Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Feeling Gratitude Fatigued?

At my Monday night meeting, the topic was gratitude. One member said she was tired of talking about gratitude around Thanksgiving. It was so cliche. She wondered what the opposite of gratitude was. That would be more interesting.

I can see how she could feel that way. Sometimes in the rooms of Al-Anon, I hear some of the most profound truths so often that I start to tune them out. I confess that I sometimes feel that way when I learn that the topic of the meeting is step 1. That's a problem for me because the minute I forget I'm powerless, my life becomes unmanageable. And I'm a good forgetter. I need reminders. So I keep coming back.

I think gratitude can fall into the same trap. We can get gratitude fatigue. Gratitude seems so simple. So obvious. So easy to dismiss.

The next morning, a newspaper article caught my eye. It said studies showed that gratitude improved "psychological, emotional and physical well being."

"Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not," the article said. "They are less likely to be depressed, envious or greedy. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections."

Many studies have demonstrated these effects. The article went on to say that gratitude is a complex emotion that requires self-reflection, the ability to admit one's dependence and humility. Had they been reading the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous? I had to wonder.

The article went on to say that gratitude also forces people to overcome the "negativity bias," the innate tendency to dwell on problems, annoyances and injustices.

Experts believe about 50 percent of this tendency is innate. That means 50 percent can be learned. And that's the good news.

The other good news is that learning to become more grateful is easy. Unfortunately, I think that's also the problem. It's so easy that it can seem inconsequential.

The newspaper article suggested a number of techniques that are staples of 12-step programs:

Keeping a daily gratitude journal
Sharing a daily gratitude list with others
Stopping to focus on the sounds, smells and sensations around you (meditation)
Reviewing the events and people you were grateful for at the end of the day (daily inventory)

I have done all of these things, and practice most of them on a daily basis. I also assign them to my sponsees. It works for me, and I've seen it work in others--sometimes dramatically.

Here's a new technique I learned from the article: the gratitude visit. Thanking someone in person.

One study found that fourth graders who took a gratitude visit felt better about themselves even two weeks months later. The effect was particularly pronounced among those whose mood was low.

I say this is "new," to me but it's not really. My daughter recently told me an amends her sponsor assigned her involved approaching a policeman or woman and thanking them for their service.

Here's another exercise. Write essay mentally subtracting a major blessing in your life. In a study, college students who did this were subsequently more grateful for that blessing. It's called the "George Baily effect," after the protagonist of "It's a Wonderful Life."

The article warns that expressing gratitude can be used to exert control over the receiver. The antidote? Another 12-step staple: assess your motives.

The article also addressed the phenomenon of "gratitude fatigue." It said when we fall back on "I'm grateful for my dog," we're in gratitude fatigue. To keep it fresh, the article suggested keeping it very specific. "I'm grateful for the way my dog licked my face when I was sad."

On Monday night, our group was small and we finished early. So one of our members pulled out her smart phone and googled the opposite of gratitude. I wish I had been taking notes so I could remember what she found. I tried it and got nothing more interesting than "ungrateful."

I do remember that her list included irritability and discontent, which sounded just about right.

And that brings me to the final point of the article. The opposite of expressing gratitude, using negative or derogatory words, even just to yourself, can darken your mood.

My sponsor gave me a wonderful assignment once. Every time I found myself "condemning, criticizing, complaining or comparing," even to myself, I had to write it down.

It amazed me how often I had to pull out that notebook. Maybe it's human nature. But today I know it's toxic. Every time I do one of those things I'm taking somebody's inventory but my own.

Every time I did that served as a reminder that I can only control the thoughts, behaviors and actions of one person: me. Over everybody else I am powerless.

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday because it has somehow remained pure. It is a national holiday in which we gather to give thanks. There are no gift exchanges. We gather with our families, either biological or intentional, and share a meal to represent the bounty of our lives.

At Monday's meeting, I thought about Thanksgiving, pre-program. How we'd all gather around the table and say what we felt grateful for. How I always struggled with what to say.

Today I believe that gratitude is a muscle. The more I exercise it, the bigger it gets.

So this Thanksgiving I will say that I am grateful I have a program. I'm grateful that it's taught me that I don't have to wait for a national holiday to give thanks. I can give it every day. And I do.

I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Best of Intentions

Man makes plans in his heart, but God directs his feet.

A friend said that to me the other day, and I loved it.

He was talking about himself. He had recently been fired from his job, but the date of his departure hadn’t been settled. His replacement was to come Nov. 1. Then he was told his replacement maybe not be available until the end of the year. Could he stay until then?

So my friend made some plans that would carry his position through the end of the year. He was well into it. Things were going well. Then he got the call. His replacement would, indeed, be there on Nov. 1. He had to remind himself:

Man makes plans in his heart, but God directs his feet.

I thought of that when I got home that very day to find an e-mail from our prospective renters. Their financial situation had changed and they could not rent our home. They were very sorry.

We were well into the process of finishing up at the land and moving out by their requested move-in date of Dec. 1. We had hired people to speed up the work on our yet-unfinished house. Held a huge garage sale. Sold two cars, furniture, appliances, artwork. Half our stuff was moved. But…

Man makes plans in his heart, but God directs his feet.


We are still moving. Only now the pressure is off. Now, we can move in furniture after we install floors. We can hang clothes in finished closets.

I figure that these folks lit a fire under us. They knocked us off the fence and got us to tend to details we had been putting off.

We will list our house for rent on Craigslist. We will do our part and leave the rest to God.

We will make plans in our hearts, and let God direct our feet.

Speaking of directing my feet, literally… I have another assignment that involves hiking the Grand Canyon! Apparently, God does not want me to get flabby, either spiritually or physically. He continues to exercise my heart, mind and body. For that, I’m grateful. Left to my own devices, I can be pretty easy on myself. I let myself go.

Thanks to those of you who have stuck with me through this time of infrequent postings. I hope to return a visit soon. Honest.

I noticed that since I’ve been away, some new faces have appeared among my “friends and fellow travelers.” So I’d like to offer a heartfelt welcome to the “newcomers.” I look forward to paying you a visit soon.

Until then, take good care.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Time and Change

I realized that I promised to post in mid-September and here it is, nearly October. Time gets away.

I completed my three-day backpacking trip of the Grand Canyon. I'm glad to say I felt adequately prepared and enjoyed it very much. Here are a few pics.

Meanwhile, assignments have been raining down on me like manna from heaven.

God's been working in my life in other ways, too. Out of the blue, He delivered us a couple who want to lease our home starting Dec. 1.

Of course, that means we have to somehow get our final inspection up at the land and move all of our stuff by then. But that's okay!!

It wasn't in our time, but then it usually isn't. I've learned to accept God's gifts with gratitude and Thanksgiving. Too many things had to fall into place for this to happen for me to believe this is coincidence. One thing after another fell into place, just like Dominos.

So now, my husband and I are trying to sort through years of accumulation in a too-big house. What goes into the garage sale. What goes on Craig's List. What goes into a box.

And, of course, the deadlines.


I will need you all more than ever in just a couple short months. But for now, I need to focus on the priorities God has set before me.

Thanks to all of you who have stopped by to let me know you're still thinking of me. I hope to visit soon. Meanwhile, be well and take care.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Blog Carnival

Hi Everyone. I just popped in for a minute to tell you that I finished the first of two Grand Canyon hikes. This one was from the North Rim to Roaring Springs. Here are a couple of pictures.

The first is where I stopped to eat my breakfast. The second is Roaring Springs.

Of course, there was an Al-Anon lesson.

At the Ranger station just a half-mile down from Roaring Springs there is a cottonwood-shaded picnic table where hikers can rest and fill up on water. On the table, the rangers have taped little laminated tips.

One was titled: "Sit down and put your feet up." It said that you should stop every half-hour to an hour and sit down. When you do that, it gives your legs the chance to rid themselves of 20-30 percent of the waste products that build up in them. It's these waste products that make your legs feel tired and heavy.

I know those same waste products also make your legs feel sore the next day. The card when on to say that doing this would not slow you down, I'm guessing, because you'd be able to hike with renewed strength.

It felt like my Higher Power was putting in front of me just what I needed to see.

Not just in hiking, but in everything in my life, my strategy was just to power through, no matter how tired I felt. This was another reminder to me that "Easy Does It."

I took that advice, and made it out in the average time of four hours. The next day, my hip joints were stiff and my calves a little sore, but it was very minor. It really did work. I've tried to carry that lesson into my day-to-day life. When I'm tired, I take a break. I get back to my work renewed, and I enjoy my life more.

So now, I'm training for my three-day backpacking trip from the South Rim at the end of the month. Keep me in your prayers.

