but I finally managed to drag myself out of the quicksand in which I'd been mired for so long. When the eventual break-up happened with his latest fling and he knocked on my door at 2 AM, I left him standing on the porch with the door unanswered. He sat on the porch steps, drunk, with a six pack of beer, softly knocking now and then. I sat on the edge of the bed and cried quietly, mentally trying to turn the doorknob to let him in, but resolved not to move or make a sound. A mere few weeks or months prior to this and I would not have had the emotional strength to leave him standing outside.

The next day he called to check on me, since I hadn't answered the door. I lied. I told him I had passed out drunk and never heard him at the door. At least that was a lie he could believe.

In the late 80s, geographical distance added itself to the emotional distance I was trying to maintain, in a couple of ways. One, he moved to Kansas City to open his own Private Investigator business. The physical distance accompanied by the amount of time and energy it took for him to start a new business kept him from contacting me for long periods at a time. Second, my career at the USPS was taking off. I was promoted to a position in the Finance department in 1986, and approximately a year later I had proved myself useful enough in the job that I was offered a 3-month assignment at our regional office in Memphis, TN. That was in the summer of 1987. I accepted the offer, but the 3-month assignment turned into almost 3 years! I had regular trips back to Oklahoma City, but TP wasn't there anyway and with both of us concentrating on our careers in different cities, we fell out of touch.

Mentally and emotionally, I was much stronger for the separation. Actually, a little too strong, in retrospect. When I had clearer hindsight with time between us, I realized my relationship with TP had been very unhealthy for me. I had been too absorbed by his life, trapped in a close orbit around the bright triple-star that consisted of his personality, looks, and intelligence. I resolved never to let myself get that involved with another man, again, lest I completely disappear. That resolve has held for decades; I've never been in a long term relationship with another man as a result. Yet sadly, in the back of my mind, I think I harbored hope that maybe someday TP would come around to my way of thinking. So was I strong and detached in my independence from relationships, or just waiting for TP to come to his senses? Doubt the Destroyer always lingered just out of sight.

The point seems moot. We stayed in touch over the following couple of decades, but sometimes years went by between late night phone calls, or even the infrequent lunch. Those lunch reunions were a mixed blessing for me. While I enjoyed the time with him, I felt he had remained stagnant while I had grown, emotionally and professionally. He still asserted his "one-upmanship" personality, always besting your story with his. If I lost $100, he lost $1,000. If I bought a new Toyota, he bought a new BMW. I tired of it quickly.

The late night phone calls were even worse. Every now and then he'd get nostalgic and call me at 2 AM wanting to talk, to relive the early years of our friendship. He'd usually been drinking and was even more gregarious than usual. I, on the other hand, was deep in my professional career at the USPS and certainly did not appreciate the sleep interruption! But, as the dutiful old friend, I stayed on the phone for however long he needed to talk. He'd usually devolve into reminiscing about the good old times when we'd been newly promoted supervisors at the plant, and how he'd chase after the women with me scrambling after to pick up the pieces when those shallow relationships fell apart. (He always made me out to be the stronger, more resilient, of the two of us, because he was always the one needing support.) And then there were the occasional references to late night, drunken, affection between friends that were physically and emotionally painful for me to remember.

That type of contact grew less and less frequent over the years, until he contacted me in early December 2006 asking for help getting reinstated at the Postal Service, with him having fallen on hard times. I was deeply skeptical that it would ever happen, but I put forth the effort to gather information for him and refer him to the right people in Human Resources who could properly advise him.

When he died later that month, I was devastated.

As I mentioned earlier, my friend JB came over at my plea for help, and found me shredding photos of TP and ripping my handwritten journals about TP (that I had not read in decades, but oddly enough had kept) to shreds. I was drunk, very drunk. I was sobbing, hardly able to see through the tears to continue my destruction of photos and journals, or to find the bottle of red wine that had to be somewhere within arms reach. Only the bottle, no glass. No time for niceties like a wine glass when a meltdown was in progress.

JB physically stopped me from destroying all of the photos. It was too late for the journals, but he did manage to prevent me from losing all the pictures by taking them away from me. Of course, I'm grateful for that now. At the time, I was determined to excise every artifact that might someday remind me of TP. I had cut him out of my life years before. I carried a forlorn disdain for his feeble efforts to stay in touch over the years. I thought his boastful manner juvenile and unworthy of someone who professed to be as successful as he was; a self-made man.

And, evidently, I was still in love with the boy who had become a man, and was still dragging around a huge resentment toward him for not feeling about me the way I had felt about him all those years ago. Here I thought I had outgrown those feelings, when in fact I had only repressed them; walled them up. Now he was dead, and there truly was no hope of experiencing the unique, fairytale, "happily ever after" relationship I had forever longed for with him. My sadness was complete.


The path to alcoholic destruction was now laid at my feet.

All of these thoughts and feelings floated around in my mind, firing stinging barbs occasionally, with an odd recollection or two serving as reminders of my failure to really set my life in order. The only thing that killed the memories and dulled the emotions was alcohol. My drinking escalated after TP died. At first I blamed him, but then I realized I was falling back into old thought patterns and behaviors. I knew I couldn't blame TP for my own feelings, no matter how much I wanted to do so. And it's not as if he choked to death on a piece of chicken on purpose just to dig up long-buried feelings in me!

So alcohol helped dull my senses, for the moment. And those moments were frequent, so the alcohol was needed more than ever. JL, my confidant and best friend, knew what was going on in my head. So did JB. My other friends knew I had a friend who died, but didn't know the circumstances behind it, nor why the event was so traumatic for me.

The party condo was in full swing every weekend, especially during the summers when everyone wanted to swim at the complex's pool. I stayed busy in the condo keeping the alcohol flowing and the food set out. Credit card balances skyrocketed, but I didn't care. I fell into frequent binge drinking, and black-out drinking. How I managed to drive home from the bars without killing myself or someone else, I don't know. I chased after the cute guys at the bars, throwing money at them to gain their affection, as was my way, and then dropping into depression again when their interest waned when the money and booze ran out.

Professional woes began to stack themselves upon my personal problems; already a shaky prospect and certainly not sturdy enough to support them. Work related stress increased, partly due to changes in the work culture, partly due to my unfocused attention to the job. My alcohol consumption began to affect my decision making abilities, and I started to rely more on my staff to take care of things with as little input from me as possible. There were long days when I would close my office door and take a nap in my chair, biding my time until 4:30 when I could get home and start drinking again.

This behavior continued, getting worse as time marched on, from when TP died in December 2006 until December 2008. That's when even my friends realized I was too far gone. I was ignoring medical advice to stop drinking or else my liver would not survive. I was mixing Xanax and pain meds, when I could get them, with the alcohol to provide a different flavor to the high. I was blackout drinking every weekend, to the point where I would either be late for work on Monday or not show up at all.

The work situation and my deteriorating health were what finally got my attention. And the fact that one friend in particular, EW, made an effort to gather information about detox and rehab to give to me, encouraging me to get help before it was too late. One Monday, I overslept the alarm. Someone came to my condo door and a friend went down to look through the peephole. He said, "There are two women out there." I checked my phone and realized I had missed calls from my sister and at least one of my employees. I never opened the door. I was too ashamed to let them see me so hung over and ragged.

Instead, I called in and left a voicemail for my manager telling him I wouldn't be in; that I was sick. When I got off the phone, I saw the rehab literature on the table. With a shaky hand, I picked it up and studied it, and made the call that changed my life.


In an odd coincidence, it was two years to the day since TP died that I decided to seek help. I don't think I recognized that unusual coincidence at the time; I just now thought of it! It was December 22, 2008 when I made the call to the START unit, the rehab department of Saint Anthony Hospital. I was shaky and unfocused, but made the call anyway. Unfortunately, they had no beds available in the unit at that moment, but the nurse said she would call me as soon as one became available. I was somewhat relieved because I suddenly worried that I might be in rehab over the Christmas holiday and I would miss hanging out with friends and family.

Well, in the spirit of rigorous honesty, I wasn't that worried about missing time with family because I was already in the practice of avoiding them when I was drinking. The alcohol came first! That wasn't a problem with my friends, however, since many of them drank as heavily as I did. The only difference being they were a lot younger and their bodies were able to handle the alcohol better than mine.

I got a call on December 27, 2008 from the nurse at Saint Anthony Hospital letting me know a bed would be available on the 29th if I wanted it. I said I did, so she scheduled a formal interview for me with an evaluating nurse. I had already given her my insurance information the week before, so she knew what it would and wouldn't cover. She also knew the insurance company's requirements for admission. She told me in order for insurance to pay for my detox and rehab, I would have to have been drunk within three days immediately prior to my evaluation interview, which was scheduled for the morning of December 29, 2008.

I was ecstatic! I had pretty much been told I had to drink for the next two days if I wanted to be accepted into the program. And not just drink, but get drunk. In my alcoholic state of mind I morphed that information into an invitation to get and stay drunk for the next two solid days.

My family was still unaware of my situation, but I had spoken to my manager at work to let him know I would be off for a significant period of time; in fact, I did not know at that point when I would return to work. As has always been the case with him, he was totally supportive and promised all the help he could provide, and that I should only worry about getting well and nothing else. It brings tears to my eyes even now to remember that conversation.

The next two days are lost to me. Memories of them are lost in a swirling alcoholic fog. The only clear memory I have is of my friend BJ driving me to the hospital for my evaluation interview. We had sex in the car while on the way to the interview, and again in the nurse's office while she was in the next room on the phone with the insurance company.

I only reveal these sexual incidents because they serve to demonstrate exactly how base my behavior had become. The memories are embarrassing, and these are events that happened almost three years ago.


To summarize this narrative, a little less personally, I'd put it like this. An early introduction to alcohol, in the form of beer, and my obvious love of its flavor and effects, pretty much revealed my tendency toward alcoholism at an early age. (Drinking through my teenage years was another clue, but I don't think I drank any more or less than my peers at the time.) I continued to drink as a young adult, at the beginning of my postal career and fell in love in a hopelessly stereotypical gay/straight way. I was nearly absorbed in someone else's personality and had to wall myself off in order to protect myself. That, in turn, set me up for a lifetime of solitude, providing yet another incentive to drink. In my early 50s, the apparent lifetime object of my affection passed away, triggering an emotional meltdown from the sudden realization that I still had buried emotions and unresolved feelings toward him.

So many fuses running into the powder keg of buried emotions and profound loss had no choice but to explode when the plunger was finally pushed. The fact that I lasted two years between the trigger and the explosion is remarkable. The fact that I survived at all feels like a miracle.

Yes. I admit I am powerless over alcohol. And I admit my life had become unmanageable. As revealed, I eventually sought help at the Saint Anthony START unit and let someone else take control of my life for a while. It felt really good being in a safe place where I knew I could relax, let go, not drink, and hopefully learn some skills that would serve to keep me sober for the rest of my life.

It was in the START unit that I was first exposed to Alcoholics Anonymous, and I thought, Finally! Now I have something that can save me! Until I got to Step Two and realized I was going to have difficulty with the concept of God in AA. Still, I gamely plodded through the daily routine in the START unit, placing all hope for recovery and sobriety into its proven track record. I assumed I would figure a way around the "god thing" at some point, so I didn't worry about it. It was that attitude, an attitude of "I'll figure out how to do this without God" and just rely on my own willpower to get through, that provided a less than sturdy foundation for my beginning.

But at least I had a beginning! For the first time in many years, I felt I was getting a grasp on life and that I wasn't hopeless. Helpless, perhaps, at least momentarily, but not hopeless.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Do I Believe In God?

Do I believe in God?

I still contemplate this question. The intellectual side of me wants to say no God exists, at least not in the traditional Christian sense. But there's a seed of concern in the back of my mind that tells me I need to have a "willingness to believe," to borrow an AA phrase. Why? Because I'm getting old, and the thought of dying with no afterlife in which to bask eternally does not appeal. No one, me included, wants to believe that once you're dead, you're dead, and there's nothing sentient waiting. But I refuse to let a childhood indoctrination into only one religion form my beliefs.

I believe death is just a transformation of energy from one form to another.

The concept of a Higher Power I've used since joining AA has been one of continuous energy: That people are all connected, indeed, everything is connected, as one continuous flow of energy. Some forms of energy are more static than others, like a table, or a tree. Other forms are animated, like animals, humans, etc. And still others are more in the traditional sense of energy; electricity, radiation, gravity. (If this is vaguely reminiscent of string theory, why can't it also be associated with the phrase used often in AA of "God is everything or God is nothing?" If all is energy, and God is everything, then can't energy be God?)

This is a concept in which I can believe. I can visualize myself focusing positive energy in my life, whether that is practicing good deeds, helping others, helping myself, or any other form of good and wholesome activity that culminates in a positive result. (Now that's a subjective concept - good and wholesome activity - if I've ever heard one.)

Where I have difficulty is in anthropomorphizing such a Higher Power into one with a personality and an intrinsic concern for the affairs of my daily life. And I especially have difficulty believing that if such a God exists that it would require humans to worship it! Surely something so powerful and omniscient would not require petty life forms (by comparison) to worship it. I liken it to humans expecting worship from single celled organisms!

I think worship is a construct of religion, which is itself manmade. There are so many religions in the world, all manmade, each with its own set of beliefs, rituals, and expectations. I find it overpoweringly arrogant for one religion to claim superiority over another, but most adherents to any one religion do just that. Religious followers routinely embrace the precepts of their chosen religion as being the one truth. Once again, man is fallible. Religion is manmade; hence religion is fallible.

God, on the other hand, is infallible. Especially if God is everything; all forms of matter, energy, power, etc. But that also means that God doesn't take sides, doesn't choose a particular religion as the one true religion, or, necessarily, is even self-aware!

As I have said many times in AA meetings, if I can believe in the supernatural, or in alien life on other planets, then I should have a willingness to believe in a higher power. After all, I have no proof that God doesn't exist either! And I am no mental titan with the ability to slay all contrary arguments before me. I was never captain of the debate club, and in fact prefer not to defend my beliefs any more than I like having others force theirs upon me.

I am simply striving to solidify some concept of a Higher Power that will serve its place in my life as defined by Alcoholics Anonymous. It has to be a "higher power," something greater than myself, that can help me accomplish what I cannot do alone - achieve and maintain sobriety.

Does my Higher Power:
Require worship? No
Actively and purposefully insinuate itself in my daily life? No
Rely upon manmade religious constructs to exist? No
Require belief in its existence without scientific proof (faith)? No
Expect me to proselytize in order to propagate a belief system? No
Expect me to strive for positive improvement in my life through focus, hard work, and maintaining an open-minded attitude toward the thoughts and beliefs of others? YES!

In order for my Higher Power to serve its purpose in my life, I have to actively engage it! I have to set my frame of mind each day to one of tranquility, calm, and openness. I have to bring positive thought and energy to bear upon the activities that achieve the results I need to stay healthy and sober.

Does my concept of a Higher Power conflict with the program of Alcoholics Anonymous? Not at all. I was put off AA in the beginning by the constant references to God, prayer, miracles, my creator, etc. It took quite a while in my early sobriety to divorce my distaste for organized religion (and religious terminology) from the spirituality of the program. I did finally manage it, however, with the help of friends in AA. My "roll your own" God, or "God as I understand him," is exactly what the spirituality of the AA program is all about.

How has my spirituality improved? By having a willingness to believe in a Higher Power greater than myself. By embracing the idea that not only could my higher power do what I couldn't do, but that each person's Higher Power could do the same for them whether their beliefs aligned with mine or not. As discussed in the chapter We Agnostics in the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous, I had to cast aside my aversion to religious terms and not let such things become obstacles to my own developing need for a Higher Power that suited me.

I eventually began to associate terms such as meditation and prayer with my own efforts to focus on the positive energy I needed in my mind, heart, and life. I am comfortable saying God, reciting prayers (whether I believe in their specific religious connotations or not), and embracing others' beliefs as forms of positive energy that fit perfectly in my concept of a higher power. I do not feel hypocritical in these beliefs, especially not in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It's funny to see my own beliefs prior to AA mirrored in the Big Book. From pages 45-46: "We were bothered with the thought that faith and dependence upon a Power beyond ourselves was somewhat weak, even cowardly." That's exactly how I felt! I thought others who relied on faith in God and/or religion were simply weak and unable to summon the inner strength and willpower to deal with their personal problems without help. How wrong I turned out to be. Such reliance upon their concept of a Higher Power is a strength, not a weakness. After all, isn't it just a form of focusing positive energy, accepting its benefits and following its path as a means of creating and maintaining the right frame of mind to support the activities and spirituality needed for continuous sobriety?

