A Eulogy

By Kate Axelrod

Essay

I had begun writing about other things these past few weeks. I was writing an essay about my grandmother, whom I love deeply, and whose eyes are beginning to fail her. I was writing about how she loved Anna Karenina and used to read it to her own grandmother, who was blind.  I had also started writing about another client of mine, who suffered, not unlike Henry, from addiction and depression and various other afflictions. But I recently started a new semester of school and a new internship and was having trouble finishing everything. The words were just not coming together easily; the prose felt disjointed and lacked something, some cohesion.

Please explain what just happened.

Jani Lane (Warrant) was just found dead. This is really weird — I’m just sitting down now to do this interview, and my inboxes are flooded with the news. Even though his cause of death is unknown at this moment, Jani did have a history -– like too many of us -– of alcohol problems. I planned on taking half a day off because it is absolutely gorgeous outside this morning, but this sets a different tone for me for the rest of the day. Mostly because I’m thinking about how his kids must feel.

What is your earliest memory?

Being told that my art was going to fail. I was around 8 years old I guess, and I was trying to make a submarine (like the one used in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”), out of oak-tag paper — big enough that I could get into it and go in the water. I remember coloring it with crayon for days and days on my bedroom floor. My cousin had stopped over at our house, saw what I was doing, and said “that’s going to sink like a rock.” I believe I had a revelation at that moment: I completely understood the meaning of the phrase “fuck you” after he hit me with his comment. Negative criticism is usually traumatizing for artists, because we take it as a personal attack. In my case, I have always used it as fuel. I finished the submarine, got into it, and realized it was too big to get through my doorway. The sinking fears my jealous cousin stirred in me would never have a conclusion.

Those familiar with my Nervous Breakdown posts know that I’ve long crusaded for a secular alternative to AA. My complaints have been vociferous, my voice loud enough that I might have written each piece in ALL CAPS. Recently, however, I decided that it was time to act. I located a secular group with a philosophy in line with my own, one based on the work of Albert Ellis and his Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. The group: SMART Recovery. The Facebook site, which I invite anyone interested to join: SMART Recovery Fan Page. If AA works for you, continued good luck. If not, I’m here to say you have a choice.

My mission is two-fold. Rather than debate AA — always a useless exercise — I have joined forces with SMART Recovery. Rather than bash the ubiquitous nature of AA, my first goal is to create a meeting here in Sarasota. My second goal, now underway, is to assist SMART Recovery (referred to as “SR” from this point forward) in a volunteer public relations’ capacity. But the latter is not my purpose here. Rather, I come to you as a citizen with a message. If your needs are not met by AA, alternatives exist, and SR is there for you.

First, visit the SR site. Stay a while; there’s plenty to do. You can read how the program works. You can participate in online meetings. If you wish, you can seek a meeting in your location. Such a meeting may not exist…yet. In that case, consider applying to become a facilitator. You can create an SR meeting yourself and do so fully prepared by SR. You will become a local hero for all those like you who searched for a secular meeting but couldn’t find one…now they will find one. Consider the pleasure to be had in knowing that you created an alternative that didn’t exist and which others like you can now access. Furthermore, by becoming a facilitator, you will in turn become steeped in the wisdom underlying SR.

You don’t often read the word “wisdom” in my posts, both because I lack it and because I rarely find it. But Albert Ellis was a wise man and, like most wise people, had two feet on the ground as he reached for new solutions to ancient problems. His approach is deceptively simple.

In short, it works like this: ABC. No, I don’t mean Always Be Selling.

Instead, I mean:

A: Activating event.

B: Belief.

C. Consequence.

Lastly:

D. Dispute.

Let’s apply this to drinking in a very simplified example. This is my description of REBT. For a much more in-depth understanding of the process, see the SR website and/or visit their Facebook Fan Page.

Back to my example. What is an “Activating Event”? In this example, it’s whatever makes you want to drink. For heavy drinkers, virtually everything becomes an “A.” This occurs because heavy drinking by itself produces irrational thinking. It kills rational thinking. No rational person decides to lose control over drinking. So why do they lose it? Drinking causes them to become more and more irrational.

I’ll use a typical “A”: “Today sucked. It kicked my ass.”

Now we move to “B.” What’s the drinker’s belief likely to be? Something like this: “I need a drink, and plenty of them.” Further, the drinker thinks, “Soon, it will all disappear. Here comes euphoria.”

And the “C”? The first consequence is easy to guess: hangover. That’s bad enough. But the consequences for heavy drinkers increase. Not only a hangover but the shakes commence, creating a brand new “A.” The drinker’s belief: “A few drinks will fix that.” In this case, the drinker is correct. Bizarrely, irrationality becomes the drinker’s new rationality. It’s rational to end the extreme anxiety that heavy drinking ultimately causes as part of withdrawal. However, irrationality has led the drinker to this point and without his knowing it. He may have rational moments when he considers quitting, but those moments quickly fade. Irrationality has become embedded in the drinker.

How to keep from getting to that point? And what should you do if you’ve already gotten to that point? In the latter case, you may need medical care. Seizures become a real possibility. Worse can happen. You may need to face detox. At the very least, you require supervision in case you do have a seizure. These medical issues lie well beyond my purview. Consult a loved one. Ask for their help. You need someone rational at your side and to help you find the best care available if you do require hospitalization.

If you’re not to that point, or you’ve gotten past that point, it’s time for “D.” The “D” is going to become your best friend. You can turn to “D” at any moment of crisis, anxiety, difficulty, irritation. “D” refers to disputing your irrational beliefs.

Going back to the example of a day that kicks your ass, the process of disputing your beliefs might go like this: “Sure, I’ll feel better for a while, but I’m going to feel like hell tomorrow and for much longer than I feel better tonight.” Run a cost/benefit analysis. How many hours does alcohol improve your life compared to the number of hours it ruins your life? If you’re a heavy drinker, or approaching the trouble zone, I guarantee you won’t be able to deny that the ratio does not weigh on the side of making you feel better. In fact, the day may well have kicked your ass because you drank the night before it.

A person can avoid the worst outcomes of heavy drinking by beginning this process now and working on it. Again, consult the SR website and/or their Facebook Fan Page for more information. I’m trying to get you to hope and the idea that there are alternatives to the “treatments” many of us simply cannot find our way into or around. For those who believe in reason and rationality as a means to overcoming problems, an alternative is required, unless, like some, you can find your way to a higher power through whatever means avail themselves to you. That’s your business. I’m not here to dispute your beliefs.

I’m also not here as an official representative of SR. I speak for myself and from my experience. REBT smashed my once-crippling anxiety and has reduced my melancholic as much or more than any anti-depressant. Is every day a pleasure? Hell, no. And I no longer expect every day to be a pleasure. In surrendering an insane demand, I surrender my insanity.

There is a secular alternative available to you. In fact, there’s more than one, but I happen to believe in SR’s approach because I know REBT is simple, effective and easy to put into practice. The rewards can be almost immediate.

When it comes to drinking, a lot more work will be required. Returning to the ABC YouTube link, will you do the work? Will you? Will you do the work? Or will you go to a three-cocktail lunch?

I will start by giving the straight facts about AA. The program helps many, and adherents attribute their sobriety to it. I take them at their word. As I see it, whatever works, works. Nevertheless, AA is clearly a religious organization, steeped in Christian theology, with many of the meetings subtly reassuring the nonbeliever that he or she will, in time, come to pray on their knees, as I was so often told.

This approach is underpinned by the Big Book chapter entitled “We Agnostics.” It relates the central AA message: The group will accept atheists and agnostics, but unless they eventually accept a higher power known as “God,” failure is guaranteed. “Actually we were fooling ourselves,” the chapter asserts, “for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. For faith in a Power greater than ourselves, and miraculous demonstrations of that power in human lives, are facts as old as man himself. We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but he was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It is so with us.”

The same chapter later relates a story in which an alcoholic asks himself, “Who are you to say there is no God?” That, indeed is the question, or one side of the question. I might just as easily say, “Who are you to say there is one?”

The Christian roots of the AA program are well documented and continue to bloom in its Edenesque garden. I need not repeat the evidence here. It is not my duty to condemn or refute AA.  Rather, I wish only to warn agnostics and atheists that — after the short honeymoon — they will not be accepted by the program unless they accept its language, which irrefutably cannot in any way be interpreted as secular. Just as an atheist and a fundamentalist Christian would be unlikely to maintain a successful marriage, so the atheist and AA are unlikely to form a lasting bond. Exceptions exist, but the AA atheist or agnostic has a big house to build in order to house that much self-delusion.

I shall write from my experience. After much well-meaning advice from friends seeking to help me overcome my hesitation to join AA due to the “God factor,” I thought I had finally found a way around the problem of what exactly my “higher power” would be.  It would involve the infinite universe and the nothingness atheists, especially, and, to a lesser degree, agnostics, face. I would give myself over to nothingness, “turning over” my problems and thereby finding a faithless faith.

More than anything, I sought comradeship.  I found it, at first.  The key to the AA meeting is the common bond between all addicts and alcoholics.  I do not dispute that this is helpful. Indeed, AA could start and stop with that assertion, providing a truly all-inclusive safety net. However, as in all movements, the initial idea of AA was quickly reduced to dogma and a reactionary stance.

I began with the intention to find what I needed and leave out what I didn’t. I discovered what I needed at my first few meetings, which was the simple sharing of common experience.  But during the fifth meeting, the 11th Step was discussed. “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.”

While the words “as we understood Him” are often used to support the contention that AA members can believe God to be anything at all, the discussion revealed every single member as understanding God in the very same manner.  All had always believed or later came to believe in a Christian  God.  All had fallen to their knees and prayed. Others nodded their assent.  Oddly, every member understood prayer, but many could not grasp the idea of not praying: Does not compute.

When my turn to speak arrived, I simply restated that I was an atheist.  I threw the bone that I “may change my mind — who knows? — but that’s how I understand things now. I don’t see why this stance should discourage me or anyone else from seeking help here.”  I wanted to add, “By the way, I can teach the basics of meditation in ten minutes,” but I left it there, not wanting to be reprimanded for starting a philosophical debate.

My message was met with weak applause and a few askance glances. “Here,” I thought, “comes the first argument.”  The honeymoon was over.

Immediately after the meeting, I was twice pulled aside and told that I would come to find what all the others had found.  It seemed I must find it, since they had found it.  Just as I find it incomprehensible that anyone believes in a benevolent God, so they find it incomprehensible that anyone doesn’t. I could point to the Holocaust and say, “That event caused many survivors to lose faith or even conclude that God must be evil.  Isn’t that rather strange behavior from a God expecting so much attention?”  They would point to me and say, “You may go, but you’ll come back when you hit bottom again.”

Now, I must give AA its due. Through discussions not involving God, I was able to see how I had undermined myself via self-deception. This was certainly an accomplishment for which I thank AA. The problem, then, begins and ends right there. For me, such discussions were enough. Leaving God completely out of the program would allow anyone to benefit from it. Replacing faith in a higher power with the acknowledgment that the mind cannot always be trusted would achieve similar results.  No one would be excluded or made to feel they were violating the basic tenets of what amounts to faith.

I relate this to a short fling I had with Catholicism.  This occurred in my early thirties.  I found a way around every aspect of Catholicism with which I did not agree.  I discovered authors like Graham Greene, who seemed to harbor so many misgivings regarding the Church that it was nearly impossible to categorize him as Catholic. Graham himself claimed that he was a “Protestant within the Church.”  I had reached a different conclusion: “I am a Catholic even if there is no God.”  Irrational as this claim may seem, I was quite satisfied with it and myself. Eventually, I lost my ability to trick myself around the sticking points of Catholicism and my own “clever” argument.

Just about then, the child abuse scandal broke, and with it my faith finished collapsing.  It had been waiting to fall, and reassurance that the guilty priests proved the exception to the rule of good priests failed to convince me that I could, or should, restore a bridge that would crumble into the river below regardless of repair.

For AA to work, one must either completely accept its basic tenets or find some way to believe its central proposition despite one’s rejection of it, just as I had done near the end of my Catholicism. I am glad that some are able to do the latter, for many maintain sobriety within the program.

Others, like myself, may be as humble as any Christian and believe in transcendence (a scientifically proven phenomena, i.e., a literal state of mind provable by brain scans and other methods).  However, we cannot trick ourselves around praying, nor fail to detect the contradiction between AA and what we disbelieve. We cannot say, “We are not religious but spiritual.” We cannot accept the view that anyone, anything or any force watches over and protects us.

In short, those finding a home within AA meetings do well to make their beds there.  Those finding the same beds uncomfortable should resist complaining to the hotel manager and simply depart. If that person insists upon complaining, the manager will state that the traveler “shall find no better bed in the world, and you should thank God on your knees for having such a bed. Why, if you leave, you’ll come back. Until then, enjoy sleeping on beds of nails and knife-like rocks. You’ll be back, all right. You’ll return to see that this is the best and indeed only bed in the world.”  Such a traveler may remain a traveler; better to keep moving than fool oneself that a place in which one does not belong is the best and only place in the world.