Tag Archives: spirituality

Healing on God’s Time

God is super weird.  Have I mentioned that?  Or maybe more significant to this post, god is always with us when we actively seek, always working toward our growth and healing.  Relief from addiction is only a beginning; there’s also freedom from our past.  Just as god’s biology miraculously heals our physical wounds (if we let them alone), so god will find avenues to heal our emotional wounds if we ask sincerely and give up self-wounding behavior.  Healing happens, not on our time, but on god’s — when we least expect it.

Some of you know that, back in 2012, I reunited with my alcoholic ex-boyfriend despite the knowledge he was actively drinking as well as traveling for work.  He never treated me well.  Then in 2015, I had reason to “borrow” his old cell phone, which revealed an ongoing second relationship with an alcoholic girl  from his work: eight weeks’ romancing in Santiago, Chile, for instance.  By the end, they were coordinating her visits to his home around mine.  I mailed the phone back with a sticky note: “Please do not contact me.”  End of 5 + 3 year relationship.

In the two intervening years, I’ve asked over and over, “God, why did I lay the groundwork for this?  Why did I block out all the signs?  And how can I not do this again in my next relationship?”  Naturally, I got no answers.  I don’t know what I expected — friggin’ cloud writing or something!  Anywho, a month ago I wanted healing badly enough that I wrote these words on a 3 x 5 card and put it next to my bed: Why did I lack the self-respect to face the truth and reject a man who was incapable of loving me? 

Every night before bed, I’d read the words and pray, please show me.

Well, last week in the middle of the night, the time came.  I’d gotten up for ibuprofen for my sciatica, switching on the bathroom light.  Blinded temporarily as I headed back to bed in the dark, I remembered the trick I always used at my ex-boyfriend’s house, closing one eye to retain sight so I wouldn’t awaken and anger him by stumbling.  Here’s when something weird happened.  I remembered so clearly that tip-toeing dread of disturbing him.  Everything about his home and those moments came back to me, along with my anxious need to please him.  I re-lived it.

In the morning, I marveled at both the vividness of this memory and the insanity of my people-pleasing behavior.  I read over some stuff from the Adult Children of Alcoholics Red Book, prayed, meditated.  Then something even weirder happened.  It was as if god said to me, “Little one, you’re ready.  Let’s look at the tiny splinter behind this lingering pain of yours.”

BOOM!!  Here came a second flashback, as immediate as life:  I’m four years old.  I’ve had a bad nightmare so I’ve braved the dark safari downstairs to my parents’ room.  Dad snores loudly and that strange smell fills the air.  I know I can’t go to Mom.  If I do, she’ll be furious.  So I need to wake Dad, even though it’s really hard to, and do it silently, so Mom won’t find out.

The intensity of this flashback was overwhelming.  I relived every shade of emotion from that scene as if it were happening.  I can’t even begin, as I write this, to summon the intense feelings that flooded me.  But right alongside them were  my recovery insights into what Louisa was learning about the world back then, and the obvious connection between the two flashbacks.

Sure, different children process the same experience differently.  Another kid might’ve shrugged, “Mom sure is grouchy!”  But I — for whatever reasons — soaked up Mom’s anger and concluded the problem was me.  She was furious, not because Dad’s pores were practically gassing the room with booze, not because she was deeply (and sexually, she told me when I was 13) frustrated with a codependent dilemma she could not solve, but because I was so bad.

To some extent, I think we’re all Sybil, meaning our psyches are sectioned into different personalities.  The difference between a “normal” person and one with multiple personality disorder is merely that, in a healthy mind, these personalities are integrated.  So this concept of an “inner child,” so important to ACA literature, makes sense.  What happened for me that morning is that, with god’s nudge, my inner child came to the fore.

It was she who answered my longstanding question.

me at four

She hurt.  She ached.  And she was still so afraid of being found unlovable!  I prayed and sobbed and held her in my heart for over an hour.  Even later that day, when I thought I’d got my shit together, a little four-year-old girl popped out of a shop in front of me and, hurrying after her mother, glanced up at me – and the tears started again.

Why did I lack the self-respect to face the truth and reject a man who was incapable of loving me?  Because I’m an adult child of alcoholics. Because living in that home where no one spoke candidly and the emotional climate shifted radically from morning to night and week to week, I developed a distorted sense that I must make people love me — or I’d be abandoned.

Adult children of alcoholics enact the emotional equivalent of dung beetle’s life, toting around with them a friggin’ laundry list of dysfunctional traits.  In fact, it’s called “The Laundry List” in ACA literature.  Among them are the tendency to fear authority figures, to seek approval by people-pleasing, to be frightened by angry people, to live as victims, to try to “rescue” sick people, and more — all of which match my relationship with my ex.

dung beetle at work

How do I not roll the ACA dungball into my next relationship?  By loving that child!  She’s retreated again.  I can’t find her.  The memories, when I recall them, bring little emotion.  But I know she’s back there, and she needs my love and protection.  We’ll never bargain for love again.

The world of spirit continues to amaze me.  Though god does not prevent pain or tragedies, it does help us heal from them — if we ask.  God is no Santa.  Rather, god is the love that powers life, and the truth no denial can change.

But, wow, can it show up with bells on!

 
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
― Thomas Merton

 

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Filed under Adult Children of Alcoholics, Codependency, Faith, God, prayer, Recovery, Sobriety

Change the World: Courage, Candor, Kindness

We can’t control the people or events in our lives, but we can ask god to help us change the ways we react to them.  When we respond from a place of judgment, knowing best, and general superiority, we usually have no idea we’re doing so.  I certainly don’t.  It just seems to me I’m right!

One contrary event or difficult person is no big deal, but if I live daily from this vantage point of superior insight and right-of-way, pretty soon I’m going to feel like the world’s turned against me.  But guess what?  It’s really I who’ve turned against the world.  I’m butting my head into mountain cliffs that need to fucking move, swimming up Niagara which is hella stressful, “burning up energy foolishly… trying to arrange life to suit [myself].”

God grants me the power to change this entire landscape by accepting the things I cannot change.  Not tolerating them with rolled eyes, not putting up with the stupidity of it all, but accepting that things are the way they are so I can respond constructively.  The attitude I need to live this way comes as a reward of working the 12 steps: humility.

The Ultimate Selfishness Test: Driving in the City
When we drive cars, we mechanically take on the very “self-propulsion” described in the Big Book’s preamble to Step 3, so the temptation to assume Director status becomes huge.  All the other drivers are pawns, and we’re rightfully a queen – or at least a bishop!  We gots places to go and these others are obstacles, obstructions, assholes.

I once attended a stadium concert with a young woman who shares beautifully in AA meetings and seeks god daily.  I treated and she drove.  After the show, when we finally emerged from the parking lot, the line of cars to the freeway extended in front of us maybe a mile – an endless chain of tail lights.  To my surprise, my friend veered into the empty oncoming lane where she zoomed on and on past everyone.  I didn’t know what to say or do, but I felt tremendous relief when, at the freeway overpass, we encountered a traffic cop.  Instead of letting us turn, he made us pull over and wait.  Ten minutes of watching the line go by.  Twenty minutes.  Thirty minutes.  My friend was beside herself with the cop’s “unfairness.”  Finally, when all the cars had gone, the cop chirped his whistle and signaled us to go.

All selfishness stems from spiritual myopia.  If my friend could meet the people from those cars individually, if a dimension were to open in which she could converse with each, see photos of their ancestors and childhood, hear the tragedies and delights that have shaped their experience, no way would she have acted as she did.  But her driving “dimension” was just as unreal.  Normally a kind person, she could see only her own importance, her own “right of way.”

Driving simply underscores the fact that we all live selfishly.  To an extent, we have to.  We’re each in charge of caring for ourselves, providing for our own needs so we can prosper – a responsibility that often feels overwhelming.  But that’s our lower purpose.  We also have a higher one.

For me, the analogy of cells in a body works well.  Each cell is a distinct entity.  It’s busy absorbing nutrients, sending off waste, sensing everything going on around it, and doing all the work of them four stages of mitosis (which, I learned when I underwent radiation for cancer, requires fancy footwork).

“I got shit to do before I can divide, man!” a cell might say.  “I got hundreds of mitochondria to manage here, not to mention this long-ass chain of chromosomes to tidy up!  Gimme a break!”  Yet it’s only because each cell serves a higher purpose, doing its tiny, insignificant part among trillions, that I’m able to write this and you’re able to read it.

We all have shit to do – lots of it – to keep our lives going.  But we also have a higher purpose – a collaborative one – “to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.”  Each of us with our tiny role to play animates humanity, and thus the world.

A little bit of god: Courage, Candor, Kindness
In every interaction, we can choose to contribute or withhold love from the world as a whole.  Every time we hit that crossroad where we might utter words of kindness, and we muster the courage and candor to speak them, we introduce into the cosmos a tiny surge of god-energy.  It takes effort sometimes.  “You did that beautifully!” might sound dumb.  We have to overcome self-consciousness and the dark suspicion that we’re just buttering people up.

I see it as my higher job to maximize goodwill around me.  Politically, that means resisting the designs of those who advocate greed and phobia. On a day-to-day scale, it means seeking to leave each person a little better off than I found them.  True, I can’t let others walk all over me because I need to care for myself enough to be able to show up in this role.  But that’s my means, not my end.  Every act of kindness is a positive.  A tiny positive, but positive nonetheless.

When I live this way (even when I’m driving!) I feel uplifted.  I’m happy.  I carry a glowing sun in my heart that I can, I swear, physically feel more with each year of practice.  And I can also sense when it’s eclipsed by selfish fear: I feel lonely, self-pitying, and overwhelmed.  In essence, I’m dying.  A cell cut off from the energy of its sisters will die – no way around it.  Or in my case, it just might reach for a drink.

PS: My son’s Mothers Day gift to me:
Japanese kanji for mind-heart-logic meaning
“to think with consideration for others”

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Long-term Sobriety: Always Seeking

In the long haul of recovery, times come along when life’s day-to-day stressors feel overwhelming. There’s something chafing, some problem we can’t quite name. We’re still functioning okay, wearing all our hats, fulfilling our responsibilities – check!  So frankly we don’t see the need to tell anybody we feel lonely, anxious, and discontent.  Spiritual pride urges us to just wave away whatever’s up without bellyaching — we’ve survived far worse, after all.  But if we slow down enough to look inward sincerely, maybe in Step 11, we can acknowledge a growing pain around our heart, an ache almost like a sore muscle.

Here’s the root of the problem: we’ve forgotten god.  Living as societal pawns, we’ve unconsciously allowed the messages bombarding us — ads, media, faddish friends, and fluctuations of culture — to define what life’s all about.  We’ve inadvertently immersed ourselves in a world of habit and conformity, as if the externals of people, places, and things were the whole story.

Whenever we do that, our reliance on god shrinks.  And the instant god shrinks, our dis-ease takes up the slack.  Alcoholism slinks up from the unconscious, from the brain stem where it’s holed up throughout recovery, and resumes the work of making us sick.

To personify alcoholism in this way makes sense only to those who have lived with a presence in their psyche that relentlessly urges self-destruction.  It’s me, and yet it’s not me.  Its goal is to separate me from life, to poison my perceptions so that I’ll begin to resent life in the old way: as an opponent, a bully.  And what does it propose I brandish in response?

A drink.  Many drinks.  All the fuckin’-who-gives-a-shit drinks I damn well please.  Because that mental twist in my brain, which has weirdly survived 22 years of abstinence, is ever primed to plunge me back into the endless hell of resolving absolutely not to drink today — except, hey! Let’s have a drink! (and another…)

At my home group recently, several people contrasted their strong connection to recovery during early sobriety with their current sense of detachment.  Funny how early sobriety, one of the most excruciating gauntlets ever run, can be glossed over in the rose-colored glow of nostalgia! Nobody misses those early days of chemical and emotional withdrawal — the psychological equivalent of being dragged through an automated car wash naked with an all-over sunburn.  Nope.  What we so fondly recall is the free-falling dependence on god that was — in those difficult times — our sole choice.

Early sobriety is lived one day at a time.  It’s a continuous process of abandoning our own will in favor of a faith that doing so — going to meetings when we don’t want to, calling a sponsor when it feels weird, praying when we don’t know what the fuck we’re praying to — will change us for the better.

And it does!  Living by faith heals us to the point where we feel strong and useful, because people now value our opinions and trust us, so we have a new identity as a person with their shit together.

At this point, we begin to imagine our spiritual state is up to us.  Positive self-will messages surround us, from motivating Facebook memes to the ingrained self-help assumptions of our bootstrap pulling society.  Be happy: Abraham Lincoln once said — well, actually, no, he fucking didn’t!  No record exists of Lincoln ever saying folks are as happy as they make their minds up to be, but our society’s all over the idea anyway because we’d love to believe happiness is just a light switch, an app.  BING~!

In truth, happiness is an art And like all arts, it requires cultivation.  Much of that cultivation transpires in acknowledging and working through pain, discontent, and loneliness.  It entails the Honesty to admit to myself and others that I’m hurting; the Open-mindedness to believe my feelings are not facts; and, most importantly, the Willingness to implore god to help me.

I must turn toward, not away from, the pain concealed beneath my nervous discontent.  I have to wade into it.  But let me caution, there are ways to wade and ways to wallow.

If I take the hand of ego to accompany me, we’re gonna camp out in that shit and throw us a big ole pity party.  You know?  We’re gonna bitch and complain and scratch that itch, because it’s all about me and it hurts soo good to be a victim!

But if I take the hand of god, we’re looking for the path through it – and only god knows the way!  I sure as hell don’t, or I’d have taken it!  Here’s where that early sobriety piece fits in: I have to get it that I am still as helpless in combating my pain as I was at the outset of this journey:  I know only what I know, and it has brought me to this impasse.  My vision of life, not life itself, has trapped me in discontent.

I need a miracle, yes, but a miracle can be simply a new way of seeing.  What I think matters, where I’m heading, who I want to become — all these can be transformed with god’s guidance.  I have found that, when I’m most uncomfortable, it’s often because I’m morphing.

My most kick-ass morph prayers (best preceded by meditation) go something like this:

God — I hurt.  Please help me.

God — I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.  Please guide me.

God — This being human job is effing hard, I gotta say!  Show me the point!

The change, the guidance, the point usually come down to some version of…

… yet it’s inexpressibly intimate between me and god.  This is a point I wish to smash home on my readers: We loved and trusted booze.  We were stoked to hang out with booze.  Now, to thrive despite alcoholism, we have to become every bit that intimate with god, every day, every moment.  God is love.  Let it in.

Spiritual renewal is god’s work, not ours.  To continue growing, we have to humbly admit defeat and seek god’s help, same as always.  That’s choosing joy.  That keeps us sober.

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Vulnerability

The other day I got a call from a woman I don’t know asking about something she’d heard me say in an AA meeting.  She’d tracked me down because she was curious.

“You said the closer you get to God, the more you’re able to love people – you said because you don’t need shit from them.  I’ve been wanting and wanting for years to get closer to that – not wanting or needing people’s approval – but I don’t seem to get anywhere.  How do you do it?”

I offered to meet her for coffee next week. But what the fuck will I say to her?  How can I even hope to frame in one sitting what’s taken me 22 years to learn?  I can’t.  But that’s okay.  Because the truth is, in taking the risk to reach out to me, she’d begun to answer her own question.

Vulnerability is Scary
Neurologically, most of our responses to life involve an almond-sized part of the brain known as the amygdala, the center of fight, flight, or freeze, which scans our sensory data constantly for signs of danger.

Costa Rican girls

Unsafe but unworried Costa Rican kids

In the US, our culture prioritizes shielding ourselves from such danger.  Airbags, seatbelts, baby car seats, and helmets – they’re all mandated by law.  By contrast, when I traveled to Costa Rica, the safety policy appeared to be, “Let’s hope bad shit doesn’t happen.” I saw a couple motorcycling down a pot-holed road with no helmets – not for them or the 1-year-old between them, whom the woman could brace with only one hand because her other dangled groceries near the rear axle.  Another guy ahead of our car perched on the back of his friend’s motorcycle carrying a full-size bicycle across his back – no hands!  Now, I’m sure some bad shit does happen, but among the Costa Ricans I sensed a freedom and happiness – a trust in life and themselves – that Americans can’t even dream of.

If we’re knocking ourselves out to evade physical dangers, it only makes sense that we transfer the same approach to emotional ones.  Research has proven that our brains experience emotional and physical pain as virtually identical: the same regions light up when someone turns us a cold shoulder as would if they snapped a mousetrap on our finger.  Rejections hurts.

That’s why we drank!  Then we didn’t have to give a shit who disliked or rejected us, or if we did, it was all delicious maudlin drama.  Yet the day comes when alcohol can no longer anesthetize us, and at the same time the wreckage of our past overwhelms us.  When that happens, we hit bottom.

It’s a pain that cracks us open so deeply, god can touch our hearts.  We admit we don’t know how to live, and we ask for help from god and sober alcoholics.  If we work a program, we learn that ego, unchecked, is the source of our troubles.  Through inventory we name the character defects that ego animates in us and start mustering the willingness to part with them.

So who, then, is this new person?  This human divested of their emotional shield, inflated ego, assorted coping mechanisms – in short of their boozing imperviousness?

It’s a person suddenly exposed and vulnerable as hell.

Now, we can be hurt.  We experience pain deeply, sometimes a backlog built up over a lifetime.  If we’re lucky, we have a sponsor who advises us to bring that pain to god.  But sometimes, our amygdalas decide god’s just not concrete enough.  fire-suitWe need safety precautions, emotional helmets and hazmat suits!  So we reduce our vulnerability by learning to edit and hide our true selves.  We develop strategies like people pleasing: whatever we think will smooth our path, whatever others want or would approve, we try to appear.  The goal is to be accepted.  We need it because we so intensely fear rejection’s pain.

The problem is, if we don’t put ourselves out there, exposing our weaknesses and imperfections and hoping to be loved despite them, we also won’t live. We’ll miss the chance to know intimacy, trust, and the warmth of loving other people simply for their humanness.  In short, safe inside our hazmat suits, we’ll miss the richest beauties of life on earth.

So I Guess What I’ll Say to that woman is that since I’ve been sober, life has absolutely beaten the crap out of me, over and over.  Partners have plopped my heart in food processors set on Betrayal – not just once but twice.  My siblings ridiculed and shamed my book – even as I fought cancer.  Besides losing a sister and father, I’ve lost half a dozen dear friends to overdose, accident, and suicide.

Pain.  Pain.  Pain.

But here’s the thing.  Every time, god has been there.  Every time, god has loved me through it.  And the gift from staying sober long enough has been that I begin to fear pain less.  It won’t kill me.  It is, after all, “the touchstone of all spiritual progress” – that which affirms the real deal:  I will love again.  I’ll show up for my siblings.  Cancer won’t haunt me.  And I will never forget my loved ones.

cristins-cookiesI find I have begun to live emotionally in the same spirit the Costa Ricans live physically – with less caution and more freedom.  I can begin to risk pain knowingly.  Today I choose to be vulnerable, extending kindness or heartfelt gifts to those who may reject them, because I don’t need their acceptance.  Sure, I’d like it!  Sure, I hope bad shit doesn’t happen.  But what’s the worst case scenario?  Those “ouch” parts of my brain will light up again, and I’ll cry my guts out again.  And when I turn to god in all my pain and grief, god will say to me again, “Louisa, you are enough, just as you are – I love you in the beauty of your trying.”

Freedom is the difference between hoping for and thinking we need reciprocation.  I am all I have to offer.  This life’s the only time I can do it.  God, I know, has my back.

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PS: Happy birthday to me, guys!  Thanks for 22 years on the 29th!  🙂

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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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Choose Life; Choose Joy

Paul Johnson was not an alcoholic, but he was extremely unhappy.  One night he drank a bunch of booze and took a bunch of pills then went up to his attic, where he hung himself.  Some time later his wife found him – quite dead.  She struggled to lift his body but failed; she had to go downstairs and get her son, the two of them panicking in their efforts to get the body down.  Though Paul’s face had turned black and he was without pulse or breathing, his wife gave him CPR for five minutes.

Then Paul took a breath.

Paul’s consciousness, far from ceasing to exist, had become exceptionally clear during the time his body was dead.  He found himself in darkness, approached from the right by four shadowy figures who showed him a review of his entire life.  “Thoughts were instantaneous. When you asked a question, you would instantly know the answers.” In a Scrooge-like transformation, Paul returned from the dead absolutely overjoyed to be alive:  “I had this vivid memory, extremely vivid, and it shouldn’t have been vivid at all for a guy that took a couple bottles of meds and drank two bottles of liquor. Yet it was so vivid and so real.  I was so happy to be alive, and to have a second chance to fulfill the things pointed out to me as being important.”

I’m in the process of editing a book of interviews with Near-Death Experiencers* – people (including me) who have died, experienced the other side, and returned with memories. Paul is one of fourteen of us interviewed by filmmaker Heather Dominguez, who has amassed the footage for a television series and is raising the money to produce it.

hooded-figureUnlike the rest of us, however, Paul did not go to the Light.  He went to blackness – a void where he existed without a body.  Far from feeling inundated with infinite love, he sensed that the four figures “wanted to take me to a darker, more horrible place.”  But as he watched the scenes of his life go by, Paul felt overwhelmed with loss.  “My biggest regrets were that I didn’t travel and see the world, and I didn’t do the things that made me happy. …It wasn’t that I missed this wedding or didn’t get this job… [It was] that I didn’t enjoy my life like I really wanted to…  As I realized that, I thought: ‘I wish I wasn’t dead!’  In that exact moment… [the experience] was over for me.”

Today, Paul lives in the Philippines with a new wife and her extended family – all of whom he loves.  He changed everything about himself and is now a man decidedly happy, joyous, and free.

Alcoholics who choose to live experience a shift analogous to Paul’s – if they commit to rigorous spiritual work to effect an internal change.  Paul’s moment of choice strongly reminds me of a favorite Big Book story in the 2nd & 3rd editions of Alcoholics Anonymous, “He Who Loses his Life.”  In it, an honors student and “boy wonder” in business named Bob has drunk his life into the ground despite plenty of intelligence and self-knowledge.  All his city friends alienated, following yet another binge he crashes in the country with a doctor he’s known since boyhood.

We worked in five below zero weather, fixing on an elm tree a wrought iron device which modestly proclaimed that he was indeed a country doctor.  I had no money – well, maybe a dime – and only the clothes I stood in.  “Bob,” he asked quietly, “do you want to live or die?”

He meant it.  I knew he did… I remembered the years I had thrown away.  I had just turned 46. Maybe it was time to die.  Hope had died, or so I thought.

But I said humbly, “I suppose I want to live.”  I meant it.  From that instant to this, nearly eight years later, I have not had the slightest urge to drink.

Bob threw himself into working the 12 steps in AA, which led him to great happiness.

Such lasting happiness can be found only by learning to love reality as it is.  To do this, we need to bring about major change in ourselves – something we can’t accomplish without help from the steps, from our fellows, and, most of all, from our god.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, drugs had just sprung lucy_in_the_sky_with_diamonds_by_alfredov90-d5tmlejinto mainstream popular culture.  As a kid listening to Beatles songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “Tomorrow Never Knows,” I imagined that drugs brought a higher awareness than just plain old consciousness – which was, for me, terribly uncomfortable. As I grew up, I embraced not just alcohol but “recreational drugs” – as if crippling my brain created anything.  I don’t know about you, but I dared to chase that vision, to venture far into the mysteries of the universe – so I sucked chemicals into my mouth and nose and lungs that essentially shoved my head up my ass, and from there I tried to marvel at the view.

It was dark.  It was lonely.  It was pointless.

I had to hit a bottom, to despair almost completely, before I could begin to see that in my search for “something cooler,” I had rejected life.  In my greediness to be loved, I had rejected loving.  And in my obsession with self, I had rejected a humble consciousness of my own soul and spirit – connection to god.

Deep down, every alcoholic knows they are committing a little bit of suicide with every drink.  We know we’re turning our backs on goodness and truth even as we laugh and whoop it up.  We vaguely sense that we’re completely full of shit, but we somehow can’t see a viable alternative.  It’s life.  Honing awareness in sobriety, I have found that plain old reality… is a trip.  It’s huge.  It’s rich.  It’s mind-blowing.

oak-treeTo love what is takes courage.  To love others without a parasitic agenda takes strength.  And to see clearly into ourselves takes humility.  I, of myself, have hardly any of the above.  But I borrow them (and more) from my god day after day, breath after breath.  I choose joy.

 

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*I’ll let you know when it comes out 🙂

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What’s the Point of “Bill’s Story”?

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

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

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

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

Bill and Lois

Lois and Bill later in life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guarantee you it will answer.

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