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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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Thinking in Sobriety: A Suggested Playlist

A thought is harmless unless we believe it.  It’s not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering.  Attaching to a thought means believing it’s true.   (-Byron Katie)

One of the greatest gifts I’ve been granted in sobriety is a thin layer of mental insulation between having a thought and believing it’s true.  Back when I was drinking or newly sober, I used to experience a barrage of hopeless, self-deprecating, and judgemental thoughts that seemed to come at me from nowhere.

And they still do!  The miracle now is that today I know I’m thinking. I’m also aware that my thoughts are fickle: sometimes they’re guided by my higher self, and others they’re broadcast by that parasitic asshole camped out in my amygdala: Addiction.

Thoughts in themselves are just mental activity – nothing we have to sign on with.  But doing so becomes habit. As Eckhart Tolle explains, “Strictly speaking, you don’t think: Thinking happens to you… Digestion happens, circulation happens, thinking happens.  Most people are possessed by thought… [while] the greater part of [their] thinking is involuntary, automatic, and repetitive. ”

The majority of my thinking, unfortunately, tends to diagnose what’s not right.  (For instance, I’m telling you now what’s not right with my thinking.)  Why is that?  For one thing, as a human I’ve evolved to be on the constant lookout for survival problems. As an academic, I’ve been trained to evaluate everything critically.  Add the fact that, as a codependent, whoamiI’ve always had a hell of a time gauging where I stand relative to you, who I think you want me to be, and my fleeting sense of self.  (Are you disappointed?  Bored?  How do I fix it?)  And lastly, as an alcoholic, I’m prone to self-centered extremes of self-aggrandizement and self-loathing: I’m the best or the worst, totally the shit or a total piece of shit.

Maybe that’s why I experience so much downright back-assward thinking.  I kid you not: this morning I got up for a second cup of tea, and as I crossed the threshold of the kitchen, the thought came to mind that my entire life was a pathetic failure.  Why?  That’s hard to say. My thinking voice was wielding some punishing club, like: “Why do you constantly deny this?!  Why don’t you just quit your strained pretensions and admit you’re nothing but a fuck up?!” Further back I sensed accusations about my lack of material wealth and a relationship, but I didn’t look into them.  Instead I pulled away, thought: “Wow!  Harsh!” and focused on my lovely, cozy tea.

The thing is, I was once addicted to that harsh voice.  I used to grab at those thoughts saying, “AHA!  Now I face the TRUTH!”  Granted, the harsh voice possessed a dismally limited supply of diatribes or, if you will, a chintzy jukebox of dark songs it played over and over.  But I knew them all so well that, whether about your faults or mine, it was great fun to sing along.  For years, they all led to a frame of mind that clearly called for a drink.  I drank not so much to vanquish them as to join with their story: “I don’t give a shit anymore.  Cheers!”

table-jukeboxHere are some of the dark jukebox’s Greatest Hits, sequenced from inner to outer attacks:

  • You Suck  (verses include your life sucks; you’re incompetent; your job/ creativity / social skills suck; no one likes you)
  • You’re Gross  (includes you’re fat; your clothes/ hair/ belongings are stupid; your ____ is too ___)
  • Poor, Poor You~! (includes cruelly denied X;  you’ve tried so hard; never even had a chance; assholes always win; god is frickin’ mean)
  • Your Way’s Right  (includes you told them X ! ; they think they’re so smart; they’ll be sorry; fuck those bastards)
  • That Bitch (includes why is shit so easy for her?; why do all the guys like her?; why won’t she just shrivel up and die?)
  • How D’they Like You NOW??  (includes a myriad of stellar comebacks, snide putdowns, and scathing witticisms to put assholes in their place)
  • Some Day You’ll Show ‘Em (includes Academy Award-winning footage of you accomplishing great things amid vast admiration, or talking thoughtfully with vanquished rivals about your victories)

As I noted above, I still have all these thoughts.  But… by virtue of having worked the steps and listened to a variety of 5th steps, I’ve learned to recognize their hackneyed tunes as part of the human condition – nothing unique to me.  And by a miracle of grace, I’ve actually grown bored of them.

