Tag Archives: Reconciliation

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.

soup with vegetables on white ceramic bowl

Homemade Soup

The telly came on in the middle of a movie.

A mother was instructing her new daughter-in-law. ‘Let me show you how to make a proper soup for my son!’ Her tone was confident, knowing. It exuded warmth and familiarity. But he wasn’t paying attention to any of that. The phrase had opened a window to his past. The aromas of his mother’s kitchen seemed to float into the room.

He and Bea had just married and were visiting his childhood home as a couple for the first time. Mom pulled his young wife into the kitchen.

‘Let me show you a few tricks about how he likes things cooked,’ she said, smiling.

From the next room he could almost see the chill silence covering the room in frost. Bea drowned that offering of love in ice water, holding it down until it suffocated.

When the weekend was over and they motored home, he heard all about it.

‘How dare she do that! As though I don’t know how to cook for you,’ she said.

‘That wasn’t it at all. She was trying to be helpful. Help you love me even better than you do now.’ He smiled and turned to her. She continued to stare out the passenger window.

‘It was insulting,’ she said. ‘She could have asked.’

‘Mothers don’t ask, they tell. Does yours ask?’

No answer.

It was the first salvo in a war that escalated over the years, a war he’d had no idea was coming. His pre-marital expectations did not include this. Bea planted a grudge that day, and watered it and nursed it until it sprang up and choked the life out of any chance Dad and Mom had of getting her to receive their love. It finally grew into a huge tree on which Bea tacked up a sign saying, You don’t truly love me so let’s not pretend.

She painted that declaration in the blood of her own childhood wounds. Will realized too late that Bea had grown up in a conditional family, where love was doled out as deemed earned. They were always all at odds. They were all orphans. They weren’t a family. They were a group of snipers.

Where suspicion reigns, each loving gesture is perceived as a threat. Broken lives take input for insult. Bea’s heart had been broken long before Will had met her. Sadly, he didn’t realize how those broken pieces would be like glass, cutting all who trod on them.

Will’s heart was broken too, although he didn’t learn that until years later. When he did, and began to heal, a rift opened between them. She wanted no part of that healing. And so they drifted apart. He marched toward health, while she slid toward increasing bitterness and isolation.

As their marriage broke down and fell apart, he watched the leaves on her tree of resentment wither and fall off. They littered the ground between them.

In his dreams, after the divorce, he had long conversations with her about much of what had transpired between them. He could speak of his failings and mistakes, but she could not. She had nothing to say to his imagination. Sadly, he realized he never actually knew her. She was unwilling to be known.

Will had acknowledged his own mistakes and the acceptance of each one hurt him badly. He prayed for release and forgiveness, knowing he’d likely never receive it from Bea, even if they ever spoke again.

On a walk years later, a leaf drifted out of an empty sky, landing at his feet. He stooped and turned it over. That settled the matter.

He then straightened and moved forward.

Image by Votsis Panagiotis via Pexels

photo of man laying on sidewalk

Making it Personal

This is part of an on going series about the Ministry of Reconciliation. A three-minute read.

Reconciliation (noun) /ˌrek.ənˌsɪl.iˈeɪ.ʃən/:The process of making two opposite beliefs, ideas or situations agree

Read the entire series

Last year I wrote about some personal cases of poverty and arrived at the idea that while wholesale action is good, retail action is better.

By wholesale I mean pushing for change at all levels, from my neighborhood to the international stage. Large-scale action does bring change, but it’s impersonal and transactional. Counter-intuitively, it doesn’t result in transformational change. It only looks good on the score card.

There’s progress, sure, and I don’t minimize that. The UN World Food Programme reports there are two billion more of us than in 1990, but 216 million fewer of us are going hungry. That’s good news, at least for those of us privileged enough to eat regularly.

But hold that thought for a moment while we stay on this idea of wholesale versus retail.

The British government is engaged in a large-scale assessment of the nation’s food system. The goal is to transform it. The result, intended or no, would be to have us make retail changes (the personal level) because of policy changes (the wholesale level).

Policy can drive behavior, but ultimately only our behavior makes the policy work. The report is worth reading, because it shows in stark terms how we could be much kinder to our own bodies. If we were, we would be kinder to the food system and to the environment.

The facts are clear that those of us with physical conditions exacerbated by poor eating habits (i.e. diabetes, obesity, heart disease) are much more likely to be severely affected by disease. Nowhere have we seen this than in the statistics around Covid-19 fatalities.

Unfortunately, these important markers have been all but drowned out by the constant clamor surrounding the virus (is it still a pandemic?), the daily case counts and death counts, and the political response to all this – as opposed to the public health response.

Without falling too far down that rabbit hole, let’s pull back and take a stark quote from the aforementioned report:

‘At the same time, the virus has shown with terrible clarity the damage being done to our health by the modern food system. Diet-related illness is one of the top three risk factors for dying of COVID-19. This has given a new urgency to the slow-motion disaster of the British diet.’

Did you catch the named culprit? ‘Diet-related illness’. And the result? ‘Slow-motion disaster’. Of course, where there is slow-motion disaster there can also be slow-motion recovery. In all things, be patient. There is no quick fix.

If you are an American reader, don’t be smug. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 94% of covid deaths in the United States involve co-morbitities.

So, we have found another place that needs reconciliation: our relationship with food. Not about growing, marketing, transport or packaging. Rather, what we eat and how we eat. You could say it’s reconciliation with our own bodies.

Unless we are reduced to begging for our meals, what we put in our bellies drives our decision-making about food. It’s not the other way around. If I’m in the habit of loading up on salty snacks or sweet, I develop a yearning for the same. If I eat a more balanced diet, my cravings lessen and I tend to make wiser choices.

As my AA sponsor would say, ‘choices have consequences.’ And nowhere are these more stark than in how we treat ourselves: spiritually, emotionally and physically. The last one is easiest for me to see. I only need to look at the roll around my middle! Only I can change that.

Good news: if I do change that, it can lead to change for others. My retail action feeds into the wholesale. When millions of us do it, meal by meal, day by day, that slow-motion disaster can stop.

Read more in this series.

Image by Harrison Haines via Pexels