Friday, 6 July 2018

Alcoholism is a spiritual 'dis-ease', needing a spiritual solution - my experience, strength and hope

The last two blog pieces ventured onto spiritual territory, reviewing my friend Iain Gately’s book, The Secret Surfer, and talking about the influence of my father.  That continues to be spiritual.  Even though he died earlier this year, his spirit lives on.  He was so liberal in the old fashioned way - not controlling like today's 'liberals', armed with the strictures of political correctness.   He very rarely criticised me, but one concern stuck:  I lacked spirituality.  He was right.   People remember my father because he lived in the spirit much more than your average person.  This meant he was good to be with, not because he was rich or famous.  

I have been, and continue to be, a highly self-centred person.  External material objects are my fixes, especially alcohol, but it could be many things.  My religion is consumerism at large, something not restricted to the alcoholic class.  This is my problem - our problem.  We know this and it's getting worse.  Paul Simon knew it in 1964 when he wrote that epic song, The Sound of Silence:  in the modern age, materialism was crowding out spirituality with a silence.  By 2015, when the band 'Disturbed' covered this song, it sounds like rampant materialism is approaching total spiritual occlusion, and the powerful singing has became a grizzled gnarl by the end: as 'people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made'.  Mobile Mammon. (The Sound of Silence: Disturbed, 2011  Youtube - 400 million hits.  Or here: Apple Music). 

I used to glaze over at mention of the word 'spirituality' - from songs shouting out to me 'we are spirits in a material world' to A.A. members convinced 'it's a spiritual programme' - but I don't anymore.  My previous contempt, led me to miss out on new vistas in life - like real friendship and love, above all connection and meaning.  All I ever wanted was this connection and I thought I'd found it in drink, drugs and materialism, but I was looking the wrong way.  

Analysis is my trade, but intellectual revelation by the mind can only take me so far.  In pursuit of spirituality my thinking is dangerous because the ego side-tracks the mind, a real false consciousness.  My mind, dominated by egotistical desires, has been largely responsible for my closure of experience.  It is spiritually diseased.  Even so, despite being told to 'keep it simple',  I've written this blog piece as largely an intellectual justification for being more spiritual, yet my head is an untrustworthy ally in seeking the spirit.  It invents false personas, manipulates, demands recognition, seeks sympathy.  Nonetheless, this blog is spiritual discovery in imprecise words.  Real spiritual growth only takes place by living in this new world of truth and action.  Action does speak louder than words.

I don't just want to expand my spiritual life -  I know now I have to expand my spiritual experience.  I know – without such expansion - my conscious thinking and wrong-sized ego drive will inevitably lead me back to the bottle.  I have pretty serious liver disease and the dear organ just can't take any more abuse.  I am skint but never happier.  It has taken a thorough breaking by alcoholism to summon sufficient honesty, open-mindedness and willingness to truly embrace spiritual concepts.  It is from the destruction of ones life that one can see more clearly.  As Jesus said: 'blessed are the meek'.  The spiritual message is more likely to be received by the damned, and its why 'the words of the prophets' (speaking out against 'The Sound of Silence') are 'written on the subway walls, and tenement halls'.  The poor, distressed parts of town.  

So, my spiritual growth is the most important thing in my life now – bar nothing.  It is a matter of survival.  This is the gift of desperation. I must have a fundamental change of outlook or it's curtains.  I had strenuously avoided the spiritual route because of my belligerent denial.  It was the last way I tried to get long-term sobriety.  The soft options came first and didn't work.  I've had to learn this the hard way.

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Talk of 'spirituality' conjures up thoughts of 'religion', though religion is very different to spirituality.  The two concepts shouldn't be confused.  The religions of the world have much to offer, hitting similar spiritual themes.  Most importantly, man should always be subservient to the almighty Gods – at least in theory – he is insignificant compared to them.  It tethers him, demanding perspective and humility.  This is a helpful antidote to man’s rampant humanism of the last millennia, with its central tenet that he is God on earth and can successfully shape the world around him. How smashed to bits that idea was, after the horrors of the 20th Century.  The grand theories or ideologies such as Fascism and Marxism were rooted in optimism that, through an activist style of politics, man could design a better world.      

Worse still, whilst humanism was busy destroying itself, it also took it’s own myth of salvation, Christianity, down with it, in a cultural descent to material comfort and spiritual nihilism.  The two chief wreckers were both scientific.  First was Marx who trumped God with deterministic laws of material economics.  He asserted that ‘Religion is only an illusory sun, around which man revolves, until he begins to revolve around himself’ – then he is finished.  Second was Darwin, for whom biology replaced theology through the mechanism of natural selection.  Within evolution, humans are merely a passing part of a continuum between the amoeba and some futuristic mutation.  Their primal parent is not Adam, but the monkey.

On a personal level, I have found that a life propelled by self-will is really no life: there is no peace for me or truth in that, just failure.  And the gift of alcoholism sent the trajectory of my failure into a spiralling nose-dive.  I didn't need to wait until death's door for a change of direction.  I know most people don't pull out of this final precipitous fall of the last two years of alcoholism - when I spent seven separate stays of a week or more, in St. Peter's Hospital Chertsey.

So what am I doing?

The trouble is finding an alternative in a religion, some place of salvation between self and death in an age when religion is being cut down.  The main problem here is this.  Religions are only human interpretations of how we could apply meaning to the world around us.  They are spirituality codified and ritualised into neat packages.  Non-conformists don't like that, especially Quakers.  The packages contain a high quotient of spirituality, but with dollops of human ego mixed in.  They have introduced 'dualistic' notions of heaven and hell, good and bad, in an effort to make spirituality more meaningful, but that only frightens me further.  Religion, has become highly moral, and tainted the spirituality which comes with it, because the moral is equated with ‘good’.  We don’t like that much, knowing our failings are often pleasures of material consumption.  We also find it hypocritical when churches and churchmen clearly aren’t so moral themselves.  And all the religious wars were started by humans, using the name of their own God in vain, and their peculiar definitions of what is right, to pursue their own vanities. 

One Christian writer is not afraid to say directly that it is time for us to acknowledge Christianity’s past fraught with imperialism and colonialism:


(Around 1450), Pope Nicholas V issued an official document called Romanus Pontifex . . . which serves as the basis for what is commonly called the Doctrine of Discovery, the teaching that whatever Christians “discover,” they can take and use as they wish. . . . Christian global mission is defined as to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” non-Christians around the world, and to steal “all movable and immovable goods” and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery”—and not only them, but their descendants. And notice the stunning use of the word convert: “to convert them to his and their use and profit.”  

(Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (Convergent: 2016), 76-77.)


When criticising Christianity, we all too readily forget that these failings were human ones, not god-ones.  Self- assigned moral perches were never safe places to stand for any human and the moralist Kant should have known.  His insistence that man can reason the right course of action, doesn’t mean he will follow it.  He is 'human, all too human' as Nietzsche later despaired.  A.A. - if it was a church, never let small groups have power, was political or economic.  It's 12 Traditions are part of its genius.  

My spiritual quest has taken me back further in time than modern religions, to something that is one universal and eternal truth – ‘to be or not to be’ as Shakespeare put it, simply what exists.  I have come to believe there is just one thing in this world, and we are all it.  It is the energy that lies beyond the smallest particle and is responsible for all matter in its various guises, from dark matter to the accumulation of Quarks and Nanos that we see as material objects.  

Spirituality for me is a blank canvas that cannot conflict with any part of myself, just this throbbing pulse of energy that lies beyond.  My ego-self or instinctive drives, whilst necessary for self-preservation and procreation in their normal function, are a bar to tapping into this pulse when they become over-whelming compared to what I simply need - instead supplying what I want - and that is mood-altering substances to make me feel at ease.  Through a spiritual lens, I see these egotistical thoughts and behaviours as unreal - not existing at all.  They are not inline with the universal spirit of this world.  They are isolated, small and insignificant.  They are just my own construction.  I can be aware of them, retreat and detach.  When I do this – a sort of half-meditation, I see it for what it really isn’t, it isn’t me.  It doesn't really exist.  'I' - as expressed by these overly egoistical traits cannot be allowed to define me, but they do, all too often.  They are the killers, the bogeymen.  Gradually, the more I detach from these monsters, the more fictitious they become.  Here is half-way spirituality: I can see, I am aware, I can make a list of my own inventory of defects - I gain enough perspective or humility with distance from.
 
I am told by my spiritual teachers there is a further point of detachment.  It is eternal, still and the highest state of consciousness.  Mooji (see Youtube) says we get there by asking the question: ‘Can you see the seer?’, likewise Rupert Spira says that spiritually is about ‘being aware of being aware’.  In both cases, the first through a wonderfully gentle talk, the second by mediation, we are asked to be twice removed from our ego-self.  In the first detachment, I am simply aware that I am experiencing thoughts, feelings and sensations rather than experiencing them first hand - aware of them, not immersed in them.  That is about as far as I can travel for now.  That is my experience.  But when I try and direct my attention towards the experience of being aware – being aware of being aware – being twice removed, it is much harder.  Try it.  We struggle to focus ourselves on the external object of the sensation, not on awareness itself.  This is inside us, and spirituality is most definitely an 'inside job'.  There lies peace, whilst looking outwards for salvation lies unrest.  Unfortunately, consumerism is precisely the opposite, and it is the defining modus operandi of our age.    

We cannot easily sink backwards away from us and our new world of objects.  The tough assignment required is simply being – or being aware, dislocated from the ego.  This is being present and in the spirit.  It cannot be affected by the vicissitudes of the ego – it is eternal, limitless and quiet.  It is looking inwards, never outwards towards an external object which is always ephemeral.  The later is where the vast majority of us spend our limited days (moi aussi), now often through social media.  We rarely think to detach once from our immersion in our ego, to recognise that this maybe isn’t my defining world, let alone detach twice and experience one universal, eternal and shared truth of higher consciousness.

I move to that more spiritual experience slowly and lurch back into the material world with the flick of a switch.  For example I use social media (like this article) and yesterday posted pictures of myself dressed up as a soldier driving an army jeep.  How wonderful I looked I felt, just look at me, I should have starred in a WW2 movie...  

I will never get perfect spirituality, but closer to it, more of the time, is good enough.  I have falsified what I am moving away from – ego – and that is good enough.  Simply practising awareness and changing my behaviour as a result, in new actions is the virtuous circle I am looking for.  It is learning.  It's perspective and humility.  It is spiritual growth.  When I fail, I don't knock myself about too much, instead I laugh at my pretentiousness - me the army soldier!


We're in the army now.  Albs immersed in his ego self.

When we detach from our ego-selves, we should find enlightenment, mockery and humour.  But our egos fight back.  Mine tells me that I will lose all meaning in life, particularly my capacity to create things and formulate ideas.  I get frightened, it’s like hanging on a rope over a cliff and not wanting to let go.  Letting go of ego will be the very death of me, I think.  But really the fall isn’t life threatening at all, and when I land I am solid ground.  It feels much safer and peaceful, and less effort.  In short I am not tired of living, I’m not killing myself, but just tired of being tired hanging on.  The amount of energy saved can be redirected in much more fulfilling ways.  I can do anything I feel comfortable in, just as long as it’s not climbing up to that cliff edge again.
Secondly, my ego is also adept at rubbishing spiritual ideas because I think I can rationalise against them, scientifically.  I tell myself we are just a mass of atoms, totally material.  Life is a war of all against all to protect our property and ourselves.  Thomas Hobbes was my political philosopher.  I thought I was 'less deceived', I was realistic.  Philip Larkin was my poet.  I lapped up Darwin, thinking there was some humility in man being the descended from the primeval swap, nothing more than an evolved ape.  But that wasn't humility at all.  It was devout scepticism - a really unpleasant outlook that I'll rather leave to people like Larkin and other perpetual depressives.  Even so, if I was to ever believe in spiritual concepts as the be all and end all, I would have to have a scientific explanation of the universe...

There were other agnostics in A.A. my fellowship of the broken.  One told me about Quantum physics.  What you have when you cut particles down to ever smaller ones and the Hadron Collider won’t take you any further - beyond the quarks, nanos and neutrinos – is a genuine mystery, a reductio ad absurdum. Maybe it's the Higgs Boson 'God Particle'. My rational mind cannot accept that we can keep knocking particles apart and finding smaller ones.  I baulk at infinity.  Indeed, the latest science in this field is converging with the idea that there is a spiritual basis for everything.  We cannot simply be a swirling mass of matter.  Something must lie behind that.  And indeed, we have got so small now with our latest minuscule particles that they have been proven to exist only some of the time.  Part of the time they disappear into ‘dark matter’.  Scientists believe this is because ultimate energy is wave-like, and the smallest particles only happen on the top of those waves.  We are getting closer to an end point in Quantum mechanics, where nothing exists but energy.  And it’s an easy step for me to equate this energy with the spirit because it must be universal and eternal.  It must be the source of everything, bar nothing.  As my sponsor, Michael says: 'This provides a simple explanation for why we only have to look within ourselves to find everything there can possibly be' (Michael Le Houx (2013), Far More Than We Think, Balboa Press, p.166). 

And if that is the ultimate scientific truth, then that is what we ALL are.  It is our common basis.  Ultimately, we are it.  It is one thing, it's not dual.  It may be benign or indifferent, depending on whether you are optimistic about the state of nature, or see it as red in tooth and claw (indifferent), or both.  I suppose that you could see the state of our nature as hostile like Larkin: this might be a problem that has more to do with yourself.  But ultimately it is just your understanding.  The spirit is the common ground that connects us all, which should yield peace and truth because it has to be stable, unaffected, as it is, by anything that could proceed it.  It is our blank canvas, that we can draw on as we like, even creatively, but honestly, as an expression of the spirit not as expressions of our ego-selves.  

I like the idea of scientists in their white coats converging back on spirituality, post Darwin, with their God particles.  It is postmodern, it is sceptical to me and wonderful.  It is certainly good enough for my purposes.  We will probably never know what is the ultimate truth, and I don’t have enough time to investigate further.  The science and theory ends here for now but was required for me.

***

To grow in this spiritual space requires awareness then action.  I need to experience spiritual living to become more spiritual, I can’t think my way into it.  I wish I could, because rationalising is the habit of a lifetime.  But it is a failed habit.  It is impossible to think oneself into recovery from alcoholism.  Instead, my new journey of building up again from a place of higher consciousness, what the scientists just call ultimate energy, is about slow spiritual experience, and having patience with it, when impatience is another habit of mine.  Nothing will now come down from above me - or outside of me - as some religions assert.  I cringe at the idea that some third-party is controlling me, even looking after me, in an intelligent and caring way.  'Me and him' is classic dualistic thinking.  There is just us, with no third-parties involved.  That is how religion sought to curry favour with us.  My recovery and experience is unique to me, thank you.  I am suspicious of the quote used in A.A. that ‘nothing happens in God’s world by mistake’ because it suggests there is something superior out there looking after us.  This specious stuff I can’t yet accept.  We have got where we are through a process of falsification.  The sceptical Larkin was surely right when he wrote: Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.  There is contingency in existence.  Anything could happen.  But this is not to deny the rhythmic beat of energy that lies behind everything and unites us all – and it isn’t our egos.

I am free to try anything on my new blank canvas, something religions often attempted to deny us.  At the same time I appreciate that with freedom, often comes misbehaviour, as the ego lets itself back into play.  There is no better example of this that cults that start off with emancipating free-love and then turn to murder and mass-suicide.  The sad fate of the Rajneeshpuram international community, who build a new city in Oregon, USA in the 1980s, shows how other bizarre goings-on happen when (non-dualist) spirituality and a charismatic group of gurus and leaders meet.  Do watch ‘Wild, Wild Country’ on Netflix’ about Osho and co – trailer here.  This is no reason to reject non-dualism on the back of that disaster, it just went wrong because of human frailties, but you may have different experiences, no better or worse, just different.

For me there has been no blinding flash of light.  Last Tuesday, my head was like a washing-machine.  Inside, resentments and fear were whirring around and around.  They were all about me.  I call this the 'hullabaloo'.  I do ‘service’ at this meeting in my hometown of Addlestone, Surrey, on Tuesday nights, greeting everyone when they arrive.  The primary purpose of this greeting is to welcome newcomers who may be nervous of coming in, or not know where to go.  It's around the back of the Baptist Hall.  I reward them with the encouragement that this may be the most important move of their life, and suggest they listen to the similarities, not the differences.  This is a spiritual programme, not a religious one, don't be put off by the use of the word 'God'.  Then I introduce them to all the other recovering addicts at the meeting, so they know there is a newcomer and can think about him or her.  Whereas in A.A. shaking hands is the norm, in N.A. it’s ‘hugs not drugs’. 

