Wednesday, April 26, 2017


I was asked to hear a 5th step this week. We met at my place, and settled in for a session of honest sharing. We often think of the 4th Step inventory as being where we chronicle our deepest, darkest secrets. Those secrets aren't usually as deep and dark at 20+ years as they were in the beginning, but I never fail to be amazed by the process of one alcoholic trusting another to, not just listen, but truly hear, who we are and where that conflicts with who we want to be.

Usually the 5th steps that I listen to are from people that I sponsor, but not always. Several times over the years, someone I know from one meeting or another will ask me to hear their inventory. In the past, I wasn't the biggest gossip in the world, but keeping confidence wasn't my strong suit either. Enough booze and I was likely to tell you anything about anyone, but no more. The 5th step is a sacrament of sorts - that place where if we can't trust, we'd best find another person to talk with.

Early in recovery I was taught that "what's said in here stays in here" was not merely a suggestion. I'm not free to talk about anyone else's experience but my own, and that includes who I see or don't see at a meeting. Sometimes that gets lost as we come together to socialize as much as for the Steps. But, first and foremost, meetings are about saving my life and the lives of others. Maybe Susie doesn't want her spouse to know she was at that particular nooner. Maybe Al shared something in the meeting that he hasn't yet told his sponsor. Not my business. My business is to listen respectfully. If someone asks for my input, I can give it, being sure to frame it as "this is what worked for me." If I'm simply dying to tell someone what I think about their issue du jour, I can talk to my sponsor about my need to try to influence others. What I can do, asked or otherwise, is offer support and encouragement - Good to hear you share. Please keep coming back. Would you like my phone number?

The poet, David Whyte, has a new book: Consolations - the Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Words as varied as Alone, Besieged, Heartbreak, Maturity and Pain each get a few pages of meditative prose. In pondering the 5th step process, I was struck by his reflections on the word Confession, which he describes as "a stripping away of protection, the telling of a truth which might once have seemed like a humiliation, become suddenly a gateway, an entrance to solid ground; even a first step home." A first step home - home to my true self, myself freed of artifice and dishonesty and who I think you want me to be.

The beauty of the 5th step in our recovery program is the equality between listener and speaker. Unlike the relationship between a priest and supplicant, with its definite power imbalance, the relationship between a sponsee and sponsor is of two sober drunks. One might have more time sober than the other, but any judgement or ability to impose penance is missing. The magic of the 5th step often comes when the speaker tells something they view as hideous only to have the listener say, "Oh yeah. I've done that too." The act of being heard and not judged, in our messy humanness, was certainly a new experience for me.

April, this cruelest month of rain and cold here in the Pacific NW, is when I take my yearly inventory (as opposed to the spot check or 10th step). I jokingly told my friend that I should ask my spouse to identify my defects of character, but that isn't really the point. It never did help for someone else to tell me what was "wrong" with me, or what I needed to change. In the 4th and then 5th step, I have the opportunity to get as honest with myself as I can be at that given moment, and in sharing with another person, can get feedback or affirmation that I'm on the right track, or guidance if I'm beginning to drift. The road does get narrower, and the defects more subtle. Doing my best to remain open to the process allows the steps to continue working in my life. Sitting still and listening to another share her inventory allows me to tap into the wonder that is recovery. One drunk helping another, over time.

How has your relationship to trust changed over the years? Who do you go to for support and guidance?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Life on life's terms...

How many of us have been out and about with a non-program friend and been greeted by all sorts of people who wouldn’t normally mix - men in suits, tattooed women, gender-queer, straight arrows - you get the picture. Our non-program friend is likely to say, “How do you know him/her?!” to which we coyly reply, “through a mutual friend” (meaning of course, Bill Wilson). It is one of my life’s great joys to share recovery rooms with people I wouldn’t otherwise know - bikers and bankers, artists, doctors and nurses, coaches and clerks. We are a wide spectrum of humanity.

One of the advantages of being in long term recovery is that I know a lot of people. One of the disadvantages of being in long term recovery is that I know a lot of people. Knowing a lot of people means that I am privileged to share in the joys we experience as we move through this life - weddings and graduations, pregnancies and adoptions, trips abroad and across the state, getting that job, falling in love for real this time. Of course, this means that I also share in the pains we walk through as life on life’s terms comes calling - illnesses, deaths of loved ones, losing jobs, heart break, heart ache, longing... Again, you get the idea.

What I'm describing is the entirety of the human experience, which means, as the old R&B song says, "you've got to take the bitter with the sweet." Getting close to people will hurt at some point. Period. In writing about romantic relationships, David Richo said that one of you will either leave, or die, and the sooner you can make peace with that, the better.

I remember when I got to know Mark, one of the early long-term survivors of the HIV virus. He’d been associated with the treatment center I attended, though I knew him only in passing at that time. Then, there he was, sitting next to me at the acupuncture center, where I lay prone in early sobriety trying to calm my inner demons and he sat as an adjunct to the medical treatment he received for AIDS. We saw each other regularly, and once, went to see a silly comedy together in the middle of the day, nearly alone in the theater  (celluloid therapy, he called it). I remember at the time thinking: Don’t get close to this man. He’s dying and that will hurt. And it did, but my life was richer having learned who he was, and watching him walk his final months with grace and dignity. 

Sometimes, when life seems to be hitting those I care about full force, I'm momentarily confused - what emotions are current, and which spring from that deep well of loss, and does it really matter anyway? What I've learned over time is that showing up can be painful, and I wouldn't have it any other way. During one of our acupuncture clinic conversations, when I was unsure about a new romance, Mark said, "Go for it." He said that when I have the chance to love, I should take it, because you just never know how much time you have left. That applies to all sorts of love - friends and kittens, and life partners; music and nature and tall lattes. I want to give myself to my loves, instead of holding back out of fear, or saving some for later. Later is now. Today is all that we have. 

I have a bracelet of glass charms that says: dream deeply; love strongly, live boldly. That is my goal today and all days, whether the news in my world is good or not. I don't need to try to run from, or hide from big emotions anymore - mine or anyone else's. A number of my friends are going through it right now - challenging diagnoses, ill parents, a troubled marriage... By first and foremost taking care of myself - centered and grounded - I can be there for others, however that might look, in ways big or small. It's the 12th step, really. We are often asked to hold a moment of silence for the alcoholic who still suffers. Sometimes the person suffering is the one with the most years of recovery in the room.

We don't know how we'll be asked to show up in this life. How do you simply hold still and show up today, for yourself or someone else?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Sometimes, despite years in recovery, several years of therapy, and plenty of inventory, my inner "not enough" gets triggered and I find myself either feeling small and very "not ok," or in the "I didn't care anyway" mode. Neither is particularly comfortable, and remind me that "freedom from the bondage of self" is a journey.

I had a couple of interactions recently that triggered a "there are cool girls, and I'm not one of them" feeling that is a direct holdover from those dreaded teenage years when I was trying, on my own, to figure out my place in the world. I started high school with a dad newly sober, which was great, but there wasn't any magic wand that suddenly created a haven of communication and guidance.

My contemporaries and I stared high school on the cusp of the old order giving way to the new. At the beginning of freshman year, girls weren't allowed to wear pants to school. We were wearing panty girdles to hold up our stockings, because pantyhose either hadn't been invented, or weren't accessible to the masses. We curled our hair, and some girls wore hairpieces to class.  At Christmas break that year came the edict that we could now wear slacks, generally with a coordinating sweater set. The following year, most of my group of friends showed up on the first day of school wearing jeans, the baggier and more lived in the better. Our hair hung naturally, or in magnificent "fro's", and many of us were bra-less, as we claimed our rights as womyn. We camped out across the street, or in the park, smoking cigarettes and the clandestine joint. The revolution was being televised, and we were living it on a daily basis in our corner of NE Portland.

Part of the old order were social clubs, sororities of a sort, complete with bids and rush week. I was only marginally popular, and had no older siblings to pave the way, and though I knew that having cool cousins and popular neighbors wasn't enough to earn me a coveted spot, I still secretly hoped to be included in the dawn ritual of pulling girls out of their beds to whisk them away to points unknown in their pajamas.

A few days prior to this event, several of us 9th graders were at the local donut shop, smoking endless cigarettes and sippping the one soda that would allow us to stay for hours. An older girl leaned up over our booth and, in a whisper, let one of my friends know that she could expect a bid from a particular club. I busied myself with my cigarette as my friend looked towards me with an unspoken, "her too?" I looked up to see the older girl give a slight shake of her head - "no." I was crushed, dreadfully embarrassed, and later that day declared that I had no interest in this club and wouldn't join even if they asked. So there.

This is hard to write about, nearly 50 years later. I have no problem writing about the too-many people I slept with, the illegal meth lab I assisted in, the lies I told my mother, but this incident makes me cringe. I'm not sure if I'm embarrassed because I didn't get chosen, or because it mattered so much. And I'm embarrassed that the memory of it still stings, and sometimes reaches up from the depths of my memory to again cause me to feel less-than, not enough, certainly not "cool."

What I know today about "not enough" is that 14 year old girls can be cruel; that without much guidance and direction, I sought my sense of worth from other people rather than from a place of knowing who I was; that I could never, ever have been good enough, or smart enough, or cool enough to fix my father's alcoholism and depression. Several speakers I've heard recently claim that the "not enough" feeling is a core belief of many alcoholics/addicts. One fellow said that the 12 steps are meant to get rid of all the defenses that we've built up to cover up or run from that feeling. He said that the 12 steps guide us to uncover our true nature - whole, enough, comfortable in our own skin.

So, when triggered, I did what we do. I talked about it with a trusted other, including a fair amount of pouting. I wrote about it. I did my best to turn it over. I reminded myself that I'm not 14 (way not 14) and that my sense of self does not depend on anyone else. As I was told early on, "what you think of me is none of my business." What I think of me is my business. I am powerless over my first thought, but not my second. I'll likely always be triggered by one thing or another. The good news is that today I don't have to give the negative emotions much energy. Lila R says that there is no good or bad in the spiritual universe - only experiences to learn from.

I'll keep learning, sometimes in spite of myself. What triggers you? How do you turn a trigger into a lesson?

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


I came across an "imagine if" video the other day. Imagine, it said, if you were to die this very minute. Right now. People would be sad. Life would go on. It then asked 3 questions. What did you love about this life? That was easy: laughter, the beauty of the natural world, family, friends, and all that we've shared; music, love, travel, my husband and his daughter, and my mother's chocolate chip cookies came immediately to mind. The 2nd question was tougher: What do you regret? That I hurt people I cared about, that I gave so much sick energy to insecurity, jealousy and comparison, that I was still drinking when my dad died... And then the hardest question: What if you had another chance? Going forward it's fairly easy to answer - less BS, more authenticity, less drama, more genuine connection. But what if I were given the chance to undo or change what has already happened? What if I hadn't married my first husband and went away to college instead? Sounds good initially, but as an active alcoholic,there's no telling what kind of trouble I'd have gotten into away from home. What if I'd gotten sober sooner? Maybe, but maybe it wouldn't have stuck if I'd skipped those last few years of "pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization."

One of the stories in the AA Big Book says that nothing happens by mistake.That may or may not be true. What I do know, from this vantage point, is that every heartache, every argument, every poor decision helped to shape my moral code. I definitely know what I never want to do again, and that is a powerful motivator. I also know what I appreciate from what, at first glance, looks like nothing but pain. My first husband and I are good friends today, having known each other since we were teenagers. From him I learned to cook gumbo, and met the woman who is my oldest and dearest friend. While I would change some of how I behaved as a 20 year old, too-young-to-be-married girl, I wouldn't change the overall experience. The same goes for my sobriety date. I needed every single cringe-inducing hangover, every bottle of cheap wine, every gram of every powder ingested, every "I'll never do that again," in order to bring me to that place of absolute willingness. I thank the Higher Power every day for the gift of desperation. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I am an alcoholic. I'm forever grateful that I haven't had to fight that internal fight.

I've lived in my house now for 13 years. As I sat on my backyard bench with a cup of tea on one of the recent rare, clear days, I was hit with a wave of wistful remembering, thinking of the hours I've spent on this bench crying for lost love, excited for new love, writing inventory after inventory, lighting candles, smudging, praying - all of my various efforts at clearing out my broken bits, the damaged pieces that seemed to have me in a spiral of self-will. The gift of long term recovery is coming to the understanding that it's all part of the deal, - the tears and the laughter, the joys and the sorrows. Maybe what I've thought needed fixing wasn't so broken after all.

How would you answer the 3 questions about your life? What have you loved? What do you regret? What would you change?

Saturday, April 1, 2017


A few weeks ago, I listened with horror to the news of the 2 young teens who were murdered while hiking. I can't begin to imagine what their families are feeling and don't want to image what these children experienced in their final moments. This horrific event has triggered the memory of 2 young girls, Ashley and Miranda, who were killed in Oregon City in 2002. From January to August of that year, these young women were in our living rooms every evening on the news as we all hoped that they'd just run away. When we learned they'd been killed, I wept as if they were my own family. In a way, they were - this human family that is capable of such beauty and such barbarity.

This connection that my mind made between a current event and one from the past made me think of what we are learning about inter-generational trauma, the historical trauma that is passed on through our blood lines and collective memory - Native American genocide, the chattel slavery and subsequent oppression of blacks in this country, famine in Ireland, the Holocaust, for  just a few examples. We now know that we carry the pain of our ancestors, not just in the stories we are told, but in our DNA. Trauma changes brain chemistry.

I think of the inter-generational aspect of alcoholism, whether yours was a family with a white picket fence where everything looked perfect from the outside, or the household where dishes and kids went flying on a regular basis. I think, too, of the personal aspect of trauma, our own variety of post-traumatic stress that we often bring with us into recovery based on the madness and often dangerous behaviors we participated in or witnessed during our active addictions. Auto accidents, overdoses, falls, fights, getting lost, not wanting to be found, losing relationships, shots fired, people dying...  Sometimes it can feel like we get into recovery and everything is simply grand. Yes, it felt wonderful to stop watching my rear-view mirror for the police, to no longer engage in screaming matches, to know where I was when I woke up in the morning, and, it was important to acknowledge the absolute insanity of my substance related history. We can be fairly cavalier with our "drunk-a-logs," recounting stories that make "normies" take a step back. Yes, these stories can be funny with a dose of pathos and a strong helping of survivor's relief. I can laugh now, we say, but at the time... At the time...

How does heartbreaking news about strangers lead me to the experience of trauma? Some convoluted train of thought that goes from one end of the emotional spectrum to another. I am a feeler, a bit of an empath. I feel it when others hurt. Is this a by-product of growing up with alcoholism, this sensitivity to another's emotional state?  My mother was the same - we'd tease her when she teared up at TV commercials, thinking it a sign of weakness. Yes, my mom was a bit of a sap, but she was stronger than I'd imagined. I am too, and I now view my sensitivity as a sign of connection. Connection doesn't always feel good. I watch the news and see murdered children and polar bears who's home is disappearing; I see migrants and immigrants fearful for their families, dogs injured in so-called sport. Sometimes it is too much. I don't know that I am supposed to know how a family is suffering in the Ukraine or Sudan. Humans evolved in tribes, and in long ago history, we may have only known 50 people in our entire lives, if that many. Today, my tribe numbers in the billions.

I've asked this question before, and will likely again - how do I remain informed while not getting overwhelmed with the sheer volume of suffering? How do I protect myself and care for others? What can I constructively do with my caring? Service is the obvious answer - service to my family, to my group, to my community.  Where do you turn hurt into caring into service?