Category Archives: Alcoholism

Meetings on the Road: No Matter What

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2 Comments

Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Meetings, Recovery, Sobriety

Long-term Sobriety: Always Seeking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God — I hurt.  Please help me.

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

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

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

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

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

.

Leave a comment

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

What’s Normal Drinking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Five minutes,” replied Dana.

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

“About an hour out of my day, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

8 Comments

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

The Disease We Forget We Have

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

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

Forgiving Shame

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

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

GUILT – says what I did was bad

SHAME – says I, myself, am bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

louisa-cosmo-mt-si-2016

Me & Cos on Mt. Si

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

scroll

.

13 Comments

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

Vulnerability

The other day I got a call from a woman I don’t know asking about something she’d heard me say in an AA meeting.  She’d tracked me down because she was curious.

“You said the closer you get to God, the more you’re able to love people – you said because you don’t need shit from them.  I’ve been wanting and wanting for years to get closer to that – not wanting or needing people’s approval – but I don’t seem to get anywhere.  How do you do it?”

I offered to meet her for coffee next week. But what the fuck will I say to her?  How can I even hope to frame in one sitting what’s taken me 22 years to learn?  I can’t.  But that’s okay.  Because the truth is, in taking the risk to reach out to me, she’d begun to answer her own question.

Vulnerability is Scary
Neurologically, most of our responses to life involve an almond-sized part of the brain known as the amygdala, the center of fight, flight, or freeze, which scans our sensory data constantly for signs of danger.

Costa Rican girls

Unsafe but unworried Costa Rican kids

In the US, our culture prioritizes shielding ourselves from such danger.  Airbags, seatbelts, baby car seats, and helmets – they’re all mandated by law.  By contrast, when I traveled to Costa Rica, the safety policy appeared to be, “Let’s hope bad shit doesn’t happen.” I saw a couple motorcycling down a pot-holed road with no helmets – not for them or the 1-year-old between them, whom the woman could brace with only one hand because her other dangled groceries near the rear axle.  Another guy ahead of our car perched on the back of his friend’s motorcycle carrying a full-size bicycle across his back – no hands!  Now, I’m sure some bad shit does happen, but among the Costa Ricans I sensed a freedom and happiness – a trust in life and themselves – that Americans can’t even dream of.

If we’re knocking ourselves out to evade physical dangers, it only makes sense that we transfer the same approach to emotional ones.  Research has proven that our brains experience emotional and physical pain as virtually identical: the same regions light up when someone turns us a cold shoulder as would if they snapped a mousetrap on our finger.  Rejections hurts.

That’s why we drank!  Then we didn’t have to give a shit who disliked or rejected us, or if we did, it was all delicious maudlin drama.  Yet the day comes when alcohol can no longer anesthetize us, and at the same time the wreckage of our past overwhelms us.  When that happens, we hit bottom.

It’s a pain that cracks us open so deeply, god can touch our hearts.  We admit we don’t know how to live, and we ask for help from god and sober alcoholics.  If we work a program, we learn that ego, unchecked, is the source of our troubles.  Through inventory we name the character defects that ego animates in us and start mustering the willingness to part with them.

So who, then, is this new person?  This human divested of their emotional shield, inflated ego, assorted coping mechanisms – in short of their boozing imperviousness?

It’s a person suddenly exposed and vulnerable as hell.

Now, we can be hurt.  We experience pain deeply, sometimes a backlog built up over a lifetime.  If we’re lucky, we have a sponsor who advises us to bring that pain to god.  But sometimes, our amygdalas decide god’s just not concrete enough.  fire-suitWe need safety precautions, emotional helmets and hazmat suits!  So we reduce our vulnerability by learning to edit and hide our true selves.  We develop strategies like people pleasing: whatever we think will smooth our path, whatever others want or would approve, we try to appear.  The goal is to be accepted.  We need it because we so intensely fear rejection’s pain.

The problem is, if we don’t put ourselves out there, exposing our weaknesses and imperfections and hoping to be loved despite them, we also won’t live. We’ll miss the chance to know intimacy, trust, and the warmth of loving other people simply for their humanness.  In short, safe inside our hazmat suits, we’ll miss the richest beauties of life on earth.

So I Guess What I’ll Say to that woman is that since I’ve been sober, life has absolutely beaten the crap out of me, over and over.  Partners have plopped my heart in food processors set on Betrayal – not just once but twice.  My siblings ridiculed and shamed my book – even as I fought cancer.  Besides losing a sister and father, I’ve lost half a dozen dear friends to overdose, accident, and suicide.

Pain.  Pain.  Pain.

But here’s the thing.  Every time, god has been there.  Every time, god has loved me through it.  And the gift from staying sober long enough has been that I begin to fear pain less.  It won’t kill me.  It is, after all, “the touchstone of all spiritual progress” – that which affirms the real deal:  I will love again.  I’ll show up for my siblings.  Cancer won’t haunt me.  And I will never forget my loved ones.

cristins-cookiesI find I have begun to live emotionally in the same spirit the Costa Ricans live physically – with less caution and more freedom.  I can begin to risk pain knowingly.  Today I choose to be vulnerable, extending kindness or heartfelt gifts to those who may reject them, because I don’t need their acceptance.  Sure, I’d like it!  Sure, I hope bad shit doesn’t happen.  But what’s the worst case scenario?  Those “ouch” parts of my brain will light up again, and I’ll cry my guts out again.  And when I turn to god in all my pain and grief, god will say to me again, “Louisa, you are enough, just as you are – I love you in the beauty of your trying.”

Freedom is the difference between hoping for and thinking we need reciprocation.  I am all I have to offer.  This life’s the only time I can do it.  God, I know, has my back.

scroll

.

PS: Happy birthday to me, guys!  Thanks for 22 years on the 29th!  🙂

Post to Facebook

11 Comments

Filed under AA, Addiction, Alcoholism, Codependence, Faith, God, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality

The Bedevilments vs. Grace

Here are thousands of [sober] men and women, worldly indeed. They flatly declare that since they have come to believe in a Power greater than themselves… there has been a revolutionary change in their way of living and thinking. In the face of collapse and despair… they found that a new power, peace, happiness, and sense of direction flowed into them.
 
…Is not our age characterized by the ease with which we… throw away the theory or gadget which does not work for something new which does? We had to ask ourselves why we shouldn’t apply to our human problems this same readiness. We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were a prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people— was not a basic solution of these bedevilments more important than whether we should see [an ad for some new gadget]? Of course it was…
 
Our ideas did not work. But the God idea did.
-Alcoholic Anonymous, pp. 50-52
The bedevilments sum up how life sucks for an active alcoholic – or for one dry without a solution.  Anyone familiar with the Big Book knows of them.  They make up yet another passage where the AA founders nailed our experience, so  the hurting alcoholic marvels as s/he reads, “How did they know-?”
.
The bedevilments hurt like hell because they’re symptoms of our dying spirits.  Fear cuts us off from the love that would sustain us, so we languish like plants without sunlight.  Drinking temporarily soothes that pain while ego promises to fix everything by grabbing more admiration from the outside world (via  accomplishments, attractiveness, wealth, etc).  What else could possibly help us besides self-medicating and vanquishing all the assholes in our life?
.
aa-80th-convention

AA’s 80th anniversary: 70,000 sober drunks from 94 nations. D’ya think this thing might work?         (click to enlarge)**

.
The Way Out
This chapter, “We Agnostics,” offers an alternative:  If we replace religious ideas of God with  open-minded spirituality, we can examine the results of faith just as we would any other phenomenon – scientifically.  We see that people who adopt faith in a higher power go from the shit pile to thriving.  We see it over and over.  Linking the two events causally – is that such an illogical jump?  To say, “Hmm… looks like this faith gadget works wayyy  better than the self-reliance gadget I’ve been using” – ?
.
That’s how models function in science.  We observe phenomena and devise a theory, a model that explains what’s going on.  We can’t isolate or observe faith, but we can note its effects.  Faith (and the rigorous stepwork it inspires) arrests the misery of alcoholism.  In drunk after drunk, this shit works.  We don’t have to know why.
.
Still, I remember how I reacted the first time I read “We Agnostics.”  Yes, I suffered all the bedevilments (though I didn’t give a shit about not helping others), but I wasn’t going to buy the idea that what had worked for millions of other people would work for me.  No, because I was smarter.  And I hurt worse.  And the prospect of seeking god felt weirder to me than it had for those guys – obviously.  Just in general, other people were so other-peopleish!  They had nothing to do with me.  They were packed in society like canned beans, whereas I had flowered and grown on the vine of my life, bobbing in breezes and raindrops they’d never experienced.
.
This is the catch-22 of getting sober in AA: we have to trust that we are like others before we can really believe it to be so.  If we trust, we can do what they did and get what they got – but at the start we don’t trust anything!  Even booze, our best buddy ever, has turned on us.  Or has it?  Maybe we should try one more time with the bootstraps and a little less bottle?  Isn’t that more likely to work than something so preposterous?
.
wile-e-coyote-cliffAnd yet we try the unknown thing.  We step out into air.  There’s something in AA meetings, some energy we can’t identify that keeps us coming back.  My brain told me emphatically that AA would never work, yet my hope, my heart, and somehow my car keys carried me to meeting after meeting, where I heard people speaking authentically of ruined relationships, self-loathing, wild emotions, relentless fears, and pain-filled loneliness just like mine – that no longer ruled their lives.  I could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices: they were free.
.
Grace.  What is it?  It’s defined as “unmerited divine assistance,” a gift from god we receive without earning.  The longer I’m sober, the more I see it’s all grace: every breath I take, every sensation, every emotion, every moment of being alive on this earth.  How could I “earn” any of that?  I was graced with the utter defeat of my wrecked life.  I was graced to meet the person who took me to my first AA meeting.  Graced to find myself out of answers, sick of believing my broken brain over and over, desperate enough to show up despite immense skepticism.  The short version is that I was graced with surrender: “Maybe there is something; maybe I can ask it to help me.”
.
That opened the door enough for those first rays of sunlight to touch me.  duckling-graceThree steps forward, two steps back, I’ve progressed through life’s vicissitudes and cycles of stepwork to reach my own intimate experience with a god that I now love with everything in me.  Today I can see how god – that energy of love powering every element of life – is in you.  I can love you with no self-interest – no more than I have in loving a robin, or a birch tree, or a puffy white cloud shifting across the blue expanse of sky.  Look at you being you!
.
And what a wonder it still is, as I come up on 22 years sober, to watch AA newcomers at the outset of their own  journey.  They come in with bedeviled pain and discontent practically scribbling the space above their chairs. Today, I get to flatly declare to them the peace, happiness, and sense of direction with which I’ve been graced – and watch them find it, too.
.
scroll
.
 **https://rehabreviews.com/went-aas-80th-international-convention-kept-journal-become/#prettyPhoto

4 Comments

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