Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dear God...

On Monday, I attended the Big Book study for the extended Al-Anon family known as my line of sponsorship.

It was a little different this time. We had been asked to complete a writing assignment that had been passed down through many layers of sponsors at the beginning of the new year. Laura, my great, grandsponsor who runs the meeting, had asked us to have our writing assignments finished by this meeting. There were three parts. Here was the assignment:

Our lives can become so clutted (yes, this is the word as it came to me) with useless, out of date junk… really without us realizing it is happening. If we don’t take the time and effort to clear away and clean up, we run out of room and become frustrated with the whole mess.

How much time and effort are you taking in your spiritual life to get rid of this junk?

What are your frustrations right now?

That was then (2009). This is now (2010). What are you dragging into 2010 that you need to clean up and leave behind you?

Laura shared what she wrote in response to the first question, which she took to mean: what is the state of your spiritual maintenance? She admitted that she was bad at taking time for herself. That she tended to put other people first. That she knew she needed to change that equation.

After that, people shared spontaneously about their spiritual practices. Laura wrote down things that stood out to her.

Some things that were on her list were:
Making an appointment with myself
Giving God the first word
Many people mentioned Yoga
Prayer partners came up more than once, which fell under the category of being accountable to someone else

Then we went around the room and people shared one thing that was frustrating us.

We went around the room again, and people shared one thing they were dragging in to the new year that they wanted to leave behind.

The exercise was surprisingly emotional. Tissue packets were pulled out and tossed around. More than one woman said, “I don’t know where that came from.”

At the end, Laura explained that the point of the exercise was to encourage us to take time for our spiritual lives. If we wanted to, we could draw freely upon the practices of others that we had heard.

Then she gave us another assignment, also passed down:

Every day:

Write down five things I’m fearful of or need help with

Write five things I’m grateful for (separate from whatever we are doing in terms of a daily gratitude list)

Write a short letter to God—by hand—not on the computer.

Laura said we should undertake this with compassion for ourselves and understand that no one expected that we would do this perfectly.

I confess I haven’t started this yet. But I thought it would make an interesting written record of what was in my life, my mind and my heart. A record of my spiritual progress.

It struck me that we got this assignment around the new year, which is traditionally a time for new beginnings and resolutions. And we were discussing them just before Easter, which is a time of renewal.

So maybe this is a good time to start. It feels like a big commitment. Wish me well.

If any of you feel moved to do the same, I'd love to hear about it and how it's going for you.

Meanwhile, hubby and I are off to the land. I'll see you in a few days.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Open Wide

I love metaphors. I can’t resist them, even when they feel a little bit tortured. So I couldn’t help thinking about Al-Anon at my last visit to the dentist.

I know, I know. Work with me people.

I used to hate the dentist. My teeth might as well be made of steel. But my gums are made of kryptonite.

It’s partly hereditary. My mother struggled with her gums, too. She lost her first tooth to gum disease when she was pregnant with me (I’ve learned to live with that). She had false teeth by the time she was 60.

So I’ve been at war with my gums all my life.

Mostly, my dentist is pleased with me when I do what I’ve been taught. When I brush my teeth for at least two minutes twice a day and floss at least once.

I know that when I do these things my numbers (indicating the state of my gums) will improve.

Over the years, adding the right tools made a big difference. It would not be overstating the case to say the Sonicare toothbrush changed my life. My hygienist tried to convince me for years to get one, but I didn’t have the money. I finally solved the dilemma by asking for one as a gift. Now, I’d beg on the street corner if I had to for a Sonicare.

So my numbers got better and the lectures got fewer. It helps that I’m the type of Al-Anon who finds comfort in routine. Brush, floss, Listerine. Check, check, check.

But then that wasn’t enough.

I knew there was something more I could do. There was another tool at my disposal: interdental brushes that would get at the wider gaps between my back teeth. I knew they worked because as an experiment, I tried once to use them in addition to my regular brushing and flossing and the results were dramatic.

Then I stopped.

Why? I was resistant. I thought, for Heaven’s sake, brushing with a Sonicare for the requisite two minutes, flossing not once, but twice a day, rinsing (for the full 30 seconds!) with Listerine should be enough. It should. There was only so much I was willing to do. And at least I still had all my teeth.

The last time I went to the dentist, my hygienist started talking to me about increasing my visits to three times a year. She invoked the dreaded periodontal surgery option if I didn’t comply.

I didn’t want to do either. So I decided to try the less painful option. I pulled out the interdentals and used them faithfully.

My numbers went down. My hygienist and dentist beamed at me. There was no more talk of seeing each other more often. There was much “keep up the good work” and similar sentiments.

So how is this like Al-Anon?

1. I have a chronic, progressive disease from which I will never be cured.
2. I can, however, enjoy a daily reprieve based on my spiritual maintenance, which means doing the things I’ve been taught on a daily basis.
3. Things go easier when I use the right tools.
4. Sometimes what I think something ought to be enough, isn’t. I need to be willing to go to any lengths for my recovery. Or face more painful consequences.

Keeping it Simple

Yesterday, I made good use of the Al-Anon slogan Keep it Simple.

We had invited my stepdaughter and son-in-law over for dinner to celebrate his birthday. We asked the birthday boy what he wanted for dinner. His requested menu was simple: grilled pork chops, green beans and whipped sweet potatoes. What threw me was what my stepdaughter said he wanted for dessert: pineapple upside-down cake.

I had never made a pineapple upside down cake, so I had no idea what was involved, except that I had an idea that it somehow involved pineapples and inversion.

To quote an Al-Anon acquaintance: I can complicate a ball bearing. So the old me would have tried to make things as difficult as possible.

