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traveling mercies: some thoughts on faith

By Anne Lamott

Despite meeting an intelligent Christian, I was not quite ready to give up a life of shame, failure, X-rated motels and Scotch just yet.

From the hills of Tiburon, Belvedere Island looks like a great green turtle with all of its parts pulled in. It's covered with eucalyptus, cedars, rhododendrons, manicured lawns.

I had come back to live in Tiburon. It was 1982, I was twenty-eight, and I had just broken up with a man in a neighboring county. He was the love of my life, and I of his, but things were a mess. We were taking a lot of cocaine and psychedelic mushrooms, and drinking way too much. When I moved out, he moved back in with his wife and son. My dad had been dead for three years. My mother still practiced law in Hawaii, my oldest brother John had moved even farther away, and my younger brother had, in the most incongruous act of our family's history, joined the army.

When my boyfriend and I split up, I had called a divorced friend named Pat who'd lived in Tiburon for twenty years; I had baby-sat for her kids when I was young. She had loved me since I was eleven. I said I needed a place to regroup for a couple of weeks. Then I stayed for a year and a half. (Let this be a lesson.)

She worked in the city all day so I had the house to myself, I woke up quite late every morning, always hung over, the shades drawn, the air reeking of cigarettes and booze. The whole time I stayed at her house, I kept drinking from her one bottle of Dewars. Most nights I'd sip wine or beer while she and I hung out, eating diet dinners together. Then after she'd gone to bed nice and early every night, I'd pour myself the first of sixteen ounces of Scotch. I'd put music on the stereo - Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty - and dance. Sometimes I would dance around with a drink in my hand. Other times, I would toss down my drink and then sit on the couch in reveries - of romance, of seeing my dad again, of being on TV talk shows, chatting with Johnny Carson, ducking my head down while the audience laughed at my wit, then reaching demurely for my glass of Scotch. My self-esteem soared, and when the talk show ended in my mind, I would dance.

I took a sleeping pill with the last glass of Scotch every night, woke up late, wrote for a couple of hours, and then walked to one of four local liquor stores to buy a pint of Dewars. Back at Pat's, I would pour the whiskey back into the big bottle, raising the level back to where it had been before I started the night before. Then I'd put the empty in a brown paper bag and take off for the bike path to dispose of it.

There were many benches along the way with beautiful views of Richardson Bay. Some of them had trash cans next to them, but others did not, and I'd be frantic to get rid of my empty bottles. Certainly someone might interpret them as a sign that I had developed some sort of drinking problem. But sometimes I'd be forced to leave the bag on a bench where there was no trash can, and I lived in terror of someone running up to me holding out the paper bag, calling, "Oh, Misssss, you forgot something." Then they'd drop it, and it would shatter inside the brown bag, and the jig would be up.

I was scared much of the time. There were wonderful aspects to my life - I was writing, I loved my friends, I lived amidst all this beauty. I got to walk with Pammy several times a week, along the bike path or over in Mill Valley where she was living happily ever after with her husband. Every night I'd swear I wouldn't hit Pat's Scotch again, maybe instead just have a glass of wine or two. But then she'd go to bed, and without exactly meaning to, I'd find myself in the kitchen, quietly pouring a drink.

Life was utterly schizophrenic. I was loved and often seemed cheerful, but fear pulsed inside me. I was broke, clearly a drunk, and also bulimic. One night I went to bed so drunk and stuffed with food that I blacked out. When I awoke, feeling quite light, I got on the scale. Then I called Pat at work with my great news: "I lost five pounds last night!"

"And I found it," she said. It seemed she had cleaned up after me.

I made seven thousand dollars that year and could not afford therapy or enough cocaine. Then my married man called again, and we took to meeting in X-rated motels with lots of coke, tasteful erotic romps on TV like The Bitch of the Gestapo.

But it was hard for him to get away. I'd pine away at Pat's, waiting for her to go to sleep so I could dance.

I was cracking up. It was like a cartoon where something gets hit, and one crack appears, which spiderwebs outward until the whole pane or vase is cracked and hangs suspended for a moment before falling into a pile of powder on the floor. I had not yet heard the Leonard Cohen song in which he sings, "There are cracks, cracks, in everything, that's how the light gets in." I had the cracks but not the hope.

In pictures of Pammy and me taken then, she weighs a lot more than I. I'm skinny, insubstantial, as if I want to disappear altogether and my body is already starting to, piece by piece like the Cheshire cat. Pammy looks expansive and buttery and smiling. I look furtive, like a deer surprised in a heinous act.

I'm always squinting in these pictures, too, baffled, suspicious - get this over with, my eyes say. Pammy's hair is no longer wild blonde hippie-girl hair. Now it falls in soft waves to her shoulders. My hair is in a long fuzzy Afro, a thicket behind which I'm trying to hide. Pammy gives off natural charm, like someone who is dangling a line with something lovely attached, saying, Come play with us - we're worth it! While I'm saying, Go away! Stop bothering me!

I kept the extent of my drinking a secret from her. And in a show of control, played to an often empty house, I'd try to wait until five for the first beer. But this other person inside me would start crying, Help me. So I'd get us a little something to tide us over.

It was so frustrating to be in love with an unavailable married man that of course I found a second one. He was a dentist, who met me in fancy hotels, with lots of cocaine and always some Percodan to take the edge off. He was also doing nitrous oxide after hours, but he wouldn't share. I tried everything to get him to bring me a little soupçon of nitrous, but never got it. When he reported one night that his wife had torn at one of her eyes in despair over our affair and that he'd taken her to Emergency four days before, I thought, "God, is your wife a mess."

But a feather of truth floated inside the door of my mind that night - the truth that I was crossing over to the dark side. I still prayed but was no longer sure anyone heard. I called a suicide hot line two days later, but hung up when someone answered. Heaven forbid someone should think I needed help. I was a Lamott - Lamotts give help.

I kept walking into town on the bike path to dispose of my bottle and buy another; the path was where the railroad tracks used to be. I'd turn right on Beach Road and walk along the west shore of Belvedere Island, passing below the big concrete Episcopal church on the hill. I'd actually spent some time at St. Stephen's as a child. My mother and I would go there for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve every year, and I went with assorted friends every so often. It looked like a PG+E substation. I'd heard from family friends that there was a new guy preaching, named Bill Rankin, an old civil rights priest who had gotten this stolid congregation mobilized behind issues of peace and justice. I wasn't remotely ready for Christianity, though -- I mean, I wasn't that far gone.

Still, I had never stopped believing in God since that day in Eva Gossman's class. Mine was a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus.

Then one afternoon in my dark bedroom, the cracks webbed all the way through me. I believed that I would die soon, from a fall or an overdose. I knew there was an afterlife but felt that the odds of my living long enough to get into heaven were almost nil. They couldn't possibly take you in the shape I was in. I could no longer imagine how God could love me.

But in my dark bedroom at Pat's that afternoon, out of nowhere it crossed my mind to call the new guy at St. Stephen's.

So I did. He was there, and I started to explain that I was losing my mind, but he interrupted to say with real anguish that he was sorry but he had to leave. He literally begged me to call back in the morning, but I couldn't form any words in reply. It was like in the movies when the gangster is blowing bubbles through the bullet hole in his neck. There was this profound silence, except for my bubbling. Then he said, "Listen. Never mind. I'll wait. Come on in."

It took me forty-five minutes to walk there, but this skinny middle-aged guy was still in his office when I arrived. My first impression was that he was smart and profoundly tenderhearted. My next was that he was really listening, that he could hear what I was saying, and so I let it all tumble out - the X-rated motels, my father's death, a hint that maybe every so often I drank too much.

I don't remember much of his response, except that when I said I didn't think God could love me, he said, "God has to love you. That's God's job." Some years later I asked him to tell me about this first meeting. "I felt," he said, "that you had gotten yourself so tangled up in big God questions that it was suffocating you. Here you were in a rather desperate situation, suicidal, clearly alcoholic, going down the tubes. I thought the trick was to help you extricate yourself enough so you could breathe again. You said your prayers weren't working anymore, and I could see that in your desperation you were trying to save yourself: so I said you should stop praying for a while, and let me pray for you. And right away, you seemed to settle down inside."


"What did you hear in my voice when I called?"

"I just heard that you were in trouble."


He was about the first Christian I ever met whom I could stand to be in the same room with. Most Christians seemed almost hostile in their belief that they were saved and you weren't. Bill said it bothered him too, but you had to listen to what was underneath their words. What did it mean to be saved, I asked, although I knew the word smacked of Elmer Gantry for both of us.

"You don't need to think about this," he said.

"Just tell me."

"I guess it's like discovering you're on the shelf of a pawnshop, dusty and forgotten and maybe not worth very much. But Jesus comes in and tells the pawnbroker, 'I'll take her place on the shelf. Let her go outside again.'"

When I met him for a second time in his office, he handed me a quote of Dag Hammarskjöld's: "I don't know Who or What put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment, I did answer Yes." I wanted to fall to my knees, newly born, but I didn't. I walked back home to Pat's and got out the Scotch. I was feeling better in general, less out of control, even though it would be four more years before I got sober. I was not willing to give up a life of shame and failure without a fight. Still, a few weeks later, when Bill and I met for our first walk, I had some progress to report: I had stopped meeting the love of my life at X-rated motels. I still met him at motels, but nicer ones. I had stopped seeing the man with the bleeding wife. I felt I had standards again -- granted, they were very low standards, but still ...

Slowly I came back to life. I'd been like one of the people Ezekiel comes upon in the valley of dry bones - people who had really given up, who were lifeless and without hope. But because of Ezekiel's presence, breath comes upon them; spirit and kindness revive them. And by the time I was well enough for Bill even to consider tapering off our meetings, I had weaseled my way into his heart. I drank, he led a church, and together we went walking every week all over Belvedere Island, all over the back of that great green turtle.

Copyright © 1998 Anne Lamott

Buy Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

the great remover

Alcohol is a product of amazing versatility.

It will remove stains from designer clothes,

and will also remove the clothes from your back.

If by chance it is used in sufficient quantities,

alcohol will remove furniture from the home,

rugs from the floor,

food from the table,

lining from the stomach,

vision from the eyes,

judgment from the mind.

Alcohol will also remove good reputations,

good jobs, good friends,

happiness from children's hearts,

sanity, freedom, spouses, relationships,

and man's ability to adjust and live with his fellow man,

even life itself.

As a remover, alcohol has no equal!

Copyright 2002 Alcoholics Anonymous

do you have a drug or alcohol problem?

Alcoholism and other addictions are primary, progressive, and fatal illnesses which respond to medical treatment. If left untreated, addictions result in insanity and premature death. Addiction has also been described as a pathological relationship to a substance, person, behavior or process.

The idea that addicts are weak willed or morally corrupt has long ago been debunked. That attitude keeps people from seeking treatment and fosters shame and fear around their illness. Addicts and the people who love them are often the last to accept the disease concept - this relates to shame, denial and the need to prove that they are in control.

"Shaming" addicts for their use and using behavior is counter productive, creates barriers to recovery, and greatly complicates the recovery process once begun. Addicts feel enormous shame as it is - adding to this shame is not only cruel, but may spur greater use.

Addicts medicate shame, fear, anger and pain. Increasing the burden of shame can lead to overdose and / or suicide.

signs + symptoms of addiction

Alcohol is a drug! For the purpose of this page the terms "drink" and "use"or "addiction" and "alcoholism" are interchangeable.

- When you drink or use drugs, does it take more or less to get you drunk or high than it used to? (Increasing or decreasing tolerance is a sign of addiction.)

- Do you ever drink or use more than you intended to? (This indicates loss of control over your use.)

- Do you make sure you have a supply of drugs or always keep a bottle on hand? (Do you call the dealer before your stash is gone, drive across town at rush hour to refill that prescription, or lay in a case on Saturday night so you'll have it when the liquor stores are closed on Sunday? Preoccupation with supply is a characteristic of addiction.)

- Do you have blackouts or brownouts - forget what you have done or said, or "lose time" after drinking or using? (Blackouts are indicative of late stage alcoholism or addiction.)

- Do you ever drink or use drugs in the morning to reduce anxiety or cope with a hangover? (This indicates progression of addiction, hangovers are actually the onset of withdrawal.)

- Do you ever find yourself wishing for a drink or drug to calm down or steady yourself? (This indicates preoccupation and self medication, as well as progression of addiction, as what prompts this is often physical withdrawal symptoms.)

- Do you ever drink when taking prescription medications which advise against drinking alcohol? (This shows powerlessness over your drinking. It is also very dangerous. Remember Karen Anne Quinlan?)

- Have you ever gone to work or school drunk or high? (This indicates powerlessness and unmanageability in your life.)

- Do you have a history of relationships with addicts or alcoholics? (Codependent alcoholics and addicts often unconsciously find addicted partners - it allows them a smoke screen to hide behind. "I may drink or use, but I'm not like them.")

- Do you find yourself using alcohol, drugs or sex to reduce anxiety or help you sleep? (Addicts medicate emotional pain, anxiety and fear. Benzodiazapine based anti anxiety drugs - Xanex, Valium etc. -are highly addictive. Most sleeping meds are very addictive, and often have a paradoxical effect - making sleep disturbances worse with continued use.)

- When prescribed medication, do you take more than prescribed? ("If one is good - two is better", this belief is at the center of addictive thinking.)

- Have friends, family or loved ones ever commented on or expressed concern about your use? (Addicts are usually the last to recognize their disease - denial is an automatic and unconscious component of addiction. If you insist that you don't have a problem you probably do! If this makes you angry - ask yourself why?)

- Do you conceal your use from family, friends, therapists or loved ones, or "edit" stories involving your drinking or using? (Secretiveness, denial and lies about use are characteristic of active addicts and alcoholics.)

- Do you ever drink or use alone? (Indicates you are not a "social" drinker. Also, isolation and a feeling of "being different" or "not fitting in" are a common personality trait of addicts / alcoholics.)

- Do you do or say things you later regret when drinking or using? (Impaired judgement from drinking or using indicate powerlessness over use. Behavioral changes when drinking or using are a sign of progression, loss of control and late stage addiction.)

- Have you ever had a DUI, driven drunk, or had a drug or alcohol related accident or injury?

- Have you slept in your car, or away from home because you were too drunk to drive?

- Are you relieved when someone else drives so you are free to drink or use? (Drinking and driving indicates powerlessness over use, and is a part of the unmanageability of active addiction.)

- Have you ever stopped or cut back on drinking or using because you felt it was causing problems in your life? (Life difficulties around use indicate a problem - many alcoholics and addicts temporarily modify their patterns of using in an effort to prove to themselves that they have control of their use. Non-alcoholics don't need to prove they are in control! Stopping drinking or use for a period is usually not difficult, staying abstinent from all mood altering substances for long periods is nearly impossible for untreated addicts.)

- Is your life increasingly chaotic and turbulent? (Unmanagability is indicated by accidents, missed appointments, unpaid / late bills and rent, work and relationship difficulties, a generalized sense of desperation, and pervasive sadness or anger. A life out of control is often traceable to the progression of addiction. Addicts typically project their unmanagability outward - blaming everything but the addiction for their problems. Addicts drink or use because they are addicted. Difficult life events may trigger addictive acting out - but they are not the cause of an addict's use.)

- Do you switch from one substance to another, or change drinks in an effort to regain control? (Switch from Scotch to Beer? Stop drinking but start taking pills? Give up marijuana but start drinking? Quit drinking but become sexually promiscuous? This is called cross addiction.)

- Do you believe you're not an addict because your drug of choice is legal or prescribed? (Go ask Elvis about this one! Many Medical Doctors are shockingly unaware of addiction issues, and of the addictive nature of many commonly prescribed drugs.)

If you answered yes to any of these questions you may want to look at your using and drinking patterns. If you answered yes to two moderating your drinking or use would be a good idea; three or more you would be well advised to seek professional help.

If you have an addict or alcoholic in your life the prudent course is compassionate and loving confrontation of their addictive behavior coupled with presenting a treatment option. This is called intervention.

If you just took this test for someone else - you may wish to learn more about codependency. Addicts cannot be "made to recover" - effective recovery work requires personal willingness. If someone you love has a problem you can (and should) confront their use and using behaviors. You cannot control, cure or fix the problem. Sometimes you have to let go and let them continue in the addiction until things get so bad that their misery outweighs their fear of change.

Access Recovery-Man.com

90 tools for sobriety

  1. Stay away from that first drink, taking the 1st step daily;
  2. Attend AA regularly and get involved;
  3. Progress is made ONE DAY AT A TIME;
  4. Use the 24 Hour plan;
  5. Remember, your disease is incurable, progressive and fatal;
  6. Do first things first;
  7. Don't become too tired;
  8. Eat at regular hours;
  9. Use the telephone (not just after the fact but during, too);
  10. Be active - don't just sit around. Idle time will kill you;
  11. Use the Serenity Prayer;
  12. Change old routines and patterns;
  13. Don't become too hungry;
  14. Avoid loneliness;
  15. Practice control of your anger;
  16. Air your resentments;
  17. Be willing to help whenever needed;
  18. Be good to yourself, you deserve it;
  19. Easy does it;
  20. Get out of the "IF ONLY" trap;
  21. Remember HOW IT WAS - your last drink, the feelings etc.;
  22. Be aware of your emotions;
  23. Help another in his/her recovery, extend your hand, listen;
  24. Try to turn your life and your will over to your Higher Power;
  25. Avoid all mood-altering drugs, read labels on all medicines;
  26. Turn loose old ideas;
  27. Avoid drinking situations/occasions;
  28. Replace old drinking buddies with new AA buddies;
  29. Read the Big Book;
  30. Try not to be dependent on another (sick relationships);
  31. Be grateful and when not, make a GRATITUDE list;
  32. Get off the "Pity Pot"... the only thing you'll get is a ring around your bottom if you don't;
  33. See knowledgeable help when troubled and or otherwise;
  34. Face it! You are powerless over alcohol, people, places and things;
  35. Try the 12 and 12, not just 1 and 12 or 1, 12 and 13;
  36. Let go, let God;
  37. Use the God bag and the answers: yes, no or wait I have something better in store for you. Don't forget to say thanks;
  38. Find courage to change through the example of others who have;
  39. Don't try to test your will power - give an alcoholic one shovel and one pail and in one hour he/she will need 100 wheel barrows;
  40. Live TODAY, not YESTERDAY, not TOMORROW - projection is planning the results before anything even happens;
  41. Avoid emotional involvements the first year - you end up putting the other person first and lose sight of "your" program;
  42. Remember alcohol is - cunning, baffling and powerful;
  43. Rejoice in the manageability of your new life;
  44. Be humble - humility is not in thinking of your self more, but in thinking more of yourself less often. Watch your ego;
  45. Share your experience, strength and hope;
  46. Cherish your recovery;
  47. Dump your garbage regularly - GIGO = Garbage In Garbage Out;
  48. Get plenty of "restful" sleep;

  49. Stay sober for you - not someone else - otherwise it won't work;
  50. Practice rigorous honesty with yourself and others;
  51. Progress is made ONE DAY AT A TIME, not 10 years in one day;
  52. Make no major decisions the first year;
  53. Get a sponsor and use him/her (not just selectively share);
  54. Know that no matter what your problems, someone's had them before. Don't be afraid to share, as a problem shared is one half solved;
  55. Strive for progress not perfection;
  56. When in doubt ask questions. The only stupid question is the one not asked. You weren't afraid to speak before, so why start now?
  57. Use prayer and meditation ... not just pillow talk, get on those knees. Put your shoes under the bed just in case someone's looking;
  58. Maintain a balance: spiritual, physical, emotional and mental;
  59. Don't use other substances as a maintenance program;
  60. Learn to take spot check inventories;
  61. Watch out for the RED FLAGS ... things that give excuses for poor behavior and inevitable relapse;
  62. Know that its okay to be human ... just don't drink over it;
  63. Be kind to yourself - it's about time, don't you think?;
  64. Don't take yourself so seriously - take the disease seriously;
  65. Know that whatever it is that's causing pain - it shall pass;
  66. Stay as away from the DRY DRUNK SYNDROME as humanly as possible;
  67. Don't give away more than you can afford too, your sobriety comes first and must be the number 1 priority. Protect it at all costs;
  68. Take down those bricks from the wall around you; you'll be able to see the daylight better. Let people know who you are;
  69. Get a home group and attend it regularly;
  70. Know that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train, but actually a ray of hope. Drop the negativity;
  71. Know that you are not alone, that's why the "we" is in the steps;
  72. Be willing to go to any lengths to stay and be sober;
  73. Know that no matter how bleak and dark your past may be, your future is clean, bright and clear if you don't drink today;
  74. Stay out of your own way;
  75. Don't be in a hurry - remember "TIME = Things I Must Earn";
  76. Watch the EGO: "EGO = Ease God Out";
  77. Protect your sobriety at all costs. Keep the light on you;
  78. Learn to listen, not just hear. Be open-minded and nonjudgmental;
  79. Know that if your insides match your outsides, everyone looks good;
  80. If the rest of the world looks bad, check yourself out first;
  81. Gratitude is in the attitude. 85) When all else fails ... punt! Up the number of meetings!;
  82. Remember FEAR = FALSE EVIDENCE APPEARING REAL!;
  83. Remember FINE = Fouled up, Insecure/insane, Neurotic and Emotionally imbalanced ... watch the FINE;
  84. Handle what you can and leave the rest, don't overtax yourself. You can only accomplish so much in a given 24 hours;
  85. Honesty and consistency are key factors in recovery;
  86. Let the little kid in you out - learn how to laugh from the gut.
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