Grateful for an amazing program

Today, I’m celebrating a major milestone: 30 years of continuous sobriety.

I was what many would call a “functioning” alcoholic/addict. I was married to a wonderful man. I had a nice home. I had a successful career as an award-winning journalist. I never got a DUI. But my life was nevertheless full of the needless complications that came from denying a problem I desperately needed to get real about.

I’ll spare readers the “drunk-a-log” one occasionally hears in 12-Step meetings. Suffice it to say the recreational drug use my friends and I engaged in may have been considered normal at that time among many people of my generation, but it certainly was not healthy. I referred to the endless round of political fund-raisers, Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties and Happy Hour gatherings with colleagues as “networking” and convinced myself these alcohol-soaked events were essential to my job … until I wound up in detox.

When I embarked on my recovery journey in 1992, I immersed myself in the 12-Step movement – one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Recovery from alcoholism/addiction has brought with it many gifts, both simple and profound, but perhaps one of the greatest gifts was the 12-Step program itself.

Rigorous honesty was a hallmark of “the program,” and the first thing that appealed to me was a refreshing level of openness of a kind I hadn’t seen before. People “around the tables” talked frankly about their private problems in ways we usually don’t do in a society that encourages us to paste on a smiley face and edit the details of our lives for public consumption. My own issues didn’t make me as unique as I thought they did.

The program turned out to be an amazing training course in basic life skills. By sharing our stories of experience, strength and hope with others in the group, we taught each other how to acknowledge problems rather than sweeping them under the rug, look for our own part in these problems rather than blaming everyone around us, promptly admit when we were wrong and make amends, and reach out for help when we needed it.

Meetings gave me the chance to practice relating to all kinds of people without a drink in my hand. My fellow travelers often observed at meetings, “We are people who ordinarily would not mix.” And the diversity was amazing – young and old, male and female, janitors and CEOs, every race and ethnic group, every conceivable religion and none.

Some of the positive changes in my life showed up almost immediately.

Mornings were much more pleasant. In fact, when I first got sober, I was amazed to discover I was actually a morning person. Instead of waking up with a hangover, I started the day sitting in my favorite recliner with a cat in my lap and a cup of freshly-brewed coffee at my side while I journaled about everything from spiritual questions to daily priorities. This meditation ritual remains a vital part of my prayer life to this day.

Our house stayed cleaner. I can’t say it stayed perfectly clean 100 percent of the time (we’re talking progress rather than perfection here), but it was at least presentable. That, and my housekeeping standards got a bit more realistic. 

Our financial situation improved even before I started getting better jobs and pay raises. I was surprised to find out how much more money we had left over at the end of each month. I could actually pay all the bills, in full, and even put something into savings.

Instead of sleepwalking through most of my waking hours as I crossed one item after another off my endless to-do lists, I began to take notice of beautiful sunsets, the first crocuses of spring, wildflowers along road banks, fall leaves, and the birds, squirrels and other wildlife in our backyard.

Some changes came more gradually.

I began to have more real relationships, as opposed to the merely transactional ones that were so much a part of my professional life. My marriage improved. (I’m still married to the same wonderful man, who I truly believe is a gift from a kind and loving God.) I visited my family more often. I got better at holding up my end of friendships.

I was increasingly in a position to give back to others.  I became active at church, where I sang in the choir, and did volunteer work in the community. I was able to contribute time and money to organizations that help others less fortunate than I was. (And I learned how to stay off the pity pot long enough to realize there were people less fortunate than I was.)

I got a master’s degree and transitioned from journalism and public relations to a career in human services, where I worked with people experiencing disability issues, addiction, mental health issues, domestic violence, homelessness, human trafficking and involvement in the criminal justice system.

Every so often in those early years of recovery, I’d have little epiphanies.

One morning after I’d been sober a couple of years, I woke up feeling nauseous and achy all over. The first thought that came to mind was, “Should I call in sick to work or will I feel fine by noon and be embarrassed?” Then I burst out laughing as it dawned on me that having symptoms like that now meant I really was sick. There had once been a time when I woke up with flu-like symptoms day after day and considered this normal. How lovely that I didn’t have to live like that anymore!

Another such epiphany came when I suddenly noticed the absence of something – constant fear. I no longer worried about who I might run into at the grocery store, or what they might see in my cart. I no longer risked embarrassing myself in public by announcing to a friend in front of 50 people that her new outfit made her look fat. I no longer panicked when I saw a squad car behind me in traffic because I no longer risked the prospect of shelling out thousands of dollars to pay for lawyers, fines and other expenses associated with a DUI or drug possession charge. I no longer lived in dread that I might do something truly awful – like killing somebody while driving impaired. Or worse, a whole carload of somebodies. Nor did I l have to live with the nagging suspicion that I was doing irreversible damage to my own body.

I know some Christians express concern about certain aspects of 12-Step programs, especially when participants use them as a substitute for church. The 12-Step movement in all its incarnations (A.A., N.A., Al Anon, CODA) does label itself “spiritual but not religious.” The people I met “around the tables” came from a wide variety of spiritual/religious backgrounds with wildly diverse understandings about God. For me, however, the program was what brought me back to God, and eventually back to church.

I was able to deconstruct and reconstruct both my faith and my life in ways I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. (One might say 12-Steppers were “deconstructing” before deconstruction was cool.) Among other things, my 12-Step friends encouraged me to fire the perpetually angry God of my childhood understanding and get in touch with the real one. On issues of spirituality, folks at the meetings advised me, “Take what you need and leave the rest.”

At this point in my life, I do consider my church congregation to be my spiritual community. And in a way, I think that is one of the things a good 12-Step group can do – it can bring people back into a spiritual or even religious community who wanted nothing to do with any of it prior to their recovery journey.

I certainly don’t mean to imply my life has been perfect since I got into recovery all those years ago. Pete and I have experienced the loss of both sets of parents and several beloved friends. Right now, as I write this, we are living through chemotherapy (for Pete) and cardiac rehab following a heart attack (for me). And, of course, there’s been all the disruption and craziness brought on by the pandemic.

But the program has taught me how to face these crises one day at a time. “The Promises” beloved by the 12-Step community assured us that we would begin to “intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us.” And, “we will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” Both of these promises have largely come true.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that help from supportive people – and from God – is always available in times of trouble. There is no problem so big I have to drink over it, and I never have to face any problem alone.