Newly sober alcoholics are crippled. For years or decades we’ve relied on a tool for navigating life — an easy exit to that buzzed state where problems shrink — and suddenly we’re robbed of it. How to live in this bald, unrelenting world without escape? That’s the impasse we face day by day, even minute by minute during the first weeks and years of sobriety.
The short answer is faith. And faith sounds like jack shit to most newly sober drunks. Because the irony is, it takes faith to build faith. We’re used to considering evidence first and then weighing whether an action is likely to work in our favor. Faith means we step out knowing nothing and see what happens. Our actions are based in trust rather than reason.
Eventually, faith gets easier to muster as it builds up evidence of its own: I acted in good faith and was taken care of. I ask god to help me stay sober today, and I’ve not had to drink/ use/ act out for X days/ years. Faith works! Gradually, witnessing as much firsthand over and over, we begin to trust faith — perhaps even more than we trust our practical minds.
The Faith to Adventure
I had a dramatic experience with faith last week in the middle of the Mount Baker- Snoqualmie wilderness of the Cascade mountains. As some of you know, I’m an avid thru-hiker (hike –> camp –> hike). This year, at kind of the last minute, my friend Sally had to drop out of our planned 8-day thru-hike from Stevens Pass to Rainy pass on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
I decided to go it alone. The trail covers 127 miles, gaining and losing 32,000 feet of elevation. It’s known as the 2nd toughest section on the entire PCT (the toughest being the JMT). I found it much, much harder than I’d anticipated to cover 17-20 miles a day with a 40-lb pack (which shrank slowly as I ate food), climbing/descending sometimes a vertical mile, day after day. I’m 58, BTW.
But I did it.
Many women have asked me how I can hike alone in the wilderness. They fear predators both animal and human, exposure to heights, creek crossings, and the sheer self-reliance of solitude too much to try such a trek. How can I feel safe, even happy, out there in the wild?
My short answer, again, is faith. But it’s also love. I love the wilderness so intensely, there’s just no room in my heart for fear.
True, I felt a little lonesome until I got outside the range of chatty, clean day hikers and entered the true backcountry. There I shifted my focus away from humans, instead talking out loud to critters, plants, trees, and god. The glow in my heart grew stronger and stronger, as did my faith that other living entities could sense it. To take this timed selfie, for instance, I pinned back a shrub blocking my lens. I’d finished and was just starting to hike on when I ran back, unpinned it, and said, “Sorry!”
But even loving hearts need boundaries, whether for toddlers or wild things. I love bears (two years ago I surprised one who graciously ceded the trail) and mountain lions, but even so I sang a lot and kept a trekking pole with me constantly. I radiated a boundary: Don’t fuck with me. You may win, honey, but not til I’ve made sure you regret it! I meant it. I knew no creature would attack me, animal or human, unless it was mentally ill. Besides, humans who victimize others rarely have the guts or stamina to hike far into the wilderness.
A Miracle on the Trail
Such was my mindset when my right knee gave out about 60 miles into my trip, with about 60 miles left to hike and no roads near. I’ve made a video that covers the barest facts of this experience – that I began to get flashes of intense, crazy nerve pain flaring in that joint, first intermittently and then repeatedly, making me gasp and cry out.
I could not walk. I stopped. I was carrying an inReach satellite communicator to check in with loved ones each night, loaned by a friend, which featured an SOS beacon. I could toggle to emergency, push a button, and wait however long it took for rescue to arrive.
Instead, I shifted to the world of spirit.
…except at altitude on steep terrain
In front of me stood a huge grand fir – a type of evergreen with roots entirely underground. It was as though our eyes met — the tree’s and mine. At this high elevation of 4,500′ where trees grow slowly, I knew it had to be a thousand years old. Also flashing through my mind was recent research finding, for instance, that matriarchal trees send moisture along their roots to sustain neighboring seedlings, exhibiting far more “consciousness” than humans have understood.
So I approached this tree as a matriarch who had channelled god’s energy for a thousand years. With a humility possible, I think, only to someone crippled after four days of solo hiking, I put both hands on her trunk, touched my forehead to the surface between them, and called to her silently, “Are you there?”
Into my consciousness came the tree’s energy — I am.
I’ve had enough post-NDE experiences to distinguish thoughts sent to me from those I generate. You can say “bullshit,” or you can trust that I’m not a moron and keep reading.
Tears were streaming down my face. I thought to her, with a reverence for the millennium she’d witnessed as opposed to my own brief and absurdly self-absorbed life: “Can you ask god to help me?”
The response was instant, but not what I wanted. It filled my mind as a knowing, an unchanging principle, just as vibrations of a tuning fork fill the air:
Every life must ask directly.
I countered as if in conversation with thoughts of my shyness, unworthiness, and that I’d gotten myself into this predicament. The tree “heard” none of this. It continued to emanate at the same frequency, unchanged: Every life must ask directly. Of the three elements in that principle — life, asking, and directness — the last seemed to linger longest.
I thanked her. I tried to walk on, oh so carefully. I’d made only a few steps when the pain blared again — WAAAHHHHH!!!! — and with it came a realization of my own: “I’m totally screwed!”
I didn’t take off my pack. I didn’t sit down or even close my eyes. I just stood there on the trail, gushing tears as I always do in prayer, and spoke inwardly to god. To be totally honest, I felt like a child braced for the same disappointing response all my terrified acrophobia-on-the-mountainside prayers incur: “You got yourself up, child; you can get yourself down.” That, or maybe something blunt like, “Use the beacon, silly!”
Even so, I reached for god with my tenderest heart. I apologized first that I knew all this was my own fault because ego had played a role in getting me here, but I also “reminded” god how intensely I loved the living beauty of the wilderness, how much this trip meant to me. Then I asked, directly, as the tree had instructed, Can you give me some guidance?
At almost the same instant that I asked, my mind began to fill with instructions, as if they were downloading from some external source. I got so excited! I knew so many things in that second that I’d not known the second before!
None of this information came in words. We all know our physical bodies well, so the references were to my own conceptions of these parts. I had strained my inner thigh. “No I haven’t!” came from my brain. “It’s fine — doesn’t hurt a bit!” God reminded me of a move I’d made in my tent that morning that had hurt in that spot — and there was so much love with this correction, with each instruction: love, love, love! I was told to put my foot up on a rock or log and stretch it gently.
To my amazement, I found my adductor muscle so tight at first that I (a ballet dancer) could not raise my leg more than about 2 feet. I was also told to use my trekking pole to put pressure on another spot. No words — just my familiar idea of the dent under my kneecap on the inside. I was told to stop and repeat both these actions frequently — what I decided meant every 500 feet.
There had been a third instruction from the outset, but only when I’d stretched and pressed about 6 or 8 times, walking between with zero pain, did I “hear” details of how I should follow it. This idea pertained to a little velcro loop I’d packed for no reason. It might have originally come with my air mattress to keep it rolled up, but in any case, I’d decided at least twice not to bring it. Somehow, it ended up in my pack anyway. At various camps I’d pull it out and roll my eyes: “Why did I bring this?!”
THIS is why! god seemed to answer, referencing all the above with love, love, love. Wrap it on that spot, tightly but not too tightly.
My brain thought, “That’ll do nothing!” Duh! I’d used knee braces many times on lesser injuries; they helped only to the degree that they immobilized the joint, whereas to descend from this elevation, I’d have to bend my knee to at least 90 degrees hundreds of times, with my weight and the weight of pack crashing down as many times amid rocks, fallen trees, and rough terrain. What could a little mattress roll-up holder possibly do to mitigate that?!
But my spirit was told, You will be healed. The knowing came that this band would act similarly to kinetic tape, except that while tape attracts attention from the brain to heal a given area, this little band would attract spiritual attention, my own and god’s, to heal my knee miraculously.
My brain disbelieved, but that’s what I heard, a promise my spirit dared to trust. You will be healed. You will be healed. The knowing echoed like a mantra every time I confronted a challenge — a two-foot drop on the trail, a fallen log I had to jump down from, a slip and arrest.
My knee, my spirit, my god, and that little velcro band kept on descending and descending over the next hour and a half. No pain. Before I knew it, we’d reached Milk Creek, elevation about 3,000′. I took this photo to commemorate the miracle.
I am astounded. I’m thinking, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Over the next three days, I hiked 60 more miles on that knee. I never experienced pain again. Sure, it throbbed like mofo at night, but so did my feet, ankles, hips, neck, and shoulders. I had to take a lot of ibuprofen just to sleep. But never again did it pain me me on the trail. Not once.
My message for alcoholics and addicts of various modes is that we can all experience two conflicting convictions at once. The brain can insist, “It’ll never work!” while the spirit resolves to act as though perhaps it will — on faith — and see what happens. At every step of my recovery from alcoholism, I doubted: “Faith is nothing but pretend! The steps are nothing but mumbo-jumbo! I’ll never not want to drink, never stop feeling less-than and judgmental and scared of life!”
And yet, I ventured ahead in faith and courage to follow the advice of sponsors and old timers from AA meetings, just as I reached out to a tree for help, just as I bracketed my doubts of god’s guidance and did precisely what I was told. We don’t have to believe it (with our skeptical minds). We just have to do it (with our spirit’s courage). The miracle will happen.
We can be guided toward growth and sometimes even healed. Because god is real, and god does stuff for those who ask — directly.
Video telling the story. Also available at https://youtu.be/McRi8zbW0TY
Photos from my trip:
Mica Lake, the camp above which my knee first twinged. Note how the reflection polarizes glare from the smoke particles.
Mica Lake from the granite slab where I got water
Me with fellow PCTers waiting for a boat as part of a forest fire detour
Bridge out on loud, raging creek so I climbed across on the railings.
Approaching Cloudy Pass
Me with some background peaks you could see if it weren’t so damn smoky.
Me emerging at my goal on time – 127 miles and 8 days later. I lost 6 pounds despite eating constantly.