Category Archives: Sobriety

Meetings on the Road: No Matter What

When you’re on vacation, you know what’s a great idea?  Going to AA meetings.

Traveling for work, what keeps you grounded?  You guessed it, meetings.

Visiting out-of-town relatives?  Are you fucking kidding me?  MEETINGS!

I’ve attended AA meetings in Greece, Hawaii, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Spokane, Boston, and New York — at least, that’s all I can recall offhand.  Especially when I’m traveling alone, the rooms feel like home.  In Athens, Greece, for instance, I walked more than 2 miles from my hotel (which featured a lush tropical bar) to track down a small AA symbol partially obscured by ivy on tower centuries old.  Climbing to the room, I was met with posters of Bill and Bob on the walls along with the 12 Steps & Traditions, in English.

That meeting united accents from all over the globe, but the first share came from a weeping American woman who feared for her job.  A flight attendant, she’d screwed up the landing cross-check and inflated a slide, delaying the next flight by half a day. ‘Coincidentally,’ though, she’d been my flight attendant.  Chucking the cross-talk taboo, I spoke up, recounting for her everything she’d done right on that flight, along with all the extra demands placed on her as the only attendant fluent in Greek.  Tears streamed down her face as she listened, and she was certainly not alone in that.

Just three months sober at the time, I’d not planned on sharing.  But the that experience — along with the fellowship afterward at an outdoor cafe where the whole rollicking group wrote on my tourist map about where to go and what to see — cemented the meeting policy that has served me to this day: JUST GO.

At 22 years sober, I still go to meetings out-of-town.  Yes, I have an awesome life.  The craving to drink is long gone. Parts of me blighted by alcoholism have blossomed.  Scars from childhood are healing in the sunlight of the spirit.  Whereas it used to suck abysmally to be me without alcohol, drugs, and/or the highs of obsessive infatuation, today my mind and heart feel like a comfy, cheerful place to hang out.

Hokey as it may sound, I’m just back from a travel adventure commonly known as a college reunion.  Thirty-five years ago, I was lucky enough to have parents who sent me to a “seven sisters” college (Vassar).  This past weekend, I was a lucky enough to get a reunion “scholarship” to revisit the place.  So off I flew to New York.

The vast contrast between who I was at 21 and who I am today struck me every minute I was there.  For example, only a few of my friends showed up, which in the past would have posed a disappointment.  Today, it meant a chance to get to know classmates I recognized but didn’t know personally, all of whom had aged, of course, but also matured into better selves — without 12-step work!  “I get nicer every year,” remarked one of my normie friends, reflecting on the effect of life’s losses and tears, “and I hold back less.”

I re-explored the grand library’s “secret” spiral staircases, subterranean stacks, and lofty tower with a new friend, giggling and chatting about the fertility ordeals by which we got our kids.  With another, shopping near campus, I shared the shock and pain of lost relationships. I’d somehow imagined that everyone else from Vassar was living ideal, tragedy-free lives, but was reminded yet again that being human is painful for all of us.

To me, as an alcoholic, growth is a huge deal: trusting others with the truth of my inner experiences was, in my youth, a risk beyond my limits.  Trapped by self-conscious awkwardness and social fears, I needed alcohol to cut me loose.  For 14 years, daily drinking halted my emotional growth so thoroughly that by age 34, when I finally hit bottom, I was still literally going to keggers at which I tried to act cool.

For me, the difference between the selfishly miserable person I was for so long and the outgoing, happy person I am today comes down to one factor: god.

It’s my awareness of a god that loves me no matter what, the one I found in AA, that grants me the courage I need to reach out to others — courage that has emboldened me to live large and build a beautiful life.

An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was posted in the reunion schedule for Saturday afternoon, competing with four tempting lectures (on Vassar’s art, theater costumes, diversity tactics, and… Trump).  I skipped ’em.  I went to the meeting.  I’d set an alarm on my phone.  I left all my friends.  There was no question in my mind as I crossed campus to find it.

Sure, booze — free booze, mind you — was flowing everywhere, and friends unaware I’m sober were constantly offering to grab me drinks. But that’s not why I went.  Saying “no thanks” is as easy for me as turning down arsenic.  Rather, I went to the AA meeting because that’s where my god shows up.

The fancy parlor held five of us – two newcomers, two with 20-plus years, and an Al-Anon with two.  Hearing the shares of the newcomers — their feelings as if they were walking a balance beam of their commitment to life and integrity while their old tactics of escape clamored for them to hop down, and their amazement that they were actually doing it, miraculously passing up drinks — reminded me that I am still and will always be missing the crucial piece that god provides.  My wholeness is granted to me one day at a time by a power outside me.

Normie friends, for the most part, can’t understand this.  One chalked up my lengthy sobriety to “grit and determination.”  The fact is, I tried “grit and determination” about 1,753 times, and it never worked!  But god has.  That connection is all I jones for these days, and I know I can always find it at meetings, no matter where I roam.

 

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Meetings, Recovery, Sobriety

Healing on God’s Time

God is super weird.  Have I mentioned that?  Or maybe more significant to this post, god is always with us when we actively seek, always working toward our growth and healing.  Relief from addiction is only a beginning; there’s also freedom from our past.  Just as god’s biology miraculously heals our physical wounds (if we let them alone), so god will find avenues to heal our emotional wounds if we ask sincerely and give up self-wounding behavior.  Healing happens, not on our time, but on god’s — when we least expect it.

Some of you know that, back in 2012, I reunited with my alcoholic ex-boyfriend despite the knowledge he was actively drinking as well as traveling for work.  He never treated me well.  Then in 2015, I had reason to “borrow” his old cell phone, which revealed an ongoing second relationship with an alcoholic girl  from his work: eight weeks’ romancing in Santiago, Chile, for instance.  By the end, they were coordinating her visits to his home around mine.  I mailed the phone back with a sticky note: “Please do not contact me.”  End of 5 + 3 year relationship.

In the two intervening years, I’ve asked over and over, “God, why did I lay the groundwork for this?  Why did I block out all the signs?  And how can I not do this again in my next relationship?”  Naturally, I got no answers.  I don’t know what I expected — friggin’ cloud writing or something!  Anywho, a month ago I wanted healing badly enough that I wrote these words on a 3 x 5 card and put it next to my bed: Why did I lack the self-respect to face the truth and reject a man who was incapable of loving me? 

Every night before bed, I’d read the words and pray, please show me.

Well, last week in the middle of the night, the time came.  I’d gotten up for ibuprofen for my sciatica, switching on the bathroom light.  Blinded temporarily as I headed back to bed in the dark, I remembered the trick I always used at my ex-boyfriend’s house, closing one eye to retain sight so I wouldn’t awaken and anger him by stumbling.  Here’s when something weird happened.  I remembered so clearly that tip-toeing dread of disturbing him.  Everything about his home and those moments came back to me, along with my anxious need to please him.  I re-lived it.

In the morning, I marveled at both the vividness of this memory and the insanity of my people-pleasing behavior.  I read over some stuff from the Adult Children of Alcoholics Red Book, prayed, meditated.  Then something even weirder happened.  It was as if god said to me, “Little one, you’re ready.  Let’s look at the tiny splinter behind this lingering pain of yours.”

BOOM!!  Here came a second flashback, as immediate as life:  I’m four years old.  I’ve had a bad nightmare so I’ve braved the dark safari downstairs to my parents’ room.  Dad snores loudly and that strange smell fills the air.  I know I can’t go to Mom.  If I do, she’ll be furious.  So I need to wake Dad, even though it’s really hard to, and do it silently, so Mom won’t find out.

The intensity of this flashback was overwhelming.  I relived every shade of emotion from that scene as if it were happening.  I can’t even begin, as I write this, to summon the intense feelings that flooded me.  But right alongside them were  my recovery insights into what Louisa was learning about the world back then, and the obvious connection between the two flashbacks.

Sure, different children process the same experience differently.  Another kid might’ve shrugged, “Mom sure is grouchy!”  But I — for whatever reasons — soaked up Mom’s anger and concluded the problem was me.  She was furious, not because Dad’s pores were practically gassing the room with booze, not because she was deeply (and sexually, she told me when I was 13) frustrated with a codependent dilemma she could not solve, but because I was so bad.

To some extent, I think we’re all Sybil, meaning our psyches are sectioned into different personalities.  The difference between a “normal” person and one with multiple personality disorder is merely that, in a healthy mind, these personalities are integrated.  So this concept of an “inner child,” so important to ACA literature, makes sense.  What happened for me that morning is that, with god’s nudge, my inner child came to the fore.

It was she who answered my longstanding question.

me at four

She hurt.  She ached.  And she was still so afraid of being found unlovable!  I prayed and sobbed and held her in my heart for over an hour.  Even later that day, when I thought I’d got my shit together, a little four-year-old girl popped out of a shop in front of me and, hurrying after her mother, glanced up at me – and the tears started again.

Why did I lack the self-respect to face the truth and reject a man who was incapable of loving me?  Because I’m an adult child of alcoholics. Because living in that home where no one spoke candidly and the emotional climate shifted radically from morning to night and week to week, I developed a distorted sense that I must make people love me — or I’d be abandoned.

Adult children of alcoholics enact the emotional equivalent of dung beetle’s life, toting around with them a friggin’ laundry list of dysfunctional traits.  In fact, it’s called “The Laundry List” in ACA literature.  Among them are the tendency to fear authority figures, to seek approval by people-pleasing, to be frightened by angry people, to live as victims, to try to “rescue” sick people, and more — all of which match my relationship with my ex.

dung beetle at work

How do I not roll the ACA dungball into my next relationship?  By loving that child!  She’s retreated again.  I can’t find her.  The memories, when I recall them, bring little emotion.  But I know she’s back there, and she needs my love and protection.  We’ll never bargain for love again.

The world of spirit continues to amaze me.  Though god does not prevent pain or tragedies, it does help us heal from them — if we ask.  God is no Santa.  Rather, god is the love that powers life, and the truth no denial can change.

But, wow, can it show up with bells on!

 
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
― Thomas Merton

 

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Filed under Adult Children of Alcoholics, Codependency, Faith, God, prayer, Recovery, Sobriety

Change the World: Courage, Candor, Kindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disease We Forget We Have

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, God, living sober, Meetings, Recovery, Sobriety, Step 1

Forgiving Shame

Even though I’ve been sober many years, I find my codependent symptoms still crop up like Whack-a-Moles: I get over one and another shows up.  Shame is a particularly pesky mole with big front teeth that keeps popping up no matter how insightfully I whack it.

Brené Brown, a shame researcher, makes this key distinction:

GUILT – says what I did was bad

SHAME – says I, myself, am bad

When I got sober, I carried a lot of guilt – and rightly so!  I’d screwed over just about everyone unlucky enough to have let me into their life.  But over the next year or ten, I learned to stop engaging in harmful behaviors (at least, those I can perceive) and seek a life rooted in the values of honor and kindness.

So when I say I still experience times when shame seems imbued in my very cells, when the conviction flares that I’m secretly wrong, bad, even evil, I’m not crying out for help.  I’m trying to help us both.  Because if you, too, were raised by parents who somehow shamed you or are simply prone to self-criticism, then that same undertone of shame reverberates in your bones as well.

shameMost of the time, we ignore it like some kind of emotional tinnitus, so the feeling doesn’t register.  “What, me? shameful?  That’s absurd!”  But then life happens.  We screw up or feel exposed in some way and ~ BOOM!!  That accumulation of denied self-condemnation drops on us like a Monty Python 16-ton weight.  We’re flattened, aching from a wound that has far less to do with what just happened than scars buried deep in our soul.

For example, years ago I felt so free from shame that I wrote my addiction memoir, trusting that no matter how sick my thoughts and behaviors, even those readers who couldn’t identify would empathize.  When my relatives learned of it, the backlash was intense: they dropped dozens of 16-ton weights – all via email, texts, and online reviews, of course.  I found myself catapulted back deep into shame for who I was and what I believed, as well as for having had the blind audacity to write about it publicly.

vat-of-slimeEver since, I find that whenever some mishap shakes me up, those same shame feelings resurge – even when I’ve done nothing wrong!  I swear, I’d qualify for the Shame Olympics if there were such a thing.  It’s like some huge, soupy vat of shame is just waiting for me to lose my spiritual balance, spin a double pike and topple back in.

Chronic shame cripples our efforts to live authentically.  It hisses that we’re never to question others’ expectations, make waves, or stand out.  It’s the voice of fear, not god.  To be exactly who we’re created to be, to share our gifts unabashedly with the world – that’s what we’re here for.

Significant to sober alcoholics is the idea that getting buzzed will banish shame – along with guilt.  It certainly used to.  That’s why first few times I drank felt like flying.  I was every bit as good as you – hell, even better!  Because that oversized ego I’d stoked to make up for my abysmal self-worth was finally cut free of all those painful, heavy burdens to soar above the world.

