Category Archives: living sober

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.

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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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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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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 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

What’s it all for?

When I drank, my life was always dramatic — at least to me.  Everything was a big deal.  Drinking both fueled and helped defuse that.  If someone was mad at me, if I’d behaved inappropriately, if some asshole had robbed me of a goal or privilege rightly mine, my emotions would rollercoaster up and down huge swells of anger and careen around curves of righteousness before finally winding down to the self-pity platform to which all things led: poor me.

Booze, by Buddy Nicholson

But in those days, I had a best buddy, wine, along an array of other pals — beer, the gin & vodka twins, and all those whiskey relatives. We’d hang out and they’d fix everything.  Actually, they’d fix my brain; everything else stayed exactly as it had been. But by muting my amygdala so the fear subsided and by impairing my frontal lobe so that all thoughts simply led back to me, drunkenness let me feel brokenly triumphant.  Fuck them.  Fuck everything.

In those days, everything I had going for me was external — or so I believed.  What mattered was out there, so I was constantly keeping score: first it was grades and teachers, then published stories, then impressing my students, and eventually, as my life spiraled downward and I quit teaching to focus on drinking — I mean, writing! — it became impressing all the “cool” cats at the tiny espresso shop where I worked.

Mind you, everything that went on in that espresso shop was colossally big news!  Who was getting together with whom, new policies about whether you could eat behind the counter, hirings and firings.  In the end my main drama centered on the fact that my life partner had read my journal, caught me cheating emotionally, and promptly left, so now I couldn’t pay the mortgage with my joke of a job, even if my shifts hadn’t been cut for coming in stoned.

Drinking enough to make that no big deal nearly killed me.

When I got sober, my focus gradually shifted to who I was within and whatever linked that spirit to a higher power — to goodness in the world.  At first, of course, I had no idea the 12 steps were effecting that change.  I just went through them with a sponsor and discovered harmful patterns in my thinking and behaviors, asking my higher power to help me outgrow them.  And as I began to lay aside increasingly subtle versions of these once precious “coping skills” — deception, manipulation, knowing best (pride), envy, and my favorite, self-pity — the ride of living smoothed out.  A lot.

Today, I have no crises. I don’t wish I were somebody else.  Sobriety’s granted me huge gifts: I’m performing in two ballet recitals this spring and climbing three glaciated mountains this summer, so my life is full.  My home, health, work, son, and friendships are all good.

But smooth sailing can be frickin’ difficult for an alcoholic!!  Without that clamoring, overflowing bucket of piddly-shit drama to seize my attention day after day, my gaze drifts to the horizon and I wonder, what am I doing?  What’s my life for?

I’m getting older.  I haven’t made any big splash lately.  My son has grown up, my dog is old, I have no partner.  What stands out with increasing clarity is that I will disappear from this planet in a number of years.  How many is unknown, but every day I’m closer.  What will my life have meant?

Here’s where near-death experience comes in.  I am so blessed that the inexplicable paranormal phenomena stacking up in my life finally led me to the Seattle branch of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS), and that I hold a service position there of interviewing near-death experiencers and writing up their stories for our newsletter (snailmailed only at this point, sorry). Every other month, I get to Skype with someone who has, like me, died and come back with wisdom to share.

On the other side, when they are pure spirit, many know their life’s purpose. There’s a role we’re each here to play, and they’re shown theirs.  Yet when they come back, they remember knowing, but they can’t remember what!  This “forgetting” seems to be the price of embodiment.  Enclosed in bodies, we lose 99% of our conscious connection to the expanding web of creation that is god. With little to go on but our hearts and the gossamer strands of love that link us to other hearts, we’re something of a lost boat, a tiny shard trying to work out its place in a 13.8-billion-year unfolding.

When one NDEr was given the choice to stay in the spirit realm or return to her body, she asked what would become of all her half-done life’s work if she died. “None of that matters,” she was told. “What matters is connections. If your work helps someone to strengthen their relationships with others or even to know themselves better, it has value.  The important thing is the wake you leave behind you in the waters of life.  Do you leave a wake of love… or of indifference?”

That’s our job — to love others and love god by generating gratitude for this spectacular pageant of life on Earth. My life is not about what accolades go up on my mental mantlepiece.  It’s about the people (and other beings) I love and the ripple effect of loving them, which touches countless lives of people I will never meet.

     Olympic games site, then & now

Humility is also key.  In 1995, when I was about 100 days sober, I visited the site of the first Olympic Games — alone.  Wandering from the ruins, which date from 776 BC, I took a nap under a gnarled tree. And when I woke, looking out at the meadow where a sign indicated the Greek athletes’ housing had once stood (6), used centuries later as Roman soldiers’ quarters before god knows what in the Dark Ages, I had a sort of vision. I saw with time-elapse speed hundreds of trees germinating, growing large, and dying; buildings going up and falling to ruin; people slaughtering each other and making love — all in this very same meadow while its grass sprouted green and then dried to yellow over and over, 2,771 times.

The years, I saw, cycled through just like waves on a beach.  So did human lives.  I was no less transient than a blade of grass — but one with a plentitude of choices.

Ultimately, the purpose of my life has to be turned over to god every day as a part of Step Three. In my own version of the famous Merton prayer, I tell god, “I can’t see what I’m doing, but I love you.  Please lead me wherever I can do your will, and lend me the courage and grace to do my best there.”

Life is no more and no less that that.  And that is enough!

 

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Filed under Afterlife, living sober, NDE, Recovery, Twelve Steps

Getting Through the Goddamn Holidays

‘Tis the season when the spiked eggnog, hard cider, and hot buttered rum are flowing.  At office parties everywhere, coworkers will be pushing drinks, unwittingly or wittingly, on their recovering alcoholic colleagues.  To offer some strategies for getting out of a party with your sobriety intact, I wrote Holiday Parties a few years back.

