I’ve spent nearly half my life in Alcoholics Anonymous. I got sober at 23, and now I’m 51 and just celebrated my 28th sobriety anniversary. It’s been the journey of my adult life – one of learning to surrender over and over. I’ve surrendered to get sober and I’ve surrendered to keep the gift of sobriety.
Before I got sober, alcohol – and alcoholism – were always a part of my life. I don’t remember much, but the memories I have where alcohol was present are not positive. The disease must have spread through my home even before I was born because I don’t remember a time when it didn’t impact my life.
I took my first drink at 12. At the time, my mother was in a mental hospital being treated for bipolar disorder. She had stopped drinking a few years earlier but had never sought help for her alcoholism. So nothing much changed in her life and actually got worse before it got better.
To put it simply, back then she never picked up the “spiritual toolkit laid at her feet.”
As for me, the first time I took a swig of beer I felt a sense of relief. It was as if every burden I had carried in my young life – anxiety, dis-ease, sadness – simply melted away and I was suddenly in heaven, free of all worry and fear, finally comfortable in my own skin. I had two beers, passed out on the sofa and urinated all over myself. And it would only get worse during my remaining teenage years.
My mom was a runner, leaving situations when they no longer worked for her and when I was young, taking me along for the ride. I went to 13 different schools growing up and this, invariably, showed me a way of dealing with life that wasn’t based on communication and understanding but was instead based on fear.
In my teenage years, my alcoholic mother left me in Tulsa, moved to New Mexico, and left me in the care of a housekeeper and whomever else was in the house on any given day. Essentially, I was left to run wild without supervision or guidance. At the time, it seemed idyllic – I was free to do whatever I wanted with whomever I wanted – but looking back I now understand this was the worst possible scenario for a burgeoning alcoholic such as myself. Predictably, I ran amok and did whatever I could get away with. I was soon kicked out of the private school I was attending and was sent to a public high school, where I was also constantly in trouble. Like many other alcoholics, I was given every opportunity and quickly ruined each one.
February 15, 1998, at 17 years old, I was given my first “last chance.” I had spent the previous evening on the roof of my home threatening to jump off and kill myself. This wasn’t my first cry for help, but simply the last my mother would take. I was awakened early in the morning by two off-duty highway patrolmen who told me to get up and that I was being flown to Dallas, Texas, to be admitted into long-term treatment. I spent the next 23 months in that facility and eventually graduated a few weeks after my 19th birthday. I then attended aftercare and went to meetings. In fact, I did everything I was supposed to do as a sober young adult. Except fully surrender.
Exactly three years and 12 days after I got sober the first time, I took another drink. I was 20 years old, standing in a convenience store with a fake ID that I had been using to get into nightclubs. I used it to purchase a six-pack of beer and quickly drank it. I ended up back at my treatment center that night for the aftercare meeting in a daze and wondering what had happened. This would start a three-year run that would see me going down roads I never thought I’d go down but soon became normalized for me. I was arrested and jailed in three different states for the possession or consumption of three different substances.
My first real surrender, as I’ve now come to know it, happened in a jail cell on October 19th, 1994. I was driving back home from a sentencing hearing in another state and got pulled over for speeding. Due to an outstanding warrant, I was arrested and taken to a small city jail outside of Dallas. As I sat in that cell, contemplating my options and what had happened to my life, I had an epiphany: “I cannot continue drinking and using the way I have been and have a life worth living.” This hit me like a lightning bolt as I sat on that cold steel bench, the feeling of hopelessness and despair covering me like a heavy coat. A young woman I was dating bailed me out of jail and took me to a grocery store, where I bought a six-pack of beer, drank two of them, and for reasons that aren’t totally clear to me to this day, I finally gave up. At the time I had no understanding of the significance of that situation and the transformation I experienced at that moment. It was the pivotal moment of realization and consciousness of my higher power. In my own feeble way, I asked something greater than me for help. I’d been in jails before, sitting there wondering what I should do, but I had never simply surrendered, both to God and to the possibility of returning to AA and my sobriety. It would be weeks before I would attend a meeting but somewhere in that timeframe, I decided that I would return to the meetings. The miracle had happened. I eventually attended a noon meeting in a shopping center community room in Santa Fe, a moment that I’ll never forget. I often return to that meeting when I’m in town and always reflect on that feeling I had announcing my newly minted sobriety and renewed mission. It would be months before I would tell my mom about my new sobriety. She’d always pressured me to return to AA, and as juvenile as it was, I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing she was right. At the time, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mom’s own drinking and mental health issues that were always apparent throughout my young life. I remembered her wrapped around the toilet, passed out, as I was putting a blanket on her. I remembered her standing in the kitchen after drinking all night, beckoning me to come along so she could take me to school. That was the norm for me. She reached her breaking point when I was 10 years old. I remember being in the backseat of her Blazer with her college friend driving and me in the passenger seat, headed to a rehabilitation facility in Colorado Springs. She couldn’t make the drive without drinking so her friend had purchased a six-pack of beer for her to nurse along the way. I wound up staying with this friend for the duration of my mom’s treatment. It was an interesting insight into how a normal family lived and functioned, totally unfamiliar to me – something I never knew I wanted or needed and yet something I craved with every ounce of my being. To see a loving mother and step-father interact with their kids was so foreign to me. Spending time with their normal teenage sons was another strange experience, and yet it provided me a unique sense of home and family, something I had never experienced in that way and would inevitably form part of the basis for the family I longed to have.
My mom passed away the day after I celebrated nine months of sobriety. At the time, I was living in Dallas – 700 miles away from her – and had built a life in recovery there. Late one night, I received a call telling me that she had been killed in a car accident that morning and asking me to come back to New Mexico. I drove through the night to arrive the next morning although I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Since I was the only family member left, it was my obligation to identify the body at the mortuary. In doing so, I took that time to make my amends to my mom. I hadn’t done so while she was alive and I knew somehow that this was the last opportunity. I learned at that moment to never take the days for granted, that missing one goodbye might mean all the difference. At the time of her death, I’d been in a fight with my mom due to her activated manic state that week. I didn’t know how to deal with her in that situation so I just didn’t do anything. I’d been called back home before to deal with such episodes and simply didn’t know what to do anymore. Now, I know to forgive quickly and never miss the opportunity to tell someone that you love them.
In my three years of relapse, I’d managed to get arrested three different times in multiple states for a variety of offenses, all inevitably tied back to my drinking in one way or another. My time in my active alcoholism wasn’t long but it did show me over and over again that I couldn’t drink like a normal person and have a life worth living. As I’ve said before, it took a desperate moment sitting in jail that one last time for me to surrender finally.
And desperation would turn out to be the key to my recovery. It is desperation that has led me to surrender again and again throughout the decades. Once I would get to that point of surrender, the inevitability of one of two situations would always make itself apparent: I would either drink or I would let go and embrace change. It’s been as simple as that for me, change or die.
I remember one specific time, sitting on the beach in Santa Barbara, Calif., feeling completely hopeless after seven years of sobriety and wondering what to do. It was the first of what I would call my “sober bottoms.” I was essentially confronted with the reality of whether I should drink, kill myself, or surrender and work the steps. I obviously made the choice to recommit to the steps and work through the issues at hand. It turns out that I would have these “sober bottoms” every seven years of my recovery and that I would be forced to look at whatever issues I had not been able to see previously. I’ve pretty much always worked the steps and been actively involved in AA, but there were challenges that I simply wasn’t able to see until I arrived at these moments that proved to be the doorways to intense growth and change.
For example, at another point of surrender, I was hospitalized for depression and suicidal ideation for five days after my 21st sober anniversary and had to face overwhelming grief stemming from my impending divorce and the decades of unbeknownst challenges. That led to years of intense work and outside therapy to effectively address the deep-seated childhood trauma that plagued me beneath the surface of my recovery. It was decades of unresolved trauma stemming from growing up with a mother who was both an alcoholic and mentally ill. While the topic of seeking outside treatment for underlying issues is sometimes frowned upon in the rooms of AA, I personally found it imperative to do so and to share that experience to normalize the challenges that alcoholics sometimes face in long-term recovery. I also believe that working the steps to the best of my ability – continually over the years – has been the foundation of my long-term recovery. Today, I have no problem saying I needed qualified professionals to help guide me through deeper issues. That outside help – another form of surrender – would eventually greatly benefit my sobriety.
In my seventh year of sobriety, my first child was also born, an event that changed my life dramatically. Before that, I had lived a somewhat selfish life, doing what I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted. The realization that I was now responsible for the life of this wonderful little girl changed my perspective and mission overnight. There was a sharp contrast between how I functioned with regard to my life before my first daughter arrived and how I operated in life after I first held her in my arms and knew definitively that my life was no longer my own. I was finally living for someone besides myself. I would go on to have two more children a few years later – boy/girl twins – and they would set right any further selfish ideas or aspirations that I carried through my sobriety. There were plenty of times when the thought of drinking would creep into my conscious mind and the idea of my children seeing me drunk and full of shame was enough to coerce me to pick up the phone or attend another meeting. Parenthood was the impetus to do whatever I could to maintain and enhance my sobriety.
One morning at breakfast with my sponsor I was complaining about something with my wife or kids, and he looked across the table and said to me “I don’t give a f-–k about how you feel, what I care about is what you do.” I was floored. He was telling me that my feelings at the moment didn’t matter. I was taken aback but soon understood that I was wrong in my interpretation of the situation. What I learned in that moment was that my actions in life dictate who I am and that how I act as a man in recovery will determine how I feel about my life. Not the other way around. I would go on to repeat this wisdom to many sponsees over the years. Some would grasp the potential they had to change their lives and some would feel hurt and disregarded, just as I had felt that fateful morning. This lesson has since guided my life in so many ways, pushing me to change my behavior if I want a different feeling and a different outcome. It takes faith, courage, and wisdom to change our actions in the face of emotional distress.
The lasting benefits of sobriety have been, first and foremost, a faith that things will be alright due to my continued surrender. Everything in my life – my relationships, peace, joy, and serenity – have come from believing that I’ll be alright no matter what happens. That isn’t to say that I’m not afraid at times, but it does mean that I trust that because of my higher power, I know in my heart that it will all work out as long as I take the next right action. That faith came as the result of a spiritual experience of the “educational variety” that Appendix II discusses. I wasn’t someone who was “struck” full of faith, but I mustered enough of it to keep going and do what was in front of me. Finding guidance and direction from those that have come before me was integral to the growth of my relationship with my higher power, learning how they’d come to understand their power greater than themselves. My relationships with those around me are made better due to this surrender and belief that my struggles are not without merit and purpose in my life. Today, my life is rich and full of meaning, giving me the purpose to continue in the face of obstacles and fears.