A Way in the World
As a young girl, I wanted a life of adventure to escape what I saw as the boredom of growing up in Portland, Oregon. I have since been to many parts of the world, but my biggest adventure of all has been the inner journey of spiritual awareness and growth that I began when I stopped drinking and started going to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
My mother organized an intervention on my father in August 1984. He eventually died of alcoholism, but I got sober. I might still be out there trying to make drinking work, if I had not been blindsided by the intervention with its ironic outcome—for years I had hated my father because of his drinking, and it was his disease that led me into sobriety. There was a crack in the universe as I knew it, and I slipped through into another way of life.
When I sobered up, my home was not a safe place, because it was where I drank the most, either alone or at the homebrew parties I gave. Without alcohol, I felt empty inside. I grieved for my old friend, and felt vulnerable to drinking again. I worked part time, so I had a lot of free time in early sobriety. I kept active by walking all around San Francisco, and going to two or three meetings a day at a little dive that we called “The Divine Dump.”
At three months of sobriety, I was making coffee at my first Christmas alkathon. I was at my third meeting in a row, and I was feeling quiet inside, enjoying the raucous tales and laughter of my fellow alkies. Suddenly, I felt something inside of me come unhooked and rise up, like a giant construction crane lifting me high into the air. This is a feeling that I would have eagerly sought out when getting high, but sober, it scared me to death. I found myself gripping the edge of the table. Later, I asked Mary, a wise little old lady from Virginia, what was happening? She said, “Oh, honey, that’s surrender.” A woman who had lost her leg in an accident told me, "Surrender is accepting reality.” For some reason, I paid close attention to what this woman said because she had lost a leg. This definition was helpful to me, because the word "surrender" conjured up people in robes, kneeling, with halos floating over their heads, which was certainly not anything I desired for myself! This experience also taught me that I cannot make myself surrender—it is an experience of grace, a gift.
In my family, I had learned to be self-reliant, vigilant, and skeptical, and that religions were hypocritical. Since I had stopped drinking, the yawning hole of emptiness inside that had been a driving force all of my life, was engulfing me. I had always dealt with this fear by trying to control everything around me, and then drinking to release myself from the stress of this effort!
I have learned in the program that nothing can fill that inner emptiness except developing a spiritual connection with something greater than myself. All that I have to know about that spirit is that it is not me, which it had always been. The word “God” was a minefield of unwelcome associations for me, so I took the Greek god, Pan, as my new Higher Power—his joyful dance of life fit my practice of hedonism.
For most of my life, I felt separate from others—as though I was sealed off in a space suit, floating out in a void. When I sobered up, I could sense an opening in my inner life. The relationship with a spiritual presence that I have today is greater than my imagination, greater than my heart, and certainly greater than my own power.
Another woman in a meeting talked about old behaviors rising up even in sobriety when she felt "poor in spirit." I recognized that "poor in spirit" feeling which for so long drove my drinking, and even sober, can exert a sudden presence in my life. One day I was in the grips of this black hole inside. My sponsor at the time, Pat, had been married quite a few times, so she knew about finding unsatisfactory solutions to fill the inner void. We were driving somewhere, and I asked her, “When does this feeling go away?” She replied, “It takes a long time.” I persisted, demanding, “But how long?” Pat replied again, “A long time." Enigmatic wise women can drive one to drink!
Well, it did take a long time. Through years of service and Step-work in AA, I practiced letting go and letting the spirit of the universe work, at deeper and deeper levels, until that black hole shrank and shrank to a very little space that is now too small for me to fall into. It took learning to live without alcohol, and surrendering to a new way of life; it meant helping others instead of thinking about myself all of the time; it involved living a fuller inner life that resulted in my return to school, applying for jobs all over the country, and becoming willing to go wherever I was accepted. It led to three major moves across the country that created new circles of friends which developed into an inner sense of home that grew out of the loss of specific homes; and it resulted in finding a place of usefulness in the world through a new career in teaching.
One man in the program, who was living in a cardboard box on the streets when he got sober, and at nine years was opening his own law practice, would always say, “don’t limit yourself by your imagination. On this journey, you will be given more than you have the ability to imagine.” It never would have occurred to the person I was in 1984 that I would go back to school in midlife to pursue a new career, and end up in Omaha, Nebraska! Allison, a chaplain who was also amazed that she’d ended up in Omaha, said, “God sent me to Omaha to await further instructions.”
A few years after I arrived in Omaha, I celebrated my 15th year sober. My house was filled with festivity, relaxation, and good friendship. It was a hot day at the end of September, but there was a breeze, so some of us were outside, gathered around an old stand of grapes, eating ripe fruit off the vine, the warm pulps bursting in our mouths—a bunch of former drunks enjoying the grape again.
Learning to trust that this power that I didn’t understand yet would take care of me was a difficult journey. I just could not grasp the spiritual maxim of “letting go.” I let go to the power of alcohol for years, but I did not make that association. One man, Silas, who had a booming voice, and bushy eyebrows that jumped in rhythm to points he was making, talked about God a lot, which always made me uneasy, since I was an atheist. “ABANDON YOURSELF TO GOD!” he would bellow, which mystified me.
My break-through to an understanding of letting go came while watching hang gliders taking off over Ocean Beach in San Francisco (story in the March 2005 Grapevine). I realized that I could take the action of leaping with both feet into the stream of this new way to live, or I could retreat into the life of isolation and despair that characterized my romance with alcohol. The great adventure for me has been learning to abandon myself to a force that I understand only in that moment.
Pat told me, “Sanity is being right here in this moment,” but I could not sit still in the moment. I read books on meditation, and practiced various exercises, but sitting still, alone, with the radio and TV turned off, I felt panic rise inside. To be that present with who I was seemed intolerable, but with practice, my ease with this discipline has grown. The daily practice of meditation—which for me can be doing Tai Chi Chih, gardening, kayaking, bird watching, or walking, as well as sitting meditation—helps me to maintain the inner serenity that keeps the desire to drink dormant.
An essential spiritual practice that I developed from going to so many AA meetings was learning to identify with, instead of feel separate from. One of the things that I have always done to reinforce my sobriety is to carry the message of recovery into hospitals, jails and prisons. It always feels suffocating to go “inside”—the constant monitoring of movement, the cold walls, the lack of windows. The only jail I was ever in was the “bondage of self,” and so what do I have to offer the women behind the walls? After a few years of doing this service, I realized that what I have to offer them is hope. The minute the meeting starts, I am happy to be there, carrying the message of freedom from the tyranny of alcohol. It’s also wonderful to walk out of the facility, and hear the doors clang behind me! I sponsored one woman who had a powerful story to share: While in a blackout, she had murdered an older woman in her care, and she remembered nothing about the incident. She cautioned the younger inmates about continuing to drink and use: “You don’t want to end up like me—in prison for life.” Her story made me think of all the times I mixed alcohol and rage in a blackout. Her story could easily have been mine.
In 2007, I returned for a brief visit to San Francisco, and met up with Ted, a running buddy from early sobriety. Whenever we’re together, we laugh a lot about our foibles and those of the world. Ted’s life is a remarkable example of someone who is spiritually rich while being materially poor. Economically, he lives on very little money, but spiritually, his life is full of abundance—he goes to meetings and does service all over the Bay Area, and he has helped to change the lives of many people who have problems with drugs and alcohol. He has lived in the same old run-down building in San Francisco’s Mission district for years, because it’s cheap and conveniently located.
He wanted me to see his backyard, so we went down the rickety back steps to the dark underbelly of the old building. Ghostly items, discarded by former tenants, were propped everywhere. We walked toward the sagging side fence that seemed about ready to fall down. There was a slight opening in the fence through which we moved into a small space full of light. It was the end of an alley, a three-foot wide interstice in an ugly, cement-defined urban place, and it had been transformed by Ted into a riot of living things—plants rising out of discarded pots and bins, vines growing up and down and across and over, and flowers bursting with blossoms. Butterflies and birds floated in and out of the garden. Several scavenged chairs and a table were nestled in the center of the area. It was a refuge in an abandoned patch of earth where the vitality of life was celebrated every moment. This is what we have learned to do on the “road of happy destiny”—to emerge from darkness into “the sunlight of the spirit,” where we create places of spiritual growth and healing for ourselves and for others.
In my life’s journey since 1984, I have become more at ease in the world and more at peace with myself. When I was an adolescent, I always lurked in the background of my life, afraid to be visible and vocal. I was often mute and afraid to reveal who I was. My first drink of alcohol “freed” me from the isolation and bondage of this silence. Then when I sobered up, this muteness returned. Gradually over the years, I became more visible as I told people my story—in jails and hospitals and church basements—the story as it was growing and changing, rather than as something completed. This helped me to build self-acceptance, and become more a part of community, both inside of and outside of the rooms. In Alcoholics Anonymous, I have learned to live life in a profoundly different way. It has involved changing the story of who I am in the world, and shifting the ground of my being so that a new story will emerge and flourish.