Saturday, November 21, 2009

Grace was calling

God speaks to me.

I don't mean that I hear voices. I believe God speaks to me through other people, and I can recognize him if I listen.

For example when I was in high school, the mother of a good friend wrote a book called "The Cracker Factory." It was a semi-autobiographical novel about an alcoholic and her journey to recovery in AA.

The book was published in the late 1970s, I guess. I found a copy at a yard sale or used book store several years ago and bought it, though it sat on my bookshelf, unread, for years. When I was new in Al-Anon, I pulled it down and reread it.

In it, was a conversation between the main character and her mother. It was, almost verbatim, a conversation I had just had with my daughter. The character went on to say how that conversation had made her feel. How it had hurt her. I had no idea. It was a moment of clarity. I believe that was God putting in front of me just what I needed to see, when I was ready to see it.

Sometimes God speaks to me in Al-Anon meetings, though what I hear is not always what the speaker intended.

Last Monday, a man in my group was talking about detaching from his mother. "Grace was calling," he said. "But I didn't answer the phone." He went on: "Grace called about eight times, and I ignored it."

Now, I know he was talking about his mother. But all I could here were the words: Grace was calling and I didn't pick up the phone. How many times have I done that? Eight times? Eight hundred?

But the mysterious thing about grace is that we have to be ready to hear.

Blindness can be a form of grace. In taking inventory of my life, there are things that seem clear to me now that I was completely oblivious to at the time. Yet, if I had seen the situation clearly, it would have hurt me. I understood them only after I had some perspective.

But usually, it's just me refusing to pick up the phone. Thinking I had all the answers. Stubbornly going my own way despite the signs. A woman I interviewed recently said: "When you are doing the things you are supposed to be doing, the universe will reward you and support you. And if you are doing what you are not supposed to be doing, the universe will send you increasingly more understandable messages that you are not doing the right thing. And if you push, it doesn't help. Pushing doesn't make it so. That's the art of life."

I've pushed most of my life and pretended it was so. I toiled in a job I hated and was never going to be good at for years. It felt like pushing a rock up a hill. Then I found journalism, and opportunities seemed to find me with little effort on my part. I found what I was supposed to be doing. The universe rewarded me and supported me. Today, I call that Grace.

Al-Anon taught me to listen. When someone says something that rings a bell inside, I pause to consider it. When opportunities come my way, I'm less likely to decline, even if it's something I don't think I'm interested in. I've learned that in my life that God's surprises are always better than my plans. Take my husband.

For years, I looked for the perfect man. I had a list against which I measured every man I had a relationship with. But all my relationships felt difficult, and ended badly. Then I threw away my list. Instead I prayed for God to send me the man he intended for me. I accepted every offer for a date, even if I were sure this man was definitely not the one. And that's how I began to date my husband.

He didn't have any of the qualities on my list. Then something clicked. The phone was ringing, and this time I heard it. We've been happily married for seven years now.

Same thing with Al-Anon. God placed Al-Anon in my path three times before it stock. Through it all, it's been clear to me that I've seldom known what was best for me, but God did. And my life is easier if I just stay on the line.

My Coupon Folder

The other day I found myself cleaning out my coupon file, and I thought how it was like my experience in Al-Anon, because cleaning out my file is really about reminding myself what I have and getting rid of things I don’t need. Out go the coupons for things I no longer want. On the other hand, I find coupons that feel like gifts—a forgotten movie pass or a gift card. Of course, there are disappointments, too, coupons I wished I had used but find they have expired. Those coupons are the reason I like to clean out my file. So I can take advantage of them before it’s too late. That's also why I keep coming back to Al-Anon.

I started thinking about what would be in my Al-Anon folder. My discard pile would include my obsession with my alcoholic, the conviction that I am always right, and my need to control other people—though that one sometimes feels like a coupon that arrives every week in the mail. A Value pack.

Among the things I rediscovered were my relationship with my higher power and the gift of living my own life. Fortunately, those didn’t have expiration dates. They were like manufacturers coupons, just waiting for me to use them.

Along the way I added a few things:

An awareness of the nature of my alcoholic’s illness, and of my own.

The ability to detach with love.

With step four, I reviewed my life, saw it differently, and let go of old grudges that, on inspection, I wondered why I’d collected at all.

With the guidance of my sponsor, in step five, I’m examining things about myself that were too close to see on my own.

For me, this program has been a little like getting a pair of 3-D glasses. When I strap them on, things that seemed unremarkable pop out in surprising ways. I wondered what I couldn’t see yet, and what else I might be ready to let go of. I could hardly wait to find out.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Al-Anon Welcome

I grew up in an alcoholic home and had heard people say that "alcoholism is a family disease," but never knew what that meant. I didn't believe I had been affected by other people's alcoholism. After all, alcoholism was their problem, not mine. And that was a long time ago. I was an adult now. I wasn't ruled by the past. I could make my own choices.

I had heard about Al-Anon and even attended a few meetings. But I came to stay after my daughter started having problems. Every now and then, she'd find herself in some trouble and I'd fly out for the rescue. During one of those visits, she had found her way into another fellowship. For the week I was there, I made sure she went to a meeting every day, sampling a variety of meetings so she would find somewhere she was comfortable. There was much talk about getting a sponsor and after a week she asked a woman named Kelly to be her sponsor. Kelly very gently suggested that I attend Al-Anon. "You can work your own program," she said. "You won't have to attend your daughter's meetings anymore."

I took her advice. The day after I returned home, I attended an Al-Anon meeting I had found online. In my welcome, I first heard the three C's: I didn't cause the disease. I couldn't cure the disease. And I couldn't control it. Some people find comfort upon hearing this. Not me. This was my daughter, after all. I wasn't convinced I didn't cause it. Maybe I couldn't cure it. But control? I had spent years trying to control whatever it was that was wrong with my daughter. I gave up my life to it. Having come from an alcoholic home, I thought I knew where she was headed and I was bound and determined to keep her from it.

But nothing I did fixed the problem. It only served to alienate my daughter and exhaust me.

I didn't remember much about what I heard that day. But I did remember the most important thing: to "keep coming back." It was suggested to me that I attend at least six different meetings before I decided Al-Anon wasn't for me. Though based on the same principals, meetings are all a little bit different. Some are small and intimate. Some are very large. There are a variety of formats. It was important that I find a place I felt comfortable and keep coming.

At first, I wasn't sure substance abuse was my daughter's problem. Still, I went to five meetings a week at first. The people in my daughter's fellowship had impressed me. Walking in, many of them looked world worn. But what they said struck me as honest and wise. They radiated serenity. I wanted what they had. I could see that what I had done so far hadn't worked, and I was willing to try something new.

Things started to turn around for me after I got a sponsor and started working the steps. (We follow the same steps as Alcoholics Anonymous. I learned to "mind my own business" and got busy living my own life. I learned a lot about myself along the way.

In Al-Anon, we talk about dropping the rope. The typical pattern is that the alcoholic acts and everyone around them reacts. It's like a game of tug of war. The idea is that if we drop the rope, the alcoholic will have no one to fight with. Many members have reported that once they "dropped the rope," the alcoholic in their life sought help. That doesn't always happen. But what I've learned in Al-Anon is that I can find happiness and serenity whether the alcoholics in my life are drinking or not.

In my case, my daughter is still on her own path. The difference is that today, I know it's her path. In the end, it mattered little whether her problems stemmed from substance abuse or something else. For me the answer is the same. I've learned to love her unconditionally without trying to run her life. Our relationship is better than it has been in years and, yes, I am happy.