Category Archives: Drinking

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

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 crazy 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 – claimed to be able to control her drinking:

“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 confused and befuddled, each lost in their own thinking. She did seem to be managing her drinking extraordinarily well!  To me it was like someone able to walk on a super-slick surface, keeping her balance and never slipping.  Dana was drinking and living a normal life as a functional working mom!  Wasn’t that what we all wished we could pull off?

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 clearly, to see something that was right on the tip of my brain’s tongue, so to speak.  I felt as though my mind were stuffed with wool.

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

“Five minutes,” replied Dana.

Nora’s forehead knitted. “And you make five trips a day?”

“About an hour out of my day, yeah.”

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

As if awakening from a trance, we all shifted, seeing that 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 arranging her entire life around her addiction so she could function in the world.  At that moment, everyone, including Dana, saw it. We also saw that some blindness in our relationship to alcohol had kept us from seeing it.

Brantly, our third leader, spoke up animatedly:  “This is not how normal people behave, you guys!  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 brain fart.  Brantly held up his phone: “I don’t need an app to tell me it’s been 5,057 days since my last strawberry!”

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

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

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

Reasons I Wasn’t an Alcoholic

04Julesshakespear73Writing the final exam for my college Shakespeare course, I had to close one eye to read the questions, since I was seeing double.  Not puking also required an occasional surge of resolve, and I had the spins.  All unfortunate.  What concerned me most, though, was my handwriting: it looked more as if a third grader were reflecting on Shakespeare’s intent than a college junior – one who adored his plays and knew many lines by heart – at least, ordinarily.  That exam pulled my final grade down to a B despite many A papers.  I think about it every time I see my transcript.

What was wrong with that picture?  About three hours.  That’s all I needed to sober up. Wisdom acquired?  For an 8:00AM exam, one should stop drinking, not at 3:00AM, as I had, but probably closer to midnight.  Having learned that lesson, I’d manage better next time.  It was a mistake – not a problem.

When a couple years later I drank a fifth of 151 in a few hours and passed out so deeply, nothing could wake me, that was clearly because no one at the housewarming party had warned me about 151 – that you had to drink it slower!  Who knew?!  Another mistake.

When, at my wedding celebration, I hovered a couple of steps behind Michael Dukakis, governor and guest of honor, imitating his every gesture and doubling over with laughter (I might have peed my nylons just a little), it was simply a shamewine_cheese my in-laws lacked a sense of humor!  Though, okay – I might have had a bit much.  But the bride gets to make a mistake, right?

When a few years later I attended a wine and cheese graduate school function with my (new) partner, told inappropriate stories, shattered a fancy wine glass, and passed out face down on the floor of an upstairs room, it was just – whoops! – another mistake.  Good thing I wasn’t lying in my own vomit, because I was a pretty classy English professor!

So I learned to do better next time!  Well, actually, um, not next time, but the time after that.  I learned I really didn’t like getting falling down drunk, so the next time I… got falling down drunk, I didn’t like it again…once it was over, so next time I wouldn’t do it – til I did.

What those people who claimed I had a problem with alcohol failed to realize was this: I loved alcohol.  I adored it.  It fixed me, it fixed you, it fixed the world – so everything could be okay.  How could that be a problem?  I just kept fucking up on the amount, was all.  I just kept overdoing a good thing.  But it was a good thing!  That I knew.  No one was going phase me with this “Louisa, you’re an alcoholic” bullshit.  Maybe I was one but so what?  It was my way.  Nobody has the right to tell you to change that!

So, fuck ’em, I said.

Besides, I could list off a million reasons I wasn’t an alcoholic.  I…

  • Didn’t drink hard booze after I turned 26 – except when I did
  • Didn’t drink in the mornings – except when I started before noon
  • Didn’t lose my job or house – only chose to downsize
  • Didn’t get a DUI – because the cops appreciated my doe-eyed apologies
  • Didn’t black out and wake in strange places – just miraculously back home
  • Didn’t suffer DTs – just shook wildly, maybe a smidge of amorphous terror

As the years rolled by, however, and I continued to make unfortunate mistakes despite my lack of a problem with alcohol, a few liabilities did crop up, so my phrasing had to change a bit, like this:

  • Though I occasionally collided with door frames, I did so reminded of life’s bittersweet irony
  • Though I occasionally fell down, it really didn’t hurt
  • Though I attended keggers in my mid-30s, I did so from a worldly, intellectual perspective
  • Though I hit a car head on, I’d slowed down so much it hardly did anything
  • Though I cheated on partners, I did so secretly so it kind of didn’t happen
  • Though I might enjoy a glass of white wine while I cooked dinner, or perhaps a beer at lunch or while journalling, gardening, vacuuming, folding clothes, building a fence, watching TV, doing the dishes, clipping my nails, or taking a shower, I didn’t drink all the time
  • Though I hated myself, that was my business – and a fine reason to drink more

I could have gone on like that forever, with an answer for everything.  I don’t know why I didn’t.  I guess gradually the old threadbare idea that I’d manage better next time wore thinner and thinner.  At the same time, the prospect of any next time, any next anything, grew increasingly dull and even disgusting.  Though I think what actually defeated me, what drove me to break down and hit bottom and finally say ‘uncle,’ was that last point: hating myself.  The hate grew so intense – such white hot, pure acid, unmitigated and inescapable hate – that I simply could not stand to exist another day – drink or no drink.  So it was suicide or… what the hell, AA.

Meeting snowflake

Those of you reading this sober may know exactly what I’m talking about.  Some reading just a tad hungover may experience a twinge of recognition and whip their Monopoly-style NOT-THAT-BAD card from a back pocket.  No one can diagnose another person’s alcoholism.  But a word I discounted back then was honesty.  Today I know honesty is not a true/false prospect; it’s a matter of excavation.  And digging takes courage.

On January 29, 1995, whatever it is I call god removed my mania for drinking.  I’ve not had a drop since.  What could be more miraculous?  Deep down, just under our hearts, we can all sense our source, our core, our truth beyond knowing.  I used to drink to bury mine.  Today, with the help of my fellows, I strive to live by it.

 

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Filed under Addiction, Alcoholism, Denial, Drinking, Recovery, Sobriety, Step 1

The Power of Powerlessness

About a year ago, I used to frequently pass a billboard claiming thousands of “stubborn” men who avoided seeing a doctor would die that year.  This photo isn’t from my street, but our local billboard met with the same (funny) response:

Stubbornness

 

While I don’t know about the billboard’s claim, I do know when it comes to stubborn alcoholics, even more will NOT seek out a program of recovery this year, which is why in the U.S. alone 2.5 million years of potential life will be lost, shortening by an average of 30 years the lives of those 88,000 who’ll die.*  Instead, despite an inner knowledge that they’re addicted to alcohol, millions will (yet again) marshal their willpower to decide not to drink so much.  Never mind how many times such resolutions have failed!  Never mind that they and everyone they live with can recognize night after night that they’re drunk as usual!  They’ll simply refuse to accept the fact that they’re powerless over alcohol.

The Big Book tells us, “The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker.  The persistence of this illusion is astonishing.  Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”**  But even more simply resign themselves to permitting the self-disgust, degradation, and pathetic caricature of chronic drunkenness to taint their inmost conscience and closest relationships for the rest of their lives.

Why?  Because they believe so ardently in the preeminence of their own minds!  They insist their brains have the power to enact choices of free will that, research increasingly indicates, they simply do not have.  For an addict, Emersonian self-reliance means, in fact, an imprisoning cycle rather than freedom of choice.

Gabor Maté, in his book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, explains our predicament as follows:

We may say, then, that in the world of the psyche, freedom is a relative concept: the power to choose exists only when our automatic mental mechanisms are subject to those brain systems that are able to maintain conscious awareness…

Electrical studies of brain function show that… the interval between awareness of the impulse and the activation of the… impulse is only one-tenth to one-fifth of a second.  Amazingly, it’s only in this briefest of intervals that the [cerebral] cortex can suppress behavior it judges to be inappropriate. …[But] in the split second before the impulse emerges into awareness… the brain carries out what is called preattentive analysis… the unconscious evaluation of what [is]…essential or irrelevant, valuable or worthless.  The cortex is primed to select actions that will achieve [these] goals…

“Those habit structures are so incredibly robust, and once they form in the nervous system, they will guide behavior without free choice.”***

In other words, before we even know we’ve thought of having a drink, the brain has cleared the impulse.  The cortex may occasionally summon a “but wait!’ counter-insurgence, but more often the drink idea advances to GO and collects $200.  Maté calls this condition “brain lock.”  AA calls it the “curious mental blank spot.”  In either case, with an internal sigh of “oh well!” we take the drink (just this one time) and tell ourselves we decided to.Broken Brain

Our brains are broken.  They cannot be fixed.

 ~

I knew none of this when I came to AA wanting to die.  When I first heard the statement, “I can’t fix my broken brain with my broken brain,” so much became clear to me!  For one thing, I understood why I’d fought tooth and nail against “surrendering” to AA.  Who wants to admit she can’t trust her own brain?  No one.

The ego lays claim to omniscience, at least within ourselves: I know all about me.  My thoughts are accurate.  To admit a glitch in my thinking has rendered me unable to choose, unable to correct myself, unable even to see what I’m doing while I’m doing it – this goes against all instinct.  It’s on par with admitting mental illness or, as Step 2 forces us to swallow, insanity.

Yet a deeper part of me – my soul –  heard the resounding truth of that phrase.  I realized I had no answers, and that AA, no matter how foreign, offered one.

So I gave up.Step1

I admitted I was powerless.

And do you know what happened?  Miracles!

First, I quit drinking.  Second, I began to see I was maladapted to living, that I’d never developed the skills and insight to “manage” life’s choices.  Third,  I discovered it wasn’t too late to learn.

The remaining 11 steps reconnected me to the god of goodness I’d known in earliest childhood – to the nurturing powers of Love and divine wisdom.  To maintain contact with them, all I had to do was adopt the 12 steps as a way of life.

At first, mind you, that idea repulsed me, too.

Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant?  Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done?  Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer?  Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry AA’s message to the next sufferer? ***

Not early sobriety Louisa!  I did these things because I had to.  Today I do them because I get to – because they fill me with freedom and fulfillment.  Drunk, I blathered about climbing Mount Rainier.  Sober, I did it – 3 times!  Drunk, I dreamed of writing a book.  Sober, I wrote it – check the sidebar!  Drunk, I longed desperately to be liked.  Sober, I love more people than I’d ever have believed possible.

Mount_Rainier_from_northwest

Mount Rainier: click to enlarge:  14,411′

THAT is power, guys.  It’s just not mine.

~

The most important 1st step is the one I take today, the one I re-experience every morning, every hour.  My compulsion to drink is 100 times stronger than my cortex’s resistance.  Alcohol kicks my ass, has its way, calls the shots, rules my mind.  But luckily, it’s the same for you!  Alone, each of us has no power to fight this thing.  We bloat, soggy and mollified in the dregs of our lonely cups.  But connected to god and fellow alcoholics through AA, we tap into a Power that lifts us above the limitations of our broken brains – to heights we never dared imagine.

