I wasn’t making any progress. The other members of my group therapy – stricken alcoholics and junkies – lapsed into an apprehensive silence as the counselor removed his glasses and pressed his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose.
“Are you even reading the Big Book?” he asked.
“No,” I replied,
“How much TV do you watch a day?”
“Er three hours?”
“And what are you reading?”
I paused. This wasn’t going to sound good. “Junky by William Burroughs.” The counselor raised his palms to the air and shook them,
“That junky maniac? And you wonder why you’re not making progress in your treatment? – from now on you’re banned.”
“Banned from what?”
“From TV and all books. The Big Book is all you’ll be reading from now on.” I groaned internally. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous – the doctrinal text of AA and all subsequent 12 Step programs – was filled with insufferable quackery about alcohol allergies and nonsensical imperatives to give “your will over to the care of God.” I had avoided it all six weeks I had been in rehab.
That evening I took my usual position on the PVC sofa opposite the TV. I flicked it on. “Oh no you don’t, lad,” said Glen, my housemate, who bounded through the door as if he had been waiting for this moment. “Come on, hand it over,” he beckoned for the remote. “It’s for your own good, lad,” he said as he took my spot and put his feet up on the coffee table. The faint smell of feet accompanied the action. “Ta-ta,” he waved goodbye with the remote as I left the room.
Upstairs, I picked up my copy of the Big Book from the floor, lay on my bed and started reading. What else was there to do? Soon the offending phrase appeared, “turned my will and life over to the care of God.” There was a blank feeling. If there was a God, what would he want with a piece of shit junky? But then again, a life lived by spiritual principles, kindness and respect led to a more peaceful existence. It couldn’t hurt to try. I slapped the book shut, got on my knees and rested my elbows on the bed forming my hands into prayer position. It was over in seconds. Afterwards there was an uncommon sense of calm. I examined the new sensation as if trying on new shoes and finding them satisfactory.
In rehab, when I started praying, things began to improve. Prayer, in those early days of sobriety, was like religious antacid to soothe a burning brain. But my prayer life didn’t last. The idea of a benevolent sky-father presiding over a world of suffering split my resolve. Nor did the concept of some nebulous “Higher Power” prove a helpful alternative. The awareness that said deity was a product of my drug-addicted brain seemed to speak against his power to help.
Newly faithless, there was an exhausting fear. Eight months of rehab and 12 Step meetings created the idea that an addict without a “vital spiritual experience” was doomed to return to addiction. Unable to force spiritual belief and unable to survive without it, I found myself in a cruel double bind. Relapse soon followed.
Months of misery passed. Thirty days clean, relapse. Two weeks clean, relapse. I went through five sponsors, did the 12 Steps three times and carried on praying to an absent God because everyone said “fake it until you make it.” I became silent in meetings, arms folded – whatever this recovery thing was I didn’t qualify.
Then, a miracle. Or was it dumb luck? Ten days at a Buddhist meditation centre taught me how to live in skin, how to crave without using and how to feel without fleeing into opiate numbness.
Embracing meditation with as much enthusiasm as my drug use, four more ten-day retreats followed. I meditated for an hour a day, sometimes two. Meditation (along with poetry) became the driftwood I lashed myself to.
While Buddhism doesn’t doctrinally recognise the existence of God or an immortal soul, in practice most Buddhists do believe in something that lives on after death. Whatever the religious technicalities, the meditation and ethical practise helped cure my addiction. So does that mean that all rehabs should be based on Buddhist meditation? Hardly. And the same goes for all other religions.
The problem is not with religion per se but when people begin to believe there is only one way to recovery. This fanatical way of thinking is rife in rehabs and 12 step meetings. Why? Because we still don’t know what addiction is and that scares people. When people face the unknown they tend to cling to beliefs that can easily become fanatical.
I know. There was a time when the urge to proselytise would become too much and I would enjoin people who had neither the inclination nor aptitude for meditation to practice Buddhism. The urge was born from my own doubt and mistrust. Sure, meditation was working great now, but what if it stopped working? What if it let me down?
Meditation practice, like any spiritual or artistic discipline, takes time to mature. Eventually the doubts disappeared and with them the urge to convert people to my method of recovery.
And experienced AA sponsors will tell you the same. They are confident enough in their own sobriety to let people find their own way. Dean had nearly three decades of sobriety when he took me through the steps. His great gift was telling me that some people’s journey to recovery includes carrying on taking drugs for a little while.
Contrast this with the “stay sober or die” approach favoured by some sponsors and rehabs. With them, each relapse became not only a failure, but a life-threatening catastrophe. Working with Dean’s approach, rather than aim for perfect sobriety I aimed to extend the time between each relapse. They weren’t relapses, they were steps on the path to recovery.
Dean was a Christian. A proper happy-clappy one at that. Interestingly his tolerant approach to recovery didn’t extend to religion. He believed that the Christian God was what the founders of AA wanted us to believe in. When I found I couldn’t believe in his God, we parted ways.
“Dean? Pah, don’t go near him,” a friend in another AA meeting told me. “He doesn’t want you to find your own higher power, he wants you to use his higher power.”
Sometimes, I have a fantasy of running a rehab. The clients basking in the glow of my boundless compassion; treasuring the wisdom that flows from my lips. Of course, running an awesome rehab takes its toll; transforming the lives of hundreds of people doesn’t come easy, but I look at my knighthood from the British queen, wipe a weary tear from eye and fall asleep ready to heal again.
And, in this, my ideal rehab, would I include religion? Sure. I would make as many available as possible. Does 12 Step help? Great. Does meditation? Voodoo? Quakerism? Go for it. But one thing would certainly be banned: dogmatic clinging to one way of doing recovery.
It’s impossible to say whether being forced to read the Big Book was helpful for me or not. It was like the Bible to the counselors at that rehab center. But now, four years down the line, I’d still rather read Burroughs.