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