Category Archives: AA

Spiritual but not Religious – what does that mean?

“Spirituality and religion are often used interchangeably, but the two concepts are different. Spirituality involves humans’ search for meaning in life [and is] subjective, intangible, and multidimensional…, while religion involves an organized entity with [pre-established] rituals and practices about a higher power….”

Ruth A. Tanyi, 2002

 

God is not a religious concept, yet the vast majority of people seem to assume it is. To me, this conflation is not only frustrating but dangerous.

Why dangerous?  The authority religion once wielded in our culture has been waning for over two centuries.  That’s fine by me.  While religion itself is neither good nor bad, humans have used it to justify so much wrongdoing that its myths smack of hypocrisy.  The trouble is that many modern day people who reject religion throw out the baby with the bathwater. That is, because they see the constructs of religion as a hoax, they assume god must be a hoax, too.

In a godless universe, many abandon their search for an ever-expanding
meaning in life. “There’s nothing out there,” they decide, “so it’s just me against the world.”  With that attitude, they grow deaf to spirit’s call to actively love the world, to grow our compassion and act on it, and to nurture our talents so we can birth our unique contributions to the flow of life.

Why are 25% of US women my age currently taking antidepressants?*  In my opinion, that number has shot up, not clinically, but because so many are spiritually starved. Lack of faith, I believe, complements fear and self-centeredness: What’s in it for me? and My actions don’t matter lead ultimately to cynicism, emptiness, and despair.

Admittedly, I know quite a number of moral atheists and once considered myself one. These people do love, maybe even strive to help others and live with honor, but they shy away from examining WHY. Press them and they’ll offer some truism like, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”  But what defines “right”?

As a young atheist myself, I remember getting super annoyed with 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when I read his three stages of individual actualization: 1) living for selfish pleasure, 2) living in the in-between place of ethics, and 3) taking a leap of faith.

In those days, I wanted ethical life to be the most awake state of mind. “There is no God, but I do good anyway” struck a chord of individual courage. I imagined us ethical folks blazing a noble trail through life without sticking to the trodden lanes of religion.

But Kierkegaard, that asshole, pointed out that to live by ethics is to live in an either/or state, torn between what we crave to do and what we sense we should do. If we really looked into that inner sense of what’s “right,” we would recognize the call of goodness itself and open our hearts to it fully.  There, he said, we would find god.

Well… actually, Kierkegaard said “God,” and for him that meant Christianity complete with Jesus’ resurrection and the whole kit and kaboodle.  The leap of faith, Kierkegaard said, was to abandon objective criteria and embrace instead the non-rational truth of religion.

Hubble: Sombrero galaxy

Spirituality
So… I hop off that bus at the paragraph before last.

My leap is not to religion, but to a view of the universe that mainstream culture still dismisses as nutty. It’s based on my own near-death experience, when I left my physical body and glimpsed the other side, along with the 14 paranormal experiences that followed, and corroborated by thousands of other NDErs led to the same truth: Love powers the universe.

Love powers the universe is, to my thinking, the only true north we need to orient meaningful lives. For me, that means having faith in the god I experienced as overwhelming love in the light of the other side.  For others, it can mean simply living in loving kindness. One’s spiritual path is one’s own — as in Buddha’s dying advice to “be a lamp unto yourself.”

Spirituality in AA
I find it frustrating every time I hear AA referred to a “religious organization”or even one affiliated with religion.  Much of the public at large seems sorely misinformed on this point.  For example, the film The 13th Step claims to be “a stark expose… of AA’s disempowering 12-Step belief system, whereby members must agree to become subservient to a higher power…”

What a bunch of crap!

The 12 steps don’t present a “belief system.”  They’re offered as a roadmap for self-evaluation and growth:  1. Is alcohol kicking your ass? 2. Is your life (getting) batshit crazy?  3. Ask whatever your heart trusts in to guide you and 4. try looking at the stories you tell yourself about your life 5. so you can reality-check them with someone objective and against your ultimate sense of truth, then 6. get ready to change and 7. ask for help changing and fucking mean it.  8. Figure out whom you’ve hurt and 9. go ask them if you can set it right. 10. Keep checking on yourself for bullshit rationalizations and 11. keep seeking your god and 12. if you’re getting well, help others do the same.

As the appendix on spiritual experience tells us, “With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.”  How is this subservience?

On the other hand, if I’d tried to get sober in the bible belt, I’d probably be dead now, because it’s likely that many AAers in Christian-dominated regions do present AA as a Christian-based recovery.  How sad!  I could not have absorbed something so counter to my own sense of truth — not even to save my life.

