Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I've been following the Weight Watchers program since before Christmas, with incremental success. I'm a few pounds away from that pile of skinny jeans in my closet, though what I'm calling my "skinny jeans" were very likely my "chubby jeans" just a few years ago. C'est la vie.

I am appreciating the daily accountability of my little food app and I will say that I am a sucker for structure, which I believe is a big part of why I connected with AA on a visceral level - there are instructions! The 12 Steps! I have an illness. There is a way out. What a relief.

What I'm noticing with adhering to an eating plan are my food triggers: boredom, sitting down at the computer to work or write, festive or social times when others are eating, for example. The benefit of having a plan that is working for me at the moment, is that it allows the emotional space to ask what I really need. Am I truly, actually physically hungry? Will it kill me to wait until mealtime?

This current experience with food is making me think of other triggers for other behaviors, as in using/drinking/acting out. I've been very fortunate in that I've never had to fight the urge to drink or use. What was once a "have to" became an "I don't want to" fairly early in the process (& for that I am eternally grateful). The times I've had more than a passing thought about getting high are few enough that I remember them clearly: at 90 days when my after-care peers were having "learning experience" slips; when I was told that the final batch of my deceased meth cook boyfriend's speed was available and did I want some; when a guy canceled a date last minute which coincided with an old gal pal calling to invite me out to the bars; the time I spilled my mom's liquid morphine onto my hand. But, even these urges were not compulsions - more like "oh man, I'd love to (fill in the blank)."

The urge to rip & run, however that is defined in the moment, is a little more slippery. Back in the day, when Starbucks was merely a lone venue in Pike's Market, Portland had one brand new espresso shop and we were all turning on to iced mocha's and variations of sweet and potent drinks. Once I'd tried that magic elixir, I found myself driving to work in Vancouver, WA from NE Portland via downtown and that coffee shop. Should I have changed my recovery date as a stimulant addict? Maybe. Didn't.

Romance tends to be a triggering event. I'm great at middles. Beginnings and endings, not so much. As a sponsee once said, "Getting into a relationship triggers my mental health issues." Oh yeah. Even the ones that aren't there. Those triggers tend to make me want to jump on a motorcycle and head cross country. Never mind that I've never been on a motorcycle. OK, maybe once, but the point is that when I'm emotionally triggered, my first thought is usually an adrenaline fueled urge to drive fast, get out of town, move. Or maybe a brand new relationship would do the trick? The trick of distraction, maybe, but that never worked for long.  

Triggers show up with an intensity dependent on my frame of mind. Sometimes a side remark means nothing. Other times, it can cut to the quick. At times, I see a mother and daughter and think, "How nice," while at others, I'm nearly on the floor with missing my mom. I find that the "daily reprieve" doesn't only apply to abstinence from substances. I also get a daily reprieve from myself and my sometimes highly charged emotions, as long as I make the effort to stay grounded.

What I've learned over time is that I will get triggered. I used to think that if I were doing everything just right, I wouldn't get angry or hurt or sad ever again. Silly me. What I've learned is that while I will get triggered, my response to those moments is within my control. I'm powerless over my first thought, but not my second. Will I throw lighter fuel on my trigger, playing the scene over and over again, having conversations with people who aren't even in the room? Will I cave and grab that cookie without so much as a pause? Will I snap at someone because something said made me feel like an errant 6 year old? Maybe, but today I truly do have choices.

I am far from perfect. Sometimes I do eat that extra slice of pizza. Sometimes I do metaphorically retreat under the covers, try to fix myself, speak without thinking. And, I usually recognize it before someone has to point it out to me. There's no better cure for acting out than the thought of making an amends! That foresight muscle truly does get stronger with use.

Making an effort to change behavior, whether related to food or otherwise, leads to introspection, a shift in view, and opportunity to inventory. Can working the Steps be helpful in this situation? What am I powerless over here? How can I practice the principles in all my affairs?

As January gives way to February, I begin to think of Step Two and the return to sanity. Thank goodness we don't need to live in the hopelessness of Step One. Powerlessness, while a relief of sorts, generally sucks. And, moving forward brings hope, whether I'm newly sober or stacking up the decades.  As I plug in numbers for my healthy fish dinner, I will pause and give thanks - that I have enough to eat, that I know where I will safely sleep tonight, that I have a program that applies to all areas of my life, if I so choose.  Happy Wednesday, people. Thank you for coming along on the ride.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

After what feels like winter’s hibernation, though we're officially two months away, I can feel the stirrings of spring, which, for me, can show up as a certain restlessness.  I noted to my sponsor that I was feeling bored with my usual weekend routine. She reminded me, lovingly of course, that “if you’re bored, you’re boring.” Ouch! Her words caused just enough defensiveness to look a little deeper and realize that I’ve not been bored, I’ve been lonely. With the differences in work schedules in our home, I spend a fair amount of time alone. Weekends have tended to be a mad dash to cram in together time, meetings, chores, errands, time with daughter, and a dash of healthy solitude, with friend time a distant priority. What I’ve done, with the re-awareness that I function best with balance (hello Libra!) is: picked up an additional meeting during the week and made a couple of movie dates with friends, with muddy hikes on the horizon. Ahhh - connection!  This isn’t an unfamiliar place - more of a cycle. Winter is a natural time for going within, coziness with a cup of tea and a good book. With garden plants budding and the wee bit of increased daylight, I find myself craving more activity. Too empty a schedule can feel like a sedative. Too full can = what I call “tuning fork energy.” Our literature points out that on-going self-evaluation is a recovery tool. This isn’t just when we’ve done something “wrong” and promptly admitted it, but also when I feel myself a bit off. A gift of long term recovery is that I rarely get too far off the beam without recognizing it. Talking with someone, pen to paper, prayer and meditation, all lead back to the still, small voice of wisdom.

Another aspect of connection I’ve been aware of lately is connection to those who have walked this path before - the old-timers who welcomed me when I first entered recovery, and the few family members who were sober. My cousin’s paternal grandmother was an alcoholic who got sober in 1975. Not being my grandma, she was merely an occasional presence while I was growing up - just another old person on the couch. But, a few years ago, I was gifted with her AA literature - her Big Book (2nd Edition) and a daily reader, The AA Way of Life, precursor to As Bill Sees It. I’ve enjoyed seeing her notes in the margins, and what she underlined as important. I can almost feel her sitting with her sponsor, remarking on the Grace of God. Her son, my uncle, was also a long term member - he has a “sobriety stone” in the little memorial garden at the Yellow House in Seaside. I enjoy saying, “Hello Uncle Bob” when I’m there. 

When my mom passed, I came across items from my father’s sobriety journey - an old plastic lotion bottle from Holladay Park Hospital (remember, we don't throw anything away) where he went for detox and had shock treatments (under the mistaken notion that curing his depression would stop the drinking - I think they had it backwards). There is also an AA schedule from 1978 (though he quit drinking in 1968) and a Twenty-Four Hours a Day book, with a note from a woman named LaVeeda, saying "I hope you will read this each day as a reminder of what we are & always will be." There are phones numbers in the back, whether from his treatment program (the old Raleigh Hills aversion method) or the few AA meetings he attended, I'll never know. One of the great regrets of my life is wishing I'd had a sober conversation with my Dad. I was about 5 years from hitting bottom when he died. When I pick up these little mementos, and read the very few notes he wrote, I can feel connected through the years. I can trust that if there is any kind of existence after this human experience, Dad knows that I'm sober, and feels the love that crosses time and space.

I've also got the Big Book I was given in treatment, a 3rd edition (back when if you said "page 449!" people knew exactly what you were referring to). This volume is full of notes and signatures, addresses and phone numbers, like a yearbook. "Jeanine, You've just taken the biggest step in your life!" from Debbie D.  "The pain you are experiencing will lessen - talk, talk, talk!" by K.J. And from my good friend, Cyd, who I'm still in contact with, "Hang in there. It gets rough, but then it gets better." Yes, it does. 

It's always thrilling to be in a meeting with someone who knew Bill W or Dr. Bob, or Lois and Ann, their wives. Those people are dying off. Soon there will be no one alive with that direct, first hand experience. That reminds me of the importance of our oral histories - the stories we share in meetings, from the podium, one-on-one with another alcoholic, and the history that we're reminded of via scratchings on the pages of our own books, our own phone lists that might show up from the bottom of a drawer. 

Sometimes the connections come when we see someone in a meeting that we remember from our early days, or when we quote one of the old timers we used to know. Sometimes it is unexpected - like the time my friends and I walked into a meeting in Beijing, China, to see a fellow we recognized from home in the chairperson's seat. That sense of belonging to something bigger than myself can come with the nod in the grocery store from a fellow member, a call from someone I once gave my number to, the quiet comfort in seeing the same folks in the same seats in my home groups.

Alcoholism and addiction are diseases of isolation - when we're actively drinking, and years later. Reminding myself of the "we" goes a long way in maintaining my peace of mind.  What are the connections that mean the most to you? Is there someone you want to reach out to this week?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I’ve had occasion in the last couple of months to interact with people I haven’t seen in literally decades - my first husband’s family, at his sister’s memorial, and the man I was with when I hit bottom, and friends from that time period. I was shocked at how old these people are. In my mind, they’ve existed in some parallel universe of disco balls and barbecues, bell-bottoms and summer days. My mom used to say that she felt the same inside as she always had, so was often surprised to see her older self looking back at her in the mirror. I felt the same with these recent contacts. I still look out at the world through eyes that are alternately 14 or 26 or 32, so seeing all these old folks has been an uncomfortable reality check. 

Apparently, time marches on, and if the next 30 years go as quickly as the last, this gig will be over before I know it. This gig will be over before I’ve finally cleaned out that closet, traveled to India, hiked the Olympic Peninsula, written the second book I’ve been procrastinating on... I don’t have much of a bucket list, but there are a few things I keep in the “someday” column. When, exactly, is “someday” when one is in their 60’s?  

Speaking of closets, I had the final round of a carpet re-do installed this week, which meant a weekend of moving furniture, as well as boxes and other detritus from two closets. Deep exhale... I had moments of overwhelm with the volume of stuff - tissue paper, empty boxes (for those someday gifts), needlepoint (which I don’t do), purses I haven't used for years, etc, etc. I am my Depression-era mother’s daughter, and some of the stuff I hang on to was hers. An illustrated article in the Sunday New York Times (by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner)) called "How to Speak Grief”  describes "Clutterstock - The inability to remove dead loved ones' seemingly meaningless items for fear they might later prove to be surprisingly irreplaceable."  Exactly. When my mother first passed, I couldn’t bring myself to throw away anything - I still have the last crossword puzzle she worked, just like she’d done every day for eons, though through an opiate haze, this one is nearly illegible. But it’s her writing. She wrote it. And soon, it will need to go away. Maybe in a ceremony - a fire pit in the backyard at the spring equinox perhaps -  something more meaningful than just tossing it in the recycle. And, as I restock my closets, I will apply disciplined discernment - do I really need this whatever-it-is? Really? Yes, I travel. No, I don't need 47 clear plastic bags. Again, deep exhale.

Recovery seems to be an on-going series of challenges to identify, then discard, what no longer works in my life. Old ideas, old behaviors (which aren’t old if I'm still doing them), old beliefs. As I dispose of material goods that no longer serve me, might I also inventory what else I'm holding on to that it is time to release? Some fantasy that former friends and lovers haven’t changed, haven’t evolved in their own way, just as I have, perhaps? The persistent belief that “someday” is somewhere in the future, a future that, in actuality is shrinking with every passing day?  

I can give thanks for old friends. I can fondly recall the excitement of purchasing a lovely shoulder bag on my first trip to Florence, Italy. I can acknowledge and honor all that has brought me to right here, today - people, places and things that had deep meaning once, but are now merely history. I can suit up, and show up today in ways that create memories for that someday that is just around the corner.

What from your past speaks to you? How do you acknowledge, and then release the memories?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The beginning of January feels clean. The cozy lights and decor of the holidays are put away, stacked on shelves, folded and categorized in ways that make perfect sense today, but could be totally confusing in 12 months. The amount of daylight is beginning to noticeably shift, my daphne and verbena bushes are beginning to bud, and, in Step Group, we are focused on One - powerlessness and unmanageability.

What does that mean in long term recovery? Yes, Step One does and always will apply to my alcoholism and addiction. I recently read an article in the New York Times saying that not everyone who abuses substances needs to practice abstinence. Apparently, those who only "kind of" abuse alcohol can learn to moderate their intake. I did not fit in that category, and even though it has been decades, I choose not to check out the theory. Given my history, I doubt that drinking now and then is possible. More importantly, I have no interest in copping a buzz. I like my sober life. I'm able to relax, have fun, sleep, dance, laugh - all those things I thought I needed alcohol for - without mind-altering substances. I have no need and no desire. I am powerless over drugs and alcohol, period, and as long as I abstain, I sustain the power of choice.

And, Step One applies to so many other areas of my life, as in ALL of them. I am powerless over people, places and things, including the weather, my spouse, neighbors, Washington, D.C. How do I practice that awareness on a daily basis? How do I  move from the creeping delusion that I can wrest satisfaction from this life if I manage well (Big Book p.61)? The truth is, I do manage well. I am paid to manage well. In fact, I once had a position as the Director of Outcomes Management - what a perfect job title for a controlling alcoholic! Reminding myself, on a daily basis, that I am not in charge of the Universe, is part of my daily mindfulness practice, which is really about slowing down. Slowing down, taking a breath, remembering that all is well, even when it doesn't seem to be.

A young woman from my home group died as a result of her alcoholism this past month. She couldn't/wouldn't/didn't choose sobriety. What is that strange mental twist that can lead us to choose death over life? What delusion of control is it that makes us think that "just one won't hurt?"

As we fully enter this new year, this new opportunity to put the Steps into action, what would go on your list of what you are powerless over? Where do you struggle with wanting to control? What might happen if you relax into trust?

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

I was very disappointed this past weekend at a conference when not one, not two, but three of the main speakers (both AA and Alanon), used the word "bitch" in their shares, derogatorily referring to various women in their lives. When the first guy used the word, I cringed just a little - come on, guy, you're at the podium. When the second guy let it fly, I was offended, and when the Saturday night speaker used it five or six times, I was shocked, as were several women seated near me. I'm certainly no prude, and I cuss with the best of them, but from the podium? At a conference? With newcomers in the room? With new women in the room?  I felt lower than low when I got into recovery. Hearing me and my kind called "bitches" from the podium would've stung, would've reinforced my belief that I was just that. My spouse talked with a couple of folks associated with the conference, and I plan to write them a letter, but I am sad that I need to.

I remember the first time I heard a couple of old farts make a snide comment about a woman who'd just walked into the meeting room. What I said to myself at the time was, "Damn it." I so wanted AA to be the egalitarian utopia that the Big Book implied. But, as I've heard more than once, "it's not Well-People's Anonymous." What I've gained over time is the gift of discernment. Sticking with the winners doesn't just mean those who are staying sober, but those who are walking a spiritual path, a path towards healing.

My spouse and I are conference people, hitting gatherings around the northwest and when we travel, culminating in the AA International every 5 years (this past in Atlanta was his first, my sixth). That's why I know it's not OK to use derogatory language towards women, gay "jokes" that are anything but funny, cursing, racist or ethnic humor...  anything that might turn the still-suffering alcoholic away. We already feel different and damaged when we get to the rooms. We don't need keynote speakers who reinforce painful stereotypes.

A positive aspect of the weekend is that I got to hang out with the woman who was my roommate in treatment, back in January, 1986. We stood on the vacant lot where the treatment center once stood, looking out at the view that would've been ours from the second story bedroom we shared. As we paused for a photo, I strongly recalled the moment that I hit my knees in that room, crying my eyes out over a young man who'd just made the decision to get on the bus back to the city, and his heroin habit. In a flash, I'd fully understood what it meant to be "powerless," over him and over my own alcoholism and addiction. As I cried that day, I said out loud, "F*** it, God. I can't do this anymore, You take over." It was the most honest prayer I've ever uttered, before or since, and in that moment I both surrendered, and had the compulsion to drink or use miraculously lifted. I am grateful for that moment, every single day.

I've also recently had phone contact with my ex, the man who put me through treatment and helped me get on my feet that first crucial year of sobriety. I am grateful for all the seemingly random acts that got me to here - his generosity, my cousin's part in an unofficial intervention, my best friend who drove my mother down to treatment for visiting each week, and for Linda, the hope-to-die addict who said, "If you have to go somewhere, go to that place at the beach - I've heard they're good people." I've written inventory and made amends galore for who I was and how I acted in the final months of my addiction, I know that everything worked out just the way it was supposed to, and sometimes the pain of hurting those I cared for can reach through the years and give my heart a little squeeze. I do sometimes regret the past, but I think that is simply part of being human and being aware.

My sobriety doesn't depend on what someone says, or doesn't say, at a speaker meeting. We are perfectly imperfect human beings. The Serenity Prayer offers me choices - I can't change the men who spoke, who I may never see again and have no relation to, but I have written to the conference committee and shared my concern. Many speaker meetings provide guidelines for what is expected - at some groups, you are asked not to identify as anything other than an alcoholic, at others you are directed on what to wear. Every one that I've seen includes "don't use profanity." I think that might help in this case, if the committee is willing to confront the "good old boy" mentality that makes it OK to use negative language to describe women. And you know, if I listened closely, what I might've heard under the word "bitch" was "You hurt my feelings," "You were right and I didn't want to hear it," "I'm sorry that we fought so badly," "You broke my heart."

If we're lucky, and willing to do the work of recovery, we learn to say what we mean, and mean what we say, without being mean. That is my wish for all of us. Happy new year to you, and happy sobriety anniversary to me.