Tag Archives: alcoholic

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 rips 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 it made her more puffy than happy. We can all point to such nightcap-taker exceptions, but their livers’ extended kickass performance doesn’t change what alcohol is (poison) and does (destroys healthy cells).

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.


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


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


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/


Filed under Addiction, alcohol damage, AUD, Health, Recovery

What’s Normal Drinking?

Suppose I give you an algorithm to figure out whether or not you’re a normal drinker.  I tell you to take the number of drinks you’d consume on an average Tuesday, multiply it by a rough estimate of times you’ve “had too much” and divide that by the number of drinks that would qualify as a “binge” for you; next add the number of times you’ve felt utterly disgusted with yourself the morning after.  If the square route of this number is less than 3, you’re fine – go ahead and drink!  If it’s over 3 – sorry!  You’ve got a problem.

Here’s the real test:  Did you read that whole paragraph, dude?  Did you even consider trying to estimate some of those crazy numbers?  Then, guess what?  You are sooo not normal!  Not only do normies — people with a normal relationship to alcohol — not even have numbers for most of those inputs, they don’t give a rat’s ass about how much they drink or whether they get to.

Try the whole thing again substituting “strawberries” or “croissants” for drinks and you’ll see through a normie’s eyes:  “Take the number of strawberries you’d consume on an average Tuesday…”  Who cares?  Eat ’em or don’t – it doesn’t matter!

Alcoholics love to marvel at normie behaviors like not finishing a drink or leaving half a bottle of wine in the fridge for weeks, behaviors that strike us as incomprehensible.  But getting a handle on how weird our thinking is – why we see normal as strange – is not so easy.

“The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great illusion of every abnormal drinker.  The persistence of this illusion is astonishing.  Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”  (Big Book p. 30)

Before lasting sobriety, we keep trying and trying to find a way to drink normally.  But the effort itself precludes normalcy.  For instance, here’s a story from my Big Book study group, just after we read the above passage.  Dana – a repeat relapser who works from home – claimed to be able to control her drinking:

“The trouble is, I can control and enjoy my drinking for a long time. I’m really careful.  I’ll drive in the morning to the gas station near my house and buy just one of those little airplane bottles of Jack [Daniels].  I’ll drink it in the car and fucking enjoy the hell out of it.  Then I go home and get the kids off to school; I’m nice and not grouchy.  I’ll get set up for work, go have another little bottle, work for hours, chat with clients – I’m great. Before the kids get home, I’ll zip out and have another.  Maybe one before dinner and bed.  NEVER do I have two!  I’m just calm, smooth, efficient – doin’ my thing for weeks and weeks!  But then one day, I’ll get bombed and mess everything up.  Then I come back to AA.”

About ten of us made up the circle that day, but the room fell silent.  We all looked confused and befuddled, each lost in their own thinking. She did seem to be managing her drinking extraordinarily well!  To me it was like someone able to walk on a super-slick surface, keeping her balance and never slipping.  Dana was drinking and living a normal life as a functional working mom!  Wasn’t that what we all wished we could pull off?

A few of us asked about logistics.  Dana answered confidently.  I recall feeling a subtle mix of jealousy — Dana was able to drink! — and fear that I might decide to try something like that.  But most of all, I recall a fuzzy, confused inability to think clearly, to see something that was right on the tip of my brain’s tongue, so to speak.  I felt as though my mind were stuffed with wool.

Nora, another group leader, inquired tentatively, “How far is the gas station?”

“Five minutes,” replied Dana.

Nora’s forehead knitted. “And you make five trips a day?”

“About an hour out of my day, yeah.”

Nora spoke haltingly: “So isn’t… the alcohol controlling you, rather than… you controlling alcohol — ?”

As if awakening from a trance, we all shifted, seeing that Nora on the brink of something.

“That’s true,” said Dana.  “I never thought of it that way.  I guess I’m not really the one calling the shots!”

