Category Archives: Alcoholics Anonymous

The 12 Steps Backward

Struggling in a spiritually barren world, we alcoholics relied for many years on a 12-Step program of our own making.  We just didn’t know it! Our 12 Steps Backward, a cycle still ‘guiding’ the lives of countless alcoholics, went about like this:

 

These can stand alone just fine, but I’ll go ahead and comment a little on my own experience with them.

Steps 1-3
I took Step 1 at some point in high school.  I’d been uncomfortable in my skin since the age of 7 or 8, but the pain spiked unbearably in my late teens.  I hated being Louisa.  The first time I got shitfaced, I found instant relief and happily took Step 2, amazed that something as simple as booze could set everything right in my world. Now that I had a new way to live and feel good, I drifted into Step 3, believing superficially that alcohol and drugs were fun, and at a deeper level that I needed them to feel okay.

Steps 4-9
Alcohol/drugs inflated my ego with a sense of power that led me to harm others, whether by intentionally abusing their trust or by thoughtlessly overlooking their feelings.  During college, I tried to minimize the guilt that began to accumulate in the back of my mind — Step 4 — a policy I kept up for as long as I drank. Any lurking notion that my approach to living was faulty I dismissed by imagining pretty much everyone did the same — Step 5.

pay attentionMy sense of dramatic unfairness swelled alongside my unhappiness: life was not rewarding me as it should — Step 6.  Other people (cool peers? fickle authorities?) had to be at fault — Step 7.  Didn’t my problems really start with that kindergarten teacher who embarrassed me so badly and continue right up through current family and coworkers? — Step 8.  I wished I could set those people straight! — Step 9.

Steps 10-12
Living by Step 10, I never grew up emotionally because I never absorbed the lessons pain had to teach me.  I simply doused pain with booze, stirred it into a soupy ‘woe is me!’ drama, and learned nothing.  Step 11 flourished as a result — mind-movies rehashing the past or dreaming up glorious futures. By age 34 my life still looked okay on the outside, but I felt more depressed, abhorrent, and hopeless than I could stand, drinking in solitude, lowering my bar for company, and toying with suicidal ideation — Step 12.

At my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I read the real 12 Steps off the wall in less than a minute and dismissed them as worthless platitudes — seeing as I had all the emotional depth of a 15-year-old.  That stayed true for almost 3 years, until I hit a sober bottom grieving my sister’s death and found a rigorous sponsor who helped me apply them. The reversal of my life’s trajectory, from plowing ever deeper into misery to climbing ever higher toward gratitude and joy, came about through thoughtfully, truthfully, and thoroughly working these simple steps.

Initially, the “God” word freaked me out, as it does everyone, even though I’d once died briefly from drug overdose, crossed over to the other side, and journeyed to the Light. (I recently gave an interview about losing my atheistic battle to deny my NDE and its paranormal aftereffects, here: Louisa talks with Tricia Barker.)  Eventually, though, what I call “god” (i.e. the spirit world) showed itself to me so persistently and undeniably that I finally caved, embracing the fact that god — the loving intelligence animating all life — is everywhere in everything always.

NDE or no NDE, almost everyone who works the 12 steps in long-term recovery develops gratitude and comes to see how their god has been with them all along.

loveflow

For me, the 12 steps not only cleared resentments blocking me from god, but also triggered a sort of Copernican Revolution. Where I once strove to pull GOODNESS from other people to serve me as the center of the universe, I came to see that all GOODNESS flows from GOD, the true center of the universe, through me toward others. When I act as god’s conduit for love, my spiritual batteries get charged, and I feel joy.

That’s the mission we’re here to accomplish, folks: Overcome ego’s fears of vulnerability to connect with others in love and kindness — not only with those closest to us, but with all humans, animals, and the Earth as a whole.  Religion still pisses me off a bit because, in humanizing god, it obscures with pomp, cliquishness, and carrot-on-a-stick heavenly rewards what the 12 steps lay out with such humble clarity.