Sometimes, to break a dark train of thought, you need a light one.  The Saint Francis Prayer rocks, of course, but it’s a bit abstract.  Here’s a playlist of thought trains I pursue when I’m having trouble shutting down the jukebox.

  • Be grateful.  I’m not in a war-torn country; I’m healthy; I’m sober; I know my god; I have friends; all I need to live has been gifted to me, plus a wonderful son, home, and abilities.
  • Send love to someone struggling.  I call to mind friends having a hard time and pray for them, maybe text some kind words, or decide on something I could do to help.
  • Plan something happy.  This past kidless weekend I saw the blues coming, so I took my dog, drove 2 hours, and climbed 4,000 feet from old growth forest to a snowy peak – sheer heaven!  All it cost was gas and gumption. I also throw parties, meet for coffee, and play at silly sober stuff (like sober karaoke this weekend).
  • Remember I’m going to die, as are you.  This may sound morbid, but holding in mind that life is finite renders every detail of the present moment infinitely precious.  The more loved ones I lose, the more easily I love all of us – this uppermost layer of humanity like fresh spring grass on an ancient prairie.

Living sober doesn’t mean just not drinking.  It means cultivating a beautiful life with the help of a loving god – and saying no to those habits that drag us back toward our dis-ease.

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Me not watching TV alone last weekend (across from Glacier Peak, tagged last summer)

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Amends

Rarely do AA newcomers like the sound of steps 8 & 9, where we contemplate the harm we’ve done others and do what we can to set things right.  I know I certainly didn’t plan on completing them early on.

My siblings, who don’t identify as alcoholic, believe I’ve been brainwashed by AA.  Maybe I have – but it was a washing much needed!  Today I simply do not question the wisdom of the 12 steps, and I seek constantly to apply their principles to my life.  That’s why I recently sent off an amends letter for harm I did almost 30 years ago.

bride-lighter

I married at 26 – drunk as I spoke my vows amid a total void of emotion – aside from the guilt of realizing I couldn’t feel.  We were outdoors on a sunny day, and I made myself cry because I wanted the hundred people in attendance to believe I was deeply moved.  The groom had been the object of my sexual obsession toward the end of college.  For over a year his mere presence – or even the thought of him – had spiked my dopamine better than cocaine: he’d been a living drug.  But as we said our vows, I knew his effect had worn off.  He’d been demoted to close friend and source of security.  I appreciated him for that, but love – genuine intimacy – had somehow dropped out of my emotional vocabulary.

As newlyweds we moved to Brookline, MA, so he could attend business school.  I drank.  I was supposedly a writer, since I’d won a big prize in grad school.  I had no friends, no job, no reason for existing – so my compulsive behaviors (described in my book) and drinking simply took over.  The panic attacks I’d experienced in New York City returned with a vengeance.  God, what a nightmare! – that sense of dying amid the obliterating jumble of an indifferent now.  Valium and booze were my only respite.

To rescue myself, I developed a new obsession – a girl, the most popular aerobics instructor at the gym where I’d started work.  Now I had a fresh stash of euphoria to chase after.  There was no physical infidelity because we were both straight – the girl and I – and intensely homophobic.  All I knew was that I wanted to be around her constantly and to reel her into my life as a new fix, a new paradise.  She gave me a little gift – a small metal figure seated on a toilet made from wire, nuts, and washers – that went missing.  I don’t know what drew me to look in the garbage outside, but wrapped in a bunch of paper in a bag within a bag I found it… bent and broken to pieces.

As I looked at it, I registered the magnitude of my husband’s pain and rage.  But with zero compassion – only anticipation that I could show this weird relic to my new friend.  And I did.  I got it out of the garbage a second time.  “Whoa!” she marveled.  “He’s fucked up!” – meaning my husband.  Later, after she’d followed me back to the west coast, we became partners.  It would take another six years for me to repeat the cycle – to betray her for a new host.

Flash forward a dozen years or so to 2000.  By this time I’m five years sober, working through my last amends.  I want to fly out to Boston to see my ex-husband, own my wrongs, and pretty much beg forgiveness – but my sponsor pauses.  She has me go see the rabbi who married us (my husband was Jewish) and ask his advice.  The rabbi ruminated for so long, I worried he’d fallen asleep.  Then he spoke: “You’ve changed little in appearance.  I think seeing you would cause him pain.  prayerStay out of his life.  Pray that he receive all the love and happiness you couldn’t give him.”  When I objected, trying to explain step 9, he reared up powerfully: “This amends would be more for you than for him!  He has a new wife!  Let him be!”

So I did.

Flash forward again, now to the spring of 2015.  As some of you know, I learned that my boyfriend of 9 years, whom I knew to be drinking, had been carrying on an affair with a girl from work five years older than his daughter – for several years.  I saw their texts.  I ended our relationship.  This caused me a great deal of pain.

Now we’re up to about two weeks ago.  In the midst of decluttering my house, chucking piles of once crucial papers into the recycling, I came across some old photos of my husband and me.  Look at us!  So young!  So… innocent!   His energy, his humor and kindness – they flooded back to me.  Sitting there on the floor with remnants of my life scattered about, I felt the grief and regret wash over me like a tsunami.  By the light of my own pain, I ventured down those hallways of memory, myself now in his place.  I saw as never before what I’d done, who I’d been.  And amid that mourning came clear direction from my higher power: The rabbi’s advice has expired.  The right thing to do has changed.

Am I brainwashed?  Maybe so.  But it took me only days to write a letter, tears nearly shorting out my laptop.  I sent it to my sponsor, and with her adjustments, copied it out by hand – again awash in tears.  I owned everything.  I told him I’d not been human – that addiction had turned me into a gaping black hole of selfish need.  I told him there was nothing in my life that I regretted more – that I would always, always, regret having abused his trust.  And I wrote that he was wonderful.

rainbow_heart

I mailed it a week ago with a kiss and a prayer.  I’ve not heard back, but the results are out of my hands – not even my business!  What I know is that I’ve done my best to do the right thing.  That’s how I live now.  I seek insight through prayer and talking with the people I trust most.  And then I act.

In return, I get to hold my head up… and live sober another day.  That’s how it works.

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Doing What We Don’t Want

Almost none of us liked the self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation.”  (p. 25)

“To be doomed to an alcoholic death or to live on a spiritual basis are not always easy alternatives to face.”  (p. 44)

Nobody wants to come to AA, but our pain and lack of alternatives shunt us there.

Nobody reads over those 12 steps on the wall and thinks, “Oh, I see!  That’ll fix me!”  But they will.

At my first AA meeting, thoughts of irony, disbelief, criticism, and a simple desire to bolt filled my brain.  I saw nothing of value in those simplistic, god-mentioning steps.

Reluctant PeeWeeHerman

Why do we need to live on a spiritual basis?  First, because we’re inherently spiritual beings.  More specifically, because the alternative is to live by self-propulsion, which may work fine for normies but for alcoholics invariably leads to a “choice” to drink, because a disease has commandeered our decision-making process.

What’s so great about the steps?  When we first come in, we’re in a state of spiritual starvation because we’ve shrouded ourselves in a world of lies.  We don’t think so, of course.  But the fact is, we’ve made up stories – about who did what, why, and how – that simply do not square with reality.  The steps have two main purposes: to remove the layers of delusional resentment blocking us from god and to encourage us to grow in connection with that god (who, by the way, removes the drink problem).

Totally unrelated to AA is Seattle IANDS, which features speakers who, like me, have temporarily died and/or left their bodies and brought back memories from the other side.  One speaker I heard a few years ago encountered god as Jesus – as do most Christians (we see what we think of as god).  At that time she was a teen speeding through East LA in bad company.  In the split second before an impending car accident, time stopped.  After she refused a demon at her feet who urged her to come with him and get even with everyone who’d ever wronged her, she left her body.  A guardian angel all but pulled her skyward, where she encountered a swarthy, bearded figure in a robe “of rough cloth somebody had sewn by hand” – whom she knew to be Jesus.

Peel off maskHere’s the best part: Jesus went to embrace her, but just before the embrace made a face of subdued revulsion and turned away.  It was at that point she realized she was coated from head to toe in some utterly disgusting filth, something “like diarrhea.”  Jesus telepathically told her these were her accumulated resentments.  The next parts of her NDE involved ways of shedding them, of learning love as her purpose on earth.

In all the NDE stories I’ve heard, complex spiritual truths are condensed into vivid, resounding images that capture complexities at a glance.  This girl, angry and on the brink of joining gang life, was coated in shit.  Her resentments repelled god’s love.  Yes, her NDE permanently altered the trajectory of her life (today she’s a nurse), but we alcoholics  can learn the same lesson without dying – it’s right there in our Big Book:

“…[T]his business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die” (p.66).

In my own NDE, which I experienced as an atheist, I plunged into the sun as the source of all life – i.e. the closest thing I knew to god’s embrace – and was surrounded by the Light, a love and bliss more potent than words can convey.  Lately, in going through difficult times, I’ve often found myself praying to feel just a little bit of that Light again.  Please.  Just a little. 

What I was not doing was working my steps.  I didn’t feel like it.  For about six months I’d been not writing a 4th step started on my ex-boyfriend, and more recently on former tenants.  If I was carrying any resentments at all, there was certainly no ire behind them, so why dwell on them with a full inventory?  Why waste the time?  I tend not to see what the steps have to do with the Light, heaven, etc.

Recently, however, my sponsor gently informed me the time had come for me finish that thing and read her my 5th step.  She set a date one week out.  BAM!  So, reluctantly, I dug into the work, listing everyone’s “offenses” and why they hurt me, but then tracing out how I, myself, helped to bring about each one.  I met my sponsor’s deadline for the same reason I still go to meetings: what I don’t want to do, I know deep down, is what I really need to grow in sobriety.

I read her my fifth step.  A wise woman, she pointed out my current character defects:

  • not seeing the truth because I fear loss and prefer my concocted stories
  • not speaking my truth out of fear of conflict or loss
  • not honoring Louisa – failure to act on my own boundaries

These were lesser forms of my same old defects of dishonesty, selfish manipulation, and victimhood from 5th steps past.  Lesser – but they’re still diarrhea!  Since then I’ve prayed, not to feel the Light, but for help releasing my defects and completely forgiving those I’d felt wronged me.  For two weeks, I’ve been repeating out loud, “I completely forgive you, [name], for anything I thought you did.”

Guess what’s happened?

Thinking of my mom the other day (who was not on the inventory), I suddenly appreciated her in a whole new light: I loved her more ever.  Same with my friends, my dog and chickens, and even my messy home.  It’s everywhere, this stuff to love!  Trees!  Chihuahuas!  Passersby!  Loving stuff, I sometimes feel swept into the frothy fringe of something… amazing.  It’s a glow, a tantalizing giddiness at getting to be here: a tiny taste of the Light.

I’ve shed one more layer of shit.  It works only if we do it, this 202 word pathway to a beautiful life!

“We have found much of heaven and we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which we had not even dreamed.” (p.25)

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Self-Loathing: it’s a thing

Whatever I write here, it’s going to  fail epically because my words can’t capture the feeling of self-loathing.  I’ll just end up looking like some pompous dork who thinks she knows shit, so she posts, “Hey, everybody!! I know ALL ABOUT self-loathing!  Yeah, um, it’s like, when you hate yourself!” All you guys reading are going to wince in response, saying, “Whoa–” and hurry to click your way outta here.  OMG – I’m so embarrassed.  Cause here it is, me again, tainting everything with that gross, defective me-ness and fucking it all up. Why? Because there’s just something fundamentally wrong with me! Cause I just plain SUCK!

Okay, that was a simulation.  Really I’m okay.  🙂  But if you didn’t recognize that mental path as familiar turf, you should probably skip this post. Chances are, if you’re an alcoholic, you know it well. Self-loathing is that voice that volunteers ruthlessly condemning “insight” when you’re tired or sick or PMSing  – or sometimes even when things are fine.

Gary-snail-spongebobSelf-loathing is particularly pronounced in alcoholics/addicts as the flipside of self-aggrandizement. We develop an oversized ego that attempts to compensate for our weak sense of self-worth. You can envision it as a big, technicolor-shelled snail waving antennae of “I’m so totally awesome!” that, when you flip it over, reveals the oozy slime of “I so totally suck!”  Scientifically speaking, relief derives from becoming a humble, right-sized little snail like Spongebob’s.  That’s why we need the 12 Steps.

Before I came to AA, I believed the voice of self-loathing was unique to me. As described in my addiction memoir, I first experienced it in preschool, a feeling that other kids could all consult a script I lacked.  In my teen years through recovery at 34, I thought of that voice as “brutal honesty” or “facing facts.” When it was on, any sense of my own basic okayness struck me as self-satisfied idiocy. It seemed to declare truths I’d always known deep down.

The only person I’d ever heard speak self-loathing was my alcoholic father. “As soon as I wake up,” he’d confess, “I say to myself, P—,” (our last name) “get your lazy butt out of bed! You’re gonna louse something up today, you no-good schlemiel!”  Sadly, Dad never got sober, and gradually his self-loathing developed an immunity to the alcohol that had once curbed it.

By contrast, when my sweet son was only 6, he cried to me one night before bed: “I just feel sorry for anyone who has to be around me, because I’m such a horrible person!  I don’t feel sorry for me, I feel sorry for them. I just wish I could be anybody else!  I hate me!”

Hugging him didn’t help.  Telling him he was wonderful didn’t help. What helped was explaining to him what I’m about to tell you.

Self-loathing is a thing.  It’s a voice, an entity unto itself, a part of our mind that tells us the same stuff over and over.  My sponsor taught me to call it “the worm.” My son and I named it “the mean voice.”

Having a name for self-loathing, recognizing its voice self_hating_by_lithraelwhen it speaks, takes away half of its power. In meetings, when I first heard others describe their self-loathing, I was floored. How could John possibly experience self-loathing? He’s such a wonderful guy!  Karen is so funny and smart – how could she possibly think she’s shit?

In my experience, most non-recovered alcoholics (and some Al-Anons) vacillate between thinking they’re the shit, and thinking they’re a piece of shit.  Normies must experience this phenomenon too, but A) I doubt their swings are as extreme, and B) people outside the program rarely admit to things that make no sense, even to themselves.  We in recovery, however, admit to everything and thus discover we’re not alone, which opens the way to healing.

Getting rid of self-loathing entirely is not, at least in my experience, possible.  What we can do through the steps is label its voice and take away its megaphone to render it fairly harmless.

DaisySteps 4 and 5 showed me my fundamental human foibles. Steps 6 and 7 narrowed them to flaws I could, with god’s help, stop practicing – self-pity, self- importance, and harsh judgement of others – all platforms on which self-loathing stands.  Steps 8 and 9 allowed me to set straight past wrongs to arrive at a clean, guilt-free slate.  Today steps 10, 11, and 12 keep me current, connected, and useful.

How does this weaken our sidekick, self-loathing?  Working those steps and many years of living a spiritually-based life have drawn from my core a certainty that god loves me. Despite many human shortcomings, I am fundamentally good – because god guides me toward goodness.  Ultimately, that’s the sunlight the vampire of self-loathing can’t endure.

