The Rifle Shack: A Story of 12 Step Recovery
My name is Julian and I am an alcoholic. My sobriety date is August 8th 2006.
I was born in 1980 in a small village in the North West of England. My father was a doctor, my mother a housewife. I was the youngest of five children. My father was sixty years old when I was born and although I loved him very much, I remember feeling embarrassed when I was teased by the other children in school about his age. ‘Is that your granddad?’ they would say. My father’s advanced years and failing health filled me with fear as a child. Fear that he would die and I would lose him. “Go and check on your dad, son”, my mother would say to me most mornings, and I translated this as: “Your dad might have died during the night, go and see whether or not he’s still alive”.
As the youngest child in a family of seven, I was loved and spoiled. There also might have been some unintended neglect. I picked up some snobbish traits from my parents which fuelled my egotism. This helped to engender a sense of entitlement that would cause me a great many problems in life. From an early age I would compare myself to others: categorize myself, place myself in both real and imagined social hierarchies. I would compare the size of my house to the size of other people’s houses. I would compare my father’s profession with the profession of my peer’s fathers. Once, I even made a list of what I perceived to be the most handsome boys in my class at primary school, placing myself near the bottom. I once heard that alcoholism and addiction is partly a fear-based disorder of the ego. I cannot testify as to the scientific veracity of that statement but it certainly makes sense to me.
My first addiction was probably an unbalanced desire for security, approval and praise. My second addiction was sugar in all its forms. The biscuit tin was my happy place, and my father kept sweets and chocolate in his study. He would break off half a Mars Bar and give it to me. Being able to consume excessive amounts of chocolate at Christmas and Easter was something I looked forward to greatly.
I became a thief early on. It struck me as incorrect and unfair that there were things in life I wanted and could not have. Particularly when I saw that others had things that I would have liked to have had myself. It was simply unacceptable to me so I began to steal: from the biscuit tin, from friends, from my mother’s purse and from my father’s wallet. Looking back, I remember stealing money from the offertory basket at church when I was an altar boy. Back then I was stealing to buy sweets and Panini football stickers. Later on, I would frequently steal from my mother’s handbag to buy drink and drugs.
I began to visit the biscuit tin independently of meal and sanctioned snack times. Once I ate a family pack of seven Kit Kats and hid the wrappers under my bed. At dinnertime I became increasingly fearful as the moment in which my crime would be revealed drew closer. The meal ended and one of my four siblings would approach the biscuit tin. The tension was unbearable.
“Where are the Kit Kats? Have you stolen the Kit Kats, Julian?’
I always denied my crimes. Even when the evidence was overwhelming and the lack of credible alternative suspects damning.
My mother often quoted my father quoting Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Marmion’:
“Oh! What A Tangled Web We Weave When First We Practice To Deceive”
I wove tangled webs from a very young age. As an infant I was a liar and a thief – and I was also ensnared by the fear and tension that is a residual consequence of dishonesty of any kind.
I noticed the opposite sex from when I was still at primary school. There were girls I liked and I knew that if they had they liked me then that would have afforded me status in my own eyes and those of my classmates. I was also interested in their bodies. I began to fantasize about what it might be like to touch the bodies of girls and women I know. Pornographic magazines were not too hard to find. My friends and I found them whilst playing on the sand dunes, in bins and even sometimes in our own houses, courtesy of our male relatives. I can still remember the hypnotising quality of those gaudy photographs: the facial pout, the boob bit, the hairy bit between the legs. I read the stories but didn’t really understand them.
I was raised a Catholic and attended church each Sunday with my mother. I found mass boring but was fascinated by the pageantry and the role of the priest. One Sunday evening after the bath which followed church, I paraded around in towels proclaiming myself as the new Parish Priest. I stopped attending mass as soon as I was able to, which I think was some time around my tenth or eleventh year. That being said, I was happy to be confirmed at the age of fourteen although I treated it as a bit of a laugh. I chose a friend from school to be my confirmation sponsor, and took a tab of LSD the night before the ceremony.
I did quite well in primary school, but struggled when I went to an all-boys private secondary school. On the first day of high school I had a fight with a boy in my class. Other children were hanging out of the windows and the humiliating beating I took was witnessed by what seemed like the whole school. Years later I thought that a drink would have really helped to ‘take the edge off’ those first few years at secondary school. In primary school I had been near the top of my class in most subjects, but in secondary school I was an average student. This hurt my pride and filled me with even more fear. I lacked discipline and was extremely chaotic. I used to spend my train fare on chocolate and then spend the rest of the day begging my classmates to lend me money. I craved attention and became the class clown in order to receive my fix. I was impulsive and had no concept of delayed gratification. My lack of discipline meant that I rarely bothered to do any homework and would be frantically trying to copy my classmates’ homework at the start of each lesson. Life was chaotic and stressful. At the end of my first year at school I learned from a noticeboard that a decision had been made, based on my poor grades, to place me in ‘E’ set for mathematics, and ‘e’ did not stand for excellent! Whilst I did well in the arts, I struggled in the sciences. I found this extremely demoralising. Needless to say, being in the bottom set for maths didn’t help either.
There was plenty of alcohol in our house but it did not seem to be nearly as important to my parents as it would later become to me. My father drank whisky and we would often visit Bushmills’ distillery whenever we visited his home country. Many people told stories of my legendary father: Paddy, the larger-than-life Irish doctor who would pour his patients a tumbler of whisky whilst smoking a cigarette. But I think that my father was usually able to put the top back on the bottle when it was time to do so. He smoked like a chimney though. I remember once we were on holiday in Spain when I was maybe nine or ten years old. Dad had left his pack of Camel cigarettes unguarded on the table. I had taken one and a box of matches from the kitchen. I walked for several miles with the cigarette and matches before deciding to spark up on the platform at Villajoyosa train station. I experienced a rush of smoke, nicotine and misadventure and had to lie down on the stone bench on the platform.
I had stolen swigs of whisky before but it tasted disgusting and the burning sensation in the mouth was completely overwhelming. I had also tried drinking sherry and beer but it all tasted horrible. I liked non-alcoholic Ginger Ale and the glass bottles of Shandy (delivered by the milkman) which was almost indistinguishable from lemonade, save the hint of beer flavour. At the age of twelve, I slept over at a friend’s houses whose permissive parents allowed us to have a can or two of beer. The sensation of childhood misdemeanour was more intoxicating than the alcohol itself.
I persevered with drinking for it did not come naturally to me. The odd sleepover beer here and there was all that preceded my first ‘proper’ trip to the pub. I was fourteen years old and went to see a band composed of sixth formers from my school play at a pub in Liverpool. I had one pint of lager and one pint of cider. I remember feeling giddy as we ran back to Central Station to catch the last train home.
I have already alluded to the fact that as a child, I was often lost in daydream and fantasy. I had spent hours poring over retail catalogues as though new toys and computer games would ‘fix me’. Later I had discovered pornography magazines and the chemical change that staring at images of naked women produced. At the age of fourteen I had taken my first ‘proper’ drink – and shortly afterwards alcohol was doing more for me than toys, chocolate and pornography combined. Alcohol was a power by which I could live, doing for me what I could not do for myself. More or less simultaneously, my older brother introduced me to cannabis and I began to smoke it fairly regularly. Although I would later become a daily pot smoker, it never came close to doing for me what alcohol did for me. More on pot later.
My father died when I was fifteen years old, although in reality, he had died a thousand times in my mind before then. Shortly afterwards I was gripped by a deep depression. I didn’t feel that dad’s death had affected me but it obviously had done, as had stuff that had happened long before that. I don’t think that dad’s death was the only reason for my despondency though. It would be convenient to use all this as a reason for my drinking but in truth, the die had been cast long before then.
At the age of fifteen, I got a job in a Liverpool city centre recording studio, abandoning my studies (much to my mother’s disappointment) for the supposed ‘glamour’ of the music industry. This was merely the latest in a long line of questionable life decisions. Some of the bands who I worked with were famous and riding high in the music charts at the time. I was completely out of my depth in the sense that I was hanging around with older male musicians who I drank and took drugs with. I felt extremely awkward and self-conscious – but would not have been able to either articulate or admit that at the time. I thought that I was living the dream whilst simultaneously feeling dreadful. Both my internal condition and external reality were dark and chaotic. By the age of seventeen I was drinking, smoking cigarettes and cannabis, taking ecstasy, speed, magic mushrooms and cocaine. I would use drugs off and on, mainly on – but alcohol was my constant companion. I suffered terribly from depression in that period. I also began to develop fear-based obsessions with members of the opposite sex. Nothing ever seemed normal. I remember being prescribed Prozak by a doctor when I was sixteen years old. I stopped taking it after a couple of weeks, self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs instead. The depression continued. I would fall asleep feeling completely lost and hopeless. I could not fall asleep without listening to music. I adopted the John Lennon song ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ as my theme song.
When I was eighteen years old, I was fired by the recording studio (I can’t remember why but it might have been for theft – or general erratic behaviour) and travelled by myself to Spain for a holiday. I wanted to lose weight and followed a disciplined daily diet of bran flakes, tuna fish, vodka, beer and cigarettes. I drank vodka on awakening, passing out at various times during the day. I was more or less permanently drunk for the entire duration of the holiday. I had a C90 cassette onto which was copied two albums by The Doors. ‘Waiting for the Sun’ and ‘Morrison Hotel’.
Well, I woke up this morning, I got myself a beer
Well, I woke up this morning, and I got myself a beer
The future’s uncertain, and the end is always near
I spent three weeks wandering around in a drunken haze listening to the two Doors albums and Greatest Hits albums by Van Morrison and Simon and Garfunkel. The sun beat down. I was eighteen years old and a full-blown alcoholic.
That same year I passed my driving test and celebrated by getting drunk and taking my sister’s car out for a midnight joyride. I tell this story to highlight the abnormal nature of my drinking and to confirm that I would have easily qualified for the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous at the age of eighteen.
In the summer of 1999, I travelled to the USA to work as a soccer instructor at a summer camp in West Virginia. It was the happiest time of my life. I was surrounded by moral people and each day had routine and structure. As a camp counsellor, I also had the responsibility of caring for four ten year old boys! The legal drinking age of 21 did not prevent me from drinking for I had purchased a fake ID in England before I left for America. That being said, the terms of my contract of employment clearly forbade me from drinking – it was after all, against the law. That summer my drinking seemed ‘manageable’ even though it really wasn’t. I got drunk and passed out in my tent but never had any problems rising early in order to fulfil my duties. In the morning I would sweat out the booze on the soccer field and then have a nap during the post-lunch ‘rest hour’. On our rare days off I would book a motel room with other counsellors and we would get good and drunk. There were many days when I did not drink, simply because there was no realistic opportunity for me to do so. I was also usually tired out after long sunny days of work and play.
I turned nineteen towards the end of camp and shortly afterwards I had a profound spiritual experience. One August afternoon, I was sleeping off a hangover in the rifle shack, of all places. I had finished my duties for that day and an evening of relaxation and heavy drinking was on the cards. I was lying on a makeshift bed in a wooden shack, surrounded by wall-mounted .22 calibre rifles. It was very hot. As I lay on the bed, drifting off to sleep, I thought about the new friends I had made and how wonderful the summer had been. A smile formed on my sleepy face, as an immense feeling of what I now know to be gratitude welled up from inside me. The smile turned into a huge beam and the feeling of gratitude intensified. Suddenly I realised that my face was hurting from smiling so much. I was sweating profusely as I entered what can only be described as a state of ecstasy. My entire body became a dead weight and I suddenly started to feel alarmed. Pinned to my back, I tried to move but could not. I had no idea what was happening to me and thought that I might be having a stroke or heart attack. I felt like Gulliver pinned down by the Liliputians. I felt an invisible force pushing down on my chest. Later, with either poetic license, total recall or a combination of both, I would describe the sensation as feeling as though:
I had been connected to a source of power. A tractor beam pushed down onto and into my chest and over the course of what might have been a few minutes, or even just a few seconds, I felt as though every negative, painful, destructive thought and sensation had been expelled. The depression which I had been plagued with for three years had been literally sucked out of me by some kind of spiritual vacuum cleaner. To this day it has never returned.
I tried to move but I couldn’t. I tried to speak and barely croaked an unintelligible whisper. I then started to panic. It felt as though I was pinned down by some kind of force field. Like I said, it felt as though all the pain, fear, depression and negative energy had been sucked out of me. It felt as though every sin had been expunged. I have no idea how many seconds or minutes this experience lasted for, but I slowly returned to the material world, if indeed, I had ever left it.
I was brought back down gently, suffering no hangover or comedown. I was pretty freaked out though. Having only my inherited Catholic God as a reference point, I remember thinking: ‘Shit. You’re the reincarnation of Jesus and even if you’re not, you’re definitely some kind of prophet or holy man. You’re going to have to wear your hair long, wear flowing white gowns – and renounce all worldly pleasures’. This thought did not amuse me at all, although I still felt great.
I had taken ecstasy on numerous occasions prior to my experience in the rifle shack. I had experienced ego-deflation – but I didn’t know what ego deflation was: we referred to that indescribable feeling on MDMA as being ‘loved-up’.
I had had a powerful spiritual experience. The transcendent type that the mystics spoke of. Burning Bush, Hark the Herald Angels, whatever you would like to call it. That scene from The Blues Brothers when Belushi affirms to James Brown that he has SEEN THE LIGHT. That was that then. I was on a spiritual path. My life had been altered for ever.
I left the rifle shack and slowly walked to the shower. I was dripping with sweat. I felt as though I had been reborn. At that time I was unfamiliar with the work of William James, or any other philosophers or spiritual teachers, for that matter. The only reference points I had were those drawn from the Catholic faith I had abandoned as a child. I remember again thinking that such an experience must surely be reserved for great prophets, or the messiah himself! I also remember thinking that such thinking was insane. What would my friends and family say when I told them of my experience? Nothing, as it turned out, for I said nothing to them about it. I went out that night with my friends. I drank and life went on pretty much as it had before. I now believe that that day I had been called to live a spiritual life of service – and I resolutely refused to answer the call. Although my encounter in the rifle shack was never forgotten, its afterglow and significance dimmed – and ultimately I continued to serve only myself, bouncing along from one bad decision to another. I had met God but he had forgotten to tell me that I was an alcoholic. Which meant that I failed to enlarge my spiritual life. Which meant that one month later, I would be back in the kitchen in my mother’s house in Liverpool, with my drug buddies, a bottle of vodka in one hand and a joint in the other.
And that, unfortunately, was the way that life would be for the next seven years.
I once heard someone suggest that when a person refuses to answer a clarion call to lead a spiritual life, they are setting themselves up to lead a life full of pain and misery. That was certainly my experience. I will spare the most gruesome war stories – but my drinking and drug use continued for another seven years. There were brief periods of sobriety (a few days here, a week or two there) but I was drunk for most of that seven year period. I returned to West Virginia for a total of five consecutive summers, but alcoholism gradually tightened its grip and the magic of that first summer would not return. I was trying to recapture a feeling that had seemingly been lost forever.
Looking back, I suppose I had been on some kind of spiritual search since the rifle shack. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (which I read in my teens) had made as great an impression on me as it has on countless others. Its prequel The Pilgrimage kindled a brief passing interest in Catholic mysticism. I studied romanticism as part of my university studies in English literature and very much appreciated the concept of pantheism (the metaphysical argument that God is everything around us, and not a separate entity for which we need to build a specific path to encounter) expressed by poets such as Blake and Wordsworth. I was happy to read self-help books, I quite liked the idea of some aspects of religion. I also liked the idea of spirituality – but I had never made any effort whatsoever to modify my thoughts, words or deeds. I always took the path of least resistance, choosing what was easy over what was right. To be honest, I had never even considered what ‘right’ was. ‘Right’ was what I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it – which was usually ‘right now’.
In 2004 I had worked as an English tutor at a number of summer camps in Italy. I had flown to Nice airport and caught the train to San Remo. From there, I had been assigned to work at camps in a number of different locations. The first camp I worked at was in Moruzzo, a comune in the Province of Udine in the region Friuli-Venezia Giulia. I was accommodated by an extremely hospitable family in their beautiful home. One evening I was offered wine with my evening meal and eagerly accepted a glass. Not wishing to appear greedy in front of my hosts, I limited myself to three large glasses of wine. Whilst normally this act of relative temperance (by my standards, at least!) wouldn’t have been possible, the long day educating exuberant children under the Italian sun had drained my energy. I had also stuffed my face with delicious food. When I retired to my room after thanking my hosts and bidding them goodnight, I clearly remember thinking that I had finally ‘learned how to drink’. ‘That’s it’. I thought, triumphantly. ‘You’ve cracked it, son. You’ve obviously matured and are now able to drink normally’.
