Category Archives: living sober

Build a New Passion

Me and the BF in 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bumpy video from my phone holder here.

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

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

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

OSAT Glacier Climbing Class of ’19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Will I Ever LOVE Being Sober?”

Now and then a serious drinker, being dry at the moment says, “I don’t miss it at all. Feel better. Work better. Having a better time.” As ex-problem drinkers, we smile at such a sally. We know our friend … would give anything to take half a dozen drinks and get away with them. He will presently try the old game again, for he isn’t happy about his sobriety. He cannot picture life without alcohol. Some day he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end.

— Chapter 11, Alcoholics Anonymous

 

I hit bottom on 01/29/95.  On that day, I could no longer imagine life either with or without alcohol, and I truly wished for the end.  The August prior, I’d quit alcohol for 30 days just to show I didn’t have a problem.  I was staying in a friend’s vacant apartment because my partner had banished me from our home, having read my journal and discovered some of the sickness I’d been concealing. But oh, well.

I hung a calendar on my friend’s kitchen wall and drew a big X through each day I passed without a drink.  I felt healthier, had more energy, was cheery at work. But LOVE not drinking?  What are, you, nuts? I could hardly wait for the month to be over so I could drink again, because any life without drinking struck me as beyond dull — it would, I knew, be brash, relentless, barren, and joyless. Alcohol, I felt, was the oil in the engine of my life.

So on September 1st — cheers! — I was back at it. But by 01/29/95, much had changed.  A thick, murky self-disgust filled my consciousness; I saw no hope of ever enjoying life; and alcohol, almost inconceivably, no longer helped. There’s an explanation for what was going on at the brain level, but all I knew was that, no matter how much I drank, I felt no levity. The world had gone devoid of all color and charm; other people seemed self-sufficient judging machines. I just couldn’t deal anymore.

My idea of a fine suicide was guzzling a gallon of vodka — a scheme I knew my stomach would allow. But FIRST, because I couldn’t do it after, I dialed the number a sober friend had scrawled for me on a scrap of paper, and that night I went to my first AA meeting. I no longer gave a shit whether life was brash, relentless, barren, and joyless. All I knew was that nothing I’d tried could render it tolerable, and several people had claimed AA would.

If you’d told me then that in 25 years, sobriety would comprise the gem of my life, that I’d love my AA homegroup as my dear, motley family, and that pretty much all my friends would be in AA or NA, I’d have said, “You must be talking about somebody else.” And you would have been, because the psychic change that comes with thoroughly working the steps through several iterations over the years has transformed who I am.

What Happened?
To realize that we hold a limited perspective, I think, goes against the basic nature of human consciousness.  Our brains tell us that the world is what it is and that we’re perceiving it accurately. If there’s a problem, it must be with the world, not how we process or think about the world. 

Even at that “let’s kill ourselves ’cause it’s a good idea” rock bottom, my perspective felt both certain and precious to me. My pride was rooted in it. My attitudes and values had built up over my 34-year lifetime, crafted through countless efforts to deal with the tricks and pains of living.  I truly believed they were me.  To say they were distorted was to steal all I’d worked for.  And to say that in some outdated white-guy book and in church basements full of strangers, a better perspective could be attained — well, that was just plain shallow.

NO ONE likes to think that other people have answers we lack. If millions of sober people tell us they struggled with the god thing but it eventually became the foundation of their happiness, we feel we’re different, put up a wall, and say, “They must be simpletons.”

I’m special!

My first months without alcohol did indeed prove brash and relentless — a place where many stay stuck. Yet for me, they proved not altogether barren and joyless because I’d begun the long process of growth. Through incremental acknowledgement, over and over, I began to see that my ways kept leading me toward depression and emptiness, whereas each time I tried a little more of their way, life got better. Two years in, I worked the steps whole hog.

Rather than being brainwashed, I found I became more me — little Louisa was still in there, and she was cute and creative and love-filled, and all the things she’d been before she lost the key to life: loving from the source of god and sharing goodwill with others. Children do this without needing a reason. Yet at some point I’d changed to one who wants from others, and it nearly killed me.

I understand now that one drink will inevitably lead me to thousands, and that whenever I’m drinking, I’m cut off from god like a plant inside a box.  To drink, for me, is to wither spiritually, even if my outsides are puffed up with false revelry.

Willingness is the key.  For me, that meant relinquishing my grip on being right, knowing best, and being a smarty-pants in general, because otherwise, I stayed locked in my old perspective. And the relinquishing never ends.

Today, when I say I love my sobriety, what I’m really saying is that I love this life — its fleeting beauties, its inevitable struggles, its poignant fragility. Sobriety is the honesty that lets me behold it.

 

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Alone is a Dangerous Neighborhood

These are some crazy days, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can download Zoom software free from HERE.

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

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The Work of Happy Sobriety

For the first three and a half decades of my life, I tried super hard to find happiness outside myself. If I could just get with the right people, afford the right stuff, and be seen in the right places, with just the right amount of a buzz or high, I’d clinch it! But all I did was fuck up my life — and others’.

I was smart as measured by standardized tests, landing jobs, or publishing stories, and good-looking enough for a mostly-successful seduction record, but dumb as a stump in terms of emotional wisdom — so I just wanted to die. Life hurt so badly! (See my lengthy addiction memoir for details galore.)

Attaining happiness is never an easy quest; every day we have to bushwhack through pretty much the same undergrowth of FOMO, discontent, victimhood, and boredom as well as self-inflicted criticism, shame, and pity to arrive beneath the open sky of awareness. During a pandemic, such as is in full swing as I write this, the way gets even thicker and swampier — doesn’t it?  Surely, we think, we’re missing out on some better life we ought to be living!

Growth
Now, I may be getting on in years, but I have recently met, both in person and virtually, some folks my age who are still every bit as lost as teenagers. For decades they’ve repeated over and over the same cycles of addiction — one with booze, the other with codependent romance. They have yet to step off the merry-go-round of “I know best,” so they keep finding themselves back at square one.

In early addiction, all of us believe our heads. Our thinking tells us it’s a fine idea to _____ (shop, starve, drink, “fall in love,” etc.), and we trust that thinking. Little do we suspect that our brains have been hijacked; we’re caught in a loop of stimuli and the reward centers they trigger.

Later, once we become aware of our addictions, we try to temper them with resolve and decisiveness — say, by swearing off drugs or getting married or moving. We’ve noticed the pattern and, darn it, we’re not gonna do that shit anymore!  I see this so tragically among pregnant addicts at a rehab center near my home. These women will hug their distended bellies and say, “I’ve lost three kids to the foster care system, but I’m not losing this one! I am SO DONE with drugs and alcohol! And I’m gonna get all my babies back, and we’re gonna be a family…”

By this point, they’re usually too overwhelmed with emotion to go on. No one could be more sincere.  No one could want and yearn and hope more fervently for what they’re saying to be true. And yet I know, sitting in that circle, that chances are they will use again, and they will lose this baby, along with all the others because addiction always wins — short of a miracle.

.

Half that miracle is god — a power greater than ourselves that empowers us to accomplish what no human will can bring about. The other half is the inward miracle of letting go — ceasing to believe what our brains tell us, trusting instead what others have to teach us, and learning to listen for direction from our deepest hearts, from the goodness in our core that’s connected to all life.

The rest of recovery — including that daily schlepp toward happiness — comes down to 1) expanding the range of this miracle,  2) mapping our thought paths, 3) revering our consciousness/spirit, and 4) odd as it may seem, making friends with all those misguided inner voices.

  1. Once we let go of the precept that our own thinking is superior, we can try what’s worked for others despite doubts it can work for us. We work the 12 steps in depth with a sponsor.  When others tell us they initially choked on the word “God,” didn’t want to do service work, and dreaded sponsoring people, but now these things are the mainstays of their happiness, we try doing what they did to see if we’ll get what they got.

2) We begin to realize we are not our thoughts — we entertain them.  Or maybe it’s better to say they entertain us! That is, they enter stage-left, tap-dance a while before our awareness with urgent banners and songs and imperatives, and eventually exit stage right.  We learn to watch them without getting snagged, knowing they’re impermanent reactions to stimuli more often than realistic assessments of what is.  Practicing meditation hones this skill.

3) We begin to realize that we’re not our brains or bodies — we inhabit them. We’re all spirits that, for whatever reason, have chosen to incarnate and play a role in the unfolding of the physical world. Ultimately, our mission is to help each other by taking actions rooted in love and compassion. As one Near Death Experiencer was told, what matters is not what you do each day but what wake you leave behind, whether each person you meet is left a tiny bit happier by the encounter — because every other being is a part of you.

4) The same love and compassion we extend outward, we learn to offer ourselves, generously steeped in humor. Humor is the taproot of true humility, which is indispensable to a happy life. Did I wake up this morning anxious, dismayed by the state of the world, worried about the same dumb shit I always worry about? Yup!  That’s me — failing to be grateful that I’m not trapped in some war-torn, starvation-ravaged country or suffering some vast pain or grief. Yup, it’s just me and my buddies insecurity, envy, fear, and vanity, hangin’ out and doin’ what we do!  Come on, gang — let’s toddle into our cozy kitchen and get some luscious tea!

I often don’t see how I deserved to be guided to my first AA meeting, but I’m the one who said, “I can’t do life. I give up. Teach me.” And the rest has unfolded like a wildflower in the mountains.

Where I was yesterday…

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One Resolution Fits All

There’s a sense in which my life is none of my business.

I don’t know so much — what I am, for starters. I mean, I know I’m a consciousness, the “I” choosing these words, but how that font of awareness got married to a few trillion cells such that we all shuffle around together — how that came to be I have no clue.  Why I entered the world in a middle class American family — no idea. What the world is tending toward, the turmoil of someone much like me in Syria, the adorable joey dying painfully by fire in Australia, what will happen tomorrow, how long I will live — I know nothing.

But when I look back on the trail of my life and try to discern the hither to yon of it, if I sift through all I’ve seen and done and said and felt for just one gem, it’s this: I’ve been learning to love. The more love I generate, the more beautiful and meaningful my life.  So that will be my resolution, today and every day: Love More.

Loving myself.  I used to think that was easy enough, but it’s hardest. The reason it’s so hard, the gutter-ball of bowling for self-love that I kept throwing for about 40 years, is ego.  Ego is needed.  It was given us to keep us in our bodies, to train us to look out for ourselves so we can survive. Unfortunately, it usurps awareness and turns life into a contest, parading and concealing to orchestrate what it imagines others think.  Only in the last few years have I truly understood the inseparable nature of self-love and humility, two sides of the same coin.

In the warmth and simplicity of humility — I’m just me — I can drop the contest and see how simple my job actually is.  I try.  If I were to make a pie chart of my activities and responsibilities, there would be many, many slices. But in every area, all I can do is try.  To love myself, I focus on the sincerity of that effort rather than the outcomes it produces, successes or failures, which are ego’s domain.  I see my often bewildered, flawed, self-conscious self trying to live, to do what’s right, and I love myself for it.

Loving those close to me.  The hardest thing about loving family and others I’ve not necessarily chosen to position close to me is to truly see them instead of jumping to my idea of them.  My idea is ego’s shortcut that actually denies their humanity, their ongoing human experience, and sees only how they impact me.  If I can dilate the light of my own humility to cast it on them, I can see them, too, as bewildered, flawed, and self-conscious humans trying to navigate.  I may maintain a long list of flaws they don’t see (so funny!), but I can keep in mind that I fail to see many of my own. (When I made fun of myself the other night for craving attention, my friends laughed just a tad too hard.)  These folks, too, are trying as best they know how.

Loving humans I see.  This one’s an impediment for me because sometimes I can’t stop. Walking through the airport in a strange city, for example, my mind whirls in overdrive creating a whole life for every freaking person I see.  It’s exhausting!  They were born, they toddled and shit their diapers, they had their heart broken and either cried their guts out or stuffed it in deep pain.  Every single person!  So I try to calm down and just send blessings to each.

Loving the world I see.  This one is the chit!  It’s the key to happiness, not just for those of us in recovery, but for everyone.  I practice loving what I see.  For me, this means viewing everything as an expression of god — that gum wrapper on the sidewalk.  It grew as a tree, contains sunshine, soil, and magic, and was turned into paper at a factory where many complex souls worked and others exploited them from fear and greed, and it once contained gum similarly made, until a person who was born and toddled in diapers, etc., bought it and decided in a god-given consciousness to chew it, with all those sensations and reactions, and either intentionally or unintentionally let the wrapper fall, via a force of gravity proportionate to the mass of the earth, to have its trajectory interrupted here on the sidewalk. I also love crows and weeds.  I even love many insects. Everything is doing, carrying out a story, dancing with god.

Loving the world I don’t see.  I hold in my mind and heart at all times an awareness of this immense world over which I have no power.  Instead of trusting the pixelated reports of it churned out by media, social and otherwise, that ticker-tape through my devices, I concede that I have no way of knowing reality outside my small circle of experience, except as a general idea, a story that will turn out unpredictably in the years I witness and after I’m dead.  I know many beautiful, innocent humans and animals are everywhere trying to live, enjoying life or suffering. So I send out love, much like that of Buddhist prayers, whenever I can. I pray for good.  I pray for a growing network of compassion among people. I pray for the pod of orcas that used to frequent the waters where I live but are starving today for lack of salmon. I pray for my son.

So, back to my own life not being my business.  I didn’t make it and I control little of it, but I do have faith that god put me here to do something — to do good.  Every choice I make fulfills or betrays that mission.  Love more is the gem, the secret talisman I carry and feel in the pocket of my mind.  It is, I have found, my source of joy.

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The 12 Steps Backward

Lost in a spiritually empty world, we alcoholics relied for many years on a 12-Step program of our own making.  We just didn’t know it! Our 12 Steps Backward, a cycle still ‘guiding’ the lives of countless alcoholics, went about like this:

These can stand alone just fine, but I’ll go ahead and comment briefly on my own experience with them.

