Category Archives: Happiness

Hope

“It Gets Better”

I tried so hard all the while I was drinking.  I wanted to live a good life, to do well, to impress others.  I tried my damnedest to figure out what that project called for and to make it happen.  The Big Book calls this effort “self-propulsion,” the attempt to arrange people and circumstances so that we’ll get what we want.

I failed.  That beautiful life I yearned for stayed just out of reach.  I got good grades, looked pretty, earned degrees,  attracted partners, clinched jobs and bought stuff — a car, my dream home.  To bring about temporary relief, I drank every kind of booze I could find, smoked weed, took pills, snorted coke — but still wound up longing to die, to give up.

I identified as atheist — even though I’d had a Near Death Experience (NDE) at 22 during which I’d encountered god.  That’s pretty rare — an atheist who’s journeyed to the light.  But as I approached hitting bottom, as I threw life away ever more recklessly during those last months of drinking, god stepped in again and slapped me upside the head.

God shows up in virtually every NDE as a brilliant white light that radiates an intensity of love beyond earthly imagining.  But that doesn’t mean god’s a milquetoast!  There’s a point to our being here — we’ve agreed to do something by signing up for life, for this embodiment in matter.  And in cases where we’re way off course, god will sometimes give us a nudge.

I’d driven home insanely drunk for the umpteenth time and was propping myself up with the open car door to marvel at what a badass drunk driver I was when a bolt of knowing struck me.  It shot from the starry sky, through my bones, straight into the earth.  It “said” several things at once.  Foremost was a warning: This is the last time I can help you.  God, not I, had delivered me home safe that night.

At the same time, it called bullshit on the way I was living, who I was being, what I was chasing.  It said, essentially: You DO know right from wrong.  I’d been living out the dramatic impulses of my mind, whereas god appealed to a quiet knowledge in my heart.  Even deeper, like the resonance of a bass note, came god’s reality check: We both know you can do better.

I got sober two weeks later.

Next, I tried so hard in early sobriety.  I went to meetings trying to look and sound good.  I got a sponsor and worked the steps.  I prayed… a little.  And things definitely did get better.  I began to stumble on moments of serenity — though for the most part, I still hurt.  Being me still entailed a lot of suffering because I still gave credence to all those head-voices claiming I wasn’t good enough.  I still chased the friendship of (sober) cool kids who didn’t include me in stuff.  Alone, I felt worthless and abandoned.  This went on for… let’s say nine years.

Was I still failing?

Not anymore.  Now I had hope.  Every day, every week, every month… I got a little bit better.  “Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly,” my life transformed.  Quickly, I stopped trying to manipulate people (as much) or circumstances (as insistently) and grew more honest.  Quickly, I learned to share my honest thoughts and feelings with a sponsor and close friends.  Quickly, I adopted the rudiments of service work by helping out my home group and sponsoring women.

God, meanwhile, kept getting in my face to say, “Hey — I’m real.”  That’s largely what my addiction memoir is about — god getting in my face repeatedly through paranormal events, refusing to let up until my resistance finally collapsed and I promised, “I’ll never deny you again!”

Slowly, my primary dwelling place shifted from head to heart.  Oh so slowly, I began to sense my own inner knowing.  I found my source, my spiritual wellspring, as an energy that flows outward from me whenever I serve as a conduit for god’s love.  I learned that seeking opportunities to channel this love is not only the purpose of my life but, inseparably, what grants me a degree of strength and joy beyond anything my mind can manufacture.

I’ve found home within myself.  God visits me there.  We’re good.

Life is precious.  People are cute.

Shit in general seems way less complicated than it used to.

Sometimes, though, I still get lonely.  Last night, for instance, I’d anticipated my son staying with me when he wasn’t.  I had no energy.  I “relapsed” into missing my ex.  Melancholy knocked.  So I called a friend who’d been struggling but is doing better now and was happy with him for the good turns his life’s taken.  And when another friend stopped by to pick up a Gopro he’d loaned me, I asked him in so we could visit.