The reason that evening in Moruzzo is burned into my memory is because it was one of only the tiniest handfuls of occasions in which I was able to practice anything like controlled drinking. And looking back, I’m really not too sure how controlled it actually was.
Two weeks later I was staying in the Eni Village of Borca di Cadore. My colleagues decided to visit Venice for the weekend. I stayed in our accommodation and drank from morning until night. I wandered into the The Church of Our Lady of the Cadore and sat in a pew, enjoying the silence. My final camp was held at Collegio Marconi in Portogruaro, a town and comune in the metropolitan city of Venice. As well as being a school, the college also was involved in seminarial activity and my male colleagues and I shared living quarters with priests and their proteges. I became friendly with a kind priest called Don Angelo. He spoke no English and I could not speak Italian. Our communication was entirely non-verbal but there was a strong connection between us. Each morning I attended mass in the chapel where Don Angelo performed the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Camp Director once called me over to where both she and Don Angelo were standing. ‘Don Angelo wishes me to tell you that he prays that you will have beautiful days’, she said. A decade or so later I returned to Portogruaro but was unable to find Don Angelo.
After Portogruaro I spent a couple of nights in Ferrara before travelling to Rome. Caput Mundi referred to by Oscar Wilde as ‘the one city of the soul’. I walked into St Peter’s Square and was filled with a sense of awe. The statue of Christ The Redeemer, flanked by twelve saints made a strong impression. They looked like a gang. An elite squadron of God’s holy warriors. There was nothing bland or wishy washy about these men – and the lives they were said to have lived.
I was waiting in line at a Vatican gift shop to buy a ticket for a cheap ‘silver’ crucifix and chain. An elderly nun approached me and asked if I would like to see il Papa. I smiled at her and replied that I was very happy to be visiting the papal residence. She insisted that I was able to actually go and see the Pope in person, explaining that he would shortly be addressing the crowd in Aula Paolo VI, also known as the Hall of the Pontifical Audiences. Well, the prospect of a papal audience in Rome excited me greatly. I paid for the crucifix and chain and the nun directed me towards the Hall. Thanking her, I dashed down to the hall. Pope John Paul II, ravaged by Parkinson’s disease was in the centre of the stage, flanked by the Swiss Guard. As impressed as I was, the scene reminded me of a Monty Python skit, thanks in no small part to the organised international groups of pilgrims whose soccer style religious chants, in contrast to the Vatican staff solemnity and the Swiss Guards technicolour garb, all added to the spectacle.
At the end of the ceremony, the Pope blessed religious articles which the crowd had brought along with them. People held up bibles, rosaries, pictures of loved ones etc. I held up my silver crucifix, blessed by Pope John Paul II himself, it became my most treasured possession. I lost it when I was drunk a few months later.
Harper Lee once wrote: ‘Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hands of another.’ Well I had a bible in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other’. I was desperately in search of an identity but my religious convictions were mere cultural affectations: superficial at best, hypocritical at worst.
After Rome, I travelled back up to San Remo, spending a few more days there before taking the train to Nice in order to fly back to Liverpool. Having spent all of my money on alcohol and cigarettes, I was literally penniless. The airport was approximately 8 km away. I had no money for the bus so would just have to walk it. Hungover, carrying a heavy backpack and a guitar, I slowly made my way to the airport along the Promenade des Anglais. At some point I passed a patch of industrial wasteland, where I saw a ragged Mohammedan kneeling on the ground, praying with an intensity that suggested his life, or someone else’s, depended on the outcome. That summer I had prayed in churches across Italy, dined with priests in a seminary, been invited to hear the pope speak by a kindly nun – yet the memory of the Muslim praying was perhaps the most powerful demonstration of faith and desperation.
On 22 November 2003, England won the rugby union World Cup, thanks to Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal just 26 seconds from the end of the final. The match was played in Sidney and broadcast in England at 9AM on the Saturday morning. I was at my university halls of residence and had stayed up late drinking and smoking weed the night before. I rose an hour before the kick-off and cracked open a beer before waking my friends to watch the match. I had actually attended the same secondary school as one of the victorious England players. He had been the head boy and had once reprimanded me for general naughtiness. I was drunk and stoned for the duration of the match. Afterwards, I found myself wandering around the streets of the small Lancashire market town where I attended college. I went to Bargain Booze and used my credit card to buy cigarettes and alcohol. I was aimless, desolate and disconnected from my higher self. I was a so-called mature student, several years older than most of my freshman peers. I thought of my fellow alumnus lifting the Webb Ellis trophy Down Under. I had been to the same school and played rugby for the same junior club. He had made something of himself. I had not.
On my 26th birthday I threw a party in my own honour at my mother’s house. I had moved out of the family home to attend university but had been forced to move back after failing to manage my finances – or anything else for that matter. I had been drinking and smoking cannabis for several hours by the time the first guests started to arrive. I remember leaving the party five minutes after it had officially started to go to the local off license for more supplies. There was tons of booze but clearly not enough for my liking. I bought a bottle of vodka, some cans of beer, and a couple of bottles of wine. Returning home, I placed the beer and wine in the communal supply, and the bottle of vodka upstairs under my bed. I was safe. And could now concentrate on enjoying the party.
In the early hours of the morning I disgraced myself in the way that only an alcoholic man or woman can disgrace themselves in front of a room full of people. I was paranoid and angry, bitter and frustrated. Full of myself and considerate of nobody else. I berated some of the guests and the girl who was unfortunate enough to be going out with me at the time. My behaviour was nothing short of disgraceful. I have a shadowy recollection of being slumped on the pavement outside my house as a procession of disgusted partygoers and soon-to-be-former friends filed out. I staggered upstairs to my childhood bedroom in my mother’s house, crawled into bed and curled up in the foetal position. I then said the alcoholic prayer. Three words: GOD HELP ME.
The shame and remorse I felt the following day are unforgettable. I have heard many definitions of what it means to hit rock bottom, but the one that works best for me is as follows: I would have done anything possible to no longer be me. I was sick to death of myself. Which meant I had a problem, for I had only ever been me.
You see, if somebody had told me on the morning of the party that I would later behave in the appalling manner that I did, I would have called them a liar, believing it impossible. Yes, there had been distasteful, irresponsible, chaotic and shameful incidents scattered throughout my drinking career – but I was fundamentally a good guy. Sure, I drank a bit too much but I was a good guy. This myth had now been debunked. I was clearly pretty damn far from being a good guy.
For the first time in my life I looked back and I saw it all. I had verbally abused my own mother on more occasions than I cared to remember. I had stolen from her purse since I was a child. First to buy chocolate and Panini football stickers, later to buy drugs and alcohol. That is how I had treated my own mother.
One thing was obvious: I couldn’t drink alcohol safely. I had to stop drinking.
For many years afterwards I told myself that August 7th 2006 had unquestionably been the worst day of my life. At some point though, I began to ask myself whether it might also be true to say that it had been the best day of my life. Either way, I found myself at Ground Zero. I have experienced a number of low points in my life in the fifteen years since – but to this date, nothing compares to the immediate aftermath of what I sincerely hope will prove to my last drink
That evening, I called friends and family and told them that I was an alcoholic. Some well-meaning but misguided friends told me that I shouldn’t worry too much about what had happened and that I was definitely not an alcoholic. Others also told me that my only problem was that I was a total prick. It seemed to them that I was using alcoholism as an excuse for my behaviour. I can see why they thought that. Whilst several of my phone calls were a genuine confession to loved ones, others were simply a self-centred exercise in damage limitation. I was not aware of this at the time as I had no knowledge of my own motivations.
Like plaque on teeth, the ego is extremely resilient and will nearly always begin to immediately repair itself after taking a direct hit. A week or so afterwards, a friend of mine took me on a camping trip to Snowdon and I began venting at the injustice of certain friends abandoning me. My friend gently pointed out that my narrative tone had shifted from that of perpetrator to victim over the course of just a few days. That kind of observation is obvious to me now – back then it was a revelation. I was simply incapable of self-reflection of any kind.
