Saturday, May 30, 2009

Just say No..Or Yes

“No is a complete sentence.”
(That’s a little something that AlAnon taught AA. But we have added these extra spins):
I learned to say No.
I learned to say No, and then to say Yes!
Yes is also a complete sentence, and so is Maybe.
Unless it’s a Yes!, it’s a No.
I can listen and then say No.
Validate and then say No.
(That too is from AlAnon...and then this, the ultimate weapon of black-belt Alanon members:
“You may be right”.
And this too, the all-purpose “AlAnon, Oh.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Making Myself Crazy

This morning I sat alone in my living room, drinking coffee and reading the paper. Everything was fine. Slowly I began to think about the man in my life and began to imagine a scenario where in which my feelings don’t matter. I began to write the script in my head and fill in the details: what he’d say and then what I’d say. Pretty soon I had one hand on my hip and I was telling him exactly what he could do with his life without me in it.

I looked around and I was still on the couch, newspaper on my lap and a cold cup of coffee. My body was flooded with adrenaline and cortisol and the day had begun to feel different.

I did that all by myself. My own little mind-body chemistry set. Mind and mood altering chemicals with out a pill or a glass or a needle.

If there is any good news in this crazy scenario is it that I saw this; I realized what I had just done and the very uncomfortable effect on my body and my mood and I got up and went to pray.

Please restore me to sanity. Please help me to change the things I can—which include the fantasy stories I tell myself and the movies I make up just to rock my own world.

Holy cow—it’s the thinking more than the drinking!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Military Mental Illness

On April 6th 1917 the US Congress declared war and we entered WWI. It was our first full-scale entry into armed conflict on European soil. War has changed since then and we have changed but there is one constant, which is the sad fact of psychological injuries sustained by soldiers in war.

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, each succeeding war has added research and changes to how we view our psychological selves. In the Korean War, the Army created mobile psych units that focused on cognitive treatments which attend to how one processes thoughts. Out of this came civilian interest in mind control, positive thinking and yes, that old stuff about subliminal persuasion. Then we went to Viet Nam and saw the military test new methods of replacing troops --not as units but as individuals. We know that the style of jungle warfare along with the media coverage of that war—and the tricky politics of the time—all contributed to the total impact on soldier’s health.

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

Now, we are in the midst of another war with yet newer factors. In Iraq our troops face guerilla combat with the added stress of suicide bombers and armed civilians. These increase the psychological difficulties, and we are now seeing another reframing of the resulting psychiatric casualties.

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

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Snake Policy

Every now and then Harvey Mackey—the envelope guy –who writes on management, has something great and today his column on decision making is one of those times. This applies to business and to all of life I think….here’s the best part, and it’s about snakes!

James Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape, was a charismatic manager whose maxims have endeared him to his employees. One of his favorites was formulated at a management retreat soon after he took over Netscape. It's known as his three-snake rule:

The first rule: If you see a snake, kill it. Don't set up a snake committee. Don't set up a snake user group. Don't write snake memos. Kill it.

The second rule: Don't play with dead snakes. (Don't revisit decisions.)

The paradoxical third: All opportunities start out looking like snakes.

Mackay's Moral: Don't be afraid to make a decision. Be afraid not to make a decision.

Harvey Mackay can be reached through his Web site,

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Pushing Against the Door

Some reminders to me:

Only go through the door that is open.

Don’t insist and control because you may be insisting on something that is not in your best interest in the long run.

If you have to push against a door then it is not the one for you to go through. Wait until the door easily swings open. That’s the sign that this is the one for you to go through.

If God has work for you to do the walls will come down.

I find it so easy to say these things to others, but so hard to remember this when it comes to my own life.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Marshmellow Test

In this week’s New Yorker is an article about Stanford Child Development research that looks at the ability to delay gratification. Children ages 4 and 5 were invited into a room and shown a tray with candy treats including a marshmallow. Asked to choose a treat the children were told that they could have one or if they could wait a few minutes they could have two. The researcher leaves the room but a camera follows the children’s actions.

Some children pop the marshmallow right into their mouth. Some stare at it and sit on their hands until the man returns but others cover their eyes or play under the desk until the researcher reenters and they can have the two treats.

At first researchers thought they were looking at desire but then realized that all the children wanted the treat. But some were able to wait. They could hold on or hold out so that they could have more by delaying gratification. The key the researchers discovered was whether these tots could manage their thinking. The ones who stared at the marshmallow typically could not resist but those who covered their eyes or hid under the table, or sang songs to themselves were able to wait—and benefit from the waiting.

The discovery was that some kids understood how to distract themselves so that they could delay gratification.

We talk about alcoholics as being unable to delay desire and its true, but again we see the wisdom of AA in the ways that we—adults yes, but not unlike the little kids—can be taught to not stare at the rink, to shift our focus, to distract our selves from our desires. We learn to “think through the drink” and to “change people places and things”.

I love imagining my constant desires—for shoes, food, comfort, whatever as the marshmallow test. Can I cover my eyes? Sing a song? Distract myself by calling another alcoholic? So that I can wait to enjoy my treat!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Get Out of the House

When I was a kid and my parents fought I used to stay in the room with them, panicked and afraid to be with them but also to leave them. My older brother would leave the house at the first sign of tension but somehow I needed to stay. To witness? To protect? To calm them? To clean up after? All of those are theories well dissected in many therapy rooms. What I know is that there was some strange kind of loyalty and inability to leave. As I return to that scene now—and visualize the very young child I was then—I wish for a woman to come and escort me out.

This week I realized that through recovery and therapy I have become the kind of woman that I wished for then. Now I can go into that room and take that child out of there. I can say to her, “Come with me, I can take care of you” and I can say to them, “Sorry, I’m taking her out of here.”

I can return to that childhood house in my imagination and show her, “See these are my car keys and this is my checkbook, and see this card: I am 55 years old, with a job and money and friends and all kinds of resources and you are coming to live with me now.”

When I get scared or think I am stuck in some situation today I say to myself, “Nope, you don’t have to stay; I can take her out of there”.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Revenge and Resentment

An old Chinese saying,

“When you plan revenge you must dig two graves; One for the other person and one for yourself.”

That’s kind of like the Alanon wisdom about resentment:

“Resentment is like setting yourself on fire and hoping the other person will die of smoke inhalation.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Whatever—and whomever—we try to control has control over us and our lives.

--Melody Beatty

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mothers Day Medea

If productivity was down in your workplace this week you can blame your mother. All across the city workers linger through their lunch hour in card stores reading and sighing. Buying a Mother’s Day card is not easy.

For some, the card that says, “Mom, Thanks for being perfect” is fine, but for the rest of us, with complicated mothers and complicated relationships, the search for the right message is tough.

But even as children–of all ages--struggle to summarize their maternal relationship in a card, those on the receiving end have mixed feelings too. Most of us know we don’t come close to the platitudes in those greeting cards. What is a good mother? Do we measure up? On this day that celebrates kindness, patience and sacrifice many of us squirm remembering our less than ideal maternal moments; We wonder if we’ve done something really bad along the way and worry whether our worst day as a mother damaged our kids.

Mothers who hurt their children is a painful topic. The reality of mothers’ hostile impulses against their children is old news in psychological circles and parenting books, but we rarely allow parents to admit those feelings. Thank goodness, most of us don’t act on our thoughts, but some mothers have struggled with the limits and lost. When we hear about them, many of us know--in the privacy of our hearts--that it was just the grace of God, good friends, a reliable baby-sitter and money in the bank that kept us from taking their place.

So maybe we should, especially on Mother’s Day, have some compassion for the mothers who lost it, those women who did the unthinkable; they hurt their own child. If some mothers weren’t so newsworthy for their sheer failure at mothering the rest of us would not know where to draw the line in self-judgment. We can count ourselves lucky and a little grateful that most of us have slapped but did not scald, screamed but did not hit, or cursed but did not kill. When we react to a child-abuse horror story with the common, “Can you imagine?” the truth is that most of us can. We owe a debt to those mothers because they give us the outside limit from which to measure our parenting. The “bad” mother relieves us of the shadowy fear we all carry.

We can’t talk about bad mothers without mentioning Medea; the mythological woman who killed her kids to punish their philandering father. But Medea got to her breaking point after a world tour of abuse, abandonment and humiliation. After being dumped in a strange country with no way home, she lost it and she killed. Medea’s story is a myth but, as with all myths, it points to something real in the human psyche. When we read about women who hurt their kids a healthy mother has to stop and ask herself, “How did that woman get there?” Nobody starts out wanting to kill their children; nobody starts out thinking scalding is reasonable discipline. It’s baby steps all the way.

Every mother who lost it at least once, or who did something she swore she’d never do, can be grateful for everything that keeps her from crossing over to the territory of the terrible mother.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Russian novelist, wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and we could separate them from us and destroy them, but the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” That includes yours and mine.

So for Mother’s Day let’s thank the good mothers and show a moments compassion for the “Medeas” of the world, who in their tragic solution to life’s problems show us where we ought not to go.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Social Networking

So many conversations this week about joining a social network. I’m invited to be a friend on Facebook or to link up on LinkedIn. We members of AA don’t need My Space or Facebook –we are already part of the largest, most effective social network in the world.

As soon as we walk into an AA meeting we know the most important thing about anyone there and they know us. We can go anywhere in the world and have family and friends—with out a monthly fee. Any hour of the day we can find people who will care about us, help us, listen to and laugh with us. And the practical benefits are many as well: AA people will point us to a job, a restaurant, a babysitter, a book, a slogan and always to a solution.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Making Decisions

Today I heard myself giving advice to a sponsee. And I thought, Hey, I could take my own advice. There is one of the benefits of sponsorship: you hear yourself say smart stuff and sometimes apply it to yourself.

The woman I talked to was struggling with a decision. She had made her list of pluses and minuses and had prayed but was still stuck so I offered her this that I learned earlier in recovery:

First: The 10-10-10 rule: Imagine that you have decided Yes to this particular decision and ask yourself will this matter in ten minutes? Ten months? Ten years? Then imagine the opposite, saying No to this choice and ask the 10-10-10 again.

Second: Yes!!!! Or no. This I learned ages ago from a tape called "Walking the Beauty Path, Native American Wisdom for Women": “If it’s not a YES!!!! then it’s a no. What it means is that only a clear absolute YES!!! (With the three exclamation points) is a yes, anything less than that is a no. We all know what a clear YES feels like, if you don’t feel that, your answer is no.

Good stuff, huh? The blessings of a long recovery.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Mary Month of May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Grocery Carts

It began as a joke. Each time we went grocery shopping I was annoyed to find shopping carts all over the lot and blocking so many parking spaces. I started to refer to them as “abandoned” and joked about “rescuing” them. I’d always returned my own cart because it was fun; it was a leftover from childhood when taking the cart back was a treat. My brothers and I always fought to see who’d get to ride the cart—like a scooter-- back to the store’s curb.

Over time, I began to notice how many people were not willing to walk even the few steps to the “corral”, that chute in the middle of the lot to place their cart out of harm’s way. Now, this may offend some, but it needs to be asked: What kind of person leaves a grocery cart in the middle of the parking lot? Is it about trying to save time?

I do know how busy we all are so I went to the store parking lot one day and I timed it. From every part of the lot--from the “good” parking spaces to the ones in the outfield-- it never took me more than 45 seconds to get the cart back to the curb. The average consumer makes 94 supermarket trips each year—so that’s less than two minutes out of your week.

OK, I know that if you have an infant and a toddler and two bags of groceries maybe you can’t take the cart back. But some of us who don’t have our hands quite that full could offer to help. That would be a truly radical act. But generally, as I’ve learned in my cart-stalking mode, it’s not the parents who are skipping the cart return. It’s the rest of us who could handle it just fine.

One day as I was loading my groceries into my car a woman arriving to shop asked, “Want me to take that cart back for you?” That day I got it. Her gesture was more than an act of kindness; it was an act of community.

I know that a cart is just a cart, but shopping carts are also a critical—and consuming--symbol of our culture. What we do with our shopping cart is symptomatic of how we participate in society. The grocery store, perhaps even more than the church, is the place we ultimately come to for sustenance. We say we want more real neighborhoods. Well, returning the cart is a tiny measure of our true intentions. When we don’t take the cart back we are leaving the creation of our community to someone else.

There are added benefits in this simple act. Who isn’t talking about getting more exercise? So walk the cart back for selfish reasons. Or consider it a form of meditation. In the brief span of time it takes to roll the cart you can reflect on what it means to be in partnership with other human beings.

There is no bargain way of life, no coupons to get a free taste of community. In this time of speeches and sound bites about democracy it’s the small things that make us true citizens. Community is created in simple daily acts: Saying good morning, tossing the neighbor’s paper closer to their door and picking up litter—yeah, someone else’s--and returning the grocery cart, are tiny ways of taking responsibility. That one gesture contains it all: connection, responsibility, participation.

Faith grows from willingness the size of a mustard seed, and character can grow from a tiny act like returning a shopping cart: Sixty seconds to citizenship. It’s not somebody else’s community. It’s ours. We create it and claim it and enjoy its privileges one lonely cart at a time.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Talking with a new friend last night. He tells me about Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that talented people are those who have desire to practice. They practice basketball, violin, writing, race car driving. Their talent is for practice and functional practice—practice to get better at what they do.

It made sense right away but it also made me ask: What am I practicing all day long? And Am I practicing the thing that I want to get better at or something else? It seems I practice fear thinking and worry so no wonder it comes so easily to me—I’ve made a talent of it. Can I change that? Can I think of new thinking as a skill I want to develop and improve. This isn’t new. I’ve read and heard this before. But this idea---talent is the desire and love of practice.

What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? A writer. A friend. A child of a loving God.

Am I practicing that?