Category Archives: Codependence

Like me, like me (!): Neediness vs. god

Leaving an event recently, in the parking I saw the most charismatic (gay) guy from the group chatting with a woman who wasn’t me, and I became filled with jealousy.  Not romantic jealousy; like-me jealousy.  I thought: “He thinks she’s special! He thinks I’m boring!  Dammit!!  How can I make him like me?!  What if I…”

Then — because for 22 frickin’ years I’ve been working a program — I flagged my own attention, informed myself I was temporarily insane, got in my frickin-ass car and drove off.

Really, ego?!” I thought, driving.  “Will you never stop this shit?  It’s older than high school, older than one of Mary Ann’s banana cream pies in the face–but you keep on!”  I resolved to not care.

But it was hard.  I still felt mad at the woman for “winning,” mad to be denied the fix I wanted — that big fat hit of dopamine from feeling liked and appreciated by someone who “counts” (because, as we all know, that shit is DOPE) — but at the same time, mad at my ego for leading me back into this dumb game of hungering parasitically for worth.

Okay, I’m human, a social primate.  I have instincts around “belonging” deeply linked to survival.  That’s normal.  We all need to have friends, feel loved, etc..

But as a recovering alcoholic/ love addict, I still have needy ego that can wreak havoc with instincts and gratification. When I used to guzzle alcohol and whip up huge love-addiction crushes, I’d  take frickin’ baths in the imagined admiration of whomever I’d idolized.

When the magic one liked me, my brain would release these motherload hits of dopamine and endorphins — which I experienced as a thrilling glow of self-worth and delicious excitement — from what I imagined that magical person thought about me. The “good stuff” seemed to come from that person, though in reality it came from my brain’s model of their favorable impressions of me.  In other words, it was my brain triggering my brain to flood itself with feel-good neurotransmitters — meaning I gave myself permission to get internally high as a kite.

People, that’s not love.  That’s not even admiration.  If we want to be nice, we can call it codependent self-worth; and if we want to be harsh, we can call it projected narcissism.

Either way, this is a totally ass-backward way of living.  It’s
parasitic and delusional.  The trouble is, because I grew up in an alcoholic home, that’s how my brain is wired!  Because the supply of affection waxed and waned depending on whether my parents were drunk or hungover, and because I assumed the variable was, not the presence of absence of a drug, but me, I developed a core, bone-deep belief that I had to perform to win love — which does not serve me now that I’m a sober adult.

Here are the steps not to take:

Step 1: Elevate someone.  Decide they’re “cool.”  Make them larger than life, overflowing with charisma.  Now (sweet!) you have a stash to chase: their “good stuff.”

Step 2: Chase the “good stuff.”  If the attraction is sexual, try like hell to seduce them.  If it’s social, show off how fuckin’ exciting and funny you are.  If it’s business, find ways to impress them with your amazing knack for getting shit done.

Outcome: You’ve whored out your worth.  Even when you seem to win, you’ve lost.  Regardless of whether you’ve come off as hoped, someone else holds the keys to your human value.  Your dignity is in the goddam toilet.

What’s the alternative?  Here I go again!  It’s god.

When I say god, I mean not only a connection to the energy of life, but all the shifts in ways of living and thinking that connection brings about — if it’s real.  The whole purpose of the 12 Steps is to help us achieve a psychic change (p. xxix) that will reverse the direction of our “flow.” We go from being black holes of neediness, trying to suck okayness out of people, places, & things, to becoming more and more a channel or outlet of the warmth and energy loaned to us by our higher power: unconditional love.

The 12 steps to this change are in our Big Book, but here’s a quick-check version:

Step 1: Seek humility.  Give up the fuck up chasing anyone or anything.  Let be.  Hurt if you’re hurting. Mourn if you’re lost.  But acknowledge that you are powerless over people, places, & things.  Only one source can you count on: your higher power’s Love for your simple, confused, inherent goodness.

Step 2: Love with intention.  Forgive.  Practice gratitude (loving your life and nurturing your little inner garden).  Embrace yourself with all your flaws and look for ways this admittedly flawed self can do good, help others, and “pack [more] into the stream of life.”

Outcome: A worthiness built from the ground up.  You and god know your worth.  No one else needs to.  You slowly grow self esteem from doing estimable acts.

I just can’t say enough about the freedom of humility.  Dude.  Whenever I hike in the wilderness for a week or so, the inner gem I polish is humility — to understand I am just a critter.  I need to drink & eat and pee & shit.  I need to stay warm in my little nest for the night.  I get to laugh with my friend and witness god in a wealth of meadows, forests, and towering peaks.  I GET TO live!  That is wisdom.

When I come back to city life, hanging on to that same humility gets tricky, but I can still try.  I talk & listen and think stuff’s important & screw up.  I can glimpse god in the vulnerable humanness of friends and strangers, all of us trying to feel okay.  I GET TO love!  That is spirituality.

Near Death Experiencers (people revived from death who bring back memories) frequently report having been shown a representation of the spiritual connections uniting all living beings.  They perceived countless “golden threads” or “beams of light” interconnecting our hearts.  The bottom line, they’re told, is that we’re each a unique expression of the same god/life energy, like countless leaves on a huge tree, or countless cells in a single leaf.

No one is higher.  No one is lower.  All depend on each other, on the whole, which is god.  I’ll never forget how my first sponsor wrapped up my first major 4th step 20 years ago.  Alongside my character defects, she drew a No-Stepladder symbol.  As she put it, “Whenever you want to rank people, think of the night sky.  You may gravitate toward one constellation more than another — sure.  But you can’t rank the stars.”

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Forgiving Shame

Even though I’ve been sober many years, I find my codependent symptoms still crop up like Whack-a-Moles: I get over one and another shows up.  Shame is a particularly pesky mole with big front teeth that keeps popping up no matter how insightfully I whack it.

Brené Brown, a shame researcher, makes this key distinction:

GUILT – says what I did was bad

SHAME – says I, myself, am bad

When I got sober, I carried a lot of guilt – and rightly so!  I’d screwed over just about everyone unlucky enough to have let me into their life.  But over the next year or ten, I learned to stop engaging in harmful behaviors (at least, those I can perceive) and seek a life rooted in the values of honor and kindness.

So when I say I still experience times when shame seems imbued in my very cells, when the conviction flares that I’m secretly wrong, bad, even evil, I’m not crying out for help.  I’m trying to help us both.  Because if you, too, were raised by parents who somehow shamed you or are simply prone to self-criticism, then that same undertone of shame reverberates in your bones as well.

shameMost of the time, we ignore it like some kind of emotional tinnitus, so the feeling doesn’t register.  “What, me? shameful?  That’s absurd!”  But then life happens.  We screw up or feel exposed in some way and ~ BOOM!!  That accumulation of denied self-condemnation drops on us like a Monty Python 16-ton weight.  We’re flattened, aching from a wound that has far less to do with what just happened than scars buried deep in our soul.

For example, years ago I felt so free from shame that I wrote my addiction memoir, trusting that no matter how sick my thoughts and behaviors, even those readers who couldn’t identify would empathize.  When my relatives learned of it, the backlash was intense: they dropped dozens of 16-ton weights – all via email, texts, and online reviews, of course.  I found myself catapulted back deep into shame for who I was and what I believed, as well as for having had the blind audacity to write about it publicly.

vat-of-slimeEver since, I find that whenever some mishap shakes me up, those same shame feelings resurge – even when I’ve done nothing wrong!  I swear, I’d qualify for the Shame Olympics if there were such a thing.  It’s like some huge, soupy vat of shame is just waiting for me to lose my spiritual balance, spin a double pike and topple back in.

Chronic shame cripples our efforts to live authentically.  It hisses that we’re never to question others’ expectations, make waves, or stand out.  It’s the voice of fear, not god.  To be exactly who we’re created to be, to share our gifts unabashedly with the world – that’s what we’re here for.

Significant to sober alcoholics is the idea that getting buzzed will banish shame – along with guilt.  It certainly used to.  That’s why first few times I drank felt like flying.  I was every bit as good as you – hell, even better!  Because that oversized ego I’d stoked to make up for my abysmal self-worth was finally cut free of all those painful, heavy burdens to soar above the world.

Un/fortunately, the highs of addiction gradually diminish until our fix offers no lift at all.  My last drinks  left me as sodden with self-loathing and shame as ever.  Relapse, I know, would bring on not only shame but guilt at having shat on everything sacred to my higher self: integrity, honesty, courage, and faith.

Luckily, shame has several other nemeses.  It thrives on secrecy and silence; the deeper we bury it, the more power it gains. Like botulism, shame cannot survive exposure to open air.  When we talk about our triggers sincerely with trusted others, shame withers.  Meetings and sponsors let that happen.  Voicing our secrets takes courage, but when love lets us embrace our foibles (or even sickness) as merely human, a beautiful humility emerges to eclipse shame.

