Sunday, November 23, 2014

Practicing Gratitude This Week of Thanksgiving

When asked for topics at a meeting this week the odds are good that someone will suggest gratitude as a discussion topic. Just by virtue of being in recovery we have plenty to be grateful for, and now with Thanksgiving so near we have that extra reminder that gratitude makes everything we face so much easier. But how do we get Being grateful to stick?

The advice I have been told and that I tell others is to “practice gratitude.”
Kabul, Afghanistan- Thanksgiving 2013

But did you ever stop to think about what that means. How –exactly—do we practice gratitude?
So,  I have been asking people how they actually practice gratitude, and I learned some great things.

First, and this seemed so obvious but gratitude is a habit. It’s a habit like exercising or smoking or not eating sugar or worrying.  Habits are repeated patterns of behavior or thought and they can be for good or ill. And we can learn or unlearn habits. I never thought of gratitude in quite that way. I just thought that gratitude was something that came over me occasionally, but wasn’t in my control.

Not the case.

So how do you get a gratitude habit? It’s like the man in New York City who asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer: “Practice. Practice. Practice”.

Psychologists tell us that new habits require 21 days to form or to “take”. So we can do some kind of gratitude practice for 21 days to make the mind learn gratitude. Twenty-one days is a kind of magic number for new habit formation.

When I teach new writers I use this “21 day rule” to help people become regular writers. They do a mini writing practice for 21 days, or write in their journals for 21 days. It’s the same with exercise or walking—commit to 21 days. One of my favorite stories comes from a fitness trainer who asks his clients to simply dress in their sneakers and exercise clothes every morning for 21 days. “Once they are dressed”, he admits, “they mostly will do some kind of exercise; we have created the habit of suiting up to exercise.”  I think that’s brilliant.

So to give yourself a lasting attitude of gratitude you have to create a ritual—a habit and actually do a practice —for at 21 days. Here are some things you could try:

A daily gratitude list—you know this one. But do it in writing so that the hand and eye are involved.  This makes the brain imbed the new habit faster. Decide on a number: Three items each day? Or five? Or 10? And stick to that number—in writing.

Set Set the timer on your watch to the same time each day. An odd number is good like 12:34 pm or 10:10 am. When the alarm rings you stop and quickly name three things you are grateful for.

Exp Expand that idea to your phone. Teach yourself to have one grateful thought on the first ring of your phone, later let that grow to the first ring of any phone you hear.

At home: when you are shaving or removing make-up—begin by naming out loud one specific gratitude from this day.

When you throw something in the trash tie that physical action to saying, “I am grateful for…” quietly to yourself.

What other simple habitual gestures can you link to naming a grateful thought? Taking out your keys? Starting the car? Taking your coffee mug from the cabinet?  The more simple, repetitive actions you can attach to specific things you are grateful for the stronger your habit of grateful thinking will become.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Women and Longterm Recovery--Home from the Wilson House

This past weekend we had a group of 45 women at The Wilson House for the first "Out of the Woods" retreat. Recovering women from several twelve-step programs came from Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York to dig deeper into their recovery programs and into the material of their lives.

We laughed, pondered, debated, cried, wrote, walked, read, ate well, and yes, shopped. (The Manchester Outlets are right down the street). And then we talked about how spending and shopping feature in recovery too.

Some of the highlights included looking at the little-known history of our twelve-step programs, a fabulous presentation by Kathy Catlin—Catlin Wellness—on nutrition for recovery,  and late night girl talk on sex and transferring addictions.

I came home tired but happy. And I am ready to do more of this program. Several people have asked for this retreat in their home town and I would love to do that, and the Albany group is talking about a workshop series (maybe four evenings, or four Saturdays) so we can dig deeper into some of the key topics. I will also be offering “Writing for Recovery” workshop in 2015.

What I feel so strongly today is gratitude for the sisterhood of recovery—the power of women helping each other and the experience of shared wisdom as we go deeper in our recovery. This past weekend was about wanting more than simple abstinence and it was a super-charged experience to be with women who are making that commitment.

