Avoiding Anvils

What happens when an AWOL AA goes back to a meeting? She remembers how damn good it is to be sober.

Euphoric. That’s how drinking always made me feel.* (Until it didn’t.)

The trouble with euphoria, though, is that I didn’t really feel anything. I just kind of existed in this heightened buzz of emotion. So, something as still & quiet as intuition… yeah, I couldn’t use something as subtle as intuition at all. Everything seemed like a good idea when I was drunk. And drinking made me bulletproof–so I could do anything. Which really meant I could sit on a barstool and talk about how easy it would be for me to do anything.

The actual doing? Yeah, it never got done.

I’m a bit more capable of honing in on things like intuition now. Like when I got the nudge about AA. I felt it. I tried to ignore it. But I felt it alright.

And I kept feeling that same nudge over & over again. Until I finally pulled my shit together and showed up at a meeting today.**

Post AA Meeting (in a Rocket Designs Shirt)
Check the recovery shirt. Simon designed it.***

The topic? Helping others (skillfully). Which boils down to this: it doesn’t matter how much I want someone else to get sober. They ain’t gonna until they’re good and ready. Sure, I can beat someone over the head with my sobriety. I can shame them about their behavior. I can point out the fact that they are RUINING THEIR LIVES.

But that’s a bunch of sanctimonious bullshit. And I know it.

I remember every cutting, cruel comment people made about my drinking during the worst of it. And I was an awful drunk. I cried. I puked. I slept with other people’s significant others. I hurt everyone around me. People were fed the fuck up with me. I get it.

But I also know now that the level of shame a drunk feels about their own behavior far surpasses what anyone else can pile on.

So, if shame didn’t work, what did?

Nothing really.

But I do also clearly remember my boss (yes, I held a job. Yes, they should have fired me. No, I don’t think they did me any favors by shielding me from the consequences of my drinking. But I also get that it was hard to know what the right thing was in that time and space. Nobody likes to see someone else self-destruct in front of them) telling me stories about the insanity that transpired when she was drinking. Funny stories. Stories I could whole-heartedly relate to. And then she’d invite me to an AA meeting. Real chill like. I always said no. In fact, I didn’t get sober until 5 years after I’d left that job. But she kept inviting me. And she kept living her sober, happy life out loud in my presence.

And when I finally got sick and tired of being sick and tired (the AAs LOVE to say this), I knew where to go.

That boss that stuck it out, that never shamed me, that just kept inviting to meetings… she’s a huge part of my sobriety. Not because she’s in my life now. But because, without shame or judgement, she offered me a lifeline.

She couldn’t get me sober. She couldn’t save me. No one could. But her kindness–her gentle, super-chill invitations to AA meetings–showed me that she believed I was worth saving. When my time came, I believed her, and took the first steps toward saving myself.

 

*At least for the first hour or so. After that, all bets were off. One of Simon’s infamous one-liners was “It’s HAPPY hour, not crying hour.”

**Totally glad I went. Will probably go again even. WHO AM I?!?

***Need one of these shirts? Of course you do. Head over here to get one. Want a different design? No worries. There’s other rad stuff there, too.

The Same Story

I learned the art of the finely crafted story in Alcoholics Anonymous. 

I know that’s bizarre. But, look, I am a consumer of stories. And, so, while some folks wanted to get down to brass tacks about the steps they needed to take to get out of this mess they’d gotten themselves into, I was completely taken with the vulnerability of each person’s story. The stories are what kept me there. 

I learned the art of the finely crafted story in Alcoholics Anonymous.

I know that’s bizarre. But, look, I am a consumer of stories. And, so, while some folks wanted to get down to brass tacks about the steps they needed to take to get out of this mess they’d gotten themselves into, I was completely taken with the vulnerability of each person’s story. The stories are what kept me there.

I mean, I wasn’t sitting in AA meetings for research. I had some serious work to do. But what made me want to do the work was hearing about the journey, soaking in the personal revelations of people who’d figured out how to do sober. Because I totally had not.

But, the longer I sat there, the more I realized that every person siting in the room had the same story. Or at least the same story arc. The details varied, of course. But, each story had the same components: 1) what it used to be like, 2) what happened, and 3) what it is like now.

But even though the stories followed the same pattern—fall, journey, redemption–each one was relevant, personal. These stories were about death… and rebirth. How could I not be completely blown away?

The storytellers that wowed me the most were the ones that could take AA adages (Live Life on Life’s Terms, for instance. Which I always hated.) and weave a story around them, so that they weren’t cliches anymore. They became completely new insights that opened life-changing possibilities.

