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 3

Feeling stuck helped turn me into an alcoholic — and it was happening again while I lived in a sober house.

One of the most important things I learned in rehab is that when I get complacent or feel stuck, I can drink a whole lot of vodka. I become a real mess. Getting clean and sober just wasn’t going to be enough for me. I had to learn how to live a life without substances. Luckily, I started this process in a great place. A sober house.

Living in a sober house was not part of my plan. When I thought of what it might be like, I imagined a run-down house with too many people. There would be garbage everywhere. Fights. And, of course, drugs and alcohol.

So when my counselor in rehab suggested I graduate to one, I scoffed. It just wasn’t even on the table for me. But as the weeks went by in treatment and I heard more and more first-hand accounts of life in sober houses from patients who had been through this process, I started to reconsider. I heard horror stories, of course. Overdoses. Scuffles that escalated into rides to emergency rooms. Slum-like living conditions. I also heard stories about laughing. Lifting each other up. And succeeding. Sometimes, I even sensed nostalgia. Besides, I couldn’t go back to where I had come from. Not yet, at least.

And that’s what really stuck with me. In rehab, I wasn’t really nostalgic for anything. I was just anxious about the future, about what my life would be like without booze. My counselor assured me that she would find me a place where I would have the comfort, safety, and support I need to figure out what I want my life to be like.

The sober house I ended up moving to looks like all the other houses in the neighborhood. It’s on a quiet, residential street on Cape Cod devoid of anything that might give it away. One of the chefs I worked with had lived on that street for nearly a decade. As we got to know each other and he learned more about how I ended up in town — turned out, he had no idea the house was full of fuckups. So for however many years, despite the house being full of up to 12 men recovering from arguably the worst times of their lives, it’s likely been regarded as a house full of un-disruptive neighbors with a perplexing number of vehicles. Huh.

Sober house living is, fundamentally, transitional housing; it’s not meant to be permanent. When I signed up, I hadn’t given a thought about when I might leave. I just knew I needed a safe, structured living environment surrounded by people going through a similar transition. Luckily, the guys in charge carefully vet residents and make their selections based on how we’re recommended and how we might get along and benefit from each other’s personalities.

There were relapses. A few came and went. But we were mostly a solid crew.

By the end of my four months there, I had convinced each of my housemates to take an abbreviated version of the MBTI. Although the science is contentious, it was a fun way to explore ourselves, to ask honest truths about who we are as individuals rather than as generic addicts, and to gain perspective on ourselves now that the drug and alcohol clouds were dissipating. Upon reading the results, I watched their faces light up. The ensuing smiles and slight embarrassment brought lightness to the house that was often muddied by anxieties. It was one of those few moments we were able to focus inward and not see an addict.

Some of the hallmarks of sober houses are rules and structures grounded in, you guessed it, sobriety. The biggest ones are regular and/or random urine tests and breathalyzers, and consistent recovery meeting attendance. These were crucial for my own sobriety for the first couple of months.

But after a while, I started resenting the meetings. I had to keep reminding myself that the program warns about this in early sobriety:

  1. If you don’t want to go to a meeting, that means you should.
  2. If you can relate to only one thing said at a meeting, it was a good meeting.
  3. Meetings will remind you that you are powerless to drugs and alcohol.
  4. Keep going to meetings.

For the first months, on the nights when I wasn’t working as a manager in a restaurant and bar, I went to meetings. It was automatic, no questions. I went to meetings for narcotics addicts, alcoholics, and meetings with a Buddhist approach to recovery. I did not discriminate. I wanted all of the recovery I could get.

But it’s that third point that started to crack my adherence to the mandate for regular meeting attendance. Not only was I selling booze at work all the time and not drinking any of it, but I wasn’t experiencing any cravings or dreams about the stuff. Meds were managing cravings. One-on-one therapy was managing my impulsiveness and how I coped with stressors and traumas. I wasn’t isolating as I did in active addiction. I was sober, and I was beginning to feel powerful.

At first, I thought it was arrogance — something I had plenty of before I submitted to recovery. So I went to meetings, but a little less often. And then I remembered: “Powerful” is one of those primary emotions I learned about in the dual diagnosis program after rehab. (Surprisingly, “happy” is not among them.) It’s neither a positive nor a negative emotion, and I began to understand why: I can drink whenever I want, but I don’t have to. And the best part? I can do other things, like things that add to the quality of my life, that benefit my mental and physical health. I can do things that give me joy.

At some point I had started wrestling myself from addiction and started taking responsibility for my behaviors, and I wanted more. Not more booze or drugs, but more from life. I don’t want to just survive as a sober person. I want to thrive.

When I was forcing myself to go to meetings during that period, I often left wanting a drink. It was a bizarre phenomenon, because I can rationalize the ‘want’ away and it simply becomes a limp passing thought. But I had to ask myself, ‘why?’ I don’t know if it’s because I was getting tired of the same stories and the same chants, or because I was getting tired of the same faces, or what. At the very least, I was bored and didn’t feel like I was growing anymore.

So that’s what I realized: I was feeling stuck. And really, I didn’t want to keep hearing about how powerless I am. I learned that lesson — that when I was drinking I lost, surrendered, or forgot about my ability to stop. But now that I had stopped, that I had come to understand what I did and how sick — physically and mentally sick — I got, I didn’t want to revisit that all the fucking time.

I want to learn more about the ways in which I AM powerful.

At the time I’m writing this, I moved out of the sober house four days ago. I’ve also got five months clean and the will to stay clean. So. To rehab, to the sober house, to the meetings, I say this: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. But I’ve had enough for now.