Category Archives: Spirituality

How a Near Death Experience and its aftermath compelled me to recognize the reality of god and an “other side.”

Declutter Your Spiritual House

Each year as my AA birthday approaches, I like to take a look back to see how far I’ve come. I’ll be turning 24 years sober this January, and I would not trade my beautiful life for anything.

Just before I got sober

Twenty-four years ago, I believed life without drinking would be horrifically boring, like eating only brussel sprouts forever. Relaxation would be gone, so I’d feel anxious and stressed out nonstop.  Socializing sober would be such an ordeal, I’d probably just isolate. How could I play without ease and comfort?

I secretly longed to drink like other people — people who bantered in fashionable hangouts, hogging all the fun and glamour. I felt I had a disability, this inability to stop drinking once I got started.

In those days, I was literally incapable of imagining how it now feels to be me.  Today the space in my mind and heart is soooo cozy, I feel like at any point in my day, I could pull into it like a tortoise and maybe take a nap — just me and that warm inner sunlight of my god.  I almost feel tempted sometimes when I’m riding my bike to work and waiting for a traffic light to change. There’s my outer body dressed in rain gear, there’s the incredibly complicated world going on around me, and then there’s this flawlessly inviting inner sunporch to recline in, just closing my eyes and saying, “Yo, god.  Thanks for everything.  I can’t tell you how much I love you.”

24 (sober) years later

I don’t cause I’d get run over.  I also don’t want to piss off people around me, not cause I fear them but because I want to radiate kindness in all things I do.  I love strangers — even the rude ones. Life is a gorgeous jigsaw puzzle we’re all piecing together with earnest effort, frustrated at times, all wishing we had the dang puzzle box illustration to help us know what goes where.

The space for my inner sunporch was originally cleared by working AA’s 12 steps.  Before that it was packed with garbage — false mental and emotional beliefs I clung to like some kind of packrat. Psychotic hoarders can’t throw away a used Kleenex; I couldn’t throw away my resentments, the countless personality variations I’d hoped would  make you like me, or the dusty gilt trophies — academic, professional, and romantic — I’d won over the years that I thought comprised my worth.

“Cleaning house” by working steps with a sponsor is the closest thing I know to hiring a spiritual declutter expert: “God, what should I keep?  What should I throw out?”  If you have an insightful  sponsor and an open heart, you’ll end up with only a few key insights.

It’s true, for instance, that most people don’t base their decisions on what would be best for you. And that is okay.  What?!  It is?!  This was earth-shattering news when my sponsor first put it to me.

It is also true that people we’ve held in resentment were doing the best they could with the level of insight they had.  If they could have shown up as a good parent, partner, or companion — that is, if they’d understood that love matters most — they would have. We can’t expect them to live by wisdom they just don’t have, just as we can’t shop at the hardware store for bread.

Space opens up when you LET OTHER PEOPLE GO: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”  That whole tangle of shoulds and owes me and needs to learn gets carted off to Goodwill.

Now you can shift the focus to YOU, not as a successful manipulator or foiled victim of others, but as the only person on this planet responsible for making a beautiful thing of your life.

Not what your parents thought would be beautiful.  Not what media and marketing pretend is beautiful.  Beautiful to you.

Lucky you — you’ve already been assigned an amazing, ingenious collaborator, one who works for nothing, who believes in you with a love beyond anything you can imagine, and who has the power to fuel whatever you’re courageous enough to pursue: god.

Dass right!  That same energy in the growing grass, the pounding waves, and the mating chipmunks.  That force behind your heart going live, live, live and the busyness in your every cell to make it happen. God is living you; god is wanting you to generate more you-ness, more love, more good.  Your smile is beautiful.  Your sincerity is a jewel.  Your kindness is a spark of the divine.

Sober, I feel my feelings instead of numbing them.  I remember the last time (of many) when life pulled the rug out from under me so I fell flat on my face. Three and a half years ago, my heart was broken by an intimate betrayal — a betrayal so outrageous I felt like an idiot for having been suckered. Hurt and ashamed, I felt too stupid to ever trust my heart again. About halfway through a 70-mile hike in the mountains, somehow the full pain of it hit me; I set up my tent at noon, lay down in it, and just cried for three hours. Three more hours I alternated between semi-comatosely watching the foiled skeeters on my tent’s netting and spurts of crying.  Then I wrote in my journal.

Journal page from that day

By the next morning, I’d founded a new enterprise with god. We called it “Louisa’s Little Life” because alliteration rocks. We — that is, god and I — had the basics nailed down. We’d go for nothing grandiose. The plan was to notice and love; notice and love — just that and put one foot in front of the other. I promised to listen, and god promised to lead.  I promised to trust and try, and god promised to help me grow. In fact, god promised me peace and joy and a deeper knowledge of who I am — all the flowers that now brighten my inviting secret sunporch, because god and I grew them.

If any of these ideas help you, by all means steal them, but remember: thinking about the steps is not the same thing as working them!  It’s an inside job, but we can’t do it alone.

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

Victimhood, Martyrdom, and Other Codependent Poses

I’ve already written a kick-ass post on Self-Pity (Just Say NO to Self-Pity), but today I’d like to discuss its cousins, victimhood and martyrdom. Life becomes such an incredible teacher if we stay sober and pay attention to our part in things, past and present!  Drinking, we’re carried down the same old rivers of emotion our egos generate, over and over, never questioning their truth. Sober, we can learn to see from new angles.

