The 12 Steps Backward

Struggling in a spiritually barren 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 a little 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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Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, living sober, NDE, Recovery, Twelve Steps

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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Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, living sober, Recovery, Social media

My Big Fat Dead Mosquito

Everywhere I look, I see a big fat dead mosquito. Over the years, this insect has taught me a lot about life.

It’s inside my eyeball. Hiking across Glacier National Park in 2007 (left), at the moment I reached Triple Divide Pass, the spot where waters flow into three different oceans, it happened: a big fat dead mosquito appeared against the bright sky, like bunny ears cast on a movie screen. I could see the head and proboscis on its body, from which dangled several crumpled legs.

Having good insurance in those days, I soon saw an ophthalmologist who referred me to an expensive specialist with a computerized magnification system that let him tour around in my eyeball as if it were a museum. He looked and looked, asking me to move my eyes in various directions. Finally he scooted back from the machine.

“You’re right,” he said. “It looks like a big fat dead mosquito.”

Unfortunately, he explained, nothing could be done.  A clump of cells had sloughed off my hyaloid canal, which connects the lens and optic nerve, but was still attached, drifting about in my ocular fluid and casting this distinctive shadow on my retina. Even if I’d wanted surgery, the risk to my optic nerve would be too great. Perhaps in time the cells would fall off and settle, like most floaters, to the bottom of my eyeball. Until then, he said, I’d just have to live with it.

Twelve years have passed, but my Big Fat Dead Mosquito (BFDM) has not. Often it floats far enough toward the front of my eyeball to become blurry and easily ignored, like bunny ears flashed too close to the projector. But every few months, it moves toward the back so its shape jumps out at me in all its buggy detail.  I look fast to the right, and it continues drifting after my eye stops.  That sort of thing.

Teachings from the BFDM

At first I was, as you can imagine, severely bummed at this permanent visual impairment, as in, “You’re fucking kidding me — I’m gonna look at this thing the rest of my life?!” But as a sober alcoholic, I can’t afford to hang out in victimhood (“poor me, poor me, pour me another drink…”).  So early on I decided to make the BFDM into a symbol of that very fact: I have alcoholism.  I did not ask for it.  Yet when sorted according to the Serenity Prayer’s flawless rubric, both my alcoholism and my BFDM fell into the same category: “things I cannot change.”

This strategy worked well.  Whenever I’d be contemplating a puffy white cloud in a lovely blue sky, and across it would glide, like the Goodyear blimp, the looming shape of my BFDM, I would practice acceptance.  Ditto sunsets, snow covered mountains, and, of course any large, white wall.  I had no choice but to share them with this squashed bug, just as I had no choice but to go to AA meetings, do 12 step work with sponsors and sponsees, and, of course, not drink booze for the rest of my life. I would think something like this: “Hey there, mosquito.  I guess you’re with me for good, just like alcoholism.”

Years passed, and while the mosquito remained, my sense of alcoholism as a burden did not. I came to recognize that god had actually done me a huge favor by making me alcoholic, forcing me to choose between paths of self-destruction and spiritual growth. I began to see that even normal drinkers are bullshitting themselves when they drink — denying damage to their brain and body, imagining they’re more fond of others than they truly are, and denying themselves the practice of manually breaking down ego’s barriers to trust and affection. I saw that not only are all paths to wisdom and integrity at best obscured and at worst blocked by alcohol, but that the 12 steps offered a me stairway to happiness I’d never have found without AA.

Gradually, the BFDM morphed as well, becoming a symbol for something else: compassion. When I’d be talking to someone in bright light and they’d remain oblivious to the huge squashed insect bobbing around their face, I’d be reminded of the subjective nature of experience.  That person had no idea I was having to ignore a BFDM to be fully present, and by the same token, I knew nothing of the the various obstructions through which they saw me: scars they carried, fears they battled, emotional distortions they couldn’t help.  I learned to temper my judgements, thinking, “Hey there, mosquito.  Ain’t it true that I’ve never walked a day in this other person’s shoes?”

 

 

Then, about eight years after it first popped into my vision, the BFDM finally lost its legs. Today only the head and body remain — a shape most would describe as blob, and I alone think of as a big fat dead mosquito amputee (BFDMA). During these past few years, compassion has become reflex for me, while frequent contact with the Near-Death Experience community has  homogenized my faith in god — meaning not that my god is a dairy product but that the power of my faith no longer comes and goes.  I know in every moment of consciousness that god is real, god is love, and that a vast spirit realm is rooting for humanity from the sidelines as we try to untangle the childish mess we’ve made of our world.

Today, whenever by my BFDMA meanders close enough to my retina to cast its distinctive shadow, I am overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude to my maker: “Hey there, mosquito. Can you believe I have a fucking movie screen inside my skull? A surface of cells so sensitive to the universe’s energy (borne by little photons that bounce off everything) that it can encode the patterns received and send them into my consciousness??  Who made us, BFDMA?  Who guided the astounding evolution of this gift, and what a spoiled brat am I that the tiny malfunction of you — a few fallen cells — once upset me??”

The soul grows not by addition but by subtraction. So said Meister Eckhart.  Today, the mere fact that I am alive inside a fantastic machine that lets me navigate a beauty-filled world, forging a unique path represented by my quirky shadow friend — this alone is a miracle worthy of constant rejoicing.

 

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Filed under Alcoholism, Faith, Serenity Prayer, Spirituality

On Living Sober, Sane, and Single

Fifteen years have passed since I learned my partner of 9 years, with whom I shared a home, two dogs, and a toddler, was seeing another woman.  I was devastated.

Four years have passed since I learned my mountain climbing boyfriend of 8 years, who had resumed drinking, was seeing a girl 5 years older than his daughter who loved to drink and play 50 Shades games.  I was deeply shaken.

Four weeks have passed since the guy I met on Tinder, whom I’d dated 14 months, ended our relationship via text message. I am so happy!

I’m happy not just because I have oodles more free time, or am relieved of compromising to make the relationship work and pretending the pheromones weren’t a mismatch. I’m happy because I don’t want another relationship!

Those of you who’ve read my mammoth addiction memoir, for which this blog is named, know I chased a twofold addiction for nearly 20 years before finding AA: alcohol gave me relaxation and well-being; infatuation gave me excitement and, when reciprocated, self-worth. Really, I should say in both cases facsimiles of those things, because well-being bought through impaired brain function is not really well-being, and self-worth leased through someone’s approval is not really self-worth.

But anyway.  You guys know the deal with that.

What I am realizing today is that, prior to dating this fellow, I STILL HAD a relationship addiction — which is finally, finally GONE.  God has lifted it.  I’m excited about my life exactly as it is.

What does relationship addiction look like?  Like all addictions, at its deepest foundation lies fear.  Fear of missing out on the playful bantering and sizzling sex married folks enjoy for decades (right?).  Fear of not being enough. Of getting old alone. Of being discounted somehow as a failure because you never “found somebody.”

When I first came to AA at 34, I felt incapable of living sober, while the beautiful 28-year-old blonde infatuated with me had over 3 years clean, so I signed up, in a way, for both. That relationship was my sobriety safe space. I needed it. When her infatuation wore off, she did what I’d done in three previous relationships — looked for a new “magic” person who could inspire dopamine spikes. When she left, all my sense of security went with her.

I dated AA men for two years, becoming infatuated twice with non-reciprocating targets, before I met the mountain climber in OSAT, my sober climbing group. Together we summited volcanoes, hiked nearly 1,000 miles in remote wilderness, and bicycled another 1,000 along the Pacific Coastal Highway. He was gorgeous to look at, left-brain brilliant, and right-brain dumb as a stump — meaning he could complete a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle in pen but not interpret emotions in others or himself beyond glad, sad, or mad.

I made that my job — interpreting for both of us. Sadly, attending AA soon became my job for both of us as well, and in 2010, he began to drink in secret. Traveling for work, he discovered, first, the sexual allure of hotel bar rooms and, later, the young protégé at work who worshipped him.

I discounted clues right and left because I needed him. He represented not security, but adventure. My glossed-over idea of him differed from the actual man, just as our glossed-over version of our alcoholic drinking differed from our actual consumption.  In both cases, we protect what we think we need by casting it in a delusional light. My imagined boyfriend possessed a simple but ironclad distinction of right vs.wrong to complement his glad, sad, or mad insights.

But the real one did not — because active alcoholics cannot distinguish the true from the false. Out the window, for most, goes accountability. As a relationship addict, I wasn’t exactly distinguishing true from false, either, so his deceit lasted two years before I surreptitiously “borrowed” his old iPhone, which I somehow miraculously unlocked. There I discovered his other life.

This time, though, I understood nothing in me had caused his behavior.  I soon discovered I could summit volcanoes with sober friends and hike hundreds of wilderness miles alone when I wasn’t dancing ballet, enjoying friendships, interviewing fellow NDErs, throwing parties, blogging, or loving my home and son. Yet I still longed for a cohort. Emptiness tugged at me relentlessly in every waking moment. Prayer didn’t help. Neither did the therapy. Like a Robin without a Batman, I yearned to be half a dynamic duo.

I tried all the apps — Tinder, Bumble, Fit Singles — and went on 64 dates over two years. Each time I was hopeful via text, then disappointed in person. Finally, I found a prospect — an ultra-marathoner who claimed to love all the same things I do. His rush toward ‘the three words’ smacked of infatuation, but he assured me he’d evolved beyond that. His lack of friends, mood swings, and erratic decisions signaled alcoholic dryness (he’d quit on his own). Gradually, as his infatuation faded, so did all those things he’d claimed to love. When he bonked on a steep hike, he cried petulantly, “This is the dumbest hike I’ve ever been on!” and soon announced he’d hike no more. Meticulous body shaving and moisturizing regimes made him unwilling to camp. He even disliked walks or bike rides not on his Excel training schedule. Soon we had nothing in common — hence his text.

But like the previous two, this guy gave me a lasting gift — or rather, god did. I’ve finally realized I need no Batman. I’m driving the goddamn Batmobile myself — and it’s AMAZING what I can do with it!! From wheelies to road trips — who needs a partner?  At least, who needs one STAT?  I do not.  I’ll never swipe again.

What if — and this is rocket science, I know — I turn this matter over to the care of my higher power, as part of my will and my life?  What if I trust that, if I pursue the life I love, a mainstay of which is service to others, god will take care of the rest?  Being me is enough. No words can convey how grateful I am to truly feel this way at last.  Sobriety just keeps getting better.

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Filed under Codependency, Recovery, Relationship addiction, Self-worth

9th Step Promise #1: “We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.”

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. 1) We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

2) We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 3) We will comprehend the word serenity and 4) we will know peace. 5) No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6) That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. 7) We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8) Self-seeking will slip away. 9) Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. 10) Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. 11) We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 12) We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

 

Too often, people take the 9th step promises out of context, calling them the “AA promises” and ignoring the condition that precedes them. The “phase of our development” that requires we be “painstaking” is amends — Steps 8 and 9. As I’ve written elsewhere, sloppy amends are worse than no amends at all.  By sloppy I mean done too soon, before we’ve really had a psychic change, which can lead to all sorts of blunders, including revealing harms unknown to the victim: “I slept with your partner; I never really liked you; I told so-and-so you were a liar.”  No, no, no!  That’s why we go through Step 8 with a sponsor, to figure out what will set things right for the recipient rather than cause new pain.

Anyway, the reason the Big Book authors placed the promises after Steps 8 & 9 is that to seek out the sheer awkwardness, humble pie, and admission of wrong-doing entailed in these two steps is something no ego-driven person would do — especially not hardcore bridge-burners like active and dry alcoholics. “Did I wrong that person? Fuck that, they wronged me!” This was the pre-steps attitude that produced more and more people to avoid and more thoughts to shove to the back in our minds, with drinking needed to mute them.

By contrast, after a psychic change, we’re trying to live by what’s right and good or, in other words, to show up as  god and our own spirits would have us be. I remember several instances of sitting in my car cramming from my 8th step notes before I stepped off what felt like the roof of a skyscraper to meet people I’d wronged.  I did so because I trusted god. And in each case, I walked on air: I calmly spoke the truth, and recipients warmly forgave me.

Many years have passed since I completed my amends, but I continue to live in the frame of mind that supported them. As a result, I get to live IN the 9th step promises!  Freedom and happiness, for starters, characterize my sober life. Sick voices still sound off in my head, but they project poorly, and I’ve learned to roll my eyes at them.  I focus instead on what I want to do with my life — with this one-time amazing journey of living in the world.

For example, I love climbing mountains. In July, friends and I made a bid for the summit of 14,411′ Mount Rainier – the most prominent peak in the contiguous US and 5th highest. We started too late (midnight) and had to wait repeatedly for the teams ahead of us to pass through areas where they’d trigger rockfall on us, then wait again when a ladder laid over a crevasse partially collapsed, so a number of my teammates got hypothermic and we had to turn back.  Even so, it was a huge, gorgeous, thrilling experience — the kind of adventure I used to fantasize about while drinking.

How far we got

Camped at 10,000′

Crossing a crevasse

Despite having lost some of my left lung to radiation for breast cancer, I power-breathed to 13, 200′; and despite acrophobia and balance issues, I walked over boards laid on a ladder across a deep crevasse — not to mention daring this stuff at 59. We will try again next year, having learned from our mistakes.

And yet… and yet… during the exhaustion that overtook me on the long descent to base camp, a voice started up in my head: “No one likes you.  You’re an annoyance to everyone.  Everything you say is trite and boring so everyone wishes you’d just shut the hell up.”  Freedom was the insight that my alcoholism, which survives in my mind, was taking advantage of my fatigue to get some good punches in.  Freedom was replying to that voice, “You’ve been saying that since middle school. Fuck off.” Then I deliberately bellowed some dumb jokes most people couldn’t even hear (because we were still on ropes and too far apart), just to piss off the voice.

Last week, I hiked 82 miles with my friend Sally, retracing only the best parts of the 127-mile hike I soloed last year.  This experience outshone any fantasy joy, because love for god’s beauty in the mountains absolutely saturated my consciousness for days.

Sally with Glacier Peak

Sally with Lyman Glacier

Me and TJ moochies, 6,440′

 

And yet… and yet… addiction was with me.  I’d needed a tooth extraction the day before we were to leave for this trip and, at the oral surgeon’s insistence, delayed a day for healing, then brought along antibiotics in case of infection and 12 Vicodin in case the socket clot came out or some other intense pain developed. As it turned out, the socket felt fine, healing gradually.  But my knee did not.  One night I couldn’t sleep for the knee pain, and sharing my tent was the Vicodin.  “Take it!” said my addict.  “You have pain — a perfect justification — so cross Go and collect $200!”  I responded, “That Vicodin is for unendurable nerve pain, not some nagging knee pain that keeps me awake.” “Whatever!” said my addict. “It’s for pain!  It’s right there – no more pain!  Much-needed sleep!  Just take it!”

Midnight, 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m. passed by.  I don’t remember praying, but what came to me were the words of my dear friend Rob: “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!!” Rob, originally a purebred alcoholic, got hooked on opiates as a result of a prescription and died from overdose in 2016.  He seemed to remind me that my own sobriety, despite its 24.5 year length, was equally fragile. With the help of Rob’s memory and several more ibuprofen, I eventually fell asleep. The next night, I asked Sally to keep the pills in her tent.

Really, the principles that free me to live the life I love are the same ones that carried me through my amends: love, humility, and faith.  That’s why realizing the promises is contingent on a “painstaking” completion of those steps.

 

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I made this video of our hike. If this ain’t living happy, joyous, and free, I don’t know what is!

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Filed under happy, joyous, & free, living sober, Pain Medication, Recovery, Spirituality, Step 9

Pride vs. Mysticism

We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Saints are supposedly perfect people, whereas mystics are visibly imperfect people who have been convicted by moments of very real divine union.

Richard Rohr

Put even more briefly, saints embody goodness while mystics embody love.

  — Carl McColman 

Alcoholics who merely stop drinking without drastically changing their approach to life remain ill and, consciously or unconsciously, suffer.  All the emotional dysfunction that spurred them to seek relief through alcohol persists; only their fix is gone. They live “dry” rather than sober, inflicting pain on those around them as they vent pent-up frustration, some a little at a time and some in binges, just as they drank.

Pride blocks the dry alcoholic from true recovery.

A truly recovering alcoholic experiences a “psychic change.” As Carl Jung described the shift, “Ideas, emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.” Dude was right!  Ideas, emotions, and attitudes — completely switched.

The 12 steps, worked with a good sponsor, transform all three. During steps 1-6, we let go self-centered ideas about our place in the world and how it ought to work; emotions of anger, shame, and envy; attitudes of victimhood and arrogance.  In steps 7-12, a new set of conceptions begin to develop — because our vision has cleared!  Somewhere in the mix will be new ideas of what god-reliance means, new emotions of gratitude and unconditional love, and new attitudes usefulness and even — on our best days — humility!

In my own sobriety, I go through dry periods when I “forget” the way of life AA has taught me.  I start to imagine I have some power and the right to feel a bit prideful until, without realizing it, I’m navigating based on projections about how others perceive me.  My pride is effectively running the show.

Here’s the cool thing about psychic change, though: it’s not kick or phase. It comes with its own safety-catch, because shit always hits the fan. And thank goodness it does, because when a big chunk smacks me, I don’t puff up my pride to chest-bump against reality. Rather, I fold — and fast! I surrender with a prayer like this: “I don’t know what’s going on, but I trust you. I thought I knew stuff, but it looks like I was wrong. Please guide me.”

Just one prayer lets me see that my whole arsenal of I-know-best weapons was made of sand. All slips away and I remember that I have no power in this life but to love.  None.

Mysticism sounds like a remote, woo-woo concept.  It ain’t. According to Merriam Webster, all it refers to is a “direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality [that] can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight).”

Historically, mysticism has acquired a shitty name from various religions. It’s easy to see why. Direct knowledge of god cuts out the middleman — the church, temple, or mosque — so many religious authorities have safeguarded their bread and butter by denouncing it as a dark, occult practice.  “What?!  Seek God yourself, from your own heart on your own individual path? What if it’s Satan yer talking to?”

Today, widespread mysticism is, I feel, the only thing that can save humanity — not from damnation, but from irretrievably defiling our planet. Religion has posed a stumbling block for scientifically educated people in recent centuries: distaste for religious dogma translates to distaste for god.  Today, ego (god’s antithesis) rules at the societal, economic, and political levels. Results include climate change, oceans choking in plastic, and an entire countryside soaked in cancer-causing glyphosate, to name just a few.  If this isn’t an apocalypse, I don’t know what is.

God itself is about only love — simple, direct, and freeing.  NDErs from all walks of life encounter the same force on the other side: overwhelming love, a love so omnipresent that, like the brilliance of the divine Light, it erases petty differences, competition, all the conflicts and cross-purposes of ego.  God envelops us because we ARE god.  God rejoices when we are loving and is pained whenever, in even the smallest ways, we harm self or others.

Religion, by contrast, if chock full of human pride and ego.  A jealous or vengeful God? A God who plays favorites? Rewards an “elect” of saved cool cats?  Gross!  And yet, these depictions taint the idea of god for billions of people.

Joel Osteen’s megachurch

A dry alcoholic friend of mine who swears by evangelist Joel Osteen had me listen to some YouTube sermons that, for me, epitomized religious pride and ego. From a huge stage in his Houston megachurch, Osteen tells many thousands of followers, “What God has in store for you is going to amaze you! The people He’s going to bring across your path, the influence He’s going to give you!…  You are not working to get victory, you are working from victory.  When you know that you’ve already won, there’s a rest. You know the outcome…God said, he always causes you to triumph….”

Osteen’s message is clearly that if we kiss god’s ass enough, we’ll win!  We’ll get a leg up over all those other bastards and one day they’ll have to eat our dust in the wake of our victory!  Hey, it’s sure worked for Joel! My poor friend, by contrast, is constantly deciding God must hate him.

Nothing could be further from the god I know. And no venue could be further from the humble approach of mysticism: simply disregarding our thoughts (“be still”) and opening our hearts (“and know”) to god from the privacy of our own homes.  (Yes, the bible has some good lines!)  Meditation and prayer.  Step 11.

Pride builds a wall around us, inside which we languish awaiting our day of “victory.”  Seeking god opens the door to joy right here, right now — the simple freedom to love and be loved.

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PS: In TOTALLY unrelated news (except maybe that it involves humility while livin’ large & sober 😀 ), friends & I attempted 14,410′ Mount Rainier last weekend but had to turn back just 1,200 feet from the summit due to delays and high winds.  Short movie account here: https://youtu.be/g8OSqqjcoJ0

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Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, God, Recovery, Religious pride, Sobriety, Spirituality

Struck Clean

Everyone had given up on David Morris. At 45, he lived only for cocaine, and nothing was going to change that.  His family once intervened and sent him to a 30-day treatment, all of them so happy and hopeful when he graduated! But then he used again, immediately hopeless as ever. When his brother opened his home to David and gave him a job with his business, David took him up on the offer and managed to stay clean for two months. Family and friends’ hopes were raised: surely this time David was on his feet! But then he used again was back to his old ways.

What ways? Living in his mom’s house and employed in a family business, David’s life had shrunk down to nothing but cocaine. “In those final months, I had to be high all the time. My only concern was to get cocaine, get back to my room, and just be high. I’d stay awake most of the night doing coke, sleep a couple hours, wake up and get high to go to work, and then buy more on my way home — over and over and over.”

This went on until David died — probably from a heart attack brought on by overdose.

“I’d brought home an 8-ball. Every time I got high, I got extremely paranoid.  That evening, after I’d done not quite half, I felt sure the police were hiding in my closet. I could see the walls around my second story windows begin to crack and bulge, the cracks spreading, and I knew they were going to bust in and take my drugs.

“So I did everything I had — another two grams, which was an extreme amount. I didn’t mean to die. I just didn’t want anyone else to get my drugs!  Then I felt myself fading, and I fell onto my bed.”

That should be the end of the story — but it’s not. Today David has 12 years clean and sober, lives a life filled with joy and  relationships, and knows to his core that he will never use or drink again — all thanks to his experience on the other side of death.

“My spirit, my essence, rose up out of my body, and I could see my body lying on the bed. From there I moved very fast downward into a deep, total darkness. I felt shocked, frightened, confused, until I came to a place with an enormous stone slab. And lying on that slab was my lifeless body. I went into a panic; I had no idea what was going on.  I, my essence, could move about, but that body was not going to move.

“I can tell you, if I had stayed there, this story would be very different.  But I made a choice — a choice that I did not want this, that I hadn’t lived as I wished to. And with that, I began to hear distant voices calling to me, trying to guide me. Later on, after the experience, I recognized them as the voices of loved ones who had passed. But at the time, I just knew I wanted to get closer to them.

“They guided me up from the darkness, until away in the distance, I could see the light coming toward me — or me toward it.  The light grew and grew until I was engulfed in its presence. Everything became perfect. The light, as so many have said, is beyond description, beyond words — that totality of bliss.

“In the presence of this cleansing of the light, everything happened in telepathy. And the biggest gift conveyed to me by that presence was the message to just love. That’s it!  The most divine intervention that could possibly have happened – for me and to me. That gift and so many others came to me in the light’s presence.

“But as beautiful and blissful as it was there, I knew I wanted to come back – and I very strongly asked to do so. I didn’t want to leave this life the way I was leaving it. And then I knew the light was going to allow me to come back.

“Meanwhile on this plane, my aunt, who lived downstairs with my mother, heard whatever commotion my body made upstairs – a seizure, I don’t know – and called 911. My first memory is of being put in an ambulance outside the house. I remember a moment or two in the ambulance, then waking up in the hospital.

“The E.R. doctors told my aunt they had no medical explanation for why I’d survived. My heart rate, blood pressure, other complications when I arrived should have killed me. But later that day, I was sent home. My sister, with whom I’d always been close, was visiting that weekend. She told me, ‘I’m done. I’ll pray for you.  Goodbye.’ And she left.

“I’ve never again had the urge to get high. For so many years, I’d struggled, unable to stay clean for even a day. When I first came back, I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I knew — I knew I wasn’t a drug addict anymore.

“I didn’t know anything about Near Death Experiences.  I was so eager to understand what had happened to me, I read tons of books, one after another.” The first of these was Lessons from the Light by Kenneth Ring. “These NDErs’ stories were so similar to mine, and the after-effects of ways I was seeing things – all in that book! So that started to bring some clarity.  Roughly two and a half months after my NDE, on a Sunday afternoon, I decided to give my sister call, not to ask forgiveness, but to let her know, however long it took for her to heal was okay. We cried together, and our healing process began. Our bond today is as strong as ever.

“Really, though, for the first five years, it was just me and God. Nothing could touch me, I was flying. I did go to Narcotics Anonymous, not to stay clean myself, because I was done, but to help other addicts. I made a lot of friends I still have today. Since then, I’ve ventured into other areas of spirituality. In my meditations, I’ve extended my own personal adventures with God, in my own ways, just sitting in my chair.”

David eventually Googled Near Death Experiences and found the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS), which is how I met him.  The two of us will sit on a panel about NDEs and addiction at the next IANDS conference in Philadelphia.  Our stories differ markedly in that I, at age 22 when I had my NDE, so strongly embraced atheism and was so far from hitting bottom that I chose to deny I’d crossed over. I needed a series of 14 paranormal events in conjunction with AA spirituality to finally open my heart fully to the reality of god, my guardian angel, and the other side.

Key to most NDErs is the distinction between the anthropomorphic God suggested by various religions and the pure, good, overwhelming energy of the light. The light is love, intelligence, and power beyond our capacity to understand — though it knows and loves us perfectly because we are extensions of it — light sparks embodied in matter.  The key to living that the light passed to David — just love — now orients his every thought and has transformed his life into something beautiful.

“Naturally, today I have no fear of death. All the physical and material things most people place so much importance on, finances, wealth – they don’t matter much to me. I really have no needs. I have no wants. I have nothing to achieve. I’ve become as light as a feather!”

David walks this talk every day.  As soon as he learned through a CC on an email to conference officials that I wanted to go to the four-day Philadelphia conference but couldn’t afford it, he called me. Knowing nothing about me, he offered space in the Air B&B he’d reserved for his family and said he’d be happy to drive me to and from the airport. So I’ve coughed up the airfare, and, thanks to David’s kindness, I’ll attend at the end of August.  I also interviewed him for the Seattle IANDS newsletter.

“I’m completely free with myself,” says David. “I’ll share anything other people want to know and I don’t really care what they think of me – good or bad. I love – really LOVE – being me! I share from my heart, and they can do with it what they want. I’ve become so much about the moment – I’m not about the past or future. The most profound learning of my NDE that has stayed strongest with me, the direction that will never leave my heart, is to just love.”

“One of the most beautiful suggestions I can offer someone who is struggling is to sit still. I don’t mean sit still for half an hour a day. I mean to sit still in life. I spent six months after [a romantic] relationship ended just going to work and suffering, because a big piece of my soul was missing – but sitting still in that suffering. It was a beautiful experience, and it gradually eased.” David feels it’s the flight from pain, not pain itself, that drives many to seek relief through alcohol and drugs.

“Those little 12-step clichés: Surrender – a single word that is so profound, so simple, but not easy. Let Go and Let God — if you could see the simplicity of those five words, you’d see how grand life is, and you’d be free to sit and watch life… caring for life.”

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from David’s story is that the god of our understanding will relieve not only our addictions but our pain, sense of helplessness or victimhood, and whatever else ails us if  we seek it earnestly. For those of us who’ve lived locked up in a prison of ego and fear for many years, learning how to just love as a way of consciousness may come slowly.  But if we practice it consciously in meditation and throughout our days, it will come.

I’m going to venture out on a limb here to give you the closest description I can offer of my own experience of living in just love.  When you were a child, maybe 3 to 5, you still carried a basic faith that the world was fundamentally good — which it is.  When I am living in just love, I see again through those eyes. You might think of the children’s book Goodnight Moon; I live in that sort of world, one where I extend a loving relationship even toward trees and inanimate objects.  I experience every person as if they, too, were a tender 3 to 5-year-old underneath their slick, thorny defenses, and I dare to love them for it.

Just love.  The light will flow through you, healing all that ails.

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.nderf.org/index.htm – Near Death Research Foundation

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1642931594 – Tricia Barker’s new NDE book

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyIstVbBhilo1gdUmazkReQ – Tricia Barker’s Youtube interviews w NDErs

Consciousness Continues – Documentary featuring me (Louisa) sharing a bit of my NDE – rent on Amazon for $1.99

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Filed under Addiction, Afterlife, God, NDE, Near Death Experience, Recovery