Self-Help vs. Selfless-Help: The Key to Sobriety

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I did it again. Slick ad on Facebook. A play to my reoccurring feeling of brokenness. A catchy title. Click… PayPal… Click. Three days later it was in my mailbox. Another self-help tome hoping to find a home in my already overcrowded bookshelf.

Before it was shelved I read the first four chapters… not bad… many of the books I buy never make it that far. Chances are good I will finish it. It was far from a waste to time.

But as I read, a thought hit me. For all the talk of grace and second chances … For all the talk of turning failure into success… For all the artful retelling of stories long used to inspire… There was a whole lot of focus on self.

I gotta be a little careful with that.

You see I am a bipolar alcoholic in recovery. Give me a bottle and I am grandiose. Take away the bottle but cut off the meds and bipolar mania makes alcoholic grandiosity look like Mother Theresa humility.

Even with drunken binges and bouts of mania fading away in the rear view mirror of my life, I slide a little too easily into any book, blog post or discussion that gets me thinking about me. As is often heard in the rooms of recovery: “I may not be much, but I am all I can think about.”

For me–for many of us prone to addiction and/or detours off the mental health highway– self improvement should be approached with caution. Improvement is all well and fine, it’s the focus on self that can be so problematic.

As the basic text Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book) wisely points, out our trouble has little to do with will power. It has a whole lot to do with that corrosive thread of self-centered fear that weaves its way through the tapestry of our lives. If fear—the chief activator of my character defects—is to be addressed, the answer is love and faith. Want to knock self-centeredness out of the addiction equation? Then maybe the answer (so sorry Tony Robbins and company) is less about self-help and more about selflessness.

My mother, the white sheep of an alcoholic family, has never known the ease and comfort of that first drink… or more accurately, the death grip on the porcelain bowl as you pray that your intestines don’t spill out with the next violent upchuck. A comment she made last summer, at age 94, sheds a little insight into why that might be. Laying in a hospital bed following a fall that cracked some ribs, she noted to my sister that she was a peace with leaving this mortal coil if that was meant to be. “I only want to stick around if I can be useful to someone.”

Those words, nor anything remotely like them, have ever slipped past my lips. I am more likely to be saying: “me, me, me” or “more, more, more.” At least that was true of the old self. Though slow, there has been some growth after years of sobriety.

My alcohol addled memory bank does hold some precious memories of when I put self to the side. Memories I can call upon when trials best me and my strength is ebbing.

There was that Christmas a year before I put the bottle down. I had every intention of buying the love of my daughters and stepsons with a plethora of gifts. Plunk down the big bucks and maybe I could buy myself a little love and respect. My oldest daughter had different plans. “Dad, I don’t want anything for Christmas this years, can you spend the money instead on my friend’s family? You see their dad is out of a job and there are a whole of children who aren’t getting anything this year.”

It became a family affair. We plotted and planned. Bought and wrapped. For a few wonderful days I was lost in thoughts of others. Christmas Eve came and one guiding principle reigned supreme: “They were never to know who loaded their porch up with gifts. This was about service, not kudos.

For a moment I got out of self. The last ember of humanity not doused by vodka glowed a little brighter that holiday season. Fourteen months later, during the binge to end all binges, what was left of that ember sparked the thought that maybe there was a better way to live.

Fast forward a few years. Sober, but off my meds, I pulled down a very lucrative consulting career, nearly wrecked my marriage and spiraled out of control. There was the arrest, the loss of standing, the shame. When the mania subsided, a depression like I had never known stepped in to fill the void. There was a job offer and a chance at a new start. But what do you know, companies are not that thrilled about giving paychecks to people crippled and distracted by depression. That job ended abruptly. With Googling my name brought up a front-page news story of a felony arrest, new opportunities were hard to come by.

I had a lot of time to burn and most of that time was spent on thoughts of shame, hopelessness and self. Months ticked by. I was thinking of myself 24/7… none of it positive. And then the miracle happened… my wife got a desperately needed lung transplant. For the next three months she needed full time care to recover from such an invasive procedure. I got lost in providing care. What do you know? The depression lifted, the marriage strengthened and, with little effort on my part, the career got back on track

I still think of myself a lot… I don’t need a book to help with that. What I need to be reminded of regularly is that I am involved in a 12-, not 11-step program. The miracle happens with the 12th step where thoughts turn to others.


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  1. Frances Bell says:

    From Mom —— Eagerly read and found most interesting, , as most any communications with you are to D.O.M., I am More than happy, even ecstatic, at your present thoughts, actions, and feelings. Roads are very seldom able to get us to our eagerly sought destination with no further action and effort as I’m sure you are well aware, but they are as asphalt, cement or any other useful material, making the way possible — even interesting — so give them much thought as you seek to make your way to where so much is waiting, yes eagerly waiting to guide and assist.
    Look around wherever you are. Someone’s day, even life, can be lifted by a sincere and pleasant word or gesture on your part. Keep me posted — even a few words–thoughts — can
    ———————————————————————————————brighten up the day. LOVEYA Mom

  2. Sue McCann says:

    I more than likely will never meet your Mom but I know I would love her. Your wisdom doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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