April is the cruelest month. The words come up again with the first signs of life every spring. They remind me of the way it was when I drank. Everything turned black. It’s as if somebody had thrown off a switch. I saw, as another text from another time and place had put it, through a glass darkly.
I first studied "The Wasteland" as a doctoral student in Comparative Literature. I’d been introduced to it years earlier, in the 1960s, when I met with a group of fledgling rebels in the apartment of a young professor in the bohemian section of a big metropolis. A Marxist economist, the freshly-minted Ph.D. saw the poem’s title as a metaphor for the ravages of capitalism. It was capitalism that had rendered the world a wasteland. Hence the need for revolution. We had to change everything.
The message resonated with me. All of my experience till then said something was wrong. The professor told us what it was and what we had to do about it. He gave us hope. With the others, I set out to change the world. When that road came to a bitter end in the early 70s, the darkness turned only darker. It was then that I crossed AA's "invisible line" and became an alcoholic. I was in utter despair, a rebel without a cause, as the Grapevine one day would entitle my story.
On one reading of Eliot, April is the cruelest month because it reawakens longings and recollections the dead months of winter have buried deep in depression. Feeling after a long period of numbness can hurt. Those of us who have deadened our pain with alcohol know what it’s like. We stop drinking and, when the anesthesia has worn off, the pain is as strong as ever.
I had a different reading. Yes, I used alcohol to deaden the pain, but even as I did that, I would do other things that intensified it. Like reading Eliot or certain other poets or philosophers, or listening to a certain type of singer or composer. Misery loves company, and they helped to deepen the gloom and doom. Though it made me hurt more, it confirmed my sense that things were as bad as I felt them to be. A cold comfort that, but a comfort nonetheless.
And so April was the cruelest month because it was a hoax. It stirred up hope when there was no hope. It promised new life, but the promise was false. I would turn Shelley’s question on its head. If spring comes, can winter be that far behind? Doesn’t everything move toward entropy? Doesn’t death win in the end? Isn’t that, after all, what the title of the poem really means?
I suppose I could put the matter in clinical terms and say that I had become a depressive (like Eliot, like Bill W., like so many of us). And that certainly would be true. Starting at age 13, I had five major, months-long episodes of depression before I hit bottom on my sixth and came to AA. I had an even longer one in sobriety, lasting from 1996 to 2002.
The cloud didn't start to lift till I got sober, on April 26 of 1984. It didn’t clear completely till 18 years later, when I had a spiritual experience which brought my six-year emotional relapse to an end.
Since then, I’ve come to understand that the wasteland was spiritual. It was my soul that had been ravaged. There was a solution. But it wasn’t to change the world. It was to change me. And central to that change was a spiritual experience that would transform my interior landscape and with that my vision.
A few springs ago I attended a meeting of an AA group in a rural area of a northern state. April showers had persisted well into May and a woman shared her despondency over the pall that seemed to have settled over the region. It was all so dreary. When would it end?
Having just come from sunny Florida for the summer, I thought I would share my experience with weather-induced dejection. I recounted how I had moved down there to escape a certain city whose winters were bleeding me, as a particular tune described it. I couldn’t stand the grayness anymore, the cold, the snow, the ice.
After a year in paradise, I longed for cloudy skies and rain, lots of rain. And I was grateful when it came. It was a welcome relief from the unrelenting sun and the unbearable heat, the unanticipated downside to perennially clear skies.
I can tell you are not from around here, the woman snapped. She was right. I was not. I am now. The snowbird flew back north six years ago this month. And he stayed. My delight in cloudy and rainy days followed me from the south. I love them. They bring peace and quiet, just like today. They also bring out the forsythias, the magnolias, the dogwood, and the cherry blossoms, all now in their full splendor.
I know their glory will soon fade. But that only makes me all the more grateful for it. The seasons will succeed each other as they always have, each gracing us with their own beauty, each inviting their enjoyment. December won’t be long in coming, but there’s no longer any pathos in that. I've come to love winter, and the snow, and the long nights of hibernation.
AA suggests that having a spiritual awakening or experience brings us a new outlook on life. Not that we become more positive, though we do become that. Not that we become more optimistic, though that may also be the case. But that we are able to see what we could not see before. That’s what's happened to me.
It’s happened to countless alcoholics in AA. It can affect even the way we look at the weather and the seasons.
This Friday I celebrate 35 years sober. And so April is a sign of life for me in another, very personal way. For that’s when the darkness left and I started to live again. And for that, I am grateful.