Category Archives: Masterpiece: A Love Story

Alan 1961

Masterpiece, Part 1

This month I offer excerpts from my two memoirs, Masterpiece: A Love Story and The Lie Called Cancer. If you want to buy them, you may. If you want a free copy, tell me in the comments.

“No personal calamity is so crushing that something true and great can’t be made of it.” – Bill W., co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous

It was a day exactly like every other day in recent memory. I woke up and started drinking in secret. Always in secret.

Like every other day, I couldn’t predict what kind of day it would be. Some days I would drink all day and feel unaffected, as though it was only water passing through my system, not hard liquor. Other days all bets were off. As soon as the cycle began I would pass into The Blackout Zone, where I was walled off from the awareness of self, thought, the needs of others, and most important, how I felt about it.

It was a vital daily job – the most vital – because there was a lot to feel, all vastly uncomfortable, and it piled up into a larger mass day upon day, all to be avoided. My life became a landfill where nothing ever decomposed, where everything was saved, and I just couldn’t keep myself from compulsively picking through the trash.

Some days I would drink all day and be able to hide it well enough to keep from being caught out. Other days it was painfully obvious to everyone, despite my denials. My life was out of control.

I had been sober off and on for several years since rehab – mostly off, but I had (I thought) become very skilled at hiding my condition. Months could go by (it seemed to me) before anyone really caught on to the fact that I was drunk. Whatever. It was worth the pain and effort, the incredible hard work and focus of will needed to be slightly squeezed all the time – even if I was caught lying once in a while. That’s the lifestyle of alcoholic bondage, where drinking to kill pain only creates more pain. It was a vicious circle.

A family member told me that coming home to me was like the story about the Lady or the Tiger, and it was never clear which I would be. Frank Stockton’s tale features a courtier who has to choose between two doors for his one chance to win his love’s hand. One door opens to the lady herself and a lifetime of bliss. The other reveals a ferocious tiger, ready to devour without mercy.

On this particular day, August 4, 2003, I had neither what passed for normalcy, nor oblivion, only depression. Or so I thought. Later, when people came home, it was clear to them that I had lied one more time, and had overdone it one more time. There was no hiding. I was more drunk than I thought, and this time they had had enough.

‘Do you remember what we told you the last time you got drunk?’

‘No.’

‘We told you that if you got a bottle, you were going to have to get a room.’

And so the old heave-ho was underway. I quietly gathered a rucksack with a change of shirt, my wallet, my phone, what was left of my bottle (the most indispensable item). Shrugging it on, I headed toward the door, keys in hand. I was reminded not to drive, or a call to the police would follow.

So I took off on foot.

We lived in an exurban area north of Vancouver, Washington – just across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Between the subdivisions were main roads with steep ditches and no shoulders. Walking on the road was the only option. Someone called my friend Matt who lived nearby. Matt and I had started attending Alcoholics Anonymous about four years before. Matt had stayed sober and I had not, even though the meetings were still a daily ritual, side-by-side with my secret drinking.

This was the schizophrenic nature of my life, as though I were professionally two-faced. I wanted all the benefits of AA and all the perceived benefits of being drunk. Sometimes I would leave a meeting and use a bottle hidden under the seat to get drunk before I drove out of the parking lot.

Oh yes, I drove drunk a lot, possibly several thousand times. Only the grace of God kept me from the gift of a DUI and all that entails: arrest, fines, court fees, mandatory treatment, jail time, not to mention humiliation and despair. Only the outright mercy of God kept me from hurting or killing someone, either in my car or with my car, including my family.

Life without booze seemed inconceivable, yet I was so sick of it I couldn’t imagine drinking one more drop. It was a daily madness that lied to me about the drink being the only cure for the feeling of hollowness that the drink itself caused. Each morning I would come to consciousness and be hit by the craving.

The craving was a gnawing, crawling, grabbing, clutching thing that overpowered all inhibition, removed even the thought of inhibition, because of the certain knowledge that the first drink will bring blessed relief from the emptiness – an emptiness that comes from drinking way too much, way too often, for way too long, an emptiness that becomes a self-perpetuating creature with a will of its own.

Alcoholic bondage is an almost seamless life, where the only demarcation is the unconsciousness of sleep. Life’s one desire is that you leave me alone. In the end, it was all I was able to choose: to be away from you and end all relationship, because if you don’t know me, you can’t hurt me. And I didn’t want to be hurt any more.

Why did I hurt so much in the first place? It was a daily question I couldn’t answer, and I was reduced to knowing only one response to make it go away, a long, dulling pull on a bottle of Windsor Canadian Blended Whiskey.

I had stopped using a glass years before. Why pay the middleman? The plastic bottle was a welcome development. It was pliable enough to be squeezed so that the liquor would push out faster through my gullet. That first drink of the day was very important. It had to come as fast as possible so the relief followed as fast as possible. No matter that true relief only lasted about 20 minutes and the rest was maintenance. As July became August of 2003 I knew no other path.

Matt and I shared the same AA sponsor until John fired me for lying to him about my drinking. That was about two years before I found myself lurching down NE 10th Avenue late that hot summer afternoon. I had just gone by a spot I knew well, where a small brush-lined creek passed through a culvert under the road, a place I often went when I needed a safe place to drink outside the house. Matt rolled up alongside in his Camry. A mission of mercy, but not for me – for my family, so they might know that I landed somewhere safe.

He powered down the window. ‘Hey buddy…’

‘Someone called you..?’ It was a statement more than a question.

‘Yep.’ A pause, a once-over. ‘What’s up?’

‘I got kicked out of the house, need to get a room somewhere.’ He motioned. I got in.

‘Where to?’

Good question. I was one of the fortunate ones. I had yet to drink myself out of everything I owned or professed to love. Somewhere in the back of my mind I denied that I was only enjoying house and home on sufferance. I was at the cliff but hadn’t leaned over far enough to fall into the abyss that ends in a life on the street.

Life in The Blackout Zone prevented thinking about that, or making any plan beyond the next drink. Life was reduced to a simple state of need: getting loaded, and being left alone to do it. Eventually, the abyss would come in its own time, of its own accord. But I denied that inevitability as well. Little did I know how close it was.

A heart formed of barbed wire

There I Am Also

This material was developed for my memoir Masterpiece: A Love Story but not used in the book. (A five minute read)

Who am I now, anyway?

For many years I answered that question only by comparing myself against the signposts I saw in the world. That left my identity fluid, easily distorted, and subject to my whim of the moment. I used to compromise my values in the moment for the moment, instead of faithfully investing for the long term.

This all led me through about 40 years in the wilderness, where I refused to choose God’s best for me. Everything good was relative. Victory meant I got ahead of you. Success came when you thought I was doing well. Prosperity was about avoiding lack or punishment, not enjoying a full life.

These battles were all fought on the human playing field, the one where no one truly wins for long. When I suited up for that game, I had no time for God. He was the bad guy anyway, keeping me from the things I desired. If I couldn’t reach them, it was because He hadn’t made my reach long enough.

Apparent Failure is Not the End

But God being God, showed mercy, even though I was his enemy. My loss of a moral center had made me morally destitute. But God can redeem anything and anyone, including me. And He always has His best in mind.

Sometimes I still doubt that. When I do, it means I temporarily believe one or more lies about myself, instead of the truth. My recovery program is simple. I read the prayer written by the apostle Paul for the church in Ephesus. It’s a reminder of the promises God made to those of us who believe in Jesus.

It’s powerful to read it aloud and insert my own name in place of the words ‘we’ and ‘our’ and ‘us’ and ‘you’ and ‘your’. I won’t quote the whole thing here, but here are a list of the promises it contains. The next time you doubt yourself (or the Almighty!) remember these. And if you aren’t yet a follower of Jesus Christ, well, these will be true for you as well, when you take a knee for Him.

A Few Promises

  • You are a saint
  • You are faithful
  • You are blessed with every spiritual blessing (though Christ)
  • You were chosen by God before the foundation of the world
  • You were chosen to be holy (set apart)
  • You were chosen to be blameless before Him (thanks to the sacrifice of Christ)
  • You were predestined to adoption (into God’s family)
  • God’s grace has been bestowed to you (in Christ)
  • You are redeemed (through Christ’s blood)
  • You are forgiven of your sins (through repentance)
  • God has lavished the riches of His grace upon you
  • God will make known to you the mystery of His will (through the Holy Spirit)
  • You are part of God’s eternal plan
  • You have received an inheritance through Him
  • You get to live for the praise of God’s glory
  • You have been sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit1

A little further on, Paul reminds me about the sinful lifestyle I used to live. Yes, I still wrestle with these temptations, but they no longer guide my steps, just cause an occasional stumble.

I was spiritually ‘dead’ in the sins I used to walk in, Paul writes.2 This was all the way the world and the devil said I should live – insensate. I once pursued these things with abandon, and they almost killed me. I did only what my body and my mind demanded, and I was by my very nature a disobedient enemy of God.

When the Light Changes

What changed? He met me in a seedy motel room in Vancouver, Washington in August of 2003. I was a broken-down drunk crying out for mercy. I meant my plea. He knew it. He responded. By grace I was saved.

He pulled me out of the dung heap I’d made of my life.3 Why? Because, as Paul concludes, ‘For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.’ 4

There’s a plan. I’m an important part of it, and so are you. Our success only comes by being who God says we are, not what others say we should do.

So – how does it feel to know you are part of God’s plan to save the world?

1. Adapted from Ephesians 1:3-13
2. Ephesians 2:1-3 ‘And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you formerly walked..doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind.’
3. ‘I waited patiently for the Lord, and He turned to me, and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet on a rock, and established my steps. He has put a new song in my mouth, even praise to our God; many will see it, and fear, and will trust in the Lord. – Psalm 40:1-3
4. Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)

Santa's workshop

12 Step Christmas (Pt. 2)

This is an expanded version of material originally prepared for my memoir Masterpiece (A Love Story).

(A four-minute read – catch up with Part I)

In Part I, the burden of grudges, resentments and petty hatreds, the burden of unforgiveness, was likened to a Christmas shopper weighed down and unbalanced by too many bags of purchases. Shoulders, arms and hands, backpack, all pulled to earth by what is owned.

The burden is not light

So burdened, we can’t skip along, or stride purposefully. We aren’t even walking, really. Because of the mass we choose to carry, we’re trudging, perhaps even plodding, or slogging. It’s no easy way to travel. Why choose it as a lifestyle by refusing to forgive?

Is it any wonder we speak of personal baggage when describing this? Baggage is something we carry. It has our “stuff” in it. When we travel on an airliner, the size and weight of what we can carry is limited. Too much, and the plane would burst at the seams, or not be airworthy. An apt metaphor for us as we journey through life with this junk!

So here we are, resolutely and stolidly toting all our baggage, refusing to relinquish it. What’s inside? Remember, in the shopping metaphor, we spent an entire day spending good money as it were to invest in these things. If they were a good investment, they will increase in value. But how can a grudge increase in value?

It can’t. It has no value in the first place. And anything times zero equals zero.

This begs this question: at what point do we cut our losses and divest? Why is divestment beneficial? And what are the risks, if any?

A frightening prospect. Is it worth it?

Here’s the upside: divestiture makes our lives, and our hearts, lighter. Without carrying baggage, we can pay more attention to what’s in front of us. We can enjoy the moment for what it is, instead of being on a fearful hunt for obstacles. When we carry so much weight, the risk of a drop or a stumble is so great, there’s no opportunity to stop being on the defensive.

Our feet become so occupied they are useless for anything but preventing a fall to earth. Our hands are so occupied they are useless for any good work. Our minds and hearts are so occupied by concentrating on the burden, we can perceive nothing else.

Our internal world consists of what we consider, and the things we refuse to forgive can eventually grow into the only things we consider, trudging along in that state.

Over time, without forgiveness, life then becomes a balancing act, full of deliberate steps not toward anything joyful, but away from or around anything which could possibly be harmful or painful. Our lives become filled with lack, not abundance.

The trap is this: until we lay down our burdens, we can’t feel free and easy, not ever, not for one moment. We can pretend they’re not there, but the pretence itself only becomes more mass in the sack. And on it goes.

Caution: divestiture also hurts. Holding something tightly for too long makes it painful to unclench the muscles. The path of least resistance is to leave it alone. It also hurts to emotionally unclench, because it means admitting failure. The ego resists that.

From capture to release

I started my journey toward forgiveness with self-talk like this: “If you only knew what he did to me…” “What happened was unforgivable…” “She has to pay for this…” “I can never forgive.”

The things I tell myself over and over become the elephant in the room. Living with an elephant in the room is messy and smelly and claustrophobic, but I got used to it. Worse – I became blinded to its presence, just as I become so used to the unhealthy ‘weight’ I carried, I couldn’t imagine living without it.

But if the elephant disappears, how do we clean up its mess and use all the space that leaves? The beauty of true forgiveness is that the space immediately becomes empty and clean, the mess being removed by the act itself.

Christmas should be a season of forgiveness, and the miracle of my AA Christmas was that this freedom was very near. It was right on the other side of one simple act. Forgiving myself.

Jesus says if I have a heavy burden, I should go to Him and get rest. I take off the painfully heavy yoke of my unforgiveness and put on His yoke, which He says ‘is easy,’, adding, ‘My burden is light.’ *

Once I realized I could give this weight to God, I could accept that He forgave me. And I could then forgive others. Everything tumbled into place. I am light, and free, and I refuse to go back.

This is an expanded version of material originally prepared for my memoir Masterpiece (A Love Story).

* Matthew 12:29-30

Image: Public Domain, Jenny Nystrom via Wikimedia Commons