Turning Over Old Rocks


My father was a bad drunk. Not abusive or angry, just an out-of-control, no-holds-barred narcisstic drunk. He had 3 marriages, a bunch of kids, went to jail a few times, lost jobs, wrecked cars, screwed all the housewives in the neighborhood, broke his promises, alienated his children. Pretty much made a mess of the whole thing.

He was finally able to get sober when he was around 52. After a particularly harrowing series of events he landed on my doorstep and asked me how I had quit drinking. I gave him a book called “Living Sober” and put him on a plane back home.He never drank again.

I was happy for him, and proud. I had been able to get sober myself at a young age, due in part to his horrifying example. So I had him to thank for that. But mostly I was proud and relieved. I didn't want him to die the kind of tragic early death he seemed destined for. Sober, his life improved dramatically.

Dad took to AA like a duck to water. He went to meetings, sponsored guys, went to retreats. He even became a delegate to the state convention. He had business cards printed up with a little coffee cup on them. His wife went to Alanon. He had an AA slogan to answer any situation. (That part was annoying.)

His biggest problem seemed to be that he was getting fat. He was now consuming massive quantities of ice cream with the same gusto he used to attack Jim Beam whiskey.

We lived a few hundred miles apart, and saw each other infrequently. When I did visit, I would ask him about his program, his step work etc. His answers were always evasive and seemed designed to shut me up. At first I thought he may not be comfortable with the role reversal of the situation. I had been sober much longer, and, as regards recovery, it was truly a case of the child being father to the man. My father didn't take too well to that idea.

At some point I realized that I had been waiting. I had expected that, in accordance with his 12-Step program , he had been reviewing his past, making an inventory of his life, and would be making amends to people he had harmed through his addictive behavior. These are essential parts of the 12-Step process. So I asked him directly about this aspect of his recovery program. His response was clear: "My problem was I drank too much. I took care of that problem. I don't drink anymore. I am not about to turn over old rocks to see what's under there."

I talked a little about how much better his life could be if he worked on these things, the underlying causes of addiction, but he wasn't buying it. He had heard it all before. It wasn't for him.

Dad lived for another 25 years after that conversation. I continued to visit, but not often, usually when he was having some health crisis or another. It became increasingly difficult to be with him. He seemed to me just a shadow of a man. When he was drinking he was a huge presence, a dynamic personality. Now he seemed small, giving out no energy, just kind of existing. His wife treated him like a boarder, or a kind of overgrown child with developmental problems. It made me sad to be there.

When he was in the hospital, dying of Congestive Heart Failure, he asked to be taken home. His doctors had told him he had only a short time to live and he wanted to die at home. His wife refused. She wouldn't allow him to come home. So, instead, he was taken to a nursing home where he died 2 days later.

Carl Jung taught us that spiritual healing comes from acknowledging and embracing our shadow, our dark side. We repress it or ignore it at our own peril. If we live in fear of what is under those old rocks, and how we will feel when we confront them, then we are stuck in a kind of half-light, a twilight existence which holds the energy of a full and rich life, but restrains it and eventually smothers it.

It takes a great deal of courage to do this, to take a “moral inventory”, to make amends, and clean up the wreckage of the past, to grieve our losses. It is painful and difficult. The payoff is substantial, but it takes a leap of faith to believe that. The big fear is that a thorough scrutiny of the past will reveal that we truly are loathsome human beings. So it is best to not even look, safer to keep all those rocks in place, right where they are.

Recovery if full of ironies, and this is a big one. The more we look at our troublesome behavior, the clearer it becomes that we are not essentially “bad”. If that were the case, we wouldn't be trying to heal and change. Addicts are not bad people trying to become good. They are damaged people attempting to heal from the past, and stop a cycle of self-destruction.

Most addicts in recovery are much stronger and more resilient than they believe. They have vast inner resources that belie the negative core beliefs they typically carry around.

The 12-Step programs hold out the possibility of a life that is "Happy, Joyous and Free." That's what Bill Wilson wrote in 1939. It's still true today.

That's what is under those rocks, Happiness, Joy and Freedom. 

© Tim 2015