Drama Addiction vs. Emotional Sobriety

Drama – emotional turmoil for its own sake – is one of those things that may entail drawbacks for normal people, but in the mind of an alcoholic, can lead to serious trouble.  When I get too whipped up by anything, real or imagined, I ‘m pulled off the beam spiritually, which means I’m a further from god and closer to a drink.

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Self-portrait, 1980 – 1/28/1995

One of my favorite lines in the 12 x 12 is this: “We learned that if we were seriously disturbed, our first need was to quiet that disturbance, regardless of who or what we thought caused it” (47).  In the past, we used to “quiet” our inner disturbances by drinking, which enabled us to excel at not giving a shit.  You remember those days, right?  Nowadays, though, we have to do manually what we once did chemically.  That is, living in sobriety, we have to find ways to become calm by letting go of what we can’t control.

Some call Al-Anon the grad school of AA – at least for those of us who are “Double Winners!”  (Can’t type that with a straight face!)  In any case, Al-Anon is where I finally got it – that axiom in the Big Book that whenever someone else seems to be upsetting me, it’s really me – my reactions – upsetting me.  My instinct is to point at the other person and say, “You’re the problem!”  But in every case, that conflict and pain is actually all coming from me fighting reality.  I can either be RESISTING something real, or MANUFACTURING something unreal, or both.

In years past, I’ve been addicted to infatuation.  While obsessing on that magic person, I’d play all these mind-movies of me doing stuff and them being impressed. “How extraordinary Louisa is!  Look how X and Y!”  As I’d bask in the idea of them thinking this, I’d get a glorious, glowing kickback of what felt like self-worth.  It wasn’t reallyDaydream-Cartoon-1966169 self-worth, though.  It was just a sweet dopamine hit caused by delusion.  (Because, lord knows, I couldn’t just have worth as a human being!)  Anywho – I’ve always assumed that when god took away that infatuation thing, I was also cured of the whole delusional projection business.

Except for something that happened the other night.  See, I write this blog with a lot of trust in you as an open-hearted reader, so when I figured out that a person highly critical of me had stumbled on it, I became “seriously disturbed.”  My heart pounded.  I called friends.  And that night, I couldn’t sleep, because I kept imagining this person poring over every word, judging and condemning away.  Toss!  Not going to think about that.  Turn!  Except, what will they think of that part where it says…

God, as I’ve often noted, visits me mostly via a little “BULLSHIT” indicator light somewhere in the back of my mind.  I’m super busy signing onto my bullshit, which seems to be truth, so I’m certainly not going to recognize anything bullshitty about it, myself.  But after years of praying, “Please guide me, please help me grow,” I sometimes get this faint, subtle signal:  “BULLSHIT…  BULLSHIT… BULLSHIT…

It’s like a smoke detector going off when you have no idea what’s burning.  I have to root around for the source.  What, god, where?!

So I sat up, turned on the light, and grabbed my journal. As I wrote, I came to see how I was wrapped up in the opposite of infatuation, which involved just as much projection.  This time I had the little Louisa-hating puppet in my mind reading this or that part of the blog and thinking, “How awful that bitch Louisa is!  Look how X (shitty) and Y (shitty)!”  And this time the kickback was the opposite of self-worth – a hit of self-loathing and guilt.

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Good ole’ self-flagellation

Why would my ego want this?  The same reason I worry about stuff I can’t know or control – that delusion of beating pain to the punch, of somehow bracing myself for the worst.  But in shining light on my bullshit, I saw this projection had NOTHING to do with reality.  Yes, I can know this person does not like my blog.  But there I have to stop.  End of topic.  No matter how many times the old phonograph needle of my mind wants to return to that groove of our story in progress, I have to remove it and say firmly, “Not real.”

Maybe my ego’s just addicted to the self-importance of drama.  Compared to my projections, reality’s storyline is pretty tame.  “I’m here now” doesn’t merit much of a compelling soundtrack.  I realize it’s only human nature to imagine what we can’t know and, likewise, to feel emotional reactions to those conjectures.  But as an alcoholic, I can get addicted to just about any diversion from the work of being myself – that ordinary woman wiping down her kitchen counter.  What might it be like to really give up the idea that these projections, these personal dramas, have any bearing on reality?  What if, rather than losing myself in mental commentary and spin-offs, I were willing to be humble one moment at a time, and to live in the simplicity of what is?

God, I’m pretty sure, would click LIKE.  (jk!!)

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Service for the Lazy Alcoholic

So here we are, hopeless alcoholics, and we find out we can’t stay sober without god’s help. Dammit. Next, we learn we need to work the Twelve Steps to remove all the clutter blocking us from god, which entails a lot of time and work. Bummer.

But it gets even worse!  Service? Usefulness? These are scary words for the self-centered. The Big Book is kind of craftyhyper in not laying too much on us at the outset. In chapter 1 Bill W. describes being “catapulted into the 4th dimension of existence,” where we will know “happiness, peace, and usefulness, in a way of life that is incredibly more wonderful as time passes.”

Happiness. Yep, that’s on our spiritual shopping list! Peace. Definitely want us some o’ that! But usefulness? What’s so wonderful about that? Hmm. Apparently, we begin to sense, it’s essential to getting the previous two. Chapter 2 tells us, “Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend on our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs.” Yuck! we think. Constant thought? I don’t even like others!  Still, if our sole alternative is misery, we move forward.

Solution-based meetings urge newcomers onto a bunny slope of usefulness via a service position – two-coffee-urnsmaking coffee, answering phones, helping with set-up or tear-down. Reluctant as I was to take on one of these, I found that, strangely enough, during my duties I experienced a sense of ease and comfort I’d never known before without being drunk. I didn’t get why, but I knew I liked it (and still do). Same thing when I started sponsoring other women. I remember marveling each time I closed my front door at the end of the hour, how was it that “getting out of self” felt so damn good? How had those all-consuming morasses of my own problems dehydrated to little flecks of scum in just sixty minutes? What was this lightness, this joy that let me turn back to my own life with love and gratitude? I didn’t understand it.

Now I do.

What flows through us when we’re helping others is the energy of god – no less. We become that “channel” the Saint Francis prayer opens with, and, as the power of compassion, the desire to help, and the love that asks for nothing streams through us, we ourselves are replenished and healed. Beyond AA, almost any spiritual tradition worth its salt tells us helping others is essential to a meaningful life; Christianity and Buddhism are two that come to mind.  My own view of god as the collaborative power behind life works even better.

It’s as if the nutrients our spirit needs to flourish can materialize only in circulation, in flow from and to. The ego, walling us in, promotes stagnation.  By contrast, whenever I pray to feel god’s love for me, the prayer is answered in my flow of love for you.  All this makes sense.  But what it’s taken me years to abandon is that mistaken notion of service I developed early on – that we do X in order to get Y.

I remember the moment when my Al-Anon sponsor pointed out this disturbing passage embedded in step 9: “At the moment we are trying to put our lives in order. But this is not an end in itself. Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.”  What?  Not an end in itself?  A smile came over her face, probably in response to the look of puzzlement/ horror on mine. She said, “So many of us put the cart before the horse. We don’t help others so god will fix up our lives. No.  God fixes up our lives so that we can help others.”

So… what starts off as a quest for relief gradually morphs into a reason for being.  My body exists in order to let me move about in the world, and the more I use it, the more it thrives. My spirit exists to express love, and the same principle holds. To love each other is why we’re here. Period. The purpose of life, right there, Charlie Brown.pitfalls

A few quick addenda:

  1. Martyrdom is selfishly oriented, though easy to mistake for service. When I give help based on a preconceived notion of how someone should view/ respond to it, I’m not channeling god. I’m manipulating. I may want their fucking gratitude, or for them to live in a certain way to reinforce my rightness. Love, by contrast, is open-minded, freeing each person to find their own relationship to god.

2) Judging others is kryptonite to the part of you that loves. “Many of us sense that real tolerance for other people’s shortcomings and viewpoints and a respect for their opinions are attitudes that make us more useful to others” (19). Love does not “should” on anyone.

 3) Love is not enabling. “It is not the matter of giving that is in question, but how and when to give. The minute… the alcoholic commences to rely upon our assistance rather than upon God,” we’re both screwed (98).

Today a lot of my service work outside sponsorship involves just answering my phone.  This week alone I’ve gotten three alcoholic HELP! calls. I don’t try to solve anyone’s problems. Instead, I listen and love – and whatever comes out my mouth comes out. They can take it or leave it.

The most difficult of these calls I ever took came from an acquaintance crying almost too hard to speak.  She’d fallen in mutual love with someone she shouldn’t have, and though extremely aware of the moral stakes involved – why she was sobbing uncontrollably – she insisted this love was, for her, non-negotiable.  They hid nothing, but everyone had turned away from her.  She was in a living hell, losing her mind from all this pain!  I’d been weeding when she called, and I remember praying by my flowerbed to be both honest and useful to her.  My own feelings about such romances, having suffered the butt end of one, are intense. So much churned inside me – old hurts, judgments, pronouncements! – but compassion won out.  Pain, I told her bluntly, was the inevitable price for breaking her own morals and causing someone else even more pain. There was no way out.  But that said, I did have a lot of experience with living sober through pain, and I shared what had helped me most.  She was avidly grateful – more, I think, for my clemency than the suggestions themselves.

It’s a far cry from making coffee! And I can’t say I felt joy when I hung up, either. Rather, what I felt was a deeper acknowledgment of the difficulties of being dandelionhuman and compassion for all of us – including myself – who struggle with them. Bad weeds, bad loves!  There’s an element of arbitrariness in all our designations. I appreciated my own life not as an individual effort but as inextricable from my culture, which was in turn part of the larger unfolding of life – all of us trying to find our way. To feel connected with all things is the most profound form of peace, and for the next few hours – still pulling weeds but now a little more merciful – I had it.

