Category Archives: happy, joyous, & free

The Work of Happy Sobriety

For the first three and a half decades of my life, I tried super hard to find happiness outside myself. If I could just get with the right people, afford the right stuff, and be seen in the right places, with just the right amount of a buzz or high, I’d clinch it! But all I did was fuck up my life — and others’.

I was smart as measured by standardized tests, landing jobs, or publishing stories, and good-looking enough for a mostly-successful seduction record, but dumb as a stump in terms of emotional wisdom — so I just wanted to die. Life hurt so badly! (See my lengthy addiction memoir for details galore.)

Attaining happiness is never an easy quest; every day we have to bushwhack through pretty much the same undergrowth of FOMO, discontent, victimhood, and boredom as well as self-inflicted criticism, shame, and pity to arrive beneath the open sky of awareness. During a pandemic, such as is in full swing as I write this, the way gets even thicker and swampier — doesn’t it?  Surely, we think, we’re missing out on some better life we ought to be living!

Growth
Now, I may be getting on in years, but I have recently met, both in person and virtually, some folks my age who are still every bit as lost as teenagers. For decades they’ve repeated over and over the same cycles of addiction — one with booze, the other with codependent romance. They have yet to step off the merry-go-round of “I know best,” so they keep finding themselves back at square one.

In early addiction, all of us believe our heads. Our thinking tells us it’s a fine idea to _____ (shop, starve, drink, “fall in love,” etc.), and we trust that thinking. Little do we suspect that our brains have been hijacked; we’re caught in a loop of stimuli and the reward centers they trigger.

Later, once we become aware of our addictions, we try to temper them with resolve and decisiveness — say, by swearing off drugs or getting married or moving. We’ve noticed the pattern and, darn it, we’re not gonna do that shit anymore!  I see this so tragically among pregnant addicts at a rehab center near my home. These women will hug their distended bellies and say, “I’ve lost three kids to the foster care system, but I’m not losing this one! I am SO DONE with drugs and alcohol! And I’m gonna get all my babies back, and we’re gonna be a family…”

By this point, they’re usually too overwhelmed with emotion to go on. No one could be more sincere.  No one could want and yearn and hope more fervently for what they’re saying to be true. And yet I know, sitting in that circle, that chances are they will use again, and they will lose this baby, along with all the others because addiction always wins — short of a miracle.

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Half that miracle is god — a power greater than ourselves that empowers us to accomplish what no human will can bring about. The other half is the inward miracle of letting go — ceasing to believe what our brains tell us, trusting instead what others have to teach us, and learning to listen for direction from our deepest hearts, from the goodness in our core that’s connected to all life.

The rest of recovery — including that daily schlepp toward happiness — comes down to 1) expanding the range of this miracle,  2) mapping our thought paths, 3) revering our consciousness/spirit, and 4) odd as it may seem, making friends with all those misguided inner voices.

  1. Once we let go of the precept that our own thinking is superior, we can try what’s worked for others despite doubts it can work for us. We work the 12 steps in depth with a sponsor.  When others tell us they initially choked on the word “God,” didn’t want to do service work, and dreaded sponsoring people, but now these things are the mainstays of their happiness, we try doing what they did to see if we’ll get what they got.

2) We begin to realize we are not our thoughts — we entertain them.  Or maybe it’s better to say they entertain us! That is, they enter stage-left, tap-dance a while before our awareness with urgent banners and songs and imperatives, and eventually exit stage right.  We learn to watch them without getting snagged, knowing they’re impermanent reactions to stimuli more often than realistic assessments of what is.  Practicing meditation hones this skill.

3) We begin to realize that we’re not our brains or bodies — we inhabit them. We’re all spirits that, for whatever reason, have chosen to incarnate and play a role in the unfolding of the physical world. Ultimately, our mission is to help each other by taking actions rooted in love and compassion. As one Near Death Experiencer was told, what matters is not what you do each day but what wake you leave behind, whether each person you meet is left a tiny bit happier by the encounter — because every other being is a part of you.

4) The same love and compassion we extend outward, we learn to offer ourselves, generously steeped in humor. Humor is the taproot of true humility, which is indispensable to a happy life. Did I wake up this morning anxious, dismayed by the state of the world, worried about the same dumb shit I always worry about? Yup!  That’s me — failing to be grateful that I’m not trapped in some war-torn, starvation-ravaged country or suffering some vast pain or grief. Yup, it’s just me and my buddies insecurity, envy, fear, and vanity, hangin’ out and doin’ what we do!  Come on, gang — let’s toddle into our cozy kitchen and get some luscious tea!

I often don’t see how I deserved to be guided to my first AA meeting, but I’m the one who said, “I can’t do life. I give up. Teach me.” And the rest has unfolded like a wildflower in the mountains.

Where I was yesterday…

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One Resolution Fits All

There’s a sense in which my life is none of my business.

I don’t know so much — what I am, for starters. I mean, I know I’m a consciousness, the “I” choosing these words, but how that font of awareness got married to a few trillion cells such that we all shuffle around together — how that came to be I have no clue.  Why I entered the world in a middle class American family — no idea. What the world is tending toward, the turmoil of someone much like me in Syria, the adorable joey dying painfully by fire in Australia, what will happen tomorrow, how long I will live — I know nothing.

But when I look back on the trail of my life and try to discern the hither to yon of it, if I sift through all I’ve seen and done and said and felt for just one gem, it’s this: I’ve been learning to love. The more love I generate, the more beautiful and meaningful my life.  So that will be my resolution, today and every day: Love More.

Loving myself.  I used to think that was easy enough, but it’s hardest. The reason it’s so hard, the gutter-ball of bowling for self-love that I kept throwing for about 40 years, is ego.  Ego is needed.  It was given us to keep us in our bodies, to train us to look out for ourselves so we can survive. Unfortunately, it usurps awareness and turns life into a contest, parading and concealing to orchestrate what it imagines others think.  Only in the last few years have I truly understood the inseparable nature of self-love and humility, two sides of the same coin.

In the warmth and simplicity of humility — I’m just me — I can drop the contest and see how simple my job actually is.  I try.  If I were to make a pie chart of my activities and responsibilities, there would be many, many slices. But in every area, all I can do is try.  To love myself, I focus on the sincerity of that effort rather than the outcomes it produces, successes or failures, which are ego’s domain.  I see my often bewildered, flawed, self-conscious self trying to live, to do what’s right, and I love myself for it.

Loving those close to me.  The hardest thing about loving family and others I’ve not necessarily chosen to position close to me is to truly see them instead of jumping to my idea of them.  My idea is ego’s shortcut that actually denies their humanity, their ongoing human experience, and sees only how they impact me.  If I can dilate the light of my own humility to cast it on them, I can see them, too, as bewildered, flawed, and self-conscious humans trying to navigate.  I may maintain a long list of flaws they don’t see (so funny!), but I can keep in mind that I fail to see many of my own. (When I made fun of myself the other night for craving attention, my friends laughed just a tad too hard.)  These folks, too, are trying as best they know how.

Loving humans I see.  This one’s an impediment for me because sometimes I can’t stop. Walking through the airport in a strange city, for example, my mind whirls in overdrive creating a whole life for every freaking person I see.  It’s exhausting!  They were born, they toddled and shit their diapers, they had their heart broken and either cried their guts out or stuffed it in deep pain.  Every single person!  So I try to calm down and just send blessings to each.

Loving the world I see.  This one is the chit!  It’s the key to happiness, not just for those of us in recovery, but for everyone.  I practice loving what I see.  For me, this means viewing everything as an expression of god — that gum wrapper on the sidewalk.  It grew as a tree, contains sunshine, soil, and magic, and was turned into paper at a factory where many complex souls worked and others exploited them from fear and greed, and it once contained gum similarly made, until a person who was born and toddled in diapers, etc., bought it and decided in a god-given consciousness to chew it, with all those sensations and reactions, and either intentionally or unintentionally let the wrapper fall, via a force of gravity proportionate to the mass of the earth, to have its trajectory interrupted here on the sidewalk. I also love crows and weeds.  I even love many insects. Everything is doing, carrying out a story, dancing with god.

Loving the world I don’t see.  I hold in my mind and heart at all times an awareness of this immense world over which I have no power.  Instead of trusting the pixelated reports of it churned out by media, social and otherwise, that ticker-tape through my devices, I concede that I have no way of knowing reality outside my small circle of experience, except as a general idea, a story that will turn out unpredictably in the years I witness and after I’m dead.  I know many beautiful, innocent humans and animals are everywhere trying to live, enjoying life or suffering. So I send out love, much like that of Buddhist prayers, whenever I can. I pray for good.  I pray for a growing network of compassion among people. I pray for the pod of orcas that used to frequent the waters where I live but are starving today for lack of salmon. I pray for my son.

So, back to my own life not being my business.  I didn’t make it and I control little of it, but I do have faith that god put me here to do something — to do good.  Every choice I make fulfills or betrays that mission.  Love more is the gem, the secret talisman I carry and feel in the pocket of my mind.  It is, I have found, my source of joy.

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9th Step Promise #1: “We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.”

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. 1) We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

2) We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 3) We will comprehend the word serenity and 4) we will know peace. 5) No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6) That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. 7) We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8) Self-seeking will slip away. 9) Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. 10) Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. 11) We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 12) We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

 

Too often, people take the 9th step promises out of context, calling them the “AA promises” and ignoring the condition that precedes them. The “phase of our development” that requires we be “painstaking” is amends — Steps 8 and 9. As I’ve written elsewhere, sloppy amends are worse than no amends at all.  By sloppy I mean done too soon, before we’ve really had a psychic change, which can lead to all sorts of blunders, including revealing harms unknown to the victim: “I slept with your partner; I never really liked you; I told so-and-so you were a liar.”  No, no, no!  That’s why we go through Step 8 with a sponsor, to figure out what will set things right for the recipient rather than cause new pain.

Anyway, the reason the Big Book authors placed the promises after Steps 8 & 9 is that to seek out the sheer awkwardness, humble pie, and admission of wrong-doing entailed in these two steps is something no ego-driven person would do — especially not hardcore bridge-burners like active and dry alcoholics. “Did I wrong that person? Fuck that, they wronged me!” This was the pre-steps attitude that produced more and more people to avoid and more thoughts to shove to the back in our minds, with drinking needed to mute them.

By contrast, after a psychic change, we’re trying to live by what’s right and good or, in other words, to show up as  god and our own spirits would have us be. I remember several instances of sitting in my car cramming from my 8th step notes before I stepped off what felt like the roof of a skyscraper to meet people I’d wronged.  I did so because I trusted god. And in each case, I walked on air: I calmly spoke the truth, and recipients warmly forgave me.

Many years have passed since I completed my amends, but I continue to live in the frame of mind that supported them. As a result, I get to live IN the 9th step promises!  Freedom and happiness, for starters, characterize my sober life. Sick voices still sound off in my head, but they project poorly, and I’ve learned to roll my eyes at them.  I focus instead on what I want to do with my life — with this one-time amazing journey of living in the world.

For example, I love climbing mountains. In July, friends and I made a bid for the summit of 14,411′ Mount Rainier – the most prominent peak in the contiguous US and 5th highest. We started too late (midnight) and had to wait repeatedly for the teams ahead of us to pass through areas where they’d trigger rockfall on us, then wait again when a ladder laid over a crevasse partially collapsed, so a number of my teammates got hypothermic and we had to turn back.  Even so, it was a huge, gorgeous, thrilling experience — the kind of adventure I used to fantasize about while drinking.

How far we got

Camped at 10,000′

Crossing a crevasse

Despite having lost some of my left lung to radiation for breast cancer, I power-breathed to 13, 200′; and despite acrophobia and balance issues, I walked over boards laid on a ladder across a deep crevasse — not to mention daring this stuff at 59. We will try again next year, having learned from our mistakes.

And yet… and yet… during the exhaustion that overtook me on the long descent to base camp, a voice started up in my head: “No one likes you.  You’re an annoyance to everyone.  Everything you say is trite and boring so everyone wishes you’d just shut the hell up.”  Freedom was the insight that my alcoholism, which survives in my mind, was taking advantage of my fatigue to get some good punches in.  Freedom was replying to that voice, “You’ve been saying that since middle school. Fuck off.” Then I deliberately bellowed some dumb jokes most people couldn’t even hear (because we were still on ropes and too far apart), just to piss off the voice.

Last week, I hiked 82 miles with my friend Sally, retracing only the best parts of the 127-mile hike I soloed last year.  This experience outshone any fantasy joy, because love for god’s beauty in the mountains absolutely saturated my consciousness for days.

Sally with Glacier Peak

Sally with Lyman Glacier

Me and TJ moochies, 6,440′

 

And yet… and yet… addiction was with me.  I’d needed a tooth extraction the day before we were to leave for this trip and, at the oral surgeon’s insistence, delayed a day for healing, then brought along antibiotics in case of infection and 12 Vicodin in case the socket clot came out or some other intense pain developed. As it turned out, the socket felt fine, healing gradually.  But my knee did not.  One night I couldn’t sleep for the knee pain, and sharing my tent was the Vicodin.  “Take it!” said my addict.  “You have pain — a perfect justification — so cross Go and collect $200!”  I responded, “That Vicodin is for unendurable nerve pain, not some nagging knee pain that keeps me awake.” “Whatever!” said my addict. “It’s for pain!  It’s right there – no more pain!  Much-needed sleep!  Just take it!”

Midnight, 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m. passed by.  I don’t remember praying, but what came to me were the words of my dear friend Rob: “Yah know, if I’d of known what I would become after a few Vicodin, I’d a shoved them up my doctor’s ass!!” Rob, originally a purebred alcoholic, got hooked on opiates as a result of a prescription and died from overdose in 2016.  He seemed to remind me that my own sobriety, despite its 24.5 year length, was equally fragile. With the help of Rob’s memory and several more ibuprofen, I eventually fell asleep. The next night, I asked Sally to keep the pills in her tent.

Really, the principles that free me to live the life I love are the same ones that carried me through my amends: love, humility, and faith.  That’s why realizing the promises is contingent on a “painstaking” completion of those steps.

 

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I made this video of our hike. If this ain’t living happy, joyous, and free, I don’t know what is!

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