When I woke up on Monday, March 18th, I was mostly refreshed, fairly wide awake, and overall in good spirits. I had a few things to do before I got started with my job, but had plenty of time to reflect and relax before things got underway. After a few cups of coffee, I realized for what feels like the thousandth time what a very different place I am in today than I once was.
Two years ago, I woke up very differently, although so similarly to many Saint Patrick’s Days prior. I had a skull splitting headache, a broken heart, a fear that I’d made mistakes that would be impossible to reconcile, and a growing realization that I had some consequences ahead of me. I still don’t remember everything that happened the day before, but I knew that if I hadn’t hit rock bottom yet, I was definitely getting closer, like an anchor skipping along the sea floor before it finally comes to rest.
It’s not that I have no good memories from my drinking days. There were times that I had a lot of fun. And in many respects, some of those experiences probably served some purpose. But eventually, the consequences caught up with me, and they outweighed the benefits pretty quickly.
Today, the consequences of deciding to quit drinking, to turn my will and life over to the care of God, to make amends for the wrong things I did before, and to do my best to serve others have also caught up with me. Every day gives me new opportunities to be grateful. My bills are paid – not just on time, but often early, and my credit rating has skyrocketed from what it once was. I don’t wake up with a splitting headache unless it’s due to actual illness. I have clarity about how to handle relationships, particularly ones that are difficult. I’m not as afraid as I used to be. I wake up with a sense of anticipation and excitement for the day, and at the end of the day I have a greater capacity for review and reflection as I fall asleep with peace and serenity, with more hope for tomorrow than I ever had before.
Allison married Kevin Bannister, her first boyfriend. Not Rob Gordon, who had been her makeout partner for approximately two hours over the course of two weeks, before the Rockford Files.
Or so the story went.
It’s funny how things go sometimes. The Reverend, referenced in a previous post, recently posted pictures from Paris, where she and her daughter are visiting someone who is clearly a special friend who came into her life “over the last year and a half.” Doing the math quickly, it appears that he is likely the one who frustrated her into getting into online dating and consequently meeting me. I get to be a footnote, if that, in The Story of Them and How They Fell in More Love in Paris.
When I write the story of my life for myself and play the broken hearted jilted protagonist, it’s hard to keep things in perspective. It’s hard to remember that even though I am always the audience of my life story, my limited role in anyone else’s is reality too. I don’t know how things will turn out in the long run, but I’d say the odds are that I’ve ended up better off.
So far, Lent this year has been, unfortunately, much like “ordinary time,” as it is called in the church calendar. Not only have I not been as observant of spiritual realities as I idealistically hoped to be, I’ve only gone maybe one day without social media. While not having any apps on my phone has limited me somewhat, and I haven’t done any personal posting, I have logged in and observed others marking the time as I previously did. And perhaps the worst part is that I haven’t been nearly as present as I thought I’d be, even with limited social media.
But today is another day, and every moment is an opportunity to start again.
I grew up in a church that wasn’t especially sacramental. We observed the “ordinances” of baptism and communion, but much of the historic mystery of faith remained, well, mysterious to me for many years. My first wife’s family was Catholic, and although they were largely observant, they never seemed especially overcome by any of the mystery of faith either. It wasn’t until I entered recovery from alcoholism that I began to really appreciate the actual depth of Christianity, and even that came about after some time spent deconstructing what I had grown up with, since, as my sponsor pointed out, maybe my conception of God wasn’t quite really God.
This year, I’ve felt called to set aside social media for the forty days of the Lenten fast. Giving up certain foods has never been terribly hard for me, only because there are so many other foods to eat. Giving up alcohol nearly two years ago, while not without its particular challenges, wasn’t really that hard in contrast with the life I got in exchange. But social media is an insidious one. I genuinely feel a sense of connection just snap in half when I turn it off – perhaps all the more reason to do so.
But here we are, day one. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 A.M. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
I’ve been asked a few times about whether I miss drinking, and it prompted me to look back on the older pics on my Instagram feed. In a few instances, I can look back and see memories of times spent with friends, of moments of quiet reverie, of enjoyment and fun, but I also see a lot of that “unattractive company” that Didion describes, and maybe that is part of what keeps me from wanting to drink again.
But I haven’t deleted those pics, because I don’t want to forget where I’ve come from. Instead, I want to continue to come to terms with that person and make right what can be made right. The idea of “forgiving myself” has always perplexed me a bit, which was hammered home during my fourth step, when my sponsor pointed out that “there’s one person notably absent from your list, and that’s Pete.” Part of making things right with Pete is clearly acknowledging everything Pete went through, without justification, rationalization, or overdramatization. Glad to be where I am today, but I got here because I was once there.
The first person I knew who was open about her experience of dissociation due to trauma was a friend in college. She’d experienced some form of abuse from a relative as a child, and in an attempt at self-protection, her childlike mind had created a narrative that those things happening to her had actually happened to a different little girl who had just told her about those tragic experiences. I’ve had a heart for people who have experienced such trauma since, even if I didn’t always understand their thought processes entirely.
I don’t begin with that to suggest that I’ve gone through something of that magnitude – only to illustrate the degree to which the human mind is a truly amazing thing. Tonight, as I was driving back downtown for yoga class, I passed a brewery I used to frequent, and instead of thinking about how great it would be to stop in, I had the strange feeling that my experiences there had actually belonged to someone else, that some other guy named Pete had sat in the beer hall, raised a toast to his second marriage finally ending at the bar, or experienced heartbreak to the soundtrack of clinking glasses and heavy metal. It feels the farthest thing from who I am becoming now – not in an angry revenge seeking way, or a mournful memory driven way, but more of a confusing identity seeking way. Who was I then? Why did I do those things? What was I thinking?
Perhaps I’ll never have answers to those questions. The most peace I’ve had in years has come from accepting that my present moment is all I have, and that living now is more than enough. And so, as I focused on last week during yoga: “right now…it’s like this.”
Every time I practice yoga, I’m reminded of all the days my life fell apart. All the vulnerability of the curtains thrown back, my heart exposed like a miniature Saint Sebastian lodged in my chest, arrows multiplying and ripping through it. And perhaps worst of all was knowing that despite all of my confusion and protestation and screaming searing anger, in the end, I’d brought almost all of this on myself in one way or another.
I knew better than to have one of everything and then another round.
I knew better than to invite emotional vampires into my life.
I knew better than to distrust my instincts about whether I was being told the truth.
I knew better than to stay in situations that would lead to heartbreak.
But I did all of those things anyway.
I’ve heard longtime recovering alcoholics talk a lot about being given the “gift of desperation,” and it’s a funny thing, but I know that gift now, maybe a few years later than I should have. It is cold and hard, like the floor, but it is firm and solid, like the truth, and although it is truly an empty place, it provides a foundation and a space within which to not only recover, but to actually reconstruct. And that is where I have found life, and love, and strength, and faith, and without any sense of emotional masochism, I am endlessly thankful for the gracious gift of desperation, for without it, I would have never had a glimpse of what I might become – someone I am absolutely crazy about being.
In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.
It’s tempting, sometimes, to take the things I’ve been given in life and build a fortress with a moat (dragon included, because dragons are awesome) around them in an attempt to keep it all for myself. There’s a sort of logic to this protectionism of the soul that I think we all feel sometimes, perhaps from the natural world. For example, if I have enough air and water and food I get to keep living longer than if someone takes those things from me. The difficult thing to remember is that life isn’t just material, and that there is a lot to it that we only sometimes get glimpses of. Sunrises. Sunsets. Children laughing. Embraces. Piercing conversations. Forgiveness lived out. A cup of coffee. Whether in these moments and things or others, every now and then the flimsy veneer of the material world gets peeled back, and (if we are paying attention) we can see how much utter abundance we live in, and how much we can very easily give away to others.
And the sacred upside down backwards crazy wonder in all of it is this: when you give your life away, you get it back, plus more. There’s a mystery to this that I won’t even pretend to understand, but having found it to be true, I have to tell you about it. You only keep what you give away, and you absolutely lose what you cling to. This isn’t some “prosperity gospel” name it and claim it and pray a Jabez prayer over everything you want. I think we’ve all been disappointed like that. It’s about seeing what you have and then being so damn grateful for it that everything in your heart overflows and pours into someone else’s place of need, and then seeing how you blessed them and being so grateful for the chance to help that your heart overflows again…you get the picture.
We often say “thank God it’s Friday,” and rightly so, but every day is a good one to be grateful.
When you make the same choices over and over again for a long time and then stop, it’s kind of jarring. For example, I used to send this meme to my friends on their birthdays, and for the last seven plus months, every time a friend has had a birthday, this comes to mind. Those things just don’t work anymore.
I see it in all kinds of situations. It’s like the Big Book says: “A business which takes no regular inventory usually goes broke. Taking a commercial inventory is a fact-finding and a fact-facing process. It is an effort to discover the truth about the stock-in-trade. One object is to disclose damaged or unsalable goods, to get rid of them promptly and without regret. If the owner of the business is to be successful, he cannot fool himself about values. We did exactly the same thing with our lives. We took stock honestly.”
As my sponsor has reminded me repeatedly, this isn’t about thinking our way into some revelation. It’s about discarding things that don’t work and don’t serve us well. I have been amazed at how quickly my life gets better after I dispose of anger or resentment without regret. I have a friend who seems bent on living his life angry, and he’s had some legitimately terrible things happen to him, but when I look at my own life and think about how thoroughly hateful and bitter I spent so much of it, I see absolutely no way that holding on to anger has served me well. More often than not, anger just compounds every problem I’ve had.
So choices change, friendships change, life changes. If it is working, it stays. If it isn’t, it goes. No regrets. Maybe I won’t be as funny on your birthday this time around. Maybe I’ll not be the life of your holiday party this year. But I also won’t black out and wake up with regrets, and you won’t hate me for ruining the occasion.
Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great…
…what usually happens? The show doesn’t come off very well. Alcoholics Anonymous, page 73.
People talk about Plan B a lot when they are in the midst of change. Plan B is reserved for when Plan A, that idealized perfect version of things, doesn’t work out. Sometimes Plan B is seen as a lifeline, whether it’s a way out of a difficult marriage or job, but more often it is a resolution that things are never going to go the way you planned, and you’re forever off the course you charted on a map you may not have anymore. And God forbid that Plan B doesn’t work out, because Plan C (if Plan C has even been conceptualized) casts doubt on your ability to make plans at all.
There’s nothing wrong with making plans. If everything we did was on impulse, we’d have a very disordered world. However, I’m starting to think that we would do well to look at parts of life like relationships and work in terms of possibilities rather than plans. We talk about “getting our hopes up,” but this is code for “having to settle for Plan B,” where Plan B isn’t as good as Plan A. The fact is, B may be better than A, and C might turn out to be the best ever. My plan A was to be a pastor. Plan B was to become a therapist. Plan C was to eventually open a small brewery with some friends. Did I want to admit that I was an alcoholic and out of control, and that Plan C was going to eventually destroy me? Of course not. But life has become amazing.
What would happen if, instead of planning for a certain outcome and then accepting only that outcome as the source of our happiness, we actually got our hopes up and then chased those hopes instead of making plans? Maybe that would look more like living, instead of planning and directing.