Monday, April 6, 2015

North Shore Round Up - Hyatt Regency

Sixteen years ago I stopped drinking.  I’d been drinking tequila in Mexico and when I came back to work in Canada I didn’t see alcohol as part of the equation.  I saw a psychiatrist who didn’t see me personally as having a problem.  I was a highly respected ‘wine connoisseur’ with refined taste buds.  I smoked marijuana which doctor friends grew. I drank and smoked marijuana with doctors and lawyers.      I had anxiety about my wife and the psychiatrist certainly shared my concern.  I left the marriage and practice.  When my dog and I were refused accommodation at several 5 star hotels one rainy horrid Vancouver night I phoned a biker friend in the country and asked if we’d be welcome there.  I really don’t like people who want me but don’t want my dog.
My friend was a harley mechanic.  I didn’t know he’d crashed his bike and had a head injury since I’d last seen him.  However I certainly enjoyed the raw experience with bikers, the ‘blue collar crime’ element after I’d been having ethical difficulties with some of my colleagues who were the ‘white collar’ crime element.  Compared to my ‘lower companions in high places’ the bikers were a ‘refreshing’ step up.
I felt then I was getting further and further from God.  God had always been a central part of my life.  At sea I’d made promises to change my life around if God got me through the night of storm safely.  Now I felt like angels from some kind of god casino were coming for me to collect the tab.  There’s a term ‘in comprehensible demoralization’ and later when I learned that term I felt nothing better described the experience.  My father had always warned me against the ‘fair-weather friendships’  of drinkers. And everyone at the time seemed to be stealing from me.  There was an expression, “he’d fallen in with thieves” . I’d  truly felt that applied to me that last year.  It was a fall but one I was not forced to take but rather ‘volunteered for”.   The company my wife kept were the worst.
A Christian friend, Tom,  called, telling me he’d had the feeling he should call me and asked if he could help.  He had an empty trailer on a mountain in the woods. I asked him if I might stay there for a while.  I'd stopped drinking and smoking marijuana which angered my biker companions where I was as much as my talking about Jesus.  If you want to break up a poker game of ex convicts and bikers refuse to drink and begin talking about Jesus.  I’d overstayed my welcome. Not unuall in my life, my dog was more acceptable than I was.
Tom came and collected me.  I stayed in that trailer for the next couple of months.  I returned to church, attending St. John’s,  knowing that church had been a place where I’d been safe and found direction before in my life. I’d grown up in the Baptist church and  praying in the United Church Chapel at the University of Winnipeg I had the ‘calling’ to enter medicine.  An idea became a life time.
Now back in church I cried.  Tom would remember to bring kleenex.  I’d just never be prepared for the nose to begin running.  I called a Christian psychiatrist and began to talk with him about the loss of purpose in my life.  Willie was a source of light then. I’d bicycle 20 miles to meet with him and 20 miles back a couple of times a week. .   Doug and Tom were a couple of other doctors who came into my life then and gave me direction. I’d been thinking that medicine and psychiatry were no longer relevant to me. I’d had jobs and a life before them and figured it was just time to begin a different career.  I didn’t see how one could be a Christian and be a psychiatrist.  I was really considering yet again going off to Africa to be a missionary general practitioner of some sort.  I had all these skills and I wanted to use them for good, something I’d really lost track of when I’d worked in the city, before I went sailing and after I’d returned. One of my friends in church called the idea of a Christian psychiatrist,  an ‘oxymoron’.  Yet here was Willie, Doug and Tom, all doctors with high morality and ethics. They set a new standard that reminded me of  what had at first attracted me to medicine.  They were working as doctors and didn’t see the need to sell their souls to the devil.    They also wanted me to return to work as a physician and psychiatrist.  Indeed they especially wanted me to do this now that I’d given up wine and marijuana.
Since I wasn’t drinking and wasn’t smoking marijuana, it was suggested I go to Alcoholics Anonymous. I was happy with attending church but here were these people in my church and my doctors saying that I was too much alone and would benefit from associating with others. I certainly was alone. I spent my time in that trailer reading the Bible and writing.  Then me and the dog would walk for hours and hours in the woods.  Sometimes Tom would join me and we’d discuss the story of Jesus as it applied to the present day and our present lives.  It seemed to me that it was a central archetype in the manner of Jungian archetypes, a central story in the sense of Joseph Campbell.  In a way all life was the cross and each of the stories in the Bible I’d read as a kid but now was reading again with relevant life experiences from adulthood..  After church I’d go for walks with others in the congregation.  We’d talk late into the night about morality and ethics.
I was going to AA meetings too and having coffee after talking again for hours about life and it’s meaning and how to live a good life.  All of the ideas that I’d learned studying the spirituality of various religious in my earlier life, the Buddhist right living doctrines, the Hindu upanishads, the scriptures, all became central to my life, like they’d been when I entered medicine, like they’d been when I’d worked as a country family physician and flyin doctor in northern canada, like they’d been when I’d entered psychiatry.  I thought back to my mentors of those years, Dr. Jack HIldes, Dr. Bill Bebchuk, Dr. Nady el Guebaly and what shining lights they’d been.  Somehow I’d drifted away from what was true to me in the decade since that pivotal final year of psychiatry, the trauma and  divorce and the decision to leave Winnipeg for good.
A year later, when I’d left Chilliwack and returned to Vancouver, another doctor, Ray, would tell me about International Doctors in Alcoholics Anonymous. One day I’d be praying with 30 psychiatrists after we’d spent an hour or two among ourselves discussing how to be ‘good’ and still be a ‘psychiatrist’ in the modern world.
John, a psychiatrist,  and I would meet too. I’d take him off to Regent College with me and he’d take me with him to St. Mary’s College.  Sometimes Tom would join us.  No longer would my evenings be drinking in high places with high people, complaining and blaming.  Countless evenings we discussed the great works of literature and spirituality.  Over and over again in church and meetings and over coffee people shared their deepest most truthful experiences.
Much to my surprise I returned to work as a psychiatrist.  Nothing was easier when I drank and smoked dope and had sex every which way.   Now that I didn’t drink and didn’t smoke dope and tried to live my life according to spiritual principles being a psychiatrist in a secular state with moral relativity and the alcohol, gambling and drug revenues paying the wages of the bureaucrats and leaders of society, life as a psychiatrist was suddenly very very very hard.  It did keep me close to God and improved my prayer life immeasurably.  Every day I felt like the early Christians felt in Corinths. Some days it was all I could do to side step the rankest corruption.  Often colleagues I’d known drinking and smoking dope came back to haunt me.  They’d moved onto to being ‘recreational cocaine users’ but had major positions of power in the state.  Over and over again I’d learn that a person I was having difficulty with had an inordinate amount of money tied up in the marijuana industry.  Compared to the guys who wore ‘patches’ these ‘white collar criminals’ were still harder to avoid.  Thanks to clean and sober friends, Christian pastors and priests, spiritual minded doctors, and the incredible ‘majority’ of people who really were working for the good I managed to continue.  The sick and evil on dark days seem every where but really it’s always a minority opinion.  People are basically good.  
The first time I went to the North Shore Round Up  i was told it was an “open” meeting, welcoming alcoholics and friends and families of alcoholics.  I’d heard there would be speakers and coffee meetings and sober dances. I still didn’t know what to expect.  It was my first time back in a chandeliered ball room in sobriety. I’d been a professional dancer before medicine and lived in tuxedos and ballrooms such as this.  That’s when the drinking had been ubiquitous.  Everyone drank, it seemed to me, in those days of television and theatre.  I’d  spent a little time overlapping with the music industry and that had been a place dominated by drugs.  Later I’d realize that anywhere there were successful people, creative people, people doing something special, there would be the parasites success attracted, thieves, liars and  the drug dealers.
One of my finest moments was being at a biker rally hearing the Canadian Rock and Roll group, Steppenwolf belting out. Goddam the Pusher Man with hundreds of other in leathers shouting out that chorus. Goddamn the Pusher Man. Too many of us who ride Harleys have lost friends at a young age to drugs and alcohol. Too many of us know that drug dealers drive ferraris their customers pay for in blood.
I’d hardly entered my first North Shore Round Up when one of the most beautiful women I know approached me. She was the sister of a child hood friend. We’d not seen each other since high school. She’d stopped drinking thirty some years before and now was a shaker and maker in government.  She welcomed me to my first Round Up ,the conventions that people in recovery hold to celebrate their new lives.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a program of anonymity so that people can enter AA without fear that people will tell others in gossip about who they saw at the meeting.  Regardless of how insignificant lives  alcoholics might lead part of the paranoia is the idea that everyone is talking about you.  When you’re rich and famous it’s an even greater burden.  I’ve now met leaders from every field sober, military generals, politicians, multi millionaires, rock stars, movie stars, producers, bankers, judges, scientists, doctors - you name it - like any disease, alcoholism has no respect for wealth or position.  Yet anonymity protects people who are seeking help and it also protects the program. In early years lots of people would use going to AA to get second chances in sports and business.  A famous baseball player would go on radio saying they’d joined AA only to be arrested a week later for drunken driving.
Hence, AA Anonymity.
I don’t tell people I’m a member of AA.  Anyone can attend an open meeting of AA. Anyone can read the literature and speak about the program. It’s not a ‘scret society’ in that sense Anyone can become a member of AA simply by having a ‘desire not to drink’  and sitting in at a local ‘open meeting’.  Closed meetings by contrast are for those people who are active members of Alcoholics Anonymous and are there to discuss their drinking history and help others maintain sobriety.
By contrast I do tell people I’m in recovery.  I think of the Christian Church as Sinners Anonymous and I think of recovery as a place where people have chosen to turn their lives around living more by spiritual principles than focusing on materialism. Recovery is a movement that doesn’t share the Anonymity Clause of AA .   It’s a broad based community and political movement.  I have a badge that says “I’m in recovery and I vote”.  I love the work my friend Annie McCullough does to support recovery and ensure that Recovery Days happen each year for people from all the recovery communities to see just how many of us there are.  Millions upon millions are involved in recovery today.
A lot of people in recovery attend the North Shore Round Up. Even more will be attending next year since it’s grown so big it’s moving to the Vancouver Convention centre.
I still don’t drink. I don’t smoke marijuana either.  I loved seeing friends I’ve met over the last sixteen years as we gathered in the Hyatt coffee shop.  I loved the lunches we've had over the years at the Robson Street Earls Upstairs.   This year I loved having lunch with Laura and Kevin and Anne.
North Shore Round Up is  a great place to meet new people and  for reunion.  I loved the speakers too. These men and women who share their personal stories of recovery with a sense of humour that’s a hallmark of the recovery community.  Like the black humour of soldiers we all laugh at the people we once were and the stupid things we once did and don’t do today because we’re living different lives.
That’s the North Shore Round Up.  Laura and I so enjoyed spending Saturday and part of Sunday there.

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