Jack Grisham and 26 Years of Punk Sobriety

By Amy Dresner 10/30/15

The Fix Q&A with TSOL's lead singer on his take on the 12 steps.

Jack Grisham
via Author

Jack Grisham, lead singer of punk band TSOL, sober 26 years, has written a book about recovery called A Principle of Recovery: An Unconventional Journey Through The 12 Steps. And it is, no joke, mind-blowing. I’m never one to be all, “Ooh yeah, please let me read more books about recovery and the Big Book!” But this book is funny, personal and so refreshing that you have no choice except to love it, pull out your highlighter and periodically shout, “Oh my God. Right!!!” I rolled down to Huntington Beach to sit down with Grisham in his haunted former schoolhouse of a home. Here are the highlights of our talk.

You’re pretty brazen about your views about the righteous assholes in the fellowship and the potential misuse of sponsorship. You very much encourage people to question everything and find their own way. Have you gotten shit from AA fundamentalists who feel like you’re attacking the program?  

Not at all, which is great. One of my editors is sober 40 plus years. My sponsor has 47 years. I’m surrounded by long-timers. I have a sponsor. I’ve had a book study in my home for 18 years. I have 26 years clean. It seems like I’m attacking the program, but I’m attacking us. I’m attacking the same things that Bill Wilson worried about. We have the traditions for a reason: to protect us from us. Dr. Bob worried about the kind of sponsorship where you put people on pedestals. My book seems unconventional, it seems like heresy but it’s really fundamental AA. It sounds revolutionary because of what we’ve done over the years to tear the program apart. I’m saying, “Think for yourself. Ask questions,” which is what the book says. People these days push fear-based sobriety. Oh if you have a bad relationship, you’re gonna get drunk. Bullshit. AA is loaded with bad relationships. They push fear which is sad because we’re supposed to be able to go anywhere, do anything. And we hurt our program by this. How many people haven’t we been able to help because of what we have done. It shouldn’t be a sentence to be with us. It should be a pleasure. 

Everybody quotes Dr. Paul all the time, you know, “acceptance is the answer.” I knew Dr. Paul. He lived down here. I'd call him all the time. One time I asked him for advice and he said, “I don’t give advice. If I knew what was going to happen, you and I would be down at the track betting on the ponies.” A lot of people talk about trusting God and they supplant God by putting themselves before that. It’s basic fear to not let somebody come and go as they please. I tell my sponsees,“I trust God enough to let you have your own experience. And if you find something new, give it to me, share it with me.“

In your book, you talk a lot about “waking up.” You write, “We can’t make somebody wake up," “there’s no formula to awakening.” Personally, I know plenty of people who have done the steps many times over and are still “asleep,” if you will.

You bet. And just because they’re following orders, doesn’t mean they’re awake. There are great articles written about this: about compliance vs. surrender. You can write out the steps and do whatever but to really see what you’ve done is completely different. When we are really aware and conscious and accept what we’ve done, nobody has to make us make amends. I tell people if you’re making amends because your sponsor told you to…well fuck that, unless it’s money. When you know you were wrong, you go because you know it’s the right thing to do. Otherwise, it’s just insincere. 

You write: “Don’t be surprised if you have more 'oh-shit' awakenings, than you have of those delightful 'ah-ha' realizations.” That has certainly been my experience so far. Tell me that changes with more time…

No. Because half of the awakening is the challenge to our belief system. You’re digging into the roots of someone’s beliefs and you don’t think they’re gonna go, “Shit. I’ve been thinking this the whole time?” Here’s an example: My brother-in-law stole his mom’s car one time. And they come to me for help because I’m clean. And I’m all puffed up and I say, “It’s tough love. You gotta go to the police. You gotta come down hard. He needs to be arrested. And then he’ll be put in jail and he’ll wake up and he’ll do better.” And my mom looks at me and says, “I didn’t call the cops when you stole my car.” And I looked at her and said “Oh fuck...He’ll bring it back. “ 

You pointed out that when we “want to drink” what we really want is “to feel loved, companionship, relief and comfort…to feel connected and secure. “ If that was anybody’s experience getting loaded, they would never have come into the program to get sober. So why do we hold onto this romantic outdated notion of what being loaded feels like?

