(I want to make it quite clear I don’t have anything against what works for another alcoholic to stay sober. Slogans, or any other similar cantatas, can be useful at times, can be good little tidbits of recovery jingoism that can move someone through tough moments, can be the difference for a newcomer in their first few days or weeks, but slogans don’t keep me sober. So while I might sound like I am coming down on slogan-like offerings, or just being a Downer Dave, I just present things in the context of my own experience and what I have encountered on my journey. Now we return you to the Tony Awards.)
There is a slogan-slash-phrase that one hears in the rooms – “Put the plug in the jug”. Or if you’re a drug addict, “Don’t put the harm in the arm”. Cute. Very Dr. Seuss, minus the creepy illustrations (I always saw one of those characters in any given Rorschach splashes). Now, if one were to take that at face value as a philosophy and as an act of virtue and ongoing practice, we’d all have a wonderful Christmas. The only problem with this cheery slogan is that it misrepresents, misdirects and misses the whole point and idea of recovery. Very simply stated – if I could just put the cork in the goerke, or the top on the glop, or the cap on the crap, or whatnot, and keep it on, and not worry about removing it to drink the bloody last drop until I am practically blind and not uneasy and comfortable in my skin and able to kind of talk to people I may or may not want to talk to and try to dance because I suck at dancing and want to impress someone that I don’t care if I exist or not and want the Chernobyl like rot gut tension in my innards to unwind and know what love and feeling connected to the world feels like, then I wouldn’t need any sort of recovery program or plan of action.
I recall one of the counselors at my treatment center tossing out that slogan during an impassioned talk, as if it were fact, that if we just stopped drinking, we’d be fine. I know that he was getting to a greater point, and never made that his elocution epicenter, so I understood it in a holistic sense. And so while I never thought much of what he had mentioned at that time, it’s been one of the things that crosses my mind now and then as I encounter folks on their own paths, as I see others strewn upon the wayside of this thing we call recovery. I think about it when I hear someone in the room state it as a declaration of demarcation between the right way and the wrong way of doing things. I think about it when someone can’t stop drinking no matter what and have nothing to fall on except an inadequate rhyming rallying cry.
I had no problem putting the plug in the jug. Easy pickin’s. But it was in not unplugging it that was the true fly in the ointment. Stopping is easy. Staying stopped is the tricky dance. A deadly one, like the Macarana or Lambada. You see, if it were that easy, then we could declare alcoholism a curable illness and move onto the plight of the near extinction of the Elkhorn and Staghorn Coral. But clearly we know it goes much deeper than this platitude. Recovery, for this alcoholic, is more than just catch phrases and inspirational quotes from philosophers and spiritual gurus. While helpful at times, their gossamer-like strands are unable to anchor me to true sobriety. I needed to plunge further into something that would shake myself to the core and bring about a change that would effectively remove the need and want for alcohol. Treat the causes, not the symptoms. Slogans flirt with the symptoms.
I want to get down to brass tacks here – alcoholism kills. That is without argument. I see and hear and read and speak to many alcoholics who struggle. Who hasn’t struggled? No one walks in easy breezy like a detergent commercial actor and straddles that bad boy and rides off to a sober sunset in one take. We stumble, fall, pick ourselves back up, try again, latch onto something for strength. We see what’s worked for others. We look to a path that’s already been trodden upon. But the one constant that I have experienced amongst those who truly struggle is when they are looking to ease the symptoms when the causes and conditions remain untouched, unexamined, undisturbed. I drank alcohol because I liked the effects. It made me feel like I wasn’t me any more, because I hated me, and didn’t know how to handle life. That’s pretty much it. Now, I can come up with some inventive ways to not pick up that drink, ways to distract myself, to tell myself the drink will do me in, to come up with time consuming tasks that take away from the picking up.
And that’s important. Early on, I was the same. I used to stroll the streets for hours, going to meetings after meetings, afraid to go to my apartment because I didn’t trust myself. I was still in the grips of the grape, but not drinking. My mind thought of drinking – often. I read, walked, read, walked, hit meetings, read, listened to music, talked to my sponsor, walked, ate bags of cookies in one shot…all in the name of deflecting the elephant that was not only in the room, but on my head, crushing any sort of thought that didn’t involve me picking up something or doing something to get me out of self.
But I need something more than that. I couldn’t live with a plug in the jug mentality. It would have killed me. It was draining in that short time that all I could think about was “don’t drink”. My white knuckling hours wore on me as if I had been bathed in acid and crawled over broken Jose Cuervo glass. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to last in such a state. The relief I sought came as a result of doing some work, of having a plan of action, of taking a book and taking the hand from a man who had been there before and had a solution for me and talking to him. And meeting his friends in a fellowship who had also been down that road and talking to them about what I had gone through. Listening to their stories, and hearing them laugh and wondering why it was that I had never been interested in this sort of thing before.
There is another expression that is heard in the rooms too – it originated outside the program, so it’s not a slogan per se, but is used, and it states “Nothing changes if nothing changes”. And that one I dig. I can get around that one, because it states a simple fact about recovery – nothing will change in my life, in my drinking landscape, in my emotional state of being, if I don’t go about making life altering choices and changes. And that is what I am getting at. Putting the plug in the jug does nothing to change me, and the need and want of me wanting to drown myself in booze. Putting the plug in the jug doesn’t address the why’s of my attempt to kill myself slowly by putting poison in my system. Putting the plug in the jug doesn’t put any responsibility on me to get to the real issues that drag me to the bar stool or the liquor store.
Focusing on the symptoms or the immediate only works in the short term. Yes, some are able to maintain that sort of sobriety for quite a while, years, and still not focus on the reasons for their wanting to pick up a drink. Some need not want, desire nor perhaps need to go any further. Just the fact they are not drinking is a “win” on it’s own. And that’s fine – for many, that’s all they desire. What I am speaking of is finding a way in which one has some sort of plan to dig a bit deeper, to have some introspection, to seek a path that suits them, to see that this is not just a surface thing. I am not just referring to 12-steps recovery – this could be some of the other recovery programs out there, or therapy, or entire lifestyle changes, or meditation / mindfulness, or a bit of everything.
The example I often use in trying to illustrate this is if someone has an online pornography addiction (my apologies to anyone in SLA for my inexperienced treatment here!). Sure, there are things that I could do to stay away from clicking onto those sites: keep the computer in a public space in the home, have my computer at work voluntarily monitored, remove data sharing from my phone plan, avoid any pictures with sexual imagery, jog whenever the urge to watch pornography pops up, limit my time on the computer, etc. And this might work, to some extent. But if I am a true online pornography addict, this probably wouldn’t last too long. The buildup might be too great and the temptation too strong.
And while those things might be useful in the immediate sense of cravings, it doesn’t tackle the real issues behind the addiction. In this case, perhaps this would entail creating a new sexual ideal for oneself, understanding what it is that brings on the need to view online pornography (emotionally, psychologically, mentally), discerning the difference between physical need and spiritual / psychic relief, building a healthy sense of self, breaking down the urges and what they really mean, etc. In other words, tackling the bases causes for wanting to view certain things online, diffuses the need for having those little rules and restriction. Sure they can help at first, but long time recovery no doubt would help ensure that if I were alone at home with a computer and no one to check up on me, I wouldn’t have the desire to watch online pornography in the first place.
And the same goes to the drinking. Nothing changes if nothing changes. If I just put the plug and the jug and do the same things I was doing before, hanging out with the same people, playing in the same playgrounds with the same playmates, thinking the same way I have always thought, keeping the same attachments to alcohol that I always had then nothing is changing. If I don’t seek a perspective change, an emotional and psychological shift, a spiritual lift or reaffirmation, a new way of living, an acknowledgment that what I have done in the past no longer works, an internal and external renovation of sorts, then I toying with that plug…I am wondering why it is that I am jonesing for the firewater, wanting to self-medicate with the hooch, turning to something I innately know is harmful yet I know no other alternative.
For this alcoholic, I needed everything at my disposal to get the desire to drink lifted from me. I didn’t have the ability to just not drink. It was so ingrained in me and so strong the urge that death would have been my next stop on that train. Just staying away from booze wasn’t an option, although I was careful where I hung out and who I hung out with early on. I had to get to the root of why I drank and why I sought solace in the bottle. Just putting it in another room or using mental gymnastics or having just mocktails or chanting inspirational thoughts or playing hide and go seek with my alcoholism just didn’t solve the drink problem.
Listen, putting the plug in the jug is the very first step in the journey. I can’t be on a path of sobriety while drinking – that’s fairly obvious. But keeping the plug in the jug is a whole different story, and just because I say it often enough doesn’t make it so. This is so much more about keeping the liquor away – this is about a whole new way of looking at life and changing how I see myself in the world. This is about finding that love within me, the self-forgiveness, the ability to share and hug with reckless abandonment and to stake my claim for me, to advocate for a new life and a new approach to others. It’s about jumping onto a new set of tracks and without having a destination, riding the rails of life and enjoying the view. With a ginger ale in hand and a warm smile in my heart.