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 and interpretations with others?  Is it our thinking self, the one that figures out where we stand relative to the stuff of the world?  Is it our will, the part that tries to manipulate life’s circumstances to achieve what 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 – a gamut of competitors, threats, means, and so what? – is barren.

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 waterskiing, laughing, 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 shy sweetness 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 for his fuck up.  The tears streaming as I looked at his photos weren’t just for him – they were for all of us grappling with this disease.  Suddenly, all the brag posts on Facebook struck me as courageous: I understood we would all live, suffer, grow old and die alone, and that our show-offy flourishes on Facebook are 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.  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 us 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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Solo Hiking as an Alcoholic’s Inner Journey

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 anyone annoying 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 relentlessly 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.  My boyfriend, who had taught me nearly every trail skill I knew, and I were broken up at the time.  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 dove from there into woods and rounded a hillside to an 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 things 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





Filed under Alcoholism, Drinking, living sober, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality

Sober versus Dry: A Big Difference

Over the course of a life of recovery, the ego dies a slow and painful death.

Alcoholism is a disease of body, mind, and spirit, so for newcomers, the first order of business is definitely to withdraw from physical addiction by simply not taking a drink.  Doing this, however, doesn’t treat the mental and spiritual aspects of our disease.  In fact, it aggravates them, because few of us drank ourselves nearly to death in the midst of an otherwise hunky-dory grasp of life.

AA doesn’t claim to have “a monopoly” on treating this three-fold disease – only a way that works.  That is, if you’ve tried other ways and they’ve failed you, you can find your answer in the Big Book’s pages.  But a lot of people in AA don’t do this.  Instead, they rely on a combo of “plug in the jug” dryness and regular “dumping” at meetings to relieve their pent-up discomfort.

By contrast, I know several people outside of AA who are progressing in spiritual development.  What characterizes such people is a constant seeking for spiritual insight, a day by day dedication to becoming a better person – with “better” referring not necessarily to “more successful” but to more spiritually healthy.  That would mean more grateful, kind, loving, and unselfish.  The kickback for all this work is inner peace.  And these non-AA sober alcoholics often have it, despite the fact that they don’t go to meetings.

The thing is, I need meetings as an environment where compassion pulls my head out of my ass.  Left to my own devices, my ego begins to regroup and convince me that everything is all about me.  Because of the way my life is set up – by my spiritual values rather than my ego’s agenda – my ego finds it highly unsatisfactory: I should be richer and thinner and get more attention.  I should be “in control.”  When I go to meetings, the pain of newcomers reminds me where chasing these lures will lead me, and the wisdom of oldtimers reminds me of all the ego wants me to forget – the humility, gratefulness, and service to others that fills life with a gentle happiness.

And yet, there’s a layer further you can go – or toward which you can be drawn against your own will if you continue on this path.  Even the spiritual quests of the most sincere seekers are at heart selfish.  We want that damn chit of inner peace!  I want to be happy!  I want my life to be filled with meaning, so I can feel good about it.  Even in my efforts to diminish ego, it would appears it has the last laugh – or would, hands down, if it weren’t for another agent involved in this process.

That agent is god.  When we work a spiritual program, however tainted by the interests of “self-improvement” it may be, the act of reaching, seeking, and opening ourselves to something greater than self sabotages all our well laid plans by giving god an opening, a chink in our “control” armor.  God beams in and moves the furniture around in ways we never intended, so that in tripping, in stubbing our toes and falling on our faces, we’re forced low enough to see what it is we truly stand upon.

This happened to me when I wrote my addiction memoir, which I intended to help others.  But god got in and messed everything up.  It moved the coffee table to the middle of my house traffic: my siblings reacted to the book with rage and untempered insult, and then I got breast cancer.  I held onto god through that turmoil, and for a while I could see nothing.  But when clarity returned, I found myself in a wholly different place – a place where I have less sense of control but am more comfortable with it.  Where the phrase, “Oh, well!” seems to contain far more wisdom, whether it’s said before taking a courageous plunge or an evasive nap.  This was nothing I thought of or intended.  It resulted from neither program nor self-improvement.  But if I had not been working at both, the shift could not have occurred.

I’ve watched friends in the program not only climb to sweet joys but also suffer collapses similar to mine. I catch glimpses through their shares as they walk through this same Dark Night of the Soul.  Yes, joy is the fruit of spiritual growth, but pain, unfortunately, remains the “touchstone” by which god effects that growth.  The alternative is to turn away from god and tighten our grip ever harder on the illusion of control, of knowing best, of being right – and wronged.  It is to choose the rigidity of fear over the gentleness of faith.

Over the course of a life of recovery, the ego dies a slow and painful death.  (Of course, it never dies completely until we do.)  For those of us who early in life embraced it as our only savior, its demotion from the driver’s seat takes not months or years, but decades.  Like anything toxic, it retreats to reveal what appears at first a barren wasteland, a void where what I think is not important; I’m not powerful or authoritative, so life is not fun in a potentially dazzling way.  But the seeds of truer meaning are already germinating beneath that dull surface and will one day sprout: My being alive is precious; I’m both loveable and free, so my life gathers beauty in a quiet way.  This happens not just once, but with every inch of ground the ego surrenders.



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Lessons from Chickens: Emotional Sobriety

Thoughtlessness, Jealousy, Resentment

About three years ago, we acquired chickens.  It’s a growing trend in our PC neighborhood, but I doubt I’d have taken the plunge if the mom of my son’s playmate hadn’t offered me two of her hens, saying six was just too many.  After I’d spent my weekend building a coop, she reneged without the least regret.  “Actually, one of them died, and I’m keeping the rest,” she told me over the phone.  When I noted that it might have been nice to learn this sooner, she offered only a brisk apology:  “I just decided this morning.  Sorry!  You can get yours someplace else.”

Ironically enough, this normie mom’s attitude captures perfectly the mindset of chickens I envy most.  Maybe I’m just too much of a people-pleaser, but never in this world could I could retract an offer that way.  I’d probably give you the promised hens on principle, stuffing how much I wanted not to, or at least apologize to a slobbering degree if I kept them – “I’m so sorry!  God, I’m so terrible, but I just can’t!”

The thing about chickens is, like feathered Cartmans, they do what they want.  Roaming about our yard, if they think of something, they do it.  The minute a gate’s left open, they’re through it and psyched.  If I take too long to feed them, they jump the back porch barrier and peck at the glass door:  “Ape!  Where’s our goddamn oatmeal?!”  My chickens never doubt their own self-worth.  God made them to be chickens, and, damn right, they’re gonna do it!  They know how to scratch and forage for bugs, how to preen and sunbathe and find shelter during rain.  They know where to lay their eggs and when to retreat to the coop toward dusk.  These are the bulleted items of their Chicken Job Requirements, and they carry them out with flawless, almost scornful confidence.

Chickens have no morals, no conscience.  They don’t Facebook.  Chickens do, however, have plenty of drama.

Two of the three hens we ended up getting “someplace else” turned out to be peri-menopausal.  That is, the farm woman offloading them on us felt so guilty that at the last minute she literally chased after us with an Ameraucana pullet. “Wait!” she puffed. “Chickens are happier in threes!”  We thought she was just being nice, but after one season, the first two quit laying.  So on my son’s 12th birthday I brought home, peeping and scrabbling inside a paper lunch sack, a day old chick – helpless, scared, and weighing slightly more than a walnut.  Because she was slate black, like our dog and hamster, coincidentally, my son named her Pepper.

Now, whether chickens are happier in threes I don’t know, but a baby chick is definitely miserable alone.  Pepper’s needy cheeping filled our living room any time we tried to leave her in her cage.  I happened to be going through radiation for breast cancer at the time, and found my constant anxiety soothed by little Pepper’s gentle rustlings, soft peeps, and toying with my earrings or hair as she nestled on my shoulder – enough that I could meditate. ( I wrote this blog about it.) An adolescent Pepper once perched on my shoulder through the entire six block walk to my son’s school, with passersby asking, “Um… is that a… chicken?”  I’d nod, eyeing their chickenless shoulders with slight condescension.

Pepper grew up to be an absolutely tremendous Barred Rock hen who lays eggs daily and loves me fiercely.  Yes, chickens can love!  How else would you explain the fact that any time I sit down in the back yard, she jumps into my lap, makes happy chicken noises galore and, after holding my gaze steadily with her bright eye, settles down for a nice meditation nap?  Tragically for Pepper, however, after the two menopausal hens expired, my son and I brought home another lunch sack, this time holding two new chicks – Claire and Henrietta.  Having a pair, we found, made a world of difference: they were content to snuggle with each other but still bonded with us.

Even before we transferred Claire and Henrietta outside, we knew Pepper was going to be jealous, but we had no idea how jealous.  She hates those little fuckers!  It’s not just a matter of pecking order.  The Ameraucana, though still at the top of the chain, shows no interest in these two outside the occasional feigned peck over food.  But for Pepper, it’s deeply personal.  It’s about rights to Mom’s attention, to being loved as cute and little.  When I come outside, she tries to drive those brats away from me by chasing them all over the yard, or jumps on me as if to claim me if she can.  I have to put down food in multiple places because Pepper hustles frantically from one pile to the next, pecking at the chicks and trying to gobble down everything before they get any.  Of course we can’t enclose them all in the same pen or she corners them and pecks them bloody.  In short, Pepper is the embodiment of jealous, possessive self-centeredness, played out in chicken caricature.  She does what she wants, yes.  And she wants those damn chicks gone!

While Pepper sleeps in my lap, I often admire the perfection of her feathers, each one barred with a band of black, white, and rainbow iridescence.  I notice the perfect way they’re arranged to merge toward her tail, or the parallel precision of her white wing quills.  There is such great artistry in a single chicken!  But I also contemplate the design of Pepper’s feelings and instincts, her ruthless jealousy.  That demand for emotional security is built into both of us almost as powerfully as the needs of basic survival.

What does any of this have to do with alcoholism?  I guess that depends on how long you’ve been sober, and whether you work a program.  But the next time I hear a 4th Step, or find in my own 10th step the hostility of claiming what’s “mine” – that person, recognition, attention, security, or love I can’t let anyone else “steal” from me – I’ll think of Pepper as I recognize that these natural, god-given instincts are forgivable.  But I’ll also realize that, with a greater brain comes greater responsibility.   We need to check ourselves – particularly if we’re alcoholic.  Sure, that playdate mom can indulge now and then in “I do what I want!” mentality without consequences.  For her, the line between self-care and self-centeredness is not a crucial distinction.  But for me, giving free rein to even the simplest, chicken-brained instincts – selfish jealousy, resentment, and aggression – can sabotage my entire recovery.  “For when harboring such feeling 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.”

It may sound dramatic, but in my AA community, we hear of another alcoholic/addict’s death every month or two – the culmination of a landslide that began with a few petty grains of sand.

2013-04-14 18.48.47Pepper parrot






Pepper as a chick and now, where she still loves to be.

2014-03-24 13.46.43

Those goddamn interloping chicks, Claire & Henrietta

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Looking Back from almost 20 Years Sober

Then vs. Now

My life is far from perfect.  In a few days, I’ll turn 54, having failed to achieve any of the goals I set in youth.  I’m not a famous writer, and I don’t have much money.  I drive a 1990 Honda that starts with a screwdriver (really), because all my money goes to keep a small house that’s in disrepair.  My boyfriend is out of state most of the time, and I haven’t spoken to my sister or brother in a year and a half.  But… I’m sober.

What does this mean?  It means my life today is a an amazing gift.  As I get closer to hitting the 2o year sober mark, it gets harder to remember who I used to be.  But as a sponsor, in helping other women who suffer as much as I used to, I get to look back and remember.

There was a day when I woke up morning after morning full of toxins and shame.  I’d hide my headaches from my partner, pretending brightness, but more importantly I’d hide reality from myself, pretending I’d just had a bit too much last night because of… whatever.  At least half the time, I’d also be hiding the exhilarating glow of obsessive dreams about whomever I was infatuated with.  I’d go about my day being whoever I thought others expected me to be, looking to you for signs that I was okay, and thinking up ways of impressing you.

And since nothing would work out as I planned, I’d end up filled with sickening envy at your easy life and disappointment at my unfair one.  Most of all, I lived with self-loathing: the conviction that I was a worthless loser.  This conviction could survive any accomplishment I achieved because its taproot ran so deep, all the way to my core: I was hopelessly defective, fundamentally flawed.  And yet, this same worthlessness was the one sure rock I could stand on, the one foundation I could know without doubt.  It set me apart from others, ordinary folk who seemed so naturally filled with well-being.  Honesty, to me in those years, felt like the flat out admission that I sucked.  And the only way to fix that was to have a drink (well…  maybe two.  And then, whoops, a dozen plus) thereby temporarily rendering life simple and myself fabulous.

So what’s the miracle?  What’s the amazing gift?  It’s freedom.  It’s that not only have I woken up clear headed and sober for the past 7,000 mornings or so, but I wake to perceptions much closer to real.  The overwhelmingly loud self-static that used to roar in my thoughts has been tuned down, so my consciousness is a pretty comfy place to live.  I can love being who I am instead of berating myself for all I “should” be, and I can even see that I am a good mom who loves many people and supports herself.

How does that happen?  I got here by working the 12 steps repeatedly, skimming off one layer of denial at a time, one unacknowledged fear at a time – and giving what’s out of my power to god.  (Long version here.)  Today I stay on course by using the serenity prayer as my compass, and as I progress, the landscape keeps changing: things that once seemed those “I cannot change” have jumped sides to things requiring the “courage to change” them, and vice versa.  Gradually, I acquire the wisdom that all I can change is myself – my attitudes and actions – but that doing so transforms my entire world.

My ambition today is not a newer car or even a bestselling novel.  It’s honesty.  I want to go deeper.  There are still untruths I tell myself, deceptions that auto-play in my thoughts.  With god providing the light, I want to root them out and turn them over.  Though they don’t now drive me to drink, I can still feel, as I get ready to meditate, grips on falseness that tighten my world.  “Give up,” I tell myself, “let them go!”  Whether they come from growing up in an alcoholic household or amid a society of warped values and assumptions, unidentified beliefs are incredibly hard to release.  There’s the challenge.

The closer I get to living in truth, the comfier my life becomes – to the point that it’s outrageously luxuriant.  No amount of material luxury can rival that.  Living in a twisted mind, I have traveled Europe, sailed on yachts, eaten at fancy restaurants, or worn sexy new outfits – all the while drowning in dis-ease and self-consciousness, prisoner of an edginess that maybe a few drinks could fix – couldn’t they?  Now, to be where I am, naked under my clothes, simple-minded in my thoughts, flawed in countless ways, and making boo-boos right and left as I use up this obscure lifetime that will vanish under the footprints of future generations – what an amazing party it is!

Plus I can start my car with that screwdriver without even looking faster than 99.999% of the planet’s population.  Ain’t that a heck of an achievement at almost 54?


2014-06-22 Goat

Goat Peak, day before yesterday.  What more can I ask?


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On Cussin’ during Prayer: Separating god from Religion

Step 11

This blog may upset some people, but, oh well.

Over the years I’ve sponsored a lot of women in AA and developed some of my own ways that make me a good fit for some and not others.  For example, many of my newcomer sponsees have a problem with “the god thing” and thus a problem with prayer.  They aren’t sure if they should get down on their knees or clasp their hands, whether to look ceilingward or what to call their god.  It all feels so contrived.

In this case, I suggest they try dropping a few F-bombs while they pray.  That is, if I’ve gotten to know a sponsee a bit and in telling me her story she’s dropped a few, I suggest she do the same with god.  Not in anger, mind you, but as she might with a close friend.  I ask her to try it for a week and check back with me.

Why do I do this?  To help that person separate god from religion.  Religion works fine for some, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  But for an increasing number of people who desperately need god, religion is not an option.  Fortunately, the 12 Steps give us the freedom to conceptualize god in whatever way works for us.  Chapter 4, “We Agnostics,” urges us: “Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you” (p. 47).

In my view, many of us assume that our conception of god has to import with it a shitload of trappings from religion.  We carry these prejudices around with us, i.e. ideas based on thinking we have not “honestly” examined.  We may have gotten far enough to let go of the old dude with a white beard image, but many hesitate to go further than that.

Among these imported God-trappings I will, for the purpose of keeping this blog short, limit my discussion to the the assumption that God can get pissed off by a lack of respect.  In this case, to appease Him, we should address God as we would any other authority figure: a police officer, a professor, a judge.  And since God is wa-ay old, we should definitely avoid language that would shock, let’s say, our grandmother.  For that matter, we need to capitalize every friggin’ pronoun referring to the Dude because He, essentially, demands Ass-kissing.

Approach prayer as our regular farting, burping selves?  Heavens, no!  Much of religion involves an effort to partition God off from the vulgarities of real life.  Over the centuries, our urban religious ancestors built temples, mosques, and cathedrals as sanctuaries, in part because there was just too much sheep shit and caterwauling and flies everywhere to let them string two thoughts together in prayer.  Prayer became a solemn supplication devoid of spontaneous personality because religion drilled into us that God wanted it that way.

I am so done with this view of God!  As I explain more fully in my essay, “God Evolved,” this view of God runs counter to my spiritual beliefs in every way.  It’s founded in feudalistic traditions and furthers agendas of classicism, sexism, and species-ism – not to mention personal hypocrisy.  Neither does it match the experience of anyone who has undergone an NDE.  What people experience when they die is an inundation of overwhelming love that exceeds our capacity for description.

There are, however, certain spiritual principles that hold true in life, many of which religion has accurately named.  When you act from unselfish love, you grow.  Any connection between us and god has to be initiated by us.  Anger and fear cut us off from god.  These principles aren’t god’s “judgement.”  They’re just spiritual equivalents of the laws of gravity or thermodynamics.

So, why would I recommend swearing in prayer to my sponsees?  Because… they swear!  And they’re the one who’s seeking god.  What matters when I approach god is that I show up as Louisa, 100%.  Sure, there are times when I feel solemn and ceremonial, but there are others when I’m flippant or pissy or frustrated.  It goes without saying that my god knows and loves all these modes of Louisa.

My sponsees, by contrast, are standing in the shadow of a cold, religious idol that requires thee-and-thou-style grovelling.  Swearing defies that idol, lets it tumble aside, and might just open them to the light of a god they can put their trust in.

I describe in my addiction memoir (which also contains “God Evolved”),  I was somewhere between atheist and agnostic throughout my first years in the program.  But then I from a tattoo artist with a huge afro, I heard these words: “A relationship with god is just like any other relationship: the more you hang out, the tighter you get.”

I hang out with god all the time now – when I’m teaching a class, when I’m peeing, when I’m chopping broccoli.  I talk to it honestly, and I listen.  So far, I’ve been healed of more maladies than you can shake a stick at: active alcoholism, clinical depression/anxiety, sexual obsession addiction, social phobia, (most of my) codependence, and the pessimism that kept me from living the adventures I dreamed of.   Most importantly, god has broken down my walls of isolation and opened me to love freely and try to help others – by posting this, for example, because it may help some reader move a bit closer to grasping their own truth.



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Save your Ass, not your Soul

Steps 2, 3, & 12

Taped to my fridge I have an old fortune cookie fortune.  Except it’s an alcoholic fortune.  One of my friends used to order these special alcoholic fortune cookies with program tips and slogans tucked inside on the little strips of paper.  For us, these kind of are fortunes, because our lives go downhill fast if we don’t practice this stuff.  Anyway, it reads:

 “This is a Save Your Ass program not a Save Your Soul program.  We are concerned with the here & now, not the hear after.” Fridge


You might notice that he misspelled hereafter as “hear after,” and apparently no one at the fortune cookie factory noticed.  As it happens, this friend of mine, Dave F., has since gone to the hereafter.  His liver quit on him suddenly at age 47, many years into a healthy sobriety, and he did not survive the transplant.  But for me, because of how Dave lived, and because I still think about things he shared in meetings, he has indeed gone to the “hear after.”

“Religion is for people who’re afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.”

That saying, attributed to various people, runs along the same lines as the Save Your Ass slogan.  Those who accuse AA of religiosity, as I once did, completely miss the point.  Drunks don’t want to be holy.  We don’t hope to get into some God-ass-kissers’ heaven.  And we sure don’t go through the 12 Steps to become shining examples of goody-two-shoes bullshit.  No.  We want to live.  We’re motivated by pain and the threat of self-destruction, and we’ve known both too well for longer than we could stand.  To get sober, we need the help of a higher power to remove our compulsion to drink.  But to stay sober, we need that god to relieve us of the compulsion to think in alcoholically self-centered, fear-driven ways that twist us up inside until we either tip the bottle or otherwise wreck our lives.

Mind you, I can wreck mine purely from the inside.  If I’m off the beam spiritually, even the most outwardly beautiful Hallmark moment can be shot through with  x_(insert anxiety, insecurity, self-loathing, jealousy, ire, not enough etc.) to the point where, idyllic as it looks, I’m in hell.  The choice is mine to wallow in those feelings addictively or to forcefully wrench away from them and ask god for help.  I say “forcefully” because the pull of those emotional reflexes can be every bit as tempting as the reflex to drink.

Dave was prone to all these aspects of our disease, but he kept turning away from his defects, reaching for what god could offer instead of what his disease could.  Not just once in a blue moon, but consistently.  One summer night at an AA meeting we hold around a campfire on the beach (Golden Gardens, Tues night), I heard him tell a story that has stayed with me in the “hear after.”

That same day he’d tried to summit Mount Olympus alone.  Sounds epic, but it’s also a lo-ong drive, an even longer overnight hike in, and a very dangerous ascent.  In any case, almost as soon as he’d reached the glacier, one of his crampons broke (spiky foot gear for climbing ice).  He’d tried to rig it: fail.  He’d tried to climb without it: fail.  Finally, he’d had no choice but to turn around in defeat.  Having driven straight from the mountains to the beach, he was boiling water on his camp stove for his freeze-dried dinner as he spoke. Here’s the story I remember him telling.

“I got down into the trees, and I was so damn pissed.  I broke for lunch at this creek and I was just pissed as hell.  All this time, all this preparation – fuckin’ crampon breaks!  I was denied!  It felt so unfair, and just like my whole life has gone that way – you know?  But then I see something pop out of the water, and it’s this little bird.  There’s serious fast-moving water in this creek, rapids, pools.  And I see where he lands, and he’s got this tiny fish.  Swallows it.  And he’s lookin’ at the water.  Flits somewhere else, looks at the water.  Boom!  He shoots in!  He’s like a rocket.  Few seconds later, pops out.  This time, no fish.”

Dave told about the change that came over him, watching.  Sometimes the bird hit pay dirt and sometimes, for all its daring, getting churned around in that washing machine of roaring ice water, it got nothing.  Gradually, he remembered to notice what a spectacularly beautiful place he was in.  Gradually, he accepted what had happened.

“Maybe that’s what I was supposed to see today,” he reflected.  “Not the view from the top, but that bird trying, and going for it, and working with whatever god gives it – fish or no fish.  Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to summit today,  or I could’ve fallen cause the crampon broke at a bad time.”  He shrugged wistfully, stirring the package.  “This was supposed to be my victory dinner.  But maybe it is, just being here with you guys, sober.  Tonight I’m grateful.”  Waves broke on the sand.  We could all see the sun setting behind the Olympic mountains across the water, and now Dave turned his head to look at them.  “I’ll tag Olympus another day.”

And tag it he did, solo, a year later – his last.  On that day, he nabbed a truly precious fish.

I didn’t get a chance to see Dave F. in the hospital, but I heard that all the nurses, doctors, and orderlies fell in love with him because of his humor and kindness.  I know over a hundred people who love, remember, and miss Dave today because of his selfless generosity.  That guy used to carry the makings and equipment for entire pancake breakfasts 3,000 feet up Tiger Mountain, cook during our mountaintop meeting, and hand out steaming plates to anybody.  He reached out to newly sober drunks who didn’t know jack about climbing and brought groups of them up mountains, passing on his knowledge.  He even planned group climbs on holidays for those without family, spreading the word about our sober climbing group at AA meetings everywhere. In the summer of 2o12 I joined him on a climb of Mailbox Peak, laughing and joking about I don’t remember what.  The other guys looked up to him.  He had confidence and charisma.

Contrast this with 2006, the first hike I ever took with Dave F., when he spent most of our descent of Mount Si complaining to me about his job, luck with women, lack of education, and life in general – letting out his sense that he never got a break.  Or compare it to our first ascent of Rainier that same year, when he kept to himself at base camp and spoke little to anyone except our leader.  He struck me as wounded – lonely but too shy to socialize, trapped inside himself. He was like a bird waiting for a fish to jump out of the whitewater into his beak.

Here’s the crux, okay?  Dave underwent a psychic change, that spiritual awakening named in Step 12 that happens as a result of sincerely working 1 through 11.  If he hadn’t, up there on Olympus, he wouldn’t even have noticed that friggin’ bird.  Or if he had, he wouldn’t have given a shit because seething about how he’d been robbed would demand all his attention.  But with the psychic change, Dave sensed that such a path, the way of resentment and self-pity, was dangerous, because resentment spreads in an alcoholic like a cancer until, before you know it, you’re too smart to go anymore to those stupid meetings where all those bozos are so full of shit.  Recovery like Dave’s takes courage.  It takes work.

Turning to god is how we save our asses.  When we’re open, when we’re in the habit of looking, god speaks to us through the tiniest, most unlikely messengers.  If we want that message more than our version of the story, we pay attention, we see metaphor, and let god give us exactly what we need to be whole and free in the here and now.



Mount Olympus, Washington.  How’s the view from there now, sweet Dave?  We miss you!


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