I recorded this on my phone last night — and I’m really glad I did. Speech / elocution-wise, I learned that I’m too shrill and often speak too fast to be understood, so I can work on toning both those things down. Content-wise, I hope some of you might get something useful from it. Plans to time myself were technologically foiled, so I was shocked when the moderator held up 10 fingers, and the end is hella rushed. But I guess that’s how it was meant to be.
Category Archives: Twelve Steps
On a dark, rainy winter’s evening about ten years ago, I found myself in a run-down urban trailer park trying to find a particular trailer. I don’t remember how I was supposed to identify it, but I do remember a man stepping in front of me whose face I couldn’t see in the dark. “I got some stuff. You want some?” “No, thanks,” I replied, moving on. By the light of trailer windows, I saw more shadowy figures moving about in the downpour, and I remember holding my AA Big Book in front of my heart like a shield, asking god to keep me safe. I was on a full-fledged 12th-step call, one of only a handful in my life.
Twelfth-step calls are less common today because treatment centers tend to be a first stop for addicts wanting help, but the woman whose trailer I was seeking had just been released from the most labor-camp-like detox/treatment center in Seattle – Sedrunar. A friend had called me about her. “Lena doesn’t have a car to get to meetings. She’s got two kids, and she’s gonna lose them if she uses again.”
I called Lena, though I was going to insist she take the bus to my house. But Lena, like any addict, was persuasive. She didn’t know anyone in the trailer park she could trust to watch her kids – who were seven and two. Could I please come just this once?
The seven-year-old opened the trailer door. She stared at me from eyes circled with dark shadows, silent as a spook. I heard yelled from inside: “Let her in!” I tried to greet the child cheerily, though to inhale the stinky, steamy air in there felt like an assault. On the floor was an old TV with a beanbag chair in front of it – that and piles of clothes. Bare walls. In came Lena, the toddler on her hip naked besides his diaper, food all over his face. Lena was a bit shorter than me and chunky, about 25. She shook my hand, apologizing for the mess, and handed the boy off to her daughter, pretty much barking at her to go in the bedroom and shut the door so she could talk to this lady – me.
We sat down at the yellow kitchen table. On the stove, mac & cheese dribbled from a saucepan in a way that reminded me of vomit, and smeared noodles dotted the table. Lena sat across from me and folded her hands expectantly as though I were about to recite poetry.
All I could say was, “Does that window open?” I gestured toward a dark pane at the the table’s end, the glass dripping with condensation.
Lena looked perplexed. “I’m trying to save heat.”
“I’d really appreciate it.”
Reluctantly she rose and slid the moldy aluminum frame aside about an inch. While she was up she grabbed a sponge and wiped away most of the noodles at my place, apologizing that she’d just fed her son.
I’d made up my mind that I would stay 30 minutes only. I began as I always do, by asking Lena to briefly tell me her story. Clearly practiced from treatment, she launched right into it – how she’d grown up picking crops in Yakima in a Hispanic community; how she’d gotten into meth as a teen. She was proud that both kids had the same father, but he was a drug dealer. She’d lost them twice to CPS – once for leaving them in the car outside a bar.
“I’m clean, now, 60 days. The judge told me this is an extra chance with my kids. I shouldn’t even have them now. I gotta stay clean. I gotta stay sober.” Here she changed, muscles in her face and throat working hard. She looked right at me and spoke distinctly: “I can’t… lose… my kids.”
“Well, you’ll need to find a sponsor,” I breezed, “but, unfortunately, I’m full.” This was somewhat true – I had a few sponsees. But, of course, I really said it to push away all this squalor. I wasn’t even sure whether this woman should have her kids. All I knew was that only 21 minutes stood between me and escape.
I sketched my own story briefly, Lena nodding attentively at every phrase. I explained that I couldn’t not drink on my own, but by working the 12 steps I’d accessed a higher power that had removed my craving for alcohol and kept me sober eleven years.
“Eleven years!” Lena marveled. “That’s what I want! I wanna know how you did that!”
I was starting to explain how I’d worked with a sponsor when we heard a ruckus and the squalling toddler, chased by the spooky girl, burst out of the bedroom. Hardly taking her eyes from me, Lena scooped her son into her lap and held him close. She gave the crown of his head tiny kisses and asked him if he wanted a bottle.
Right then – that’s when the voice started. Not really a voice, but an urging: Help her. Sponsor her. Love her.
No fucking way! my ego countered. I was busy. She was hopeless. Just eight minutes and I’d be outta this dump, back to the fresh air and my nice, clean life!
Lena nodded toward her son. “He don’t talk,” she said. “They told me he’s disabled, but it ain’t true. It’s just all he been through.” Watching the boy’s eyes, the way they moved from Lena to me and back again, I sensed she was right. Meanwhile the spooky girl joined us with a coloring book, promising to be quiet and asking where her crayons were. Lena grabbed them from the same box that had held her Big Book.
“It’s not me,” I heard myself telling her. “God has given me a life better than I ever dreamed of.” Some of the people who’d helped, giving me time and guidance, flashed through my mind. “I’m not the same person I was.” Lena nodded intently. She was not begging. She was not pleading. But every cell in her body was straining to hear me.
Just help her. Just love her.
But I was helping, dammit! I was steering her toward the program, right? Just not toward me. Anyone but me. But, with just three minutes to go, I made a big mistake. I looked into Lena’s eyes. Really looked. I saw there desperation and terror, but even more, a fierce love for her children. My own son was five. How were we any different?
The wall crumbled, compassion washing over me. “Okay, I’ll sponsor you,” I heard myself saying. Lena’s face lit up. “But not here! You’re gonna have to come meet me at a coffee shop!”
The rest of the story is like a fairy tale. Lena and I met every Friday to read the Big Book at a Starbucks while a sober neighbor watched her kids, after which I’d drive us to a meeting. She had a job riding in a municipal truck, collecting garbage, and within a couple of months she qualified to drive that truck. She moved into a shitty apartment not far from the trailer park, where I met with her for a while until she found childcare. She bought a crappy car and started driving herself to meetings. Whenever I showed up at her homegroup, her kids would ambush me either in the parking lot or when I came in – the little girl now beautiful and clear-eyed, the little boy talking up a storm. Their laughter still seemed incredible to me – a miracle.
In a little more than a year, we’d progressed to Step 9 when Lena, who was apprenticing as municipal gardener, leased a nice apartment too far north for us to keep meeting. I drove up and visited her there once. It was near Christmas. I remember white carpets, a new sofa, pictures on the walls. I remember the children bringing me a gift from under the Christmas tree and grinning while I opened it, and my own embarrassment that I had nothing for them. But I had given them something – and we all knew it.
Last night after eight years I went again to that meeting – Lena’s old home group. But she wasn’t there. Where she’s gone, what she’s doing, I don’t know. But I’m hopeful. I sent them prayers. Today, I’m so grateful that god opened my heart, and that it’s still opening.
Postscript: I had to find out… 🙂
Republished from 12 /2016
Is there someone in your life who repeatedly treats you unkindly? Do they inflict hurtful judgments, sometimes blatant and other times disguised as helpful criticism? This person is your spiritual teacher. In the sting you suffer at their words and deeds is the seed of compassion, of understanding the power each wields to hurt or heal, blame or bless. The unkind have shown up in your life for this purpose: to teach you the sanctity of kindness — that, in the larger picture, kindness to one another, to animals, and to the Earth itself is what matters most in life.
— Me or anyone who gets it
I remember a time when I walked through life with the goal of showing everyone I mattered. I divided people into two classes — those I needed on my side and those who didn’t count.
Those I needed I worked to charm: Do you see how smart I am? How funny? How creative and classy and downright likable? Most times I put on this show without even knowing it.
As for those who didn’t count, I wanted them to know I didn’t give a rat’s ass what they thought of me. To such people I might be rude, judgmental, or just too cool. If they were serving me in some way, I could find fault with their service. If I viewed them as competing, I could talk shit about them.
In both cases, my intent was to prove that I mattered by impressing that fact on others. This approach led me to my needing to drink and wanting to die. Eventually, I felt I mattered to no one, that my life was in fact a superfluous failure.
But a lot of people succeed far better with this approach than I did. They may practice it for a lifetime, amassing just enough proof of their superiority to get the satisfaction they need. Still, they’re constantly hungry for more. Each time they judge, they get a little boost of feeling smarter! If they pronounce that judgement, they savor a sense of wielding power, that their words can zing like handy little thunderbolts. Life, for them, is a vast swamp where they have to keep constantly stepping on the backs of less-thans to stay afloat themselves.
These are the unkind.
To live this way doesn’t mean you go around being rude as fuck, because we all know rudeness doesn’t serve us. To live this way means being polite in self-interest: good manners act as a subtle form of manipulation. Acrid, judgmental thoughts may be blurted on occasion but more often sound only in the mind, where they eventually poison the thinker. The harsher our thoughts about others, the harsher we imagine they must feel toward us.
Lucky drunk that I was, my despair drove me into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, where people spoke a different language: higher power, being of service, love and tolerance. I worked the steps. I found my higher power. And though that “flimsy reed” of connection initially seemed to me like gripping a sewing thread I couldn’t even feel, I gradually found that, the more I pulled on it, the more I could feel it and the stronger it grew.
Today, my relationship with god — in my case via my guardian angel — is by far the most important in my life. I love my angel and I know better than anything else that he (not the goddess I ordered) loves me — immensely, and not for anything I’ve done. He loves the goodness of my essence, which he knows better than I do. He steers me toward goodness though I may know nothing about it.
Sorry if I lost you there! As a Near-Death Experiencer who’s collaborated on that connection for decades, I can get pretty woo pretty quick. I hope not to alienate anyone hurting as I hurt for so many years, when words like the above would have seemed pure gibberish.
The point is that, loved in this way, I have oodles more good stuff than I need. I have so much that my only object is to give it away.
When my son turned 13, he observed my behavior skeptically and remarked one day, “Mom, everybody doesn’t have to like you!” He was trying to make sense of the banter he saw me exchanging with strangers, the compliments I gave, my idle questions about how someone’s day was going or how long ’til their shift was up. Why chat after every AA meeting? Why throw sober parties? He couldn’t imagine what else I might be after.
It’s actually the polar opposite of what I once was: I want others to know that they matter. I want to help them, however incrementally, to feel good about themselves, to know that they’re likable and smart and appreciated — that someone sees just a bit of their beautiful essence. If their body language shows me what they want most is to be left alone, I honor that by shutting up. (For instance, talking to anyone on the bus only scares the shit out of them…)
Kind thoughts toward others generate a kindly world for us to inhabit. But kindness toward ourselves is harder to master. That one, I’m still working on. Whenever someone criticizes me — perhaps the unkind in my life — I reel in the effort to right myself. Whenever I’m ill, exhausted, lonely, or otherwise down, it’s still a challenge to enfold myself in love. Since my dog died, I’ve developed silly little go-to tricks, like sending love to the birds I see through my window or even, in a pinch, to my house plants! As soon as I send out love, I sense a replenishing influx of love from god.
Awareness that I’m a bit absurd, some person alone and talking to a chickadee or a ficus tree, only adds to that love. I am human. I am trying. It is enough.
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.
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.
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.
My 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.
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 (see NDE interview playlist) 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.
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.
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.
When I was new to AA, some of the 12 steps struck me as filler to make an even dozen. Being smarter than anyone else in the world, I could see that just 6 steps would’ve done the trick: 3, 5, 7, 9, 10 & 12. These steps all tell us to do something. The others deal with internal shifts that, it seemed to me, could be made instantaneously.
As usual, I was totally wrong.
The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous who, in 1938, created the 12 steps understood that spiritual change is no overnight matter, and that actions carried out with no internal change are meaningless. Rather, the steps are about collaborating with a higher power to gradually transform who we are, how we perceive our place in the world, and how we treat others. It’s a metamorphosis that lasts all our lives.
For example, Step 9 involves action: we make amends to those we have harmed, but without an internal Step 8, we can inadvertently inflict more harm. Someone recently asked me to look over a draft of a 9th step amends letter that — I found — was actually a more-about-me letter. It opened, not with well wishes for the recipient or acknowledgement that hearing from one who hurt them years ago might come as a surprise, but what was up with the writer: “I’ve been thinking about….” After a quick note that “I am not proud of the way I…,” the writer summarized what she was doing to heal herself. The next paragraph explained the family of origin stuff from which she needed to heal. In closing, she urged the recipient to celebrate family events together with her for the sake of their adult children.
Now for you reading this, it’s probably not rocket science to see that the letter was self-centered. The goal of the 9th step is to repair harms we did to others. The first part of doing so is to speak the truth about what happened. But what if we still can’t see the truth because we’re still trapped in our self-centered view of the world?
To the writer of this letter, the fact that she was even daring to contact this person and acknowledge that she struggled with emotional issues seemed an amends. I know because 24 years ago, just a few months into sobriety, I sent an identically selfish letter to someone I’d hurt in much the same way.
Neither of us had taken time to work through Step 8 — the inner process of “became willing to make amends.” We assumed that “willing” meant only mustering the gumption to dive in. But part of willing is becoming able. If I claim, for example, that I am willing to recite the Gettysburg address from memory, and I jump right in saying, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers…” but then run out of steam after a few lines, was I ever really willing to recite it? Doesn’t that willingness entail respect for the content, for the work involved in learning it fully?
By the same token, Step 8 means we become willing to re-see our past behavior through the new lens god has helped us craft via Steps 1 through 7. We put ourselves in the place of the person we harmed, and we break down exactly what we did wrong. Years after sending that half-baked “amends” letter, when I actually reached Step 8, my kickbutt sponsor had me write the words selfish, dishonest, and thoughtless as three headings under which to categorize my actions with a given person. If and only if the person knew of these harms, when I met with them or wrote them a letter, I said, “I was selfish when I chose to…. I was dishonest when I…,” etc. At the end, I had to ask them what, if anything, I’d omitted and what, if anything, I could do to set things right. Last week, I tried to steer the letter writer in that same direction.
God is not stoked for us to beat up on ourselves. God doesn’t want us to grovel. But god is huge on honesty — HUGE! — because god is all about the truth. To be more precise, god is the truth, the foundation of all that is. But honesty with ourselves is no easy matter! It’s a frontier, a journey of removing delusion after delusion, because we’re born self-centered and, experiencing life subjectively, grow up with a foundational conviction that “it’s all about me.”
To reprogram that operating system even a little requires god’s help. As the Big Book says, “Neither could we reduce our self-centeredness much by wishing or trying on our own power. We had to have God’s help” (p. 62).
When my son was little, I used to try to teach him about self-centeredness by having our dog say (he talks like Patrick from SpongeBob), “It’s such a waste of food when you guys eat, because things only taste good when I eat them!” My son would get so upset arguing with Cosmo (well, me), trying to explain that he, too, tasted things! “No you don’t,” Cosmo’s voice would counter. “It never tastes when you eat. Not even a little!”
In some ways, my old “amends letter” and this new one were coming from Cosmo’s mindset: “Dear person: All these things were going on (for me) when I deceived you for as long as possible before jettisoning you for someone else. You should figure out how it felt to be me, and have compassion, and that will change your perspective of how it was to be you, so I’ll be helping you.”
No. God’s truth is far more simple: “There is a right way to treat people, and there’s a wrong way — and I did wrong. I deeply regret those selfish choices, but I no longer live that way. I am here in a new spirit to ask what reparations I can make.”
Boom! Powered by god’s love, we can step out of Cosmo’s me-world. All the internal steps are essential to right action. How can we admit or ask god to remove character defects that we can’t see or are still practicing? The most powerful prayers are always requests for guidance: “Help me see where I am bullshitting myself. Help me see more as you see.”
Each year as my AA birthday approaches, I like to take a look back to see how far I’ve come. I’ll be turning 24 years sober this January, and I would not trade my beautiful life for anything.
Twenty-four years ago, I believed life without drinking would be horrifically boring, like eating only brussel sprouts forever. Relaxation would be gone, so I’d feel anxious and stressed out nonstop. Socializing sober would be such an ordeal, I’d probably just isolate. How could I play without ease and comfort?
I secretly longed to drink like other people — people who bantered in fashionable hangouts, hogging all the fun and glamour. I felt I had a disability, this inability to stop drinking once I got started.
In those days, I was literally incapable of imagining how it now feels to be me. Today the space in my mind and heart is soooo cozy, I feel like at any point in my day, I could pull into it like a tortoise and maybe take a nap — just me and that warm inner sunlight of my god. I almost feel tempted sometimes when I’m riding my bike to work and waiting for a traffic light to change. There’s my outer body dressed in rain gear, there’s the incredibly complicated world going on around me, and then there’s this flawlessly inviting inner sunporch to recline in, just closing my eyes and saying, “Yo, god. Thanks for everything. I can’t tell you how much I love you.”
I don’t cause I’d get run over. I also don’t want to piss off people around me, not cause I fear them but because I want to radiate kindness in all things I do. I love strangers — even the rude ones. Life is a gorgeous jigsaw puzzle we’re all piecing together with earnest effort, frustrated at times, all wishing we had the dang puzzle box illustration to help us know what goes where.
The space for my inner sunporch was originally cleared by working AA’s 12 steps. Before that it was packed with garbage — false mental and emotional beliefs I clung to like some kind of packrat. Psychotic hoarders can’t throw away a used Kleenex; I couldn’t throw away my resentments, the countless personality variations I’d hoped would make you like me, or the dusty gilt trophies — academic, professional, and romantic — I’d won over the years that I thought comprised my worth.
“Cleaning house” by working steps with a sponsor is the closest thing I know to hiring a spiritual declutter expert: “God, what should I keep? What should I throw out?” If you have an insightful sponsor and an open heart, you’ll end up with only a few key insights.
It’s true, for instance, that most people don’t base their decisions on what would be best for you. And that is okay. What?! It is?! This was earth-shattering news when my sponsor first put it to me.
It is also true that people we’ve held in resentment were doing the best they could with the level of insight they had. If they could have shown up as a good parent, partner, or companion — that is, if they’d understood that love matters most — they would have. We can’t expect them to live by wisdom they just don’t have, just as we can’t shop at the hardware store for bread.
Space opens up when you LET OTHER PEOPLE GO: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” That whole tangle of shoulds and owes me and needs to learn gets carted off to Goodwill.
Now you can shift the focus to YOU, not as a successful manipulator or foiled victim of others, but as the only person on this planet responsible for making a beautiful thing of your life.
Not what your parents thought would be beautiful. Not what media and marketing pretend is beautiful. Beautiful to you.
Lucky you — you’ve already been assigned an amazing, ingenious collaborator, one who works for nothing, who believes in you with a love beyond anything you can imagine, and who has the power to fuel whatever you’re courageous enough to pursue: god.
Dass right! That same energy in the growing grass, the pounding waves, and the mating chipmunks. That force behind your heart going live, live, live and the busyness in your every cell to make it happen. God is living you; god is wanting you to generate more you-ness, more love, more good. Your smile is beautiful. Your sincerity is a jewel. Your kindness is a spark of the divine.
Sober, I feel my feelings instead of numbing them. I remember the last time (of many) when life pulled the rug out from under me so I fell flat on my face. Three and a half years ago, my heart was broken by an intimate betrayal — a betrayal so outrageous I felt like an idiot for having been suckered. Hurt and ashamed, I felt too stupid to ever trust my heart again. About halfway through a 70-mile hike in the mountains, somehow the full pain of it hit me; I set up my tent at noon, lay down in it, and just cried for three hours. Three more hours I alternated between semi-comatosely watching the foiled skeeters on my tent’s netting and spurts of crying. Then I wrote in my journal.
By the next morning, I’d founded a new enterprise with god. We called it “Louisa’s Little Life” because alliteration rocks. We — that is, god and I — had the basics nailed down. We’d go for nothing grandiose. The plan was to notice and love; notice and love — just that and put one foot in front of the other. I promised to listen, and god promised to lead. I promised to trust and try, and god promised to help me grow. In fact, god promised me peace and joy and a deeper knowledge of who I am — all the flowers that now brighten my inviting secret sunporch, because god and I grew them.
If any of these ideas help you, by all means steal them, but remember: thinking about the steps is not the same thing as working them! It’s an inside job, but we can’t do it alone.
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.
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.
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!
“Spirituality and religion are often used interchangeably, but the two concepts are different. Spirituality involves humans’ search for meaning in life [and is] subjective, intangible, and multidimensional…, while religion involves an organized entity with [pre-established] rituals and practices about a higher power….”
God is not a religious concept, yet the vast majority of people seem to assume it is. To me, this conflation is not only frustrating but dangerous.
Why dangerous? The authority religion once wielded in our culture has been waning for over two centuries. That’s fine by me. While religion itself is neither good nor bad, humans have used it to justify so much wrongdoing that its myths smack of hypocrisy. The trouble is that many modern day people who reject religion throw out the baby with the bathwater. That is, because they see the constructs of religion as a hoax, they assume god must be a hoax, too.
In a godless universe, many abandon their search for an ever-expanding
meaning in life. “There’s nothing out there,” they decide, “so it’s just me against the world.” With that attitude, they grow deaf to spirit’s call to actively love the world, to grow our compassion and act on it, and to nurture our talents so we can birth our unique contributions to the flow of life.
Why are 25% of US women my age currently taking antidepressants?* In my opinion, that number has shot up, not clinically, but because so many are spiritually starved. Lack of faith, I believe, complements fear and self-centeredness: What’s in it for me? and My actions don’t matter lead ultimately to cynicism, emptiness, and despair.
Admittedly, I know quite a number of moral atheists and once considered myself one. These people do love, maybe even strive to help others and live with honor, but they shy away from examining WHY. Press them and they’ll offer some truism like, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” But what defines “right”?
As a young atheist myself, I remember getting super annoyed with 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when I read his three stages of individual actualization: 1) living for selfish pleasure, 2) living in the in-between place of ethics, and 3) taking a leap of faith.
In those days, I wanted ethical life to be the most awake state of mind. “There is no God, but I do good anyway” struck a chord of individual courage. I imagined us ethical folks blazing a noble trail through life without sticking to the trodden lanes of religion.
But Kierkegaard, that asshole, pointed out that to live by ethics is to live in an either/or state, torn between what we crave to do and what we sense we should do. If we really looked into that inner sense of what’s “right,” we would recognize the call of goodness itself and open our hearts to it fully. There, he said, we would find god.
Well… actually, Kierkegaard said “God,” and for him that meant Christianity complete with Jesus’ resurrection and the whole kit and kaboodle. The leap of faith, Kierkegaard said, was to abandon objective criteria and embrace instead the non-rational truth of religion.
So… I hop off that bus at the paragraph before last.
My leap is not to religion, but to a view of the universe that mainstream culture still dismisses as nutty. It’s based on my own near-death experience, when I left my physical body and glimpsed the other side, along with the 14 paranormal experiences that followed, and corroborated by thousands of other NDErs led to the same truth: Love powers the universe.
Love powers the universe is, to my thinking, the only true north we need to orient meaningful lives. For me, that means having faith in the god I experienced as overwhelming love in the light of the other side. For others, it can mean simply living in loving kindness. One’s spiritual path is one’s own — as in Buddha’s dying advice to “be a lamp unto yourself.”
Spirituality in AA
I find it frustrating every time I hear AA referred to a “religious organization”or even one affiliated with religion. Much of the public at large seems sorely misinformed on this point. For example, the film The 13th Step claims to be “a stark expose… of AA’s disempowering 12-Step belief system, whereby members must agree to become subservient to a higher power…”
What a bunch of crap!
The 12 steps don’t present a “belief system.” They’re offered as a roadmap for self-evaluation and growth: 1. Is alcohol kicking your ass? 2. Is your life (getting) batshit crazy? 3. Ask whatever your heart trusts in to guide you and 4. try looking at the stories you tell yourself about your life 5. so you can reality-check them with someone objective and against your ultimate sense of truth, then 6. get ready to change and 7. ask for help changing and fucking mean it. 8. Figure out whom you’ve hurt and 9. go ask them if you can set it right. 10. Keep checking on yourself for bullshit rationalizations and 11. keep seeking your god and 12. if you’re getting well, help others do the same.
As the appendix on spiritual experience tells us, “With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.” How is this subservience?
On the other hand, if I’d tried to get sober in the bible belt, I’d probably be dead now, because it’s likely that many AAers in Christian-dominated regions do present AA as a Christian-based recovery. How sad! I could not have absorbed something so counter to my own sense of truth — not even to save my life.
* * *
I have a Facebook friend across the world in Turkey, a self-employed floor polisher who saw me in this film and reached out to me about life after death, which he calls the real reality. Raised Muslim, Uğur Hakanoğlu has independently studied ancient texts from which the Quran was assembled, searching for spiritual truths. Perhaps because his conviction must leap the language barrier between us, what he writes to me always resonates powerfully:
“Some people are thinking they are atheist, but they only hate wrong human religion that humans made… Church, mosque, and other areas [are] like lying machines. They are [to] earn money and they don’t say true… We have to respect all lifes, like god. Ignorance and fear, they are guns. All bad minds use these two guns…
“Life is not earn, Louisa. Life is Love, in my mind. When we go to the forest or seaside, we take photo or video, we are choosing not to live. Everything is telling us his/her life, telling what I am and why I am here, but we don’t listen. We are only looking, not seeing. Sea, tree, sun — everything telling us only about love. Love change all mind. There are no borders, no nationality. If I have good English, I will say more.”
Of course, not every aspect of religion is a “lying machine,” and many religious people are deeply loving, humble, and sincere. In AA as in all experience, loving all is what heals, as much as being loved.
PS: I’ll be giving an hour-long talk, telling my NDE story and reflecting on it, at the International Association of Near-Death Studies annual conference August 30th, 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. in Bellevue, WA. Conference details here.
Leaving an event recently, in the parking I saw the most charismatic (gay) guy from the group chatting with a woman who wasn’t me, and I became filled with jealousy. Not romantic jealousy; like-me jealousy. I thought: “He thinks she’s special! He thinks I’m boring! Dammit!! How can I make him like me?! What if I…”
Then — because for 22 frickin’ years I’ve been working a program — I flagged my own attention, informed myself I was temporarily insane, got in my frickin-ass car and drove off.
“Really, ego?!” I thought, driving. “Will you never stop this shit? It’s older than high school, older than one of Mary Ann’s banana cream pies in the face–but you keep on!” I resolved to not care.
But it was hard. I still felt mad at the woman for “winning,” mad to be denied the fix I wanted — that big fat hit of dopamine from feeling liked and appreciated by someone who “counts” (because, as we all know, that shit is DOPE) — but at the same time, mad at my ego for leading me back into this dumb game of hungering parasitically for worth.
Okay, I’m human, a social primate. I have instincts around “belonging” deeply linked to survival. That’s normal. We all need to have friends, feel loved, etc..
But as a recovering alcoholic/ love addict, I still have needy ego that can wreak havoc with instincts and gratification. When I used to guzzle alcohol and whip up huge love-addiction crushes, I’d take frickin’ baths in the imagined admiration of whomever I’d idolized.
When the magic one liked me, my brain would release these motherload hits of dopamine and endorphins — which I experienced as a thrilling glow of self-worth and delicious excitement — from what I imagined that magical person thought about me. The “good stuff” seemed to come from that person, though in reality it came from my brain’s model of their favorable impressions of me. In other words, it was my brain triggering my brain to flood itself with feel-good neurotransmitters — meaning I gave myself permission to get internally high as a kite.
People, that’s not love. That’s not even admiration. If we want to be nice, we can call it codependent self-worth; and if we want to be harsh, we can call it projected narcissism.
Either way, this is a totally ass-backward way of living. It’s
parasitic and delusional. The trouble is, because I grew up in an alcoholic home, that’s how my brain is wired! Because the supply of affection waxed and waned depending on whether my parents were drunk or hungover, and because I assumed the variable was, not the presence of absence of a drug, but me, I developed a core, bone-deep belief that I had to perform to win love — which does not serve me now that I’m a sober adult.
Here are the steps not to take:
Step 1: Elevate someone. Decide they’re “cool.” Make them larger than life, overflowing with charisma. Now (sweet!) you have a stash to chase: their “good stuff.”
Step 2: Chase the “good stuff.” If the attraction is sexual, try like hell to seduce them. If it’s social, show off how fuckin’ exciting and funny you are. If it’s business, find ways to impress them with your amazing knack for getting shit done.
Outcome: You’ve whored out your worth. Even when you seem to win, you’ve lost. Regardless of whether you’ve come off as hoped, someone else holds the keys to your human value. Your dignity is in the goddam toilet.
What’s the alternative? Here I go again! It’s god.
When I say god, I mean not only a connection to the energy of life, but all the shifts in ways of living and thinking that connection brings about — if it’s real. The whole purpose of the 12 Steps is to help us achieve a psychic change (p. xxix) that will reverse the direction of our “flow.” We go from being black holes of neediness, trying to suck okayness out of people, places, & things, to becoming more and more a channel or outlet of the warmth and energy loaned to us by our higher power: unconditional love.
The 12 steps to this change are in our Big Book, but here’s a quick-check version:
Step 1: Seek humility. Give up the fuck up chasing anyone or anything. Let be. Hurt if you’re hurting. Mourn if you’re lost. But acknowledge that you are powerless over people, places, & things. Only one source can you count on: your higher power’s Love for your simple, confused, inherent goodness.
Step 2: Love with intention. Forgive. Practice gratitude (loving your life and nurturing your little inner garden). Embrace yourself with all your flaws and look for ways this admittedly flawed self can do good, help others, and “pack [more] into the stream of life.”
Outcome: A worthiness built from the ground up. You and god know your worth. No one else needs to. You slowly grow self esteem from doing estimable acts.
I just can’t say enough about the freedom of humility. Dude. Whenever I hike in the wilderness for a week or so, the inner gem I polish is humility — to understand I am just a critter. I need to drink & eat and pee & shit. I need to stay warm in my little nest for the night. I get to laugh with my friend and witness god in a wealth of meadows, forests, and towering peaks. I GET TO live! That is wisdom.
When I come back to city life, hanging on to that same humility gets tricky, but I can still try. I talk & listen and think stuff’s important & screw up. I can glimpse god in the vulnerable humanness of friends and strangers, all of us trying to feel okay. I GET TO love! That is spirituality.
Near Death Experiencers (people revived from death who bring back memories) frequently report having been shown a representation of the spiritual connections uniting all living beings. They perceived countless “golden threads” or “beams of light” interconnecting our hearts. The bottom line, they’re told, is that we’re each a unique expression of the same god/life energy, like countless leaves on a huge tree, or countless cells in a single leaf.
No one is higher. No one is lower. All depend on each other, on the whole, which is god. I’ll never forget how my first sponsor wrapped up my first major 4th step 20 years ago. Alongside my character defects, she drew a No-Stepladder symbol. As she put it, “Whenever you want to rank people, think of the night sky. You may gravitate toward one constellation more than another — sure. But you can’t rank the stars.”
I come from a long line of alcoholics, pioneers and midwives and professors who knew they didn’t want to drink as much as they did, yet were sucked down into the bottle time and time again. I’m cut from the same cloth but haven’t had a drink for twenty-two years. What’s up with that?
When I used to dry out between binges I was an insecure, socially phobic, jealous, frightened, depressed woman who would pretend to be whatever might impress you. Anticipating drinks brought me hope. Starting to drink steadied me. Rolling through drinks, I found courage and gusto and release — sweet release! — in the dopamine flooding my neurons. Some day, I’d pull off great feats!
At first, sobriety robbed me of a desperately needed escape. I’ll never forget a certain unremarkable morning in ’95. I’d been dry about six months without a spiritual program. My partner was driving us along a curving freeway ramp while some implacable panic rose higher and higher in my chest with every breath I took and every random object that struck my brittle brain — building, guard rail, pavement, cars.
I thought-screamed, I CAN’T STAND IT!!!!!
But today, I flourish. My brain is happy, and I’m living a life I love. What’s up with that?
Here’s me day before yesterday:
I’m on the right. This is a photo of a frickin’ miracle. I’ve recently turned 57. I’m standing at 9,800 feet at 5:00 a.m. beside the hissing, venting crater of a live volcano with my best friend wearing frickin’ bikini tops in temperatures close to freezing. We are… the Baker Birthday Bikini Bitches!
I got here through hard work. The work of healing a broken brain and twisted psyche is extensive, yet all compacted down into 12 simple, trite little steps listed in Chapter 5 of AA’s Big Book — steps I dismissed as worthless at my first AA meeting after reading them off the wall in less than a minute.
It takes a good sponsor, one “armed with the facts” about him/herself, to unpack those steps and open up each like one of those expandable sphere toys so that the sponsee is confronted again and again with the challenge of either seeking greater honesty or cycling through their tired lies again.
I’ve worked these steps not once, not twice, but through enough iterations that their perspective has become the lens through which I view everyday life. To express that in detail, I’ve surrendered all illusions that I can drink normally (1); I recognize that alone my thinking is warped (2); I ask god to guide it minute by minute (3); I seek out the selfish distortions in my interpretations of people, places, and things (4); I tell on myself to trusted others, increasingly with humor (5), and pray for the clarity to quit thinking/acting that way (6-7). If I’ve offended, I own it and amend it (8-10), because I want to meet my god without defenses every day (11) so I can be useful to others (12). That is how I effing live.
How does that get me up the mountain?
There is something. You can call it whatever you like. Currents of energy course through and radiate from everything that lives, and their frequency is affected by each loving or fear-based thought that every one of us generates from one moment to the next. And those currents converge in some nexus of intelligence that loves far beyond our brains’ comprehension and yet is not beyond us, because we are of it. We are a shard, a fragment, a ray of that immensity, and when we ask, it resonates within us, filling what was empty, healing what was hurt.
The kicker is that condition: when we ask.
And we can’t ask just once — like for a piece of gum or something: “Hey, god, this deal sucks, can ya help me out?” Nope. We ask in layer upon layer upon layer. We ask every frickin’ day, in everything we do: “Help me. Be with me. Move my heart and mind toward goodness and beauty.”
And if we do this long enough and sincerely enough, do you know what happens?
So many miracles, I don’t know where to begin! Living by the 12 Steps has brought me to a place where I can be my authentic self among worthy others and trust that I am loved.
Daily honesty with god has given me the mindset to become the person I longed to be — to quit smoking, stop over-eating, cease tolerating abuse; to pay the bills and provide for my kid; to really get it that, if something’s going to improve in my life, I have to try for it (a lot easier when you know god’s there to catch you).
Humility has let me accept that if I want to do something immense, like climbing a mountain or writing a memoir or opening a business, I have to start with measly, pathetic little steps… and keep at it.
And beautiful things unfold as a result. Here we are again from a different angle.
Are we in good shape? Sure. But this photo doesn’t show what’s really there: the strength of LOVE. The love between my friend and me lets us speak of anything — anything! — and frees us to laugh about much of it. I know of my friend’s horrific childhood and years of cocaine addiction. She knows the compulsions that warped my past.
There’s also the love of fellow alcoholics who taught us our mountaineering skills, much as sponsors taught us life skills. When we started up at midnight from our base camp, where our third friend stayed behind with her ankle sprained from a creek crossing, we felt small and scared. The hulking glow of Baker’s ancient glaciers loomed a mile above us in the moonlight. It was just we two roped together to arrest falls as we wended our way by headlamps among yawning, deep crevasses, sometimes cussing like sailors.
We did it. We’re sober miracles. And, for each of us who gets there, for every alcoholic who reaches that precious freedom granted by true sobriety, it all began with that first little word of AA’s First Step, the first time it really sank in: We.
A few more images (click to enlarge)…