Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Self-compassion

 In meetings last week focused on Step 11, I heard the message of working this Step gently, with compassion for ourselves, as in the suggestion to "gently relax into the daily reprieve." Hearing that brought me nearly to tears. Compassion? Gentle? I sometimes come at the Steps with force, a bludgeon of "If I only do this right/hard enough everything will be ok" when actually, everything is ok. All I really need to do is show up. And as I've been reminded, the Steps are tools, not weapons.

A program friend often tells of correspondence between Carl Jung and Bill Wilson, where Jung described the alcoholic's craving for alcohol like a low-level search for God - maybe that's why they're called "spirits." All my life I was searching, if not for god, then for peace of mind (and note that for me, peace of mind might be found in mad excitement).

Pre-recovery, most of my searching was via self-help books and long, stoned discussions, with "moral and philosophical convictions galore." Well into sobriety I dabbled in various churches, never finding quite the right fit. Nothing at all against church, but for me, most of my searching of that nature had to do with, one more time, looking outside myself for a fix. If I pray the right way, sing the right songs, all will be well. What I know now is that my spiritual life changes and evolves as I do. The "god" I had at 30 days sober is different than my spiritual connections at 30-plus years. I don't need to understand the exact mechanisms in order to feel centered and connected.

I used to complain to a homegroup member, "I just want somebody to tell me everything will be ok," to which he replied, "But everything is ok, Jeanine." What I was probably asking was, "Tell me everything will stay the same," a dreamer's quest for stability. Everything, everything is temporary. Everything will change, die, go away. The reality of that is closer to home the older I get, but still I want certainty. Certainty that my friends will always be by my side, that the musicians I grew up listening to will live forever (RIP Christine McVie), that love will last (though that one is true, whether the person is alive or not).

I see Step 11 meditation as getting still, which is different than getting quiet, and releasing the internal chatter. I can sit on my cushion (which is actually the couch) quiet on the outside while my mind races to this or that task, memory or plan, surprised when the ending bell goes off. While not a practicing Christian, I love the saying, "Be still and know that I am God." Be still, and become aware of my inner wisdom, the knowing that was there all along. My addict-self still wants bright lights and bullhorns - DO THIS NOW! but my truth tends to be quiet, and certain - maybe not always specific, but there is a definite "yay" or "nay" energy to whatever it is I'm pondering (and if there isn't, then it isn't time to make a decision). And it isn't usually an actual voice unless voice can be defined as knowledge. The dictionary describes voice as sound, but also as "a particular opinion or attitude expressed." Perhaps my psyche expresses its particular opinion via my gut, the internal red light/green light. Today I can relax into the mystery, releasing my need to know.

As usually happens, I've moved from holiday grieving to holiday celebration, spending time with friends and family, enjoying the coziness of almost-winter. My friends and I will, one more time, mark Solstice online, exhaling into the return of the light. I'm one who doesn't mind the darkness, grateful for a warm home, a full pantry, and electricity, very aware that not everyone who seeks shelter finds it. I can nit-pick my grievances, or, with just a second's pause, remember that I could very well have died at the end of a syringe, or behind the wheel of a car, or even worse, lived for years on the margins, spending my days looking for the next fix or drink. I've been given the opportunity to live, however I define that on any given day. Sometimes that means curling up with a good book, or for a winter's nap, and sometimes it means spending time with loved ones, or being of service in one form or another. In any event, even after all these years, I never forget that recovery is a gift. 

How do you relax into the mystery of this sober life? What do you do if the holiday lonelys strike? How does your inner wisdom get your attention? In this potentially busy time of year, how do you practice self-care? If you find yourself weaponizing the Steps, how do you reset to a place of compassion?  How do you remind yourself that everything is OK, right here, right now? 

*  *  *

This could be time to plan a holiday gift for a sponsor or sponsee, or to think about a year end/new year stock-taking. See the Feb 4 entry for a sample of the "I've Been Sober a Long Time - Now What?" workbook with 78 pages of topics, member's views, and processing questions. Available in PDF format for those of you outside the US (or who prefer that format) or hardcopy mailed to you. Email me at shadowsandveins@gmail.com with questions.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Read, write, think, do

 As November draws to a close, I contemplate what, exactly, is meant by the 11th Step suggestion to "improve our conscious contact" with the higher power of our own understanding (or, non-understanding, as a good friend puts it). Since contact with anything outside my addict brain of "more, more" was pretty much nil in the old days (though I sometimes prayed at night, thinking of it as a sort of insurance policy), the mere fact of even imagining a power greater than myself, or of my drug of choice, was a miracle. But I've often wondered what, exactly, I'm supposed to be doing. The writing steps are clear cut, but the others - becoming entirely willing, making a decision, etc - can seem nebulous.  Concrete thinker that I am, I asked a friend once, well into sobriety, how does one actually work the Steps? She replied that for her, it means to read the Step, do any writing suggested, and then think about how to put the principle (trust, honesty, etc) into action. Read, write, think, do - I can manage that, most days.

As I've written before, I did have the "I'm alive!" pink cloud, for quite a while after getting sober. I just read a piece about a cancer survivor who described the every-day miracle of waking up each day post diagnosis, and how that awe faded as the years have passed. I'd say "same" with recovery - what used to be outright glee at seeing the sun come up (rather than bemoaning a new day) has long settled into a sometimes-generic gratitude. Not to negate gratitude in all its forms, but at times, it seems that the sparkle has worn off.  Maybe it's the season, with the hype around feeling FANTASTIC and buying just the right gifts and cooking the perfect meal. Bah humbug to that. And, it can be good to remind myself that perhaps the sparkle is hiding under a tree in Forest Park or waiting to be found in a book I haven't yet read, or one I revisit. Perhaps the sparkle of yore is more of a warm glow these days. It's there, if I pay attention to what really matters.

We spent time with my dear friend's family on Thanksgiving. At 50 years and counting, she's long been a wise owl in my life, telling me when my first marriage ended that romance may come and go, but it's your friends who will be with you always. How true, despite various imaginings of "happily ever after" in the years since.  I haven't always been a good steward of my friendships, letting connections take a back seat when a new crush came my way. I never wanted to be that type of woman, but how could I be anything else with my erroneous belief that a relationship was the end-all, be-all? It took so long, including finally letting the Universe choose instead of my so-called broken picker, to be in a place of appreciating and honoring all my relationships, always. Another friend once pointed out that yes, our primary relationship is our primary relationship, but that doesn't mean we should neglect those who had our back all along. 

Relationships, whether friendships, family, sponsee/sponsor, or our partner, do seem to go through stages and cycles - sometimes inseparable. sometimes distant and sometimes a bit rocky. Sometimes circumstances result in a letting go - I'm thinking of women I used to train and run with, literally hours every week, and once that focus ended, the friendships faded. There are those too that were connected to a particular meeting where we've drifted apart over time. And there are those deep friendships where conversations take up where they left off, despite time or distance in between. And... "later is now" when it comes to friendships. There are absolutely no guarantees.  Make the amends. Schedule the coffee date. Call the elderly relative. Get on a plane.

I took myself to an in-person meeting at our local Alano Club this week. It didn't feel quite the same as the before-times, with masks required, paying for parking that used to be free, and a sparsely attended group, but it felt SO good to be in this place, and this neighborhood, where I spent literally decades attending meetings as well as coffee dates and meetings-after-the-meeting dinners. Scuffling my way down the street, kicking November's leaves as I walked, I felt light. I only recognized one person at the meeting but felt a surge of joy to be in my old stomping grounds, thinking of all the recovery conversations in that square mile, and perhaps those yet to come. As I've written before, we don't really know the full ramifications of the pandemic, but I know I've gotten comfortable with staying in. Nothing wrong with that - I'm something of a homebody at heart - but/and there is an energy of connection I've sorely missed. I love seeing dear friends on zoom, and, I hadn't realized how much I've missed the randomness of attendees at an in-person meeting. And thank you, dear reader, for coming along for the ride as I straddle this in-between space of safe/not safe, cautious/carefree.

What does it mean to you to practice Step 11? Where do you find the sparkle or glow of recovery these days? Is there a friend you're feeling the urge to connect with? If you are a meeting-goer, are you mostly in-person or online these days? Is that working for you? Is there a dilemma you are facing that could be helped by the "read, write, think, do" formula of a particular Step?

*  *  *

This could be time to plan a holiday gift for a sponsor or sponsee, or to think about a year end/new year stock-taking. See the Feb 4 entry for a sample of the "I've Been Sober a Long Time - Now What?" workbook with 78 pages of topics, member's views, and processing questions. Available in PDF format for those of you outside the US (or who prefer that format) or hardcopy mailed to you. Email me at shadowsandveins@gmail.com with questions. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Gratitudes and sorrows and everything in-between

The 10 years that my mother has been gone means that my brother has been living in the ancestral manor that long. I've now been in my home for 19 years - a blink of an eye apparently. In thinking about the whoosh of the 10 years since mom died, I realize that a lot has happened - my Stepdad, first husband, ex-boyfriend and several other friends died; my stepdaughter finished high school and graduated from college; my husband fought cancer; I retired; I completed a few marathons and other races; and oh yeah, the world was shut down by a global pandemic.

We'd all have our various lists of events and experiences over any 10- or 20-year period. Taken incident by incident, a lot of living has occurred, but looked at as a whole, I say, "Wow - how did that happen?" Is it just human nature, or related to a lack of mindfulness?  As a kid, I remember summers that often dragged on, with me and my pal sitting on the neighbor's lawn waiting for something to happen. Someone once told me that "life" slows down after retirement, but I haven't yet had that experience. And life doesn't slow down or speed up, right? The sun rises and sets, earlier or later depending on the time of year, but a day is still a day. 

And I know on those long summer afternoons, time moved so slowly because I was bored, with Mom's "Just go play outside," a tough sell when I was between kid stuff and young adolescence - in other words, trouble waiting to happen. Bored + bright + genetic predisposition = alcoholic in the making. I know I crossed that invisible line within 20 minutes of my first beer. The specifics of the trajectory were up for grabs, but the disease took hold without questioning the eventual destination.

In a meeting this week about the spiritual experience, many shared their aversion to any kind of god-talk. I had both - the psychic rearrangement and skepticism about what it actually meant to turn my will and life over, which at the time, I equated with No More Fun. Something happened to me, or in me, during treatment where I found myself on my knees, crying my eyes out in surrender, and then a month or so later at home, when I again hit my knees, this time with joy, thinking, "Is this all I had to do? Stop drinking beer for breakfast and sticking a needle in my arm, and life feels this good?" I can question whether all that elation mixed with confusion was merely a side-effect of dormant synapses coming back to life, but something had shifted. I think of it like a pencil snapping in half - one day I needed to escape myself via substances, and the next day I was done. At this point I don't need to try to figure it out but suffice to say I've been grateful ever since that I didn't have to fight the urge to drink or get loaded.

Which doesn't mean that I'm cured. I am a firm believer in the daily reprieve, however the maintenance of our spiritual condition looks on any given day - in AA/Alanon or out, on a bicycle or the couch, in solitude, or with like-minded others.  

And so, I do what works for me today, while paying attention to when it begins to feel rote. I use a mediation app, which has been helpful, but when I found that I was more interested in the daily check mark (200 days!) than the actual meditation, I went on strike. I eventually added the app back into my morning practice, intentionally not paying attention to the "X days in a row" notation. With anything, whether reading certain passages out of the literature, or my morning routine, it is only meaningful if it is meaningful - as in, am I in the moment, or already on to the next thing? I can be in the process of reading something and totally blank out, mind on three other things. Attention is a discipline. 

In our neighborhood, there are houses with stale Halloween decorations flapping in the wind, a few turkey banners, and a smattering of holiday lights. That's kind of like I'm feeling - not quite done with one thing before moving on to the next. I've been very aware of ""Gratitude Month" and a Step 11 focus as I pause to appreciate all that has gone into me being here, in these circumstances, at this moment in time. But I will say, Dios de los Muertos notwithstanding, it is this time of year that the veil between the living and those gone on feels thinnest for me as I'm flooded with memories of laughter and love with each holiday ornament I remove from its box. I straddle the line between sorrow and gratitude, knowing as the season progresses, I'll move to a place of celebration. But right now, with tissue paper strewn on the living room floor, decorations being set in their appointed spots or somewhere new, I reflect on Christmas' past - Grandpa hiding under the tree nibbling on peanut brittle, a house full of cousins. Mom and Dad gave me a typewriter when I was in high school, knowing I wanted to be a writer. It took many years and detours for that dream to come true, and here I am today, writing, crying, cooking, hugging those dear to me. We'll go to my bestie's for dinner tomorrow, and on Saturday, my stepdaughter will be here with her fella for more turkey and our yearly tradition of decorating the tree together. I can mourn those gone, then put that down in order to celebrate all the love I have and share today.

Are your childhood memories of holiday times nourishing or best forgotten? How have you created new traditions in recovery? Who is in your Family of Choice, and do they know how much they mean to you? As we Americans mark Thanksgiving (despite the day's murky and sketchy origin story that is likely less than true), what will go on your Gratitude List? 

*  *  *

This could be time to plan a holiday gift for a sponsor or sponsee, or to think about a year end/new year stock-taking. See the Feb 4 entry for a sample of the "I've Been Sober a Long Time - Now What?" workbook with 78 pages of topics, member's views, and processing questions. Available in PDF format for those of you outside the US (or who prefer that format) or hardcopy mailed to you. Email me at shadowsandveins@gmail.com with questions. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Noticing...

 My brother and I had a nice, long conversation the other day about his pending 65th birthday and the passage of time. We remarked how odd it feels to have now outlived our father by a decade, though he'll always feel older than us. I helped a friend from grade school celebrate her birthday too, as the small group of us marveled at years gone by. Aging is a gift denied many. 

A snippet from a Mary Oliver poem:

When it's over, I don't want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

I can read this as a challenge or chastisement, or perhaps a goal. Or maybe as a reminder to truly inhabit my days rather than merely checking boxes off the To-Do list. "Lunch date with friends - check" or "Lunch date with friends - ahhh, such wonderful conversation." 

And these days, conversations sway gently between present and past, now and then (and sometimes my friends recall episodes I have no recollection of!) So much of my recovery life has been about unearthing causes and conditions - the inventories and therapy sessions and long conversations, reading old journals or looking at photographs that provide clues to the "what it was like and what happened" portions of my story. A few times, Mom handed me an "ah-ha" on a silver platter of a remark, but usually, those investigations involved courage and patience, and compassion for all involved.

And sometimes, the "ah-ha" shows up on the radio. Listening to the oldies station last week, I heard a song, "Wives and Lovers," that made my blood curdle: "Comb your hair, fix your makeup, soon he will open the door. Don't think because there's a ring on your finger, you needn't try anymore.... Day after day there are girls at the office and men will always be men. Don't send him off with your hair still in curlers, you may not see him again."  Arghh! I'm all for keeping the spark alive, but really? Might these types of song lyrics (I can't live without you... I'm nothing without you... etc) have fed my already fragile ego, reinforcing that I was merely a body? Causes and conditions aren't just the family dynamics. I can look at the whole of it and know I am a product of my times and popular culture as well as my upbringing, schooling, privilege and how all those interacted with the nugget of personality I came into the world with. And at this stage of the game, I can take what I like and leave the rest.

In a meeting this week focused on the 3rd Step, I realized I can turn my will and life over (which for me, is more related to getting out of the way than a god pulling strings), but then I have to pay attention to what the Universe brings me each day, whether a passenger in the car who acts suspiciously like I do when my spouse is driving (how annoying!) or a sub-zero on the joy-meter in response to a request for my time. Maybe recovery is about paying attention - to my reactions, to the "how important is it?" question, to what I think and what I do. Not a magic wand, but an increased awareness of what is mine to do and what isn't, or my favorite quote from a program pal - There are two kinds of business: My business and none of my business. I also heard the reminder that Step 3 involves patience. I don't simply get to say, "I'm out!" and then expect whatever it is I was turning over to magically appear. Trust the process, time takes time, make plans but not the results - all the things we've heard over the years that serve as reminders that I am not in charge.

This is pretty funny, and one more indicator that I don't have an original idea in my brain:  After writing last week about realizing the old ideas I've carried about myself no longer fit, I came across an article in the December issue of Prevention magazine, titled "Who Do You Think You Are?" about how it's "common in midlife to have a self-concept based on outdated ideas of who you are." The piece goes on to describe what is essentially an inventory process of writing and talking to someone else, as well as both writing a letter to your younger self and imagining yourself in the future. (In early recovery I had a dream where I told my younger self to hold on, that life would get better and that I had important work to do.) I'm a sucker for a process or a plan, so I'll try it, once I stop laughing for thinking, once again, I'm the only one who feels the way I do. 

Do you ever catch yourself so busy that the days and weeks fly by? How might you slow that down a bit to notice and appreciate what's happening? What aspects of family and society influenced who you became, and do those influences still hold sway? What works and what doesn't anymore? How do you practice Step 3?

*  *  *

This could be time to plan a holiday gift for a sponsor or sponsee, or to think about a year end/new year stock-taking. See the Feb 4 entry for a sample of the "I've Been Sober a Long Time - Now What?" workbook with 78 pages of topics, member's views, and processing questions. Available in PDF format for those of you outside the US (or who prefer that format) or hardcopy mailed to you. Email me at shadowsandveins@gmail.com with questions.