How meditation did and didn't help me face my alcoholism
I came from a drinking family and a drinking culture. My parents nicknamed me “Booze” when I was a tiny baby, I was so desperate for my bottle (my mother tried breast feeding me but could not produce enough milk so I started life starving). I probably had my first drink when I was twelve. At fourteen I went on my first bender. By my twenties I had learnt how to drink 'responsibly' and only occasionally got pie-eyed or behaved inappropriately. I started a career, got married, brought up a family. Each year, the amount I drank steadily increased. It was just a habit, something I did every day. Not getting drunk, usually, just going up to bed relaxed and happy.
As the pressures of work, paying school fees and a mid life crisis began to mount, so did the amount of alcohol I put away each day, every day. My wife began to tell me I was an alcoholic. I got very angry and defensive. I didn't hide bottles, I didn't drink before lunch time, I could go without a drink for a day, even a week sometimes. She was being unreasonable. Look what I had to deal with. I needed a drink at the end of a hard day. I began to work at home, alone. Some days I was a bit hungover and didn't get much done. Some days I was depressed, and didn't get much done. Some days I simply couldn't be bothered. If my children interrupted me, or my wife nagged, I shouted and slammed doors and told them to leave me alone. Soon after my 48th birthday my wife left me. In desperation I tried to stop drinking and in part succeeded, but it was too little, too late.
At which point I felt, despite great grief, a huge sense of relief. I said to someone it was as if I'd been carrying a really heavy load and it had suddenly been lifted from my shoulders. I had no money and a lot of debts, no family, no responsibilities, not much of a job, and I felt as if I was in my teens or twenties, but without the angst. I started meditating again every day (before I married I had lived in an ashram for two years, not drinking, smoking or eating meat, and giving all my money to the community). I sold and gave away everything I could not fit in my car – a barn full of books, pictures and furniture – and moved up to Yorkshire to look after my elderly father.
One day, I saw in my local parish church a poster on the notice board about a Christian Meditation group in Osmotherley. The Dalai Lama had said people should follow their own religious tradition, and I had been brought up as a Catholic, so I went up and joined the group, once a week. I was still drinking and smoking and using cannabis, but I meditated every day, sometimes twice a day, and felt that if I kept it up, somehow those things would drop away.
During this time I met and fell in love with P. After a year or so we got married and I moved back down south to live with her in Essex. I signed up for a course in The Roots of Christian Mysticism at St Marks, and started attending immediately after we got back from our honeymoon. And I carried on meditating.
A strange thing happened in my marriage. Within it seemed a very short time, it was if the history of my first marriage, that had lasted over twenty years, had been concertina-ed into two. I was experiencing the same feelings of depression, frustration, anger, irritation and hopelessness. We had terrible rows. P kicked me out of the house, and began to get more and more unhappy about my drinking. After the rows, we'd patch things up and things seemed to get back on a more even keel for a while and then they would blow up again. I went off on retreats (I liked going on retreats because I didn't drink and it would make me feel a bit better about myself), I got a job, we worked on our house and garden, but at some point things reached another crisis, and I knew that drink had something to do with it. I decided to go to an AA meeting in Colchester.
The meeting was in the Friends Meeting House where I'd been before for Quaker meetings. It felt warm and good to be there and I had no problem saying “I'm David and I'm an alcoholic” and sharing my story with the group. Suddenly I seemed to see my future in a rosy glow; I could see a way ahead, a way out of my dependence on alcohol and away from the damage it was doing to me and our marriage. I became quite evangelical about AA and was very open with people I knew about my being an alcoholic. I found it very easy to stop drinking, and went off to parties and stayed sober, and enjoyed life. The best thing was being able to be honest, especially at AA meetings, about my dependence, my feelings, the damage I had caused. I went to meetings once or twice a week, in different places near our home. Unfortunately there wasn't a meeting in our village, but I had my motor bike and I was sober so it wasn't a problem.
One day, after working through a long hot summer's day, I felt I deserved a beer. One wouldn't do any harm. I joined the lads at the pub round the corner from the yard, sat in the sunshine, and drank two pints. They were lovely. Then I got up and rode home, about 20 miles away. Just before I got home, a woman in a four track pulled out of traffic without indicating or looking. Although I was only travelling at 15 mph, she was too close for me to avoid crashing into her front wing. My left foot took the full force of the collision. I was only wearing light shoes and it looked as if I had almost removed my foot. In fact it was badly lacerated and I was in deep shock and the motor bike was a write off. The ambulance crew were kind, several of them were fellow bikers. The policeman thought I was probably at fault and breathalysed me, but I was under the limit. I was taken off to Broomfield Hospital and at about midnight a pleasant Indian doctor came in and tipped a bottle of iodine over my foot, which hurt, and stitched my wounds up and sent me up to a ward, where I had to stay for two weeks as they were worried about infection. Then they sent me home on crutches. I carried on meditating, and drinking, but only a little by my former standards, and about a month later went off for a retreat to Monte Oliveto, which was magical and another story.
But because I no longer had transport, I didn't go to AA meetings any more. And I couldn't carry on working as I had no way of getting to my job. The truth was, although I had said I was an alcoholic, I didn't want to be one – I wanted to be normal, like other people, and drink like other people. For a while it seemed to work. But gradually my drinking increased. I'd take days off, sometimes almost a week, but as time passed the gaps between not drinking got longer and the amount I drank every day steadily increased. I liked drinking alone. All the time I still meditated, usually twice every day, and I only started drinking after my evening meditation. And I waited for the drinking to stop.
I got another job, I was paid a lot of money in damages by the insurance company for my pain and suffering, I started working very hard, P and I seemed to be getting on fine together, I went on more retreats, I carried on meditating.
I used to look forward to being left on my own. P would go to choir practice, or go away on holiday with a friend, or go up to London to stay with her daughter, and I would light the fire, cook a meal, watch the telly, and drink. Every four weeks or so I went up to Yorkshire to look after my father for a weekend, where I would feed him, meditate, drink and pass out in front of the telly. I'd drive back on the Sunday feeling dreadful – hungover, depressed, ashamed, vowing not to do it the next time. One weekend I arrived and didn't bring or buy any whisky. So I drank half a bottle of gin, a bottle of sherry, a bottle of white wine and several beers instead, and felt even more frightened and depressed.
Most days I was fine. I woke up feeling less than 100% but I did a good day's work. Sometimes I just sat at my desk, depressed and frustrated, playing solitaire all day on the computer, and went home angry and frightened and drank to drown out the bad feelings. I began to feel as if I was walking or wobbling around the edge of a deep pit, and that a few more benders would tip me over into the abyss, and I would lose our marriage, P, my children, my job and become what I have been frightened of becoming all my life, a homeless bum, desperately looking for enough money to buy another drink. I helped with a soup kitchen for the homeless, and felt like a fraud in front of those men and women, quietly grateful for a cup of tea or coffee, for soup and a sandwich. It made me feel a bit better about myself, but it did nothing to fill the void inside me, or make me feel I was
really a worthwhile human being. I drove the village community bus, and I was involved with the church, edited the WCCM newsletter, and worked hard for little or no money because the company couldn't afford to pay me. So to some people, maybe, I looked like an upstanding member of the community. And I meditated every day, twice and now even three times a day.
Things finally came to a head when P and I went off to Italy for a holiday. I was on holiday so I was going to drink as much and as often and whenever I liked. I wasn't drunk, although my daughter and I finished off two bottles of whisky on two successive nights, and I was very unkind to P over dinner one night. On our own, we travelled south on the train, and then on by hired car to a house P had rented in Umbria. The drive to the house was a nightmare. P was furious with me, mainly for drinking so much, and I shouted back at her as we drove through the dark. I felt she was being unfair, that she was completely in the wrong, that this was an impossible situation, and that perhaps I should just leave. I had a back pack. I could just pack it up, and walk out. Perhaps I could walk to Monte Oliveto and stay with the monks there. Or travel back to Genoa and stay with my daughter. The situation felt worse because I had no money, and was entirely dependent on P. In the end, I stayed put, said nothing more about it, and stuck to a little wine and beer for the rest of the holiday. We had a nice time, although I hated not being able to drink freely, and we had no more real rows.
Then we got home, and I went back to work, harder than ever. P stopped drinking altogether (she never drinks more than a whisky in the evening, and even then, only occasionally). I started buying whisky on the sly and hiding a bottle in draws, or on top of cupboards. The business started to improve and I realised we had actually made a profit for the past two years, and that it might have a future.
When I had finished a whisky bottle I hid it, and took it to work and threw it in the bin there. One day I realised I had thrown a bottle into the bin almost every day for over a week. It finally sank in – I really am an alcoholic, I cannot control this, it controls me – and that if I do nothing, I really will lose everything that matters to me, never mind my shame and self hatred and the nastiness of living a lie all the time. It was as if my life had divided into two parts. Respectable, hard working, honest, meditating David, and then between seven o'clock and bedtime, this lunatic who only thought about the next drink and didn't care what he did to get one. Then bed, and a sort of passing out sleep, and it would start all over again.
A couple of weeks before it was due to take place, I heard about the 11th step retreat in London. I still hadn't brought myself to admit I really needed help, but with my business plans getting off the ground, I just wanted a break from this merry go round of work and drink and a chance to clear my head. And a part of me was hoping that maybe something would click, inside me, on this retreat. Meditating wasn't working and perhaps meeting other alcoholics who were also meditating would help me understand what was going on. So I dithered for a few days, and thought I might make a retreat on my own at home (I couldn't really afford to pay for the weekend) and then P said I should go and that she would pay for the retreat. So I went.
It wasn't like an AA meeting, at first. Fr Laurence gave a talk, and then left. Saturday we had more talks. Then I met another meditator whom I first met when I went to Monte Oliveto. I was surprised to see him there and assumed he was something to do with organising the weekend. But he said no, something had happened. That night we had an AA sharing meeting, where we sat in a circle and told our stories. I kept wanting to tell my story, but alcoholics do like to talk, and somehow someone else kept getting in first. Then my friend started to talk, and told us how he'd become an alcoholic 18 months ago, and then started going to AA and stopped drinking. Then he stopped going to meetings, stopped seeing his AA sponsor. Then he went home to see friends, and fell off the wagon big time. The penny dropped. I had stopped going to meetings, and then . . .
On Sunday morning I went down to yoga with Betty. Linda was there and she asked me how I had slept. Badly, I told her, dreaming all night as I had each night I'd been sober – three nights so far. I told her what I would have told the meeting the night before and she was very kind. I felt relieved to have got it off my chest, that I was no longer pretending to be an ordinary meditator who had just happened up on this retreat; I was here because I am an alcoholic and I had admitted that to someone other than myself. The first step. Suddenly I felt lighter, glad to be here, glad I came.
Fr Laurence gave us a lovely mass. I debated whether or not to take the communion wine and decided in the end 2 millilitres wasn't likely to push me off the wagon, although I noticed lots of people didn't. Afterwards Lawrence talked about Jacob's dream of the angels going up and down the ladder to heaven, and asked us what we thought about it. I piped up and said I thought the rungs were the twelve steps, and the two rails were the inner and outer, meditation and meetings. So of course I had fallen off the wagon, and my friend had too, because we had both thought the ladder would stand up with only one rail, meditation, and it can't. There are lots of other things in there too; wanting to be normal, to drink like other people, not wanting to admit that I am an alcoholic and that alcohol controls me, and always will. Wanting to conquer this thing on my own. Not wanting to admit to others that I am damaged and weak. That many of the woes and tragedies in my life have been caused simply and directly by my alcoholism, not by bad luck, or other people.
So had my furious meditating been completely useless? The point is meditation doesn't do anything, and that's how it does what it does. I think my meditation shone a clearer and clearer light on my desperate drunken self, to the point that drunk me was like an animal trapped in a bubble, between 7pm and midnight, or for whole weekends if I was on my own, and meditating me saw this other self more and more clearly. And I saw what power alcohol had over me, and how I really couldn't defeat it on my own. But until I was prepared to ask for help, meditation would just keep shining the light, keep raising the pressure, until something would have to burst, and not necessarily in a good way. “You cannot be silent and continue to be dishonest. You must either give up dishonesty or give up silence.” (G Pierce)
I have been sober for seven days, which is the longest time I have been sober in four years. I am determined not to drink again. I have hurdles to jump; a dinner party with old friends, a weekend alone with my father, Christmas, a skiing holiday perhaps in the New Year, and I have to learn to enjoy these things without alcohol. I have to go to AA meetings every week and be disciplined about that, and do the twelve steps with my sponsor and maybe help someone else. Right now I am as high as a kite, because I feel whole, I'm no longer lying to the world or to myself about who I am and what I do. I know that won't last, and that I have to cope with the downs without alcohol, as well as the ups and normal day to day life. There is a lot of wisdom in AA, people who've been down this road, who understand some of things that make us alcoholic, and the tricks the mind plays trying to persuade us we're cured, we can cope, we can be normal, just like everyone else. The inner judge, the perfectionist, taking on too much, and then, if we succeed, the reward of a drunk, and if we fail, the consolation of a drunk. Meditation helps with all of that, but it cannot do it alone, I cannot do it alone. And it is lonely being an alcoholic.
God leaves us free. He fills our space but does not displace, even my drunken self. We only have to ask sincerely, and our wish is granted, but we have to ask, and we have to really really mean it. Some people have to go to some terrible places to get desperate enough to do that. I am lucky, I still have a great deal to lose, I have family and friends who love me and support me, I have a job to do, and reasonable good health. A bit of me feels like a scaredy cat – I stopped before I fell in to the pit, but of course I could still do that at any time, and I need all of the above and AA to help me stay out of it, and will do until the end of my life.
Before the retreat and at the start I felt that I had done the twelve steps, all of them, fully, apart perhaps from 4. Taking a fearless moral inventory and 5. Admitting to God, myself and to another, the exact nature of my wrongs. The only thing I hadn't / wasn't doing was not drinking! Now I'm less sure I've done any of them – I've thought about them, I agree with them, but have I actually really, truly deeply done any of them? So I should start.
Also, as someone said in a talk on the retreat, alcoholics are defiant (I was always described as stubborn and obstinate by my prep school headmaster but I just thought he was a blow hard). I'm just not prepared to admit I cannot do it on my own, that I need help. I didn't want to let P have power over me, or anyone to whom I was close. It might be OK to confess to a counsellor (although in two years with one I never said anything about my drinking) or to a retreat leader, but not to someone near to me, whom I love and whose respect I want to keep.
AA is not about conversion, but about conversion of manners – metanoia.
The way we are wounded by our own wrongdoing, more perhaps than the person we have wronged. We carry the guilt and regret and self hatred with us for years and use alcohol to keep it at bay.
I spoke into a recorder about my drunken self, the angry gollum in the bubble, as a Shadow 3-2-1 exercise. I realised I felt compassion and pity for him. Gollum with his “Precious” really is a perfect description of an addict or alcoholic.
I'm bursting with happiness because I haven't had a drink since last Thursday and I hope I'm never going to drink again – so what do I feel like doing? Having a drink!