Recover-ING or Recover-ED Alcoholic?

Some folks in AA take issue with the words sun-thru-cracks-in-door“recovering alcoholic,” preferring to classify themselves as having “recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body,”* and thus from alcoholism.

Not me!  Sure, my mind and body are healthy and I’m filled with hope.  Even so, an inner part of me remains as broken today as when I first walked into the rooms.  To me, that’s a gift.  Knowing I’m intrinsically flawed motivates me reach for god’s love each day by actively loving what is.

As long as my recovery’s a process rather than a check-box, the doorway is still opening.  There’s always more good stuff to seek – deeper honesty, truer humility, simpler joy.  I’ll never classify myself as a “success,” a done deal.

Here’s a little story about why.

Ten years ago, I was church liaison for an AA group that met in a wealthy neighborhood. For years, the church complained that we left cigarette butts in their parking lot. Homegroup meetings addressed this problem with lots of announcements and a two-person outdoor cleanup team. During our final winter, I served as Official Butt-Ranger myself, scouring the lot with my headlamp long after everyone had left, picking up every soggy thing that could possibly be construed as a butt. Even so, the complaints continued and we were finally given notice.

I phoned the church and asked to speak directly with the priest since our meeting, which drew over 150 drunks every week, would be tough to relocate.   What a huge and diverse crew we were!

In addition to plenty of wise old-timers and on-fire yearlings, the group included several mentally ill regulars. A muttering homeless guy, Dave, came for the coffee and smelled sooooo atrocious you couldn’t sit within three chairs of him. But you could observe each week’s unsuspecting newcomers as they took a seat next to him and, stage by stage, awakened to that fact.

We also had a schizophrenic young man I’ll call Harold, who occasionally suffered irrepressible outbursts at someone not there and had to be escorted from the room. To deal with this, we designated an un-official rotating service position of “Harold-shepherd.”

I also recall an adorable little curly-haired blonde girl I’ll call Robin who, as she shared, would gradually flush beet red until she was glaring around the room and barking out, “Fuck you ALL! I don’t give a FUCK what you think of me!” Whether to kick out little Robin came up frequently at homegroup meetings, but someone always agreed to have a talk with her, after which she’d contain herself for a few weeks.

Something wasn’t right in these and many others present, but we all kept coming back for the same reason: the meeting helped us.

Eventually, the priest called me at my work. Explaining to him, as I had in many emails to his office, that the butts were not ours, I suggested the nearby freeway exit might be somehow related. He said he thought that unlikely. Abruptly, his tone became frank.

“Listen, I’ve sat in on one of your meetings and I was very unimpressed. There’s swearing! People slop their coffee and don’t clean it up. They speak out of turn. Now you – you sound like an intelligent, well-educated woman. How can you sit with these people week after week and listen to the same drivel over and over?”

A little taken aback, I explained: “Some of those people have only one day sober.  They slop coffee cause they’re shaking so bad. Or a few might be close to killing themselves, so slopping coffee’s just not that big a deal. We mop up afterwards. We clean everything.” I decided to risk quoting one of the meeting’s old-timers: “In AA, we don’t shoot our wounded.”

The priest scoffed. “Wounded? I don’t see anything wounded about ‘em. They’re just lazy and selfish and immature!”

This was too much. Part of me wanted to fire back, “Jesus fucking Christ, man! Who’d want to listen you driveling on Sunday after Sunday? I’ll take drunks over your hypocritical ass any day!” Instead I thanked him respectfully for the many years of allowing us to meet in his church and agreed to be out by the end of next month.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Jesuit, offers a fascinating critique of Christianity. He points out that admitting our brokenness is crucial to letting god in – through our wounds, the cracks in our shell. Jesus healed the sick and banded with outcasts, not the well-to-do. Only when defeat forces us to admit powerlessness is the ego is quelled enough to shut up and let us receive.

Emperor Constantine



By contrast, once Christianity became Rome’s official religion 313 A.D., it lost touch with the meek and struggling.  Says Rohr, “When you are aligned with Empire, you are forced to prefer a spirituality of achievement, performance, worthiness, and willpower… Conformity to cultural virtue becomes much more important than love of littleness itself or love of any outsider (read ‘sinner’).”**

Me – I ain’t righteous.  I ain’t fixed and never will be.  On daily loan to me from god are my sanity and happiness – and I know it!  The reward is tremendous: acknowledging the remnants of my own brokenness lets me love others through theirs.

I wish I could have taken that priest on a Scrooge-trip to my first AA meeting. My own shaking hands slopped coffee all over the place, which I hoped no one would notice even as I chain-smoked about 12 cigarettes in an hour and dropped candy wrappers under the table, trying my utmost to project a savvy, disinterested coolness that belied the empty, terrified, hopeless, self-disgusted wreck I was inside. In that magic AA room I sensed an energy I could neither identify nor comprehend, but today I can offer the same to newcomers living my past.  Compassion.  Well-wishing.  Patience.  Love.

