Category Archives: AA

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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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Faith, Happiness, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality

Of Mountains and Miracles

I come from a long line of alcoholics, pioneers and midwives and professors who knew they didn’t want to drink as much as they did, yet were sucked down into the bottle time and time again.  I’m cut from the same cloth but haven’t had a drink for twenty-two years.  What’s up with that?

When I used to dry out between binges I was an insecure, socially phobic, jealous, frightened, depressed woman who would pretend to be whatever might impress you.  Anticipating drinks brought me hope.  Starting to drink steadied me.  Rolling through drinks, I found courage and gusto and release — sweet release! — in the dopamine flooding my neurons. Some day, I’d pull off great feats!

At first, sobriety robbed me of a desperately needed escape. I’ll never forget a certain unremarkable morning in ’95.  I’d been dry about six months without a spiritual program.  My partner was driving us along a curving freeway ramp while some implacable panic rose higher and higher in my chest with every breath I took and every random object that struck my brittle brain — building, guard rail, pavement, cars.

I thought-screamed, I CAN’T STAND IT!!!!!

But today, I flourish.  My brain is happy, and I’m living a life I love.  What’s up with that?

Here’s me day before yesterday:

Crater of Mount Baker at dawn

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I’m on the right.  This is a photo of a frickin’ miracle.  I’ve recently turned 57.  I’m standing at 9,800 feet at 5:00 a.m. beside the hissing, venting crater of a live volcano with my best friend wearing frickin’ bikini tops in temperatures close to freezing.  We are… the Baker Birthday Bikini Bitches!

I got here through hard work.  The work of healing a broken brain and twisted psyche is extensive, yet all compacted down into 12 simple, trite little steps listed in Chapter 5 of AA’s Big Book — steps I dismissed as worthless at my first AA meeting after reading them off the wall in less than a minute.

It takes a good sponsor, one “armed with the facts” about him/herself, to unpack those steps and open up each like one of those expandable sphere toys so that the sponsee is confronted again and again with the challenge of either seeking greater honesty or cycling through their tired lies again.

I’ve worked these steps not once, not twice, but through enough iterations that their perspective has become the lens through which I view everyday life.  To express that in detail, I’ve surrendered all illusions that I can drink normally (1); I recognize that alone my thinking is warped (2); I ask god to guide it minute by minute (3); I seek out the selfish distortions in my interpretations of people, places, and things (4); I tell on myself to trusted others, increasingly with humor (5), and pray for the clarity to quit thinking/acting that way (6-7).  If I’ve offended, I own it and amend it (8-10), because I want to meet my god without defenses every day (11) so I can be useful to others (12).  That is how I effing live.

How does that get me up the mountain?

There is something.  You can call it whatever you like.  Currents of energy course through and radiate from everything that lives, and their frequency is affected by each loving or fear-based thought that every one of us generates from one moment to the next.  And those currents converge in some nexus of intelligence that loves far beyond our brains’ comprehension and yet is not beyond us, because we are of it.  We are a shard, a fragment, a ray of that immensity, and when we ask, it resonates within us, filling what was empty, healing what was hurt.

The kicker is that condition: when we ask.

And we can’t ask just once — like for a piece of gum or something: “Hey, god, this deal sucks, can ya help me out?”  Nope.  We ask in layer upon layer upon layer.  We ask every frickin’ day, in everything we do: “Help me.  Be with me.  Move my heart and mind toward goodness and beauty.”

And if we do this long enough and sincerely enough, do you know what happens?

CRAZY SHIT.

So many miracles, I don’t know where to begin!  Living by the 12 Steps has brought me to a place where I can be my authentic self among worthy others and trust that I am loved.

Daily honesty with god has given me the mindset to become the person I longed to be — to quit smoking, stop over-eating, cease tolerating abuse; to pay the bills and provide for my kid; to really get it that, if something’s going to improve in my life, I have to try for it (a lot easier when you know god’s there to catch you).

Humility has let me accept that if I want to do something immense, like climbing a mountain or writing a memoir or opening a business, I have to start with measly, pathetic little steps… and keep at it.

And beautiful things unfold as a result.  Here we are again from a different angle.

Bikini bitches! (click to enlarge)

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Are we in good shape?  Sure.  But this photo doesn’t show what’s really there: the strength of LOVE.  The love between my friend and me lets us speak of anything — anything! — and frees us to laugh about much of it.  I know of my friend’s horrific childhood and years of cocaine addiction.  She knows the compulsions that warped my past.

There’s also the love of fellow alcoholics who taught us our mountaineering skills, much as sponsors taught us life skills.  When we started up at midnight from our base camp, where our third friend stayed behind with her ankle sprained from a creek crossing, we felt small and scared. The hulking glow of Baker’s ancient glaciers loomed a mile above us in the moonlight.  It was just we two roped together to arrest falls as we wended our way by headlamps among yawning, deep crevasses, sometimes cussing like sailors.

We did it.  We’re sober miracles.  And, for each of us who gets there, for every alcoholic who reaches that precious freedom granted by true sobriety, it all began with that first little word of AA’s First Step, the first time it really sank in: We.

 

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A few more images (click to enlarge)…

Mount Baker from a distance – second most heavily glaciated in the contiguous 48 states

 

Baker halfway up – crater our revised goal after Sally’s injury (originally the summit)

 

Me crossing where Sally slipped – 40lb pack doesn’t help!

 

Base camp self-timer shenanigans

 

Supper at 4, in bed by 5, wake-up at 10:30pm, geared & climbing by midnight

 

About 2,000 feet above base, dawn approaches. Canadian climber’s lamp a few hundred feet below

 

Mount Baker’s enormous dawn shadow cast across mountains and sound to the horizon

 

Me beyond a crevasse – but now at least we can SEE ’em!

 

K. approaching the crater after 4,000 feet gained in 5 hours

 

Descending – I’m just past a snowbridge between two crevasses.

 

Homeward bound – car and big fat beanburger, here I come!

 

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality, Twelve Steps

Meetings on the Road: No Matter What

When you’re on vacation, you know what’s a great idea?  Going to AA meetings.

Traveling for work, what keeps you grounded?  You guessed it, meetings.

Visiting out-of-town relatives?  Are you fucking kidding me?  MEETINGS!

I’ve attended AA meetings in Greece, Hawaii, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Spokane, Boston, and New York — at least, that’s all I can recall offhand.  Especially when I’m traveling alone, the rooms feel like home.  In Athens, Greece, for instance, I walked more than 2 miles from my hotel (which featured a lush tropical bar) to track down a small AA symbol partially obscured by ivy on tower centuries old.  Climbing to the room, I was met with posters of Bill and Bob on the walls along with the 12 Steps & Traditions, in English.

That meeting united accents from all over the globe, but the first share came from a weeping American woman who feared for her job.  A flight attendant, she’d screwed up the landing cross-check and inflated a slide, delaying the next flight by half a day. ‘Coincidentally,’ though, she’d been my flight attendant.  Chucking the cross-talk taboo, I spoke up, recounting for her everything she’d done right on that flight, along with all the extra demands placed on her as the only attendant fluent in Greek.  Tears streamed down her face as she listened, and she was certainly not alone in that.

Just three months sober at the time, I’d not planned on sharing.  But the that experience — along with the fellowship afterward at an outdoor cafe where the whole rollicking group wrote on my tourist map about where to go and what to see — cemented the meeting policy that has served me to this day: JUST GO.

At 22 years sober, I still go to meetings out-of-town.  Yes, I have an awesome life.  The craving to drink is long gone. Parts of me blighted by alcoholism have blossomed.  Scars from childhood are healing in the sunlight of the spirit.  Whereas it used to suck abysmally to be me without alcohol, drugs, and/or the highs of obsessive infatuation, today my mind and heart feel like a comfy, cheerful place to hang out.

Hokey as it may sound, I’m just back from a travel adventure commonly known as a college reunion.  Thirty-five years ago, I was lucky enough to have parents who sent me to a “seven sisters” college (Vassar).  This past weekend, I was a lucky enough to get a reunion “scholarship” to revisit the place.  So off I flew to New York.

The vast contrast between who I was at 21 and who I am today struck me every minute I was there.  For example, only a few of my friends showed up, which in the past would have posed a disappointment.  Today, it meant a chance to get to know classmates I recognized but didn’t know personally, all of whom had aged, of course, but also matured into better selves — without 12-step work!  “I get nicer every year,” remarked one of my normie friends, reflecting on the effect of life’s losses and tears, “and I hold back less.”

I re-explored the grand library’s “secret” spiral staircases, subterranean stacks, and lofty tower with a new friend, giggling and chatting about the fertility ordeals by which we got our kids.  With another, shopping near campus, I shared the shock and pain of lost relationships. I’d somehow imagined that everyone else from Vassar was living ideal, tragedy-free lives, but was reminded yet again that being human is painful for all of us.

To me, as an alcoholic, growth is a huge deal: trusting others with the truth of my inner experiences was, in my youth, a risk beyond my limits.  Trapped by self-conscious awkwardness and social fears, I needed alcohol to cut me loose.  For 14 years, daily drinking halted my emotional growth so thoroughly that by age 34, when I finally hit bottom, I was still literally going to keggers at which I tried to act cool.

For me, the difference between the selfishly miserable person I was for so long and the outgoing, happy person I am today comes down to one factor: god.

It’s my awareness of a god that loves me no matter what, the one I found in AA, that grants me the courage I need to reach out to others — courage that has emboldened me to live large and build a beautiful life.

An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was posted in the reunion schedule for Saturday afternoon, competing with four tempting lectures (on Vassar’s art, theater costumes, diversity tactics, and… Trump).  I skipped ’em.  I went to the meeting.  I’d set an alarm on my phone.  I left all my friends.  There was no question in my mind as I crossed campus to find it.

Sure, booze — free booze, mind you — was flowing everywhere, and friends unaware I’m sober were constantly offering to grab me drinks. But that’s not why I went.  Saying “no thanks” is as easy for me as turning down arsenic.  Rather, I went to the AA meeting because that’s where my god shows up.

The fancy parlor held five of us – two newcomers, two with 20-plus years, and an Al-Anon with two.  Hearing the shares of the newcomers — their feelings as if they were walking a balance beam of their commitment to life and integrity while their old tactics of escape clamored for them to hop down, and their amazement that they were actually doing it, miraculously passing up drinks — reminded me that I am still and will always be missing the crucial piece that god provides.  My wholeness is granted to me one day at a time by a power outside me.

Normie friends, for the most part, can’t understand this.  One chalked up my lengthy sobriety to “grit and determination.”  The fact is, I tried “grit and determination” about 1,753 times, and it never worked!  But god has.  That connection is all I jones for these days, and I know I can always find it at meetings, no matter where I roam.

 

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Meetings, Recovery, Sobriety

Long-term Sobriety: Always Seeking

In the long haul of recovery, times come along when life’s day-to-day stressors feel overwhelming. There’s something chafing, some problem we can’t quite name. We’re still functioning okay, wearing all our hats, fulfilling our responsibilities – check!  So frankly we don’t see the need to tell anybody we feel lonely, anxious, and discontent.  Spiritual pride urges us to just wave away whatever’s up without bellyaching — we’ve survived far worse, after all.  But if we slow down enough to look inward sincerely, maybe in Step 11, we can acknowledge a growing pain around our heart, an ache almost like a sore muscle.

Here’s the root of the problem: we’ve forgotten god.  Living as societal pawns, we’ve unconsciously allowed the messages bombarding us — ads, media, faddish friends, and fluctuations of culture — to define what life’s all about.  We’ve inadvertently immersed ourselves in a world of habit and conformity, as if the externals of people, places, and things were the whole story.

Whenever we do that, our reliance on god shrinks.  And the instant god shrinks, our dis-ease takes up the slack.  Alcoholism slinks up from the unconscious, from the brain stem where it’s holed up throughout recovery, and resumes the work of making us sick.

To personify alcoholism in this way makes sense only to those who have lived with a presence in their psyche that relentlessly urges self-destruction.  It’s me, and yet it’s not me.  Its goal is to separate me from life, to poison my perceptions so that I’ll begin to resent life in the old way: as an opponent, a bully.  And what does it propose I brandish in response?

A drink.  Many drinks.  All the fuckin’-who-gives-a-shit drinks I damn well please.  Because that mental twist in my brain, which has weirdly survived 22 years of abstinence, is ever primed to plunge me back into the endless hell of resolving absolutely not to drink today — except, hey! Let’s have a drink! (and another…)

At my home group recently, several people contrasted their strong connection to recovery during early sobriety with their current sense of detachment.  Funny how early sobriety, one of the most excruciating gauntlets ever run, can be glossed over in the rose-colored glow of nostalgia! Nobody misses those early days of chemical and emotional withdrawal — the psychological equivalent of being dragged through an automated car wash naked with an all-over sunburn.  Nope.  What we so fondly recall is the free-falling dependence on god that was — in those difficult times — our sole choice.

Early sobriety is lived one day at a time.  It’s a continuous process of abandoning our own will in favor of a faith that doing so — going to meetings when we don’t want to, calling a sponsor when it feels weird, praying when we don’t know what the fuck we’re praying to — will change us for the better.

And it does!  Living by faith heals us to the point where we feel strong and useful, because people now value our opinions and trust us, so we have a new identity as a person with their shit together.

At this point, we begin to imagine our spiritual state is up to us.  Positive self-will messages surround us, from motivating Facebook memes to the ingrained self-help assumptions of our bootstrap pulling society.  Be happy: Abraham Lincoln once said — well, actually, no, he fucking didn’t!  No record exists of Lincoln ever saying folks are as happy as they make their minds up to be, but our society’s all over the idea anyway because we’d love to believe happiness is just a light switch, an app.  BING~!

In truth, happiness is an art And like all arts, it requires cultivation.  Much of that cultivation transpires in acknowledging and working through pain, discontent, and loneliness.  It entails the Honesty to admit to myself and others that I’m hurting; the Open-mindedness to believe my feelings are not facts; and, most importantly, the Willingness to implore god to help me.

I must turn toward, not away from, the pain concealed beneath my nervous discontent.  I have to wade into it.  But let me caution, there are ways to wade and ways to wallow.

If I take the hand of ego to accompany me, we’re gonna camp out in that shit and throw us a big ole pity party.  You know?  We’re gonna bitch and complain and scratch that itch, because it’s all about me and it hurts soo good to be a victim!

But if I take the hand of god, we’re looking for the path through it – and only god knows the way!  I sure as hell don’t, or I’d have taken it!  Here’s where that early sobriety piece fits in: I have to get it that I am still as helpless in combating my pain as I was at the outset of this journey:  I know only what I know, and it has brought me to this impasse.  My vision of life, not life itself, has trapped me in discontent.

I need a miracle, yes, but a miracle can be simply a new way of seeing.  What I think matters, where I’m heading, who I want to become — all these can be transformed with god’s guidance.  I have found that, when I’m most uncomfortable, it’s often because I’m morphing.

My most kick-ass morph prayers (best preceded by meditation) go something like this:

God — I hurt.  Please help me.

God — I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.  Please guide me.

God — This being human job is effing hard, I gotta say!  Show me the point!

The change, the guidance, the point usually come down to some version of…

… yet it’s inexpressibly intimate between me and god.  This is a point I wish to smash home on my readers: We loved and trusted booze.  We were stoked to hang out with booze.  Now, to thrive despite alcoholism, we have to become every bit that intimate with god, every day, every moment.  God is love.  Let it in.

Spiritual renewal is god’s work, not ours.  To continue growing, we have to humbly admit defeat and seek god’s help, same as always.  That’s choosing joy.  That keeps us sober.

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Filed under AA, Addiction, Alcoholism, Faith, Happiness, prayer, Recovery

What’s Normal Drinking?

Suppose I give you an algorithm to figure out whether or not you’re a normal drinker.  I tell you to take the number of drinks you’d consume on an average Tuesday, multiply it by a rough estimate of times you’ve “had too much” and divide that by the number of drinks that would qualify as a “binge” for you; next add the number of times you’ve felt utterly disgusted with yourself the morning after.  If the square route of this number is less than 3, you’re fine – go ahead and drink!  If it’s over 3 – sorry!  You’ve got a problem.

Here’s the real test:  Did you read that whole paragraph, dude?  Did you even consider trying to estimate some of those numbers?  Then, guess what?  You are sooo not normal!  Not only do normies – people with a normal relationship to alcohol – not even have numbers for most of those inputs, they don’t give a rat’s ass about how much they drink or whether they get to.

Try the whole thing again substituting “strawberries” or “croissants” for drinks and you’ll see through a normie’s eyes:  “Take the number of strawberries you’d consume on an average Tuesday…”  Who cares?  Eat ’em or don’t – it doesn’t matter!

Alcoholics love to marvel at normie behaviors like not finishing a drink or leaving half a bottle of wine in the fridge for weeks, behaviors that strike us as incomprehensible.  But getting a handle on how weird our thinking is – why we see normal as strange – is not so easy.

“The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great illusion of every abnormal drinker.  The persistence of this illusion is astonishing.  Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”  (Big Book p. 30)

Before lasting sobriety, we keep trying and trying to find a way to drink normally.  But the effort itself precludes normalcy.  For instance, here’s a story from my Big Book study group, just after we read the above passage.  Dana – a repeat relapser who works from home – spoke up:

“The trouble is, I can control and enjoy my drinking for a long time. I’m really careful.  I’ll drive in the morning to the gas station near my house and buy just one of those little airplane bottles of Jack [Daniels].  I’ll drink it in the car and fucking enjoy the hell out of it.  Then I go home and get the kids off to school; I’m nice and not grouchy.  I’ll get set up for work, go have another little bottle, work for hours, chat with clients – I’m great. Before the kids get home, I’ll zip out and have another.  Maybe one before dinner and bed.  NEVER do I have two!  I’m just calm, smooth, efficient – doin’ my thing for weeks and weeks!  But then one day, I’ll get bombed and mess everything up.  Then I come back to AA.”

About ten of us made up the circle that day, but the room fell silent.  We all looked somewhat grave, considering Dana’s routine, each in our own world.  To buy just one little bottle every time did seem like terrific control!  To me it was like someone able to walk on a super-slick surface, keeping her balance and never slipping.  Who was I to say Dana shouldn’t walk there?  My mind clutched at the fact that she eventually binged with enough damage to come back to the program – which had to be bad.

A few of us asked about logistics.  Dana answered confidently.  I recall feeling a subtle mix of jealousy – Dana was able to drink! – and fear that I might decide to try something like that.  But most of all, I recall a fuzzy, confused inability to think, as though my mind were stuffed with wool.

Then Nora, another group leader, inquired tentatively, “How far is the gas station?”

“Five minutes,” replied Dana.

Nora’s forehead knitted. “And you make five or six trips?”

“About an hour out of my day, yeah.”

Nora spoke haltingly: “So isn’t… alcohol controlling you, rather than… you controlling alcohol — ?”

As if starting to awaken from trance, we all shifted, glanced at Nora on the brink of something.

“That’s true,” said Dana.  “I never thought of it that way.  I guess I’m not really the one calling the shots!”

Suddenly I could see it – Dana’s system was madness!  She was a puppet yanked by addiction to run back and forth, jump through hoops, throw away money, arrange her entire life around her addiction so she could function in the world.  At that moment, everyone, including Dana, saw it.

Brantly, our third leader, spoke up animatedly:  “This is not how people behave, you guys!  Doing absolutely anything, arranging our whole life to maintain a buzz because we can’t do life as life?!  That is crazy.  For normal people, alcohol is not the answer, so getting it’s not a question!  That’s why we need meetings, why we need the steps and god – because our brains make the insane sound totally normal!”

We were all laughing by this time, at ourselves, at ten people’s incredible alcoholic blindness to the obvious.  Brantly held up his phone: “I don’t need an app to tell me it’s been 5,057 days since my last strawberry!”

Here’s the bottom line.  If you hope desperately to find a reason you’re not an alcoholic, you’re an alcoholic.  If you point proudly to periods when you’ve drunk normally, you’re not normal.  Normal drinkers may hide from life in other ways, but not through booze, so they simply don’t care. We for whom alcohol has been a lifesaving magic carpet are incapable of not caring.  Hence the fabulously ironic saying, “If I were a normie, I’d drink every day!”

Step one is the realization, an acceptance to the marrow of our bones that no way out of this maze exists on human terms.  Our faulty minds will always, always “choose” drinking — by however contorted a logic.  We can’t not drink.  Our relief must come from a higher power.

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Drinking, Recovery, Step 1

The Disease We Forget We Have

Late to a Seattle AA meeting 12 years ago, I was just backing into a parallel parking space when another driver zipped forward into the spot. I rolled back to make eye contact with the driver, whose stony stare flung back a challenge: “Are you really gonna make a stink about this? Cause it’ll get you nowhere.”  But then we recognized each other!  He was my friend from meetings! Grinning with contrition, he signaled that I could have the space.  I waved back “no big deal” and drove off – though for years I gave him shit about it.

My friend was still toxic – only about a year sober after three decades of relying on booze, pot, and crack to limp through a dark and confused life. Just beneath his jovial exterior he carried a huge chip on his shoulder, a certainty that everyone and everything had fucked him over so badly he’d never be okay.  That parking space was owed to him despite some rival bitch about to score it.

Over the years that followed, though, my friend underwent what I can only describe as a spiritual transformation.  AA became his home and family as he attended meetings almost daily.  When he finished the steps himself, he began to sponsor new guys, reading the Big Book with them and learning what it felt like to truly want good things for someone else.  His heart grew.  He became a man of great empathy and compassion.

And somehow through that process, he developed empathy for himself, an acceptance of his trying past, including all the suffering that had forced him to change and grow.  The chip on his shoulder melted away.  His shares in meetings emanated that elusive calm that evolves only from gratitude and humility.  When he spoke, people listened.

Finally, as a result of all that he had become in recovery, he quit recovery entirely and became desperate and miserable again.

Wait — what did I just say?  Why would someone do that?  Don’t we all know alcoholism is a lifelong affliction?  Doesn’t the Big Book plainly warn us not to ever let up on our spiritual program?

We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe.  We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.  (p.85)

My friend is far from alone in his abandonment of recovery.  Many of us get a good job, meet a good partner, buy a house, maybe pop out a kid or two, and expect to live happily ever after – without AA.  Some manage to, because they’ve found an alternate spiritual community: a congregation, sangha, even volunteer group.  A few die.  But the majority end up in either a tense, anxious day-to-day hell of frustrated ego, or a full-on relapse that promises relief but takes their job, house, family, dignity, happiness, and mental health instead.

So why do people like my friend, granted a beautiful life in AA, turn their backs on the simple regimen of meetings and service that saved them?

I’ll tell you why: we forget it was god who saved our lame, toxic, beat-to-shit asses.  We decide that, really, we did it!  Seriously – we just made a lot of bad choices back then, so amid the turbulence of all that wreckage, it seemed like the light of sanity came from god.  But now that we’re “winning” at life, we can see the change really came from our own smarty-pants-ness.  That’s right: we wised up, grew up, and climbed up.  And now that life has gotten so full and busy, who has time to waste on meetings and sponsees or prayer & meditation and all that 12-step shit?

That’s exactly what happened to my friend of the stolen parking space, who met me for coffee a few weeks ago.  But an unforeseen blow had upended his prosperity, so now he had this and that problem, but even worse, this other thing was about to happen, and then he’d really be in trouble!  He was physically sick, his face was broken out, and I noticed his hands shaking.

I spoke up: “You need to go to meetings.”  He responded as if I’d just suggested he take up embroidery, but, well aware I was an embroidery fanatic, he’d prepared a strong retort.  He cited reason after reason that AA meetings could do nothing for him, even if he had time to get to them.

“Do you remember,” I interrupted, “when you first came to meetings and you could NOT STOP drinking, and you asked god to help you?”  He held my eyes a few seconds with a distaste remarkably similar to that parking space stare of bitter defiance.  “Vaguely,” he mumbled.

Nothing I could say seemed to get through:  “You can’t find answers through isolation.  God works through people.  We need to be connected.  Answers come when you ask.”  I practically begged him to find a moment alone to offer the simple prayer, God, please help me.  He all but winced at my triteness, promised nothing, and left.

So.  Imagine my joy when a couple days ago that friend blew into my homegroup accompanied by two of his best AA buddies and took a seat at my table.  We cracked jokes til the meeting started.  A ways in, I caught the chair’s eye and signaled, so he called on “the gentleman sitting next to Louisa.”  And do you know what my friend shared?  That for years he’d kept relapsing because he refused to admit he was powerless over drugs and alcohol, and today he was just as stubborn about refusing to admit he was powerless over life. “The truth is, I need to be here,” he said, looking around the room.  “I need you guys.”

For me, god is everywhere — in my home, in the wilderness, in every connection I make with another living creature.  But so is my big fat ego, which wants to Edge God Out.  I need meetings, now and forever, to remind me I’m still an alcoholic who, left to my own devices, will still try to fill that perennial empty spot with the wrong things.  Because you wake me up to the divine unity that heals me, I will always need you guys.

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, God, living sober, Meetings, Recovery, Sobriety, Step 1

Forgiving Shame

Even though I’ve been sober many years, I find my codependent symptoms still crop up like Whack-a-Moles: I get over one and another shows up.  Shame is a particularly pesky mole with big front teeth that keeps popping up no matter how insightfully I whack it.

Brené Brown, a shame researcher, makes this key distinction:

GUILT – says what I did was bad

SHAME – says I, myself, am bad

When I got sober, I carried a lot of guilt – and rightly so!  I’d screwed over just about everyone unlucky enough to have let me into their life.  But over the next year or ten, I learned to stop engaging in harmful behaviors (at least, those I can perceive) and seek a life rooted in the values of honor and kindness.

So when I say I still experience times when shame seems imbued in my very cells, when the conviction flares that I’m secretly wrong, bad, even evil, I’m not crying out for help.  I’m trying to help us both.  Because if you, too, were raised by parents who somehow shamed you or are simply prone to self-criticism, then that same undertone of shame reverberates in your bones as well.

shameMost of the time, we ignore it like some kind of emotional tinnitus, so the feeling doesn’t register.  “What, me? shameful?  That’s absurd!”  But then life happens.  We screw up or feel exposed in some way and ~ BOOM!!  That accumulation of denied self-condemnation drops on us like a Monty Python 16-ton weight.  We’re flattened, aching from a wound that has far less to do with what just happened than scars buried deep in our soul.

For example, years ago I felt so free from shame that I wrote my addiction memoir, trusting that no matter how sick my thoughts and behaviors, even those readers who couldn’t identify would empathize.  When my relatives learned of it, the backlash was intense: they dropped dozens of 16-ton weights – all via email, texts, and online reviews, of course.  I found myself catapulted back deep into shame for who I was and what I believed, as well as for having had the blind audacity to write about it publicly.

vat-of-slimeEver since, I find that whenever some mishap shakes me up, those same shame feelings resurge – even when I’ve done nothing wrong!  I swear, I’d qualify for the Shame Olympics if there were such a thing.  It’s like some huge, soupy vat of shame is just waiting for me to lose my spiritual balance, spin a double pike and topple back in.

Chronic shame cripples our efforts to live authentically.  It hisses that we’re never to question others’ expectations, make waves, or stand out.  It’s the voice of fear, not god.  To be exactly who we’re created to be, to share our gifts unabashedly with the world – that’s what we’re here for.

Significant to sober alcoholics is the idea that getting buzzed will banish shame – along with guilt.  It certainly used to.  That’s why first few times I drank felt like flying.  I was every bit as good as you – hell, even better!  Because that oversized ego I’d stoked to make up for my abysmal self-worth was finally cut free of all those painful, heavy burdens to soar above the world.

Un/fortunately, the highs of addiction gradually diminish until our fix offers no lift at all.  My last drinks  left me as sodden with self-loathing and shame as ever.  Relapse, I know, would bring on not only shame but guilt at having shat on everything sacred to my higher self: integrity, honesty, courage, and faith.

Luckily, shame has several other nemeses.  It thrives on secrecy and silence; the deeper we bury it, the more power it gains. Like botulism, shame cannot survive exposure to open air.  When we talk about our triggers sincerely with trusted others, shame withers.  Meetings and sponsors let that happen.  Voicing our secrets takes courage, but when love lets us embrace our foibles (or even sickness) as merely human, a beautiful humility emerges to eclipse shame.

The audacity to be authentic is one of the tools Brené Brown calls for.  But having recently undergone yet another bout of shame (triggered by a naïve hope disappointed – with the vat waiting), I stumbled on another approach in the teachings of Pema Chödrön.

pema-comAbout 13 years ago, a sponsee/friend moving away gifted me a 6-cassette Chödrön lecture series entitled “Awakening Compassion” that I always meant to listen to – even after I ditched my cassette player.  A few months ago, forced to do boring PT exercises nightly before bed, I tossed Tape #1 into an old boom-box; I’ve been listening for about 15 minutes per night ever since.  Pema keeps speaking about “the raw stuff” of life being more important than our mental evaluations of it, and of “the open heart” being like a “sea anemone” that doesn’t retract when disturbed, but rather “softens” to life. Meanwhile, because I’m lying on my yoga mat, my dog Cosmo keeps coming up and dropping his drooly tennis ball on my stomach or maybe my hair, hoping I’ll chuck it across the room for him one more time.  I keep aspiring toward Pema’s lofty wisdom and enlightenment, and then – PLOP!!  Ew!!

The other night I realized – PLOP!!  Ew!! – that Cosmo’s drooly ball and my reaction to it are precisely what Pema means by “the raw stuff” of life. In Cosmo’s place, put any people or conditions that don’t suit me – including unwelcome emotions.  Woven through Pema’s words is encouragement to love this life with an open heart, not retracting into slanted stories and shoulds.

louisa-cosmo-mt-si-2016

Me & Cos on Mt. Si

Whether I snap at Cosmo or whack at shame (“I shouldn’t feel this!”), I am closing my heart to what is, to life.  I don’t have to toss the ball every time, but Cos is almost 12 and before long I’ll lose him.  By the same token, I don’t have to buy into the story shame tells, but I can accept my dance with that emotion over the years as part of my human experience, which is likewise finite and precious.  In other words, much as I’ve learned to accept and forgive shortcomings in other people, so I can begin to practice the same love and tolerance within myself.  Whacking is never our only option.

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Codependence, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality