What (most) Normal Drinkers Will Never Understand

NOTE:  Hi folks.  At this time of summer, I’m hiking and camping all over the place, so I’m reblogging an oldie but goodie for this week.  I’ll be back in a few with a new post.:)

-Louisa

 

Alcoholism is a physical, mental, and spiritual disease.  That’s what we learn in AA.

Alcoholism is just a lack of self-discipline.  That’s what most of the world thinks.

Alcoholics can exert all the self-discipline in the world and still end up drunk.

That’s absurd.  If they really kept up their self-discipline, if they really stuck to their guns, they could stop or moderate.

Only accessing a power greater than themselves – aka god – can keep an alcoholic sober one day at a time.

That’s just religiosity couched in a cultish slogan. 

Sometimes it’s frustrating to live in a world that doesn’t “get” my disease.  My blood family and normie acquaintances assume the mind works according to certain principles.  The notion of the Curious Mental Blank Spot (p 24) is foreign to them and to almost anyone who hasn’t been utterly stumped and defeated by it.  Thank god I’ve been both, though to get there took about 4,000 attempts of rallying resolve that I would drink with moderation, then finding myself plastered – again.  It took the admission that I’d run my life into the ground despite countless advantages, to the point where I no longer wanted to live.

I’d still have clung to alcohol as my true friend if the stuff hadn’t quit working for me.  When it no longer brought about the magical transformation that had made it a staple of my life – taking away my nervous, self-conscious unworthiness and replacing it with sociability and confidence – only then did I become willing to consider the counter-betrayal of checking out AA.  “Alcoholism made only one mistake,” goes the saying: “It’s the same for all of us.”  Not exactly the same, but close enough that I could learn from other sober drunks the hallmarks of alcoholic thinking, feeling, and experience.

The main hallmark is not drinking.  I’ve had several partners who matched me drink for drink for years on end.  But as soon as they made up their minds to exert their self-disciple, it took.  They could stop.  They had brakes.  Mine might work for a few hours or even days, but then along comes that Curious Mental Blank spot.  My resolve gets greased with coconut oil.  Thoughts of an hour or even a minute ago can find no traction.  They become meaningless.

What’s  the Curious Mental Blank Spot?  We like to think the conscious parts of our brain determine our actions – the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, which hosts thoughts and decisions.  But there’s a little lizard living in the basement of our brains – the amygdala – that generates basic survival impulses like fear and anger.   Alcoholism seems to live here.  Like a vine that winds its way front and center, it’s able to circumvent even the most determined resolutions of the frontal lobe, hitching a drink to the basic drives of being alive.  Drinking becomes an impulse, almost like sneezing, that you act on without a rational choice.

addict brainThe experience goes like this.  You’re all set to not drink today.  You’ve made up your mind, and it’s just not an option.  You’re going to drink healthy stuff, maybe exercise, busy yourself with – you should have a drink.  You know what?  A drink is a great idea.  Why not just relax, enjoy just one or two, like a little get-away to Maui that nobody needs to know about?  Eh?  You faintly sense there’s something wrong with this thinking.  Wasn’t a drink what you weren’t going to do.  Yes.  And the reason you weren’t going to do it was… was…

Here something happens similar to flipping through an old fashioned Rolodex and recognizing not a single name:  Let’s see it was here somewhere: Not good for my body – who’s that?  Always make a fool of myself – do I know him?  Swore to my loved ones – might have met briefly, but…no. None of these ring a bell.  Meanwhile, here’s your amygdala holding out a frosty, aesthetically perfect image of your favorite drink.  It asks, What are ya, a pussy?  You gonna let these cards you don’t even recognize tell you what to do?  Just do what you wanna do – THIS!

It makes so much sense.  The idea of abstaining for any reason seems absurdly far-fetched, while the idea of drinking rings every cerebral bell of recognition for a natural, sensible, sound idea.  So, you decide, “Yes.” All it takes is a millisecond of assent and that genie is out of the bottle again, running your life.

As I once put it in an AA meeting: “My frontal lobe is my amygdala’s BITCH!”

Equally preposterous to the normal drinker (or active alcoholic) is the solution – asking the help of a higher power.  Only once we quit thinking that we, ourselves, have the means to quit drinking, when you give up reliance on self and sincerely ask a higher power for help, something shifts.  Some change happens.  Suddenly, we’re able to weather those Curious Mental Blank Spots with just enough resistance to avoid saying yes.  Do this long enough, and eventually the constant obsession to drink is lifted.

