Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lean Into It

Yesterday I had the opportunity (Another growth opportunity!) to practice the idea of going toward what troubles you. This is a lesson I seem to learn, forget, learn again and forget again over and over in my recovery.

When someone bugs you go toward them. Do not avoid them or pull away but go toward that person and lean into the uncomfortable experience.

I’ve used this lesson well in the work place many times. The coworker that I “hate”, the boss that scares me, the volunteer I wish would disappear. At first I try to avoid them, hide, and limit exposure to these folks— all the while building a case in my head and sharing my brilliance with anyone who will listen to my judgments and my certain rightness.

But if the feelings persist I finally remember that my work is not to stand back from these people but rather to lean into them and go toward what troubles me.

Last night I almost skipped an event because I didn’t want to be around a woman who bugs me—her demeanor stirs my blood in unattractive ways. But luckily a recovery friend said, “No I think you should go to the party and go right up to her and see what happens.”

And I did. Not happily. Not comfortably. But with some prayers and with the mantra, “Go toward her”. And in the course of the evening I saw a fuller picture and got a deeper sense of the issues underneath. (Mine and maybe even hers.)

No, she is not my new friend. And no, I don’t suddenly like her. But today I am not obsessing about, worrying over or envying this chick at all.

Relief and peace because I leaned in, and I went toward her.

Friday, May 28, 2010

ACOA Management Training

Or why growing up in an alcoholic home prepares you for success:

First it makes us what therapists call “high screeners”. It’s kind of an evolutionary adaptation. Kids in alcoholic families can hear what’s happening two houses away. At work this means we don't have to leave our desks to hear coworkers grumbling or gossiping.

It also means we have powerful intuition. In fact it’s our survival screening again: we have learned to read the slightest shift in a facial expression. We can read subliminal expressions which are the tiny, almost minute, changes to a person’s face that occur before they are able to naturally adapt to a socially acceptable expression. That’s how we know someone is angry even when they insist in a terribly professional voice that, “No, I’m not angry at all, just concerned.” (Research has shown that those expressions are on one’s face for less than a tenth of a second so only a highly trained psychologist, interrogator, psychic or ACOA can read them.)

In addition to faces we read mood, tone of voice, body language and changes to patterns as if our life depended on it. (Because of course, our young lives did depend on it.)

For managers, team leaders, and especially people in sales, this is a  gift.

Another gift from the alcoholic home is our corresponding attention to detail. We’re great proof readers, designers, event coordinators, and sales people. Yes, basically perfectionists. A big plus and minus there. We can tell the difference between Newport Blue and Marine Blue in 10-point type and when told that you need six identical packets for a proposal, they are identical!

This characteristic can also doom one’s career if taken too far. Years ago I worked for a manager who terrorized her staff with requirements to iron out creases in paper table cloths and who nightly drove around the building to ensure that the window blinds –in all 26 offices—were pulled to an exact (not off by a half inch, dam it!) center mark so that the building had a “pleasing symmetry” to any passerby. I was not surprised to learn that both of her parents “drank too much.”

There are more skills that we gained in our alcoholic homes. We'll figure these out. In the meantime this can be the start of another gratitude list for the circumstances that gave us these skills and for the subsequent recovery program that kept them from ruining us as well.

How about in your life? What are some work or business skills you gained as a result of a difficult start in life? What qualities that were once part of the problem are now part of your success?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More on Projection

In AA we have a simpler and somewhat cruder, but much more memorable, way of speaking about projection. It is called “The Three Asshole Rule”.

It goes like this:

When you get up in the morning and you see that the newspaper delivery person has left your paper on the wet sidewalk you grumble, “What an asshole.” Then you get ready for work but in the car you notice someone merging with no signal and you say to yourself, “stupid asshole”. Then approaching your exit another car cuts you off and you say out loud, “That asshole”. Here’s the rule: When you get to the third asshole, you’re it.

Yes, any pattern you notice in your world is likely to be a part of you that you don’t want to own. If there is just one asshole in your day you may be safe but if there are three, there’s a good chance you are one too.

You can apply this to any characteristic: people who show no respect, people who lie, those who are bossy, vain, and our favorite, people in denial. This game works especially well when we are sitting in an AA meeting and taking other people’s inventories. Notice what bothers you most (In Ken Wilbur’s lingo (see this blog May 23) what “affects” you.) If you find yourself saying, “Well, he’s in denial” and “she’s in denial” take a few minutes to look around inside yourself.

Remember: If you get to three you’re it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Projectile Vomiting

I was looking for the manual for the stove today and found it under a display of old graniteware that decorates my kitchen. (Yeah, that’s how often I need to contemplate using the stove). But way up on that shelf propping up other kitchen collectibles was a “Handbook of Freudian Concepts”. I opened the book to the section on Projection and it says: “When the Id cannot tolerate a truth or attack on its vulnerability the Ego will assist by turning it around to the Other.”

The example: When I hate someone, but my ego wants to believe I am too nice to hate anyone (I’m such a good person) projection will ensure that I stay safe and “ego intact” by believing that she hates me.

Similarly, when I cannot tolerate a fantasy of my own I will project that onto the Other as well.

Example: I might find myself attracted to someone other than my partner but I want to believe I’m better than that so projection can help me fix that uncomfortable thought by doing an unconscious switch-er-roo and voila!: “He must be attracted to someone else”. That bastard!

I can’t buy all of Freud’s ideas--according to Freud feminine masochism is a woman’s destiny—Uh, no thanks. But he did give us some real gifts in describing the process of projection and other defense mechanisms.

Ken Wilbur, philosopher, analyst, scientist and writer gives us this handy diagnostic tool for sussing out our projections:

“If someone’s behavior informs us it’s information. But if another person’s behavior affects us—it’s projection.”

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Happiness and Joy

Certain books come into our lives when we need them. Last week a work friend who knows little of my recovery life gave me a copy of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book, “Something More.” I put the book on my home altar/ reading area where I do my morning meditations. A few days later on a whim (God’s whisper?) I read the first few pages.

It was like reading a message from a spirit guide. The exact words at the exactly right time. Yeah, something about “when the student is ready…”. Yep I was.

Here’s a sample:

“Many of us confuse happiness and joy. Happiness is often triggered by external events: the promotion, he loves you back, they approve your mortgage application. Happiness camouflages a lot of fears. But joy is the absence of fear. Joy is your soul’s knowledge that if you don’t get the promotion, keep the relationship or buy the house, it’s because you weren’t meant to and you’re meant to have something better, deeper, richer, more.”

“Joy is the absence of fear”. That’s a phrase worth holding onto. “Happiness camouflages a lot of fears but joy is the absence of fear.”That’s probably my number one prayer: remove my fear. In recovery: remove my self-centered fear.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Yes, jealousy. One of the most universal human emotions that we cannot speak about. It’s gross and miserable and beyond uncomfortable and it strikes us mute. We sputter and spit and stumble in trying to express it without sounding insane or weak and yet—and yet—jealousy is a powerful emotion which taps directly into our bodies.

I have stumbled through this territory all of my life, and perhaps that is the clue. It’s old. Jealousy is always old. I’d like to think it is about this man or that woman but at heart it never is.

It is also never this: Jealousy is never about love, it’s never about sex, it’s never about attractiveness even though those may be the cards we play in trying ever so hard to explain our predicament when trapped in jealousy’s swamp.

It’s also—and I am slowly coming to get this—never about him.

My recent tutor is French analyst Marcianne Blevis in her book “Jealousy: true stories of love’s favorite decoy.” She makes the powerful and iconoclastic case that jealousy exists to help us and to free us. Yes, I know it never feels anything like that, does it? She’s onto something though. (Yeah duh, she’s a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist and brilliant so I’ll concede that she’s “onto something”).

But look at this thing she says: Jealousy is a response to anxiety. (jealousy is not the anxiety but a response to a preexisting anxiety) and she says the anxiety arose early in our lives: “If an impulse in childhood is struck down by a prohibition, it transforms itself into a terror and anguish” Ok, that makes sense I will be jealous of one whom I perceive to be the thing I was never allowed to be. But then she says this: “Jealousy not only tangles our memories, but also puts us in contact with those unconscious forces of childhood that are struggling to free themselves from the realm of the incommunicable.”