The audacity to be authentic is one of the tools Brené Brown calls for.  But having recently undergone yet another bout of shame (triggered by a naïve hope disappointed – with the vat waiting), I stumbled on another approach in the teachings of Pema Chödrön.

pema-comAbout 13 years ago, a sponsee/friend moving away gifted me a 6-cassette Chödrön lecture series entitled “Awakening Compassion” that I always meant to listen to – even after I ditched my cassette player.  A few months ago, forced to do boring PT exercises nightly before bed, I tossed Tape #1 into an old boom-box; I’ve been listening for about 15 minutes per night ever since.  Pema keeps speaking about “the raw stuff” of life being more important than our mental evaluations of it, and of “the open heart” being like a “sea anemone” that doesn’t retract when disturbed, but rather “softens” to life. Meanwhile, because I’m lying on my yoga mat, my dog Cosmo keeps coming up and dropping his drooly tennis ball on my stomach or maybe my hair, hoping I’ll chuck it across the room for him one more time.  I keep aspiring toward Pema’s lofty wisdom and enlightenment, and then – PLOP!!  Ew!!

The other night I realized – PLOP!!  Ew!! – that Cosmo’s drooly ball and my reaction to it are precisely what Pema means by “the raw stuff” of life. In Cosmo’s place, put any people or conditions that don’t suit me – including unwelcome emotions.  Woven through Pema’s words is encouragement to love this life with an open heart, not retracting into slanted stories and shoulds.

louisa-cosmo-mt-si-2016

Me & Cos on Mt. Si

Whether I snap at Cosmo or whack at shame (“I shouldn’t feel this!”), I am closing my heart to what is, to life.  I don’t have to toss the ball every time, but Cos is almost 12 and before long I’ll lose him.  By the same token, I don’t have to buy into the story shame tells, but I can accept my dance with that emotion over the years as part of my human experience, which is likewise finite and precious.  In other words, much as I’ve learned to accept and forgive shortcomings in other people, so I can begin to practice the same love and tolerance within myself.  Whacking is never our only option.

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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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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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New Year’s FOMO and other Alcoholic Horsecrap

What is FOMO?  Fear  Of  Missing  Out.

It’s that sinking feeling that someplace you’re not, lots of amazingly cool people are having an absolutely stupendous time. Maybe there’s kickass music and people are lookin’ sharp n’sexy and having a fuckin’ blast and – oh my GAWD!!! Can you believe what those two did?! That is so hilariously outrageous!  It’s not just goin’ aParty-Dancing-Vectorll over Facebook –it’s like a “fun times” montage out of a Hollywood flick!  If you could be there mixin’ it up you’d feel – oh my god – so damn good! You’d be dialed into life, you’d be carpé-ing the fuckin’ diem all night long!   But you’re missing it!

As Katie Perry sings:

Last Friday night

Yeah we danced on tabletops
And we took too many shots
Think we kissed but I forgot

Yeah we maxed our credit cards
And got kicked out of the bar
So we hit the boulevard

We went streaking in the park
Skinny dipping in the dark
Then had a ménage a trois

Yeah I think we broke the law
Always say we’re gonna stop-op
ooh-ohh*

Here’s what the song leaves out: live those lyrics and you end up with a busted ankle from falling off the damn tabletop, years of credit card debt, and maybe even salmonella because you skinny dipped in a fucking duck pond.  You’re lucky if you don’t end up in jail with charges on your record or an STD from the ménage a trois with morons.  Of course, it goes without saying that you’ve poisoned yourself again ‘til you’re heaving up bile.

Lets-partyNo, Katie doesn’t really mention that part. Neither does your FOMO.  It airbrushes away all those pesky consequences and lures us with the promise of a bright and shiny “great time.”

It’s Also Called Immaturity
For normies, FOMO spikes in youth when they’re highly peer-oriented, but as they mature into adulthood, FOMO diminishes to a rare blip on the screen. The trouble for alcoholics is, once again, our perspective is skewed.

Our disease carries many tricks in its bag.  Though normies don’t understand, we  often speak of it as having a mind of its own, exploiting whatever ploys avail themselves to keep us using or, in recovery, to trigger relapse.  A lot of alcoholics crave adventure – a sense of living on the edge.  So addiction broadcasts FOMO to persuade us that swallowing a neurotoxin is really the key to livin’ large.

Much like the craving for alcohol, alcoholic FOMO can never be satiated.

For example, New Year’s Eve of 1982, after snorting coke in the car and paying some absurdly high cover charge, my future (ex) husband and I sauntered into a hip and glitzy Boston nightclub. We scored a table near the dance floor, ordered champagne, and lit up our smokes. We danced. But at as the countdown for midnight approached I was struck by the realization I still recall so clearly: We were at the wrong club! The one down the street was way cooler! No one here was even worth impressing because they, too, had fallen for the wrong club!  If only I’d known! If only we’d gone there! I was missing out!!

This pattern would repeat itself for over a decade. I never did find the right club or party or even picnic, because if I was there, a better one had to be someplace else.

Recovery = Reality
FOMO is really just another guise of codependence. It’s not actually a yearning for fun; it’s a belief that we can gain something that will deliver a shot of wellbeing by being seen in the right places doing the right things. At some level, we believe others hold the power to validate us, though we’re actually validating ourselves through projections of those people’s imagined esteem. The esteem has to seem to come from them to be any good – we can’t feel it simply by knowing and valuing ourselves.

More and more I’m convinced most alcoholics are also codependent. The source of pain for all codependents is an external locus of self-worth – often because we grew up in dysfunctional families where we did not get what we needed to develop a strong sense that we are loveable and worthy. We keep chasing and chasing it in others and never getting any closer.

While non-alcoholic (classic) codependents try to subdue their pain by concerning themselves with what others should do and ‘winning’ love by caretaking, alcoholic codependents subdue it not only with alcohol, but with attempts or impress and winCodependent over others, often becoming social chameleons and regarding friends as something like collectible baseball cards.  Active alcoholics can’t really love our friends. We can only seek relief via people – and “love” that relief.

When we get sober, we begin to seek a higher power that can grant us the worth we’ve so desperately sought in all the wrong places. With guidance from sponsors and a growing sense of Good Orderly Direction, we can begin to live a life of integrity that lets us discover our worth as loving and lovable human beings.

But FOMO still nags at us to forget all that. It can wheedle into our minds at any time, but New Year’s Eve is its favorite holiday – especially for the newly sober.

The Big Book’s authors knew all about FOMO.  While they do instruct us “not to avoid a place where there is drinking if we have a legitimate reason for being there” (p. 101), they also caution against attempting to “steal a little vicarious pleasure from the atmosphere of such places.”  They warn us to “be sure you are on solid spiritual ground before you start and that your motive in going is thoroughly good.”  Not just good – thoroughly good.  In other words, don’t bullshit yourself.

In my almost 21 years sober, I’ve never found a thoroughly good reason to go hang with drinkers at a New Year’s Eve party.  I prefer to usher in the new year with a good night’s sleep and a cushy set of earplugs.  Sobriety fills my life to the brim, and I know it.

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* Katie Perry Lyrics – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdyfr4lU8sk
See also 6 Tips for Holiday Parties

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Acceptance

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment… Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.

                                                                                                                  -Paul O.                                                                                             “Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict”

Acceptance was the topic at my homegroup last night, and I’ve been thinking about it since.  The only sane response to life, acceptance is also the arch-nemesis of ego, which much prefers its minions – denial, control, and resentment.  Ego says, “What is shouldn’t be!”  Acceptance says, “What is, is.  Now what?”

Acceptance Oops!is closely tied to humility and surrender. Our faith in a higher power lets us surrender to the workings of a universe beyond our comprehension, or to the irrevocable fact that we just stepped in dog shit.  Life brings a lot of what we don’t want, and we’re often powerless over it: the dinosaurs didn’t screw up in any way; neither do victims of disaster and disease.  Other times, we do play a part. Maybe we were too busy daydreaming to watch where we stepped.  Either way, acceptance means being honest with ourselves about what transpires or exists, whether we like it or not.

Last night a young newcomer shared that the hardest things for her to accept had been that A) she was alcoholic and B) that abstinence was, according to the medical community, the sole way to arrest her disease.  Her voice, still ringing with that forlorn loss of her best friend and coping tool, reminded me of the savage fight I’d put up years ago against those same facts.  Real alcoholics did X and Y, and I didn’t – so I wasn’t.

But awareness of the truth grows ever so slowly in our bones, no matter what skeletonrationalizations our brains light up as the neon truth of the day.  Layer by layer, truth gathers substance beneath our superficial mind babble until it grows too prominent for us to stuff into the strongbox of denial any longer.  For years I’d been a maybe alcoholic or even a sure but who gives a fuck? alcoholic. Yet there came a day, a minute, a second – yes – when I acknowledged reality: addiction ran my life, and I didn’t know how to live otherwise.

