Wednesday, June 28, 2017

I was invited this week to talk with a group of young social work students from Belfast, Ireland about 12 Step recovery, so called "mutual aid" groups (as distinguished from "self-help" - if we could've helped ourselves, believe me, we would have!).

Near the end of my presentation, a young woman asked why AA has remained the same over the years - why there have been no changes based on current scientific research into addiction. I left feeling like I hadn't done my job very well if she thought that AA was treatment for alcoholism, although I do think that is often how it comes across. Going to AA helps me stay sober, but it is both more and less that "treatment." 12 Step recovery is about filling the empty space that is left when we stop ingesting substances. It is about learning healthy coping skills, like changing our behavior and making amends when we cause harm or hurt feelings. It is about gaining self-awareness and identifying patterns (of thoughts or behaviors) that keep us from moving forward. It offers a path to healing. It is about God, however one defines that concept.

The Big Book tells us that its purpose is to help us find a Power greater than ourselves that will solve our problem, our problem being the drink. That's not scientific, but it is real - ask anyone who goes from falling down drunk to a life of recovery. I clearly remember a woman named Ann looking around the meeting room when I was newly sober saying, "I hate to break it to you, but this is about God" and how that made me nervous, not because I had a particular beef with the idea of a god, but because I had no idea what a personal relationship with a higher power could be. In my mind, god meant restrictions - the list of "thou shalt nots..."  - and my behavior during my addictions was full of the "no, you shouldn't but yes you just did."

My idea of god/God/Creator, and my relationship with same, has most definitely changed over the years, from the Santa Claus God of early sobriety to focused exploration of different faith paths, to what today feels like a comfortable friendship. As I was told early on, if I could explain God, I wouldn't need it, so somewhere along the line I was able to give up the quest to define what is indefinable.

Today I hear God in the stories of hope in my meetings. I see God in the sunrise, or my step daughter's enthusiasm for life. I feel God when I sit quietly during my morning meditation time, or when I hold my spouse's hand as we connect at day's end. And without recovery, I'd miss each and every opportunity to be aware of the presence of a power greater than myself working in my life and the lives of others.

I didn't have a great answer for the young woman who wondered why AA didn't change with the times. The pat answer is that "if it works, don't fix it." The bigger answer is that my relationship with 12 Step recovery on a personal level is ever evolving and changing, and will continue to do so as long as I remain open and teachable.

How is your relationship with a god of your understanding different than it was when you first got sober? How do you stay open to the evolving nature of faith?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

We're having some work done in the kitchen. A little stressful with no sink, but mostly exciting as we pick out counter and tile materials. The excitement has triggered an opposing memory of the only other time I've done home remodel...

It was about 1984, and my addictions had me in a death grip. Part of the ugly process of hitting bottom involved the man I would've told you meant everything to me (everything except putting down the needle and being faithful, apparently) who'd decided he could no longer make excuses for my behavior. In hindsight, he was very kind during the painful process of letting go. Instead of kicking me to the curb, he helped me get in to a nice home, which involved some refurbishing. I received way more than I deserved. I knew that on some level, but was devastated by the break up. I distinctly remember sitting in the empty living room with a pile of carpet samples, loaded, crying, not wanting to choose, thinking in some twisted way that if I didn't choose a carpet, then I couldn't move in, and if I couldn't move in, he wouldn't leave. That's not how it worked out.

How many times did I make a decision by not making a decision? Staying in a job longer than it excited me, staying in a relationship longer than was healthy, putting off an action that was clearly called for, or letting others decide for me: waiting for "him" to initiate the breakup, having it "suggested" that my position at work had outgrown me, or going to work miserable everyday thinking that it's me when really it's simply not a good fit... (My big deals are romance or finance - what are yours?).

 A big piece of recovery, of growing up, has been learning to take responsibility for my choices, which can often mean stepping just outside of my comfort zone. A fellow at work has a drawing on his office door: a large circle is marked "comfort zone." A smaller circle, about an inch away is labeled, "where the magic happens." I forget that when I'm scared.

Waiting isn't always bad. Sometimes waiting is a conscious decision. Where that comes up for me today is around retirement. I like my job, but how much longer do I want to work? I crave open space in my schedule, but what if I get bored? What if... what if... what if? As I was once told "If you don't know what to do, don't do anything." I forget that, too, when I'm scared.

Today all is well. There are men in my kitchen installing the new counter. I've had a few days off and am looking forward to catching up at work tomorrow. My dear spouse and I just celebrated our anniversary. Be it about work or anything else, I'll know what I need to know, when I need to know it. In the meantime, I can note the Summer Solstice, greet the tiny tomatoes beginning to show themselves in the garden, spend a few moments in quiet reflection.

Are there places in your life that would be served by making a decision? By waiting?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


My father's mother died when I was five years old. By all accounts, she was a great gal with a sharp wit, but I have absolutely no recollection of her. What I do remember are the many adult conversations around the kitchen table (ours, the cousins, various others) about her terrible death from lung cancer (after initially having a lung removed, a gruesome procedure in 1959) and how much they loved and missed her. It was decades into recovery before I connected the dots between my father's emotional absence and her death. I would think, "My father adored me when I was little, and then it felt like he went away." Ah, grief. Unresolved grief. Grief through the years. That is why my daddy went away, even though he was still sitting in his chair.

My grandmother had two sets of beautiful, Chinese figurines. The black & white set was willed to me - about twelve inches high, a man and a woman, each with a little curved hand to hold a separate bucket. These lovely figures have sat on bookshelves or cabinets wherever I've lived. I love them, and what they represent. And, I've just realized that it is time to pass them on to my cousin. My cousin who has children and grandchildren, and was intended to get them after I die, but why wait? It is a good decision.

It is a good decision, and once made and communicated, made me cry. For the figures? Not really, though they are lovely. I cried for the fact that I don't have a daughter to pass them on to like I'd imagined when I was a girl. I made the decision, after a decade of agonizing, not to have children, at least partly realizing that simply having someone to pass Grandma's figures on to was not reason enough to reproduce. I've not regretted that decision, much. I read a book during my uncertain years that suggested whichever decision I made, I would sometimes regret it. True, but oddly, the regret really didn't show up until I turned sixty, or more accurately, in the five years since my own dear mother died. Who will hold my hand as I pass to the next stage? Who will care about the tiny objects and mementos that I leave behind?

I was in a meeting once in Oxford, England. As we began, the chairperson asked if there were any announcements, or regrets. Regrets? This is an AA meeting, for God's sake - of course there are regrets. And then someone politely said, "Mary sends her best, but she won't be here this evening as she has a work engagement." I do love the British.

I sometimes joke about God's sense of humor. I ended up writing my Master's thesis on the validity of not having children. I never even dated anyone who was actively parenting. And then I met my husband - father to a then nine year old girl. Whoa, God. What's up? I can honestly say that being a part-time step-mom, however vaguely defined, has been a blessing I'd never have imagined. And, when I think of Grandma K's figurines, and Grandma H's sewing basket, it is my cousins and our history that I crave. It is those who've gone on that I miss. It is the realization of my own brief time here that I ponder.

And so, I will give the glass objects to my cousin. I will giggle with my now seventeen year old step-daughter about some silly thing on TV. I will look for opportunities to connect with family, near and far, as we all go about our busy lives. Regrets? Not many, actually.

What about you?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

High school revisited...

I was unexpectedly hit with a wave of shame this weekend as I walked down the dingy stairway to the girl's locker room at my old high school. Tears came up as I stood in the spot where nearly 50 years ago, I'd try, on a daily basis, to get undressed and then dressed again while maintaining complete cover. I got my first and only "D" in gym during freshman year because I wouldn't get undressed for swimming. I wouldn't get undressed for swimming because I was mortified at the thought of going into the showers, ashamed of my mysteriously maturing body, embarrassed that my clothes weren't quite right, so envious of what seemed to be other girls' ease in the world.

I had to tell my mom that I needed a bra when I was in 6th or 7th grade. Those were my dad's final years of drinking, which meant that the alcoholism got way more attention than my developing self, who was so desperate for supportive acknowledgment. Boys paid attention. Not so many, but enough that I could lose myself in their kisses and not have to worry about what to say and did I look OK and I'd better get home before I got into trouble. Boys were easy.

A pack a day cigarette habit by 9th grade, drinking bourbon I'd stolen from mom before I went out at 15 (just in case the bottle of wine we'd steal wasn't enough to go around), smoking pot most days at school - I'd crossed the invisible line into alcoholism by the time I was 16, if not before, though it took another fifteen years to admit that to myself. When I eventually heard people in the rooms talk about being uncomfortable in their own skin, I understood on a gut level.

I was at my high school, built in 1924, because it is closing for an extensive remodel. This open house was our last chance to walk the old halls, which for me meant remembering where I met my best friend each morning for a cigarette before class, the bathroom that we avoided so as not to get jumped by the tough girls, the park where we'd share a joint at lunch time. No "glory days" for me. High school was tough. Wanting to belong while feeling like an alien, wearing my coat much of the year as protective armor, perfecting the invisibility I'd learned growing up, making plans for weekend drinking. There was fun, of course - passing notes, cheering at football games, huge crushes on the basketball stars - but as I walked the halls, I was mostly reminded of how young I was, trying to figure it all out without the language to say so.

The friend that I went with and I ran into another classmate, who shared his own story of teenage shame that I had no recollection of, though we were in the same homeroom and I would've witnessed what he described. And so, I know that I am not alone in mixed emotions from the past. I was not alone in the excruciating adolescent self-absorption that was only temporarily relieved with a slug of cheap wine or a hit off a joint.

Walking out of the old gym on Saturday, I was able to muster compassion for my younger self, sad for the mountains of energy I spent wanting to be someone other than who I was, so appreciative for the gift of healing. As I made my way to our seats in the newer gym, to hear my cousin's daughter sing the national anthem for the alumni basketball game, I was grateful for relationships over time with those I've known since grade school, for the shared history at this school with my young cousin who knocked it out of the park with her rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, and for all the stories and histories that were shared in the halls that day. "Remember when..."  "What was his name?" "Oh my god - is it really you?"  I can get overly involved with my own version of my past. It is good to step back, to change my viewpoint by listening to others' experiences and by recognizing our similarities instead of  focusing on our differences. Judging my insides by your outsides never did work very well, though it took a long time to understand that. Grateful today for perspective.

What was your experience with adolescent emotions? How might you express compassion for your younger self? Are there events or feelings from the past that could benefit from an inventory?