I knew that I had a problem with alcohol and drugs starting in college. I had a horrible experience realizing I didn’t want to drink and use. I would wake up having the thought I don’t want to get high today and then finding myself minutes later drinking and using and have that sort of horrifying realization that I couldn’t stop. This was not how I wanted my life to be. I was twenty-one years old and I was drinking every day and using speed to compensate to get through school. But, everything was falling apart. I was failing out of school and becoming violent in my relationship. I was becoming increasingly isolated from others and ended up getting a severe case of alcohol poisoning. I remember laying in bed being very sick. I remember my father coming into my bedroom on a Saturday, as he often did, asking me if I wanted to go to breakfast with him. Being disappointed that I couldn’t do that, I had that moment of realization that if I didn’t ask for help then and there, and didn’t reach out, that I wasn’t going to get help.
I had a core realization that without bringing someone else into this, then it was not something I could do on my own. At that moment, I stopped my father and said, “Help.” He said okay and off I went to my first AA meeting that morning in 1991.
I stayed sober for five years by just going to meetings and enjoying the fellowship between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-six. I didn’t have the privilege of going to treatment. I was able to stay sober while going to Humboldt State University even though I had smoked pot every day of my life since I was about sixteen years old. Failing to deepen my own practice and just relying upon only the fellowship, and then I got busy. Because, I didn’t look at my underlying process addictions, specifically around relationships, nicotine, and quite a bit of stealing, I think it was inevitable that I would get caught up in the again. I had about a year of drinking again behind a relationship with a woman who had significant childhood sexual trauma and mental health issues as a result. I did far more damage during that year that I had ever done before. I destroyed my relationships with my family. It wasn’t about how much I used, it was about the inability to have healthy attachments and honesty. I ended up getting sober, again without the privilege of going to treatment. I had no money and no family that wanted to talk to me. I turned to what I knew which was going to meetings. I was doing the same thing as before by just enjoying the fellowship. Then I got into a relationship. All of that of course fell apart because I wasn’t looking at what was underneath. I didn’t have the tools to do that. I had the clean time, but I did not have emotional recovery.
I looked at that little thing that was in my hand and had been such a big part of my recovery. This cigarette was always present. I thought I don’t want to be a guy with double digit sobriety that is still using nicotine. I wanted to step away from that, so I put the cigarette down and started going to some meetings specifically for nicotine, which was not a cool, hip recovery fellowship. That was in interesting journey in which I made some very good friends. I did some deeper Step and inventory work by looking at these process addictions, especially around relationships. But I was still struggling with a lot of depression and anxiety. A friend of mine that I had met through Nicotine Anonymous suggested that I check out meditation classes that were being taught by Noah Levine, a guy who had just moved to town. I wasn’t terribly interested because it seemed like the hip thing to do. I knew I hadn’t learned much about meditation in the 12 Steps other than to stop and pause when agitated, or reflect in the morning about what God’s will is for you. That really wasn’t enough of a practice so I went and checked out the class. I started practicing meditation mostly because when I showed up there was a bunch of people I knew from 12 Steps fellowship including my sponsor. I thought that these are people that I trust so I will give it a try.
I started down the road of practicing mindfulness meditation. The first sort of jarring discovery was that I had been unaware of what was happening in my mind. By beginning to look at the content of my mind like you might do in cognitive behavior therapy, I began to see how unkind I was to myself. For years, I had been waking up with these thoughts of hatred towards myself. The first thing I would think of in the morning would be something like, “You suck, and you should just die.” It wasn’t until I started practicing that I really began to hear that and began to be able to separate myself from that thought. Then I could begin to do a lot of deeper forgiveness work. I think one of the most overlooked pieces of the Steps is the Fourth Step Prayer which is really a prayer of forgiveness and seeing other people as suffering. We get there because we begin to care about our own suffering and begin to have compassion for ourselves.
I continued the path of meditation by doing several year-long practices. One was a practice called “A Year to Live,” which is a practice around death and brining awareness to mortality. That involved doing yet another 4th, 5th, 8th and 9th Step. I did a yearlong practice around compassion, which is learning to care for one’s own pain and the pain of others. During that year, a dear friend of mine from a 12-Step program, who had also been my sponsee, experienced the death of his mother. That put him into a depression he couldn’t get out of. Even though were doing round the clock vigils with him and brining meetings to his home, it was just too much pain for him and he took his own life. In that moment, whatever separation or isolation there was in me, finally broke. I remember being in a meditation class and just sobbing on the cushion. It was like my whole heart broke open and it was in that moment, in that year, that I realized what connected me to others was not how I wanted them to see me and the outsides.
After that year, I began to study to be a meditation teacher. The adolescent treatment I was working at learned that I practiced meditation, so they wanted me to teach meditation to the kids. For over a year, I learned how to teach at Camp David Gonzales, which is a California Youth Authority Camp. The offered meditation as an anger management technique. I went there with Noah and a few other teachers and learned to do that. I was struck by the contrast between the treatment center I worked at which was very affluent, almost entirely white vs this California Youth Authority Camp where the overwhelming majority of children were people of color. I really began to see the privilege that treatment is. I honed my skills of teaching mediation to teenagers while deepening my own practices. I went on several silent meditation retreats and realized that this practice of mediation was going to be my primary practice for recovery. It was my spiritual home that I found, and some measure of peace arose from that.
For the first time in my recovery, I had some relationship with my experience rather than being caught up in my reaction. I attended a conference of people who were interested in the intersection of Buddhism and recovery. Many of us looked at the research on mindfulness meditation in a treatment setting and saw that it was highly effective so long as people continued to practice post-treatment. We decided to set up some meetings that might support that. We had been practicing the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, which Dr. Bob in 1940, said would be not only an appropriate supplement, but a substitute for the 12 Steps. We started developing a way of looking at the Eight-Fold Path through the lens of addiction and created a meeting format around it and called it Refuge Recovery, the idea of a true refuge and a practice that was beneficial. And, it could help support people’s 11th Step practice. As we started the meetings, a lot of people came to us and said they didn’t feel a connection to the 12 Steps, but they wanted a recovery program where they could have a practice and peer to peer support. About half of the membership were looking for another approach. The idea that Dr. Bob had that this would be an acceptable substitute to the 12 Steps took off. That became my work for many years before the Refuge Recovery book came out. We held meeting in Los Angeles and really explored what it would look like to use the book. The thing that was beautiful to me was that not only were people coming in to use it as their 11th step practice, they were using it as a whole and complete practice. It was getting them into recovery and that was always our idea of how to help more people. I think that to me has always been the driving force of my own practice of service and generosity which is core to our own recoveries. The beautiful thing is that you get folks coming in with 20 plus years of sobriety that had stopped connecting, stopped going to meetings, and being a part of the community. They were coming in and saying that this is what they needed in that point of their recovery. We are reconnecting people to their community.
I remember on day two, standing on a street corner in front of a late-night meeting wondering what I was going to do after being told by an old-timer it is going to be okay to twenty years later when I can live a life of service and to bring a practice to others that has been transformational to my own recovery. I had always been taught that if I wanted to stay in recovery, I can do that to the degree with which I give it away to others and to the degree with which I practice generosity and kindness to others. I think the thing that has changed the most is that voice I used to hear every morning isn’t there anymore. Even if it does arise, I am able to meet it with a sense of kindness because we do this practice in mediation called “meta”, which translates to kindness practice or practice of unconditional well-being. In this practice, we learn to turn towards our experience and care about it, to meet it with friendliness. That has provided me a stability to find a way out of deep depression and anxiety, and a sense of doom that characterized the early days of recovery. To be able to offer that to others and to see how it is transformational in others, there is nothing more gratifying than watching others internalize their own ability to practice and to find a way into recovery.