A Lakeside Day of Reflection on ‘Higher Powers’ and ‘Evil Powers’…

 4 Months, 23 Days – still sober

Do you think you would be able to find a Higher Power if you wanted to?

This was a question asked of me in my Thai Visa thread about alcoholism yesterday, by a guy called ‘kerryk’.

After spending a fair amount of time composing my lengthy reply, I have decided to publish it here, as well as in the Thai Visa forum.

“That is an interesting question, kerryk, and I have given it some thought.

The short answer is no, I do not think I could find a Higher Power if I wanted to.

The longer answer is that I thought I had actually found my HP back in early 2008. Although at that time I had already attended a number of AA meetings, it was my first sponsor, a really bright, earnest young guy from Bangkok who set me on my first path to sobriety and led me to accept the idea of an HP. He was very strict with me and without going into too much detail, he insisted that I pray every morning and evening, and practice a number ‘spiritually motivated’ events throughout each day, as well as attending AA meetings, twice per day.

I had a lot of respect for this man – I still do – and as my life at that time was falling apart I was willing to try anything. So from following my sponsor’s advice and from reading the Big Book, it wasn’t too long before I became convinced of the presence of a HP and tried to embrace ‘him’, to change my life around and start working the steps.

Also at that time I was given a book by the spiritual writer, Eckardt Tolle, in an AA meeting, and reading this book was music to my ears and my belief in a HP became ever stronger. I really do believe that I was becoming spiritually transformed and I was determined to work the steps.

So what went wrong?

Too many things to write about here, but I will try to summarise the main points.

Firstly, I ‘lost’ my sponsor. Through no fault of his own, he simply wasn’t there for me when I needed him. He had his own life, a busy job, a young family and problems of his own and I sensed that he simply did not have the time for me that I needed. So after a disastrous trip to Chiang Mai, when I stormed out of the first AA meeting up there as the members were putting me under ridiculous pressure, I decided that I had better find a new sponsor. It was after this meeting in Chiang Mai that I started drinking again, after several months of abstinence. But I do not blame AA for this relapse. It was my decision, pure and simple.

Back in Pattaya, I continued to attend daily AA meetings and continued to pray and believe in my HP, and stopped drinking again. One guy was keen to become my new sponsor, but before we had formalised the process, he started having a go at me for not making the effort to meet with him in the early morning, even though I tried to explain to him that I lived 30 minutes’ drive from Pattaya and that I had certain family responsibilities that prevented me from making it much before 8.30 a.m. He started to lecture me on my ‘priorities’ and I realised that this guy wasn’t for me. I went much further along the road with the next sponsor. We met regularly and I worked steps 1 to 3, which included me kneeling on the ground in a public place and reciting the 3rd step prayer.

Then, once again, it all started to go wrong. On the first occasion, he insisted that I miss the monthly AA ‘business meeting’ to have a meeting with him, and then a few days later he wanted me to miss an AA meeting for the same reason. I asked him if he was free after the AA meeting and he told me that he was but that he just wanted me to miss the meeting. I asked him why, and he wouldn’t tell me. I will never do anything I don’t wish to do without good reason, and it became apparent that I was dealing with a control freak. So that was the end of that. Effectively, that was the last time I had an active sponsor, although dear old Hank was in the process of taking up the reins when he was suddenly taken from us.

You may ask what has all this got to do with my belief in a HP?

To be honest, I am not sure, but I can only deduce that these experiences, along with so much more of the cant, clichés, platitudes and hypocrisy that I encountered at AA meetings, slowly worked their way into my brain and I became aware that my new found spirituality was starting to dissipate.

Once this process began, I started to question more and more, the basis of my belief in an HP, and then my subsequent discussions with my therapist – even though he was very strong on recommending that I meditate and try to find my spirituality – convinced me that I was wrong in believing that an HP was going to help me, Mobi, in my quest for sobriety. I still believe that there is probably some kind of ‘Higher Being’, somewhere out there in the universe, but a HP who cares about me – sorry folks, I cannot believe that any more than I can believe in Santa Claus.

