The Wisdom of the 12 Steps

Context:
Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol… They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks…
Alcoholic Anonymous

A dry alcoholic – one who’s merely ceased drinking – is a miserable one.  I certainly was.  I needed booze.  For over 15 years it served as my medicine, my magic doorway to relaxation and social confidence.

Throughout my first two years sober, intense nervousness and insecurity made me miserable.  Tension ran me so ragged that my body eventually decided, “Can’t do this anymore; we’re shutting down” – and I sank into a depression no Zoloft could touch.  I had not worked the 12 Steps.

Once I worked them, I discovered lasting relief.  The unbearable uptightness of being doesn’t vanish in minutes as with as with alcohol, but by slow degrees as the steps change the way we view ourselves and the world.

A book called The Art of Happiness recently fell into my hands.  Quick story: after meeting a young Saudi Arabian friend for a farewell coffee before she returned to her country, I took her to my favorite Tibetan gift shop nearby.  It stands about a block from where recently a huge natural gas explosion obliterated three businesses and shattered every storefront window for blocks, so they’re still boarded over.  All except those of the tiny Tibetan gift shop.  It’s owner, a likewise tiny man, is constantly cheerful.

“And why didn’t your windows shatter?” I asked him with a half-smile.

To what was clearly a frequent question, he shrugged: “Mine shattered in a past life.”

Dalai-Lama-Nantes

I chatted about having heard the Dalai Lama address a university crowd in a crammed sports arena about ten years ago.  “What you could see was that he was really having a great time with it.  The school was giving him this honorary degree, so he was supposed to be all solemn, but he kept making these silly asides and cracking himself up.  He was just too happy!”

The little shop owner handed one Dalai Lama book to me and another to my Muslim friend.  “You want these,” he said simply – and offered us a screamin’ deal.  We three corners of the world smiled at one another.

The wisdom of the ages for how to live life is, in my opinion, distilled in the 12 steps of AA.  That’s why every suggestion from the Dalai Lama in this book (penned by an American psychiatrist dude who interviewed him ) aligns with their principles – though his words are based on 2,500 year old teachings and ours on a 1939 text by a New York stock broker, Akron proctologist, and 100 newly sober drunks.

  • Trust in the innate goodness of all beings – oneself included.  Though in the wake of two world wars many Western anthropologists jumped on the “humans are intrinsically selfish, aggressive assholes” bandwagon (African Genesis, The Selfish Gene), Buddhist traditions maintain the opposite.  The Dalai Lama points out that “a calm, affectionate, wholesome state of mind has beneficial effects on our health” not just emotionally, but physically, implying it’s how we’re designed to operate.  The 12 steps  are founded in this same assumption, that beneath our self-centered, erratic behavior lies our truer nature.  We look to our higher power to “restore us to sanity” via the spiritual cleansing the remaining steps provide.
  • We cause much of our own suffering. “In general, if we carefully examine any given situation in a very honest and unbiased way, we will realize that to a large extent we are also responsible for the unfolding of events,” says the Dalai Lama.  This is the heart of steps 4 & 5, where, arriving at the fourth column of our inventory, we identify our part in what happened.
  • Happiness differs from pleasure.  “True happiness relates more to the mind and heart.  Happiness that depends on physical pleasure is unstable; one day it’s there and the next it’s gone.”  This quote correlates to a passage from Step 7 in Twelve Steps and Traditions:  “Never was there enough of what we thought we wanted.  In all these strivings, so many of them well-intentioned, …[w]e had lacked the perspective to see that character-building and spiritual values had to come first, and that material satisfactions were not the purpose of living.”
  • Happiness springs from compassion.  “We weren’t born with the purpose of causing trouble, harming others.  For our life to be of value, we must develop basic good human qualities – warmth, kindness, compassion. … Genuine compassion is based on the rationale that all human beings have an innate desire to be happy and overcome suffering, just like myself. And, just like myself, they have the natural right to fulfill this fundamental aspiration.”  This view lies at the heart of steps 8 and 9.  When we make restitution to former rivals, we go to them in this spirit of compassion.

