The search for enlightenment exists inside me. All I must do is relax. I have had much awareness since I was a small child. One of the first things I remember sharing was the sense that the energy that is me will return to be with all the energy that is the energy of the world when I die or cease to exist. Then when another being is born, certain parts of the energy of the world will become that person’s essence or soul. I remember trying to tell this to my mother when I was around 5 years old.
Then when I was around 13, when we were playing around with a Ouija board, my friends and I, I tried to explain it to them. How did I come to sense this was true? Why was it so important to me? I never questioned this, even during all my other religious questioning. I just knew it.
It became a problem in my teen years, from the point of confirmation in my UCC church forward. I wanted to ask our pastor what he thought of it, and he told me it was too complicated a question for confirmation, and I would have lots of time to question later. Now I just needed to learn what our church taught. I was frustrated that my questions were not answered. These kinds of answers eventually drove me from the church and made me believe God did not really exist and was a myth of people to quell their fears.
I do remember one wise pastor who counseled my mother as I was about to marry young, and my fiancé had some out of this world spiritual beliefs (like Jesus was an alien!): He said that I had enough spirituality in my little finger to challenge most other people and that my mother should trust that. He told my then fiancé and me that trying to find God was like looking through a many-paned window, and no matter what pane you looked through, you were seeing the same God. This was a wise man.
In college, despite my lack of belief in God, I would argue through the night with people who said they believed in nothing! You MUST believe in something, I would say. Without it, you will perish. The emptiness inside yourself will suck you dry, and you will perish. Humans quest for a sense of connection and without it they die of loneliness. I was reading the German authors Hesse, Goethe, and Kafka. I’m sure that influenced me, but I felt this deep inside. I was no great philosopher, I knew these things, and they were so deep inside me, I argued them with people that I felt were at risk to die, whether from depression, isolation, or drugs. I began to discover what an empath I was. I also began to discover what a deep connection I felt with other humans, and an investment in their well-being. I was willing to speak up on their behalf, to risk all for it. I found my way to the social justice movement, to anti-war and peace marches, to working against poverty, for mental health and women’s rights. Where did this come from? I was innately drawn to these causes.
It was of course the times for this – the late seventies and early eighties, but many of my friends were content with peace, love, and rock concerts. It just didn’t feel like enough. Due partially to genetics and partly to my quest for my own escape from family problems, I had my own drug and alcohol problems, which almost pulled me off the path. A friend’s evangelical rock band rolled through town, and I experienced an altar call that almost swept me off my feet – I realized then that I was in an active search – but for what? It certainly was not for the Jesus they were selling – one who kept them in poverty, lying about the sex they were having, the starvation and poor conditions they were enduring at the hands of the churches who invited them, then failed to provide income or housing. This was the church of my memory, hypocritical to the max. That panacea was no better than drugs. But I began to see that there was something deeper than all of this and that neither drugs nor church was answering it.
I was beginning to lose control of myself in addiction. I was not functioning up to par. I was smart but incredibly disorganized, unable to meet commitments, moods swaying from one extreme to another, and my friends were becoming wary of me. I grew to be desperately lonely. Still, I had this quest for some form of spiritual belonging, as well as some intimate relationship. I met a young student pastor from Princeton, and we began meeting once a week in a pub near his school. I don’t know if he knew how desperately sick I was. But he was willing to talk to me over a couple St. Pauli Girl beers, and he did challenge me. He would ask me why this belief thing was so important to me, and where I got lost with the church. He told me that the best prophets in the Bible were not accepted in their own lands. He asked me why I was so afraid to speak up for myself. I had no answers. But I did tell him the story of my crazy alcoholic family and the abuse and how I just wanted to escape. Not one look of pity or support of me over my family came from him. Simply, “huh.” He just listened. I don’t think anyone up to that point had ever done that. Lots of people wanted to be white knights, get angry “for” me, wallow in pity with me. But no one had ever listened. There was that feeling of Presence. This again was that energy that I had always known was there. We were friends for a while. I have the sense that my drinking became too much of a block. We drifted.
The other way this spiritual energy was a presence was in professors and staff at my college, their grace in sensing who I was, what I had to offer, and what was needed to shepherd me along. Without this, I would never have achieved or become what I am today. There was a woman I had known since my first days at the college, had worked for as a student employee, who continued to be a friend/mentor, the entire ten years it took me to finish my undergraduate stay. She walked me through my undergraduate thesis. She artificially provided the structure I was unable to give myself. What a blessing this woman was to my life. I never dropped the tools she gave me from my journey. These were things no one had given me in my parenting. What person loves another stranger like this? After barely surviving, I walked the stage on graduation with honors, thanks to her and others.