More to come soon. Invite your friends.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Out of the Woods--This Weekend in Vermont

I am on my way to The Wilson House in East Dorset, Vermont today for our first retreat based on my new book, "Out of the Woods." I'm very excited to be teaching and learning, and meeting women from across the Northeast. Here is why I wrote the book and why I am soooo passionate about this topic:

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-step programs newcomers are often consoled by being told, “It can take three to five years to get out of the woods.” But later, at the five-year mark, after maintaining abstinence and after many meetings and working the steps, many of us realize that it has actually taken that long just to get into the woods.

It is there, to continue the woodsy metaphor, that we begin to recognize the trees as trees and to know the creatures of the “forest” for what they are.

We continue on though and long-term recovery begins to take hold. Gradually there is a sensation of coming out of the woods: the sense that we really have changed, that there is some stability and we are really new people. Of course we are not “fixed” and certainly not perfect, but in double-digit recovery another life begins.

But then recovery continues and we see that after more years it takes yet another turn. There is a noticeable shift in the pace and focus of recovery. This can be baffling to people around us who are “younger” in recovery, and it can also be puzzling to those who have reached a ten-plus year milestone:

What does it mean that I go to fewer meetings? Why am I spending more time on other projects than I spend on the program? Is my commitment to a new relationship or a new career good or bad? And what does it mean to be a recovering woman in double-digit sobriety? What happens to our bodies, our relationships, our programs and our spiritual lives?

That is why I wrote this book, “Out of the Woods” and why I am so happy to speak and teach and lead this retreat on long-term recovery.  We have so much to learn from each other, and much to teach each other-- and other women. There really is a life of joyous recovery after ten and 20 and 30 years.

Here is more about why I wrote this book:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Hidden Casualties of War

At the start of American sporting events we stand up to sing the national anthem. It’s a teaching moment. At a high school game a parent snatches a hat from a youngster or glowers at a texting teen, “Get on your feet.”  And they do.

For many sporting events there is now another requisite moment during the game when we observe a “tribute to our Armed Forces serving overseas”. A soldier in full dress, with excellent posture, comes onto the field and for that moment we pause again.  We feel virtuous and patriotic.

We mean it—we really do. For anywhere from ten to almost 60 seconds we really care about the men and women of our military. We feel appreciation and even concern. And then satisfied that we have cared, and as the soldier, so beautifully decorated, is escorted out of sight, we return to our debate about favorite teams and best commercials.

Our soldiers are dying. They are dying the way that soldiers have always died—killed in combat and by tragic wartime accidents but they are also—increasingly- dying at home by their own hands. That is the part we don’t see, don’t honor and don’t stand up for.

The soldiers we see at sporting events are clean and composed and they exude strength and will and endurance. The conceit is that they are there to remind us of the hardship they endure for us but in fact they may be there to cajole us into believing that the respect we feel for them is enough.

What if during the Super Bowl or on Baseball’s Opening Day we saw a group of American soldiers twitching with the physical and mental pain of post-combat fatigue, stress and disability? Not the heroic amputee—we know that symbol of sacrifice—but the one whose hope, sanity and peace have been cut off.

 What if we stood for 60 seconds to witness the grown men and women who serve and protect us while they shake and cry and go numb?  What if we saw them as they struggle to manage their depression, anxiety and dissociation? 

The Army’s own 2012 briefing on military suicide reported that, “If we include accidental death, which frequently is the result of high-risk behavior (drugs, alcohol, driving) we find that less young men and women die in combat than by their own actions.” It is for these men and women that we should be holding our hands over our hearts.

I don't come from a military family. My understanding of this collateral damage came when I spent a few years interviewing China Marines—pre-World War II veterans.

 In China they experienced the
combination of bloody atrocity and deadly boredom that today’s soldiers endure. The men I visit are in their 90’s and 100’s. They tell me how they still—65 years later—struggled with their addictions, insomnia, grief and tragically how their trauma had impacted their families –some for two generations.

We are slow learners. Military trauma and injury is always with us. It’s had many names –all euphemisms to keep it just out of sight. It is War Fatigue, Railroad Spine, Shell Shock, Viet Nam Syndrome and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and most tragic, “LMF” or Lacking Moral Fiber.

Every faith has a tenet that asks us not to close our eyes to suffering. And here too we should not look away. This is not to say that war is wrong but we should know what it really means when we stand to say it’s worth it.  

Friday, November 07, 2014

Be the Heroine of Your Life


"Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim."

--Nora Ephron