Suddenly I could see it – Dana’s system was madness!  She was arranging her entire life around her addiction so she could function in the world.  At that moment, everyone, including Dana, saw it. We also saw that some blindness in our relationship to alcohol had kept us from seeing it.

Brantly, our third leader, spoke up animatedly:  “This is not how normal people behave, you guys!  Arranging our whole life to maintain a buzz because we can’t do life as life?!  That is crazy. For normal people, alcohol is not the answer, so getting it’s not a question!  That’s why we need meetings, why we need the steps and god – because our brains make the insane sound totally normal!”

We were all laughing by this time, at ourselves, at ten people’s incredible alcoholic brain fart.  Brantly held up his phone: “I don’t need an app to tell me it’s been 5,057 days since my last strawberry!”

Here’s the bottom line.  If you hope desperately to find a reason you’re not an alcoholic, you’re an alcoholic.  If you point proudly to periods when you’ve drunk normally, you’re not normal.  Normal drinkers may hide from life in other ways, but not through booze, so they simply don’t care. We for whom alcohol has been a lifesaving magic carpet are incapable of not caring.  Hence the fabulously ironic saying, “If I were a normie, I’d drink every day!”

Step one is the realization, an acceptance to the marrow of our bones that no way out of this maze exists on human terms.  Our faulty minds will always, always “choose” drinking — by however contorted a logic.  We can’t not drink.  Our relief must come from a higher power.



Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Drinking, Recovery, Step 1

Holiday Parties: 6 Tips for the Recovering Alcoholic

…and why they may be utterly useless

‘Tis the season when a lot of us get invited to gatherings where the alcohol flows. If we go, we may find ourselves among normies for whom “drinking means conviviality, companionship and colorful imagination,” as well as some pre-bottom drunks.  Because they’re outside recovery, chances are they’ll be a world away from understanding that for us, to drink is to die.


drinks we see others taking with impunity…        

Normies view alcohol consumption from the perspective of a normal body and mind, which they assume (come on!) we must  have, too – the kind that can moderate alcohol intake at will. Believing this, they may interpret our abstaining, not as avoiding the poison that can bring down in ruins everything we love, but as a party-poopy failure to “join in the revelry.” Even if we say flat out (as I do), “I’m an alcoholic,” some can’t seem to grasp what that means.  They urge, cajole, and act baffled — or mourn for us.  “What?!  We’re talking a single glass of X, here!” (insert spiked punch, spiked eggnog, spiked cider, or plain old booze).

Standing by our own truth in the face of such reactions can be, for the more codependent among us, socially difficult.  What’s more, watching others take drinks with impunity amid all the sensory experiences of alcohol – hearing the ice clinks, seeing it pour, maybe even smelling it – Whoa! – can rouse our addict from its slumber, enabling it to launch a marketing campaign about the radness of just one drink.


…it’s never enough

Yet the Big Book tells us, “any scheme of combating alcoholism that attempts to shield the sick man from temptation is doomed to failure…. So our rule is not to avoid a place where there is drinking, if we have a legitimate reason for being there.”

Everything hinges on spiritual fitness, which I’ll discuss a little further down. Meanwhile, here are six tips that have helped me feel more comfortable at events where alcohol is served.

  1. Go in the spirit of usefulness, not to “get” social points or further your “little plans and designs.”  My sponsor used to tell me to see “what (I) could pack into the stream of life.” I show up to give. I can give others my attention, my humor, my encouragement, and my caring for them.  If it’s a homemade party, I can ask the hosts what I might do to help. What matters is not how these offerings are received, but the spiritual flow they put me in.
  1. Bring a supply of kick-ass non-alcoholic drinks if possible, that is, if it’s not a fancy catered type thing. As above, bring them not only for yourself, but others. “Hey, I just happened to pick up some Reed’s Ginger Beer, Martinelli’s, and this amazing Trader Joe’s whatever on my way over! Enjoy!”
  1. Have a recovery buddy. Either bring a sober alcoholic with you, or arrange to check in with one before and after.
  1. Pray your ass off. Pray before, pray during (in the bathroom or just your mind), and pray again when it’s time to leave. “God, please help me remember what’s truly important, who I am, and that you’re with me” might be a better prayer than “Help me not drink.”
  1. Know your boundaries before you go. Once we get somewhere, it may feel loserish to leave early, but screw that. Know in advance that as soon as people start slurring and discussing their favored sexual positions, or when a certain hour arrives, you’re gone.
  1. Have something cozy waiting at home. This can be reunion with your beloved pets/people or some treat you decide on in advance: a good movie or book, a slice of cheesecake, blankie & PJs, or all of the above – whatever makes you happy.

