Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sit Still & Feel

New Year’s Eve Day. From Christmas through New Year’s its been a light week at work. A graceful period with days off and shorter days and easier days as the phone rings less because everyone else is traveling or doing holiday things. The kind of days and weeks I hope for at other times of the year. I recall looking forward to a stretch like this.being able to come home early or stay home and the best holiday days when we are just at home and not visiting family. This week there have been many of those longed for days.

And I have been nutty.

All that time when life was too busy and I longed for these shorter days. Oh the things I imagined I’d do: I’d read, I read harder books that require concentration. I’d learn to use my I-POD. I’d learn to use my digital camera correctly. I’d learn to sue the new medium camera I wanted so badly but now suspect that I wanted because its way cooler than a digital camera. I am afraid to line up all these technology toys I have acquired in 30 months and realize I wanted them because I want to be the kind of woman who can use a digital camera, video camera, I-Pod, medium format camera and a Treo.

But there is something else going on this week too. I’m not sitting still to play with or learn any of these things. I am home; I have less work and fewer obligations. It’s not like I’m going to extra meetings or doing service instead. What I am not doing is sitting still.

Why does it take so long to catch on? To notice that while I say “sit still and feel” and I grasp that when work is busy and I am racing thru a work day that there is a bit of “feelings can’t hit a moving target”, now, when I do have time and space to be still, I am NOT. One of the reasons that sitting still hides or I hide the truth from myself is the Internet. I have the illusion that I am sitting and doing intellectual work when I look up say, The Lord’s Prayer in Latin. I think, hey I’ll learn this; I’ll learn to pray the Lords Prayer in Latin this year. I also now grasp what an addiction EBay can be. No, I’m not selling my clothes or buying someone else’s but I’m looking, looking, looking. It’s fantasy shopping. It’s living in the realm of possibility rather than reality and in fact it’s another—yet one more—way to not feel.

Twenty-plus years of recovery, therapy and likely a million hours of self-help thinking and the most basic piece still eludes me: Sit still and feel.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Looking for Signs

I laugh now at how many times in my life I have prayed for a sign to let me know if I was on the right path or for help in making a decision. In very difficult moments I have begged for skywriting from the universe and just last week I told a friend that I’m still waiting for an envelope from God with my name on it. Maybe I watched too many episodes of Mission Impossible as a kid, but part of me wants instructions that spell out clearly what I should do with my life.
I know God doesn’t work that way, but I also know I’m not alone in wanting him to. Some people flip coins or watch birds or follow the crude metals index. Others keep psychics in business and ensure that books on spiritual guidance top the bestseller lists. I’ve tried it all and I’ve been to Tarot readers, thrown the I Ching and I have a well-worn set of Rune stones.
Years ago when people close to me were dying and I was tearfully demanding to know God’s will, a friend who was more experienced in grief chastised and reassured me by saying, “Gods will is what is”. The simplicity and profundity of that statement silenced me for a while.
But I come back again to wanting to know, and often it’s at this time of year and there’s a good reason. As the winter begins and we are faced with dark and cold there is a pull from deep in our bones that drive us to seek light and answers. The need for light at this time of year is so great that we adapted culturally to give it to ourselves. We have Solstice and now Hanukkah and then Christmas, all great stories about finding light.
The part of the Christmas story that has always meant the most to me is that of the three wise men making their journey, traveling on a hunch, a belief, and their deep wanting. They had studied the sky for years and then they saw their sign.
In his poem, Journey of the Magi T.S. Eliot wrote: “At the end we preferred to travel all night, sleeping in snatches, with the voices singing in our ears, that this was all folly.”
Of course that is the problem with star following. You just don’t know. We see this most painfully now looking at the news. Stories of young men and women as heroes in Iraq and others, the same age who commit terrible crimes. All of them following their stars. But how do you know until you show up whether there’s going to be a baby or a bullet?
So the wise men’s lesson is all about faith: We do our best, we study, we consult with others, we try to be wise men and women, but we have to get on our camels, bring our gifts and hope we are doing good.
This is solstice week and these are our darkest days. We cope in the most ancient of ways. We go toward the light--to neon and the mall, to crowds of shoppers, even as our ancient relatives were drawn to stars and the fire.
Through all of this we’ll read our horoscopes. We’ll hope our loved ones will be spared the only thing that no one can be, which is death. We’ll look at the night sky and try to believe. No wonder a baby born in a barn is a great story. No wonder we look for signs.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I Coulda Been A Contenda

I read the literature, I go to meetings, I talk in therapy and I pray earnestly the third and seventh step prayers. I ask for my “somebody-ness” and my ego manic to be removed or at least lessened. I am sincere. I have humor about this too. I talk to others and to God and I mean it when I say, “Thy will not mine be done.” And I mean it when I say, “Help me to carry your message and not my ego.” Inside I am secretly proud of this good spiritual intention of mine, also, humorously, observing the pride of my own humility.

And then, ah, and then.

And then at work I bristle when the Board questions my decisions. I smile but tighten when someone asks why I need this or that in the budget. That would be the organization’s budget, but I am thinking of it as “my” budget.

Oh, I catch myself and I think, “Not mine, not mine, God’s will, carry your message, not my ego.”

I talk to my self as if I am training a dog: “Ego down, down ego, down girl.”

How deeply embedded is this ME and MINE. How intractable this will to be recognized, to be somebody. There’s a juvenile tone voice in this that I recognize as a stereotype from a bad teen gang movie: “He disrespected me, man.”

Jesus, who is this in me?

I can imagine that with just a touch of senility, or a teensy bite of dementia and I will be parroting an even worse movie line, “I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contenda.”

Sunday, December 10, 2006


For years I’ve heard the comparisons. We are told to think of going to AA as a necessary life-saving practice, as our treatment and we are offered comparisons to other serious illnesses. We talk about needing AA the way that a diabetic needs insulin or the way that someone with cancer needs chemotherapy. Now, as I see more people with serious illnesses in my day job, I’m learning that the need for AA may best be compared to Dialysis.

Dialysis is the regular—three to five day a week --treatment that is used to clean the blood and remove toxins from the body when a person has experienced kidney failure. There are many causes of kidney failure, high blood pressure being one and it can also occur in conjunction with other illness or disability. Before dialysis was invented people died. Now they go to a Dialysis Center and have their blood cleaned. It takes a couple of hours and it has to be repeated in a day or two to keep the body functioning and to keep the patient alive.

Well, this Saturday I had errands—Ok I was having my brows done and it’s hard to get an appointment with Ruth—so I chose to miss my regular home group meeting. It meant no Saturday meeting or—what a thought—it meant that I could go to a different meeting, a less familiar one. I decided that I needed a meeting more than familiarity so I went. Sitting there I had this thought: I need to be here to clean up my thinking and to change-up my attitude and to have a bit of soul cleansing as well. Takes an hour—an hour and a half with the commute-- And I need to repeat this at least twice a week.

Now I have gone longer without a meeting and I’m still alive. And after 20 years I don’t start craving a drink when I miss a meeting, but something in me does get unhealthy, something in me is less clear, and I know that I don’t function quite as well as when I attend two meetings a week.

So it hit me: Going to AA a couple of times a week—the prescription may require more or less for each of us—is spiritual dialysis. And like dialysis treatment, some of the places are nicer than others, some have grumpy staff and some have newer magazines and nicer snacks, but that’s not the most important factor. What matters is that I get there as much as my recovery requires so I can stay clean and sober.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Lindsay Lohan Goes To AA

Today my newspaper headed the people section with the news that Lindsay Lohan has attended AA meetings. My first reaction, “well so much for anonymity.” Then I thought, “What happened to the good old days when the news media had respect for AA and complied with the request that last names not be used.

I figured that those days are over…and besides does anyone really want to say instead that “Lindsay L. went to AA”...that doesn’t actually help does it. So do we care?
After much mulling I decided that I do care and not so much for Lindsay—though I do care that even this young celebrity is not going to be able to attend an AA meeting in peace and that—shame on us—someone in those AA meetings was gossiping and violating our tradition of anonymity—but it’s the other less famous young women that I care about.

Think about it. Young women who emulate the “It” girls whether in NYC or LA or Madison Wisconsin are getting lots of messages about drinking and drugs and eating disorders and other abuses. Now, even what might be a positive, this celeb young woman trying to clean up her act, is announced in a way that would scare a young person off. “Oh, I see, this AA has people who gossip, who care more about whispering about a famous person in the room than about the sobriety and one day at a time that we profess to believe is the most important thing. What happened to “the one who got up earliest today is the one with the most sobriety”? And what happened to, “I just want to be another Bozo on the bus”?

Shame on the media for not thinking through what it means when AA attendees are exposed, but really, shame on people in AA rooms who whisper and gossip and talk outside about who they saw there and what they heard.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Grateful for Mixed Blessings

On Thursday many of us will be sitting down to dinner with family or friends and gratitude will be mentioned as we offer a blessing on the meal. It’s appropriate to the day of course; we know the Pilgrim’s story of thankfulness for surviving their first difficult year in the New World.

At many of our tables there will be a nod to the formerly religious aspect of the day. Someone will suggest, “Let’s go around the table and everyone say what they’re grateful for.”

It’s easy at times like this to name good health, career success, and our kid’s accomplishments, but we often forget that some of our best gifts don’t come in pretty wrapping. I suggest that we put a new spin on this tradition. This year ask your guests: What are the mixed blessings in your life this year?

Here are some examples: There was the day you were running late and therefore missed the big accident or traffic jam; or the day you skipped church but when channel surfing heard a speaker or story that gave you a new outlook on life; Maybe it was the day you got lost in a new part of town but in your wandering found a store that sold exactly what you had been hunting for months. Get the idea?

Then try upping the ante a bit: How about when you got fired but at out-placement you found the work you really want to do? Or maybe the person you wanted to marry said “No”, and broke your heart, but months later you met the one you were supposed to make a life with. You get the idea, but let’s push it a bit farther. How about the serious illness that knocked you off your feet but having to stay in bed gave you time to recast your life? Or maybe the struggle to accept a more permanent disability made it plain who your friends really were or revealed a talent you didn’t know you had?

Okay, even harder now: What about the death of a loved one that devastated you but one day in the midst of grief you felt something other than pain and realized you were feeling joy like nothing you had ever felt and you knew that you were able to feel it because the grief had cracked you open. Similarly, you may have gotten a gift from someone else’s death when you saw just how short life is and you decided to quit with the worry/status/fear and get on with your life.

These mixed blessings are not easy to accept or admit, and sometimes it is just faith itself that is the gift. It can be in the midst of terrible things that we’re forced to develop trust, and then we find, when the crisis is over, that our new beliefs are ours to keep. Of course the graduate school level of this kind of gratitude is saying “Thank You” even before the good part comes. If you’ve had experience with mixed blessings you begin to know-- even while life is painful or unpleasant-- that there will be meaning in it. And so we say Thank You –purely on faith –even when we’re getting hit hard.

Yes, some of these blessings come in less than Hallmark moments. Maybe it was the painful feedback from a friend that clued you in on the truth about your personality flaws, or the DWI that was humiliating and expensive but it was also what made you look at your problem and change your life. Maybe it was an emotional breakdown that allowed you to put yourself back together in a new and stronger way.

As parents we coach our kids with, “What do you say?” when a gift or compliment is given. Can we learn to say that to ourselves when life hands us a package that isn’t very pretty?

