Thirty Years

In Case You’ve Been Keeping Track

Sometime last month – October 2014 – fell the 30th anniversary of my sobriety.  Back in the Orwellian year, a couple of months before my 21st birthday, I put on my best clothes, filled my cigarette case, and drove down to El Paso Cantina at the waterfront (looks like they no longer operate that Ports O’Call location, though).  I got a table outside, ordered a drink, ate an appetizer, smoked cigarettes, got the waitress’ phone number (never did call her, though, what was the point?); having spent close to my last dollar, I went back home.  Turns out, that was the last time I used alcoholic beverages.  Having been merely an opportunistic user of controlled substances, I have no idea when I last used them, but it was some time before my last drink.

30 plus years ago.  In this image taken at the Torrance "Horseshoe" Pier in Torrance, California, I am leaning against a light pole in a state of inebriation and thinking myself very clever vis-a-vis juxtaposition with the message on the sign above my head.

30 plus years ago. In this image taken at the Torrance “Horseshoe” Pier in Torrance, California, I am leaning against a light pole in a state of inebriation and thinking myself very clever vis-a-vis juxtaposition with the message on the sign above my head.

I Didn’t Mind Going to Rehab

Shortly after the events described, I checked myself in to a hospital rehab program, completed the program, religiously attended AA meetings for several years, followed through with the AA program, and amazingly enough, stayed clean and sober.  My family was pretty supportive during this time, and I would say their support was undeserved, considering the way I squandered any natural goodwill and affinity I might have laid claim to.  I couldn’t say how many of the people who completed the hospital rehab program with me are still clean, still sober.  The recidivism rate for such programs is pretty high, and early on, I knew of a number who’d returned to problematic alcohol and drug use.

Staying sober, I didn’t always live smart or behave in ways that I now consider ethical, but I didn’t use alcohol and I didn’t use drugs.  I became employable, got employed, after a number of years ended my forthright rebellion against the Almighty and began live Godward.  I started a couple of small businesses that didn’t last long, I got educated, I married a lovely, younger woman, we became homeowners, we became parents.  I’m still getting educated, I continue to live Godward, I’m active in my congregation, I’m trying to live smarter and in a way that makes ethical sense to me.  In terms of physical fitness, I’m in better physical condition than I was in my twenties – I just look a lot older because I am a lot older.  Thirty years sober – when I was 20, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see 30 years of age, much less 30 years without alcohol and drugs.

Stuff I Learned

Some of things I learned in AA that were helpful were:  Keep Showing Up; Don’t Drink or Use, No Matter What; One Day at a Time (sometimes that was one-hour-at-a-time); Once You’ve Taken Care of Your Responsibilities Everything Else is Boogaloo-Time; You Can Have Anything You Want in Life As Long As You Can Pay For It.

About paying for things – I was greatly helped in life, in my late teens and twenties, by being totally ineligible for credit.  I couldn’t get a credit card, so never did accumulate credit card, or much of any, debt.  Of course, my manner of life has never favorably impressed those who value appearance.  Even when I was a drunkard, I valued substance and understood appearance  was of not much value.

Characterological Progress

At some point, I got tired of listening to my own excuses, so made a real effort to stop making them.  Instead of complaining about the circumstances into which I was born, I recall that I asked God, who transcends time/space (both are made of the same stuff and are part of the created order – duh, people), to give me just what I was born with.  I could no longer whinge about never having asked to be born, etc., blah, blah, blah.  Turned out to be a fairly effective strategy, and one I recommend.

Facing and taking inventory of my own ugly truths has at various times proved transformative.  Of course, if that’s the only transformation one experiences, one’s experience of life, self, humanity, soul, or whatever is pretty truncated.

Reading

I’ve kept learning.  Even as a drunkard, I read every day.  I’ve never stopped reading.  Early on sobriety, I read a lot of AA literature – the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, also 12 Steps and 12 Traditions.  Both are worth reading.  Periodically, I’ve reread them over the years and have found the insights contained in them are still helpful.  I don’t reckon either of these books should be included in the canon of scripture.  I’ve heard religious professionals refer dismissively to the approach Alcoholics Anonymous takes to the problem of self-and-other-destructive use of alcoholic drinks and, by extension, other mind and mood altering substances.  I think therapeutic deism is a reasonable description and find no reason to limit its use to the pejorative.  In addition to AA literature, I continued to read novels, biographies, histories, and anything that interested me.

Imagination and Providence

Most of my life-failures have been failures of imagination, failures of faith, failures to trust God’s goodness and providence.  The former is pretty strange because I’ve got an active imagination.  Perhaps some life experiences contributed to the turning of my imagination to consider and my mind to accept the worst I could imagine as likely outcomes or as already real.  But there was something also about my character or nature that turned my mind in that direction.  The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous provide one way to address characterological deficits.

I also returned to the Christianity of my youth and found the God revealed in the Old and New Testaments had been about addressing my characterological deficits for a long time already.  That has continued through the present, and I continue to both welcome and, at times, struggle and inveigh against the will and intervention of The Almighty.

Update

No, I didn’t drink or use today.  We had supper at my mom’s house and she informed me that the date I checked in to rehab was September 14.  Seems I was in a pretty bad state.  I wonder where I got the idea my sobriety dates from mid-October?

Wretchedness

Here’s something I read this afternoon on a short break. It’s from the magazine Modern Reformation, the New Atheism issue. The author’s Michael Horton, and the article’s entitled Are Churches Secularizing America? The entire article can be found linked here.  Stylistically, it’s not the guy’s best writing (In one short paragraph, I counted three uses of “nevertheless“). And normally, I think the guys at Modern Reformation and The Whitehorse Inn have too high a view of clergy and far too low a view of laity. Sometimes they’re spot-on, for instance in regard to tithing – they take the sound biblical approach to the matter by opining that it’s not anywhere mandated as normative for the Christian. On the other hand, they believe and teach what I think is heresy saying that God performs a creative work in the heart of the believer (literally creating faith) through the speech of the ordained minister who preaches the Gospel according to the canon of New Testament scripture. Nevertheless, Horton hit the ball outta the park with this:

People remain hopelessly trapped within their own inner psyche and resources, suppressing the truth about themselves that might drive them to Christ. No longer objectively guilty before a holy God, they feel only a sense of guilt or shame that they should deny by changing the subject to something lighter and more upbeat. No longer saved from damnation – which is the source of their deepest sense of anxiety – they are now saved from unpleasantness. We are the walking dead, forgetful that our designer-label fashions of religion and morality are really a death shroud. To paraphrase Jesus, we go through life like corpses with lipstick, not even aware that all of our makeovers and self-improvement are just cosmetic [Matt. 23:25-28]

Michael Horton, Are Churches Secularizing America? , Modern Reformation, Vol.17, No.2, P.46

I’m sure the form of my citation above is incorrect. Apologies. Sometimes I feel such a deep sense of shame and humiliation that I can only turn Godward with it. A brokenness runs through me that only God can make right, but he is apparently uninterested just now in doing so.

Horton goes on in the same article on the same page:

“It is the false prophets who ‘dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace’ (Jer. 8:11). ‘They fill you with false hopes,’ he adds. ‘They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord says: You will have peace” (Jer. 23:16-17). It is not compassion for the people or zeal for God’s house, but their own thirst for popularity that renders the false prophets constitutionally incapable of telling the truth about the crisis.”

That phrase, “constitutionally incapable of the telling the truth” probably finds its provenance in the therapeutically deistic Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous which describes some alcoholics, those who cannot or do not recover as “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.” Nevertheless, truth matters. Speaking the truth matters. Knowing the truth about ourselves matters. Shame, guilt, and pain are, for me much of the time, the truth about me, sharing what passes for my core with loss, grief, and a free-fall sensation that may be worse than the impact at bottom. That’s the stuff that drives me Godward most often.

Sometimes there are moments of joy through which I glimpse eternity, but they have so far been fleeting compared with that other stuff.