I recorded this on my phone last night — and I’m really glad I did. Speech / elocution-wise, I learned that I’m too shrill and often speak too fast to be understood, so I can work on toning both those things down. Content-wise, I hope some of you might get something useful from it. Plans to time myself were technologically foiled, so I was shocked when the moderator held up 10 fingers, and the end is hella rushed. But I guess that’s how it was meant to be.
Tag Archives: Alcoholism
AA Banquet Talk: Transformative Steps & My Story
Filed under AA, AA talk, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Twelve Steps
Pain Meds IN THE HOUSE!!
A few years ago, my friend Rob, a “purebred” alcoholic sober nearly a decade, injured his elbow and was prescribed Vicodin. In mere weeks he became addicted to opioids and, after a few years, died. Another friend, an engineer with decades of sobriety, likewise hurt his elbow. He, too, was prescribed pain medicine, left his life to chase street drugs for months, but by the grace of god did not die.
What we as alcoholic addicts can never forget is that our brains have a haywire switch. No matter how certain our rational minds are about “not liking pills” or “using only as prescribed,” our addict remains crouched in the back of our minds saying, “Right! You’ve got this!” until the moment it clinches control and says, “Ha! I’ve got YOU, bitch, and we’re on a run!” I can’t emphasize enough the degree of respect for this demon every alcoholic addict needs.
Last Thursday, a surgeon sliced open my hip crease, popped the ball outta the socket, sawed off the end of that femur, and commenced building me a new hip. That’s a graphic way of saying I underwent an anterior hip replacement. When I came to, I felt wonderful! In fact, I had a moment of intense spiritual clarity — see below — before things got cloudy.
I have no partner, my son’s away at college, my mom is hella old, siblings either distant or dealing with their own ailments. My main “family” is AA, but I have other circles as well. My friend Keira came to get me 30 minutes after surgery. She’s a chemo nurse, at home in medical settings. When the nurse discharging me noted that, per my request, I’d be prescribed only Tramadol — not Oxycodone — Keira interrupted. To me she said, “Dude, they just sawed through your femur. Get the Oxy. If you don’t need it, you don’t have to take it.”
An hour later in the Safeway the parking lot, my entire thigh was !!!SCREAMING!!! as if someone had … well, just sawed through it. Keira was inside trying to get me the Oxy before the pharmacy took a lunch break. I was doing controlled breathing, shaking like mad, pressing down the panic that wanted to explode as my pain flared higher and higher.
At last Keira opened the driver’s side door. She had the Oxy. Thank god. About 10 minutes later, I could speak again in a normal voice. The pain was managed.
That’s what such drugs are for.
Over the 27 years I’ve been sober, I’ve gotten super comfortable with full-on reality. What used to seem an onslaught of jarring, demanding impressions is now just the flow of what’s happening. I knew this before my surgery. What I didn’t know until the following day was that the converse has also become true: I’m now super UN-comfortable with being fucked up.
Isn’t that crazy? What would Pink Floyd, who wrote “Comfortably Numb,” think of that? Could 34-year-old Louisa, who in 1995 lived for her daily booze and drugs, have even imagined such a mindset?
I was staying with Keira’s family for three nights. On Day 2, Friday, she invited our friend Sarah over for a card table dinner in the room next to mine. I was excited! Both these friends live an hour away from me, so I don’t get to see either as much as I’d like, let alone both together. We three are the Bikini Bitches. We climb glacial mountains and take silly Bikini Bitch photos at the summits, clean, sober, & livin’ large. That’s us.
I wanted to be fully PRESENT for this little reunion, but I also needed to sit at the table, so I took a Tramadol instead of Oxycodone. That shit may be one-sixth as strong as Oxy, but it messed me up, hit me like a wave of blur! Sarah showed up and we all sat down together, but my mind was goofing around on some mayonnaise slip n’ slide. I remember looking at my friends and thinking, I want to BE here! Again and again I struggled to focus, but I couldn’t think of words or keep track of most ideas long enough to speak them.
Every now and then, they’d look at each other. I remember Keira saying with an accepting shrug, “She’s fucked up.”
I wanted OUT of my fucked-upness as badly as I used to want OUT of full-on, clear consciousness. My friends were there, and I was MISSING it! But I could do nothing to get my sharpness back. I was half-drowned in stupidity.
On Day 3, my son surprised me by driving 6 hours across the state, using my shared location to find Keira’s house, and then phoning to say, “Mom, can you look out the window?” Such a sweet boy! Sunday, after he’d driven me home, he set up our house so I could live downstairs alone.
He also hid all my meds.
Yup. The Oxy he divvied into stashes — 2 pills, 6 pills, and the rest of the bottle — then found hiding places for them and the Tramadol. I had my ibuprofen and Tylenol. If I needed something stronger, I could call him. My son understands. He grew up around sober friends we’ve since lost to addiction, prescribed or otherwise. He mourns them, and he loves me.
As it turned out, I did need to call him. My stomach rejected the ibuprofen AGAIN and, after I caught my crutch on a gate while letting my chickens out, I stumbled and re-injured my leg, which brought on a 99.5 º fever and heightened pain. “Look in the drone box on my desk,” he told me. And there were two Oxy, right under my nose! For two nights, they controlled the pain enough to let me sleep, but I think I’m done now. I don’t need to ask for more.