So when, “What are you grateful for?” comes around at your Thanksgiving table this week don’t groan. Name the blessings that came from pain and grief or loss and trouble. When we can say Thanks for both the good and the bad, for easy and hard times, then, just like the Pilgrims, we’ll have a real Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Big Trip

“I am going to that country which all my life I have wished to see.”

William Blake, on his death bed.

Is this what is at the heart of travel and going to see new lands? Are we really always preparing for that big trip, the true terra incognita? The place that is so unimaginable?

Why do we spend money and time to see new places, to endure the rigors and inconveniences of travel, especially now that we can have so many nearly virtual experiences of other places on the planet? In the whole of a life why physically go to other countries? Why be hot or cold or tired or lost or bothered by airports, lines, discomforts and the protocols of travel? To learn, yes. To see, yes. But why?

What place is it that we are really craving or preparing for?

If you stay sober and in recovery for a long time you eventually have to deal with death. Over the course of one’s recovery it gets closer and closer. You know people who die in and out of the rooms. At first it may be the “but for the grace of God” variety: the former friends who didn’t stop drinking and we learn of the car accident or the illness directly attributable to drinking. Later it is other sober folks in the rooms who are older than us and we see them deal with cancer and heart attacks and consequences of serious medical conditions that are among the luck of the draw. Then it is a peer, someone our age or with our same number of years in recovery. And family members: parents, siblings. It comes closer.

It is a fact of long sobriety. If you stay sober people you love will die and you too will get sick and die. Contemplating our own death is still so unimaginable that I hear people say, “Well, if I was going to die…” If?

Perhaps this is why we need to remember that this is a spiritual program. That it is only about alcohol in the most indirect manner. Booze was the loss leader that got us into the practice of making a sober life and beginning this spiritual journey. At the heart of recovery we are preparing for the rest of the trip. That country which Blake longed for as only a poet who faces the emotional truth of life could long. And as only we can too, those of us who remind each other not to leave “before the miracle happens.”

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Becoming Nobody

I'm Nobody! Who are you?Are you a Nobody Too?

These words from an Emily Dickinson poem keep going through my head. Suddenly this once silly-seeming poem, one that I always thought out of character for a poet as significant as Dickinson, is making sense.

She was a writer with ambition, yet she lived undiscovered. Her fame and importance came after death. How did she reconcile her writing, the desire to be read (an important part of the equation for any writer) and the failure of the universe to deliver publication and readers?

Did she finally decide to surrender to being nobody?

This week I am at this place. I think of it as Surrender to Nobody, or Embracing My Inner Nobody. The process has gone like this: I was asked to do some volunteer work editing a newsletter for a community organization. It's the kind of thing I can do but find no pleasure in, yet the possible pay off was being part of a committee of other businesswomen who have some stature of a sense in the community. It's been my bad habit in the past to say yes to this kind of project, hate every minute of it and then push thru with constant dread or resentment until the project is over, or sometimes quit halfway through and feel tons of guilt.

This time when I saw the email asking me to sign up I felt dread. I knew in every cell that I did not want to do this. But I did not immediately answer and say no. Why? I began to look below the surface and found this: I wanted to be part of the Cool Club. I thought that maybe there'd be some recognition, some cachet. But my second breath and the second beat asked me: cachet from what? And for what? Is it worth that many hours of my life and giving up even just precious time alone to get an Atta-boy from some folks I barely know and am not sure that I like?

So what was underneath this then? Recovery really is a process of deep mining, and the steps teach us, like archaeologists, to sift through layer after layer, to check our motives and look for patterns in our character. What I began to see was that under my hesitation to say a clear NO to something I clearly did not want to do was this sad little thought: This might be my only chance to have some recognition, to be somebody if only in a Chamber of Commerce kind of way. Ouch. Was--or is--my need for Somebody-ness that great? Apparently it is. Thoughts flowed faster then: How many times had I joined committees, Boards, attended events, paid for tickets to dinners or paid to have my name on a list to buy a tiny piece of Somebody-ness? The answer: many. And how many times did I take jobs because I wanted a certain title or to say I work for SO&SO, Inc. because it might impress or cause me to have some--some what? Some Somebody-ness.

What would it mean to give that up? The rewards were clear with the first question I posed to my inner self: My God, I could save time, money, committee meetings, eating bad food and endless smiling and shaking of hands. I could use that time and money to do things I liked: be alone, write what I like to write, read more, take classes for pure pleasure, and spend time with friends, people I genuinely like rather than people I wanted to have like me.

And the cost to get there? The price? The process of achieving that freedom? Emily Dickinson's words came to me: "I'm a Nobody! Who are you? Are you a Nobody too?"

Can I be Nobody? Can I aspire to Nobody-ness? Shall I surrender my craving for costly somebody-ness, to achieve the peace of nobody-ness? Dare I?
I'm hoping so.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

William James Plays A Part

I’m reading the new biography of William James by Robert Richardson. It’s a “think” book, a biography of James ideas. Those of us in AA a while learn that James, “Varieties of Religious Experience” was a formative text for Bill Wilson. He talks about that in the Big Book and references it again in the “Twelve and Twelve.” But where does it enter the story? And why is it so important in the history of AA?

Turns out that we have to give James some credit for AA. We all know that Bill W. was a salesman and a bit of a hustler. He tells some of those tales on himself in “Bill’s Story” in the front of the Big Book. There he is on his motorcycle with Lois codependently clinging to his back or riding in the sidecar. Off they go to investigate industries so Bill can sell the research back to his broker friends. There’s a joke I’ve heard told many different ways about Bill as a sales man first. It goes something like this: We are lucky that AA was founded by the team of Dr. Bob and Bill W. because if it was left just to Bill W AA would be a franchise today and would have a pyramid sales plan like Amway, but if it had been left to Bob, there’d still be just one meeting and that would be in Akron on Thursday nights.

