Chapter 6: Relapse or Research?

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Navigator’s Note:

      Never enter into a pathway of spiritual transformation casually. When your own self-interest becomes secondary to a pragmatic search for a more universal truth, forces will be unleashed in your life over which you will have little control. Better never to start than begin and give it less than your best effort, as your new pathway will swallow you up if you hesitate in your conviction. There is no shortcut to spirituality, no working with a net.

      Gurus in all guises have been alerting people to this danger throughout Humanity’s  History. Evangelicals warn us that announcing our intention to follow Jesus arouses the Devil, who will conspire to defeat us even more vigorously. The psychoanalyst cautions us about the reactionary power of the shadow-self coming into the light. The Buddhist counsels us that cosmic accounts will be settled when long buried karmic seeds begin to sprout. And we all know that it gets worse before it gets better. 

I had warned my parking-lot-protégés of such hazards from the start of our association. Grace is not cheap, and one should never think that they have paid their spiritual dues, or that the worst is finally behind them. At the age of thirty-five I took a long lunch that initiated an evolving challenge of sufficient vigor to force me to cast aside an almost genetic indifference to people that had plagued me since my earliest memories. But as I found myself concentrating on helping others in their quest for spiritual adulthood, I failed to notice that I was being pulled into a new journey of my own.

I had previously lost interest in every other challenge in my life when I reached a certain level of accomplishment and further accumulation of skill or knowledge seemed pointless. My personal history is littered with triumphant debuts that fizzled out into a limbo of mediocrity. I had assumed an intrinsic lack of ambition and there was a steady parade of employers, teachers, friends, and lovers who were happy to confirm my assumption, and lament over my as yet unrealized potential. But this new evolving challenge was different from the others in that it continually required me to elevate myself in order to continue. In previous work trials, academic tasks, and personal relationships there always seemed to come a moment at which continued effort no longer required that I become transformed in the process, and I would walk away disinterested, indifferent. Apparently, only that continued demand for transcendence of Self kept an ember of motivation burning inside me. Maybe it wasn’t that I didn’t care enough; maybe I hadn’t found something worth caring about.

      But life intervenes to challenge us when we are unwilling or unable to challenge ourselves. The old unshakeable foundation of Prayer, Meditation, and Self-examination—my personal Fruit from the Twelve-Steps—was no longer up to the challenge of daily living. My inner empiricist would secretly welcome what was about to come. I had always become self-conscious when formalizing any spiritual practice; for me, concrete acts of daily living provided the raw materials for transcendence. Life is the prayer, the meditation, and the self-examination. The world never goes away, and sometimes it just breaks down your door.

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Chapter 6


 If you choose not to decide,

you still have made a choice,

Rush, 1980


“Michael, I want to have children, and I want to have them with you.” 

I could have just ended the marriage then with a decisive, justifiable “No.” But I said nothing. Had my heart bled out all the love I had to give her? Or was I just choking on an abundance of love that was never meant for her in the first place? I once allowed myself to be carried into this marriage because it seemed easier than breaking-up with her when it was time for me to graduate and move away. Now it appeared that I would let the momentum of my own indecisiveness carry us out of what we had agreed would be a childless life together. But easier for who? And easier compared to what? The difference between courage and cowardice may just be a matter of timing. Does the greatest damage come from what is said or what is left unsaid? Does the greatest risk come from what we do or what we leave undone?

Plainsboro, New Jersey, 1996


      The neck was getting itchy again. As I opened the medicine cabinet and reached for a can of Barbasol, the back of my hand brushed up against a 1.7-ounce miniature of Chivas, a gift to my wife and me from the limousine driver at our wedding. Mr. Solomon had asked that we save it to toast the birth of our first child, and we kept it in remembrance of his kindness, even though we were both active, sober members of Alcoholics Anonymous and never intended on opening it. Over the last eight years, I had noticed that little bottle at least a few times a week without a passing consideration. On this afternoon—after fifteen years without a drink—I mused to myself: “No way we’re having any kids”; then, “No sense in wasting good Scotch.” With those two thoughts, I cracked the seal on our wedding memento, gulped the contents in two grimaced swallows, and started shaving.  

