It’s Tuesday afternoon at The Retreat, and it’s cold. Right now it is 6 degrees below zero. The forecast for tonight is 26 below. Tomorrow’s forecast is 15 below in the daytime and 29 below at night. The all-time low was 32 below, set on the evening of February 3, 1996.
I just returned from a Christmas cruise with a family group of nine people on Holland America’s new ship, the Niew Statendam. Our group of nine included my wife and myself, our two daughters, two sons-in-law, and three grandchildren. We all get along well.
This month, there are a lot of “service pieces” in magazines and newspapers with helpful advice about how to not be sad at the holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah. These well-meaning columns have suggestions on how to change our moods and move away from sadness. However, I have a theory that having feelings that match reality is mental health, not mental illness.
I never asked this question when I was getting sober, but I have heard other people ask it. I thought they were raising unreasonable objections to getting sober or expressing resistance to recovery. Over the years, patients at Hazelden and guests at The Retreat have spoken of their reluctance to recover by saying that they are afraid to recover, because they are afraid of who they might be if they stop drinking or drugging. What will happen, they ask, if they get sober and don’t like themselves, or don’t like who they have become?
When I was a boy, I eagerly read each issue of Mad Magazine. It’s fictional editor, Alfred E. Neuman, had a quote above the index of each issue. One of my favorites was “Some minds are like concrete: all mixed up and permanently set.” A Peanuts cartoon of that era had Lucy shouting “If you can’t be right, be wrong at the top of your voice.” I’m writing this newsletter during the Senate hearings on a Supreme Court nomination. It seems as if nearly everyone is sure that they know what happened at a high school party long ago: the nominee is guilty, or innocent, depending upon whom you ask. I’m not hearing the more humble opinion of “I don’t know, I wasn’t there.”
Alcoholism is a disease of self-deception. We can be taking all twelve steps, and still avoid the spiritual growth of the program. “Remember” the Big Book says, “that we deal with alcohol---cunning, baffling, and powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power—that One is God. May you find Him now!” (p.58-59)
The A.A. Big Book, on page 60, states “The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”
At many AA meetings, somewhere in the program, a person asks “Could we have a moment of silence for the alcoholic who still suffers?” We are briefly quiet, perhaps thinking of someone we know whose suffering is all too clear to us. I also think of those whose suffering is over because they lost their lives in a struggle with alcohol or drugs.
I worked 20 years in Rehab, and for a long time, I saw it do a lot of people a lot of good. As rehab has evolved over the years, it has moved from an introduction into the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous into a medical, medication, and mental illness model of treatment. The old model was “one drunk helping another over a cup of coffee.” I remember when there was a sign at the admissions entrance of my old rehab that said “AA Members Always Welcome”. I remember when my first morning staff meeting would tip the phones off the hook so they wouldn’t ring. We would shut the door and spend 20 minutes in prayer and meditation for the spiritual well-being of the unit. We would read from “Twenty-Four Hours a Day” and “As Bill Sees It.” The unit supervisor used to say “The patients will always reflect the spiritual well-being of the staff” and “They won’t get better than we are.” We thought of our unit as one recovering community.