Setting Myself on Fire and the Alien Concepts of Honesty, Power and Self-Regulation

By Clive Walker 04/19/15

"Am I being honest with myself?...Do I need those pills, or don't I?"


This is a story of intense pain and suffering—I wonder how many discussions on the journey to recovery start with that introduction? However, in this instance I'm talking about physical pain and suffering. Spiritual and mental deficiencies had provided me endless opportunities for growth and development and were challenges on almost a daily basis. It wasn't until August 3, 2012, when I "blew myself up" in a gasoline explosion that this specific section of my journey began.

As a bit of backstory, I was seven years sober at the time of the event. My bottom had seen me turn blue and stop breathing (that was my first ride in an ambulance). The second involved a somewhat overenthusiastic attempt to light a large bonfire with two liters of gasoline (one is never enough, right folks?). This resulted in a detonation explosion due to climatic conditions and an air ambulance ride to an extended stay at a serious burns unit, usually reserved for soldiers suffering similar injuries in the theater of operations.

Over nine years, regular AA and NA meetings have been a way of life for me and have provided me with stalwart protection form the first drink. Unfortunately, there wasn't any protection from abject stupidity. My lasting recollection of the event is my higher power whispering, "You sure this is a good idea Clive?"...Fuck it, what's the worst that can happen, right?

Although mildly entertaining, you might be thinking, "What the hell does this have to do with 'recovery' and the application of 12-step principles?" Well, let me introduce the topic of high-powered (not higher power) prescription medications. As you would imagine, after vaporizing all exposed skin on both hands, arms, and my face, I was in some considerable discomfort (literary understatement) and was rapidly shot full of intravenous morphine and was soon taking considerable doses of Tramadol, Co-codamol and other peripheral painkillers.

Although I primarily identify as an alcoholic, I know enough about addiction to know that this is dangerous territory. I'm aware that my ability to self-regulate in a sensible and responsible fashion any substance that fundamentally has an immediate and positive impact on the way I feel is non-existent. That's the way I'm wired (so to speak!) but under these circumstances, personal choice wasn't an option.

After a couple of days hooked up on the drip, staring at the same spot on the wall and texting all my friends to wish them "Happy Christmas" (this is August, don't forget) the prescribing nurse visited to assess my pain levels and thus align medications. By this time, that little voice in my head that's been kept still and quiet for so long by the calming reassurance of my higher power has gone past the waking up stage and is starting to organize a party!  

When the nurse recommends a button that I can press, which will result in the speedy and efficient delivery of doses of Oramorph to my bedside, my addiction starts doing cartwheels and prompts me to ask the question: "How often can I press the button?" This solicits a somewhat surprised and confused response from the nurse as I don't think she'd come across many devious, self-serving, opiate fueled, maniacs before. So, I'm banging the button, getting my drugs delivered and wondering why someone rearranges the room furniture every time I take a piss.

The voice in my head is now running the show reassuring me that "I'm an alcoholic, right? So these drugs are fine? Plus, you need them. Professional people are telling you to take them..."

And I'm taking a lot and nobody says stop. I'm right where I want to be, a million miles from everybody and everything. Hours turn to days turn to weeks.

And then, from somewhere deep, deep inside or maybe on the other side of the wall, whispered in the next room, or out on the grass outside the window, I hear it:

 "They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty."

Suddenly, I grab the thought and hold it before it drifts silently away, unobserved. Rigorous honesty? The voice in my head screeches to a shuddering halt and spills its drink! Honest with myself? "Oh shit! Time to get honest!" And time for some drastic action!

By this time, I've lost a couple of weeks—two weeks of no conscious contact, no personal inventory, no program of any kind. I found it amazing how a relatively short spell of dishonesty completely blocks out the sunlight of the spirit, how it completely infected my spiritual condition that my daily reprieve is so contingent on. So time to get honest, time to get into action. I press the button and summon the nurse but rather than necking the delivery I explain briefly that I have a history of addiction, that I'm medicating anxiety and not pain with the Oramorph and need to stop now. She appears very understanding and reassuring and returns with a healthy supply of Valium! Not as easy as I thought it was going to be.

Thus started another journey within the journey of recovery for me. Yet, another subplot to the main theme. I pulled back in my higher power and it squeezed out and silenced that voice of the addict—slowly prizing its fingers off me one at a time. After some fairly impressive skin grafting, I was discharged from the burns unit with a carrier bag of medications, some of which were critical to my physical recovery. I continued to take these but I never let go of my higher power again, I kept it close, real close. On my return home, things got bad before better. After a minor disagreement with my wife, I pushed her to the floor, an event that haunts me to this day. But even small, or short periods, of active addiction are not without consequences.

I quickly got back into fellowship, shared at meetings and sought out the experience of others. The sharing of experience is a wonderful thing. (Apparently, I should have used kerosene as it's less volatile!) One old timer pulled me aside at the end of a meeting and shared he'd had a very similar experience a number of years back. He told me he'd returned all the medications back to his GP and had agreed with the GP to rely on less risky and more traditional methods of pain control such as Paracetamol.

Heeding the experience, I placed all medications back in the carrier bag and delivered it to my doctor but whilst doing this I came across the box of Valium and the voice in my head rallied itself one last time: "Might be an idea just to hang onto those, put them in the bottom of a drawer somewhere, just in case you need them." But thanks to my higher power, in the bag they went. It was pointed out to me that hiding tablets is no different from hiding bottles.

The whole experience has proved to be valuable, like all challenges in recovery— "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." I've had the opportunity to share this experience on a number of occasions and to help other addicts and alcoholics who are confused and frightened about their reliance on prescription medication. As well as honesty, intent has a big part to play in my relationship with substances I regard as prohibitive. During my nine years of recovery, I can remember another occasion, fairly early on, where I inadvertently swigged a glass of white wine thinking it was water. I was mortified and as the Big Book says, I really did "recoil as if from a flame," but it was an accident. There was no intent in place and after some rapid connection with the God of my understanding I regard these experiences as warning shots rather than relapses. Signs that I can never be complacent and must be vigilant. 

I've never had time for colleagues in the fellowship who "advise" newcomers to stop taking prescribed medications. I've always thought this to be a dangerous, misplaced and arrogant practice. My experience has shown me that "rigorous honesty" is at the heart of this issue. My recovery is based on the sharing of experience and a lot of love from others. I share my experience; I don't give advice. The humility of my sponsor has been a shining example to me in helping others. If he doesn't have the necessary experience, he will refer me to someone who does. This is the application of true fellowship.

I know plenty of people who couldn't work any form of program without regular prescribed medication, my wife being one of them. So before getting sucked into the egocentric ramblings of a few mavericks who have obviously not paid enough attention to their own programs, remember the statement, "no human power could relieve our alcoholism."

Take the test. Examine your intent. Look at your motives and ask yourself this:

"Am I being honest with myself?...Do I need those pills, or don't I?"

Only you know! It's strictly between you and the god of your understanding.

Clive Walker is a Business Manager for an International industrial IT organization.

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