M(3), 4/3/2017: A Life-Long Plan
This morning we read from the book Alcoholics Anonymous. I selected the reading “The Keys to the Kingdom,” written by a woman instrumental in starting the Chicago chapter of our 12-step program.
As always, there is loads of great stuff within the reading, but one paragraph in particular stood out to me:
A.A. is not a plan for recovery that can be finished and done with. It is a way of life, and the challenge contained in its principles is great enough to keep any human being striving for as long as he lives. We do not, cannot, outgrow this plan. As arrested alcoholics, we must have a program for living that allows for limitless expansion. Keeping one foot in front of the other is essential for maintaining our arrestment. Others may idle in a retrogressive groove without too much danger, but retrogression can spell death for us. However, this isn’t as rough as it sounds, as we do become grateful for the necessity that makes us toe the line, for we find that we are more than compensated for a consistent effort by the countless dividends we receive. -pg. 311, Alcoholics Anonymous
This is a great reminder for me to keep active in my own journey of recovery. And when you think about it, it is counterintuitive to most things in our lives… if we are on a diet we restrict calories to lose weight, get to the desired number on the scale, and then set out on a maintenance plan. Or we decide to stop smoking, and put a tremendous amount of effort into that process until it becomes more natural to not smoke than it does to pick up a cigarette, then we can more or less hit cruise control. Even expanding out further, we work towards a retirement, we raise our kids until they are able to take care of themselves. In most areas of our life we are working towards a goal that allows us to “graduate” in one way or another.
But this is not so in recovery. Here we seek to grow, endlessly. And sometimes this feels like the biggest curse in the world. I’m guilty of these thoughts myself, on numerous occasions. I’ve even said it out loud, “How come I have to always be the bigger person? How come that someone gets to be a jackass without repercussion just because they’re not an alcoholic?”
But in reality this program is far more a blessing than it is a curse. Because for the minimal amount of work it requires, if offers blessings a thousandfold.
Here are some other excellent points made this morning:
- Not only are we lucky to have a lifelong program of learning, we are even luckier to have a fellowship of people on the same path. These people are the foundation that keep us sober.
- In the story the author talks about coming into the program and wishing for only a part of the peace and happiness she saw displayed among its members. That sentiment is true for so many of us… we come in and think we’ll never be as happy as the members we see, but if we can be half as happy, and stay sober, we’ll be satisfied. And of course the dream becomes a reality for a lot of us.
- The story talks about the many ways the author attempted to control her drinking, to no avail. Most of us in the meeting this morning could relate to the various ways someone can try to control drinking. And in most cases, once you start planning ways to control your drinking, you’ve already lost control!
- The story talks about the many blessing sobriety brings. All of us present this morning have blessings we can list, but none so great as the blessing of healing a fractured relationship with your children. It is the greatest gift of sobriety to be present and engaged in the lives of your children.
- Some of us marvel, like the author, at how competent we were while in active addiction. And if you can accomplish so much while not sober, imagine how much more productive you can be once you’re sober? Active addiction takes mental time and energy that could be put so so much better use!
Sitting down and writing. I know I’ve used that one before, but it still counts as a miracle to me!
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.
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), 11/17: See God in the Response, Not the Disaster
My Monday morning meeting had a wonderfully large turnout (15) on a day that almost demands one to stay inside due to cold, dreary, pouring rain. I hope the weather is better wherever you may be in the world!
This week’s literature selection came from the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and covered the topic of Step Eleven in our 12-step program:
Sought through prayer and meditation 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.
In essence, the chapter’s purpose is to describe to a newcomer what prayer and meditation are, why they are important to cultivate in our lives, and the benefits that are derived from the implementation of these practices. This is one of those chapters that applies to the whole of the human race, not just those of us who identify as alcoholics.
I am fortunate to have held a belief in the existence of God prior to joining my 12-step program; therefore, when it was suggested that I start each day, on my knees, in prayer, I did not balk, and have continued the practice to present day. The ease with which I was able to incorporate prayer into my life is not universally true, as many who join our Fellowship consider themselves atheists and agnostics. For them, step eleven is another hurdle to jump, but the good news is that many who came before them have successfully cleared the hurdle, and provide practical ideas to make it easier.
Meditation, on the other hand, is a practice with which I struggle mightily. I have written, on numerous occasion, about my battle to control the monkey mind that slips into high gear at the mere mention of the word “meditation.” And although I firmly believe in the benefits, and although I have had some limited success with practicing it, for some reason I have failed to make this part of my daily routine.
But the bottom line, for me, with regard to step eleven: no matter what form my conscious contact with God takes, be it morning prayer, mid-day “pulse checks,” meditation attempts or evening inventories, the results are invariably the same: the answer to the questions I am seeking lies in looking outward, rather than inward. In other words, what can I do to help another? The possibilities are endless: I can reach out to the still suffering alcoholic, I can help a friend or family member in need, I can assist the person in front of me in the supermarket line, I can drive with patience, rather than with road rage. The point is my focus is on helping others, rather than myself, and it is in this shift from self-centered thinking to a more benevolent thought process that I find my peace and serenity.
