Category Archives: Alcoholism

My Big Fat Dead Mosquito

Everywhere I look, I see a big fat dead mosquito. Over the years, this insect has taught me a lot about life.

It’s inside my eyeball. Hiking across Glacier National Park in 2007 (left), at the moment I reached Triple Divide Pass, the spot where waters flow into three different oceans, it happened: a big fat dead mosquito appeared against the bright sky, like bunny ears cast on a movie screen. I could see the head and proboscis on its body, from which dangled several crumpled legs.

Having good insurance in those days, I soon saw an ophthalmologist who referred me to an expensive specialist with a computerized magnification system that let him tour around in my eyeball as if it were a museum. He looked and looked, asking me to move my eyes in various directions. Finally he scooted back from the machine.

“You’re right,” he said. “It looks like a big fat dead mosquito.”

Unfortunately, he explained, nothing could be done.  A clump of cells had sloughed off my hyaloid canal, which connects the lens and optic nerve, but was still attached, drifting about in my ocular fluid and casting this distinctive shadow on my retina. Even if I’d wanted surgery, the risk to my optic nerve would be too great. Perhaps in time the cells would fall off and settle, like most floaters, to the bottom of my eyeball. Until then, he said, I’d just have to live with it.

Twelve years have passed, but my Big Fat Dead Mosquito (BFDM) has not. Often it floats far enough toward the front of my eyeball to become blurry and easily ignored, like bunny ears flashed too close to the projector. But every few months, it moves toward the back so its shape jumps out at me in all its buggy detail.  I look fast to the right, and it continues drifting after my eye stops.  That sort of thing.

Teachings from the BFDM

At first I was, as you can imagine, severely bummed at this permanent visual impairment, as in, “You’re fucking kidding me — I’m gonna look at this thing the rest of my life?!” But as a sober alcoholic, I can’t afford to hang out in victimhood (“poor me, poor me, pour me another drink…”).  So early on I decided to make the BFDM into a symbol of that very fact: I have alcoholism.  I did not ask for it.  Yet when sorted according to the Serenity Prayer’s flawless rubric, both my alcoholism and my BFDM fell into the same category: “things I cannot change.”

This strategy worked well.  Whenever I’d be contemplating a puffy white cloud in a lovely blue sky, and across it would glide, like the Goodyear blimp, the looming shape of my BFDM, I would practice acceptance.  Ditto sunsets, snow covered mountains, and, of course any large, white wall.  I had no choice but to share them with this squashed bug, just as I had no choice but to go to AA meetings, do 12 step work with sponsors and sponsees, and, of course, not drink booze for the rest of my life. I would think something like this: “Hey there, mosquito.  I guess you’re with me for good, just like alcoholism.”

Years passed, and while the mosquito remained, my sense of alcoholism as a burden did not. I came to recognize that god had actually done me a huge favor by making me alcoholic, forcing me to choose between paths of self-destruction and spiritual growth. I began to see that even normal drinkers are bullshitting themselves when they drink — denying damage to their brain and body, imagining they’re more fond of others than they truly are, and denying themselves the practice of manually breaking down ego’s barriers to trust and affection. I saw that not only are all paths to wisdom and integrity at best obscured and at worst blocked by alcohol, but that the 12 steps offered a me stairway to happiness I’d never have found without AA.

Gradually, the BFDM morphed as well, becoming a symbol for something else: compassion. When I’d be talking to someone in bright light and they’d remain oblivious to the huge squashed insect bobbing around their face, I’d be reminded of the subjective nature of experience.  That person had no idea I was having to ignore a BFDM to be fully present, and by the same token, I knew nothing of the the various obstructions through which they saw me: scars they carried, fears they battled, emotional distortions they couldn’t help.  I learned to temper my judgements, thinking, “Hey there, mosquito.  Ain’t it true that I’ve never walked a day in this other person’s shoes?”

 

 

Then, about eight years after it first popped into my vision, the BFDM finally lost its legs. Today only the head and body remain — a shape most would describe as blob, and I alone think of as a big fat dead mosquito amputee (BFDMA). During these past few years, compassion has become reflex for me, while frequent contact with the Near-Death Experience community has  homogenized my faith in god — meaning not that my god is a dairy product but that the power of my faith no longer comes and goes.  I know in every moment of consciousness that god is real, god is love, and that a vast spirit realm is rooting for humanity from the sidelines as we try to untangle the childish mess we’ve made of our world.

Today, whenever by my BFDMA meanders close enough to my retina to cast its distinctive shadow, I am overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude to my maker: “Hey there, mosquito. Can you believe I have a fucking movie screen inside my skull? A surface of cells so sensitive to the universe’s energy (borne by little photons that bounce off everything) that it can encode the patterns received and send them into my consciousness??  Who made us, BFDMA?  Who guided the astounding evolution of this gift, and what a spoiled brat am I that the tiny malfunction of you — a few fallen cells — once upset me??”

The soul grows not by addition but by subtraction. So said Meister Eckhart.  Today, the mere fact that I am alive inside a fantastic machine that lets me navigate a beauty-filled world, forging a unique path represented by my quirky shadow friend — this alone is a miracle worthy of constant rejoicing.

 

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Filed under Alcoholism, Faith, Serenity Prayer, Spirituality

Inner and/vs. Outer Change

When I was new to AA, some of the 12 steps struck me as filler to make an even dozen. Being smarter than anyone else in the world, I could see that just 6 steps would’ve done the trick: 3, 5, 7, 9, 10 & 12. These steps all tell us to do something. The others deal with internal shifts that, it seemed to me, could be made instantaneously.