 

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* http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
** Alcoholics Anonymous p. 30
*** In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Chpt. 26

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Prescribed Relapse

Doctor with Stethoscope“I’m happy to tell you the surgery went quite well, so you’re going to be on the mend!  Obviously, you’re going to have some pain from this, so what I’ll just do is ruin your life, happiness, and relationships by giving you an opiate.  Sound good?  So… you’ll start off taking it according to these directions I’m jotting until, of course, your brain’s addictive wiring trumps your reason – haha, just like the old days! – and you find yourself helplessly abusing it.  Eventually, I’d like to see you transition to your drug of choice.  When you do that is up to you, but within a couple months, you should find yourself back in full-on relapse.  Okay?  Does that sound good?  I’ll just call it in now.”

If only doctors actually said this, we alcoholic-addicts might have a better chance of protecting our sobriety from the pain management substances that work fine for normies (i.e. non-addictive people).  The trouble is that, even today, the vast majority of doctors don’t get recovery.  They see before them a reasonable and sane person who, they assume, will self-administer a prescribed drug reasonably and sanely.

What they don’t get is that we’re different. Our brains are forever like a duplex we share with an insatiable lunatic who is temporarily napping.  Rap on its door with an opiate and – no matter how intently we self-manage the dosage – once that beast wakes up, all bets are off.  It’ll rage, it’ll bust shit up, it’ll burn the whole damn house down, motherfucker.  Because that beast has a hold on us more powerful than anything that well-meaning doctor can possibly imagine.

It’s more powerful than reason, than resolve, than all things human.  It’s run our lives before, and it’s psyched to do it again.

I remember the first time I raised my voice at a vicodin2medical authority – my very kind dentist, a British woman – when I was about four years sober.  She’d just extracted one of my molars, and I’d just declined pain meds.  I remember the room we were in when she insisted, because it seemed to shrink and turn more yellow and seal off every doorway connecting me to AA.  I could feel the excitement rise in my chest: Meds!  Something GOOD!  There was hope!  Something really delightful perched just on the horizon!  Sure, I’d take ’em sensibly!  Of course!

…And I can’t say where it came from, but that small counter-voice, that love for the gift of sobriety and all the goodness it nurtured in my life – that sprang up in me, too.  They fought.  So by the time the words came out my mouth, sloppy from novocain, they were way too loud, too urgent, and too emotional.

“No!  I told you, I’m an alcoholic!”

“Yes, I know.  But this is a very safe drug – Vicodin.  You’ll be fine.”

“No, I won’t!  I’m sober and I want to stay that way!”

I remember the look of distaste on her face, that this normally calm and socially appropriate patient was going off on her.  She tried again, emphasizing the small dosage, but by that point tears spilled from my eyes and I had just one tremulous, throaty word for her: Ibuprofen.  Ibuprofen.  I’ll take ibuprofen…

And I did.  End of anecdote.

I’m not blaming doctors.  They’re rational; it’s we who make no sense!  That’s why the onus is on us to keep out of our lives what docs assure us is safe.   They don’t get Obit Hoffmanthe “curious mental blank spot.”  They haven’t heard the heart-rending shares of misery, helplessness, and loss sometimes dragging on for years – all triggered by a sensible prescription.   I have a huge number of friends in recovery.  And in contrast to the one alcoholic I know who successfully manages back pain with meds her partner doles out, I know at least a dozen who have relapsed catastrophically – not counting those who have died.

I was Facebook messaging with one of them yesterday.  He’s a wonderful guy traveling the country, working odd jobs, and trying to stay off heroin for more than a few months at a time.  But failing.  He had a week.  Here’s what he messaged:

Yah know, if I’d of known what I would become after a few Vicodin, I’d a shoved them up my doctor’s ass!!  I was never into opiates as a kid. But eight years into sobriety I hurt myself really really bad, and I guess I needed them. But in hindsight, if I had a choice between acute pain and becoming a heroin addict, I would have probably chose the pain. But whatever.  It’s done.  It’s over, right?” 

Maybe.  Maybe not.**

When we want to drink or use, only god can help us. But when someone else tells us it’s not a problem, we can use our brains.  Remember: the doctor is going to offer you prescripsomething so legitimate, so routine, so neat!  The prospect of those little pills fucking up your life will seem so overly dramatic!  What I do is this: I picture a set of balance scales with two big pans.  On one side I put the prospect of perturbing my doctor, making a stink, sounding like an uncooperative bitch, no one getting it, and, quite likely, some physical pain.  On the other side I put every blessing I’ve won back sober, every person I love, every friend who needs me, my self-respect, my inner dignity, my body’s health, my spirit’s channel to god – and every beauty and joy of this life.

Then I bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Don’t you dare fuck with my sobriety!”  But it’s right there – that sense of defending what I love.

If your pain is such that you’ve absolutely got to take some meds, agree to a prescription of five pills.  Maybe eight.  Then call someone for each goddam pill you take and say, “It is 4:00, and I am taking a percocet now.”  Draw up a chart to keep exact track of what time you dosed, whom you called, and whom you’re calling next.  Stay in touch with your sponsor.  And as soon as you can, switch to ibuprofen and get the pills out of your house.  Do nothing alone because – remember – you’re not really alone: there’s that slumbering beast in the duplex, and you’re making a racket.

I recall the sadness I felt post-surgery many years ago, flushing the three remaining Vicodin I’d been given.  The magic was gone.  Now there was just me… and my stupid old life.  It took about five minutes for gratitude to return: the vial was empty, but my future was full.  I was sober.

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**Rob died of overdose less than a year later.

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How Alcoholism Fucks Up Your Brain

A brief overview

I usually focus these posts on the spirituality of the 12 Steps as brewbama path  of recovery from alcoholism and codependency, but today I’ve decided to look at a little medical research on this disease. You already know that chronic alcohol abuse causes brain damage – some of it permanent. Whether your brain can rebuild itself with prolonged abstinence depends upon the severity of the damage as well as correlated factors such as genetics, nutrition, and your life habits in sobriety.

Alcoholism Shrinks Your Brain
This is an indisputable fact. Prolonged abuse of alcohol shrinks all areas of the brain, causing the condition known as “wet brain.” All wet brain really means is that, as the brain tissue shrinks, the vacated areas, known as ventricles, fill with fluid to compensate. It doesn’t mean you become a drooling idiot. (My father developed it late in life and remained quite sharp.) Rather, the condition simply indicates that all functions of your brain have been compromised, so that you’re less aware, less physically able, less emotionally engaged, and less intelligent overall than you would be with a healthy, non-alcoholic brain.

But, hey, no big! The buzz is worth it, right?
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MRI Alcoholic Brain
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Why Does Alcoholism Shrink Your Brain?
Here we encounter competing theories. To quote an article from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (what a bunch of party-poopers!):

According to one hypothesis, shrinkage (i.e., atrophy) of the cerebral cortex and white matter, as well as possible atrophy of basal forebrain regions, may result from the neurotoxic effects of alcohol… Alcoholics who are susceptible to alcohol toxicity may develop permanent or transient cognitive deficits associated with brain shrinkage.[i]

What is “neurotoxicity”? It’s medi-speak for toasts your brain cells. They don’t necessarily die, but the dendrites connecting them are damaged or lost, so the cells occupy less area.   But hey – at least they’re still kind of there, right?

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Gray Matter Volumes

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As you can see, when it comes to brains, plump is better. The graph on the right may seem a little confusing if you’ve gotten bombed enough times – or, heck, even if you haven’t. The straight line represents a normal brain. The blue line shows shrinkage of regions in a young alcoholic brain, and the yellow line shrinkage in an older alcoholic brain. (By the way, who the hell drinks only 20 gallons of alcohol in their whole life? Seriously? Even 625 gallons wouldn’t be nearly enough for my addict!)

Parts of the Brain Most Vulnerable
Everybody knows that when you’re fucked up, you temporarily lose coordination, short-term memory, and sound judgment. But who cares? Not much of a price to pay for not hating yourself for a bit, right? Of course, getting hammered also fries your behavioral inhibitions, emotional intelligence, and the ability to accurately read social cues – none of which can even compare, obviously, with the tremendous relief of no longer feeling terrified to converse with other human beings because you’re suddenly irresistibly hot and charming.

That said, it only makes sense that prolonged exposure to alcohol would eventually damage the parts of the brain responsible for those very functions.

Neuroimaging studies of living brains point to increased susceptibility of frontal brain systems to alcoholism-related damage… The frontal lobes, connected with all other lobes of the brain, receive and send fibers to numerous subcortical structures. The prefrontal cortex is considered the brain’s executive—that is, it is necessary for planning and regulating behavior, inhibiting the occurrence of unnecessary or unwanted behaviors, and supporting adaptive “executive control” skills such as goal-directed behaviors, good judgment, and problem-solving abilities.

In other words, the motherboard of your brain starts to malfunction. drunk-people-grin  As alcoholism progresses, this can lead to the chain of bad choices that screw up an alcoholic’s entire life. Because it only makes sense that as self-restraint abates and good judgment declines, egotism and selfishness jump in to take up the slack.

 Disruptions of the normal inhibitory functions of prefrontal networks often have the interesting effect of releasing previously inhibited behaviors. As a result, a person may behave impulsively and inappropriately – which may contribute to excessive drinking.

In other words, the more you injure your brain by drinking, the more likely you are to say, “aw… fuck it!” and drink more. Other excellent ideas include hooking up with other sick people, engaging in unethical/destructive behaviors, and royally screwing over the people you love.

Because actually, you only kind of love them. To be honest, loving them is only a vague memory. Why is that?

Alcoholics may seem emotionally “flat” – i.e., they are less reactive to emotionally charged situations… Impairments in emotional functioning that affect alcoholics may reflect abnormalities in [the right 48_Withered_Heart_16oo_by_WoodrowShigeruhemisphere or] other brain regions which… influence emotional processing, such as the limbic system and the frontal lobes.

How many alcoholics know that feeling of not being able to feel?  When my grandmother died, when my husband walked away, when my partner shut the door on my begging – I knew I ought to feel something, but I didn’t. Not much more than, “Hmm… that sure sucks!” Who knew my limbic system was screwed up? Really, by the end I could feel only one thing: when I was pouring the drink, when I was chopping the lines, when it seemed I was winning the conquest, I felt, “YES!”

Alcohol directly stimulates release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is important in emotional expression, and of the endorphins, natural substances related to opioids, which may contribute to the “high” of intoxication and the craving to drink. Alcohol also leads to increases in the release of dopamine (DA), a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation and in the rewarding effects of alcohol.

The trouble is, the brain recognizes this overload of pleasure transmitters and tapers its production of each as a result. In other words, you feel like shit without a drink; in fact, severe neurotransmitter imbalances my cause you to develop “seizures, sedation, depression, agitation, and other mood and behavior disorders.”

The brain, of course, isn’t the only organ on the team to get fucked by alcohol. Every organ in the body suffers, but hardest hit is your liver. We all know the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the bloodstream gets compromised as alcohol overtaxes it. But did you know this?

These damaged liver cells no longer function as well as they should and allow too much of these toxic substances, ammonia and manganese in particular, to travel to the brain. These substances proceed to damage brain cells, causing a serious and potentially fatal brain disorder known as hepatic encephalopathy, which can result in mood and personality changes, anxiety, depression, shortened attention span, and coordination problems, including… hand shaking[ii]

I think I might’ve had a spot of that…

Well, that’s about the end of my rollicking review of alcoholic brain damage. Missing from this account, of course, is the self-destructive spiritual illness that makes us not give a shit whether we’re killing ourselves, because life’s worthless anyway.

The good news is that studies also show all these physical processes can be reversed by long-term abstinence, while the spiritual malady – thank god! – can be cured via the 12 steps.  A healthy body is really just the means to an end – usefulness and the joy of living, which we’ve been granted in sobriety.

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[i] Except where noted, quotations are taken from “Alcoholism and the Brain: An Overview,” by Marlene Oscar–Berman, Ph.D., and Ksenija Marinkovic, Ph.D. See http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/125-133.htm
[ii] http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Hangovers/beyondHangovers.htm

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Psychic Change

Toward Alcohol

When we hit bottom in our drinking careers, we’re pretty much forced to change.  We’re truly sick and tired of being sick and tired; we recognize, however faultily, that our way is not working.  We become teachable.  That is, we’re desperate enough to try out AA’s approach even though it feels foreign, artificial, and disorienting.

For me this meant giving up the belief that I knew everything.  I’d always felt sure I could perceive the lay of the land in a snap and choose the best course, which I then acted on with chutzpah and a dash of fukitol.  Drinks made me feel better, so I frickin’ took ’em.  Certain designated figures, also known as cool people, carried what I craved, so I chased ’em.  Responsibility and integrity felt cumbersome, so I shrugged ’em off – free to follow my whims wherever they might lead!

And where was that?  Loneliness so lethal I wanted to scream for eternity and futility so rampant I wanted to break and trash and burn every fucking thing that ever touched my life – that’s where my knowing everything took me.

12 stepsAA – the supposed solution – seemed as silly as a cake walk.  The 12 Steps, anyone could see, held no more wisdom than a hopscotch grid, and yet all these AA dolts claimed that if you sincerely played hopscotch, if you landed in each arbitrarily chalked off square, you’d bust through to frickin’ Narnia or something – whatever they meant by this “4th dimension of existence.”

But since a U-turn could lead me only back to the hell, I went ahead.  I gave up control, followed directions, did the dance.  And I commenced to change – to heal and grow and behold countless unexplored and rich possibilities hitherto invisible to me.

From somewhere inside me, I began to sense a direction besides my thoughts.  They – my thoughts – were still as dumb and which-way as ever, but this new chord, this voice within – it began to lead me instead of them.  Guidance I heard and talked about in AA aligned with this voice, but did not constitute it.  Rather, I had “tapped an unsuspected inner resource” previously drown out by all the fears, demands, and clutter spewed by my ego.

I’d experienced a psychic change.  I’d begun to develop a spiritual life that edged out my craving for booze.

Toward Life Itself

“Our liquor was but a symptom,” says the Big Book, of our messed up approach to life.  If we merely take away the faulty solution of drinking, life hits us full force and feels unbearable. The lasting solution is to live on a spiritual basis which flows in tune with reality rather than fighting it.

Spiritual evolution is not a matter of content.  That is, it’s never a matter of learning X, Y, and Z, passing the quiz, and graduating.  Rather, it’s a habit of cultivating open-mindedness and reaching for growth.  In other words, the conditions for continuous growth are the same as those that freed us from compulsive drinking: I elect not to buy into my thoughts, not to obey my ego, not to fall for the idea that my way is right.  Only by turning away from these easy-to grab reflexes can I open myself to another voice – the more fundamental guidance of a higher power.

second-handDay by day, growth happens at the juncture between what I’m exposed to and how I react to it.  In that immediate crucible, I make more tiny choices than can possibly be noted, but collectively, they coalesce into a “gear” for my outlook.  I plop into good-ole self-pity or reach for seemingly impossible gratitude – though I may end up somewhere between.  What matters is whether I ask my higher power to guide those tiny choices, and whether I commit the incremental shards of my awareness to pursuing that guidance.

Growth can’t happen when ego takes over.  The world becomes scary, because if what I’ve decided is supposed to happen doesn’t, I’m gonna be screwed. There’s never enough, so I lock into my plans.  I get tunnel vision – which means I’m sealed off from potential good outside my will.  I consign myself to stagnation.

The openness of faith reminds me life is always a collaborative effort – mine and god’s.  Sure, I still plan and take action, but with built-in acceptance of whatever plays out.  Even if things fuck up and fall apart, I’ll still be okay.  My “enough” originates not from stuff or status, but from the power of god’s love flowing through me, the strength to generate and nurture and delight.

Jess and Chip

Jesse & Chip (by permission) 1 month post-flood: “The joy of living [they] really have, even under pressure and difficulty.”

Consider some dear friends of mine who moved to Wimberley, TX, last year only to lose everything they owned in a recent river flood.  One day things were dandy, and next their home was was missing two walls and contained only mud and somebody else’s overturned couch.  They had no renters’ insurance.  Can you imagine that?  I mean, can you really imagine losing everything?  Yet these are two happy and thriving, not only because they’re sober, but because they live on a spiritual basis.  They don’t lament.  They have their precious lives, their energy, their love – a flow that’s providing all they need to rebuild what was lost, even as they pitch in to help neighbors… or support a faraway friend (me) processing a painful break-up.

The psychic change to living on a spiritual basis means we accept life’s uncertainty, taking our best shot and leaving the results to god.  Failure’s fine.  It happens.  Floods happen.  Betrayals happen.  We can only keep listening for the voice within and trying to follow it toward good actions and good people, but with no guarantees.  Because, while it’s true we each reap what we sow, it’s also true we’re  scattering seeds from an unmarked, mixed bag. What will take root and flourish depends, we know, as much on the rain and sun as our work. Yet we do it anyway – and cheerfully.

Millet- sower

The Sower, J. F. Millet, 1850

 

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People, Places, and Pain

Recently, someone I trusted betrayed my confidence deeply.  Or rather, I just found out about it last week.  Before then, I’d have said such a thing could never happen – and I’d have staked my life on it.  In a way, I did.  Maybe some day I’ll write about the specifics, but right now I’m too shocked to have any perspective.  I haven’t slept more than a few hours at a time all week; my heart pounds so I feel each beat; I have no appetite.  Sure, it’s great to drop five pounds in a week, but not with shaking hands you have to hide from clients or sinking guts that weigh down every breath.

I’ve often heard in the rooms that placing one’s faith in people, places, and things is a recipe for pain.  But how can we avoid doing just that?  Part of my loving – or feeling I love – inevitably involves dependence.  I trust that a friend or loved one honors me as I do them, and pretty soon I’ve hung my well-being on their actions without even realizing it.  In the same way, I rely on the places and things I love to provide me security.  I get attached to my body’s health.  These elements should all stay put just as I’ve arranged them.  I want to know my happiness is safe, that I can depend on the world to take care of me.

Natori, Japan

But it isn’t, and I can’t.

When illusions get ripped away, we realize that everywhere we make a home for ourselves in the world, we simultaneously become exposed.  We begin to think that home is part of us, of our being – our identity – and that we can shed our skin there in perfect safety.  But people are flawed.  They fuck up.  They decide, at times, that it’s a grand idea to be immensely selfish, throwing us under a bus.  Other “homes” are just as impermanent.  Diagnoses drop bombs on our health.  Jobs end and take financial security with them.  Sweet kids become addicts.  People move away.  Houses burn.  Earthquakes happen.  Nothing stays put.

When I am most in pain, I turn to god.  And god, I have found, is  there for me most when pain has torn open my heart.  I can feel it.  It doesn’t exactly empathize, because pain is not part of its realm.  But it loves.  Even when everything has gone to shit, god loves as always – the way the sun rises each morning, the way the ocean waves curl over and thunder up the beach, the way the spring grass sprouts through winter’s dead mat of straw year after year after year.  “I’m here.  I love you.”  That’s what it says.  But if I listen closer than I want to, it’s also saying, “All is well, if you’ll only let it be so.”  It’s talking about acceptance.  About humility.  God is in what is.  So when I fight what is, I’m fighting god.

Do I think about taking a drink?  Wouldn’t that fixDrinker silhouette everything?  Wouldn’t it calm my heart from slapping against the inside of my sternum?  Just cop a decent buzz and I could quit giving a shit.  Then I could vent my hurt as outrage and lash out about what a worthless piece of shit the person who hurt me was.  That anger – wouldn’t it  jack up my sense of power, raise me on towering flames of righteousness so I could smite?  Then maybe I wouldn’t have to feel this intense vulnerability, this loss, this pain… pain… pain….

Sure, that might happen temporarily.  But when the drunkenness retreated, I’d have nothing.  I’d have lost not only the person I trusted, but myself.

I hadn’t gone to one of my Near Death Experience (NDE) meetings in months, but when I asked last week on Facebook if someone would go with me, a Tennessee friend who’s had an NDE as well responded: “I’m in town; let’s go!”  At that meeting, the makers of a TV show came down front and announced they were interviewing NDEers.  So, as one of them passed my aisle seat, I handed him my card.  I didn’t think much of it.

NDEYesterday I was sitting with my pain, my journal open in my lap, staring into space.  The phone rang and one of those TV researchers asked if I would tell her my NDE story.  It takes a while, because I’ve had 14 paranormal after-effects as well, but she assured me she had all the time in the world.  So I told it again for the for the first time in years.  The story’s scattered through my addiction memoir and I’ve presented it to Seattle IANDS* and at the Seattle Theosophical Society, but there’s no call to tell it in daily living.

When I got to the part about my huge 9th Weird Thing, I explained:

“That’s the moment when I got it.  I mean, before then I’d believed god was real whenever I was feeling spiritual or something, but otherwise I’d set that aside and  believe in my own mind.  But this thing was so inexplicable – it was all the proof a person could ask for.  I knew then god is with us in every tiny thing that happens.  And something changed in me.  I was sobbing and I prayed, ‘Okay – I know you’re real!  I’ll never you doubt again!'”

“That’s so cool!” exclaimed the woman.  She was busy taking notes.  And in the little stretch of silence that followed, something nudged me: Hear yourself.  Sitting there, I remembered that the 9th Weird Thing really did happen.  I remembered all my weird things – that they had actually happened to me, that I really lived them, and that no material view of the world could explain them.

What I’d prayed fervently a few nights before was this: “Let me know you’re with me.”  So it came about that I spoke the very words I needed to hear.  Plus there was a deeper message wrapped up in that “hear yourself,” saying also, “heal yourself.”   It went something like this:

There’s a home at your core that’s always safe, because you and I inhabit it together.  Make that home your true one.  Spend time there, spruce it up, make it strong.  Because there, sweet child, even as the world falls down around you, my love will carry you, and you’ll be okay. 

Today, I know that’s true.

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*Seattle IANDS = Seattle branch of the International Association for Near Death Studies

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Enlightened but Dead: Why Alcoholics Need God

Pema Chödrön’s teacher, the venerable Chögyam Trungpa, drank a lot.  Drinking was a staple of his sanga, where he threw big parties among his students, and he was known to carry vodka in a water bottle.  Trungpa explained in one of his spiritual books why his drinking differed from that of an ordinary alcoholic:

“Whether alcohol is to be a poison or a medicine depends on one’s awareness while drinking. Conscious drinking—remaining aware of one’s state of mind—transmutes the effect of alcohol. Here awareness involves a tightening up on one’s system as an intelligent defense mechanism…

“For the yogi, alcohol is fuel for relating with his students and with the world in general, as gasoline allows a motorcar to relate with the road. But naturally the ordinary drinker who tries to compete with or imitate this transcendental style of drinking will turn his alcohol into poison…”*

Sadly, it appears that Trungpa’s liver failed to read the book and appreciate his “transcendental style” of yogi drinking.  Despite diagnoses of cirrhosis and doctors’ warnings that more drinking would kill him, Trungpa continued to drink heavily until it did indeed kill him in April of 1986, when he was just 48 years old.

Trungpa~

Philosopher Alan Watts was considered a sage throughout the ’60s after he rose to prominence with the 1951 publication of The Wisdom of Insecurity – a pivotal text  introducing Eastern concepts to Western society.  The book considers the ego’s dis-ease with the unstable nature of reality and its efforts to create security via constructs of memory and projection coalescing in a story of “I,” which Watts dismisses as unreal: only awareness divorced from self can access reality.  Watts, like Trungpa, was well aware of the futility of escapist drinking:

“One of the worst vicious circles is the problem of the alcoholic.  In very many cases he knows quite clearly that he is destroying himself, that, for him, liquor is poison, that he actually hates being drunk… And yet he drinks.  For, dislike it as he may, the experience of not drinking is worse… for he stands face to face with the unveiled, basic insecurity of the world.”

Unfortunately, identifying this vicious circle did not grant Watts the power to exit it.  Like Trungpa, he often gave lectures while sloppy drunk. He, too, developed end-stage alcoholism that deeply concerned his ex-wife and friends, and died of alcoholic cardiomyopathy – e.g. heart failure – at 58.

Watts~

Both of these men were masters of self-knowledge and the meditative disciplines that yield inner peace.  Both could speak brilliantly on the ills of ego and treasures of honesty.  Yet neither could stop drinking.  And they’re just two examples out of jillions.  Why did they fail?  Why would people so insightful not quit what was clearly killing them?  The Big Book explains:

“If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago.  But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how hard we tried.  We… could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, …failed utterly.” (p. 44)

In Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Trungpa makes very clear that no god enters into his vision.  “Over the past seven years, I have been a presenting series of ‘Shambala Teachings’ [on]… secular enlightenment, that is, the possibility of uplifting our personal existence and that of others without the help of any religious outlook.”

Good for him!  I agree wholeheartedly that self-knowledge is great stuff.  But it will not cure alcoholism.

In a 1968 talk, Bill Wilson, one of AA’s founders, described the initial amazement of the psychiatric community at the unprecedented breakthroughs of AA.  Many alcoholism specialists attended meetings and saw their own alcoholic patients, with whom years of psychiatric work had failed, achieve abstinence and mental health in a matter of weeks.  One suggested that Bill assemble a group of such psychiatrists to testify before the Academy of Medicine about AA’s success. So Bill asked them.

“And not a one would do it! …In effect, each said, ‘Look, Bill. You folks have added up in one column more of the resources which have been separately applied to alcoholics than anyone else… [But] the sum of them won’t add up to the speed of these transformations in these very grim cases… So for us, there is an unknown factor at work in AA.  [B]eing scientists, we… call it the X factor.  We believe you people call it the grace of God. And who shall go to the Academy and explain the grace of God?  No one can.'”

questionSorry, folks!  But the X factor, and that alone, is what saves an alcoholic: Connection with a higher power, to god as we understand it.  We ask god to help us, and we’re relieved of a compulsion that no amount of self-knowledge can touch.

Humility is the key ingredient to receiving grace.  We have to ask for it, accepting that we’ve been defeated.  By contrast, Trungpa, for all his wisdom, exhibited a strong tendency toward hubris.  The true warrior, he explains in Shambala, is both Outrageous and Inscrutable.  “…[H]aving overcome hope and fear, the warrior… fathoms the whole of space.  You go beyond any possibilities of holding back at all…. Your wakefulness and intelligence make you self-contained and confident with a confidence that needs no reaffirmation through feedback.” In other words, I got this!  Screw what anyone else thinks!

Watts, meanwhile, purported to embrace God, but his abstractions reduced it to a mere abandonment of I, which enabled connection with the eternal now and rendered us one with God.  For Watts, there could be no “Hey, god (you) please help (me)!” because the you / I division negated the fact that we are god: “[W]e cannot lay ourselves open to grace, for all such split-mindedness is the denial… of our freedom.”

Reluctance to seek god’s help almost killed AA co-founder Bill Wilson, too.  Relatively unknown in AA culture is the fact that Bill was so deeply repulsed by the God element in his friend Ebby’s solution that he went on drinking for three weeks after Ebby’s visit and landed yet again in a sanitarium.  There, after Ebby had visited him again to recap the spiritual solution, he had this experience:

“And again the despair deepened until the last of this prideful obstinacy was momentarily crushed out. And then, like a child crying out in the dark, I said, ‘If there is a God, will he show himself?’ And the place lit up in a great glare, a wondrous white light. Then I began to have images, in the mind’s eye, so to speak, and one came in which I seemed to see myself standing on a mountain and a great clean wind was blowing, and this blowing at first went around and then it seemed to go through me. And then the ecstasy redoubled and I found myself exclaiming, ‘I am a free man! So THIS is the God of the preachers!'”

Light
In my Near-Death Experiences group, I’ve heard several people describe similar experiences, when the “white light” of love brilliantly illuminated the room around them; but, naturally, many of Bill’s contemporaries considered him daft for insisting it had happened.  In his talk, he attributes this phenomenon not to his own specialness, but to the role it enabled him to play in AA, explaining that the powerful faith most AAs develop over months or years was for him simply crammed into a few minutes: “It did give me an instant conviction of the presence of God which has never left me… And I feel that that extra dividend may have made the difference in whether I would have persisted with AA in the early years or not.”

In other words, Bill was given what he needed not only to overcome a lifetime of harrowing addiction, but to co-create AA and persist in carrying its message into the dark world of his fellow alcoholics.  Why?  Because he asked… and frickin’ meant it.

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PS: I have tremendous respect for both these sages as well as for Buddhism.  By no means am I critical of their legacy or beliefs.  Reading both authors did contribute to my self-knowledge, for which I am grateful, because such insight aids in a lifetime quest for serenity.  My point is merely that self-knowledge, no matter how deep or how keen, cannot arrest this disease, as these two tragically premature deaths testify.  See comments below. 

– Louisa

  • (Heart of the Buddha, p. 153)

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The Wisdom of Ordinary Schmucks

Today, Thursday the 29th, I have 20 years clean and sober. Woot!

Here’s a journal entry I wrote 20 years ago after my first AA meeting:

1/29/1995:  “I went to an AA meeting tonight. Was so uncomfortable and out of place, and felt I will never, never stop drinking so why want to? I know drinking so intimately. I know me with a drink – a glass of wine, a beer – better than I know anyone in this world. I love to drink. I love it like freedom and happiness. I want never to stop. I wish I could drink in the morning, at eleven, at lunch, at three, and on after five ‘til the night is gone.”

2015-01-29 08.01.00

journal page

Writing that was a scared, deeply confused and unhappy semi-suicidal woman who thought her mind ought to be able to get her out of any jam. The last thing she suspected was that those people among whom she felt “so uncomfortable and out of place” would not only save her from slow death, they would teach her to transform living into something beautiful and joy-filled. I remember judging every person in that room by the standards my family had ingrained in me. Anyone lacking at least a BA, anyone with a working class job who wasn’t slumming ironically for the sake of some art form, was ignorant. As for the 12 Steps, it took me about 40 seconds to read them off the wall. How could such vague ideas accomplish anything?  Sure, these ordinary schmucks believed in them, but I was way smarter and more special.

Wisdom, however, is neither academic nor cultural. It’s about living – how we respond to the passions of being human, like our desires for love, fulfillment, and specialness.  It concerns how we deal with fear, anger, and the impulse to defend what we love.  And it’s far more a matter of what we let go as false than what we cling to as true.  The ordinary schmucks in AA taught me how to cast off the hoary crust of fear that had blocked me from the truths of god and my fellows, freeing me to be myself and to love you intrinsically because you are, at heart, just like me.

The first things the schmucks taught me were wisdom bytes passed down in AA, which made such an impression that I remember to this day where I sat relative to the person speaking.  “I can’t fix my broken brain with my broken brain,” said a guy at the next table with unruly hair sticking out from under his baseball cap. “That’s why I need the help of something greater than me.”  Whoa! I thought, no wonder I can’t get better!  Too bad I reject everything to do with God!  But then a few days later an overweight woman in polyester pants sitting to my left against the wall said, “If you can’t think God, if that’s objectionable to you, just think Good Orderly Direction.  You can seek that – something deeper than your own thinking.”

There light_bulbare countless other key moments when light bulbs went on for me. “My ego tells me I’m the shit, and my self-loathing insists I’m a piece of shit.  But God grants me the humility to be right-sized – to be a worker among workers, a driver among drivers, a sober drunk among sober drunks.”

But even more important, what the schmucks have shared with me is their experience of living life. The first story I ever identified with was told by a guy (sitting near the door to my right) who ordered Chinese take-out that arrived without chopsticks.  He knew he had a pair in the house, some nice bamboo ones, but couldn’t find them. He went bananas searching for them.  He kept looking in the silverware drawer again and again, lifting out the tray and shoving stuff around. Furious, he checked all kinds of illogical places – the junk drawer, his desk, the broken dishwasher – while his take-out got cold. It seemed to be about a principle.

This was in maybe my second week sober, but I still hear that guy’s words every time I go bonkers trying to find something.  “It’s just my ego refusing to accept what is” echoes in my mind.  “It’s just me being human and flawed.”  I’ve since heard countless stories of ways to be human and flawed, issues I once thought were mine alone.  Incrementally, they push me toward acceptance of things I cannot change.  But what about that courage to change the things I can?

The 12 steps grew from empty suggestions to a revolution in life perspective once I worked them with a hard-ass sponsor who pushed me to see beyond my story.  They changed me, dredging up insights from the depths of my inner knowledge and compelling me to face them.  When I didn’t like what I saw, I was willing to ask my god for help, much as I’d asked in theoak-tree beginning to be relieved of the compulsion to drink.  I was willing to work with god to become what it (i.e. love/Good Orderly Direction) would have me be.  I write this now when I have almost no time in my week because of my commitment to follow through on that direction.

Telling the truth – the human truth. That’s what I heard the schmucks doing over and over once I’d awoken through the steps.  They taught me with their shares that there’s almost always a deeper, more honest revelation underneath whatever story we’ve cooked up about ourselves and others.  Pretty much any problem boils down to “I’m afraid” of not getting what I think I need or losing what I have.  And any happiness boils down to “I love.”

I’m no longer the woman who wrote of clinging to her glass, to her liquid freedom and happiness that had, unfortunately, quit working.  Some wisdom comes simply with age.  We begin to see the old in the young and vice versa, see the broke in the rich, and to have compassion for people living though pains we have known.  Whether one is in AA or not, pain can be the greatest teacher if it moves us to replace our defunct illusions with love and tolerance rather than tout them with righteous judgement.  Gradually, we come to see the trajectory of birth to death resembles a meteor’s streak through the night sky: the small and insignificant burn bright, casting light where there was none, and then go out.  We can’t begrudge anyone the color or angle of their flare.  We are all miraculous and unique ordinary schmucks.

Thanks for 20 years, guys!

20 year coin

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