I did mention that she’s brilliant right?

Jealousy is not bad no matter how bad it feels. It is built in as a gift to save us. It is as if it is the antidote taped to the side of the poison bottle. It comes to free us from the thing that was prohibited, the thing we transformed into terror long before we had words.

Here’s a simple way to get at this in yourself: What were you not allowed to do that you did naturally and freely as a child? What did your mother or father prohibit? What were you shamed for? Was there something you did or liked to do for which affection or love was withdrawn?

And consider this: many women drank over this thing that was trying so hard to help us become free.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Girly Girl in Recovery

I have long wanted to ask other women this question:

When you come home from work do you change into play clothes even if you will later change into your pajamas?

If you do change into play clothes do you change your earrings to go with those clothes?

Even if you are staying in? Even if you are home alone?

When you later do put on your jammies do you choose slippers or sox that match or at least coordinate?

I do. I do. I do.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Relationship with God

I have been thinking about my relationship with God. I’ve always believed in God but I’ve had a nagging worry about whether he believes in me. Then I realized that this too is a relationship and it is subject to, and victim of, all that I bring to my other intimate relationships: I know I’m loved but not always sure I’m seen; I think he may have loved someone before me; I think that if someone better came along he’d leave me; I think that I have to be good to keep his love. Bottom-line: I worry that I’m not enough.

The work that I do to change those beliefs about God begins to change my other relationships, and as I heal those old beliefs about how I was or was not loved in my past or present it can only improve my relationship with God.

God yes, it is a relationship and we’re working on it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Circling Back to Robin Norwood

Today I pulled “Women Who Love Too Much”, by Robin Norwood from my shelf of recovery books. This is the book that was there at the start of my recovery. She linked food and drugs and men and family dysfunction in a compelling 240 pages of stories, insight and direction.

Today I opened the book to a page that I had underlined and starred in the margins many times. It says:

“True this generates from lifelong patterns reaching back into childhood, but she must first of all deal with her patterns in the present in order for her recovery to begin. No matter how sick, or cruel or helpless her partner is she must understand that her every attempt to change him, help him, control him or blame him is a manifestation of her disease, and that she must stop these behaviors before other areas of her life can improve. Her only legitimate work is with herself.”

Oh baby, this is so much more of a gut kick than Al-Anon’s “Keep the focus on yourself.”

Her only legitimate work is with herself.


Sunday, May 09, 2010

At Dinner on the Titanic

This week a discussion with other woman who are past the 20 year mark in recovery. Whatever issue or substance brought us in we acknowledged that it wasn’t the only thing we had to face to have good recovery. Maybe it was alcohol that led us to our first bottom, or food that provided the gift of desperation. Maybe it was men or money or work. Inevitably we get to take a good look at all of them and get help for more than one addiction.

But there is also a time in later recovery where we might decide that some issues are black and white: drugs or alcohol or certain trigger foods for some of us, but that in other areas—different ones for each woman—we’ll endorse the grey of “progress not perfection”. In some cases it is accepting life on life’s terms: there is no perfect relationship or perfect partner. And with sex and food and work we practice discernment and self-honesty.

Anhedonic by nature, I have to be careful to not live too narrow a life in the name of good recovery.

I do not want to be one of the women who refused dessert at dinner that final night on the Titanic.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Who am I...

Last week in Orlando I had five days alone. I was at a conference and participated in workshops. But each morning I woke alone and swam alone and at night had dinner alone and went to my room alone and read alone and went to sleep alone.

I began to watch myself and this question formed: Who am I when I am alone? When no one is watching: what do I eat; not eat; what do I read; watch on TV? What is my fun when I’m alone? What do I laugh at when I’m not sharing a joke or anecdote with any other person? Where does my brain naturally go? What genuinely interests me—as opposed to what is supposed to interest me?

The first delightful surprise: I am never lonely or bored when I am alone. I entertain myself mightily. The inner voices that used to chew me up are not all gone but they are partnered with voices that say, “look at that” and “hey, you like this” and “what if…” And the “what if’s” are not all bad things about to happen to me.

I liked living this question: What do I want when left only to myself?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Any Amount

This week I am practicing with an idea learned from my friend Susan who learned this from her yoga teacher. I call it “any amount”. Susan explained that her yoga teacher would encourage growth by asking can you stretch any amount? Balance any amount? It was a way to focus on doing something a bit new or a bit more rather than doing it “right” or perfectly.

I use this in teaching writing to invite students to write “any amount” each day. Instead of waiting to find time to write three pages or a story or even one page do any amount: a sentence, a haiku.

This week—crazy busy after returning from last week’s travel to Florida—I am reminding myself to meditate any amount—even 30 seconds, pray any amount—one pause to pray in the car at a light, and especially to be any amount—however miniscule—more gentle with myself.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Mary Month of May

I grew up in a Protestant family. My brothers and I went to Sunday school, got confirmed, and later married in the same Methodist Church on Pittsburgh’s Northside. Overall, it was a good experience. But I always envied Catholic girls, especially in May.

Our working class neighborhood was a mixture of Protestant and Catholic families. Kids were divided by schools: Spring Hill Public or Saint Ambrose Catholic. But it was a close neighborhood and we all played together after school. We were in and out of each others houses often, and one mother could stand in for another when it came to discipline or first aid. The differences were few but the Catholic girls seemed to have something special.

It was in second grade that my feelings of envy emerged. My Catholic friends were having their First Holy Communion. My friends got to wear poofy white dresses and headbands with flowers and little veils. They were given medals with pictures of saints, rosaries and most intriguing, scapulars.

A scapular is two small patches of cloth with holy pictures on them, connected by a loop of string. My girl friends told me that it protected them from evil and all manner of bad things, and it was a sin, they told me, to take it off. The idea of a passionate commitment to something, even a string with holy pictures, was very appealing.

Catholicism offered my friends other comforts. As a kid I would have liked a patron saint or a guardian angel, but the Methodist church didn’t offer any of those. Instead we were counseled, in an ecumenically respectful way, that all that stuff was Catholic and kind of magical. Now, this was at the same age that I was fascinated with writing in code, creating invisible ink, becoming a blood sister, playing with the Ouija board and making up secret societies. I was made myth and magic out of anything I could get my hands and mind around.

The best thing, though, that Catholic girls got was Mary. She was presented as motherhood and sweetness, but Catholic girls got a very clear message that there was a woman in heaven, that somebody understood the female side of things.

For Protestant girls, Mary shows up once a year-- at Christmas --to give birth. She might get dragged out again on Good Friday—but only in the background. No role model, no intercessor, no friend. My Catholic pals had statues of Mary. Some had the plastic glow-in-the-dark kind, and the older girls had painted plaster Marys, dressed in blue robes with big doe eyes like my Barbie. And Mary was always standing on a snake. I certainly did not understand the symbolism, but I knew at ten that this 12 inch woman had some power you could not buy for Barbie.

Best of all, my friends had May altars. A May altar was basically a table with an old lace tablecloth thrown over it. They put their Mary statues on it with flowers and candles that they were allowed to light when they said their prayers. It still strikes me how feminine those altars were. The Catholic girls had total permission to identify with the feminine in spiritual matters. But no one gave little Protestant girls such romantic, mysterious things to do or own.

This carried over into all of a Catholic girl’s life. Mary got prayers, devotions, pilgrimages and even architectural consideration: there is a Marian shrine in every Catholic Church. Talk about having a room of one’s own. Mary’s presence meant that the Catholic Church included at least one woman at a high level. In her assumption into heaven, Mary had broken Christianity’s glass ceiling.

We pretty much get the shape of our beliefs early on, and what Catholic girls got was a She and a Her, someone like them, to pray to. And they got all those accessories: medals, scapulars, rosaries, ruffled altar skirts and little white prayer books. Protestant girls got black leatherette New Testaments, Jesus stories, but nothing that said, “We’re glad you’re a girl.”

Of course, later, Catholic girls ran into, the birth control issue and the wall that said, “You can’t be a priest”. But what I saw my Catholic friends get was faith in their girlhood and an image of feminine power.

That’s not such a bad way to start out.