I’m still occasionally struck by the Curious Mental Blank Spot, instances in which I still don’t recognize a single reason not to take a drink, even after decades of sobriety.  “You’re in AA!” -whatever!  “You’d lose all your time!” – Who gives a fuck?  While I’m struggling with these confused thoughts, something steps between me and that image of a flawless, aftermath-free drink my amygdala is advertising:

“How about we just wait five minutes and see if all this is still true?”  It’s not a thought that comes from me.  But within thirty seconds, in my experience, my conscious mind is back at the wheel, and I retract in horror from the idea of drinking.  That is, the window of blindness, when I could have assented and released the genie, lasts only that long.

It may seem unlikely, but that’s pretty much the scenario experienced by millions of alcoholics meeting in 170 nations all over the world.  When we do the things suggested in AA’s program of recovery, that mediating influence – which I call god – restores us to sanity.

 

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Hurting Out Loud

Nine months ago I published “Prescribed Relapse,” a post on how doctors sabotage our sobriety and threaten our lives as alcoholic addicts by prescribing us vast supplies of opiates.  Telling us to “take them as directed” is about as good as recommending we “stop at the second drink” – as if we had any power to drink or drug “like a gentleman.”  We don’t!  If it cops us a buzz, we default to MORE.

In that post I quoted friend’s Facebook message.  This was Rob, whose doctor turned him on to opioids years ago, hatching a fresh addiction that promptly took over his life:

Yah know, if I’d of known what I would become after a few Vicodin, I’d a shoved them up my doctor’s ass!!  I was never into opiates as a kid. But eight years into sobriety I hurt myself really really bad, and I guess I needed them. But in hindsight, if I had a choice between acute pain and becoming a heroin addict, I would have probably chose the pain. But whatever.  It’s done.  It’s over, right?” 

Last week Rob was coming up on a year clean when he died from accidental overdose.  My friend is gone.  He was 44.  I miss him terribly.  About 20 of us gathered at his sponsor’s house the other day, wrote him a shoe box full of notes, and circled the bonfire where we burned them to share our memories and weep.  I have dialed his voicemail just to hear his voice and bawled my guts out, remembering how I could call any time, how he’d offer me that sweet mix of empathy and “whaddaya gonna do?” acceptance of life’s pains.  He was one I leaned on to help me through my horrific break up, because he’d suffered one, too.

Rob

The more recent break up that triggered this fatal relapse was much less of a big deal.  He missed, not so much his ex-girlfriend as her son – a little boy he’d played dad to for about a year.  Building cushion forts, taking the Big Wheel out for a spin, tickling on the grass – we all saw the happy Facebook photos.

I wish to god he’d told me.  When we talked about missing the boy, he said a lot of “whatever” and “I’m fine.”  Maybe he really thought he was.  Or maybe he was just loath to admit that all his old wounds were re-opened, his heart re-cracked, his loneliness bleeding, a despair darkening his skies, that he’d never have a little family of his own.  Instead, he asked me for help setting up a Tinder dating profile.  That conversation was goofy – lots of “shit -wait a sec, k?” – because we were both on our phones working on phone apps.  It was the last we’d ever have.

Telling others we hurt, and how bad we hurt, is one of the hardest things to do.  We’re afraid of looking weak, looking naive or over-dramatic, or maybe even deserving of the blows dealt us.  For me, with decades of sobriety in AA, the biggest obstacle is pride: I should be more spiritual.  I should see through the dust of my collapsed dreams to recognize my part, take responsibility for my delusions, own my self-centered blindness, and, most of all, have faith that all is as it should be.

But when shit hits the fan, when the bottom falls out of your sky-castle and you’re plummeting, all you feel is WAH!  NO!  I DON’T WANT THIS!  I’m sad!  I’m mad!  I’m hurting!  You want to bawl like a toddler, throw a kicking, floor-pounding fit at god and fucking life and those fuckers who hurt you.  It’s not exactly the most flattering spiritual pose.

But it’s truth.  We have a disease that wants to kill us, and it’s favorite subterfuge is pride.  The most powerful trust we can have is to go to a meeting with our spiritual pants around our ankles for all to see – trusting that we’ll be caught by love.  When I learned my boyfriend had been screwing a girl from work for two and a half years, I went to my homegroup and cried to fifty people: “My boyfriend has been screwing a girl from work for two and a half years!”  How many of them thought, Tch!  How self-deluding that woman must be!   My disease tells me half the room, but god tells me, in the moment of my deepest vulnerability, no one.  Not even that guy in the corner pissed about his DUI.  Every person in that room beamed me human compassion.

My message to you is that, though your fan Shitfanmay whirl so shit-free at the moment that dramatic squalor seems far from hitting you, pain will find you.  And when it does, you’ll need trust in god just to feel it.  Trust in god to forgive yourself for fucking up.  Trust in god to own pain as part of your journey.  But most of all, you’ll need trust in god to reach out and ask for help.  Not just once.  Not just stopping when you think it might be getting old for others.  As alcoholics, what we cover up festers, becomes an emotional abscess fed by our disease, swelling with resentment and self-pity until eventually it bursts as the emotional nihilism of fuck it.  Fuck sobriety.  Fuck trying for a good life.  I tried, and look what it got me: misery.

Sure, it’s self-centered to keep bending people’s ears about your troubles if you’re not also doing the work to heal yourself.  Sure, there are assholes who’ll hear you wrongly, who will twist what you’ve shared against you.  But the deeper truth is this: trust is a form of love, and love is what heals us.

If Rob had loved himself enough, maybe he’d have given himself permission to feel  a degree of pain that, rationally, made no sense to him.  And maybe he’d have tapped into the trust to call somebody, maybe me, maybe another of those loving friends gathered in tears around our pyre of goodbye notes,  and say, “I can’t do this.  I can’t do life.  It hurts too much.”

Maybe he could have given us, instead of heroin, a chance to love him.

 

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Reasons I Wasn’t an Alcoholic

04Julesshakespear73Writing the final exam for my college Shakespeare course, I had to close one eye to read the questions, since I was seeing double.  Not puking also required an occasional surge of resolve, and I had the spins.  All unfortunate.  What concerned me most, though, was my handwriting: it looked more as if a third grader were reflecting on Shakespeare’s intent than a college junior – one who adored his plays and knew many lines by heart – at least, ordinarily.  That exam pulled my final grade down to a B despite many A papers.  I think about it every time I see my transcript.

What was wrong with that picture?  About three hours.  That’s all I needed to sober up. Wisdom acquired?  For an 8:00AM exam, one should stop drinking, not at 3:00AM, as I had, but probably closer to midnight.  Having learned that lesson, I’d manage better next time.  It was a mistake – not a problem.

When a couple years later I drank a fifth of 151 in a few hours and passed out so deeply, nothing could wake me, that was clearly because no one at the housewarming party had warned me about 151 – that you had to drink it slower!  Who knew?!  Another mistake.

When, at my wedding celebration, I hovered a couple of steps behind Michael Dukakis, governor and guest of honor, imitating his every gesture and doubling over with laughter (I might have peed my nylons just a little), it was simply a shamewine_cheese my in-laws lacked a sense of humor!  Though, okay – I might have had a bit much.  But the bride gets to make a mistake, right?

When a few years later I attended a wine and cheese graduate school function with my (new) partner, told inappropriate stories, shattered a fancy wine glass, and passed out face down on the floor of an upstairs room, it was just – whoops! – another mistake.  Good thing I wasn’t lying in my own vomit, because I was a pretty classy English professor!

So I learned to do better next time!  Well, actually, um, not next time, but the time after that.  I learned I really didn’t like getting falling down drunk, so the next time I… got falling down drunk, I didn’t like it again…once it was over, so next time I wouldn’t do it – til I did.

What those people who claimed I had a problem with alcohol failed to realize was this: I loved alcohol.  I adored it.  It fixed me, it fixed you, it fixed the world – so everything could be okay.  How could that be a problem?  I just kept fucking up on the amount, was all.  I just kept overdoing a good thing.  But it was a good thing!  That I knew.  No one was going phase me with this “Louisa, you’re an alcoholic” bullshit.  Maybe I was one but so what?  It was my way.  Nobody has the right to tell you to change that!

So, fuck ’em, I said.

Besides, I could list off a million reasons I wasn’t an alcoholic.  I…

  • Didn’t drink hard booze after I turned 26 – except when I did
  • Didn’t drink in the mornings – except when I started before noon
  • Didn’t lose my job or house – only chose to downsize
  • Didn’t get a DUI – because the cops appreciated my doe-eyed apologies
  • Didn’t black out and wake in strange places – just miraculously back home
  • Didn’t suffer DTs – just shook wildly, maybe a smidge of amorphous terror

As the years rolled by, however, and I continued to make unfortunate mistakes despite my lack of a problem with alcohol, a few liabilities did crop up, so my phrasing had to change a bit, like this:

  • Though I occasionally collided with door frames, I did so reminded of life’s bittersweet irony
  • Though I occasionally fell down, it really didn’t hurt
  • Though I attended keggers in my mid-30s, I did so from a worldly, intellectual perspective
  • Though I hit a car head on, I’d slowed down so much it hardly did anything
  • Though I cheated on partners, I did so secretly so it kind of didn’t happen
  • Though I might enjoy a glass of white wine while I cooked dinner, or perhaps a beer at lunch or while journalling, gardening, vacuuming, folding clothes, building a fence, watching TV, doing the dishes, clipping my nails, or taking a shower, I didn’t drink all the time
  • Though I hated myself, that was my business – and a fine reason to drink more

I could have gone on like that forever, with an answer for everything.  I don’t know why I didn’t.  I guess gradually the old threadbare idea that I’d manage better next time wore thinner and thinner.  At the same time, the prospect of any next time, any next anything, grew increasingly dull and even disgusting.  Though I think what actually defeated me, what drove me to break down and hit bottom and finally say ‘uncle,’ was that last point: hating myself.  The hate grew so intense – such white hot, pure acid, unmitigated and inescapable hate – that I simply could not stand to exist another day – drink or no drink.  So it was suicide or… what the hell, AA.

Meeting snowflake

Those of you reading this sober may know exactly what I’m talking about.  Some reading just a tad hungover may experience a twinge of recognition and whip their Monopoly-style NOT-THAT-BAD card from a back pocket.  No one can diagnose another person’s alcoholism.  But a word I discounted back then was honesty.  Today I know honesty is not a true/false prospect; it’s a matter of excavation.  And digging takes courage.

On January 29, 1995, whatever it is I call god removed my mania for drinking.  I’ve not had a drop since.  What could be more miraculous?  Deep down, just under our hearts, we can all sense our source, our core, our truth beyond knowing.  I used to drink to bury mine.  Today, with the help of my fellows, I strive to live by it.

 

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Doing What We Don’t Want

Almost none of us liked the self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation.”  (p. 25)

“To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face.”  (p. 44)

Nobody wants to come to AA, but our pain and lack of alternatives shunt us there.

Nobody reads over those 12 steps on the wall and thinks, “Oh, I see!  That’ll fix me!”  But they will.

At my first AA meeting, thoughts of irony, disbelief, criticism, and a simple desire to bolt filled my brain.  I saw nothing of value in those simplistic, god-mentioning steps.

Reluctant PeeWeeHerman

Why do we need to live on a spiritual basis?  First, because we’re inherently spiritual beings.  More specifically, because the alternative is to live by self-propulsion, which may work fine for normies but for alcoholics invariably leads to a “choice” to drink, because a disease has commandeered our decision-making process.

What’s so great about the steps?  When we first come in, we’re in a state of spiritual starvation because we’ve shrouded ourselves in a world of lies.  We don’t think so, of course.  But the fact is, we’ve made up stories – about who did what, why, and how – that simply do not square with reality.  The steps have two main purposes: to remove the layers of delusional resentment blocking us from god and to encourage us to grow in connection with that god (who, by the way, removes the drink problem).

Totally unrelated to AA is Seattle IANDS, which features speakers who, like me, have temporarily died and/or left their bodies and brought back memories from the other side.  One speaker I heard a few years ago encountered god as Jesus – as do most Christians (we see what we think of as god).  At that time she was a teen speeding through East LA in bad company.  In the split second before an impending car accident, time stopped.  After she refused a demon at her feet who urged her to come with him and get even with everyone who’d ever wronged her, she left her body.  A guardian angel all but pulled her skyward, where she encountered a swarthy, bearded figure in a robe “of rough cloth somebody had sewn by hand” – whom she knew to be Jesus.

Peel off maskHere’s the best part: Jesus went to embrace her, but just before the embrace made a face of subdued revulsion and turned away.  It was at that point she realized she was coated from head to toe in some utterly disgusting filth, something “like diarrhea.”  Jesus telepathically told her these were her accumulated resentments.  The next parts of her NDE involved ways of shedding them, of learning love as her purpose on earth.

In all the NDE stories I’ve heard, complex spiritual truths are condensed into vivid, resounding images that capture complexities at a glance.  This girl, angry and on the brink of joining gang life, was coated in shit.  Her resentments repelled god’s love.  Yes, her NDE permanently altered the trajectory of her life (today she’s a nurse), but we alcoholics  can learn the same lesson without dying – it’s right there in our Big Book:

“…[T]his business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die” (p.66).

In my own NDE, which I experienced as an atheist, I plunged into the sun as the source of all life – i.e. the closest thing I knew to god’s embrace – and was surrounded by the Light, a love and bliss more potent than words can convey.  Lately, in going through difficult times, I’ve often found myself praying to feel just a little bit of that Light again.  Please.  Just a little. 

What I was not doing was working my steps.  I didn’t feel like it.  For about six months I’d been not writing a 4th step started on my ex-boyfriend, and more recently on former tenants.  If I was carrying any resentments at all, there was certainly no ire behind them, so why dwell on them with a full inventory?  Why waste the time?  I tend not to see what the steps have to do with the Light, heaven, etc.

Recently, however, my sponsor gently informed me the time had come for me finish that thing and read her my 5th step.  She set a date one week out.  BAM!  So, reluctantly, I dug into the work, listing everyone’s “offenses” and why they hurt me, but then tracing out how I, myself, helped to bring about each one.  I met my sponsor’s deadline for the same reason I still go to meetings: what I don’t want to do, I know deep down, is what I really need to grow in sobriety.

I read her my fifth step.  A wise woman, she pointed out my current character defects:

  • not seeing the truth because I fear loss and prefer my concocted stories
  • not speaking my truth out of fear of conflict or loss
  • not honoring Louisa – failure to act on my own boundaries

These were lesser forms of my same old defects of dishonesty, selfish manipulation, and victimhood from 5th steps past.  Lesser – but they’re still diarrhea!  Since then I’ve prayed, not to feel the Light, but for help releasing my defects and completely forgiving those I’d felt wronged me.  For two weeks, I’ve been repeating out loud, “I completely forgive you, [name], for anything I thought you did.”

Guess what’s happened?

Thinking of my mom the other day (who was not on the inventory), I suddenly appreciated her in a whole new light: I loved her more ever.  Same with my friends, my dog and chickens, and even my messy home.  It’s everywhere, this stuff to love!  Trees!  Chihuahuas!  Passersby!  Loving stuff, I sometimes feel swept into the frothy fringe of something… amazing.  It’s a glow, a tantalizing giddiness at getting to be here: a tiny taste of the Light.

I’ve shed one more layer of shit.  It works only if we do it, this 202 word pathway to a beautiful life!

“We have found much of heaven and we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which we had not even dreamed.” (p.25)

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The Ultimate False God: Coolness

What is “coolness”?

Words are tricky.  This philosopher guy, Derrida, once pointed out that words and ideas are all attached to one another like a big web or network, but the web itself is attached to nothing.  The word/idea “rock” has nothing do with an actual lump of minerals, except in our collective memory.  The whole mass of meaning floats.  There’s no anchor.

So when I say “coolness,” we’ll have to at least take a second to figure out what I might mean.

No culture worships this quality more ardently than ours in the US.  The vast majority of our cultural icons embody it – figures emblematic of wild West lore, gangster lore, entertainment industry lore, and so on.  John Wayne.  Al Capone.  Drake?  We foist coolness on famous figures who eschewed it in real life, like Einstein or Lincoln, and even on certain animals like panthers or falcons.

Coolness is an aura of infallibility that rebuffs any weakness – including fu insecurity, confusion, or dependence that makes one vulnerable.  Coolness implies the individual is a source, a sun of personal charisma.  Even alienated characters, if they’re cool, attract the audience who “gets” them, just as each peer group defines its own style of cool.  Across the board, though, cool figures exude confidence – an immunity to bungling, embarrassment, and indecision that elevates them in the eyes of others.

But because words float around, we sometimes conflate coolness with positivity.  In conversation, we use “cool!” as a synonym for laudable, so we might potentially mix it up with goodness.  However, there’s a world of difference.  Take Mother Teresa for instance: what she did in Calcutta was “really cool,” but did she embody any of the “coolness” described above?  Would Kanye West rap about her?  Not exactly.

Alcoholics often drink to feel cool.  At least, as a practicing alcoholic, I did.  And you know what?  I succeeded with flying colors – again, and again, and again – in my own mind.  Of the thousands of drinks I took, the only one that failed to cool-ify me… was my last.

snoopy_joecoolToday, when I try to go back mentally and recreate that sense of “coolness,” what I arrive at is a sense of a force field, a glow of indifference highlighting me as subtly superior.  Louisa with a few drinks in her was undaunted by whatever (imagined) disapproval mainstream dolts cast her way.  Fuck ’em!  Some part of me watched myself and approved, finding ways to make you think I didn’t care what you thought.

Shitfaced, I was even cooler.  I became a rugged individual, a Rambo against social decorum, yet slinky and wily, sorta like Catwoman.  Your cool may differ.  Yet whether boisterous or aloof, we all seek the same sense of impervious, indifferent badassery – a condescending dismissal of the humanity around us.  We’re keen.  We’re cocky.  We know shit.

