It’s been awhile since I’ve posted an anecdote that relates to this blog’s tagline, There Are No Coincidences. Guess that means it’s time for one. There’s a bonus, too: this one’s got layers!
Yesterday a series of events led me to searching through an external hard drive. I discovered a Word document with an intriguing title, so I opened it, and found a letter written by me to another family member, dated November 2005. The letter describes my journey to my then current state of being two months sober.
For those reading who don’t know my full back story, my (God Willing) permanent sobriety date is in 2012. What I did not know at the time of writing that 2005 letter was that period of sobriety would only last about a year or so.
I had some mixed feelings reading about that time of my life. On the one hand, I felt pride, because that letter was a surprisingly honest and accurate depiction of the timeline of events that led me to choosing sobriety.
Dismay and shameful feelings upon re-reading events about which I had forgotten.
Feelings of regret when I wrote, even at two months sober, that “AA is not for me, because I can’t really relate to the people I meet there.” I think I stopped attending meetings almost immediately following that letter.
Finally, feelings of curiosity, as I was writing this letter because some family members had questioned my decision to identify as an alcoholic. I concluded in the letter that I was unsure as well, but that for the time being, sobriety seemed the right choice for me.
I wondered ruefully if those family members have changed their minds in the years since.
So yesterday was an introspective day, lots of “what if” scenarios played out in my head:
- What if those family members were right, and I somehow could have figured out a way to moderate drinking?
- What if I had remained sober that entire time period, what would be different in my life?
- And the worst case scenario: what if I hadn’t chosen to get sober in 2012?
The nice part of all this rumination is the conclusion: I needed every part of my journey to get me where I am today, the questioning, the heartache, the trial and error. I’m grateful for all of it.
Long-winded back story, but I promise it’s going somewhere. The scheduled reading for this morning’s meeting was step 8, made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. But at the last moment a newcomer walked into the room and let us know he was a little over 30 days sober; this was his first meeting after rehab.
I made a quick decision, and ran it by the group for agreement: read out of meeting order, and read step one, we admitted we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable.
I can remember, even now, how preposterous the later steps sounded when I was in early recovery. I sincerely doubt that this gentleman was ready to hear about the details involved in making amends. The group agreed.
As we were reading the chapter, I wanted to laugh out loud at some of the lines, and how much they related to what I had written back in 2005:
Many less desperate alcoholics tries AA, but did not succeed because they could not make the admission of hopelessness.
Check and check, my conclusion in 2005 that my problem drinking was a result of circumstances, and it was most likely a temporary problem.
The answer is that few people will sincerely try to practice the A.A. program unless they have hit bottom.
Yep, also true for me. I needed that gift of desperation in order to make the necessary change!
I could list a dozen more examples, but the point has been made that reading my 2005 letter, then reading step one, provided the perfect reminder of what happens when you fail to make sobriety a priority.
After I shared all of this, many other meeting attendees with much more wisdom, not to mention sober time, raised their hands to share their insight regarding step one.
One gentleman reminded us that there are two parts to this step:
- admission of powerlessness
- acknowledgement of unmanageably
Often, it’s impossible to tell which comes first, but it is essential to accept both in order to proceed with the remaining 11 steps. The powerlessness and unmanageability are inextricably combined.
Another attendee spoke of alcoholism being the disease of denial. It’s a vicious cycle: the disease has us denying that we have a disease. How to break the cycle? Remove the alcohol from our system, and follow a few simple steps.
Yet another shared the power of two critical lessons from his early days: staying sober one day at a time, and staying away from the first drink. He remembered thinking how ingenious these two simple ideas are, and he has used them every day for the past 38 years!
The next person to share also spoke of how devastating denial can be. She was able to put down the drink, but remained a dry drunk for years because she insisted she “was not like the rest of us.” She finally got to the point where she had to either surrender completely, and follow the instructions given within the 12 steps, or pick up a drink to end the misery. It’s been 24 years, and she’s never looked back. As she puts it, “it’s such a great way of living, why not follow the steps?”
Finally, the newcomer raised his hand to speak. Being unfamiliar with the typical meeting format, he opted to share his history with drinking. Having started in 1958, he could see a steady progression of the disease until he sought some help…
wait for it…
He was able to stop drinking for…
wait for it…
a little over a year before he decided he could drink again.
Crazy, crazy stuff. Our stories deviate in that he kept going past 2012, but he’s here now, and I’m really hoping we see him again next week.
Listening for the similarities, rather than the differences, is a miracle!
So it’s officially summer, and the meeting attendance has dwindled. Incredibly, though, we ran out of time today for discussion, even with only 8 people sharing. I’m thinking that this post might be continued into another, because I am sure that I will be unable to tie into one post all the insights shared in today’s meeting.
There was so much, in fact, that we read only two chapters from the literature selection. For the record, we read from As Bill Sees It, and the topic was acceptance. I jokingly chose the topic because I walked in on the dot of the meeting start time, which is late for the chair of the meeting to arrive. So I selected it lightheartedly, hoping the group would accept my tardiness, but it seemed to touch a nerve with all present.
The first topic of discussion centered around the feeling of anger, and how to satisfactorily handle angry feelings in sobriety. I’ll give the example I threw out to the group: this past weekend I travelled out of town with my daughter’s basketball team for a weekend-long tournament. The weekend, overall a wonderful time in a beach town spent with delightful people and watching my daughter socialize and challenge herself athletically, had some issues common to travelling with a group. Specifically, finding the balance between going along with the group decisions in terms of eating and recreation (much more on the latter in another post) and doing what we as a family wanted to do.
As an aside, I would often watch the other parents and wonder if they were struggling with all this togetherness as much as I was. Is it possible to want to do things as a large group every minute of the day? If so, I must be an introvert, because I was getting a little nuts in the head by Sunday.
The culmination of my angst played out over the last night (for my family, some of these other diehards were extending it into a mini-vacation where they could spend even more time in one another’s back pockets). We were on the boardwalk of the beach town, which of course is a wonderful place for all of these teenage girls to be, but not so much for the parents. We had all gone out for a team dinner beforehand, and due to alcohol consumption by some of the parents, my husband and I volunteered to split up and be designated drivers. A job I was happy to do, in driving from the restaurant to the boardwalk.
Fast forward a few hours, and I was not nearly so happy, because now it’s 10:30 pm, we’ve been milling around this sensory overload of an environment aimlessly for hours, plus we had decided as a family to go to an adorable ice cream parlor near the motel. But we can’t leave the boardwalk without taking people with us, because we are part of a caravan. I tried everything I could imagine to coax enough people to come home with me; not a single plot succeeded. It was only at the point that I was sulking like a 4-year old, on the verge of a tantrum, when my husband looked at me with disbelief and says, “You’ve got to get a grip,” that I recognized I was truly about to have meltdown, the likes of which I have not had in sobriety.
To my credit, I will say that I simply got quiet (ish) after his remark, breathed for a few moments, and finally took back what little power I thought I had by walking to the car and waiting for the group to be done milling around aimlessly.
Overall, though, I was displeased with my emotional reaction to the situation: shouldn’t I be better than this? With a few years of sobriety, shouldn’t I be better able to deal with these situations as they arise?
I will again rave about the power of finding the right 12-step meeting as a saving grace. Although I told the story this morning more or less to confess a situation I wish I had handled better, I wound up receiving more than I could ever write down in blessings from my group. Each person that shared after me told a story where they felt intense anger on the inside, which is why the title reads as it does! The ultimate point each person had, though, in sharing their most recent experience with a similar situation was this: our sobriety does not make us superhuman. Resentments will pop us, as they do for every human being on the planet, but in sobriety we now have a choice: we can handle it the way we have in the past, the kind of decisions that ultimately led us back to bitterness, anger, and ultimately, to drink, or we can choose a healthier option.
One attendee who related his recent story of inner turmoil spoke of the discomfort of knowing there is a choice: we see the 2 paths clearly, and it’s almost painful turning away from the choices to which we’ve become so accustomed. And when he said it, I pictured myself stiffly walking off the boardwalk that night, and discomfort was exactly what I was feeling! I wanted so badly to lash out and argue with my husband why it was okay for me to be self-righteous, as I had a laundry list of reasons to be angry.
That same attendee spoke of giving ourselves the proper credit we deserve. In his story, he griped and complained about his situation… in his mind only. He rose above his resentments and did what he needed to be done. So while he would have liked to have thought more gracious thoughts, the reality is he did what needed to be done. I wish I could say I only complained in my head. However, the only person with whom I vented was my husband, and even then I cut it off light years more quickly than I would have in the past. Progress, not perfection.
And that was one story, one small set of exchanges! There is more to tell, but I am on summer schedule, so I’m going to get back to this more later in the week. To be continued…
Still marvelling at seeing Paul McCartney last night in concert… that’s man’s talent and energy is a miracle!
I walked into my Monday meeting this morning with only a few minutes to share, and there were only TWO ATTENDEES! My heart, I must admit, sank, because I haven’t seen those kinds of low numbers for a long time. Then I remembered it was summer, plus, it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality! And before we got to the reading itself we had 6 more join us, one carrying a homemade strawberry rhubarb pie, so life is good!
Being the second Monday of the month, we read from the book Living Sober, the book I recommend for anyone new to sobriety, whether or not you choose to participate in a 12-step fellowship. I selected the chapter a bit selfishly, in deference to my new commitment to self-acceptance (see last post for details): Being Good to Yourself.
As we read the chapter, I mentally switched gears to apply the chapter to my sobriety. Either I never read this chapter before, or I did not take it seriously, but I completely disregarded these suggestions when I first got sober. I was shocked as I read, then I laughed at my shock. If I need to work as hard as I am on this endeavor more than 3 years into sobriety, then it should come as no surprise that I didn’t learn it along the way!
So I admitted to the group that:
- I picked this selection for selfish reasons
- I had nothing meaningful to contribute from my own personal experiences
Luckily the group had my back, and had some wonderful insights that really helped me:
- The biggest take-away I received, and this was really from every member of the group (because every member had a chance to share, this is the great part of a smaller meeting): the tendency to be hard on oneself is a common trait among alcoholics. We have shame that we drink, we don’t like that shame, we drink to escape the shame, we feel bad physically, we drink some more. Getting off the alcoholic merry-go-round does not necessarily mean we take away the tendency to be hard on ourselves, we just find different means with which to perpetuate the cycle. Yet another reminder why self-care is so important to cultivate.
- The second most important insight: self-care is another arena in which the phrase “progress, not perfection” applies. Consider the self-care of active addiction versus the self-care of sobriety. I will speak for myself when I say there is no comparison! Not only was I ingesting substances that essentially poisoned my body, those substances caused insomnia, loss of appetite, and created a complete lack of energy. I had no meaningful connection with other humans, since I was always in some state of denial, and I had no remote thought of a spiritual life. By comparison, my self-care of today is exemplary. Good to remember next time I’m beating myself up for beating myself up!
- One attendee (the baker of the strawberry rhubarb pie) believes the most important thing he does everyday towards self-care is not drink. No matter what else, this act must come first.
- Another friend remembered well the feeling of perfectionism being a catalyst for his addiction: “Well, I can’t seem to do anything perfectly, might as well drink and not bother at all!” In recovery, he works hard to strike the balance between trying his hardest and fighting his tendency towards perfectionism.
- The struggle against perfectionism came up with every person who shared this morning. One person shared he strives for excellence rather than perfection; for doing his personal best rather than “the best.”
All great stuff, as usual, now I need to take it out my pocket and put it to good use. Happy Monday!
After a fairly long hiatus from getting all my morning “good for you” stuff done (exercise, meditation and the like), this Monday I checked every item off the list. Not surprisingly, I feel good about being good to myself!
Another Monday, another Monday morning meeting. The magic number of 12 attendees today made it a lively group with lots of discussion, which is miraculous given the dreary weather conditions in my corner of the universe. As it is the first Monday of the month, we read a personal story from the “Big Book” (Alcoholics Anonymous) entitled “Student of Life.”
Quick sidebar, one I’m sure I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the other fact a new one. The author of this story, Jane D., is local to my area, and several in my meeting this morning have had the pleasure of meeting her. The story is extra-special to us for that reason. Second fact, given to me this morning by an attendee who knows her: Jane wanted to title the story S.O.L., for the regular reason people use that acronym (shit out of luck), but of course was denied that title. She settled on Student of Life, figuring it had the same letters!
The focus of our discussion following the story was denial, as the author stays stuck in addiction for a good number of years because she focused on all the things that “never” happened to her: she never lost a job, a spouse or any material possessions as a result of her drinking, so she concluded that she must not have a problem with alcohol.
Most of us in the room, more than likely anyone at all who has chosen recovery, can relate to the notion of comparing ourselves to people “worse off” than us, then feeling better about our own choices. The very first meeting I ever attended (years before I got sober) scared the absolute crap out of me. It wasn’t that I felt superior or judgmental, just that I did not belong there. As time went on and my list of “I Never’s” became shorter (coincidentally, as that list was dwindling, my list of reasons that included me in a 12-step meeting was growing longer), I would stubbornly cling to the reasons I didn’t belong: “See how bad off that person is, I’m not that bad! How am I supposed to learn anything from someone who is so much worse off than I am?”
Cautionary tale was not a concept of which I could grab hold back then. Not surprisingly, hanging on to this mindset had me on the relapse merry-go-round for quite some time. Fortunately, the gift of desperation had me at the spot I needed to be to recover: focusing only on what I needed to do, one day at a time, to stay sober.
The first gentleman to share described how denial of his disease slowly but surely stole interest in any activity outside of drinking. Once a high school wrestling champion, he found that once he started drinking he lost the desire to continue with the sport, due to its interference with his new hobby. Although he tried many different treatment centers and programs, he finds the support and true understanding in our 12-step fellowship to be the only “medicine” that works for him.
Another person related to the author’s relationship with alcohol. He recalls, just as the author had, how that first drink had a transformative effect on his personality: all his anxieties went away practically from the first sip of a drink. He also related to the author’s description of someone’s addiction “bottom.” In the story, the author worries that she had not yet hit her bottom, because she had not lost anything significant in her life. A recovering alcoholic told her: “You reach your bottom when you stop digging.” My friend relates to this: he had not lost a whole lot either, but he simply made the decision to put down the shovel, and in the almost 30 years since, has never felt the need to pick it back up.
Another regular at the meeting said his denial was so deep that he drank for almost a whole year after identifying himself as an alcoholic. Why? Because he figured that’s what alcoholics do, they drink… so he drank some more! Only after he experienced the magic of one alcoholic talking to him in a way that he understood was he able to choose sobriety, and he is another who has not regretted this decision for more than a quarter of a century!
Another friend focused on the magic of service, she believes getting out of your own head and into helping another to be the most important part of the 12-step program. In the early days she was taught to do whatever could help the meetings she attended: make coffee, greet newcomers, put out the books for people to read. Nowadays, having been through the steps more times than she can count, service in the form of helping the newcomer is what keeps her sober and at peace.
Here’s hoping all of you reading are at peace, and enjoying your Monday!
After a week and weekend of on-the-go activity, a day of (relative) peace and low activity is a miracle I am consciously enjoying!
I’m listening to a podcast series on a topic entirely unrelated to the general subject matter of this blog. Or at least, it should be unrelated. But like so many lessons I’ve learned in life, the application has a wide net:
In order to bring your dreams to fruition, you must first clean the slate
Anyone who has ever had a bit of sober time before relapsing can appreciate the real estate that regret takes up in the brain. I remember once having garnered a small amount of sober time, then relapsing on and off for a few months. During my sober time, I became friendly with another member of my 12-step program, but since relapsing had lost track of her. I was running errands one day when I saw her across the parking lot. I virtually dove behind a car to avoid her and having to either lie or admit the awful truth. While I managed to dodge the person and the inevitable dilemma, I did not dodge the mental torment:
“If you had done what you were supposed to do, you would have 6 months of sobriety”
“Look how happy she looks, you could look and feel like that if you would just do what you’re supposed to do”
“You’re worthless and you’ll never get your act together”
I can look back on that incident and clearly see how those thoughts were nothing but damaging. They did not motivate me to get sober, I remained in active addiction for another 3 months! All those thoughts did was keep me in a shame spiral that led to more depression, which led to more hopelessness, which led to more relapses.
That negative spiral relates to more than sobriety. Without going into repetitive details, because I have used up my time on this blog talking about diet and exercise, I can easily see the regret over attempts and failures to lose weight morph into feelings of frustration, which morphs into feelings of hopelessness, and the end result is simply a relapse of a different sort.
Interpersonal situations follow this cycle all the time. I am frustrated with the behavior of another, I know the answer is to constructively communicate the frustration, but I project the answers I will receive, which leads to further frustration, which leads to hopeless and the decision not to communicate because, “why bother?” The issue never gets addressed, and thus will recur time and again.
So if living in regret is not the answer, then how exactly does one “clean the slate?” Even though I know that it does no good to wallow in the mistakes of the past, why do I continue to do so and how do I make it stop?
I think the answer here is two-fold. The first is to become aware of the thoughts in the first place. This is an area where I’m just beginning to make some progress. Often I will be deep into self-recrimination before I even realize what I’m doing. So developing an awareness of the thoughts that I’m having, how often I’m having them, is a crucial first step.
Next I have been told by multiple very wise people: Shut It Down. As soon as I know what I’m doing, stop allowing myself to indulge in these negative thoughts. Talk back, yell back, get up and move around, go help somebody else, but cut the thought process off immediately. Though I have no proof, I am told by repeating this two-step process I will decrease both the frequency and the intensity of the negative thoughts.
Here’s where this whole lesson comes full-circle. Regular readers might remember from my last post a woman worried that she needs her painful memories in order not to relapse. If she forgives herself for the pain she caused others, might she then forget how devastating picking up a drink would be?
The title of this post represents a saying that’s been used by the women in my extended family for years. My basic understanding, because of the context in which it’s been said to me, is to stop holding on to anger and resentments. Like a lot of family traditions, I never thought too deeply about the saying itself. Possibly because when it’s being said to me I am full of anger and resentment, and thus don’t give a crap about its origins.
But as I was typing this post, it popped into my head. Curious, I googled the expression, and up popped a whole bunch of links that had to do with catching spider monkeys. Since I always assumed this whole expression had to do with squirrels, I was already delighted.
As the story goes (and believe me, it is only a story, I did not come across any actual proof of its validity), a very simple device is used to catch spider monkeys. Place a nut that spider monkeys like to eat in a heavy, narrow-necked bottle and leave it nearby. The spider monkey will smell the nut, and reach in to grab it. Because the neck of the bottle is narrow, he will not be able to remove the nut because his clenched fist will not fit. Because the bottle is heavy, he will not be able to take it with him. As the story goes, it is then a simple matter of walking up to the monkey and grabbing him, because his desire to have that nut will override his desire for freedom.
So if I know that self-negativity is damaging to the psyche and inconsistent with a peaceful sober existence, but I continue to hold on to the regrets, and the shame, then I am a spider monkey just waiting to be captured. Which just made me laugh out loud, so if nothing else, I’ve amused myself with this analogy!
I guess it’s time to let go of some nuts.
Waking up after a night where everyone in the house slept all the way through, the gift that will keep on giving all day long!
A speaker at an AA meeting I recently attended used this expression: “it’s not the bears and the lions that will get you, it’s the ticks and the fleas.” I had never heard it before, and it really resonated with me.
At almost any point in time, if you ask me how I am doing, I will answer that I am doing fine, and I will mean it. Because I know that, on every level, my life is truly blessed, and unbelievably wonderful, by virtually anyone’s standards. And so, when I come across any of life’s trials and tribulations, I tend to think that I should be able to handle things on my own. In other words, what do I have to complain about?
I have come to learn that, in recovery, this mindset is the complete opposite of success. Because the pathway to relapse is paved with stuffed feelings and unspoken resentments, and it is vital to learn how to speak about what is on your mind. The consequences of failing to open up can be life or death. At the very least, the serenity and peace so often heard about in the rooms of AA will be elusive.
For me, articulating what is on my mind is not the problem, it is believing that what is on my mind is worthwhile. In other words, I need to overcome the feeling that I am wasting people’s time with my silly nonsense. Since I have joined the fellowship of AA, I now know I need to fight my instincts, and open up more about what is renting space in my head, so I can repel the ticks and the fleas.
I cannot believe that after 104 days I am still hearing new AA slogans, but today I did:
You must act your way into right thinking, you cannot think your way into right acting.
This has been stuck in my head all day for two reasons. One, I cannot believe this is the first I’ve ever heard of it, and two, because, frankly, I did not understand it. I needed to have it repeated twice, and I had a bunch of follow-up questions to better understand its meaning.
My main hold-up to embracing the slogan this morning: if I am in early recovery (and I am), then the one thing I know for sure is that my thinking is frequently not right (and that is being kind to myself). So if I can’t trust my thinking, then why would I act on it? The answer made sense for people in recovery… you don’t trust your thinking, you trust people in the Program with good sobriety to lead the way for you. You act based on their suggestion, and it is by those actions that your thinking will become right.
But as I contemplated the slogan, I realized it, like all the others in AA, is completely applicable to the entire human race, not just to addicts. So if I want to have a healthy lifestyle, I can sit around and think about all the changes I need to make with regard to diet and exercise, while I continue to eat and be sedentary… or I can just get up and move my body, I can pick up a piece of fruit instead of a chip. Thinking about doing anything simply does not “get ‘er done!”
Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear – Mark Twain
Courage is an absolute requirement to get things done in early recovery. The simple admission to yourself that you are an addict is courageous enough, let alone admitting it to family and friends. Joining a 12-step program, admitting your troubles to a group of strangers, accepting help, and, last but certainly not least, changing essentially your whole way of thinking about yourself and your life… all of this requires courage.
Time and the repetition of these courageous acts, day by day, makes the process simpler, and builds self-confidence. So when I am hit with a new act that requires new courage, it throws me back, and my instinct is to believe I can’t handle it, that I don’t have the strength to endure. Last week I wrote of a situation that would, in my past addictive behaviors, have caused me great trouble. And while I worried, and prayed, that it would turn out okay, I forgot that I have developed courage over these last 88 days… and I made it through the situation successfully, and feel stronger and more self-confident for having done it.
So today, as I faced a new obstacle, my first instinct was to run, to hide behind my recovery… “I don’t need this stress, it is bad for me” mentality. But I was not taking into account the confidence I have gained from all my courageous decisions of the past 88 days. I forgot that I am stronger than I ever imagined possible.
So I will resist my fear, and I will face my obstacle with all the dignity and courage I can muster, and I do believe I will be stronger for it. Stay tuned…