Buzzkill: Chapter 5

What if I don’t ascribe to the “god of your understanding” or the spirituality demanded by recovery programs?

Getting sober engenders existential angst almost as surely as drinking leads to hangovers. While detox was marked mostly by patients waking to clearer minds, rehab saw many waking to religious and spiritual literacy. And the program anticipates this, quickly offering solutions to existential questions with God-isms and answers of faith-based clichés. But I don’t buy it.

So where does that leave me? If I’m definitely not religious, am I even spiritual?

I started to lose touch with my inner philosopher while in the throes of alcoholism. It’s not just that I don’t believe in God and am secure in my agnosticism, I had stopped asking questions about what would help me become a more complete person — what would bring me closer to peace so I wasn’t boozing to black out? In what areas do I need deeper understanding to be able to say, in any given moment, ‘I’m OK’?

For many, the path is religious. And for many, it works beautifully. But it never took for me. Growing up in a somewhat Christian environment, hearing things like ‘life is great now that I’ve let Jesus in my heart,’ I felt conflicted. When I think of religion and spirituality, I can’t help but picture the baby Jesus — a fat white baby with bat’s wings and a Cheshire smile flitting around at eye level. Why would I want that thing in my HOUSE, never mind in my heart?

And yet, in some ways, I’m quite envious of religious and spiritual folk who can find such contentment in faith. I feel it even when the spiritual say ‘the Universe has a way of working things out.’ It just doesn’t fit for me.

But now that I’m sober and I’ve reacquainted myself with the philosopher within, the bigger questions do need some attention.

The programs are Christian in tradition but have somewhat grown to accommodate my atheistic and agnostic brethren. Instead of urging participants to find God and connect with Jesus, they use terms like ‘god of your understanding.’ It’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t cut it for me because the implication is still surrendering to something that exists beyond our senses and influence.

The bit about choosing ‘the god of your understanding’ over religion is a tempting compromise, but it still elides a fundamental problem: choice. The neat thing about agnosticism is that this perspective rests not necessarily on active disbelief, but on accepting that should something as grand as god exist, it is beyond the reach of human conception. So we accept our inability to see something so sublime in scale, and we still continue to function and thrive.

Unless you’re an alcoholic like me.

Us addicts tend to rely on substances in moments of fear — especially fear of the unknown. When things happen to us that are beyond our control, drugs and alcohol can help us forget and help us feel better about how small we can be as individuals.

When religion steps in, it can replace substances and offer answers like ‘it’s God’s plan;’ and the spiritual tend to say ’everything happens for a reason.’ When we don’t have religion or spirituality, the paradox of feeling so unimportant and unable to effect positive change is that we know we’re all there is. So, when the answer is always drugs and alcohol, it’s hard to make any kind of existential progress. Subsequently, hardships and difficulties can feel as though we’ve failed on all fronts. Like the fault is our own.

And sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t.

At the risk of sounding solipsistic, a specific kind of psychotherapy has begun to offer some great help in this area. Like a good Millennial, I’ve had several therapists since my teens. The way I see it, therapy is kind of like dating in that we all communicate in different frequencies, so once we find someone who’s frequency is compatible with our own, we can know it’s a relationship worth pursuing.

The very ideas of ‘frequencies’ and ‘energies’ always got under my skin. But getting sober has pushed me to really pay attention to the ways people make me feel, to figure out who in my life is making it more or less difficult to be myself. And having gone through these recovery programs, I pay closer attention to the quality of what people say — that is, how much of what they’re saying is from care and wisdom? And how much of it is simply a regurgitation of something they once heard and thought sounded nice, like a useful soundbite?

My current therapist works with the same organization that saw me through detox, rehab, a dual-diagnosis partial hospitalization program, etc. (Yeah, they’ve been good to me.) Luckily, this organization does not deal exclusively in the Christian programs, so they offer the expertise of educated professionals who can speak to the science behind practices that may be counted as spiritual — yoga, meditation, CBT — without ever needing to use that term. (Also like a good Millennial, I’m pretty label- and ritual-averse, and prefer to look at the quality and benefits of individual practices rather than to any sets of behaviors or beliefs that seem prescribed or even remotely traditional.)

Once we start dealing with abstract ideas like ‘frequencies,’ the world of spirituality is pretty unavoidable — I’ll admit it, begrudgingly. If spirituality is the active belief in and tending to the quality of life that exists beyond the material, the measurable, and the actionable — does it make me spiritual to strive to see beyond someone’s words and actions, and also beyond my own?

In sobriety, I’ve also found in myself a rejuvenated go-getter and the sense-of-self to recognize how annoying this can be. So I preemptively sent her an email, warning of my tendencies to control therapy sessions to quell my anxieties. I think she was impressed.

She also sees through my arch observations and the red herrings I try passing for epiphanies.

So she’s taken those tools away from me in a form of hypnotherapy that deals with Internal Family Systems (IFS). Here, the philosophy is that we develop coping mechanisms — substance abuse, excessive self-blame, avoidant wordplay — to protect the Self that sticks around even after we don’t need them. It’s what fuels my depression and makes me feel alone when I can’t pour myself a drink and feel unable to effect positive change in my life. By addressing these mechanisms through acknowledgment and acceptance, we can retire them and continue to grow.

This growth, I’m learning, is much more than simply physical and mental health. Be it the Freudian Unconscious, the Jungian Shadow, the Soul, whatever, the Me that is more than destructive behavior and automatic response to stimuli needs tending.

And so far, it’s working.

When I find myself asking what I can do to be a more complete person, I can say ‘thank you’ to the parts of me that tell me I’m alone and nothing matters and there’s no God looking out for my wellbeing. And then I can push through that and remind myself that writing and making art and sharing myself with others are the closest things to feeling whole that I’ve ever known. And that it’s enough for now.

But still, the program likes to hear things put in its own terms and parts of me still like to please, despite my better judgment. So as far as church goes, I’ll take Rothko’s Chapel. Prayers and chants? North’s score in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself.’ I’ll take the racing-heart, is-this-the-sublime? feelings over booze.

And the god of my understanding? Recognizing — beyond the frequencies of anxieties that have failed to grow with me in sobriety — that actually, I am ok.

If that makes me spiritual, so be it. But I’m not convinced.

Buzzkill: Chapter 2

How annoying cliches and sayings helped get me through rehab.

Photo by Reafon Gates from Pexels

I knew something changed when all the cliches started ringing true. Life in active addiction saw me stumble through the world a bitter, cynical heathen rolling his eyes over a glass of scotch or through the smoke from an overpriced cigarette. I thought I was impervious to cutesy phrases feigning wisdom. But when I was in rehab and began to truly check my pretenses to give sober life a shot, I started hearing things.

First of all, let me make it clear that detox and rehab were medically necessary for me to get sober because physical dependence had eclipsed my emotional reliance on alcohol and drugs. So before I felt emotionally uneasy and reached for a bottle to soothe the pain, my body needed alcohol or else I’d withdraw. I know that without the attention of nurses and professionals, quitting drinking would have been dangerous for me because of the risk of seizure.

But. The crux of the rehabilitative process for me is human connection. The camaraderie amongst other recovering addicts, the stories and promises offered by the employees who had personally experienced addiction, and the kindly ears and advice provided by the professionals — it got me out of bed in the morning with minimal fear, and I began to face myself. To reflect on this, I took photos of myself throughout treatment.

