Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Out with the old, in with the new...

Another new year beckons with the promise held in blank journal pages and a calendar, empty save for noted birthdays and anniversaries. A new year. A symbolic fresh start. Where will 2017 take me, take us?

I loved that promise of a fresh start even as a kid sitting at my little desk writing out a plan - for the new week, the new month, or the new year. If I could succeed at being a better person, all would be well. Maybe dad wouldn't drink so much, and mom wouldn't be so sad if only I were a better daughter. I would quit fighting with my brother and help more around the house. My parents argued about our religious needs and where to get them, so while I did have the notion of a loving and caring God, there was no personal relationship with a Deity or a church. Instead, I'd cut out sayings and adages from magazines (usually the Reader's Digest) and tape them to the wall, seeking both instruction and structure. I was taught, mostly through osmosis, a sense of right and wrong, a work ethic, fairness and compassion, but nothing about emotional maturity or about getting from point A to point B. Maybe it was the times. Maybe it was the alcoholism. Maybe I wasn't paying attention.

From far too early an age (12?) the new beginning included losing weight. Good grief - I wanted to lose weight when I weighed 100, 110, 120 pounds (i.e. a long time ago).  Always the quest to be better, look better, fit better in the world. Thin, and with a cute boyfriend, I'd be OK. Thin, with a cute boyfriend, and a cute wardrobe instead of hand-me-downs, I'd be OK. Thin, and if I were basically someone else, I'd be OK.

I recently ran across a list of resolutions from 1979 when I was 24 and in a new relationship. I vowed to: lose weight, stop smoking, cut down on drinking, take a class, be more adventurous, stop being jealous. But how could I not be jealous when the other girls were thinner, prettier, drank like ladies and were more comfortable in the world than me? I was definitely steeped in the mire of comparison, of judging my insides by others' outsides.

I sometimes ache for that young woman who so desperately wanted to be better, wanted to feel better, wanted to improve, without a single clue as to what that meant, and without the skills needed to ask the questions or seek guidance that might've helped. Instead, I toasted the new year, the new week, the new month, with the grand intent that this time would be different. But it never was.

And then I made it to treatment and was introduced to the 12 Steps. Eureka! Instructions! The guidebook I'd been unconsciously looking for. Here was a map to the "better" I'd always sought, and the secret was that it was in me, not out there in someone or something else. I didn't stop making resolutions (though now called them "intentions") when I got to recovery, but the tone shifted. I was told I could start my day over anytime. What a gift! I didn't have to wait until the first of January, or the start of a new month, to try a new behavior. And sober, the chances that I would try that new behavior and keep trying until I'd made it my own, increased exponentially. I learned to set goals, to identify the steps that would get me there, and to ask for help along the way. Eureka.

I am still thrilled with a blank journal and a new calendar. My heart quickens with the anticipation of a fresh start, even if it is simply another day.  I have a few goals for the coming year, but these days they are more about consistency than striving for a more/less or better "me." With each passing year, I am more fully understanding that I truly am just fine, as-is. The cosmic exhale that comes with being OK is a relief beyond what I would've imagined. That is the goal. That is the supreme intention - to remember that I am enough.

This year-end, my dear spouse and I will go to the beach, to the town where I got sober all those years ago. Along with attending a recovery conference, we'll light a fire and write down both what we want to release from 2016 and what we hope to embrace in the coming months, not because we are lacking, but as a means to consciously create space for the good that is in each of us.

How have your goals and intentions shifted over the years? Do you have a year end ritual? Peace and blessings for 2017. Let's see where the new year leads.

Friday, December 23, 2016


A friend recently forwarded an article by Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, on regret, a human emotion that can guide our behavior for the better, or can torture us for decades based on what we "should" have done. He says, "We can learn to let things go, but before we let them go, we have to let regret get hold of us."

Oh, do we alcoholics know about regret! The road to sobriety, for many of us, is paved, not with good intentions, but with regret heaped upon regret heaped upon regret. "I'll never do that again..." (but we do), "Please forgive me," (again), "I am sorry" (yes, you are.).  And then we enter recovery and are gifted with the 12 Step path that guides us to take inventory of who we are and what we have done. With that knowledge, written with courage and tears, then shared with another person, we gain insight into what, exactly, are the "nature of our wrongs," which goes much deeper than the superficial actions that got us in trouble in the first place. We ask Higher Power to remove those aspects of character that are troublesome (which, for me, usually means that my awareness of them increases ten-fold). Then, and only then, are we to commence seeking out those we have harmed in order to make amends. Sometimes those overtures are received graciously. Sometimes, not. And then we move on to, if not self-forgiveness, the self-awareness required to change.

