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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Listening for god

In my drinking days, before I was tight with god, I imagined god’s voice as an echoey Morgan Freeman cadence conveying various profundities. Today I believe more that god is all over the place, not only animating every living organism but also circulating among us in spirit forms, and it speaks to us constantly — although we’re largely deaf.

If I were to say, “God has spoken to me, and His word is blah-de-blah!” I’d have my head up my ass, no doubt.  But I have received something.  My conception of what that is comes mainly from my own NDE* and ensuing paranormal experiences, with gaps filled in by what I’ve heard from fellow NDErs.

By paranormal, I mean stuff like this: In 1999 or so, I was spacing out at the end of a freeway offramp in downtown Seattle late at night, waiting for the light to turn green.  It did so.  At the same instant, a “voice” spoke in my mind with a strong message, Don’t go.

Our brains are amazingly quick.  In a millisecond, I thought, “That’s dumb!  I’ll ignore it.” But in the next millisecond, the message came again, underscored, sort of like, DON’T GO; IT’S IMPORTANT.   So… I, well…  checked my rearview mirror.  No car was behind me. What harm could it do to just sit there?  So I just sat there… at the green light… which looked exceedingly green and all about GO.  Quite shortly, I felt foolish.  I asked the voice, “How long don’t go?”

Like this but older and faster!

WHOOSH!!!   Like a bullet fired from behind a building that blocked my view shot an off-white sedan going at least 100 mph. It streaked through the intersection exactly where I’d have been. I remember, first, being amazed that a car could fly by so fast with so little sound, and second, realizing that my life had just been saved.

I thought, “Thank you!”  Still I didn’t go.  I couldn’t.  I was too scared some car in pursuit might be next, or who knows what!  Then I began to hear sirens, first one then several, a ways off.  Shaken, I drove toward home.

Experiences like this aren’t so unusual for NDErs. According to an NDERF survey, 45% of us return with “psychic” aftereffects,** which amounts to many thousands of people. Leaving and reentering the body alters in some way the energy barrier surrounding each of us, so it’s more easily penetrated.  At least, that’s my best guess.

“How can I tell the difference between god’s will and  my will?”  That’s a question we hear in countless AA meetings. I’m gonna offer some pointers.

Each of us has the ability to sense god’s guidance and, as we continue to work our program, increasingly distinguish it from our ego’s.  The most important prereq is that we want to.  We have to be listening for god and willing to hear what we often don’t care to.  Another is that we have to cherish the goodness within ourselves and be awake to its resonance as a compass.  Beyond this, in my experience, what comes from god bears a few telling hallmarks:

  • It’s the opposite of what I was thinking.  If I’m cruising down some avenue of thought that feels awesome in a self-righteous kind of way, and something intercedes and proposes the opposite with a striking ring of truth, it’s probably god. Far and away the most common input I get from god is “Bullshit, honey: you can go deeper.” By deeper, it means thinking more from my heart.  Sigh!  It’s always true!
  • It’s about love, kindness, and service.  The short explanation here is that god is love, as the ultimate power of the universe.  And we are here to god.  (Yep, that’s a verb!) Whenever we feel compassion and act on it, we are growing god. Recently, I found myself exiting a non-AA meeting near a fellow alcoholic with whom I’d just strongly and publicly disagreed on a policy. I so much wanted to jet, clean and easy! But as I looked at his back, something said, “Talk to him; make peace.”  I told him the conflict was nothing personal, that I knew his intentions were good, as were mine.  He looked relieved, I accidentally cried, and we hugged, disagreeing.
  • While you’re actually doing it, it feels right, almost like déjà- vu.  Sometimes when you make an important choice that aligns with god, it feels — and this is hard to describe — like everything has somehow clicked into place.  There’s a “yes” in every second.  When I heard that my former sponsee was pissed at me for never visiting now that she lived far away, I called and headed down there for dinner. So intensely during that drive, I sensed that I was fulfilling something significant.  We shared dinner on Saturday.  Thursday morning, she was struck dead at her construction job.  Our last words had been, “I love you.”
  • Serendipities reinforce it.  These are the “coincidences” we hear about so often in meetings.  “I decided to kill myself, and three guys from the meeting walked in and sat down at my diner booth.” “On my way to relapse, my car quit on me, and the guy that pulls over is my sponsor.”  I, too have many such stories of statistically infinitesimal likelihood.  Chances are, if you’ve been working the program a while, you’ve had a few of your own.
  • It’s constructive.  God is not big on wallowing.  God is growth and unfolding, so for a recovering wallow-holic like myself, it’s been a tad disappointing that god won’t cosign my misery.  Once, hiking alone in major emotional pain, I noticed a lone yellow wildflower on which a large branch had fallen. Smooshed but not broken, the flower had grown around the wood and bloomed anyway.  God as good as told me, “Child, you’re smooshed but not broken: Bloom!”

One final note.  For the reason listed directly above, god mourns the waste of life that is addiction.  Yet god is never into shame or martyrdom. “Oh, I’m such a piece of shit!” or “Gee, I’m such a saint!” both stem from ego, from preoccupation with self.  God wants us only to do our best, share our gifts, love freely.  Beating ourselves up or codependently pouring energy into toxic people to wheedle self-worth — these ain’t about blooming.

I honestly try to live by this stuff.  For instance, I’m aware that posting this exposes me to ridicule from both atheists (especially in my family) and religious folks. But the AA saying nails the truth: What you think of me (or my writing) is none of my business.  My job is simply to click “publish” and then, as a bird lets the air keep its song or a wolf sends its howl to the moon, move on to whatever’s next.

Thanks for reading, open-minded alcoholics!

 

 

*NDE: Near Death Experience.  This refers to a vivid experience that takes place while a person is clinically dead or close to death.  IANDS definition here.

** See Jeffrey Long, Evidence of the Afterlife, p. 189.

 

PS:  I’ll be presenting at the IANDS conference this summer.  I’ll post details when I get them.

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AA Stigma Misses the Point

Stigma

a archaic: a scar left by a hot iron : brand
b: a mark of shame or discredit : stain  ex: bore the stigma of cowardice
c: an identifying mark or characteristic; specifically : a diagnostic sign of a disease

 

I remember the fear in my throat when I first spoke the words, “I’m Louisa, and I’m an alcoholic.”  Sitting in my third AA meeting, I felt like I’d been fleeing those words all my life, and now they rang out in the room like the gates of hell clanging shut behind me.

Twenty-three years later, I’m happy to tell the world, “Yeh-yah, baybee! I’m a full-on alcoholic — and thank god!  Cause otherwise, I’d have missed out on the whole point of life!”

Do I sound looney?  Maybe a tad.  But I’m joyfully looney, and that’s a mighty bright candle to try and shit on.

My sober life is rich with AA friends who have each, through touching life’s deepest and loneliest pain, struck the bedrock of their own will to live, so that we can now meet each other’s gaze without pretense.

Mind you, I foresaw none of this when I first spoke those dreaded words. Nobody wants to join AA. Nobody identifies with that bunch of self-blaming, drink-obsessed sots who fart around in church basements. Obviously, AA as Hollywood and society at large envision it is about as cheery as a medieval dungeon.

But that’s far from the truth of AA as I’ve come to know and love it.  Below are a few photos from some of the AA meetings/gatherings I’ve been part of in the past three years.

 

In a sense, all of these images are sacred to me, because I remember how we were all sober together at these meetings despite a disease that wants to kill us — or at least ruin our lives. At times we share tears. Most often, they’re tears of gratitude for having been blessed in ways we can’t believe we deserve.  We still lag on our fourth steps or slip into familiar character defects, but each in her or his own way is pursuing is an ever-stronger connection to the Good.

Yep.  Higher power, flow of the universe, life, love, god:the word doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’ve all nearly killed ourselves solo, and now we’re all intent on seeking help from [god] and each other to experience real life to the fullest.

Nevertheless, AA stigma persists. Despite the millions of lives transformed through AA, many people still dismiss it as contemptible. For instance, I recently came across a video from a lifecoach offering a program for “people who just want to stop overdrinking.” These are “good people,” as opposed to those who “claim that they have a disease or that they’re an alcoholic or that they want to go to meetings.”  Having lost her father and brother to addiction despite the fact that each attended meetings, this coach seems to loathe AA. She recalls her “overdrinking… waking me up in the middle of the night [and] affecting how foggy I was feeling during the day and… creating a lot of cravings… to drink earlier and earlier in the day.”  Yet, she affirms, “I had no interest in becoming an alcoholic or calling myself an alcoholic.  I had no interest in recovery…. I did not see that as the solution to my very mild struggle.”

“Very mild struggle”~!

I’m sorry, but that’s friggin’ hilarious!  What a coincidence!  I, too, had a “very mild struggle” — for about 14 years!

Ego’s Game: the Stigma of Recovery
There’s a good reason why this lifecoach, Hollywood, and most people indoctrinated with popular culture regard AA with such distaste.

When Bill and Bob, AA’s founders, first met in 1935 and, talking for hours and days, hammered out the fundamentals of the 12 steps, they hit upon two little ideas that engendered the defeat of this previously invincible disease.

1) A god-connection blocks alcoholism.

2) Ego blocks god-connection.

That’s all there is to AA, really.

Here’s the whole damn program.  SEEK GOD; DEFLATE EGO; SEEK GOD some more; DEFLATE EGO some more

ego-

DO try this experiment at home…

 

We need these processes broken down into 12 Steps and shared in a community because A) connection to god can be so elusive at the start, and B) ego is a wily, cunning, and stealthy tyrant that does not want to be deflated.

Of course it doesn’t!  It’s fucking EGO.

The problem for most people, including our “very mildly struggling” lifecoach, is a lack of distinction between ego and self-worth.  Ego is mistaken for self-worth by the vast majority of Americans (as epitomized by our arrogant Cheeto in Chief).  In fact, however, the two are diametrically opposed.

Ego separates us from others, relegating them to an onlooker/competitor role at best.  We believe our full experience of consciousness to be unique.  Our thoughts and experiences — whether positive, negative, or just weird — are somehow more intense and complex than those of “ordinary people.”  Ego tells me…

I’m better.

I’m entitled.

I’m doing it right.

and yet I know that in reality I bumble, get confused, hurt, and lost.  Sometimes I fuck up.  So… ego sweeps all that under the rug.  It insists…

If I’m vulnerable, I’m weak.

If I’m humble, I’m less than.

If I’m only human, I’m nobody.

Self-worth, on the other hand, grows from connection and compassion.  I understand that my human experience is little different from yours. I get that we’re in this together. I feel for you, and I trust that you feel for me. Trust emboldens me to tear off my mask and be vulnerable, honest, and fully human — flaws and all.  I’m just me, but maybe I can help you.

Today, everything I love about myself, I hold to be a gift from god — not a feat of my own making. God is generating my mind, my body, my love, my courage, these words — every second I live.  I am god — its flower, its child.

AA stigma is imposed out of fear.  It’s a defense mounted by those fiercely loyal to the tyrant who imprisons their spirit.  Let’s pray for them — for all sentient beings — to be free.

 

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Which Way to Self-Love?

For years and years I’ve put off writing this post.  Why?  Because I frequently suck at self-love.

Originally I meant to write only after I had self-love down.  Self-loving me I pictured as an endearingly geriatric version of myself, her grizzled hair drawn up in a loose bun and her slightly pouchy face lit with a warm smile of knowing.  When I get there, I thought, and I’ve got all this chit figured out, then I’ll crank out a self-love post like, BAM!

Never gonna happen.

My future blogging self will actually be a view of this laptop (or a newer one).  And every day I live, I will wrestle with weird, difficult feelings. So my question will ALWAYS be the same as yours: without using booze or whatever to shut them down, how do we deal with those inner voices of self-loathingnot enoughness, anxiety, awkwardness, shame, envy, self-pity, vulnerability, and drama addiction?

My inner voices get meaner during Seattle winters, when twilight sets in before 4:00 p.m. and the gray rain can drag on for days. They’ve been up lately — super critical of my appearance, abilities, personality, and what little I have to show for the many years I’ve lived — but all mooshed together in a generic “fail” static that hums as a backdrop for my thoughts.

So.  Because I well know, at almost 23 years sober, that such voices are “fake news” (haha), I resolved last month to launch a self-love campaign.  I found a self-love prayer and, er, trimmed it down on my phone (see bottom of this post), and I bookmarked two self-love meditations from Sarah Blondin on Insight Timer (a wonderful free meditation app).  Whenever I’d first wake up, I’d find the onslaught of “fail” static SO LOUD that I’d start blindly fumbling for my phone the way Bill and Bob describe grabbing for a bedside bottle of gin.

“I need help!  I need help!”  This was my constant prayer.

Eventually, the campaign worked — though not in the way I’d intended.  I gained, not any falling in love with myself, but enough gumption to turn and face those inner voices and ask them, “Why are you here?  What, exactly, am I doing so wrong?  Can you guys explain?”

Man, do they hate that!!   Because I saw those assholes for what they were.

Vanity and Ego are the soil in which self-criticism thrives.  Both of them craftily impersonate self-esteem or self-love.  Maybe vanity’s more about narcissism and ego self-importance, but they both tell us, “You’re okay because you have this!”  And THIS is things, material wealth, cool shit.  THIS is intellect, degrees, a fat paycheck.  THIS is looking hot or well dressed.  It’s the social finesse to be interesting and witty.  Being right.  Being wronged.  Lots of tattoos.  A hot partner.  Class.  Whatever vanity/ego can hock to grant us status.

But if you listen closely, what vanity and ego are actually saying is, “Without THIS, you’d be worthlesssssss.”

In truth, criticizing ourselves for insufficient THIS is a tactic we learned to protect ourselves from the stings of criticism we suffered growing up in dysfunctional families.  If our THIS supplies aren’t constantly rising, our worthlessness-hazard gauge is.  But in our hearts we know, THIS is never us.  No matter how persistently we try to amass THIS, we feel no inner worth — no love for self.  That pain is one reason we drank.

 

“The soul grows not by addition but by subtraction.”

— Meister Eckhart, 1260 – 1327

This same principle, I am discovering, applies to self-love.  Love’s roots thrive in humility, not in awesomeness.  Do vanity and ego claim that, compared to other people or where I ought to be, I’m mediocre, boring, and unimportant?

Okay, fine.  You win, mean voices.  Mediocre is my middle name.

Once I stop fighting, I topple from ego’s tightrope, down and down until I land on the solid ground of being stuck with me.  But it feels pretty good!  What a relief!  Once I subtract the work of defending myself (which isn’t easy), once I chuck any fickle THIS gauge in favor of not caring where I stand, I can focus on being just plain old me — to the fullest.  Sure, the arena where my duels with self-criticism took place will still call to me.  But unconditional surrender, giving up again and again, means I relinquish much emotional busywork and free up that much more bandwidth for what matters: using the gifts I’ve been granted to contribute something positive to this messy, lovable world.

God’s love and self-love are one
I think of a friend with Parkinson-like symptoms caused by an inoperable brain tumor, who tells of waking in the night consumed with terror and praying his guts out in the dark.  He got an answer of two words: Trust me.

I think of an NDE survivor, a father who once dozed while driving 80 mph, lost his adored wife and baby in the same crash that took his leg, and who, struggling to make a home for his surviving boy, sobbed his guts out to god.  He, too, got a two-word response: Choose joy.

And I think of my own NDE, how the instant I found myself on the other side, I’d simply shed all negative emotions.  I had zero self-criticism, zero self-consciousness, zero interest in self-assessment — all the concerns of being human.  I cared only about how cool and amazing my surroundings were, how cool and amazing it felt to get to experience stuff.

Those three elements together, I’ve been thinking, make up a recipe self-love: trust god, choose joy, forget myself.

Here you may notice a major overlap with the basic recipe for sobriety: trust god, clean house, help others.  They’re the same.  Because I can’t choose joy if I carry resentment or guilt, and the best self-forgetting comes from helping others.  So, sort of like Dorothy, I guess I’ve had the way home all along.

Self-love, I’m learning imperfectly and will doubtless forget again, flows from a source that can never be depleted, only obscured by ego’s relentless fear of lack.  I am love.  We are sparks of god, you and I — chards of the light sculpted into cherished artworks by the ultimate love.  To realize my home, which glows with the warmth of self-love, I need only to drop all those thorny false treasures I’ve been trying so desperately to clutch.

 

.

 

SELF LOVE PRAYER
Today, Creator of the Universe, I ask that you help me to accept myself just the way I am, without judgment.  Help me to accept my mind the way it is, with all my emotions, hopes and dreams, my personality, and my unique way of being.  Help me to accept my body just as it is.  Let the love I have for myself be so strong that I never again reject myself or sabotage my happiness, freedom, and love.
From now on, let my every thought be based on love.  Help me, Creator, to increase my self-love until the entire dream of my life is transformed from fear and drama to love and joy.  Let the self-love I feel be strong enough to break all the lies that tell me I am not good enough, so strong that I no longer need to live my life according to other people’s opinions.  Let me trust myself completely to make choices and take responsibility.
Starting today, help me to love myself so much that I never set up circumstances that go against me.  I will live being myself and not pretending to be someone else in an effort to be accepted by others.  I no longer need other people to accept me or tell me how good I am because I know what I am.
Let loving myself be the power that changes the dreams of my life. Let me transform every relationship I have, beginning with my relationship with myself.  Help me to love myself so much that I forgive anyone who, I feel, has hurt me in the past, and strengthen my will to forgive myself, as well.
Give me the courage to love my family and friends unconditionally. Let these relationships be based on respect and joy so that I no longer seek to tell anyone how to think or be. Help me to accept others because when I reject them, I reject myself.  And when I reject myself, I reject you.
Help me to start my life over beginning today with the power of self-love.  Help me to enjoy my life, to take risks, and to no longer live in fear of love.  Help me to become a Master of Gratitude, Generosity, and Love so that I can enjoy all of your creations forever and ever.  Amen.

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Loneliness

True loneliness as a state of mind entails a lot more than just wanting company. It’s a feeling of emptiness, a soul ache with its roots in lack, in longing.  Loneliness casts a dissatisfied pallor over solitude, punches a gaping hole in tranquility, sucking all subtle beauties and gratitude from the moment because none of it is as it should be. Loneliness makes us victims.

When I gaze directly into my own loneliness, I find it to be a soup of emotions.  As with any soup, the flavor can vary from batch to batch, episode to episode, but the same basic ingredients are almost always present.  [Caution: all these ingredients are downers  😥 ]

  • Self pity — poor me that I am alone
  • Jealousy — unfair that others aren’t alone
  • Rejection —  fun people don’t like me
  • Self-loathing — because I pretty much suck
  • Ambition — I could be/have a ton of fun if I had a chance
  • Frustration — life’s not supposed to be like this
  • Pain — I am unloved
  • Hopelessness — I will never be loved
  • Despair — I’m unworthy

Did I just nail that shit, or what?

The antithesis of loneliness is love and belonging.  When I’m surrounded by friends I love, I see in each person (or animal) a unique spirit in action — the tone or frequency of that person’s way.  I can glimpse their goodness, their core beauty, their irreplaceableness in this world.

And I have faith that they see me to some degree
in that same light, so I don’t hide. I may get a little over-the-top with excitement, sometimes at my homegroup, or when I have people over, or if we’re climbing some insanely tough mountain.  I kinda cop a high on love, on sharing life.  But when I do, I know my friends will love me for being so Louisaish, just as I love them.

That trust — the exchange of love — sparks a joy that’s among the truest gems of being alive.

I drank to vanquish loneliness.  So did you, so do millions.  For me, if I was lonesome, alcohol worked on several levels. One was by buffing up my who-gives-a-shit? tough guy.  Another was by swelling my ego, which I used to consider the ultimate Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card. I could slosh myself into feeling I was hella cool to hang out with and maybe just a tad too cool for anyone else to fully get.

Other people living normal, wholesome lives — fuck ’em!  I was an artist.  I was a writer.  All the cool ones lived tortured lives, right?  Lookit Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway. Lookit Van Gogh, who shot himself in the stomach but then could’t find the gun in the damn wheat field where he’d been painting.  What did they all have the balls to see?  That life sucks and then you die, bitches! I, too, had the balls to face that and to live… (let me just light up, here) … with a rebel spark.

Me, late 1994

Then I’d swig some more booze and crank up my music, hating on all those healthy, normal, Friends-type people, and think about some depressing story I wanted to write or brilliant painting I was gonna start pretty soon, but do neither, until I blacked out.

Good times.

Other options include eating compulsively, binge-watching TV/movies, fixating on social media, working, cleaning, or wanking obsessively, online shopping/gambling yourself broke, or just sucking the life out of whatever loyal victim you can secure.

So what’s different now that I’m almost 23 years sober?  Everything.  Sober, I’ve lived through just about every feeling to come down the pike.  And in meeting them repeatedly, I’ve come to befriend some and recognize others as grifters.  I’m not so easily taken in  as I once was: “Hey, self-pity!  How you been?  No, I’m sorry, you can’t stay here…”

When loneliness visits today, I move toward humanity instead of away from it.  I remind myself that I’m human, that no experience is mine alone; it’s yours, too.  Deep loneliness is well-known to that nondescript person walking down the sidewalk, and to the people up in that plane crossing the sky.

SH2 Peptide Complex

On a physical level, we’re made the same way, our inner experiences resulting from the same incredibly intricate systems.  Our brains associate stimuli with memories, and the neurotransmitters so activated release showers of peptides that “swim” throughout the entire body, interacting with every cell to produce profound changes in cell structure and behavior.  Feelings flavor our perception, and we all share the same spice rack.

On a spiritual level, we are all one.  This fundamental truth is brought back time and time again by Near Death Experiencers who make contact with divine wisdom.  We are made of life-stuff, an energy that flows through all living things, whose purest form is love, constantly circulating within and among us.  None are unique or separate — neither in our specific feelings nor in our consciousness in general.

For example, take my specific feeling of last night.  As I drove home alone from Mom’s house Christmas Eve, snow swirled in streetlights’ illumination while The Nutcracker played on KING FM, short pieces to which I used to prance about as a little girl excited to become someone.  The familiar flow of those notes, the car’s gliding on fresh snow, the night’s open space swimming with motion — all of these suffused me with intense feeling.

And I thought, we feel this!  That’s why we’ve held onto The Nutcracker all these years, why we love these melodies of Arabia, Russia, and others woven through.  It’s why we make a big deal of fresh snow, why we paint and sing about this stuff — because we love life, and we love it in these trappings!  Every culture is like a huge family that has passed down to its children what it most prizes.  This is mine.

Loneliness is, ironically, our Humanity ID card, because it’s downright difficult to exist as a tiny shard of god sealed off in a physical body, separated from our source, from love’s unity. Loneliness develops when the flow of life/love energy through and among us is stymied, whether by fear, ego, or resentment.

All the world’s ills stem from this illusion of separation — the stuff I used to believe in.  Connecting despite the god-phobic shells individuating each of us can be difficult, but connect we must.

Whatever it is you’re longing for, think of someone to whom you could give it.  Then take steps to make it so.  Loneliness is never about you.  You’re just a leaf losing touch with the tree.  Reconnect.

Remember what this guy said, because he was right on.

…Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted,
To understand, than to be understood,
To love, than to be loved…

St. Francis Prayer   .   .   .

 

 

 

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Getting Through the Goddamn Holidays

‘Tis the season when the spiked eggnog, hard cider, and hot buttered rum are flowing.  At office parties everywhere, coworkers will be pushing drinks, unwittingly or wittingly, on their recovering alcoholic colleagues.  To offer some strategies for getting out of a party with your sobriety intact, I wrote Holiday Parties a few years back.

But that’s not the real bane of Christmas.

There’s also that obligatory holiday spirit crap attacking your serenity.  You’re supposed to feel a certain way.  Something’s wrong with you if those Sinatra/ Crosby/ Cole clichés piped into practically every public space don’t incite in you fond recollections of some Rockwellian ideal you’ve never really lived — the chestnuts not roasting on your open fire, that cheery ring-a-ling of sleigh bells you’ve never even remotely heard, and, of course, your deep reverence for the virgin birth that fuels smiles at… uh… bustling shoppers.  Not so much.

Even if you enjoy it, there’s no denying that, particularly in the US, Christmas amounts to a ridiculous spectacle of compulsory consumerism.  It’s an orgy of buying, an onslaught of marketing, with the omnipresent need to fill wrapped packages under a mandatory tree.  And it’s never quite enough.  Every year, tens of millions of us overspend in an effort to conform — which adds up to financial stress.

Wasn’t it just a few months ago that you packed away those lights, ornaments, and various kitchy nutcrackers, etc., back into their faded, half-torn boxes?  Now you’re supposed to not only get them all out again but feel excited and seasonally schmoozy while doing so.

Please, dear god — why??

Alcoholics need to place their serenity foremost.  This means we recognize the pressures that disturb us, triggering feelings of frustration, not-enoughness, not-a part-of, or just plain loneliness.  For many, the holidays trigger all of the above.  But more than parties or overspending or obligatory cheer in the darkest part of the year, what most threatens our serenity amid the holidays are the stresses of…

FAMILY.
Rarely does the stork drop off a lone alcoholic-addict in an otherwise functional, mindful, emotionally honest and loving family — if any such families exist.

Most of us grew up in homes where one or both parents drank, where the truth remained veiled and no one modeled emotional availability or loved us unconditionally as our authentic, vulnerable selves.  Rather, we and our siblings learned to jump through life’s countless hoops using fabulous springboards like selfishness, self-seeking manipulation, and dishonesty, playing a role nonstop in an effort to wrestle from life what we thought we needed to survive — a battle we drank to escape.

In other words, families were the very hotbeds where we generated all our character defects, all that we’ve since dredged up in our 4th and 5th steps so we could open them to god in the 6th and 7th, asking to be relieved of an approach to life that no longer served us.  Every day and in every meeting, we strive for more rigorous honesty to further our spiritual progress.

But then along come the holidays, and we have to head back to that swampy hotbed where, often, no one else has changed.  Siblings, parents, and other relatives continue to follow whatever works for them — frequently a continuous pursuit of short-term feel-good.  Some will still be chasing feel-good, as we used to, through alcohol and drugs.  But there’s a myriad of other ways to chase it: being smarter than everyone else, or more successful or hip, or politically goading others.  Egos will be crowding the house, overreaching one another, whether in loud, competitive conversation or exchanges of subtle smirks.

So… here we stand on the banks of this oh-so-familiar swamp, the old emotional reflexes itching to kick in, the family calling to us, “Jump on in!  The slime is great!  Play your damn role!”

What do we do, alcoholics?!  Do we chameleon our former selves?  Do we judge with spiritual superiority?   Or do we dig deep and practice…

BOUNDARIES.
Up until 2013, I’d have told you here that “all you need is love.”  I’d have claimed that if you didn’t enjoy yourself around family, the problem lay in your holding on to resentments or self-pity.  But today I call bullshit on that view.

Sick people hurt others.  Toxic people spread poison.  To every wild creature, god has given means of self-defense or escape.  And to sober people dealing with alcoholism-affected family, god has given boundaries.

How do we practice boundaries?  There are two basic steps:

  1. Know who you are and that you’re okay, flaws and all.  In other words, carry with you a sense of what matters to you, how you respect and treat others, and how you require others to respect and treat you.  Claim your space. But… temper this with a sense of humor and awareness that the flaws we notice most in others tend to mirror our own.  For example, if I’m annoyed that my cousin is hogging the dinner table’s attention, it’s probably because I want to do it!  Humor and humility let me replace that annoyance with compassion.
  2. Know when someone is infringing on your dignity/space.  If someone keeps running over your foot with a lawnmower, it’s up to you to move your foot.  If you’ve previously asked the person not to run over your foot, and yet you see them heading down a line that’s gonna intersect with it again, then withdraw your damn foot!  For me, this means I no longer attend functions at which the lawnmowing person will be present.  For you, it may mean leaving before a certain person gets drunk.

Love and tolerance is our code – now and always.  But that love must include ourselves, and that tolerance an admission that some vulnerabilities and triggers persist despite all our work.  Just walking into a house where trauma occurred can be exhausting.

So, as with any dicy situation, have a plan in place before you go.  Bring your own Martinelli’s — lots of it.  If alone, text sober friends ahead of time that you may be calling.  If with a partner, have a “safe phrase” that means “I need to get the hell out of here.”  Then smile, say your goodbyes, and get the hell out!

Looks kinda freaky but it’s not!

If you find yourself out of sorts, get your ass to a meeting.  Most Alano Clubs and big meetings host all-hours alcathons throughout the holidays.  Go.  Sit down.  Be initially disappointed that the group appears small and motley, or huge and you don’t know many.  But just sit there, just listen, and let the feeling of sober sanity and spiritual guidance seep in through your skin.

Reach out to someone with kindness.  We all struggle with this holiday stuff.  You are never alone.  ❤

.

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How Alcohol Fucks Up Your Body

a companion piece to How Alcoholism Fucks Up Your Brain

.

For all those years that I guzzled alcoholically, and even before that when I was a kid, I wholeheartedly believed that alcohol was good for you.  My dad, a tense professor by day and, before alcoholism overshadowed his life, happy winemaker by evening, taught us kids that booze made life sweet: “It’s good for what ails ya!”

After all, what did old-time doctors dose out to patients?  Whiskey!  What did St. Bernards carry in those little casks to people stranded in the snow?  Brandy!  So, liquor must be almost medicine, right?

Actually… uh, no.  The opposite is true.  That shit is poison — literally.

In many parts of the world, alcohol abuse now ranks as the #1 cause of death among people aged 15 to 49.*  Did you just absorb that, my friend? Would you please check out my reference below – World Health Org, 2014.  Sure, there’s a lot of bullshit circulating the internet, but doesn’t WHO sound kind of credible?  Here’s one of many graphs expanding on that fact:

So much for the ole “Drinking’s no problem in Europe” line! (WHO 2014)  Click to enlarge.         EUR = Europe; EMR = Middle East; SEAR = Southeast Asia; WPR = Western Pacific

In recent news, we’ve all heard of studies — most of them funded by the alcohol industry — claiming alcohol is the bee’s knees for some aspect of health.  Rarely is it the actual alcohol — the ethanol in these drinks — behind these supposed benefits.  In red wine, it’s the grape skins’ resveratrol, in beer it’s B vitamins from grains, etc.  True, ethanol dilates blood vessels, which may seem to alleviate symptoms of cold and flu, but even researchers behind such studies admit ethanol “would not have an effect on the virus itself.”**

All of these pro-booze studies stress the condition of small doses, usually about 1-6 drinks per week — a mere thimbleful for heavy drinkers.  In such small quantities, alcohol can’t poison you because your liver nabs it by the short ones and boots it the hell outta your bloodstream.  But suck up enough booze and the stuff overwhelms your liver, wreaking havoc throughout your entire body.

Ethanol is one of the few nutrients that is profoundly toxic, …caus[ing] both whole-body and tissue-specific changes in protein metabolism. Chronic ethanol misuse increases nitrogen excretion with concomitant loss of lean tissue mass. …A variety of diseases and tissue abnormalities… are entirely due to ethanol-induced changes in…  tissue proteins; for example, cirrhosis, cardiomyopathy, and osteoporosis. Ethanol induces changes in protein metabolism in probably all organ or tissue systems.†

Let’s look at them there tissue systems one by one, why don’t we?

Alcohol  fucks up your liver.  In stages.
1.  Fatty liver (steatosis) – doctors call this “enlarged”
2.  Inflammation of liver tissue (hepatitis)
3.  Scar tissue formation (fibrosis)
4.  Fucked to hell liver architecture (cirrhosis)
Gross clickable pictures  

During these disease stages, some of the blood entering the liver through the portal vein cannot penetrate [it] and is diverted directly into the general circulation… not detoxified, [so] blood levels of toxic substances increase.  …Thus, liver dysfunction can… contribute to brain damage.Ω

You know how, when a rainstorm overwhelms a sewage system, raw sewage spills straight into a bay or river or whatever?  Same thing here: that shit-filled blood goes everywhere in your body and brain.

All a hangover means is, your body and brain have been poisoned.  Hey, no big!  But feeling like a sack of dogshit all day doesn’t mean you’ve actually damaged your body, does it?

Alcohol Fucks Up Your Muscles and Bones
It does.  Both skeletal and cardiac muscles are screwed up by alcohol — even from a single binge.

…[T]he most reliable data examining the effects of alcohol on protein metabolism is derived from animal studies, where… the dosing regimen can be strictly controlled. These studies indicate that, both chronically and acutely [i.e. binge], alcohol causes reductions in skeletal muscle protein synthesis, as well as of skin, bone, and the small intestine.

Most full-blown alcoholics treat their bodies like shit in general – doing other drugs, smoking, eating crap – so to isolate alcohol, scientists have to dose it to poor little animals and record how their little muscles, bones, and guts all go to hell.

Speaking of your small intestine, can you guess what alcohol does to it?  Yup – fucks it up royally.  First, alcohol decreases the good bacteria (flora) in the gut and increases harmful bacteria.  Worse, the walls of the intestines, which normally allow only nutrients pass through, get all permeable and schlop those bad bacteria straight into your bloodstream.

Alcohol can induce intestinal inflammation through a cascade of mechanisms that subsequently lead to inflammation and organ dysfunction throughout the body, in particular in the liver and brain. One mechanism is by increasing bacterial loads and the permeability of the intestinal wall (see figure) allowing bacteria to leak through, leading to local and systemic effects.

Paneth cells normally police the gut for bacteria, but alcohol suppresses them, “which can allow additional intestinal bacteria overgrowth and allow their byproducts (i.e., endotoxins) entrance through the intestinal barrier. The bacteria, via endotoxins, trigger an inflammatory response by the intestine’s immune system, causing a release of proinflammatory cytokines” that travel to the liver and fuck it up, too.

How alcohol screws up your pancreas & lungs could drag on for several paragraphs, but I’ll just note that about 45% of pancreatitis cases result from alcohol abuse, which increases chances of pancreatic cancer. (If you think I’m making this shit up, just read the damn article.¤)  As for lungs, in the late 1700s, the first US Surgeon General warned that alcohol use was linked to pneumonia.  The dude was right.  Studies today confirm that “alcohol use disorder (AUD) render[s] people more susceptible to a wide variety of lung infections, including bacterial pneumonias and tuberculosis, and increased morbidity and mortality.”§

Endocrine and Cardiovascular Systems
I guess by this point it won’t exactly shock your pants off to learn that drinking buggers your  entire endocrine/hormonal system. Interactions among your hypothalamus, pituitary, pineal, thymus, thyroid, and adrenal glands, and even your gonads, area all screwed up.

Alcohol intoxication induces hormonal disturbances that can disrupt the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis and… result in… cardiovascular diseases, reproductive deficits, immune dysfunction, certain cancers, bone disease, and psychological and behavioral disorders.∋ 

alcoholic cardiomyapathy

😦 alcoholic cardiomyopathy

Heartwise, some studies claim a drink or two a day wards off certain types of heart disease.  “But any positive aspects of drinking must be weighed against serious physiological effects, including mitochondrial dysfunction and changes in circulation, inflammatory response, oxidative stress, and programmed cell death, as well as anatomical damage to the CV system, especially the heart itself.”

Are we gonna make a stink about a little cell death and heart damage?  I guess so.  Sad tuba says, wah-wah!

Wouldn’t it be fun to talk about CANCER a bit?  Let’s do!  In women, even one drink a day elevates risk of breast cancer.º  In men, one per day does the same for prostate cancer. And for everybody who swallows the stuff, drinking has been shown to increase cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, colon, and rectum.Δ

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Pretty much everything that stuff touches, from lips and pooper, takes a giant step or two toward cancer.  Why?  Because “…alcohol in your body is converted into a toxic chemical, acetaldehyde, [which] can damage your DNA and stop cells from repairing that damage, which can lead to cancer.”ß

The bottom line is, booze tears through the body like a Warner Brothers Tasmanian Devil.  Sure, some people survive it; my aunt drank scotch every night and lived to 93 — though not very happily.  But her liver’s kickass performance doesn’t change what alcohol is and does.

Cultures worldwide frame alcohol, not as a toxic drug, but as a harmless aid to relaxation and conviviality.  Look again at the left side of that WHO graph above — all those people dying in their teens, 20s, and 30s.  For each death, how many survivors’ lives are crippled?  The world’s leading cause of death, illness, injury, and family tragedy is something people choose to consume — until it turns and consumes them.

That, dear readers, is fucked up.

 

REFERENCES

*http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/msb_gsr_2014_1.pdf?ua=1  See page 57.  

**https://web.archive.org/web/20130211101748/http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/12/08/cold-remedy-cocktails-do-they-work/
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0899900799000969

Ω https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-3/240-246.htm

https://www.arcr.niaaa.nih.gov/arcr382/article01.htm

¤ https://www.arcr.niaaa.nih.gov/arcr382/article10.htm

§ https://www.arcr.niaaa.nih.gov/arcr382/article04.htm

∋ https://www.arcr.niaaa.nih.gov/arcr382/article05.htm

◊ https://www.arcr.niaaa.nih.gov/arcr382/article03.htm

º https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/187252

https://prostatecancernewstoday.com/2016/11/17/drinking-alcohol-increases-risk-of-prostate-cancer 

Δ https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/alcohol-use-and-cancer.html

ß https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/diseases/alcohol-and-cancer/

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