As usual, I was totally wrong.

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous who, in 1938, created the 12 steps understood that spiritual change is no overnight matter, and that actions carried out with no internal change are meaningless. Rather, the steps are about collaborating with a higher power to gradually transform who we are, how we perceive our place in the world, and how we treat others. It’s a metamorphosis that lasts all our lives.

For example, Step 9 involves action: we make amends to those we have harmed, but without an internal Step 8, we can inadvertently inflict more harm. Someone recently asked me to look over a draft of a 9th step amends letter that — I found — was actually a more-about-me letter. It opened, not with well wishes for the recipient or acknowledgement that hearing from one who hurt them years ago might come as a surprise, but what was up with the writer: “I’ve been thinking about….” After a quick note that “I am not proud of the way I…,” the writer summarized what she was doing to heal herself. The next paragraph explained the family of origin stuff from which she needed to heal. In closing, she urged the recipient to celebrate family events together with her for the sake of their adult children.

Now for you reading this, it’s probably not rocket science to see that the letter was self-centered. The goal of the 9th step is to repair harms we did to others. The first part of doing so is to speak the truth about what happened. But what if we still can’t see the truth because we’re still trapped in our self-centered view of the world?

To the writer of this letter, the fact that she was even daring to contact this person and acknowledge that she struggled with emotional issues seemed an amends. I know because 24 years ago, just a few months into sobriety, I sent an identically selfish letter to someone I’d hurt in much the same way.

Neither of us had taken time to work through Step 8 — the inner process of “became willing to make amends.” We assumed that “willing” meant only mustering the gumption to dive in. But part of willing is becoming able.  If I claim, for example, that I am willing to recite the Gettysburg address from memory, and I jump right in saying, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers…” but then run out of steam after a few lines, was I ever really willing to recite it? Doesn’t that willingness entail respect for the content, for the work involved in learning it fully?

By the same token, Step 8 means we become willing to re-see our past behavior through the new lens god has helped us craft via Steps 1 through 7. We put ourselves in the place of the person we harmed, and we break down exactly what we did wrong.  Years after sending that half-baked “amends” letter, when I actually reached Step 8, my kickbutt sponsor had me write the words selfish, dishonest, and thoughtless as three headings under which to categorize my actions with a given person. If and only if the person knew of these harms, when I met with them or wrote them a letter, I said, “I was selfish when I chose to…. I was dishonest when I…,” etc.  At the end, I had to ask them what, if anything, I’d omitted and what, if anything, I could do to set things right.  Last week, I tried to steer the letter writer in that same direction.

God is not stoked for us to beat up on ourselves. God doesn’t want us to grovel. But god is huge on honesty — HUGE! — because god is all about the truth. To be more precise, god is the truth, the foundation of all that is. But honesty with ourselves is no easy matter!  It’s a frontier, a journey of removing delusion after delusion, because we’re born self-centered and, experiencing life subjectively, grow up with a foundational conviction that “it’s all about me.”

To reprogram that operating system even a little requires god’s help. As the Big Book says, “Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help” (p. 62).

Keno and Cos

Keno and Cos, 2011

When my son was little, I used to try to teach him about self-centeredness by having our dog say (he talks like Patrick from SpongeBob), “It’s such a waste of food when you guys eat, because things only taste good when I eat them!”  My son would get so upset arguing with Cosmo (well, me), trying to explain that he, too, tasted things! “No you don’t,” Cosmo’s voice would counter. “It never tastes when you eat. Not even a little!”

In some ways, my old “amends letter” and this new one were coming from Cosmo’s mindset: “Dear person: All these things were going on (for me) when I deceived you for as long as possible before jettisoning you for someone else.  You should figure out how it felt to be me, and have compassion, and that will change your perspective of how it was to be you, so I’ll be helping you.”

No.  God’s truth is far more simple: “There is a right way to treat people, and there’s a wrong way — and I did wrong. I deeply regret those selfish choices, but I no longer live that way.  I am here in a new spirit to ask what reparations I can make.”

Boom! Powered by god’s love, we can step out of Cosmo’s me-world. All the internal steps are essential to right action.  How can we admit or ask god to remove character defects that we can’t see or are still practicing? The most powerful prayers are always requests for guidance: “Help me see where I am bullshitting myself.  Help me see more as you see.”

 

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Step 9, Twelve Steps

Victimhood, Martyrdom, and Other Codependent Poses

I’ve already written a kick-ass post on Self-Pity (Just Say NO to Self-Pity), but today I’d like to discuss its cousins, victimhood and martyrdom. Life becomes such an incredible teacher if we stay sober and pay attention to our part in things, past and present!  Drinking, we’re carried down the same old rivers of emotion our egos generate, over and over, never questioning their truth. Sober, we can learn to see from new angles.

It’s easy for me to look back at my drinking days and see that I cast myself in the victim role for a good reason: it absolved me of all responsibility for my own happiness. Lacking a connection to god, I clung to people, places, and things with the sense that they should respond to me in ways that buoyed me up.  They didn’t.  Or maybe they seemed to for a while, but more and more as my drinking progressed, unfair circumstances seemed to pile up against me.

I blamed others and developed resentments, or blamed myself and wallowed in self-loathing, but I never questioned the whole enterprise of trying to make things happen. I didn’t want to look at my model for interactions, my mindset, or the patterns of my perceptions.

