THE DARKNESS IN THE NEXT ROOM by Chris Bishop
In recovery circles, they call it “hitting bottom.” Hitting bottom is that moment when the consequences of acting out in an addictive behavior create enough pain and trauma that even the user can see the problem.
Thirteen years. 156 months. 4748 days. March 13th marks thirteen years since the worst day of my life, and –not coincidentally—since my last drink. There is a clear cause-and-effect relationship there. I don’t feel like I need to qualify my pain or my experience, but I do feel like it’s appropriate to share that my experience with alcohol fell under the umbrella of what some people would call, “high functioning alcoholism.” The manner in which I hit bottom would be described in the recovery community as a “high bottom.” I did not end up in prison or lose a job. My marriage was damaged, but not fully destroyed. I wasn’t the alcoholic that needed to drink to get through the day. I was the person who went to the bar to drink two beers, but “accidentally” drank twelve. And that happened a lot.
A common expression in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is, “I didn’t get in trouble every time I drank. But every time I got in trouble, I was drunk.” That statement hits home for me like a hammer. To paraphrase another expression in recovery circles is that the goal in sobriety is to work our way into a life and mindset where we can sit in the next room from our addiction and be comfortable enough to leave the door to that next room open. Thirteen years ago, I could not fathom that idea. I always pictured myself sitting in a rocking chair, and I always pictured myself sprinting to the door to slam it shut. The door would swell and rock, nearly bursting into splinters from the pressure of the darkness in the other room.
At the end of my drinking, I realized that I had always know it was a problem. I had my first drinking binge at 15, and I drank until I blacked out and vomited. I realized when I hit bottom that I had been waiting for a trigger to stop. I always assumed that the trigger would be a drunk driving arrest and conviction –to say that explicitly and as clearly as I know how. . . the drunk driving arrest and conviction was the PLAN. I’m not proud of the times that I was casual and cavalier about other the safety of other people and families with whom I shared the road. I also am not using the word “ashamed.” Today, in 2021, I feel guilt about that behavior, rather than shame.
Listen, friends—if I thought this was all acceptable, I would not be sharing it with you. There is no excuse. AND when I was drinking was the only time I really felt okay. I spent most of my time feeling uptight and repressed. I was never comfortable in my own skin. I had trouble speaking about anything that related to my true feelings or about any difficulty. I wasn’t attuned to it at the time, but the habitual tension points to which we are cued to attend in yoga were always tight and constricted. I can even see it in pictures of myself from those times.
At beer number three or four, that would start to shift. I felt a wave of relief wash over me. My muscles relaxed, and I felt comfortable and at ease. The words that I struggled so hard to keep at bay came spilling out of me, often in unskillful and hurtful ways to the people in my life.
When I hit bottom thirteen years ago, it wasn’t with a drunk driving arrest. In many ways, it was worse. I may have had a high bottom, but I hit it very publicly at an out-of-town training event. The consequences of the bottom affected my relationships with the people with whom I worked, and it certainly affected my family at home. I realized then that I had spent the first 35 years of my life on the fence about what kind of person I wanted to be. I wanted to be both Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, so I never chose.
I have now enough distance and perspective to see some beautiful outcomes from my addiction. That event helped me to see the whole landscape of my addiction. I changed my life fundamentally and profoundly. I went to drug & alcohol counseling, and I attended 12-step recovery meetings and worked through the steps (some formally, so informally). And this path launched me into some wonderful practices.
On March 14th, I found myself in the conference room of this hotel in Ohio on a break from my training. I was terribly hung-over, and I was doing my best to avoid all of the colleagues from my home unit. My anxiety was crippling. I found a small alcove in this conference center, and I found a cross-legged seat. I just breathed. It was my first meditation. I wasn’t using a particular technique, and I didn’t have an informed approach. But it made me feel better. I found my way to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that same day. The way people shared their pain and struggles in such a raw, authentic way and the manner in which everyone else in the room held space for them moved me deeply,
In the weeks and months that followed, I did my best to account for my addictive behavior. It wasn’t always skillful or productive, but I always did it with my best intention. I hurt a lot of people a little through my drinking, and I hurt a few people a lot.
I also decided thirteen years ago that I was no longer undecided on what kind of person I want to be. I have no interest in Darth Vader. I’m only interested in being a good person. It took me years to find a consistent good feeling, but I’m there now. On my best days and my worst days, I still work to be a decent human being. And I feel like I can now describe myself as a good person with a straight face.
I still sometimes feel uptight and repressed, but I have a lot of times where I feel really good. I feel comfortable in my own skin at least some of the time. I don’t go to many recover meetings these days, and I haven’t for years. I find that same sense of people sharing themselves in raw, authentic ways and the others in the room holding space for them with unconditional respect in yoga spaces. I feel loved and held in both my yoga practice and my yoga community. On my uptight days, I find a wave of relief washing over me that makes me feel peace. But now it happens after Sun Salutation A number three or four.
I see my experience with alcohol and all of my many mistakes over the landscape of my drinking career. I’ve held onto the pain and shame of this part of me for too long. At least for today, I forgive myself.
I feel myself sitting in my rocking chair. The door to the next room is open, and the light from this room is spilling into the darkness. My mistakes and my past sit in that room, and I am very comfortable with the door between us open. I don’t any plans to go sit in there, but I feel like I am almost ready to stand in the threshold of the door and invite all of that to sit here with me here in the light.
Please come in. I love you. There is plenty of room for all of us here. Roll out your mat.