Category Archives: Recovery

Effects of chemical and emotional addictions and the route to a spiritual solution

Compassion’s Spark: a 12th Step Call*

On a dark, rainy winter’s evening about ten years ago, I found myself in a run-down urban trailer park trying to find a particular trailer. I don’t remember how I was supposed to identify it, but I do remember a man stepping in front of me whose face I couldn’t see in the dark.  “I got some stuff.  You want some?”  trailer-park“No, thanks,” I replied, moving on. By the light of trailer windows, I saw more shadowy figures moving about in the downpour, and I remember holding my AA Big Book in front of my heart like a shield, asking god to keep me safe.  I was on a full-fledged 12th-step call, one of only a handful in my life.

Twelfth-step calls are less common today because treatment centers tend to be a first stop for addicts wanting help, but the woman whose trailer I was seeking had just been released from the most labor-camp-like detox/treatment center in Seattle – Sedrunar.  A friend had called me about her. “Lena doesn’t have a car to get to meetings.  She’s got two kids, and she’s gonna lose them if she uses again.”

I called Lena, though I was going to insist she take the bus to my house.  But Lena, like any addict, was persuasive.  She didn’t know anyone in the trailer park she could trust to watch her kids – who were seven and two.  Could I please come just this once?

The seven-year-old opened the trailer door.  She stared at me from eyes circled with dark shadows, silent as a spook.  I heard yelled from inside: “Let her in!”  I tried to greet the child cheerily, though to inhale the stinky, steamy air in there felt like an assault. On the floor was an old TV with a beanbag chair in front of it – that and piles of clothes.  Bare walls.  In came Lena, the toddler on her hip naked besides his diaper, food all over his face.  Lena was a bit shorter than me and chunky, about 25. She shook my hand, apologizing for the mess, and handed the boy off to her daughter, pretty much barking at her to go in the bedroom and shut the door so she could talk to this lady – me.

We sat down at the yellow kitchen table.  On the stove, mac & cheese dribbled from a saucepan stovein a way that reminded me of vomit, and smeared noodles dotted the table.  Lena sat across from me and folded her hands expectantly as though I were about to recite poetry.

All I could say was, “Does that window open?” I gestured toward a dark pane at the the table’s end, the glass dripping with condensation.

Lena looked perplexed.  “I’m trying to save heat.”

“I’d really appreciate it.”

Reluctantly she rose and slid the moldy aluminum frame aside about an inch.  While she was up she grabbed a sponge and wiped away most of the noodles at my place, apologizing that she’d just fed her son.

I’d made up my mind that I would stay 30 minutes only.  I began as I always do, by asking Lena to briefly tell me her story.  Clearly practiced from treatment, she launched right into it – how she’d grown up picking crops in Yakima in a Hispanic community; how she’d gotten into meth as a teen.  She was proud that both kids had the same father, but he was a drug dealer.  She’d lost them twice to CPS – once for leaving them in the car outside a bar.

“I’m clean, now, 60 days.  The judge told me this is an extra chance with my kids.  I shouldn’t even have them now.  I gotta stay clean.  I gotta stay sober.”  Here she changed, muscles in her face and throat working hard.  She looked right at me and spoke distinctly: “I can’t… lose… my kids.”

“Well, you’ll need to find a sponsor,” I breezed, “but, unfortunately, I’m full.”  This was somewhat true – I had a few sponsees.  But, of course, I really said it to push away all this squalor.  I wasn’t even sure whether this woman should have her kids.  All I knew was that only 21 minutes stood between me and escape.

I sketched my own story briefly, Lena nodding attentively at every phrase.  I explained that I couldn’t not drink on my own, but by working the 12 steps I’d accessed a higher power that had removed my craving for alcohol and kept me sober eleven years.

“Eleven years!” Lena marveled.  “That’s what I want!  I wanna know how you did that!”

I was starting to explain how I’d worked with a sponsor when we heard a ruckus and the squalling toddler, chased by the spooky girl, burst out of the bedroom.  Hardly taking her eyes from me, Lena scooped her son into her lap and held him close.  She gave the crown of his head tiny kisses and asked him if he wanted a bottle.

Right then – that’s when the voice started.  Not really a voice, but an urging:  Help her.  Sponsor her.  Love her.

No fucking way! my ego countered.  ticking-clockI was busy.  She was hopeless.  Just eight minutes and I’d be outta this dump, back to the fresh air and my nice, clean life!

Lena nodded toward her son.  “He don’t talk,” she said. “They told me he’s disabled, but it ain’t true.  It’s just all he been through.”  Watching the boy’s eyes, the way they moved from Lena to me and back again, I sensed she was right.  Meanwhile the spooky girl joined us with a coloring book, promising to be quiet and asking where her crayons were.  Lena grabbed them from the same box that had held her Big Book.

“It’s not me,” I heard myself telling her. “God has given me a life better than I ever dreamed of.”  Some of the people who’d helped, giving me time and guidance, flashed through my mind.  “I’m not the same person I was.”  Lena nodded intently.  She was not begging.  She was not pleading.  But every cell in her body was straining to hear me.

Just help her.  Just love her.

But I was helping, dammit!  I was steering her toward the program, right?  Just not toward me.  Anyone but me.  But, with just three minutes to go, I made a big mistake.  I looked into Lena’s eyes.  Really looked.  I saw there desperation and terror, but even more, a fierce love for her children.  My own son was five.  How were we any different?

The wall crumbled, compassion washing over me.  “Okay, I’ll sponsor you,” I heard myself saying.  Lena’s face lit up.  “But not here!  You’re gonna have to come meet me at a coffee shop!”

The rest of the story is like a fairy tale.  Lena and I met every Friday tobig-book read the Big Book at a Starbucks while a sober neighbor watched her kids, after which I’d drive us to a meeting.  She had a job riding in a municipal truck, collecting garbage, and within a couple of months she qualified to drive that truck.  She moved into a shitty apartment not far from the trailer park, where I met with her for a while until she found childcare.  She bought a crappy car and started driving herself to meetings.  Whenever I showed up at her homegroup, her kids would ambush me either in the parking lot or when I came in – the little girl now beautiful and clear-eyed, the little boy talking up a storm.  Their laughter still seemed incredible to me – a miracle.

In a little more than a year, we’d progressed to Step 9 when Lena, who was apprenticing as municipal gardener, leased a nice apartment too far north for us to keep meeting.  I drove up and visited her there once.  It was near Christmas.  I remember white carpets, a new sofa, pictures on the walls.  I remember the children bringing me a gift from under the Christmas tree and grinning while I opened it, and my own embarrassment that I had nothing for them.  But I had given them something – and we all knew it.

Last night after eight years I went again to that meeting – Lena’s old home group. But she wasn’t there.  Where she’s gone, what she’s doing, I don’t know.  But I’m hopeful.  I sent them prayers.  Today, I’m so grateful that god opened my heart, and that it’s still opening.

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Postscript:  I had to find out…  🙂

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Republished from 12 /2016

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Filed under Addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Sponsorship, Twelve Steps

How it Felt to Get Sober

Short answer?  Terrifying.  Terrifying because to live without drinking was unimaginable — like a layer of my identity being ripped from me. I had reached the point where I could not imagine life either with or without alcohol.

Today, at 27 years sober, those days seems distant not just chronologically but because my reality is completely transformed. The only experience I can compare with getting sober is having kids: imagining how it might be to have kids is a world away from actually becoming a parent, supporting the lives of your children in countless ways and loving them more powerfully than you ever dreamed possible.

The same was true for me, but the child in question was my authentic self.  There’s an apt truism that goes like this: You don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, we think what we know must be all there is to know about sobriety because we’re ignorant that a whole different realm exists.

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Zealousshadow

I was sure I knew who I was. I was sure I knew the role booze played in my life.  And I assumed I could guess what a life without booze would look like. 

Wrong on all three counts!

Amputating a Limb

To guess at what life would be like without booze, it seemed reasonable to work this equation:

What would it be like, I wondered, to hang out in bars and NOT drink?  Would I still play pool and darts, and, of course, smoke?  How would I sit around on my stoner friends’ couches and NOT get stoned?  What would be the point of hitting up a party if not to get drunk?

And what about life at home?  How would I watch movies without booze?  Cook or work in the yard?  How would I ever relax and chill out?

Subtracting alcohol, I believed, would leave a gaping hole in my life. This void seemed inevitable because I’d lost track of both who I was and what life was about. The goal, I’d come to believe, was always to FEEL BETTER. I knew only two ways to do that: 1) booze and cocaine and 2) esteem from crushes and “cool” people.

Happiness through a heart connection with the inherent goodness of the universe wasn’t even on the table.

Here are some journal entries from my first year:

1 day sober:   “I went to an AA meeting tonight. Was so uncomfortable and out of place and felt I will never, never stop drinking, so why even want to? I know drinking so intimately.  I know me with a glass of wine or a beer better than anyone else in this world. I love to drink. I love it like freedom and happiness.  I want never to stop.”

65 days sober:  “I really do think AA has saved my life.  I couldn’t have done it — stopped the drinking, the downward spiral — alone. I wanted to let myself go, let it end. That’s why crashing my car seemed the best way…  But now I live in fear. I fear every coming minute, every hour of consciousness that I have to get through on my own — just me and the world.  But the good side is, I know I CAN get through it if I just hold on and keep going.  And that is courage. I am rough-riding the world, life, being me. And every moment I do is a triumph.”

222 days sober:  “I’m seven months sober.  I am very messed up.  Even writing doesn’t seem to do any good, because I am so TIRED of being messed up. There’s never a break. Today it got to be too much for me. Sitting in a women’s meeting, this woman told her story, very low bottom.  And while I was moved during it, afterwards my disease started creeping up from the back of my mind, my old love affair with drinking, missing it and the sense of REBELLION and SECLUSION and FALSE SELF-SUFFICIENCY I got from drinking. I missed feeling okay when I was drunk. I started feeling it was too much to say I’d never drink again.

“So I started planning my relapse, peeking at how I could, how the bail money was right there. Just drink.  Drink like before.  I do know I couldn’t control it for long. I drink to get drunk, not for one drink. There’s always further to go and I always want it.”

Notice that in the first quote, I have no faith whatsoever.  Drinking is still my whole world. In the second, I’m courageously pioneering unknown territory. In the third, I finally recognize that I’m up against a disease that tells me I don’t have a disease, one that lies to me about how to fix everything. I know it’s lying, but I’m still extremely uncomfortable.  This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is hourglass-2.jpeg

Time Takes Time

This is another simple truism from the program.  Newly sober people pass through another childhood. When we take away the layers of self-stupefying to “take the edge off” and self-delusion that we can somehow feel what others think of us, we have to learn to live all over again.

Inwardly, we have to learn how to be okay with consciousness, how to feel difficult feelings like awkwardness, tension, boredom, guilt, discontent, uncertainty, jealousy, and so on. We learn that A) they won’t kill us, and B) that instead of numbing them away, we find the courage to change the things we can so we’re able to grow and cope.  Each difficult feeling can serve as a spur for growth.

On the other hand, we also get to taste genuine aliveness, a full awareness of Earth’s beauties, tenderness toward people we love, and satisfaction from accomplishments both humble and huge. When we experience our first glow of true joy — not hyped up giddiness — or our first sense that maybe we DO belong, these experiences can be mind-blowing.  Peace can be mind-blowing.

As we nurture a connection with our higher power, we begin to perceive it not as some deity overseeing the world but as an energy infusing everything, the force of goodness generating all that lives and evolves — not just biologically but (let’s hope) ethically. Through working the 12 steps, we learn that we can align ourselves with that divine unfolding to gain a strong sense of dignity and purpose.

All of these new feelings and awarenesses grew in me at their own pace, as they do for everyone new in recovery. Gradually a secure inward peace replaces early sobriety’s raw vulnerability.  Our new job is now only to become the fullest possible expression of ourselves.  Ours is the work of thriving.

 

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Holy Crap! I’m 27 years Sober!

What’s “normal” wisdom?  I’ll never know, so I can’t guess how much I’ve gained from practicing the PROGRAM versus just getting OLDER. What I do know is that I’ve been applying the 12 Steps pretty much every day for these 9,861 since my last drink, and that the lessons keep coming, some of them quite painful; the learning curve keeps me climbing and will do so (I hope) for as long as I live.

While I was drinking, I learned NAHH-THING — about what matters, about who I was, about how to navigate in the world.  If I’d never gotten sober in AA, I’d still be trying to piece together an ego-based design for living, one based in the maxims my parents passed onto me (mainly “be better than everyone else”), never suspecting they’d been shaped by generations of family dysfunction.

In fact, even after I stopped drinking, I kept trying to live by my old standards until I hit an emotional bottom at 2.5 years dry and finally asked a no-nonsense woman to take me through the 12 Steps.

The first changes were revolutionary.  Here’s Karen’s takeaway from my first real fifth step in 1999, all the damaged and unsaleable goods she highlighted after hearing my 263-resentment-inventory:

By “playing god” she meant that I viewed the world as if I knew what was best — for both myself and others. I decided what you ought to do to make things work my way; when you didn’t, I got scared I wouldn’t be okay and resentful at you for having done what you wanted. Embarrassingly, a lot of this had to do with popularity and inclusion. I wanted people to like me, damn it, to include me in things!

Whenever I got my wish, I’d trot out, not my real self, but what Karen called “the Louisa Show” — my people-pleasing act geared toward getting more of what I wanted, i.e. approval, admiration, popularity.  I was always jockeying in a horse race, comparing and judging who — just to keep this brief — was cooler. Either I was cooler (dominant) and you should admire me, or you were, and I (dependently) would keep knocking myself out to impress you.  As the 12 & 12 so insightfully summarizes, “The primary fact that we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being.” [p.53]

In short, I kept trying to wrest satisfaction out of people, places, and things, always assuming they held the key to something I needed to be okay.  But they didn’t.  When I felt most crushed and abandoned, when I was forced to turn inward as a last resort, I’d find way deep down, ignored and discounted, the most profound love of the universe.  Today I know my deepest needs can be met only by plugging into that love, which I call god, never by jumping for various gold stars in society.

When my main source of okayness comes from god, life’s a whole different ball game. I can focus on what I have to give: love, listening, recognition. Gradually, giving these things — the feeling of it – has become important to me. I’m not scrambling to prove my own worth, goodness, talent, etc; I want to help others glimpse theirs.

My basic template for living has changed in these two basic ways, with these priorities:Gauge

OUT IN THE WORLD

  1. Develop a good slime-o-meter and pay attention to it.  My putting this first may seem odd, but boundaries are actually a precursor to open-heartedness. A slime-o-meter is like a spiritual Geiger counter. It starts clicking when you sense those energetically corrupt — sexual predators, liars, thieves, or just energy vampires — whether in the rooms of AA or out in the world. When I sense  slime, I’m still cordial, but I decide carefully how much connection I want. Early in recovery I was ripped off for $7K, tricked into disguised dates, and defamed via gossip by people I’d trusted. Each time I’d had a feeling… that I ignored.
  2. So equipped, it’s open season on love and goodwill. Try to imagine each stranger as they might have looked at 3 years old. That same vulnerable, curious, trying-to-figure it out child is lodged inside an adult body layered over with lots of safeguards against the cruel blasts of life, but you need to see through to the spark of goodness. Everyone child within loves to be appreciated, to share humor, and to be startled by kindness. As you progress through your day, leave a wake of incrementally happier people.
  3. Value and make time for chosen family.  During the pandemic, it seems especially hard to do stuff, but it’s more than worth it.
  4. Value and make time for fitness, health, and connection with nature.  Same as #3.

WITHIN MYSELF:                    

  1. Watch for bullshit. Parallel to the slime-o-meter is my inner scan for hidden motivations, most of which I deny for YEARS or DECADES. Every surge of dopamine candy, once I really SEE it as  ego’s fodder, transforms to lukewarm canned peas, so I don’t want it anymore.  Most recently transformed to canned peas for me is any kind of flirty texting. Three years ago, every ping of a date app lit me up. “He likes me!”  Now all that is blechy.
  2. Acknowledge pain, but don’t retaliate.  As the 12 & 12 puts it, “We learned that, if we were seriously disturbed, our first need was to quiet that disturbance, regardless of who or what we thought caused it” [p.47].  For instance, my 95-year-old mother keeps purposefully insulting me. I’m the daughter who lives nearby and does the most for her, which makes me, apparently, the chopped liver child.  It ain’t fair.  It sucks.  And it hurts. I can pray about it, sing about it, lion’s breath about it, but to others — not to a 95-year-old woman set in her ways.
  3. Listen for divine guidance.  It’s always there, sometimes loud, sometimes faint. EarI can feel my angel urging me toward self-honesty and love, and I don’t need for anyone else to believe that he communicates with me.
  4. Love myself, flaws and all.  I was raised with conditional love and lots of shaming, so those critical voices are ingrained in my psyche.  As Tara Brach likes to point out, the “second arrow” wounds me when I shame myself for shaming myself.  Sometimes I actually need to list some objective facts that indicate I’m doing okay, that I have some honor, that I deserve self-respect.

Chairing at my home group tonight among all the January birthdays, I began, “I’m so grateful –” and then I choked up.  The feeling is always right there, that sense I don’t deserve all this.  Twenty-seven years ago, I was given a chance at a new way of life — one that continues to amaze me.

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New Year’s FOMO and other Alcoholic Horsecrap

Reposting from 2015:

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’ a

Party-Dancing-Vector

ll 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-party

No, 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 win

Codependent

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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Filed under Addiction, Alcoholism, Codependence, Codependency, living sober, Recovery, Sobriety

Chapter 3, More About Alcoholism: My FAVORITE

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved quirky facts. About a million Earths could fit inside the Sun. Lots of lizards have a third eye on top of their heads. Female kangaroos can pick the sex of their next offspring. And the brains of alcoholics are broken.

Okay, so maybe that last one is more than quirky.  

The first AA saying to blow my mind came from a skinny, bearded guy at the Olympia Alano Club: “I can’t fix my broken brain with my broken brain!” 

I thought: Whhhoah!  In other words, there’s no way for an alcoholic to THINK their way out of addiction. Our brains will still default — maybe not today, but one day — to “a drink is a fine idea!”

This quirky fact, dear reader, is what the Big Book’s Chapter 3 is all about.

THE CHAPTER STARTS with a recap of Step 1. Nobody wants to be an alcoholic. Everyone wants to believe that NEXT time we’ll manage to control and enjoy our drinking, and many chase that dream “into the gates of insanity or death.” 

Step 1 is about accepting that we can no more become “normal” drinkers than an amputee can regrow limbs. We prove it by the countless ways we try and fail. The list on page 31 covers just a few of our tactics. “…taking a trip, not taking a trip, swearing off forever (with and without a solemn oath), taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books….”

I myself never swore off, because I couldn’t conceive of a life without drinking. But the first time I read this chapter, I did recognize many of these tactics as ways I’d tried to control my drinking:  drinking only beer and wine, increasing my exercise, reading self-help books.

Here the book suggests taking the “drink and stop abruptly” test, which I have never, ever advised a sponsee to try. We don’t need to!  How many of us EVER enjoyed A drink? Can you even imagine? You’re at a party where you have ONE gin and tonic?  What, are you CRAZY??? Maybe if a gun fight broke out or the building caught fire, I’d consider it.  

The rest of the chapter centers on the stories of three alcoholic guys who thought they could control their drinking using their brains: 1) carpet slippers guy, 2) Jim the car salesman, and 3)Fred the firm partner. Spoiler alert! — alcoholism wins every time.

  • Carpet slippers guy quit drinking for 25 years and then deliberately started again, convinced he’d been cured of alcoholism. At 30, he somehow summoned the wherewithal to stop. But by his 50s, his addiction had the upper hand so invincibly that he drank himself to death in four years. 

This acceleration, I think, is the origin of our saying, “My disease is out in the parking lot doing push ups.” During the years we’re sober, the power of our addiction only INTENSIFIES. I’ve heard people who went out with 10 years’ sobriety use the word “terrifying” to describe the irresistible power of their cravings. 

“This is is baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it — this utter inability to leave it alone no matter how great the necessity or wish.”  Part of our brain resolves with all its might to stop the self-abuse. But the alcoholic part of the brain upstages it.

  • Jim the car salesman is an awesome veteran, husband, dad, and smart business man, but he ends up in the insane asylum from the violent stuff he does while wasted. AA guys talk to him and he totally gets it; he knows he needs recovery. But he’s not into the god thing, so he doesn’t do that part.

So what does the alcoholic part of his brain do? It sells him the notion that a shot of whiskey will be no problem if he mixes it with milk. “I vaguely sensed that I was not being any too smart…”  His good-guy brain is struggling to get through, but the other voice is stronger.  Jim “felt reassured as I was taking the whiskey on a full stomach.”  Back to the insane asylum he went!

“…Parallel with our sound reasoning there inevitably ran some insanely trivial excuse for taking the first drink. Our sound reasoning failed to hold us in check. The insane idea won out.”  The authors compare our behavior to that of a guy who loves jaywalking (p.38) — unable to resist something that keeps nearly killing him.

  • Fred the firm partner’s story is perhaps the most spectacular of the three. His alcoholism didn’t even come up with an excuse. It didn’t say, “You’ve been sober so long, you’ve got this!” or “It’ll be fine if you just mix in milk.” Nope. Fred’s alcoholic brain just tells him “it would be nice ” to have drinks with dinner. His rational brain doesn’t even object and once alcohol has him by the short ones, he’s off on a multi-day bender.  Later, Fred sees that “will power and self-knowledge would not help in those strange mental blank spots.

So what will help us? That’s what Chapter 4’s about.  It’s a spiritual connection with a higher power.

Mine rescued me about 15 years ago when I was caught up in a full-fledged “mental blank spot.” For a Sunday brunch at my parents’ house, someone in my family had placed a glass of white wine at my  table setting. It was chilled and beaded with condensation – and I had 12 years’ sobriety. I thought, “WHY can’t I have this? WHAT’s the reason? Oh yeah, ‘cause I’m [mocking voice] in AA and I’ll turn into a guzzling maniac! That’s ridiculous. I can do what I WANT!”

Here came a different voice, not quite from me. It asked, “How about if you wait five minutes and see if this is still true?”

That’s all. It seemed humble and simple, not commanding or forbidding. I answered as if accepting a dare: “No problem! I can wait five minutes.”

In less than 30 seconds, the full force of my love for sobriety flooded over me. Never, never would I throw away my beautiful life for a stupid fucking glass of fermented grape juice! Aloud I asked someone to take it away, and in my heart I said, “Oh my god…. thank you!”

That’s grace. And grace alone is more powerful than addiction.

 

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Filed under Alcoholism, Big Book notes, Recovery

Build a New Passion

Me and the BF in 1980

Yes, alcoholism is a horrible disease that slowly destroyed everything good in my life. Even so, if you’re a sober alcoholic, you’ll understand when I say, man, I didn’t just drink — I mean, I DRANK! I was damn good at it.  I remember a time in college when my boyfriend bet a big guy $20 that I, at 5’4″ and ballet dancer thin, could drink his ass under the table. Faintly I can still recall the look of disbelief on the guy’s face across the table when, in front of a crowd of onlookers, I asked for another pint — maybe my fourth? — before he could finish his.  Hungover as I was the next morning, when I learned I’d won, I felt huge pride. I’d kicked some ass.

Fourteen alcoholic years later, after I’d lost the ability to write well, read or think deeply, marvel at beauty, or love anyone or anything in the world besides my next drink (or hit), some of that pride still bolstered my identity. So when I got sober, alcohol’s absence left a huge void in my psyche, not only in terms of how to cope with life or what to do with all the time I once spent “partying” — it also ran deeper, a confusion about who Louisa was and what drove her.

I had to learn to live for something other than alcohol.  I had to discover who I could be.

Yesterday, I returned home from a ten-day adventure with five friends in Colorado and Utah. We rode our mountain bikes 220 miles from Telluride, CO, through the San Juan and La Sal ranges of the Rocky Mountains, to Moab, UT. The trip was intense, to say the least. We climbed and lost an average of 2,500 feet per day over 30-mile stretches, exerting our muscles with little oxygen at elevations of 8 – 10 thousand feet, and not on pavement, but often on rutted, rain-eroded rocky roads and sometimes single track trails in the backcountry. We each carried around 30 lbs of gear.

The aspens were just turning color.  The weather was ideal.  We progressed along a route among well-stocked huts where we cooked great meals and slept in bunk beds. I’d trained for the trip by climbing lots of steep hills in Seattle. But climbing at sea level is nothing to climbing at altitude.

Breathing as hard as I could, countless times I rounded a corner or crested a rise only to see a huge, steep, relentless hill in front of me. Each time I’d feel an irrational surge of anger at the nerve of this route, to demand I find even more strength. A few times, I and the others had to dismount and push our bikes, but more often than not I’d drop to low gear, breathe my hardest, and inch my way up that frickin’ hill until there was no more to climb. At last I could could crest, pedal a few more times, and then sit back and fly down the other side, wind roaring in my ears and cooling my sweat, gorgeous walls of yellow aspens flying past on either side at some parts, and at others open vistas of steely mountains or red mesas rolling under the brilliant blue sky.

Bumpy video from my phone holder here.

Five other sober alcoholics made this trip with me, the youngest 49 and the oldest, me, at 61. This was my first mountain biking experience, but the others had skills and often tackled single-track routes filled with mad turns and rocks and roots and streams to cross. 

Some, like my mom, might call us thrill seekers.  But what we’re actually seeking is the experience of living fully, connected not only to nature’s splendor but to our physical bodies and the determination at our cores. We want to thrive, to challenge ourselves, to carpe the damn diem. For whatever reasons, we are HUNGRY for life in a way no day-to-day humdrum walk in the park can satisfy.  We chase our passions.

It’s my belief that, once we get sober, each of us must find and cultivate some passion that can fill the void left by chasing the buzz, chasing the high, chasing the illusion of cool. We have to embrace something that we love as much as we loved getting wasted, or actually more so, because it’s an activity that feeds us rather than poisoning us. I’m lucky to live in Seattle, where we have a sober outdoor activities group called OSAT — One Step At a Time. We alcoholics hike, mountain climb, rock climb, kayak, and bike together, all of us sober.  OSAT is where I met my biking friends — all except one, who got sober on her own.

OSAT Glacier Climbing Class of ’19

But you, too, can create something like OSAT in your town, something centered on whatever activity you love. You and your sober fellows can do far more together than gather for AA meetings or fellowship.  You can meet to sculpt and paint, to write and critique, to play or go see sports — an all-sober club. You can create a fellowship around whatever passion illuminates your life.  All you have to do is reach out and organize.

Remember in “A Vision For You” where the text reads, 

Little clusters of twos and threes and fives of us have sprung up in other communities… Thus we grow.  And so can you, though you be but one [person] with this book in your hand. We know what you are thinking. You are saying to yourself, “I’m jittery and alone. I couldn’t do that.” But you can. You forget that you have just now tapped a source of power much greater than yourself. To duplicate, with this backing, what we have accomplished is only a matter of willingness, patience, and labor. [p. 162-3]

The same goes for starting any AA-based group that does whatever you love to do — sober peeps to cheer you on as you work at whatever you love; sober people to skate with you, weld with you, check out art with you.  Remember, the main cause and symptom of addiction is not substance abuse; it’s isolation — being cut off from the whole, from community, from the the oneness of which we are a spiritually interconnected part.

Joy rarely blooms in lonely solitude. And the joy I found with my friends in the gorgeous Rocky Mountains didn’t just happen! It evolved slowly, all of us building friendships in sobriety with people who love the same things, daring to propose an outrageous adventure, and planning for it step by step.  

There’s nothing to stop you from doing the same!

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Broken Brains; Divine Rescue

Yes, the brains of alcoholics and addicts are indeed broken. We can resolve not to do the thing, we can mean it with every fiber of our being, and then — BOOM! — we’re doing it: we’re getting drunk, popping pills, acting out, smoking whatever we meant not to. “Did I do it AGAIN? Dammit! Well, just this one last time…”

Of the 14 years I drank to excess, I spent the first 2 college years content with my frequent bouts. For the last 12, however, I was caught in this cycle:

Step A: WAKE feeling like absolute shit.

Step B: RESOLVE to not drink (or whatever you do) for X amount of time.

Step C: DETOXIFY just a little, feel less shame/guilt

Step D: Imagine as a FINE IDEA yourself enjoying a lovely cocktail or single cold beer (or whatever) 

Step E: PICK UP a drink (or whatever)… and soon decide to have more, and more, and more…

Revisit Step A with just a skosh more shame, remorse, and self-disgust.

hamster-wheel

I rehashed this cycle literally thousands of times. THOUSANDS. And every time I reached Step D, I convinced myself this time I’d manage better.  To grasp that it’s not our true selves but our addiction itself compelling this “choice” seems pretty extreme, almost like a split personality. Aren’t we the masters of our own behavior? 

In fact, we are NOT.  Addiction overrides even the most heartfelt resolve.

Last November, I woke in the night to find my house full of smoke. I dashed down from the attic, where I sleep, to the basement, which I rent out, and pounded on the door. My new tenant, the 29-year-old half-brother of a friend, opened it.  Winnie — his nickname — was calmly cooking, the whole apartment opaque with smoke.

“What happened?!” I said.

“Oh, there was something on the burner.” He gazed at me with beautiful, innocent eyes.

When I objected that my home was full of smoke, he corrected himself: There’d been some spilled food in the drip pan.  He just hadn’t seen it.  He was so sorry.  It took about a month for me to arrange a mini-intervention with Winnie’s mom, who lives in Florida, via video on my phone, much to Winnie’s shock and horror. “Sweetheart, do you want to live or die?” she asked him point blank. To my astonishment, Winnie wept. He nodded, wiping tears and struggling to contain his sobs. “I want to live,” he managed. 

He brought from his room a bottle of benzos. Since abrupt withdrawal from such drugs can be fatal, Winnie agreed to inpatient treatment, and I began the process of finding him a bed. About a week later, in the midst of cooking French toast, he suffered a seizure. With the basement door open, my son somehow heard his head hit the concrete floor. I burst in, found him convulsing without breath, and dialed 911. By following the dispatcher’s instructions to prevent his suffocation, my son and I both got potentially exposed to COVID-19 before the paramedics arrived. My son said the first thing Winnie did when he recognized his surroundings was sit up and switch off the French toast.Winnie

I rented him a storage unit, and on a Saturday while he stayed in a hotel that his mother paid for, Winnie’s half-brother, my son, and I transported all his belongings. Only months later, when he’d finished treatment and came by  to pick up the storage unit key, did I understand that Winnie was going to die — and soon. He was surly, even as he uttered polite thank you’s. 

Last week I got the news: Winnie’s father found him dead in the bathroom with a syringe still in hand.  He’d just turned 30.

DIVINE RESCUE is a partnership.

How did I know Winnie would die?  It was his energy. He gave off a vibe of “I’ve done what everyone wanted; now I’ve got this.” He did not look at me, really.  He had no interest in seeing me, in seeing anyone. Spiritually, he was still at a Cartmanesque ground zero: “I do what I want!” 

He had not absorbed in treatment what I somehow began to pick up in my first AA meetings, what working the 12 steps in conjunction with life pulling me through pain, loss, and joy has taught me: of myself, I am nothing.

God can help us only when we pry open our armor, cast off our god-repulsing sheath of self-sufficiency. We open in two ways: 1) by asking for god’s loving, compassionate help and 2) by regarding other living things with that same loving compassion. Once we begin to intuit that god is within us, animating our cells and fueling our very consciousness, we begin to realize that we are no more separate from god than a plant is from the Earth.

Addiction is the almost inevitable outcome of attempting to live as a picked flower. Without connection to god, we languish and grasp for quick fixes, even knowing they’re poison. In truth we are designed to absorb love from god and radiate it to others; once we make practicing this way of life paramount, addiction loses its luring power.  We become immune.

Remember: “What we really have a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities” (85).

For me, carrying that vision led me last week to hike over 100 miles in the mountains of Northern California (despite the threat of fires), where I connected not only with glorious nature but with countless wholehearted PCT hikers coming the other way. It led me to return to my AA home group in person this past Friday and take joy in seeing my fellows again after a year and a half.  

I remember trying to articulate this way of life to Winnie just before he left for treatment. Our RING camera actually recorded my urging voice and his impatient acknowledgements. The enormous gift I cannot give to others is my unshakeable understanding that meeting weekly with those neighborhood ex-drunks to contemplate yet again the themes from our hokey 1939 book is indeed what channels me the god-power to love others and savor life’s far-reaching beauties. 

Pacific Crest Trail, Section P
Delicious water in the heat
Mount Shasta
Much-needed dip in a cold mountain lake.

Video of our hike: https://youtu.be/m-d-LWGA21Y

scroll

 

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To Share or Not to Share

Recently I learned to my surprise that one of my friends has never told her daughter, who is twelve, that she, my friend, was once a drug addict. 

“I mean, she knows I drank; she knows I smoked pot. But I can’t tell her, ‘Yeah, Mom used to smoke crack.’ What if she looks at me now and thinks, ‘You came out fine! Why don’t I try it?'”  

My friend also fears that word might get back to people who could somehow use her past against her.

I’m not objecting to my friend’s stance. She’s certainly not alone as a parent hoping to model wise choices and a professional preferring a consistently successful image. But our conversation got me thinking about how I raised my son in the opposite way and the gradual transformation that has led to my publishing all my formerly shameful experiences in my addiction memoir and this blog.

In early sobriety, I, too, was highly secretive.

Studio Zaki

  [by Studio Zaki]

When I first called the AA hotline, I asked for a meeting “far from town” where no one would recognize me. Alcoholics are like that: I was pretty okay with suicide, but certainly not with social awkwardness! Then, when I first returned to teaching literature at a local college, among my students was a barista coworker who’d seen me shitfaced and flinging myself at him on multiple occasions because I’d been obsessed with him for over a year. More than anything I feared he’d tell the other students and destroy my reputation, but he soon dropped the class.

Six years later when my son was born, I still kept my recovery confidential. Though I was gay at the time (sorry – can’t explain) and quite out about that, I feared other moms at toddler co-op and what not might double-label me as that weird lesbian AA mom, so I never let any of them know me. Besides, feeling constantly exhausted by new parenthood, I’d all but stopped going to meetings. 

Then everything changed. My partner, after months of infidelity, left me for an older (richer) woman in AA. My world collapsed. With my program all but gone, I hit a new extreme of pain. What hurt most was losing my dream of our happy little family, a loss that seemed to make a cruel joke of all my love, faith, and sacrifices. I just couldn’t drag myself back to the rooms to share that. Fortunately, one key friend persisted in calling and offering to take me to a meeting “with lots of hot lesbians.”  As I’ve told him since, he saved my life.

That’s how my little 4-year-old son learned all about my past addictions. With my emotions such a tangled roadkill, I needed an AA meeting every day — and while a few offered childcare, most did not. At those meetings, he would sit on the floor by my chair, a sweet-tempered boy, and play a little with the toys I brought, though his favorite was the AA literature pamphlets. If I needed to share particularly strong emotions, I’d ask a friend to hang out with him in the church kitchen. But he still heard a lot as the years passed.

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Keno tea set

My boy.

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My son is now 20. He’s tried alcohol and pot, but he dismisses as idiotic any effort to seek relief or oblivion through them. Why?  Well, they’re what Mom and all her friends did trying to feel cool! He’s known since he was about 12 how I once accidentally killed myself snorting what I thought was cocaine. He understands, as some of our friends have died from relapse, that addiction is beyond conscious control.

Writing Center

With my writing center tutors, 2005. (I’m in the gray.)

With my son knowing all, I soon found I could be more useful to my college students if they knew not only that I used to be gay but that I was in addiction recovery. Many came to office hours with problems they tearfully unfolded, trusting me to understand. I also served, I’ve learned decades later, as a role model for authenticity – sharing who I was with a powerful, open-hearted vulnerability that inspired many of them to do likewise. 

So why not go one step further?  If I could help my students by being out, why not help other alcoholic addicts I’d never meet by writing my whole story, even the parts hardest to admit? What would happen if I simply embraced beyond all personal embarrassment the fact that I am human, and therefore whatever weird, warped stuff I once did was simply what a HUMAN afflicted with my emotional problems and addiction would do? 

So I went ahead with it.  I wrote everything.

Some might consider full disclosure a form of exhibitionism: I often think of the One Republic Song “Secrets,” which deals, I believe, with the quandary of songwriters divulging through lyrics their personal struggles.

I need another story
Something to get off my chest
My life gets kinda boring
Need something that I can confess
‘Til all my sleeves are stained red
From all the truth that I’ve said
Come by it honestly I swear…
Tell me what you want to hear
Something that will light those ears
I’m sick of all the insincere…
Don’t need another perfect lie
Don’t care if critics ever jump in line
I’m gonna give all my secrets away…

 

I love these lyrics because they so perfectly frame the two sides of publicly sharing one’s intimate past.  On the one hand, there’s the attention-seeking caricature: Did I “confess” my story just to show off how wild and crazy I once was?  That’s the narcissistic motivation my family assumed and tried to punish. On the other hand, there’s the freedom of simply telling my truth: Can I reject the “insincere… perfect lie” we’re supposed to maintain and share my mistakes as honestly as possible, regardless of whether “critics” like my family understand?

AA hold handsAA itself is built on this oxymoron of confiding anonymously, of being open in a closeted setting. The program needs anonymity not only because every newcomer feels at first the way I did but also to preclude the rise of AA demagogues. Nevertheless, sharing our messiness openly and unsparingly is our lifeblood. The Big Book tells us “that it is only by fully disclosing ourselves and our problems” that we can connect with fellow alcoholics. The 9th step promises that “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it” as “we will see how our experience can benefit others.”  And The Family Afterward reminds us, “in God’s hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have — the key to life and happiness for others.”

Each of us should make their own choices about how “out” to be with our recovery, but it can’t hurt to examine our motivation.  In my case, it was primarily my ego that wanted to keep the incomprehensible demoralization of my past private, and now my god-centered self that recognizes it as my greatest gift to share with those who still suffer. The longer I’m sober, the more natural it seems to simply say, “Here’s who I was, and here’s who I am. God and AA made all the difference.”

 

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Unlearning Our Delusions

First hour with me

Three weeks ago I adopted a rescue-pup, Alice, from Texas. She’s adorable, 10 months old, but was severely and heartlessly abused from the get-go. She can’t tell me what she endured, but her terror at the sight of any sort of leash or cord speaks volumes, as does her dissolving at the sound of a raised voice. She shuts down. She turns to jelly. She trembles and piddles and clearly wants to sink away into the Earth, which she tries to do by hunkering as low as possible and looking at nothing.

No place for puppies

At some point, Alice and her siblings were dumped in the desert near the Rio Grande, where they starved so severely that she’s forever stunted and her teeth are tiny. At about four months, she and two siblings were found, too weak to flee. Little Alice was the worst off, so skeletal that the rescue vet doubted she’d pull through. But she did. Never will Alice grow into those great big ears and paws of hers, yet somehow her brain was spared; she’s smart! Her love for play survived as well. She prances in the back yard among imaginary friends.

But humans – they’re all Freddy Krueger. Her original Texan owners did not believe in love. They thought they knew best how to “break” a puppy by showing that tiny creature who was boss and just how much power the boss wielded. When the puppies failed to learn by these methods, they were abandoned to die.

And here’s the connection to this blog: it’s no joke that if little Alice were a human being, she’d be a prime candidate for addiction – a way to escape her fear and trauma, just as she tries now by freezing and going glassy-eyed. In those moments, she’s just like a human who, whether consciously or at the gut level, considers the world untrustworthy, loveless, and scary. Not to be present and vulnerable is all she wants she wants, and she wants it desperately.

Friends remark, “Alice is so lucky to have found her way to you!” But I see it the other way ‘round: I’m so lucky to have found Alice. In her sweet nature, I see every spirit wounded through no fault of their own. It’s up to me to help her unlearn what her most foundational experiences taught her: that the world is full of cruelty, and that she’s helpless against it.

Like Alice, I’m still unlearning my own false beliefs about life – unconscious ones that drove me to nearly drink myself to death, desperate for a way out.

Why do alcoholics drink in the first place? To find relief.

Like Alice, we don’t trust life because, no matter what we do, we can’t control it. Initially, we quell that stress with a drink or two to “take the edge off.” And though early on, alcohol works reeeaally well, whatever we’re not dealing with tends to get worse, and before we know it, addiction itself is calling the shots. Now we drink because drinking is just what we do. We dig ourselves deeper and deeper, until we hit bottom.

Maybe things get horrible enough that we consider going to AA, even though we’re way cooler than that.

If we listen in AA, if we open our minds even a little not just to what’s said in meetings, which are a component, but to the Big Book’s text and 12-step instructions, which we read and follow with a competent sponsor, two ASTOUNDING things may happen.

  • 1) We realize it’s not the world, but our thinking about the world that is AFU.
  • 2) We realize that, try as we might, we can’t change these thought patterns on our own.  We need a spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves to break out of the rut neuropathways have dug for us – the ways we keep trying that keep not working.

Here’s the thing. The less conscious we are of a belief, the more it controls us.

And if assumptions we’re unaware of, those landmarks by which we interpret our experience, other people’s actions, and how best to navigate life, are delusional, the world is going to seem like an asshole.

Learning to SEE and QUESTION our delusional assumptions, that’s what the 12 Steps are all about, particularly 4 – 10.  There we shine a light on the patterns of a self-centeredness we’ve been way too self-centered to see and the failed coping skills that we thought everybody used.

Only once we’ve arrived at enough humility to admit we don’t know how to live can we turn to god and ask for help. Like Alice, we have cynical reflexes that have slammed the door on values like goodwill, honesty, and trust. But as we unlearn the old ways, we recast reality. There’s actually a whole ‘nother way to live, and with it, a new world opens – one that’s not an asshole, one that doesn’t require that we numb out to “take the edge off.” Rather, it’s so beautiful that we actually want to be awake to it.

The first time I tried taking little Alice for a walk, she flattened herself on the pavement and, as a neighbor approached to greet her, spontaneously peed herself, unable to even look at him. My rehabilitation plan is simply to love her, provide stable structure, and treat her to countless fun experiences until she’s able to trust first me, then others, and finally life itself. Surprisingly, a first sign that she was unlearning helplessness came when she decided to bark at strangers approaching the house. With my love at her back, she’d found the pluck to at least pretend she might defend herself (and me?) from future harm.

Finding our sense of basic dignity, Alice has shown me, can be a first stage of healing. I remember finding mine as newly sober woman with the faint love of god and community of AA behind me. I can’t wait to see Alice shine!

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Clockwise from top left: When she’d finally let me hug her; so many smells!; first time she felt safe showing her tummy; what is this huge puddle?; and friends make life sweet (Alice far right).

She has a nervous tic — but she’s getting braver!

UPDATE: What two months of love has done — Alice’s first time off leash near the summit of Mount Teneriffe in May:



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Kindness as Sustenance

Is there someone in your life who repeatedly treats you unkindly? Do they inflict hurtful judgments, sometimes blatant and other times disguised as helpful criticism?  This person is your spiritual teacher. In the sting you suffer at their words and deeds is the seed of compassion, of understanding the power each wields to hurt or heal, blame or bless. The unkind have shown up in your life for this purpose: to teach you the sanctity of kindness — that, in the larger picture, kindness to one another, to animals, and to the Earth itself is what matters most in life. 

— Me or anyone who gets it

I remember a time when I walked through life with the goal of showing everyone I mattered. I divided people into two classes — those I needed on my side and those who didn’t count.

Those I needed I worked to charm: Do you see how smart I am?  How funny?  How creative and classy and downright likable?  Most times I put on this show without even knowing it.

As for those who didn’t count, I wanted them to know I didn’t give a rat’s ass what they thought of me. To such people I might be rude, judgmental, or just too cool. If they were serving me in some way, I could find fault with their service. If I viewed them as competing, I could talk shit about them.

In both cases, my intent was to prove that I mattered by impressing that fact on others.  This approach led me to my needing to drink and wanting to die. Eventually, I felt I mattered to no one, that my life was in fact a superfluous failure.

But a lot of people succeed far better with this approach than I did.  They may practice it for a lifetime, amassing just enough proof of their superiority to get the satisfaction they need. Still, they’re constantly hungry for more. Each time they judge, they get a little boost of feeling smarter! If they pronounce that judgement, they savor a sense of wielding power, that their words can zing like handy little thunderbolts. Life, for them, is a vast swamp where they have to keep constantly stepping on the backs of less-thans to stay afloat themselves.

These are the unkind.

To live this way doesn’t mean you go around being rude as fuck, because we all know rudeness doesn’t serve us. To live this way means being polite in self-interest: good manners act as a subtle form of manipulation. Acrid, judgmental thoughts may be blurted on occasion but more often sound only in the mind, where they eventually poison the thinker.  The harsher our thoughts about others, the harsher we imagine they must feel toward us.

Lucky drunk that I was, my despair drove me into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, where people spoke a different language: higher power, being of service, love and tolerance.  I worked the steps. I found my higher power. And though that “flimsy reed” of connection initially seemed to me like gripping a sewing thread I couldn’t even feel, I gradually found that, the more I pulled on it, the more I could feel it and the stronger it grew.

Today, my relationship with god — in my case via my guardian angel — is by far the most important in my life. I love my angel and I know better than anything else that he (not the goddess I ordered) loves me — immensely, and not for anything I’ve done. He loves the goodness of my essence, which he knows better than I do. He steers me toward goodness though I may know nothing about it.

Sorry if I lost you there!  As a Near-Death Experiencer who’s collaborated on that connection for  decades, I can get pretty woo pretty quick. I hope not to alienate anyone hurting as I hurt for so many years, when words like the above would have seemed pure gibberish.

The point is that, loved in this way, I have oodles more good stuff than I need. I have so much that my only object is to give it away.

When my son turned 13, he observed my behavior skeptically and remarked one day, “Mom, everybody doesn’t have to like you!” He was trying to make sense of the banter he saw me exchanging with strangers, the compliments I gave, my idle questions about how someone’s day was going or how long ’til their shift was up. Why chat after every AA meeting? Why throw sober parties? He couldn’t imagine what else I might be after.

It’s actually the polar opposite of what I once was: I want others to know that they matter. I want to help them, however incrementally, to feel good about themselves, to know that they’re likable and smart and appreciated — that someone sees just a bit of their beautiful essence. If their body language shows me what they want most is to be left alone, I honor that by shutting up. (For instance, talking to anyone on the bus only scares the shit out of them…)

Kind thoughts toward others generate a kindly world for us to inhabit. But kindness toward ourselves is harder to master.  That one, I’m still working on.  Whenever someone criticizes me — perhaps the unkind in my life — I reel in the effort to right myself.  Whenever I’m ill, exhausted, lonely, or otherwise down, it’s still a challenge to enfold myself in love. Since my dog died, I’ve developed silly little go-to tricks, like sending love to the birds I see through my window or even, in a pinch, to my house plants!  As soon as I send out love, I sense a replenishing influx of love from god.

Awareness that I’m a bit absurd, some person alone and talking to a chickadee or a ficus tree, only adds to that love. I am human. I am trying.  It is enough.

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