Wednesday, August 26, 2020

It is strange to reconnect with people I knew in my 20's. Based on time spent, and the intensity of the relationships, it feels like we grew up together, except that some of us were only play-acting at being adult. 

As I was getting ready to meet with my old friend last week, my husband wondered if this might be an opportunity for an amends. My first reaction was, "For what?" but after re-reading Step 8 in the 12x12, and pausing to consider the tenor of the times, I realized that I owed amends for my participation in, and occasional instigation, of a whole lot of drama. 

I can't say that the amends were particularly satisfying. The friend was polishing off a beer and started another while I was there, and seemed to brush off my apology with, "It was the times we were in." Yes, to a point. The 1970's were a heady time to come of age with rapidly changing social mores. As my friend said, we did what we thought we were supposed to do - graduate high school, get a job, get married - never mind that few of us were mature enough to know what marriage really entailed while the culture was telling us to "Love the one you're with" and "If it feels good, do it," an alcoholic anthem if I ever heard one. So, for the 5 years I was married, just following high school, a varying group of 8-15 people saw each other every.single.weekend. We vacationed together, cooked in each other's kitchens, slept in each other's beds (with a few sleeping with each other's partners), stayed up all night dancing in our various living rooms. And then, our community came to a crashing end, with first my divorce, then another, a remarriage, my husband's mental illness, and addictions. I painfully know, having been on both sides of the "I'm leaving" equation, that separation is hard for the individuals, but also hard for the tribe. Only one couple was able to bridge the gap and stay friends with both me and my ex. Others chose sides (his). 

The old friend seemed to view those days as some of the best of our lives. I'd be lying if I said there weren't good times - dancing until the wee hours, piling in someone's car to go out for Chinese at 3am, toasting with the hair-of-the-dog at noon the next day - some of that was great fun. But, for me, there was the darkness of my budding alcoholism, the hangovers and regret over things said in a stupor, and the reality of an unhappy marriage. Yes, there were sweet moments, but there were a lot of arguments, a lot of conflict over basic values and differences that hadn't been visible during our dating years. Like our parents had said, we were too young.

I worked with a woman once who jokingly described her "starter marriage." I don't like the disrespect of that term, the denigration of the dream we all had with our pretty dresses and gift boxes coming in the mail. And, there is a smidgen of truth to it. Decisions I made at 19 were not decisions I would make at 30, or 50. Sobriety aside, I was not a mature 20 year old. I had a good job and moved my way up the ranks of the clerical pool, but I lacked skills to a) know my truth and b) to speak that truth rather than act out and hope someone could interpret what I was trying to say. Today I am grateful for having the emotional language to actually communicate rather than simply talking at someone.

On the other end of the memory spectrum, I threw myself a safe and distanced party this weekend to celebrate my retirement, in the park where several of us attendees drank and got high during high school. As he was leaving, one friend asked, "I wonder what we would've thought back then if we'd known we'd be here all these years later, dancing to the oldies?" I probably would've been mortified. At 15, 21 seemed old - never mind 65. Unimaginable! But the question prompted one of those psychic rearrangements regarding the somewhat morbid reflection I'd been engaged in after meeting with my old friend. I realized, as one hopes to do in the later years, that every season of life has its joys and its sorrows, proud moments and those of pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. Life goes on, despite my obsessions on a particular person or job, my focus on the past or the future. And if you are fortunate, as I consider myself to be beyond measure, the light days outnumber the dark. 

And now, September beckons. It's been years since I've been in school, but as the cool mornings whisper of autumn, I find myself wanting to buy notebook paper and sharpen pencils. Here in Portland, late summer could extend into October, so there is no need quite yet to batten down the hatches. But I will pay attention to the subtle shifts in energy, internal and external. I will acknowledge the sense of  new beginning and possibility that come with the seasonal shift, staying open to what might be next.

What triggers your memories? Particular songs? Places? People from the past? How do you keep from going down the rabbit hole of sweet or sad recollections in order to keep at least one foot in the present?