A few days after my last drink I quit smoking. For many alcoholics in recovery, a cigarette is a harmless (by comparison) crutch which they will wait to discard until they feel that their foundation in sobriety are fairly solid. I, on the other hand, feared that continuing to smoke would seriously compromise my mission to quit drinking. I had smoked marijuana for so many years that the action of smoking itself was intertwined with alcohol and drug abuse.
My ego was sufficiently deflated for me to look in the local telephone directory, pick up the phone and call the council alcohol services. I asked for help and they discussed giving me a drinking plan and helping me to moderate my drinking. I balked at this suggestion for I knew in my heart that my drinking days were over. I knew that I needed to not be drinking at all. I thanked them for their help and hung up. I didn’t know what to do so I did something that I hadn’t done for many years: I went to confession.
I arrived at my local parish church and the priest suggested we speak in the presbytery. We sat in his living room and I told him about the life that I had been living, including the shameful episode at my birthday party. He listened. He then asked me a question: ‘Do you think that alcohol might be the cause of these problems?’ Instantly I replied: ‘I can’t stop drinking, Father’.
A weight lifted from my shoulders. A truth bomb had been dropped. ‘I. Can’t. Stop. Drinking.’ felt like the first statement of truth that had passed through my lips in many years.
Those familiar with the Catholic faith will be aware that it is customary for the priest to assign a penance to the person confessing. At the end of our conversation I asked the priest what my penance was, expecting a suite of prayer to recite. He replied: ‘Your penance, lad, is to get yourself to Alcoholics Anonymous and sort your life out’. He put me in touch with another priest, one who was semi-retired and an active participant in the program and fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. The following day I paid this new priest a visit at his retirement home in the next village.
It was a bizarre scene. Here was I, a 26 year old wannabe rocker listening to an old priest tell me war stories from his drinking days. He had been a wild one, alright. ‘I was drunk when I officiated weddings and funerals’ he told me. ‘I was drunk when I met the Bishop. I used to steal money from the collection of alms to pay for my booze…’ I remember thinking to myself: ‘I’m not a priest. But if I was a priest, this is exactly the kind of priest I would be, a drunken thieving priest’. The priest concluded by giving me some AA literature (a copy of ‘Share’ Magazine) and suggesting that I attend a meeting. My head was like a Rubix Cube which had been twisted and turned beyond restoration, the result of over a decade of drinking and drug use.
That Sunday, a few minutes before 8pm, I arrived outside United Church in Southport. I received a tremendous amount of hope at that first meeting. The secretary looked me in the eye and said the following words: ‘You don’t ever have to drink again’. These words were music to my ears and I played them over and over again: ‘You don’t ever have to drink again’. It was true. But it was also true that I would drink again unless something changed, and that something was me. I attended several more meetings in quick succession, including a ‘Back to Basics’ meeting which studied the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous in four, weekly one-hour sessions. The first of those meetings made a big impression on me, as did the AA literature. I could particularly relate to the idea of being an ‘actor who wants to run the whole show’. I had never realised that I was a control freak! I knew that I needed the ’emotional rearrangement’ prescribed by Carl Jung to ensure that a new set of conceptions and motives were deeply embedded in my psyche. I couldn’t relate to the phrase ‘restore us to sanity’ in Step Two though. That seemed to reference some period of stability and usefulness I had hitherto never known. In reality, I needed to be restored to factory settings. I needed a hard reset.
In spite of my drinking, smoking and drug taking, I was physically in decent shape. I had even run the Rotterdam marathon in April that year. Exercise was one of the many things I used to use to excuse my drinking. After I quit drinking, I used exercise to justify my compulsive eating. Back then, I could drink a bottle of whisky, wake up at 7AM, drink a couple of pints of water and a cup of coffee – and then go for an eighteen mile run. Surely an alcoholic wouldn’t have been able to do that?
There was so much information to absorb in those early days and weeks in recovery. It all seems so simple now. Back then it was revolutionary.
I attended meetings in England for a few weeks before moving to Spain. Several weeks before hitting bottom I had interviewed for a teaching position with a private language school in Madrid. I printed out a list of English Speaking AA meetings, resolving regular attendance as soon I was settled in the city. But several days after I had found lodgings, I had still not attended a meeting. I was alone in a new city, I didn’t speak Spanish and whilst I certainly didn’t realise it at the time, I was skating on very thin ice. One afternoon I was strolling around the barrio when a thought popped into my head: ‘Weren’t you meaning to go to an AA meeting?’ Now, many thoughts pop into my head over the course of a day. Too many. More thoughts than are good for me or that I know what to do with – but this particular thought: ‘Weren’t you supposed to have gone to an AA meeting?’ seemed to be highlighted in neon, bold, italics and underlined. I now believe that thought was placed inside my head by a force greater than myself, as I was again, in danger of refusing to answer that spiritual call, as I had done after my encounter in the rifle shack. I went to a meeting.
There seemed something rather glamorous about that first meeting in Madrid. Maybe it was the location, perhaps it was the international cast of characters. Having now had had the privilege of attending meetings all over the world, I have observed that expatriate meetings (particularly ones in big cities) often have an additional crackle of energy to complement the charge of positive power which one is usually able to connect to at a meeting. It’s probably something to do with strangers in a strange land bonding together over AA’s primary purpose.
One evening a visitor from California came to the meeting. He shared his story and we chatted afterwards. He asked me if I would like to go for a coffee and, feeling that slight newcomer awkwardness that subsides once we really feel a part of the fellowship, I said “OK”. Learning to live sober was both frightening and exhilarating. My new friend and I walked explored the city. A mere six weeks after I had hit bottom I was already constructing a brand new life in Madrid. 23 September 2006 was La Noche en Blanco, a cultural event hosted by the town hall in which famous Madrid locations were opened free to the public at nighttime. At approximately 02:00, my friend and I visited Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, the legendary home of Real Madrid. I was in awe. You mean it was possible to have fun whilst you were sober? The Californian had something I wanted: contented sobriety. I asked him if he would be my sponsor and he said that he would.
Back in England, an old-timer called Boxer Charlie had told me to ‘plant my flag in AA’ and in Madrid I did my best to do just that. A highly demanding work schedule (07:00-21:00) had me rushing all over the city at all hours of the day. I was able to attend half a meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays and would attend a full meeting on both Saturday and Sunday. After the meeting I would head to the restaurant across the street with guys from the meeting.
That first year was both exhilarating and terrifying. It was damn hard work too. I had never thought so much in my life. I had never thought about thinking so much in my life. And I had certainly never thought about my behaviour so much in my life. I carried my pocket-size Big Book like a Vampire Hunter might carry holy water and a silver cross, just feeling it there in my jacket pocket made me feel better. Once I was reading it on the bus when a man tapped me on the shoulder. ‘What are you reading?’ he asked? ‘I’m an alcoholic’, I blurted out. ‘It’s a book about alcoholism’. The man stared at me. ‘You don’t look like you’re drunk’, he said, suspiciously.
I had already fallen in love with the literature. But nothing compared to the experience of reading the literature with a skilled sponsor who was able to turn statements into questions and direct me towards my own experience. He asked me to provide him with examples of times that I had taken the first drink having made a firm decision not to. We then performed a ‘relapse autopsy’. One of these examples of powerlessness is included below:
In 2005 I had committed a violent assault whilst drunk. I faced no legal recriminations owing to the kindness of the victim and his parents. I was so ashamed when I woke up the following morning that I made a firm commitment not to drink. A few weeks passed in which I told everybody who would listen that I was ‘off the booze’. I then travelled to Bristol to watch my friend’s band perform. These were old drinking buddies but I told them that I would not be drinking. I had no intention of drinking. Before the concert I went out for dinner with my older brother. I sipped my diet coke and ate my pizza. We went to the venue and I saw my friends before the show. I drank soft drinks. I had no intention of drinking. I had made a firm decision not to drink. I watched the band perform, diet coke in hand. They finished their set, left the stage and came back on for an encore. They played their last song and left the stage for the final time. The house lights came on, signalling the end of the night. Then the bell at the bar rang for last orders. On hearing the bell I fell into a trance and walked like a Zombie to the bar. ‘I’ll have a pint of Stella and a double vodka and coke please’ I said. That relapse lasted the best part of two years.
‘So why did you drink?’ asked my sponsor.
‘I guess I changed my mind’, I replied.
‘Changed your mind?’ He said incredulously.
‘I guess I wanted to drink’
‘But you didn’t want to drink’
We went back and forth for a few days until I finally lost patience with my sponsor asking me why I had drank: ‘I haven’t got a bloody clue why I drank’, I snapped. He smiled, and told me that that was exactly the answer that he had been looking for.
I knew that there had been numerous occasions when I had taken the first drink having decided not to, but for some strange reason, I could only think of a few. My sponsor explained to me that this was because the last thing that my ego wanted was for me to accept that I was an alcoholic. ‘There is a force inside you that wants you dead’ I was reminded of a line from The Terminator Franchise: ‘Come with me if you want to live’.
‘This is a war of attrition. And I aim to be the last man standing’. The paradoxical nature of what is, on the surface, a selfish statement is illustrated by further expansion: In order to stand a chance of being the last man standing, I am going to have to work my bollocks off in order to help as many other people as possible be last men standing. This strange mix of camaraderie and competition felt as though I was a member of a Special Forces Unit. Which in a way I was.
Like Bill Wilson I had always wanted to ‘prove to the world I was important’. Little did I know, the more I would try to prove myself important to the world, the less important I felt.
I flew back to the UK at Christmastime. Reading a pocket edition of 12 Steps & 12 Traditions on the plane, I reflected on having achieved over five months of continuous sobriety. On Christmas Eve, I attended midnight mass in my local church. As I lined up to receive communion, I saw the priest who I had reached out to in my darkest hour. When it was my turn to receive the host, he looked at me and smiled: ‘Welcome home, lad’ he said. I flew to Barcelona the day before New Year’s Eve. It was my plan to spend 24 hours exploring the city before returning to Madrid. When I arrived I headed straight to the Nou Camp football stadium, even though it was night time. Outside of the stadium there were sex workers of all genders, shapes and sizes huddled outside street fires to keep warm. It was like a scene from an Almodovar film. Perhaps it was the sight of the streetwalkers but a dark feeling of sin rose up inside of me. Did I feel an urge to drink? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. But I did feel an urge to escape. I said a prayer and returned to my hotel room. On the train returning to Madrid, I went to the restaurant car to buy a soft drink and a sandwich. I paid for my order and just as I was turning to make my way back to my seat, the smiling kiosk operator handed me a complimentary glass of champagne. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve. For a fraction of second, time stood still. I looked at the glass, looked at the smiling. He was unaware that he was trying to kill me. Of course he was. I looked him in the eye, smiled, and said politely and firmly: ‘No thanks, I don’t drink’.
‘No thanks, I don’t drink’. My five favourite words.
I had power. Unlike that night at the concert in Bristol, and all the other times, I had the power to refuse the first drink.
I had been advised to associate the taking that first drink as the single cause of all the misery, shame and fear I had ever known. Relapse would mean opening Pandora’s Box. I had heard Boxer Charlie refer to alcohol as poison. ‘It’ll kill yer stone dead’, he would mutter grimly. And he was right. I began to view alcohol as poison. When I went to the supermarket and saw what used to be the ‘magic wall’, I trained myself to see ‘death valley’. Vodka was bleach, whisky was paint stripper, beer was nail varnish remover. They were all toxic. I imagined each can or bottle with the skull and crossbones emblazoned on its label. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was burning a concept outlined in the Big Book into my consciousness: ‘with us to drink is die…’
I once heard that there are two types of people in AA, those who believe that the next time they drink they will ‘feel bad’, and those who believe the next time they drink they will die. I viewed Step One as a death sentence. I was a dead man walking. This did not, of course, mean that I would spontaneously combust the next time I drank. That one drink would set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately lead to a slow and painful spiritual, mental and, ultimately, physical death. The damage inflicted would not be confined to myself. There would also be plenty of collateral damage.
‘Why were you late to the meeting’ my sponsor asked me?
I mouthed something about the metro.
‘That’s not the reason you were late. You were late because you’re selfish and you only think about yourself.’
I was incensed. Who the hell did this guy think he was to lecture me? Violent energy flooded my nervous system. I challenged him but he refused to budge from his initial assessment: My tardiness was a symptom of selfishness. I was furious and returned home in a dark mood. I wanted to tell my sponsor where to go. I lay on my bed, stewing in a toxic quagmire of anger and self-pity.
But I had attended just enough meetings and read just enough 12 Step literature to have just enough self-awareness in order attempt some self-reflection.
I realised that I had arrived late at the meeting because I had not left my house at a time that would have allowed me to arrive at the meeting on time. The reason I had not left my house on time was because I had been messing around on activities that were unimportant compared to the meeting. So, I had obviously arrived late to the meeting because I was disorganised and undisciplined. But was it selfish for me to arrive at the meeting late? Well, yes, I suppose it was. Other people arrived early in order to set-up the meeting, putting out chairs and literature and preparing coffee. I had interrupted the reading that had been taking place when I entered. I followed the train of thought through to its inevitable conclusion: If everyone was late for the meeting then there would be nobody to meet the newcomer who was probably already waiting for the slightest excuse to not attend the meeting.
I experienced further ego-deflation that evening. Deeper surrender. A more powerful Step One experience. I felt like shit. A fact I relayed to my sponsor when we next met. ‘Great!’ he said with huge beam on his face. ‘What do you mean ‘great’?’ I spluttered. ‘I told you that I feel like shit’.
‘You’re in the middle of Step One of a 12 Step program. That’s not a happy place. If you were loving life I’d be deeply concerned as the extent of your spiritual progress. But the work that we are doing appears to be working. The ego is resilient. Keep putting the work in’.
I wasn’t sure about this. How could I be doing well when I felt terrible? Later I realised that it had been the single-minded pursuit of feeling good that had almost killed me. From when I was a young boy, all I cared about was how I felt. Here was a man who seemed to be suggesting that he couldn’t care less how I felt. ‘Fuck your feelings’ might sound cruel and uncaring, but nothing could have been further than the truth. My sponsor later elaborated on this theme, telling me that ‘doing the right thing sometimes doesn’t feel good. Often, particularly at the beginning our spiritual journey, doing the right thing can feel so counterintuitive that pain is an inevitable consequence of attempting to reverse a lifetime of running on self-will. Later on in my journey, I would realise that feelings are important and that certain ideas and attitudes which had served me extremely well in early sobriety, saved my life, in fact, would have to be revisited if I were continue to grow. At this point though, I didn’t even know the difference between a thought and a feeling. More on this later.
I was taught that victims don’t get sober. I do not mean victim in the sense of a person who has been harmed as a result of crime, abuse, neglect, an accident – or any other event or action. I mean that those with a deeply ingrained victim mentality will struggle with the essentials of recovery: willingness, honesty and open-mindedness.
A few days later I found myself in La Moraleja, an affluent residential district of Alcobendas municipality in northern Community of Madrid. I had a long break in between classes and after a walk around the neighbourhood, decided to wait in a shopping mall until it was time for my next lesson to begin. I sat in a Dunkin’ Donuts, bought myself a coffee and finished off the book I was reading which my sponsor had recommended. It was called ‘”Pass it On”: The Story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. Message Reached the World’. The section of the book discussed the concept of ego deflation and I thought back to my experiences of taking ecstasy as a teen in Liverpool, and then the state of beatitude in the Rifle Shack in West Virginia. A song of special significance started playing on the radio: ‘I’ve Been High’ by REM. I was astounded. I had listened to that song during House Party in 2003, my final year at Camp. Not only had I listened to it at camp, but I had listened to it during hungover afternoons in The Archery Shack, a stone’s throw away from The Rifle Shack.
Now REM are a very famous group but that particular song is not one of their most well-known. It is not one that you would expect to hear on the radio. Synchronicities are incidents of spiritual significance that ask us to momentarily dampen our self-obsession and consider the possibility of the divine. Synchronistic experiences leave us with a curious sense that we should pay attention. ‘I’ve Been High’ was followed by ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, West Virginia’s state anthem. I was paying attention. I suddenly realised that tears were rolling down my cheeks, a result of the wave of gratitude that had washed over me. I went to the bathroom so as not to embarrass myself looking a tear-filled eyes in the mirror. Whilst not as powerful as my first transcendent experience in The Rifle Shack, it was a powerful experience nonetheless. I believe that the universe had known that I was struggling, I was in danger of throwing in the towel and relapsing – and had given me a signpost to let me know that I was on the right path and must continue at all costs. I left Dunkin’ Donuts and called my sponsor, telling him excitedly told him about my amazing experience. I told him how grateful I was for his efforts and how much I loved him and AA. As per usual, he advised me to stay grounded, keep praying and keep on putting the work in.
