Under the lens of 2020, a man who hasn’t had a drink of alcohol or taken an intoxicating drug in 20 years is a small story. There has been a tremendous amount of suffering in our country this year. In the past six months I have counseled people who have lost loved ones to the virus, to suicide, and of course addiction. I have spoken to people who continue to experience racism and abuse on a regular basis, as well as those who have lost their businesses and livelihood from the effects of this bizarre year. In myself, I have felt sadness, confusion, grief, anger, and most of all powerlessness. But not once have I wanted a drink, nor have I lost hope in our capacity for goodness or the belief that there is a loving force underlying everything in the universe. For a chronic alcoholic, that is nothing short of a miracle. So As I celebrate the blessings of the life I have been given in twenty years of sobriety, a piece of my heart is with all those who still suffer from a barrage of fear, confusion, and pain that has been this year.
I was once told that congratulating an alcoholic for not taking a drink is like congratulating someone for deciding to leave a burning building. True in a sense, but as anyone who has tried to get sober or change their life knows, it is far from that simple. Were it not for the hundreds of people who have helped me along this path, I would have died an alcoholic death before I reached my 30th birthday.
On October 3, 2000, two men drove 300 miles to pull me out of the apartment I was living in, a place where I was literally trying to drink myself to death. They took me to a treatment center outside of Nashville, paid for by my loving mother and father who were willing to sacrifice their money for one last chance to save a life that many had deemed hopeless. At the treatment center I was taught that I was sick, not evil; a concept that shifted the way I saw myself. There isn’t much hope for an evil person, but someone who is ill might be able to heal. There I met a Vietnam-Vet named “G”. He took me under his wing, showing by his words and actions what it meant to try to live a spiritual life, rooted in compassion, kindness, forgiveness and responsibility. He would lay the groundwork for how I would develop a relationship with a God of my understanding, the center of how I was to build my new life.
When I left the treatment center I stayed in a $85 a week halfway house with twelve other men trying to get their life together. We sat around smoking cigarettes and telling stories of our addiction, laughing at our insanity instead of crying over it. The manager of the house was tough, but fair. He’d leave a stern note on your bed if you left it unmade, not taking excuses for bad behavior or irresponsibility. He understood that the alcoholic consciousness is locked in a self-centered loop that has to be broken. If you were caught stealing, drinking, drugging, or being a general narcissitic-pain-in-the-ass, you’d find your stuff boxed up and waiting for you on the front porch when you got home from work. (he called that a boundary) My eleven month stay there there taught me how to be grateful for what I had instead of complaining about what I didn’t. It taught me about accountability, brotherhood, and the importance of telling the truth.
During that first year of sobriety I worked at a zoo flipping burgers, waited tables downtown, and washed cars at a Ford dealership for seven bucks an hour. Some weeks I barely had money to buy food, but I never starved or went without anything I really needed. Mostly that first year, I sat around with men and women of all races and backgrounds who talked about how to stay sober one day at a time. They taught me how to live by spiritual principles, how to be an adult, and that there was nothing that a drink or drug could do for me anymore except take me back to the hell that was my life before sobriety. During those times, nobody ever asked me what political party I preferred or what religion I thought was best. They told me that my code for interacting with the world was love and tolerance; no exceptions. They told me I’d never do it perfectly, but that was what I should strive for. And so I have, some days better than others.
When I reflect back on all the friends, family, and strangers who have helped me over the past two decades, I am truly in awe of how much goodness there is when I choose to put my attention where it belongs. I remember when I was about a year sober, my car broke down in the middle of a busy intersection in Nashville. As many busy people who looked and talked like me drove past without blinking, a truckload of Spanish-speaking men jumped out and helped me push it into the parking lot of a restaurant, refusing to leave until I could assure them that I had someone coming to help me. I think of all the teachers and mentors I’ve had in my career, those who were patient with me when I needed it, and honest with me when I didn’t want to hear the truth about my blind spots. I think about the twenty years I’ve spent with my beautiful wife, how she has never expected anything of me other than to be the best version of myself. I hold in reverence the keepers of our world’s wisdom traditions, those that have been so key to my happiness, well-being and my ability to help those who still suffer. Without Buddhism, I would never have understood the mind and emotions. Without Christianity I would have no idea about sacrifice and love. Without Taoism and Hinduism, the concept of surrender would have been only a theory. Were it not for the scientist who developed the anti-depressants I took after my father died, I’m not sure if I would have stayed sober through the grief that I experienced. For me, there has never been a conflict between the intellect, spirituality, science and rational thought.
Overall, I find little difference between the world twenty years ago and today. There are many good people, many fearful people, some sick people, and a few who can’t see past their own trauma and woundedness, taking it out on others to make themselves feel better. The most disturbing thing I see today is the lack of common decency we have for one another’s differences, and that somehow we have been led to believe that our opinions are our accomplishments. I was taught early on that what I said and believed was meaningless if I could not follow it up with action. It was pounded into my thick skull that I needed to focus primarily on my own internal state, rather than the state of the world. If I couldn’t do that I was likely to drink again, because that is the core of alcoholism and addiction-trying to bend reality to my desires, instead of adapting myself to meet conditions under the banner of spiritual principles.
So, a heartfelt thank you to all the seen and unseen who have helped me throughout these past twenty years, including all those I have been privileged to work with and counsel throughout they years. I look forward to the next twenty years, affirming my commitment to my family, my spirituality, my community, and those who suffer from addiction and mental illness.
Peace, Jeff Browning