Lost inventories

September 20, 2008

Twice I’ve had sponsees who lost their inventory before they took their 5th steps.

The first time it happened, my guy—let’s call him Fred—was in the Salvation Army. If you’ve never been inside a Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC), then you probably don’t know how important rules are to their treatment philosophy.

Rules, work, and Jesus—that’s how you get sober at the ARC. And in that order, too.

Accordingly, they’ve got rules that govern every aspect of your waking life. If, for example, you were caught with two cups of milk at lunch instead of one, you would be subject to discipline. Such a contrast with the Big Book’s “suggestions only” approach.

Anyway, Fred was a meth addict entrusted to the Army’s care in lieu of a prison term. He wrote good inventory, filling a notebook with resentments, fears, and sexual misconduct (the latter is usually a big deal for methies).

I was rather exited about the prospect of getting this guy through his steps. He still had a few teeth left, you know. He might be put to good use helping others.

When we first started meeting, all Fred wanted to do was bitch about the rules. But as he progressed in his inventory, he laid off the bitching and started sharing a bit about himself. To my mind, that was good, solid progress. Most addicts can’t survive long in a culture of rules. Those that make it do so by breaking rules and/or bitching about them.

To be in the ARC and get over your resentments—even your resentment of the rules—is real spiritual progress. An addict humbly following the rules is…well…it just doesn’t happen that often, and I was starting to get the idea that maybe these Army guys were on to something. Having strict rules—thousands of them—forced the issue. Either you got over yourself or you got kicked out. There was no third option.

I showed up one Saturday, as planned, ready to hear Fred’s inventory.

He got in my car with a sour look on his face and told me he didn’t have his notebook.

Thinking he was trying to back out of his 5th step, I told him he’d better go and get it.

“Can’t,” he said. And then he told me what happened.

Fred had his inventory inside his Army-issued binder. Like all things in the ARC, binders were governed by a code of rules, strictly enforced. Most importantly, you could leave them in the main room only during the day and had to take them to your room at night.

Fred had forgotten his binder in the main room one night. His binder and the inventory it contained were subsequently confiscated.

I appealed to the proper authorities and had them search the storage rooms. I had Fred wade through the dumpsters out back. His inventory was no where to be found.

They had taken his stuff and had sent it through the shredder.

I wanted to burn the place down.

But, after a bit of prayer, I figured we’d better move along as best we could. Fred was graduating in two weeks. He didn’t have time to write his inventory again, at least not before he was turned out.

Not knowing how to do a 5th step without any inventory to read, I had Fred go back and write about the “big ones.” I asked him to try to remember his ten most significant resentments and fill out the columns on them.

He did so, halfheartedly. Then he read it to me, graduated, and was high for two weeks before he got pulled over and was hauled back to prison.

God bless them and their mission, but I don’t hang out with the Salvation Army anymore.

More recently, I was sponsoring a guy we’ll call Dave, who took his inventory to court. When he was called by the judge, he left his notebook in his seat, thinking he’d be back for it. The judge had the bailiff take Dave in, and he was held for a few hours. By the time he was released, Dave’s inventory was gone.

Dave was also in a rehab and was about to move from its “primary” phase to “job search.” There was pressure on him to take his 5th step ASAP because people who didn’t read inventory before they went looking for a work often found a bag of dope instead of a job.

So I prayed about it and had this idea that maybe we could take a page from the Oxford Group. I had Dave write up a classic Four Absolutes inventory and read that to me for his 5th. The idea was that he’d work to fill in the rest of the inventory later, as part of an ongoing 10th step.

Dave did okay for a while. He did a bunch of difficult amends without even blinking. He made amends to four stores and three family members in one day. Fearless.

But after that, he just petered out. Stopped writing inventory. Stopped saying his prayers. Got pissed off about small stuff and pretended he wasn’t mad. Didn’t call me so much as he used to.

He’s officially off the radar for two weeks now. Hopefully, he just moved on to another sponsor. One who’s making him write some good inventory.

I am wrong

September 14, 2008

I tried something new in my 11th step today.

Basil Pennington suggests asking God to help you chose a word or phrase from your morning reading to carry with you throughout the day.

So this morning, I hunted around in the Psalms for a while, trying to dig up something all by myself. When that didn’t work, I closed the book, asked for help, and opened to this phrase:

I am wrong.

God is a God of wisdom. That phrase came in handy all day long.

We took a trip to the beach, and as we were packing, my wife asked for my help carrying some things. My mood soured. I wanted to tell her to carry her own crap. Then, the phrase came and cleared my mind: I am wrong. Of course I could carry a few extra things.

At the beach, my son wanted me to stand with him while he played in the surf. I wanted to read my book. Why should I always have to do everything? Why didn’t my wife go and do it instead? I am wrong. He and I had a lot of fun running around together.

My wife started talking politics, and I wanted to bicker. I am wrong. We had a good conversation.

My son was shouting at the restaurant, and I wanted to be stern. I am wrong. I paid attention, and he lowered his voice.

I kept losing at cards. I am wrong. It was fun anyway.

It was a hassle getting all the sand off my son’s stuff.

A couple of drunks were acting up on the train.

I was all tired out and grumpy when we got home.

I am wrong. I am wrong. I am wrong.

I was wrong all day long.

God kept reminding me and putting things right again.

I remember hearing a story years ago in a meeting about a guy (let’s call him Ted) who put sticky notes all over his house. Each note carried the same message, so that every where he looked, he would read:

“You’re wrong, Ted.”

I’m on Ted’s side.

It’s better to know than to not know.

A resentment against my wife

September 12, 2008

In the spirit of “keeping current” without “dumping,” I offer the following:

Last week I got pissed off at my wife, so much so that I couldn’t hardly look at her as we ate lunch together.

The feeling between us was so bad that she eventually had to leave the house for a while, just to get some air.

See what happened was that she insulted my beef soup. She called it “stinky,” and as a self-respecting man, I just couldn’t allow that to pass unanswered.

If I had just let it go, she might get the idea that she could treat my food poorly without consequences. She’d walk all over my every meal. A man’s got to eat his lunch in peace. Right?

Well, if it sounds crazy now, it must have looked even crazier then, a grown man getting all steamed over something petty like that.

Of course, at the time I was convinced that my resentment was perfectly rational, the only sane response to her comment. I really believed that I was the innocent victim of an insensitive, uncaring wife.

And I held it against her.

She took off, and I spent a few hours alone. I did have enough sense to pray during that time. But I can’t say that I gained any willingness. Or insight. I stayed angry, just cooled down a little, and resolved to prove my point.

When we finally talked about the soup incident later in the day (and I insisted that we talk about it), I pressed her with questions suggesting that she was at fault. Didn’t she have anything to tell me? Wasn’t she sorry? Didn’t she think that I had behaved rationally? Wasn’t she really to blame?

Needless to say, that didn’t go over very well, and I left for my meeting with a big storm cloud brewin’ over my head.

That night something happened that always happens at a good meeting: someone told the truth about one of their resentments, and it shot my own resentment to shit. It feels like getting knocked off your feet, even though your still sitting in your chair.

The guy talked about how he had made himself out to be a victim and caused all this trouble, blaming everyone else, when the only real trouble was his own selfishness. He totally nailed me.

What the hell was I thinking?

My wife is five months pregnant. And she gets hungry at lunch time, desperately hungry. That day she had come into the kitchen with a biological imperative to get food to our unborn daughter.

But there I was, right in her way, cooking up some old, sloppy, left-over beef that smelled, to her heightened senses, like I’d scraped it off the bottom of the river.

Had I consulted with her before I started cooking? Did I stop and ask her what she wanted to eat? Did I make sure the baby got what it needed before taking care of myself?

No. I’d gone after my own needs, leaving my pregnant wife and daughter-to-be to fend for themselves.

I’d been selfish. And being selfish led me to be inconsiderate. Being inconsiderate led me to be insensitive. Being insensitive led me to be argumentative. Being argumentative led me to say things that were uncaring and unkind. Saying such things led to a conflict in which I behaved like an idiot. Persisting in my selfishness, I blamed the conflict and my behavior on their victim, my pregnant wife.

Once my head finally popped out of my ass, it was hard to understand why I wanted to stay buried up there for so long.

I thanked God for freeing me from my resentment, and when I got home, I made a much needed, rather belated amends.

With a bit of Grace and a little elbow grease, I can stay sane, sober and married. Short of that—on my own—I will resent myself back out into the cold. Happens every time.

Getting current without dumping

September 11, 2008

When someone raises their hand at a meeting and claims that they need to “get current,” my spirits sink. I expect that the share from said someone will be the emotional equivalent of barf.

Many folks bring undigested personal turmoil into meetings and urp it up in front of everyone, a practice that probably helps them make it through the week but leaves everyone else feeling like they need a shower.

For some folks, this is just how meetings work; They get together and share their pain, uniting against a possible relapse.

Fair enough.

My own experience tells me that if I do the same, I’ll end up very weird and very isolated, murmuring to myself in a dark corner somewhere and feeling sorry for myself.

That’s what happened the last time I treated meetings as a place to “dump.”

There are clear differences between “venting” or “dumping” and making an honest confession. When I vent, I am directed by my own self-obsession to seek sympathy from others. When I confess, I am directed by my conscience to bring hope to others.

Dumping encourages more dumping.

Confession encourages further honesty.

When meetings promote venting, they worsen the spiritual trouble that underlies addiction—self-obsession.

When meetings promote confession, they cut to the heart of the addict’s trouble and confront it directly. Honest confession names self-obsession as the illness, and demonstrates its cure.

In an environment of dumping, the air is heavy and thick. An invisible weight presses down on all.

In an environment of confession, the air is clean and electric, almost frighteningly so. If you’re not used to that kind of honesty, it can really come as a shock.

Honesty like that, honesty that cuts to the heart of one’s own selfishness, is a sacrament.

When I moved back to California and was looking for a new home group, I started hitting every book study on the list. I had a rule for myself: If you don’t hear the message in the first ten minutes, split.

Some meetings reveal themselves more quickly than that. Sometimes, you know what kind of meeting you’re in before anyone says a word.

At each meeting, I’d hang out for a while and listen. When the air was heavy and people were dumping, I knew the meeting would not be a good home for me. So I left.

Granted, this was a completely selfish and self-interested approach to meeting attendance; I was just looking for a meeting that would suit me rather that trying to bring a message where there was none. So I went about it, as I do most things, in the wrong way.

My strategy, for what it’s worth, was to find a base and then spread out from there. And it did eventually work.

I found a good book study out in East LA. And then another, two years later, in Anaheim.

Now I know where to take my communion.

Being honest in AA

September 6, 2008

I was talking to a woman at my meeting last night who had just come back from a relapse. Here’s how she explained it: “I worked steps, and I was sponsoring people, but my life wasn’t perfect. I had a lot of problems, and I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone about them. They expected me to be happy with my new life. I didn’t want to let them down.”

So instead of being honest, she took a handful of pills.

Another guy in the same meeting a week earlier said this during his share: “I know what you all are going to think, and you’re going to say I’m not working a good program, but I was crying in my car and I felt like having a drink.”

He was being honest in spite of his perception that this meeting was not the safest place to tell the truth.

It’s an easy mistake to make—thinking that you shouldn’t be honest in AA. I’ve made that one a number of times myself.

I remember going to my first meeting after taking my 7th step and feeling like a spiritual failure because I wasn’t perfectly pure in my thinking. I’d expected to be more radically transformed than I was, and I thought I owed my home group an apology. I didn’t say a word.

Later in sobriety, I hit some hard times and started getting screwy ideas about how I was supposed to be in meetings: “I can’t share these problems with anyone,” I thought. “I have to carry a message of hope.”

Writing about this now, I’m reminded of my Grandma’s friend who always had to have a perfectly clean car or else she wouldn’t be “a good testimony to the pagans.”

Religious people have been making this mistake for thousands of years. They try to look holy instead of being honest and letting God help them out.

We make the same mistake when we think we’re supposed to look like the solution instead of living the solution. We say things we think will make the program look good instead of being honest about our recent mistakes and how God carried us through.

That’s what newcomers need. They don’t need a bunch of old timers that got one thing right a long time ago. They need people who are willing to demonstrate how this program can be applied to real problems in their lives.

If all we ever share about is how God got us sober all those years ago, people who pull six months together will think that’s all the program is good for—God gets you dry, and then you’re on your own.

In order to keep the program alive, we have to share what God is doing for us today.

And in order to be honest about your current relationship with God, you have to have a current relationship with God.

If that relationship isn’t expanding into new areas in my life, if I’m not turning over new resentments and fears and making new amends, if I’m not reaching out in new ways to make conscious contact, then I don’t have anything fresh to share about, and so I fall back on the same stories about what God did for me once upon a time.

Those are good stories. Important stories. Maybe even my most important stories. But they are not current. If I rely on them too long, they lose their vitality completely.

After my conversation with the woman who relapsed, I was reminded of a guy from my home group who practiced this better than I think I’ve ever seen since. When he chaired a meeting, he’d read a bit of the book, and he’d read it nice and slow. You could see it working on him when he read, like he was taking in each word and letting it speak to him. Suddenly, something would hit him, and he’d chuckle: “Uh oh. It got me again,” he’d say. Then he’d share about how what we’d just read applied to something in his recent experience.

He’d tell us about his family life, his resentments, his frustrations at work, his temptations and his pains, never losing sight of God’s role in the story. He would tell us how he got into a fit of self-will and self-pity, and how God lovingly pulled him out of it again. “I can’t go anywhere alone,” he once told me, referring to his relationship with God, “I need a chaperone.”

He was actively developing his relationship with God and consistently saw his current struggles in the book. When he opened his life to the book, God would show him something he needed to share.

Honesty like that runs deep. It carries a message with the necessary “depth and weight.”

So many of us get stuck on the surface. On alcohol.

Then we get together in meetings where we share a solution to alcohol, but not a solution to life. And people start feeling that maybe they’d better not talk about that problem their having, or the fact that they want to drink.

Last night, we read over the beginning of “More About Alcoholism,” and I had to laugh out loud. The book got me.

The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker….

Here’s how my “current” version read: The idea that somehow, someday, he will control his wife is the great obsession of every spiritually sick husband. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing…

See, I copped a pretty big resentment against my wife yesterday. And the persistence of the illusion that I was right was truly astonishing. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone, could be as deluded and as bull-headed as I was yesterday.

What a jerk.

Thank God for prayer and inventory…

Guess I’d better tell that story soon. Just to stay current.


September 4, 2008

Currently, the highlight of my spiritual practice is the Big Book study I run on Wednesday mornings at a local recovery house. Two weeks back we were reading a bit of “More About Alcoholism.” Just after Jim, just before Fred.

The insane idea won out.

The book was introducing “mental obsession,” and the residents didn’t seem at all impressed. Nobody volunteered anything. No one, apparently, identified.

So I put it to them like this:

“The book starts out by telling us that we can’t drink safely; we have an allergy. Now it’s telling us that our minds are broken and will make us drink even if we don’t want to. So what do we do about that?”

I didn’t expect anyone to answer that question. But they did.

Everyone did.

They all had something to share, some idea about how the mental obsession could be handled:

“Meetings, meetings, meetings. That’s what I need.”

“You just have to pick up that ten thousand pound phone.”

“Next time, I’ll just have to play the tape through to the end.”

“No one ever drank who got on their knees and prayed in the morning.”

“I know that if I stick with the winners, I’ll be okay.”

“I think I’ll take a coffee commitment.”

“Think, think, think…”

On and on they went, these residents, none with more than 30 days on the wagon, but each with a firmly entrenched idea of what staying sober was all about. Many of them were cycling through the house for the second or third time, still selling the same garbage they collected on their last run through.

Not an unusual experience. Many groups go this way. The program isn’t an easy thing to catch hold of. It’s simple, but hard on the ego. So it’s no surprise that a roomful of drunks and drug addicts would have a skewed view of the program.

What struck me that morning, though, was the fact that each solution they came up with was something accepted by many most AAs as good program. Everything I heard that morning from the mouths of the newly sober was something I’d heard many times from clubhouse old timers, the guys with their own mugs hanging from hooks on the wall. But it wasn’t keeping these guys sober. And it wasn’t Program.

If you can’t drink and you can’t not drink, and somebody asks you what you’re going to do about it, there is only one right answer: Nothing.

Bill used to talk about a thing called “deflation at depth” and this is exactly what he meant by that: there isn’t a God d*mned thing you can do to keep yourself sober.

It’s a terrible blow to the ego.

But if we can take that blow fully, if we can let it knock our egos to the mat, even for a short count, it opens up the very real possibility of contact with supernatural power.

Short of total defeat, there is no possibility of contact. Reason being that if we aren’t defeated, then we’re still trying to make a go of it on our own.

Anything, absolutely anything, we do to keep ourselves sober immediately closes that window of opportunity. Even going to meetings. Even working the steps. Even helping other alcoholics. Even prayer.

The ego is a subtle foe and it will use anything it can get its hands on, even the best parts of our program, to haul itself back up into the saddle.

The only appropriate response to temptation is to stop everything and just take a minute to be doomed.

Let it sink in. Let it wash over you. And for God’s sake, don’t fight it.

I haven’t had a drink or a drug in seven years. In 2001 my sponsor took me through the Big Book and I had a powerful, transformative experience. This experience did not make me immune to lapses in judgement, fits of unwillingness, or even occasional temptation.

At two years sober, I saw a guy smoke pot in a movie and it gave me the shivers. At five years, I was in a bad way and caught myself planning a trip to the bar. Then at seven years, just a few days before this particular Wednesday morning, I was transfixed by a realization of just how much I enjoyed getting high.

That’s three times in seven years that I should have fallen off the wagon and didn’t.

At two years, my response was to run into the next room, get on my knees and pray my ass off. Then I wrote a bunch of inventory, read it, and made an amend. At five years, my response was to force myself to go to meetings I hadn’t been to before. Then I wrote a bunch of inventory, read it, and made an amend.

Each response was the very best program I could come up with; each response was a panicked one, an act of desperation. And I remained shaken for weeks afterward, questioning my program and my connection with God. What was wrong with me? Where was I screwing up the program? What could I do to get it right?

Maybe it’s easier to be doomed on day one than on day 1,958. Maybe getting some time under my belt made me think I ought to know better and should have had this thing handled by now. After all, I had all the tools, right? I just had to use them to put myself back together again.

Only that’s not how the tools work.

These tools don’t work if you’re the one using them.

At seven years, my response was to stop everything. Sit quietly. Be doomed.

No “think, think, thinking” about anything at all. No panicked race for a notebook or a church basement. No phone calls.

Just doom.

I cannot fix this.

It’s a terrible feeling. But it joins us, hard and fast, to the presence of God.

First Post

September 2, 2008

Occasionally it happens that I’ve got something I want to write, something related to my own recovery or my take on the spirituality of the steps, and it doesn’t quite fit into the purpose of my other site. So this space will be a home to something more personal from me. Hopefully, that “something more personal” will be of use to someone looking to stay clean and sober today.

Most blogs (like most meetings) prove to be a misguided exercise in public naval-gazing. Here’s a hope and a prayer that I don’t repeat that mistake at least.