Tag Archives: Curious Mental Blank Spot

What’s the Point of “Bill’s Story”?

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

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

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

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

Bill and Lois

Lois and Bill later in life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guarantee you it will answer.

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Prescribed Relapse

Doctor with Stethoscope“I’m happy to tell you the surgery went quite well, so you’re going to be on the mend!  Obviously, you’re going to have some pain from this, so what I’ll just do is ruin your life, happiness, and relationships by giving you an opiate.  Sound good?  So… you’ll start off taking it according to these directions I’m jotting until, of course, your brain’s addictive wiring trumps your reason – haha, just like the old days! – and you find yourself helplessly abusing it.  Eventually, I’d like to see you transition to your drug of choice.  When you do that is up to you, but within a couple months, you should find yourself back in full-on relapse.  Okay?  Does that sound good?  I’ll just call it in now.”

If only doctors actually said this, we alcoholic-addicts might have a better chance of protecting our sobriety from the pain management substances that work fine for normies (i.e. non-addictive people).  The trouble is that, even today, the vast majority of doctors don’t get recovery.  They see before them a reasonable and sane person who, they assume, will self-administer a prescribed drug reasonably and sanely.

What they don’t get is that we’re different. Our brains are forever like a duplex we share with an insatiable lunatic who is temporarily napping.  Rap on its door with an opiate and – no matter how intently we self-manage the dosage – once that beast wakes up, all bets are off.  It’ll rage, it’ll bust shit up, it’ll burn the whole damn house down, motherfucker.  Because that beast has a hold on us more powerful than anything that well-meaning doctor can possibly imagine.

It’s more powerful than reason, than resolve, than all things human.  It’s run our lives before, and it’s psyched to do it again.

I remember the first time I raised my voice at a vicodin2medical authority – my very kind dentist, a British woman – when I was about four years sober.  She’d just extracted one of my molars, and I’d just declined pain meds.  I remember the room we were in when she insisted, because it seemed to shrink and turn more yellow and seal off every doorway connecting me to AA.  I could feel the excitement rise in my chest: Meds!  Something GOOD!  There was hope!  Something really delightful perched just on the horizon!  Sure, I’d take ’em sensibly!  Of course!

…And I can’t say where it came from, but that small counter-voice, that love for the gift of sobriety and all the goodness it nurtured in my life – that sprang up in me, too.  They fought.  So by the time the words came out my mouth, sloppy from novocain, they were way too loud, too urgent, and too emotional.

“No!  I told you, I’m an alcoholic!”

“Yes, I know.  But this is a very safe drug – Vicodin.  You’ll be fine.”

“No, I won’t!  I’m sober and I want to stay that way!”

I remember the look of distaste on her face, that this normally calm and socially appropriate patient was going off on her.  She tried again, emphasizing the small dosage, but by that point tears spilled from my eyes and I had just one tremulous, throaty word for her: Ibuprofen.  Ibuprofen.  I’ll take ibuprofen…

And I did.  End of anecdote.

I’m not blaming doctors.  They’re rational; it’s we who make no sense!  That’s why the onus is on us to keep out of our lives what docs assure us is safe.   They don’t get Obit Hoffmanthe “curious mental blank spot.”  They haven’t heard the heart-rending shares of misery, helplessness, and loss sometimes dragging on for years – all triggered by a sensible prescription.   I have a huge number of friends in recovery.  And in contrast to the one alcoholic I know who successfully manages back pain with meds her partner doles out, I know at least a dozen who have relapsed catastrophically – not counting those who have died.

I was Facebook messaging with one of them yesterday.  He’s a wonderful guy traveling the country, working odd jobs, and trying to stay off heroin for more than a few months at a time.  But failing.  He had a week.  Here’s what he messaged:

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

Maybe.  Maybe not.**

When we want to drink or use, only god can help us. But when someone else tells us it’s not a problem, we can use our brains.  Remember: the doctor is going to offer you prescripsomething so legitimate, so routine, so neat!  The prospect of those little pills fucking up your life will seem so overly dramatic!  What I do is this: I picture a set of balance scales with two big pans.  On one side I put the prospect of perturbing my doctor, making a stink, sounding like an uncooperative bitch, no one getting it, and, quite likely, some physical pain.  On the other side I put every blessing I’ve won back sober, every person I love, every friend who needs me, my self-respect, my inner dignity, my body’s health, my spirit’s channel to god – and every beauty and joy of this life.

Then I bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Don’t you dare fuck with my sobriety!”  But it’s right there – that sense of defending what I love.

If your pain is such that you’ve absolutely got to take some meds, agree to a prescription of five pills.  Maybe eight.  Then call someone for each goddam pill you take and say, “It is 4:00, and I am taking a percocet now.”  Draw up a chart to keep exact track of what time you dosed, whom you called, and whom you’re calling next.  Stay in touch with your sponsor.  And as soon as you can, switch to ibuprofen and get the pills out of your house.  Do nothing alone because – remember – you’re not really alone: there’s that slumbering beast in the duplex, and you’re making a racket.

