My Dead Old Drunk Self
I had forgotten. It took a few seconds to register when an old friend reminded me.
Why yes, yes. I used to drink a lot. And 25 years ago this year I stopped.
I was glad that the information surprised me. The acceptance over the last few decades of addiction as a serious disorder (I can't bring myself to call it a disease) has led to good things. Millions of lives have been saved. Broken marriages have been reconciled. Our roads are safer. I'm no longer a danger to myself or others -- or at least a danger fueled by Jack Daniels.
Yet the acceptance of "recovery" has also created a kind of shamelessness and coasting amongst ex drunks and druggies. Barflies find their way to Alcoholics Anonymous, get better, and then make it the center of their lives. For many this is a great thing. They -- we -- are no longer passing out on floors, blowing paychecks on booze, or waking up next to strangers. But that is often replaced by a kind of pseudo-religious sanctimony.
As for me, when I gave it up, I used every means at my disposal to dry out (there were several slips along the way), and eventually it stuck. And then I let the old drunk me die. I felt no need to talk about my old adventures anymore. I just wanted to get on with life. It's what the original founders of Alcoholics Anonymous emphasized -- drying out and "rejoining your fellows." Part of the program was to shed the old person, not to become a sobriety junkie.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche describes the Tibetan concept of the bardo. In that teaching, "the whole of life and death [is] presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as bardos. The word bardo is commonly used to denote the intermediate state between death and rebirth, but in reality bardos are occurring continuously through both life and death, and are junctures where the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened."
In other words, we experience many deaths and rebirths in life. We die when we're rejected by our first love. And when we go through a serious illness. Or lose a parent. We feel this when we see an old picture of ourselves, and it looks like a stranger.
But the event can give us into a new sense of freedom and wisdom. In 1997, the popular rock band REM was playing on stage when drummer Bill Berry collapsed form a ruptured brain aneurism. Berry survived, but shortly afterwards announced he was leaving the band for good. "I'm still young enough that I can do something else," he said. "I've been pounding the tubs since I was nine years old. I'm ready to do something else." Berry became a farmer. Much of the world thought this was nuts, but as a response to a bardo, it makes perfect sense.
The Western world has insulated itself from the bardo understanding about existence, and it's understandable. For centuries people died from floods, disease, wars, and struggled to overcome the multiple deaths they were experiencing. Through advances in medicine, a free economy and the reduction of global conflict, people began to live longer. They lived in nice houses and had healthy children. The digital revolution reduced the need for manual labor.
Yet so much life may have robbed us of something spiritually. As I write this, next to me is a copy of a newspaper with a column by the liberal writer E.J. Dionne. The piece criticizes Republicans as being rich and insensitive, and argues that a more progressive worldview is what is best for America. Dionne has been making this exact same argument for 25 years.
On the other side politically is Rush Limbaugh, who has similarly remained unchanged for decades. I thought that when Limbaugh experienced his drug-related death and rebirth a few years ago that he would emerge a different man. Not that he would come forth as a raging liberal, but perhaps a man with new and different interests, and a deeper sense of contemplation. I suppose it would have cost quite a bit of money if he had let the old Limbaugh die.
When I finally corked the jug (the original 1930s AA lingo can stay with you for years), I retuned to Christianity. A lot of old friends thought this was a dive into a bland kind of conservative orthodoxy, but in reality it's a world of new wonders.
As it is written in the Book of Revelation -- that great story about final endings -- "Behold, I am making all things new."