I recorded this on my phone last night — and I’m really glad I did. Speech / elocution-wise, I learned that I’m too shrill and often speak too fast to be understood, so I can work on toning both those things down. Content-wise, I hope some of you might get something useful from it. Plans to time myself were technologically foiled, so I was shocked when the moderator held up 10 fingers, and the end is hella rushed. But I guess that’s how it was meant to be.
Tag Archives: spirituality
About two months before I got sober, a voice spoke to me — one I now know as my angel’s (I call him Egnacio). I’d just driven to my log cabin completely hammered, tearing along winding, wooded roads as fast as 80 mph with the radio blaring, seeing quadruple as I bombed through the narrow railroad overpass where I should have died. Instead I reached home, but as I clung to my car door for steadiness and glanced up at the stars, congratulating myself on my badass driving skills, the voice shot through me like a thunderbolt from Zeus, except it was a bolt of telepathy, of knowing, extremely urgent and somehow stern: “This is the last time I can help you. And you DO know right from wrong!”
In the nearly 28 years since that night, sober all but those first two months, I’ve come to realize that Egnacio’s two brief communications actually contained a template for living, a standard on which to base all future choices and judgments.
The first, “This is the last time I can help you,” meant essentially, “If you really want to bash your brains out on a telephone pole or scar your life with paralysis or the guilt of having killed another driver, have at it.” What he was conveying was this: I (Louisa) am responsible for my own life — for my choices, my outcomes, and the caliber of my character. The same is true for everyone, and there comes a point when even a guardian angel has to quit trying to help.
The second, “You DO know right from wrong!” was essentially a call for the 3rd step. At the time, I was letting all my addictions, whether substance or emotional, run rampant. Egnacio asserted that I knew better, that I had the capacity to search within for god’s take on my every thought, communication, and intended action. I can consult Good Orderly Direction on whether what I’m doing is good and right, based in love and truth. I can also sense if other people’s behavior strikes me as good and right, based in love and truth. But if I think back to communication #1, I must accept that their ways are THEIR responsibility, not mine.
We all encounter teachers in our lives. The teachers we EXPECT are those we look up to: sponsors, mentors in life or work, wise friends, maybe even (if we’re very lucky) parents or grandparents. We look to these people to demonstrate for us how to navigate life with grace and insight. For example, I love and admire my AA/Al-anon sponsor because she’s constantly telling on herself, sharing in AA meetings and recovery conversations all the petty jealousies, insecurities, habits, and worries that fill her thoughts throughout the day.
In fact, she finds herself hilarious! Why? Because she doesn’t identify with the ego that’s constantly churning out these thoughts and reactions. She doesn’t buy into her own thinking. In light of Communication #2 above, she has access to a gauge of reality beyond her own flux of thoughts — her god.
Similarly, she has fun describing her flaws because her self-worth comes NOT from how she looks to other people, NOT from whether she’s seen as an AA guru (as she comes up on 38 years’ sobriety), NOT from what I or her coworkers or husband or anyone else thinks about her. She knows god loves her, and that’s all she needs. On good days, I can follow her example.
Then then are the unexpected teachers. All of us have been betrayed by those we thoroughly trusted. Supposed friends, admired mentors, sponsors, family members, lovers — each of us will have the experience of being hurt by such people, and the stronger our trust in them was, the more profound the pain.
Among the most important learnings of sobriety is that these people, likewise, are our teachers. They showcase how to cause pain with our words, judgements, assumptions, indifference, and carelessness. They demonstrate for us the harm these attitudes and resulting actions inflict, and as we smart from their deeds, we learn firsthand how devastatingly they hurt.
In short, UNEXPECTED teachers model for us how NOT to live. Once we understand that, we can view them as assets. We don’t have to analyze exactly what made them choose to do X. Many of us waste a tremendous amount of time trying, but such thinking has a name: Resentment. We must instead remember that, in light of Communication #1, they alone are responsible for figuring out the machinations of their egos. All we need to take to heart is their EFFECT.
Step 3 is a core decision, a choice to always run our thinking past our higher power and seek to do right, not wrong. Via steps 4-9, we gain insights that can increase the honesty with which we perceive our own motives. We can learn to see the ways we are just like our UNEXPECTED teachers, how easily we inflict the same harms, maybe more subtly. And we’re resolved to continuously strive to do better.
On the surface that means damage control in not causing harm impulsively — not saying what anger burns to say, not sending the righteous text, calling someone out, acting on the whims of antagonistic emotions. At a deeper level, it means showing up with honor to do whatever we’ve said we’ll do. But at the deepest level, it means trusting, as my sponsor trusts, that we will in time be able to distinguish “right from wrong.” We pause, if possible, long enough to differentiate our ideals and responsibilities from simply meddling with others.
Egnacio made such a call when he let me go after saving me one last time: “Live blindly, chasing ego’s chimeras, if that’s what you choose!” That’s what I myself sigh inwardly almost every week to the main unexpected teacher in my life. I’m so grateful to have found another way to live!