So we back up again: begin at the kitchen table in Brooklyn. Bill is drinking and Ebby is glowing with the light of new found religion. Ebby is carrying the message of the Oxford Group that he received from Rowland H. who got the goods from Carl Jung. Bill sort of dimly understands what Ebby has experienced and why this might be important, he starts to grasp that he’s gotta have a transformation. So when he is next ready for another try at drying out he appeals to the famous Dr. Silkworth and in the beginning conversations Bill says to Silkworth: “Read this book”, handing him William James “Varieties”. Bill knows from Ebby and Rowland that he’s got to have a conversion experience and James text is a menu and a cookbook of conversion experiences. Bill takes an idea, an intellectual text and marries these in treatment with Silkworth.

What James has contributed to the mix is the idea of “ego deflation at depth”. As repugnant as that term sometimes seems it is at the heart of making change. And crucial to note, “Ego deflation” was not born in AA as we sometimes talk of it. It comes from William James rigor at taking apart how one has a spiritual (religious) experience.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

You'll Do Everything Sober That You Did Drunk

I was two years sober the first time I heard someone say, “In recovery you’ll get to do everything sober that you did drunk.” I immediately blurted out, “I can’t be married that many times.”

I was ashamed of having been married four times. My dearest hope was that after I stopped drinking my problems with men would naturally—and fairly easily—right themselves.

You smile. Yes, I did believe in the 13th promise, the one I thought said that we get love and partners and boyfriends after we get sober. Not quite, as you well know. So I did not warm to the idea that I’d go thru all that hell again sober.

But of course I did. No, not four more weddings, but relationships that didn’t work, relationships in which I picked men just as bad as before and even harder to face and fess up to in recovery: relationships in which I was just as bad as before. And then I did fall in love with a better kind of man, but in early recovery I still hadn’t worked thru the old family stuff and cleared up my own past, so I then had a divorce in recovery. That hurt a lot. It hurt more because I was stunned that it could happen. I really was trying my best, and it also hurt a lot more because by then I had no booze, no drugs, and no eating disorder to help mask the pain. And then there was the shame of the rooms. I had invited my home group to the wedding. We didn’t literally do it but it was as if we walked hand in hand through the circle and triangle from the altar. And then it was over and each day I went back to that same home group and talked about the divorce and the amends and—the good part: what I was learning and changing about me.

So it is true: You’ll get to do everything sober that you did drunk. Most of us will not rob a bank or steal from our employer but we will dance, shop, date, have sex (yea!) and we’ll certainly lie, avoid, fight with family and friends, get our feelings hurt and do a good share of hurting others. We’ll be parents still or, in some cases again, some of us will get fired in sobriety, so that means we’ll be unemployed again and go on job interviews again. We may have to borrow from family again. But we’ll have the chance to do it differently.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Heresy: Part II

I’ve been thinking this week about the way that we sometimes talk about the founders and early AA members as if they are gods or celebrities. Those who have read some of AA’s own history or who read the “non-conference approved” stuff like Susan Cheever’s book on Bill Wilson or the biography of Marty Mann have learned about the very real, very human lives of early members before and after their recovery.

Bill took a lot of drugs. He was still seeking a way to “cure” alcoholism with LSD years after he wrote that there is no cure, “only a daily reprieve.” Today I can smile at that contradiction and realize that he too was impatient with recovery; he too still wanted the “fix” even if it was himself he wanted fixed.

Here’s another favorite heresy: I heard early on, and still hear, “I learned never to say no to any request in AA”. Well, after some time in recovery what I have really learned is to say “no” any time the answer for me is, “No”. Recovery is about recovering my true intentions, my true needs and some good intuition. Alcohol, drugs and food addictions taught me to override my own feelings and preferences. Recovery taught me to sense, value and trust my own truth. So if I’m asked to do something in AA and I really don’t want to do it I know that the healthy thing to say is, “No”.

Another thing we often hear in the rooms is that “Fear and faith cannot occupy the same space”. I liked the sound of that and it did send me to prayer many times. But today I think it’s wrong. Fear and faith are always in the same space. They are two sides of a coin; fear can even be the path to faith, and faith can be the tool that let’s us invite more fear into our lives so that more old gunk will be surfaced so that even more healing can occur.

That brings me to what may be the biggest piece of AA heresy: I remember being told over and over in meetings: Old timers would say it first: “All you need to know about God is that you’re not it”. Then others would parrot, “All I need to know about God is that I’m not Him.” I get it; many of us need a bit of our narcissism scraped away. But today I think it might go something like this, “All I need to know about God is that He is me. Or at least: He is in me. If God works through other people, as we say he does, and if sometimes I am one of the people he is working through then he must be in me. And If God made me and loves me then I am part of Him. I don’t need to diminish me to love God.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Recovery is, after all, a spiritual path.

Among the treasures I’ve heard at meetings over the years is this exchange:
A newcomer raises his hand and suggest as a topic for discussion, “the spiritual part of the program”. An old timer responds by raising his hand and says, “There is no spiritual PART. The program itself is spiritual. We have a spiritual awakening as THE result of working the program and the steps.

So many of us are, sooner or later, looking at religion, spiritual practices, reading yet more books and seeking spiritual direction. In my search I found solace and help in parts of Buddhism—yes like music sampling, I take pieces of various religions and faiths and I make an amalgam. It’s kind of like making a quilt. It might be pretty, or it might not appeal to you, but it keeps me warm. In this mix a theme or dominant thread is compassion. This is not to say that I have become a compassionate person. What is closer to the truth is that I crave compassion. To be more compassionate, to believe that God is compassionate and to embody compassion as much as I can-imperfectly—every day.