I have no fucking idea. I just know we do it because I’ve seen it. We have an emotional definition of a word and then there’s the definition of the word. Our emotional definition of alcohol is freedom: I’m getting the fuck out of here, I’m turning the lights off, I’m getting relaxed. But in reality it’s fucking death. It’s a definition problem. And as long as your definition of alcohol means relief, you’re in danger of getting high. I don’t give a fuck how long you have. I’ve been homeless at 20 years of sobriety, bankrupt, down, going through a divorce, my first wife and nephew died of drug overdoses but never once did I think I’d like to shit my pants, slit my wrists and go to jail this morning. Fucking never. Because now that’s my definition of getting loaded. I know I’m hurting. I know I want comfort. But I know that’s not where I get comfort. 

You write: “At first I was afraid. I didn’t want to get too good. I’m a singer in a punk band for fuck’s sake. What’ll this do to my ability to write and perform?" I think creative people have an innate fear that if they lose their suffering, they’ll lose their inspiration, their edge. You write “I’m more of a threat today than I ever was, because now, I am clear, I am awake, I am principled and I am no longer a victim.” Can you really still be a badass in recovery? 

Are you kidding? It’s the way we look at things. I’m still dark. I’m 26 years into it and I’m still talking shit, still having fun, still smart-assing. We still have our past. We still have everything we’ve done. And I just haven’t gotten that good. At all.  

I’m in the perfect position. I still do punk rock and I still do all this shit. So if somebody sees me in the park, helping the homeless, they’ll say, “I saw Jack helping the homeless. How wonderful. What a wonderful guy.” They drive by the same park and they see me in a dress blowing 15 sailors, and they say, “OMG I just saw Jack in a dress blowing 15 sailors. I told you he was crazy. That’s the real shit, man.” It doesn’t matter what I do. If I’m helpful or evil, I still get cred because it’s expected. 

You write a lot about the 4th step: “Doing this step is really about becoming aware of ourselves, our purpose, and seeing ourselves as others see us.” And I’d never thought of it that way and it was enlightening but highly disturbing.

It’s frightening. 

I’d always thought the whole idea that if you didn’t do an inventory that you’d most certainly drink again to be very superstitious and creepy. But you explain the punishment is not so much for not putting pen to paper as it for “not waking up” which makes more sense to me.

It’s the same thing with people who use people sexually or stealing or whatever. Hey, it’s not because you did that. That’s not what’s going to get you loaded. I’ve been in some messes and I have not been good. But it’s because you’re not aware or awake in the first place. That’s where you’re going, guy. If you can still hurt people, rip them off and fuck them with a clear conscious, you’re rolling anyway. It doesn’t have anything to do with what you did. This is when it comes down to intent. They’ll say “We’re judged by our actions, not our intentions.” On the material plane, we’re judged by our actions, not on our intentions. But I believe on a spiritual plane, we’re judged by our intentions, not our actions. Which is completely different. Like where’s my heart? If the heart is here and I still fail, I’m judged on having this heart, not on my failure. Man judges me on my failure. If you’re harming people and your intent is to rip off, use them, whatever, then there isn’t the psychic change necessary and you’re rolling. You’re out. 

You write about defects of character and their removal: “I believe that when I become aware, or awake, that I’m able to channel a force from within, call it what you will;  and when I’m asking for something to be removed, it’s basically me exhibiting a willingness to practice better behavior.” What’s been your experience with defects and their removal?

This idea came out of Schindler’s List. Look what you’ve got: he’s a profiteer-using slave labor, lazy, a womanizer, probably an alcoholic, possibly has every defect you can think and yet he did something unbelievably amazing that saved thousands of people. So at that moment, when that list got written, when those people got saved, where were his defects then? Gone. Completely gone. Do you think that the first guy on that list thought, “That self-seeking selfish womanizing bastard, Schindler. Fuck Schindler.”?

