Tuesday, April 11, 2017

April is Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month. This means we’ll see poets on postage stamps, poem-a-day emails, and the poets-in-the-schools will be working overtime. But if talking about poetry makes you shudder you’re not alone.

For many people the thought of poetry brings back memories of seventh grade. If we were lucky we had an English teacher who loved poetry so much that when he or she read poems aloud we could viscerally experience the power of words meeting air.

But there were other teachers who made us memorize Old English or deconstruct poems
about marriage and mortality, topics not exactly top-of-mind for 12-year-olds.

The bad 7th grade poetry scenario went like this: The teacher read a poem that described a rose opening on a summer day, and we thought, “Oh, the poem must be about summer, or beauty or nature, right?” But the teacher would sigh heavily and say,  “No, this poem is speaking about war and man’s inhumanity to man”. 

After repetitions of that experience many people never wanted to pick up a book of poems again. We’d come away feeling the deck was stacked in this “what does the poem mean” business, and that poems were a code we couldn’t crack.  

This month we get another chance. We have April in which to reclaim poetry— good, bad or even silly—as part of our lives. After all, before 7th grade teachers got hold of it poetry was our first language, our history, and even our music. We don’t have to let it drift away. It’s our right to take poetry back and to remember that poetry is in the Psalms, in nursery rhymes, and at the heart of many children’s stories.  After all, “Green Eggs and Ham” is a poem too.

Part of reclaiming poetry though is recognizing poets. We don’t have poet celebrities in the United States as some other countries do. In Canada poet Ann Carson is on magazine covers and they write about what she wears and where she goes. In Chile Pablo Neruda was a diplomat. One of our finest poets, Robert Bly, didn’t register in American consciousness until, after 40 years and 20 books of poetry, he wrote a self-help book for men.

We have tiny bits of poetry in our civic life. Bill Clinton gave Maya Angelou recognition when he asked her to read at his inauguration.  Robert Frost recited  “The Gift Outright” at John Kennedy’s ceremony in 1961.  Because of the sun’s glare that January morning Robert Frost could not read the poem he had written for that day so he recited his older poem, with its famous lines: “Something we were withholding made us weak. Until we found it was ourselves we were withholding from our land of living…such as we were we gave ourselves outright.” Later, the poem had perfect resonance for our, “Ask not what your country…” president. 

Sometimes poetry helps us make sense of events. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, which was passed around and read aloud after September 11th, was the perfect poem for that sad autumn, and it’s true again as we live through more war. William Carlos Williams said it in one of his poems: 

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems.
Yet men die miserably every day,
for lack
of what is found there.”

Maybe that’s what our 7th grade teachers knew: that poems can help, and they can heal, and sometime a poem can say what no treatise or speech ever will. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

I Didn't Come This Far to Come This Far

Years ago, in the beginning of my recovery, I heard an AA speaker talk about how recovery unfolds layer after layer. And, he said, it's kind of like a game show: you can choose to stop at any point, take the recovery you have so far, and go home. Some people want abstinence, some want abstinence and peace of mind, some want better work or relationships or social lives…and some—and I knew this this was me, want “the whole enchilada.”

At that time I named that my “all-encompassing recovery”, maybe what you might call “holistic recovery”. I wanted freedom from alcohol, drugs, compulsive eating, and “loving too much”.

I knew, almost before I really understood it, that there was a common root to my addictions and if I was going to pull out that root I’d have to face down all my addictions and troubling behaviors. And now of course, we know that the roots are tangled in myriad forms of fear. 

This week a friend who is a personal trainer posted this phrase on her page: “I didn’t come this far to come this far.” She meant that in terms of weight loss and getting in shape but immediately that phrase took me back to my “all-encompassing recovery”

Today that “all-encompassing recovery” means: physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, mental, social, and work/career/dharma—what we do in the world. Yes, that’s a lot to look at, but in long-term recovery we can have a long-term perspective, and we have the time to do a lot of that work. It’s also true for folks with long recovery that the relapse possibility is hiding in that list above. Your weakest area: financial, work, social, spiritual or physical will take you out. Hence, “constant vigilance” means more than staying away from bottles and bars.

That personal trainer also made me think about something else: What many recovering people often miss is physical recovery—not just the “not using” but true health and wellness. And physical concerns are an enormous threat to relapse.

We also live with the sad paradox that recovering people used to spend untold amounts of money to hurt themselves with drugs, alcohol or binges but then won’t later spend on their physical healing: the gym, yoga, massage, acupuncture, Reiki, a health coach etc. 

You can be a spiritual giant but physically unwell. Or you can choose holistic recovery and make it fun to work on all the parts. You have come this far, so keep on going!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Why Take Our Recovery to Work

I’ve been writing about “taking recovery to work” for several months now. This morning in my quiet time I found myself—again—praying about a situation in my workplace, and I thought, “Hmmm, I don’t hear a lot of people talking about this.”

We do hear recovering people talk about resentments that kick up at work, or jobs they got or jobs they lost. Sponsees call me when they want a new job or maybe about money worries connected to their ability to earn. And we also hear a lot of joking about work, “Boy, I would love to say XYZ to my boss.” Etc.

But why is it we don’t –often enough—bring our recovery to work?

Early in recovery we focus recovery on our physical health—“help me to stop using/bingeing/drinking/smoking. And then, soon after we start to apply recovery principles to our relationships—the most urgent ones first: our partner, our kids, our ex-partners, and then maybe to other relatives and then to friendships too.

We, if we are lucky and diligent, see the patterns in our own behavior. And we know, when we face our role in those relationships, that we cannot do it alone. We need to have the help of a loving sponsor and maybe a small group of dedicated recovering friends. Folks who will not enable us.

But, it seems, bringing this same focus on ourselves and with recovery principles, to who we are at work comes very late if at all. You may have thought, as I have at times, listening to an old-timer in recovery—speaking truth, humility, love and gratitude—“I could never be that person’s coworker”, as they reveal how opposite all of that they are in the workplace. 

So what’s going on? Maybe it is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: we take care of ourselves, then partners, then kids, then social life first. Or maybe we imagine that work falls into some other category, or that people at work are outside recovery? But can that really be?

I think bringing a focus to recovery at work is crucial if only for the simple, self-serving reason that work is where we spend most of our time, and where so much of our stress comes from.

Now, to be clear, I don’t write about recovery at work because I have it figured out. Nope. I don’t have answers as much as I have questions. And because even with 32 years in Twelve-step programs I am still baffled on many days and genuinely tortured on some.

I try to sort out what recovery suggests to me as an employee, as a boss and supervisor, as a colleague, and as a team member, and what does recovery mean when I am successful and also when I am unsuccessful, and when things at work are fair or unfair? And would I know the truth of that with out deep recovery work?

So please join me in this. Ask questions, make suggestions and please share ways that you bring your recovery principles and practices to your workplace.

Read more about long-term recovery in "Out of the Woods--A Woman's Guide to Long-term Recovery". Published by Central Recovery Press.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

What They Read When AA Began--Oswald Chambers

It’s often a shock when people in recovery realize that the early members of AA did not have the Twelve Steps and The Big Book. We sometimes take for granted that the language we speak in recovery today must have been the mother tongue of the recovery movement but it was not.

We know from our Alcoholics Anonymous history books that the first guidelines presented to guide personal change were the six steps of The Oxford Group, which was the organization that gave birth to AA. This was the basis used as Bill and Bob began to form the new organization, and the Big Book—initially intended as the first business venture of the new organization.

 (You may recall that Bill was selling stock in AA before the others were able to rein in the natural instincts of Bill the stockbroker and dealmaker. Thank Goodness for Doctor Bob and his insistence on anonymity and humility.)

So, what did those earliest members read and study? Primarily the Christian Bible, and the writings of Christian theologians and preachers,. They also read, almost a counter balance, the works of psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Today we know that so many of the practices and directives that we live and prescribe,  are from Jung.

But the “big” book that all of the early Oxford Group members, and early AA’s,  read was a daily devotional called, “My Utmost for His Highest,” by Oswald Chambers. This small blue book is still available and can be found in l recovery bookstores, and, interestingly, in every bedroom at The Wilson House –Bill Wilson’s birthplace and recovery retreat center in East Dorset, Vermont.

Oswald Chambers was an evangelical minister, writer, teacher and World War I chaplain. His small book promoted surrender, faith, trusting God with your life, and daily practices of private prayer and meditation. The Oxford Group in Europe found him and his book, “My Utmost for His Highest” became their daily reading, hence becoming daily reading for the early AA’s.

The osmosis of Chambers powerful messages fed the development of language and literature through The Oxford Group and then into the next generation of evangelical advocates who worked with “drunks and drinkers.” From them it came into the language and habits of today’s Alcoholics Anonymous—and from there into all those groups that end with an “A”—OA, NA, DA, etc.

What did Chambers ultimately contribute to our recovery movement? He gave us much of our practices and thinking around how to know God’s will, and how to understand God in your life, though today we substitute “Higher Power” for the word “God”. 

Chambers also promoted “The Quiet Time” for his followers—that is, daily, private prayer and meditation.  Chambers also wrote about “the fellowship of the Sprit” --not the kind of social fellowship we speak of today, but as an internal way of being with the Holy Spirit of God. But his language transcended to our use today. 

I came back to Chambers recently and his “My Utmost for His Highest” because of a powerful new memoir written by Macy Halford and published by Knopf this year. Halford, a writer for the New Yorker, was raised in an evangelical home in Texas where her family read “My Utmost” daily and kept those practices.

 In her memoir, "My Utmost", Halford explores what it means to have that kind of early evangelical upbringing, and what it means to leave it, questioning whether and what has been left with her and the value of those pieces of faith she keeps today. Her writing is beautiful, and she shows us how to explore whatever religion we met as a child and how to make sense of that as an adult.

In a quote from Chambers that closes Macy Halford’s memoir you will feel the rhythmic echo of page 164 of our Big Book, where we read, “Abandon yourself to God…clear away the wreckage of your past..” 

So many years before our book, Oswald Chambers wrote to his followers:

 “Leave the Irreparable Past in His hands, and step into the Irresistible Future with him.”

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Our Deepest Wounds

“Our deepest wounds are the lens through which we see the world.”

I wrote that in my journal on June 5th 1994. I was working through yet another layer of healing. Recovery has been layer after layer. There have been many AHa! moments, and
also many sad but happy days of realizing that as wounds are revealed so are layers of distorted thinking.

My wounds were old and deep, and as my friend Susan tells me, “You came by these honestly.” But for a long time I had no idea how much those wounds were running my life, and how thoroughly—almost elegantly, they distorted what I saw and heard and believed. And yes, even now too.

We can’t get there any faster than we get there.

Last year, when I was writing, “Never Leave Your Dead” my book about military trauma, I had the chance to spend time with—and learn from—William P. Nash, MD, who is the Director of Psychological Health for the United States Marine Corps. One of the things that Bill told me is this:

“One of the most ancient principles of medicine is this: ‘Where the tenderness is the greatest is also where the injury is worst.”

It is true of our emotions and our soul as well. Our wounds shape us, and our pain helps to diagnose our injuries, and to prescribe the healing experiences that we need.

More on trauma and injury in my new book: "Never Leave Your Dead" published by Central Recovery Press.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Recovery As a Rule of Life

Long ago, back in the 5th century, monks began to live and worship together in communities. They were called Monastic Orders and they followed various schools of thought on how to live a spiritual life. They called their plans, or sets of instructions, a “Rule of Life”.

A monastery’s “rule” organized the monk’s daily life and it dictated times for prayer, for meditation, for gathering together as a community, for meals and for how to behave during meals etc. The monastic rule of each Order also dictated how the monks should behave with each other. 

Some of those early rules have come down to us in church and spiritual practices. For
example we know the Benedictine Rule—from Saint Benedict—and the Ignation Rule from Saint Ignatius. Some of the spiritual practices that recovering people use today are taught to us on retreats or by a spiritual director and they come from these ancient rules of life.

Recently I have been reading Margaret Guenther’s book, “A Home in the World” which is about how to make spirituality a part of daily life and I now see that recovery—via Twelve-step programs—is itself one of the finest rules for life. Our steps and our traditions offer guidance on prayer, meditation, community life and a tradition of sponsorship and teaching. We jokingly say these are “suggestions” and they are, in the same way that the early monks received suggestions to pray five times each day. 

Over time in recovery we incorporate these practices into our recovering lives. We also follow the suggestions to improve our relationship with God or a Higher Power. The reminder that this program of ours is ultimately about a spiritual way is noted in our Twelfth Step, which reminds us that the previous eleven steps are intended to result in a “spiritual awakening”. The steps are not to get us abstinent or sober but rather to get us to God. But sometimes we miss that point.

It makes sense that we have ancient roots. Our 12 steps come from the six steps of the Oxford Group—the spiritual tradition that enabled Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob to get sober.  We sometimes forget that Bill and Bob got sober through the Oxford Group—not in AA. There was no AA when they first got sober. It was after their recovery began that they adapted those six Oxford steps to be more inclusive—and more palatable—to men and women of wider faith. 

There is something lovely in realizing that we in Twelve Step recovery share a tradition that monks lived by ages ago. It is a rule of life costing not less than everything.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Are You Addicted to Technology?

Are you a “technoholic”? Ask yourself these questions:

Is your reliance on technology increasing?
Do you experience withdrawal when not using your phone or tablet?
Have you ever/never taken a break from your phone or social media?
Have you given up people or activities because your time is spent on a device/social media?
Have you ever lied about the extent of your Internet use?
Have you ever pretended you are working when you are actually using social media/Internet shopping etc?

Did any of those questions make you even the teeniest bit uncomfortable?

I understand. The Internet and social media, which started out as fun or convenience, have taken over our lives. Those of us who have other addictions may see a new additive pattern developing and may have additional concerns when it comes to our devices.

Those of us in recovery from drugs or alcohol or food may have tested ourselves years ago on the diagnostic Twenty Questions similar to those above and it began a process of puncturing our denial.

And now this. Yes, technology can affect us just like a substance: it masks feelings, interferes with relationships, and can even affect our physical health by disrupting sleep or keeping us from exercise.

Don’t you hate this? We gave up so much and have done so many recoveries, and now my phone and fun too? Well, yes…especially if it is preventing your happiness, peace or good health.

A great new book has been my guide to taking a closer look at “technoholism”. “The Power of Off” by Nancy Colier has inspired me to take a look at the place of technology and social media in my life.

What is especially helpful is that Colier does not suggest giving up social media or any devices rather her approach is about mindfulness while making choices about time and technology. The tagline for her book says, “The mindful way to stay sane in a virtual world.”

Most of us who are committed to recovery want a holistic recovery: substances, food, money and behaviors. Here is a gentle way to look at how we can approach technology in a very sober, recovered life.

Read more about all-emcompassing recovery in "Out of the Woods" published by Central Recovery Press.