Now and then a serious drinker, being dry at the moment says, “I don’t miss it at all. Feel better. Work better. Having a better time.” As ex-problem drinkers, we smile at such a sally. We know our friend … would give anything to take half a dozen drinks and get away with them. He will presently try the old game again, for he isn’t happy about his sobriety. He cannot picture life without alcohol. Some day he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end.
— Chapter 11, Alcoholics Anonymous
I hit bottom on 01/29/95. On that day, I could no longer imagine life either with or without alcohol, and I truly wished for the end. The August prior, I’d quit alcohol for 30 days just to show I didn’t have a problem. I was staying in a friend’s vacant apartment because my partner had banished me from our home, having read my journal and discovered some of the sickness I’d been concealing. But oh, well.
I hung a calendar on my friend’s kitchen wall and drew a big X through each day I passed without a drink. I felt healthier, had more energy, was cheery at work. But LOVE not drinking? What are, you, nuts? I could hardly wait for the month to be over so I could drink again, because any life without drinking struck me as beyond dull — it would, I knew, be brash, relentless, barren, and joyless. Alcohol, I felt, was the oil in the engine of my life.
So on September 1st — cheers! — I was back at it. But by 01/29/95, much had changed. A thick, murky self-disgust filled my consciousness; I saw no hope of ever enjoying life; and alcohol, almost inconceivably, no longer helped. There’s an explanation for what was going on at the brain level, but all I knew was that, no matter how much I drank, I felt no levity. The world had gone devoid of all color and charm; other people seemed self-sufficient judging machines. I just couldn’t deal anymore.
My idea of a fine suicide was guzzling a gallon of vodka — a scheme I knew my stomach would allow. But FIRST, because I couldn’t do it after, I dialed the number a sober friend had scrawled for me on a scrap of paper, and that night I went to my first AA meeting. I no longer gave a shit whether life was brash, relentless, barren, and joyless. All I knew was that nothing I’d tried could render it tolerable, and several people had claimed AA would.
If you’d told me then that in 25 years, sobriety would comprise the gem of my life, that I’d love my AA homegroup as my dear, motley family, and that pretty much all my friends would be in AA or NA, I’d have said, “You must be talking about somebody else.” And you would have been, because the psychic change that comes with thoroughly working the steps through several iterations over the years has transformed who I am.
To realize that we hold a limited perspective, I think, goes against the basic nature of human consciousness. Our brains tell us that the world is what it is and that we’re perceiving it accurately. If there’s a problem, it must be with the world, not how we process or think about the world.
Even at that “let’s kill ourselves ’cause it’s a good idea” rock bottom, my perspective felt both certain and precious to me. My pride was rooted in it. My attitudes and values had built up over my 34-year lifetime, crafted through countless efforts to deal with the tricks and pains of living. I truly believed they were me. To say they were distorted was to steal all I’d worked for. And to say that in some outdated white-guy book and in church basements full of strangers, a better perspective could be attained — well, that was just plain shallow.
NO ONE likes to think that other people have answers we lack. If millions of sober people tell us they struggled with the god thing but it eventually became the foundation of their happiness, we feel we’re different, put up a wall, and say, “They must be simpletons.”
My first months without alcohol did indeed prove brash and relentless — a place where many stay stuck. Yet for me, they proved not altogether barren and joyless because I’d begun the long process of growth. Through incremental acknowledgement, over and over, I began to see that my ways kept leading me toward depression and emptiness, whereas each time I tried a little more of their way, life got better. Two years in, I worked the steps whole hog.
Rather than being brainwashed, I found I became more me — little Louisa was still in there, and she was cute and creative and love-filled, and all the things she’d been before she lost the key to life: loving from the source of god and sharing goodwill with others. Children do this without needing a reason. Yet at some point I’d changed to one who wants from others, and it nearly killed me.
I understand now that one drink will inevitably lead me to thousands, and that whenever I’m drinking, I’m cut off from god like a plant inside a box. To drink, for me, is to wither spiritually, even if my outsides are puffed up with false revelry.
Willingness is the key. For me, that meant relinquishing my grip on being right, knowing best, and being a smarty-pants in general, because otherwise, I stayed locked in my old perspective. And the relinquishing never ends.
Today, when I say I love my sobriety, what I’m really saying is that I love this life — its fleeting beauties, its inevitable struggles, its poignant fragility. Sobriety is the honesty that lets me behold it.
For the first three and a half decades of my life, I tried super hard to find happiness outside myself. If I could just get with the right people, afford the right stuff, and be seen in the right places, with just the right amount of a buzz or high, I’d clinch it! But all I did was fuck up my life — and others’.
I was smart as measured by standardized tests, landing jobs, or publishing stories, and good-looking enough for a mostly-successful seduction record, but dumb as a stump in terms of emotional wisdom — so I just wanted to die. Life hurt so badly! (See my lengthy addiction memoir for details galore.)
Attaining happiness is never an easy quest; every day we have to bushwhack through pretty much the same undergrowth of FOMO, discontent, victimhood, and boredom as well as self-inflicted criticism, shame, and pity to arrive beneath the open sky of awareness. During a pandemic, such as is in full swing as I write this, the way gets even thicker and swampier — doesn’t it? Surely, we think, we’re missing out on some better life we ought to be living!
Now, I may be getting on in years, but I have recently met, both in person and virtually, some folks my age who are still every bit as lost as teenagers. For decades they’ve repeated over and over the same cycles of addiction — one with booze, the other with codependent romance. They have yet to step off the merry-go-round of “I know best,” so they keep finding themselves back at square one.
In early addiction, all of us believe our heads. Our thinking tells us it’s a fine idea to _____ (shop, starve, drink, “fall in love,” etc.), and we trust that thinking. Little do we suspect that our brains have been hijacked; we’re caught in a loop of stimuli and the reward centers they trigger.
Later, once we become aware of our addictions, we try to temper them with resolve and decisiveness — say, by swearing off drugs or getting married or moving. We’ve noticed the pattern and, darn it, we’re not gonna do that shit anymore! I see this so tragically among pregnant addicts at a rehab center near my home. These women will hug their distended bellies and say, “I’ve lost three kids to the foster care system, but I’m not losing this one! I am SO DONE with drugs and alcohol! And I’m gonna get all my babies back, and we’re gonna be a family…”
By this point, they’re usually too overwhelmed with emotion to go on. No one could be more sincere. No one could want and yearn and hope more fervently for what they’re saying to be true. And yet I know, sitting in that circle, that chances are they will use again, and they will lose this baby, along with all the others because addiction always wins — short of a miracle.
Half that miracle is god — a power greater than ourselves that empowers us to accomplish what no human will can bring about. The other half is the inward miracle of letting go — ceasing to believe what our brains tell us, trusting instead what others have to teach us, and learning to listen for direction from our deepest hearts, from the goodness in our core that’s connected to all life.
The rest of recovery — including that daily schlepp toward happiness — comes down to 1) expanding the range of this miracle, 2) mapping our thought paths, 3) revering our consciousness/spirit, and 4) odd as it may seem, making friends with all those misguided inner voices.
- Once we let go of the precept that our own thinking is superior, we can try what’s worked for others despite doubts it can work for us. We work the 12 steps in depth with a sponsor. When others tell us they initially choked on the word “God,” didn’t want to do service work, and dreaded sponsoring people, but now these things are the mainstays of their happiness, we try doing what they did to see if we’ll get what they got.
2) We begin to realize we are not our thoughts — we entertain them. Or maybe it’s better to say they entertain us! That is, they enter stage-left, tap-dance a while before our awareness with urgent banners and songs and imperatives, and eventually exit stage right. We learn to watch them without getting snagged, knowing they’re impermanent reactions to stimuli more often than realistic assessments of what is. Practicing meditation hones this skill.
3) We begin to realize that we’re not our brains or bodies — we inhabit them. We’re all spirits that, for whatever reason, have chosen to incarnate and play a role in the unfolding of the physical world. Ultimately, our mission is to help each other by taking actions rooted in love and compassion. As one Near Death Experiencer was told, what matters is not what you do each day but what wake you leave behind, whether each person you meet is left a tiny bit happier by the encounter — because every other being is a part of you.
4) The same love and compassion we extend outward, we learn to offer ourselves, generously steeped in humor. Humor is the taproot of true humility, which is indispensable to a happy life. Did I wake up this morning anxious, dismayed by the state of the world, worried about the same dumb shit I always worry about? Yup! That’s me — failing to be grateful that I’m not trapped in some war-torn, starvation-ravaged country or suffering some vast pain or grief. Yup, it’s just me and my buddies insecurity, envy, fear, and vanity, hangin’ out and doin’ what we do! Come on, gang — let’s toddle into our cozy kitchen and get some luscious tea!
I often don’t see how I deserved to be guided to my first AA meeting, but I’m the one who said, “I can’t do life. I give up. Teach me.” And the rest has unfolded like a wildflower in the mountains.
“The god part” is, without question, the biggest hurdle of the AA program for countless sick and dying alcoholics and addicts. For me it certainly was, because when I read that word “God” coupled with “He” in the 12 steps, I immediately thought of religion, of versions of God as a humanoid king or judge. And that image made me barf. It seemed extremely inconvenient that the only thing AA could offer to save my life was something so hokey as a higher power.
At the time when I was hitting bottom and, thanks to countless contingencies I now see as guidance, finding myself in my first AA meeting, I was an atheist. An avid, even rabid one. However, I was also trying to bracket some extremely weird shit that had been happening to me — inexplicable experiences our culture would label delusional or make-believe.
What sort of weird shit do I mean?
During an early morning rain storm, I saw an old man on an ocean beach in Gloucester, MA, dressed in what appeared to be antique rain gear and walking from the dunes on my left toward the waves on my right, perpendicular to my solo progress. I made up my mind to ask, as soon as I got close enough to communicate over the strong wind and thundering waves, where he’d found such authentic-looking yellow Mackintosh garb. But as I got closer I saw he was staring toward the horizon as if in some intense emotional pain. I tried to look for what he might be seeing, but the clouds hung so low over the water, there was nothing to see. So, when he crossed directly in front of me, close enough that I saw the fine wrinkles and red capillaries on his face, I said only “How’s it going?” He did not reply, and when I had walked a ways further, I looked back, angered by his rudeness, only to see — no one. An empty beach. I tried to figure out where the old guy could have got to so fast. But when I went back to look for his tracks, I could find none but my own. This happened five years after my Near-Death Experience.
A few years later, I knew my unborn nephew was destined to die, and that my brother was going to plunge into profound sea of grief at his loss. Then exactly that happened.
Weeks before I hit bottom, I’d driven home absolutely hammered, speeding along winding woodland roads, threading the needle amid a blur of reflectors on a narrow bridge. When I reached my house and stood congratulating myself, hanging onto the door for support, a voice shot through me like a bolt of knowing: This is the last time I can help you.
A few weeks later when my dog got hit by a truck and foiled my plans to attend a “vodka-slamming party” and just not drink, that same voice addressed me again: Look! My eyes at the moment were on the blood trickling over the asphalt from under my dog’s body, and the message was that my future would involve something similar if I didn’t cut the shit.
So that’s some weird shit, right?
Then I walked into an AA meeting (actually, the dog incident happened after my first half-assed prayer when I was 2 weeks sober) and I read “Came to believe in a Power greater than ourselves that could restore us to sanity.” I made absolutely no connection between those words and the voice that had, so to speak, hacked my consciousness.
If you’re an alcoholic or any type of addict in recovery, then you know firsthand the isolating effect of relying on ego to navigate life. Ego tells us we are different. It sometimes tells us we’re special and better than others, but it can also tell us we’re worse than others, and that our various struggles are unique. In fact, living in ego’s lonely “I” rather than the heart’s “we” is what generates the pain we drink to escape.
But of course I did not know that.
I classified all my paranormal experiences as something I should keep to myself just as I did my obsessive infatuations or harshly manipulative thoughts of using mildly cool people to connect with their hella cool friends. The inner workings of my mind were a source of shame, and so these woo-woos, I felt, were shameful. They might point to a fried brain or neurosis, but certainly not to an active spirit world that could free me from addiction.
My own journey to arrive at working model of god has been long. Weird woo-woos continued to befall me until I broke down in about 2004 and accepted the spirit world as real. That acknowledgement eventually led me to seek out fellow NDErs in the Seattle chapter of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS).
What goes on in an NDE is that the spirit leaves the body; consciousness exits the brain. I recently heard a fascinating interview with Dr. Bruce Greyson*,a psychologist who’s been researching NDEs for about 40 years. Greyson theorizes that the brain acts as not only an interpreter of sensory input but also a filter against cosmic and spiritual input. Its primary function, he reasons, is our physical survival, so anything extraneous to that gets filtered out. We see and hear only those ranges of light and sound that are useful for filling our terrestrial needs. Input from an alternate plane of reality, Greyson theorizes, would distract us from those needs and thus detract from our chances of survival, so we evolved means to exclude it. The brain’s filtering capacity can, however, be suppressed by psychedelic drugs or even damaged by NDEs so that it ceases to work effectively, thus allowing spiritual energies to enter.
Greyson’s theory both differs from and aligns with my own. I believe that conscious beings are encapsulated in what I call a “god-phobic energetic membrane” analogous to the hydrophobic fatty membranes that encapsulate living cells. In other words, to function individually as a water-based mechanism in a water-based environment, each cell requires a membrane that repels water. Similarly, as we are bits of god swimming in god-energy, we need a god-repelling membrane in order to function independently. If we leave the body during an NDE, we somehow rupture the membrane, which closes faultily after our return so that other spirit energies can seep in. A medium is basically someone with a leaky energetic membrane.
My first IANDS meetings in 2012 felt very much like my first AA meetings. Just as in AA I marveled every time a fellow alcoholic articulated experiences I’d assumed to be mine alone, so at every IANDS meeting, I heard bits of “my story” told by others and came to realize I’m just a garden variety NDEr. Many, many NDErs had experienced a “voice” like the one I “hear” — which by that time had saved my life on multiple occasions — and referred to it simply as their guardian angel. One NDEr, upon reviving from death, had been able for a short while to see beings behind the people helping him — beings who were “helping them help me.” For lack of a better word, he said, he calls them angels.
Once I started to think of the voice randomly hacking my thoughts as my guardian angel rather than god itself, a lot of stuff began to make sense. I began to see that my angel greeted me on the other side, sent me back to Earth to accomplish something, and stays with me constantly. Sometimes my mind seems to hit the right “frequency” to pick up messages my angel conveys — often a variant of c’mon, you can be more honest! Rarely does my angel bust through apropos of no request, unless I’m in mortal danger or he has a life lesson to tell me in the moment.
I wish I could pass on to fellow alcoholics and others my certainty that the spirit world is real — but I can’t. Each life must ask directly, I’ve been told. Seek a god of your understanding. What weird things have happened to you? What synchronicities, what surprisingly accurate intuitions? Do not let the cultural construct of religion “deter you from honestly asking yourself what [spiritual terms] mean to you.” [p. 47]. You wouldn’t have read this far if you did not sense, at some level, leaks in your own filter or membrane allowing in wisps of the spirit world.
*Dr. Bruce Greyson starts at 23:10 in THIS VIDEO
Resources: NDE video channels:
Tricia Barker’s Healed by the Light: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyIstVbBhilo1gdUmazkReQ/videos
Peter Panagore’s Facebook NDE video page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/NearDeathExperienceVideo/
As I write this, the world is in a bit of a panic about COVID-19 — and understandably so. Much is unknown. Many will die.
Fear is huge right now because much of the world is a stranger to this degree of powerlessness. Nobody likes sudden, involuntary changes: being told to work or school their kids from home, to avoid contact with others. It’s tough. Disruptive. Confusing.
In times like these, it really sucks to have no higher power or faith in an afterlife. If we lack faith, we fight out of an amorphous, unrelenting fear. If we possess a working faith, we attend with care to each precaution, surrender what’s beyond our control, and trust that, though perhaps in ways beyond our understanding, all will be well.
For that matter, all may be better. Considered from a broad enough perspective, COVID-19 can be seen as a gift. This pandemic is teaching humanity, more vividly than anything heretofore, the crucial, overdue, and catastrophically-denied lesson that all of us share one planet. Humanity is, in fact, one big global community. National boundaries mean no more to this virus than they do to impacts of climate change. Both are everyone’s problem.
Surrender is simply saying, “What is, is. I have no power to change X, but I do have power to perform Y.” For instance, in the case of alcoholism, X is that we have it — a fact that won’t ever change. Y is our program of action: going to AA meetings, doing stepwork, and being of service to others.
A continuing counter-intuitive surrender for me is the fact that I’m a spiritually leaky bucket: No matter how many meetings I’ve gone to, how deeply I know the steps, or how much service I’ve offered in the past, my spiritual bucket gets empty again if I don’t continue filling it. My mind tells me, “Oh, I’m so smart now! See how my Big Book is read to tatters? I can stay sober on my own!” I certainly want to believe that. I certainly don’t want it to be my ticket to misery and an early death. But it would be. I need to believe what I want not to believe.
Surrender to the afterlife and spirit world has, weirdly enough, posed an even harder, more counter-intuitive challenge. I’ve had to say, “What is, is.” In this case, I mean both the reality of the spirit world and society’s disdain for it. I’ve experienced so many paranormal phenomena that I can no longer subscribe to the culturally dominant model of reality as exclusively material. That model stands in blatant contradiction to my Weird Things — direct experiences of seeing a ghost, prescience, clairvoyance, and communications/interventions from the dead and from my guardian angel.
I never wanted a Near Death Experience (NDE) any more than I wanted alcoholism. Following my NDE, I denied it as doggedly as I did alcoholism, clinging to my familiar materialism as much as I did to familiar drinking. I kept right on refusing to change when I saw a ghost, knew my nephew would die, and began to hear a voice that advised the opposite of what I, myself, had decided. Materialist science would lump all these together as delusions — my mind playing tricks on me. For decades, I simply shut away whatever materialism could not explain.
But there came a point when I could no longer hold out. I had to say, “What is, is! I have no power to change X — that I know the spirit world firsthand and that society dubs me a moron for saying so. I do, however, have power to perform Y — find others who share my truth.” Finding the sanctuary of IANDS, where everyone’s materialist schema has been pried from their equally reluctant intellectual grasp, has solidified my outlook.
What does all this have to do with COVID-19? Today, I volunteer for Seattle IANDS by interviewing NDErs and writing up their stories for our bi-monthly newsletter (print only, at this point). During the time they were dead, several interview subjects were shown, each through their own visual metaphor, that the spirit world is constantly working to guide humanity forward toward the light of universal love. Here are two interview excerpts:
“The largest light table was behind those two, a huge one with many saints around it. I couldn’t hear, but I knew they were talking about the planet – how to help it. More than any of the others, these saints had to allow. They were so serious because of all they were letting unfold.”
“I saw a city of diamond brightness. I knew the city contained highly advanced beings – angels and great souls [who] were building the future of humanity. I was given the revelation that… sometimes the intended purpose doesn’t unfold.”
Each seeks words to describe a hybrid of guidance and letting be. Both chose the word “unfold.” I’m reminded of the way we teach small children: we present them with a toy or a problem to solve that we think offers them an opportunity to learn; then we let them have at it.
