Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More than a nerd. Really.

Let's break out the booze
And have a ball
If that's all
There is...

I've spent a lot of time lately contemplating the larger meaning of life. Most of that has been in the context of the recovery community, and that's been because a handful of poor lost souls have gathered under my wing looking for guidance. I could let something like that go to my head, but if I choose to believe that they've decided that it is far better to learn from my mistakes than to make their own, I can maintain some of the humility that keeps me alive.

Writing about this part of my life here hasn't been an easy decision. There is a very important tradition in the Twelve Step community, all springing from the A.A. experience, that says we need to maintain our anonymity at the level of press, radio and films. A blog certainly counts, since it is as public as a community newspaper or a low-power broadcast, so bringing this part of my life to light is, strictly speaking, a no-no. There are a couple of reasons why we value anonymity so highly. The first, and most obvious, is that there is still a stigma attached to addiction, and newcomers need some assurance that nobody will "out" them. A little less obvious is our need to divorce the program of recovery from the people. We are all fallible, and the validity of the twelve steps as a program of recovery should not be judged on the success, failure, flaws or foibles of any one person.

My readers, though, are not the public at large for the most part; they are friends I have made, mostly in the professional community. Since I have been both occupied and preoccupied with my work in the recovery community, almost to the exclusion of everything else, that leaves very little to tell my online friends. I'll address the anonymity issue, then, by stating that I do not speak for A.A. or any other Twelve Step community, that my opinions are entirely my own, and that anyone foolish enough to take anything that might look like advice to heart without first consulting a sponsor or another member of your particular Fellowship who is familiar with your situation is likely to be setting him/herself up for calamity.

In any case, I have taken up the formal and informal sponsorship (mentorship) of a number of younger folk. Twentysomethings, mostly, but all are facing a similar problem — what to do after the plug's in the jug.

Addiction's a son-of-a-bitch. Nobody who has ever watched a loved one throw away a perfectly good life, behaving in the most bizarre and inexplicable ways, all the while failing to see the glaringly obvious signs of impending death, can have much of an argument with that. There is at least one proven solution, though, for the people who are willing to do the things that have to be done. It does have one small problem, though.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are the Program, but the implementation of those steps is largely based on the accumulated experience of the millions of people who have tried, successfully and otherwise, over the years to get and stay sober. Unfortunately, most of that wealth of wisdom is aimed at older folks, people in their forties and older who make up the vast majority of the membership of the A.A. fellowship. That is unavoidable. Young people with fully-developed drinking problems tend to die before they reach out for help, and far too many of the few who manage to reach the meeting rooms look around at the sea of grey hair and decide that they're in the wrong place for them. The few who do stay are mostly at the mercy of well-meaning people who simply can't fathom looking forward to fifty or more years of sober living.

That, I think, is where I come in. Although my drinking and drugging progressed very rapidly from zero to severe, I have been sober nearly half of my life now. I have been through enough careers in sobriety to fill a half-dozen lives, and I've had my share of ups and downs along the way. I also remember what it was like to have a couple of years of sobriety under my belt, attending a dozen or more meetings a week, keeping in the constant company of the "winners" and thinking to myself, "is that all there is?"

That's the world in which my new protègés live. All the larger A.A. community offers them is a way to cling to life. I'm not knocking that at all — first things first, after all, and keeping the inevitable end toward which active alcoholism leads at bay is Job One — but try to imagine being in your early twenties and thinking that simply not dying is as good as it gets. Doesn't leave a lot to look forward to, does it? That's a danger point for a lot of people.

So what's the secret to staying sober over the long haul? Simple. One merely needs to live a meaningful, purposeful life. Our collective experience tells us that a life led in service of a higher purpose rarely needs artificial enhancement to sustain. Ah, but there's the rub. What, exactly, does that mean? A.A. offers one solution in the box, and that is to work with other alcoholics. It works, of course, but it is a fall-back course of action, something that we do as an adjunct to an otherwise full life. Our "textbook", the book from which the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous takes its name, was written in 1939 and addressed to men of a certain age who were assumed to have families to look after and so forth. There is little in the book for people who have been living in oblivion since adolescence, and who still don't know what they want to be when they grow up.

It is tempting to think in terms of a life devoted to the service of ones fellow man, and there are some people who are of a temperament to set off on that journey. They are able to derive all of the satisfaction they need from the contribution they make to the lives of others. Most of us, though, are not of that temperament, and will eventually find ourselves wondering what's in it for us. While we may look like we are leading the lives of saints, we are actually seething cauldrons of resentment. Sooner or later we will boil over.

Most of us understand that we are not saints. Looking for something else, we dive into the kinds of lives and careers that seem to work so well for the normal folk around us. We are determined to be successful, believing that we can use the rewards of our success to develop and support families and maybe, just maybe, ease the way for some of the less fortunate out there. Some of us will dive so deep into that life that we become workaholic — slaves to our visions of success. Others will seem to find a balance for a while. Still young, and with a bit of sobriety under our belts, we may delude ourselves into believing we are just like normal folk. We forget about the things we need to do to keep ourselves alive. Before you know it we start trying to drink like normal folk. The lucky ones live to tell the tale. The lucky ones are also few and far between.

The real answer is as individual as we are ourselves. The Program tells us to seek guidance from a higher power (or "God as we understood Him", to quote the Eleventh Step). That, in itself, proves difficult for a lot of people. The word "God" carries with it a lot of baggage, as I'm sure you can imagine. Whether one is a follower of a religious denomination, an agnostic, atheist or what have you, the word itself will bring to mind a wealth of images, not all of them particularly useful.

As a sponsor (or mentor, if you prefer), it is not my job to be that higher power, but to help others to get in contact with the small, quiet voice within. Trinitarian Christians would call it the Holy Spirit. Jungian psychologists would call it the collective unconscious. Some new-agers might call it Gaia. Douglas Hofstadter would likely call it Ant Hillary (if he could suppress his prejudices long enough to realise that he proposed a perfectly plausible explanation for a God entity in Gödel, Escher, Bach). I am not particularly concerned with what to call it; I merely need to make it accessible.

In that spirit, I have been constructing and deconstructing that which connects us all. Dealing with hard heads has its advantages in this kind of game — I've reached a point where I can make mincemeat of the likes of Richard Dawkins (whose own arguments against anything beyond conscious interpersonal connection are based entirely upon prejudice and emotion). I do not claim to be able to prove the existence of a Creator God (and believe such proof to be impossible). I can, however, present a pretty convincing argument for an extrapersonal moral authority and for a mechanism by which those three-question-mark coincidences in life might arise.

The hard part now is arranging the arguments (and the background behind them) into a single, coherent work. I guess that the whole "nerd god" thing just might be true, since I have somehow managed to work talk of black holes into the text. (I was hoping that my engaging personality, my sense of humor willingness to burst into song at the drop of a hat, and my interest in the well-being of individual humans and mankind as a whole might have lost me a few points on the dorky/awkward scale.) Because the book is aimed at the recovery community, it will be published under a pseudonym: Oolon Colluphid. Some of you might know why.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007