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M(3), 6/27/16: Breaking the Chain

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Already we are heading into the month of July… incredible!

Because it is the end of the month, we read from the book Forming True Partnerships:  How AA members use the program to improve relationships.  The story was from the chapter “The Family,” and talked about the author’s relationship with her alcoholic father in three stages:

I.  When her father was actively drinking and she was a child

II.  When her father got sober and her drinking took off

III.  The relationship they were able to build in sobriety.

A fascinating read for most everyone; even the attendees who did not have alcoholic parents could relate, as everyone in the room had someone in their family who suffers/suffered from the disease of addiction.

Part I mirrored my own childhood:  the shame that goes along with a parent’s alcoholic behavior, the sure knowledge of a personality change the moment a drink is consumed, the uncertainty of knowing which personality would be walking in the door each evening.

I loved reading about the beautiful relationship the author was able to build with her father once she started getting sober.  My father passed away years before even my active addiction, but I have daydreamed often about how he and I might relate now that I am sober.  I’d like to think we would have forged a deeper and more meaningful relationship that we ever had.

And I also believe that he is proud of me, wherever he is.

Some of the other members of the meeting touched on childhood shame surrounding parents and alcoholism, and learning how to discern between the person and the disease.  Several with alcoholic parents remarked that they were always able to do this; they could love their mother or father but hate the effects alcohol had on him or her.

This point stood out to me, as I recently had a discussion with a close friend about this very idea:  loving the person, but hating the disease.  It made me wonder if I had been able to make this distinction with my own father.

The truth is, I’m not sure I ever thought consciously about it while he was alive; I just hadn’t developed enough self-awareness at that young an age.

Then I thought to myself:  do I make that distinction for myself, and my addiction?  I will have to ponder this some more, but I’m sorry to say I’m not sure I do.  At this point, a few years into sobriety, I can say I no longer experience the raw shame of my actions in active addiction, but I think that is because I feel like I’ve rectified to the best of my ability by living each of these past 1600 or so days sober.  And as I thought about it further, and considered some of the “lesser” demons I’m trying to conquer, I’m not sure I am separating myself from my actions.  When I intend to eat well, exercise and drink lots of water, then fail to do so, I feel bad about myself, I don’t separate out the action from the person.

And as I write that I see it for the old thinking that it is, and I realize there is work yet for me to do.  Good thing I wasn’t looking to graduate anytime soon.


There were two women new to sobriety present at the meeting, and both are experiencing struggles as they try to navigate life sober.  One woman’s story in particular spoke to me.  She has less than a month sober, and is battling a few things at once.  First, she has adult children living in her home who still drink.  So there is the challenge of going into the fridge for a bottle of water, and finding it standing next to a six-pack of beer.

Due to a medical condition, she is responsible for driving her husband everywhere he needs to go, and thus finds social situations that involve drinking to be a challenge.

Finally, her adult children want to know why, even though she has been to rehab, been to outpatient therapy, been to a counselor, and is attending meetings, why would she still be sad and struggling?

I am indignant on this woman’s behalf, which of course does her no good.  What I could do, and what a couple of us did after the meeting, is share what worked for us in early sobriety.  Probably the greatest piece of advice I can give (completely and utterly from the rear view mirror, mind you) is this:  ask for help.  Tell people what you need.  Set some boundaries.  People who aren’t afflicted with the disease have zero concept of its trials and tribulations, and it is wrong for us to think otherwise.

Do whatever you need to stay sober, even if it feels selfish to the extreme.  Early sobriety is not a life sentence; you will get more comfortable with time.  But to acquire that time you need to put yourself first.  Failing to do so puts your sobriety in peril.

I’m hoping to see my friend next week with a report that she was able to negotiate some breathing room for herself.

That’s all I’ve got this beautiful summer day!

Today’s Miracle:

I will count mindful organization as the miracle of the moment.  There’s a lot going on in my household this week, and what’s keeping me sane is a list, and reminding myself to stay in the moment.  It truly is a miracle when you take the time to appreciate the here and now!

M(3), 9/14/15: Staying Away From The First Drink

Happy Monday to all!

We finally, after what feels like ages, had a decent sized crowd this morning, a sure indication that fall is here.  Not entirely sure why the summer brings smaller meeting attendance, but 3 summers into running this meeting, and the fact remains the same.

The stunningly perfect fall day in my neck of the woods could have gotten people out of their houses as well.

In any event, big crowd, and my favorite book in the literature rotation, Living Sober.  And the icing on the cake:  two newcomers, one of whom had never heard of the book before!

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, Living Sober is the only book in the 12-step literature selection that made even the tiniest bit of sense to me in early sobriety.  It is like a manual on how to get and stay sober.  It is easy to read, and chock full of practical, relevant advice if you are just starting on your road to recovery.

Come to think of it, it’s relevant even if you’re further along that recovery road!

Today we read the chapter entitled “Staying Away From The First Drink.”  It goes on to describe the benefits of focusing on not picking up the first drink when trying to get sober.

Most people, myself included, read this advice and thought, “Well, duh!”  It sounds oversimple, almost a waste of paper and ink writing a chapter on something so obvious.

But for those of us who have tried and failed to stop drinking, we need to think harder about this advice before we toss it aside.  How many times have we gone into an evening promising ourselves that we’d just have one, and then wound up drinking more than we could even remember?  Or swearing we would go an evening/weekend/month without alcohol, just to prove to ourselves that we could, and wind up giving in at the first possible opportunity?

In giving up on sobriety, the process is usually the same:  I’ll drink, but I’ll do so moderately.  I’ll set a limit, I’ll drink water in between drinks, I’ll drink as slow as my moderately drinking friend X, I’ll only drink beer.  This list could go on for quite a bit.

