Friday, March 28, 2008

god's golden spotlight

I don't pray anymore. It was a shock to realize this, but just as the fact of prayer had become, after deliberate practice, an automatic behavior, the fact of not praying has become automatic and I am back where I started with this praying thing over 27 years ago.

It was not a habit I took up lightly. My early introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous did not go smoothly, in large part because of my rebellion against the idea of religion. That wasn't what AA was about, but it was what I heard when they said godasyouunderstandgod and I heard God, capital G, bold, religious Lutheran God.

Alcohol can kick some ass, though, and it kicked mine hard, into the gutter. Into a flophouse, actually, where I resided with a few dozen other down on their luck women, each of us angry and hostile and bitter, hating that place, hating each other, ourselves. Mrs. Niven's rooming house was an institution among female addicts and alcoholics in this town and a steady stream of her hard luck residents populated the AA clubhouse around the corner. They were welcomed there by goodhearted AA members, but also by a kind of man common to AA clubhouses, the kind who welcomes a fresh supply of vulnerable young women, no matter how roughed up they are by life, by chemicals.

I got out of Mrs. Niven's place quick. My anger was so intense I could not tolerate living with another, nor they with me. I hate that phrase ~ "my anger" ~ as if it's a possession, like my purse, my shoes, the antique desk I'm writing from. It was definitely a thing, though, and I owned it, could not get shed of it. My oldest AA friend tells me that the rage was palpable, that it was something he could feel as he sat down next to me. Wilbur, me, my fully loaded sack of fury and hate and despair.

I really am going to write about prayer, but it's hard to do that without explaining how thoroughly opposed I was to the idea. I came to the opposition after years of failure. Even as a five year old sitting in the pew at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, I'd bow my head, clasp my hands, say the words and experience . . . nothing. I'd peek out beneath my lashes at the others and they seemed so intent, as if they truly felt something, some connection with the mysterious Other. I'd redouble my efforts. Nothing. I was a fake in church, in Sunday school, in the parochial school of my youth.

Given the opportunity, at 13, I left that church. What followed was 12 years of drinking and dope and an excess of men and wild living of every kind, not all of which I regret and a great portion of which was absolutely magnificent and tremendous fun. And then it wasn't, of course, but more about that shortly. My launch into the outlaw life was not connected to my departure from the church, because church was nothing to me. It was something I did, something I showed up for, but there was nothing real there, nothing that touched me, moved me, spoke to my heart. Nothing. Ever. Not once.

Ten years into the outlaw life, at 23, I was sick. I couldn't drink without blacking out and my blackouts were taking me to frightening, dangerous places. I couldn't have a drink without drinking it all and going for more. My complete lack of control was stunning. I got sick every time I drank. It was a natural reaction to the ingestion of enormous quantities of alcohol, my body's effort to prevent alcohol poisoning and I would fight against it, this poor abused body of mine trying its best to save my life. I would drink, throw up, drink, black out and God knows what would happen then but I continued to drink, that I know, because the blackouts sometimes lasted for days. I would drink and drink and drink. It was a constant.

My first AA meeting created one of those head-spinning moments when I saw the G word in those 12 steps on the wall. I sat down in my skin tight jeans, my braless self in a see through blouse, dangerous spiked heels, spiked purple hair, black-ringed eyes. Everything about me was hard and pointy and mean. I felt mean and angry, like a scream with skin on, but nothing like what would come later, after the alcohol was gone. I looked at the squares and the old people and knew there was no help for me in these rooms. Someone said "I was afraid to pray because then God would know where I was" and I was riveted by the G word on the wall and in the voices and my arms were tightly crossed and my mind was shrieking no no no no no anything but that, anything but God, no.

But where to go at 23 when the street life is no longer an option and my best efforts to give up drinking for even a day had failed utterly? Where to go? It is the last resort of drunks everywhere, the only place, in the end, that will not criticize or condemn or judge or say get out as I had heard from both parents and a sibling. Get out. Alcoholics Anonymous. The choice at that point was not to live or to die, it was to die or to go to AA where God hangs on the wall and floats through the air in the words of hopeless drunks.

I wasn't very good at dying; the resilience of this body is truly breathtaking. And so to AA where it took me years to hear what I needed to hear to take the last drink. Two years of meetings and drinking and periods of not drinking, nothing like sobriety, just days alcohol-free. The absence of alcohol does not produce sobriety. It can, in fact, make life much, much worse.

It is said in the rooms that alcoholism halts development, that the age at which you start to drink is where you will be developmentally when you get sober. I don't remember being so wretched at 12, when I sucked down that pint of bourbon and found what I'd been missing my entire life, but neither was I filled with joy. Alcohol gave me that, that missing piece in my life, the thing that made me whole, turned me into what everyone else seemed to be, only better.

My last drink was an accident, a moment after a period of sober days where I found myself drinking again. Unintentionally, not wanting to, drinking. This is what went through my atheist, agnostic, anti-religious head at the moment I put down the empty glass and realized what I'd done: Oh God, I can't do this.

I. Can't. Do. This. Oh God. I meant that I could not stay sober, I had no idea how to do it because my best efforts to that point brought me to another drink. I can't do this, are you listening God? I was asking God??? It is called the alcoholic's prayer in AA. In nearly every speaker's tale, it appears at the moment of surrender, in the same words or similar. God help. I can't do this.

Newly surrendered, I was receptive for a moment. It's hard to hear anything with a mind suffering the agony of self obsession, but momentarily quieted by my stunning defeat, I really could hear. This is what they said: Take the action and the result will follow. Act as if. Do it anyway. Just say the words. You don't have to believe anything. And most important, godasyou- understandgod godasyouunderstandgod god as you understand god.

With no other options, I did what they said. I said the words, I took the actions, I acted as if, I did it in rebellion, in surrender, in anger, and ultimately in gratitude and peace. This is not, though, a story of religious conversion. I remain unconverted and, it would seem of late, lapsed in even my rudimentary spiritual practice. It's just a story of something that I have come to believe is within most of us, a need, a longing, an emptiness, and the only thing I know to make that go away when alcohol and drugs and food and men and money and gambling no longer work.

The important thing for me, though, was that I had the latitude to figure out what was missing in me. The keys were given to me in the actions suggested. I wasn't assured of any outcome, though the secret of Alcoholics Anonymous is clearly stated in the 12th step where it's missed by too many for too long. We fool around trying to wrestle life into submission, making it complicated and difficult, when the only thing we're ever promised in AA is a spiritual awakening. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps. All I was assured of was that things would change if I acted as if and they did.

The words eventually became something more than acting, than faking it. The process was long and marked by setbacks, but the end result was a connection with something else. I would say something outside of me because my Lutheran upbringing continues to place capital G God in the clouds somewhere, perched at the beginning of a rainbow. But the godasyouunderstandgod of AA was something else.

In Chapter 4, We Agnostics, the big book tells me that the power that will save my ass is within me. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. And in an appendix to the book, I'm told this: With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. Again in Chapter 4, I'm told that I must choose my own conception of God for this thing to work. I must.

The more disciplined among us will read that and think "of course, you found self control," but that is not the case. One of my freight drivers told me this week that he "used to be an alcoholic," but when he had kids, he just looked at them and decided he was going to give them a better life and he made up his mind and so he quit. I appreciate that and I think it's grand, but no alcoholic just makes up his or her mind and quits. Heavy drinkers do it every day, but the alcoholic makes up her mind to quit and drinks again. And quits and drinks and quits and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks. By definition, alcoholism is the inability to quit, no matter the power or strength of the made up mind.

But back to God and god, and finding that power. I've known people who wrote lengthy descriptions of what their conception of God was going to be, what s/he would be like, would do for them, how it would act, this imaginary spirit. That never worked for me, but with relatively clear eyes, I could see around me in the rooms of AA something greater than I was alone. In the laughter of people so recently hopeless, I could see that something positive was at work. Watching people get sober was the most amazing thing and the clearest evidence of the Great Reality I've ever come across. Actually seeing the physical transformation of the walking, shaking, reeking-of-alcohol dead turning into calm, content, sober citizens is hair-raising and chill inducing and as much a miracle as Lazarus rising up from his grave. There is God ~ or god ~ in that; it is otherwise inexplicable.

Through the process of acting as if and saying the words, I reached a point of such intense spiritual connection that I felt as if I were going through life bathed in a warm golden spotlight of love and joy and happiness and content. I was utterly at peace, long since freed of the rage that plagued my early years of sobriety. The sense of being clean and open and whole and healed and filled up with joy was remarkable and delicious and as fantastic as anything I've ever experienced in this life.

And so I quit praying. That is classic behavior for me, to do something that makes my life better and then quit. I didn't just quit. Mike got terribly sick and life became ridiculously stressful and the demands on my time were unbearable and unavoidable. Between my agency work and my business and caring for him and sponsoring a dozen women and going to five meetings a week, something had to go.

The spotlight winked out long before the busy-ness overtook my life, but I kept taking the actions I knew to take, sure that it would be okay and life would get better. In the midst of it all, even with the light gone, I had a profound, physical spiritual experience that was a comfort and was grateful for it, for the promise in that.

But there's no room even for godasyouunderstandgod in a life filled with too much and there was no way out of my life as it was and I fell back. I had to cut back on meetings with so much time at the hospital, and I couldn't do justice to the women I worked with, so encouraged them to get help elsewhere. And my prayer became sporadic. Mike and I spent our first eight years together hand in hand every morning, on our knees, each of us praying to the god we understood, that lifesaving gift of AA. With him semi-conscious and in bed most of the time, the morning ritual was impossible.

In truth, I was pissed, too. My perfect, charmed life, my precious husband, everything in ruins. My heart was broken and life seemed frightening and so uncertain. Maybe people of the Big G God redouble their efforts at prayer in times like that, but my prayer life just faded away. At my core, I'm still a drunk, inconsistent, a little unreliable, weak.

Not until I left my agency work to do my business full time, though, did the praying cease entirely. Now I pray about once a month, maybe. Less often, probably. I don't even know when I pray, and isn't that a sad thing for godasyouunderstandgod's golden spotlight girl? So much of life is habitual, and I don't like habits much, but the habit of rolling out of bed to my knees was a good one.

I'm not sure how to get it back, but I know it's worth the effort. I've been doing some meditation work, practicing mindfulness, and that helps too. It makes me sad to think I might have thrown away a once in a lifetime gift of grace. I read about the monks who meditate for years to reach that pinnacle of spiritual connection and I think that I nearly had that, or maybe I did have that, it certainly felt like it and now it's gone.

I want to find that state again where nothing else matters but that connection, because in that connection is absolutely everything. Everything. I miss it terribly. I am bereft this evening thinking of the loss of that gift. Do you pray?

Labels: , , ,