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What’s the Point of “Bill’s Story”?

Pledges inscribed on the flyleaf of Bill and Lois’ family bible:

  • October 20, 1928:  To my beloved wife that has endured so much, let this stand as evidence to you that I have finished with drink forever.
  • November 22, 1928:  My strength is renewed a thousand fold in my love for you. I will never drink again.
  • January, 1929:  To tell you once more that I am finished with it.  I love you.
  • September 3, 1930:  Finally and for a lifetime, thank God for your love.

On Christmas day, 1930, Lois’ mother died. Bill was drunk for days before, too drunk to attend the funeral, and drunk for days after. Lois began work at Macy’s for $19/week to support the two of them.

Anyone familiar with the Big Book of AA knows that in its opening chapter, “Bill’s Story,” co-founder Bill Wilson offers his personal narrative of “what it was like” while he was a prisoner of alcohol, “what happened” when his drinking buddy Ebby visited (miraculously sober), and “what it’s like now” – or was like for him and Lois, flourishing in the early days of AA at the time the book was published.

Bill and Lois

Lois and Bill later in life

Standard “homework” for an AA newcomer embarking on the 12 steps is to highlight the passages in “Bill’s Story” to which they relate – at least, that’s how we do it in Seattle (and I expect all over the world).  Sponsees of mine who were sure they’d have zilch in common with some dude of a different race, class, gender, and era writing in terms they consider archaic, are surprised to find Bill puts into words experiences, pains, and terrors they’ve suffered but shared with no one.  Identification – that’s how the program works.

It starts from the get-go: “War fever ran high” he opens – each of these four words flashing icons of addiction.  Bill drank when things were awesome: “I was part of life at last, and in the midst of the excitement I discovered liquor.” And he drank when they sucked: “I was very lonely and again turned to alcohol.” By the end of the first paragraph, we can guess Bill drank like we did.  By the end of the first page, we know he turned away from the foreboding doom he felt reading an alcoholic’s tombstone and focused instead on vast faith in his own “talent for leadership” his ability to choose wisely.

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Right there, folks, is the enigma of alcoholism in a nutshell.  Even as we increasingly realize that booze is killing us, we place increasing trust in self-will and self-knowledge, which amount to paper swords in our gladiator’s fight with this powerful, thought-twisting, brain-sabotaging snake.  Why?  Because the curious mental blank spot can override our resolve at any moment.

Though there must have been hundreds of times when Bill rallied all his resolve to quit drinking and found himself shit-faced soon after, his story specifically names five of them.

 1.  Self-will: “Nevertheless, I still thought I could control the situation, and there were periods of sobriety that renewed my wife’s hope.” [Referring to the bible inscriptions]

Blank spot: “Then I went on a prodigious bender, and the chance vanished.”

2.  Self will: “I woke up.  This had to be stopped.  I saw I could not take so much as one drink.  I was through forever.  Before then, I had written lots of sweet promises, but my wife happily observed that this time I meant business.  And so I did.”

Blank spot: “Shortly afterward I came home drunk.  There had been no fight.  Where had been my high resolve?  I simply didn’t know.  It hadn’t even come to mind.”

3.  Self-will: “Renewing my resolve, I tried again.  Some time passed, and confidence began to be replaced by cocksureness.  I could laugh at the gin mills.  Now I had what it takes!”

Blank spot:  “One day I walked into a cafe to telephone.  In no time I was beating on the bar asking myself how it happened.”

4.  Self-will: “It relieved me somewhat to learn [in the hospital] that in alcoholics the will is amazingly weakened when it comes to combating liquor… Understanding myself now, I fared forth in high hope… Surely this was the answer  self knowledge.”

Blank spot: “But it was not, for the frightful day came when I drank once more. The curve of my declining moral and bodily health fell off like a ski-jump.”

5. Self-will: “No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I found in that bitter morass of self-pity.  Quick sand stretched around me in all directions.  I had met my match.  I had been overwhelmed.  Alcohol was my master.  Trembling, I stepped from the hospital a broken man.”

Blank spot: “Fear sobered me for a bit.  Then came the insidious insanity of that first drink, and on Armistice day 1934, I was off again.  Everyone became resigned to the certainty that I would have to be shut up somewhere, or would stumble along to a miserable end.”

But instead of drinking himself to death, Bill receives a visit from his old drinking pal, Ebby, who tells him of the Oxford Group and opens the door to freedom – as the rest of the chapter swiftly summarizes.  Because the focus here, at the book’s beginning, is on defining the problem.

The point of Bill’s story is that we can’t fix ourselves.  No matter how disciplined in other respects, our minds cannot combat our alcoholism, which resides in the mind.  No amount of decision, resolve, moral fiber, determination, or even dedication through the deepest love for a partner can come to our aid at the junctures of the curious mental blank spot, when these thoughts don’t “even come to mind.”

