My flawed tattoo: A reminder that letting go may be the only way to hold on

The artist wasn’t accustomed to creating imperfect tattoos, but I asked for imperfection; a single word scribbled on my forearm like a IMG_0902note from someone – a note too someone.

No computer font, so precise and formal, or florid script, so graceful and expressive, would do. I explained why my tattoo should be flawed. As artists are want to do he found meaning in my request.

He went to work with pencil and talent and returned with something perfectly imperfect, precisely imprecise.

My dearest friend died recently. Her body gave out and for the final two weeks her only response to doctors and family was a strong heartbeat.

I called from 2,000 miles and a friend placed the receiver to her ear and promised that she could hear me. I sang Bob Marley, off key.  Don’t be afraid I said, I love you, it’s ok to loosen your grip now. Then I joked that she was never much good at letting go.

In our marathon conversations we often talked about the word, now as permanent to me as addiction.

I promised that after our final farewells I would get the tattoo in honor of her and how hard she tried, but also as a warning to me. My friend died because she was sick, but her illness was a wild animal feeding off fear, more aggressive as her trust in the taming power of the word faltered.

The cunning baffling demon – our shared peril – conquered her because she thought she could conquer it.

It’s Ok to go, I told her again — we will all be fine. Your fight is ended.

I have to believe that she came to understand. As her heart weakend, she became resigned to her fate. She finally let go; somewhere beyond the silence, her ragged breathing and failed body, she accepted the blessing.

She was powerless and her life had become unmanageable.

Now we who love her are left to find our way through the over-analysis, guilt and regrets of grief. Or we can find acceptance in all that she was: vibrant and ill; strong and weak; engaging and lonely; a beautifully imperfect person who sought — too often — to please everyone she encountered, blinded to the impossibility of such a feat.

I must not be deceived; I look at the word on my arm to recognize the arrogance of believing I had the power to save her, to prevent her suffering and death.

She and I used to joke that people who are able to drink in moderation have a superpower. They might as well be able to fly, because we can do neither.

My tattoo is fresh and new today, the single word is simple and rough-edged. I remember my friend and long for one more phone call, to laugh and cry and learn answers to unanswered questions.

I try my best to reconcile her struggle against life and escape from herself with the liberation in death from all fear and torment. Maybe the word, so elusive to my lost friend, will provide me with faith, or maybe not.

I look at the tattoo and one thing is certain.
For today, “Surrender” is my superpower.

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Getting past this ‘God shit’: Recovery of an agnostic

Lost-Highway-In-Blogging

I believe in prophecy. Some folks see things not everybody can see.
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me.
I believe in miracles, something sacred burning in every bush and tree.
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing.
I believe in God, and God ain’t me.

Steve Earle

I didn’t have much starch in me the night I went to my first meeting. I had publicly humiliated myself, and more important, lost my way as a father, the only true moral compass I had left.  Alan (not his name), a recovering alcoholic, was gentle with me as he picked me up in his car. I was talking rapidly, nervous and eager to do this thing right, afraid of looking foolish. As we approached the doors, I stiffened and found what little bit of defiance I had left. “I don’t want any of this God shit,” I said.

Alan grinned kindly and said, “That’s Ok, you don’t have to think about that right now.”

No one enters those rooms on a winning streak. It was a strange mixture of fear, anger and brokenness that led me to the tables after 23 years of very determined and passionate drinking. A looming court date, a waiting jail cell, and a brutally honest court-ordered drug and alcohol counselor left me little wiggle room.

At the time I thought my agnosticism was principled. But If I’m honest, I was probably still looking for a way out. I had known for some time that my drinking was a problem. I had said it aloud to myself late at night when I was alone and at my worst. But now, despite all the evidence to the contrary, my brain was telling me to run.

I stayed that night. I kept coming back for a variety of wrong reasons. I wanted to show people that I wasn’t that guy, the drunk fool. I wanted to prove to my kids that I could change. I had to get that damn sheet signed for my probation officer. Through it all I flinched at each mention of God.

Eventually–I’m not sure when it changed–I was coming for the right reasons. Not for other people, but for myself.  I realized that if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to lose everything–even my life.  Tolerating a little God talk seemed a small price to pay.

Today, five and a half years later, I am still sober. I’m still not sure about God.

Almost a year into sobriety, when I was on the pink cloud of recovery, a friend who is a Benedictine monk asked me to define God. I said, “Oh, no, I’m not touching that.”

I felt my heart pounding as he pressed me: “Come on, try!”

I insisted that I was perfectly comfortable not naming my higher power. I’m not superstitious but I was still pretty fragile. I didn’t want to mess with a good thing.

But my friend wasn’t letting me off easy.

I thought for a moment and then looked at him. “It works,” I said, “That’s my answer. Whatever is keeping me sober is not me and it’s working.”

He grinned broadly, like I’d passed a theology exam.

I remember when I struggled with the second and third  of the 12 steps, I considered returning to church. A Catholic priest, who had been in recovery for a long time, warned me, “Don’t let it interfere with your sobriety.”

His message was that my relationship with the Church and my relationship with a higher power were two entirely different things and I shouldn’t confuse them, especially when the most important thing in my life was on the line.

For those who are curious, alcoholics and addicts who have found a daily reprieve through the 12 steps have admitted, in Step 1, that we are “powerless over alcohol and that our lives are unmanageable.” In Step 2 “we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

The italics are mine. Frankly, I never have gotten past the possibility and mystery in the word “could.” And I never needed to. My first sponsor asked me if I could accept that it was possible, not even likely, that something greater than myself could restore sanity to my life. Of course, I admitted, there was the slightest possibility.

I’ve stayed sober for a lot of 24 hours on that slightest possibility. For a while, my God was a Group Of Drunks who didn’t judge me and expected better from me. Sometimes it was the Great Out Doors. It didn’t really matter what or even if I believed as long as knew God ain’t me. I learned that almost everything in my life is beyond my control. One thing I was certain of: what I had been doing wasn’t working. I had to change my entire way of thinking, let go of self-will and accept life on life’s terms.302811_3913001063340_2085956480_n.jpg

In Step 3, “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

These days I meet people who want to stop drinking. But like me five years ago, they say they are turned of by all the God talk. My response is that perhaps the 12 steps isn’t for them. There are other options. Or maybe if a little God talk is too much of a burden, then perhaps their not ready to quit yet.

I grew up in a family that was certain about God and religion. I, however, have grown comfortable with doubt, with mystery and uncertainty. I have accepted the fact that I will probably go to my death unsure of God’s existence.

My higher power could be sobriety. Sobriety is not simply abstinence. It is knowing that each day is another chance to get it right. It is letting go of resentments and fear, trying to make amends where I can, and to live with gratitude. It is seeking not to judge lest I be judged.  I find it liberating to make decisions by asking whether I will be more sober. You could say it’s a form of prayer. I get into fewer conflicts. I’m a better husband, a more patient father. I’m even nicer to referees when I coach basketball. I’m more honest, more aware of my shortcomings and more willing to acknowledge my strengths. I tend to be more forgiving, less anxious about tomorrow and less likely to regret the past.

There have been times in the past couple of years, mostly during financial crisis, that sobriety was all that stood between me and the abyss, when sobriety seemed to be all that I had, when sobriety got me out of bed in the morning.  If that isn’t a higher power then I don’t know what is.

I told Alan I wasn’t having any of this God shit. But I endured, I tolerated, because my sanity and my life depended on it.

God isn’t necessarily the word I use, but a lot of people on this journey with me do. And they have convinced me that it is a miracle I’m sober today.

I guess you could call that faith.