Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Build a House with Boundaries

When we were using we had none. As we recovered we learned to set them and we also experienced them being set around us.

A former therapist explained boundaries this way: Imagine yourself as a house. If the house across the street burns down, you feel bad, but you have not burned down. But if your roof leaks that is your issue. Similarly, if the house next door gets remodeled, you can be happy, but that’s not yours to brag about or take credit for. Similarly you get to decide who gets to come into your yard, who gets to sit in your living room and who gets to see the bedroom. Having good boundaries means having people where you want them and not where they want to be.

You get the idea.

It also applies to emotions.

For years I kept a sticky note on my calendar that said: “If it doesn’t have your name on it, don’t pick it up.” In early recovery that meant don’t snoop in other people’s medicine cabinets or file drawers. But later, and still now, it means that I should not pick up other people’s fears, worries, or emotions of any kind if they don’t have my name on them. And almost none do. I don’t have to fix anyone’s life, and I can’t fix anyone’s problems. If someone has an addiction or a problem behavior, that is his or her property, not mine. Yes, this takes discernment. I can care, and I can offer resources, and I can always offer my experience, strength and hope, but other people’s emotions are not mine to fix.

Good boundaries are the best way to prevent resentment.

Recently I heard a spiritual teacher say: “Being compassionate requires strong boundaries.” It makes sense. When a person has good boundaries you know that their “Yes” is really a yes, and their “No” is really a no. That makes it possible to ask them for help, because you can be sure that if they give it there are no strings --and no guilt --attached.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day and Mental Illness

On Memorial Day, we’ll see parades. We’ll see flag ceremonies at monuments and maybe some politician will offer remarks from a VA Hospital, but there are other sites we should notice and honor this Memorial Day. They are the psychiatric hospitals, treatment centers and soup kitchens. These too are places where American veterans live with the injuries of war. There is a long history of the kinds of injuries seen in those less holy places, as there is a long history of military mental illness.
On April 6th 1917 the US Congress declared war and we entered WWI. It was our first full-scale entry into armed conflict on European soil. War has changed since then and we have changed but there is one constant, which is the sad fact of psychological injuries sustained by soldiers in war. 

Various authorities—military and psychiatric—put the estimate of “stress casualties” between 25 and 60 percent, though the words we use to describe them has changed over time. Terms have included: Battle fatigue, war neurosis, shell shock, military hysteria, trench suicide and  “LMF” or “lacking moral fiber”. These labels reflect the cultural attitudes of each time period, but they are also influenced by military strategy and even demographics.

In 1917 the US population was at an all-time high. In supply terms this meant there were plenty of soldiers. In that war, where supply met demand, it was not uncommon to find that those who broke down, who froze on the field, who hesitated to shoot, retreated or exhibited any other detrimental behavior were considered to have problems of character rather than injuries.

By contrast in World War II, with fighting in both Europe and Asia putting more than 16 million Americans in uniform, the condition of a struggling soldier was framed very differently. War trauma became an illness which could be treated or cured.

But beyond the words we use, it’s important to note that there has always been a civilian hand-me-down from the military and the psychiatric casualties of war. The need to keep soldiers on the battlefield or to return them to combat in World War II saw one of the United State’s largest investments in psychology and psychiatry. Through the 1940’s the Pentagon spent millions of dollars for psychological research. That has had a lasting impact on all of our lives.

The research for that war’s soldiers spilled over and into the fields of advertising, education and even design. 1946 saw the first National Mental Health Act; in 1948 The Snake Pit –a movie about shock treatment and psychoanalysis won 7 Academy Awards, and also that year Psychology Today magazine was launched for the general public. In 1949, the Nobel Prize for medicine went to Dr. Egas Moniz, who “invented” the pre-frontal lobotomy. Today our casual talk of “issues” and “processing feelings” has its roots in the Pentagon’s need.

  More than any other war Viet Nam redefined our beliefs about mental health.  Five years after the fall of Saigon, “Viet Nam Syndrome” was identified, which morphed into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which rapidly generalized to civilians who suffered trauma.

Now, we are trying to end another war. Our soldiers face guerilla combat  plus suicide bombers and armed civilians. These increase the psychological difficulties, and we are now seeing another reframing of the resulting psychiatric casualties.

For now, we must remember to factor in these injuries when we talk about the cost of war. We must  ask how we will label our broken soldiers, how we will care for them—and their families-- and what will be changed, now and later.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Will Medications Change Recovery?

Here's an article that will keep us buzzing in the meeting after the meeting. Yesterday's New York Times story on newer medications that can treat addiction, alcoholism and manage cravings. We know this debate of course but here is more info and more perspective from folks in alcoholism treatment--even from Hazelden and The Betty Ford Center--both 12-step based models.

Take a look. What do you think?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Surrender the Person

I’ve always included teachings from The Course in Miracles as part of my recovery. “The Course” was one of my baby steps toward healing even before I discovered the 12 step rooms. I’ve especially liked some teachings from Marianne Williamson.

Recently I picked up one of her books and read this guidance on getting through the emotions surrounding a difficult person or situation. Marianne suggests this prayer:

“Dear God, I am (scared, sad, mad, hurt, ___) about (name the situation). I place everything that happened, all of these people, and ALL of my feelings about it, in your hands. Please help me to see this differently. Amen”

Repeat as needed.

That prayer is not far from the two-week prayer we know from the story, “Freedom from Bondage” in the Big Book, but I like having the fill-in-the-blank formula. It comes in handy when I am really steamed or if I know I have lost all perspective. I think I’m going to keep Williamson’s prayer on a card in my wallet right next to my emergency contact info.

Come to think of it, that is my emergency contact info.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

From Head (and sticky note) to Heart

Has this happened to you? You know some stuff. You have been around a long time; you understand how your mind and emotions work. You know the best ways to respond or to not react to certain triggers in your life. You know your family role and how that influences you; you know your Myers Briggs or Enneagram Type and how that influences you; you know the character defects you are working through and you can visualize how you’ll be different and many days you are different. You even—like me—have sticky notes—in your planner, on your desk top, on the mirror that tell you things like, “The critics do not matter, being in the game does.” or “Humility is perpetual quietness of the heart.” or my new one, “The cure for resentment is boundaries.”

And when you look at those sticky notes, or hear yourself giving similar advice to another person, you think, “My God I really am growing; I really am changing.”

And then…

And then a day like yesterday happens and it feels like I never saw the 12 steps, never heard a spiritual teacher, and never understood that detachment and forgiveness are the handrails to my emotional freedom.

Instead I felt slighted, hurt, petty, competitive, angry, and like a very young girl in a crazy family.

The only good news is that now it mostly happens inside of me, but that’s also the bad news—it happens inside of me. Serenity? Poof!

That hardest part is knowing so much and understanding so much and really meaning what I see on my little sticky notes but having the feelings of a newcomer. My prayer last night—and it was a long tossing, turning night—was to have what I write on those sticky notes make the journey from my head to my heart.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Stepmothers Mother's Day Book

Happy Mother’s Day to Step Mothers. There are a lot of us in recovery. Step parenting correlates with sobriety as many of us end up in new marriages and the men we marry often have families. Step-parenting can be one of the joys and one of the heartaches of ongoing recovery.

I know it’s possible that as a stepmother you may not have received a Mother’s Day gift so let me offer you one. Go and buy yourself the new novel, “Another Piece of My Heart” by Jane Green. It’s recently published and it is outstanding in its portrayal of a contemporary stepfamily. I’ve been a stepparent in two marriages and every thing I did poorly, and later better, is in this book.

The bonus for us is that there is also active recovery in this novel. There are characters in AA and in Alanon; there is teen drinking and other kinds of addiction and recovery as well. And it’s so well done, nothing heavy-handed, just great, can’t-wait-to-get-back-to-my-book, kind of storytelling.

After starting this as a hard-back book I also got “Another Piece of My Heart” on CD from my local library and it’s been great fun to listen to it as well. It is read by the author, Jane Green, who has a fabulous voice, which adds to the drama of the story.

Of course, if you are not a Step Mom, I’m sure you know someone who is one, and who would love this book as a gift, and who would love that you recognized that Mother’s Day is a day for her too.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Step Shuffle

Perhaps you've heard the "Joe and Charlie" tapes that have circulated through AA communities for years. These are the old-timers who give talks on The Big Book combining history and humor with refreshing, sometimes startling insight. It's a view of recovery that never feels old to me.

In our area we have a "Joe and Charlie" meeting where we listen to the tapes for 30 minutes and then discuss. It keeps the steps alive in my week.

This week I had a bit of unexpected fun though--I wanted my own copy of the "Joe and Charlie" talks so I downloaded from iTunes. (the link is below) and I added them to my iTunes account and from there they went to my little Shuffle device. Not being a tech genius I didn't realize how the Shuffle would configure this new info, and in fact, it shuffled them.

It's a blast! When I go to walk or workout I new get music and a Big Book talk in alternating sections. It's the craziest but most wonderful thing. I go from Tina Turner to Step Two, then Bruce Springsteen to the meaning of surrender, then to the "Bend and Snap" song from Legally Blonde, and then right into a talk on relationships in recovery. It really adds to the meaning of the slogan,  "Move a muscle, change a thought."

You can get Joe and Charlie for your iPod, Shuffle, MP3 Player iTunes or by Googling "Joe and Charlie AA Talks" and selecting one of the free resources.


Wednesday, May 09, 2012

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 problem 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.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Prayer and More Prayer

Yesterday I had this observation: One of the women that I sponsor is struggling and I thought, “She needs more prayer.” Things are not going her way, and she’s mad. I thought, “OK, how do I explain to her that it’s going to be a lot easier to surrender sooner rather than later.” Then I thought, “OK Diane, can you take your own advice?”

Note to me: More prayer.

It seems so obvious, but now I also know why the “Twelve and Twelve” says, “We should not be lax on this matter of prayer”. It is like that old juice commercial that reminds, “I could have had a V-8”. So often after struggling, musing, wondering and making myself miserable trying to control something, I think, “I could have prayed-or maybe-- prayed sooner.

Put prayer first.

Yesterday I had a cranky day. Not quite relaxed, not quite working, slightly bored even though there was plenty to do; it was just an off day. When I did my 10th step at night I realized that I’d skipped my morning prayer time, and from there my day was just unsettled. Note to me: Put prayer first.

Gratitude and Compassion.

I read this ages ago, and I keep a sticky note in my planner that says, “Pray for a grateful heart and a compassionate heart”. It’s a great piece of guidance and an all-purpose solution to things that bother me. Gratitude shifts my attitude. Gratitude reminds me of the good. Gratitude shows me that there is growth, change and recovery in my life when my feelings try to convince me otherwise.

A compassionate heart softens me. Compassion helps me to see that other people- (even people who I think are bad or wrong)—are mostly broken or troubled. And often they are broken or troubled I ways that I am too, or that I have been. Having a compassionate heart slows me down. I am more inclined to practice “restraint of tongue and pen” when I have a compassionate heart.

But to get there: More prayer.

Years ago I thought that people who had years of recovery must be doing all the right things, all the time. But I don’t, we don’t. But we do have a couple of things that come with time. One is good recovery habits. So I pray each morning and I do a 10th step at night that closes with a prayer. If I skip either one I feel crummy; it’s kind of like not brushing my teeth. So even if I’m rushed or even not feeling very sincere I’ll get on my knees and read the Third Step Prayer. I say the words out loud. Even if done without complete sincerity, it helps.

The other thing people with long recovery have are stories. We have our own stories yes, but even better; we have other people’s stories too. If you go to meetings for years you accumulate stories. So when times are hard I can lean into someone else’s story. I can recall what they said about the time they prayed; the time they yelled at God, the time a prayer was answered in a miraculous way; the time they let go of what they wanted and got something better instead. 

And each time the reminder to me is this: Prayer and more prayer.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Fasting from Fear

One gift of long recovery is discovering how many of the things we struggle with are simply part of being human. In the beginning we attribute all of our character defects to being alcoholic, but after time and work and making friends with many kinds of people I have learned that everyone is afraid, everyone has some kind of defense, and no one is loved as much as they really want to be. And in America, no woman is happy with her bodyJ.

I also love learning that most faith traditions have been trying to help their members with this pain of being human for ages and ages. Each faith tradition has a version of “surrender” or “offering up” problems; there is an injunction in every religion and every faith tradition to be present, to be quiet, to be in the now, to listen to the voice of something other than fear.

My spiritual director recently said to me that the Gospel of Matthew says that we are “relieved of our afflictions by prayer and fasting.” I had heard those words before but always kind of thought of “fasting” as an extreme, old-fashioned measure. And maybe a tad too sacrificial. But then she explained, using 12-step language, that “afflictions” are like character defects and that what the Gospel writer was saying was, “don’t feed the character defect; don’t give it more food, energy or fuel.” I loved that.

I knew immediately that what I most need to fast from is fear. I feel fear twinges all day and I can feel when my mind wants to feed that fear a huge meal of energy and give it more fuel. What I am learning is that when I sense that start-up to a fear thought or a fear scenario—(and its always some future scenario) I can say, “Nope my fear friend; you are going on a diet”.

And of course I also need prayer to make this work. Praying to stay aware of those first, tiny impulses toward fear, praying for the courage to catch it and not “play with it”, and then praying for the willingness to fast from that fear.

“We are relieved of our afflictions by prayer and fasting.”

Do you have a particular character defect that might benefit from prayer and fasting?