The Bondage of Self

I returned to Bill that next week feeling somewhat meek.  I had done the exercise but I felt confused by it.  I believed but I think I knew it went deeper than that.  Somehow I felt a part of the universe at last.  I know how that sounds; I know, but it’s true.  I gave him a vague sense of what God meant to me.  I’m paraphrasing but this should be pretty close to what I told him:

Life ForceI don’t think God is in human form, I think It’s more of a force.  I found myself thinking a lot about Nature and it hit me that Life is all around us.  There’s a force of life that flows through people and plants and animals and I think that’s where God is.  God surrounds the planet, and most likely beyond, and grants life but for some reason changes it after varying but similar time spans.

“So that’s it.  That’s what I came up with.”  I offered.

His reply caught me slightly off guard, “That’s perfect.  Are you happy with it?”

“I suppose.  Yeah,” I said smirking a bit now, “yeah I guess I am pretty happy with it.  It feels kind of good.”

“Good,” wait for it, “now we can kneel down over there and say the Third Step Prayer.  Do you know it or do you want the book?”

“Umm, we’re praying together?”  I asked noticeably taken aback.

“Yeah, we hold hands and recite the Third Step Prayer.  I mean you want to keep going, right?  You can still back out but you should do so now if you’re going to because while it’s only a decision I think of it as a promise to God that you’ll do your best.  So, do you want to go forward?”

“Yeah,” I stumbled, “of course I do.  I just, I mean I wasn’t expecting to…yeah, I guess I need the book.”

And so it was that I took another man’s hand in the back of a church function hall and humbly asked God to relieve me of the bondage of self, it’s still my favorite line of prayer.  I did it and I knew things were different now.  Somehow I knew I would never be the same.  Life had taken on new meaning, or maybe it’s more accurate to say Life took on meaning for the first time.

As we were leaving Bill asked me to read pages 64 – 67 of the Big Book, in the chapter titled How It Works.  The Fourth Step was upon me and I was suddenly grateful that the steps were ordered as they were; I was sure I’d need God to get beyond what lay ahead.

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Came to Believe

This is how life went for a while.  Bill would assign me readings and I would seek my answers within the pages.  He had me read More About Alcoholism to drive home the concept of life’s unmanageability.  He asked me to read Bill’s Story to illustrate the gravity of my condition.  All the while I was highlighting, underlining and defining like a mad man.

When Bill was finally satisfied we found ourselves squarely at Step 2…

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Being the good Catholic boy that I was (not really,) I recognized that the capitalization of the “P” in “Power” meant they were referring to God and I got my gloves on.  I’d be ready for this fight.  But I didn’t fight.  Instead something strange happened.  He asked me to read We Agnostics in preparation for Step 2.  Huh?  I didn’t need a dictionary for that word.  I had declared myself an agnostic upon entry to the halls a year prior.  In fact this is the very chapter I would point to when trying to convince those around me that I and they would need no god to survive.  Why on Earth would the fool ask me to read such a thing for my coming to believe?  Okay, will do, the fight can wait a week.  I’m on it Chief.

I hate being wrong and I hate it even more when being wrong makes me feel foolish.  I read the chapter,  the one I offered as proof that God was no more a part of the program than I was. How had I missed this:

Well, that’s exactly what this book is about.  It’s main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem.

Holy crap–literally! How had I missed that?  This was my favorite chapter for the exact opposite of what it actually says.  In fact, it goes on and on on the subject.  “Every one of them has gained access to, and believes in, a Power greater than himself.”  It seemed never-ending.  In some places it appeared as if Bill Wilson was begging the reader, Please, isn’t there a chance you’ve been wrong and there is a God?  Man, o’ man.

The next week I returned to Bill humbled but cocky. (If that makes sense to you then you’re in the right place.)    We reviewed the chapter together with Bill’s further insights.  I was noticeably quiet, shocked.  As we wrapped up I was chewing on the idea that maybe A.A. wasn’t for me when Bill said, “No reading this week.  Instead I want you to think about God.  Next week when we meet I want you to tell me the broad strokes of what your Higher Power is and what your Higher Power is not.  Okay?”