That’s what a fourth step allows. And as we continue to grow in sobriety, additional fourth steps yield insights even deeper and more fundamental, until our whole weltanschauung evolves.  That’s what’s so exciting about recovery through an earnest application of the 12 steps as opposed to just quitting drinking: the whole universe changes!

I began to recognize that the vending machine ethic I’d applied to interacting with others — I put in my chit of friendliness and you deliver a soda of doing what I want — was selfish.  It began to dawn on me, first, that I loved no one truly for themselves and, second, that I didn’t actually need a soda from anyone, because god was a constant wellspring of love. Eventually, I could approach others in a spirit of curiosity, empathy, and usefulness rather than need.  It’s way more fun.

Martyrdom was my favorite posture in romantic relationships. Because throughout my childhood the supply of love in our alcoholic home varied drastically between romping, playful, inebriated evenings and tense, brittle, hungover mornings, I developed a belief that I had to make people love me. The best way to do that, I assumed, was to be whatever I gathered they wanted me to be.

In relationship after relationship, I effaced myself in hopes of earning “good partner” points. Yet, infuriatingly, my partners usually took for granted all my “sacrifices.”  They seemed to assume I was just doing what I wanted.  This led to preposterous arrangements like my teaching classes at three local colleges while pregnant so I could put my partner through school, taking only two weeks off to give birth; my buying gifts and celebrating Christmas with family members who had just mocked and ridiculed my addiction memoir on Facebook; and my continuing a relationship with a relapsed, selfish alcoholic whose job placed him in distant hotels 85% of the time.

These were choices I made, but at the time each seemed a movie plot I was stuck in. Leave the relationship? Who would I be?!  Not participate with family?  Wasn’t it better to be “loving” by doing whatever other people wanted? And didn’t god see how I sacrificed and suffered? Wasn’t I earning some kind of selfless saint award in the greater scheme of things?

In fact, god did see how I was sacrificing and, with a sigh, rolled consequences into my life to teach me to knock that shit off.  In both relationships, grotesque sexual betrayals ended what I could not, and with toxic family, a big fat cancer diagnosis drove me to assert boundaries and focus on taking care of me.

The shift of weltanschauung was giving up control I never had to begin with.  I can’t make anyone love or respect me.  I can’t do anything the “right” way.  I can’t even know anything for certain!  I can just be me and do what’s next: clean house, trust god, help others.  Keep trying my best.  The results are up to god whether I struggle or not.

Artwork by Nic J. Bass

And yet.  Victimhood still calls to me seductively like a siren among the rocks: Be wronged!  Feel hurt!  Retreat into the familiar cave of suffering where you huddle with that precious, lonely ache of being unloveable. It calls with the lure of false freedom because, again, whenever I go there, I don’t have to look for truth or try new ways.  I don’t have to figure out my part in the problem.  I can just slump into my victimhood, stagnant.

I’ve known people who were downright addicted to victimhood and suffering like a drug they went back to again and again.  Such people can take a benign and insignificant situation and inflate it into a colossal source of pain because they need drama, they need suffering as the most familiar landmarks in their navigation of life. Without this anguish, in a life of light, hope, and constructive action, they’re utterly lost.  There’s nothing to obsess over and they miss the grand self-importance that victimhood lets us feel.

I’ll admit it takes some getting used to — a life of humble happiness and cheer in the simple events of the day, a focus on what’s good and growing, and the simple okayness of me and you here now.  I can’t write intense short stories anymore (I won prizes as a drunk) now that I don’t hate the world.  But believe it or not, we move closer to god, closer to heaven, when we let go the weight of dramatic suffering.

Most important, we keep learning more about how to break out of old patterns and, in passing these tools on, offer healing to others as we used to spread hurt.

 

 

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Filed under Adult Children of Alcoholics, Al-Anon, Alcoholism, Codependence, Codependent Martyr, Recovery, Self-worth, Sobriety, Spirituality

Kindness is The Shit

If you were to accomplish nothing more in life than treating everyone (including yourself) with GENUINE KINDNESS, you’d have fulfilled your ultimate purpose on earth — at least as far as god is concerned.

June

As a teen and a young alcoholic, I poo-pooed kindness as a prissy bow that conformists like June Cleaver pinned on their words. In the atheist home where I grew up, I got the idea that achievement was all that mattered — getting to the top, impressing the right people.

But I was never smart enough. Never fast enough, never funny enough, never liked enough. I felt empty and alone. So I needed to tap-dance harder, always harder. And I needed that warm haven alcohol granted me to shut down the show every night.

Emma

“Thank you, it’s good to see you, I’m so sorry for your pain, is there something I can do to help?”  — fluffy phrases like those, they were useless. James Dean and Emma Peel sure AF didn’t waste time on shit like that, and I wasn’t going to, either. I was going for badassery, not nice girl.

Flash forward through hitting bottom, getting sober, and staying sober 23 years; toss in a Near Death Experience (NDE) and 15 paranormal after-effects that have happily married to my every thought an awareness of the afterlife and omnipresent spirit world, and you have a grateful woman who views life quite differently.

Kindness is everything.  It’s why we’re here.

Writing for the Seattle IANDS newsletter this past year, I’ve interviewed six people who, like me, have died and come back with memories from the other side.  All bring back the same message of kindness; so did all the NDE speakers I heard at the IANDS conference this past summer.

These people, who told me their stories over Skype, had died in various ways: in car accidents, from severe illness, drug overdose, hyponatremia and other causes.

Life after Life: Artwork by Cory Habbas

After recognizing their own lifeless bodies below them, several encountered spirits who showed them “life reviews” — more or less movies covering their lives from birth to the present, except that now they could feel the experience of everyone their actions touched.

For every person who has reviewed their life with loving spirit guides, the focus has centered on one issue only: did they help or harm?  Were they loving or selfish?  In most life reviews, NDErs were shown how the kindness or cruelty they passed to others, even in the most casual interactions, rippled out throughout the world to endless effect.

For example, Howard Storm, an atheist prior to his NDE, an ordained pastor since, told me this:

“They showed me episodes starting when I was born. Watching each scene, I could feel not just my feelings but the other people’s…. Events I thought of as the entire goal and purpose of my life got passed right over — first art exhibit, big promotion, zzzip!

“They’d say, ‘Let’s get to something really important!’ and show me interacting with my kid or talking with a student. There I’d be sitting in my office with a student coming to me with a personal problem, and I’d be looking compassionate, but on the inside bored out of my head, you know, checking the ole’ watch under the desk and thinking, ‘I don’t have time to listen to this drivel all day!’  I could feel that my lack of compassion and kindliness for others caused [my guardian angels] great sadness. They never said ‘That’s good, that’s bad,’ but I could feel it – almost as if I were gut-punching them.”

True kindness is the flower of love.  Love is what animates our bodies and, in fact, what powers the totality of the universe. Notice that Howard faked caring toward the student who opened his heart to him. The student couldn’t read Howard’s selfishly impatient mind, but god and the guardian angels could! What gut-punched them was Howard’s indifference — his missed opportunity to share the flowers of Love.

Another NDEr, Barbara Ireland, told me this:

“I said, ‘If I choose go with you, what happens to all my half-done screenplays, to all the music I want to put out?’ And the voice answered, ‘Oh, Barbara, those things don’t really matter!’ And I was like, ‘—Really?!’  It said, ‘What matters are relationships. If your work opens someone’s heart or connects you to them, then, yes, it’s valuable. But the main thing is what you leave behind you in everyday life, like the wake of a boat on the water. Do you leave behind happiness, do you lift people up? Or do you judge them, bring them down, compete, compare yourself with them?”

Recovering alcoholics, life reviews should ring a bell with you.  Of what could this possibly remind us, this looking back at one’s life to see where we’ve shown up in a spirit of compassion, kindness, and usefulness to others, versus where we acted with selfish indifference?  Hmm…

Could it be Steps 4 & 5 — seeing how our self-centeredness, our resentments, our fears kept us from offering love and tolerance? When we read a thorough Step 5 with a wise sponsor, we’re getting the benefit of a Life Review without having to die.

For me, working Steps 4 through 9 brought amazing freedom. Recognizing the fear-driven blinders my ego kept putting on me, then extending human decency to those I had harmed — these actions sprang me out of the guilt and shame of knowing I’d left a trail of garbage behind me. They cleared away burden I’d been drinking to ease time and time again.

Kindness brings self worth. When we grant every person who crosses our path dignity and respect, whether we silently wish them well, offer a smile, or go so far as seeking to be of service, we’re becoming that “channel of thy peace” that opens the Saint Francis prayer.  As god flows through us, the light we convey to others heals us as well.  AA’s “one alcoholic helping another” is founded on this very freebie.

Sometimes others aren’t ready to receive the goodwill we offer.  Oh well.  Flowers emanate beautiful scents and colors regardless of whether any bees are around.  It’s just what they’re here to do.

 

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Filed under Alcoholism, God, NDE, Near Death Experience, Recovery, Self-worth, Spirituality

Top 10 Lies Alcoholism Tells the Alcoholic

Dying was particularly difficult for my dad. He’d lived a wonderful outward life — excelling in his career, mentoring others, and serving his family — yet he was tortured by one huge regret: He’d never been deep-down honest with himself.  For over 50 years, he’d believed his own lies around how much he drank — although, strictly speaking, they weren’t his lies.  They were the lies alcoholism tells every alcoholic.

I’m an Near Death Experiencer, and as an aftereffect, I occasionally read minds without trying. For two days and one night while my father lay dying, I “heard” his thoughts and dreamed his struggles. He couldn’t speak, but, sensing he was on his deathbed, he saw the truth: “Deep down I knew! Every day I thought, tomorrow I’ll drink less, but every tomorrow I drank away again. Life was so vivid and precious, but I muffled mine under a shroud of alcohol.  And now it’s over!”

Before we list alcoholism’s lies, let’s consider a definition of the disease itself* according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine and Journal of American Medicine:

Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease [that]… is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by continuous or periodic impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial.

Note that this definition says nothing about joblessness or homelessness, the form of alcohol used (Cabernet, Colt 45, everclear), or being a white male.  Alcoholics are everywhere.  Note also that the definition calls out the most important of many distortions in thinking: denial.

Why? Because denial is the superpower that lets alcoholism kick our asses!  If it lacked this power, no one would need a spiritual solution to overcome it.  We’d just say, “Shit!  I’ve got alcoholism!” and go seek treatment as for any other illness.  But addiction in many ways resembles a parasite concealing itself from the host; it makes us say: “I’m not an alcoholic; I just [fill in the blank].”

I said it.  You’ve said it.  We all say it.

Liver dies from removing this poison.

Below are some of alcoholism’s favorite variations on “not an alcoholic!”  BTW, I thought about making nice in my responses, but I’m writing this to save some lives, not to make friends.

1.  I drink a lot because I’m daring

Bullshit.  You drink because you’re scared.  Life in its full intensity overwhelms the shit out of you, so you impair your brain. Wow!  Ain’t you awesome, swallowing and shit!  I’m so impressed!  The truth is that deep down you have no clue how to live or what the hell you’re doing, but you pretend to have it all down until you just can’t stand the façade any more.  Getting fucked up is way less scary than looking inward.

2.  Drinking helps me live life to the fullest

Good times.

Totally!  No way do you do the same 3 predictable things every frickin’ time you’re bombed: Talk sloppier, emote with a toddler’s self-insight, and decide stupid shit is a great idea. This is crap any dipshit can do.  Living life to the fullest takes love — enough love to dedicate yourself to something bigger than you.

3.  I’m more fun when I drink

Those with good humor and a zest for life are fun clear-headed.  Those who lack both imagine they’re fun drunk. Fun for others?  Ask ’em.  The sad thing is, if you’ve got to grease your brain with dopamine to lower your inhibitions, chances you’re battling an inner voice that constantly announces you suck. Until you find the courage to get vulnerable, to risk exposing your fears and weaknesses to trusted others, you’ll never know what it’s like to feel loved for your real self.

4.  I choose to drink — it’s not a compulsion

Of course you do!  Just, uh… kind of always and, um… soon after deciding NOT to.  But, shit, you just changed your mind — right?  Wank on, my friend.  As Gabor Maté has explained, addiction bypasses the decision-making part of the brain (frontal lobe) by exploiting the “pre-approved idea” feature that governs reflexes.  As sure as you’ll put up your hands to deflect a ball, you’ll “decide” a drink is — hey, y’know what? — a great idea!  Your brain is alcoholism’s bitch!

5.  Drinking doesn’t fuck up my brain/body

Bad news!  Alcohol is a neurotoxin, poison to every system in the body, and causes cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, colon, and pooper.  Anything it touches, baby, directly or through your blood!  Please see How Alcoholism Fucks Up Your Brain and How Alcohol Fucks Up Your Body for specifics.

6.  Most people drink a few times a week

Sorry, Boo-boo.  Turns out 30% of Americans have zero drinks ever. The next 30% have fewer than one per week. The next 30% cap off “healthy drinking” at 1-15 per week. But I’m betting you relate more to that 10% of Americans who guzzle 73.85 drinks per week — in other words, to the 1 in 10 of us addicted to alcohol who will likely die sooner because of it.

7.  My drinking harms no one

If you’re connected to anyone in any way, your drinking hurts them.  Driving, you risk others’ lives and the happiness of all their loved ones; hungover at work, you’re less effective and/or risk your coworkers’ safety; to anyone who loves you, you’re emotionally dulled; and to your maker, you say, “This amazing brain and body that let me be conscious in the physical world –?  I’m gonna shit all over ’em — again! ”

8.  I’m not an alcoholic because I haven’t lost ____

Just keep drinking and watch.  And meanwhile, does it not matter that you’re losing your self respect, the respect of others, and the chance to be fully awake in your own life?  (Parallels “I’m not as bad as [name].”)

9.  People who don’t drink are uptight

Sober summit goofs

I don’t know about lifelong teetotalers, but I do know recovering alcoholic/addicts who really work their program are the most genuine, honest, funny, beautiful human beings I’ve ever had the privilege to call my posse.  We’ve all been to hell and back. We came to AA because we realized we wanted to love life, not trash it; the 12 steps — a design for living — taught us how.

10.  Anyway, in my deepest heart of hearts, I carry no lurking suspicion that I am totally full of shit

Great!  I’m sure nobody else does, either!  I mean, nobody has noticed the pattern of you  poisoning yourself regularly, whether sullenly in front of the TV or “partying” as if you were 17.  And if they have, fuck them, right?  It’s your life to waste wasted.

A sadness beyond human aid.

Addiction kills us by getting us to live from our ego rather than our spirit, or higher self.  Ego is about getting what we think we want as soon as possible, even if it means violating every life lesson that pain has ever tried to teach us and trampling dogshit on the hearts of our loved ones.

For years I believed I’d rather die than go to AA.  Turns out I was already dying. Working the 12 steps from Alcoholics Anonymous with an inspiring sponsor taught me how to live — authentically and with a joy that endures.  Today, I know my  dad’s spirit is proud of me.  His love helped me go where he couldn’t.

And if I could do it, you can, too.

* “Alcohol Use Disorder” is the term appearing in the DSM-V.

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Filed under Addiction, Alcoholism, Denial, Drinking, Recovery, Sobriety

Stepping Out in Faith & Courage

Newly sober alcoholics are crippled. For years or decades we’ve relied on a tool for navigating life — an easy exit to that buzzed state where problems shrink — and suddenly we’re robbed of it.  How to live in this bald, unrelenting world without escape?  That’s the impasse we face day by day, even minute by minute during the first weeks and years of sobriety.

The short answer is faith. And faith sounds like jack shit to most newly sober drunks. Because the irony is, it takes faith to build faith. We’re used to considering evidence first and then weighing whether an action is likely to work in our favor. Faith means we step out knowing nothing and see what happens.  Our actions are based in trust rather than reason.

Eventually, faith gets easier to muster as it builds up evidence of its own: I acted in good faith and was taken care of.  I ask god to help me stay sober today, and I’ve not had to drink/ use/ act out for X days/ years. Faith works! Gradually, witnessing as much firsthand over and over, we begin to trust faith — perhaps even more than we trust our practical minds.

The Faith to Adventure
I had a dramatic experience with faith last week in the middle of the Mount Baker- Snoqualmie wilderness of the Cascade mountains.  As some of you know, I’m an avid thru-hiker (hike –> camp –> hike).  This year, at kind of the last minute, my friend Sally had to drop out of our planned 8-day thru-hike from Stevens Pass to Rainy pass on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

I decided to go it alone. The trail covers 127 miles, gaining and losing 26,000 feet of elevation.  It’s known as the 2nd toughest section on the entire PCT (the toughest being the JMT).  I found it much, much harder than I’d anticipated to cover 17-20 miles a day with a 40-lb pack (which shrank slowly as I ate food), climbing/descending sometimes a vertical mile, day after day.  I’m 58, BTW.

But I did it.

Many women have asked me how I can hike alone in the wilderness. They fear predators both animal and human, exposure to heights, creek crossings, and the sheer self-reliance of solitude too much to try such a trek.  How can I feel safe, even happy, out there in the wild?

My short answer, again, is faith.  But it’s also love.  I love the wilderness so intensely, there’s just no room in my heart for fear.

True, I felt a little lonesome until I got outside the range of chatty, clean day hikers and entered the true backcountry. There I shifted my focus away from humans, instead talking out loud to critters, plants, trees, and god.  The glow in my heart grew stronger and stronger, as did my faith that other living entities could sense it.  To take this timed selfie, for instance, I pinned back a shrub blocking my lens.  I’d finished and was just starting to hike on when I ran back, unpinned it, and said, “Sorry!”

But even loving hearts need boundaries, whether for toddlers or wild things.  I love bears (two years ago I surprised one who graciously ceded the trail) and mountain lions, but even so I sang a lot and kept a trekking pole with me constantly. I radiated a boundary: Don’t fuck with me. You may win, honey, but not til I’ve made sure you regret it!  I meant it.  I knew no creature would attack me, animal or human, unless it was mentally ill.  Besides, humans who victimize others rarely have the guts or stamina to hike far into the wilderness.

A Miracle on the Trail
Such was my mindset when my right knee gave out about 60 miles into my trip, with about 60 miles left to hike and no roads near. I’ve made a video that covers the barest facts of this experience – that I began to get flashes of intense, crazy nerve pain flaring in that joint, first intermittently and then repeatedly, making me gasp and cry out.

I could not walk.  I stopped.  I was carrying an inReach satellite communicator to check in with loved ones each night, loaned by a friend, which featured an SOS beacon.  I could toggle to emergency, push a button, and wait however long it took for rescue to arrive.

Instead, I shifted to the world of spirit.

…except at altitude on steep terrain

In front of me stood a huge grand fir – a type of evergreen with roots entirely underground. It was as though our eyes met — the tree’s and mine.  At this high elevation of 4,500′ where trees grow slowly, I knew it had to be a thousand years old. Also flashing through my mind was recent research finding, for instance, that matriarchal trees send moisture along their roots to sustain neighboring seedlings, exhibiting far more “consciousness” than humans have understood.

So I approached this tree as a matriarch who had channelled god’s energy for a thousand years. With a humility possible,  I think, only to someone crippled after four days of solo hiking, I put both hands on her trunk, touched my forehead to the surface between them, and called to her silently, “Are you there?”

Into my consciousness came the tree’s energy — I am.

I’ve had enough post-NDE experiences to distinguish thoughts sent to me from those I generate. You can say “bullshit,” or you can trust that I’m not a moron and keep reading.

Tears were streaming down my face. I thought to her, with a reverence for the millennium she’d witnessed as opposed to my own brief and absurdly self-absorbed life: “Can you ask god to help me?”

The response was instant, but not what I wanted. It filled my mind as a knowing, an unchanging principle, just as vibrations of a tuning fork fill the air:

Every life must ask directly.

I countered as if in conversation with thoughts of my shyness, unworthiness, and that I’d gotten myself into this predicament.  The tree “heard” none of this.  It continued to emanate at the same frequency, unchanged: Every life must ask directly.  Of the three elements in that principle — life, asking, and directness — the last seemed to linger longest.

I thanked her.  I tried to walk on, oh so carefully.  I’d made only a few steps when the pain blared again — WAAAHHHHH!!!! — and with it came a realization of my own: “I’m totally screwed!”

I didn’t take off my pack.  I didn’t sit down or even close my eyes.  I just stood there on the trail, gushing tears as I always do in prayer, and spoke inwardly to god. To be totally honest, I felt like a child braced for the same disappointing response all my terrified acrophobia-on-the-mountainside prayers incur: “You got yourself up, child; you can get yourself down.”  That, or maybe something blunt like, “Use the beacon, silly!”

Even so, I reached for god with my tenderest heart. I apologized first that I knew all this was my own fault because ego had played a role in getting me here, but I also “reminded” god how intensely I loved the living beauty of the wilderness, how much this trip meant to me.  Then I asked, directly, as the tree had instructed, Can you give me some guidance?

At almost the same instant that I asked, my mind began to fill with instructions, as if they were downloading from some external source.  I got so excited!  I knew so many things in that second that I’d not known the second before!

None of this information came in words. We all know our physical bodies well, so the references were to my own conceptions of these parts. I had strained my inner thigh.  “No I haven’t!” came from my brain.  “It’s fine — doesn’t hurt a bit!”  God reminded me of a move I’d made in my tent that morning that had hurt in that spot — and there was so much love with this correction, with each instruction: love, love, love!  I was told to put my foot up on a rock or log and stretch it gently.

To my amazement, I found my adductor muscle so tight at first that I (a ballet dancer) could not raise my leg more than about 2 feet.  I was also told to use my trekking pole to put pressure on another spot.  No words — just my familiar idea of the dent under my kneecap on the inside.  I was told to stop and repeat both these actions frequently — what I decided meant every 500 feet.

There had been a third instruction from the outset, but only when I’d stretched and pressed about 6 or 8 times, walking between with zero pain, did I “hear” details of how I should follow it.  This idea pertained to a little velcro loop I’d packed for no reason. It might have originally come with my air mattress to keep it rolled up, but in any case, I’d decided at least twice not to bring it.  Somehow, it ended up in my pack anyway.  At various camps I’d pull it out and roll my eyes: “Why did I bring this?!”

THIS is why! god seemed to answer, referencing all the above with love, love, love.  Wrap it on that spot, tightly but not too tightly.

My brain thought, “That’ll do nothing!”  Duh!  I’d used knee braces many times on lesser injuries; they helped only to the degree that they immobilized the joint, whereas to descend  from this elevation, I’d have to bend my knee to at least 90 degrees hundreds of times, with my weight and the weight of pack crashing down as many times amid rocks, fallen trees, and rough terrain.  What could a little mattress roll-up holder possibly do to mitigate that?!

But my spirit was told, You will be healed.  The knowing came that this band would act similarly to kinetic tape, except that while tape attracts attention from the brain to heal a given area, this little band would attract spiritual attention, my own and god’s, to heal my knee miraculously.

My brain disbelieved, but that’s what I heard, a promise my spirit dared to trust.  You will be healed. You will be healed.  The knowing echoed like a mantra every time I confronted a challenge — a two-foot drop on the trail, a fallen log I had to jump down from, a slip and arrest.

My knee, my spirit, my god, and that little velcro band kept on descending and descending over the next hour and a half.  No pain.  Before I knew it, we’d reached Milk Creek, elevation about 3,000′.  I took this photo to commemorate the miracle.

DSC05885

I am astounded.  I’m thinking, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

 

Over the next three days, I hiked 60 more miles on that knee. I never experienced pain again.  Sure, it throbbed like mofo at night, but so did my feet, ankles, hips, neck, and shoulders. I had to take a lot of ibuprofen just to sleep. But never again did it pain me me on the trail.  Not once.

My message for alcoholics and addicts of various modes is that we can all experience two conflicting convictions at once.  The brain can insist, “It’ll never work!” while the spirit resolves to act as though perhaps it will — on faith — and see what happens.  At every step of my recovery from alcoholism, I doubted:  “Faith is nothing but pretend!  The steps are nothing but mumbo-jumbo!  I’ll never not want to drink, never stop feeling less-than and judgmental and scared of life!”

And yet, I ventured ahead in faith and courage to follow the advice of sponsors and old timers from AA meetings, just as I reached out to a tree for help, just as I bracketed my doubts of god’s guidance and did precisely what I was told.  We don’t have to believe it (with our skeptical minds).  We just have to do it (with our spirit’s courage).  The miracle will happen.

We can be guided toward growth and sometimes even healed.  Because god is real, and god does stuff for those who ask — directly.

 


Video telling the story.  Also available at  https://youtu.be/McRi8zbW0TY

Photos from my trip:

Mica Lake, the camp above which my knee first twinged. Note how the reflection polarizes glare from the smoke particles.

Mica Lake from the granite slab where I got water

Me with fellow PCTers waiting for a boat as part of a forest fire detour

 

Bridge out on  loud, raging creek so I climbed across on the railings. 

Approaching Cloudy Pass

Me with some background peaks you could see if it weren’t so damn smoky.

Me emerging at my goal on time – 127 miles and 8 days later. I lost 6 pounds despite eating constantly.

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Filed under Alcoholism, Faith, God, Happiness, NDE, prayer, Recovery, Spirituality

We Are NEVER Too Well for AA Meetings

I recently had a chance to tell none other than Bill Gates, who went to my high school and was at my 40th reunion, that I had 23 years sober. “Impressive!” he remarked.  He’d just told me that a mutual friend of ours, a venture capitalist and hilarious jokester on the school bus back in the day, had died — overdosed on fentanyl-laced heroin after many years clean.

Yet when I told him I still go to weekly AA meetings, Gates looked baffled: “Really?!” he said, drawing back sharply.  Even as I explained that exactly what had happened to our friend Keith could happen to me at any time with booze, he still looked incredulous.

Here’s one of the deadliest afflictions known to humans, killing 6% of the global population every year (WHO), and this man, who, through the Gates Foundation, has done more to battle diseases worldwide than anyone else on the planet, had no inkling of alcoholism’s lifelong grip.

Sometimes I think ours is the most misunderstood illness in the world, and AA the most misunderstood cure.

Getting Too Well?
Of course, there’s a part of every sober alcoholic that agrees with Gates. A part of me agrees daily, claiming, “Louisa, clearly you’ve got this thing beat!  Look at how accomplished and sensible your life is now!  Waking up in somebody else’s bed with Cheetos orange around your mouth and a hangover from hell–? That is just sooo not gonna happen anymore!”

The result of this voice is that, as I type this, I’ve not been to an AA meeting for nigh on three weeks.  A week ago, I was supposed to chair one and forgot.  And I’ve not posted a new blog here for almost two months.

Why?  Partly for good reasons.  When I got sober in 1995, I couldn’t imagine what I was going to DO now that I couldn’t drink alone while scrawling boy-obsessive drivel in my journal, or drink in bars while bending indifferent ears, playing darts, pool, or pinball.  Take all that away, and what else was there to life?

As sobriety gradually revealed, within me were talents and loves neglected like withered, leafless plants.  Before alcohol took over, I’d danced, hiked, and written.  AA reopened the flow of love my heart was dying for, slowly at first via people in meetings, and then, as I worked the steps, through my own dilating portal to god. The elixir of life — godlove — watered my spirit so those dried up, nearly dead talents sprouted fresh leaves and blossomed again.

Sobriety, as a result, has been anything but dull.  Today, these loves fill up much of my life.

About two weeks ago, I was dancing onstage in a ballet recital — at a week shy of age 58.  Godlove let me bond with my troupe, mainly teenage girls and twenty-something women.  There was a moment in the dressing room when all nine of us gathered around my phone, which was playing the one disjointed moment of our dance.  “We lunge there,” I said, “on the low note.”  I’ll never forget the solemn way their eyes met mine, not because I’m old and bossy, but because we needed unity and they trusted my cue.

We aced it.

Performing (on right)

Warming up before dressed rehearsal (on right)

The weekend before, three sober women friends and had I attempted Mount Adams — a 12K’ volcano four hours’ drive from home.  Thunderstorms forced us to camp at the trailhead rather than base camp and shoot for the summit the next day, when high winds and whiteout above 9K’ turned us back.  Still, we had a blast getting rained on, climbing, and taking turns “losing enthusiasm” as we tried to find shelter from the icy winds.  Here are three of us at 9K’ pulling our “bikini bitches” stunt of pretending it’s not frickin’ FREEZING just long enough for photos.

Suck in tummy award to me, center 😉

The day after my recital, I climbed Mailbox Peak, a 4K’ gain, with my friend Sally and brand new boyfriend, Tommie.  (That’s right, after years of tortuous dating, I finally met the right guy. ❤   More later.)

Then, just a few days ago, I summited a backcountry wilderness peak, Mount Daniel, with just Sally.  The two of us camped at a frozen lake and navigated this route in partial white-out:

Mount Daniel east peak via SE Ridge .

Our route followed the ridge above Sally’s head!

But it’s not all been ballet, boyfriend, and beauteous mountains!  Life happened, too.  My house’s sewer system went kaput, upsetting my — er — delicate financial balance.  To safeguard that balance, I had, in previous weeks, overtaxed my gift for writing, agreeing to edit super-human quantities of text amid an already full work schedule and to conduct and write up an NDE interview for the Seattle IANDS Newsletter.

Long story short: I’ve been so busy savoring/exploiting the flowers of sobriety that I’ve neglected to water their roots.

I should know better.  Around me, dear friends I never dreamed would die or get hooked on alprazolam (Xanax) are doing just that.  One, a former drug and alcohol counselor, is a ghost of his former self, with hollowed-out eyes and tales of demons.  The other, who landed his dream life — wife, kids, big house in the burbs — became addicted to anti-anxiety meds prescribed for his stress over huge mortgage and daycare payments.

How did these friends change from the happy, joyous, and free sober people I knew fifteen years ago in AA meetings?  Both got “too well” for AA — the same tempting path I’ve wandered down these past weeks.

Ironically, the same drive that energizes me to pursue so many activities and take on added responsibilities can kill me if not balanced with humility before my god.

As an addict, I am permanently geared to chase feel-good.  As a co-dependent, I scent feel-good when I say “yes” to people and things, so I say it more and more: YES — I’ll be in the recital!  Climb mountains!  Edit your humongous text!  So what if I’m losing my mind?!

The trouble is, without the humility that god-awareness brings, I cannot be in feel-good; I can only chase it.  No matter how much I get, I want more.  And there’s another problem with feel-good.  The flip side of genuine satisfaction is the trophy-hunting of ego — addiction to the story of adventures, to LIKES on Facebook or Instagram, to praise for fabulous texts and newsletters.

Hey, whatever primes the dopamine pump — right?  I’ll take any hit I can get!  So let’s think: who could it be spurring  this constant chase, urging me to take on more and more?  It’s my old buddy, addiction — disguised, like a villain behind a fake mustache, as enthusiasm and responsibility. It’s refrain?  “We’re so close to feeling good!”

Ultimately, going to AA meetings is like prayer: both require and reinforce humility — that bane of our ego-oriented culture — by freely admitting, “I lack.”  Only when I embrace the fact that I’m a tiny shard of god who can thrive solely via connection do I remember my true mission on earth: to love.  Overcommitting, I leave no time to dwell in that truth.  I’m too busy chasing brain candy.

Anytime I imagine my addiction to be a thing of the past, I jeopardize everything precious to me, everything alcoholism once took away and wants to take again.  I may not wake up with Cheetos-mouth, but I will wake up guided by the very same ego that led me to it.

Bill Gates has no need to acknowledge the deep power of alcoholism, but I do.  Tomorrow I chair a women’s AA meeting.  The next night, I’ll be at my homegroup after meeting with a sponsee.  These commitments, unlike others, allow me to relinquish my illusions of control and seek serenity though god.  It’s what I do.  It’s what I need.  It’s who I am.

PS: Short video of our Mount Daniel climb, 6/30 – 7/1/18 (sobriety ain’t boring!):

Car ride to Mount Adams with AA girlfriends 6/16/18 😀 (feeling close while stone cold sober):

 

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Filed under AA, Addiction, Alcoholism, Happiness, Recovery, Sobriety