When the Darkness Comes…

…My brain decides to categorize the entire enterprise of living as a fruitless expenditure of energy.

I’m resolved to be happy, to enjoy life.  In the summer months, happiness comes easily.  I’m active, whether alone or with friends, and never short of energy or enthusiasm.  But when fall comes I start to feel the tides of darkness encroaching, dragging me down.  Now’s the time I have to make a note: candleDepression Alert!  Because I’m prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder and live in Seattle, because I suffered depression throughout my 30s and my brain chemistry still teeters on that brink, and because I’m a damn complex and moody alcoholic in recovery, I need to be careful.

I once read that depression evolved as a survival strategy to prevent us from doggedly pursuing unrealistic goals or otherwise squandering energy without a high return.  I envision some primitive humans all gung-ho to build a tower to the gods despite all setbacks; some kind of “fuck this!” switch had to evolve somewhere along the line.  primitive2-1024x681More practically, in fall and winter there’s just not as much food out there for a hunter-gatherer to net, so we developed the impulse to hunker by the home-fires to avoid fruitless expenditures of energy.

The trouble comes when my brain decides to categorize the entire enterprise of living as a fruitless expenditure of energy.  I look around: The house will never stay clean; dishes and laundry never stay done.  My bank account acts like a storage tank with a gaping hole at the bottom: I gleefully deposit checks only to see that some damn auto-deduction – the gym, car insurance, internet – has slurped up half of it before I even drive home.  I keep getting older and ricketier plus people seem to forget about me if I don’t keep showing up for social stuff.  Doesn’t that make all of these unattainable goals?  Shouldn’t I just give up and hunker by the home-fire?

I choose not to take prescription antidepressant drugs because I believe in facing the daily challenge of my emotional weather.  I want to learn to know myself in difficulty as well as in clear sailing.  Wisdom, I believe, gets pounded out in that struggle.  This is in no way intended to poop on meds or those whose brain chemistry leaves them no other option.  Chemistry is chemistry.  For myself, though, I envision my depression as a pit of darkness I have to circle until spring, walking a narrow, angled, and slippery path on its perimeter.  The tactics below help me pick my steps.  But if I were to fall in (become clinically depressed) none of them would do any good.

THE SIGNS

  • I filled with a low-level dread but have no clue what it’s about.
  • I may or may not decide I’m scared of finding myself broke and alone.
  • The prospect of socializing seems an Olympic event, demanding coherent remark after coherent remark like a series of hurdles I barely clear.
  • The prospect of going to work feels like storming a hostile dagwood napempire of steel, concrete, and synthetics, where nothing natural or charming can survive.
  • The world’s goin’ to hell in a handbasket.
  • All I want to do is to eat cookies and nap peacefully.

What to do?  I fuckin’ pray.  I don’t want to, but I do.  I ask god to help me remember how to live.  God, I have found, is all about can-do and positive action.  It doesn’t empathize with lackadaisical whining, but counters, What can you do now?  It tells me I already know the answer.  And I sort of do.

THE CURES

Whether I feel like it or not, I have to FORCE myself to…

  • Exercise – take a ballet class, go for a run, something
  • Make coffee/pho dates and go to more meetings
  • Go outside and do SOMETHING – anything!  Rake leaves, walk the dog
  • Practice gratitude; love others; be of service
  • Meditate more
  • Eat healthy, for god’s sake!
  • If it gets really bad, bust out the Happy Light, St. John’s wort and/or 5 hydroxytryptophan

All these tactics help a little.  But I also have a secret list of unofficial aids that help me – things I’ve never seen in magazines.

 UNOFFICIAL AIDS

  • Make something – bake, draw a picture, knit
  • Light candles to an impractical degree, maybe even in daylightmusicnote
  • Play happy music
  • Smile and yawn more – both give your brain a lift
  • String up indoor Xmas lights irrespective of Xmas
  • Watch no TV; avoid pop-culture magazines; limit social networking
  • Practice mindfulness, focusing on loving what I am doing now

Here’s my thing with mindfulness: sometimes, it can get boring.  I mean, obviously, it’s a discipline, so if I’m getting bored, that means I’m not practicing well.  Still, I’ve developed some tweaks to make it more interesting – and most of them involve pretending.  Recreational pretending, in my opinion, is vastly underrated. My brain chemistry doesn’t seem to distinguish much between real and imagined sources of happy, cozy thoughts.   In fact, pretending, if executed skillfully, can feel like a little uplifting,  drug-free trip to another place.

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MINDFULNESS TWEAKS

  • I pretend…
    • that I live in a charming, romantic country or exotic tropical place.  My home is in some village of France or on the island of Fiji.  I can smell the odors of baguettes or tropical flowers.  This can work when you’re driving if you pretend you’re touring quaint vistas.
    • that I’m super rich but eccentric and choose to live exactly as I do
    • that I live in an amazing dollhouse.  I was once on a ladder fixing a small window that looks in on my living room.  Inside, the evening sun was lighting the space with a warm yellow, and it looked to me like a weirdly classic doll’s house with every detail delightfully realistic.  I can still call up that feeling which changes mess to fantastic precision.
    • that I’m a 14th century monk used to abjuring all physical comforts, but just for today, I’m cheating!

The goal of all these quirky imaginings is actually to practice love and acceptance.  The act of assenting to the circumstances of our lives – calling them good – is what brings contentment.  I’ve developed these roundabout means of doing what you can practice directly: loving everything your senses bring you, loving being alive.rainbow_heart

 

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Step 9: Mending the Past

I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!  Who the heck wants to read about amends?  Nobody!  I don’t even really want to write about them, but I’m going to trust, and ask you to trust, that taking a good look will reveal their beauty.

Angry-WomanSo here’s the quandary.  You may hear people in the rooms kicking around the question: “Who are amends for?  Me or the other person?”  I recall about a dozen years ago hearing a woman announce with contempt, “I’m not making this amends for her!  I’m doing it for me!”  Something sounded wrong in that, but I wasn’t sure what.

Sure, the steps are our pathway to freedom.  But they work because they’re a pathway to change, not self-help.  Didn’t we try every way of helping ourselves when we were drinking, doing whatever our monkey-brains thought would work best?  And what happened?  As I seem to recall, most of us ended up alone and fucking miserable.  The fact is, self-help refers to motivational adjustments to an otherwise successful model of living, such as, “I’m going to exercise more!” or “I’m going to procrastinate less!” not, “I’m going to quit submerging my entire existence in a cesspool of self-disgust caused by senselessly poisoning myself on a daily basis!”

So, no.  We don’t need self help.  CAM00400What we need is a transformation, a psychic change beyond anything we could engineer ourselves that redirects our energy toward maximum usefulness to god and our fellows.  If Step 3 led us to stake the best 4th step inventory we could, if we’ve read it to a sponsor who’s made clear our faulty thinking, then something has shifted in us.  In Steps 6 and 7, we opened to asking god to render us better human beings.  Now we revisit our past in this new light.

When my sponsor asked me to generate compassion toward those I’d resented, it felt like she was asking for some crazy move of spiritual gymnastics.  But really, all I had to do is acknowledge that I’ve fucked up many times myself, out of fear and pitfalls in thinking.  Let’s say I was trying to protect my beloved A when I accidentally nudged B into the boiling oil.  “Doh!”  Or in reaching after that prized X, I forgot I was supposed to hold Y and let it fall into the mile-deep chasm.  “Shit!”  Maybe I heard the enticing, faint calls of  J through the tall grass and, in stepping toward them, crushed underfoot the tiny, delicate K.  “Oh, no! Poor K~!!”

Such botched moves fill at least 75% of my addiction memoir; they’re the stuff of which all our deepest conflicts are made.  That’s why my double backward flip in the pike position comes about as I accept that you, like me, were doing only the best you could.  Now watch this move in slo-mo: I decide to cut you the same slack I wish others might cut me – the slack to be human.  It may take me days or years to get there, but eventually, your wrongs become moot.  The focus closes in on the behavior I exhibited toward you.  Would I want those wrongs carved on my tombstone?  Do I want to carry them until then?

Oops!
Remember, though, that 9 comes after 8, and “became ready” refers to more than just working up nerve.  In early sobriety, I thought I was working Step 9 by writing impulsive letters to my ex’s and telling them way more than they needed to know. By contrast, when I worked Step 8 in earnest, my sponsor wrested my ways of thinking from old to new.  For each person on my list, she crossed out and scribbled notes all over the accounts of harms I thought I’d caused, eliminating 75% of what I’d thought was the issue.  Each time she had me…

1) highlight ONLY those behaviors and attitudes the person was well aware of, to avoid causing further harm

2) boil down the harms via the rubric of selfish, dishonest, thoughtless/inconsiderate

3) come up with one specific example to illustrate each

I was not to apologize.  Rather, I was to articulate the behavior I’d shown and the ways it was wrong, and to ask what I might do to set it right.  She said, “It’s like you left a turd lying somewhere in this person’s life.  You swoop in, say, ‘I believe that’s mine!’, scoop up the turd, and ask if you got it all.”

doveAmends don’t mean you become buddy-roos with the person.  And some may continue to lob fireballs at you, requiring you to maintain a safe distance.  But when I’ve sat down with people from my past and owned, often with my voice shaking, my very human fuck-ups, I’ve witnessed in almost every one of them the blossoming grace of compassion.  Many have spontaneously confessed fuck-ups of their own.  And sometimes, in the pool of truth we shared for those moments, I would behold in them a dignity and beauty to which our old conflict had blinded me.

The 9th step means taking our new way of life out into the world and trusting god in a free fall.  As I once heard it put: “I make amends to restore that person’s faith in basic human decency.  And when I do that, I restore my own.”

 

peace

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Humility and Gratitude

“If you claim to have humility, you don’t have it.”  That saying has some validity to it.  But there’s a bigger picture here.  Saying you have humility is a bit like saying you inhale.  That is, it’s never a constant state we can hang onto, but part of a fundamental rhythm.  I’m not really sure what the fuck I’m saying here, but I’m going to keep writing.

BoxerWe all have egos and self-will built in to help us hold our own in this hazardous world.  It’s when they exceed their useful scope, as they often do for alcoholics, that we run into trouble.  We become selfish and egotistical because those states seem to grant us power, to make us bigger and badder so we can vanquish whatever we fear (i.e. most of life).  Unfortunately, what they really do is shut us off from faith in god – our only true recourse against fear.

Richard Rohr, in his discussion of the Twelve Steps (Breathing Underwater), quotes the bible in relation to Step 7.  Now, don’t run screaming from this blog!  I’m not a Christian and, trust me, not even a monotheist, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize wisdom from a Franciscan friar who dares to challenge his church.   Just roll with me a minute.  Anyway, Rohr quotes Luke quoting Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to pass through camelneedlethe eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  But he moves right along from there.  He says it’s not the possession of stuff per se that blocks us from god, but an attitude of entitlement. “I am the shit!” is a stance that blocks us from spirit, as does its mirror image of self-c0nsumed self-pity, “I am a piece of shit.”  Neither can co-exist with humility and faith.

The points Rohr asserts that I want to highlight are these:  1) That our truth is not in what we claim to believe, but in the way we live.  2) That we pray not in order to “change God” (i.e. kiss ass and win approval) but to “change ourselves.”  3) That prayer opens us to god, and that the gist of all prayer – here I’m paraphrasing – is essentially, I lack.  I need you.  Rohr writes,

So it is important that you ask, seek, and knock to keep yourself in right relationship with Life Itself.  Life is a gift, totally given to you without cost, every day of it, and every part of it.  A daily and chosen “attitude of gratitude” will keep your hands open to… receive life at ever-deeper levels…

What really wakes me up is to substitute the word “sobriety” in place of Life, above.  Sobriety is indeed a gift, given to me freely every day.  And it started on the day I turned to god and said simply, “I lack.  I can’t do this.  I need you.”  Something shifted then, some channel opened that allowed god to help me do what I’d spent years and thousands of desperate, failed attempts trying to do: Get well.  God, not I, removed my mania for drinking.

Prayer relinquishes the illusion that I can do life, including sobriety, on my own.  As a spiritual being, I am intricately connected to both my Source and my fellows.  Prayer acknowledges this, re-opening the channel.  And it stays open at meetings if I listen knowing I can’t stay sober on my own.  Here’s where that mixed nature of humility comes up.  Truthfully, I go to meetings in a hybrid of mind frames.  Part of me (ego) says, “I’m comin’ up on 20 freakin’ years, dude!  I so know this drill!”  Part of me (compassion) says, “I’m here to help the newcomer and those who are struggling.”  Meeting snowflakeBut a key part of me – the seed of genuine humility – says, “I am here to be taught.  I am here to listen to god speak through my fellow addicts; and whether they drank just this morning, are fresh out of prison, or have thirty years and sponsor a jillion alcoholics does not matter.”

Humility and gratitude are inextricably interwoven, and both are essential to the fabric of sobriety.  Both can be cultivated in mindfulness – living in the simplicity of the present moment, saying to ourselves, “I am a living creature doing this here now,” and seeing, as Rohr says, that all of it is a gift we can love.  Ego lives in the thought-movies that our minds play, in the loveless illusion that we make shit happen, in the Teflon of coolness that causes meaning and responsibility to slide off us until we’re only half alive.  Ego refuses to appreciate that we are everywhere dependent on one another for survival, and on god for sanity (and everything).

One more note, though.  It’s important, too, for me to cultivate humility about my own arrogance.  Here’s my fav quote from Thomas Merton (another Christian, but oh well), part of which kicks off my addiction memoir:

This is the terrible thing about humility: that it is never fully successful.  If it were only possible to be completely humble on this earth.  But no, that is the trouble: You, Lord, were humble.  But our humility consists in being proud and knowing all about it… and to be able to do so little about it. *

Pride goes with the turf…and Merton  didn’t even Facebook!

The bottom line is, I’m human and I’m flawed.  I have a big, gaping hole in my guts and an ego determined to fix it.  I can either grab at mood altering drugs, attention, food, merchandise, etc. to try to fill the hole ego’s way, or I can acknowledge my incompleteness, my flawed nature, and turn to god for help.  I can do this not only about drinking, but about my unmanageable life in general.  When I open with asking, when I am fucking humble and admit I am wounded, I let god in.  And god lets me flourish.

Love to you, alcoholic!  Love to you, seeking person!

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*Thomas Merton, Thoughts on Solitude, p. 59

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Not-Enoughness

A worthy life is simply one of honesty with oneself and god…

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I wake up almost every morning with a gut-level anxiety, a feeling of guilt that I’m somehow not doing all I’m supposed to, shame for lacking “success,” and alarm that I’m getting old at a mile a minute.  My whole life, the feeling claims, is a failure.  Before I’ve even sat up in bed, this “not-enoughness” jabs at my mind, perfect lifeprompting vague solutions that pop up like slot machine combos:  “Earn more!”  “Lose weight!”  “Socialize more!”

Whether my not-enoughness, a default setting from childhood, will ever go away I don’t know.  What’s changed is how I respond to it.  Today I understand that it’s just a feeling launched by the part of me still broken.  I return its topspin tennis serve with a quick prayer: “God, please take this away and guide my thinking today.”  While I put on my morning clothes and weigh myself, not-enoughness still chides at me.  I dismiss it automatically and try to focus on the moment: gift of what I am doing, the good fortune of where I am, and the blessings of my reality.  I commit to loving what is instead of lacking what isn’t.

The power for this practice comes from my god, a connection nurtured through many years of working all 12 Steps.  Back when I relied on active drinking and codependency, I believed not only the not-enoughness, but the solutions my mind proposed.  My high school refrain, “Excel more!” gradually morphed into “Be more liked!”  If I could just win your admiration, I’d overcome not-enoughness.  Sans alcohol I was terrified to converse with people, not realizing the main obstacle had to do with the coordinates of my head, which was firmly lodged up my ass.  I could scarcely hear what you were saying, so preoccupied was I with self: what was up with me, what I thought you thought of me, and what I might say to impress you (usually figured out after you left).  Sober socializing was, in short, torture.

Drinking, of course, fixed all that.  It made me smart, funny, beautiful, and worthy.  Glamour drinkSure, I was still biding my time while you talked, but who gave a shit?  I’d get my turn to blab soon enough and, whether you were impressed or not, I, at least, was fine with whatever the fuck I’d just said.  The drunker I got, the wider my range of just fine became.  Maybe you didn’t care to hear about ex-partner’s foibles, but fuck it!  Lissen!  It’s hilarious!

loufinger

Moi, back in the day

The infatuation addiction detailed in my memoir was really just a souped-up version of that same dynamic, with all my need concentrated on a chosen, magical person whose admiration (or even company) worked like cocaine.  Sadly, these worth-seeking projects frequently morphed into real relationships – meaning that the magic one, by committing, lost all magic.  When subsequent attacks of not-enoughness struck, now I had no “soon things will be different!” to counter it with.  I could only muffle its penalty buzzer with more booze and great ideas.  All I’d end up with was a wreckage of mishaps, huge amounts of money blown, and a hangover like a brain full of puss.

Sobriety has by no means been a picnic.  I spent over two years dry and tortured – fleeing the conversation clusters after meetings with mutters of “fuck ‘em!” – before I finally worked the steps and became teachable.  Slowly teachable, that is: I spent nine years in a codependent cocoon focusing all my anxious attention, from the moment I woke, on fixing my partner’s “problems” and ignoring my own.  Really, the morning gong of not-enoughness did not emerge for me as a distinct phenomenon until I found myself waking up alone.  “What is this feeling?” I finally asked.

Self-knowledge may not save us from drinking, but it sure helps with other issues!  The steps have transformed my economics of worth.  The only worth I can feel, I understand now, is self-worth.  I am the only one who can generate that rebuttal to not-enoughness, no matter what anyone else may think of me.  God has shown me how to cultivate self-esteem by doing estimable works.  It has guided me to grow a loveable life by loving my life.  It has taught me to connect with others more through my heart than my words.

Despite what the zillion ads we’re bombarded with would have us believe, a worthy life is simply one of honesty with oneself and god – whatever that may look like for the individual.  For me, it means I do the best I can with what’s right in front of me Goodmanand trust god that whenever a suitable door approaches, god will not only alert me, but open it.  Why did I start up the small business I run today?  Doors would not open to the 500+ jobs I tried for following my layoff, whereas with just one little ad, the business practically threw itself at me.  Like incremental promotions in a happiness firm, small choices I’ve made have gradually steered my life away from money and prestige toward more time and freedom.  Thrift at home is part of my work.  True, I drive a beater and shop at Goodwill, but I also get to walk my 13-year-old son to school each morning, laughing about this and that.  I get to write instead of wishing to.  I see friends.  I take loads of ballet classes, raise cute hens, and execute my own half-assed home repairs.  Overall, my life today reflects the truth of who I am – a plenitude of what I value and a shortage of what I don’t.  That’s the true test.

In fact, by the time I go to bed each night, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for my beautiful, rich, love-filled life.  My only prayer is, “Thank you, god, for all of it.  I love you.”

Tomorrow, I know, it all begins again.

 

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The Courage to Surrender

Courage: the ability to do something that you know is right or good, even though it is dangerous, frightening, or very difficult.
—————————————————————————-Macmillan dictionary

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American popular culture tends to associate courage with kicking ass.  Most of our movie heroes don’t need to overcome fear because they don’t feel any.  All we see from them is the anger and righteousness to smash the bad guys.  This invulnerable version of courage is reflected in Dictionary.com’s definition, as that which “permits one to face Die_hardextreme dangers and difficulties without fear.”

But what if fear is essential to courage?  That is, what if courage involves not just outward action, but the inner struggle to overcome all that holds us back – confusion, doubts… and fear?  In that case, courage means acceptance of our vulnerability, even our weakness, as well as the faith to move beyond it.

What’s this got to do with alcoholism?  People outside the rooms often assume recovery is about the ego’s type of courage: we’re sober because we’ve kicked addiction’s ass.  We conquered that mofo by being strong, disciplined, and – my favorite – taking control!  But there’s a lil’ problem with that.  Where drinking’s concerned, I can pull off none of those things.  I drink myself shitfaced.  That’s just what happens.  No matter how angry or righteous I may feel toward addiction, it’s the only one doing the ass-kickin’.

HOW coinOn the other hand, what I witness and learn in the rooms of AA is another form of courage – the courage to surrender.  Those two words don’t match up in most people’s minds, but for those of us in recovery, they have to.  When we tell ourselves, “I’m gonna beat this thing!” we seem to end up drunk.  But if instead we surrender, something inside us begins to shift, and we develop courage through the three essentials of recovery: Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness.

Honesty
Nobody wants to be an alcoholic.  But even more, nobody who’s known only that way of life can imagine surviving without alcohol – a terrifying prospect.  I don’t know a single person who came to their first AA meeting without half a mind to bolt out the door.  What keeps us there is loyalty to certain moments of clarity – also known as honesty – when we either recognized death on our not-so-distant horizon or, in subtler cases, realized we could no longer endure the mental contortions necessary to sustain denial.  To hang onto that insight despite all the disclaimers our disease flings at us requires courage.

What’s more, every instinct cries out against admitting to a room full of strangers, “I cannot stop drinking and I don’t know how to live.”  Such words may not be voiced at our first meeting, and for some they never are. But alcoholics committed to recovery find the courage to speak these truths, no matter how difficult or painful.  Hearing them still brings tears to my eyes, even after almost 20 years.

Open-mindedness
Alcoholics tend to abhor the idea of groups.  We like to see ourselves as fiercely independent and temperamentally unique, so we’re repulsed by anything that smacks of conformity.  We also can’t stand the prospect of talking to others without a few drinks in us.  The last place we ever thought we’d spill our guts is a goddam cult, meetingwhich is what we’ve been calling AA, between swigs, for years.  Who wants to crawl in and, stone cold sober, ask for help from a group they’ve talked nothing but shit about to anyone who’d listen?  Nobody!  But we do it anyway, strange and frightening as it is.

Neither do I know a single newcomer who read the Twelve Steps on the wall and thought, “Oh, boy! That’ll help!”  The steps seem useless and irrelevant – some ‘hokey-pokey’ dance involving a magic Easter Bunny that has NOTHING to do with our very huge and real problems.  When alcoholics move ahead with these steps despite the certainty that they’ll never work, they’re stepping out on pure faith, reaching for the possibility of other ways to experience life.   The disease continues to offer them “Fuck Everything Free!” cards, but they decline to take one.  To turn away from everything familiar toward something unknown and intangible just because it feels “good or right” takes – you got it! – courage.

Willingness
The road to recovery is lengthy and, in places, steep.  We hear early on, “There’s only one thing you need to change – and that’s everything!”  Not only does that sound creepy, but “change” here is a verb – meaning we have to make it happen.  To find and work with a sponsor, write and read inventory, show up and listen at meetings, make amends, and eventually to sponsor and be of service to others – all these efforts require a willingness we’ve formerly lacked.  Our degree of willingness may wax and wane over the years, but if we steer by what we “know is right or good, even though it is… difficult,” we gradually come to call it by a different name: maybe god’s guidance, or maybe loving-kindness.

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Whether in terms of the battlefield or bottle, surrender means accepting as reality that which we’ve been fighting to deny.  But while a soldier surrenders only once, for the alcoholic, surrendering to one aspect of reality just moves us to a new perspective where we have to repeat the process.  Once we accept that our lives are unmanageable, we have to look at our relationships, which points us to our selfishness, which alerts us to our fear, which signals us to look at our connection to god and what it truly means to us.  The greatest paradox is that courage gradually leads us to our spiritual source, and yet it was that source (aka god/HP/ loving-kindness), once we opened the channel, that granted us the courage to change.

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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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