Call it what you will; God, Higher Power, the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, good orderly direction, group of drunks, or a doorknob. If it serves as that which can help you do what you cannot do alone, and it results in quality, continuous sobriety and spiritual fitness, then you are on the path to success and at least a measure of control over your life. So it is with me today. I awaken in the morning and say my morning prayers.

Serenity Prayer (whenever needed!):
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

(Morning) God, please keep me sober today as in all the days since June 29, 2011.

(Evening) God, thank you for keeping me sober today.

(Third Step Prayer, modernized, to focus my thoughts for the day):
God, I offer myself to you to build with me and to do with me as you will. Relieve me of the bondage of self that I may better do your will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of your power, your love, and your way of life. May I do your will always.

And so I return to the original question: Do I believe in God?

Yes, in that God is everything, all the energy in the universe, and the positive flow of which can serve to improve life as we know it. Positive energy, positive actions, positive attitude, and positive thinking produce positive results. Today, with the positive power of God in my life, my sobriety is safe and secure... But just for today. I never take it for granted, because the instant I stop focusing on the positive aspects of my life that keep me sober, I am in danger of drinking again. I am only human, after all, and therefore fallible. How sure am I that I can succeed? POSITIVE!

Location:Oklahoma City, OK

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Drinking Game - No One Wins

June 13, 2011

A Drinking Game - No One Wins

A month ago today, on Friday, May 13, 2011, I decided to test myself and see if I could drink again, like a normal person. This wasn't an easy decision, nor one made in a hurry. It's something I've been considering for at least the past few months. Why? Because I had been sober for almost two and a half years and I felt I had enough time under my belt that I could drink again.

A lot of things have changed since I was drinking heavily. First, I have no work-related stress. That was a key factor in my drinking days, at least in the couple of years just prior to retirement. Second, I have no relationship issues. (Being in love with someone who doesn't feel the same about you is heart wrenching and stressful.) Third, and probably most importantly, I've had time to adjust from the death of a close friend, someone I had known for a very long time and loved a lot. I didn't see it happening at the time, but in retrospect I could trace the beginning of my downward spiral into blackout and binge drinking to about the time my friend died, almost five years ago now.

In spite of two years, four months, and fourteen days sober with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, my sponsor, and my higher power, I decided enough had changed in my life that I could handle drinking like a normal person. It wasn't a decision I made lightly. I wrote out a list of consequences, not just to myself but to other people. For example, it is strongly recommended that a recovering alcoholic have at least a year's sobriety to serve on the service committee for an AA group. I am currently the treasurer for our Keep It Simple group at the May Club. Making the decision to drink meant giving up that role. Not only giving it up, but finding someone else to take on the responsibility. Choosing to shift the burden to someone else for the sake of drinking reveals a serious character flaw.

It took me a couple of weeks after starting this "experiment" to admit to my home group I had started drinking again, and therefore should give up my position as treasurer. I've shared a couple of times in the meetings about having started drinking again. Today, at our 3 o'clock meeting, I also announced the end of my experiment and my return to sobriety, with today being my new sobriety date. (I know, it's never that simple. I can't just "announce" I'm sober and expect anyone to believe me. I've obviously relapsed, so why should anyone believe me?)

"Don't let the life AA gave you take you away from AA." That's a great line, and one I heeded well for two and a half years. But it's funny how a little distance between my last drunk and me can blur my thinking.

I'd like to say I was beguiled by alcohol, the "cunning, baffling, powerful" thing that it is. Add "insidious" to the list as well. But you know what? I made an active decision to drink. I stood in my kitchen with two cans of beer and said to myself, "OK, let's try this experiment." Even as I reached over to pop the top on the first can, several things flashed through my mind: Admitting to the failure of being able to maintain my sobriety; Facing the disappointment of family and friends who have been so supportive of me since I stopped drinking in 2008; Knowing I was throwing away the accomplishment of having accrued nearly two and a half years of sobriety; Swallowing my pride and returning to the rooms of AA if/when I ended the experiment; How refreshing that first taste of beer would be, after literally years of its absence. (Yes, that last line really did cross my mind.)

I've really wanted to drink again the past couple of months. It hasn't been an overpowering urge, and oddly enough I've only wanted to drink beer, not wine or liquor. I didn't know where this would lead. If I believe the AA experience, it would lead me back to where I was, as bad or worse, when I quit drinking and went into detox on December 29, 2008. But I wasn't convinced this was where I was headed. This belief, too, is reflected in AA literature.

So in spite of all the hundreds of people I've listened to in AA, and all I've read in the AA literature, I had to prove to myself whether I could drink "normally" or not. The first night, Friday the 13th, two beers and done. Nothing the second night. The third night? Sunday, May 15th, I got hammered. Seven beers followed by two very strong mixed drinks. I woke up with a nasty hangover the next morning, and ended up spending most of the day sleeping in my recliner, although I managed to get to the 3 o'clock meeting just so I could get the day's collection and deposit it in the bank.

That was a wake-up call, although I refused to answer it. I just thought to myself, "it's normal to twist one off within the first few days of starting drinking again. The important thing is to get it back under control." Control meant rules. So I set down the following rules for myself.

1. No drinking and driving. If I'm going to drink with the boys, then someone (a non-alcoholic, like Mark) has to drive me. If I drive myself where there is going to be alcohol, no drinking.

2. No mixing types of alcohol; beer, liquor, wine, etc.

3. When drinking at home, set limits on the number of drinks (or cans of beer) and stick with it.

When I confessed to my sponsor that I was drinking again, he was very understanding. He recommended I journal through the experience and try to discover what had triggered the desire to drink again. So I covered the major topics.


Am I lonely? Yes, at times. All of my close friends, with a couple of exceptions, are in relationships and I wish I was in one, too. But it's not something I dwell on. I don't sit around moping about being alone. I actually like living alone. Aside from the occasional desire for sex, I really don't mind being alone.

A friend mentioned I said I was lonely (I don't remember saying it). There have been many times I've wished I could drink again, if for no other reason than to lower my inhibitions, hang out at the bars, and hit on the cute guys. I just don't have the gumption to do that when I'm sober. But is that behavior of which I can be proud?


I can't see this one being a problem either. I still have money in the bank after all my taxes have been paid and absorbing some other large expenditures this year. I just need to buckle down and curb my spending. When I'm frugal, I can add to savings each month. My goal is to build my reserve back up and then save for another trip, perhaps this fall or winter.


I can't think of any situation where I've been afraid of anyone, so this doesn't apply.

So, aside from the possible loneliness issue, all I can think of that made me drink is that I just wanted to! Maybe it's because I've missed quite a few meetings over the last month or so. I didn't go to a meeting the whole time I was in Port Aransas, and I missed several other days both before and after the trip. Could it be a simple as that? Not going to meetings? "Meeting makers make it," or so says one of our AA cliches.


After getting drunk that first Sunday of the experiment, I skipped drinking a few nights. When I drank again, I had several mixed drinks, but no beer. I managed to not get drunk or have a hangover the next day.

The next few days sometimes I drank, sometimes I didn't. I never felt an overpowering urge to do so, and just drank when I felt like it. Mostly I drank at home, sometimes at the Burger Joint (where I could walk home and not drive).

On Saturday, June 4th, just two weeks into the experiment, I went over the cliff. A friend and I walked over to the Burger Joint and started drinking beer. Not 3.2 beer, but the strong stuff. We started down their list of imported beers and tried quite a few. I thought I was doing pretty well and I was really enjoying myself. My friend and I were both having fun with some of the employees. By the end of the evening I was buying drinks not only for my friend and me, but for the employees too!

After the Burger Joint closed, my friend and I joined our new Burger Joint friends next door at The Office. I don't recall much by that time, except that I was very drunk. Another friend came to get me and take me home. With the help of all involved, they got me safely to my condo.

Much of Saturday night is a blank to me. And I was appalled when I saw my bar tab; $223 (including tip)! I was hung over on Sunday, of course, and in fact didn't drink for a couple of days while I recovered. Had I learned my lesson finally? Hardly.

Last Saturday ended up being almost a repeat of the previous Saturday, except this time I was drinking with a different friend, and I didn't suffer a blackout; I was able to stop drinking and find my own way home, walking the short distance from the Burger Joint to my condo. I had a tinge of a hangover on Sunday, but nothing major. My bar tab? $152.

So here it is, two days later, Monday, June 13, 2011. Last night I bought two 12-packs of beer and sat at home drinking alone. I had six beers before I quit. I realized I wasn't having a good time, at all. And the acidity of the lime flavored beer was giving me an upset stomach.

I reread my journal this morning, which I have faithfully maintained this whole time. I decided to take inventory of what I expected to achieve with this experiment, what I actually achieved, and write up a pros and cons list to see if I can justify continued drinking. Here's what I came up with.

What did I expect to achieve? Knowledge of whether I could drink like a normal person. I actually achieved that goal, too, even though I am not happy with the result because the answer is no, I cannot drink like a normal person. I was hoping to prove that I could do so, and in the process prove everyone else (including the long dead authors of the Big Book) wrong.

It took less than a month to fall back into my old behavior. Granted, I never drove while intoxicated; that was one commitment I was determined to keep. But in the span of two Saturday nights I spent $400 at the bar just on alcohol, and I don't know how much on beer that I drank at home over the course of the month.

Other despicable behavior included self-pity, trying to "buy" the affection of others by paying for all the drinks, needing others to get me safely home, and drunk texting. Yep, that old habit reared its ugly head last Saturday night after I got home from the Burger Joint. Drunk texting seems entertaining at the time, but always proves embarrassing the next day.

I think back to when I drank nothing but beer many years ago, and remember having continual bladder and prostate infections. Those disappeared when I switched to wine and liquor. When I quit drinking wine and liquor too, two and a half years ago, my liver function improved, my blood pressure dropped to the point I no longer needed medication, and my depression improved. Not to mention the amount of money I saved by not drinking!

What do I gain by drinking again? A temporary high from the alcohol. A feeling of belonging with my friends who still drink. And a lot of potentially negative results: Financial difficulty, bad health, broken relationships with family and friends, etc.

So as of today, Monday, June 13, 2011, one month since I popped the tabs on two beers, I am pledging to be alcohol free again. I theorized (or rationalized, if you prefer) that after two and a half years sober, with such a clean break in my drinking habits as a result of going to detox and rehab, and obvious improvements in the circumstances that triggered my drinking before, that I could now handle alcohol like a normal person. I tested the theory with specific goals and results in mind, and failed. None of the reasons I felt I could drink normally again held water, so to speak. No better than I could hold my liquor.

I hope I can keep a clear mind on this, now. I know I need to study the inner feelings and fears that drive my want and need to change my behavior, and deal with those issues directly - and without alcohol. I hope this essay is still around in a few years time, should I decide once again that I have the ability to be a normal drinker rather than an alcoholic. Even if I decide the Big Book and all those AAers out there in the world are full of crap and what they say doesn't apply to me, at least I'll have my own experience and words to remind me I'm no different, and no better than the rest.

Day One, Lucky to be Sober Again - I Win.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Wise Man Smokes Own Coughin'

“A pipe gives a wise man time to think before he speaks and a fool something to put in his mouth. – Anonymous”

Go back in time with me to a more peaceful era, not when the world was less complicated, but when the cosmos was smaller; basically a global sphere about as big around as my field of vision at any given time, which was that of your average twelve year old boy in 1966. Childhood innocence is a wonderful thing; bittersweet in hindsight when you first realize you’re losing it. A hint of that impending loss was revealed to me that year.

My granddad smoked a pipe for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I’d watch in fascination as he practiced his routine, seldom varying it in any way. He’d take his time filling the pipe bowl with his favorite tobacco; a fragrant, cherry blend as I recall. He’d lean forward on the edge of his old wooden rocking chair, as if anticipating his actions or perhaps just eager to satisfy his nicotine habit; I was too young to know. He’d tamp the tobacco down in the bowl of the pipe and then strike a long wooden match on the sole of his shoe and watch intently as the sulfur flared brightly before shrinking into a small yellow sun. I wonder what universal truths were revealed in that momentary flash of brilliance he studied so raptly.

He’d tilt the match downward briefly and then sideways with fingers gnarled with age and years of hard work on the railroads, and then hold it to the bowl of the pipe, causing the flame to elongate along the match. He’d hold it over the low mound of tobacco while he puffed quickly on the mouth of the pipe to suck the flame into the bowl. I don’t think I could even blink or breathe as I watched this ritual. I could hear his quick little whoosh of breath with each puff, and see the flame from the match draw down, transforming the tobacco into glowing red stringy embers, and somehow becoming rapid shots of white smoke escaping from the opposite corner of grandpa’s mouth from where the pipe was gripped between tobacco-stained teeth. Did he even inhale? I couldn’t tell.

Blue-white smoke eventually stormed up, surrounding grandpa's head in a gathering cloud as he settled back into his creaky chair. He’d absentmindedly shake out what was left of the flame on the stub of the match and drop it in the ashtray on the table by his side, used; forgotten. Then he'd r-e-l-a-x into his smoke as if he'd just chuffed in from the wild, wild west, lurching off the rail car after a tough couple of months chasing the lonesome whistle across the dusty, red Oklahoma range. The urgency so evident at the beginning of this ritual suddenly turned into a desire to simply be. To be at ease. To enjoy. Grandpa had a talent for being still. After a few quiet moments with his eyes closed, he’d begin rocking gently in his chair, and the ambient silence in the room was slowly heightened by a slightly sticky sound of the rocker legs on cracked, old linoleum, and punctuated with the occasional heal or toe tap to keep his rhythm going.

Still the engrossed child, my hypnotic moment broke and I came back to myself when I noticed grandpa was now watching me watching him. I was a little startled, I think, as though I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t. He was silently smiling at me as he puffed on his pipe, a kindness in his eyes, as always. Did he know something I didn’t? I remember grandpa as being a kind and gentle man as I was growing up, and soft spoken to a point where I sometimes had difficulty understanding him.

On the occasion of this recollection he sat in his chair smoking his pipe and the room filled with his smoke. The room was so still that the smoke hovered in layers it was so thick, yet wafted ever so gently as though disturbed by some temperate wind. He sat in his chair reading, as did grandma Mary. If anyone got up and walked through the room, of course, the smoke would eventually even itself out and just stand in the room like smog, losing its personality entirely, and losing my interest as well.

Sometimes grandpa would allow himself a second pipe in the evening, sometimes not. Either way, when he was finished, he cleaned out the bowl with a pipe cleaner and a small knife he kept nearby for that purpose. I remember watching as he methodically scraped the bowl of the pipe and wondering why he bothered, since I knew he would load the smelly thing up with more tobacco the next time the urge struck him. I always thought it was odd how the pipe itself stunk so badly when the smoke it produced was so welcoming and comforting.

In the summer of 1966 I spent a few days at grandpa and Mary’s. He was smoking his pipe one evening after supper, as I recalled above, and I finally got up the nerve to ask him if I could have a puff or two. He said in his husky, soft-spoken way, “no, but I’ll let you smoke your own. On one condition.” Don’t think those sentences were spoken nearly as fast as you just read them! There were long pauses in between the words and the sentences. Grandpa was never one to hurry his words, choosing his thoughts carefully and speaking them just as carefully. I was interested, so I said, “Okay, what is it?”

In between thoughtful puffs he replied, “You can smoke the pipe, but once you start, you can’t stop until it’s completely finished.” Long pause. “Do we have a deal?” A blue wisp of smoke curled up from the mouthpiece resting on his lower lip and caused his eyes to squint ever so slightly as he awaited my response.

I bowed my head in thought and gave the proposal thorough consideration while the old rocker had at least a good 10-count of creak-sticky-toe-tap, and didn’t really see the downside to the deal, so I agreed. Grandpa proceeded to get a second pipe out of his pipe stand (he wasn’t about to let me smoke his favorite pipe) and handed it to me. Then, step by step, he with his pipe and me with mine, he taught me how to fill it correctly, light it, and start smoking it. I was delighted to be initiated into a tradition I had thus far only been allowed to observe.

As I said, I was 12 years old, but I felt entirely grown up having my first smoke with grandpa. But of course you know exactly what happened. The first indrawn breath produced a series of hacking coughs that brought tears to my eyes and a painful burning sensation in my chest and throat. It took a while for the coughing episode to subside before I could continue. I had probably four or five good, but much shallower, puffs before I started to get light headed and nauseous, and it was only moments later before I was taking a second, much less appetizing, look at what I had for dinner an hour or so earlier. Grandpa had had the foresight to conduct this smoking experiment outdoors, so when I began regurgitating at least it was in the grass instead of in the living room!

Grandpa held me to my word, though. When I finished throwing up, which I noticed he’d watched with some amusement, he made me wipe my mouth off and sit back in my lawn chair and take up the pipe again. Our agreement was that I was required to finish the whole bowl! This time, he told me not to inhale the smoke. He told me to breathe in first and hold my breath, then puff the pipe and hold the smoke in my mouth briefly, and then exhale slowly. This would allow me to taste the smoke without inhaling it. I experimented a few times, but had difficulty getting the hang of it. Besides, I watched him and that’s not how he seemed to be smoking his pipe, but I tried my best to do as he instructed. I still felt nauseous and was more than ready to ditch the whole idea. I’d much rather just lie flat on my back in the cool grass until I stopped feeling sick! What had seemed like a few minutes when I watched grandpa smoke his pipe before felt like hours while I was doing it.

So we sat in silence and smoked our pipes. We were outside on a hot summer evening, sitting on the east side of the house, as was usual for the time of day in order to take advantage of the shade provided by the house. The air was calm and humid, and I was sweating. I’m sure the evening’s activity had me sweating more than what could be blamed on the weather! Mosquitos were everywhere and seemed to be drawn to my sweaty brow.

Grandpa picked up his book (Readers Digest, condensed) and puffed on his pipe. He’d look over the top of his book at me occasionally, but otherwise left me to myself. For my part, I sat there trying to keep the remaining contents of my stomach where they were. I watched him, slyly I thought, trying to mimic his mannerisms to learn how to hold the pipe in my hand and mouth, and to have the right angle of head and chin tilt to indicate the proper amount of deep thought without appearing to be in danger of dropping off to sleep. We shared a companionable silence.

When I sensed him looking at me, I’d quickly look away so as not to get caught studying him. My gaze would always return to the gravel driveway just in front of the house, where stood one of grandpa’s prized possessions; a 1950s pickup truck. I don’t remember the year, or make for that matter; too many years between then and now for me to recall it exactly. What I do remember with great clarity is how he loved that truck so much that he painted it one year (several years later) with a 3-inch hand brush! Cobalt blue, from front to back! Up close, especially in direct sunlight, you could see the coarse brush strokes everywhere along the body of that pickup, but grandpa was sure proud of it! It brings a smile to my face even now when I think of it.

The smoke began to peter out. I didn’t throw up again, but the nausea stayed with me right to the end. The pipe finally went out and after the bowl cooled grandpa showed me how to dump out the tobacco and clean out the bowl with the knife and clean the stem with the pipe cleaner. He grumbled a bit about how much saliva I’d let into the mouthpiece, and then made a good natured comment or two about me looking a little green around the gills. I tried to grin and bear it all, but was anxious to get it over with.

I went back inside and returned the pipe to its place in the pipe stand. Grandma Mary smiled sympathetically at me over her glasses from her chair as I passed. Her affection and concern for me changed to a frown of frustration when grandpa followed me into the room, and she pursed her lips repeatedly in that “nervous tick” kind of way she had, as if to show her disapproval of this whole “smoking nonsense,” I think she called it, muttering under her breath a little. She shook her head and returned to her book.

I never picked up a pipe again. Or a cigarette for that matter. I never had the desire to smoke after that. I remember harboring a bit of childhood resentment toward grandpa for quite a while afterwards, thinking it was very cruel to pull such a mean trick on me, to make me sick like that, and to laugh at me while he was doing it. Of course, looking back on it now, I know he was teaching me a lesson, and doing a very effective job of it, too. I didn’t know I was losing a bit of my childhood innocence that day. Just a smidgen of it, but that’s how we lose it, isn’t it? It doesn’t just disappear all at once. It’s not something we generally squander; at least not most of us, if we’re lucky.

I was one of the lucky ones. I got to lose my innocence over a long and happy childhood, through some interesting lessons like this one. They weren’t always appreciated at the time they were taught, but as I said, they were certainly effective.

In looking back at what I learned from grandpa at this particular time, I know it wasn’t only about the smoking. I’m at a point in my life when I need serenity, where tranquility is important to me. I have achieved grandpa’s talent for being still. It was so easy to recall grandpa settling into his stillness when he went through his pipe lighting routine as I described it above. I actually recognized it in him because I recognize it in myself.

I think of grandpa as being a very wise man. Without ever discussing the pros and cons of smoking, without ever telling me a single thing about how or why he took up the habit, and without glamorizing or demonizing a habit that gave him at least some measure of comfort and serenity, he managed to teach me a lesson by demonstration.

“A pipe gives a wise man time to think before he speaks and a fool something to put in his mouth.” The first part of this adage describes grandpa perfectly! The second part serves as ample warning to the rest of us to think before we speak at all. With a grandpa who was grounded and tranquil at heart and who embodied wisdom and cared enough to teach, how could I not live long enough to learn how to be still and to appreciate serenity?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Life Lessons: A Tribute to Dad

Billy Joe Scholes, age 72
Born May 5, 1927

Died November 17, 1999

I’ve been thinking about Dad quite a lot the past few days. That’s not so unusual this time of year. Last week was mom’s birthday. She would have been 79, but she died of lung cancer in August 1998. Dad was suffering from the same disease and was diagnosed just days apart from mom, but his illness wasn’t as advanced so he decided on the full course of chemo and radiation treatment. As a result he lived an additional 15 months, but it was an uphill struggle the entire time with only a few periods of reasonably good quality of life.

The memory of mom’s death in August and then her birthday in September sparks days of reminiscing about her every year. The intervening days between mom’s birthday and the anniversary of dad’s death are dotted with a shower of memories of dad. So in an odd way starting at the end seems appropriate; the end being the last few days I spent with Dad.

It started with an uneasy feeling building inside me on Sunday, November 7, 1999. A sadness enveloped me that evening, for no apparent reason. I was thinking a lot about Dad, and how nice it was to see him ten days earlier when he and Wanda came to Oklahoma City for an eye exam. I picked them up at Aunt Pat's house and drove them over to Dianne and Jim's for an evening with the family.

The Jantzen home that evening was filled with the fragrance of scented candles, happiness, and the sounds of years of familiarity among a family comfortable and content with itself. Dad appeared a bit frailer than the last time I saw him, toward the end of August. Aside from a brief tour of Jim and Dianne's house, which he had never seen, he sat in a comfortable chair in the living room, happy to let the family bustle about, catching up on current events in everyone's lives. Becky and her first husband Bill were there, and Julie and Steve with Kendall. Wanda's daughter, Debbie, and her family came too. Jim's folks, Elvin and Doris, who'd lived not far from Dad and Wanda near Lake Eufaula for several years, also dropped in. Denise and Justin were there as well, so the house was fairly full!

It was a fun evening. Everyone was entranced by Kendall, who roamed the living room floor, making it his personal play pen and inviting anyone who wanted to play. A look around the room revealed the pleasure and entertainment always provided by children, evident by the smiles on everyone's faces. Dianne, assuming her matronly duty of ensuring that no opportunity for family photos was allowed to pass (inherited from Mom, I feel!), herded us together for snapshots with Dad. There was an undercurrent of awareness of the uniqueness of the event. Dad rarely came to Oklahoma City for anything, and if it hadn't been for his eye exam he probably would not have come up at all. He much preferred to stay at home, on his and Wanda's property in Canadian, OK.

Dad dozed off occasionally, and the conversational hum diminished in an effort to not disturb him. He looked tired. His head was bald from the recent radiation treatments, and his breathing was labored, even at rest. He walked with a cane, which was a new sight for most of us. He could only go a few steps before needing a rest. He seemed unconcerned, or perhaps merely resigned, to how his physical appearance had changed. Conversation was difficult for him because of his breathing, but his mind was alert and he enjoyed visiting with everyone. He sat with the quiet dignity of the elderly. At the age of 72, he finally seemed elderly to me. I never perceived him that way before.

When I dropped him and Wanda off at Aunt Pat's later that night, I drove across the yard right up to the porch so he could get inside with a minimum of movement. In the not so distant past, he would have been upset at such a concession to his physical condition. But ever the realist, Pop made no protest and only nodded his approval when I announced my intention to drop him at the doorstep. As I drove home I reflected on his worsened condition, and wondered to what extent it could be attributed to -- anything but cancer.

And so it was a little more than week later, on that melancholy Sunday, when I sat at the computer looking at the photos taken at Dianne's and wondering why I was feeling so sad. In the back of my mind, I felt Dad wouldn't be with us much longer. That realization alone added weight to every moment we spent together. Knowing I would be off work for a week and a half in just a few days, after a brief trip to California to visit friends, I resolved to drive down to Dad and Wanda's and spend some time with them.

The next day, Monday, November 8th, I went about work as usual. I tried calling Dad on the way home from work, but there was no answer. I didn't think much about it, because I knew they occasionally went for a walk or a drive. I tried again several times that evening, and by 8:30 was starting to worry. I called Dianne to see if she had heard from Dad or Wanda, and she said no. I remarked that the last few times I was unable to get an answer this late in the evening usually signaled a problem. Within a few moments, Dianne called back to say Wanda had called. Dad was in Muskogee hospital, and the news wasn't good.

We flew into crisis mode. Dianne and Jim arrived at my house, Dianne with a bag packed, just in case. I too had thrown some things into a bag and loaded it into the car. After an hour's effort we reached Denise, who had been out shopping, and told her what was going on. I suggested she pack a bag, and told her Dianne and I were on our way over to pick her up. It was after 10 o'clock before we finally found ourselves heading east on I-40, faced with a two-hour drive to Muskogee.

We arrived after midnight. Entering through the emergency room entrance, we wound our way through the quiet, cold corridors to his private room on the second floor. We found Wanda, tired but awake, in the visitor's waiting room. Dad was awake, too, rearranging his pillows and blankets when we came into the room. He was surprised to see us, I think. He remarked that we shouldn't be driving so far this late at night. He didn't appear much different from when we saw him in October, except that his breathing was even more labored than before.

The next ten days were long, exhausting, and filled with a mixture of blessings and despair. The days and nights were spent in long shifts, each of us spending time with Dad and Wanda amid waves of test results, treatments, bad news, and the doctors' prognoses. I found I wanted to be near Dad, but not actually in the room. I suppose I was struggling to be strong while avoiding the emotional pit that loomed before me.

The days were incredible. I spent hours sitting under the trees in the park in front of the hospital entrance. Autumn presented itself flawlessly all around me, with cool breezes and rustling leaves. Sunlight ran in dappled circles, chasing the fallen leaves around the benches and planters. The air was warm with the sun, but threatened to turn crisp if you dared to venture out without a coat or a sweater. This small oasis was a welcome diversion from the stark reality indoors.

When I walked back into Dad's hospital room, I could see the brilliant yellow leaves of two of the most spectacular trees just outside his window. It seemed like a picture, framed on the wall in 3-D splendor. A few quiet moments sitting by his side, holding his hand and watching him sleep, was all it took to steal the beauty from the day. All the warmth from the fall scene turned cold as it came in the window. The light reflected in a silver gleam off the chrome fixtures in the room and the IV stand, ever-present by his bedside. Too clinical and impersonal, this room, for such a warm human being. I regretted the calming sound of the wind stirring the leaves outside was replaced by the low hum of the air vents, and longed to crack the window to allow the outside in. Instead there was the clicking of the IV monitors, and the occasional rustle of a professionally concerned hospital worker going about her duties.

Ups and downs. That is how we passed the days. No false hopes about him getting better, only a wish and ever-present desire to keep him comfortable. Wanda, Denise, Dianne, and I were constantly with him, taking turns so we could try to rest as much as possible. No one wanted to be away from the hospital for any length of time. We weren't the only ones there for him. Jimmy stood strong when the rest of us were tired, and Donna and Debbie were wonderful sources of strength for Wanda. There were a few visitors, a limited few who could get past a protective spouse.

I found my reluctance to be in his room suddenly replaced by a need to spend every possible moment with him. Not that there were differences to reconcile, love left to be expressed in some sad, final moment, or even to say good-bye. Just a simple wish to be with Dad, to let him know he was not alone during those alarming moments when he woke up disoriented from the morphine.

It was during those quiet hours that a flood of memories paraded through my mind. Not noisy with show, nor loud with color and sound, but a quiet procession of significant moments Dad and I had shared together.

Early memories are the warmest, I think. Fuzzy upon reflection, or maybe embellished over time, yet holding their depth and shape. I remember when Dianne and I were very young, one of my favorite things was for Daddy to wash my hair while I was in the bathtub. The bathroom was thick with steam, and I'd sit waist deep in the hot water chasing a bar of soap or a floating toy.

We added shampoo and water until I fairly toppled over with the weight of the suds, and then he'd tip me back into the water, supporting my head with his strong and gentle hands behind my neck. He'd then take a cup of clean, hot water, and pour it slowly at my hairline so it softly trickled back, rinsing the soapy cloud off my head. I remember how the water tickled as it passed through my hair and over my scalp. Not a giggle-tickle, but a delicious sensation of warmth and cleanliness while he held me in one hand and rinsed with the other. I laid there, totally relaxed, warm and safe in his hands, looked up and saw how carefully he poured so as not to get water in my eyes. I could see the look of concentration on his face even while he smiled at me. An adult view of a wonderful childhood memory.

I remember many, many winter nights driving home from Grandpa's house in Edmond, when I would be so cold and so sleepy that I would curl up in the floorboard of the car under the heater. The next thing I knew, I'd be in my room, carried in from the car and tucked into bed, all so gently that I seldom woke up. The transition to the cool bed sheets from the warmth of his embrace only a temporary discomfort for a 6-year-old boy.

There were times when I wondered how he could be so patient with me, yet he was. Ricky and Paul, brothers, were about the closest friends I had in the neighborhood when I was 9 or 10 years old. They lived two streets over, but there were few times I was able to spend the night at their place. I always got homesick, and sometimes it might be after midnight, I'd call home and ask Daddy to come and get me. He always would, and he never scolded me about it.

Ricky and Paul loved going with me to Grandpa's. He lived on the winter grounds of a traveling circus, in Edmond, Oklahoma. Grandpa was the caretaker of the property while the circus was on the road, usually from early spring to late fall. It was a wonderful place for a boy to visit. We could see llamas, camels, lions, elephants, and a lot of other exotic animals. We could ride Shetland ponies almost whenever we wanted, and watched the lion tamers practice their art. We marveled at the high-wire and trapeze performers as they went through their practice routines.

During the summer when the circus was on the road, there were few animals left behind; only a handful of tired old horses that had outlived their usefulness in the ring, and were allowed to roam the pasture in comfortable retirement. One day, Dad suggested I invite someone to go with me to spend a few days at Grandpa's. Ricky couldn't go, but Paul could, so we packed a bag and headed off with exciting plans to explore the acres of land that made up the winter grounds.

Not far behind Grandpa's house ran a creek which we loved to explore along with the surrounding area. It was filled with birds and squirrels, persimmon trees, and blackberries so juicy and ripe that we'd come home with purple hands and faces following an afternoon feast. Even on a hot day, the summer sun could not penetrate the canopy overhead, nor dispel the cool comfort of the water as it splashed over flat fieldstones and pebbles.

Paul and I had a great time that first day. We were dirty and tired after a full day's exploration, and Grandma Mary wouldn't let us in to dinner until we had had a bath. I was dismayed, because Grandma Mary was very conservative, and insisted on using bath water at least three times. Usually, Grandpa would have his bath, then I could have mine, and then Paul could have his. I never felt clean after bathing in water which I knew had soap, and the sweat and grime of Grandpa's day's work in it.

Somewhat clean, and finally fed, we were exhausted and ready for bed. Sound asleep by 10 o'clock. By 11 o'clock, I was wide awake and scared to stay the night. Grandpa tried to calm me down, but I wouldn't have it. Finally, he let me call Daddy. Within an hour, Pop was there to take me home. I remember driving off, watching Paul waving good-bye to me from the front porch, and feeling a little bit ashamed I couldn't stay the night. I slept with my head in Daddy's lap until we got home. Paul ended up staying a whole week at Grandpa's, and I went with Daddy to pick him up. Not once during that whole time did Dad ever chastise me for being afraid to stay away from home. I guess he knew I would eventually outgrow it, and I did, pretty much by the time I was 14 or so. But for the ride home, I had to listen to Paul relive his experiences on the circus grounds, which made me regret going home that first night, and resolve to overcome my fears.

There was one summer when my Aunt Ruth and her family all came to Grandpa's, and we had a family reunion. My cousin Jay and I were playing in the creek, on the thick, heavy rope swings that would take us from one high bank to the other. The ropes were old, salvaged from some circus material long discarded, and eventually wore down. Jay was swinging across when the rope snapped, and he fell flat on his back on the river bank. As he lay there gasping, I thought he was going to die because he couldn't breathe. I ran up the bank and called for help, and Dad and the others came rushing down. He picked Jay up and held onto him, telling me he would be alright, that he'd just had the wind knocked out of him. Sure enough, after a couple of moments, Jay was breathing okay. Jay was tough, though, and ready to find a replacement rope. I was ever more cautious of the ropes for the rest of the summer and preferred to avoid them.

Dad was one of the most patient men I've ever known. But when he lost his temper, watch out! We were moving furniture from our house on 8th street in Midwest City to our new house in Del City, in 1967 when I was 13. We had a bedroom's worth of furniture in the back of the pick-up, and a large mirror sandwiched between two mattresses. I remember climbing into the back of the truck, and Dad spoke sharply, telling me to get down before I broke the mirror. I said I would be careful, then promptly took a misstep and a long crack! shot through the mirror from top to bottom. I froze in fear.

Dad hauled me out of the truck by one arm, checked me over to make sure I wasn't hurt, and then sent me to my room. He followed a few minutes later with his belt, and gave me a pretty tough spanking. Even though I was hurt and crying, I could see the pain in his eyes overcome his anger, but it was a lesson I needed to learn. That's the way I've always thought of Dad. Tough when he needed to be, even when it hurt him to do so.

At the age of 12 or 13, I decided I wanted to learn how to shoot a gun. Dad occasionally went squirrel hunting when at Grandpa's, whether for food or sport I don't know. One sunny day, he took me down to the creek with a .22 rifle, and taught me how to shoot. We practiced a few times on some beer cans across the creek on the opposite bank, until I felt I was a pretty good marksman. I saw a squirrel in a nearby tree and said I wanted to shoot it. Dad said, "Go ahead."

I took careful aim at the squirrel, which sat patiently as if knowing I would miss. I shot. I didn't miss. The squirrel tumbled from the tree and lay still on the ground. Dad and I walked over to it, and I nudged it with my shoe. No movement at all. Dead. I looked up at Dad, handed him the rifle, and have never touched a gun since.

I doubt Dad knew this experience would have that effect on me. Some people enjoy hunting, but I didn't feel exhilarated by the kill. I just felt sad I had killed something that was doing me no harm, and I had no intention of using as food.

When I was 15 and a half, Dad taught me to drive. He insisted I learn to drive a stick shift. He said even though I might never own one, it was best to learn how the gears worked, and how you can control the vehicle better. He was a good teacher, and patient. I found that I preferred a manual transmission over an automatic, until a few years ago when my knee started complaining. Dad was always calm while I was driving. He never raised his voice or shouted commands, but instead would warn me well ahead of time of possible dangers or problems. I remember once being stopped behind another car at a traffic light, and gunning the accelerator as soon as the light changed. Dad calmly said, "Don't!" I stomped on the brake and barely avoided smashing the bumper of the car in front of me as it pulled away. Quietly, Dad said, "Always watch the car in front of you, not the light, Bud." Then, a moment later, "Now pull over and let me drive." There were no more lessons for a couple of days after that!

On my 16th birthday, I could see how proud he was of me when I passed my driving test with only one error. Not long after, he and Mom bought my first car for me. I guess that's when children first start drifting away from their parents; when they get their driver's license. It marks the beginning of independence for a child, and can either drive a wedge between families or draw them closer. I was raised by such loving parents that I never felt pushed away from the nest. I was allowed to go, and return if need be, whenever I felt I was ready.

One late night, Dad and I went on an errand; I forget what. On the way back it was raining and cold. It was late fall. We turned down a dark street and there was a car pulled over to the side of the road with a flat tire. Dad slowed and rolled down his window. An elderly lady sat in the driver's seat, cold and scared, clearly at her wit's end. Dad backed the car up, aimed the headlights at the flat tire, and we got out to change it for her. She sat in our car with the heater running, waiting patiently. I wasn't much help to Dad, but changing a tire is pretty much a one-person job. He got the tire changed in short order, but we were both completely soaked with the cold rain.

As he put the flat tire and the tools into the trunk of the lady's car, she got out to thank us. She reached into her purse and pulled out some money. I don't know how much, but I know I saw a $20 bill in her hand, among others. Dad refused to take the money, simply saying he was glad to help. She was surprised, I think, that he wouldn't take the cash. She thanked us again, and hurried back to her car, fumbling with an uncooperative umbrella.

Dad and I scrambled back into our own vehicle, cold and shaking, neither of us dressed for rain. We drove home in silence, watching the taillights of the stranded lady's vehicle disappear in the opposite direction, her forgotten flashers still advising caution. We both enjoyed the comfort of the heater set on high for the short drive back to the house, the stormy night splashing harmlessly off the windshield. I was so proud of Dad for his selfless act of compassion. I looked over at him and watched him light a cigarette in the harsh glare of the headlights from an approaching vehicle. When he caught me watching, he just winked at me and smiled, water running down the sides of his face.

Mark Twain wrote, "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

Isn't that the way it always is? Children always thinking their parents are stupid? Well, not always. As I grew up, I was amazed that Dad knew as much as he did. He could do just about anything, from working on the car to roofing a house. I was never adept at such labors, although I was interested in learning. Some of the lessons were pretty tough, though.

Dad let me help shingle the roof once. He got me started and then set me to work, staying just a few feet away from me so he could monitor my progress. He'd offer a correction now and then.

Once, I was at the very apex of the roof, nailing down shingles with the total abandon of a kid who knows he has mastered a task he was totally ignorant of two hours before. I'd hammer down a shingle, scoot back, hammer down another one, and so on. Dad was moving along toward me, telling me to take my time and make sure the shingles were lined up properly. My concentration was fierce as I placed each shingle and brought the hammer down. Then, when he was two feet from me, Dad said, "Bud, don't move. Just look over your shoulder." I did, and suddenly got extremely dizzy, for over my shoulder was empty space! My feet were dangling over the edge of the roof, and with one more scoot backwards, I would have fallen 30 feet to the ground! My heart was racing, and he grabbed my elbow and steadied me until I calmed down. I wasn't the least bit amused by the grin on his face.

Another difficult lesson I'll never forget. I was mowing the yard one day, trying to prove to Dad that I could do it, because I wanted to mow yards in the neighborhood for spending money. He sat on the porch in the shade and watched me mow the entire front yard. It was hard work, but I managed it okay. When I was finished, I looked up at him and shouted, "How do I turn it off?"

He pointed to a short wire on the engine and shouted back, "Pull that wire loose."

Trusting his advice, I reached down and grabbed the wire with my left hand, and the electric shock that ran up my arm and into my chest was so strong it knocked me flat off my feet. I lay there, looking up at the sky, unable to fathom what had happened. Dad rushed over, chuckling to himself, and helped me up. I could feel the residual tingling in my arm, my heart thumping madly in my chest. I was light headed and started to cry. He hushed me, laughing, and said, "I'm sorry, Bud. But if you're going to use that mower, you need to know how it works and what you can and can't do with it. Now let me show you the right way to shut it off."

He showed me the choke for the gas and how to turn it down. If that didn't work, he showed me how to short the engine by touching the shaft of a wooden-handled screwdriver against the end of the spark plug and the tip to the metal, which made the engine die. Then he showed me how to put gas in safely, how to check and add oil, and how to push the mower up and down hills so it didn't fall on me. All the safe ways to use a mower, and how to take care of one. You can bet I paid very close attention! But you know what? To this day I think what he did was a cruel way to instruct me, and I remember being angry with him for days and days. I don't think he realized himself what the full effect would be when he told me to pull the wire off the spark plug. I have to admit, it was certainly an effective lesson. Not only did I learn how to use the mower, but I developed a very healthy respect for electricity.

I walked in on Mom and Dad once, while they were talking about adopting Denise. I hadn't heard all of their conversation and asked, "Why does she need us to adopt her?" Dad shook his head and said, "It's not that she needs us to. But we need her." I realized years later that doing the right thing as a family makes us stronger. Having the adoption on record did not make me feel any more like Denise was my real sister; I already felt that way. But aside from the legal benefits for her, I realized that we, as a family, needed the formal recognition of her, so no one could ever take her away from us. Mom and Dad were wise that way, and this is just one more example of how much they loved their family.

One of Dad's passions as a young man was playing the guitar and singing. I won't say he was a bad singer, but he could play the guitar pretty well! I remember many nights when he and Grandpa would play together, Dad on the guitar, Grandpa on the fiddle. Dad would occasionally sing a tune, and one I know Dianne will remember, and maybe Denise, is "Church in the Wild Wood."

It was one of his favorites. I have a photo of Dad with Julie and Becky when they were no more than 5 and 2 years old. Dad was playing the guitar and singing, and the girls were listening closely. I'm not sure if my memory is right on this, but I think he was singing that song to them.

I went to work at the Post Office in 1973, mostly due to Mom and Dad pushing me into it. I loved the job for the first year or so because it paid good money, then hated it because it was so dull. Dad encouraged me to get into management and was a constant help to me. He was proof that even if a man doesn't have a college education, he can succeed at a well-paying job. After high school, I was not interested in going to college. I don't know that I would have continued into management in the postal service without Dad's help and encouragement.

He was never easy on me. In fact, if anything, he was tougher on me than other postal employees. He didn't want anyone to perceive any favoritism there. But he was always fair. As I worked my way through those first difficult years, he was always there with just the right advice. I can honestly say he never steered me wrong. Now, I've been with the postal service for more than 36 years. I like to think I am continuing to serve as he taught me, with integrity and honesty.


There is a lifetime of memories in my mind. As I sat by Dad's bedside in those quiet hours during the darkest moments of the night, each memory drew my attention with its own unique sparkle, like tiny colorful jewels scattered on an infinite field of black velvet. Not like stars in the sky on a bright summer night, forever out of reach, but priceless little gems that can be touched, admired, shared, and cherished.

November 17, 1999, it was my turn. I sat with Dad as his feet dangled over the edge. I wanted to grab his elbow and pull him away from the precipice and hold him until he was calm. Holding him with one hand, I wanted to reach into my past and grab that lawn mower spark plug with the other hand and shock the sickness out of him. I wanted us to hug, to laugh, and to share the comfort of knowing you just experienced a near-miss. I wanted him to get out of that hospital bed and go home healthy, to keep making memories with me, Wanda, my sisters, my nieces and nephews, and the rest of his family.

That's what I wanted. That's what we all wanted.

Well, Dad taught by example, and I learned another one at his bedside. Be realistic and accept the inevitable. He taught me that it is okay to be scared, and it's okay to cry. It's okay to be sad. It's normal to grieve, and it's understandable to miss someone when they're gone.

But it is best to remember the good times, to recognize the love among family and friends, and to cherish the memories you make together. As Daddy slipped away in his sleep, he knew I was there with him, holding his hand. He knew I would remember, as we all will, the importance of continuing the lessons of life. They're harsh lessons, sometimes, offering a well-deserved spanking or maybe the tough realization that you must sometimes let go in order to go on. These are lessons that make us stronger. Pop finally moved on and left me prepared to continue the lessons, hopefully passing them on to others as thoughtfully and lovingly as he did to me.

Thank you, Pop, for a lifetime of memories and for making me strong. I miss you very much and I will always hold you in my heart.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Turn of Phrase

My dad used to say, “I feel a lot more like I do now than I did a while ago.” He’d give you a sidelong glance with a twinkle in his eye and maybe a wink if he was in a particularly good mood as he said it. That’s one of those phrases that makes you think for a second before you realize it doesn’t quite make sense, but yet it does – somehow. If you don’t think about it too much. As I approach my nine-month sobriety birthday on September 29th, I can honestly say I feel a lot more like I do now than I did nine months ago!

When I was in detox and rehab they recommended when I got out I go to 90 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 90 days. I managed to make 89 meetings in 90 days, missing one due to illness. I figured I might miss one or two due to the weather, considering the time of year I was going through everything, but no, it was the flu that kept me away. I was anxious to immerse myself in the program.

The very day I was released from detox, January 5, 2009, I went to my first AA meeting, even though I would begin all day out-patient rehab the next morning for two more weeks. Fortunately, the day before my release a group from AA brought a meeting to the hospital. I heard a lot of things that appealed to me and several of the group left their names and numbers behind for us to call should we decide we wanted to talk further.

One of the guys, Andrew, spoke of his experience and what brought him to AA and how it had helped him, and I really identified with his story more than most. I made note of his name and number. When I was released that Monday, I called and asked if he could direct me to an AA meeting. He gave me directions to the clubhouse where he goes, which turned out not to be very far from my home. He mentioned a meeting was just about to begin if I cared to attend, and he would be there. I drove there directly from detox. I was a couple of minutes late arriving, but I recognized Andrew across the room and he motioned for me to join him; he had saved a seat for me.

I’ve continued going to that club house ever since. My first experience was a bit nerve wracking! I had no idea what to expect; was it a cult, a religious sect, a group of drunks who sat around telling war stories or just what exactly? I suppose it could be said all of those elements could be found in the rooms of AA, and a whole lot more.

“I’m not much, but I’m all I think about.”

That’s an oft quoted line in the clubhouse that never fails to get a chuckle out of the crowd. In fact, one of the things that caught me by surprise at AA meetings is that there is so much humor and laughter as people share their “experience, strength, and hope.” The stories are often very similar but the storytellers are certainly unique. Everyone has a different spin on things. Sometimes the sharing is somber; gravid with sorrow and tears and heart-rending sobs. Sometimes it’s delivered with the perfect timing of a stand-up comic. Regardless of the story or who is telling it, it is almost always coupled with what has now become a familiar quote or turn of phrase that we hear regularly in the rooms of AA.

“My mind is a bad neighborhood and I have no business being here alone.” All too true for most of us in AA. If we spend too much time in that neighborhood by ourselves we fall in with the bad crowd again; bad thinking, bad habits, bad relationships, bad deeds, and the list goes on. We need the company of other recovering alcoholics to keep us safe in that neighborhood. Most non-alcoholics don’t understand that, and I have difficulty explaining it to them. Most alcoholics feel that “when I’m by myself I’m in the company of a madman” and in danger of drinking. “Drinking is suicide on the installment plan.”

That’s why we go to so many meetings! We are in the company of our own kind; people who understand and accept us. The only requirement to be a member of AA is the desire to stop drinking. The people in the rooms of AA are a complete mixture of social strata, from wealthy businessmen and women to unemployed half-way house residents just out of prison, and everything in between. This is not a group of people you would normally expect to associate with one another in any other circumstances. Yet in this environment, we are all equal. “Alcoholics are the upper crust of the mentally ill.” Go ahead, it’s OK to laugh.

“Take your ass to meetings and your mind will follow.” Good advice. “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Push on through! “Don’t leave before the miracle happens!” Wait for it; it’ll happen! “Come to an AA meeting and get osmosis you can!” I know our little sayings may sound “goofier than a bag of assholes,” but you “can’t stay sober on yesterday’s prayers” so “I’m sticking to this program like hair on soap!” Oh, there’s more.

Many of the sayings we hear frequently in AA are immediately clear without the need to dwell on their meaning; they’re obvious. For example:

“Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

“Pain is what we walk through. Misery is what we sit in.”

“Fear is the dark room where we develop our negatives.”

Alcoholism is a disease of the brain. Many people do not understand that. To the non-alcoholic, it is sometimes baffling that an alcoholic simply cannot correct his behavior by quitting drinking. It has been scientifically proven! Yet knowing that does not make it any easier to defeat, anymore than knowing smoking cigarettes are harmful to your health helps you to quit smoking.

Personally, I try to remain optimistic. I’m optimistic by nature, and I think that helps me in my continuous struggle against alcoholism. Someone asked me once how long I have to continue going to meetings. I replied, “First of all I don’t have to go to meetings, I choose to go. And, second, I expect I will continue going for the rest of my life.”

You never overcome alcoholism. It’s not a “was-m,” it’s an “is-m.” It’s not the best scenario I can think of, but it isn’t so bad. As a friend in the program, Phil H., once said, “Life isn’t all lollipops and orgasms.” With the help of AA and my higher power, I have reached a point where I no longer have a desire to drink. And that’s a good thing.