Tag Archives: Grace

Stepping Out in Faith & Courage

Newly sober alcoholics are crippled. For years or decades we’ve relied on a tool for navigating life — an easy exit to that buzzed state where problems shrink — and suddenly we’re robbed of it.  How to live in this bald, unrelenting world without escape?  That’s the impasse we face day by day, even minute by minute during the first weeks and years of sobriety.

The short answer is faith. And faith sounds like jack shit to most newly sober drunks. Because the irony is, it takes faith to build faith. We’re used to considering evidence first and then weighing whether an action is likely to work in our favor. Faith means we step out knowing nothing and see what happens.  Our actions are based in trust rather than reason.

Eventually, faith gets easier to muster as it builds up evidence of its own: I acted in good faith and was taken care of.  I ask god to help me stay sober today, and I’ve not had to drink/ use/ act out for X days/ years. Faith works! Gradually, witnessing as much firsthand over and over, we begin to trust faith — perhaps even more than we trust our practical minds.

The Faith to Adventure
I had a dramatic experience with faith last week in the middle of the Mount Baker- Snoqualmie wilderness of the Cascade mountains.  As some of you know, I’m an avid thru-hiker (hike –> camp –> hike).  This year, at kind of the last minute, my friend Sally had to drop out of our planned 8-day thru-hike from Stevens Pass to Rainy pass on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

I decided to go it alone. The trail covers 127 miles, gaining and losing 32,000 feet of elevation.  It’s known as the 2nd toughest section on the entire PCT (the toughest being the JMT).  I found it much, much harder than I’d anticipated to cover 17-20 miles a day with a 40-lb pack (which shrank slowly as I ate food), climbing/descending sometimes a vertical mile, day after day.  I’m 58, BTW.

But I did it.

Many women have asked me how I can hike alone in the wilderness. They fear predators both animal and human, exposure to heights, creek crossings, and the sheer self-reliance of solitude too much to try such a trek.  How can I feel safe, even happy, out there in the wild?

My short answer, again, is faith.  But it’s also love.  I love the wilderness so intensely, there’s just no room in my heart for fear.

True, I felt a little lonesome until I got outside the range of chatty, clean day hikers and entered the true backcountry. There I shifted my focus away from humans, instead talking out loud to critters, plants, trees, and god.  The glow in my heart grew stronger and stronger, as did my faith that other living entities could sense it.  To take this timed selfie, for instance, I pinned back a shrub blocking my lens.  I’d finished and was just starting to hike on when I ran back, unpinned it, and said, “Sorry!”

But even loving hearts need boundaries, whether for toddlers or wild things.  I love bears (two years ago I surprised one who graciously ceded the trail) and mountain lions, but even so I sang a lot and kept a trekking pole with me constantly. I radiated a boundary: Don’t fuck with me. You may win, honey, but not til I’ve made sure you regret it!  I meant it.  I knew no creature would attack me, animal or human, unless it was mentally ill.  Besides, humans who victimize others rarely have the guts or stamina to hike far into the wilderness.

A Miracle on the Trail
Such was my mindset when my right knee gave out about 60 miles into my trip, with about 60 miles left to hike and no roads near. I’ve made a video that covers the barest facts of this experience – that I began to get flashes of intense, crazy nerve pain flaring in that joint, first intermittently and then repeatedly, making me gasp and cry out.

I could not walk.  I stopped.  I was carrying an inReach satellite communicator to check in with loved ones each night, loaned by a friend, which featured an SOS beacon.  I could toggle to emergency, push a button, and wait however long it took for rescue to arrive.

Instead, I shifted to the world of spirit.

…except at altitude on steep terrain

In front of me stood a huge grand fir – a type of evergreen with roots entirely underground. It was as though our eyes met — the tree’s and mine.  At this high elevation of 4,500′ where trees grow slowly, I knew it had to be a thousand years old. Also flashing through my mind was recent research finding, for instance, that matriarchal trees send moisture along their roots to sustain their seedlings, exhibiting far more “conscious” than humans have understood.

