In 2013, my wife Priscilla persuaded me to write a book, that I called “Being Sober and Becoming Happy.” I had worked at the Hazelden treatment center for 19 years, as Director of Spiritual Guidance. I did a lot of patient lectures, and had developed a long list of lectures. Priscilla kept saying “You have to write these things down.” I said, “I’m a talker, not a writer.” She kept after me. After about a year, she said “You’re getting old. Eventually you’ll die. All the lectures will be lost. You should write this stuff down.” So, I agreed.
It’s a gray and rainy day, and I’m sitting in a room with a group of people who never wanted to gain entry into the retreat we’re hosting. They desperately tried everything in their power to never be here. They formulated plans, they had talks, they paid good money, they supported, they begged, they pleaded, they researched, and they loved with all they had. And, yet, here they are: the folks who have lost a loved one to the disease of addiction.
As a young child, my father was in the depths of his alcoholism. I remember feeling frightened, confused and uncertain on some days, then happy, joyous, and carefree on others. I didn’t realize that my father’s drinking often determined which feelings would be present in me and my family. I did know that I was never going to be like my father!
My disease does a great impression of my voice. It’s spot on. It perfectly recreates the long, nasally vowels of my Chicago upbringing, the enthusiastic delivery, the volume, and the cadence.
This masquerade, this dubious transgression of my mind, leads to fear mongering. For me, recovery is no longer about slapping my hand away from the drink or the baggie.
Many of us begin our recovery as “functional agnostics”. That is, we may say we believe in a Higher Power, but we function as if we were on our own. It would be convenient if our Higher Power would show up and do something miraculous so that we could believe. It’s easy to assume that God, if there is one, should give us a “white light experience” so that we can believe.
Sometimes that happens. AA's co-founder, Bill W. had just such a miraculous experience. He had a sudden, overwhelming encounter with God, and did not doubt again. AA's other co-founder, Dr. Bob, had the educational variety of religious experience, in which he learned about his Higher Power over a period of time. This slower form is by far the most common in recovery.
One way to research whether there is an active Higher Power in our lives, is to begin looking for coincidences in recovery. Each of them could, by itself, be just a coincidence. As they pile up, however, we begin to detect the possibility that a Higher Power is at work in our lives. That possibility is scary. We wonder what this "Higher Power" might be up to next. In our anxiety, we sometimes drop the experiment. But when we keep it up, the coincidences reveal the guidance of the God of our understanding.
In treatment, or at The Retreat, we notice the way the “roommate from hell” turns into a lifetime friend; the way the assigned lecture or reading turns out to have just what we needed when we needed it; the way the unavailable sober house bed comes open just at the right time. When I married Priscilla thirty-nine years ago, we were so different that the minister who did the wedding began by saying "I never thought you two would go through with this." Over the years we really discovered how similar our childhoods and original families were, and how much we have in common inside. Of course, this could be just a coincidence.
On our honeymoon, we went off to a lonely corner of the Atlanta Airport between the two flights to our Florida destination, to have some quiet time together. A woman came up to us to ask if it was safe to fly. We told her that we were on our honeymoon, and if we thought it wasn't safe, we wouldn't go. It turns out she was on the run from an abusive husband, and was terrified both of flying and of going back to him. By coincidence, she was booked on our flight, and we rode with her to Florida. I think her Higher Power wanted her to fly to safety.
On my last afternoon working on a men's unit at Hazelden, after my work was done, I met a new patient who was lamenting that no one understood him or what his life was like. By coincidence, he was from a town I knew well. The counseling center he had been attending was set up in memory of my brother-in-law, who died of the consequences of alcoholism. We had a fine talk, he felt understood, and then I went home. His higher power and mine had given both of us a lift. Of course, It could have been just a coincidence.