It’s easy for me to look back at my drinking days and see that I cast myself in the victim role for a good reason: it absolved me of all responsibility for my own happiness. Lacking a connection to god, I clung to people, places, and things with the sense that they should respond to me in ways that buoyed me up.  They didn’t.  Or maybe they seemed to for a while, but more and more as my drinking progressed, unfair circumstances seemed to pile up against me.

I blamed others and developed resentments, or blamed myself and wallowed in self-loathing, but I never questioned the whole enterprise of trying to make things happen. I didn’t want to look at my model for interactions, my mindset, or the patterns of my perceptions.

That’s what a fourth step allows. And as we continue to grow in sobriety, additional fourth steps yield insights even deeper and more fundamental, until our whole weltanschauung evolves.  That’s what’s so exciting about recovery through an earnest application of the 12 steps as opposed to just quitting drinking: the whole universe changes!

I began to recognize that the vending machine ethic I’d applied to interacting with others — I put in my chit of friendliness and you deliver a soda of doing what I want — was selfish.  It began to dawn on me, first, that I loved no one truly for themselves and, second, that I didn’t actually need a soda from anyone, because god was a constant wellspring of love. Eventually, I could approach others in a spirit of curiosity, empathy, and usefulness rather than need.  It’s way more fun.

Martyrdom was my favorite posture in romantic relationships. Because throughout my childhood the supply of love in our alcoholic home varied drastically between romping, playful, inebriated evenings and tense, brittle, hungover mornings, I developed a belief that I had to make people love me. The best way to do that, I assumed, was to be whatever I gathered they wanted me to be.

In relationship after relationship, I effaced myself in hopes of earning “good partner” points. Yet, infuriatingly, my partners usually took for granted all my “sacrifices.”  They seemed to assume I was just doing what I wanted.  This led to preposterous arrangements like my teaching classes at three local colleges while pregnant so I could put my partner through school, taking only two weeks off to give birth; my buying gifts and celebrating Christmas with family members who had just mocked and ridiculed my addiction memoir on Facebook; and my continuing a relationship with a relapsed, selfish alcoholic whose job placed him in distant hotels 85% of the time.

These were choices I made, but at the time each seemed a movie plot I was stuck in. Leave the relationship? Who would I be?!  Not participate with family?  Wasn’t it better to be “loving” by doing whatever other people wanted? And didn’t god see how I sacrificed and suffered? Wasn’t I earning some kind of selfless saint award in the greater scheme of things?

In fact, god did see how I was sacrificing and, with a sigh, rolled consequences into my life to teach me to knock that shit off.  In both relationships, grotesque sexual betrayals ended what I could not, and with toxic family, a big fat cancer diagnosis drove me to assert boundaries and focus on taking care of me.

The shift of weltanschauung was giving up control I never had to begin with.  I can’t make anyone love or respect me.  I can’t do anything the “right” way.  I can’t even know anything for certain!  I can just be me and do what’s next: clean house, trust god, help others.  Keep trying my best.  The results are up to god whether I struggle or not.

Artwork by Nic J. Bass

And yet.  Victimhood still calls to me seductively like a siren among the rocks: Be wronged!  Feel hurt!  Retreat into the familiar cave of suffering where you huddle with that precious, lonely ache of being unloveable. It calls with the lure of false freedom because, again, whenever I go there, I don’t have to look for truth or try new ways.  I don’t have to figure out my part in the problem.  I can just slump into my victimhood, stagnant.

I’ve known people who were downright addicted to victimhood and suffering like a drug they went back to again and again.  Such people can take a benign and insignificant situation and inflate it into a colossal source of pain because they need drama, they need suffering as the most familiar landmarks in their navigation of life. Without this anguish, in a life of light, hope, and constructive action, they’re utterly lost.  There’s nothing to obsess over and they miss the grand self-importance that victimhood lets us feel.

I’ll admit it takes some getting used to — a life of humble happiness and cheer in the simple events of the day, a focus on what’s good and growing, and the simple okayness of me and you here now.  I can’t write intense short stories anymore (I won prizes as a drunk) now that I don’t hate the world.  But believe it or not, we move closer to god, closer to heaven, when we let go the weight of dramatic suffering.

Most important, we keep learning more about how to break out of old patterns and, in passing these tools on, offer healing to others as we used to spread hurt.

 

 

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Filed under Adult Children of Alcoholics, Al-Anon, Alcoholism, Codependence, Codependent Martyr, Recovery, Self-worth, Sobriety, Spirituality

Kindness is The Shit

If you were to accomplish nothing more in life than treating everyone (including yourself) with GENUINE KINDNESS, you’d have fulfilled your ultimate purpose on earth — at least as far as god is concerned.

June

As a teen and a young alcoholic, I poo-pooed kindness as a prissy bow that conformists like June Cleaver pinned on their words. In the atheist home where I grew up, I got the idea that achievement was all that mattered — getting to the top, impressing the right people.

But I was never smart enough. Never fast enough, never funny enough, never liked enough. I felt empty and alone. So I needed to tap-dance harder, always harder. And I needed that warm haven alcohol granted me to shut down the show every night.

Emma

“Thank you, it’s good to see you, I’m so sorry for your pain, is there something I can do to help?”  — fluffy phrases like those, they were useless. James Dean and Emma Peel sure AF didn’t waste time on shit like that, and I wasn’t going to, either. I was going for badassery, not nice girl.

Flash forward through hitting bottom, getting sober, and staying sober 23 years; toss in a Near Death Experience (NDE) and 15 paranormal after-effects that have happily married to my every thought an awareness of the afterlife and omnipresent spirit world, and you have a grateful woman who views life quite differently.

Kindness is everything.  It’s why we’re here.

Writing for the Seattle IANDS newsletter this past year, I’ve interviewed six people who, like me, have died and come back with memories from the other side.  All bring back the same message of kindness; so did all the NDE speakers I heard at the IANDS conference this past summer.

These people, who told me their stories over Skype, had died in various ways: in car accidents, from severe illness, drug overdose, hyponatremia and other causes.

Life after Life: Artwork by Cory Habbas

After recognizing their own lifeless bodies below them, several encountered spirits who showed them “life reviews” — more or less movies covering their lives from birth to the present, except that now they could feel the experience of everyone their actions touched.

For every person who has reviewed their life with loving spirit guides, the focus has centered on one issue only: did they help or harm?  Were they loving or selfish?  In most life reviews, NDErs were shown how the kindness or cruelty they passed to others, even in the most casual interactions, rippled out throughout the world to endless effect.

For example, Howard Storm, an atheist prior to his NDE, an ordained pastor since, told me this:

“They showed me episodes starting when I was born. Watching each scene, I could feel not just my feelings but the other people’s…. Events I thought of as the entire goal and purpose of my life got passed right over — first art exhibit, big promotion, zzzip!

“They’d say, ‘Let’s get to something really important!’ and show me interacting with my kid or talking with a student. There I’d be sitting in my office with a student coming to me with a personal problem, and I’d be looking compassionate, but on the inside bored out of my head, you know, checking the ole’ watch under the desk and thinking, ‘I don’t have time to listen to this drivel all day!’  I could feel that my lack of compassion and kindliness for others caused [my guardian angels] great sadness. They never said ‘That’s good, that’s bad,’ but I could feel it – almost as if I were gut-punching them.”

True kindness is the flower of love.  Love is what animates our bodies and, in fact, what powers the totality of the universe. Notice that Howard faked caring toward the student who opened his heart to him. The student couldn’t read Howard’s selfishly impatient mind, but god and the guardian angels could! What gut-punched them was Howard’s indifference — his missed opportunity to share the flowers of Love.

Another NDEr, Barbara Ireland, told me this:

“I said, ‘If I choose go with you, what happens to all my half-done screenplays, to all the music I want to put out?’ And the voice answered, ‘Oh, Barbara, those things don’t really matter!’ And I was like, ‘—Really?!’  It said, ‘What matters are relationships. If your work opens someone’s heart or connects you to them, then, yes, it’s valuable. But the main thing is what you leave behind you in everyday life, like the wake of a boat on the water. Do you leave behind happiness, do you lift people up? Or do you judge them, bring them down, compete, compare yourself with them?”

Recovering alcoholics, life reviews should ring a bell with you.  Of what could this possibly remind us, this looking back at one’s life to see where we’ve shown up in a spirit of compassion, kindness, and usefulness to others, versus where we acted with selfish indifference?  Hmm…

Could it be Steps 4 & 5 — seeing how our self-centeredness, our resentments, our fears kept us from offering love and tolerance? When we read a thorough Step 5 with a wise sponsor, we’re getting the benefit of a Life Review without having to die.

For me, working Steps 4 through 9 brought amazing freedom. Recognizing the fear-driven blinders my ego kept putting on me, then extending human decency to those I had harmed — these actions sprang me out of the guilt and shame of knowing I’d left a trail of garbage behind me. They cleared away burden I’d been drinking to ease time and time again.

Kindness brings self worth. When we grant every person who crosses our path dignity and respect, whether we silently wish them well, offer a smile, or go so far as seeking to be of service, we’re becoming that “channel of thy peace” that opens the Saint Francis prayer.  As god flows through us, the light we convey to others heals us as well.  AA’s “one alcoholic helping another” is founded on this very freebie.

Sometimes others aren’t ready to receive the goodwill we offer.  Oh well.  Flowers emanate beautiful scents and colors regardless of whether any bees are around.  It’s just what they’re here to do.

 

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Filed under Alcoholism, God, NDE, Near Death Experience, Recovery, Self-worth, Spirituality

Stepping Out in Faith & Courage

Newly sober alcoholics are crippled. For years or decades we’ve relied on a tool for navigating life — an easy exit to that buzzed state where problems shrink — and suddenly we’re robbed of it.  How to live in this bald, unrelenting world without escape?  That’s the impasse we face day by day, even minute by minute during the first weeks and years of sobriety.

The short answer is faith. And faith sounds like jack shit to most newly sober drunks. Because the irony is, it takes faith to build faith. We’re used to considering evidence first and then weighing whether an action is likely to work in our favor. Faith means we step out knowing nothing and see what happens.  Our actions are based in trust rather than reason.

Eventually, faith gets easier to muster as it builds up evidence of its own: I acted in good faith and was taken care of.  I ask god to help me stay sober today, and I’ve not had to drink/ use/ act out for X days/ years. Faith works! Gradually, witnessing as much firsthand over and over, we begin to trust faith — perhaps even more than we trust our practical minds.

The Faith to Adventure
I had a dramatic experience with faith last week in the middle of the Mount Baker- Snoqualmie wilderness of the Cascade mountains.  As some of you know, I’m an avid thru-hiker (hike –> camp –> hike).  This year, at kind of the last minute, my friend Sally had to drop out of our planned 8-day thru-hike from Stevens Pass to Rainy pass on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

I decided to go it alone. The trail covers 127 miles, gaining and losing 32,000 feet of elevation.  It’s known as the 2nd toughest section on the entire PCT (the toughest being the JMT).  I found it much, much harder than I’d anticipated to cover 17-20 miles a day with a 40-lb pack (which shrank slowly as I ate food), climbing/descending sometimes a vertical mile, day after day.  I’m 58, BTW.

But I did it.

Many women have asked me how I can hike alone in the wilderness. They fear predators both animal and human, exposure to heights, creek crossings, and the sheer self-reliance of solitude too much to try such a trek.  How can I feel safe, even happy, out there in the wild?

My short answer, again, is faith.  But it’s also love.  I love the wilderness so intensely, there’s just no room in my heart for fear.

True, I felt a little lonesome until I got outside the range of chatty, clean day hikers and entered the true backcountry. There I shifted my focus away from humans, instead talking out loud to critters, plants, trees, and god.  The glow in my heart grew stronger and stronger, as did my faith that other living entities could sense it.  To take this timed selfie, for instance, I pinned back a shrub blocking my lens.  I’d finished and was just starting to hike on when I ran back, unpinned it, and said, “Sorry!”

But even loving hearts need boundaries, whether for toddlers or wild things.  I love bears (two years ago I surprised one who graciously ceded the trail) and mountain lions, but even so I sang a lot and kept a trekking pole with me constantly. I radiated a boundary: Don’t fuck with me. You may win, honey, but not til I’ve made sure you regret it!  I meant it.  I knew no creature would attack me, animal or human, unless it was mentally ill.  Besides, humans who victimize others rarely have the guts or stamina to hike far into the wilderness.

A Miracle on the Trail
Such was my mindset when my right knee gave out about 60 miles into my trip, with about 60 miles left to hike and no roads near. I’ve made a video that covers the barest facts of this experience – that I began to get flashes of intense, crazy nerve pain flaring in that joint, first intermittently and then repeatedly, making me gasp and cry out.

I could not walk.  I stopped.  I was carrying an inReach satellite communicator to check in with loved ones each night, loaned by a friend, which featured an SOS beacon.  I could toggle to emergency, push a button, and wait however long it took for rescue to arrive.

Instead, I shifted to the world of spirit.

…except at altitude on steep terrain

In front of me stood a huge grand fir – a type of evergreen with roots entirely underground. It was as though our eyes met — the tree’s and mine.  At this high elevation of 4,500′ where trees grow slowly, I knew it had to be a thousand years old. Also flashing through my mind was recent research finding, for instance, that matriarchal trees send moisture along their roots to sustain neighboring seedlings, exhibiting far more “consciousness” than humans have understood.

So I approached this tree as a matriarch who had channelled god’s energy for a thousand years. With a humility possible,  I think, only to someone crippled after four days of solo hiking, I put both hands on her trunk, touched my forehead to the surface between them, and called to her silently, “Are you there?”

Into my consciousness came the tree’s energy — I am.

I’ve had enough post-NDE experiences to distinguish thoughts sent to me from those I generate. You can say “bullshit,” or you can trust that I’m not a moron and keep reading.

Tears were streaming down my face. I thought to her, with a reverence for the millennium she’d witnessed as opposed to my own brief and absurdly self-absorbed life: “Can you ask god to help me?”

The response was instant, but not what I wanted. It filled my mind as a knowing, an unchanging principle, just as vibrations of a tuning fork fill the air:

Every life must ask directly.

I countered as if in conversation with thoughts of my shyness, unworthiness, and that I’d gotten myself into this predicament.  The tree “heard” none of this.  It continued to emanate at the same frequency, unchanged: Every life must ask directly.  Of the three elements in that principle — life, asking, and directness — the last seemed to linger longest.

I thanked her.  I tried to walk on, oh so carefully.  I’d made only a few steps when the pain blared again — WAAAHHHHH!!!! — and with it came a realization of my own: “I’m totally screwed!”

I didn’t take off my pack.  I didn’t sit down or even close my eyes.  I just stood there on the trail, gushing tears as I always do in prayer, and spoke inwardly to god. To be totally honest, I felt like a child braced for the same disappointing response all my terrified acrophobia-on-the-mountainside prayers incur: “You got yourself up, child; you can get yourself down.”  That, or maybe something blunt like, “Use the beacon, silly!”

Even so, I reached for god with my tenderest heart. I apologized first that I knew all this was my own fault because ego had played a role in getting me here, but I also “reminded” god how intensely I loved the living beauty of the wilderness, how much this trip meant to me.  Then I asked, directly, as the tree had instructed, Can you give me some guidance?

At almost the same instant that I asked, my mind began to fill with instructions, as if they were downloading from some external source.  I got so excited!  I knew so many things in that second that I’d not known the second before!

None of this information came in words. We all know our physical bodies well, so the references were to my own conceptions of these parts. I had strained my inner thigh.  “No I haven’t!” came from my brain.  “It’s fine — doesn’t hurt a bit!”  God reminded me of a move I’d made in my tent that morning that had hurt in that spot — and there was so much love with this correction, with each instruction: love, love, love!  I was told to put my foot up on a rock or log and stretch it gently.

To my amazement, I found my adductor muscle so tight at first that I (a ballet dancer) could not raise my leg more than about 2 feet.  I was also told to use my trekking pole to put pressure on another spot.  No words — just my familiar idea of the dent under my kneecap on the inside.  I was told to stop and repeat both these actions frequently — what I decided meant every 500 feet.