God, according to countless NDErs, wants us to learn. Many were offered a choice to return and complete their learning in this life, or proceed unfinished to the next — but lose all they’d learned. “I viewed it much the same as having to repeat a grade in school,” says one who drowned river rafting.
When I put this whole picture together, I see a benevolent god calling some souls home while giving humanity at large a nudge to wake the fuck up. In the single month since COVID-19 went international, the entire world has radically changed its ways of daily life, ceasing to commute, flying less, and producing less stuff — with the cumulative global effect of slashing our CO2 output beyond anything ever dreamed possible.
Learn, god is urging us, that all is one! — humans, animals, plants, Gaia, and god.
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.
If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. 1) We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
2) We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 3) We will comprehend the word serenity and 4) we will know peace. 5) No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6) That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. 7) We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8) Self-seeking will slip away. 9) Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. 10) Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. 11) We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 12) We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Too often, people take the 9th step promises out of context, calling them the “AA promises” and ignoring the condition that precedes them. The “phase of our development” that requires we be “painstaking” is amends — Steps 8 and 9. As I’ve written elsewhere, sloppy amends are worse than no amends at all. By sloppy I mean done too soon, before we’ve really had a psychic change, which can lead to all sorts of blunders, including revealing harms unknown to the victim: “I slept with your partner; I never really liked you; I told so-and-so you were a liar.” No, no, no! That’s why we go through Step 8 with a sponsor, to figure out what will set things right for the recipient rather than cause new pain.
Anyway, the reason the Big Book authors placed the promises after Steps 8 & 9 is that to seek out the sheer awkwardness, humble pie, and admission of wrong-doing entailed in these two steps is something no ego-driven person would do — especially not hardcore bridge-burners like active and dry alcoholics. “Did I wrong that person? Fuck that, they wronged me!” This was the pre-steps attitude that produced more and more people to avoid and more thoughts to shove to the back in our minds, with drinking needed to mute them.
By contrast, after a psychic change, we’re trying to live by what’s right and good or, in other words, to show up as god and our own spirits would have us be. I remember several instances of sitting in my car cramming from my 8th step notes before I stepped off what felt like the roof of a skyscraper to meet people I’d wronged. I did so because I trusted god. And in each case, I walked on air: I calmly spoke the truth, and recipients warmly forgave me.
Many years have passed since I completed my amends, but I continue to live in the frame of mind that supported them. As a result, I get to live IN the 9th step promises! Freedom and happiness, for starters, characterize my sober life. Sick voices still sound off in my head, but they project poorly, and I’ve learned to roll my eyes at them. I focus instead on what I want to do with my life — with this one-time amazing journey of living in the world.
For example, I love climbing mountains. In July, friends and I made a bid for the summit of 14,411′ Mount Rainier – the most prominent peak in the contiguous US and 5th highest. We started too late (midnight) and had to wait repeatedly for the teams ahead of us to pass through areas where they’d trigger rockfall on us, then wait again when a ladder laid over a crevasse partially collapsed, so a number of my teammates got hypothermic and we had to turn back. Even so, it was a huge, gorgeous, thrilling experience — the kind of adventure I used to fantasize about while drinking.
Despite having lost some of my left lung to radiation for breast cancer, I power-breathed to 13, 200′; and despite acrophobia and balance issues, I walked over boards laid on a ladder across a deep crevasse — not to mention daring this stuff at 59. We will try again next year, having learned from our mistakes.
And yet… and yet… during the exhaustion that overtook me on the long descent to base camp, a voice started up in my head: “No one likes you. You’re an annoyance to everyone. Everything you say is trite and boring so everyone wishes you’d just shut the hell up.” Freedom was the insight that my alcoholism, which survives in my mind, was taking advantage of my fatigue to get some good punches in. Freedom was replying to that voice, “You’ve been saying that since middle school. Fuck off.” Then I deliberately bellowed some dumb jokes most people couldn’t even hear (because we were still on ropes and too far apart), just to piss off the voice.
Last week, I hiked 82 miles with my friend Sally, retracing only the best parts of the 127-mile hike I soloed last year. This experience outshone any fantasy joy, because love for god’s beauty in the mountains absolutely saturated my consciousness for days.
And yet… and yet… addiction was with me. I’d needed a tooth extraction the day before we were to leave for this trip and, at the oral surgeon’s insistence, delayed a day for healing, then brought along antibiotics in case of infection and 12 Vicodin in case the socket clot came out or some other intense pain developed. As it turned out, the socket felt fine, healing gradually. But my knee did not. One night I couldn’t sleep for the knee pain, and sharing my tent was the Vicodin. “Take it!” said my addict. “You have pain — a perfect justification — so cross Go and collect $200!” I responded, “That Vicodin is for unendurable nerve pain, not some nagging knee pain that keeps me awake.” “Whatever!” said my addict. “It’s for pain! It’s right there – no more pain! Much-needed sleep! Just take it!”
Midnight, 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m. passed by. I don’t remember praying, but what came to me were the words of my dear friend Rob: “Yah know, if I’d of known what I would become after a few Vicodin, I’d a shoved them up my doctor’s ass!!” Rob, originally a purebred alcoholic, got hooked on opiates as a result of a prescription and died from overdose in 2016. He seemed to remind me that my own sobriety, despite its 24.5 year length, was equally fragile. With the help of Rob’s memory and several more ibuprofen, I eventually fell asleep. The next night, I asked Sally to keep the pills in her tent.
Really, the principles that free me to live the life I love are the same ones that carried me through my amends: love, humility, and faith. That’s why realizing the promises is contingent on a “painstaking” completion of those steps.
I made this video of our hike. If this ain’t living happy, joyous, and free, I don’t know what is!
Going to work the other day, I got what I call a god-burst. I was riding my bike, coasting down my street on a sunny spring morning. The cherry trees were in bloom, big puffy dusters of sweet color, and the breeze was scattering their blossoms like confetti. For some reason, I could see god’s love in the way that every distinct petal danced through the air. Each was looping, twirling this way and that in the sunlight, and I got to glide through them.
I felt, Thank you, thank you, thank you! And I sensed a joy answering from god — god’s joy that I was joyful. I felt with god in my love of living, in my delight at the happening of each instant.
As I rode further, along the treesy waterside bike trail, I looked into the faces of each pedestrian I passed. What did I see? Scowls. Sour petulance. Shock that someone had dared smile at them and even greet them with “Good morning!” But every now and then someone would meet my eyes – their face transforming like a flower blooming. “Hey!” they might say back.
They had love to offer.
Have you ever worked hard to create a celebration for a kid you love? Made them a fancy cake? Set up a treasure hunt? Given a gift you made yourself or at least picked out with care and wrapped up with bows and ribbons? How would you feel if the child responded with scowls? With petulance? What if they unfolded the first clue of their treasure hunt and wailed, “What? I have to go look for something big and red? And then all I get is another stupid clue? I want my TREASURE!!! NOW!!”
Or what if they opened your gift and wailed, “I want a bigger one!”
That’s pretty much how god must feel, I think.
Some people are possessed by greed. I recently talked with a young man who “lived
outside” — as he described his homelessness — about his pity for billionaires like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk: “It’s never enough. They need more, more, always more — it eats away at them. You’ve gotta wonder what happened to them in childhood that they have this addiction that drives their whole life. They’re no different from the homeless friends I see wrecking their progress over and over with drug addiction or self-sabotage — just the other extreme of the spectrum.”
This young man, by contrast, seemed more content than most “homed people,” as he called us. In his small, tidy pack he carried a mini-laptop. He explained that he’d found part-time work at a local stadium that paid for his food and clothes — just not enough for rent. He was clean; he knew where to get showers and do laundry. As we talked, he was enjoying a latte at a table neighboring mine. But the main things I noticed about him were his easy laugh and his sincere compassion for those suffering from what he termed “more addiction.”
Greed stalks us all, to an extent.
Have you ever watched the documentary Happy? Guess who’s one of the happiest people interviewed in that film? A rickshaw driver in Calcutta whose home is mostly tarps. Sure, he doesn’t like it when passengers spit on him as he hauls them through the busy streets, but that rarely happens. Part of his joy undoubtedly stems from the fact that he’s never perused an issue of Vogue or Esquire. He’s filled with gratitude to god that he can provide for his healthy children.
Filled with gratitude.
The sour-faced people I passed on my bike that day appeared starving for gratitude. I can’t know what’s going on in their lives, but I can theorize.
Their god is either absent or an asshole. They don’t even see the countless gifts showered on them in this brief carnival of life. They’re taking for granted all the cake and presents, griping at the effort of the treasure hunt steps. To be happy requires, among other things, that we stop comparing, that we actively set aside the ridiculous and relentless marketing culture that pervades our every societal experience. From TV & movies to magazines & billboards and by practically everything we view online, we are told that we lack.
Many alcoholics, I think, drink to escape this constant more addiction, with its flip side, Not Enoughness. Though it’s been 24 years since my last drink, I remember what used to happen when I’d enter a bar. The more I drank, the more okay everything got. My barstool became a perfectly okay place to be. Wherever I was in life — whatever I’d done or not done — became okay. I could stop all the striving, comparing, and self-critiquing. I could just be.
How ironic is it that my higher power now gives me all I once tried to suck from alcohol — but as spiritual food instead of poison? When I thank god for every funky little detail of my endlessly convoluted circumstances right now, I am living as an extension, an expression of god — and in that sense I am perfect. God has slowly, slowly weaned me from a mindset of constant neediness and taught me to go in whole hog for the delight of little things.
The straight-up joy I experienced riding my bike the other day was ten times anything I ever got from booze or coke or some whoopee party. It germinates from understanding that I GET to be here on earth. Taking shit for granted is both seed and symptom of the atheist’s blindness to god. If you truly thought about the miracle of your body, of your cat’s body, of our cycling oceans or friggin’ photosynthesis, you’d be rejoicing all day long.
God is good. Good is god.
And if god could say just one thing to you right now, it would be this: Choose joy.
My addiction memoir tells how I went from a bright, healthy teen (okay, with a teeny hypersexual disorder) to a lonely, depressed, obsessive, codependent, underachieving, and increasingly reckless drunk who disdained Alcoholics Anonymous as a doom just short of suicide. Why so reluctant? The God thing. The book’s second half describes my ungraceful but dogged ascent from that pit of misery toward the healthy, friend-filled sober life I get to live today.
Much as I’ve love for everyone to read the book, I can give you a major spoiler here: I didn’t do it.
The words that opened the door to faith in something that might help me were shared by a woman in large pastel stretch pants sitting against the wall at my third or so AA meeting: “If you can’t deal with the word ‘God,’ that’s fine! Just think ‘Good Orderly Direction.'”
I perked up. Certainly I could not deal with the word, “God.” That religion-based concept seemed to me a preposterous character created by humans to explain what rudimentary science couldn’t. Such a deity was not going to advise me on whether I should stuff the tip jar at work if a customer paid cash or continue stalking the guy I was obsessed with.
But Good Orderly Direction — that was something to be sensed in my inmost heart. That I could look for, because I remembered going against it when I was busy screwing up my life. For me, Step 3 was essentially a resolution to start listening for it and going with it. Who knew the source of G.O.D. would turn out to be my higher power? And who knew that following its guidance would migrate me from the self-generated heartless world that had defeated me toward the sweet experience that’s now my normal?
Goodness as True North
As an active alcoholic, the only compass I ever consulted was ego. I was a popularity materialist — never enough! — as are many in our “individualistic” culture (thanks to marketing). I longed to be seen as cool (see also Coolness) and liked by designated cool people. I was convinced that the more I could make that happen, the better I’d feel about myself. And even though this model had failed to bring me anything but discontent for 34 years, I kept thinking the problem lay in my performance, not the model itself.
Good Orderly Direction, however, does not hinge on what others think. It’s a compass deep within, with Goodness as its true north. The first half is sensing it — what is the good and right thing to do here? The second is acting on it without hesitation.
I remember a conversation I had a few years back with my relapsed alcoholic boyfriend. As a rationale for getting drunk, he asked me, “Don’tcha sometimes just wanna say ‘fuck it’?” As it turned out, he had indeed been saying “fuck it” for some while, carrying on a second relationship behind my back. Sober, he’d been a man with integrity and compassion.
By contrast, my father drank alcoholically while retaining integrity and compassion — toward everyone but himself. Alcoholism wheedled him into deferring day after day the ultimate reckoning: “Why do I drink so much every night?” He resisted looking inward to all the clamors he muted with booze, saying, in his own academic way, “fuck it.”
But Good Orderly Direction is more than the antithesis of fuck it; it’s the antithesis of ego. It is a form of caring, of knowing that your choices matter and seeking those that will feel right in the long run. You may have trouble at first distinguishing Goodness from ego’s “best for me”; you may also mistake it for what other people tell you to do, whether they’re in your family or your AA group. But gradually, as you become more attuned to seeking, the voice gets louder, so you gain a clearer sense of whether you’re tuned into it.
As the choices people make based on the north star of Good Orderly Direction begin to alter the course of their lives, as even cynical or bottomed-out addicts begin to heal and build self-esteem by doing esteemable acts, a lot of us begin to realize — “Hey, this isn’t coming from me!”
God Ain’t Religion
As people who follow this blog know, I got to cheat. The spirit world operates all around us all the time, but we’re as deaf to it as the barriers we maintain against love are thick. For me, having had a Near Death Experience followed by paranormal after-effects even as I fought to maintain my atheism, the presence that had spoken to me on the other side began interceding in my thoughts as soon as I started seeking Good, until I had no choice but to fold and acknowledge, not religion’s God, but my god.
Religion is a bit like agriculture, while the spirit world is nature itself. Religion quantifies something omnipresent yet inexplicable — the power of the life force — by reducing it to the equivalent of rows and crops and acreage. To be atheist because we reject religion is like saying because there is no Great Farmer, nothing grows — all the while discounting the fact that we and all living things around us are exquisite expression of nature, of the life force.
No one can give you god-awareness. You have to develop your own, based on your own experiences both inner and external. The most direct route to get there is by seeking Good Orderly Direction. Eventually, seeking will become part of you, as it has for me: No one at Fred Meyer saw me miss self-checking a bag of avocados yesterday, but when I discovered them in my reusable shopping bag, I handed them to the attendant on my way out simply because I had not paid for them — end of story. I know not only that Karma is a real phenomenon, but that guilt is a real feeling, even when we pretend not to feel it. Both carry a price tag that far exceeds four avocados.
Ask for guidance. Look deeper. Listen harder. Within you, something magnificent will sprout.