The Livingston Avenue Review Of Zines

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Program Of Rigorous Honesty (1998)

(From The Ten Page News (v.3) Number 21, July 1998)

I'm pretty self-conscious about putting pieces about my feelings into print; I'm a lot more comfortable running song lyrics or philosophy or what have you. But the response to the autobiographical articles in the last few issues has been very gratifying. One reviewer (PAQ, in Amusing Yourself to Death #12) even went so far as to ask "Can't we have Ten Pages of Owen?"!

Well, it sure isn't my intention to let the personal stuff take over the whole zine—it just wouldn't be The Ten Page News if I did. But, by golly, I sure do consider it a fascinating subject and I'm perfectly willing to go on about it at some length.

So here's something I've been thinking about as a possible topic on and off for quite a while: my alcoholism.

I've been sober six years. AA played a big part in getting me here but I seldom go to meetings these days and guess I don't really consider myself a "member" any more. I'd have to say my relationship with AA has generally been a love/hate kind of thing: fairly early on in my current bout of sobriety, for example, I covered several pages of my AA journal with a rant on "Lies of the Program", complaining bitterly about the often contradictory slogans that get parrotted around unthinkingly at the meetings and the outright anti-intellectualism that's all too common among the members. But, at the same time, I was averaging a meeting a day, an average I maintained for about nine months. I probably never would have stayed sober long without AA. In other words, I'd very likely have been locked up or dead by now. So I'm really very grateful to AA and everybody in it, warts and all.

It's hard to discuss this in public; they don't call it Alcoholics Anonymous for nothing. Program doctrine has it that "Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities". That's overstating the case somewhat—all?—but I say without hesitation that one of AA's greatest strengths has been its systematic refusal to appoint leaders or acknowledge spokespeople. I think this trait helps to account for AA's spectacular success in our culture over the past few decades; it seems to appeal to some vestigial love of democratic ideals in the soul of America. Certainly it appeals to me.

Anyway, after a certain amount of consideration, I figure it's okay. This isn't exactly the Oprah Winfrey show here, folks. Sure, this'll fall into the hands of a few people here and there who don't really know anything about me, but it feels more like talking over my life with a few dozen of my closest friends than it does like spilling any beans in the press. I'll just issue this disclaimer and get on with it: I don't speak for AA, okay? Not by a long shot.

Right. Now what? Well, without going into a lot of detail, maybe I should just mention some of my credentials: the relationships destroyed; the jobs lost; the time in jail; the piss and the puke and the blood. It took several years of paying some pretty serious dues before I ever even seriously considered not drinking. And then I was in and out of sobriety for several more years. I've had three different "first birthdays" in AA. Just take my word for it: I'm a drunk.

The obsession has never left me and I don't expect it ever will. That "day at a time" thing is real: I'm staying sober today for good and sufficient reasons, but, like the song says, I'd rather be sloppy drunk than anything I know. I just can't stand the consequences I'd have to face to do it.

Obviously, several years of active drug addiction have done quite a bit to determine my way of life today. Sometimes I feel like Terry Malloy. You know... I coulda had class... I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which face it, is what I am.

I look at a guy like, say, Douglas R. Hofstadter. He lives in my home town of Bloomington Indiana, and enjoys a brilliant career in the departments of Comparative Literature, Computer Science, Psychology, and Philosophy at Indiana University. Along the way he's written two fat masterpieces in two different genres of his own creation. My soul cries: that should be me up there. I've had most of his advantages including a university upbringing, a penetrating intellect, and an unusual creative flair. OK, sure, probably not at Hofstadter's level, but certainly enough to have achieved a nice little professorship somewhere with all the privileges pertaining thereunto: a circle of admiring grad students, free trips all over the world, stuff like that. Instead of taking dives for the short end money in Palookaville.

But I guess it was worth it. I got to do exactly what I wanted to do, thousands of times. When everything went right, I could feel fantastic for hours at a time. The heavens opened and I saw visions of God.

Meanwhile, the frequent ass-kickings I endured—physical and spiritual—beat a certain amount of humility into me that I probably wouldn't have learned any other way. I'll go so far as to say I have some advantage over Professsor Hofstadter here. He goes on for four pages in Le Ton Beau... about his inability to empathize with a murderer: "Can I understand why someone would kill a person they didn't even know, simply because their leader told them to?... I just can't seem to find a pathway linking me to the murderer...". Well, I can, easily. Having lived in despair and degradation for years, I can almost say, with Terence, "Nothing human is alien to me". (Maybe Hofstadter should start with a soldier instead of an assassin: it's an easier exercise and a more practical one.)

What's harder for me to understand is how so many AA's seem not to have achieved this kind of empathy. How can anybody be a drunk and a Republican? I figure it comes down to a talent for forgetting; the famous "denial".

Returning to our subject. Regular readers of this zine will be aware of my interest in the Bible. I consider this another gift of AA: the program's stress on finding a "Higher Power" led me (via The Varieties of Religious Experience) to finally crack the covers of this fascinating document. I've read it through several times. It's sort of like going to meetings: the odd diamond of truth glistens in the dunghill of lies and nonsense. I recommend Bible reading very highly. It's okay to skip ruining your life with booze first.

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