So I approached this tree as a matriarch who had channelled god’s energy for a thousand years. With a humility possible,  I think, only to someone crippled after four days of solo hiking, I put both hands on her trunk, touched my forehead to the surface between them, and called to it silently, “Are you there?”

Into my consciousness came the tree’s energy — I am.

I’ve had enough post-NDE experiences to distinguish thoughts sent to me from those I generate. You can say “bullshit,” or you can trust that I’m not a moron and keep reading.

Tears were streaming down my face. I thought to her, with a reverence for the millennium she’d witnessed as opposed to my own brief and absurdly self-absorbed life: “Can you ask god to help me?”

The response was instant, but not what I wanted. It filled my mind as a knowing, an unchanging principle, just as vibrations of a tuning fork fill the air:

Every life must ask directly.

I countered as if in conversation with thoughts of my shyness, unworthiness, and that I’d gotten myself into this predicament.  The tree “heard” none of this.  It continued to emanate at the same frequency, unchanged: Every life must ask directly.  Of the three elements in that principle — life, asking, and directness — the last seemed to linger longest.

I thanked her.  I tried to walk on, oh so carefully.  I’d made only a few steps when the pain blared again — WAAAHHHHH!!!! — and with it came a realization of my own: “I’m totally screwed!”

I didn’t take off my pack.  I didn’t sit down or even close my eyes.  I just stood there on the trail, gushing tears as I always do in prayer, and spoke inwardly to god. To be totally honest, I felt like a child braced for the same disappointing response all my terrified acrophobia-on-the-mountainside prayers incur: “You got yourself up, child; you can get yourself down.”  That, or maybe something blunt like, “Use the beacon, silly!”

Even so, I reached for god with my tenderest heart. I apologized first that I knew all this was my own fault because ego had played a role in getting me here, but I also “reminded” god how intensely I loved the living beauty of the wilderness, how much this trip meant to me.  Then I asked, directly, as the tree had instructed, Can you give me some guidance?

At almost the same instant that I asked, my mind began to fill with instructions, as if they were downloading from some external source.  I got so excited!  I knew so many things in that second that I’d not known the second before!

None of this information came in words. We all know our physical bodies well, so the references were to my own conceptions of these parts. I had strained my inner thigh.  “No I haven’t!” came from my brain.  “It’s fine — doesn’t hurt a bit!”  God reminded me of a move I’d made in my tent that morning that had hurt in that spot — and there was so much love with this correction, with each instruction: love, love, love!  I was told to put my foot up on a rock or log and stretch it gently.

To my amazement, I found my adductor muscle so tight at first that I (a ballet dancer) could not raise my leg more than about 2 feet.  I was also told to use my trekking pole to put pressure on another spot.  No words — just my familiar idea of the dent under my kneecap on the inside.  I was told to stop and repeat both these actions frequently — what I decided meant every 500 feet.

There had been a third instruction from the outset, but only when I’d stretched and pressed about 6 or 8 times, walking between with zero pain, did I “hear” details of how I should follow it.  This idea pertained to a little velcro loop I’d packed for no reason. It might have originally come with my air mattress to keep it rolled up, but in any case, I’d decided at least twice not to bring it.  Somehow, it ended up in my pack anyway.  At various camps I’d pull it out and roll my eyes: “Why did I bring this?!”

THIS is why! god seemed to answer, referencing all the above with love, love, love.  Wrap it on that spot, tightly but not too tightly.

My brain thought, “That’ll do nothing!”  Duh!  I’d used knee braces many times on lesser injuries; they helped only to the degree that they immobilized the joint, whereas to descend  from this elevation, I’d have to bend my knee to at least 90 degrees hundreds of times, with my weight and the weight of pack crashing down as many times amid rocks, fallen trees, and rough terrain.  What could a little mattress roll-up holder possibly do to mitigate that?!

But my spirit was told, You will be healed.  The knowing came that this band would act similarly to kinetic tape, except that while tape attracts attention from the brain to heal a given area, this little band would attract spiritual attention, my own and god’s, to heal my knee miraculously.

My brain disbelieved, but that’s what I heard, a promise my spirit dared to trust.  You will be healed. You will be healed.  The knowing echoed like a mantra every time I confronted a challenge — a two-foot drop on the trail, a fallen log I had to jump down from, a slip and arrest.

My knee, my spirit, my god, and that little velcro band kept on descending and descending over the next hour and a half.  No pain.  Before I knew it, we’d reached Milk Creek, elevation about 3,000′.  I took this photo to commemorate the miracle.

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I am astounded.  I’m thinking, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

 

Over the next three days, I hiked 60 more miles on that knee. I never experienced pain again.  Sure, it throbbed like mofo at night, but so did my feet, ankles, hips, neck, and shoulders. I had to take a lot of ibuprofen just to sleep. But never again did it pain me me on the trail.  Not once.

My message for alcoholics and addicts of various modes is that we can all experience two conflicting convictions at once.  The brain can insist, “It’ll never work!” while the spirit resolves to act as though perhaps it will — on faith — and see what happens.  At every step of my recovery from alcoholism, I doubted:  “Faith is nothing but pretend!  The steps are nothing but mumbo-jumbo!  I’ll never not want to drink, never stop feeling less-than and judgmental and scared of life!”

And yet, I ventured ahead in faith and courage to follow the advice of sponsors and old timers from AA meetings, just as I reached out to a tree for help, just as I bracketed my doubts of god’s guidance and did precisely what I was told.  We don’t have to believe it (with our skeptical minds).  We just have to do it (with our spirit’s courage).  The miracle will happen.

We can be guided toward growth and sometimes even healed.  Because god is real, and god does stuff for those who ask — directly.


Video telling the story.  Also available at  https://youtu.be/McRi8zbW0TY

Photos from my trip:

Mica Lake, the camp above which my knee first twinged. Note how the reflection polarizes glare from the smoke particles.

Mica Lake from the granite slab where I got water

Me with fellow PCTers waiting for a boat as part of a forest fire detour

 

Bridge out on  loud, raging creek so I climbed across on the railings. 

Approaching Cloudy Pass

Me with some background peaks you could see if it weren’t so damn smoky.

Me emerging at my goal on time – 127 miles and 8 days later. I lost 6 pounds despite eating constantly.

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Filed under Alcoholism, Faith, God, Happiness, NDE, prayer, Recovery, Spirituality

The Bedevilments vs. Grace

Here are thousands of [sober] men and women, worldly indeed. They flatly declare that since they have come to believe in a Power greater than themselves… there has been a revolutionary change in their way of living and thinking. In the face of collapse and despair… they found that a new power, peace, happiness, and sense of direction flowed into them.
 
…Is not our age characterized by the ease with which we… throw away the theory or gadget which does not work for something new which does? We had to ask ourselves why we shouldn’t apply to our human problems this same readiness. We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were a prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people— was not a basic solution of these bedevilments more important than whether we should see [an ad for some new gadget]? Of course it was…
 
Our ideas did not work. But the God idea did.
-Alcoholic Anonymous, pp. 50-52
The bedevilments sum up how life sucks for an active alcoholic – or for one dry without a solution.  Anyone familiar with the Big Book knows of them.  They make up yet another passage where the AA founders nailed our experience, so  the hurting alcoholic marvels as s/he reads, “How did they know-?”
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The bedevilments hurt like hell because they’re symptoms of our dying spirits.  Fear cuts us off from the love that would sustain us, so we languish like plants without sunlight.  Drinking temporarily soothes that pain while ego promises to fix everything by grabbing more admiration from the outside world (via  accomplishments, attractiveness, wealth, etc).  What else could possibly help us besides self-medicating and vanquishing all the assholes in our life?
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aa-80th-convention

AA’s 80th anniversary: 70,000 sober drunks from 94 nations. D’ya think this thing might work?         (click to enlarge)**

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The Way Out
This chapter, “We Agnostics,” offers an alternative:  If we replace religious ideas of God with  open-minded spirituality, we can examine the results of faith just as we would any other phenomenon – scientifically.  We see that people who adopt faith in a higher power go from the shit pile to thriving.  We see it over and over.  Linking the two events causally – is that such an illogical jump?  To say, “Hmm… looks like this faith gadget works wayyy  better than the self-reliance gadget I’ve been using” – ?
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That’s how models function in science.  We observe phenomena and devise a theory, a model that explains what’s going on.  We can’t isolate or observe faith, but we can note its effects.  Faith (and the rigorous stepwork it inspires) arrests the misery of alcoholism.  In drunk after drunk, this shit works.  We don’t have to know why.
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Still, I remember how I reacted the first time I read “We Agnostics.”  Yes, I suffered all the bedevilments (though I didn’t give a shit about not helping others), but I wasn’t going to buy the idea that what had worked for millions of other people would work for me.  No, because I was smarter.  And I hurt worse.  And the prospect of seeking god felt weirder to me than it had for those guys – obviously.  Just in general, other people were so other-peopleish!  They had nothing to do with me.  They were packed in society like canned beans, whereas I had flowered and grown on the vine of my life, bobbing in breezes and raindrops they’d never experienced.
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This is the catch-22 of getting sober in AA: we have to trust that we are like others before we can really believe it to be so.  If we trust, we can do what they did and get what they got – but at the start we don’t trust anything!  Even booze, our best buddy ever, has turned on us.  Or has it?  Maybe we should try one more time with the bootstraps and a little less bottle?  Isn’t that more likely to work than something so preposterous?
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wile-e-coyote-cliffAnd yet we try the unknown thing.  We step out into air.  There’s something in AA meetings, some energy we can’t identify that keeps us coming back.  My brain told me emphatically that AA would never work, yet my hope, my heart, and somehow my car keys carried me to meeting after meeting, where I heard people speaking authentically of ruined relationships, self-loathing, wild emotions, relentless fears, and pain-filled loneliness just like mine – that no longer ruled their lives.  I could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices: they were free.
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Grace.  What is it?  It’s defined as “unmerited divine assistance,” a gift from god we receive without earning.  The longer I’m sober, the more I see it’s all grace: every breath I take, every sensation, every emotion, every moment of being alive on this earth.  How could I “earn” any of that?  I was graced with the utter defeat of my wrecked life.  I was graced to meet the person who took me to my first AA meeting.  Graced to find myself out of answers, sick of believing my broken brain over and over, desperate enough to show up despite immense skepticism.  The short version is that I was graced with surrender: “Maybe there is something; maybe I can ask it to help me.”
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That opened the door enough for those first rays of sunlight to touch me.  duckling-graceThree steps forward, two steps back, I’ve progressed through life’s vicissitudes and cycles of stepwork to reach my own intimate experience with a god that I now love with everything in me.  Today I can see how god – that energy of love powering every element of life – is in you.  I can love you with no self-interest – no more than I have in loving a robin, or a birch tree, or a puffy white cloud shifting across the blue expanse of sky.  Look at you being you!
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And what a wonder it still is, as I come up on 22 years sober, to watch AA newcomers at the outset of their own  journey.  They come in with bedeviled pain and discontent practically scribbling the space above their chairs. Today, I get to flatly declare to them the peace, happiness, and sense of direction with which I’ve been graced – and watch them find it, too.
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 **https://rehabreviews.com/went-aas-80th-international-convention-kept-journal-become/#prettyPhoto

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The Bitter End… or Willingness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head, speechless.

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

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

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

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

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

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alcohol death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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