Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Au Revoir, Farewell

And so we come to the end.

I’ve thought and prayed about this for some time. Since I started this blog, my work has picked up dramatically. As I was leaving for the land on Friday, an editor e-mailed with two assignments needing a quick turn around. With these, I have five stories due by May 15. In December, having so many deadlines at once seemed like a fluke. Now, it’s beginning to feel like the new normal. After two lean years, that’s a huge blessing. But it takes a lot of my time.

My Al-Anon commitments have also increased. When I began blogging, I was just beginning to get involved in service. Today, I have five sponsees, prison service and Alateen commitments in addition to my committed meetings. That’s a blessing, too. Nothing has helped me to grow more in this program than being of service to others.

This blog, too, has helped me grow in recovery. When I was blogging every day, I felt like I was attending a large, dynamic, daily Al-Anon meeting. Picking a topic and sharing on it helped to crystalize my thoughts and sometimes revealed thoughts I didn’t realize I had. Visiting all of your blogs brought other topics to the forefront of my consciousness. Your comments and encouragement have fed me. In many ways, blogging kept me more on the beam than anything else I have done.

But more and more, I struggle to post even once a week. It’s harder still to return visits to all of you who have been kind enough to leave comments. What’s more, I find myself wanting to post on a topic only to remember that I’ve blogged about it before. I have this picture in my head of an old woman staying too late at the party, repeating stories that the other guests have heard too many times, chattering away as one then another of the guests make their excuses and leave. There is art, I think, in knowing when to go home.

There are plenty of other bloggers who are able to keep their blogs fresh year after year and sometimes I think I should be able to do so, too. But my program has taught me that comparing myself to others is not helpful. I am simply not them.

I’ve titled this blog post au revoir rather than goodbye. I do so with a nod to an early college professor of mine, Mr. Cousins, who taught English Literature. He was one of my most frustrating teachers, because no matter how hard I tried I could not get an A in his class. No matter how hard I pored over “Ode to A Grecian Urn” or “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” dissecting each piece of literature line by line, I always missed the nuances.

For the life of me I can’t think of the name of the story I’m thinking of. But I remember clearly the final irony. It was the story’s last words: au revoir. I had taken French and so I thought I understood what the phrase means. I understood it to be synonymous with goodbye. Not so, Mr. Cousins had said. The phrase, more precisely, means until we meet again. And it was that nuance that leant irony to the ending.

And so I say au revoir. Because life is long and much can happen, and for all I know God may have other plans for me. I have seen other bloggers quit only to return a short time later. I don’t believe in closing doors. At least not anymore.

Not long ago, I learned from a fellow classmate that Mr. Cousins had died. I was sorry to hear it. For all my frustrations with him, and they were many, Mr. Cousins got me to think. He taught me things that I remember to this day. And so I titled this post as I did also in the hope that even if I never return to the blogosphere, some little thing I wrote here may have resonated and become a part of your story, too.

The other half of my title is what I hope for you. That whatever life and God as you understand God has in store for you, that you, dear friends, fare well.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Three-Mile Rest Stop

This weekend, I very quietly, very privately marked my third Al-Anon birthday.

For me, it’s one of those milestones, like the three-mile rest stop at the Grand Canyon. A place where I allow myself to rest for a few minutes and look back at how far I’ve come before continuing on my way.

The three-mile rest stop is actually a pretty good analogy because whether you are headed up or down, it’s possible to look back and feel you’ve accomplished quite a lot. At the same time, looking ahead, you are reminded of how far you still have to go. And so it is with me today.

I have settled into my hike. The initial effort of placing a body at rest into motion has passed. But I’m not tired yet. Old injuries have not flared up. My joints do not ache. I do not long for an extended rest. I have found my rhythm and it feels good.

This time last year, the going was harder. I hadn’t heard from my daughter for more than a month. Her last e-mail to me was that she was on a waiting list for a homeless shelter and she could see how people turn to prostitution.

My granddaughter was in foster care.

My work had dried up completely. My husband laid off an employee for the first time ever and the future of his business seemed uncertain. An IRS audit was not going well.

It was the first real test of my faith since I’ve been in this program.

It is a testament to this program that I could see God’s hand in all of it.

I was in no position financially to help my daughter as I once would have, even if I thought it was a good idea, which by then I didn’t. And I had no way to reach her. No phone number. No address. I could only send as encouraging a message to her via e-mail as I could muster, and pray. So that’s what I did.

Another month went by. Mothers Day came and went without a word. When I finally did hear from her, she had been sober for 50 days.

At the end of this March, she celebrated her first anniversary in AA. My granddaughter is back home.

As for me, I have so much work that I worry about meeting all my deadlines. My husband worries about hiring. We discovered an accounting error that accounts for the IRS’s concerns and are optimistic about an appeal.

Life is very good. But also very different.

The tough times changed us. We got through the lean times by selling things. We are still selling things. Only now, it feels like we are shedding the things we have outgrown or no longer need.

Our life is in transition. As we spend more and more time up at the land, we find we need less and less. Our city house is emptying, and eventually we will shed that, too.

It’s more than just the material possessions. It’s what they stand for. We are shedding a whole way of living in the world, old patterns of thought and behavior.

A dozen or so years ago, I had this dream of what my life would be. These days, I try not to have such dreams because they lead to expectations. And when I have expectations, I can’t always see the trail God has put before me.

Still. From my perspective of the three-mile rest stop, I look back and recall I had this dream. I was living in New Hampshire, so the setting for my dream was New England. My dream looked like this: I lived in a house I had designed. It was powered by solar panels and water was supplied by a well. Large picture windows looked out over a meadow. There was a barn in which I taught writing. I lived near a small town and supported myself as a writer. I had no debt. I was married and was happy.