compassion

  • Service to others is our purpose.  “There is no guarantee that tomorrow at this time we will be here…  I believe that the proper utilization of time is this: if you can, serve other people, other sentient beings.”  This idea lines up with a line from the Big Book not quoted enough, probably because it runs so counter to self.  “At the moment we are try­ing to put our lives in order. But this is not an end in itself. Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maxi­mum service to God and the people about us.” (p.77)
  • Recognize suffering as a teacher.  Dalai Lama: “By… eliminating afflictive states of mind such as craving and hatred, one can achieve a completely purified state, free from suffering.  Within a Buddhist context, …[pain] serves to encourage one to engage in the practices that will eliminate the root causes of suffering.” Here’s the same idea in AA’s 12 & 12:  “Under these conditions, the pains of failure are converted into assets. Out of them we receive the stimulation we need to go forward. Someone who knew what he was talking about once remarked that pain was the touchstone of all spiritual progress. How heartily we A.A.’s can agree with him, for we know that the pains of drinking had to come before sobriety, and emotional turmoil before serenity.”

There are many more parallels, but I’m out of room.

Thanks to the steps, ease and comfort come to me now because I enjoy the world I live in, not because I’ve vanquished it for a few hours.  But there’s still a long way to go.  For instance, the Dalai Lama says he never feels lonely or wishes he could marry, whereas I still get lonely quite frequently and am codependent as hell.  But that’s okay: it’s progress,  not perfection – right?

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Six Reasons I “still go to those meetings”

Sometimes if I share that I’m 21 years sober, people unfamiliar with AA will ask: “You don’t still go to those meetings, do you?”

The answer is, hell yes!  Yes, yes, YES!!!  And I hope I always get to!

The fact is, I’m talking about something completely different than they are.  They’re thinking of whatever bullshit AA they’ve seen on TV and in movies.  Yuck!  The actors always use this solemn, self-deprecating tone of confession, or else they blurt out horrific embarrassments that cue mindless laughter.  I’m always angered when I see these depictions.  They have nothing to do with the AA I adore.

Here’s a photo of my most recent AA meeting (that preserves anonymity):

Tiger AA

We’re all former loners and shy people who’ve hiked to the top of 3,000′ Tiger Mountain for a meeting that happens there every Sunday morning in all kinds of weather.  Coffee’s in the middle – people bring big thermoses – and treats of every description, from lemon bars to fresh baked calzones, circulate in plastic containers.  Why hold an AA meeting up in the mountains?  Because it’s fun!  Because friendship, exercise, nature, and recovery are all great things!

Last week before my old homegroup, a friend and I met downtown for coffee, which was tremendous fun.  The two of us differ drastically (he’s half my age, Korean-born, and hip), but because of our shared disease and the way of life that cures it, “there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful” (17).

When this friend, back from relapse with about a year sober, chaired the meeting of 150-200 recovering drunks, he called on a young woman who raised an interesting question.  She said, “I don’t understand why, even though I have 11 years sober and I’m a yoga instructor with my own spiritual practice and I read spiritual books and meditate and pray, I still get crazy if I go too long without a meeting.  Why is that?”

Answer: Because she’s still an alcoholic.

