I am weird. One night in 1982, when I was 22, I went out to a Manhattan night club, snorted quite a bit of coke, then bought and snorted what I thought was a gram more (though it didn’t get me high). I developed increasingly narrow tunnel vision from bradycardia (slowing heartbeat) and hypoxia (from respiratory depression), underwent a grand mal seizure, suffered a cardiac arrest, and died on the nightclub floor. That is, I was without vital signs for three minutes. I’d ingested enough lidocaine to shut down my central nervous system.
While a bartender worked at CPR and I began to look “all gray like a corpse, nothing like yourself…” according to my date, my consciousness shot off on a vivid journey. With keen awareness I traveled from sky to sea to beach to ancestral house before getting sucked through a window and over the dazzle of sunlight on the sea’s surface to plunge right into the heart of the sun. There I was subsumed by a light of love beyond measure. A strong presence was with me, beaming love through me, until abruptly it told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t done and couldn’t stay – after which cut the light to total blackness. (If you want the whole story, you have to buy my goddamn addiction memoir, but only if you’re also psyched to read about alcoholism and romantic obsession, because that’s mostly what it’s about.)
Anyway! As a result of whatever happened that night, the boundaries of my consciousness changed. I knew nothing of it. I was a smug atheist who’d never heard of Near Death Experiences or any of the related terms now commonplace in popular culture. What had happened didn’t fit with my scientifically based definition of reality, so I put it behind me. Over the next decade, however, two more distinctly impossible experiences forced themselves on me. I didn’t want them!
I didn’t much associate my secret paranormals with whatever people called God. To me, that concept involved a personification of divine power – God as a super-boss. I rejected it and still do. But once I got sober, once I opened to a higher power and began to pray, the rate of paranormal “knowings” increased dramatically. Finally, in 2003 I had an astoundingly specific clairvoyant dream, and in 2004 was shown the break in my life the dream had foretold. It was a such an undeniably personal, otherworldly message that, at 9 years sober, I broke down, sobbing with gratitude, and finally surrendered the last of my reservations: god, I finally knew beyond faith, was an energy infusing everything that lives. Spiritual energy is a force every bit as real as gravity or electromagnetism – forces nobody personifies or insists we capitalize! That’s why I refer to it as “god.”
In 2010, after accidentally and embarassingly reading a friend’s mind regarding a romantic weekend with his wife, I went ahead and Googled “Near Death Experiences.” I eventually found a Seattle group that meets monthly to hear a speaker tell his/her Near Death story (Seattle IANDS). A year later, in 2011, I finally got myself to attend one of those meetings. And in January of 2012, I was the speaker. I discovered, just as in AA, that many experiences I’d long believed unique to me were actually quite common among this group. We speak brightly of our dying experiences: “I was thrown 20 feet from the car,” “I could see the surface but knew I’d never reach it.” Some of us talk about foreknowing events or catching an afterglow in much the same way AAs talk about the phenomenon of craving. Though I never saw my guardian angel, hearing descriptions from those who did (and a few who saw other angels, though they’re reluctant to use the term) has helped me understand who/what was with me in the light.
I can’t talk about any of this in an AA meeting. The purpose of AA shares is to allow fellow alcoholics to identify, to hear their own problems and psychic pain described by others, so they’ll be attracted to the solution of the 12 steps. No one imposes their beliefs on someone else – at least, not in theory. And the fact is, most newcomers are already freaked out by the word “God” in the steps – as I was at first. They’re worried about cultish, woo-woo weirdness. To hear someone talking about having left their body or experiencing paranormal after-effects would send them screaming from the church basement! It would help no one. And though AA friends came to hear my IANDS story, most assume Near-Death meetings must entail morbid rehashings of the close scrapes we call death, mixed with woo-woo chicanery.
I can’t talk about alcoholism at IANDS meetings, either. For NDE folks, the strangest part of my story is not that I left my body, journeyed, etc., but that I basically killed myself by snorting everything I could get my hands on whether it was working or not. Why would such a nice person be so self-destructive?! They assume AA meetings are penitent gatherings where we rehash old drinking stories and renew our determination. They express sympathy. The idea that we’re happily united in a daily immunity granted to us by a higher power, that we laugh at our own sick thinking, that we’re actually grateful for the program we live by – they just don’t get it.
Every person’s beliefs develop in the crucible of their family, social group, and culture, to be either confirmed or challenged by individual experience. Our culture at large tends to present religion versus atheism as an exclusive dichotomy, and many of us internalize that idea. My family and our academic community chose option B – atheism. For some time, I straddled belief in a higher power at AA and dismissal of the “weird things” that had followed my NDE. It took 30 years of personal encounters with physically inexplicable happenings to push me to the point where I could discard my old truth and seek out people who shared my otherworldly experience. I’ve since spoken at the Seattle Theosophical Society, been interviewed on a radio show (podcast here, starts at 15:00) and appeared in a documentary film /future television show. I am all in. But to be honest, part of me still cringes to hear, for instance, my radio talk sponsored by “Hugz from Heaven” – really? Have I gone that daft?
I often wish I could help others in AA who struggle with the god aspect to see the wide array of spiritual paths between religion and atheism, or even to discard the “God-boss” image in favor of the energy of love. Though it can be frustrating, in meetings I say nothing of my NDE or its after-effects. If it took me 30 years to accept my own experience, how the hell can I expect others to accept my words? I leave them to their own ideas, and share mine outside the rooms. Part of faith is accepting that those who want to hear – who, as I did, already share this truth deep within – will be listening.