Smashed

Smashed, by Koren Zailckas, is a memoir of the author’s “drunken girlhood.”  It was an interesting experience for me to read it.  My history with alcohol between the ages of 16 and 22 is here in this blog.  Basically I drank too much too often.  Whereas I sought out solitude, though, Zailckas sought out company and so reading the book showed me what I might have been like in a parallel universe.

She remembers her experiences very vividly, except for when she doesn’t, and she describes them beautifully, maybe with an over-abundance of metaphors, but beautifully.  It is most certainly a cautionary tale for  young drinkers.  She got hurt, badly, many times, and like me I think she’s just lucky that she survived.

Zailckas says she’s not an alcoholic, yet the only way she’s found to cope with alcohol is to abstain.  She says in the book that she’s gone to AA meetings, but she doesn’t describe any or report actually going, just walking past two.  It seems there is a school of thought that labeling someone alcoholic will impede or prevent that person from seeking help.  That may be, but would labeling someone as having cancer impede or prevent that person from seeking help?  No one wants to be alcoholic.

Smashed doesn’t describe any program of recovery or way to recover.  If Zailckas has recovered, that’s great.  Letting young women know that their dangerous drinking is common is also, in a way, great.  But this book doesn’t point the way toward any kind of happy ending, even if the author experiences one.  I would urge anyone who identifies with the drinking described in Smashed to seek out AA.

Terry

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I remember when I heard that George McGovern’s daughter Terry had died from drinking and falling down, frozen in the snow, in 1994.  I had ten years of sobriety then, but before I got sober I had my own could-have-died experience in the snow when I pulled off the road, too drunk to continue, and snow quickly covered my car.  AA friends found me and likely saved my life that time.  They took me to the hospital for detox but when I got out of the hospital, I continued drinking.

 

Terry’s story is like that but obviously, ultimately, much worse.  She was a life-long journal writer, and her father went through those journals after she died, and he uses many of her own words in the book.  He was not an alcoholic, but he tried hard to understand alcoholism and to explain it to us.  Some of the passages he uses from her early journals show what we would call “alcoholic thinking,” and he does a great job tying them to her inability to maintain sobriety through many, many years of trying.

 

It is certainly a tragic story.  Terry had, it seems from the outside, just about everything, and her family supported her financially and spiritually and even left her to herself when it seemed best to do that.  Terry had education and brains and two great children.  She went through literally years of daily psychotherapy, and she spent years in AA.  She went to expensive elite rehabs and she got committed to hospitals against her will.  They were just about to commit her again when she chased the drink as far as possible, and she died.

 

I highly recommend the book.  I feel it is very well done, and it adds insight from the unusual perspective of a father informed by his daughter’s own writings.  When Terry died, I knew that it could have been me.  I knew that it would be me, if I was lucky, if I started drinking again.  It reaffirms for me that I am one of the lucky, lucky, lucky ones, just for today.

A Death in the Family by James Agee (Literature as a Tool)

I had no idea when I started listening to this book that it had anything to do with drinking and alcoholism.  I knew that it’s a story about a boy whose father dies when the boy is six.  I was six when my father died.  This book won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction so I thought I’d give it a try.

 

The writing is poetic and beautiful.  The voices of the characters seem authentic, from the six-year-old boy’s younger sister to his grandmother and in between.  Because my father died when I was six, I have some understanding of what that’s like, though of course my memories aren’t very long or detailed.  This child noticed different things than I noticed, remembered different things, and understood things differently.  It was very good.

 

I was astonished part way through by the description of the feeling of wanting a drink.  This, by an older character, not the six-year-old boy.  It was an excellent telling of what that feels like, and the rationalizations that go along with drinking alcoholically.  I actually asked Carole to listen to it, it was that good.

 

There’s also a question of whether or not the death was caused by drinking, and that’s an important question.  Today I imagine we would mostly know if alcohol was involved, but back then they may not have investigated that, or reported it if it was indeed a factor.  It was the factor in my father’s death, though that didn’t get made public, I don’t think.

 

When I finished the book I looked up the author and found out that he died young, like his father.  He has been described as a “hard drinker.”  The book brought together those elements for me in a way that is not like what I experienced, and yet it also is like what I experienced.  It leaves me with a sense of gratitude that in my own personal legacy, I have broken that chain.

Dry by Augusten Burroughs (literature as a tool)

This book is called a memoir, and inside the author writes that events have been changed and some are not intended to portray actual events.

I found it to be an excellent description of addiction, recovery and early sobriety.  It’s also entertaining.

Burroughs describes his life as it was drinking and using.  Although he doesn’t lose his job, his job does send him to rehab, and the bottom he recounts before rehab is, in my opinion, pretty low.  His description of his experiences at rehab are amusing.  His life after rehab takes on a sadder cast, and he describes the conflicts and temptations of early sobriety well.

The parts of this book that deal with AA are rather small, and they could possibly turn the uninitiated off to the program, but probably not.  For someone who is initiated and lives the program, like me, I’d say this book speaks to my experience (though my experience is different, all of our experiences are the same), speaks my language, and gives credence to my way of life by acknowledging it in literature.

I mean, read this book!

Using the Big Book (literature as a tool)

IMG_0152I’ve thought about this and hesitated and tried to think of what to write.  This blog is of my experience, and I’m sure my experience has value, at least to me, myself.  If the value doesn’t go beyond that, at least I’ve been a sober, self-supporting and somewhat good citizen member of AA for the past 29 years.  This is a much, much better thing than I was before.

So, the Big Book.  I looked up the meaning of the word “text.”  After looking it up, I’m not sure what it means in regard to the Big Book.  It is a book of instructions, to be sure, but it is so much more than that.

I think it started because the demand for contact with sober members of AA was more than the pioneers could handle.  By the time I first touched a Big Book, in 1978, it had become something entirely different, at least in the place where I first went to meetings.  I was handed a Big Book and told to read it.  I read it.  I’m a bright enough person, and good reader for sure, but my mind was so polluted by alcohol that I couldn’t understand much of it.

I remember taking it babysitting with me, almost like I would take a novel.

In my early sobriety and my early non-sobriety, I relied much more on the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.  I went to step meetings but I honestly don’t remember any particular Big Book meetings.  That’s not to say there weren’t any, just that there weren’t tons, and they weren’t prominent in my experience.

Where I live now there are many Big Book meetings, and one of my favorite meetings is a Big Book meeting.

It’s hard for me to know if things change or if I just pay different attention to things at different times.  I want to say that it seems to me that lately people where I am are quoting the Big Book and mentioning page numbers a lot more than they used to, but that could be my perception.

I don’t have any page numbers memorized except for 449, which shows my age, it is 417 in the “new” edition and even as I know that page number and know what the page says, I also always feel compelled to point out that these words about acceptance are from a personal story, not from the proper “text” of the Big Book.

I’ve heard the language of the Big Book criticized and I know there are “translations” into modern English.  I want to check those out but I haven’t yet.  The language can be a bit of a barrier, but mostly I’m grateful that the writer was such a good writer, and the book has stood the test of this short time very well.  I believe that I’ve seen people become much more literate by reading from the Big Book and other AA literature over time.

So I really haven’t said much about the Big Book or how I use it now.  I don’t really use it now, except when I go to a Big Book meeting, or when I’m trying to help someone with a concept that’s mentioned there.  I have the “original” Big Book that came out a few years ago and I’ve enjoyed looking at the revisions and changes, though I haven’t made it through the whole thing.  I have an extra Big Book waiting for someone to need it from me.  Eventually, someone will.  It’s still the first thing I hand a struggling newcomer or someone else who I want to introduce to the program.  It’s still something I read and I know that I will continue to read it as I go on.

I just have to say that I hope the ideas in the Big Book don’t get frozen in time. Maybe the most important phrase in the Big Book is

more will be revealed

And no, I don’t know what page that’s on, I don’t even know if that’s a direct quote.  But I know that it’s true.

August 17, 2013 (this day)

IMG_0186There were a lot of books around the Wilson House, Bill W’s birth place.  There were more books at Dr. Bob’s house in Akron, Ohio.  I understand that they used many books in the beginning of AA, before there was a Big Book to thump.

I was listening to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and there were several parts that I related to the AA program as I understand it.  He was describing a particular religious sect and he said something along the lines of this.  He asked an elder why they had nothing written down.  No doctrine.  And the elder explained that they were afraid to write down their religion as they practiced it because if they did so it would become a static thing and they wouldn’t be open to further revelation from God.  Two generations later, he said, their followers would be effectually frozen into the understanding of the current adherents.

I don’t fear that will happen in AA, but I’m dismayed when I come across the attitude that only “approved” literature should be made available at AA meetings.  I truly the believe that the vulnerable newcomer is steered to the Big Book and maybe one or two other “approved” books and that having other books available won’t hurt anyone.

And that it might help some of us who aren’t so new.

I always have at least one book that relates somehow to sobriety that I’m currently reading.  Usually more than one.

I’m working on a list of what I’ve read, and it feels like one of  things I’ll do if I ever retire that I’ll get the list together and comment on the books.  For now it’s going to go on a page here.

I urge everyone in AA who isn’t brand-spanking-new to read these and others and everything.  The idea of banning books is abhorrent to me, yet I understand that AA can’t promote outside literature.  Nor can AA “approve” much more than it currently does.  But the expanding mind of AA members is AA’s vitality, I believe.  We cannot become frozen in the writings of 75 years ago, no matter how enlightened those writing are.  I think that’s a lot of the sentiment expressed by these words:

Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We
realize we know only a little. God will
constantly disclose more to you and to us.

Bill W. A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson (literature as a tool)

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Carole and I read this book together in the morning on days that I went to work.  We read just for a few minutes, so it takes us a long time to get through a book.  I chose this book because I truly enjoy learning more about AA, and I enjoy history.  Books like this can make me just a little bit nervous, because I don’t want anyone to get turned off of AA and also because I don’t want to learn things I’d rather not know.

I have to say that the author is a Bill W fan, and so am I.

Most of it is familiar territory.  The book covers a bit of Bill W’s family history before he was, and continues until his death with a few anecdotes about after his death.  Although the tone is very positive toward Bill, it does include negative things like his infidelities, his love of niacin and his inability to quit the thing that ultimately killed him, smoking.

What was new to me or more in-depth to me than I’d gone or understood before is the way Bill W stepped down from the head of AA and created a structure that has stood the test of time until today.  It’s amazing, but it’s dry stuff, and I needed every ounce of it to happen in order for AA to be there when I needed it.

One of the last paragraphs says ” . . . we can hardly imagine what the world would be like without him . . . ”  I can’t be anything but a fan because without him, I wouldn’t be.  I’m afraid my objectivity gets swamped every time by my gratitude.  And for that, I am grateful.