Saturday, August 31, 2013

Wormwood Returns and Poison is Popular Again

In July I was in Paris for vacation and took a walking tour of Montmartre led by a guide from the company Paris Walks. We saw Van Gogh's home, where he lived, painted, and suffered. We saw the places that Hemingway and Toulouse-Lautrec lived, worked and especially where they drank. One of the most fascinating parts of the tour happened when Chris, our guide, pulled a beautiful silver object from his bag and invited us to guess what it was. No one knew. Then he proceeded to demonstrate its use and he showed us how absinthe was created, served and drunk.

Drunk is the key word here. You may recall from Art History 101 that one of the theories of Van Gogh's madness was "too much absinthe" or wormwood poisoning. Wormwood is the herbal/chemical ingredient that creates the glowing green look and it has been suggested that the toxin caused brain damage.

What we know now that the trace elements of poison in wormwood were not really the issue it was actually  the quantity consumed. Van Gogh, Hemingway and others were addicted to absinthe and suffered those consequences along with other mental health issues. 

But still, a fascinating and romantic story, no?

So I was surprised to search on absinthe use and find it is again quite popular for its taste, unusual color, intoxicating effect and because of the charmingly complicated ritual used to serve and consume it.

Just look at these lovely modern absinthe spoons.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Great Power of Acting As If

In Twelve-Step programs we hear the phrase “Act as If” many times. We are guided to “act as if” we have courage when we are scared, and we are told to “act as if” when we feel like an imposter in our work lives.

Acting as if has helped me many times. It’s a great tool to shift from negative to positive and it is a way to invite the changes we are making to shift from being intellectual concepts to be fully embodied parts of us.

Act as if is closely related to “Fake it till you make it” which I first heard in Alanon. In that program the “faking” I had to do was to act like I felt detachment when I was still clinging and craving. There are still many times when I tell myself to act like a writer and teacher when my confidence is missing in action.

These ideas are not new and they are not unique to Twelve-Step thinking. Like most AA wisdom the idea of acting or faking our way to growth and change has been around a long time.
Aristotle wrote, “We acquire virtues by first having put them into action.”

 Many years later the philosopher William James expanded on the connection between how we act and how we feel wrote, “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together. By regulating the action, which is under the direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”

It’s worth noting that early AA’s devoured the writings by William James, especially his book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” Bill Wilson was enraptured by these ideas of the early psychologists in the James circle.

Then, translating for a modern sensibility, Timothy Wilson at the Universality of Virginia said, “One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change precedes changes in attitude and feelings.”

Look at that again: “Behavior change precedes changes in attitude and feelings.” If you don’t like how you feel first change your behavior. It’s so simple but still hard to really get it. Don’t wait around to feel better; act as if.

Yeah, “act as if” is much easier said than done. But maybe make it an experiment. And here’s a bit of crazy contemporary proof: Research over many years has now shown that people who use Botox are less prone to anger, and it’s because they can’t make angry facial expressions.

One tiny caution: “Act as if” shouldn’t be used with your finances. Don’t spend money you don’t have and don’t charge-card yourself into debt. But even there you can act more generous than you feel by donating or tithing and the feeling of generosity will follow.

So I’m making these notes to myself this week: Act like I love to meditate, act like my body craves yoga and don’t wait to feel like writing: Just go do it and watch the feeling follow.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Does My Higher Power Love Clothes?

After these many years of working a Twelve-Step program I recently began to think about this idea of “choose your own Higher Power.” Of course I had heard that many times over the years. You too heard about making the group your Higher Power or make Nature your Higher Power or in those blunt, old-timer voices, “You can make the radiator your Higher Power, just pick something and pray to it.”

Maybe this was the snob in me but I thought, “well, if they have to do that I guess it’s OK but I have a God and that’s the best kind of HP.” Yeah, I guess that is being a spiritual snob.

But a few weeks ago I heard a woman who has a recovery life that I admire talking about how she created her HP and it hit me, “They really mean it—we can choose.” And I wrote this note in my journal: “Can I create my own loving, positive, supportive God and HP? What would He/She be like? How would I connect to them?”

I felt new freedom right away. Just pondering that helped me realize how much I had carried a childhood God into my recovery Higher Power. No wonder surrender is still hard. And no wonder I feel like I have to bargain and deal. But then another fear it me:

I like clothes a lot and I like art. I’m also a writer and I love to read. I spend a lot on books and clothes and well, beautiful things. That can’t be very spiritual, right? So the guilt again: Still not good enough for God.

But this morning looking at the new line of Eileen Fisher clothes—always joking that she must have designed for Thomas Merton and for nuns—it hit me: God loves beauty. God must love beauty a lot—look at all the beauty, design, color, style in the the natural world. My God, (literally) I’d love to wear any color combinations I see out my window today. Wouldn’t you? And perfumes? Yep. And design, shape, line. All there.

And literature? Whatever faith you follow there is beautiful language and marvelous texts. And there are stories that have transcended thousands of years, and poetry—every religion has poetry. Religious poetry is the basis for all secular poetry. So God must care about language, narrative and words.

And my beach vacation? God. The way my heart leaps at a beautiful scarf? God. Beautifully designed and well-crafted shoes? God.

Now we cannot be without discernment here. If I want 20 scarves (and I do) that’s not really faith-filled. There is greediness and grabby-ness in that? And that part of me that searches for a new handbag and then as soon as I buy one starts to look again---Oh that is my addiction and not my serene love of beauty talking.

But I’m going to try out this new Higher Power and believe that He/She is also happy with Eileen Fisher—and maybe has a hand in the social-justice-plus-fashion work that Eileen is doing. And maybe this Higher Power wants me to feel lovely and confident so I can write and speak to carry His/Her message. Maybe when I pray I can talk about all of me: my recovery, my work, my relationships and the beauty around me, and I can ask this new HP, “New olive bag—guide me on this too please.” And then get really quiet.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Alcohol AND Food

Did you know in your gut that this had to be true? Of, course! Our addiction to alcohol is connected to our addictions to food--or food behaviors.

The article below talks about the latest research that shows a connection between alcoholism and eating disorders. A predilection perhaps or a shared genetic risk factor. This helps us understand addiction as an illness and it also puts ground under our feet when we think about transferring addictions as many of us do as recovery progresses.

Here is the link. Take a look:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Could AA Be Even More Effective?

That’s the question asked in a recent article in MIND—a publication of Scientific American.

The article titled, “Staying Sober Under Pressure” addresses gender differences in relapse and relapse-prevention. It says that one third of Alcoholics Anonymous members are women and while AA helps members of both sexes to recover from addiction it does it in different ways because—typically --male and female alcoholics drink for different reasons.

The article’s author, Melinda Wenner Moyer reports of the work of John Kelly and Bettina Hoeppner at Mass General who analyzed data collected over 15 months from AA members. They found that male alcoholics typically relapse when they are in social-drinking situations and that AA is very helpful by teaching members how to change people, places and things and to learn to socialize without alcohol.

On the other hand they found that it is more likely that women will relapse when they are feeling down or in an emotional crisis yet according to this article, “AA does little to help them handle emotion-driven drinking.”

Well, if you have been around a while you know what they mean but you also know that women in recovery find other women to support them when they are in an emotional crisis. Maybe not by raising a hand in a meeting but by having sober women friends and more often by connecting with them in the meeting outside the meeting.

But Moyer asks a great question, which is: If AA addressed these gender differences more actively could it become even more effective?

Monday, August 19, 2013

AA Home Group on Vacation

One of the delights of a long recovery is having Twelve-step meetings as part of travel. It is, I think, a best kept secret that people in twelve-step programs have instant travel assistance and access to great tourist advice.

Over the years I have been to meetings in other states and in France, Germany, Poland, England, The Czech Republic, Mexico and Bermuda. I've gotten directions, restaurant advice, suggestions on local sites, invites to performances, guidance on public transportation, sometimes rides and always smiles and patience with the language barrier.

A real treat of twelve-step travel is having a home group in another location. I have been going to Cape Cod for many years and I now have a temporary home group at 6:30 am in Eastham, Mass. It's a group of year-round folks who see their attendance swell to triple and even quadruple in summer months. I look forward to the welcoming faces; I see how their  lives change each year and I have a place to talk freely about whatever issues arise on vacation. And I learn that AA principles always prevail regardless of location, politics or langauge.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

We Practice Humility Just Like Yoga

You know how sometimes you read The Big Book or other recovery literature that you've read before and you have one of those moments when you think, "How long has this been in here?" I'm having one now.

We learn about gratitude and about humility in our very earliest days. I remember the old tough-guy speakers in my early recovery in Baltimore, Maryland who would say to anyone who whined about life being hard, "You need to make a gratitude list and start with, 'I am not on fire." Yeah. Every now and then I had to do that. But we got it: be grateful.

And humility, we kind of understand that we are supposed to be humble and speak about ourselves in a humble way, and yes, we had all that confusion about humility and humiliation--very tough if you came from an abusive family, but we learned the difference.

But now I'm re-thinking how we "do" gratitude and humility. They are attitudes and habits ad they become that because--here's the new part: they are disciplines and practices. In the same way that yoga or meditation are a practice; we do them no matter what and no mater how we feel. We can practice gratitude and humility the same way.

In the way that Jack Kornfield teaches the practice of meditation using the analogy of training a puppy: we say to our mind--very gently--"Come back, sit, stay" and when it drifts again we pick t up, put it back on the paper, "Sit, stay." And again, gently, "Sit, stay." And again.... always gently...

Humility is a practice and a discipline. That's how the belief and attitude get inside us, grow in us and become us. Ahhhhh.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Titanic Sinks and Sinks and Sinks....

Here is a fact to ponder:

Each day 1400 Americans die from alcohol and drug addiction. That includes alcohol, illegal drugs, misuse of prescription drugs and does not include addictions to food, gambling and sex which also have     significant death/suicide rates.

The sinking of the grand ship Titanic resulted in 1500 deaths.

It is as if the Titanic sinks every day, over and over again.

Maybe we just haven't had the right movie yet to make us care about all of those lives lost to addiction.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Am I Growing in Recovery?

I’ve been taking a class about faith and spiritual growth. The teacher said to us that the real measure of spiritual growth is not about memorization of texts or attendance at services or even about rituals performed. Instead, she said, the real test of growing in faith is this:

1.      Am I more loving?
2.      Am I more forgiving?
3.      Is my hunger for justice more intense?

Isn’t that a great mini inventory?

It led me to think about the question: Am I growing in my recovery and a few similar questions:

1.      Am I more loving?
2.      Am I kinder with myself and others?
3.      Am I more gentle in my life, “wearing life like a loose garment”?
4.      Am I increasingly more at peace with all substances and behaviors? (drugs, alcohol, food,    shopping, relationships, work –and always—my thinking?
5.      Am I making a regular connection with what is bigger than me—my Higher Power?

What other questions would you ask yourself as a gauge of your continuing recovery?

Monday, August 05, 2013

Yearning and the Will of God

Often when we talk about the will of God there is a kind of sigh, a letting out of air, a letting go. Maybe that surrender is in the right place. But sometimes we speak of God’s Will with a resignation and a sense that “Well, I better obey if I know what’s good for me”. Like we’re all going to  the principal’s office for trying to have fun at school.

But what if God does want us to have fun? What if He/She really means for us to be happy—not in some sanctimonious way—but in a real world belly laugh, giggle and stand in awe way.

I can start to allow myself to believe that when I read Thomas Merton. Here is a bit on what he has to say about God’s will and yearning:

Some people view the will of God as an elephant hanging overhead, ready to fall on them. Actually the word which we translate into English as “will” comes from both a Hebrew and a Greek word which means yearning. It is that yearning which lovers have for one another. Not a yearning of the mind alone or of the heart alone but of the whole being. Any yearning which we feel is only a glimmering of the depth of the yearning of God for us.

God yearns for us? Could we really be happy, joyous and free? If that were true how would it change your life?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

We Keep On Learning About Ourselves

One of the reasons that I hope that I will stay in Twelve-Step recovery forever is that I love that I keep on learning--and yes--learning about myself. True, it can be painful when you have one of those moments (weeks/months) when you realize, "Ugh, how long have I been doing that?" And the "that" is something you have been doing for ages and not thought twice about.

I had one of those Aha! moments on vacation last week. We were on a wonderful trip and we spent long days walking and doing museums and just going and going and of course, I got tired and then I got cranky. Now that could happen if I was vacationing with a friend but in this case I was with my husband and I realized (after several days) that when I got tired and cranky that I was speaking to him in a really mean voice. You know that voice--kinda whiny and blamey and with that "you asshole" undertone? Yeah.

And one night in the hotel room I heard myself. Oh. And I thought, "If I was traveling with a friend--even if I felt awful I might say how tired I was or that I was unwell but I would not use my "You idiot--it's your fault" tone of voice. And I thought, "So stop doing that right now." And then I thought, "This is a gift of longterm recovery--and I want this." I knew I was doing it; I wanted to stop; no excuses and no rationalizations. And I'm grateful for that.

Yes, there's a slice of humble pie to eat. Sure, but it's kind of yummy pie when you realize you can actually change.