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?