      Nothing happened for several months: no drinking, no thoughts of drinking—no-thing. Each time I shaved, the absence of the presence of that bottle was recorded in my mind without commentary. With each slight jostling of the medicine cabinet contents, the empty space that it once inhabited began to fill, until neither its absence nor its presence remained.

      The next time I drank was deliberate and calculated. Let me be clear about this. I did not “slip,” “go out,” “pick up,” or any other of those euphemisms that self-identified alcoholics use to blunt the shock when their sobriety unravels. I was neither overwhelmed by a “craving,” nor blindsided by a “trigger,” but instead, carefully considered the possible consequences and decided to drink anyway. It would be comforting in retrospect to identify some tragic life event or devious mental gymnastic that prompted such a brazen experiment with choice. It might even be reassuring to believe that making it unscathed through that first drink months earlier had fostered a confidence that I could survive another attempt. Any reason at all that was amenable to review and revision would have been preferable to the truth: my motivation was simple curiosity, that primary impulse that has driven human beings throughout history to both discovery and destruction. I just wanted to see what would happen.

      One guest was conspicuously missing from my fated reunion with alcohol: the mental obsession for the first drink. That pre-occupational urge that had once reflexively pushed me back into the bottle, no matter what the consequences, was nowhere to be found. Previously, to simply think of drinking was to drink—a unitary, instantaneous movement from thought to bended elbow. Now, however, an observable gap had opened between thought and action, an interval of variable duration that lingered mockingly in my mind, taunting me to reflect upon the excruciating act of choosing this rather than choosing that. Sometimes I drank and sometimes I did not—for any given choice, I could not tell you why; for any series of choices, I could not tell you why not.

      Taking the first drink brought on a mutated form of the physical phenomenon of craving so aptly illustrated by the A.A. aphorism, “One drink is too many; a hundred is not enough.” Once alcohol touched my lips, every drop in my possession had to be consumed—but curiously, no more. Gone from my mind was the option of a closing-time race back to the liquor store when my supply dried up before my thirst. Apparently, choosing to drink now also meant choosing how much to drink before I even started, a rankling commitment whose origin eluded me. Each pre-first drink game plan would remain inviolate, and after a few months I settled into a comfortable routine of a six-pack of Samuel Adams every time my wife was out of town. If alcoholism is an illness, then this was a different kind of malady, a corruption of choice—and I chose that corruption.

           My first encounter with alcohol began more opportunistically. As an intellectually gifted child, I succeeded early in life; but as an emotionally troubled child, I failed just as often as I had succeeded—and I mean big successes and big failures. My problem was that success brought no joy, and failure brought no sadness. Discovering a half-gallon of Chivas in my father’s liquor cabinet provided an unambiguous solution: drink enough and you feel really good; drink too much and you feel really bad. Win, win—at least you feel something! I would quickly master the art and science of extracting the maximum amount of big feeling from alcohol: blackout drinking.     

      I loved everything about blackout drinking. I loved the control that being out of control gave me. I loved the relentless, repeating, reassuring patterns: every morning washed clean of yesterday’s burden; every afternoon suffocating under the weight of the intensified present; every evening abandoned to the inevitability of another tomorrow no different from today. Alcohol, the ultimate Daily Planner. (With apologies to Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird really Sings: it prefers the predictability of confinement to the uncertainty of free flight.) Not surprisingly, my life from adolescence to the age of twenty-five would read like a cliché New York Times best-seller: epic, tragicomic adventures fueled by lawyers, guns, and money. But I slept walked through the melodrama with characteristic disinterest. There were no victims in my world; everyone has a story, and nobody likes a whiner.

      This personal history was clear and present in my mind when I made a conscious decision, after fifteen years without a drink, to spin the Relapse Roulette Wheel and see what color came up. I cannot remember whether my expectations at the time leaned towards the ball landing on red or black, but instead, that little ivory pill kept falling out of pocket, and I soon discovered to my dismay that worse than big wins or big losses was the ambiguity of drinking without a clear result—not that good, but not that bad, either. So, just as cavalierly as I decided to start drinking, I decided to stop. Mildly disappointed, I felt that I had wasted my time and learned nothing. The experiment was over.


