Of all the passages in our recovery literature I find unintentionally amusing—and there are many—one stands out. It is a memorable paragraph about those alcoholics who “for a variety of reasons cannot have a family life.” They are consoled with the wildly thrilling prospect of transforming themselves into “prodigies of service.” It’s supposed to be inspiring. I remember one friend who used to sigh audibly and cross her arms angrily when this portion was read aloud at Twelve Step gatherings. No doubt she was shuddering at the thrilling plans the program had in store for her. Perhaps she, like me, imagined armies of childless drunks and addicts, dressed in colorless work uniforms, dutifully sweeping up after their happily married fellows had gracefully departed the meetings, en route to the Hamptons. At least the industrious spirits left behind would be lifted by the thought of helping another alcoholic.
This patronizing pat on the head is by no means an isolated theme in recovery literature. The approved texts are very big on the idea that life, in essence, boils down to staying away from the bottle and helping others. We hit the jackpot when we find ourselves “arranging for the coffee and cake after the meetings” while being observed by “skeptical, suspicious newcomers.” Sober Utopia begins to sound like life in North Korea.
Now, before my words are misinterpreted: service, in proper balance, develops self-esteem, reins in ego, and establishes connectedness to the recovery community. Unquestionably. But there’s more to recovery than arranging cookies and stacking folding chairs in church basements. So now that we’re clean and sober, what next?
Life before getting sober didn’t exactly point me in the right direction. In lieu of developing interpersonal skills, crafts, facilities, or know-how, or for that matter developing a skill that could feasibly result in employment, I mastered the fine art of consuming alcohol in quantity. Liquor-store clerks had a bottle of Jameson’s set aside at the counter for me; bartenders kept a stool empty; fellow patrons took to drinking gin, knowing it was the only form of booze I couldn’t abide (I had a bad habit of stealing people’s drinks). An ex of mine took to distributing my spent bottles in the garbage bins of various neighbors. Apparently she wanted to put on a good front for the sanitation workers who removed our trash. So removing alcohol from my life meant, unquestionably, depriving me of my one highly developed skill. At 35, I faced life with the aptitude and smarts of a teenager—perhaps a decent scenario for a film starring Tom Hanks but not for a real-life adult.
In early sobriety I answered this mighty existential dilemma by honing my cigarette smoking technique, forcing down tuna melts at diners from hell, and flirting tirelessly with disinterested and emotionally unavailable women. The notion that life should mean more hovered before me like a disappointed tutor at an English boarding school. My early efforts were, to say the least, dismal. So I turned my attention to the various “cleaning house” projects bluntly recommended by gruff Twelve- Steppers with long-term sobriety: resentments were acknowledged; apologies made; funds owed were repaid. Fine ideas, yet I still longed for the big answer: What do I do if not drink?
Of course, this concern transcends recovery and flummoxes the best of us: rows of library shelves are stacked with largely unreadable philosophy treatises on the subject. Thinkers as varied as Sartre, Schopenhauer, Spinoza, and Sinatra (“Do be do be do”) have tackled it, few arriving at comprehensible solutions. If there is any agreement among the greats, it’s that we arrive in life without any determined purpose. Life is not about discovering some hidden raison d’être but about creating one. And so, to the already overcrowded mix of voices offering unsolicited opinions on this, I now offer a few of my own. (Don’t worry; this won’t turn into another homily on the joys of smelling roses or traveling by rail through Europe; those are sermonized enough as is.)
Learn to endure inner storms with style. In other words, develop ways to stop obsessing before being driven to the bottle. For years I warded off my repetitive fears by drinking myself into oblivion; now the inner voices that persistently remind me how bad my future will turn out, or how shameful the mistakes I’ve made are, seem to have found fresh ammunition and a bullhorn. Fortunately, when thoughts become maddening, today I simply say “Hello!” to them, rather than agreeing or disagreeing with what they would have me believe. It’s amazing what relief acceptance—without agreeing—can bring. And we now have the Internet at our disposal, which is packed with recordings of the wise and venerable. When the inner committee starts to pipe up, you don’t have to suffer: pull out the headphones.
Becoming at home in our own skin is an estimable accomplishment. For much of my life, my body felt like a distant cousin, making itself known at inopportune times with nagging demands and ever-present tension and stress. I didn’t feel comfortable with it, in it, even looking at it. Booze, of course, offered only temporary freedom from my physical anxiety. Today my solutions are far healthier and durable. I meditate every day for at least 30-40 minutes, much of which is spent calming the mind via the breath. On other occasions, you’ll find me either on my yoga mat, heaving into an ungainly warrior pose; down in Chinatown, receiving an affordable qigong massage; or schvitzing out the anxiety at the Russian steam baths. The result of all this near nudity is a state of physical ease that drinking could only hint at.
Pick up an absolutely pointless skill. I was 45 years old the first time I climbed onto a skateboard; this fact alone is impressive enough for many reasons. I well remember the scoffs of 10-year-olds flying past me, rubbing it in with their nosegrinds and ollies while I could barely manage to balance on one leg. But I persevered. In the last five years I’ve learned how to pick a banjo and play a melody on the harmonica, all without permission or encouragement. Had I the time, I’d take a language course in Icelandic. Here’s why: the profit in learning a new skill lies in developing thick skin, aka a willingness to suck at something in public. Fear of failing and being judged by others are life’s great hindrances to happiness. Following one’s harmless muse despite the opinions of one’s friends and families is liberating and lends life entirely new dimensions.
Do your thirteenth step. No, it’s not what you think, so take your mind out of the gutter. It may be little practiced now, but at one time the unofficial thirteenth step involved learning not to take ourselves too seriously, especially the mistakes we made during our years of addiction. (My good friend Oran wrote a hilarious tell-all about low-bottom heroin addiction that’s funnier than most TV sitcoms I’ve sat through.) Fortunately, getting a sense of humor doesn’t come with a price tag. It simply requires understanding that everything we experience is universal; all the humiliations and hijinks are a part of life; each and every one of us gets to slip on the banana peel. So pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and laugh about it, for crying out loud.
Finally, there’s more to life than work. While being a worker among workers is well extolled in recovery literature, a life spent laboring endless hours until we hit 65, then dragging a sagging ass down to Florida for a few brief years in the sun is not worth the effort. So pull yourself away from the cubicle, take a stroll to one of the few remaining bookstores on the planet, walk in and purchase a book. On a subject you don’t know anything about. The result of this is that your mind will expand, and a bookstore owner will be reminded of what it’s like to sell something. Then stop off for lunch at restaurant you’ve never entered, ordering a cuisine you’ve never tasted. Lastly, spend the rest of the afternoon at a cinema that shows those strange films with subtitles. At some point during all of the above I guarantee you the question, “I’m sober, now what?” will no longer haunt you, if only to be replaced by “Now that I’ve lost this job, where will I find another one in this economy?”
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.