There was a professor and his wife, in one of my majors, not God believers in any way, but believers in humanity. He had committed himself to teach American students how to think critically (something foreign to me coming out of a US public school). He would invite a small coed group of us to his home each weekend, his wife (who was Italian and equally intelligent) would cook us a curry. He was Oxford educated and would send us each a difficult and critically written article during the preceding week, and we were to read it and be prepared to critique it from our own point of view. The point was to develop one’s own economic, political, and philosophic point of view and be able to defend it. Wow! Never had I had to stand up for myself in this way. I learned what I believed about the world, why and how I wished to change it. I had to learn history, sociology, and political beliefs to know what my own were. I gained confidence in myself. I learned how my spiritual beliefs and values under-girded my other stances.
Another professor, in linguistics and psychology, found me shaking in her final exams, because no one had ever taught me to take an exam or how to study. I had always just skated on raw nerves and brains. She told me to get out of my seat, go walk 3 times around the building, and just contemplate the nature around me. She said after that, come back, sit down, think about what I had loved learning this semester for 15 minutes, then write the exam. I aced it. I never knew that the information was in there beneath the memorization. I realized how much I loved learning and why. I saw my investment in myself and others. The pieces began to fit.
Unfortunately, I was still under the lash of addiction. I was white knuckling it to get through school. I was dry for the period it took to get through the end, but once the goal was met, I fell right back into it. I had never met a goal so big, and I didn’t understand about the drop after the goal’s met. I fell into a deep depression, locked myself in my attic bedroom in my friend’s apartment, and drank from gallon boxes of cheap wine for the next 3 months of summer. I had only made one application for a job, and I wasn’t answering the phone, so there wasn’t much chance of getting that, I told myself. I was miserable. I told myself I might as well kill myself now than let the misery continue. As I was running out of money and getting more depressed, I started frequenting dive bars where creepy men would buy me drinks, and that saved cash. But I was running out of rent money, not knowing how I would keep going. For the first time in over 10 years, I might have to move home to my parents. I was drinking, not eating, and hearing voices. They would call my name then mumble things I couldn’t make out. The thought of moving home was giving me flashbacks to bad experiences there, bad dreams, and horrible fears.
One day, just pacing around the apartment and searching the refrigerator for a snack, the phone rang. It shocked me because I wasn’t usually downstairs. I answered and it was the place I’d put in that one application. "Thank God," the voice on the phone said, "do you know we have been trying to reach you for weeks? All your paperwork has been cleared, we have a good recommendation, and we’d like to interview you."
I was really shocked then. I had to pull myself together. I told my roommate and friend, who helped me clean myself up, paid for a haircut, helped me with make-up and clothes, and three days later off I went. Today I know it was truly a God thing! I connected so well with the supervisor at this hospital's mental health and detox unit, that she hired me on the spot. I was elated. I just knew I would be able to stop drinking because this was a job that meant so much to me. My senior thesis was on deinstitutionalizing mental health patients, and this would put me right there. Amazing!
I prayed I would do well with it. What happened is I turned myself from a daily drinker into a binge drinker. In most hospitals, one gets off every other weekend, and a day in between on the opposite weeks. So it was with me. So those were my drinking days. I was so happy to have a “professional job,” that it was like a high in itself. The first 3 to 6 months were incredibly busy learning new things that were fairly easy. But it was too much to hope that my drinking would stay gone. While I never drank or drugged at work, the weekends got harder and harder, and I began to have blackouts and terrible incidents of things happening during those blackouts. It was humiliating.
I didn’t think about my spiritual life. Too much energy was going into putting on the guise of being a “professional” and trying to drink like a social drinker. When I look back on it, it’s hard to admit just how much energy that took. I also had to move home for a brief time due to lack of cash, and that took an incredible emotional toll on me. I had started therapy at the graduate school at my college, but it was a form of analysis (what was free to me) and the free association was opening all kinds of gaping wounds. I was a mess.
Someone at work let me know there was a small apartment for rent in the home of someone her neighbor knew. It was much closer to work, and no roommates! It was tiny, but very affordable. I decided to go for it. The only thing, which only I knew, was lying about my drinking. In my own head, this was a plus! I couldn’t drink in this house. It was all according to plan, I reasoned!
