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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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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‘Coming Out’ as Alcoholics? The Anonymous People

I finally watched The Anonymous People.  It’s a 2013 documentary on the history and current status of the Recovery Movement – something I, at 20 years sober, had never even heard of.  The “War on Drugs,” I was vaguely aware, has caused drug incarcerations to soar, such that today the vast majority of convicts are serving time for addiction-related crimes.  The film’s creators are striving to get addiction recognized and treated as a disease by the health care and judicial systems.  Such a controversy opens a can of worms way too wriggly for me to address in 100o words.

What I can talk about, however, is my biggest take-away from the film: that through a misinterpretation of “anonymity”as referenced in the 12 Traditions, many of us alcoholics conceal our recovery from the people we know and thus inadvertently propagate public misconceptions of both alcoholism and AA.  In the long run, this secrecy hinders our goal of helping the still-suffering alcoholic.

marty_mann

Marty Mann*

Nowhere in AA literature are we told to keep our own recovery secret.  The 11th Tradition deals with PR; no one can purport to represent AA.  The 12th Tradition says only that anonymity is the “spiritual foundation of all our traditions.” But way back in the 1930s, Marty Mann busted out in the public eye with Bill and Bob’s blessings, trying to recast the public’s perception of what an alcoholic looked like.  The film hopes to carry on her tradition – as I believe every alcoholic ought.

I’ve been open about my recovery pretty much since I got sober in ’95.  At the time, I’d been very much ‘out’ as a lesbian for years.  I’d seen no reason people who considered me a friend should not know who I was; if they had a problem with my orientation, they had a problem with me.  In the ’80s I used to make a major production of outing myself to my college English classes on the last day of class.  I remember one year I wore a T-shirt under my men’s jacket that read across the back, “Nobody knows I’m gay.”  The class gasped when, after thanking them for the quarter, I turned and dropped the jacket.  One student in particular, I remember, a street-smart African American boy, was absolutely shocked, simply because he’d come to know me over the term as both smart and nice.  How could such a smart, nice teacher be… one of them-?

Copenhagen 91

Teddy-girl me, 1991

That’s why we out ourselves.  We stand up as real people who contradict the phobic stereotypes of public opinion.  All lesbians are ugly shrews who can’t get laid.  All alcoholics are ill-disciplined louts who throw away their lives.  When we out ourselves among people who respect us, we confront prejudice with our human dignity: Look at me and say that.

Flyers I posted on that campus to start up a gay student union were torn down or defaced with hate slurs and warnings about hell.  I’ll never forget walking into that first meeting: the room I’d reserved was far too small.  About 30 kids looked up from every seat plus the floor, tables, and walls, their faces alight with a vulnerable hope.  “We’re gonna show this campus a thing or two,” I told them in my coolest butch tone.  They beamed.  And we did, too.  I left that college after three years, but the group we started still thrives today, 25 years later.

When my son was about two and a half years old, I heard a 5-year-old in the park sandbox scoff at his explaining that he had two moms.  “Who’s your dad?” asked the boy. “Everybody has a dad!”  As bewilderment crumpled my son’s face, I swooped him up, my heart pKeno ounding, and, struggling to remember this other child was also innocent, offered a gentle correction.  After that, I begged my parents to spend $20,000 of my future inheritance to place my son in a pro-diversity preschool where lots of kids had same-sex parents.  By the time he started first grade at a public school, although his moms had separated, he knew firmly in his heart he just was as “normal” as anybody else.  That deep confidence and happy openness about his moms has won friends and warded off bullies.  Even his absence, I once overheard one of his friends tell another, “Dude, Keno’s other mom’s girlfriend is an awesome cook!”

Keno trout

First trout caught with his AA ‘uncles'; confident boy

My son has in many ways been my teacher. When I directed a writing center at the UW, I was ‘out’ to each year’s team of student tutors about my gay past and current recovery.  Though I’d jumped tracks again and resumed dating men after 14 years (it’s all in the addiction memoir: my lesbian era was something like a geographic), my son still had two moms, so I shared our truth.  The tutors, in turn, came to trust me with issues of their own, such that my desk became something like Lucy’s Psychiatric Help stand in Peanuts.  In the six years since the center closed, one of those students has sought out recovery and several have come out as gay or transgender.  Others have reached out over Facebook asking if we can meet up and talk about life.  A few have even asked me for help with their alcoholic friends.  And one of those friends, I know for a fact, is sober today in part from my help.

In short, I share my recovery with anyone who wants to know me personally.  “I’m so sorry!” some respond.  “Can’t you just have one drink?” ask others.  I keep it simple, but I speak my truth.  I wrote my memoir to share my entire story in hopes that it might help others who struggle with the same experiences and emotions I did.

The rooms of AA have been my “safe school,” where I’ve  learned that alcoholics are individuals normal in every way but for a potentially fatal disease that should carry no stigma.  Listening to other alcoholics unfold their inner experiences, I’ve learned, too, that all the quirky emotions I’d imagined, in my isolated loneliness, made me terminally unique are in fact just part of being human.  Whatever I’ve done, thought, or suffered has been known to countless others, and we can help each other through it all.  Showing up in our whole truth, without shame or secrecy, is how we change the world.

 

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* Click here for video on 1930s National Committee for Education on Alcoholism

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Enlightened but Dead: Why Alcoholics Need God

Pema Chödrön’s teacher, the venerable Chögyam Trungpa, drank a lot.  Drinking was a staple of his sanga, where he threw big parties among his students, and he was known to carry vodka in a water bottle.  Trungpa explained in one of his spiritual books why his drinking differed from that of an ordinary alcoholic:

“Whether alcohol is to be a poison or a medicine depends on one’s awareness while drinking. Conscious drinking—remaining aware of one’s state of mind—transmutes the effect of alcohol. Here awareness involves a tightening up on one’s system as an intelligent defense mechanism…

“For the yogi, alcohol is fuel for relating with his students and with the world in general, as gasoline allows a motorcar to relate with the road. But naturally the ordinary drinker who tries to compete with or imitate this transcendental style of drinking will turn his alcohol into poison…”*

Sadly, it appears that Trungpa’s liver failed to read the book and appreciate his “transcendental style” of yogi drinking.  Despite diagnoses of cirrhosis and doctors’ warnings that more drinking would kill him, Trungpa continued to drink heavily until it did indeed kill him in April of 1986, when he was just 48 years old.

Trungpa~

Philosopher James Watts was considered a sage throughout the ’60s after he rose to prominence with the 1951 publication of The Wisdom of Insecurity - a pivotal text  introducing Eastern concepts to Western society.  The book considers the ego’s dis-ease with the unstable nature of reality and its efforts to create security via constructs of memory and projection coalescing in a story of “I,” which Watts dismisses as unreal: only awareness divorced from self can access reality.  Watts, like Trungpa, was well aware of the futility of escapist drinking:

“One of the worst vicious circles is the problem of the alcoholic.  In very many cases he knows quite clearly that he is destroying himself, that, for him, liquor is poison, that he actually hates being drunk… And yet he drinks.  For, dislike it as he may, the experience of not drinking is worse… for he stands face to face with the unveiled, basic insecurity of the world.”

Unfortunately, identifying this vicious circle did not grant Watts the power to exit it.  Like Trungpa, he often gave lectures while sloppy drunk. He, too, developed end-stage alcoholism that deeply concerned his ex-wife and friends, and died of alcoholic cardiomyopathy – e.g. heart failure – at 58.

Watts~

Both of these men were masters of self-knowledge and the meditative disciplines that yield inner peace.  Both could speak brilliantly on the ills of ego and treasures of honesty.  Yet neither could stop drinking.  And they’re just two examples out of jillions.  Why did they fail?  Why would people so insightful not quit what was clearly killing them?  The Big Book explains:

“If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago.  But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how hard we tried.  We… could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, …failed utterly.”

In Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Trungpa makes very clear that no god enters into his vision.  “Over the past seven years, I have been a presenting series of ‘Shambala Teachings’ [on]… secular enlightenment, that is, the possibility of uplifting our personal existence and that of others without the help of any religious outlook.”

Good for him!  I agree wholeheartedly that self-knowledge is great stuff.  But it will not cure alcoholism.

In a 1968 talk, Bill Wilson, one of AA’s founders, described the initial amazement of the psychiatric community at the unprecedented breakthroughs of AA.  Many alcoholism specialists attended meetings and saw their own alcoholic patients, with whom years of psychiatric work had failed, achieve abstinence and mental health in a matter of weeks.  One suggested that Bill assemble a group of such psychiatrists to testify before the Academy of Medicine about AA’s success. So Bill asked them.

“And not a one would do it! …In effect, each said, ‘Look, Bill. You folks have added up in one column more of the resources which have been separately applied to alcoholics than anyone else… [But] the sum of them won’t add up to the speed of these transformations in these very grim cases… So for us, there is an unknown factor at work in AA.  [B]eing scientists, we… call it the X factor.  We believe you people call it the grace of God. And who shall go to the Academy and explain the grace of God?  No one can.'”

questionSorry, folks!  But the X factor, and that alone, is what saves an alcoholic: Connection with a higher power, to god as we understand it.  We ask god to help us, and we’re relieved of a compulsion that no amount of self-knowledge can touch.

Humility is the key ingredient to receiving grace.  We have to ask for it, accepting that we’ve been defeated.  By contrast, Trungpa, for all his wisdom, exhibited a strong tendency toward hubris.  The true warrior, he explains in Shambala, is both Outrageous and Inscrutable.  “…[H]aving overcome hope and fear, the warrior… fathoms the whole of space.  You go beyond any possibilities of holding back at all…. Your wakefulness and intelligence make you self-contained and confident with a confidence that needs no reaffirmation through feedback.” In other words, I got this!  Screw what anyone else thinks!

Watts, meanwhile, purported to embrace God, but his abstractions reduced it to a mere abandonment of I which allows connection with the eternal now and renders us one with God.  There could be no “god (you) please help (me)” because the you/I division was artificial – so “we cannot lay ourselves open to grace, for all such split-mindedness is the denial… of our freedom.”

Reluctance to seek god’s help almost killed Bill Wilson, too.  Relatively unknown in AA is the fact that Bill was so deeply repulsed by the God element in his friend Ebby’s solution that he went on drinking for three weeks after Ebby’s visit and landed yet again in a sanitarium.  There, as Ebby visited him again to recap the spiritual solution, Bill very much wanted to believe as Ebby did, but his skepticism wouldn’t allow it.  After Ebby left, however, he had this experience:

“And again the despair deepened until the last of this prideful obstinacy was momentarily crushed out. And then, like a child crying out in the dark, I said, ‘If there is a God, will he show himself?’ And the place lit up in a great glare, a wondrous white light. Then I began to have images, in the mind’s eye, so to speak, and one came in which I seemed to see myself standing on a mountain and a great clean wind was blowing, and this blowing at first went around and then it seemed to go through me. And then the ecstasy redoubled and I found myself exclaiming, ‘I am a free man! So THIS is the God of the preachers!'”

Light
In my Near-Death Experiences group, I’ve heard several people describe these experiences where the “white light” of love brilliantly illuminated the room around them.  Many people considered Bill a bit daft for insisting it happened.  In his talk, he attributes this not to his own specialness, but to the role he was to play in AA, explaining that the growth of faith most AAs experience over months or years was for him simply crammed into a few minutes: “It did give me an instant conviction of the presence of God which has never left me… And I feel that that extra dividend may have made the difference whether I would have persisted with AA in the early years or not.”

In other words, Bill was given what he needed not only to overcome a lifetime of addiction, but to co-create AA and carry its message into the dark world of fellow alcoholics.  Why?  Because he asked… and frickin’ meant it.

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