Whatever spirituality I may have had – and I am the first to admit that it might not have been of the kind that most ‘believers’ achieve – it has now left me and I doubt it will ever return. (I am far too naughty….. 😉 )

I do believe that the means of me achieving long term sobriety is within myself, and I also believe that by re-starting my life and dealing with some of the issues that drove me to alcohol in the first place will help me. To this end I am so much happier in myself since I finally succeeded in extricating myself from a disastrous and totally destructive marriage that was dragging me down to depths that I don’t even want to think about any more. It is now some 20 months since I left my wife and although when I first left her, my life became infinitely worse; becoming so bad that I was within a whisper of taking my own life, I have now turned the corner and I can see light at the end of the tunnel.

I know I have a long way to go, but as I wrote in my blog recently, if I draw up a check list of my successes and failures during the past few months, I think I am ahead by a considerable margin. In a few days I will have chalked up 5 months sobriety and for the most part it has been ‘a walk in the park’. I have my new home out by the lake where I live with a new girlfriend – who is by far the best lady I have ever had in my life, (I am usually attracted to the bad ones); I keep myself occupied with my writings and other activities, I have my 3 loving dogs for additional company and all in all life, while not wonderful, is pretty good, all things considered.

Will I achieve permanent sobriety without AA and working the 12 steps? Only time will tell, but I will give it my very best efforts and right now I am feeling extremely positive about my sobriety and life in general.

But before Kerryk and others jump in with a further gallant defence of AA, I will reiterate that I am not recommending my route to sobriety to anyone. It is my personal choice to do it my way and until I have been sober for at least 10 years, (if I live that long), my way is totally unproven.

Further, please don’t let my experiences in AA put anyone off giving it a go. There is good and bad everywhere and in every walk of life – nowhere is perfect, least of all AA with its motley collection of practising drunks, sober drunks, ex-criminals, dead beats and manic depressives. But there are also some wonderful, generous, good-hearted people there – just seek them out and they will truly help you if you are ready and willing.

Good luck to you all those looking for sobriety – peace and serenity….”

Mr. SHUTUP…. Mr.FIREASS ….and a few more endearing Mr. Men from the Syrian Ministry…..

Dorothy Parvaz was born in October 1971 in Tehran, Iran to an Iranian father and an American mother. She lived in Iran until she was ten years old, then spent the next four years in Dubai. She holds passports from Iran, Canada, and the United States and is a graduate from the University of British Columbia, completed a master’s degree in Arizona, and held journalism fellowships at both Harvard and Cambridge.

Dorothy has been working for Al Jazeera online since 2010 and on the 29th April she entered Syria on an assignment for Al Jazera and was immediately arrested and held incommunicado.

A public outcry ensued and she was finally deported to Iran where she was detained for a few days befoere being finally put on a flight to Doha on 18th May.

Here is her own story of her time in captivity:

We could clearly hear the interrogator pummelling his fists into his subject.

I was standing in two fist-sized pools of smeared, sticky blood, trying to sort out why there were seven angry Syrians yelling at me. Only one of them – who I came to know as Mr Shut Up during my three days in a detention center, where so many Syrians ‘disappeared’ are being kept – spoke English.

Watching them searching my bags, and observing the set of handcuffs hanging from the bunk bed wedged behind the desk in the middle of the room, I guessed that I was being arrested – or, at the very least, processed for detention.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“Shut up! SHUT UP!” said Mr Shut Up.

I’d arrived there moments before, dragged by a handful of hair from a car where I’d been wedged between two armed men. They’d tried to convince me that they were taking me to my hotel, but, of course, I knew that there was no way plain-clothed security personnel would be kind enough to escort me to my accommodation.

I did, however, manage to resist being forced to wear a blindfold, figuring that if they were going to shoot me, they really didn’t need a reason to do so.

After about 20 minutes, we pulled off the highway and through two checkpoints. By this point, the rather handsy security guard to my left had pulled my scarf over my eyes.

Armed guards opened a gate to what seemed like a military compound, filled with dozens of men, all plain-clothed, lurking in an atmosphere suited only to cracking skulls – so heightened was the sense of impending violence.

Welcome to mini-Guantanamo; perhaps one of many in Syria where protesters and bystanders alike have been swept up in the wide net cast by an increasingly paranoid government since the start of anti-government protests several weeks ago.

I’d ended up there because a scan of my luggage had revealed that I had a satellite phone and an internet hub with me – the commercially available type, nothing special, and just the sort of thing one might need while travelling in a country with spotty communications.

Still, if that was deemed suspicious, then my American passport, complete with its Al Jazeera-sponsored visa, sealed the deal. The agents couldn’t seem to agree what I was, or which was worse: an American spy for Israel, or an Al Jazeera reporter – both were pretty much on a par.

Blindfolded, I was led to the first of my three cells – a tiny, sparse room, roughly three paces across and five length-wise. On the floor, on a ratty brown blanket, sat a young woman whose face was puffy from crying. She said she was 25 and from Damascus and indicated that she had been there for four days. She didn’t know why she’d been picked up by the Mukhabarat, the Syrian intelligence service.

She said she was a shop assistant in a clothes store, and the designer stilettos that sat in the corner of the cell seemed to belie any suggestion that this was a girl who had left her house in order to participate in protests. She said she’d been speaking on her phone when she was hauled into a car, blindfolded and driven away.

She had no idea where she was, or how long she was to stay there. She had not been allowed to contact her family.

Our eyes moved to the month-long calendar etched on the wall, likely the artwork of a previous dweller. With unspoken glances, we each wondered how long she would remain there.

A man came to the door a couple of times before he took me from the cell, handcuffed and blindfolded me, and led me to what seemed like a courtyard.

He pushed me up against a wall and told me to stand there. As I did so, I heard two sets of interrogations and beatings taking place, about 10 meters away from me in either direction.

The beatings were savage, the words uttered by those beaten only hoarse cries – “Wallahi! Wahalli!” (“I swear to God! I swear to God!”) or simply, “La! La!” (“No! No!”).

I stood there for what seemed like an eternity, before someone approached me.

“Who do you work for?” he hissed.

“Al Jazeera. Online.”

“Are you alone?”

“So alone.”

I was taken to a second cell, this one, with smears of blood on the wall. I found what looked like a bloodless corner and perched until called upon again – at around midnight.

I was again handcuffed, but this time, before the blindfolds went on, I caught sight of a young man, no more than 20, chained to a radiator outside the hallway. He had a legal pad on his knees, was blindfolded, and was quivering so fiercely he could hardly hold the pen with which he was probably meant to ink some sort of confession.

Meanwhile, the beatings and cries outside continued.

I was taken through a labyrinth of stairs, before entering an office where my interrogator awaited me. I managed to talk him into allowing the blindfolds to be removed.

The man – let’s call him ‘Firass’ – was slightly portly and could be affable when he wanted to be (he seemed concerned that there were women being kept at the facility, and tried to make things comfortable for me).

Firass even apologised for the fact that our “formal interview” was taking place in a room containing a bed, crates of potatoes and a refrigerator.

“It’s just that we’re so busy these days,” he said.

I wanted to ask why the Mukhabarat would be so busy if such a tiny minority was causing problems, but it didn’t seem like a prudent moment.

Firass spoke very good English and, at first, seemed convinced that I was a spy.

Then he focused on Al Jazeera, putting the network on the same level as Human Rights Watch. The network had been making a “big problem” for Syria with the UN Security Council, he said.

After four hours of questioning, he sent me to a different room, this one a long-disused office where a terrified teenage girl was sleeping on the couch.

The next morning, my new roommate and I tried to get acquainted, without sharing too many details, as we had been forbidden to do so. She too had been plucked from the streets of a Damascus suburb for reasons she couldn’t understand.

She’d been there for eight days when I met her, and she looked ill. The food we were given three times a day – fetid, random and at times, rotting – mostly had the effect of making her vomit, but she was too hungry to stop eating all together.

There was a doctor on site, parked next to a sign that read “Assad is Boss”, but the girl seemed too frightened to see the doctor – no wonder.

Most of the our days were spent listening to the sounds of young men being brutally interrogated – sometimes tied up in stress positions until it sounded like their bones were cracking, as we saw from our bathroom window (a bathroom with no running water, except for one tap in a sink filled with roughly 10 cm of sewage).

One afternoon, the beating we heard was so severe that we could clearly hear the interrogator pummelling his boots and fists into his subject, almost in a trance, yelling questions or accusations rhythmically as the blows landed in what sounded like the prisoner’s midriff.

My roommate shook and wept, reminding me (or perhaps herself) that they didn’t beat women here.

There was a brief break before the beating resumed, and my first impulse was to cover my ears, but then I thought, “If this man is crying, shouldn’t someone hear him?

After all, judging from the sound of passing traffic and from what I could see through our window, there were no homes nearby – just a highway, a sprawling old security compound, and  what appeared to be an old prison; a few official buildings that had seen better days. That’s all I could see from our cell

When one of the Mukhabarat agents came in, my teenage cellmate proceeded to beg him to allow her to use her mobile phone to call her parents, which, of course, was not going to happen.

She asked about the beatings we’d heard outside, and was told that the men being punished were murderers who had shot people in Deraa.

Later, Mr Shut Up came and took my roommate away for interrogation, which made me worry. She returned an hour later, with no apparent resolution to her problem. She still looked out the window and cried, worrying about her parents, wondering if or when she’d see them again

I couldn’t help but wonder: what sort of threat does this girl pose to the Syrian state that they have to keep her in this rotting room? What are they so afraid of?

After three days, Firass told me I was free to return to Qatar – something for which I was very grateful.

He even took me to his boss’s office – again, remember, no one has any names here – where I was given a lecture on Al Jazeera’s coverage of the troubles in Syria, mostly focusing on how a tiny, tiny minority was causing a problem for an essentially happy majority.

On my way out of the compound, I was finally allowed to see it for what it was – a shabby set of offices and cellblocks with pictures of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, framed in the sort of metallic stands that might promote two-for-one-drinks offers at the theatre, placed every few metres. The effect was farcical.

I was taken to the airport, but I was certainly not allowed to return to Qatar. Instead, I was dragged, kicking and screaming, onto a flight bound for Tehran (I’d entered Syria with an Iranian passport). Call it a strange brand of extraordinary rendition, if you will.

The Syrian authorities had alleged to the Iranians that I was a spy – a charge that can carry a death penalty in Iran.

Fortunately, in my case, the facts were borne out. After a couple of weeks of interrogations, the investigator in Iran charged with my case determined that I was not a spy, but a journalist.

On Wednesday, without drama or incident, I was released and put on a dawn flight from Tehran to Doha – it was a simple matter of a judge’s approval.

Although I have written critically of some of Iran’s policies, I was treated with respect, courtesy and care throughout my detention there.

My room was spotless, my interrogator flawlessly polite, and the women who looked after me at the Evin Prison Women’s Detention Centre saw to it that my every need was met – especially the sleeping pills I required, because every night, without fail, I would hear the cries of men screaming in Syria “Wallahi! Wallahi!” and wonder how their wounds will ever heal.


Al Jazeera

The above story brought a few tears to my eyes and has left me wondering if these utterly evil people in this sad world will ever be eradicated? So much for a ‘Higher Power’ out there somewhere who is taking care of the good ones….


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