The moment I decided to stop drinking something inside me shifted. A subtle pressure hovered at the periphery of my mind for several weeks; annoyingly, anonymously. I can best describe it as something between a migraine in mid-bloom and a forgotten name lingering at the tip of your tongue. When the presence disappeared one day, I started bingeing sporadically, and openly. With my wife’s inevitable departure, the drinking paused, and a new range of choices opened, many of which I made in Atlantic City casinos. The spectacle of the game pulls you in, the possibility that it could all go horribly right or horribly wrong at any moment. You can instantly erase the accumulated errors of a lifetime and ink in possibilities hitherto unthinkable; or you can instead end future hopes and add yet another lost opportunity to the crushing weight of past regrets. The result matters little as long as it happens suddenly, as long as demonic grace vanquishes gradual effort, as long as you escape time itself. But there is no escaping your fellow acrobats on this linear tightrope of chance: cartoonish grifters holding court at the Hold-em tables; James Bond understudies breaking a leg at opening night Baccarat; short, fat salesmen and little old ladies, arms welded to the slots with the sweat of quiet desperation. The big game is so designed so that you must take your place in this House of Broken Dharma Mirrors, each fractured image of self perfectly reflecting your own imperfections. As you hand over your money, you think about how every day you sell a piece of yourself to a job you hate and a boss you despise. You look at their lives and you look at your life and you wonder who among you is the most broken. Home is where your loneliness lives.

Always skilled at hiding yourself in plain sight, you are not so clever at concealing your memory for a six-deck shoe. Before long, you begin developing unsolicited relationships with tieless men in cheap suits with big open collars. Phone calls in the middle of the night rattle your bones. A group conscience decides that you should immediately settle your accounts, then seek other places to chase the scream. You remain sated and unabated as you enter the anonymous world of cyberspace, but without those pathetic faces to reflect your own desperation back to you, it’s just spending: a long, slow trickle that can never satisfy the bloodlust like the spectacle of a gushing financial artery. When the credit card starts getting a little too heavy to carry, you phase out Planet Poker and the Home Shopping Network and phase in a more economical, more reliable, more familiar way to scratch your itch: fifteen or sixteen Modelos a night, topped off with either a full rotisserie chicken or a large, deep-dish pizza with extra anchovies. The Smith Machine in your basement gym morphs into a clothes rack. In a few years you will go from a robust 193 pounds to a wheezing 324.

      Nothing to be surprised at here: when denied primary egress, the whack-a-mole of addiction always finds a hole through which to pop up one of its Lernaean heads. I felt no panic that the genie was out of the bottle and knew that sooner or later everything would be all right. My ex-wife was safe and building a new life with someone else. My equanimity in the face of these new, undulating waves of intent grew organically from a silent witness that lurked just beyond my perceptual radar; a daily companion from childhood that had watched and recorded the worldly madness without comment or judgment; a stalwart presence unaffected by anything that was happening to me, good or bad. But my almost Ignatian “indifference to all created things” did not remove me from the gravitational pull of creation’s orbits, and amidst the spinning satellites of risk, gluttony, and slothful extravagance, the strongest pull was still coming from the bottle.

      In this manner, alcohol reasserted itself as my primary life coach, my clarifier of confusion. To drink, or not to drink; that is the question—for the alcoholic, the only question. It is the taunting genius of any addiction to reduce a human being’s pluripotential to a single binary choice.

  “To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 44)

      Is it possible for anyone—alcoholic or not—to inadvertently surrender their ability to choose and then consciously reclaim it? Freedom is what first allows us to choose, experience, and remember the results of our choices. Freedom is what then emboldens us to choose again, to choose differently, to choose better. Freedom is not a punchline to our existence, but instead begins our quest to become fully human. But as we have learned, adapted, and evolved, the millennia of philosophical posturing recorded and displayed on our sterile library shelves has offered little advantage over the fertile laboratory contained within a single human life. We must so love our freedom that we are willing to discover it in the fiery crucible of choice.