The goal of loving others freely enough to be of service can seem out of reach if we’ve been badly wounded; we need god’s help first to find our wounds, obscured under layers of drinking and denial, and then to heal them. And that’s exactly what the 12 steps are laid out to help us do.

.

.

Note: I’m indebted to Bill L’s 11/8/19 share at our homegroup, Salmon Bay, referencing his “backward 3rd Step.” Thanks also to my friend Dawna H, who replied, “Get your ass over here!” when I texted that I felt too full and lazy to show up at the meeting and, with 22 years sober, helped me tweak the wording of these steps.

.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, living sober, NDE, Recovery, Twelve Steps

Outrage vs. Action

If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.

Alcoholics Anonymous p. 66

I recently listened to an NPR program, Hidden Brain, that looked at moral outrage on social media and what’s going on in our brains when we post (or repost) it.

Dopamine hits!

That’s the the juicy part for all alcoholic/addicts, right? Human brains in general sift the world like Geiger counters seeking out sources of feel-good. We may not realize that’s what’s going on when we find one, but we self-administer hits of it like some poor little lab rat hitting the cocaine bar again and again. The trouble for us alcoholics is that getting caught up in these cycles can lead us back toward a drink.

Outrage is one such addictive cycle. The Hidden Brain host has us imagine an early human tribe in which someone gets caught doing something wrong. How should the group react? Ignore, expel, or punish? If they ignore, the wrong-doer may decide to act again. If they expel, they lose a member. So they punish. Yale psychologist Molly Crockett pops explains:

“Evolution placed a bet on [punishment] being a good idea for the group. When people decide to punish someone who’s behaved unfairly, we see activation in areas of the brain associated with reward, including the striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex… There’s a visceral satisfaction in doling out punishment.”

“Outrage,” the host summarizes, “gives us pleasure.”

He explains that the face-to-face context in which outrage evolved came with a natural set of brakes: you risked getting physically harmed by those you punished, or, if you were out of line, getting punished yourself. Neither consequence applies to social media (or any e-communication). Our brains revel in dopamine scot-free whenever we proclaim righteous, indignant, and often vicious stuff. Plus, every time someone LIKES or reposts our outrage, we get another dopamine boost, because our brains tell us we’re doling out even stronger punishment.

E-distance can destroy compassion even among people who love each other, as I discovered years ago when I first published my addiction memoir. Some family members responded from behind their screens with a rage they’d never have unleashed on me face-to-face. They emailed flamers berating me as a liar, narcissist, and sadist; they posted lengthy Facebook strings of back-and forth mockery; and they published one-star “reviews” on Amazon under pen names, buying copies under multiple accounts to publish more.

Clearly, my ideas about the role alcoholism and codependence had played in my upbringing felt wrong and hurtful to them. So they asked if we could we could all sit down and talk out these uncomfortable issues to arrive at some shared understanding — kidding!! They chose to punish my wrongdoing with no compunction, getting lots of satisfying dopamine surges every time they clicked SEND, POST, or PUBLISH.

At the time, I wept gallons of tears and developed panic attacks from so much as looking at my laptop. Happily, Amazon took down all but one review, and we’ve since healed enough as a family to deal with this as we do all conflict: we pretend it never happened.

I’ve been priming similar poisonous dopamine surges myself on social media ever since Trump got elected. Fortunately, my entire family is anti-Trump, so we’ve experienced no rift. Rather, after the initial despair of 2016, I began to take aim at no one in particular to make “them” recognize the despicable character and politics of this Russian plant president. I’ve been hitting the awkwardness-free vanquishment bar of social media again and again, posting about Trump’s lies, stupidity, moral depravity, damaging policies, etc..

Only recently have I realized my true motivation: dopamine. I see friends have liked or shared my post: Dopamine! A conservative friend comments disagreement, so I deliver a stinging retort: Dopamine! Have any of my posts done any good for anyone? Of course not. All I’ve accomplished is adding a bit more rage to the global atmosphere.

A normie might indulge in this cycle with only a slight harm to their long-term health. But as an alcoholic with “a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of [my] spiritual condition” (85), I have no business cultivating anger, which blocks me from “the sunlight of the spirit” (66), tipping the playing field to addiction’s advantage. The angry me is my ego, and ego is, as we know, addiction’s minion. The more outrage I feel, the less good I do anyone and the closer I am to a drink.

Goodness takes the form of action. Did Mother Teresa ridicule Calcutta for its bad policy toward the lame and the sick? Was Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail a rant? Would Mahatma Gandhi have Tweeted out anti-British zingers? Why not? Because inspired people understand that faith without works is dead; they know a single beneficial deed outweighs thousands of punishing words.

Increasingly, I’ve been trying to shift my life in a similar direction. In response to climate change, I started bussing to work in 2017, and when I realized I disliked buses, I switched to bicycling. I buy minimal plastic, donate to animal charities, and pick up litter. When I realized our local 30,000-year-old pod of orcas was starving for want of salmon, I started volunteering to do salmon habitat restoration work and showed up at a hearing on their behalf.

Humility is a big piece as well. How much do my individual actions help? Very little. How much more do they help than posts and tweets? Infinitely more. When I’m volunteering, I can FEEL that it’s the right thing to do, much as I feel the goodness of AA service work, which somehow quiets the ire I feel when I witness what I think is wrong. I don’t need to tell everybody; I need to do more good.

Sobriety is a whole-life deal as we expand and deepen our experience of who we are. Maybe we can outgrow posting zingers the same way we outgrow self-pity, gossip, and all those other short-term fixes. Maybe we can find our power to put love and goodness to work in small but real actions.

Restoring stream habitats

Planting trees

Meeting cool people

5 Comments

Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, living sober, Recovery, Social media

Pride vs. Mysticism

We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Saints are supposedly perfect people, whereas mystics are visibly imperfect people who have been convicted by moments of very real divine union.

Richard Rohr

Put even more briefly, saints embody goodness while mystics embody love.

  — Carl McColman 

Alcoholics who merely stop drinking without drastically changing their approach to life remain ill and, consciously or unconsciously, suffer.  All the emotional dysfunction that spurred them to seek relief through alcohol persists; only their fix is gone. They live “dry” rather than sober, inflicting pain on those around them as they vent pent-up frustration, some a little at a time and some in binges, just as they drank.

Pride blocks the dry alcoholic from true recovery.

A truly recovering alcoholic experiences a “psychic change.” As Carl Jung described the shift, “Ideas, emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.” Dude was right!  Ideas, emotions, and attitudes — completely switched.

The 12 steps, worked with a good sponsor, transform all three. During steps 1-6, we let go self-centered ideas about our place in the world and how it ought to work; emotions of anger, shame, and envy; attitudes of victimhood and arrogance.  In steps 7-12, a new set of conceptions begin to develop — because our vision has cleared!  Somewhere in the mix will be new ideas of what god-reliance means, new emotions of gratitude and unconditional love, and new attitudes usefulness and even — on our best days — humility!

In my own sobriety, I go through dry periods when I “forget” the way of life AA has taught me.  I start to imagine I have some power and the right to feel a bit prideful until, without realizing it, I’m navigating based on projections about how others perceive me.  My pride is effectively running the show.

Here’s the cool thing about psychic change, though: it’s not kick or phase. It comes with its own safety-catch, because shit always hits the fan. And thank goodness it does, because when a big chunk smacks me, I don’t puff up my pride to chest-bump against reality. Rather, I fold — and fast! I surrender with a prayer like this: “I don’t know what’s going on, but I trust you. I thought I knew stuff, but it looks like I was wrong. Please guide me.”

Just one prayer lets me see that my whole arsenal of I-know-best weapons was made of sand. All slips away and I remember that I have no power in this life but to love.  None.

Mysticism sounds like a remote, woo-woo concept.  It ain’t. According to Merriam Webster, all it refers to is a “direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality [that] can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight).”

Historically, mysticism has acquired a shitty name from various religions. It’s easy to see why. Direct knowledge of god cuts out the middleman — the church, temple, or mosque — so many religious authorities have safeguarded their bread and butter by denouncing it as a dark, occult practice.  “What?!  Seek God yourself, from your own heart on your own individual path? What if it’s Satan yer talking to?”

Today, widespread mysticism is, I feel, the only thing that can save humanity — not from damnation, but from irretrievably defiling our planet. Religion has posed a stumbling block for scientifically educated people in recent centuries: distaste for religious dogma translates to distaste for god.  Today, ego (god’s antithesis) rules at the societal, economic, and political levels. Results include climate change, oceans choking in plastic, and an entire countryside soaked in cancer-causing glyphosate, to name just a few.  If this isn’t an apocalypse, I don’t know what is.

God itself is about only love — simple, direct, and freeing.  NDErs from all walks of life encounter the same force on the other side: overwhelming love, a love so omnipresent that, like the brilliance of the divine Light, it erases petty differences, competition, all the conflicts and cross-purposes of ego.  God envelops us because we ARE god.  God rejoices when we are loving and is pained whenever, in even the smallest ways, we harm self or others.

Religion, by contrast, if chock full of human pride and ego.  A jealous or vengeful God? A God who plays favorites? Rewards an “elect” of saved cool cats?  Gross!  And yet, these depictions taint the idea of god for billions of people.

Joel Osteen’s megachurch

A dry alcoholic friend of mine who swears by evangelist Joel Osteen had me listen to some YouTube sermons that, for me, epitomized religious pride and ego. From a huge stage in his Houston megachurch, Osteen tells many thousands of followers, “What God has in store for you is going to amaze you! The people He’s going to bring across your path, the influence He’s going to give you!…  You are not working to get victory, you are working from victory.  When you know that you’ve already won, there’s a rest. You know the outcome…God said, he always causes you to triumph….”

Osteen’s message is clearly that if we kiss god’s ass enough, we’ll win!  We’ll get a leg up over all those other bastards and one day they’ll have to eat our dust in the wake of our victory!  Hey, it’s sure worked for Joel! My poor friend, by contrast, is constantly deciding God must hate him.

Nothing could be further from the god I know. And no venue could be further from the humble approach of mysticism: simply disregarding our thoughts (“be still”) and opening our hearts (“and know”) to god from the privacy of our own homes.  (Yes, the bible has some good lines!)  Meditation and prayer.  Step 11.

Pride builds a wall around us, inside which we languish awaiting our day of “victory.”  Seeking god opens the door to joy right here, right now — the simple freedom to love and be loved.

.

.

PS: In TOTALLY unrelated news (except maybe that it involves humility while livin’ large & sober 😀 ), friends & I attempted 14,410′ Mount Rainier last weekend but had to turn back just 1,200 feet from the summit due to delays and high winds.  Short movie account here: https://youtu.be/g8OSqqjcoJ0

Leave a comment

Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, God, Recovery, Religious pride, Sobriety, Spirituality

Agnostic? Think: Good Orderly Direction

My addiction memoir tells how I went from a bright, healthy teen (okay, with a teeny hypersexual disorder) to a lonely, depressed, obsessive, codependent, underachieving, and increasingly reckless drunk who disdained Alcoholics Anonymous as a doom just short of suicide. Why so reluctant?  The God thing.  The book’s second half describes my ungraceful but dogged ascent from that pit of misery toward the healthy, friend-filled sober life I get to live today.

Much as I’ve love for everyone to read the book, I can give you a major spoiler here: I didn’t do it.

The words that opened the door to faith in something that might help me were shared by a woman in large pastel stretch pants sitting against the wall at my third or so AA meeting: “If you can’t deal with the word ‘God,’ that’s fine!  Just think ‘Good Orderly Direction.'”

I perked up. Certainly I could not deal with the word, “God.” That religion-based concept seemed to me a preposterous character created by humans to explain what rudimentary science couldn’t. Such a deity was not going to advise me on whether I should stuff the tip jar at work or continue stalking the guy I was obsessed with.

But Good Orderly Direction — that was something to be sensed in my inmost heart. That I could look for, because I remembered going against it when I was busy screwing up my life. For me, Step 3 was essentially a resolution to start listening for it and going with it. Who knew the source of G.O.D. would turn out to be my higher power? And who knew that following its guidance would migrate me from the self-generated heartless world that had defeated me toward the sweet experience that’s now my normal?

Goodness as True North
As an active alcoholic, the only compass I ever consulted was ego. I was a popularity materialist — never enough! — as are many in our “individualistic” culture (thanks to marketing).  I longed to be seen as cool (see also Coolness) and liked by designated cool people. I was convinced that the more I could make that happen, the better I’d feel about myself. And even though this model had failed to bring me anything but discontent for 34 years, I kept thinking the problem lay in my performance, not the model itself.

Good Orderly Direction, however, does not hinge on what others think. It’s a compass deep within, with Goodness as its true north.  The first half is sensing it — what is the good and right thing to do here?  The second is acting on it without hesitation.

I remember a conversation I had a few years back with my relapsed alcoholic boyfriend. As a rationale for getting drunk, he asked me, “Don’tcha sometimes just wanna say ‘fuck it’?” As it turned out, he had indeed been saying “fuck it” for some while, carrying on a second relationship behind my back. Sober, he’d been a man with integrity and compassion.

By contrast, my father drank alcoholically while retaining integrity and compassion — toward everyone but himself. Alcoholism wheedled him into deferring day after day the ultimate reckoning: “Why do I drink so much every night?” He resisted looking inward to all the clamors he muted with booze, saying, in his own academic way, “fuck it.”

But Good Orderly Direction is more than the antithesis of fuck it; it’s the antithesis of ego. It is a form of caring, of knowing that your choices matter and seeking those that will feel right in the long run. You may have trouble at first distinguishing Goodness from ego’s “best for me”; you may also mistake it for what other people tell you to do, whether they’re in your family or your AA group. But gradually, as you become more attuned to seeking, the voice gets louder, so you gain a clearer sense of whether you’re tuned into it.

As the choices people make based on the north star of Good Orderly Direction begin to alter the course of their lives, as even cynical or bottomed-out addicts begin to heal and build self-esteem by doing esteemable acts, a lot of us begin to realize — “Hey, this isn’t coming from me!”

God Ain’t Religion
As people who follow this blog know, I got to cheat. The spirit world operates all around us all the time, but we’re as deaf to it as the barriers we maintain against love are thick. For me, having had a Near Death Experience followed by paranormal after-effects even as I fought to maintain my atheism, the presence that had spoken to me on the other side began interceding in my thoughts as soon as I started seeking Good, until I had no choice but to fold and acknowledge, not religion’s God, but my god.

Religion is a bit like agriculture, while the spirit world is nature itself. Religion quantifies something omnipresent yet inexplicable — the power of the life force — by reducing it to the equivalent of rows and crops and acreage.  To be atheist because we reject religion is like saying because there is no Great Farmer, nothing grows — all the while discounting the fact that we and all living things around us are exquisite expression of nature, of the life force.

No one can give you god-awareness. You have to develop your own, based on your own experiences both inner and external. The most direct route to get there is by seeking Good Orderly Direction. Eventually, seeking will become part of you, as it has for me: No one at Fred Meyer saw me miss self-checking a bag of avocados yesterday, but when I discovered them in my reusable shopping bag, I handed them to the attendant on my way out simply because I had not paid for them — end of story. I know not only that Karma is a real phenomenon, but that guilt is a real feeling, even when we pretend not to feel it. Both carry a price tag far exceeding that of four avocados.

Ask for guidance.  Look deeper.  Listen harder.  Within you, something magnificent will sprout.

 

7 Comments

Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, Faith, God, living sober, Near Death Experience, Recovery, Spirituality, Step 3