And yet – even after 21 years of sobriety – self-loathing still won’t die.  It hurls insults at random intervals.  “You’re alone cause you’re boring and no one wants to be with you!” “You’re wrong and shameful!”  “You’re full of inherent, bumbling dumbness!”

Coprolalia

It helps to make friends with that voice.  Like someone suffering coprolalia – the Tourrette’s symptom of uttering profanity – it just can’t keep quiet!  It’s trying to beat the world to the punch, blurt out the worst so no one else can surprise us with it.  Stripped of its accusations, self-loathing amounts to nothing but another guise of fear.

The quickest strategy I’ve ever heard for dealing with self-loathing is my friend Brenda’s. She named her self-loathing voice Carl.  Why Carl?  No particular reason.  Now, whenever it crops up and tells her she’s a failure, no one likes her, etc., she just rolls her eyes and says simply, “Shut up, Carl.”

It works!

Did John F. Kennedy ever think incredibly dumb things or occasionally fart with a quizzical inflection?  Of course he did!  But he alone knew it.  Because we know ourselves more intimately than does anyone else alive, we must love ourselves – screw-ups and all – with equal fervor and humility.

Take that, self-loathing!

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Step 3 and Happiness

I’ll have 21 years sober on Friday, which is kinda unbelievable to me.  That’s long enough to be of age to drink.  Where did the time go?  How did I get so friggin’ old?

No matter.  My life’s damn good.  On this ordinary Saturday I slept in til 8:00, then texted alternately with two sober friends – one joking about the “sober paws,” the other mired in grief, both of which I get: life lived fully awake is both a blast and painful as hell.  Meanwhile, my 14-year-old son put an adolescent chicken on my head, because he and I are close and sometimes like toAdolescent chick let our chicks scuttle around the house like cheeping Keystone Cops.  I soon left for a ballet class where, keeping up with an advanced group, I nailed a few turns and jumps that pleased me.  Came home to write this so I could postpone cleaning my house for the big fat 21st birthday party I’m throwing a week from tonight.  Just normal life, and I’m happy.

Twenty-one years ago, I felt alone in a dead, condemning world from which I longed to vanish.

What’s made the difference?

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.

When I first tried Step 3, I completely misunderstood it.  I thought I was supposed to give up my will and live exclusively by god’s.  Short of lying down and waiting for a windstorm or something to throw me into action, how was that possible?  But that’s not even remotely what the step says.  Look at the exact wording: we still have our will, but we’ll turn it over to god’s care.  Or at least, we make a decision to do so.  God’s will, you’ll note, isn’t mentioned.

Personally, I have a problem with the notion of god’s will or god’s plan for me.  Why?  Because each strikes me as a product of needWill strives to realize an intention; plan foresees a chain of events that will bring about something desired.  I don’t see god as having either.

People in my Near Death Experiences group who’veGalton Board been shown their futures describe it more as a 3-D Plinko board of endlessly branching possibilities.  They say the spirit showing it to them had no agenda – any series of choices was dandy, including death.  My own NDE was different: I was told “You’re not finished” and sent back against my will, revived by CPR despite lethal levels of drugs still in my system. 

Potential FuturesSo let’s just say, if god does have a will or plan for each of us, it’s a super flexible one.  Let’s say you planted two tiny genetically identical elm tree seedlings 50 feet apart.  Then you came back 100 years later to find two huge, swaying, graceful elm trees.  Would you expect them to be identical?  Would one of them be wrong?  Of course not.  Because each grew into its own uniqueness.  Incomprehensibly detailed variations make up the richness of this world.  And if god wants anything for us, it’s that we grow into our incomprehensibly unique selves.

Unfortunately, growth seems a lot more complicated for humans.  The trouble comes from dealing with fear and pain, and encountering the voice of ego which promises to protect us from both.  I grew up with so much fear and pain that I poured all my trust into ego.  What else was there?!  As an alcoholic, I found booze boosted ego’s power, generating a workable substitute for the self-worth I lacked.  My world shrank smaller and smaller as I pursued ease and comfort in the bottle.  I learned nothing about myself or how to live.  I hit bottom as a 15- year-old girl in 34-year-old body.

Step Three opens the door for learning.  AA’s “psychic change” is what happens when we stop listening to ego and start seeking a deeper truth.  Good Orderly Direction (GOD) was the term offered to help me ease into my own conception of god.  I learned to subject each idea to this test: does it feel like Good Orderly Direction?

GODWorking the 12 steps with a sponsor exemplified Good Orderly Direction.  The process taught me spiritual principles – like gratitude, humility, love, and service – that shape a worthwhile life.  I learned that they’re realized through daily acts of empathy and kindness, and that when I live in accordance with them, I can generate self-esteem by doing esteemable acts.

I’ve learned that meditation pays off in the ability to distinguish my awareness from my thoughts.  A babble of ego-thoughts still passes constantly through my brain – stories of envy, self-pity, resentment, and how I could fix everything.  Today I can detach (usually) from them, knowing (usually) that they’re worthless.  I can sometimes glean the aftertaste of regret before I do the wrong thing.

I’ve learned that, for me, the biggest challenge of sobriety is self-honesty.  Honesty with others is easy: I’m an open book.  But to change the things I can, I have to be willing to see the need for change – and I don’t like to. I’d rather pretend things are fine. Or, if I do make a bid for change, it’s still a challenge to do the footwork and then LET GO of the results.  Whenever I’m obsessing – needing to get what I want or for someone else to do/see what I want – I’m trying to boss reality, to shape it to my will – which is obviously  insane.  So the more life beats me up, the better I get at letting go.

As a result, I’ve learned some of most freeing stuff: that what seems urgent is usually not important, and what’s important is usually not urgent.  I’ve learned the wisdom of “Don’t just do something!  Sit there!”  Life flows around me; people flow in and out of my life; I’m powerless over virtually all of it.  My attitude alone is mine to choose, but no longer mine to choose alone.

 

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AA Newcomer Fears

My newest sponsee and I were reading the Big Book together the other night, with me passing on to her all the margin notes my sponsor passed on to me so many years ago. When we got to this passage in The Doctor’s Opinion, I had her change the pronouns as my sponsor had had me do:

Men and women I drink essentially because they I like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they I admit it is injurious, they I cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them me, their my alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are I am restless, irritable and discontented, unless they I can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks—drinks which they I see others taking with impunity. After they I have succumbed to the desire again, as so many do, and the phenomenon of craving develops, they I pass through the well-known stages of a spree, emerging remorseful, with a firm resolution not to drink again. This is repeated over and over, and unless this person I can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his my recovery.

Next I asked her (as I’d been asked) to read it aloud and tell me if she identified.  Over the years, the response has varied, but for newcomers seeing this passage for the first time, it’s often tears.  One tough, independent woman of Inuit descent, single mom to a disabled boy, could not finish reading the passage  for weeping.  She murmured, “This is me.  This is my life.”

(But her life changed.  She’s been sober nine years.)

My current sponsee has a few years sober, but she, too, was moved.  In the silence following her simple “Yes,” I could see her  travel back in time.  She said, “I remember… I came home after my first AA meeting, and I sat on the couch, and I just cried and cried and cried.  Life seemed over.  I couldn’t see the future – anything – without alcohol.”

Though it’s been almost 21 years, when I’m sitting with an alcoholic who remembers, I, too, remember my first meetings.  I knew I was an alcoholic.  I still couldn’t speak those words, but inside I’d rounded that corner.  Yet the vacuous terror of living without booze, of identifying with AA crap, and going to meetings for the rest of my life, felt like such a horrific, endless nightmare that I almost preferred to slop my drunken way toward death – privately.

Here are some of the things I feared:moonshine

  • My life would be boring
  • I’d have to pretend to like stupid AA people
  • AA would feel cultish like an Amway scam
  • I’d never feel deeply relaxed and happy again
  • I’d never feel wildly excited and happy again
  • “Psychic change” was mumbo-jumbo – I’d feel this bad forever
  • Steps 4 and 9 would be degrading, so I wouldn’t do them
  • Step 12 would mean consorting with weirdos, so I’d never do that one, either

Now, AA works by attraction, and I don’t mean to promote anything.  I can only report what I’ve experienced and how I’ve changed, and maybe offer tidbits of advice.  I’m just one sober drunk.

  • Meetings vary tremendously, but if they’re based in the Big Book, they’re about the solution.  I got sober at folksy meetings in Olympia, then switched to lesbian meetings in Seattle.  For a few years I preferred hipster meetings where everybody had tats and pierces and spoke in strings of profanity.  I’ve also felt at home at meetings in Boston, LA, Hawaii, and Greece.  Yet any meeting is only as good as the stepwork of people attending.  I avoid informercial (“everything’s wonderful since I worked the steps!”) meetings, and bitch sessions (“but at least I didn’t drink!”).  Look for meetings with fun people who exude the energy you want, who speak honestly of their struggles but apply the solution.
  • Friendships formed when I started going to gatherings outside meetings.  Old friendships deepen, but I keep making new ones; today I have more friends than time to see them all.  This Sunday I went snowshoeing with five kick-ass sober women who say ‘fuck’ a lot.  We laughed and shared frankly and the young ones dropped their pants for bare-ass-in-the snow pics – which I can’t show you ;).  But each of them has a quiet side, as well; each has known devastating misery.

 

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  • Boring is how I’d describe my life of drinking and faking coolness in contrast to the wide-awake, life-savoring ride of sober spiritual growth.  Even the most painful experiences, walked through sober, are valuable teachers.
  • Conformity is an anathema to every alcoholic.  It’s the disease that’s the same for all of us, and the “way out” – i.e. living by spiritual principles.  Through trial and error, we each find our unique spiritual path.  “And how’s that workin’ out for ya?” is all a wise sponsor need ask.
  • The psychic change grew in me oh so gradually as I worked the steps.  Taking Step 3 made me ready for 4-7.  Doing 8 -11 finally opened the door for 12.  Each time I repeat all 12 steps, I see a little deeper.

Have I changed much?  Hell, yeah.  For instance, these past few months I’ve gotten up early every first Saturday and driven downtown to help cook breakfast for about 150 homeless people.  In the past, it was all about me. But last Saturday, on a freezing cold morning, I was dishing out cheesy scrambled eggs, first server on the line.  I greeted each person directly, recalling a few names, with my heart overflowing.  “Nice hat!  Cheesier or less cheesy?  It’s nice and warm in here, and so are these eggs!”  Faces lit up – they thanked us, wished us Happy New Year.  Some laughed with me.  The sausage guy next to me remarked, “Boy, you sure are Miss Sunshine, aren’t ya?”

And I am.  Except it’s not me, not my light.  It’s Light that shines through me because of all I’m connected to.  Today, I have something to give.  And, as that new sponsee texted me the other day, “I’ve never felt so happy in my life!”

 

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Hey, guys!  We are everywhere!  Thanks for 290,000 views in 2015 – and that ain’t even counting RSS, email, or most Facebook tags.  WordPress says you visited from 166 nations.  I never dreamed my little free blog would attract so many readers.

If I’ve helped any of you anywhere to stay sober another day, I’m super grateful.  I mean, sure, I’m glad if people like my writing and stuff, but even gladder that we all share this thing, this gift, and this connection – and “get” each other.  Love to all of you!

 

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Nations in white had no views, yellow few, greenish more, blueish LOTS.

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