It would not have mattered that he said not to go to any trouble. Or that we had spent several days doing construction on our house before attending a dinner on Saturday night followed by a long drive home and getting to bed in the wee hours the night before.

Nor would it have mattered that that it was Sunday, a day I reserve to rest.

No. I would have picked the most complicated recipe I could find. I might have decided that we also needed to have jalapeno poppers to start, even though they have told us that they are trying to lose weight and aren’t much into appetizers these days.

I would have insisted that we drive to the store across town that has the best jalapenos instead of going to the market in our neighborhood. I would have spent the afternoon making a cake, and deseeding and stuffing 44 jalapenos, refusing all offers for help.

The old me would also have spent every minute in the kitchen thinking of the book I’d rather be reading. If my stepdaughter and son-in-law passed on the poppers, pleading calories, I would have resented it. After all I had done for them.

Instead, I left my husband with the breakfast dishes (something else the old me never would have done) and went upstairs to research recipes. There was one that involved making a caramel sauce and a cake from scratch. And there was one that involved cubed butter, sprinkled brown sugar and (gasp!) a box of yellow cake mix.

I chose the cake mix. I asked my husband if he would mind going to the store, the one on the corner. He didn’t mind at all.

We had a nice, relaxing dinner. The cake was a big hit. During the day, I got to read some of that book. My husband and I took a short nap, and spent time visiting with some neighbors we hadn’t seen for a while. I enjoyed our dinner and didn’t feel drained.

I didn't miss the old me at all.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

By George, I Think She's Got It!

Remember my sponsee who needed to have some fun? If you missed that post, you can find it here.

I saw her at the meeting we both attend a couple of days later and asked her how the night she was so worried about went.

It went fine, she said.

Downstairs where her husband and his buddies were playing pool, nothing got broken. No drunken brawls broke out. The house did not burn down.

Upstairs, she watched two movies, ate her ice cream and had a perfectly lovely time. Over the weekend, she also went to the gym and spent an enjoyable day with the hiking club she had just joined.

The meeting centered on a reading from Courage to Change. It had to do with trying to control everything, including the pace of our recovery. Lots of people talked about surrender, prayer, those sorts of things.

When it was my sponsee’s turn, she said she was going to go in a little different direction. There was some little bit about self-care in the reading and she seized on that.

She said it used to be that she’d plan her weekends by making a list of all the chores that needed to be done: water the plants, do the grocery shopping. Now, she thinks about the things she’d like to do and plans her weekend around that. The chores still get done. They just get done around the things she most wants to do.

Wow, I thought. She’s really getting it.

When we had our conversation about her husband’s pool party, she said it was like he was rebelling. She took it personally, as we tend to do. She assumed it was all about her.

Sometimes that’s true. When we begin to detach, sometimes the alcoholic tries to pull us back in by acting out. But most of the time, what our alcoholics do has nothing to do with us. They are just trying to live their lives. The trouble is that we are trying to live their lives, too.

I know that was true of me with my daughter. The way I got over my obsession with what she was doing was to get busy with my own life and leave her to hers. That’s what I think my sponsee is learning, and I couldn’t be happier for her.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Let it Rain

Later today, hubby and I will head up to the land. We live in the desert and the house we’re building is at a higher elevation, in pinyon pine country. On the way, we pass through a pristine patch of desert, which is gloriously awash in color from golden Mexican poppies, purple lupine and slender stalks of orange globe mallow.

These spring wildflowers are as fickle as a cat. They need just the right conditions to flourish. Specifically, they need a lot of winter rain. We’ve been in a drought for years, so spectacular wildflowers have not been in great abundance, until now.

I couldn’t resist the analogy. The wildflowers bloom, not in spite of the storms, but because of then. Without the rain, the desert would be brown and dry. Not dead, but dormant. It’s the storms that bring it to life.

I can’t help but think that my own life is generous and abundant, not in spite of the storms, but because of them. Bread is not bread unless it has passed though the oven. Yeast may make the dough rise, but without heat, it remains a blobby, gooey mess.

I have been formed by fire. Al-Anon teaches me that I have choices about how I can feel about that. My program teaches me that while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. I can let the hard times throw me into despair or I can embrace them.

I’ve prayed the acceptance prayer a lot lately. It begins, “Acceptance is the answer to my serenity today.” Denying reality is the very definition of insanity. I can’t change what is, but I can change how I feel about it. I can rest easy knowing that there are no mistakes in my God’s universe and that everything is as it should be. Wherever God has put me is the right place. The people He has put in front of me are the right people. I may not always find pleasure in my current situation, but there is wisdom. I can be grateful for the lesson. I can be grateful for the rain.

Thank you all for your comments on yesterday’s post. I couldn’t help but notice how many people admitted to being serious. I believe that a serious nature is another effect of this disease, as common as the desire to control. I wrote about it here. The good news for me is that if that is true, then “being restored to sanity” can also mean being restored to light heartedness.

See you in a few days. Meanwhile, take it easy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Get a Life. Seriously.

I got to give some pleasant direction to a sponsee the other day: HAVE SOME FUN!

She was upset because her husband was having some friends over to play pool. He stocked the whole refrigerator with beer. He bought a bottle of whiskey. She just knew that she was going to go home and be sarcastic.

“Is there anything you’ve been wanting to go out and do?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Why should I be run out of my own house?”

I wasn’t suggesting that, I explained. I only thought that she should look at this as an opportunity. Her husband was having fun with his friends. Why shouldn’t she look at this as an opportunity to do something fun herself that she wouldn’t normally do because her husband wouldn’t enjoy it?

If she didn’t want to go out, I wondered if there were a spot inside the house where she go to do something enjoyable and engaging.

“The idea,” I said, “is to do something so enjoyable and so engrossing that you’re not worried about what you’re husband is doing or whether or not he’s drinking any of that beer himself.”

I told her when I needed a lift, I liked to watch Ann of Green Gables or the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth is the only Mr. Darcy, as far as I’m concerned) and eat a pint of chocolate almond or coffee ice cream. That’s my idea of spiritual comfort food.

She liked that idea. She thought she might rent something along the lines of a romantic comedy. She particularly liked the part about the ice cream.

“I guess I always tend to cope by working my way though problems, but it’s okay to take it easy sometimes,” she said.

“Yes!” I agreed.

Inside, I was thinking how she was so much like me. Taking life and everything in it so darn seriously. Sometimes the best thing to do is just to lighten up and have a good time.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Saying Goodbye

One thing I was not prepared for when I started this blog just a few short months ago, was how quickly people would come into my life, and how soon I would have to say goodbye.

Among the first things I saw when hubby and I got back from the land were goodbye messages from two of my favorite bloggers, Lou at Subdural Flow and Madison at Fight of Your Life. These are the just latest in what feels like a string of losses. Scott at Attitude of Gratitude called it quits not long ago. These were all longtime bloggers but, being new, I had little time with them. A couple of others have taken hiatuses that, so far, have not become permanent but sound as thought they might.

The fact that I have never met any of these people does not make me grieve their loss any less. They may have been "virtual" friends, but they are real to me as the desk I write on. They told the truth about their lives and addiction, supported me, shared resources. They touched me beyond measure.

Surely Al-Anon must offer wisdom. I searched the indexes in my daily readers in vain for wisdom on "loss" or "goodbye." The closest I came was "Letting go." This is from Courage to Change, p.202.

"... We can become too busy avoiding change to enjoy the gifts we fear to lose. By clutching at what we most want to keep, we lose it all the more rapidly.

Change is inevitable. We can depend on that. When we become willing to accept change, we make room for a loving God. By letting go of our efforts to influence the future, we become freer to experience the present, to feel all of our feelings while they are happening, and to more fully enjoy those precious moments of joy with which we are blessed."

So, to Lou, to Madison, and to all of you who are still out there blogging, I want you to know you have filled my life with precious moments of joy. Thank you for blessing my life.

And for those who are moving on, whether by choice or necessity, please know that you have touched me. And I will miss you. Godspeed.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Just Say No

I have a sponsee who came to Al-Anon because she wanted recovery. But she also wanted to know what to do if her loved one relapsed again. And she got to find out.

She was coming to my house to work a step. Her alcoholic had relapsed following a difficult discussion she had with him. Just as she was pulling into my driveway, he texted her.

"I want to quit drinking," it said.

She saw it as a sign from God that she got this message as she arrived at my house.

"What should I say?" she wanted to know.

"Say 'Good,' 'I'm glad,' or something else supportive," I said.

"What should I do?" she wondered.

"Nothing," I said.



"What if he's drunk and can't drive?"

"I'm sure he'll figure something out."

"What if he wants to go to a meeting?"

"He can call someone in AA. That's what AAs do. They pick people up and take them to meetings."

"What if he doesn't have anyone's number."

"AA has a 24-hour information line, just like Al-Anon."

"Where can I find it?"

"It's online. Does he have a computer?"


"Then I'm sure he can find it."

She told me she had a conversation with his boss. She told him her loved one was drinking. She was sure she had done the right thing. I shook my head.



"Why not?"

"Because it's none of your business."

"But I wanted her to understand. So he wouldn't get in trouble."

"If he got in trouble, that would be a natural consequence of his drinking, wouldn't it?"

"But she called me. She asked my why he hadn't been to work. What was I supposed to say?"

"Say, I think you should talk to him."

"Oh." She thought for a moment.

"So, normally when this happens, he would come over to my house for a couple of days," she said after a minute.

"Do you want him to come over?" I asked.

"No," she admitted.

"Then don't do it." I said. "Just say no."

A smile spread across her face as she started to understand.

I shared with her about a recent morning's reading. I read all three daily readers, and I can't remember which one it was. There was one line that really stood out for me.

"I will leave the alcoholic to the alcoholics."

That was a hard lesson to learn. It didn't seem fair that my daughter would listen to someone else who had been saying what I had been trying to tell her for years. But the truth is, she simply didn't hear me.

I had to leave her to the alcoholics and addicts. I had to get out of the way. I had to stop putting a pillow between her and the consequences of her actions.

But that didn't mean there was nothing I could do. I could help the families of other alcoholics and addicts. That's how I chose to spend my energies these days. Where it might do some good.

The next time I saw my sponsee, she was smiling. She looked genuinely happy. I asked how she was. "Life is good," she said.

Life is also good for me, these days. Hubby and I are on the way to the land where there is a closet that does not yet see have a cedar lining. It has my name on it.

I'll see you in a couple of days.

Meanwhile, take care.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Best Asset

I love speaker meetings and birthday meetings.

It's nice to have a break. To just listen and not have to form coherent thoughts on a difficult topic. But more than that, I love these meetings because I get to hear the big picture.

Topic meetings help me learn solutions about particular problems. I hear little bits and pieces of a person's story. I may have heard them share dozens of times before, but the context is missing. But speaker meetings and birthday meetings are where I forge deeper connections to people, because I hear their stories whole.

More often than not I hear my own story, or pieces of it, and understand, really understand, that I'm not alone.

The other day, I was listening to Joe, who was celebrating his 12th birthday. I had been sitting in meetings with Joe for a couple of years. But in this meeting, he talked a lot about his childhood. I had no idea all he had overcome.

After the meeting, I told him that his path inspired me. That he had come from where he was to where he is now seemed one of those miracles you hear about in Al-Anon.

He answered that what he loved about this program was that this was the only place he knew where his past could be turned into an asset.

I knew just what he meant. In Al-Anon, I know that all of the difficult things I've experienced, all the mistakes I've made, the embarrassing and awful things I've done are not for nothing.

I can share them freely. Because when I do, someone in the room might benefit from what I've gone through. They might have done something similar and know they are not alone. They might somehow learn from my experience. They might be inspired.

It reminds me of that fairy tale of the girl who could turn straw into gold. When I came to Al-Anon, I had no idea that I would come to embrace my past and share it freely. That it would, in fact, be my best asset and the greatest gift I can offer.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

If I Were a Tree...

Have you ever played this game: If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

A friend of mine once referred jokingly to people who played this game. But I had an answer. I had actually thought about this.

If I were a tree, I thought, I’d be a mighty oak. Oaks are strong and slow burning. With a wide and sheltering canopy, a mature oak provides shade and sustenance for small animals and dreamers alike.

But having been in the program for a while, I realized that I did not want to be an oak. Oaks do not fare well in storms. Their very strength makes them rigid and prone to breaking. A wind that is strong enough can sheer a limb or topple the tree.

No, rather than an oak, I aspire to be a humble palm. Palm trees are flexible, made to weather the storm. In a strong wind, they bend and sway. And when the gale has past, the palm returns to its natural posture, standing slender, straight and tall.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What's My Line?

Having become a sponsor recently, I pay more attention when people talk about how they sponsor others. I find the variety fascinating.

My line of sponsorship is very tradition bound. My sponsor told me that ours is an old line, dating from the earliest days of Al-Anon. There was no precedent, so the early Al-Anon members went to the women in AA and asked what it meant to work a step. To this day, we still study AA literature in addition to Al-Anon literature.

That I was part of an old line didn't mean a lot to me at first. Since then, I've come to see myself as the beneficiary of generations of wisdom. I work the steps with my sponsees the same way my sponsor worked them with me. And she works them the same way she was taught by her sponsor.

Being tradition bound also means following a certain code. There are six principles we follow in our line of sponsorship. They are:

1. We are willing to go to any lengths for our recovery
2. We attend meetings
3. We pray on our knees
4. We work the steps
5. We take commitments
6. We sponsor others

Tradition also dictates a few other things. For example, whenever we are at a podium, whether chairing a meeting, speaking at an institution, accepting a chip, we wear a skirt. Old fashioned, yes. But I'm okay with that because when I appear in public, I represent more than just myself.

Practically speaking, these are the nuts and bolts:

Ideally, a sponsee will attend at least one meeting their sponsor attends so they can see each other at least once a week. In my case, I attend two committed meetings my sponsor attends, as well as one open AA meeting.

We have a regular, weekly call time of a half hour. During this time, I can talk about anything that is on my mind. I use that time to talk about what's going on in my life, ask questions, ask for advice. However, my sponsor also encourages me to call any time I need to.

One of the most important roles of sponsorship, for me, is working the steps. We all start by reading "Alcoholics Anonymous," the AA Big Book, up to the personal stories.

The next assignment is to read step 1 in Al-Anon's and AA's "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions." There is a writing assignment. Then we get together and discuss the writing. It pretty much goes like that through all of the steps.

Some of the writing assignments are short. Some are long. My fourth step took months. There are additional things along the way. A book, a gift. Prayers.

Every other month, everyone in our line of sponsorship gets together for a Big Book study. Interruptions, cross-talk, questions are all encouraged. This allows me to develop a relationship with my whole, extended Al-Anon family, women with long years of recovery and dedicated service.

I learned a lot by being sponsored. It was obvious to me that my sponsor was not flying by the seat of her pants, but was operating from an unofficial play book. There were rules, for example, for making amends. Like everything else, we followed tradition. The rules were old fashioned.

We made amends for our part of things in person. We said we were wrong. We were not allowed to justify or explain our behavior. We had to listen without interruption to the other person.

Tradition dictated what we made amends for and what we did not (the generational wisdom here having to do with doing further harm). Certain acts called for certain types of amends. There are, after all, no original sins. These things had all been worked out.

Tradition even guides our suggestions for action. There are standard "remedies" for whatever ails us.

The sponsee who is stuck in despair is often asked to keep a gratitude list for two weeks. They are asked to list 10 things, each day, for two weeks and not repeat anything.

The sponsee who is spinning out of control is sometimes asked to go clean the bathroom then call their sponsor back. Don't laugh. It works.

The sponsee who can't stop obsessing about their problems is given the assignment of calling other people in the program to ask how they are doing. The sponsee is not allowed to talk about their own problems.

The sponsee who is withdrawn and isolated is encouraged to take a service commitment.

We are taught to pray for willingness. We are taught to pray for those people we resent. The list goes on.

I know there are those who would probably chafe at something so regimented. We are Al-Anons, after all. We are control freaks who have problems with authority.

People are different, I can almost hear you say. What works for one may not work for someone else. And on some level, I agree. But what has struck me the most about this disease is how much we share in common. It's our sameness that binds us, not our differences.

It's comforting to me that there are guidelines. That I don't have to figure everything out. That I have literally generations of wisdom to draw upon.

I used to wonder if my sponsor talked to her sponsor about me. Now I know she does. I do the same. I have a sponsee who is having this type of problem, I will say. How can I help her? She will say something like, when you were going through such and such Karen (her sponsor) and I talked about it and she said....

Of course, there were times when my sponsor didn't have the answer and said so. She'd run it up the chain. Sometimes her sponsor didn't know, and it would go up again. It could be a little frustrating waiting, but I learned patience. It was a lesson in God's time. When I got my answer, it always made sense.

And even though the teaching has become cannonized, in a sense, the relationships are not. The sharing and the way we react to one another comes from who we are. It can't be learned or faked. And we can only give someone else as much as we have.

And that's why I'm glad I don't have to rely on just myself. Like everything else in this program, I can't sponsor someone well all on my own. I am not self-sufficient. But I have a Higher Power, and deep well from which I can draw.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

To Everything There is a Season...

Spring is in the air.

Up at the land, the birds have returned. Seasonal creeks are running with snow melt. Change is coming.

Back here at home, a spiritual adviser I admire is moving on. The change is good news. A promotion and the chance to fulfill a dream.

Still. For a moment I felt struck by the news. Selfishly, I worried about his successor. Would he or she have that same appeal? Would he or she be able to shine a light like a laser until I felt the prick of truth?

Then I remembered something I heard at a meeting. That whatever people God puts in our path are the right people. We can enjoy them while they are here. If we are lucky and if we are listening, sometimes God speaks to us through them. And when God decides it is time for them to move on to new places and new people, we need to let them go.

So I did. I felt glad for him, and I let him go.

Let It Begin With Me

Hubby and I got home late last night, and so this morning when the phone rang I felt a little tired.

I knew it was a program call because the caller asked to speak to Kathy M.

"Yes, this is Kathy," I said.

The caller's name was Sylvia and she spoke with a heavy Eastern European accent. She was a new volunteer at the local information center and my name was on her list. Could I help take home calls in April?

I started to tell her I was pretty well committed. Three sponsees, prison service, commitments with my home group and, well, life.

I started to say those things.

Then I remembered that in my line of sponsorship we don't say "no" without a good reason. I remembered that I said I was willing to go to any lengths for my recovery. I remembered that God knows better than I do. I remembered the Al-Anon Declaration: "When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, let the hand of Al-Anon always be there, and Let It Begin With Me." I thought of the commitment she had made to fill all those night.

"What do you need?" I asked.

Sylvia said she needed someone to take home calls on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

My home group meets on Mondays, and one Monday a month, I'm at the prison.

Tuesday evenings are when I have my regular call times with my sponsees.

I wasn't available every Wednesday night in April, but I was available for a couple. I said I could fill in a day or two. She suggested two dates. I was free. I told her to sign me up.

I remembered what my sponsor said every time she took yet another sponsee (she has 14). "My God has a sense of humor," she said.

As I hung up the phone, I had to laugh.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Still Waters

I’ve noticed a recurring theme at the open AA meetings I’ve attended lately. Nearly every speaker has said that they came late to the practice of daily meditation, even after working their programs for years. But once they started, they’d give up a lot before they’d give it up. It made me realize how much I’d let my own practice slide.

Prayer and meditation are part of step 11, but I began both early in my Al-Anon program. My sponsor explained that the last three steps were maintenance steps, and I could practice them at any time. I was glad. I once had a daily meditation practice and missed it.

In Al-Anon, the idea behind daily meditation is to quiet the mind so it’s possible to hear the voice of a Higher Power. I’ve heard it explained this way: When pebble is dropped into a stormy pond, it’s difficult to tell. But a pebble dropped into a still pond is unmistakable. You hear it “plop” in the water, and the ripples run outward in every direction. The idea is to make the mind like a still pond.

Al-Anon is wide open as far as what constitutes meditation. It can be anything that quiets the mind. For some people, that’s a period of quiet. Exercise works for some. One woman I know uses her time in the garden.

I had always understood prayer as talking to God and meditation as listening. But for my sponsor, that feeling of quiet meditation comes through prayer.

I remember reading once that prayer is a form of meditation, and that all religious faiths practice some form of it. Repeating a prayer over and over works something like a mantra, and so saying a rosary, for example, could be one form of meditation.

The way I learned to meditate is called “mindfulness meditation.” Mostly, it involves paying attention to my breath. I like to begin with a few prayers. I find prayer centers my mind, so it’s more willing to quiet down. Then I focus on my breathing.

There are several variations I’ve been taught, and I find it’s good to mix them up. My mind reacts better when I don’t do the same thing all the time. The simplest method is to focus on the sensation of my breath where it enters my body through my nose.

A variation on the same idea is to follow my breath as it travels into my lungs and back out, noticing even that the air is dry and cool on the way in, but returns warmed and moist. Or to I say to myself “I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out.”

Another method is to focus on an idea, say, “serenity” and to imagine that I am breathing in serenity with every breath. Or I might imagine that I am breathing in serenity and breathing out stress and anxiety.

Of course, thoughts come. But I try to take note of them and release them without attaching. When I realize my mind has grabbed onto an idea and run off down the road with it, I simply remind myself to return to my breathing, without judgment.

When my mind is particularly unruly, I like to imagine myself as a cartoon character sitting serenely at the bottom of a glass of soda. The bubbles rising all around me are my thoughts, and I picture myself simply watching them rise to the surface and break.

Lately, I’ve been trying to spend extra time in prayer and meditation. It’s been so long that my mind is like an unruly child. Even in long periods of meditation, it refuses to quiet down.

Then, one day, it happened. My mind went smooth as glass. I did a body check. Completely relaxed. It was a moment of pure bliss. Ahhhh, I thought. This is it. This is what I’ve been missing. Then it was gone.

It really only qualified as a moment of silence. But what a moment. And I know the more I practice, the more often I will have them and the longer they will be.

So we are off to the land, where I hope to observe several moments of silence in the next few days. There is no internet, so I will not be posting. But I will keep you, my blogging friends, in my thoughts and prayers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Behind the Bars

I had my first prison meeting on Monday night.

The minimum-security dorm I was assigned to reminded me of the Navy, a cross between boot camp and my occupational training school.

My Al-Anon partner and I entered through a security checkpoint into an exercise yard. Inmates were walking or running in twos and threes around the concrete yard. In the center, a small group of women was doing abdominal crunches. Outside the building, a bank of pay phones lined the wall. An inmate stood at one.

Inside, the building was set up in a large bay. A correctional officer sat at the center, surrounded by a square service counter. More inmates sat at tables in the center of the room, playing cards. Bookcases stood along the walls. From a distance, I recognized a green leather-bound “Harvard Classics” series in one. Another bookcase appeared to be filled with romance novels.

Around the edges were open cubicles where the inmates slept. Each cubicle held a bunk and a desk. Some had small TVs. My partner told me the inmates who were “good” could have a TV. All the TVs were on, and a few inmates sat together on beds and talked.

We walked in to a classroom with a whiteboard, white plastic folding tables and red molded plastic chairs. Two women appeared to be studying together. When they saw us, they packed up and left.

Apparently, four inmates regularly attend this meeting. Two didn’t come. One inmate went to check on them. When she came back, she said one wasn’t well and she couldn’t find the other. But she brought someone else who had never been to a meeting.

My meeting partner wanted to encourage the women to conduct their own meetings, so she asked for a volunteer to lead. A woman who was maybe in her mid-50s lead the meeting and picked the topic of “humor” from the index in the daily reader “Courage to Change.”

We read all three pages listed in the index, then opened the meeting up for sharing. I felt pretty confident in the topic. There was a time when I had nothing to say about humor, but these days I could say a lot.

The first inmate shared that she just found out that her mother had died. “She always loved me,” she said. “Well, she was always kicking me out, but then she missed me and I’d have to come back, you know? What are you going to do?”

She was holding it together, she said, but she was sure it would hit her when she got out. She couldn’t be paroled to her mother’s house now, “obviously,” so she would go to a half-way house. She was sure that’s when it would hit her. When she was there at that half-way house without her mother.

The inmate who lead the meeting went next. She shared that her father had killed himself by walking out in front of a recreational vehicle full of people.

For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine what I should share. Somehow, talking about humor no longer felt appropriate. I had no idea how to steer this ship.

My Al-Anon partner went next. She said she was going to share a little on the topic of humor, which she did. Then she shared about when her mother died. How she had nursed resentments against her mother and how, though the program, she was able to forgive her. She brought the topic back to recovery. It was masterful, really, and I felt saved. I was back on very comfortable ground and I shared next in the same way.

The third inmate declined to share, saying she just wanted to listen.

We read another page out of “Courage to Change,” and my Al-Anon partner decided to close the meeting 15 minutes early. “There’s only so much you can do with three people,” she explained when we were outside. “If you let them go on too long, things tend to devolve.”

The prison training manual had said touching inmates was forbidden, so I was surprised and happy when we held hands for the Lord’s Prayer. My Al-Anon partner had brought some copies of “The Forum” with a questionnaire stapled to the front and asked the women to hand them out to try to get more women to attend.

We left the way we came, then headed to another building to sign the visitor’s log and that was it.

I thought about the women all the way home. How prison was both ordinary and extraordinary. About how regardless of our circumstances, we shared many of the same experiences and were all affected by this disease in all the usual ways. I thought of how truly blessed I was to end up on this side of the bars. And to be going home to a husband who loves me.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Thanks for Letting Me Share

When I attended NA meetings with my daughter, the speaker always ended by saying, “Thanks for letting me share.”

I loved this, and was disappointed when I returned home and started attending Al-Anon meetings. Here, the tradition is simply to “pass.” It just didn’t have the same feeling.

For a while, I concluded my shares with, “Thanks for letting me share” anyway. Sometimes I still do.

Back then, I meant, “Thanks for letting me get this off my chest.”

Today, I mean, “Thanks for letting me share your lives, thoughts and feelings. Thanks for letting me share your wisdom, courage and love. Most especially, thanks for letting me share in this amazing fellowship that I have come to love and that may have saved my life.”

Thanks for letting me share.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Faith and Gratitude

Today, my husband and I will meet with our accountant to do our small business and personal taxes. In preparation, I filled out that little booklet the accountant sends out. It was sobering.

This year, my husband and I, combined, earned significantly less than my salary alone at my last newspaper job. I quit that job years ago when our family business was doing well and freelance work was plentiful.

Then the recession hit and decimated both print journalism and our business.

Three years ago, we had enough money to pay cash for a plot of land. This year, the payroll company at our family-owned business didn’t withhold any federal income taxes from my check because I didn’t make enough to warrant it.

I’m not sorry. If I hadn’t quit, I would surely have been laid off by now. And, honestly, I hadn’t realized the extent of the decline of our fortunes. If anything, I have gained a deeper sense of gratitude over the past two years, thanks to the program.

Sure, we had to cut back. We got rid of all non-essential services. We didn’t go out to any swanky restaurants or take vacations. For the past two years, I haven’t bought any new clothes. I used to be a frequent flier at Amazon. The only new books I bought in the last two years came courtesy of a gift certificate I got for Christmas. I can’t tell you how excited it made me.

But I hardly felt impoverished. We entertained at home more. Got acquainted with the 10 cent books at the public library’s Book Barn. I may not have found the latest best sellers, but I discovered books and authors I might never have tried otherwise.

If we needed anything, we eventually found it at the senior center thrift store. And if I may say so, I love my new leather boots all the more because they cost me $2.

The boom years meant we fared better than many people. We are frugal at heart, and don’t like debt. So we didn’t have much debt beyond our mortgage. And the national credit crisis, which hit just as we began building, meant we had to pay for construction of the new house only as we could save the money, so we didn't take on more.

It meant doing much of the work ourselves, and being flexible enough with our vision to take advantage of materials when we found them at fire-sale prices. But we found great satisfaction in doing that.

There was one awkward moment when we ran into a group of people we knew. They said we should all get together for dinner. Yes, we should, we chimed in, then wondered how on earth we would manage that.

Instead of waiting for a dinner invitation, we took the initiative and invited everyone over for a fancy brunch. I made Dutch babies, basically giant, lemon sugar-dusted popovers; baked eggs with spinach and ham; fresh grapefruit and bacon.

But the brunch cost us next to nothing. Flour and eggs are relatively inexpensive, and the only thing we had to buy was the spinach. We had everything else in the pantry or freezer. The grapefruit came fresh-picked from our neighbor’s tree. We handed out bags of lemons from our own. It was a wonderful morning and we both agreed we enjoyed it more than a fancy dinner we couldn’t afford.

We still manage breakfast a couple of times a month at our favorite local restaurant. We split the chicken fried steak. My husband eats the chicken fried, and I eat the eggs and pancake that come with. With milk and coffee the check comes to $12, with a tip.

And if we really want to splurge, there’s a nice little BYOB where we can split an excellent pizza, a couple of salads and the best apple pie in the state. Our check never runs more than $25.

Sometimes the business felt tenuous. Once, we’ve had to collect outstanding debt to make payroll. But we’ve always found the money when we needed it. We’ve sold some things, but we didn’t need them anyway. They were easy to let go.

Our lives still feel rich. We still have our home. And we have each other. Every day, I thank God for what we have. It’s my take on a gratitude list. Every day that list grows longer. And every day I refuse to live in fear because today I have faith, and a program. I may not always follow it exactly, but I have it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Coat of Many Colors

I read that in interviews that the French writer Romain Gary often told a story about a chameleon being put on a succession of different-colored cloths. The chameleon changed color effortlessly until it ended up on Scotch plaid and went insane.

I thought it sounded like a good allegory for how I got to Al-Anon.

I always had a hard time relating to people who shared about people pleasing. I couldn’t even relate to the term. PP sounded like something you trained young kids to do on the toilet.

Surely, I was too selfish to fall into that category. I thought of myself first. Made sure I got my needs met. Had this whole self-care routine. The only person I tried to please was myself.

Until I met a man.

When I met a man, I was all about what he liked. If he liked to two-step, I liked to two step. If he liked to drink beer, I liked to drink beer. If he read science fiction, I read science fiction.

I came across a line in a book recently that reminded me of this. It said, “I’m a vacuum filled with the folks I’m with.”

For a long time, I didn’t even see that I was doing this. Then, when I did, I didn’t see it as people pleasing, because I believed I did it because I wanted to.

It never lasted, of course. Eventually, I would resent the target of my affections for “making me” give up everything I enjoyed. Then I would swing 180 degrees the other way and insist that everything be my way. I’d pick fights to sabotage the relationship or just break things off and move on.

No doubt, I left a lot of bewilderment in my wake. Because no one ever asked me to give up a single thing. It was all me.

I even did this with my husband, with whom I’ve had the longest-lasting, most healthy relationship of my life.

When I think of the things I used to do to please him early in our marriage, I think I must have been insane. Once a week, on a weeknight, we hosted a dinner party for six or eight. I was working full-time, of course. I would go to the grocery store on my lunch hour and buy provisions, then come home and prepare elaborate, made-from-scratch meals because I thought everything had to be perfect, homemade and awe-inspiring.

We had beautiful gardens, both front and back, filled with potted flowers that had to be watered and deadheaded twice a day. I spent about two hours a day on the gardens. I did enjoy them, but they wore me out. My husband would tell people that the gardens were a lot of work, but I didn’t seem to mind doing it. I’d just smile.

I watched TV at night because my husband did, even though I preferred to read.

I did everything around my husband's schedule. If he got up earlier than usual, I cut my exercise routine short to accommodate him. God forbid if he had to wait five minutes for me to be ready. If he did, I was all apologies. When I started going to Al-Anon, I tried to arrange my schedule so it would not affect his.

Little by little, I re-claimed my life. I learned I didn’t have to say yes to everything. I began to say, “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have 10 people for a dinner party this Tuesday.” But sometimes we have two people, or four, we know well, for a casual dinner.

I do enjoy hosting a really fine dinner party on occasion, maybe once or twice a year. But I no longer feel I need to make every dinner a big production. I’ve learned to keep things simple. In fact, this is what my husband always advocated.

We now have fewer flowers and more plants, all on a drip system.

The table next to my spot on the couch now has a lamp, so when my husband watches TV, I can read.

Now, when my husband wakes up early, I don’t cut short my routine. I don’t even know whether he’s up or not. I shut the door to the exercise room. I do what I need to do, then I come down for breakfast. Sometimes he waits for me. But I try not to keep him waiting too long.

Today, instead of having everything my own way, I try to meet him in the middle. Neither of us gets our way entirely. But we both get our needs met. We’ve settled into our life together. It’s a good life, and we are happy.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Oh Lord, It's Hard to be Humble....

The topic at my home-group meeting last night was humility.

We said all the things about humility that you expect to hear at meetings. That it's not about being a doormat. That it's about being right-sized. That it's the opposite of pride.

We said it's our egos that get in the way of humility. And fear. And the walls we build around ourselves as protection to make ourselves look impenetrable and tough.

But here's the thing no one says: How does one get humble? What does one do, exactly?

Early in Al-Anon, I used to wonder that a lot. I knew I was a prideful. I wanted to be humble. I really did. In meetings I'd always admit that humility was something I needed to work on. I just didn't know how.

Last night made me think about what I'd learned since then.

Before Al-Anon, humility was something I got when life laid me low. Even before I believed in God, I could see that the difficult times I'd experienced ultimately served some purpose. Lying with my face in the mud, I'd wonder what lesson I was supposed to be learning.

Once, I remember thinking that I couldn't see what possible purpose my unhappiness would serve except to show me that life had been a little too good for a little too long. I'd gotten cocky. I thought I'd figured things out. This was a leveler intended to bring me down to size.

And it worked. I got a whole lot more compassion for people.

When I came to Al-Anon. That was the sum of my experience with humility.

In Al-Anon, no one said, "This is how you get humility." But they did say this:

Pray on your knees.

I fought this for a long time. What difference did it make if I prayed on my knees or on my head? Couldn't God hear my just as well?

But I was taught that we pray on our knees not for God's sake but for ours. Kneeling is the position of humility. I can't be defiant on my knees. I can't be a miss know-it-all. And if I can admit I don't know all the answers, I become teachable. I can accept the guidance of a higher power in my life.

That was lesson 1.

Lesson 2 came in working my fourth step. I came away from that with a whole new perspective on my life. I could see the times in my life that I was wrong. Where God was trying to steer me, but I insisted on doing things my way. I saw clearly the damaged I caused. That was humbling.

Then there was my ninth step. I had to go to people and admit I was wrong. Even the alcoholics and other people I felt had harmed me. I had to say those words. I. Was. Wrong. Humbling. Very. Humbling.

Service can be humbling, too. Especially when you see someone in truly dire circumstances walk through them with dignity and grace.

This is what I've learned about humility.

I've also learned you can loose it. Things can to too well for too long. I can still think I've got it all figured out.

I finished working the steps in June. My sponsor had said in about a month we'd start again, with another fourth step. Then she decided to put it off until my Al-Anon birthday in April. Meanwhile, I should settle in to my recovery.

And it's been great. It's given me the opportunity to explore different ways of being of service. But I realized last night that I'm losing my humility. Things have been going pretty well for me. I admit I've been feeling like I've got things figured out. I begin to think I've been running on my own steam and not the grace of God.

I think that's why I've been "off-kilter" as Garnet put it. Technobabe had me pegged. I got to a certain place in my recovery and got a little too comfortable.

I need to start working the steps again. I plan to tell my sponsor that I'm ready to start my next fourth step. This time, I'm want to get on my knees voluntarily. Before life puts me there.

Hubby and I are off to the land. No TV, no internet, so no posting. Meanwhile, take care my friends. I'll see you all in a few days.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Right Stuff

In watching the terrific slideshow Lou posted the link to, another slideshow caught my attention. This one on adult children of alcoholics.

It was my daughter that got me to Al-Anon, so that was my initial focus. But over the past year or so, I’ve been more and more interested in the specific ways alcoholism affects those of us who grew up in this disease.

Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters much from a recovery perspective. The longer I’m in the program, the more I understand that we all get affected the same way, regardless of how we got here.


So I watched this slide presentation and realized they had me pegged. Even the part about me not realizing what I was doing in my relationships. Working the steps is what made me finally realize what was wrong with me. It helped me to see my patterns.

There’s a lot of good information in this slide show. But one thing really got my attention. It was this: Sometimes people in recovery need professional help beyond Al-Anon. And when they do, it’s important to find a therapist who specializes in substance abuse.

The presentation pointed out that psychologists and psychiatrists have specialties, just like medical doctors. A therapist who isn’t well versed with the dynamics of substance abuse might conclude: “You are depressed.” Or, “You have some anxiety.”

Well, duh. Those are symptoms of our disease, and many of us have them to varying degrees. The presenter goes on to say that without addressing the underlying issue, we become like a hamster on a wheel, going round and round and not getting anywhere.

That was certainly my experience, when I had counseling as a teenager. After I tried to commit suicide by swallowing a handful of sleeping pills, the psychiatrist I had been seeing insisted I was not abusing drugs. I was, in a big way. My mom knew this and he didn't believe it.

It’s also been my experience with my daughter. I practically went bankrupt paying for psychologists, psychiatrists, psychological testing and hospital admissions.

None of them did her a bit of good, as far as I can tell.

Looking back, I’m shocked by how few of these professionals even considered substance abuse as either the problem or a contributing factor. Much of the advice these professionals gave was in direct conflict with what I’ve learned in Al-Anon. They gave me license to enable. They made me feel good about it.

I came to Al-Anon convinced that my daughter had a mental illness that made her incapable of taking care of herself. I thought her care would be my burden for life. I see now that all I did to “help,” hurt her.

I was in the program for several months when it struck me like a lightening bolt that she was behaving like an addict.

Joining Al-Anon was the best thing I ever did for my daughter. It’s been more helpful than all of that expensive therapy put together.

And it cost me a voluntary contribution of $1 a meeting.

That said, I also believe that, for some people, a 12-step program isn’t enough. I have sponsees who struggle with bipolar disorder and depression. They need medication and counseling in addition to what Al-Anon can offer.

And that’s where the advice in the slide presentation comes in. If I were to need professional help, for myself or someone close to me who has been affected by this disease, experience with the family dynamics of substance abuse would be one of the first qualifications I would look for in a therapist.