Category Archives: Addiction

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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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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What’s the Point of “Bill’s Story”?

Pledges inscribed on the flyleaf of Bill and Lois’ family bible:

  • October 20, 1928:  To my beloved wife that has endured so much, let this stand as evidence to you that I have finished with drink forever.
  • November 22, 1928:  My strength is renewed a thousand fold in my love for you. I will never drink again.
  • January, 1929:  To tell you once more that I am finished with it.  I love you.
  • September 3, 1930:  Finally and for a lifetime, thank God for your love.

On Christmas day, 1930, Lois’ mother died. Bill was drunk for days before, too drunk to attend the funeral, and drunk for days after. Lois began work at Macy’s for $19/week to support the two of them.

Anyone familiar with the Big Book of AA knows that in its opening chapter, “Bill’s Story,” co-founder Bill Wilson offers his personal narrative of “what it was like” while he was a prisoner of alcohol, “what happened” when his drinking buddy Ebby visited (miraculously sober), and “what it’s like now” – or was like for him and Lois, flourishing in the early days of AA at the time the book was published.

Bill and Lois

Lois and Bill later in life

Standard “homework” for an AA newcomer embarking on the 12 steps is to highlight the passages in “Bill’s Story” to which they relate – at least, that’s how we do it in Seattle (and I expect all over the world).  Sponsees of mine who were sure they’d have zilch in common with some dude of a different race, class, gender, and era writing in terms they consider archaic, are surprised to find Bill puts into words experiences, pains, and terrors they’ve suffered but shared with no one.  Identification – that’s how the program works.

It starts from the get-go: “War fever ran high” he opens – each of these four words flashing icons of addiction.  Bill drank when things were awesome: “I was part of life at last, and in the midst of the excitement I discovered liquor.” And he drank when they sucked: “I was very lonely and again turned to alcohol.” By the end of the first paragraph, we can guess Bill drank like we did.  By the end of the first page, we know he turned away from the foreboding doom he felt reading an alcoholic’s tombstone and focused instead on vast faith in his own “talent for leadership” his ability to choose wisely.

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Right there, folks, is the enigma of alcoholism in a nutshell.  Even as we increasingly realize that booze is killing us, we place increasing trust in self-will and self-knowledge, which amount to paper swords in our gladiator’s fight with this powerful, thought-twisting, brain-sabotaging snake.  Why?  Because the curious mental blank spot can override our resolve at any moment.

Though there must have been hundreds of times when Bill rallied all his resolve to quit drinking and found himself shit-faced soon after, his story specifically names five of them.

 1.  Self-will: “Nevertheless, I still thought I could control the situation, and there were periods of sobriety that renewed my wife’s hope.” [Referring to the bible inscriptions]

Blank spot: “Then I went on a prodigious bender, and the chance vanished.”

2.  Self will: “I woke up.  This had to be stopped.  I saw I could not take so much as one drink.  I was through forever.  Before then, I had written lots of sweet promises, but my wife happily observed that this time I meant business.  And so I did.”

Blank spot: “Shortly afterward I came home drunk.  There had been no fight.  Where had been my high resolve?  I simply didn’t know.  It hadn’t even come to mind.”

3.  Self-will: “Renewing my resolve, I tried again.  Some time passed, and confidence began to be replaced by cocksureness.  I could laugh at the gin mills.  Now I had what it takes!”

Blank spot:  “One day I walked into a cafe to telephone.  In no time I was beating on the bar asking myself how it happened.”

4.  Self-will: “It relieved me somewhat to learn [in the hospital] that in alcoholics the will is amazingly weakened when it comes to combating liquor… Understanding myself now, I fared forth in high hope… Surely this was the answer  self knowledge.”

Blank spot: “But it was not, for the frightful day came when I drank once more. The curve of my declining moral and bodily health fell off like a ski-jump.”

5. Self-will: “No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I found in that bitter morass of self-pity.  Quick sand stretched around me in all directions.  I had met my match.  I had been overwhelmed.  Alcohol was my master.  Trembling, I stepped from the hospital a broken man.”

Blank spot: “Fear sobered me for a bit.  Then came the insidious insanity of that first drink, and on Armistice day 1934, I was off again.  Everyone became resigned to the certainty that I would have to be shut up somewhere, or would stumble along to a miserable end.”

But instead of drinking himself to death, Bill receives a visit from his old drinking pal, Ebby, who tells him of the Oxford Group and opens the door to freedom – as the rest of the chapter swiftly summarizes.  Because the focus here, at the book’s beginning, is on defining the problem.

The point of Bill’s story is that we can’t fix ourselves.  No matter how disciplined in other respects, our minds cannot combat our alcoholism, which resides in the mind.  No amount of decision, resolve, moral fiber, determination, or even dedication through the deepest love for a partner can come to our aid at the junctures of the curious mental blank spot, when these thoughts don’t “even come to mind.”

Repulsed by the Oxford Group’s religiosity, Bill did indeed drink himself back into the hospital after Ebby’s first visit, but NOT after Ebby’s hospital visit, because at that time Bill had a white light experience (¶ 13) that not only struck him sober for the remaining 36 years of his life, but empowered him to persevere in the difficulties of co-creating a program that would save the lives of millions of fellow alcoholics.

God alone can relieve our addiction, if we ask.  I’m not talking about a god named in any religion,spiritenergy though such gods work fine for some, which is cool.  For me, god is the life force, an energy which flows not only through the matter of our bodies but between and among every living entity – animal or vegetable.  Cut off from it by ego and hostility, our spirits languish and we find ourselves puppets of addiction.  Yet it’s right there – an energy of immense love and intelligence that we can tap into if we sincerely open to it.  It’s living you right now.  It’s living the planet.  You can write it off as “shit happens” or…

You can start where you are.  Whether you’re hungover as hell right now or sober but in pain, you can ask it for help and guidance.  You might start like this: “I don’t know what you are, but I know that I hurt, and that I need you.  Help me.  Please guide me toward goodness and love and light.  I will look for you in the depths of my heart.”

I guarantee you it will answer.

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Thinking in Sobriety: A Suggested Playlist

A thought is harmless unless we believe it.  It’s not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering.  Attaching to a thought means believing it’s true.   (-Byron Katie)

One of the greatest gifts I’ve been granted in sobriety is a thin layer of mental insulation between having a thought and believing it’s true.  Back when I was drinking or newly sober, I used to experience a barrage of hopeless, self-deprecating, and judgemental thoughts that seemed to come at me from nowhere.

And they still do!  The miracle now is that today I know I’m thinking. I’m also aware that my thoughts are fickle: sometimes they’re guided by my higher self, and others they’re broadcast by that parasitic asshole camped out in my amygdala: Addiction.

Thoughts in themselves are just mental activity – nothing we have to sign on with.  But doing so becomes habit. As Eckhart Tolle explains, “Strictly speaking, you don’t think: Thinking happens to you… Digestion happens, circulation happens, thinking happens.  Most people are possessed by thought… [while] the greater part of [their] thinking is involuntary, automatic, and repetitive. ”

The majority of my thinking, unfortunately, tends to diagnose what’s not right.  (For instance, I’m telling you now what’s not right with my thinking.)  Why is that?  For one thing, as a human I’ve evolved to be on the constant lookout for survival problems. As an academic, I’ve been trained to evaluate everything critically.  Add the fact that, as a codependent, whoamiI’ve always had a hell of a time gauging where I stand relative to you, who I think you want me to be, and my fleeting sense of self.  (Are you disappointed?  Bored?  How do I fix it?)  And lastly, as an alcoholic, I’m prone to self-centered extremes of self-aggrandizement and self-loathing: I’m the best or the worst, totally the shit or a total piece of shit.

Maybe that’s why I experience so much downright back-assward thinking.  I kid you not: this morning I got up for a second cup of tea, and as I crossed the threshold of the kitchen, the thought came to mind that my entire life was a pathetic failure.  Why?  That’s hard to say. My thinking voice was wielding some punishing club, like: “Why do you constantly deny this?!  Why don’t you just quit your strained pretensions and admit you’re nothing but a fuck up?!” Further back I sensed accusations about my lack of material wealth and a relationship, but I didn’t look into them.  Instead I pulled away, thought: “Wow!  Harsh!” and focused on my lovely, cozy tea.

The thing is, I was once addicted to that harsh voice.  I used to grab at those thoughts saying, “AHA!  Now I face the TRUTH!”  Granted, the harsh voice possessed a dismally limited supply of diatribes or, if you will, a chintzy jukebox of dark songs it played over and over.  But I knew them all so well that, whether about your faults or mine, it was great fun to sing along.  For years, they all led to a frame of mind that clearly called for a drink.  I drank not so much to vanquish them as to join with their story: “I don’t give a shit anymore.  Cheers!”

table-jukeboxHere are some of the dark jukebox’s Greatest Hits, sequenced from inner to outer attacks:

  • You Suck  (verses include your life sucks; you’re incompetent; your job/ creativity / social skills suck; no one likes you)
  • You’re Gross  (includes you’re fat; your clothes/ hair/ belongings are stupid; your ____ is too ___)
  • Poor, Poor You~! (includes cruelly denied X;  you’ve tried so hard; never even had a chance; assholes always win; god is frickin’ mean)
  • Your Way’s Right  (includes you told them X ! ; they think they’re so smart; they’ll be sorry; fuck those bastards)
  • That Bitch (includes why is shit so easy for her?; why do all the guys like her?; why won’t she just shrivel up and die?)
  • How D’they Like You NOW??  (includes a myriad of stellar comebacks, snide putdowns, and scathing witticisms to put assholes in their place)
  • Some Day You’ll Show ‘Em (includes Academy Award-winning footage of you accomplishing great things amid vast admiration, or talking thoughtfully with vanquished rivals about your victories)

As I noted above, I still have all these thoughts.  But… by virtue of having worked the steps and listened to a variety of 5th steps, I’ve learned to recognize their hackneyed tunes as part of the human condition – nothing unique to me.  And by a miracle of grace, I’ve actually grown bored of them.

Sometimes, to break a dark train of thought, you need a light one.  The Saint Francis Prayer rocks, of course, but it’s a bit abstract.  Here’s a playlist of thought trains I pursue when I’m having trouble shutting down the jukebox.

  • Be grateful.  I’m not in a war-torn country; I’m healthy; I’m sober; I know my god; I have friends; all I need to live has been gifted to me, plus a wonderful son, home, and abilities.
  • Send love to someone struggling.  I call to mind friends having a hard time and pray for them, maybe text some kind words, or decide on something I could do to help.
  • Plan something happy.  This past kidless weekend I saw the blues coming, so I took my dog, drove 2 hours, and climbed 4,000 feet from old growth forest to a snowy peak – sheer heaven!  All it cost was gas and gumption. I also throw parties, meet for coffee, and play at silly sober stuff (like sober karaoke this weekend).
  • Remember I’m going to die, as are you.  This may sound morbid, but holding in mind that life is finite renders every detail of the present moment infinitely precious.  The more loved ones I lose, the more easily I love all of us – this uppermost layer of humanity like fresh spring grass on an ancient prairie.

Living sober doesn’t mean just not drinking.  It means cultivating a beautiful life with the help of a loving god – and saying no to those habits that drag us back toward our dis-ease.

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Me not watching TV alone last weekend (across from Glacier Peak, tagged last summer)

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Seasons of Sobriety

Sobriety isn’t a task or a diet – it’s a way of life.  And like life, it excited-fanhas its ups and downs, riches and ruins.  The quality of our sobriety varies with our connectedness to god and our fellows, depending on the rigor with which we cultivate both.  Many of us long to be gung-ho about sobriety all the time – and we can be!  It’s just that what gung-ho looks like is going to change over time, which is why I like the analogy of seasons in sobriety.

Among my AA speaker recordings, I particularly love one by Don C., a Native American from Colorado Springs sober since August 10, 1978.  Don describes the horrific beating his alcoholism inflicted, distrust at his first AA meeting, a sponsor who made him read and annotate each Big Book chapter 25 times, and the freedom he accessed (there’s a silence while he fights back tears) by working the 12 steps.  His entire life and outlook changed.  So why, early in his fourth year sober, did he suddenly find himself miserable?

He says:

“I was about three years and two months sober and everything was going to hell. Meetings got stupid; my sponsor was having stupid attacks; the Big Book sucked…  I thought I was going crazy. So I went up to see Johnny Looking Cloud… He was a Native Elder that was in recovery. …He said, ‘You’re thinking this is a white man’s program – and it’s not.  This is the Indian way, also… The steps are 12 gentle ways to bring you back to the original teachings. And when you’re done, you’ll be in harmony… the way it was for your ancestors.’”

Johnny Looking Cloud explains to Don, firstly, that the steps align with the Native teaching of the Four Directions.  Steps 1, 2, and 3 align with the east, direction of the new sun, where we find our relationship with the Creator.  Steps 4, 5, and 6 align with the south, the high sun, where we find our relationship with ourselves.  Steps 7, 8, and 9  align with the west, the setting sun and direction of letting go, where we make amends to heal our relationships with others.  To the north, like the North Star, lie 10, 11, and 12, steps that align with the elders’ teachings to deepen our wisdom.

Secondly, he explains that just as all living things proceed through cycles, so do we in sobriety.  The first year is our spring, when our sap begins to flow and we form buds of potential.  In the summer of our second year, our leaves mature and we bloom – living vigorously in sobriety.  By the autumn of our third year, we’re harvesting sobriety’s fruits – stability, material gain, relationships.  But then along comes that fourth year: winter.  Our leaves wither and drop; the light weakens; sobriety seems barren and empty, as if everything were falling apart – just as Don C. experienced.  But in truth, the slate is only being cleared for a new level of sobriety – a fresh spring.

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My own seasons haven’t conformed to a four-year pattern, but I’ve definitely experienced that cycle many times in my 21 years’ sobriety.  In my springtimes, I get to see something new, some truth of living or character defect I’d never recognized before, that changes me forever.  My golden summers and autumns extend sometimes for years.

But winter does arrive.  And it sucks.  My sobriety feels ~meh! ~  I can’t recapture my enthusiasm for meetings, stepwork, or service.  Even so, I’ve schlepped through many such winters to reach new springs.  How does that happen… or not happen?

All of us, consciously or not, seek god/goodness/love in our lives.  All of us carry burdens of fear, pain, and loss.  The interrelationship between these two parts, I’ve found, comprises the melody of my life.  The seasons of a heavy and aching soul complement those of lightness and a free spirit.

My feelings really don’t have much to do with god, I don’t think.  Emotions are part of me, rooted in my body and brain – my separateness from god.  Rather, the godly part of me manifests only in my immediate awareness – my ability to see with love in the present instant.

During my summery months, my god-awareness acts like a beam of light, one I can turn on my own emotions – fears and sadness or childish excitement.  I can make friends with whatever nonsensical feelings insist on tagging along with me.  And when I’m good with my own emotions, it’s easy to extend love and compassion to others.

But when sobriety’s winter comes around, the beam wanes so I can’t tell what the hell’s going on.  Emotions victimize me.  I suffer.  I isolate.  I envy.  I doubt life will ever be good again.  gollumIt’s at this point that I’m most vulnerable to the wheedling voice of alcoholism.  It promises me drinking would fix everything.  It points out that other people drink with impunity, claims my life would be more fun if I joined them.  It paints a sweeping mural of a happier me with booze at its center.

For me, thank god (literally), this voice stays puny – I can swat it away like a pesky fly.  But for relapsing friends of mine, it begins to sound credible.  “Take charge of your life!” it urges them.  Humility starts to look like timidity; gratitude like settling; forgiveness like self-debasement.  Before they know it, a grandiose ego has upstaged god and they’re gonna to fix themselves with a drink – and do it right this time!

I wish I could offer a ticket to instant spring.  But there isn’t one.  There’s only acceptance:

doveThis, too, shall pass.  Every alcoholic with long term sobriety has taken refuge in this motto.  When recovery feels like drudgery, we still pursue it as best we can – going to meetings, calling sponsors, being of service.  Maybe we seek out Johnny Looking Cloud, or our own equivalent, and ask for help.  In some ways, those words represent the deepest form of faith.  They capture the willingness to have no idea how things will turn out, yet trust god enough to hang on through the darkness, believing spring will come again.

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PS:  Listen to Don C. here.  This isn’t the same talk I have on my 2011 Bellevue CD, but close.

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Amends

Rarely do AA newcomers like the sound of steps 8 & 9, where we contemplate the harm we’ve done others and do what we can to set things right.  I know I certainly didn’t plan on completing them early on.

My siblings, who don’t identify as alcoholic, believe I’ve been brainwashed by AA.  Maybe I have – but it was a washing much needed!  Today I simply do not question the wisdom of the 12 steps, and I seek constantly to apply their principles to my life.  That’s why I recently sent off an amends letter for harm I did almost 30 years ago.

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I married at 26 – drunk as I spoke my vows amid a total void of emotion – aside from the guilt of realizing I couldn’t feel.  We were outdoors on a sunny day, and I made myself cry because I wanted the hundred people in attendance to believe I was deeply moved.  The groom had been the object of my sexual obsession toward the end of college.  For over a year his mere presence – or even the thought of him – had spiked my dopamine better than cocaine: he’d been a living drug.  But as we said our vows, I knew his effect had worn off.  He’d been demoted to close friend and source of security.  I appreciated him for that, but love – genuine intimacy – had somehow dropped out of my emotional vocabulary.

As newlyweds we moved to Brookline, MA, so he could attend business school.  I drank.  I was supposedly a writer, since I’d won a big prize in grad school.  I had no friends, no job, no reason for existing – so my compulsive behaviors (described in my book) and drinking simply took over.  The panic attacks I’d experienced in New York City returned with a vengeance.  God, what a nightmare! – that sense of dying amid the obliterating jumble of an indifferent now.  Valium and booze were my only respite.

To rescue myself, I developed a new obsession – a girl, the most popular aerobics instructor at the gym where I’d started work.  Now I had a fresh stash of euphoria to chase after.  There was no physical infidelity because we were both straight – the girl and I – and intensely homophobic.  All I knew was that I wanted to be around her constantly and to reel her into my life as a new fix, a new paradise.  She gave me a little gift – a small metal figure seated on a toilet made from wire, nuts, and washers – that went missing.  I don’t know what drew me to look in the garbage outside, but wrapped in a bunch of paper in a bag within a bag I found it… bent and broken to pieces.

As I looked at it, I registered the magnitude of my husband’s pain and rage.  But with zero compassion – only anticipation that I could show this weird relic to my new friend.  And I did.  I got it out of the garbage a second time.  “Whoa!” she marveled.  “He’s fucked up!” – meaning my husband.  Later, after she’d followed me back to the west coast, we became partners.  It would take another six years for me to repeat the cycle – to betray her for a new host.

Flash forward a dozen years or so to 2000.  By this time I’m five years sober, working through my last amends.  I want to fly out to Boston to see my ex-husband, own my wrongs, and pretty much beg forgiveness – but my sponsor pauses.  She has me go see the rabbi who married us (my husband was Jewish) and ask his advice.  The rabbi ruminated for so long, I worried he’d fallen asleep.  Then he spoke: “You’ve changed little in appearance.  I think seeing you would cause him pain.  prayerStay out of his life.  Pray that he receive all the love and happiness you couldn’t give him.”  When I objected, trying to explain step 9, he reared up powerfully: “This amends would be more for you than for him!  He has a new wife!  Let him be!”

So I did.

Flash forward again, now to the spring of 2015.  As some of you know, I learned that my boyfriend of 9 years, whom I knew to be drinking, had been carrying on an affair with a girl from work five years older than his daughter – for several years.  I saw their texts.  I ended our relationship.  This caused me a great deal of pain.

Now we’re up to about two weeks ago.  In the midst of decluttering my house, chucking piles of once crucial papers into the recycling, I came across some old photos of my husband and me.  Look at us!  So young!  So… innocent!   His energy, his humor and kindness – they flooded back to me.  Sitting there on the floor with remnants of my life scattered about, I felt the grief and regret wash over me like a tsunami.  By the light of my own pain, I ventured down those hallways of memory, myself now in his place.  I saw as never before what I’d done, who I’d been.  And amid that mourning came clear direction from my higher power: The rabbi’s advice has expired.  The right thing to do has changed.

Am I brainwashed?  Maybe so.  But it took me only days to write a letter, tears nearly shorting out my laptop.  I sent it to my sponsor, and with her adjustments, copied it out by hand – again awash in tears.  I owned everything.  I told him I’d not been human – that addiction had turned me into a gaping black hole of selfish need.  I told him there was nothing in my life that I regretted more – that I would always, always, regret having abused his trust.  And I wrote that he was wonderful.

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I mailed it a week ago with a kiss and a prayer.  I’ve not heard back, but the results are out of my hands – not even my business!  What I know is that I’ve done my best to do the right thing.  That’s how I live now.  I seek insight through prayer and talking with the people I trust most.  And then I act.

In return, I get to hold my head up… and live sober another day.  That’s how it works.

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The Bitter End… or Willingness

…[W]e had but two alterna­tives: One was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help.
–“There is a Solution” (p. 25)

Over the years I’ve grown so accustomed to going to meetings, working the steps, and sponsoring people that I tend to forget I’m actually sober through god’s grace alone.  I forget that for most alcoholics, the disease rolls along like a hell-bound runaway train, taking them with it.

The Bitter End:  The other day I had coffee with a longtime friend whose ex-husband bavarian shed– I’ll call him Julius – was once a man vividly alive: handsome, funny, and brilliant. Together they created a beautiful home, the yard landscaped with a Bavarian-style gardenhouse of which I was always a tiny bit jealous. While our children were young, I joined their friends and family at many celebratory gatherings where Julius cheerfully acted as a bartender, mixing everyone’s drinks with a brisk, festive hospitality.

He didn’t seem to like me much, though. His wife had discussed his suspected ‘drinking problem’ with my partner and me, which he seemed to resent.  He was European-born, a year and a half older than I.  Alcohol, he maintained, was a normal part of European life – though Americans abused it.

As the years elapsed, however, my friend experienced the many pains of loving an active alcoholic. Finally she found herself cheated on in conjunction with alcohol, much as I would years later. Because Julius scoffed at AA recovery, she’d had to painfully end the relationship and find her happiness elsewhere.

Still, I continued to see Julius regularly because for some time he and I worked at the same place and exercised at the same gym. I’d witness much important traffic bustling to and from his windowed office across the hall from my virtual closet. At the gym, he’d stroll into the big cardio room glancing about as if for an audience, tall, blonde, and well aware of his strapping physique. But meeting his eye was only me – that annoying sober woman!  We’d exchange nods.  Then, about seven years ago, I was laid off.

So over coffee, I asked my friend, “And how is Julius doing?”

“You didn’t hear?” she started in return. “He died.  It was a few months ago.”

I shook my head, speechless.

“His liver went, and then… Didn’t you see his obituary on Facebook?”

Maybe you know the feeling I had, when you’ve rivaled someone you actually respect.  It’s as though the two of you were playing an intent game of ping-pong – and they’re suddenly not there.  The ball whizzes off to nowhere,  gone forever; you realize that underneath your resentment was… a slightly bruised form of love.  True, Julius had seemed to scorn my life choices – to flout sobriety by drinking hard and living well.  But he’d also passionately loved his children, the world of intellect, and life itself.  At heart, he was a good man.

My friend proceeded to unfold an old, old story lived out by countless alcoholics, a script starring that unsung hero, the liver. empties We alcoholics poison ourselves, and our liver cures us.  We do it again and again, driven by addiction, and that amazing organ reverses our suicidal onslaughts.  Until one day, it can’t.  It breaks.  But as alcoholics, we can’t stop the onslaught.  Poisons course unchecked through our systems, wreaking havoc on other organs – especially the brain.

Julius could not stop drinking, despite knowing full well alcohol was destroying his life.  He became obese and depressed.  He lost interest in work and took early retirement.  He stopped leaving the house, bathing, shaving, caring about anything.  His children both pitied and resented him, because he lived on the couch in a house that smelled bad.  He peed himself.  He saw no one.  Still, he drank.  And gradually, as ammonia crippled his brain, he stopped making sense.  Visiting to check on him, my friend found him speaking of people not there and tasks imagined.  She called 911.

At the hospital, doctors did all they could, but his body could not recoup.  A bloated wreck of his former self, watched over by the woman whose love he’d betrayed, with the children he would leave fatherless, 12 and 14, clutching his hands on either side, Julius died.

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Willingness:  It’s an odd feeling to hear of someone dying from the same disease you have.  There but for the grace of god go I.  Nothing could be more true.

I was just like Julius.  For so many years, whenever the prospect of my “getting help” was raised by therapists or friends, a bulletproof glass shield came up like an electric car window between me and that idea.  “No.  That will not happen,” I’d think with an iron will.  Like Julius, I planned to slow down and then drink normally.  But I’d sooner join a leppers’ nudist colony than mix with those freaks in AA!

How did that change for me – but not him?  Surely Julius knew a misery just as dark and painful as mine.  But somehow, I was graced with the gift of willingness.

My desire to live jumped tracks.  Its impulse switched from “I must drink” to “I must change.”  Why that happened for me and not for Julius, I cannot tell you.  I did not want to change.  I did not believe AA could help me.  Yet I made that first call, went to that first meeting in spite of my thinking.

That god provides the defense we lack against the first drink – we’re reminded of that miracle often enough.  But even the willingness to BEGIN TO LET GOD HELP US comes from god.  A spark of god glows at our core, our source, and yearns to connect outside us.  For some, the blockage – our will – is temporarily lifted: our spirit reaches out and god answers.  Others languish, locked in self.

Grace is inexplicable!  But we can practice gratitude without understanding: “Thank you, god, for my sobriety.  Thank you for this life – exactly as it is!”

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