What protects me from hunting for those meds is not my will. Addiction’s kryptonite is connection: love, community, and gratitude. An AA friend is coming over today to move my stuff back upstairs. Another will come tomorrow to spot me while I take a (much-needed!!) shower. Neighbors have mastered my chicken routines, gifted me a thermometer, and picked up my new anti-inflammatory meds. My dogs have gone for walks every day — 6 days in a row — with different people. Today they have a play date with the dogs of a former student of mine from 15 years back.
Here is the image I was shown when I first came out of the anesthetic, before my brain came back online to block spiritual knowing. First, I had to remember what I was doing: I recalled, “Oh, yeah, I’m doing that Louisa business!” Then, on the strip of wall in front of me above a window to the nurses’ station, I saw my life as Louisa. It was a circle at the center of a ring of smaller circles, connected by radiating lines that I understood went two ways. These were all the lives mine touches, all the people connected to me whether remotely or in person. Lean into this, my angel told me. There was more, but I’ll save that for another post.
I thought, “Wow! That wall is so awesome! I’ve got to tell the staff to put some pictures up there for people who maybe don’t have visions!” Then everything went cloudy, and I don’t remember much.
I’m on a mission here in this Louisa suit to share love and kindness. So are you. But the flipside is, we can give others a chance to do the same.
Filed under AA, Addiction, Pill addiction, Sobriety
Alcoholism and Rats
Alcoholism is a master of disguise. That is how it kills. It shows up on the doorstep of your consciousness dressed as an ordinary thought — a good thought, in fact, a good idea that seems to be coming from your own free will. So you welcome it in. It says, essentially, “Hey, a drink is a good idea!”
It’s nicely dressed. It’s friendly. It seems perfectly sensible and justified — justified because, dang it, you do deserve a drink. Chatting with it, you discover you agree on so many points: all this abstinence stuff is an overreaction. Right? Other people make such a big deal over something so simple as a [beer / glass of wine / cocktail]! It’s not their business. Can’t you just do what you want? Of course you can! This is your life and… You know what? A drink is a good idea.
So skilled at disguise is this visitor that the alcoholic never suspects the truth: its aim is death. Your death. It wants you to drink, and keep drinking, to kill yourself while screwing over everything you ever did to STOP drinking, including treatment and step work and soul-searching — all you’ve done to get well. As long as you still have the strength to raise that drink to your lips, Alcoholism has more work to do: “Fuck that,” it chuckles. “C’mon, my friend. A drink is a good idea.”
Impulse — that’s what the visitor relies on. Though we vaguely sense that we’re “being none too smart” , we pour whiskey in the milk, decide to have a highball, prescribe for what ails us, rebel, say fuck it, or just mechanically take that drink. We are truly defenseless against the first drink.
So are alcoholic rats.
I recently came across this fascinating medical study of alcoholism conducted on rats: https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2017105.
Because it’s rather dry and scientific, here’s a cheat sheet.
First, the scientists isolated rats like us, that is, “alcohol-preferring rats,” which they call P-rats. An alcohol-preferring rat is one that would rather drink booze than water (sensible, right?) until they are quite hammered and, I assume, pass out. Next, they taught these P-rats to “work for” their booze: when a light went on they had to press an initial lever that would give then access to a second lever which they could press to get booze. All the P-rats learned this.
Now, here’s the kicker: They started giving the rats painful electric shocks some of the time when they pressed the “seeking” lever — the lever that brings them nothing but an opportunity to press a second to score some booze. The breakdown was this:
- 30% of P-Rats greatly decreased use of the “seeking” lever
- 36% of P-Rats moderately decreased use of the “seeking” lever
- 34% of P-Rats, the true alcoholic rats, did not or could not give a shit about the shocks. Increasing the frequency of shocks did not deter them. Ten months’ abstinence with no alcohol available did not untrain them. The instant the booze was back, they were back at it, getting fuck zapped out of their little ratty feet, anything just so they could have a drink.
That’s us, guys! That is us. I think of the first 30% as normies who love to drink. I think of the second 36% as hard drinkers who get told by a doctor to decrease their drinking and are able to do so.
But that last 34% of rats — those the scientists termed “compulsive,” meaning that for them the drive to get alcohol is stronger than any other. And that is alcoholism in a nutshell.
Were the compulsive P-Rats of a lower moral fiber than the other 66% of booze-loving rats?
Might other rats who loved them have convinced them not to press that seeking lever?
Could they maybe have tried more mental control?
No, no, no. They were simply alcoholic rats, and they were screwed.
A higher power is our only hope
Back to that master of disguise, alcoholism. How can we possibly gain the perspective to slam the door in its friendly, affable face? There are these things called “steps.”
- Give up being special. Identify as alcoholic. Know we are no different or “smarter” than anyone else who died of alcoholism.
- Open our minds to something greater than us, a power beyond our thinking.
- Follow that power. Stop believing our thoughts about anything to do with alcohol and ask instead for help. Make a bone-deep commitment to do what is right and good, no longer what we want. Good Orderly Direction. Group Of Drunks. God as we understand it. Opening deeply to any of these will let in the light that heals us.
- Complete the next 9 steps with aid of a good sponsor.
Louisa checking in
I write this today with a heavy heart — crying, actually. All I write here is what I long to say to one person — one who has never listened.
I love this person very much, though I shouldn’t because he’s an ex who done me wrong. He is near to dying from alcoholism. Yesterday he checked in to detox and treatment. Ever since one of his relatives texted me that he was “skeletal and shaking,” I’ve stayed mostly in the background, asking sober friends he’s lost touch with to call. But last night I kept waking and just praying for him to find a higher power.
