What’s “normal” wisdom? I’ll never know, so I can’t guess how much I’ve gained from practicing the PROGRAM versus just getting OLDER. What I do know is that I’ve been applying the 12 Steps pretty much every day for these 9,861 since my last drink, and that the lessons keep coming, some of them quite painful; the learning curve keeps me climbing and will do so (I hope) for as long as I live.
While I was drinking, I learned NAHH-THING — about what matters, about who I was, about how to navigate in the world. If I’d never gotten sober in AA, I’d still be trying to piece together an ego-based design for living, one based in the maxims my parents passed onto me (mainly “be better than everyone else”), never suspecting they’d been shaped by generations of family dysfunction.
In fact, even after I stopped drinking, I kept trying to live by my old standards until I hit an emotional bottom at 2.5 years dry and finally asked a no-nonsense woman to take me through the 12 Steps.
The first changes were revolutionary. Here’s Karen’s takeaway from my first real fifth step in 1999, all the damaged and unsaleable goods she highlighted after hearing my 263-resentment-inventory:
By “playing god” she meant that I viewed the world as if I knew what was best — for both myself and others. I decided what you ought to do to make things work my way; when you didn’t, I got scared I wouldn’t be okay and resentful at you for having done what you wanted. Embarrassingly, a lot of this had to do with popularity and inclusion. I wanted people to like me, damn it, to include me in things!
Whenever I got my wish, I’d trot out, not my real self, but what Karen called “the Louisa Show” — my people-pleasing act geared toward getting more of what I wanted, i.e. approval, admiration, popularity. I was always jockeying in a horse race, comparing and judging who — just to keep this brief — was cooler. Either I was cooler (dominant) and you should admire me, or you were, and I (dependently) would keep knocking myself out to impress you. As the 12 & 12 so insightfully summarizes, “The primary fact that we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being.” [p.53]
In short, I kept trying to wrest satisfaction out of people, places, and things, always assuming they held the key to something I needed to be okay. But they didn’t. When I felt most crushed and abandoned, when I was forced to turn inward as a last resort, I’d find way deep down, ignored and discounted, the most profound love of the universe. Today I know my deepest needs can be met only by plugging into that love, which I call god, never by jumping for various gold stars in society.
When my main source of okayness comes from god, life’s a whole different ball game. I can focus on what I have to give: love, listening, recognition. Gradually, giving these things — the feeling of it – has become important to me. I’m not scrambling to prove my own worth, goodness, talent, etc; I want to help others glimpse theirs.
My basic template for living has changed in these two basic ways, with these priorities:
OUT IN THE WORLD
- Develop a good slime-o-meter and pay attention to it. My putting this first may seem odd, but boundaries are actually a precursor to open-heartedness. A slime-o-meter is like a spiritual Geiger counter. It starts clicking when you sense those energetically corrupt — sexual predators, liars, thieves, or just energy vampires — whether in the rooms of AA or out in the world. When I sense slime, I’m still cordial, but I decide carefully how much connection I want. Early in recovery I was ripped off for $7K, tricked into disguised dates, and defamed via gossip by people I’d trusted. Each time I’d had a feeling… that I ignored.
- So equipped, it’s open season on love and goodwill. Try to imagine each stranger as they might have looked at 3 years old. That same vulnerable, curious, trying-to-figure it out child is lodged inside an adult body layered over with lots of safeguards against the cruel blasts of life, but you need to see through to the spark of goodness. Everyone child within loves to be appreciated, to share humor, and to be startled by kindness. As you progress through your day, leave a wake of incrementally happier people.
- Value and make time for chosen family. During the pandemic, it seems especially hard to do stuff, but it’s more than worth it.
- Value and make time for fitness, health, and connection with nature. Same as #3.
- Watch for bullshit. Parallel to the slime-o-meter is my inner scan for hidden motivations, most of which I deny for YEARS or DECADES. Every surge of dopamine candy, once I really SEE it as ego’s fodder, transforms to lukewarm canned peas, so I don’t want it anymore. Most recently transformed to canned peas for me is any kind of flirty texting. Three years ago, every ping of a date app lit me up. “He likes me!” Now all that is blechy.
- Acknowledge pain, but don’t retaliate. As the 12 & 12 puts it, “We learned that, if we were seriously disturbed, our first need was to quiet that disturbance, regardless of who or what we thought caused it” [p.47]. For instance, my 95-year-old mother keeps purposefully insulting me. I’m the daughter who lives nearby and does the most for her, which makes me, apparently, the chopped liver child. It ain’t fair. It sucks. And it hurts. I can pray about it, sing about it, lion’s breath about it, but to others — not to a 95-year-old woman set in her ways.
- Listen for divine guidance. It’s always there, sometimes loud, sometimes faint. I can feel my angel urging me toward self-honesty and love, and I don’t need for anyone else to believe that he communicates with me.
- Love myself, flaws and all. I was raised with conditional love and lots of shaming, so those critical voices are ingrained in my psyche. As Tara Brach likes to point out, the “second arrow” wounds me when I shame myself for shaming myself. Sometimes I actually need to list some objective facts that indicate I’m doing okay, that I have some honor, that I deserve self-respect.
Chairing at my home group tonight among all the January birthdays, I began, “I’m so grateful –” and then I choked up. The feeling is always right there, that sense I don’t deserve all this. Twenty-seven years ago, I was given a chance at a new way of life — one that continues to amaze me.