The Gifts Of Sobriety/Recovery - I

by Ray Levasseur (c) February - March 2000

"You can't always get what you want;
But if you try sometime;
You just might find;
You get what you need....
-Rolling Stones

If I knew I was gonna live this long,
I would have taken better care of myself
-Unknown, quote from tee-shirt

"What a long strange trip it's been."
-Grateful Dead


The pearl of great price

What are the gifts of sobriety and recovery you might ask? They do not come wrapped in paper or tied up with bows. They can neither be bought or sold for any price. They come free for the asking, but at a high price, the price of honestly examining your life and turning it around. Very seldom can this be done in total seclusion. Most of the time, you will need to surround yourself with loving, supportive and like minded people, those usually found attending 12 Step meetings or similar groups.

What are these gifts? They are peace, serenity, growth, maturity, wisdom and perhaps getting to truly know yourself for the first time in your life, and you may even come out of it liking yourself, and being more useful to other people. It's very difficult to quantify the payoffs in material terms.

My own story, for what it's worth 

Like many millions I grew up in an alcoholic family, becoming one myself when I reached 19 years of age. By the grace of God I never wound up in jail, lost a job or home. My dad was a very hard working man and good provider for the family; he just drank too much. My father never missed work because of drinking and was never arrested or got into trouble. Dad referred to drinking as the curse of the clan and when I was a teenager begged, "son, never take to drinking." Upon joining the Navy in 1967, I quickly forgot his words and took to booze like a duck to water.

Back in the 60's, it was a sailor's patriotic duty to get as drunk as he could, as often as he was able. Ahhh, the Viet Name era, drugs and booze everywhere, both inside and outside the military. During my military years I smoked pot a few times, but it shook my tree and made me feel crazier than I already was. I was at a party in 1969 and was not aware the punch was spiked with LSD. Now that story is fit for an entire novel, save to say I freaked people out and when they attempted to take me to the hospital emergency room, I climbed out the bathroom window to escape. I believed they were either aliens from another planet, demons or gummint spies; LSD was NOT fun. My one and only acid trip, uhh well, would be very hard to put into words. One small aside was, on that evening, when the others found me, I was banging on a church door, begging to be let in. I could not see the "fun" people had in smoking, snorting and dropping whatever pills got them off. Alcohol was my only drug of choice. All the other drugs scared the crap out of  me, thank God.

After getting discharged from military service in 1971, I attended college where I met my ex wife. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman who grew up in a normal, non alcoholic family. During our marriage she became co-dependent, or so I've come to believe. We drank together, we were best buddies as well as husband and wife; the whole time, me thinking all was just dandy. I totaled 3 cars during this period, all Ford Pintos, so there must be a God out there who was still watching over me. During college, I tried smoking pot a few times again, with equally unpleasant effects and closed the door for the last time on attempting any recreational pot use. I don't see the big draw with pot and other drugs, perhaps I'm missing something, again thank God for this.

My father had quit drinking, and seeing my shenanigans, all he could do was cry. I was never a violent rowdy drunk. Actually most people never suspected that I drank, let alone had a problem, since I was a very outgoing, playful and fun loving type. As I look back, alcohol played a major role in my extrovert behavior. On the inside, I was actually a very shy, lonely and skittish person. I never missed a day of work, had a sterling performance record and was the overall "good time Charley". The friends I did associate with outside work were all heavy drinkers and the sorts of guys who ran around with lampshades on their heads cracking jokes all the time.

January 1978, The page Turns...

Dad had been diagnosed with cancer in 1970, rebounding from the first round and was making a slow painful comeback from round 2. He and I became very close during his last few years, closer than we had ever been when I was younger. Dad hoped and prayed that my marriage would survive, "your wife's a good woman, stay by her side." Well, she was growing more and more annoyed at my immaturity and lack of drive. Life was one big three ring circus in my books, and the thought of raising kids scared me poopless; we remained childless.

For some unknown reason, in 1977 I began to obsessively read religious books; not just any book, but the most fundamentalist Christian, gut busting, condemning titles I could hunt down. If I read long and hard enough, on some level, I believed I could make the Biblical quotes more liberal and to my liking. At work a few well meaning fundies took me under their wings. Their witness and preaching helped reinforced my already abysmal self image; you deserve hell, you're destined for hell, you make Jesus puke, etc, etc. All on my own, I figured if I was good enough, behaved myself and put on a happy face, God would be pleased. Years later I would begin to understand true Christianity does not work this way.

My booze consumption rose at a steady rate. I felt spiritual and at (false) peace, although it was a chemically induced sense of well being. My wife and friends became quite concerned over my obsession with religion, sin, salvation, as well as my increased alcohol consumption. All of the defenses my mind had constructed began to come unglued. My wife, the few non alcoholic friends I had and my boss knew something was up, but remained silent; for now. As fate would have it, or by the grace of God, I was working for a guy who's path and life was very close to mine. The only difference was he had already passed through the storm and was in recovery.

If memory serves me correctly, it was shortly after the holiday season in January of 1978 when the dam I had built to contain my emotional baggage began to crack and give way. The warning signs and idiot lights in my head had been urgently flashing for almost a year. Of course I was having too much fun (or so I thought) to pay heed. For a year to 18 months random anxiety attacks, free floating fear and loathing swooped down on my like a bird of prey. The closest way to describe these attacks was like being in a tiny boat on a stormy sea with 60 foot waves, or hanging from a cliff by a tree branch which was ready to snap.....or.... coming face to face with the devil himself. The only difference in my case was there was no tiny boat, no cliff, and no Devil that I could see. All these feelings from the comfort of my own living room.

A couple of close friends and people from church "strongly" suggested I seek some sort of counseling. I went into a bottomless depression, which required hospitalization. Again, by the grace of God, the rector at my church introduced me to a kind, empathetic shrink, who had spent time in a seminary, so he was well trained in shrink wrapping people's heads as well as healing of their spirits. I spent almost 3 years with Doctor Jon, and came out the other end much stronger, but still a heavy drinker. He had suggested many times that I "might" want to quit, or at least seriously cut back on my boozing, and felt I had a secret death wish.

I was well into therapy in 1979, which was not a good year; my wife walked out, filing for divorce, my Dad died, and with him a big part of me died also. For the first time in my life I was faced with "mortality". Here I was, this 30 something, who felt more invincible than Superman, and almost as omnipotent as God; silly me! I had my only DUI in January or 1979, shortly after my wife and I divorced. Thank God again, I hit a guardrail on a lonely road and nobody else was involved. Luckily a cop had been following me. After failing the field sobriety test he took my into the drunk tank. Oh, I was Mister Entertainment and had Officer Friendly holding his sides laughing, as well as the cops at the station. He honestly asked if I worked in television or in stage. One of the cops said, "I wish all the drunks were like this one." This little incident happened years before "get tough" drunk driving laws went into effect.

I got off with a small fine and 10 weeks of mandatory A.A. meetings. I was a good boy for those ten weeks, attending weekly meetings as required. When people from the meetings called me at home, I always had an excuse why I couldn't meet for lunch or coffee. To be honest, these were the last people in the world I wanted to hang around with. My drinking buddies made themselves scarce during my early flirtation with sobriety. My last required meeting was in a Friday night. On the way out everyone kept saying, "keep coming back." I looked back, smugly replying, "I don't think so, ta-ta, cheerio you losers." An older, crusty looking woman grabbed my arm, "you'll be back sooner or later, hopefully sooner", she grinned, "we'll be keeping a seat warm for you." Some of the stories I heard in that hall made my hair stand on end, but none of that would ever happen to me.

Madness begins taking it's toll

The years 1980 through 1985 were turbulent and I thought I was having fun. I got into 2 very bad relationships, that would rival the movies "Fatal Attraction" or "Play Misty For Me". These two were pathological lairs, drunks, drug users and generally bad news. A sober friend told me on a couple of occasions, "hmmm, the lovers/potential spouses you attract and are attracted to are pretty to the eye, but poison to the soul." I always thought he was just jealous, but as I look back, he was trying to warn me about my own self destructive drives. I was not aware of how needy I was. Something inside of me was broadcasting to the world, "love me, make me feel whole." In my younger days, I was insecure and terrified of being alone. But society preaches a very strong sermon in favor of "being a couple", with solitude being among the most heinous social sins.

Between bad relationships I hung out with drinking buddies, who I thought were good friends. I did have one or two close friends who were not heavy drinkers, who asked me why I drank so much. My best friend Warren, became very concerned about my drinking, telling me it hurt him to watch me slowly kill myself. I was not amused and told him to mind his own business.

In 1985 I moved in with a good friend I knew from work, a real party animal to end all party animals. We got along famously as friends as well as drinking buddies, went to many parties, and generally kept each other company.

During my tenure as Rob's housemate, I began (again) having some minor medical problems, nothing a pill or shot couldn't fix right up. The doctor was concerned and suggested I have some tests run. Of course the result I did not want to hear came back affirmative, and it was suggested I get my affairs in order. No, the problems were not due to alcohol, which gave me a green light to drink myself into an early grave. This way I could beat out the medical diagnosis.

The fog slowly lifts

Drinking myself into oblivion did not last for long. I felt like hell and my stomach, liver and head began to squawk at me. On July 4, I woke up on the living room floor at 3AM, "get the number of the truck that hit me!" During my 20 years of drinking, many trucks had run me down, or so it felt. This time, I was feeling at the end of an ever shortening and frayed rope. I got on my knees and prayed to God for help in finding a way out of my misery. I knew a guy, Brad,  who was in the program and decided to give him a call. At first he was hesitant to talk, until I asked him about his own recovery and suggestions for local meetings. His tone changed, "well, well, I've been reserving a seat for you for quite a while. What are you doing tomorrow?"

I met Brad while out sun bathing on the Boston Esplanade toward the end of my drinking career. I was laying on my towel reading a Stereo Review magazine. Brad was sitting on a towel reading a copy of Audio. We began  talking about audio equipment and music (a common ground) There was something about this guy that drew me like a magnet, but I couldn't put a finger on what it was. Peace and serenity just seemed to ooze from him. The day I met him, I was during the home stretch of my drinking career. I was nursing a nasty hangover from the night before, baking it out in the sun.

He invited me to join him in browsing at Tower Records, and maybe some coffee or lunch; sure why not.  As we passed the afternoon, he dropped subtle clues that he has was active in 12 step for quite some time, and left it at that. I thought to myself, 'oh, I hope he's not one of those A.A. nazis.' After lunch and record shopping, he asked if I wanted to come over to his place to play our new purchases, hmmm! I agreed and we walked to his very nice Back Bay town house. His very pretty wife greeted him as we walked in. I got the impression that Brad was very successful, looking around at the furnishings, the charming (non drinking wife) and "dream" audio system. he told me that it was not always this way and that about 15 years ago, he had lost his job, family and home due to drinking and drugs, winding up living on the street.

Brad was a fascinating guy to talk to. His friends seemed equally calm and centered, and yes, they were friends he met through recovery. I followed him around like a puppy for about a month. one Saturday I called him, and he sounded hesitant to talk. He sighed, " you're a very nice guy, but I can't spend lots of time with you, the way you are, it makes Alice and me crazy." Well! I thought, but I knew exactly what he meant, he didn't like being around active drinkers. So I backed off until the day I called him for help.

I was nervous as I entered the meeting space with Brad, expecting a bunch of street people. To my surprise everyone in the hall looked normal and came from every conceivable walk of like. I attended 3 meetings my first day, half out of curiosity, also because I enjoyed being with these folks. A dozen or so gave me their phone numbers, "call whenever you want to talk."  I ran into a couple of work associates at these early meetings, surprised to see me walk in, "I had no idea you have a drinking problem, but welcome, keep coming back." The work associates told me about a couple of meetings at various facilities at our company, plus secure in-house AA/ACOA computer bulletin boards.

As the Summer wore on I began feeling better about myself; got my 30-60-90 day chips. I kept hearing people talk about pink clouds and serenity, but still did not feel at peace. One evening in October I was sitting in a Beacon Hill coffee shop, killing time before the Saturday night meeting. It was one of those perfect Fall nights, and as I later walked the streets around Beacon Hill, a sense of peace and connectedness settled in. The feeling remained throughout the weekend, came and went during my first year of sobriety. Some refer to this as sitting on a "Pink Cloud". I got on my knees a lot during the first year, in the morning at before bed, to offer prayers of thanks and gratitude, also asking for continued help and guidance. OK, so I was returning to being very Catholic again, attending church most Sundays. My spirituality became much healthier than in my youth.

I attended a lot of meetings during my first 2 years, just to learn and remain connected with the larger 12 Step community, who were dealing with many of the same issues as I. Some say that your first year is a gift, and the second one can be Hell. Sigh! just before my first year anniversary, all hell broke loose, medical, social and work problems came one after another. I leaned into, and through them, without any help from my old friend alcohol, but with a lot of help from fellow 12 steppers.

Cruising on a pink cloud at 30,000 feet.

My work environment began to change and I was on a roll for a the next 5 to 6 years. Everything seemed to be working fine, despite the fact that my employer was in the midst of never-ending rounds of painful layoffs. Layers of old associates were stripped away and although my circle of friends could now be counted on one hand, they were a different breed, sober, honest and just plain friends.

I spent more time taking stock of my earlier life, thinking how things might have been if I had never drank or associated with the people I did in my youth. I didn't dwell on regret, but tried to remain focused on gratitude and how much I had grown since corking the bottle. Sobriety is not "just" about quitting drinking, drugs, gambling, overeating, etc. Sobriety is about recovery of one's life and dignity, of putting closure to the past, making amends where necessary, pruning away as gracefully as possible, old people, places and events, and focusing more on the present. I still have not totally mastered these skills. Hopefully, God isn't done with me yet and I'm still a work in progress.

Mellowing in recovery, growing in many ways

As time went on, I turned to prayer and mediation more and more, seeking solitude and quiet time for myself, and asking God for guidance and answers. My hyper manner (always the joker with the lampshade on his head or wearing the funny noses) diminished. Some people felt I was getting too quiet, and asked if everything was all right. I did not have many true friends now, and this became ok, but the ones I sought out and tried my best to nurture truly cared about me as a person.

Yes, the first year was a gift, and the times ahead would prove to be filled with pain, joy and challenges. A number of people close to me, mentors began to die. For some it was Cancer, for others AIDS, but they were all people I met in sobriety. I began to mingle more with a cross denominational Christian social group. Many had followed similar paths as mine, which lead them to possible ruin; they understood, and loved me anyway. A number of them were also active in various 12 Step groups.

My sister and only sibling died from Cancer; my closest friend, companion and confidant, Paul was there. Paul was also sober and had never very much enjoyed drinking, it gave him headaches and made him throw up, so he didn't drink. I told him he was truly blessed that he never cared for the stuff. I joined the choir at his church, and met many many wonderful people. This was one of the gifts of sobriety. He introduced me to close friends of his, Mike and Wiley, who lead a 12 Step ACOA and healing group at his church. The sort of people Paul knew were the type that I should have known when I was younger, but in my youth, I found sober and centered people to be boring.

Paul, and all the people I began meeting as my recovery years wore on served as a dirty mirror to my own vindictiveness and mean streak that could come out quickly whenever I was cornered or hurt by someone. Their reaction was mild annoyance, but always followed by love. I still pray that God remove the faults I see the most in myself , fear, insecurity, petty jealousies, and that mean streak I mentioned. Yeah, I have been shat upon and burned way too often, but so have many of the people I have had the opportunity to know in later life, and they have learned to react with kindness.

A couple of other people I met in sobriety have died, the latest being my closest friend and companion Paul, from Cancer. Life is much emptier now, and perhaps it's time to begin attending meetings, just to remain centered and for support.

To the new comer

As I have grown in recovery, it becomes more and more a treasure. The world is a pretty crazy, addicted, angry and out of control place. You see things quite differently in the light of sobriety. What was important, no longer means much, and what was meaningless is now central to my being.

If any of you out there who come upon this journal are new comers to 12 Step, keep coming back, it works if you work it. The payoffs "can" be enormous and life changing.

A Day at a time... Ray