Category Archives: living sober

Change the World: Courage, Candor, Kindness

We can’t control the people or events in our lives, but we can ask god to help us change the ways we react to them.  When we respond from a place of judgment, knowing best, and general superiority, we usually have no idea we’re doing so.  I certainly don’t.  It just seems to me I’m right!

One contrary event or difficult person is no big deal, but if I live daily from this vantage point of superior insight and right-of-way, pretty soon I’m going to feel like the world’s turned against me.  But guess what?  It’s really I who’ve turned against the world.  I’m butting my head into mountain cliffs that need to fucking move, swimming up Niagara which is hella stressful, “burning up energy foolishly… trying to arrange life to suit [myself].”

God grants me the power to change this entire landscape by accepting the things I cannot change.  Not tolerating them with rolled eyes, not putting up with the stupidity of it all, but accepting that things are the way they are so I can respond constructively.  The attitude I need to live this way comes as a reward of working the 12 steps: humility.

The Ultimate Selfishness Test: Driving in the City
When we drive cars, we mechanically take on the very “self-propulsion” described in the Big Book’s preamble to Step 3, so the temptation to assume Director status becomes huge.  All the other drivers are pawns, and we’re rightfully a queen – or at least a bishop!  We gots places to go and these others are obstacles, obstructions, assholes.

I once attended a stadium concert with a young woman who shares beautifully in AA meetings and seeks god daily.  I treated and she drove.  After the show, when we finally emerged from the parking lot, the line of cars to the freeway extended in front of us maybe a mile – an endless chain of tail lights.  To my surprise, my friend veered into the empty oncoming lane where she zoomed on and on past everyone.  I didn’t know what to say or do, but I felt tremendous relief when, at the freeway overpass, we encountered a traffic cop.  Instead of letting us turn, he made us pull over and wait.  Ten minutes of watching the line go by.  Twenty minutes.  Thirty minutes.  My friend was beside herself with the cop’s “unfairness.”  Finally, when all the cars had gone, the cop chirped his whistle and signaled us to go.

All selfishness stems from spiritual myopia.  If my friend could meet the people from those cars individually, if a dimension were to open in which she could converse with each, see photos of their ancestors and childhood, hear the tragedies and delights that have shaped their experience, no way would she have acted as she did.  But her driving “dimension” was just as unreal.  Normally a kind person, she could see only her own importance, her own “right of way.”

Driving simply underscores the fact that we all live selfishly.  To an extent, we have to.  We’re each in charge of caring for ourselves, providing for our own needs so we can prosper – a responsibility that often feels overwhelming.  But that’s our lower purpose.  We also have a higher one.

For me, the analogy of cells in a body works well.  Each cell is a distinct entity.  It’s busy absorbing nutrients, sending off waste, sensing everything going on around it, and doing all the work of them four stages of mitosis (which, I learned when I underwent radiation for cancer, requires fancy footwork).

“I got shit to do before I can divide, man!” a cell might say.  “I got hundreds of mitochondria to manage here, not to mention this long-ass chain of chromosomes to tidy up!  Gimme a break!”  Yet it’s only because each cell serves a higher purpose, doing its tiny, insignificant part among trillions, that I’m able to write this and you’re able to read it.

We all have shit to do – lots of it – to keep our lives going.  But we also have a higher purpose – a collaborative one – “to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.”  Each of us with our tiny role to play animates humanity, and thus the world.

A little bit of god: Courage, Candor, Kindness
In every interaction, we can choose to contribute or withhold love from the world as a whole.  Every time we hit that crossroad where we might utter words of kindness, and we muster the courage and candor to speak them, we introduce into the cosmos a tiny surge of god-energy.  It takes effort sometimes.  “You did that beautifully!” might sound dumb.  We have to overcome self-consciousness and the dark suspicion that we’re just buttering people up.

I see it as my higher job to maximize goodwill around me.  Politically, that means resisting the designs of those who advocate greed and phobia. On a day-to-day scale, it means seeking to leave each person a little better off than I found them.  True, I can’t let others walk all over me because I need to care for myself enough to be able to show up in this role.  But that’s my means, not my end.  Every act of kindness is a positive.  A tiny positive, but positive nonetheless.

When I live this way (even when I’m driving!) I feel uplifted.  I’m happy.  I carry a glowing sun in my heart that I can, I swear, physically feel more with each year of practice.  And I can also sense when it’s eclipsed by selfish fear: I feel lonely, self-pitying, and overwhelmed.  In essence, I’m dying.  A cell cut off from the energy of its sisters will die – no way around it.  Or in my case, it just might reach for a drink.

PS: My son’s Mothers Day gift to me:
Japanese kanji for mind-heart-logic meaning
“to think with consideration for others”

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The Disease We Forget We Have

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seasons of Sobriety

Sobriety isn’t a task or a diet – it’s a way of life.  And like life, it excited-fanhas its ups and downs, riches and ruins.  The quality of our sobriety varies with our connectedness to god and our fellows, depending on the rigor with which we cultivate both.  Many of us long to be gung-ho about sobriety all the time – and we can be!  It’s just that what gung-ho looks like is going to change over time, which is why I like the analogy of seasons in sobriety.

Among my AA speaker recordings, I particularly love one by Don C., a Native American from Colorado Springs sober since August 10, 1978.  Don describes the horrific beating his alcoholism inflicted, distrust at his first AA meeting, a sponsor who made him read and annotate each Big Book chapter 25 times, and the freedom he accessed (there’s a silence while he fights back tears) by working the 12 steps.  His entire life and outlook changed.  So why, early in his fourth year sober, did he suddenly find himself miserable?

He says:

“I was about three years and two months sober and everything was going to hell. Meetings got stupid; my sponsor was having stupid attacks; the Big Book sucked…  I thought I was going crazy. So I went up to see Johnny Looking Cloud… He was a Native Elder that was in recovery. …He said, ‘You’re thinking this is a white man’s program – and it’s not.  This is the Indian way, also… The steps are 12 gentle ways to bring you back to the original teachings. And when you’re done, you’ll be in harmony… the way it was for your ancestors.’”

Johnny Looking Cloud explains to Don, firstly, that the steps align with the Native teaching of the Four Directions.  Steps 1, 2, and 3 align with the east, direction of the new sun, where we find our relationship with the Creator.  Steps 4, 5, and 6 align with the south, the high sun, where we find our relationship with ourselves.  Steps 7, 8, and 9  align with the west, the setting sun and direction of letting go, where we make amends to heal our relationships with others.  To the north, like the North Star, lie 10, 11, and 12, steps that align with the elders’ teachings to deepen our wisdom.

Secondly, he explains that just as all living things proceed through cycles, so do we in sobriety.  The first year is our spring, when our sap begins to flow and we form buds of potential.  In the summer of our second year, our leaves mature and we bloom – living vigorously in sobriety.  By the autumn of our third year, we’re harvesting sobriety’s fruits – stability, material gain, relationships.  But then along comes that fourth year: winter.  Our leaves wither and drop; the light weakens; sobriety seems barren and empty, as if everything were falling apart – just as Don C. experienced.  But in truth, the slate is only being cleared for a new level of sobriety – a fresh spring.

four-seasons-22

My own seasons haven’t conformed to a four-year pattern, but I’ve definitely experienced that cycle many times in my 21 years’ sobriety.  In my springtimes, I get to see something new, some truth of living or character defect I’d never recognized before, that changes me forever.  My golden summers and autumns extend sometimes for years.

But winter does arrive.  And it sucks.  My sobriety feels ~meh! ~  I can’t recapture my enthusiasm for meetings, stepwork, or service.  Even so, I’ve schlepped through many such winters to reach new springs.  How does that happen… or not happen?

All of us, consciously or not, seek god/goodness/love in our lives.  All of us carry burdens of fear, pain, and loss.  The interrelationship between these two parts, I’ve found, comprises the melody of my life.  The seasons of a heavy and aching soul complement those of lightness and a free spirit.

My feelings really don’t have much to do with god, I don’t think.  Emotions are part of me, rooted in my body and brain – my separateness from god.  Rather, the godly part of me manifests only in my immediate awareness – my ability to see with love in the present instant.

During my summery months, my god-awareness acts like a beam of light, one I can turn on my own emotions – fears and sadness or childish excitement.  I can make friends with whatever nonsensical feelings insist on tagging along with me.  And when I’m good with my own emotions, it’s easy to extend love and compassion to others.

But when sobriety’s winter comes around, the beam wanes so I can’t tell what the hell’s going on.  Emotions victimize me.  I suffer.  I isolate.  I envy.  I doubt life will ever be good again.  gollumIt’s at this point that I’m most vulnerable to the wheedling voice of alcoholism.  It promises me drinking would fix everything.  It points out that other people drink with impunity, claims my life would be more fun if I joined them.  It paints a sweeping mural of a happier me with booze at its center.

For me, thank god (literally), this voice stays puny – I can swat it away like a pesky fly.  But for relapsing friends of mine, it begins to sound credible.  “Take charge of your life!” it urges them.  Humility starts to look like timidity; gratitude like settling; forgiveness like self-debasement.  Before they know it, a grandiose ego has upstaged god and they’re gonna to fix themselves with a drink – and do it right this time!

I wish I could offer a ticket to instant spring.  But there isn’t one.  There’s only acceptance:

doveThis, too, shall pass.  Every alcoholic with long term sobriety has taken refuge in this motto.  When recovery feels like drudgery, we still pursue it as best we can – going to meetings, calling sponsors, being of service.  Maybe we seek out Johnny Looking Cloud, or our own equivalent, and ask for help.  In some ways, those words represent the deepest form of faith.  They capture the willingness to have no idea how things will turn out, yet trust god enough to hang on through the darkness, believing spring will come again.

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PS:  Listen to Don C. here.  This isn’t the same talk I have on my 2011 Bellevue CD, but close.

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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.

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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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10 Principles for Living Sober

FoodinBagA few weeks ago, I asked a clerk and bagger if they’d watch the sack of groceries I’d just bought while I ran back for another item.  When I returned, my groceries were gone and they felt terrible – so terrible that the bagger walked the aisles with me trying to help me remember what I’d bought.  But without the receipt we couldn’t recall much.  I’d picked up a number of things on impulse.

“You know,” she said after we’d covered the store with little success, “this deal is on us.  Really, you can just fill a bag with–.”

“Corn flakes!” I remembered.

But I soon drew another blank, so she urged a little harder. “It ends up as a theft write off, so you can just go for it.  Anything you want is fine with us!”

True, I’m a single mom and always short of money, so almost everything I looked at, I wanted.  Fancy jams and teas – mmm.  Maple syrup.  Organic soaps.  Mega-vitamins.

I left with a half-filled bag containing only what I distinctly remembered buying.

Question:  Why?  Am I going for sainthood?  Do I get a bang out of feeling superior?  Do I think god keeps score?

Answer: None of the above.  The fact is, I’m a doomed alcoholic who’s graced with sobriety one day at a time.  I’m not mindlessly drinking myself to death right now due solely to the power and guidance of my new employer – god as I understand god.  In each situation, I have just one prime directive: Do the most good I can for all concerned. 

The store was concerned; having my stuff stolen did not mean I could steal from it.

During active alcoholism, I lived by a slightly different prime directive: Do the most good I can for Louisa.  In every situation, I considered what would most benefit me.  What would make me feel good?  What might pay off later by making me feel even better?  If there were negative consequences, what eventual rewards might outweigh them? Certain people’s esteem was worth more than others’ pain or anger.  Gradually, navigating by my own best interest, I ruined my life.

Ruby slippersSo I quit that game.  What I seek now is clarity.  How I find it is by living in alignment with my HP’s prime directive, which I will here attempt to unravel as my own 10 principles for living sober gleaned from the Big Book, my fellows, and my own stepwork. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Be where you say you’ll be and do what you say you’ll do.  (Choose Integrity)

2. Think of others as you’d have them think of you.  (Choose compassion)

3. Be honest with yourself always, and with others short of reckless harm. (Choose reality)

4. Give as much kindness as you possibly can to every being you encounter. (Choose love) 

5. Avoid gossip – and envy, which fuels internal gossip. (Choose respect)

6. Do not flirt either as or with a committed person. (Choose honor)

7. Let others be in charge of what’s best for them. (Choose detachment)

8. Pay attention to all you do and how it squares with your values. (Choose awareness)

9. Be grateful for everything – everything – everything. (Choose humility)

10.  Know that god loves you the same way you love small, helpless creatures, only a billion times more – whether you’re in your body or out of it – so try loving yourself that way, and love god for loving the world.  (Choose faith)

~

Now that I’ve written them all out, it looks like an awful lot of rules!  But I don’t think of them distinctly – more as Miguel Ruiz’s Fourth Agreement, “Always do your best.”

My agreement with god – my way of acknowledging  sobriety as a gift I’m graced with – is simply to try my best in each situation to do the most good I can for all concerned,  which means applying the above 10 principles.  For example, #3 and #8 mean I don’t eat meat by denying the horrors of factory ‘farms,’ or even shop at Walmart; #4 means being of service.  Sometimes the rules conflict and I have to work out what “most good” means.  For instance, to follow #5 – don’t gossip – I may reply “I don’t know” when I pretty much do.  Or to fulfill #6 – don’t flirt – I may pretend to be indifferent when I’m not.  But those bits of dishonesty fall under the “short of reckless harm” proviso in #3.

Then there’s the Al-Anon piece.  Up until a few years ago, I thought #4 – giving kindness and love – was to be practiced unconditionally.  You could treat me like shit and I’d just keep showing up with love, giving you the benefit of the doubt and killin’ you with kindness.  Al-Anon’s “Don’t be a doormat” applied, I assumed, only to codependent wives and mothers slaving selflessly for those who used them.

It took blatant abuse from those closest to me to drive home the fact that I need to recognize and respond to toxicity in others. People’s behavior tells me what they’re made of.  If I overlook continuous patterns, I’m lying to both myself and them.

Detachment (#7), I’ve learned, applies to letting other people think of me as they choose: I can’t make them understand me.  I can’t make them return goodwill no matter how much I beam their way.  At a certain point, loving myself as god loves me (#10) means I have to set boundaries.  Tortoises carry shells and roses sprout thorns for good reason: we often need protection to hold our own.

tortoise-roseOf course there are plenty of times I screw up – times I choose fear, choose anger, choose self.  Sometimes I wallow in loneliness and self-pity.  Plus I once ordered a cheap tent from Walmart.  But I never give up and say “fuck doing what’s right.”  As soon as clarity returns, I own my mistakes and do my best to clean things up.  It’s actually the easier, softer way, because I get to live in a beautiful, love-bright world with like-minded people.

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New Year’s FOMO and other Alcoholic Horsecrap

What is FOMO?  Fear  Of  Missing  Out.

It’s that sinking feeling that someplace you’re not, lots of amazingly cool people are having an absolutely stupendous time. Maybe there’s kickass music and people are lookin’ sharp n’sexy and having a fuckin’ blast and – oh my GAWD!!! Can you believe what those two did?! That is so hilariously outrageous!  It’s not just goin’ aParty-Dancing-Vectorll over Facebook –it’s like a “fun times” montage out of a Hollywood flick!  If you could be there mixin’ it up you’d feel – oh my god – so damn good! You’d be dialed into life, you’d be carpé-ing the fuckin’ diem all night long!   But you’re missing it!

As Katie Perry sings:

Last Friday night

Yeah we danced on tabletops
And we took too many shots
Think we kissed but I forgot

Yeah we maxed our credit cards
And got kicked out of the bar
So we hit the boulevard

We went streaking in the park
Skinny dipping in the dark
Then had a ménage a trois

Yeah I think we broke the law
Always say we’re gonna stop-op
ooh-ohh*

Here’s what the song leaves out: live those lyrics and you end up with a busted ankle from falling off the damn tabletop, years of credit card debt, and maybe even salmonella because you skinny dipped in a fucking duck pond.  You’re lucky if you don’t end up in jail with charges on your record or an STD from the ménage a trois with morons.  Of course, it goes without saying that you’ve poisoned yourself again ‘til you’re heaving up bile.

Lets-partyNo, Katie doesn’t really mention that part. Neither does your FOMO.  It airbrushes away all those pesky consequences and lures us with the promise of a bright and shiny “great time.”

It’s Also Called Immaturity
For normies, FOMO spikes in youth when they’re highly peer-oriented, but as they mature into adulthood, FOMO diminishes to a rare blip on the screen. The trouble for alcoholics is, once again, our perspective is skewed.