* * * * *

I will note that Clancy I, longtime AA member and founder of the Pacific Group died this week at age 94. He could be controversial, with his old-timey ideas and language, but he definitely carried the message of hope and recovery to many. He knew Chuck Chamberlain, and met Bill Wilson, and I don't think there are many of that era left. The torch has been passed, and now we are the old timers. I'm grateful for the many who paved the way and hope to carry on their work with integrity and respect for the program.

I’ve Been Sober a Long Time – Now What? A workbook for the Joys & Challenges of Long Term Recovery” is a 78 page workbook, 8 ½ x11 format, with topics (such as grief, aging, sponsorship) that include a member’s view and processing questions. Available at Portland Area Intergroup at 825 N.E. 20th or online through this blog page. If you would like to purchase online, you will need to go to the WEB VERSION of this page to view the link to PayPal or Credit Card option.   Email me at if you’d like more information.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

 In this time of Covid, I seem to be mourning my first husband, who died in April, on the installment plan. Last week it was a post from a grade school classmate of his that prompted yet more reflection. This week, it was a call from the best man at our wedding. I haven't seen this guy more than once or twice since an ugly encounter in 1978, but with this much time gone, I understand that he was merely trying to help his best friend by disparaging me back then. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and there are a lot of things I'd do differently given the chance (including not giving this man the ammo with which to attack my character).

I read the newspaper obituaries, and since March, nearly all say, "We will gather when it is safe again." Will we? Will there be thousands of funerals and memorials? Will a service delayed by six months to a year bring the same closure as that done when the loss happens? 

Rituals are so important to the processing of emotion. My father specifically said, "No service." I'm sorry that my mother followed his wishes - I think that lack of closure contributed to my on-going, unresolved grief. We took his ashes to the ocean, mom and me, and I said the Lord's Prayer as I waded out to sea to empty the cardboard box while she sat on a piece of driftwood, but that small rite felt empty and lonely. I dreamt about my dad every night for the next three years until I was finally referred to a therapist by the family doctor, after telling him I'd burst into tears while driving to his office. This therapist brought me to a place of saying "good-bye" to an empty chair (the Gestalt method), and the dreams stopped. Rituals matter. Saying farewell matters.  

I often think of the ritual of our meetings - the opening moment of silence, the readings, the "Keep coming back!" at the end. The format is slightly different in different places, but enough the same that it can be jarring when the chairperson leaves something out. Some of that discomfort with "But we always do it this way!" is likely a control issue (seems like so much is!) but there truly is something calming about routine. I know what to expect when I sit down in an AA or Alanon meeting, which increases my sense of safety and security, and my willingness to be vulnerable. 

People in my meetings, both online and in the several outdoor, in-person gatherings we've started, continue to talk about isolation and loneliness in this pandemic season that has no end in sight. Even the introverts share about their new appreciation of real, live connection. When I first toured the treatment program that changed my life, the person who walked me around the semi-decrepit former hotel said that isolation is a symptom of alcoholism. I didn't understand - I preferred being alone, thank you. I realize now that it was my dis-ease telling me I didn't like people - there was less to defend if no one was around. But it wasn't that I didn't like people. It was more that I was afraid of you. Like so many of us, I felt like I didn't belong, like everyone else knew how to banter, to engage in small talk, to be in the world.  I'm still not a big fan of chit-chat, but time in program has taught me that we're all just plugging along to the best of our ability on any given day. And when it's mostly me, in my brain, I'm in the proverbial bad neighborhood. One of my daily readers says "Hearing is healing" and I seem to hear better when I'm looking at you across the room.

The fellow who chaired my home group on Sunday was calling in from Las Vegas and shared he's on a quest to "attend" a meeting in all 50 states. Fun, and made me think of folks who strive to run a marathon in every state. My marathoning days are behind me, but I could make a stab at the meeting goal - I've got 5 under my belt without even trying: Oregon (yes, home counts), Washington, Nevada, California, and Michigan (from a Detroit meeting we attended over the cancelled International Conference weekend). While I had grand intentions about traveling the world via zoom/skype, I've only been to groups in Budapest and Bristol, UK. Like during pre-pandemic times, I get comfortable and/or lazy in my meeting routines. It is good to shake it up everyone once in a while, in order to avoid "personalities before principles." I'll consider a "journey" this week.

I'm thinking about surrender - surrender to what is, even if I don't like it. Surrender to the virus, to isolation, to the current political climate. Surrender on both a personal level (my plans and ideas of how the day or month should play out) and surrender to the more global concerns I have for the state of the world. Rather than wallow in fears and sadness, I can utilize the Serenity Prayer. Are there things I can do? I can call a friend and have a good cry. I can send money to my chosen cause (there are so many - how do I prioritize?), explore how to step up, and can continue my self-care efforts so that I bring a calm and centered person to whatever I do. I can accept that people I love have different viewpoints than myself. I can draw on the courage needed to keep showing up. I actually do OK most days - more OK when I stay in the here and now than the anxiety triggering future. One day at a time. One day at a time. 

What rituals are important to your daily life, from morning coffee and quiet time to evening TV shows or reading? How have the rituals of community life (meetings, family birthdays, etc) changed during these past 5-6 months? Has anything taken their place? How do you surrender to what is vs what you want to be so?

I’ve Been Sober a Long Time – Now What? A workbook for the Joys & Challenges of Long Term Recovery” is a 78 page workbook, 8 ½ x11 format, with topics (such as grief, aging, sponsorship) that include a member’s view and processing questions. Available at Portland Area Intergroup at 825 N.E. 20th or online through this blog page. If you would like to purchase online, you will need to go to the WEB VERSION of this page to view the link to PayPal or Credit Card option.   Email me at if you’d like more information.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

 I passed a house, on my early morning run, that has been taken down to the foundation, with the front porch stairs and fireplace all that remain standing. It is interesting how small a house looks when just the foundation remains - deceptive when I pause to imagine all the life in that space. The original home was likely built in the mid-1920's. Maybe the first residents were a young couple with a baby on the way, and eventually a few more kids. Over the years there were bloody noses and chickenpox, first dates and first shaves; high school graduations and college laundry and grandkids spending the night and then the house got to be too much and a new family moved in, which brought a new collection of bikes to the garage, skinned knees on the sidewalk, mom and dad arguing before he moved out. And now, just air where families, maybe three or four over the years, loved and lied and made jam and mourned their dead and held birthday parties. I'll keep an eye on what comes next, likely one of these fancy new abodes that look stunning, but terribly out of place in the old neighborhood until it fades into being just another house on the block with its own stories to tell.

I have been immersed in my own foundations with my de-clutter project, following my parents' individual childhoods, their early married years and forward to my own journey. And while the sheer volume of pictures has felt overwhelming, a friend pointed out how fortunate I am to have images to go along with my memories.

This week marks 40 years since my father died. Time does heal, sort of. Maybe it's more that time changes the relationship, from one of abject grief to acceptance to appreciation. What I do know is that 40 years is a long time, yet I can still hear his laughter. I hope I never forget the sound of him coming quietly up the creaking stairs to turn on the bathroom heater before waking my brother and I for school. I hope I never forget how he'd show me the goosebumps on his arms while listening to Benny Goodman play clarinet. I hope I never forget how much he loved our little family.

Mom "visited" me this week in the form of a crossword puzzle book I'd not seen since sticking it on a shelf seven years ago. She'd started just one of the puzzles, and judging by her scribbles and a few uncharacteristic mistakes, it was probably as she neared the end of her life. I finished it,  grateful for the gift of time that allowed me to do so without crying, nowhere near in danger of forgetting the smell of chocolate chip cookies after school, her investment in her TV soap operas, her enjoyment of a good party, her support of me, no matter what (and believe me, there were plenty of "no matter what's" over the years).

My first husband also visited this week, in the form of a sweetly poignant social media post I hadn't seen, written by an old classmate on the day he died. It was beautiful to read the tribute, evidence that my ex was more than his mental illness, more than his cancer, well connected to the neighborhood where he lived most of his life. Time, healing, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, and sometimes both at once. I need to remind myself that it's only been four months since he passed, though in this Covid time, it feels much longer.

Speaking of time, one of my closest friends, who was in treatment when I got there, celebrated his 35th sobriety anniversary on Monday. Friends and family in Montana, the Seattle area, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Spokane, and the Bay Area participated in an online meeting to mark the occasion - connections across the miles. I am so grateful for my friend's recovery and very seriously don't know where mine would've gone were it not for his commitment to the path. We were told, early on, to "stick with the winners." That applies today as much as it did all those years ago.

I'm somewhat discombobulated as I sit to write this week - there has been a lot going on in the emotional department, from all of the above, along with a history-laden visit with older cousins an hour to the north, the closure of the AA club that housed our homegroup, not to mention what's on the nightly news. I'm getting better at observing, then detaching from the peaks and valleys. They used to say, "Don't worry looking for your feelings - they'll find you!" Yes. And today, I'm ok with that. It took me a while to realize that I could get off the carnival ride whenever I wanted to, but sometimes I want to stay on the rollercoaster for a while, reveling in memory, in the energy of half-remembered spaces, digging into the foundations of family and friendship and love in all its forms while curious as to what comes next. 

Serenity can be as near as a breath. How do you ride out the peaks and valleys of memories, of current events, of your own emotional rollercoasters? How do you celebrate what and who have gone before without drifting into morbid reflection?  Thank you for being a part of my recovery today.

NOTE: “I’ve Been Sober a Long Time – Now What? A workbook for the Joys & Challenges of Long Term Recovery” is a 78 page workbook, 8 ½ x11 format, with topics (such as grief, aging, sponsorship) that include a member’s view and processing questions. Available at Portland Area Intergroup at 825 N.E. 20th or online through this blog page. If you would like to purchase online, you will need to go to the WEB VERSION of this page to view the link to PayPal or Credit Card option.   Email me at if you’d like more information.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A friend, also recently retired, mentioned in a meeting that they've been going through things, because that's what you do with new-found time on your hands. Oh, do I agree. De-cluttering and clearing away are a big piece of what I've looked forward to - all the little projects that there was rarely time for B.R. (before retirement).  

Like me, part of what my friend has come across are writings from early recovery. I have inventories, Step work, letters to myself - accompaniments of the discovery years. My friend shared that he marveled at the sheer courage of those early writings, where I'd been cringing at what I saw as pitiful. I so appreciate  the reminder that I need not judge my 31 year old self (or 41, or 50 for that matter) by my current state of being. As my first sponsor used to say, if I'd known better I would've done better, and getting to the place of knowing better involved many a dark passage through confusion and denial.

I love how just one sentence can open a whole new path (which is why I keep coming back). I can see now how much of what I did in those early days took tremendous courage: the courage to walk through the doors of that treatment center, despite my fears, the courage to walk through the doors of my first AA and Alanon meetings, then asking someone to be my sponsor, and as time went on, the courage to examine the core beliefs behind the actions that had been hurting myself and others for so long. There were false starts, and the truth I got to at 10 years sober was deeper than that I'd uncovered at three or four, but the courage was in the search, the willingness to put pen to paper, to ask myself, "What do I need to learn?"

It can feel like those days of miraculous self-discovery are long gone, and in many respects, they are. I rarely have the blinding revelations of early sobriety, and thank goodness - that was exhilarating, but exhausting! Today, courage comes disguised as patience, and the willingness to sit still, to wait. Lila R. said, in her Tulsa workshop on the 12 Steps, that we develop the courage to do nothing. I nearly cried when I first heard that. Nothing? Do nothing? I am a doer, an action taker - I've joked that I'd rather make a stupid decision than none at all. but I know that this is about my discomfort with discomfort and not (usually) any urgent need. One of the Alanon daily readers reminds me that what is urgent is rarely important, and what is truly important is rarely urgent.

Lila also reminds me of the importance of self-acceptance (as does the Alanon literature). I am not a project to be fixed. I benefit and flourish when I learn to live with my characteristics rather than go to battle. The Big Book says that we "cease fighting anything or anyone" (p. 84), and I will include myself in the "anyone." It is true that I came into recovery with broken places, and over time, with Step work, therapy, and endless conversations, I have been mended. I am who I am, but the edges are softer now. When I'm able to relax into my bossiness or impulsivity, my sentimentality or practicality with a sense of humor, I'm less likely to take myself too seriously. I couldn't, and shouldn't have, accepted my behaviors when I sobered up, but it was precisely the dis-ease of new awareness that motivated me to change. I'm being disingenuous if I stay on the self-flagellation train after all these years. I've done the work and the gifts have followed, with the biggest gift that of being comfortable in my own skin. Not perfect, but definite progress.

Part of  my "going through things" includes  photos. I am struggling with the sheer volume of photographs in my possession, from the 1920's forward. Some are priceless (my 11 year old cousin with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth; my dad and a buddy during WWII;  a costume party in 1977), but hundreds are not. I've had to remind myself that throwing photos away does not equal disloyalty to my family. I'm sending packets off to cousins and friends, but some are simply going away.

One picture I will keep is an 8" by 10" photo of an old acquaintance. I'm not sure how I ended up with this  - Linda and her husband were pals of my heroin addict/meth cook lover, but there it was, in a folder in the bottom of a box. Some sort of a studio shot, she is naked, viewed from behind, sitting at a dressing table braiding her waist length hair. By the time I met her, she was thirty pounds heavier and tore-up from her heroin addiction, regularly burning cigarette holes in my basement couch, but this photo captures her beauty, perhaps the self she imagined she still was, or saw in her dreams. When I was strung out, I didn't think of myself as such. In my mind, I was coping, I was carrying on, I looked fine until finally I understood that I wasn't, triggered by the pharmacist at the local grocery refusing to sell me syringes. I'd prided myself on not looking the part, but here I was, just another tweaker lurking in the shadows. I don't know that Linda ever came to that understanding. Like my meth cook boyfriend, she died as the result of her addiction. I will keep her lovely photo as a memento of the person who suggested that, if I had to go, I should go to treatment in Seaside because she'd heard they were "good people." I needed the prompting of those who understood my daily desperation for the next fix, the next drink. I am grateful for her gentle suggestion. 

This whole process of going through decades of photos has me thinking of mortality - we're here, and then we're not. Such is a life - full of small moments and big events, and in the end, a pile of photographs and a handful of birthday cards. Serendipitously, this week's NYT Magazine has an article entitled "Other People's Snapshots" by Bill Shapiro. He notes, speaking of actual and digital images, "We're all drowning in our own pictures." He goes on to describe his fascination with other people's photos, picked up at antique stores (maybe I can send him mine!), fantasizing the story behind the images. He goes on to quote neuroscientist David Eagleman, who says "we all die three deaths: The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time." Shapiro adds a fourth: "The moment the last remaining picture of you is seen for the final time."  

I'm not sure that the intensity of that description will help me dispose of the mountain of photographs at my feet, but it does let me know I'm not alone in my quandaries. So, I'll keep sorting and sending off to relatives, acknowledging both the sadness and the joy at viewing all these snippets of captured time. I will accept that this phase of my life is about letting go of material possessions while I decide what I want to carry on the next leg of the journey. I think of my Aunty Ruth, who moved from a big farmhouse to a two bedroom apartment, and then to one room in a care facility. I helped her to pack from that apartment, and remember the decisions about what would fit her shrinking life. I'm not there, but that is a definite "yet." And so, I slog through the boxes, survey the garage, prepare to donate a box of work clothes. The inventories I'll keep until my next go-round.

When you survey your surroundings, are you pleased or annoyed with all that you own? If you have old recovery writings, do you recognize the courage it took to get honest with yourself?  How are you different today from the shivering denizen years? Where has the progress of sobriety taken you?

NOTE: “I’ve Been Sober a Long Time – Now What? A workbook for the Joys & Challenges of Long Term Recovery” is a 78 page workbook, 8 ½ x11 format, with topics (such as grief, aging, sponsorship) that include a member’s view and processing questions. Available at Portland Area Intergroup at 825 N.E. 20th or online through this blog page. If you would like to purchase online, you will need to go to the WEB VERSION of this page to view the link to PayPal or Credit Card option.   Email me at if you’d like more information.