Killing Me Softly

By Victor Farrell 05/17/15

The illusive world of upside-down instincts.

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A friend of mine used to say, “In order to maintain long-term sobriety, I need to grow spiritually. And that involves pushing myself out of my comfort zone—sitting in front of my TV with the remote and a giant bag of cheese doodles. Not a lot of spiritual growth happening there.”

As a recovering addict and alcoholic, I puzzled over my overblown need for comfort, and how I’d come to equate comfort with a myriad of unhealthy, downright self-destructive behaviors—not just drinking and drugging, but other more subtle demons that crop up in sobriety—overindulgence of sweets, junk food, porn, procrastination, and perhaps worst, an overall sense of neediness.

I’d made such a mess of my life, and was so lonely without my old companions of drugs and booze, I desperately needed people’s approval—mostly from the opposite sex. I’d sit in 12-step meetings figuring out how to share in a way that would gain the sympathy and attention of the women in the room, especially the one with bee-stung lips and large breasts. God, if only she’d put her arms around me and tell me she loved me I’d be all right. Any day she didn’t smile at me, I’d agonize all night over what I’d said wrong and how to correct myself the next day. I developed resentments for all the men in the meetings who, at least in my mind, competed with me for the attention of those women. 

I couldn’t figure out why, after six months of being clean and sober and going to meetings every day, I still felt miserable. Trouble was, I wasn’t treating alcoholism or addiction—I was treating loneliness. And when my needs for sympathy and attention were frustrated, I’d go stuff my face with cheeseburgers and cheesecake and smoke a pack of cigarettes. Nothing like saturated fat and nicotine, topped with a couple pints of Häagen-Dazs, to freeze the noise in my head. My notion of what would fix me and afford me comfort was making me worse and triggering a whole new assortment of problems—overweight, high cholesterol, diabetes, emphysema. 

There’s an old saying about how to get rid of stray cats—stop feeding them and they go away. I was feeding my neediness with the sympathy and attention of people in the meetings and it was killing me.

Little did I know that my neediness was rooted in fear—a self-defeating belief that there wasn’t enough love in the world to go around, and that an ex-drunk, ex-dope fiend and ne’er-do-well like myself had little to no chance of getting his.

Another friend of mine used to say, “Every alcoholic has two corporations in his head. One of them manufactures bullshit. The other one buys it.”

I thought neediness and deranged notions of comfort would vanish once I’d been abstinent from booze and drugs for a considerable amount of time. I once went for nine years clean and sober. During that time, though, the neediness and self-defeating behaviors returned. Nameless fears began to haunt me, and a bottomless pit opened up in my gut that no amount of drugs, sex, food, or anything else would fill—an itch I couldn’t scratch. After nine years, I was so miserable I wanted to kill myself. The thought occurred to me that if I was going to kill myself, what the hell? I might as well go get shitfaced and enjoy myself. After all, I didn’t get clean and sober to be miserable.

Bad idea. I ended up on a seven-year run that took me very close to the grave and into a kind of despair I’d never known existed. I was waking up in emergency rooms and detox clinics. Hanging out in soup kitchens and methadone programs. So what went wrong during those nine years of sobriety? I wasn’t drinking or using drugs. I was going to meetings regularly, just as I’d been doing during the more recent six months I was back after that relapse.

Turns out I had no idea what was really wrong with me, or what years of alcoholism and drug addiction had done to me.

Some equate drug addiction and alcoholism with a low-level search for God—for some higher power that will afford a sense of being cared for and belonging in the world. They say the hole in the gut is a “God hole” that can be filled with His love. I liked that idea. And sure, prayer and meditation certainly afforded me a sense of comfort, if only for the moment. But eventually the neediness and self-doubt returned along with the self-defeating methods of escape—overeating, sex/porn, procrastinating, or its opposite, workaholism. So in the end, all those wonderful spiritual ideas just created noise in my head—maybe I wasn’t praying right, or praying enough, or for the right reasons, or to the right god, and so on. Much of my drinking and drugging had been about noise control, so without meaningful application, the spiritual ideas were counterproductive and the self-defeating ideas won out.  

There are two basic proposals in Step One of any 12-step program. The first is to admit that we’re powerless over alcohol, or drugs, or people, or whatever that particular program deals with. That notion was easy to reconcile after all the pitfalls and damaged lives, including my own, that drinking and drugging had caused. Plus, once I picked up the first drink or drug, I had no control over when I would stop. The second proposal in Step One is admitting that our lives have become unmanageable. That was the kicker, because it wasn’t the booze or drugs making my life unmanageable—it was the discomfort of living without those very substances that for years were affording me the illusion of comfort and manageability.

In order to understand my overblown need for comfort and why I sought it in such self-defeating ways, even long after I’d stopped drinking and drugging, I first had to understand the nature of my discomfort.   

There’s a paragraph in The Doctor’s Opinion in AA’s Big Book that gave me my first clue: “Men and women drink,” writes Dr. Silkworth, “essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. … 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…” 

There it was—the sense of ease and comfort I was looking for, not just in booze and drugs but in all those other bad habits. And though my own survival instincts told me that stuff was injurious, or self-destructive, I continued to indulge over and over anyway, until after a time I could no longer “differentiate the true from the false.” I’d entered into a world of illusion. That was the very nature of what was wrong with me. I’d undermined my own survival instincts and turned them upside-down. To put it simply, I was nuts.

