I recorded this on my phone last night — and I’m really glad I did. Speech / elocution-wise, I learned that I’m too shrill and often speak too fast to be understood, so I can work on toning both those things down. Content-wise, I hope some of you might get something useful from it. Plans to time myself were technologically foiled, so I was shocked when the moderator held up 10 fingers, and the end is hella rushed. But I guess that’s how it was meant to be.
Category Archives: Recovery
A few years ago, my friend Rob, a “purebred” alcoholic sober nearly a decade, injured his elbow and was prescribed Vicodin. In mere weeks he became addicted to opioids and, after a few years, died. Another friend, an engineer with decades of sobriety, likewise hurt his elbow. He, too, was prescribed pain medicine, left his life to chase street drugs for months, but by the grace of god did not die.
What we as alcoholic addicts can never forget is that our brains have a haywire switch. No matter how certain our rational minds are about “not liking pills” or “using only as prescribed,” our addict remains crouched in the back of our minds saying, “Right! You’ve got this!” until the moment it clinches control and says, “Ha! I’ve got YOU, bitch, and we’re on a run!” I can’t emphasize enough the degree of respect for this demon every alcoholic addict needs.
Last Thursday, a surgeon sliced open my hip crease, popped the ball outta the socket, sawed off the end of that femur, and commenced building me a new hip. That’s a graphic way of saying I underwent an anterior hip replacement. When I came to, I felt wonderful! In fact, I had a moment of intense spiritual clarity — see below — before things got cloudy.
I have no partner, my son’s away at college, my mom is hella old, siblings either distant or dealing with their own ailments. My main “family” is AA, but I have other circles as well. My friend Keira came to get me 30 minutes after surgery. She’s a chemo nurse, at home in medical settings. When the nurse discharging me noted that, per my request, I’d be prescribed only Tramadol — not Oxycodone — Keira interrupted. To me she said, “Dude, they just sawed through your femur. Get the Oxy. If you don’t need it, you don’t have to take it.”
An hour later in the Safeway the parking lot, my entire thigh was !!!SCREAMING!!! as if someone had … well, just sawed through it. Keira was inside trying to get me the Oxy before the pharmacy took a lunch break. I was doing controlled breathing, shaking like mad, pressing down the panic that wanted to explode as my pain flared higher and higher.
At last Keira opened the driver’s side door. She had the Oxy. Thank god. About 10 minutes later, I could speak again in a normal voice. The pain was managed.
That’s what such drugs are for.
Over the 27 years I’ve been sober, I’ve gotten super comfortable with full-on reality. What used to seem an onslaught of jarring, demanding impressions is now just the flow of what’s happening. I knew this before my surgery. What I didn’t know until the following day was that the converse has also become true: I’m now super UN-comfortable with being fucked up.
Isn’t that crazy? What would Pink Floyd, who wrote “Comfortably Numb,” think of that? Could 34-year-old Louisa, who in 1995 lived for her daily booze and drugs, have even imagined such a mindset?
I was staying with Keira’s family for three nights. On Day 2, Friday, she invited our friend Sarah over for a card table dinner in the room next to mine. I was excited! Both these friends live an hour away from me, so I don’t get to see either as much as I’d like, let alone both together. We three are the Bikini Bitches. We climb glacial mountains and take silly Bikini Bitch photos at the summits, clean, sober, & livin’ large. That’s us.
I wanted to be fully PRESENT for this little reunion, but I also needed to sit at the table, so I took a Tramadol instead of Oxycodone. That shit may be one-sixth as strong as Oxy, but it messed me up, hit me like a wave of blur! Sarah showed up and we all sat down together, but my mind was goofing around on some mayonnaise slip n’ slide. I remember looking at my friends and thinking, I want to BE here! Again and again I struggled to focus, but I couldn’t think of words or keep track of most ideas long enough to speak them.
Every now and then, they’d look at each other. I remember Keira saying with an accepting shrug, “She’s fucked up.”
I wanted OUT of my fucked-upness as badly as I used to want OUT of full-on, clear consciousness. My friends were there, and I was MISSING it! But I could do nothing to get my sharpness back. I was half-drowned in stupidity.
On Day 3, my son surprised me by driving 6 hours across the state, using my shared location to find Keira’s house, and then phoning to say, “Mom, can you look out the window?” Such a sweet boy! Sunday, after he’d driven me home, he set up our house so I could live downstairs alone.
He also hid all my meds.
Yup. The Oxy he divvied into stashes — 2 pills, 6 pills, and the rest of the bottle — then found hiding places for them and the Tramadol. I had my ibuprofen and Tylenol. If I needed something stronger, I could call him. My son understands. He grew up around sober friends we’ve since lost to addiction, prescribed or otherwise. He mourns them, and he loves me.
As it turned out, I did need to call him. My stomach rejected the ibuprofen AGAIN and, after I caught my crutch on a gate while letting my chickens out, I stumbled and re-injured my leg, which brought on a 99.5 º fever and heightened pain. “Look in the drone box on my desk,” he told me. And there were two Oxy, right under my nose! For two nights, they controlled the pain enough to let me sleep, but I think I’m done now. I don’t need to ask for more.
What protects me from hunting for those meds is not my will. Addiction’s kryptonite is connection: love, community, and gratitude. An AA friend is coming over today to move my stuff back upstairs. Another will come tomorrow to spot me while I take a (much-needed!!) shower. Neighbors have mastered my chicken routines, gifted me a thermometer, and picked up my new anti-inflammatory meds. My dogs have gone for walks every day — 6 days in a row — with different people. Today they have a play date with the dogs of a former student of mine from 15 years back.
Here is the image I was shown when I first came out of the anesthetic, before my brain came back online to block spiritual knowing. First, I had to remember what I was doing: I recalled, “Oh, yeah, I’m doing that Louisa business!” Then, on the strip of wall in front of me above a window to the nurses’ station, I saw my life as Louisa. It was a circle at the center of a ring of smaller circles, connected by radiating lines that I understood went two ways. These were all the lives mine touches, all the people connected to me whether remotely or in person. Lean into this, my angel told me. There was more, but I’ll save that for another post.
I thought, “Wow! That wall is so awesome! I’ve got to tell the staff to put some pictures up there for people who maybe don’t have visions!” Then everything went cloudy, and I don’t remember much.
I’m on a mission here in this Louisa suit to share love and kindness. So are you. But the flipside is, we can give others a chance to do the same.
About two months before I got sober, a voice spoke to me — one I now know as my angel’s (I call him Egnacio). I’d just driven to my log cabin completely hammered, tearing along winding, wooded roads as fast as 80 mph with the radio blaring, seeing quadruple as I bombed through the narrow railroad overpass where I should have died. Instead I reached home, but as I clung to my car door for steadiness and glanced up at the stars, congratulating myself on my badass driving skills, the voice shot through me like a thunderbolt from Zeus, except it was a bolt of telepathy, of knowing, extremely urgent and somehow stern: “This is the last time I can help you. And you DO know right from wrong!”
In the nearly 28 years since that night, sober all but those first two months, I’ve come to realize that Egnacio’s two brief communications actually contained a template for living, a standard on which to base all future choices and judgments.
The first, “This is the last time I can help you,” meant essentially, “If you really want to bash your brains out on a telephone pole or scar your life with paralysis or the guilt of having killed another driver, have at it.” What he was conveying was this: I (Louisa) am responsible for my own life — for my choices, my outcomes, and the caliber of my character. The same is true for everyone, and there comes a point when even a guardian angel has to quit trying to help.
The second, “You DO know right from wrong!” was essentially a call for the 3rd step. At the time, I was letting all my addictions, whether substance or emotional, run rampant. Egnacio asserted that I knew better, that I had the capacity to search within for god’s take on my every thought, communication, and intended action. I can consult Good Orderly Direction on whether what I’m doing is good and right, based in love and truth. I can also sense if other people’s behavior strikes me as good and right, based in love and truth. But if I think back to communication #1, I must accept that their ways are THEIR responsibility, not mine.
We all encounter teachers in our lives. The teachers we EXPECT are those we look up to: sponsors, mentors in life or work, wise friends, maybe even (if we’re very lucky) parents or grandparents. We look to these people to demonstrate for us how to navigate life with grace and insight. For example, I love and admire my AA/Al-anon sponsor because she’s constantly telling on herself, sharing in AA meetings and recovery conversations all the petty jealousies, insecurities, habits, and worries that fill her thoughts throughout the day.
In fact, she finds herself hilarious! Why? Because she doesn’t identify with the ego that’s constantly churning out these thoughts and reactions. She doesn’t buy into her own thinking. In light of Communication #2 above, she has access to a gauge of reality beyond her own flux of thoughts — her god.
Similarly, she has fun describing her flaws because her self-worth comes NOT from how she looks to other people, NOT from whether she’s seen as an AA guru (as she comes up on 38 years’ sobriety), NOT from what I or her coworkers or husband or anyone else thinks about her. She knows god loves her, and that’s all she needs. On good days, I can follow her example.
Then then are the unexpected teachers. All of us have been betrayed by those we thoroughly trusted. Supposed friends, admired mentors, sponsors, family members, lovers — each of us will have the experience of being hurt by such people, and the stronger our trust in them was, the more profound the pain.
Among the most important learnings of sobriety is that these people, likewise, are our teachers. They showcase how to cause pain with our words, judgements, assumptions, indifference, and carelessness. They demonstrate for us the harm these attitudes and resulting actions inflict, and as we smart from their deeds, we learn firsthand how devastatingly they hurt.
In short, UNEXPECTED teachers model for us how NOT to live. Once we understand that, we can view them as assets. We don’t have to analyze exactly what made them choose to do X. Many of us waste a tremendous amount of time trying, but such thinking has a name: Resentment. We must instead remember that, in light of Communication #1, they alone are responsible for figuring out the machinations of their egos. All we need to take to heart is their EFFECT.
Step 3 is a core decision, a choice to always run our thinking past our higher power and seek to do right, not wrong. Via steps 4-9, we gain insights that can increase the honesty with which we perceive our own motives. We can learn to see the ways we are just like our UNEXPECTED teachers, how easily we inflict the same harms, maybe more subtly. And we’re resolved to continuously strive to do better.
On the surface that means damage control in not causing harm impulsively — not saying what anger burns to say, not sending the righteous text, calling someone out, acting on the whims of antagonistic emotions. At a deeper level, it means showing up with honor to do whatever we’ve said we’ll do. But at the deepest level, it means trusting, as my sponsor trusts, that we will in time be able to distinguish “right from wrong.” We pause, if possible, long enough to differentiate our ideals and responsibilities from simply meddling with others.
Egnacio made such a call when he let me go after saving me one last time: “Live blindly, chasing ego’s chimeras, if that’s what you choose!” That’s what I myself sigh inwardly almost every week to the main unexpected teacher in my life. I’m so grateful to have found another way to live!
Alcoholism is a master of disguise. That is how it kills. It shows up on the doorstep of your consciousness dressed as an ordinary thought — a good thought, in fact, a good idea that seems to be coming from your own free will. So you welcome it in. It says, essentially, “Hey, a drink is a good idea!”
It’s nicely dressed. It’s friendly. It seems perfectly sensible and justified — justified because, dang it, you do deserve a drink. Chatting with it, you discover you agree on so many points: all this abstinence stuff is an overreaction. Right? Other people make such a big deal over something so simple as a [beer / glass of wine / cocktail]! It’s not their business. Can’t you just do what you want? Of course you can! This is your life and… You know what? A drink is a good idea.
So skilled at disguise is this visitor that the alcoholic never suspects the truth: its aim is death. Your death. It wants you to drink, and keep drinking, to kill yourself while screwing over everything you ever did to STOP drinking, including treatment and step work and soul-searching — all you’ve done to get well. As long as you still have the strength to raise that drink to your lips, Alcoholism has more work to do: “Fuck that,” it chuckles. “C’mon, my friend. A drink is a good idea.”
Impulse — that’s what the visitor relies on. Though we vaguely sense that we’re “being none too smart” , we pour whiskey in the milk, decide to have a highball, prescribe for what ails us, rebel, say fuck it, or just mechanically take that drink. We are truly defenseless against the first drink.
So are alcoholic rats.
I recently came across this fascinating medical study of alcoholism conducted on rats: https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2017105.
Because it’s rather dry and scientific, here’s a cheat sheet.
First, the scientists isolated rats like us, that is, “alcohol-preferring rats,” which they call P-rats. An alcohol-preferring rat is one that would rather drink booze than water (sensible, right?) until they are quite hammered and, I assume, pass out. Next, they taught these P-rats to “work for” their booze: when a light went on they had to press an initial lever that would give then access to a second lever which they could press to get booze. All the P-rats learned this.
Now, here’s the kicker: They started giving the rats painful electric shocks some of the time when they pressed the “seeking” lever — the lever that brings them nothing but an opportunity to press a second to score some booze. The breakdown was this:
- 30% of P-Rats greatly decreased use of the “seeking” lever
- 36% of P-Rats moderately decreased use of the “seeking” lever
- 34% of P-Rats, the true alcoholic rats, did not or could not give a shit about the shocks. Increasing the frequency of shocks did not deter them. Ten months’ abstinence with no alcohol available did not untrain them. The instant the booze was back, they were back at it, getting fuck zapped out of their little ratty feet, anything just so they could have a drink.
That’s us, guys! That is us. I think of the first 30% as normies who love to drink. I think of the second 36% as hard drinkers who get told by a doctor to decrease their drinking and are able to do so.
But that last 34% of rats — those the scientists termed “compulsive,” meaning that for them the drive to get alcohol is stronger than any other. And that is alcoholism in a nutshell.
Were the compulsive P-Rats of a lower moral fiber than the other 66% of booze-loving rats?
Might other rats who loved them have convinced them not to press that seeking lever?
Could they maybe have tried more mental control?
No, no, no. They were simply alcoholic rats, and they were screwed.
A higher power is our only hope
Back to that master of disguise, alcoholism. How can we possibly gain the perspective to slam the door in its friendly, affable face? There are these things called “steps.”
- Give up being special. Identify as alcoholic. Know we are no different or “smarter” than anyone else who died of alcoholism.
- Open our minds to something greater than us, a power beyond our thinking.
- Follow that power. Stop believing our thoughts about anything to do with alcohol and ask instead for help. Make a bone-deep commitment to do what is right and good, no longer what we want. Good Orderly Direction. Group Of Drunks. God as we understand it. Opening deeply to any of these will let in the light that heals us.
- Complete the next 9 steps with aid of a good sponsor.
Louisa checking in
I write this today with a heavy heart — crying, actually. All I write here is what I long to say to one person — one who has never listened.
I love this person very much, though I shouldn’t because he’s an ex who done me wrong. He is near to dying from alcoholism. Yesterday he checked in to detox and treatment. Ever since one of his relatives texted me that he was “skeletal and shaking,” I’ve stayed mostly in the background, asking sober friends he’s lost touch with to call. But last night I kept waking and just praying for him to find a higher power.
It’s unlikely. His chances of survival are slim not only because he’s one of us 34% compulsive P-Rats but because his right brain is weak. The left brain is the bullhorn of ego and fixing things; the right takes in a bigger picture. People with right brain strokes, relying on their left brain’s assessments, often deny that anything is wrong with them, that limbs are paralyzed, sometimes even that their paralyzed limbs belong to them. I believe the right brain is also the seat of our spiritual connection, without which we cannot get sober.
Below is a series of photos of George Best, the famous Irish soccer player.
Here he is in 1972 at the height of his fame, enjoying a brewsky.
Here he is in 2003, robust at 57 after a successful liver transplant necessitated by alcoholic cirrhosis.
His liver transplant was so successful and Best felt so great that he welcomed in that friendly visitor, Alcoholism, when it appeared on the doorstep of his mind assuring him a drink was a good idea — “C’mon, George! Just one on a new liver couldn’t hurt!”
Here he is just two years later at 59, a day or two before he died of massive organ failure brought on by alcoholic relapse.
George Best did not mean to commit suicide. His mind was co-opted, and, for whatever reason, he could not reach god to restore him to sanity.
I fear my loved one will follow this same progression. Please pray for him — that he find a way to reach a god of his own understanding that can override the P-Rat compulsion. His name is Gerard.
Thanks, guys. Love is the most powerful force in the universe.
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?” “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 in 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. I 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 to 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.
Postscript: I had to find out… 🙂
Republished from 12 /2016
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.
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.
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.
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:
OUT IN THE WORLD
- 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.
- 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.
- Value and make time for chosen family. During the pandemic, it seems especially hard to do stuff, but it’s more than worth it.
- Value and make time for fitness, health, and connection with nature. Same as #3.
- 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.
- 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.
- Listen for divine guidance. It’s always there, sometimes loud, sometimes faint. I 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.
- 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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
* Katie Perry Lyrics – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdyfr4lU8sk
See also 6 Tips for Holiday Parties
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!”
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.
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.
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!