By Kelly Cunningham
I’m in recovery for alcoholism and drug addiction. I’ve spent well over the past three decades striving not only to remain free from mind-altering substances, but most of all to stay sober in my thinking. The compulsion to turn to alcohol and drugs to solve my problems has long since been removed. Although, even after all these years, I’d still love to be able to get away with drinking a few ice-cold margaritas and smoking a big fat joint.
Even so, for God’s grace and the fellowship in recovery, I’ve achieved 30+ years of continuous sobriety. In all honesty though, I feel like I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of learning to control my emotional impulses. Much of the time I’m well-behaved in every-day social situations. There are times, though, when I have to literally battle the urges to pop off at the mouth or to lash out in some angry or aggressive manner when feeling threatened or slighted... which seems often. Our literature says, “We alcoholics are sensitive people. It takes some of us a long time to outgrow that serious handicap.” I put in the italics. The founders tell us being sensitive is a serious handicap.
I can try to argue that my disease assumes my first thought is alcoholic when I’m faced with a difficult situation. Further reasoning insists my first action doesn’t have to be. I agree with that view. It is my responsibility to come to terms with and, ultimately, own my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. I’m responsible for how I greet life’s challenges. As an adult, I’m not a victim of outside circumstances unless I choose to see myself that way. Many in recovery have suffered losses at the hands of others. Welcome to the human race. Sometimes bad things happen. When I was growing up, bad things happened. Very bad things. Things which still torment me to this day. I’m not responsible for all of the shit that happened to me when I was a child. But I am responsible for my choices today. I’m in control of my actions. When I encounter life’s difficulties, I need to own my shit and deal with whatever circumstances I’m faced with in a responsible and dignified manner. It’s called emotional sobriety.
Our literature tells us to expect “a long period of reconstruction ahead” and that “this is not an overnight matter, it should continue for our lifetime.” It’s not easy letting go of old ideas and it takes time to learn how to rid ourselves of behaviors which no longer serve us. As an alcoholic, I want things to be fixed now, today. But changing the narrative in our hearts and minds comes with trial and error. I remember early in my recovery hearing an old-timer in an AA meeting say, “It’s a bitch growing up in public.” I have spent many years of my recovery trying to justify my impulsive, careless, and ill-mannered behaviors. Intensive work with a sponsor and meditation and prayer have proven to be the solution to achieving emotional balance.
I remember my very first sponsor, Charlie W., may he rest in peace. Charlie was an imposing figure of a man -- tall, big, burly, with piercings and tattoos all over. Charlie’s past included taking a lot of LSD. He spent most meetings rocking back and forth in his seat. Charlie was a spiritual giant, and you could feel his love anytime you were with him. He had this amazing laugh where anyone in a room with Charlie in it would find themselves laughing along or, at the very least, smiling big.
During my early sobriety, I would call Charlie on the phone to tell him my problems. The first thing he would do is laugh. When he finished laughing, Charlie would suddenly get serious and ask, “Kelly, what would God have you do?” At the time, being new, I didn’t appreciate how profound his guidance was. Sadly, Charlie passed away before I picked up my one-year chip. I was able to continue my recovery work with other sponsors throughout the following years but now, decades later, I have learned to appreciate the wisdom of Charlie asking me that fundamental question.
About two years ago I felt like I had reached rock bottom with my lack of emotional sobriety. Even my wife would respond jokingly to my general rants saying, “Oh, my baby is so angry.” I was angry. And I was fearful. And I was critical and judgmental. After all that time in recovery, I had not fully developed the skills to match calamity with serenity. Oh, I was fine as long as things were going my way. But as soon as things got tight or I found myself in uncomfortable situations, the gloves came off and I was ready to fight. Someone in a meeting put it succinctly: “People are like teabags – you never know what they’re like until they get in hot water.”
I don’t know why I had held onto my anger for so long. I know shit stinks but it’s warm. Anger was the one thing I had left to protect me. But finally, after almost 30 years, I had reached a point when I was able to admit to myself that my anger no longer served me. I had to really own my shit. Turns out it wasn’t that warm after all. I broke down and tearfully asked God for help. And for the following six months I decided to ask God several times a day to “help me to resist the urge to criticize and to judge and to resist the impulse to lash out when I felt threatened or slighted.” The unexpected happened. I started resisting the urge to criticize and to judge. I started to resist the impulse to lash out when I felt threatened or slighted. And I found peace. And it has been beautiful.