That’s the power of the story: connection.

And it doesn’t take high drama to make people connect. Some folks definitely had fantastic tales of weekends, weeks, months gone horribly wrong where they managed to balance themselves precariously between certain death and super-evil villains looking  to do them incredible harm. But I was just as apt to be moved to tears by a young dad weaving a story about his kid, and then tying it back to his own lessons in sobriety.

Because, let’s face it, most of us are on the same journey. As humans, we all want to belong, to be valued, to feel whole. The work we do to get there can look different. But the core nugget remains: to love anyone else, we have to make peace with and love ourselves.

I’m still sober. And part of that is due to the people who so willingly shared their stories, who made the program come to life for me. They bore witness to the miracle at work in their own lives, and they made me want it too. These folks taught me to be grateful, to connect with other people, and to be of service. That’s a pretty solid formula for a kick-ass life.

Everything I have today I owe to my sobriety. That is the honest to God truth. It surprises folks sometimes that I never shy away from telling my story. But I know the truth: for someone else my story could mean the difference between life and death. How could I do  anything but tell it over & over again?

Might, Maybe, Might

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Here’s what I remember:

I am 4 years old. I am in a brightly colored room (primary colors, primarily). Cubbies occupy one of the walls, looking cozy and inviting. Like a space I could learn to identify as my own. So I readily ignore them. I am not interested in belonging. I am interested in getting the hell out of there.

I am currently exercising my will to scream. And cry. Snot is everywhere. I am breathing the jagged breaths that feel out of control and scary. They only make me cry harder. The woman holding me, rocking me back and forth, tries to reason with me about the fun I’ll have, the friends I’ll make, if only I will get out of her lap and try

I am starting to want to try. From my heightened vantage point in my teacher’s arms, I can see kids outside riding Big Wheels. I don’t have a Big Wheel at home. I want to ride, to gather speed and feel my ponytails fly behind me. I bet I can be pretty fast on a Big Wheel. Still, I cry.

I open my mouth to tell my teacher that I might, maybe, might be ready to try. I think maybe I can do this. I want to break my commitment to misery and play instead.

Then another teacher approaches us: “We’ve called her mom. She’s on her way.”

I look at the teacher holding me and cry harder. Because I was just ready to try. And now it’s over, before I even got a chance to start.

I’ve remembered this feeling for the past 36 years–the defeat of having committed myself so much to fear and sadness that I’ve crossed the point of no return, that I’ve lost control. That feeling of helplessness, of watching events unfold, grasping and not being able to change them–it haunts me.

I felt that way in the deepest depths of my love affair with alcohol. I wanted to escape the pain I was in; drinking caused more pain and shame and self-loathing. I knew it. I saw it. But I’d committed to this affair, to blackout drinking, to reckless sex, to oblivion. When I thought I might, maybe, might be ready to try to deal with the wreckage of my life, I’d see how far things had gone. And I’d feel that helpless, grasping feeling–like I’d lost control, like I’d never be able to put things back together. And so I’d sit at the bar and order a stiff drink, so I could forget what I’d just struggled so hard to remember: that I might not be beyond salvation, if I’d just try.

 

Photo Credit: Flicker/John Morgan

A Bit About Gratitude (& Buddha & Jesus)

Laughing Buddha

Gratitude comes easier to me now that I am sober. I just didn’t get it before–I didn’t get how much I had, how little of it I’d truly “earned.” I came from a scarcity perspective. There was never enough of anything: money, time, love, contentment. Wherever there was a gap, wherever I found my life lacking, I filled that gap with alcohol. But when the drunk wore off, that nagging lack was always there. Because the lack had nothing to do with my external circumstances, and everything to do with ME.

As part of my Lenten spiritual practice*, I started reading Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das. I caught a glimpse of it on my best friend’s bookshelf over Christmas break, and I remembered how much that book meant to me when I first read it. It was the first book I read in its entireity as I emerged from the darkest place my drinking took me. The fact that I could focus long enough to read the book and absorb it now seems like a small miracle. But it was just the balm I needed. It gave me renewed hope that I could find my way and find light and meaning in the world again.

Cracking it open this time gave me so much perspective on where I was all those years ago and on who I am now. This passage, in particular, jumped out at me:

” Perhaps you sometimes feel a homesickness, a sadness, and a sense that something is terribly wrong. You might experience this as a yearning for something that is lost, something that seems so familiar and yet so distant. You might feel hungry and needy and aware that nothing has been able to fully satisfy you–at least not for very long. It’s like drining salt water while floating adrift on the great ocean; it’s a drink that can’t possibly alleviate your thirst.”

I remember sitting outside my apartment, on the rare nights when I would try not to drink, and feeling like something was scratching away at me from the inside. I wanted so desperately to escape my own desperation and despair. I wanted to escape myself. But when I encountered that passage all those years ago, I felt my heart lift because someone understood exactly how I felt. And if someone else understood, then I wasn’t beyond hope, and I wasn’t alone.

When I opened Awakening the Buddha Within on a whim on Ash Wednesday, I had no idea that reading this book would engender so much gratitude. Because I don’t feel a constant yearning anymore. I am not lost. And I no longer dwell under a constant cloud of sadness. And I am so grateful.

I’d be lying if I said the journey to getting sober (and staying that way) was an easy one. Excavating demons in order to slay them comes with its own peril and pain. And once I took away the artificial contentment that alcohol offered, I had to work toward achieving some lasting peace. But I was wise enough to find what really worked for me–not what I thought looked right or what I thought other people wanted. Getting sober brought me back to Jesus, introduced me to Buddha, helped me find my rhythm in running, and helped me rediscover yoga (which was the practice that initially reached me in the darkest night of my soul). My life is rich and full. I am surrounded by a close group of people I love, who understand and accept me. And, even more importantly, I love and accept myself (at least most of the time).

I am grateful for this journey. I’m grateful for the gifts in my life that I did not earn and cannot say I truly deserve. I’m grateful for grace & love, which have brought me peace I couldn’t have dreamed of before. I am simply grateful for this life.

* One of the reasons I warmed so quickly to Awakening the Buddha Within is that Lama Surya Das immediately sets about demonstrating that buddhist principles can mesh quite easily with Christianity (and many other spiritual traditions). Me & Jesus are like peanut butter & jelly. I was pretty happy to know I could keep Jesus in my heart & still incorporate buddhist principles in my life.

Photo Credit: flickr/nightrose

A Control Freak Gets Sober: A Short Case Study

I walked in, freshly pressed in a white shirt, crisp jeans and my beloved cowboy boots. My hair, pulled up in a clip, projected a no-nonsense image. Or, at least, I hoped it did. I wanted to be at the top of my game for this meeting. I pulled back one of the folding chairs, smiled at the people already seated at the table. And then it began: “Good evening. This is the regular meeting of Sobrenity. I am _______, and I am an alcoholic.”

This is how a control freak like me manages the unknown of attending her first AA meeting, at which they will most likely strongly suggest that she admit she is wildly out of control.

My futile attempts to control the AA meeting “situation” began earlier that day: I ran out to the bookstore to procure my copy of Alcoholics Anonymous (aka The Big Book) before the meeting. I wanted (no, needed) to be prepared for this next phase of my journey. I believe I even read the first chapter or so. Like I was going to a book club meeting. “Control what you can” was my motto. Obviously, that was going well.

Turns out, I didn’t need the book at the meeting. It was an open-discussion meeting, which meant anyone could attend, alcoholic or not. Cool. Then I could fly under the radar. They did a moment of silence for the sick & suffering alcoholic (that’s me!), followed by the Serenity Prayer. Which I had heard a million times before but couldn’t remember for the life of me. They were all chanting as if they were part of some secret society. Wait.. yeah. They kind of were.

Next came something about experience, strength and hope. It’s all a blur. And I didn’t have any experience, strength or hope for MYSELF at the moment, much less some to share. Then they got to the line that told me I was okay there, at least for the time being: The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Check! This is where I belonged.

Someone read, “How It Works,” which, cleverly, describes how the program of Alcoholics Anonymous works. Three tidbits from “How It Works” stuck with me:

1) Rarely have we seen a person fail who has throughly followed our path.
I am not really into failure even now, and certainly was against failure as an active alcoholic who had something to prove. So, good… no failing here.

2) We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable. You’d think for a control freak that admitting that she was powerless over alcohol would be wrenching. But I already knew I was powerless (I often have to come to things on my own. Thank GOD, I had come to this realization before someone mentioned it to me, and I had to spend the next several months of my life trying to prove them wrong). I’d done the whole deal where I said I’d only have 2 beers, then I’d wake up in my bed with no recollection of having gotten there. And, if my life was unmanageable, then it wasn’t really my fault, right? How could I be faulted for something that, by its very nature, I couldn’t manage? Time to invite a Higher Power to clean up my mess (btw: this is NOT how things work. Everyone is required to clean up his or her own mess. Think of the HP as a power source; you still have to vacuum)

3) We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. As for not being a saint, I am a good little Christian girl who happens to be a lesbian. In the church I grew up in, that not only knocked me out of the saint category, it landed me right in the going-straight-to-hell-in-a-handbasket category. So growing along spiritual lines without much outside help was something I did for years (albeit clumsily and sometimes drunkenly). Now I had a church that I totally dug (who of course knew nothing about my problematic drinking–or that I had once served communion drunk), and I had these AA folks to instruct me on spiritual growth. I’d probably BE a saint in a few months with all this help (I totally did NOT get humility yet, obviously).

With the finer points of “How It Works” swirling about in my brain, I sat patiently as people shared their experience, strength and hope. But, honestly, I couldn’t connect their stories to my life. I spent so much time hiding what was really going on with me that I couldn’t open myself up enough to see the similarities. I wondered when I would feel connected. I wanted to be the valedictorian of AA and to do that I needed to be accepted by the group, connected, respected (spoiler: I never felt connected to AA. Perhaps because this was my approach. Holy ego.)

At the end of the meeting, I felt deflated. I didn’t feel changed. I wanted to be able to sit down with someone and talk it out. Not talk about the program or how I was going to work through the steps. I wanted to talk my addiction through until I was better. Right then.

Instead, I went home and took out my Big Book. I tried to start reading the text, but I got bored, overwhelmed, twitchy. So I flipped back to the stories in the back of the book and started reading. They broke past all my defenses, and I saw myself in each of them. I also saw hope. I read until I couldn’t focus anymore. And the next day I read more. It seems so natural now that those stories saved my life. Stories have power. And those stories carried me through my first days, pointing out my character defects (ahem… control freak) in a way that didn’t make me bristle and run for the hills. I share my story because I owe my sobriety to people who were willing to share theirs.

The Coziest New Year’s Eve

I wish I could say I didn’t remember most of the New Years I rung in in my 20s. But being able to forget them would probably be more mercy than I deserve; at the very least, I remember the drunken highlights… always drama-fueled, sometimes dangerous, and entirely cringeworthy. A personal favorite: squealing out of a parking lot in my CR-V into a steady snow in Atlanta as my best friend stood in the parking lot begging me not to drive. My friends finally found me at the next bar, flat on my ass because I slipped on ice coming down the steps. I decided to forgo telling them the car had spun out twice in the snow on my way to the bar; they all seemed so mad already. I had a hard time deciphering why. It was, in fact, often puzzling when people valued me… I had so obviously lost the ability to value myself.

Even on tamer New Years Eves, I carried with me a constant sense of longing. I could always quickly identify something missing in my life on New Years Eve, and I would fixate on it intently. I held an almost subconscious belief that this melancholy made me mysterious, sexy, alluring. Turns out, it made me a sentimental drunk rather likely to cry in her Jim Beam and Coke. I wasn’t sexy-tragic…I was annoying as hell.

But, as it often does in stories such as these, something changed. For me, there was no tragic rock bottom moment. Through all my drinking, I kept my job (barely), my house, my dog and my best friend. But I did lose my self-respect. Maybe that was what I was longing for all those New Years Eves: my ability to look back on the year and know I lived with integrity, that I gave myself wholly to the task at hand regardless of the outcome. When I drank I tended to lose track of what the task at hand even entailed. And resolutions were kind of a wash for me. I found it pretty hard to set my intentions for the year ahead when I was nursing a hangover, trying to choke down a greasy hangover-easing breakfast, and waiting until the time seemed appropriate to have a cocktail. After all, I deserved a cocktail; New Years Day was a holiday, too.

My history of less than stellar New Years Eves made this past New Years Eve stand out for its perfect simplicity. I’ve been sober for 6 years. My first sober New Years Eve was disorienting; I felt a bit hazy, like I wasn’t sure exactly how to hold a conversation, or what I should be doing with my body at any given moment. How did sober people stand? What did people talk about when they knew they were going to remember every word they said? But, despite my awkwardness, I was with my best friend, my partner and some casual acquaintances in a cabin in the mountains. And I felt no longing to be anywhere other that where I was. That seemed pretty groundbreaking.

This New Years Eve found me back in the mountains of North Georgia with my best friend & her family, the lovely folks she calls friends, and my partner and our little girl. After we settled in, we ate homemade lasagna; we chased kids around the cabin. When all the kids piled in the bathtub at bathtime, I laughed–not the self- conscious, measured laugh of my drinking days, but a full-on, deep laugh. Because come on… 5 kids in a bathtub? That is comedy right there.