We like to convince ourselves that our sons and daughters die on the battle field for good reason. Those of you who know me know how much I think that is bunk, and that we should be on our hands and knees to our sons and daughters seeking their forgiveness for offering them up just because we, as a nation, still do not know how to resolve conflict.
But for today, I am going to run with that notion that sometimes people die for good reason, and I am going to say that Phillip Seymour Hoffman died on the battle field of addiction so you and I might be SOBER at least for today. Maybe it is through his death that we find the courage to get off the battlefield and come home. And I don't mean that cynically, sarcastically, tongue in cheek, ironically, paradoxically. I mean it sincerely.
In June, 1987, I attended a workshop presented by Claudia Black. At the time, I was forty-two years old and had been drinking daily since age twenty three and frequently drinking to the point of getting sick. I left that workshop knowing that I would never drink again.
I began to literally enjoy being sober and feeling sober. I never wanted to experience that “buzz” again. Looking at the buzz from my sober memory, I realized that the buzz left me feeling off-balanced and disconnected from important parts of myself, my brain for one, and my mind and soul for two and three. I began to experience a sense of wholeness about myself that I had never experienced before.
This journey into sobriety was not a self-righteous journey. I did not look down my nose on my friends and family who continued to drink, some quite heavily. I was simply clear about what I truly wanted for my life. I changed the way I ate. I began exercising and lost considerable weight. I thought I was beginning to look like the man I wanted to be. And I did it all BY MYSELF. No program, no meetings, no outside help, no rehab, just ME walking MY journey.
Seven years into MY sobriety, I decided to have A glass of wine. And I did, ONE SMALL glass of wine. That was it. In the days that followed my one glass of wine, I thought to myself, “I can do this. I can have one glass of wine. I am not an alcoholic after all.” I’m not sure what the “this” was when I said to myself “I can do this.”
Sixteen years later, my liver was screaming. I was waking up in the morning wondering who drank with me the night before because I would find a wine glass, half-full, patiently resting right next to where I had fallen asleep (or blacked out) on the couch. Secretly, I knew the glass could not possibly be mine because I would never leave a half-glass of wine! And secretly, I knew I could not drink A glass of wine.
I looked in the mirror each morning secretly wondering if I looked like an alcoholic. I did not bother to look into the night before where I poured myself two scotches on the rocks prior to guzzling enough wine straight from the bottle to leave approximately two glasses plus a splash for the bottom. You see, I knew that a normal person could drink about two glasses of wine over the course of the evening and not be in trouble. So I drank my two glasses and left that splash sloshing around the very bottom of the bottle, proof positive I did not drink an entire bottle of wine by myself. I don’t know why I thought the scotch somehow didn’t count! I guess a good alcoholic always has any number of invisible or stealth drinks. You know, like a thirty pack is just a couple of beers!
During these sixteen years of relapse, I wanted more than anything to feel sober again. I would stop drinking for a day, two days, a week, six weeks, but the obsession for just one glass always took me for that wonderful ride that wiped out every stress, every worry, every drop of sadness, every pound of hurt, disappointment, disillusionment, self doubt, guilt, shame, old anger, old pain, new fear and old fear. I mean a couple of shots of Glenlivet single malt scotch and a “glass” of Folie a Deux’s Menage a Trois, were better than any pharmaceutical available.
What happened next is interesting to say the least and probably just downright miraculous. I was lucky that I did not end up in jail, probably could have benefited from rehab. Where I did end up was an Al Anon meeting. Now, in case you don’t know, Al Anon is a meeting for folks who have a difficult time living with an alcoholic! With me!
I wasn’t drunk when I went to that meeting, but I wasn’t sober either. I went to that meeting under the guise of supporting a friend who was leading the meeting that night. Oh how God works! That Al Anon meeting was exactly the place I needed to be to begin my journey back home to sobriety.
I began attending those Al Anon meetings weekly, listening intently to very raw sharings, which unexpectedly triggered incredible sadness and tears for me, and I became starkly aware of the impact of alcohol on my entire life.
My Uncle was the classic falling down drunk. But I loved him dearly. He bought me my first lunch pail and my first bicycle. When he came to visit, he took me with him everywhere he went including every bar along his “itinerary,” and of course, we got thrown out of every bar which initially I found quite exciting. It was sort of like a cowboy movie! “I’m sorry, sir, we can’t serve him.” Uncle Herman would let lose with the expletives. “God dammit, he doesn’t want a god dammed drink. He just wants a coke, right Butch?” I would shake my head yes and hold my breath!
My Dad, on the other hand, was the classic sophisticated controlled alcoholic. He carefully measured every shot and counted every drink. First, the scotch and sodas, and then the wine with dinner. He drank only the best scotch and only premium wine. Whenever he broke out the champagne, he was a zillion laughs, quite funny. But day-to-day, he was moody, emotionally distant, and it was my Mom’s job to keep him isolated from us kids when he came home from work, not because he was mean and she was afraid he would hurt us, but because he wanted to be alone. He wanted peace and quiet, and he found that peace and quiet in alcohol.
At some point in our growing up years, my sisters and I were all introduced to alcohol. First to wine with dinner and eventually to cocktails (I loved Manhattans!) on special occasions, and champagne, lots of champagne, on even more special occasions. For better and for worse, through Al Anon, I became aware that alcohol had been a significant part of my every day life for as long as I could remember.
