Trudging the Road of Happy Destiny

“Trudging the road of happy destiny” might sound like fortune-cookie philosophy, but the expression comes from a very Western and perhaps unlikely source – the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The phrase was couched when AA was founded, in the early 1930s -- an era of florid language, pointed out the Rev. Dr. Stuart Hoke, leader of a workshop at the Spiritual Formation Conference hosted May 12-16 by Trinity Church and “Spirituality and Health” magazine.

“Another phrase from the book is that ‘we become subjects of King Alcohol, shivering denizens of his mad realm…’” said Hoke, laughing.

It’s clear that Hoke is enjoying this workshop on 12-step recovery, and also that he enjoys a healthy freedom from those denizens. Hoke, executive assistant to the rector of Trinity, has been intimately involved with ministry to recovering people since 1987.

Twelve-step recovery creates an environment of mutual vulnerability, he said. The word comes from the Latin “vulnera,” for wounds. All are wounded, and all are seeking healing.

“The whole work of recovery is a process,” he said. That process is the journey of the rest of one’s life after coming to terms with one’s alcoholism, and often it’s a rough one. But it is possible to recover and find a “happy destiny.”

Hoke outlined the symptoms of alcoholism and of growing up in an alcoholic family. The first is denial, sincerely believing that such a devastating condition is not really what it is. Families involved with alcoholics do a “dance of denial,” working hard to avoid seeing what is clearly before them.

Toxic shame is a characteristic of those affected by the disease. It’s the feeling that something is defective and infective about oneself. “Shame is the fuel of all addiction,” Hoke said.

Hoke said that in an alcoholic environment, one never knew what to expect. Children learn an exquisite sensitivity that allows them to determine almost immediately the emotional climate of any situation. They know what to do and what not to do when they feel the “tornado” coming – the drunken behavior of the alcoholic “qualifier” (primary offender).

Those wounded by these dysfunctional families learn resentment, a huge symptom. They live with fear – firstly, fear of the alcoholic. Later, it backlashes into paranoia in general.

Isolation is also a prevalent characteristic. The thinking is, “I do things on my own, and don’t ask for help under any circumstances.”

That isolation, born in an attempt to protect himself, was the worst thing that happened to him, shared one workshop attendee, “Keith” (not his real name). “Keith” grew up with an alcoholic father and mother. His father became completely dysfunctional – homeless after leaving his mother for a barmaid. After his father left, his mother became alcoholic, and in her rages would destroy the house, breaking plates and throwing food. “It was a war zone,” he said.

In an effort to keep himself from being hurt, he turned inward. But “the most destructive thing I could do (to myself) was to decide to be invulnerable,” he said. Yet, “even as a teen, I lived in a state of unbelievable anxiety, even when nothing was happening.” He was deeply depressed, and felt he was the only one in his world who could be so miserable.

Into his early forties, “Keith” found himself living in as much isolation as his father. When he finally visited a group of families and friends of alcoholics at the suggestion of friends, he was resistant to its message for two years before eventually finding transformation.

“Twelve Steps was about opening the door to the bunker and coming out,” he said. “It’s based in reality; it helped me get my feet on the ground.”

The process of recovering and healing involves three components. The first is experiencing calamity, incomprehensible devastation and demoralization. Then, those who recover are able admit to their condition, allowing denial to be shattered. Finally, they appeal to a power greater than themselves for help, a painful action requiring setting aside pride.

“We have to say we’re needy,” commented Hoke. “It’s an incredible spiritual experience to join the human race and ask for help.”

Early in the workshop, Hoke had discussed the Greek word for “blessed”. Another nuance of the word means “bloodied.” The idea is shown in the biblical story of Joseph wrestling with the angel and coming out of it with an injured hip. He’s wounded, but he’s grown. He’s “blessed” because of the experience.

Recovering alcoholics are bloodied on their road to a happier destiny, but come out all the better for it. And when travelers like Hoke and “Keith” share their stories, those who hear them are the richer, as well.

“We’ve done this work,” said Hoke, “and now we’re blessed to be a blessing to others.”

Sally Cook Parsons is a freelance journalist living in Hendersonville, NC.