Reality, Denial, and god – Alcoholism and Codependency

Reality is a tremendous nuisance to active alcoholics and Reality intersectioncodependents.  It’s so damn stubborn, but we’re more so!  We have a firm idea of how things really are and we’re stickin’ to it, however painful our grip.  The pain in both cases comes from everything that refuses to align with our story of how things can be okay – usually involving other people and their actions or views.   When I was living alcoholically, people kept misinterpreting my drinking.  Now that I’m sober but battling codependency, they keep not doing what they should.

The trouble is, as long as I’m in this mindset – I know shit – I’m cut off from god.  God animates reality, but its truth can’t be admitted by my sick thinking.  In other words, god’s guidance is heard via  honesty, but denial makes us deaf.

First, let’s talk about alcoholism.

During the 14 years that I drank pretty much daily, I had a good story:  I just liked to drink!  There was no big deal about it, though some people liked to pretend there was.  My life was as normal as anybody’s except that I was maybe a little more free about kicking back.  Alcohol was a just a feature of the good life – something that accompanied relaxation, candor, humor, and the ease of not taking stuff so damn seriously.  Didn’t I still have a job and a car?  Hadn’t I earned a fancy degree?  Wasn’t my health still good?  Okay, then, get off my back, everyone!

hot air balloonHitting bottom was the result of losing my levity, my ability to float a hot air balloon of egotism just enough to skim over the landscape of consequences beneath me.  Many people were hurt and angry, but they couldn’t reach me.  Many people would be hurt and angry if they found out certain things, but so far I’d dodged those impacts.  In the end it was the intensity of my own pain and self-loathing that weighed down my balloon basket more heavily every year, every month, and, as I gradually lost altitude, every day – until the ground of reality came up to meet me and I crashed.

I had no more escape.  My entire life was rife with lies.  Everything I’d been fleeing caught up with me and the pain was unbearable.  Finally, I admitted: “This is the truth.  This is how it is.  Addiction powers my every thought and deed, and without it, I have nothing.  I am nothing.  I have no power.”

Finally!  That’s when the door swings open.  It’s when god says, “Bingo!  That shit just doesn’t work.  How about I show you how to live in the world instead of your head?”  In my case, god showed me through the loving words spoken and written by people in AA, both living and dead.  “Here,” they explained, “is how you can live a meaningful life.”  The 12 steps were a means of clearing from my head the false stories I’d used to deny reality.  I began to work with what is to become the woman I want to be.

Now let’s talk about codependency.

It’s actually a whole lot like alcoholism, because it, like alcoholism, centers on denial.  Here’s the American Medical Association’s definition of alcoholism, tweaked just a bit to describe codependency:

“CODEPENDENCY is a chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by continuous or periodic impaired control over ATTACHMENT, preoccupation with the ADDICT, use of OBSESSIVE TACTICS despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial.”

Look at that!  The denial part, I didn’t even have to mess with; it’s the mainstay of both diseases.

Just as it let me pretend my drinking harmed no one, so denial lets me pretend my attempts to change the alcoholic harm no one.  Now I’m riding in the hot air balloon of dependence – actually the offspring of ego and fear: a conviction that my well-being depends on someone else.  I need them to change so that I can be happy.  My levity comes from the certainty that if I just _______ the right thing, the alcoholic will come to his senses.  (Insert do, say, offer, model, threaten, etc.)  There have been some great attempts, but they haven’t quite worked yet.  Failures pass under me.  So do the alcoholic’s betrayals, lies, actions that clearly show he has no intention of doing anything other than being himself – an alcoholic.  I keep skimming over them all, using my will and my hope and my love with all my might!  I’ll say this and he’ll feel and realize that!  I run the videos in my mind day after day.  I say my lines, watch my ideation of the alcoholic comprehend.

But gradually, I lose altitude.  The weight of pain brings me down again – that my love is not reciprocated in the form of whatever integrity I long for the alcoholic to achieve.  The alcoholic remains deaf, is blind, stays asleep to everything but his own dream of denial, and there is nothing – nothing – I can do to wake him.   All my efforts are futile or, worse still, galvanize his denial.

I have no more escape.  This is how it is.  My entire life is rife with lies.  Everything I’ve been grasping for has evaporated, and the pain is unbearable.  Finally, I admit: “This is the truth.  This is how it is.  Dependence powers my every thought and deed, and without it, I have nothing.  I am powerless.”

Here again god steps in.  “Correcto-mundo!” says god.  “But you don’t have nothing, sweetheart!  You have you.  You have me.  You have all of life and this beautiful world to thrive in.”  I begin to listen.  I realize what god offers is real, not projected.  It doesn’t have to wait for someday; it can start now.

Just as I took my first shaky steps sober and wide awake all those years ago, now I begin to take my first steps on my own.  No one needs to live as I see fit for me to be happy.  Whether my attachment has been to a family member or a lover, I can free them to live their own life, make their own mistakes, and suffer their own consequences, whether through wasted potential or death.  I can do it because, in reality, I have no other option.

This actually exists somewhere, unlike my sober alcoholic.

Reality, in both cases, is so much simpler, so much easier, and so much richer than my thinking.  Now I have choices, and I can hear god’s guidance as I weigh them.

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Boundaries = (honesty + humility) x self-esteem

The term “boundaries”  used to irritate me.  It’s always seemed such a pop-culture concept.  I guess it’s a psych term popularized during the assertiveness craze of the 80s – actually, I have no idea – but I first heard people throwing it around a lot in the 90s.  “That’s a boundary!” some woo-woo friend would exclaim, or, “You need to develop your boundaries” around this and that.  Like a lot of pop-psychology terms, it’s always kind of made me barf.

I’m just that way.  Whenever I don’t understand something, I’m quick to label it bullshit.  Contempt prior to investigation and all that.

The fact isBud ad, though, I suck at boundaries and always have.  I’m a people pleaser.  Why?  I grew up in an alcoholic home where we had trouble being honest about feelings because the most fundamental truth in the house had to remain that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Dad’s drinking. And because Dad was several different people depending on where he was in the cycle of irritable dryness, calm drinking, jubilant drinking, or self-disgusted hangover, while Mom and everyone else reacted to his state, I learned to look outside myself for the climate of reality.

But more subtle still was the thin film of doubt between the truth inside me and the truth inside my family members.  It isolated each of us.  It prevented love from sinking in through my skin.  I always felt valued for my various accomplishments rather than treasured for just being me.  All this is pretty classic for alcoholic homes.

I also grew up being quite bossy to my younger sister.  My older siblings had a sort of club that excluded us, so, as I relate in my addiction memoir, she was stuck with me.  I could run the show in all our doings, but whenever conflict came up, Mom would frame me as the oppressor.  Long story short: I grew up to suspect that my true self was mean, controlling, and unloveable.

When I got my first boyfriend, I remember so clearly the decision I made to play a role and stuff my true self!  If I expressed what I really thought or wanted, he’d be repelled and leave me.  It felt like some kind of vow of chastity or something, this inner resolve that I would win love by conforming myself to my best guess of whatever he wanted.

And I lived like that for decades.

split-rail-fence

Back to Boundaries.  What are they, anyway?  How do they work?

Working the 12 Steps of AA let me recognize the dance of Fear and Ego that orients so much of how I interact with others.  I learned that I fear I won’t get what I think I want/need, so my ego steps in to try to arrange and control the players as I think best, and then resents them when they don’t follow my script.  All true.

What I never saw until I went to Al-Anon was that one way – actually, my favorite way – of trying to control others was by doing exactly what I thought they wanted.  It’s all about management through martyrdom.  I’ve put not one but two partners through college, working at jobs I didn’t like to pay the rent and arranging my life around their syllabi.  This was love by transaction.  I sacrificed my needs for them so they’d be corralled and obligated to “favor” me with love – and if, along the way, I didn’t follow my own dreams, it was all their fault.  Both those relationships crashed and burned.

Unfortunately, all I really learned from those experiences was: “Don’t put people through college.”  In my current 9-year relationship, I’ve been blind to all the ways I’ve arranged my life around my current partner’s preferences.  We don’t live together, and he’s rarely in town, so I seem quite independent.  I have my own friends, my own programs, a busy life apart from him.  From the outside, I’ve got it goin’ on.  So it’s been harder to see the fact that I’ve dropped from consideration any requests I fear might displease him.  I’ve preferred to resent his “selfishness” for following signals I put out rather than seeing my own choice to edit those signals.

Upshot: I can have no boundaries unless I’m honest with myself.  And I can’t be honest with myself if I lack humility.  Who wants to say, “I’m afraid I’m not loveable; I’m afraid you’ll decide to leave; I’m afraid I’ll be alone forever” -?  Humility is what lets us name and face this unglamorous truth: “I am flawed and frightened.” Once I can cliffname it,though,  I can have the self-honesty to see where I’m bending over backwards to be loved.  If god sees that with me, and we know it ain’t right, maybe I can muster the self-esteem to risk everything and trust god’s plan for me instead of my relationship management skills. Maybe I can take the plunge.  I can ask for what I want despite fear, in the faith that no matter what happens, I’ll be okay.

What Al-Anon has helped me see is that I’ve always misconstrued boundaries as a fence to keep other people from intruding on my inner sensitivities.  I’ve experienced angry siblings trampling all over my dignity and wanted protection – so that, I thought, would be a boundary.  But today I see that boundaries actually delimit my own choices and behaviors.  They’re about what I will and will not sign up for.  For years I chose to stand within the trajectory of my siblings’ insults.  Now the boundary is actually for me, the point at which I’ll remove myself.  Likewise, for years I’ve chosen to mute my own needs for the sake of my boyfriend’s.  Of course, any relationship involves compromise.  But the boundary demarcates those compromises that actually detract from my life and well-being.

Boundaries, I’m learning, are not directed at other people.  They’re about me recognizing the limit, the degree, the subtle gradation of that point at which my choices amount to self-harm, and refusing to cross it.  They represent a deal with god to honor my innate worth rather than trying to wrangle it from others.

I’m so grateful for a set of programs that has opened my eyes to the difference!

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Being Right vs. Just Being

If you happened to see last week’s blog, I was pretty hot under the collar.  I have plenty of beliefs about anger, but none of them seem to show up when it’s flaring in my system.  angry-face“Anger rises up in defense of something sacred,” I’ve been told, which was certainly true in this case – AA is precious to me, and I felt it had been attacked.  But that anger’s gone now.  Gabrielle Glaser makes some good points.  AA is not for everyone.  Some heavy drinkers do have a mere “bad habit,” and no clear line distinguishes their condition from the sort of fatal alcoholism that has ravaged so many lives – which I do believe only a spiritual experience can conquer.

In other words, for some, Glaser may be right.

“Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?”  That question, often voiced in AA and Al-Anon meetings, has always bothered me a bit, because I don’t experience the two as a direct trade: being happy may not come in exchange for releasing my grip on rightness.  Today I settle instead for the peace of being uninterested.  That’s why I prefer to frame the choice in these terms: “Do you want to be right, or do you want to just be?”

In the heat of anger, my world shrinks down to two dimensions: right and wrong.  Only one of us can claim the “right” end of the stick, and the loser is left with the “wrong” end, because they’re… well, a loser.  But life is way more complicated than that!  If I can keep my mind open, I can drop the stick and say, “I have this perspective, which differs from yours.”  That way, I open an avenue to peace.  I argue and stay pissed a while, but either way my goal is to move on, to continue with the business of living my life while you live yours as you see fit.

honey mushroomThe largest single organism on earth is currently thought to be a colony of honey mushrooms living in the Blue Mountains of Oregon which occupies an underground area about the size 1,665 football fields.  It’s a system of genetically identical cells communicating for a common purpose – i.e. one living thing.  Now, if I were to pick a single one of these mushrooms and contemplate it as an individual entity – that would be analogous to assessing the behavior of a person in a particular situation.

Because behavior is only the tip of the shroom colony!  Sprouting that person’s choice is the vast underground network of family, culture, and life experience that has cultivated that person’s principles and beliefs, along with the vast simultaneity of feelings and motives churning beneath their surface in the present moment.  But I don’t consider all that.  I see only something that contradicts my own ideas.

What do I want to do when I feel someone else is wrong?  Judge and gossip.  But, no, wait!  I don’t judge – I morally evaluate.  I don’t gossip, I process verbally with people I trust.  The temptation, in any case, is to “prove” that my truth beats the hell out of that asshole’s skewed rationalizations.  In the process, I can get downright mean.  In my Glaser rebuttal, for instance, I resorted to sarcasm: “Gosh, Gabrielle, that’s right! …Oh, I see!” I could have made the same points without mockery.

An even crazier response is try to change the person, also known as “trying to talk some sense into” them by driving home something that will make them see they’re wrong “for their own good.”  What I’m trying to do is uproot the entire underground spore system by yanking the “right” way on a single mushroom: it’s just not going to work!

I do wish my boyfriend would give up his traveling job and go to AA.  I also wish he’d quit saying “oriental” and badmouthing Obama.  Having told him these things, I get to decide if I want to accept him as he is – or leave.  In the same vein, I wish my siblings would live by the principles of Al-Anon, practice loving kindness, and respect my sobriety, but I can’t make them do so.  What I get to decide is whether I want to hang out with them.

My job is to build my own meaningful life.  That’s it.  You get to do the same.

In Herman Hesse’s novella, Siddhartha, the young Siddhartha siddharthaabandons everyone close to him in his search for truth.  He leaves his father, the monks who’ve taken him in, his best friend, and even the Buddha himself, eventually landing in a life of material and sexual indulgence that slowly sickens him.  A few decades later, after having “awakened” from this stupor, he’s built a new life of spiritual purity assisting a simple river ferryman when his illegitimate son comes to live with him.  The son is a major asshole: spirituality’s a bore, dad’s a loser, and he runs away as soon as he’s old enough.  But when Siddhartha anguishes that he can’t teach his son how to live, the ferryman sets him straight: “Have you forgotten that instructive story of Siddhartha…?  Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him?  Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path?”

I take two points from this story.  The first is that I can’t impress my views on anyone who isn’t open to seeing them.  But the second is to live my own life fully, to blunder ahead at times as I blaze my own path of learning – along which, really, there are no mistakes!

There’s nothing wrong with being “wrong” sometimes.  Accept difference?  Are you kidding?  Of course I’ll still get pissed off!  Of course I’ll think I’m right and those assholes can stick it where the sun don’t shine!  Screwing up is part of being human – part of how we steer the course of who we do and don’t want to be.  That’s why Step 10 exists – because the process never ends.

I’m certainly no saint.  But loving tolerance remains my North Star, the direction in which I seek to move a little further every day.  That’s the point.

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Trashing AA as “Irrational”

Maybe you’ve seen Gabrielle Glaser’s Atlantic Monthly article entitled, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.”  Glaser, a self-proclaimed normie (i.e. non-alcoholic), attempts to illuminate the scam of Alcoholics Anonymous, which passes itself off as the sole antidote to alcoholism, and advocates instead for newly developed drug treatments as a solution more “scientific” than AA’s program of abstinence and spiritual growth.

Maybe you’re indifferent to both this article and AA.  But if you love AA for having saved your life and yet this article doesn’t anger you, you work a WAY better program than I do!  I am angered and for many reasons – the foremost being that I am fond of truth, and the article is rife with inaccuracies.  A second is that I don’t believe in increasing people’s suffering for the sake of a snappy article (or book sales).  Nothing can be gained by slamming AA, but so much can be lost!

The most glaring error, to me, is Glaser’s lumping together AA, which makes no luxury treatmentmoney for anyone, with the treatment center industry that rakes in tremendous profits from addicts and their stricken families by “selling” what one can find freely in AA. Yes, without question, some treatment centers place under-qualified counselors in positions of power and exploit the crisis of addiction to charge exorbitant fees in exchange for a Big Book and an introduction to the steps – but they are not AA!  Quite the converse, they embody every disaster that Bill, Bob, and other pioneers of AA tried to avert with the 12 Traditions.

Wrong also is holding AA responsible for the judicial practice of “sentencing” people to AA.  I can’t imagine anything further from the 11th Tradition of “attraction rather than promotion.”  As we often hear in the rooms, “AA is not for people who need it; it’s for people who want it.”  But thanks to the courts’ total disregard of thisgavel2 policy, many people are forced to attend AA meetings.  Like the treatment industry, the U.S. punitive system exploits AA, funneling unwilling people into the program simply because it lacks the means to otherwise deal with them.  (That thousands of lives have been saved this way, however, can’t be denied.)

Glaser’s allegation that AA touts itself as the sole solution to alcoholism contradicts a clear statement in the Big Book’s forward to the second edition: “Upon therapy for the alcoholic himself, we surely have no monopoly.  Yet it is our hope that all those who have as yet found no answer may begin to find one in the pages of this book…” [italics mine].  In other words, if you CAN’T find any other way out, we have something to offer you here.

Glaser implies that Marty Mann and her 1940s fellows in the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism were scheming to promote AA:  “But AA supporters worked to make sure their approach remained central. Marty Mann joined prominent Americans…”  Gosh, Gabrielle, that’s right!  They were trying to hog the spotlight so they could get…uh… money?  fame?  Does it ever enter your mind that their sole intention was to help dying alcoholics who had not yet heard of any solution?  Do you ever consider that such is what AA is all about?

Perhaps most irritating to me, but indicative of a larger societal misconception, Glaser confounds AA’s higher power with religiosity: “‘Alcohol- and substance-use disorders are the realm of medicine,’ McLellan says. ‘This is not the realm of priests.’”  Excuse me, but what the hell do priests have to do with AA?  Absolutely nothing!  AA is a spiritual program, not a religious one.  Why is this distinction so difficult for so many to appreciate?  Religion tells people what to believe; spirituality calls for an inward search for meaning and truth.  The only goal dictated by spirituality is growth toward loving kindness.

Science, Glaser claims, does not support this charlatan program of abstinence and spiritual growth.  In this oversight, she ignores a wealth of scientific research supporting the success of AA (see Substance Abuse: Alcoholics Anonymous Science Update), simply because no study can figure out why it works.  Spiritual growth does not show up under a microscope – so it must amount to nothing!

microscopeIf Glaser were to succeed in leading alcoholics away from AA, what great gains would be made?  If alcoholics took opioid antagonists like naltrexone or the muscle relaxant baclofen sensibly as Glaser propounds, if everyone would stop this silly business of abstinence and spirituality, from what would Glaser be rescuing people?  “The prospect of never taking another sip is daunting, to say the least. It comes with social costs and may even be worse for one’s health than moderate drinking: research has found that having a drink or two a day could reduce the risk of heart disease, dementia, and diabetes.”  Oh – I see!  Abstinence is scary, so we shouldn’t attempt it.  And not drinking, based on a handful of studies in the past 2 decades, suggests there might be potential benefits for some people from drinking moderately.

For alcoholics, these potential benefits from 1-2 drinks per day do not put much on the scale against death or the misery of living with full blown alcoholism.  Sadly, I am willing to bet that Glaser’s article will, for scores of people in the difficult, early stages of sobriety, serve as excuse for relapse.  Of those, how many will die?  Will Glaser ever know?  Does she care?

There is so much more to AA than not drinking!  People in the program evolve into their best selves.  In a matter of a months, they realize a potential that could not have been brought about by years of opioid antagonist pills and therapy.  In AA I learned to seek a guiding voice other than my ego’s, to love imperfect people as I am imperfect, and to be of service – the most rewarding pursuit life has to offer.  For the first time in my life, I discovered what it is to be happy from the inside out.  I am a different person today because of AA: quitting drinking is only a small part of that.  How tragic to think that Glaser’s finger pointing may rob others of what I have found!

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What the Heck is a Spiritual Path?

A number of people dear to me in AA just can’t seem to stay sober.  Their recovery looks hopeful at times: they’ll string together a few months or even a year, but then they go out again.  At some point they drag themselves back looking haggard and beat up and often shockingly aged.  They share about being totally defeated, about knowing they can’t drink, and about their rock solid determination to stay sober this time.  Sadly, though, a few months or a year later, they’re gone again.

The Big Book tells us why: they “failed to enlarge [their] spiritual life” (35).  During my drinking, I very much wanted to be a good person so I could be happy – to be true to my partners (at least in everything they knew about), to be honest (enough), and to contribute to the world (so I’d be respected).  If I had brought that same approach to getting or staying sober – reliance on self – I’d be drunk today.

Here’s the deal: There are two ways to live in this world – by the guidance of ego, or by the guidance of something greater than ego.  Practicing alcoholics, when they look inward, consult with the authority of ego, which has one sole criterion for direction: me.  “What will make me feel good/get me what I (think I) want?”  I may desire amazing personal experiences, or to feel attractive or valued.  I may want money and a sense of importance – the recognition of achieving great things.

The active alcoholic may sincerely wish to live by higher principles because doing so might help goalsthem grab the things they link to happiness – like a career, a relationship, or esteem among peers.  But in all their navigation, the joystick always remains firmly in the grip of ego, whose sole objective is to get what it wants.  That’s why most practicing alcoholics harbor secrets.  That’s why their love is striated with selfishness.  And it’s why they’re never immune from the seduction of alcohol, because ego assures them a drink will feel awesome – or at least bring relief – and they take the bait.

What’s the alternative?  To be holier than thou?  To renounce earthly life and pursue some lofty enlightenment?

No.  It’s to admit we’re irreparably flawed, and to commit to trying every day to be a slightly better person than we were yesterday – not by the criterion of what feels good, but by the light of what, in our deepest heart, we know to BE good.  Pursuit of goodness – however we define it, however faultily we seek it, and whatever that progress may look  like –  is the essence of a spiritual path.

Let’s look at this idea in pieces.  First, admission.  The ego howls againstbroken vase the idea that we are irreparably flawed.  “I can fix myself!” it insists.  “Really!  I know best!”  To admit we’re permanently confused and lacking integrity requires the two greatest forms of ego Kryptonite on the planet: honesty and humility.  This first step is the foundation on which every alcoholic bases a new experience of living.

Next, commitment.  A spiritual path requires that we accept the futility of living by self-propulsion.  Though society at large touts “taking control,” a spiritual path requires relinquishing the claim that we’re qualified to call the shots.  In AA this means we commit to the steps, the fellowship, and service work.  For non-alcoholics, too, some form of spiritual community is often involved, whether a sangha, a church, a yoga or meditation group, or some other family of like-minded people also trying to grow spiritually.  We begin to test our own thinking – which we have admitted to be flawed – against the wisdom of this sounding board.

What we know to BE good is the thing we commit to.  The Big Book tells us, “deep down in every man, woman, and child is the fundamental idea of God.”  Unfortunately, many people assume this idea should equate to the God of religion, which may or may not be found anywhere in them – let alone deep down!  My own god has nothing to do the God of any religion – that’s why I forgo the capital ‘G.’

My god is the tremendous power of unconditional love in which all blue-and-white-orchidlife is swimming.  Not everyone needs to go to AA to find and tap this source, but we all need it to get and stay sober.  This power is available to anyone by any name or in any form – as innate goodness or a religious deity or the frickin’ Force from Star Wars: how you conceive of it does not matter.  What changes your life is that you trust its goodness and ask it for guidance in all actions, at each juncture.

Of course ego still elbows its way in countless times, because we’re still flawed.  But our intention remains to shift our point of reference away from ME! to a deeper sense of what is right and good.  We try to pause before we act – especially when we don’t want to – in an effort to discern the two courses.  That is the path – intention and effort.  We hang onto a faith that if we keep earnestly seeking one day at a time, we will be guided.

Ironically, this course usually brings us a richer life than we could ever have imagined. At my home group last night, the chair took issue with the saying, “My worst day sober is better than my best day drunk.”  He pointed out that he’d had some “fuckin’ awesome times” in his early drinking.  But when I was called on, I cross-talked a tad: I recalled that all my “awesome” drunken times boiled down to feeling awesome about ME! Even if I said, “I fuckin’ love you, man!” I really meant, “Wow! – I don’t feel alienated and alone!”  The spiritual path opened by AA has nurtured in me the gift of genuinely loving others – of living for something larger than myself.  That’s what we’re here to do.  And really, it’s a high no glory days can touch.

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Searching for Honesty

Honesty is such a lonely word.

———————– Billy Joel

It seems as if nothing should be easier than knowing what we want, knowing what we feel.  We should be able to look inside and, fast as checking what time it is, say, “Gosh, I feel angry,” or  “I fear change,”  or maybe “I want ____ more than _____.”  Antique CompassBased on that information, we should have no trouble making big decisions in our lives.  Happiness should twinkle straight ahead as clear as the North Star, and we should be able to navigate toward it.  Drop this relationship to steer more starboard.  Go for this job to steer more to the port.  That’s how I tried to live throughout my drinking, through shipwreck after shipwreck.

Why doesn’t it work like that?  Clarity on what we think and feel – is that so much to ask?  As it turns out, the compass is buried deep inside us where it can be extremely difficult to read.  For me it takes a long, long time to know what I truly feel about anything complex and important.  I have to live with the question for weeks, sometimes months, viewing it from different angles and slowly gestating some fetus of recognition in my gut.  I’m reminded of the 9-day hike I took around Mount Rainier a few years ago, 100 miles up and down many mountain ridges that extend like arms between its huge glaciers.  Every day I hiked, that mountain was in my sight, and every day it showed me a different face, a different aspect.  I often feel as if there’s a spiritual Rainier within me that my consciousness hikes around – my truth – and that it reveals just as many faces.

Rainier

All forms of honesty are related.  That’s why it’s only by practicing honesty across the board that I’m able to stay sober.  The most basic form is monetary.  For instance, while shopping recently, I picked out a freezable lunch bag for my son that I considered vastly overpriced at $22.  When the cashier rang me up, miraculously the sum total of all my groceries was only $26!  It took me a moment to realize she’d assumed I’d brought the bag in with me as a reusable shopping bag.  After a tiny flinch of glee that I could get the damn thing for free I said, “I think you forgot to charge me for that bag.”  She was surprised.  But I’ve run back into stores for items much smaller that somehow made it out to my car unpaid for – a little jar of stevia or stick of glue the cashier didn’t see.

There’s also honesty with other people.  Sometimes when I’m telling a story, I still hear myself embellish and have to backtrack to what’s real.  I’ll say “a whole bunch of…” and then admit, “actually, only two…” or I’ll quote someone saying something far more emphatically than they actually did, then have to go back and recount what, to the best of my recollections, were their actual words.

Those two are easy, and while it might seem incredible that my sobriety hinges liaron the price of a lunch sack or whether someone said X versus Y, for me, it does, because when I lie to others – even in piddly-shit lies or perhaps especially in piddly shit lies – I lose credibility with myself.  I get a sense that it might be okay to be just a smidge full of shit.  If I don’t need to be honest with others across the board, I can go ahead and compartmentalize, behaving in ways I plan to conceal.  What’s the big problem with that?  What does it do to me?

It cuts me off from my god.  The most precious thing in my life is my connection to the higher power that keeps me sober and lets me live with some degree of dignity and serenity.  Without that connection, I’m lost in a dark world where my ego craves a bright spotlight on ME and manipulates otherspawn1 to get it.  Withholding the truth from others, even in minor things, is actually using them like game pieces to get what I want.  God exists only in genuine reality – the truth of what is.  When I lie to anyone, I’m turning my back on that, trying to play god by feeding them a false reality that’s a product of my ego.  I can make a cashier complicit in my theft of a freezable lunch sack.  I can pose as an expert to get attention.  I can cheat on my boyfriend to feed my vanity.  And I can take a drink no one needs to know about.

Then it’s on – and I’m right back in the hell I escaped twenty years ago.

What is a spiritual connection?  What part of us connects with god?  The inmost truth of our awareness and consciousness is where we find god.  Our I-AM-ness seeks its source.  When I meet god in prayer – which for me is almost constant – I like to show up humbly naked.  That is, I bring my whole self with all my vulnerabilities and flaws and say, here I am again!  To do that, I have to know who and what I am.  If I’ve been deceiving others and rationalizing my own lies, I’m shrouded in falsehood and pride, both cohorts of the anti-god, fear.  I am blocked.

The arms of honesty extend into every facet of spiritual wellness.  It’s honesty that lets us see the selfish fear that fuels our resentments.  Honesty that lets us see how we set ourselves up to be hurt, how we’ve hurt others, where we’re in the wrong, and what we might do for others to be better human beings.  Yet the honesty of knowing myself is more a journey than light bulb.  It’s taken me 20 years of sober seeking to acknowledge that I don’t really know myself.  What makes life seem so complicated is my web of as-yet unacknowledged fabrications.  I still can’t see all I do to hold myself back from living in the simplicity of joy – which I believe is what god wants for all of us.

I keep seeking, though.  That’s all we can do.

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality, Twelve Steps

People, Places, and Pain

Recently, someone I trusted betrayed my confidence deeply.  Or rather, I just found out about it last week.  Before then, I’d have said such a thing could never happen – and I’d have staked my life on it.  In a way, I did.  Maybe some day I’ll write about the specifics, but right now I’m too shocked to have any perspective.  I haven’t slept more than a few hours at a time all week; my heart pounds so I feel each beat; I have no appetite.  Sure, it’s great to drop five pounds in a week, but not with shaking hands you have to hide from clients or sinking guts that weigh down every breath.

I’ve often heard in the rooms that placing one’s faith in people, places, and things is a recipe for pain.  But how can we avoid doing just that?  Part of my loving – or feeling I love – inevitably involves dependence.  I trust that a friend or loved one honors me as I do them, and pretty soon I’ve hung my well-being on their actions without even realizing it.  In the same way, I rely on the places and things I love to provide me security.  I get attached to my body’s health.  These elements should all stay put just as I’ve arranged them.  I want to know my happiness is safe, that I can depend on the world to take care of me.

Natori,  Japan

But it isn’t, and I can’t.

When illusions get ripped away, we realize that everywhere we make a home for ourselves in the world, we simultaneously become exposed.  We begin to think that home is part of us, of our being – our identity – and that we can shed our skin there in perfect safety.  But people are flawed.  They fuck up.  They decide, at times, that it’s a grand idea to be immensely selfish, throwing us under a bus.  Other “homes” are just as impermanent.  Diagnoses drop bombs on our health.  Jobs end and take financial security with them.  Sweet kids become addicts.  People move away.  Houses burn.  Earthquakes happen.  Nothing stays put.

When I am most in pain, I turn to god.  And god, I have found, is  there for me most when pain has torn open my heart.  I can feel it.  It doesn’t exactly empathize, because pain is not part of its realm.  But it loves.  Even when everything has gone to shit, god loves as always – the way the sun rises each morning, the way the ocean waves curl over and thunder up the beach, the way the spring grass sprouts through winter’s dead mat of straw year after year after year.  “I’m here.  I love you.”  That’s what it says.  But if I listen closer than I want to, it’s also saying, “All is well, if you’ll only let it be so.”  It’s talking about acceptance.  About humility.  God is in what is.  So when I fight what is, I’m fighting god.

Do I think about taking a drink?  Wouldn’t that fixDrinker silhouette everything?  Wouldn’t it calm my heart from slapping against the inside of my sternum?  Just cop a decent buzz and I could quit giving a shit.  Then I could vent my hurt as outrage and lash out about what a worthless piece of shit the person who hurt me was.  That anger – wouldn’t it  jack up my sense of power, raise me on towering flames of righteousness so I could smite?  Then maybe I wouldn’t have to feel this intense vulnerability, this loss, this pain… pain… pain….

Sure, that might happen temporarily.  But when the inebriation retreated, I’d have nothing.  I’d have lost not only that person I trusted, but myself.

I hadn’t gone to one of my Near Death Experience (NDE) meetings in months, but when I asked last week on Facebook if someone would go with me, a Tennessee friend who’s had an NDE as well responded: “I’m in town; let’s go!”  At that meeting, the makers of a TV show came down front and announced they were interviewing NDEers.  So, as one of them passed my aisle seat, I handed him my card.  I didn’t think much of it.

NDEYesterday I was sitting with my pain, my journal open in my lap, staring into space.  The phone rang and one of those TV researchers asked if I would tell her my NDE story.  It takes a while, because I’ve had 14 paranormal after-effects as well, but she assured me she had all the time in the world.  So I told it again for the for the first time in years.  The story’s scattered through my addiction memoir and I’ve presented it to Seattle IANDS* and at the Seattle Theosophical Society, but there’s no call to tell it in daily living.

When I got to the part about my huge 9th Weird Thing, I explained:

“That’s the moment when I got it.  I mean, before then I’d believed god was real whenever I was feeling spiritual or something, but otherwise I’d set that aside and  believe in my own mind.  But this thing was so inexplicable – it was all the proof a person could ask for.  I knew then god is with us in every tiny thing that happens.  And something changed in me.  I was sobbing and I prayed, ‘Okay – I know you’re real!  I’ll never you doubt again!'”

“That’s so cool!” exclaimed the woman.  She was busy taking notes.  And in the little stretch of silence that followed, something nudged me: Hear yourself.  Sitting there, I remembered that the 9th Weird Thing really did happen.  I remembered all my weird things – that they had actually happened to me, that I really lived them, and that no material view of the world could explain them.

What I’d prayed fervently a few nights before was this: “Let me know you’re with me.”  So it came about that I spoke the very words I needed to hear.  Plus there was a deeper message wrapped up in that “hear yourself,” saying also, “heal yourself.”   It went something like this:

There’s a home at your core that’s always safe, because you and I inhabit it together.  Make that home your true one.  Spend time there, spruce it up, make it strong.  Because there, sweet child, even as the world falls down around you, my love will carry you, and you’ll be okay. 

Today, I know that’s true.

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*Seattle IANDS = Seattle branch of the International Association for Near Death Studies

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Filed under Alcoholism, Drinking, living sober, Near Death Experience, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality