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.