Repulsed by the Oxford Group’s religiosity, Bill did indeed drink himself back into the hospital after Ebby’s first visit, but NOT after Ebby’s hospital visit, because at that time Bill had a white light experience (¶ 13) that not only struck him sober for the remaining 36 years of his life, but empowered him to persevere in the difficulties of co-creating a program that would save the lives of millions of fellow alcoholics.

God alone can relieve our addiction, if we ask.  I’m not talking about a god named in any religion,spiritenergy though such gods work fine for some, which is cool.  For me, god is the life force, an energy which flows not only through the matter of our bodies but between and among every living entity – animal or vegetable.  Cut off from it by ego and hostility, our spirits languish and we find ourselves puppets of addiction.  Yet it’s right there – an energy of immense love and intelligence that we can tap into if we sincerely open to it.  It’s living you right now.  It’s living the planet.  You can write it off as “shit happens” or…

You can start where you are.  Whether you’re hungover as hell right now or sober but in pain, you can ask it for help and guidance.  You might start like this: “I don’t know what you are, but I know that I hurt, and that I need you.  Help me.  Please guide me toward goodness and love and light.  I will look for you in the depths of my heart.”

I guarantee you it will answer.

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Thinking in Sobriety: A Suggested Playlist

A thought is harmless unless we believe it.  It’s not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering.  Attaching to a thought means believing it’s true.   (-Byron Katie)

One of the greatest gifts I’ve been granted in sobriety is a thin layer of mental insulation between having a thought and believing it’s true.  Back when I was drinking or newly sober, I used to experience a barrage of hopeless, self-deprecating, and judgemental thoughts that seemed to come at me from nowhere.

And they still do!  The miracle now is that today I know I’m thinking. I’m also aware that my thoughts are fickle: sometimes they’re guided by my higher self, and others they’re broadcast by that parasitic asshole camped out in my amygdala: Addiction.

Thoughts in themselves are just mental activity – nothing we have to sign on with.  But doing so becomes habit. As Eckhart Tolle explains, “Strictly speaking, you don’t think: Thinking happens to you… Digestion happens, circulation happens, thinking happens.  Most people are possessed by thought… [while] the greater part of [their] thinking is involuntary, automatic, and repetitive. ”

The majority of my thinking, unfortunately, tends to diagnose what’s not right.  (For instance, I’m telling you now what’s not right with my thinking.)  Why is that?  For one thing, as a human I’ve evolved to be on the constant lookout for survival problems. As an academic, I’ve been trained to evaluate everything critically.  Add the fact that, as a codependent, whoamiI’ve always had a hell of a time gauging where I stand relative to you, who I think you want me to be, and my fleeting sense of self.  (Are you disappointed?  Bored?  How do I fix it?)  And lastly, as an alcoholic, I’m prone to self-centered extremes of self-aggrandizement and self-loathing: I’m the best or the worst, totally the shit or a total piece of shit.

Maybe that’s why I experience so much downright back-assward thinking.  I kid you not: this morning I got up for a second cup of tea, and as I crossed the threshold of the kitchen, the thought came to mind that my entire life was a pathetic failure.  Why?  That’s hard to say. My thinking voice was wielding some punishing club, like: “Why do you constantly deny this?!  Why don’t you just quit your strained pretensions and admit you’re nothing but a fuck up?!” Further back I sensed accusations about my lack of material wealth and a relationship, but I didn’t look into them.  Instead I pulled away, thought: “Wow!  Harsh!” and focused on my lovely, cozy tea.

The thing is, I was once addicted to that harsh voice.  I used to grab at those thoughts saying, “AHA!  Now I face the TRUTH!”  Granted, the harsh voice possessed a dismally limited supply of diatribes or, if you will, a chintzy jukebox of dark songs it played over and over.  But I knew them all so well that, whether about your faults or mine, it was great fun to sing along.  For years, they all led to a frame of mind that clearly called for a drink.  I drank not so much to vanquish them as to join with their story: “I don’t give a shit anymore.  Cheers!”

table-jukeboxHere are some of the dark jukebox’s Greatest Hits, sequenced from inner to outer attacks:

