Victims of a Fire

In the 26 months I’ve been sober, I’ve seen that…

Unfortunately, we don’t all make it. Things can go sideways if we don’t maintain our spiritual connection. I’d love to pat every alcoholic/addict on the shoulder and say, “Don’t worry. You’re home. It’s all going to be fine now.” But that isn’t always so. Sometimes we go back out there. We get sick again.

If you’ve read Alcoholics Anonymous, or you’ve been reading our blog for very long, you know about Jim. How he made a beginning, his life was reassembled, but he crashed and burned repeatedly because he failed to enlarge his spiritual life? Remember him?

That happens to some of us. And one of the greatest destroyers of the spiritual condition among alcoholics and addicts once happily recovered, something that decays our gratitude and serenity:Expectations.

What Expectations Could We Possibly Have?

Seriously. We’ve just been taken off the scrap heap, out of prisons, out of the shelters, hospitals or rehabs, and started living pretty normal lives. The fire has been put out. We’re supporting ourselves, and being productive again. We’re helping others. That’s awesome! Right? Isn’t it?

You’d think that would be enough. Being given another chance to live, free of addiction, is a pretty gigantic blessing.

And, it is fulfilling for a time. Gratitude overwhelms us. That period of serenity and contentedness is often called the “pink cloud.” It lasts longer for some, not so long for others. We’re grateful for everything. We’re happy again. We’re content and at peace.

Until we’re not.

Life is beautiful! Then it’s not quite so sunny. It kind of fades on us. We begin to feel disappointed. It’s the opportune time for trouble to return. We’re “dry,” not recovered at that point. Fire Hazard.

I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do best, so I think I’ll show you what this looks like, how the destructive fire can reignite, rather than trying to explain it. Names, of course, have been changed.

Jacob

Jacob and I were both blackout drinkers, who once started would not be able to call our own number. No brakes at all. We would go on benders for days. We were chronic relapsers. We always had a new plan to stop, and could never get it done. We are “real” alcoholics.

I met Jacob after I’d been sober for a few months. He came out of rehab, and made a beginning. But after a bit, he made a decision that this program wasn’t going to solve the “real” problems he had.

Once having that fixed in his mind, he went straight to a motel and started drinking. He holed up there for days, in and out of blackouts, existing only to drink more.

He called me just before Christmas, weeks later, and told me he wanted the peace that I had found, if I’d just show him how. He’d been living in his car because he’d run out of money for motels, but still managed to get booze, just like we do out there. He smelled terrible.

We went over the first 3 Steps, and he said he was prepared to try again. I suggested he call me the next day, but then I didn’t hear from him for another few months.

When I saw him again, he had been back to rehab, made yet another attempt, and seemed to be doing well. He stuck with it for a considerable period, and really seemed to get some relief. We watched as he seemingly changed from this insecure guy who isolated and believed to his core he was different into a guy really ready to rely on something other than himself, work this program, and help others. All of a sudden, he was again discontent with his life and progress.

Then he disappeared again.

And again.

Friends would hear from him every once in awhile, late at night, in the form of ranting, babbling, delirious phone calls. Or, we’d get a string of 95 texts of self-loathing and victim thinking until he passed out again.

Every time he began, it seemed he found some “problem” in his life that he felt the 12 Steps couldn’t solve. He would harbor expectations and keep them secret, setting himself up to suddenly become disappointed, self-pitying, and morose. When his schedule or benchmarks for improvement weren’t met, when he didn’t feel as good as thought he should, he took it as proof that a spiritual program was useless for him and set fire to his life once again, nearly drinking himself to death in another motel room.

I have no idea if he’s alive today. He was my friend, and I miss him.

Kerry

I met Kerry when he was fresh out of federal prison and rehab.

He was a heroin addict who did some seriously illegal things when desperate to finance his runs and binges. Every time he got started, the wheels really came off and the consequences were severe. He did it again and again, so his track record qualifies him as the real deal.

I got to know Kerry pretty well, and spent hours talking about life, hopes, dreams, and how we could help others. He was out there spreading his message of hope. He was really active in getting to meetings. As an ex-con, he was glad to have a job and be free to live better.

But, he had some definite ideas he kept to himself about how things were supposed to play out for him.

He started getting what he believed was his due.

He got a better job, and then a car. Then he met the girl. He moved in with a friend and had his own place. All was well in his life. The pieces were all falling into place at last. The problem is that he seemed to believe these things were rightfully his, and if there was any justice in the world, they could not be taken away. He’d earned them. Life would never be hard again.

But one of those pieces was lost, and the Jenga that his life had become, that tenuous tower of expectations for money, status, love, acceptance, and material possessions, became an inferno and came crashing down.

I don’t know how it happened in detail, but it burned fast. I got several calls from concerned mutual friends. Next, we all saw Kerry on the TV news. It was security camera footage. He was back out there, obviously on the booze and heroin and God only knows what else, running his game. Desperate for money to finance this binge that he was powerless to stop, he was on the wrong side of the law again. He was doing exactly what he’d sworn he’d never do again. All of it.

I hope he’s safe back in prison. That would at least mean he were alive, but I don’t know.

What These Men Had in Common

I wish to in no way condemn these men. They were my friends. They suffer from the insidious and incurable disease of mind and body called addiction.

