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M(3), 2/6/17: D.E.N.I.A.L.

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Somebody astutely pointed out this morning that last night’s Super Bowl excitement took a good chunk out of our usual attendance.  It was strange at first to see such a low number of meeting attendees, but by the end of the meeting I was grateful.  I forget the intimacy a smaller meeting brings.  Every single person got to share on his or her take on the reading, and a few of us shared twice.  It was a lovely, nostalgic hour for me.

Being the first Monday of the month, we read a personal story from the book Alcoholics Anonymous entitled “Crossing the River of Denial.”  A compelling tale of a woman whose ability to deny her alcoholism knew no bounds, this story touched a nerve with each of us in the meeting this morning.

I was hooked from the synopsis of the story, located directly below the title:

She finally realized that when she enjoyed her drinking, she couldn’t control it, and when she controlled it, she couldn’t enjoy it.  – pg. 328, Alcoholics Anonymous

That line took me back to the thick of active addiction.  Many a time I convinced myself that I had no problem, because when I chose to I could control how much I drank.  What I failed to notice that on those occasions (that, by the way, became less frequent as time went on) when I controlled my drinking, I was generally not enjoying the occasion at all.  I was too focused on keeping my drinking at pace with someone else, or counting the drinks I had, or making sure I drank water in between glasses.  It’s fairly difficult to stay present when you are that preoccupied with the amount of liquid you are consuming.

Another theme of the story is the depth of denial one is capable of experiencing.  The author suffered rather dire consequences, and hit lower and lower “bottoms,” and continued to deny her responsibility for her behavior.  It was always someone else’s fault, there was always someone whose problems were worse than hers, there was always a justification for her actions.

Again, this theme brought back painful memories for me, as I was an expert at dodging blame.  Either it wasn’t as bad as you were making it out to be, it wasn’t your business to be noticing, or why are you talking to me when you should be talking to (fill in the blank, someone whose behavior was far worse than mine).

Of course, all personal stories in the Big Book end happily, and this one was no exception.  Once she was able to hear for herself that she was not alone in her thoughts and feelings, that others had gone before her and changed the course of their lives, she knew she wanted what they had.  She jumped in with both feet, and her life is dramatically different today.  She’s not sure which part of her 12-step work is keeping her sober, and she doesn’t really care.  All she knows is that it works, so she keeps at it, one day at a time.

What a message of hope, and a great reminder not to get too caught up in the “why’s” of any given situation.  Do what works, and give the result up to the Universe.

Some other great insights from this morning’s meeting:

  • One of the great lines from the reading speaks to the idea of doing the next right thing:

“… the Big Book had no chapters on “Into Thinking” or “Into Feeling” – only “Into Action.”  -pg. 336, Alcoholics Anonymous

  • Some of us think that the great hope is to control our drinking, but upon further investigation we realize it’s not that we wish to control our drinking, but to drink as we wish and escape consequences.  And when we are able to honestly acknowledge that, we are well on our way to choosing sobriety.
  • The story is a good reminder of the value of keeping things green.  It is easy to forget, as time goes by, how difficult and painful active addiction truly is.  By reading the depths this woman experienced before choosing sobriety, we remember ourselves how painful it was for us.
  • The unacceptable becomes acceptable is yet another theme of the story that is poignant for those of us in recovery.  Almost all of us can point to a time where we said that we are not alcoholic because we didn’t (fill in the blank).  As time went on and we continued to drink, those same statements became null and void.  Because this is a disease of progression, all those things we claim we haven’t done become a “yet…”  things that will eventually come true if we continue to live in denial.
  • The word denial itself can be used as an acronym:

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Happy Monday to all!

Today’s Miracle:

Learning from, and being inspired by, a small group of trusted friends!

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M(3), 8/17/15: The Dangers of Complacency

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:

  1. admission of powerlessness
  2. 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…

in 2005!

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.

Today’s Miracle:

Listening for the similarities, rather than the differences, is a miracle!

M(3), 6/1/15: DENIAL (Don’t Even Know I Am Lying)

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!

Today’s Miracle:

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!

…It Ain’t Just a River in Egypt…

The thing about denial is that it doesn’t feel like denial when it’s going on. -Georgina Kleege

It seems to be the time of year for this subject, because I have been hearing a lot about it.  And who can blame someone?  Holiday parties, egg nog, champagne toasts, wine spritzers, cookie exchange invitations that also require a bottle of wine… it can be difficult to picture a Merry Christmas without the merriment of alcohol.  So, in honor of the holiday, here is the top 10 list of denials I have either used personally, or have heard about in meetings:

1.  I’m really not that bad, because I haven’t… (fill in the blank:  gotten a DUI, overdosed, gone to rehab, etc.)

2.  Yeah, I probably shouldn’t drink, but what’s wrong with smoking a little pot? (switch substances as needed)

3.  I’m a grown-ass man (or woman), I’ll do what I want!

4.  I will just cut back, and drink like normal people (or, I’ll just pace myself, or I’ll drink water in between drinks, this list could go on forever).

5.  I’ll stop AFTER the holidays, because, really, who would quit before?!?

6.  I will stop drinking (or using) if you will just get off my back.

7.  How can I not drink when all my friends (or family, or co-workers) drink?

8.  I would stop drinking if I could just eliminate the stress of… (fill in the blank:  job, spouse, kids, finances, almost anything could be inserted)

9.  If you had the (spouse, kids, family, job) I do, you would drink like me too.

10.  And my own personal favorite, one I used for months on end… I will absolutely stop this insanity TOMORROW…

The real problem with denial is why I used the quote at the top… the deeper you are in it, the less likely to see it for what it is… an excuse to avoid the pain of change.  People in denial truly believe the lies they are telling (believe me, I speak from experience).

Here’s what I’m grateful to know today:  there is no problem I have that a drink or drug won’t make worse.  Once I decide to use a substance to solve a problem, I’ve just increased my burden exponentially.  I thank God I don’t have to live like that anymore!

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