Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A few weeks ago, the friend I was sitting next to asked "What happens to the soul when we die?" I chuckled at the million dollar question, posed just moments before the start of our home group. How much time to you have? How much faith do you have? How much do you want to believe that we go somewhere else when this life is done?

A daily reader, "Healing After Loss" by Martha Whitmore Hickman, that I wish I'd found sooner in the process of mourning my mother, brings up "the possibility that death is {merely] eternal sleep..." and asks, "is that so bad?" Hard to say. I know that sometimes I feel my mother's presence, and sometimes I feel as if she is in me, like I am seeing the world through her eyes. Do I carry a part of her spirit? Is her soul somewhere other than in my memory and my longing?

Another old friend - high school classmate, and my former sister-in-law, died last week. Where is her soul? Is the essence of her watching to see what will become of the house she grew up in? Are her sons feeling any comfort in their loss? What about the part of her that was the teenage girl I rode around in her brother's Mustang with, the part of her that had that great old car we called "the nose." the part of her that mourned her own mother?  What about the part of her that went to get her hair done, just days before she passed. Did death surprise her as much as it surprised the rest of us?

Death comes in many forms. I'm thinking of another friend who seems to be undergoing a death of sorts, a death of a way of being. What will be on the other side of that journey, if indeed there is another side? How do we keep putting one foot in front of the other when it seems like all roads are blocked?

Years ago, a friend called to tell me that he'd inadvertently ingested liquor at a social event. "And I didn't die, Jeanine.The book says that 'to drink is to die' and I didn't die." My premise at the time, and still, is that there are many ways to die. I'd be lucky to die if I returned to drinking and using drugs - that would be the easy way out. It is fear of the spiritual death that helps me stay on this path. What happens to the soul when we die, but more importantly, what happens to the soul when we live and are attempting to hide from ourselves? What happens to the soul when our behavior conflicts with our values? How do we find peace internally when we've been focused on the bells and whistles of external validation? Spiritual literature would suggest that a part of us has to die in order to be reborn - whether you think of that in religious terms, or as a secular metaphor. The part of me that thought I needed a substance to survive had to die before I could step into a new life. How does that surrender, that flat-out hitting bottom, happen?

I don't know, and I truly wish that I did. I wish that I could have someone's "ah ha" moment for them. I wish that I could take a person's grief and hold it gently enough that they would know they will be OK, eventually. I wish I knew where our spirits go when we die, or if they go anywhere at all.

To end on a lighter note, what I very much appreciate are the various places where our spirits  interact. I spent time over the weekend with three women I've known since grade school, and we visited a fourth, marveling at the passage of time, transported to various basement parties, clandestine cigarettes, delinquent boyfriends -  our beginning explorations of the world. What happens to the soul while we live, should be the question. How do I nurture that part of me that remembers, with absolute clarity, long ago conversations, rain on the roof, the details of a kitchen I haven't seen in forty years? Another friend made mention of my trip down "memory lane." It isn't memory lane - it's my life, and I treasure these connections over time.

What I'm learning is that there really are no guarantees. Life, and death, are unpredictable, as much as I sometimes wish otherwise. I am reminded of a quote, author unknown to me: When death comes for me, let it find me alive. Indeed.

What have my musings on this dark November evening brought up for you? What do you do with those memories that comfort and the ones that are sad? How do you care for your soul?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

I sat in circle with 5 other women last night, each, in our own way, expressing gratitude for the subtle and not-so-subtle gifts of longer term recovery. The gains in the physical plane are obvious - no more hangovers, restored health, dishes no longer hurled through plate glass windows, driving with both eyes open...   But it is the internal, and less outwardly obvious, attainments that are the true gifts: That feeling of being ok in the world, and as was mentioned last night, my increased capacity to be present, to express compassion for myself and others, to ride the wave of upset and come back to center. As another friend once said, “I may not always be centered, but when I’m not, I don’t stay there long, and I know what to do to get back.” What I do to get back isn’t that much different than I would’ve done earlier in the recovery journey - read from the literature, go to a meeting, talk with a trusted other, journal, pray, meditate - but these days, the decision to pick up the tool kit comes naturally vs the flurry of “what do I do now?!” that plagued me in new sobriety.

When and how did this happen, this feeling of “being comfortable in my own skin?” I can tell you that it took a long time for me, a long time to settle into myself, to truly trust my inner wisdom, to still the tuning fork energy of distraction and doubt. And it’s not like I just woke up on a Tuesday and there it was. The feeling of stability has come gradually, sometimes in fits and starts. Rather than an event, it truly has been a process.  In the later part of the first year of sobriety, I noticed one day that I hadn’t thought about getting loaded for a week or so. What had been a constant companion simply wasn’t there. That’s how it’s been with serenity. Where I’ve had moments and periods during the years when all felt right with the world, there was still an underlying fear that I wasn’t really ok, that I really didn’t know what I was doing, that someone was going to find me out as an impostor. And then one day I realized that, oh, that lurking self-doubt is gone, replaced with a sense of, not just well-being, but the sense of well-being no matter what. That doesn’t mean I am confident in all situations, but not too much throws me these days. It doesn't mean that I’m not impacted by what goes on around me. I am greatly saddened that my two friends who died in Oct are no longer in this world. I am hugely missing my mom and my step-pop as we enter the holidays. I continue to be disturbed by the events of the world, both natural and man-made. And I know, I know, that all is as it is. I don’t have to like it, or approve, but “it is what it is,” and I have the choice of how to engage and how to take care of myself in the process.

There’s been a lot going on lately, both in “the” world and in “my” world.  So, change in plans. This year, Thanksgiving feels like a day to stay in after all. This year feels like a day to cook a little bird with my spouse, put our feet up and snuggle with the cats, thanking Higher Power for our many blessings. I will start the day with a gratitude list, and some time outdoors. I plan to end it with my daily prayer of "thank you."  Thank you for another day, thank you for another day clean and sober. Thank you for love and for laughter; for work I enjoy; for health; for good, good friends, and for family near and far.

What will be on your gratitude list? How will you balance the "have to's" and the "want to's" this holiday season?  

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

As the days get shorter, I think of  my final Thanksgiving before going in to treatment. Running in the glow of too-early Christmas lights, intentionally scuffling through piles of brilliant crimson and gold leaves, I picture my mother sitting across from me at the lonely Thanksgiving table in November of 1985. I'd woken up to the bright light of a snow storm. My brother decided to stay at home, but I could walk to mom's.

Mom knew I'd spent a few days in the Care Unit earlier in the month, checking myself out after I'd been detoxed, but we'd never talked about the details of what got me there. My Dad had been in and out of detox before he'd stopped drinking. Maybe she thought it was the booze. But then my brother told her the story, as much as he knew at that point, so as my step-dad went into the kitchen, she looked at me across the table and said, "I didn't raise you this way. I just don't understand." What I wanted to do was climb on to her lap and cry. I wanted to say "I don't understand either." But because I was afraid of what it would mean to admit that my life was out of control, I was flip and tried to be cavalier, comparing my sticking a needle in my arm to cocktails with dinner. I'll never forget her look of sadness and fear, and knew, even as I was speaking, that what I said made no sense.

A year later I sat at that same table, sober 10+ months, with old Leonard in tow - Leonard, with half a dozen teeth to his name, thick glasses, and fingers stained up to the knuckles with the tar of countless cigarettes, sober nearly as long as I'd been alive. A lot had changed in the year that had passed - most notably, the company I kept. The next year I cooked a bird for my new friends who didn't have other plans. The year after that, the first of many "day after Thanksgiving" parties, because now I was working the holiday. I look at photos from those times - some of the people are friends still. Some are drinking. A few have died. I am grateful for the fellowship that surrounded me, and day after day, showed me that life, a good, fun and productive life, was possible, and here I was living it, one day at a time.

This time of year, as the days get shorter, I think of childhood Thanksgivings - sitting at the kid's table, and the time that grandpa stood up 2x4's in his basement to stabilize the floor for all 10 of us who were coming for dinner. I remember, as we got older, sneaking off for a cigarette, and later, sipping the dinner wine, in a hurry to get up to the park where my friends had already escaped.

This time of year I think of those who are no longer here, and our first holiday season without my step-pop. Mom has been gone five Thanksgivings now, time enough to settle in to new routines, though not long enough to not miss her laughter. The holiday is quieter these days. I'm no longer driven to go to this house and that, a taste here and a bite there. These days, I'm content to have a quiet day of reflection on all that has come to pass.

Next Thursday I'll likely meet my brother for what is becoming our yearly walk. In the afternoon, my husband and I will go to our 2nd family's for deep fried turkey and all the trimmings. For all my want of a quiet day, there is something special about saying grace with a group of dear friends, noting our graying hair, and the young ones getting tall.

Contrary to popular opinion, I love November, with its underlying current of sadness and melancholy; cold, wet days, and darkness drawing me to home and hearth. November is Gratitude Month, and rightly so as we are asked to pause and think of our blessings. It is also a time of reflection on the year passing - what do I feel good about for 2017? What might I have done differently? What old ideas do I want to release?  What do I want to invite into my life in the coming year? 

How is November for you? When you take stock at the end of the day or the end of the year, what is on your list? 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

I’ve been thinking about the still, small voice that I've mentioned in previous posts. Call it our conscience, intuition, or what our literature describes as our will rightly aligned...

When I first entered recovery I was very concrete, and a little confused - a voice? Still and small? Coming out from under the influence of my drug of choice, hearing a voice wasn’t a good thing. I remember my meth cook boyfriend sitting me down one day when I was new to that world, saying, “I don’t know where you’re going with this thing, but if you stay with it, there will come a time when you may see things or hear things that aren’t really there.” As if I had a choice of where I was going with it. Once I had a taste of that stuff, there was nowhere to go but the bottom, and thank God I lived to hit it. But, he was trying to warn me, and went on to talk about the self-care I should consider, were I a rational person in charge of my addiction (i.e. sleep when I could, eat, know that if someone wanted my attention it would be obvious - that kind of thing).

I took the fore-warning about hallucinations and filed it away in the “this doesn't apply to me” box, along  with fears of losing my relationship, the belief that the crusty old pharmacist would always sell me syringes because I’d never look like the gnarled addicts I saw in line ahead of me at the store, and the firmly entrenched belief that life was too big for me to face alone or sober.

When I did start hearing voices, those subtle whispers and murmurs that made me think someone was in the next room or the basement, the memory of that warning-conversation surfaced, but was overcome by what I thought was the reality of someone on the roof or peering in through the peephole. I tried to reason with myself, all the while nailing blankets over the windows. All of them.

And then, recovery, and the instruction that my intuition was meant to guide me, not lead me astray. I discovered the big difference between self-will and Higher Power’s will, and the benefits of sitting still long enough to know what it was that I really thought and felt about a situation. Listening for the still small voice isn’t rocket science, but it does involve calming my heart and mind, no easy task - though that does come more naturally with years of practice. What I’ve found is that the still small voice isn’t even necessarily a voice. For me, it is more a knowing, a quiet sense of a direction or a decision. In retrospect, I always possessed that quiet direction, but often did my best to outrun it, or silence the inner wisdom because it usually meant taking a step outside of my  small and neatly confined comfort zone.

In Step 11 we are instructed to seek our Higher Power’s will for us, through prayer and meditation - actively listening for guidance. What I’m realizing is that prayer and meditation isn’t about the how - it doesn’t matter if you pray with your forehead on the ground, or with the sign of the cross; meditate in the lotus position, or like me, sitting in the comfortable little chair where I used to shoot dope. Prayer and meditation is about discipline, about the practice of remembering, even if just for those few moments, to clear my busy mind in order to align my will with Creator’s.

Last week I had a specific plan of how I was going to save the day for someone I care about. By stepping away from the issue at hand, we both came to the conclusion that another course was called for.  Pause. Waiting is an action. Think, think, think. All good suggestions for someone who has a history of leaping before I looked.

Back in the day when the Big Book was written, meditation wasn’t referring to the eastern practice we think of, but meant reading spiritual literature and reflecting on what it meant to us. I start and end my day with daily readers, taking a few moments in an effort to quiet the internal chatter. The still, small voice is never a shout. It's never a "NOW!" or a "hurry up." My inner knowing is just that - wisdom, born of experience and of participation in the vast recovery network. I'm grateful today, for the Steps working in my life, for recovery, for this chance to connect on a cold November afternoon.

How do you practice Step 11? How do you quiet your mind in order to notice your intuition and inner guidance? 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

As a good friend and I were recently talking, I felt comfortable enough with our relationship to offer up my view of a particular personal matter, not attached to outcomes - merely an observation from my vantage point. In reflecting on that conversation, I am struck (again and always) with gratitude for those friendships that are real, that are deep, that can handle the good and the not-so-good.

I work in a setting where people are nearly constantly giving each other feedback in an effort to increase individual awareness. Nobody likes it, at least initially. No one actually prefers being called out on behaviors, especially if they don't themselves recognize the problem. We call it accountability.

How many times in my pre-recovery days, was I blind to my faults? It was so much easier to point the finger elsewhere, or to say to myself, "It doesn't matter," "Someday soon I will ______" or  just plain, "Screw it!"  I was raised with a strong work ethic, and a sense of right and wrong, but that accountability to myself and others frittered itself away in the face of my alcoholism and addiction. Plans galore. Follow through, zilch.

And then I went to treatment where we learned about personal responsibility, and about the vital importance of self-honesty. So called "cash register honesty" matters, but what really mattered was being truthful with myself - not just a little bit, not including the tiny fibs I'd tell myself about my intentions, but gut-level, between me and god honesty (and in this instance, I'm defining "god" as the still, small voice, my conscience, that part of me that knows but doesn't want to know when I'm off my personal track). In treatment I got honest about a piece of drug paraphernalia I was tempted to hang on to, realizing that keeping it was permission to use it. When I got home, To Thine Own Self Be True showed up one day when I went into the basement to clear out the remnants of the meth lab that had been gurgling under the stairs just months earlier. As I carted out a box of broken glassware, I noticed a pyrex dish that was edged with a thin sheen of methamphetamine, definitely enough to get me high after a month's abstinence. I automatically did a mental scan of the house, wondering if the friend who'd cleaned up before my homecoming had missed a syringe in one of my hiding places. My first coherent thought was, "No one will know." But within seconds, a wave of peace washed over me with the thought, as clear as if someone had spoken it to me, "But you would know Jeanine. You would know." And for perhaps the first time in my life, that mattered. Self-honesty became one of those recovery muscles that got stronger with use, though it took a while before I could practice the principles in all my affairs all of the time (& darn it, I'm still not perfect!)

Accountability and honesty matter in my close relationships as well. We often hear that a sponsor is "someone who will call me on my B.S." and that's true, but I also need that in my friendships. It's rarely easy to hear, or to tell, someone what we see that may not be roses and rainbows. And it matters. If I don't have at least one friend who will be real with me, about their own stuff as well as mine, what's the point?

How do we, how do I, make it safe for that level of sharing? Gently, for sure. Instead of expecting people to read my mind, I can ask for input on a specific conundrum. If I'm the one with an observation to share, I can ask if the person is open to feedback, and can then remember the Alanon suggestion that telling something once is input, twice is nagging.

Honesty in friendships can be a delicate matter. I'm thinking of another Alanon slogan - How Important Is It? Sometimes "it" is a matter of life and death and I'm cheating us both by not speaking up. Sometimes "it" is just me being judgmental or picky. Usually, it's somewhere in between. I think what I'm writing about here is Step 10 and my willingness to listen to my inner knowing, whether around my own isms or a conversation that needs to happen.

Sometimes this human-business feels complicated. But I find that the more I'm able to show up, be present, and listen, the more connected I feel to my people, and to the greater good.

Where do you feel at ease being yourself? Are you in relationships that either do, or do not, hold themselves open to honest sharing?