Category Archives: sober

Reality, Denial, and god – Alcoholism and Codependency

Reality is a tremendous nuisance to active alcoholics and Reality intersectioncodependents.  It’s so damn stubborn, but we’re more so!  We have a firm idea of how things really are and we’re stickin’ to it, however painful our grip.  The pain in both cases comes from everything that refuses to align with our story of how things can be okay – usually involving other people and their actions or views.   When I was living alcoholically, people kept misinterpreting my drinking.  Now that I’m sober but battling codependency, they keep not doing what they should.

The trouble is, as long as I’m in this mindset – I know shit – I’m cut off from god.  God animates reality, but its truth can’t be admitted by my sick thinking.  In other words, god’s guidance is heard via  honesty, but denial makes us deaf.

First, let’s talk about alcoholism.

During the 14 years that I drank pretty much daily, I had a good story:  I just liked to drink!  There was no big deal about it, though some people liked to pretend there was.  My life was as normal as anybody’s except that I was maybe a little more free about kicking back.  Alcohol was a just a feature of the good life – something that accompanied relaxation, candor, humor, and the ease of not taking stuff so damn seriously.  Didn’t I still have a job and a car?  Hadn’t I earned a fancy degree?  Wasn’t my health still good?  Okay, then, get off my back, everyone!

hot air balloonHitting bottom was the result of losing my levity, my ability to float a hot air balloon of egotism just enough to skim over the landscape of consequences beneath me.  Many people were hurt and angry, but they couldn’t reach me.  Many people would be hurt and angry if they found out certain things, but so far I’d dodged those impacts.  In the end it was the intensity of my own pain and self-loathing that weighed down my balloon basket more heavily every year, every month, and, as I gradually lost altitude, every day – until the ground of reality came up to meet me and I crashed.

I had no more escape.  My entire life was rife with lies.  Everything I’d been fleeing caught up with me and the pain was unbearable.  Finally, I admitted: “This is the truth.  This is how it is.  Addiction powers my every thought and deed, and without it, I have nothing.  I am nothing.  I have no power.”

Finally!  That’s when the door swings open.  It’s when god says, “Bingo!  That shit just doesn’t work.  How about I show you how to live in the world instead of your head?”  In my case, god showed me through the loving words spoken and written by people in AA, both living and dead.  “Here,” they explained, “is how you can live a meaningful life.”  The 12 steps were a means of clearing from my head the false stories I’d used to deny reality.  I began to work with what is to become the woman I want to be.

Now let’s talk about codependency.

It’s actually a whole lot like alcoholism, because it, like alcoholism, centers on denial.  Here’s the American Medical Association’s definition of alcoholism, tweaked just a bit to describe codependency:

“CODEPENDENCY is a chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by continuous or periodic impaired control over ATTACHMENT, preoccupation with the ADDICT, use of OBSESSIVE TACTICS despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial.”

Look at that!  The denial part, I didn’t even have to mess with; it’s the mainstay of both diseases.

Just as denial let me pretend my drinking harmed no one, so it lets me pretend my attempts to change the alcoholic harm no one.  Now I’m riding in the hot air balloon of dependence – actually the offspring of ego and fear: a conviction that my well-being depends on someone else.  I need them to change so that I can be happy.  My levity comes from the certainty that if I just _______ the right thing, the alcoholic will come to his senses.  (Insert do, say, offer, model, threaten, etc.)  There have been some great attempts, but they haven’t quite worked yet.  Failures pass under me.  So do the alcoholic’s betrayals, lies, actions that clearly show he has no intention of doing anything other than being himself – an alcoholic.  I keep skimming over them all, using my will and my hope and my love with all my might!  I’ll say this and he’ll realize that!  I run the videos in my mind day after day: I say my lines, watch my ideation of the alcoholic comprehending.

But gradually, I lose altitude.  The weight of pain brings me down again – that my love is not reciprocated in the form of whatever integrity I long for the alcoholic to achieve.  The alcoholic remains deaf, is blind, stays asleep to everything but his own dream of denial, and there is nothing – nothing – I can do to wake him.   All my efforts are futile or, worse still, galvanize his denial.

I have no more escape.  This is how it is.  My entire life is rife with lies.  Everything I’ve been grasping for has evaporated, and the pain is unbearable.  Finally, I admit: “This is the truth.  This is how it is.  Codependent illusions power my every thought and deed, and without them, I have nothing.  I am powerless.”

Here again god steps in.  “Correcto-mundo!” says god.  “But you don’t have nothing, sweetheart!  You have you.  You have me.  You have all of life and this beautiful world to thrive in.”  I begin to listen.  I realize what god offers is real, not projected.  It doesn’t have to wait for someday; it can start now.

Just as I took my first shaky steps sober and wide awake all those years ago, now I begin to take my first steps on my own.  No one needs to live as I see fit for me to be happy.  Whether my attachment has been to a family member or a lover, I can free them to live their own life, make their own mistakes, and suffer their own consequences, whether through wasted potential or death.  I can do it because, in reality, I have no other option.

This actually exists somewhere, unlike my sober alcoholic.

Reality, in both cases, is so much simpler, so much easier, and so much richer than my thinking.  Now I have choices, and I can hear god’s guidance as I weigh them.

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Freedom: the Gift of Recovery

Got a few resentments in AA?  Certain personalities in meetings annoying you?   Big Book thumpers causing internal eye-rolling?  Somewhere inside, are you thinking you may be able to manage your alcoholism yourself – that it’s really not such a big deal?

Maybe it’s time for a little ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT with the help of this visual aid I lifted from the Wikipedia page on alcoholism.  It’s an engraving from the mid-1800s called “King Alcohol and his Prime Minister.”  Check it.  (It’s enlargeable. )

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King Alcohol & his Prime Minister, engraving by John Warner Barber (1820-1880) Click to zoom.

 

In the background on the left, we’ve got the normies drinking with impunity.  A little closer we’ve got the socialites making cocktails look 19th Century glamorous.  But once we get to the Dram Shop, which is the old term for bar or tavern, things ain’t lookin’ so good.  Sure, there’s a pretty barmaid serving, but one patron is looking pretty disheveled, two are brawling on the floor, and another is passed out.  In the foreground the Virgin Mary is seen bumming about it all (at least, I think it’s she).  The anchor could refer to maritime alcoholism?

On the right we see some consequences listed: Poverty, misery, crime, and death.  There’s the jail, the poorhouse to which with someone is escorting a drunk, a cop with his nightstick dealing with another. We see a home gone to shit, a dad passed out while his wife and kids stand by, and closest to us, a rich guy all dressed up but still on his face.  Closer still are the graves, one of them immediately outside the home.  Jails, institutions, and death – as we often hear in the rooms.  The only thing I don’t see is an asylum.

Lastly, check out King Alcohol and his sidekick Death, themselves.  Death’s bottle is corked: he doesn’t touch the stuff, only offers it to recruits.  The King himself looks confused and miserable in spite of his lavish banner.  His face has marks all over it, his brow is furrowed, his hair and beard a mess.  Around his neck what seems an amulet is actually a locked chain, and chains run down his robe in place of royal ermine.  He holds aloft a large goblet, almost like a chalice, but encircled by a snake.  Above it hovers a reference to Proverbs 23, line 32:

31 Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
    when it sparkles in the cup,
    when it goes down smoothly!
32 In the end it bites like a snake
    and poisons like a viper.

Whoa.

If you lived in the 1800s, that would be the full extent of your program:  “Do not….”  Don’t look at booze, don’t drink booze.  Just don’t.  Just stop.  Look at the facts.  Use your willpower.

“Do not…”  If I’d been born during that time, I’d be a perma-drunk or dead.  Because I tried “do not” for 14 years and ended up bombed every night, like my father before me, because the “wine” I would “gaze at” lived in my mind.  As soon as enough of the poison had cleared from the night before, I’d think, “Yes!  I’m talking about just one pretty, perfect cocktail/ beer/ glass of wine!”  Next thing I knew, I was reaching for that snake-entwined goblet, oblivious to the bite and poison.

And I did that again.

And again.

And again…

It cracks me up that at the top of King Alcohol’s barrel list is “strong beer” – as if “weak beer” might be okay.  In other words, even in his desire to capture the entirety of alcoholism, Barber lacked a basic understanding of addiction: the allergy in me – which makes me break out in endless “more!” – can be triggered by as little as a single dose of cough medicine.

What Barber did understand, though, was that we die.  We’ve been dying for millennia, at least throughout the 10,000 years that humans have been brewing alcohol.  Slowly, century by century, those of us with alcoholic genes have been winnowed from those European cultures where alcohol has long been a staple – a fact highlighted by rampant alcoholism among Native American populations where alcohol has been introduced only in modern history.  Why do 10% of Native Americans die of alcoholism, compared to 0.2% of Italians?  Because most Italian alcoholics are already dead!  They died centuries ago leaving fewer descendents.  Still, around the world, how many of us are killing ourselves slowly, blurring our thinking, drowning our love of life?

You might wonder, why did Barber choose to depict alcohol as a king, rather than a slave driver or a warlord?  The answer is in addiction.  Alcohol rules our lives, but at the same time, we venerate it as our savior.  Left to our own human powers, there is no way out.

BUT HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS!  I’m sober!  You’re sober!

In June of 1935, the world of the alcoholic changed forever.  Fifteen minutes is how long alcoholic Bob Smith agreed to talk with that sober guy, Bill Wilson.  Three months is how long they ended up hanging out before Wilson even went home. They had discovered something amazing: the connection between one alcoholic and another when speaking the truth of our condition.  They also put together the physical allergy piece Bill knew with the spiritual malady piece Bob knew and – SHAZAM!!!  For the first time in human history, alcoholics had a way out!

Never again will we as a class of afflicted people have no solution.  Shivering denizens no more, we’ve found a way to overthrow the tyrant with a far greater power – one of love, of life, of goodness.  Whether you live near a slew of AA meetings or it’s just you with your Big Book and computer, you possess two insights that Barber and the dying drunks throughout history never had:  1) That your body reacts differently to alcohol than a normal body does, and 2) that alcoholism can be treated via a 12 Step program of spiritual growth, usually (but not always) in connection with fellow alcoholics.

What I know is this: Living sober has brought me and countless other hopelessly doomed alcoholics a joy of living beyond our wildest dreams.  We are free.

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When the Darkness Comes…

Ways to stay chipper

I’m resolved to be happy, to enjoy life.  In the summer months, happiness comes easily.  I’m active, whether alone or with friends, and never short of energy or enthusiasm.  But when fall comes I start to feel the tides of darkness encroaching, dragging me down.  Now’s the time I have to make a note: candleDepression Alert!  Because I’m prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder and live in Seattle, because I suffered depression throughout my 30s and my brain chemistry still teeters on that brink, and because I’m a damn complex and moody alcoholic in recovery, I need to be careful.

I once read that depression evolved as a survival strategy to prevent us from doggedly pursuing unrealistic goals or otherwise squandering energy without a high return.  I envision some primitive humans all gung-ho to build a tower to the gods despite all setbacks; some kind of “fuck this!” switch had to evolve somewhere along the line.  primitive2-1024x681More practically, in fall and winter there’s just not as much food out there for a hunter-gatherer to net, so we developed the impulse to hunker by the home-fires to avoid fruitless expenditures of energy.

The trouble comes when my brain decides to categorize the entire enterprise of living as a fruitless expenditure of energy.  I look around: the house will never stay clean; dishes and laundry never stay done.  My bank account acts like a storage tank with a gaping hole at the bottom.  I gleefully deposit checks only to see that some damn auto-deduction – the gym, car insurance, internet – has slurped up half of it before I even drive home.  I keep getting older and ricketier plus people seem to forget about me if I don’t keep showing up for social stuff.  Doesn’t that make all of these unattainable goals?  Shouldn’t I just give up and hunker by the home-fire?

I choose not to take prescription antidepressant drugs because, lucky for me, my depression is only seasonal and not debilitating. It’s just the daily challenge of my emotional weather. I want to learn to navigate life in stormy as well as in clear sailing.  Wisdom, I believe, gets pounded out in that struggle. I don’t mean to poop on meds or those whose brain chemistry leaves them no other option. Chemistry is chemistry.  For myself, though, I envision my depression as a pit of darkness I have to circle until spring, walking a narrow, angled, and slippery path on its perimeter.  The tactics below help me pick my steps.  But if I were to fall in (become clinically depressed) none of them would do any good.

THE SIGNS

  • I filled with a low-level dread but have no clue what it’s about.
  • I may or may not decide I’m scared of finding myself broke and alone.
  • The prospect of socializing seems an Olympic event, demanding coherent remark after coherent remark like a series of hurdles I barely clear.
  • The prospect of going to work feels like storming a hostile dagwood napempire of steel, concrete, and synthetics, where nothing natural or charming can survive.
  • The world’s goin’ to hell in a handbasket.
  • All I want to do is to eat cookies and nap peacefully.

What to do?  I fuckin’ pray.  I don’t want to, but I do.  I ask god to help me remember how to live.  God, I have found, is all about can-do and positive action.  It doesn’t empathize with lackadaisical whining, but counters, What can you do now?  It tells me I already know the answer.  And I sort of do.

THE CURES

Whether I feel like it or not, I have to FORCE myself to…

  • Exercise – take a ballet class, go for a run, something
  • Make coffee/pho dates and go to more meetings
  • Go outside and do SOMETHING – anything!  Rake leaves, walk the dog
  • Practice gratitude; love others; be of service
  • Meditate more
  • Eat healthy, for god’s sake!
  • If it gets really bad, bust out the Happy Light, St. John’s wort and/or 5 hydroxytryptophan

All these tactics help a little.  But I also have a secret list of unofficial aids that help me – things I’ve never seen in magazines.

 UNOFFICIAL AIDS

  • Make something – bake, draw a picture, knit
  • Light candles to an impractical degree, maybe even in daylightmusicnote
  • Play happy music
  • Smile and yawn more – both give your brain a lift
  • String up indoor Xmas lights irrespective of Xmas
  • Watch no TV; avoid pop-culture magazines; limit social networking
  • Practice mindfulness, focusing on loving what I am doing now

Here’s my thing with mindfulness: sometimes, it can get boring.  I mean, obviously, it’s a discipline, so if I’m getting bored, that means I’m not practicing well.  Still, I’ve developed some tweaks to make it more interesting – and most of them involve pretending.  Recreational pretending, in my opinion, is vastly underrated. My brain chemistry doesn’t seem to distinguish much between real and imagined sources of happy, cozy thoughts.   In fact, pretending, if executed skillfully, can feel like a little uplifting,  drug-free trip to another place.

Bourges-Fiji

MINDFULNESS TWEAKS

  • I pretend…
    • that I live in a charming, romantic country or exotic tropical place.  My home is in some village of France or on the island of Fiji.  I can smell the odors of baguettes or tropical flowers.  This can work when you’re driving if you pretend you’re touring quaint vistas.
    • that I’m super rich but eccentric and choose to live exactly as I do
    • that I live in an amazing dollhouse.  I was once on a ladder fixing a small window that looks in on my living room.  Inside, the evening sun was lighting the space with a warm yellow, and it looked to me like a weirdly classic doll’s house with every detail delightfully realistic.  I can still call up that feeling which changes mess to fantastic precision.
    • that I’m a 14th century monk used to abjuring all physical comforts, but just for today, I’m cheating!

The goal of all these quirky imaginings is actually to practice love and acceptance.  The act of assenting to the circumstances of our lives – calling them good – is what brings contentment.  I’ve developed these roundabout means of doing what you can practice directly: loving everything your senses bring you, loving being alive.rainbow_heart

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Not-Enoughness

A worthy life is simply one of honesty with oneself and god…

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I go through phases when I wake up almost every morning with a gut-level anxiety, a feeling of guilt that I’m somehow not doing all I’m supposed to, shame for lacking “success,” and alarm that I’m getting old at a mile a minute.  My whole life, the feeling claims, is a failure.  Before I’ve even sat up in bed, this “not-enoughness” jabs at my mind, perfect lifeprompting vague solutions that pop up like slot machine combos:  “Earn more!”  “Lose weight!”  “Socialize more!”

Whether my not-enoughness, a default setting from childhood, will ever go away I don’t know.  What’s changed is how I respond to it.  Today I understand that it’s just a feeling launched by the part of me that’s still broken.  I return its topspin tennis serve with a quick prayer: “God, please take this away and guide my thinking today.”  While I put on my morning clothes and weigh myself, not-enoughness still chides at me.  I dismiss it automatically and try to focus on the moment: gift of what I am doing, the good fortune of where I am, and the blessings of my reality.  I commit to loving what is instead of lacking what isn’t.

The power for this practice comes from my god, a connection nurtured through many years of working all 12 Steps.  Back when I relied on active drinking and codependency, I believed not only the not-enoughness, but the solutions my mind proposed.  My high school refrain, “Excel more!” gradually morphed into “Be more liked!”  If I could just win your admiration, I’d overcome not-enoughness.  Sans alcohol I was terrified to converse with people, not realizing the main obstacle had to do with the coordinates of my head, which was firmly lodged up my ass.  I could scarcely hear what you were saying, so preoccupied was I with self: what was up with me, what I thought you thought of me, and what I might say to impress you (usually figured out after you left).  Sober socializing was, in short, torture.

Drinking, of course, fixed all that.  It made me smart, funny, beautiful, and worthy.  Glamour drinkSure, I was still biding my time while you talked, but who gave a shit?  I’d get my turn to blab soon enough and, whether you were impressed or not, I, at least, was fine with whatever the fuck I’d just said.  The drunker I got, the wider my range of just fine became.  Maybe you didn’t care to hear about ex-partner’s sexual foibles, but fuck it!  Lissen!  It’s hilarious!

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Moi, back in the day

The infatuation addiction detailed in my memoir was really just a souped-up version of that same dynamic, with all my need concentrated on a chosen, magical person whose admiration (or even company) worked like cocaine.  Sadly, these worth-seeking projects frequently morphed into real relationships – meaning that the magic one, by committing, lost all magic.  Subsequently, when attacks of not-enoughness struck, I had no “soon things will be different!” to counter it with.  I could only muffle its penalty buzzer with more booze and great ideas.  All I’d end up with was a wreckage of mishaps, huge amounts of money blown, and a hangover like a brain full of puss.

Sobriety has by no means been a picnic.  I spent over two years dry and tortured – fleeing the conversation clusters after meetings with mutters of “fuck ’em!” – before I finally worked the steps and became teachable.  Slowly teachable, that is: I spent nine years in a codependent cocoon focusing all my anxious attention, from the moment I woke, on fixing my partner’s “problems” and ignoring my own.  Really, that morning gong of not-enoughness did not emerge for me as a distinct phenomenon until I found myself waking up alone.  “What is this feeling?” I finally asked.

Self-knowledge may not save us from drinking, but it sure helps with other problems!  The steps have transformed my economics of worth.  The only worth I can feel, I understand now, is self-worth.  I am the only agent who can generate that rebuttal to not-enoughness, no matter what anyone else may think of me.  God has shown me how to cultivate self-esteem by doing estimable works.  It has guided me to grow a loveable life by loving my life.  It has taught me to connect with others more through my heart than my words.

Despite what the zillion ads we’re bombarded with would have us believe, a worthy life is simply one of honesty with oneself and god – whatever that may look like for the individual.  For me, it means I do the best I can with what’s right in front of me Goodmanand trust god that whenever a suitable door approaches, god will not only alert me, but open it.  Why did I start up the small business I run today?  Doors would not open to the 500+ jobs I tried for following my layoff, whereas with just one little ad, the business practically threw itself at me.  Like incremental promotions at a firm called Happiness, Inc., small choices I’ve made have gradually steered my life away from money and prestige toward more time and freedom.  Thrift at home is part of my work.  True, I drive a beater and shop at Goodwill, but I also get to walk my 13-year-old son to school each morning, laughing about this and that.  I get to write instead of wishing to.  I see friends.  I take loads of ballet classes, raise cute hens, and execute my own half-assed home repairs.  Overall, my life today reflects the truth of who I am – a plenitude of what I value and a shortage of what I don’t.  That’s the true test.

In fact, by the time I go to bed each night, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for my beautiful, rich, love-filled life.  My only prayer is, “Thank you, god, for all of it.  I love you.”

Tomorrow, I know, it all begins again.

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The Courage to Surrender

Courage: the ability to do something that you know is right or good, even though it is dangerous, frightening, or very difficult.
—————————————————————————-Macmillan dictionary

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American popular culture tends to associate courage with kicking ass.  Most of our movie heroes don’t need to overcome fear because they don’t feel any.  All we see from them is the anger and righteousness to smash the bad guys.  This invulnerable version of courage is reflected in Dictionary.com’s definition, as that which “permits one to face Die_hardextreme dangers and difficulties without fear.”

But what if fear is essential to courage?  That is, what if courage involves not just outward action, but the inner struggle to overcome all that holds us back – confusion, doubts… and fear?  In that case, courage means acceptance of our vulnerability, even our weakness, as well as the faith to move beyond it.

What’s this got to do with alcoholism?  People outside the rooms often assume recovery is about the ego’s type of courage: we’re sober because we’ve kicked addiction’s ass.  We conquered that mofo by being strong, disciplined, and – my favorite – taking control!  But there’s a lil’ problem with that.  Where drinking’s concerned, I can pull off none of those things.  I drink myself shitfaced.  That’s just what happens.  No matter how angry or righteous I may feel toward addiction, it’s the only one doing the ass-kickin’.

HOW coinOn the other hand, what I witness and learn in the rooms of AA is another form of courage – the courage to surrender.  Those two words don’t match up in most people’s minds, but for those of us in recovery, they have to.  When we tell ourselves, “I’m gonna beat this thing!” we seem to end up drunk.  But if instead we surrender, something inside us begins to shift, and we develop courage through the three essentials of recovery: Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness.

Honesty
Nobody wants to be an alcoholic.  But even more, nobody who’s known only that way of life can imagine surviving without alcohol – a terrifying prospect.  I don’t know a single person who came to their first AA meeting without half a mind to bolt out the door.  What keeps us there is loyalty to certain moments of clarity – also known as honesty – when we either recognized death on our not-so-distant horizon or, in subtler cases, realized we could no longer endure the mental contortions necessary to sustain denial.  To hang onto that insight despite all the disclaimers our disease flings at us requires courage.

What’s more, every instinct cries out against admitting to a room full of strangers, “I cannot stop drinking and I don’t know how to live.”  Such words may not be voiced at our first meeting, and for some they never are. But alcoholics committed to recovery find the courage to speak these truths, no matter how difficult or painful.  Hearing them still brings tears to my eyes, even after almost 20 years.

Open-mindedness
Alcoholics tend to abhor the idea of groups.  We like to see ourselves as fiercely independent and temperamentally unique, so we’re repulsed by anything that smacks of conformity.  We also can’t stand the prospect of talking to others without a few drinks in us.  The last place we ever thought we’d spill our guts is a goddam cult, meetingwhich is what we’ve been calling AA, between swigs, for years.  Who wants to crawl in and, stone cold sober, ask for help from a group they’ve talked nothing but shit about to anyone who’d listen?  Nobody!  But we do it anyway, strange and frightening as it is.

Neither do I know a single newcomer who read the Twelve Steps on the wall and thought, “Oh, boy! That’ll help!”  The steps seem useless and irrelevant – some ‘hokey-pokey’ dance involving a magic Easter Bunny that has NOTHING to do with our very huge and real problems.  When alcoholics move ahead with these steps despite the certainty that they’ll never work, they’re stepping out on pure faith, reaching for the possibility of other ways to experience life.   The disease continues to offer them “Fuck Everything Free!” cards, but they decline to take one.  To turn away from everything familiar toward something unknown and intangible just because it feels “good or right” takes – you got it! – courage.

Willingness
The road to recovery is lengthy and, in places, steep.  We hear early on, “There’s only one thing you need to change – and that’s everything!”  Not only does that sound creepy, but “change” here is a verb – meaning we have to make it happen.  To find and work with a sponsor, write and read inventory, show up and listen at meetings, make amends, and eventually to sponsor and be of service to others – all these efforts require a willingness we’ve formerly lacked.  Our degree of willingness may wax and wane over the years, but if we steer by what we “know is right or good, even though it is… difficult,” we gradually come to call it by a different name: maybe god’s guidance, or maybe loving-kindness.

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Whether in terms of the battlefield or bottle, surrender means accepting as reality that which we’ve been fighting to deny.  But while a soldier surrenders only once, for the alcoholic, surrendering to one aspect of reality just moves us to a new perspective where we have to repeat the process.  Once we accept that our lives are unmanageable, we have to look at our relationships, which points us to our selfishness, which alerts us to our fear, which signals us to look at our connection to god and what it truly means to us.  The greatest paradox is that courage gradually leads us to our spiritual source, and yet it was that source (aka god/HP/ loving-kindness), once we opened the channel, that granted us the courage to change.

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Robin W., Alcoholic

Note: This is the first time I’ve written about something outside my own personal experience, but it’s been on my mind enough that I felt moved to.

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When Amy Winehouse’s body was found with a blood alcohol content of .4% (five times the DUI level), lying among scattered vodka bottles like so many smoking guns, most of the media and public understood that her death was caused by alcoholism.

Not so with the loss of Robin Williams – also caused by alcoholism, but in a much subtler sense.  The press does note that he had checked into rehab a few weeks prior, but his prolonged suspension of active drinking causes them to dismiss his addiction as conquered.  It seems to me only my fellow alcoholics are able to intuit the close relationship between his alcoholism, depression, and the unbearableness of being that led him to take his life.

Williams was very open about his 2003 relapse after 20 years’ sobriety.  He told Parade:Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 3.06.06 PM

“One day I walked into a store and saw a little bottle of Jack Daniel’s. And then that voice — I call it the ‘lower power’ — goes, ‘Hey. Just a taste. Just one.’ I drank it, and there was that brief moment of ‘Oh, I’m okay!’ But it escalated so quickly. Within a week I was buying so many bottles I sounded like a wind chime walking down the street. I knew it was really bad one Thanksgiving when I was so drunk they had to take me upstairs.”

A Guardian reporter asked if friend Christopher Reeves’ death was what triggered his relapse.

“No,” he says quietly, “it’s more selfish than that. It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.” What was he afraid of? “Everything. It’s just a general all-round arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.”

He added, about the demise of his second marriage in 2008, years after he’d managed to get sober again:

“You know, I was shameful, and you do stuff that causes disgust, and that’s hard to recover from. You can say, ‘I forgive you’ and all that stuff, but it’s not the same as recovering from it. It’s not coming back.”

If you’re an alcoholic, you don’t just read these words; you identify with them because you’ve lived them.  You know that wheedling voice of the “lower power,” that all-pervading fear of existence, and the burden of shame Williams describes.  And if you’re like me, you feel tremendous empathy for this man, who had recognized his depression as a spiritual malady linked to his alcoholic disease and had tried his best to combat it by strengthening his spiritual connection in treatment.

According to the press, over the previous year Williams had been shooting movies and shows back to back, maintaining a “manic pace.”  To me, this frenzy of activity seems a way of trying desperately to live, to stay engaged in life.  My friend Dave McC  fought depression in a similar way in the year before his suicide, hiking the Cascade Mountains at a furious pace.  But the disease catches up.  It gets to us when we’re alone, worming into that inmost chamber of self where no one can reach us – except god.  What most pains me and frightens me about Williams’ death is that he knew the solution.  He had a program.  He was trying to help himself.  And yet for reasons we’ll never know, he could not access that “Power which pulls [us] back from the gates of death.”

So often, I want to think of sobriety as a set equation rather than a blessing.  That is, I want to believe that if you take certain actions, working the three sides of the triangle by going to meetings, working with a sponsor, and doing service work, then you’re guaranteed a certain result: lasting sobriety.  Williams’ death reminds me that’s anything but the case.  In fact, it’s all grace.  We’re guaranteed nothing.  We’re never home free – not even with twenty years’ sobriety and all the talent, intelligence, and accomplishment a person could ask for.

Rather, the fact that I – an alcoholic child of alcoholic children going back many, many diseased generations – write this with 19 years and 7 months’ sobriety is nothing short of miraculous.  The fact that you’re reading it with however many days or years you have sober – you, who are also hardwired to drink – is likewise a miracle.  Every day that we live in the light of sanity and sobriety is a gift.  It’s another day we can be grateful not to find ourselves in that tortuous nightmare of spiritually starving depression that led Williams – knowing alcohol and drugs would not help him – to choose the one-way exit of suicide.

From a broader perspective as an Near Death Experience survivor, I do believe Williams found not only relief but bliss in leaving his body.  For whatever reason, though, we are born into these earthly lives with a sense of mission to carry them out, and a love for the material world that anchors us here for their duration.  I’d like to live out mine, certainly.  But my sobriety, my faith in a higher power, directions to love and honor others through kindness and service, and the happiness I’ve been granted by pursuing this path all unite to remind me I am never in charge.  Certainly, I’m not in charge of my sobriety.  I can take the steps I know to nurture it, but the results are out of my hands.

In the end, the loss of this talented, accomplished man who could no longer stand his life reminds me to be grateful for today.  I don’t have a lot of  the stuff our culture equates with success.  But no gifts are more precious than sanity, sobriety, peace of mind, and the strength they grant me to love others freely.

 

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Sober versus Dry: A Big Difference

Over the course of a life of recovery, the ego dies a slow and painful death.

Alcoholism is a disease of body, mind, and spirit, so for newcomers, the first order of business is definitely to withdraw from physical addiction by simply not taking a drink.  Doing this, however, doesn’t treat the mental and spiritual aspects of our disease.  Few of us drank ourselves nearly to death in the midst of an otherwise hunky-dory grasp of life.

AA doesn’t claim to have “a monopoly” on treating this three-fold disease – only a way that works.  That is, if you’ve tried other ways and they’ve failed you, you can find your answer in the Big Book’s pages.  But a lot of people in AA don’t do this.  Instead, they rely on a combo of “plug in the jug” dryness and regular “dumping” at meetings to relieve their pent-up discomfort.

By contrast, I know several people outside of AA who are progressing in spiritual development.  What characterizes such people is a constant seeking for spiritual insight, a day by day dedication to becoming a better person – with “better” referring not necessarily to “more successful” but to more spiritually healthy.  That would mean more grateful, kind, loving, and unselfish.  The kickback for all this work is inner peace.  And these non-AA sober alcoholics often have it, despite the fact that they don’t go to meetings.

The thing is, I need meetings as a setting where compassion pulls my head out of my ass.  Left to my own devices, my ego begins to regroup and convince me that everything is all about me.  Because of the way my life is set up – by my spiritual values rather than my ego’s agenda – my ego finds it highly unsatisfactory: I should be richer and thinner and get more attention.  I should be “in control.”  When I go to meetings, the pain of newcomers reminds me where chasing these lures will lead me, and the wisdom of oldtimers reminds me of all the ego wants me to forget – the humility, gratefulness, and service to others that fills life with a gentle happiness.

And yet, there’s a layer further you can go – or toward which you can be drawn against your own will.  Spiritual quests of even the most sincere seekers are at heart selfish.  We want that damn chit of inner peace!  I want to be happy!  I want my life to be filled with meaning, so I can feel good about it.  Even in my efforts to diminish ego, it appears to have the last laugh – or would, if it weren’t for another agent involved in this process.

That agent is god.  When we work a spiritual program, however tainted by the interests of “self-improvement” it may be, the act of reaching, seeking, and opening ourselves to something greater than self sabotages all our well laid plans by giving god an opening, a chink in our “control” armor.  God beams in and moves the furniture around in ways we never intended, so that in tripping, in stubbing our toes and falling on our faces, we’re forced low enough to see what it is we truly stand upon.

This happened to me when I wrote my addiction memoir, which I intended to help others.  But god got in and messed everything up.  It moved the coffee table to the middle of my house traffic: my siblings reacted to the book with untempered rage and insult, and then I got breast cancer.  I held onto god through that turmoil, and for a while I could see nothing.  But when clarity returned, I found myself in a wholly different place – a place where I have less sense of control but am more comfortable with it.  Where the phrase, “Oh, well!” seems to contain far more wisdom, whether it’s said before taking a courageous plunge or an evasive nap.  And place more differentiated from my siblings.  This was nothing I thought of or intended.  It resulted from neither program nor self-improvement.  But if I had not been working at both, the shift could not have occurred.

I’ve watched friends in the program not only climb to sweet joys but also suffer collapses similar to mine. I catch glimpses through their shares as they walk through this same Dark Night of the Soul.  Yes, joy is the fruit of spiritual growth, but pain, unfortunately, remains the “touchstone” of that growth.  The alternative is to turn away from god and tighten our grip on the illusions of control, of knowing best, of being right – and wronged.  It is to choose the rigidity of fear over the gentleness of faith.

Over the course of a life of recovery, the ego dies a slow and painful death.  (Of course, it never dies completely until we do.)  For those of us who once embraced it as our only savior, its demotion from the driver’s seat takes not months or years, but decades.  Like anything toxic, it retreats to reveal what appears at first a barren wasteland, a void where what I think is not important; I’m not powerful or authoritative, so life is not fun in a potentially dazzling way.  But the seeds of truer meaning are already germinating beneath that dull surface and will one day sprout: My being alive is precious; I’m both loveable and free, so my life gathers beauty in a quiet way.  This happens not just once, but with every inch of ground the ego surrenders.

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