From my share a regular attendee, one with decades of sobriety, remarked that he remembers well my struggle with meditation (hmmm… perhaps I am a bit repetitive?!?). He said he learned very early in sobriety the simplest definition of prayer and meditation is the one he carries with him to this day:
Prayer is talking to God
Meditation is listening to God
So, to him, when he is saying a formal prayer like the Prayer to St. Francis (Make me a channel of thy peace prayer), he is praying. When he studies the prayer, and breaks it down line by line and figures out what that would look like in his life, he is meditating. This particular attendee happens to be a priest, so I take his suggestions on prayer and meditation very seriously!
I absolutely love this idea, because it is something I put into practice pretty regularly: I see something profound, or wise, and I try to see how I can apply it to my life. If this is a way of meditating, I’ll take it!
Other people focused on the idea of meditation as being present in whatever you are doing; consciously appreciating your present situation. You can meditate doing just about anything: walking, cleaning, washing the dishes. I informed that friend that I had a sinkful of meditation waiting for me at home!
A gentleman new to my meeting but sober since 1981 said that throughout his sobriety, every time he got into a funk, it was because he failed to work on his conscious contact with God. Each time, he said, his ego got in the way and he became complacent in his prayer and meditation practices, and each time he wound up feeling down and out for no discernible reason.
Finally, a woman who considers herself agnostic is able to practice prayer and meditation by virtue of science: there have been many studies which prove measurable benefits of meditation, mindfulness, and incorporating spirituality into one’s life. She is unable to refute the results, so why not try to improve her own life? When she struggles with the concept of God, she remembers the expression I used in the title of this post: see God in the response, not the disaster. Rather than focus on the question, “Why would a God allow bad things to happen to good people,” my friend instead focuses on the caring and compassionate response to the tragedies, or disasters, or hard times.
The blessing of being allowed to absorb the collective wisdom of these Monday meetings, plus the added blessing of being allowed to share them with you!
M(3), 11/3: A Vision For You
I know I say this at the start of every month, but… I can’t believe it’s already November!
Today’s reading selection was the final chapter in Part I of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (aka The Big Book), entitled “A Vision for You.” This chapter more or less encapsulates the entire 12-step program, and does so in a beautiful, profound, and energizing way; it is regularly regarded as the most inspirational chapter of the book. The image above contains the last two powerful paragraphs of the chapter, I get goosebumps every time I read it! And I am not alone, this same sentiment was shared by nearly every attendee this morning. This chapter reinforces for those of us lucky enough to call ourselves members of this 12-step fellowship, why we go to meetings, why we work the 12 steps, and why we are always ready to help the next suffering alcoholic. The answer is that by doing these simple things, we are given a life that exceeds our wildest dreams.
I selected this chapter because if aligns with the feelings I experienced as a result of some events from yesterday. A friend asked me if I would join her at a meeting she attends; she thought I might enjoy it too. I agreed, and it wasn’t until that morning, when I mapquested it, I discovered a personal significance: it is the very first meeting I attended after I hit my alcoholic bottom.
When I realized it, I almost called and cancelled. What possible good could come of reliving that horrific weekend? I could just as easily attend another meeting with her later in the week. However, remembering that my going may very well be helping my friend, and it would be pretty darn rude to cancel that late, I decided to thumb my nose at these feelings and soldier on.
The ride to the meeting was chock full of unpleasant memories, and landmarks of active addiction. Walking in to the beautiful stone church which housed the meeting, I passed the area where, on that frigid Sunday in January, I smoked probably a half-dozen cigarettes, still in so much shock that I had no real appreciation for the complete mess my life had become.
These unpleasant thoughts are rolling around my head as the meeting starts and the chairperson announces that the format is something called the “ask it basket.” She explains that as this is a newcomer’s women’s meeting (both of which are facts that escaped me 3 years ago), they offer this format as an opportunity to ask questions in an anonymous way, and see how other women are handling/have handled said situation. This turns my mood around quickly; this is a new format for me, and I’m always one to be captivated by shiny, new objects.
There were a bunch of really interesting questions, but the one that enchanted me, and the one I chose to use as the springboard for my sharing, was:
Why do we have to go to so many meetings?
I love this question, because it is absolutely one I was asking on a regular basis when I dragged my hours-sober-self into this very meeting! I explained to the group the circumstances of my last encounter with this meeting, and how for the 8 or 9 months prior to it I had been attending meetings, but was anything but a true member of the fellowship. Up to that point, I attended meetings because I was satisfying somebody else’s idea of how to get sober.
And on that day, I’m fairly certain I left the meeting the same way I entered it… shattered, heartsick, terrified. But that night, praying to God in a way I hadn’t before, I considered those kind women who took time out of the meeting to show me some helpful sections of the Big Book, sections that are important to my sobriety even today. I considered those women and realized they go to meetings because they want to, not because someone else wants them to. They go even though they have years, some even decades, of sobriety. Those women seemed happy and peaceful in a way that my brain could not begin to comprehend.
And on that night, I resolved to go to a meeting every day, and pray like crazy that I could get what those women have. Failing that, I prayed that the obsession to drink and use drugs would be lifted.
That day, almost 3 years ago, I was awoken to my husband telling me to pack my bags, he was taking me to my Mom’s, he did not want me around him or the children anymore. I arrived like the unwelcome surprise that I was on my Mom’s doorstep, and was met with horrified disbelief that I would be taking up residence there. I was taken to the meeting, and I could feel the disappointment from my sponsor. I left that meeting to go start my new life without my husband and children.
Yesterday, I woke up, gloriously refreshed due to the extra hour of sleep permitted. I sat with my husband enjoying our morning coffee, and we watched our favorite Sunday morning program. I drove myself to the meeting to spend time with my friend. I went home, picked up my son, and together we celebrated a successful cross-country season with his team mates. We returned home to get organized for the week ahead while my husband put the finishing touches on his world-famous chili, served in bread bowls that he picked up at the bakery while I was at the meeting. We sat down as a family to devour the feast, then cleaned up and quietly ended our weekend in the family room in front of the fire.
It may seem counterintuitive to remind ourselves of our painful past mistakes and horrors, but, for me anyway, it keeps my blessings fresh, and reminds me of the progress and growth I’ve made. It is absolutely worth it.
Two newcomers to my meeting today, and three anniversaries celebrated (3 years, 5 months, and 4 months). In a group this small (13 people), that is amazing!
M(3), 10/27: The Medical Profession and AA
In the literature rotation of my meeting, the fourth Monday is labelled “chairperson’s choice.” This week, I chose a selection from a book not used very frequently these days, entitled Alcoholic Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A. The book gives an account of the historic 1955 St. Louis convention, at which the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous assumed full responsibility for all its affairs. It contains the lectures of many of the notable speakers throughout the convention, as well as discusses the three principles of the fellowship: recovery, unity and service.
This morning we read the chapter entitled, “Medicine Looks at Alcoholics Anonymous.” In this chapter we read the speech from a distinguished member of the American Medical Association, Dr. W. W. Bauer. Dr. Bauer, in his address to the assembly, compares the societal view towards alcoholism to that of tuberculosis: both are diseases that afflict people through no fault of their own, and yet at one time those afflicted with either illness were regarded shamefully. He notes that same stigma was once attached to those afflicted with cancer. Happily, though, both the medical establishment, as well as society itself, is slowly coming around to regarding these diseases objectively, without assigning disgrace to those who carry them.
He praises AA for its use of “group therapy,” as he calls it: gathering support, sympathy and guidance from one another as each attempts to dispel the obsession to drink alcohol. Many of the treatment options the medical profession offers the sick and suffering alcoholic was learned from cooperating with the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. The partnership of the two – medicine and AA – is a mutually beneficial one.
By and large the group enjoyed the reading, although the glad handing that went on as one speaker introduced the next proved to be a time waster. The standout of Dr. Bauer’s lecture, for me, occurred when he touched upon the importance of our attitude:
“Illness of the emotions is no more something to be ashamed of than is illness of the body. We should no more hesitate to consult a psychiatrist than we should hesitate to consult an orthopedist for a sore foot.”
-pg. 240, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age
It took time for me to stop feeling ashamed of having the disease of alcoholism; for a long time I could not let go of the idea that I should just be able to control myself. Letting go of the shame felt as though a load was lifted off my back. To borrow an idea from another 12-step fellowship: I didn’t cause my alcoholism, I can’t control whether or not I am afflicted with it, and I cannot cure it. One day at a time, however, I can do a few simple things that will remove the obsession to drink right out of me!
Other talking points, as shared by the various attendees of this morning’s meeting, included:
- Our program of recovery has three legs upon which it stands firmly: physical, spiritual emotional. Today’s reading touched upon the physical leg, and it is so important, especially in the earliest days of sobriety. Learning proper nutrition, what vitamins and minerals support healthy recovery, and touching base with a medical professional for any prescriptive needs all provide a sound foundation upon which we build our sober future.
- In the last paragraph of his lecture, Dr. Bauer says:
“I am no psychiatrist, but I have confidence in saying this to you as I have said to thousands of patients, that the thing we need most of all in this world today is tranquility of mind. Various names have been given to it. Some books about it have been very popular. Some call it the power of positive thinking, some call it peace of mind, some call it peace of souls, but I’m inclined to along with Billy Graham and call it peace with God. Those are the things that we need. And an organization like yours, in a world that seems to have gone materialistically mad, gives us courage to believe that there is still hope, that there is still idealism, and that we are going to win out over many, many of our problems, one of the most serious of which is alcoholism.”
-pg. 244, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age
This paragraph stood out to a number of us today, in that we are so grateful to be part of a fellowship whose very goal is to achieve this peace for ourselves, and to have the honor of helping others do the same.
- Finally, and this was echoed by almost every attendee who shared, was the appreciation of the “group therapy” component of our fellowship. As one member put it this morning, “Putting a dollar in a basket to sit here and share my troubles, and have all of you help me, is a real bargain compared to the thousands I have spent in therapy!” Another put it this way, “No matter how I feel, good or bad, I have never left a meeting disappointed… I am always in a better mental place leaving the meeting than when I went in.” A friend who we have not seen a few weeks berated herself on her absence: “I feel the difference when I stop going to meetings, just coming here and seeing all of your friendly, supportive faces brightens my day, and when I don’t go I feel like I’m missing something in my life!”
Sometimes it takes the miracles of others to become conscious of your own. Hearing how much everyone gets out of meetings helped deepen my own appreciation!
M(3), 10/13: The Id, Ego, Superego, and Then There’s the Alcoholic Ego
Today’s meeting was special for a few reasons. First, we got to celebrate a friend’s one year “soberversary.” Coffee cake was made this morning, and eaten in its entirety by the end of the meeting.
Second, we had two newcomers to the meeting. One seemed to have a bit of time under his belt, the other brand-spanking-new to the Fellowship. Always fun to get some fresh perspectives.
Third, a regular attendee who almost never shares raised his hand. It’s interesting to hear from someone who’s usually quiet.
Finally, the meeting was interesting to me because my main takeaway from the reading was markedly different from that of the rest of the group. We read from the book Living Sober, one of the final chapters entitled “Trying the Twelve Steps.” The chapter gives a brief history of the group Alcoholics Anonymous, the serendipity of the meeting of its two founders, and the basic principles under which it operates.
What stood out to me about the reading was the synchronicity that led to Bill W. and Dr. Bob meeting, but my focus on that section of the chapter had much to do with a television program (programme for my Canadian and European readers, hee hee) I watched yesterday. On the show CBS Sunday Morning there was a segment on coincidences. If you know me and/or have read this blog for any length of time, you know any topic involving coincidences will be one I find fascinating. Here is the segment if you feel like checking it out:
I watched that segment and felt sad for the scientists, because they are missing a magical part of life with their perspective. So when I read this morning how such an unlikely grouping of people brought such miraculous and long-lasting results to alcoholics the world-wide, I was reminded again that there are no coincidences, just God moments that may or may not be recognized by the people experiencing them.
The rest of the relatively large group (15 in all) focused on the section of the chapter that talked about one of the cornerstones of our 12-step program: it is in getting out of our self-absorption, and in getting into service work, specifically helping another alcoholic, that we are most assured of maintaining our sobriety. In other words: it’s not all about me. Or, as a much more eloquent attendee put it: it is in the transcendence of self, in getting out of the pronoun “I’ and into the pronoun “We,” that we start our recovery from alcoholism.
So what does all of this mean to the non-alcoholic, or even the recovering alcoholic who does not participate in a 12-step program? It’s incredibly simple: get out of your own head, and go help somebody, anybody. Go help your child with his homework. Go take your Grandmother to her hair salon. Take some chicken soup to your sick neighbor. You get the point.
It is truly the most fundamental tenet of this 12-step program: helping another alcoholic helps you stay sober. The gift that keeps on giving!
There was a great discussion about what is meant by the label “egotistical.” A lot of us, myself included, initially took ourselves out of any discussion involving the expression egotistical… if anything, we rationalized, we did not think enough of ourselves due to our crippling lack of self-confidence. But in this case, “egotistical” is not a pejorative term, as in one who has an overinflated sense of self; rather, it is used to describe one who is focused too much on oneself. Not necessarily thinking bad or good, just thinking too much about our own wants, needs, desires, how things are affecting us, how we are perceived. Like the old joke… “Now, enough about me, what do YOU think about me?”
So it follows naturally that helping another person, alcoholic or not, forces the self-centered individual out of his or her own head. And that service not only helps another, it boomerangs right back, and helps the individual doing the helping.
The last person who shared summed up my feelings on this subject the best: “Getting out of my own head was the hardest part of this program I had to learn, and the first character defect that comes back, even in sobriety.” Oh boy, could I relate to that! Putting down the drink or drug does not take away our flawed humanity. On the other hand, choosing recovery does give us a set of skills to first recognize our flaws, then correct the mistakes that we as human beings are prone to make.
All of that, and praise galore for my super quick and easy coffee cake. Who could ask for anything more out of a Monday morning?
Alright, this may be predicting a miracle, but I’m going to put it out there anyway: I’m hosting a dinner for 18 this Friday for my son’s 12th birthday. He requested fried chicken a la a special Philly restaurant (Federal Donuts for local readers), and I have been hard at work perfecting the recipe. I think I got it last night, and so… the miracle is… I will be working on gathering everything I need for this party starting today (actually, technically speaking, last night). To the über-organized of the world, this may seem like a day in the life, but the procrastinators will totally get it. By this time next week I should have some fun pictures to share!
M(3), 8/11: Best. Meeting. Ever!
Happy Monday, once again! I really hope I haven’t used this title before, and I am too lazy to search, but even if I did I was incorrect then, because this meeting was truly the best one to date. I will prove this point right after I give you the nuts and bolts. Being the second Monday of the month, we read from the book Living Sober, which, as I have written countless times, is a fabulous “how to” book for novices in sobriety. Each short chapter highlights a different issue with which people in early recovery grapple, and it gives practical sound advice for how to successfully jump that particular hurdle.
As fate would have it, a newcomer to the Fellowship had me beat to the meeting, and was there to greet me at the door. He had come to the meeting last week, so it’s always good to see someone new two weeks running. As I was setting up the meeting, I asked if he ever seen or had a chance to read Living Sober before. He had not, so I explained how useful it can be to those in early recovery, and we discussed different ways for him to purchase the book. Then the light bulb went off in my head, and I requested that he peruse the table of contents and select the chapter that stood out for him, and we would focus today’s meeting on his selection. I’m still patting myself on the back for this idea… what’s better than someone brand new to recovery picking out the day’s topic?!?
The meeting was off to a great start, 30 minutes before the meeting actually started! And it only got better from there. I will list all the reasons today’s meeting was awesome:
As we like to say in my 12-step fellowship, the most important person in the room is the newcomer. And boy did we have a lot of VIP’s today! Besides the gentleman I just wrote about, one of the regular attendees brought a woman to this meeting, and it was her very first 12-step meeting, ever! Honestly, I had a bit of nerves when I heard that fact, which is totally ridiculous, but true nonetheless: what if I say or do something that has her writing off 12-step meetings forever? Thankfully, we had a chance to talk at the break, and after the meeting, and that did not appear to be the case. Here’s hoping I see her next week! Besides her, we had 3 others new to both my meeting, and to recovery itself. All three had less than 4 months. There were also two others who were new to this meeting, but I did not get a chance to speak with personally, so I am unclear on their length of sobriety. Which brings me to the second reason the meeting was amazing…
We had a record attendance today by a landslide. I actually stopped counting after 18, but I am guessing we had 21 or 22 attendees this morning. We filled almost every chair in the room! Certainly it is quality and not quantity that makes a meeting; I have been at truly fantastic meetings where there were just three of us in attendance. However, the fact that the numbers are growing can only mean good things for the group and its survival.
3. The “Magic of the Meeting”
I have spoken of this concept before: the miracles that happen so often in 12-step meetings. This morning a woman was at home, newly sober, and her husband was going back to work for the first time since she’s been sober; she will, therefore be alone for the first time in sobriety. Anxiously crying about it to herself this morning, her sponsor unexpectedly called her to check in, and she shared her fears about being alone. Her sponsor’s advice: get to the first meeting you can, which turned out to be the one I run. The topic that was selected for today’s meeting? Fending off loneliness. She cried as she shared this story, she was so overcome.
4. The Relatability of the Topic
As I mentioned above, the topic was loneliness, which branches in many directions for us alcoholics: the increased isolation we impose upon ourselves as we sink deeper into our addiction, the general malaise many of us feel our entire lives, thinking that we are somehow different from the rest of humanity, that we were not given the handbook for life that everyone else seems to have read. Most important, the loneliness we feel in early sobriety, now that our one coping mechanism for life has been stripped away, a coping mechanism that seems to be used successfully by everyone else (seems being the operative word).
There were so many meaningful “shares” after the reading, this post would turn into a chapter if I were to list them all. My greatest take-away from today’s reading was relating to the feeling of relief newcomers experience when we realize, through the grace of God and the 12-step fellowship, that we are not alone in this disease, that we are not the Worst Human Beings to ever live, that there are people who understand the way we think, and why we act the way we do. We never have to feel alone again!
The gentleman who selected the chapter said he has struggled with loneliness his entire life; in fact turning to alcohol, and the bar scene, was his way of coping with loneliness. Now he realizes that in reality, most of his attempts to be social at the bar turned out to be a night solely focused on the alcohol in his glass, rather than the people with whom he was socializing, and often the next day would bring blank spots rather than memories. He now feels gratitude for the meetings themselves; not only are they a means of connecting with others, but he is connecting with people who truly understand him. He enjoys meetings both when he is feeling low and needs a lift, and also when he is feeling good and can offer that same lift to others in need.
Another regular, one with almost 30 years of sobriety, said that of all the different components of the 12-step program, the meeting is the most critical component for him. He said once he found this fellowship, he has never felt true loneliness again. He is not sure if that is from the support of fellow alcoholics, or finding a Higher Power, but he had felt comfortable in his own skin ever since finding this 12-step fellowship.
A woman with almost 10 years talked about the isolation of active addiction, and how it was hard to break those behaviors even after becoming sober. It takes time, and repeated use of the new skills we learn in sobriety, but the payoff is great.
A friend I haven’t seen in a while came back to the meeting, and it was so wonderful to see her again! She has been swamped this summer, and has been unable to attend her regular meetings, so this topic applied directly to her life as well. She said the advice given at the very end of the chapter stood out the most to her. The advice is: as soon as you realize you are starting to isolate, do something about it! Just the act of reaching out is often enough to dispel feelings of loneliness. Although unable to connect with her recovery friends, she did reach out to a family member, and the result was the same: instant mood improvement!
Every single person that shared today spoke of how grateful they are to be present today, how appreciative they are of my service in leading the meeting, and how much they learned themselves from listening to the others. How often in life are you in a room where every single person is truly glad to be there, and glad that you are there? It’s impossible to leave without feeling great!
It seems redundant, but I’ll say it anyway: having the privilege to experience this kind of life-affirming stuff is such a miracle, and I hope I stay as grateful as I am today!
M(3), 7/14: Self-Pity
Today’s meeting, which featured the book Living Sober, the chapter read was entitled “Eliminating Self-Pity.” I asked a regular attendee to select the chapter, so I came into the reading fresh, and my initial thought was “not a topic that applies to me.” In this, and every instance where I think a recovery-related piece of literature does not apply to me, I am proven woefully incorrect. Here’s the opening paragraph of the chapter:
This emotion is so ugly that no one in his or her right mind wants to admit feeling it. Even when sober, many of us remain clever at hiding from ourselves the fact that we are astew in a mess of self-pity. We do not like at all being told that is shows, and we are sharp at arguing that we are experiencing some other emotion- not that loathsome poor-me-ism. Or we can, in a second, find a baker’s dozen perfectly legitimate reasons for feeling somewhat sorry for ourselves. -Chapter 22, Living Sober
Well, when it’s put like that… I guess maybe it does apply, and perhaps I could use some of the advice for eliminating it!
The advice given in the book is fairly simple, which is one of the reasons I love reading this book; it is short and sweet, and immensely practical. First, take a step back, take a long hard look at yourself, and recognize self-pity for what it really is. You can’t change a behavior without first identifying it. Talk it out with a trusted friend, one who will call you out on your nonsense. In all likelihood, you will be able to call yourself on it once you start talking out your feelings. Finally, fight back the self-pity with a little gratitude. It is impossible to maintain both self-pity and gratitude simultaneously, so remind yourself of what you do have, what you have accomplished, and what is good in your life. Chances are the self-pity will become a distant memory.
In addition to loving 12-step meetings for the insight they provide me, I also love being able to share honestly, candidly, and anonymously about the things going on in my head to a group of people who immediately understand. I read through the chapter with everyone else, and I realize the ways I have been living in the swamp of self-pity. That’s miracle number one. Then I can immediately take the advice given, and “tell on myself” by sharing the insight I’ve gained. That’s miracle number two. Finally, I get the feedback, validation and encouragement that changes my thinking from a caring, intelligent group of people who have walked in my shoes. Three miracles in one short hour!
And the icing on the cake is the ability to give back the same feedback, validation and encouragement to others. One friend that I haven’t seen in ages came to the meeting distressed with a family crisis. She said she was flabbergasted by the timing of this reading, as she was able to see how her actions have been slowly but surely spiralling her down the rabbit hole of self-pity. “Why am I the only one that has to deal with this crisis? Why does all the responsibility fall on me? Why me?” Who among us hasn’t felt this way at some point in our lives? But in talking it out she was able to see that those emotions were making her already bad situation so much worse. Just talking it out in the meeting was enough to turn her thinking around.
Another attendee shared that the line that stuck out to him in the reading was the idea that, while operating in self-pity, we would love to just scream to the world, “Leave me alone!” He said that is how he lived his last few years of active addiction… the more he drank, the more he isolated. He said the biggest motivation for him to attend daily 12-step meetings is to fight his tendency to isolate.
The gentleman who selected the reading shared that he once lived his life in self-pity. He often compared his life to the lives of others, and always found his wanting. He heard a quote once that changed this attitude forever:
Several others chimed in with regard to this train of thought, and added that comparing our insides to others’ outsides will accomplish nothing worthwhile, and typically leads to self-pity.
Possibly the best lesson I learned from today’s meeting: engaging in self-pity is the polar opposite of practicing acceptance. When someone shared this, a light bulb went off in my head. If I am feeling sorry for myself, it is, without exception, because I am finding someone or something unacceptable. Acceptance, a topic about which I have written on many, many occasions, has been a personal cornerstone of my recovery, so thinking about the two concepts as opposing really helped illuminate the areas of my life where I was guilty of the “poor me’s.”
A great meeting discussing a powerful topic that hits close to home for the alcoholic, and the non-alcoholic!
Thanks to all who helped turn my thinking around on the “childhood china dilemma” (see the last post for more details). I can’t tell you how much better I felt after reading all of your support! Here is the finished product, all ready to be stored away for the first grandchild (God willing, not for at least another decade!):
M(3), 7/7: Women Suffer Too
Happy Monday to all. For those in the US, hope everyone had some spectacular fireworks over the weekend (literal, not metaphorical)!
As it is the first Monday of the month, we covered a personal story in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, and this week I selected the story “Women Suffer Too.” The author of the story, Marty M., was a pioneer of Alcoholics Anonymous, went on to author two different books on alcoholism, and founded the National Council on Alcoholism. She is also one of the very first female members of Alcoholics Anonymous to achieve long-term sobriety.
Which, if you have ever read her story, is an absolute miracle considering how low the disease of alcoholism took her.
What’s great about meetings like the one I run is hearing the different parts of the reading selection that stood out for people. For me, reading Marty’s story, I marveled at how descriptively she painted her alcoholic bottom. Although I share little in common with her story, I could relate to so much of the feelings she experienced while in active addiction. Reading her story reminds me what active addiction is really like, and why I never want to relive it.
I also appreciate how compellingly she writes of life in recovery. The 12 steps, she claims, did so much more than keep her sober, they gave her a peace of mind that she had previously never experienced. I can relate to this viewpoint, and why I can now be grateful for the disease of addiction, as it has provided me with a set of coping skills for life. This past weekend, I read a wonderful blog post over at Process Not An Event where Robert presents a rebuttal of sorts to an article that criticizes the effectiveness of AA. My predominant response to articles that criticize AA is sadness: it makes me sad that there is any kind of need or desire to criticize a program where the membership is free, the only requirement to be there is a desire to be a member, and there are no rules whatsoever, just suggestions to improve your life. Take what you want and leave the rest… tell me what there is to criticize here! Marty M.’s story reminds me why I am so privileged to have found this program.
So that was my take-away from the story. From my share, we veered in as many directions as there were people in the room. One person’s take-away was how impressive he found Marty’s ability to go from being unable to believe in a Higher Power (she originally fancied herself “too intellectual” to accept any kind of spirituality in her life), to being such a strong advocate of AA. Her story will resound with the many beginners who struggle with a belief in a power greater than themselves.
Along those lines, another attendee found Marty’s ability to transcend the inherent selfishness of addiction to be the highlight of the story. The key for all of us in finding our spiritual path is to first disavow ourselves of the notion that the world revolves around us! Once we can start looking outside of ourselves, rather than perpetually seeking to satisfy our every perceived desire, we will find ourselves heading in the right spiritual direction.
Yet another attendee found the section of the story where Marty describes herself (and the rest of us who call ourselves alcoholics) as a “long-time escapist.” He considers himself very fortunate to have never had a desire to drink since entering the program (some quarter of a century ago!), but through his years he has certainly found other means of wanting to escape some of the harsher realities of life. He is able to put these lesser “escape hatches” into perspective by continuing to work his 12-step program and staying on solid spiritual ground. It’s less about the disease of addiction, and more about the human condition, he thinks, to want to temporarily escape life problems from time to time!
Finally, a gentleman newer to the program appreciated the author’s evolution from a person full of self-loathing, life in shambles, and a physically wrecked, to a person who has contributed so much to our 12-step program, and to the world in general. He sees this evolution as something to which he can aspire. His motivation for entering the 12-step program was how he felt he could no longer live with himself as a person, and he aspires to be a person of respect, first with himself, and then hopefully with others as Marty has done.
One story, endless viewpoints, and so much to learn from one another!
Just returning from an amazing mini-vacation with the family, and still reveling in the gratitude for all the wonderful memories we made!
M(3), 6/30: The Highs and Lows of Running a Meeting
Can you seriously believe it’s the last day of June?!? It’s seems like only yesterday that I was complaining non-stop about winter, and now the 4th of July is right around the corner (which, for people outside of the US, probably seems like a terribly random day, but it’s actually our Independence Day!).
Today’s meeting was a roller coaster of excitement, at least for it was for the chairperson (aka, Me). Let’s start with the positives:
1. Another record-breaking week: 17 attendees! The room is actually getting crowded!
2. Two separate compliments about the value of this particular meeting in their lives. Very heart-warming, and humbling too, that something for which I am responsible makes a difference in someone else’s life. Powerful stuff.
3. The months that house 5 Mondays within them are becoming quite challenging for me, as it requires extra work to research reading selections. About 30 minutes before the meeting I realized that the selection I prepared for the group was quite brief, and I was concerned that we would run short of materials to discuss. Not only did that not happen due to a large attendance, but the reading really struck a chord with this audience. For anyone with a subscription to the AA magazine Grapevine, the article is entitled “Drunk In Church” and can be found in the April 2014 issue. I picked the article both for its provocative title, and, tongue in cheek, for the regular attendee in my group who also happens to be a Catholic priest (which I told him, and he enjoyed). The discussion that followed, however, seemed to pick up on the theme of the very common dual diagnosis of depression and alcoholism. As someone who does not suffer from depression, it was eye-opening for me to hear about the challenges experienced by those afflicted with both conditions. To take or not to take medicine, judgment from the fellowship either way, and struggling to use the tools to deal with both the disease of addiction and the disorder of depression. There was a wide variety of personal experience, research, and opinion in the meeting, and I really took away a lot of wisdom. I would like to think the group enjoyed this discussion as well.
Alright, here’s the downside of today’s meeting, I’m not going to number this portion, as it falls into one general story. For those who do not follow regularly, last week I wrote that a newcomer approached me and asked me to be her sponsor. If you do remember this, you might also have notice the careful way I worded it, because I was not completely convinced her intentions were pure. On the other hand, who I am to judge, so I said of course, and gave her some basic instructions to follow about where and when we would meet next to move forward. For the rest of the week, I received some communication from her that indicated she might not have fully understood our discussion. For example, she wanted me to “give her a website where she could order some step work online and get started herself.” To those unfamiliar with the 12-step process, this is the polar opposite of how the steps work, at least the opposite in my 12-step fellowship. Again, fighting the urge to judge, I simply responded that we should wait until the agreed upon time, at which point I will have everything we need to get started.
She cancelled our meeting, and did not reply to the subsequent communication, my last one being, “Will I see you Monday?” By the time I started the meeting this morning, I assumed that I may not hear from her again, not uncommon at all within my Fellowship, and the meeting continued. Until about 25 minutes in, when she dramatically entered the meeting.
Let me take a pause in the story to describe dramatic: attention-grabbing outfit, loud entrance into the room, and, I kid you not, tried 3 different seats before she found one she liked. All in the middle of an ongoing meeting… “Oh, brother,” I think, “I’m in for an interesting second half!”
So now my chairperson sensors are on high alert, because I suspect I am going to need to intervene, something I have written before is not comfortable for me to do. All’s well for the next 5 minutes until break. During the break, I hear her emotionally speaking to the person next to her, and I hear the person next to her direct her to me. She approaches, and I am not clear on if she remembered that I am the one she asked to sponsor her or not, but launches into a personal story for which she needs advice. This is about 4 minutes into a 5-minute break.
Lest I sound heartless and/or insensitive, I have true empathy for the distress this woman seems to be experiencing, and I mean it when I say I have prayed for her every day since I’ve met her. On the other hand, I am struggling with being compassionate to her, and being compassionate to the other attendees of this meeting. So I apologize for interrupting (quite the feat, as she is speaking, not two inches from my face, in a rapid-fire manner, she is what Seinfeld has labeled a “close talker”), but I need to resume the meeting, let’s talk afterwards. She goes on for a bit more, but sits down quickly enough, and the meeting continues.
And then it’s her turn to share, and I am once again torn between letting her get out her emotions, and being fair to the rest of the group. If you have never attended a 12-step meeting, this story may make little sense; for those who are familiar, she is the type to take the meeting hostage. At least I had the foresight to check the clock as she started speaking, and I would have cut her off at 5 minutes, she spared me by finishing just shy of 5 minutes.
Here’s where it gets interesting: the main concern she shared was her family’s inability to accept her new sober self, and how much this disturbs her. Now, she is very new to recovery by her own admission (last Monday she told us she celebrated 75 days; today she said she “ninety-some” days sober), so I assume no one knows her personally, and certainly none of us knows her family. My thought process would be to guide her to looking more at herself and her actions, and less on her family’s. However, the next person to share seemed to hold a very different opinion, and spoke of how it can be difficult for the family to adjust to someone’s sobriety, and the resulting chaos that comes as a result. By the way the newcomer was vigorously nodding, I could see she enjoyed the support she was getting, and attempted to have a conversation on this subject, which I was able to deflect by calling on the next person to share. Not surprisingly, at the meeting’s close, the newcomer opted to speak with the supportive attendee rather than continue her conversation with me.
From my end of things, this woman, and how to proceed next, is a “let go and let God” situation. I would not have been giving the advice I clearly overheard the other woman giving; then again, who’s to say I know what’s right and what’s wrong? I am available if the woman needs me, at the moment she does not appear to have that need, and I will be available if that changes. As far as the balance between meeting the needs of the newcomer and the needs of the remaining attendees, I am hopeful that I kept a decent balance, but I suppose I will always wonder and second-guess myself. I guess if no one shows up next week, I’ll have my answer!
Having the privilege of getting up from writing this post, and making a pound cake for my Mother’s 74th birthday (found a recipe online that says it’s Elvis Presley’s favorite pound cake recipe, I’ll let you know how it turns out). Happy birthday Mom, I wouldn’t be the person I am without you 🙂