Tag Archives: drinking

Psychic Change

Toward Alcohol

When we hit bottom in our drinking careers, we’re pretty much forced to change.  We’re truly sick and tired of being sick and tired; we recognize, however faultily, that our way is not working.  We become teachable.  That is, we’re desperate enough to try out AA’s approach even though it feels foreign, artificial, and disorienting.

For me this meant giving up the belief that I knew everything.  I’d always felt sure I could perceive the lay of the land in a snap and choose the best course, which I then acted on with chutzpah and a dash of fukitol.  Drinks made me feel better, so I frickin’ took ’em.  Certain designated figures, also known as cool people, carried what I craved, so I chased ’em.  Responsibility and integrity felt cumbersome, so I shrugged ’em off – free to follow my whims wherever they might lead!

And where was that?  Loneliness so lethal I wanted to scream for eternity and futility so rampant I wanted to break and trash and burn every fucking thing that ever touched my life – that’s where my knowing everything took me.

12 stepsAA – the supposed solution – seemed as silly as a cake walk.  The 12 Steps, anyone could see, held no more wisdom than a hopscotch grid, and yet all these AA dolts claimed that if you sincerely played hopscotch, if you landed in each arbitrarily chalked off square, you’d bust through to frickin’ Narnia or something – whatever they meant by this “4th dimension of existence.”

But since a U-turn could lead me only back to the hell, I went ahead.  I gave up control, followed directions, did the dance.  And I commenced to change – to heal and grow and behold countless unexplored and rich possibilities hitherto invisible to me.

From somewhere inside me, I began to sense a direction besides my thoughts.  They – my thoughts – were still as dumb and which-way as ever, but this new chord, this voice within – it began to lead me instead of them.  Guidance I heard and talked about in AA aligned with this voice, but did not constitute it.  Rather, I had “tapped an unsuspected inner resource” previously drown out by all the fears, demands, and clutter spewed by my ego.

I’d experienced a psychic change.  I’d begun to develop a spiritual life that edged out my craving for booze.

Toward Life Itself

“Our liquor was but a symptom,” says the Big Book, of our messed up approach to life.  If we merely take away the faulty solution of drinking, life hits us full force and feels unbearable. The lasting solution is to live on a spiritual basis which flows in tune with reality rather than fighting it.

Spiritual evolution is not a matter of content.  That is, it’s never a matter of learning X, Y, and Z, passing the quiz, and graduating.  Rather, it’s a habit of cultivating open-mindedness and reaching for growth.  In other words, the conditions for continuous growth are the same as those that freed us from compulsive drinking: I elect not to buy into my thoughts, not to obey my ego, not to fall for the idea that my way is right.  Only by turning away from these easy-to grab reflexes can I open myself to another voice – the more fundamental guidance of a higher power.

second-handDay by day, growth happens at the juncture between what I’m exposed to and how I react to it.  In that immediate crucible, I make more tiny choices than can possibly be noted, but collectively, they coalesce into a “gear” for my outlook.  I plop into good-ole self-pity or reach for seemingly impossible gratitude – though I may end up somewhere between.  What matters is whether I ask my higher power to guide those tiny choices, and whether I commit the incremental shards of my awareness to pursuing that guidance.

Growth can’t happen when ego takes over.  The world becomes scary, because if what I’ve decided is supposed to happen doesn’t, I’m gonna be screwed. There’s never enough, so I lock into my plans.  I get tunnel vision – which means I’m sealed off from potential good outside my will.  I consign myself to stagnation.

The openness of faith reminds me life is always a collaborative effort – mine and god’s.  Sure, I still plan and take action, but with built-in acceptance of whatever plays out.  Even if things fuck up and fall apart, I’ll still be okay.  My “enough” originates not from stuff or status, but from the power of god’s love flowing through me, the strength to generate and nurture and delight.

Jess and Chip

Jesse & Chip (by permission) 1 month post-flood: “The joy of living [they] really have, even under pressure and difficulty.”