I actually continued to drink after the first couple of Al Anon meetings. In fact, I drank quite heavily. The bubbling pain was too intense, but somehow or another, my addicted brain was able to say out loud, “This is nuts!” So on September 17, 2010, I began my journey home to sobriety once again, and two weeks later, I went to my first AA meeting.
As I share my story with you, I place no blame on my Uncle or my Dad, nor myself, for that matter. It’s ALL just part of my story. Are Uncle Herman and Dad the cause of my alcoholism? Am I genetically predisposed to alcoholism? Do I have a disordered addictive brain? Did I ever have control over my drinking and lost control? Did I have choices along the way, to drink or not to drink? At what point did the addiction take over my free will or my ability to make choices?
These are all interesting, yes interesting questions. If we are in any way touched by addiction, we are driven to answer these questions. We want to find the cause, we want to find the thing(s) or person(s) to blame, we want to find the genetic link, we want to find compassion and or excuses for the person trapped in the chains of addiction, or we are just outrageously angry with them and blame them for being so shamefully out of control, so selfishly choosing guaranteed “death” for both themselves and the people who love them.
And this is the absolute insidiousness and power of addiction. It MAKES NO SENSE, and there are no answers. Once an addiction becomes part of the equation, whatever the equation is, your relationships, your dreams, your goals, your life, nothing, NOTHING, absolutely nothing, NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING will ever add up or make sense.
This is so difficult for us to accept because our brains are driven to make sense out of every and anything we cannot make sense out of. When we cannot make sense out of something, we are powerless over it. Ugh! I know you didn’t want to hear or read that! Sorry!
When it comes to addiction, it is pointless to blame, it is pointless to search the neuropathways of the brain, the swirling chains and links of genes, it is pointless to beg, plead, threaten, shame, guilt, it is all just plane pointless. Perhaps addiction, like nothing else in our lives, takes us right up to that edge, right up to that wall where I can go no farther nor further on my own. It’s me against myself. It is me against the universe. As Ziggy once said, “I think we’re gonna get creamed!” This is the edge, the wall, where I realize I am an important but small piece in the big scheme of things, but I am not it, I am not all powerful.
So am I saying that when it comes to addiction, we are all victims? Did you hear me say that? Did you read me saying that? Isn’t it interesting that that is where some of us go? Immediately, no less!
I AM saying that there are places or times in our life or in our world or in the universe in general where we are powerless and the way through that moment is to embrace the powerlessness. Embracing the powerlessness is not the same as embracing hopelessness or helplessness. It is not the same as dismissing all the power I do have. It is not the same as crying uncle. It is not the same as defeat. It is simply recognizing that I have come to an edge or hit a wall in my existence. It is like the scene in Harry Potter when he must get to Platform 9 3/4
Embracing my powerlessness is simply acknowledging that I am not God. Whether or not God exists, whether or not I even believe in God, I accept, for certain, I am not God.
It is a moment of faith, faith in the reality that there is something more; faith in the reality that I am something more; faith in the reality that I am not the sum of all of my unmet needs; I am not the sum of all my critics, including the critical voices inside my brain; faith that I am not the sum of all my decisions, right, wrong, and indifferent; faith that I am not the sum of all my accomplishments and failures; faith that I am just plain MORE, and finally, acceptance that my addiction, whatever it is, will never get me to that more. My addiction will never take me to platform 9 3/4. My addiction, as high as it might take me, as low as it might take me, will never get me to heaven or hell. It will always leave me STUCK at the base of that wall.
It reminds me of yet another movie scene, the end of Episode V of Star Wars, where Luke is battling Darth Vader and has virtually no choice but to hang on and submit to Darth Vader or to let go and tumble into an abyss that seemingly will also bring certain death. So he lets go, and yes, down into the abyss he goes. And, of course, he does not die. In fact he is literally “snatched up” at the bottom of the abyss.
So hitting the wall is a good thing. Sometimes folks refer to it as hitting bottom. It is the place where we are willing, speaking of free will, to at least imagine that there might be a power which I cannot access through any scientific, moral, motivational or religious pathways.
So, do I think I finally have it? Sobriety? Do I think I finally embraced my powerlessness? I have for this very moment and it’s not something I am proud of or brag about, but something I am humbly grateful for.
Am I better than Phillip Seymour Hoffman? Are you kidding me? So, then, what is the story of folks like Phillip Seymour Hoffman? Well, we go right back to you and me trying the impossible, to make sense out of addiction.
What do I think happens to folks like Phillip Seymour Hoffman? Do they go to hell? Do they get to come back and give it another try till they get it right?
You know what? I do not need to be so smart to have those answers and for me to try to come up with those answers is simply one big act of grandiosity.
I once told a panhandler sitting outside of Starbucks (a pretty smart place to panhandle by the way), that I was giving him money under one condition. If I were in his “boat” next week, he had to share that spot with me. And I was serious. Life is mysterious and tenuous, you know, and that is what I do know for certain.
So is this it? This is all I have to say on the topic? No, I am going to continue with several more blogs, sharing with you my moment-to-moment journey of sobriety and what has sustained me. So be looking for the sequels!
Thank you for reading and thank you for taking something away for yourself and your own recovery whatever you are recovering from. And thank you, Phillip Seymour Hoffman for giving your life that I might continue to discover the path of sobriety and most importantly discovering that it is not MY sobriety nor MY path.