“Sure thing, Bill,” I answered.  After all, I could always quit next week if I still wanted to.

No reading, I took it like a much earned and needed vacation.  In short, I did nothing.  I don’t think I thought of God once over the course of the week.  I had this.  I mean, I was an alter boy wasn’t I?  Who can describe God better than me?  

Next week I entered the room and when prompted I went into my spiel.  Beard, flowing robes, a walking stick (most likely to beat me with,) the whole nine.  When I’d finished Bill looked at me and said, “Really?  Is that your conception of God?”  Notice he didn’t say I was wrong, he just asked.  I looked at him for a moment.  I opened my mouth and nothing came out at first.

“Uh…well, uh, no.  No, I didn’t really do the assignment.  I didn’t think of God at all.”

Damn it!  What had happened to me?  I can’t lie now?  I still to this day don’t know why I didn’t but for some reason I just couldn’t.  I sat with my head hanging but he didn’t seem upset.  He just asked me to do him the favor of doing it this week.  He stressed the importance that, whatever God I chose, be personal to me.  I wouldn’t turn to a God I did not trust so it was life or death.  That sounded hokey to me but I’m a people pleaser, there was no way I was getting caught with my pants down again.

sunsetI had no way of knowing it at the time but nothing I would do would have as profound an impact on my life as that exercise.  My ideas on a Spirit of the Universe have grown and continue to grow.  Each day I feel I get a little closer and I’m more and more certain that that is the whole point of life.  There was a day not long after when I was driving down Interstate 95.  I was all alone in my car and the sun was setting.  I guess I never really noticed sunsets before but I noticed this one.  It was pink, and purple and shades of pastel that would have made Monet weep.  I was staring at it and I said, “Thank You, that’s beautiful.”  This was the first time I ever prayed against my will.  I had been drinking against my will for years but never prayed.  I don’t think I knew it at the time but I know now that this is the psychic change they talk about in the big book.

I have never been the same since.

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The Journey Begins

Follen Church, East Lexington, MA

Follen Church
Lexington, MA

Bill showed me into this library at the back of a church in Lexington, Massachusetts and he started telling me his story.  I don’t remember too much of it because I’m an alcoholic so it’s either about me or it’s nothing.  I do remember him saying something like, “This one time I was with this girl and…,” I interrupted with “That’s nothing, this one time I…”  Years later I would recognize this as the proper use of a drunk-a-log but at that time it meant only that he had me; I was telling my story.  I was sharing myself with another human being.  The same self I had struggled so many years to hide.  I had little inkling of  the journey I’d just begun.

I’ve never had a problem admitting I was an alcoholic.  I wanted to be an alcoholic.  Ever since the moment Frank and his cronies praised me for it in high school.  I never bothered to wonder why I was okay with that though.  Or when I felt like drinking the most.  I just liked the reaction of the people around me.  I like being the subject of their stories.  Was I powerless over alcohol?  I didn’t think so.

“So why all the relapses,” Bill asked.

“Huh?”

He rephrased, “If you have power over it then why can’t you stop when you say you will?  Do you know what powerless means?”

“Of course I do.”

“But you continue to drink when you don’t want to?”

I swallowed hard, “I suppose.”

“Alright then,” he said, “so why is your life unmanageable?”

I replied with, “Umm, because I drink.”

“That’s bullshit!  That’s what you do about it!  I’m asking you why it’s unmanageable.”

I was stumped.  I thought I knew a lot about alcohol and alcoholics but here was this meek little man charging right though my bullshit.  No matter how many times I pointed to drinking he pointed right back to that being the solution I’d chosen for my problems.  So I’d move on to ol’ faithful and point the finger at my dad.

“How many drinks would you say your old man gave you?  Like on any given day how many?” he asked.

I’d show him, “My old man never shared his booze with anyone.  He was way too selfish for that.”

“Oh, so it’s your problem we’re talking about–not his.”

Damn it!  This went on for sometime.  Before I left that night he asked me to read the chapter titled, The Doctor’s Opinion and look for instances of powerlessness.  He told me to make sure I had a dictionary nearby and to underline any words I couldn’t define.  I should also have a highlighter with me so I could mark anything I didn’t understand.  I was to do all this prior to meeting him the following Wednesday.