But that’s not the real bane of Christmas.

There’s also that obligatory holiday spirit crap attacking your serenity.  You’re supposed to feel a certain way.  Something’s wrong with you if those Sinatra/ Crosby/ Cole clichés piped into practically every public space don’t incite in you fond recollections of some Rockwellian ideal you’ve never really lived — the chestnuts not roasting on your open fire, that cheery ring-a-ling of sleigh bells you’ve never even remotely heard, and, of course, your deep reverence for the virgin birth that fuels smiles at… uh… bustling shoppers.  Not so much.

Even if you enjoy it, there’s no denying that, particularly in the US, Christmas amounts to a ridiculous spectacle of compulsory consumerism.  It’s an orgy of buying, an onslaught of marketing, with the omnipresent need to fill wrapped packages under a mandatory tree.  And it’s never quite enough.  Every year, tens of millions of us overspend in an effort to conform — which adds up to financial stress.

Wasn’t it just a few months ago that you packed away those lights, ornaments, and various kitchy nutcrackers, etc., back into their faded, half-torn boxes?  Now you’re supposed to not only get them all out again but feel excited and seasonally schmoozy while doing so.

Please, dear god — why??

Alcoholics need to place their serenity foremost.  This means we recognize the pressures that disturb us, triggering feelings of frustration, not-enoughness, not-a part-of, or just plain loneliness.  For many, the holidays trigger all of the above.  But more than parties or overspending or obligatory cheer in the darkest part of the year, what most threatens our serenity amid the holidays are the stresses of…

FAMILY.
Rarely does the stork drop off a lone alcoholic-addict in an otherwise functional, mindful, emotionally honest and loving family — if any such families exist.

Most of us grew up in homes where one or both parents drank, where the truth remained veiled and no one modeled emotional availability or loved us unconditionally as our authentic, vulnerable selves.  Rather, we and our siblings learned to jump through life’s countless hoops using fabulous springboards like selfishness, self-seeking manipulation, and dishonesty, playing a role nonstop in an effort to wrestle from life what we thought we needed to survive — a battle we drank to escape.

In other words, families were the very hotbeds where we generated all our character defects, all that we’ve since dredged up in our 4th and 5th steps so we could open them to god in the 6th and 7th, asking to be relieved of an approach to life that no longer served us.  Every day and in every meeting, we strive for more rigorous honesty to further our spiritual progress.

But then along come the holidays, and we have to head back to that swampy hotbed where, often, no one else has changed.  Siblings, parents, and other relatives continue to follow whatever works for them — frequently a continuous pursuit of short-term feel-good.  Some will still be chasing feel-good, as we used to, through alcohol and drugs.  But there’s a myriad of other ways to chase it: being smarter than everyone else, or more successful or hip, or politically goading others.  Egos will be crowding the house, overreaching one another, whether in loud, competitive conversation or exchanges of subtle smirks.

So… here we stand on the banks of this oh-so-familiar swamp, the old emotional reflexes itching to kick in, the family calling to us, “Jump on in!  The slime is great!  Play your damn role!”

What do we do, alcoholics?!  Do we chameleon our former selves?  Do we judge with spiritual superiority?   Or do we dig deep and practice…

BOUNDARIES.
Up until 2013, I’d have told you here that “all you need is love.”  I’d have claimed that if you didn’t enjoy yourself around family, the problem lay in your holding on to resentments or self-pity.  But today I call bullshit on that view.

Sick people hurt others.  Toxic people spread poison.  To every wild creature, god has given means of self-defense or escape.  And to sober people dealing with alcoholism-affected family, god has given boundaries.

How do we practice boundaries?  There are two basic steps:

  1. Know who you are and that you’re okay, flaws and all.  In other words, carry with you a sense of what matters to you, how you respect and treat others, and how you require others to respect and treat you.  Claim your space. But… temper this with a sense of humor and awareness that the flaws we notice most in others tend to mirror our own.  For example, if I’m annoyed that my cousin is hogging the dinner table’s attention, it’s probably because I want to do it!  Humor and humility let me replace that annoyance with compassion.
  2. Know when someone is infringing on your dignity/space.  If someone keeps running over your foot with a lawnmower, it’s up to you to move your foot.  If you’ve previously asked the person not to run over your foot, and yet you see them heading down a line that’s gonna intersect with it again, then withdraw your damn foot!  For me, this means I no longer attend functions at which the lawnmowing person will be present.  For you, it may mean leaving before a certain person gets drunk.

Love and tolerance is our code – now and always.  But that love must include ourselves, and that tolerance an admission that some vulnerabilities and triggers persist despite all our work.  Just walking into a house where trauma occurred can be exhausting.

So, as with any dicy situation, have a plan in place before you go.  Bring your own Martinelli’s — lots of it.  If alone, text sober friends ahead of time that you may be calling.  If with a partner, have a “safe phrase” that means “I need to get the hell out of here.”  Then smile, say your goodbyes, and get the hell out!

Looks kinda freaky but it’s not!

If you find yourself out of sorts, get your ass to a meeting.  Most Alano Clubs and big meetings host all-hours alcathons throughout the holidays.  Go.  Sit down.  Be initially disappointed that the group appears small and motley, or huge and you don’t know many.  But just sit there, just listen, and let the feeling of sober sanity and spiritual guidance seep in through your skin.

Reach out to someone with kindness.  We all struggle with this holiday stuff.  You are never alone.  ❤

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Filed under Al-Anon, living sober, Recovery, Sober Christmas, Sober holidays, Sobriety