  • You Suck  (verses include your life sucks; you’re incompetent; your job/ creativity / social skills suck; no one likes you)
  • You’re Gross  (includes you’re fat; your clothes/ hair/ belongings are stupid; your ____ is too ___)
  • Poor, Poor You~! (includes cruelly denied X;  you’ve tried so hard; never even had a chance; assholes always win; god is frickin’ mean)
  • Your Way’s Right  (includes you told them X ! ; they think they’re so smart; they’ll be sorry; fuck those bastards)
  • That Bitch (includes why is shit so easy for her?; why do all the guys like her?; why won’t she just shrivel up and die?)
  • How D’they Like You NOW??  (includes a myriad of stellar comebacks, snide putdowns, and scathing witticisms to put assholes in their place)
  • Some Day You’ll Show ‘Em (includes Academy Award-winning footage of you accomplishing great things amid vast admiration, or talking thoughtfully with vanquished rivals about your victories)

As I noted above, I still have all these thoughts.  But… by virtue of having worked the steps and listened to a variety of 5th steps, I’ve learned to recognize their hackneyed tunes as part of the human condition – nothing unique to me.  And by a miracle of grace, I’ve actually grown bored of them.

Sometimes, to break a dark train of thought, you need a light one.  The Saint Francis Prayer rocks, of course, but it’s a bit abstract.  Here’s a playlist of thought trains I pursue when I’m having trouble shutting down the jukebox.

  • Be grateful.  I’m not in a war-torn country; I’m healthy; I’m sober; I know my god; I have friends; all I need to live has been gifted to me, plus a wonderful son, home, and abilities.
  • Send love to someone struggling.  I call to mind friends having a hard time and pray for them, maybe text some kind words, or decide on something I could do to help.
  • Plan something happy.  This past kidless weekend I saw the blues coming, so I took my dog, drove 2 hours, and climbed 4,000 feet from old growth forest to a snowy peak – sheer heaven!  All it cost was gas and gumption. I also throw parties, meet for coffee, and play at silly sober stuff (like sober karaoke this weekend).
  • Remember I’m going to die, as are you.  This may sound morbid, but holding in mind that life is finite renders every detail of the present moment infinitely precious.  The more loved ones I lose, the more easily I love all of us – this uppermost layer of humanity like fresh spring grass on an ancient prairie.

Living sober doesn’t mean just not drinking.  It means cultivating a beautiful life with the help of a loving god – and saying no to those habits that drag us back toward our dis-ease.

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Me not watching TV alone last weekend (across from Glacier Peak, tagged last summer)

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The Bitter End… or Willingness

…[W]e had but two alterna­tives: One was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help.
–“There is a Solution” (p. 25)

Over the years I’ve grown so accustomed to going to meetings, working the steps, and sponsoring people that I tend to forget I’m actually sober through god’s grace alone.  I forget that for most alcoholics, the disease rolls along like a hell-bound runaway train, taking them with it.

The Bitter End:  The other day I had coffee with a longtime friend whose ex-husband bavarian shed– I’ll call him Julius – was once a man vividly alive: handsome, funny, and brilliant. Together they created a beautiful home, the yard landscaped with a Bavarian-style gardenhouse of which I was always a tiny bit jealous. While our children were young, I joined their friends and family at many celebratory gatherings where Julius cheerfully acted as a bartender, mixing everyone’s drinks with a brisk, festive hospitality.

He didn’t seem to like me much, though. His wife had discussed his suspected ‘drinking problem’ with my partner and me, which he seemed to resent.  He was European-born, a year and a half older than I.  Alcohol, he maintained, was a normal part of European life – though Americans abused it.

As the years elapsed, however, my friend experienced the many pains of loving an active alcoholic. Finally she found herself cheated on in conjunction with alcohol, much as I would years later. Because Julius scoffed at AA recovery, she’d had to painfully end the relationship and find her happiness elsewhere.

Still, I continued to see Julius regularly because for some time he and I worked at the same place and exercised at the same gym. I’d witness much important traffic bustling to and from his windowed office across the hall from my virtual closet. At the gym, he’d stroll into the big cardio room glancing about as if for an audience, tall, blonde, and well aware of his strapping physique. But meeting his eye was only me – that annoying sober woman!  We’d exchange nods.  Then, about seven years ago, I was laid off.

So over coffee, I asked my friend, “And how is Julius doing?”

“You didn’t hear?” she started in return. “He died.  It was a few months ago.”

I shook my head, speechless.

“His liver went, and then… Didn’t you see his obituary on Facebook?”

Maybe you know the feeling I had, when you’ve rivaled someone you actually respect.  It’s as though the two of you were playing an intent game of ping-pong – and they’re suddenly not there.  The ball whizzes off to nowhere,  gone forever; you realize that underneath your resentment was… a slightly bruised form of love.  True, Julius had seemed to scorn my life choices – to flout sobriety by drinking hard and living well.  But he’d also passionately loved his children, the world of intellect, and life itself.  At heart, he was a good man.

My friend proceeded to unfold an old, old story lived out by countless alcoholics, a script starring that unsung hero, the liver. empties We alcoholics poison ourselves, and our liver cures us.  We do it again and again, driven by addiction, and that amazing organ reverses our suicidal onslaughts.  Until one day, it can’t.  It breaks.  But as alcoholics, we can’t stop the onslaught.  Poisons course unchecked through our systems, wreaking havoc on other organs – especially the brain.

Julius could not stop drinking, despite knowing full well alcohol was destroying his life.  He became obese and depressed.  He lost interest in work and took early retirement.  He stopped leaving the house, bathing, shaving, caring about anything.  His children both pitied and resented him, because he lived on the couch in a house that smelled bad.  He peed himself.  He saw no one.  Still, he drank.  And gradually, as ammonia crippled his brain, he stopped making sense.  Visiting to check on him, my friend found him speaking of people not there and tasks imagined.  She called 911.

At the hospital, doctors did all they could, but his body could not recoup.  A bloated wreck of his former self, watched over by the woman whose love he’d betrayed, with the children he would leave fatherless, 12 and 14, clutching his hands on either side, Julius died.

~

alcohol death

~

Willingness:  It’s an odd feeling to hear of someone dying from the same disease you have.  There but for the grace of god go I.  Nothing could be more true.

I was just like Julius.  For so many years, whenever the prospect of my “getting help” was raised by therapists or friends, a bulletproof glass shield came up like an electric car window between me and that idea.  “No.  That will not happen,” I’d think with an iron will.  Like Julius, I planned to slow down and then drink normally.  But I’d sooner join a leppers’ nudist colony than mix with those freaks in AA!

How did that change for me – but not him?  Surely Julius knew a misery just as dark and painful as mine.  But somehow, I was graced with the gift of willingness.

My desire to live jumped tracks.  Its impulse switched from “I must drink” to “I must change.”  Why that happened for me and not for Julius, I cannot tell you.  I did not want to change.  I did not believe AA could help me.  Yet I made that first call, went to that first meeting in spite of my thinking.

That god provides the defense we lack against the first drink – we’re reminded of that miracle often enough.  But even the willingness to BEGIN TO LET GOD HELP US comes from god.  A spark of god glows at our core, our source, and yearns to connect outside us.  For some, the blockage – our will – is temporarily lifted: our spirit reaches out and god answers.  Others languish, locked in self.

Grace is inexplicable!  But we can practice gratitude without understanding: “Thank you, god, for my sobriety.  Thank you for this life – exactly as it is!”

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Happy, Joyous, and Free

Throughout my 20s and early 30s I drank almost daily and blacked out at least weekly because alcohol made all my lies come true.  Not my dreams – my lies: I wanted to be right in everything that I got, and wronged in everything that I didn’t.  Alcohol made that possible.

loufinger

Me, 1990

Until it didn’t.  I was loath to admit the light was growing dimmer, that more and more shit was seeping in through the seams, but  the day(s) came when life felt unbearable – with or without alcohol.  Suicide and AA being a toss-up, I tried them out in the only order possible.  I went to an AA meeting January 29, 1995, and I’ve not had a drink since.

But when I heard you guys quoting the line from the Big Book, “we are sure God wants us to be happy, joyous, and free,” it sounded like a crock.  Me – happy?

First off, by “God” you had to mean some kind of authority figure, some “He,” some tyrant of righteousness – which I mentally flipped off.

Secondly, only stupid people were happy.  You guys lacked the guts to acknowledge life’s futility, the grim jest of being born into this harsh world only to suffer endless loneliness and disappointment.  You preferred buying into Barney-the-Dinosaur style clichés and niceties.

Anyway, you AA people were never going to brainwash me with your spiritual drivel.

But you did.  Turns out I needed brainwashing pretty badly – given that my every thought was thoroughly toxic.

Hiking 100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail is how I spent last week – Section i of Washington, southbound.  I went with a sober friend 22 years my junior, and we had the time of our lives.  After making only 8 miles the first day, given our 40-lb packs laden with a week of food, we stepped up our pace to climb and descend 15- 17 wilderness miles daily, passing perhaps 4 to 6 fellow hikers per day.  Almost every night at camp, we held a two-person AA meeting.  The first nights we futzed around with reciting “How it Works,”  but we soon said screw it and just used the Serenity Prayer.

We shared formally, no one else around for miles:

ME: “I’m Louisa and I’m and alcoholic.”

KACIE: “Hi, Louisa!”

Our shares let us remind each other that all the happiness, joy, and freedom we were reveling in were contingent on our sobriety, and thus on god.  I cried more than once: the emotions of loving the beauty of this world and awareness of mortality were so strong I could hardly stand them.  For instance, I met a highly enlightened spiritual guide on the trail.

