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: Sobriety
A few years ago, my friend Rob, a “purebred” alcoholic sober nearly a decade, injured his elbow and was prescribed Vicodin. In mere weeks he became addicted to opioids and, after a few years, died. Another friend, an engineer with decades of sobriety, likewise hurt his elbow. He, too, was prescribed pain medicine, left his life to chase street drugs for months, but by the grace of god did not die.
What we as alcoholic addicts can never forget is that our brains have a haywire switch. No matter how certain our rational minds are about “not liking pills” or “using only as prescribed,” our addict remains crouched in the back of our minds saying, “Right! You’ve got this!” until the moment it clinches control and says, “Ha! I’ve got YOU, bitch, and we’re on a run!” I can’t emphasize enough the degree of respect for this demon every alcoholic addict needs.
Last Thursday, a surgeon sliced open my hip crease, popped the ball outta the socket, sawed off the end of that femur, and commenced building me a new hip. That’s a graphic way of saying I underwent an anterior hip replacement. When I came to, I felt wonderful! In fact, I had a moment of intense spiritual clarity — see below — before things got cloudy.
I have no partner, my son’s away at college, my mom is hella old, siblings either distant or dealing with their own ailments. My main “family” is AA, but I have other circles as well. My friend Keira came to get me 30 minutes after surgery. She’s a chemo nurse, at home in medical settings. When the nurse discharging me noted that, per my request, I’d be prescribed only Tramadol — not Oxycodone — Keira interrupted. To me she said, “Dude, they just sawed through your femur. Get the Oxy. If you don’t need it, you don’t have to take it.”
An hour later in the Safeway the parking lot, my entire thigh was !!!SCREAMING!!! as if someone had … well, just sawed through it. Keira was inside trying to get me the Oxy before the pharmacy took a lunch break. I was doing controlled breathing, shaking like mad, pressing down the panic that wanted to explode as my pain flared higher and higher.
At last Keira opened the driver’s side door. She had the Oxy. Thank god. About 10 minutes later, I could speak again in a normal voice. The pain was managed.
That’s what such drugs are for.
Over the 27 years I’ve been sober, I’ve gotten super comfortable with full-on reality. What used to seem an onslaught of jarring, demanding impressions is now just the flow of what’s happening. I knew this before my surgery. What I didn’t know until the following day was that the converse has also become true: I’m now super UN-comfortable with being fucked up.
Isn’t that crazy? What would Pink Floyd, who wrote “Comfortably Numb,” think of that? Could 34-year-old Louisa, who in 1995 lived for her daily booze and drugs, have even imagined such a mindset?
I was staying with Keira’s family for three nights. On Day 2, Friday, she invited our friend Sarah over for a card table dinner in the room next to mine. I was excited! Both these friends live an hour away from me, so I don’t get to see either as much as I’d like, let alone both together. We three are the Bikini Bitches. We climb glacial mountains and take silly Bikini Bitch photos at the summits, clean, sober, & livin’ large. That’s us.
I wanted to be fully PRESENT for this little reunion, but I also needed to sit at the table, so I took a Tramadol instead of Oxycodone. That shit may be one-sixth as strong as Oxy, but it messed me up, hit me like a wave of blur! Sarah showed up and we all sat down together, but my mind was goofing around on some mayonnaise slip n’ slide. I remember looking at my friends and thinking, I want to BE here! Again and again I struggled to focus, but I couldn’t think of words or keep track of most ideas long enough to speak them.
Every now and then, they’d look at each other. I remember Keira saying with an accepting shrug, “She’s fucked up.”
I wanted OUT of my fucked-upness as badly as I used to want OUT of full-on, clear consciousness. My friends were there, and I was MISSING it! But I could do nothing to get my sharpness back. I was half-drowned in stupidity.
On Day 3, my son surprised me by driving 6 hours across the state, using my shared location to find Keira’s house, and then phoning to say, “Mom, can you look out the window?” Such a sweet boy! Sunday, after he’d driven me home, he set up our house so I could live downstairs alone.
He also hid all my meds.
Yup. The Oxy he divvied into stashes — 2 pills, 6 pills, and the rest of the bottle — then found hiding places for them and the Tramadol. I had my ibuprofen and Tylenol. If I needed something stronger, I could call him. My son understands. He grew up around sober friends we’ve since lost to addiction, prescribed or otherwise. He mourns them, and he loves me.
As it turned out, I did need to call him. My stomach rejected the ibuprofen AGAIN and, after I caught my crutch on a gate while letting my chickens out, I stumbled and re-injured my leg, which brought on a 99.5 º fever and heightened pain. “Look in the drone box on my desk,” he told me. And there were two Oxy, right under my nose! For two nights, they controlled the pain enough to let me sleep, but I think I’m done now. I don’t need to ask for more.
What protects me from hunting for those meds is not my will. Addiction’s kryptonite is connection: love, community, and gratitude. An AA friend is coming over today to move my stuff back upstairs. Another will come tomorrow to spot me while I take a (much-needed!!) shower. Neighbors have mastered my chicken routines, gifted me a thermometer, and picked up my new anti-inflammatory meds. My dogs have gone for walks every day — 6 days in a row — with different people. Today they have a play date with the dogs of a former student of mine from 15 years back.
Here is the image I was shown when I first came out of the anesthetic, before my brain came back online to block spiritual knowing. First, I had to remember what I was doing: I recalled, “Oh, yeah, I’m doing that Louisa business!” Then, on the strip of wall in front of me above a window to the nurses’ station, I saw my life as Louisa. It was a circle at the center of a ring of smaller circles, connected by radiating lines that I understood went two ways. These were all the lives mine touches, all the people connected to me whether remotely or in person. Lean into this, my angel told me. There was more, but I’ll save that for another post.
I thought, “Wow! That wall is so awesome! I’ve got to tell the staff to put some pictures up there for people who maybe don’t have visions!” Then everything went cloudy, and I don’t remember much.
I’m on a mission here in this Louisa suit to share love and kindness. So are you. But the flipside is, we can give others a chance to do the same.
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
Short answer? Terrifying. Terrifying because to live without drinking was unimaginable — like a layer of my identity being ripped from me. I had reached the point where I could not imagine life either with or without alcohol.
Today, at 27 years sober, those days seems distant not just chronologically but because my reality is completely transformed. The only experience I can compare with getting sober is having kids: imagining how it might be to have kids is a world away from actually becoming a parent, supporting the lives of your children in countless ways and loving them more powerfully than you ever dreamed possible.
The same was true for me, but the child in question was my authentic self. There’s an apt truism that goes like this: You don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, we think what we know must be all there is to know about sobriety because we’re ignorant that a whole different realm exists.
I was sure I knew who I was. I was sure I knew the role booze played in my life. And I assumed I could guess what a life without booze would look like.
Wrong on all three counts!
Amputating a Limb
To guess at what life would be like without booze, it seemed reasonable to work this equation:
What would it be like, I wondered, to hang out in bars and NOT drink? Would I still play pool and darts, and, of course, smoke? How would I sit around on my stoner friends’ couches and NOT get stoned? What would be the point of hitting up a party if not to get drunk?
And what about life at home? How would I watch movies without booze? Cook or work in the yard? How would I ever relax and chill out?
Subtracting alcohol, I believed, would leave a gaping hole in my life. This void seemed inevitable because I’d lost track of both who I was and what life was about. The goal, I’d come to believe, was always to FEEL BETTER. I knew only two ways to do that: 1) booze and cocaine and 2) esteem from crushes and “cool” people.
Happiness through a heart connection with the inherent goodness of the universe wasn’t even on the table.
Here are some journal entries from my first year:
1 day sober: “I went to an AA meeting tonight. Was so uncomfortable and out of place and felt I will never, never stop drinking, so why even want to? I know drinking so intimately. I know me with a glass of wine or a beer better than anyone else in this world. I love to drink. I love it like freedom and happiness. I want never to stop.”
65 days sober: “I really do think AA has saved my life. I couldn’t have done it — stopped the drinking, the downward spiral — alone. I wanted to let myself go, let it end. That’s why crashing my car seemed the best way… But now I live in fear. I fear every coming minute, every hour of consciousness that I have to get through on my own — just me and the world. But the good side is, I know I CAN get through it if I just hold on and keep going. And that is courage. I am rough-riding the world, life, being me. And every moment I do is a triumph.”
222 days sober: “I’m seven months sober. I am very messed up. Even writing doesn’t seem to do any good, because I am so TIRED of being messed up. There’s never a break. Today it got to be too much for me. Sitting in a women’s meeting, this woman told her story, very low bottom. And while I was moved during it, afterwards my disease started creeping up from the back of my mind, my old love affair with drinking, missing it and the sense of REBELLION and SECLUSION and FALSE SELF-SUFFICIENCY I got from drinking. I missed feeling okay when I was drunk. I started feeling it was too much to say I’d never drink again.
“So I started planning my relapse, peeking at how I could, how the bail money was right there. Just drink. Drink like before. I do know I couldn’t control it for long. I drink to get drunk, not for one drink. There’s always further to go and I always want it.”
Notice that in the first quote, I have no faith whatsoever. Drinking is still my whole world. In the second, I’m courageously pioneering unknown territory. In the third, I finally recognize that I’m up against a disease that tells me I don’t have a disease, one that lies to me about how to fix everything. I know it’s lying, but I’m still extremely uncomfortable.
Time Takes Time
This is another simple truism from the program. Newly sober people pass through another childhood. When we take away the layers of self-stupefying to “take the edge off” and self-delusion that we can somehow feel what others think of us, we have to learn to live all over again.
Inwardly, we have to learn how to be okay with consciousness, how to feel difficult feelings like awkwardness, tension, boredom, guilt, discontent, uncertainty, jealousy, and so on. We learn that A) they won’t kill us, and B) that instead of numbing them away, we find the courage to change the things we can so we’re able to grow and cope. Each difficult feeling can serve as a spur for growth.
On the other hand, we also get to taste genuine aliveness, a full awareness of Earth’s beauties, tenderness toward people we love, and satisfaction from accomplishments both humble and huge. When we experience our first glow of true joy — not hyped up giddiness — or our first sense that maybe we DO belong, these experiences can be mind-blowing. Peace can be mind-blowing.
As we nurture a connection with our higher power, we begin to perceive it not as some deity overseeing the world but as an energy infusing everything, the force of goodness generating all that lives and evolves — not just biologically but (let’s hope) ethically. Through working the 12 steps, we learn that we can align ourselves with that divine unfolding to gain a strong sense of dignity and purpose.
All of these new feelings and awarenesses grew in me at their own pace, as they do for everyone new in recovery. Gradually a secure inward peace replaces early sobriety’s raw vulnerability. Our new job is now only to become the fullest possible expression of ourselves. Ours is the work of thriving.
Reposting from 2015:
What is FOMO? Fear Of Missing Out.
It’s that sinking feeling that someplace you’re not, lots of amazingly cool people are having an absolutely stupendous time. Maybe there’s kickass music and people are lookin’ sharp n’sexy and having a fuckin’ blast and – oh my GAWD!!! Can you believe what those two did?! That is so hilariously outrageous! It’s not just goin’ a
ll over Facebook –it’s like a “fun times” montage out of a Hollywood flick! If you could be there mixin’ it up you’d feel – oh my god – so damn good! You’d be dialed into life, you’d be carpé-ing the fuckin’ diem all night long! But you’re missing it!
As Katie Perry sings:
Last Friday night
Yeah we danced on tabletops
And we took too many shots
Think we kissed but I forgot
Yeah we maxed our credit cards
And got kicked out of the bar
So we hit the boulevard
We went streaking in the park
Skinny dipping in the dark
Then had a ménage a trois
Yeah I think we broke the law
Always say we’re gonna stop-op
Here’s what the song leaves out: live those lyrics and you end up with a busted ankle from falling off the damn tabletop, years of credit card debt, and maybe even salmonella because you skinny dipped in a fucking duck pond. You’re lucky if you don’t end up in jail with charges on your record or an STD from the ménage a trois with morons. Of course, it goes without saying that you’ve poisoned yourself again ‘til you’re heaving up bile.
No, Katie doesn’t really mention that part. Neither does your FOMO. It airbrushes away all those pesky consequences and lures us with the promise of a bright and shiny “great time.”
It’s Also Called Immaturity
For normies, FOMO spikes in youth when they’re highly peer-oriented, but as they mature into adulthood, FOMO diminishes to a rare blip on the screen. The trouble for alcoholics is, once again, our perspective is skewed.
Our disease carries many tricks in its bag. Though normies don’t understand, we often speak of it as having a mind of its own, exploiting whatever ploys avail themselves to keep us using or, in recovery, to trigger relapse. A lot of alcoholics crave adventure – a sense of living on the edge. So addiction broadcasts FOMO to persuade us that swallowing a neurotoxin is really the key to livin’ large.
Much like the craving for alcohol, alcoholic FOMO can never be satiated.
For example, New Year’s Eve of 1982, after snorting coke in the car and paying some absurdly high cover charge, my future (ex) husband and I sauntered into a hip and glitzy Boston nightclub. We scored a table near the dance floor, ordered champagne, and lit up our smokes. We danced. But at as the countdown for midnight approached I was struck by the realization I still recall so clearly: We were at the wrong club! The one down the street was way cooler! No one here was even worth impressing because they, too, had fallen for the wrong club! If only I’d known! If only we’d gone there! I was missing out!!
This pattern would repeat itself for over a decade. I never did find the right club or party or even picnic, because if I was there, a better one had to be someplace else.
Recovery = Reality
FOMO is really just another guise of codependence. It’s not actually a yearning for fun; it’s a belief that we can gain something that will deliver a shot of wellbeing by being seen in the right places doing the right things. At some level, we believe others hold the power to validate us, though we’re actually validating ourselves through projections of those people’s imagined esteem. The esteem has to seem to come from them to be any good – we can’t feel it simply by knowing and valuing ourselves.
More and more I’m convinced most alcoholics are also codependent. The source of pain for all codependents is an external locus of self-worth – often because we grew up in dysfunctional families where we did not get what we needed to develop a strong sense that we are loveable and worthy. We keep chasing and chasing it in others and never getting any closer.
While non-alcoholic (classic) codependents try to subdue their pain by concerning themselves with what others should do and ‘winning’ love by caretaking, alcoholic codependents subdue it not only with alcohol, but with attempts or impress and win
over others, often becoming social chameleons and regarding friends as something like collectible baseball cards. Active alcoholics can’t really love our friends. We can only seek relief via people – and “love” that relief.
When we get sober, we begin to seek a higher power that can grant us the worth we’ve so desperately sought in all the wrong places. With guidance from sponsors and a growing sense of Good Orderly Direction, we can begin to live a life of integrity that lets us discover our worth as loving and lovable human beings.
But FOMO still nags at us to forget all that. It can wheedle into our minds at any time, but New Year’s Eve is its favorite holiday – especially for the newly sober.
The Big Book’s authors knew all about FOMO. While they do instruct us “not to avoid a place where there is drinking if we have a legitimate reason for being there” (p. 101), they also caution against attempting to “steal a little vicarious pleasure from the atmosphere of such places.” They warn us to “be sure you are on solid spiritual ground before you start and that your motive in going is thoroughly good.” Not just good – thoroughly good. In other words, don’t bullshit yourself.
In my almost 21 years sober, I’ve never found a thoroughly good reason to go hang with drinkers at a New Year’s Eve party. I prefer to usher in the new year with a good night’s sleep and a cushy set of earplugs. Sobriety fills my life to the brim, and I know it.
* Katie Perry Lyrics – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdyfr4lU8sk
See also 6 Tips for Holiday Parties
Recently I learned to my surprise that one of my friends has never told her daughter, who is twelve, that she, my friend, was once a drug addict.
“I mean, she knows I drank; she knows I smoked pot. But I can’t tell her, ‘Yeah, Mom used to smoke crack.’ What if she looks at me now and thinks, ‘You came out fine! Why don’t I try it?'”
My friend also fears that word might get back to people who could somehow use her past against her.
I’m not objecting to my friend’s stance. She’s certainly not alone as a parent hoping to model wise choices and a professional preferring a consistently successful image. But our conversation got me thinking about how I raised my son in the opposite way and the gradual transformation that has led to my publishing all my formerly shameful experiences in my addiction memoir and this blog.
In early sobriety, I, too, was highly secretive.
When I first called the AA hotline, I asked for a meeting “far from town” where no one would recognize me. Alcoholics are like that: I was pretty okay with suicide, but certainly not with social awkwardness! Then, when I first returned to teaching literature at a local college, among my students was a barista coworker who’d seen me shitfaced and flinging myself at him on multiple occasions because I’d been obsessed with him for over a year. More than anything I feared he’d tell the other students and destroy my reputation, but he soon dropped the class.
Six years later when my son was born, I still kept my recovery confidential. Though I was gay at the time (sorry – can’t explain) and quite out about that, I feared other moms at toddler co-op and what not might double-label me as that weird lesbian AA mom, so I never let any of them know me. Besides, feeling constantly exhausted by new parenthood, I’d all but stopped going to meetings.
Then everything changed. My partner, after months of infidelity, left me for an older (richer) woman in AA. My world collapsed. With my program all but gone, I hit a new extreme of pain. What hurt most was losing my dream of our happy little family, a loss that seemed to make a cruel joke of all my love, faith, and sacrifices. I just couldn’t drag myself back to the rooms to share that. Fortunately, one key friend persisted in calling and offering to take me to a meeting “with lots of hot lesbians.” As I’ve told him since, he saved my life.
That’s how my little 4-year-old son learned all about my past addictions. With my emotions such a tangled roadkill, I needed an AA meeting every day — and while a few offered childcare, most did not. At those meetings, he would sit on the floor by my chair, a sweet-tempered boy, and play a little with the toys I brought, though his favorite was the AA literature pamphlets. If I needed to share particularly strong emotions, I’d ask a friend to hang out with him in the church kitchen. But he still heard a lot as the years passed.
My son is now 20. He’s tried alcohol and pot, but he dismisses as idiotic any effort to seek relief or oblivion through them. Why? Well, they’re what Mom and all her friends did trying to feel cool! He’s known since he was about 12 how I once accidentally killed myself snorting what I thought was cocaine. He understands, as some of our friends have died from relapse, that addiction is beyond conscious control.
With my son knowing all, I soon found I could be more useful to my college students if they knew not only that I used to be gay but that I was in addiction recovery. Many came to office hours with problems they tearfully unfolded, trusting me to understand. I also served, I’ve learned decades later, as a role model for authenticity – sharing who I was with a powerful, open-hearted vulnerability that inspired many of them to do likewise.
So why not go one step further? If I could help my students by being out, why not help other alcoholic addicts I’d never meet by writing my whole story, even the parts hardest to admit? What would happen if I simply embraced beyond all personal embarrassment the fact that I am human, and therefore whatever weird, warped stuff I once did was simply what a HUMAN afflicted with my emotional problems and addiction would do?
So I went ahead with it. I wrote everything.
Some might consider full disclosure a form of exhibitionism: I often think of the One Republic Song “Secrets,” which deals, I believe, with the quandary of songwriters divulging through lyrics their personal struggles.
I need another story
Something to get off my chest
My life gets kinda boring
Need something that I can confess
‘Til all my sleeves are stained red
From all the truth that I’ve said
Come by it honestly I swear…
Tell me what you want to hear
Something that will light those ears
I’m sick of all the insincere…
Don’t need another perfect lie
Don’t care if critics ever jump in line
I’m gonna give all my secrets away…
I love these lyrics because they so perfectly frame the two sides of publicly sharing one’s intimate past. On the one hand, there’s the attention-seeking caricature: Did I “confess” my story just to show off how wild and crazy I once was? That’s the narcissistic motivation my family assumed and tried to punish. On the other hand, there’s the freedom of simply telling my truth: Can I reject the “insincere… perfect lie” we’re supposed to maintain and share my mistakes as honestly as possible, regardless of whether “critics” like my family understand?
AA itself is built on this oxymoron of confiding anonymously, of being open in a closeted setting. The program needs anonymity not only because every newcomer feels at first the way I did but also to preclude the rise of AA demagogues. Nevertheless, sharing our messiness openly and unsparingly is our lifeblood. The Big Book tells us “that it is only by fully disclosing ourselves and our problems” that we can connect with fellow alcoholics. The 9th step promises that “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it” as “we will see how our experience can benefit others.” And The Family Afterward reminds us, “in God’s hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have — the key to life and happiness for others.”
Each of us should make their own choices about how “out” to be with our recovery, but it can’t hurt to examine our motivation. In my case, it was primarily my ego that wanted to keep the incomprehensible demoralization of my past private, and now my god-centered self that recognizes it as my greatest gift to share with those who still suffer. The longer I’m sober, the more natural it seems to simply say, “Here’s who I was, and here’s who I am. God and AA made all the difference.”
Now and then a serious drinker, being dry at the moment says, “I don’t miss it at all. Feel better. Work better. Having a better time.” As ex-problem drinkers, we smile at such a sally. We know our friend … would give anything to take half a dozen drinks and get away with them. He will presently try the old game again, for he isn’t happy about his sobriety. He cannot picture life without alcohol. Some day he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end.
— Chapter 11, Alcoholics Anonymous
I hit bottom on 01/29/95. On that day, I could no longer imagine life either with or without alcohol, and I truly wished for the end. The August prior, I’d quit alcohol for 30 days just to show I didn’t have a problem. I was staying in a friend’s vacant apartment because my partner had banished me from our home, having read my journal and discovered some of the sickness I’d been concealing. But oh, well.
I hung a calendar on my friend’s kitchen wall and drew a big X through each day I passed without a drink. I felt healthier, had more energy, was cheery at work. But LOVE not drinking? What are, you, nuts? I could hardly wait for the month to be over so I could drink again, because any life without drinking struck me as beyond dull — it would, I knew, be brash, relentless, barren, and joyless. Alcohol, I felt, was the oil in the engine of my life.
So on September 1st — cheers! — I was back at it. But by 01/29/95, much had changed. A thick, murky self-disgust filled my consciousness; I saw no hope of ever enjoying life; and alcohol, almost inconceivably, no longer helped. There’s an explanation for what was going on at the brain level, but all I knew was that, no matter how much I drank, I felt no levity. The world had gone devoid of all color and charm; other people seemed self-sufficient judging machines. I just couldn’t deal anymore.
My idea of a fine suicide was guzzling a gallon of vodka — a scheme I knew my stomach would allow. But FIRST, because I couldn’t do it after, I dialed the number a sober friend had scrawled for me on a scrap of paper, and that night I went to my first AA meeting. I no longer gave a shit whether life was brash, relentless, barren, and joyless. All I knew was that nothing I’d tried could render it tolerable, and several people had claimed AA would.
If you’d told me then that in 25 years, sobriety would comprise the gem of my life, that I’d love my AA homegroup as my dear, motley family, and that pretty much all my friends would be in AA or NA, I’d have said, “You must be talking about somebody else.” And you would have been, because the psychic change that comes with thoroughly working the steps through several iterations over the years has transformed who I am.
To realize that we hold a limited perspective, I think, goes against the basic nature of human consciousness. Our brains tell us that the world is what it is and that we’re perceiving it accurately. If there’s a problem, it must be with the world, not how we process or think about the world.
Even at that “let’s kill ourselves ’cause it’s a good idea” rock bottom, my perspective felt both certain and precious to me. My pride was rooted in it. My attitudes and values had built up over my 34-year lifetime, crafted through countless efforts to deal with the tricks and pains of living. I truly believed they were me. To say they were distorted was to steal all I’d worked for. And to say that in some outdated white-guy book and in church basements full of strangers, a better perspective could be attained — well, that was just plain shallow.
NO ONE likes to think that other people have answers we lack. If millions of sober people tell us they struggled with the god thing but it eventually became the foundation of their happiness, we feel we’re different, put up a wall, and say, “They must be simpletons.”
My first months without alcohol did indeed prove brash and relentless — a place where many stay stuck. Yet for me, they proved not altogether barren and joyless because I’d begun the long process of growth. Through incremental acknowledgement, over and over, I began to see that my ways kept leading me toward depression and emptiness, whereas each time I tried a little more of their way, life got better. Two years in, I worked the steps whole hog.
Rather than being brainwashed, I found I became more me — little Louisa was still in there, and she was cute and creative and love-filled, and all the things she’d been before she lost the key to life: loving from the source of god and sharing goodwill with others. Children do this without needing a reason. Yet at some point I’d changed to one who wants from others, and it nearly killed me.
I understand now that one drink will inevitably lead me to thousands, and that whenever I’m drinking, I’m cut off from god like a plant inside a box. To drink, for me, is to wither spiritually, even if my outsides are puffed up with false revelry.
Willingness is the key. For me, that meant relinquishing my grip on being right, knowing best, and being a smarty-pants in general, because otherwise, I stayed locked in my old perspective. And the relinquishing never ends.
Today, when I say I love my sobriety, what I’m really saying is that I love this life — its fleeting beauties, its inevitable struggles, its poignant fragility. Sobriety is the honesty that lets me behold it.
Who’s qualified to write Cliff Notes on the Big Book?
Absolutely nobody. Certainly not me.
But here’s the thing. When I was brand new to AA, I dismissed the Big Book as a dated, sophomoric, somewhat embarrassing artifact of some well-meaning old white guys from the ’30s. Certainly I never imagined that, with the help of an informed sponsor, this book would come alive to 1) save my life and 2) transform my entire experience of the world.
My sponsor and I would read the book together each time we met, taking turns. She’d ask me certain questions, tell me what to highlight, and suggest annotations. Unfortunately, not everybody gets access to a sponsor who’s worked with such a sponsor, passing down a lens, so here goes my take for this chapter.
The Big Book in general is divinely inspired. It’s the brainchild, not of Bill W., but of the first 100 sober alcoholics, who haggled and argued and revised over and over until they arrived at a manuscript they could all live with. In that lengthy dialectic of passionate feelings and hard-won compromises, spiritual truths somehow saturated this pioneering text — one that articulates a way of life for millions and yet means precisely the same thing to no two.
There is a Solution. Bill W. doubtless had in mind a fancier title, but I can just hear Dr. Bob and others insisting, “Let’s keep it simple!”
Today, in an era when detox centers and (money-grubbing) treatment programs abound, we may have a hard time imagining a world with NO SOLUTION ANYWHERE. If you developed an alcoholic/ addictive mind, you were pretty much screwed — on your way to jails, institutions, or death — or, best case scenario, life as a a confused, resentful, self-censuring drunk.
The first paragraphs emphasize universality amid diversity for “thousands” who were “once as hopeless as Bill.” Rescued from the same demise, sober alcoholics can all, “from the steerage to the Captain’s table,” i.e. from the poorest (cargo passengers) to the richest (fat cats who sit with the captain), rejoice over the solution that unites us. In this sense, AA was way ahead of its time; class delineations were far stronger in the U.S. in the 30s.
Next, the authors drop another big bomb that seems common knowledge today: that alcoholism is not just a destructive habit, but an illness. Unlike cancer and other diseases, however, this illness causes us to break out in uncontrollable asshole-ness, fucking up not only our own lives but those of every person who loves or depends on us. The only sane voice that can get through to such a diseased mind is that of a fellow alcoholic, one who isn’t shoulding on the asshole from the safe shore of sanity, but has lived awash in the same insanity. What that person has to offer — well, that’s what they hope to capture in this book.
They were in wholly new territory. Think about that.
What’s the difference between a true alcoholic an a heavy drinker? That’s what they cover next: a heavy drinker may look exactly like an alcoholic — until they really need to stop. Heavy drinkers have brakes, however reluctant they may be to apply them. True alcoholics, by contrast, are careening down a mountain road with their brakes shot to hell, having lost “all control of [our] liquor consumption, once [we] start to drink.”
Perhaps the Jekyll and Hyde description of an alcoholic that follows is a bit drastic. I myself was looking for something more like, “…fools everyone into thinking she’s perfectly fine while hating herself and wanting to die.” Still, I did see glimpses of myself in the “fine fellow” who is “sensible and well balanced” with “special abilities” and yet — repeatedly turns into a shitfaced asshole.
On page 23 they drop another bomb: “The main problem of the alcoholic centers in their** mind rather than their body…The truth is that they have no more idea why they took that first drink than you have.” Many of us refer to this phenomenon as the “curious mental blank spot.”
“We are unable at certain times to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago… If these thoughts do occur they are hazy and readily supplanted with the old threadbare idea that this time we shall handle ourselves like other people..”
Here was the discovery that bonded Bill W. and Dr. Bob as the 15-minute conversation Dr. Bob had consented to ballooned into a 4-month brainstorm on alcoholism. For the first time in human history, two drunks hashed out the fact that, when the craving struck, they could not remember why they did not want to drink. They understood, also, that we are totally pucked: We cannot fix our broken brain with our broken brain.
At long last, here’s the solution, which turns out to be good for us but murder on our precious egos:
“Almost none of us liked…” (sponsors: “Hooray! You don’t have to like it!!”) …the self searching, leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation…. The central fact of our lives today is that our Creator has…commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves.”
The solution, like it or not, is to seek god’s help as we take an honest look at our self-centered fears, own them, and begin to live on a basis of faith in something greater than ourselves. We can choose freely to either A) do this or B) go on drinking ourselves to death, “blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable condition as best we [can].”
Along comes the story of Rowland Hazard’s work with Carl Jung. (Rowland, by the way, is one of the guys who sobered up Ebby T., who in turn carried the message to Bill W.). Jung is quoted in his description of the “spiritual experience” or psychic change needed to revolutionize an alcoholic’s perspective and transform their life. Basically, everything has to change as we give up all the delusions we’ve lived by. Inward faith, not outward religion, is the foundation of sobriety.
The chapter wraps up with a little preview of chapters ahead and a “taste” disclaimer for the personal stories at the back of the book, intended to spark the recognition that bonds one alcoholic to another. Alcoholism is a disease of loneliness and isolation, but it has one flaw: it’s the same for all of us, so when we break that isolation via the fellowship of AA, we have it by the short ones.
So what’s the solution? God, love, honesty, humility, and community — to be unpacked via the 12 steps. Simple, but not easy.
Alcoholics Anonymous 1940s video:
Corny, perhaps, but the elusive cure for alcoholism is in the guy’s tiny smile in the final shot.
**Yes, of course, the language and entire mindset of the Big Book is grossly sexist, which is annoying as hell for anyone who doesn’t identify as “he” or think of god as a dude. But if we want to get well, it seems a small price to pay to forgive their ignorance and change all the pronouns to fit our reality.
From late February into early March, I battled a respiratory illness I feared might be COVID-19, but then I got better. I’d started climbing mountains again — just boring ones to condition for major summer ascents. Then on 3/22, I was in the middle of an online yoga class when it happened: a shadow eclipsed my energy just as the moon slides over the sun. It’s a moment I’ll remember all my life.
Dramatic as the shift was, I made myself finish the class before collapsing in a sloppy shavasana in some sunbeams on my carpet. Having mostly stayed home for some time, I didn’t know where I’d been exposed, but I sensed a major storm on the horizon and realized I had to shop while I still could.
The next morning, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus. I woke dazed. Weak. My living room, when I toddled into it, looked surreal, as though the furniture were floating an inch or two above the floor. My ears roared and I could not think. Our electronic thermometer read 97.4°. I stuck it in a glass of hot water: 97.4°. Great. All the drug stores and websites were out of stock, I knew.
The idea of phoning the local test line and waiting to get through, then getting vetted or whatever, and perhaps actually driving somewhere to wait in a car line seemed about as doable as climbing Mount Rainier that afternoon. I once had Dengue fever with a temp of 104°, and this felt worse.
Around 11:00 that morning, I decided a fresh orange might help. I had a bag of navel oranges, so I stood in the kitchen peeling one. But instead of the peel curling off in one piece, as with a tangerine, all I could pull off were pieces maybe the size of my thumb or thumbnail. I kept trying to roll off a strip, and the peel kept breaking. Each time, I felt more overwhelmed. Finally, setting down the half peeled-orange, I thought, Why, oh why, did I imagine I could DO this?! Oh my god! Oranges are so stupid! My face was, I’m sure, a mask of Greek tragedy. I wanted to cry.
That’s another moment I’ll never forget. But I’m too sick now to keep writing. More tomorrow.
[Got worse again. Took a 3-day break]
What I’ve noticed over the course of my illness (I’m al-most well after 2 weeks) is that my experience with COVID-19 in many ways mirrored my experience with alcoholism. I like to think, at 25 years sober, that my reactions to life have transformed through working the steps. But dancing with this illness has shown me they haven’t. It’s only my AWARENESS of reactions to life that have changed. And that awareness usually arrives, unfortunately, only in retrospect.
Stage 1: Hangover / wiped out by initial symptoms
After a binge, I would always feel like death warmed over. In my longing to feel okay, I’d make all kinds of resolutions to live in a healthier way. Similarly, when I first got C-19, I vowed to do all I could to help my body fight it.
Stage 2: Feeling Better / business as usual
As soon as the worst of my hangover used to pass, I’d start rationalizing why it was fine for me to have a “cocktail” or “nice glass of wine,” etc. After all, I was way smarter than your average alcoholic, and I’d be able to manage my drinking. Similarly, as soon as I felt somewhat better from COVID-19 on Day 3, I dismissed all my resolutions about helping my body. Pride kicked in: Wasn’t I super fit? Hadn’t a doctor told me just a week before that my blood pressure was ideal for someone 40 years younger? I’d shrug off this virus like a 20-year-old! I started working online with 2 clients a day, still washing dishes, caring for the pets, and trying to tidy up after my son who, home from college, was sick, too. By Friday, Day 6, I was teaching 4 clients a day, though my doctor had confirmed COVID-19 through a virtual visit.
Stage 3: Seeing insanity / getting scared
When did I recognize that alcoholism was going to kill me? Those moments were awash in so many symptoms of end-stage alcoholism (depression/despair, distorted thinking, self-loathing, etc.) that the memory is hard to tease out. But there came a day when I glimpsed my own self-destructive insanity. With COVID-19, on Day 6, my ribs were tight and I’d lost some sense of smell, but I found these symptoms somehow amusing and went ahead teaching. Then, while the last client was taking a bathroom break, I coughed.
My lungs, I discovered, were thoroughly congested. They sounded like bagpipes. Horrified, I called my doctor, who prescribed an inhaler.
Stage 4: Hitting bottom / reaching out
Surrender comes only when we’ve exhausted every other option. In 1995, I attended my first AA meeting as an alternative to suicide. With COVID-19, on Day 7 I realized neither the inhaler nor breathing steam was making a dent in the lung congestion. The virus was dug-in and thriving. I recognized that I was 59 years old and this virus was too mutated for my habituated immune system to trump. I felt the fringes of panic, hyperventilating with my tight, constricted ribs.
That’s when I called a New York man with whom I’d never spoken before. We’d attended the same college but not known each other then. What I DID know through a mutual friend was that he had COVID-19 and was one week ahead of me. I used Facebook messenger to leave a desperate, rambling voicemail. He called back.
“Are you staying in bed?” he asked.
“No.” My To-Do list and mortgage payment came to mind. “I can’t.”
“Well, you need to,” he said. “You need to stop everything.”
“Yeah, but I –”
“Just stop. Just get in bed. You need to make getting well your only work.”
Stage 5: Willingness
So you know what I did? I got in bed. I cancelled all my clients and stayed in bed for 5 days. The house became a pig sty. I signed up for Netflix and binge-watched Giri/Haji. And because two nurses advised it, in addition to steaming and gargling with salt water and spraying Simply Saline up my nose 3 x a day, I went for a brisk 30-minute walk each day to work my lungs, streaming with sweat and being vigilant to stay at least 20 feet from other pedestrians.
After following this regime for 4 days, I hit my first pink cloud. During my walk on day 11, I suddenly felt a little energy spurt. I felt almost normal for a brief window and could see the beauty of the world. The cherry blossoms were out, and so were whole families who loved each other. I heard laughter and squeals; I saw a mom teaching her son to ride a bike, running alongside him while the dad, carrying a little one, called out excitedly, “You’ve got it! You’ve got it!”
I wept, thinking how beautiful life is, what a magnificent journey it is to inhabit a body and be part of the material world, even with all its trials and tribulations.
Stage 6: Gratitude and Service
Today is Day 15 and I’m not well, but I’m feeling vastly better. My lungs have cleared — just a tad wheezy — and my temperature is down (my mom mailed me a spare thermometer). Headache and fatigue are my sole symptoms. Friends have showered me with well-wishes, groceries, take-out, and home-cooked meals dropped on my doorstep. I finally got tested three days ago and will probably hear back tomorrow.
But someone else is getting tested as well: my almost-94-year-old mom’s primary caregiver. Mom lives alone, usually with hired help, but until the test results come back, no caregiver will visit. If the caregiver’s test comes back positive and my mom proves infected, I’ll be able to move back home to take care of her, tag-teaming with my son (who recovered in just 3 days). Further, once I’ve got my official test results in hand and am 100% healthy, I’ll qualify to donate my hard-earned antibodies in plasma to help others recover.
I may even try to organize my AA fellows who’ve likewise recovered from C-19 to offer services to quarantined sick people who lack a supportive circle of friends such as we’re blessed with in the program.
In other words, exactly as with recovery from alcoholism, my difficult past — all the pains and fears I’ve walked through in fighting this virus — will make me more useful to others. And to that, I look forward eagerly.
PS: Mom’s caregiver tested negative. So far, so good.
PPS: I continued to feel ill for 5 weeks. 😦
When I walked into my first AA meeting — sadly, defeatedly, with all kinds of caveats and conditions — I certainly never imagined that in 25 years I’d be writing a blog like this! My plan was to “get my drinking under control.” The idea that alcohol would no longer be a part of my life, any more than eating Gerber baby food or riding a tricycle, seemed impossible. Life had only few bright spots, and alcohol, back on January 29, 1995, was one of them.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with baby food or tricycles. I enjoyed both immensely at one time. But I have outgrown them.
There was a time, too, when I had little idea who I was or how to live. Alcohol relaxed the grip of my frightened brain and let me function as if I had ease and comfort, as if I’d attained self-confidence, and as if I loved life with a daring spirit.
But just as baby food is pureed for those who cannot chew, and tricycles stable for those who cannot balance, so alcohol was the ticket for a Louisa who could not calm down, could not go inward, could not know god and relinquish fear to simply be herself. In fact, I didn’t believe anyone could do that unmedicated, so I figured sober people must just be uptight and cautious as hell all the fucking time.
I was wrong.
What changed my life?
Alcoholics Anonymous is where I encountered the conditions I needed to cultivate health, wholeness and — gosh! — maybe even enough wisdom to outgrow drinking.
- The first thing I noticed in the rooms was love — an atmosphere different from anyplace in the outside world. I came in a shaking, smoking, posturing young woman, and others saw through my facade with compassion rather than judgment.
- The 12 Steps I virtually ignored for 3 years, until the depression that followed my sister’s death drove my life into the ground and I asked a young woman with AA chutzpah to sponsor me. From her I learned the foundations of honesty. She pressed me in every step to scrutinize my implicit assumptions about myself, my fellows, and god.
- Sponsoring AA newcomers let me see my character defects worn by other women. To recognize self-defeating thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors is SO much easier when they’re wrecking someone else’s life! I’ve sponsored somewhere between 35 and 40 women in my 25 years, learning from each about the pains ego inflicts.
- My sponsor, AA homegroup, and circle of sober friends continue to provide me with a community of love, honesty, and humility. When I decided against throwing my usual big January sober party for my 25th birthday, my sponsor and a sober friend of 20 years planned and paid for a bowling party instead. I can’t describe the rush of love I felt when, scanning the bustling, noisy lanes of bowlers, I spotted the familiar faces of my homegroup family.
- Branching out into a second spiritual community aligned with AA principles — my Near Death Experience community — has added a dimension to my faith and daily relationship with god.
The 12 Steps of AA are only a framework, a scaffolding for the discipline of total honesty with self and god — which is, of course, an ideal we strive for all our lives. At a recent hipster meeting, I urged the god-phobic newcomers to substitute “total fucking honesty” wherever the steps say “God.” I couldn’t help adding, “If you’re in active addiction, you know about as much about total fucking honesty as you do about god.”
Sober time doesn’t vanquish ego. It’s easy to rest on laurels or become a bleeding deacon (AA phrases meaning one claims to know stuff). People phone me for advice, call me an inspiration, a role model, an anchor for their sobriety. That’s all well and good, but the fact is I’m just spiritually healthy — and only for today. I get to face life’s challenges with the same insight any thoughtful, loving, fully conscious woman would have accrued after 59 years of living. Here are some of the challenges I face today:
Loneliness/nostalgia: My son left for college 500 miles away. I miss him, and I miss his childhood. How can all those years of cardboard books, small shoes, and super-heroes be over? I have no romantic partner, either. He drank and cheated and that’s that. Though I miss our fabulous adventures, I’m learning to enjoy my own company.
Getting Old: What the fuck is up with my turning 60 in six months? Isn’t there some mistake? I’m the young one, the girl with the huge eyes and acres of time ahead of her to fill with dreams and ambitions! Oh, no — just kidding. I guess my face is sagging, muscles want to atrophy, and I can expect nothing but gradual decline over the next couple decades — decades that will fly by even faster than the two since my son was born. WTF?
Too Many Hats: I wear too many damn hats. I won’t even bore you with a list. Too much going on; huge to-do lists. I last watched TV/YouTube about a month and a half ago.
Grief and Loss: My friend of 20 years died last week. The same age as me and sober a few years longer, he had just slayed the expert slopes on a ski trip with his wife of 10 years and posted jealousy-inspiring selfies on Sunday. Monday, he died at work from a heart attack. I can still hear his voice, the wit and playful humor behind so much of what he said. And just like that — he’s gone.
At 25 years sober, I get to feel all these feelings. I surrender to WHAT IS and how I feel about it. Then I ask myself what good can be done — and I DO it. I text with my son, exercise like a maniac, chip away at my to-do list, reach out to my friend’s devastated widow — and I actively love all of it.
My sweet old dog — Cosmo, the messy life monk — is lame and often poops in the house overnight. When I am kind to him, helping him up the steps, touching him often because he’s deaf, and cleaning up accidents first thing in the morning with brisk cheer, I know what it means to live sober and in the light. As my friend’s death underscores, every little thing is a gift.