Six Reasons I’ll Always Go to Meetings

  1. Treating fear and ego: Alcoholism is a dis-ease of maladjustment to life, a suffering in selfhood and social interaction that we try to alleviate with a dopamine-boosting neurotoxin – until that strategy begins to kill us.  But even after we’ve stopped drinking and worked the steps, whenever that maladjustment crops up – whether as anxiety, resentment, or self-loathing – ego volunteers (“pick me! pick me!”) to fix it.  Ego puffs us up as “special,” turning us away from god and love, which brings on all the old feelings.  In meetings, as we connect via others’ shares, we remember the common humanity our stepwork revealed.  Hearing others lay out their inner experience, a privilege we find nowhere else in our culture, reopens our hearts.
  2. Reminders of what it’s like out there: Only in meetings do I witness this story in a way I can’t doubt: “I was doing well so I tapered my meetings.  I decided I was more together now so I could drink normally, and I did great for a couple weeks: I’d have a drink or two and stop.  But then it took off, worse than ever, and I had no brakes…”  The person isn’t just saying this.  You can see it.  You can hear it.  My friend Carl came back a near skeleton.  Others end up in the psyche ward.  And some just plain old wanna die.
  3. Chances to help others, to be of use:  Meetings give an opportunity for service work, whether by making the coffee or reaching out to someone who’s new or hurting.  It’s a spiritual axiom that when I give, I get.
  4. Learning from others: At almost every meeting, myrolodex internal Rolodex of AA wisdom gets updated with cool stuff – like this Rolodex metaphor!  Last spring I learned of Drop the Rock, a great book on Steps 6 and 7.  A month ago I heard the excellent term “awfulizer” for that part of my mind that jumps to worst case scenario.
  5. Laughter: Succinctly stated truths of experience we’d thought to be ours alone are what drive all great stand-up comedy.  My fellows are fuckin’ hilarious.  And laughter heals.
  6. Love, love, love:  At that big meeting, another friend responded to the young woman’s question about why we need meetings:  “It’s the love. This room is full of it.  We know each other, we love each other.  We’re family. We’re like a good mafia.”  He pointed out people here and there, naming memories that connected them.  To my friend, the chair, he said, “We saw you when you were out there, man, and it hurt my heart.  You were ridin’ your bike, you had this big ole abscess on your arm and your eyes were dim and you’re all like, ‘It’s cool!’  But we knew it wasn’t.  I’m so glad you made it back, man!”

Threads connected me, too, to so many in that room.  Over there was the young woman with multiple sclerosis I called from a parking lot in a panic at my cancer diagnosis, who comforted me and has miraculously cured her own symptoms.  Here was that wise-ass guy I thought would never make it, whom I just saw at Starbucks reading the Big Book to a teenage junkie – also present.  That suicidal girl I sat down with on those steps twelve years ago, who now has a beautiful marriage and toddler and sometimes cuts my hair – I sent her a smile.

rainbow_heart

As for the “good mafia” part – it’s true we take care of each other.  I’ve edited cover letters, resumes, and financial aid requests that helped people move ahead in life.  Alcoholics have built my deck, given me (amazing) facials, fixed my car, rewired my home, split my firewood, built my website, changed my locks, fixed my sink, and more – much of it for free.  And what’s more, all borrowed when I stood atop the 14,380′ summit of Mount Rainier the first time were my ice axe, crampons, helmet, harness, gaters, shell pants, and goggles – from alcoholic climbers.  Who else does that?

We’re not drunk.

We’re not dead or wishing we were, as we did for years.

Because the truth is, alcoholism made only one mistake: it’s the same for all of us (Rolodex item #557).  By meeting and sharing our stories, we call out this disease on its cunning, insidious lies and take steps toward a higher power that kicks its hoary ass.

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Anxiety vs. Prayer

I’m often scared.  A lot has changed for me in 21 years of sobriety, but serenity still comes and goes.  Recently, it went.  I don’t know if it’s because something pretty traumatic happened to me about a year ago or because some part of my brain just kicks in now and then to broadcast a low-level, relentless alarm: We’re in trouble.  We’ve screwed up.  Shit is NOT okay.Anxiety

Hello, anxiety!

By definition, anxiety’s empty and formless, like someone invisible. Since our brains can’t get a handle on that ambiguous “arggghhh,” we tend to clothe it in various worries.  Anxiety almost never appears in the nude.

