The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The Damaged Ones Like Me
By Don H.

January/February 2000

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At the time, I was in college, and I was in trouble. I was about to be kicked out of school, and the woman I lived with told me to call AA or she would leave me. Then, after I stared dumbly off in space, she changed her ultimatum to “you call AA, or you get out!” I called AA, mostly to get her off my back and to keep her from leaving or making me leave. I didn’t think I was an alcoholic. I thought I was crazy, plagued by constant, debilitating anxiety attacks—attacks so bad I would lie down in the middle of the sidewalk (or even the street) until the hallucinations either calmed down or at least stopped getting worse. I couldn’t even get relief from Valium or booze anymore. I called AA, because I was at that jumping-off place. I couldn’t imagine continuing life with Valium and booze. And I definitely couldn’t imagine life without the woman I lived with. She was my functioner. She did the shopping, laundry, everything. I’d be sunk if she left. There would be nowhere to go but suicide.

By this time my behavior had turned particularly bad. I always had blackouts when I drank, periods of time I couldn’t recall, but recently I had been violent and destructive, and a lot of our friends wouldn’t speak to us. I later discovered I had torn up someone’s house, put explosives in another fellow’s apartment, attacked someone for looking at me funny, and stolen a car.

At any rate, I called AA, fully expecting them to tell me I was nuts and to go away. But they sent someone in a scary-looking car to pick me up. I don’t remember if it was actually an old hearse, but I have a memory of a bowling trophy soldered to the hood—which felt particularly scary at the time. The car was jam-packed with people because the driver’s AA sponsor had told him to bring a “full car” to the meeting. So he literally pulled guys off bar stools and grabbed intoxicated men and women from the park and told them they were going to AA.

Early sobriety was hell. I had horrible anxiety symptoms that turned into nonstop hallucinations. When the dean of students called to tell me I was being kicked out of college (for the third time), I told him I was okay with that because I was just trying to do AA. He said, “AA? You’re in AA?” It turned out he’d always wanted to get an AA meeting started on campus, that he had some alcoholism in his family and a soft spot for alcoholics. He was famous for lending students money or his car, for putting his reputation on the line for a risky case, etc. He wanted me to get sober, start a meeting on campus, and be an example for the huge numbers of students who came in and said they couldn’t go to AA because it was only for old Christians. I was going to be his living argument to the contrary. In exchange, he would arrange things so that I didn’t get expelled. I agreed to start a meeting once I had a little sober time and after I could see well enough to make coffee and set up a literature rack.

He gave me my own infirmary room and told the medical staff to treat me as if I had mononucleosis. No time limit, no hassles. From that room, where I lived for the rest of the school year, it took me about half an hour to walk the hundred yards to class, given that I was hallucinating and had little equilibrium. I have no idea how I passed anything. I had to have other students read to me. I had to dictate papers and get them typed—a lot of which was done by young people in AA. I was really in bad shape and feeling different from other alcoholics in recovery. But they came to the infirmary and set up a card table and held meetings for me. It kept me from committing suicide. 

One of these students, an incredible scholar, helped me by showing that a simple faith could reside in a complex mind. He was my proof that AA wouldn’t make me stupid with its slogans and religious simplicity. And after a while, I stopped caring about that anyway. I just wanted to stop hurting.

At one point, after having been evaluated by a brain specialist, I felt particularly hopeless. The specialist explained that I had damaged my brain with the street drug PCP and said, “Keep your expectations low, son. You are probably going to be a mental patient for the rest of your life. You will definitely have to be on some kind of powerful medication.”

I was stunned. But the panel from AA came and set up their card table and threw me a meeting as usual. When I told them what the doctor had said, they responded, “What does the doctor know?” They told me stories of all kinds of hallucinators who had gotten well in time. They told me about brain-damaged people from all around the state and started bringing them in to talk with me about their recoveries.

One of these was Owen, a man in his 50s who had had 15 years of sobriety, then drank, and now had 15 years again. He was a classic split personality, which, he explained, was even more frightening that what I had, because he couldn’t stand outside himself and watch.

Owen taught me to meditate—this was before I had really done the 12 Steps. He said it was a tool that would make more sense later once I’d been through the steps preceding Step 11, but that I needed it right now for the pain I was in. “Let’s find that quiet place inside,” he said.

