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!
Tag Archives: wilderness
I come from a long line of alcoholics, pioneers and midwives and professors who knew they didn’t want to drink as much as they did, yet were sucked down into the bottle time and time again. I’m cut from the same cloth but haven’t had a drink for twenty-two years. What’s up with that?
When I used to dry out between binges I was an insecure, socially phobic, jealous, frightened, depressed woman who would pretend to be whatever might impress you. Anticipating drinks brought me hope. Starting to drink steadied me. Rolling through drinks, I found courage and gusto and release — sweet release! — in the dopamine flooding my neurons. Some day, I’d pull off great feats!
At first, sobriety robbed me of a desperately needed escape. I’ll never forget a certain unremarkable morning in ’95. I’d been dry about six months without a spiritual program. My partner was driving us along a curving freeway ramp while some implacable panic rose higher and higher in my chest with every breath I took and every random object that struck my brittle brain — building, guard rail, pavement, cars.
I thought-screamed, I CAN’T STAND IT!!!!!
But today, I flourish. My brain is happy, and I’m living a life I love. What’s up with that?
Here’s me day before yesterday:
I’m on the right. This is a photo of a frickin’ miracle. I’ve recently turned 57. I’m standing at 9,800 feet at 5:00 a.m. beside the hissing, venting crater of a live volcano with my best friend wearing frickin’ bikini tops in temperatures close to freezing. We are… the Baker Birthday Bikini Bitches!
I got here through hard work. The work of healing a broken brain and twisted psyche is extensive, yet all compacted down into 12 simple, trite little steps listed in Chapter 5 of AA’s Big Book — steps I dismissed as worthless at my first AA meeting after reading them off the wall in less than a minute.
It takes a good sponsor, one “armed with the facts” about him/herself, to unpack those steps and open up each like one of those expandable sphere toys so that the sponsee is confronted again and again with the challenge of either seeking greater honesty or cycling through their tired lies again.
I’ve worked these steps not once, not twice, but through enough iterations that their perspective has become the lens through which I view everyday life. To express that in detail, I’ve surrendered all illusions that I can drink normally (1); I recognize that alone my thinking is warped (2); I ask god to guide it minute by minute (3); I seek out the selfish distortions in my interpretations of people, places, and things (4); I tell on myself to trusted others, increasingly with humor (5), and pray for the clarity to quit thinking/acting that way (6-7). If I’ve offended, I own it and amend it (8-10), because I want to meet my god without defenses every day (11) so I can be useful to others (12). That is how I effing live.
How does that get me up the mountain?
There is something. You can call it whatever you like. Currents of energy course through and radiate from everything that lives, and their frequency is affected by each loving or fear-based thought that every one of us generates from one moment to the next. And those currents converge in some nexus of intelligence that loves far beyond our brains’ comprehension and yet is not beyond us, because we are of it. We are a shard, a fragment, a ray of that immensity, and when we ask, it resonates within us, filling what was empty, healing what was hurt.
The kicker is that condition: when we ask.
And we can’t ask just once — like for a piece of gum or something: “Hey, god, this deal sucks, can ya help me out?” Nope. We ask in layer upon layer upon layer. We ask every frickin’ day, in everything we do: “Help me. Be with me. Move my heart and mind toward goodness and beauty.”
And if we do this long enough and sincerely enough, do you know what happens?
So many miracles, I don’t know where to begin! Living by the 12 Steps has brought me to a place where I can be my authentic self among worthy others and trust that I am loved.
Daily honesty with god has given me the mindset to become the person I longed to be — to quit smoking, stop over-eating, cease tolerating abuse; to pay the bills and provide for my kid; to really get it that, if something’s going to improve in my life, I have to try for it (a lot easier when you know god’s there to catch you).
Humility has let me accept that if I want to do something immense, like climbing a mountain or writing a memoir or opening a business, I have to start with measly, pathetic little steps… and keep at it.
And beautiful things unfold as a result. Here we are again from a different angle.
Are we in good shape? Sure. But this photo doesn’t show what’s really there: the strength of LOVE. The love between my friend and me lets us speak of anything — anything! — and frees us to laugh about much of it. I know of my friend’s horrific childhood and years of cocaine addiction. She knows the compulsions that warped my past.
There’s also the love of fellow alcoholics who taught us our mountaineering skills, much as sponsors taught us life skills. When we started up at midnight from our base camp, where our third friend stayed behind with her ankle sprained from a creek crossing, we felt small and scared. The hulking glow of Baker’s ancient glaciers loomed a mile above us in the moonlight. It was just we two roped together to arrest falls as we wended our way by headlamps among yawning, deep crevasses, sometimes cussing like sailors.
We did it. We’re sober miracles. And, for each of us who gets there, for every alcoholic who reaches that precious freedom granted by true sobriety, it all began with that first little word of AA’s First Step, the first time it really sank in: We.
