Category Archives: Addiction

Long-term Sobriety: Always Seeking

In the long haul of recovery, times come along when life’s day-to-day stressors feel overwhelming. There’s something chafing, some problem we can’t quite name. We’re still functioning okay, wearing all our hats, fulfilling our responsibilities – check!  So frankly we don’t see the need to tell anybody we feel lonely, anxious, and discontent.  Spiritual pride urges us to just wave away whatever’s up without bellyaching — we’ve survived far worse, after all.  But if we slow down enough to look inward sincerely, maybe in Step 11, we can acknowledge a growing pain around our heart, an ache almost like a sore muscle.

Here’s the root of the problem: we’ve forgotten god.  Living as societal pawns, we’ve unconsciously allowed the messages bombarding us — ads, media, faddish friends, and fluctuations of culture — to define what life’s all about.  We’ve inadvertently immersed ourselves in a world of habit and conformity, as if the externals of people, places, and things were the whole story.

Whenever we do that, our reliance on god shrinks.  And the instant god shrinks, our dis-ease takes up the slack.  Alcoholism slinks up from the unconscious, from the brain stem where it’s holed up throughout recovery, and resumes the work of making us sick.

To personify alcoholism in this way makes sense only to those who have lived with a presence in their psyche that relentlessly urges self-destruction.  It’s me, and yet it’s not me.  Its goal is to separate me from life, to poison my perceptions so that I’ll begin to resent life in the old way: as an opponent, a bully.  And what does it propose I brandish in response?

A drink.  Many drinks.  All the fuckin’-who-gives-a-shit drinks I damn well please.  Because that mental twist in my brain, which has weirdly survived 22 years of abstinence, is ever primed to plunge me back into the endless hell of resolving absolutely not to drink today — except, hey! Let’s have a drink! (and another…)

At my home group recently, several people contrasted their strong connection to recovery during early sobriety with their current sense of detachment.  Funny how early sobriety, one of the most excruciating gauntlets ever run, can be glossed over in the rose-colored glow of nostalgia! Nobody misses those early days of chemical and emotional withdrawal — the psychological equivalent of being dragged through an automated car wash naked with an all-over sunburn.  Nope.  What we so fondly recall is the free-falling dependence on god that was — in those difficult times — our sole choice.

Early sobriety is lived one day at a time.  It’s a continuous process of abandoning our own will in favor of a faith that doing so — going to meetings when we don’t want to, calling a sponsor when it feels weird, praying when we don’t know what the fuck we’re praying to — will change us for the better.

And it does!  Living by faith heals us to the point where we feel strong and useful, because people now value our opinions and trust us, so we have a new identity as a person with their shit together.

At this point, we begin to imagine our spiritual state is up to us.  Positive self-will messages surround us, from motivating Facebook memes to the ingrained self-help assumptions of our bootstrap pulling society.  Be happy: Abraham Lincoln once said — well, actually, no, he fucking didn’t!  No record exists of Lincoln ever saying folks are as happy as they make their minds up to be, but our society’s all over the idea anyway because we’d love to believe happiness is just a light switch, an app.  BING~!

In truth, happiness is an art And like all arts, it requires cultivation.  Much of that cultivation transpires in acknowledging and working through pain, discontent, and loneliness.  It entails the Honesty to admit to myself and others that I’m hurting; the Open-mindedness to believe my feelings are not facts; and, most importantly, the Willingness to implore god to help me.

I must turn toward, not away from, the pain concealed beneath my nervous discontent.  I have to wade into it.  But let me caution, there are ways to wade and ways to wallow.

If I take the hand of ego to accompany me, we’re gonna camp out in that shit and throw us a big ole pity party.  You know?  We’re gonna bitch and complain and scratch that itch, because it’s all about me and it hurts soo good to be a victim!

But if I take the hand of god, we’re looking for the path through it – and only god knows the way!  I sure as hell don’t, or I’d have taken it!  Here’s where that early sobriety piece fits in: I have to get it that I am still as helpless in combating my pain as I was at the outset of this journey:  I know only what I know, and it has brought me to this impasse.  My vision of life, not life itself, has trapped me in discontent.

I need a miracle, yes, but a miracle can be simply a new way of seeing.  What I think matters, where I’m heading, who I want to become — all these can be transformed with god’s guidance.  I have found that, when I’m most uncomfortable, it’s often because I’m morphing.

My most kick-ass morph prayers (best preceded by meditation) go something like this:

God — I hurt.  Please help me.

God — I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.  Please guide me.

God — This being human job is effing hard, I gotta say!  Show me the point!

The change, the guidance, the point usually come down to some version of…

… yet it’s inexpressibly intimate between me and god.  This is a point I wish to smash home on my readers: We loved and trusted booze.  We were stoked to hang out with booze.  Now, to thrive despite alcoholism, we have to become every bit that intimate with god, every day, every moment.  God is love.  Let it in.

Spiritual renewal is god’s work, not ours.  To continue growing, we have to humbly admit defeat and seek god’s help, same as always.  That’s choosing joy.  That keeps us sober.

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Afterlife: Is it Too Weird to Talk About?

Death visits frequently in my Seattle circle of sober fellowship. Two friends with years of sobriety died this past Tuesday from heroin relapse; one I knew faintly, the other well.  Jeremy leaves behind the 11-year-old daughter he so intensely adored along with a partner and countless friends who loved his playful yet self-deprecating energy, sarcastic wit, and unflinching, quirky, inspiring shares.  He’s gone.

Gone where?

As someone who’s undergone a Near Death Experience followed up by many paranormal aftereffects, I can tell you what I believe.  (Meanwhile, you believe whatever you believe 🙂 ).

In the minutes before my sister died, I was trying doze in the dark hospital room when into my mind flashed “the light” I had known on the other side: it was seeping in under a window, floating to my sister’s bed, and “pooling” above her, a million tiny points of light swirling, gearing up to receive her.  When I opened my eyes, there was nothing.  Eyes closed, I knew the lights were our extended family ancestors, who loved my sister immensely and were preparing, like a million loving midwives, to guide her “birth” to the afterlife.

As I recount in my book or this short film, I had not yet accepted this crazy stuff into my “normal” paradigm of reality, so I kept trying to dismiss it.  A thought-voice urged me to tell her (my sister) what I knew of the light to help her cross, because her fear (that cancer was god’s punishment) blocked her crossing. “She’s got two weeks!” I insisted, believing her doctors, but the voice simply would not quit.  Finally, I consented.  I knelt close by my unconscious sister, took her hand, and tried my best to describe the the light – she’d feel the warmth of god’s love all through her, it would feel so wonderful…  When the words were out, I sat back down.  Twenty minutes later, in a sudden, violent hemorrhage, she died.

Far from serene, I tore around the hospital floor with my brother screaming, “Help us!” An impassive doctor listened to my sister’s heart… but assured us it would stop soon.  One minute I truly wanted to rip that doctor’s head off; the next, my sister reached me.  Her energy was unmistakable, hovering in the room, loving and trying to calm me, loving my brother, loving the frickin’ doctor and nurse – the whole world!  Somehow she filled me with the light again, a euphoric flashback of the bliss I’d known while I got to be dead.

That was twenty years ago.

Just before my father’s death, I didn’t sense the light, but I knew when he was about to cross. I told the hospice worker to get my family, who were all chatting around the kitchen table with a visiting social worker.  In the minute I had alone with Dad, I remember telling him in thought, “You’re gonna do fine, Dad.  You’re gonna do great!”  I felt proud of him, excited for him.  That’s not how you’re supposed to feel, but it’s exactly the midwifey anticipation those million angels had for my sister – this time filling to me, too.

That was ten years ago.

Weird Things still pop into my life fairly regularly.  Last week, getting ready to leave for work, I resolved to pick up groceries on the way home.  Trader Joe’s or Safeway?  The thought flashed – Trader Joe’s: you’ll see someone you know.  I dismissed it, because  Safeway was right on the way home, so I’d– Trader Joe’s.  You’ll see Mindy.  Along came a faint flash of Mindy’s smiling face backed by the sauces shelf, though in 10 years’ shopping at TJ’s, I’d never once seen her there. Aware of other times I’d been advised in ways that saved my life, I consented: “Okay, fine!  TJ’s – I’ll go!” (I often use this exasperated tone with my guardian angel.)

Six hours later, I’m on the phone with Mom at TJ’s when Mindy sails by in the produce area.  I wave excitedly but can’t talk – I can’t tell her I knew.  I wrap up with Mom, shop a while, then decide I’m gonna track down Mindy.  I hunt through the store – did she leave?  Finally, I see her.  I greet her and explain.  She laughs – she’s a Wiccan – and admits she was thinking “very loudly” this morning that she had to go to TJ’s.  I love her immensely in a strange way – her classic Mindy-ness.  I love life.  It’s right then that I realize, behind her are… the sauces.

What the fuck is going on with this stuff, you guys?  I don’t know!  But I know something is.  I KNOW there is more to this world than the physical.

I believe many of us are steered by guardian angels, even if we can’t tell their input from our own thoughts.  Many NDE survivors can tell – often because the voice contradicts what we want.  One NDE friend of mine descending a staircase “heard” her angel warn, “If someone calls from above, don’t look around.”  A coworker called her name from the top of the stairs.  She tried at first not to look, but it seemed silly.  Turning her head, she mis-stepped, fell down the stairs, and broke her leg. She laughs telling the story.

I believe we’re collectively steered via billions of microdecisions – toward some purpose none of us can know.  I believe it’s thanks to billions of microdecisions that we have not (yet) eradicated life on Earth with our warheads.

I believe we’re Life/Love doing something.

Among adults, 10-15% who survive death bring back memories from the other side.  In young children, the percentage is far higher – more like 80% – perhaps because they’re relative newcomers here.  These figures hold across cultures.

Many NDEers encounter a love a thousand times more powerful than any we’ve felt on earth.  Some who get less far just feel a powerful sense of well-being.  NOBODY I’ve met in the NDE community wanted to get back inside their body.  Nobody!  But heaven, if you like, is not a “better place.”  It’s just a bodiless place – so not really a place.

Anger, fear, and pain are defense mechanisms built into our bodies.  We need them to stay incarnate.  So in a sense, the Puritans were onto something when they blamed “the flesh” for all our woes – for the “hundred forms of fear” and resentment that fuck up our existence with greed, insecurity, envy, etc.

And while it’s true we slough off all these bummers when we exit the body, the state of embodiment is nonetheless an absolutely amazing feat!  We are spirit invested in flesh, energy inhabiting matter – like photons, we’re both! What a crazy stunt that is.  Our emotions carry shadows that give them richness unique to earthly life.  So savor it  – all of it, the buoyancy of joy and the gravity of sadness.  As one childhood NDEer put it: “Life is for living; the light is for later.”

Life is for living, so from our perspective, it’s immensely tragic when one is cut short by addiction.  We’ll never again see Jeremy, never hear his raspy voice or belly laugh.  We all miss and mourn him deeply.  Yet Jeremy has transcended to pure Jeremy-ness.  His unmistakable, unique energy is now at large in the universe.  That I know.

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Filed under Addiction, Afterlife, Faith, God, NDE, Near Death Experience, Spirituality

Wait! The Traditions Don’t Suck!

For years I was instantly bored by AA’s 12 Traditions. Read at the outset of most meetings right after the 12 Steps, they tended to have a soporific effect, the words droning past by like train cars as I waited to cross tracks to the actual meeting.

Lately, though, I’ve been listening to them and thinking about how their guidance applies to life. Certainly not a new idea – countless people have advised such – but it’s new to me.  I’m always on the lookout for guidance!

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You can look up the traditions in normal and “long form” at the back of your Big Book.  I ain’t gonna list them here because they’d hog up too much of my word count, so I’d have less room to cuss.  😉   Instead, here’s just the gist of what I hear in each.

1. Together we live; alone we die.  I need to stay connected to AA, to join in the unity that sustains “our common welfare.”  Whenever I choose to isolate, deciding my problems are unique or that I don’t need to show up at meetings, I’m dying just a little bit – spiritually if not physically.

2. God’s Guidance is the Shit.  I need to seek god in all things always, to navigate by this North Star of goodness to the best of my ability in all my thoughts and actions.  And when I talk matters over with others who earnestly seek god/good, I should listen for god’s guidance reflected in their words – often unintentionally.

3. Welcome Others as They Are.  That AA’s only requirement for membership is a “desire to stop drinking” is HUGE!  There’s so much more to this tradition than meets the eye! It points to a way of life. For example, in 1960s South Africa, sober alcoholics flouted apartheid laws by holding multi-racial AA meetings and dances; in order to avoid arrest at the latter, Black members disguised themselves as wait staff.  Imagine the secret solidarity of those groups!  AA embraces everyone who desires recovery, regardless of “money or conformity” or how many times they’ve relapsed.  In a similar spirit, I need to recognize and honor the human kinship of every person I encounter.diverse-hands

4. To Thine Own Self Be True.  A spiritually awakened way of life will look different on every individual, so we can live and meet in a wide diversity of styles – provided we’re conscientious about the effects of our actions. In AA meetings we can each think for ourselves, conceive of god as we choose, and talk about sobriety in our own damn vernacular.

5 & 6. Remember Why We’re Here.  Like an AA group, our lives have a primary purpose: “to be of maximum service to God and the people about us” (p. 77).  Helping one another, spreading love and kindness – that’s the frickin’ purpose of life, guys.  Time and time again, I hear from my Near Death Experience (NDE) friends who’ve died and witnessed a life review that they were shown countless instances where they impacted others with kindness or cruelty.  Effects from each act – kind or cruel – rippled outward from person to person into the world.  Accomplishments we consider major did not matter, except in their impact on others’ feelings.  Kindness mattered.  We can’t let a focus on “money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose” of bringing about maximal good.

unconditional-self-love7. Love Ourselves.  How do I get from “fully self-supporting” to self-love?  Because the founders recognized that if AA failed to support itself from within, then favor toward, obligation to, and dependence on those providing the handouts would fuck up everything.  Bill W. initially tried to hit up John D. Rockefeller for money, but Rockefeller, miraculously enough, recognized the risk and refused.  Sure, financial solvency is a fine goal for all adults.  But what really “funds” my day-to-day experience is my emotional well-being.  If I place myself in a position where I’m dependent on others to provide that, I lose all integrity.

I must learn to love and support myself.  I’m progressing toward this goal little by little, slowly and painfully.  (To be honest, I’ve tried to blog on self-love several times and realized I’m just not there yet.)

8 & 9. Be Neither a Role nor Rule Book.  The fact that AA no-bosshas survived over 80 years despite being neither professional nor organized is something many outsiders can’t grasp. We charge nothing, and nobody is in charge.  Rather, our cohesion results from lived experience of our shared plight and solution.  Extending these principles into our lives means that we not identify with the roles or labels we tend to pin on ourselves, that we lighten up and take ourselves less seriously.  Eckhart Tolle writes about the diminished experience we suffer when we identify with a role, class, or even personality.  Living truly awake means seeking to be maximally open to experience right now, not hemmed in by limiting self-definitions.

10. Eschew Conflict When Possible.  Regarding controversial issues, this tradition states that we “oppose no one.”  I do need to know what’s right for me and be faithful to it with boundaries, but I don’t go imposing my will on others.  (Given the current US political climate, though, I think we should extend our personal boundaries to consider the character of our country and who we are collectively – and stand up to those inflicting harm in our name.)

11. Live our Program. This tradition translates pretty directly.  As AA doesn’t self-promote, neither should we.  Rather, we walk our talk.  We work the steps, seek growth and healing through god, and let the results speak for themselves.  I know several people dying of alcoholism.  To each I have mentioned that I’m sober in AA – end of story.  They can seek me out if they want what I have.

12. Stay Humble and Grateful.  Here I do quote the long form: “–And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of anonymity has immense spiritual significance.  It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are to actually practice a genuine humility.  This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of [god].”  Can’t improve on that!

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Vulnerability

The other day I got a call from a woman I don’t know asking about something she’d heard me say in an AA meeting.  She’d tracked me down because she was curious.

“You said the closer you get to God, the more you’re able to love people – you said because you don’t need shit from them.  I’ve been wanting and wanting for years to get closer to that – not wanting or needing people’s approval – but I don’t seem to get anywhere.  How do you do it?”

I offered to meet her for coffee next week. But what the fuck will I say to her?  How can I even hope to frame in one sitting what’s taken me 22 years to learn?  I can’t.  But that’s okay.  Because the truth is, in taking the risk to reach out to me, she’d begun to answer her own question.

Vulnerability is Scary
Neurologically, most of our responses to life involve an almond-sized part of the brain known as the amygdala, the center of fight, flight, or freeze, which scans our sensory data constantly for signs of danger.

Costa Rican girls

Unsafe but unworried Costa Rican kids

In the US, our culture prioritizes shielding ourselves from such danger.  Airbags, seatbelts, baby car seats, and helmets – they’re all mandated by law.  By contrast, when I traveled to Costa Rica, the safety policy appeared to be, “Let’s hope bad shit doesn’t happen.” I saw a couple motorcycling down a pot-holed road with no helmets – not for them or the 1-year-old between them, whom the woman could brace with only one hand because her other dangled groceries near the rear axle.  Another guy ahead of our car perched on the back of his friend’s motorcycle carrying a full-size bicycle across his back – no hands!  Now, I’m sure some bad shit does happen, but among the Costa Ricans I sensed a freedom and happiness – a trust in life and themselves – that Americans can’t even dream of.

If we’re knocking ourselves out to evade physical dangers, it only makes sense that we transfer the same approach to emotional ones.  Research has proven that our brains experience emotional and physical pain as virtually identical: the same regions light up when someone turns us a cold shoulder as would if they snapped a mousetrap on our finger.  Rejections hurts.

That’s why we drank!  Then we didn’t have to give a shit who disliked or rejected us, or if we did, it was all delicious maudlin drama.  Yet the day comes when alcohol can no longer anesthetize us, and at the same time the wreckage of our past overwhelms us.  When that happens, we hit bottom.

It’s a pain that cracks us open so deeply, god can touch our hearts.  We admit we don’t know how to live, and we ask for help from god and sober alcoholics.  If we work a program, we learn that ego, unchecked, is the source of our troubles.  Through inventory we name the character defects that ego animates in us and start mustering the willingness to part with them.

So who, then, is this new person?  This human divested of their emotional shield, inflated ego, assorted coping mechanisms – in short of their boozing imperviousness?

It’s a person suddenly exposed and vulnerable as hell.

Now, we can be hurt.  We experience pain deeply, sometimes a backlog built up over a lifetime.  If we’re lucky, we have a sponsor who advises us to bring that pain to god.  But sometimes, our amygdalas decide god’s just not concrete enough.  fire-suitWe need safety precautions, emotional helmets and hazmat suits!  So we reduce our vulnerability by learning to edit and hide our true selves.  We develop strategies like people pleasing: whatever we think will smooth our path, whatever others want or would approve, we try to appear.  The goal is to be accepted.  We need it because we so intensely fear rejection’s pain.

The problem is, if we don’t put ourselves out there, exposing our weaknesses and imperfections and hoping to be loved despite them, we also won’t live. We’ll miss the chance to know intimacy, trust, and the warmth of loving other people simply for their humanness.  In short, safe inside our hazmat suits, we’ll miss the richest beauties of life on earth.

So I Guess What I’ll Say to that woman is that since I’ve been sober, life has absolutely beaten the crap out of me, over and over.  Partners have plopped my heart in food processors set on Betrayal – not just once but twice.  My siblings ridiculed and shamed my book – even as I fought cancer.  Besides losing a sister and father, I’ve lost half a dozen dear friends to overdose, accident, and suicide.

Pain.  Pain.  Pain.

But here’s the thing.  Every time, god has been there.  Every time, god has loved me through it.  And the gift from staying sober long enough has been that I begin to fear pain less.  It won’t kill me.  It is, after all, “the touchstone of all spiritual progress” – that which affirms the real deal:  I will love again.  I’ll show up for my siblings.  Cancer won’t haunt me.  And I will never forget my loved ones.

cristins-cookiesI find I have begun to live emotionally in the same spirit the Costa Ricans live physically – with less caution and more freedom.  I can begin to risk pain knowingly.  Today I choose to be vulnerable, extending kindness or heartfelt gifts to those who may reject them, because I don’t need their acceptance.  Sure, I’d like it!  Sure, I hope bad shit doesn’t happen.  But what’s the worst case scenario?  Those “ouch” parts of my brain will light up again, and I’ll cry my guts out again.  And when I turn to god in all my pain and grief, god will say to me again, “Louisa, you are enough, just as you are – I love you in the beauty of your trying.”

Freedom is the difference between hoping for and thinking we need reciprocation.  I am all I have to offer.  This life’s the only time I can do it.  God, I know, has my back.

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PS: Happy birthday to me, guys!  Thanks for 22 years on the 29th!  🙂

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The Bedevilments vs. Grace

Here are thousands of [sober] men and women, worldly indeed. They flatly declare that since they have come to believe in a Power greater than themselves… there has been a revolutionary change in their way of living and thinking. In the face of collapse and despair… they found that a new power, peace, happiness, and sense of direction flowed into them.
 
…Is not our age characterized by the ease with which we… throw away the theory or gadget which does not work for something new which does? We had to ask ourselves why we shouldn’t apply to our human problems this same readiness. We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were a prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people— was not a basic solution of these bedevilments more important than whether we should see [an ad for some new gadget]? Of course it was…
 
Our ideas did not work. But the God idea did.
-Alcoholic Anonymous, pp. 50-52
The bedevilments sum up how life sucks for an active alcoholic – or for one dry without a solution.  Anyone familiar with the Big Book knows of them.  They make up yet another passage where the AA founders nailed our experience, so  the hurting alcoholic marvels as s/he reads, “How did they know-?”
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The bedevilments hurt like hell because they’re symptoms of our dying spirits.  Fear cuts us off from the love that would sustain us, so we languish like plants without sunlight.  Drinking temporarily soothes that pain while ego promises to fix everything by grabbing more admiration from the outside world (via  accomplishments, attractiveness, wealth, etc).  What else could possibly help us besides self-medicating and vanquishing all the assholes in our life?
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AA’s 80th anniversary: 70,000 sober drunks from 94 nations. D’ya think this thing might work?         (click to enlarge)**

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The Way Out
This chapter, “We Agnostics,” offers an alternative:  If we replace religious ideas of God with  open-minded spirituality, we can examine the results of faith just as we would any other phenomenon – scientifically.  We see that people who adopt faith in a higher power go from the shit pile to thriving.  We see it over and over.  Linking the two events causally – is that such an illogical jump?  To say, “Hmm… looks like this faith gadget works wayyy  better than the self-reliance gadget I’ve been using” – ?
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That’s how models function in science.  We observe phenomena and devise a theory, a model that explains what’s going on.  We can’t isolate or observe faith, but we can note its effects.  Faith (and the rigorous stepwork it inspires) arrests the misery of alcoholism.  In drunk after drunk, this shit works.  We don’t have to know why.
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Still, I remember how I reacted the first time I read “We Agnostics.”  Yes, I suffered all the bedevilments (though I didn’t give a shit about not helping others), but I wasn’t going to buy the idea that what had worked for millions of other people would work for me.  No, because I was smarter.  And I hurt worse.  And the prospect of seeking god felt weirder to me than it had for those guys – obviously.  Just in general, other people were so other-peopleish!  They had nothing to do with me.  They were packed in society like canned beans, whereas I had flowered and grown on the vine of my life, bobbing in breezes and raindrops they’d never experienced.
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This is the catch-22 of getting sober in AA: we have to trust that we are like others before we can really believe it to be so.  If we trust, we can do what they did and get what they got – but at the start we don’t trust anything!  Even booze, our best buddy ever, has turned on us.  Or has it?  Maybe we should try one more time with the bootstraps and a little less bottle?  Isn’t that more likely to work than something so preposterous?
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wile-e-coyote-cliffAnd yet we try the unknown thing.  We step out into air.  There’s something in AA meetings, some energy we can’t identify that keeps us coming back.  My brain told me emphatically that AA would never work, yet my hope, my heart, and somehow my car keys carried me to meeting after meeting, where I heard people speaking authentically of ruined relationships, self-loathing, wild emotions, relentless fears, and pain-filled loneliness just like mine – that no longer ruled their lives.  I could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices: they were free.
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Grace.  What is it?  It’s defined as “unmerited divine assistance,” a gift from god we receive without earning.  The longer I’m sober, the more I see it’s all grace: every breath I take, every sensation, every emotion, every moment of being alive on this earth.  How could I “earn” any of that?  I was graced with the utter defeat of my wrecked life.  I was graced to meet the person who took me to my first AA meeting.  Graced to find myself out of answers, sick of believing my broken brain over and over, desperate enough to show up despite immense skepticism.  The short version is that I was graced with surrender: “Maybe there is something; maybe I can ask it to help me.”
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That opened the door enough for those first rays of sunlight to touch me.  duckling-graceThree steps forward, two steps back, I’ve progressed through life’s vicissitudes and cycles of stepwork to reach my own intimate experience with a god that I now love with everything in me.  Today I can see how god – that energy of love powering every element of life – is in you.  I can love you with no self-interest – no more than I have in loving a robin, or a birch tree, or a puffy white cloud shifting across the blue expanse of sky.  Look at you being you!
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And what a wonder it still is, as I come up on 22 years sober, to watch AA newcomers at the outset of their own  journey.  They come in with bedeviled pain and discontent practically scribbling the space above their chairs. Today, I get to flatly declare to them the peace, happiness, and sense of direction with which I’ve been graced – and watch them find it, too.
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 **https://rehabreviews.com/went-aas-80th-international-convention-kept-journal-become/#prettyPhoto

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Compassion’s Spark: a 12th Step Call

On a dark, rainy winter’s evening about ten years ago, I found myself in a run-down urban trailer park trying to find a particular trailer. I don’t remember how I was supposed to identify it, but I do remember a man stepping in front of me whose face I couldn’t see in the dark.  “I got some stuff.  You want some?”  trailer-park“No, thanks,” I replied, moving on. By the light of trailer windows, I saw more shadowy figures moving about in the downpour, and I remember holding my AA Big Book in front of my heart like a shield, asking god to keep me safe.  I was on a full-fledged 12th-step call, one of only a handful in my life.

Twelfth-step calls are less common today because treatment centers tend to be a first stop for addicts wanting help, but the woman whose trailer I was seeking had just been released from the most labor-camp-like detox/treatment center in Seattle – Sedrunar.  A friend had called me about her. “Lena doesn’t have a car to get to meetings.  She’s got two kids, and she’s gonna lose them if she uses again.”

I called Lena, though I was going to insist she take the bus to my house.  But Lena, like any addict, was persuasive.  She didn’t know anyone in the trailer park she could trust to watch her kids – who were seven and two.  Could I please come just this once?

The seven-year-old opened the trailer door.  She stared at me from eyes circled with dark shadows, silent as a spook.  I heard yelled from inside: “Let her in!”  I tried to greet the child cheerily, though to inhale the stinky, steamy air in there felt like an assault. On the floor was an old TV with a beanbag chair in front of it – that and piles of clothes.  Bare walls.  In came Lena, the toddler on her hip naked besides his diaper, food all over his face.  Lena was a bit shorter than me and chunky, about 25. She shook my hand, apologizing for the mess, and handed the boy off to her daughter, pretty much barking at her to go in the bedroom and shut the door so she could talk to this lady – me.

We sat down at the yellow kitchen table.  On the stove, mac & cheese dribbled from a saucepan stovein a way that reminded me of vomit, and smeared noodles dotted the table.  Lena sat across from me and folded her hands expectantly as though I were about to recite poetry.

All I could say was, “Does that window open?” I gestured toward a dark pane at the the table’s end, the glass dripping with condensation.

Lena looked perplexed.  “I’m trying to save heat.”

“I’d really appreciate it.”

Reluctantly she rose and slid the moldy aluminum frame aside about an inch.  While she was up she grabbed a sponge and wiped away most of the noodles at my place, apologizing that she’d just fed her son.

I’d made up my mind that I would stay 30 minutes only.  I began as I always do, by asking Lena to briefly tell me her story.  Clearly practiced from treatment, she launched right into it – how she’d grown up picking crops in Yakima in a Hispanic community; how she’d gotten into meth as a teen.  She was proud that both kids had the same father, but he was a drug dealer.  She’d lost them twice to CPS – once for leaving them in the car outside a bar.

“I’m clean, now, 60 days.  The judge told me this is an extra chance with my kids.  I shouldn’t even have them now.  I gotta stay clean.  I gotta stay sober.”  Here she changed, muscles in her face and throat working hard.  She looked right at me and spoke distinctly: “I can’t… lose… my kids.”

“Well, you’ll need to find a sponsor,” I breezed, “but, unfortunately, I’m full.”  This was somewhat true – I had a few sponsees.  But, of course, I really said it to push away all this squalor.  I wasn’t even sure whether this woman should have her kids.  All I knew was that only 21 minutes stood between me and escape.

I sketched my own story briefly, Lena nodding attentively at every phrase.  I explained that I couldn’t not drink on my own, but by working the 12 steps I’d accessed a higher power that had removed my craving for alcohol and kept me sober eleven years.

“Eleven years!” Lena marveled.  “That’s what I want!  I wanna know how you did that!”

I was starting to explain how I’d worked with a sponsor when we heard a ruckus and the squalling toddler, chased by the spooky girl, burst out of the bedroom.  Hardly taking her eyes from me, Lena scooped her son into her lap and held him close.  She gave the crown of his head tiny kisses and asked him if he wanted a bottle.

Right then – that’s when the voice started.  Not really a voice, but an urging:  Help her.  Sponsor her.  Love her.

No fucking way! my ego countered.  ticking-clockI was busy.  She was hopeless.  Just eight minutes and I’d be outta this dump, back to the fresh air and my nice, clean life!

“He don’t talk,” Lena told me. “They told me he’s disabled, but it ain’t true.  It’s just all he been through.”  Watching the boy’s eyes, the way they moved from Lena to me and back again, I sensed she was right.  Meanwhile the spooky girl joined us with a coloring book, promising to be quiet and asking where her crayons were.  Lena grabbed them from the same box that had held her Big Book.

“It’s not me,” I heard myself telling her. “God has given me a life better than I ever dreamed of.”  Some of the people who’d helped, giving me time and guidance, flashed through my mind.  “I’m not the same person I was.”  Lena nodded intently.  She was not begging.  She was not pleading.  But every cell in her body was straining to hear me.

Just help her.  Just love her.

But I was helping, dammit!  I was steering her toward the program, right?  Just not toward me.  Anyone but me.  But, with just three minutes to go, I made a big mistake.  I looked into Lena’s eyes.  Really looked.  I saw there desperation and terror, but even more, a fierce love for her children.  My own son was five.  How were we any different?

The wall crumbled, compassion washing over me.  “Okay, I’ll sponsor you,” I heard myself saying.  Lena’s face lit up.  “But not here!  You’re gonna have to come meet me at a coffee shop!”

The rest of the story is like a fairy tale.  Lena and I met every Friday tobig-book read the Big Book at a Starbucks while a sober neighbor watched her kids, after which I’d drive us to a meeting.  She had a job riding in a municipal truck, collecting garbage, and within a couple of months she qualified to drive that truck.  She moved into a shitty apartment not far from the trailer park, where I met with her for a while until she found childcare.  She bought a crappy car and started driving herself to meetings.  Whenever I showed up at her homegroup, her kids would ambush me either in the parking lot or when I came in – the little girl now beautiful and clear-eyed, the little boy talking up a storm.  Their laughter still seemed incredible to me – a miracle.

In a little more than a year, we’d progressed to Step 9 when Lena, who was apprenticing as municipal gardener, leased a nice apartment too far north for us to keep meeting.  I drove up and visited her there once.  It was near Christmas.  I remember white carpets, a new sofa, pictures on the walls.  I remember the children bringing me a gift from under the Christmas tree and grinning while I opened it, and my own embarrassment that I had nothing for them.  But I had given them something – and we all knew it.

Last night after eight years I went again to that meeting – Lena’s old home group. But she wasn’t there.  Where she’s gone, what she’s doing, I don’t know.  But I’m hopeful.  I sent them prayers.  Today, I’m so grateful that god opened my heart, and that it’s still opening.

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Postscript:  I had to find out…  🙂

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Filed under Addiction, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Twelve Steps

Choose Life; Choose Joy

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.

hooded-figureUnlike 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 lucy_in_the_sky_with_diamonds_by_alfredov90-d5tmlejinto 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.

oak-treeTo 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.

 

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*I’ll let you know when it comes out 🙂

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Filed under AA, Addiction, Afterlife, Happiness, Near Death Experience, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality