Mindfulness And The “Functional Alco-Demic”

Source – AA Beyond Belief

It remains vital for me to remember where I got to on my way to where I am today. Was I, and am I, really a full-blown alcoholic? The answer is obvious now but I didn’t accept it for a long time. In my worst alcoholic out-of-control era in 2014 and 2015, what became “normal” for me could include passing out drunk overnight in my own back garden, with my concerned wife anxiously sleeping inside the house, unaware I was there. Or it could be under a park bridge (again hiding from home) with a bottle of vodka communing with the Canada geese floating on the nearby pond, yet still somehow showing up the next day to present a lecture to my class at the University.

While at one level I appeared perhaps to be “functioning,” at another level I was careening back and forth behind the scenes between derelict and professor. I had no idea how many people at work could tell how messed-up I was (or smell the alcohol on me), maybe because they were too nice to say anything, but my wife could certainly tell.

It still makes me cringe how I defended whatever I did to her, no matter how indefensible. The lies and inventions I needed to account for the lost time and focus wasted my mind’s abilities and eroded my own self-image, not to mention my believability. It all caught up to me before too long and consequences began to pile up–social, financial, physical, psychological, and legal. I was indeed an alcoholic. I very nearly lost my career, my marriage, and my place at home. Given what I was doing, it is still remarkable that I did not lose them all.

Several treatments and a transformative eight-month stint in a sober living house later, I am back full-time to my same job and marriage and home, and to a happier, “normal” life. The transformation, still not complete in any way, required a new outlook. The old outlook simply had failed, although I was too oblivious to notice for a long time, and when I did notice I was too dishonest to admit it. The sober living had allowed a recovery of my “normal” functioning, but a full recovery takes a real re-learning of the honesty and openness that might come naturally to most people. I am not one of those people, obviously.

Looking back, my alcoholism had a slow and apparently innocuous fuse. After decades of fairly normal social drinking, by age 50 I was gradually becoming dependent on alcohol, both physically and as a psychological escape valve, and then gradually but increasingly hiding those facts from everyone, and especially those I loved. I became more and more isolated by this “hiding” mentality, but it enabled me to continue my addictive path, functionally if not ethically or logically.

By age sixty I had reached my emotional and ethical bottom, been pulled into the light, gone onto extended medical leave from my position at work, and started the slow and uncertain process of recovery, a path I am still on and will continue to follow as I learn more about myself. I found giving up alcohol to be difficult in itself, after so many years, with multiple relapses and then the returns to dishonesty those relapses required. Learning, and re-training myself, was (and is!) slow. Despite the difficulty, the part of recovery I have found the most challenging, and yet also the most rewarding, is the path towards honest self-knowledge and mindful living. Life can be much richer than I realized!

As AA members know, the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous at their core form a program aimed beyond simply stopping drinking, towards a development of that self-knowledge, a mindful approach to daily life, and a healing of the damages caused by the addiction. The steps were developed from experience with many alcoholics, and also with those who managed to recover through the AA program in its early stages. While respecting that history, I have to admit that as an atheist, I initially found it frustrating to wade through the Big Book and the 12 & 12’s religious interpretations of how recovery and the world as a whole supposedly works; it seemed most, if not all, of the spiritual and practical benefits sprang directly from the remarkable fellowship of AA and its cultivation of gratitude and mindfulness, and the sense that each of us is but a tiny part of our interconnected universe.

I knew there were other viewpoints, but none of them seemed to have been broadly accepted for recovery. At one point I split up with one of my former sponsors over the pressure to adopt a faith-based view of the world, as I felt that for me, honesty (or my lack of it) was a huge problem in my alcoholic thinking. Pretending to “believe” in yet another way did not seem the way forward. How could I find a more spiritually fulfilling approach to recovery that worked for me?

Fortunately, many approaches to recovering sobriety are now gaining in popularity and are easily integrated into an eclectic AA program. Some of my major helpers in recovery from addiction knew about these approaches and pointed me in the right direction. Reading about many of these concepts was a real eye-opener for me, a fundamentally non-spiritual person while I was drinking. From The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, I learned the value of being able to step outside my own chaotic and counterproductive head-chatter to find perspective into my deeper reflective self, and to get rid of my fears and demons by facing them directly and honestly. From Sacha Scoblic’s hilarious Unwasted, I took away a new perspective on what it is to be sober (and still have fun!) in a world that continues to promote drinking as a social lubricant. I have continued to benefit in what otherwise could.

By far the most influential new source for me has been Marya Hornbacher’s Waiting: A Non-Believer’s Higher Power. I could not believe my luck, when I first read it, in finding a fellow alcoholic and addict who had most of the same questions I had and had found insightful and life-changing solutions that worked spiritually for an atheist. I am ever so grateful to those thoughtful recovery folks who turned me on to these and other sources. Everyone should be so fortunate!

Eventually these insights led me to further forays into the very practical aspects of Buddhist meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practice. To me, The Joy of Living by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche stands out for its skillful weaving together of the science of the mind and mindful spirituality, and practical advice about meditation. It is important to me to see how the meditative insights gained through a spiritual approach integrate with what we know from the real world.

I also found riveting the pithy insights into mindful and purposeful living in The Four Agreements (Don Miguel Ruiz). I still struggle with fitting these calming and directing influences and perspectives into my life regularly enough to keep me sane, but now find that there ARE ways to find acceptance, serenity, and gratitude in my daily life that do not require avoiding reality and responsibility. All these virtues require practice to become habit-forming in a good way; it takes time and dedication to succeed in the way all worthwhile things do.

Facing things the way they are, rather than the way I wish them to be, has become my mantra. Whenever I find myself drifting into negative or chaotic attitudes, I can bring myself back. It usually takes help, and fellowship, to remind me to bring myself back, in the longer term. My wife, now an Al-Anon member with a wonderful sponsor, has shared my recovery journey and the exploration of mindfulness with me and been a greater support than I can ever fully express, certainly vastly more than I deserved. She is still recovering from my damages to her world and continues to have other challenges.

And then there is my AA sponsor, and the AA fellowship in the various forms it takes, in the meetings I attend. I can draw strength from any and all of them if I am open to what they offer. It just requires the ability to step outside of my own self-centered focus and look at the big picture.

This is easier said than done over the long haul, and I have experienced multiple relapses. My last one was marked by much more honesty and openness, but only afterwards: I still had failed to reach out at the time I needed to before drinking again. I have gotten much better at staying involved and using my sponsor and home group (and other meetings) to talk about my failures and successes, but recognizing my first warning signs of squirrely thoughts, noticing returns to old habits common from my drinking days (mainly avoiding things I know I should be doing that I don’t want to do, or avoiding talking to people I don’t want to face right then), and then discussing those concerns immediately breaks a cycle for me that has repeated itself for years. Whenever I honestly face my “demons” and deal with everyday problems directly, I do feel better about it, but why is that often not what I think beforehand?

So that is my focus now, to open up and release whenever I feel the pressure or dissatisfaction building up, and prevent actual relapses before they happen. This seems to have been a life-long personal flaw and will take real sustained effort to overcome. The new element is that I definitely want to overcome it, and am already beginning to see success when I make the effort.

I now find I treasure the fellowship of AA and its culture of sharing experience, strength, and hope more than ever. Despite all of my wrong turns and subsequent treatments and betrayals of trust, I have friendly and devoted allies in many places, all of whom seem to genuinely want me to get to a happy and positive place in my life. All that has been required for benefiting from this large network of support is that I learn to be willing to ask for help, to face things as they really are, and to let others be who they are. I don’t have to agree with everyone, I just have to respect the views they have from their own experiences. I can expect no more from them in return.


About the Author, Jim W.

Jim W. is a field biologist and professor in his first year of recovery, and recently back at work after spending eight months in a sober living house. He is looking forward to having his first sober holiday in years, and will be meeting some new AA friends in North Carolina while visiting relatives. His home groups is Many Paths in Champaign, IL

Artwork

The graphics displayed in this article were created and designed by Kathryn F.

Euthanasia as a Cure for Alcoholism?

How is this for a crazy headline? At the same time, who among us has not thought of it?

By Dorri Olds 12/14/16

In the last two weeks of his life, Mark laughed, ate, and spoke honestly with the family for the first time in years. He was lighter, looking forward to death.

A grave with yellow flowers

There was no pain, no struggle—just relief

Mark Langedijk, a 41-year-old alcoholic, did not want to live anymore. He was euthanized, legally, in the Netherlands on July 14. His heartbroken older brother Marcel, a journalist, published a poignant essay (in Dutch) in the magazine Linda on November 15.

Why did the Netherlands legally permit putting Mark to death? Before you slap a harsh judgment on what a foreign country allowed to happen, you need to understand the whole story with all of its complex circumstances. This was not a callous, immoral decision by an uncaring government. This was a begged-for mercy killing.

Shouldn’t a person whose life is filled with pain be allowed to say, “Enough is enough”? I think so.

I was intrigued by this story the second I stumbled upon it on November 28. Throughout much of my life, I would have jumped at the option of euthanasia. Like Mark, there was something wrong with my brain. For me it was a combination of PTSD and bad wiring.

Langedijk went through an agonizing eight years that included 21 hospital and rehab admissions. Desperate to understand what happened, I scoured the internet to find his older brother Marcel Langedijk. I found out he was 44 and living in Amsterdam with his wife Carlijn and their infant daughter, Sammie. I contacted Marcel and asked for an interview.

He wrote back, “I would like the story of my brother and his addiction and the euthanasia to be read by as many people as possible. It won’t be any problem to answer your questions.” I am grateful that he was willing to confide in me by phone and email, but this was not a conversation that came easily. He is still shattered by his tremendous loss.

“This wasn’t sudden,” said Marcel, wanting to make it clear that euthanasia was not a rash, careless decision. “It took one and a half years of planning with a doctor. At first the doctor said ‘No,’ but Mark kept talking to her, pleading with her. He was suffering. He’d had a successful hearing aids company but couldn’t work anymore. He’d lost his wife and their two boys—now 11 and 9.”

Marcel said Mark wasn’t a “typical alcoholic.” I asked him what he meant.

“He wasn’t like those smelly, dirty people living on the street, always desperate, and begging for money.” I didn’t stop him to explain how many alcoholics don’t look like that.

Marcel said, “My brother always took care of himself but, emotionally, he just couldn’t cope. He had so many fears. It was mental illness.”

“Was Mark bipolar?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Marcel, “that was part of it.”

During Mark’s eight years of deterioration into the depths of alcoholism, his family grew angry with him. Mark hadn’t confided the details of what his life had become and his family did not understand what alcoholism was. As a result, they could not figure out why Mark behaved as he did. Still, love overrode their frustration. They did what they could—offered emotional support, made suggestions, gave money. Marcel said his parents always hoped Mark would get better, “especially my mother.” Mark went back to live with their parents when his marriage fell apart.

Marcel said, “We didn’t understand what was happening because he hadn’t let us in on the details until it was too late.”

He, Mark, and their sister Angela grew up in Overijssel, a small town in the Netherlands. Marcel described a happy childhood with loving parents, a life that was quiet, easygoing, fun.

“Nothing in our lives could’ve explained what happened,” Marcel told me. “There was nothing we did to cause it. It was a problem in his head—his brain didn’t work right. Then his body was breaking down. He had cirrhosis.”

Mark was always very social. “He knew how to get people to help him.” But he was also able to hide his problems for a long time because “he had a very good income and insurance from his hearing aids company,” said Marcel. “Then when he needed more help, our parents and the government paid a lot of money to help him.”

After getting Mark to rehab after rehab, but seeing it fail each time, “the family took some distance.” They hoped that if Mark saw that he could lose all of them, he would make himself stop drinking. Despite wanting desperately to get better, he was unable to.

On June 18, just 26 days before his death, Marcel and his wife Carlijn had gone out to dinner, leaving their one-month-old daughter Sammie with his parents. As they babysat at Marcel’s home, Mark called. His mother answered. He was calling from a police station and said he had nowhere to go.

“My parents said, ‘Come to us, to the house of your brother.’ What else could they say?” said Marcel. When Mark arrived he was still drunk. It was the first time he met his new niece, Sammie. Marcel and Carlijn hurried home and found Mark ashamed and in pain—physically and mentally exhausted. Mark told his family that he wanted to die by euthanasia.

In Marcel’s article he said that their family didn’t take it seriously at first. “Euthanasia was for people with cancer. Not for alcoholics.” But Marcel described staring at his brother seated on the couch next to their mother; he saw him moaning in pain and shaking. He needed vodka to stop the delirium tremens. After a couple of glasses of vodka, he cried out to his family, “This is no life.”

Over a year before he died, Mark had gone to Dr. Marijke and begged her to euthanize him. She was skeptical at first, afraid he was just a self-pitying alcoholic seeking attention. The doctor asked why he didn’t just commit suicide.

Marcel said to me, “It would have been cruel to force my brother into taking his own life. How should he have done it? Jump in front of a train? Jump from a building. That would’ve been so violent.”

Dr. Marijke continued to talk to Mark, and also sent him to see other doctors, psychiatrists, and insisted he keep a daily journal. Marcel said it detailed how unbearable life was. He described every day as the same. He was in pain, he drank, loneliness dripped from every page. Mark went through the normal channels and finally it was a doctor at the Support and Consultation on Euthanasia in the Netherlands that gave the approval.

Being put to death in the Netherlands is legal through the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act. Marcel wanted me to understand that the country doesn’t just kill alcoholics on a regular basis. When we got off the phone I Googled statistics. I found that in 2002, euthanasia in the Netherlands was legalized for those with “unbearable suffering and no prospect of improvement.” According to the UK’s The Telegraph, during the past five years, euthanasia cases in the Netherlands increased from 3,136 in 2010 to 5,516 last year. That is a 75% increase. For cases based on mental illness, it went from two people in 2010 (0.1%) to 56 people in 2015 (1%).

In Marcel’s article he described the last two weeks of his brother’s life as surreal. There was a bed set up for Mark in the living room of their parents’ home, the house Marcel and his siblings grew up in. Mark joked about being a “dead man walking.” He laughed, ate, and spoke honestly with the family for the first time in years. He spoke of how he had managed to keep his alcohol abuse hidden from everyone, how unhappy he’d been. It was like having the Mark they used to know back with them. He was lighter, looking forward to death.

He barely cried, there was no pain, no struggle—just relief. Marcel told me about his brother’s last night on earth. “He slept like a baby. I couldn’t understand it, how he could sleep so well.” Marcel was on the couch all night next to Mark, listening to him snore while he stayed awake with the horrid reality that his brother would be gone “in a few more hours.”

On the day of, Marcel said his hands were clammy and his head buzzed from lack of sleep and emotional overload. Weather-wise, it was a beautiful day. They laughed, drank, smoked, ate ham and cheese sandwiches. Dr. Marijke rang the bell. She was dressed in a black dress and sneakers. The jokes stopped. Dr. Marijke explained that there would be three syringes. The first was a saline solution, the second would make him sleep, and the third would stop his heart.

Everyone started to cry, even Mark, but his tears were not from sadness. Mark cried with empathy, seeing his family so grief-stricken. Marcel told me that even though he hadn’t included it in his article, the doctor was crying, too.

She asked him two more times if he was sure. Marcel said that his head was screaming, “No!” but Mark said, yes, he was sure. When Dr. Marijke emptied the third syringe, Mark’s face lost color and he was gone.

Marcel told me that he never planned to write about the ordeal. “I didn’t want my brother to die but when he did, I am a journalist so I wrote about this.” The Dutch article in Linda went viral and Marcel received a lot of feedback suggesting that he write a book about it. Now, he has three chapters written and a publisher. His book will be out in 2017.

As is always the case when stories go viral, Marcel saw a lot of harsh criticism. He Facebook messaged me on December 3 to say, “The BBC did an interview with me. I decided to do that because there was so much bullshit—sorry for that word—written online that I felt I had to say something.” He sent me a link to the short BBC video.

In the video he said, “It’s a weird kind of day [as] you can imagine.” He wiped away tears, composed himself and said, “Okay, let me try to do this again. My name is Marcel Langedijk.” He described July 14, the day of Mark’s death as “ridiculously hot. We went outside and he said, ‘Well, this is my last morning.’ We just drank some wine. He had a favorite wine we drank once before. Then he smoked one more cigarette and we went inside. My parents now got the time to say their goodbyes and he got the time to say his goodbye. If he just would have shot himself or stand in front of a train, that would have been so different. That would have been so cruel. The thing that disturbs me the most right now is that my family and I and even my brother are made to look like we just ended it because it was convenient. Let me tell you, this is in no way convenient. We don’t take it lightly. It’s not like in Holland we go around killing alcoholics. It’s very complicated and it’s difficult and it’s a huge step. For me it’s very important to make sure that everyone knows that we did everything and some people just aren’t curable. If you don’t help them with it, they will eventually kill themselves.”