I also learned quickly just how much the program loves to turn a phrase. It’s full of them. And it’s not just the bible- and big book-thumpers perpetrating; even those not married to the recovery lifestyle spout platitudes like wizened, hooded elders. (Personally, I refuse to repeat them so do not expect to see any examples printed here. Just recall the feel-good memes and bumper stickers that most recently intruded on your personal head-space. They still anger me and curl that little muscle behind my bellybutton. *Shudder.*)

When addicts enter treatment, we don’t necessarily need to learn that our lives had become unmanageable or that we had largely given up on finding inner peace and were likely very depressed. We also don’t necessarily need to spend all of our time in recovery discussing and revisiting our misery and shame. On some level we know all of this and that’s why we seek treatment.

In fact, some of the most sobering moments of the whole experience were when we shared stories about the ridiculous things we did in active addiction and invited others to laugh with us. And I could always tell another patient was doing well if they caught themselves saying one of those cliches and then laugh. In that environment, when laughing doesn’t happen because it’s too hard to cry or because it’s the most cutting way to judge ourselves — I think that means we’ve learned and accepted something new about ourselves. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t comfortable photographing myself smiling until I got out and spent time with a new friend. I just needed to laugh enough first.

In treatment, I wasn’t mired by judgment or pity from others. I was not surrounded by people who cared but couldn’t relate. Or worse, surrounded by people who claimed to understand but really had no fucking clue. There, I had room to articulate complex feelings and worries, and there was no pressure to connect. So when connections happened it was easy and natural, and it was ok when one person’s recovery looked different from another’s. There was no need or expectation to package personal experience so it was digestible for someone else.

On the other end of the spectrum was a patient who insisted that he didn’t need to be in rehab, and was only there because his parents were making him do it. According to him, they misunderstood that his doctors wouldn’t prescribe him the meds he wanted, so he just micro dosed himself with cocaine. To say he annoyed the other patients is generous. To say he annoyed the fuck out of other patients is diplomatic. He even mustered the nerve to say he decided to stay in rehab because he was thinking of it as a vacation or a country club. Never-mind that people are dying from this stuff… And yet, I related to his skepticism and denial and bargaining. He reminded me of when nothing seemed to matter or mean anything. And when nothing matters then

I guess I fell somewhere in-between resistance and immersion. I gave every resource a shot — except the treadmill. I still consider the 10 lbs. of vodka-weight flushed a major victory. From 1-on-1 counseling, to art therapy, to group meetings, to speaking with the spiritual advisor, I gained something of personal value from each facet of the program. However, the most surprising nuggets came from the cliché sayings, no matter how much they niggle me. It’s a serene and fleeting phenomenon, and it lightens the air around me each time I hear — not the words or the alliteration or the rhymes, but the truths behind them. They’re small and big at the same time, and gentle enough to let me exhale completely. The scary part? Accepting that other people know things, too. Maybe even better than me.

Now, I’m a bit frustrated because they’ve been in front of me for nearly three decades and I’m only now beginning to access them. At 30 years old — sure I’m sober and a lot more honest with myself and with the world — I’m also suspicious of my impulse to think I know better than what seem like reductive truisms. Because now, or more likely for always, things aren’t necessarily more complicated than what bromides and placations seem to simplify. Maybe they persist because they’re made of more than desperation and dreams. Or maybe they’re made of less and that’s why they’re worth a listen.

Rehab didn’t save my life as I live it because what ultimately led me there was the realization that I had forgotten to live as my best self — that the addict within was getting damn near close to displacing myself with vodka, to climbing into the bottle and living there instead of here. In treatment, I began the process of laying to rest some parts of me that no longer looked out for my own best interest. It provided a safe and supportive environment for pulling the plug on self-destruction, and then for mourning the loss of an unhealthy coping strategy. But I’m the one who pulled that plug.

More than anything, rehab was a funeral for a part of me that needs to die so the rest of me can move on and live. And whether I like it or not, clichés and placations are simple enough to penetrate my grief and soothe the panic.

Don’t misunderstand — I’m not cured, I’m quite bereft, and I’m still bitter, cynical, and godless. I’m just listening for a moment longer, giving the words a chance to express a heartbeat before I decide to roll my eyes.