Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Funny Thing

The other day at an Al-Anon meeting the topic was humor.

Normally at a meeting, the inside of my head sounds like a garden party, with various members of my "committee" chiming with with their two cents about what I should share. As I find things to relate to in each successive share, the voices multiply so that by the time my turn comes around there's a veritable din in my head.

The other day, the topic was humor. The response from my committee?


I got nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Humor? What did I have to say about humor?

I thought something would surely come to me as I listened to other shares.

Thing is, most of the people in my group seemed as flummoxed as I was. As we went around the room, one thing did occur to me. Nearly everyone, to a person, confessed to being deadly serious.

There were only two exceptions. Interesting, to me, is that both were also members of a different fellowship. (Does anybody but me think AA meetings are just more fun??) One of those two people confessed that she used humor as a shield to deflect from her feelings.

I never thought of myself as being deadly serious. I've been mostly happy in my life. I'm just not what you'd call lighthearted, fun, devil-may-care. I said this to my sponsor during our weekly call time.

"You're way serious," she said.

My sponsor has always told me the truth. I have no reason not to believe her.

So sitting in that room it occurred to me that maybe, like so many things, my serious nature was not hardwired but an affect of this disease. And if that were true, than restoring me to sanity might also mean restoring me to good humor. It's an intriguing thought. I warmed to it.

Before I came into Al-Anon, I thought I knew myself. I didn't know anything.

I've always believed in an examined life. There are so many things about myself I thought were just "who I am." I accepted this. In Al-Anon, I'm finding out that so many of these things are not "who I am" at all. They are traits I share with so many people in this program. All the "isms" of this disease: perfectionism, the need to control, people pleasing.

Now I see that most of these characteristics were self-defense mechanisms that overshot the mark. The good news is that, with a program, I am beginning to unlearn the old behaviors that now stand in my way.

Will my future self include Funny Girl? Probably not. But I'm guessing she'll be a lot lighter. I can hardly wait to meet her.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Open Letter from the Alcoholic

The chairperson at a meeting I attended recently, who is also a member of AA, shared on this "Open Letter to the Alcoholic," which I've always thought was very powerful. I hadn't read it for a while, so it was a good reminder to me. The letter appears in the Al-Anon pamphlet "Three Views of Alcoholism." If you're not familiar with it, I've included it here:

Open Letter from the Alcoholic

I am an alcoholic. I need your help.

Don't lecture, blame or scold me. You wouldn't be angry with me for having cancer or diabetes. Alcoholism is a disease, too.

Don't pour out my liquor; it's just a waste because I can always find ways of getting more.

Don't let me provoke your anger. If you attack me verbally or physically, you will only confirm my bad opinion abut myself. I hate myself enough already.

Don't let your love and anxiety for me lead you into doing what I ought to do for myself. If you assume my responsibilities, you make my failure to assume them permanent. My sense of guilt will be increased, and you will feel resentful.

Don't accept my promises. I'll promise anything to get off the hook. But the nature of my illness prevents me from keeping my promises, even though I mean them at the time.

Don't make empty threats. Once you have made a decision, stick to it.

Don't believe everything I tell you; it may be a lie. Denial of reality is a symptom of my illness. Moreover, I'm likely to lose respect for those I can fool too easily.

Don't let me take advantage of you or exploit you in any way. Love cannot exist for long without the dimension of justice.

Don't cover up for me or try in any way to spare me the consequences of my drinking. Don't lie for me, pay my bills, or meet my obligations. It may avert or reduce the very crisis that would prompt me to seek help. I can continue to deny that I have a drinking problem as long as you provide an automatic escape for the consequences of my drinking.

Above all, do learn all you can about alcoholism and your role in relation to me. Go to open AA meetings when you can. Attend Al-Anon meetings regularly, read the literature and keep in touch with Al-Anon members. They're the people who can help you see the whole situation clearly.

I love you.

Your Alcoholic

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Today, I attended the Sunday Al-Anon meeting I call church. I call it that because I often get the same messages at church as I do in the program. Today's message was gratitude.

It started when I ran into my Al-Anon sister, Ginny, who asked me if I had heard about the overdose in our sponsor's family. I said I had. I told her it was a reality check for me. It made me feel grateful that my daughter was alive. She agreed and shared with me something a program friend had told her that gave her hope. She said, your daughter's final chapter hasn't been written yet.

The pastor's message was "Praise, Praise, Praise," but it could have been titled, "Nevertheless..." She shared that she was driving somewhere thinking about all the things she didn't have, when she looked up at the car in front of her and on the bumper was a sticker that said, "Nevertheless... God." And it reminded her of all she had been blessed with. We all have things, she said. Some of us have endured unspeakable tragedy. But it's still possible to feel joy, nevertheless...

To me, that's been the central message of Al-Anon. I have been affected by the disease of alcoholism and watched those closest to me struggle. Those struggles and difficulties will always be with me, nevertheless... I can learn to be happy no matter what's happening with the alcoholics in my life, and whether they are still drinking or not.

If I'm in gratitude, it's hard for me to be sad or worried or anxious. Gratitude is one of the most powerful tools I've learned in Al-Anon. It's also a learned behavior. It's something I have to practice daily.

Here's an assignment my sponsor is fond of giving out. If you haven't already, I encourage you to try it. Make a gratitude list of 10 things, three days in a row and don't repeat anything.

At first, I found this hard. Soon I was practicing gratitude every day and had so many things on my list that I had to focus on what I was grateful for just in the last 24 hours.

In Al-Anon, I've heard of many variations on this theme. Some people keep a gratitude journal. Some e-mail their gratitude list every day to a friend in the program. They say it keeps them accountable. Scott W. publishes his gratitude list on the blog Attitude of Gratitude.

My own practice is to send up my gratitude list in my daily prayers. I have prayers I say regularly, and I have one that I compose daily that begins with my gratitude list and ends with the list of people I am praying for. It seems like the right order.

I live in the West, where the culture and traditions of many Indian nations are woven into the fabric of life. In the Navajo tradition, it's impolite to ask for something without offering something first, a gift of tobacco, say. That always impressed me. And that's the way I pray.

Here's what I'm grateful for today:

1. I'm grateful for the leaves that fall and swirl outside my window like snowflakes. I'm grateful that they are not snowflakes.

2. I'm grateful that it is 54 and not minus 54. I'm grateful that I am still minus 54.

3. I'm grateful for the time I got to spend with my stepson and grandchildren, for the excitement that swirled around the house while they were here, and for the peace that's settled over the house since they left.

4. I'm grateful for a Barnes and Noble gift card, which allowed me to buy a book I've been wanting, and grateful for pleasurable hours spent reading it yesterday.

5. I'm grateful for my friends David and Martha and for the Christmas basket of goodies they delivered, which included the delicious frittatas my husband and I enjoyed today for breakfast.

6. I'm grateful for a husband to share them with.

7. I'm grateful for toast with apple jelly.

8. I'm grateful that my daughter is alive. That she called to wish me a Merry Christmas. That she will be arriving later this week. That her final chapter is not yet written.

9. I'm grateful that my final chapter is not yet written.

10. I'm grateful for my Al-Anon sister Ginny and all my Al-Anon sisters. I'm grateful to have a sponsor who provides such an example of the Al-Anon way. Who shows me that it's possible to walk through tragedy with grace, dignity and, yes, even joy.

I wish you a joyful, gratitude-filled day.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


On this day after Christmas, I'd like to share a poem that has come to mean a lot to me. It's an old poem, but one that, to me, sums up what Al-Anon is all about. I first came across it in ODAT, Dec. 7. The book included just the first stanza, and I liked it so much I looked it up. For a long time, I read it over during my morning prayer and meditation. It always gave me a feeling of peace.

by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Five Favorite Things

Doc in Al-Anon tagged me to write my five favorite things. He was tagged by Ed G. I've enjoyed watching this game of tag and reading everyone's contributions. Thanks to you both.

Here are a few of my favorite things today:

1. Books. When I was in the height of my obsession about my alcoholic and my life was unmanageable, I didn't have much time to read. I missed it terribly. Once, when my daughter (my alcoholic) was visiting her dad, I took myself on a solitary retreat to Cape Cod. I spent hours in my room in the B&B and read like a starving person might eat. One book I particularly remember reading on that trip: "Winesburg, Ohio." A book that has changed my life: "Your Money or Your Life."

2. Words. I am a word person. I love words. I've kept a journal for years and I've found writing to be tremendously healing. I was delighted when my sponsor assigned me to write down "all of my memories" as part of my fourth step. It changed the way I saw everything.

3. The ocean. I once joined the Navy because it meant that I would always live near the ocean. I love the sound of it: like faraway applause. I love the briny smell of it. The loneliness of it. Patrolling the ocean comforted me during some very difficult times, like my mother's illness. What I most love are the surprises, that always feel like gifts from God: a pod of dolphins swimming just past the waves, a sealion sitting on a buoy,a sunset.

4. Nature. I didn't always believe in God, but I did believe there was a power in the universe. Being in nature, I felt surrounded by the Divine. I believed that if there was a God, being on a mountaintop was as close as I could get.

5. My husband, who has never judged me, or tried to control me. He has always supported me in whatever I wanted to do. And he has always made me feel loved.

A Christmas Blessing

There area days when a meeting changes everything for me. Yesterday was that kind of day.

I walked into an Al-Anon meeting last night (Christmas Eve). We had had family members visiting us for several days and I hadn't been to a meeting, one a very active 4-year-old. Yesterday, they were supposed to leave, but their plane was canceled and we are blessed to have them stay with us for two more days. As much as I love them, I admit the 4-year-old was beginning to wear on me and I went to a meeting for back up.

There are usually 30 or 40 people at this meeting, which is set up podium style. Last night, there were only 8 or 10 people sitting in a small circle. The die-hard members and the people in need. My sponsor, who is both, was there. She didn't make eye contact with me when I arrived. She looked sad and talked quietly with the person sitting next to her. Someone else came over and hugged her. It didn't take me long to get filled in. Her husband's cousin, Josh, had overdosed.His brother had done the same two years before. Josh's kids were staying with them. When it was her turn, my sponsor shared very movingly.

My day had been occupied with grocery shopping, trips to the airport, taking my granddaughter to the bookstore, fighting traffic. My biggest problem was adjusting to having a 4-year-old under foot. Here was a reality check. I got instant perspective.

This is a deadly disease. People die from it every day. Addicts, alcoholics, Al-Anons, too.

My sponsor shared once that she used to resent her mother because her mother attended Al-Anon. She had the tools of recovery available to her, but refused to use them. She prayed about it for years. Worked the steps. Couldn't get rid of her resentment.

Then, one day, a program friend said, "What if she wasn't supposed to."

It stopped my sponsor cold. That was the trigger. She realized that some people had to succumb to this disease so that others could be saved. Maybe her mother was sacrificed so that she could find recovery. It gave her a whole different perspective. She was filled with compassion for her mother, and remains so to this day.

Yesterday, I got a call from my alcoholic, my daughter, to wish me a Merry Christmas. She was alive. She was calling me to wish me a Merry Christmas. I can't remember the last time she did that.

Sitting in that room last night, I thought I am so blessed.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Things I'm Powerless Over

The arrival of Christmas, ready or not

My 4-year-old grandson

My dog

Houseguests who stay up late and get up even later

Whether or not it rains during the lighted boat parade

The airlines

The calories in eggnog

My alcoholic

The Gifts I've Received

This time of year, my alcoholics get a break as my obsession turns to gifts. How could it not? Christmas marks perfect storm for my disease: my perfectionism, my expectations.

Trying to buy the perfect gift for people you know imperfectly is always a challenge. Meanwhile, gifts I've received from other people make an interesting mirror, because they reflect the way other people see, which is usually a little at odds with how I see myself.

A couple my husband and I know have given me a bottle of Kahlua for Christmas every year for many years now. I have grown quite a collection.

Last year, they gave us a bottle of wine. At least I think it's wine. It's in an earthenware bottle with Cyrillic writing. I have no idea what it says. I don't read Cyrillic, and no explanation came with the gift. I'm a little afraid to open it. But the bottle looks great.

I can see the logic behind those gifts. Once, for a few months, I liked a drink made with Kahlua. I still enjoy a good glass of wine. But what to make of the travel-size hand sanitizer I got from a co-worker?

I admit I've given my share of clunkers. As a very young woman, completely flummoxed about what to give my in-laws, I bought a clock that ran on potatoes from a public television catalog. I thought they'd think it was funny. They just looked puzzled. I found it later stuffed into a corner of a high shelf in their laundry room.

My own mother kept every gift I ever gave her. Even the dorky ceramic figurine of a cross-eyed tiger looking at a butterfly that had landed on his nose. I bought it at Pic N' Save when I was 9. I'm not even sure Pic N' Save still exists, except in this artifact. That she kept it is how I know she loved me. That she did the best she could despite her alcoholism.

Toward the end of my mother's life, we both tried to manage expectations at Christmas by telling each other exactly what we wanted and then getting that thing. Hers was usually a book. Mine was usually something practical for the house. A set of towels, some dishes. That approach was mostly successful at warding off disappointments, but it also took away the element of surprise. Getting something practical you've asked for doesn't feel much like a gift.

I tried to do the same with God. For years, I told him what I wanted and was disappointed when he didn't deliver. I had been very specific.

These days, I don't give God a list, but wait for him to surprise me.

I heard once that envy is a lack of faith. It devalues God's gifts. It implies that what He has given you is somehow not enough. It's ungracious.

Through the grace of God and the tools in Al-Anon, I've learned that while God may not always have given me what I thought I wanted, he gave me exactly what I needed, when I needed it. That His surprises are always better than my plans, if I remain open to them.

p.s. After I wrote this post, I opened my ODAT for my daily meditation. The topic? Perfectionism. Which "can be a neurotic symptom... that hampers us in coming to terms with life as it is." As I write this, I a beautiful sunrise is spreading bands of gray and orange outside my window. What a surprise! Another perfect gift.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Where I need to be

My horoscope today said I'm right where I need to be. I like that.

Al-Anon has taught me that I am always right where I need to be. That God has put me right where he wants me. That the people God has put in my path are the right people. That even when there is no joy in a particular moment, there is wisdom in it. It's up to me to find that wisdom. That acceptance is the key to peace.

Today, the people God has put in my path include my stepson and his two kids, who are flying in from out of town. I pray that God helps me to be the step mother and grandmother he intended.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Am I an Alcoholic?

Shortly after I joined Al-Anon in earnest and began working a program, my sponsor suggested I attend open AA meetings to help develop compassion for the alcoholics in my life.

I attended the first meeting as an Al-Anon. I attended the second as an alcoholic.

The question had always plagued me. My parents were alcoholics. My daughter found her way to Nar-Anon. Did I think I was immune? Why shouldn't I be an alcoholic?

I had history. Years of binge drinking. Black outs. Things I did under the influence that filled me with shame the day after. My husband and I drank every day.

My AA meetings quickly became my favorites. They were raucous affairs, with much laughter. Coffee and cookies were served. By contrast, Al-Anon meetings seemed somber affairs. Instead of cookies there was Kleenex on the table. There was a lot of crying.

But I was also aware that I didn't fit the pattern. My first assignment from my sponsor was to read the AA Big Book. At the AA meetings I attended, parts of the Big Book were read at the opening of every meeting.

Everything I read about Al-Anons seemed to fit me to a tee. But the readings at AA didn't. For one thing, the AA literature said that alcoholics grow worse, never better. That wasn't true of me. I had to go back 30 years to relate to periods of heavy drinking and feeling out of control.

I had six months of sobriety in AA before my Al-Anon sponsor said she wasn't convinced that I was an alcoholic. She encouraged me to explore the possibility. She put me in touch with other Al-Anons who had partied heavily but who were not alcoholics. I re-read the Big Book and the Merck Manual. It was true. I didn't seem to fit.

One Al-Anon and a friend in AA both suggested "the test" in the Big Book. Non-Alcoholics, it said, could go out, have a drink or two and then quit. A "true" alcoholic couldn't. I knew I could do this. I had done it many times. I had quit drinking for years without missing it. But I tried the test again. I had no problem having a drink or two and stopping.

I quit introducing myself as an alcoholic at AA meetings. Finally, I had an answer. I was not an alcoholic. I felt comfortable in that for the first time in my life. I was not an alcoholic. For some reason, that part of the disease had passed over me. How lucky was that?

Just one more thing to be grateful for.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Deadly Disease of Denial

Alcoholism is a disease of denial. Alcoholics die from this disease every day. And so do Al-Anons.

It took me years to admit that I'd been affected by the disease of alcoholism. I grew up in an alcoholic home where there was violence, abuse and instability. At age 15, I tried to fix things by washing down a handful of pills with a tall glass of vodka. The pills were sleeping pills that belonged to my boyfriend's mother. He stole them a few at a time so she wouldn't notice. I hid them in my closet.

My boyfriend and I had a pact. We plotted a double suicide. We even set a date, a day when my mother wouldn't be home for an extended period. But my boyfriend changed his mind and called to try to get me to see things his way. I felt betrayed. As soon as I got off the phone, I pulled out the pills and got a glass of vodka. The next thing I remember was waking up in my room. I remember my mother telling me a friend was there to see me and I feeling too ashamed to see him. I made a decision then. I could continue to blame my parents for my problems, or I could take responsibility and make different choices. I took responsibility.

When I moved out of the house at 18, I thought I left all that behind. I refused to be ruled by my past. What mattered was the present.

Years later, another friend showed me a book about adult children of alcoholics. There was a list of qualifying questions on the back of the book. He asked if I recognized myself. I told him I didn't. I didn't have a lot of patience for people who wanted to blame their problems on the past. I refused to listen.

Still more years later, I found myself in Al-Anon at the suggestion of a friend. I had seen yet another romantic relationship crash and burn, and I was trying to figure out what my patterns were. She thought Al-Anon could help.

I enjoyed going to meetings, and I certainly qualified for membership based on my family history but I didn't think the problems I was having had anything to do with that and quit going. I only understood later, several years later when I tried Al-Anon again, that it had everything to do with alcoholism.

When my daughter started having problems, she used to tell me that I was the one who had the problem. She was fine. Of course, I didn't believe her. She was the one with the problem. Anyone could see that, right?

I've heard it said that Al-Anons act crazier than their alcoholics. I believe that now. But it took me several months of working the program in Al-Anon to see that my behavior had been at all irrational. After all, it seemed I was doing well. I attended college and got good grades, worked at a profession I loved and was good at. But I felt like a victim. I just didn't see that I was the one who was holding myself prisoner.

I don't know what the magic moment was when I realized my disease. It was more a process than a lightening flash. But I know it came from hanging around the rooms of Al-Anon long enough.

A leaky bucket

"We can only keep what we have when we give it away," is a sentiment you hear a lot in 12-step programs. It's the central concept of the 12th step.

As hungry as I was for recovery, I was afraid of the 12th step for a long time.

The actual step reads: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

What it boils down to is doing the things that keep the organization going. I thought it was part of the Kool Aid. It was a way for Al-Anon to perpetuate itself. I understood the need for people to do this work, but I wasn't going to be fooled into thinking it would help me.

In my line of sponsorship, service is one of six key principles, so I felt the pressure to do service work from the beginning. Some people do get involved in service right away, and they claim it helps them. Helping someone else allows them to get out of their own head.

But I wasn't ready.

My own sponsor is a shining example of service. She has so many sponsees that she has to keep a spread sheet to keep track of us all. Far from inspiring me, it scared me to death. I thought of her in the same way I think of Sister Theresa. I deeply admired her spiritual path, but I didn't necessarily want to emulate it.

But I had faith in the program. Service is 12th step work, I told myself. There are 11 steps that come first for a reason. When I get there, I'll feel ready. But when I got to the 9th step, I got a little panicky.I could see the 12th step from where I was sitting, but I still didn't want to do it.

Then I got to step 12, and I was ready.

I realized that I had been a leaky bucket. Everything that poured in just went right out the bottom. Al-Anon gave me the tools to patch my bucket. And as it did, my bucket filled up and flowed over the top. What my bucket couldn't contain naturally flowed over into service.

My first service job was an easy one: setting up the room. It was perfect for me. I was compulsively early to everything, but I was also shy. I hated the idea of sitting in a room full of people who might not talk to me. So I'd sit in my car and read the paper until it was a minute before the meeting was due to start. Setting up was active. It gave me cover. It gave me something to do.

Next, I faced my fear and became a greeter. By then, I knew most of the people in my home group by name. At first, I just smiled and said, "Hi John," or whatever. Newcomers were easy to spot, and I welcomed them and gave them a newcomers packet. My home group was never a huggy group. But at another group I attended regularly, the greeters hugged everyone who came. They were my favorite people because they always made me feel like they were genuinely happy to see me. So I took a chance and started hugging. The first night, I only hugged people I felt very comfortable with. The next meeting I started hugging everyone. To my surprise, people reacted very positively. Pretty soon, I wasn't the one initiating the hugs.

I took on different things. I became the literature coordinator. I signed up to attend meetings at a local prison. I signed up to chair meetings. When the chairperson asked for volunteers to lead newcomers meetings, I raised my hand. I started this blog.

This is my second year in the program. The first year and part of the second I worked really hard on completing steps 1 through 11. When I was done, I felt an emptiness, a kind of 12-step hangover. Service fills the void. For me, it's been a time of experimentation. I'm finding things out about myself. What I like. What I'm good at. What I'm good at that I never thought I would be. And, to my great surprise, I like it.