What happened was that, high on a ridge in strong wind, I rounded a rock outcropping to see a huge black bear beside the trail.  The size of a dark refrigerator, he was sitting on his rump in an alpine meadow of wildflowers about 30 feet distant, contentedly chewing some vegetation with the wind at his back.  Thoughtfully he lifted his great head as if to say, “What a wonderful day to be a bear!”  I felt no fear – only a strong sense that my choices were important.  I turned to Kacie: “There’s a bear.”  We walked behind the rock where we held a bellowed conversation about our hopes the bear would move.  When we came back around the rock two minutes later, he had vanished.

Bear

NOT my photo!  A camera is not what comes to mind…

As a self-conscious human, I’ll never be as at ease in the world as that wild creature.  But letting god into my life has brought me a tiny bit closer every day.  I want to know that I am meant to live, as that bear knew: that I belong to the earth, to nature.  I want to know I’ll be provided  all I need.  I want to understand that, even when I have the power to trump others – in the bear’s case to kill effortlessly – choosing peace and simplicity is almost always the wiser course.  The faith and confidence to be fully and unapologetically Louisa while harming no one – that’s the goal of my sober life.

If I could go back and tell that AA-scoffing Louisa of 1995 what I understand today, I might say this:

  • “You think “God” means someone outside you, some entity confronting you.  You’re wrong.  The very ember inside you that wants to live, that loves life and goodness and others – your “you-ness” itself is god!!  You are a drop of god transforming matter to life in every cell of your body.  To know god is to delve deeper in your life-force and discover it’s the same power that interconnects all life.  To trust god is to understand that all who’ve lived and died are nano-parts of a tremendous, intricate unfurling.

Anonymous friend

Along the way, Kacie got slowed down by a terrible blister, so at a spur trail to a water source she sat down on a log to change to sandals while I went off to filter.  By the time I returned she was chatting with a through-hiker who’d started off in Mexico.  He’d already said goodbye and was 20 feet down the trail when something moved me to call out: “Can we give you some food?”  He halted in his tracks.  We filled a Ziplock with all kinds of yummy stuff that thrilled him.  THAT’s when we learned he, too, was an alcoholic.  Kacie had even visited his homegroup thousands of miles away in Key West!  Blown away by that “coincidence,” he shared with us how he’d relapsed at the last outpost of civilization and was nervous about the next.  We listened.  We said we’d pray for him.  And we did.

I would tell 1995 Louisa:

  • You think happiness comes from getting what you want, impressing people, winning stuff.  But true joy comes from giving, from reaching out and helping others.  It’s only selfish fear that blocks you from channeling god to others.  The more you trust, the more god frees you from the mire of self-centeredness, so loneliness can  be replaced by an endless flow of love – for the world.

Life is so damn good today, you guys!

How do I find the courage to step out on a wilderness trail, armed with only a stack of printed maps, and head for someplace I’ve never even seen 100 miles away?  Easy.  All I have to do is take one step.  Then another.  Same as staying sober.  And whether I meet up with a bear or a fellow drunk, I’ll ask god to guide my course.

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VIDEO VERSION OF OUR HIKE: https://youtu.be/5vio7oDjhsQ

 

 

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What (most) Normal Drinkers Will Never Understand

NOTE:  Hi folks.  At this time of summer, I’m hiking and camping all over the place, so I’m reblogging an oldie but goodie for this week.  I’ll be back in a few with a new post. 🙂

-Louisa

 

Alcoholism is a physical, mental, and spiritual disease.  That’s what we learn in AA.

Alcoholism is just a lack of self-discipline.  That’s what most of the world thinks.

Alcoholics can exert all the self-discipline in the world and still end up drunk.

That’s absurd.  If they really kept up their self-discipline, if they really stuck to their guns, they could stop or moderate.

Only accessing a power greater than themselves – aka god – can keep an alcoholic sober one day at a time.

That’s just religiosity couched in a cultish slogan. 

Sometimes it’s frustrating to live in a world that doesn’t “get” my disease.  My blood family and normie acquaintances assume the mind works according to certain principles.  The notion of the Curious Mental Blank Spot (p 24) is foreign to them and to almost anyone who hasn’t been utterly stumped and defeated by it.  Thank god I’ve been both, though to get there took about 4,000 attempts of rallying resolve that I would drink with moderation, then finding myself plastered – again.  It took the admission that I’d run my life into the ground despite countless advantages, to the point where I no longer wanted to live.

I’d still have clung to alcohol as my true friend if the stuff hadn’t quit working for me.  When it no longer brought about the magical transformation that had made it a staple of my life – taking away my nervous, self-conscious unworthiness and replacing it with sociability and confidence – only then did I become willing to consider the counter-betrayal of checking out AA.  “Alcoholism made only one mistake,” goes the saying: “It’s the same for all of us.”  Not exactly the same, but close enough that I could learn from other sober drunks the hallmarks of alcoholic thinking, feeling, and experience.

The main hallmark is not drinking.  I’ve had several partners who matched me drink for drink for years on end.  But as soon as they made up their minds to exert their self-disciple, it took.  They could stop.  They had brakes.  Mine might work for a few hours or even days, but then along comes that Curious Mental Blank spot.  My resolve gets greased with coconut oil.  Thoughts of an hour or even a minute ago can find no traction.  They become meaningless.

What’s  the Curious Mental Blank Spot?  We like to think the conscious parts of our brain determine our actions – the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, which hosts thoughts and decisions.  But there’s a little lizard living in the basement of our brains – the amygdala – that generates basic survival impulses like fear and anger.   Alcoholism seems to live here.  Like a vine that winds its way front and center, it’s able to circumvent even the most determined resolutions of the frontal lobe, hitching a drink to the basic drives of being alive.  Drinking becomes an impulse, almost like sneezing, that you act on without a rational choice.

addict brainThe experience goes like this.  You’re all set to not drink today.  You’ve made up your mind, and it’s just not an option.  You’re going to drink healthy stuff, maybe exercise, busy yourself with – you should have a drink.  You know what?  A drink is a great idea.  Why not just relax, enjoy just one or two, like a little get-away to Maui that nobody needs to know about?  Eh?  You faintly sense there’s something wrong with this thinking.  Wasn’t a drink what you weren’t going to do.  Yes.  And the reason you weren’t going to do it was… was…

Here something happens similar to flipping through an old fashioned Rolodex and recognizing not a single name:  Let’s see; it was here somewhere: Not good for my body – who’s that?  Always make a fool of myself – do I know him?  Swore to my loved ones – might have met briefly, but…no. None of these ring a bell.  Meanwhile, here’s your amygdala holding out a frosty, aesthetically perfect image of your favorite drink.  It asks, What are ya, a pussy?  You gonna let these cards you don’t even recognize tell you what to do?  Just do what you wanna do – THIS!

It makes so much sense.  The idea of abstaining for any reason seems absurdly far-fetched, while the idea of drinking rings every cerebral bell of recognition for a natural, sensible, sound idea.  So, you decide, “Yes.” All it takes is a millisecond of assent and that genie is out of the bottle again, running your life.

As I once put it in an AA meeting: “My frontal lobe is my amygdala’s BITCH!”

Equally preposterous to the normal drinker (or active alcoholic) is the solution – asking the help of a higher power.  Only once we quit thinking that we, ourselves, have the means to quit drinking, when we give up reliance on self and sincerely ask a higher power for help, something shifts.  Some change happens.  Suddenly, we’re able to weather those Curious Mental Blank Spots with just enough resistance to avoid saying yes.  Do this long enough, and eventually the constant obsession to drink is lifted.

I’m still occasionally struck by the Curious Mental Blank Spot, instances in which I still don’t recognize a single reason not to take a drink, even after decades of sobriety.  “You’re in AA!” -whatever!  “You’d lose all your time!” – Who gives a fuck?  While I’m struggling with these confused thoughts, something steps between me and that image of a flawless, aftermath-free drink my amygdala is advertising:

“How about we just wait five minutes and see if all this is still true?”  It’s not a thought that comes from me.  But within thirty seconds, in my experience, my conscious mind is back at the wheel, and I retract in horror from the idea of drinking.  That is, the window of blindness, when I could have assented and released the genie, lasts only that long.

It may seem unlikely, but that’s pretty much the scenario experienced by millions of alcoholics meeting in 170 nations all over the world.  When we do the things suggested in AA’s program of recovery, that mediating influence – which I call god – restores us to sanity.

 

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Hurting Out Loud

Nine months ago I published “Prescribed Relapse,” a post on how doctors sabotage our sobriety and threaten our lives as alcoholic addicts by prescribing us vast supplies of opiates.  Telling us to “take them as directed” is about as good as recommending we “stop at the second drink” – as if we had any power to drink or drug “like a gentleman.”  We don’t!  If it cops us a buzz, we default to MORE.

In that post I quoted friend’s Facebook message.  This was Rob, whose doctor turned him on to opioids years ago, hatching a fresh addiction that promptly took over his life:

Yah know, if I’d of known what I would become after a few Vicodin, I’d a shoved them up my doctor’s ass!!  I was never into opiates as a kid. But eight years into sobriety I hurt myself really really bad, and I guess I needed them. But in hindsight, if I had a choice between acute pain and becoming a heroin addict, I would have probably chose the pain. But whatever.  It’s done.  It’s over, right?” 

Last week Rob was coming up on a year clean when he died from accidental overdose.  My friend is gone.  He was 44.  I miss him terribly.  About 20 of us gathered at his sponsor’s house the other day, wrote him a shoe box full of notes, and circled the bonfire where we burned them to share our memories and weep.  I have dialed his voicemail just to hear his voice and bawled my guts out, remembering how I could call any time, how he’d offer me that sweet mix of empathy and “whaddaya gonna do?” acceptance of life’s pains.  He was one I leaned on to help me through my horrific break up, because he’d suffered one, too.

Rob

The more recent break up that triggered this fatal relapse was much less of a big deal.  He missed, not so much his ex-girlfriend as her son – a little boy he’d played dad to for about a year.  Building cushion forts, taking the Big Wheel out for a spin, tickling on the grass – we all saw the happy Facebook photos.

I wish to god he’d told me.  When we talked about missing the boy, he said a lot of “whatever” and “I’m fine.”  Maybe he really thought he was.  Or maybe he was just loath to admit that all his old wounds were re-opened, his heart re-cracked, his loneliness bleeding, a despair darkening his skies, that he’d never have a little family of his own.  Instead, he asked me for help setting up a Tinder dating profile.  That conversation was goofy – lots of “shit -wait a sec, k?” – because we were both on our phones working on phone apps.  It was the last we’d ever have.

Telling others we hurt, and how bad we hurt, is one of the hardest things to do.  We’re afraid of looking weak, looking naive or over-dramatic, or maybe even deserving of the blows dealt us.  For me, with decades of sobriety in AA, the biggest obstacle is pride: I should be more spiritual.  I should see through the dust of my collapsed dreams to recognize my part, take responsibility for my delusions, own my self-centered blindness, and, most of all, have faith that all is as it should be.

But when shit hits the fan, when the bottom falls out of your sky-castle and you’re plummeting, all you feel is WAH!  NO!  I DON’T WANT THIS!  I’m sad!  I’m mad!  I’m hurting!  You want to bawl like a toddler, throw a kicking, floor-pounding fit at god and fucking life and those fuckers who hurt you.  It’s not exactly the most flattering spiritual pose.

But it’s truth.  We have a disease that wants to kill us, and it’s favorite subterfuge is pride.  The most powerful trust we can have is to go to a meeting with our spiritual pants around our ankles for all to see – trusting that we’ll be caught by love.  When I learned my boyfriend had been screwing a girl from work for two and a half years, I went to my homegroup and cried to fifty people: “My boyfriend has been screwing a girl from work for two and a half years!”  How many of them thought, Tch!  How self-deluding that woman must be!   My disease tells me half the room, but god tells me, in the moment of my deepest vulnerability, no one.  Not even that guy in the corner pissed about his DUI.  Every person in that room beamed me human compassion.

My message to you is that, though your fan Shitfanmay whirl so shit-free at the moment that dramatic squalor seems far from hitting you, pain will find you.  And when it does, you’ll need trust in god just to feel it.  Trust in god to forgive yourself for fucking up.  Trust in god to own pain as part of your journey.  But most of all, you’ll need trust in god to reach out and ask for help.  Not just once.  Not just stopping when you think it might be getting old for others.  As alcoholics, what we cover up festers, becomes an emotional abscess fed by our disease, swelling with resentment and self-pity until eventually it bursts as the emotional nihilism of fuck it.  Fuck sobriety.  Fuck trying for a good life.  I tried, and look what it got me: misery.

Sure, it’s self-centered to keep bending people’s ears about your troubles if you’re not also doing the work to heal yourself.  Sure, there are assholes who’ll hear you wrongly, who will twist what you’ve shared against you.  But the deeper truth is this: trust is a form of love, and love is what heals us.

If Rob had loved himself enough, maybe he’d have given himself permission to feel  a degree of pain that, rationally, made no sense to him.  And maybe he’d have tapped into the trust to call somebody, maybe me, maybe another of those loving friends gathered in tears around our pyre of goodbye notes,  and say, “I can’t do this.  I can’t do life.  It hurts too much.”

Maybe he could have given us, instead of heroin, a chance to love him.

 

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Filed under AA, Addiction, Alcoholism, Pain Medication, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality

Reasons I Wasn’t an Alcoholic

04Julesshakespear73Writing the final exam for my college Shakespeare course, I had to close one eye to read the questions, since I was seeing double.  Not puking also required an occasional surge of resolve, and I had the spins.  All unfortunate.  What concerned me most, though, was my handwriting: it looked more as if a third grader were reflecting on Shakespeare’s intent than a college junior – one who adored his plays and knew many lines by heart – at least, ordinarily.  That exam pulled my final grade down to a B despite many A papers.  I think about it every time I see my transcript.

What was wrong with that picture?  About three hours.  That’s all I needed to sober up. Wisdom acquired?  For an 8:00AM exam, one should stop drinking, not at 3:00AM, as I had, but probably closer to midnight.  Having learned that lesson, I’d manage better next time.  It was a mistake – not a problem.

When a couple years later I drank a fifth of 151 in a few hours and passed out so deeply, nothing could wake me, that was clearly because no one at the housewarming party had warned me about 151 – that you had to drink it slower!  Who knew?!  Another mistake.

When, at my wedding celebration, I hovered a couple of steps behind Michael Dukakis, governor and guest of honor, imitating his every gesture and doubling over with laughter (I might have peed my nylons just a little), it was simply a shamewine_cheese my in-laws lacked a sense of humor!  Though, okay – I might have had a bit much.  But the bride gets to make a mistake, right?

When a few years later I attended a wine and cheese graduate school function with my (new) partner, told inappropriate stories, shattered a fancy wine glass, and passed out face down on the floor of an upstairs room, it was just – whoops! – another mistake.  Good thing I wasn’t lying in my own vomit, because I was a pretty classy English professor!

So I learned to do better next time!  Well, actually, um, not next time, but the time after that.  I learned I really didn’t like getting falling down drunk, so the next time I… got falling down drunk, I didn’t like it again…once it was over, so next time I wouldn’t do it – til I did.

What those people who claimed I had a problem with alcohol failed to realize was this: I loved alcohol.  I adored it.  It fixed me, it fixed you, it fixed the world – so everything could be okay.  How could that be a problem?  I just kept fucking up on the amount, was all.  I just kept overdoing a good thing.  But it was a good thing!  That I knew.  No one was going phase me with this “Louisa, you’re an alcoholic” bullshit.  Maybe I was one but so what?  It was my way.  Nobody has the right to tell you to change that!

So, fuck ’em, I said.

Besides, I could list off a million reasons I wasn’t an alcoholic.  I…

  • Didn’t drink hard booze after I turned 26 – except when I did
  • Didn’t drink in the mornings – except when I started before noon
  • Didn’t lose my job or house – only chose to downsize
  • Didn’t get a DUI – because the cops appreciated my doe-eyed apologies
  • Didn’t black out and wake in strange places – just miraculously back home
  • Didn’t suffer DTs – just shook wildly, maybe a smidge of amorphous terror

As the years rolled by, however, and I continued to make unfortunate mistakes despite my lack of a problem with alcohol, a few liabilities did crop up, so my phrasing had to change a bit, like this:

  • Though I occasionally collided with door frames, I did so reminded of life’s bittersweet irony
  • Though I occasionally fell down, it really didn’t hurt
  • Though I attended keggers in my mid-30s, I did so from a worldly, intellectual perspective
  • Though I hit a car head on, I’d slowed down so much it hardly did anything
  • Though I cheated on partners, I did so secretly so it kind of didn’t happen
  • Though I might enjoy a glass of white wine while I cooked dinner, or perhaps a beer at lunch or while journalling, gardening, vacuuming, folding clothes, building a fence, watching TV, doing the dishes, clipping my nails, or taking a shower, I didn’t drink all the time
  • Though I hated myself, that was my business – and a fine reason to drink more

I could have gone on like that forever, with an answer for everything.  I don’t know why I didn’t.  I guess gradually the old threadbare idea that I’d manage better next time wore thinner and thinner.  At the same time, the prospect of any next time, any next anything, grew increasingly dull and even disgusting.  Though I think what actually defeated me, what drove me to break down and hit bottom and finally say ‘uncle,’ was that last point: hating myself.  The hate grew so intense – such white hot, pure acid, unmitigated and inescapable hate – that I simply could not stand to exist another day – drink or no drink.  So it was suicide or… what the hell, AA.

Meeting snowflake

Those of you reading this sober may know exactly what I’m talking about.  Some reading just a tad hungover may experience a twinge of recognition and whip their Monopoly-style NOT-THAT-BAD card from a back pocket.  No one can diagnose another person’s alcoholism.  But a word I discounted back then was honesty.  Today I know honesty is not a true/false prospect; it’s a matter of excavation.  And digging takes courage.

On January 29, 1995, whatever it is I call god removed my mania for drinking.  I’ve not had a drop since.  What could be more miraculous?  Deep down, just under our hearts, we can all sense our source, our core, our truth beyond knowing.  I used to drink to bury mine.  Today, with the help of my fellows, I strive to live by it.

 

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Filed under Addiction, Alcoholism, Denial, Drinking, Recovery, Sobriety, Step 1