Where's The Happy, Joyous and Free at?

Recovery from addiction is the road from a life of incomprehensible demoralization to one that is happy joyous and free. Those words come from the big book of AA, written in 1939, “Happy, joyous and free.” Wow! Who wouldn't want that?

But it is not easy, and it is not quick. It is difficult and painful, and many addicts never get there. Never even get close. To swipe a phrase from politics, “Recovery ain’t beanbag.”

When I got sober way back in the day, they would say that all the answers are in the literature. The solution to every problem was in the steps. What step are you working on? Help a drunk. Speak at a hospital. Talk to a newcomer. Make the coffee. Pick up ashtrays. (In those days everyone smoked in the meetings.) There were guys who would quote the big book chapter and verse right down to the page numbers.

This was the way we all got sober. It worked and it was brilliant, as far as it went. A bunch of falling-down drunks leading sober useful lives, that was something.

We also used to say. “I don’t know how I became an alcoholic. I just am one.” How or why is not important. There were Irish drunks whose entire family could qualify for the program. There were Jewish drunks, the first in their family, and all kinds of others with great reasons to be or not to be alcoholic. It didn’t matter. We didn't choose alcoholism. Alcoholism chose us.

Before Alcoholics Anonymous there was little hope for those suffering from alcoholism. There were pretty much only three possible outcomes, death, institutionalization, or for those few who could manage it, a kind of miserable “white knuckle” sobriety, that we refer to now as a “dry drunk.”

So AA literally saved the lives of millions of people, beginning with Bill Wilson and Bob Smith when they met in Akron, Ohio in 1935.

Bill Wilson died in 1971, sober 36 years. The cause of his death was addiction. He was a chain smoker. There is also ample evidence that he was a sex addict. His sexual activity created serious problems for his personal life as well as for AA. But it was the cigarettes that killed him.

Had he lived, Bill W would have seen a tremendous shift in the recovery movement just a few years later. Here are just a few:

  • 12-Step groups began forming for Adult Children of Alcoholics. Using the basics of Family System Theory, these groups helped people understand the commonalities of their experiences, often unburdening themselves from misplaced shame and guilt.
  • Intake counselors at treatment centers began to probe deeper, looking into childhood issues. Many of them, notably Pia Mellody at The Meadows, noted that virtually all those admitting for alcohol and drug addictions had experienced childhood traume, neglect or abuse.
  • John Bradshaw, Patrick Carnes and others began writing about the effects of “toxic shame” and distorted core beliefs on personality development.

It turns out that it is, indeed, important to try to identify where addictions begin. We can't always know. Some precipitating factors go back generations, and whatever causality was there is now lost. But to the degree we can know, that awareness is extremely useful. If you know what caused a condition, it is a lot easier to find the proper tools to fix it. Working on boundaries, mindfulness, trauma resolution, anger expression, acceptance, grieving losses etc. This is the work of recovery today.

It is essential that we acknowledge our “addictiveness” to be able to reach the true potential of a sober life. An alcoholic who just puts the “plug in the jug” will almost surely find some other addictive or compulsive outlet, unless he works on the underlying issues.

Addictions migrate. Addicts and alcoholics who are chemically sober will frequently turn to sex, gambling, over-eating, adrenaline rushes, rage, overwork etc. Anything that can serve to get the pleasure chemicals flowing in the brain.

Addicts in recovery today are fortunate to have the benefit of all the recent learning in the mental health field. There are now methods, systems and tools to help us get free of all our addictions. For those willing and able to do the work the “Happy, joyous and free” place is a lot closer now than it ever was.//

This article first appeared in the LASoberCoach blog.

© Tim 2015