Monthly Archives: November 2015
M(3), 11/30/15: Alcoholism is a Family Disease
For those reading on the day this is published, a sincere thank you for taking time out of your Cyber Monday online shopping to read 😉
Today is one of the infrequent five-Mondays-in-a-month situations that leave me scrambling for a new type of literature to read in my Monday morning meeting. I had something ready to go that was okay, if not a bit irrelevant to the time of year. Then, a few minutes before the meeting started, a new opportunity presented itself: I was able to obtain a copy of a new book that is conference approved for 12-step meetings. Entitled Forming True Partnerships: How AA members use the program to improve relationships, it is a collection of stories from the AA Grapevine, the magazine put out by the Fellowship. The stories are divided into 7 categories; we started at the beginning, and read the first story under the category “Family.”
I forgot to take a headcount, but it was a decently sized meeting; most of the usual suspects, plus 3 additional new faces. The story was compelling, telling of a family with more than a half dozen family members who got sober through our 12-step program. If someone doubts the concept of the genetic component of the disease of alcoholism, the story provides some powerful proof!
A few parts of the story stood out to me. First, it was uplifting to read of a family who was able to role model for one another what it takes to get and stay sober. Often the reverse is true: it is easier to stay stuck in alcoholic thinking and behavior because that is the family norm.
Next, the author of the story used the word “surrender” quite a bit, and suggested that surrendering was the key to sobriety for his family. For all of his family success stories, there were two that resisted the need to surrender, and both died from the disease as a result. For some reason, the notion of surrender was calming to me this morning; as long as I cease to resist that I have this disease, and then I can do what it takes to stay sober today.
Simple, but of course not easy, especially if you are still in active addiction. One of the newcomers is just a little over 24 hours sober. She had time in the program previously, but stopped attending, and eventually picked up again. She is back, but it is clear from her sharing that she is struggling with the idea of surrendering to the disease. She wants to be sober, she says, but she doesn’t want anyone to tell her what to do. She knows she has made mistakes, but so have all the people around her. She knows she has some work ahead of her, so for now she is just going to keep coming back to the meetings.
A few people shared their family trees as it relates to alcoholism. Not surprisingly, everyone has multiple people, spanning multiple generations, that are or were alcoholics.
Another one of the new faces this morning revealed that he is 9 months sober, and so all of these holidays are sober firsts for him. He really appreciated the recently celebrated Thanksgiving holiday. He used to dread holidays, because they were free passes to overconsume, which for him inevitably led to disagreements and family chaos. He appreciated not being the center of family drama this holiday, and he looks forward to an equally peaceful Christmas.
Another woman spoke at length of her family tree as it relates to alcoholism. She is one of 11, her Mom is one of 14, and her Mom’s mom had 14 children. I suppose with those kinds of numbers an alcoholic or two is bound to come out of the mix! She has 25 years sober, several of her brothers and sisters have sober time, and they are currently dealing with an actively alcoholic brother. She says her mantra is the phrase “cunning, baffling and powerful.” Each time she observes a new iteration of the disease, she is reminded of her mantra.
As soon as she said this, two long-timers held up their hands: “you forgot to add patient!” they exclaimed simultaneously.
Cunning, baffling, powerful, and patient. Words to remember as I navigate the holiday season!
Taking time out of my online Cyber Monday shopping to attend a meeting, and then write about it 😉
M(3), 11/23/15: Holiday Family Challenges
Very excited to report that we had 15 attendees at this morning’s meeting. I can’t remember the last time we were over 12 people!
We read from As Bill Sees It, a book that is usually read by topic rather than by chapter. Typically I select gratitude in honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. However, any time I do this I get at least one or two comments about the number of times this month they’ve already talked about gratitude. Which, if you ask me, means they could possibly use a little more gratitude, because it sounds a lot like they are complaining 😉
In any event, to prevent such grumblings, I selected another topic which is timely to many this week: family relationships. Here in the US we celebrate a family-centered holiday this Thursday, and all over the globe we have a variety of upcoming holidays that promote familial gathering.
It was a powerful meeting. Besides the number of people present, the shares from the attendees had quite a bit of emotion within them.
One woman just organized and participated in an intervention for her alcoholic brother. The intervention did not go well, and so the chaos continues for her. She knows that as much as she would love to share with her brother all of the invaluable tools she has been given in her 28 years in our 12-step program; unfortunately, she can’t force him to take those tools. All she can do is turn him over to her Higher Power, then do today what she needs to do to stay sober herself.
