I met Alan at one of my first A.A. meetings in New York City. Alan is an actor but was surviving by waiting tables and driving a NYC cab. Alan would string a few days or weeks of sobriety together but then the intense need to use would overwhelm him, fast and furious, and he would be gone again. He chased sobriety for years on end.
One day in a meeting Alan described what was making him repeatedly pick up and his description made me want to run for the nearest vodka bottle - so be forewarned. Alan explained to us that when he was not using drugs and alcohol he felt like Frankenstein's monster, barely held together with screws in all his joints. Head, neck, jaw, shoulders, arms, back, legs, even his spine, all held together with these screws. He explained how while abstinent from alcohol and weed, every day he would feel those screws getting tighter and tighter and tighter. The screws would dig deeper and deeper into him, creating intense tension. Every joint tightened to the maximum and beyond, until it was almost unbearable to go on. Until he felt so over tightened and ready to snap that even moving his neck was difficult. His teeth were chronically glued together with tension. He felt he had to use or he would explode. So he would grab some beers and call his weed dealer. And the minute he took that first sip he would feel all those screws, which had been tightened to beyond the breaking point, just whizzing out of him. Whoosh!!!! Flying through the air and banging off of his tiny apartment's walls. Zip boom bang, out of every inch of his body - releasing all that tension that had been building up. And all that tightness, and all that teeth grinding, and holding on for dear life with white knuckles would suddenly just ooze out of him and be replaced with warm unadulterated relief. He said he wondered if this was what heroin felt like. Just coursing through your bloodstream and knocking you out with bliss. He would get that feeling just having MADE THE DECISION to use again. Even with half a beer in his system he would be drunk with joy.
Alan would sigh and fall back on his couch..where he would stay...for days, and then weeks, months and even years. He would occasionally emerge, squinting against the sunlight, to drive his cab or pick up a quick shift. Or even to attend an A.A. meeting. He’d come out just long enough to make some cash, and then he would slink back to his apartment and his isolation and his booze and his weed. A life which he could see - even in that wasted state - was incredibly sad. A life that was standing completely still. Dead still. And then, something truly disastrous started to happen. Even while high or drunk, that feeling of the tightening screws would slowly start to come back. That unbearable pressure of the screws tightening would sneakily creep back in. He could feel it move back into his body and mind so that even his jaw and teeth felt tight and ready to snap. Alan's dilemma was now even worse than before. He had fooled himself into believing that the only thing that was causing that awful over-tightened screw sensation throughout his body and mind was his abstinence. But now he knew that wasn’t it. He had that awful realization that all addicts eventually have: this no longer works. Those 4 simple words bring on anger, heartbreak, and despair. We feel betrayed. At that point we are well and truly screwed.
Alan had a big book and in his desperation he turned to it. He found this passage which changed his life. Big Book: The Doctor’s Opinion page xxviii: "Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them their alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are restless, irritable, and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks - drinks which they see others taking with impunity. After they have succumbed to the desire again, as so many do, and the phenonemenon of craving develops they pass through the well known stages of spree, emerging remorseful (and full of shame) with a firm resolution NOT to drink again. This is repeated over and over, and unless this person can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his recovery."
And what Alan came to realize was this. That what he needed was not more booze or weed or even longer periods of his miserable white-knuckle “sobriety”. What he needed was an entire psychic change....
"So I'll have the entire psychic change and a side of fries" he joked. "That easy? Sure! Coming right up!" He was minorly outraged and majorly confused, so he asked an A.A. friend who explained to him that the psychic change could be as easy as having the willingness to not pick up that first drink. Just the willingness to consider that option. The willingness to sit through the craving to see what the other side of one looks like. The willingness to try sobriety - one day at a time. One hour at a time if need be.
Alan did try it. And it was not easy. "It was the hardest thing I have ever done or will ever hope to do" he said. But for whatever reason this time it worked. Alan finally found (and held on to) what he had been looking for during his years of wandering in and out of A.A.. This time around Alan got and stayed sober. And he found a way to live a sober life. He learned ways to be comfortable in his own skin. Alan began to enjoy a more peaceful life, a life that includes joy and that moves forward, whatever forward brings.
The screws still tighten at times and it's uncomfortable. That's life. But they don't stay tight. That's the difference. And when we start to feel them tightening we learn to use the steps and the tools and the fellowship of A.A. to make sure that the screws never get so tight that we feel we have to pick up.
We don't have to use.