Life sucks. Oh, yeah.
Jammed up. Depressed, sitting there at the bottom of a hole trying to figure out how to stop digging while an annoying little voice asks, “Is this why I got into recovery?” It creeps up on you like a shadow in the night, then all of a sudden it’s towering over you like a like a tidal wave, this helpless endless gloomy desperation in which all of the tried and true answers that sustained you for so long suddenly don’t seem to work anymore. You look to your higher power and it feels like nothing’s there but a ceiling, a sky, air, a couple of trinkets, or a few scraps of plaster and wood. You leaf through a big book or a basic text, meditation books, program pamphlets, and the answers are all there but they just don’t seem to mean anything.
Sooner or later, if you call someone or keep going to meetings, you’ll hear about faith, gratitude, acceptance, living life on life’s terms, and trusting in the process, but the words fall flat. The specter of the big setup—if you make yourself miserable enough, you’ll go back and use—sits on your shoulders like a row of vultures waiting for you to fall, confident of the coming feast. And you know it’s coming, too, this breaking point where the pain of not using overcomes fading memories of how bad things used to be.
Call your sponsor? Share at a meeting? Do something for someone else? Make a gratitude list? Lose yourself in service work? Take another run at working the Twelve Steps? Try that higher power again and see if the sonofabitch finally showed up for work?
The problems are real, they are massive, and they are crushing. Those storm clouds gather, the thunder rumbles, the hail and lightning strike all around you and you’re sitting on your ass in the center lane of an urban expressway just before rush hour trying to think of a reason to get up and get out of the way.
The dragon blows smoke in your ear, and maybe you listen. You don’t have to be this miserable and clean both. Ooo. There’s that big setup again. Perhaps you know better. You know where picking up again will leave you and those you love, so picking up is not an option. Instead, your fallback position is the Big Nothing, the permanent solution to the temporary problem: suicide.
“I’m clean now, I’ve been in the program so many years, and this is not supposed to happen anymore.”
If you listen very hard you can hear the dragon laughing.
A very important truth begins to make itself clear: Life didn’t change because you got into the program. The only thing that changed were your tools for dealing with life. Your only choice: Use them, or not.
When bad things happen to recovering people. It's called life. There are enough loose cannons rolling around on life’s deck that at some time or another you are going to get hit, overwhelmed, jammed up, and flattened. Really bad news from the doctor, the death or injury of loved ones, not being able to find work, all the bills come due, a good friend with lots of time goes back out, little children are snatched from their front yards and damaged, thousands die in disasters natural and unnatural, and whatever safety net you thought you had suddenly has a big hole in it. And, no—not a single damned soul on earth knows how you feel. Their memories of being jammed up are way back there in the “Whew! I’m glad that’s over,” bin. When you are on the griddle of depression and despair, you sizzle by yourself no matter how many are around you dishing out slogans, advice, pity, or hugs.
You might be lucky enough, however, to have some irreverent politically incorrect crusty old bastard lay on you the Big Truth of all Twelve Step programs: Life Sucks Better Clean. There are a lot of different ways to say it, some are even conference approved. It is, however, the core reason in every program for continued abstinence—not picking up: Whatever your problem or problems, no matter how big the crime, how many the victims, or how devastating the result: The one thing absolutely guaranteed to make things worse is using.
This, too, shall pass.
And, hang on!
A Thank You Note. The most recent time the cannon rolled over me, it backed up and rolled over me again and again: Health, career, finances, relationships, world events. No single thing. Getting out of bed in the morning, though, was like coming back from the dead. Tired, constant pain, no interest in work or anything else, an outlook that could see nothing but flaws, frustration, and failure. I’ve stepped in it again, and after beating myself up for stepping in it again, it was one foot in front of another muttering, “Life sucks better clean,” until, in my office checking my Email, there was a letter that had been forwarded to me, and the subject, of course, was gratitude.
Yeah, faith not fear, keep an attitude of platitude, and if you had any idea how deep my hole is, you wouldn’t offer me this pitiful little string. Even so, I read it. The willingness to go to any lengths is a hard habit to break. It read:
Someone who teaches at a middle school in Safety Harbor,
Florida forwarded the following letter which was sent to the principal’s office
following a luncheon the school had sponsored for the elderly:
God blesses you for the beautiful radio I won at your recent senior
citizen’s luncheon. I am 84 years old and live at the Safety Harbor Assisted
Home for the Aged. All of my family has passed away. It’s nice to know that
someone really thinks of me. God blesses you for your kindness to an old forgotten
lady. My roommate is 95 and always had her own radio, but would never let me
listen to it, even when she was napping. The other day her radio fell off the
night stand and broke into a lot of pieces. It was awful and she was in tears.
She asked if she could listen to mine, and I said fuck you.
I burst out laughing and for the next two hours I could not stop giggling. Yeah, I know. Seek through prayer and meditation, asking only for his will—
—Yeah. And thank you, HP, for Edna J. and her letter to the Safety Harbor Middle School. It was a bucket of cold water in my face, a kick in the ass. It shocked me right out of the emotional hole where I was being suffocated.
It started me thinking about the number of times we show at meetings feeling that life on life’s terms is a rigged game, only to be snapped out of our misery by a comment, a story, or a joke that strikes right to the heart of a problem or is so outrageous all we can do is laugh. And the dragon hates laughter. You can’t laugh and wallow in helpless despair at the same time. To do it your brain would have to explode. And people who are laughing aren’t miserable enough to use.
Yesterday's Tomorrow. When I got clean late in 1981, haunting the halls of AA and NA, a number of us hard cases realized that laughter, irreverence, and poking fingers in the eyes of pompous blowhards were among our most valued unauthorized recovery tools. There were jokes, sayings, puns, and stories around the halls that kept us laughing, and clean, and I collected a number of these and showed them to the folks at Hazelden. This original collection became Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Recovery Meditations for Hard Cases (Hazelden, 1997). In the introduction to that volume I asked hard case readers to send in their own experiences, sayings, and little bits of grit that helped them through the moment. Hard cases are those men, women, and young folk who take on the mission to give everyone else in the program an opportunity to grow. As a young friend of mine put it, “If I don’t drive my sponsor to call his sponsor at least three times a week, I feel like I’m letting him down.”
The response from readers was tremendous, and most of this blog, at least at the beginning, will be made up from their contributions. There were additional benefits I received from soliciting their contributions. The benefits were all of the sharing letters sent by my fellow hard cases out there, and for them all I am very grateful. We are something of a tribe, hard cases, and there is nothing more important in recovery than knowing you are not alone. For the past few years, because of the hard case mail, for me it’s been like one long meeting.
This is part of what I hope to accomplish with Life Sucks Better Clean. It's a way to jump-start your sense of humor, to turn around your day, to flip a finger at the dragon.
Thought for the day: If the world didn't suck, we'd all fall off.