Tag Archives: 12 steps

Of Mountains and Miracles

I come from a long line of alcoholics, pioneers and midwives and professors who knew they didn’t want to drink as much as they did, yet were sucked down into the bottle time and time again.  I’m cut from the same cloth but haven’t had a drink for twenty-two years.  What’s up with that?

When I used to dry out between binges I was an insecure, socially phobic, jealous, frightened, depressed woman who would pretend to be whatever might impress you.  Anticipating drinks brought me hope.  Starting to drink steadied me.  Rolling through drinks, I found courage and gusto and release — sweet release! — in the dopamine flooding my neurons. Some day, I’d pull off great feats!

At first, sobriety robbed me of a desperately needed escape. I’ll never forget a certain unremarkable morning in ’95.  I’d been dry about six months without a spiritual program.  My partner was driving us along a curving freeway ramp while some implacable panic rose higher and higher in my chest with every breath I took and every random object that struck my brittle brain — building, guard rail, pavement, cars.

I thought-screamed, I CAN’T STAND IT!!!!!

But today, I flourish.  My brain is happy, and I’m living a life I love.  What’s up with that?

Here’s me day before yesterday:

Crater of Mount Baker at dawn

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I’m on the right.  This is a photo of a frickin’ miracle.  I’ve recently turned 57.  I’m standing at 9,800 feet at 5:00 a.m. beside the hissing, venting crater of a live volcano with my best friend wearing frickin’ bikini tops in temperatures close to freezing.  We are… the Baker Birthday Bikini Bitches!

I got here through hard work.  The work of healing a broken brain and twisted psyche is extensive, yet all compacted down into 12 simple, trite little steps listed in Chapter 5 of AA’s Big Book — steps I dismissed as worthless at my first AA meeting after reading them off the wall in less than a minute.

It takes a good sponsor, one “armed with the facts” about him/herself, to unpack those steps and open up each like one of those expandable sphere toys so that the sponsee is confronted again and again with the challenge of either seeking greater honesty or cycling through their tired lies again.

I’ve worked these steps not once, not twice, but through enough iterations that their perspective has become the lens through which I view everyday life.  To express that in detail, I’ve surrendered all illusions that I can drink normally (1); I recognize that alone my thinking is warped (2); I ask god to guide it minute by minute (3); I seek out the selfish distortions in my interpretations of people, places, and things (4); I tell on myself to trusted others, increasingly with humor (5), and pray for the clarity to quit thinking/acting that way (6-7).  If I’ve offended, I own it and amend it (8-10), because I want to meet my god without defenses every day (11) so I can be useful to others (12).  That is how I effing live.

How does that get me up the mountain?

There is something.  You can call it whatever you like.  Currents of energy course through and radiate from everything that lives, and their frequency is affected by each loving or fear-based thought that every one of us generates from one moment to the next.  And those currents converge in some nexus of intelligence that loves far beyond our brains’ comprehension and yet is not beyond us, because we are of it.  We are a shard, a fragment, a ray of that immensity, and when we ask, it resonates within us, filling what was empty, healing what was hurt.

The kicker is that condition: when we ask.

And we can’t ask just once — like for a piece of gum or something: “Hey, god, this deal sucks, can ya help me out?”  Nope.  We ask in layer upon layer upon layer.  We ask every frickin’ day, in everything we do: “Help me.  Be with me.  Move my heart and mind toward goodness and beauty.”

And if we do this long enough and sincerely enough, do you know what happens?

CRAZY SHIT.

So many miracles, I don’t know where to begin!  Living by the 12 Steps has brought me to a place where I can be my authentic self among worthy others and trust that I am loved.

Daily honesty with god has given me the mindset to become the person I longed to be — to quit smoking, stop over-eating, cease tolerating abuse; to pay the bills and provide for my kid; to really get it that, if something’s going to improve in my life, I have to try for it (a lot easier when you know god’s there to catch you).

Humility has let me accept that if I want to do something immense, like climbing a mountain or writing a memoir or opening a business, I have to start with measly, pathetic little steps… and keep at it.

And beautiful things unfold as a result.  Here we are again from a different angle.

