Category Archives: Twelve Steps

Inner and/vs. Outer Change

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).

Keno and Cos

Keno and Cos, 2011

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.”

 

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Step 9, Twelve Steps

Declutter Your Spiritual House

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.

Just before I got sober

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.”

24 (sober) years later

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.

Journal page from that day

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.

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Filed under God, Happiness, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality, Twelve Steps

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

Spiritual but not Religious – what does that mean?

“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….”

Ruth A. Tanyi, 2002

 

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.

Hubble: Sombrero galaxy

Spirituality
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.

**https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/astounding-increase-in-antidepressant-use-by-americans-201110203624

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Like me, like me (!): Neediness vs. god

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.”

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Filed under AA, Codependence, Near Death Experience, Recovery, Self-worth, Sobriety, Twelve Steps

Of Mountains and Miracles

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:

Crater of Mount Baker at dawn

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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?

CRAZY SHIT.

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.

Bikini bitches! (click to enlarge)

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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.

 

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A few more images (click to enlarge)…

Mount Baker from a distance – second most heavily glaciated in the contiguous 48 states

 

Baker halfway up – crater our revised goal after Sally’s injury (originally the summit)

 

Me crossing where Sally slipped – 40lb pack doesn’t help!

 

Base camp self-timer shenanigans

 

Supper at 4, in bed by 5, wake-up at 10:30pm, geared & climbing by midnight

 

About 2,000 feet above base, dawn approaches. Canadian climber’s lamp a few hundred feet below

 

Mount Baker’s enormous dawn shadow cast across mountains and sound to the horizon

 

Me beyond a crevasse – but now at least we can SEE ’em!

 

K. approaching the crater after 4,000 feet gained in 5 hours

 

Descending – I’m just past a snowbridge between two crevasses.

 

Homeward bound – car and big fat beanburger, here I come!

 

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality, Twelve Steps

What’s Normal Drinking?

Suppose I give you an algorithm to figure out whether or not you’re a normal drinker.  I tell you to take the number of drinks you’d consume on an average Tuesday, multiply it by a rough estimate of times you’ve “had too much” and divide that by the number of drinks that would qualify as a “binge” for you; next add the number of times you’ve felt utterly disgusted with yourself the morning after.  If the square route of this number is less than 3, you’re fine – go ahead and drink!  If it’s over 3 – sorry!  You’ve got a problem.

Here’s the real test:  Did you read that whole paragraph, dude?  Did you even consider trying to estimate some of those crazy numbers?  Then, guess what?  You are sooo not normal!  Not only do normies — people with a normal relationship to alcohol — not even have numbers for most of those inputs, they don’t give a rat’s ass about how much they drink or whether they get to.

Try the whole thing again substituting “strawberries” or “croissants” for drinks and you’ll see through a normie’s eyes:  “Take the number of strawberries you’d consume on an average Tuesday…”  Who cares?  Eat ’em or don’t – it doesn’t matter!

Alcoholics love to marvel at normie behaviors like not finishing a drink or leaving half a bottle of wine in the fridge for weeks, behaviors that strike us as incomprehensible.  But getting a handle on how weird our thinking is – why we see normal as strange – is not so easy.

“The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great illusion of every abnormal drinker.  The persistence of this illusion is astonishing.  Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”  (Big Book p. 30)

Before lasting sobriety, we keep trying and trying to find a way to drink normally.  But the effort itself precludes normalcy.  For instance, here’s a story from my Big Book study group, just after we read the above passage.  Dana – a repeat relapser who works from home – spoke up:

“The trouble is, I can control and enjoy my drinking for a long time. I’m really careful.  I’ll drive in the morning to the gas station near my house and buy just one of those little airplane bottles of Jack [Daniels].  I’ll drink it in the car and fucking enjoy the hell out of it.  Then I go home and get the kids off to school; I’m nice and not grouchy.  I’ll get set up for work, go have another little bottle, work for hours, chat with clients – I’m great. Before the kids get home, I’ll zip out and have another.  Maybe one before dinner and bed.  NEVER do I have two!  I’m just calm, smooth, efficient – doin’ my thing for weeks and weeks!  But then one day, I’ll get bombed and mess everything up.  Then I come back to AA.”

About ten of us made up the circle that day, but the room fell silent.  We all looked somewhat grave, considering Dana’s routine, each in our own world.  To buy just one little bottle every time did seem like terrific control!  To me it was like someone able to walk on a super-slick surface, keeping her balance and never slipping.  Who was I to say Dana shouldn’t walk there?  My mind clutched at the fact that she eventually binged with enough damage to come back to the program – which had to be bad.

A few of us asked about logistics.  Dana answered confidently.  I recall feeling a subtle mix of jealousy – Dana was able to drink! – and fear that I might decide to try something like that.  But most of all, I recall a fuzzy, confused inability to think, as though my mind were stuffed with wool.

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

“Five minutes,” replied Dana.

Nora’s forehead knitted. “And you make five or six trips?”

“About an hour out of my day, yeah.”

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

As if starting to awaken from trance, we all shifted, glanced at Nora on the brink of something.

“That’s true,” said Dana.  “I never thought of it that way.  I guess I’m not really the one calling the shots!”

Suddenly I could see it – Dana’s system was madness!  She was a puppet yanked by addiction to run back and forth, jump through hoops, throw away money, arrange her entire life around her addiction so she could function in the world.  At that moment, everyone, including Dana, saw it.

Brantly, our third leader, spoke up animatedly:  “This is not how people behave, you guys!  Doing absolutely anything, arranging our whole life to maintain a buzz because we can’t do life as life?!  That is crazy.  For normal people, alcohol is not the answer, so getting it’s not a question!  That’s why we need meetings, why we need the steps and god – because our brains make the insane sound totally normal!”

We were all laughing by this time, at ourselves, at ten people’s incredible alcoholic blindness to the obvious.  Brantly held up his phone: “I don’t need an app to tell me it’s been 5,057 days since my last strawberry!”

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

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

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