It’s unlikely. His chances of survival are slim not only because he’s one of us 34% compulsive P-Rats but because his right brain is weak. The left brain is the bullhorn of ego and fixing things; the right takes in a bigger picture. People with right brain strokes, relying on their left brain’s assessments, often deny that anything is wrong with them, that limbs are paralyzed, sometimes even that their paralyzed limbs belong to them. I believe the right brain is also the seat of our spiritual connection, without which we cannot get sober.
Below is a series of photos of George Best, the famous Irish soccer player.
Here he is in 1972 at the height of his fame, enjoying a brewsky.
Here he is in 2003, robust at 57 after a successful liver transplant necessitated by alcoholic cirrhosis.
His liver transplant was so successful and Best felt so great that he welcomed in that friendly visitor, Alcoholism, when it appeared on the doorstep of his mind assuring him a drink was a good idea — “C’mon, George! Just one on a new liver couldn’t hurt!”
Here he is just two years later at 59, a day or two before he died of massive organ failure brought on by alcoholic relapse.
George Best did not mean to commit suicide. His mind was co-opted, and, for whatever reason, he could not reach god to restore him to sanity.
I fear my loved one will follow this same progression. Please pray for him — that he find a way to reach a god of his own understanding that can override the P-Rat compulsion. His name is Gerard.
Thanks, guys. Love is the most powerful force in the universe.
Filed under Addiction, Alcoholism, Drinking, Heavy drinkers
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?” “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 in 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. I 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!
Lena nodded toward her son. “He don’t talk,” she said. “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 to 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.
Postscript: I had to find out… 🙂
Republished from 12 /2016
Filed under Addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Sponsorship, Twelve Steps
Holy Crap! I’m 27 years Sober!
What’s “normal” wisdom? I’ll never know, so I can’t guess how much I’ve gained from practicing the PROGRAM versus just getting OLDER. What I do know is that I’ve been applying the 12 Steps pretty much every day for these 9,861 since my last drink, and that the lessons keep coming, some of them quite painful; the learning curve keeps me climbing and will do so (I hope) for as long as I live.
While I was drinking, I learned NAHH-THING — about what matters, about who I was, about how to navigate in the world. If I’d never gotten sober in AA, I’d still be trying to piece together an ego-based design for living, one based in the maxims my parents passed onto me (mainly “be better than everyone else”), never suspecting they’d been shaped by generations of family dysfunction.
In fact, even after I stopped drinking, I kept trying to live by my old standards until I hit an emotional bottom at 2.5 years dry and finally asked a no-nonsense woman to take me through the 12 Steps.
The first changes were revolutionary. Here’s Karen’s takeaway from my first real fifth step in 1999, all the damaged and unsaleable goods she highlighted after hearing my 263-resentment-inventory:
By “playing god” she meant that I viewed the world as if I knew what was best — for both myself and others. I decided what you ought to do to make things work my way; when you didn’t, I got scared I wouldn’t be okay and resentful at you for having done what you wanted. Embarrassingly, a lot of this had to do with popularity and inclusion. I wanted people to like me, damn it, to include me in things!
Whenever I got my wish, I’d trot out, not my real self, but what Karen called “the Louisa Show” — my people-pleasing act geared toward getting more of what I wanted, i.e. approval, admiration, popularity. I was always jockeying in a horse race, comparing and judging who — just to keep this brief — was cooler. Either I was cooler (dominant) and you should admire me, or you were, and I (dependently) would keep knocking myself out to impress you. As the 12 & 12 so insightfully summarizes, “The primary fact that we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being.” [p.53]
In short, I kept trying to wrest satisfaction out of people, places, and things, always assuming they held the key to something I needed to be okay. But they didn’t. When I felt most crushed and abandoned, when I was forced to turn inward as a last resort, I’d find way deep down, ignored and discounted, the most profound love of the universe. Today I know my deepest needs can be met only by plugging into that love, which I call god, never by jumping for various gold stars in society.
When my main source of okayness comes from god, life’s a whole different ball game. I can focus on what I have to give: love, listening, recognition. Gradually, giving these things — the feeling of it – has become important to me. I’m not scrambling to prove my own worth, goodness, talent, etc; I want to help others glimpse theirs.
My basic template for living has changed in these two basic ways, with these priorities:
OUT IN THE WORLD
- Develop a good slime-o-meter and pay attention to it. My putting this first may seem odd, but boundaries are actually a precursor to open-heartedness. A slime-o-meter is like a spiritual Geiger counter. It starts clicking when you sense those energetically corrupt — sexual predators, liars, thieves, or just energy vampires — whether in the rooms of AA or out in the world. When I sense slime, I’m still cordial, but I decide carefully how much connection I want. Early in recovery I was ripped off for $7K, tricked into disguised dates, and defamed via gossip by people I’d trusted. Each time I’d had a feeling… that I ignored.
- So equipped, it’s open season on love and goodwill. Try to imagine each stranger as they might have looked at 3 years old. That same vulnerable, curious, trying-to-figure it out child is lodged inside an adult body layered over with lots of safeguards against the cruel blasts of life, but you need to see through to the spark of goodness. Everyone child within loves to be appreciated, to share humor, and to be startled by kindness. As you progress through your day, leave a wake of incrementally happier people.
- Value and make time for chosen family. During the pandemic, it seems especially hard to do stuff, but it’s more than worth it.
- Value and make time for fitness, health, and connection with nature. Same as #3.
- Watch for bullshit. Parallel to the slime-o-meter is my inner scan for hidden motivations, most of which I deny for YEARS or DECADES. Every surge of dopamine candy, once I really SEE it as ego’s fodder, transforms to lukewarm canned peas, so I don’t want it anymore. Most recently transformed to canned peas for me is any kind of flirty texting. Three years ago, every ping of a date app lit me up. “He likes me!” Now all that is blechy.
- Acknowledge pain, but don’t retaliate. As the 12 & 12 puts it, “We learned that, if we were seriously disturbed, our first need was to quiet that disturbance, regardless of who or what we thought caused it” [p.47]. For instance, my 95-year-old mother keeps purposefully insulting me. I’m the daughter who lives nearby and does the most for her, which makes me, apparently, the chopped liver child. It ain’t fair. It sucks. And it hurts. I can pray about it, sing about it, lion’s breath about it, but to others — not to a 95-year-old woman set in her ways.
- Listen for divine guidance. It’s always there, sometimes loud, sometimes faint. I can feel my angel urging me toward self-honesty and love, and I don’t need for anyone else to believe that he communicates with me.
- Love myself, flaws and all. I was raised with conditional love and lots of shaming, so those critical voices are ingrained in my psyche. As Tara Brach likes to point out, the “second arrow” wounds me when I shame myself for shaming myself. Sometimes I actually need to list some objective facts that indicate I’m doing okay, that I have some honor, that I deserve self-respect.
Chairing at my home group tonight among all the January birthdays, I began, “I’m so grateful –” and then I choked up. The feeling is always right there, that sense I don’t deserve all this. Twenty-seven years ago, I was given a chance at a new way of life — one that continues to amaze me.
Filed under Alcoholism, living sober, Recovery
Chapter 3, More About Alcoholism: My FAVORITE
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved quirky facts. About a million Earths could fit inside the Sun. Lots of lizards have a third eye on top of their heads. Female kangaroos can pick the sex of their next offspring. And the brains of alcoholics are broken.
Okay, so maybe that last one is more than quirky.
The first AA saying to blow my mind came from a skinny, bearded guy at the Olympia Alano Club: “I can’t fix my broken brain with my broken brain!”
I thought: Whhhoah! In other words, there’s no way for an alcoholic to THINK their way out of addiction. Our brains will still default — maybe not today, but one day — to “a drink is a fine idea!”
This quirky fact, dear reader, is what the Big Book’s Chapter 3 is all about.
THE CHAPTER STARTS with a recap of Step 1. Nobody wants to be an alcoholic. Everyone wants to believe that NEXT time we’ll manage to control and enjoy our drinking, and many chase that dream “into the gates of insanity or death.”
Step 1 is about accepting that we can no more become “normal” drinkers than an amputee can regrow limbs. We prove it by the countless ways we try and fail. The list on page 31 covers just a few of our tactics. “…taking a trip, not taking a trip, swearing off forever (with and without a solemn oath), taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books….”
I myself never swore off, because I couldn’t conceive of a life without drinking. But the first time I read this chapter, I did recognize many of these tactics as ways I’d tried to control my drinking: drinking only beer and wine, increasing my exercise, reading self-help books.
Here the book suggests taking the “drink and stop abruptly” test, which I have never, ever advised a sponsee to try. We don’t need to! How many of us EVER enjoyed A drink? Can you even imagine? You’re at a party where you have ONE gin and tonic? What, are you CRAZY??? Maybe if a gun fight broke out or the building caught fire, I’d consider it.
The rest of the chapter centers on the stories of three alcoholic guys who thought they could control their drinking using their brains: 1) carpet slippers guy, 2) Jim the car salesman, and 3)Fred the firm partner. Spoiler alert! — alcoholism wins every time.
- Carpet slippers guy quit drinking for 25 years and then deliberately started again, convinced he’d been cured of alcoholism. At 30, he somehow summoned the wherewithal to stop. But by his 50s, his addiction had the upper hand so invincibly that he drank himself to death in four years.
This acceleration, I think, is the origin of our saying, “My disease is out in the parking lot doing push ups.” During the years we’re sober, the power of our addiction only INTENSIFIES. I’ve heard people who went out with 10 years’ sobriety use the word “terrifying” to describe the irresistible power of their cravings.
“This is is baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it — this utter inability to leave it alone no matter how great the necessity or wish.” Part of our brain resolves with all its might to stop the self-abuse. But the alcoholic part of the brain upstages it.
- Jim the car salesman is an awesome veteran, husband, dad, and smart business man, but he ends up in the insane asylum from the violent stuff he does while wasted. AA guys talk to him and he totally gets it; he knows he needs recovery. But he’s not into the god thing, so he doesn’t do that part.
So what does the alcoholic part of his brain do? It sells him the notion that a shot of whiskey will be no problem if he mixes it with milk. “I vaguely sensed that I was not being any too smart…” His good-guy brain is struggling to get through, but the other voice is stronger. Jim “felt reassured as I was taking the whiskey on a full stomach.” Back to the insane asylum he went!
“…Parallel with our sound reasoning there inevitably ran some insanely trivial excuse for taking the first drink. Our sound reasoning failed to hold us in check. The insane idea won out.” The authors compare our behavior to that of a guy who loves jaywalking (p.38) — unable to resist something that keeps nearly killing him.
- Fred the firm partner’s story is perhaps the most spectacular of the three. His alcoholism didn’t even come up with an excuse. It didn’t say, “You’ve been sober so long, you’ve got this!” or “It’ll be fine if you just mix in milk.” Nope. Fred’s alcoholic brain just tells him “it would be nice ” to have drinks with dinner. His rational brain doesn’t even object and once alcohol has him by the short ones, he’s off on a multi-day bender. Later, Fred sees that “will power and self-knowledge would not help in those strange mental blank spots.“
So what will help us? That’s what Chapter 4’s about. It’s a spiritual connection with a higher power.
Mine rescued me about 15 years ago when I was caught up in a full-fledged “mental blank spot.” For a Sunday brunch at my parents’ house, someone in my family had placed a glass of white wine at my table setting. It was chilled and beaded with condensation – and I had 12 years’ sobriety. I thought, “WHY can’t I have this? WHAT’s the reason? Oh yeah, ‘cause I’m [mocking voice] in AA and I’ll turn into a guzzling maniac! That’s ridiculous. I can do what I WANT!”
Here came a different voice, not quite from me. It asked, “How about if you wait five minutes and see if this is still true?”
That’s all. It seemed humble and simple, not commanding or forbidding. I answered as if accepting a dare: “No problem! I can wait five minutes.”
In less than 30 seconds, the full force of my love for sobriety flooded over me. Never, never would I throw away my beautiful life for a stupid fucking glass of fermented grape juice! Aloud I asked someone to take it away, and in my heart I said, “Oh my god…. thank you!”
That’s grace. And grace alone is more powerful than addiction.
Filed under Alcoholism, Big Book notes, Recovery
Hard Drinker vs. Real Alcoholic
Moderate drinkers have little trouble in giving up liquor entirely if they have good reason for it. They can take it or leave it alone.
Then we have a certain type of hard drinker. …If a sufficiently strong reason — ill health, falling in love, change of environment, or the warning of a doctor — becomes operative, this man can also stop or moderate, although he may find it difficult and troublesome and may even need medical attention.
But what about the real alcoholic? He may start off as a moderate drinker; he may or may not become a continuous hard drinker; but at some stage of his drinking career he begins to lose all control of his liquor consumption, once he starts to drink.
Chapter 2, “There is a Solution,” Alcoholics Anonymous
Unfortunately, most of the public is clueless about the difference between a hard drinker and an alcoholic. Hard drinking is a habit that can be overcome with willpower. Alcoholism is a condition no amount of will power can cure. As the Big Book says, “If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic.”
Few perches in life are more uncomfortable than knowing you’re an alcoholic but refusing to accept that fact. Denial is, however, a primary symptom of the disease. I myself spent a number of years there before I hit bottom, i.e. the point when all fight for what I wanted was drained from me and I had to square with what was true.
If you’re an alcoholic still clinging to whatever pretext will enable you to drink, I have bad news: Certain things really are true. Regardless of what props you drum up to disguise it, the truth is still there. And if you’re a real alcoholic clinging to the delusion that you’re only a hard drinker, the fact is that no matter how ironclad your resolutions to stop or control your drinking, only two outcomes are possible:
A) After a short pause, you drink again.
B) A rarity, but it does happen: you manage by sheet obstinacy to remain dry but are permanently restless, irritable, and discontent — i.e. “dry drunk.”
Before they resolve to stop drinking, hard drinkers may appear indistinguishable from alcoholics.
For example, two of my relatives drank hard for over a decade. This couple worked so hard and lived at such a frenetic, globe-trotting pace that they simply could not wind down without cocktails. When staying for a visit, they would put away a gallon of vodka in a matter of days. More than once they announced they were going “on the wagon,” only to be drinking hard again in a few months. They were gradually gaining weight, their faces often flushed and bloated. I suspected alcoholism.
But then one day, one of them was informed by his physician that his alcohol intake was harming both his heart and his liver. The doctor warned that, if he wanted to regain his health and live into old age, he would have to stop drinking. The two, who love each other deeply, took this diagnosis seriously.
Here’s the astounding part: They both stopped drinking, slowing the pace of their lives to reduce stress levels. A year later, they’re both slim, healthy, and happy teetotalers. Perhaps COVID-19 has helped out a bit with the easier pace of living, but the fact remains that they simply decided to quit and it has stuck.
Why were they able? These two were hard drinkers — not alcoholics.
Now let’s look at my dad and me.
Twenty-four years before his death to alcoholic cardiomyopathy, my dad developed gout while touring Europe with my mother. A Spanish doctor diagnosed his condition and advised him to cut out alcohol and fatty foods, so my dad decided the doctor was a fool.
Twelve years before my father died, his doctor warned him that alcohol consumption had enlarged his liver (see How Alcohol Fucks Up Your Body) and shrunk his brain (see How Alcoholism Fucks Up Your Brain). My father’s reaction? The doctor was exaggerating. As his condition progressed and these warning grew more severe, Dad switched doctors. His new doctor — what a coincidence! — insisted Dad cease drinking for two weeks. During this time Dad consumed many bottles of alcohol-free wine and was so tense, angry, and miserable that Mom couldn’t wait for the two weeks to be up so he could drink again, which he continued until heart failure took his life.
Chip off the ole’ block that I am, I’d begun trying to decrease my drinking by the age of 23. My few friends had cut back on drinking post-college, so I tried to as well — except when I didn’t! Yes, I made resolutions to drink less, not just at New Years but ANY time I was ghastly hungover (i.e. most mornings) — resolutions I was able to stand by for a good 5 hours! After that, a drink began to sound, for the zillionth time, like a good idea. So I “changed my mind” and drank.
As the Big Book explains,
“We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink.“
As my ability to cope with life deteriorated (see Addiction Memoir), various therapists diagnosed me with alcoholism. I dismissed them as fuddy-duddies. In retrospect, I’m fortunate that I was less able than my father to maintain a stable work and home life, as the pain of my dysfunction eventually led me, at age 34, to seek sobriety in AA.
Free at Last
I adore and respect the memory of my father, who lived with honor despite his suffering. When Dad’s spirit came to me about a year ago (as I’ll describe in an upcoming post), I was seeking to make contact with the man I’d lost twelve years before. To my amazement, my father’s energy burst upon me with the vitality he’d radiated in my childhood: he was powerful, confident, and — I’ll just say it — charismatic as he delivered to me his message of unconditional love. On the other side, no longer buried under the poison, lies, and pain of our shared disease, his spirit was proud of me, his look-alike daughter, for my now (in 3 weeks!) 26 years sober.
Filed under alcohol damage, Alcoholism, Drinking, Heavy drinkers, Recovery
“Will I Ever LOVE Being Sober?”
Now and then a serious drinker, being dry at the moment says, “I don’t miss it at all. Feel better. Work better. Having a better time.” As ex-problem drinkers, we smile at such a sally. We know our friend … would give anything to take half a dozen drinks and get away with them. He will presently try the old game again, for he isn’t happy about his sobriety. He cannot picture life without alcohol. Some day he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end.
— Chapter 11, Alcoholics Anonymous
I hit bottom on 01/29/95. On that day, I could no longer imagine life either with or without alcohol, and I truly wished for the end. The August prior, I’d quit alcohol for 30 days just to show I didn’t have a problem. I was staying in a friend’s vacant apartment because my partner had banished me from our home, having read my journal and discovered some of the sickness I’d been concealing. But oh, well.
I hung a calendar on my friend’s kitchen wall and drew a big X through each day I passed without a drink. I felt healthier, had more energy, was cheery at work. But LOVE not drinking? What are, you, nuts? I could hardly wait for the month to be over so I could drink again, because any life without drinking struck me as beyond dull — it would, I knew, be brash, relentless, barren, and joyless. Alcohol, I felt, was the oil in the engine of my life.
So on September 1st — cheers! — I was back at it. But by 01/29/95, much had changed. A thick, murky self-disgust filled my consciousness; I saw no hope of ever enjoying life; and alcohol, almost inconceivably, no longer helped. There’s an explanation for what was going on at the brain level, but all I knew was that, no matter how much I drank, I felt no levity. The world had gone devoid of all color and charm; other people seemed self-sufficient judging machines. I just couldn’t deal anymore.
My idea of a fine suicide was guzzling a gallon of vodka — a scheme I knew my stomach would allow. But FIRST, because I couldn’t do it after, I dialed the number a sober friend had scrawled for me on a scrap of paper, and that night I went to my first AA meeting. I no longer gave a shit whether life was brash, relentless, barren, and joyless. All I knew was that nothing I’d tried could render it tolerable, and several people had claimed AA would.
If you’d told me then that in 25 years, sobriety would comprise the gem of my life, that I’d love my AA homegroup as my dear, motley family, and that pretty much all my friends would be in AA or NA, I’d have said, “You must be talking about somebody else.” And you would have been, because the psychic change that comes with thoroughly working the steps through several iterations over the years has transformed who I am.
To realize that we hold a limited perspective, I think, goes against the basic nature of human consciousness. Our brains tell us that the world is what it is and that we’re perceiving it accurately. If there’s a problem, it must be with the world, not how we process or think about the world.
Even at that “let’s kill ourselves ’cause it’s a good idea” rock bottom, my perspective felt both certain and precious to me. My pride was rooted in it. My attitudes and values had built up over my 34-year lifetime, crafted through countless efforts to deal with the tricks and pains of living. I truly believed they were me. To say they were distorted was to steal all I’d worked for. And to say that in some outdated white-guy book and in church basements full of strangers, a better perspective could be attained — well, that was just plain shallow.
NO ONE likes to think that other people have answers we lack. If millions of sober people tell us they struggled with the god thing but it eventually became the foundation of their happiness, we feel we’re different, put up a wall, and say, “They must be simpletons.”
My first months without alcohol did indeed prove brash and relentless — a place where many stay stuck. Yet for me, they proved not altogether barren and joyless because I’d begun the long process of growth. Through incremental acknowledgement, over and over, I began to see that my ways kept leading me toward depression and emptiness, whereas each time I tried a little more of their way, life got better. Two years in, I worked the steps whole hog.
Rather than being brainwashed, I found I became more me — little Louisa was still in there, and she was cute and creative and love-filled, and all the things she’d been before she lost the key to life: loving from the source of god and sharing goodwill with others. Children do this without needing a reason. Yet at some point I’d changed to one who wants from others, and it nearly killed me.
I understand now that one drink will inevitably lead me to thousands, and that whenever I’m drinking, I’m cut off from god like a plant inside a box. To drink, for me, is to wither spiritually, even if my outsides are puffed up with false revelry.
Willingness is the key. For me, that meant relinquishing my grip on being right, knowing best, and being a smarty-pants in general, because otherwise, I stayed locked in my old perspective. And the relinquishing never ends.
Today, when I say I love my sobriety, what I’m really saying is that I love this life — its fleeting beauties, its inevitable struggles, its poignant fragility. Sobriety is the honesty that lets me behold it.
Filed under God, Happiness, living sober, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality
“There is a Solution” – notes on Chpt 2
Who’s qualified to write Cliff Notes on the Big Book?
Absolutely nobody. Certainly not me.
But here’s the thing. When I was brand new to AA, I dismissed the Big Book as a dated, sophomoric, somewhat embarrassing artifact of some well-meaning old white guys from the ’30s. Certainly I never imagined that, with the help of an informed sponsor, this book would come alive to 1) save my life and 2) transform my entire experience of the world.
My sponsor and I would read the book together each time we met, taking turns. She’d ask me certain questions, tell me what to highlight, and suggest annotations. Unfortunately, not everybody gets access to a sponsor who’s worked with such a sponsor, passing down a lens, so here goes my take for this chapter.
The Big Book in general is divinely inspired. It’s the brainchild, not of Bill W., but of the first 100 sober alcoholics, who haggled and argued and revised over and over until they arrived at a manuscript they could all live with. In that lengthy dialectic of passionate feelings and hard-won compromises, spiritual truths somehow saturated this pioneering text — one that articulates a way of life for millions and yet means precisely the same thing to no two.
There is a Solution. Bill W. doubtless had in mind a fancier title, but I can just hear Dr. Bob and others insisting, “Let’s keep it simple!”
Today, in an era when detox centers and (money-grubbing) treatment programs abound, we may have a hard time imagining a world with NO SOLUTION ANYWHERE. If you developed an alcoholic/ addictive mind, you were pretty much screwed — on your way to jails, institutions, or death — or, best case scenario, life as a a confused, resentful, self-censuring drunk.
The first paragraphs emphasize universality amid diversity for “thousands” who were “once as hopeless as Bill.” Rescued from the same demise, sober alcoholics can all, “from the steerage to the Captain’s table,” i.e. from the poorest (cargo passengers) to the richest (fat cats who sit with the captain), rejoice over the solution that unites us. In this sense, AA was way ahead of its time; class delineations were far stronger in the U.S. in the 30s.
Next, the authors drop another big bomb that seems common knowledge today: that alcoholism is not just a destructive habit, but an illness. Unlike cancer and other diseases, however, this illness causes us to break out in uncontrollable asshole-ness, fucking up not only our own lives but those of every person who loves or depends on us. The only sane voice that can get through to such a diseased mind is that of a fellow alcoholic, one who isn’t shoulding on the asshole from the safe shore of sanity, but has lived awash in the same insanity. What that person has to offer — well, that’s what they hope to capture in this book.
They were in wholly new territory. Think about that.
What’s the difference between a true alcoholic an a heavy drinker? That’s what they cover next: a heavy drinker may look exactly like an alcoholic — until they really need to stop. Heavy drinkers have brakes, however reluctant they may be to apply them. True alcoholics, by contrast, are careening down a mountain road with their brakes shot to hell, having lost “all control of [our] liquor consumption, once [we] start to drink.”
Perhaps the Jekyll and Hyde description of an alcoholic that follows is a bit drastic. I myself was looking for something more like, “…fools everyone into thinking she’s perfectly fine while hating herself and wanting to die.” Still, I did see glimpses of myself in the “fine fellow” who is “sensible and well balanced” with “special abilities” and yet — repeatedly turns into a shitfaced asshole.
On page 23 they drop another bomb: “The main problem of the alcoholic centers in their** mind rather than their body…The truth is that they have no more idea why they took that first drink than you have.” Many of us refer to this phenomenon as the “curious mental blank spot.”
“We are unable at certain times to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago… If these thoughts do occur they are hazy and readily supplanted with the old threadbare idea that this time we shall handle ourselves like other people..”
Here was the discovery that bonded Bill W. and Dr. Bob as the 15-minute conversation Dr. Bob had consented to ballooned into a 4-month brainstorm on alcoholism. For the first time in human history, two drunks hashed out the fact that, when the craving struck, they could not remember why they did not want to drink. They understood, also, that we are totally pucked: We cannot fix our broken brain with our broken brain.
At long last, here’s the solution, which turns out to be good for us but murder on our precious egos:
“Almost none of us liked…” (sponsors: “Hooray! You don’t have to like it!!”) …the self searching, leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation…. The central fact of our lives today is that our Creator has…commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves.”
The solution, like it or not, is to seek god’s help as we take an honest look at our self-centered fears, own them, and begin to live on a basis of faith in something greater than ourselves. We can choose freely to either A) do this or B) go on drinking ourselves to death, “blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable condition as best we [can].”
Along comes the story of Rowland Hazard’s work with Carl Jung. (Rowland, by the way, is one of the guys who sobered up Ebby T., who in turn carried the message to Bill W.). Jung is quoted in his description of the “spiritual experience” or psychic change needed to revolutionize an alcoholic’s perspective and transform their life. Basically, everything has to change as we give up all the delusions we’ve lived by. Inward faith, not outward religion, is the foundation of sobriety.
The chapter wraps up with a little preview of chapters ahead and a “taste” disclaimer for the personal stories at the back of the book, intended to spark the recognition that bonds one alcoholic to another. Alcoholism is a disease of loneliness and isolation, but it has one flaw: it’s the same for all of us, so when we break that isolation via the fellowship of AA, we have it by the short ones.
So what’s the solution? God, love, honesty, humility, and community — to be unpacked via the 12 steps. Simple, but not easy.
Alcoholics Anonymous 1940s video:
Corny, perhaps, but the elusive cure for alcoholism is in the guy’s tiny smile in the final shot.
**Yes, of course, the language and entire mindset of the Big Book is grossly sexist, which is annoying as hell for anyone who doesn’t identify as “he” or think of god as a dude. But if we want to get well, it seems a small price to pay to forgive their ignorance and change all the pronouns to fit our reality.
Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, Recovery, Sobriety
What Does 25 Years Sober Feel Like?
When I walked into my first AA meeting — sadly, defeatedly, with all kinds of caveats and conditions — I certainly never imagined that in 25 years I’d be writing a blog like this! My plan was to “get my drinking under control.” The idea that alcohol would no longer be a part of my life, any more than eating Gerber baby food or riding a tricycle, seemed impossible. Life had only few bright spots, and alcohol, back on January 29, 1995, was one of them.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with baby food or tricycles. I enjoyed both immensely at one time. But I have outgrown them.
There was a time, too, when I had little idea who I was or how to live. Alcohol relaxed the grip of my frightened brain and let me function as if I had ease and comfort, as if I’d attained self-confidence, and as if I loved life with a daring spirit.
But just as baby food is pureed for those who cannot chew, and tricycles stable for those who cannot balance, so alcohol was the ticket for a Louisa who could not calm down, could not go inward, could not know god and relinquish fear to simply be herself. In fact, I didn’t believe anyone could do that unmedicated, so I figured sober people must just be uptight and cautious as hell all the fucking time.
I was wrong.
What changed my life?
Alcoholics Anonymous is where I encountered the conditions I needed to cultivate health, wholeness and — gosh! — maybe even enough wisdom to outgrow drinking.
- The first thing I noticed in the rooms was love — an atmosphere different from anyplace in the outside world. I came in a shaking, smoking, posturing young woman, and others saw through my facade with compassion rather than judgment.
- The 12 Steps I virtually ignored for 3 years, until the depression that followed my sister’s death drove my life into the ground and I asked a young woman with AA chutzpah to sponsor me. From her I learned the foundations of honesty. She pressed me in every step to scrutinize my implicit assumptions about myself, my fellows, and god.
- Sponsoring AA newcomers let me see my character defects worn by other women. To recognize self-defeating thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors is SO much easier when they’re wrecking someone else’s life! I’ve sponsored somewhere between 35 and 40 women in my 25 years, learning from each about the pains ego inflicts.
- My sponsor, AA homegroup, and circle of sober friends continue to provide me with a community of love, honesty, and humility. When I decided against throwing my usual big January sober party for my 25th birthday, my sponsor and a sober friend of 20 years planned and paid for a bowling party instead. I can’t describe the rush of love I felt when, scanning the bustling, noisy lanes of bowlers, I spotted the familiar faces of my homegroup family.
- Branching out into a second spiritual community aligned with AA principles — my Near Death Experience community — has added a dimension to my faith and daily relationship with god.
The 12 Steps of AA are only a framework, a scaffolding for the discipline of total honesty with self and god — which is, of course, an ideal we strive for all our lives. At a recent hipster meeting, I urged the god-phobic newcomers to substitute “total fucking honesty” wherever the steps say “God.” I couldn’t help adding, “If you’re in active addiction, you know about as much about total fucking honesty as you do about god.”
Sober time doesn’t vanquish ego. It’s easy to rest on laurels or become a bleeding deacon (AA phrases meaning one claims to know stuff). People phone me for advice, call me an inspiration, a role model, an anchor for their sobriety. That’s all well and good, but the fact is I’m just spiritually healthy — and only for today. I get to face life’s challenges with the same insight any thoughtful, loving, fully conscious woman would have accrued after 59 years of living. Here are some of the challenges I face today:
Loneliness/nostalgia: My son left for college 500 miles away. I miss him, and I miss his childhood. How can all those years of cardboard books, small shoes, and super-heroes be over? I have no romantic partner, either. He drank and cheated and that’s that. Though I miss our fabulous adventures, I’m learning to enjoy my own company.
Getting Old: What the fuck is up with my turning 60 in six months? Isn’t there some mistake? I’m the young one, the girl with the huge eyes and acres of time ahead of her to fill with dreams and ambitions! Oh, no — just kidding. I guess my face is sagging, muscles want to atrophy, and I can expect nothing but gradual decline over the next couple decades — decades that will fly by even faster than the two since my son was born. WTF?
Too Many Hats: I wear too many damn hats. I won’t even bore you with a list. Too much going on; huge to-do lists. I last watched TV/YouTube about a month and a half ago.
Grief and Loss: My friend of 20 years died last week. The same age as me and sober a few years longer, he had just slayed the expert slopes on a ski trip with his wife of 10 years and posted jealousy-inspiring selfies on Sunday. Monday, he died at work from a heart attack. I can still hear his voice, the wit and playful humor behind so much of what he said. And just like that — he’s gone.
At 25 years sober, I get to feel all these feelings. I surrender to WHAT IS and how I feel about it. Then I ask myself what good can be done — and I DO it. I text with my son, exercise like a maniac, chip away at my to-do list, reach out to my friend’s devastated widow — and I actively love all of it.
My sweet old dog — Cosmo, the messy life monk — is lame and often poops in the house overnight. When I am kind to him, helping him up the steps, touching him often because he’s deaf, and cleaning up accidents first thing in the morning with brisk cheer, I know what it means to live sober and in the light. As my friend’s death underscores, every little thing is a gift.
Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality