The Robber and The Gift
By Jeff Jay
Listen to Jeff read “The Robber and The Gift.”
Alcoholism is a thief because it takes so much from us mentally, physically, and spiritually. It not only robs us of our well-being, our health, and our faith, it steals us away from our family and friends. Above all, alcoholism destroys trust—the bedrock of all relationships. Addiction all but forces us to lie about our actions, sowing suspicion, anger, and despair among family members and friends. Worse yet, alcoholism causes us to say things we would never say and do things we would never do, robbing us of our dignity and hurting the people we love the most. It is a cruel thief.
It robs us mentally. We become accustomed to our drug of choice as a solution to our problems. Over time, we come to see it as the solution. To the alcoholic, drinking is a quick answer to any trouble. A normal person would soon recognize this escape causes more and bigger difficulties, but the alcoholic holds on, despite the consequences. The illness typically causes depression and anxiety, as well.
It robs us physically. Dependence on a drug like alcohol causes withdrawal when we try to quit, which can be agonizing and dangerous. So, we procrastinate. We may acknowledge the problem, but there are always reasons why we can’t quit today. Conversely, we may want to prove we are not alcoholics, and so we quit temporarily for a few weeks, to mollify family and friends.
It robs us spiritually. As we fall deeper into addiction, we fall into isolation from people and God. Family and friends are naturally concerned about our behavior, so we wall ourselves off from them. We concoct stories to rationalize our actions, usually blaming others. Ironically, we often complain that no one is helping us—including God—twisting the truth and making ourselves into the martyr. Alcohol is our only real friend, we think, providing immediate satisfaction when other people and God leave us waiting. The quick fix is the only reliable grace.
As we fall deeper into addiction, we fall into isolation from people and God. Family and friends are naturally concerned about our behavior, so we wall ourselves off from them.
We blame God. We may have prayed for relief, but we didn’t get the help we wanted. We may have prayed about the issues that drove us to drink, but we got no results. We alcoholics often move through phases in this spiritual malady, first pleading with God, then being angry with God, then renouncing God altogether. We think the evidence is clear: either God exists and does not care about us, or God does not exist, and we’ve been fools to pursue Him.
Even if we retain our belief in God, we may become spiritually and emotionally distant. We are no longer a part of the group—the great we that makes up a family or community. We are no longer part of our old circle of friends, replacing them with drinking buddies—the ersatz friends of the barroom. We may be in contact with our family and with our better friends, but we keep ourselves at arm’s length. Instead of being honest about our dilemma and reaching out for help, we are sullen or surly. The robber has taken the most precious things from us, and our only solace comes in liquid form.
Other addictions function in much the same way. If my addiction is the screen, I withdraw into that world, shutting out my loved ones. Whether phone, tablet, desktop, or TV, the effect is the same. I am drawn into a never-ending stream of distraction that removes me from my loved ones. If the screens are used for gambling or pornography, then the addiction is even more powerful. These activities can alter brain chemistry, and the neurology of addiction can be triggered. Many people discount these “process addictions,” but they are every bit as powerful as the chemical variety. In some ways they are even more pernicious as the means of administration are always at hand.
When addiction is understood as a chronic illness it can be addressed more effectively. It’s important to have a holistic perspective—physical, mental, and spiritual—to keep the big picture in mind. Many specialists are tempted to focus on one of these three elements, but this leaves the other two free to operate in the background, paving the way for relapse.
Surprisingly (for a medical issue), the spiritual element is often the most important. Without restoring some remnant of faith, or at least a belief in the possibility of help and healing from an outside source, we alcoholics quickly slide back into isolation. There must be a we—a system of support—to have a program of recovery. This support normally begins with professional treatment. A residential program is the best way to keep the robber at bay, giving a temporary respite from commitments and society–not to mention a safe place to remain sober.
After our initial detox and stabilization, we survey the catastrophes of the last few years and say: “How could I have done that?” In our active addiction, we would rationalize our behaviors, but as we acquire more days and weeks of sobriety, these justifications become less believable.
We may have experienced some of addiction’s classic consequences: loss of job, driver’s license, or relationships. Or perhaps our losses are more subtle: loss of a grown child’s respect, loss of standing at work, loss of confidence. Whatever the case, as we move forward into recovery, we inevitably ask ourselves again and again: “How could I have done that?”
Understanding alcoholism as a physical, mental, and spiritual disease brings a valuable perspective. We learn through proper treatment that the illness has impacted our brain and its ability to make rational choices. Alcoholism gradually short-circuits the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function in the brain. The choice to drink or not to drink is eroded over time. Instead, the amygdala—the ancient reptilian area of the brain—asserts control and decides reflexively that alcohol is a need, like food and shelter. The amygdala sees alcohol as something that must be had, regardless of the cost. For instance, many active alcoholics who have lost their driver’s licenses will still drive while intoxicated to buy more alcohol, resulting in more legal problems. Friends and family ask: “When is he going to learn?”
With the prefrontal cortex effectively offline and the decision-making process being rerouted to the amygdala, our best intentions are forgotten or overruled. This fact doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our actions, but it makes our irrational behavior easier to understand. And with this understanding comes the possibility for change.
In our fledgling sobriety, as we look over the damage to our relationships and bank accounts, we can’t help but wonder if we are beyond help. Have we lost our minds? Before AA, many alcoholics wound up in asylums. The medical explanation brings a different perspective and allows us a small but important realization: “I am not crazy.”
At the same time, this realization guarantees us nothing on its own. There is no simple cure for addictive disorders, no treatment that will instantly fix the problem. However, as long as we remain sober, the disease will stay in remission. Alcoholism has stolen a great deal from us, but we have put the robber in jail. The question is: how to keep him there?
Before AA, many alcoholics wound up in asylums. The medical explanation brings a different perspective and allows us a small but important realization: “I am not crazy.”
Most residential treatment programs last 30-90 days, and one might think this would be sufficient to break the grip of the addiction for good. We’re sober now, after all. Our reasoning has been restored, we feel better, and we’ve vowed never to touch the stuff again. Why would we?
Secretly, we still miss the immediate gratification, the reliable solution. Even with the sting of recent consequences fresh in our minds, the memory of old troubles begins to fade. Rationalizations start creeping in again. “I won’t touch the vodka, but one glass of wine with dinner couldn’t hurt.”
The robber is at work. He clouds our protective memory and accesses our self-centered impulses. Once our self-importance is engaged, we justify almost any desire. It may be gradual at first, but the momentum builds until we declare, “No one can tell me what to do.”
If we aren’t honest about these drinking thoughts with our friends in recovery, we will be pulled back into the darkness of secrecy. Addiction cannot live in the light of absolute honesty. That is one of many reasons why Twelve Step meetings are so effective. At a meeting, we can talk freely about our relapse ruminations. We don’t have to fear judgment because everyone at the meeting has been in the same boat. The warm laughter of recognition we hear from our friends is a relief. We can air out our alcoholic thinking and return to sanity. The group helps us remember who we really are, that we are safe, that we don’t have to be held hostage by dark thoughts, and that we don’t have to drink today. God works through people, and when we give God a channel to act in our lives by attending a Twelve Step meeting, we open ourselves to grace.
It is also a neuro-biological fact that the memory functions of the brain have usually been damaged. This phenomenon is partially explained by the harm alcohol does to our hippocampus and other brain regions.
The warm laughter of recognition we hear from our friends is a relief. We can air out our alcoholic thinking and return to sanity.
Some scientists believe memory functions are spread throughout the entire brain, but specialists have identified the hippocampus, the amygdala, the cerebellum, and the pre-frontal cortex as being the key regions, with each having a different but interrelated role. For the recovering alcoholic, the protective memories of fear and danger are especially important. These functions are associated with the amygdala, which is heavily impacted by alcoholism. The hippocampus and other related regions can also be profoundly damaged by drinking and drug use.
The early AAs seemed to understand this fact intuitively in their early examinations of alcoholism and relapse. The following quote from the book Alcoholics Anonymous (commonly referred to as the Big Book) captures their experience: “We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago.”
Medical science tells us in simple terms that the alcoholic’s memory has been undermined. This fact also explains why most people who achieve long-term sobriety do so by practicing a program of recovery. It is a process that features, among other things, the reinforcement of a simple idea about drinking: “One is too many—and a thousand aren’t enough.”
As hard as it is for non-alcoholics to understand, memory distortion is a common factor in relapse. Family members naturally find it incomprehensible and frustrating, but many alcoholics will pick up a drink after a period of sobriety because they’ve all but forgotten the consequences that inevitably follow from drinking. Having a faulty memory makes it easier for the alcoholic to rationalize otherwise irrational behavior, which is why ongoing twelve step recovery is so important.
Addiction is a terrible malady, but it can also lay the groundwork for transformation. In the unfathomable calculus of grace, good can blossom out of suffering. According to the annals of AA experience, the suffering brought about by alcoholism is almost a prerequisite for recovery. “Pain is the touchstone of all spiritual growth,” wrote AA co-founder Bill Wilson. Without it, the old alcoholic grandiosity will soon resurface.
In the unfathomable calculus of grace, good can blossom out of suffering.
During active addiction, our brains don’t function normally. In the cyclone of craving, deceit, and desperation, we experienced a kind of amnesia. We forgot who we were—we had to forget—so we could live with our inexcusable actions. In our addiction, we could not bear to think of our relationships with friends and family. We were caught in the grip of an illness we didn’t know we had.
Another unexpected gift from our addiction was gratitude. The people in AA assured us we didn’t have to figure it all out. We just had to stay sober for another twenty-four hours and do the simple things we were being asked to do. It was like physical therapy for the soul. Don’t drink, go to meetings, get honest, and pray.
There is a deep well of wisdom hidden in the motto ‘one day at a time’ that flows straight from the Sermon on the Mount. We tried to take its lessons to heart: don’t be afraid, forgive everyone, don’t worry about tomorrow, and trust God. If we did the simple things we were asked to do, each day would pass without relapse. We went to bed sober and we woke the next morning without regrets. We found that the AA promises were coming true, especially this one: “God was doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”
The paradox was that we were coming to these realizations because we had suffered from alcoholism, an illness without a cure. The pummeling we had taken at the hands of this thief opened us up to grace. In this light, the stony koan of the first beatitude made perfect sense: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The paradox was that we were coming to these realizations because we had suffered from alcoholism, an illness without a cure. The pummeling we had taken at the hands of this thief opened us up to grace.
As unlikely as it seemed, these AA people had something we wanted. They were talking at depth about things that mattered, they were overcoming difficulties without drinking, and they were building new lives. They seemed genuinely devoted to helping one another, and nothing made them happier than seeing a newcomer straggle into a meeting. They met his or her confusion with a truly warm welcome, with understanding and care.
We remembered who we were by staying sober and doing the work. We recollected what was most important in life by entering back into it. ‘Remembered’ and ‘recollected’ are synonyms, but recollected has an older definition, as well. In the past, recollected also meant calm and composed—serene and clear. In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas á Kempis wrote: “The more recollected a man is, and the more simple of heart he becomes, the easier he understands sublime things, for he receives the light of knowledge from above.”
To recollect oneself is to withdraw from distractions, to pause for a period of time, to rest. It is to silently re-group and be refreshed. Remember, recollect, and recall all use the prefix re-, meaning again or anew. We remembered again what we were about, we recalled anew the true nature of our being, and we were recollected again in a quiet place.
The recollected man of Thomas á Kempis is not mulling over his mistakes. He is not vaulting himself mentally into an uncertain future. Thomas describes this person as simple of heart, which makes it easier for him to grasp the sublime. In the same way, the person who is recollected is open to the wisdom that comes from above, because he is not trying to puzzle it out intellectually. As brilliant as the individual may be, in a moment of recollection, he lets grace do the work. He is open to “the light of knowledge from above.”
The spirit of this quote is captured in Step Eleven. “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.” For people in recovery, it is always ora et labora, prayer and work. It is not either/or. It is both/and.
As we work the steps with a sponsor, attend meetings, and progress in our recovery we find the relief we have always sought. As we earn the trust of family members and friends, and regain our standing in the community, we begin to appreciate the special gift we’ve been given. After sacrificing everything to our addiction, we have been carried into a new life by the process of a spiritual awakening.
The term ‘spiritual awakening’ can also be thought of as metanoia. Step Twelve says: “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs.” This change in the individual is metanoia in action. It is not simply repentance and it is more than a change in thinking or acting. In this new life, we carry the message to the person who still suffers, and we try to be helpful to others.
Through the process of recovery, the damage done by the robber is transformed in the crucible of suffering into a sublime gift. Not only are we given our lives back, but we grow into new and better selves.
In the sacred economy of gift exchange, if we receive a gift we must also give a gift. But what can we give back to God? Our thanks, certainly. But is this enough? If it’s true that faith without works is dead, we must do more.
We can be God’s hands to welcome the newcomer, we can be a voice to offer support, we can be God’s heart to be of service. By passing on the love that was so freely given to us by other recovering alcoholics, we turn our suffering into a gift. The damage done by the illness becomes our calling card. By telling our stories, we help others to heal. Dr. Bob Smith said the AA program boils down to “love and service.” As it turns out, giving is the greatest gift.