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.