These contacts couldn’t alleviate my loneliness, but they let me make friends with it.  Turning in for the night, I told myself: “We’re just tired from that insanely tough climb a few days ago.  And we’re impatient to find a partner.  That’s just life.  It’s okay.”

My message to you, dear reader, is that wherever you find yourself on this journey called sobriety, so long as you keep working your program and seeking god’s guidance in all your choices, you’re growing.  You’re better today than you were last year.  Little by little, you will find your wholeness.

I know it can often look as if life’s easier for others.  It’s not.  Being human is hard work.  We alcoholics just effed it up so royally that god gave us Cliff Notes in the form of the Big Book.  All the secrets of a good life are housed between its covers.

One day at a time, one habit at a time, one kindness at a time, we move out of the darkness and toward the light.  Hold fast to your hope.  Keep going.  You’re loved beyond your wildest dreams.

 

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Change the World: Courage, Candor, Kindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Long-term Sobriety: Always Seeking

In the long haul of recovery, times come along when life’s day-to-day stressors feel overwhelming. There’s something chafing, some problem we can’t quite name. We’re still functioning okay, wearing all our hats, fulfilling our responsibilities – check!  So frankly we don’t see the need to tell anybody we feel lonely, anxious, and discontent.  Spiritual pride urges us to just wave away whatever’s up without bellyaching — we’ve survived far worse, after all.  But if we slow down enough to look inward sincerely, maybe in Step 11, we can acknowledge a growing pain around our heart, an ache almost like a sore muscle.

Here’s the root of the problem: we’ve forgotten god.  Living as societal pawns, we’ve unconsciously allowed the messages bombarding us — ads, media, faddish friends, and fluctuations of culture — to define what life’s all about.  We’ve inadvertently immersed ourselves in a world of habit and conformity, as if the externals of people, places, and things were the whole story.

Whenever we do that, our reliance on god shrinks.  And the instant god shrinks, our dis-ease takes up the slack.  Alcoholism slinks up from the unconscious, from the brain stem where it’s holed up throughout recovery, and resumes the work of making us sick.

To personify alcoholism in this way makes sense only to those who have lived with a presence in their psyche that relentlessly urges self-destruction.  It’s me, and yet it’s not me.  Its goal is to separate me from life, to poison my perceptions so that I’ll begin to resent life in the old way: as an opponent, a bully.  And what does it propose I brandish in response?

A drink.  Many drinks.  All the fuckin’-who-gives-a-shit drinks I damn well please.  Because that mental twist in my brain, which has weirdly survived 22 years of abstinence, is ever primed to plunge me back into the endless hell of resolving absolutely not to drink today — except, hey! Let’s have a drink! (and another…)

At my home group recently, several people contrasted their strong connection to recovery during early sobriety with their current sense of detachment.  Funny how early sobriety, one of the most excruciating gauntlets ever run, can be glossed over in the rose-colored glow of nostalgia! Nobody misses those early days of chemical and emotional withdrawal — the psychological equivalent of being dragged through an automated car wash naked with an all-over sunburn.  Nope.  What we so fondly recall is the free-falling dependence on god that was — in those difficult times — our sole choice.

Early sobriety is lived one day at a time.  It’s a continuous process of abandoning our own will in favor of a faith that doing so — going to meetings when we don’t want to, calling a sponsor when it feels weird, praying when we don’t know what the fuck we’re praying to — will change us for the better.

And it does!  Living by faith heals us to the point where we feel strong and useful, because people now value our opinions and trust us, so we have a new identity as a person with their shit together.

At this point, we begin to imagine our spiritual state is up to us.  Positive self-will messages surround us, from motivating Facebook memes to the ingrained self-help assumptions of our bootstrap pulling society.  Be happy: Abraham Lincoln once said — well, actually, no, he fucking didn’t!  No record exists of Lincoln ever saying folks are as happy as they make their minds up to be, but our society’s all over the idea anyway because we’d love to believe happiness is just a light switch, an app.  BING~!