Alcoholic or normie, we can’t help but be motivated by the rewards of service.  Today, though, I view them more as a chicken/egg phenomenon.  Being happily sober, we can be lovingly useful, which keeps us happily sober.

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What a 4th Step Is and Ain’t

Recently I’ve encountered a few people at odds with the 12 steps who see the 4th step as negative and punishing. To their minds, it’s an exercise in self-judgment that drags down people’s self esteem and flagging spirits.

I disagree.  Of course, I’m just another drunk – one who’s stayed sober a while and writes too much.  Still, my own belief is that, as with all the tools of the steps, the 4th step’s effectiveness depends on how closely one adheres to the instructionsScreen Shot 2014-09-02 at 11.28.37 AM and spirit of the Big Book.  To me, all the steps step are founded in the power of love with the goal of achieving a freer flow of that love – for myself, for my fellows, and for life/god.

The Short Version

I came to AA because I was beyond miserable. My every intention, good and bad, backfired because people didn’t react as they were supposed to, and my self-loathing took deep, savoring tokes on those fumes of failure.  Yet I kept trying to work those intentions over and over, always hoping for a different result, the same way I’d kept trying to drink normally. Before I could stop grabbing for those faulty tools, I had to see them.

But what part of me does the seeing?  Whether a 4th step is shaming or freeing depends on whether I view it from the standpoint of my ego, who compares, competes, and complains, or a deeper layer consciousness, my true self that opens to god.  Who’s at the wheel depends in turn on the thoroughness of my 1st, 2nd, and 3rd steps.  Am I truly done trying to fix everything?  Done running around being crazy?  If so, who can restore me to sanity?  A judgmental god?  A god who says, “Louisa, you really fucked up, and it’s your own selfish fault, so eat it!”

Nope.  It’s a god who loves, who is love, who hurts with me when I’m in pain.  When I allow that god into my vision, I can start to see how in my recurring complaint that “people didn’t react as they were supposed to,” the true problem lies not in the people or their reactions but in those words, “supposed to.”  Supposed to, that is, by my agenda, based on Louisa’s efforts to arrange things for her own maximum comfort and benefit (also known as “selfishness – self-centeredness!”)  A loving god guides me toward the wisdom of understanding what is and is not mine to change:  I can’t change you.  I can only change me.  When I rely on god – not you – to provide all I need to build a good life, when I’m more interested in giving than receiving, I find it possible to live and let live.

The Long Version, for those interested…

My331289200303_1 1st step sucked for two years.  Because I wasn’t open to any sort of god, I surrendered only enough to admit I needed meetings. Or not even!  Most of the time I went only because I’d been willingly 13th stepped* into the program.  I say willingly because my ego was still very much in charge, and what it knew best was codependence. Dry, I focused on molding my partner as a way of navigating life, using my same old tools. But then god chucked some major stuff in my path, obstacles these tools couldn’t surmount: first the death of my sister, then a resultant clinical depression. I believed the wrong sister had died – the worthless one was still dragging on in her useless life. When the pain got bad enough, when despite twice doubling the Zoloft, I found getting out of bed to be an exhausting exercise in futility, I sought out a new sponsor.  To her I said, and meant, help me!

My ego’s belief was that I needed to trick people into loving me by hosting the Louisa show.  That’s the reason no god would love me, because it would see right through all the hoopla of my trying to be pretty, savvy, complex, and blah blah fartsworth to know me in all my pathetic unworthiness. Who could love that?  God already did, my sponsor promised. She gave me permission to entertain the possibility that the infinite love I’d experienced in my Near Death Experience was how god embraced me all the time – except that I shut it out. I couldn’t feel god’s love because of something  from me that repelled it.

Hmm, what could that be…? How about fear and resentment, those Bobbsey Twins of darkness?

“Driven by a hundred forms of fear [‘that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded’]… we step on the toes of our fellows” in our efforts “to arrange” them in our own way “and they retaliate.”† In other words,

A) I’m afraid my needs won’t be met, so

B) I try to manipulate other people to meet them. ButAnger

C) they have a different agenda: meeting their needs. So

D) it doesn’t work my way, and

E) I get pissed.  And maybe

F) they get pissed, too.

A 4th step is first a way of tracing backwards from the pissedness (E) to identify the fear at stake (A).  Column 3 lists the needs I was trying to recruit others to meet. They’re very real needs: for self-esteem (self-worth), security (being ok), ambitions (growing), personal relations (fitting in), and sex relations (sexual identity). The problem is, I can go for minutes or years just positive that if I only coach someone rightly, urging and expecting, they’ll step up to fill my need and I’ll be all set!  Except the bastards don’t cooperate.  Instead they do shit that hurts me, wrecks my plans.

At some point, I invented for my sponsees a column 3½: “Name the Diss.” That is, I have the sponsee write out what insult the uncooperative candidate seemed, by their actions, to be saying. For example, if someone I trusted lies to or cheats me, I feel like they’re saying, “You’re a gullible chump!” If a woman I’d like to pale in comparison to me sexually attracts all the guys I know like iron filings to a magnet, I feel like she’s saying, “You’re not sexy!” If a friend shafts me for other company, s/he says, “You’re not worth my attention!” These stingers can embed themselves in our spiritual skin for decades – these perceived disses. If we fear they may be true, we foment anger to defend ourselves from their outrageous slander, even though it’s really WE who keep rehashing the imagined diss long after the other person has forgotten.  That’s the re in resentment.

How can a 4th step free us from all this?

First off, the actual problem lies not in the person resented, but in my recruitment process and assumptions. Sometimes I try to recruit an incapable or unwilling candidate, and sometimes my need is actually something that can be filled only by me or god.  To grasp this, I have to recognize that what EVERY SINGLE person on my 4th step did wrong was FAIL to make Louisa comfortable.  Whether they didn’t return my smile or cheated on me in bed, my resentment is rooted, not in moral conviction per se, as I might like to think, but in the presumption that they A) exist to meet my needs and B) have the means to do so.

That presumption is…. wait for it…. you know it….. selfish!  You say, But, but-!  I say listen.  To let go of point A, I need to recognize that this person’s primary mission is always to meet their own needs – not mine. For point B, I need to borrow from Byron Katie a bit and ask, “Did that person have the means to do what was, in my view, the right thing?”  Apparently not.  If they weren’t honest with me, apparently they did not have the internal means to be so.  I don’t go to the hardware store to buy bread, and I can’t ask this person to draw upon inner strengths or character assets they simply do not possess. They are not a vending machine into which I can deposit in my coins of kindness, good faith, whatever, and expect to get a pop can of the behavior I want.

It’s in my expectation that others show up as I prefer, not as who they are, that I set myself up for hurt.  And sure, hurt is inevitable.  My ex-partner’s infidelity was devastating to me.  But when I’m totally honest with myself, I see that in some way, I ignored what was inconvenient.  I might also see that in some way at some point, I’ve done the very thing I resent.  And lastly, I see what hurt most was actually the implied diss I told myself: “I’m not loveable.”

The 4th step teaches compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance of the fact that all human beings – you, me, and everyone we encounter – are flawed.  Being flawed is nothing to be ashamed of; it’s essential to our humanity.  I fuck up.  God loves 670px-Shade-a-Flower-Rose-when-Drawing-With-a-Graphite-Pencil-Step-1me.  I try again and fuck up.  God still loves me.  I can respond in the same way toward you with your fuck ups, or I can decide that your flaws cause me too much pain and steer clear of you (eventually without rancor).  But gradually I learn where the exploding mines of human interaction are lodged, and I begin not to step there.

I do believe there’s one exception to this pattern. Parents are sole custodians of a child, who rightly depends on them to meet all their needs.  When parents fail to, when their actions cause injury, the child has no “part” to identify in Column 4.   That said, however, once the child becomes an adult, they do become responsible for their own lives, including the care of those injuries. If they’re trying to draw healing out of another person, it’s not going to work – particularly if that person, their parent, is still flawed.

Forgiveness is a gift we grant ourselves.  When compassion won’t come, we can think back on the times we most knew we should not drink, and drank anyway.  When we should not have flirted, and flirted anyway.  Should have told the truth and didn’t.  Some part of us longed to make better choices, but the needed power wasn’t there.  We lacked impetus.  So it goes with every misdeed of people on our 4th step: the clarity and strength to choose wisely simply weren’t there.  To resent a seed for not sprouting or a rabbit for not being a paycheck makes no sense.  So it goes with the people in my life – for not being programmable.  And thank god they’re not, or I’d never learn jack!

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* “13th stepping” refers to dating/taking a partner among newcomers in the program.
† See p. 62 in the Big Book and  p. 76   in the 12 & 12

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A Lil’ Note on Fear

What’s that saying we hear around the rooms – “Be careful what you pray for – you just might get it” – ? In the last few weeks I’ve learned that when you do get what you thought you wanted, it turns out not to be what you thought.

A week ago Wednesday a client of mine canceled, so I thought I’d grab the time to write a post.  I’d skipped the previous week because of a long hike, so I pushed myself to just crank something out.  News of Robin Williams’ suicide had shaken me.  My own years of battling depression were but a drop in the bucket to his, I knew, but after Google brought me his choice words on the inner experience of alcoholism, I’d felt a powerful upwelling of compassion.  Could I remember and describe that feeling?

An hour and a half later, it was online.  That entire day, the post got one (1, uno) view.  I considered deleting it, seeing as it didn’t “fit” with most of my blog.  Except that I liked it.  It said what I’d felt.  So, after adding the opening disclaimer, I posted a link to Facebook and left for work.

When I got home that evening, there were 187 views.  Since my previous all-time high had been 80, I thought something must’ve gone haywire with my WordPress stats.  Two friends had shared the link – that’s it. trending-sign But just for shits and giggles, I posted it on an open AA Facebook page as well.  In the next 24 hours there were 1,600 views, a number doubled or tripled daily.   As of right now, the total number of views has reached almost 75,000 from over 100 nations.

Two weeks ago, I’d have told you my only reaction would be elation.  Every writer wants to be read, right?  But the inflow of comments gave me a feeling more like when you’ve put too much lighter fluid on the briquettes and light them too soon.  The flames leap higher, and still higher, until – aack! – they’re gonna burn your frickin’ house down!

Exposure was a scary feeling I’d not anticipated.  The blog had traveled to readers critical of AA and recovery, a few of whom accused me of discounting depression, glorifying myself, or forcing AA on others – nonetrend of which I’d intended.  In these voices I felt aggression, like flaming arrows entering my home.  They seemed certain I thought I knew shit, that I was saying, “Here’s the real deal on Robin Williams.”  But there is no high horse to knock me down from.  I never claimed to know anything.  I’d written my feelings – what I’d wondered, and how that felt. 

I’ve never seen this in AA literature, but it seems to me that, just as there plain hamburgers and cheeseburgers, so are there two basic types of alcoholics: plain and codependent.  Plain alcoholics fear god won’t care for them, and codependent alcoholics fear they’re not worth caring for, period.  That is, unless others say they are.  Codependents try all kinds of ways to win the approval that, this time, might just fill that painful hole in their soul.  It’s a double disease that divides the adult self, who of course knows better, from the inner child who still pleads, “Like me! Like me!” 

In my case, apparently, that means everybody.  My emotional balance often seems as precarious as if I were riding a unicycle, so that any disturbance makes me wobble and flail my arms absurdly all over the place.  Because this fear was absurd!  Even with tens of thousands of folks quietly re-posting, and kind comments outnumbering critical ones by 10 to 1, every damn time I went to checked email, my body anticipated criticism with huge shots of adrenaline – that flush in your stomach that fills you with dread. 

During the two days of highest blog traffic, I got a parking ticket (too many thoughts to feed the meter), a speeding ticket (to many to notice my speed ), and couldn’t sleep.  When I described my critic-angst to sober friends, their advice was either “Fuck ‘em!” (by far most common) or “It’s self-centered to expect others to see what we see.”  But neither helped.  I’d originally started this blog to publicize my addiction memoir, which I secretly hoped might some day take off the way the blog has, but now I had doubts. Maybe I was just too easily bruised, I thought, to be putting myself out there that way.

The irony is, I don’t fear the world.  This past weekend, I loaded up the car with my son, dog, and two backpacks, drove 138 miles into the North Cascades, hiked a mile in, rented a canoe, and paddled 4 miles on a glacier-melt lake to find a small inlet where our sober friends were camping – no roads, no cars.  Sunday morning, along a trail where for the past two years we’ve encountered bears, I went for a run carrying a collapsed, pointed trekking pole just in case.  Sure enough, major bear poop showed up on the trail about a mile in – dark with lots of berries – but since it didn’t look fresh, I kept on, just keeping my eyes open and blowing out a trumpet-style farty noise every so often as a bear-bell.  That kind of courage I don’t lack.

Codependence makes me over-reactive to others’ responses, because I think I need approval to outweigh my deepest fear –   that dark secret that I do suck and I’m going to be exposed as a fake and a fraud.  It’s the fear that others will discover how flawed and therefore vile I am and react with disgust.  On this camping trip, surrounded by loving, flawed alcoholics and the beauty of mountains, I saw my fear as something I need to make peace with until god takes it.  When fear of judgement comes on, I can only accept it as I would a sneezing fit, involuntary and inevitable.  Whoops!  Adrenaline rush!  I’m a fake and a fraud who’s unworthy and everybody’s gonna find out!  …Gesundheit!

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received in sobriety is the distance that allows me to not believe my own thoughts.  I have faith in something far greater than my own mind, something that shapes my life with wild turns of events that I could never, ever see coming.  For now I can tell fear, “Thanks for sharing.”  I can hold up the “Please wrap it up” card.  But I can also trust that god is teaching me in ways I can’t yet fathom, and that fear, like pain, is a voice for what still needs healing.

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Boy and dog on Ross Lake: what does matter.

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Robin W., Alcoholic

Note: This is the first time I’ve written about something outside my own personal experience, but it’s been on my mind enough that I felt moved to.

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When Amy Winehouse’s body was found with a blood alcohol content of .4% (five times the DUI level), lying among scattered vodka bottles like so many smoking guns, most of the media and public understood that her death was caused by alcoholism.

Not so with the loss of Robin Williams – also caused by alcoholism, but in a much subtler sense.  The press does note that he had checked into rehab a few weeks prior, but his prolonged suspension of active drinking causes them to dismiss his addiction as conquered.  It seems to me only my fellow alcoholics are able to intuit the close relationship between his alcoholism, depression, and the unbearableness of being that led him to take his life.

Williams was very open about his 2003 relapse after 20 years’ sobriety.  He told Parade:Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 3.06.06 PM

“One day I walked into a store and saw a little bottle of Jack Daniel’s. And then that voice — I call it the ‘lower power’ — goes, ‘Hey. Just a taste. Just one.’ I drank it, and there was that brief moment of ‘Oh, I’m okay!’ But it escalated so quickly. Within a week I was buying so many bottles I sounded like a wind chime walking down the street. I knew it was really bad one Thanksgiving when I was so drunk they had to take me upstairs.”

A Guardian reporter asked if friend Christopher Reeves’ death was what triggered his relapse.

“No,” he says quietly, “it’s more selfish than that. It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.” What was he afraid of? “Everything. It’s just a general all-round arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.”

He added, about the demise of his second marriage in 2008, years after he’d managed to get sober again:

“You know, I was shameful, and you do stuff that causes disgust, and that’s hard to recover from. You can say, ‘I forgive you’ and all that stuff, but it’s not the same as recovering from it. It’s not coming back.”

If you’re an alcoholic, you don’t just read these words; you identify with them because you’ve lived them.  You know that wheedling voice of the “lower power,” that all-pervading fear of existence, and the burden of shame Williams describes.  And if you’re like me, you feel tremendous empathy for this man, who had recognized his depression as a spiritual malady linked to his alcoholic disease and had tried his best to combat it by strengthening his spiritual connection in treatment.

According to the press, over the previous year Williams had been shooting movies and shows back to back, maintaining a “manic pace.”  To me, this frenzy of activity seems a way of trying desperately to live, to stay engaged in life.  My friend Dave McC  fought depression in a similar way in the year before his suicide, hiking the Cascade Mountains at a furious pace.  But the disease catches up.  It gets to us when we’re alone, worming into that inmost chamber of self where no one can reach us – except god.  What most pains me and frightens me about Williams’ death is that he knew the solution.  He had a program.  He was trying to help himself.  And yet for reasons we’ll never know, he could not access that “Power which pulls [us] back from the gates of death.”

So often, I want to think of sobriety as a set equation rather than a blessing.  That is, I want to believe that if you take certain actions, working the three sides of the triangle by going to meetings, working with a sponsor, and doing service work, then you’re guaranteed a certain result: lasting sobriety.  Williams’ death reminds me that’s anything but the case.  In fact, it’s all grace.  We’re guaranteed nothing.  We’re never home free – not even with twenty years sobriety and all the talent, intelligence, and accomplishment a person could ask for.

Rather, the fact that I – an alcoholic child of alcoholic children going back many, many diseased generations – write this with 19 years and 7 months’ sobriety is nothing short of miraculous.  The fact that you’re reading it with however many days or years you have sober – you, who are also hardwired to drink – is likewise a miracle.  Every day that we live in the light of sanity and sobriety is a gift.  It’s another day we can be grateful not to find ourselves in that tortuous nightmare of spiritually starving depression that led Williams – knowing alcohol and drugs would not help him – to choose the one-way exit of suicide.

From a broader perspective as an NDE survivor, I do believe Williams found not only relief but bliss in leaving his body.  For whatever reason, though, we are born into these earthly lives with a sense of mission to carry them out, and a love for the material world that anchors us here for their duration.  I’d like to live out mine, certainly.  But my sobriety, my faith in a higher power, directions to love and honor others through kindness and service, and the happiness I’ve been granted by pursuing this path all unite to remind me I am never in charge.  Certainly, I’m not in charge of my sobriety.  I can take the steps I know to nurture it, but the results are out of my hands.

In the end, the loss of this talented, accomplished man who could no longer stand his life reminds me to be grateful for today.  I don’t have a lot of  the stuff our culture equates with success.  But no gifts are more precious than sanity, sobriety, peace of mind, and the strength they grant me to love others freely.

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On Alcoholic Denial

The greater our honesty, the more life is worth

Alcohol has never been de-throned in my family. Throughout his life, my father clung persistently to the conviction that alcohol opened a portal to happiness. As the big book says, “For most folks, drinking means conviviality, companionship, and colorful imagination. It means release from care, boredom, and worry. It is joyous intimacy with friends and a feeling that life is good.”

That and way more, for the early alcoholic. Because for us, drinking means release not only from those factors, but from ourselves. We live constantly tormented by the thousand stinging wasps of envy, self-criticism, frustrated desires, and the injustice of being misunderstood even though we know best. Drinking sedates these irritants, and we feel free. The trouble is, they all come back with twice the venom when we sober up. So we need more alcohol to regain peace. We don’t want to examine our consciousness itself and recognize that the bees are all generated by our own sickness.

Like my father, I clung to this pro-booze view as long as I could. The more painful and screwed up my life became, the more convinced I was that I needed alcohol in my corner as my only true friend. When that path led me close enough to meeting death or tragedy – meaning that I regularly drove drunk almost wishing to die and too selfish to consider the threat I posed to others, and that an otherworldly voice actually told me it could no longer help me if I continued to lie to myself – the day came when I finally turned on it.

I’d known for ages that I was alcoholic; I’d resolved a thousand times to drink less. But this time was different. This was a resolve to take action, and it entailed a shift of means that felt almost like murder. I would open the trap door beneath my buddy, alcohol, who unsuspectingly assumed we were still a team.   I would go to AA, that anathema of self-reliance, and I would check out surrender. While I drove to my first meeting, that part of me – my addict – pleaded for me to wake up, say fuck it all, and just down a goddam drink.

Over the nearly 20 years since, as told in my addiction memoir, my sobriety has progressed as slowly as a receding tide that gradually reveals all kinds of submerged skeletons and rusting old junk on a beach. Every corpse, every dysfunctional mechanism has had to be dealt with through awareness, acceptance, and action. It’s a process that continues today through the 12 steps.

What I’m remembering this morning is how astonished I felt each time my father voiced the old belief that alcohol was the goodness of living. One night around Christmas a few years before he died of alcoholic cardiomyopathy, he showed me the strings of Christmas lights in a three-tiered arch over the front door entrance. “Do you know why we have it like that?” he joked. “So our guests will leave thinking they’ve had a good time!”

wineThough I loved my father for joking with me, which he rarely did in his last years, I could barely fathom the mindset involved.  Every doctor he’d seen in 30 years had pronounced him an alcoholic with an enlarged liver and advancing wet brain.  I’m sure he was warned about his thinning heart walls as well.  Mom would confide these medical concerns to me when the mood came over her; more often, she pretended along with Dad that they simply didn’t exist.  Despite the thousands of mornings he’d awoken with killer hangovers, Dad’s thinking around alcohol had changed not an iota since the fabulous cocktail parties thrown in my childhood. My father was a brilliant man. How could something so obvious be walled out from his reality?

He was a star in his career, raised his children lovingly, and remained married to my mom for 59 years.   He was also successful at continuing to drink all his life. Before retirement, he drank only on evenings and weekends. After retirement, he drank all day, pouring wine into his coffee cup an hour or so after breakfast. Did he get DUIs? Never. Did he get in fights or become obnoxious? Not even potentially. This is something many drunks wish they could pull off.

The toll was all on himself.  He endured endless self-loathing, judged his life irritably as having fallen short, and lived in emotional isolation from those closest to him.  There was so much we couldn’t talk about!  Resentments flared at the mere mention of certain names.  Yes, wine dulled these pains somewhat, but less and less as years went on.  He became bitter and snappish.

I am like my father in so many ways besides alcoholism! Sometimes I almost feel I am him as I prune things or cook pancakes or do any of the chores I remember doing with him. When he was dying, I had dreams I would swear were his. As described in my memoir, I’ve had a Near Death Experience, and I often pick up energies/thoughts that are not mine. In these dreams, I was the one dying and looking back on my life.

Approaching death, my father’s consciousness overflowed with anguished regret for having been duped all his life.  He felt he had wasted his chance to meet life head-on with honesty and honor. The old mechanism of self-loathing had him in its grip, as he felt that by having rejected the Catholic church at a young age, he had angered god.  I woke filled with these feelings at 4:00 AM and drove across town to tell him, before the dawn of his last day, that god loved him, that he had done beautifully, and that there was nothing to regret.  By then he could not speak, but I like to think he could hear.

My own greatest regret is that I couldn’t get my father sober. I couldn’t even speak to him about his alcoholism or AA. Deeply codependent, I felt overpowered by the intensity of denial in our family: admittedly Dad was an alcoholic, but hey, a healthy one! While my family continues that legacy by toasting Dad’s memory and reflecting how much he’d love to be drinking right now, I’ve recently, after a few years in Al-Anon, decided on a shift.  I’ll no longer attend such functions. If my family wants to see me, we can meet for alcohol free events.

There was also no way I could ever speak to my father, even on his deathbed, about the greatest gift he gave me, though I think he knows it now. In a sense, he helped me to find sobriety – a chance to live in the immediacy of life, working to hide nothing from myself and god. In the end, his example of painful denial, of remaining loyal to an illusion, taught me honesty.  The greater our honesty, the more life is worth. I wish I could have shared that with him, but it was not to be.

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Living Sober/Awake: True Self vs. Ego

Sobriety is about pursuing the truth of ourselves…

I remember when I was about three weeks sober, a short time after I’d realized the call of the ideal party NEW 2014 COVERwas a pied piper of vanity that would lead me to my death, I came home snubbed and pissed at someone, opened a near-beer, swigged it, and slammed the bottle down on my kitchen counter, muttering curses as I squinted to light up a smoke.  At that moment, either I or something within me realized: I was drinking.  Or at least, as good as drinking – and would be soon if I didn’t wake up to it.  Some part of me was able to step back and see my posturing: I was cool, he was a bastard, so I would puff up and strut in my own company to feel vindicated.  I could see how incredibly dumb the whole deal was.

And yet I felt lost without it.  How could I navigate reality without my old scripts?

Just a few nights ago I went to my old homegroup for the first time in almost two years and witnessed something of the same thing.  The crowd there is young and hip, and many of the shares anticipate a too-cool mindset: “If you’re sittin’ there thinkin’ I’m a pussy for believing this shit, then maybe you should go drink, dude.  When it kicks your ass, maybe you’ll wanna listen.”  Now, this is a fine message straight out of the big book (p. 31-32).  But my reaction to the meeting told me something had changed in me.  I’d woken up to recognize as affectation what used to seem natural and neutral.  Recovery was present at that meeting, yes, but in the same way balletic grace and agility are present in pro football: you have to look past all the the thuggish aggression to see them.

What is AA’s “vital spiritual experience” that lets us recover from drinking?  Connection to a higher power.  And what part of us connects to that higher power?  Is it our social self, the part of us that negotiates a constant interchange of signals with others?  Is it our thinking self, the part that figures out where we stand relative to the ideas of the world?  Is it our will, the part that tries to manipulate circumstances to achieve whatever we’ve labelled optimal?  No, no, no! – clearly none of the above.  Then what is it?

We touch god with the inmost kernel of our being: spirit, soul, our true self.  When I first got sober and tried to seek god, it seemed there was practically nothing there to reach for.  “Flimsy reed” described it perfectly – as if I were trying to grasp something too insubstantial to even feel.  What I understand today is that god wasn’t the thing under-developed; it was my barely-there true self trying to connect with it!  I had no familiarity with my own soul.  I’d lived 99% of my life in the realm of ego, constructing myself around comparisons of what I thought you thought of me versus what I thought of you.  Was there anything genuine in me, besides fear?  I couldn’t find it.  But as it turns out, pursuing sobriety is about pursuing the truth of ourselves that is inextricably connected to god.

How do you recognize true self?  Here are some handy hallmarks.  Only the true self feels unmitigated compassion.  It loves without neediness or score-keeping.  My true self senses the sacred in every tree, bird, and human being it encounters, feeling connected to the goodness not only of living things but even in the inanimate world of matter.  My ego’s world, by contrast, runs a gamut of competitors, threats, means, and so what?  It’s a barren perspective of need.

I had an experience of a quick turn-around with from ego to true self the other day.  I was browsing on friggin’ Facebook, feeling inferior, convinced everyone was having a more rollicking summer than I was – all of them constantly water skiing, laughing, and carpe-dieming away.  In other words, I was caged in ego.  I came across a friend’s page and was busy envying his social life without even knowing it when I gathered from friends’ posts that he was in prison.  He’d relapsed.  He’d been caught doing something bad and sentenced to four years.

Half of me died and another half came awake.  If you want to say I had an emotion of feeling sorry for my friend, you’ll be missing the entire point, which is that I remembered love – an almost as physical sensation pouring from my heart.  My friend’s voice came to me, his energy, and his sweet shyness at my “18 years sober/get to keep my boob” party soon after my cancer diagnosis, where he was wet-behind-the-ears sober again.  He’d told me my example of constant kindness helped him, and he vied with others to drive me to my surgery.  I knew his goodness, and no one who has not lived as a puppet of addiction, doing things against your higher self, can understand the compassion I felt learning of his fuck up.  The tears his past photos brought to my eyes weren’t just for him – they were for all of us grappling with this disease.  Suddenly, all the brag posts on Facebook transformed.  Now they struck me as courageous: I understood we would all live, suffer, grow old and die alone, and that our show-offy flourishes on Facebook were no different from the exclamations of toddlers: “Look at me!”  “I did it!”  We’re all just doing our best.  We’re all trying to shine, do well, risk falling to grab the gold ring.

In that moment, my authentic self could see as god does – through the eyes of love.

What the Catholics refer to as “Holy Spirit” and Quakers as the “still small voice” does guide us more as we learn, over years of working our programs, to cut the crap and access our spiritual core.  Some of my NDE friends have encountered this voice on the other side as as their guardian angel, a loving spirit to whom ego makes us deaf.  Or maybe it’s the candle of god-energy in us.  Whatever you want to call it, this is the power that nudges us toward goodness, and it seems to me it’s what keeps us sober.  Only something beyond our own brains can guard us from the “curious mental blank spot,” but to connect with it, we have to sometimes let go our thoughts, emotions, and posturing and become, to the extent we can, simply our own aliveness, the bit of god inside.  More and more, I think living from that place is the sole path not only to sobriety, but to a meaningful life.

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