The Sweet Smell of Cake
I was reminded while talking with a friend last night that in the early 70s, outside of a few hospital programs, we had very little and relatively unsophisticated treatment programs for alcoholics. People who wanted to get sober went to Alcoholics Anonymous.
In my early sobriety, as Bill W and Dr. Bob did in the beginning days of Alcoholics Anonymous, a member would generally take a newcomer into their home for several days until the new member was convinced of the program as a way of life. There was a passion for helping others and there was a correlation outlined in the program’s steps to happy, sober, useful lives. Occasionally we would find a member able to host three, four, six alcoholics into their home at the same time. The essence was 12 step work, carrying a message of hope to the alcoholic, and there seemed to be a growing need to provide structure for staying sober and making healthy choices. This evolved into a more formalized, business model for providing services to alcoholics outside of a hospital.
Treatment provides structure and an education regarding the disease of alcoholism. Anger, family dynamics, trauma are some of the areas explored during the treatment experience. But I don’t want to talk about treatment or its many diverse models, I want to talk about Sally, Larry and Frank.
Sally, a 30-year-old schoolteacher, was a good teacher. She was respected by her students, peers and supervisors. Every evening, when Sally got home from work, she had a glass of wine to relax. Ever so slowly, her wine consumption increased and she could not tell you when she went from one glass of wine to two and then to three. She started stopping at a bar on her way home once or twice a week and had a mixed cocktail, sometimes two. She still enjoyed her job, was a good teacher and was respected by her students and peers. One evening, leaving the bar, Sally was pulled over by the local police. Her blood alcohol was .09, barely above the legal limit, and she was cited for driving under the influence. Sally was so ashamed. She called a coworker who was open about his alcoholism and went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with him.
Sally got a sponsor immediately and began working the steps. She fit in well with our group and everyone liked her. The members of the group supported her emotionally through her legal situation and attended court with her. One month after Sally’s legal issues were completed, she went home after work and poured a glass of wine.
Larry’s drinking had been out of control for quite a while but apparently he could not see it. His family met with an interventionist and an intervention was the tool directing Larry to treatment.
Larry entered the LMN Treatment Center and attended every education group paying close attention and taking notes. He interacted in all groups and began to deal with his shame, guilt and trauma. He completed assignments on anger, on relapse and about his family. He wrote about his goals and his hopes. Larry was helpful to staff and his peers.
At graduation he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by his peers and staff. He was drinking within a week of leaving treatment. And Frank, the one who no one thought got anything out of treatment, is sober 20 years later.
Why is this?
Alcohol is cunning, powerful, baffling (according to the AA literature). The disease centers primarily in the mind yet I have been told alcoholism is a spiritual malady. This, to the educated person is certainly the baffling piece. Perhaps it’s not about what I read, what I learn, or what I know. Maybe, it’s about what I do. As much as I would like to be a physically healthier person, I cannot dream about a healthy body while sitting on my couch watching the Meredith Vieira Show. I need to get up and go to the gym, or take a brisk walk or actually use that piece of exercise equipment I have been using as a clothes rack. I cannot think my way in to health but I can act my way in to health. It’s about what I do.
So, I can go to my outpatient program, workout, attend a couple of AA meetings a week and the problem is solved? No, remember it’s a cunning disease. I begin to feel better doing these things. I am smiling a lot; I begin to develop a renewed sense of well-being. I return to work and my coworkers begin to feel as though they can rely on me. I am well-liked in my AA meetings. I am beginning to share in meetings. It’s all good until it begins to start turning gray. People in the AA meetings are beginning to annoy me. My coworkers aren’t picking up their part of the work load, causing me to stay late to get the work done. Now I am too tired at the end of the day, those AA meetings just start too late. Cunning, remember the spiritual malady?
Spiritual healing is about putting another’s needs ahead of yours, if only for a moment. I am at line at Starbucks and there is only one bagel left. I know the person behind me in line wants a bagel so I order something else and I don’t turn around and tell her. I passed on the bagel so she could have it. I started that morning with a 20 minute session of prayer and meditation claiming to be a spiritual warrior yet, as Starbucks I took an action and felt like a spiritual warrior. I had planned to go to a movie with friends after work. At 4:30 in the afternoon a fellow alcoholic called, she needed help with a friend who was having a hard time staying sober. I left and sat with the two women as we told one another our stories of alcoholism and I went into my evening prayers that night feeling like a spiritual warrior. It’s not who I say I am, it’s who I show you I am.
My coworkers may still be creating opportunities for me to stay late and collect overtime pay but it’s no reason to miss my meeting. Thank goodness it starts when it does. I have plenty of time to get there even if I do work late. I get to my AA meetings and walk in. The meeting hasn’t started yet and people are standing around in small groups talking and laughing. I cannot remember who it was that had been irritating me.
Okay, I go to my outpatient program, workout, attend a few AA meetings a week and help people get what they want even if it’s divinely inconvenient and I can stay sober? No, you may have the ingredients for a cake but until the ingredients are blended together and baked, there is no cake.
How often has the alcoholic made promises to coworkers, friends, loved ones about many things, “I will be to work on time”, “I will be at your baseball game”, “I will stop drinking” and we didn’t show up, or we showed up late or we showed up and embarrassed ourselves and others.
Promises no longer carry any value for the alcoholic. Now, in blending the ingredients and making the cake, there is a period of time that goes by and as time passes, I am busy showing you who I am as a sober person. I am proving to the people who have been gravely affected by alcoholic promises that I can be trusted, I can be counted on.
I begin living a life of caring more about others than myself, I have a job and have been promoted twice, I have joint custody of my daughter and her father and I can be together to celebrate her achievements and to share her activities. I know it is not about me or him and there is no animosity on my part. My parents asked me to give the toast at their 40th wedding anniversary. And now I notice the cake and I’m not concerned about whether it’s done, now I am focused on how wonderful it smells baking in the oven. I think I will bake another one tomorrow.
Recovery works the same way. I don’t think, I act. I don’t talk, I do. I don’t promise, I prove and as long as I adhere to the recipe, sobriety becomes this sweet scent of cake baking in the oven.
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