Things did calm down for a while. I loved working with the alcoholic clients more than the mentally ill. I couldn’t stand the shock treatments with the depressed clients. The treatment for alcoholics and drug addicts made deep sense to me. Having lived my whole life with a father who drank, this was eye-opening. I also had five other family members in AA, so I had some experience. The patients felt comfortable with me and would request to have me in their groups.
I was still an incredibly lonely person at 27 years old, living an isolated life. I did not see many of my old friends because they partied, and I would end up drinking or drugging. I talked by phone to a couple of girlfriends, and I had made a good friend where I worked who helped me a lot. She was active in Alanon. They were encouraging me to Alanon or ACOA. I knew I was still searching, but I didn’t know for what.
An incredibly handsome man came into detox. He was a heroin addict, Irish, with dark hair and blue eyes. He would come out to the nursing station when I was working evenings and stand and talk for an hour at a time. I developed an incredible crush. I couldn’t see that he might be using me because I was so lonely. To become involved with a patient was grounds for immediate firing, but my loneliness overruled any rational thinking. Once he was discharged, he asked me out. Of course, I said yes. When we met up, he asked if I’d mind going to an AA meeting because he had to get a sheet signed. I didn’t.
That evening changed my life. There were two speakers at the meeting, and one told my story – she described exactly what I was going through emotionally. She talked about the feelings of wanting everyone to leave or go to bed so she could drink the way she wanted to, how she wanted to blot out everything she was feeling emotionally. She talked about how everything in her life ceased to matter and she just wanted to die. She talked about being too much of a coward to kill herself but that it was not because of caring what others would feel or how they would be affected. This was me.
I started crying and I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop. I was embarrassed. I looked the other way so the guy I was with wouldn’t see. I heard a voice in my head that said, “I let you go over here, I brought you back. I let you go over there; I brought you back! Now you are here, STAY!!” I felt it was God’s voice and that this was my last chance. I looked around the room to see if anyone else could see it. Of course not. I was anchored in my seat like I was nailed there. I couldn’t move. I could barely stand up when they did the prayer at the end.
All through the two speakers they talked about getting a sponsor who had what you wanted, that you couldn’t do this thing without a sponsor. When we did stand for the prayer, I looked around and I saw this woman who looked so calm, and it was as though she was surrounded by light. I knew I wanted her for my sponsor, whatever that was. I went right up to her after the meeting and asked her. She asked me to call her the next day, and she became my first sponsor. She ended up teaching me so much more than just the steps because that’s what I needed. I will be forever indebted to her!
It would be nice if it were all roses and Hersheys' kisses after that but far from it. I had done so many different substances, that I couldn’t really read or think straight for quite a while. Thank goodness for this gentle woman, who interpreted the steps to me, kindly listened as I babbled, took me and a handful of women to meetings and even on a vacation, and encouraged me into service by my second week of coming to meetings. Any time I balked, she said, “What was that about going to any length dear?” or “Do you want to be sober, dear?”
At 90 days, or just after, she called me and said, "get ready, you and a few of us are going to Newark tonight for a meeting." This was about an hour and a half from us, and where we were in the country this was a big city meeting. I was scared, but we were all going as a group, so I couldn’t refuse. That’s what she taught us. When we got there, she told me I was the speaker. She told me to just ask God to speak through me and it would all be ok. I said, “You know I don’t believe in God!” She said, “It’s ok, he believes in you!” Having no other options except maybe to throw up, I prayed. It worked.
The first guy, drunk, came up to me and said, “Sweetheart, you made it sound so sweet, I’m gonna go out and get a few more tonight.” But then two women around my age came up and said they identified and thanked me. That’s all I was hoping for, and I blushed and was so happy. My sponsor said, "See, it works."
I struggled a lot in my first year. I still wanted to die. My sponsor would say, "Don’t drink, don’t drug and don’t die, and it will get better." She was right. Not everybody gets a pink cloud. I had to learn to be grateful for every good moment and to live a minute at a time. I had to treat my trauma in therapy and to learn to live a new way, by the steps in AA. I had to give up feeling sorry for myself and being a victim. I had to stop thinking the world was out to get me. I am no different than anyone else in the world. We all have our share of problems and good stuff. Often stuff seems to come in waves, and when the bad stuff comes, it can be tempting to say, "see how much worse I have it than others." That just makes it feel worse! The Alcoholics Anonymous Book says, “Our troubles we think are of our own making.” What that means to me is that when I wallow in my own stuff instead of looking for solutions or asking for help, I can make things much worse than they are.
So, I’ve done probably 15 years of therapy out of my 40+ years of sobriety. Not bad for peace of mind. In the beginning I did 300 meetings in 180 days, and I started to feel better. I learned that whenever I am going through a tough time or a new thing, I go back to ninety meetings in 90 days to support myself. It never fails me. If I don’t do what I need for support, I have only myself to blame.
I pray, I meditate, I call someone every day, I work the steps all the time. I belong to a small step group that is ongoing (Women's Steps by the Big Book), where we circulate through the steps ongoing, and the focus is on “How do I apply this step in my everyday life?” We use the Big Book and the 12 and 12, but we also use outside materials that might be helpful. Books like the Womens Way through the 12 Steps, Each Breath a New Beginning, Drop the Rock. We use a workbook called Steps by the Big Book. If someone suggests a new book, we are likely to try it out. In this way my spirituality keeps growing.
About 3 years into the program, I met my husband, who is also sober. I found out that each new thing I add is another stretch for my spiritual growth. Who knew that someone leaving kitchen closet doors open could make me so mad? I had to grow in acceptance. I’m aware that he does things that could infuriate me, and I do things that do the same to him. So how are we going to build a life together? The answer is the same as the rest of my life – acceptance and surrender. Over 39 years I have come to see that we choose or are attracted to our partners just exactly for the spiritual lessons we need. I always want to blame him for the problems I need to look at in myself!
Then we had kids! Each one has given me new lessons in spiritual growth, some easy, some ridiculously hard. I wish I could say that there were never any difficulties, but that would be a lie. Our eldest, our only son, is not speaking to us right now and we don’t really know why. We have not been perfect parents, but I believe we have been good enough parents. We do the best we are able. I pray that our relationship with our son will be healed before we leave this plane.
When I was about 23 years sober, I walked into a meeting and was introduced to a young woman who was just returning home from an outward-bound-type treatment program. She was barely 16. I began to sponsor her. In her home, there was still chaos and danger, and she called me one evening asking what to do, because her social worker was there, they were removing her and the two options she had would involve places where she was fairly sure drugs were present. We took her into our home and soon took guardianship and she has become our third child. All I can say to you is that when I looked at this young woman, I saw me. I saw my own upbringing, the chaos, and the danger. I saw a chance to touch one person’s life. A chance to give back. My husband and I agreed she needed a chance.
Has it all been perfect? Far from it. But the bond that exists between us is every bit as strong as the children I bore. We have both learned so much from each other. People in my home group still joke about the fights we had outside that meeting when she first lived with us and was quite a rebellious teenager. My whole family has stories to tell. But now, at 33, she is a maturing woman with children of her own, and is considerate, aware, and loving. She has become an advocate for children with special needs and is parenting 6 children, between her own and her stepchildren. She is resilient, deeply compassionate, and I am so proud to call her my own.
My own children are each gifted in their own way as well. I was so happy to be able to homeschool them, which gave us the freedom to be present with each other, to travel, to do projects, to be individuals. We were able to be a part of a huge homeschool collective, so they were encouraged, had social lives, and were able to develop their own passions.
These are spiritual gifts. I am continually called to new things. Much of it is to help others and to serve in helping other alcoholics and addicts particularly. But I have also been led to discover new gifts in myself that I would never have known were I not to listen to the still small voice inside of myself. When my husband and I were first together, we searched for a religion we could both settle on and raise our kids in, so we could have a community. This was not easy, since he was Catholic, and I was Presbyterian. We found the liberal branch of the Quakers. This was a resting place for us and a source of great nurture for many years. Then he moved more towards Buddhism and then agnosticism, and I later began to move towards Buddhism. The organized faith began to lose its shine for me, as I moved more into meditation and listening, and found less support in the structure of group worship.
Nature and even Native American forms of spirituality have always held so much power for me in my private worship. I can feel the energy of the earth in my waiting worship. I would rather be outdoors in my meditation or sitting quietly where I can hear nature even when indoors. When my first daughter quit coming to Quaker meeting, she said, “there is as much or more of god here in this horse barn as there is in the meetinghouse.” I had to agree and support her wish.
That energy that we all come from and return to – it is all around us and in us all the time. It is the Light the Quakers speak of. It is the thing that raises the hair on your arms when you are alone in the woods, and it makes you feel you might not be alone. It is the energy you feel when sitting in hospice with one who is about to depart. It is with me right now as I speak to you. Can you feel it? I pray you do.