Monthly Archives: September 2014
M(3), 9/29: How Big of a Deal is an Alcoholic Slip?
Polarized would be the word I choose to describe this morning’s meeting, and never before have I had a chance to do that!
This being the fifth Monday in the month of September, I did a little research and came up with an unusual article to use as this morning’s reading selection. Originally published in 1947 in the AA magazine Grapevine, “Slips” was written by Dr. William D. Silkworth, an American medical doctor who was tremendously influential in the founding of the 12-step program Alcoholics Anonymous. Silkworth’s position in this article is that a relapse, or “slip,” to an alcoholic can be compared to the cardiac patient who, after time spent abiding by the rules of his condition, slowly but surely reverts to his old lifestyle that caused the heart attack. In other words: alcoholics are human beings first and foremost, and the poor decisions made by an alcoholic are often the result of flawed humanity, rather than by the condition of alcoholism.
I picked this reading because of its provocative nature. The 12-step program to which I am accustomed tends to teach a bit opposite this idea, and yet one of the players instrumental in the development of this very program is stating otherwise. Parts of the reading that spoke to me personally is the idea that alcoholism is a disease, but one that does not define me as a person:
Both in professional and lay circles there is a tendency to label everything than an alcoholic may do as “alcoholic behavior.” The truth is it is simply human nature. It is very wrong to consider many of the personality traits observed in liquor addicts as peculiar to the alcoholic. Emotional and mental quirks are classified as symptoms of alcoholism merely because alcoholics have them, yet these same quirks can be found among non-alcoholic also. Actually they are symptoms of mankind, ORDINARY PEOPLE.
-Silkworth, “Slips,” Grapevine magazine
This part made sense to me, especially as I mature a bit in sobriety. As I observe the world and the people around me with the clarity of sober eyes, I realize that my character defects are common to those around me, whether they are alcoholic or not. Remembering that to err is human calms the perfectionistic thinker who dwells within.
And yet, I had the vague sense that a critical something was off in this article, but, truth be told, I just figured my comrades on Monday morning would help me figure it out, so I put it aside until today. And my friends did not disappoint!
The first several to share their opinion on the article viewed it favorably. They liked the idea that we are human first, alcoholic second. And each of the people who enjoyed the article emphasized the importance of remembering that relapses, or slips, happen long before the first drink or drug in ingested. A relapse starts the moment we begin sliding back into old ways of thinking and acting. If we continue down that path, the return to alcohol is inevitable.
The next group of people to share had a different opinion. And while they used words like feeling “ambiguous” and “ambivalent” about the article, it was clear to me that they in fact disagreed with Silkworth’s opinion. As one attendee put it, Silkworth is a doctor and therefore looks at it from a physical point of view. Alcoholism, however, is a three-pronged disease: physical, mental, spiritual. When you consider the totality of the condition, alcoholism, and the effects of a relapse, are quite different that a cardiac patient who reverts to his previous unhealthy lifestyle.
The next attendee to share had even stronger feelings about it: the article completely disregards the foundation of the AA program; namely, the need to discover and rely upon a power greater than oneself. In no way does this correlate to a cardiac patient. In addition, there is simply no comparison to the repercussions of an alcoholic “slip” and that of a cardiac one. A cardiac patient can smoke one cigarette with minimal consequences, but there is no telling what may happen when a recovered alcoholic takes that first drink.
There was also an animated discussion on the use of the word “slip” when describing an alcoholic relapse. On this point everyone seemed to agree: a slip implies something accidental, whereas a person with sober time who chooses to drink does so with absolute premeditation.
There was a lively debate back and forth about some of the semantics of the article, but everyone seemed to enjoy reading it and, more importantly, considering his or her own feeling on the subject. Another general consensus reached is that a healthy fear of picking up a drink is not a bad thing, in the same way that a healthy fear of getting burned by a stove, or being hit by erratic drivers is not a bad thing; both keep us safe.
I encourage readers who are in recovery to take a second a read Silkworth’s article… I would love to know your thoughts on the subject!
Participating in such a lively discussion, and taking that energy with me as I continue my day!
M(3), 9/22: The Payoff
I’ve had a sudden and paralyzing attack of procrastination, and it’s hindering my ability to write this post!
As it is the fourth Monday of the month, our reading selection at this morning’s meeting was the first half of the final chapter from the book Back To Basics. The book details how newcomers to the AA program went through the 12 steps of recovery back in 1946, when the Fellowship was still in its infancy. Today’s reading focused on steps 10 and 11:
Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
Step 11: Continued to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out
Steps 10, 11 and 12 are often referred to as “maintenance steps,” actions to be done every day for the rest of our lives. The opening of the chapter talks a great deal about the rewards and blessings that come from having completed the first 9 steps, and the psychic change that would have taken place for the alcoholics who have earnestly done the work that has advanced them to step 10:
Congratulations. You are the ones who are in the process of experiencing the personality change sufficient to recover from alcoholism. -pg. 112, Back To Basics
As I read the chapter this morning, I wondered to myself: have I experienced the personality change of which they speak? This self-inquiry immediately brought me back to a moment I had the day before. For the sake of brevity, I will generalize the moment as an unexpected confrontation. Those who know me and/or read regularly know that I am not good with anything that smacks of confrontation, and this was pretty black and white in its nature. How I reacted in the moment would be difficult to say, as my brain felt frozen for the entire incident (which is my typical reaction to stress, my brain always chooses the “flight” option in fight or flight). That said, the issue only lasted a few minutes, and everyone left cordially (enough), so I suppose it safe to say I handled things passably.
The bigger issue (well, one of them, anyway) was how I internally reacted, which was: Not Well. By the end of the remaining time I had to spend in the environment the confrontation took place, I felt physically ill. I drove home distracted, which bums me out, because I should have been paying closer attention to my son, who was travelling with me. I could not shake it off entirely for the rest of the evening.
What does this have to do with today’s reading? It occurred to me, as I considered the situation: this was how I lived my life in active addiction. There was always drama of some sort: either I was angry at one person, or trying to justify my side of an argument with someone who was angry at me, or stressing out about getting caught in a lie, or stressing out about creating the next lie… you get the picture. Every. Day. Of. My. Life.
I am so grateful I don’t have to live that way anymore. I am so grateful that I am not filled with the anger and resentment I saw displayed yesterday. I am so grateful I have a husband in whom I can confide, friends in the Fellowship who will listen, and friends in the blogosphere who will read, and empathize. I am so grateful to be sober, and to have that “psychic change” which sounds entirely hokey but is, in fact, true!
The mental changes that recovery has brought me, and enabled me to see the miracles in even the darker situations.
Awkward God Conversations
Is it just me, or is it incredibly uncomfortable to have conversations involving a Higher Power?
I just had one of these conversations the other day. It was not my first, and, since I assume it will not be my last, I figured why not explore this self-consciousness a bit and see what I discover? The conversations of which I speak are when I am trying to explain the evolution of my spirituality, which should, in theory, be a point of great pride. And it is, between me, myself and I, but whenever I try to speak of this topic, I convince myself that I sound like a cross between Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
What’s important to note is that the general audience with whom I converse are believers: folks in AA generally have some sort of spirituality, my family are all born and raised Catholic, and, come to think of it, so are all of my friends. Quite the homogenous world I live in; nonetheless, the “God” word is offensive to no one in my orbit. I do not personally know a single atheist or agnostic, and how weird is that?
So why the discomfort?
The best I can come up with is not wanting to scare people off by sounding too Holy Roller-ish. I went to a small, Catholic college, and there was a group known as the God Squad. Suffice it to say that they were not the Cool Kids, for sure.
But this self-consciousness also makes me guilty. If I believe in God, if I love God, if I am grateful for all the miracles He has bestowed upon me, then why be shy about it?
This is a post with more question marks than periods. In fact, I am really hopeful that something in the comment section illuminates a light bulb in my head with regard to this subject.
These conversations are uncomfortable all across the board. I remember once when going through the steps with my sponsor, she suggested I get into the ritual of saying prayers with my husband. First thought: Absolutely. No. Way. Second and third thoughts: I agree with the first. Needless to say, I never took that suggestion.
My Mom is a devout Catholic, and, while it’s probably the least awkward with her, it’s still feels funny to me.
This could be one of those issues where the best advice is not to over-analyze, just accept the feelings as they are, and trust that in time these conversations will get easier.
Let’s keep this one short, in the hopes of generating further discussion: for you God believers, is it weird to talk about it? If so, how do you handle the weirdness?
Not being struck by lightning after admitting I don’t like talking about God?
M(3), 9/15: Talking Prudence While Practicing Evasion
And a beautiful Monday morning it is here on the Eastern side of the United States, hopefully it is equally beautiful where you sit and read right now. This morning’s meeting was a small-ish one, 11 people total, which is amazing, because I remember a time not too long ago when that number would have been a huge turnout!
Today’s meeting read and discussed Step 9 in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous:
Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
For those not involved in a 12-step fellowship, the goal of step nine is to make right, as best as you can, the mistakes you made in active addiction. It’s about owning up, cleaning up, and moving on.
Like many aspects of the 12-step program, there is a wide and varied interpretation of exactly how one goes about “making direct amends,” who exactly are “such people,” when exactly is “whenever possible,” and, the big one, what constitutes an exception that “would injure them or others.” The answer to personal and specific step 9 issues is typically answered within the context of a sponsor/sponsee relationship.
Certainly, you do not have to be an alcoholic or an addict to be in need of making amends; as I have mentioned on too many occasions, the steps are simply a way to better oneself, doing any or all of them, regardless of your proclivity towards alcohol, is going to lead to self-improvement. In the case of step 9, it’s simple: you did wrong, so go ‘fess up, and make it right. No matter what the outcome, you will feel better for having cleared your conscience.
The biggest stumbling block I hear in meetings, and in fact heard about today, is this: Yes, I’ve done someone wrong, but that someone has done more wrong to me that I’ve ever done to him or her, so I refuse to make amends. The answer to this is simple, but not easy. It may or may not be true, the grievances you are tracking, but they are irrelevant to the spirit of Step 9. Making amends is about cleaning up your side of the street. It doesn’t matter what mistakes anyone else has made. Truthfully, the bottom line is it doesn’t really matter what response you receive. It simply matters that you are taking responsibility for your bad choices, and you are willing to make those mistakes as right as you can.
Another common misconception regarding step 9 is distinguishing between apologizing and making amends. As alcoholics/addicts, we have all said “I’m sorry” more times than we can count. Apologies are meaningless unless you can back them up with something. Step 9 is an honest attempt to do just that. We admit our past faults, and we offer to do what we can to make things right. Of course, making things right can go in a million directions depending upon the wrong that was committed, and as such deciding the when’s, why’s and how’s will depend upon individual circumstances.
Finally, the subject that typically comes up when talking about step 9: so do you have to sit down with every person you have ever known and make a formal amends with him or her? The answer to this, obviously, is no, but not so obvious is the selection of people to make the list, and just how specific you need to be when confessing. Again, individual circumstances will vary, and having a trusted confidant, or sponsor, will help you greatly in sorting out the list.
One nugget of wisdom I took with me today, and will greatly help me as I go forward with the amends process, came from a gentleman with 28 years of sobriety. He explained that making amends is the process of mending something. The minute you arrest the bad behavior, you have started the amends process. Quite simply, if you are stressing out about making amends, as I have numerous times throughout this process: stop the bad behavior. If you amends was lying to someone, stop lying. If it was stealing from someone… you get the picture. Not a perspective I have considered before, that the regular and honest attempt to incorporate the 12 steps into my daily life is a type of living amends to the people I love.
I would love to hear from any and all of my recovery-minded friends on what step 9 means to them!
Having the privilege of handing a 30-day coin to a newcomer to the Fellowship. It’s a great way to start the day, celebrating milestones in recovery!
M(3), 9/8: Not Either/Or, But Both/And
Today’s meeting was a study in contrasts. First the topic: we read chapter 19 from the book Living Sober, entitled “Being Grateful.”
In general this book is geared towards the person who is brand new to recovery, and is trying sobriety for the first time. It is a fantastic reference for people just starting out and needing practical, how-to advice for everyday situations.
This chapter, however, is a great read for anyone at all: newly sober, long-timers, really, any human being could read and benefit. It outlines the various ways a lack of gratitude manifests in our lives, and why cultivating gratitude is so beneficial.
I read this chapter, and see myself as a work in progress. Some of the examples it gives of displaying a lack of gratitude made me laugh out loud, because it described my behavior to a “T” while in active addiction. I was happy to note the progress I have made in my recovery with respect to these behaviors.
There were some behaviors where I have made progress, but have more work to do. The chapter states that cultivating gratitude is not “a prescription for mindless Pollyanna-ism,” and this concept really spoke to me. I can admit, and believe I have spoken about the notion before, that there is a part of me that hears this whole gratitude lecture and immediately thinks of Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live:
Now I’ve learned enough to know that my thinking on this is wrong, but it’s a process trying to re-wire decades of maladjusted thinking! I will give a recent example of how gratitude is a practice that works:
A few days ago, I was bitching and moaning to my husband that I can’t get below a certain number on the scale. He goes on to give me a list of things I need to do differently in order to achieve this goal I desire. I then become defensive and agitated, and proceed to argue with him why he is wrong.
Here’s the progress with respect to this part of the story: I realize, probably 3 seconds into his advice, that I made the choice to bring this subject up for discussion. And while I did argue with him, the debate was a fraction of the time it would have been in the past. Finally, I wrapped up the discussion without it devolving into a full-blown fight. Anyone that has ever seen me in heated debate will appreciate this progress a lot!
Okay, fast-forward about an hour or so, and I have decided to check out a walking trail that is halfway between my house and a meeting I attend regularly. I checked my Fitbit at the end, and it wound up being a 3 mile walk. I was pleased, and considered for a second how regular 5k distances have become part of my routine. When I considered that progress, I felt even better than I did realizing I just walked 3 miles.
So the moral of the story? Both scenarios are true: I am struggling to get down past a certain number on the scale, and I have made great strides in my fitness routine. Focusing on one fact will make me feel bad; focusing on the other will make me feel good. Gratitude is really that simple a choice: recognize all the good things in your life, or dwell on all you wish you could change, and see which one feels better!
The next person to share told me the greatest life lesson her Mom shared with her was that, in most cases, it’s not either/or, but both/and, with my above story being a classic example. As someone who leans heavily towards an all or nothing way of thinking, this will be a take-away for me that I will keep fresh in my mind.
As I mentioned, the meeting was a study in contrasts. After I shared and the woman who gave me the title of this post shared, the meeting took a major left turn. I had a few newcomers (to my meeting, not necessarily to recovery), and they seemed to be in a state of agitation. The first person to share spoke bitterly about his divorce, and how little he enjoyed being separated from his children. In further sharing, he revealed that the divorce took place more than a year ago, so clearly he is struggling for acceptance. From his share a number of people more or less piggy backed off his pain, and talked about their experience with divorce and raising children in a broken home.
So there was some heaviness at hearing the pain that my fellow attendees are feeling; at the same time, it made me even more grateful than when I walked in. Grateful for the blessings in my life, grateful that there is a place for these people in pain to come and express it, and grateful that I recognize how positive my meeting typically is. Hopefully these newcomers will come back and we will get them to feel the joy and gratitude we feel!
A little over a year ago, a newcomer came to my meeting with a few weeks of sobriety, on the verge of losing his driver’s license as a consequence of his alcoholism. He asked if I could take him with me to the meeting after he loses his license, which I did, and have continued to do, for the past year. This morning when I picked him up he let me know that going forward he can, and will, legally drive himself, and challenged me to see who would get there the earliest next week. I am so grateful to witness the blessings of sobriety!
Seasons of Change
This may be funny to no one but me, I am about to write a post on change, and I am typing this on some “new, easier way to create” on WordPress.com (please read the part in quotes with the sarcasm I am intending). I already hate it, which probably is an indication of where this post is going.
I think about the changes going on in my life right now, and the word that comes to mind is “layers.” When I first started thinking about the content of this post, my initial thought was not to write it at all; after all, isn’t anyone with kids going through change right now? Mine is a bit more complex than years past in that both kids are attending new schools, and the schedule change is dramatic for everyone in the house, but other than that, who doesn’t experience change this time of year?
Plus we just got a dog, which in my life I never thought we’d have, so there’s change with fitting Dimple’s schedule into the mix.
Plus the usual rigmarole of sports, and no one wants to listen to me talk about that nonsense.
So this week has been a hectic one, filled with missed buses, forgotten alarms, lost lunch boxes, but, and maybe this is the recovery talking, but… I can put all of that into perspective fairly easily. It is week one, and sooner or later this stuff will become as habitual as getting ready for the pool was a week ago.
The change that has me a bit more unsettled in within me, and I’m not sure I’ve diagnosed it properly myself, much less found an answer to it that settles me.
I used to look forward to the beginning of the school year the way a child looks forward to Christmas morning. I’m sure if I were to go back to last summer’s posts, August would be filled with countdowns, and rants about the kids driving me crazy. I’m sure if I went back to the first day of school last year there would be some sort of celebratory post.
Not so this year, and I’m still trying to figure out why.
I can, with no small amount of shame, confess to some of the realizations that occurred to me as I puzzled over this non-excitement. The first: I was, until a few shorts months ago, a secret smoker, most especially secret from the kids (well, secret in my own mind, anyway). So kids in school meant the ability to smoke with relative freedom. Sounds ludicrous, but bear with me, I’m getting to a point.
Another obsession from which I’ve recently disentangled myself: soft pretzels. I have been threatening to write a post about my feelings on soft pretzels for years, and I may still find it within me to do so. I was obsessed to the point that I knew the one and only place I wanted them from, the people knew me there, and it was almost a ceremony the way I sat down to eat them (Recovery-minded readers: remember the ritual of getting that bottle of wine and your favorite glass? Not far off of that, seriously).
And, like the progression that alcoholism takes, I preferred to eat my pretzels uninterrupted. So, again, kids running around, asking to share the pretzel, etc = not fun. Kids in school = pretzel-eating fun.
And as I considered all of this, I got that “someone walked over my grave” shiver, because all of this was exactly as I behaved in active addiction. Because those substances, in addition to being mind-altering, were my little secret, my reward for… well for what exactly, I don’t know. Waking up that morning?
So this day one of school season felt really, really different, and I really can’t give it a label like “good” different or “bad” different. I guess the word I can best come up with: uncomfortable. On the one hand, I consciously recognize that there are a bunch of unhealthy coping mechanisms that I have risen above, evolved past, what have you, and that is obviously to the good. On the other hand, there’s this vaguely empty, “now what?” feeling going on. I have learned enough from my recovery experience that I can sit with it, and realize that it will pass, but there’s this nagging voice telling me, “You’re not working hard enough to figure out what you have to learn, come on, just get there!” And then there’s the counter voice, “Come on, you may have given up all of those things, but can’t we find something to replace them?!?”
One theory has occurred to me as I’m typing: in addition to having all of the external changes going on that I listed above, I am on the cusp of some personal change as well. I am on the tail end of the “clean-up process” of the consequences of active addiction… the finish line is in sight. So perhaps this uncomfortable feeling is the set-up for the next chapter of my life, preparing me for, God willing, a professional change. Although the finish line is in sight, it’s still far enough away that it’s not yet time for me to write a whole lot about it, there will inevitably be more to come on this subject.
Other than that possibility, I’ve got no other thoughts, but I’m open to possible solutions. Which, now that I think about it, is another big change: being open and willing to consider anything other than my own opinions. Because, no matter what happens, I am alive, and I am sober. Everything after those facts is icing on the cake.
That I typed for as long as I did in the “new editor” of WordPress. I have no idea where spell check is, so I now have to switch to classic mode, but still, I lasted a lot longer than I thought I would!
M(3), 9/1: Am I REALLY an Alcoholic?
Pick as many of the following that apply to you:
A. Happy Labor Day
B. Happy Monday
C. Happy Last Unofficial Day of Summer
D. Happy School Year’s Eve
E. Happy first day of September
F. All of the Above (which would be the one I am picking!)
I write from the pool where we have a membership, which is surprisingly empty given that it is the last day before pretty much every school in our area heads back into session. Delightful for the kids I brought, because there are no lines for the water slides, and delightful for me, because I can type in relative peace. Plus, if I don’t do this now, there is no way I’m getting to it as we set up for our new 5:30 am (yikes) schedule that begins tomorrow. Back to our regularly scheduled program…
As it is the first day of the month, today’s meeting featured a personal story from the book Alcoholics Anonymous, entitled “Physician, Heal Thyself.” As many times as I have read from this book, I have never personally read this story, so it was interesting to me from that standpoint alone. The author states right at the outset that his story differs from most of the others he has heard in the rooms of AA in that he has never lost anything: he did not lose his job, his family, his freedom. In fact, his story is almost the opposite, in that he earned more money in his last year of drinking than he ever had before. His life was golden: class president every year, academic success, every career accolade that you can conceive, and a family who never questioned him. Sounds like a good thing, but, as he writes:
Mine was the skid row of success. The physical skid row in any city is miserable. The skid row of success is just as miserable. -pg. 301, Alcoholics Anonymous
My main takeaway from the story revolves around this exact part of his story. So often as I read the blogs of other writers, as I hear the newcomer speak at a meeting, I hear this exact conundrum: Am I really an alcoholic? Almost as soon as the question is asked, the checklist begins. Counterintuitively, the checklist is the list of reasons why the person is not an alcoholic, and it usually goes something like this:
- I have never been in prison/jail
- I have never been arrested
- I still have my job
- I still have my husband/wife/children/pets
- I still have my house/car/boat/coin collection
- I pay my bills on time
- There are people in my life who drink as much/more than me
- I don’t drink every weekend/every day/in the morning
- Sometimes I can control it
If you’re reading this because you are in recovery, want to be in recovery, or considering recovery as a personal option, you can identify with a few of these, and can probably add a few yourself. Why? Because almost without exception, every person who chooses sobriety has asked themselves these questions.
So, you may be thinking, what is the answer for a person who is undecided? How do you really and truly know if you are an alcoholic/addict, especially if you are a person who does not fit the stereotypical mold? There are lots of tests you can take, lots of therapy you can seek, and lots of information you can gather, but, at the end of the day, only one person can answer the question, and that person, of course, is you. Only one person truly knows the impact that alcohol has on your life, only one person knows your real relationship with alcohol, and only one person knows how difficult or easy it would be to remove alcohol from your life. And truly, there is only one way to find out how much happier you would be sober, and that is to stop drinking.
And there you have my reflection from this morning’s meeting, your Labor Day Sober PSA! Lots of other wonderful shares today, but the sun is peeking out from the clouds, and it’s time to join in on some pool fun. If you’re heading out to a holiday picnic, enjoy it and stay safe, if it’s just another Monday for you, enjoy it and stay safe as well!
Technology that allows me to type this as I watch the kids screaming down these slides: