Monthly Archives: March 2015

M(3), 3/29/15: Evolution of Prayers from Fox-Hole to Sincerity

Today’s reading selection came from the book Came to Believe, an anthology of stories that detail the spiritual journeys of  75 different 12-step members.  Today’s story fell under the category called “Coincidence?” which any regular reader of this blog knows is a topic of interest for this author!

Today’s story of spiritual evolution mirrors multiple journeys in my life.  Most directly, I can relate to the idea of a generalized belief in God thanks to upbringing, but an ambivalence to the concept as it applies to everyday life.  Like the author, I needed that gift of desperation that many of us in recovery have been given, which then gave me the motivation to give prayer a try despite my skepticism that there is anyone “on the other end of the line.”  As life proceeded, and circumstances improved, I was left to wonder:  which of the changes that I made was the turning point: staying sober?  praying?  meeting attendance?  The initial answer that gave me comfort was:  who cares?   All three bring me peace, confidence, and joy, so it doesn’t matter if one holds the key, because I’m sticking with all three!  The further along the road of recovery I travel, the more I realize that, in fact, there is a power greater than myself, and that power is the key to sobriety, to peace of mind, and to a happy, joyous and free existence.

In sharing this with the group, I was met with a lot of nods, and one or two people who shared after me had similar stories in which they reached the moment of truth, be it external circumstances or internal angst, where they were willing to give prayer a try, and had a similar outcome to what I described.  And then a woman, let’s call her M, raised her hand to share.

M had been to my meeting maybe 3 or 4 times before, but always with months in between.  She was recommended to my meeting by her parish priest, and although she had expressed an interest in sobriety, almost everything else she had to share seemed to contradict that interest.  Basically, M spoke like me and most others, still in active addiction, who see that their drinking is a problem but don’t want to actually stop drinking:

  • she notices all the ways her drinking story is different from everyone else’s
  • she speaks of all the times she can stay sober, and keeps quiet about the times she does not
  • she likes to share all she knows about the 12 steps because of various people in her life who are 12-step members, but does not seem to learn from doing her own 12-step work
  • the infrequent meetings she does attend never quite seem to gel with her, and she can’t seem to find a meeting with which she is comfortable

To those of us who regularly attend 12-step meetings, this story is familiar, because, first, we’ve been there ourselves, and second, we hear it regularly at the meetings we attend.

Most of the time a story like M’s ends with my not seeing the discontented person again.  This time I was lucky enough to see her turning point.  M raised her hand today and shared that her belief in God is strong, she was born and raised Catholic, and she prays to God every day of her life.  “So what I don’t understand,” she says, as she breaks down in tears, “is where is God when I’m driving to the state store?”

It was a powerful moment, and the kind that humbles me as I witness the members of the meeting rally to support her.

Every comment that followed M’s cry for help centered around turning points in sobriety.  Every comment that followed talked about weeks, months, years of tried and failed attempts to stay sober.  Some had a relationship with God, some were atheists at the outset, one member still considers herself agnostic, but all talked about their personal evolution to a healthy relationship with a Higher Power, even if the Higher Power is simply the collective wisdom of the 12-step fellowship.

One of the attendees commented on prayers in active addiction versus prayers in sobriety.  In time this particular woman came to realize that God was always there for her, she just wasn’t always there for God.  In addiction, her prayers ran along the lines of a fox-hole prayer:  God, please just get me out of this mess and I’ll never drink again.  Now she starts with gratitude and the mindset of how she can give back.

M suspects that her attempts and failures to stop drinking center around her inability to accept sobriety as a permanent way of life.  “I just can’t envision not drinking forever,”  she insists.

The meeting attendees that spoke after her (myself included, one of the perks of being the chair of the meeting is you have the ability to choose who speaks next, you can make it yourself if you really want to!) all shared the importance of taking sobriety one day at a time.  Most of us believed we were far too clever to accept the idea of “one day at time.”  You’re not fooling us!  We know that at the end of the stupid “one day” we promise you’re just going to ask us to do it again!  In time, however, every one of us agree that one day at a time is in fact all the time any one of us really has.  Managing our entire lives, not just sobriety, one day at a time makes everything easier to handle.

