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Monday, August 15, 2011

A Lesson in "Self-Will Run Riot"

"Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wished, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased."

-- Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 60-61 --

Interestingly, in this description of the self-centered "actor" (at pp. 60-62), the writer of the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous does not distinguish between alcoholic addicts and 'so-called' normal people. Quite the contrary. "(O)ur troubles," he notes generically, "are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme case of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so." (Emphasis added.)

The realization that the vast, vast majority of all people are self-centered is a most useful tool in our recovery. It is not that the typical self-centeredness of others justifies our self-centered behaviour, but rather, knowing this (and always keeping in mind that we are an "extreme case of self-will run riot"), it (a) helps explain why we so often find ourselves "in collision" with others, and (b) points to the dangers that our obsessive self-centeredness poses.

While others may argue in grocery store check-outs, lie to their boss, or act aggressively while driving in heavy traffic, etc., as non-alcoholic addicts they are not prone to go home and drink or drug themselves to death. Rather they will cope with their obsessive self-centeredness in any myriad of ways - watching television, going to the gym and working out excessively, chain-smoking, gambling or perhaps just consoling themselves in the love they have for their family and relaxing in their pool. The point is, that unchecked, the self-centeredness of the alcoholic addict, will always (or so it seems) lead back in one way or another to addiction.

I remember being warned in the earliest weeks of my sobriety not to let any other obsession - for women, for work, or for whatever - seep into my life. I also remember being told that anything I put in fromt of my sobriety I would lose. It was easy to follow this advice at first, or so it seemed. I was married with a good union job, a home and a year-old baby. And as I immersed myself in A.A., working the steps, working with my sponsor and helping others, I never thought that all I was warned against would happen to me.

With four years of sobriety under my belt, I was persuaded to go back to finish the university degree I had abandoned when I was out there "performing." Unknowingly, I had channelled my obsessive nature into something that conventional wisdom says is beneficial. My wife, my parents, my friends and family, even my employer were solidly behind me, and I excelled. Success bred more success, or so I thought. But, as the renowned economist, J. K. Galbratih famously observed, "the trouble with conventional wisdom is that it is usually wrong," and it would take another 10 years before I began to understand this bit of wisdom.

Just shy of ten years sober, having gone back and got not one but two college degrees, and having traded in my coveralls for a three-piece suit, I was working 12 to 14 hours on a typical day as I forged a new career in the law. Moving to a new town, it was all too easy to let what was left of my membership in A.A. lapse. Knowingly, I made the decision that I did not have the time to go to A.A., that spending what little time I had with my wife and two young daughters was far more important, and that - after all - I wasn't going to drink or drug again, etc. Little did I remember the advice that wiser old-timers had given me early in sobriety: don't swap one obsession for another, and never put anything ahead of your sobriety.

Five years later, with a failed marriage, a decimated career, and a botched suicide under my belt, I was brought back to A.A. by one of those old-timers, craving a drink or drug for release but too frightened to try.

With the help of a new sponsor who had drank after fifteen years sobriety, and was once again fifteen years sober, I went back through the Steps and became an active member of A.A. Another wizened old-timers took me back through my story (and his) and convincingly demonstrated to me how the problem of the alcoholic - at least this alcoholic - does, indeed, center in the mind, while another deeply spiritual old-timer taught me to meditate.

In time, and not without setbacks, I regained all that really mattered to me and more. Through the application of the Steps and daily work (not without backsliding) on the maintenance of my spiritual condition I have attained - however falteringly - to what Bill W. rightly called "a new state of consciousness and being."

Of course, there were amends to make, character defects to work on and many, many meetings to make. And, of course,  I regret that I put a lot of people through needless suffering. Yet, I cannot help but think that without the suffering I endured by turning my back on A.A., I likely would not have learned much about my nature or the nature of my fellow man. And I would certainly not have found the conscious contact I now have with a Higher Power that is far greater than my limited "self."

(One of my favourite speakers says that alcoholics in recovery are the luckiest people in the world; that most people go through life wondering simply if there is a God, while we in A.A. get to experience the effect that God has in our lives and the lives of others.)

Thankfully, I survived the ultimate lesson in how dangerous "self-will run riot" can be; and, if I can draw any lessons to pass on to others to save them from relapse back into addiction or worse it is this: (a) the problem of not only the alcoholic, but each of us, centers in the mind, and (b) that the alcoholic addict is extremely self-centered, and thus, if unchecked, is very dangerous to himself and others. For that reason, please - I beg you - don't let any other obsession seep into your life, and never, ever, put anyone or anything else before your sobriety.


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