Meanwhile, I wanted to let you all know about a blog carnival that Shen has coordinated on the topic of 12-step recovery. There's lots of good stuff on it. Please go check it out. Here's the link:

I hope to be able to get back to blogging soon, and will stop by for a visit as soon as I am able. Until then, please take good care.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Easy Does It

When I came into Al-Anon, I grabbed onto some of the slogans fairly easily, but mostly ignored others.

"Easy Does It" was one of the slogans I had to warm to.

It had been my habit to take on too much, power my way through, force solutions.

I didn't realize that trying harder, just made things more difficult.

So today, I try to remind myself that easy often gets it done. I ask God to set my priorities, work on those things and let go of the rest.

I don't usually have trouble with that in summer. The days feel longer and fuller, and the pace of life slows down.


This summer, I've been unusually blessed with abundance. I have more writing assignments than I've had in years. Most of them involve travel. We are still working on the house, of course, which means we're away about half of a typical week.

The only time I have to write is when I am home. I have to juggle that with my Al-Anon commitments. And, now, with training for the Grand Canyon.

So it has become harder to find the considerable time it takes me to keep up with my blog. I have been praying and meditating on the situation, and find the answer in the slogan "Easy Does It."

I've decided to give myself a summer vacation from blogging. My intention is to return to blogging regularly in September, after the Grand Canyon trips and past the deadlines for several stories.

In the meanwhile, I hope to post from time to time, and to visit other blogs as I can.

I hope you all have a great summer. I will keep you all in my thoughts and in my prayers.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

God Only Knows....

My God has a sense of humor.

I know this because whenever I have a problem, the solution He gives me is usually the very last thing I would ever come up with, let alone ask for.

I was reminded of this just the other day. Well actually over the course of a couple of days.

It came in the form of unsolicited story assignments.

But first let me back up and explain a problem I was wrestling with. Well, a couple of problems. Small ones, really. Very small in the scheme of things.

First, I had put on a few pounds. Nothing drastic, but enough that I couldn’t wear half my clothes. I made a few half-hearted attempts at watching what I eat more closely. But if I’m honest, I really didn’t do much about it besides wish they would melt away without any effort on my part.

Secondly, I noticed that I’ve been feeling a little off lately. Not depressed, really. Just a little flat. When I thought about when it started, I realized it was about the time we lost our dog. It didn’t really concern me. I knew that if I kept doing the things I had been taught to do in this program, it would pass.

Then I started getting these assignments. They’d appear in my inbox with the subject line that went something like “another assignment?”

Now, in a recession in which the health of print journalism, and the fortunes of journalists, hung by a thread, these little surprises are like manna from heaven.

Only this was like manna with strings.

The first involved a profile.

Of someone who lived in the Grand Canyon.

Accessible only by mule, helicopter or foot.

I was pretty sure the magazine wasn’t going to pay for the helicopter. Or the mules. I might take the mules anyway because my husband, who usually accompanies me on my travels, is in no condition to hike the Grand Canyon.

I wasn’t sure my pride would allow me to take the mules. The editor of this particular magazine is an old hiking buddy. But I took the assignment. I figured I’d figure it out.

Then the next day I got another offer. This time for a three-day backpacking class. In the Grand Canyon. In August.

I stared for a long time at the e-mail. My options here didn’t involve helicopters or mules, or my husband for that matter. I had been on exactly one backpacking trip and considered myself cured. I had no desire to do it again. That was 10 years ago. On flatter ground. And not in August.

This assignment sounded hard. And hot. Very, very hot.

I stared at the e-mail wondering what excuses I could possibly concoct. Did I really want to turn down unsolicited work in this economy? Really?

Yes. I did.

I could imagine hiking the 10 miles in and out from the cooler north rim to where my profile subject lived. But three days of backpacking from the hotter south rim? To the desert bottom and back?

I admit I felt like a wuss. I don’t know how many of my friends have done rim to rim hikes. But the idea has just never appealed to me. And I hadn’t really been hiking since I hurt my knee a year and a half ago.

At first, it made good sense. Every time I went hiking, my knee hurt again. But honestly? After a while it was pure laziness.

I still exercise every day. But in my air-conditioned home, and not too hard.

I hit the “reply” key. I started to type my regrets.

Then the phone rang.

“What are you doing?” my husband’s voice asked.

“I’m trying to decide how to answer the latest assignment offer,” I said. I told him what it was.

“Well, I can’t do that,” he said. “But I’d support you doing it.”


I deleted the message.

I knew it was God. I looked up and told Him that I appreciated the thought, but I was hoping for a softer, easier way.

I looked at the details of the class. It looked doable. I downloaded an equipment list and started to see what I had and what I would need to rent or borrow.

Then I pulled out my hiking boots and packed what I had assembled in a backpack, adding weights to make up for what I was still missing.

I turned the thermostat to 88, put on my boots and pulled on the pack. I got on the elliptical trainer and turned up both the resistance and the incline and exercised harder than I had for a long time.

I swear I could hear God chuckling.

And when I got done, I felt… good.

Really good. My face was red and I was dripping sweat, but my lungs felt clean. I felt energized. The way I always used to feel after a good hike.

This wouldn’t be so bad. After all, we’re talking about one of the seven natural wonders of the world! People pay good money to take the class I’ve been offered! I was getting to take it for free! And people would pay me!

Then there was the whole diet thing. I could eat all sorts of salty, carby things that were usually off my list. The course recommendations included bagels. When was the last time I had one of those?

What was the matter with me? Where was the gratitude?

I took the assignment. Then got down on my knees to thank God for knowing what I needed and giving it to me. Whether I liked it or not.

He's still laughing. I just know it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Mind the Gap

Not long after we moved to Arizona, my daughter found a new best friend. Let’s call her Jaime.

Jaime was a quiet, serious girl. I should have liked Jaime better than I did. My daughter was in middle school and failing. Her behavior had become more and more erratic, and it was clear that she had figured out the truth parents like me dread: that I had absolutely no control over anything she did.

In a way, Jaime stepped in to fill the gap. If I set off a rocket inside her room, I could not get my daughter out of bed in time for the school bus. But Jaime did. She’d come over early and coax my daughter out of bed, into her clothes and onto the bus.

And while I knew my daughter would ignore me if I said it was time for Jaime to go home, Jaime never would. So when it got late, I’d tell my daughter loudly enough for Jaime to hear. And she’d leave over my daughter’s protests that she stay.

I should have liked Jaime, but I didn’t. I didn’t like Jaime because my daughter started really slipping about the time she met her. And I didn’t want to admit that it could be my daughter (or me!) who was the problem. Jaime made a convenient and uncomplaining scapegoat.

The other reason I resented Jaime is that her mother never did any of the driving. So one day, I decided that I was done with that. I agreed to drive the girls to the movies one night, only on the condition that Jaime’s mom would drive the next time. All parties agreed and I assumed it was all settled.

Until the night Jaime’s mom was supposed to drive. My daughter had walked over to Jaime’s house, but not long afterward, the two girls turned up at our house with some story that didn’t make any sense. Something about Jaime’s shoe being lost after it fell off the top of the car.

So I marched over to Jaime’s house to get to the bottom of things. I pounded on the door, and Jaime’s mom answered. It was obvious that she was quite drunk.

I don’t know why I hadn’t figured this out before. My mom did the same thing. When I was growing up, she always made excuses for not driving. She said she couldn’t drive me anywhere in the evenings because she didn’t want to change out of her robe. But the truth is that every evening she was drunk.

Once I saw Jaime’s mom, everything made sense: Jaime’s hyper sense of responsibility, her desire to take care of everyone else, her serious nature. Yet she never let on. I imagine she was ashamed.

I was ashamed, too. Jaime was a lot like I was at her age. If anyone should have seen the signs, it should have been me.

My sponsor talks about “the blessing” that every child should receive at birth: Receiving the blessing means to be:


That doesn’t always happen. I believe all parents want to give their children these things. But sometimes they can’t. They didn’t receive the blessing from their parents, and they can’t give what they don’t have.

Having grown up in an alcoholic home, I didn’t receive the blessing. So I didn’t know how to give it to my own daughter, much less anyone else’s.

Yet, I always wished that, knowing what I knew, I could have been an adult who “stood in the gap” for Jaime.

During Alateen certification training, I was counseled to “check my motives.” I thought I knew what they were. I thought that having grown up in an alcoholic home, I had something to offer these kids. Short of murder, there could be little dysfunction that I could not relate to from my own personal experience. I can relate to having witnessed alcohol and drug abuse, violence and sexual abuse, scuffles with police.

But I realize today that my motives run more deeply than that. I did not subject my daughter to the same conditions I grew up in, but I was not the parent I wanted to be. Even after having made my amends, I regret that I wasn’t able to give my daughter the blessing. God knows I wanted to. I did the best I knew how.

And I can’t think of Jaime without regret.

But this program teaches me that I can’t go back in time. I can’t be the mother I wish I had been. And I can’t be that caring adult for Jaime.

I can only choose how I will behave today.

At some point, I realized that my service in Alateen is less about the kind of parents I had, but the kind of parent I was. It’s a kind of living amends.

By being an Alateen sponsor, I can be an example of the Al-Anon program to these kids. I can stand in the gap for them. And that’s a blessing.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What I Learned from Shamu

Every now and then I catch myself engaging in old behaviors or thought patterns.

It happened to me recently in the most awful and unexpected way. I was talking to a sponsee who was finding it difficult to reconcile her desires with her partner’s habits.

She admitted that he was making efforts.

I suggested that she thank him from those efforts, and refrain from complaining about how much more he wasn’t doing.

So far, so good. But I didn’t leave it at that.

For some reason, my brain went straight to an article I read in the New York Times several years ago. It appeared in a regular Sunday feature called “Modern Love.” The title of this essay was “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.”

I loved this essay, and so did a lot of other people. It became one of the most read and e-mailed articles on I even sent it to my daughter, who was beginning to have trouble in her marriage.

The gist of the story is that, in the course of writing a book about a school for exotic animal trainers, the writer got the idea that she could use these techniques on her husband.

The writer would be taking notes on how to walk an emu or have a wolf accept you as a pack member, and scribble in the margin: “Try on Scott.”

For example, she wrote about a technique called “approximations.”

“You can’t expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can’t expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock,” she wrote.

“With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, than an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.”

As I recounted this article with my sponsee (my sponsee!!!), I felt an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. There was only one word for what I was advising: manipulation.

Ughh! I felt like I had just put my finger to a flame. I couldn’t believe I had just said that. I actually felt a physical revulsion.

“Never mind about that,” I said quickly. “That’s a bad example, and turned my attention to proven Al-Anon principles. Like powerlessness and acceptance.

Just to satisfy my curiosity, I looked up that article and read it again. It was as clever and delightful a read as I remembered, but it was manipulation, pure and simple.

I took my gut reaction to talking about it as a marker of growth. When I first read it, I thought the writer was brilliant.

But rereading the essay, I did find points that seemed perfectly aligned with Al-Anon principles.

Like when she stopped taking her husband’s fault’s personally. In Al-Anon, we call this detachment.

The writer did this by thinking of her husband as an exotic species, which allowed herself a measure of objectivity. Could I imagine my alcoholic as an exotic species? Not so much a stretch.

She also realized that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive, to train away. “You can’t stop a badger from digging, and you can’t stop my husband from losing his keys,” she said. In Al-Anon, we call that acceptance.

One technique seemed right out of the Al-Anon playbook. It was called least reinforcing syndrome (L.R.S.). When her husband used to lose his keys, she’d drop what she was doing and help him hunt, which only made him angrier, and usually resulted in full-blown drama.

The idea behind L.R.S. was to completely ignore behavior that bothered her, under the assumption that by not reinforcing a behavior, either positively or negatively, it would stop.

The next time her husband lost his keys, she kept her mouth shut and continued what she was doing. A few minutes later, he emerged, keys in hand, the storm clouds having passed.

In Al-Anon, this is what we call “dropping the rope.” Our alcoholics are used to engaging us in a certain way. They dangle a rope in front of us, and we dutifully pick it up for a little game of tug of war.

Tug of war only works if there are two parties. When we drop the rope, the game is over.

But that’s where it ends. Because if we are working this program with integrity and allowing the people in our lives the respect they deserve, we don’t get to manipulate. No matter how clever it sounds or how tempting it is.

If we are living this program with integrity, we allow others the dignity to make their own choices.

So what advice did I ultimately give my sponsee? I talked about awareness, acceptance and action.

I have a red coffee cup. I’m aware that red is not my favorite color. I wish it were blue. But no amount of wishing will change my coffee cup from red to blue. I have to accept that.

With that acceptance, I understand that I have certain choices: I can get a new cup, give up coffee, change how I feel about red.

But my choices do not involved changing the color of the cup.

So let’s say the problem is that her partner refuses to pick up his clothes. Her choices are either to figure out how to be okay with clothes on the floor or pick them up herself.

I tell her to ask herself “How Important is It?”

If it’s terribly important, and she must say something, I tell her she can say it once. Then she has to let it go. Any more than once is trying to control.

Shamu lady calls this nagging, and even she recognizes that it generally produces the opposite of the desired effect.

Specifically, I suggested that she not try to force a solution, but keep the focus on how the problem makes her feel and not her partner’s behavior.

“The clutter on the floor makes me feel uncomfortable. Is there something we can do about the situation that would make us both happy?”

In my own marriage, have found this approach to be helpful. My husband doesn’t like to be told what to do. So I present my problem, but not the solution.

Generally, my husband is happy to try to fix it. Often, his solution is different from the one I had in mind, but that’s okay. It generally works. And we both get what we want.

But I also have to accept it if he refuses. I can state my needs. I can ask for help. And he can say no.

That’s what it means to allow people the dignity of making their own choices. If I am living this program with dignity, I have to allow people to make their own decisions and not try to force my will. In every situation.

As for manipulation, I think I’ll leave that to the animal trainers.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Band-aids For My Eyes, Please

As is our habit on the first week of the month, the topic at my Wednesday meeting was step 7, which reads: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

Many of the people in our group quipped that they must be getting worse, because they didn’t have any shortcomings when they came through the doors of Al-Anon, but have since picked up a whole bunch.

That’s the thing about this disease. One of its chief symptoms is lack of awareness.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

My character defects are coping mechanisms that helped me to survive a bad situation. I think of them like Band-aids. To rip them off before I am ready would be to expose the wound before it is healed.

That’s why God has to be involved. Only He knows when I’m ready and which defects need to be removed.

In the meanwhile, He gives me denial. It’s like a Band-aid for my eyes.

If I’m not ready, I won’t see what’s right in front of me, and nothing you can say will make me see it.

Like the time, years ago now, when a good friend showed me a list of characteristics of adult children of alcoholics. He thought I would relate.

I didn’t.

Honestly. I didn’t think the things on that list applied to me at all.

He got insistent.

“What about this one?” he’d say, pointing out the part about not being able to finish things.

“I finish things,” I replied.

“What about your college degree?” he said, as though that would settle the question.

“I finished my degree,” I said with equal conviction. “It just took me longer.”

He’d pick something else on the list. He’d insist. I’d deny. And it went on like that until he finally gave up.

Because, honestly, I thought I had left the effects of alcoholism behind me when I left home. I thought I had become the captain of my fate. I refused to be ruled by the past.

Just like when I came into the rooms of Al-Anon. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. I offered my obsession with my daughter as evidence that I was a good mom, and you couldn’t tell me differently.

I did everything I had done, I said, because I wanted to be sure I had done everything I could to help my daughter. And I meant it. No intervention was too extreme. But that didn’t make me a good mom. It made me crazy. I just couldn’t see it.

But while working my steps, in order, I prayed that God reveal what needed to be revealed, and He did. When I got to step seven, I asked him to remove those shortcomings.

People practice the seventh step in different ways. I’ve heard people say they pick one character defect at a time and pray that God remove it.

I’ve been taught that I don’t get to decide. The seventh step prayer I use comes from the AA Big Book and asks God to remove every single defect of character that stands in the way of my usefulness to Him and to my fellows.

I was surprised by that prayer the first time I read it. As an extraordinarily self-centered person, the first thing I noticed is that it doesn’t say “the character defects that stand in my way.” Nor did it say "the defects of character I want removed."

As turns out to be true with so many things, God's ideas are often different from mine. I have to turn it over.

God has not removed all my defects of character. Some are less prominent, some are still very much with me. Even the ones that are fading lurk right under the surface. I only get a daily reprieve based on my spiritual condition.

Sometimes, I’m reluctant to give up my defects of character because I still get something from them.

All I can do is my part. When I see that I am reluctant, I can pray for willingness. And if I want to continue to grow, I must continue to do the things I’ve been taught in this program: go to meetings, pray on my knees, read Al-Anon literature, take commitments, sponsor others.

I can’t control the pace of my recovery. But I can become entirely ready.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

They Don’t Write Books About Recovery, Do They?

Recovery in Al-Anon, I mean. There’s a well-established recovery genre for addicts and alcoholics. These books tend to be organized in the same way:

There is the pre-recovery period in which the alcoholic or addict faithfully recounts his or her misdeeds and tragedies, and how those misdeeds ruined his or her life.

Then there is a turning point. Sometimes this occurs as a single incident in which the bolt of lightening strikes. More often, as in life, there are a series of incidents in which the light begins to dawn.

The balance of the book chronicles the addict/alcoholic’s recovery. Slow and halting at first, then gaining momentum until the addict’s life is transformed.

These books are terribly appealing, particularly to those of us who have loved ones who suffer from addiction, because they are about redemption. They tell us that change is possible. They give us hope.

Now, you might argue that there is also a whole genre of books written by parents of addicts and alcoholics, and I would agree with you. I just don’t see a lot of recovery in them.

These books also tend to be organized along the same lines. There is the recounting of the addict/alcoholic’s misdeeds. This portion of the book includes the dawning of awareness that there is a problem.

The devastation to the family is recounted in great detail, along with the heroic efforts of the parents to save their child.

Sometimes, the parents find Al-Anon, Naranon or some other support group. They recount feeling understood for perhaps the first time. There is comfort. But there is little change on the part of the parent.

If there is a turning point in the disease, the change occurs in the addict/alcoholic. The redemption at the end does not belong to the parent, but the addict. In the end, the parents’ lives are restored, not because they changed, but because their addict did.

Does that strike anyone but me as the very definition of codependency?

From beginning to end, the focus is not on the parent, but on the addict.

Where’s the recovery in that?

I’d like to read a book in which the change happens in the parents. Where they stop seeing themselves as victims or heroes, but flawed human beings who play a part in their own drama.

I’d like to read a book in which the turning point occurs when the parents see their own part, change their own behavior and chronicle in detail the positive effects that has on the rest of the family, the addict included.

I’d like to read a book where the transformation and redemption belongs to the parents. Where the victory is theirs.

Now that would be a book about recovery.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dog Gone Shame

Hubby and I had to say goodbye to our faithful companion over the weekend.

It was completely unexpected. Our dog was 11 1/2, which is not young for a Corgi. He had arthritis and had to take pain medication, and it seemed the vet was constantly giving us astronomical estimates for dental care. But other than that he was healthy and happy.

So when we woke up and found him bloated around the middle and in pain, it was hard to imagine it could be too serious.

We found him that way on Thursday morning. I got up at 5:30 and woke up my husband. We were up at the land, where our dog loved to roam around and hunt lizards. He had been out for a particularly long time the evening before and my husband thought he must have eaten something that didn't agree with him. Our dog will eat anything. Rocks, whatever. He seemed particularly fond of excrement. So anyway, it wasn't too far fetched.

So my husband got up and went looking around a favorite spot where our dog seemed to be hanging out while I called the local vet. Being so early in the morning, I got an after hours message that included the number to an emergency clinic, located about an hour away.

I talked to someone there and described the symptoms. The technician there said it sounded like an emergency and we should bring him in. She told me from the symptoms I described, he might have "flipped" his stomach. It was unusual for a Corgi, but that's what it sounded like.

My husband suggested that if it were an emergency, we should call the local vet's home number, since she was a lot closer. Once I got her on the phone, she told me pretty much the same thing. We needed to go to the emergency clinic, though. This was not a simple procedure. It required special equipment and a team.

"What I tell people in this case," she said, "is that you're looking at a lot of money and a poor prognosis."

So we trundled our poor dog, who was by then lying under the porch and refusing to move, into the van. When he saw the van, he got up and walked to the door, and waited to be loaded.

I struggled with how much to share with my husband, who loves this dog beyond reason. I told him that both parties had told me the same thing. Then I told him what the vet had said.

"I think we should prepare ourselves for the worst possible outcome," I said.

But my husband brushed it off. He was convinced he had just eaten something bad.

We all believe what we need to believe.

When we got to the clinic, they took our dog right in and before we had filled out the paperwork, the technician brought out a consent form for a $500 emergency assessment, including a IV and an X-ray.

My poor husband pressed his case with the receptionist that our dog had probably just eaten something.

"He'll eat anything," my husband pleaded. He tried to give her examples. He wanted to speak to the vet.

The receptionist patiently explained that they believed our dog had flipped his stomach, and they needed the X-ray to confirm that.

Once my husband agreed, we sat down to wait.

"It sounds like we might have a difficult decision to make," he said to me.

"I know," I said. "That's what I was trying to prepare you for."

I told my husband that I thought it was his decision to make. Hubby had bought him as a puppy, and was very attached. I said I was at peace with whatever that was.

I went to the bathroom and kneeled to pray. I prayed that God would wrap my husband in his grace and mercy, and carry him through this.

When I came out, I watched the vet go into a room behind the front counter. He was a young man, wearing blue scrubs. He looked at us with a tense expression as if trying to size us up. A minute later, he invited us in to look at the X-rays.

The stomach had, indeed, flipped. It was sealed off at both ends so that the food inside had begun to ferment, which is what caused the bloating.

He told us, "If your dog is to survive, I need to get him into surgery now."

The surgery would cost several thousand dollars, which, like everything, had to be paid in advance, with no idea what the outcome would be.

"Sometimes," he admitted, they had to put the dog down on the table.

He left us alone for a few minutes, but stressed that we didn't have long to decide.

"Your options are surgery or euthanasia," he said. "There is no medical option."

We sat down side by side on a metal bench. I knew my husband was close to tears, so I didn't want to look at him. I wanted to give him that much privacy.

"He's not a young dog," I offered. "He's had a good life."

My husband nodded. When the vet came back in, my husband said we were thinking about putting him to sleep. "He's had a good life," he said, then broke down.

The vet looked alarmed and uncomfortable.

"Give us a few minutes," I mouthed, and the vet left quickly.

I just sat with my husband, holding his hand and not looking at his face. In a few minutes, he said, "Okay. Let's tell them."

He didn't want to see our dog again, but I did. They asked if I wanted to be there when they gave him the injection, and I said yes, I did.

When they took me back, our dog was lying on a table, his ears drooping to the side, the tip of his tongue just visible.

"Hey, buddy," I said brightly, but he didn't respond at all.

The vet was very kind. He explained that the injection was an overdose of anesthesia. Our dog would simply go to sleep. Then his heart would stop.

I crouched down so I could look into our dog's eyes, and caressed the soft hair of his ears.

"You are such a good boy," I said.

Then the vet gave him the injection, and his head dropped slowly to the side as he went to sleep. I continued to pet him as the vet listened to his heart with a stethoscope. Tears were rolling down my face by then, and in a minute the vet said, "He's gone."

"I'm sorry," he told me as I got up, putting his hand on my back.

We wanted to bury our dog ourselves, so they put him in a white cardboard box with two little flowers taped to the top and carried him to the van for us.

We buried him at the land, where he had been so happy.

It was a very hard day.

The Al-Anon lessons that served me were simply this:

I can experience something difficult, without trying to control the outcome.

I can sit with someone I love and allow them to feel whatever they feel without trying to fix them or make them feel better.

I can live life on life's terms. Life on life's terms means it won't always be easy. There will be difficulty. There will be sorrow. And with the help of my Higher Power, I can walk through it.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Animal Magnetism

Here’s something I’ve noticed lately. Since I’ve been in recovery, my pets like me better.

I’m not kidding.

My husband has always been the runaway favorite with both of our pets. He got the dog as a puppy before we were married, so there was always that.

But the cat, which was his mother’s, came to live with us after his mother died. I suppose you could say he had a longer history with the cat. But for all intents and purposes, the cat only came into our lives in a meaningful way after we were together.

And, honestly, I didn’t get it.

My mom was the infamous cat lady. Growing up, we had 30 of them. They lived in their own house. A guesthouse we called the “cat house.” It was my hangout. Where I went to watch TV and get away from the craziness in my home. And it was my job to take care of the cats.

So I knew cats. And, besides, I always thought of myself as the nicer of the two of us. My husband will pester that cat to within an inch of her life. She’ll get all huffy and growly, and he still won’t quit poking and yanking at her. And yet, he could hardly sit down without her climbing up into his lap.

But lately, I’ve noticed that’s no longer the case. Our dog no longer favors his “dad.” If I’m upstairs and Hubby is downstairs, he’ll position himself near the stairs where he can keep an eye on us both. And the cat? Now, I can’t sit down without her getting up from Hubby’s lap to sit on mine.

So I started thinking about why that is, and found it had less to do with a change in the animals than a change in me.

I realized I gave the animals a lot more time and attention these days. It used to be that I was too wrapped up in the dramas that were consuming my life to pay a lot of attention to them. I was irritable often, and when I was feeling like that, I was likely to push them away.

Up at the land, I’d get up in the morning to go for a hike that would be too strenuous for our dog, and I’d let him out to do his business and take off alone. When we came home, I wouldn’t pay any attention to the cat until everything was unloaded and unpacked, laundry and mail sorted, dinner made etc. I had work to do. I wouldn’t pay any attention to the cat until I sat down, which often wasn't until just before bed.

I was pleasant enough to our pets and I would never have thought of doing them harm. But, really, there was not much to love about me.

These days, when we go up to the land, I’m much less likely to go on a long hike alone, but grab our dog for a more leisurely walk. When we get home, the first thing I do is call for the cat and give her some love. In general, I’m more aware of our pets. I don’t walk by without acknowledging them in some way. I’m more patient. Kinder.

In truth, I love them more. And now they love me back.

None of this was a conscious effort on my part. It just came with recovery when, as the Big Book promised, I began to lose interest in selfish things and take more interest in my fellows. It spilled over into everything. Even my pets.

As I write this it occurs to me that my daughter might be a little jealous of my new relationship with my pets. Because the truth is that I treated her, and all the other people close to me, in the same way I used to treat my pets.

I didn’t mean to neglect her. But I was always busy. I worked a lot, put myself through school. When I wasn’t doing those things, there were chores: groceries, laundry, bills. I wasn’t likely to take notice when there was so much work to be done.

I got involved in my own dramas. I thought my life as a single parent was hard and I couldn’t see my part in any of it. I was the victim. I was tired and irritable, and in the down times I had, I just wanted quiet and to be left alone.

I didn’t cause my daughter’s addiction. But I did contribute to her dysfunction. And that’s what’s so hard to finally understand. I always thought God gave me a child who was my spiritual sandpaper because she pushed every button I had. Where I craved quiet, she was loud. When I just wanted to disappear into my work or a book, she was always in my face.

I understand now that she was only trying to be seen and heard.

“LOOK AT ME,” her actions screamed. “LISTEN. TO. ME.”

But I didn’t know how to do that. I treated her the way my mother treated me. It was the only thing I knew.

Knowing that makes me sad, but I can’t change it. I can’t go back in time and be a different mother than the one I was. I did the best I knew how. The only thing I can do today is make different choices. I have made my amends to my daughter. But more importantly, I try to be a better mom.

Not by trying to fix her problems or by offering advice about how she should live her life. I used to think that was love. Today, I know that when I help my daughter I hurt her. But by loving her unconditionally.

I never knew how to do that. If she made choices I didn’t agree with, I was not okay with that and I let her know. Today, I allow her the dignity of making her own choices and finding her own solutions.

I also allow her the dignity of accepting the consequences of her choices.

That’s made all the difference. Now that I accept that the consequences of her actions are hers alone, I’m able to love her, without judgment, whatever her choices and circumstances. And yes, it’s true. I love her more. And that’s the miracle of recovery.

Hubby and I are off to the land today. I hope you all have a wonderful 4th of July weekend. Please let me know you stopped by while I was out so I can return the courtesy when I get back. Meanwhile, take good care.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Here's the Thing...

Some people get into Al-Anon and seem to thrive right away. Others change little, and very slowly. The difference, it seems to me, comes down to one thing: willingness.

At my last Al-Anon birthday celebration, I was surprised to find that my sponsor didn’t see a lot of willingness in me when I came into the program.

In her introduction at the birthday meeting, she recalled that I said I couldn’t do this and I couldn’t do that, but over time I had done everything she had suggested—except go on a retreat—and she felt that was just a matter of time.

I had to admit what she said was true. I didn’t want to do anything that involved being away from home at night or overnight. That meant no night meetings, no Big Book studies, and no retreats.

I was determined not to let my recovery negatively affect my husband because I didn’t want any pushback. Today, I call this people pleasing. But that’s a topic for another post. And I've made progress but, well, there is the whole retreat thing.

So I can see how she might have seen this as one big “no” on my part.

But I did everything else. I attended the recommended number of meetings every week. I just went to day meetings. I also went to open AA meetings. I prayed on my knees, meditated and read Al-Anon literature every day. I called my sponsor at both prescribed and unscheduled times, and took her advice. I worked my steps as well and as diligently as I was able.

And I felt better.

So while my sponsor saw one big “no,” my insides felt like a giant “yes!”

It didn’t take long, maybe a few months, to feel real progress. I behaved differently. And people noticed.

And now, as a sponsor, I find that my sponsees who are doing best are the ones who are most willing.

When someone tells me they “aren’t there yet” or seem resistant for whatever reason, I tell them to pray for willingness.

I can’t control the pace of my recovery any more than I can control other people. But I can do the necessary groundwork. In my experience, the more I’m willing to do, the faster I’ll feel better.

In Al-Anon, there are no “shoulds” or “musts.” Willingness is the closest thing to a requirement in Al-Anon, and even that is optional.

Willingness isn’t something I can given anyone. All I can do is make suggestions, then “Let Go and Let God.”

There are many, many reasons we say "no" to recovery. At the end of the day, willingness comes down to making a choice. Do I want to remain stuck in the problem or do I want to live in the solution?

I know that if I do what I’ve always done, I’ll get what I’ve always gotten. I also know that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

But I have to be willing to do the next right thing.

And that's entirely up to me.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

First Things First

Something I hear often, particularly among newcomers, is that they find it difficult to fit working a program into their already busy lives.

For me, the slogan “First Things First” helps me keep my priorities in order.

“First Things First” is an Al-Anon slogan, but the idea behind it is one of the few principles I retained from my corporate days. The primary thing I took away from all those time management seminars was to do the important things first.

For me, the important things are to tend to my spiritual and physical health. I don’t squeeze them into a full schedule. I build my schedule around them, by doing those things first, and asking God to set my priorities for the rest.

Early in my recovery, a woman at an open AA meeting said she liked to give God the first word. I loved that, and I’ve done it ever since.

In the morning, the first thing I do is get on my knees and pray. I always begin with the Lord’s Prayer, because it's complete in itself. When I pray this prayer, I acknowledge that my Higher Power is God and that I am not, I express a willingness to do His will, I ask Him to give me whatever I need and to guide me. I could easily stop praying right there, and I sometimes do because, really, aside from a short prayer of gratitude and prayers for others, what else is there to say?

From there, I move on to my daily reading of Al-Anon literature. Generally, I spend about 30 minutes each morning between prayer, reading and meditation. But if I only pray the Lord’s Prayer and read the one-page meditation from one of the daily readers, how long would that take? Five minutes? Ten? It’s hard for me to imagine that even the busiest person couldn’t find 10 minutes to do something as important as that to set the tone for the whole day.

Then I exercise for 30 minutes. Exercise not only keeps me healthy, it’s a natural mood booster, it gives me more energy during the day and it helps me sleep better at night. If I turn off my TV, it can also be a kind of moving meditation. I get some of my best insights on the treadmill. On a rushed day, I might exercise for 20 minutes. But I try never to skip it.

By the time I’m done, my husband is up and we sit down to breakfast together. Having done those things, I feel prepared for whatever the day has in store.

My other priorities include meditation and sleep. When I have time, I like to meditate in the morning. But sometimes my head is full of all the things I need to get done and it’s hard to get it to settle down.

Whether I’ve meditated in the morning or not, I like to meditate at the end of the workday. Most of the things that I had to accomplish are behind me then, and my mind is more willing to be still. It helps me to start with a centering prayer, such as the long version of the Serenity Prayer.

When I can, I like to spend at least 20 minutes in meditation. It’s one way I connect to my Higher Power and seek His guidance. Whether or not that comes, it always leaves me feeling refreshed. Then I’m ready to be of service to my family, my sponsees, alateens, prison inmates or the people at my meetings, depending on what’s on my agenda for the evening.

Finally, I make sleep a priority. Because I get up early to do the things I need to do for myself, I also go to bed that much earlier. If I don’t, I find myself needing another slogan: H.A.L.T. If I’m Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired I know can’t function well.

But not before I take five minutes to look back over my day, thank God for the blessings that have come my way and ask myself honestly if I have managed to keep my side of the street clean or if I have an amends I need to make.

It’s been my experience, that when I make time for all these things, my days go more smoothly. I don’t waste time thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Confident that I have the guidance of my Higher Power, I’m able to concentrate on whatever task is before me until God puts something else there.

In the past, I spent a lot of time trying to overcome obstacles that cropped up. Today, I see these obstacles as guidance. I figure, I’m not supposed to do that right now. Rather than try to power my way through, I move on to the next thing.

Of course, for me, giving up trying to control other people and fixing their problems left an astonishing amount of time I didn’t have before.

I hear people at meetings say they find it hard to do these simple things for themselves because it feels selfish. But I know it’s when I do these things that I’m able to be the most service to others. It’s like the oft-recounted airplane analogy. When the masks drop in the cabin, the flight attendant always tells you to put on your mask first. Otherwise, you can’t be of much help to anyone else.

I know there is no cure for my disease. I can only get a daily reprieve based on my spiritual condition. "First Things First" reminds me to do the things I need to do remain spiritually fit.

Above all, when I take time to feed my spirit each day, I’m a nicer, calmer, better person. I’m slower to anger. More quick to forgive. My heart expands along with my gratitude.

For me, the question has become not how can I find the time, but how I cannot.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Funny Thing Redux

This was not my plan. I had hoped to blog on a different topic today, but the day got away from me, and Hubby and I must depart to the land. So...

I just got home from one of the best meetings I've been to in a long time. The topic was humor, which we almost never get to talk about in an Al-Anon meeting. As one member put it, "What we usually talk about is the opposite of humor."

So true. I've only been to one other meeting on humor in Al-Anon, and it was a meeting in which I had an insight about myself and the effects of this disease. I blogged about it at the time. It was one of my first posts. I didn't have many readers then, and few of them are still around.

So in the tradition of public radio, I offer you this archive edition of "Grace Calling."

Today, there was one thing I heard today that I'd like to add. One woman shared that she had decided to pray for more joy in her life, and the past month was one of the best she'd ever had. The difference? She started saying "yes" to things. In the past, she had always said "no."

It's always up to us.

Or, to quote our "Just for Todays," As Abraham Lincoln said, "Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be."

If you'll be so kind as to let me know you stopped by, I'll return the visit when we get home. Now, without further delay...

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.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What do You Want to Do?

That’s what I always ask when I get a call from a fellow Al-Anon in a crisis. The call usually begins with a lengthy explanation of their alcoholic’s latest drama, wrapping up with “I don’t know what to do.”

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from parents of adult children. Usually, the adult child has a housing crisis. Either he or she is living with the parent or about to be evicted from whatever living situation they were in. Usually, the adult child’s situation is the consequence of actions they have taken or choices they have made.

When it comes down to that, I tell the parents that I’m going to give them the Al-Anon response, but it all comes down to this: What are you comfortable with, and what are you willing to do?

The Al-Anon response is very simple. Your adult child is experiencing the consequence of his or her actions. In Al-Anon, I eventually came to believe that it’s best not to get in God’s way by putting a cushion between my loved one and her consequences, no matter how painful. When I do that, I only delay her from making changes in her life. Because if I’m willing to give her an easier alternative, why should she change?

For me, the best answer is to be loving, but not offer a solution. I say something like, “That sounds very hard, honey. I’m so sorry to hear you’re having such a hard time. No. I can’t [let you stay here/give you money/whatever else] But I love you and I know you’re going to figure this out.”

Not every parent is ready to do this. Hence the question. What do you want to do?

Usually, the parent will tell me their adult child has no options. Usually, I point out that their adult child has other options, but has chosen not to exercise them.

One parent told me her newly sober adult son had been offered rehab but “that would be like jail.” His old network of friends were alcoholics, she said, so he couldn’t call them.

I asked if he had been to AA, a ready made support group with a mission, known as the 12th step, to help other alcoholics.

He is an atheist and refuses to go, she said.

I rest my case. What I hear is that the son prefers being homeless to going to rehab, and refuses help that is freely given. That’s a choice.

None of this makes the situation the problem of the parent to fix.

Another parent told me that her town didn’t have a homeless shelter. This is a suburb of one of the largest metro areas in the country. There might not be a homeless shelter in that suburb. That doesn’t mean the metro region isn’t crawling with shelters and half-way houses and social service organizations. But this is how we think. We think our kids will not survive unless we help them. It’s just not true.

So we’re back to the question: What do you want to do? What are you willing to take on?

There are two things I suggest in this situation: Don’t take on anything that will cause you resentment. And don’t set any boundaries you can’t enforce.

Sometimes, allowing an adult child to stay at home for a few days while he or she figures things out can buy both parties some time. The adult child can have a few days to research options, and the parent can have a few days to pray and meditate, attend meetings, talk things over with a sponsor, read literature and do whatever else they need to get some clarity.

But what the parent needs to do, IMHO, does not involve fixing the housing crisis. Even if the adult child is sick or unemployed or both.

I generally don’t recommend allowing adult children to stay under certain conditions (you can stay as long as you do this and/or don’t do that). Things may start out well, but an addict or alcoholic is bound to push those boundaries at some point, and then what are you going to do?

To me, that’s just offering them the rope for that old, familiar game of tug of war. In my case, for my own sanity, I had to drop the rope.

My own experience is that I had to get out of the way completely and let my daughter find her own solutions. When I did, she did. At first, her solutions included finding other enablers. It’s in the nature of addicts and alcoholics to find a “softer, easier way.”

But eventually, those enablers fell away one by one. Only then, when her options were either to change or to face the full consequences of her choices did she choose change.

For me, it was the only truly loving thing I could do.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Hyena and the Wildebeest

An article in the paper caught my eye the other day. It was about Ray Dalio, the founder of one of the world's largest hedge funds and the philosophy on which he runs his company.

The firm runs on a set of 295 principles that Mr. Dalio distributed to all his employees. He calls his philosophy hyper-realism, drawing on lessons of the natural world.

One of his most eye-catching principles is "Be the hyena. Attack the Wildebeest... Like the hyenas attacking the wildebeest, successful people might not even know if or how their pursuits of self interest helps society, but it typically does."

Another principle is "There is nothing to fear from truth.... Being truthful is essential to being an independent thinker and obtaining greater understanding of what is right."

Apparently, at Mr. Dalio's company, being truthful "also requires a bit of ruthlessness," according to the article.

One employee admitted he found the truthful policy difficult, because colleagues were encouraged to critique his ideas and drill into his weaknesses. "I would go home defeated every day," he said.

Reading the article, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to run a company on Al-Anon principles.

What if, rather than "Be a Hyena," the principle was "Live and Let Live" or "Let Go and Let God."

And I have nothing against the speaking the truth. But what if the guiding principle was "THINK." That before we opened our mouths to speak, we took a minute to think about what we were going to say and asked ourselves if it was not only True but also Honest, Intelligent, Necessary and Kind?

What if no one went home feeling defeated by his or her colleagues?

I'm not sure that company would become one of the world's largest hedge funds. Maybe to be successful on Wall Street requires a bit of the hyena. But maybe making money isn't the most important thing. If we were to run this company on Al-Anon principles, we'd ask ourselves the question, How Important Is It?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Daddy

For years, the only real clues I had about my dad came from a handful of thick, black-and-white studio portraits.

I had two favorites. One pictured my grandmother, young and beautiful with scallops of shiny dark hair and milk-white skin with a boy of about six in a sailor suit.

The other showed my grandmother, still young but with the beginnings of crow's feet around her eyes and hair that was beginning to lose its luster next to a young and handsome man wearing an Army uniform with pilot's wings pinned to the breast.

On each of these photos, I had written, with green ink in my best 4-year-old handwriting "my daddy."

As I had never met my dad, those were the images I carried with me. I didn't know much else. I knew he had some connection to Green Bay Wisconsin. I learned later that his father's family emigrated there from Ireland in the mid 19th century and stuck. My grandmother told me he had saved my life by rescuing me from drowning in a pool when I was about a year old.

Later, I learned from my mother that his IQ tested in the genius range, though he only completed high school and worked at manual labor jobs. That he was an alcoholic. That he had put her in the hospital twice.

I have only one picture of them together. It was on the day of my christening. My father was older than my mother, in his late-30s. His hairline was already receding, but he was still handsome. There were cans of Schlitz malt liquor in the foreground.

With so little information, these pictures became the basis of a rich fantasy surrounding my dad.

When I was very young and living with my grandmother, she used to play a song by Harry Belefonte called "Scarlet Ribbons" about a man desperately searching the night to find scarlet ribbons for his daughter's hair. I imagined that was my dad. I believed he wanted to find me, that, like the man in the song, he was out there somewhere scouring the streets at night looking.

Even as I got older, and was returned to my mother, I kept that fantasy. That one day my father would find me and rescue me from my life.

Of course, he never did.

My grandmother took me back to my childhood home of Milwaukee once to see him. My grampy, her second husband, had some sort of bowling event to attend and I came along. We stayed in the Red Carpet Inn. But I never met my dad. I learned later that he had "taken off" two days before our arrival with no explanation.

He died when I was 12 from alcoholism. As my mother put it, he had lung cancer and died during the operation from liver failure. She showed me a recent picture, a Polaroid. It showed a balding, overweight, middle-aged man leaning against a car. It looked nothing like the pictures in my head.

That day, my fantasy of rescue died along with my father.

A few years ago, I decided to find out what I could about my father. I started with his Army records. Much of his records were lost in a fire in the facility where they were kept. But enough remained to give me a glimpse into his life.

From his application, I learned that, as a child, he had a tonsillectomy and the removal of a bit of bone in one ear as the result of an infection. He played softball, basketball and football in high school, though did not excel in any of them. He graduated in 1940 and listed his only hobby as flying.

His enlistment physical noted that he had a deviated septum and a small facial scar.

From his service record, I know that he worked for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, which was then gearing up for World War II. It had recently won a government contract to build warplanes.

In 1942, he enlisted as an aviation cadet. He was 19 and married to his first wife. They had a daughter.

He was honorably discharged in June of the following year to accept a commission. He completed pilot training at various bases and learned to fly the B-26 Maurader. By June 1943, as a second lieutenant, he was qualified for overseas duty. I imagine it was about this time that the portrait with my grandmother was taken.

Then things started to fall apart. He faced two courts martial for being AWOL and was dihonorably discharged after having been AWOL for 37 days, and sentenced to three years of hard labor at Ft. Leavenworth prison.

His divorce became final a few months after he began serving his sentence. The records were lost, so I can only speculate about the reasons.

After his release, he married again. This marriage was brief and childless, and ended in an annulment.

His third marriage was tumultuous and produced two children. His wife, a reputedly beautiful welder in a factory, filed for divorce three times.

When the divorce was eventually finalized, my father had abandoned the family without support two years prior. He didn't even show up for the proceedings.

The divorce papers are telling. In those days, you had to show cause for getting a divorce. His wife had plenty. Court papers say my father drank to excess, disappeared for days at a time and returned spoiling for a fight. He heaped abuses "too vile" to be printed in court documents. There were physical abuses and "acts of cruel and inhuman treatment."

These abuses, the complaint claims, caused his wife to "become nervous and lose weight" and left her "sick and broken in mind and body."

Just a few months after the divorce was final, he got a young woman (my mother) pregnant. She was a young physical therapist. He was 36 and working as a warehouseman for the temporary agency Manpower. They got married.

The marriage didn't last long. But at the end, my mother committed herself to a mental hospital for shock treatments and agreed to my father's suggestion that she sign over custody of me to my grandmother. At the time of the divorce, my grandmother was given legal custody.

My grandmother sounded like a classic Al-Anon. In a letter to her lawyer, my mother describes her as "domineering."

In a letter to my mother, my grandmother describes finding my father and his third wife living in squalor with a sick child, "a cold wind blowing under the door." She bought them a house and a TV.

In a drunken rage, she wrote, my father had smashed the TV. At one point, she found the house trashed and abandoned. His wife had said my father had made such a fool of himself, he was ashamed to face the neighbors.

A clearer picture began to emerge.

My husband wondered why I kept digging.

"Don't you find it depressing?" he wanted to know.

But I didn't. I wanted some answers. Even then, I had romanticized my father. I fancied that I looked like him, was smart like him, inherited his restless gene. I wanted to know who this man was. Now I knew. I could let him, and the fantasy, go.

Of course, I had more to process. Al-Anon helped with that. More than anything, Al-Anon helped me see my father with compassion. Compassion for the shame he must have felt. Compassion that he never found a solution.

Not everyone was meant to be saved. For some reason, I escaped the compulsion to drink. And for some reason, I found my way into a program that has taught me a better way to live than he knew, or my grandmother or my mother. I don't know why God chose me. But I am grateful.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Are You An Al-Anon-aholic?

Before Al-Anon, I had read checklists for the characteristics of adult children of alcoholics and never particularly saw myself in them. I remember one particularly memorable time when I friend sat me down and made me read a checklist off the back of a book. I was unimpressed.

"What about this?" he kept asking.

"That doesn't describe me," I'd respond.

He tried to insist. It only irritated me. Of course, he was right. That was my denial.

But the other day when I came across a quiz to determine whether I was a workaholic, I was astounded by well I recognized myself in the questions. Here's a sampling.

* I prefer to do most things rather than ask for help
* I overcommit myself by biting off more than I can chew.
* I spend a lot of time mentally planning and thinking about future events while tuning out the here and now.
* I get upset in a situations where I cannot be in control.
* I tend to put myself under self-imposed deadlines.
* I spend more time working than socializing with friends or on hobbies or leisure activities.
* I get upset with myself for making even the smallest mistake.
* I make important decisions before I have all the facts and have a chance to think them through.

As I took the quiz, I couldn't help thinking the quiz might as well have said "Are you an Al-Anon?"

Out of curiosity, I printed out an Al-Anon checklist. There were really only two questions that directly correlated.

* Do you overextend yourself?
* Do you have a need for perfection?


I held my breath and tried to take the quiz honestly, giving each question a response of 1 (never true) to 4 (always true). I could see that, if not for the program, my scores on each question would be much higher. This quiz would be a kind of "Does Al-Anon work for you?" test.

To my relief, my final score placed me in the category that said "You are probably a hard worker instead of a workaholic. You needn't worry that your work style will negatively affect yourself or others."

Phew. I guess I got my daily reprieve that day, because I know those character defects are still just under the surface.

The reading in "Hope for Today" was particularly pertinent. It said "[My shortcomings] are not magically, completely and irrevocably banished from my life. If this truly were the case, I wouldn't take them back on occasion. However, my Higher Power does separate my defects from me.... The concrete action of setting them aside becomes apparent as I work on the program on a daily basis."

It works if you work it.

BTW, the acronym for this assessment is WART, which struck me as appropriate. It's a kind of inventory of my warts.

I'm going to keep this quiz. I imagine coming across it at some future date. Then I will read the questions and hold my breath, and see how I do on that day.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the suggestions that accompany the article could also have come straight from Al-Anon: Manage expectations, Breathe (as in meditation), Practice mindfulness.

Good advice.

Hubby and I will be practicing just these things up at the land. I hope you all have a great week, and I'll stop in for a visit on our return.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What I Got

Hearing my sponsee's fifth step on Sunday got me to thinking about the type of Al-Anon I am and what I got from my character defects.

In alcoholic families, different family members take on different roles. Each role plays an important part in keeping the family together. At different times in my life I have been all of them.

When I was very young I was the quiet child, who was no trouble to anyone. As a teenager, I became the wild child, the one who gave the family purpose. As I got older, and especially when my daughter struggled with her own addictions, I became the hero, the fixer, The Doer Of Things That Needed To Be Done.

I've said before that this role left me exhausted and resentful, because control turned out to be an illusion. But I clung to this role because I got something from it.

There's tremendous ego gratification in being the hero. For starters, I was the command post in any crisis. I was always at the center of things, and so all information flowed through me. There's a tremendous feeling of power in that.

I saw myself as the high-functioning person amidst the dysfunction. I got to feel superior.

People I loved came to me for help. And I helped them.

And here's the rub. I was good it. I couldn't fix my daughter, but I was good at finding solutions to the trouble she found herself in. It was a role I grabbed and held onto fiercely, but others were happy to give it to me. I had support and encouragement.

"Get your mother on it," my ex-husband used to say to my daughter. Because I was capable. I swooped in with my checklist and my computer and my cellphone, and we were going to do this thing, whatever I decided it was.

Different players had their own motives for allowing me this role. I imagine my ex-husband was relieved that Things Were Being Taken Care Of, and that he didn't have to do it. My daughter got my undivided attention. In return, I got her gratitude. She owed me one. It was a rush. And I didn't have to think about my own issues.

It was a closed feedback loop. The system fed itself. And that's the problem with character defects. In a way I was the victim of my own success. I got so much from behaving that way. Why would I want to give all of that up?

Only it didn't work. Not really. Nothing really changed. At least not for long.

But the ego! So hard to let it go. I had to pry my fingers off the wheel at first. Before I became willing, life had to bring me to my knees.

At first, surrender felt like raising the white flag on a battlefield. Not so much "I surrender" but rather "I give up!"

In order to give up all I got in this role, I had to replace it with something else. Attending meetings, working the steps, building a relationship with my Higher Power provided those things.

The lure of The Other Way was still strong. But after a while, the siren song of the old ways grew more faint. Slowly, slowly I became entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character. Finally, finally, I started to enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


The prison meeting seemed to have taken a turn last night.

The inmates have really taken responsibility for the meeting. The chairperson actually read a page out of "Courage to Change" and shared on what was in the book instead of trying to find a page that would fit the drama she wanted to share and, failing that, sharing on that drama anyway. We talked about solutions.

The women seemed to listen more intently to what my Al-Anon partner and I had to share.

The one woman who had attended our meeting faithfully is getting out in a few days. There was one meeting in which she was the only one in attendance, and we wondered what would happen to the meeting when she left.

But there was another woman there tonight who attended her sixth meeting and so "earned" her book. I heard her share for the first time. She stepped up and took over the meeting folder. And when another inmate who had sometimes attended was not available, she went and found a newcomer. So we had a little meeting of five: three inmates, plus my Al-Anon partner and me. And it was a good meeting.

The topic was yesterday's reading in "Courage to Change." It was about attraction rather than promotion, and I could have written it. It told my story.

When I was new in Al-Anon, I went through what I call my evangelistic period. I was so delighted to have found a solution, that I wanted to share it with everyone else. My son-in-law used to call regularly during that time begging me to "do something" about my daughter. He thought I had some special power over her. I must have given him that idea. I thought I did, too.

I remember clearly that I was taking an evening class. I came back to my car one night to find my phone beeping to alert me to a missed call. It was my son-in-law. There had been bigger-than-usual drama.

I told him I had been going to Al-Anon. I explained that my daughter was an addict and what he was seeing was addict behavior. I told him that I could not fix it, and either could he. I told him he needed to go to Al-Anon in the most urgent terms. Then I sent him literature.

The next time he called I told him he needed to go to Al-Anon.

I see now that I did that because I was still thought I knew what was best for everyone. I was still trying to control.

Of course it did as much good as telling my daughter that she needed to go to an NA meeting or call her sponsor. My son-in-law never went to Al-Anon, which distressed me just as much.

My sponsor explained gently, "You've told him, now let it go."

That's when she told me the "say it once" rule. I've found that it's usually best for me to keep my opinions to myself. But if I feel I absolutely must say something, I can only say it once. If I say it twice, it's a yellow flag. Three times and I'm definitely trying to control.

What I still didn't understand was the tradition of attraction rather than promotion. I already knew what that looked like, I just didn't realize it.

I had attended several NA meetings with my daughter and was impressed by what I heard. These people seemed grounded and wise.

I didn't think there was anything wrong with me. My daughter was the one with the problem.

But I could see that these people had something I didn't and I wanted what they had. So when my daughter's sponsor suggested I go to Al-Anon, I could hardly wait to go. I understood that if I did, I could have what they had, too.

My daughter didn't stay in NA, but went to Al-Anon and stuck.

The last time my daughter visited, she went to Al-Anon meetings with me. I didn't suggest it. I simply said I was going to a meeting, as I always did on those nights. She wanted to come.

When she left, she told me I was inspiring.


That was new. She used to tell me in great detail all the ways she didn't want to be like me. I could only hope that one day she'd want what I had.

And eventually, she did. Last I heard, she sober for the first time in a long time, back in NA and AA and "into it." I say last I heard because I don't ask her about it when I talk to her. I leave that between her and God.

That's how it works.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Poo Problem

I heard something truly shocking yesterday.

I had called an Al-Anon member who had recently moved here from another state to ask him to be a speaker at my Alateen meeting. We had struck up a conversation in the parking lot on the way to my meeting on Monday night.

He was 19 years sober in AA and had 18 years in Al-Anon. The Alateen sponsors in my group had decided on a mix of AA and Al-Anon speakers and, combining both, he seemed perfect. Then he told me he had been an Alateen sponsor. It felt like a God thing.

But that's not the shocking part. What he said on the phone is that he felt comfortable approaching me in the parking lot because he had seen me at other meetings and found me "friendly and approachable."

That makes three times in recent memory people have referred to me that way. They used those exact words: friendly and approachable.

And that's the shocking part. Because I've never been what people call "friendly and approachable." They've always used other words to describe me. Words like "aloof."

I never meant to be aloof, but that was the pronouncement. It's been one of the constants in my life.

A couple of weeks ago, after I shared on the topic of selfishness, a sponsee told me she couldn't even imagine me being selfish.

I was speechless.

So the question is: Who is the person people are talking about? And what have they done with me?

Change has been a lot on my mind these days. Change used to be another constant in my life. I changed jobs, relationships, cities. I liked to say I was born with track shoes on. I was always running.

These days, I'm as settled as I've ever been. I've lived in this house longer than I've lived anywhere in my life. I've been happily married for years now. But it seems change is still a constant. It's just a different kind of change.

It reminded me of a story I heard recently about a zoo. Seems the zoo had a $60,000 problem. That's how much the landfill charged it to dispose of its poo.

Then someone had the idea to compost the poo. It became a hot commodity. People lined up around the block to get bags of composted zoo poo for their gardens. After deducting expenses, the new poo netted the zoo $20,000.

The problem was utterly transformed from a liability to an asset.

And this is poo we're talking about. Excrement. Waste.

So this is what I was thinking about yesterday. I had spent the afternoon listening to a sponsee's fifth step. As is the tradition in my line of sponsorship, I presented her with the gift of a butterfly to symbolize her shedding of old skin in preparation for spiritual rebirth.

Because that's what the program gives us. New life. The old stuff, our character defects, get thrown on the great compost heap of the program and are transformed into something valuable. The liabilities of our past become our greatest assets.

I can't think of anything more remarkable. Shocking, really.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Let It Begin With Me

I have been pummeled by this slogan lately, which is usually a sign I need to pay attention. But I can be a little slow on the uptake. Fortunately for me, my God is patient and persistent, and He has a sense of humor.

Here’s a brief recap of my recent history with this slogan. It was the topic of my meeting last Monday night. The next day my sponsor blogged about it. On Wednesday, the meeting topic was slogans, all of them. Participants were invited to talk about whichever slogan spoke to them. Guess what? One of them was “Let it Begin with Me.” Then, this morning, I picked up a current meeting list to give to a sponsee. The slogan on the cover? Well, you know. I don’t need to hit you over the head with it.

But God sometimes has to hit me over the head.

You see, I’ve been praying for some time about what to do about a key relationship in my life. I’ve been wondering if this relationship is still meeting my needs. I’ve been praying about it. Asking for guidance. Then I got it.

A program friend brought up a relationship she wasn’t sure was meeting her needs or her expectations. She had relationship envy. She had been observing the same relationship among some of her other program friends and those relationships seemed better and more satisfying.

Setting aside the problem of comparing her insides with another’s outsides, I reminded her that she was the one who had withdrawn from the relationship in question. I didn’t say “Let it Begin with Me,” but I could have.

Then it hit me. I had answered my own question. Since I wasn’t listening to all of the messages He had been sending me, God put the answer in my own mouth.

I was the one who had withdrawn from the relationship in question. If I didn’t like the current state of affairs, I had to “Let it Begin with Me.”

I looked up the slogan in “How Al-Anon Works” and found it full of fresh meaning. Ironically, I had highlighted the very phrases that were appropriate to my situation. But I’m a great forgetter. Sometimes I need to be reminded.

Here are a few things the book says:

“When we are tempted to blame others for our problems or to justify our own poor behavior by pointing to the poor behavior of others, this slogan reminds us where our focus rightfully belongs…. ‘Let it begin with me’ is a way to change the things we can—especially our own attitudes—instead of waiting for everyone else to change to suit us.

This is like going hungry while waiting for someone who doesn’t cook to make dinner. ‘Let it begin with me’ might suggest that we go ahead and cook for ourselves, go out for dinner, or make plans with someone who cooks. In short, we take responsibility for getting our own needs met.”

So today, I will “Let it Begin with Me.”

Thanks to all of you who left such thoughtful comments concerning memorable posts. I hope to catch up with all of you in the next couple of days.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Wash Your Hands of It

This isn't Al-Anon, but it's interesting.

I read this recently in The Wall Street Journal. Research has found that when subjects washed their hands after making a difficult moral decision, they felt less guilty about it. A recent study found the same for non-moral decisions. It was a small study, and didn't compare washing hands to other activities with no relation to cleansing. Still.

When I have a difficult decision to make, I always pray and meditate on it until the way seems clear. Then I turn it over to God.

Next time, I'll also "wash my hands of it." I like the idea that the act is symbolic of "cleansing and purifying." And who knows? I might also ward off a cold.

I have a question for regular readers. Is there a past post you've found memorable? I've been asked to submit some posts for an E-zine and find that I'm a poor judge of my own work.

So, without making this seem like a homework assignment, is there something that comes to mind? If so, I hope you'll leave me a comment. Thank you.

Hubby and I are off to the land of no computers. I'll drop in for a return visit when we return. Till then, take good care.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Standing on Ceremony

Earlier this year, I wrote a story about the chief judge of one of the Native tribes in Arizona. He is a remarkable man, a graduate of Stanford and Harvard, and the first in his tribe to have graduated from law school. From the bench, he gained a unique perspective of the tribe’s problems.

He told me that 99.9 percent of the crimes he passed judgment on were the result of alcohol, either directly or indirectly.

"We’re a nation of adult children of alcoholics," he said.

This judge was very interested in Native traditions, especially ceremonies, and developed a court system that would incorporate those elements.

But what stuck with me at a practical level was what he had to say about ceremony. At Stanford, he taught a course on the subject which, he says, basically comes down to four things:

1. Purifying and cleansing
2. Putting things in order
3. Remembering and reconnecting
4. Prayer and meditation

In his class, he encouraged people to create their own ceremony using these elements. He told them not to overthink it. To keep it simple.

Wash the dishes, he said as an example. Then put them away.

When you wash the dishes, you are cleansing and purifying. When you put them away, you are putting things in order, restoring them to their proper place.

A program friend recently lamented that her job mostly consisted of cleaning. She was grateful to have any kind of job, of course, but this didn’t feel very satisfying.

I told her the story about my judge friend and his view of ceremony. I said it had helped me to reframe the way I think about things I need to do.

When I’m doing the dishes and feeling resentful about it, I think of the judge. I remind myself that I can think about it as doing a dirty job I'd rather not do. Or I can think of it as ceremony.

If I think of washing the dishes as ceremony, it changes the way I feel about my task, instantly. It transforms the ordinary into something sacred.

I’m powerless over many of the things I have to do in my life. But I can change the way I think about them. That’s the one thing that's within my power, always.