I went home that night with no intention of doing any of it.  Who did this joker think he was anyway?  No matter how resentful I made myself that week I couldn’t get around the fact that it was all true.  I wasn’t angry because he presumed to know me after one meeting, I was angry because he did know me.  How could he?  I really wanted to know.  Maybe the answer will be in this chapter he wants me to read.  And just like that: it worked.  I did just what he wanted.  One down, eleven to go.

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The Jumping Off Place

I had reached that jumping off place they talk about in the big book and they were right–I knew loneliness such as few do.  I’ve heard it said that the more alcohol does for you in the beginning the more it will take away in the end.  I wish I’d known that when I’d designed my life to include it in every aspect.  It turns out that my desire to end it all was not because of my drinking.  I wanted to kill myself sober too.  I hated myself, for ignoring my old man in his time of need, for treating women like disposable objects, and for a host of other character defects.  I thought I was scum and I suppose to some degree I was; I just didn’t understand why yet.

Enter the fellowship.  Man, was I lost in that world.   The people all seemed so friggin’ 1st_editionstrange to me.  I wanted no part of this noise but I had no where else to go.  I would go to meetings and try my hardest to speak to no one, unless of course it happened to be a lovely young lady, then I could make an exception.  For the most part I kept to myself but people kept trying to get me involved and little by slow they got me.  I couldn’t figure out why it worked for so many people.  They would stand at the podium and tell their drunkalogs–they’d explain what their drinking life was like and I’d be sitting there thinking, for the love of Christ I already know how to get drunk.  I’m very good at it, that’s why I’m here.  This was going to be hard.

And it was.  At first I struggled in the form of relapse after relapse.  I got into a relationship–I probably should have told her–and drank when she chose someone else.  I drank when my sponsor didn’t call me for one day.  I drank when the Red Sox won.  I drank when they lost.  I drank.  After a while I managed to put together some sober time but it wasn’t good.  I’d never heard of untreated alcoholism, the people in the meetings I went to never talked about things like that.  They told me instead to “hold on to your seat,” and “keep coming,” and “meeting makers make it.”  They almost killed me is what they did.  I was sitting in the rooms waiting for someone to sprinkle magic pixie dust on my ass so I would no longer want to drink and it never happened.  I got sicker and sicker and at the end of my first year I was on my way out the door again.

You have to remember that I’d already reach the point of suicide in my drinking so when I say I was going out again I may as well be saying, “I choose death.”  The fellowship would not be my savior.  Then one day I got a call from a friend telling me that I speaker I’d liked was going to be speaking the next town over at a step meeting.  Not a 12 & 12 mind you they were studying the steps from the Big Book.  That phone call saved my life; I raced over there to hear my speaker who ended up not being able to make it but I stayed anyway.  There was something different about this meeting.  Everyone seemed happy–not like me.  They were polite, considerate and affable.  What the hell kind of bizzaro world was this?

One night I approached a man named Bill who seemed more timid than most.  I thought it would be easier to control a conversation with him.  I walked over and he said hello and I went to say hello back but didn’t.  For some reason I started to well up and I told him that I wasn’t doing very well.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said.   “I think I’m doing something wrong.  I’m not doing too well.”

“Have you ever considered doing the steps?   We’re all living in the solution,” he asked.

During my nearly two years in the fellowship no one ever asked me this.  No one ever talked of a solution.  Just things like, “When your ass is on fire go to more meetings.”  Only after a year of continuous sobriety did I find anyone who knew what they were talking about.  I almost died because such a high number of people avoid the step work at all cost.  I get it.  It is work and I didn’t necessarily want to do any work but I’d reached the jumping off place: the steps or death.  It wouldn’t work for me but I was going to die anyway so what the hell?  I decided to try the steps.

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No Way Out

Life was good for a time.  No one expected too much of me and most days I could stay drunk all day.  Thanks to this lifestyle I was meeting different women each night and I had a host of fair-weather friends.   I had it all–so why was I so lonely?

I could never shake the feeling that I was a fake.  I felt as if I was only pretending life was good and I couldn’t understand it.  Didn’t I have everything I wanted?  My life was finally my design and people seemed to want to hang out with me.  So what the hell was wrong with me?  Why was I so miserable inside?  I felt alone in a club full of 300 people.  After a great night with friends I would go home and tell myself all the reasons why they should hate me.  I would think of all the things I said that I shouldn’t.  I would hate; I would hate me, and I couldn’t understand why.  So became my life: having everything I wanted and trying to hide how miserable I’d become.  I thought I was a freak.  I was broken.

My father, God rest his soul.

My father, God rest his soul.

It was during this time that my father fell ill.  He’d had a couple of massive strokes and was confined to a hospital bed for a good decade or so.  I’d love to tell you that I used my daylight hours to visit him, that I was the perfect little son, but it would be a lie.  The truth is he scared me.  He was the model for the life I was living and he was suffering in the end.  I hated it.  I hated the way it made me feel.  Here was my ghost of Christmases yet to come.  My old man was dying and all I could think of was myself.  In the end I wound up denying a dying man the love of his son because I didn’t like the way he made me feel.   (“Selfishness–self-centeredness!”)  If only I’d known.

When he passed everything changed.  I had already been showing signs of depression while he was sick but his death was a game changer.  I was no longer drinking to convince people how great I had it; I was drinking because I wanted to die.  I was angry, sad, depressed, lonely; I was lost.  I was having difficulty wearing the party masks I’d been so proud of.  I would still pull it off from time to time but it was draining.  It had become hard work and I didn’t know how to fix that.  I felt trapped by life.  I was so tired.

I had attempted suicide once in high school after a girl had broken up with me.  I would try again during these dark times.  I had taken some pills when a girl I’d been sleeping with stopped by and mucked up my plans.  It wasn’t the big sleep but a much needed rest in Cambridge Hospital’s Cahill House I received.  Two weeks of talking about my feelings, using feeling words all while sober with happy slippers on my feet.  I couldn’t wait for my next drink.  When they discharged me I took a cab directly to Redbones, a rib joint in my neighborhood.  I told myself that I’d been eating hospital food for two weeks and I deserved to eat like a pig.  I’d ordered a beer before I even saw a menu.  I was right back where I’d left off.  I was a prisoner in my own life.

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First Love

My high school years were nothing more than me trying to live up to the expectations created on that overpass with Frank and friends.  I felt I needed to drink more; to be more outrageous.  I needed to keep the focus on me so no one would forget the day I was pulled into their circles.  What I didn’t realize was that they already had forgotten.  I was the only one who had any recollection of that moment.  I was creating new memories and each one needed to outdo the last.  I guess you could say I was a train wreck, but I certainly didn’t know that.

I had a decent job in high school working at a check processing plant.  I started as an illustrious Sorter Operator but was promoted to Assistant Systems Coordinator following graduation.  This allowed me to extend those high school days while my friends all graduated college and started their lives.  I thought they were suckers.  They always had homework to do.  The trick for me was to figure out their class schedules so I could figure out who was likely to go out drinking with me on any given night.  Then one day the job was gone.  I quit in a moment of righteousness.  I didn’t realize when I did it how little direction my life really had. What was I going to do?

This is exactly the question I’d asked my friend Carmine one night over beers: “What am I going to do?”  His response, “Well, what are you good at?”  Genius!

I enrolled in Bartending School the next day and by the following week I was ServSafe certified–I was on my way.

The Club

My first love

Enter my first love, Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant & Music Club.  This is where I would master my craft, and I don’t mean bartending, although I learned quite a bit on that subject as well.  For me the real prize was in the acceptance of my drinking.  I mean, everyone drank; everyone.  On any given day I could enter that bar and I would find someone I knew getting their drink on.  You woke up at noon and want your first drink by 12:30?  That’s no problem, that’s the lifestyle.  You spent the entire day sitting on a bar stool   No big deal, that’s where your friends are.  The more I drank the more acceptance I would receive.  I thought I had it all.  I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to live any other way.  My friends and I would sit in Faneuil Hall at noon enjoying a liquid breakfast and laugh at all the suits who would start to scurry back to their grey offices by 12:45.  Suckers!   Like Thoreau before me, I had found heaven here on Earth and once again I had that familiar feeling: “I had arrived.”

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The Big Time

I drank as often as I could on from that fateful day in 4th grade.  What had happened to my repulsion over that first drink?  Why was I no longer terrified?  Well, in fact I was but I was more interested in being a grown up.  Being a kid was hard work what with all the lies I felt I had to juggle.  How can someone so young convince the world that he’s not scared; that he has it all figured out?  Well drinking, I thought, was a good start.

My uncle owned his own floor covering company and had a big house in Winthrop, Massachusetts.  In the summer he would invite friends, family and workers over to enjoy his pool, barbecue and of course his liquor.  There was a bar in the backyard but I could never get close.  No, for me the real bounty lay within those beautiful steel kegs.  Barrels of beer complete with hosed spout for ease in filling my emptied Coke cans.  I thought I was a genius and I thought I was stealthy.  The reality is that the adults at the party were too busy getting their drink on to worry about a little ankle-biter like me.  So I was left to continue my initiation into adulthood.  There were a lot of parties like that in those days and I never got punished.  They’d carry me to the car and get me home to bed but I guess when it came down to punishment they had a hard time calling the kettle black.  I couldn’t believe my luck with this system.  I was doomed from the start.

High school logo

Rah, rah, rah

By the time I’d reached high school and drinking in the woods every weekend became standard practice for kids–er men–my age I’d developed a pretty good tolerance.  I could drink more than most.  Still I wasn’t very popular.  I had some close friends, good friends, but just a handful of them.  I could out drink them but they didn’t seem to care and neither did I really.  Then one day there was a party.  Not like the ones at my uncle’s, this one was a free-for-all and everyone was invited.  It was the night before Thanksgiving and the entire high school was headed to Victory Park for a keg party.  There were woods surrounding most of the perimeter of the park so it was the perfect space to hide away.  Everyone was there: jocks, geeks, motorheads, people in black and the anonymous groups like my circle.  We were all feeling real fine when the boys in blue finally showed and gave chase.  Every one ran in every direction, it was chaos.  I came across this kid Frank, the most popular kid in the school who was desperately trying to drag a keg with him into the cover of the woods.  I grabbed the opposite side of the keg and we made time with it between us until we were far enough in that we felt somewhat safe.  It was quiet so we drank.

I’m not sure how long we were out there but it was getting pretty cold and Frank had decided it was as good a time as any to go.  He started to pick up the keg which was considerably lighter by now but I interjected, “Whoa now, where you going with that?  The night’s young my man.”

He looked at me surprised and said, “Listen, you live somewhere on the other side of town don’t you?  You don’t want to have to hike all that way.  Why don’t you help me carry this and we’ll have a few more and you can crash at my place.”

That sounded like a fine plan to me.  We had a few in his backyard and crashed.  When morning came I woke up early and got out of there.  I was sick and figured I’d just slip out so I could get home before my family noticed and accused me of ruining Thanksgiving dinner.  They could be so dramatic. I didn’t think much about that night.  In fact, I’d mostly forgotten it until the following Monday at school.  I was walking across the overpass with a friend of mine when I heard Frank calling over to me, “Hey kid, Shawn, come over here.”

He was with all his football buddies and I was worried about going over.  I figured he didn’t like that I’d tried to stop him from leaving with the beer, or that he was pissed that I’d snuck out of his house or some shit.  I headed over apprehensively. What came next astonished me.

“You guys have to party with this kid.  He’s a fuckin’ alchy.  We ran with a keg for miles and then drank until the sun came up and we wanted to keep on going.  Tell ’em about hauling that keg up the hill with the cops criss-crossing every which way behind us.”

They were all patting me on the back and asking questions about how we’d managed to get away with beer.  I began to imagine them hoisting me on their shoulders and carrying me down the halls.  This didn’t happen of course, it was just one more in a series of delusions to come.  Something glorious had happened though:  “I had arrived.”

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