So you don’t think they go away forever?

There’s a line—“Expanding the perfection of the moment”—and that’s what this book was originally going to be called. In that moment, when that act is being done, when you’re being of service, in that moment, you’re perfect. So how do we expand that moment? When I serve, I’m perfect, I’m pure. When I step out of that moment of service, that’s when the defects of character are there. 

Speaking of defects you write: “No power is given to the defect. We don’t dwell on it. We don’t spend hours in a meeting discussing how sick we are. Stop trying to fix it. Connect and move on. Practice being sober.” That is so right on. Sometimes I feel myself getting crazier in my myopic study of my defects. And it’s so easy to be all “look at how fucked up I am” as an excuse to continue the self-obsession.  

That’s exactly it. Make the topic in the meeting “selfishness” and everybody’s got something to fucking say about it. Make it “self-centeredness” and double-hands go up. You take that same topic and you make it “what was it like to read your 4th step to another person” and see how many hands go up. What are we talking about? Are we encouraging sobriety or are we encouraging shit? That’s the principle of “Resist not evil.” I grew up in the '60s. That’s straight out of Martin Luther King. I grew up with him saying “Hey, you have your rules, but we’re going to do this anyway.” That’s love. Gandhi used it against the British. That principle right there comes straight out of punk rock. That’s fuck you, civil disobedience, 100%. Hey we’re not going to give power to that. We’re going to give power to this. We’re not going to protest the war. We’re going to promote peace. Completely different. 

In the book, you write about how you were talking to your mentor about a guy who had died during a relapse who had helped a lot of people. Your mentor said, “They say to stick with the winners but getting loaded didn’t make him a loser.” I think a lot of people get sober and then become righteous and judgmental and forget that this is a program of inclusivity and compassion.

It’s not judgment, it’s fear. You step away, you’re gonna get bit. You go out there, you’re gonna get bit. You do this, you’re gonna get bit. It goes back to fear-based sobriety. If he’s failing, maybe I’m next to fail. So pulling it back in, pushing him aside, ostracizing him. Do you believe it’s an illness or do you not believe it’s an illness? Bottom line. What is it? I never refer to it as a disease cause I don’t believe it is. I say it’s an illness. I think it’s a mental illness and they refer to it in the Big Book as an “illness.” We don’t shoot our wounded. The man that I’m talking about who died in a relapse helped thousands of people. He was in prisons all the time. And when I’d hear somebody say something, I’d say,“Bitch, you couldn’t touch half of his work.”

I’m very much like you wherein I tell my truth in my way and I refuse to spout off all the well-worn sayings which might reflect a robotically perfect program. In the same vein, you write: “I get frustrated with the shitload of controlling egotistical alcoholics that think ‘their’ way is the right path to sobriety”…“if you don’t say it like this, do it like we do, then you’re not really one of us.” I feel like it’s that type of rigid mentality that turns off independent thinkers and makes people feel AA can be cult-like. Thoughts?

Yes. And Bill says “in the framework of our principles” (principles meaning the steps) “the ways are apparently legion.” We all wake up differently. We all do a different 4th step. We all do a different amends. We’re all accepting our connection, checking ourselves, and being helpful. But what does that look like? It looks so different, so many different ways. I have this meeting on Saturday nights, “Conversations with a Drunk” and in the last few years, we’ve had 4,000 years of sobriety roll through there and nobody has done it the same way. And who have we lost because of this? How are we of maximum service to God and our fellows if we’re demanding it be done this way? It’s like if somebody comes to me to get their oil changed and I say, “Bitch I don’t change oil like that. I take all the tires off and remove the seats. That’s the way we do it over here in this shop.” I mean it sounds so ridiculous but why is it ridiculous in that kind of thing but it’s not ridiculous in what we’re doing? 

Amy Dresner is a columnist for The Fix.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, Addiction.com and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.