*          *          *

I have a Facebook friend across the world in Turkey, a self-employed floor polisher who saw me in this film and reached out to me about life after death, which he calls the real reality. Raised Muslim, Uğur Hakanoğlu has independently studied ancient texts from which the Quran was assembled, searching for spiritual truths. Perhaps because his conviction must leap the language barrier between us, what he writes to me always resonates powerfully:

“Some people are thinking they are atheist, but they only hate wrong human religion that humans made…  Church, mosque, and other areas [are] like lying machines. They are [to] earn money and they don’t say true…  We have to respect all lifes, like god.  Ignorance and fear, they are guns.  All bad minds use these two guns…

“Life is not earn, Louisa.  Life is Love, in my mind.  When we go to the forest or seaside, we take photo or video, we are choosing not to live. Everything is telling us his/her life, telling what I am and why I am here, but we don’t listen. We are only looking, not seeing.  Sea, tree, sun — everything telling us only about love.  Love change all mind.  There are no borders, no nationality.  If I have good English, I will say more.”

Of course, not every aspect of religion is a “lying machine,” and many religious people are deeply loving, humble, and sincere. In AA as in all experience, loving all is what heals, as much as being loved.

 

PS: I’ll be giving an hour-long talk, telling my NDE story and reflecting on it, at the International Association of Near-Death Studies annual conference August 30th, 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. in Bellevue, WA.  Conference details here.

**https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/astounding-increase-in-antidepressant-use-by-americans-201110203624

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Listening for god

In my drinking days, before I was tight with god, I imagined god’s voice as an echoey Morgan Freeman cadence conveying various profundities. Today I believe more that god is all over the place, not only animating every living organism but also circulating among us in spirit forms, and it speaks to us constantly — although we’re largely deaf.

If I were to say, “God has spoken to me, and His word is blah-de-blah!” I’d have my head up my ass, no doubt.  But I have received something.  My conception of what that is comes mainly from my own NDE* and ensuing paranormal experiences, with gaps filled in by what I’ve heard from fellow NDErs.

By paranormal, I mean stuff like this: In 1998 or so, I was spacing out at the end of a freeway offramp in downtown Seattle late at night, waiting for the light to turn green.  It did so.  At the same instant, a “voice” spoke in my mind with a strong message, Don’t go.

Our brains are amazingly quick.  In a millisecond, I thought, “That’s dumb!  I’ll ignore it.” But in the next millisecond, the message came again, underscored, sort of like, DON’T GO; IT’S IMPORTANT.   So… I, well…  checked my rearview mirror.  No car was behind me. What harm could it do to just sit there?  So I just sat there… at the green light… which looked exceedingly green and all about GO.  Quite shortly, I felt foolish.  I asked the voice, “How long don’t go?”

Like this but older and faster!

WHOOSH!!!   Like a bullet fired from behind a building that blocked my view shot an off-white sedan going at least 100 mph. It streaked through the intersection exactly where I’d have been. I remember, first, being amazed that a car could fly by so fast with so little sound, and second, realizing that my life had just been saved.

I thought, “Thank you!”  Still I didn’t go.  I couldn’t.  I was too scared some car in pursuit might be next, or who knows what!  Then I began to hear sirens, first one then several, a ways off.  Shaken, I drove toward home.

Experiences like this aren’t so unusual for NDErs. According to an NDERF survey, 45% of us return with “psychic” aftereffects,** which amounts to many thousands of people. Leaving and reentering the body alters in some way the energy barrier surrounding each of us, so it’s more easily penetrated.  At least, that’s my best guess.

“How can I tell the difference between god’s will and  my will?”  That’s a question we hear in countless AA meetings. I’m gonna offer some pointers.

Each of us has the ability to sense god’s guidance and, as we continue to work our program, increasingly distinguish it from our ego’s.  The most important prereq is that we want to.  We have to be listening for god and willing to hear what we often don’t care to.  Another is that we have to cherish the goodness within ourselves and be awake to its resonance as a compass.  Beyond this, in my experience, what comes from god bears a few telling hallmarks:

  • It’s the opposite of what I was thinking.  If I’m cruising down some avenue of thought that feels awesome in a self-righteous kind of way, and something intercedes and proposes the opposite with a striking ring of truth, it’s probably god. Far and away the most common input I get from god is “Bullshit, honey: you can go deeper.” By deeper, it means thinking more from my heart.  Sigh!  It’s always true!
  • It’s about love, kindness, and service.  The short explanation here is that god is love, as the ultimate power of the universe.  And we are here to god.  (Yep, that’s a verb!) Whenever we feel compassion and act on it, we are growing god. Recently, I found myself exiting a non-AA meeting near a fellow alcoholic with whom I’d just strongly and publicly disagreed on a policy. I so much wanted to jet, clean and easy! But as I looked at his back, something said, “Talk to him; make peace.”  I told him the conflict was nothing personal, that I knew his intentions were good, as were mine.  He looked relieved, I accidentally cried, and we hugged, disagreeing.
  • While you’re actually doing it, it feels right, almost like déjà- vu.  Sometimes when you make an important choice that aligns with god, it feels — and this is hard to describe — like everything has somehow clicked into place.  There’s a “yes” in every second.  When I heard that my former sponsee was pissed at me for never visiting now that she lived far away, I called and headed down there for dinner. So intensely during that drive, I sensed that I was fulfilling something significant.  We shared dinner on Saturday.  Thursday morning, she was struck dead at her construction job.  Our last words had been, “I love you.”
  • Serendipities reinforce it.  These are the “coincidences” we hear about so often in meetings.  “I decided to kill myself, and three guys from the meeting walked in and sat down at my diner booth.” “On my way to relapse, my car quit on me, and the guy that pulls over is my sponsor.”  I, too have many such stories of statistically infinitesimal likelihood.  Chances are, if you’ve been working the program a while, you’ve had a few of your own.
  • It’s constructive.  God is not big on wallowing.  God is growth and unfolding, so for a recovering wallow-holic like myself, it’s been a tad disappointing that god won’t cosign my misery.  Once, hiking alone in major emotional pain, I noticed a lone yellow wildflower on which a large branch had fallen. Smooshed but not broken, the flower had grown around the wood and bloomed anyway.  God as good as told me, “Child, you’re smooshed but not broken: Bloom!”

One final note.  For the reason listed directly above, god mourns the waste of life that is addiction.  Yet god is never into shame or martyrdom. “Oh, I’m such a piece of shit!” or “Gee, I’m such a saint!” both stem from ego, from preoccupation with self.  God wants us only to do our best, share our gifts, love freely.  Beating ourselves up or codependently pouring energy into toxic people to wheedle self-worth — these ain’t about blooming.

I honestly try to live by this stuff.  For instance, I’m aware that posting this exposes me to ridicule from both atheists (especially in my family) and religious folks. But the AA saying nails the truth: What you think of me (or my writing) is none of my business.  My job is simply to click “publish” and then, as a bird lets the air keep its song or a wolf sends its howl to the moon, move on to whatever’s next.

Thanks for reading, open-minded alcoholics!

 

 

*NDE: Near Death Experience.  This refers to a vivid experience that takes place while a person is clinically dead or close to death.  IANDS definition here.

** See Jeffrey Long, Evidence of the Afterlife, p. 189.

 

PS:  I’ll be presenting at the IANDS conference this summer.  I’ll post details when I get them.

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Filed under AA, Addiction, Alcoholism, God, NDE, Near Death Experience, Recovery, Spirituality

AA Stigma Misses the Point

Stigma

a archaic: a scar left by a hot iron : brand
b: a mark of shame or discredit : stain  ex: bore the stigma of cowardice
c: an identifying mark or characteristic; specifically : a diagnostic sign of a disease

 

I remember the fear in my throat when I first spoke the words, “I’m Louisa, and I’m an alcoholic.”  Sitting in my third AA meeting, I felt like I’d been fleeing those words all my life, and now they rang out in the room like the gates of hell clanging shut behind me.

Twenty-three years later, I’m happy to tell the world, “Yeh-yah, baybee! I’m a full-on alcoholic — and thank god!  Cause otherwise, I’d have missed out on the whole point of life!”

Do I sound looney?  Maybe a tad.  But I’m joyfully looney, and that’s a mighty bright candle to try and shit on.

My sober life is rich with AA friends who have each, through touching life’s deepest and loneliest pain, struck the bedrock of their own will to live, so that we can now meet each other’s gaze without pretense.

Mind you, I foresaw none of this when I first spoke those dreaded words. Nobody wants to join AA. Nobody identifies with that bunch of self-blaming, drink-obsessed sots who fart around in church basements. Obviously, AA as Hollywood and society at large envision it is about as cheery as a medieval dungeon.

But that’s far from the truth of AA as I’ve come to know and love it.  Below are a few photos from some of the AA meetings/gatherings I’ve been part of in the past three years.

 

In a sense, all of these images are sacred to me, because I remember how we were all sober together at these meetings despite a disease that wants to kill us — or at least ruin our lives. At times we share tears. Most often, they’re tears of gratitude for having been blessed in ways we can’t believe we deserve.  We still lag on our fourth steps or slip into familiar character defects, but each in her or his own way is pursuing is an ever-stronger connection to the Good.

Yep.  Higher power, flow of the universe, life, love, god:the word doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’ve all nearly killed ourselves solo, and now we’re all intent on seeking help from [god] and each other to experience real life to the fullest.

Nevertheless, AA stigma persists. Despite the millions of lives transformed through AA, many people still dismiss it as contemptible. For instance, I recently came across a video from a lifecoach offering a program for “people who just want to stop overdrinking.” These are “good people,” as opposed to those who “claim that they have a disease or that they’re an alcoholic or that they want to go to meetings.”  Having lost her father and brother to addiction despite the fact that each attended meetings, this coach seems to loathe AA. She recalls her “overdrinking… waking me up in the middle of the night [and] affecting how foggy I was feeling during the day and… creating a lot of cravings… to drink earlier and earlier in the day.”  Yet, she affirms, “I had no interest in becoming an alcoholic or calling myself an alcoholic.  I had no interest in recovery…. I did not see that as the solution to my very mild struggle.”

“Very mild struggle”~!

I’m sorry, but that’s friggin’ hilarious!  What a coincidence!  I, too, had a “very mild struggle” — for about 14 years!

Ego’s Game: the Stigma of Recovery
There’s a good reason why this lifecoach, Hollywood, and most people indoctrinated with popular culture regard AA with such distaste.

When Bill and Bob, AA’s founders, first met in 1935 and, talking for hours and days, hammered out the fundamentals of the 12 steps, they hit upon two little ideas that engendered the defeat of this previously invincible disease.

1) A god-connection blocks alcoholism.

2) Ego blocks god-connection.

That’s all there is to AA, really.

Here’s the whole damn program.  SEEK GOD; DEFLATE EGO; SEEK GOD some more; DEFLATE EGO some more

ego-

DO try this experiment at home…

 

We need these processes broken down into 12 Steps and shared in a community because A) connection to god can be so elusive at the start, and B) ego is a wily, cunning, and stealthy tyrant that does not want to be deflated.

Of course it doesn’t!  It’s fucking EGO.

The problem for most people, including our “very mildly struggling” lifecoach, is a lack of distinction between ego and self-worth.  Ego is mistaken for self-worth by the vast majority of Americans (as epitomized by our arrogant Cheeto in Chief).  In fact, however, the two are diametrically opposed.

Ego separates us from others, relegating them to an onlooker/competitor role at best.  We believe our full experience of consciousness to be unique.  Our thoughts and experiences — whether positive, negative, or just weird — are somehow more intense and complex than those of “ordinary people.”  Ego tells me…

I’m better.

I’m entitled.

I’m doing it right.

and yet I know that in reality I bumble, get confused, hurt, and lost.  Sometimes I fuck up.  So… ego sweeps all that under the rug.  It insists…

If I’m vulnerable, I’m weak.

If I’m humble, I’m less than.

If I’m only human, I’m nobody.

Self-worth, on the other hand, grows from connection and compassion.  I understand that my human experience is little different from yours. I get that we’re in this together. I feel for you, and I trust that you feel for me. Trust emboldens me to tear off my mask and be vulnerable, honest, and fully human — flaws and all.  I’m just me, but maybe I can help you.

Today, everything I love about myself, I hold to be a gift from god — not a feat of my own making. God is generating my mind, my body, my love, my courage, these words — every second I live.  I am god — its flower, its child.

AA stigma is imposed out of fear.  It’s a defense mounted by those fiercely loyal to the tyrant who imprisons their spirit.  Let’s pray for them — for all sentient beings — to be free.

 

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Like me, like me (!): Neediness vs. god

Leaving an event recently, in the parking I saw the most charismatic (gay) guy from the group chatting with a woman who wasn’t me, and I became filled with jealousy.  Not romantic jealousy; like-me jealousy.  I thought: “He thinks she’s special! He thinks I’m boring!  Dammit!!  How can I make him like me?!  What if I…”

Then — because for 22 frickin’ years I’ve been working a program — I flagged my own attention, informed myself I was temporarily insane, got in my frickin-ass car and drove off.

Really, ego?!” I thought, driving.  “Will you never stop this shit?  It’s older than high school, older than one of Mary Ann’s banana cream pies in the face–but you keep on!”  I resolved to not care.

But it was hard.  I still felt mad at the woman for “winning,” mad to be denied the fix I wanted — that big fat hit of dopamine from feeling liked and appreciated by someone who “counts” (because, as we all know, that shit is DOPE) — but at the same time, mad at my ego for leading me back into this dumb game of hungering parasitically for worth.

Okay, I’m human, a social primate.  I have instincts around “belonging” deeply linked to survival.  That’s normal.  We all need to have friends, feel loved, etc..

But as a recovering alcoholic/ love addict, I still have needy ego that can wreak havoc with instincts and gratification. When I used to guzzle alcohol and whip up huge love-addiction crushes, I’d  take frickin’ baths in the imagined admiration of whomever I’d idolized.

When the magic one liked me, my brain would release these motherload hits of dopamine and endorphins — which I experienced as a thrilling glow of self-worth and delicious excitement — from what I imagined that magical person thought about me. The “good stuff” seemed to come from that person, though in reality it came from my brain’s model of their favorable impressions of me.  In other words, it was my brain triggering my brain to flood itself with feel-good neurotransmitters — meaning I gave myself permission to get internally high as a kite.

People, that’s not love.  That’s not even admiration.  If we want to be nice, we can call it codependent self-worth; and if we want to be harsh, we can call it projected narcissism.

Either way, this is a totally ass-backward way of living.  It’s
parasitic and delusional.  The trouble is, because I grew up in an alcoholic home, that’s how my brain is wired!  Because the supply of affection waxed and waned depending on whether my parents were drunk or hungover, and because I assumed the variable was, not the presence of absence of a drug, but me, I developed a core, bone-deep belief that I had to perform to win love — which does not serve me now that I’m a sober adult.

Here are the steps not to take:

Step 1: Elevate someone.  Decide they’re “cool.”  Make them larger than life, overflowing with charisma.  Now (sweet!) you have a stash to chase: their “good stuff.”

Step 2: Chase the “good stuff.”  If the attraction is sexual, try like hell to seduce them.  If it’s social, show off how fuckin’ exciting and funny you are.  If it’s business, find ways to impress them with your amazing knack for getting shit done.

Outcome: You’ve whored out your worth.  Even when you seem to win, you’ve lost.  Regardless of whether you’ve come off as hoped, someone else holds the keys to your human value.  Your dignity is in the goddam toilet.

What’s the alternative?  Here I go again!  It’s god.

When I say god, I mean not only a connection to the energy of life, but all the shifts in ways of living and thinking that connection brings about — if it’s real.  The whole purpose of the 12 Steps is to help us achieve a psychic change (p. xxix) that will reverse the direction of our “flow.” We go from being black holes of neediness, trying to suck okayness out of people, places, & things, to becoming more and more a channel or outlet of the warmth and energy loaned to us by our higher power: unconditional love.

The 12 steps to this change are in our Big Book, but here’s a quick-check version:

Step 1: Seek humility.  Give up the fuck up chasing anyone or anything.  Let be.  Hurt if you’re hurting. Mourn if you’re lost.  But acknowledge that you are powerless over people, places, & things.  Only one source can you count on: your higher power’s Love for your simple, confused, inherent goodness.

Step 2: Love with intention.  Forgive.  Practice gratitude (loving your life and nurturing your little inner garden).  Embrace yourself with all your flaws and look for ways this admittedly flawed self can do good, help others, and “pack [more] into the stream of life.”

Outcome: A worthiness built from the ground up.  You and god know your worth.  No one else needs to.  You slowly grow self esteem from doing estimable acts.

I just can’t say enough about the freedom of humility.  Dude.  Whenever I hike in the wilderness for a week or so, the inner gem I polish is humility — to understand I am just a critter.  I need to drink & eat and pee & shit.  I need to stay warm in my little nest for the night.  I get to laugh with my friend and witness god in a wealth of meadows, forests, and towering peaks.  I GET TO live!  That is wisdom.

When I come back to city life, hanging on to that same humility gets tricky, but I can still try.  I talk & listen and think stuff’s important & screw up.  I can glimpse god in the vulnerable humanness of friends and strangers, all of us trying to feel okay.  I GET TO love!  That is spirituality.

Near Death Experiencers (people revived from death who bring back memories) frequently report having been shown a representation of the spiritual connections uniting all living beings.  They perceived countless “golden threads” or “beams of light” interconnecting our hearts.  The bottom line, they’re told, is that we’re each a unique expression of the same god/life energy, like countless leaves on a huge tree, or countless cells in a single leaf.

No one is higher.  No one is lower.  All depend on each other, on the whole, which is god.  I’ll never forget how my first sponsor wrapped up my first major 4th step 20 years ago.  Alongside my character defects, she drew a No-Stepladder symbol.  As she put it, “Whenever you want to rank people, think of the night sky.  You may gravitate toward one constellation more than another — sure.  But you can’t rank the stars.”

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Half Measures Avail Us Relapse

“Half measures availed us nothing.  We stood at the turning point.”       (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 59)

If you’re an alcoholic who can find a way to permanently quit drinking outside AA, that’s awesome.  Go for it!  As they say in the Big Book, “If anyone who is showing inability to control his drinking can do the right-about-face and drink like a gentleman, our hats are off to him” (p. 31).

AA is for is the person who can’t, who’s tried and failed, then tried and failed some more… and frickin’ can’t stand herself anymore. Here are a few of the ways I, personally, tried. At various times in my drinking career, with all my power of will, I swore the following:

  •  to simply drink less
  • to not drink on certain days of the week
  • to get more exercise, eat a healthier diet, and quit poisoning myself
  • to meditate my stress away instead of drinking
  • to practice affirmations for confidence instead of drinking
  • to stop drinking alone
  • to drink just wine
  • to drink just beer
  • to have no more than one drink with lunch and three in the evening
  • to prove to some asshole that I’m not an alcoholic, so fuck off
  •  to quit for a week starting tomorrow
  •  to quit two weeks except maybe next weekend
  • to drink slower so I’d get less bombed

None of them worked.  None.  Know why?  Because I’m an alcoholic.  That means my brain is, by definition, BROKEN when it comes to controlling my intake of alcohol — or weed or cocaine or any mind-altering substance.  I default to having just a bit.  Once I start, my mind has only one setting:

And… I cannot fix my broken brain with my broken brain.  If I could, it wouldn’t be broken.  I’d just tone my drinking the frick down and get on with life — right?  I would not be an alcoholic. I would not need AA or the steps or a higher power.

But here’s the thing, guys.  We’re kind of pucked.  We’re trying to mentally control a problem over which we have no control.Half Measures = Half Assed
Some of us go to AA because we get it: we’re pucked, and we’ll do everything we’re told — go to any length — to get our lives back.  We take Step 1, admitting we are powerless over alcohol and cannot manage our lives.

Others of us, however, go to AA as one more item on that fucking worthless shit list above.  We just add

  • go to some AA meetings

to our personal “I’m not gonna drink” management scheme.

Doing so is what we call a half-measure, meaning that I still believe I  wield control.  I’m using AA as an aid or support group, but ultimately, my ego maintains I’m taking control of my desire to drink.  That idea is utterly worthless.  AA meetings will do no more for a half-measure drunk than getting a “Sober Forever” tattoo, because, inevitably, we still have that broken brain.

Just ask anyone who repeatedly relapses.  It may sound harsh, but in my experience, except in rare cases complicated by “grave mental disorders,” a vast majority of those who fall back into drinking have not gone at the program from their inmost heart.  Relapse happens when our egos tell us, “I don’t really need to X anymore [insert go to meetings, write inventory, work with a sponsor, etc.]  I’ve got this.”

Going to Any Length
A few weeks ago I was at an early morning meeting sitting near a newcomer.  The meeting’s chair had used a random Big Book quote picker to cite the passage, “Your job now is to be of maximum helpfulness to others…”

“That bothers me,” the newcomer shared.  “I’ve got six months and I feel like I’m struggling.  I can’t be of maximum helpfulness to anyone!  How’m I supposed to devote my life to  — I mean, I can barely take care of myself right now!”

At the break for 7th Tradition, I scooted over to him and said, “Who defines ‘maximum’?  All it means is, the maximum you can do today to be supportive to someone else.  You’re here.  You shared honestly.  Maybe that’s your max today.  The point is that you’re trying your best.”

Trying Your Hardest = Giving Up Control
This may sound like a contradiction, but it’s only when we really give up control that we become willing to try our hardest at spiritual growth, and vice versa. When, after 14 years of trying my hardest to drink less, I realized I was going to die drunk, and after 34 years of trying to make other people like me, I realized I hated myself, I walked into an AA meeting and finally let go.

It didn’t happen all at once.  The first letting-go was just going to meetings.  The next was actually praying to… something.  Next was getting a kick-butt sponsor, then doing everything she told me whether I felt like it or not.  “You’re going to lead an AA meeting in the women’s prison work-release house,” she told me.  Did I want to do that?  Hell no!!  The women seemed huge and thuggish and scary to me!  When they hugged me, I nearly suffocated!  But I showed up each week regardless.

I’d given up calling the shots.  I wanted to change, to have what I saw in Karen, my sponsor.  So I did exactly what she told me.  I wrote my inventory, acknowledged my defects.  I made my amends.  I sponsored.

Last week, my current sponsor, who has 32 years sober, asked me, who have 22 years sober, if I’d drive out with her to Bellevue and (wo)man an AA booth at the National Tribal Health Conference.  This was a big deal, she explained — the first time the Indian Health Board has ever invited AA to attend, though nearly 12% of Native Americans die of alcholism.

Did I feel like driving out there this afternoon and “working” after work?  Hell no.  Did I do it?  Hell yes.  I don’t ask questions or weigh the pros and cons relative to my sobriety.  I just GO.

The result?  I’m in no way special or virtuous; I’m just happily sober… one more day.

 

 

 

 

 

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Global Fears and the Alcoholic / Al-Anon

I’m a alcoholic who lives in Seattle, surrounded by the beautiful forested mountains that heal me on long hikes — which are currently going up in flames as never before.

Wildfires Increasing 17

What’s the big deal?  The graph to the right shows the nationwide trend of bigger, more numerous forest fires (in spite of more volunteers and better firefighting equipment).  This year, 2017, scores of wildfires consuming record acreage under “extreme” conditions of prolonged drought and heat have caused all northwestern states to declare emergencies, as has British Columbia.

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These super-fires incinerating our waning wildlife habitats are not part of the natural cycle: rather, they’re symptoms of climate change.  For many people, the loss may seem nothing major.  But for me, it’s personal. These forests are my church.  Wild creatures are my saints.

So when it “snowed” ash in Seattle this past Tuesday, our sickly yellow skies blanketing everything from Seattle to Portland with flakes of what had recently been verdant, living trees, I felt as though the bodies of dead loved ones were raining down as an omen: if we continue on as we’re going, our planet will die.

Witnessing this phenomenon, unprecedented in my 57 years of living here, has ravaged my serenity.  Also on my mind are the two record-breaking hurricanes striking from the south, which the US president, who does not “believe in” climate change, has eloquently described as follows: “It looks like it could be something that will be not good. Believe me, not good.”  More imminently, this incompetent megalomaniac controls the US nuclear arsenal while a godfather-like thug controls Russia’s — and a madman in North Korea has just announced that he, too, has a nuclear bomb.

What do you do?!  How do you live?!  I’ll tell you what not to do: what I’ve been doing.  I’ve been actively willing the world to change.  Haven’t you felt all the mental and emotional effort I’ve been pouring out, day after day, compelling everyone to see what I see and think what I think~?  Hasn’t Trump’s brain been affected by my constant mental criticism?

Nope.  Not a bit.  The only person impacted by my anguish… is me.  I’ve been carrying the world’s woes in my tightened throat, upset stomach, and continuous low-grade headache.  Today I, like so many Al-Anons, am sickening myself with fear and worry much as I once nearly killed myself with drugs and alcohol — believing again and again that I’ll somehow move closer to what I want using something I know does not work.

I fall again and again for the notion that I can control the world around me.  I forget I’m powerless over people, places, and things. But my inner addict never forgets the care-banishing, fukitol power of a drink or a drug.  “There’s an easy way,” it lobbies from the back of my mind, “to quit giving a shit about anything or anyone.”

What else can I do?  You guys have taught me, I always have access to three super-powers: a) meditation & prayer, b) program, and c) action.  I know, I know — they don’t sound real impressive, but they’re transformative, redirecting my path from a destructive to a constructive direction.

a) Meditation and prayer are, strangely enough, the antithesis of worry.  Sitting with eyes closed, I simply quiet my mind as I get to know the inner space of my consciousness.  It’s a lot like entering a dark room and waiting until your eyes adjust.  I can note how urgently or lackadaisically my thoughts enter; I can note my reactions to them, de-escalating from “Holy shit!  I just remembered this ultra-important thing!!” to “Yup… that’s us thinking again…”

At this point, I can begin to sense the inherent foolishness of my normal state of consciousness. I don’t blame myself for being foolish — I am, after all, just a person with squishy stuff in their skull.  I can see that I’m comically focused on my own world of thoughts, my own little “plans and designs.”  Why?  Because I’m scared shitless! I note the many ways I imagine I’m protecting what I love — my worries. For a few moments, I drop them all. I open to god instead and say, “This world is yours, not mine.  But I’m scared shitless.  Help me.”

NOW comes the point at which I can pray unselfishly, asking god to guide me to be useful beyond myself, and even to guide humanity to live on this planet less destructively.  Prayer, like mass meditation, does have an effect.

b) Program means that I go to extra meetings, talk with my sponsor or sponsees, and seek out ways to be useful to others. (Going to my homegroup tonight, I get to do all three!)  I can also write this blog to help you or maybe remind you to help others.

For instance, I was recently perusing this excellent book on not drinking which I’d forgotten I owned.  It’s kick-ass for folks in early sobriety.  I’m just gonna pass along the TOC here so you can recommend to newcomers either exploring one of these tactics (click to expand) or buying the whole damn book.

 

c) Action requires that when I say the Serenity Prayer, I be ready to actually change the things I can. I realized yesterday that, while my work used to require driving all over town to meet clients, now so many of them work at Amazon that on certain days I just drive downtown and back.  Guess what.  I live on a bus line. Rather than heroically taking out a huge loan to buy an electric car, I can simply get my lazy, germaphobic ass on the bus on those days to reduce my goddam carbon footprint.  (I promise to post a photo of me on the fucking bus below.)

9/7/17: Record-breaking hurricanes to the south; record-breaking heat and drought to the west.  This isn’t the Olympics, guys.  This is our planet.

I must do what I can… or I’m a hypocrite.

And yes, I’ve already called my congresswomen to express my views, but I can also plant trees, attend protests, and campaign next time around for wiser a president.

When I took Step 3 all those years ago, I made a decision to live a good life, to seek good/god in all things, and to act on its guidance.  Today that means I don’t get to wallow in worry and panic any more than I do in self-pity and resentment.

There’s always a better way.  Seek and we’ll find it.

 

PS: As promised, a few pictures of me riding the bus to work, which I now do 3 x per week, rain or shine.  A tank of gas lasts me more than twice what it used to.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hope

“It Gets Better”

I tried so hard all the while I was drinking.  I wanted to live a good life, to do well, to impress others.  I tried my damnedest to figure out what that project called for and to make it happen.  The Big Book calls this effort “self-propulsion,” the attempt to arrange people and circumstances so that we’ll get what we want.

I failed.  That beautiful life I yearned for stayed just out of reach.  I got good grades, looked pretty, earned degrees,  attracted partners, clinched jobs and bought stuff — a car, my dream home.  To bring about temporary relief, I drank every kind of booze I could find, smoked weed, took pills, snorted coke — but still wound up longing to die, to give up.

I identified as atheist — even though I’d had a Near Death Experience (NDE) at 22 during which I’d encountered god.  That’s pretty rare — an atheist who’s journeyed to the light.  But as I approached hitting bottom, as I threw life away ever more recklessly during those last months of drinking, god stepped in again and slapped me upside the head.

God shows up in virtually every NDE as a brilliant white light that radiates an intensity of love beyond earthly imagining.  But that doesn’t mean god’s a milquetoast!  There’s a point to our being here — we’ve agreed to do something by signing up for life, for this embodiment in matter.  And in cases where we’re way off course, god will sometimes give us a nudge.

I’d driven home insanely drunk for the umpteenth time and was propping myself up with the open car door to marvel at what a badass drunk driver I was when a bolt of knowing struck me.  It shot from the starry sky, through my bones, straight into the earth.  It “said” several things at once.  Foremost was a warning: This is the last time I can help you.  God, not I, had delivered me home safe that night.

At the same time, it called bullshit on the way I was living, who I was being, what I was chasing.  It said, essentially: You DO know right from wrong.  I’d been living out the dramatic impulses of my mind, whereas god appealed to a quiet knowledge in my heart.  Even deeper, like the resonance of a bass note, came god’s reality check: We both know you can do better.

I got sober two weeks later.

Next, I tried so hard in early sobriety.  I went to meetings trying to look and sound good.  I got a sponsor and worked the steps.  I prayed… a little.  And things definitely did get better.  I began to stumble on moments of serenity — though for the most part, I still hurt.  Being me still entailed a lot of suffering because I still gave credence to all those head-voices claiming I wasn’t good enough.  I still chased the friendship of (sober) cool kids who didn’t include me in stuff.  Alone, I felt worthless and abandoned.  This went on for… let’s say nine years.

Was I still failing?

Not anymore.  Now I had hope.  Every day, every week, every month… I got a little bit better.  “Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly,” my life transformed.  Quickly, I stopped trying to manipulate people (as much) or circumstances (as insistently) and grew more honest.  Quickly, I learned to share my honest thoughts and feelings with a sponsor and close friends.  Quickly, I adopted the rudiments of service work by helping out my home group and sponsoring women.

God, meanwhile, kept getting in my face to say, “Hey — I’m real.”  That’s largely what my addiction memoir is about — god getting in my face repeatedly through paranormal events, refusing to let up until my resistance finally collapsed and I promised, “I’ll never deny you again!”

Slowly, my primary dwelling place shifted from head to heart.  Oh so slowly, I began to sense my own inner knowing.  I found my source, my spiritual wellspring, as an energy that flows outward from me whenever I serve as a conduit for god’s love.  I learned that seeking opportunities to channel this love is not only the purpose of my life but, inseparably, what grants me a degree of strength and joy beyond anything my mind can manufacture.

I’ve found home within myself.  God visits me there.  We’re good.

Life is precious.  People are cute.

Shit in general seems way less complicated than it used to.

Sometimes, though, I still get lonely.  Last night, for instance, I’d anticipated my son staying with me when he wasn’t.  I had no energy.  I “relapsed” into missing my ex.  Melancholy knocked.  So I called a friend who’d been struggling but is doing better now and was happy with him for the good turns his life’s taken.  And when another friend stopped by to pick up a Gopro he’d loaned me, I asked him in so we could visit.

These contacts couldn’t alleviate my loneliness, but they let me make friends with it.  Turning in for the night, I told myself: “We’re just tired from that insanely tough climb a few days ago.  And we’re impatient to find a partner.  That’s just life.  It’s okay.”

My message to you, dear reader, is that wherever you find yourself on this journey called sobriety, so long as you keep working your program and seeking god’s guidance in all your choices, you’re growing.  You’re better today than you were last year.  Little by little, you will find your wholeness.

I know it can often look as if life’s easier for others.  It’s not.  Being human is hard work.  We alcoholics just effed it up so royally that god gave us Cliff Notes in the form of the Big Book.  All the secrets of a good life are housed between its covers.

One day at a time, one habit at a time, one kindness at a time, we move out of the darkness and toward the light.  Hold fast to your hope.  Keep going.  You’re loved beyond your wildest dreams.

 

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