A few more images (click to enlarge)…
I drank because I was maladjusted to life, and to a certain extent I still am. So are you. Life’s not entirely comfy for anyone, no matter how selfish or spiritual, because we constantly bump up against a reality that doesn’t suit our expectations. Even Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea who can send any annoying person to prison with a snap of his fingers, probably has a list of reasons to be pissed at the end of each day. The Dalai Lama, when I heard him speak, told about a fussy toddler on the plane whose mother kept trailing her up and down the aisle until he reflected, “I’m the Dalai Lama, and this woman has more patience than I do!”
One solution is to drink. Drinking doesn’t change the world, but it dulls our reactions to it, granting us a temporary peace. But notice that it’s our reactions to life, not life itself, that cause us pain. And to go even further, what I called “life” by the end of my drinking was a conception thoroughly skewed by my distorted thinking.
I once worked with a sponsee who kept relapsing because she “needed to take the edge off.” What was this “edge?” I would ask her. Together we worked out a definition as “tension that mounts incrementally as I am untrue to myself.” She felt her job forced her to simulate relationships and attitudes she did not really have, but rather than examining her reactions to people and situations, she A) suffered then B) medicated.
For me to react authentically in life, I have to know who I am and what I’m feeling – a feat easier said than done for a codependent adult child of an alcoholic. (How do codependents greet each other? “Hi! How am I?”) Hiking alone is, for me, one of the most powerful ways to arrive at this knowledge – especially longer thru-hikes that entail a week or so on the trail. In 2012 I did the Wonderland Trail, about 100 miles and 22K’ of climbing/descending, and in 2013, still recovering from radiation treatment, I did a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) covering 75 miles and 16K’ of climbing/descending. Hiking alone, the only interactions are between you and “nature,” people who’ve made or walked the trail before you, and the present-day hikers you meet. Many, many hours are spent in your own company. Incredible beauties are witnessed. Countless decisions are made. And each day brings a few hazards that call for courage.
The first days, in my case, are about purging. On Rainier, I found myself crying for two days. This was my first major hike after breaking up with my boyfriend, who had taught me nearly every trail skill I knew. But beyond that, I was coming to terms with the passing of youthful illusions that life stretches on and on. How did I, Louisa, get to be 52? Who was this lined, graying woman I’d become? On the PCT, I expected tears again, but instead met with fear. I’d begun by traversing Stevens Pass ski resort, and when the trail dropped from there into woods and rounded a hillside to a wholly new vista of indifferent, towering mountains through which I would pass, I got scared. “What the fuck am I doing?!” I thought. “What if a bear comes? Mountain lion? Rapist? What if I fall and no one even knows?” It took me a day or two to realize my deepest fears centered around cancer. It had struck me, it seemed, out of nowhere, threatening everything I love, forcing me through a prolonged nightmare of treatment from which there was no escape.
In both cases, I had nowhere to run from these feelings. I had to walk in their company, trudge in their muck until I truly got to know them. In both cases, I came out on the other side to delight in a freedom so airy and light, I can’t possibly describe it. The grief for all I’d lost turned to gratitude for the immense wealth I still had – these stunningly gorgeous surroundings plus the strength and know-how to travel though them. The fear of cancer and all other scariness turned into a reconciliation with god. Cancer happens, but I could choose to love all the cells on my team striving to protect me from it, and the many generations of medical experts all working to cure people. I would choose to put my trust in goodness.
There’s nothing cozier than your own little camp, bedding down in your own tidy one-bitch tent, when you know what you’re doing. You look at the map and see what’s coming up tomorrow. Few moments are more empowering than, after passing warning signs of a high creek or a trail damaged by landslide, you gather your gumption and do what you need to. Amid the roar of rushing water you choose your stepping rocks with care, plant your trekking pole and orient your balance to push off toward the next stance until, somehow, you’re across. Or refusing to look down on the now tiny creek that wends far below, you focus on the narrow strip of trail that remains and keep moving. Once you’ve passed these obstacles, they’re behind you. Damn right, they are! You don’t look back and analyze; your attention, buoyed by accomplishment, is all for what’s to come.
Finally, on both trips, I acquired an unexpected companion – both young men who loved the wilderness and had cobbled together from REI displays an idea of what they needed to get through it. How could my pack be that small? Why was I not wearing boots? Why no Mountain House food pouches? They asked to hike with me a few days and bombarded me with questions. In each case, I developed love for a total stranger – one a butler to the most glamorous movie star couple alive, the other a Taiwanese Christian Electrical Engineer – sharing a grubby, spontaneous sincerity unimaginable in normal life.
The moral is that if I can practice all these skills on a daily basis – know what’s really going on with me, take each challenge as it comes, and love others by sharing whatever I have to offer – I am in tune with life. And for as long as that is true, I will not develop an “edge” I need to “take off” by self-medicating. There are ways to be free within the confines of our own skin.
Emerald Ridge, Wonderland Trail 2012