Now for the spiritual fitness part: None of these tips will be worth jack if you don’t love your sobriety.

As a newcomer, you may not think you love it, but at some level you do, because it’s your core, your truth, your life. You want to grow and thrive, and while your addiction promises you guzzling will accomplish this, you know better.

I love my sobriety fiercely – as fiercely as if it were my newborn child. It’s only as old as today. Some people might bring their newborn to a whoopee party. I do so when I bring my sobriety, cradling it close. Some might set their newborn down on a table and wander off in search of social adventures, forgetting about it. Others may decide partway through the party that toting this newborn around really inhibits their having a good time, so they’re just gonna chuck it in the garbage tonight and cut loose.

Any time a well-meaning acquaintance urges me to have a drink, they’re holding a garbage can under my newborn. They have no idea what deep fury they’re fucking with. My sobriety is the source of my joy, my awakeness, my love for all the beauties of this life – and no dumbass party can tempt me to drop it. I don’t need to vent this at them; I just need to remember my life is at stake.

Yet, dear readers, the inescapable fact remains that I can’t always remember.  Addiction lives inside my brain – the very same brain needing to remember. It can usurp the helm at any time and disguise a drink as a fine idea.  AA’s ‘spiritual fitness’ refers to my connection to a god that, for reasons unknown, intercedes during these curious mental blank spots to let me pause (provided my steps 1, 2, & 3 stand in earnest) until the truth returns.  To the extent that following these tips reflects my commitment to those steps, they may help me enjoy myself in the midst of boozers.

Yet the bottom line remains: Party or no party, tips or no tips, I’m safe anywhere if my god is with me, and nowhere if it’s not.


where it leads

21 year old girl, drunk, killed family of 4 as well as her two passengers.  Will she continue drinking, no matter how much she wants to stop?


Filed under Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Twelve Steps


A worthy life is simply one of honesty with oneself and god…

I go through phases when I wake up almost every morning with a gut-level anxiety, a feeling of guilt that I’m somehow not doing all I’m supposed to, shame for lacking “success,” and alarm that I’m getting old at a mile a minute.  My whole life, the feeling claims, is a failure.  Before I’ve even sat up in bed, this “not-enoughness” jabs at my mind, perfect lifeprompting vague solutions that pop up like slot machine combos:  “Earn more!”  “Lose weight!”  “Socialize more!”

Whether my not-enoughness, a default setting from childhood, will ever go away I don’t know.  What’s changed is how I respond to it.  Today I understand that it’s just a feeling launched by the part of me that’s still broken.  I return its topspin tennis serve with a quick prayer: “God, please take this away and guide my thinking today.”  While I put on my morning clothes and weigh myself, not-enoughness still chides at me.  I dismiss it automatically and try to focus on the moment: gift of what I am doing, the good fortune of where I am, and the blessings of my reality.  I commit to loving what is instead of lacking what isn’t.

The power for this practice comes from my god, a connection nurtured through many years of working all 12 Steps.  Back when I relied on active drinking and codependency, I believed not only the not-enoughness, but the solutions my mind proposed.  My high school refrain, “Excel more!” gradually morphed into “Be more liked!”  If I could just win your admiration, I’d overcome not-enoughness.  Sans alcohol I was terrified to converse with people, not realizing the main obstacle had to do with the coordinates of my head, which was firmly lodged up my ass.  I could scarcely hear what you were saying, so preoccupied was I with self: what was up with me, what I thought you thought of me, and what I might say to impress you (usually figured out after you left).  Sober socializing was, in short, torture.

Drinking, of course, fixed all that.  It made me smart, funny, beautiful, and worthy.  Glamour drinkSure, I was still biding my time while you talked, but who gave a shit?  I’d get my turn to blab soon enough and, whether you were impressed or not, I, at least, was fine with whatever the fuck I’d just said.  The drunker I got, the wider my range of just fine became.  Maybe you didn’t care to hear about ex-partner’s sexual foibles, but fuck it!  Lissen!  It’s hilarious!


Moi, back in the day

The infatuation addiction detailed in my memoir was really just a souped-up version of that same dynamic, with all my need concentrated on a chosen, magical person whose admiration (or even company) worked like cocaine.  Sadly, these worth-seeking projects frequently morphed into real relationships – meaning that the magic one, by committing, lost all magic.  Subsequently, when attacks of not-enoughness struck, I had no “soon things will be different!” to counter it with.  I could only muffle its penalty buzzer with more booze and great ideas.  All I’d end up with was a wreckage of mishaps, huge amounts of money blown, and a hangover like a brain full of puss.

Sobriety has by no means been a picnic.  I spent over two years dry and tortured – fleeing the conversation clusters after meetings with mutters of “fuck ’em!” – before I finally worked the steps and became teachable.  Slowly teachable, that is: I spent nine years in a codependent cocoon focusing all my anxious attention, from the moment I woke, on fixing my partner’s “problems” and ignoring my own.  Really, that morning gong of not-enoughness did not emerge for me as a distinct phenomenon until I found myself waking up alone.  “What is this feeling?” I finally asked.

Self-knowledge may not save us from drinking, but it sure helps with other problems!  The steps have transformed my economics of worth.  The only worth I can feel, I understand now, is self-worth.  I am the only agent who can generate that rebuttal to not-enoughness, no matter what anyone else may think of me.  God has shown me how to cultivate self-esteem by doing estimable works.  It has guided me to grow a loveable life by loving my life.  It has taught me to connect with others more through my heart than my words.

Despite what the zillion ads we’re bombarded with would have us believe, a worthy life is simply one of honesty with oneself and god – whatever that may look like for the individual.  For me, it means I do the best I can with what’s right in front of me Goodmanand trust god that whenever a suitable door approaches, god will not only alert me, but open it.  Why did I start up the small business I run today?  Doors would not open to the 500+ jobs I tried for following my layoff, whereas with just one little ad, the business practically threw itself at me.  Like incremental promotions at a firm called Happiness, Inc., small choices I’ve made have gradually steered my life away from money and prestige toward more time and freedom.  Thrift at home is part of my work.  True, I drive a beater and shop at Goodwill, but I also get to walk my 13-year-old son to school each morning, laughing about this and that.  I get to write instead of wishing to.  I see friends.  I take loads of ballet classes, raise cute hens, and execute my own half-assed home repairs.  Overall, my life today reflects the truth of who I am – a plenitude of what I value and a shortage of what I don’t.  That’s the true test.

In fact, by the time I go to bed each night, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for my beautiful, rich, love-filled life.  My only prayer is, “Thank you, god, for all of it.  I love you.”

Tomorrow, I know, it all begins again.

imagesShare if you like ~ ↓ ↓


Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Codependence, Drinking, living sober, Recovery, sober, Sobriety, Twelve Steps

A Lil’ Note on Fear

What’s that saying we hear around the rooms – “Be careful what you pray for – you just might get it” – ? In the last few weeks I’ve learned that when you do get what you thought you wanted, it turns out not to be what you thought.

A week ago Wednesday a client of mine canceled, so I thought I’d grab the time to write a post.  I’d skipped the previous week because of a long hike, so I pushed myself to just crank something out.  News of Robin Williams’ suicide had shaken me.  My own years of battling depression were but a drop in the bucket to his, I knew, but after Google brought me his choice words on the inner experience of alcoholism, I’d felt a powerful upwelling of compassion.  Could I remember and describe that feeling?