Consider some dear friends of mine who moved to Wimberley, TX, last year only to lose everything they owned in a recent river flood.  One day things were dandy, and next their home was was missing two walls and contained only mud and somebody else’s overturned couch.  They had no renters’ insurance.  Can you imagine that?  I mean, can you really imagine losing everything?  Yet these are two happy and thriving, not only because they’re sober, but because they live on a spiritual basis.  They don’t lament.  They have their precious lives, their energy, their love – a flow that’s providing all they need to rebuild what was lost, even as they pitch in to help neighbors… or support a faraway friend (me) processing a painful break-up.

The psychic change to living on a spiritual basis means we accept life’s uncertainty, taking our best shot and leaving the results to god.  Failure’s fine.  It happens.  Floods happen.  Betrayals happen.  We can only keep listening for the voice within and trying to follow it toward good actions and good people, but with no guarantees.  Because, while it’s true we each reap what we sow, it’s also true we’re  scattering seeds from an unmarked, mixed bag. What will take root and flourish depends, we know, as much on the rain and sun as our work. Yet we do it anyway – and cheerfully.

Millet- sower

The Sower, J. F. Millet, 1850

 

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On Wreckage and Forgiveness

The ironic thing about forgiveness is that when we truly achieve it, we realize there’s nothing to forgive.  We experience a shift of perspective, a widening of the lens we’ve been looking through.  The person we needed to forgive goes from being a beetle mounted on a card and identified as faulty in various ways to a piece of our own soul – the part of us that also struggles and often fails.

Resentment works by keeping score.  But we can keep score only when we have rules, agendas, and an assumed point to the game – all of which tend to be the work of ego.  To bring about the outcome we would have preferred, the mounted beetle in question should have chosen to do X and Y.  They should have seen and realized how important X and Y were.  Why the hell didn’t they?  What the hell were they thinking?!  Now the outcome is all fucked up and it’s totally their fault!

40803_10150244489590608_8125380_nTwo weeks ago I brought home my boyfriend’s old iPhone and discovered that for two and a half years – ever since we got back together after a one-year break-up – he’s been leading a double life.  He’s had a second girlfriend whom he saw just as much or even more than me, a chunky girl half his age who clearly worships the ground he walks on and matches him drink for drink as they get bombed together.  I had trusted him completely.  I believed he was still the Good Man I fell in love with while he was sober.  Because of this, I gave him ample room to do his own thing (we lived 90 minutes apart) and never checked up on him – ignoring the fact that he was a relapsed alcoholic who merely didn’t drink in front of me – and that active alcoholics tend to lie.

My agenda was as follows: the relationship I thought I had with him was meant to flourish and endure. For this to happen, we both had to be committed and true to each other.  Those were the rules of the game as I saw it, and when I first discovered their porn-style sexting and rendezvous set up around my visits (she sometimes left the same day I arrived), I did very much know the rage of betrayal.  That rage has faded now, but what puzzles me is that it hasn’t morphed into resentment.  Somehow, I’ve jumped straight from rage to forgiveness.  Mind you, I don’t intend to see the man again – his future is god’s business and no longer mine.  But anger I do not feel.

I let go my agenda.  The whole thing.  Clearly this relationship was not supposed to be.  For a woman like me, 20 years sober, to be with a man who drinks in her absence was not a good set-up.  It could not have worked.  Yes – there was a lot of love over the nine years we shared, and the loss of that remains tragic to me.  I’m grieving it.  It hurts.  Further, what my boyfriend did is clearly heinous on a number of moral levels.  You don’t have to be the one cheated on to see that.

beerBut I’ve been there.  I’ve done that.  Okay – I’ve never developed a sex addiction with someone young enough to be my child, but by the final stages of my drinking, I lacked moral sense to an equal degree.  In the fifteen years I was drunk, I cheated on three partners in a row – the first one physically and the second two emotionally.  I developed wild crushes on people while pretending to be in committed relationships and chased down the high of those infatuations regardless of their eventual impact on my partner.  I didn’t care.  In fact, it seemed to me at the time that I couldn’t care.  I needed the fix of the person I was addicted to just as much as I needed my next drink.

In every fifth step I’ve heard, sponsees have felt failed and betrayed by important figures in their lives – often a dysfunctional parent either alcoholic or affected by alcoholism.  Time and time again, the 4th column comes down to the question, “Do you think this person would not have done better if they were capable of it?”  Sponsees struggle with this.  Their minds wrestle with the dichotomy of who they wanted the parent or person to be, with all the power to choose wisely they believed that person possessed, versus the truth of what actually happened – the fact that the parent or person simply did not have the integrity, self-awareness, or the moral resources to show up any better than they did, let alone with honor.

Who wants to be a shitty parent?  Who wants to betray and abuse the partner they’ve loved?  Nobody.  In the case of alcoholics, prolonged alcohol abuse actually atrophies the emotional centers of the brain; we reach recklessly for whatever we think will bring relief.  Compassion shrinks.  We become selfish monsters.  We do shameful things.  It’s part of the disease.

Resentment at these facts can do nothing but harm me.  Nurtured anger traps us in our heads, our stories, our righteousness about what should have been, whereas the sunlight of the spirit is cast only on what is. And it’s only once we accept what is that we can feel gratitude for all reality offers us and try to lead useful, constructive lives, granting others the freedom to seek their own path.  24350_10150106518895608_1574989_nSo forgiveness, really, is just acceptance of a person exactly as they are.  In my case, I also have to accept the toll of addiction.  The Big Book even tells us, “More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life.” My guy was just a late stage alcoholic doing what drunks do best: dishonesty with self and others.  He’s consumed in tearing down his own emotional life and perhaps career, veering obliviously toward alcoholic decline.  None of this will end prettily for him.  My mistake was fighting reality, closing my mind to his addiction, trying to love him as though he were sober.  So much I wanted better things for him!  But when I let go that agenda, it’s all just life unfolding as it should.

 

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People, Places, and Pain

Recently, someone I trusted betrayed my confidence deeply.  Or rather, I just found out about it last week.  Before then, I’d have said such a thing could never happen – and I’d have staked my life on it.  In a way, I did.  Maybe some day I’ll write about the specifics, but right now I’m too shocked to have any perspective.  I haven’t slept more than a few hours at a time all week; my heart pounds so I feel each beat; I have no appetite.  Sure, it’s great to drop five pounds in a week, but not with shaking hands you have to hide from clients or sinking guts that weigh down every breath.

I’ve often heard in the rooms that placing one’s faith in people, places, and things is a recipe for pain.  But how can we avoid doing just that?  Part of my loving – or feeling I love – inevitably involves dependence.  I trust that a friend or loved one honors me as I do them, and pretty soon I’ve hung my well-being on their actions without even realizing it.  In the same way, I rely on the places and things I love to provide me security.  I get attached to my body’s health.  These elements should all stay put just as I’ve arranged them.  I want to know my happiness is safe, that I can depend on the world to take care of me.

Natori, Japan

But it isn’t, and I can’t.

When illusions get ripped away, we realize that everywhere we make a home for ourselves in the world, we simultaneously become exposed.  We begin to think that home is part of us, of our being – our identity – and that we can shed our skin there in perfect safety.  But people are flawed.  They fuck up.  They decide, at times, that it’s a grand idea to be immensely selfish, throwing us under a bus.  Other “homes” are just as impermanent.  Diagnoses drop bombs on our health.  Jobs end and take financial security with them.  Sweet kids become addicts.  People move away.  Houses burn.  Earthquakes happen.  Nothing stays put.

When I am most in pain, I turn to god.  And god, I have found, is  there for me most when pain has torn open my heart.  I can feel it.  It doesn’t exactly empathize, because pain is not part of its realm.  But it loves.  Even when everything has gone to shit, god loves as always – the way the sun rises each morning, the way the ocean waves curl over and thunder up the beach, the way the spring grass sprouts through winter’s dead mat of straw year after year after year.  “I’m here.  I love you.”  That’s what it says.  But if I listen closer than I want to, it’s also saying, “All is well, if you’ll only let it be so.”  It’s talking about acceptance.  About humility.  God is in what is.  So when I fight what is, I’m fighting god.

