Wednesday, February 28, 2018

In meetings, we sometimes refer to "speaking from the heart." That probably means different things to different people, but I think of it as saying what is real for me at any given moment. I admit that I do have a spiel - "canned AA" - that comes out when there are new people in the room and I'm trying to convey what worked for me. But, I also have those moments before sharing when my heart races and I don't want to talk, and I know I need to speak what's really going on.

It took time to find my voice, my identity within 12 Step programs. I wasn't sure where I belonged. At NA meetings, I'd push my up my sleeves so that my needle marks showed, trying to fit in. In Alanon, I'd roll the same sleeves down, lest they identify me as one of "them." And in AA, I usually sat very still so as not to be noticed. In addition to being paralyzed with the "bondage of self," I didn't know how to talk about what was going on inside without talking about what had gone on outside, and back then, there was a strong message that if you had a problem other than alcohol, you should keep that to yourself. So, I stayed quiet in what I now believe was a form of PTSD. When I listen to our stories, I'm so often amazed that a) we got out alive, and b) that we can talk about it without screaming. I am so grateful for the safe places to process the losses and the sheer insanity of the active drinking and using days, whether that was in more relaxed AA meetings, with my sponsor, with friends, and through the inventory process.

For a long time, my story sat on my right shoulder, whispering in my ear, "You don't belong here." "They'll find out you're an impostor," "If they really knew who you are, they'd go away." I spent a few years in therapy in early recovery, at least partly attempting to reconcile the ending of an important relationship. At one point, my therapist, who years later thanked me for teaching her about the 12 Steps, suggested that I write it all down. She'd been listening to bits and pieces, mostly focused on my faults and defects, and suggested that there might be more to the story. And so I put pen to paper and ended up with a 100 page narrative. Through the act of taking a step back and writing down the facts, as I knew them, I was able to put a sliver of emotional distance between myself and my history. I was able to take a breath. (this writing was the precursor to my novel, "Shadows and Veins.") So part of finding my voice was writing down what happened, not just my part, but the contributing factors as well.

Another piece of finding my voice, my identity, was listening to the way I talked to myself. I was able to identify the punitive voice in my head as my dad's, and not his voice as directed at me, but at himself. I realized that by calling myself a girl, rather than a woman, I was keeping myself small. Being aware of my internal chatter allowed me to re-frame the words I use about myself, which shape how I view myself, and thus how I relate to you.

I had to inventory my morals and values as part of the process of self-discovery. I needed to learn about my feelings - when the topic of a meeting was "emotional honesty," I had no idea what that meant. Little by little I learned to speak my truth, which is a worn out expression, but was so meaningful at the time when I was accustomed to speaking your truth, or yours, or theirs.

I'm noticing as I move along in time - both linear, as in my physical age, and in recovery time, which tends to be more of a spiral - that I don't question myself much anymore. As our book says, "What used to be the hunch or the occasional inspiration gradually becomes a working part of the mind" (Bib Book, p. 87) I no longer worry whether I should call myself an alcoholic, or an addict, or both. I don't stress as much walking into a new meeting, or anticipating a challenging conversation. The roller coaster that I rode for so many years has smoothed out. There are still bumps and tight corners, because that is life, but with the Steps, my support system (both in and out of the rooms), and this long history of riding the wave, I know who I am today - a sober woman. A woman of integrity. A woman committed to spiritual growth. Thank you, God. Thank you AA & Alanon. Thank you to all who walk the path, ahead, behind, and beside me.

How your self-acceptance changed over time? How have you used the inventory process as a tool for self-discovery?

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Relationships Part II or, Why I Go to Alanon

Last week I wrote about using the "set aside" prayer around romantic relationships, part of which says, "so that I can have a new experience." I found that practice very helpful. Not immediately, not magic-wand presto, but eventually I found myself in a new experience, having made the decision to "let God choose next time."

The problem was that I recognized that I was having a new experience, but found myself using the same old tools - attempts at mind-reading, being in a hurry, efforts to control outcomes, wanting to know the ending while still at the beginning - my fears and insecurities hadn't caught up with my new reality.

Enter the 12 Steps. The 12 Steps are like training wheels for learning to look at what I bring to a relationship, not just what I want to get out of it. The Steps are a guide to help me stay on my side of the street, when it would be so much easier to point the finger of blaming someone else for my discomfort.

 Learning how to be present in relationship means learning how to be present to myself, as in, learning to recognize my own emotions, especially as they might be triggered by people, places and things. It's easy to react ("you made me mad/sad/glad"). It's harder to slow down and say to myself, "Hmm, that really pushed a button. I wonder why?" Our literature reminds me that if I'm upset, the problem lies within me. Sigh.

I'm no expert on relationships, or on the 12 Steps, but over time, I've become an expert on me. The old line, "I'm just an alcoholic," no longer works as an excuse for poor behavior. I've been sober now longer than I was alive before sobriety. I'm not cured, and I've been working a spiritual program of recovery now for decades. It troubles me when I hear long time members share in a meeting about how sick they still are. OK... so what are you doing to get healthier?

For me, AA and Alanon have been the foundation for self discovery, which in turn, helps me show up with integrity in my relationships at home, at work, with friends and with family. My spouse and I are both children of alcoholics, both the eldest of 2 siblings, and both are frequently right - family dynamics on parade.That we both work programs focused on taking care of ourselves in relation to others is a strong component of our success. We're not perfect, but we do a pretty good job of navigating life on life's terms. Part of it has to do with coming to our marriage in later middle-age - we've both been around the block a few times, and our tolerance and interest in drama is nil. And, part of it is the commitment to practice the principles in all our affairs. For me, that can mean asking myself, "How important is it?" or talking with my sponsor - in Alanon we're encouraged to reason things out with someone else. Often, the simple act of talking about what is in my head reminds me that we're all just muddling along at this thing called life.

I am grateful, today, for the 12 Steps working in my life - both AA and Alanon. I'm grateful for good sponsorship, and for good friends who have walked this path with me for many years, for a marriage filled with laughter, for work I enjoy, good health, and access to good meetings.

What are you grateful for today? How do the Steps positively impact your relationships with yourself and with others?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentine's Day seems a good opportunity to tell my relationship saga. It has been a long journey from the frenzied hook-ups of early recovery to a strong and stable marriage. The Big Book says that resentment is our number one offender. Maybe for you, but for me, it’s that other “R” - romantic relationships. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years looking for love in all the wrong places, and had more or less decided that I wasn’t capable of a healthy, lasting relationship, so should probably just give up. Part of me took my longing for partnership as a weakness, that it wasn’t ok to want.

What I know, from years of recovery work, is that I kept going after people who were like my dad - good looking, funny, and emotionally unavailable (to me, at least). I’ve done a LOT of work around the family dynamics and the decisions I made as a little kid about the world - my belief that if I was cute enough or funny enough, my dad would be ok. It worked, sometimes. It took decades of recovery before I made the connection that my father was grieving (along with having serious depression and alcoholism) - his mother died when I was 5 years old. It was a traumatic death from lung cancer that was incredibly painful for the people she left behind, but what I must’ve figured at the time was that daddy was ok and then he wasn’t, so it must’ve been my fault.

Years of therapy and dozens of inventories led to a place of understanding why I did what I did, why I seemed to keep chasing relationships that weren’t meant to be. I could cite, chapter and verse, the family dysfunction that fed my dysfunction, but it was getting old. Finally, after one more break up, a friend said to me, “Jeanine, if there is such a thing as heaven and your dad is watching over you, don’t you think he wants you to be happy, joyous and free?” Boom. With that simple comment, I realized I’d been blaming my dad for my relationship choices, and the poor man had been dead for 20+ years. He wasn’t the one picking up the phone.

And then I heard something in a meeting that absolutely floored me. A woman essentially shared my relationship story, and how she’d gotten to a point of surrender where she decided to let God choose next time. I nearly fell off the couch. Let GOD choose? Really? No telling who I’d end up with! When I caught my breath, I realized that this was the one area I’d hung on to with both fists. I’d gladly turned over my alcoholism, work, finances, etc, etc, but relationships were mine, thank you very much. I’d never thought I was like the person in Step 7 in the 12x12 who says, “no, never!” to a particular defect of character, but here I was, hanging on to the illusion of control for dear life.

So I proceeded to work at surrender. I decide to let God choose next time, which meant that I was uncharacteristically single for over a year. I made a collage on the topic and hung it in my bathroom to remind me, daily, that I was no longer running the show. I also started using the set aside prayer - “HP, help me to set aside everything I think I know about myself and romantic relationships so that I can have a new experience.” (you can use this for any challenge - money, work, fear, etc). And then I did my best to sit still, and to pay attention. If I was destined to be attracted to people who were like my dad, I started praying that, next time, I’d be attracted to his healthy bits. My dad wasn’t just a depressed alcoholic with a good sense of humor. He was smart, and a hard worker, loyal, and fair. I made a list of qualities I’d want in a partnership, and at the top was “likes me back” after spending too many years trying to convince this or that person that I was right for them.

A couple of people crossed my path at that time, each a learning experience. I kept struggling against my internal demons that wanted to control, chase, hurry the process of healing. And then one day, after yet another breakup, I found myself sitting on my couch, crying. I realized that this breakup really had nothing to do with me. Out of the blue (I say “out of the blue” but it was actually out of years of emotional work) came the understanding that my father’s alcoholism and depression had nothing to do with me either. It was if a bolt of lightning, or maybe a ray of sunshine, came in through the window and straight to my heart, and I found myself sobbing for the little girl who thought that it was her fault that daddy was sick. What I’d known intellectually for years, made that long journey from my head to my heart. Boom.

And so, I continued to live my life. I had a surprise call from an ex that I hadn’t talked with in nearly a decade that helped me finally shut the door on my lingering regret. I left a job I’d had for 5 years. I traveled with friends. I wrote a letter to God, saying that if HP thought I was ready for a relationship, then bring it to me because I was tired of looking. I had a good life, good friends, and if this was it, I was ok. And wouldn’t you know it, within weeks of writing that letter I noticed a guy in a meeting. He was handsome, and sounded nice, but he didn’t fit my template. For one thing, he was an extrovert (with a capital "E"). No bells and whistles, so I didn’t pay him much mind. We talked, at length, at a potluck a few weeks later, and I invited him to come out to hear music with some friends. Funny enough, when the evening came, he was the only one who showed. We talked for hours. He walked me home, and then left (new behavior!). He called the next day, and the day after that we went to a meeting together. A year later, he moved in, and 6 months after that, he got on one knee and proposed.

The hardest part of the whole deal was learning to wait and see. Early in the relationship, something came up and I thought, “OK Jeanine, here’s your out.” But a little voice said, “Just hold still. It’s ok not to know. Let’s see what happens next.”

Earlier in recovery, I used to bemoan the fact that I didn't have any examples of long term, healthy relationships. My standard was pretty high, based on what I'd seen on TV and was reading about in recovery literature - soul mates, like in a pop song. What I didn't realize, in the depths of my painful childhood recovery work, is that there were examples of long term relationships in my own home. My parents were married for 33 years before Dad died, and Mom and my Step-pop were together for 32 years before she died. If that isn't long term, I don't know what is. Mom and Dad raised 2 kids, weathered the storm of his alcoholism and sobriety, his cancer, and all the ups and downs of life. Mom and Jer traveled the world together, embraced both their families, and he was there for her every minute when she got sick. If that isn't strong and committed, I don't know what is.

None of this recovery business is magic. It takes internal, sometimes painful, emotional work to heal from past hurts, real and imagined, whether related to romantic relationships or otherwise. For me, letting God choose has been a revelation and a gift. I can say I wish I'd learned that lesson sooner, but then I wouldn't be where I am today, which is right where I want to be. 

So, happy Valentine's Day to you, wherever you are on the path.  What is something nice you can do today to show love for yourself, and for those around you? 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

February. 2nd month, 2nd Step - Came to believe that a Power Greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  How do I practice this step as a person with long-term sobriety? Where am I insane, if insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results?

I'm not one of those who recoiled from Step Two with "Don't tell me I'm insane!" By the time I crawled to Step One, I knew that I was powerless over my addiction and my life was most certainly unmanageable. I was sticking a needle in my arm (& other parts) 4-5 times a day, drinking beer for breakfast (after a healthy protein shake, of course), and not speaking in complete sentences. With Step Two, I could not, did not argue that my behavior in regards to alcohol & drug use was anything other than insane. Restore me, please.  

In treatment, we were taught along the lines of the 12x12, that the Power Greater than ourselves was the group - two or more sober alcoholics had more wisdom than my detoxing self. We were encouraged to say out loud whatever crazy thought was doing laps in our brain - thoughts about getting high, a crush, a fear - to take the power out of the idea, and to get input. That still works. If I'm obsessing on an outcome, a scenario, a "what if?!," saying it out loud to a friend, adviser, or the group either exposes the fantasy for what it is, or helps me gain perspective. I also use a "God Box" - a container full of slips of paper with various concerns and worries jotted down. Work stuff, health (mine or others), financial future, particular people - all those things that can course through  my mind in a given day (and it's the thoughts that run over & over that make it to the box). Writing them down and closing the lid can, at least temporarily, halt my ruminations, which is very much a return to sanity. (I recently learned a good follow up: open the God Box in a few months and jot down the solutions for each issue - a nice bit of closure, and evidence that life works itself out better without my attempts to control).

So where am I insane today? I have been restored to sanity in regards to my substance use, one day at a time, but where else does my thinking veer off into no-man's land? Maybe in the ways I try to exert my will onto my spouse? Thinking I can eat like a marathoner when I'm only running 10k's? Those moments when I forget that Higher Power is in charge? When I try to figure out details of my retirement, a full two years from now (especially with the volatile stock market - will I retire in 2020? Won't I?!)?  

I used to be able to outrun the internal discomfort that came with the cognitive dissonance between my brain and reality (i.e. my mind is walking down the garden path while my butt in is a chair at a meeting). Coffee worked, chasing a potential relationship,sometimes shopping...  anything for that momentary thrill that transported me from whatever discomfort I was feeling. But as I heard in one of my women's groups recently, the old distractions simply don't work anymore. Maybe that's what is meant by "the road gets narrower." I can see my own B.S. in real time whereas in the past it would take post-crash inventories to get at the truth.

And the capital "T" truth is that all is well. I am human, with worries and fears and emotions around situations. I can acknowledge those feelings, whether they feel good or not in the moment, knowing, through experience, that they will dissipate if I simply allow the process. Sometimes that takes a good cry (or two or three), sometimes it does involve putting pen to paper. Sometimes it simply means saying "oh, hello fear (or insecurity, or anger, or whatever). What is it you need?"  I don't always have the answer, but it does come when I can quiet myself enough to listen.

That, to me, is being restored to sanity. I recently listened to a speaker CD where the person giving the talk described Steps One through Nine as being vehicles to clear the mental clutter so that we can hear the still, small voice of wisdom within. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly... 

So as I embrace Step Two during this month of February, teasing us in the northwest with daffodil shoots and daphne blooms, I give thanks for all the ways I am restored to sanity when I but ask. Ask, and remember that "figure it out" isn't one of the Steps.

What causes the insanity of your "isms" to flare? What might belong in your God Box? What does it mean to you, today, to be restored to sanity?