“Quiet place!” I protested. Sometimes things turned black and white for me, sometimes they melted, sometimes there was a thin layer of wavy, blue plastic over everything. I had no sense of balance. And my muscles were constricting a little more each day. I was, after a few months of sobriety, in terrible pain. I couldn’t even picture a quiet place inside me.

Owen told me I was divinely screwed. That maybe this was what it took to get me to stop drinking and acting like a spoiled child. I didn’t have an answer, and so I let him teach me to meditate.

He also took me on 12th Step calls—calls to people who wanted help—with him and another shaky newcomer named Tony. Tony wasn’t hallucinating like me, but he shook so bad it distracted me from my perception that he was shrinking and melting. Tony, a sweet man, never got sober and died a few years later. But he was great company and a helpful fellow newcomer.

On one call, we went to a trailer park in rural Oregon and found the trailer of some guy who had called AA. We went in. This guy’s trailer was on a tilt, and there was a horrible smell. There were no lights in the trailer, but Owen had a flashlight. We got the poor fellow into some of his dirty clothes and packed him into the back of Owen’s car. On the way to our meeting, he went into seizures and threw up all over me and Tony. We took him to a hospital emergency room and had to argue to get him admitted. It was an eye-opener for me. The hospital workers would have rather he died quietly in his trailer than let him mess up their emergency room. It’s been said that the opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference. Though people who don’t have this disease sometimes do hate those who do have it. We must look repulsive to them, and weak. But I think of that poor guy, trying with his last burst of willpower to fight the urge to drink and get into his clothes to get help. All the ER people could see he was a bum, a weak bum who smelled awful. There’s the real answer to why we need a self-help program. No one else will do this job.

When we got back to my infirmary room, I was upset with Owen for subjecting me to the horrible events, the smells, and who-knows-what diseases. The guy had puked on me! Owen smiled and said, “How were the hallucinations while we were out?” To tell the truth, while we were out, the situation had been so dramatic, so awful, so unpredictable that I forgot I was hallucinating. For at least three hours I hadn’t been focused on my sensations or perceptions. I was too full of fear and compassion for this poor, smelly old wreck of a man we’d been out to save.

“That’s how AA works,” Owen said. “You be of service. Forget your horrible stuff for a while. Take the steps. Change your behavior. Change your attitude. And then you’ll be the man visiting some poor soul in an infirmary, driving him around to help the hopeless. You’ll teach him how to meditate. You’ll take him through our book of AA. And you will pass on the incredible gift you got here.”

I loved the idea, but I didn’t believe it. I had already been hallucinating for three months, and it wasn’t getting better.

But Owen was right. It was many months later that things let up, but they did let up. Meanwhile, though, I had to struggle with the AA concept of a Higher Power. Traditional religious notions didn’t work for me. And I didn’t want an imaginary companion. I wanted something I could rely upon. Suddenly, my life depended on finding a notion of God that was true to my agnostic temperament.

I called my father, a UU minister. He knew something about looking for a God you could rely upon. And he had evolved from fundamentalist roots into a liberal theologian.

“What do you think, Dad? How do I know if there’s a God?”

“I don’t think it’s like that. I don’t think it’s a puzzle, son. I think it’s like love. Do you know there is love?”

“Yes, of course.”


“Because you feel it.”

“I think God is like that. That’s why they want you to do those steps. So you can feel it. So you can have a spiritual awakening.”

I wasn’t sure I was up for it. I asked if he knew other UU ministers who were sober. He called me back with a bunch of names, including many great ministers, pillars of the UUA. One had been sober a year. Another had been sober 10 years. Another even longer. Universally (no pun intended) they recommended I stay in the program and take what I could use, leave the rest, pass on what worked to others like me. “That concept of God as you understand it? That’s ours. Stick with it,” one said.

I started attending Unitarian churches again, searching for a concept of deity that could sustain me. I thought of God as nature. I pictured a spot on our property in Maine and imagined our giant oak tree as the focal point of my meditation. A fundamentalist in AA warned me if that tree fell, I wouldn’t have a God anymore. Then the oak tree got a disease. Dad cut it down. But I didn’t feel God was dead. The tree had never really been God. It was a comforting symbol, like God’s logo. Where was Jesus, after all? Had he not died, too? And like the traditional Christian, strengthened all the more by resurrection and a Holy Spirit, I had my own personal Easter right there by the deck of my house in Maine as I realized my world was less fragile than the rigid thinkers had suggested. Looking where the tree had stood, I still experienced a doorway to the transcendent. It had just been an experiment in pantheism, anyway. UU churches allowed me flexibility—more than people get at some AA meetings, where conventional spiritual thought dominated.

I tried panentheism, deism and pantheism blended into a cosmic smoothie. I found comfort in process theology. Then I hit on the perfect Higher Power for me: the power of healing. I saw it in AA. I saw it in the UU church, where I worked with teens. I saw it in my job as a youth counselor. I felt it when my hallucinations left. I felt it when I was doing the steps. I found healing in free UU spiritual exploration and in living right. I had a Higher Power.

Nowadays I attend church for daily AA meetings and for UU services every Sunday. I have served on our church board, including a stint as president. I help with the RE program. I perform in the coffeehouse, and I help with the membership committee.

As a PK (preacher’s kid), I grew up in UU churches, vacationed at Star Island (where I was a Pelican), went to Proctor Academy on a UU scholarship, etc. It suits me, and it continues to work for me as a place to grow. 

Occasionally I feel stifled spiritually, by some UUs’ reluctance to be open-minded or even curious spiritually. Some are recovering from having believed too much or from the harsh behavior of those who insisted they believe too much. But many now believe too little, and they would have the rest of us who are spiritually curious and open-minded shut the windows and keep those ideas out. Even the words Higher Power upset some of my fellow UUs. I have the advantage of it’s being a matter of life or death that I keep an open mind.

My UU church pushes me to think of the bigger context of life. Not everyone is an alcoholic, but lots of the world needs attention and help. AAs can get insular and smug. I remember an old-timer telling me my problem was I read the paper and thought about the world too much. “You can’t read the paper or listen to the news and stay sober!”

But I stay in AA. I do it to give back and because I need it, too—and because it feels good. More fully, I stay because AA is where people know what it is to be alcoholic. I can tell my story until the cows come home, but neither the cows nor the non-alcoholics will really understand that craving that can take us out. No one but an alcoholic knows what it is to get pain medication after surgery, for medically sound reasons, and then to have the spirit of destructiveness start talking to you about how you need more, and need it all the time, and need it now, and get that nurse back, and hold all those calls from pesky AAs who want to wish you well. AA is where people know, and they will go the distance with you while you are willing. If I now have 20 years of recovery, it’s because they didn’t leave me alone with my own alcoholic and self-destructive thoughts. I hallucinated for a year, and they stuck with me. So I have to keep showing up for the rough ones, the damaged ones, the ones like me.

For me, life without AA would not be worth living. I got my self-esteem in AA, my method for living my life through the steps. Therefore, I find AA and Unitarian Universalism mutually enhancing and intersecting and theologically compatible. I couldn’t fit into another church, but I couldn’t stay sober on liberal theology, either.
As for the theology implied by the steps, I tell AAs who are new to our church the same thing those prominent UUs told me back when I was new: “Here and in AA it is God as you understand it! Take what you can use, leave the rest, and pass on what works to those who come after you.”

And to UUs entering AA, I say, “I hope you love education like most UUs do, because here is where you’re going to learn the tools for saving your ass. Stick around a while, and you’ll have the joy of helping someone else save their ass, too. It’s life and death, so when you feel like running away, call me instead!” I tell them to circle my name and number in the church directory and also give them this little business card I had printed up with my name and number and a little coffee pot graphic on it. Corny, you know, but it cuts through the bullshit. This is life and death. 

That’s the greater idea, you know.

I had a discussion with a pompous UU recently about the soundness of Rational Recovery versus the irrational surrender to spirituality that we have in AA. I looked at him, pointed inside the youth chapel, where the AA meeting was forming, and said, “It’s life and death. Over a million people have gotten sober here. They all describe God differently or just call it a Higher Power or the Ocean. But they’re free of the obsession to drink, free from the bondage of self, free from the compulsion to hurt themselves or others. It doesn’t get more rational than that. Come in and have a seat.”

Don H. is a freelance writer in Studio City, California.

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