Silkworth goes on: “After they have succumbed to the desire again, as so many do, and the phenomenon of craving develops, they pass through the well-known stages of a spree, emerging remorseful, 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.”

There it is again—the self-defeating behavior repeated over and over again, despite the remorse and knowledge of its harmfulness and futility, until my survival instincts are so warped that only “an entire psychic change” could afford me any hope for recovery.

The same friend, the one who described his comfort zone in the opening paragraph, heard me complaining in a meeting one night and took me out to coffee after. He sat there and listened to my entire drinking and drugging tale of woe, right through the first nine years of sobriety that ended badly and up to my present misery with six months sober. When I finished, he looked at me and said, “I know exactly what’s wrong with you.”

I was wary, but riveted. “Well what the fuck is it?”

“It’s spiritual neglect,” he said, “caused by a lifetime of selfishness.” 

I was stunned, and devastated. How the hell could he say that to me—a lifetime of selfishness? Christ! But he had this glint in his eye that hinted of more to come.

“The good news,” he said, “is that I can show you how to address that problem. I can take you through the 12 steps and teach you their practical application. All you gotta do is meet me once a week for about three or four months. Each week, we’ll go through a chapter from the Big Book. Comes out to about a step a week. Couple months and you’ll be right as houses. But I’m not gonna teach you so you can get the woman, or make a million dollars, or get the perfect apartment. What I can do is show you how to sponsor other men. Do you think you’d want to learn that?”

“You gotta be kidding me,” I whined. “I can barely get my laundry done. How the hell am I gonna sponsor people?”

“Look at you,” he said sternly, which caused me to reflect on the tale of woe I’d just dumped on him. “You’ve been coming to AA since the early '80s. It’s now 1997. Isn’t it about time you started thinking of somebody besides yourself?”

Sonofabitch had a point. And he was as good as his word. By the time we’d reached Step 10, I was already taking a new guy through Step One. And I’ve never stopped doing that for the past 17 years. As a result, the noise in my head has diminished along with the gaping chasm of neediness in my gut. 

Nevertheless, the illusion of comfort seen in self-defeating old habits continues to crop up in times of stress, or worry. There are times I go into a multiplex for the first show early in the morning, my backpack full of sandwiches, and hop from movie-to-movie, then stagger out when it’s dark. Medical problems can send me off on binges of reading sci-fi and fantasy books, pulp detective thrillers, or even graphic novels, which are really giant-sized comic books. Or like my friend, I’ll sit in front of the TV mindlessly for hours with a pint of ice cream. So no matter how much step work I do, or teach others, I never really get fixed. All I have is this daily reprieve from spiritual neglect. 

The good news is, once on a spiritual path, the road gets narrower the further along you go, one simple reason being that we just outgrow a lot of self-defeating behavior. My age and health will allow only a very brief relapse into junk food. And at 71 years of age, my libido has diminished to the point where I’m not always drooling over women in meetings—it also helps being happily married. But I would never have gotten married in the first place had I not shed the illusion that cigarettes and temper tantrums were my best choice when frustrated. One of the first things my wife asked me was if I smoked. The wrong answer would’ve turned her right off.

I might never have written or published a book if I’d given in to the fear of failure or rejection. Even those deep-seated but common bugaboos diminished as I pushed through my comfort zone, disdained the Häagen-Dazs in front of the TV, and instead went out and took other men through the steps. One of those men was an editor who’d destroyed his career through drug addiction. After a time of abstinence and practicing these spiritual principles, he got his life back together and got a job at a big New York publishing house. At our weekly step meetings, he’d often ask me about my sister, who was notorious in the New York publishing scene. He also knew of my attempts at writing, and one day he said, “Victor, that’s the book you should write. Not a biography of your sister, but the story of your relationship. I know the business, and I guarantee it would sell in a heartbeat.” So I sat down and cranked out a draft of the story in about six months and sent it around to literary agents. Sure enough, one day I got a call from my friend, the editor. “Victor,” he said. “My boss just gave me $50,000 and told me to go buy your book.” 

I’m not saying we should help others as a way to get published, but that helping others defeats the self-centeredness that leads back to self-defeating habits. Once I can get over myself, I’m free to explore the limits of my own life.

Perhaps, my main point is that until I’ve identified a problem precisely, the solution remains a mystery and is much given to self-defeating illusions. If I wake with a sore jaw, did I sleep with my face at a bad angle on the pillow? Did I grind my teeth? If it turns out I have a decayed tooth, then the solution, or Step Two, is clear—go to a dentist. But if I fail to identify the problem precisely, then I might just swallow a few aspirin, toss off a few stiff ones, pop a couple Xanax and hope for the best. Then, if I manage to get home that night without getting arrested, I wake up the next day with the same achy jaw, hungover, probably broke, and another day older.

The spiritual principles in the 12 steps aren’t theology—they’re practical problem-solving tools that have worked for people since the dawn of time.

Victor Farrell is a pseudonym for a writer based in New York.

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