There had been a third instruction from the outset, but only when I’d stretched and pressed about 6 or 8 times, walking between with zero pain, did I “hear” details of how I should follow it.  This idea pertained to a little velcro loop I’d packed for no reason. It might have originally come with my air mattress to keep it rolled up, but in any case, I’d decided at least twice not to bring it.  Somehow, it ended up in my pack anyway.  At various camps I’d pull it out and roll my eyes: “Why did I bring this?!”

THIS is why! god seemed to answer, referencing all the above with love, love, love.  Wrap it on that spot, tightly but not too tightly.

My brain thought, “That’ll do nothing!”  Duh!  I’d used knee braces many times on lesser injuries; they helped only to the degree that they immobilized the joint, whereas to descend  from this elevation, I’d have to bend my knee to at least 90 degrees hundreds of times, with my weight and the weight of pack crashing down as many times amid rocks, fallen trees, and rough terrain.  What could a little mattress roll-up holder possibly do to mitigate that?!

But my spirit was told, You will be healed.  The knowing came that this band would act similarly to kinetic tape, except that while tape attracts attention from the brain to heal a given area, this little band would attract spiritual attention, my own and god’s, to heal my knee miraculously.

My brain disbelieved, but that’s what I heard, a promise my spirit dared to trust.  You will be healed. You will be healed.  The knowing echoed like a mantra every time I confronted a challenge — a two-foot drop on the trail, a fallen log I had to jump down from, a slip and arrest.

My knee, my spirit, my god, and that little velcro band kept on descending and descending over the next hour and a half.  No pain.  Before I knew it, we’d reached Milk Creek, elevation about 3,000′.  I took this photo to commemorate the miracle.

DSC05885

I am astounded.  I’m thinking, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

 

Over the next three days, I hiked 60 more miles on that knee. I never experienced pain again.  Sure, it throbbed like mofo at night, but so did my feet, ankles, hips, neck, and shoulders. I had to take a lot of ibuprofen just to sleep. But never again did it pain me me on the trail.  Not once.

My message for alcoholics and addicts of various modes is that we can all experience two conflicting convictions at once.  The brain can insist, “It’ll never work!” while the spirit resolves to act as though perhaps it will — on faith — and see what happens.  At every step of my recovery from alcoholism, I doubted:  “Faith is nothing but pretend!  The steps are nothing but mumbo-jumbo!  I’ll never not want to drink, never stop feeling less-than and judgmental and scared of life!”

And yet, I ventured ahead in faith and courage to follow the advice of sponsors and old timers from AA meetings, just as I reached out to a tree for help, just as I bracketed my doubts of god’s guidance and did precisely what I was told.  We don’t have to believe it (with our skeptical minds).  We just have to do it (with our spirit’s courage).  The miracle will happen.

We can be guided toward growth and sometimes even healed.  Because god is real, and god does stuff for those who ask — directly.


Video telling the story.  Also available at  https://youtu.be/McRi8zbW0TY

Photos from my trip:

Mica Lake, the camp above which my knee first twinged. Note how the reflection polarizes glare from the smoke particles.

Mica Lake from the granite slab where I got water

Me with fellow PCTers waiting for a boat as part of a forest fire detour

 

Bridge out on  loud, raging creek so I climbed across on the railings. 

Approaching Cloudy Pass

Me with some background peaks you could see if it weren’t so damn smoky.

Me emerging at my goal on time – 127 miles and 8 days later. I lost 6 pounds despite eating constantly.

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Filed under Alcoholism, Faith, God, Happiness, NDE, prayer, Recovery, Spirituality

We Are NEVER Too Well for AA Meetings

I recently had a chance to tell none other than Bill Gates, who went to my high school and was at my 40th reunion, that I had 23 years sober. “Impressive!” he remarked.  He’d just told me that a mutual friend of ours, a venture capitalist and hilarious jokester on the school bus back in the day, had died — overdosed on fentanyl-laced heroin after many years clean.

Yet when I told him I still go to weekly AA meetings, Gates looked baffled: “Really?!” he said, drawing back sharply.  Even as I explained that exactly what had happened to our friend Keith could happen to me at any time with booze, he still looked incredulous.

Here’s one of the deadliest afflictions known to humans, killing 6% of the global population every year (WHO), and this man, who, through the Gates Foundation, has done more to battle diseases worldwide than anyone else on the planet, had no inkling of alcoholism’s lifelong grip.

Sometimes I think ours is the most misunderstood illness in the world, and AA the most misunderstood cure.

Getting Too Well?
Of course, there’s a part of every sober alcoholic that agrees with Gates. A part of me agrees daily, claiming, “Louisa, clearly you’ve got this thing beat!  Look at how accomplished and sensible your life is now!  Waking up in somebody else’s bed with Cheetos orange around your mouth and a hangover from hell–? That is just sooo not gonna happen anymore!”

The result of this voice is that, as I type this, I’ve not been to an AA meeting for nigh on three weeks.  A week ago, I was supposed to chair one and forgot.  And I’ve not posted a new blog here for almost two months.

Why?  Partly for good reasons.  When I got sober in 1995, I couldn’t imagine what I was going to DO now that I couldn’t drink alone while scrawling boy-obsessive drivel in my journal, or drink in bars while bending indifferent ears, playing darts, pool, or pinball.  Take all that away, and what else was there to life?

As sobriety gradually revealed, within me were talents and loves neglected like withered, leafless plants.  Before alcohol took over, I’d danced, hiked, and written.  AA reopened the flow of love my heart was dying for, slowly at first via people in meetings, and then, as I worked the steps, through my own dilating portal to god. The elixir of life — godlove — watered my spirit so those dried up, nearly dead talents sprouted fresh leaves and blossomed again.

Sobriety, as a result, has been anything but dull.  Today, these loves fill up much of my life.

About two weeks ago, I was dancing onstage in a ballet recital — at a week shy of age 58.  Godlove let me bond with my troupe, mainly teenage girls and twenty-something women.  There was a moment in the dressing room when all nine of us gathered around my phone, which was playing the one disjointed moment of our dance.  “We lunge there,” I said, “on the low note.”  I’ll never forget the solemn way their eyes met mine, not because I’m old and bossy, but because we needed unity and they trusted my cue.

We aced it.

Performing (on right)

Warming up before dressed rehearsal (on right)

The weekend before, three sober women friends and had I attempted Mount Adams — a 12K’ volcano four hours’ drive from home.  Thunderstorms forced us to camp at the trailhead rather than base camp and shoot for the summit the next day, when high winds and whiteout above 9K’ turned us back.  Still, we had a blast getting rained on, climbing, and taking turns “losing enthusiasm” as we tried to find shelter from the icy winds.  Here are three of us at 9K’ pulling our “bikini bitches” stunt of pretending it’s not frickin’ FREEZING just long enough for photos.

Suck in tummy award to me, center 😉

The day after my recital, I climbed Mailbox Peak, a 4K’ gain, with my friend Sally and brand new boyfriend, Tommie.  (That’s right, after years of tortuous dating, I finally met the right guy. ❤   More later.)

Then, just a few days ago, I summited a backcountry wilderness peak, Mount Daniel, with just Sally.  The two of us camped at a frozen lake and navigated this route in partial white-out:

Mount Daniel east peak via SE Ridge .

Our route followed the ridge above Sally’s head!

But it’s not all been ballet, boyfriend, and beauteous mountains!  Life happened, too.  My house’s sewer system went kaput, upsetting my — er — delicate financial balance.  To safeguard that balance, I had, in previous weeks, overtaxed my gift for writing, agreeing to edit super-human quantities of text amid an already full work schedule and to conduct and write up an NDE interview for the Seattle IANDS Newsletter.

Long story short: I’ve been so busy savoring/exploiting the flowers of sobriety that I’ve neglected to water their roots.

I should know better.  Around me, dear friends I never dreamed would die or get hooked on alprazolam (Xanax) are doing just that.  One, a former drug and alcohol counselor, is a ghost of his former self, with hollowed-out eyes and tales of demons.  The other, who landed his dream life — wife, kids, big house in the burbs — became addicted to anti-anxiety meds prescribed for his stress over huge mortgage and daycare payments.

How did these friends change from the happy, joyous, and free sober people I knew fifteen years ago in AA meetings?  Both got “too well” for AA — the same tempting path I’ve wandered down these past weeks.

Ironically, the same drive that energizes me to pursue so many activities and take on added responsibilities can kill me if not balanced with humility before my god.

As an addict, I am permanently geared to chase feel-good.  As a co-dependent, I scent feel-good when I say “yes” to people and things, so I say it more and more: YES — I’ll be in the recital!  Climb mountains!  Edit your humongous text!  So what if I’m losing my mind?!

The trouble is, without the humility that god-awareness brings, I cannot be in feel-good; I can only chase it.  No matter how much I get, I want more.  And there’s another problem with feel-good.  The flip side of genuine satisfaction is the trophy-hunting of ego — addiction to the story of adventures, to LIKES on Facebook or Instagram, to praise for fabulous texts and newsletters.

Hey, whatever primes the dopamine pump — right?  I’ll take any hit I can get!  So let’s think: who could it be spurring  this constant chase, urging me to take on more and more?  It’s my old buddy, addiction — disguised, like a villain behind a fake mustache, as enthusiasm and responsibility. It’s refrain?  “We’re so close to feeling good!”

Ultimately, going to AA meetings is like prayer: both require and reinforce humility — that bane of our ego-oriented culture — by freely admitting, “I lack.”  Only when I embrace the fact that I’m a tiny shard of god who can thrive solely via connection do I remember my true mission on earth: to love.  Overcommitting, I leave no time to dwell in that truth.  I’m too busy chasing brain candy.

Anytime I imagine my addiction to be a thing of the past, I jeopardize everything precious to me, everything alcoholism once took away and wants to take again.  I may not wake up with Cheetos-mouth, but I will wake up guided by the very same ego that led me to it.

Bill Gates has no need to acknowledge the deep power of alcoholism, but I do.  Tomorrow I chair a women’s AA meeting.  The next night, I’ll be at my homegroup after meeting with a sponsee.  These commitments, unlike others, allow me to relinquish my illusions of control and seek serenity though god.  It’s what I do.  It’s what I need.  It’s who I am.

PS: Short video of our Mount Daniel climb, 6/30 – 7/1/18 (sobriety ain’t boring!):

Car ride to Mount Adams with AA girlfriends 6/16/18 😀 (feeling close while stone cold sober):

 

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What’s it all for?

When I drank, my life was always dramatic — at least to me.  Everything was a big deal.  Drinking both fueled and helped defuse that.  If someone was mad at me, if I’d behaved inappropriately, if some asshole had robbed me of a goal or privilege rightly mine, my emotions would rollercoaster up and down huge swells of anger and careen around curves of righteousness before finally winding down to the self-pity platform to which all things led: poor me.

Booze, by Buddy Nicholson

But in those days, I had a best buddy, wine, along an array of other pals — beer, the gin & vodka twins, and all those whiskey relatives. We’d hang out and they’d fix everything.  Actually, they’d fix my brain; everything else stayed exactly as it had been. But by muting my amygdala so the fear subsided and by impairing my frontal lobe so that all thoughts simply led back to me, drunkenness let me feel brokenly triumphant.  Fuck them.  Fuck everything.

In those days, everything I had going for me was external — or so I believed.  What mattered was out there, so I was constantly keeping score: first it was grades and teachers, then published stories, then impressing my students, and eventually, as my life spiraled downward and I quit teaching to focus on drinking — I mean, writing! — it became impressing all the “cool” cats at the tiny espresso shop where I worked.

Mind you, everything that went on in that espresso shop was colossally big news!  Who was getting together with whom, new policies about whether you could eat behind the counter, hirings and firings.  In the end my main drama centered on the fact that my life partner had read my journal, caught me cheating emotionally, and promptly left, so now I couldn’t pay the mortgage with my joke of a job, even if my shifts hadn’t been cut for coming in stoned.

Drinking enough to make that no big deal nearly killed me.

When I got sober, my focus gradually shifted to who I was within and whatever linked that spirit to a higher power — to goodness in the world.  At first, of course, I had no idea the 12 steps were effecting that change.  I just went through them with a sponsor and discovered harmful patterns in my thinking and behaviors, asking my higher power to help me outgrow them.  And as I began to lay aside increasingly subtle versions of these once precious “coping skills” — deception, manipulation, knowing best (pride), envy, and my favorite, self-pity — the ride of living smoothed out.  A lot.

Today, I have no crises. I don’t wish I were somebody else.  Sobriety’s granted me huge gifts: I’m performing in two ballet recitals this spring and climbing three glaciated mountains this summer, so my life is full.  My home, health, work, son, and friendships are all good.

But smooth sailing can be frickin’ difficult for an alcoholic!!  Without that clamoring, overflowing bucket of piddly-shit drama to seize my attention day after day, my gaze drifts to the horizon and I wonder, what am I doing?  What’s my life for?

I’m getting older.  I haven’t made any big splash lately.  My son has grown up, my dog is old, I have no partner.  What stands out with increasing clarity is that I will disappear from this planet in a number of years.  How many is unknown, but every day I’m closer.  What will my life have meant?

Here’s where near-death experience comes in.  I am so blessed that the inexplicable paranormal phenomena stacking up in my life finally led me to the Seattle branch of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS), and that I hold a service position there of interviewing near-death experiencers and writing up their stories for our newsletter (snailmailed only at this point, sorry). Every other month, I get to Skype with someone who has, like me, died and come back with wisdom to share.

On the other side, when they are pure spirit, many know their life’s purpose. There’s a role we’re each here to play, and they’re shown theirs.  Yet when they come back, they remember knowing, but they can’t remember what!  This “forgetting” seems to be the price of embodiment.  Enclosed in bodies, we lose 99% of our conscious connection to the expanding web of creation that is god. With little to go on but our hearts and the gossamer strands of love that link us to other hearts, we’re something of a lost boat, a tiny shard trying to work out its place in a 13.8-billion-year unfolding.

When one NDEr was given the choice to stay in the spirit realm or return to her body, she asked what would become of all her half-done life’s work if she died. “None of that matters,” she was told. “What matters is connections. If your work helps someone to strengthen their relationships with others or even to know themselves better, it has value.  The important thing is the wake you leave behind you in the waters of life.  Do you leave a wake of love… or of indifference?”

That’s our job — to love others and love god by generating gratitude for this spectacular pageant of life on Earth. My life is not about what accolades go up on my mental mantlepiece.  It’s about the people (and other beings) I love and the ripple effect of loving them, which touches countless lives of people I will never meet.

     Olympic games site, then & now

Humility is also key.  In 1995, when I was about 100 days sober, I visited the site of the first Olympic Games — alone.  Wandering from the ruins, which date from 776 BC, I took a nap under a gnarled tree. And when I woke, looking out at the meadow where a sign indicated the Greek athletes’ housing had once stood (6), used centuries later as Roman soldiers’ quarters before god knows what in the Dark Ages, I had a sort of vision. I saw with time-elapse speed hundreds of trees germinating, growing large, and dying; buildings going up and falling to ruin; people slaughtering each other and making love — all in this very same meadow while its grass sprouted green and then dried to yellow over and over, 2,771 times.

The years, I saw, cycled through just like waves on a beach.  So did human lives.  I was no less transient than a blade of grass — but one with a plentitude of choices.

Ultimately, the purpose of my life has to be turned over to god every day as a part of Step Three. In my own version of the famous Merton prayer, I tell god, “I can’t see what I’m doing, but I love you.  Please lead me wherever I can do your will, and lend me the courage and grace to do my best there.”

Life is no more and no less that that.  And that is enough!

 

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Filed under Afterlife, living sober, NDE, Recovery, Twelve Steps

Spiritual but not Religious – what does that mean?

“Spirituality and religion are often used interchangeably, but the two concepts are different. Spirituality involves humans’ search for meaning in life [and is] subjective, intangible, and multidimensional…, while religion involves an organized entity with [pre-established] rituals and practices about a higher power….”

Ruth A. Tanyi, 2002

 

God is not a religious concept, yet the vast majority of people seem to assume it is. To me, this conflation is not only frustrating but dangerous.

Why dangerous?  The authority religion once wielded in our culture has been waning for over two centuries.  That’s fine by me.  While religion itself is neither good nor bad, humans have used it to justify so much wrongdoing that its myths smack of hypocrisy.  The trouble is that many modern day people who reject religion throw out the baby with the bathwater. That is, because they see the constructs of religion as a hoax, they assume god must be a hoax, too.

In a godless universe, many abandon their search for an ever-expanding
meaning in life. “There’s nothing out there,” they decide, “so it’s just me against the world.”  With that attitude, they grow deaf to spirit’s call to actively love the world, to grow our compassion and act on it, and to nurture our talents so we can birth our unique contributions to the flow of life.

Why are 25% of US women my age currently taking antidepressants?*  In my opinion, that number has shot up, not clinically, but because so many are spiritually starved. Lack of faith, I believe, complements fear and self-centeredness: What’s in it for me? and My actions don’t matter lead ultimately to cynicism, emptiness, and despair.

Admittedly, I know quite a number of moral atheists and once considered myself one. These people do love, maybe even strive to help others and live with honor, but they shy away from examining WHY. Press them and they’ll offer some truism like, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”  But what defines “right”?

As a young atheist myself, I remember getting super annoyed with 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when I read his three stages of individual actualization: 1) living for selfish pleasure, 2) living in the in-between place of ethics, and 3) taking a leap of faith.

In those days, I wanted ethical life to be the most awake state of mind. “There is no God, but I do good anyway” struck a chord of individual courage. I imagined us ethical folks blazing a noble trail through life without sticking to the trodden lanes of religion.

But Kierkegaard, that asshole, pointed out that to live by ethics is to live in an either/or state, torn between what we crave to do and what we sense we should do. If we really looked into that inner sense of what’s “right,” we would recognize the call of goodness itself and open our hearts to it fully.  There, he said, we would find god.

Well… actually, Kierkegaard said “God,” and for him that meant Christianity complete with Jesus’ resurrection and the whole kit and kaboodle.  The leap of faith, Kierkegaard said, was to abandon objective criteria and embrace instead the non-rational truth of religion.

Hubble: Sombrero galaxy

Spirituality
So… I hop off that bus at the paragraph before last.

My leap is not to religion, but to a view of the universe that mainstream culture still dismisses as nutty. It’s based on my own near-death experience, when I left my physical body and glimpsed the other side, along with the 14 paranormal experiences that followed, and corroborated by thousands of other NDErs led to the same truth: Love powers the universe.

Love powers the universe is, to my thinking, the only true north we need to orient meaningful lives. For me, that means having faith in the god I experienced as overwhelming love in the light of the other side.  For others, it can mean simply living in loving kindness. One’s spiritual path is one’s own — as in Buddha’s dying advice to “be a lamp unto yourself.”

Spirituality in AA
I find it frustrating every time I hear AA referred to a “religious organization”or even one affiliated with religion.  Much of the public at large seems sorely misinformed on this point.  For example, the film The 13th Step claims to be “a stark expose… of AA’s disempowering 12-Step belief system, whereby members must agree to become subservient to a higher power…”

What a bunch of crap!

The 12 steps don’t present a “belief system.”  They’re offered as a roadmap for self-evaluation and growth:  1. Is alcohol kicking your ass? 2. Is your life (getting) batshit crazy?  3. Ask whatever your heart trusts in to guide you and 4. try looking at the stories you tell yourself about your life 5. so you can reality-check them with someone objective and against your ultimate sense of truth, then 6. get ready to change and 7. ask for help changing and fucking mean it.  8. Figure out whom you’ve hurt and 9. go ask them if you can set it right. 10. Keep checking on yourself for bullshit rationalizations and 11. keep seeking your god and 12. if you’re getting well, help others do the same.

As the appendix on spiritual experience tells us, “With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.”  How is this subservience?

On the other hand, if I’d tried to get sober in the bible belt, I’d probably be dead now, because it’s likely that many AAers in Christian-dominated regions do present AA as a Christian-based recovery.  How sad!  I could not have absorbed something so counter to my own sense of truth — not even to save my life.

*          *          *

I have a Facebook friend across the world in Turkey, a self-employed floor polisher who saw me in this film and reached out to me about life after death, which he calls the real reality. Raised Muslim, Uğur Hakanoğlu has independently studied ancient texts from which the Quran was assembled, searching for spiritual truths. Perhaps because his conviction must leap the language barrier between us, what he writes to me always resonates powerfully:

“Some people are thinking they are atheist, but they only hate wrong human religion that humans made…  Church, mosque, and other areas [are] like lying machines. They are [to] earn money and they don’t say true…  We have to respect all lifes, like god.  Ignorance and fear, they are guns.  All bad minds use these two guns…

“Life is not earn, Louisa.  Life is Love, in my mind.  When we go to the forest or seaside, we take photo or video, we are choosing not to live. Everything is telling us his/her life, telling what I am and why I am here, but we don’t listen. We are only looking, not seeing.  Sea, tree, sun — everything telling us only about love.  Love change all mind.  There are no borders, no nationality.  If I have good English, I will say more.”

Of course, not every aspect of religion is a “lying machine,” and many religious people are deeply loving, humble, and sincere. In AA as in all experience, loving all is what heals, as much as being loved.

 

PS: I’ll be giving an hour-long talk, telling my NDE story and reflecting on it, at the International Association of Near-Death Studies annual conference August 30th, 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. in Bellevue, WA.  Conference details here.

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

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