Do I think about taking a drink?  Wouldn’t that fixDrinker silhouette everything?  Wouldn’t it calm my heart from slapping against the inside of my sternum?  Just cop a decent buzz and I could quit giving a shit.  Then I could vent my hurt as outrage and lash out about what a worthless piece of shit the person who hurt me was.  That anger – wouldn’t it  jack up my sense of power, raise me on towering flames of righteousness so I could smite?  Then maybe I wouldn’t have to feel this intense vulnerability, this loss, this pain… pain… pain….

Sure, that might happen temporarily.  But when the drunkenness retreated, I’d have nothing.  I’d have lost not only the person I trusted, but myself.

I hadn’t gone to one of my Near Death Experience (NDE) meetings in months, but when I asked last week on Facebook if someone would go with me, a Tennessee friend who’s had an NDE as well responded: “I’m in town; let’s go!”  At that meeting, the makers of a TV show came down front and announced they were interviewing NDEers.  So, as one of them passed my aisle seat, I handed him my card.  I didn’t think much of it.

NDEYesterday I was sitting with my pain, my journal open in my lap, staring into space.  The phone rang and one of those TV researchers asked if I would tell her my NDE story.  It takes a while, because I’ve had 14 paranormal after-effects as well, but she assured me she had all the time in the world.  So I told it again for the for the first time in years.  The story’s scattered through my addiction memoir and I’ve presented it to Seattle IANDS* and at the Seattle Theosophical Society, but there’s no call to tell it in daily living.

When I got to the part about my huge 9th Weird Thing, I explained:

“That’s the moment when I got it.  I mean, before then I’d believed god was real whenever I was feeling spiritual or something, but otherwise I’d set that aside and  believe in my own mind.  But this thing was so inexplicable – it was all the proof a person could ask for.  I knew then god is with us in every tiny thing that happens.  And something changed in me.  I was sobbing and I prayed, ‘Okay – I know you’re real!  I’ll never you doubt again!'”

“That’s so cool!” exclaimed the woman.  She was busy taking notes.  And in the little stretch of silence that followed, something nudged me: Hear yourself.  Sitting there, I remembered that the 9th Weird Thing really did happen.  I remembered all my weird things – that they had actually happened to me, that I really lived them, and that no material view of the world could explain them.

What I’d prayed fervently a few nights before was this: “Let me know you’re with me.”  So it came about that I spoke the very words I needed to hear.  Plus there was a deeper message wrapped up in that “hear yourself,” saying also, “heal yourself.”   It went something like this:

There’s a home at your core that’s always safe, because you and I inhabit it together.  Make that home your true one.  Spend time there, spruce it up, make it strong.  Because there, sweet child, even as the world falls down around you, my love will carry you, and you’ll be okay. 

Today, I know that’s true.

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*Seattle IANDS = Seattle branch of the International Association for Near Death Studies

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Enlightened but Dead: Why Alcoholics Need God

Pema Chödrön’s teacher, the venerable Chögyam Trungpa, drank a lot.  Drinking was a staple of his sanga, where he threw big parties among his students, and he was known to carry vodka in a water bottle.  Trungpa explained in one of his spiritual books why his drinking differed from that of an ordinary alcoholic:

“Whether alcohol is to be a poison or a medicine depends on one’s awareness while drinking. Conscious drinking—remaining aware of one’s state of mind—transmutes the effect of alcohol. Here awareness involves a tightening up on one’s system as an intelligent defense mechanism…

“For the yogi, alcohol is fuel for relating with his students and with the world in general, as gasoline allows a motorcar to relate with the road. But naturally the ordinary drinker who tries to compete with or imitate this transcendental style of drinking will turn his alcohol into poison…”*

Sadly, it appears that Trungpa’s liver failed to read the book and appreciate his “transcendental style” of yogi drinking.  Despite diagnoses of cirrhosis and doctors’ warnings that more drinking would kill him, Trungpa continued to drink heavily until it did indeed kill him in April of 1986, when he was just 48 years old.

