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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.

Today’s Miracle:

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), 9/29: How Big of a Deal is an Alcoholic Slip?

 

Polarized would be the word I choose to describe this morning’s meeting, and never before have I had a chance to do that!

This being the fifth Monday in the month of September, I did a little research and came up with an unusual article to use as this morning’s reading selection.  Originally published in 1947 in the AA magazine Grapevine, “Slips” was written by Dr. William D. Silkworth, an American medical doctor who was tremendously influential in the founding of the 12-step program Alcoholics Anonymous.  Silkworth’s position in this article is that a relapse, or “slip,” to an alcoholic can be compared to the cardiac patient who, after time spent abiding by the rules of his condition, slowly but surely reverts to his old lifestyle that caused the heart attack.  In other words:  alcoholics are human beings first and foremost, and the poor decisions made by an alcoholic are often the result of flawed humanity, rather than by the condition of alcoholism.

I picked this reading because of its provocative nature.  The 12-step program to which I am accustomed tends to teach a bit opposite this idea, and yet one of the players instrumental in the development of this very program is stating otherwise.  Parts of the reading that spoke to me personally is the idea that alcoholism is a disease, but one that does not define me as a person:

Both in professional and lay circles there is a tendency to label everything than an alcoholic may do as “alcoholic behavior.”  The truth is it is simply human nature.  It is very wrong to consider many of the personality traits observed in liquor addicts as peculiar to the alcoholic.  Emotional and mental quirks are classified as symptoms of alcoholism merely because alcoholics have them, yet these same quirks can be found among non-alcoholic also.  Actually they are symptoms of mankind, ORDINARY PEOPLE.

-Silkworth, “Slips,” Grapevine magazine

This part made sense to me, especially as I mature a bit in sobriety.  As I observe the world and the people around me with the clarity of sober eyes, I realize that my character defects are common to those around me, whether they are alcoholic or not.  Remembering that to err is human calms the perfectionistic thinker who dwells within.

And yet, I had the vague sense that a critical something was off in this article, but, truth be told, I just figured my comrades on Monday morning would help me figure it out, so I put it aside until today.  And my friends did not disappoint!

The first several to share their opinion on the article viewed it favorably.  They liked the idea that we are human first, alcoholic second.  And each of the people who enjoyed the article emphasized the importance of remembering that relapses, or slips, happen long before the first drink or drug in ingested.  A relapse starts the moment we begin sliding back into old ways of thinking and acting.  If we continue down that path, the return to alcohol is inevitable.

The next group of people to share had a different opinion.  And while they used words like feeling “ambiguous” and “ambivalent” about the article, it was clear to me that they in fact disagreed with Silkworth’s opinion.  As one attendee put it, Silkworth is a doctor and therefore looks at it from a physical point of view.  Alcoholism, however, is a three-pronged disease:  physical, mental, spiritual.  When you consider the totality of the condition, alcoholism, and the effects of a relapse, are quite different that a cardiac patient who reverts to his previous unhealthy lifestyle.

The next attendee to share had even stronger feelings about it:  the article completely disregards the foundation of the AA program; namely, the need to discover and rely upon a power greater than oneself.  In no way does this correlate to a cardiac patient.  In addition, there is simply no comparison to the repercussions of an alcoholic “slip” and that of a cardiac one.  A cardiac patient can smoke one cigarette with minimal consequences, but there is no telling what may happen when a recovered alcoholic takes that first drink.

There was also an animated discussion on the use of the word “slip” when describing an alcoholic relapse.  On this point everyone seemed to agree:  a slip implies something accidental, whereas a person with sober time who chooses to drink does so with absolute premeditation.

There was a lively debate back and forth about some of the semantics of the article, but everyone seemed to enjoy reading it and, more importantly, considering his or her own feeling on the subject.  Another general consensus reached is that a healthy fear of picking up a drink is not a bad thing, in the same way that a healthy fear of getting burned by a stove, or being hit by erratic drivers is not a bad thing; both keep us safe.

I encourage readers who are in recovery to take a second a read Silkworth’s article… I would love to know your thoughts on the subject!

Today’s Miracle:

Participating in such a lively discussion, and taking that energy with me as I continue my day!

M(3), 2/17: Dissecting Step Two

The literature for today’s meeting was chapter 2 in the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and discusses in detail the thinking behind Step 2 in the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous:

Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.

This meeting, for me personally, was chock full of interesting shares, but before I venture into what I learned I will write about my experience with Step 2.  Step 2 can be broken down into two parts:

  1. Belief in a power greater than ourselves
  2. Belief that this power can restore us to sanity

I took no issue with the first part of this step, as I had a core belief in a Higher Power.  Having sat in a meeting or two, I have come to hold an immense gratitude for this core belief, as I know this is a major hurdle for many to jump.

The second part of this step, I have come to realize, was a stumbling block.  While I believed in a God of my understanding, I held tight to the belief that “God helps those who help themselves.”  In placing the emphasis on “helping myself,” I was giving myself all the power, and blocking His ability to help me.  Consequently, it took many months before I could finally let go of the belief that I had to do this on my own.   Since that time, my concept and my relationship with my Higher Power has deepened and grown, and I believe will continue to do so for the rest of my life…. good stuff!

Okay, onto to the wisdom I have gained from my fellows:

One gentleman, who has almost 3 decades of sobriety, made the following statement:  “The longer I stay sober, the less interested I become in defining my spirituality.”  This idea rocked my world… the idea that I can be less precise about my spirituality as time goes by.  I’m not sure where I got the idea that the more time sober I have, the clearer picture I should have of a Higher Power, but this man’s simple statement opened my mind in a way I hadn’t even realized was closed.  It is enough to know that there is a power greater than me, and that power is helping me to live, day by day, a better life.  Enough said.  Brilliant!

Another man, sober for eleven years, talked about Donald Rumsfeld, and the quote attributed to former Secretary of Defense:  “the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.”  The gentleman this morning attributes his participation in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous with his ability to deal with those “unknown unknowns” of life.  Because this fellowship teaches us an assortment of new skills, skills we either never possessed, or which we could never master, we now have an ability to deal with life in a way which previously eluded us.  I could not agree more.

Another woman whose sobriety date is close to mine, talked about how often this chapter discusses the importance of humility.  She quotes a line in the chapter:

“…humility and intellect could be compatible, provided we place humility first.  When we began to do that, we received the gift of faith, a faith which works.”

 -page 30, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions

As she spoke, I had the clearest vision of getting down on my knees and asking God for help that night a little over two years ago, and asking in a way that I had never asked before.  And since that time, I have come to understand my Higher Power in a way I hadn’t before.  So for me that sentence rings true… I truly became humble, and only then did I truly receive faith.

There was some dissention with step 2; for example, one gentleman took exception with the term “insanity.”  He felt it a little extreme, but has come to accept that he need not argue every period and comma put forth in order to reap the benefits of the 12-step program.  By accepting the 12 steps as a whole, rather than nitpicking his way through the verbiage, he was able to, as he put it, “put the skid chains on his thinking, which allowed him to stop drinking, which in turn allowed him to improve all different areas of is life.”  I had never heard the 12 steps described in quite this way, and I love the idea of putting skid chains on my thinking… it sums it up perfectly for me.  It doesn’t stop the extreme thoughts, but it allows me time to process them so I don’t react as quickly as I once did.

All in all, lots of sharing, lots of different experiences, but everyone agreed on one point:  it was in acceptance of a power greater than ourselves that we found true freedom.

Today’s Miracle:

I came home from my meeting to find that, while I was gone, husband and son decided to surprise me by tackling some long overdue projects.  It really doesn’t get any better than this kind of homecoming!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. -Lao Tzu

Oddly enough, I learned this prayer at an Ash Wednesday mass. Here is a new version of the time-honored Serenity Prayer:

A New Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the people I cannot change,
which is pretty much everyone,
since I’m clearly not you, God.
At least not the last time I checked.

And while you’re at it, God,
please give me the courage
to change what I need to change about myself,
which is frankly a lot, since, once again,
I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect.
It’s better for me to focus on changing myself
than to worry about changing other people,
who, as you’ll no doubt remember me saying,
I can’t change anyway.

Finally, give me the wisdom to just shut up
whenever I think that I’m clearly smarter
than everyone else in the room,
that no one knows what they’re talking about except me,
or that I alone have all the answers.

Basically, God,
grant me the wisdom
to remember that I’m
not you.

Amen.

Today’s Miracle:

In a time of emotional angst, I was driving in the car, and asked God for inspiration. The third song I flipped to was Help Is On Its Way by The Little River Band. Once again, Amazing!

Steps 10 and 11: How the Steps Are Ruining Me!

Step 10:  Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it

Step 11:  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

It still blows my mind that I am a person who has completed 11 of the 12 steps of recovery.

As I mentioned yesterday, steps 10, 11 and 12 are considered maintenance steps, in that they are to be practiced daily for the rest of my life.  Step 10 is more or less a “spot check” inventory, to be completed at any time of the day, particularly if I am feeling off-kilter.  Step 11, as it has been explained to me, is to be done nightly, where I review the day, take note of things done well and not so well, and asking God to help me take whatever corrective actions I might need to take.

Mini-confession:  I have heard much about step 11 in the past 9 months, people in meetings speak often of the importance of praying first thing in the morning, and then again right before bed.  I have long been in the habit of getting on my knees each morning and thanking God for another day, but by the time I am ready for bed I am usually very ready to go to sleep, and really enjoy drifting off to the sounds of whatever sitcom happens to be playing on TV (30 Rock is my favorite).  So, every time someone mentioned the idea of night-time prayers, I pretty much said to myself, “I’m not at step 11 yet, no need to rush things.”  I guess that thought’s out the window!

So, for the past couple nights, I began the ritual of reviewing my day.  To my astonishment, I have been given a gift.  I have found that in reviewing my day, I have been very pleased (so far anyway), which is an absolute miracle in and of itself, since I have been known to be a little hard on myself.  Of course there are always things upon which I could improve, but the good far outweighs the bad, and I am filled with even more gratitude for the life I am leading.

Last but not least, here’s what I mean by the steps ruining me:  I find myself unable to just say whatever I want anymore, because now I know I have to review it at day’s end, and I simply don’t feel like making yet another amends!  This whole personal inventory thing is killing me!

Steps 8 and 9: The Follow-Up

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.  We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.  We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.  We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.  No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.  That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.  We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.  Self-seeking will slip away.  Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change.  Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us.  We will intuitively know how to handle situations which use to baffle us.  We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.  Are these extravagant promises?  We think not.  They are being fulfilled among us, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but they will always materialize if we work for them. –Alcoholics Anonymous

Okay, I feel much calmer today, as I usually do once I understand what I need to do, and why I have to do it.  Here is what I learned:  making amends is important, because it allows me to wipe the slate clean, once and for all, in terms of the wreckage of the past.  Step 4 (the personal inventory), allowed me to “get right” with myself, Step 5 (admitting to God and another human being) allowed me to “get right” with God, and Step 9 will allow me to “get right” with the world.  Once completed, the remaining steps are more or less a maintenance program for the rest of my life… pretty cool stuff.

A lot of the questions that I was frantic about yesterday got answered in the same way… trust the process, and give it to God.  I believe trusting the process will be critical for me, as one who tends to intellectualize everything, and thus habitually believe I am falling short of my goal.  I’ll tell you what, though, the minute I heard my sponsor say to me last night, “trust the process,” it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.  I simply have not been trusting this process enough, and when I do, I realize how effectively this process has been working for me.  I get so obsessed about doing things perfectly, and all that anxiety gets me further away from my goal, rather than closer to it.

I will be honest about one thing, and I hope I am able to prove myself wrong on this.  The quote I listed above is taken from the pages of the Big Book, and it is called “the 9th step promises.”  This is supposed to be the way I feel once I start making amends.  Truthfully, this seems a little far-fetched, but I have been known to be wrong before, and I am certainly hoping to be wrong this time.  As always, stay tuned…

Step Study Homework Assignment

Last night was my fifth session with Ann, who is taking me through the 12 steps in my recovery program.  I have been given my first writing assignment.  Multi-tasker that I am (or some might call it lazy), I figured I would combine my homework with today’s post.  So here it is:

Assignment #1:  My Description of my Higher Power (I choose to call my Higher Power God, and will use both terms interchangeably)

I am not a visual person, so I don’t “picture” God when I am praying.  Rather, God for me is more conceptual… He is a power greater than myself, greater than any human being, greater than anything I can even imagine, so to try to put a face on something I cannot comprehend seems silly.  I believe this power is everywhere in the universe, but in particular He exists in every human being; therefore, the God of my understanding is within me at all times.

The way I make conscious contact with this Higher Power is by calming my mind as best I can, thanking Him for all the blessings I have in my life, asking for the things I need, and attempting as best I can to listen to what He is telling me.  He responds to me in many ways… He is the quiet voice in my head that, when I listen, brings me peace, He helps me to observe signs that I used to call “coincidences” but now know was God showing Himself, He provides countless blessings that bring joy to my life, and, when I experience pain, I believe He is helping me to learn and grow from it.

The listening part can be the most challenging.  The best analogy I can come up with is this… have you ever had to deal with a small child that is sick with fever, is also hungry, and needs his/her diaper changed?  That child is inconsolable, and until his/her needs are addressed, cannot be soothed.  That is what I feel like I was to God… I was so distracted by my own self-created problems, so disconnected from Him, that my life became completely chaotic.  The more chaotic my life became, the less I was able to calm myself and listen to what God was telling me to do.  Luckily, the situation has reversed, and my life has come into a wonderful balance.  And I have faith that the more connected I am to God, the better my life will become.

Have you ever really thought about your concept of God?  How would you describe Him, or Her, or It?  I bet you will be amazed by the thought process, I know I was!

Faith

“Faith isn’t believing without proof – it’s trusting without reservation.” -William Sloane Coffin

I have a daily meditation book that is supposed to help focus you each day (and maybe it would, if I actually picked it up every day).  Today’s entry talked about not letting the little problems in life divert you from achieving, and more importantly, appreciating, your goal.

In some ways this is easy to apply.  For example, my goal has been to provide my children with really positive experiences and memories this summer.   After the way this year started for them, it is the least I can do.  If I allow the incessant bickering, whining and back-talk to take the wheel, I will, first, fail to see that their summer has been the stuff of kids’ dreams, and second, I won’t be able to relish the time I have with them.  So I get that advice for this area of my life.

But sometimes it is difficult to have a clear-cut goal in mind.  I have been dealing with some consequences from my active addiction for months and months now.  The road to the end has taken different twists and turns, and through it my end goal has been forced to change time and again.  Every time I know what I want the end result to look like, another wrench gets thrown into the works and my vision needs to change accordingly.

What do you do when your end goal changes without your permission?  The answer, for me anyway, is simple:  believe with all my heart that whatever the outcome, God is arranging it, and He is doing it for a reason.  All I need to worry about is doing the next right thing, and the rest of it will all work out.

Post Script to Giving the Steps a Chance

That some good can be derived from every event is a better proposition than that everything happens for the best, which it assuredly does not.  ~James K. Feibleman

Here is the follow-up to yesterday’s post about my one-on-one step study:  on the surface, the third session was much like the first two.  We start by praying for an open mind.  We review the homework I completed, and questions will be answered if I have any (so far I haven’t).  We then continue to study the book Alcoholics Anonymous, reading aloud and pausing for sections that bear repeating, or for a complementary historical anecdote.  I am given more homework to complete (so far homework has simply been more reading), and we conclude our session with personal stories, both related and unrelated to addiction.

As I stated yesterday, not very different from a standard academic course.  But last night I paid closer attention to my feelings before, during and after, and here is what I noticed:  heading to this session I was very tired, and, truthfully, not overly enthusiastic about the upcoming evening.  My kids were at a sleepover, and I looked longingly at my Nook and recliner before I headed out the door.  Knowing myself, I would be up for this session once I was physically there, I would never want to waste someone’s time, and of course I did not.  In leaving, I felt completely different… energized, yet peaceful… than I did going in.  Since all we did was sit at her kitchen table, read and talk, I have to assume that something in content of the discussion changed my mood.

I also came to understand a little more about the timeline of the steps.  They are in order for a reason.  Steps 1, 2 and 3 focus on getting right with God, steps 4 through 7 focus on getting right with yourself, steps 8 and 9 focus on getting right with the world, steps 10 and 11 focus on how to create a framework for lifelong growth, and step 12 focuses on how to give back what you have been freely given.  In learning this framework, I can understand a little better why the beginning might feel like a little anticlimactic.  I would imagine (complete speculation here on my part) that an atheist or agnostic might struggle a little more with the early steps, but as someone who has always had a belief in God, and is completely open and willing to developing a deeper relationship with Him, then the first 3 steps might be fairly simple to digest.

So I will continue to plug along, and I feel very strongly I will have much, much more to report as I get into the “action steps,” which start with self-examination… yikes!

Forgiveness Follow-Up

I had originally entitled this post “Forgiveness: The Conclusion,” then went back and changed it because the nit-picky voice in my head kept nagging me that the conclusion would be when I actually resolved my relationship issues face-to-face.

On that note, this is a follow-up to yesterday’s post.  If you haven’t read it, you might want to, this post will make a lot more sense if you do.  A couple of things happened yesterday that helped me along in the forgiveness process, and I believe it is important to share the lessons I learn as much as the issues I face mentally.  No sooner did I hit “publish” yesterday on my post, and this thought occurred to me:  I hope that the people in my life are able to look at the big picture of me, and reach the conclusion that the good in me outweighs the bad.  In other words, I hope they forgive my past behavior because I should not be defined by one disease, or one period in my life, or one series of actions, when I am in fact a combination of good and bad actions that span 42 years.  Well, then, who the hell am I to define someone by one email, when in fact they have been so much more than that to me for a really long time?  It’s time to practice what I preach, time to get out of the glass house, time for me to stop calling the kettle black.

Within in the next hour of this revelation, a series of events occurred where I had to rely, in a pinch, on the person in question to help out with the kids.  While this is certainly not a new event, we have a reciprocal agreement in place despite our issues with one another, it served to reinforce the earlier insight I had… stop holding on to one bad decision, and look at the big picture.

The last piece of the puzzle that fell into place for me was this:  yesterday I referenced having a bad night sleeping, which is very unusual for me in recovery.  If I may be more specific, I had what is commonly known in recovery as a drunk dream.  This terms means you have a very graphic dream in which you have relapsed, and you wake up with a lot of anxiety that is hard to shake, believing as you first wake up that you in fact did relapse.  Anyway, I have come to believe, as a result of the chain of events between yesterday and today, that I have the answer that God is trying to show me.  The first I described above.  The second lesson is:  holding on to the resentments, the way I did the other night, will lead me straight back to past behavior.

So, on that note, I have a clear mission:  I will be resolving the conflicts in my life, so that I may progress in my recovery.  Stay tuned for updates on these situations…

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