Steps 1-3
I took Step 1 at some point in high school.  I’d been uncomfortable in my skin since the age of 7 or 8, but the pain spiked unbearably in my late teens.  I hated being Louisa.  The first time I got shitfaced, I found instant relief and happily took Step 2, amazed that something as simple as booze could set everything right in my world. Now that I had a new way to live and feel good, I drifted into Step 3, believing superficially that alcohol and drugs were fun, and at a deeper level that I needed them to feel okay.

Steps 4-9
Alcohol/drugs inflated my ego with a sense of power that led me to harm others, whether by intentionally abusing their trust or by thoughtlessly overlooking their feelings.  During college, I tried to minimize the guilt that began to accumulate in the back of my mind — Step 4 — a policy I kept up for as long as I drank. Any lurking notion that my approach to living was faulty I dismissed by imagining pretty much everyone did the same — Step 5.

pay attentionMy sense of dramatic unfairness swelled alongside my unhappiness: life was not rewarding me as it should — Step 6.  Other people (cool peers? fickle authorities?) had to be at fault — Step 7.  Didn’t my problems really start with that kindergarten teacher who embarrassed me so badly and continue right up through current family and coworkers? — Step 8.  I wished I could set those people straight! — Step 9.

Steps 10-12
Living by Step 10, I never grew up emotionally because I never absorbed the lessons pain had to teach me.  I simply doused pain with booze, stirred it into a soupy ‘woe is me!’ drama, and learned nothing.  Step 11 flourished as a result — mind-movies rehashing the past or dreaming up glorious futures. By age 34 my life still looked okay on the outside, but I felt more depressed, abhorrent, and hopeless than I could stand, drinking in solitude, lowering my bar for company, and toying with suicidal ideation — Step 12.

At my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I read the real 12 Steps off the wall in less than a minute and dismissed them as worthless platitudes — seeing as I had all the emotional depth of a 15-year-old.  That stayed true for almost 3 years, until I hit a sober bottom grieving my sister’s death and found a rigorous sponsor who helped me apply them. The reversal of my life’s trajectory, from plowing ever deeper into misery to climbing ever higher toward gratitude and joy, came about through thoughtfully, truthfully, and thoroughly working these simple steps.

Initially, the “God” word freaked me out, as it does everyone, even though I’d once died briefly from drug overdose, crossed over to the other side, and journeyed to the Light. (I recently gave an interview about losing my atheistic battle to deny my NDE and its paranormal aftereffects, here: Louisa talks with Tricia Barker.)  Eventually, though, what I call “god” (i.e. the spirit world) showed itself to me so persistently and undeniably that I finally caved, embracing the fact that god — the loving intelligence animating all life — is everywhere in everything always.

NDE or no NDE, almost everyone who works the 12 steps in long-term recovery develops gratitude and comes to see how their god has been with them all along.

loveflow

For me, the 12 steps not only cleared resentments blocking me from god, but also triggered a sort of Copernican Revolution. Where I once strove to pull GOODNESS from other people to serve me as the center of the universe, I came to see that all GOODNESS flows from GOD, the true center of the universe, through me toward others. When I act as god’s conduit for love, my spiritual batteries get charged, and I feel joy.

That’s the mission we’re here to accomplish, folks: Overcome ego’s fears of vulnerability to connect with others in love and kindness — not only with those closest to us, but with all humans, animals, and the Earth as a whole.  Religion still pisses me off a bit because, by humanizing god, it distorts with pomp, cliquishness, and carrot-on-a-stick heavenly rewards what the 12 steps lay out with such humble clarity.

The goal of loving others freely enough to be of service can seem out of reach if we’ve been badly wounded; we need god’s help first to find our wounds, obscured under layers of drinking and denial, and then to heal them. And that’s exactly what the 12 steps are designed to help us do.

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Note: I’m indebted to Bill L’s 11/8/19 share at our homegroup, Salmon Bay, referencing his “backward 3rd Step.” Thanks also to my friend Dawna H, who replied, “Get your ass over here!” when I texted that I felt too full and lazy to show up at the meeting and, with 22 years sober, helped me tweak the wording of these steps.

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Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, living sober, NDE, Recovery, Twelve Steps

Outrage vs. Action

If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.

Alcoholics Anonymous p. 66

I recently listened to an NPR program, Hidden Brain, that looked at moral outrage on social media and what’s going on in our brains when we post (or repost) it.

Dopamine hits!

That’s the the juicy part for all alcoholic/addicts, right? Human brains in general sift the world like Geiger counters seeking out sources of feel-good. We may not realize that’s what’s going on when we find one, but we self-administer hits of it like some poor little lab rat hitting the cocaine bar again and again. The trouble for us alcoholics is that getting caught up in these cycles can lead us back toward a drink.

Outrage is one such addictive cycle. The Hidden Brain host has us imagine an early human tribe in which someone gets caught doing something wrong. How should the group react? Ignore, expel, or punish? If they ignore, the wrong-doer may decide to act again. If they expel, they lose a member. So they punish. Yale psychologist Molly Crockett pops explains:

“Evolution placed a bet on [punishment] being a good idea for the group. When people decide to punish someone who’s behaved unfairly, we see activation in areas of the brain associated with reward, including the striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex… There’s a visceral satisfaction in doling out punishment.”

“Outrage,” the host summarizes, “gives us pleasure.”

He explains that the face-to-face context in which outrage evolved came with a natural set of brakes: you risked getting physically harmed by those you punished, or, if you were out of line, getting punished yourself. Neither consequence applies to social media (or any e-communication). Our brains revel in dopamine scot-free whenever we proclaim righteous, indignant, and often vicious stuff. Plus, every time someone LIKES or reposts our outrage, we get another dopamine boost, because our brains tell us we’re doling out even stronger punishment.

E-distance can destroy compassion even among people who love each other, as I discovered years ago when I first published my addiction memoir. Some family members responded from behind their screens with a rage they’d never have unleashed on me face-to-face. They emailed flamers berating me as a liar, narcissist, and sadist; they posted lengthy Facebook strings of back-and forth mockery; and they published one-star “reviews” on Amazon under pen names, buying copies under multiple accounts to publish more.

Clearly, my ideas about the role alcoholism and codependence had played in my upbringing felt wrong and hurtful to them. So they asked if we could we could all sit down and talk out these uncomfortable issues to arrive at some shared understanding — kidding!! They chose to punish my wrongdoing with no compunction, getting lots of satisfying dopamine surges every time they clicked SEND, POST, or PUBLISH.

At the time, I wept gallons of tears and developed panic attacks from so much as looking at my laptop. Happily, Amazon took down all but one review, and we’ve since healed enough as a family to deal with this as we do all conflict: we pretend it never happened.

I’ve been priming similar poisonous dopamine surges myself on social media ever since Trump got elected. Fortunately, my entire family is anti-Trump, so we’ve experienced no rift. Rather, after the initial despair of 2016, I began to take aim at no one in particular to make “them” recognize the despicable character and politics of this Russian plant president. I’ve been hitting the awkwardness-free vanquishment bar of social media again and again, posting about Trump’s lies, stupidity, moral depravity, damaging policies, etc..

Only recently have I realized my true motivation: dopamine. I see friends have liked or shared my post: Dopamine! A conservative friend comments disagreement, so I deliver a stinging retort: Dopamine! Have any of my posts done any good for anyone? Of course not. All I’ve accomplished is adding a bit more rage to the global atmosphere.

A normie might indulge in this cycle with only a slight harm to their long-term health. But as an alcoholic with “a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of [my] spiritual condition” (85), I have no business cultivating anger, which blocks me from “the sunlight of the spirit” (66), tipping the playing field to addiction’s advantage. The angry me is my ego, and ego is, as we know, addiction’s minion. The more outrage I feel, the less good I do anyone and the closer I am to a drink.

Goodness takes the form of action. Did Mother Teresa ridicule Calcutta for its bad policy toward the lame and the sick? Was Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail a rant? Would Mahatma Gandhi have Tweeted out anti-British zingers? Why not? Because inspired people understand that faith without works is dead; they know a single beneficial deed outweighs thousands of punishing words.

Increasingly, I’ve been trying to shift my life in a similar direction. In response to climate change, I started bussing to work in 2017, and when I realized I disliked buses, I switched to bicycling. I buy minimal plastic, donate to animal charities, and pick up litter. When I realized our local 30,000-year-old pod of orcas was starving for want of salmon, I started volunteering to do salmon habitat restoration work and showed up at a hearing on their behalf.

Humility is a big piece as well. How much do my individual actions help? Very little. How much more do they help than posts and tweets? Infinitely more. When I’m volunteering, I can FEEL that it’s the right thing to do, much as I feel the goodness of AA service work, which somehow quiets the ire I feel when I witness what I think is wrong. I don’t need to tell everybody; I need to do more good.

Sobriety is a whole-life deal as we expand and deepen our experience of who we are. Maybe we can outgrow posting zingers the same way we outgrow self-pity, gossip, and all those other short-term fixes. Maybe we can find our power to put love and goodness to work in small but real actions.

Restoring stream habitats

Planting trees

Meeting cool people

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Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, living sober, Recovery, Social media

9th Step Promise #1: “We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.”

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. 1) We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

2) We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 3) We will comprehend the word serenity and 4) we will know peace. 5) No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6) That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. 7) We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8) Self-seeking will slip away. 9) Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. 10) Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. 11) We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 12) We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

 

Too often, people take the 9th step promises out of context, calling them the “AA promises” and ignoring the condition that precedes them. The “phase of our development” that requires we be “painstaking” is amends — Steps 8 and 9. As I’ve written elsewhere, sloppy amends are worse than no amends at all.  By sloppy I mean done too soon, before we’ve really had a psychic change, which can lead to all sorts of blunders, including revealing harms unknown to the victim: “I slept with your partner; I never really liked you; I told so-and-so you were a liar.”  No, no, no!  That’s why we go through Step 8 with a sponsor, to figure out what will set things right for the recipient rather than cause new pain.

Anyway, the reason the Big Book authors placed the promises after Steps 8 & 9 is that to seek out the sheer awkwardness, humble pie, and admission of wrong-doing entailed in these two steps is something no ego-driven person would do — especially not hardcore bridge-burners like active and dry alcoholics. “Did I wrong that person? Fuck that, they wronged me!” This was the pre-steps attitude that produced more and more people to avoid and more thoughts to shove to the back in our minds, with drinking needed to mute them.

By contrast, after a psychic change, we’re trying to live by what’s right and good or, in other words, to show up as  god and our own spirits would have us be. I remember several instances of sitting in my car cramming from my 8th step notes before I stepped off what felt like the roof of a skyscraper to meet people I’d wronged.  I did so because I trusted god. And in each case, I walked on air: I calmly spoke the truth, and recipients warmly forgave me.

Many years have passed since I completed my amends, but I continue to live in the frame of mind that supported them. As a result, I get to live IN the 9th step promises!  Freedom and happiness, for starters, characterize my sober life. Sick voices still sound off in my head, but they project poorly, and I’ve learned to roll my eyes at them.  I focus instead on what I want to do with my life — with this one-time amazing journey of living in the world.

For example, I love climbing mountains. In July, friends and I made a bid for the summit of 14,411′ Mount Rainier – the most prominent peak in the contiguous US and 5th highest. We started too late (midnight) and had to wait repeatedly for the teams ahead of us to pass through areas where they’d trigger rockfall on us, then wait again when a ladder laid over a crevasse partially collapsed, so a number of my teammates got hypothermic and we had to turn back.  Even so, it was a huge, gorgeous, thrilling experience — the kind of adventure I used to fantasize about while drinking.

How far we got

Camped at 10,000′

Crossing a crevasse

Despite having lost some of my left lung to radiation for breast cancer, I power-breathed to 13, 200′; and despite acrophobia and balance issues, I walked over boards laid on a ladder across a deep crevasse — not to mention daring this stuff at 59. We will try again next year, having learned from our mistakes.

And yet… and yet… during the exhaustion that overtook me on the long descent to base camp, a voice started up in my head: “No one likes you.  You’re an annoyance to everyone.  Everything you say is trite and boring so everyone wishes you’d just shut the hell up.”  Freedom was the insight that my alcoholism, which survives in my mind, was taking advantage of my fatigue to get some good punches in.  Freedom was replying to that voice, “You’ve been saying that since middle school. Fuck off.” Then I deliberately bellowed some dumb jokes most people couldn’t even hear (because we were still on ropes and too far apart), just to piss off the voice.

Last week, I hiked 82 miles with my friend Sally, retracing only the best parts of the 127-mile hike I soloed last year.  This experience outshone any fantasy joy, because love for god’s beauty in the mountains absolutely saturated my consciousness for days.

Sally with Glacier Peak

Sally with Lyman Glacier

Me and TJ moochies, 6,440′

 

And yet… and yet… addiction was with me.  I’d needed a tooth extraction the day before we were to leave for this trip and, at the oral surgeon’s insistence, delayed a day for healing, then brought along antibiotics in case of infection and 12 Vicodin in case the socket clot came out or some other intense pain developed. As it turned out, the socket felt fine, healing gradually.  But my knee did not.  One night I couldn’t sleep for the knee pain, and sharing my tent was the Vicodin.  “Take it!” said my addict.  “You have pain — a perfect justification — so cross Go and collect $200!”  I responded, “That Vicodin is for unendurable nerve pain, not some nagging knee pain that keeps me awake.” “Whatever!” said my addict. “It’s for pain!  It’s right there – no more pain!  Much-needed sleep!  Just take it!”

Midnight, 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m. passed by.  I don’t remember praying, but what came to me were the words of my dear friend Rob: “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!!” Rob, originally a purebred alcoholic, got hooked on opiates as a result of a prescription and died from overdose in 2016.  He seemed to remind me that my own sobriety, despite its 24.5 year length, was equally fragile. With the help of Rob’s memory and several more ibuprofen, I eventually fell asleep. The next night, I asked Sally to keep the pills in her tent.

Really, the principles that free me to live the life I love are the same ones that carried me through my amends: love, humility, and faith.  That’s why realizing the promises is contingent on a “painstaking” completion of those steps.

 

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I made this video of our hike. If this ain’t living happy, joyous, and free, I don’t know what is!

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Filed under happy, joyous, & free, living sober, Pain Medication, Recovery, Spirituality, Step 9

Sober Joy~!

Going to work the other day, I got what I call a god-burst.  I was riding my bike, coasting down my street on a sunny spring morning. The cherry trees were in bloom, big puffy dusters of sweet color, and the breeze was scattering their blossoms like confetti.  For some reason, I could see god’s love in the way that every distinct petal danced through the air. Each was looping, twirling this way and that in the sunlight, and I got to glide through them.

I felt, Thank you, thank you, thank you! And I sensed a joy answering from god — god’s joy that I was joyful. I felt with god in my love of  living, in my delight at the happening of each instant.

As I rode further, along the treesy waterside bike trail, I looked into the faces of each pedestrian I passed. What did I see?  Scowls.  Sour petulance. Shock that someone had dared smile at them and even greet them with “Good morning!”  But every now and then someone would meet my eyes – their face transforming like a flower blooming. “Hey!” they might say back.

They had love to offer.

Have you ever worked hard to create a celebration for a kid you love? Made them a fancy cake? Set up a treasure hunt? Given a gift you made yourself or at least picked out with care and wrapped up with bows and ribbons? How would you feel if the child responded with scowls? With petulance? What if they unfolded the first clue of their treasure hunt and wailed, “What? I have to go look for something big and red? And then all I get is another stupid clue? I want my TREASURE!!!  NOW!!”

Or what if they opened your gift and wailed, “I want a bigger one!”

That’s pretty much how god must feel, I think.

Some people are possessed by greed.  I recently talked with a young man who “lived
outside” — as he described his homelessness — about his pity for billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk: “It’s never enough. They need more, more, always more — it eats away at them.  You’ve gotta wonder what happened to them in childhood that they have this addiction that drives their whole life. They’re no different from the homeless friends I see wrecking their progress over and over with drug addiction or self-sabotage — just the other extreme of the spectrum.”

This young man, by contrast, seemed more content than most “homed people,” as he called us. In his small, tidy pack he carried a mini-laptop. He explained that he’d found part-time work at a local stadium that paid for his food and clothes — just not enough for rent. He was clean; he knew where to get showers and do laundry. As we talked, he was enjoying a latte at a table neighboring mine. But the main things I noticed about him were his easy laugh and his sincere compassion for those suffering from what he termed “more addiction.”

Greed stalks us all, to an extent.

Have you ever watched the documentary Happy? Guess who’s one of the happiest people interviewed in that film?  A rickshaw driver in Calcutta whose home is mostly tarps. Sure, he doesn’t like it when passengers spit on him as he hauls them through the busy streets, but that rarely happens. Part of his joy undoubtedly stems from the fact that he’s never perused an issue of Vogue or Esquire. He’s filled with gratitude to god that he can provide for his healthy children.

Filled with gratitude.

The sour-faced people I passed on my bike that day appeared starving for gratitude. I can’t know what’s going on in their lives, but I can theorize.

Their god is either absent or an asshole. They don’t even see the countless gifts showered on them in this brief carnival of life. They’re taking for granted all the cake and presents, griping at the effort of the treasure hunt steps. To be happy requires, among other things, that we stop comparing, that we actively set aside the ridiculous and relentless marketing culture that pervades our every societal experience. From TV & movies to magazines & billboards and by practically everything we view online, we are told that we lack.  

Many alcoholics, I think, drink to escape this constant more addiction, with its flip side, Not Enoughness.  Though it’s been 24 years since my last drink, I remember what used to happen when I’d enter a bar.  The more I drank, the more okay everything got. My barstool became a perfectly okay place to be. Wherever I was in life — whatever I’d done or not done — became okay.  I could stop all the striving, comparing, and self-critiquing.  I could just be.

How ironic is it that my higher power now gives me all I once tried to suck from alcohol — but as spiritual food instead of poison?  When I thank god for every funky little detail of my endlessly convoluted circumstances right now, I am living as an extension, an expression of god — and in that sense I am perfect. God has slowly, slowly weaned me from a mindset of constant neediness and taught me to go in whole hog for the delight of little things.

The straight-up joy I experienced riding my bike the other day was ten times anything I ever got from booze or coke or some whoopee party. It germinates from understanding that I GET to be here on earth. Taking shit for granted is both seed and symptom of the atheist’s blindness to god. If you truly thought about the miracle of your body, of your cat’s body, of our cycling oceans or friggin’ photosynthesis, you’d be rejoicing all day long.

God is good.  Good is god.

And if god could say just one thing to you right now, it would be this: Choose joy.

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Filed under Faith, God, Happiness, living sober, Recovery, Spirituality

Agnostic? Think: Good Orderly Direction

My addiction memoir tells how I went from a bright, healthy teen (okay, with a teeny hypersexual disorder) to a lonely, depressed, obsessive, codependent, underachieving, and increasingly reckless drunk who disdained Alcoholics Anonymous as a doom just short of suicide. Why so reluctant?  The God thing.  The book’s second half describes my ungraceful but dogged ascent from that pit of misery toward the healthy, friend-filled sober life I get to live today.

Much as I’ve love for everyone to read the book, I can give you a major spoiler here: I didn’t do it.

The words that opened the door to faith in something that might help me were shared by a woman in large pastel stretch pants sitting against the wall at my third or so AA meeting: “If you can’t deal with the word ‘God,’ that’s fine!  Just think ‘Good Orderly Direction.'”

I perked up. Certainly I could not deal with the word, “God.” That religion-based concept seemed to me a preposterous character created by humans to explain what rudimentary science couldn’t. Such a deity was not going to advise me on whether I should stuff the tip jar at work if a customer paid cash or continue stalking the guy I was obsessed with.

But Good Orderly Direction — that was something to be sensed in my inmost heart. That I could look for, because I remembered going against it when I was busy screwing up my life. For me, Step 3 was essentially a resolution to start listening for it and going with it. Who knew the source of G.O.D. would turn out to be my higher power? And who knew that following its guidance would migrate me from the self-generated heartless world that had defeated me toward the sweet experience that’s now my normal?

Goodness as True North
As an active alcoholic, the only compass I ever consulted was ego. I was a popularity materialist — never enough! — as are many in our “individualistic” culture (thanks to marketing).  I longed to be seen as cool (see also Coolness) and liked by designated cool people. I was convinced that the more I could make that happen, the better I’d feel about myself. And even though this model had failed to bring me anything but discontent for 34 years, I kept thinking the problem lay in my performance, not the model itself.

Good Orderly Direction, however, does not hinge on what others think. It’s a compass deep within, with Goodness as its true north.  The first half is sensing it — what is the good and right thing to do here?  The second is acting on it without hesitation.

I remember a conversation I had a few years back with my relapsed alcoholic boyfriend. As a rationale for getting drunk, he asked me, “Don’tcha sometimes just wanna say ‘fuck it’?” As it turned out, he had indeed been saying “fuck it” for some while, carrying on a second relationship behind my back. Sober, he’d been a man with integrity and compassion.

By contrast, my father drank alcoholically while retaining integrity and compassion — toward everyone but himself. Alcoholism wheedled him into deferring day after day the ultimate reckoning: “Why do I drink so much every night?” He resisted looking inward to all the clamors he muted with booze, saying, in his own academic way, “fuck it.”

But Good Orderly Direction is more than the antithesis of fuck it; it’s the antithesis of ego. It is a form of caring, of knowing that your choices matter and seeking those that will feel right in the long run. You may have trouble at first distinguishing Goodness from ego’s “best for me”; you may also mistake it for what other people tell you to do, whether they’re in your family or your AA group. But gradually, as you become more attuned to seeking, the voice gets louder, so you gain a clearer sense of whether you’re tuned into it.

As the choices people make based on the north star of Good Orderly Direction begin to alter the course of their lives, as even cynical or bottomed-out addicts begin to heal and build self-esteem by doing esteemable acts, a lot of us begin to realize — “Hey, this isn’t coming from me!”

God Ain’t Religion
As people who follow this blog know, I got to cheat. The spirit world operates all around us all the time, but we’re as deaf to it as the barriers we maintain against love are thick. For me, having had a Near Death Experience followed by paranormal after-effects even as I fought to maintain my atheism, the presence that had spoken to me on the other side began interceding in my thoughts as soon as I started seeking Good, until I had no choice but to fold and acknowledge, not religion’s God, but my god.

Religion is a bit like agriculture, while the spirit world is nature itself. Religion quantifies something omnipresent yet inexplicable — the power of the life force — by reducing it to the equivalent of rows and crops and acreage.  To be atheist because we reject religion is like saying because there is no Great Farmer, nothing grows — all the while discounting the fact that we and all living things around us are exquisite expression of nature, of the life force.

No one can give you god-awareness. You have to develop your own, based on your own experiences both inner and external. The most direct route to get there is by seeking Good Orderly Direction. Eventually, seeking will become part of you, as it has for me: No one at Fred Meyer saw me miss self-checking a bag of avocados yesterday, but when I discovered them in my reusable shopping bag, I handed them to the attendant on my way out simply because I had not paid for them — end of story. I know not only that Karma is a real phenomenon, but that guilt is a real feeling, even when we pretend not to feel it. Both carry a price tag that far exceeds four avocados.

Ask for guidance.  Look deeper.  Listen harder.  Within you, something magnificent will sprout.

 

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Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, Faith, God, living sober, Near Death Experience, Recovery, Spirituality, Step 3