For me, it’s most often dressed as finances: I don’t make enough money, so X will happen.  But it can sport all kinds of other great outfits: I’m missing out, getting old, doing it wrong, gonna be alone, or have cancer again.  Maybe ISIS will seize a nuke, the “biggie” earthquake will flatten Seattle, or global warming and ocean acids will collapse our ecosystem.  What if a massive asteroid collides with Earth, wiping out life on our planet?  Did I remember to turn off the stove?

This is not to say none of these issues merit concern.  That’s why they lookcyrus-money-dress so damn foxy on anxiety!  But concern about a particular issue is not the same as a distrust of life itself.  My ego is trying to save me.  It’s remembering past pains and rejections and anticipating more, trying to prep me to outsmart them so I can lessen the blow of impending disaster.

Except – there’s nothing wrong.

A major difference between addiction and sobriety lies in awareness.  When I was drinking, I assumed all my thoughts held validity, so I needed a big gun like booze to blow them out of the water, never mind what else I destroyed.  The greatest gift from the 12 Steps has been the detachment to recognize my thoughts and feelings – even intense ones – as brain activity (see Eckhart Tolle and Gabor Mate) and turn to god for help with them.

For instance, the other morning I recognized a feeling of alarm churning around in my guts like some satellite view of a hurricane, radiating dread.  It was so intense that while my son was getting ready for school, I went back upstairs and prayed.

I prayed in frantic whispers: “You guys, you guys!” (how I address god and whoever else is out there) “I’m so scared!  I can’t do it!  I just can’t do it!  It’s so hard!”  I meant the job of being human, showing up for another day, earning a living – you name it.  “I need you!  I need to know you’re there!”  I was bawling.  Tears spilled down my cheeks, and in the instant of that sensation, a big packet of meaning downloaded.  It said:

1)  You get to be a spirit within a body, energy invested in matter.  No, it’s not easy – we never said it was.  Bodies are laden with weighty emotion.  But that soul-incarnate splice is incredibly precious.  What you’re feeling right now is a gift larger than you can realize.

2)  You know we’re here!  Don’t pretend you don’t!

3)  You’ve been provided everything you need to stay close to us.  We gave you a kit.  It’s called Loving- but you have to assemble it!  Love your life, love all there is – and we will pour through you into the world and you will know joy.

That “kit” idea brought up the image of someone shivering in the cold while beside them lay a disregarded supply of kindling, fuel, and matches.  I have to COMBUST my love for life.  That’s my job, and mine alone.  So I started, right there in the chair.  My flame felt tiny at first: I loved my son, my dog, our home.  But throughout the day the feeling kindled and spread to include people who crossed my path, the sky, the trees.  Pretty soon, I could feel love and gratitude for everything in my life.  Anxiety shrank.

Sister meI began to envision a sister-me in a 3rd world country whose anxiety was far less because she had real needs to fill, basic essentials on Maslow’s Triangle.  She knew she was okay because the values of her culture were steady: she was close to family, she had a role to play, and a spiritual tradition to follow.  And she had a natural humility – no sense that she had to compete to prove her specialness.

I’ve always felt guilty for enjoying the luxuries of life in a 1st world country, but her image showed me that, really, life in the US amounts to unrelenting combat in a spiritual Colosseum.  We’re constantly goaded and attacked by marketing ploys conveying the insidious message: YOU LACK something crucial~!  Every day some highly acclaimed specialist informs us of a critical breakthrough in how to wipe our frickin’ noses.  We’re never done.  We’re never okay.

Journal 1 copyI found myself yearning for the self I become on solo long-distance hikes.  After a few days and nights alone in the mountains I can recall that I’m just a critter, that I need only to live – and not in some hip, smarty-pants way.  On the trail my defunct cell phone is unmasked as a ridiculously self-important slab of circuits; I want to chuck it in a lake.  I make resolutions never to brain-lock with my computer  – email, Facebook, videos, “we know best” articles – ever a-fucking-gain!

Then I come home, and urban culture subsumes all my resolve in its anxiety-inducing gridlock of doom and demand.

I’m realizing that I can’t uproot anxiety, but I can choose to detach and invest my attention elsewhere – into praying earnestly, loving actively, and living simply.  Today, I don’t need a drink that will tweak my brain chemistry.  I just need to remember that, powered by god, I’m far more, far greater than my poor, scared little thoughts.

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Insides to Outsides: Envy vs. Compassion

I get envious.  I hate to admit it.  Envy’s such a low-down, ego-driven emotion, but sometimes the best I can do is admit I’m feeling it and maybe ask god to help me stop.  Lately, god’s been doing just that – showing me how little I know.

Envy can happen only when we compare our insides to other people’s outsides. And what a beautiful (AA) phrase that is, too!  We get lonely, assuming others are capering about with friends.  We scroll bored and depressed through Facecrack, convinced everyone else is reveling in a kick-ass life.  Always, we imagine other people have it easier.

In my drunken 20s and 30s, even after my Near Death Experience showed me otherwise, I clung to an objectivist, mechanical view of the universe that kept things pretty straightforward. But as the years brought on a series of paranormal experiences – knowing stuff I shouldn’t know, seeing stuff I shouldn’t see – I had to expand my realm of possibility.  Quantum physics increasingly shows researchers what an elusive, pliable, witness-influenced phenomenon “reality” can be.  And the spirit world is constantly showing me the same.

Angels & Demons

For me, it’s no longer beyond the bounds of possibility that when I pray for help with a specific character defect, god will provide the grist for just that – if I’m willing to perceive it.

So, anyway – I asked god to remove my envy.  It had been plaguing me particularly since I brought home my alcoholic ex-boyfriend’s cell phone and discovered his extreme, prolonged deception around his sex addiction.  I felt like an idiot for having banked all my love in a rotten vessel.  And all around me, it seemed, were couples savoring romantic bliss.

Left outFor reasons I can’t explain, my comparisons swarmed around a particular friend.  She and I had known each other only faintly from art class on the day when, less than a month after my horrific break up, I sat in the Department of Motor Vehicles, still skinny and shaking, waiting to renew my driver’s license.  In walked gorgeous Jane with her two beautiful children, so I waved her over.  Ten minutes later I knew that, just like me, she was a sober alcoholic who’d had her kids late in life.  She’d been married 10 years to a wonderful non-alcoholic man.

I trusted her.  By the time I left with my license, I’d confided the entire gruesome betrayal story, exposing all my wounds down to details I’d told no one else.  For some of the lewder texts and fetishes I’d seen on my boyfriend’s phone, I even spelled out words while her wholesome preschoolers played nearby.  Jane’s stricken face showed genuine empathy.  Even so, I berated myself afterwards for sharing TMI: “Why did you do that?!  You’re such a freak!”

Days, weeks, and months later, Jane’s husband would stop by our class lovers runningto pick up their kids, the two of them exchanging a brief kiss.  Mind you, I have plenty of friends in happy relationships, but for some reason that image, or even the thought of it, would spur me to beat myself up mercilessly:  I’d fucked up my whole life by choosing the wrong man.  If only I’d chosen more wisely, held out for a normie, found a good, church-going father like that, I’d have the happy intimacy Jane enjoyed!  Instead, I had nothing.

~

We never have a clue what’s coming.  Last week as I arrived at class, Jane rushed up to me in tears. “Thank god you’re here!” she said.  “My husband’s been cheating on me for years and years!  He’s a sex addict!”

I hugged her.  My heart flared with empathy as I understood this bomb had blasted not only her heart, as in my case, but her entire hearth, home, and family beyond anything I could imagine.  Still, the knife of betrayal – that I did know.  I looked into her eyes and spoke the words that had saved my sanity: “His sickness has nothing to do with you.”  We went to a coffee shop where I sat and listened while ‘crazy’ words spilled from her mouth – words of rage and agony and violence!  I nodded with recognition at even the harshest threats of retaliation.  I remembered that white rage.  Because when everything falls apart, there are no rules – except to stay sober.

To help Jane do that, I made up my mind to offer everything I could.

Love is the ultimate risk.  There’s no protecting yourself.  You open your heart and let someone live in there.  The more you love them, the deeper into your core their roots grasp.  So if a day comes that those roots are suddenly torn out, chunks of your soul get ripped out with them.  You die a little bit.  This is true for all of us.

backside embroideryWhat I’ve learned in AA is that nothing I’ve felt, thought, or done is unique to me.  Nothing!  In meetings we reveal our knotty, crisscrossed under-stitching instead of the smooth embroidery we show the outside world.  That’s how we learn to trust each other.  God reminds me over and over: in spite of whatever differing externals ego and envy harp on, our pains and our joys are the same. Helping one another through them, whether in ways big or small, is indeed the ultimate purpose of being alive.  Nothing matters more.

Jane is a strong woman.  She’ll walk through this hell, and she’ll do it without a drink.  And I’ll walk with her as much as I can.  I remember all the little kindnesses friends offered that helped me through my darkest days – frequent texts, maybe a positive CD, a bouquet, and most of all, listening.  Today, those are things I can do for Jane.

Why did I decide on that particular day, that particular hour, to head for that particular DMV to renew my license?  Why did Jane?  Was it merely by chance we shared the hour that bonded us?   You can think what you like, but I believe god sows at our feet the seeds of all we need to heal each other.

Everything is in divine order.

 

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The Power of Powerlessness

About a year ago, I used to frequently pass a billboard claiming thousands of “stubborn” men who avoided seeing a doctor would die that year.  This photo isn’t from my street, but our local billboard met with the same (funny) response:

Stubbornness

 

While I don’t know about the billboard’s claim, I do know when it comes to stubborn alcoholics, even more will NOT seek out a program of recovery this year, which is why in the U.S. alone 2.5 million years of potential life will be lost, shortening by an average of 30 years the lives of those 88,000 who’ll die.*  Instead, despite an inner knowledge that they’re addicted to alcohol, millions will (yet again) marshal their willpower to decide not to drink so much.  Never mind how many times such resolutions have failed!  Never mind that they and everyone they live with can recognize night after night that they’re drunk as usual!  They’ll simply refuse to accept the fact that they’re powerless over alcohol.

The Big Book tells us, “The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker.  The persistence of this illusion is astonishing.  Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”**  But even more simply resign themselves to permitting the self-disgust, degradation, and pathetic caricature of chronic drunkenness to taint their inmost conscience and closest relationships for the rest of their lives.

Why?  Because they believe so ardently in the preeminence of their own minds!  They insist their brains have the power to enact choices of free will that, research increasingly indicates, they simply do not have.  For an addict, Emersonian self-reliance means, in fact, an imprisoning cycle rather than freedom of choice.

Gabor Maté, in his book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, explains our predicament as follows:

We may say, then, that in the world of the psyche, freedom is a relative concept: the power to choose exists only when our automatic mental mechanisms are subject to those brain systems that are able to maintain conscious awareness…

Electrical studies of brain function show that… the interval between awareness of the impulse and the activation of the… impulse is only one-tenth to one-fifth of a second.  Amazingly, it’s only in this briefest of intervals that the [cerebral] cortex can suppress behavior it judges to be inappropriate. …[But] in the split second before the impulse emerges into awareness… the brain carries out what is called preattentive analysis… the unconscious evaluation of what [is]…essential or irrelevant, valuable or worthless.  The cortex is primed to select actions that will achieve [these] goals…

“Those habit structures are so incredibly robust, and once they form in the nervous system, they will guide behavior without free choice.”***

In other words, before we even know we’ve thought of having a drink, the brain has cleared the impulse.  The cortex may occasionally summon a “but wait!’ counter-insurgence, but more often the drink idea advances to GO and collects $200.  Maté calls this condition “brain lock.”  AA calls it the “curious mental blank spot.”  In either case, with an internal sigh of “oh well!” we take the drink (just this one time) and tell ourselves we decided to.Broken Brain

Our brains are broken.  They cannot be fixed.

 ~

I knew none of this when I came to AA wanting to die.  When I first heard the statement, “I can’t fix my broken brain with my broken brain,” so much became clear to me!  For one thing, I understood why I’d fought tooth and nail against “surrendering” to AA.  Who wants to admit she can’t trust her own brain?  No one.

The ego lays claim to omniscience, at least within ourselves: I know all about me.  My thoughts are accurate.  To admit a glitch in my thinking has rendered me unable to choose, unable to correct myself, unable even to see what I’m doing while I’m doing it – this goes against all instinct.  It’s on par with admitting mental illness or, as Step 2 forces us to swallow, insanity.

Yet a deeper part of me – my soul –  heard the resounding truth of that phrase.  I realized I had no answers, and that AA, no matter how foreign, offered one.

So I gave up.Step1

I admitted I was powerless.

And do you know what happened?  Miracles!

First, I quit drinking.  Second, I began to see I was maladapted to living, that I’d never developed the skills and insight to “manage” life’s choices.  Third,  I discovered it wasn’t too late to learn.

The remaining 11 steps reconnected me to the god of goodness I’d known in earliest childhood – to the nurturing powers of Love and divine wisdom.  To maintain contact with them, all I had to do was adopt the 12 steps as a way of life.

At first, mind you, that idea repulsed me, too.

Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant?  Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done?  Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer?  Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry AA’s message to the next sufferer? ***

Not early sobriety Louisa!  I did these things because I had to.  Today I do them because I get to – because they fill me with freedom and fulfillment.  Drunk, I blathered about climbing Mount Rainier.  Sober, I did it – 3 times!  Drunk, I dreamed of writing a book.  Sober, I wrote it – check the sidebar!  Drunk, I longed desperately to be liked.  Sober, I love more people than I’d ever have believed possible.

Mount_Rainier_from_northwest

Mount Rainier

THAT is power, guys.  It’s just not mine.

~

The most important 1st step is the one I take today, the one I re-experience every morning, every hour.  My compulsion to drink is 100 times stronger than my cortex’s resistance.  Alcohol kicks my ass, has its way, calls the shots, rules my mind.  But luckily, it’s the same for you!  Alone, each of us has no power to fight this thing.  We bloat, soggy and mollified in the dregs of our lonely cups.  But connected to god and fellow alcoholics through AA, we tap into a Power that lifts us above the limitations of our broken brains – to heights we never dared imagine.

 

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* http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
** Alcoholics Anonymous p. 30
*** In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Chpt. 26

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What Alcohol Did; What god Does

Pain happens, starting when we’re young. In our efforts to evade it, we suppress a whole array of feelings, turning away and denying them. But like an ignored roommate sharing the small apartment of our psyches, the pain lives on. It doesn’t grow up. It stays the age we were when the trauma happened. Countless negative beliefs systems sprout to position it – that we’re not good enough, that others will reject our true selves, so we need to strategize to please them.  We try.  Again we miss the mark and endure more pain, the rabble of negativity within us creating a ceaseless inner shitstorm.

It sucks – the shitstorm does.  Our psyches can become a hellhole.  In AA, we speak of the shitty committee.

Shitty Committee

click to enlarge

What Alcohol Did for Me
The first time I got wasted, alcohol shrank that entire tornado of pain and fear so small it could fit inside a harmless little bubble and float off somewhere in my mind’s periphery – totally irrelevant.  Hey!  I was fine, you were fine, and if someone didn’t like us, fuck ‘em. My psyche’s protective walls fell away so the world opened up as a land of plenty, beautiful and safe. Life was so damn easy!  Cocaine tripled that effect*, adding an intense interest and delight in all things.

I wanted that feeling again.  And again.  Addiction promises a shortcut, an escape from ourselves. It’s that hope, that sweet anticipation of GOOD STUFF that lures us every time to jump on it again. Something as simple as a red notification number on Facebook can trigger a spurt of anticipatory endorphins in our minds – this is gonna be good! This cheesecake, this big sale, this cocaine porn winning horse remodel facelift romance booze is gonna lift me right out of the bad stuff, set me on top, make being me so smooth!  Dopamine levels surge, causing us to “forget” all the pain in our lives.

“Thus addiction… arises in a brain system that governs the most powerful emotional dynamic in human existence: the attachment instinct.  Love.”  Gabor Maté is writing here of opiates, but the same principle applies to all drugs that impact our dopamine levels – including alcohol.

sunshine1That first perfect, blissful high is, in my opinion, reminiscent of heaven.  Literally.  Hear the story of anyone who’s had a Near Death Experience (NDE) in which they went to the Light, and they’ll tell you they were permeated by an ovewhelming Love, a brilliance so powerful it left no room for anything bad. The Light is the unfiltered energy of Love that is not incarnate, not trapped in a limiting body; it is whence we originate, what powers us here, and what we’ll return to. And it’s a memory of bliss for which we hunger desperately as we trudge through the difficulties of being human.

So what am I saying?  That consciousness from a brain artificially flooded with dopamine resembles consciousness in heaven?  Yep.  ‘Fraid so.  That’s why many addicts sacrifice their lives in pursuit of it.  Un/fortunately, our brains respond to such bombardment by curtailing both production of and receptors for dopamine, so life without using more becomes increasingly hellish – and that change persists for years.

What god Does for Me
…is not as fast or dramatic, but it works: god gives me the self-compassion to heal my own wounds.  The message of the Big Book is love.  In the rooms we’re surrounded with it as we dare to take that First Step, to admit openly, “You guys, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!!”  From that humility, we tap an “an inner resource” – god as we understand it – which begins to edge out ego as our guide for living.  The more love we accept from god, the more we have to offer others, and vice versa.  For the first time, we can love imperfect people from the standpoint of our own imperfection.  In other words, as working the steps gradually teaches us compassion for others, we also develop it for ourselves.  We become conduits of the Light.

“You have to feel it to heal it,” my cousin and I like to say.  In scaredgirlmeditation I go in looking for that little 9-year-old Louisa who was so blighted by shame, and I ask her to tell me where it still hurts.  I feel it, too; I grieve with her; I comfort her.  You don’t have to do anything, I tell her. You can just be you, and I’ll love you.  I can promise her this because my god has promised it to me. At the core of Al-Anon, ACA, and SLAA, named either directly or indirectly, is the healing power of self-parenting. That’s the nexus of change.  We can play both roles, loving and healing our past selves.

Today my inner little girl is pretty happy.  She got banged up rather badly in my recent break-up, but she’s convalescing well.  We share an open world infused with goodness – because I perceive god in all I encounter.  At times I do experience bliss – basking in the beauty of the mountains, laughing myself loopy with sober friends, or witnessing the miracle of my sweet son. It’s not a cheap bliss, either: it’s the real McCoy, earned through hard spiritual work – that freedom I once faked temporarily with alcohol and drugs.  And like heaven, it’s all about love.

~

Watch This:
Here’s a simple animation that depicts volumes about addiction in a brief 4.5 minutes.  Strangely, watching it makes me cry.

I’m guessing Andreas Hykade, the film’s German creator, knew addiction well. It’s not by coincidence that our protagonist is a kiwi, a flightless bird.  We all feel like that – denied the soaring others pull off.  Neither is the grating step-by-step sound effect accidental. Real life is one step at a time and arduously incremental compared to the smooth bliss of intoxication. Even the images’ barren simplicity reflects the stark focus of addiction. An animation teacher at Harvard, Hykade chose a simple line drawing over every state-of-the-art visual effect at his disposal.

NUGGETS

Kiwi addict

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So many of us never escape that final darkness.  If you have, take a moment for gratitude.

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* Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, p.153

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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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