Category Archives: Codependency

Healing on God’s Time

God is super weird.  Have I mentioned that?  Or maybe more significant to this post, god is always with us when we actively seek, always working toward our growth and healing.  Relief from addiction is only a beginning; there’s also freedom from our past.  Just as god’s biology miraculously heals our physical wounds (if we let them alone), so god will find avenues to heal our emotional wounds if we ask sincerely and give up self-wounding behavior.  Healing happens, not on our time, but on god’s — when we least expect it.

Some of you know that, back in 2012, I reunited with my alcoholic ex-boyfriend despite the knowledge he was actively drinking as well as traveling for work.  He never treated me well.  Then in 2015, I had reason to “borrow” his old cell phone, which revealed an ongoing second relationship with an alcoholic girl  from his work: eight weeks’ romancing in Santiago, Chile, for instance.  By the end, they were coordinating her visits to his home around mine.  I mailed the phone back with a sticky note: “Please do not contact me.”  End of 5 + 3 year relationship.

In the two intervening years, I’ve asked over and over, “God, why did I lay the groundwork for this?  Why did I block out all the signs?  And how can I not do this again in my next relationship?”  Naturally, I got no answers.  I don’t know what I expected — friggin’ cloud writing or something!  Anywho, a month ago I wanted healing badly enough that I wrote these words on a 3 x 5 card and put it next to my bed: Why did I lack the self-respect to face the truth and reject a man who was incapable of loving me? 

Every night before bed, I’d read the words and pray, please show me.

Well, last week in the middle of the night, the time came.  I’d gotten up for ibuprofen for my sciatica, switching on the bathroom light.  Blinded temporarily as I headed back to bed in the dark, I remembered the trick I always used at my ex-boyfriend’s house, closing one eye to retain sight so I wouldn’t awaken and anger him by stumbling.  Here’s when something weird happened.  I remembered so clearly that tip-toeing dread of disturbing him.  Everything about his home and those moments came back to me, along with my anxious need to please him.  I re-lived it.

In the morning, I marveled at both the vividness of this memory and the insanity of my people-pleasing behavior.  I read over some stuff from the Adult Children of Alcoholics Red Book, prayed, meditated.  Then something even weirder happened.  It was as if god said to me, “Little one, you’re ready.  Let’s look at the tiny splinter behind this lingering pain of yours.”

BOOM!!  Here came a second flashback, as immediate as life:  I’m four years old.  I’ve had a bad nightmare so I’ve braved the dark safari downstairs to my parents’ room.  Dad snores loudly and that strange smell fills the air.  I know I can’t go to Mom.  If I do, she’ll be furious.  So I need to wake Dad, even though it’s really hard to, and do it silently, so Mom won’t find out.

The intensity of this flashback was overwhelming.  I relived every shade of emotion from that scene as if it were happening.  I can’t even begin, as I write this, to summon the intense feelings that flooded me.  But right alongside them were  my recovery insights into what Louisa was learning about the world back then, and the obvious connection between the two flashbacks.

Sure, different children process the same experience differently.  Another kid might’ve shrugged, “Mom sure is grouchy!”  But I — for whatever reasons — soaked up Mom’s anger and concluded the problem was me.  She was furious, not because Dad’s pores were practically gassing the room with booze, not because she was deeply (and sexually, she told me when I was 13) frustrated with a codependent dilemma she could not solve, but because I was so bad.

To some extent, I think we’re all Sybil, meaning our psyches are sectioned into different personalities.  The difference between a “normal” person and one with multiple personality disorder is merely that, in a healthy mind, these personalities are integrated.  So this concept of an “inner child,” so important to ACA literature, makes sense.  What happened for me that morning is that, with god’s nudge, my inner child came to the fore.

It was she who answered my longstanding question.

me at four

She hurt.  She ached.  And she was still so afraid of being found unlovable!  I prayed and sobbed and held her in my heart for over an hour.  Even later that day, when I thought I’d got my shit together, a little four-year-old girl popped out of a shop in front of me and, hurrying after her mother, glanced up at me – and the tears started again.

Why did I lack the self-respect to face the truth and reject a man who was incapable of loving me?  Because I’m an adult child of alcoholics. Because living in that home where no one spoke candidly and the emotional climate shifted radically from morning to night and week to week, I developed a distorted sense that I must make people love me — or I’d be abandoned.

Adult children of alcoholics enact the emotional equivalent of dung beetle’s life, toting around with them a friggin’ laundry list of dysfunctional traits.  In fact, it’s called “The Laundry List” in ACA literature.  Among them are the tendency to fear authority figures, to seek approval by people-pleasing, to be frightened by angry people, to live as victims, to try to “rescue” sick people, and more — all of which match my relationship with my ex.

dung beetle at work

How do I not roll the ACA dungball into my next relationship?  By loving that child!  She’s retreated again.  I can’t find her.  The memories, when I recall them, bring little emotion.  But I know she’s back there, and she needs my love and protection.  We’ll never bargain for love again.

The world of spirit continues to amaze me.  Though god does not prevent pain or tragedies, it does help us heal from them — if we ask.  God is no Santa.  Rather, god is the love that powers life, and the truth no denial can change.

But, wow, can it show up with bells on!

 
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
― Thomas Merton

 

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Self-Loathing: it’s a thing

Whatever I write here, it’s going to  fail epically because my words can’t capture the feeling of self-loathing.  I’ll just end up looking like some pompous dork who thinks she knows shit, so she posts, “Hey, everybody!! I know ALL ABOUT self-loathing!  Yeah, um, it’s like, when you hate yourself!” All you guys reading are going to wince in response, saying, “Whoa–” and hurry to click your way outta here.  OMG – I’m so embarrassed.  Cause here it is, me again, tainting everything with that gross, defective me-ness and fucking it all up. Why? Because there’s just something fundamentally wrong with me! Cause I just plain SUCK!

Okay, that was a simulation.  Really I’m okay.  🙂  But if you didn’t recognize that mental path as familiar turf, you should probably skip this post. Chances are, if you’re an alcoholic, you know it well. Self-loathing is that voice that volunteers ruthlessly condemning “insight” when you’re tired or sick or PMSing  – or sometimes even when things are fine.

Gary-snail-spongebobSelf-loathing is particularly pronounced in alcoholics/addicts as the flipside of self-aggrandizement. We develop an oversized ego that attempts to compensate for our weak sense of self-worth. You can envision it as a big, technicolor-shelled snail waving antennae of “I’m so totally awesome!” that, when you flip it over, reveals the oozy slime of “I so totally suck!”  Scientifically speaking, relief derives from becoming a humble, right-sized little snail like Spongebob’s.  That’s why we need the 12 Steps.

Before I came to AA, I believed the voice of self-loathing was unique to me. As described in my addiction memoir, I first experienced it in preschool, a feeling that other kids could all consult a script I lacked.  In my teen years through recovery at 34, I thought of that voice as “brutal honesty” or “facing facts.” When it was on, any sense of my own basic okayness struck me as self-satisfied idiocy. It seemed to declare truths I’d always known deep down.

The only person I’d ever heard speak self-loathing was my alcoholic father. “As soon as I wake up,” he’d confess, “I say to myself, P—,” (our last name) “get your lazy butt out of bed! You’re gonna louse something up today, you no-good schlemiel!”  Sadly, Dad never got sober, and gradually his self-loathing developed an immunity to the alcohol that had once curbed it.

By contrast, when my sweet son was only 6, he cried to me one night before bed: “I just feel sorry for anyone who has to be around me, because I’m such a horrible person!  I don’t feel sorry for me, I feel sorry for them. I just wish I could be anybody else!  I hate me!”

Hugging him didn’t help.  Telling him he was wonderful didn’t help. What helped was explaining to him what I’m about to tell you.

Self-loathing is a thing.  It’s a voice, an entity unto itself, a part of our mind that tells us the same stuff over and over.  My sponsor taught me to call it “the worm.” My son and I named it “the mean voice.”

Having a name for self-loathing, recognizing its voice self_hating_by_lithraelwhen it speaks, takes away half of its power. In meetings, when I first heard others describe their self-loathing, I was floored. How could John possibly experience self-loathing? He’s such a wonderful guy!  Karen is so funny and smart – how could she possibly think she’s shit?

In my experience, most non-recovered alcoholics (and some Al-Anons) vacillate between thinking they’re the shit, and thinking they’re a piece of shit.  Normies must experience this phenomenon too, but A) I doubt their swings are as extreme, and B) people outside the program rarely admit to things that make no sense, even to themselves.  We in recovery, however, admit to everything and thus discover we’re not alone, which opens the way to healing.

Getting rid of self-loathing entirely is not, at least in my experience, possible.  What we can do through the steps is label its voice and take away its megaphone to render it fairly harmless.

DaisySteps 4 and 5 showed me my fundamental human foibles. Steps 6 and 7 narrowed them to flaws I could, with god’s help, stop practicing – self-pity, self- importance, and harsh judgement of others – all platforms on which self-loathing stands.  Steps 8 and 9 allowed me to set straight past wrongs to arrive at a clean, guilt-free slate.  Today steps 10, 11, and 12 keep me current, connected, and useful.

How does this weaken our sidekick, self-loathing?  Working those steps and many years of living a spiritually-based life have drawn from my core a certainty that god loves me. Despite many human shortcomings, I am fundamentally good – because god guides me toward goodness.  Ultimately, that’s the sunlight the vampire of self-loathing can’t endure.

And yet – even after 21 years of sobriety – self-loathing still won’t die.  It hurls insults at random intervals.  “You’re alone cause you’re boring and no one wants to be with you!” “You’re wrong and shameful!”  “You’re full of inherent, bumbling dumbness!”

Coprolalia

It helps to make friends with that voice.  Like someone suffering coprolalia – the Tourrette’s symptom of uttering profanity – it just can’t keep quiet!  It’s trying to beat the world to the punch, blurt out the worst so no one else can surprise us with it.  Stripped of its accusations, self-loathing amounts to nothing but another guise of fear.

The quickest strategy I’ve ever heard for dealing with self-loathing is my friend Brenda’s. She named her self-loathing voice Carl.  Why Carl?  No particular reason.  Now, whenever it crops up and tells her she’s a failure, no one likes her, etc., she just rolls her eyes and says simply, “Shut up, Carl.”

It works!

Did John F. Kennedy ever think incredibly dumb things or occasionally fart with a quizzical inflection?  Of course he did!  But he alone knew it.  Because we know ourselves more intimately than does anyone else alive, we must love ourselves – screw-ups and all – with equal fervor and humility.

Take that, self-loathing!

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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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Trusting God, Trusting Life

I haven’t had a clue what I’m doing lately. Last night I dreamed I had to perform in a play – you know this one – despite recalling none of my lines, my script turning into a camping catalog, and part of the stage collapsing to reveal a cistern of filthy water – almost like sewage treatment – just underneath. A fiasco, a shit show! That’s how everything feels right now.

Why? Loss – in my case, of a long term relationship doomed by alcoholism. But loss can spur growth. Each time something we’ve been clinging to is wrenched away, our hands are freed to reach for god. In a different dream I had a few weeks before discovering my partner’s duplicity, back when I’d first quit mocking and started reading Codependent No More, I met face to face with the deprivation I’d been choosing in order to keep my “love” intact. Here’s my journal description:

4/17/15: I dreamed last night of a woman sealed in a basement of an old, dilapidated house. We raised the trap door and she had cobwebs and dust all over her bowed head. When she lifted her face to the light, it was ugly but not evil. She had a red clown mouth drawn over her real one – leering, but supposed to be a smile. I felt afraid of her until I saw that her eyes were young and confused. We talked to her, me and these friends of mine who had unearthed her. We offered to let her come with us, and her face lit up with hope. Yes! She’d love that! She wanted to come out of her cave and live.

Christina's World

Christina’s world – Andrew Wyeth

My dream friends, I think, represent the loving AA fellowship I’ve allowed to buoy most parts of my life. But I’ve left behind my inmost part, a soul that craves true intimacy but has always settled for less. This is due to no flaw in AA, but to fear holding me back from full trust in god.  God can’t fix what I won’t offer up. Ironically, it’s always my efforts to protect myself that harm me most.

Whether we’re walking our first days sober or well along in our journey, we have to keep extending our trust day by day, ever beyond our comfort zone. In addiction we trusted the power of booze to fix whatever ailed us – so what if it was temporary? We also trusted our stories: we were victims, uniquely flawed, deeply complex and misunderstood. Both these props collapsed.

AA suggested I chuck this entire way of positioning myself in the world. What I was handed instead were spiritual principles, a compass for living with its rose oriented toward love, humility, usefulness, and gratitude. Dammit! To invest my trust in these spiritual principles meant embracing a god of my understanding – the loving energy that animates the world. But how to do that?

In early sobriety a friend of mine – Aaron G. – taught me his letting go meditation. He would lie down with closed eyes and start by giving god control of his room, everything in it – whether it was messy or clean, etc. Whatever, god, it’s yours. Then he’d shift the spotlight to various areas of his life. Work. Housemates. Sex. Money.  God, I’m done trying to control what’s going on with these things. They’re yours. Next he’d move to his feelings. Sadness. Anxiety. Greed. Vanity.  God please steer me, because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. And last of all, he came to his life itself. If I’m supposed to keep living, let me live. If I’m supposed to die, I’m good with that, too. You made me. You run me. I’m yours.

Intestines

Your intestines. Nice work!

Sound overly dramatic, that last part? It’s not. What do you know of the trillions of intricately orchestrated processes of mitosis, osmosis, and diffusion keeping you alive right now? How is it that you can eat a crappy breakfast scone and turn it into thought and laughter and you running across the street or picking up a toddler? How do you do this stuff?

“Oh, that’s not god!” reason shrugs. “It’s just nature. Shit happens. The earth has life and it evolved into complex organisms and, you know, it’s science!”

I dare your skeptic to really contemplate this description of photosynthesis*, the molecular process by which plants transform SUNLIGHT into SUGAR, providing the bedrock upon which all of earth’s menagerie is built. See how far you get before you sigh and say: “Dude! That’s a shitload of science. I’m just glad it happens!”

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 10.40.47 AM

Admit it. We know next to nothing.  Each of us is a drooling infant riding a 787 across the Pacific Ocean, grasping nothing of how the plane works or was made, aware only that our basic needs are met. We exist by trust alone, despite whatever stories we propagate about how we engineer our lives. Bullshit. Perhaps for a brief moment, we can acknowledge what bullshit it is.  We can see that god lives us.  But we soon direct our attention elsewhere, sighing, “Well, that’s enough of that!”

Our spiritual practice today can be to continually give up a little more pretense of control, as in Aaron’s meditation, but all day every day.  We can allow in a little more the fact that god and life are one.

Loss is damn painful, for you as for me. Pain urges us to retreat into depression, nursing our wounds in solitude while mindlessly munching glazed donut holes. And addiction is right there, cheering for that plan as the grieving we deserve – because, while that track may be fine for normies, for an alcoholic prone to depression, like me, the next stop is relapse.

That’s why I’m doing the opposite. Here’s what my grieving looks like: I’m climbing too many mountains, going on too many dates, showing up to feed the homeless, speaking at meetings, starting new projects, and buying two baby chicks in the bleak darkness of November. Pain gets dragged along for the ride, like it or not. I entreat god continually for the courage to pursue whatever feels like growth – even if it’s scary – and then I simply blunder ahead, sometimes clumsily, maybe knocking over a vase or two along the way.

“Screwing up is part of being human – part of how we steer the course of who we do and don’t want to be.” Who wrote that? Yours truly at the close of “Being Right versus Just Being.” (Sometimes I teach myself!)  The point its, we don’t have to do this thing perfectly.

A woman emerging from the darkness of her cave doesn’t know which way to head. Trust is walking anyway. It’s striving to be our best, to love god and others, and to live at peace with knowing nothing.

Beneath all this tumult, god is transforming me into a wiser, stronger woman. In that I trust.

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Brothers summit

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* http://science.nsta.org/enewsletter/2007-05/sc0704_60.pdf
(Sorry, Facebook insists on posting the stupid picture of the photosynthesis text.  I can’t change it.  😦  Try copy and pasting the url instead, and choosing no preview.)

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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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Awkwardness ~ !!!

Hi.  So I’m Louisa.

This is my blog.   Yeah.  It’s about alcoholism and spirituality.

I write it – the blog, I mean.

This one’s about…. AWKWARDNESSSSSSS

What the hell is it?  Why the hell does it happen? What’s the feeeeling it causes, and why does alcohol take it away?  Is it really so torturous that some of us, cornered at a dumb-ass party that in truth means nothing to us, are tempted to throw away our life-saving sobriety just to fit in?

awkward-momentOf course, awkwardness doesn’t strike just at parties and weddings and barbecues. It’s everywhere. It can plague us as we try to mingle after an AA meeting: I remember storming away from a smokers’ crowd in 1998 cursing them all – “Fuck ‘em! Fuck ‘em! Fuck ‘em!” – with every step.  Friends today Facebook about ducking down grocery aisles or waiting to leave their house until they can avoid an acquaintance or neighbor.

The dreaded nightmare?  It’s that bumbling, uncertain, inadequate feeling – awkwardness.

What’s the experience?
Awkwardness, I would say, is an involuntary onset of stiffness, verbal paralysis, and general lack of spontaneity that comes over us in conversation in such a way that we can’t think of good stuff to say, and stuff we do say sounds incredibly stupid.  We feel encased in something, as if our mind were struggling to sprint in a five-inch-thick wet suit.

What I still count as my all-time most awkward moment happened for no reasoncartoon whatsoever.  I was 17 and reading a textbook in the sun on the front steps of our house when our neighbor came through the gate calling hello – a young, cheery woman I idolized as cool. What we talked about, I have no idea. But for some reason, the intensity of awkwardness I underwent in those minutes is branded forever on my memory – I’d have gladly sawed off my left leg for a supply of witty rejoinders, and by the time she left, I longed to commit hari-kiri.

But then something rare followed: a passing moment of self-compassion. I reflected that I was like a student driver new to adult roads, still unskilled and unsure of the rules. I thought, “Maybe some day I’ll get good at social driving.  Maybe someday, I’ll always know what to say.”

Enter Alcohol
As it turned out, I was on the brink of discovering a drastic shortcut to an Indy 500 social experience: booze. That’s right!  Alcohol is not only liquid courage, butcool cat liquid ANTI-AWKWARD.  A few drinks and we “loosen up” so we can converse smoothly and easily.  We’re suddenly cool cats.  A few more and we just don’t give a fuck.  What a simple switch to flip: wracked with self-consciousness  ⇒  charming, maybe even scintillating  ⇒  “I fuckin’ love you guys!”

But what really happened?  What does the drug change in us?

Self-judgment.  Self-monitoring.  As noted in my previous blog, alcohol compromises the prefrontal cortex, responsible for monitoring impulsive behavior.  The trouble for many of us alcoholics (and codependents) is that for a variety of reasons, we tend to over-monitor.  In fact, we censor ourselves right out of perfectly valid expressions and sharings right and left.  But the good news is, if we do this to ourselves, then with god’s help we can learn to un-do it – sans alcohol.

Over the course of my sobriety, I’ve found it possible to make peace with awkwardness by drawing back the curtain on that little wizard generating all the noise and smoke.  Another approach is to go ahead and embrace awkwardness as a precious part of being human and flawed.  And the third is to simply remind myself that all moments pass, so even if I were to find myself living out a “forgot to wear pants” dream, ultimately I’d be okay.

What’s really going on?
Okay, you’re not gonna like this.  I know for me, any time I’m feeling awkward, I’m also feeling selfish and self-centered.  Selfishness for the alcoholic is such a deeply ingrained defect, one “driven by a thousand forms of fear,” that we may not realize we’re in its grip.Womensayinghi

I’m afraid you won’t like me.

I’m afraid I’m boring.

I’m afraid I’ll reveal ignorance.

I’m afraid – let’s just sum it up – that you’ll figure out I’m not good enough.

So since I secretly believe I’m not good enough, I have to falsely impress you.  While my conversation may seem motiveless on the surface, it’s actually an attempt to manipulate you into a favorable view of me that, deep down, I believe I don’t deserve.  I’m busy crafting an image, doing PR work with every nod, every chuckle, every response.

And it’s a fuck of a lot of work!

In fact, it’s so much work that my poor brain doesn’t have enough bandwidth left to actually be interested in you, in what you’re saying or feeling or whatever the hell we’re purportedly talking about.

I want something from you.  Approval.  Increased trust.  Intimacy.  I probably don’t even know what it is, but at some level I fear my ship will sink without it.  YOU are a means to an end…  and our conversation, interesting or needed as it may be, is really all about ME and my needs.

What’s the alternative?
Sorry, guys, but here we go again!  The way out is Step 3.  It’s trusting god.  It’s having made a decision to live from a place of knowing that my worth derives from god’s love – and that god is not wrong to love me.  I have inherent worth.  I am trying.  I have love and kindness to offer.  Further, regardless of whether our conversation turns to a big fat stinky turd on fire, I will still be worthy and lovable.  I don’t need you to like me.  What will be, will be.  I trust god that, just by being loving and useful, I can play the role I’m meant to.

What happens when we adopt this attitude?  Amazing things!  I can pay attention.  I can wonder about you.  I can think clearly about what I really mean, what would be helpful, what I have to offer you.  And I’m free!  God has sliced through the five-inch-thick wet suit to let me out so I can dance!  I laugh, say what I think, am playful – and it’s fun!  I’m able to love you for just being you.  All this I can do stone. cold. sober.

Embracing Awkwardness
Let’s face it, there are times when I do want something from someone, because I’m human.  Recently, for instance, I was on a group hike with a guy I found attractive – the first spark I’d felt since the demise of my relationship.  So guess what?  Whenever we two were alone, I felt awkward.  I couldn’t think of shit to say, or I said “stupid” shit, and three-second silences loomed like eternities.  But I forgave myself for it.  “How cute we are,” I thought, “all awkward and goofy like this!  How predictable I am, like a high schooler!”  Even awkwardness, reminding us we’re alive, can be a gift.

And Besides, No One Cares!
Eleanor Roosevelt, that great vanquisher of personal awkwardness, left us with this gem on the topic:

“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

We’re all self-centered by nature, each of us the central protagonist of our world’s story. Everyone’s too busy thinking about themselves to dwell on anything we say or do.

Lastly, there’s that bit of AA wisdom: “What you think of me is none of my business.” We’re here to be kind, loving, and useful.  Let others make of it what they will.

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Spiritual Essence: Sobriety, Growth, and Who You’ll Be on the Other Side

Because in AA and Al-Anon meetings we emphasize similarities rather than differences, I usually refrain from talking about my Near Death Experience. I don’t want some share of mine about going to the Light to discourage a newcomer from identifying as alcoholic or convince them AA is full of loonies. But my blog’s a different matter. It’s a place to share my whole experience, loony or not.

When we get sober, we hear a lot of talk about ego as something in close cahoots with our addiction. In order to grow in sobriety, we strive to become conscious of those times (always?) when  it takes over our thinking. But what, exactly, is that entity trying to become conscious? That is, who/what are we without our egos? When we get down to the very heart of our being, our consciousness, what do we find?

chakrasEckhart Tolle, in my experience, writes most masterfully on this topic. In A New Earth, he makes a number of distinctions among the images appearing on the screen of the mind or various voices in our heads. In addition to ego (which is essentially the voice of fear – a destructive agent) and thought (which continuously occupies the brain much as digestion occupies the stomach, but without necessarily holding insight), he identifies emotions (the body’s reaction to thoughts) and the pain-body (an energy field within the body that feeds on negative emotions). Together, these components of our minds conspire to create the Unhappy Story of our lives.

In contrast to this, Tolle posits Presence. Presence is that which witnesses all aspects of our experience – the font of consciousness itself. I remember when I was reading Tolle on a beautiful beach in Costa Rica, the phenomenon of Presence kept eluding me.  I’d try repeatedly to disengage from my thoughts and emotions enough to zoom in on who was witnessing them, only to be sucked in by another thought or emotion, such as judging the extent of my success.

Today I understand why I couldn’t do it: my core, my soul, my essence was submerged beneath a layer of lies (thoughts) and denial (fear) manufactured by my ego to maintain my love addiction: I lay on that beautiful beach with a boyfriend who I knew in my core was concealing late-stage alcoholism, simply not drinking or acting out around me. I did not want to know this, mind you. I wanted not want to be fully conscious, because if I dropped my stories of him as an ethically strong and genuine man, I’d need to uproot my entire emotional life by breaking from him.  Addiction – with its urgent needs and false realities to fill them – obstructed my access to Presence, exactly as it had back in the days when I was drinking.

I do, however, have a memory of being pure presence.  If you’ve read my addiction memoir, you know that in 1982 I snorted a half-gram of lidocaine sold to me as cocaine, which shut down my cardio-pulmonary impulses and caused me to die on the dance floor of a Manhattan nightclub.  In those three minutes without pulse or breathing, I rocketed out of my body and into a vast blue sky above the open ocean, embarking on my journey to god.  There’s no room to tell the whole story here. What I want to concentrate on is the “I” in those sentences. What was “I” outside my body?

Pure awareness. Pure interest. Pure embrace of each phenomenon I encountered. That is, whatever I experienced, I loved.  I saw and knew with an ongoing, unqualified excitement that made not loving impossible. How to describe this? When you were a kid, maybe on your birthday or Christmas, you might have encountered a big stack of presents. You didn’t know what was in them.  You didn’t need to.  You anticipated finding out without worry that some might be duds.  All you felt was, “Oh, boy!”  That’s how you’ll feel about everything after you leave your body – everything, that is, except the prospect of returning to it.

Fear became null. When I was diving hundreds of feet toward tspiritenergyhe ocean’s surface, I wondered whether its surface tension might impact me like concrete, and there was certainly an extra spurt of “Oh, boy!” when it didn’t – but no adrenaline tinge of dread.  Same with the realization that I was about to burst into the sun – I only wondered what would happen.  That’s it.  Fear, sadness, anger: these are functions of the BODY.  We don’t need them once staying biologically operational is no longer of consequence.

Short of dying, how can you experience your own essence – that core consciousness you’ll become on the other side?  The best way I know today is to get quiet, close your eyes, and mentally speak your own name adding the suffix “–ness.” Do this several times.  Each time you repeat it, go further toward your child self.  Seek the thinker, not the thoughts.  Not only that, let go of trying – to be someone, to please, to do well before anyone but god – and let yourself fall toward humility. You’re just you.

In my “Louisa-ness,” there’s a subtle hint of…  I can’t find a word besides “dumbness.” But it’s a dumbness I thoroughly love! Maybe it’s just the void left by ego’s absence, the submission to being limited. It’s sort of like the curve of a ball, the spherical nature of myself coming back to me. It cups me. It hums “Louisa-ness.”

The more sober I am, the closer I move toward living from my essence.  THAT is my spiritual journey.  As Meister Eckhart put it (not related to Tolle), “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”

Part of the reason I love to climb mountains is that the physical demands pare away my thoughts and emotions until the simplicity of one goal – I will simply continue – eclipses all the various yammerings of ego.  Ego may initiate my climbs, but spirit finishes them.  “One Step at a Time” – the name of my sober mountaineering group – offers the ultimate metaphor for spiritual growth.  Day before yesterday, standing at 12,200 feet on the summit of Mount Adams, I did indeed feel close to my god.

I’m alive.  I’m grateful.  Nothing else matters.  For me, until the times comes to shed the “dumbness” of this body, that’s as true as it gets.

Me at 12,200 feet

Sunday afternoon, Mount Adams summit at 12,200 feet, a distant Rainier on the horizon.

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