An hour and a half later, it was online.  That entire day, the post got one (1, uno) view.  I considered deleting it, seeing as it didn’t “fit” with most of my blog.  Except that I liked it.  It said what I’d felt.  So, after adding the opening disclaimer, I posted a link to Facebook and left for work.

When I got home that evening, there were 187 views.  Since my previous all-time high had been 80, I thought something must’ve gone haywire with my WordPress stats.  Two friends had shared the link – that’s it. trending-sign But just for shits and giggles, I posted it on an open AA Facebook page as well.  In the next 24 hours there were 1,600 views, a number doubled or tripled daily.   As of right now, the total number of views has reached almost 75,000 from over 100 nations.

Two weeks ago, I’d have told you my only reaction would be elation.  Every writer wants to be read, right?  But the inflow of comments gave me a feeling more like when you’ve put too much lighter fluid on the briquettes and light them too soon.  The flames leap higher and higher until – aack! – what have you done?!

Exposure was a scary feeling I’d not anticipated.  The blog had traveled to readers critical of AA and recovery, a few of whom accused me of discounting depression, glorifying myself, or forcing AA on others – nonetrend of which I’d intended.  In these voices I felt aggression, like flaming arrows entering my home.  They seemed certain I thought I knew shit, that I was saying, “Here’s the real deal on Robin Williams.”  But there is no high horse to knock me down from.  I never claimed to know anything.  I’d written my feelings – what I’d wondered, and how that felt.

I’ve never seen this in AA literature, but it seems to me that, just as there plain hamburgers and cheeseburgers, so are there two basic types of alcoholics: plain and codependent.  Plain alcoholics fear god won’t care for them, and codependent alcoholics fear they’re not worth caring for, period.  That is, unless others say they are.  Codependents try all kinds of ways to win the approval that, this time, might just fill that painful hole in their soul.  It’s a double disease that divides the adult self, who of course knows better, from the inner child who still pleads, “Like me! Like me!”

In my case, apparently, that means everybody.  My emotional balance often seems as precarious as if I were riding a unicycle, so that any disturbance makes me wobble and flail absurdly all over the place.  Because this fear was absurd!  Even with tens of thousands of folks quietly re-posting, and kind comments outnumbering critical ones by 10 to 1, every damn time I went to checked email, my body anticipated criticism with huge shots of adrenaline – that flush in your stomach that fills you with dread.

During the two days of highest blog traffic, my constant state of fear obliterated mindful presence.  I got a parking ticket (too many thoughts to feed the meter), a speeding ticket (too many to notice speedometer), and went without sleep.  When I described my critic-angst to sober friends, their advice was either “Fuck ’em!” (by far most common) or “It’s self-centered to expect others to see what we see.”  But neither helped.  I’d originally started this blog to publicize my addiction memoir, which I secretly hoped might some day take off the way the blog has, but now I had doubts about even wanting that. Maybe I was just too easily bruised, I thought, to be putting myself out there that way.

The irony is, I don’t fear the world.  This past weekend, I loaded up the car with my son, dog, and two backpacks, drove 138 miles into the North Cascades, hiked a mile in, rented a canoe, and paddled 4 miles on a glacier-melt lake to find a small inlet where our sober friends were camping – no roads, no cars.  Sunday morning, along a trail where for the past two years we’ve encountered bears, I went for a run carrying a collapsed, pointed trekking pole just in case.  Sure enough, major bear poop showed up on the trail about a mile in – dark with lots of berries – but since it didn’t look fresh, I kept on, just keeping my eyes open and blowing out a trumpet-style farty noise every so often as a bear-bell.  That kind of courage I don’t lack.

Codependence makes me over-reactive to others’ responses, because I think I need approval to outweigh my deepest fear – that dark secret that I do suck and am going to be exposed as a fake and a fraud.  It’s the fear that others will discover how flawed and therefore vile I am and react with disgust.  On this camping trip, surrounded by loving, flawed alcoholics and the beauty of mountains, I saw my fear as something I need to make peace with until god takes it.  When fear of judgement comes on, I can only accept it as I would a sneezing fit, involuntary and inevitable.  Whoops!  Adrenaline rush!  I’m a fake and a fraud who’s unworthy and everybody’s gonna find out!  …Gesundheit!

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received in sobriety is the distance allowing me to not believe my own thoughts.  I have faith in something far greater than my own mind, something that shapes my life with wild turns of events that I could never, ever see coming.  For now I can tell fear, “Thanks for sharing.”  I can hold up the “Please wrap it up” card.  But I can also trust that god is teaching me in ways I can’t yet fathom, and that fear, like pain, is a voice for what still needs healing.



Boy and dog on Ross Lake: what does matter.


Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Codependence, living sober, Recovery, Sobriety, Twelve Steps

Save your Ass, not your Soul

Steps 2, 3, & 12

Taped to my fridge I have an old fortune cookie fortune.  Except it’s an alcoholic fortune.  One of my friends used to order these special alcoholic fortune cookies with program tips and slogans tucked inside on the little strips of paper.  For us, these kind of are fortunes, because our lives go downhill fast if we don’t practice this stuff.  Anyway, it reads:

 “This is a Save Your Ass program not a Save Your Soul program.  We are concerned with the here & now, not the hear after.” Fridge

You might notice that he misspelled hereafter as “hear after,” and apparently no one at the fortune cookie factory noticed.  As it happens, this friend of mine, Dave F., has since gone to the hereafter.  His liver quit on him suddenly at age 47, many years into a healthy sobriety, and he did not survive the transplant.  But for me, because of how Dave lived, and because I still think about things he shared in meetings, he has indeed gone to the “hear after.”

“Religion is for people who’re afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.”

That saying, attributed to various people, runs along the same lines as the Save Your Ass slogan.  Those who accuse AA of religiosity, as I once did, completely miss the point.  Drunks don’t want to be holy.  We don’t hope to get into some God-ass-kissers’ heaven.  And we sure don’t go through the 12 Steps to become shining examples of goody-two-shoes bullshit.  No.  We want to live.  We’re motivated by pain and the threat of self-destruction, and we’ve known both too well for longer than we could stand.  To get sober, we need the help of a higher power to remove our compulsion to drink.  But to stay sober, we need that god to relieve us of the compulsion to think in alcoholically self-centered, fear-driven ways that twist us up inside until we either tip the bottle or otherwise wreck our lives.

Mind you, I can wreck mine purely from the inside.  If I’m off the beam spiritually, even the most outwardly beautiful Hallmark moment can be shot through with  x_(insert anxiety, insecurity, self-loathing, jealousy, ire, not enough etc.) to the point where, idyllic as it looks, I’m in hell.  The choice is mine to wallow in those feelings addictively or to forcefully wrench away from them and ask god for help.  I say “forcefully” because the pull of those emotional reflexes can be every bit as tempting as the reflex to drink.

Dave was prone to all these aspects of our disease, but he kept turning away from his defects, reaching for what god could offer instead of what his disease could.  Not just once in a blue moon, but consistently.  One summer night at an AA meeting we hold around a campfire on the beach (Golden Gardens, Tues night), I heard him tell a story that has stayed with me in the “hear after.”

That same day he’d tried to summit Mount Olympus alone.  Sounds epic, but it’s also a lo-ong drive, an even longer overnight hike in, and a very dangerous ascent.  In any case, almost as soon as he’d reached the glacier, one of his crampons broke (spiky foot gear for climbing ice).  He’d tried to rig it: fail.  He’d tried to climb without it: fail.  Finally, he’d had no choice but to turn around in defeat.  Having driven straight from the mountains to the beach, he was boiling water on his camp stove for his freeze-dried dinner as he spoke. Here’s the story I remember him telling.

“I got down into the trees, and I was so damn pissed.  I broke for lunch at this creek and I was just pissed as hell.  All this time, all this preparation – fuckin’ crampon breaks!  I was denied!  It felt so unfair, and just like my whole life has gone that way – you know?  But then I see something pop out of the water, and it’s this little bird.  There’s serious fast-moving water in this creek, rapids, pools.  And I see where he lands, and he’s got this tiny fish.  Swallows it.  And he’s lookin’ at the water.  Flits somewhere else, looks at the water.  Boom!  He shoots in!  He’s like a rocket.  Few seconds later, pops out.  This time, no fish.”

Dave told about the change that came over him, watching.  Sometimes the bird hit pay dirt and sometimes, for all its daring, getting churned around in that washing machine of roaring ice water, it got nothing.  Gradually, he remembered to notice what a spectacularly beautiful place he was in.  Gradually, he accepted what had happened.

“Maybe that’s what I was supposed to see today,” he reflected.  “Not the view from the top, but that bird trying, and going for it, and working with whatever god gives it – fish or no fish.  Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to summit today,  or I could’ve fallen cause the crampon broke at a bad time.”  He shrugged wistfully, stirring the package.  “This was supposed to be my victory dinner.  But maybe it is, just being here with you guys, sober.  Tonight I’m grateful.”  Waves broke on the sand.  We could all see the sun setting behind the Olympic mountains across the water, and now Dave turned his head to look at them.  “I’ll tag Olympus another day.”

And tag it he did, solo, a year later – his last.  On that day, he nabbed a truly precious fish.

I didn’t get a chance to see Dave F. in the hospital, but I heard that all the nurses, doctors, and orderlies fell in love with him because of his humor and kindness.  I know over a hundred people who love, remember, and miss Dave today because of his selfless generosity.  That guy used to carry the makings and equipment for entire pancake breakfasts 3,000 feet up Tiger Mountain, cook during our mountaintop meeting, and hand out steaming plates to anybody.  He reached out to newly sober drunks who didn’t know jack about climbing and brought groups of them up mountains, passing on his knowledge.  He even planned group climbs on holidays for those without family, spreading the word about our sober climbing group at AA meetings everywhere. In the summer of 2o12 I joined him on a climb of Mailbox Peak, laughing and joking about I don’t remember what.  The other guys looked up to him.  He had confidence and charisma.

Contrast this with 2006, the first hike I ever took with Dave F., when he spent most of our descent of Mount Si complaining to me about his job, luck with women, lack of education, and life in general – letting out his sense that he never got a break.  Or compare it to our first ascent of Rainier that same year, when he kept to himself at base camp and spoke little to anyone except our leader.  He struck me as wounded – lonely but too shy to socialize, trapped inside himself. He was like a bird waiting for a fish to jump out of the whitewater into his beak.

Here’s the crux, okay?  Dave underwent a psychic change, that spiritual awakening named in Step 12 that happens as a result of sincerely working 1 through 11.  If he hadn’t, up there on Olympus, he wouldn’t even have noticed that friggin’ bird.  Or if he had, he wouldn’t have given a shit because seething about how he’d been robbed would demand all his attention.  But with the psychic change, Dave sensed that such a path, the way of resentment and self-pity, was dangerous, because resentment spreads in an alcoholic like a cancer until, before you know it, you’re too smart to go anymore to those stupid meetings where all those bozos are so full of shit.  Recovery like Dave’s takes courage.  It takes work.

Turning to god is how we save our asses.  When we’re open, when we’re in the habit of looking, god speaks to us through the tiniest, most unlikely messengers.  If we want that message more than our version of the story, we pay attention, we see metaphor, and let god give us exactly what we need to be whole and free in the here and now.

Mount Olympus, Washington.  How’s the view from there now, sweet Dave?  We miss you!

Mount Olympus, Washington. How’s the view from there now, sweet Dave? We miss you!



PS: To my surprise, while hiking this August, I camped at the same wilderness site from which the above photo was taken.  Here’s my (ex)boyfriend’s version, not quite as good, but still:

2014-08-05 15.33.37

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Filed under Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety