Lessons Learned from Illness

February 26, 2017 — Thomas R. Bancroft
Readings: Proverbs 4: 20-26; Mt. 8: 5-17

This life lesson is about what I’ve learned from illness and injury. Knowing something of my background, the Pastor asked me to give this talk.

So, let me first list my illnesses in alphabetical order:

Alcoholism, arthritis, aortic aneurism, adrenal insufficiency, congestive heart failure, COPD, diabetes… that’s it. Only the first two give me much difficulty-the rest are controlled by medication and diet.

I have learned something about physical pain and suffering from osteoarthritis.

Bone pain is difficult. In the past 15-18 years, I have had 9 bone surgeries- two ankle fusions, knee replacement, hip replacement twice, spinal disc fusion, and numerous repairs of some sort. Also, in there somewhere, I had open heart surgery- a quintuple bypass. That was the easiest of all my surgeries.

What I’ve learned is that unremitting, long term pain will wear you down. I have been despondent and full of self-pity over my undeserved suffering. I asked on more than one occasion, “Why me, Lord?” My Higher Power gave me the answer: “Why not you?”

Finally, the best thing about pain is its absence. The absence of pain is a wonderful thing. The more I have suffered, the more grateful I am. When I wake up, I say Thank you, God. And, if I am relatively pain-free, THANK YOU- THANK YOU!

As difficult as that was, what I’d like to share today is the story of my longest lasting, most intransigent illness of all-alcoholism.

I have never given this talk, or any version of it, to anyone other than a few close friends who knew my background anyway, and other alcoholics. The main reasons for this are that I want people to think well of me, and although the understanding of alcoholism as a disease is far advanced from when I first got sober more than 40 yrs. ago, there remains a stigma attached.

Then there are those who grew up with an alcoholic father, mother or other loved one, who can never think of alcoholism in an unbiased way.  In fact, alcoholism is the one illness that people have the most anger and resentment about. So, I go into this with some trepidation, hoping I don’t upset some of you too much.

This is taken from the Covenant that I swore to when I joined Union Church: “We share our stories of faith with one another and our time, talent and resources for the work of God’s kingdom.” I also realize that this is the Church that I will be buried from. So, I want to share with you my faith community, the story of my journey to Hell and back, my fall and salvation, my death and rebirth.

I’ll start by telling you of my first drink.

There is such a thing as an instant alcoholic-I know because I was one. I grew up in Augusta. I started in Cony High School when I was 14, and started running with a new bunch of kids. One of them was wealthy, and his father had a fully stocked bar. He took a half dozen bottles , and 4-5 of us kids got together in one of the outbuildings on his estate one night, and proceeded to pass these around.  The first one that came to me was vodka or gin, something clear- I took a gulp, thought I’d die, and proclaimed how great it was, which is what all the rest of the guys did. A few more went around, and then a bottle came to me that had curved sides, and seemed to fit in my hand. Held up to the light, it had an amber glow. I smelled it, and the oak and caramel notes filled my nose and throat. I took a sip, and it slid down my throat, hit my stomach, and the warmth and the glow spread out, so that even my fingertips tingled. My hair stood on end. I had goosebumps. IT WAS MAGIC!  I did not pass this bottle of Haig &Haig scotch. I kept it.

There were several salient points about this first experience. First, I got sick-my body was trying to tell me that I was allergic to alcohol. Second, I finished the bottle, or I think I did, because the next thing I knew, it was dawn. I had a blackout the first time I drank. Then, I went home and lied about it-I told my mother I had food poisoning to explain my obvious sickness. And, of course, we stole the bottles in the first place. This was to set the pattern for my drinking my whole life.

How serious was it? I never passed another course at Cony High School. I carried little medicine bottles filled with liquor to school. All my attention was focused on how to get more alcohol. People started noticing the new me right away. My teachers were among the first to notice that I had gone from a straight A student to not doing schoolwork at all. I started getting suspended on a regular basis. Pretty soon I was expelled. Remember, this was a small town, and I started coming to the attention of the local police. These were the days when a person could be arrested for loitering, and for just being intoxicated. It got to the point where they would stop me on the street whenever they saw me.  This happened 10 or a dozen times in a year. Finally, on one of these occasions,  they called my father and mother to appear with me before a judge The Judge told them that he thought I would benefit from a stay at State School for Boys in So. Portland– the Maine Youth Center- what they call Juvie today.

I was 9 months in State School with some of the most abused and neglected and toughest kids in the State. I don’t know what benefits that they thought would accrue from this, but two outcomes were certain- I never ever could succeed in High School again, and I never was a child again. After I got out of State School, I began to make my own decisions. I was sixteen. Within two years, I left home.  I hitchhiked from Augusta, Maine to Calif.

I stayed 11 years-the whole decade of the 1960’s. This part of my history gets very difficult for me at this point because I would like you to think well of me, but my Program of recovery demands that I be rigorously honest. My program also says that I need to tell you “What it was like, what happened, and what it is like now.”

As it happened, I brought my alcoholism with me. I did everything most young men did- after several false starts, I got a job in the Shipyards, – I wasn’t doing too badly for a High school dropout. But I couldn’t stop drinking, and it became worse, and it was complicated by the fact that there existed a drug culture at the time that I became heavily involved in. I was involved in a serious car accident, and lost my license. I lost my job, and was hospitalized for substance abuse for the first time. My jobs were becoming more fly by night, shoe salesman, insulation installer, sandwich maker. I could not sustain a relationship. I thought it was because of some character defect- some basic flaw. I went back to Maine, worked construction for a time, went back to Calif., and tried to start over. It was worse. This is a good place to tell you, if you haven’t already intuited how I felt about myself. I had been diagnosed as alcoholic by this time, and, although I desperately wanted with every fiber of my being, to stop drinking, I could not. The shame and guilt were so staggering, that I wanted to die. Not so much to die, but I could not see how I could live.

Finally, I ended up in a coma in a general hospital; the duration was apparently about a week. I had a tracheostomy, and tubes everywhere. I had no recollection of what I had been doing, or how I got there. It was said that I had ingested some combination of drugs and alcohol.  After two weeks there, I was transferred to a Rehabilitation Hospital to learn to walk and talk again. I was four weeks in that facility. Since I couldn’t pay my hospital bills, the state of Calif. thought it would be nice if I recuperated elsewhere. They offered me a plane ticket. I thought I might try Maine again. I thought the only ones who would remember me were my parents, but I wasn’t sure of my reception.

I was the Prodigal son.   I was walking with a cane by now and up to 165 lbs. from a low of 140. I was only marginally employable, but got a job through Voc. Rehab. at the Augusta Mental Health Institute, the state hospital, on the midnight shift. That was based on my experience as a patient myself. Remember, I was still a high school dropout, although by this time, I had acquired a G.E.D. This was to turn out to be a major turning point in my life.

I had been there only a few months, and I was doing pretty well, getting by with maintenance drinking. I had lost everything it was possible to lose- my job, my friends, my residence, my car, and any future prospects. I was 30 years old. What’s worse, I had lost whatever self-respect and pride that I ever had, and I still could not stop drinking. As I said, by this time I was low maintenance. Then, the first in a series of miracles. One quiet night on the ward, the shift supervisor introduced us to a new hire, who had more academic credentials than most of us. And, although she struggled to keep it quiet, we soon learned that she had only recently left the Convent. She didn’t smoke, drink, or swear. I thought she was an Angel. They put us together. On that back ward, on those quiet nights, we got to know each other quickly. By the time she left a few months later for Chicago for a Graduate Program, we were planning our life together.

I was supposed to stay in Maine, and join her in a year.  That lasted about 2 months when I went to join her. I got a job in a psych. Hospital. I enrolled in college. By this time, I was drinking under control to the best of my ability, which was; that I would I would go a month, two months or more without a drink. What was called “white-knuckle” sobriety. Then I would break loose and drink uncontrollably for sometimes days at a time. I would go on a bender. The ways I would stop were outside my control- I would wake up in my car, run out of money and friends to buy me the next drink, or someone would find me. If alcoholism didn’t affect those closest to you so profoundly- your wife, children, family, it would not have the stigma that it does. But of course, it does. When I did these things, the pain was unbearable. I experienced the shame, degradation and self-loathing of not being able not to drink. What do you suppose an alcoholic does when faced with that level of pain? Well, of course, I drank. Alcohol is the greatest painkiller ever devised.  After one of these benders, I would swear that I would never do that again- and I would mean it.

One sunny day, I was working evenings- Nancy was working days, my son was at the babysitter’s, the birds were singing, I was better off than I had ever been, and I knew I was going to drink. I had built up to that stage where no human power could prevent me from breaking out. My mother could get on her knees and beg me, and I’d still have to go.

I gathered everything together, counted my money, put on my jacket, and went to the phone, called the operator, and asked for Alcoholics Anonymous. I told them I was going to drink, and they said to sit tight, someone would be right over. This was the second miracle.  I had no intention of calling AA, and in fact, was continuing to leave, when the buzzer rang. I buzzed this guy in, who said his name was Walt. He said he was from A.A. He noticed I had my coat on, and asked if I were going out. I said I had to go get a loaf of bread. He said, ”There’s a meeting we can go to, and get your bread on the way.” I was trapped. I certainly had no conscious desire to go to A.A, especially just then. We went and got the bread, then he took me to my first meeting. After that, my feet hardly touched the ground. They kept coming to get me to go to meetings until eventually they trusted me to come on my own. But they were always looking for me. I went to 90 meetings in 90 days, which was strongly recommended. It was at that time that I realized I had been sober longer than at any time since I was 15. At this time, I was starting to speak at meetings. I was far from humble. To my way of thinking, I had accomplished the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. My first sponsor (who I didn’t realize was my sponsor yet) took me aside and told me whenever called upon, to identify myself as Tom, sober today by the Grace of God and the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.  I don’t know what I thought of that, but that isn’t what I wanted to say. He said “Try it. People will look at you differently. “I did, and they did. They respected me more, took me more seriously, and yet another miracle, I began to believe it myself. This wise man, who was a bread truck driver, taught me my first lesson in humility. He taught me that this miracle was not my doing. Then, although the first step of A.A. is that “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable, the second step is that we “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” By this simple instruction, he had accomplished all that for me. Once I accepted that God was doing for me what I could not do for myself, I was at Step Three: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” This is a mighty concept in A.A., and one of their God-given strokes of genius, because I was not willing to turn my will and my life over to the care of the God I grew up with. Many people I knew were not willing to accept a God of any kind. The Old-timers would just say, “You believe in something- make that your Higher Power.”

We cannot get sober for anything else, not a job, or a career, or anyone else- not your mother, not your wife. If anything stands in the way of- or interferes with your sobriety, it has to be left behind.  That’s why the Serenity Prayer is so important to alcoholics -Say the serenity prayer -stress wisdom.

I was now at Step four: the one everyone dreads- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Then, to compound the misery, Step Five insists that we Admit to God, to ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our shortcomings. This should not be your husband or wife. Only when you’ve done a satisfactory Step 4 and 5, then, you have to do 6 and 7.  You have to be ready for God to remove these defects, and then you have to humbly ask Him to remove these defects. As if all this were not enough, Steps 8 and 9 ask, no demand!  that we make a list of all people we have harmed, and to make direct amends to all of them.  I ask you to imagine the difficulty of contacting people close to you that you lied to, or betrayed, or worse, and offering to make amends in any way possible, beginning with a humble and sincere apology.  Steps 4 thru 9 will have taken us upwards of a year. Many people never finish. Then, the rest of the steps provide a complete maintenance program for living.

This program, and the sobriety that it provided, is God given, at least for me. It has given me back my self-respect, and a measure of pride mixed with a dose of humility. I know now with certainty that God is doing for me what I could not do for myself. Also, whenever I start saying “Me, me, me too often, I have a group that will rein me in, put me in my place, and remind me in no uncertain terms to get out of the driver’s seat. We have a saying , “Let go and let God”, which is a reiteration of the third step; “Turned our will and our lives over to the care of God” . If I’m obsessing about something, someone will simply say: “Turn it over.” We share a common language based on the principles of A.A.

Besides the 12 steps, we have little slogans. Some of them have become part of the language. “Easy Does it, One day at a time, This too shall pass, First things first.” These, and others like them, were the first things I learned. Because of my constantly thinking of a drink when I was first in the program, those slogans were all my mind could handle. I wasn’t ready for the steps. At first, I derided those slogans as trite and simplistic. Because they were simple, and short, and because they were repeated so often, they became fixed in my mind. Lo and behold! I began to apply them in my daily life. I had a job at one time that was causing me no end of anxiety. My wife and I, after talking it over, concluded that it was interfering with my serenity, and would affect my sobriety. So I quit the job. First Things First! Shortly into sobriety, I was trying to make sense of my life, and I asked someone, How is it possible to live a Day at a Time? I have a job, rent, children, I have to save, and on and on. They told me, you figure out what it is that you can do about each of these things today, and then you turn the rest over to your Higher Power. Then you do the same tomorrow.

So, just as I didn’t tell you everything about what happened before I was sober, so I have only highlighted what it’s like now. I try to live today according to the principles of A.A. to the best of my ability, and to stay away from a drink a day at a time. If I can do that, everything else will follow. I will be able to love myself and others. I will not be ashamed and guilty, and will not have to shrink from others. I will be able to hold my head high. I will believe that God is and will continue, to do for me what I cannot do for myself.

Thank You.