Sometimes these strategies work, which proves to us even more conclusively that we weren’t that bad.  Look… I went out for the evening and only drank 2 glasses of wine… what problem drinker can say that?

The person in denial of problem drinking will keep that 2-glasses-of-wine-night in his or her back pocket for a long, long time.  It will be pulled out as evidence any time the threat of being called an alcoholic is near.

The chapter goes on to describe how much simpler it is to stay away from the first drink.  Rather than obsess over counting how many, how drunk, how fast you’re imbibing, how much alcohol before you’ve crossed the line, keep your focus much narrower, and simply avoid the first drink.  In so doing, you take off the table any concerns about every one of those other issues.

I remember thinking this was the most annoyingly obvious piece of advice that did me no good, and I remember when I decided it was the most ingenious bit of wisdom that anyone ever conceived.  Often, the simplest things are the most inspired.

This advice took on new meaning for me in later stages of recovery.  If you attend enough meetings you will surely hear a long-timer sagely intone, “You are either moving towards a drink or away from one.”  It drives me crazy when I hear it, and sets my monkey mind into overdrive:  oh no!  I might be heading towards a drink right now!  I might have been heading towards one for hours/days/weeks/months!  Maybe I will relapse, and look back and realize the relapse started right this very second!!!

If you wonder if I’m exaggerating for effect… I am not.  If anything, I’m understating.

The advice “just stay away from the first drink” is the antidote to this mental madness.  If I do nothing else right, and everything else wrong, as long as I stay away from that first drink, I am sober.

Whew!

Today’s Miracle:

In honor of National Recovery month, I wrote a few lines for the website addiction.com.  Check it out!

M(3), 9/7/15: Making the Impossible Choice of Sobriety

Happy Labor Day to all my fellow Americans.  Wait, come to think of it, happy Labor Day to all my friends!

Any meeting day that is also a holiday is a crapshoot in terms of attendance.  I didn’t count, but surely we were on the low side of average today.  I selected a story that we read exactly a year ago.  It is called “Physician, Heal Thyself” and it is found in the book Alcoholics Anonymous.  It is a story of a person with a high bottom; the author was a very successful surgeon who claims to have made more money is his last year of drinking than he ever had before or since.  His marriage was never in jeopardy, he was beloved by all.  To use his expression, his was the skid row of success, which is just as miserable as the skid row in any city.

In order to select that story, I needed to research back through this blog to see what I read last September.  In doing so, I read over the blog and the subject matter discussed, and I considered that on the way over to this morning’s meeting.  The general discussion then was how to choose sobriety when you are unconvinced or unwilling to accept that alcohol is a problem.

In reflecting upon that theme, I remembered a woman sharing about this subject when I was new to the program.  She said that even though she was 5 years sober (at the time), even though she was a regular attendee of our 12-step program, even though she had experienced miracles as a result of successfully working the steps… even with all of this information, she still will, once in a blue moon, get that thought, “Maybe it wasn’t all that bad.  Maybe I’m not really an alcoholic.”

Everyone in the room chuckled that day.  My own reaction, not knowing the woman particularly well, was to smile and nod, but think it an unrelatable story for me.  At less than a year sober (at the time), and happily sitting on the pink cloud of early sobriety, I scoffed at the idea I would ever forget what brought me into the rooms.

Now, of course, I know better than to scoff at anything, and, of course, in the years that followed, I have had those snatches of insanity… was it really that bad?  Would it be the end of the world if I drank again?  Fortunately, staying connected with a sober support network, both in the “blogosphere” and in the live world, helps me to play that tape through, and reach the logical conclusion that it makes more sense to stay sober.

So anyway, that was my thought process, and what I figured I might share once we read the story.

Five minutes after the meeting started, the woman who made the comment that started this thought process entered the meeting.  I have seriously not seen this woman in well over a year, maybe closer to two years.

I’m telling you, I can’t make this stuff up!

Aside from having the wonderful experience of reconnecting with an old friend, we had a newcomer at the meeting.  It took him some time to share, but when he did, it was powerful:  he had just left rehab on Friday, and today he has a family function where drinking will take place.  He is conflicted about so much, and the mere thought of attending this function cost him an entire night’s sleep.  He does not know what to do.

When I hear stories of this nature, I am immediately transported back in time, back to when I was trying and failing to stay sober.  My core belief at that point was that nothing in my life need change just because I’m not drinking.  Of course I will attend drinking family functions, why wouldn’t I?  As long as I don’t drink, what possible difference could it make?  How could I explain to husband/kids/mom/aunts/uncles/cousins why I was not present?

What would they do without me?

When written out like that, and with a small bit of sobriety under my belt, the illogic of that paragraph is obvious.  But to the gentleman sitting in that meeting this morning, not so much.  In speaking with him afterwards, he said, “But I want to spend time with my wife and son, and they want to spend time with the larger family, what can I do?”

In early days, it all seems so impossible.  The reality is, the time frame of chaos, uncertainty and fear, when contrasted against the timeframe of your life, is really quite short.   It seems inconceivable to put something like recovery in front of things like spending time with your spouse and child, or a family obligation.  But once you make that choice, what you come to realize is that in a very short period of time you will have it all, you will have those blessings and so many more in a way you cannot even imagine.

And all you have to do, just for today, is put your sobriety first.  Whatever that means for you:  skipping one family picnic, or taking your own car so you can get out if it gets too tense, attending a meeting, sharing what’s on your mind.

That newcomer will be on my mind today, and I’m hoping he is able to do what he needs to do, today, to stay sober.

Today’s Miracle:

Heading to a baseball game today.  The entire family looking forward to the same event at the same time, especially when two of those family members are teenagers… that is a miracle!

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!

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