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The Biggest Hurdle to Clear in Continuous Recovery isn’t the Drink or Drug…

If you’re new to recovery, in recovery, or struggling a little bit with your recovery, grab a cup of coffee and stick around a few minutes.  This one isn’t short, but it gets somewhere good.

I follow a lot of recovery blogs – I’ve also unfollowed as many, or more… and the unfollows are all due to a personal flaw of mine.  I find it difficult to sit back and watch someone blindly walk through their recovery and fail, only to blame that failure on a symptom of the problem.  Worse is to watch someone continuously put themselves into positions that make failure inevitable, let alone more likely.

My problem is that when I decided to quit, I didn’t mess around.  Even at 22 years old, barely old enough to drink legally in the USA, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, my drinking career had come to its inglorious end.  That didn’t come immediately, though.  I was sent to inpatient treatment at a working farm (back when they detoxed you right, I was still hungover, with alcohol in my system, when they sent me to the pigsty to shovel pig $#!+.  Cold turkey, baby).  The day of my intake, I fully planned on doing my time in treatment, just long enough to get out of trouble with the law, to return to my drinking.  Two weeks in and I’ve still got the shakes, night sweats, nausea… That’s when I knew if I kept drinking, what was left of my existence would suck.  I’m one of those lucky few whose liver can’t keep up with my stomach and melon.  Based on liver enzyme readings, doctors gave me till I was 30 for my liver to completely shut down if I kept drinking as I was.  Folks, dead at thirty.

So, that brings us to my decision to quit, to really quit.  I was fortunate enough to not involve my ego in that decision – I didn’t care what I had to do, I just wanted the pain to stop (mental and physical, remember, I’m going cold turkey).  This is the beauty of doing things the hard way, my friends.  By relieving the symptoms of detox with drugs, you lessen, even cheapen, the experience of the detox.  My detox lasted weeks and it was f***ing miserable.  There’s no way I wanted to go through that again.  The fear of reliving my detox helped to keep me sober.  If it’s not as painful, it’s not as big a deterrent to picking up a drink again.  Anyway, my ego…  the one thing that I knew when I quit was that I knew nothing.  I had no clue how to stay sober.  I couldn’t make it more than a few days with my best effort, so I’d do whatever they told me to do.  I’d have stood on my head in the corner if that would have done any good (though I didn’t make that public knowledge, lest someone take advantage of it for a good laugh).  They handed me a book and said the instructions for how to stay sober are on the first 164 pages.  Do that and you’ll have a chance, so I did.

I also didn’t have a major problem with “the whole God thing”.  Let’s just say I was comfortable with not knowing anything – even at 22 when we know everything.  I considered myself a “recovering Catholic” right from the beginning.  I didn’t get the whole “fire and brimstone” God that I’d been taught about since I was a kid, so I took baby steps and I talked about my hang-ups… then, because I’d put my ego on the shelf, I actually listened to others who had figured that out already, and I tried to do what they did.  Eventually I came up with a concept of God that worked for me – that didn’t require me to stand on a hill with a trumpet, extolling God (in fact, I often have a problem with God’s cheerleading squad – they’re just as insufferable as the tiny minority who are anti-God and loud).  However you choose to look at it, I made a deal with God on the day I decided, for real, to quit drinking.  I thought, “God, I’ll make you a deal.  I’ll give this recovery thing everything I’ve got, if you’ll help me”.

That was it, nothing more, and the weight that was removed was immeasurable.  Well, immeasurable at least until I did a Fifth Step, that was so awesome I still can’t quantify it without sounding like a USA Figure Skating announcer (ridiculously over-the-top enthusiastic).

Sometime after leaving treatment, and with a full desire to continue my sobriety, I walked into a bar with my six-month coin.  Actually, it wasn’t any bar, it was my bar.  My stomping grounds.  I can’t remember why I went in there, it wasn’t nefarious and it wasn’t so I’d be tempted – in fact, it wasn’t even at night… Anyway, I spoke with the owner for a bit, and let him know I’d quit and wouldn’t be around anymore.  He said, and I can still remember this 25 years later, “Wow, I didn’t know you had a problem”.  All I could think was, “Wow, you’re not very perceptive.”  A short while later (a couple of months maybe) I was at a bar across the street with a good friend from school, celebrating his birthday with a local police officer friend of his…  They had beers, I had a near beer.  I’d been sober for going on eight months and drank that near beer without issue.  Then I ordered another.  I drank that one half-down and froze.  I stood up, apologized and said I had to go.  I left some cash on the table and walked out the door.

The infinitesimal amount of alcohol in a non-alcoholic beer triggered something in my melon that took me straight back to the day before I went to treatment.  I was scared.  I drove to an outpatient treatment center I’d been through a couple of years earlier and asked to see my old counselor.  She saw me and I explained what had happened.  She explained that I had been as close to a relapse as a person could get without actually relapsing.  Let’s just say I understood.  I thought I’d been doing good.  After some analysis with that counselor, though, I found that I’d been falling away for almost a month and a half.  I called my sponsor on the way home.

That conversation was interesting.  He gave me a few pages to read from the Big Book and asked me how I parked my car, whether I pulled into a spot nose first or whether I backed in.  I told him I pulled in nose first.  He said I should back in to every parking spot for the next month and that he’d tell me why after the month was up.

I did.  For a month I backed into every parking spot I could.  At the end of the month he let me in on why.  He said, Jim, I had you back into parking spots for a month because it was easy and if you weren’t willing to do something that easy without complaint, there’s no way you’d be willing to do what it takes to stay sober.  It was more than fifteen years before I found a reason to walk into a bar again, and that time it was with a sober friend who also happened to be my salesman from work… and that was the last time I was in a bar.

This goes back to that “stand on my head in the corner” thing.  Most people, especially nowadays, would question backing into a parking spot to stay sober.  They’d say it was stupid and useless and tell me how stupid I am for requiring such a stupid thing…  All the while, proving exactly why they can’t stay sober and keep relapsing.

Motherfucker, I said stand on your head in the corner and it’ll help you stay sober.

It did me.  Folks, my biggest hurdle in the way of my recovery was me.

 

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