Bikini bitches! (click to enlarge)

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Are we in good shape?  Sure.  But this photo doesn’t show what’s really there: the strength of LOVE.  The love between my friend and me lets us speak of anything — anything! — and frees us to laugh about much of it.  I know of my friend’s horrific childhood and years of cocaine addiction.  She knows the compulsions that warped my past.

There’s also the love of fellow alcoholics who taught us our mountaineering skills, much as sponsors taught us life skills.  When we started up at midnight from our base camp, where our third friend stayed behind with her ankle sprained from a creek crossing, we felt small and scared. The hulking glow of Baker’s ancient glaciers loomed a mile above us in the moonlight.  It was just we two roped together to arrest falls as we wended our way by headlamps among yawning, deep crevasses, sometimes cussing like sailors.

We did it.  We’re sober miracles.  And, for each of us who gets there, for every alcoholic who reaches that precious freedom granted by true sobriety, it all began with that first little word of AA’s First Step, the first time it really sank in: We.

 

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A few more images (click to enlarge)…

Mount Baker from a distance – second most heavily glaciated in the contiguous 48 states

 

Baker halfway up – crater our revised goal after Sally’s injury (originally the summit)

 

Me crossing where Sally slipped – 40lb pack doesn’t help!

 

Base camp self-timer shenanigans

 

Supper at 4, in bed by 5, wake-up at 10:30pm, geared & climbing by midnight

 

About 2,000 feet above base, dawn approaches. Canadian climber’s lamp a few hundred feet below

 

Mount Baker’s enormous dawn shadow cast across mountains and sound to the horizon

 

Me beyond a crevasse – but now at least we can SEE ’em!

 

K. approaching the crater after 4,000 feet gained in 5 hours

 

Descending – I’m just past a snowbridge between two crevasses.

 

Homeward bound – car and big fat beanburger, here I come!

 

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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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Compassion’s Spark: a 12th Step Call

On a dark, rainy winter’s evening about ten years ago, I found myself in a run-down urban trailer park trying to find a particular trailer. I don’t remember how I was supposed to identify it, but I do remember a man stepping in front of me whose face I couldn’t see in the dark.  “I got some stuff.  You want some?”  trailer-park“No, thanks,” I replied, moving on. By the light of trailer windows, I saw more shadowy figures moving about in the downpour, and I remember holding my AA Big Book in front of my heart like a shield, asking god to keep me safe.  I was on a full-fledged 12th-step call, one of only a handful in my life.

Twelfth-step calls are less common today because treatment centers tend to be a first stop for addicts wanting help, but the woman whose trailer I was seeking had just been released from the most labor-camp-like detox/treatment center in Seattle – Sedrunar.  A friend had called me about her. “Lena doesn’t have a car to get to meetings.  She’s got two kids, and she’s gonna lose them if she uses again.”

I called Lena, though I was going to insist she take the bus to my house.  But Lena, like any addict, was persuasive.  She didn’t know anyone in the trailer park she could trust to watch her kids – who were seven and two.  Could I please come just this once?

The seven-year-old opened the trailer door.  She stared at me from eyes circled with dark shadows, silent as a spook.  I heard yelled from inside: “Let her in!”  I tried to greet the child cheerily, though to inhale the stinky, steamy air in there felt like an assault. On the floor was an old TV with a beanbag chair in front of it – that and piles of clothes.  Bare walls.  In came Lena, the toddler on her hip naked besides his diaper, food all over his face.  Lena was a bit shorter than me and chunky, about 25. She shook my hand, apologizing for the mess, and handed the boy off to her daughter, pretty much barking at her to go in the bedroom and shut the door so she could talk to this lady – me.

We sat down at the yellow kitchen table.  On the stove, mac & cheese dribbled from a saucepan stovein a way that reminded me of vomit, and smeared noodles dotted the table.  Lena sat across from me and folded her hands expectantly as though I were about to recite poetry.

All I could say was, “Does that window open?” I gestured toward a dark pane at the the table’s end, the glass dripping with condensation.

Lena looked perplexed.  “I’m trying to save heat.”

“I’d really appreciate it.”

Reluctantly she rose and slid the moldy aluminum frame aside about an inch.  While she was up she grabbed a sponge and wiped away most of the noodles at my place, apologizing that she’d just fed her son.

I’d made up my mind that I would stay 30 minutes only.  I began as I always do, by asking Lena to briefly tell me her story.  Clearly practiced from treatment, she launched right into it – how she’d grown up picking crops in Yakima in a Hispanic community; how she’d gotten into meth as a teen.  She was proud that both kids had the same father, but he was a drug dealer.  She’d lost them twice to CPS – once for leaving them in the car outside a bar.

“I’m clean, now, 60 days.  The judge told me this is an extra chance with my kids.  I shouldn’t even have them now.  I gotta stay clean.  I gotta stay sober.”  Here she changed, muscles in her face and throat working hard.  She looked right at me and spoke distinctly: “I can’t… lose… my kids.”

“Well, you’ll need to find a sponsor,” I breezed, “but, unfortunately, I’m full.”  This was somewhat true – I had a few sponsees.  But, of course, I really said it to push away all this squalor.  I wasn’t even sure whether this woman should have her kids.  All I knew was that only 21 minutes stood between me and escape.

I sketched my own story briefly, Lena nodding attentively at every phrase.  I explained that I couldn’t not drink on my own, but by working the 12 steps I’d accessed a higher power that had removed my craving for alcohol and kept me sober eleven years.

“Eleven years!” Lena marveled.  “That’s what I want!  I wanna know how you did that!”

I was starting to explain how I’d worked with a sponsor when we heard a ruckus and the squalling toddler, chased by the spooky girl, burst out of the bedroom.  Hardly taking her eyes from me, Lena scooped her son into her lap and held him close.  She gave the crown of his head tiny kisses and asked him if he wanted a bottle.

Right then – that’s when the voice started.  Not really a voice, but an urging:  Help her.  Sponsor her.  Love her.

No fucking way! my ego countered.  ticking-clockI was busy.  She was hopeless.  Just eight minutes and I’d be outta this dump, back to the fresh air and my nice, clean life!

“He don’t talk,” Lena told me. “They told me he’s disabled, but it ain’t true.  It’s just all he been through.”  Watching the boy’s eyes, the way they moved from Lena to me and back again, I sensed she was right.  Meanwhile the spooky girl joined us with a coloring book, promising to be quiet and asking where her crayons were.  Lena grabbed them from the same box that had held her Big Book.

“It’s not me,” I heard myself telling her. “God has given me a life better than I ever dreamed of.”  Some of the people who’d helped, giving me time and guidance, flashed through my mind.  “I’m not the same person I was.”  Lena nodded intently.  She was not begging.  She was not pleading.  But every cell in her body was straining to hear me.

Just help her.  Just love her.

But I was helping, dammit!  I was steering her toward the program, right?  Just not toward me.  Anyone but me.  But, with just three minutes to go, I made a big mistake.  I looked into Lena’s eyes.  Really looked.  I saw there desperation and terror, but even more, a fierce love for her children.  My own son was five.  How were we any different?

The wall crumbled, compassion washing over me.  “Okay, I’ll sponsor you,” I heard myself saying.  Lena’s face lit up.  “But not here!  You’re gonna have to come meet me at a coffee shop!”

The rest of the story is like a fairy tale.  Lena and I met every Friday tobig-book read the Big Book at a Starbucks while a sober neighbor watched her kids, after which I’d drive us to a meeting.  She had a job riding in a municipal truck, collecting garbage, and within a couple of months she qualified to drive that truck.  She moved into a shitty apartment not far from the trailer park, where I met with her for a while until she found childcare.  She bought a crappy car and started driving herself to meetings.  Whenever I showed up at her homegroup, her kids would ambush me either in the parking lot or when I came in – the little girl now beautiful and clear-eyed, the little boy talking up a storm.  Their laughter still seemed incredible to me – a miracle.

In a little more than a year, we’d progressed to Step 9 when Lena, who was apprenticing as municipal gardener, leased a nice apartment too far north for us to keep meeting.  I drove up and visited her there once.  It was near Christmas.  I remember white carpets, a new sofa, pictures on the walls.  I remember the children bringing me a gift from under the Christmas tree and grinning while I opened it, and my own embarrassment that I had nothing for them.  But I had given them something – and we all knew it.

Last night after eight years I went again to that meeting – Lena’s old home group. But she wasn’t there.  Where she’s gone, what she’s doing, I don’t know.  But I’m hopeful.  I sent them prayers.  Today, I’m so grateful that god opened my heart, and that it’s still opening.

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Postscript:  I had to find out…  🙂

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Acceptance vs. Acquiescence

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation—some fact of my life—unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment…. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.

-Paul O. (p. 417, italics added)

My mom called me Wednesday morning on the heels of Tuesday’s election.  crying-faceShe’d just gotten off the phone with my sister, who, she said, was sobbing at such a pitch as to be largely unintelligible: she and her husband would sell the house they just finished buying, pack up all they had just unpacked, and move to Canada.  It was horrible, horrible…

Now, this is by no means a political blog.  But it’s my blog, and I’m going to talk about WTF I want.  I write about living sober in the world, which means dealing with upsets – including politically oriented ones.  I went to bed early Tuesday night because I could not bear to watch my hopes crumble.  “Pray!” my mother had just urged me, so I began — but quickly recalled that outcome-oriented requests boil down to “My will be done” and are actually anti-prayers.  So I prayed simply, “Help us all.”

Waking the next morning, I could feel a sort of terror brewing in my gut.  I sensed my country had fallen into the hands of a megalomaniac who I believe lacks all basic human decency — let alone a shred of wisdom.  A look at my computer confirmed as much.  In fact, the dizzy, reeling shock I felt absorbing this outcome resembled the shock of being told I had cancer – that same dumbfounded realization that what cannot be is: My country has cancer.

Reality intersectionBut here’s the thing.  In both cases, the news alerted me to something already true.  This catastrophe was  merely the manifestation of a reality I’d denied with sugary assumptions — that overt bigotry, misogyny, and denial of scientific facts would render a candidate repugnant to my fellow citizens.  Such simply was not the case.  And accepting that fact is my sole option.  So… what is there “to be changed in me and my attitudes”?

bob-donald-bill

The Twelve Steps entail far more than a means of stopping drinking: for me, they offer a plan for constructive living that applies in all circumstances – even these.  When upset, we must quiet ourselves: hysteria leads to rashness which leads to drinking.  Further, Step 10 instructions tell us:

Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear. When these crop up, we ask God at once to remove them…  Then we resolutely turn our thoughts to someone we can help.  Love and tolerance of others is our code. (p .84)

My feelings in this case boil down to resentment and fear.  People were supposed to vote my way, and they didn’t.  I fear national and international disasters – that have occurred so far only in my imagination.  I can roll with these emotions toward relapse, or I can ask god to remove them.

As for dishonesty – what footwork did I contribute toward preventing this outcome?  I mean, besides posting stuff on Facebook, donating a little money, and voting?  Basically, nothing.  I don’t protest, march, or rally more than once every five years.  I don’t canvass or make outreach calls.  I don’t volunteer my time or skills for any candidate – ever.

Why not?  Because I’m selfish.  I’m too busy – and I guess lazy.  My civic convictions tend to be of the armchair variety, unless something strikes close to home.

So what about love and tolerance?  Suppose I try thinking of my nation’s voters not as idiots, but as well-meaning people reacting in a culture and society that is slowly evolving by fits and starts?  How many of them felt four and eight years ago exactly as I do now?  They have their own ideas, and they followed them.

Lastly and most importantly, how do I concentrate on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes?  For me, “resolutely turning our thoughts to someone we can help” happens on a small scale, close to home.  It may not be much, but I give change and friendly conversation to every panhandler I encounter.  I wear my pathetic #blacklivesmatter T-shirt as a symbolic gesture.  I volunteer feeding the homeless.  And I help alcoholics through sponsorship, speaking, and fellowship.  In short, I try to cause every person I interact with to leave me just a little bit happier.  That’s my job.

It’s an effort I can redouble in light of this election.  Yesterday, for instance, I set out my son’s outgrown bicycle with a FREE note that not only listed all its problems but offered condolences on the election and asked the taker to please be extra kind to somebody – just to cancel out a bit of our president elect’s ethos.  Today I wonder what that person thought, where they are, what they did.

At the same time, though, acceptance does not mean acquiescence.  I have to ask myself, at what point would I rise from my armchair?  Would I intercede in racist or homophobic bullying?  Will I march to fight a deeper reliance on fossil fuel?  At what point does the cost of pacivity become simply too high?

beatrice

Beatrice

In the 1940s, my great aunt Beatrice Dohme Siedersbeck played violin in an antique chamber music trio touring Western Europe. When they found their group compelled to entertain the Nazis in various occupied countries, she and her German husband began transporting messages among underground Resistance groups via a code that encrypted words as harmless-looking musical scores.  She also posed as a carefree girlfriend to help disguise an Allied pilot’s escape to Switzerland as a mere joyride.  The plan succeeded – at first.  But the Nazis later caught the pilot, she learned, and lynched him with piano wire.

Could any of us muster that kind of courage if circumstances warranted it?  How much are we willing to tolerate before risking our safety for hard won rights and the health of our planet?  For the first time in my life, I find I have to wonder.  Because sobriety, to me, frames a way of life that calls for integrity in all we do.

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Seasons of Sobriety

Sobriety isn’t a task or a diet – it’s a way of life.  And like life, it excited-fanhas its ups and downs, riches and ruins.  The quality of our sobriety varies with our connectedness to god and our fellows, depending on the rigor with which we cultivate both.  Many of us long to be gung-ho about sobriety all the time – and we can be!  It’s just that what gung-ho looks like is going to change over time, which is why I like the analogy of seasons in sobriety.

Among my AA speaker recordings, I particularly love one by Don C., a Native American from Colorado Springs sober since August 10, 1978.  Don describes the horrific beating his alcoholism inflicted, distrust at his first AA meeting, a sponsor who made him read and annotate each Big Book chapter 25 times, and the freedom he accessed (there’s a silence while he fights back tears) by working the 12 steps.  His entire life and outlook changed.  So why, early in his fourth year sober, did he suddenly find himself miserable?

He says:

“I was about three years and two months sober and everything was going to hell. Meetings got stupid; my sponsor was having stupid attacks; the Big Book sucked…  I thought I was going crazy. So I went up to see Johnny Looking Cloud… He was a Native Elder that was in recovery. …He said, ‘You’re thinking this is a white man’s program – and it’s not.  This is the Indian way, also… The steps are 12 gentle ways to bring you back to the original teachings. And when you’re done, you’ll be in harmony… the way it was for your ancestors.’”

Johnny Looking Cloud explains to Don, firstly, that the steps align with the Native teaching of the Four Directions.  Steps 1, 2, and 3 align with the east, direction of the new sun, where we find our relationship with the Creator.  Steps 4, 5, and 6 align with the south, the high sun, where we find our relationship with ourselves.  Steps 7, 8, and 9  align with the west, the setting sun and direction of letting go, where we make amends to heal our relationships with others.  To the north, like the North Star, lie 10, 11, and 12, steps that align with the elders’ teachings to deepen our wisdom.

Secondly, he explains that just as all living things proceed through cycles, so do we in sobriety.  The first year is our spring, when our sap begins to flow and we form buds of potential.  In the summer of our second year, our leaves mature and we bloom – living vigorously in sobriety.  By the autumn of our third year, we’re harvesting sobriety’s fruits – stability, material gain, relationships.  But then along comes that fourth year: winter.  Our leaves wither and drop; the light weakens; sobriety seems barren and empty, as if everything were falling apart – just as Don C. experienced.  But in truth, the slate is only being cleared for a new level of sobriety – a fresh spring.

four-seasons-22

My own seasons haven’t conformed to a four-year pattern, but I’ve definitely experienced that cycle many times in my 21 years’ sobriety.  In my springtimes, I get to see something new, some truth of living or character defect I’d never recognized before, that changes me forever.  My golden summers and autumns extend sometimes for years.

But winter does arrive.  And it sucks.  My sobriety feels ~meh! ~  I can’t recapture my enthusiasm for meetings, stepwork, or service.  Even so, I’ve schlepped through many such winters to reach new springs.  How does that happen… or not happen?

All of us, consciously or not, seek god/goodness/love in our lives.  All of us carry burdens of fear, pain, and loss.  The interrelationship between these two parts, I’ve found, comprises the melody of my life.  The seasons of a heavy and aching soul complement those of lightness and a free spirit.

My feelings really don’t have much to do with god, I don’t think.  Emotions are part of me, rooted in my body and brain – my separateness from god.  Rather, the godly part of me manifests only in my immediate awareness – my ability to see with love in the present instant.

During my summery months, my god-awareness acts like a beam of light, one I can turn on my own emotions – fears and sadness or childish excitement.  I can make friends with whatever nonsensical feelings insist on tagging along with me.  And when I’m good with my own emotions, it’s easy to extend love and compassion to others.

But when sobriety’s winter comes around, the beam wanes so I can’t tell what the hell’s going on.  Emotions victimize me.  I suffer.  I isolate.  I envy.  I doubt life will ever be good again.  gollumIt’s at this point that I’m most vulnerable to the wheedling voice of alcoholism.  It promises me drinking would fix everything.  It points out that other people drink with impunity, claims my life would be more fun if I joined them.  It paints a sweeping mural of a happier me with booze at its center.

For me, thank god (literally), this voice stays puny – I can swat it away like a pesky fly.  But for relapsing friends of mine, it begins to sound credible.  “Take charge of your life!” it urges them.  Humility starts to look like timidity; gratitude like settling; forgiveness like self-debasement.  Before they know it, a grandiose ego has upstaged god and they’re gonna to fix themselves with a drink – and do it right this time!

I wish I could offer a ticket to instant spring.  But there isn’t one.  There’s only acceptance:

doveThis, too, shall pass.  Every alcoholic with long term sobriety has taken refuge in this motto.  When recovery feels like drudgery, we still pursue it as best we can – going to meetings, calling sponsors, being of service.  Maybe we seek out Johnny Looking Cloud, or our own equivalent, and ask for help.  In some ways, those words represent the deepest form of faith.  They capture the willingness to have no idea how things will turn out, yet trust god enough to hang on through the darkness, believing spring will come again.

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PS:  Listen to Don C. here.  This isn’t the same talk I have on my 2011 Bellevue CD, but close.

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Amends

Rarely do AA newcomers like the sound of steps 8 & 9, where we contemplate the harm we’ve done others and do what we can to set things right.  I know I certainly didn’t plan on completing them early on.

My siblings, who don’t identify as alcoholic, believe I’ve been brainwashed by AA.  Maybe I have – but it was a washing much needed!  Today I simply do not question the wisdom of the 12 steps, and I seek constantly to apply their principles to my life.  That’s why I recently sent off an amends letter for harm I did almost 30 years ago.

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I married at 26 – drunk as I spoke my vows amid a total void of emotion – aside from the guilt of realizing I couldn’t feel.  We were outdoors on a sunny day, and I made myself cry because I wanted the hundred people in attendance to believe I was deeply moved.  The groom had been the object of my sexual obsession toward the end of college.  For over a year his mere presence – or even the thought of him – had spiked my dopamine better than cocaine: he’d been a living drug.  But as we said our vows, I knew his effect had worn off.  He’d been demoted to close friend and source of security.  I appreciated him for that, but love – genuine intimacy – had somehow dropped out of my emotional vocabulary.

As newlyweds we moved to Brookline, MA, so he could attend business school.  I drank.  I was supposedly a writer, since I’d won a big prize in grad school.  I had no friends, no job, no reason for existing – so my compulsive behaviors (described in my book) and drinking simply took over.  The panic attacks I’d experienced in New York City returned with a vengeance.  God, what a nightmare! – that sense of dying amid the obliterating jumble of an indifferent now.  Valium and booze were my only respite.

To rescue myself, I developed a new obsession – a girl, the most popular aerobics instructor at the gym where I’d started work.  Now I had a fresh stash of euphoria to chase after.  There was no physical infidelity because we were both straight – the girl and I – and intensely homophobic.  All I knew was that I wanted to be around her constantly and to reel her into my life as a new fix, a new paradise.  She gave me a little gift – a small metal figure seated on a toilet made from wire, nuts, and washers – that went missing.  I don’t know what drew me to look in the garbage outside, but wrapped in a bunch of paper in a bag within a bag I found it… bent and broken to pieces.

As I looked at it, I registered the magnitude of my husband’s pain and rage.  But with zero compassion – only anticipation that I could show this weird relic to my new friend.  And I did.  I got it out of the garbage a second time.  “Whoa!” she marveled.  “He’s fucked up!” – meaning my husband.  Later, after she’d followed me back to the west coast, we became partners.  It would take another six years for me to repeat the cycle – to betray her for a new host.

Flash forward a dozen years or so to 2000.  By this time I’m five years sober, working through my last amends.  I want to fly out to Boston to see my ex-husband, own my wrongs, and pretty much beg forgiveness – but my sponsor pauses.  She has me go see the rabbi who married us (my husband was Jewish) and ask his advice.  The rabbi ruminated for so long, I worried he’d fallen asleep.  Then he spoke: “You’ve changed little in appearance.  I think seeing you would cause him pain.  prayerStay out of his life.  Pray that he receive all the love and happiness you couldn’t give him.”  When I objected, trying to explain step 9, he reared up powerfully: “This amends would be more for you than for him!  He has a new wife!  Let him be!”

So I did.

Flash forward again, now to the spring of 2015.  As some of you know, I learned that my boyfriend of 9 years, whom I knew to be drinking, had been carrying on an affair with a girl from work five years older than his daughter – for several years.  I saw their texts.  I ended our relationship.  This caused me a great deal of pain.

Now we’re up to about two weeks ago.  In the midst of decluttering my house, chucking piles of once crucial papers into the recycling, I came across some old photos of my husband and me.  Look at us!  So young!  So… innocent!   His energy, his humor and kindness – they flooded back to me.  Sitting there on the floor with remnants of my life scattered about, I felt the grief and regret wash over me like a tsunami.  By the light of my own pain, I ventured down those hallways of memory, myself now in his place.  I saw as never before what I’d done, who I’d been.  And amid that mourning came clear direction from my higher power: The rabbi’s advice has expired.  The right thing to do has changed.

Am I brainwashed?  Maybe so.  But it took me only days to write a letter, tears nearly shorting out my laptop.  I sent it to my sponsor, and with her adjustments, copied it out by hand – again awash in tears.  I owned everything.  I told him I’d not been human – that addiction had turned me into a gaping black hole of selfish need.  I told him there was nothing in my life that I regretted more – that I would always, always, regret having abused his trust.  And I wrote that he was wonderful.

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I mailed it a week ago with a kiss and a prayer.  I’ve not heard back, but the results are out of my hands – not even my business!  What I know is that I’ve done my best to do the right thing.  That’s how I live now.  I seek insight through prayer and talking with the people I trust most.  And then I act.

In return, I get to hold my head up… and live sober another day.  That’s how it works.

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Doing What We Don’t Want

Almost none of us liked the self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation.”  (p. 25)

“To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face.”  (p. 44)

Nobody wants to come to AA, but our pain and lack of alternatives shunt us there.

Nobody reads over those 12 steps on the wall and thinks, “Oh, I see!  That’ll fix me!”  But they will.

At my first AA meeting, thoughts of irony, disbelief, criticism, and a simple desire to bolt filled my brain.  I saw nothing of value in those simplistic, god-mentioning steps.

Reluctant PeeWeeHerman

Why do we need to live on a spiritual basis?  First, because we’re inherently spiritual beings.  More specifically, because the alternative is to live by self-propulsion, which may work fine for normies but for alcoholics invariably leads to a “choice” to drink, because a disease has commandeered our decision-making process.

What’s so great about the steps?  When we first come in, we’re in a state of spiritual starvation because we’ve shrouded ourselves in a world of lies.  We don’t think so, of course.  But the fact is, we’ve made up stories – about who did what, why, and how – that simply do not square with reality.  The steps have two main purposes: to remove the layers of delusional resentment blocking us from god and to encourage us to grow in connection with that god (who, by the way, removes the drink problem).

Totally unrelated to AA is Seattle IANDS, which features speakers who, like me, have temporarily died and/or left their bodies and brought back memories from the other side.  One speaker I heard a few years ago encountered god as Jesus – as do most Christians (we see what we think of as god).  At that time she was a teen speeding through East LA in bad company.  In the split second before an impending car accident, time stopped.  After she refused a demon at her feet who urged her to come with him and get even with everyone who’d ever wronged her, she left her body.  A guardian angel all but pulled her skyward, where she encountered a swarthy, bearded figure in a robe “of rough cloth somebody had sewn by hand” – whom she knew to be Jesus.

Peel off maskHere’s the best part: Jesus went to embrace her, but just before the embrace made a face of subdued revulsion and turned away.  It was at that point she realized she was coated from head to toe in some utterly disgusting filth, something “like diarrhea.”  Jesus telepathically told her these were her accumulated resentments.  The next parts of her NDE involved ways of shedding them, of learning love as her purpose on earth.

In all the NDE stories I’ve heard, complex spiritual truths are condensed into vivid, resounding images that capture complexities at a glance.  This girl, angry and on the brink of joining gang life, was coated in shit.  Her resentments repelled god’s love.  Yes, her NDE permanently altered the trajectory of her life (today she’s a nurse), but we alcoholics  can learn the same lesson without dying – it’s right there in our Big Book:

“…[T]his business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die” (p.66).

In my own NDE, which I experienced as an atheist, I plunged into the sun as the source of all life – i.e. the closest thing I knew to god’s embrace – and was surrounded by the Light, a love and bliss more potent than words can convey.  Lately, in going through difficult times, I’ve often found myself praying to feel just a little bit of that Light again.  Please.  Just a little. 

What I was not doing was working my steps.  I didn’t feel like it.  For about six months I’d been not writing a 4th step started on my ex-boyfriend, and more recently on former tenants.  If I was carrying any resentments at all, there was certainly no ire behind them, so why dwell on them with a full inventory?  Why waste the time?  I tend not to see what the steps have to do with the Light, heaven, etc.

Recently, however, my sponsor gently informed me the time had come for me finish that thing and read her my 5th step.  She set a date one week out.  BAM!  So, reluctantly, I dug into the work, listing everyone’s “offenses” and why they hurt me, but then tracing out how I, myself, helped to bring about each one.  I met my sponsor’s deadline for the same reason I still go to meetings: what I don’t want to do, I know deep down, is what I really need to grow in sobriety.

I read her my fifth step.  A wise woman, she pointed out my current character defects:

  • not seeing the truth because I fear loss and prefer my concocted stories
  • not speaking my truth out of fear of conflict or loss
  • not honoring Louisa – failure to act on my own boundaries

These were lesser forms of my same old defects of dishonesty, selfish manipulation, and victimhood from 5th steps past.  Lesser – but they’re still diarrhea!  Since then I’ve prayed, not to feel the Light, but for help releasing my defects and completely forgiving those I’d felt wronged me.  For two weeks, I’ve been repeating out loud, “I completely forgive you, [name], for anything I thought you did.”

Guess what’s happened?

Thinking of my mom the other day (who was not on the inventory), I suddenly appreciated her in a whole new light: I loved her more ever.  Same with my friends, my dog and chickens, and even my messy home.  It’s everywhere, this stuff to love!  Trees!  Chihuahuas!  Passersby!  Loving stuff, I sometimes feel swept into the frothy fringe of something… amazing.  It’s a glow, a tantalizing giddiness at getting to be here: a tiny taste of the Light.

I’ve shed one more layer of shit.  It works only if we do it, this 202 word pathway to a beautiful life!

“We have found much of heaven and we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which we had not even dreamed.” (p.25)

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