An interesting meeting this morning. We read from the book Living Sober; I selected the chapter about gratitude. We’re so close to Thanksgiving, it seems a natural fit!
I shared first, and talked about a specific section of the chapter as it pertains to my journey of recovery: the idea of opening up to the perspectives of others, and the joy that open-mindedness can bring. An honest share, if not particularly thrilling.
From there a gentleman shared about his struggles with gratitude. He recognizes it has been missing in his two and a half years of sobriety. He wants to cultivate gratitude for his life, but anger and resentments continue to dog him. In his very share this morning, he spoke of realizing how much he has for which to be grateful compared to the lives of others, and immediately launched into a tale involving the misfortunes of others. The focus of his share on gratitude turned out to be all the things for which he is not grateful in his life.
From there, a few others spoke of a similarly themed struggle: fondly remembering the “glory days” of early sobriety gratitude. For example, waking up without a hangover and feeling exuberant about it. Being asked a question about the night before, and triumphantly realizing you remember the entire night.
A personal favorite of mine: a family drama unfolds, and not being at the center of it!
Several of the meeting attendees today wistfully remembered that feeling of gratitude, and long to get it back again. Gratitude is more of a struggle these days, and sobriety can be taken for granted the longer you stay sober.
Then, about halfway through the meeting, S shared. S has been a semi-regular, quiet attendee of this meeting. I wrote about S a few weeks back that after 8 years of sobriety, he relapsed, and has been painfully trying to get his recovery back on track. As anyone who relapses knows, it does not get easier with prior sober time under your belt.
I actually haven’t seen S since he shared about his relapse. I held my breath as he started to speak, uncertain if he has remained sober in the weeks since I’ve seen him.
Fortunately he has remained sober, and he spoke of struggling to find gratitude with a relapse so close in his rear view mirror. He said with all the challenges he currently faces in early sobriety, the thing for which he is most grateful is the opportunity to sit in a room full of recovery-minded people and simply absorb the positive energy. He doesn’t really have to hear anything special, or something that speaks to him personally. Just sitting and hearing the positive talk, feeling the empathy, and knowing that he can share what is going on with him and people will listen without judgment… this is all enough to turn his day around. He came in to the meeting in a negative state of mind, but he is leaving with a positive one.
All this from a guy who almost never raises his hand to share.
From that point forward, every single person who shared had something for which to be profoundly grateful: the gorgeous weather, the support of family, the health of their loved ones, simply being alive, sober and present this morning. I will speak for myself and say I felt the atmosphere change. It’s not that it had been a negative vibe, necessarily, but it lightened considerably from what it was.
I am very sorry to report that the gentleman entrenched in his misery left at the halfway point and did not have the opportunity to feel this shift.
It just made me think: if S’s simple words transformed an already happy crowd, then what could I do on any given day? I think I feel a challenge coming on, my kids better watch out this afternoon 🙂
The reminder of the transformative power of gratitude
Another Monday, another great Monday meeting! Ten people today, the largest group in several weeks, and everyone had something wonderful to share. A meeting does not get better than it did today!
I selected a group of readings from the AA book As Bill Sees It, which all fell under the category of complacency, a topic that is familiar to anyone in attendance at 12-step meetings. Complacency is a feeling that those of us in recovery must guard against. It is as cunning, baffling and powerful as addiction itself, because it can sneak up on you when you least expect it.
Which brings me to the title of this post. At today’s meeting, a long-timer shared his acronym for a slip, which is a term people use to describe picking up a drink after having sober time. Disclaimer: I would never use this word, as it seems too mild to describe the action that is relapse, but that’s just my opinion. Anyway, today I learned that S.L.I.P. means “sobriety loses its priority.” What a great way to describe it, because inevitably if you are choosing to pick up a drink or drug after sober time, then you have ultimately decided that something or someone is more important than whatever reason you had for choosing sobriety in the first place.
How can that happen? How could you fight so hard for something, work so long to achieve a goal, and then let it “slip” away? Quite easily, as anyone who frequents the rooms of AA will tell you. Right after my meeting, I learned of two different people I know personally who chose to go back to their addiction. These were both people with a decent amount of sober time, who were very committed as far as I could tell, and spoke eloquently of how much their sobriety meant to them. I do not know their stories personally, as they have not returned to tell them, but I have heard from many who were fortunate enough to make it back after a relapse to understand the warning signals.
The first warning signal to a slip is feeling like you’ve got the whole recovery game figured out, and that you’ve won the battle against addiction. I have heard many stories of people with sober time who had a relapse, and without fail every one of them start their story by saying that they felt they no longer needed a 12-step program, that they could maintain sobriety on their own. As time went by, and left to their own devices, the reasons not to drink diminished, while the desire to drink grew, until eventually it simply made sense to believe that this time the outcome would be a different one.
Complacency is one of those topics with which I struggle, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my way of thinking. The minute I hear the word, my mind start racing towards all the things I’m not doing, or could be doing better, or used to do but have not of late. I get myself all worked up, convinced that I am a breath away from a relapse. Just as quickly, I will get defensive (mind you, this is all in my head, who needs any extra voices when I’ve got so many of my own?), and start arguing all the good I do. Then I’m tired from all the internal battling, and I wind up right back at square one. Not very productive, I assure you.
So the trick, for me anyway, is finding balance, and of course that can apply to any area of life, not just recovery. Balance between keeping recovery as a priority, and doing the things I need to do every day to keep my sobriety, and enjoying the peace and serenity that are the fruits of that labor. The greatest news about complacency: once I see I’ve started down that path, it is very easy to turn around and find my way back. It’s all about awareness… keep checking in, and I will not stray very far. Recovery, like so many things in life, is a process, not an event!
For me, the greatest antidote to complacency is gratitude. When I heard those stories, my first gut reaction was to shoot up a quick prayer for them, and to end with “there but for the grace of God go I.”
When I was in College, it seemed that no matter where my friends and I were driving, which direction we were heading, nor which road we traveled, we would invariably pass a sign for a small nearby town called Limeport, which “led” us to to the expression I used in the title above. This is a small and not-really-that-funny joke that we proceeded to beat to death for years.
I found myself thinking of that expression after my Monday meeting this morning. The topic was Step 5, and since I am writing about the steps each Friday, I will skip the main discussion we had. Instead, we had some extra time, and a gentleman shared that he had a thought about drinking. He had a disappointing day, which turned into resentment, and both were feelings over which he used to drink. The good news is he did not drink, and the better news is that he is sharing about it in a meeting.
Before I left for my meeting I had the opportunity to read the weekly post of one of my favorite bloggers in the world, Sober Identity. In her blog she spoke eloquently of a current situation with which she is dealing, and how parallel this situation runs to the time she began recovery. Even though she has been sober for many years now, she can closely identify current life issues to her recovery from alcoholism.
My life has been really and truly blessed, and while I am very grateful, I can take it for granted, which I believe I had been doing for a while now. Last week, I had an issue come up in my life… nothing that made me want to drink; rather, the issue brought my past mistakes back front and center for a few days. At the time, I felt like I swallowed a boulder, I could not sleep, and was upset enough that I could not even open up and talk to my husband about it. This tumultuous period lasted only about two days, but when life has been as good as it has been, two days seems like an eternity. I finally picked myself up by my bootstraps, did what needed to be done, and slowly but surely life is getting back to normal. I believe, very deeply, that this too shall pass, and I have enough sobriety to know that there is no way around things, you just have to go through them. I am almost there, and the light at the end of the tunnel is glimmering even now.
My point in what may seem like a pointless post: when you are an alcoholic/addict, all things lead back to it. Seemingly unrelated life circumstances, good feelings or bad, actions and reactions… when you are in recovery, everything intersects. If we keep this thought at the forefront of our minds, and use the tools we’ve been given, we can get through anything!
In solidarity with my wonderful friend over at Sober Identity, if she can detox from sugar for the next 28 days, then I will detox from my (current) biggest vice: salt!
Monday is here, and the title of my post was the topic of today’s meeting (Chapter 27 in Living Sober if you want to read along!). The basic premise of the chapter is this: just because we “put the plug in the jug” doesn’t mean we transform into a whole new person. Old thought patterns still exist, and will (not may, but will) emerge, over and over, so we need to figure out how to deal with them. The answer? We in recovery have a new yardstick by which we measure our lives, our thoughts, and our decisions. And when we stumble backwards into old patterns of thinking, we can, first, recognize it, then second, use the new yardstick we’ve been given: “Hey, old thought pattern, do you keep me sober, or do you lead me back towards a drink? Is this thought pattern consistent with the way I am living life today, or is it more consistent with the way I lived in active addiction?” When you hold something up against those standards, the answer is usually pretty clear.
I remember a time, years ago, when I was trying to figure out what the heck my problem was (because the one thing I knew it wasn’t: alcoholism). Anyway, I was seeing a therapist, and was whining and moaning about how I just wanted to drink “like a normal person” (I swear when I said it, I honestly thought I was the first one to ever have that thought). The therapist said to me, “You know, for some people, “normal drinking” is not drinking at all, for those people it is entirely normal not to drink.” Even though this occurred probably close to 10 years ago, I still have perfect recall of the way I rejected the thought completely and utterly out of hand. I mean, yes, a human being had just uttered those words, but surely she was speaking in some high-level, esoteric way, because I personally knew zero real life examples of this hypothesis.
Having grown up in a large, Irish Catholic, close-knit family, I had never experienced a social situation that did not involve alcohol. Surely, I exaggerate, right? Somewhere there must have been a funeral, or a breakfast, some situation that did not involve an alcoholic beverage? No, and no… funerals were actually a great excuse for drinking (we were a classic Irish wake family), and breakfast would have Bloody Mary’s galore. It was, simply and plainly, all I knew.
So when it came time to admitting that alcohol was not working in my life, it is not difficult to see why I struggled with understanding the cause and effect relationship. All around me were people who drank as I did, and no one seemed to be questioning them. I could tell you tales that would make your hair stand up, some of the escapades in which my relatives have drunkenly found themselves. So why am I getting hassled?
Until, finally, I let go of the old thought patterns… what is or is not working in the lives of anyone and everyone around me is inconsequential. When I drink, my life becomes chaotic, when I do not drink, my life is peaceful. When I drink, I am ashamed. When I don’t drink, I am proud of myself. When I drink, I have horrific consequences. Since I have stopped drinking, I have had nary a consequence with which to deal.
Does it get any simpler than that?
I am still riding the high of yesterday’s miracle, which was a celebration of the beautiful Moms in my life, and a fantastic time with my husband and children celebrating me. I hope all the awesome Mothers reading this had a magnificent day yesterday!
Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; and nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude. -Thomas Jefferson
Today is Monday, and hence the Monday morning meeting I started. We had a newcomer today who shared about his obsession to drink having him “by the throat.” He is staying sober, but wonders when the obsession will leave. This kind of raw honesty is the meat and potatoes of a good AA meeting (at least in my opinion), because it allows everyone to share their journey through obsessive thoughts, and what they did to work through them and come out on the other side.
Of course, there is no formula for dispelling the obsession to drink. Each person’s recovery is unique. In this morning’s meeting alone, one woman (28 years sober) said she struggled with the obsession to drink for a year and a half, another gentleman, almost 2 years sober, said the obsession to drink left him on the night he surrendered. But there is one universal truth for everyone in recovery: do not drink, under any and all conditions. So when the obsession hits, you have a number of alternatives, but the only must is… don’t drink. Period. As long as you follow that one rule, sooner or later, things will become clear, and you will know how to proceed to live life happy, joyous and free.
I can say, with not just a little astonishment, that the obsession to alter myself chemically has been lifted, thank you God. And what a miracle that is. What I do struggle with are feelings that come up, unpleasant feelings, when I am faced with memories of the past. When I drive somewhere I have not been in a while, and it brings up a painful memory of the last time I was there, and I was in active addiction. Or I put on a piece of clothing I haven’t worn for a while, and I remember the last time I wore it was when I was actively using. None of this makes me want to pick up a drink or drug, but it can be an almost visceral experience, and leaves me uncomfortable for a while.
The remedy for this ailment is reminding myself that it is just a feeling, that feelings are not facts, and that this too shall pass. I ask God, in the moment, to remove it as soon as possible. And, when I have the next possible opportunity, I share it with another person in recovery. Most important, I have absolute faith that, in time, I will be relieved of these passing thoughts, since I have already been relieved of more overwhelming and destructive ones.
Leading a meeting where I witness recovery in real-time is a miracle that defies description, and I am humbled and grateful to be a part of the process.
The theme of the meeting I attended today was “I only have the power to choose the first drink; after that I have forfeited my ability to choose.” Three different people in the meeting I attended today alone could attest to this statement. What they mean is they consciously chose, after a period of sobriety, to believe they could drink moderately. What they discovered was that once they started drinking, they reverted, in a very short period of time, to their past alcoholic behaviors, and they completely lost control of their ability to drink in a controlled fashion.
I have heard versions of this same story countless times before, but the meaning behind the horror stories of relapse, for whatever reason, was lost on me until today. I guess sometimes you have to hear something a hundred times before it sinks in. And what sunk in, today, was really a message of hope. I have the power to choose the first drink. Now, at 121 days clean and sober, the choice is really and truly mine, and, as long as I don’t pick up that first one, I am really going to be okay. And what a miracle it is to have regained this power in such a short period of time… imagine what miracles are yet to come!
Two common struggles I have been hearing in the rooms of AA lately are “why can’t I drink and have fun like normal people?” and “I can’t tolerate staying sober for the rest of my life!” I would guess with the warm weather upon us and barbecues, graduation parties and the like in abundance, this would be the natural thought progression.
Hearing these struggles is very good for me for two reasons. First, it makes me grateful that I am personally not struggling with either of them, at least not for today. But the second reason it is good for me is that it reminds me of when I did feel that way, and the subsequent actions I took because of those feelings, and the horrific consequences I suffered as a result of my actions.
It is so important to remember the negative thoughts that can so easily lead an addict down the path away from recovery; remember them, and think those negative thoughts all the way through to their logical conclusion. Because simply thinking “I wish I could drink like a normal person” can lead to reminiscing about the good times of drinking. And chances are, if you are an addict, the good times, if there really were any at all, were a very long time ago, and the more recent memories, if you choose to recall them, are anything but good. Typically the reality is that those memories are ones that you wish you had never experienced in the first place, and hope to God that everyone around you forgets as well.
Finally, remembering those struggles helps me to sharpen one of the most important tools in my recovery toolbox, namely, re-focusing on the present. If I ever get the blues about never being able to drink again, all I have to do is ask myself this simple question: am I able to abstain from using any mind altering substances… just for today? Invariably, the answer is yes, and there is a profound relief that comes with not worrying about the future. This skill can be applied to almost any problem in life, with the same results, and the peace it brings is absolutely worth the effort.
Yesterday a young man shared in the meeting I attended that he is six months sober, and completely bored with his new life. As he put it, “I just do the same things, day after day, and I am tired of it. I miss the chaos of my old life.”
That same night I attended a party with many old non-alcoholic friends and family, and most were drinking. As I watched them, I remembered what the young man had shared, and I could relate, a bit, with what he said. For me, it is not boredom with my non-drinking routine… on the contrary, I am still profoundly grateful that I have my routine, and I am still amazed every time I accomplish a goal while clean and sober. But I can relate to watching “normal” people who get to enjoy alcohol and seem to have no consequences from enjoying it… and I get jealous. Why can’t I do that? Why did I make the decisions I did to end up at this point in my life? Why can’t I be normal?
And when I have those thoughts… which are, blessedly, few and far between these days… I have to use the tools I have been given to me by my 12 step program, and play that tape all the way through. First, I am not living the lives of any of those people, so I have no clue if and what consequences they, or their loved ones, are paying for their drinking.
Secondly, under no circumstances would I have ever been happy being a “normal” drinker. I never, in my entire life, wanted just one drink. On those rare occasions when I was able to drink moderately, I was most likely doing it to please someone in my life, I was certainly not pleasing myself. To please myself, I would have drunk until all the alcohol was gone… that is the cold, harsh truth.
Finally, and most importantly, what are the drinking people doing that I’m not doing, besides getting drunk? I am talking to the same people they are, enjoying the same jokes and stories, eating the same foods, and enjoying the same event that they are enjoying. In fact, I may even have one up on them, because I will remember every detail, and I won’t have a headache in the morning.
So I am praying for that young man in the meeting, I hope he is able to reach the same level of peace that I have in my sobriety…