Category Archives: Alcoholism

Broken Brains; Divine Rescue

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

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

Step A: WAKE feeling like absolute shit.

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

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

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

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

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

hamster-wheel

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

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

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

“What happened?!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

DIVINE RESCUE is a partnership.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

scroll

 

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Filed under Addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholism, happy, joyous, & free, Recovery

Hard Drinker vs. Real Alcoholic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A) After a short pause, you drink again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the Big Book explains,

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

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

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

We two in 1978

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Filed under alcohol damage, Alcoholism, Drinking, Heavy drinkers, Recovery

Alone is a Dangerous Neighborhood

These are some crazy days, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can download Zoom software free from HERE.

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

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Sick with COVID-19: Lessons from a nasty virus

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

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

Day 1 – hit by a bus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3 – doin’ great!

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

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

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

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

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

Day 7 – humbled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

IMG_20200404_094603813.jpg

Day 14 – much better

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

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

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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.  We drink because we’re scared.  Life in its full intensity overwhelms the shit out of us, so we impair our brains to dilute it. That’s daring?  Swallowing is bold?  The truth is that deep down we have no clue how to live or what the hell we’re doing, but we pretend to have it all down until we 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 we do the same 3 predictable things every frickin’ time we’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 ourselves to something bigger than self.

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 we’ve got to grease our brains with dopamine to lower our inhibitions, chances are we’re battling an inner voice that constantly announces we suck. Until we find the courage to get vulnerable, to risk exposing our fears and weaknesses to trusted others, we’ll never know what it’s like to feel loved for our true nature.

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

Of course we do!  Just, uh… kind of always and, um… soon after deciding NOT to.  But, shit, we just changed our minds — 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 we’ll put up our hands to deflect a ball, we’ll “decide” a drink is — hey, y’know what? — a great idea!  The 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 our 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.  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. We drunks 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 we’re connected to anyone in any way, our drinking hurts them.  Driving, we risk others’ lives and the happiness of all their loved ones; hungover at work, we’re less effective and/or risk our coworkers’ safety; to anyone who loves us, we’re emotionally dulled; and to our maker, we 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.

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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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