How Alcoholism Fucks Up Your Brain

A brief overview

I usually focus these posts on the spirituality of the 12 Steps as brewbama path  of recovery from alcoholism and codependency, but today I’ve decided to look at a little medical research on this disease. You already know that chronic alcohol abuse causes brain damage – some of it permanent. Whether your brain can rebuild itself with prolonged abstinence depends upon the severity of the damage as well as correlated factors such as genetics, nutrition, and your life habits in sobriety.

Alcoholism Shrinks Your Brain
This is an indisputable fact. Prolonged abuse of alcohol shrinks all areas of the brain, causing the condition known as “wet brain.” All wet brain really means is that, as the brain tissue shrinks, the vacated areas, known as ventricles, fill with fluid to compensate. It doesn’t mean you become a drooling idiot. (My father developed it late in life and remained quite articulate.) Rather, the condition simply indicates that all functions of your brain have been compromised, so that you’re less aware, less physically able, less emotionally engaged, and less intelligent overall than you would be with a healthy, non-alcoholic brain.

But, hey, no big! The buzz is worth it, right?

MRI Alcoholic Brain

Why Does Alcoholism Shrink Your Brain?
Here we encounter competing theories. To quote an article from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (what a bunch of party-poopers!):

According to one hypothesis, shrinkage (i.e., atrophy) of the cerebral cortex and white matter, as well as possible atrophy of basal forebrain regions, may result from the neurotoxic effects of alcohol… Alcoholics who are susceptible to alcohol toxicity may develop permanent or transient cognitive deficits associated with brain shrinkage.[i]

What is “neurotoxicity”? It’s medi-speak for toasts your brain cells. They don’t necessarily die, but the dendrites connecting them are damaged or lost, so that the cells occupy less area.   But hey – at least they’re still kind of there, right?

Gray Matter Volumes

As you can see, when it comes to brains, plump is better. The graph on the right may seem a little confusing if you’ve gotten bombed enough times – or, heck, even if you haven’t. The straight line represents a normal brain. The blue line shows shrinkage of regions in a young alcoholic brain, and the yellow line shrinkage in an older alcoholic brain. (By the way, who the hell drinks only 20 gallons of alcohol in their whole life? Seriously? Even 625 gallons wouldn’t be nearly enough for my addict!)

Parts of the Brain Most Vulnerable
Everybody knows that when you’re fucked up, you temporarily lose coordination, short-term memory, and sound judgment. But who cares? Not much of a price to pay for not hating yourself for a bit, right? Of course, getting hammered also fries your behavioral inhibitions, emotional intelligence, and the ability to accurately read social cues – none of which can even compare, obviously, with the tremendous relief of no longer feeling terrified to converse with other human beings because you’re suddenly irresistibly hot and charming.

That said, it only makes sense that prolonged exposure to alcohol would eventually damage the parts of the brain responsible for those very functions.

Neuroimaging studies of living brains point to increased susceptibility of frontal brain systems to alcoholism-related damage… The frontal lobes, connected with all other lobes of the brain, receive and send fibers to numerous subcortical structures. The prefrontal cortex is considered the brain’s executive—that is, it is necessary for planning and regulating behavior, inhibiting the occurrence of unnecessary or unwanted behaviors, and supporting adaptive “executive control” skills such as goal-directed behaviors, good judgment, and problem-solving abilities.

In other words, the motherboard of your brain starts to malfunction. drunk-people-grin  As alcoholism progresses, this can lead to the chain of bad choices that screw up an alcoholic’s entire life. Because it only makes sense that as self-restraint abates and good judgment declines, egotism and selfishness jump in to take up the slack.

 Disruptions of the normal inhibitory functions of prefrontal networks often have the interesting effect of releasing previously inhibited behaviors. As a result, a person may behave impulsively and inappropriately – which may contribute to excessive drinking.

In other words, the more you injure your brain by drinking, the more likely you are to say, “aw… fuck it!” and drink more. Other excellent ideas include hooking up with other sick people, engaging in unethical/destructive behaviors, and royally screwing over the people you love.

Because actually, you only kind of love them. To be honest, loving them is only a vague memory. Why is that?

Alcoholics may seem emotionally “flat” – i.e., they are less reactive to emotionally charged situations… Impairments in emotional functioning that affect alcoholics may reflect abnormalities in [the right 48_Withered_Heart_16oo_by_WoodrowShigeruhemisphere or] other brain regions which… influence emotional processing, such as the limbic system and the frontal lobes.

How many alcoholics know that feeling of not being able to feel?  When my grandmother died, when my husband walked away, when my partner shut the door on my begging – I knew I ought to feel something, but I didn’t. Not much more than, “Hmm… that sure sucks!” Who knew my limbic system was screwed up? Really, by the end I could feel only one thing: when I was pouring the drink, when I was chopping the lines, when it seemed I was winning the conquest, I felt, “YES!”

Alcohol directly stimulates release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is important in emotional expression, and of the endorphins, natural substances related to opioids, which may contribute to the “high” of intoxication and the craving to drink. Alcohol also leads to increases in the release of dopamine (DA), a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation and in the rewarding effects of alcohol.

The trouble is, the brain recognizes this overload of pleasure transmitters and tapers its production of each as a result. In other words, you feel like shit without a drink; in fact, severe neurotransmitter imbalances my cause you to develop “seizures, sedation, depression, agitation, and other mood and behavior disorders.”

The brain, of course, isn’t the only organ on the team to get fucked up by alcohol. Every part of the body suffers, but hardest hit is your liver. We all know the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the bloodstream gets compromised as alcohol overtaxes it. But did you know this?

These damaged liver cells no longer function as well as they should and allow too much of these toxic substances, ammonia and manganese in particular, to travel to the brain. These substances proceed to damage brain cells, causing a serious and potentially fatal brain disorder known as hepatic encephalopathy, which can result in mood and personality changes, anxiety, depression, shortened attention span, and coordination problems, including… hand shaking[ii]

I think I might’ve had a spot of that…

Well, that’s about the end of my rollicking review of alcoholic brain damage. Missing from this account, of course, is the self-destructive spiritual illness that makes us not give a shit whether we’re killing ourselves, because life’s worthless anyway.

The good news is that studies also show all these physical processes can be reversed by long-term abstinence, while the spiritual malady – thank god! – can be cured via the 12 steps.  A healthy body is really just the means to an end – usefulness and the joy of living, which we’ve been granted in sobriety.

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[i] Except where noted, quotations are taken from “Alcoholism and the Brain: An Overview,” by Marlene Oscar–Berman, Ph.D., and Ksenija Marinkovic, Ph.D. See http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/125-133.htm
[ii] http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Hangovers/beyondHangovers.htm

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Spiritual Essence: Sobriety, Growth, and Who You’ll Be on the Other Side

Because in AA and Al-Anon meetings we emphasize similarities rather than differences, I usually refrain from talking about my Near Death Experience. I don’t want some share of mine about going to the Light to discourage a newcomer from identifying as alcoholic or convince them AA is full of loonies. But my blog’s a different matter. It’s a place to share my whole experience, loony or not.

When we get sober, we hear a lot of talk about ego as something in close cahoots with our addiction. In order to grow in sobriety, we strive to become conscious of those times (always?) when  it takes over our thinking. But what, exactly, is that entity trying to become conscious? That is, who/what are we without our egos? When we get down to the very heart of our being, our consciousness, what do we find?

chakrasEckhart Tolle, in my experience, writes most masterfully on this topic. In A New Earth, he makes a number of distinctions among the images appearing on the screen of the mind or various voices in our heads. In addition to ego (which is essentially the voice of fear – a destructive agent) and thought (which continuously occupies the brain much as digestion occupies the stomach, but without necessarily holding insight), he identifies emotions (the body’s reaction to thoughts) and the pain-body (an energy field within the body that feeds on negative emotions). Together, these components of our minds conspire to create the Unhappy Story of our lives.

In contrast to this, Tolle posits Presence. Presence is that which witnesses all aspects of our experience – the font of consciousness itself. I remember when I was reading Tolle on a beautiful beach in Costa Rica, the phenomenon of Presence kept eluding me.  I’d try repeatedly to disengage from my thoughts and emotions enough to zoom in on who was witnessing them, only to be sucked in by another thought or emotion, such as judging the extent of my success.

Today I understand why I couldn’t do it: my core, my soul, my essence was submerged beneath a layer of lies (thoughts) and denial (fear) manufactured by my ego to maintain my love addiction: I lay on that beautiful beach with a boyfriend who I knew in my core was concealing late-stage alcoholism, simply not drinking or acting out around me. I did not want to know this, mind you. I wanted not want to be fully conscious, because if I dropped my stories of him as an ethically strong and genuine man, I’d need to uproot my entire emotional life by breaking from him.  Addiction – with its urgent needs and false realities to fill them – obstructed my access to Presence, exactly as it had back in the days when I was drinking.

I do, however, have a memory of being pure presence.  If you’ve read my addiction memoir, you know that in 1982 I snorted a half-gram of lidocaine sold to me as cocaine, which shut down my cardio-pulmonary impulses and caused me to die on the dance floor of a Manhattan nightclub.  In those three minutes without pulse or breathing, I rocketed out of my body and into a vast blue sky above the open ocean, embarking on my journey to god.  There’s no room to tell the whole story here. What I want to concentrate on is the “I” in those sentences. What was “I” outside my body?

Pure awareness. Pure interest. Pure embrace of each phenomenon I encountered. That is, whatever I experienced, I loved.  I saw and knew with an ongoing, unqualified excitement that made not loving impossible. How to describe this? When you were a kid, maybe on your birthday or Christmas, you might have encountered a big stack of presents. You didn’t know what was in them.  You didn’t need to.  You anticipated finding out without worry that some might be duds.  All you felt was, “Oh, boy!”  That’s how you’ll feel about everything after you leave your body – everything, that is, except the prospect of returning to it.

Fear became null. When I was diving hundreds of feet toward tspiritenergyhe ocean’s surface, I wondered whether its surface tension might impact me like concrete, and there was certainly an extra spurt of “Oh, boy!” when it didn’t – but no adrenaline tinge of dread.  Same with the realization that I was about to burst into the sun – I only wondered what would happen.  That’s it.  Fear, sadness, anger: these are functions of the BODY.  We don’t need them once staying biologically operational is no longer of consequence.

Short of dying, how can you experience your own essence – that core consciousness you’ll become on the other side?  The best way I know today is to get quiet, close your eyes, and mentally speak your own name adding the suffix “–ness.” Do this several times.  Each time you repeat it, go further toward your child self.  Seek the thinker, not the thoughts.  Not only that, let go of trying – to be someone, to please, to do well before anyone but god – and let yourself fall toward humility. You’re just you.

In my “Louisa-ness,” there’s a subtle hint of…  I can’t find a word besides “dumbness.” But it’s a dumbness I thoroughly love! Maybe it’s just the void left by ego’s absence, the submission to being limited. It’s sort of like the curve of a ball, the spherical nature of myself coming back to me. It cups me. It hums “Louisa-ness.”

The more sober I am, the closer I move toward living from my essence.  THAT is my spiritual journey.  As Meister Eckhart put it (not related to Tolle), “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”

Part of the reason I love to climb mountains is that the physical demands pare away my thoughts and emotions until the simplicity of one goal – I will get to the top – eclipses all the various yammerings of ego.  Ego may initiate my climbs, but spirit finishes them.  “One Step at a Time” – the name of my sober mountaineering group – offers the ultimate metaphor for spiritual growth.  Day before yesterday, standing at 12,200 feet on the summit of Mount Adams, I did indeed feel close to my god.

I’m alive.  I’m grateful.  Nothing else matters.  For me, until the times comes to shed the “dumbness” of this body, that’s as true as it gets.

Me at 12,200 feet

Sunday afternoon, Mount Adams summit at 12,200 feet, a distant Rainier on the horizon.

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Just Say NO to Self-Pity: 10 Reasons

“What we must recognize now is that we exult in some of our defects. We really love them” (12 Steps and 12 Traditions, p.66).

Somebody or somethin’ done ya wrong?  Let’s stew on it.  After all, you’ve tried so hard for so long, earnestly doing what’s reasonable and right.  You had faith things would work out.  But then what did they do – this person or group or life in general?  Did they recognize the facts?  Did they acknowledge what was really going on, see their obligations, and grant you your just reward?

No!  No, they did this other thing, this wrong thing, 858617_4584888544779_993860787_othis business that is so, so hurtful!  You had hopes and they dashed them!  You were innocent and they shot you down.  And hasn’t it always been like this?  Fuckers.  They’re just plain cruel – that’s the truth!  It’s all so unfair!  Why do you even keep trying?  Why get hurt like this again and again?  Sometimes it feels like even god – that’s right, your gonna just go ahead and say it – plays favorites, walls you out, prefers a frickin’ clique!  So you’re utterly alone.  You have nothing.  Only this lonely ache and this rusty iron conviction you’ve been wronged…

Man, I just LOVE me a warm bath of self-pity!!!  Sing it, bring it, tell it!

Except – wait a minute.  That stuff’s poison.  It’s toxic thinking guaranteed to sicken and imprison a person in resentment quicker than they can say “running the show.”  Whenever I senseTears glass self-pity pooling in my thoughts, I have to draw myself up short and try my best to redirect my focus.  Otherwise, I’m taking steps backwards in my recovery.  For all of us prone to addiction, self-pity is a dangerous spiritual ailment, and  indulging in it without check is the emotional equivalent of guzzling drinks.

10 Reasons

    1. Self-pity ain’t nothin’ but ego:  We know the storyline of how things were supposed to go because we wrote the script.  It was a really good script, too!  We had “the lights, the ballet, the scenery, and the rest of the players” all set in the best way – that is, the way that would turn out ideally for us.  We deserve what we want!  Really, everybody would be better off doing things our way, if only we could make them see it! —————————————-  ——————— —————  —————-
    2. Self pity lies like a rug: I know what’s best. I know what everyone’s thinking and exactly why they did what they did – all their petty, biased little motives!  That’s why I’m sure this turn of events is wrong.  What actually happened is NOT god’s way: it’s a big mistake!  Or if it is god’s way, then god’s an asshole.  God should put foremost what makes me happy.  The universe is either with me or against me, based on what I see and think! ———————— ——— ——————————————- ————-
    3. Self-pity is a drama crack: I’m not only the heroine of this tale but also the audience. Look at this poignant twist of plot!  I’ve persevered through so many difficulties, only to be wounded by this undeserved blow!  Oh, the pain!  The audience (me) can see the other characters all plotting around the player spotlighted in center-stage (also me).  I can play the drama forward; I can draw out the future with swelling musical notes.  Someday, damn it, they’ll realize X and be filled with Y.  This show is so intense!  So deep————————————– ——————- ————- ———
    4. Self-pity is addicting: The more we hang out in self-pity, the more trammeled those neural networks become and the more likely we’ll go back for more.  Dwelling on injustice brings the intensity of something exciting, something dire!  That delicious ache of martyrdom fills the gaping hole in our spirits.  Yes, it’s a low, but it’s also a high – an all-consuming escape from real life.  By contrast, a level-headed look at our situation going forward seems either boring (acceptance) or intimidating (action).  Can’t I just sit here and savor another hit of “poor me”?! ————————————– ————————————      ————————————————
    5. Self-pity ain’t self-compassion: Compassion is positive.  When we feel it for others, we open our hearts to them; we empathize lovingly.  The same goes for self-compassion.  It prevents us from judging ourselves negatively, acknowledging instead the efforts we’ve put in and the disappointment we feel.  But it does not stew, blame, resent, envy, or hate.  In self-compassion, we love ourselves as god loves us.  We nurture our own healing, not our pain. ———————————————————————————–
    6. Self-pity ain’t self-care: Self-care is, by definition, pro-active.  It considers my constructive options for healing and strengthening.  I ask god what I can do now to better my emotional state so I’ll develop the means to help myself – and then I do it.  Self-pity, by contrast, attributes all the power to others.  I’m a victim!  I have no responsibility!  Nothing I could have done, nothing I can do now can help me. —————————– ——————————————————– ——- ——–
    7. Self-pity turns our backs on god:  God dwells only in reality.  It can be met only in the present moment. It’s also the power of love – a love that motivates us to accept what life brings and see how we can grow, make, and be useful under those circumstances.  When we collapse instead into self, when we rail against reality, we encase ourselves in righteous resentment. Fear and scarcity wall out the very faith we need in order to recoup. ————————————————————————————–
    8. Self-pity makes us useless:  Your problems?  Are you fucking kidding me?  I’ve got my problems!  What do you have for me? ———————————————————————————–
    9. Self-pity attracts misfortune: This is karmic law.  I don’t know exactly how it works, just that it does.  Self-pity renders us a black hole of need.  We’re not generating; we’re sucking, sinking, retreating into darker and darker recesses of self.  The forces that gain energy in that darkness – forces we feed with our anguish – do not bring goodness into our lives. —————- ————–  —————————— ——————- ————
    10. Self-pity is frickin’ boring: For god’s sake, don’t we know this song and dance too well?  How many times have we been here?  It never changes.  It interests no one.  There are so many better ways to spend our time and energy.

Every time I’m able to recognize that self-pity is having its way with me, I pray something like this: God, help me stop right now.  Steer my thoughts toward the path of healing and usefulness.  Change me, dear god, in whatever way will free me from this dumbass horseshit. 

It truly helps.  Try it and see!

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Psychic Change

Toward Alcohol

When we hit bottom in our drinking careers, we’re pretty much forced to change.  We’re truly sick and tired of being sick and tired; we recognize, however faultily, that our way is not working.  We become teachable.  That is, we’re desperate enough to try out AA’s approach even though it feels foreign, artificial, and disorienting.

For me this meant giving up the belief that I knew everything.  I’d always felt sure I could perceive the lay of the land in a snap and choose the best course, which I then acted on with chutzpah and a dash of fukitol.  Drinks made me feel better, so I frickin’ took ’em.  Certain designated figures, also known as cool people, carried what I craved, so I chased ’em.  Responsibility and integrity felt cumbersome, so I shrugged ’em off – free to follow my whims wherever they might lead!

And where was that?  Loneliness so lethal I wanted to scream for eternity and futility so rampant I wanted to break and trash and burn every fucking thing that ever touched my life – that’s where my knowing everything took me.

12 stepsAA – the supposed solution – seemed as silly as a cake walk.  The 12 Steps, anyone could see, held no more wisdom than a hopscotch grid, and yet all these AA dolts claimed that if you sincerely played hopscotch, if you landed in each arbitrarily chalked off square, you’d bust through to frickin’ Narnia or something – whatever they meant by this “4th dimension of existence.”

But since a U-turn could lead me only back to the hell, I went ahead.  I gave up control, followed directions, did the dance.  And I commenced to change – to heal and grow and behold countless unexplored and rich possibilities hitherto invisible to me.

From somewhere inside me, I began to sense a direction besides my thoughts.  They – my thoughts – were still as dumb and which-way as ever, but this new chord, this voice within – it began to lead me instead of them.  Guidance I heard and talked about in AA aligned with this voice, but did not constitute it.  Rather, I had “tapped an unsuspected inner resource” previously drown out by all the fears, demands, and clutter spewed by my ego.

I’d experienced a psychic change.  I’d begun to develop a spiritual life that edged out my craving for booze.

Toward Life Itself

“Our liquor was but a symptom,” says the Big Book, of our messed up approach to life.  If we merely take away the faulty solution of drinking, life hits us full force and feels unbearable. The lasting solution is to live on a spiritual basis which flows in tune with reality rather than fighting it.

Spiritual evolution is not a matter of content.  That is, it’s never a matter of learning X, Y, and Z, passing the quiz, and graduating.  Rather, it’s a habit of cultivating open-mindedness and reaching for growth.  In other words, the conditions for continuous growth are the same as those that freed us from compulsive drinking: I elect not to buy into my thoughts, not to obey my ego, not to fall for the idea that my way is right.  Only by turning away from these easy-to grab reflexes can I open myself to another voice – the more fundamental guidance of a higher power.

second-handDay by day, growth happens at the juncture between what I’m exposed to and how I react to it.  In that immediate crucible, I make more tiny choices than can possibly be noted, but collectively, they coalesce into a “gear” for my outlook.  I plop into good-ole self-pity or reach for seemingly impossible gratitude – though I may end up somewhere between.  What matters is whether I ask my higher power to guide those tiny choices, and whether I commit the incremental shards of my awareness to pursuing that guidance.

Growth can’t happen when ego takes over.  The world becomes scary, because if what I’ve decided is supposed to happen doesn’t, I’m gonna be screwed. There’s never enough, so I lock into my plans.  I get tunnel vision – which means I’m sealed off from potential good outside my will.  I consign myself to stagnation.

The openness of faith reminds me life is always a collaborative effort – mine and god’s.  Sure, I still plan and take action, but with built-in acceptance of whatever plays out.  Even if things fuck up and fall apart, I’ll still be okay.  My “enough” originates not from stuff or status, but from the power of god’s love flowing through me, the strength to generate and nurture and delight.

Jess and Chip

Jesse & Chip (by permission) 1 month post-flood: “The joy of living [they] really have, even under pressure and difficulty.”

Consider some dear friends of mine who moved to Wimberley, TX, last year only to lose everything they owned in a recent river flood.  One day things were dandy, and next their home was was missing two walls and contained only mud and somebody else’s overturned couch.  They had no renters’ insurance.  Can you imagine that?  I mean, can you really imagine losing everything?  Yet these are two happy and thriving, not only because they’re sober, but because they live on a spiritual basis.  They don’t lament.  They have their precious lives, their energy, their love – a flow that’s providing all they need to rebuild what was lost, even as they pitch in to help neighbors… or support a faraway friend (me) processing a painful break-up.

The psychic change to living on a spiritual basis means we accept life’s uncertainty, taking our best shot and leaving the results to god.  Failure’s fine.  It happens.  Floods happen.  Betrayals happen.  We can only keep listening for the voice within and trying to follow it toward good actions and good people, but with no guarantees.  Because, while it’s true we each reap what we sow, it’s also true we’re  scattering seeds from an unmarked, mixed bag. What will take root and flourish depends, we know, as much on the rain and sun as our work. Yet we do it anyway – and cheerfully.

Millet- sower

The Sower, J. F. Millet, 1850

 

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Memoir Out in Paperback

Just an announcement:

For those non-Kindle readers interested in getting my addiction memoir as a hold-in-your-hands, physical page-turning book, it’s FINALLY available on Amazon here:

Click here for paperback addiction memoir

Click here for content description/reader reviews

It reads just like an AA share.  You’ll feel like you’re at a speakers’ meeting where I’m telling you my story with that unique funny/sad tone we all use – except somebody gave me 12 hours to tell it!  I can promise you, it’s not dull.  I quote wet journal entries – I was a prize-winning writer able to articulate problems but not solve them.  I also, as the subtitle indicates, describe the vivid Near Death journey to the Light I experienced at age 22.  The series of paranormal after-effects that followed over the years culminate in the concrete faith in a higher power grounding my long term sobriety today.

The last chapters recount my recovery from codependency – an ongoing process.

Please feel free to pass on the link above to anyone in/attempting recovery from any form of addiction who you think would enjoy a wild tale of experience, strength, and hope.

New blog post for y’all tomorrow!

yours,

-Louisa

Cover figures

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Reaching for god, Healing in the Mountains

I want to describe a moment of insight, but to get there, I’ll have to take you on a little odyssey with me.  The Enchantments are a chain of lakes carved out by glaciers in Washington’s Central Cascades – a series of cirques in pale granite amid jagged peaks so lovely you need a very elusive permit to visit in summer.  But this year, with the snow level so low, I decided to seize the chance to see them before permit season began.

I invited along a friend who recently completed the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage, walking 500 miles from St. John, France, to the cathedral of Santiago, Spain – with virtually no money.  I chose Kacie not only because she’s sober and a skilled through-hiker, but because her connection to God is knowledge rather than faith. Though she’s Christian and I’m non-religious, our spiritual convictions align perfectly.  At 33, she’s an absolutely beautiful soul.  Here we are, starting out our trip at Colchuck Lake.

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Aasgard Pass is behind us, where the trail gains 2,000 feet in 3/4 of a mile

I wanted Kacie with me not just to help me tackle this trail, but because I knew she could help me along a second, inner trek.  Maybe I’m trying to tell too much in one post, but for me, this trip was more about healing than hiking. I recently posted about having discovered that for two and a half years my alcoholic boyfriend concealed an ongoing affair with an alcoholic girl half my age – named KC, ironically enough.  Though I’m glad to have escaped with my sobriety, there’s much grief to process in losing someone you thought you loved for nine years.

Early on, I asked my Kacie for her take on my “happy” memories from those deceit-filled years with Grayson – our teasing as we played ping-pong, comparing cloud pictures as we lay in the sunlit grass, decorating our tiny Christmas tree.  She answered straight up: “You need to let go the lie before you can embrace the truth.  That was manipulation, it was false, it was poison – every minute of it.”  I knew she was right.  Her words solidified the ones hovering in my thoughts for weeks: emotional robbery, abuse, even molestation.  Because, yes, to con someone into prolonged intimacy, fully aware the truth would both horrify and repulse them, is that bad.

We hiked on.  I’d heard a lot about the dangers of climbing Aasgard Pass, with its 2,000 foot near-vertical gain.  We didn’t reach the base of the chute until 4:15.  There’s no trail per se; you scramble amid sliding talus and scree; you search above you for cairns – stacks of rock people have left to mark a course – praying nothing falls on you.  Chest-high boulders with divot toe-holds demand you heave yourself up them despite the 35 pounds on your back and hundreds of feet below you to fall.

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Kacie picking her way up the rubble

We climbed for an hour.  Two hours.  The wind picked up, and we began to encounter pockets of ice and snow.  There were times I thought I’d lost the way completely, boxed in among boulders, until I’d sight a cairn someplace seemingly impossible to reach.  Then I’d pray, find handholds, pretend I wasn’t exhausted, and heft Louisa + pack one more time.  Ten minutes later, repeat.  Finally, three and a half hours into it, a moment arrived when I rounded a rock face and recognized from the outlines of slabs against the sky that we were nearly there.  To Kacie, over the whipping wind and cataract tumbling to our right, I shouted, “We’re almost there!  We’re gonna fuckin’ do it!”

That’s when the tears came. Thank you, god.  Not just for getting me here, but for showing me I have what it takes to do this.  In the past, on all our toughest climbs, Grayson led.  But no one led me this time, not even a frickin’ trail: just god and the bright life it kindles in me.

While the sun set amid 20 mph winds and the temps dropped below freezing, Kacie and I made camp at about 7,ooo feet.  Kacie was so chilled she began dropping things, getting confused.  Our stove wouldn’t light at this altitude and the winds snapped at the tent as we pitched it.  But we were never scared – not really. I gave Kacie all my extra clothes and released enough gas from the canister to blow up a small dog before my lighter finally ignited it. Once the water boiled I told Kacie to go eat inside the tent while I made her some hot water bottles and picked up for the night.

Neither of us slept much because the elevation throws you off, but in the morning we encountered this, along with the delicate music of snowmelt everywhere running down to Aasgard Lake:

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and this:

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and lots of these guys:

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After breakfast, we packed up and set off again, like this:

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We covered about 10 miles that day, talking on and on about god, about how god has built right into us our capacity to see, feel, and appreciate beauty as a spiritual language to connect with Him/it.  Here’s are some glimpses of what we saw, did, and loved:

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Kacie took

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Among the many things Kacie said that struck me deeply was this: “The only thing God asks is that we participate in the relationship.  It’s like if I were going on this hike saying, ‘Hmm… Louisa might be with me on this hike. That might be her I see ahead of me, that could be her voice…’ but I ignored you the whole way because I wasn’t sure you were real.  I mean, what’s more hurtful than just ignoring someone who loves you?!  We do that to God all the time, and yet He just keeps loving us.  He keeps saying, I’m here when you’re ready.”

Eventually we began our descent to Snow Lake, where we’d spend our second night.  That’s when I felt something welling up in me, stronger with each step I advanced between the huge rock escarpments toward the meandering valley below.  Thoughts churned.  Why did it still hurt that Grayson had ignored my love? Why was it so hard to love myself ?

Here came the revelation: I understood, as I started bawling silently, that to love god in these mountains was to love god in me as well.  So I began saying silently to each beauty, however tiny or vast: “I love you, god.  I love you in this flower.  I love you in the tops of those trees.  I love you in that tremendous and intricate stone wall above me older than I can conceive.”  Each time I sent out this energy, whatever came back seemed to redirect my inner periscope just a tiny notch or two – away from Grayson’s insult and toward my own wealth of spirit, away from the story of what happened and toward the openness of whatever might.

I crossed some threshold.  I saw my journey was on course, that god had sent me a precious gift through every person I’ve ever loved – including Grayson. In the thousand-plus miles we covered together, he taught me most of the skills that embolden me today, skills that let me dare to venture out and meet my god in the rough and dangerous beauty of the wilderness.

What a gift!  Not just for me, but now through me to Kacie. “Churches are like big, fancy worship bathrooms,” says Kacie.  “I want to be here.  God’s Cathedral is here.”

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The next day we were met at the trailhead by kind, sober friends who drove us back to my car. The minute I got home, I showered, threw on a dress and heels, and drove to a downtown restaurant to celebrate another sober friend’s 50th birthday. We sang to him as he blushed.  Love – that same echo of god’s goodness – rang in our voices.

“God is such a show-off!” I remember Kacie saying as we hiked. “He is!  Because He has infinite beauty to show off!  Fucking infinite!  He pours it into the mountains, into this stream, into us!  He wants it  a-l-l  to be felt!”  We joked about the fears that make us check our inner share of god’s beauty, like a bird halting in mid-song for fear of fucking up.  This blog is part of my song.  I’ll show off, I’ll sing, I’ll fuck up, and I won’t apologize.  Because god put inside me what it wants me to share.

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What is Goodness?

Words can be dead or alive.  My big, fat Webster’s dictionary devotes a full page to the word good, yet conveys almost nothing.  Definitions range from dictionary“making a favorable impression in terms of moral character” to “wholesome” or “noble and respectable.”    Words – nothing but lexical connections.

Yet words can also be alive when they resonate with us.  Years ago at an AA meeting, for instance, I heard these: “Love from the heart is a one-way street.  It goes out.”  The guy saying this gestured from his chest into the room, his hand unfolding from from fist to open.  I knew the truth of what he was saying.  I’d never heard it so succinctly put.

Goodness.  What is it?  Most of us know it when we’re feeling it.  If we’re around a good person, something emanates from them.  A work of art or beauty can evoke the same feeling.  It’s a warmth, a light, a glow – maybe an aura.  But of what?

Love.  Goodness is the product of love.  When that inmost heart of ours, the font of our being, our life energy, reaches out to connect with something in the world, the energy around that connection is goodness. Love has a direction, a flow along that one-way street, while goodness is the product of that connection.  It shows up in any act or effort of integrity and honor that is untainted by selfishness.

A friend of mine experienced a Near Death Experience far more protracted and detailed than mine.  Hers occurred in the seconds before a head-on car crash, which for her expanded to many hours of interaction with spirits.  She was a teen at the time, verging on a dark turn of acting out from pain in her past.  An ugly, squat demon at her feet in the passenger’s seat invited her to join him, promising her a chance to “get even” with everyone who had ever wronged her.  But she declined, and found herself suddenly pulled up out of the car, rushing into the sky with her very serious, earnest guardian angel she realized she’d known all her life.  Among the things she was shown was a whirlwind tour of the globe, zooming in on all the pies being made right then.  Yes, pies.  She saw countless homemade pies, all different styles and types, until finally her guide showed her the very best pie on earth at that point in time.

It was a cherry pie made by an older woman somewhere Cherry-Piein Europe. The pie was just coming out of the oven, perfectly browned with woven crust and beveled edges.  The woman loved the pie.  Into it she had poured everything she knew about pie-making, every skill acquired in years of baking – not to impress anyone, but purely to manifest the best of her abilities.  It was explained to my friend that the same can be true for anything we do in life.  When we care enough to learn something, when we respect the skills involved enough to apply them with dedication, we can bring into the world a work of goodness – even when tremendous faith and courage are needed to do so.

Any time our efforts are powered by such love, they become acts of goodness.  They bring into the world an emblem of the plenty we’ve received from god.  They are, in essence, acts of gratitude, paying homage in recognition of what god has given.

When they’re powered by selfishness, by the desire to get, which is actually rooted in a sense of lack and the driving fear behind it, which in turn is ultimately a distrust of god, our efforts become acts of aggression.  In essence, they devolve to a way of “showing” and outstripping others, of getting even with those we feel have wronged us.  The recognition, the glory is all for me.

For these reasons, addiction cuts us off from goodness entirely.  Compulsive use of alcoholalcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, etc., or the codependent addiction to steering another’s life on our terms – all these keep us constantly in the mode of wanting.  We try to suck from the world that which we think will fill the gaping black hole in our guts.  This time, we’ll get what we need to feel good about ourselves.  We’ll score it from the people we impress, from the places and things that infuse us with status, lend us power.  And we need this power because we’ve been shorted, because frickin’ life or frickin’ god or whatever has failed to give us our due – so we’re going to take it.

What we have in addiction is wrong-way traffic along that one-way street of the heart.  As long as I’m trying to vacuum up that which addiction promises will fix me, I’m incapable of generating or even recognizing goodness.  I’m numb to it entirely.  In fact, as told in my addiction memoir, by the time I came near hitting bottom, I’d quit believing goodness even existed!  To me it seemed a sickly sweet delusion manufactured by cowed conformists, when the hard core truth was that I had to grab whatever I could out of a world that essentially sucked.

But goodness not only exists, it’s the ultimate expression ofsunshine1 living.  It can emanate from any relationship founded in sincerity – in creativity and playfulness, in compassion and affection.  When I focus on seeing and appreciating another soul in earnest, when I reach to connect my spirit to yours without seeking to get something, the energy from my heart streams toward you.  And via that current, I become a channel of god – which is love – as god flows through me.  God is the source of all beauty, and as soon as we give ourselves over to serving as its instrument, that flow simplifies life radically down to being present in gratitude.  We are complete.  In fact, we have a surplus, because the wellspring of our life force is constantly flowing, flowing, and we can try to give it shape, to bring goodness into the world.

That’s why I wrote this, from me to you.

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