One of the first things I heard when I joined A.A. was from a crusty old-timer named Curtis. “You know” he growled at me one day in his deep and smoky drawl, “while you are sitting here in this A.A. meeting, your disease is out on the sidewalk doing push-ups.” I walked away confused. What in the world was he talking about? How does a disease do push-ups? Does my addiction have a gym membership? Am I paying for that? What does that even mean?
It took years of meetings for me to finally realize that Curtis was right. My disease is still doing push-ups, trying to get stronger, every single day. Even now, knowing the harm it would cause, I still want to drink sometimes. Because life can be difficult and my alcoholic heart is still beating inside of me, I tend to crave escape. At its core this heart is nervous, afraid. It is a heart that wants to run and hide. But mostly I know that the disease gains power, even while we are living in recovery, by watching once-sober alcoholics go out and drink again, only to find themselves much worse after that experience (if they survive) than they ever were pre-sobriety.
I also know it because I have my own thoughts. Thoughts that run me around and make me feel a loser, like I missed out. “Why didn't you drink in the morning you idiot?!” my disease likes to chastise me. “You had your chance at daily morning drinking and now it’s gone. Gone!” “You really loved those drugs, didn't you? And yet, you didn't do them nearly enough. You missed a golden opportunity, my friend.” “You know you can snort heroin, don’t you? You don't have to inject it. Why didn't you ever try that? It could have been life changing for you. For the better!” How snorting heroin could have made my life better is a mystery to me but my disease is convinced that it would have…
The other day, I heard a young man named Jake speak at a meeting. I knew we were simpatico as soon as I heard his story. Jake has been sober just shy of one year but listening to him was inspiring. His qualification for the group was powerful. After the meeting I met Jake outside on the sidewalk and thanked him for his service. It was an unusually warm fall day and Jake and I were standing on the sidewalk admiring the exuberant colors. Then, turning away from the radiant fall foliage Jake turned to me and said, “I really miss drinking.”
I felt a cool shiver of fear run through me. Jake had just given us all a master class on recovery. A 20 minute talk about his life today and the amazing gifts he has been given in sobriety. And yet, not 5 minutes later, he confided in me that he really misses drinking. The disease was there, laying in wait, just like Curtis had said it would be. I was afraid for Jake but also for myself.
I was speechless. And then I admitted “I miss it too sometimes.” Which is the truth.
There we stood, on the sidewalk. The same sidewalk upon which our disease is doing all those damn push-ups. It’s still there for some of us. The urge. The first thought. The pull towards the high. The missing it. The FOMO, The false “it wasn't really that bad” assurance that my disease would have me believe. My disease was a beast when I entered A.A. After all these years of doing push-ups on the sidewalk while I sat in meetings (trying to learn tools to deal with it), I'm sure by now it’s a raging monster. Capable of a complete and brutal annihilation.
Suddenly, Jake and I snapped out of it. Laughing, safe in the knowledge that, although some of our friends can go out and drink to oblivion and do drugs recreationally, we cannot. We will always want to drink more, do more, party more. And that will lead us to the extremely isolating “party of one”. Jake knows this. He talks about it. Last year he tried to stop drinking on his own. He lasted 18 hours before he suffered an alcohol withdrawal-related seizure and fell into a 10-day coma followed by a 2-week stay in the hospital from which he emerged so weak he was unable to hold a fork. His parents held it for him when he needed to eat. He was 35 years old. And yet he misses it. That is the disease of addiction. Our disease would have us miss what we thought drugs and alcohol gave us, relief. When what it really gives us, once in the addicted stage, is unrelenting misery.
Jake and I know that because of our excesses or our genetics or our issues or whatever, we are no longer afforded the luxury of moderation. But we also know how beautiful it is to have a community of people that get it. People whose disease uses the same language to lure them back to the dark side that it uses on us. This is a community of like-minded individuals all with the same goal of staying sober, helping each other and enjoying our second chance at this experience called life.
There are no guarantees in recovery. I know people who had been sober in A.A. for 20, even 25 years, who decided to test the waters once more. They soon found out, the hard way, what Curtis had warned me about all those years ago. The disease of addiction is out there, doing push-ups, getting stronger, stockpiling new ammunition against our A.A. reserves.
When I leave my meetings in the morning, I like to imagine all our diseases out there waiting for us. Lined up like huge disproportionate Venice Beach bodybuilders. Glistening with baby oil and malice. They're perversely tan, angry, roided out, doing endless push-ups. And then, when we walk by, arm in arm with our sober fellows, at peace, paying them no mind, they chase us down and start screaming. “What about me? I miss you. We had fun. Remember? Come play with me.” Then, in my mind’s eye, I can turn around, face the fierce and furious disease accosting me on the sidewalk and calmly say, “not today Mister, not today”.