Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The message that I'm getting loud and clear these days is about Step One and all that I am powerless over.  Step One would be excruciating if we had to live there. Coming to that place of utter defeat is exhausting, for us and the people who love us. Think of your own hitting bottom – the lies (to self & others), the hangovers, the “pitiful & incomprehensibles” that are painfully specific to each of us, that feeling of being absolutely shattered. And then think about the times you’ve hit an emotional bottom in recovery – around relationships, jobs, illness, other addictions, family history – again, flattened by the awareness that one more time, I’ve been doing the same thing while expecting different results (which for me at the moment would be operating under the illusion that "I've got this.")

The beauty of the 12 Step program is that there is a way out. Hitting bottom can be, though not always, the impetus for change.  And the way out begins with Step Two.

I was “raised” to think of the group as the “power greater” than myself referenced in Step Two. To me, the important component of Two is that I can be restored to sanity, whether that is via a belief in a higher power, or your own inner resources. I’ve never questioned the sanity piece – my behavior in regards to substances was absolutely insane. Being restored means that I had it once. I do believe that my true nature is healthy and whole. That may have gotten twisted fairly early when adrenaline, boys and cheap wine became my higher powers, but it was there all along. My soundness of mind goes askew these days when I forget my calm and peaceful center, which is easy to do with so much going on. In my AM Alanon meeting yesterday, the topic was surrender, and every time someone said, "Things will work out the way they'll work out" I felt the internal "Yay, but..."  I am grateful for the sense of humor that caught myself. It didn't make me any less sad or worried, but it did allow a step back so that the overwhelm had an escape valve. Oh yeah. This isn't all up to me.

In another example of powerlessness, and the loss that will come to us all, I attended a memorial on Friday for a grade school classmate, who along with her husband of 45+ years, another classmate, stayed in the area. There are a handful of us in or near the old neighborhood, some in the houses we grew up in, some not. This person and I were never particularly close, but she and her husband were fixtures – we’d see each other at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, at the many class reunions over the years…  There is something to be said for continuity, for that feeling of having grown up together with a similar frame of reference. Relationships matter. Relationships over time matter. I feel the same way about those I’ve grown up with in the program, as well as those who are no longer with us – Leonard C, dragging on a cigarette outside the meeting, Norm B, the cheerful unofficial greeter at the daily nooner, Ila, always dressed to the nines. And my peers – I see a fellow from the class of ’85-’89 in meetings and he always brings up my late 1980's New Year’s Eve parties, with a meeting at midnight.

In times of emotional upheaval, big or small, it can be helpful for me to take those deep breaths of connection to the earth, of connection to my history and the people in it, of connection and acknowledgement of all I am grateful for.  Today that includes gratitude that my sweet spouse is responding well to week two of treatment, with minimal side effects, and for the many friends and family members who are showing their support. Today gratitude includes this blog space where we can connect in the ether of the internet. 

What is on your gratitude list today? How does Step Two move you towards remembering your true nature?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

I’m thinking about the phrase, “Knowledge is power.” Knowledge can be a stress inducer when I don’t like what I see coming down the pike, but is definitely a stress reducer when it takes me out of “what if?!” land. Knowing is better than not -  I’ve never been all that great with ambiguity. Give me what you’ve got so I can make a decision or plot a course of action, whether that was learning about the disease of addiction, a project at work, the course of a 10k or marathon, or a medical prognosis.

I’m feeling a sense of relief after an intense last week that included a physician giving my friend the nuts and bolts of various treatment options. None of them are stellar (as in, no cure) but they are fairly concrete, not nebulous, sugar-coated “maybe’s.” The end is coming. It is time to get affairs in order.  

And what a strange and beautiful conversation it is to be having. Personally, I hope to have a lead in to my demise. I’m a planner, though as my mother pointed out, we can’t exactly plan this (she took exception with the hospice declaration that she had less than 6 months and lived for 8 months, at least partly out of “I’ll show you!”) but we, I, can take steps to make things easier for ourselves and those left behind. There are several components to dying – the physical aspect of illness and decline, the huge emotional letting go and all that goes in to that, and there is the business end of things – healthcare wishes, financial plans, etc. It is hard to juggle when all one might want to do is curl up in a ball.  My friend has a great attitude, saying, “My spirits are good, but my health is poor.” More will be revealed, more will be decided.

And, my dear spouse has started his treatment, with no hitches day on day one. He can do this. We can do this, one appointment at  a time.

As it is January, I am consciously working Step One. What I realize is that the Step says, “We admitted we were powerless…” It’s not like I had power and now I don’t. “Admitted” implies an acknowledgement of the facts.  I am not in control of cancer, of the weather, etc, etc, etc. It’s when I wrestle in the slippery mud of the illusion of control that my life becomes more and more unmanageable.

My initial Step One experience was one of relief – exhaling into my alcoholism, not as a moral issue, but as a sickness. When I struggle with control vs surrender these days, it is that relief I seek. I can convince myself, out of fear, that surrender is hard, but really, it is the hanging on that is difficult. Closed fist or open palm - what is my choice to be?  And, am I willing to cut myself some slack if I sometimes catch myself grasping?

What is Step One saying to you in this first month of the new year? How do you show the same compassion for yourself when you stumble, that you would to a friend?

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

January 3rd was the 34th anniversary of my sobriety - or as I recently heard it described, my "surrender date." Yes. That was the date, in 1986, that I woke up in a grungy treatment center at the Oregon coast, hung over, a little wired from the shot of meth I'd done on the way down, and scared to death at what was next. I was afraid to sit on the stained couches, but there was something in the air, besides cigarette smoke. It was hope - hope that my life could be different, that life could be better than the way I'd been living it.  On my way to work Friday morning, the Rascals song, "People Got to Be Free" came on the oldies station. I know they were singing about the social revolution of the 1960's, but I took it as a sign, and what I heard was that I "will know a new freedom and a new happiness" - freedom from my addictions and freedom to fully inhabit my life. Glory hallelujah.

"Fully inhabiting" isn't always unicorns and rainbows. The thing I've been dancing around in recent posts is that, in addition to my good friend with a terminal cancer diagnosis, we've recently found out that my dear spouse has throat cancer. All indications point to a full recovery, though the process has been alternately scary and reassuring, moving from anxiety to trust and back again. (To those of you who know him, feel free to reach out with support, but to quote the Alanon opening, "Please, let there be no gossip..." Any questions, call me.)

Counseling was offered, and I jumped on it, firmly believing in taking advantage of outside help as needed. I felt a surge of pride in our 12 Step programs when the therapist asked how I deal with feeling overwhelmed and I was able to run down the arsenal of coping skills you've taught me and I rely on, almost as second nature. As it tells us in the 9th Step promises, "We will see how our experience can benefit others," which is playing out in the support we're getting from friends who've walked this and similar  paths. I'm also seeing how my experience can benefit me. I've walked through hard times before. I may not know that "it" will be OK on a day-to-day basis, but I know that will be OK, one day at a time.

sat in my Tuesday morning meeting in front of placards reading “Easy Does It” and “Keep It Simple,” and realized, as a person who works best with routine, much of my overwhelm has to do with being out of control with the scheduling – it’s unbelievable how many appointments are “urgent” before treatment even begins, and, no, 10:30am on a Wednesday is not convenient. I’m learning a hard lesson, one more time, about what I can control and what I can’t. I can't manage outcomes, but I can manage the day-to-day requirements of suiting up and showing up, and ascertaining when that means saying “no.” Step One is front and center - I am powerless over cancer, over medical scheduling, over my spouse's treatment process, over my friend's trajectory, how the next few months will play out. I can influence how I practice self-care, my willingness to be there, have the tough conversations, set limits, and make decisions about how I spend my precious 24 hours (as in, letting my brain run wild, or focusing my energies on the next right thing).

What is somewhat ironic is that I’d had all my days off planned between now and June, working with my employer to insure that I use what is due me before I retire. "Ha ha," says the Universe. "You only thought you were in charge!" (& no, I don’t really believe in an entity pulling strings somewhere up in the ether). What is also a huge lesson, and I’m not there yet, is around my almost genetic sense of time urgency. Learning to relax into what this day brings, what we learn at today’s appointment, will be my challenge.

It’s been helpful to put pen-to-paper, starting with a fears list regarding both my spouse and my dear friend. On the facing page in my notebook, I also began a gratitude list, and was comforted to see that those far outweigh what scares me. Someone once described gratitude as a "spiritual elevator" that can gently move me from the depths of imagined despair to awareness of the many gifts in my life. 

Which of our slogans have been speaking to you this week (if any)? If you were to list fears and gratitudes side-by-side, what might you learn? What coping skills do you rely on when life hits you harder than expected? 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

I’m usually very attuned to the passing of one year into the next, not to mention noting the change in decades, but this year not so much. The last couple of months have gone by in a flash of doctor’s appointments and phone calls, long texts and tender conversations. We have the recovery saying, “When you’re going through hell, don’t stop.” Agreed, in theory, but this hyper alcoholic/alanonic can use that phrase as permission to pick up speed right when I should be slowing down. Don’t stop, necessarily, but do pause. Do take notice of the world around me, the kind gestures, the laughter of children.

On Xmas eve, caught in a non-productive feedback loop in my brain while running an errand for work, I happened to look up, as beautiful chorale music played on the radio, to see literally 100’s of Canadian geese overhead, framed by the bare branches of a dozen trees. The beauty took my breath and unleashed tears for the pure simplicity and grace in their timeless flight. 

The natural world is a component of my spiritual resources. When I'm centered, I notice. When I'm centered, my spiritual sources include the ocean, majestic trees here in the Pacific northwest, a quiet moment. When I'm not, time and the clock become my higher power and there's never enough. I'm getting better at recognizing this old idea, but the problem with old ideas is that they are my ideas and I need to firmly (yet gently) remind myself that they aren't always accurate. 

I read a lovely article in the NY Times Style magazine of 11/17, about the week long event around cherry blossoms in Japan. The author, Hanya Yanagihara, writes, "The pleasure of seeing a cherry tree in bloom is the sorrow of knowing it will soon be over. To be in the presence of one is to be humbled before nature... a sakura (blossom) is a human life condensed into the period of a week: a birth, a wild brief glory, a death. It is to us what we are to the sweep of time -  a millisecond of beauty,  a memory before we are even through."  

As we enter a new year, and a new decade, I think about that sweep of time. Another quote, from James Woods' novel, Upstate:  In describing looking in the mirror, "a sixty-eight-year-old Alan Querry did not look back, but little Alan, ten-year-old Alan, twenty-year-old Alan. It was as if everything that had happened to him between ten and sixty-eight had happened in a very small set of rooms, as if childhood were just down the corridor and adolescence in the curious little cupboard off the kitchen, all of it near at hand, not decades away, not houses or streets away, but absolutely near at hand. Sixty-eight years - marriage, births, divorce, deaths, money - had taken no longer to live then the time it took to cross from one side of that corridor to the other." This is the exact conversation I shared with my friend on this new year's afternoon, as he comes to terms with his own mortality. This life went by so quickly. It went by so fast.

I feel that passing acutely as I enter the 8th decade I've been present for (1950's forward). I look ahead with hopeful anticipation to retirement, and I have entered the final portion of my life. I am showing up for the hard and focused conversations with my friend, both grateful and full of sorrow as we talk. I revel in reminiscing with longtime women friends, and marvel that it's been 50 years since we shared our first drinks, 20+ years since those early recovery talks, a decade since we sat in the same home group. Again and again I'm reminded to pay attention. When I allow time to become my higher power, I'm focused in the future rather than the sweet moments of today.

Happy new year, dear readers. If you take the time to pause today, or in these first days of 2020, what is it that you feel positive about from 2019? What do you look forward to welcoming in 2020? How will you remember to stay present in the glorious present, even if it doesn't feel glorious right now?