Wednesday, December 12, 2018

I am writing this in limbo, having received word late last week that someone very important to me is in hospital on the other end of the country, in renal failure. What I'm told by a friend who is there, is that it is terminal and just a matter of time.

A matter of time - God's time, not ours. I often say that I don't believe in a puppet-master god, but that's what it has felt like this past year. Having reconnected with my first husband, making living amends and rekindling a nice friendship, I was feeling that the only missing link from those days was another ex - the man I was with when I hit bottom. We'd had a very intense relationship that encompassed the ending of my marriage, my father's death, his brother's heart attack, and Mt St Helen's erupting, among other things. It ended (though that itself was protracted) when I was unable to put down the needle. But God bless him, seriously. By all rights he could've kicked me to the curb and no one would've been surprised. Instead, he worked with my cousin to get me into treatment - paid for it, and then helped me get on my feet in that crucial first year of sobriety so that I could focus on recovery. I am eternally grateful to him for essentially saving my life. We had only sporadic contact over the past 10-15 years - he'd gotten married and had four kids (after a 1st marriage with another four children). Events transpired in his life last winter, resulting in his sister-in-law reaching out to me with his phone number.

We've had several good and necessary conversations over the past year, which felt like prayer answered. And then, feeling in my gut that something was wrong, I got word that he is in hospital. I am heartbroken, and so very grateful for the re-connection that we've had.

I was struck by the irony on Sunday that while I was completing a half marathon, the person who insisted that I go to treatment was dying, likely from the effects of his alcoholism. Life certainly hasn't turned out the way I thought it would. And I'm seeing the stark reminder of the benefits of recovery, thinking of dear Walt, who outlived a 30 year diagnosis of liver disease by living a sober life, compared to my ex, who didn't.

My ex is a good man. Was Walt a better man? What about Richard, my meth cook lover who died of an overdose so many years ago. He was a good man too. I think of young Jenny, who drank herself to death, and Brad, who took his own life, and countless others over the years who've died directly or indirectly from the disease. And then I think of those of us who have been able to walk away from the darkness. I know it has something to do with willingness, with suiting up, but I still don't understand the mechanics of the thing.

How do you quantify desire? How do you measure willingness, the willingness to step through the fear of doing something you've never done before, without the buffer of drugs or alcohol? How, exactly, does surrender happen, that moment when something snaps inside and you say, "I just can't do this anymore"?  It is certainly not logic - we all know that you can't think your way out of addiction. And you can't just feel yourself sober either. If that were the case, a bad case of the "what did I just do?" would've led straight to recovery. The surrender that we hear so much about is the spiritual equivalent of laying oneself bare, flat out "God, take me," and then being willing to stay in that terrifying place of not knowing what's next.

The Steps outline it perfectly, especially when I read them through the lens of desperation. One is that I am utterly and totally powerless. What a place to be, and one that takes so long to realize. Thank goodness for Two, the coming to believe that we can be restored, and then Three, making the decision to trust. We then have the task of putting pen to paper to determine what, exactly, we are turning over, and then in blessed Step Seven, say "My Creator, I'm now willing that you have all of me." Here I am, coming out of the fog, lost and confused. Guide me, please.

The ongoing relevance of our program is that I can apply that one, two, three & beyond to whatever troubles me, though I still need to have that moment of remembering that I am not in charge, which usually comes after beating my head against the wall of self-will. "Figure it out" is not one of the Steps, though how I do try.

So today, I balance sadness with gratitude. I pray that my dear friend is at peace, however this chapter of his story turns out, forever grateful for where and how our stories intersected.

Several times over the years I've had those God-shot coincidences of crossing paths with the exact person I needed to talk with. What about you, and how did that turn out?  Where do you find your place of surrender today, with whatever part of the "ism" that you struggle with?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

I was honored and privileged, over the weekend, to sit with a small group in hospital as our good friend, Walt G, made his transition. Such a blessing, these program relationships. At one point, the ER nurse asked, “So how are you related?” We decided that  “cousins” fit – different last names, same story, though with variations. As we stood by his bed and said the Serenity Prayer, I felt the power of the “we,” the power of connection, the power of love, for our friend, and for his long-term partner. No matter what my dis-ease sometimes whispers to me, there is nothing in this life that we need to walk through alone.

At one point, during a nurse hand-off, it was mentioned that our friend had cirrhosis, from alcoholism. I felt it important to speak up and note that yes, alcoholism, but that he’d been sober for 30 years. The “cunning, baffling and powerful” of this disease is that it sometimes gets us long after the drinking is done. Our friend had a good, long life in recovery.

So I'm thinking, today, about life on life’s terms – the highs and the lows and everything in between.  Contrary to what the old timers used to say, there are big deals, though even the little deals can trigger my emotional roller coaster.  We switched out our big Christmas tree for a table model this week, which means the opportunity to trim down the holiday decor. But, it isn't just "holiday decor." It is memories of the Christmas spent with friends in Florida when it was so cold, lizards froze on the sidewalks. It is the favorite pink glass ornament that Mom always let me put on the tree as a kid. It is ornaments given as gifts, and purchased on various vacations, some from childhood and some from Mom's tree. I'm feeling both efficient and melancholy as I look at what to keep and what to give away.

I'm thinking of that duality, the ability to hold seemingly opposing emotions - sad and happy, relieved and grieving, excitement and fear. It took a long time for me to be able to move beyond black & white, good/bad thinking to "this, and..."  With time (step work, good sponsorship, therapy) I’ve been able to understand that I did bad things, but am not a bad person. My father was more than “the alcoholic” in my childhood. Bad things do happen to good people (an excellent little book, by the way – by Harold Kushner) and people that I love do die. I understand that “happy, joyous and free” is not an everyday high, but a state of mind. I understand that it is possible for fear and hope to coexist. I can anticipate missing friends who are moving, and be excited for their adventure. I can love my job and be ready to quit. 

This time of year lends itself to reflection on the year passing by and that yet to come, especially as I feel the shock and sadness of these most recent losses. A friend asked, "What is going on?!" when I told her of another friend who is currently in the hospital with kidney failure. I think what is going on is that we are getting old. As much as I don't feel what I think 64 should feel like, I am an old person. I am an old person who has been fortunate enough to have loved and lost and loved again. I am an old person who has been blessed with close friendships, and many more acquaintances of the meeting variety.  Honoring those who have moved on while allowing my sometimes mixed emotions is an aspect of maturity that I'm just beginning to get on a deep, soul level.

Even as I do my best to detach from the busyness this month, I'm unable to avoid traffic that grows exponentially each week, overcrowded parking lots and busy stores. How do you carve out a quiet moment to appreciate the connections that make this time of year special? What are some of the dueling emotions that you're feeling, and are you at peace with the whole package of your humanness?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

I’m reading a book, translated from Norwegian, titled Silence in the Age of Noise, by Erling Kagge. The author, who has trekked across Antarctica and to the North Pole, speaks to the importance of finding the quiet place within, even (especially?) when the noise of the world fills our ears. The book is a series of small essays. In one, he writes about being in gatherings of those in their 60’s, 70's and 80's, and how the main regret voiced is that they hadn’t realized sooner that this is life. Not someday, not later, but now. That reminded me of what an old guy used to say in meetings when I first came in to recovery, his words cutting to my core: “This is not a dress rehearsal.” No rewind, no undoing what’s been done, no time out while we get our shit together.

As much as I sometimes feel like the years have gone by in a snap, I am beyond blessed to have lived, to be truly living my life. I have had peak experiences that still give me goose bumps. My challenge, be it intellectual or emotional, is to incorporate those peak experiences into the day-to-day. “Life” isn’t just the high notes, the adventure souvenirs and dance parties.  Life is also, and maybe more so, noticing the falling leaves that chase me on my morning run, the way the rain sounds on the roof, cooking a tasty, healthy dinner, waking up next to the person who loves me back. Life is the newcomer who shows up next week, the sponsee who takes the risk of trust, those who do the service that keep our meetings running.  Every day is full of little miracles, if I but pay attention. I very well could’ve died behind the wheel, or at the end of a syringe, so waking up each day is a miracle, and one I vividly acknowledge, even though it has been a long time since I came-to with a hangover.
As the fog lifted, and I surrounded myself with like-minded others, I developed the capacity to dream, envisioning what could be, then taking the steps to get there – signing up for that first class, running an extra mile, picking up the phone. I think of recovery as both pushing myself beyond my comfort zone, and as a journey of discovering my rhythms and the daily rituals that ground me. I am grateful beyond measure for the vision of Bill, Bob and the first 100, who wrote a book that is as relevant to me with 30+ years sobriety as it was at 30 days. They saw the joyful possibilities of lives reclaimed, even though they were only three years in when the book was published.

One of the challenges of long term recovery is to remain teachable – in and out of program. I learned a new word this week: Petrichor = a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. Who knew?  I also read an interesting article in the NYT Magazine (see link) that describes humans as the only species that can time travel, able to remember the past as well as imagine the future, and how important it is to allow our minds to wander. That seems to dovetail with the idea of inner quiet. Not every moment needs a screen or a keyboard, a radio or TV. Not every moment needs a book or some other distraction. Sometimes, what I really need is to simply sit still and breathe.

December approaches. How will you find moments of quiet reflection amongst your real or perceived obligations? How will you let yourself off the hook if the holiday season isn’t something you look forward to, but simply endure? If you do enjoy this time of year, how will you pace yourself?

A friend very unexpectedly died early today. She was a cousin to my oldest and dearest friend, a woman I've known for something like 45 years - funny, energetic, always full of life. I am in shock, as is the family, and I send my deepest love and condolences.  Tell your people that you love them, not later, but today. Godspeed T.A. Gone too soon.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

This is the time of year that reflections on those final months of active addiction seep into my awareness. In late October or early November of 1985, I was railroaded into the Care Unit (or so it felt), signing myself out after 4 nights (I have my mother's day planner from that year. The notation reads: "jeanine signed out of Care Unit against medical advice! She'll call later".  I'll never forget the look on her face across the Thanksgiving table when she said, "I just don't understand." I didn't understand either, though did my best to justify my behavior.

Somewhere between that look, and a phone call from my sort-of-ex a week later, I had my moment of truth. For me, it was catching my reflection in a mirror as I searched for a vein that wasn't there. In a rare moment of insight, I saw my future if I continued on the same path and it was a blank wall. So when the phone rang in the middle of the night with my ex on the line from parts unknown and he said, through the crackle of an international call, "Jeanine, you need help," a little, tiny voice that was me said, "ok." I don't remember consciously deciding to admit I needed help. Thank you, God, for that the part of me that wanted to live.

I am older now. I used to think of who I was at 31 and cry at the damage I'd done to myself and those I loved. Today I simply shake my head at the chaos I created and contributed to. With gratitude, I think of the people on both sides of the divide (addiction/recovery) who contributed to my sitting here today, healthy, and very sober nearly 33 years later.

Today, on this eve of Thanksgiving, I light a candle and sit in gratitude - for my health and recovery, for a strong marriage and good friendships, for family connections over the miles and the years, for work I enjoy, for community, for peace of mind most days. I remember those no longer here, and today choose to focus on the love rather than the loss.

As I drove away from my home group last weekend, I noticed another member walking down the street, a member who'd left the meeting 45 minutes earlier. I have no idea what other obligations they had, but it struck me that it has been a long time since I walked out of a meeting because I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I didn't really know what that meant - "uncomfortable in my own skin" - until I experienced the internal comfort of serenity. Not boredom, as I initially thought of it, but true serenity. It's been quite a ride to get here, and I'm grateful for every minute of it.

Our Christmas lights went up on a recent dry day, though I won't turn them on until December. I won't listen to the holiday music station until then either. I plan to savor this quiet week before the hustle & bustle begins in full force to really feel my gratitude for this amazing, yet simple life.

What or who is on your gratitude list today? We're having a quiet Thanksgiving at home - what about you? May you enjoy the blessings of the day, whatever you do in solitude or community, or somewhere in between. My prayers, today, go out to those suffering the results of the California wildfires, and to all those who grieve so many recent and untimely losses.