Our disease carries many tricks in its bag.  Though normies don’t understand, we  often speak of it as having a mind of its own, exploiting whatever ploys avail themselves to keep us using or, in recovery, to trigger relapse.  A lot of alcoholics crave adventure – a sense of living on the edge.  So addiction broadcasts FOMO to persuade us that swallowing a neurotoxin is really the key to livin’ large.

Much like the craving for alcohol, alcoholic FOMO can never be satiated.

For example, New Year’s Eve of 1982, after snorting coke in the car and paying some absurdly high cover charge, my future (ex) husband and I sauntered into a hip and glitzy Boston nightclub. We scored a table near the dance floor, ordered champagne, and lit up our smokes. We danced. But at as the countdown for midnight approached I was struck by the realization I still recall so clearly: We were at the wrong club! The one down the street was way cooler! No one here was even worth impressing because they, too, had fallen for the wrong club!  If only I’d known! If only we’d gone there! I was missing out!!

This pattern would repeat itself for over a decade. I never did find the right club or party or even picnic, because if I was there, a better one had to be someplace else.

Recovery = Reality
FOMO is really just another guise of codependence. It’s not actually a yearning for fun; it’s a belief that we can gain something that will deliver a shot of wellbeing by being seen in the right places doing the right things. At some level, we believe others hold the power to validate us, though we’re actually validating ourselves through projections of those people’s imagined esteem. The esteem has to seem to come from them to be any good – we can’t feel it simply by knowing and valuing ourselves.

More and more I’m convinced most alcoholics are also codependent. The source of pain for all codependents is an external locus of self-worth – often because we grew up in dysfunctional families where we did not get what we needed to develop a strong sense that we are loveable and worthy. We keep chasing and chasing it in others and never getting any closer.

While non-alcoholic (classic) codependents try to subdue their pain by concerning themselves with what others should do and ‘winning’ love by caretaking, alcoholic codependents subdue it not only with alcohol, but with attempts or impress and winCodependent over others, often becoming social chameleons and regarding friends as something like collectible baseball cards.  Active alcoholics can’t really love our friends. We can only seek relief via people – and “love” that relief.

When we get sober, we begin to seek a higher power that can grant us the worth we’ve so desperately sought in all the wrong places. With guidance from sponsors and a growing sense of Good Orderly Direction, we can begin to live a life of integrity that lets us discover our worth as loving and lovable human beings.

But FOMO still nags at us to forget all that. It can wheedle into our minds at any time, but New Year’s Eve is its favorite holiday – especially for the newly sober.

The Big Book’s authors knew all about FOMO.  While they do instruct us “not to avoid a place where there is drinking if we have a legitimate reason for being there” (p. 101), they also caution against attempting to “steal a little vicarious pleasure from the atmosphere of such places.”  They warn us to “be sure you are on solid spiritual ground before you start and that your motive in going is thoroughly good.”  Not just good – thoroughly good.  In other words, don’t bullshit yourself.

In my almost 21 years sober, I’ve never found a thoroughly good reason to go hang with drinkers at a New Year’s Eve party.  I prefer to usher in the new year with a good night’s sleep and a cushy set of earplugs.  Sobriety fills my life to the brim, and I know it.

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* Katie Perry Lyrics – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdyfr4lU8sk
See also 6 Tips for Holiday Parties

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Acceptance

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment… Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.

                                                                                                                  -Paul O.                                                                                             “Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict”

Acceptance was the topic at my homegroup last night, and I’ve been thinking about it since.  The only sane response to life, acceptance is also the arch-nemesis of ego, which much prefers its minions – denial, control, and resentment.  Ego says, “What is shouldn’t be!”  Acceptance says, “What is, is.  Now what?”

Acceptance Oops!is closely tied to humility and surrender. Our faith in a higher power lets us surrender to the workings of a universe beyond our comprehension, or to the irrevocable fact that we just stepped in dog shit.  Life brings a lot of what we don’t want, and we’re often powerless over it: the dinosaurs didn’t screw up in any way; neither do victims of disaster and disease.  Other times, we do play a part. Maybe we were too busy daydreaming to watch where we stepped.  Either way, acceptance means being honest with ourselves about what transpires or exists, whether we like it or not.

Last night a young newcomer shared that the hardest things for her to accept had been that A) she was alcoholic and B) that abstinence was, according to the medical community, the sole way to arrest her disease.  Her voice, still ringing with that forlorn loss of her best friend and coping tool, reminded me of the savage fight I’d put up years ago against those same facts.  Real alcoholics did X and Y, and I didn’t – so I wasn’t.

But awareness of the truth grows ever so slowly in our bones, no matter what skeletonrationalizations our brains light up as the neon truth of the day.  Layer by layer, truth gathers substance beneath our superficial mind babble until it grows too prominent for us to stuff into the strongbox of denial any longer.  For years I’d been a maybe alcoholic or even a sure but who gives a fuck? alcoholic. Yet there came a day, a minute, a second – yes – when I acknowledged reality: addiction ran my life, and I didn’t know how to live otherwise.

So it goes, to an extent, with every acceptance.  The process can take years or seconds.  In 1998, driving down a familiar street that passes under a highway, my partner and I encountered a handful of pedestrians mulling in the middle of the road with no inclination to step out of our way.  When I looked where they were looking, I saw a Metro bus in an odd place – the rockery of an apartment building – with its middle accordion bent at a sharp angle.  Dust hung thick.  Piles of what looked like dirty laundry littered the grass nearby.  I took in all the pieces, but they made no sense to me until, like a bowling ball rolling down the alley of my mind, the thought struck: look up.

When I craned my neck to peer up at the highway fifty feet above, I saw… open air where the guardrail should be and something hanging by its wires – an inverted lamppost.  Those little piles of laundry were bleeding, suffering human beings flung where they lay.  I still remember the fight my mind put up: This can’t have happened, can’t be true!  It was not unlike the silent fight I waged when my boss told me the best job I’d ever had had just been cut; or after I picked up my cell phone and was told I had cancer; or when I looked at my boyfriend’s texts and learned he’d been seeing a girl from work for years.  The mind whirls, searching for outs.  But denial, in big cases like those, is like a frantic little terrier scratching at a closed steel door.  The weight of the facts precludes wrangling.  Shit. has. happened.

Thank god I have a place where I can speak of my loss, my fears, my broken heart and be heard and hugged by friends or even strangers with full hearts – people who carry the message of god: everything’s gonna be okay.

In daily life, what’s denied may be less dramatic, yet we go through the same process of looking for outs and telling preferred stories about what’s going on.  This bill is so stupid I don’t need to pay it.  It’s not gossip if I only tell one person.  I waste a little time on Facebook.  My shit’s so together now, so I don’t need meetings.  It’s not my fault.  I never promised.  Just one won’t hurt.  The list goes on.  Because if there’s no undeniable steel door, that little denial terrier is likely to scamper down a happier avenue, a story we make up to avoid whatever truth we’d rather not accept.  All the red flags of non-reality we take for roses along our hallucinated garden path.

garden path

As Don Miguel Ruiz puts it:

We only see what we want to see… We have the habit of dreaming with no basis in reality… Because we don’t understand something, we make an assumption about the meaning, and when the truth comes out, the bubble of our dream pops and we find out it was not what we thought at all.

Life strikes me as a series of popping bubbles. After I’d accepted my alcoholism, I had to accept the need to let god change me via the steps.  Next, I had to accept my character defects – all my selfish fears and judgments.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, I somehow ended up in Al-Anon where I became aware of my codependent people-pleasing.  I also learned the Three A’s of Al-Anon: Awareness, Acceptance, & Action.  With annoying pithiness, these three words sum up the entire process of emotional and spiritual growth.  I have to recognize a problem before I can accept it; only then can I ask, “so, what now?” and begin to change.

Acceptance most certainly does not mean giving up.  I accept getting old.  But having accepted my arthritic left foot, messed up meniscus, radiation-scorched lung, and the general creakiness of life in my 50s does ballet shoesnot stop me from killin’ it in advanced ballet class.  An extra half-hour warm-up, trimmed Dr. Scholl’s pads, pre-class ibuprofen, and all the weird stretches I’ve invented – these are the changes I’ve made, along with knowing those first fifteen minutes are gonna hurt.  But after that,  I’m 26 again – all music and technique – and grateful, so grateful!  I take the same approach with every obstacle life throws at me.  I accept the unpalatable truth: Dammit – this is how it is!  Then I ask what tools, what changes, what creativity can I use to make the best of this?  The answers always come if I’m honest, open-minded, and willing.

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