But all we’ve done, in reality, is swallow some liquid.

Sobriety, on the other hand, demands rigorous honesty.  People who cannot recover are “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”  In my eyes, coolness comes down to a form of inner dishonesty which, for us, can be lethal.  The friends I see struggling most in AA – the ones who keep relapsing, almost dying, or who eventually do die – are the ones I sense still worshipping this false god.

As hard as it may seem, rigorous honesty means giving up the illusion of coolness.  It means ceasing to worship at that altar, unmasking that ideal as empty and pointless.  It means grasping and accepting that everyone – not just us, but everyone – is fallible, vulnerable, incomplete, and often scared.  Sure, some people with emotional defenses close their minds to these flaws, but they still suffer them, and to the degree that they deny them, they will never find peace.

To be human is to not know what the fuck you’re doing at least half the time.  It’s struggling with worry and insecurity, wanting to be liked even when you don’t want to.  It’s meaning well, but having stuff not work out, and looking stupid.  We’re vulnerable, fragile, and frequently lost.  Coolness pretends to banish all this – but it lies.

To be human, fundamentally, is to be incomplete.  We are each of us a tiny bubble of life, little princebroken off from a greater source that is living-ness, the whole of god.  Being isolated is painful.  It’s hard to be sealed off in our yardage of skin, encapsulated in our lonely skulls – because our true essence is we.  God is we – the manifold of all beings.  For this reason, what fuels us most is connection to others – compassion, collaboration, love – not in our glory, but in our humbleness – our simplest human state.

Those who can’t stay sober – many are trying to worship both gods: the god of love and the god of “fuck off, bitches.”   Some are addicted to imagined admiration, but most are simply grasping for a life-ring.  A few still glorify partying as a form of rebellion: “Fuck, yeah, we gonna rip it up tonight!” (meaning they’re going to ingest things).  Others retreat into the cool of morose isolation, of just not giving a shit.

The antithesis of coolness is caring deeply.  That means we do give a shit about what matters, including others’ welfare.  We’re forever working toward something constructive, remaining true even when the going gets tough.  For me, the source that loans me the power to care passionately is god.  I have enough; I can take a risk and reach toward you.  Ironically, the more we renounce coolness, the greater our capacity to generate acts of goodness that could be deemed “cool.”

Only when I acknowledge that I’m not an island, when I admit to god all the weaknesses and wounds my ego denies, do I open myself to a loving power that completes me, rather than the drink that only  seems to.  Love – that energy we can pass on in a thousand forms, not of coolness, but of warmth – is ultimately the power that keeps us sober.

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Self-Loathing: it’s a thing

Whatever I write here, it’s going to  fail epically because my words can’t capture the feeling of self-loathing.  I’ll just end up looking like some pompous dork who thinks she knows shit, so she posts, “Hey, everybody!! I know ALL ABOUT self-loathing!  Yeah, um, it’s like, when you hate yourself!” All you guys reading are going to wince in response, saying, “Whoa–” and hurry to click your way outta here.  OMG – I’m so embarrassed.  Cause here it is, me again, tainting everything with that gross, defective me-ness and fucking it all up. Why? Because there’s just something fundamentally wrong with me! Cause I just plain SUCK!

Okay, that was a simulation.  Really I’m okay.  :)  But if you didn’t recognize that mental path as familiar turf, you should probably skip this post. Chances are, if you’re an alcoholic, you know it well. Self-loathing is that voice that volunteers ruthlessly condemning “insight” when you’re tired or sick or PMSing  – or sometimes even when things are fine.

Gary-snail-spongebobSelf-loathing is particularly pronounced in alcoholics/addicts as the flipside of self-aggrandizement. We develop an oversized ego that attempts to compensate for our weak sense of self-worth. You can envision it as a big, technicolor-shelled snail waving antennae of “I’m so totally awesome!” that, when you flip it over, reveals the oozy slime of “I so totally suck!”  Scientifically speaking, relief derives from becoming a humble, right-sized little snail like Spongebob’s.  That’s why we need the 12 Steps.

Before I came to AA, I believed the voice of self-loathing was unique to me. As described in my addiction memoir, I first experienced it in preschool, a feeling that other kids could all consult a script I lacked.  In my teen years through recovery at 34, I thought of that voice as “brutal honesty” or “facing facts.” When it was on, any sense of my own basic okayness struck me as self-satisfied idiocy. It seemed to declare truths I’d always known deep down.

The only person I’d ever heard speak self-loathing was my alcoholic father. “As soon as I wake up,” he’d confess, “I say to myself, P—,” (our last name) “get your lazy butt out of bed! You’re gonna louse something up today, you no-good schlemiel!”  Sadly, Dad never got sober, and gradually his self-loathing developed an immunity to the alcohol that had once curbed it.

By contrast, when my sweet son was only 6, he cried to me one night before bed: “I just feel sorry for anyone who has to be around me, because I’m such a horrible person!  I don’t feel sorry for me, I feel sorry for them. I just wish I could be anybody else!  I hate me!”

Hugging him didn’t help.  Telling him he was wonderful didn’t help. What helped was explaining to him what I’m about to tell you.

Self-loathing is a thing.  It’s a voice, an entity unto itself, a part of our mind that tells us the same stuff over and over.  My sponsor taught me to call it “the worm.” My son and I named it “the mean voice.”

Having a name for self-loathing, recognizing its voice self_hating_by_lithraelwhen it speaks, takes away half of its power. In meetings, when I first heard others describe their self-loathing, I was floored. How could John possibly experience self-loathing? He’s such a wonderful guy!  Karen is so funny and smart – how could she possibly think she’s shit?

In my experience, most non-recovered alcoholics (and some Al-Anons) vacillate between thinking they’re the shit, and thinking they’re a piece of shit.  Normies must experience this phenomenon too, but A) I doubt their swings are as extreme, and B) people outside the program rarely admit to things that make no sense, even to themselves.  We in recovery, however, admit to everything and thus discover we’re not alone, which opens the way to healing.

Getting rid of self-loathing entirely is not, at least in my experience, possible.  What we can do through the steps is label its voice and take away its megaphone to render it fairly harmless.

DaisySteps 4 and 5 showed me my fundamental human foibles. Steps 6 and 7 narrowed them to flaws I could, with god’s help, stop practicing – self-pity, self- importance, and harsh judgement of others – all platforms on which self-loathing stands.  Steps 8 and 9 allowed me to set straight past wrongs to arrive at a clean, guilt-free slate.  Today steps 10, 11, and 12 keep me current, connected, and useful.

How does this weaken our sidekick, self-loathing?  Working those steps and many years of living a spiritually-based life have drawn from my core a certainty that god loves me. Despite many human shortcomings, I am fundamentally good – because god guides me toward goodness.  Ultimately, that’s the sunlight the vampire of self-loathing can’t endure.

And yet – even after 21 years of sobriety – self-loathing still won’t die.  It hurls insults at random intervals.  “You’re alone cause you’re boring and no one wants to be with you!” “You’re wrong and shameful!”  “You’re full of inherent, bumbling dumbness!”

Coprolalia

It helps to make friends with that voice.  Like someone suffering coprolalia – the Tourrette’s symptom of uttering profanity – it just can’t keep quiet!  It’s trying to beat the world to the punch, blurt out the worst so no one else can surprise us with it.  Stripped of its accusations, self-loathing amounts to nothing but another guise of fear.

The quickest strategy I’ve ever heard for dealing with self-loathing is my friend Brenda’s. She named her self-loathing voice Carl.  Why Carl?  No particular reason.  Now, whenever it crops up and tells her she’s a failure, no one likes her, etc., she just rolls her eyes and says simply, “Shut up, Carl.”

It works!

Did John F. Kennedy ever think incredibly dumb things or occasionally fart with a quizzical inflection?  Of course he did!  But he alone knew it.  Because we know ourselves more intimately than does anyone else alive, we must love ourselves – screw-ups and all – with equal fervor and humility.

Take that, self-loathing!

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The Wisdom of the 12 Steps

Context:
Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol… They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks…
Alcoholic Anonymous

A dry alcoholic – one who’s merely ceased drinking – is a miserable one.  I certainly was.  I needed booze.  For over 15 years it served as my medicine, my magic doorway to relaxation and social confidence.

Throughout my first two years sober, intense nervousness and insecurity made me miserable.  Tension ran me so ragged that my body eventually decided, “Can’t do this anymore; we’re shutting down” – and I sank into a depression no Zoloft could touch.  I had not worked the 12 Steps.

Once I worked them, I discovered lasting relief.  The unbearable uptightness of being doesn’t vanish in minutes as with as with alcohol, but by slow degrees as the steps change the way we view ourselves and the world.

A book called The Art of Happiness recently fell into my hands.  Quick story: after meeting a young Saudi Arabian friend for a farewell coffee before she returned to her country, I took her to my favorite Tibetan gift shop nearby.  It stands about a block from where recently a huge natural gas explosion obliterated three businesses and shattered every storefront window for blocks, so they’re still boarded over.  All except those of the tiny Tibetan gift shop.  It’s owner, a likewise tiny man, is constantly cheerful.

“And why didn’t your windows shatter?” I asked him with a half-smile.

To what was clearly a frequent question, he shrugged: “Mine shattered in a past life.”

Dalai-Lama-Nantes

I chatted about having heard the Dalai Lama address a university crowd in a crammed sports arena about ten years ago.  “What you could see was that he was really having a great time with it.  The school was giving him this honorary degree, so he was supposed to be all solemn, but he kept making these silly asides and cracking himself up.  He was just too happy!”

The little shop owner handed one Dalai Lama book to me and another to my Muslim friend.  “You want these,” he said simply – and offered us a screamin’ deal.  We three corners of the world smiled at one another.

The wisdom of the ages for how to live life is, in my opinion, distilled in the 12 steps of AA.  That’s why every suggestion from the Dalai Lama in this book (penned by an American psychiatrist dude who interviewed him ) aligns with their principles – though his words are based on 2,500 year old teachings and ours on a 1939 text by a New York stock broker, an Akron proctologist, and 100 newly sober drunks.

  • Trust in the innate goodness of all beings – oneself included.  Though in the wake of two world wars many Western anthropologists jumped on the “humans are intrinsically selfish, aggressive assholes” bandwagon (African Genesis, The Selfish Gene), Buddhist traditions maintain the opposite.  The Dalai Lama points out that “a calm, affectionate, wholesome state of mind has beneficial effects on our health” not just emotionally, but physically, implying it’s how we’re designed to operate.  The 12 steps  are founded in this same assumption, that beneath our self-centered, erratic behavior lies our truer nature.  We look to our higher power to “restore us to sanity” via the spiritual cleansing the remaining steps provide.
  • We cause much of our own suffering. “In general, if we carefully examine any given situation in a very honest and unbiased way, we will realize that to a large extent we are also responsible for the unfolding of events,” says the Dalai Lama.  This is the heart of steps 4 & 5, where, arriving at the fourth column of our inventory, we identify our part in what happened.
  • Happiness differs from pleasure.  “True happiness relates more to the mind and heart.  Happiness that depends on physical pleasure is unstable; one day it’s there and the next it’s gone.”  This quote correlates to a passage from Step 7 in Twelve Steps and Traditions:  “Never was there enough of what we thought we wanted.  In all these strivings, so many of them well-intentioned, …[w]e had lacked the perspective to see that character-building and spiritual values had to come first, and that material satisfactions were not the purpose of living.”
  • Happiness springs from compassion.  The Dalai Lama emphasizes repeatedly, “We weren’t born with the purpose of causing trouble, harming others.  For our life to be of value, we must develop basic good human qualities – warmth, kindness, compassion. … Genuine compassion is based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering, just like myself. And, just like myself, they have the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration.”  This view lies at the heart of steps 8 and 9.  When we make restitution to former rivals, we go to them in this spirit of compassion.

compassion

  • Service to others is our purpose.  “There is no guarantee that tomorrow at this time we will be here…  I believe that the proper utilization of time is this: if you can, serve other people, other sentient beings.”  This idea lines up with a passage from the Big Book not quoted enough, probably because it runs so counter to self.  “At the moment we are try­ing to put our lives in order. But this is not an end in itself. Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maxi­mum service to God and the people about us.” (p.77)
  • Recognize suffering as a teacher.  Dalai Lama: “By… eliminating afflictive states of mind such as craving and hatred, one can achieve a completely purified state, free from suffering.  Within a Buddhist context, …[pain] serves to encourage one to engage in the practices that will eliminate the root causes of suffering.” Here’s the same idea in AA’s 12 & 12:  “Under these conditions, the pains of failure are converted into assets. Out of them we receive the stimulation we need to go forward. Someone who knew what he was talking about once remarked that pain was the touchstone of all spiritual progress. How heartily we A.A.’s can agree with him, for we know that the pains of drinking had to come before sobriety, and emotional turmoil before serenity.”

There are many more parallels, but I’m out of room.

Thanks to the steps, ease and comfort come to me now because I enjoy the world I live in, not because I’ve vanquished it for a few hours.  But there’s still a long way to go.  For instance, the Dalai Lama says he never feels lonely or wishes he could marry, whereas I still get lonely quite frequently and am codependent as hell.  But that’s okay: it’s progress,  not perfection – right?

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