On my altar—the top shelf of my dresser-- is a small openhanded statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, a female deity, who embodies this spiritual quality. It’s fair to say that I want what she has!

A year ago visiting the Kripalu Yoga Center in Lenox, Massachusetts I found this quote on the wall in one of the stairwells: Under a picture of the Dali Lama it says: “through compassion you learn that all human beings are just like you.”. I loved that and it helped me to remember --in short form—that we are all broken and that often those most badly behaved are most broken. I keep this quote inside the front cover of my daily to-do list. Each time I start a new notebook and have to re-write the quote I ask myself if I still want to learn this. As of today I still do. Those words are also a reminder that the folks who bug me the most do so because they display the parts of me that I have least acknowledged or accepted.

There is another layer to the idea of compassion that I am just beginning to grasp, and can barely apply, and that is captured in these words from philosopher, activist and mystic Simone Weil who wrote: “Compassion directed to oneself is humility.”

Her words cut so close to what is hardest about deep recovery and deep faith: we are loved and our job is to love ourselves too and in that deep accepting love is genuine humility. There it is again, the paradox of recovery, the borderline heresy. We are to direct compassion to ourselves. We may practice on others—as hard as that seems most days—but ultimately to practice compassion for ourselves, and in that self-centered-seeming act is humility.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Heresy After 20 Years Recovery

There are a few things that we begin to say to each other when we meet someone else who has double-digit recovery. We test the waters a bit and then we gently admit to a few things and after a while you realize you are speaking AA heresy. Here are some of the heretical beliefs I’ve come to after 20-plus years.

We come to AA so we never have to drink again. Yes, there is truth there but it’s only partly true. We now know that AA is one of the methods or strategies or things you can do to stop drinking. But it’s not the only way. Those of us to stick around like AA and we like not drinking and we like the lives we get from not drinking but--by this time—we know a number of people who stopped on their own, or through a faith program or through therapy or –ye gads! Even modifying their drinking! Those are not my choice but after some years I no longer am so scared that I need to bash what other people choose and what many other people find effective.

Related to this is: AA is about alcohol. Well of course it is. It was in the beginning. Today, as we say, I go to AA for my thinking as well as my long-ago drinking. But now I don’t want to go to one meeting for booze and another for drugs and another for food and another program for relationships. I want to go to a meeting for my RECOVERY!
So that stuff about “We only talk about alcohol here.” No, I talk about my recovery here.

And let’s end on this heretical note today:
Before: If you leave AA you will drink again. After: When people leave AA some of them drink again and some of them don’t. Some move onto richer spiritual lives, some become nasty mean spirited people because that’s who they are and they would have stayed nasty in AA too. People do leave AA and never drink again. We know them, we’ve met them and after some number of years in recovery we are no longer afraid of them so we don’t have to make them wrong or bad. I stay in AA because I like AA and I like what I learn and how I grow and change and how my spiritual work deepens. The fear that I do have today is less about drinking and more about not growing and changing. I like what I’ve seen happen to me in AA and I want more. I don’t need to criticize anyone else who makes a different choice.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Regretting the Future

We know about The Promises. We know that the Promises appear after Step Nine in the Big Book and we are told that placement is no accident. You do the work you get the reward. Work the steps, especially those harder ones, and promises do come true.

One of the best promises is:
We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.
Now that really is freedom and I have experienced that promise coming true. But recently I have become aware of a new promise—or a new habit of thinking that needs attention. I am ready to invent this promise for the next layer of recovery:
We shall not regret the future.

Now’s here's how I got there. I’ve been tossing and turning lately about my work. Do I do my art work? Should I put more energy into my business career—also known as my day job? Should I make an effort to network more—oh dreaded term, dreaded concept—deliberately manipulative superficial interactions with others. OK, I guess I gave away my true feelings. Oh well. But when I look at my friends or colleagues who spend more time on career-building activities: networking, Chamber events, board work and purposeful volunteering and I think, maybe I should do that too. But then look at the artists I know who are achieving some success and I see the hours they put into their studios or at their desks or living the life of a starving artist and I think, well maybe if I really threw myself into that part of my work….

Now, it must be said, it is only through sobriety and recovery that we can get to a place where this tortured debate is even possible. I mean when we were drinking we didn’t have jobs or we lost them and the only art work we did was on a cocktail napkin at a bar. This then is another AA paradox: AA gave me hope and allowed me to dream and to imagine and also taught me to work, but in this wanting there is still something unmet, still, well, wanting.

But, that being said, the upside and the downside of long recovery is that I want more of this good life and so I torture myself with “What’s it gonna be?”

The real hell in this is that I am afraid I’ll make the wrong decision. If I give my all to the business work then maybe I’ll have some successes there but will I later really hate that I sold out my artist? On the other hand, if I go the “dedicated to art” route will I hate it that I don’t get accolades in the business community or maybe even look like a bit of a slacker to some?

I call this my Anticipatory Regret Syndrome. I regret the future no matter what it’s going to be.

So there is still more healing needed here. If the promises come true I’ll need healing toward this one I just invented: We shall not regret the future and we won’t torture ourselves with what it might or might not be.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Step Three for Fashionistas

OK, as we all know Step Three says: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him. And as all of us who have been around a bit know that even though this says “made a decision” it really is a process made up of many, many decisions made over a period of time.

In early recovery we get all ceremonial and maybe make a ritual of step three and we “take" it with another person…a very brave act of considerable intimacy. Later we take it again. And again. Often when life is hard: something is not going our way or when we want something. Spiritual wisdom and spiritual maturity teach us that sooner or later we’re gonna turn it over so why not sooner rather than later. I like to say that instead of waiting to hit the wall I try to take Step Three when I see the wall coming.

So it’s a process and our spiritual growth deepens with each “taking” of the third step. OK. I have taken this step on relationships, money, work, jobs, things I wanted and things I did not want. Like the instructions for praying for others that comes later in the Big Book we are advised to say the words whether our heart is in it or not. So too with Step Three. Turn It Over.

Years ago I learned this trick: when I am in a difficult meeting at work or have some fear of people or outcomes I write this at the top of my agenda or speaking notes: TIO. That’s my secret code reminder that I am trying to Turn It Over.

Earlier this year I heard this from a spiritual teacher: “Give yourself to God. Surrender your whole being to be used for His righteous purposes.” In essence that too is Step Three. I loved the phrasing of that though: Surrender Your whole being...ahhhh there is a kind of relief right in those words, no?

But a new layer of turning it over this year.

I am and have always cared about my appearance. Clothes, face and hair..Oh the search for the right haircut and the combination of cut and color. Superficial you say? Not very spiritual you think? Hold On. In early, early recovery I decided—getting all spiritual and all and having taken my first very ceremonial Step Three at the beach that I was too spiritual for hair color, make up and such, well, yes superficial things. At core I was just into a new kind of sacrificial mode. I was still trying to get good enough for God.

Luckily I had a sponsor who was tall and blonde and stylish and she said, “God does not want you to wear sackcloth and ashes, God loves you, get the highlights back in your hair.” And I believed her! How can you carry a message to others if you look like crap…is some newcomer going to want what you have if you look terrible or dowdy? Bad enough that people think there will be NO MORE FUN after sobriety but that they will have to look bad too? Remember this is attraction rather than promotion.

But flash forward 20 years and I am more or less surrendering work and my art work and my marriage and difficult things I need to do and in most cases the things I want. But most days I’m agonizing over my hair….20 salons later I still can’t find that gamine cut with the highlights that leave me looking pretty and chic and smart all at the same time, kind of like Susan Sontag in a bikini.

So it hits me, I’ve turned over everything else—taken most back on a regular basis but still--so why not how I look? Does that make you tremble? My hair, clothes, my “look” and God knows, what other people think of me or what they see and most important: how I feel about how I look.

OK, at the end of the day—or at the End of Fashion Week-- it’s still not a perfect surrender. I mean the Devil appears regularly in the form of Vogue and the New York Magazine Look Book…but I invite you to consider this: If God really does care, and God knows we like shoes and great hair cuts, wouldn’t he give that at least a teensy bit of consideration?

And besides the true benefit of surrender is peace. Peace of Mind, peace with others and if you are like me, peace with wardrobe and hair dresser too.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Behind Enemy Lines

“When I am in my head I’m behind enemy lines” I have heard that saying in AA rooms for years and always hated it.

Coming to AA from ACOA where I had to fight hard to learn to not criticize myself it sometimes seemed that there was an undercurrent of self-hatred in AA. That saying about my mind as the enemy epitomized that hatred. After all my mind is part of me and if I hate parts of me I’m hating myself.

I do know what people mean when they say that, and I have had experiences that let me know what Bob Earl, my favorite AA podium speaker, means when he says,—“My mind thinks it can kill me and go on without me.”

Last Friday for example, I was getting ready to go away for the weekend. I was leaving for a spiritual retreat. I planned to take the day off and give myself the whole weekend. So as I was preparing to leave the house I noticed the message light on the answer machine. I listened to the message—big mistake. And it was the office saying a big client called and wanted me to call him right away. Ugh. I know this guy and he’s the type to say “I need to see you right away”. I decided that I would simply not acknowledge that I got the message and I left on the trip. For a split second I thought, “Score one for recovery and self care”. And then I watched, and it felt as if I could actually see this happening, my mind began to attack me. The image I had was an octopus because of the way it went after so many parts of my identity and psyche all at once. First: “You are a very bad business woman, really good businesswomen always return client calls, and really good ones cancel trips to please clients.” I knew that was nutty, but then another tentacle struck, “and you are also a bad friend” Where did that come from? Before I could answer my octopus mind continued, “And people don’t like you; you are a fake, your spiritual life is a fraud; you are not smart; you are kidding yourself about your art work and writing; people probably don’t even want to know you.”

This took a matter of minutes and the mind tentacles attacked every part of me. The Octopus shot its poisonous black ink into every part of my life. While I watched!

Now, you may be wondering—I was too—How is this testimony to 20-plus years of recovery, counseling, spiritual direction, acupuncture, and even dance therapy?

This was not exactly an “If you want what I have” recovery moment. EXCEPT that—and here is the recovery nugget: I watched the whole thing. Some part of me had become conscious enough to actually see this game play out. I know this has happened over and over al my life, but this time I watched the tentacles grasp and sting and shoot and foul all the best of me. And because I could see it happening I began to act. I prayed, I wrote in my journal. I talked back to my mind and said, “Whoa”. No, it did not shift into Louise Hay sugar –sweet affirmations, but still I took back a tiny piece of the power. I did not become Happy Recovery Girl, but I began to put a foot on the ground and drag it against the momentum of the octopus mind and slow its progress. And then, and most important I got on the phone and called a friend and told her answering machine what I was watching my head do to me, and I made this commitment to her machine: I will not eat junk, shop like crazy or use any other addiction to fix this extremely uncomfortable feeling.

And then I got off the phone, erased the message from the office—without listening to it again—I mean I can learn! And I left for the retreat.

And that’s when I remembered that AA saying; When I am in my head I am behind enemy lines.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Answering Machines: Tool of Recovery

In beginner meetings where I got sober one of the rituals to start the meeting was to read a list of “tools” and have someone speak very briefly on each one. The list included: Meetings, sponsorship, literature, service and working the steps. Later in my recovery I learned to add one more that is to this day one of the lifesavers of my sobriety and a favorite tool for honesty and personal growth. That tool is: The answering machine.
Yes, it may seem odd but here’s how answering machines helped me in every stage of recovery:
In the very beginning I was told to get phone numbers and call other women in recovery. I dutifully got a long list of numbers but like many newcomers found it hard to pick up the phone to make the call. When my courage allowed me to actually dial the number there were many, many times that I’d hang up as soon as I heard a human voice answer. I was just too unsure, shy or embarrassed to make conversation. Luckily, I had a sponsor who understood. This was before Caller-ID but I think she knew who was calling and hanging up on her all the time. She suggested to me one day that each morning I should call her home phone—while she was at work—and leave a message on her answering machine. She said to me, “Leave me a message on the machine telling me how you are, what meeting you’re going to that day, and what you are worried about”.
She assured me that only she heard the messages so I could cry, yell, swear whatever I needed to say was OK.
That practice taught me to make calls and to practice telling the truth out loud. It was a way to make contact with another person and to learn the habit of saying how I really felt; kind of like making notes in a digital diary.
Sometimes my sponsor would call me back, sometimes not. If my messages said, “I need to talk” she’d call me, otherwise she’d comment on things I said when I saw her at meetings. After a few months of that I began to occasionally call her at night when she was home and we’d have a live two-way talk. The answering machine had helped me to break through my fear and to learn the habit of calling another sober woman.
As my recovery progressed I made friends with other women in the program. We were all busy with jobs and kids and service and going to lots of meetings so we too began to call each others machines and leave “Here’s what’s going on” messages. When one of us had a crisis, a break up, a bad day at work or a fear about a character defect that just popped up we’d dial each other and blather it into the machines.
When I began, along with my network of sober women, to do a 4th and 5th steps the answer machines served another purpose. Sometimes in that inventory process I’d have a memory or insight or some old piece of guilt or regret would rise to the surface and threaten to swallow me. I’d be stricken with shame of admitting and fear of not telling if I didn’t get it out of me fast. On those nights I’d call a friend’s answering machine and say: “I just need to say this out loud…” and then admit to something scary or shameful. Or I’d call to ask for help that I wasn’t quite ready to hear and leaving a message let me take the first step of admitting but would buy me some hours or days time to process what the amend or adjustment to my behavior might need to be.
Later still, when I became a sponsor, I invited those who called me to use my machine the same way. I made sure when I got married, in year ten of my sobriety, that the new answering machine in our home was the kind with separate mailboxes so that calls to me were private and messages discreet.
Today I know I would not be sober with out this tool. I still, many years later, call my sponsor just to talk to her machine. My messages usually begin, “I’m just making a program call and need to get this out.” Then I launch into my, “He said, she did, I said, I feel…” and pour out the details and worries of my situation or trouble. More often now these messages are also about the good things and the gratitude or the enjoyment of seeing myself in the process of change. Recently I called a sober friend who was vacationing to leave the message that I had just run into a woman I had struggled with for years. I couldn’t wait to report that we’d had a nice visit, laughed together and hugged when we parted. It was one of those moments when you know the program is working and the person you were is well in the past.
At other times my recovering friends and I use each other’s machines to handle situations with difficult people, places and things, even alcohol. On my way to a work-related event where booze is going to be plentiful I make a call to say, “Hey this meeting is going to be in a club and I just need to say I’ll be having a Coke.” It’s now been many years since I’ve wanted or even thought about taking a drink but the answering machine makes it possible to put myself on notice-- and on the record --that I am still careful.
No, an answering machine doesn’t take the place of a long two-way phone chat or sitting leisurely over coffee with a sponsor or a sober friend, but it fills the gap in-between those pleasures. And for newcomers this bit of digital technology may make all the difference and it can make learning the habit of making phone calls a little easier on the road to recovery.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Faith and Fashion

Faith and Fashion

Maybe this is a recovering women’s issue? Maybe men have a version of this but I don’t know about that. What I do know is that throughout my recovery I’ve had a running internal debate that goes like this:

Voice One: I’m becoming a spiritual person now so clothing and make up and hair color does not matter.

Voice Two: But I’m a happier person now too because of recovery and feeling good about myself, I want my outsides to match my insides.

Voice One: God doesn’t care about hair color...

Voice Two: God cares about beauty and happiness so if being a blonde or having “warm” highlights makes me happy what’s the big deal?

Even after 20 years it continues. And throughout the 20-plus years of recovery I’ve tried following each voice...each to an extreme perhaps and then let the appearance-pendulum swing the other way.

In my first months of attending 12 step meetings I went shopping for “Meeting Clothes”. All of my life I had medicated with substances—food, booze, drugs and always with a corresponding adjustment to my appearance, so why wouldn’t recovery need its own attire? I heard many years later that some women had sponsors who told them to dress up to go to meetings, to look their best, to work recovery from the outside in. I suspect that for the addicted woman who got to the stage of never leaving her robe or sweats that’s a good suggestion, but I was of the breed that was overly invested in my appearance. So rather than learning to “suit up and show up” I really needed to experiment with “come as you are” and even “come at your worst” and see that you’ll be liked and accepted.

In very early recovery on my pink-holier-than-thou-cloud I decided to give up all make up and hair color, shop at resale stores and be the “real” me. Luckily I had a sponsor who shopped at Saks and who spent the equivalent of my weekly salary on her hair each month. When I professed my spiritual breakthrough she said, “I don’t think so…You didn’t get sober to wear sackcloth and ashes.” Oh.

Then a few years later I was in the throes of some success at work. Promotions came and I was in a good job and enjoying secular success as well as success in sobriety and recovery. I spent some big money on a personal shopper who advised that I needed a power suit, a silky red dress for dating and who went thru my closet with me in a kind of sartorial personal inventory. (I did tell her all my clothing stories and it was a kind of closet catharsis). But after buying all those shiny new clothes I felt a bit too exposed and well, too shiny, and found that those new items belonged more to an idea I had about myself than to the real self that was standing in front of my mirror. So the pendulum swung again.

Back and forth it’s gone over these recovering years. I have a great wardrobe and now most of it looks like it belongs to the same person….the stages of rock star, tweedy intellectual, corporate power leader and cute girlfriend have gradually integrated into a closet that—for the most part—reflects who I really am 85% of the time. The hook is still there though. My first thought when I contemplate an inner change is always to wonder what the external equivalent would be.

What does a sober, sane, happy woman look like? Herself and her best self. And sometimes that might mean cute high heels and great highlights.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Recovery is the Best Revenge

Recovery is the Best Revenge. That's one of my favorite sayings and a piece of 12-step wisdom I hold onto. It's not quite a slogan, but one of those pieces of wisdom heard in the rooms that just makes sense, and is so smart.

The related saying that I try to remember is "You are the one with the 12-step program." I heard that first in a meeting where people were talking about resentment and getting even and one-upping another person. "You are the one with the 12-step program" levels the field. It changes perspective. I don't have to get even..I get what makes it better for me by living my recovery and practicing a 12-step program.

Now that takes me back to my first few years in recovery when a sponsor, a smart sponsor, said to me: "Don't do anything that you going to have to make amends for." That sentence was especially powerful and reinforcing after I had begun to actually do some 9th step work and knew how awkward, painful, embarrassing and difficult some amends could be. There's a certain satisfaction in knowing that while I may not have gotten even, or had the satisfaction of a snappy comeback, or told some one what I fantasized telling them, that at least I don't have to slide further into misery by having to go back later and further humiliate myself by making amends for my barbs, smart words or stinging comment to them.

I think it may have been the same sponsor who also said to me once when I was telling her how hard it was to try the new things I was learning, "Max, just stop doing the old shit, and the new will take care of itself."

What gems, what wisdom. All this distilled to a few sentences. How lucky do we get?


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Paradox of Pain

Something that I became aware of after passing the ten year mark--and that became a certainty after the twenty year mark --is the paradox of pain in recovery. It is this: there is much less pain and crisis in our lives after a good chunk of time in recovery.

That is a good thing, no doubt about that. But, and here's the paradox, we know that it was pain and regular crises that kept us regulars at 12-step meetings in the early years. It was pain and having to learn from scratch how to live that kept us coming back and that assured us daily contact with sponsors and other program folks. So after ten years many women are asking: So what does it mean now, when life really is getting better, that we seem to fall away from the program? We have less pain so we don't HAVE to go to a meeting every day just to survive. We don't feel like we need to crawl to the phone to call our sponsors every night. In many ways we have internalized the wisdom of the rooms and the voices of our sponsors and the program folks whom believe are wise or who have what we want.

This is also confusing to others in the rooms too. Sometimes I hear at meetings: Where are the people with more than ten years? We might imagine that they have fallen away, that they have "slipped", or "gone out" or relapsed. But more often the truth is that they are well, and happy and they are out living life. What we forget is that people who have been in recovery for ten-plus years and who have remained sober a long time have added PTA and the Rotary and volunteer work and sports and travel and more education and maybe even having a second family to lives that were once filled with four meetings a week.

Is this a bad thing? It's very tempting to say that it is. But really. We don't get sober to go to meetings and this may be heresy but--we don't get sober to not drink. We get sober to grow and change and to live and love and to serve God and our fellow man. We can do that in a lot of ways and a lot of places. Pain dragged us to AA and pain kept us in those folding chairs in church basements for years so that as recovery progressed the pain could lessen and we could be freed from addiction--and church basements--to give of our selves in the wider world.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Spiritual Coincidence is for Everyone

The topic of spiritual coincidence came up today, and people told wonderful stories of finding things and meeting people and info they most needed falling into their hands at just the right time.

These are the days I marvel at the fact that for a buck or two we get to hear funny, poignant and inspiring stories that can make believers of all of us.

But the other thing that came to me today is this: That if I do belief in spiritual coincidence and if I do belief that God acts anonymously as we sometimes say, then I have to believe that it is happening in other people's lives too, and that's OK.

What I mean is that I can't see this "spiritual coincidence" thing only when I get all the green lights when I am late for work, or assume that God is acting anonymously when I find a twenty-dollar bill when I am broke. It also has to be true that God is also acting anonymously when I get all the red lights some day or when I lose a twenty-dollar bill because it means that it's someone elses turn.

The day that I get every red light on my way to work I have to remember that means that someone coming the other way is getting every green light. And maybe she left the house late and is distressed over the big meeting that morning or the fact that she's on notice to not be late one more time. And she gets all green lights. When she gets to work she thinks "Holy cow" maybe that was a spiritual coincidence? My sitting through every red light that same morning is part of the deal and a part of the "God acting anonymously" arrangement.

So to accept my belief and to accept the pleasure in spiritual coincidences when they go in my favor I have to be willing to accept the days when it feels just the opposite because that just means that day it's someone else's turn. Or as it says somewhere in the big blue book: There are no accidents in God's world.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Out of the Woods begins

Out of the Woods...When I was newly sober I heard people say, "it takes three to five years to get out of the woods". Then, after I had that many years I realized that it takes just that long to get into the woods and to be able to see what's around you, to see the trees and to be able to identify the flora and fauna. Then, after crossing the ten-year mark, I began to feel that in fact sobriety and recovery really do change and you can indeed come out of the woods.

So welcome! Out-of-the-Woods is a place to read and think about longterm sobriety and recovery, especially for women. Every week you can join me here for new ideas and perspectives on sobriety, growth, change, challenges and the miracle of recovery.

I'll be back with more next week.

Welcome to Out of the Woods.