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by on December 11, 2013

                                                                                      “A Spiritual Awakening”

                                                                                          by Marco M. Pardi

Obviously, the subject may apply to anyone. But my focus here is specific.

Shortly after I developed and offered, in the early 1970’s, one of the first U.S. courses in Death & Dying the success of the class and the phenomenal media coverage led to a significantly changed profile among the students coming to my office for talks. As an Anthropologist of roughly the same age as the average student, I had become used to students seeking discussion and advice about problems with sex, drugs, family life, career choices, and society in general. However, that quickly narrowed to issues associated with death and dying, either their own or that of a family member.

In what seemed like no time at all students began saying things like, “My father’s dying, and our family was hoping you could come over to talk with us about how we get through it.”

Living alone, except for my horses, dogs and a cat, I readily honored these requests even when they meant significant drive time. And, the numbers seemed to grow exponentially.

Although I had no thought of remuneration of any kind, I soon found myself being pressed to accept gas money, baked goods and other forms of appreciation. Feeling it improper to refuse, but also wary of State laws, I obtained a State license as a Consultant, there being no “Death Counselor” license on the books at the Department of Professional Regulation.

I welcomed these opportunities because they bolstered the real life experience I could, ensuring anonymity, bring to the classroom. Each of the many situations offered “teaching moments”. But perhaps one of the greatest such moments came when I began to realize how very many families were affected in some way by alcohol. Published numbers or percentages had always seemed abstract. Not any more.

“Alcoholism”, a term so broad it challenges reliable definition, is basically considered a compulsion to drink alcohol regardless of the consequences. The basis for this compulsion, physical or mental/emotional, is far harder to identify in a way which meets with consensus. Although drinking to the point of problems has almost certainly been common among humans since fermentation (and later, distillation) was discovered, literary and historical mention has largely relegated it to “fallen” people, people with “character flaws”. Yet, it has also been portrayed as the refuge of the abused, the solace of the bereaved, the source of courage for the soldier, the panacea for all manner of ailments and the bracer to meet the day.

The mention of alcoholism, particularly in the context of chronic illness leading to eventual death may seem obvious. Yes, there are far too many “I told him/her to quit drinking long ago” stories. And, yes, these long held feelings do erupt in various ways. But there are other issues surrounding the  deathbed of the person whose drinking may or may not have contributed to their present state. A spouse who has long resented the inability to control the other’s behavior may mask that resentment as long suffering concern for the other’s welfare. This mask may also conceal happiness at “being vindicated”, not necessarily because the drinking itself proved unhealthy but because the failure to obey is reaping the long warned of consequences. Children, who may have had other maturational disagreements with the dying parent, can easily use the drinking history as an after the fact justification of their prior adversarial stance. In either case, if the outside observer does not seem convinced, they can always fall back on the “abusive alcoholic” claim (most alcoholics are not abusive). And, spouse and/or children may go on to mask a secret gladness that their issues are now dying with a person about whom they can weave a narrative they know to be false. This is not grieving. This is nurturing a vine which will grow to strangle the host.

Of course, this is not to say there are no cases of jobs lost, finances strained, infidelities discovered, and families retreating into seclusion. These are all too common.

Other alcohol related issues arose. “Steven, our oldest, is 9 months sober now, and hoping to get his 1st year chip. How can we tell him his Dad is dying without sending him over the edge again?” “Jim’s sister, Sandra, is a practicing alcoholic, and we just know that she will show up at the funeral drunk, vomit and pass out. How do we handle that?”

So many of these real life problems arose, needing answers, I decided to go to those who face them every day. A husband, whose wife was in her last weeks with cancer, belonged to Al-Anon. I asked to go with him to the next meeting. A program for the relatives and friends of practicing and recovering alcoholics, Al-Anon is predicated on the premise that the relatives, and possibly the close friends, are “just as sick as the alcoholic” and as in need of continuous attendance at meetings. They are “co-dependents”, and often “enablers”.

That this premise did not entirely sit well with attendees was not surprising. Many seemed more interested in acquiring mechanisms to cope with the alcoholic’s illness than in those to deal with their own “symptomless” disease. But some clearly felt that reluctance to continue attendance must surely be a symptom. On balance, it was a moderately effective means of group control.

It was here that I first heard mention of “spiritual awakening”.  More forcefully associated with the internal event which presumably underlies the alcoholic’s decision to quit drinking, it was more gingerly approached here. After all, perhaps one could interpret this awakening to be a realization that it was time to end the marriage and move on. Without doubt, that was an option for which there were no reliable records kept.

Although I learned much from Al-Anon, it still seemed to be one side of the story. Through Al-Anon members I was able to contact Alcoholics Anonymous members and, with no pretense or deception, attend meetings with the open understanding of who I was and why I was there. Intense media coverage of my Death & Dying activities preceded my appearance, disarming almost all concerns.

Alcoholics Anonymous, best known as A.A., is a well known 12 Step program founded in 1935 and based on the principles of the Oxford Group, a non-denominational group claiming adherence to and guidance from the precepts of “early Christianity”. While claiming in its ritualized prolegomenon that there is no official institutional interpretation of the concept “higher power”, that was rarely in evidence at individual meetings. In fact, more than once I heard a speaker say, “A person cannot work through this program unless he has one hand on the Big Book and one hand on the Bible.”

Another platform plank was the unyielding support for the disease theory of alcoholism, supported by longitudinal studies of the children of alcoholics, but still in dispute to this day. True addiction can be hard to distinguish from habitual behavior. One commonly accepted indicator is the onset of withdrawal symptoms, a syndrome which in alcoholism can prove fatal without medical supervision. In fact, it is commonly acknowledged that true addicts do not use “to get high” as much as they use to restore and maintain the “new normal” their metabolism has moved to through chronic substance ingestion. However, once the ethyl alcohol is purged (about 18 hours) and the metabolites have completely cleared and returned to normal (5 – 8 days), what explains the extraordinarily high recidivism rate even among those who were 28 day or more in-patients? 

A.A., distinguishing between “dry” and “sober”, proposes that a spiritual awakening must intervene between the two. Indeed, it posits that the idealized “serenity” can be reached only through such an event.

But, wait. At one meeting I heard an oft repeated claim that “God does not want me to die drunk” rejoined by another’s claim that “God does want me to die drunk, as an example to my children of what not to do.” Is one right and not the other?  The answer was readily forthcoming at that meeting, and all the others where I repeated that scenario. So strong was the support for the former that I frequently heard people say, “I’m glad I became an alcoholic because it led me to this fellowship.” Being in a group from which (it is claimed) there is no recovery, only recovering; is that an awakening? Or, is it switching one addiction for another?

Except in the large percentages of court ordered attendance at these meetings, continued attendance is hard to quantify. It is, after all, anonymous. This raises the question of whether a spiritual awakening, unlike the “come to Jesus” overtones in A.A., has actually occurred for many, enabling them to walk away from the compulsion for or the addiction to drinking and all things and behaviors associated with it, including A.A.

I ceased my observations of these groups when I felt I had acquired sufficient understanding to help patients and families as they worked through the process of dying and death. But I also saw “spiritual awakening” parallels to the process I was encouraging them to develop, the opening up of and letting go of the myriad feelings which had been shaping the family narrative for so long, in so many ways.

That can mean telling Steven of his father’s and Sandra of her brother’s impending death without automatically grasping and holding the responsibility for whatever choices they make and outcomes they reap. Steven and Sandra can be reminded that families are entitled to establish boundaries, not just of what someone else cannot cross but also of just how far a family will reach out to respond to the behavior of a member. In fact, spiritual awakening seems much larger than just the self oriented liberation from responsibility; it seems to fully include the commitment to be open and honest and to give other people what they have had a right to all along. The right to live their own lives and to discover themselves.

In the many years I have been involved with Death & Dying, as a teacher and/or as a therapist I have heard many people say they want to die instantly, or in their sleep. I can imagine only a few worse endings. This is like studying all your life and skipping the Final. I can think of no more clear and certain time in which to become “spiritually awake” than the time in which you definitely know you have the end in sight. Only when you see the last stop can you say what the ride has been all about. 

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24 Comments
  1. It was my great fortune to be raised in a family with no such concerns and i can`t start to imagine what having an alcoholic family member can do to the wellbeing of the whole family. i guess we may all become sick of another type of sickness, because coping and reacting to such `calamity` cannot leave us unscathed mentally , emotionally and physically.
    Boundaries would be necessary to keep one`s sanity. Now to be able to do that with Love, well, that to me would be a true spiritual awakening.
    What you said at the end Marco, that “I can think of no more clear and certain time in which to become “spiritually awake” than the time in which you definitely know you have the end in sight. Only when you see the last stop can you say what the ride has been all about. ” is SUBLIME, to say the least.
    The profundity of these words made me realize my own cowardice in hoping for a painless and quick death. These words will stay with me to `ponder on`. Thank you so much for this moment of `awakening` that could come from nobody else but you…

    • Thank you, Lory. I am very certain we will continue to communicate long after one or both of us has left the train. Marco

      • YOU BET !! 🙂 can`t get rid of me that easily ! lol

        Actually a few years ago i made a promise to my sister`s father in law, a wonderful man and published poet (and he`s 90 !!), that whoever goes first will try to communicate back.
        This because he didnt believe in an after-life, at least … until we talked about it and i tried to explain the OBE phenomenon. Then he said that if i was right, he would come back and try to let me know ! I promised i`d do the same 🙂

  2. I agree with Foal. I had not thought about the end in that manner. I see it very differently. Thanks Marco. As a social worker I met many an alcoholic. It shattered my belief of alcoholics as drunks. Several I had on my case load were good, hard working men, who loved their families, adored their children. They drank until they died. I took them to many a doctor appointments and listened to their torment. I still can’t understand how they couldn’t stop doing something that was going to kill them and take them from the ones they loved. What I do know is it wasn’t from any sort of weakness or lack of trying
    .

    • Thank you, Mary. You yourself are a living testament to spiritual awakening in that you have come through years of very trying experiences and are still the understanding heart and mind that first entered on that journey. So many tried, but so few – like you, came through it in ways which continue to benefit us all. Marco

  3. If you don’t mind I’m having that put on my tombstone. Lovely.

  4. Rose Palmer permalink

    Alcoholism and alcoholics have been a running theme throughout my life. Neither of my parents were drinkers, but they both had alcoholic fathers (each with their own distinct drinking patterns), and the coping patterns they developed were passed along to me as learned behaviors.

    My favorite uncle was a practicing alcoholic well into my adult years. A court ordered 12-step program helped him to exchange his drinking for religion and hoarding. Eight years after he got dry (and, yes, there is a difference between dry and truly sober) he decided that the day was hot, and he sure would like a beer. He was drunk for the rest of his life.

    In our last year of being military, we had a good friend who had a drinking problem. He got into a fight and hit a police officer, resulting in his being offered the choice of rehab or two years jail time. It was through him that I got my formal education about alcoholism, and about being part of an alcoholics support system; I also had the opportunity of attending both AA and NA meetings. His “sobriety” lasted just until the end of his one year probation, at which time he went back to drinking. As alcoholism is a progressive disease, his drinking worsened until he became physically abusive to his new wife.

    Currently, I have a friend who is an alcoholic; he becomes defensive about his drinking to the point of verbal attack (because we all know that the best defense is a good offense, after all). For nearly a decade now, I have been his enabler; a fact which shames me. His life is finally improving, and my greatest hope is that someday soon he will no longer need me, and I will be free.

    Each of these examples were good men, with good minds and good hearts. Alcohol is a poison which lays waste to lives; not just of the drinker, but to those who care about them. Normal drinkers are looking for the buzz; alcoholics drink to feel normal. The physical addiction just takes time to shed, but the mental/emotional addiction is almost impossible to cure. What the people in an alcoholic’s life need to understand is that, no matter what they say, we didn’t cause the problem and it isn’t ours to cure. If there is to be a moment of “spiritual awakening”, it has to be their own.

    That being (preached) said, let me move on to my thoughts on the end of life. Like so many others, I have thought it pleasant to think of drifting from one dream to another as the end of my being; but I have to admit I wouldn’t want it to be unexpected. There are truths to be faced at the end of one’s life; words to be said and affairs to be put in order. I want the opportunity to know the person I have become, to say goodbye to those I love, and maybe even to flip off a few who’ve earned it. I wonder how many would return the favor.

    • Thank you, Rose. You have many deep insights here, and it makes me again wonder about this idea of “life’s lessons”. I’ve always wondered, lessons for what? You have certainly come through some tough times. But I wonder was it all necessary, or did it just happen. Marco

      • Rose Palmer permalink

        I’ve never thought of these things in terms of “life’s lessons”, but just a deeply imbedded part of my personality. Whatever the reason, I am drawn to broken people; it makes me happy to help others, even though if often seems there is more frustration at the end than happiness. Mostly I think it’s because I’m broken myself, and hoping a little of that emotional glue will spill over and fix me, too.
        I don’t think any of us will know until we reach the end of our journey (assuming, of course, that there is a final destination) whether there were lessons to be learned, or just bumps in the road. Perhaps the best we can do is learn the lessons offered in order to improve what is left of this lifetime. Rose

      • Rose. I think all of us who interact on this forum, and even those who read without comment, are hoping you will open a blog for all of us to fully enjoy. Your comment about a broken person helping broken people brought to mind a memory of Fore tribesmen (New Guinea) suffering from Kuru (kuria – “to shake”, Fore) a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Together we sway; divided we fall. Please do open a blog for us. Marco

  5. Hi Rose ! just want to say Thank you for enlightening me on so many aspects of alcoholism i really had no idea of.
    I was lucky not to have this problem in my life, and you just made me realize how i had never given it a proper thought (shame on me indeed !). Well, now i know better ! Thanks.

    • Rose Palmer permalink

      Thank you, Lory, It means a lot that you read and maybe learned a little from my ramblings. Life is far too short to make all the mistakes or learn all the lessons on our own, and so we should learn from the mistakes of others, and help each other along the way in order to make everyone’s journey a little easier.
      It is difficult not to become involved in the illness of those near and dear to you, but I have had to learn that tough love is still love. Both limits and emotional distance must be maintained in order to minimize the damage done to one’s own life. My son put me through two years of his drug abuse, and while he is more than a decade clean now, and even though I never stopped loving him, I am forever changed by the experience. Rose

      • Completely agree with Marco, Mary ! You should share your wisdom with all of us (and more!).
        It feels like it comes from a deeper place, deeper than simple knowing by thought … experience is what makes us truly wise (unfortunately 🙂 ), so maybe, and i can just assume here, that is the reason for so many incomprehensible tragedies.
        PS. so you know that Lory is FOAL !! 🙂 Thank you !

  6. Rose Palmer permalink

    Thank you both for your kind words, and my apologies for familiarities taken where none were offered. Next time I promise not to be such a “blog hog”. Rose

    • No, Rose ! please do not misunderstand ! i actually LOVED the fact ! i dont like being the ..`mystery woman` among my friends !
      dont know how to explain it, but just let me say that i felt warm inside …i love familiarities !! 🙂
      and i just saw it is I who must apologize. For some reason, in my last post i called you Mary …so sorry for this ! it will not happen again ! and please keep commenting and …start blogging ?? 😉 !!

    • To the contrary, Rose. Your comments are long awaited and much appreciated. Marco

  7. Dana permalink

    In addition to Marco’s blog,. I have enjoyed reading all of these comments.

    I can’t help but think of how many interesting and worthwhile things there are to do besides attending regular A.A. meetings for years, sometimes decades. Caring for a community vegetable garden would probably be more therapeutic than gathering in dismal church basements, echoing the same conversation week after week.

    • You make an excellent point, Dana. At times it seemed people were addicted to being addicted. Still, some kind of group activity, perhaps modeled on what you suggest, would be necessary in the initial stages of recovery.

  8. Tristan Bohling permalink

    This was an amazing read, Prof. Pardi! It was like sitting in your Death and Dying class once again. I look forward to your future entries. – Tristan Bohling

  9. Thank you, Tristan. I’m so glad you are participating, and I hope to see more of your comments. Marco

  10. If anyone knows of someone who might be interested in reading and commenting on any or all of these several posts, please encourage them to do so. I will continue to post, but I truly enjoy the interaction. Marco

  11. Dana permalink

    I know a couple of people who read your posts, Marco, but perhaps they’re not comfortable commenting. Do your students know you have a blog? They might appreciate knowing about it, too.

  12. Thanks, Dana. I may be wrong, but I feel that broadly advertising the blog in class would invite trouble. The ones, like you, who are dynamic thinkers will find it on their own – I hope. Marco

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