Monday, September 25, 2017

Addiction and recovery

30+ years of meetings and sobriety

By Bob Gaydos
Among the things many people don’t understand about alcoholism/addiction is the concept of recovery, starting with the fact that it is possible. The news media, TV, movies -- even local gossip -- are full of stories about people doing foolish, harmful, criminal things while under the influence of alcohol or some other drug. There is not nearly as much time or space devoted to people living in recovery. Maybe it’s because we don’t find those stories as compelling. Or maybe it’s because we don’t know what recovery -- long-term recovery -- looks like.
Yes,”rehab” is now part of our vocabulary. Also, “in-patient,” “out-patient,” “day at a time,” “clean and sober.” But they usually refer to the early -- difficult, often dramatic -- days of recovery. Also today, there is a growing movement within the recovery community for people with long-term sobriety to go public with their stories in an effort to remove the stigma associated with addiction.
Still, there are thousands of other stories walking around mostly untold because that’s the way the people who live them want it. I talked with three members of Alcoholics Anonymous, each of whom respects the organization’s tradition of anonymity, has more than 30 years of recovery (no alcohol or other mood-altering substances) and still attends meetings regularly. Their stories are different, yet remarkably similar. They all live in upstate New York. Their identities are slightly changed.
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“It’s not that you take it for granted (not drinking),” says Joe, a semi-retired septuagenarian from Orange County, who’s been sober 39 years, more than half his life. “You just don’t think about it because you’re living sober.”
“Every once in awhile I might feel like a drink to escape, but I know I can’t. When I feel like it, I talk to another alcoholic. At first, I hated it (AA). I didn’t want to be an alcoholic, I was going to show them.”
Another septuagenarian, Paul, from Sullivan County, has a similar tale. “For six years, I was in and out of AA. I lost hope.” Today, also semi-retired, he has 38 years of sobriety and says, when he has the occasional thought of a drink -- maybe while watching a TV commercial for a new brand of beer -- “I call my sponsor and he laughs.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” he says. “I don’t obsess. After a few years of sobriety, I was so involved in AA I would allow myself to think about it.”
Maryann, 55, from Ulster County, has been sober 34 years. She says she “never” feels like drinking. “I hated it. Every time I drank, I got sick.Yet from the age of 13 to 21 I continued to drink the poison. I may have the occasional thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to have a cool glass of wine or one of those new drinks?’ I have had drunk dreams (dreams of drinking).’”
A programmer, Maryann says, “It was important to stay connected in AA” to realize long-term recovery. “My family was in recovery. I had a sober parent and a parent who kept slipping. I decided I wanted to follow the sober parent. He introduced me to sober people. I knew I wasn’t going to do it by myself. How do you do it for 30 years? That’s a book’s worth question.”
She goes to four meetings a week “because I know what will happen if I stop. My attitude will get crappy. I’ll start to get scared or miserable and, I may not pick up a drink, but I won’t be fun to be around. I’ll be alone and miserable. Meetings give me an opportunity to talk to newcomers. It reminds me of what I could be like.”
“That’s why I go to meetings,” says Joe, “to deal with the human condition. It’s not just about not drinking, but living sober. Meetings help keep me balanced. Hearing other alcoholics is a constant reminder of who I am. I live by the the slogan, ‘Progress, not perfection.’ The longer I’m in recovery, the more I realize how selfish I was when I drank.”
Paul, who worked in law enforcement, also attends meetings regularly, yet says, “I don’t believe everybody who comes to AA gets sober. It’s not for everybody.
“You have to enjoy the fellowship you join. There’s a lot of fun to be had. Also, I’m 75. I have a purpose in my life, a responsibility. When you get to my age, a lot of people don’t know what to do with themselves. They’re bored. Going to meetings, I can give back. I’m glad I can do it.
‘I actually enjoy the meetings. I used to go to the bar every night. Read a newspaper, talk to the guys. AA is the same without the newspaper. I go at least once a week, maybe more.’
As for the anonymity, Maryann says, “I agree with the tradition, but I share with people who need to know. Most people don’t need to know. I’ve shared with complete strangers. I don’t need my ego stroked.”
Joe says, “At first, I didn’t want anyone to know. So many  people don’t understand -- if I’m an alcoholic, I’m dirty. I can only say I’m an alcoholic because I’m sober. When I was drinking, I denied it.
“After five or six years, I didn’t care. I wonder if some of us with a lot of years could share it … it would be good. I’m a teacher. I’ve shared it four or five times with a class. But I believe in the wisdom of the founders. I’m happy sober. I also accept my sobriety as a gift from my Higher Power. Today, I handle my problems, some well, some not so well, but I handle them.”
Paul echoes Joe and Maryann: “It’s easy to be prideful and bragging after 38 years, but it’s a gift from my Higher Power.” Also, “If I go out in public, get drunk, do something stupid, kill somebody, all of that reflects on AA.”
And it is the opposite of recovery. As Joe put it, in recovery, “I can be the person I want to be.”

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