      Countless inconclusive rounds with my binary beast convinced me that something was not quite right, that something had changed since I started drinking again. My confusion was not over making sincere decisions to quit and then not following through with them—that was familiar territory. My confusion was over making sincere decisions to drink and then abandoning them just as I arrived at the door of the liquor store. It was as if the person who made the decision to drink or to not-drink was not the same person who had to live with that decision. This odd reversal of intent was uncharted territory for me and, unable to sustain either the desire to quit or the compulsion to continue for any meaningful length of time, I feared that the deadly duet would continue with no end in sight. This was not the raging alcoholism I remembered from my youth, so concrete in its hulking brutality; this was a chameleon-like alcoholism—fluid, shapeshifting, mercurial.


      I reached out to the one group of people that I thought could appreciate what was happening to me—Alcoholics Anonymous. Here is how a dozen or so conversations went:

      “Glad to have you back Michael, but were you going to meetings?”

      —”Yes. You saw me there.”

      “Glad to have you back Michael, but were you working the Steps?”

      —“Yes. You heard me share.”

      “Glad to have you back Michael, but were you talking to your sponsor?”

      —Again, “Yes.”

      With each “Yes” answer, their questioning became more aggressive and more accusatory. That is when I began to smell the fear beneath their thinly veiled anger, their absolute horror at the possibility that someone could be working the A.A. Program to the best of their ability, could be fully ensconced in the A.A. Fellowship, and still get drunk. That is when I understood that they had no better idea what was happening to me than I did. That is when I knew I was alone.

      But I was good at being alone. Personalities can let you down, but principles never will. So, I went back to the source: my hand-bound First Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous—“The Big Book,” signed by A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson, pages falling out, notes scribbled over other notes in its comically wide margins, each paragraph numbered and indexed by me for inter- and intra-textual study—my talisman for tough times. I read through the first 164 pages without stopping, more than once, aloud. It certainly was not the content that kept me glued to the text: most of the writing is intellectually dishonest, spiritually naïve, and gratingly parochial. But there is a cadence that comes out when you read it aloud, a rhythm in which you can hear Bill Wilson’s evangelical spirit of inquiry as he struggled to reach an understanding of what was happening to him, a new understanding that he would feel duty-bound to pass on to others.

      That was the A.A. that I remembered: the struggle to understand and the commitment to pass on to others the nobility of that struggle. I began to appreciate what it meant to be part of a continuous Oral and Written Tradition that now reached back several generations; the privilege of being the caretaker of a body of knowledge that by its very nature could illuminate and transform lives. My return to drinking in no way relieved me of the responsibility of carrying that Verbal Tradition forward, nor did it in any way erase what I had learned in those fifteen years that I was sober. The pioneering times of A.A. were littered with drunken casualties who, during moments of sober lucidity, were able to give away to others what they ultimately could not keep for themselves.

“No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 84)

       I felt imbedded in a moment of history, imbued with a sense of purpose. Wilson established a template for alcoholics getting sober and staying sober for the first time in their lives. Although the first 164 pages of the Alcoholics Anonymous mention a few examples of alcoholics who drank after long stretches of sobriety, there were obviously no examples of alcoholics who drank after long stretches of Twelve-Step sobriety. Will a second bout with alcoholism still respond to a re-administered Twelve Step Program? or has the illness adapted and changed? —the way bacteria become more resistant to antibiotics; or how retroviruses reverse-engineer themselves, rendering useless previously effective treatment. If Alcoholics Anonymous insists on taking the disease metaphor literally, then let’s not be afraid to take it wherever it might lead us!

      I also wondered whether conflicting stories about how well-established A.A.’s started drinking again were being whittled down to a monolithic narrative that was acceptable to the group. The only story anyone wanted to hear from me was “I stopped going to meetings; I stopped working the Steps; I stopped talking to my sponsor.” But that’s not how it happened to me, and I suspected that’s not how it happened to many other A.A.’s who had returned to drinking but remained, after they came back to the fold, suspiciously reluctant to offer any explanation. I certainly didn’t think my almost flippant, “I just wanted to see what would happen” would endear me to anyone. There would be no help for me from the rooms. I needed to find another angle of approach.