I am hoping that M was able to hear something that resonated with her.  I’ll let you know if we see her again next week!

 

Today’s Miracle:

One of the regular attendees asked for all of our collective prayers in the upcoming weeks, as he has every team in the final four for March Madness.  Now, I’m not a follower, but I’m given to understand that having all 4 teams this year counts as a miracle!  I’ll let you know how he makes out, he says to say a few extra prayers for Kentucky…

 

Intermediate Recovery: My Beef With the 12-Step Program

It has been a while since I’ve written a post about just me, mostly I’ve been writing a little bit about me and a lot about the great things I learn in my Monday 12-step meeting.  There are a couple of reasons for that:

1.  I’ve been putting a lot of time and energy into figuring out some of my food-related issues, which amounts to more blathering about diet and exercise.  I worry that I have used up my fair share of complaining about discussing this topic, and so I’m hesitant to write the “here’s what’s going on with me” post, since the main topic will be… well, I’m not going to say it again.

2.  In general, life is really and truly great!  And while that’s a blessing, it does not provide a lot of fodder for blog posts.

3.  Most important, I have a great respect for the readers coming to this blog thinking about getting sober, in the earliest stages of sobriety, or trying and failing to get sober.  It is those readers who keep me faithfully coming back every Monday to write that post, because I want to show the miracle that is recovery from addiction.   Where that respect trips me up is that some of the things going on in what is now my fourth year of recovery will not be helping the newly sober one bit, and so I think I should not write about it.  Most certainly I am over thinking, but there you have it.

So here’s how I’m going to solve the last little dilemma:  from now on, when I write about something that is a problem that is more specific to my recovery now, as opposed to something that is universal or one that is applicable to early recovery, I will label it as I have above.  If you are in the newly sober bear in mind that the issue at hand probably did not effect me in any way, shape or form in my earliest stages of sobriety.  So read on or pass the post by, it’s your choice!

Enough preface statements…

When I first got sober, I attended a 12-step meeting every day for the entire first year of my recovery.  Clearly, then, my solutions to getting sober are almost exclusively based upon the teaching and wisdom of that fellowship.  It served me very, very well so far, and I believe it will continue to serve me well, for the rest of my life if I so choose.  I choose not to think of the rest of my life per the teachings of this program; instead I choose to think that it serves me well today.

Can you hear the but coming?  Because there is one.  But…

I am coming around to discovering a serious flaw in the program as it was taught to me.  Those last words are italicized for a reason:  I learn the 12 steps from someone who’s been taught the 12 steps from someone who’s been taught the 12 steps… you get the picture.  So the way I learn it, the lesson that are highlighted for me, are dependent upon my teacher.  Someone else will claim their seat in the rooms of the fellowship, but have a very different slant on how things work.

One of the critical lessons I learned early on, and in fact served me very well the first year of my sobriety is this:

It doesn’t matter why you are an alcoholic, why you choose to chemically alter yourself, it just matters that you realize you do make this choice, and that you need to make a different one TODAY.

Here’s what that meant to me early on, and why I think I was able to stay sober in the earliest days:  stop agonizing over how this could happen to you, or why it happened to you, or if it’s really true, and get your focus where it needs to be:  figuring out how to stay sober.  I can remember actually feeling lighter, lifting this load of angst off my back, and I believe in lifting it I was able to do what it took to get and stay sober.

Here’s the problem:  I do not think this is effective for long-term recovery.  Let me reword that to be more clear:  I no longer think this is an effective strategy for my long-term recovery.  I think I do need to get down to the question of why, because if I don’t the problem will continue to resurface.

If we accept the premise that addicts use their substance of choice for escape, whether it be alcohol, drugs, food, or even social media, then the why’s are two-fold:

1.  Why do you want to escape?

2.  From what are you escaping?

Some recovered people are reading, nodding their heads and saying, “Yes, that’s true, and here’s what I was escaping and why.”  The answer comes very easily to them.

For me, not so much.  Which is why the pattern of addiction has followed me, in lesser and greater forms, for as long as I can remember.

So while I am still a card-carrying member of my 12-step program, and I will still highly recommend it as the best chance at recovery the newly sober person’s got, I am questioning this particular bit of the wisdom I’ve learned “in the rooms.”   I shall not be throwing the baby out with the bath water by abandoning what is working for me; instead, I am going to explore this need to understand and see where it takes me.

Today’s Miracle:

While rainy, the temperature in my part of the world is predicted to reach SEVENTY DEGREES.  I will take the rain, scratch that, I will celebrate the rain if it brings this balmy temperature!

M(3), 3/23/15: I’m Taking a Trip… a Guilt Trip, That is

 

Today’s reading selection came from the book As Bill Sees It:  The AA Way of Life.  I would describe it as a “best of” book, in that it is composed of excerpts from hundreds of different letters, articles and book chapters written by the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson.  Each selection of excerpts centers around a particular topic or theme; this morning I chose the guilt as the topic from which to read.

While smaller in attendance than last week’s meeting, the sharing was much more animated than the week prior.  I did take my own suggestion and brought donuts for the first meeting of spring, so perhaps sugar is the key to conversation!  In any event, everyone had a personal experience to relate with regard to the topic of guilt.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • There is no comparison to the role that guilt plays in the life of the actively addicted versus the life of a recovered person:  guilt is all-encompassing and pervasive while we are still drinking.  No matter what feelings of guilt we experience in sobriety, they pale in comparison to the guilt we lived in active addiction.  Every one of us in attendance this morning had the opportunity to recall the caliber of guilt in active addiction, and be consciously grateful that we no longer have to live that way.
  • Mucking around in the past is a pointless exercise that needlessly brings back guilt.  Sometimes it is necessary to stop yourself mid-thought and bring yourself out of that state with the reminder that the past is unchangeable; all that can be done now is to live the best way you know how today.
  • The worst thing we can do with our guilt is to keep it inside; one of the greatest blessings of fellowship within a 12-step program is the ability to share our burdensome feelings with people who understand completely.  Sharing our guilt helps to lessen its power.
  • Guilt over past mistakes with drinking can very well lead to relapse.  The inability to forgive, combined with self-pity, led one attendee in the room back to the bottle time and again for years.  Each time she would drink, then feel horrible about herself for drinking.  Over time the guilt turned to thoughts of “why is this so hard for me?”  Eventually, those feelings became too much, and she would pick up again.  It was only in letting go of past mistakes that she was able to accrue her three years (and counting!) of sober time.
  • Several of the long-timers cited step four and step five, in which they completed a personal inventory of themselves and then shared that inventory with a trusted advisor, as the turning point in the eradication of guilt as a driving force in their lives.  The act of looking at their drinking lives thoroughly and honestly, and admitting to themselves and another human being their defects of character, was enough to allow them to let go of the past.  The follow-up work in steps 8 and 9, where they made amends for the more egregious of faults, solidified their ability to live in the present rather than bemoan the mistakes of the past.

I picked this topic today because it had application to some recent events in my life.  This past weekend I attended an annual charity event in which members of my family have participated for years.  Personally, it is an event I dread in the days that lead up to it, and this year for whatever reason it bothered me more than most.  The problem is that I associate bad memories with it both in active addiction as well as in sobriety.  The active addiction is simple enough:  I think of the times I attended while chemically altered, and the guilt hits me like a blow to the stomach.  But then the memory hits me, like a one-two punch, of the first time I attended this event sober.  It was very early in my sobriety, and I still had so many strained relations with a variety of family members, I actually had to walk away from the whole event and circle the block, I was having such a hard time catching my breath.

Both memories are still so powerful to me, they are really hard to shake.  This year’s event was a perfectly fine one, both of my children participated and had a marvelous time doing so (my daughter even won a medal for second place in her age category!), plus I had a variety of friends participate this year so there was lots of good distraction.

But the bottom line:  emotional hangovers can be nearly as powerful as alcoholic ones, and I wound up feeling physically sick most of the day Sunday.  I could be creating a link where one doesn’t exist, but at the very least the emotional hangover did not help the physical ailment.

So what’s the answer when guilt grabs you by the throat?  I’m not sure I have the sure-fire remedy, but I can certainly tell you what doesn’t work:  wallowing in the memories.  I spent some time doing that this weekend, and I can say with certainty that wallowing only exacerbates the issue.

The only two solutions I know I have employed this morning:  I prayed, and I talked about it.  I suppose this post counts as a third:  I am taking the time to write it out.  Hopefully all three things will help put these demons to rest once and for all!

Today’s Miracle:

Waking up and getting back to a normal routine after a sad sick day is always a miracle!

M(3), 3/16/15: Turn It Over

 

Today was a s…l…o…w meeting.  I mean, it was pulling teeth to get anyone to say anything at all!

Which fascinates me, because today was a step meeting, and since it is the third month of the year, we covered Step Three:

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

To me, there is much to say on Step Three.  While I don’t practice it nearly as much as I should, it is my opinion that this is the step that is the most important to practice on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis.  It is also the step (again, my opinion here) that has the most universal application; you do not have to be an alcoholic to take advantage of its benefits.

My story of recovery had me in different stages with this step, and I would imagine there will be stages to come still.  First was a complete lack of understanding of its meaning, either theoretical or practical.  I simply did not get it.

Finally someone explained it to me this way:  imagine your life as a bus ride; you are the driver, God (or whatever you choose to call your Higher Power) is the co-pilot.  The more you turn to the co-pilot to ask for directions, the more direct and smooth your ride will be.

For the record, in the years since hearing that analogy, I’ve heard it the opposite way:  God is the driver, I am the co-pilot, but that analogy does not resonate with this alcoholic.  Whichever one works for you, though, go for it!

When explained in this way, it made a lot of sense.  Still chose not to take advantage of it, but at least I had some kind of understanding.

Finally, when that gift of desperation arrived, and I was at my personal bottom, I started my road to recovery.  Early days certainly did not have me turning anything over to anybody, at least not consciously, as life and my head space were too chaotic.  I can only assume the grace of God kept me sober.

Soon enough, I settled into sobriety a bit and I had the opportunity to reflect upon this idea a bit more:  so God is the co-pilot, how does that play out in everyday life?  And it was that willingness to explore the idea, to test it out, and to see the serenity that such decisions brought me, that deepened my understanding and conviction that this is the way to live.

Nowadays, I read this chapter and sigh to myself… I definitely don’t keep it in the forefront of my mind as I once did.  Here’s how it plays out for me these days:  I will find myself in some kind of funk, be it frustration at multiple people, some malaise or anxiety that I can’t quite define, or obsessively trying and failing to achieve some goal.  Once I become aware that I am in this “off” state, I know what I haven’t been doing, and what I need to do:  check in the Big Guy.  And the prayer that does it the best happens to be my go-to:

 

There is not much more to add in terms of the group today, I guess the 11 or so folks present just weren’t feeling it this morning!  One gentleman, someone who does not normally attend, did mention something that stood out to me.  He has been sober for quite a few years, and in reading this chapter again he realizes how evolutionary his spirituality has been.  In other words, how he defined his faith in a Higher Power when he first got sober is not how he would define it now.  It was an interesting point that tied in to something I was listening to this very morning.  Deepak Chopra and Oprah are running a 21-day meditation “experience” (their words, not mine), and I used it for today’s meditation practice.  Deepak mentions the need for a worthy goal, and that this goal can and should evolve.  Somehow this attendee’s words this morning brought me back to this morning’s meditation practice, and that it is a good thing to be open to change.

Maybe next week I should bring in some baked goods in the hopes that the sugar rush will wake everybody up!

Today’s Miracle:

Getting the reminder to pause and consider the direction I am heading, and also the gift of being able to turn around at any point!

M(3), 3/9/15: Easy Does It

 

And  a great Monday it is:  it feels spring-like (well, relative to what we’ve been experiencing of late), it’s SUNNY, snow is melting, and we had a nice turnout at the morning’s meeting.  AND I’m heading up to spend a hooky day with my BFF in NYC… it doesn’t get better than this!

Second Mondays of the month feature selections from the book Living Sober; today’s chapter is entitled “Easy Does It.”  I selected that chapter on the fly based upon a situation one of my friends shared with me before the meeting, I assumed based on the title it would be just what she needed to read.  Turns out, I needed to read it too!

Here are some of the typical examples of how people who identify as alcoholics tend NOT to employ the strategy of easy does it:

  • Feeling the need to finish the last drop of a drink, be it alcoholic one or soft
  • Needing to read a book to its finish in as close to one sitting as humanly possible
  • Taking on too many projects/responsibilities/commitments at once
  • Finding it difficult to relax

Any of these sound familiar?  I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that they are all familiar, both during active addiction, and in sobriety.

For me, several of the strategies listed in the chapter sound like they could be useful for me to practice a bit more “easy does it” in my own life.  The first, and most important, is to keep goals realistic and reasonable.  I can’t tell you how many diet or fitness regimens I started and ended because I wasn’t meeting my pie-in-the-sky goals by the end of week one.  Next, the chapter talks about creating a to-do list for the day, then deliberately discarding half of it.  Fascinating concept, and one I think I will try… I’ll get back to you on how effective I find that one to be.  Finally, and this is one I have been trying, is spending a few quiet moments with myself.  I have been attempting to incorporate meditation into my life for several weeks now.  I am by no means doing it daily, certainly not for very long, and probably not very effectively, but I am trying, and I do feel a sense of calm when I do.  It’s good to know this practice will help with the overall goal of trying to take things a bit easier.

The woman who shared next said the word that came to her mind while reading this chapter is balance.  For her, it’s about taking stock of her overall life, and her feeling about her life, and making sure she is attending to each area.  Particularly in terms of sobriety, she finds that when she does not keep that part of her life in balance, which for her means attending enough meetings, sharing what’s going on with her sober support network, praying, and reading literature, she feels it in all areas of her life.  Making sure she is in balance with her program of recovery usually means the rest of her life stays in balance as well.

A gentleman who just celebrated his 8-month anniversary said he could benefit from the application of this slogan to his personal program of recovery, specifically, working the 12 steps.  He originally felt frantic about getting through all the steps in as short a time frame as possible; in his mind, everyone around him had less sober time but were on the latter steps.  He rushed through steps 1 through 3, then completely stalled out on step 4.  Finally, he realized that there is no race to finish the steps, there is no graduation from the program of recovery, and the only person with whom he should compete is himself.  When he reframed his perspective this way, he became proud of his accomplishments, and realized he needed to start over and thoroughly go through those first 3 steps.  Once he did that, step 4 became a breeze to sit down and complete!

A long-timer in recovery had spent all of his morning prior to the meeting playing catch-up with some of his work responsibilities, so when he saw the selection I had chosen, his reaction was one of annoyance.  He said that a paragraph in particular stood out to his as we were reading:

When we do find ourselves up-tight and even frantic, we can ask ourselves occasionally, “Am I really that indispensable?” or “Is this hurry really necessary?” What a relief to find the honest answer is frequently no! And such devices actually serve, in the long run, not only to help us get over our drinking problem and its old ways; they also enable us to become far more productive, because we conserve and channel our energy better. We arrange priorities more sensibly. We learn that many actions once considered vital can be eliminated if they are thoughtfully reexamined. “How much does it really matter?” is a very good question. -Ch. 18, Living Sober

Ouch!  Message received.  He realized this is precisely what he needed to read today!

This is one of those readings that would benefit all of humanity, not just those of us who choose to remain sober.  I shall try to employ these strategies immediately as I head up to the Big Apple later today!

Today’s Miracle:

Choosing a reading selection that speaks personally to every person in a meeting, myself included, is an awesome thing!

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

M(3), 3/2/15: How Many Times Can I Beat a Dead Horse?

I actually just went back through my blog archives and checked:  this will make the ninth time I am writing on this subject.  So the answer to the title question is, at least nine times, and I’m pretty sure there will be a tenth.

And with that mysterious lead-in, the reading selection at my Monday morning miracle was a personal story in Alcoholics Anonymous entitled “Acceptance is the Answer.”  Long-time readers of this blog, as well as regular 12-step meeting attendees are probably quite familiar with this story.  Here (again) is the seminal paragraph, possibly the most important lesson I’ve learned within the 12-step program of recovery:

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake. -Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 417

This story is a huge part of my personal recovery.  On day one of sobriety, the meeting I attended stopped the discussion they were having and instead turned to this selection when they found out I was less than 24 hours sober.  Of course, it meant very little at the time, my life was in too much chaos for me to focus on anything, but in the 6 weeks that followed I was at meetings that featured this story 5 or 6 times.  Statistically improbable, but I now realize God needed me to hear it.

And it took that many times, more than that actually for the message of this story to sink into this hard head.  It was probably the second or third time reading that I started to get indignant about this story, and I scoffed at the premise that I am the cause of my discontent.  What if somebody’s being a total jerk?  What if they’re 100%, black and white, straight up wrong?  Then can I have some justifiable anger?

Turns out the answer is no to that one.  You see, people are always going to be jerks, there’s always going to be irritations beyond our control, shit’s gonna happen, but here’s what we can control:  our reactions to it.  And if we can find acceptance of these perceived imperfections, well, then, we’re going to find peace of mind.  It’s really that simple.

I told the group this morning that I needed this reading selection because of my discontent with the season, with the weather, and with the disagreeable decisions my school district continues to make.  And certainly I am ready for spring, but as I read through the selection with the group, a few things stood out to me that highlighted the real reason I needed to hear this story today:

  • Perhaps the best thing of all for me to remember that my serenity is inversely proportional to my expectations.

  • When I focus on what’s good today, I have a good day, and when I focus on what’s bad, I have a bad day.  If I focus on the problem, the problem increases; if I focus on the answer, the answer increases.

-pg. 419, Alcoholics Anonymous

It was when I read those lines that I realized what the problem I was focusing on:  myself.  Self-acceptance has always been a challenge for me, currently it has become impossible.  Every part of this story has been true for me when I read it from the viewpoint of self-acceptance:

  1. I am focused on the problem rather than the solution, and have so far the problem has increased
  2. I find myself unacceptable, and thus find myself disturbed and unable to grab hold of serenity
  3. I continue to manipulate my external environment in the hope of influencing the internal one, to no avail

I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the idea.  Even as we were reading and I’m realizing the ultimate point of this selection, I still had the audacity to rail against it:  but it’s myself, I think furiously, and therefore I’m allowed to be frustrated about my continually repeating negative patterns!  And then one attendee shared this perspective that helped her with the concept of acceptance:

Acceptance does not mean approval.  Acceptance does not mean agreement.

At this point of the meeting even my argumentative brain shut up.  I spoke with the woman after the meeting, and told her how much her share had meant to me, and how I would be reflecting upon it in the days to come.  She responded that she was blown away by something that had happened to me:  I stated at the outset how badly I needed to hear the important lessons of this reading selection, there’s a dozen or so people who take turns reading, and yet it “just so happened” to be my turn at the most highly regarded paragraph of the story (at the top of this post).  I laughed, and thanked her for reminding me of this.  You see, I make sure to read this story twice a year for the past few years I have been running this meeting… at least 6 times so far.  And every time we’ve read it, the responsibility for reading that paragraph falls on me.

There are no coincidences!

Today’s Miracle:

That I was reminded that there are no coincidences.  I would have taken that miracle for granted had it not been pointed out to me.

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