Pain and god

Recent events have reminded me how, for so many years, I lived trapped in relentless self-criticism, how I suffered in hating and pitying myself, and how blindly I sought escape from that tangle of feelings. The emotional health I’ve gradually been graced with is paradise by contrast, but living here causes me to forget how lost I used to be — an amnesia that dulls my compassion.

My son came to me last night and shared that he’s in tremendous emotional pain.  I’d had no idea.  The news came as a shock. I remember when he was 6, he told me one night in his sweet, piping voice, “I feel sorry for anyone who has to be around me — because I’m such a horrible person.” I did what I wished my parents had done for me: took him seriously. I explained that he mustn’t listen to what the “mean voice” said to him, that it would always find fault with him just for existing.  I explained all the ways I cope: identify it, label it, question it. Whenever I checked in with him in the weeks and years that followed, he told me the mean voice had gone away. Last night I learned that’s not the case.  As he’s grown to a 6′ young man, so, too, has his self-loathing swelled to a powerful announcer of worthlessness.

And here I hit up against my own powerlessness to lead him out of his pain, as much as I wish I could. Because the resounding, unavoidable fact of life is that we each must find our own way.  I know I could never have healed without the loving community of recovering alcoholics to which my higher power guided me. But my son, like every person ever born, must find his own path.  Will I send him to counseling?  Of course!  But even an excellent therapist can only clear the ground and help us give names to the various forms of suffering and trauma we carry.  To step out of those to a higher plane — that’s something each must do for themself, collaborating, whether consciously or unconsciously, with god. 

No one can hand you freedom. The whole problem with drugs, alcohol, or any addiction is that they seem to — so we chase them, no matter what anyone tells us.  

In fact, my powerlessness to help my son brings me up against my powerlessness to help anyone; it makes me question the whole premise of this blog. So often I write about the view from this safe, cozy ledge of sanity I’ve settled on, forgetting what it was like to dangle above that dark chasm, clinging to whatever false fix of the day.  I wish so much I could hand over to the world all I’ve been given — but life doesn’t work that way.

Image: Mario Sixtus

I come back to my core belief: that we are all incomplete without god, that we’re each set down on this Earth with a mission to reforge that connection, and that to the extent we succeed, we expand the power of love/god.  “We all live inside of god” — that’s how a Near Death Experiencer I recently interviewed put it.  And yet we bubble ourselves off inside fear, anger, and ego, languishing in isolation. Each time we pierce the bubble by reaching through with love, we express the energy of god.  We are god’s tendrils, its nerve endings, the leaves of its vast tree. But if a leaf seals itself off from sustenance because for some reason it’s denying the tree’s existence, it withers. And withering hurts.

My father, I, and now, I learn, my son were all given minds wired for self-condemnation. Until last night I believed that, because my son doesn’t use drugs or alcohol, we’d somehow broken the chain. Yet today I consider that, although I was 6 years sober when he was born, I remained a confused woman clinging to a dysfunctional, codependent relationship. When that relationship fell apart, my son, who was then only two and a half, lay face down on the carpet and spoke the words, “My family is dead.”  I tried so hard to love him so much that the pain wouldn’t sear his little heart — but for whatever reason, I couldn’t spare him. I don’t know that I could have done anything differently.  All I could do was be honest and love him — and that’s more true than ever today.

Last night I tried to speak to him of god, of the crucial importance of seeking out whatever font of goodness lies within our cores and appealing to it for help. Doing that, I said, saved my life. How lame my words sounded!  How lame they sound here!  Because finding god is an inside job, while words are just outside symbols, and never the twain shall meet.  That’s why religion rings so hollow for most of us.

Yet the same is true here.  Words, words, words! 

My own truth is that god has led me every step of the way through my own messy, twisted, often sick-sick-sick story, though I never knew it in the moment.  That fucking cliché poem about only one set of footprints in the sandThat has been my experience. For instance, without that dysfunctional, codependent relationship, I might not be here today, because that partner was sober in AA when we met, whereas I was a dying drunk. 

Every pain I’ve walked through has been my teacher, a way for god to suggest a deeper truth if I was willing to see it.  Pain — listening to it, not fleeing it — has shown me what works and what doesn’t.  In essence, it’s been like an electric fence bordering my own unique path toward happiness. I’ve had zap myself repeatedly by straying after various  dumb shiny things before I’d become willing to abandon them and proceed along a wiser tack. Slowly, gradually, I’ve learned how to live.

The same, I pray, will be true for my son — and for you.

 

 

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NDEs, God, and Recovery

“The god part” is, without question, the biggest hurdle of the AA program for countless sick and dying alcoholics and addicts.  For me it certainly was, because when I read that word “God” coupled with “He” in the 12 steps, I immediately thought of religion, of versions of God as a humanoid king or judge.  And that image made me barf. It seemed extremely inconvenient that the only thing AA could offer to save my life was something so hokey as a higher power.

At the time when I was hitting bottom and, thanks to countless contingencies I now see as guidance, finding myself in my first AA meeting, I was an atheist.  An avid, even rabid one. However, I was also trying to bracket some extremely weird shit that had been happening to me — inexplicable experiences  our culture would label delusional or make-believe.

What sort of weird shit do I mean?

During an early morning rain storm, I saw an old man on an ocean beach in Gloucester, MA, dressed in what appeared to be antique rain gear and walking from the dunes on my left toward the waves on my right, perpendicular to my solo progress.  I made up my mind to ask, as soon as I got close enough to communicate over the strong wind and thundering waves, where he’d found such authentic-looking yellow Mackintosh garb. But as I got closer I saw he was staring toward the horizon as if in some intense emotional pain. I tried to look for what he might be seeing, but the clouds hung so low over the water, there was nothing to see.  So, when he crossed directly in front of me, close enough that I saw the fine wrinkles and red capillaries on his face, I said only “How’s it going?” He did not reply, and when I had walked a ways further, I looked back, angered by his rudeness, only to see — no one.  An empty beach.  I tried to figure out where the old guy could have got to so fast. But when I went back to look for his tracks, I could find none but my own.  This happened five years after my Near-Death Experience.

A few years later, I knew my unborn nephew was destined to die, and that my brother was going to plunge into profound sea of grief at his loss.  Then exactly that happened.

Weeks before I hit bottom, I’d driven home absolutely hammered, speeding along winding woodland roads, threading the needle amid a blur of reflectors on a narrow bridge. When I reached my house and stood congratulating myself, hanging onto the door for support, a voice shot through me like a bolt of knowing: This is the last time I can help you.

A few weeks later when my dog got hit by a truck and foiled my plans to attend a “vodka-slamming party” and just not drink, that same voice addressed me again: Look!  My eyes at the moment were on the blood trickling over the asphalt from under my dog’s body, and the message was that my future would involve something similar if I didn’t cut the shit.

So that’s some weird shit, right?

Then I walked into an AA meeting (actually, the dog incident happened after my first half-assed prayer when I was 2 weeks sober) and I read “Came to believe in a Power greater than ourselves that could restore us to sanity.”  I made absolutely no connection between those words and the voice that had, so to speak, hacked my consciousness.

Why not?

If you’re an alcoholic or any type of addict in recovery, then you know firsthand the isolating effect of relying on ego to navigate life. Ego tells us we are different. It sometimes tells us we’re special and better than others, but it can also tell us we’re worse than others, and that our various struggles are unique. In fact, living in ego’s lonely “I” rather than the heart’s “we” is what generates the pain we drink to escape.

But of course I did not know that.

I classified all my paranormal experiences as something I should keep to myself just as I did my obsessive infatuations or harshly manipulative thoughts of using mildly cool people to connect with their hella cool friends. The inner workings of my mind were a source of shame, and so these woo-woos, I felt, were shameful.  They might point to a fried brain or neurosis, but certainly not to an active spirit world that could free me from addiction.

My own journey to arrive at working model of god has been long.  Weird woo-woos continued to befall me until I broke down in about 2004 and accepted the spirit world as real.  That acknowledgement eventually led me to seek out fellow NDErs in the Seattle chapter of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS).

What goes on in an NDE is that the spirit leaves the body; consciousness exits the brain.  I recently heard a fascinating interview with Dr. Bruce Greyson*,a psychologist who’s been researching NDEs for about 40 years.  Greyson theorizes that the brain acts as not only an interpreter of sensory input but also a filter against cosmic and spiritual input.  Its primary function, he reasons, is our physical survival, so anything extraneous to that gets filtered out. We see and hear only those ranges of light and sound that are useful for filling our terrestrial needs. Input from an alternate plane of reality, Greyson theorizes, would distract us from those needs and thus detract from our chances of survival, so we evolved means to exclude it. The brain’s filtering capacity can, however, be suppressed by psychedelic drugs or even damaged by NDEs so that it ceases to work effectively, thus allowing spiritual energies to enter.

Greyson’s theory both differs from and aligns with my own.  I believe that conscious beings are encapsulated in what I call a “god-phobic energetic membrane” analogous to the hydrophobic fatty membranes that encapsulate living cells. In other words, to function individually as a water-based mechanism in a water-based environment, each cell requires a membrane that repels water.  Similarly, as we are bits of god swimming in god-energy, we need a god-repelling membrane in order to function independently.  If we leave the body during an NDE, we somehow rupture the membrane, which closes faultily after our return so that other spirit energies can seep in.  A medium is basically someone with a leaky energetic membrane.

My first IANDS meetings in 2012 felt very much like my first AA meetings. Just as in AA I marveled every time a fellow alcoholic articulated experiences I’d assumed to be mine alone, so at every IANDS meeting, I heard bits of “my story” told by others and came to realize I’m just a garden variety NDEr.  Many, many NDErs had experienced a “voice” like the one I “hear” — which by that time had saved my life on multiple occasions — and referred to it simply as their guardian angel.  One NDEr, upon reviving from death, had been able for a short while to see beings behind the people helping him —  beings who were “helping them help me.” For lack of a better word, he said, he calls them angels.

Once I started to think of the voice randomly hacking my thoughts as my guardian angel rather than god itself, a lot of stuff began to make sense.  I began to see that my angel greeted me on the other side, sent me back to Earth to accomplish something, and stays with me constantly. Sometimes my mind seems to hit the right “frequency” to pick up messages my angel conveys — often a variant of  c’mon, you can be more honest! Rarely does my angel bust through apropos of no request, unless I’m in mortal danger or he has a life lesson to tell me in the moment.

I wish I could pass on to fellow alcoholics and others my certainty that the spirit world is real — but I can’t.  Each life must ask directly, I’ve been told.  Seek a god of your understanding. What weird things have happened to you?  What synchronicities, what surprisingly accurate intuitions?  Do not let the cultural construct of religion “deter you from honestly asking yourself what [spiritual terms] mean to you.” [p. 47]. You wouldn’t have read this far if you did not sense, at some level, leaks in your own filter or membrane allowing in wisps of the spirit world.

 

 

*Dr. Bruce Greyson starts at 23:10 in THIS VIDEO

Resources:  NDE video channels:

Tricia Barker’s Healed by the Light: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyIstVbBhilo1gdUmazkReQ/videos

Peter Panagore’s Facebook NDE video page:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/NearDeathExperienceVideo/

 

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Filed under Faith, God, NDE, Near Death Experience, Recovery, Spirituality

“There is a Solution” – notes on Chpt 2

Who’s qualified to write Cliff Notes on the Big Book?

Absolutely nobody.  Certainly not me.

But here’s the thing.  When I was brand new to AA, I dismissed the Big Book as a dated, sophomoric, somewhat embarrassing artifact of some well-meaning old white guys from the ’30s. Certainly I never imagined  that, with the help of an informed sponsor, this book would come alive to  1) save my life and 2) transform my entire experience of the world.

My sponsor and I would read the book together each time we met, taking turns. She’d ask me certain questions, tell me what to highlight, and suggest annotations.  Unfortunately, not everybody gets access to a sponsor who’s worked with such a sponsor, passing down a lens, so here goes my take for this chapter.

Big book manuscript

What’s typed, too, is the product of many past revisions

The Big Book in general is divinely inspired. It’s the brainchild, not of Bill W., but of the first 100 sober alcoholics, who haggled and argued and revised over and over until they arrived at a manuscript they could all live with.  In that lengthy dialectic of passionate feelings and hard-won compromises, spiritual truths somehow saturated this pioneering text — one that articulates a way of life for millions and yet means precisely the same thing to no two.

There is a Solution.  Bill W. doubtless had in mind a fancier title, but I can just hear Dr. Bob and others insisting, “Let’s keep it simple!”

Today, in an era when detox centers and (money-grubbing) treatment programs abound, we may have a hard time imagining a world with NO SOLUTION ANYWHERE. If you developed an alcoholic/ addictive mind, you were pretty much screwed — on your way to jails, institutions, or death — or, best case scenario, a confused, resentful, self-censuring life as a drunk.

The first paragraphs emphasize universality amid diversity for “thousands” who were “once as hopeless as Bill.” Rescued from the same demise, sober alcoholics can all, “from the steerage to the Captain’s table,” i.e. from the poorest (cargo passengers) to the richest (fat cats who sit with the captain), rejoice over the solution that unites us. In this sense, AA was way ahead of its time; class delineations were far stronger in the U.S. in the 30s.

Next, the authors drop another big bomb that seems common knowledge today: that alcoholism is not just a destructive habit, but an illness. Unlike cancer and other diseases, however, this illness causes us to break out in uncontrollable asshole-ness, fucking up not only our own lives but those of every person who loves or depends on us. The only sane voice that can get through to such a diseased mind is that of a fellow alcoholic, one who isn’t shoulding on the asshole from the safe shore of sanity, but has lived awash in the same insanity.  What that person has to offer — well, that’s what they hope to capture in this book.

They were in wholly new territory.  Think about that.

What’s the difference between a true alcoholic an a heavy drinker?  That’s what they cover next: a heavy drinker may look exactly like an alcoholic — until they really need to stop.  Heavy drinkers have brakes, however reluctant they may be to apply them.  True alcoholics, by contrast, are careening down a mountain road with their brakes shot to hell, having lost “all control of [our] liquor consumption, once [we] start to drink.”

Perhaps the Jekyll and Hyde description of an alcoholic that follows is a bit drastic.  I myself was looking for something more like, “…fools everyone into thinking she’s perfectly fine while hating herself and wanting to die.” Still, I did see glimpses of myself in the “fine fellow” who is “sensible and well balanced” with “special abilities” and yet — repeatedly turns into a shitfaced asshole.

On page 23 they drop another bomb: “The main problem of the alcoholic centers in their* mind rather than their body…The truth is that they have no more idea why they took that first drink than you have.”  Many of us refer to this phenomenon as the “curious mental blank spot.”

“We are unable at certain times to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago… If these thoughts do occur they are hazy and readily supplanted with the old threadbare idea that this time we shall handle ourselves like other people..”


Here was the discovery that bonded Bill W. and Dr. Bob as the 15-minute conversation Dr. Bob had consented to ballooned into a 4-month brainstorm on alcoholism. For the first time in human history, two drunks hashed out the fact that, when the craving struck, they could not remember why they did not want to drink.  They understood, also, that we are totally pucked: We cannot fix our broken brain with our broken brain.

At long last, here’s the solution, which turns out to be good for us but murder on our precious egos:

“Almost none of us liked…”  (sponsors: “Hooray!  You don’t have to like it!!”) …the self searching, leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation…. The central fact of our lives today is that our Creator has…commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves.”

The solution, like it or not, is to seek god’s help as we take an honest look at our self-centered fears, own them, and begin to live on a basis of faith in something greater than ourselves.  We can choose freely to either A) do this or B) go on drinking ourselves to death, “blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable condition as best we [can].”

Along comes the story of Rowland Hazard’s work with Carl Jung.  (Rowland, by the way, is one of the guys who sobered up Ebby T., who in turn carried the message to Bill W.). Jung is quoted in his description of the “spiritual experience” or psychic change needed to revolutionize an alcoholic’s perspective and transform their life. Basically, everything has to change as we give up all the delusions we’ve lived by. Inward faith, not outward religion, is the foundation of sobriety.

The chapter wraps up with a little preview of chapters ahead and a “taste” disclaimer for the personal stories at the back of the book, intended to spark the recognition that bonds one alcoholic to another.  Alcoholism is a disease of loneliness and isolation, but it has one flaw: it’s the same for all of us, so when we break that isolation via the fellowship of AA, we have it by the short ones.

So what’s the solution? God, love, honesty, humility, and community — to be unpacked via the 12 steps.  Simple, but not easy.

Alcoholics Anonymous 1940s video:
Corny, perhaps, but the elusive cure for alcoholism is in the guy’s tiny smile in the final shot.

 

  • Yes, of course, the language and entire mindset of the Big Book is grossly sexist, which is annoying as hell for anyone who doesn’t identify as “he” or think of god as a dude.  But if we want to get well, it seems a small price to pay to forgive their ignorance and change all the pronouns to fit our reality.

 

 

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To Other or not to Other

Virtually every Near-Death Experience I’ve ever heard or read underscores the primacy of love.  Many who visit the other side are told directly that love is all that matters, that love powers the universe, and that we are all one.  Yet as we live day to day encapsulated in our own bodies, which are protected by defensive egos, we often lose track of this fundamental truth.

The clinic building

I was shown my own forgetfulness by something I witnessed yesterday. Outside a veterinarian clinic for birds and exotic animals, my son and I were waiting in the car for news about Katie, one of our pet chickens who had taken sick a few days before. In these times of social distancing, a vet tech comes out to the parking lot to take your pet, then the vet calls you to discuss symptoms and treatment.

A car pulled up a few empty spaces from us, and having nothing else to do, I noticed two passengers, a couple in perhaps their late forties. Through our slightly tinted glass, I watched the wife, who had been driving, make a brief call. She got out of the car and walked past the front entrance along the side of the building, perhaps to a back door.  A petite Asian woman in jeans, she stood there alone clasping an elbow and waiting for the man.

Suddenly, a flood of weeping overtook her.  She let loose a torrent of tears, her eyes anguished, her mouth agape, pacing blindly. When her husband came around the building’s corner, he walked close without hesitation and hugged her, her shoulders shaking with sobs.  A door opened adjacent to them, and they went in.

A few minutes later, the wife came out again, her face stricken but now composed, carrying a small cardboard box that, in different circumstances, might have held perhaps  four donuts.  At first I imagined it contained her pet’s ashes, though later I realized her grief was too raw for that.  She got in the car’s driver seat, holding the box near to her heart so I could still see it through the glass.

A minute or so later her husband emerged from the back door carrying a bright yellow canvas animal transport case.  There was nothing inside it.

Just before he rounded the corner where his wife would be able see him, he stopped.  He stood staring at the pavement immediately in front of him, holding that empty case, his expression laden with heaviness, a private darkness.  Then he raised his face toward the open sky with a look that spoke of prayers or messages to the dead.  Seconds passed. Finally, his body caving slightly with surrender, he stepped into his wife’s view and climbed briskly into the car.  She handed him the box, but the car didn’t move. Rather, they appeared to be staring at something on the center console, and I wondered momentarily whether they’d perhaps opened the box.  But no.  I next saw his head dip in such a way that I knew he was kissing her hand, and I realized it was their two hands, joined in grief, at which they’d been staring for those moments.

Only after she’d driven off did I notice a sign indicating that this vet treated neither cats or dogs.  It had been a bird.  The couple’s bird had died — a parrot, a cockatiel, a perhaps just a budgie — one they’d lived with perhaps for many years and both loved as if it were a child.

Loving/Judging Strangers
I love this couple now because I was randomly granted a glimpse into their hearts.  I got to witness the power of their love — deeply private love for  a small creature that had somehow, when it lived, embodied their love for one another.  I can see them talking to the bird in the morning sunlight of their bright, plant-filled kitchen, and the bird responding with that crisp, chipper regard my budgie always showed me. Birds do bond more than most people realize.

But these two also taught me a lesson about myself and how coldly I “other” my fellow humans.  As much as I like to think my default state is loving kindness for all, it’s actually competition, judgement, and stereotyping.

When they first drove up, I was bummed because their animal might take priority over my chicken, such that my son and I would have to wait even longer in the lot. I also noticed their car was newer and nicer than mine and wrote them off as materialistic eastsiders (some suburbs to the east of Lake Washington, where Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos reside, are wealthy).  “I don’t care about your fancy car!” I thought with automatic disdain.

Worse still, when I saw their ethnicity, I felt surprised that the woman was doing the driving and phoning.  I’m most ashamed of this: having no clue how many generations behind them were straight-up American, I assumed they’d  take on roles dictated by the patriarchy of many Asian cultures — which I generalize as less open to gender equality.

Once I saw the woman’s grief, I dropped all assumptions and became free to love her.  I saw not an “other” but another version of me, a fellow consciousness, a pilot navigating as best she could through life’s opposing winds of love and fear.

But I still judged the man.  Only when I saw his moments alone did I realize his “being strong” for her was a choice made from love, not because he’d loved their pet any less.

I’ll Try Harder
Maintaining an attitude of loving kindness is no easy feat, particularly in contemporary culture.  Our media is sheer poison. It’s an industry that capitalizes on stirring up fear and posits itself as a wellspring of defensive wisdom against a hostile, deceptive, and cruel world.  Friends and acquaintances shaped by this constant flow of negativity view the world as a grim and corrupt place.  They view other people as flat characters motivated by purely selfish and simplistic impulses, while only they themselves are deeply complex and sensitive beings. Clearly I, too, am often blinded by similar assumptions.

Thank you, grieving couple, for reminding me that every heart is individual, that every life is a tremendous mosaic of experiences from childhood until today, and that in essence we are all one. Your little bird, and all the love you gave it, is with god.

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Filed under Near Death Experience, Spirituality

Sick with COVID-19: Lessons from a nasty virus

From late February into early March, I battled a respiratory illness I feared might be COVID-19, but then I got better. I’d started climbing mountains again — just boring ones to condition for major summer ascents.  Then on 3/22, I was in the middle of an online yoga class when it happened: a shadow eclipsed my energy just as the moon slides over the sun.  It’s a moment I’ll remember all my life.

Dramatic as the shift was, I made myself finish the class before collapsing in a sloppy shavasana in some sunbeams on my carpet. Having mostly stayed home for some time, I didn’t know where I’d been exposed, but I sensed a major storm on the horizon and realized I had to shop while I still could.

Day 1 – hit by a bus

The next morning, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus. I woke dazed. Weak. My living room, when I toddled into it, looked surreal, as though the furniture were floating an inch or two above the floor. My ears roared and I could not think. Our electronic thermometer read 97.4°.  I stuck it in a glass of hot water: 97.4°.  Great.  All the drug stores and websites were out of stock, I knew.

The idea of phoning the local test line and waiting to get through, then getting vetted or whatever, and perhaps actually driving somewhere to wait in a car line seemed about as doable as climbing Mount Rainier that afternoon.  I once had Dengue fever with a temp of 104°, and this felt worse.

Around 11:00 that morning, I decided a fresh orange might help. I had a bag of navel oranges, so I stood in the kitchen peeling one. But instead of the peel curling off in one piece, as with a tangerine, all I could  pull off were pieces maybe the size of my thumb or thumbnail.  I kept trying to roll off a strip, and the peel kept breaking. Each time, I felt more overwhelmed. Finally, setting down the half peeled-orange, I thought, Why, oh why, did I imagine I could DO this?!  Oh my god!  Oranges are so stupid!  My face was, I’m sure, a mask of Greek tragedy.  I wanted to cry.

That’s another moment I’ll never forget.  But I’m too sick now to keep writing.  More tomorrow.

[Got worse again. Took a 3-day break]

What I’ve noticed over the course of my illness (I’m al-most well after 2 weeks) is that my experience with COVID-19 in many ways mirrored my experience with alcoholism. I like to think, at 25 years sober, that my reactions to life have transformed through working the steps.  But dancing with this illness has shown me they haven’t. It’s only my AWARENESS of reactions to life that have changed.  And that awareness usually arrives, unfortunately, only in retrospect.

Stage 1: Hangover / wiped out by initial symptoms
After a binge, I would always feel like death warmed over. In my longing to feel okay, I’d make all kinds of resolutions to live in a healthier way. Similarly, when I first got C-19, I vowed to do all I could to help my body fight it.

Day 3 – doin’ great!

Stage 2: Feeling Better / business as usual
As soon as the worst of my hangover used to pass, I’d start rationalizing why it was fine for me to have a “cocktail” or “nice glass of wine,” etc.  After all, I was way smarter than your average alcoholic, and I’d be able to manage my drinking.  Similarly, as soon as I felt somewhat better from COVID-19 on Day 3,  I dismissed all my resolutions about helping my body.  Pride kicked in: Wasn’t I super fit?  Hadn’t a doctor told me just a week before that my blood pressure was ideal for someone 40 years younger?  I’d shrug off this virus like a 20-year-old!  I started working online with 2 clients a day, still washing dishes, caring for the pets, and trying to tidy up after my son who, home from college, was sick, too.  By Friday, Day 6, I was teaching 4 clients a day, though my doctor had confirmed COVID-19 through a virtual visit.

Stage 3: Seeing insanity / getting scared
When did I recognize that alcoholism was going to kill me? Those moments were awash in so many symptoms of end-stage alcoholism (depression/despair, distorted thinking, self-loathing, etc.) that the memory is hard to tease out. But there came a day when I glimpsed my own self-destructive insanity. With COVID-19, on Day 6, my ribs were tight and I’d lost some sense of smell, but I found these symptoms somehow amusing and went ahead teaching.  Then, while the last client was taking a bathroom break, I coughed.

My lungs, I discovered, were thoroughly congested.  They sounded like bagpipes.  Horrified, I called my doctor, who prescribed an inhaler.

Stage 4: Hitting bottom / reaching out
Surrender comes only when we’ve exhausted every other option. In 1995, I attended my first AA meeting as an alternative to suicide. With COVID-19, on Day 7 I realized neither the inhaler nor breathing steam was making a dent in the lung congestion. The virus was dug-in and thriving. I recognized that I was 59 years old and this virus was too mutated for my habituated immune system to trump. I felt the fringes of panic, hyperventilating with my tight, constricted ribs.

That’s when I called a New York man with whom I’d never spoken before. We’d attended the same college but not known each other then. What I DID know through a mutual friend was that he had COVID-19 and was one week ahead of me.  I used Facebook messenger to leave a desperate, rambling voicemail. He called back.

Day 7 – humbled

“Are you staying in bed?” he asked.
“No.” My To-Do list and mortgage payment came to mind. “I can’t.”
“Well, you need to,” he said. “You need to stop everything.”
“Yeah, but I –”
“Just stop.  Just get in bed.  You need to make getting well your only work.”

Stage 5: Willingness
So you know what I did?  I got in bed.  I cancelled all my clients and  stayed in bed for 5 days. The house became a pig sty. I signed up for Netflix and binge-watched Giri/Haji. And because two nurses advised it, in addition to steaming and gargling with salt water and spraying Simply Saline up my nose 3 x a day, I went for a brisk 30-minute walk each day to work my lungs, streaming with sweat and being vigilant to stay at least 20 feet from other pedestrians.

After following this regime for 4 days, I hit my first pink cloud.  During my walk on day 11, I suddenly felt a little energy spurt.  I felt almost normal for a brief window and could see the beauty of the world.  The cherry blossoms were out, and so were whole families who loved each other.  I heard laughter and squeals; I saw a mom teaching her son to ride a bike, running alongside him while the dad, carrying a little one, called out excitedly, “You’ve got it!  You’ve got it!”

I wept, thinking how beautiful life is, what a magnificent journey it is to inhabit a body and be part of the material world, even with all its trials and tribulations.

Stage 6: Gratitude and Service
Today is Day 15 and I’m not well, but I’m feeling vastly better. My lungs have cleared — just a tad wheezy — and my temperature is down (my mom mailed me a spare thermometer).  Headache and fatigue are my sole symptoms.  Friends have showered me with well-wishes, groceries, take-out, and home-cooked meals dropped on my doorstep.  I finally got tested three days ago and will probably hear back tomorrow.

But someone else is getting tested as well: my almost-94-year-old mom’s primary caregiver.  Mom lives  alone, usually with hired help, but until the test results come back, no caregiver will visit.  If the caregiver’s test comes back positive and my mom proves infected, I’ll be able to move back home to take care of her, tag-teaming with my son (who recovered in just 3 days).  Further, once I’ve got my official test results in hand and am 100% healthy, I’ll qualify to donate my hard-earned antibodies in plasma to help others recover.

I may even try to organize my AA fellows who’ve likewise recovered from C-19 to offer services to quarantined sick people who lack a supportive circle of friends such as we’re blessed with in the program.

In other words, exactly as with recovery from alcoholism, my difficult past — all the pains and fears I’ve walked through in fighting this virus — will make me more useful to others.  And to that, I look forward eagerly.

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Day 14 – much better

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PS: Mom’s caregiver tested negative.  So far, so good.

PPS: I continued to feel ill for 5 weeks.  😦 

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Surrender and the Big Picture

As I write this, the world is in a bit of a panic about COVID-19 — and understandably so.  Much is unknown.  Many will die.

Fear is huge right now because much of the world is a stranger to this degree of powerlessness. Nobody likes sudden, involuntary changes: being told to work or school their kids from home, to avoid contact with others. It’s tough. Disruptive. Confusing. 

In times like these, it really sucks to have no higher power or faith in an afterlife.  If we lack faith, we fight out of an amorphous, unrelenting fear.  If we possess a working faith, we attend with care to each precaution, surrender what’s beyond our control, and trust that, though perhaps in ways beyond our understanding, all will be well.

For that matter, all may be better.  Considered from a broad enough perspective, COVID-19 can be seen as a gift.  This pandemic is teaching humanity, more vividly than anything heretofore, the crucial, overdue, and catastrophically-denied lesson that all of us share one planet.  Humanity is, in fact, one big global community.  National boundaries mean no more to this virus than they do to impacts of climate change.  Both are everyone’s problem.

Surrender is simply saying, “What is, is.  I have no power to change X, but I do have power to perform Y.” For instance, in the case of alcoholism, X is that we have it — a fact that won’t ever change. Y is our program of action: going to AA meetings, doing stepwork, and being of service to others.

A continuing counter-intuitive surrender for me is the fact that I’m a spiritually leaky bucket: No matter how many meetings I’ve gone to, how deeply I know the steps, or how much service I’ve offered in the past, my spiritual bucket gets empty again if I don’t continue filling it.  My mind tells me, “Oh, I’m so smart now!  See how my Big Book is read to tatters? I can stay sober on my own!” I certainly want to believe that. I certainly don’t want it to be my ticket to misery and an early death. But it would be. I need to believe what I want not to believe.

Surrender to the afterlife and spirit world has, weirdly enough, posed an even harder, more counter-intuitive challenge.  I’ve had to say, “What is, is.” In this case, I mean both the reality of the spirit world and society’s disdain for it. I’ve experienced so many paranormal phenomena that I can no longer subscribe to the culturally dominant model of reality as exclusively material.  That model stands in blatant contradiction to my Weird Things — direct experiences of seeing a ghost, prescience, clairvoyance, and communications/interventions from the dead and from my guardian angel.  

I never wanted a Near Death Experience (NDE) any more than I wanted alcoholism. Following my NDE, I denied it as doggedly as I did alcoholism, clinging to my familiar materialism as much as I did to familiar drinking.  I kept right on refusing to change when I saw a ghost, knew my nephew would die, and began to hear a voice that advised the opposite of what I, myself, had decided.  Materialist science would lump all these together as delusions — my mind playing tricks on me.  For decades, I simply shut away whatever materialism could not explain.

But there came a point when I could no longer hold out. I had to say, “What is, is!  I have no power to change X — that I know the spirit world firsthand and that society dubs me a moron for saying so.  I do, however, have power to perform Y — find others who share my truth.”  Finding the sanctuary of IANDS, where everyone’s materialist schema has been pried from their equally reluctant intellectual grasp, has solidified my outlook.

What does all this have to do with COVID-19?  Today, I volunteer for Seattle IANDS by interviewing NDErs and writing up their stories for our bi-monthly newsletter (print only, at this point).  During the time they were dead, several interview subjects were shown, each through their own visual metaphor, that the spirit world is constantly working to guide humanity forward toward the light of universal love. Here are two interview excerpts:

 

“The largest light table was behind those two, a huge one with many saints around it. I couldn’t hear, but I knew they were talking about the planet – how to help it. More than any of the others, these saints had to allow. They were so serious because of all they were letting unfold.”

 

“I saw a city of diamond brightness. I knew the city contained highly advanced beings – angels and great souls [who] were building the future of humanity. I was given the revelation that… sometimes the intended purpose doesn’t unfold.”

 

Each seeks words to describe a hybrid of guidance and letting be.  Both chose the word “unfold.” I’m reminded of the way we teach small children: we present them with a toy or a problem to solve that we think offers them an opportunity to learn; then we let them have at it. 

God, according to countless NDErs, wants us to learn.  Many were offered a choice to return and complete their learning in this life, or proceed unfinished to the next — but lose all they’d learned. “I viewed it much the same as having to repeat a grade in school,” says one who drowned river rafting.

CO2over China before & after COVID-19 lockdown

When I put this whole picture together, I see a benevolent god calling some souls home while giving humanity at large a nudge to wake the fuck up.  In the single month since COVID-19 went international, the entire world has radically changed its ways of daily life, ceasing to commute, flying less, and producing less stuff — with the cumulative global effect of slashing our CO output beyond anything ever dreamed possible. 

Learn, god is urging us, that all is one! — humans, animals, plants, Gaia, and god.

 

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What Does 25 Years Sober Feel Like?

When I walked into my first AA meeting — sadly, defeatedly, with all kinds of caveats and conditions — I certainly never imagined that in 25 years I’d be writing a blog like this!  My plan was to “get my drinking under control.”  The idea that alcohol would no longer be a part of my life, any more than eating Gerber baby food or riding a tricycle, seemed impossible.  Life had only few bright spots, and alcohol, back on January 29, 1995, was one of them.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with baby food or tricycles.  I enjoyed both immensely at one time.  But I have outgrown them.

There was a time, too, when I had little idea who I was or how to live. Alcohol relaxed the grip of my frightened brain and let me function as if I had ease and comfort, as if I’d attained self-confidence, and as if I loved life with a daring spirit.

Gerber

But just as baby food is pureed for those who cannot chew, and tricycles stable for those who cannot balance, so alcohol was the ticket for a Louisa who could not calm down, could not go inward, could not know god and relinquish fear to simply be herself. In fact, I didn’t believe anyone could do that unmedicated, so I figured sober people must just be uptight and cautious as hell all the fucking time.

I was wrong.

What changed my life? 

Alcoholics Anonymous is where I encountered the conditions I needed to cultivate health, wholeness and — gosh! — maybe even enough wisdom to outgrow drinking.

    • The first thing I noticed in the rooms was love — an atmosphere different from anyplace in the outside world.  I came in a shaking, smoking, posturing young woman, and others saw through my facade with compassion rather than judgment.
    • The 12 Steps I virtually ignored for 3 years, until the depression that followed my sister’s death drove my life into the ground and I asked a young woman with AA chutzpah to sponsor me. From her I learned the foundations of honesty.  She pressed me in every step to scrutinize my implicit assumptions about myself, my fellows, and god.
    • Sponsoring AA newcomers let me see my character defects worn by other women.  To recognize self-defeating thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors is SO much easier when they’re wrecking someone else’s life!  I’ve sponsored somewhere between 35 and 40 women in my 25 years, learning from each  about the pains ego inflicts.
    • My sponsor, AA homegroup, and circle of sober friends continue to provide me with a community of love, honesty, and humility.  When I decided against throwing my usual big January sober party for my 25th birthday, my sponsor and a sober friend of 20 years planned and paid for a bowling party instead. I can’t describe the rush of love I felt when, scanning the bustling, noisy lanes of bowlers, I spotted the familiar faces of my homegroup family.
    • Branching out into a second spiritual community aligned with AA principles — my Near Death Experience community — has added a dimension to my faith and daily relationship with god.

The 12 Steps of AA are only a framework, a scaffolding for the discipline of total honesty with self and god — which is, of course, an ideal we strive for all our lives. At a recent hipster meeting, I urged the god-phobic newcomers to substitute “total fucking honesty” wherever the steps say “God.” I couldn’t help adding, “If you’re in active addiction, you know about as much about total fucking honesty as you do about god.”

Sober time doesn’t vanquish ego. It’s easy to rest on laurels or become a bleeding deacon (AA phrases meaning one claims to know stuff). People phone me for advice, call me an inspiration, a role model, an anchor for their sobriety.  That’s all well and good, but the fact is I’m just spiritually healthy — and only for today. I get to face life’s challenges with the same insight any thoughtful, loving, fully conscious woman would have accrued after 59 years of living.  Here are some of the challenges I face today:

Loneliness/nostalgia: My son left for college 500 miles away.  I miss him, and I miss his childhood.  How can all those years of cardboard books, small shoes, and super-heroes be over? I have no romantic partner, either.  He drank and cheated and that’s that — though I miss our fabulous adventures. I’m learning to enjoy my own company.

Getting Old: What the fuck is up with my turning 60 in six months? Isn’t there some mistake? I’m the young one, the girl with the huge eyes and acres of time ahead of her to fill with dreams and ambitions! Oh, no — just kidding.  I guess my face is sagging, muscles want to atrophy, and I can expect nothing but gradual decline over the next couple decades — decades that will fly by even faster than the two since my son was born.  WTF?

Too Many Hats: I wear too many damn hats.  I won’t even bore you with a list.  Too much going on; huge to-do lists.  I last watched TV/YouTube about a month and a half ago.

40 hours left to live

Grief and Loss: My friend of 20 years died last week. The same age as me and sober a few years longer, he had just slayed the expert slopes on a ski trip with his wife of 10 years and posted jealousy-inspiring selfies on Sunday.  Monday, he died at work from a heart attack. I can still hear his voice, the wit and playful humor behind so much of what he said. And just like that — he’s gone.

At 25 years sober, I get to feel all these feelings. I surrender to WHAT IS and how I feel about it.  Then I ask myself what good can be done — and I DO it.  I text with my son, exercise like a maniac, chip away at my to-do list, reach out to my friend’s devastated widow  — and I actively love all of it.

My sweet old dog — Cosmo, the messy life monk — is lame and often poops in the house overnight. When I am kind to him, helping him up the steps, touching him often because he’s deaf, and cleaning up accidents first thing in the morning with brisk cheer, I know what it means to live sober and in the light.  As my friend’s death underscores, every little thing is a gift.

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One Resolution Fits All

There’s a sense in which my life is none of my business.

I don’t know so much — what I am, for starters. I mean, I know I’m a consciousness, the “I” choosing these words, but how that font of awareness got married to a few trillion cells such that we all shuffle around together — how that came to be I have no clue.  Why I entered the world in a middle class American family — no idea. What the world is tending toward, the turmoil of someone much like me in Syria, the adorable joey dying painfully by fire in Australia, what will happen tomorrow, how long I will live — I know nothing.

But when I look back on the trail of my life and try to discern the hither to yon of it, if I sift through all I’ve seen and done and said and felt for just one gem, it’s this: I’ve been learning to love. The more love I generate, the more beautiful and meaningful my life.  So that will be my resolution, today and every day: Love More.

Loving myself.  I used to think that was easy enough, but it’s hardest. The reason it’s so hard, the gutter-ball of bowling for self-love that I kept throwing for about 40 years, is ego.  Ego is needed.  It was given us to keep us in our bodies, to train us to look out for ourselves so we can survive. Unfortunately, it usurps awareness and turns life into a contest, parading and concealing to orchestrate what it imagines others think.  Only in the last few years have I truly understood the inseparable nature of self-love and humility, two sides of the same coin.

In the warmth and simplicity of humility — I’m just me — I can drop the contest and see how simple my job actually is.  I try.  If I were to make a pie chart of my activities and responsibilities, there would be many, many slices. But in every area, all I can do is try.  To love myself, I focus on the sincerity of that effort rather than the outcomes it produces, successes or failures, which are ego’s domain.  I see my often bewildered, flawed, self-conscious self trying to live, to do what’s right, and I love myself for it.

Loving those close to me.  The hardest thing about loving family and others I’ve not necessarily chosen to position close to me is to truly see them instead of jumping to my idea of them.  My idea is ego’s shortcut that actually denies their humanity, their ongoing human experience, and sees only how they impact me.  If I can dilate the light of my own humility to cast it on them, I can see them, too, as bewildered, flawed, and self-conscious humans trying to navigate.  I may maintain a long list of flaws they don’t see (so funny!), but I can keep in mind that I fail to see many of my own. (When I made fun of myself the other night for craving attention, my friends laughed just a tad too hard.)  These folks, too, are trying as best they know how.

Loving humans I see.  This one’s an impediment for me because sometimes I can’t stop. Walking through the airport in a strange city, for example, my mind whirls in overdrive creating a whole life for every freaking person I see.  It’s exhausting!  They were born, they toddled and shit their diapers, they had their heart broken and either cried their guts out or stuffed it in deep pain.  Every single person!  So I try to calm down and just send blessings to each.

Loving the world I see.  This one is the chit!  It’s the key to happiness, not just for those of us in recovery, but for everyone.  I practice loving what I see.  For me, this means viewing everything as an expression of god — that gum wrapper on the sidewalk.  It grew as a tree, contains sunshine, soil, and magic, and was turned into paper at a factory where many complex souls worked and others exploited them from fear and greed, and it once contained gum similarly made, until a person who was born and toddled in diapers, etc., bought it and decided in a god-given consciousness to chew it, with all those sensations and reactions, and either intentionally or unintentionally let the wrapper fall, via a force of gravity proportionate to the mass of the earth, to have its trajectory interrupted here on the sidewalk. I also love crows and weeds.  I even love many insects. Everything is doing, carrying out a story, dancing with god.

Loving the world I don’t see.  I hold in my mind and heart at all times an awareness of this immense world over which I have no power.  Instead of trusting the pixelated reports of it churned out by media, social and otherwise, that ticker-tape through my devices, I concede that I have no way of knowing reality outside my small circle of experience, except as a general idea, a story that will turn out unpredictably in the years I witness and after I’m dead.  I know many beautiful, innocent humans and animals are everywhere trying to live, enjoying life or suffering. So I send out love, much like that of Buddhist prayers, whenever I can. I pray for good.  I pray for a growing network of compassion among people. I pray for the pod of orcas that used to frequent the waters where I live but are starving today for lack of salmon. I pray for my son.

So, back to my own life not being my business.  I didn’t make it and I control little of it, but I do have faith that god put me here to do something — to do good.  Every choice I make fulfills or betrays that mission.  Love more is the gem, the secret talisman I carry and feel in the pocket of my mind.  It is, I have found, my source of joy.

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The 12 Steps Backward

Lost in a spiritually empty world, we alcoholics relied for many years on a 12-Step program of our own making.  We just didn’t know it! Our 12 Steps Backward, a cycle still ‘guiding’ the lives of countless alcoholics, went about like this:

These can stand alone just fine, but I’ll go ahead and comment briefly on my own experience with them.

Steps 1-3
I took Step 1 at some point in high school.  I’d been uncomfortable in my skin since the age of 7 or 8, but the pain spiked unbearably in my late teens.  I hated being Louisa.  The first time I got shitfaced, I found instant relief and happily took Step 2, amazed that something as simple as booze could set everything right in my world. Now that I had a new way to live and feel good, I drifted into Step 3, believing superficially that alcohol and drugs were fun, and at a deeper level that I needed them to feel okay.

Steps 4-9
Alcohol/drugs inflated my ego with a sense of power that led me to harm others, whether by intentionally abusing their trust or by thoughtlessly overlooking their feelings.  During college, I tried to minimize the guilt that began to accumulate in the back of my mind — Step 4 — a policy I kept up for as long as I drank. Any lurking notion that my approach to living was faulty I dismissed by imagining pretty much everyone did the same — Step 5.

pay attentionMy sense of dramatic unfairness swelled alongside my unhappiness: life was not rewarding me as it should — Step 6.  Other people (cool peers? fickle authorities?) had to be at fault — Step 7.  Didn’t my problems really start with that kindergarten teacher who embarrassed me so badly and continue right up through current family and coworkers? — Step 8.  I wished I could set those people straight! — Step 9.

Steps 10-12
Living by Step 10, I never grew up emotionally because I never absorbed the lessons pain had to teach me.  I simply doused pain with booze, stirred it into a soupy ‘woe is me!’ drama, and learned nothing.  Step 11 flourished as a result — mind-movies rehashing the past or dreaming up glorious futures. By age 34 my life still looked okay on the outside, but I felt more depressed, abhorrent, and hopeless than I could stand, drinking in solitude, lowering my bar for company, and toying with suicidal ideation — Step 12.

At my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I read the real 12 Steps off the wall in less than a minute and dismissed them as worthless platitudes — seeing as I had all the emotional depth of a 15-year-old.  That stayed true for almost 3 years, until I hit a sober bottom grieving my sister’s death and found a rigorous sponsor who helped me apply them. The reversal of my life’s trajectory, from plowing ever deeper into misery to climbing ever higher toward gratitude and joy, came about through thoughtfully, truthfully, and thoroughly working these simple steps.

Initially, the “God” word freaked me out, as it does everyone, even though I’d once died briefly from drug overdose, crossed over to the other side, and journeyed to the Light. (I recently gave an interview about losing my atheistic battle to deny my NDE and its paranormal aftereffects, here: Louisa talks with Tricia Barker.)  Eventually, though, what I call “god” (i.e. the spirit world) showed itself to me so persistently and undeniably that I finally caved, embracing the fact that god — the loving intelligence animating all life — is everywhere in everything always.

NDE or no NDE, almost everyone who works the 12 steps in long-term recovery develops gratitude and comes to see how their god has been with them all along.

loveflow

For me, the 12 steps not only cleared resentments blocking me from god, but also triggered a sort of Copernican Revolution. Where I once strove to pull GOODNESS from other people to serve me as the center of the universe, I came to see that all GOODNESS flows from GOD, the true center of the universe, through me toward others. When I act as god’s conduit for love, my spiritual batteries get charged, and I feel joy.

That’s the mission we’re here to accomplish, folks: Overcome ego’s fears of vulnerability to connect with others in love and kindness — not only with those closest to us, but with all humans, animals, and the Earth as a whole.  Religion still pisses me off a bit because, in humanizing god, it obscures with pomp, cliquishness, and carrot-on-a-stick heavenly rewards what the 12 steps lay out with such humble clarity.

The goal of loving others freely enough to be of service can seem out of reach if we’ve been badly wounded; we need god’s help first to find our wounds, obscured under layers of drinking and denial, and then to heal them. And that’s exactly what the 12 steps are laid out to help us do.

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Note: I’m indebted to Bill L’s 11/8/19 share at our homegroup, Salmon Bay, referencing his “backward 3rd Step.” Thanks also to my friend Dawna H, who replied, “Get your ass over here!” when I texted that I felt too full and lazy to show up at the meeting and, with 22 years sober, helped me tweak the wording of these steps.

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Outrage vs. Action

If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.

Alcoholics Anonymous p. 66

I recently listened to an NPR program, Hidden Brain, that looked at moral outrage on social media and what’s going on in our brains when we post (or repost) it.

Dopamine hits!

That’s the the juicy part for all alcoholic/addicts, right? Human brains in general sift the world like Geiger counters seeking out sources of feel-good. We may not realize that’s what’s going on when we find one, but we self-administer hits of it like some poor little lab rat hitting the cocaine bar again and again. The trouble for us alcoholics is that getting caught up in these cycles can lead us back toward a drink.

Outrage is one such addictive cycle. The Hidden Brain host has us imagine an early human tribe in which someone gets caught doing something wrong. How should the group react? Ignore, expel, or punish? If they ignore, the wrong-doer may decide to act again. If they expel, they lose a member. So they punish. Yale psychologist Molly Crockett pops explains:

“Evolution placed a bet on [punishment] being a good idea for the group. When people decide to punish someone who’s behaved unfairly, we see activation in areas of the brain associated with reward, including the striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex… There’s a visceral satisfaction in doling out punishment.”

“Outrage,” the host summarizes, “gives us pleasure.”

He explains that the face-to-face context in which outrage evolved came with a natural set of brakes: you risked getting physically harmed by those you punished, or, if you were out of line, getting punished yourself. Neither consequence applies to social media (or any e-communication). Our brains revel in dopamine scot-free whenever we proclaim righteous, indignant, and often vicious stuff. Plus, every time someone LIKES or reposts our outrage, we get another dopamine boost, because our brains tell us we’re doling out even stronger punishment.

E-distance can destroy compassion even among people who love each other, as I discovered years ago when I first published my addiction memoir. Some family members responded from behind their screens with a rage they’d never have unleashed on me face-to-face. They emailed flamers berating me as a liar, narcissist, and sadist; they posted lengthy Facebook strings of back-and forth mockery; and they published one-star “reviews” on Amazon under pen names, buying copies under multiple accounts to publish more.

Clearly, my ideas about the role alcoholism and codependence had played in my upbringing felt wrong and hurtful to them. So they asked if we could we could all sit down and talk out these uncomfortable issues to arrive at some shared understanding — kidding!! They chose to punish my wrongdoing with no compunction, getting lots of satisfying dopamine surges every time they clicked SEND, POST, or PUBLISH.

At the time, I wept gallons of tears and developed panic attacks from so much as looking at my laptop. Happily, Amazon took down all but one review, and we’ve since healed enough as a family to deal with this as we do all conflict: we pretend it never happened.

I’ve been priming similar poisonous dopamine surges myself on social media ever since Trump got elected. Fortunately, my entire family is anti-Trump, so we’ve experienced no rift. Rather, after the initial despair of 2016, I began to take aim at no one in particular to make “them” recognize the despicable character and politics of this Russian plant president. I’ve been hitting the awkwardness-free vanquishment bar of social media again and again, posting about Trump’s lies, stupidity, moral depravity, damaging policies, etc..

Only recently have I realized my true motivation: dopamine. I see friends have liked or shared my post: Dopamine! A conservative friend comments disagreement, so I deliver a stinging retort: Dopamine! Have any of my posts done any good for anyone? Of course not. All I’ve accomplished is adding a bit more rage to the global atmosphere.

A normie might indulge in this cycle with only a slight harm to their long-term health. But as an alcoholic with “a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of [my] spiritual condition” (85), I have no business cultivating anger, which blocks me from “the sunlight of the spirit” (66), tipping the playing field to addiction’s advantage. The angry me is my ego, and ego is, as we know, addiction’s minion. The more outrage I feel, the less good I do anyone and the closer I am to a drink.

Goodness takes the form of action. Did Mother Teresa ridicule Calcutta for its bad policy toward the lame and the sick? Was Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail a rant? Would Mahatma Gandhi have Tweeted out anti-British zingers? Why not? Because inspired people understand that faith without works is dead; they know a single beneficial deed outweighs thousands of punishing words.

Increasingly, I’ve been trying to shift my life in a similar direction. In response to climate change, I started bussing to work in 2017, and when I realized I disliked buses, I switched to bicycling. I buy minimal plastic, donate to animal charities, and pick up litter. When I realized our local 30,000-year-old pod of orcas was starving for want of salmon, I started volunteering to do salmon habitat restoration work and showed up at a hearing on their behalf.

Humility is a big piece as well. How much do my individual actions help? Very little. How much more do they help than posts and tweets? Infinitely more. When I’m volunteering, I can FEEL that it’s the right thing to do, much as I feel the goodness of AA service work, which somehow quiets the ire I feel when I witness what I think is wrong. I don’t need to tell everybody; I need to do more good.

Sobriety is a whole-life deal as we expand and deepen our experience of who we are. Maybe we can outgrow posting zingers the same way we outgrow self-pity, gossip, and all those other short-term fixes. Maybe we can find our power to put love and goodness to work in small but real actions.

Restoring stream habitats

Planting trees

Meeting cool people

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