Tag Archives: living sober

Outrage vs. Action

If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.

Alcoholics Anonymous p. 66

I recently listened to an NPR program, Hidden Brain, that looked at moral outrage on social media and what’s going on in our brains when we post (or repost) it.

Dopamine hits!

That’s the the juicy part for all alcoholic/addicts, right? Human brains in general sift the world like Geiger counters seeking out sources of feel-good. We may not realize that’s what’s going on when we find one, but we self-administer hits of it like some poor little lab rat hitting the cocaine bar again and again. The trouble for us alcoholics is that getting caught up in these cycles can lead us back toward a drink.

Outrage is one such addictive cycle. The Hidden Brain host has us imagine an early human tribe in which someone gets caught doing something wrong. How should the group react? Ignore, expel, or punish? If they ignore, the wrong-doer may decide to act again. If they expel, they lose a member. So they punish. Yale psychologist Molly Crockett pops explains:

“Evolution placed a bet on [punishment] being a good idea for the group. When people decide to punish someone who’s behaved unfairly, we see activation in areas of the brain associated with reward, including the striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex… There’s a visceral satisfaction in doling out punishment.”

“Outrage,” the host summarizes, “gives us pleasure.”

He explains that the face-to-face context in which outrage evolved came with a natural set of brakes: you risked getting physically harmed by those you punished, or, if you were out of line, getting punished yourself. Neither consequence applies to social media (or any e-communication). Our brains revel in dopamine scot-free whenever we proclaim righteous, indignant, and often vicious stuff. Plus, every time someone LIKES or reposts our outrage, we get another dopamine boost, because our brains tell us we’re doling out even stronger punishment.

E-distance can destroy compassion even among people who love each other, as I discovered years ago when I first published my addiction memoir. Some family members responded from behind their screens with a rage they’d never have unleashed on me face-to-face. They emailed flamers berating me as a liar, narcissist, and sadist; they posted lengthy Facebook strings of back-and forth mockery; and they published one-star “reviews” on Amazon under pen names, buying copies under multiple accounts to publish more.

Clearly, my ideas about the role alcoholism and codependence had played in my upbringing felt wrong and hurtful to them. So they asked if we could we could all sit down and talk out these uncomfortable issues to arrive at some shared understanding — kidding!! They chose to punish my wrongdoing with no compunction, getting lots of satisfying dopamine surges every time they clicked SEND, POST, or PUBLISH.

At the time, I wept gallons of tears and developed panic attacks from so much as looking at my laptop. Happily, Amazon took down all but one review, and we’ve since healed enough as a family to deal with this as we do all conflict: we pretend it never happened.

I’ve been priming similar poisonous dopamine surges myself on social media ever since Trump got elected. Fortunately, my entire family is anti-Trump, so we’ve experienced no rift. Rather, after the initial despair of 2016, I began to take aim at no one in particular to make “them” recognize the despicable character and politics of this Russian plant president. I’ve been hitting the awkwardness-free vanquishment bar of social media again and again, posting about Trump’s lies, stupidity, moral depravity, damaging policies, etc..

Only recently have I realized my true motivation: dopamine. I see friends have liked or shared my post: Dopamine! A conservative friend comments disagreement, so I deliver a stinging retort: Dopamine! Have any of my posts done any good for anyone? Of course not. All I’ve accomplished is adding a bit more rage to the global atmosphere.

A normie might indulge in this cycle with only a slight harm to their long-term health. But as an alcoholic with “a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of [my] spiritual condition” (85), I have no business cultivating anger, which blocks me from “the sunlight of the spirit” (66), tipping the playing field to addiction’s advantage. The angry me is my ego, and ego is, as we know, addiction’s minion. The more outrage I feel, the less good I do anyone and the closer I am to a drink.

Goodness takes the form of action. Did Mother Teresa ridicule Calcutta for its bad policy toward the lame and the sick? Was Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail a rant? Would Mahatma Gandhi have Tweeted out anti-British zingers? Why not? Because inspired people understand that faith without works is dead; they know a single beneficial deed outweighs thousands of punishing words.

Increasingly, I’ve been trying to shift my life in a similar direction. In response to climate change, I started bussing to work in 2017, and when I realized I disliked buses, I switched to bicycling. I buy minimal plastic, donate to animal charities, and pick up litter. When I realized our local 30,000-year-old pod of orcas was starving for want of salmon, I started volunteering to do salmon habitat restoration work and showed up at a hearing on their behalf.

Humility is a big piece as well. How much do my individual actions help? Very little. How much more do they help than posts and tweets? Infinitely more. When I’m volunteering, I can FEEL that it’s the right thing to do, much as I feel the goodness of AA service work, which somehow quiets the ire I feel when I witness what I think is wrong. I don’t need to tell everybody; I need to do more good.

Sobriety is a whole-life deal as we expand and deepen our experience of who we are. Maybe we can outgrow posting zingers the same way we outgrow self-pity, gossip, and all those other short-term fixes. Maybe we can find our power to put love and goodness to work in small but real actions.

Restoring stream habitats

Planting trees

Meeting cool people

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Filed under Alcoholics Anonymous, living sober, Recovery, Social media

My Big Fat Dead Mosquito

Everywhere I look, I see a big fat dead mosquito. Over the years, this insect has taught me a lot about life.

It’s inside my eyeball. Hiking across Glacier National Park in 2007 (left), at the moment I reached Triple Divide Pass, the spot where waters flow into three different oceans, it happened: a big fat dead mosquito appeared against the bright sky, like bunny ears cast on a movie screen. I could see the head and proboscis on its body, from which dangled several crumpled legs.

Having good insurance in those days, I soon saw an ophthalmologist who referred me to an expensive specialist with a computerized magnification system that let him tour around in my eyeball as if it were a museum. He looked and looked, asking me to move my eyes in various directions. Finally he scooted back from the machine.

“You’re right,” he said. “It looks like a big fat dead mosquito.”

Unfortunately, he explained, nothing could be done.  A clump of cells had sloughed off my hyaloid canal, which connects the lens and optic nerve, but was still attached, drifting about in my ocular fluid and casting this distinctive shadow on my retina. Even if I’d wanted surgery, the risk to my optic nerve would be too great. Perhaps in time the cells would fall off and settle, like most floaters, to the bottom of my eyeball. Until then, he said, I’d just have to live with it.

Twelve years have passed, but my Big Fat Dead Mosquito (BFDM) has not. Often it floats far enough toward the front of my eyeball to become blurry and easily ignored, like bunny ears flashed too close to the projector. But every few months, it moves toward the back so its shape jumps out at me in all its buggy detail.  I look fast to the right, and it continues drifting after my eye stops.  That sort of thing.

Teachings from the BFDM

At first I was, as you can imagine, severely bummed at this permanent visual impairment, as in, “You’re fucking kidding me — I’m gonna look at this thing the rest of my life?!” But as a sober alcoholic, I can’t afford to hang out in victimhood (“poor me, poor me, pour me another drink…”).  So early on I decided to make the BFDM into a symbol of that very fact: I have alcoholism.  I did not ask for it.  Yet when sorted according to the Serenity Prayer’s flawless rubric, both my alcoholism and my BFDM fell into the same category: “things I cannot change.”

This strategy worked well.  Whenever I’d be contemplating a puffy white cloud in a lovely blue sky, and across it would glide, like the Goodyear blimp, the looming shape of my BFDM, I would practice acceptance.  Ditto sunsets, snow covered mountains, and, of course any large, white wall.  I had no choice but to share them with this squashed bug, just as I had no choice but to go to AA meetings, do 12 step work with sponsors and sponsees, and, of course, not drink booze for the rest of my life. I would think something like this: “Hey there, mosquito.  I guess you’re with me for good, just like alcoholism.”

Years passed, and while the mosquito remained, my sense of alcoholism as a burden did not. I came to recognize that god had actually done me a huge favor by making me alcoholic, forcing me to choose between paths of self-destruction and spiritual growth. I began to see that even normal drinkers are bullshitting themselves when they drink — denying damage to their brain and body, imagining they’re more fond of others than they truly are, and denying themselves the practice of manually breaking down ego’s barriers to trust and affection. I saw that not only are all paths to wisdom and integrity at best obscured and at worst blocked by alcohol, but that the 12 steps offered a me stairway to happiness I’d never have found without AA.

Gradually, the BFDM morphed as well, becoming a symbol for something else: compassion. When I’d be talking to someone in bright light and they’d remain oblivious to the huge squashed insect bobbing around their face, I’d be reminded of the subjective nature of experience.  That person had no idea I was having to ignore a BFDM to be fully present, and by the same token, I knew nothing of the the various obstructions through which they saw me: scars they carried, fears they battled, emotional distortions they couldn’t help.  I learned to temper my judgements, thinking, “Hey there, mosquito.  Ain’t it true that I’ve never walked a day in this other person’s shoes?”

 

 

Then, about eight years after it first popped into my vision, the BFDM finally lost its legs. Today only the head and body remain — a shape most would describe as blob, and I alone think of as a big fat dead mosquito amputee (BFDMA). During these past few years, compassion has become reflex for me, while frequent contact with the Near-Death Experience community has  homogenized my faith in god — meaning not that my god is a dairy product but that the power of my faith no longer comes and goes.  I know in every moment of consciousness that god is real, god is love, and that a vast spirit realm is rooting for humanity from the sidelines as we try to untangle the childish mess we’ve made of our world.

Today, whenever by my BFDMA meanders close enough to my retina to cast its distinctive shadow, I am overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude to my maker: “Hey there, mosquito. Can you believe I have a fucking movie screen inside my skull? A surface of cells so sensitive to the universe’s energy (borne by little photons that bounce off everything) that it can encode the patterns received and send them into my consciousness??  Who made us, BFDMA?  Who guided the astounding evolution of this gift, and what a spoiled brat am I that the tiny malfunction of you — a few fallen cells — once upset me??”

The soul grows not by addition but by subtraction. So said Meister Eckhart.  Today, the mere fact that I am alive inside a fantastic machine that lets me navigate a beauty-filled world, forging a unique path represented by my quirky shadow friend — this alone is a miracle worthy of constant rejoicing.

 

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Filed under Alcoholism, Faith, Serenity Prayer, Spirituality

Declutter Your Spiritual House

Each year as my AA birthday approaches, I like to take a look back to see how far I’ve come. I’ll be turning 24 years sober this January, and I would not trade my beautiful life for anything.

Just before I got sober

Twenty-four years ago, I believed life without drinking would be horrifically boring, like eating only brussel sprouts forever. Relaxation would be gone, so I’d feel anxious and stressed out nonstop.  Socializing sober would be such an ordeal, I’d probably just isolate. How could I play without ease and comfort?

I secretly longed to drink like other people — people who bantered in fashionable hangouts, hogging all the fun and glamour. I felt I had a disability, this inability to stop drinking once I got started.

In those days, I was literally incapable of imagining how it now feels to be me.  Today the space in my mind and heart is soooo cozy, I feel like at any point in my day, I could pull into it like a tortoise and maybe take a nap — just me and that warm inner sunlight of my god.  I almost feel tempted sometimes when I’m riding my bike to work and waiting for a traffic light to change. There’s my outer body dressed in rain gear, there’s the incredibly complicated world going on around me, and then there’s this flawlessly inviting inner sunporch to recline in, just closing my eyes and saying, “Yo, god.  Thanks for everything.  I can’t tell you how much I love you.”

24 (sober) years later

I don’t cause I’d get run over.  I also don’t want to piss off people around me, not cause I fear them but because I want to radiate kindness in all things I do.  I love strangers — even the rude ones. Life is a gorgeous jigsaw puzzle we’re all piecing together with earnest effort, frustrated at times, all wishing we had the dang puzzle box illustration to help us know what goes where.

The space for my inner sunporch was originally cleared by working AA’s 12 steps.  Before that it was packed with garbage — false mental and emotional beliefs I clung to like some kind of packrat. Psychotic hoarders can’t throw away a used Kleenex; I couldn’t throw away my resentments, the countless personality variations I’d hoped would  make you like me, or the dusty gilt trophies — academic, professional, and romantic — I’d won over the years that I thought comprised my worth.

“Cleaning house” by working steps with a sponsor is the closest thing I know to hiring a spiritual declutter expert: “God, what should I keep?  What should I throw out?”  If you have an insightful  sponsor and an open heart, you’ll end up with only a few key insights.

It’s true, for instance, that most people don’t base their decisions on what would be best for you. And that is okay.  What?!  It is?!  This was earth-shattering news when my sponsor first put it to me.

It is also true that people we’ve held in resentment were doing the best they could with the level of insight they had.  If they could have shown up as a good parent, partner, or companion — that is, if they’d understood that love matters most — they would have. We can’t expect them to live by wisdom they just don’t have, just as we can’t shop at the hardware store for bread.

Space opens up when you LET OTHER PEOPLE GO: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”  That whole tangle of shoulds and owes me and needs to learn gets carted off to Goodwill.

Now you can shift the focus to YOU, not as a successful manipulator or foiled victim of others, but as the only person on this planet responsible for making a beautiful thing of your life.

Not what your parents thought would be beautiful.  Not what media and marketing pretend is beautiful.  Beautiful to you.

Lucky you — you’ve already been assigned an amazing, ingenious collaborator, one who works for nothing, who believes in you with a love beyond anything you can imagine, and who has the power to fuel whatever you’re courageous enough to pursue: god.

Dass right!  That same energy in the growing grass, the pounding waves, and the mating chipmunks.  That force behind your heart going live, live, live and the busyness in your every cell to make it happen. God is living you; god is wanting you to generate more you-ness, more love, more good.  Your smile is beautiful.  Your sincerity is a jewel.  Your kindness is a spark of the divine.

Sober, I feel my feelings instead of numbing them.  I remember the last time (of many) when life pulled the rug out from under me so I fell flat on my face. Three and a half years ago, my heart was broken by an intimate betrayal — a betrayal so outrageous I felt like an idiot for having been suckered. Hurt and ashamed, I felt too stupid to ever trust my heart again. About halfway through a 70-mile hike in the mountains, somehow the full pain of it hit me; I set up my tent at noon, lay down in it, and just cried for three hours. Three more hours I alternated between semi-comatosely watching the foiled skeeters on my tent’s netting and spurts of crying.  Then I wrote in my journal.

Journal page from that day

By the next morning, I’d founded a new enterprise with god. We called it “Louisa’s Little Life” because alliteration rocks. We — that is, god and I — had the basics nailed down. We’d go for nothing grandiose. The plan was to notice and love; notice and love — just that and put one foot in front of the other. I promised to listen, and god promised to lead.  I promised to trust and try, and god promised to help me grow. In fact, god promised me peace and joy and a deeper knowledge of who I am — all the flowers that now brighten my inviting secret sunporch, because god and I grew them.

If any of these ideas help you, by all means steal them, but remember: thinking about the steps is not the same thing as working them!  It’s an inside job, but we can’t do it alone.

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Filed under God, Happiness, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality, Twelve Steps

10 Principles for Living Sober

FoodinBagA few weeks ago, I asked a clerk and bagger if they’d watch the sack of groceries I’d just bought while I ran back for another item.  When I returned, my groceries were gone and they felt terrible – so terrible that the bagger walked the aisles with me trying to help me remember what I’d bought.  But without the receipt we couldn’t recall much.  I’d picked up a number of things on impulse.

“You know,” she said after we’d covered the store with little success, “this deal is on us.  Really, you can just fill a bag with–.”

“Corn flakes!” I remembered.

But I soon drew another blank, so she urged a little harder. “It ends up as a theft write off, so you can just go for it.  Anything you want is fine with us!”

True, I’m a single mom and always short of money, so almost everything I looked at, I wanted.  Fancy jams and teas – mmm.  Maple syrup.  Organic soaps.  Mega-vitamins.

I left with a half-filled bag containing only what I distinctly remembered buying.

Question:  Why?  Am I going for sainthood?  Do I get a bang out of feeling superior?  Do I think god keeps score?

Answer: None of the above.  The fact is, I’m a doomed alcoholic who’s graced with sobriety one day at a time.  I’m not mindlessly drinking myself to death right now due solely to the power and guidance of my new employer – god as I understand god.  In each situation, I have just one prime directive: Do the most good I can for all concerned. 

The store was concerned; having my stuff stolen did not mean I could steal from it.

During active alcoholism, I lived by a slightly different prime directive: Do the most good I can for Louisa.  In every situation, I considered what would most benefit me.  What would make me feel good?  What might pay off later by making me feel even better?  If there were negative consequences, what eventual rewards might outweigh them? Certain people’s esteem was worth more than others’ pain or anger.  Gradually, navigating by my own best interest, I ruined my life.

Ruby slippersSo I quit that game.  What I seek now is clarity.  How I find it is by living in alignment with my HP’s prime directive, which I will here attempt to unravel as my own 10 principles for living sober gleaned from the Big Book, my fellows, and my own stepwork. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Be where you say you’ll be and do what you say you’ll do.  (Choose Integrity)

2. Think of others as you’d have them think of you.  (Choose compassion)

3. Be honest with yourself always, and with others short of reckless harm. (Choose reality)

4. Give as much kindness as you possibly can to every being you encounter. (Choose love) 

5. Avoid gossip – and envy, which fuels internal gossip. (Choose respect)

6. Do not flirt either as or with a committed person. (Choose honor)

7. Let others be in charge of what’s best for them. (Choose detachment)

8. Pay attention to all you do and how it squares with your values. (Choose awareness)

9. Be grateful for everything – everything – everything. (Choose humility)

10.  Know that god loves you the same way you love small, helpless creatures, only a billion times more – whether you’re in your body or out of it – so try loving yourself that way, and love god for loving the world.  (Choose faith)

~

Now that I’ve written them all out, it looks like an awful lot of rules!  But I don’t think of them distinctly – more as Miguel Ruiz’s Fourth Agreement, “Always do your best.”

My agreement with god – my way of acknowledging  sobriety as a gift I’m graced with – is simply to try my best in each situation to do the most good I can for all concerned,  which means applying the above 10 principles.  For example, #3 and #8 mean I don’t eat meat by denying the horrors of factory ‘farms,’ or even shop at Walmart; #4 means being of service.  Sometimes the rules conflict and I have to work out what “most good” means.  For instance, to follow #5 – don’t gossip – I may reply “I don’t know” when I pretty much do.  Or to fulfill #6 – don’t flirt – I may pretend to be indifferent when I’m not.  But those bits of dishonesty fall under the “short of reckless harm” proviso in #3.

Then there’s the Al-Anon piece.  Up until a few years ago, I thought #4 – giving kindness and love – was to be practiced unconditionally.  You could treat me like shit and I’d just keep showing up with love, giving you the benefit of the doubt and killin’ you with kindness.  Al-Anon’s “Don’t be a doormat” applied, I assumed, only to codependent wives and mothers slaving selflessly for those who used them.

It took blatant abuse from those closest to me to drive home the fact that I need to recognize and respond to toxicity in others. People’s behavior tells me what they’re made of.  If I overlook continuous patterns, I’m lying to both myself and them.

Detachment (#7), I’ve learned, applies to letting other people think of me as they choose: I can’t make them understand me.  I can’t make them return goodwill no matter how much I beam their way.  At a certain point, loving myself as god loves me (#10) means I have to set boundaries.  Tortoises carry shells and roses sprout thorns for good reason: we often need protection to hold our own.

tortoise-roseOf course there are plenty of times I screw up – times I choose fear, choose anger, choose self.  Sometimes I wallow in loneliness and self-pity.  Plus I once ordered a cheap tent from Walmart.  But I never give up and say “fuck doing what’s right.”  As soon as clarity returns, I own my mistakes and do my best to clean things up.  It’s actually the easier, softer way, because I get to live in a beautiful, love-bright world with like-minded people.

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Filed under Al-Anon, Alcoholism, Faith, living sober, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality