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July 1988

Will It Work This Time?

I've got a birthday comin' up soon. Yup, a whole year booze-less. So what?

Now, hold on. Bear with me a moment. You see, I reside in a booze-less "society" for the time being; so the "success" must be qualified. There was a time when prison was as wet as any community of comparable size. No longer. Oh sure, there's an occasional "pruno" bucket or, rarer still, some of the real stuff. But the unavailability of booze and the proscription against its possession, with the concomitant dire consequences, are effective at fostering restraint. So, in this instance, a dry year isn't necessarily an accomplishment; the absence of choice doesn't indicate a successful AA program. Particularly telling is how quickly I did acquire a bottle when I was released from prison the first time. And the second time. And the third. . .the fourth. . .the fifth. The sixth looms large on the horizon: July 1, 1988, after which the Fourth is the nation's birthday and the Fifth is my belly-button birthday: my annual cause celebre, in or out of prison.

And what of this next time? How long before I get a bottle? The parole board's predictions are dire. Those of two ex-wives would be more dire still. Those of the monkey breathing clown my neck are the most dire of all. And more importantly, will I want to not get a bottle?

Contrary to a simplistic or fatalistic viewpoint, I am neither stupid nor do I enjoy prison. Fact is, when I'm on the bricks my lifestyle does not lead me toward prison. I don't steal; sell drugs, rob, et cetera. I work. I pay my bills. But, sooner or later, I go on one of my drunks, get belligerent, and either assault someone or get arrested on a minor charge and threaten the arresting officers and thereby bring the parole board into the picture. That's just what happened a year ago in January. And two years ago in January. This is why I sometimes introduce myself at meetings with, "Hi, I'm Shep and I'm an idiot."

I've been in and out of AA as long as I've been in and out of prison: 18 years. I've been to meetings inside and out. On the inside, I'm impressed by all the free-world AAs who continue to care and share. On the outside, I was ever aware of the dearth of ex-cons. Many of us are old regulars--we get out, come back, and go to meetings. . .again. What happens to the AA we learned when we leave the walls? Why does it seem to work for so few? What will it take to make it stick?

There's an old saying about needing to find your bottom before you can raise yourself up and out. To millions of folks, prison would doubtless be about as bottom as one could get. It isn't for us. Not only because the experience, once acquired, has less impact on return, but also because the door swings both ways so easily and readily that it's half expected. And it doesn't take another felony conviction, either. An overzealous parole officer out to save the world or simply out to make his (and ruin our) day is all it takes. But whoever said life's fair?

Yeah, it's easy to get cynical. For many of us, it's the only way we can keep our sense of humor. When we hear some AA give a spiel on how tough life is or how he lost his wife and job or how he spent a weekend in jail for DWI or how he bruised his kid's butt in a fit of drunken corporal punishment, we're usually polite. Let's be real here. There's a fundamental difference between us. That's why our alcoholism has led us to prison. Any of those problems are second-fiddle to us. The problems that need to be addressed with regard to our drunken fits are that some of us have robbed, assaulted, killed; others have raped, molested, and preyed upon those unable to fend for themselves.

There's a part in "How It Works" (chapter five) that says: "There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest." So, let's be honest. The fundamental difference is what the booze allows us to become. It does not create. What we do under the influence is but a reflection of what we are, either somewhere in the depths or in our mind's eye. For us, sobriety is extremely important, but it is not an end. It should be a step toward eradicating the beast within. "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable" is the height of understatement; for we also made life miserable for someone else. Whether AA is influential enough upon us to restore us to sanity is a question that requires some serious fourth-stepping with a hard, searching look at Step Five.

Then there's sponsors. . .Any of us who have been "down" repeatedly, long-term, or both, require some perspective on this issue. The free-world AA who is equipped to be a sponsor to one of us is a rare and precious being. Come on, folks, we've had to perform for judges, parole boards, and prison classification committees. We've learned to dance and dance well. Role playing is something that comes so easily and naturally that we sometimes find it difficult to distinguish act from reality; and often fool none but ourselves. Also, prison experience teaches us to clam up or strike out when we suffer pain, not to reach out. The paradox is that we need a sponsor perhaps more than others and yet will seek one seldom, if at all. To sponsor one of us is a special burden. Chances are you'll get burned or burned-out. We're hard and only tough love will benefit us. Love tough enough to call it b.s. when we go into our act. Love tough enough to lead and establish some rules with the expectation of follow-through. Love tough enough to say, "Look, dude, maybe there's a problem here that needs professional attention." Love tough enough to reach out a hand when we slip and fall. . .and the odds are severe.

Hey, I'm not out to rain on anyone's parade. We need you people out there. Once in a while it works for one of us, and only because of one or more of you. I'm just sharing my experience of hope for strength. I've been pretty fortunate, so far. I'm alive and I haven't killed anyone. . .yet. How long before I reach for the bottle when I get out this time? I honestly don't know. . .

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