Trungpa~

Philosopher Alan Watts was considered a sage throughout the ’60s after he rose to prominence with the 1951 publication of The Wisdom of Insecurity – a pivotal text  introducing Eastern concepts to Western society.  The book considers the ego’s dis-ease with the unstable nature of reality and its efforts to create security via constructs of memory and projection coalescing in a story of “I,” which Watts dismisses as unreal: only awareness divorced from self can access reality.  Watts, like Trungpa, was well aware of the futility of escapist drinking:

“One of the worst vicious circles is the problem of the alcoholic.  In very many cases he knows quite clearly that he is destroying himself, that, for him, liquor is poison, that he actually hates being drunk… And yet he drinks.  For, dislike it as he may, the experience of not drinking is worse… for he stands face to face with the unveiled, basic insecurity of the world.”

Unfortunately, identifying this vicious circle did not grant Watts the power to exit it.  Like Trungpa, he often gave lectures while sloppy drunk. He, too, developed end-stage alcoholism that deeply concerned his ex-wife and friends, and died of alcoholic cardiomyopathy – e.g. heart failure – at 58.

Watts~

Both of these men were masters of self-knowledge and the meditative disciplines that yield inner peace.  Both could speak brilliantly on the ills of ego and treasures of honesty.  Yet neither could stop drinking.  And they’re just two examples out of jillions.  Why did they fail?  Why would people so insightful not quit what was clearly killing them?  The Big Book explains:

“If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago.  But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how hard we tried.  We… could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, …failed utterly.” (p. 44)

In Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Trungpa makes very clear that no god enters into his vision.  “Over the past seven years, I have been a presenting series of ‘Shambala Teachings’ [on]… secular enlightenment, that is, the possibility of uplifting our personal existence and that of others without the help of any religious outlook.”

Good for him!  I agree wholeheartedly that self-knowledge is great stuff.  But it will not cure alcoholism.

In a 1968 talk, Bill Wilson, one of AA’s founders, described the initial amazement of the psychiatric community at the unprecedented breakthroughs of AA.  Many alcoholism specialists attended meetings and saw their own alcoholic patients, with whom years of psychiatric work had failed, achieve abstinence and mental health in a matter of weeks.  One suggested that Bill assemble a group of such psychiatrists to testify before the Academy of Medicine about AA’s success. So Bill asked them.

“And not a one would do it! …In effect, each said, ‘Look, Bill. You folks have added up in one column more of the resources which have been separately applied to alcoholics than anyone else… [But] the sum of them won’t add up to the speed of these transformations in these very grim cases… So for us, there is an unknown factor at work in AA.  [B]eing scientists, we… call it the X factor.  We believe you people call it the grace of God. And who shall go to the Academy and explain the grace of God?  No one can.'”

questionSorry, folks!  But the X factor, and that alone, is what saves an alcoholic: Connection with a higher power, to god as we understand it.  We ask god to help us, and we’re relieved of a compulsion that no amount of self-knowledge can touch.

Humility is the key ingredient to receiving grace.  We have to ask for it, accepting that we’ve been defeated.  By contrast, Trungpa, for all his wisdom, exhibited a strong tendency toward hubris.  The true warrior, he explains in Shambala, is both Outrageous and Inscrutable.  “…[H]aving overcome hope and fear, the warrior… fathoms the whole of space.  You go beyond any possibilities of holding back at all…. Your wakefulness and intelligence make you self-contained and confident with a confidence that needs no reaffirmation through feedback.” In other words, I got this!  Screw what anyone else thinks!

Watts, meanwhile, purported to embrace God, but his abstractions reduced it to a mere abandonment of I, which enabled connection with the eternal now and rendered us one with God.  For Watts, there could be no “Hey, god (you) please help (me)!” because the you / I division negated the fact that we are god: “[W]e cannot lay ourselves open to grace, for all such split-mindedness is the denial… of our freedom.”

Reluctance to seek god’s help almost killed AA co-founder Bill Wilson, too.  Relatively unknown in AA culture is the fact that Bill was so deeply repulsed by the God element in his friend Ebby’s solution that he went on drinking for three weeks after Ebby’s visit and landed yet again in a sanitarium.  There, after Ebby had visited him again to recap the spiritual solution, he had this experience:

“And again the despair deepened until the last of this prideful obstinacy was momentarily crushed out. And then, like a child crying out in the dark, I said, ‘If there is a God, will he show himself?’ And the place lit up in a great glare, a wondrous white light. Then I began to have images, in the mind’s eye, so to speak, and one came in which I seemed to see myself standing on a mountain and a great clean wind was blowing, and this blowing at first went around and then it seemed to go through me. And then the ecstasy redoubled and I found myself exclaiming, ‘I am a free man! So THIS is the God of the preachers!'”

Light
In my Near-Death Experiences group, I’ve heard several people describe similar experiences, when the “white light” of love brilliantly illuminated the room around them; but, naturally, many of Bill’s contemporaries considered him daft for insisting it had happened.  In his talk, he attributes this phenomenon not to his own specialness, but to the role it enabled him to play in AA, explaining that the powerful faith most AAs develop over months or years was for him simply crammed into a few minutes: “It did give me an instant conviction of the presence of God which has never left me… And I feel that that extra dividend may have made the difference in whether I would have persisted with AA in the early years or not.”

In other words, Bill was given what he needed not only to overcome a lifetime of harrowing addiction, but to co-create AA and persist in carrying its message into the dark world of his fellow alcoholics.  Why?  Because he asked… and frickin’ meant it.

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PS: I have tremendous respect for both these sages as well as for Buddhism.  By no means am I critical of their legacy or beliefs.  Reading both authors did contribute to my self-knowledge, for which I am grateful, because such insight aids in a lifetime quest for serenity.  My point is merely that self-knowledge, no matter how deep or how keen, cannot arrest this disease, as these two tragically premature deaths testify.  See comments below. 

– Louisa

  • (Heart of the Buddha, p. 153)

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The Wisdom of Ordinary Schmucks

Today, Thursday the 29th, I have 20 years clean and sober. Woot!

Here’s a journal entry I wrote 20 years ago after my first AA meeting:

1/29/1995:  “I went to an AA meeting tonight. Was so uncomfortable and out of place, and felt I will never, never stop drinking so why want to? I know drinking so intimately. I know me with a drink – a glass of wine, a beer – better than I know anyone in this world. I love to drink. I love it like freedom and happiness. I want never to stop. I wish I could drink in the morning, at eleven, at lunch, at three, and on after five ‘til the night is gone.”

2015-01-29 08.01.00

journal page

Writing that was a scared, deeply confused and unhappy semi-suicidal woman who thought her mind ought to be able to get her out of any jam. The last thing she suspected was that those people among whom she felt “so uncomfortable and out of place” would not only save her from slow death, they would teach her to transform living into something beautiful and joy-filled. I remember judging every person in that room by the standards my family had ingrained in me. Anyone lacking at least a BA, anyone with a working class job who wasn’t slumming ironically for the sake of some art form, was ignorant. As for the 12 Steps, it took me about 40 seconds to read them off the wall. How could such vague ideas accomplish anything?  Sure, these ordinary schmucks believed in them, but I was way smarter and more special.

Wisdom, however, is neither academic nor cultural. It’s about living – how we respond to the passions of being human, like our desires for love, fulfillment, and specialness.  It concerns how we deal with fear, anger, and the impulse to defend what we love.  And it’s far more a matter of what we let go as false than what we cling to as true.  The ordinary schmucks in AA taught me how to cast off the hoary crust of fear that had blocked me from the truths of god and my fellows, freeing me to be myself and to love you intrinsically because you are, at heart, just like me.

The first things the schmucks taught me were wisdom bytes passed down in AA, which made such an impression that I remember to this day where I sat relative to the person speaking.  “I can’t fix my broken brain with my broken brain,” said a guy at the next table with unruly hair sticking out from under his baseball cap. “That’s why I need the help of something greater than me.”  Whoa! I thought, no wonder I can’t get better!  Too bad I reject everything to do with God!  But then a few days later an overweight woman in polyester pants sitting to my left against the wall said, “If you can’t think God, if that’s objectionable to you, just think Good Orderly Direction.  You can seek that – something deeper than your own thinking.”

There light_bulbare countless other key moments when light bulbs went on for me. “My ego tells me I’m the shit, and my self-loathing insists I’m a piece of shit.  But God grants me the humility to be right-sized – to be a worker among workers, a driver among drivers, a sober drunk among sober drunks.”

But even more important, what the schmucks have shared with me is their experience of living life. The first story I ever identified with was told by a guy (sitting near the door to my right) who ordered Chinese take-out that arrived without chopsticks.  He knew he had a pair in the house, some nice bamboo ones, but couldn’t find them. He went bananas searching for them.  He kept looking in the silverware drawer again and again, lifting out the tray and shoving stuff around. Furious, he checked all kinds of illogical places – the junk drawer, his desk, the broken dishwasher – while his take-out got cold. It seemed to be about a principle.

This was in maybe my second week sober, but I still hear that guy’s words every time I go bonkers trying to find something.  “It’s just my ego refusing to accept what is” echoes in my mind.  “It’s just me being human and flawed.”  I’ve since heard countless stories of ways to be human and flawed, issues I once thought were mine alone.  Incrementally, they push me toward acceptance of things I cannot change.  But what about that courage to change the things I can?

The 12 steps grew from empty suggestions to a revolution in life perspective once I worked them with a hard-ass sponsor who pushed me to see beyond my story.  They changed me, dredging up insights from the depths of my inner knowledge and compelling me to face them.  When I didn’t like what I saw, I was willing to ask my god for help, much as I’d asked in theoak-tree beginning to be relieved of the compulsion to drink.  I was willing to work with god to become what it (i.e. love/Good Orderly Direction) would have me be.  I write this now when I have almost no time in my week because of my commitment to follow through on that direction.

Telling the truth – the human truth. That’s what I heard the schmucks doing over and over once I’d awoken through the steps.  They taught me with their shares that there’s almost always a deeper, more honest revelation underneath whatever story we’ve cooked up about ourselves and others.  Pretty much any problem boils down to “I’m afraid” of not getting what I think I need or losing what I have.  And any happiness boils down to “I love.”

I’m no longer the woman who wrote of clinging to her glass, to her liquid freedom and happiness that had, unfortunately, quit working.  Some wisdom comes simply with age.  We begin to see the old in the young and vice versa, see the broke in the rich, and to have compassion for people living though pains we have known.  Whether one is in AA or not, pain can be the greatest teacher if it moves us to replace our defunct illusions with love and tolerance rather than tout them with righteous judgement.  Gradually, we come to see the trajectory of birth to death resembles a meteor’s streak through the night sky: the small and insignificant burn bright, casting light where there was none, and then go out.  We can’t begrudge anyone the color or angle of their flare.  We are all miraculous and unique ordinary schmucks.

Thanks for 20 years, guys!

20 year coin

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Freedom: the Gift of Recovery

Got a few resentments in AA?  Certain personalities in meetings annoying you?   Big Book thumpers causing internal eye-rolling?  Somewhere inside, are you thinking you may be able to manage your alcoholism yourself – that it’s really not such a big deal?

Maybe it’s time for a little ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT with the help of this visual aid I lifted from the Wikipedia page on alcoholism.  It’s an engraving from the mid-1800s called “King Alcohol and his Prime Minister.”  Check it.  (It’s enlargeable. )

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King Alcohol & his Prime Minister, engraving by John Warner Barber (1820-1880) Click to zoom.

 

In the background on the left, we’ve got the normies drinking with impunity.  A little closer we’ve got the socialites making cocktails look 19th Century glamorous.  But once we get to the Dram Shop, which is the old term for bar or tavern, things ain’t lookin’ so good.  Sure, there’s a pretty barmaid serving, but one patron is looking pretty disheveled, two are brawling on the floor, and another is passed out.  In the foreground the Virgin Mary is seen bumming about it all (at least, I think it’s she).  The anchor could refer to maritime alcoholism?

On the right we see some consequences listed: Poverty, misery, crime, and death.  There’s the jail, the poorhouse to which with someone is escorting a drunk, a cop with his nightstick dealing with another. We see a home gone to shit, a dad passed out while his wife and kids stand by, and closest to us, a rich guy all dressed up but still on his face.  Closer still are the graves, one of them immediately outside the home.  Jails, institutions, and death – as we often hear in the rooms.  The only thing I don’t see is an asylum.

Lastly, check out King Alcohol and his sidekick Death, themselves.  Death’s bottle is corked: he doesn’t touch the stuff, only offers it to recruits.  The King himself looks confused and miserable in spite of his lavish banner.  His face has marks all over it, his brow is furrowed, his hair and beard a mess.  Around his neck what seems an amulet is actually a locked chain, and chains run down his robe in place of royal ermine.  He holds aloft a large goblet, almost like a chalice, but encircled by a snake.  Above it hovers a reference to Proverbs 23, line 32:

31 Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
    when it sparkles in the cup,
    when it goes down smoothly!
32 In the end it bites like a snake
    and poisons like a viper.

Whoa.

If you lived in the 1800s, that would be the full extent of your program:  “Do not….”  Don’t look at booze, don’t drink booze.  Just don’t.  Just stop.  Look at the facts.  Use your willpower.

“Do not…”  If I’d been born during that time, I’d be a perma-drunk or dead.  Because I tried “do not” for 14 years and ended up bombed every night, like my father before me, because the “wine” I would “gaze at” lived in my mind.  As soon as enough of the poison had cleared from the night before, I’d think, “Yes!  I’m talking about just one pretty, perfect cocktail/ beer/ glass of wine!”  Next thing I knew, I was reaching for that snake-entwined goblet, oblivious to the bite and poison.

And I did that again.

And again.

And again…

It cracks me up that at the top of King Alcohol’s barrel list is “strong beer” – as if “weak beer” might be okay.  In other words, even in his desire to capture the entirety of alcoholism, Barber lacked a basic understanding of addiction: the allergy in me – which makes me break out in endless “more!” – can be triggered by as little as a single dose of cough medicine.

What Barber did understand, though, was that we die.  We’ve been dying for millennia, at least throughout the 10,000 years that humans have been brewing alcohol.  Slowly, century by century, those of us with alcoholic genes have been winnowed from those European cultures where alcohol has long been a staple – a fact highlighted by rampant alcoholism among Native American populations where alcohol has been introduced only in modern history.  Why do 10% of Native Americans die of alcoholism, compared to 0.2% of Italians?  Because most Italian alcoholics are already dead!  They died centuries ago leaving fewer descendents.  Still, around the world, how many of us are killing ourselves slowly, blurring our thinking, drowning our love of life?

You might wonder, why did Barber choose to depict alcohol as a king, rather than a slave driver or a warlord?  The answer is in addiction.  Alcohol rules our lives, but at the same time, we venerate it as our savior.  Left to our own human powers, there is no way out.

BUT HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS!  I’m sober!  You’re sober!

In June of 1935, the world of the alcoholic changed forever.  Fifteen minutes is how long alcoholic Bob Smith agreed to talk with that sober guy, Bill Wilson.  Three months is how long they ended up hanging out before Wilson even went home. They had discovered something amazing: the connection between one alcoholic and another when speaking the truth of our condition.  They also put together the physical allergy piece Bill knew with the spiritual malady piece Bob knew and – SHAZAM!!!  For the first time in human history, alcoholics had a way out!

Never again will we as a class of afflicted people have no solution.  Shivering denizens no more, we’ve found a way to overthrow the tyrant with a far greater power – one of love, of life, of goodness.  Whether you live near a slew of AA meetings or it’s just you with your Big Book and computer, you possess two insights that Barber and the dying drunks throughout history never had:  1) That your body reacts differently to alcohol than a normal body does, and 2) that alcoholism can be treated via a 12 Step program of spiritual growth, usually (but not always) in connection with fellow alcoholics.

What I know is this: Living sober has brought me and countless other hopelessly doomed alcoholics a joy of living beyond our wildest dreams.  We are free.

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Holiday Parties: 6 Tips for the Recovering Alcoholic

…and why they may be utterly useless

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‘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.

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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.

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…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.

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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?

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