10 Principles for Living Sober

FoodinBagA few weeks ago, I asked a clerk and bagger if they’d watch the sack of groceries I’d just bought while I ran back for another item.  When I returned, my groceries were gone and they felt terrible – so terrible that the bagger walked the aisles with me trying to help me remember what I’d bought.  But without the receipt we couldn’t recall much.  I’d picked up a number of things on impulse.

“You know,” she said after we’d covered the store with little success, “this deal is on us.  Really, you can just fill a bag with–.”

“Corn flakes!” I remembered.

But I soon drew another blank, so she urged a little harder. “It ends up as a theft write off, so you can just go for it.  Anything you want is fine with us!”

True, I’m a single mom and always short of money, so almost everything I looked at, I wanted.  Fancy jams and teas – mmm.  Maple syrup.  Organic soaps.  Mega-vitamins.

I left with a half-filled bag containing only what I distinctly remembered buying.

Question:  Why?  Am I going for sainthood?  Do I get a bang out of feeling superior?  Do I think god keeps score?

Answer: None of the above.  The fact is, I’m a doomed alcoholic who’s graced with sobriety one day at a time.  I’m not mindlessly drinking myself to death right now due solely to the power and guidance of my new employer – god as I understand god.  In each situation, I have just one prime directive: Do the most good I can for all concerned. 

The store was concerned; having my stuff stolen did not mean I could steal from it.

During active alcoholism, I lived by a slightly different prime directive: Do the most good I can for Louisa.  In every situation, I considered what would most benefit me.  What would make me feel good?  What might pay off later by making me feel even better?  If there were negative consequences, what eventual rewards might outweigh them? Certain people’s esteem was worth more than others’ pain or anger.  Gradually, navigating by my own best interest, I ruined my life.

Ruby slippersSo I quit that game.  What I seek now is clarity.  How I find it is by living in alignment with my HP’s prime directive, which I will here attempt to unravel as my own 10 principles for living sober gleaned from the Big Book, my fellows, and my own stepwork. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Be where you say you’ll be and do what you say you’ll do.  (Choose Integrity)

2. Think of others as you’d have them think of you.  (Choose compassion)

3. Be honest with yourself always, and with others short of reckless harm. (Choose reality)

4. Give as much kindness as you possibly can to every being you encounter. (Choose love) 

5. Avoid gossip – and envy, which fuels internal gossip. (Choose respect)

6. Do not flirt either as or with a committed person. (Choose honor)

7. Let others be in charge of what’s best for them. (Choose detachment)

8. Pay attention to all you do and how it squares with your values. (Choose awareness)

9. Be grateful for everything – everything – everything. (Choose humility)

10.  Know that god loves you the same way you love small, helpless creatures, only a billion times more – whether you’re in your body or out of it – so try loving yourself that way, and love god for loving the world.  (Choose faith)

~

Now that I’ve written them all out, it looks like an awful lot of rules!  But I don’t think of them distinctly – more as Miguel Ruiz’s Fourth Agreement, “Always do your best.”

My agreement with god – my way of acknowledging  sobriety as a gift I’m graced with – is simply to try my best in each situation to do the most good I can for all concerned,  which means applying the above 10 principles.  For example, #3 and #8 mean I don’t eat meat by denying the horrors of factory ‘farms,’ or even shop at Walmart; #4 means being of service.  Sometimes the rules conflict and I have to work out what “most good” means.  For instance, to follow #5 – don’t gossip – I may reply “I don’t know” when I pretty much do.  Or to fulfill #6 – don’t flirt – I may pretend to be indifferent when I’m not.  But those bits of dishonesty fall under the “short of reckless harm” proviso in #3.

Then there’s the Al-Anon piece.  Up until a few years ago, I thought #4 – giving kindness and love – was to be practiced unconditionally.  You could treat me like shit and I’d just keep showing up with love, giving you the benefit of the doubt and killin’ you with kindness.  Al-Anon’s “Don’t be a doormat” applied, I assumed, only to codependent wives and mothers slaving selflessly for those who used them.

It took blatant abuse from those closest to me to drive home the fact that I need to recognize and respond to toxicity in others. People’s behavior tells me what they’re made of.  If I overlook continuous patterns, I’m lying to both myself and them.

Detachment (#7), I’ve learned, applies to letting other people think of me as they choose: I can’t make them understand me.  I can’t make them return goodwill no matter how much I beam their way.  At a certain point, loving myself as god loves me (#10) means I have to set boundaries.  Tortoises carry shells and roses sprout thorns for good reason: we often need protection to hold our own.

tortoise-roseOf course there are plenty of times I screw up – times I choose fear, choose anger, choose self.  Sometimes I wallow in loneliness and self-pity.  Plus I once ordered a cheap tent from Walmart.  But I never give up and say “fuck doing what’s right.”  As soon as clarity returns, I own my mistakes and do my best to clean things up.  It’s actually the easier, softer way, because I get to live in a beautiful, love-bright world with like-minded people.

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Step 3 and Happiness

I’ll have 21 years sober on Friday, which is kinda unbelievable to me.  That’s long enough to be of age to drink.  Where did the time go?  How did I get so friggin’ old?

No matter.  My life’s damn good.  On this ordinary Saturday I slept in til 8:00, then texted alternately with two sober friends – one joking about the “sober paws,” the other mired in grief, both of which I get: life lived fully awake is both a blast and painful as hell.  Meanwhile, my 14-year-old son put an adolescent chicken on my head, because he and I are close and sometimes like toAdolescent chick let our chicks scuttle around the house like cheeping Keystone Cops.  I soon left for a ballet class where, keeping up with an advanced group, I nailed a few turns and jumps that pleased me.  Came home to write this so I could postpone cleaning my house for the big fat 21st birthday party I’m throwing a week from tonight.  Just normal life, and I’m happy.

Twenty-one years ago, I felt alone in a dead, condemning world from which I longed to vanish.

What’s made the difference?

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.

When I first tried Step 3, I completely misunderstood it.  I thought I was supposed to give up my will and live exclusively by god’s.  Short of lying down and waiting for a windstorm or something to throw me into action, how was that possible?  But that’s not even remotely what the step says.  Look at the exact wording: we still have our will, but we’ll turn it over to god’s care.  Or at least, we make a decision to do so.  God’s will, you’ll note, isn’t mentioned.

Personally, I have a problem with the notion of god’s will or god’s plan for me.  Why?  Because each strikes me as a product of needWill strives to realize an intention; plan foresees a chain of events that will bring about something desired.  I don’t see god as having either.

People in my Near Death Experiences group who’veGalton Board been shown their futures describe it more as a 3-D Plinko board of endlessly branching possibilities.  They say the spirit showing it to them had no agenda – any series of choices was dandy, including death.  My own NDE was different: I was told “You’re not finished” and sent back against my will, revived by CPR despite lethal levels of drugs still in my system. 

So let’s just say, if god does have a will or plan for each of us, it’s a super flexible one.  Let’s say you planted two tiny genetically identical elm tree seedlings 50 feet apart.  Then you came back 100 years later to find two huge, swaying, graceful elm trees.  Would you expect them to be identical?  Would one of them be wrong?  Of course not.  Because each grew into its own uniqueness.  Incomprehensibly detailed variations make up the richness of this world.  And if god wants anything for us, it’s that we grow into our incomprehensibly unique selves.

Unfortunately, growth seems a lot more complicated for humans.  The trouble comes from dealing with fear and pain, and encountering the voice of ego which promises to protect us from both.  I grew up with so much fear and pain that I poured all my trust into ego.  What else was there?!  As an alcoholic, I found booze boosted ego’s power, generating a workable substitute for the self-worth I lacked.  My world shrank smaller and smaller as I pursued ease and comfort in the bottle.  I learned nothing about myself or how to live.  I hit bottom as a 15- year-old girl in 34-year-old body.

Step Three opens the door for learning.  AA’s “psychic change” is what happens when we stop listening to ego and start seeking a deeper truth.  Good Orderly Direction (GOD) was the term offered to help me ease into my own conception of god.  I learned to subject each idea to this test: does it feel like Good Orderly Direction?

GODWorking the 12 steps with a sponsor exemplified Good Orderly Direction.  The process taught me spiritual principles – like gratitude, humility, love, and service – that shape a worthwhile life.  I learned that they’re realized through daily acts of empathy and kindness, and that when I live in accordance with them, I can generate self-esteem by doing esteemable acts.

I’ve learned that meditation pays off in the ability to distinguish my awareness from my thoughts.  A babble of ego-thoughts still passes constantly through my brain – stories of envy, self-pity, resentment, and how I could fix everything.  Today I can detach (usually) from them, knowing (usually) that they’re worthless.  I can sometimes glean the aftertaste of regret before I do the wrong thing.

I’ve learned that, for me, the biggest challenge of sobriety is self-honesty.  Honesty with others is easy: I’m an open book.  But to change the things I can, I have to be willing to see the need for change – and I don’t like to. I’d rather pretend things are fine. Or, if I do make a bid for change, it’s still a challenge to do the footwork and then LET GO of the results.  Whenever I’m obsessing – needing to get what I want or for someone else to do/see what I want – I’m trying to boss reality, to shape it to my will – which is obviously  insane.  So the more life beats me up, the better I get at letting go.

As a result, I’ve learned some of most freeing stuff: that what seems urgent is usually not important, and what’s important is usually not urgent.  I’ve learned the wisdom of “Don’t just do something!  Sit there!”  Life flows around me; people flow in and out of my life; I’m powerless over virtually all of it.  My attitude alone is mine to choose, but no longer mine to choose alone.

 

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AA Newcomer Fears

My newest sponsee and I were reading the Big Book together the other night, with me passing on to her all the margin notes my sponsor passed on to me so many years ago. When we got to this passage in The Doctor’s Opinion, I had her change the pronouns as my sponsor had had me do:

Men and women I drink essentially because they I like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they I admit it is injurious, they I cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them me, their my alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are I am restless, irritable and discontented, unless they I can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks—drinks which they I see others taking with impunity. After they I have succumbed to the desire again, as so many do, and the phenomenon of craving develops, they I pass through the well-known stages of a spree, emerging remorseful, with a firm resolution not to drink again. This is repeated over and over, and unless this person I can experience an entire psychic change there is very little hope of his my recovery.

Next I asked her (as I’d been asked) to read it aloud and tell me if she identified.  Over the years, the response has varied, but for newcomers seeing this passage for the first time, it’s often tears.  One tough, independent woman of Inuit descent, single mom to a disabled boy, could not finish reading the passage  for weeping.  She murmured, “This is me.  This is my life.”

(But her life changed.  She’s been sober nine years.)

My current sponsee has a few years sober, but she, too, was moved.  In the silence following her simple “Yes,” I could see her  travel back in time.  She said, “I remember… I came home after my first AA meeting, and I sat on the couch, and I just cried and cried and cried.  Life seemed over.  I couldn’t see the future – anything – without alcohol.”

Though it’s been almost 21 years, when I’m sitting with an alcoholic who remembers, I, too, remember my first meetings.  I knew I was an alcoholic.  I still couldn’t speak those words, but inside I’d rounded that corner.  Yet the vacuous terror of living without booze, of identifying with AA crap, and going to meetings for the rest of my life, felt like such a horrific, endless nightmare that I almost preferred to slop my drunken way toward death – privately.

Here are some of the things I feared:moonshine

  • My life would be boring
  • I’d have to pretend to like stupid AA people
  • AA would feel cultish like an Amway scam
  • I’d never feel deeply relaxed and happy again
  • I’d never feel wildly excited and happy again
  • “Psychic change” was mumbo-jumbo – I’d feel this bad forever
  • Steps 4 and 9 would be degrading, so I wouldn’t do them
  • Step 12 would mean consorting with weirdos, so I’d never do that one, either

Now, AA works by attraction, and I don’t mean to promote anything.  I can only report what I’ve experienced and how I’ve changed, and maybe offer tidbits of advice.  I’m just one sober drunk.

  • Meetings vary tremendously, but if they’re based in the Big Book, they’re about the solution.  I got sober at folksy meetings in Olympia, then switched to lesbian meetings in Seattle.  For a few years I preferred hipster meetings where everybody had tats and pierces and spoke in strings of profanity.  I’ve also felt at home at meetings in Boston, LA, Hawaii, and Greece.  Yet any meeting is only as good as the stepwork of people attending.  I avoid informercial (“everything’s wonderful since I worked the steps!”) meetings, and bitch sessions (“but at least I didn’t drink!”).  Look for meetings with fun people who exude the energy you want, who speak honestly of their struggles but apply the solution.
  • Friendships formed when I started going to gatherings outside meetings.  Old friendships deepen, but I keep making new ones; today I have more friends than time to see them all.  This Sunday I went snowshoeing with five kick-ass sober women who say ‘fuck’ a lot.  We laughed and shared frankly and the young ones dropped their pants for bare-ass-in-the snow pics – which I can’t show you ;).  But each of them has a quiet side, as well; each has known devastating misery.

 

Ks bdaysnowshoe

 

  • Boring is how I’d describe my life of drinking and faking coolness in contrast to the wide-awake, life-savoring ride of sober spiritual growth.  Even the most painful experiences, walked through sober, are valuable teachers.
  • Conformity is an anathema to every alcoholic.  It’s the disease that’s the same for all of us, and the “way out” – i.e. living by spiritual principles.  Through trial and error, we each find our unique spiritual path.  “And how’s that workin’ out for ya?” is all a wise sponsor need ask.
  • The psychic change grew in me oh so gradually as I worked the steps.  Taking Step 3 made me ready for 4-7.  Doing 8 -11 finally opened the door for 12.  Each time I repeat all 12 steps, I see a little deeper.

Have I changed much?  Hell, yeah.  For instance, these past few months I’ve gotten up early every first Saturday and driven downtown to help cook breakfast for about 150 homeless people.  In the past, it was all about me. But last Saturday, on a freezing cold morning, I was dishing out cheesy scrambled eggs, first server on the line.  I greeted each person directly, recalling a few names, with my heart overflowing.  “Nice hat!  Cheesier or less cheesy?  It’s nice and warm in here, and so are these eggs!”  Faces lit up – they thanked us, wished us Happy New Year.  Some laughed with me.  The sausage guy next to me remarked, “Boy, you sure are Miss Sunshine, aren’t ya?”

And I am.  Except it’s not me, not my light.  It’s Light that shines through me because of all I’m connected to.  Today, I have something to give.  And, as that new sponsee texted me the other day, “I’ve never felt so happy in my life!”

 

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Hey, guys!  We are everywhere!  Thanks for 290,000 views in 2015 – and that ain’t even counting RSS, email, or most Facebook tags.  WordPress says you visited from 166 nations.  I never dreamed my little free blog would attract so many readers.

If I’ve helped any of you anywhere to stay sober another day, I’m super grateful.  I mean, sure, I’m glad if people like my writing and stuff, but even gladder that we all share this thing, this gift, and this connection – and “get” each other.  Love to all of you!

 

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Nations in white had no views, yellow few, greenish more, blueish LOTS.

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New Year’s FOMO and other Alcoholic Horsecrap

What is FOMO?  Fear  Of  Missing  Out.

It’s that sinking feeling that someplace you’re not, lots of amazingly cool people are having an absolutely stupendous time. Maybe there’s kickass music and people are lookin’ sharp n’sexy and having a fuckin’ blast and – oh my GAWD!!! Can you believe what those two did?! That is so hilariously outrageous!  It’s not just goin’ aParty-Dancing-Vectorll over Facebook –it’s like a “fun times” montage out of a Hollywood flick!  If you could be there mixin’ it up you’d feel – oh my god – so damn good! You’d be dialed into life, you’d be carpé-ing the fuckin’ diem all night long!   But you’re missing it!

As Katie Perry sings:

Last Friday night

Yeah we danced on tabletops
And we took too many shots
Think we kissed but I forgot

Yeah we maxed our credit cards
And got kicked out of the bar
So we hit the boulevard

We went streaking in the park
Skinny dipping in the dark
Then had a ménage a trois

Yeah I think we broke the law
Always say we’re gonna stop-op
ooh-ohh*

Here’s what the song leaves out: live those lyrics and you end up with a busted ankle from falling off the damn tabletop, years of credit card debt, and maybe even salmonella because you skinny dipped in a fucking duck pond.  You’re lucky if you don’t end up in jail with charges on your record or an STD from the ménage a trois with morons.  Of course, it goes without saying that you’ve poisoned yourself again ‘til you’re heaving up bile.

Lets-partyNo, Katie doesn’t really mention that part. Neither does your FOMO.  It airbrushes away all those pesky consequences and lures us with the promise of a bright and shiny “great time.”

 

It’s Also Called Immaturity
For normies, FOMO spikes in youth when they’re highly peer-oriented, but as they mature into adulthood, FOMO diminishes to a rare blip on the screen. The trouble for alcoholics is, once again, our perspective is skewed.

Our disease carries many tricks in its bag.  Though normies don’t understand, we  often speak of it as having a mind of its own, exploiting whatever ploys avail themselves to keep us using or, in recovery, to trigger relapse.  A lot of alcoholics crave adventure – a sense of living on the edge.  So addiction broadcasts FOMO to persuade us that swallowing a neurotoxin is really the key to livin’ large.

Much like the craving for alcohol, alcoholic FOMO can never be satiated.

For example, New Year’s Eve of 1982, after snorting coke in the car and paying some absurdly high cover charge, my future (ex) husband and I sauntered into a hip and glitzy Boston nightclub. We scored a table near the dance floor, ordered champagne, and lit up our smokes. We danced. But at as the countdown for midnight approached I was struck by the realization I still recall so clearly: We were at the wrong club! The one down the street was way cooler! No one here was even worth impressing because they, too, had fallen for the wrong club!  If only I’d known! If only we’d gone there! I was missing out!!

This pattern would repeat itself for over a decade. I never did find the right club or party or even picnic, because if I was there, a better one had to be someplace else.

Recovery = Reality
FOMO is really just another guise of codependence. It’s not actually a yearning for fun; it’s a belief that we can gain something that will deliver a shot of wellbeing by being seen in the right places doing the right things. At some level, we believe others hold the power to validate us, though we’re actually validating ourselves through projections of those people’s imagined esteem. The esteem has to seem to come from them to be any good – we can’t feel it simply by knowing and valuing ourselves.

More and more I’m convinced most alcoholics are also codependent. The source of pain for all codependents is an external locus of self-worth – often because we grew up in dysfunctional families where we did not get what we needed to develop a strong sense that we are loveable and worthy. We keep chasing and chasing it in others and never getting any closer.

While non-alcoholic (classic) codependents try to subdue their pain by concerning themselves with what others should do and ‘winning’ love by caretaking, alcoholic codependents subdue it not only with alcohol, but with attempts or impress and winCodependent over others, often becoming social chameleons and regarding friends as something like collectible baseball cards.  Active alcoholics can’t really love our friends. We can only seek relief via people – and “love” that relief.

When we get sober, we begin to seek a higher power that can grant us the worth we’ve so desperately sought in all the wrong places. With guidance from sponsors and a growing sense of Good Orderly Direction, we can begin to live a life of integrity that lets us discover our worth as loving and lovable human beings.

But FOMO still nags at us to forget all that. It can wheedle into our minds at any time, but New Year’s Eve is its favorite holiday – especially for the newly sober.

The Big Book’s authors knew all about FOMO.  While they do instruct us “not to avoid a place where there is drinking if we have a legitimate reason for being there” (p. 101), they also caution against attempting to “steal a little vicarious pleasure from the atmosphere of such places.”  They warn us to “be sure you are on solid spiritual ground before you start and that your motive in going is thoroughly good.”  Not just good – thoroughly good.  In other words, don’t bullshit yourself.

In my almost 21 years sober, I’ve never found a thoroughly good reason to go hang with drinkers at a New Year’s Eve party.  I prefer to usher in the new year with a good night’s sleep and a cushy set of earplugs.  Sobriety fills my life to the brim, and I know it.

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* Katie Perry Lyrics – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdyfr4lU8sk

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Spiritual Experience

Sometimes I wish I could loan my faith to others.  At least I felt that way the other night at my homegroup when the topic was “your spiritual experience.”  In share after share, people balanced guarded reservation with the undeniable fact that, once they sincerely asked a higher power for help, their addiction was lifted and a new way of living began for them.  A few also shared that certain inexplicable synchronicities or phenomena had strengthened their faith.

I really hoped to get called on.  If you could raise your hand in AA, I’d have been bouncing in my chair – “Ooo!  Pick me, pick me!”  My faith is HUGE and strong, and I wanted to share it!  I don’t believe – I know ( just like Carl Jung! – this is an awesome, quick clip!).

sky angelsMy addiction memoir recounts the tale of my slow (and ongoing) spiritual awakening.  It tells how there came a definite turning point in 2003 when I finally dropped the walls I’d been holding up against god.  Before that, I’d locked my Near Death Experience (NDE) and subsequent paranormal experiences away in a “not relevant to regular living” vault.  When I was “feeling spiritual,” I’d turn to god; otherwise it was was business as usual.  Weird Thing #9 led up to the transformative acknowledgement that god really is omnipresent in all that lives, beyond anything my brain can conceptualize or imagine.

On that day, I turned away from loyalty to society’s consensual reality in much the same way I’d turned from loyalty to alcohol and drugs some 8 years previously.   In both cases, I’ve never looked back.

My god is not religion’s God.  It’s the life force, the collaborative, animating energy of Love and the collective intelligence of all life it has ever generated. Nothing is lost.  Energy can’t vanish, even as a result of mass extinctions.  The sun keeps pouring energy into our life system, and the system keeps growing.  You’re a part of it.  Your trillions of separate cells collaborate toward the larger purpose of you, which/who in turn is meant to serve the greater purpose of we.

After Weird Thing #9 in 2003, it still took me 8 years to Google Near Death Studies, and still another year before I went to an IANDS meeting.  As with my first AA meeting, I was leery of a bunch of kooks.  And, as with my first AA meeting, hearing my inmost experiences described by strangers blew me away.  I soon realized I had, again, found “my people.”

In fact, only about 10% of our Seattle IANDS group at any given meeting has actually died.  But almost everyone there (usually about 60 people)  has experienced some kind of overtly paranormal event that caused them, too, to break from the physical-only view of the world that society condones.

Just as it’s “safe” at an AA meeting to share our ups and downs of sober living, so it’s “safe” in an IANDS meeting to speak of guardian angels, the overwhelming Love of the Light, and encounters with dead loved ones, or – if they’re in your story – demons.

Here’s a brief excerpt from one of our members’ stories.  A severe allergic reaction, combined perhaps with asthma, had caused him to collapse, aspirate, and die one night on a California beach.

When I’d been flipped over, I had sand and vomit all over my face and… she thought it was gross and didn’t want to do [CPR].  I still was [above them] saying, ‘I’m fine, I’m okay!… I don’t want to bother you!  I’d much rather you be happy!’…  But she did it.  I could see her bending down and getting ready to press her lips to mine.  And almost as soon as that happened, it felt like a car crash or something.  I was immediately back through my own perspective, I was definitely in my body… it was like being slammed back into me.  …I don’t know how to describe it.

I remember seeing her over me… At this point people are all around me and I’m just laying there on my back.  And I know that they’re asking me, what’s your name, what year is it, who’s the president.  I… I didn’t care.  All I could focus on were two things.  I could see their lips moving – I couldn’t actually, for some reason, hear their voices.  The only thing I could hear were the waves from the ocean, and the only thing I could look at were the people that were helping me – but they were… people that were helping the people that were helping me.

Um… for lack of a better term – I don’t like to use certain terms, but – for lack of a better term, I would call these ‘angels.’  I don’t feel they were there connected specifically to me, but that maybe they were there connected to those people – that we were all part of a collective effort, that everyone had the same – goal? – in mind.  It wasn’t that the goal was to bring me back, but that we were all taking part [in something bigger].

How wonderful to be free to know in an IANDS meeting that god is real!  Those rooms glow with vestiges of the Light.  By aligning what’s happened to me with what others have seen and described, I’ve come to believe that the loving presence I knew on the other side was my guardian angel, and that this same entity is what often answers not just my prayers but my private thoughts – not necessarily when I’d like or with what I’d like, but somehow.

 

orb close close orb2
Just before these pictures were taken in 2013, as many sober friends who knew I had cancer sang Happy Birthday to me, my embarrassment was interrupted by a different thought-voice: “Louisa, this is as good as it gets!  Don’t resist.  Just let them love you.”  If orbs are nothing but dust motes on a lens, why would photos from two different cameras, from two angles, at two different moments show the same orb in the same place?  That’s my angel.

 

So… back to my homegroup: “What’s your spiritual experience?”  I wasn’t called on, so I’d resolved to share once the meeting opened for volunteers.  As soon as it did, though, before I could open my mouth, came the thought: Don’t.  Only listen and love.

I countered, “I only want to help people!”

Bullshit, came the next thought/voice.  You think you know more just because you know different?  Let be.

Boy, was it hard to abide by this!  I had to sit on my hands, especially through the long silences.  Puppies don’t always pee on the newspaper, and I don’t always listen to guidance – but this time, I did.  When the secretary finally called time, I sighed: Phew!  Made it!

I got home.  I went to bed.  And in the morning I remembered clearly that AA works only because we all keep our gods to ourselves – since we do “not need to consider another’s conception of God.”  To go off about my IANDS group and NDE would be no different from someone going off about how Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

Because spiritual experience is, like sobriety, an inside job.  Each person grows their own experience.  Much as I’d like to, I can’t whomp my big fat weird tree down in front of anyone – each person has to germinate their own inner seed and nurture it over the days and years of their life.

What do you call that, when you’re great guns to do something and another thought/voice tells you not to – or vice versa?  How, exactly, do Steps 6 & 7 work in your beliefs?  “Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you” (p. 47).  You can call it superego if you prefer, but, as long as it’s a calling toward love, I call it direction from whatever it is that’s helping me.

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Denial and Ego: Addiction’s Minions

People suffering from a potentially fatal disease normally want to know what it is and how to get better. If it’s diabetes, you alter your diet and take insulin. If it’s cancer, you follow whatever regimen you’re dictated. But if it’s alcoholism, you say, “Um… actually, I don’t have that!” so you can get even worse.

Denial: it’s built right into alcoholism – which why in the rooms we talk about “the disease that tells me I don’t have a disease.”

Here’s an official alcoholism definition hammered out by the Journal of the American Medical Association. A 23-member (how many?) committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and American Society of Addiction Medicine researched and bickered for 2 frickin’ years (how long?) to spell this thing out:

Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial.

I’d like to thank whichever committee members lobbied to squeeze in “most notably denial.” Under great pressure to be concise, why bother naming that particular distortion? God knows alcoholic thinking distorts right and left: Everyone else is the problem; I drive better drunk; I didn’t like that X anyway. But woven through every distorted thought of an active alcoholic is the thread of denial – outright refusal to acknowledge the fact that we need to get wasted despite whatever price it’s exacting from our lives.

evil minions

Self-centered ego is denial’s evil twin, likewise a mainstay of alcoholism.  A great description, penned by Anne Wilson Schaef in When Society Becomes an Addict, runs as follows (excerpted):

Addicts are notoriously self-centered. They may claim to care about the people around them, but their fix begins to overshadow everything else.

Another aspect of self-centeredness puts the self at the center of the universe. Self-centered people do not know where they begin and end and anyone else begins and ends. Because there are no clear-cut boundaries, two things happen: the self spreads out, and the world rushes in. Everything becomes ME, and everything starts coming at ME and is perceived as either for or against ME.

During active addiction, alcohol is FOR ME.  It’s on my side – the only ally I can truly trust.  If I’m lonely, I invite my buddy alcohol over to keep me company, and we hang out together in a cozy refuge against a world we both tell to fuck off.  On the other hand, if I need to socialize, alcohol becomes my Iron Man suit.  It empowers me to converse freely, lovin’ life and knowing I’m absolutely invincible.  Either I’m so freakin’ charming that everyone admires me, or I’m such a boss rebel I could give a rat’s ass what any of those assholes think.  Either way, my self-centered ego feels impervious.

Anything against my alcohol is, by definition, against ME.  I fight as if my life depended on it: You can take my job, my relationships, my health, my home, my self-respect, even my hope that things will ever get better – but don’t you dare touch my buddy, alcohol.  That’s my lifeline, bitches!

Doctors, therapists, friends, spouses or partners – when they turn against our buddy, they all have to be shafted.  It’s unfortunate, but inevitable.  And what about our conscience, our morning self-reproach, that repentant whiner who promises not to drink (so much) again?  With a sigh we hit the trap door switch and drop them to the alligators.  Sorry.  No way around it.

Denial and ego conspire together as addiction’s minions. Demon quarterbackDenial says I don’t have a problem, and ego says, Whatever – I do what I want!  Together they block the world like offensive linemen, protecting addiction from tackles by reason and emotion so it can launch just one more play for a great time.  This time, it’s gonna be awesome!

But then one day, if we’re lucky, we reach that magical combination –our life’s shot to shit and alcohol quits working – and we hit bottom.  Death is lookin’ real-ly good by this point.  No more anybody expecting anything from us.  No more failure.  No more loneliness and hating ourselves.  Just peace.  That incomprehensible demoralization blasts away denial’s excuses, flattens ego’s games.

Without their cover, we can finally glimpse the actual face of addiction, and we understand that it’s a demon. For a short window of time, we get that it’s killing us. The question is whether we can find help, whether we can be shown a way out, before that window of clarity closes. If we make it to AA, we can look at Step 1 on the wall and sigh, yes:  We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.  Others can show us the way out.

But that’s far from the end of it!

The inner addict doesn’t die.  Recovery only incarcerates it.  And guess who’s constantly plotting and conspiring to spring the boss out of prison?  You got it: those loyal henchmen, denial and ego.

“You know, maybe I never really had that big a problem with alcohol.  Maybe now that I’ve got my shit together, I don’t have to bother with AA meetings.”  Just as cancer mimics and perverts the miracle of cell growth, so addiction mimics and perverts the goodness of self-care. “You deserve a drink!  Don’t be so hard on yourself!  You’ve totally cleaned up your act – why not enjoy a little reward?”  Both diseases kill the host.

In sobriety I know of only one deliverance from the minions’ head chatter: god.  That’s why the 12 Steps exist.  For me, god can be found only when I wrench my focus away from all my thinking and look to my heart, where my sense of goodness lives.  Goodness runs deeper than knowledge; it’s my very foundation of living, god dwelling in me.  I pray for direction and new thoughts come: call a sober friend; get to a meeting; be of service to others.  Whenever unselfish love flows through our system, it flushes out the disease’s crud and nourishes our core.   The minions lose.

But they’ll be back tomorrow!

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Filed under AA, Addiction, Alcoholism, Denial, Recovery, Sobriety

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

 Christian Emperor Constantine I

By contrast, once Christianity became Rome’s official religion in 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.

.

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

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