When I was one week sober, my counselor told me that a camel must get on its knees each morning and night, and it can go a day without water; so must I get on my knees each morning and night if I’m to go a day without a drink.
With one week sober and reeling from a drug-induced psychosis, I needed to believe in something. And this analogy, while illogical, made perfect sense.
Twice a day I began praying from my knees.
I’ve read Anne Lamott’s favorite prayers are ‘help me’ and ‘thank you.’ Simplicity also works for me. But the question this post concerns is how does prayer work?
Prayer eases my anxiety. I’ve experienced that when I pray, I don’t feel nervous or anxious in otherwise tense situations. I’ve prayed for help delivering a wedding speech, or dealing with an unruly class of teenagers. It works. While it doesn’t tame the teenagers, it equips me to deal with them.
I haven’t experienced prayer working for external things: the outcomes of games, the weather, the persuasion of others. Prayer for me is a deep and internal process.
I won’t ever forget the first time I experienced prayer create a change in me:
Not much changed during my 28 day rehab stay until the second everything changed.
I spent 26 days fighting for my way. My way was to return to Los Angeles, while counselors, patients, family, and even my former roomates encouraged me to take the advice and go to an extended care facility.
I wanted to be sober, and I prayed for direction daily, but I also wanted to show the world just how sober I could be. I would return to L.A. — the place where I caused the most harm and reeked the most havoc — and come out a stronger man for it.
With two days left in my stay, I sat in my counselor’s office, joined by my mom and step-father. I planned my defense and in a few short minutes there was nothing left to say except ‘good luck.’
“I’m just so proud of you Mark. You’re going to do great.” A wild admiration beamed from my mother’s eyes.
My stepfather’s eyes were closed; he squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index fingers, “Look, Mark. There is still a bed available. Just stay open to the idea for these last couple of days.”
“Ok. I will.”
I won. Yet, there was a familiar feeling of distance. A small and insignificant voice told me I was lying before my counselor chimed in, “That’s bullshit. You haven’t been open to this place since the first day, so you sure as hell won’t be open to it on the last two.”
He was right and I couldn’t believe it. I felt like a sucker. I heard myself say, “I’ll go.”
My stepfather jumped out of his chair.
My mom said, “Yes!”
“Look, I don’t know what just happened, but I’ll go. Please stop talking about it.”
I was the youngest man there at 24, surrounded by grown-ass men, men who were encouraging me to take the counselor’s suggestion for after-care. Some small voice had just agreed to go to an intensive out-patient program. A program my dominant voice had spent 26 days discrediting. Up until that conversation, I dreamed of the perfect return to California: a black lab, a job in a coffee shop, a studio apartment, and the sympathy of women. I lost the dream forever in my counselor’s office.
In walked Andy. Andy is a fireman who looks like he could be nothing else: tall, muscular, and weathered, with a deep voice. We took long walks in the woods and talked about the women in our lives. “Mark, what happened?”
“Nothing. What do you mean?”
“Well, you look, I dunno, lighter.”
My body knew I made the right decision before my mind could figure it out. I discovered the gift of letting go, of trusting. What I once dismissed had entered into me. Entered somewhere I had never been. To speak words I had never imagined speaking. To give up. To let go. To put trust in the big dark elsewhere.
If I weren’t praying for 26 days, would I have heard that voice? Would I have ignored it? Would it have existed? Did prayer save me from returning to certain doom in Los Angeles? If I stopped to give these questions much merit, I wouldn’t be a man of faith, would I?
The experience was an out-of-body one. My voice spoke words my mind would never allow. It was as if someone knew was born inside of me—someone who believed in prayer.