A few days later I called my sponsor. I was again in a foul mood and whined about the unfairness of life. I was drastically rebelling against the idea of my being an alcoholic and being consigned to a life of pause and self-examination. ‘Do you mean to tell me I have to attend these bloody meetings for the rest of my life?’ I shouted. ‘You’re entirely free to do whatever you like, Jules’, he said. ‘But remember that your life up to this point has been spent doing exactly that and it hasn’t worked out too well has it? ‘Normal people don’t have to do this shit.’ I continued. ‘Normal people don’t have to attend these meetings and spend all their time thinking about this stuff. I just want to be normal!’. My sponsor paused before saying quietly: ‘Normal people don’t get to cry in Dunkin’ Donuts, Jules’.
My first sponsor and I parted company after working together for several months. We had just taken the third step together and I was about to start writing inventory. The first few months of recovery had been so intense that I felt as though I needed to come up for air and hit the reset button. I will be forever grateful to my first sponsor as he did an exceptional job schooling me in the concepts of Powerless and Unmanageability and relating it to my own experience. I found a new sponsor and explained to him that I had worked the first three steps with my previous sponsor and was in the process of writing inventory. Guess what? He made me go back to the title page of the Big Book and start again at Step One! He asked me to call him each day with five current examples of powerlessness over alcohol and five examples of current unmanageability. After doing that for two weeks, he asked me to call him each day with five examples of when I believed I had done God’s Will during the day, and when I suspected I had been operating on self-will. After this exercise we took the third step together and I began writing inventory. Again. My new sponsor also gave me CDs of the Joe & Charlie Big Book Workshop recording, asking me to listen to them alongside our reading. As well as this, I was instructed to read ‘Dr Bob & The Good Oldtimers’ in order to gain a deeper understanding of the history of our fellowship and the importance of service.
It took me between a fortnight and three weeks to complete my inventory. I was extremely motivated to get it done. Again, I equated its completion with my own survival and was therefore determined to burst open the cupboard doors and carefully lay all of my skeletons out on display. I even took a day off work in order to work on my inventory. My sponsor and I scheduled a date for my fifth step and early one Saturday morning I arrived at his house on the aptly named Calle del Amor de Dios. We read the first few pages of ‘Into Action’, stopping at the following line: ‘We pocket our pride and go to it, illuminating every twist of character, every dark cranny of the past.’ We then got down on our knees, taking the third step prayer together again for the second time in a month.
I read my inventory to my sponsor who sat there impassively. Not a flicker of emotion showed on his face, he was completely neutral. He commented on some items on the lists, remaining silent and asking me to continue reading at other times. He would sometimes spend a considerable amount of time discussing what I felt was fairly insignificant, whilst devoting less time to matters I felt were of great importance. I now understand it was because there were valuable lessons to be learned in the topics which I felt were of limited importance, and perhaps less wisdom to be earned rehashing ‘the big stuff’. We took a break short for lunch, heading to a nearby café. We then continued our work until the late afternoon/early evening. I started to flag towards the end, a result of remembering certain things I had not actually written down on my inventory. These omissions were not deliberate, the items had simply not been present in my consciousness at the times I had put pen to paper. Wearily I recounted items of stock I had stolen from companies I had once worked for. These items amounted to hundreds of pounds worth of stolen goods. The funny thing was, that I had never once thought of myself as a thief. With the selfish delusion that characterises many addicts and alcoholics, I had probably convinced myself that the items I had stolen were some kind of company perk. But when I looked back over my life, I could see that I had been shot through with deceit and dishonesty from the very beginning. I thought back to having stolen from the offertory basket at church, my father’s wallet, my mother’s handbag, my brothers’ and sisters’ bedrooms, the houses of friends. Much to my shame and disgust, I remembered that I had once volunteered to walk an old lady’s dog, she had given me a pound to do so. I used to sneak a couple of extra pounds ‘cigarette money’ out of the old lady’s purse on the way out. ‘I, who had thought so well of myself…’ was a thief.
My sponsor told me to return home and follow the instructions outlined on pages 75-76. I caught the bus from outside Atocha railway station and took out my pocket big book. Sat on that bus, like mystical clockwork, I began to experience the fifth step promises, as I was reading them. The sun shone through the windows on the bus and I felt lighter, there was nothing much at all on my mind. I was in the midst of a spiritual experience. At home I sat in my bedroom and took steps six and seven.
The action I took that day resulted in the transition between my going through life not drinking one day at a time, to simply living life one day at a time. Returning to the list of fifth step promises, the feeling that the drink problem had disappeared came strongly. Now that my drink problem had disappeared, I was left with the challenge of living life on life’s terms, one moment at a time. The warped thinking which had fuelled my addiction would have to relinquished.
I once heard somebody ask why the step 7 prayer concludes with Amen, whilst the step 3 prayer does not. It has been suggested that whilst step 3 is simply a decision, the amen invoked at the end of the step 7 prayer is the conclusion of an actual body of meaningful work, the act of putting pen to paper, confession, consideration and reflection. That certainly matches my own experience. Whilst the economy of grace is a continual mystery, I had to earn the right to say that amen at the end of the seventh step.
That first year of recovery was the hardest thing I have done. Looking back, I strongly feel as though I was being guided and protected. I returned to Liverpool and began the process of making amends.
I moved to Northern Italy in 2008. I became an active member of an English speaking group of Alcoholics Anonymous in Milan. Each Saturday I would leave my house in Bergamo and walk to the station where I would catch a train to Garibaldi station in the centre of Milan. I would attend the meeting from 18:30 until 20:00. Afterwards I would often have dinner with other group members before catching the train home. It was at least a two hour, 100km round trip. The next morning, I would rise early and again head to the station, repeating the previous days’ journey in order to attend the 10:30 meeting in the same location. The phone became a vital part of my recovery toolkit. I was often not able to attend mid-week meetings but I would speak to at least one alcoholic in recovery every day – and usually. I listened to 12 Step recovery speakers, the most impactful being Mark Houston and Joe Hawk’s Big Book Experience workshop. Whilst theoretical dissection of the program is not sufficient, I found Mark and Joe’s exploration of the mechanics of the 12 Steps fascinating and inspirational. Much of it also matched my own experiences with the process.
After four years in Lombardia, I moved 800 km down south to Campania where there were three English speaking meetings a week: two of these took place on the American Naval Support Site. I made some great friends in the US military – and had the privilege of taking a number of men through the steps.
In 2014 I entered the world of online dating. My strategy was to exhibit chivalry and discernment, find my soul mate and exit the online dating scene as soon as I had done so. Whilst my intentions were noble, my actions were not. Whilst perusing photographs of hundreds of women, I became instantly consumed by lust. I initiated contact with women I had zero intention of pursuing a relationship with, using them as one might use a drug. Whilst I suppose I had always been fairly promiscuous I did not think that my behaviour was particularly out of step with that of the rest of my peer group. Perhaps this was simply justification for holding myself to a low standard. I maintained dialogue with up to thirty women at a time, cutting and pasting my ‘sales pitch’ from a word document. One day I scheduled dates with four different women. I could barely remember their names, ‘nor what I had told them about myself.
In that period, I crossed two red lines. I did a couple of things which I had told myself I would never do. One of these transgressions affected me so deeply (fear, shame, guilt and remorse) that it took me a couple of years to recover from the after-effects. I shared these with my sponsor and other trusted group members and they did not really understand why I was so badly affected and unable to forgive myself. This is part of what makes us human, I suppose. I have heard fifth steps in which men have shared sins which they viewed as being relatively minor and I thought they were anything but. And I have heard men be wracked by guilt for the commission of peccadillos. Either way, after almost a decade abroad, I decided to move back to the UK, arriving in Oxford in December 2015.
Sex and Fear
I began ‘dating’ when I was fourteen years old. Up until I met my wife at the age of 35, my relationships fell into two categories: Girls who triggered fear-based obsession and those who I did not particularly care about. The former would have been described as those I ‘loved’ whilst the latter were disregarded with little more than a passing thought.
I had suffered from chronic jealousy from a very young age. I would interview well for relationships and then quickly become consumed by thoughts relating to my girlfriends’ ex-boyfriends or potential love rivals. This would manifest itself in immature and destructive behaviour. Let me give you an example:
My girlfriend would mention that she had once been to Seville. I would experience an icy hand on my cranium, a tightness in my chest and I would wonder if the trip to Seville had been with an ex-boyfriend. Sometimes I would ask immediately, dreading the response. If the response was negative I heaved a sigh of relief. If the response was positive I was consumed with… Fear? Rage? Panic? Dread? Let’s just call that feeling what it definitely was: PAIN. Seville would then be red flagged, as would Spain, most probably. Here’s another example:
Social media might reveal that girlfriend had once taken part in an amateur production of ‘The Lion King’, in which her ex-boyfriend had co-starred. When walking in the metro station I would see advertisements for the stage production of The Lion King and a painful cloud would fog my thinking.
At the age of 35 I was still yet to overcome this debilitating jealousy. I had dated plenty of wonderful women, many of whom I might have happily married – but ultimately I would always hit the button marked ‘self-destruct’, destined always to defeat myself.
In July 2016 I met the lady who is now my wife. I moved into her house after a few months. She had shared that house with her partner of eight years. You can imagine the effect that had on my psyche. The ex-boyfriend had recently moved out but had left his car parked on the driveway on the house, with the permission of my new girlfriend. Living in the house was unbearable – and seeing that car parked on the driveway was excruciating.
My usual pattern of destructive behaviour began. Berating my partner, bemoaning the fact that I had to live in my predecessor’s house, questioning the origin and significance of objects and artefacts in the house, insisting that souvenirs and trinkets from shared holidays and experiences be placed in storage. I even removed fridge magnets which I perceived to be an offensive threat to my status. I did leave the Owl fridge magnets though, for no other reason than the fact that I like owls.
Things reached a head when my girlfriend flew to the USA for a holiday with her sister and her sister’s new boyfriend. I became convinced that my girlfriend would cheat on me on this skiing trip. I sent her a barrage of messages which almost certainly ruined her holiday. In the midst of the holiday my stepfather died. It was clear that my relationship with my girlfriend was about to rupture in the same way that all my other relationships had. I had to seek help. Previously I had read books on sexual addiction, wondering if it was simply an attraction to new flesh (‘it’s just another hole, Jules’ – still possibly the crudest piece of spiritual wisdom I have ever heard, courtesy of a friend in Milan). I had also read books about Borderline Personality Disorder and whilst I believed that I had some of the symptoms, I did not necessarily think that particular diagnosis would solve anything.
So, at the end of my tether, approaching the inevitable failure, I went along to my regular Friday breakfast AA meeting. The speaker, a long-time sober member, shared about the pain of having got divorced at six years sober. He then shared about how he had had to ‘work on his abandonment issues’.
Like the ‘weren’t you going to get to a meeting?’ thought in Madrid. The term ‘abandonment issues’ appeared in bold, italics and underlined, and I clearly remember thinking to myself:
“I’ve no idea what abandonment issues are but I’m pretty damn sure that I’ve got them.”
I googled counsellors, psychotherapists etc. I found a lady who operated out of an office block ten minutes’ walk from my house. I phoned her and told her that I was struggling with jealousy and abandonment issues. I told her that I was on the verge of ruining a perfectly good relationship and that I needed to step back from the brink. She seemed to understand and I made an appointment to go and see her the very next day.
At that point I had almost a decade in recovery and could write inventory at a drop of a hat. I had perhaps fallen into a trap of staying stuck in a cycle of writing and confession, writing and confession, writing and confession. As I had thus far been unable to resolve this particular glitch in my programming, it was clear that something had to happen, otherwise I would never be able to marry and have children. The line from the 12&12 about ‘recognizing our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being’ was at the forefront of my mind.
I wrote four pages of resentments, triggers, call it what you will. I met with the counsellor and spoke. It was obvious that she was impressed with my ability to clearly articulate the problem and the damage that it was doing to my life. She was used to dealing with men who had difficulties talking about their feelings. My girlfriend had actually bemoaned her ex’s ability to express his emotions. ‘Be careful what you wish for’, I had half-jokingly warned her. ‘One thing you will never have to worry about is me not telling you how I feel about things’.
I had about ten counselling sessions with the lady. We began hypnotherapy on the second or third session. The counsellor suggested I record the session on my phone and listen to it at home whilst lying down. I did so.
The hypnotherapy essentially began to reprogram my reaction to certain triggers. We had ascertained that abandonment, jealousy, fear was preceded by my feeling a tightness in my chest. That tightness in the chest was a signal to my reptilian brain to assume command. At this point, it is important for me to add that at a decade sober, this was the first time that I had actually considered the difference between a feeling and a thought! The ‘fuck how you feel’ approach which had served me so well in early sobriety had now become an old idea which had to be reconsidered, if not completely abandoned. A few months later a friend in the program, one of my sponsees, actually, recommended the book Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender by David R Hawkins. It is an excellent companion for those on a 12 Step program and I wish that I had discovered it years earlier.
My wife and I were married at The Oxford Union in June 2019. We held a grand reception at The Randolph Hotel and danced to the sounds of ‘The Oxford Beatles’ – a tribute to my hometown. Our son was born the following year. It was early Saturday morning and the streets were deserted. Driving my pregnant wife to the hospital was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I remember thinking: ‘There is literally no other place on Earth that you are supposed to be right now, Jules. There are no phone calls to make, no emails to send, no clients to call. Nothing, The only thing that you are supposed to be doing is what you are doing: helping your wife to bring your baby into the world.’ I felt useful. I felt like I was aligned with God’s will, living my destiny and I again remember feeling grateful that my wife and I had found each other and were sharing this experience.
At some point in my recovery, I had stopped seeking God, becoming fixated with the mechanics of the 12 Steps. Recovery had become on one hand, a quasi-superstitious form of sin management, and on the other, a mere psychosocial pathway of abstinence from alcohol. Whilst I continued to be active in AA, sponsoring men and attending meetings. I had lost the divine spark. Whilst I continued to speak of a life-changing program, I was no longer seeking transformation. Had I lost my faith? Yes and No. Living in Oxford, one of Europe’s intellectual capitals, had perhaps contributed to my malaise.
On August 8 2019 I celebrated 13 years of continuous sobriety. A few weeks later I attended a ‘Came to Believe’ 12 Step Retreat in a Merseyside village a stone’s throw away from where I grew up. The retreat was held in St. Joseph’s Prayer Centre/Care Home, a series of buildings surrounded by a National Trust pine forest. As a child I had often played in those woods and St Joseph’s had always held a strange fascination for me. That was the main reason I had signed up for this particular retreat and driven over 180 miles from Oxford to attend.
I enjoyed the retreat and did my best to leave my past experience at the door and seek a new experience. I participated in the activities and shared a mini-fifth step with one of the facilitators. This included one particular humbling fact which I was pleased to get off my chest. I also did my best to support the newcomers, a handful of whom had less than a month sober.
An hour before I was due to leave and return to Oxford, I made a bee-line for one of the old-timers who had help to organise the event and also led a number of sessions. I would have liked to have spoken with him earlier but held back as there were plenty of newcomers there who wished to speak with him. I’m not sure why I was drawn to speak with him – all I know is that I was guided to do so.
He seemed a taciturn individual who would have little time for idle chatter. He eyed me cautiously as I approached. I decided to ask him if he had known the man who had 12 stepped me, a Catholic priest who had died several years previously. My opening gambit worked, his gaze softened as he replied: ‘So you’re one of Father Bill’s, are you?’
We began to talk. I thanked him for his contribution to the retreat and told him a little bit about myself. Every time I finished a sentence and paused for him to speak, he would fix his eyes on me and say: ‘And?’ And I would continue talking, finish a sentence and pause for him to speak. At which point he would eyeball me and ask: ‘And then what?’ This continued for several minutes until I suddenly found myself blurting out:
I’ve just celebrated thirteen years of continuous sobriety. I work the steps, sponsor a load of guys, active in intergroup, but I feel like I’m faking it. In many ways I feel in worse shape now than I did during the early years of my journey in recovery.
This time he didn’t say ‘and?’. Because we had finally arrived at the reason I had approached him, although neither of us had known that when I had engaged him in conversation. He looked at me and said something that I will never forget:
You know it says in the Big Book that faith without works is dead? Well, works without faith is also dead.
Works without faith is dead. I could see clearly now. I had become the resounding gong or clanging cymbal referenced by Paul in 1 Corinithians 13. The old-timer smiled, sensing that his words had found their mark. ‘Come with me’, he said. ‘I’ve got a card for you’. He led me to the literature table there were laminated pocket-size cards with quotes from scripture. He starting sifting through cards muttering to himself: ‘No, not that one. Take that one. Yeah, you could use that one. Not that one. Take that one too. And this one will help you. Not that one. Ah! Here it is. This is the one I was looking for.’ I now held five or six laminated cards in my hand – but he drew my attention to the one that he had been looking for all along.
This is what the Lord says:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.
The bible verse reminded me of something that my sponsor had said to me many years ago. ‘This is about your relationship with God’. Ultimately that is the only relationship that really matters. I cannot turn outward before first turning inward. Page 164 of the Big Book states: ‘See to it that your relationship with Him is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others.’ Yet again, as always, I had been caught up with worldly clamours, mostly within myself.
I liken the process of recovery to that of learning a language, instrument or martial art. In the beginning, the skill is acquired by repetition, repetition, repetition. The boxer hones his technique on the heavy bag and throws thousands of jabs in sparring. The pianist may practice scales. As David Goggins says, we callous our minds and we do not shy away from discomfort and pain. We break ourselves down so we can build back stronger. However, it is also true, that after a while, the repetitive nature of the 12 Step Experience can begin to beat a man down. My sober stage character becomes rigid and limited. I feel as though I am playing a role I am bored of. I am inauthentic, dry and rigid. Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr addresses this theme in his book ‘Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. Rohr says “People who know how to creatively break the rules also know why the rules were there in the first place.” We are fortunate, as Rohr suggests, turn their wounds into sacred wounds that liberate both themselves and others.” But remaining wound identified can be a hindrance rather than a help.
To paraphrase Carl Jung, thought processes which were normal in early recovery eventually became a neurotic hindrance. The inner and critical voice which had kept me for many years as your inner voice of authority, you may end up not being able to hear the real voice of God.”
Experience is one thing, and experiencing is another. Experience is a barrier to the state of experiencing.
At a certain point I became sick to death of ‘me and my story’. At a meeting now I will rarely share what I refer to as ‘the greatest hits’. My recovery story has become too slick, too well-rehearsed, what was once authentic now lacks authenticity.
Wash The Bull
A new student entered the Monastery and said to the Master: “Please show me how to become enlightened”.
The Master asked: “Have you eaten dinner?”
The student replied: “Yes. I have eaten.”
“Then wash the bowl.”
At that moment the student was enlightened.
I heard Mark Houston tell the above story on a recording of one of his 12 Step workshops. But I misheard the punchline and thought that Mark said: ‘…wash the BULL’. I had an image in my head of the student going out into the field and washing a bull. I imagine I thought that the bull needed washing before it was taken to market or something like that. I mean, I think I understood the story’s message of ‘do what is right at the right moment. But the point is this, for many years I thought that washing the bull had some kind of spiritual significance.
Don’t matter who did what to who at this point. Fact is, we went to war and now there ain’t no goin’ back. I mean, shit, it’s what war is, you know? Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.
Slim Charles – The Wire
I am aware that my description of the profound experience in the rifle shack mirrors the religious style of language used in the Big Book of Anonymous. I am also aware that this may be off-putting to some people. But because I now better understand exactly what it is that happened to me, I am now able to describe it in more everyday terms. I had spent my teenage years drinking, taking drugs and leading an extremely chaotic and dishonest life. At the age of eighteen I had abruptly left this life behind for an intense, immersive new experience in West Virginia. That gave me access to a community of men and boys who, for the most part, were decent human beings with a good moral standard of behaviour. Notwithstanding bouts of foolishness, that standard of behaviour was generally enhanced by our presence at the summer camp, our responsibility to the boys in our care and the solid example set by the camp directors and senior staff – our mentors. We celebrated each other’s positive attributes and gently mocked each other’s shortcomings. We had the discipline of routine – the schedule had to be adhered to. The community, moral conduct, discipline – and delight at being part of such a community all contributed to a radical shift in my outlook and attitude. It has become fashionable to claim that ‘the opposite of addiction is connection’ – but connection to what? Well, connection to other human beings, meaningful activity, which ultimately will facilitate re-connection with ourselves. As the song goes: ‘I think I’ve got a feeling I’ve lost inside’. The timescale also perhaps merits comment: it is commonly asserted that it takes a minimum of 21 days to form a new habit – and approximately ninety days for that habit to become a permanent lifestyle change. Six years later when Alcoholics Anonymous proposed a spiritual experience generated by an intense program of action, I experientially knew what they were talking about. I intuitively knew that the 12 Step program would work for me, containing as it did, a number of vital ingredients that had been missing from my experience at Camp Greenbrier. Those ingredients were: the Step one information relating to the physical affect that alcohol had on me, the mental obsession which meant that I drank after having made a decision not to – and the spiritual malady. Also the component of unsparing self-examination and sharing honestly with another human was missing. As was prayer and meditation. Service to others had been present, albeit framed in a slightly different way. My experience in West Virginia goes to show the immense power of community, aspiration to sound moral conduct, physical exercise, connection with the great outdoors – and enjoyment of life.
I believe that to a large extent, our lives are the stories which we tell ourselves on order to get through another day. Sometimes those stories are lies which become truths – and sometimes they are truths which become lies. My spiritual journey has at times blessed me with a glimpse of what I hope might have been eternal truth. I need to find a power by which I can live – but I also need to tell myself stories by which I can live. The source of power is constant but the story itself will be subject to a significant amount of editing. I see myself as a computer that requires an operating system in order to function. Microsoft released Windows 1.0 back in 1985. A glance at Wikipedia reveals that there have been 26 versions of the Windows operating system since then. Then we consider the number of updates that those 12 versions have received since then. My operating system needs regular updates.
Taking the 12 Steps for the first time went some way to restoring me to factory settings – but I have learned that I will always require regular updates to tackle the glitches in my programming.
I doubt that I have ever practiced the AA program with the same intensity that I did in my first year of recovery. I was in constant prayer. But my prayer now consists of less words than it did then. The older I get the more I can see that words have a tendency to get in the way. The word ‘God’ has a tendency to get in the way – and I say that as someone who has always used that word.
I have often heard it said in AA meetings that a speaker ‘only has one story’. That might be true from a biographical point of view – but my own interpretation of that story, and the angles which I view it from are often subject to change. Turning forty was a far more significant milestone than I expected it to be. Previously I had paid little attention to the turning of the calendar page, considering the passage of time only in terms of days away from my last drink.
Some people say they have twenty years’ experience, when, in reality, they only have one year’s experience, repeated twenty times. I recently celebrated fifteen years of continuous sobriety and whilst I would like to say I have experienced continuous spiritual growth, I have rested on my laurels many times. I believe that the constant repetition of certain favoured anecdotes is deadly to spiritual growth. Yes, we share our story for the benefit of the newcomer and our experience that might be of use to anyone else in the room, but my experience is that repetitive and regurgitative sharing is an impediment to spiritual vitality. A spiritual exercise for old-timers including myself: For the next ninety days: try and share something that you have never before shared at a meeting.
At the time of writing, I have been clean and sober for almost fifteen years. I am happily married and have a son who is a constant source of joy. My wife is expecting our second child. My heart is full.
Having spent several years struggling to find professional satisfaction, I now work for the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Team at a public prison in England. I decided to specialise in recovery work for a number of reasons, but principally because my own life has been transformed by the recovery community and an unswerving commitment to recovery principles. I have led and attended somewhere in the region of two and a half thousand 12 Step meetings and mentored numerous individuals on a one-to-one basis. I have held service positions at group, intergroup and regional level. I have also spoken at treatment centres, retreats, recovery conventions and prisons.
I love my job and each day look forward to seeing the men in my care. I try and plant the seed of recovery. I remember that I can only carry the message – not the alcoholic. There are – and have been – too many good things to share. Here I have chosen to prioritise the remembrance of the darkness and difficulties in order to help someone who might still be suffering from the lash of alcoholism. Someone who might need to start believing that they don’t ever have to drink again.
Thank you for letting me share.