So it goes, to an extent, with every acceptance.  The process can take years or seconds.  In 1998, driving down a familiar street that passes under a highway, my partner and I encountered a handful of pedestrians mulling in the middle of the road with no inclination to step out of our way.  When I looked where they were looking, I saw a Metro bus in an odd place – the rockery of an apartment building – with its middle accordion bent at a sharp angle.  Dust hung thick.  Piles of what looked like dirty laundry littered the grass nearby.  I took in all the pieces, but they made no sense to me until, like a bowling ball rolling down the alley of my mind, the thought struck: look up.

When I craned my neck to peer up at the highway fifty feet above, I saw… open air where the guardrail should be and something hanging by its wires – an inverted lamppost.  Those little piles of laundry were bleeding, suffering human beings flung where they lay.  I still remember the fight my mind put up: This can’t have happened, can’t be true!  It was not unlike the silent fight I waged when my boss told me the best job I’d ever had had just been cut; or after I picked up my cell phone and was told I had cancer; or when I looked at my boyfriend’s texts and learned he’d been seeing a girl from work for years.  The mind whirls, searching for outs.  But denial, in big cases like those, is like a frantic little terrier scratching at a closed steel door.  The weight of the facts precludes wrangling.  Shit. has. happened.

Thank god I have a place where I can speak of my loss, my fears, my broken heart and be heard and hugged by friends or even strangers with full hearts – people who carry the message of god: everything’s gonna be okay.

In daily life, what’s denied may be less dramatic, yet we go through the same process of looking for outs and telling preferred stories about what’s going on.  This bill is so stupid I don’t need to pay it.  It’s not gossip if I only tell one person.  I waste a little time on Facebook.  My shit’s so together now, so I don’t need meetings.  It’s not my fault.  I never promised.  Just one won’t hurt.  The list goes on.  Because if there’s no undeniable steel door, that little denial terrier is likely to scamper down a happier avenue, a story we make up to avoid whatever truth we’d rather not accept.  All the red flags of non-reality we take for roses along our hallucinated garden path.

garden path

As Don Miguel Ruiz puts it:

We only see what we want to see… We have the habit of dreaming with no basis in reality… Because we don’t understand something, we make an assumption about the meaning, and when the truth comes out, the bubble of our dream pops and we find out it was not what we thought at all.

Life strikes me as a series of popping bubbles. After I’d accepted my alcoholism, I had to accept the need to let god change me via the steps.  Next, I had to accept my character defects – all my selfish fears and judgments.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, I somehow ended up in Al-Anon where I became aware of my codependent people-pleasing.  I also learned the Three A’s of Al-Anon: Awareness, Acceptance, & Action.  With annoying pithiness, these three words sum up the entire process of emotional and spiritual growth.  I have to recognize a problem before I can accept it; only then can I ask, “so, what now?” and begin to change.

Acceptance most certainly does not mean giving up.  I accept getting old.  But having accepted my arthritic left foot, messed up meniscus, radiation-scorched lung, and the general creakiness of life in my 50s does ballet shoesnot stop me from killin’ it in advanced ballet class.  An extra half-hour warm-up, trimmed Dr. Scholl’s pads, pre-class ibuprofen, and all the weird stretches I’ve invented – these are the changes I’ve made, along with knowing those first fifteen minutes are gonna hurt.  But after that,  I’m 26 again – all music and technique – and grateful, so grateful!  I take the same approach with every obstacle life throws at me.  I accept the unpalatable truth: Dammit – this is how it is!  Then I ask what tools, what changes, what creativity can I use to make the best of this?  The answers always come if I’m honest, open-minded, and willing.

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The Serenity Prayer

The word prayer repulsed me in early sobriety, and in some ways it’s still glitchy. It can call to mind a penitent worshiper hunched over clasped hands in some austere setting – and for the non-religious, that just ain’t us! So I’ve come up with ways to make prayer real to me – since fortunately, religion has no monopoly on access to god.

It’s amazing how many people assume it does – that spiritual DSC03916seeking and religion are inseparable.  That’s like claiming I-5 is the only way to get from Seattle into Canada.  Not true.  Recently, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I jumped in and out of Canada about five times in few seconds, just for fun.  You can always find your own pathway to god; the important thing is that you seek it with your deepest sincerity.

So instead of prayer, I just frickin’ talk to god. I may gab away and cuss and laugh, or I may get on my knees and weep, depending on how I feel. I may address my lost sister, or guardian angel, or the font of all that lives. Whatever works.

But what do I say?
Fear-based prayers are an extension of self – and a very natural one. All day, from the moment we wake, we’re responsible for meeting our own material needs. We engage our brains and bodies to make shit happen. I want a bagel so I open the fridge and get one. I want it toasted, so I get a knife to slice it and then pop that baby in the toaster. By applying skills, I get what I want.

Problems arise when we apply this approach to spiritual life: I feel restless, irritable, and discontent, so I gulp down some booze and get what I want – relief.  Great!  But fast-forward to the point where that survival tactic has quit working, so I’ve suffered agony at the level of emotional disembowelment, finally become willing, and – with god’s help – gotten sober.

Now I need new ways to fix those old pains, but I don’t know it. So it’s only natural that I try a skills approach: I identify the external problems I think are responsible – the people, places, and things I perceive as fucking up my happiness – and try to manage them to suit my needs.

It doesn’t work.  Dammit!  So I try harder.   Still, no dice.

Now I’m freaking out.  Will I ever get X?  Oh my god, does this mean I’ll always be stuck with this crappy Y?  What’s that I’m hearing in the rooms?  Ask god for help?

Okay… I turn to prayer: “God, please put this damn life-bagel in the goal-toaster for me. It should be toasted.  Surely you can see this. Thank you!  Your child, Louisa.”

Anxious prayerI may think of it as supplication rather than giving god orders. Still, however respectful I may be, I’m backseat-driving the universe. And it doesn’t work!  Yes, god may make some related good of my prayers (especially if they’re for others), but it won’t involve my specific bagel.  The great danger here is that I can feel ignored and get pissed… and turn my back on god.

True prayer, as Richard Rohr and others have written, is not about managing the world. It’s about changing ourselves. It’s about strengthening our relationship to god and accessing the power that god can channel into our lives.

Bagle

Enter, Serenity Prayer

Thank you, Reinhold Niebuhr, for writing this gorgeous prayer for a Sunday service in Heath, MA, in 1943.* You could not have imagined the role it would play in so many lives today.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The prayer asks god to change us, to help us grow beyond whatever we ourselves can muster. We can say it over and over, thinking about what it means, how it moves us.   At different times it takes on different nuances.

Here, unpacked and named, is some of what this prayer can mean for me:  God,

grant me = help me, because I can’t seem to do this myself; I need your love, your guidance, your gifts
the serenity = to fricking calm the fuck down about this stuff, to quit panicking, to quit judging, to let go this urgency
to accept = to allow into my reality, to acknowledge as what is, to give up shoulding on and just let it be true – because it already is
the things I cannot change, = the past, what’s happening, how this person is, what they won’t do, everything I don’t like and wish were different… that isn’t me
the courage = a conviction, faith stronger than my fears, a power drawn from my inmost heart, a little spark of you
to change = to take action, to re-see, to step out into empty space, to quit procrastinating, to dare, to just do it !
the things I can = attitudes & assumptions & habits that don’t bring goodness, cycles I’m stuck in, people I hang out with, my default defects.  Reluctance to begin those baby steps of action I’ve been too afraid or proud to take
and the wisdom = god-inspired honesty, open-mindedness, faith, harvest from the experiences you’ve already given me
to know the difference = to intuit what’s my business and what’s yours

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Good thing it’s a lot shorter, eh?  But for me it still carries all that meaning.

Resistance
I don’t know that I’ve ever, in 20 years of saying this shit, had a problem instantly vanish.  With bigger issues, sometimes the best I can hope for is for me to shed a layer of denial or feel a little less pain.

But the courage part has been literal and concrete. This prayer has emboldened me to act where I’ve been scared and reluctant: I’ve made phone calls, shown up at events, applied for jobs, thrown parties, forgiven rosietheriveterpeople, entered dance studios, climbed volcanoes, started a business, and walked into the mountains alone – all deeds inspired by this little prayer.  And those actions do transform my reality incrementally, with a cumulative effect beyond anything I could envision or orchestrate.

Ultimately, the Serenity Prayer condenses into twenty-seven words the essence of all 12 Steps: surrendering of self and the willingness to collaborate with god to cultivate meaning and integrity in our lives.

Never underestimate it, no matter how many cutesy places you see it embroidered!  It’s a compact tool we can carry in our back pockets like a humble but priceless compass.

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*http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/15/serenity-prayer-origin_n_5331924.html

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