Another woman shared of her painful history with relapse, as it relates to family dynamics. She had 5 years sober when she lost her mother to the disease of alcoholism. The loss of her mother was a traumatic event in her life. But instead of opening up about her pain, she held it in, told herself she was okay on her own. From there it was a slippery slope… not sharing turned into a decline in meeting attendance, which turned into no meetings, which turned into a relapse. She finally made it back into the rooms, and she will soon celebrate two years sober. She learned a painful lesson: stick with the basics, and you will never have to re-learn them!
A gentleman shared his no-fail remedy for challenging family relationships: he turns the challenge over to his Higher Power. He was taught in our 12-step program the benefit in a restraint of pen and tongue, and he first employs that restraint, then shoots up a quick prayer to help him navigate the troubled waters of whichever situation is in front of him. He said this simple act has brought an incredible amount of peace over his 30-plus years of sobriety.
Another attendee talked about the enormous amount of stress he currently faces; enough stress to create high blood pressure for the first time in his life. He said that while he has quite a few obligations awaiting him this day, he knows it is equally if not more important for him to get to a meeting and share what’s going on with him. He recognizes that he must put his sobriety first in order to have the presence of mind to deal with all of his other stressors.
Another woman, one who has been chronically relapsing for months, shared that she drank again this past weekend. She had a few years of sobriety under her belt, but since taking that first drink, she has been unable to get back to the basics of recovery. She knows that she must keep trying, because she wants the peace that sobriety had brought her back in her life.
Finally, a woman shared her go-to solution for dealing with holiday stress. When she is dealing with challenging family situations, or just stress in general, she has a 2-step process for handling the situation:
- She checks in with herself and ensures she is behaving in a way about which she is proud
- She then lets go of the results of the interaction
She says the more a situation involves family, the more difficult it is to follow this process; after all, we are invested in the results of any family interaction! But the more we focus on that which we cannot control, the less at peace we are with ourselves. The less at peace we are with ourselves, the less peace we are able to transmit to the world. It’s important to keep in mind that we can only control ourselves and our behavior; how anyone else wishes to think, feel and behave is under their control. So let go of the results, and be amazed at how peaceful life becomes.
I told her and the group that I am going to take that advice as I prepare Thanksgiving dinner this Thursday… I’m going to throw that turkey in the oven, and let go of the results!
I’m praying that all readers of this post have a miraculous Thanksgiving holiday. And if you’re reading and do not celebrate Thanksgiving, then I’m praying you have a miraculous Thursday!
M(3), 11/16/15: Gratitude is Contagious
An interesting meeting this morning. We read from the book Living Sober; I selected the chapter about gratitude. We’re so close to Thanksgiving, it seems a natural fit!
I shared first, and talked about a specific section of the chapter as it pertains to my journey of recovery: the idea of opening up to the perspectives of others, and the joy that open-mindedness can bring. An honest share, if not particularly thrilling.
From there a gentleman shared about his struggles with gratitude. He recognizes it has been missing in his two and a half years of sobriety. He wants to cultivate gratitude for his life, but anger and resentments continue to dog him. In his very share this morning, he spoke of realizing how much he has for which to be grateful compared to the lives of others, and immediately launched into a tale involving the misfortunes of others. The focus of his share on gratitude turned out to be all the things for which he is not grateful in his life.
From there, a few others spoke of a similarly themed struggle: fondly remembering the “glory days” of early sobriety gratitude. For example, waking up without a hangover and feeling exuberant about it. Being asked a question about the night before, and triumphantly realizing you remember the entire night.
A personal favorite of mine: a family drama unfolds, and not being at the center of it!
Several of the meeting attendees today wistfully remembered that feeling of gratitude, and long to get it back again. Gratitude is more of a struggle these days, and sobriety can be taken for granted the longer you stay sober.
Then, about halfway through the meeting, S shared. S has been a semi-regular, quiet attendee of this meeting. I wrote about S a few weeks back that after 8 years of sobriety, he relapsed, and has been painfully trying to get his recovery back on track. As anyone who relapses knows, it does not get easier with prior sober time under your belt.
I actually haven’t seen S since he shared about his relapse. I held my breath as he started to speak, uncertain if he has remained sober in the weeks since I’ve seen him.
Fortunately he has remained sober, and he spoke of struggling to find gratitude with a relapse so close in his rear view mirror. He said with all the challenges he currently faces in early sobriety, the thing for which he is most grateful is the opportunity to sit in a room full of recovery-minded people and simply absorb the positive energy. He doesn’t really have to hear anything special, or something that speaks to him personally. Just sitting and hearing the positive talk, feeling the empathy, and knowing that he can share what is going on with him and people will listen without judgment… this is all enough to turn his day around. He came in to the meeting in a negative state of mind, but he is leaving with a positive one.
All this from a guy who almost never raises his hand to share.
From that point forward, every single person who shared had something for which to be profoundly grateful: the gorgeous weather, the support of family, the health of their loved ones, simply being alive, sober and present this morning. I will speak for myself and say I felt the atmosphere change. It’s not that it had been a negative vibe, necessarily, but it lightened considerably from what it was.
I am very sorry to report that the gentleman entrenched in his misery left at the halfway point and did not have the opportunity to feel this shift.
It just made me think: if S’s simple words transformed an already happy crowd, then what could I do on any given day? I think I feel a challenge coming on, my kids better watch out this afternoon 🙂
The reminder of the transformative power of gratitude
M(3), 11/9/15: Prayer is Talking, Meditation is Listening
Today was a slooowwww meeting…. the type of meeting that has you staring at the clock, and wondering if the battery has died.
Strange, really, because today we read a relatively long chapter from the book Twelve Steps and Twelve traditions, so there was less sharing time, rather than more. Plus the step we covered,
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, asking only for His will for us and the power to carry it out
is one that typically has people lined up to share their experiences with both prayer and meditation. Not so today, which makes for a slightly uncomfortable meeting. Well, uncomfortable for the chairperson, at least… nothing makes me squirm more than protracted silence in a meeting!
So I possibly talked longer than necessary about my experience with prayer and meditation, as it relates to both recovery and, well, just life itself. Coming into recovery I has no fundamental issue with the concept of a Higher Power, or praying to a Higher Power, but I suppose I had significant skepticism that my Higher Power would listen or respond. To my way of thinking at the time, I had prayed about a gazillion times for Him to help me stop drinking. What makes my current prayers easier to hear than those in active addiction?
And while I’ll never know the official answer, my best guess is the quality of the prayers, rather than the quantity. When I hit my alcoholic bottom the prayer wasn’t urgent, with a time stamp on it… “God, help me out of this crisis and I’ll never drink again!” There was no bargaining; I had no chips left to use. There was nothing left but a hopeless sincerity: I need help, I’m out of answers.
For whatever reason, it worked. And continues to do so, in matters both large and small.
So prayer has been a regular part of my life for as long as I’ve been sober. Meditation, not so much. I’ve had small periods of maintaining a daily practice. Regular readers probably remember I took a course on meditation, and got a heck of a lot out of it. In fact, my longest stretch of daily meditation came right after completing that course.
Then summer came, and there went the practice.
I am now a few weeks into a short, but daily, meditation practice. And while I’m not going to say I’ve been transformed, I can say I notice some distinct benefits. Probably the main difference I notice is my ability to detach from the fun house that can be my thought process. It doesn’t stop the craziness, but it most definitely slows it down. More importantly, I am aware that the thoughts and feelings are not facts, and I can disengage from them, rather than allowing them to swallow me whole.
When that happens, my friends, it is a freaking miracle!
Other than my rambling about prayer and meditation, I was able to eke out a few pearls of wisdom from the various attendees:
One regular attendee also claims religious ministry as his profession. He says there are a multitude of ways in which to practice both prayer and meditation; whatever works is a great way to go. For him, prayer is talking to God, whereas meditation is listening for God’s answer.
Another regular had a very difficult time with the concept of prayer in early sobriety, but after trying it with a simple, “God, please keep me sober today,” he found himself a believer because of its effectiveness. Thirty six sober years later, and he still prays that simple prayer daily!
A woman shared how difficult the practice of meditation continues to be for her. She finds she has to concentrate so hard, the meditative quality seems to vanish! She knows, though, when she even makes the effort, she is better able to slow her thoughts down for the rest of the day.
Finally, a gentleman raised his hand and shared he had relapsed a few weeks back, and is currently fighting his way back to comfortable sobriety. He said the first things to go when he picked up a drink were prayer, meditation, and 12-step meetings. His lapse lasted about 2 months, but the picture he painted of his emotional state during those two months was grim, the kind of wake-up call every recovering alcoholic needs to hear before they decide to pick a drink again. Despite the hardship he enjoyed, his faith has not wavered: he feels profound gratitude to be sitting back in the seat of a 12-step meeting again. He believe he has been given a gift, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to stay sober.
As always, I am humbled and grateful when a person has the courage to share with all of us his story of relapse, for it gives the rest of us a reason to stay sober today.
After an excellent weekend of kids’ athletic triumphs (my son qualified for a NATIONAL cross-country meet!), I am reminded this morning how blessed I am to be sober, today and every day.
You Can’t Unring a Bell
“You’re being too hard on yourself.”
There was a time, really not that long ago, when the statement above would have been met with resistance on my part. My instinctive response: scoff and declare I was not hard enough on myself.
I know this because it is still the instinctive thought.
Had I taken the time to self-examine, the statement would have seemed complimentary in nature. There is value in being hard on yourself. It motivates you to achieve more, it alerts you when you are wading into morally ambiguous territory, and it prevents you from adopting that godawful victim mentality.
Possibly deeper still: if you are hard enough on yourself, then anyone external being hard on you is likely not to hurt as badly.
All of this is conjecture, of course; introspection was not an activity I placed high on my list until the years following active addiction. Now it seems I am questioning every thought and feeling I have.
And yes, some days the jury is out as to whether or not this is a good thing.
One rather startling revelation has come up in the past few weeks, so revolutionary that I feel compelled to write it out. Through the endless self-examination and awareness of internal dialog, I have reluctantly concluded that perhaps I am more critical of myself than is necessary, certainly more than is effective. This is not necessarily news. What is the newsflash: the Inner Critic manifests itself in a variety of ways, ways I would have previously defended to the death as virtuous.
It has been recently pointed out to me that in describing an event about which I’m feeling badly, I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the other side of things. It could be an argument with my husband, disappointment with my kids, hurt feelings with a family member. No matter what the situation, I am compelled to state their case, project their feelings, or rationalize why I may be overdramatizing the situation.
When this pattern was first pointed out to me, I dismissed it as a non-pattern. When the pattern became too obvious to dismiss, I was defensive, indignant even. This shows my extreme sense of justice, I proclaimed self-righteously. I am a better person for considering all sides, aren’t I?
And then, the question I can’t un-hear: but if you’re spending all your time understanding and appreciating the perspective and feelings of everyone else, then when are you understanding and appreciating your own?
Every once in a while I am asked a question that makes my brain fall silent. Even now, and this is a few weeks later, I think of that question and I mentally blank. Which always, without fail, means I’ve got shift in perspective coming.
So if considering all sides of the problem, all the possible scenarios, all the feelings and thoughts of everyone involved is not the way to go, then what the heck is? Apparently, the answer is to relate the story, and end with how I feel. Period. No explanations, no rationalizations, no justifications.
Even, especially, if I am relating the story to myself:
I feel (fill in the blank), and then refrain from rationalizing the feeling away.
And then, apparently, I am to feel the feelings. Oh, how hard it is to keep the eyes from rolling.
Feel the feelings. Does that sound as inane to the rest of the world as it does to me? Except, ever since discovering this pattern, I have attempted to take the advice. And found it almost a physical impossibility. I will clamp my mouth shut, then open it to say, “But I realize that…” The closest I have come is to say, “I want to say…, but I’m supposed to just say how I’m feeling, so I feel…”
So now I’m in the really annoying stage of criticizing myself for criticizing myself. Exhausting to read? Imagine living it!
At this point someone might be thinking, “How does someone get a few years into sobriety and not learn how to feel her feelings?
I suppose comparing post-recovery life to pre-recovery life, I have made progress with understanding, acknowledging, and even communicating feelings. For example, in the earliest days of sobriety, I needed one of those smiley face charts to even figure out what I was feeling. So there’s been progress in the years since.
What is the endpoint, I demand? Let’s say I figure all this out, and feel my feelings, what then? Do I live happily ever after?
No such luck. What is supposed to happen is a greater sense of peace, of calm, of self-worth. Learning to identify, process, and resolve internal “situations” will create room for positive things like happiness, gratitude, and joy.
Or so I’m told. To say that I am in the experimental phase of this (the world “bullshit” has rolled around through my head several times while writing this post) would be an understatement.
And how does one get started on this magical process? The first step, one in which I am deeply entrenched at the moment, is developing awareness. Every time the negative inner voice speaks up, I take note of what is being said and how it makes me feel. In case you’re interested, my heart picks up a few beats, and there is a small clenching in my stomach.
Now, here is a critical part: don’t get impatient. Don’t criticize the critic! Just take note, become curious, detach as much as possible:
“How interesting is it that you feel anxious about something, but you’re trying to convince yourself why you are wrong for feeling this way?”
“Fascinating… you are angry about a situation, but at the same time worried that you will upset someone with your anger?”
“Isn’t that curious that you just walked by the mirror and told yourself how fat you are?”
It sounds preposterous, I know. But I will say the few times I’ve successfully done this, I usually laugh, and it does seem to break some pattern. I suppose time and practice will tell if there are long-term benefits.
From there… to tell you the truth, I’m not sure. Since I’ve really only gotten as far as awareness, I can’t say for sure what’s next. I find myself pointing out when I’m doing the things I shouldn’t be doing, like making excuses for my feelings. Perhaps that’s another step on the ladder.
In terms of a step-by-step guide to feeling the feelings… well, I’m working on it. So far I’ve learned a few on the “What Not to Do” list:
- Open a bag of chips
- Binge watch a Netflix series
- Name your feelings, then talk yourself out of them
I’ve gotten back into the practice of meditating again. This was no one’s suggestion but my own, because I find that even a small daily practice of sitting still and being mindful tends to increase my ability to detach from my thoughts.
Like most things, it is a work in progress. I am a work in progress. We’ll see if all this awareness results in a peaceful, yogi-like existence, or I wind up talking to the walls…
This post has been rolling around in my head for weeks; the miracle will be, if you are reading, then I have actually published it!
M(3), 11/2/15: Finding the Common Solution
And just like that, it’s November!
Since it is the first Monday of the month, we read from the book Alcoholics Anonymous; I selected the chapter entitled “There is a Solution.” A hopeful title if ever there was one, the chapter is as optimistic as it sounds…. it is possible to rise from the depths of alcoholic despair to “a fourth dimension of existence of which we had never dreamed.” (pg. 25)
Big promises in this chapter, and for untold numbers of recovering alcoholics, promises that have been delivered!
We were on the low side of normal in terms of attendance this morning; however, I heard exactly what I needed to hear. Two things stood out to me in this morning’s reading. The first was the description of a necessary spiritual experience: huge emotional displacements and rearrangements (pg. 27). When I look back on my mental state of mind before I hit my alcoholic bottom and compare it to sobriety, that description is an apt one.
In 12-step meetings before sobriety I would catalog all the ways I was different from everyone else in the room; in sobriety I marvel at all the things we have in common.
In active addiction, my first consideration was where you were wrong and I was right; in sobriety it is acceptable to agree to disagree.
Prior to getting sober there was no middle ground things were black and white. Today I can see the shades of gray in between.
The second concept that stood out to me in the reading is the idea of clinging to solution offered by the 12-step program, and thinking it flimsy at first, but soon enough realizing how strong it is. I read that paragraph, and was immediately transported back in time, starting my days in prayer and thinking how ridiculous I felt. Day after day, I continued a ritual that seemed so hokey, so preposterous, and in my wildest dreams I could not imagine anything meaningful coming of it. How about all those times I prayed in the past… why would this be any different?
Until, slowly but surely, I stayed sober. Not only did I stay sober, but I started noticing other changes as well. Coincidences that were too good to be coincidences, calls and emails just when I needed support, inspirational readings that would seem to land in front of me when I was ready to read them.
Now, if something happens and I don’t start my day with a prayer… that would be preposterous.
Others in the meeting spoke of their emotional displacements and rearrangements; some were dramatic, most were incremental and not truly recognizable until well after the fact. All agree that using the simple tools that we were taught within our 12-step program help us not only to stay sober, but also to live peaceful, joyful lives.
Last, but most certainly not least, one of my favorite meeting regulars shared what she loves most about this chapter: the hopefulness of finding a common solution. It’s not her solution, or my solution, but it’s our solution. Unlike those bonded together by a crisis like an earthquake or a fire, this is a bond that continues well past the crisis, because it is in seeking out one another that we recover.
Finding people who understand you = a miracle
Finding people who understand you and can offer you a solution to your problem = an even greater miracle
The ability to give that solution to still others = the greatest miracle of all