Regret had a vicious hold on me when I entered recovery. One of the 9th Step "Promises" says that "we will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it."  I'm sorry, but there are some things that I both regret, and wish to shut the door on. I regret the immaturity that ended my first marriage through an infidelity, rather than my stepping up to say, "I need to leave."  I regret that I then harmed the man I left my husband for with my acting out and drug use. I was tortured with regret for years, and did my best to ask forgiveness. One man accepted those amends, the other didn't. What came out of that for me was an inventory on morals and values - what did I believe? Who did I want to be as a recovering woman? And out of that process, the resolve that infidelity was no longer an option. I've said that since getting sober I've learned to stop one relationship before starting another. That often gets a chuckle, but the truth is that there is a lot of pain in that statement. And out of that pain, that regret, comes the resolve and the commitment to do things differently, to travel on this earth in a way that doesn't intentionally harm another.

I've had regrets in the years since getting sober - mostly of the "decisions based on self" variety, usually when I've been in a hurry, though I don't always recognize the agitation that wants me to make any decision rather than feel uncomfortable. I can still hear my dear father admonishing me to "slow down, Jeanine!" as I raced out of the bathroom pulling my pants up to rejoin the softball game in the street. Slow down, Jeanine. To borrow from a program saying, I haven't gotten into trouble every time I've been in a hurry, but nearly every time I've gotten into trouble/made a mistake/wished I hadn't, I've been in a hurry. Slow down.

I regret not listening to my mother (she was right - I wish I'd continued with the piano, and I was too young to get married the first time). I regret making choices out of fear. I regret not listening to the still, small voice that whispered to me when a particular job, relationship or friendship wasn't working. I regret barreling along in "self will" when I knew deep inside that a certain action wasn't in my best interest, or another's.

The challenge of maturity is to learn the lessons without making the mistakes. That's where "pause when agitated or doubtful" comes in. Ah, yes. Pause. That is a spiritual muscle that has taken decades to develop. It is not my first line of defense. But I'm learning, still and always. Regret didn't feel good 31 years ago, and it sure doesn't feel good today. The difference is that today I do have choices, and enough experience to know that what's a good idea today will be a good idea tomorrow. I have enough presence, usually, to bite my tongue when speaking up is not my place. I don't live completely regret-free, but these days, they are fewer and far less toxic.

Yes, there are still a few regrets from the past that I'd like to shut the door on, but today I understand that they are my greatest teachers. Dear reader, what have been your greatest teachers? How do you pause today so that you have fewer regrets tomorrow?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Right where I'm supposed to be...

Treatment was a positive experience for me. Oh sure, there were moments of "what am I doing here?" but overall, I was mesmerized by the mere fact that I was living with all these people, and they were drug free. I was not a joiner - I'd never even been a Camp Fire Girl, and had a very small world of boyfriend and one or two close friends. There were other people around, but I was most comfortable with me, myself, and I. I might've told you at the time that I didn't like people. The truth is that I was afraid. And here I was, with thirty of them - laughing, crying, hearing stories that made me cringe, kneeling beside a guy as he had a withdrawal seizure right there in the living room.

There were many meaningful events during my 28 day stay, but one incident stands out as shaping my future. One of our group members was a Viet Nam vet who was wound tight with grief and guilt over his experiences in the war. One afternoon in group, near the end of his stay, he broke, sobbing out the terrible things he'd participated in that he'd kept secret, and drank over, all the years since. Every person in that group was right there with him, holding space as he felt the pain and released it. As he wound down, I thought, "I want to be a part of this."

I didn't have to work for the first months following treatment, for which I'll be forever grateful. When I did get a job at an insurance company at the end of that first year, I felt shell-shocked myself. It had been a while since I'd had an office job, but it was more that I felt like an alien with the other clerical gals who talked about dates and dresses, or what they were going to feed the kids for dinner. In the desperation and drama of early recovery, I cried to myself one afternoon, "Don't you people know where I've been?" Of course they didn't. But I knew then that I needed to work with people who would understand, and who might benefit from my experience in the trenches of addiction.

Last week I was at a continuing education training at the Peace-Health hospital in Vancouver, WA, which used to be St. Joseph's, or "St. Jo's."  I started my career in treatment there, in a year long training program that was a combination of classes and work experience. At the end of that year, I was hired on to work with the adolescents - a conglomeration of Native American kids from the Chemawa Boarding School and western reservations, white rural kids from the small communities surrounding Vancouver, and the occasional well-to-do youngster from Lake O, a tony suburb, where parents often insisted "we don't have a problem here." Whether running on the beach with kids who'd never seen the ocean, or holding a teenager as she cried for her lost childhood, I knew I was where I was supposed to be.

That was 28 years and four employers ago. My work is most definitely a calling, something I had to do. I've never had delusions of wanting to save the world. What I wanted was to be part of the awakening process. It is a beautiful thing to witness. But, it was a stretch. I almost backed down because public speaking was involved. Lecture? Teach? Not me. I am definitely not the same woman who sat outside the community college and cried because I didn't know where to go. Recovery has been a series of stretches, of stepping to the very edge of my comfort zone and then, just beyond, step by step.

Today, my career is winding down - not over, but the striving is done and I've got one eye on retirement. Is there a second act ahead? Who knows. I don't harbor many "I wish I'd...." in relation to work. I have been very fortunate.

I know several people with long term recovery who've switched direction in recent years, finally becoming their own boss, or traveling, or all the many avenues our dreams take us. My dreams in those early days weren't very big, but they were huge compared with what I thought myself capable of. What's next? More will definitely be revealed.  Happy trails, friends.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


When I was 7 years old, my mother pulled me from bed one morning before the sun rose to listen to the broadcast of John Glenn's earth orbit. "You'll remember this," she said. I mostly remember the strangeness of being out of bed with the television on so early, but she was right. I do remember. I remember the day that President Kennedy was killed, and seeing Ruby shoot Oswald on TV. I remember the shock of Martin Luther King's assassination, and shaking Robert Kennedy's hand the week before he was gunned down. There was a lot to remember in the 60's & 70's. I vividly remember an awareness that those were not normal times; that the social order was shifting and I was witness to it. I also remember Pearl Harbor, and D-Day, and the Depression of the 1930's, because my mother remembered, and passed her internalized patriotism and frugality on to me. I remember. (Note that I started this entry last week, before learning of Glenn's illness. Rest in peace, Astronaut Glenn)

In addition to life and historical events, most recovering people remember their first drink. Mine was in 1968, the week of my graduation from 8th grade. I'd always thought that it was at a particular friend's home, and that I wrote in my lock & key diary that I wish there'd been more. Memory seems to have fooled me, for in a recent re-reading, I discovered that the party was at another fellow's house, and that there was beer left over to be saved for later. That was very likely the first and last time I saved anything for later...

I was not a blackout drinker. I have many, many memories of momentous as well as crummy little evenings and weekends, and months. We in recovery often mine those memories for clues as to why we did what we did when we did it. The explanation, "because you're an alcoholic" never seemed quite enough. Surely I could unlock the secrets of my insanity with just one more inventory. Maybe not. Maybe I'm just an alcoholic, with events pushed in motion by my less-than-coherent choices.

I did hear someone say early on, "If you can't remember your last drink, maybe you haven't had it yet." Oh I do remember, with more clarity than I'd like. It was New Year's Eve, because I'd insisted on "just one more!" I sat by myself in front of the fireplace, drinking Moet & Chandon champagne from the bottle while my junkie boyfriend nodded out in the bathroom. So much for that final good time. I remember how the top deck of the Fremont Bridge looked covered in snow as we started the trek to Seaside at 9pm on Jan 2nd. I remember sitting in the car on the side of the road shooting up, knowing somewhere deep inside that it was the last time. And I remember pulling up to Serenity by the Sea. windows fogged with cigarette smoke and steam from coffee cups as several peers did paperwork at the dining room table.

What I remember all this time later is how empty I felt in those last few years before sobriety, and how amazing it was to step over that line into recovery. My memories today, like many of yours must be, are related to early and long lasting friendships, all the 1st's (1st sober date, 1st sober kiss, 1st sober dance, 1st sober Christmas, 1st job, etc, etc etc), special groups and groups of people; that time a bunch of us went to Hawaii... and Spain... and onward.

December seems made for memory, with the coming of the new year, both 2017, and, for me, another sober anniversary. The AA book cautions us against indulging in "morbid reflection," but I find that it is important to remember both how lonely I was, and the joys of the early days. I enjoy a good, simple life today, and lest I forget, it could've turned out a whole lot differently.

There was an AA member named Patrick at the coast, who used to sing "Oh Thank You God" to the tune of "Oh Christmas Tree."  I still sing that song. Thank you, God, for all of the memories and for right here, right now.