We moved that old homegroup to a church downtown near a druggie park, but its character changed over time, and after a few years I signed over the lease and switched groups. Homeless Dave froze on the streets years ago. Harold and Robin vanished. Yet the beauty of that inclusive group stays in my heart, a collage of memories exquisitely human in a way that haughty priest (who had not love) will never know.

God breathes love into this leaky skin balloon each day when I ask and open. Like you, I’m a work in progress.


* Alcoholics Anonymous, xiii
**Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations (thanks, Mick M.!)

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Trusting God, Trusting Life

I haven’t had a clue what I’m doing lately. Last night I dreamed I had to perform in a play – you know this one – despite recalling none of my lines, my script turning into a camping catalog, and part of the stage collapsing to reveal a cistern of filthy water – almost like sewage treatment – just underneath. A fiasco, a shit show! That’s how everything feels right now.

Why? Loss – in my case, of a long term relationship doomed by alcoholism. But loss can spur growth. Each time something we’ve been clinging to is wrenched away, our hands are freed to reach for god. In a different dream I had a few weeks before discovering my partner’s duplicity, back when I’d first quit mocking and started reading Codependent No More, I met face to face with the deprivation I’d been choosing in order to keep my “love” intact. Here’s my journal description:

4/17/15: I dreamed last night of a woman sealed in a basement of an old, dilapidated house. We raised the trap door and she had cobwebs and dust all over her bowed head. When she lifted her face to the light, it was ugly but not evil. She had a red clown mouth drawn over her real one – leering, but supposed to be a smile. I felt afraid of her until I saw that her eyes were young and confused. We talked to her, me and these friends of mine who had unearthed her. We offered to let her come with us, and her face lit up with hope. Yes! She’d love that! She wanted to come out of her cave and live.

Christina's World

Christina’s world – Andrew Wyeth

My dream friends, I think, represent the loving AA fellowship I’ve allowed to buoy most parts of my life. But I’ve left behind my inmost part, a soul that craves true intimacy but has always settled for less. This is due to no flaw in AA, but to fear holding me back from full trust in god.  God can’t fix what I won’t offer up. Ironically, it’s always my efforts to protect myself that harm me most.

Whether we’re walking our first days sober or well along in our journey, we have to keep extending our trust day by day, ever beyond our comfort zone. In addiction we trusted the power of booze to fix whatever ailed us – so what if it was temporary? We also trusted our stories: we were victims, uniquely flawed, deeply complex and misunderstood. Both these props collapsed.

AA suggested I chuck this entire way of positioning myself in the world. What I was handed instead were spiritual principles, a compass for living with its rose oriented toward love, humility, usefulness, and gratitude. Dammit! To invest my trust in these spiritual principles meant embracing a god of my understanding – the loving energy that animates the world. But how to do that?

In early sobriety a friend of mine – Aaron G. – taught me his letting go meditation. He would lie down with closed eyes and start by giving god control of his room, everything in it – whether it was messy or clean, etc. Whatever, god, it’s yours. Then he’d shift the spotlight to various areas of his life. Work. Housemates. Sex. Money.  God, I’m done trying to control what’s going on with these things. They’re yours. Next he’d move to his feelings. Sadness. Anxiety. Greed. Vanity.  God please steer me, because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. And last of all, he came to his life itself. If I’m supposed to keep living, let me live. If I’m supposed to die, I’m good with that, too. You made me. You run me. I’m yours.


Your intestines. Nice work!

Sound overly dramatic, that last part? It’s not. What do you know of the trillions of intricately orchestrated processes of mitosis, osmosis, and diffusion keeping you alive right now? How is it that you can eat a crappy breakfast scone and turn it into thought and laughter and you running across the street or picking up a toddler? How do you do this stuff?

“Oh, that’s not god!” reason shrugs. “It’s just nature. Shit happens. The earth has life and it evolved into complex organisms and, you know, it’s science!”

I dare your skeptic to really contemplate this description of photosynthesis*, the molecular process by which plants transform SUNLIGHT into SUGAR, providing the bedrock upon which all of earth’s menagerie is built. See how far you get before you sigh and say: “Dude! That’s a shitload of science. I’m just glad it happens!”

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 10.40.47 AM

Admit it. We know next to nothing.  Each of us is a drooling infant riding a 787 across the Pacific Ocean, grasping nothing of how the plane works or was made, aware only that our basic needs are met. We exist by trust alone, despite whatever stories we propagate about how we engineer our lives. Bullshit. Perhaps for a brief moment, we can acknowledge what bullshit it is.  We can see that god lives us.  But we soon direct our attention elsewhere, sighing, “Well, that’s enough of that!”

Our spiritual practice today can be to continually give up a little more pretense of control, as in Aaron’s meditation, but all day every day.  We can allow in a little more the fact that god and life are one.

Loss is damn painful, for you as for me. Pain urges us to retreat into depression, nursing our wounds in solitude while mindlessly munching glazed donut holes. And addiction is right there, cheering for that plan as the grieving we deserve – because, while that track may be fine for normies, for an alcoholic prone to depression, like me, the next stop is relapse.

That’s why I’m doing the opposite. Here’s what my grieving looks like: I’m climbing too many mountains, going on too many dates, showing up to feed the homeless, speaking at meetings, starting new projects, and buying two baby chicks in the bleak darkness of November. Pain gets dragged along for the ride, like it or not. I entreat god continually for the courage to pursue whatever feels like growth – even if it’s scary – and then I simply blunder ahead, sometimes clumsily, maybe knocking over a vase or two along the way.

“Screwing up is part of being human – part of how we steer the course of who we do and don’t want to be.” Who wrote that? Yours truly at the close of “Being Right versus Just Being.” (Sometimes I teach myself!)  The point its, we don’t have to do this thing perfectly.

A woman emerging from the darkness of her cave doesn’t know which way to head. Trust is walking anyway. It’s striving to be our best, to love god and others, and to live at peace with knowing nothing.

Beneath all this tumult, god is transforming me into a wiser, stronger woman. In that I trust.


Brothers summit



(Sorry, Facebook insists on posting the stupid picture of the photosynthesis text.  I can’t change it.  :(  Try copy and pasting the url instead, and choosing no preview.)


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The Alcoholic’s Power of Choice

“The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink.”

Alcoholic Anonymous, p. 24

Alcoholics cannot choose to not drink.  We lack the power to decide whether or how much alcohol we’ll consume.  If we had that power, we wouldn’t be alcoholics.  We’d just be people who drink too much.

liverIf that’s all there were to it, once we recognized drinking was destroying our love, life, and liver, instead of experiencing  “a complete failure of the kind of defense that keeps one from putting his hand on a hot stove,” we’d yank back our blistered, half-cooked hands and just stop drinking.  We certainly wouldn’t need a program of recovery or a spiritual connection to do so, and I wouldn’t need to write this blog.

Given our powerlessness, then, it really  makes no sense to say, “I’m an alcoholic and I choose not to drink today” – though we often hear that very  line spoken in meetings.  Some saying this may be clueless about their condition.  But others may be using shorthand for the power of choice we alcoholics do retain.  As alcoholics we have one daily, hourly, by-the-minute choice that can make or break our sobriety, and this is what it looks like: we can work toward the solution, or we can regress toward the problem.

Tiny TimWhat’s the problem, again?  We’re maladjusted to life.  Drinking was our old solution. Take it away via abstinence, and we’re up shit creek without a paddle.  Undeveloped emotionally, we’re Tiny Tim with his crutch cruelly kicked away.  We still have to cope with and navigate everything that overwhelmed us before, but now try to do so exposed and unarmed.

So the choices we make in sobriety are really about how to render the real world comfortable, livable, and even a joy – by staying in touch with a higher power.  We choose thousands of times every day, not only in our actions but in how we elect to perceive – and every choice will fall into one of those two categories: toward the solution or toward the problem.  Which wolf do you feed?

When newcomers ask me, sometimes desperately, what’s going fill that empty chasm in their gut, what’s ever going to take the place of alcohol and drugs, the solution is hard to verbalize because it resembles a sense they don’t have yet, or a feeling they haven’t experienced since they were little kids.  The solution is LOVE, for everything and everyone – and the unshakable conviction that love is everything.  Mind you, when I heard that kind of stuff in early sobriety, I felt like, “What the fuck good is that?!  I heard that crap in a Beatles song a long time ago and it doesn’t do anything!  I need help NOW!”

Don Miguel Ruiz offers this gem of a prayer at the close of The Four Agreements:

Today, Creator of the Universe, …help us to be like you are, to love life, to be life, to be love.  Help us to love the way you love, with no conditions….  Help us to love and accept ourselves without any judgement, because when we judge ourselves, we find ourselves guilty and we need to be punished.

That’s the destination: freedom to love ourselves and others.  The steps are a means of getting there – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.  Everything we think we know from the past holds us back.  When the fabric of our existence is shot through with fear, we can love only a select few and only on the condition that they be on “our side.”  Ironically, the same guards we’ve built up to protect us from a threatening world constitute the source of our deepest pain, because they also cut us off from god’s love – love that can flow through us and invigorate our souls as we pass it on to others.

Do you know what hell is?  Hell is being cut off from god, from love, from the energy that orchestrates our internal body and connects us to all that lives.  A life of fear and resentment enshrouds us in a thick, impenetrable cell that will not admit the light of god.  We can be busy knowing what’s right and who’s wrong, we can be fighting for ourselves and resenting everyone who gets in our way, we can chase whatever seems to grant us power – and all of it will lead to loneliness and despair!  And if we die with those guards up, we’ll experience hell in the hereafter – unless love cuts through our shell and frees us to seek the light.  (Or at least, so report my fellow Near-Death survivors who did go to hell.)


Sunlight of the spirit.

The 12 steps chip away at those countless false beliefs that made our shells seem necessary in the first place.  We replace our old axioms with new, transparent ones – that whenever we’re upset, it’s because there is something wrong with us; that acceptance grants us the freedom to live and let live; that we need to know where we end and others begin; and that, when necessary, detaching with love is our responsibility.

I can’t choose not to drink.  But I can choose to do what’s necessary to connect with a god who, one day at a time, graces me with sobriety.  I can PRAY for strength and guidance.  I can PRACTICE the self-care that nurtures me.  I can PAUSE whenever I sense I’m headed down a wrong path – toward resentment, self-pity, or irresponsibility.  I can ACT by walking out the door to a meeting I don’t think I need, where I do service I don’t admit is important, or pick up sponsees I don’t have time for.  I can feel GRATITUDE for a beautiful life I threw away countless times in my drinking.  I can OFFER kindness, encouragement, and help to those in need – i.e. everyone.  And, most important, I can choose to LOVE whatever life brings me, moment by moment by moment.

It’s not about just not drinking anymore.  These choices, I find, bring me heaven on earth.




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And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment… Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.

                                                                                                                  -Paul O.                                                                                             “Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict”

Acceptance was the topic at my homegroup last night, and I’ve been thinking about it since.  The only sane response to life, acceptance is also the arch-nemesis of ego, which much prefers its minions – denial, control, and resentment.  Ego says, “What is shouldn’t be!”  Acceptance says, “What is, is.  Now what?”

Acceptance Oops!is closely tied to humility and surrender. Our faith in a higher power lets us surrender to the workings of a universe beyond our comprehension, or to the irrevocable fact that we just stepped in dog shit.  Life brings a lot of what we don’t want, and we’re often powerless over it: the dinosaurs didn’t screw up in any way; neither do victims of disaster and disease.  Other times, we do play a part. Maybe we were too busy daydreaming to watch where we stepped.  Either way, acceptance means being honest with ourselves about what transpires or exists, whether we like it or not.

Last night a young newcomer shared that the hardest things for her to accept had been that A) she was alcoholic and B) that abstinence was, according to the medical community, the sole way to arrest her disease.  Her voice, still ringing with that forlorn loss of her best friend and coping tool, reminded me of the savage fight I’d put up years ago against those same facts.  Real alcoholics did X and Y, and I didn’t – so I wasn’t.

But awareness of the truth grows ever so slowly in our bones, no matter what skeletonrationalizations our brains light up as the neon truth of the day.  Layer by layer, truth gathers substance beneath our superficial mind babble until it grows too prominent for us to stuff into the strongbox of denial any longer.  For years I’d been a maybe alcoholic or even a sure but who gives a fuck? alcoholic. Yet there came a day, a minute, a second – yes – when I acknowledged reality: addiction ran my life, and I didn’t know how to live otherwise.

So it goes, to an extent, with every acceptance.  The process can take years or seconds.  In 1998, driving down a familiar street that passes under a highway, my partner and I encountered a handful of pedestrians mulling in the middle of the road with no inclination to step out of our way.  When I looked where they were looking, I saw a Metro bus in an odd place – the rockery of an apartment building – with its middle accordion bent at a sharp angle.  Dust hung thick.  Piles of what looked like dirty laundry littered the grass nearby.  I took in all the pieces, but they made no sense to me until, like a bowling ball rolling down the alley of my mind, the thought struck: look up.

When I craned my neck to peer up at the highway fifty feet above, I saw… open air where the guardrail should be and something hanging by its wires – an inverted lamppost.  Those little piles of laundry were bleeding, suffering human beings flung where they lay.  I still remember the fight my mind put up: This can’t have happened, can’t be true!  It was not unlike the silent fight I waged when my boss told me the best job I’d ever had had just been cut; or after I picked up my cell phone and was told I had cancer; or when I looked at my boyfriend’s texts and learned he’d been seeing a girl from work for years.  The mind whirls, searching for outs.  But denial, in big cases like those, is like a frantic little terrier scratching at a closed steel door.  The weight of the facts precludes wrangling.  Shit. has. happened.

Thank god I have a place where I can speak of my loss, my fears, my broken heart and be heard and hugged by friends or even strangers with full hearts – people who carry the message of god: everything’s gonna be okay.

In daily life, what’s denied may be less dramatic, yet we go through the same process of looking for outs and telling preferred stories about what’s going on.  This bill is so stupid I don’t need to pay it.  It’s not gossip if I only tell one person.  I waste a little time on Facebook.  My shit’s so together now, so I don’t need meetings.  It’s not my fault.  I never promised.  Just one won’t hurt.  The list goes on.  Because if there’s no undeniable steel door, that little denial terrier is likely to scamper down a happier avenue, a story we make up to avoid whatever truth we’d rather not accept.  All the red flags of non-reality we take for roses along our hallucinated garden path.

garden path

As Don Miguel Ruiz puts it:

We only see what we want to see… We have the habit of dreaming with no basis in reality… Because we don’t understand something, we make an assumption about the meaning, and when the truth comes out, the bubble of our dream pops and we find out it was not what we thought at all.

Life strikes me as a series of popping bubbles. After I’d accepted my alcoholism, I had to accept the need to let god change me via the steps.  Next, I had to accept my character defects – all my selfish fears and judgments.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, I somehow ended up in Al-Anon where I became aware of my codependent people-pleasing.  I also learned the Three A’s of Al-Anon: Awareness, Acceptance, & Action.  With annoying pithiness, these three words sum up the entire process of emotional and spiritual growth.  I have to recognize a problem before I can accept it; only then can I ask, “so, what now?” and begin to change.

Acceptance most certainly does not mean giving up.  I accept getting old.  But having accepted my arthritic left foot, messed up meniscus, radiation-scorched lung, and the general creakiness of life in my 50s does ballet shoesnot stop me from killin’ it in advanced ballet class.  An extra half-hour warm-up, trimmed Dr. Scholl’s pads, pre-class ibuprofen, and all the weird stretches I’ve invented – these are the changes I’ve made, along with knowing those first fifteen minutes are gonna hurt.  But after that,  I’m 26 again – all music and technique – and grateful, so grateful!  I take the same approach with every obstacle life throws at me.  I accept the unpalatable truth: Dammit – this is how it is!  Then I ask what tools, what changes, what creativity can I use to make the best of this?  The answers always come if I’m honest, open-minded, and willing.



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Prescribed Relapse

Doctor with Stethoscope“I’m happy to tell you the surgery went quite well, so you’re going to be on the mend!  Obviously, you’re going to have some pain from this, so what I’ll just do is ruin your life, happiness, and relationships by giving you an opiate.  Sound good?  So… you’ll start off taking it according to these directions I’m jotting until, of course, your brain’s addictive wiring trumps your reason – haha, just like the old days! – and you find yourself helplessly abusing it.  Eventually, I’d like to see you transition to your drug of choice.  When you do that is up to you, but within a couple months, you should find yourself back in full-on relapse.  Okay?  Does that sound good?  I’ll just call it in now.”

If only doctors actually said this, we alcoholic-addicts might have a better chance of protecting our sobriety from the pain management substances that work fine for normies (i.e. non-addictive people).  The trouble is that, even today, the vast majority of doctors don’t get recovery.  They see before them a reasonable and sane person who, they assume, will self-administer a prescribed drug reasonably and sanely.

What they don’t get is that we’re different. Our brains are forever like a duplex we share with an insatiable lunatic who is temporarily napping.  Rap on its door with an opiate and – no matter how intently we self-manage the dosage – once that beast wakes up, all bets are off.  It’ll rage, it’ll bust shit up, it’ll burn the whole damn house down, motherfucker.  Because that beast has a hold on us more powerful than anything that well-meaning doctor can possibly imagine.

It’s more powerful than reason, than resolve, than all things human.  It’s run our lives before, and it’s psyched to do it again.

I remember the first time I raised my voice at a vicodin2medical authority – my very kind dentist, a British woman – when I was about four years sober.  She’d just extracted one of my molars, and I’d just declined pain meds.  I remember the room we were in when she insisted, because it seemed to shrink and turn more yellow and seal off every doorway connecting me to AA.  I could feel the excitement rise in my chest: Meds!  Something GOOD!  There was hope!  Something really delightful perched just on the horizon!  Sure, I’d take ’em sensibly!  Of course!

…And I can’t say where it came from, but that small counter-voice, that love for the gift of sobriety and all the goodness it nurtured in my life – that sprang up in me, too.  They fought.  So by the time the words came out my mouth, sloppy from novocain, they were way too loud, too urgent, and too emotional.

“No!  I told you, I’m an alcoholic!”

“Yes, I know.  But this is a very safe drug – Vicodin.  You’ll be fine.”

“No, I won’t!  I’m sober and I want to stay that way!”

I remember the look of distaste on her face, that this normally calm and socially appropriate patient was going off on her.  She tried again, emphasizing the small dosage, but by that point tears spilled from my eyes and I had just one tremulous, throaty word for her: Ibuprofen.  Ibuprofen.  I’ll take ibuprofen…

And I did.  End of anecdote.

I’m not blaming doctors.  They’re rational; it’s we who make no sense!  That’s why the onus is on us to keep out of our lives what docs assure us is safe.   They don’t get Obit Hoffmanthe “curious mental blank spot.”  They haven’t heard the heart-rending shares of misery, helplessness, and loss sometimes dragging on for years – all triggered by a sensible prescription.   I have a huge number of friends in recovery.  And in contrast to the one alcoholic I know who successfully manages back pain with meds her partner doles out, I know at least a dozen who have relapsed catastrophically – not counting those who have died.

I was Facebook messaging with one of them yesterday.  He’s a wonderful guy traveling the country, working odd jobs, and trying to stay off heroin for more than a few months at a time.  But failing.  He had a week.  Here’s what he messaged:

Yah know, if I’d of known what I would become after a few Vicodin, I’d a shoved them up my doctor’s ass!!  I was never into opiates as a kid. But eight years into sobriety I hurt myself really really bad, and I guess I needed them. But in hindsight, if I had a choice between acute pain and becoming a heroin addict, I would have probably chose the pain. But whatever.  It’s done.  It’s over, right?” 

Maybe.  Maybe not.  

When we want to drink or use, only god can help us. But when someone else tells us it’s not a problem, we can use our brains.  Remember: the doctor is going to offer you prescripsomething so legitimate, so routine, so neat!  The prospect of those little pills fucking up your life will seem so overly dramatic!  What I do is this: I picture a set of balance scales with two big pans.  On one side I put the prospect of perturbing my doctor, making a stink, sounding like an uncooperative bitch, no one getting it, and, quite likely, some physical pain.  On the other side I put every blessing I’ve won back sober, every person I love, every friend who needs me, my self-respect, my inner dignity, my body’s health, my spirit’s channel to god – and every beauty and joy of this life.

Then I bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Don’t you dare fuck with my sobriety!”  But it’s right there – that sense of defending what I love.

If your pain is such that you’ve absolutely got to take some meds, agree to a prescription of five pills.  Maybe eight.  Then call someone for each goddam pill you take and say, “It is 4:00, and I am taking a percocet now.”  Draw up a chart to keep exact track of what time you dosed, whom you called, and whom you’re calling next.  Stay in touch with your sponsor.  And as soon as you can, switch to ibuprofen and get the pills out of your house.  Do nothing alone because – remember – you’re not really alone: there’s that beast in the duplex, and you’re making a racket.

I recall the sadness I felt flushing the three remaining Vicodin I’d been given post-surgery.  The magic was gone.  Now there was just me… and my stupid old life.  It took about five minutes for gratitude to return: the vial was empty, but my future was full.  I was sober.


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The Serenity Prayer

The word prayer repulsed me in early sobriety, and in some ways it’s still glitchy. It can call to mind a penitent worshiper hunched over clasped hands in some austere setting – and for the non-religious, that just ain’t us! So I’ve come up with ways to make prayer real to me – since fortunately, religion has no monopoly on access to god.

It’s amazing how many people assume it does – that spiritual DSC03916seeking and religion are inseparable.  That’s like claiming I-5 is the only way to get from Seattle into Canada.  Not true.  Recently, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I jumped in and out of Canada about five times in few seconds, just for fun.  You can always find your own pathway to god; the important thing is that you seek it with your deepest sincerity.

So instead of prayer, I just frickin’ talk to god. I may gab away and cuss and laugh, or I may get on my knees and weep, depending on how I feel. I may address my lost sister, or guardian angel, or the font of all that lives. Whatever works.

But what do I say?
Fear-based prayers are an extension of self – and a very natural one. All day, from the moment we wake, we’re responsible for meeting our own material needs. We engage our brains and bodies to make shit happen. I want a bagel so I open the fridge and get one. I want it toasted, so I get a knife to slice it and then pop that baby in the toaster. By applying skills, I get what I want.

Problems arise when we apply this approach to spiritual life: I feel restless, irritable, and discontent, so I gulp down some booze and get what I want – relief.  Great!  But fast-forward to the point where that survival tactic has quit working, so I’ve suffered agony at the level of emotional disembowelment, finally become willing, and – with god’s help – gotten sober.

Now I need new ways to fix those old pains, but I don’t know it. So it’s only natural that I try a skills approach: I identify the external problems I think are responsible – the people, places, and things I perceive as fucking up my happiness – and try to manage them to suit my needs.

It doesn’t work.  Dammit!  So I try harder.   Still, no dice.

Now I’m freaking out.  Will I ever get X?  Oh my god, does this mean I’ll always be stuck with this crappy Y?  What’s that I’m hearing in the rooms?  Ask god for help?

Okay… I turn to prayer: “God, please put this damn life-bagel in the goal-toaster for me. It should be toasted.  Surely you can see this. Thank you!  Your child, Louisa.”

Anxious prayerI may think of it as supplication rather than giving god orders. Still, however respectful I may be, I’m backseat-driving the universe. And it doesn’t work!  Yes, god may make some related good of my prayers (especially if they’re for others), but it won’t involve my specific bagel.  The great danger here is that I can feel ignored and get pissed… and turn my back on god.

True prayer, as Richard Rohr and others have written, is not about managing the world. It’s about changing ourselves. It’s about strengthening our relationship to god and accessing the power that god can channel into our lives.


Enter, Serenity Prayer

Thank you, Reinhold Niebuhr, for writing this gorgeous prayer for a Sunday service in Heath, MA, in 1943.* You could not have imagined the role it would play in so many lives today.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The prayer asks god to change us, to help us grow beyond whatever we ourselves can muster. We can say it over and over, thinking about what it means, how it moves us.   At different times it takes on different nuances.

Here, unpacked and named, is some of what this prayer can mean for me:  God,

grant me = help me, because I can’t seem to do this myself; I need your love, your guidance, your gifts
the serenity = to fricking calm the fuck down about this stuff, to quit panicking, to quit judging, to let go this urgency
to accept = to allow into my reality, to acknowledge as what is, to give up shoulding on and just let it be true – because it already is
the things I cannot change, = the past, what’s happening, how this person is, what they won’t do, everything I don’t like and wish were different… that isn’t me
the courage = a conviction, faith stronger than my fears, a power drawn from my inmost heart, a little spark of you
to change = to take action, to re-see, to step out into empty space, to quit procrastinating, to dare, to just do it !
the things I can = attitudes & assumptions & habits that don’t bring goodness, cycles I’m stuck in, people I hang out with, my default defects.  Reluctance to begin those baby steps of action I’ve been too afraid or proud to take
and the wisdom = god-inspired honesty, open-mindedness, faith, harvest from the experiences you’ve already given me
to know the difference = to intuit what’s my business and what’s yours


Good thing it’s a lot shorter, eh?  But for me it still carries all that meaning.

I don’t know that I’ve ever, in 20 years of saying this shit, had a problem instantly vanish.  With bigger issues, sometimes the best I can hope for is for me to shed a layer of denial or feel a little less pain.

But the courage part has been literal and concrete. This prayer has emboldened me to act where I’ve been scared and reluctant: I’ve made phone calls, shown up at events, applied for jobs, thrown parties, forgiven rosietheriveterpeople, entered dance studios, climbed volcanoes, started a business, and walked into the mountains alone – all deeds inspired by this little prayer.  And those actions do transform my reality incrementally, with a cumulative effect beyond anything I could envision or orchestrate.

Ultimately, the Serenity Prayer condenses into twenty-seven words the essence of all 12 Steps: surrendering of self and the willingness to collaborate with god to cultivate meaning and integrity in our lives.

Never underestimate it, no matter how many cutesy places you see it embroidered!  It’s a compact tool we can carry in our back pockets like a humble but priceless compass.




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Filed under AA, Al-Anon, Alcoholism, Faith, Recovery, Serenity Prayer, Sobriety, Spirituality, Twelve Steps

Awkwardness ~ !!!

Hi.  So I’m Louisa.

This is my blog.   Yeah.  It’s about alcoholism and spirituality.

I write it – the blog, I mean.

This one’s about…. AWKWARDNESSSSSSS

What the hell is it?  Why the hell does it happen? What’s the feeeeling it causes, and why does alcohol take it away?  Is it really so torturous that some of us, cornered at a dumb-ass party that in truth means nothing to us, are tempted to throw away our life-saving sobriety just to fit in?

awkward-momentOf course, awkwardness doesn’t strike just at parties and weddings and barbecues. It’s everywhere. It can plague us as we try to mingle after an AA meeting: I remember storming away from a smokers’ crowd in 1998 cursing them all – “Fuck ‘em! Fuck ‘em! Fuck ‘em!” – with every step.  Friends today Facebook about ducking down grocery aisles or waiting to leave their house until they can avoid an acquaintance or neighbor.

The dreaded nightmare?  It’s that bumbling, uncertain, inadequate feeling – awkwardness.

What’s the experience?
Awkwardness, I would say, is an involuntary onset of stiffness, verbal paralysis, and general lack of spontaneity that comes over us in conversation in such a way that we can’t think of good stuff to say, and stuff we do say sounds incredibly stupid.  We feel encased in something, as if our mind were struggling to sprint in a five-inch-thick wet suit.

What I still count as my all-time most awkward moment happened for no reasoncartoon whatsoever.  I was 17 and reading a textbook in the sun on the front steps of our house when our neighbor came through the gate calling hello – a young, cheery woman I idolized as cool. What we talked about, I have no idea. But for some reason, the intensity of awkwardness I underwent in those minutes is branded forever on my memory – I’d have gladly sawed off my left leg for a supply of witty rejoinders, and by the time she left, I longed to commit hari-kiri.

But then something rare followed: a passing moment of self-compassion. I reflected that I was like a student driver new to adult roads, still unskilled and unsure of the rules. I thought, “Maybe some day I’ll get good at social driving.  Maybe someday, I’ll always know what to say.”

Enter Alcohol
As it turned out, I was on the brink of discovering a drastic shortcut to an Indy 500 social experience: booze. That’s right!  Alcohol is not only liquid courage, butcool cat liquid ANTI-AWKWARD.  A few drinks and we “loosen up” so we can converse smoothly and easily.  We’re suddenly cool cats.  A few more and we just don’t give a fuck.  What a simple switch to flip: wracked with self-consciousness  ⇒  charming, maybe even scintillating  ⇒  “I fuckin’ love you guys!”

But what really happened?  What does the drug change in us?

Self-judgment.  Self-monitoring.  As noted in my previous blog, alcohol compromises the prefrontal cortex, responsible for monitoring impulsive behavior.  The trouble for many of us alcoholics (and codependents) is that for a variety of reasons, we tend to over-monitor.  In fact, we censor ourselves right out of perfectly valid expressions and sharings right and left.  But the good news is, if we do this to ourselves, then with god’s help we can learn to un-do it – sans alcohol.

Over the course of my sobriety, I’ve found it possible to make peace with awkwardness by drawing back the curtain on that little wizard generating all the noise and smoke.  Another approach is to go ahead and embrace awkwardness as a precious part of being human and flawed.  And the third is to simply remind myself that all moments pass, so even if I were to find myself living out a “forgot to wear pants” dream, ultimately I’d be okay.

What’s really going on?
Okay, you’re not gonna like this.  I know for me, any time I’m feeling awkward, I’m also feeling selfish and self-centered.  Selfishness for the alcoholic is such a deeply ingrained defect, one “driven by a thousand forms of fear,” that we may not realize we’re in its grip.Womensayinghi

I’m afraid you won’t like me.

I’m afraid I’m boring.

I’m afraid I’ll reveal ignorance.

I’m afraid – let’s just sum it up – that you’ll figure out I’m not good enough.

So since I secretly believe I’m not good enough, I have to falsely impress you.  While my conversation may seem motiveless on the surface, it’s actually an attempt to manipulate you into a favorable view of me that, deep down, I believe I don’t deserve.  I’m busy crafting an image, doing PR work with every nod, every chuckle, every response.

And it’s a fuck of a lot of work!

In fact, it’s so much work that my poor brain doesn’t have enough bandwidth left to actually be interested in you, in what you’re saying or feeling or whatever the hell we’re purportedly talking about.

I want something from you.  Approval.  Increased trust.  Intimacy.  I probably don’t even know what it is, but at some level I fear my ship will sink without it.  YOU are a means to an end…  and our conversation, interesting or needed as it may be, is really all about ME and my needs.

What’s the alternative?
Sorry, guys, but here we go again!  The way out is Step 3.  It’s trusting god.  It’s having made a decision to live from a place of knowing that my worth derives from god’s love – and that god is not wrong to love me.  I have inherent worth.  I am trying.  I have love and kindness to offer.  Further, regardless of whether our conversation turns to a big fat stinky turd on fire, I will still be worthy and lovable.  I don’t need you to like me.  What will be, will be.  I trust god that, just by being loving and useful, I can play the role I’m meant to.

What happens when we adopt this attitude?  Amazing things!  I can pay attention.  I can wonder about you.  I can think clearly about what I really mean, what would be helpful, what I have to offer you.  And I’m free!  God has sliced through the five-inch-thick wet suit to let me out so I can dance!  I laugh, say what I think, am playful – and it’s fun!  I’m able to love you for just being you.  All this I can do stone. cold. sober.

Embracing Awkwardness
Let’s face it, there are times when I do want something from someone, because I’m human.  Recently, for instance, I was on a group hike with a guy I found attractive – the first spark I’d felt since the demise of my relationship.  So guess what?  Whenever we two were alone, I felt awkward.  I couldn’t think of shit to say, or I said “stupid” shit, and three-second silences loomed like eternities.  But I forgave myself for it.  “How cute we are,” I thought, “all awkward and goofy like this!  How predictable I am, like a high schooler!”  Even awkwardness, reminding us we’re alive, can be a gift.

And Besides, No One Cares!
Eleanor Roosevelt, that great vanquisher of personal awkwardness, left us with this gem on the topic:

“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

We’re all self-centered by nature, each of us the central protagonist of our world’s story. Everyone’s too busy thinking about themselves to dwell on anything we say or do.

Lastly, there’s that bit of AA wisdom: “What you think of me is none of my business.” We’re here to be kind, loving, and useful.  Let others make of it what they will.



Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Codependency, living sober, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality