By John Huey – October 2019
Fifth in a Series of Five Articles on a Secular Recovery
Sometimes, when people fully make contact, they look each other in the eye and see things finally falling into place.
In the context of staying sober within a self-defined affinity group this can happen when you make these connections serially, over time, with many people, some of whom you know well, and with others you know hardly at all. Sobriety, and the support that others dealing with this process give each other, is both mutually reinforcing and mutually enlightening. I help you and you help me.
The dynamics of something so simple on the surface are quite complex. At first, when first exposed to meetings and sharing, it is a process you hardly notice being so absorbed, as you should be, in the initial acquisition and maintenance of your own sobriety. As we move along, we, quite naturally, begin to form friendships with and attachments to other members. It is in these attachments to others where we start to comprehend the healing quality of empathy and the beginnings of a glimmer of an idea that we really may be of use to our fellows while doing this.
The basic form of helping, as is often remarked, is in the attendance at meetings where your very presence can be, and is, of use to others in the grip of disconnection, loneliness, and the creeping feeling, often present in people when they first arrive, of a separateness and uniqueness in terms of their newly acknowledged condition.
Just seeing others gathered, with the same primary purpose of staying sober, is often the beginning of a longer-term commitment for the newcomer as well as a continual recommitment for longer term members. Great service is done in fostering that.
These benefits to others are initially imputed through what is essentially a “passive” set of actions surrounding “just showing up” though the fact that we are indeed there and sharing about our own experiences leads to far more active measures and is an essential gateway for the newer person while exploring their own initial efforts to reach out.
While we are responsible for being welcoming, warm and available my own opinion tends to err on the side of caution regarding outreach to people when they first arrive. I’m reticent about trying to “sell” anything to Secular people who very well may have encountered a traditional, smothering, program approach before they get to a Secular meeting. I do, if people are brand new, go up to them after a meeting to let them know that there is only one so called “Program” book that ever made any sense to me and give them used copies of the original, yellow cover, edition of ‘Living Sober’ that does not contain the steps. It’s a very middle of the road, low key, initial approach that many have told me they appreciated.
To be helpful, concerned, but “hands off” regarding another members personal circumstances, habits and behaviors (other than not drinking and using today) is also extremely important to me. Personally, I’m not at a meeting to have opinions about who or what another member is. I am there to relate my own experience but not my own exact and individually specific prescription for how someone else should proceed. However, as we get to know each other in sobriety it then becomes inevitable that deeper, and more personal, relations may develop.
A sad fact of life is that many times people drink/use first without reaching out to their fellow members. Therefore, a proactive approach, in terms of helping, is fundamental and as simple as making sure everyone new has a contact number for at least one other group member. Maintaining a current group contact list of all current members is also of great importance.
When someone strongly indicates in a meeting or other conversation that they really want to drink or use I, personally, take such remarks in the same vein as someone saying they want to physically harm themselves. Some of this “talk” often, but not always, ends very badly and a response I’ve adopted, whenever appropriate, is to let the member know that they have the absolute affirmative support of the group as a whole, and from me individually, to help keep that from happening. The main message to impart in those situations where someone is “shaky” is for them to call someone, anyone, before takeing that first drink or drug. I’ve had gratifying experiences with this but all too often it goes the other way.
As an advanced crash course in helping others there is nothing like that first encounter, as a sober member, with the “slipping” alcoholic while they are still in the midst of the “slip”. Few things are more disturbing than seeing another member in this condition and the process of helping here is both sensitive and fraught with various perils we need to keep in mind.
The first thing to determine is whether you, as an individual, can physically or emotionally handle this before becoming directly involved. Only you know this, and your own sobriety is always paramount. It’s a tough job but someone must do it and if, for any reason, this might threaten your own well-being its obviously very important to get others involved and not attempt to render such help on your own. It’s therefore vital to reach out to other sober members to discuss the situation before proceeding.
In that vein, the tried and true suggestions about never actually going on such a call on your own are also quite important. In the old days medical detox was much less prevalent and totally wet alcoholics often presented themselves to sober members in a raw state. There are even the ancient stories of going on a call with a pint of liquor to keep a prospect from going into DT’s. We obviously do not do that these days.
Even though the “old style” calls are less frequent because of rehabs and detox units there are occasions where I have been called upon to encounter someone in such a “wet” state. I would not even consider doing this alone and the best that can be accomplished in such a situation is to convince the person to go to detox and physically take them there. Sometimes this sort of help works, and people get back on their feet and start attending regular meetings again but often there are failures. The primary thing is that you could help, and you did help even if it was only to get others involved in a situation you could not handle yourself. Despite these extreme and often stressful circumstances the fact that you did at least try to help provides a great deal of satisfaction and promotes a feeling of gratitude for your own sobriety. These experiences, in retrospect, can prove to be a vital marker and indicator of progress in our own journey here.
The more consistent, day to day form of helping, one on one, is far less dramatic and far more frequent. It really boils down to being someone’s friend. Obviously, you are not going to “click” with every other member, but deep friendships are very likely to develop and last over time. This is a form of assistance that is simultaneously direct and indirect, overt and barely visible at times but, in the end, deeply satisfying.
In this regard a number of dear old program friends come to mind (I could literally write an entire volume about “interesting” people I have met here) but one in particular stands out. Before leaving conventional meetings for good I had an old program associate tell me that at one point he had considered me his “sponsor”. This was quite astonishing to me in that I have assiduously avoided the “sponsor” label, and, as I have said, don’t have any proscriptions regarding the life stories of other members and leave judgements and opinions about that out of my interactions whenever possible.
For some years after a noon meeting that I used to attend in downtown DC I used to gather with a few friends for coffee afterwards (until age, retirements and death took their toll) and this friend I just mentioned was part of that. It seems that he was a person who needed the concept of a “sponsor” to further his sobriety which is something I left behind in the late 1980’s after my first year or so. I had absolutely no idea till he told me but it seems that our conversations had taken on that role for him for a time while he was going through some things and when he thanked me for that I realized that sometimes, even when not fully aware, we help others in the most curious ways.
A couple of years ago we had to make a sad journey together to the funeral of one of our old program friends who had been sick for several years. After we had paid our respects to the family at the funeral home it became apparent that we were both not happy seeing our buddy dressed up and laid out in a box (a barbaric custom) and we quietly slipped out a side door and headed for a modest local restaurant where we had dinner and chatted for a bit. I mentioned the “sponsorship” thing to him and thanked him for the many acts of kindness he had shown me over the years and came to the conclusion that no matter how we framed it that this was a situation where, indeed, I had helped him and he had helped me. This mutual support had enhanced sobriety for both of us.
When we lend a sympathetic ear to a friend going through a divorce, talk through situations involving “bad” bosses at work, hear tales of the problems with children, stand by a sickbed, or, mostly, just recount the events of the day, we are rendering assistance in sobriety that immediately comes back to us in an incredibly positive way. This is because our situation, and the circumstances of our interactions, are indeed unique in that many times, what might be innocuous to others can be life and death issues for alcoholics and addicts. How many times do we hear about the “triggers” for a slip? How do we know the effects of a kind word and a helping hand?
In moving toward a true Secular Recovery without any of the trappings of a conventional “Program” approach its important to remember what brought us here in the first place. The idea of one human being talking honestly to another, of mutual pain and triumph shared, of mortal perils confronted and dealt with.
These are those mutually reinforcing bonds that let us know that we are in this thing together. That with genuine care for others and with the strength we share that we can sustain a lifelong commitment to abstinence and a life well lived, free of the bondage to a destructive substance, on our own terms and by our own lights.
John Huey’s student work of the 60’s-70’s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf.
After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has been widely anthologized and published since then. His first full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017. Full inforjon-huey.com/mation on his creative work, as well as his many Secular Recovery talks and writings, can be found at https://john-huey.com