      Playing to my strengths as an observer, I decided to record my return to drinking with the same meticulousness and attention to detail that I brought to my work as a Synthetic Organic Chemist. To impart an experimental vigor to a simple chronicle, I procured a few blank Laboratory Notebooks from my place of employment. Documenting my real-time experience with alcoholism as it unfolded before me, I wrote when I drank, and I wrote when I did not drink—filling several volumes over the next few years. Understandable gaps punctuated the daily record, and some entries were written in an obviously drunken scrawl, but most of my observations were penned in a thoughtful manner. Reducing a web of raw experience to linear sentences required precision, and an inductive methodology emerged that was tailor-made for responding to the personal and historical challenge that I had set for myself. Burning with Francis Bacon’s “divine fire” to resolve what is real from what is appearance, I fixed my investigation on paper to get a clearer picture of what was happening to me. And the more I wrote, the clearer my penmanship became.

      An alcoholic putting relapse to paper as a Research & Development Project might sound preposterous, maybe even insane, but what else was I going to do? —Surrender? —Turn it Over? —Let Go? If I had heard in the rooms of A.A. that any of these spiritually squirmy evasions worked a second time around, I might have tried one… But no template of any kind had been laid down for the unique challenges of a return to drinking after extended Twelve-Step sobriety—thus the need to write it all down…I had no intention of trivializing the immensity of alcoholism by turning it into an illness that could be treated, or a problem that could be solved, or even a sin seeking redemption. I was convinced that there was something here of fundamental importance about alcoholism that could be learned and added to A.A.’s Oral and Written Tradition, maybe even advance our understanding of what it means to be a human being, what it means to choose. I would not insult my benefactor, alcoholism, by simply recovering from it. I would not squander the gift of meaningful suffering that had been entrusted to me.

        What admittedly might have begun as fanciful rationalization or misplaced messianic zeal eventually grew into an unshakeable trust in the existence of a hidden knowledge that by its own nature could both illuminate and transform lives. Whether or not this trust was delusional was of no concern to me at the time. We sometimes need to embrace a pragmatic myth to survive a dark night of the soul, when intellect becomes blind and clumsy. It did, however, occur to me that waiting for that flash of liberating insight might just be a perverse re-enactment of the “I’ll quit tomorrow” cliché. But the knowledge that I was looking for was not the self-knowledge that would allow me to drink safely, or even to stop drinking. I could sense that the bar I had set for myself was much higher to reach than that (or perhaps too low to limbo under).

        Although I was consistently being pulled back to that first drink, the attraction appeared weak, almost nonexistent when compared to the mental obsession that defined my first bout with alcohol. How could something so feeble hold me so tightly? The Buddha once said that it does not matter whether you are bound by ropes of straw or chains of gold: bondage is still bondage. I sensed an amorphous pull operating beneath my alcoholism, a black hole of opposing desires that was deeper, subtler, and ultimately more human than any deviancy that we shove into that conceptual box labelled “addiction.” Who was this fragmented, ambivalent me who could not decide whether he wanted to drink or not-drink?


      Memories of what we have heard or read resurface throughout our lives, sometimes gently and barely noticeable; other times intruding with sufficient force and relevance to demand immediate reinterpretation and application. Appearing to me now in one of my Relapse Notebooks were words from Romans 7:15, where Saint Paul presciently captured the essence of the divided mind:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

      In the next several verses, our rascally persecutor-turned-preacher follows conventional, dualistic theology in pitting good against evil, flesh against spirit, eventually arriving unceremoniously at: the “sin that dwells within.” But is sin really what makes it impossible for us to realize what we want? When Saint Augustine (and that piggy-backing malcontent Martin Luther) called upon Christians to “Sin boldly!”, he did more than testify to God’s forgiveness; he called attention to our inability to be who we truly are without Grace. But how does this help us address the chronic human condition so ably described by St. Paul?—this perverse reversal of intent that becomes so acute with alcoholism, when it is not just that you cannot stop drinking, but that you drink more when you sincerely try to stop.

      A simple tactic crystallized: Drink boldly!—make no direct effort to stop. Committing to this peculiar policy without expecting any specific or immediate results, I would not be able to react against any deviation in plan, as there was no plan. Without intentionally moving towards a goal of sobriety or opposing obstacles on the path towards that goal, the hungry ghost would die of starvation as I drank my way back to sobriety; and because it is impossible to drink yourself sober, ego would have no reason to sabotage something that it would not notice happening right under its watchful eye.

      Such an indirect approach was not without precedent. In my early years in A.A., simple tasks such as making coffee, setting up chairs, cleaning ashtrays, and giving rides to newcomers seemed more important to my sponsor than obsessing about not-drinking. While the conscious attention of my ego was being occupied by this beautifully orchestrated case of misdirection—with my sponsor as benevolent puppeteer—the real work of self-healing was being done elsewhere, on a more fundamental level. Grace is part of the mechanism of reality. Sometimes, people need to be tricked into changing.

      This second time around, sobriety could not be something to be pursued directly; sobriety must be the by-product of giving up the pursuit. Very Tao. But in not-doing, I would leave nothing undone. Slowly, day by day, I made small changes in other areas of my life while continuing to drink, minimizing any harm that might come to others from that drinking. I showed more consideration for the people around me—particularly women, eliminating even the whisper of an unhealthy thought or action from my interpersonal repertoire. I kept the beer; but I gave up the chicken and pizza. I dusted off the Smith Machine and started exercising. In a few years I would go from a wheezing 324 pounds to a svelte 181.

      Darkness will not survive the light. I wanted to create a lifestyle that would choke alcoholism out of existence. Instead of attacking the drinking directly, in a volitional sleight-of-hand I attacked the conditions supporting that drinking. During my first encounter with alcoholism, I knew that I had to stop drinking for my life to get better. This time, I knew my life had to get better first: I would not stop drinking until something else happened…My relationship with alcohol would change only after my relationship with the world changed, but this meant I had to begin feeling my life through the haze of alcohol. For the first time since I started heavy drinking as a teenager, I was forced to pay attention to what alcohol did for me, and to grudgingly admit that I had never really experienced my own drinking (In fact, I had never really experienced my own life). How ironic that someone who guzzled rivers just to feel anything would have so little awareness of how he felt while drinking.

      For the first time, I allowed myself to taste the alcohol in my mouth, feel it go down my throat, then settle warmly in my stomach. I welcomed the first few minutes of euphoria, honored the groundswell of drunkenness, respected the lurch into blackout oblivion. I was forced to admit and accept that nothing affected me more deeply than my drinking—all of it, the entire cyclic, self-revelatory dance of discovery and destruction that was propelled forward by the intimate pairing of wanting and not-wanting the same experience. To deny that reality would be to deny a part of myself that needs to be acknowledged, a part of me that can never be erased, a part of me that never should be erased. The Michael who wants to drink and the Michael who wants to not-drink are always there whether I am drunk or sober, whether I want to drink or not—and they both have the same simple goal: to be “Michael.”


      And Michael continued to clean house. As my relationship with the world changed, my relationship with alcohol did begin to change. I could now see how oblivious I was to the complex volitional movements underpinning my drinking, those rhythmic little eddies and whirlpools of wanting and not-wanting that continually reshaped and redirected that vast river of intent on which I navigated my life. With a little practice, I was able to watch a barely discernible mental pull towards the first drink arise, abide, and then subside under its own momentum. Curiously, that faint impulse did not seem to be aimed specifically at the drink, but at a more general desire that hovered around the drink. Detached from the object of observation—the drink—I could now see an attenuated mental obsession as clearly as I could see the sun appear in the morning, hover overhead at midday, and finally disappear at night. Tracking in this manner, I found myself more able to drink when I wanted to drink, and not-drink when I didn’t want to drink. Saints Paul and Augustine would have been proud.

      After taking the first drink, I could also watch the physical phenomenon of craving arise, abide, and then subside in a similar manner—as long as I did not identify with that craving as being “mine.” Detached from the observer—the drinker—I could now distinguish clearly between the cascading physical reactions to a series of drinks, and the attending mental states that proliferated through that series of physical reactions. What an astonishing thing to see alcohol unsnarl the dualistic World-Knot that has baffled philosophers for millennia: Body and Mind seemed to drink independently, at different velocities, and with varying resistances to the impulse to continue drinking. Even more remarkable was to discover that, by logically interweaving Prayer, Self-Examination, and Meditation—first fruits of the A.A. Twelve-Step Path, I could re-tie the Body-Mind Knot to my advantage, recombining physical and mental momenta into a single volitional movement that allowed me to change my pre-drinking game plan at any time after I started. I no longer had to consume all the alcohol in my possession and was often surprised the next day to see how much I had left in the refrigerator.

Over the next year, I became quite proficient in tracking the interdependent comings and goings of the mental obsession for the first drink and the phenomenon of craving that develops afterwards. But I still limped through my life one day at a time, not really wanting to drink, not really wanting to stop—not that bad, but not that good, either. Suspended in a volitional purgatory between wanting and not-wanting with no end in sight, was I getting better or getting worse? The possibility that this holding pattern was to be the rest of my life I found infinitely more horrifying than the clichéd prospect of jails or institutions, or even the decisiveness of death. I needed to go deeper.

Bottles were only as symbol, we had to stop fighting anyone or anything.”

(Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 103)

      Now detached from both the observed and the observer—the alcohol and the alcoholic—I followed the movement of alcoholism itself, that elusive “ism” that gives such disproportionate power to that molecule of C2H5OH. As I trudged through the self-perpetuating ellipses of pain and pleasure, of wins and losses, I came to understand that my fight wasn’t with anyone; my fight wasn’t with anything—not even alcohol. My fight was with the fight itself: when I tried to give up alcohol because it had made my life unmanageable—whether that be through the raging blackouts of my first alcoholism or the grinding monotony of my second alcoholism, a part of me always reserved the right to drink again. There is no such thing as no reservations—ambivalence lurks in the soul of spirits. The popular image of the alcoholic as driven blindly by an uncontrollable urge to continue is only one half of the story: the alcoholic in full bloom is also driven blindly by an uncontrollable urge to stop. Both urges rule simultaneously and with equal power; working in concert, they can drive the cycle of alcoholism—which includes recovery from it, indefinitely. Any attempt, direct or indirect, to escape the cycle of wanting and not-wanting is still part of that cycle. Who surrenders to whom in a war-within-self?

      In watching the mental obsession—that I will eventually take that first drink again—and the phenomenon of craving—that I will not (want to) stop once I take that first drink—assemble and disperse, seemingly under their own power, I felt like I was watching a magician’s trick. I knew it was a trick; I just didn’t know how it was being done. Remembrances of lost choices gave me a peek behind the volitional curtain, as I began to see how non-drinking thoughts can hang at the periphery of one’s mind for weeks, months, even years before seeking each other out to coalesce into a drinking thought. A sensation on the back of the hand as it reaches for a can of Barbasol shaving cream, the intent behind a limousine driver’s wedding memento, a wife’s broken agreement about not having children, a Father’s fondness for Chivas—scattered perceptions and memories coiling together behind the scenes until they burst forth with cobra-like rapidity. It appears that the infamous mental blank spot that blindsides an alcoholic is not blank, but alternatingly slow and deliberate, then quick and capricious, hiding in plain sight among thoughts that often have little to do with drinking.

      The consequences of taking that first drink do not “crowd into the mind to deter us” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 24) because memories are not battering rams that compete with each other for supremacy in our mind; except, of course, in Wilson’s Big Book world of Higher and Lower Powers, of God’s Will and self-will, where the mental blank spot—that I cannot always decide when I will take that first drink—never takes its proper place as a different, more subtle expression of alcoholism than the power-driven mental obsession that eventually propels me towards that first drink. If I was powerless over anything it wasn’t alcohol, it was over the fluid, shapeshifting, mercurial mental states that bubble down from that black hole of opposing desires. I needed to go even deeper.


      It takes time to develop ideas that work. Certain perceptions and memories are always there, lurking in the background, waiting to assert themselves at the most opportune moment. On November 24th, 2000, I penned the following terse formulation in my Relapse Research Notebook:

“I am looking for my addiction, but I cannot find it…that is, I see that when I am watching the mental obsession and the phenomenon of craving, I lose track of wanting to drink, and the mental blank spot opens up. When I watch for the mental blank spot to open up, I lose track of not-wanting to drink, and the mental obsession and phenomenon of craving appear. My addiction has a mind of its own, and apparently, I am not involved.”

     From this metaphysical mumbling I extracted a concrete strategy: track the momentum of my choices as they unfold through my thoughts towards the final trilogy of addictive deception; watch as the mental obsession, the physical phenomenon of craving, and the now properly identified mental blank spot, are each constructed within the chaos of my consciousness—moving together as one, separately as three, and in every combination of two. I would go back to the very source of Self and end this ethanolic charade, once and for all. I tossed my Relapse Research Notebook as a possible distraction, and I watched when I wanted to drink; and I watched when I did not want to drink: I paid attention to the arising, abiding, and subsiding of both the mental obsession and the phenomenon of craving. Then, I shifted focus and watched when I neither wanted to drink nor not-wanted to drink: I paid attention to the inattention that allowed the mental blank spot to self-generate—unnoticed, unhindered, and untriggered. I pulled back the veils of alcoholism’s three brilliant disguises and gazed into that primordial moment of consciousness when I first see the world and I see myself in it, when I first wonder what’s out there and who’s in here—”Michael” broken down to his existential bones.

       But as soon as I tried to watch my alcoholic mind in action—that I could not always choose whether to drink, when to stop drinking once I started, or when to start drinking—I discovered that there was always someone watching the watcher: I always seem to be a few moments away from wherever I think am. Although I can choose to drink or not-drink as I want, I cannot at the same time choose whether I want to drink or not-drink—the chooser is always separate from their choice.

“Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” Schopenhauer

      But how do I arrive at such a sublime separation between thought and action, between willing and doing? The simplifying genius of my alcoholism had provided me with a preliminary answer: I first survive the chaos of consciousness by dividing the world into manageable compartments: into what gives pleasure and what gives pain; into the good and the bad, the joyful and the sad. This elemental sorting of experience allows me a starting point from which to choose this or to choose that. But in so dividing the world, I inadvertently divided myself into unmanageable compartments: into the Michael who feels pain and the Michael who feels pleasure; into the good and bad Michael, the joyful and sad Michael—and eventually into the Michael who wants and the Michael who does not want. My intermittent attention to these dueling duets allows the mental obsession, the phenomenon of craving, and the mental blank spot to reconfigure my perceptions and memories into that corruption of choice that we label as “addiction.” And that long, anonymous trip back and forth between the chaos of consciousness and the corruption of choice takes place in the blink of an I.  


      And taking this trip for myself was all that was needed. On a day that the Self cannot remember, in circumstances that the I cannot recall, the holding pattern of wanting to drink and not-wanting to drink was broken, suddenly.

 “The problem has been removed. It no longer exists for us.”

(Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 85)

      No ego deflation; no spiritual experience; no recovery—no-thing. Just a clear-eyed recognition of who I was and who I was not without acceptance or rejection of either. Throughout my life (through drinking and not-drinking), my silent witness, my daily companion, my stalwart presence had been watching the watcher, and had now stepped out of the shadows to vanquish wanting and not-wanting to their respective corners and declare a congenial draw. The War-within-Self had been ended with a whimpering bang. The illuminating, transforming knowledge that I had always trusted in had finally revealed itself in its unadulterated glory: my alcoholism does not separate me from humanity; instead, my chronic humanity—acutely experienced as an addiction—allows me to finally rejoin humanity and close the gap between who I am and who I could be; between knowing what to do and being able to do it.

       I had made choices in my life, but I had never chosen my life. My alcoholism was a crash course in choosing a life. Decisions to stop drinking can be reversed. I did that after fifteen years. But when one sees through the illusory web of thoughts by which the accepted or rejected Self weaves any addiction, one can never see them as real again. The magician’s trick no longer holds interest; you are the wizard behind your own curtain. Walk away from fight before it begins: when there is no fight, there is nothing to surrender; when you are not holding on, there is nothing to let go; when you realize that your will and your life were never your own, there is nothing to turn over. If the fight never starts in the Self, then it never ends up in the bottle.

And with that, my experiment with choice was concluded.         

Princeton, New Jersey, 2001


The Dhammapada    

153: I, who have been seeking the builder of this house, failing to attain Enlightenment which would enable me to find him, have wandered through innumerable births in samsara. To be born again and again is, indeed, suffering!

 154: Oh house-builder! You are seen, you shall build no house (for me) again. All your rafters are broken, your roof-tree is destroyed. My mind has reached the unconditioned; the end of craving has been attained.                                                          



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