But their stories are instructive about the lurking danger:  Expectations.

At some point in their recovery, both of them became fixed on their own idea of what sobriety was supposed to get them. They became “victims” again when it didn’t happen that way.

Victims don’t stay sober.

I know other men and women who had it in their mind, perhaps without even realizing it, that they would get their spouses back, granted custody of children, or have charges dropped. They believed, like Kerry, life would line up according to their will all because they were “doing so well,” as though someone owed them. Time to pay up. They’re entitled.

When those expectations weren’t met, the fire began to burn again.

They assigned God a set of hoops to jump through, seemingly saying, “Here, God. If you really love me, prove it. Here’s what it will take.”

I have never read any accounts where God worked that way, but seen plenty of angry people who expected Him to. Those of us not emotionally immersed in the situation and with an objective point of view can see the smoke foretelling the oncoming destruction. They, however, are blinded by their own entitlement, and it seems to them to come from nowhere.

Failed Expectations Are Called “Resentments”

When we don’t see what we expect to see, get what we expect to get, on the schedule we decided, we become resentful.

We harbor these grudges with God and with others, and anger burns us from the inside out. We feel frustration, fear, and pain, and our quick and sure solution to such uncomfortable feelings has always been alcohol and drugs.

“It is plain that a life that includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die.” Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 66

Sometimes those expectations are placed on the events of the world or on whether others act the way we think they should. We start believing we know best. It’s apparently always been like that for alcoholics and addicts, as this book, 80 years old, addresses this very point:

“He is like the retired business man who lolls in the Florida sunshine in the winter complaining about the sad state of the nation; the minister who sighs over the sins of the twentieth century; politicians and reformers who are sure all would be Utopia if the rest of the world would only behave; the outlaw safe cracker who thinks society has wronged him; and the alcoholic who has lost everything and is locked up. Whatever our protestations, are not most of us concerned with ourselves, our resentments, or our self-pity?” Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 62

The same principle holds true when we place these expectations on other people and what they are supposed to do for us, or what we expect them to give us:

“…the alcoholic commences to rely upon our assistance rather than upon God. He clamors for this or that, claiming he cannot master alcohol until his material needs are cared for. Nonsense. Some of us have taken very hard knocks to learn this truth: Job or no job– wife or no wife– we simply do not stop drinking so long as we place dependence upon other people ahead of dependence on God.” Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 98

In short, when we don’t get what we expect and begin to believe that life and God aren’t treating us the way we deserve, resentment takes over. We get sore, and we drink or use to solve that emotional discomfort.

How Are You? Right Now at This Very Moment?

As I have said, these expectations creeped into these men’s lives in sobriety. They had lost sight of what they had been given in the expectations.

That’s why we continue a course of spiritual growth after initial recovery. These expectations come back.

The 10th Step, part of our ongoing solution, is succinctly explained this way:

“We have entered the world of the Spirit. Our next function is to grow in understanding and effectiveness. This is not an overnight matter. It should continue for our lifetime. Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear. When these crop up, we ask God at once to remove them. We discuss them with someone immediately and make amends quickly if we have harmed anyone.” Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 84

Note that it says “when,” and not “if.” It inevitably happens to all of us. We’re still human, and thus still faulty. We will always have some crossed wires. The question is if we act, or choose to hold on to them.

When I called my sponsor in a fit of anger with people not doing what I wanted, or in fear of not getting what I wanted or was sure I needed, he always asked me the same question:

“How are you right now?”

I’d launch into an explanation of how I was being wronged, or how things were about to fall apart.

“No, I mean right now. At this very moment, how are you? Are you in any trouble or physical danger?”

“Well, I’m fine right now… But…”

The light always comes on. I’m actually fine. There may be problems, but the real problem is within me. It is in my unwillingness to accept the situation as it is, and my inability to recognize or restrain my expectations on life, God, or other people. I want what I want, and I’m not getting it in the way I expect.

Without a spiritual solution, on my own, I always burned my life and the lives of loved ones to the ground. Repeatedly. On my own power, I was hopeless.

And that is still true today.

The Answer

My own experience in life, and listening to others recount their experiences, has led me to a certainty that acceptance and faith are the answers to my problems of selfishness, fear, and resentment.

There is a famous story in the back of Alcoholics Anonymous called “Acceptance Is the Answer.”The author of that story puts it better than I ever could.

“And acceptance is the answer to all of my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation– some fact of my life– unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes… And if I don’t know what’s good for me, then I don’t know what’s good or bad for you or for anyone. So I’m better off if I don’t give advice, don’t figure I know what’s best, and just accept life on life’s terms, as it is today– especially my own life, as it actually is.” Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 414-415

Acceptance and faith, combined with hard work aligned with what we can perceive to be God’s direction for us, are the only hope we have for the difficult feelings which always burned down our lives. The are the salve for the spiritual or emotional pain that always led back to alcohol or drugs. It’s how we weather the storms. Life keeps happening, after all.

I use the Serenity Prayer in times of dis-ease, when I am uncomfortable with how things are, when things have become unacceptable to me. It brings contentment when I smell smoke of victimhood, or hear the fire of resentment crackling.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Accept life as it is. Work to change. Have faith in the Power that got us this far.

*Originally posted forSolutions of North Texas on October 13, 2016

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