In truth, happiness is an art And like all arts, it requires cultivation.  Much of that cultivation transpires in acknowledging and working through pain, discontent, and loneliness.  It entails the Honesty to admit to myself and others that I’m hurting; the Open-mindedness to believe my feelings are not facts; and, most importantly, the Willingness to implore god to help me.

I must turn toward, not away from, the pain concealed beneath my nervous discontent.  I have to wade into it.  But let me caution, there are ways to wade and ways to wallow.

If I take the hand of ego to accompany me, we’re gonna camp out in that shit and throw us a big ole pity party.  You know?  We’re gonna bitch and complain and scratch that itch, because it’s all about me and it hurts soo good to be a victim!

But if I take the hand of god, we’re looking for the path through it – and only god knows the way!  I sure as hell don’t, or I’d have taken it!  Here’s where that early sobriety piece fits in: I have to get it that I am still as helpless in combating my pain as I was at the outset of this journey:  I know only what I know, and it has brought me to this impasse.  My vision of life, not life itself, has trapped me in discontent.

I need a miracle, yes, but a miracle can be simply a new way of seeing.  What I think matters, where I’m heading, who I want to become — all these can be transformed with god’s guidance.  I have found that, when I’m most uncomfortable, it’s often because I’m morphing.

My most kick-ass morph prayers (best preceded by meditation) go something like this:

God — I hurt.  Please help me.

God — I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.  Please guide me.

God — This being human job is effing hard, I gotta say!  Show me the point!

The change, the guidance, the point usually come down to some version of…

… yet it’s inexpressibly intimate between me and god.  This is a point I wish to smash home on my readers: We loved and trusted booze.  We were stoked to hang out with booze.  Now, to thrive despite alcoholism, we have to become every bit that intimate with god, every day, every moment.  God is love.  Let it in.

Spiritual renewal is god’s work, not ours.  To continue growing, we have to humbly admit defeat and seek god’s help, same as always.  That’s choosing joy.  That keeps us sober.

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The Bedevilments vs. Grace

Here are thousands of [sober] men and women, worldly indeed. They flatly declare that since they have come to believe in a Power greater than themselves… there has been a revolutionary change in their way of living and thinking. In the face of collapse and despair… they found that a new power, peace, happiness, and sense of direction flowed into them.
 
…Is not our age characterized by the ease with which we… throw away the theory or gadget which does not work for something new which does? We had to ask ourselves why we shouldn’t apply to our human problems this same readiness. We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were a prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people— was not a basic solution of these bedevilments more important than whether we should see [an ad for some new gadget]? Of course it was…
 
Our ideas did not work. But the God idea did.
-Alcoholic Anonymous, pp. 50-52
The bedevilments sum up how life sucks for an active alcoholic – or for one dry without a solution.  Anyone familiar with the Big Book knows of them.  They make up yet another passage where the AA founders nailed our experience, so  the hurting alcoholic marvels as s/he reads, “How did they know-?”
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The bedevilments hurt like hell because they’re symptoms of our dying spirits.  Fear cuts us off from the love that would sustain us, so we languish like plants without sunlight.  Drinking temporarily soothes that pain while ego promises to fix everything by grabbing more admiration from the outside world (via  accomplishments, attractiveness, wealth, etc).  What else could possibly help us besides self-medicating and vanquishing all the assholes in our life?
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aa-80th-convention

AA’s 80th anniversary: 70,000 sober drunks from 94 nations. D’ya think this thing might work?         (click to enlarge)**

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The Way Out
This chapter, “We Agnostics,” offers an alternative:  If we replace religious ideas of God with  open-minded spirituality, we can examine the results of faith just as we would any other phenomenon – scientifically.  We see that people who adopt faith in a higher power go from the shit pile to thriving.  We see it over and over.  Linking the two events causally – is that such an illogical jump?  To say, “Hmm… looks like this faith gadget works wayyy  better than the self-reliance gadget I’ve been using” – ?
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That’s how models function in science.  We observe phenomena and devise a theory, a model that explains what’s going on.  We can’t isolate or observe faith, but we can note its effects.  Faith (and the rigorous stepwork it inspires) arrests the misery of alcoholism.  In drunk after drunk, this shit works.  We don’t have to know why.
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Still, I remember how I reacted the first time I read “We Agnostics.”  Yes, I suffered all the bedevilments (though I didn’t give a shit about not helping others), but I wasn’t going to buy the idea that what had worked for millions of other people would work for me.  No, because I was smarter.  And I hurt worse.  And the prospect of seeking god felt weirder to me than it had for those guys – obviously.  Just in general, other people were so other-peopleish!  They had nothing to do with me.  They were packed in society like canned beans, whereas I had flowered and grown on the vine of my life, bobbing in breezes and raindrops they’d never experienced.
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This is the catch-22 of getting sober in AA: we have to trust that we are like others before we can really believe it to be so.  If we trust, we can do what they did and get what they got – but at the start we don’t trust anything!  Even booze, our best buddy ever, has turned on us.  Or has it?  Maybe we should try one more time with the bootstraps and a little less bottle?  Isn’t that more likely to work than something so preposterous?
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wile-e-coyote-cliffAnd yet we try the unknown thing.  We step out into air.  There’s something in AA meetings, some energy we can’t identify that keeps us coming back.  My brain told me emphatically that AA would never work, yet my hope, my heart, and somehow my car keys carried me to meeting after meeting, where I heard people speaking authentically of ruined relationships, self-loathing, wild emotions, relentless fears, and pain-filled loneliness just like mine – that no longer ruled their lives.  I could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices: they were free.
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Grace.  What is it?  It’s defined as “unmerited divine assistance,” a gift from god we receive without earning.  The longer I’m sober, the more I see it’s all grace: every breath I take, every sensation, every emotion, every moment of being alive on this earth.  How could I “earn” any of that?  I was graced with the utter defeat of my wrecked life.  I was graced to meet the person who took me to my first AA meeting.  Graced to find myself out of answers, sick of believing my broken brain over and over, desperate enough to show up despite immense skepticism.  The short version is that I was graced with surrender: “Maybe there is something; maybe I can ask it to help me.”
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That opened the door enough for those first rays of sunlight to touch me.  duckling-graceThree steps forward, two steps back, I’ve progressed through life’s vicissitudes and cycles of stepwork to reach my own intimate experience with a god that I now love with everything in me.  Today I can see how god – that energy of love powering every element of life – is in you.  I can love you with no self-interest – no more than I have in loving a robin, or a birch tree, or a puffy white cloud shifting across the blue expanse of sky.  Look at you being you!
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And what a wonder it still is, as I come up on 22 years sober, to watch AA newcomers at the outset of their own  journey.  They come in with bedeviled pain and discontent practically scribbling the space above their chairs. Today, I get to flatly declare to them the peace, happiness, and sense of direction with which I’ve been graced – and watch them find it, too.
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 **https://rehabreviews.com/went-aas-80th-international-convention-kept-journal-become/#prettyPhoto

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Choose Life; Choose Joy

Paul Johnson was not an alcoholic, but he was extremely unhappy.  One night he drank a bunch of booze and took a bunch of pills then went up to his attic, where he hung himself.  Some time later his wife found him – quite dead.  She struggled to lift his body but failed; she had to go downstairs and get her son, the two of them panicking in their efforts to get the body down.  Though Paul’s face had turned black and he was without pulse or breathing, his wife gave him CPR for five minutes.

Then Paul took a breath.

Paul’s consciousness, far from ceasing to exist, had become exceptionally clear during the time his body was dead.  He found himself in darkness, approached from the right by four shadowy figures who showed him a review of his entire life.  “Thoughts were instantaneous. When you asked a question, you would instantly know the answers.” In a Scrooge-like transformation, Paul returned from the dead absolutely overjoyed to be alive:  “I had this vivid memory, extremely vivid, and it shouldn’t have been vivid at all for a guy that took a couple bottles of meds and drank two bottles of liquor. Yet it was so vivid and so real.  I was so happy to be alive, and to have a second chance to fulfill the things pointed out to me as being important.”

I’m in the process of editing a book of interviews with Near-Death Experiencers* – people (including me) who have died, experienced the other side, and returned with memories. Paul is one of fourteen of us interviewed by filmmaker Heather Dominguez, who has amassed the footage for a television series and is raising the money to produce it.

hooded-figureUnlike the rest of us, however, Paul did not go to the Light.  He went to blackness – a void where he existed without a body.  Far from feeling inundated with infinite love, he sensed that the four figures “wanted to take me to a darker, more horrible place.”  But as he watched the scenes of his life go by, Paul felt overwhelmed with loss.  “My biggest regrets were that I didn’t travel and see the world, and I didn’t do the things that made me happy. …It wasn’t that I missed this wedding or didn’t get this job… [It was] that I didn’t enjoy my life like I really wanted to…  As I realized that, I thought: ‘I wish I wasn’t dead!’  In that exact moment… [the experience] was over for me.”

Today, Paul lives in the Philippines with a new wife and her extended family – all of whom he loves.  He changed everything about himself and is now a man decidedly happy, joyous, and free.

Alcoholics who choose to live experience a shift analogous to Paul’s – if they commit to rigorous spiritual work to effect an internal change.  Paul’s moment of choice strongly reminds me of a favorite Big Book story in the 2nd & 3rd editions of Alcoholics Anonymous, “He Who Loses his Life.”  In it, an honors student and “boy wonder” in business named Bob has drunk his life into the ground despite plenty of intelligence and self-knowledge.  All his city friends alienated, following yet another binge he crashes in the country with a doctor he’s known since boyhood.

We worked in five below zero weather, fixing on an elm tree a wrought iron device which modestly proclaimed that he was indeed a country doctor.  I had no money – well, maybe a dime – and only the clothes I stood in.  “Bob,” he asked quietly, “do you want to live or die?”

He meant it.  I knew he did… I remembered the years I had thrown away.  I had just turned 46. Maybe it was time to die.  Hope had died, or so I thought.

But I said humbly, “I suppose I want to live.”  I meant it.  From that instant to this, nearly eight years later, I have not had the slightest urge to drink.

Bob threw himself into working the 12 steps in AA, which led him to great happiness.

Such lasting happiness can be found only by learning to love reality as it is.  To do this, we need to bring about major change in ourselves – something we can’t accomplish without help from the steps, from our fellows, and, most of all, from our god.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, drugs had just sprung lucy_in_the_sky_with_diamonds_by_alfredov90-d5tmlejinto mainstream popular culture.  As a kid listening to Beatles songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “Tomorrow Never Knows,” I imagined that drugs brought a higher awareness than just plain old consciousness – which was, for me, terribly uncomfortable. As I grew up, I embraced not just alcohol but “recreational drugs” – as if crippling my brain created anything.  I don’t know about you, but I dared to chase that vision, to venture far into the mysteries of the universe – so I sucked chemicals into my mouth and nose and lungs that essentially shoved my head up my ass, and from there I tried to marvel at the view.

It was dark.  It was lonely.  It was pointless.

I had to hit a bottom, to despair almost completely, before I could begin to see that in my search for “something cooler,” I had rejected life.  In my greediness to be loved, I had rejected loving.  And in my obsession with self, I had rejected a humble consciousness of my own soul and spirit – connection to god.

Deep down, every alcoholic knows they are committing a little bit of suicide with every drink.  We know we’re turning our backs on goodness and truth even as we laugh and whoop it up.  We vaguely sense that we’re completely full of shit, but we somehow can’t see a viable alternative.  It’s life.  Honing awareness in sobriety, I have found that plain old reality… is a trip.  It’s huge.  It’s rich.  It’s mind-blowing.

oak-treeTo love what is takes courage.  To love others without a parasitic agenda takes strength.  And to see clearly into ourselves takes humility.  I, of myself, have hardly any of the above.  But I borrow them (and more) from my god day after day, breath after breath.  I choose joy.

 

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*I’ll let you know when it comes out 🙂

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Psychic Change

Toward Alcohol

When we hit bottom in our drinking careers, we’re pretty much forced to change.  We’re truly sick and tired of being sick and tired; we recognize, however faultily, that our way is not working.  We become teachable.  That is, we’re desperate enough to try out AA’s approach even though it feels foreign, artificial, and disorienting.

For me this meant giving up the belief that I knew everything.  I’d always felt sure I could perceive the lay of the land in a snap and choose the best course, which I then acted on with chutzpah and a dash of fukitol.  Drinks made me feel better, so I frickin’ took ’em.  Certain designated figures, also known as cool people, carried what I craved, so I chased ’em.  Responsibility and integrity felt cumbersome, so I shrugged ’em off – free to follow my whims wherever they might lead!

And where was that?  Loneliness so lethal I wanted to scream for eternity and futility so rampant I wanted to break and trash and burn every fucking thing that ever touched my life – that’s where my knowing everything took me.

12 stepsAA – the supposed solution – seemed as silly as a cake walk.  The 12 Steps, anyone could see, held no more wisdom than a hopscotch grid, and yet all these AA dolts claimed that if you sincerely played hopscotch, if you landed in each arbitrarily chalked off square, you’d bust through to frickin’ Narnia or something – whatever they meant by this “4th dimension of existence.”

But since a U-turn could lead me only back to the hell, I went ahead.  I gave up control, followed directions, did the dance.  And I commenced to change – to heal and grow and behold countless unexplored and rich possibilities hitherto invisible to me.

From somewhere inside me, I began to sense a direction besides my thoughts.  They – my thoughts – were still as dumb and which-way as ever, but this new chord, this voice within – it began to lead me instead of them.  Guidance I heard and talked about in AA aligned with this voice, but did not constitute it.  Rather, I had “tapped an unsuspected inner resource” previously drown out by all the fears, demands, and clutter spewed by my ego.

I’d experienced a psychic change.  I’d begun to develop a spiritual life that edged out my craving for booze.

Toward Life Itself

“Our liquor was but a symptom,” says the Big Book, of our messed up approach to life.  If we merely take away the faulty solution of drinking, life hits us full force and feels unbearable. The lasting solution is to live on a spiritual basis which flows in tune with reality rather than fighting it.

Spiritual evolution is not a matter of content.  That is, it’s never a matter of learning X, Y, and Z, passing the quiz, and graduating.  Rather, it’s a habit of cultivating open-mindedness and reaching for growth.  In other words, the conditions for continuous growth are the same as those that freed us from compulsive drinking: I elect not to buy into my thoughts, not to obey my ego, not to fall for the idea that my way is right.  Only by turning away from these easy-to grab reflexes can I open myself to another voice – the more fundamental guidance of a higher power.

second-handDay by day, growth happens at the juncture between what I’m exposed to and how I react to it.  In that immediate crucible, I make more tiny choices than can possibly be noted, but collectively, they coalesce into a “gear” for my outlook.  I plop into good-ole self-pity or reach for seemingly impossible gratitude – though I may end up somewhere between.  What matters is whether I ask my higher power to guide those tiny choices, and whether I commit the incremental shards of my awareness to pursuing that guidance.

Growth can’t happen when ego takes over.  The world becomes scary, because if what I’ve decided is supposed to happen doesn’t, I’m gonna be screwed. There’s never enough, so I lock into my plans.  I get tunnel vision – which means I’m sealed off from potential good outside my will.  I consign myself to stagnation.

The openness of faith reminds me life is always a collaborative effort – mine and god’s.  Sure, I still plan and take action, but with built-in acceptance of whatever plays out.  Even if things fuck up and fall apart, I’ll still be okay.  My “enough” originates not from stuff or status, but from the power of god’s love flowing through me, the strength to generate and nurture and delight.

Jess and Chip

Jesse & Chip (by permission) 1 month post-flood: “The joy of living [they] really have, even under pressure and difficulty.”

Consider some dear friends of mine who moved to Wimberley, TX, last year only to lose everything they owned in a recent river flood.  One day things were dandy, and next their home was was missing two walls and contained only mud and somebody else’s overturned couch.  They had no renters’ insurance.  Can you imagine that?  I mean, can you really imagine losing everything?  Yet these are two happy and thriving, not only because they’re sober, but because they live on a spiritual basis.  They don’t lament.  They have their precious lives, their energy, their love – a flow that’s providing all they need to rebuild what was lost, even as they pitch in to help neighbors… or support a faraway friend (me) processing a painful break-up.

The psychic change to living on a spiritual basis means we accept life’s uncertainty, taking our best shot and leaving the results to god.  Failure’s fine.  It happens.  Floods happen.  Betrayals happen.  We can only keep listening for the voice within and trying to follow it toward good actions and good people, but with no guarantees.  Because, while it’s true we each reap what we sow, it’s also true we’re  scattering seeds from an unmarked, mixed bag. What will take root and flourish depends, we know, as much on the rain and sun as our work. Yet we do it anyway – and cheerfully.

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The Sower, J. F. Millet, 1850

 

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Reaching for god, Healing in the Mountains

I want to describe a moment of insight, but to get there, I’ll have to take you on a little odyssey with me.  The Enchantments are a chain of lakes carved out by glaciers in Washington’s Central Cascades – a series of cirques in pale granite amid jagged peaks so lovely you need a very elusive permit to visit in summer.  But this year, with the snow level so low, I decided to seize the chance to see them before permit season began.

I invited along a friend who recently completed the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage, walking 500 miles from St. John, France, to the cathedral of Santiago, Spain – with virtually no money.  I chose Kacie not only because she’s sober and a skilled through-hiker, but because her connection to God is knowledge rather than faith. Though she’s Christian and I’m non-religious, our spiritual convictions align perfectly.  At 33, she’s an absolutely beautiful soul.  Here we are, starting out our trip at Colchuck Lake.

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Aasgard Pass is behind us, where the trail gains 2,000 feet in 3/4 of a mile

I wanted Kacie with me not just to help me tackle this trail, but because I knew she could help me along a second, inner trek.  Maybe I’m trying to tell too much in one post, but for me, this trip was more about healing than hiking. I recently posted about having discovered that for two and a half years my alcoholic boyfriend concealed an ongoing affair with an alcoholic girl half my age – named KC, ironically enough.  Though I’m glad to have escaped with my sobriety, there’s much grief to process in losing someone you thought you loved for nine years.

Early on, I asked my Kacie for her take on my “happy” memories from those deceit-filled years with Grayson – our teasing as we played ping-pong, comparing cloud pictures as we lay in the sunlit grass, decorating our tiny Christmas tree.  She answered straight up: “You need to let go the lie before you can embrace the truth.  That was manipulation, it was false, it was poison – every minute of it.”  I knew she was right.  Her words solidified the ones hovering in my thoughts for weeks: emotional robbery, abuse, even molestation.  Because, yes, to con someone into prolonged intimacy, fully aware the truth would both horrify and repulse them, is that bad.

We hiked on.  I’d heard a lot about the dangers of climbing Aasgard Pass, with its 2,000 foot near-vertical gain.  We didn’t reach the base of the chute until 4:15.  There’s no trail per se; you scramble amid sliding talus and scree; you search above you for cairns – stacks of rock people have left to mark a course – praying nothing falls on you.  Chest-high boulders with divot toe-holds demand you heave yourself up them despite the 35 pounds on your back and hundreds of feet below you to fall.

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Kacie picking her way up the rubble

We climbed for an hour.  Two hours.  The wind picked up, and we began to encounter pockets of ice and snow.  There were times I thought I’d lost the way completely, boxed in among boulders, until I’d sight a cairn someplace seemingly impossible to reach.  Then I’d pray, find handholds, pretend I wasn’t exhausted, and heft Louisa + pack one more time.  Ten minutes later, repeat.  Finally, three and a half hours into it, a moment arrived when I rounded a rock face and recognized from the outlines of slabs against the sky that we were nearly there.  To Kacie, over the whipping wind and cataract tumbling to our right, I shouted, “We’re almost there!  We’re gonna fuckin’ do it!”

That’s when the tears came. Thank you, god.  Not just for getting me here, but for showing me I have what it takes to do this.  In the past, on all our toughest climbs, Grayson led.  But no one led me this time, not even a frickin’ trail: just god and the bright life it kindles in me.

While the sun set amid 20 mph winds and the temps dropped below freezing, Kacie and I made camp at about 7,ooo feet.  Kacie was so chilled she began dropping things, getting confused.  Our stove wouldn’t light at this altitude and the winds snapped at the tent as we pitched it.  But we were never scared – not really. I gave Kacie all my extra clothes and released enough gas from the canister to blow up a small dog before my lighter finally ignited it. Once the water boiled I told Kacie to go eat inside the tent while I made her some hot water bottles and picked up for the night.

Neither of us slept much because the elevation throws you off, but in the morning we encountered this, along with the delicate music of snowmelt everywhere running down to Aasgard Lake:

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and this:

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and lots of these guys:

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After breakfast, we packed up and set off again, like this:

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We covered about 10 miles that day, talking on and on about god, about how god has built right into us our capacity to see, feel, and appreciate beauty as a spiritual language to connect with Him/it.  Here’s are some glimpses of what we saw, did, and loved:

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Kacie took

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Among the many things Kacie said that struck me deeply was this: “The only thing God asks is that we participate in the relationship.  It’s like if I were going on this hike saying, ‘Hmm… Louisa might be with me on this hike. That might be her I see ahead of me, that could be her voice…’ but I ignored you the whole way because I wasn’t sure you were real.  I mean, what’s more hurtful than just ignoring someone who loves you?!  We do that to God all the time, and yet He just keeps loving us.  He keeps saying, I’m here when you’re ready.”

Eventually we began our descent to Snow Lake, where we’d spend our second night.  That’s when I felt something welling up in me, stronger with each step I advanced between the huge rock escarpments toward the meandering valley below.  Thoughts churned.  Why did it still hurt that Grayson had ignored my love? Why was it so hard to love myself ?

Here came the revelation: I understood, as I started bawling silently, that to love god in these mountains was to love god in me as well.  So I began saying silently to each beauty, however tiny or vast: “I love you, god.  I love you in this flower.  I love you in the tops of those trees.  I love you in that tremendous and intricate stone wall above me older than I can conceive.”  Each time I sent out this energy, whatever came back seemed to redirect my inner periscope just a tiny notch or two – away from Grayson’s insult and toward my own wealth of spirit, away from the story of what happened and toward the openness of whatever might.

I crossed some threshold.  I saw my journey was on course, that god had sent me a precious gift through every person I’ve ever loved – including Grayson. In the thousand-plus miles we covered together, he taught me most of the skills that embolden me today, skills that let me dare to venture out and meet my god in the rough and dangerous beauty of the wilderness.

What a gift!  Not just for me, but now through me to Kacie. “Churches are like big, fancy worship bathrooms,” says Kacie.  “I want to be here.  God’s Cathedral is here.”

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The next day we were met at the trailhead by kind, sober friends who drove us back to my car. The minute I got home, I showered, threw on a dress and heels, and drove to a downtown restaurant to celebrate another sober friend’s 50th birthday. We sang to him as he blushed.  Love – that same echo of god’s goodness – rang in our voices.

“God is such a show-off!” I remember Kacie saying as we hiked. “He is!  Because He has infinite beauty to show off!  Fucking infinite!  He pours it into the mountains, into this stream, into us!  He wants it  a-l-l  to be felt!”  We joked about the fears that make us check our inner share of god’s beauty, like a bird halting in mid-song for fear of fucking up.  This blog is part of my song.  I’ll show off, I’ll sing, I’ll fuck up, and I won’t apologize.  Because god put inside me what it wants me to share.

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