Paul Johnson was not an alcoholic, but he was extremely unhappy. One night he drank a bunch of booze and took a bunch of pills then went up to his attic, where he hung himself. Some time later his wife found him – quite dead. She struggled to lift his body but failed; she had to go downstairs and get her son, the two of them panicking in their efforts to get the body down. Though Paul’s face had turned black and he was without pulse or breathing, his wife gave him CPR for five minutes.
Then Paul took a breath.
Paul’s consciousness, far from ceasing to exist, had become exceptionally clear during the time his body was dead. He found himself in darkness, approached from the right by four shadowy figures who showed him a review of his entire life. “Thoughts were instantaneous. When you asked a question, you would instantly know the answers.” In a Scrooge-like transformation, Paul returned from the dead absolutely overjoyed to be alive: “I had this vivid memory, extremely vivid, and it shouldn’t have been vivid at all for a guy that took a couple bottles of meds and drank two bottles of liquor. Yet it was so vivid and so real. I was so happy to be alive, and to have a second chance to fulfill the things pointed out to me as being important.”
I’m in the process of editing a book of interviews with Near-Death Experiencers* – people (including me) who have died, experienced the other side, and returned with memories. Paul is one of fourteen of us interviewed by filmmaker Heather Dominguez, who has amassed the footage for a television series and is raising the money to produce it.
Unlike the rest of us, however, Paul did not go to the Light. He went to blackness – a void where he existed without a body. Far from feeling inundated with infinite love, he sensed that the four figures “wanted to take me to a darker, more horrible place.” But as he watched the scenes of his life go by, Paul felt overwhelmed with loss. “My biggest regrets were that I didn’t travel and see the world, and I didn’t do the things that made me happy. …It wasn’t that I missed this wedding or didn’t get this job… [It was] that I didn’t enjoy my life like I really wanted to… As I realized that, I thought: ‘I wish I wasn’t dead!’ In that exact moment… [the experience] was over for me.”
Today, Paul lives in the Philippines with a new wife and her extended family – all of whom he loves. He changed everything about himself and is now a man decidedly happy, joyous, and free.
Alcoholics who choose to live experience a shift analogous to Paul’s – if they commit to rigorous spiritual work to effect an internal change. Paul’s moment of choice strongly reminds me of a favorite Big Book story in the 2nd & 3rd editions of Alcoholics Anonymous, “He Who Loses his Life.” In it, an honors student and “boy wonder” in business named Bob has drunk his life into the ground despite plenty of intelligence and self-knowledge. All his city friends alienated, following yet another binge he crashes in the country with a doctor he’s known since boyhood.
We worked in five below zero weather, fixing on an elm tree a wrought iron device which modestly proclaimed that he was indeed a country doctor. I had no money – well, maybe a dime – and only the clothes I stood in. “Bob,” he asked quietly, “do you want to live or die?”
He meant it. I knew he did… I remembered the years I had thrown away. I had just turned 46. Maybe it was time to die. Hope had died, or so I thought.
But I said humbly, “I suppose I want to live.” I meant it. From that instant to this, nearly eight years later, I have not had the slightest urge to drink.
Bob threw himself into working the 12 steps in AA, which led him to great happiness.
Such lasting happiness can be found only by learning to love reality as it is. To do this, we need to bring about major change in ourselves – something we can’t accomplish without help from the steps, from our fellows, and, most of all, from our god.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, drugs had just sprung into mainstream popular culture. As a kid listening to Beatles songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “Tomorrow Never Knows,” I imagined that drugs brought a higher awareness than just plain old consciousness – which was, for me, terribly uncomfortable. As I grew up, I embraced not just alcohol but “recreational drugs” – as if crippling my brain created anything. I don’t know about you, but I dared to chase that vision, to venture far into the mysteries of the universe – so I sucked chemicals into my mouth and nose and lungs that essentially shoved my head up my ass, and from there I tried to marvel at the view.
It was dark. It was lonely. It was pointless.
I had to hit a bottom, to despair almost completely, before I could begin to see that in my search for “something cooler,” I had rejected life. In my greediness to be loved, I had rejected loving. And in my obsession with self, I had rejected a humble consciousness of my own soul and spirit – connection to god.
Deep down, every alcoholic knows they are committing a little bit of suicide with every drink. We know we’re turning our backs on goodness and truth even as we laugh and whoop it up. We vaguely sense that we’re completely full of shit, but we somehow can’t see a viable alternative. It’s life. Honing awareness in sobriety, I have found that plain old reality… is a trip. It’s huge. It’s rich. It’s mind-blowing.
To love what is takes courage. To love others without a parasitic agenda takes strength. And to see clearly into ourselves takes humility. I, of myself, have hardly any of the above. But I borrow them (and more) from my god day after day, breath after breath. I choose joy.
*I’ll let you know when it comes out 🙂