An auntie was looking after her 20 year old nephew who had left home because of his drug habit and need somewhere safe to live.  They were milling around outside the meeting entrance, not sure about coming in.  But they were the most important people to come in.  

I finally welcomed this newcomer and gave him a hug, something he wasn’t expecting at all.  Later, during the meeting itself, in his first ever share, he said it was at this moment that his fears drained away, and he felt a powerful connection.  It was indescribable, but he knew he was in the right place.  All the loneliness of his using was lost in that moment when pent-up ego was released, separation from the world was replaced with a lovely warm glow of unity.  I shared next and said it was exactly the same for me.  From the last three weeks I can’t remember much except this moment.  He has come back to meeting twice.  I had been of service to others and connected.   This friendship and unity is all I’ve ever wanted.  When I was drinking and using I was after the same, but I was looking outwards to external fixes, when real meaning was already within me.  As Rupert Spira has said: ‘There are two possibilities for thought – either to go outwards in the direction of objects and states, in which case it takes the form of suffering, or to go inwards towards the heart of the experience, in which case it dissolves in peace.’

Although I was spiritual intentioned, alcohol was no spiritual solution.  Booze was what my ego wanted, but not my soul.  It blocked me off from real meaning and truth.  In this way, Karl Jung, the eminent psychiatrist and a founding father of A.A. said of spiritual recovery from alcoholism: ‘spiritus contra spiritum’ – the spirits (ethanol) are against the spirit.  

This was brave of Jung because, in placing faith in spirits or unconsciousness as opposed to the rational mind, he was anti-Freudian.  He was in fact diametrically opposed to his former partner, Sigmund Freud, who thought the rational should suppress the dangerous sub-conscious.  Interestingly, Freud was a cocaine addict and never recovered from it, at least spiritually.  This was of course the really intriguing bit to the Freud-Jung split that we don't get to hear about in the film A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg (2011), good though that film is (simply because it's got Jung in it), but way too kind to Freud.  He is still held in such reverie that no film could show him snorting white lines of powder.  Needless to say, the film focuses on sexual relations, it's trap, and entirely misses the point.  

Freud deserves a proper Crucifixion one day, as I have discussed on this blog before.  He is right up there with Hitler and Stalin as a 20th Century grand villain, but of a more seductive western kind, whose thought led to how consumerism must be sold - deviously into the heart of the unconscious.  

The problem of the 20th Century for people with economic power, was no longer producing goods cheaply, but selling them.  The fear was over-production.  Only by tapping into people's unconscious desires, sexual ones to strict Freudians, could people be influenced by wants rather than needs.  

Worst still, the obvious conclusion from the work of Freud was that only benign experts could tap into the public's unconscious - and needed to - because there were plenty of bad people doing it in the pursuit of war (and anti-Semitism).  Matthew Freud took up this mantle as did another Freud family member, and more influential one - Edward Bernays.  I recommend you watch The Century of The Self by Adam Curtis, a documentary about Bernays and the influence of Freud.  It is about how those in political power have used Freud's theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.  Turn them into spiritually sick consumers.  In short, selling them a dummy.  Of course our true identities are not embodied by cars and ever grander houses, or any other externality that the advertising industry sells us.  This con-trick was Freud's work. 

For now we should really celebrate the extraordinary way Jung broke the mould and was the intellectual father of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Despite the claim that 'A.A. was America's greatest ever export', it's intellectual genesis was actually Swiss.  Jung was from Zurich.  He had treated a hopeless American alcoholic called Roland Hazard in 1931, who took the Jungian advice back to America - where it found the commonly regarded founder of A.A. Bill Wilson, 'passed-on' via their mutual alcoholic mate, Ebby Thatcher.  Jung had originally told Hazard that his case was indeed hopeless, but he might try a 'vital' spiritual solution - and why.  But this was dangerous, as Jung mentioned in only letter to Bill Wilson, of January 1961, thirty years later.  Jung was 85 by then, and only five months from death, but he still writes beautifully.  The letter is reproduced below (taken from Silkworth.net- https://silkworth.net/pages/aahistory/general/carljung_billw013061.phphttps://silkworth.net/pages/aahistory/general/carljung_billw013061.php)



Carl Jung's letter to 'the founder' of A.A., 1961.
  
     'Such an insight', that Hazard's craving for alcohol was a low level 'spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness' - prompted a question: 'How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood in our days?'
Here, Jung wasn't really talking about the Freudian consensus in which he rebelled, but to our dominant materialist culture.  He isn't just singling out alcoholics for looking to the wrong solution in life, it was everyone immersed in overly-material quests for meaning.  Alcoholism is only a particularly deranged aspect of a more pervasive sick malaise of modern man.


***

I write in two different ways.  This piece is pretty authentic so far, I am not writing to impress (bar the picture of me in the jeep which makes me feel like a five-star general).  Generally, I feel grounded.  Not every paragraph starts with the word ‘I’.  It clarifies my recovery and hopefully helps some other alcoholic who may read it - or those with a materialist bent who feels lost.  This type of writing is fast and easy.  I could go on and on, and I do...  Really I’m speaking from within, from my gut, without consciously using my head to construct clever or funny sentences.  It feels right.  I’m not manipulating to get a false sense of connection.  I naturally want you to enjoy reading this, but I don’t want you to like me.  I want to be of service to someone who might have struggled like me.  That is new.  I am aware of my ego, but I am resisting it.  This patience will break shortly when I give you an in depth analysis of what is physically wrong with me, because sympathy, although a poor second to praise, is another egotistical form of manipulation to get you and me to connect.  This false way of connecting is defined by a desperate insecurity and desire to me liked.  To write spiritually, indeed to do anything spiritually, I have to take ‘I’ out of the equation.  I have only one problem in life – that is my ego 'I' – and that is the conscious separation of me from the world around me, from you, from the spirit, from truth, from eternal peace.  It is as simple as that.

St Francis of Assisi expressed this in the same way.  He said ‘It is by self-forgetting that one finds, it is by dying that one is awakened to eternal truth (or peace)’.  He wasn’t an advocate for suicide, he was talking about the necessity to shrink the ego-self to find revelation.  Alcoholism is a misplaced quest to find meaning and truth outside ourselves in any number of ‘fixes’, but real peace only comes from finding true peace within ourselves.  The ego is actually a block on this, and whilst necessary for our survival, must be shrunken through humility – a key word in recovery – to find essential truths.

However, as Mark Twain once said: ‘There is a breed of humility which is itself a species of showing off.’  Just saying I am humbled – and yes I have lost so much – yes I can see the final terrifying full stop, isn’t very humble.   Left only with a clutch of rather scary medical reports to my name (my ego thinks), my addiction, the consequences, my neuroses seem like the only thing left on the table to win you over.  Anyone who knows me now will recognise this.  My girlfriend helpfully reminds me, whenever I mention the word ‘cirrhosis’, she shouts ‘Bingo’ and cracks up with laughter.

I am beginning to smile about myself now, in a healthy way, and it feels good.  Just thinking of my girlfriend makes me giggle.  All my life I have thought of myself as very important.  Now, standing within the ruins of all my projects that I thought would establish greatness and recognition – some sort of connection with the world, I do see more clearly.  The sport, politics, corporate business, academia and entrepreneurship have failed.  The high-paying jobs, the sports cars, the house, the girlfriends brought nothing.  All gone.

Armed with the full panoply of medical test results, there's no room left for one last drink.  It took a lot of exploring to get here, but it’s just my journey and where I needed to be.  Yes I am self-obsessed and neurotic, but I can see another path if I have some faith to travel down it.

So far I have talked about two blocks on my spiritual recovery, firstly the fear that it represents the end of Albert as an entrepreneurial creative, and with it the prospect material riches.  I have sometimes seen recovery akin to being banished to a rural backwater (like Dorset), the end of life as we know it.  Secondly, I can over rationalise, put simply, over-think things, whereas spiritual action is new, difficult and doesn’t come easily, set against materialist habit of a lifetime.  There is however a third block, which is the most serious:  a self-pitying, crawling, fatalism about myself, oh so tragic, even romantic.  My ego, having lost all else, now want to cast itself as some flawed genius, playing a game, dicing with death, in a carefree manner, in and out of hospital, vital organs failing, with interludes comedic.  My next blog piece focuses on this.

When we are in A.A. - at the beginning of meetings or before sharing - we introduce ourselves as 'my name is (whoever), I am an alcoholic'.  This is a good start to getting real, but also we are identifying ourselves as a type.  And from here, rather digging down into spiritual recovery, the ego can then derail us quickly, seizing on 'type'.  Some, go left, and become self-righteous.  They become Mr or Mrs Recovery and take much pride in their efforts to help others.  They talk a good game of all the measures they have taken and their daily practices to stay sober.  They are good at quoting from the A.A. bible, 'the big book' and other A.A. literature.  They want to show off their recovery.  Deep down there maybe fears and pains, but their typecast means they can't show it.

Others like me, equally ego driven, take a more dangerous diversion rightwards.  We aren't self-righteous, we are self-pitying.  Our identity is at the bottom, not the top like the self-righteous.  It's pride in reverse, but still pride.   We play the professional alcoholic of a class 'A' variety, rather than the role of 'professional recovering alcoholic' as the self-righteous do.  We aggrandise the extent of our malaise and ailments, we court sympathy and respect, not for being good, but being bad, sometimes tragic, sometimes gruesome, sometimes comedic.  Jeffrey Bernard is our patron saint.  We have the best war-stories.  We are the masters of struggle, hard-core victims of the disease who, a bit romantically, keep bouncing back.  We love the fellowship and want to be part of it by being its low-bottom cases, serving as a reminder.  Alcoholics like me can wax between self-righteousness and self-pity without ever hitting the comfortable middle-ground of right-sized self-esteem.  We struggle with balance and are prone to extremes.

Self-piteous thinking leads me back to the bottle faster though, playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with the doctors and medical tests, because it all adds to the story: Albert, romantically and terminally unique.  The trick of the game, what titillates me in a very sick way, is going so close to death that you all think I’m going to die, but not crossing over into extinction.
 
I think it’s interesting, even exciting.  I want just one more near fatal rock-bottom, but without the pain of death itself.  Being close to the eternal spirit, there I may find some life-changing revelation.  I wouldn’t go so far as Hamlet in his morbid muse: ‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come’ – My agnosticism sees total death forever.  The anaesthetic from which none come round.   I want to toy with death, usually in a hospital, without the pain but with plenty of attention.  I think that’s why people like roller-coasters and bungee-jumping.  It’s that magical moment when you think you’re a goner and then you pull out of the dive, or the elastic snaps back, as close to the ground as possible, both death defying and denying.  Whilst I’m now obsessed with my health and have started to take pleasure in hospitals as that never-land between relapse and recovery and a return to the half-destroyed flat, others are plain bored by all my talk.  It is hard to grab hold of some hope that isn’t egocentric and ghastly, be cheerful and grateful.  Be patient, live in the present tense and have a granule of faith it will be alright, alive.  I know I am an alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver, with several side orders of physical complications.  I know that I have no wilful power over alcohol, drugs or any other external stimulant.  I know the third block on my recovery - the game of brinkmanship with alcohol on one side and liver tests on the other - is a doomed game.

****

There is another way.  Hope.

When the 5-10 per cent of alcoholics who are recovering long-term hit their rock bottom, many did not bother asking the question: why do I drink?  This was wise.  They just accepted they were alcoholic and moved on - into getting better.  They attend meetings, get a sponsor and do what he or she says.  They didn’t baulk at spiritual concepts that conflicted with their sense of self.  Instead they drop their arms and surrender to win.  They go to any lengths, as instructed.  Resistance has crumbled out of a gift of desperation.  All the step work and recovery practice isn’t questioned.  They get happier and grateful.  That inspires others (apart from the rancorous in recovery who distrust and dislike these ‘joy-boys’.  I’ve been one of those.) 

The winners get more social and less isolated.  Their defects of character are self-recognised and they are addressed.  They are never perfect, far from it, but they are progressing and aware.  They make amends to who they harmed and continue to look at their behaviour on a daily basis, and when they are wrong promptly admit it.  Healthy self-esteem is restored.  They keep their focus on today, not yesterday or tomorrow.  Somewhere during this process they are promised a spiritual awakening – a change of outlook on life – away from the pernicious egoistical approach towards a newly uncovered and good spiritual self – loving and helpful of others.  They come to believe that their self-will is not the master but the problem.  Sanity comes with finding new power.  It’s not them but it’s in them.  The promises they were given when they entered recovery by old-timers in A.A. – which they accepted unconditionally at the time – do actually come true. 



It’s a simple programme and it works for those who are honest, open-minded and willing.  Ultimately the choice is this.  It’s me and my failed ideas that have led me back to the bottle again and again, madly; or it’s the distilled wisdom of millions of successfully recovering alcoholics who have found the rooms of A.A. and N.A. since the 1930s.  It is there that formulas of success are passed on by those who have experienced them, and where bad ideas are sieved out, as their proponents relapse and leave the meetings, or die.  All the basic information you need to recover is there, along with heaps of love and fellowship.  The therapeutic benefit of one addict helping another is without parallel.  But it’s often helpful advice that I’ve failed to heed.  The answers lie there for me, not in my sick head.  There is wisdom in that crowd.  Far more than in any so called 'expert', be he a doctor or a psychiatrist.  A.A. is a fountain of hard found solutions through experience.

Those successful in long-term sobriety know it is not enough to simply put down the bottle or just attend meetings.  They know they will never be fixed, they will always be alcoholic and to maintain their sobriety and keep sane, they must live in this new spiritual world by taking action – praying and meditating to detach from the hullabaloo, attending meetings, helping others, keeping ‘their house clean’ because sure as hell they can’t fix others.  They do all they can to stay sober because life has become so precious.  They want to pass the message on without telling the world.

I have been trying to do all of this since I first entered Clouds House treatment centre in January 2006.  I’ve failed, and it’s me that’s failed – not all the rehabs (x8), hospital stays (x7 in the last two years), psychiatrists (x5), desperate family members (x5), friends, employers (x4), counsellors (x10) who have tried to help.  I have beaten myself up about it, and that has led me back to using and drinking in a ghastly downward spiral.  I’ve been called every name under the sun for being self-indulgent, and not having the will power to carry recovery through.  But, in truth, although I have accused myself of ‘talking the talk’ and not ‘walking the walk’ – paying lip-service to recovery, there has been something much more pernicious going on deep down inside of me.  My failures haven’t been for a lack of will or effort, but quite the opposite.  Rather than being confirmatory in my approach, I have been exploratory.  For me the conclusion always comes after the research, data and analysis. I am never convinced of anything until all the results are in.  Strictly speaking, this is the academic way, at least to start with.  (A confirmatory approach, where you start with the revelation and then seek to confirm or disprove it, is permissible, but the hypothesis will have come from another place.)
 
You will say, just how much data do you need to prove that you are alcoholic and are going to die unless you stop?  Indeed.  For an alcoholic, exploration is a dangerous luxury.  Firstly, he may not have any time to explore, he will probably become physically sick and expire before he reaches his conclusions.  He may venture beyond the place of no return, where all hope is extinguished.  Exploring, when it should be without alcohol, rarely is.  It so quickly turns to digging a bigger hole.  And thirdly the explorer, rather than the man of action, is likely to get distracted into bad or sick thinking – reinforcing the ego rather than undermining it, and that ego wants to drink.  Besides, our actions are mainly instinct or sub-conscious.  These are habits of a lifetime, hewn from our genetics and heavy social conditioning.  Some say our conscious mind is only 10 per cent of our decision-making, the rest is hard coded.  What chance have we got other than to undergo a fundamental change of outlook?  Appeal to reason or to some external moral code rarely suffice. 

I am an analytical guy who likes to think he is special and different.  I even like the morbid romance of being terminally unique - a maudlin martyrdom.  I have attempted to think myself into recovery; brain it all out.  I have been trying to use my mind to get sober, but this mind is properly diseased.  It corrupted by my gigantic ego, all wrapped up in my alcoholic identity, and my head alone will always serve that master, rather than the essentially good spiritual core or higher consciousness within me.  I have a broken, ego corrupted operating system.  What I try to resist by resorting to it, will persist.  This is also why rational ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’ (CBT) doesn’t work for me.  It is like trying to fix the machine with the same broken machine.  Forget drinking diaries, relapse prevention techniques, ‘thinking positive’ etc.  They are weak defences against any tsunami of feelings that can overwhelm when the next drink is approaching.  Long-term, my mind will always rationalise for alcohol, not against it.  Fixing my lack of comfort and one-ness with the world has always been about reaching out for the bottle, pills or pipe. 

If I listened harder to others, I would have heard the simple idea expressed by Bill Wilson himself: “We found the Great Reality deep down within ourselves.  In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found.  It was so with us.”   (Alcoholics Anonymous 4th Edition, 2001, Chapter 4 ‘We Agnostics’, page 55).  


This was the greatest promise of all to me.  I didn’t need to go searching for spiritual emancipation from alcoholism, it was already there in me!   All I needed was to exfoliate my defects of character which obscured it (and made me drink by disconnecting and discomforting me, causing alcoholism).  These all came from my ego, principally defiant individuality – ‘excessive individuation’ (the chief cause of suicide to Durkheim, along with societal anomie).  I needed to know what these were (Pride, Jealousy and rancour, neurotic self-pity / ‘pride in reverse’), controlling relationships, OCD – particularly health – rampant self-centredness / not listening). This was Step 4 of the 12 Step programme. This was a rigorous examination of the motives that lay behind my behaviour in life.  Unlike Freud / CBT / will-power / rational approaches to alcoholism, the conscious Ego CANNOT be used to fix the problem, because it is the problem.  Recourse to a psychiatrist, doctor, or counsellor is not going to work unless it is accompanied by a new inner self-awareness.

Pride led the procession of defects.  My ego constructed an image of what I should be, which was grandiose, and that was the start of my problems.  From then on, when that snapshot of what I felt I should be, this willed being, I was always going to end up short and in a state of disarray.  False pride became the reverse side of that ruinous coin marked 'fear'.  This was the desperate feeling of being inadequate, followed by yet more determination to be number one.  But now my cycle of false pride and fear has snapped.    

I have come to believe that when I am disturbed, usually any one or more of the defects above are in play.  All I can do is seek to fix these, not others.  Others may be to blame, but I am as powerless over their behaviour as I am the bottle.  All I can do is pray for them.  My problems are rooted inside me (spiritual), they are not external (material).   The ego and my particular defects of character are the true causes of my alcoholism

Suddenly, with a bit of awareness and humility, life becomes far easier.  My A.A. sponsor once gave be a sticker for my bathroom mirror.  It said: “You are looking at the problem.”   How many people in this world have actually conducted a fearless and searching moral inventory of themselves (which is Step 4 of the famous 12 Step programme)?  It's a process that shouldn't be the preserve of alcoholics and addicts, but everyone caught up in materialist living.   It is like unloading all the crap I have been carrying around for a lifetime.  Once again, it leads me to my greatest piece of gratitude:  I am grateful for being broken and meek, because blessed are they.  It’s given me a new way to live life.  Will I one day for being a grateful for being an alcoholic, granting me a new power that isn’t the pernicious ego?

I think of Steve Jobs.  Here is a man who made a difference – something I always wanted to do.  He was cut down by liver cancer without ever being an alcoholic.  He realised, on his death bed, the following.  He never had alcoholism to help him reach this conclusion before he became terminally ill:

“I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world. In others’ eyes, my life is an epitome of success.
However, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to.
At this moment, lying on the sick bed and recalling my whole life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in, have paled and become meaningless in the face of impending death.
In the darkness, I look at the green lights from the life supporting machines and hear the humming mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of god of death drawing closer …
Now I know, when we have accumulated sufficient wealth to last our lifetime, we should pursue other matters that are unrelated to wealth …
Should be something that is more important:
Perhaps relationships, perhaps art, perhaps a dream from younger days
Non-stop pursuing of wealth will only turn a person into a twisted being, just like me.
God gave us the senses to let us feel the love in everyone’s heart, not the illusions brought about by wealth.
The wealth I have won in my life I cannot bring with me. What I can bring is only the memories precipitated by love.
That’s the true riches which will follow you, accompany you, giving you strength and light to go on.
Love can travel a thousand miles. Life has no limit. Go where you want to go. Reach the height you want to reach. It is all in your heart and in your hands.
What is the most expensive bed in the world?
Sick bed …
You can employ someone to drive the car for you, make money for you but you cannot have someone to bear the sickness for you.
Material things lost can be found. But there is one thing that can never be found when it is lost — Life.
When a person goes into the operating room, he will realize that there is one book that he has yet to finish reading — Book of Healthy Life.
Whichever stage in life we are at right now, with time, we will face the day when the curtain comes down.
Treasure Love for your family, love for your spouse, love for your friends.
Treat yourself well. Cherish others.”

***

So life has been about proving my ego was a safe place to be, that it would win me acceptance from others and ultimately the self-acceptance that was the ultimate craving.  Any amount of self-seeking, showing off, resenting others, dishonesty and manipulation followed.  This route only served to make me more uncomfortable and disconnected.  It all led to great fear.  The solution to this fear was looking to stimulants of any kind as external fixes.  Vodka worked best of all.  On that, initially I could write and create freely, if badly.  Eventually I could not write or create at all.  Sober, and surviving on pure will power, I got a Distinction in an MSc at 38, but went mad writing a PhD at 42.  No alcoholic can sustain untrammelled self-will for long.  It was time for a relapse.  Then I was off and running with the lure of developing an App, maybe become a British Steve Jobs.  (God we are rubbish at taking on the Americans.)  I drank on both the successes and failures of that project.  I lived beyond my means on promises of future riches.  If it wasn’t for the patience of my father and mother, I would be jobless and hopeless now.

By 45, I was shunned by friends and family, I lost jobs, I lost my car and all other possessions, I was shorn of my flat, I was in court, I was in hospital.  Beached on benefits, my drive to ‘come back’ with some sort of spectacular like the App had evaporated.  This was part of the breaking of my ‘excessive individuation’, but unfortunately my ego survived, living on in yet another false persona, the slightly romantic and glamorised identity of a flawed and tragic figure. 


***

Addendum

When I wrote a previous blog piece called ‘Does anyone know about Cirrhosis?’ - see here - I promised I would update readers on what would happen to me in the next period of months.  This serves as background to my next blog piece on hospitals which will be lighter.

It was in September of last year, after a 30 day bender when I drunk two litres of vodka a day, that I was diagnosed with ‘early cirrhotic change’.  Bingo! My liver was apparently permanently damaged, indeed dead in places.  There was ‘turbulent’ blood flow through it, sometimes the wrong way.  Surely now, I would just give up trying so hard and get recovery.  I realised that I had a yawning denial about my physical indestructability, and was bewildered and scared.  Does anyone know aboutCirrhosis?’ was all about that new fear. Ironically, and crazily, the fear sent me back to the bottle.  I just couldn’t deal with it.  I drank again followed by another hospital stay.  I was sober again.  I was now truly perplexed as to how I could drink on a dying liver. 

I had more tests.  A set of bloods and another ultrasound, at another hospital, said I was fine.  I drank yet again, on good news this time.  Hospitalised within a week, I had a Fibroscan test which was inconclusive about cirrhosis.  New blood tests showed ‘deranged’ liver function, low platelet count, and high ammonia.  All tell-tale signs of cirrhosis and potentially Hepatic Encephalopathy which is a decline in brain function caused by too many unprocessed toxins the blood, particularly ammonia.  Sleep patterns are disrupted.  I am now on Lactulose for this.  There is also nausea, itching and fatigue.  Worse was to come when I was given an endoscopy examination.  Because my liver was cirrhotic and the blood wasn’t getting through it, blood pressure was elevated in my whole portal system.  This was responsible for my enlarged liver and spleen.  The spleen, stomach and oesophagus all had enlarged veins, known as varices.  I also had Portal Hypertensive Gastropathy (PHG) manifesting in a snake-skin like appearance of my inner and under-performing stomach.  The varices were particularly dangerous, because they could burst, and had to be tied up with ligatures.  

I had a stomach bleed in December, and the mortality rate for one of those is 40 per cent.  Varices are clear-cut evidence of cirrhosis.  If they don’t bleed you are stable, and considered in a ‘compensated’ state.  The liver has still enough life to support basic bodily functions (minimum 20% required), compensating for the dead liver.  But bleeding varices is decompensated cirrhosis and inevitable final decline towards needing a new organ, so I was told.



My first and worst endoscopy report.  The Endoscopist said ‘this is still in your hands’ and you are at ‘the mild end of a serious spectrum’.

It was around this time, with nothing meaningful left in my life except medical reports, that my alcoholism took a new turn.   It was May of this year and I had been sober for two months.  My father had died during this period and I spoke about the effect he had, and still does posthumously, on my own spiritual growth.  See here for this Memorial Service speech.  He was the ‘still, small voice’ and still is.  I had an excellent additional A.A. sponsor with the sole aim of working the twelve step programme to achieve the vaunted spiritual awakening, psychic change or outlook shift away from being driven by self-will, pride and self-centredness. 

I also had a fulfilling new part-time job as a waiter at Foxhills Golf and Resort, four miles from my nice new flat in Addlestone.  I cycled to work for my health.  The work forced me to think about other people.  Life was going well.  I managed to play a couple of rounds of golf and visited museums and art galleries.  Then I had another endoscopy.  It was conducted by the senior Gastro-Intestinal Consultant, Dr. Naik, at St Peters, Chertsey, and showed absolutely nothing wrong with me.  The varices had gone and so had the PHG.   I was told by the Consultant Hepatologist the next day that my latest Fibroscan showed a result of 6.9kpa for liver stiffness, which is within the bounds of normal, not even fibrotic, let alone cirrhotic.  Blood liver function tests showed the liver was functioning healthily.  They were normal too.  I was confused.  So was the Hepatologist. 

She said that Cirrhosis doesn’t go away and portal hypertension with the varices it causes, should be a permanent fixture for me, despite the beta-blockers I was now taking in volume.  So she maintained the working diagnosis of cirrhosis and felt the Fibroscan was a false negative, ordering another one.  For this alcoholic head though, despite being told that my liver is clearly fragile and now easily inflamed, this was the manna I needed to have another drink.  I vaguely sensed I wasn’t being too smart.  After just four days, I was hospitalised for ten.   This ratio was swinging favour of the hospital with every admission. 

Sometime in the four day relapse I tried to go to work, but they smelt alcohol on my breath and was falling around drunk.  Since leaving hospital on the 25th May, I have not had another drink or drug.  I have been given one more chance by my benevolent employer and have somehow paid the rent.  I know now for sure, that there is worse for me to come if I pick up a drink.  But also I will pick up a drink unless my outlook on life changes fast.  This blog is about the theory.  The essential spiritual practice is harder, and without which, the theory is of no help.

01/07/2018.