Sunday, 28 March 2010

Step Two: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, or: Now What?

Right here I hit a brick wall. It was that word “could”. That implied probably wouldn’t. “May do it for everybody else, but probably not for you.” It would be just my luck, I thought, to be the only man in the Universe that God chose not to restore to sanity. I needn’t have worried. About God, about sanity, about anything. It says in the big book that the only essentials to recover from alcoholism are honesty, open-mindedness and willingness, but that these are indispensable.

Well, I was certainly willing. I was willing because I didn’t see that I had a choice. Nothing could keep me from picking up a drink; not willpower, not faith, and certainly not another human being. Neither could fear of the direst consequences keep me from drinking.

On the other hand, I really believed that this time I had had my last drink. If you like, there had been a very black line drawn under it; it was the past. I suppose that is how I look at step one now, on a daily basis. As a line under my drinking.

So if my drinking was over, it now became all about trying to live sober. And how the hell was I supposed to do that? Because I can’t live sober. It’s life without alcohol that drives me to drink.

Perhaps this is where open-mindedness comes in. Some people say that when they first arrive at their rock-bottom, where the steps are to be found, they can’t conceive of any power in the Universe greater or more powerful than them. I didn’t have that problem. I mean, I just had to look around me. The wind was more powerful than me, the rain; the government, the police, the army; electricity, nuclear power and so on and so forth. But more recently, and more humbling by far, and just to get things into some sort of honest perspective, alcohol itself was a power greater than me. It was my master. It ruled my life. It dictated where I went, what I did, who I saw, how I felt, my thoughts, my emotions, my fears; it demanded that I give it every second of my life; with no tea breaks. I was its slave.

And what was alcohol but a bunch of random chemicals? So if I was honest with myself I could admit that a bunch of random chemicals was a power greater than me; not only that, but a bunch of random chemicals that had robbed me of any personal power that I’d ever had.

I’ve since come to believe that I never did have any power, and accepting this has been the foundation not only of my recovery from alcoholism, but they key to happiness and peace of mind as I journey.


An expectation is a resentment waiting to happen, because we are powerless over people, places and things, and the outcome of everything. That being the case, we can deal with the outcome of anything in two ways: we can be attached to the results, and therefore when the results are not those we would have liked, we become angry or bitter or disappointed or feel cheated, and start the endless internal dialogue: “Things shouldn’t be like this. If only this or that had/hadn’t happened. It should have been different. Maybe if I’d done/said this/that/the other it would have worked out how I intended. If only he/she/it would be less like they always have been and more how I want them to be. Why does this always happen to me? Doesn’t God know who I think I am?”  Consequently we are fighting against what is, against reality, against the flow of the Universe, or if you like biblical terminology, the will of God. Every problem we have stems from this.
Alternatively we can just accept it. True spiritual growth starts from this small seed. Reality is what in front of you. It is as it is. No amount of stamping your feet, sulking, regurgitating the past or projecting about the future can change it. You can like it, or you can not like it. It makes no difference. It still is as it is. So you may as well just accept it and move on.

Regarding my alcoholism I had spent years in non-acceptance of reality, or of demanding some justification as to why I am an alcoholic. My internal argument was something like this: “It’s not fair. How come out of all the people in the world I have to be an alcoholic. How come none of my brothers and sisters are alcoholics? How monstrous is it that I’m the one who can’t touch alcohol, when I’m the only one who knows how to drink? What’s different about my body and mind? Why haven’t they invented a cure yet for God’s sake? I can’t believe that the one thing in life that means everything to me is going to be taken away. I need it!”

And so on.

It says in the big book that alcohol itself finally beats us into a state of reasonableness. I came to a place where I finally did accept that I was an alcoholic and therefore could not drink again, ever. I accepted it because there was no room for denial any longer. My life as a drunk had finally come to an end. Which begged the question: Now what?

The Mental Obsession

My final drink only lasted for about a week but it practically killed me, or at the very least made a future of insane ranting and rubber sheets a pitiful certainty, had I not been taken into treatment and detoxed almost immediately. There was no happiness in it, not even for a moment. I was having alcoholic fits every time I left the house. When we talk about the mental obsession that every alcoholic has, we can fool ourselves into believing it a persistent thought that harries you for days or months until you finally pick up a drink. With me, when it struck, it was not like that.

I’d had a friend of mine and her little boy to stay, and they’d ended up staying a week. I didn’t want them to stay for a week, or anything like a week, but I said nothing. I was becoming more irritable by the day. It seemed as if all they did was bicker, just for the hell of it; they’d ransack the computer, and leave their bits all over everywhere.

Every now and again she’d say “you will tell me, won’t you, if you want us to go.”

            “Of course,” I lied. “It’s fine.” But it was far from fine. It was on a whole different planet from fine. I told myself that I was being tolerant and considerate of her feelings, that I was putting them first. What a bunch of crap. This is the stark and ugly fact of it: when I avoid hurting your feelings it’s because I don’t want to feel bad. This is why the landscape of my past is littered with relationships that never should have happened or should have finished a lot sooner: because I am dishonest to the core and don’t want to deal with feelings of guilt. I choose unhappiness and discontentment over guilt, and delude myself that I’m being noble.

Another lie I can tell myself is that by denying myself what I really want, I am somehow doing what’s best for you.  This too, is rubbish. The only true relationships are those based on honesty; therefore if I really want to do what’s best for you, I have to do what’s best for me. Otherwise our relationship is built on a lie, I am not the person you think I am, and when I become resentful and discontented and claustrophobic enough, I’ll suddenly do what I should have done in the first place and you’ll think: I don’t even know you anymore. The truth is, you never knew me in the first place.

I’ll tell you what’s noble: honesty is noble. Integrity is noble.

Eventually they went home, and with a sigh of relief I went out to a meeting where I was due to make the tea, congratulating myself on being a generally all-round top man and keeping calm in the face of such unrelenting aggravation. This was a warning sign, which I ignored. I know now that if I am irritated or annoyed by someone, it’s because there’s something wrong with me.

The guy who spoke at the meeting was an old boy who’d been sober almost as long as God. It was an amazing story, and everyone paid it rapt attention. Everyone except me, that is. And then suddenly, from nowhere, I was struck by a thought, and the thought was this:  “I want a drink.”

That was it. The mental obsession. From that moment I was powerless. I was going to be getting drunk, no two ways about it. The definition of an obsession is a thought which overrides all others. In that instant I considered the consequences of taking a drink; I thought about the next morning, and the one after that, when no matter how much alcohol I threw down my neck I’d still be shaking like a man with Parkinson’s disease; I contemplated the shame and the embarrassment, the disgust and disappointment on the faces of my family, the darkness and desperation that would follow, as surely as night follows day. I didn’t for one moment kid myself that I could get away with having a few drinks, that it might somehow be alright. I mean, I may be prone to madness, but I’m not stupid. I knew where it would take me. I knew that the following morning I’d be begging the local treatment centre to let me in and take it all away; I knew it was absolute insanity. But I’d lost the power of choice.

I turned to the guy who sat behind me and said “can you put the tea stuff away please mate? I’m off.”
I crossed the road to the off licence and bought two zeppelins of cheap white cider (I only had about a fiver), went back round the corner to my flat, where I locked the door, pulled down the blinds, took the phone off the hook and put my dirtiest most ragged old clothes on, because I knew, I knew that within an hour or so I would be covered in blood and shit and vomit, and I opened the bottle and proceeded to drive myself into the ground. The time that elapsed between the thought and the drink was about eight minutes.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The Attics of My Father

Back to lofts holding the promise of dusty adventure. My father’s attic was a place of true self discovery, because in it was his old boarding school chest, and in the chest was a collection of old 45s from the late 50s and early 60s. The ones from the late 50s were better: records like “Sweet Little Sixteen” by Chuck Berry, “Help Me” by Sonny Boy Williamson, “Cut across Shorty” by Eddie Cochran, “Chicago Calling” by Cyril Davies and “Hit the Road Jack” by Ray Charles. These songs thrilled and inspired me, bringing with them visions of big American Cadillacs, making out at the drive-in, teenage rebellion, highways that stretched into forever, and old black men sitting on porches in the Mississippi Delta drinking bourbon, playing bottleneck blues and waiting for their dog to die.

The 1960s, on the other hand, were a dud until the Beatles came along, because the original rock and rollers were no longer around. Elvis was in the army, Chuck Berry was in prison for smuggling a minor across the state line, Jerry Lee Lewis had been shamed and banned from the UK for marrying his thirteen year old cousin, Little Richard had become a priest, Ike Turner was too busy beating up Tina, and so on. This just left the likes of Pat Boone, Frank Ifield, Helen Shapiro and Cliff Richard. And they were fucking awful.

These records captivated and thrilled me. It wasn’t just the music; it was the discs themselves; all black and shiny and in colourful paper sleeves (I later found out that they were so shiny because every couple of years my dad would bring them out and wash them with Fairy liquid). It was the smell of them; it was the feel of them. It was the old Bush record player with the lift up lid and the mono speaker at the front. It was the deep knowing that these things were of priceless and infinite value. It was realising that the kids at school knew nothing about such things; that they were probably listening to Whitney Houston, Duran Duran or Five Star. It was the fact that these American rock and roll records were folk stories, fairy tales, and that the blues is the music of the soul. It was an awesome and life-defining time, and was the beginning of my endless love affair with rhythm and blues.

But there had to be more. It wasn’t enough just to listen to this fantastic music; I wanted to play it. I wanted to be like the men on the records, I wanted to be like Chuck Berry (without the jail-sentences and predilections for under-age girls).

I pestered my family to buy me a guitar, and finally my father came through with the goods. I remember it still; it was a Kay nylon strung “Spanish-style” guitar. It was the kind of guitar package you can still buy in Argos today for about fifty quid; plywood, suit beginner, complete with box, strap, book and plectrum. Of course, I loved it.

I spent the next three years in that attic, slowing down the records to 16 rpm so I could copy the guitar riffs on them, and little by little I learned. With a few friends at school I formed a band, called the Howlin’ Tomcats, and thus began my musical career. I was to play in bands for the next twenty years or so, until my fondness for mood altering substances got the better of me, and I was reduced to busking in doorways for a can of super T and a blow job off some toothless old crone. Those were the days.

Recently I’ve stopped playing the guitar. It no longer does anything for me. But I am still a fan of a great record, especially an old vinyl 45 wrapped in a paper sleeve. As the Buddha himself said: “You can’t get high sniffing a CD.” 

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Hair Today

One of the most liberating experiences of my recent life has been allowing my hair to grow, no matter how untidy or dishevelled it may be sometimes.

More and more, the old geezer who goes out to buy the paper in the morning dressed in his pyjamas has become an example of enlightenment to me as the years have gone by. For somebody who has been as obsessed with his appearance as I have been in the past – and still can be to some degree – the pyjama-clad whispy haired old nutter in the newsagents represents the promise of freedom: the promise of a day in the future when I too will no longer care about other peoples’ perceptions of me (as if they really have any at all), when I will have ceased to identify myself by the outward appearance that I wish to present to the world, when I will be free to just be, because I have experienced enough and learned enough and gained enough wisdom to know that hey, it doesn’t matter. It’s not important.

Nothing matters; nothing’s important. The old man knows this, and as a result he is free.

My “life” has become a series of spiritual awakenings, or if you prefer, moments when I have suddenly remembered the truth. The first of these occurred after a truly mind-changing dose of LSD when I realised for the first time that all is One; that the same stuff that makes up the trees and the birds and the sky and the moon makes up you and me and everything. For the sake of brevity these days I call “it” God.

The second was when I was relieved of my alcoholism, when I learned about (and started to vigorously practice) acceptance.

After that came realisation about my identification with my mind. It came from a whole bunch of different places. I remember, I was attending an “Introduction to Counselling” course at the time (I didn’t want to be a counsellor -I thought I was doing it because it would look good on my CV: actually I was doing it because I was in the process of learning a major life lesson), and the guy who ran the course kept suggesting that we be the observer of our thought processes; that if we made a habit of this we would ultimately realise that we are not our thoughts; neither are we a product of our experiences. Well, I found this all very confusing. At the same time I had several books on the go: “The Power of Now”, by Eckhart Tolle, “Conversations with God” by Neale Donald Walsch, “The Sermon on the Mount” by Emmet Fox and a novel by Stephen King. And they all said the same thing, too. Wandering through town one day I saw a message written on some random guy’s T-shirt, and that said it too. When we need to learn a lesson, the Universe puts it wherever we look. And until we learn it, we’ll keep having it presented to us.

I guarantee if I read those books today, or went on the same course, they would all say something different. And the point is, they did not cause me to have an awakening. They were more like an augury of it. If you’re going to have an awakening, you’re going to have it, regardless of anything you do or don’t do; regardless of any spiritual exercises you may or may not indulge in. You can be wearing yellow spandex trousers and having colonic irrigation in Thailand; you could be a devout atheist who reads the Daily Mail. It doesn’t matter. When it’s your time, it’s your time. It really is out of your hands.

Well, the day came when I stopped thinking for a few seconds. And I was still alive. I was still aware, still conscious, and still me. That’s when I understood, that thought is something that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere, and I can choose to step out of it at any time. The more I remind myself of this, the easier it is to do.

Which leads me to my current lesson, and the reason I started writing this: If I am not my thoughts, or my experiences, who am I?

We all strengthen our sense of individuality (alienation) be defining ourselves in various ways. I have a certain friend who defines himself by his anger. “People like that always make me angry.”

For myself, I have defined myself variously as a guitar player, a drunk, a mod, an intellectual and so on and so forth. It has always seemed important to define myself as something (and it is important to my ego, which thrives on a sense of individuality, alienation, separation), but is it the truth? Well, no, it’s not. I haven’t played the guitar for some time. If I lost my hands I wouldn’t be able to play it at all. I could hardly call myself a guitar player then, could I? And yet I (that entity that I keep trying to define, to pin down, to box and to label) would still be the same. I haven’t had a drink for some time now. Am I still a drunk? Obviously not. So I can’t use that to define myself either.

In fact, upon closer inspection, I am none of these things. Concepts are being constantly discarded. I suspect that at the bottom of it all I will find that I don’t exist as an individual entity at all, but I don’t know for sure, because I’m not there yet. But I will keep you posted.

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable, or: The End of Life as We Know It

It took me thirty five years or so to come to this place. It is a place of crushing defeat and total surrender. There is no room here for ambiguity or doubt. I need to ask myself: Have I had enough yet, or is there still some small part of me that believes that somehow, some day, by some magical twist of circumstance, I may be able to try the same thing again, but this time get a different result?

I ended up in my first treatment centre when I was in my mid-twenties. That was also when I had my first contact with a twelve step fellowship. My drinking was bad enough that I was forever trying to stop. It caused me a lot of misery, and outwardly messed up my life. And every time I stopped, I really believed I’d had enough. And I had: at least for that week, or that afternoon. But as the horrors began to recede and I was faced once more with life as it is and found that I couldn’t accept it, I would find myself picking up the next drink, with or without some delusional mental scenario in which it would be alright this time. Towards the end of my drinking, my mind had given up trying to convince me that it would be alright. By this time I had had some experience of the twelve steps, and of recovery, and I knew only too well where a drink would take me. But, thanks to the mental obsession which is a pre-requisite of the alcoholic mind, I found myself absolutely without power against picking up the first drink, and the first drink would set off a physical craving in my body which demanded another one, and the more I drank the stronger the craving. If you’re not entirely sure if you have suffered from a physical craving for alcohol or some other substance, imagine this: gasping for air while being suffocated in a plastic bag. That’s craving.

To put it simply: When I start drinking I can’t stop. When I’m sober I can’t stop myself from starting, because I have an obsession to drink which crowds out any sane or reasonable thought. This makes me an alcoholic. It means I will never go back to the halcyon days when I used to have a couple of pints in the evening and enjoy a few games of pool with my mates (and that in itself is an illusion; a twisted fantasy invented by my mental illness, because I never could have a couple of pints in the evening, and before too long I didn't have any mates, either: from the word go it was all ditches, police cells, black-outs, shame, puzzlement and humiliation).

Some people believe that at some point they crossed a line, from normal social drinking to alcoholism; personally I believe that I was born an alcoholic. I have a suspicion that had there been only one place on the face of the Earth where alcohol was available, that I would have been drawn to it, like a moth to a flame, and inevitably ended up dying there. I believe that if alcohol had been unheard of by the human race, I would have become a scientist, and somehow “discovered” it. If alcohol was to be found only on the moon, you’ve guessed it, I’d have been working for NASA. Because now I believe that I was meant to be an alcoholic. And why do I believe that? Because I am one. And it is as it is.

Of course, when I first conceded the fact, I was far from happy about it. Why would I be? I couldn’t imagine life without alcohol. It was the central fact of my existence. My life – if it could be said to be life – revolved around it. It was the solution to my problem for many years. I had perceived it as my lover, even if in the end it had turned on me. We always hope our lovers will go back to the way we think they were.

But here is the miracle: what I thought was the end of the world turned out to be the beginning of life itself, because it broke me, and brought me to the twelve steps.

The thing about the steps is this: they’re useless until you’ve exhausted every other option, until you have once and for all admitted to yourself that you are beaten.

“Enter in through the narrow gate,” Jesus said, and that’s what the twelve steps seem to be when we first come to them. But when we make a decision to go through the gate we find a world full of infinite possibility that gets deeper and wider with each new day. We begin to awaken.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Kholi's Shed

I’m an alcoholic. I drank every day for twenty years. Half of that time I was trying to get or stay sober but I found it impossible. I couldn’t leave it alone. Despite the fact that alcohol had brought about my ruin, had destroyed my mental health and self–esteem, had stripped me of everything worthwhile and left me eating out of bins, picking up dog-ends and sleeping in bushes, it was just about bearable compared to the thought of life without a drink.

Like all of us, I am indefinable, but when I look back on my childhood – which has nothing whatsoever to do with my drinking - I can see both the seeds of my alcoholism, and of my recovery from it.

As a boy, I had no doubt that there was a God, and that he had something very special in store for me. No, let me be honest here. I believed that I was put on this earth to teach you lot about yourselves. Special and different? Oh yes. I believed I was more intelligent than you, more capable than you, better looking, better dressed and funnier than you, and Right. I didn’t see humanity and the world as an extension of myself and of God; I saw humanity as a faceless writhing mob and the world as its rubbish dump: I had an ego the size of a small country (or an uptight German with an ill-conceived moustache). Consequently I felt isolated from everything.

The problem with the ego is this: that the bigger it gets, the more isolated we feel from the world around us. We begin to feel either superior or inferior to everybody else (or both); we feel misunderstood, we feel resentful, we feel like a victim, we feel like we don’t belong. We no longer feel one with Life and the Universe, and we cast around madly for a solution to our problem, for something to numb the pain. Some people spend their lives in bitterness and frustration; others chase after money and status in the misguided belief that sooner or later it will bring them happiness; still others join weird cults and allow themselves to be brainwashed so that they don’t have to face reality; one or two become dictators and murder people in industrial quantities. I found my solution in a bottle.

I had a great Aunt when I was young, Auntie Eardley, who got married for the first time when she was seventy years old, to an Indian Sikh called Mr Kholi. Kohli was an intriguing and exotic character to my younger brother and I. He was brown, for a start, and about a hundred years old; he had a turban and a dagger and made loud farting noises when sucking up his tea. When we tried sucking up our tea like that we’d get a clip round the ear. It was ok for Kholi to do it though, because it was his “culture”. His culture sounded excellent, that’s what I thought. He used to run round naked in the early hours of the morning when no-one else was up, beard billowing madly around him, like some deranged Old Testament prophet. He was the only person I ever heard of who bought a Sinclair C5, but it wouldn’t go up the driveway.

One day when I was about nine I was in Kholi’s shed looking through his stuff (I’ve always had a liking for going through other people’s stuff; sheds hold the promise of dusty adventure, and attics are portals to other dimensions) when I came upon a book entitled “The Orange Book – the Meditation Techniques of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh”. There was a picture of a pretty mellow looking Indian on the front with a long white beard. He was playing the lute. It was full of possibility. Maybe I will find the answer in here, I thought, and took the book home with me.

I was always looking for a spiritual experience.

Here are a couple of the meditation techniques which I picked up from the Bhagwan.

Laughing Meditation.

Get a bucket of water (a bucket, mind, an honest to God bucket), open your throat and drink of much of it down as you can in one go; until it’s coming out your ears; until you’re full to the brim with water.
Now regurgitate the water back into the bucket. This serves to clean out your insides.

Start laughing. That’s right; just start laughing. At first your laughter will be forced and unnatural, in fact it won’t be real laughter at all. It’ll be like trying to laugh at a really unfunny joke that you’ve just been told by your new boss’s wife at dinner. Stick with it though, because eventually you’ll hear yourself, the ludicrousness of the situation will hit you, and your laughter will become real. Do this for twenty minutes or so. Do it every morning. After a few weeks you will find that you’re laughing at pretty much everything, and we’re not talking modest, politically correct chuckling here, we’re talking out of control side-splitting hilarity.

The bank repossesses your house: you’ll be laughing like a drain. Your wife tells you she’s filed for divorce: you’ll be in fits of mirth. They tell you at the EU clinic that you’ve contracted an embarrassing social disease: you’ll be roaring with glee. You’ll see the funny side of everything.

Mirror Meditation.

Ensconce yourself in a dark room with a mirror and a single candle. Position the candle so that it’s reflection can't be seen in the mirror, but serves to light up your face. Now gaze into your own eyes, and don’t blink. At first, it is hard not to blink, but with a bit of tenacity you can do it. You’ll have tears streaming down your face for sure, but you can go without blinking for an hour or so, no problem.

What happens? Well, your face starts to change. It melts, like a Salvador Dali painting. It transmutes into other faces. It’s bound to, because if you gaze at anything for long enough you’re going to hallucinate, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is this: the eyes are the windows of the soul. You are seeing your soul. You are in communion with it. You recognise it and know it, and love it. The faces that come and go, it is their soul too. It is unchanging. I think it is the Soul of the World.

Well, I took to this mirror stuff like a duck to water. I was at it every night. I think I was partly excited by the esotericism of it all. In his book, Bhagwan Shree said that the faces were those of your sub-conscious or of previous incarnations or something like that. All I know is that mine all had the look of oppressed South American peasants. And then, inevitably, I saw Hitler.

I say inevitably, because of what I have learned about my ego. It doesn’t believe in shades of grey. It doesn’t believe in half measures. If I’m going to see someone who I perceive to be myself in a past life, you can guarantee it’s going to be either the most evil person I can comprehend (at the time, Hitler), or Jesus Christ.

I don’t believe in evil, anymore, incidentally. People do some messed up stuff when they're consumed with fear and alienation. It makes you do crazy things.