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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Death in the family

My cousin died two days ago. While the official cause of death is still a bit hazy, what is quite certain is that alcoholism played a huge part. He was 52 years old. (For the sake of clarity, I should say that he officially died today, but his brain died two days ago).

Why do some of us get sober and others do not? In his case, it certainly wasn't for lack of loving family surrounding him and wanting him to be there always, without the barrier that alcohol places between us and those who love us. It also wasn't for lack of wanting to be sober; I think perhaps he wanted nothing more than that, except perhaps to be happy, which I don't think he ever was in his adult life.

Death really isn't much of a surprise to us alcoholics when we get to a certain point. Most of us have already been thorough the other two possibilities: institutions and jails. My cousin was no exception. Why death should come to him, though, and not to any of the rest of us is still a mystery to me; we can attribute it to God or fate or chance or karma, still, it feels an awful lot like a random roll of the dice.

And again I fall back on acceptance. Acceptance is not, of course, acquiescence. I am not one of those who can sit back and simply say that this was God's will or an inevitable consequence. Rather, I think of acceptance as a corollary to the dharma principle of equanimity. When all is said and done, it is our ability to release our convictions, our beliefs, our anger, our questioning, and our grief into the vastness of That Which Is which can bring us true and lasting peace. It has been my experience that this is a position of strength and not of weakness, and that from a place of acceptance I can act with courage and conviction without the obscuration of my ego getting in the way. Of course, this is not a state I achieve with any purity for any period of time, otherwise I would be enlightened, wouldn't I? But to the degree that I can place myself in acceptance of what is, I am at peace in any situation. The Buddha's most basic teaching is that circumstances do not determine what I experiecne, my reactions to circumstances do.

One of the saddest parts of my cousin's death is that his sons are still convinced that to one degree or another their father chose alcohol over them. As gently as I could, I tried to speak from my own experience, and let them know that I didn't believe this was so, but to little avail. I don't blame them; we are abandoners and absconders, we are irresponsible and seem uncaring. We are baffling, perplexing, infuriating and heartbreaking. But we are also in the clutches of a disease, a disease which ends up leaving us without choice. There was much talk of will power and spiritual decisions, and I held my peace; it certainly wasn't for me to convince anyone, especially not in that situation. But I felt such a pang in my heart that their father could never assure them that he didn't choose to leave them alone, and that they must now live with a convinction that if he had just loved them enough he might have stayed. What a comfort it might be for them to realize how very stark and impersonal our alcoholism is, how it levels vast fields of love and hope and happiness before it as if they didn't even exist, how much he could have held them in love and still been incapable of being the father they needed and wanted.

This experience also reinforces my convinction that we who are sober are not doing nearly enough to reach out to the alcoholic who still suffers. Worldwide, there are two million alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous, and that number has not grown in at least a decade. There are 6.7 billion people in the world, and estimates of the rate of alcoholism are conservatively 5%. Thus, there are likely at least 300 million alcoholics in the world. Two million is a mere scratch of the surface. Granted, many of those 300 million recover in ways other than AA, and many know of AA and have rejected it. But of the others, have we really done all we can to reach them? I'm not saying I could have saved my cousin. He knew I was sober in AA, and also knew (I hope) that he could ask me about it. I probably could have done more, but the larger question is, what can we all do, collectively and individually to make sure this message is out there? I have been in service to AA the whole time I have been sober, and I have seen a great deal of sqabbling over petty details and not enough emphasis on our primary purpose, which is to reach out to the still-suffering alcoholic. I hope and pray we can do better.

As for my cousin, I don't pretend to know what comes after this life, but I know that he is happier than he was here, even if he is nowhere at all. He died too soon, but his was a death of degrees, and happened over his entire 52 years. How merciful that his struggle is over. May we all be free of suffering. May we all be able to care for ourselves with ease and comfort. May we be happy. May we be free. May we know the end of the endless death of anxiety and uncertainty and come to rest in the conviction of our knowing of the Truth.


misha_h_nyc said...

have you seen or heard -

Also, good to hear you.

all the best!

alcoholic said...

Remarkable clarity, it is so obvious you are sober!