Wednesday, January 26, 2022


 Taking a cue from a friend, I've rearranged my morning reading materials, having been through my usual daily readers ad infinitum. I have a new-to-me book, Beyond Belief - Agnostic Musing for 12 Step Life, by Joe C.,  and a new conference approved volume, called Prayer and Meditation as well as a daily book of Rumi poetry. I'll take my inspirations where I find them, preferring wonder and mystery, with a dose of practicality, over absolutes. I've always been a seeker - sometimes in formal settings, other times howling at the moon. I long for connection, with you and my spiritual resources, and do my best to stay open to various ways that opportunity presents itself, whether things I read, things you say in meetings, random conversations, or tears triggered by loss or joy.

The "we" of the program keeps reaching out to remind me that I'm not alone. I know in my bones that my parents loved me, and we didn't do much along the lines of emotional processing. I never heard, "How did that make you feel?", which was probably at least partly generational, but left me without the language to describe what rumbled about in my brain and my heart.

When newly sober, I relied on you, in meetings, to give word to how I was feeling. I got terribly uncomfortable if the topic was "emotional honesty," because I truly had no idea what you meant. Over time, I learned the "language of the heart" but my default, when under duress, is still that sharp inhale of fear - fear that I'm supposed to know something I don't, that no one understands, that I'm somehow deficient for feeling in the first place.

And then I sit in a meeting and hear three people use my thoughts and words in their shares. I am not alone in my wants and needs, my fears and my joys. James Russell Lowell, a poet born in 1819, is quoted as saying "Whatever you may be sure of, be sure of this, you are dreadfully like other people." I would say, "wonderfully" like other people. 

I know these quirks of personality aren't exclusive to alcoholics - "No man is an island," written by John Donne in the17th century, reminds me that it is human nature to feel different and apart. But those of us in 12 Step programs seem particularly adept at isolation, honed and amplified by the bottle and the bag or the focus on others. Does that knowledge make me feel less alone? Sometimes. What I do know, always in retrospect, is that when I'm not in tune with my true emotions, I tend to blame superficial stuff for my woes - the neighbors, traffic, spouse, boss, etc etc. It is only when I am able to get quiet that I can know the true cause of my dis-ease, which is often disconnection - disconnection from my own true north, from other people, from my spiritual center. (How many days go by with only texts and social media conversations? I made a pledge a few years ago to actually talk with at least one person a week that I didn't supervise or sponsor. It helped.)

In re-listening to Lila R's West Hollywood talk from New Year's Day, 2021, I resonated with her saying that sometimes, emotional intensity isn't sadness, but the deep ache of missing - missing those who've gone before - family members or friends, including those AA icons who were here when I first came in. Sometimes I miss public figures, or an entire generation (as in, my parents' cohort). The "missing" isn't really grief at all, but more an acknowledgement of the empty space, the laughter, the memories. I do need to feel the grieving, but don't need to fear or run from the missing, which sometimes masquerades as loneliness, for it is a celebration of connection and love. 

I'm not writing this from a place of sadness, but more from feeling my humanity, our humanity. Just when I start to think that meetings, gatherings, or conversations hold nothing for me, I am jolted by the courage and vulnerability I hear from you. Not always, and certainly not every day, but when I listen, when I can put myself aside for even a few moments, I feel it. 

Along those lines, I've claimed a new Home Group, and volunteered for a service position, feeling unmoored for a bit now, unsure how to answer when the question comes up (like when being asked to speak). I have love and loyalty to several meetings, but where is it I feel especially inspired, and moved to serve? For me, this week, that means the likely letting go of one meeting as I commit to another. It means paying attention (always) to a sense of balance - being employed definitely takes a chunk out of the day, but what am I doing to feed or maintain my physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, which means actually seeing my surroundings rather than being trapped by an inward focused gaze. Yes, introspection and reflection are necessary aspects of the on-going inventory process, and too much of it hampers my engagement with the world.

Do you have a Home Group? If yes, what is it that continues to attract you? Thinking of the quality or quantity of missing ones who are gone, how can you incorporate the best parts of those people and memories into who you are today? Where and how do you recognize your connections, the sometimes glorious, sometimes annoying and sometimes petrifying "we" of the program? Today, and always, how do you stay mindful of the need for balance?

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Paying attention...

I burst into tears in my third meeting of the day yesterday. I hadn't intended to go to three meetings, but after my two Tuesday habitual groups, AM and PM, was still feeling at odds with myself, and knew the 7pm group would be focused on Step 2. I needed to be restored.

I went in to the meeting thinking that my dis-ease was related to the tedium of online orientation for the new job, but as I sat still, bathed in the cadence of the shares before mine, I understood that what wanted my attention was grief over our recently deceased cat. As a friend pointed out, feelings are patient - "they wait." We put the cat down on a Thursday afternoon, and Friday morning I started a new job, with my spouse's shift change two days later, and didn't allow myself any time to acknowledge the loss. When asked by several friends, "How are you doing?" I went right to the intellectual explanation - he'd been very sick, it was time, not suffering anymore. All true, while not allowing space for the sad.

Whiskers, III was a fine cat, the kind who'd trot out to meet me when he heard the car pull up, who loved it when my husband spun him around on the hardwood floor, who purred so loudly at the vet's office, they had a hard time hearing his heartbeat. He was the kind of cat who was always nearby, following me from room to room, to simply nap, or pester us with kitty head-butts until he had his fill of affection. He had a good life, as did we in his company, and... it is ok to grieve.

As I've written before, my feelings generally just want to be noticed, and I'm still taken aback when I catch myself in avoidance mode. I like to think of myself as emotionally sober, which I am, day to day, and... grief can be overwhelming. I don't imagine anyone likes grief, but I know from experience it's better to feel it in the moment rather than the mystery explosion sometime later. Today, I feel relieved of the pressure I hadn't realized I was holding on to. I'm no stranger to the sense of safety that can cause me to tear up just by sitting in a meeting (even online) but it always does surprise and embarrass me just a bit. Oh well. I've always heard that I can't save face and save my ass at the same time. Would not acknowledging grief lead me to drink? Probably not today, and, the lack of self-honesty could very well lead to the slippery slope. 

In one of the strong meetings I attended last week, someone shared that with long term sobriety, and inching up on a long-term life, they have a deeper understanding that they will run out of time. I catch my breath even typing that, with my history of Time as a higher power, feeling for so long that there just wasn't enough. As I age, I more fully know that I can't do it all, so what do I want to do with the precious months, days or years that remain? I keep coming back to the question of what I want to experience, learn or release. There are a few things on that list, but truthfully, even that is nebulous with nothing in the "I must!" category. I think that is a good thing, at least for today. Is there a dose of striving left in my heart? A yearning for something I can't yet name? Maybe, maybe not. One day at a time, I'll simply pay attention.

We drove to the coast over the weekend. As much as I looked forward to the outing, I felt off much of the day. In retrospect, I let myself get too hungry, which quickly turned to restless, irritable and discontent. There were too many people on the beach (a three-day weekend - what did I expect?) which meant most restaurants were full, blah blah blah. And... it was a lovely drive, I chaired the nooner at the Little Yellow House, and we enjoyed a pleasant walk on the beach. Attitude, perception, and blood sugar, oh my! I am reminded again and again that the HALTS are not academic. Self-care has to start in the physical realm for me, because it will surely impact my emotional state. I once read that very few people actually have hypoglycemia, which didn't stop many of us from self-diagnosing back in the 80's. Diagnosis or not, I can literally feel it when my blood sugar drops. A long-ago ex used to tell me to eat something when I'd get that wild look in my eyes, but it wasn't until recovery that I learned to always carry a snack. (Thank goodness for the running boom's advent of power bars - it was tough toting around a pbj!)

And so, life moves on - sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. The gifts of recovery will always materialize if we work for them. How do your feelings get your attention when you get too busy to notice? How does the power of the "we" help you settle into yourself, whether that is allowing yourself to grieve, or thinking about the road ahead? 

(Thank you to the readers who've reached out recently with kitty condolences as well as anniversary celebratory messages.)


Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Liabilities and Assets

One of the concepts I've struggled with over the years is the idea that when I'm pointing one finger at you, three are pointing back at me - in other words, the thing that annoys me about you is very likely a trait of mine. The humility of this concept hit me when I went to a trusted other with complaints about my spouse's judgmental attitude, and she pointed out that I was doing the same thing in judging him. Crap! 

I had such a limited sense of self in my younger years. Someone once described me as "practical," which I totally am, but it felt odd as I'd never thought of myself in those terms. It's all speculation at this point, of course, but I didn't think of myself and my characteristics much in the old days - it was more about making plans or making excuses. I came to hate/fear those few moments before sleep when there was nothing but me and Spirit, knowing that "me" was running "us" into the ground. Personal reflection was to be avoided at all costs, which usually meant having a vodka-7 on the nightstand. If I timed it just right, Johnny Carson and the last slug would coincide (with my later coming-to just long enough to hit the "off" button as the Star-Spangled Banner signaled the end of the tv day).

And yet, with all these years of recovery under my belt, there is still a curious mental blind spot when it comes to my own defenses and defects, defaults and traits. I've named, claimed and tamed many, and recognize that most move up and down a continuum of positive to negative application, depending on the situation. Nearly everything I read these days speaks to self-acceptance as a change agent, but first I have to acknowledge the issue. I can't change anything, whether a trait or a tire, if I'm stuck in denial, or am angry at myself. I can begin the process with the ever-desirable pause, slowing down enough to ask myself a few questions. Why is x,y,z upsetting to me? How important is it, really? How often do I do the same thing? (And beware the automatic, "Never!" because that's probably not true). 

A reader in Mexico shared a recent exercise of noting things they feel good about - accomplishments and positive experiences. Step 10 (12x12) speaks to assets and liabilities, but it so often feels like the program's focus is on what I did "wrong." I get it - when I got sober there was more that needed correction than celebrating, however, with now decades of recovery, I've done a lot right, even if some days that is merely suiting up and showing up. 

Coloring my perception of the Steps is the indoctrination of not tooting my own horn, the warning not to brag. I'd say there is a difference between bragging (which is often a cover-up for insecurity) and being confident. I don't have to shout my successes from the rooftops, but I don't need to second guess every decision, or walk around feeling like I coulda/woulda/shoulda done better. It really is ok to simply be. Simply be, and pay attention that when I'm upset with you, I might be better served by looking in the mirror. As speaker Lila R. says, "If I'm not the problem, there is no solution." Nearly everything that upsets me these days in relationships, whether at home, with friends, or at the grocery store, can be traced back to my perspective. 

I started my new temporary job on Monday, and my spouse had his trimester change in schedule, so I've been feeling a bit discombobulated as we settle in. The changes are fine, and, I don't need to pretend I can jump from one thing to another without a bit of mental and emotional adjustment. That's one place my "should's" show up - in thinking I'm not supposed to miss a beat. Putting our dear cat down last week, big change in my daily schedule, different work hours for my husband - all have an impact, however big or small. Funny how I still sometimes need to give myself permission to be human.

If I were to name three things I feel good about, I'd start with living in recovery, my education and career, and my running and walking accomplishments. I don't know that those are my top three of all time, but a good place to start. What are three (or five, or ten) things from your life that you feel positive about? Can you see where the not-so-great aspects of your past characteristics have been outweighed by the positives you've nurtured and grown as a person in long-term recovery? If it's true what my Alanon reader says, that "being human is not a character defect," how do you lighten up when you feel yourself getting out the sledgehammer?

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Our stories


Happy 36th "soberversary" to me. I can't help but wonder what this new year will bring to us all.

I was honored to share my story on Monday in an online meeting out of Vancouver, BC with the added sweetness of my two very good friends from treatment (and still today) on the screen. Who would've thought, on those long-ago January days, that we'd still be so important in each other's lives? I've heard our early recovery pals described as "litter mates." There is definitely something solid about those people who saw us at the beginning, or before - a knowing, and an appreciation of essentially growing up together.

I have two more speaking gigs this week, what my spouse calls a "victory lap", which has me thinking about my "story." What exactly is that? It took a few years for me to coalesce the parts into a whole, especially when some AA meetings in those days told us to go someplace else if we had a problem with drugs. I get it, the primary purpose stuff, and my alcoholism took me to some dark alleys. It was a while before I could release the trauma of those days to be able to talk about what it was like in a general way.

So, is my story about the young marriage to someone from a different background, then a relationship with a man from a different country, and the drug dealer who came next? Is it about my sobered-up alcoholic dad, or all the fun mischief we had as kids? Is it about the cheap wine, vodka, and sickly-sweet Grand Marnier? Or maybe it's the piles of cocaine cut with baby laxative I stuck up my nose, or the methamphetamine that bubbled in vials in my basement.

Maybe my story is the interior one of embarrassment and self-consciousness, that feeling of not belonging. It is probably telling that my earliest memory is when I was three years old, when my mother was giving birth to my brother and the person who was tasked with watching me had to drop me at someone else's house for a few hours. I must've been scared as I crawled behind the couch and threw up. What I remember is the hardwood floor and the feelings of shame. Fear and shame - a painful combination that colored my worldview just below the surface, well into recovery.

When they told us in treatment to keep going to meetings until we heard our story, maybe, instead of the particulars, I was meant to listen for the sense of ease and comfort that a drink or a drug brought to our wounded, frightened selves, the selves that acted out with bravado or inward with anxiety. Maybe the outer details didn't really matter. After all, when a great big biker talked about grieving, or a little old lady shared about hiding in the closet to drink, it wasn't the specifics I could relate to, but the emotions.

Perhaps when I tell my story I could just as easily read off a list of feelings than tell the facts and figures of the thing. I could probably simply say grief, sad, scared and overwhelmed and heads would nod in recognition. That being said, it was the fire and brimstone speakers that hooked me when I was new, those folks who's "what it was like" made me say, "If they could do it, maybe I can too."  If recovery is about the "we" then I'd say it all matters - our actual history as well as the emotional landscape we travel together. My backstory doesn't change, but my relationship to it evolves, circles back around, and shifts over time, as do the facts I focus on in the telling. 

I took our dear, old cat to the vet yesterday. The doctor pronounced him to be on hospice - comfort measures only. I'm waiting on this guy hand and foot, experimenting with what he might eat, encouraged with each bite he takes, each purr, each swipe at the scratching post. And... I'm detaching a bit more each day, paying attention to his quality of life rather than my own wish that he live forever.

Thinking about our cat and the brevity of life, I challenged myself yesterday to simply sit in my meeting. Just sit, and look at the screen - not open mail, or write in my calendar, or otherwise putter around at my desk, but just.sit.still. I am a note taker, and as I took my seat, jotted down, "Be here NOW." Funny enough, the topic was the slogans - Easy Does It, Live and Let Live, Hands Off Pays Off - all the bumper sticker bromides that, when I let them, serve as a portal to a deeper experience of the moment, a small time-out. Amazing (ha ha) how my experience of the meeting changed by my actually being there. Rather than ruminating over the decision that soon needs to be made about letting go of Mr. Whiskers, I focused on "Keep it Simple" and "Trust the Process," knowing that I'll know when I know, one day at a time.

While walking later, I paid attention to my surroundings with intention - red berries on brown branches, winter blooming verbena and budding daphne, so much Oregon green in the dead of winter. I kept my hat off when it started to rain, feeling the drops on my face. There is something about facing death, whether a human loved one or a pet, that brings life into sharper focus. Watching this once sleek and sassy cat age into a bony, snotty mess (he has asthma and kidney disease) has the reality of life and death at the forefront, no matter how I want to pretend otherwise. I do know that anticipatory grief is hard and tender, complicated and so very simple. All I really need to do is sit still, with presence - be here NOW because soon, these moments of togetherness will be just memory.

Happy New Year to you. When you think of your recovery story, do you focus on the facts of your history, your emotions, or both?  How do you utilize the Steps to help sort it all out? Are you able to acknowledge the miracle of recovery on a daily basis?