Un/fortunately, the highs of addiction gradually diminish until our fix offers no lift at all.  My last drinks  left me as sodden with self-loathing and shame as ever.  Relapse, I know, would bring on not only shame but guilt at having shat on everything sacred to my higher self: integrity, honesty, courage, and faith.

Luckily, shame has several other nemeses.  It thrives on secrecy and silence; the deeper we bury it, the more power it gains. Like botulism, shame cannot survive exposure to open air.  When we talk about our triggers sincerely with trusted others, shame withers.  Meetings and sponsors let that happen.  Voicing our secrets takes courage, but when love lets us embrace our foibles (or even sickness) as merely human, a beautiful humility emerges to eclipse shame.

The audacity to be authentic is one of the tools Brené Brown calls for.  But having recently undergone yet another bout of shame (triggered by a naïve hope disappointed – with the vat waiting), I stumbled on another approach in the teachings of Pema Chödrön.

pema-comAbout 13 years ago, a sponsee/friend moving away gifted me a 6-cassette Chödrön lecture series entitled “Awakening Compassion” that I always meant to listen to – even after I ditched my cassette player.  A few months ago, forced to do boring PT exercises nightly before bed, I tossed Tape #1 into an old boom-box; I’ve been listening for about 15 minutes per night ever since.  Pema keeps speaking about “the raw stuff” of life being more important than our mental evaluations of it, and of “the open heart” being like a “sea anemone” that doesn’t retract when disturbed, but rather “softens” to life. Meanwhile, because I’m lying on my yoga mat, my dog Cosmo keeps coming up and dropping his drooly tennis ball on my stomach or maybe my hair, hoping I’ll chuck it across the room for him one more time.  I keep aspiring toward Pema’s lofty wisdom and enlightenment, and then – PLOP!!  Ew!!

The other night I realized – PLOP!!  Ew!! – that Cosmo’s drooly ball and my reaction to it are precisely what Pema means by “the raw stuff” of life. In Cosmo’s place, put any people or conditions that don’t suit me – including unwelcome emotions.  Woven through Pema’s words is encouragement to love this life with an open heart, not retracting into slanted stories and shoulds.

louisa-cosmo-mt-si-2016

Me & Cos on Mt. Si

Whether I snap at Cosmo or whack at shame (“I shouldn’t feel this!”), I am closing my heart to what is, to life.  I don’t have to toss the ball every time, but Cos is almost 12 and before long I’ll lose him.  By the same token, I don’t have to buy into the story shame tells, but I can accept my dance with that emotion over the years as part of my human experience, which is likewise finite and precious.  In other words, much as I’ve learned to accept and forgive shortcomings in other people, so I can begin to practice the same love and tolerance within myself.  Whacking is never our only option.

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Wait! The Traditions Don’t Suck!

For years I was instantly bored by AA’s 12 Traditions. Read at the outset of most meetings right after the 12 Steps, they tended to have a soporific effect, the words droning past by like train cars as I waited to cross tracks to the actual meeting.

Lately, though, I’ve been listening to them and thinking about how their guidance applies to life. Certainly not a new idea – countless people have advised such – but it’s new to me.  I’m always on the lookout for guidance!

aa-coins

You can look up the traditions in normal and “long form” at the back of your Big Book.  I ain’t gonna list them here because they’d hog up too much of my word count, so I’d have less room to cuss.  😉   Instead, here’s just the gist of what I hear in each.

1. Together we live; alone we die.  I need to stay connected to AA, to join in the unity that sustains “our common welfare.”  Whenever I choose to isolate, deciding my problems are unique or that I don’t need to show up at meetings, I’m dying just a little bit – spiritually if not physically.

2. God’s Guidance is the Shit.  I need to seek god in all things always, to navigate by this North Star of goodness to the best of my ability in all my thoughts and actions.  And when I talk matters over with others who earnestly seek god/good, I should listen for god’s guidance reflected in their words – often unintentionally.

3. Welcome Others as They Are.  That AA’s only requirement for membership is a “desire to stop drinking” is HUGE!  There’s so much more to this tradition than meets the eye! It points to a way of life. For example, in 1960s South Africa, sober alcoholics flouted apartheid laws by holding multi-racial AA meetings and dances; in order to avoid arrest at the latter, Black members disguised themselves as wait staff.  Imagine the secret solidarity of those groups!  AA embraces everyone who desires recovery, regardless of “money or conformity” or how many times they’ve relapsed.  In a similar spirit, I need to recognize and honor the human kinship of every person I encounter.diverse-hands

4. To Thine Own Self Be True.  A spiritually awakened way of life will look different on every individual, so we can live and meet in a wide diversity of styles – provided we’re conscientious about the effects of our actions. In AA meetings we can each think for ourselves, conceive of god as we choose, and talk about sobriety in our own damn vernacular.

5 & 6. Remember Why We’re Here.  Like an AA group, our lives have a primary purpose: “to be of maximum service to God and the people about us” (p. 77).  Helping one another, spreading love and kindness – that’s the frickin’ purpose of life, guys.  Time and time again, I hear from my Near Death Experience (NDE) friends who’ve died and witnessed a life review that they were shown countless instances where they impacted others with kindness or cruelty.  Effects from each act – kind or cruel – rippled outward from person to person into the world.  Accomplishments we consider major did not matter, except in their impact on others’ feelings.  Kindness mattered.  We can’t let a focus on “money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose” of bringing about maximal good.

unconditional-self-love7. Love Ourselves.  How do I get from “fully self-supporting” to self-love?  Because the founders recognized that if AA failed to support itself from within, then favor toward, obligation to, and dependence on those providing the handouts would fuck up everything.  Bill W. initially tried to hit up John D. Rockefeller for money, but Rockefeller, miraculously enough, recognized the risk and refused.  Sure, financial solvency is a fine goal for all adults.  But what really “funds” my day-to-day experience is my emotional well-being.  If I place myself in a position where I’m dependent on others to provide that, I lose all integrity.

I must learn to love and support myself.  I’m progressing toward this goal little by little, slowly and painfully.  (To be honest, I’ve tried to blog on self-love several times and realized I’m just not there yet.)

8 & 9. Be Neither a Role nor Rule Book.  The fact that AA no-bosshas survived over 80 years despite being neither professional nor organized is something many outsiders can’t grasp. We charge nothing, and nobody is in charge.  Rather, our cohesion results from lived experience of our shared plight and solution.  Extending these principles into our lives means that we not identify with the roles or labels we tend to pin on ourselves, that we lighten up and take ourselves less seriously.  Eckhart Tolle writes about the diminished experience we suffer when we identify with a role, class, or even personality.  Living truly awake means seeking to be maximally open to experience right now, not hemmed in by limiting self-definitions.

10. Eschew Conflict When Possible.  Regarding controversial issues, this tradition states that we “oppose no one.”  I do need to know what’s right for me and be faithful to it with boundaries, but I don’t go imposing my will on others.  (Given the current US political climate, though, I think we should extend our personal boundaries to consider the character of our country and who we are collectively – and stand up to those inflicting harm in our name.)

11. Live our Program. This tradition translates pretty directly.  As AA doesn’t self-promote, neither should we.  Rather, we walk our talk.  We work the steps, seek growth and healing through god, and let the results speak for themselves.  I know several people dying of alcoholism.  To each I have mentioned that I’m sober in AA – end of story.  They can seek me out if they want what I have.

12. Stay Humble and Grateful.  Here I do quote the long form: “–And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of anonymity has immense spiritual significance.  It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are to actually practice a genuine humility.  This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of [god].”  Can’t improve on that!

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Vulnerability

The other day I got a call from a woman I don’t know asking about something she’d heard me say in an AA meeting.  She’d tracked me down because she was curious.

“You said the closer you get to God, the more you’re able to love people – you said because you don’t need shit from them.  I’ve been wanting and wanting for years to get closer to that – not wanting or needing people’s approval – but I don’t seem to get anywhere.  How do you do it?”

I offered to meet her for coffee next week. But what the fuck will I say to her?  How can I even hope to frame in one sitting what’s taken me 22 years to learn?  I can’t.  But that’s okay.  Because the truth is, in taking the risk to reach out to me, she’d begun to answer her own question.

Vulnerability is Scary
Neurologically, most of our responses to life involve an almond-sized part of the brain known as the amygdala, the center of fight, flight, or freeze, which scans our sensory data constantly for signs of danger.

Costa Rican girls

Unsafe but unworried Costa Rican kids

In the US, our culture prioritizes shielding ourselves from such danger.  Airbags, seatbelts, baby car seats, and helmets – they’re all mandated by law.  By contrast, when I traveled to Costa Rica, the safety policy appeared to be, “Let’s hope bad shit doesn’t happen.” I saw a couple motorcycling down a pot-holed road with no helmets – not for them or the 1-year-old between them, whom the woman could brace with only one hand because her other dangled groceries near the rear axle.  Another guy ahead of our car perched on the back of his friend’s motorcycle carrying a full-size bicycle across his back – no hands!  Now, I’m sure some bad shit does happen, but among the Costa Ricans I sensed a freedom and happiness – a trust in life and themselves – that Americans can’t even dream of.

If we’re knocking ourselves out to evade physical dangers, it only makes sense that we transfer the same approach to emotional ones.  Research has proven that our brains experience emotional and physical pain as virtually identical: the same regions light up when someone turns us a cold shoulder as would if they snapped a mousetrap on our finger.  Rejections hurts.

That’s why we drank!  Then we didn’t have to give a shit who disliked or rejected us, or if we did, it was all delicious maudlin drama.  Yet the day comes when alcohol can no longer anesthetize us, and at the same time the wreckage of our past overwhelms us.  When that happens, we hit bottom.

It’s a pain that cracks us open so deeply, god can touch our hearts.  We admit we don’t know how to live, and we ask for help from god and sober alcoholics.  If we work a program, we learn that ego, unchecked, is the source of our troubles.  Through inventory we name the character defects that ego animates in us and start mustering the willingness to part with them.

So who, then, is this new person?  This human divested of their emotional shield, inflated ego, assorted coping mechanisms – in short of their boozing imperviousness?

It’s a person suddenly exposed and vulnerable as hell.

Now, we can be hurt.  We experience pain deeply, sometimes a backlog built up over a lifetime.  If we’re lucky, we have a sponsor who advises us to bring that pain to god.  But sometimes, our amygdalas decide god’s just not concrete enough.  fire-suitWe need safety precautions, emotional helmets and hazmat suits!  So we reduce our vulnerability by learning to edit and hide our true selves.  We develop strategies like people pleasing: whatever we think will smooth our path, whatever others want or would approve, we try to appear.  The goal is to be accepted.  We need it because we so intensely fear rejection’s pain.

The problem is, if we don’t put ourselves out there, exposing our weaknesses and imperfections and hoping to be loved despite them, we also won’t live. We’ll miss the chance to know intimacy, trust, and the warmth of loving other people simply for their humanness.  In short, safe inside our hazmat suits, we’ll miss the richest beauties of life on earth.

So I Guess What I’ll Say to that woman is that since I’ve been sober, life has absolutely beaten the crap out of me, over and over.  Partners have plopped my heart in food processors set on Betrayal – not just once but twice.  My siblings ridiculed and shamed my book – even as I fought cancer.  Besides losing a sister and father, I’ve lost half a dozen dear friends to overdose, accident, and suicide.

Pain.  Pain.  Pain.

But here’s the thing.  Every time, god has been there.  Every time, god has loved me through it.  And the gift from staying sober long enough has been that I begin to fear pain less.  It won’t kill me.  It is, after all, “the touchstone of all spiritual progress” – that which affirms the real deal:  I will love again.  I’ll show up for my siblings.  Cancer won’t haunt me.  And I will never forget my loved ones.

cristins-cookiesI find I have begun to live emotionally in the same spirit the Costa Ricans live physically – with less caution and more freedom.  I can begin to risk pain knowingly.  Today I choose to be vulnerable, extending kindness or heartfelt gifts to those who may reject them, because I don’t need their acceptance.  Sure, I’d like it!  Sure, I hope bad shit doesn’t happen.  But what’s the worst case scenario?  Those “ouch” parts of my brain will light up again, and I’ll cry my guts out again.  And when I turn to god in all my pain and grief, god will say to me again, “Louisa, you are enough, just as you are – I love you in the beauty of your trying.”

Freedom is the difference between hoping for and thinking we need reciprocation.  I am all I have to offer.  This life’s the only time I can do it.  God, I know, has my back.

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PS: Happy birthday to me, guys!  Thanks for 22 years on the 29th!  🙂

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Filed under AA, Addiction, Alcoholism, Codependence, Faith, God, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality