Desperation as a self-consuming gift
Not misery, but motivation
A lot of people in recovery really seem to like their acronyms - TIME standing for Things I Must Earn, FEAR standing for Fuck Everything And Run or Face Everything And Rise, GOD standing for Group Of Drunks or Gift Of Desperation.
That last one seems fairly terrible - “desperation” as a thing to be grateful for, a grim gift given from beyond, some vicious vision of heaven. It’s a strange thing to consider, but one that rings true for me - “desperation” was what was absolutely necessary for me to change my life, since without it I was wildly willing to simply sit in my misery.
The first step in traditional AA goes as follows: “we admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable”. It’s a paradox of constant drunkenness that the sloppy chaos is an expression of a deeper desire to feel powerful and in control all of the time. Any negative feeling, especially overwhelmingly negative feeling, can be canceled out by inebriation. Alcohol was a tool, and for a while it was an effective one, if not for helping me lead a good life then at least for helping me feel very-temporarily better. Even as its effectiveness waned, as the overwhelming negative feelings grew and grew beyond what I could shut down with drinking, I still held on to the only tool I knew how to wield.
Even when I knew that alcohol was no longer doing what I needed it to do I still took a long time to actually put it down, since the misery I knew was preferable to the misery I didn’t know. I knew how to survive one more shitty day of drinking, kinda. I did not know how to survive whatever feelings I’d find within me when I put down the bottle for good. So, of course, one more day of drinking was way more predictable and preferable than what I saw as an entire lifetime of sober suffering, so of course I kept it up for a long long time.
The “gift of desperation” only made sense to me when I felt it - that feeling that no matter what the hell sobriety would throw at me that it *had* to be preferable to the misery ahead of me. Getting sober took on the urgency and intensity of climbing out of an overturned and burning car. Of course I didn’t understand what was ahead, of course I had my misgivings, so of course I needed a big blast of emotional energy to motivate me out of my familiar misery.
“Desperation”, then, becomes a self-consuming phenomenon. It is an overwhelming energy to change, one that guarantees change when felt and brings changes that are almost certainly impossible without it. How do you know if someone is really desperate to change? When they change! “Desperation” isn’t “strong misery”, it is “massive action that breaks the patterns of the predictable”.
I’m very grateful to have had a program like AA to fall into when I was desperate, people who were eagerly on-hand to help me channel those energies into a better life. It’s a blessing and a curse that the program actually works - people come in desperate and find relief, which is good, but many people then lose the energy that brought them in and slip out and drink again, which is bad. That’s why sponsorship is a part of the program - you turn your old desperation into hope for those who are themselves still desperate.
Whether in a program of recovery or not, none of us can ever directly pay back the people who helped us along the way - the only thing we can really do is to pay it forward, to become a source of the saving experiences that saved us, and in doing so to know ourselves as a different human being entirely.