“We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred.”
—Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
The active alcoholic, in despair, entirely isolated in his addiction, claims to long for connection with others and with the world and bemoans his lack of it. He even rationalizes his drinking as being the sole activity or stimulus that allows him to feel this connection. In truth, however, he holds onto nothing so much as his isolation and loneliness. If he was not lonely, if he did not feel estranged from others, he might not drink, and the drinking alcoholic wants to strengthen any reason he can find to continue his destructive habit. Though drinking drains all the pleasure out of life, draining each drink to the dregs has become for him the only thing that gives pleasure. The news that other people are kindred is bad news for his drinking, and therefore bitter and painful news. The truth of this realization, felt deeply, would mean for the alcoholic beginning to give up his attachment to exile, and the attendant pain which he uses to explain away his drinking. As the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff once said, a man will renounce any pleasures you like but he will not give up his suffering.
I gave up many things—jobs, friendships, school opportunities—before I was willing to give up the suffering of addiction, the pain of isolation, since this pain kept me drinking and saved me from the difficult work recovery would necessitate. But eventually, I realized I was trapped. Powerless is the word the program of Alcoholics Anonymous uses in the first step of recovery: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. I wanted above all else to continue doing the very worst thing I could do for himself: keep drinking.
Anybody can become an alcoholic. All it takes is a strong feeling of separateness, and an equally strong desire to flee this seemingly insurmountable difficulty, and life itself. I was not living my own life; I was not in life at all. I had fled. I suffered through each hour as if under imminent sentence of death. As aware as I was that drinking would kill me, I was powerless to stop. Seeing the fact alone was not enough. To make the decisive step away from the insanity of active alcoholism, I needed to come to believe that a Power greater than [myself] could restore [me] to sanity: the second step of AA.
I came to Legacy dragging my feet, back against the wall. Although I knew from personal experience how good the outdoors could be for the soul, bed-stricken suffering was easier. By the end of my drinking I did not even dare to venture outside. The agony of my condition was almost second nature to me by now. However, if I wanted to recover, there was no hope I could do so alone. Essential to recovery is a connection with other alcoholics and a connection with the natural world. Without one or the other I would be unable to maintain sobriety for long. I had relapsed three months before coming to Legacy primarily because I had “failed to enlarge my spiritual life,” as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it. I failed to enlarge my spiritual life because I secluded myself and did not stay connected. At Legacy I would return to the desert. Simply to be in the desert is to hear deeply the spreading news that all living things are kindred. Perhaps I too would call this news good.
When I arrived at Legacy in February of 2016, it was cold. My first night sleeping out in the field was up at a high elevation, and the temperature was well below zero. Full of inhibitions and anxieties triggered by being in a group after months of solitary drinking, already by no means the most loquacious or outgoing person, the cold at first pushed me even further inwards. During the first week I spoke rarely and felt few stirrings of the longing, always so present when alone, to get outside the self.
The next week my team and I went down to a lower elevation in the desert, to the warmer San Rafael Swell. We explored canyons that week, hiking all day under the warm sun, settling around the fire in the cool evenings, and sleeping soundly during the cold nights. On the second night, I told my life story to the rest of the team around the fire. This group is the first that every new member of a team at Legacy leads. Telling the life story brought me at least partly out of my interior cave and allowed others to understand me better. I felt slightly more a part of things after leading the group.
This initial connection with the team of other alcoholics and addicts may have opened up the space for me to connect in a deeper way with the desert land the following day, when we were given some personal time after we had finished our canyoneering expedition. I enjoyed a few simple but profound moments, taking in through my senses the sounds, sights, smells and textures surrounding me. I was present to the outer world and to the inner world simultaneously. Since I could be present to thoughts and feelings as well as to the environment and landscape and sensations it evoked, what truly separated the two worlds? Were they not both a part of the same world? I wrote of the experience in my journal on that day, February 13, 2016:
I am out of sight of the rest of the team but not quite out of earshot. I’ve taken off my shoes and socks. I dig my bare feet down into the cool sand, letting the sand get in between my toes.
A bee circles me and buzzes away. Three or four small birds flit from tree to tree. I notice the white line in the open sky trailing behind a plane going west to east. Two more planes move east to west. I have done my movement for the day and am content now to sit here and watch and listen. The whoosh and sigh of the wind fuse without discord with the distant vroom of some off-road adventuresome jeep. There are few moments when a bird is not chirping.
A tan speckled lizard scampers with speed onto a nearby rock, stops and perches himself above a fly, looking ready to pounce. His body blends in perfectly with the tan-colored sandstone.
Now the lizard is below me. It scampers up the rock and onto the big toe of my left foot, as if I am part of the sandstone rock I lean against. And who says I am not? The lizard keeps crawling and leaps to try and eat a fly perched on my Nalgene. Failing there, he slides under my bent left leg and hops up onto my outstretched right leg in an attempt to snag a fly that has landed there. Fails again.
Never before has a lizard acted with such seeming unconcern around me; usually they scamper away, and it is strange to actually make contact with one, to feel its smooth skin on my feet and moving down the hairs of my leg.
Ravens fly up towards the last glimmer of evening light lingering high on a south-facing vermillion cliff wall. As their calls fade away, stillness surrounds me in earnest. A few leaves shift back and forth on the cottonwood tree nearest me. The green leaves, touched and moved by the wind, are not separate from the man whose vermillion hair the wind plays with like a lover. Evening falls now, the evening star returns, Venus appearing once more to light up the clear desert sky.