At the time, the only part of this dream that was true is that I was living in New England. Today, the only part of the dream that is not true is that I am not living in New England.

True, our barn is an old tin thing that is missing most of its roof. It is not fit for storage, let alone teaching. But I did teach writing for many years so I do not feel unfulfilled on that score.

And our house is not perfect. We made mistakes. We learned along the way. But we built it with our own hands and we love it. To us, it has its own kind of integrity.

The funny thing is that my husband is the last person on earth I would have expected to share this dream of mine. I thought by marrying him I was accepting a very different kind of life. But it seemed the life God had put before me.

So here I am settling into the life I dreamed about all these years ago and it turns out my husband has been the driving force for all of it. And after some initial resistance on my part (yes, unaccountably, it’s true) I’ve climbed happily on board.

Isn’t life funny?

I got into recovery as we started building this house and there are so many parallels. Technobabe once told me of a book called “Building a Home with My Husband.” It was a memoir.

For years, I played with the idea of writing my own. I just didn’t know what story it was I was trying to tell. What the point was. Until now, my life had been all crisis with no resolution. Now, finally, it feels it has begun to take shape and form.

I guess you can say that now I’ve written my memoir. Only I call it my fourth step. I have no desire to publish any of it. But writing is how I make sense of things and I guess I instinctively knew at some lever I had to write out my life to begin to make sense of it.

In the process of taking that step and each step that came after, the path emerged from the mist. I’ve made it through a muddy stretch and found a resting spot with a beautiful view. There is quite a lot of trail ahead. An imposing bit of trail called the devil’s corkscrew is still to come. I know that, but for now it does not matter. I will tackle it when I get there. At this moment, I have taken nourishment and water. I feel rested and ready to move on.

I’ll see you down the trail.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Blind Faith

At a meeting recently, the chairperson shared this prayer. Several people were familiar with it and what was funny was that every one of those people thought someone they knew in recovery made it up.

It is, nonetheless, a good prayer because it so perfectly captures the fumbling in the dark feeling that we all feel from time to time in recovery. I offer it here as a gift, in the hope that it might give you comfort the next time you feel a little lost:

Dear God,

I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself. And the fact that I think I am following your will noes not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe this: I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. I hope I have that desire in everything I do. I hope I never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it at the time.

Therefore I will trust you always for though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not be afraid because I know you will never leave me to face my troubles alone.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

What The Grand Canyon Taught Me About Recovery

I’ve just completed my last planned hike in the Grand Canyon: my third in the past year.

Each hike was different. I've hiked from the North Rim and the South. I’ve hiked in and out on the same day, camped overnight and stayed in a dormitory at Phantom Ranch.

I’ve hiked in summer when it was over 100 degrees at the bottom, and in spring after snow had fallen the night before on the Rim. I’ve hiked in various levels of fitness. And I've talked to a lot of people about their experiences.

On this trip, it took me eight hours to hike out from Phantom Ranch. That’s a long time to think. And what I thought about was the lessons I had learned and how they apply to my journey in recovery. I call it “12 Steps on the Trail to Serentiy” or “What the Canyon Taught Me About Recovery.”

1. "The Canyon is in charge," a 20-year volunteer told me. "First and foremost, you have to respect that. But it also gives you things to survive. It gives you the river. It gives you shade.”

That reminds me that I’m powerless. There is a power greater than myself who is in charge. But that Higher Power gives me things. It’s up to me to recognize and use those gifts.

2. The journey has been more or less difficult, and more or less enjoyable depending on my level of fitness.

I enjoyed hiking the Grand Canyon much more when I was physically fit. The hike felt less arduous and I was better able to focus on the beauty that surrounded me. When I wasn’t in good shape, all my energy had to go toward getting out with as little damage to myself as I could manage.

In recovery, the same is true of my level of spiritual fitness. The going is easier and more enjoyable when I’m prayed up, meeting’d up, sponsored up.

3. It’s helpful to have a guide. Consult with people who have gone before you.

In recovery, my guide is my sponsor and other longtimers in the program. As my sponsor is fond of saying: “If you want to have what I have, you have to do what I do.”

4. It’s easier if you take the right tools. But remember to use them.

The same volunteer recounted a story about a couple in the advanced stages of heat exhaustion. They had plenty of water, but they hadn’t been drinking it. They were afraid if they used it, they wouldn’t have it when they needed it.

In recovery, my tools include the steps, slogans and Just for Todays. But they don’t do me any good in my backpack. I need to apply them.

5. If you don't want to get trampled, yield the trail to the mules. Try not to step in the piss they deposit in their wake. There will be puddles. Just accept it.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can make the journey alone, but it’s easier and more pleasant when you have company.

7. Don't feed the squirrels. When you do, they become aggressive and dependent.

This is also true of doing things for alcoholics and addicts that they should do for themselves.

8. Focus on what’s in front of you. And don't worry about all the things that might go wrong. When things do go wrong, it’s never what you expect.

On this hike, I worried about a foot I had injured recently. My foot was fine. It was my knee that gave me trouble. I could almost hear God laughing. I can't possibly know what's ahead and most of the things I have worried about in my life have never happened. It's better to enjoy what's happening in this moment.

9. When you get discouraged, it’s helpful to glance over your shoulder to see how far you’ve come. Just don’t linger too long. If you’re looking back, you’re not moving forward.

10. The journey is easier and a lot more fun when you stop to rest.

I learned this on my first Canyon hike from a laminated tip sheet at a ranger station. Most hikers are afraid that stopping to rest will slow them down. The opposite is true. Resting for 10 minutes every hour allows your body to clear itself of the waste products that build up in your legs and make them feel tired.

When I read this, the slogan “Easy Does It” came to mind. I realized my habit in hiking, as in all things, was to simply plod through, no matter how tired I felt. I started practicing “Easy Does It” in my daily life. And I found it to be true. Easy got it done. And I enjoyed myself much more.

11. Be courteous to others on the trail and don’t judge others for their path. We’re all doing the best we know how. Insisting on the right of way never made anyone happy.

I learned this lesson on a training hike. I was headed uphill and two young girls were headed down. Being the one headed uphill I kept my head down and stuck to the path I was on, presuming they would yield the right of way. One didn't, but stopped directly in my way. "Excuse me," she said, annoyed. "Uphill has the right of way," I said equally annoyed, and went on my way.

"Sheesh," I heard her say as I passed. "If I'm already on the right side of the trail, where am I supposed to go?"

For a non-hiker, thinking that traffic should stay on the right was a reasonable conclusion. Yet I was annoyed. It bugged me all day. Because I was right, damn it. Wasn't I?

The next day I read an article in the paper about aggressive walkers. The expert quoted talked about those who stuck their heads down and ignored all the other people around them. He talked about others, who held to some belief that there were rules that were supposed to be followed. "Who knows where they get these ideas," he said. It stung. I was wrong and I knew it.

I had spoiled a nice hike and much of the rest of my day thinking about this girl and how right I was. Maybe I ruined hers, too. I could almost hear my sponsor say: "Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?"

12. The undertaking is hard, but it's worth the effort. Be generous in sharing what you’ve learned, especially when you encounter those who are just starting out.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Heading out... of my Mind?

A friend forwarded this cartoon to me along with a whole bunch of Maxine cartoons. Of course I seized on this one....

I'm off to the bottom of the Grand Canyon for my third story assignment there in less than a year. I injured my foot several weeks ago, and it's better but still not 100 percent. So I haven't trained as I normally would--by hiking. Instead, I've been working on the eliptical trainer because it doesn't bend my foot, which isn't the same. So this trip feels a little mad.

But only a little. Honestly, I think I'm in better shape than when I made my first hike. And I'll pack my tools along with my gear. I'll be taking along my HP, of course. I'll remember Easy Does It. I will save myself from two pests, hurry and indecision. And I won't be afraid to ask for help, if I need it.

Of course, I'm packing Advil and ace wraps, too. So keep me in your thoughts and prayers. I'll return your visits as soon I'm able upon my return. Till then, take good care.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cunning, Baffling

Every now and then, someone wanders into the rooms of Al-Anon at the suggestion of a friend, relative or counselor. They didn’t grow up with active alcoholism, but something is wrong and they’re willing to take their friend’s suggestion because they’re not sure what else to do.

For some reason they can relate to many of the people who share. Maybe they feel a little better by the end of the meeting. For whatever reason, they come back. For a long time, they still may not think alcoholism is their problem.

If they come long enough, more is revealed. I have seen this happen. They learn about an alcoholic grandparent who died before they were born, say. Or some equally obscure seeming connection. It hardly seems it could have anything to do with the problem at hand. Or could it?

Alcoholism is a family disease. I heard that for the first time when my mom found her way, briefly, to AA. I had no idea what that meant, and if she explained it to me I don’t recall. Later, when I learned more about alcoholism, I thought it meant that the disease was genetic because it tends to run in families. And that much is true.

I’ve heard it said that alcoholism can skip a generation. And I believe that is true of active alcoholism. But today I don’t believe the disease is dormant in those “skipped” generations. I think it just goes underground.

Al-Anons are good secret keepers. Once, I heard someone share that her husband bought a car that didn’t run and had it towed to their home rather than admit their car had been repossessed. Another’s mom stopped to buy her new clothes on the way to school because none of the ones she owned were clean.

We learn to paint the fence white.

So maybe Grandpa’s drinking was so shameful that it didn’t get discussed. Instead, Mom or Dad, believing that alcohol was to blame for all their problems growing up decided that they would shield their children from the effects of alcoholism by banning alcohol from their home. But even in a sober home, the behaviors remained. Active alcoholism may have been replaced by workaholism, perfectionism, eating disorders or depression.

Even though they wanted nothing more than to do better for their kids, they passed along those isms that are so common in families of alcoholics. But alcohol was never discussed. So the kids grew up knowing something was wrong. They just didn’t know what it was.

Even as an adult child of two alcoholics, I didn’t know what the problem was. I knew I didn’t get “the manual.” I didn’t learn the social skills that “normals” take for granted.

My response to growing up in an alcoholic home was to retreat into myself. I read. I lead an active fantasy life in which I was loved and popular, and my life was perfect. I learned to enjoy my own company.

Though I didn’t develop the compulsion to drink, in my own way, I became emotionally unavailable.

Even knowing about the alcoholism in my family of origin, I didn’t make the connection. I know there was some pattern of failure in my relationships, but I didn’t know what it was. A friend of mine related a “Seinfeld” episode in which Elaine tries to figure out what all her failed relationships have in common and can come up with nothing. They next scene, all her former boyfriends appear together in an AA meeting.

I thought about this. Took inventory. Was sure that wasn’t the case for me. Not all of my failed relationships were with alcoholics. But my friend suggested I attend Al-Anon, and I went. I loved it, but at every meeting I felt compelled to explain that even though I was no longer living with alcoholism I really did belong there because of my childhood. I couldn’t see that alcoholism was behind my current troubles because I thought I had left that behind. Eventually I stopped going.

It took my daughter’s alcoholism and addiction to bring me back to Al-Anon. This time I stayed long enough to discover that all those personality quirks that I thought were just how I was “wired,” were, in fact the result of this disease.

Today, I can see that all my boyfriends may not have been alcoholics, but they were all emotionally unavailable. And they all had alcoholism in their families.

By the time I understood all this, the damage I did as a parent was already done. My daughter did not grow up with active alcoholism, but she was affected by the disease. Even though I wanted more than anything to be a different kind of parent to my daughter, I couldn’t pass on what I never got.

I don’t kid myself that had I found recovery earlier, my daughter would not be an addict/alcoholic. I know I didn’t cause the disease. And I don’t believe I can arrest or eradicate it, even in recovery.

But I can have awareness. I can learn tools. In a sense, I got “the manual” in recovery. I don’t get to decide not to have this disease. I have to accept that. But I can manage my disease just as I might manage diabetes with diet and exercise. I don’t have to lose a limb to this disease. It doesn’t have to kill me.

I can also talk about what I’ve learned. I can share my story so when that bewildered newcomer walks in the door, they don’t have to feel they are the only one who feels the way they do.

I can tell them they belong. I can tell them to keep coming back. Just as I wished someone had told me.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Crazy? Me?

Here's something my sponsor is fond of saying:

People generally agree that the alcoholic is running full-speed away from reality.

And I'm running full-speed after him (or her).

So I ask you: Which one of us is crazier?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Comparing Apples to Oranges

The topic of a recent meeting was self-esteem.

The chairperson covered a lot of ground with a number of different readings. But the one I seized on was the trouble with making comparisons. That comparing myself to others contributes to a distorted sense of self.

Seeing myself as “less than” or “greater than” is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Apples and oranges are both fruits. But they have different properties. Each has its own best use.

An orange would taste terrible sprinkled with cinnamon and baked in a crust. That doesn’t mean the orange is bad. It means I’ve misused it.

Maybe I’m an apple and you’re an orange. There’s little benefit in comparisons because we’re just different, each with our own purpose and best use.

But most importantly, when I compare myself with others, I’ve taken the focus off myself. I’m taking another person’s inventory, and that never leads me anywhere I want to go.

It’s hard, though, not to do it. For me, comparing feels as natural as breathing.

One of the most helpful tools I’ve found to address the issue of comparisons is the 4 Cs inventory.

For six months, I carried a notebook around with me divided into four sections. Every time I found myself Comparing, Condemning, Criticizing or Complaining I had to write it in this notebook under the appropriate tab. I had to do this whether I said it out loud or just thought it.

In doing this, it was important that I did not judge myself or try not to think or feel whatever I was thinking or feeling. I simply was to record it with the detachment of a scientist.

The results were fascinating.

As with any inventory, a picture began to emerge. Patterns became clear. But also, as with every inventory I’ve taken in this program, in the midst of recording I began to change.

The change was not as a result of trying to change my behavior, it seemed to just happen.

Which reminded me of a different type of inventory I did years ago.

I came across the book “Your Money or Your Life.” It was about how to manage personal finances. But the authors didn’t believe in budgets because, they said, they simply don’t work.

We make up a budget, try to stick to it. Inevitably we fail. Then we berate ourselves by heaping on shame and guilt.

It doesn’t work.

There is more to it than this, but the heart of the system was to record every penny I spent. I was not to judge myself or try to change. I was simply to record.

At the end of each month, I would crunch the numbers. I spent this much on food, rent, books, movies, clothes, whatever.

For each of these categories, I had to calculate how many hours of my life I had traded for each of these things and I had to assign each a value. I had to say whether I got so much enjoyment out of that thing, I was willing to invest even more of my life to it. Or if I didn’t find it worth it. Or if it was just about right.

I didn’t do anything with this information. I just kept recording it, month after month.

When I started this process, I was struggling with my finances. I wrote down my expenses on paper. I had housing, a car payment, insurance, childcare. These expenses seemed fixed. I couldn’t see any flexibility.

Yet, when I did this exercise, I found my spending behavior began to change, seemingly without any effort on my part.

Though I wasn’t making much, I starting saving about half of what I earned. I found ways to economize, and the solutions turned out to be things I never considered before.

I planted a garden. Tapped maple trees for syrup. Foraged for wild blueberries. I made almost everything I could from scratch, including business stationery and envelopes using high-quality paper samples the local paper mill gave away. I moved from the city to a rural area, where housing was also less expensive.

I eliminated my childcare expense entirely by working from home. That involved a career change. But it was a change I got the courage to make because I had figured out how to live on very little.

These were my solutions, of course. Different people would find different solutions. That’s the beauty of it. The point wasn’t to get me to believe or behave in a certain way. The point was for me to find my own way. To align my spending with my own values. When I did, I became happier. Literally, my whole life changed.

And that’s why this process reminds me not only of the 4C’s inventory but of the whole process of recovery. It’s not about getting me to adopt a certain belief. It’s about getting me to align my behavior with my own values.

I could not change myself, my thoughts or my feelings through self will any more than I could control my finances by trying to stick to a budget.

But if I took the suggestions and observed my behaviors with the detachment of a scientist, without judging myself, change seemed to come of its own accord. As with the money exercise, I began to behave in ways that were more aligned with my values.

Of course, in recovery, the higher power I call God is involved in my change. But then I believe it was God who lead me to this book when I was ready to hear that message.

When I became willing to give up my self will, solutions came in forms that never occurred to me before.

Recovery has been every bit as life changing as that financial exercise. Today I know I don’t have to worry about how far I’ve come, how far I have to go or how I compare to others.

My internal barometer is stronger. I’m less susceptible to applause and condemnation.

I won’t say I never make those comparisons or that I don’t sometimes feel “less than” or “greater than.” I’m only human.

But when I do, I try not to berate myself or vow to do better. I know that old beating stick doesn’t work.

I just have to remember that if I do my part, if I continue to do the things that I’ve been taught to do in this program, change will come. And it will be easier than I ever imagined.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How Much do I Love Thee? Let Me Tell You...

The topic of my Valentines Day meeting was love and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

What I have known for a while now is that before I came into this program, I had no idea what love was. I confused love with obsession. And it was all bound up with expectation.

That’s been true of my relationship with my daughter, who is my alcoholic. And it’s been equally true of my romantic relationships.

In terms of my daughter, I thought my constant worry about her and what she was or was not doing was proof of love. I see now that was not love. It was obsession.

That I was willing to do anything—anything—to get her to do what I considered the right thing was further evidence in my mind. But that was expectation.

I had a picture in my head of what a daughter was supposed to be like. All my efforts went into trying to mold her into that image. To get her to do what I wanted her to do.

I can see now that both my obsession and expectation were just forms of self-centeredness because it was all about me.

If I could get my daughter to conform to my standards, than I would feel more comfortable.

If only she… then I could be happy.

If she wouldn’t do whatever it was I wanted, I let her know she had disappointed me. In effect, I withheld my love. I would not have admitted that at the time, because I could not see it myself. But my love was conditional.

One problem with having expectations is that they keep me from seeing what’s in front of me.

My husband is a good example. I had a picture in my mind of the perfect man. I had, in fact, a list.

It was a short list. There were only five items on it. But it was rigorous. And I measured every potential suitor against it. One day, I would meet my perfect “five.” Then my life could begin.

If only… then…

Guided by my list, I had one volatile, obsessive relationship after another.

I've been an excitement junkie since I was a kid, and I loved roller coasters. The bigger, the faster, the scarier the better. And when I got older, I picked the men who would put me on an emotional equivalent. The biggest, fastest, scariest of them were the ones that triggered my grandest obsessions. Those were the men I thought I loved the most.

I hated the lows. But the highs! They were so high! And that stomach-in-your-mouth feeling as the car began to plunge! Oh!

Because I had an expectation of what my perfect man would be, I failed to see the man who would be my husband. He did not possess a single characteristic on my list. He did not put me on the roller coaster. So my heart did not see him.

Though I had not yet found Al-Anon, while I was getting to know my husband I was beginning to experience a spiritual awakening. In a very Al-Anon moment, I threw away my list and prayed for God to send me the man he would have for me.

I opened my heart, and there, clear as day, was my husband.

That isn’t to say that I don’t continue to let expectations get in my way. Only today I can more often see them for what they are.

Take Valentine’s Day. It just so happened to be the day we had scheduled the final inspection on the house we’ve been building. So my husband can be forgiven for being distracted. Still.

There were roadside stands selling mylar balloons. We purposely avoided the restaurant we normally visit at least once each trip on the night we knew they were serving their Valentines menu. When we went to lunch there on Sunday, the owner sent us out a complimentary dessert—for Valentine’s Day.

Even so, on Monday, when my husband got up and found the card I had propped up against his cup, he said, “Oh!” in surprise.

“I didn’t think about it being Valentine’s Day,” he said. “I thought about it being inspection day.”

I had a choice. I could let my expectations about what I thought a husband is supposed to do on Valentines Day fuel my disappointment.

If I had, I might not have thought about the feeling I had just before I got up, when my husband wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in close. And how when he did, I felt safe and loved.

If I had, I would have let that disappointment cast a pall over the much-anticipated day we did, in fact, pass our final inspection on the home we had been working on for the past three years. And isn't building a home together the very essence of love? Is it not way better than a card?

I thought so.

Perhaps because my daughter is my alcoholic, most of my early work in this program involved my relationship with her. I had to learn to detach. I began to see that her choices didn’t have to affect me. I never understood that before.

I thought because I’m her mother, what she does it my business. I thought because she’s my daughter, I’m responsible to “repair” whatever she “breaks.” Every time something went wrong in her life, it made me angry because I thought it was one more thing I had to fix.

It was costly and exhausting, and to my diseased mind it seemed I cared more about her life than she did.

Why couldn’t she just stop screwing things up? Why did she have to keep making things so hard for everyone around her?

I seethed with resentment.

It was only after I understood that I wasn’t responsible for the consequences of her actions that I began to love her unconditionally. For the first time, I could allow her the dignity of making her own choices. Because for the first time, I understood that I also needed to let her accept the full consequences of those choices.

Then I could love her where she was.

Still, my expectations got in the way. A little more than a year ago, I posted on this blog a dilemma I was facing.

My relationship with my daughter felt very one-sided. I was the one to initiate contact. I called on a regular basis just to see how she was. I sent chocolates at Valentines Day. Peeps at Easter. I gave her cards and gifts on birthdays and Christmases.

And I got…. Nothing. No gifts, no cards, no phone calls. Not on my birthday or Christmas or at any other time. Except when something was wrong or she wanted something and I was tired of it.

“I’m thinking of not calling my daughter on a regular basis,” I told my sponsor.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she snapped back, “Well that’s very selfish of you.”

I was shocked and a little stung. “Why?” I finally managed.

“Because calling our kids is what loving parents do.”

Usually, I accept what my sponsor tells me, even if I don’t like it. In this case, I thought she was wrong.

My husband faced the same situation with his son, so he stopped calling and sending cards and gifts. Then his son came around.

I thought he had the right idea.

I put the question to you readers, and got passionate, heart-felt responses both for and against.

Today I see the question differently, and I understand why my sponsor said what she said.

Sometimes our loved ones are sick and not able to give us the things we think we need from them. It’s the old adage of going to the hardware store for bread. But because they aren’t capable of meeting my expectations, it doesn’t let me off the hook. I still need to do the right thing.

And remembering my daughter on all those special days is just the right thing to do.

It’s what loving mother’s do.

If I were to stop sending cards and gifts in the hope my daughter would “come around,” that’s manipulation.

If I’m disappointed when I send her cards and gifts and she doesn’t reciprocate, that’s expectation. It doesn’t matter whether my expectation is reasonable. If I have an expectation, I have only myself to blame for my disappointment.

What I finally understand is that I have to act lovingly regardless of how the other person responds, or fails to respond. I have to learn to love without expectation. Because that’s what unconditional love means.

Perhaps ironically, just as I’m realizing this, my daughter is beginning to change. Now nearly a year into her own recovery, she calls me on a regular basis. (It turns out, that is her amends to me.) I got a card and some photos this Christmas. And, yes, she called on Valentine’s Day.

At the meeting, the chairperson shared that her husband commutes a great distance every day, and he loves having a clean truck. So whenever she uses the truck, she returns it clean and filled with gas.

It struck me as the perfect example of a loving gesture because it was the opposite of a self-centered act. Cleaning and gassing up the truck gives her no pleasure. But she does it because she imagines it would be the thing he might most appreciate.

If he ever noticed.

He never has. And she hasn't pointed it out.

She put that in the category of “doing someone a good turn and not getting found out.”

I thought that was an interesting interpretation on the Just for Today, and it got me thinking about my own behavior.

My husband loves caramels. So I buy them and mix a few in with the hard candies for him to find every day. But I can’t stand it if he doesn’t say anything. I find a way to not-so-subtly work it into conversation.

When I heard the chairperson share, I realized that I’m still looking for the applause. I want you to recognize and appreciate what I’ve done for you, damn it.

That’s not loving without expectation.

It was disconcerting to me to realize that, as far as I’ve come, I still have a ways to go. And it will require effort, thought and concentration.

So when my husband told me he planned to take a shower in the morning, I got up ahead of him, as I usually do, and turned on the bathroom heater. But what I didn’t do is say, “I got the bathroom nice and warm for you,” as I usually do.

If he noticed, he didn’t mention it.

I just smiled to myself. A small step, maybe, but a start.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Life, The Soap Opera

I have a confession.

I haven’t shared this with many people. I’m afraid they’ll judge me, or at least think of me differently.

But I’ve been taught in this program that I should share freely, even those things that are embarrassing, because you never know who in the room might be carrying around that same secret. Getting a secret out in the open diffuses its power.

So here goes:

Every day, for years, I’ve watched a soap opera.

There. I’ve said it.

It started innocently enough. More than 20 years ago when I was in the Navy, just about everyone in the command watched this particular soap opera, in the duty room, at lunchtime.

I don’t know what it was about this particular soap opera, but it enjoyed a loyal following at every base I was ever stationed.

Even my husband, who was stationed on an all-male ship, watched it. And so did all the men in his department. If I ever had to miss an episode, I knew he could fill me in.

The show starred a set of characters I related to. They were about my age and they struggled with the things I did. They felt like my tribe. And I got hooked. Seriously.

At my final duty station, if anyone happened to be working in the conference room where the TV was located during lunch hour when the show was on, I was beside myself. VCRs were brand new, and I didn’t have one. So if I missed the show, it felt like I missed a part of my life.

But then I left the Navy and took other jobs and didn’t watch the show for nearly 20 years. When I went back to freelancing, I thought about it. But I resisted. If I didn’t watch, I wouldn’t get hooked. I held out for two or three years. Then, well, you know.

It was a lot like coming home. All those characters I related to were still there. Only now they were grown and had grown children, just like me. And they were still dealing with the same issues I was. And mostly that was okay.

Until Annie started getting crazy.

When I started going to Al-Anon meetings, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. I thought my daughter was the one with the problem. I was fine.

I’ve since learned differently, of course. Today, I can see all the ways alcoholism has affected me. I can see how my life was unmanageable.

But every now and then I can see, for the first time, how things really were.

And that’s where my soap opera comes in.

When I say Annie was getting crazy. I don’t mean it in the casual way people often do. I mean crazy as in headed for the mental hospital.

She had been there before. But she’d been out for a while and seemed to be getting her act together. Sort of. After all this is a soap opera.

Then she got involved with a married man. That’s when she started to lose it. Where Annie is headed would be obvious to anyone watching the show for any more than five minutes. She is certifiable.

So I’m watching all this and I’m thinking….

Oh my God. That’s me.

Not today, thank God. But there was a time when I acted an awful lot like crazy Annie.

I wasn’t having hallucinations or fantasies about stabbing anyone with a pair of scissors. But I recognized the obsession, the temper tantrums, the lightning-fast swings of emotion from one extreme to another.

Annie’s behavior reminded me of one relationship in particular. My daughter was still very young. I had been out of my family of origin for years. There were not even any active alcoholics in my life at the time.

And yet I was acting…. crazy.

It was one of those lightbulb moments.

I realized I don’t need an alcoholic in my life to be crazy. I was perfectly capable of doing that all by myself. And I was insane.

Until I watched crazy Annie and saw myself in her behavior, the phrase “restored to sanity” felt more euphemistic than accurate.

I could readily see and acknowledge my defects of character. I could see that they were the result of this disease.

But I didn’t really believe my behavior was insane.

Until now.

“Once you know something you can’t not know it,” my sponsor is fond of saying.

Now I know.

I feel like Scrooge must have felt, having been visited by the ghosts of his past and future. On the next day, Scrooge decided to do what he must to ensure a better future. And so did I.

The good news is that as long as I continue to do the things I’m taught to do in this program—as long as I continue to pray on my knees, attend meetings, take commitments, sponsor others, work steps, talk with my sponsor—by the grace of God, I can have a daily reprieve from the soap opera that used to be my life.

Or I can choose not to.

I’m a good forgetter. When I start to feel better, it’s easy for me to forget what life was like. I can begin to believe I don’t really need this program.

God is a good reminder. He delivers the perfect message in the perfect medium. Preparing myself to receive the message is up to me.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Near the end of a recent Big Book study, we talked about Al-Anonisms, those particular defects of character that tend to come with the disease. Those of us who didn’t already have the list were encouraged to write them in our Big Books.

It started off lightheartedly.

“Sarcasm,” the list reader would say.

“Not me!” someone else would say in mock horror.

“That would take us back to denial….”

We all laughed.

But after a while, I started to wonder if this list had an end. It seemed to go on and on. I was getting tired just hearing it all.

Someone else said what I was thinking.

“There’s still about 10 more,” the list reader said.

By the time she was done, the list included nearly 40 isms. I saw myself in most of them. It felt like a lot to have to carry around.

I overheard two women talking on the way out. One said she didn’t think all those things applied to her.

“Then you must be in denial,” the other said in a tone I took to be sarcasm.

They weren’t laughing.

A dear friend said she thought it was all too much. That people were wallowing in their defects.

“How do you even start to tackle all those things?” she asked. “I prefer to focus on what’s good about myself.”

Then she asked me if I thought I was a good person.

The question stumped me. I didn’t know how to answer. I don’t think the presence or absence of these isms makes me a good person or a bad one. They are just the way this disease of alcoholism affected me.

Though I have long been familiar with these defects, I didn’t always attribute them to alcoholism. I thought they were just my temperament, in my genes, the way I was wired.

The realization that my serious nature, for example, was part of this disease was one of the bigger lightbulb moments I have had in this program.

I considered it good news. It meant that humorlessness wasn’t a fixed part of my personality. It meant I could be restored to good humor along with sanity.

To be able to see myself in this list also felt like good news. To me, it represented awareness I didn’t used to have. Without awareness I can’t change, no matter how many years I spend in the program.

I still find the list fascinating, but I no longer feel burdened by it. I have been taught that if I do the things that have been suggested to me in this program, God will do for me what I can’t do for myself.

I’ve also been taught that I don’t get to choose which defects God removes, or when. In the seventh step prayer, the Big Book doesn’t tell my to pray that God remove isms one through 38.

It suggests that I pray that God remove the defects of character that stand in the way of my usefulness to Him and to my fellows.

Pondering this list, I realized I no longer judge myself for my defects. I accept them. Just as I accept that as long as I continue to do what I’ve been taught to do, as long as I attend meetings, pray on my knees, read Al-Anon literature daily, call my sponsor, work steps, take commitments, and sponsor others—I will get better.

But in God’s time.

And in God’s way.

I believe this because I have gotten better.

I get a daily reprieve from some of my defects to the degree that I remain spiritually fit. Some are still with me, but have faded considerably. They are less a default setting and more a response to stress. Others are still very much with me.

But I don’t worry about them.

As with everything in this program, I can only do my part and let go of the outcome.

We are not bad people, my sponsor is fond of saying. We’re just sick people trying to get better.

Here is the list:

Addiction to excitement, good or bad
Drama queen
Crisis junkie
The need to be right
Vindictiveness/mean spiritedness
Low self-worth/self-esteem
People pleasing
Fear of abandonment
Lack of humor
Power pout/silent scorn
As soon as… yes, but
Explain, explain, explain
Taking hostages
Believing I know best

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Eye Exams and Other Tests

Hubby and I picked up new glasses the other day. It had been two years. During the recession, we didn’t feel we could afford them, but we couldn’t put it off any longer.

I found myself struggling to read the small type in my daily readers in the morning. Working on building our house up at the land had also taken its toll. There was a spot on my left lens that would not come clean. I wiped and wiped but it would not go, and without my glasses on I couldn’t even see what it was.

So once I got through the December deadlines that kept me so busy, Hubby and I decided it was time to take care of the things we had been neglecting. New glasses were at the top of the list.

The salesman at Eyemasters hooted when he looked at my lenses.

“You’ve had some fun in these!” he said.

Yes, I admitted, I had.

When our glasses came in, we went in to have them fitted. The instant the salesman put them on my face, it was like a veil had lifted. I could see! Everything looked crisp and sharp. I marveled over it all evening. Hubby and I went down to the dock to watch the sunset. I felt like I was seeing everything—t he lake, the birds, my husband—for the first time.

With my new glasses on, I looked at my old lenses. They looked cloudy. There were nicks and scratches. On one corner, a film had started to separate from the glass.

My prescription had changed significantly, but looking at the condition of my lenses, I thought, “No wonder I couldn’t see!”

I won’t be the first to say that joining Al-Anon was like getting a new pair of glasses. Through the lens of Al-Anon, I could see things I simply had not been able to see before. Through the lens of Al-Anon, I understood for the first time how significantly my vision had been distorted.

But my new glasses remind me that I also need to check my Al-Anon lenses from time to time. They, too, get old, scratched and cloudy. I need regular check ups.

In my line of sponsorship that takes the form of an annual inventory.

The idea is not universally accepted, of course. There are those who believe that once you’ve worked the steps, regularly practicing steps 10, 11 and 12 is enough. And I’m not saying they are wrong.

But it doesn’t work for me. I need to take a closer look from time to time, and a second set of eyes from my sponsor.

My second fourth step did, indeed, yield fresh insights. It wasn’t as dramatic as when I got my first pair of glasses. More like a prescription adjustment, where everything felt crisper. Something I’d noted on my first fourth step finally made sense. More was revealed.

“You can’t pass a test you haven’t taken,” I heard someone say recently. My inventory is like an annual eye exam. I can measure my changes and adjust my “prescription.” I can see everything come into a little sharper focus.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

Listen and Learn

That was the topic of a recent Al-Anon meeting.

This particular meeting features a slogan or Just for Today once a month. I appreciated this one because it’s a slogan that doesn’t often get much discussion. And I know my Higher Power is working in my life because this is a tool I need.

I have a listening deficit. I never realized this before, but now I can clearly see it’s part and parcel of my disease.

This particular defect of character was aggravatingly brought to my attention about a dozen years ago. I was dating a guy who used to get furious with me because (he said) I always interrupted him when he was talking.

“I do not,” I said, interrupting him to argue the point.

So every time I interrupted him, he’d point it out to me.

“There,” he’d say. “You just interrupted me again.”

It was infuriating. Probably because he was right. My stock response to someone pointing out a defect of mine was to deny or get angry, or both.

If I ever run into this guy again, I need to thank him because made me acutely aware of when I do this.

For a while.

I’ve caught myself doing it again. A lot.

If I’m honest, I will admit to less than honorable reasons for interrupting someone.

Something the other person said reminds me of something and I’m afraid I might forget it by the time they are finished.

I interrupt because I think I have the answer to some problem. Or I think relating my own experience in this area is very, very important to share.

Or I want to demonstrate how smart/educated/sympathetic/right I am.

The common denominator, of course, is me.

“Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles,” the Big Book says. In my line of sponsorship, we read this section out loud as part of our step work. But we change any references to the alcoholic with “I” and references to “drinking” with “thinking.”

Every time I read this with a sponsee, it rings more true. Every time I read this I’m reminded that my disease is just the flip side of the same malady the alcoholic suffers from. We are really not that much different. Our diseases just manifest themselves differently.

The real trouble with all this self-will run riot is that it’s the opposite of humility, and I need to be humble if I am to get better. For without humility, I am not teachable. If I know everything, if I have all the answers, nothing you can say can have any value to me.

Yet, if there is anything I’ve learned in this program, it’s that you never know who your teacher is going to be.

If I am busy formulating my response while you are speaking, then I’m not hearing you. I’ve missed what you’ve just said. And maybe you’ve said something I needed to hear. But I won’t know that.

Meetings are the perfect place to practice. It strikes me as genius that we must listen without responding until it is our turn to talk. But instead of thinking about what I’m going to share when it’s my turn, I’m going to really try to just listen instead.

Maybe I’ll learn something.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year, New Day

It is New Year’s Day as I write this, though it will be a few days yet before I can post it. Hubby and I have been up at the land since just before Christmas, and we have no internet service here.

It snowed all day Wednesday and into Thursday. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know this place is 4 ½ miles on a dirt road. Our closest neighbor is 2 ½ miles away. No one is coming to plow. The only thing to do is wait it out.

We knew the storm was coming, so we went into our little nearest town on Tuesday to make the rounds and pick up odds and ends. We dropped off a contribution at the Book Barn donation box, bought some fresh eggs from a couple we know who have chickens, stopped in at the hardware store, spent $10 for a Black and Decker food processor at the Senior Center Thrift store.

So today we are happily marooned. We have everything we need: plenty of food and firewood and work to do, and that’s what we’re happiest doing these days.

A cold front followed the storm, which has preserved this beautiful winter scene. It was 10 degrees this morning. The cold water in our kitchen sink is not working, which is not good. On the other hand, I’m looking out at icicles three feet long hanging from the porch roof and a pristine blanket of snow, broken only by a few animal tracks.

The clean, white landscape feels just right for a New Year’s Day. I do not go in much for resolutions, but there is something hopeful about a new year. Even my Al-Anon readers, which it seemed to barely acknowledged the holidays are full of talk about clean fresh pages and new beginnings.

And why not? Every day begins fresh with no mistakes in it. Was it Anne of Green Gables who said that? If not, it at least sounds like something she’d say. I’m sure Anne (with an “e”!) was not thinking about recovery, but I am. New Year’s Day reminds me that we live through this day only. Every day in recovery is a fresh start.

But in recovery I also know not to burden myself with expectations for the future. I will make no resolutions. I know I will get busy and overwhelmed and make mistakes. Harsh words will cross my lips. I will have unlofty thoughts. I’m only human. It’s not perfection I’m after. I will forgive myself. Make amends when I need to and move on.

I also love New Year’s Day because it’s an excuse to look back over the year that’s just ended. Take a spot inventory of my life, if you will.

For me, it’s been good year. Even with the economy, Hubby and I have everything we started the year with: our home, our work, each other. God has provided everything we’ve needed and we’ve found a way to do everything we wanted. Our lives have felt rich beyond measure.

Looking back over the blog I’ve kept on our construction, I see that at the beginning of last year, we were just hooking up the kitchen sink and installing propane heat stoves. Our interior walls were pink from newly installed insulation. Now, we're preparing for a final inspection.

After two very difficult years in my industry, I’ve had my best year in a very long time. December was especially hectic, work-wise. I admit I was a little worried about whether I could pull it off. And there was this little thing called Christmas that came with its own demands. Every day, I asked God to set my priorities and to help me focus on what was in front of me and it all got done.

Just a few days ago, my husband told me he thought he was ready to put his employees back on full-time. They’ve been working a reduced schedule for two years now. Not long ago, he thought he’d have to make further cuts.

This year, Hubby and I celebrated eight years of marriage. My daughter is celebrating something like 10 months of sobriety. She’s working a program and getting ready to meet with her sponsor to work her 10th step.

The amends her sponsor assigned her concerning me was to keep in touch. So now she calls regularly just to talk. She’s working and saving money.

In Al-Anon, I began my prison service a year ago, and Alateen service not long after that. Both have been rich and rewarding experiences.

I also became a sponsor to a group of wonderful women, who teach me so much. I gave my first sponsee her one-year chip in December. Now she has a sponsee. It is a wonderful feeling to be the hand of Al-Anon for someone. To watch them grow and then to see them reach out the hand of Al-Anon to someone else. That’s the miracle of this program. That’s how it works.

I have so much to be grateful for. If you’re still reading, I’m grateful for that, too.

Whatever your past year has been, I wish you a New Year of fresh starts, one day at a time.