I recall the sadness I felt post-surgery many years ago, flushing the three remaining Vicodin I’d been given.  The magic was gone.  Now there was just me… and my stupid old life.  It took about five minutes for gratitude to return: the vial was empty, but my future was full.  I was sober.

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**Rob died of overdose less than a year later.

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Living Sober/Awake: True Self vs. Ego

Sobriety is about pursuing the truth of ourselves…

I remember when I was about three weeks sober, a short time after I’d realized the call of the ideal party was a pied piper of vanity that would lead me to my death, I came home snubbed and pissed at someone, opened a near-beer, swigged it, and slammed the bottle down on my kitchen counter, muttering curses as I squinted to light up a smoke.  At that moment, either I or something within me realized: I was drinking.  Or at least, as good as drinking – and would be soon if I didn’t wake up to it.  Some part of me was able to step back and see my posturing: I was cool, he was a bastard, so I would puff up and strut in my own company to feel vindicated.  I could see how incredibly dumb the whole deal was.

And yet I felt lost without it.  How could I navigate reality without my old scripts?

Just a few nights ago I went to my old homegroup for the first time in almost two years and witnessed something of the same thing.  The crowd there is young and hip, and many of the shares anticipate a too-cool mindset: “If you’re sittin’ there thinkin’ I’m a pussy for believing this shit, then maybe you should go drink, dude.  When it kicks your ass, maybe you’ll wanna listen.”  Now, this is a fine message straight out of the big book (p. 31-32).  But my reaction to the meeting told me something had changed in me.  I’d woken up to recognize as affectation what used to seem natural and neutral.  Recovery was present at that meeting, yes, but in the same way balletic grace and agility are present in pro football: you have to look past all the the thuggish aggression to see them.

What is AA’s “vital spiritual experience” that lets us recover from drinking?  Connection to a higher power.  And what part of us connects to that higher power?  Is it our social self, the part of us that negotiates a constant interchange of signals with others?  Is it our thinking self, the part that figures out where we stand relative to the ideas of the world?  Is it our will, the part that tries to manipulate circumstances to achieve whatever we’ve labelled optimal?  No, no, no! – clearly none of the above.  Then what is it?

We touch god with the inmost kernel of our being: spirit, soul, our true self.  When I first got sober andheart-chakra tried to seek god, it seemed there was practically nothing there to reach for.  “Flimsy reed” described it perfectly – as if I were trying to grasp something too insubstantial to even feel.  What I understand today is that god wasn’t the thing under-developed; it was my barely-there true self trying to connect with it!  I had no familiarity with my own soul.  I’d lived 99% of my life in the realm of ego, constructing myself around comparisons of what I thought you thought of me versus what I thought of you.  Was there anything genuine in me, besides fear?  I couldn’t find it.  But as it turns out, pursuing sobriety is about pursuing the truth of ourselves that is inextricably connected to god.

How do you recognize true self?  Here are some handy hallmarks.  Only the true self feels unmitigated compassion.  It loves without neediness or score-keeping.  My true self senses the sacred in every tree, bird, and human being it encounters, feeling connected to the goodness not only of living things but even in the inanimate world of matter.  My ego’s world, by contrast, runs a gamut of competitors, threats, means, and so what?  It’s a barren perspective of need.

I had an experience of a quick turn-around with from ego to true self the other day.  I was browsing on friggin’ Facebook, feeling inferior, convinced everyone was having a more rollicking summer than I was – all of them constantly water skiing, laughing, and carpe-dieming away.  In other words, I was caged in ego.  I came across a friend’s page and was busy envying his social life without even knowing it when I gathered from friends’ posts that he was in prison.  He’d relapsed.  He’d been caught doing something bad and sentenced to four years.

Half of me died and another half came awake.  If you want to say I had an emotion of feeling sorry for my friend, you’ll be missing the entire point, which is that I remembered love – an almost as physical sensation pouring from my heart.  My friend’s voice came to me, his energy, and his sweet shyness at my “18 years sober/get to keep my boob” party soon after my cancer diagnosis, where he was wet-behind-the-ears sober again.  He’d told me my example of constant kindness helped him, and he vied with others to drive me to my surgery.  I knew his goodness, and no one who has not lived as a puppet of addiction, doing things against your higher self, can understand the compassion I felt learning of his fuck up.  The tears his past photos brought to my eyes weren’t just for him – they were for all of us grappling with this disease.  Suddenly, all the brag posts on Facebook transformed.  Now they struck me as courageous: I understood we would all live, suffer, grow old and die alone, and that our show-offy flourishes on Facebook were no different from the exclamations of toddlers: “Look at me!”  “I did it!”  We’re all just doing our best.  We’re all trying to shine, do well, risk falling to grab the gold ring.

In that moment, my authentic self could see as god does – through the eyes of love.

What the Catholics refer to as “Holy Spirit” and Quakers as the “still small voice” does guide us more as we learn, over years of working our programs, to cut the crap and access our spiritual core.  Some of my NDE friends have encountered this voice on the other side as as their guardian angel, a loving spirit to whom ego makes us deaf.  Or maybe it’s the candle of god-energy in us.  Whatever you want to call it, this is the power that nudges us toward goodness, and it seems to me it’s what keeps us sober.  Only something beyond our own brains can guard us from the “curious mental blank spot,” but to connect with it, we have to sometimes let go our thoughts, emotions, and posturing and become, to the extent we can, simply our own aliveness, the bit of god inside.  More and more, I think living from that place is the sole path not only to sobriety, but to a meaningful life.

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What (most) Normal Drinkers Will Never Understand

The Curious Mental Blank SpotWoodsCoverFinal

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

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

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

No, says the rest of the world.  If they really kept up their self-discipline, if they really stuck to their guns, they could stop or moderate.

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

That’s just religiosity, says the rest of the world, in a cultish slogan. 

Sometimes it’s frustrating to live in a world that doesn’t “get” my disease.  My blood family and casual acquaintances assume the mind works according to certain principles.  The notion of the Curious Mental Blank Spot (see Ch 2, p 24) is foreign to them and to almost anyone who hasn’t been utterly stumped and defeated by it.  Thank god I’ve been both, though to get there took about 4,000 attempts of rallying resolve with every fiber of my being that I was not going to drink (or would drink with moderation) and then finding myself plastered – again.  It took the admission that I’d run my life into the ground despite countless advantages, to the point where I no longer wanted to live.

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

The main hallmark is not drinking a lot.  I’ve had several partners who matched me drink for drink for years on end.  But as soon as they made up their minds to exert their self-disciple, it took.  They could stop.  They had brakes.  Mine might work for a few hours or even days, during which I was able to act on my resolve.  But then along comes that Curious Mental Blank spot.  My resolve is greased with coconut oil.  Thoughts of an hour or even a minute ago create no traction.  None.  They become meaningless.

In terms of a rough, cartoon image of the brain, what happens is this.  We like to think the conscious parts of our brain determine our actions – the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, which hosts thoughts and decisions.  But there’s a little lizard living in the basement of our brains – the amygdala – that generates basic survival impulses like fear and anger.   Alcoholism seems to live here.  Like a vine that winds its way front and center, it’s able to circumvent even the most determined, powerful resolves of the frontal lobe, connecting a drink to the basic conditions of being alive.  Drinking becomes an impulse, almost like breathing, that you act on without a rational choice.

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

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

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

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

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

In my case, after 19.5 years’ sobriety, I am still occasionally struck by the Curious Mental Blank Spot, instances in which I still don’t recognize a single reason not to take a drink.  “You’re in AA!” seems so stupid.  “You’d lose all your time!” – Really?! Who gives a fuck?  But in my case, something steps between me and whatever image of a flawless, aftermath-free drink my amygdala is advertising.  A cloudy thought wades to the front of my mind: “How about we just wait five minutes and see if all this is still true?  The drink won’t vanish in five minutes, will it?”

Within thirty seconds, in my experience, my conscious mind is back at the wheel.  That is, the window of blindness, when I could have assented “yes” and released the genie, lasts only that long.

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

There are people in my AA meetings who claim to be atheist.  That’s fine, but ideas of what constitutes god are amorphous.  I don’t believe, either, in what they think of as God – an omnipotent humanesque boss figure.  I certainly don’t believe in religion (though teachings of some figures, including Buddha and Jesus, contain tremendous wisdom).  I believe in the very same thing most of these alleged atheists believe in: the power of love; the power of goodwill.  If they didn’t believe in connection to other human beings (which is love & goodwill), they wouldn’t come to meetings.  If they’re sharing, they’re seeking even more connection, to be heard by others, to participate.  And in that feeling, they’re seeking the help of a higher power, whether they call it that or not.

I believe without a doubt that I was graced in all the life events that forced me to AA.  I still am graced by events that lead me along the path of spiritual growth – as described in my addiction memoir.  The lessons I hear in AA meetings match seamlessly with those I hear in IANDS* meetings, brought back from the other side by those who’ve had out of body experiences.  Nothing is more important than loving kindness.  Even casual slights hurt people, malevolence is poison, and each resentment you hold against others sticks to your spirit – a filth like diarrhea all over your skin, as one IANDS speaker experienced it in her NDE.  And by contrast, the goodness of helping others glows through us like the Light.

We’re here to love, which cures all our afflictions – including alcoholism.

 

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*IANDS: International Association of Near Death Studies.  Local chapter: Seattle IANDS.

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