Category Archives: Alcoholism

Alcoholism and Rats

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,Good idea 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. Youralcohol death 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” [36], 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.  Anrat drinking alcohol 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.”

  1. Give up being special. Identify as alcoholic. Know we are no different or “smarter” than anyone else who died of alcoholism.
  2. Open our minds to something greater than us, a power beyond our thinking.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.best-in-1972

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.

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Filed under Addiction, Alcoholism, Drinking, Heavy drinkers

Compassion’s Spark: a 12th Step Call*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d really appreciate it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just help her.  Just love her.

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

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

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

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

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

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Postscript:  I had to find out…  🙂

screen-shot-2016-12-24-at-5-20-03-pm

Republished from 12 /2016

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

Holy Crap! I’m 27 years Sober!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OUT IN THE WORLD

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

WITHIN MYSELF:                    

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

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

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New Year’s FOMO and other Alcoholic Horsecrap

Reposting from 2015:

What is FOMO? Fear Of Missing Out.

It’s that sinking feeling that someplace you’re not, lots of amazingly cool people are having an absolutely stupendous time. Maybe there’s kickass music and people are lookin’ sharp n’sexy and having a fuckin’ blast and – oh my GAWD!!! Can you believe what those two did?! That is so hilariously outrageous! It’s not just goin’ a

Party-Dancing-Vector

ll over Facebook –it’s like a “fun times” montage out of a Hollywood flick! If you could be there mixin’ it up you’d feel – oh my god – so damn good! You’d be dialed into life, you’d be carpé-ing the fuckin’ diem all night long! But you’re missing it!

As Katie Perry sings:

Last Friday night

Yeah we danced on tabletops
And we took too many shots
Think we kissed but I forgot

Yeah we maxed our credit cards
And got kicked out of the bar
So we hit the boulevard

We went streaking in the park
Skinny dipping in the dark
Then had a ménage a trois

Yeah I think we broke the law
Always say we’re gonna stop-op
ooh-ohh*

Here’s what the song leaves out: live those lyrics and you end up with a busted ankle from falling off the damn tabletop, years of credit card debt, and maybe even salmonella because you skinny dipped in a fucking duck pond. You’re lucky if you don’t end up in jail with charges on your record or an STD from the ménage a trois with morons. Of course, it goes without saying that you’ve poisoned yourself again ‘til you’re heaving up bile.

Lets-party

No, Katie doesn’t really mention that part. Neither does your FOMO. It airbrushes away all those pesky consequences and lures us with the promise of a bright and shiny “great time.”

It’s Also Called Immaturity
For normies, FOMO spikes in youth when they’re highly peer-oriented, but as they mature into adulthood, FOMO diminishes to a rare blip on the screen. The trouble for alcoholics is, once again, our perspective is skewed.

Our disease carries many tricks in its bag. Though normies don’t understand, we often speak of it as having a mind of its own, exploiting whatever ploys avail themselves to keep us using or, in recovery, to trigger relapse. A lot of alcoholics crave adventure – a sense of living on the edge. So addiction broadcasts FOMO to persuade us that swallowing a neurotoxin is really the key to livin’ large.

Much like the craving for alcohol, alcoholic FOMO can never be satiated.

For example, New Year’s Eve of 1982, after snorting coke in the car and paying some absurdly high cover charge, my future (ex) husband and I sauntered into a hip and glitzy Boston nightclub. We scored a table near the dance floor, ordered champagne, and lit up our smokes. We danced. But at as the countdown for midnight approached I was struck by the realization I still recall so clearly: We were at the wrong club! The one down the street was way cooler! No one here was even worth impressing because they, too, had fallen for the wrong club! If only I’d known! If only we’d gone there! I was missing out!!

This pattern would repeat itself for over a decade. I never did find the right club or party or even picnic, because if I was there, a better one had to be someplace else.

Recovery = Reality
FOMO is really just another guise of codependence. It’s not actually a yearning for fun; it’s a belief that we can gain something that will deliver a shot of wellbeing by being seen in the right places doing the right things. At some level, we believe others hold the power to validate us, though we’re actually validating ourselves through projections of those people’s imagined esteem. The esteem has to seem to come from them to be any good – we can’t feel it simply by knowing and valuing ourselves.

More and more I’m convinced most alcoholics are also codependent. The source of pain for all codependents is an external locus of self-worth – often because we grew up in dysfunctional families where we did not get what we needed to develop a strong sense that we are loveable and worthy. We keep chasing and chasing it in others and never getting any closer.

While non-alcoholic (classic) codependents try to subdue their pain by concerning themselves with what others should do and ‘winning’ love by caretaking, alcoholic codependents subdue it not only with alcohol, but with attempts or impress and win

Codependent

over others, often becoming social chameleons and regarding friends as something like collectible baseball cards. Active alcoholics can’t really love our friends. We can only seek relief via people – and “love” that relief.

When we get sober, we begin to seek a higher power that can grant us the worth we’ve so desperately sought in all the wrong places. With guidance from sponsors and a growing sense of Good Orderly Direction, we can begin to live a life of integrity that lets us discover our worth as loving and lovable human beings.

But FOMO still nags at us to forget all that. It can wheedle into our minds at any time, but New Year’s Eve is its favorite holiday – especially for the newly sober.

The Big Book’s authors knew all about FOMO. While they do instruct us “not to avoid a place where there is drinking if we have a legitimate reason for being there” (p. 101), they also caution against attempting to “steal a little vicarious pleasure from the atmosphere of such places.” They warn us to “be sure you are on solid spiritual ground before you start and that your motive in going is thoroughly good.” Not just good – thoroughly good. In other words, don’t bullshit yourself.

In my almost 21 years sober, I’ve never found a thoroughly good reason to go hang with drinkers at a New Year’s Eve party. I prefer to usher in the new year with a good night’s sleep and a cushy set of earplugs. Sobriety fills my life to the brim, and I know it.

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* Katie Perry Lyrics – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdyfr4lU8sk
See also 6 Tips for Holiday Parties

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

Chapter 3, More About Alcoholism: My FAVORITE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Build a New Passion

Me and the BF in 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bumpy video from my phone holder here.

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

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

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

OSAT Glacier Climbing Class of ’19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Broken Brains; Divine Rescue

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

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

Step A: WAKE feeling like absolute shit.

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

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

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

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

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

hamster-wheel

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

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

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

“What happened?!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

DIVINE RESCUE is a partnership.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

scroll

 

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Hard Drinker vs. Real Alcoholic

Moderate drinkers have little trouble in giving up liquor entirely if they have good reason for it. They can take it or leave it alone.

Then we have a certain type of hard drinker. …If a sufficiently strong reason — ill health, falling in love, change of environment, or the warning of a doctor — becomes operative, this man can also stop or moderate, although he may find it difficult and troublesome and may even need medical attention.

But what about the real alcoholic? He may start off as a moderate drinker; he may or may not become a continuous hard drinker; but at some stage of his drinking career he begins to lose all control of his liquor consumption, once he starts to drink.

Chapter 2, “There is a Solution,” Alcoholics Anonymous

Unfortunately, most of the public is clueless about the difference between a hard drinker and an alcoholic. Hard drinking is a habit that can be overcome with willpower. Alcoholism is a condition no amount of will power can cure. As the Big Book says, “If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic.”

Few perches in life are more uncomfortable than knowing you’re an alcoholic but refusing to accept that fact.  Denial is, however, a primary symptom of the disease.  I myself spent a number of years there before I hit bottom, i.e. the point when all fight for what I wanted was drained from me and I had to square with what was true.

If you’re an alcoholic still clinging to whatever pretext will enable you to drink, I have bad news: Certain things really are true.  Regardless of what props you drum up to disguise it, the truth is still there. And if you’re a real alcoholic clinging to the delusion that you’re only a hard drinker, the fact is that no matter how ironclad your resolutions to stop or control your drinking, only two outcomes are possible:

A) After a short pause, you drink again.

B) A rarity, but it does happen: you manage by sheet obstinacy to remain dry but are permanently restless, irritable, and discontent — i.e. “dry drunk.”

Hard Drinkers
Before they resolve to stop drinking, hard drinkers may appear indistinguishable from alcoholics.

For example, two of my relatives drank hard for over a decade. This couple worked so hard and lived at such a frenetic, globe-trotting pace that they simply could not wind down without cocktails. When staying for a visit, they would put away a gallon of vodka in a matter of days. More than once they announced they were going  “on the wagon,” only to be drinking hard again in a few months.  They were gradually gaining weight, their faces often flushed and bloated. I suspected alcoholism.

But then one day, one of them was informed by his physician that his alcohol intake was harming both his heart and his liver. The doctor warned that, if he wanted to regain his health and live into old age, he would have to stop drinking. The two, who love each other deeply, took this diagnosis seriously.

Here’s the astounding part: They both stopped drinking, slowing the pace of their lives to reduce stress levels. A year later, they’re both slim, healthy, and happy teetotalers. Perhaps COVID-19 has helped out a bit with the easier pace of living, but the fact remains that they simply decided to quit and it has stuck.

Why were they able?  These two were hard drinkers — not alcoholics.

Real Alcoholics
Now let’s look at my dad and me.

Twenty-four years before his death to alcoholic cardiomyopathy, my dad developed gout while touring Europe with my mother. A Spanish doctor diagnosed his condition and advised him to cut out alcohol and fatty foods, so my dad decided the doctor was a fool.

Twelve years before my father died, his doctor warned him that alcohol consumption had enlarged  his liver (see How Alcohol Fucks Up Your Body) and shrunk his brain (see How Alcoholism Fucks Up Your Brain). My father’s reaction? The doctor was exaggerating. As his condition progressed and these warning grew more severe, Dad switched doctors. His new doctor — what a coincidence! — insisted Dad cease drinking for two weeks. During this time Dad consumed many bottles of alcohol-free wine and was so tense, angry, and miserable that Mom couldn’t wait for the two weeks to be up so he could drink again, which he continued until heart failure took his life.

Chip off the ole’ block that I am, I’d begun trying to decrease my drinking by the age of 23. My few friends had cut back on drinking post-college, so I tried to as well — except when I didn’t! Yes, I made resolutions to drink less, not just at New Years but ANY time I was ghastly hungover (i.e. most mornings) — resolutions I was able to stand by for a good 5 hours!  After that, a drink began to sound, for the zillionth time, like a good idea.  So I “changed my mind” and drank.

As the Big Book explains,

We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink.

As my ability to cope with life deteriorated (see Addiction Memoir), various therapists diagnosed me with alcoholism. I dismissed them as fuddy-duddies. In retrospect, I’m fortunate that I was less able than my father to maintain a stable work and home life, as the pain of my dysfunction eventually led me, at age 34, to seek sobriety in AA.

Free at Last
I adore and respect the memory of my father, who lived with honor despite his suffering. When Dad’s spirit came to me about a year ago (as I’ll describe in an upcoming post), I was seeking to make contact with the man I’d lost twelve years before.  To my amazement, my father’s energy burst upon me with the vitality he’d radiated in my childhood: he was powerful, confident, and — I’ll just say it — charismatic as he delivered to me his message of unconditional love. On the other side, no longer buried under the poison, lies, and pain of our shared disease, his spirit was proud of me, his look-alike daughter, for my now (in 3 weeks!) 26 years sober.

We two in 1978

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Alone is a Dangerous Neighborhood

These are some crazy days, right?

My mom, who was born in 1926, says these times are way more stressful than those of WWII. Yeah, it sucked reading in headlines every morning of Hitler’s victories and advances, London and Paris getting the shit bombed out of them, and Japanese war planes sinking ship after American ship, but it felt soooo different, she explains, because the country was united. “When you’ve got patriotism,” she says, “you’ve got a lot. Everything was about sacrificing this and that for the war effort. We had no butter. If you bought shoes, they fell apart. Even rubber bands weren’t made of rubber because it was needed in the war effort. But you felt the whole country was on the same page, and everyone was doing their part.”

Today, in the midst of a pandemic, about half of Americans are on one page, and half on a completely opposite one, with a few Flat-Earthers and QAnoners mixed in. Why this insane division? Watch The Social Dilemma to find out.

Meanwhile, though, let’s talk about alcoholism/addiction during the pandemic. Drinking in the US is up by 14%, according to this study by the American Medical Association. Overdose deaths, already surging to tragically high numbers, have spiked an additional 18% beyond this time last year. People in general are overwhelmed with fears because they can’t pay their rent/mortgage or because there’s nowhere to escape the turmoil of either family life or the endless solitude of living alone, so they slide into depression.

We humans are social creatures, and without outlets to get together or at least immerse ourselves in the hubbub of public life, we languish. But even worse for alcoholics and addicts, our regular AA and NA meetings have been shut down.  People are relapsing.

What happens to an alcoholic mind in solitude?  I will take myself as a lab rat to describe some of the symptoms I’ve noticed.

    • FOMO and jealousy: Everyone else is having fun — damn them!  With all my work remote, part of me feels I ought to be able to work from anywhere in the world — especially since I’ve already had COVID-19. But here’s reality: I have a house, four chickens, and a geriatric dog who sometimes can’t get up and poops in the house. In my book, friends don’t euthanize friends just because they poop inopportunely, so I am STUCK AT HOME. When I see Facebook posts by friends on road trips or, worse still, traveling the world on cheap airfares, jealousy eats my lunch.
    •  Mystery Self-Criticism: Our minds are wired to notice and zoom in on potential problems. Tara Brach talks about this from an evolutionary perspective: our early ancestors on the sharp lookout for whatever could go wrong tended to survive better, so our brains evolved something called negativity bias.  We not only dwell on past negative events, but try to anticipate future ones. If this watchfulness surges out of control, we develop anxiety.

Now, I don’t want anxiety, so I quit following the news and hid people on social media whose posts upset me. But I’ve found that, with no one else around to criticize, instead of vanishing, ALL my negativity bias turns inward on myself. As if afflicted with some kind of auto-judgment disorder, my thinking targets ME: You’re doing something wrong. You’re way too ____.  My inner critic can’t even come up with a real fault, but no matter — it just hovers like some persistent yellow jacket above the picnic plate of my mind.

    • Self-Centered Self-Pity: I often catch myself feeling, in some completely irrational way, as if the pandemic were happening to me. I can’t go to real AA meetings; I can’t go to parties; I can’t see a film or performance in a theater. I have to work from home and wear a dumb mask every time I shop. What?! The whole world’s experiencing the same?
    • Loneliness, gloom, and helplessness: Will this thing EVER end? Will I be stuck alone in my house FOREVER?  I’m so BORED of everything! What can we DO?

All the above are forms of discontent: I want life to be different than it is.  And THAT, my friends, is the feeling that led so many of us to drink in the first place.

Just as I can’t control the parts of my brain that generate FOMO, self-criticism, and the rest, many newly sober alcoholics can’t silence the part that tells them a drink would make everything better. In my case, god somehow struck that voice with laryngitis about 24 years ago, so the best it can do is a hoarse whisper: A drink would be nice!  To me, that suggestion sounds about as believable as Arsenic would be nice!  Putting your hand down the sink’s garbage disposal would be nice!  Actually, I don’t have a garbage disposal, but if I did, the prospect of drinking would appeal to me about as much.

As for addressing my discontent, I have the tools of daily meditation, turning it over via Step 3, and offering service to others, whether by listening on the phone or, today, massaging my mom’s gnarly foot to help heal her leg incision. The point is, I get out of myself.

To those of you who struggle, I offer this essential key to all spiritual growth: Don’t believe your thoughts. Don’t hang out alone with them — it’s DANGEROUS! Reach out to trusted others, like your sponsor, sober friends, and sober people who’ve given you their phone number. Call them, meet them for masked walks.

Better still, go to Zoom AA meetings and tell on yourself! You can travel the whole world in AA Zoom.

HERE is a list of Zoom AA meetings from the Seattle Area.

HERE is a list of Zoom AA meetings from Great Britain.

HERE is a list of Zoom AA meetings from Ireland (accents can be a trip!)

HERE is a list of English-language online AA meetings from all over Europe.

HERE is a converter to help you figure out the time difference.

You can download Zoom software free from HERE.

And, of course, know you’re always welcome to drop in on my homegroup, Salmon Bay, which meets Fridays 7:30-9:00 Pacific Time right HERE.

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Sick with COVID-19: Lessons from a nasty virus

From late February into early March, I battled a respiratory illness I feared might be COVID-19, but then I got better. I’d started climbing mountains again — just boring ones to condition for major summer ascents.  Then on 3/22, I was in the middle of an online yoga class when it happened: a shadow eclipsed my energy just as the moon slides over the sun.  It’s a moment I’ll remember all my life.

Dramatic as the shift was, I made myself finish the class before collapsing in a sloppy shavasana in some sunbeams on my carpet. Having mostly stayed home for some time, I didn’t know where I’d been exposed, but I sensed a major storm on the horizon and realized I had to shop while I still could.

Day 1 – hit by a bus

The next morning, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus. I woke dazed. Weak. My living room, when I toddled into it, looked surreal, as though the furniture were floating an inch or two above the floor. My ears roared and I could not think. Our electronic thermometer read 97.4°.  I stuck it in a glass of hot water: 97.4°.  Great.  All the drug stores and websites were out of stock, I knew.

The idea of phoning the local test line and waiting to get through, then getting vetted or whatever, and perhaps actually driving somewhere to wait in a car line seemed about as doable as climbing Mount Rainier that afternoon.  I once had Dengue fever with a temp of 104°, and this felt worse.

Around 11:00 that morning, I decided a fresh orange might help. I had a bag of navel oranges, so I stood in the kitchen peeling one. But instead of the peel curling off in one piece, as with a tangerine, all I could  pull off were pieces maybe the size of my thumb or thumbnail.  I kept trying to roll off a strip, and the peel kept breaking. Each time, I felt more overwhelmed. Finally, setting down the half peeled-orange, I thought, Why, oh why, did I imagine I could DO this?!  Oh my god!  Oranges are so stupid!  My face was, I’m sure, a mask of Greek tragedy.  I wanted to cry.

That’s another moment I’ll never forget.  But I’m too sick now to keep writing.  More tomorrow.

[Got worse again. Took a 3-day break]

What I’ve noticed over the course of my illness (I’m al-most well after 2 weeks) is that my experience with COVID-19 in many ways mirrored my experience with alcoholism. I like to think, at 25 years sober, that my reactions to life have transformed through working the steps.  But dancing with this illness has shown me they haven’t. It’s only my AWARENESS of reactions to life that have changed.  And that awareness usually arrives, unfortunately, only in retrospect.

Stage 1: Hangover / wiped out by initial symptoms
After a binge, I would always feel like death warmed over. In my longing to feel okay, I’d make all kinds of resolutions to live in a healthier way. Similarly, when I first got C-19, I vowed to do all I could to help my body fight it.

Day 3 – doin’ great!

Stage 2: Feeling Better / business as usual
As soon as the worst of my hangover used to pass, I’d start rationalizing why it was fine for me to have a “cocktail” or “nice glass of wine,” etc.  After all, I was way smarter than your average alcoholic, and I’d be able to manage my drinking.  Similarly, as soon as I felt somewhat better from COVID-19 on Day 3,  I dismissed all my resolutions about helping my body.  Pride kicked in: Wasn’t I super fit?  Hadn’t a doctor told me just a week before that my blood pressure was ideal for someone 40 years younger?  I’d shrug off this virus like a 20-year-old!  I started working online with 2 clients a day, still washing dishes, caring for the pets, and trying to tidy up after my son who, home from college, was sick, too.  By Friday, Day 6, I was teaching 4 clients a day, though my doctor had confirmed COVID-19 through a virtual visit.

Stage 3: Seeing insanity / getting scared
When did I recognize that alcoholism was going to kill me? Those moments were awash in so many symptoms of end-stage alcoholism (depression/despair, distorted thinking, self-loathing, etc.) that the memory is hard to tease out. But there came a day when I glimpsed my own self-destructive insanity. With COVID-19, on Day 6, my ribs were tight and I’d lost some sense of smell, but I found these symptoms somehow amusing and went ahead teaching.  Then, while the last client was taking a bathroom break, I coughed.

My lungs, I discovered, were thoroughly congested.  They sounded like bagpipes.  Horrified, I called my doctor, who prescribed an inhaler.

Stage 4: Hitting bottom / reaching out
Surrender comes only when we’ve exhausted every other option. In 1995, I attended my first AA meeting as an alternative to suicide. With COVID-19, on Day 7 I realized neither the inhaler nor breathing steam was making a dent in the lung congestion. The virus was dug-in and thriving. I recognized that I was 59 years old and this virus was too mutated for my habituated immune system to trump. I felt the fringes of panic, hyperventilating with my tight, constricted ribs.

That’s when I called a New York man with whom I’d never spoken before. We’d attended the same college but not known each other then. What I DID know through a mutual friend was that he had COVID-19 and was one week ahead of me.  I used Facebook messenger to leave a desperate, rambling voicemail. He called back.

Day 7 – humbled

“Are you staying in bed?” he asked.
“No.” My To-Do list and mortgage payment came to mind. “I can’t.”
“Well, you need to,” he said. “You need to stop everything.”
“Yeah, but I –”
“Just stop.  Just get in bed.  You need to make getting well your only work.”

Stage 5: Willingness
So you know what I did?  I got in bed.  I cancelled all my clients and  stayed in bed for 5 days. The house became a pig sty. I signed up for Netflix and binge-watched Giri/Haji. And because two nurses advised it, in addition to steaming and gargling with salt water and spraying Simply Saline up my nose 3 x a day, I went for a brisk 30-minute walk each day to work my lungs, streaming with sweat and being vigilant to stay at least 20 feet from other pedestrians.

After following this regime for 4 days, I hit my first pink cloud.  During my walk on day 11, I suddenly felt a little energy spurt.  I felt almost normal for a brief window and could see the beauty of the world.  The cherry blossoms were out, and so were whole families who loved each other.  I heard laughter and squeals; I saw a mom teaching her son to ride a bike, running alongside him while the dad, carrying a little one, called out excitedly, “You’ve got it!  You’ve got it!”

I wept, thinking how beautiful life is, what a magnificent journey it is to inhabit a body and be part of the material world, even with all its trials and tribulations.

Stage 6: Gratitude and Service
Today is Day 15 and I’m not well, but I’m feeling vastly better. My lungs have cleared — just a tad wheezy — and my temperature is down (my mom mailed me a spare thermometer).  Headache and fatigue are my sole symptoms.  Friends have showered me with well-wishes, groceries, take-out, and home-cooked meals dropped on my doorstep.  I finally got tested three days ago and will probably hear back tomorrow.

But someone else is getting tested as well: my almost-94-year-old mom’s primary caregiver.  Mom lives  alone, usually with hired help, but until the test results come back, no caregiver will visit.  If the caregiver’s test comes back positive and my mom proves infected, I’ll be able to move back home to take care of her, tag-teaming with my son (who recovered in just 3 days).  Further, once I’ve got my official test results in hand and am 100% healthy, I’ll qualify to donate my hard-earned antibodies in plasma to help others recover.

I may even try to organize my AA fellows who’ve likewise recovered from C-19 to offer services to quarantined sick people who lack a supportive circle of friends such as we’re blessed with in the program.

In other words, exactly as with recovery from alcoholism, my difficult past — all the pains and fears I’ve walked through in fighting this virus — will make me more useful to others.  And to that, I look forward eagerly.

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Day 14 – much better

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PS: Mom’s caregiver tested negative.  So far, so good.

PPS: I continued to feel ill for 5 weeks.  😦 

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