Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Memories, again

I'm stuck on this idea of memories - the sometimes visceral recollection of a time or a place or a person.  I'm assuming that it has to do with growing older, with the very real awareness that there is more time behind me than in front of me.

At a  recent writing workshop, a particular prompt stirred a strong memory I have of climbing a tall pine tree near our house when I was small - maybe 6 or 7 years old. I remember the swaying of the tree as I neared the very top, the wind and the smell of pine. I remember the sense of absolute freedom.  I know that my mother called to me to come down, trying to keep her voice from betraying the fear she had that I'd fall.  I know that because she told me later, but I don't remember that part. How many of our memories are actually our recollection and how many are the stories we've been told? How many are based on the stories that we tell ourselves?  When does memory shift to being a story, an anecdote? At what point does it lose its emotional pull?

I recently came across some writing from pre and early recovery, including a scathing letter I wrote to my cousins attacking them for their part in an intervention that got me into my first treatment experience ("how dare you?" "It's none of your business!")  I also found some early inventory, mainly about my parents as I began to wrestle with the impact of growing up with alcoholism. Now, I thank my dear cousins for their part in helping me stay alive and had completely forgotten how angry I once was. These days, I am able to "look at my past without staring" (from the Alanon reader, Courage to Change) in regards to my childhood, loving my parents fiercely for who they were, not mad any longer for who they were not.  Those shifts come from my changed perspectives, from time and distance, from step work and forgiveness and lived evidence of trusting that "if things were supposed to be any other way, they'd be different." The perspective changes because the story in my mind has changed.

In the rooms of recovery, we tell our stories, real, imagined, sometimes embellished, sometimes over and over again. Some of my stories, some of my memories, have lost their punch, have lost their ability to send me to a dark hole. These days I ask myself, "Is this recollection real? How much of what I remember is attached to the story I've told myself?"  Awareness. Mindfulness. Staying conscious of my intentions. I can no longer claim powerlessness over what stands between me and peace of mind.  Yes, life happens, but it is the stories I tell myself that shape my attitudes.

I'm grateful for my rich cache of memories, both painful and joyous. I'm grateful for experience, strength and hope. I'm grateful for the emotional distance that allows me new perspectives, new ideas, new viewpoints.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

We can do together....

In one of my first meetings I heard a guy say, "I've been here long enough to know I haven't been here long enough."  I latched on to that little phrase, using it to draw a chuckle from the group when I was still too shy to say much other than my name.  But lately, it is making more and more sense.  I've been here long enough to know I haven't been here long enough.

Last night I sat with a small group of women with 20+ years of recovery; each committed to this process of deepening the spiritual connection, of consciously engaging with the questions that come with long term sobriety, each of us nearly bursting with gratitude for the gift of life we've been given, with all its ups and downs.  Someone said that it feels like she is looking "backwards and forward at the same time."  Yes.

It is important for me to connect with those on the path, maybe now more than ever - those I walk with hand-in-hand, and those who are leading the way.  I can tell myself that I don't need to pick up the phone, that "I know what she'll tell me," that somehow I'm supposed to know how to fix myself after all this time. Ha! When did that ever work?  I can now recognize those thoughts as my dis-ease in subtle action. My alcoholism rarely announces itself - Hello! Let's take a drink today!  No, it's more of  whisper: You don't really need a meeting... Ah, don't bother her...  Let's just stay in tonight...

The "we" of the program has a depth that is only just now beginning to sink in.  I need do nothing alone. That certainly applied in early sobriety when I was inspired to stay clean one more day by the example of those in the rooms.  And it applies today as I navigate a new marriage, think about retirement, marvel at the gifts of growing older, learn to live with loss, recommit to my recovery on a daily basis...

I need the new member, for certain, to remind me of the gravity of the disease, to enchant me with the wonder of early sobriety. And, I almost desperately need my peers - those who I share history with, and those I've just met. Let's trudge this road together.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


The man who was my lover at the end of my addiction - the man who first stuck a needle in my arm, and then suggested a few years later that going to treatment was a good idea - died when I was 2 years sober.  He had a complicated relationship with his then teenage daughter, in the way that relationships with practicing addicts tend to be complicated. I didn't know her well. We had limited contact when he was living with me, and then after he overdosed she thanked me for a letter I'd sent describing what I knew of the man she had only a limited relationship with.

With the magic of social media, I reached out to her last week, some 28 years since our last conversation. Today I received a very nice reply, talking about the work she's done around reconciling the amazing man that was her father and his destructive choices.She apologized for not remembering me, or as she put it "I remember your name but have no other context for who you are."

And so, I am struck with the mercurial nature of memory. My context in relation to this girl's father is that meeting him changed the course of my life, yet she doesn't remember who I am.  Memory is almost exclusively about context, is it not? For a time,  I kept a cache of photographs locked away, afraid to look at the Pandora's Box of the final years of my addiction. When I did  finally break the seal and showed the pictures to a friend, he said, "What's the big deal?" He saw a girl wrapping Christmas presents. I saw pain, depression, and the fear of what was to come next.

A great deal of my recovery work has been about reconciling the past, those "causes and conditions" that contributed to my alcoholism and acting out.  That has meant countless inventories on what I remember about my childhood and my drinking history. And those memories have changed, have softened, over the years.  One of my Alanon daily readers says that we eventually get to a point where "we can look at the past without staring." That has taken time. A long time. I don't think that we survive this dis-ease without some trauma, even if it is the trauma of what didn't happen (dreams lost, potential set aside, relationships destroyed).

With long term sobriety, my relationship to my past has changed. My story doesn't grab me by the ankles like it once did, reminding me daily of how close I'd been to death.  I sometimes have a hard time remembering how lost I was, how driven I was to alter my consciousness, how confused I was about my place in the world.  I sometimes have a hard time remembering, and that's OK...

Monday, June 6, 2016

Live for today...

I am haunted today by the image of a burning car that we happened upon just as we crossed the Interstate bridge yesterday, coming home from a weekend away.  As I later learned, there was a four car accident about 20 minutes earlier, and the burning vehicle took one life. I keep thinking about the person who was dead in the fire that we saw from a quarter mile away. I don't know if they were male or female, an elder or a teen. I don't know if they were late for work, or headed to their mom's for dinner. Maybe they were going on a date, or had just split up from someone who wasn't good for them.  I can speculate about the people who waited, thinking, "it's not like them to be late..."  All I can be fairly sure of is that they didn't leave the house yesterday thinking they would die.

Early in recovery, I wondered what I'd do if I knew my life was ending. I assumed I would drink - why not, right? My dad did. After 13 years sober, he drank when he learned that his cancer was terminal. He had good years sober - the best of their life together, my mom used to say. But he sometimes remarked that he wished he could have a beer, or a highball, that he wished that he wasn't an alcoholic. He didn't have any kind of spiritual solace, so that when he was told to get his affairs in order, he turned to the only thing he could think of that would offer relief from his fears and his anger.  I believe he regretted that choice. I know that my mom did.  I am so sorry to think of his pain, a pain I didn't have language for at 25, when my own alcoholism was at full throttle.

I've since known several people in recovery who've made the decision to go out sober. I think of dear Kathy, who sold her life insurance policy in order to travel while she still could.  And Mark, one of the early long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS who practiced what he called "celluloid therapy" (movies) when his spirits needed lifting. Or Cathleen C, who chose to forego chemotherapy and do her best to accept the reality of her situation. They were strong examples of living in the moment.

Buddhists say that we should live each day aware of the impermanence of this fragile human life. That isn't too far removed from our "one day at a time" philosophy.  Am I making today a good day? Am I living in such a manner that if this were my final day, I would die without regrets?  I'm not sipping tea in London, or trekking in the Olympic National Forest, but I can say that on a day doing laundry, a day appreciating time with a friend over the weekend, a day of gratitude for my marriage, I am right with the world.  Do I want this to be my last day? No. There is a lot I still hope to do. But seeing the aftermath of that accident yesterday has me appreciating the simple moments of today.

Be safe out there. Tell your loved ones that you care. Remember that it really is just one day at a time.