Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thanksgiving--Gratitude, Service and Community

I’m pleased to share this new essay by Amy Halloran. She wrote this for Thanksgiving—her perspective on gratitude and community—and how our perspectives are changed by service—is a message for everyday. Here’s Amy:

I used to be very invested in Thanksgiving. I spent weeks poring over new magazines and old cookbooks, thinking about how to combine flavors and make a mutt-version of sweet potato pie or cornbread stuffing that tasted just as I wanted.

I wanted some control of the meal, or at least the expression of ingredients. I wanted to look the farmer who raised my turkey in the eye. I wanted to give the food meaning and impose my current interpretations of gratitude upon other people that I ate with the last Thursday in November.

Last week I was keenly aware of how little I cared about the origins of the ingredients at my parents' Thanksgiving table. I didn't even crack a cookbook until Wednesday night, when I started hunting for some graceful combination of cranberries and cornmeal.

I am no less interested in sustainable farming, but I am not as ambitious about cooking for Thanksgiving, or using it as a platform for food thinking. My goals have mellowed because I get to influence a big meal every day of the year, cooking for the community meals program run by Unity House. Trying to cram as many vegetables as affordably as I can into dishes that are still enjoyed is my mission.

Preparing for our Thanksgiving meal, I worked with a number of volunteers. Hilton Garden Inn made our turkeys and sides, and brought lasagna the day before so we could focus on getting ready for dinner. An eight-year-old raised $400 so we could buy butter and fruit and collards. One team of people came in to chop vegetables and make pies. Another team made sweet potato hand pies for diners to take home.

As everyone worked, I noticed that I didn't fuss over outcomes. I showed people ratios and recipes, and let them go to town.

I realized that baking and cooking can be an expression of community, not just of self. Maybe this isn't a newsflash to you, but it's a headline for me, someone who used to think of Thanksgiving as a place to grandstand skills and ideas.

 Amy Halloran is a writer and teacher, chef and cook, advocate and author. Her new book is: “The New Bread Basket: How the New Crop of Grain Growers, Plant Breeders, Millers, Maltsters, Bakers, Brewers, and Local Food Activists Are Redefining Our Daily Loaf” by Chelsea Green Publishing

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Stop Trying to Control Other People

First, because you can’t. It’s an illusion and a waste of your time. Even if you are right (though you probably are not) you are giving up huge bundles of your energy and your consciousness to try to control another person’s life.

Second, get to the root cause: We try to control others to make ourselves feel safer. Note the key word, “Feel”. We don’t actually get any safer by controlling others. There’s that illusion again, but we are always trying to feel safer. Let that go and live your life—your
work, program, relationships, talents and gifts. You may or may not feel safer, but you will feel happier and more fulfilled.

Third, read that again: We try to control others to make ourselves feel safer. So often we position our control as helping or being selfless but, in fact, controlling others is super selfish: we are trying to make ourselves feel safer. 

Fourth, letting go of control is not easy. Feeling unsafe is just so unsettling. So share your goal. Share it with a few, close recovery friends; let them know you are letting go of control. But note: Do not tell the person you are intent on controlling that you are trying to stop controlling them. That’s a game, so give it up. It’s just another backhanded way of being controlling. Stop that.

Fifth, get some help. Try Alanon. Alanon will make your AA or OA program so much better.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

In the Dark Streets Shineth

Off we go trailing shopping lists and credit card receipts. Hanukah is done but Christmas is this week. We may complain about our errands and even about some of the folks on our shopping list, but we do enjoy the festivity the holidays bring to our gray December days.

It’s no coincidence. The holidays that celebrate light, Hanukah and Christmas, are aligned with the seasonal transit of the sun. It’s a leftover from earlier times when the religions of nature led all of the others. There was good reason, then as now, to run from the darkness. 

We know that ancient man feared that the sun had died.  It was his terror that the heat and light were gone. To coax the sun god back our ancient relatives created rituals.  The Druids lit bonfires. Now we celebrate with candles and lights in our windows. 

Spirituality is a way out of darkness and into hope and joy. The vehicle is mystery and a miracle, whether it’s oil that lasts eight days or the birth of a baby in a barn.

In the Northern Hemisphere this is a time when we face our vulnerability. Weather is the least of it. We all have moments of darkness: our grief, fears and regrets. The darkness we fear most, of course, is the grave. We still think we can outrun it. So some of us go to the Caribbean and some to sunlamps or light boxes; many pursue spirits, religious or distilled. Like our ancestors we too want the sun to come back and give us life again. So we go to the stores and burn up our credit cards; we sacrifice our savings as we gather at the mall where we may find what passes for community. 

But we still fear the dark. Much of what we do this time of year is about distraction. Not unlike whistling when we pass a graveyard, now we sing and shop and light candles and eat too much. And we complain. A lot. But maybe our railing against our holiday chores is itself a part of the solstice. Now when we are oppressed by darkness –when our primitive fears can be felt even through layers of advertising and anti-depressants-- we are drawn to the lights and to other people as our defense against the dark, just as our ancient relatives were drawn to stars and fires.

We talk of holiday depression as if it’s somehow wrong or an aberration. But these holidays we’re celebrating, Hanukah and Christmas, are also about darkness. Sometimes we forget that. But it’s true: the flip side of each story is about the darkness at the edge of the light. 

The words of this Christmas carol could just as well be a Solstice song: Yet in the dark street shineth, the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

We’re fighting something ancient, natural and necessary. Occasionally we need to feel the darkness—even symbolically--like we sometimes need a dark night or a wild storm.

So maybe there is another way to experience this day. On this, the darkest night, what if we allowed the darkness and went toward it, daring ourselves to sit still before we light the candles or the tree. What if we sat a moment seeing the tree in darkness--and breathed. That’s what solstice is about. We can enter the darkness and emerge transformed. We can stand it.

On this day the sun is at the most southern point of its transit. Tonight is the longest night of the year. Starting tomorrow our days will grow longer again. The cycle is astronomical and holy. On this night we are as ancient as ever.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Recovery's Debt to William James

The ideas and insights of William James show up throughout our recovery movement and across the self-help spectrum. We know that Bill W. and Dr. Bob read James , and so they were influenced by, and incorporated, both the psychology and spiritual concepts of William James.

Here are just a few places where we see William James thoughts giving birth to today’s Twelve-step slogans and sayings:
Acceptance.  James wrote, “Be willing to have it so. Acceptance of what has happened is the best first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.”
Just for Today. James wrote, “Everybody should do three things each day that he hates to do, just for practice.”
How important is it?  James wrote: “Wisdom is learning what to overlook.”
Feelings are not Facts.  James wrote, “If merely feeling good could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.”

And on the value of laughter and letting go James wrote, “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Move a Muscle Change Your Life

A man was in Divinity School when he was diagnosed with polio. He had this idea –an intuition--that if he moved more it would help him with his polio.

He decided to learn how to dance. He took some classes and slowly began to integrate dance into his life. He danced every day.

By dancing he cured himself of polio.

Ted Shawn left Divinity School to dance and to choreograph. He became the “father of modern dance” and he founded the renowned Jacob’s Pillow Dance Theater.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Eight Stages of (Holiday) Relapse

This month time we’ll hear a lot of good information about taking care of ourselves at holiday events: office parties, family gatherings, spontaneous get togethers with Friends. We are warned to watch out for the spiked eggnog and the fruitcake with brandy and the fancy Bourbon cookies.

If our addiction is food we’ll be on super alert for sugary snacks offered at every stop along our way.

But it’s not just the drinks or treats we have to worry about, and it turns out, it’s not just the newcomers who have to worry.

The greater triggers toward a slip or a relapse are more likely to be our thoughts and our moods. So what should we be watching out for that is inside of us?

I recently heard another recovery coach talking about relapse: How it begins and what to watch out for. His list of the eight stages can work as a daily or weekly checklist. And it’s a perfect holiday inventory getting us to the New Year:

Here are the Eight Stages of Relapse:

1.  Beginnings of secret dissatisfaction.

2.  Boredom or frustration at work or at home.

3.  Relationships change.

4.  Return of denial.

5.  Emotional drift—(away from our program, or friends, or sponsor, or supports.)

6.  Anger and Resentment.

7.  Depression and Dishonesty.

8.  Then—picking up the substance:Relapse.

Share this list with your recovery friends and agree to use this as a check list throughout the holidays.

I write more about relapse in my book, “Out of the Woods—A Guide to Long-term Recovery” published by Central Recovery Press. Think about a copy of “Out of the Woods” as a holiday gift for your recovering friends.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Take Your Soul to Work

“We had a new employer….” That passage from the big book turns out to be quite literal for people in long-term recovery. We do have to practice the principles of recovery in all of our affairs and our workplaces are full of practice material.

So the good question is “How?” What does rigorous honest translate into business politics? How do we integrate kindness and good boundaries? How do we lead with out a big ego? And how do we lead with humility but also strength and courage?

I know that I crave advice from great leaders and I like to have some reminders right on my desk that I can use as daily touchstones.

So I was thrilled to get an early copy of “Take Your Soul to Work-- 365 Meditations on Every Day Leadership”—by Dr. Erica Brown.

While intended for all leaders—business, nonprofit and community leaders as well—Browns examples of leadership wisdom—translate beautifully into recovery terms. Brown is an educator and author of five other books all related to spirituality and leadership. 

In “Take Your Soul to Work” she divides the year into themes: Detachment, Courage, Busy-Ness, Action, Goals, Trust, Discipline etc. and each days meditation can be read in less time than it takes your computer to boot or your coffee to brew. 

And, of course, at this time of year, what a perfect holiday gift for the leaders in your company or the staff who aspire, one day at a time, to become leaders. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

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 all of us who have been around a bit know that even though this says “made a decision” it really is a process of many decisions made over a period of time.

In early recovery we may have a ceremony or make a formal ritual and we “take” Step Three with our sponsor. That is a brave act of considerable intimacy. Later, often when life is hard, we take it again. Spiritual maturity teaches 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 like to take Step Three when I see the wall coming.

So it’s a process and our spiritual growth deepens with each layer—each area of our lives that we eventually surrender. I have taken a Third Step on relationships, money, work, jobs and even cars. I learned this great phrase form a spiritual teacher: “Give yourself to God. Surrender your whole being to be used for His righteous purposes.” 

Note: It says your whole being.

This year I had a revelation about a new layer of surrender in front of me: What I look like.

I have always cared about my appearance. Clothes, face and hair. Superficial? Not very spiritual? Maybe, but in early recovery  when I was getting very very spiritual and perfect, and when I had taken that first ceremonial Third Step, I decided that I was too spiritual for hair color, make up and such, yes superficial things. 

Luckily I had a sponsor who was tall and blonde and stylish –and very sober--and she said, “God does not want you to wear sackcloth and ashes, God loves you, now go get some highlights back in your hair.” Turns out I was just using the “I’m too spiritual for makeup” as another way to impress and people please and try to convince God to like me. 

My sponsor said, “Cut that out, this is about attraction rather than promotion. Do you want new women to think they have to look awful?”

But flash forward 25 years and I am daily surrendering work and my artwork and my marriage and money and most aspects of my life. But also on most days I am agonizing over my hair. I still can’t find that gamine cut that leave me looking pretty and smart all at the same time, kind of like Susan Sontag in a bikini. 

So it hit me: I have turned over everything else so why not how I look? Does that seem weird? I thought so too. But it was just a wild enough idea and worth a try. So I’m doing it. Like most other surrenders there are two parts: God’s and mine. Like getting a new job I have to ask for God’s will but then I still have to go and rewrite my resume. In this case I have to do a modest amount of self-care and then let go of the rest.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Steps Six and Seven and a Run with the Wolves

Today I found an old copy of a favorite book: “Women Who Run with the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Maybe you also read this when it was new, and you too underlined every page and passed it from friend to friend? Yes—it had that kind of power. Pinkola-Estes is a Jungian, a psychologist, an expert of myth and languages and a storyteller and feminist

On the page I read today I saw all of my old scribbles in the margin and I marveled at what I read so long ago and wanted to absorb.

Here’s one section that stands out in the chapter on Vasialisa/Cinderella/the wild power of a woman’s intuition and libido:

Can a negative aspect of psyche be reduced to cinders by being watched and watched? Yes, indeed it can. Holding any part of ourselves in consistent, consciousness can cause the thing to dehydrate. Focused attention can reduce an aspect of the psyche we struggle with to cinders—they are deprived of libido.”

When I read that so long ago I was marveling at the exegesis of Pinkola-Estes with fairy tales and myths. I was just a few years into recovery and still not grasping the bare beginnings of steps six and seven. But today when I read that I thought, “Of course, we need but pay attention, bring our focus to defects of character—or better, characteristics that are harmful-- and they can dehydrate.”

And isn’t “dehydrate” the perfect word? We can remove the “juice”—the power from these defects/aspects of character…and they can be cinders.

Steps Six and Seven ask us to ask our Higher Power for help but we are expected to do our part as well. Bringing conscious awareness is our part. We do that through doing inventory, talking with a sponsor, making lists, identifying the opposite behavior and the practicing. That is paying attention, bringing “consistent consciousness” to that “negative aspect of psyche” as Pinkola-Estes said so long ago.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

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. And also for people in twelve-step recovery. The concepts morphed right into recovery and treatment.

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. 

In Afghanistan and Iraq our troops faced 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. 

Especially today on Veterans Day--we must remember to factor in these injuries when we talk about the costs of war. We must ask how we will label our broken soldiers, how we will care for them-- and what will be changed, now and later.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Celebrating Day of the Dead

Today I celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.  It’s not a holiday I grew up with but one I’ve borrowed from the Southwest and Mexico. And it’s become one of my favorite holidays –in part because it’s a good spiritual counterpart to Halloween. Except for the candy, October 31st doesn’t leave much for grownups.

Being scared of goblins and ghoulies lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. The dead just aren’t scary in the same way anymore. In fact, I’d welcome a visit from many of them.  

That’s what Day of the Dead is about. There is a belief that on this day the veil separating this world and the next is thinner and so it’s a time we can be closer to those that we love who are dead.

Day of the Dead celebration centers on rituals for remembering loved ones. We can visit
them in our imagination or feel their presence. It can mean prayer or conversation, writing a letter or looking at old photos. The tradition that I use includes making an ofrenda, or altar, something as simple as putting photos and candles on the coffee table and taking time to talk about these loved ones and remember them. We also have spicy hot chocolate as a symbol of the sweet and bitter separation from those we love.

A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether Purim or Advent, hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us sort and reframe our memories. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived. 

No, this isn’t a very American idea. Culturally our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief we use words like closure and process

I remember my frustration when I was grieving the loss of my brothers and sisters and my truly well-intentioned friends would suggest I move along in my process and they quoted (really, misquoted) Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The simplified version of her theory lists stages: Denial--Bargaining--Anger--Depression, and Acceptance.

 But it’s false to create an expectation of five discrete steps. This listing implies order and that a person can move from point A to point B and be done. That makes grief into an emotional Monopoly game where you go around the board, collect points and get to a distinct and certain end.  This false notion of linearity is apparent when we hear people judge someone who is grieving, “Oh she missed the anger stage”, or “He hasn’t reached acceptance yet.” 

I always thought that “losing a loved one” was a euphemism used by people who were afraid to say the words dead or died, but after losing my brother Larry I know that lost is the perfect word to describe the feeling that follows a death. Something just out of reach, still here, but also gone. 

Though he died years ago my feeling about my brother is that I have misplaced him; It’s that sensation of knowing that my book or that letter I was just reading, are around here somewhere…if I could just remember where I left him.  

I think this is why we can sometimes be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done with it. We love closure and things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like. 

So tonight I’ll make cocoa and light candles; we’ll look at pictures and tell stories. We’ll take family pictures into the living room and we’ll open up the family albums. And we’ll laugh. 

The root of the word grieve is heavy. We carry our dead as a cherished burden. Death may end a life but not a relationship. Who would want to close the door on that?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

When I Envy the Newcomer

After many years of recovery I can still feel shame when this happens. And it happened again just this week: A man in my home group celebrated 6 months and he was glowing. His life was transformed, he had found a deep faith in his Higher Power, his surrender was total; he had completed his step work and was quoting the Big Book. His “share” was more lecture than personal story, but still I bit.

I was jealous. 

I know better. I knew better. But I could feel myself become envious and annoyed. I knew that I should be happy for his newcomer’s pink cloud and his new life but my own smallness revealed my envy. After all these years and all this work—I’m still trying to surrender, have absolute faith, and be a perfectly perfect person.

I know, I know.

This is also why I wrote “Out of the Woods”. In this book I talk about the awkward things, the difficult things and even the embarrassing things that can happen to us in long-term recovery. Envying a newcomer is just one of them. 

It is times like this that I wish for regular meeting for people who have ten or 15 or 20 years. Not to leave other people behind but to be able to say,  “Does anyone else feel like this?” and to laugh at something like my envy of the newcomer. 

I know better. You know better. We all know better. But still.

I’m know that I did exactly what he did when I was new to recovery. In fact, I was the young woman bringing recovery literature to my family Thanksgiving dinner and passing it around like hors ‘dourves. 

So you’d think I’d have more compassion.

But what I know now—and what I have written about in “Out of the Woods” --is that life happens to all of us, and that we need those pink clouds and happy days to give us the ground under the harder parts of our recovery. And as we stay in recovery a long time those harder parts will come on their own.

My red-faced humility is this: When I hear those newcomers speak of their rapidly transformed lives and the perfect, lasting peace that recovery has given them, I still want what they have. 

That’s why I keep coming back.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Let Go--Just Throw the Ball

Letting Go is a topic I can never hear about enough. I get that letting go is the answer to 99% of my questions. (Eat less sugar is the answer to the other 1%.) But still, just as in my newcomer days I can sigh and sag and ask, “How, exactly, do I let go?”

So here is advice from the amazing Melody Beatty: recovering woman, recovery writer, and recovery role model. I highly recommend her books especially the daily meditation book called, “The Language of Letting Go.” My first sponsor gave that to me in 1983 and I still read from the same dog-eared, underlined, tear-stained copy every day. 

So here is today’s advice on how to let go:

* If you have tried to solve a problem three times (and worry doesn’t count) then stop yourself. Let go. Throw the ball.

*If someone asks you for advice, give them the advice once. Then throw the ball to them. Let go. Say nothing more.

*If a person has not asked for your advice, or if you offered advice and the answer was “No thanks”, there is nothing to throw. Stop talking. Let go. The ball is not in your hands.

It might be helpful—if you are really struggling—to get a small ball to hold and then toss. Let it roll under the table or into the corner. Let it be. That’s what letting go looks like. Let it go.

Monday, October 12, 2015

No Comfort in Comfort Shoes

 I see these shoes all over now. My demographic is big and booming so we drive the market for all kinds of consumer products. And now every women’s store offers “Comfort Shoes.” They are sold through catalogs like, Modern Maturity and All About You, which are supposed to be celebrating your mid-life. But I’m also seeing these shoes at Bloomingdales and dear God, even Saks.   There are all kinds of euphemistic names for these shoes like On the Move  or Comfort Footwear, but ya know what? These are old lady shoes. 

A friend brought a catalog to our lunch date to show me a pair of these comfort shoes that she was considering buying for a special event. “They look so comfortable” she says, “but are they too dowdy?”  How do I answer that without hurting her feelings? I look at the shoe and I say to my friend, “Maybe go for something a little more strappy; you don’t have to walk in them.” But what I really want to say is, “Those are shoes for a woman who has forgotten what her vagina is for.” 

Yes, I know that these shoes feel comfy but it’s a slippery slope. One day you allow yourself to wear these “comfort shoes” and within a week you are buying a pink jogging suit decorated with gold emblems, and thinking, “Oh, that looks nice.”  Or you buy a pair of  shoes with these “manmade breathable uppers” and “soft rubbery soles” and soon after you are thinking, “Why pay all that money for someone else to put color on my hair; I could just buy a box of that hair dye that Sarah Jessica Parker uses. She always looks so nice.”  

Maybe it really is about chemistry: You buy a pair of comfort shoes in a “nice, practical” navy or worse, in ivory, and after a few wearings the chemicals from the shoes enter your bloodstream and soon you begin to think that pants with an elastic waist make perfect sense. I mean, after all, you gain a little weight now and then so wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t need to buy new pants every time you gain a few pounds?

Or you begin to think that you don’t really need to buy new underwear every year. You could just buy one of those “bra extenders” and get more life out of your old bras. Did you ever really go to the hospital and have someone see your raggedy drawers? No, of course not.  

It all begins with the shoes.

Guard yourself and help your friends too. Comfort shoes are a frightening thing. They are the end of sex and the end of independent thought. In comfort shoes you will give up reading new fiction and listening to public radio. You will soon claim that you don’t know who Arianna Huffington is and you will think the red string on Madonna’s wrist is to remind her to buy a birthday card for her mother. When we talk about end of life issues—we are talking about comfort shoes. 

So I have this special request: When I am going to be buried or even if I am going to be cremated, please do not put “comfort shoes” on my feet. You can go with gold sandals, even a simple Ferragamo pump if you have to, or rubber thongs. Because wherever I go from here, it’s still about putting my best foot forward.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Recovery is Like Emotional Pilates

A friend emails me and says, “I want new insides”.  I laugh and say, “Me too.”  We are both having one of those days where you just want relief from yourself, and from the voices of fear. After all this time I can still get blindsided by fear and unnerved by the nagging voices of doubt inside of me.

I decide to talk to this angel of fear who nags me. I think of this inner fear voice as an angel because I know that at some level this is a part of me that wants to protect me, so she is always worrying and warning me, always sure that something bad is going to happen. So as I talk to the fear, I pray.  I begin to get some relief but the sensation I have is that my emotional muscles could be stronger. 

It occurs to me that I need to do some emotional Pilates. I have to strengthen my core—my core beliefs.  My old habit is to succumb to the fear--not having enough strength to stand up to it.  It’s like my old habit of slouching at my desk--it’s comfortable but I‘ve learned in physical therapy that over time those “comfortable” habits are quite damaging to my spine. 

I have been doing Pilates for several years. Pilates is a practice of physical exercise developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1940's to help injured dancers to heal. It works. My posture is better and my back doesn’t hurt anymore. Why do I keep going? I want to get stronger and I don’t want any more injuries. Now I also see that my Twelve-step recovery is a lot like my Pilates. 

This week in a Pilates class I found a new muscle. Apparently I’ve always had these really deep lower abs but I wasn't using them--the other muscles were overriding them and doing all the work. But all of a sudden in one exercise I felt something way deep down and it was a muscle group I hadn't been able to isolate before. It was really hard to use them, and I was sore afterward, but it felt so good.

In the same way I can continue to identify my character defects, my fears, and those nagging  “you are not good enough” thoughts. And by sitting still and focusing I can isolate them and I can isolate my strengths and gifts. They are also way, way down there.

 Yes, it can ache to identify and isolate them. But each time I do that and I use those subtle emotional muscles--I can sense a bit more strength, and I stand up taller and I am growing stronger.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

From Head (And Sticky Note) to My Heart

Has this happened to you: You know some stuff. You have been around a long time; you understand how your mind and emotions work. You know the best ways to respond or to not react to certain triggers in your life. You know your family role and how that influences you; you know your Myers Briggs or Enneagram Type and how that influences you; you know the character defects you are working through and you can visualize how you’ll be different and many days you are different.

Maybe, like me, you have sticky notes—in your planner, on your desk top, on the bathroom mirror that tell you things like, “The critics do not matter, being in the game does.” or “Humility is perpetual quietness of the heart.” or my new one, “The cure for resentment is boundaries.” 

And when you look at those sticky notes, or hear yourself giving similar advice to another person, you think, “My God I am growing; I really am changing.”

And then…

And then a day like yesterday happens and it feels like I never saw the 12 steps, never heard a spiritual teacher, and never understood that detachment and forgiveness are the handrails to my emotional freedom.

Instead I felt slighted, hurt, petty, competitive, angry, and like a very young girl in a crazy family.

The only good news is that now it mostly happens inside of me, but that’s also the bad news—it happens inside of me. Serenity? Poof!

That hardest part is knowing so much and understanding so much and really meaning what I see on my little sticky notes but having the feelings of a newcomer. 

My prayer last night—and it was a long tossing, turning night—was to have what I write on those sticky notes make the journey from my head to my heart.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Is Anxiety an Addiction?

As someone who has been whipsawed by anxiety for many years I am always attracted to articles that attempt to address or explain that nastiest of feelings. It’s got many synonyms—fear, nervousness, tummy-ache, stage fright and clinical anxiety. I know every variation of
the theme.

So when I saw the article called “Anxiety Through the Lens of Addiction” by Suzanne Jesse in the recent Renew Magazine I tore it out and started in.

Jesse is a clinician specializing in addiction and in this article she uses the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) which is the Bible of diagnosis which also determines who gets paid for treatment. She shows how the addictions we are most familiar with: alcoholism and drug addiction are diagnosed via the DSM and then she lays the characteristic of anxiety/anxiety disorders next to those same criteria, and voila! there is an addiction pattern with anxiety.

Jesse writes: “I was curious about the addictive nature of the underlying problem with anxiety: thoughts.” 

What felt so familiar to me was how her own story led her to looking at her thinking and how she found her thinking had become addictive. She says that she knew that her anxiety originated with her, “chaotic and unstable traumatic childhood” but she wanted to know exactly how those experiences eventually resulted in debilitating anxiety. 

And her light bulb moment came from reading “Love, Medicine, and Miracles by Dr. Bernie Siegel who said, “Thoughts are chemical.” Walter Cannon, who described the fight-or-flight response, also confirmed that thoughts lead the body to release chemicals that create and sustain anxiety.

Jesse goes on to show that the chemical nature of thoughts leads to a chemical addiction. She turns back to the DSM and answers each criteria question for substance abuse disorder but replaces “the substance” with “engaging in negative thought” and she shows that folks with anxiety get pretty high scores for an addictive disorder.

This is also why, though we know this, it’s hard to shake. If we could simply, “Change your thinking” (like it says on the many reminder post-its I have on my desk, dashboard and daily planner) we would do it, right?

But it is, in fact, not just a handy metaphor to say that negative thinking is like using heroin, it is like using heroin. We think, and think and think our fear and worry thoughts continually shooting ourselves full of fear, flooding the body with addictive chemicals. Negative thinking is addictive, and given the impact of chronic stress (even self induced) it can also be physically devastating. 

So in long-term recovery—while we may not have used an “external chemical” for many years--we may still be shooting up awful and addictive chemicals on a daily basis.

You know the saying—and it’s more true than ever: “I came for my drinking but stayed for my thinking.” Thirty years later, my own thoughts may be the toughest addiction I will ever face.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Throw Up & Go

Fear. Even though we hear so much advice about fear, and even though we know that it fear is the thing that underlies almost every character defect, we still feel fear. And I have come, after all these years, to believe that’s not such a bad thing. 

Fear, like anxiety, is so dam uncomfortable, but there is a secondary gain. Fear is what drives me back to the steps, fear keeps me doing daily prayer and meditation, and fear keeps me on my toes and mindful about the “Things I can change.”

But, in fact, there are lots of things I can’t change. And sometimes –and often in certain settings—fear is one of the things that I cannot change. Nope, I do not subscribe to that early recovery platitude that “faith and fear can’t exist in the same place.” Of course they can. Of course. If you have been in recovery a while you know that you have had times of good faith and great fear simultaneously. 

In truth, we do that “faith and fear can’t exist…” thing with newcomers because it gives them great incentive to grab hold of the steps, prayer and meditation, creation of a Higher Power—all that—with both hands. 

Then we keep living our lives, and life keeps happening. And, as we get older in recovery some scary stuff happens. We tune up our recovery and yes, our spiritual connection, but we keep going, fear or not.

Recently I came up with a new mantra for myself. I am reading a wonderful, small book about living a creative life. It is called “The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield. (Yes, the guy who wrote “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”) In his book, “The War of Art” Pressfield reframes fear as resistance—as in the part of us that resists our own creativity or our own growth. And he tells the story of actor Henry Fonda and Fonda’s fear/resistance.

It turns out that Fonda, an Academy Award winning actor who had an incredibly successful career on stage and screen had almost debilitating stage freight. Yes, an actor who was afraid to go on stage. You hear something like that and you wait to hear the secret of how he beat the fear. But he didn’t.

No, for his entire career—almost 60 years of year-round professional work-- Fonda was so scared that he would throw up every time (every single time) he stepped on a set or a stage. When he was 75 years old and adored and revered he was still throwing up. His secret? He kept a bucket or basin nearby to throw up in. Uh huh, he stood in the wings absolutely miserable and terrified and then he threw up, wiped his mouth, and went on stage.

That’s professionalism and that’s commitment to art, and that, I believe is also a quality of good, long recovery. Saying to fear, “Get the (fudge) out of my way or come with me.” 

So my new mantra, extracted form Henry Fonda’s example is: “Throw up and Go.” Just, throw up and go!

If it is a tough meeting with a boss or a public speaking engagement or I need to have a difficult conversation with someone I remind myself to stop waiting for the day I have no fear, but instead: Throw Up and Go!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

AA is a Technology for Change

There are moments when twelve-step recovery can feel old-fashioned. The Big Book language sometimes feels dated, and the prayers—with their “thee” and “thou” can feel almost archaic. But in fact, twelve-step recovery has become a fabulous technology.

Today, I am in the midst of working through yet another character defect that has just come into my awareness (and which surely others have seen in me for ages) I was thinking, “Well, now what do I do with this part of me?”

And the wonderful thing is that I realized that I knew exactly what to do. I needed to pray

about it, write about it, talk about it –first with my sponsor and with close recovery friends, then talk about it carefully in a meeting, then more openly in another meeting—all the while writing in my journal, spending more time in prayer and meditation, and setting some mini goals around the change I’d like to see.

While I’m not changed --this defect has some deep tentacles and a long history—I’m so grateful that I have a reliable and remarkable process for change. And I have a way of thinking about making changes. As usual, I catch myself wanting to clear up this defect so I can be a nicer person, then I remember that is not why we root out these “shortcomings.”

We don’t do steps 6, 7, 8, 9 and ten so we can be more likable or so that others will think well of us. Nope, we do this work so that we are better tools (yes, tools!) to be used by God—our Higher Power—for his will, and his purposes. 

We have this incredible mechanism, this detailed and linear process –with specific tasks and recommendations that really works whether we are trying to not drink, not swear, not gossip or not be a know-it-all. Technology is the application of knowledge for practical purposes and we have that. In twelve-step recovery we have a time-tested technology for change and growth. And we have a grand, international community that shares our goals and who are happy to help us.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Wisdom from Unexpected Places

These days Facebook delivers daily inspirational quotes and well, too much pastel, watered-down attempts at spiritual guidance. But every now and then –in the most unexpected place—I’ll come across an idea or a story or a line of dialog that just “Wham!” sticks like a good AA slogan.

One of my favorites came from my first sponsor. And it comes back to me again and again. It was passed from her Mother Superior—yeah, she was going to be a nun but instead recovery happened. But the great line is this—and it still applies to me:

“Feelings can’t hit a moving target.” 

So when I get going and my to-do lists are tripping over each other I remember that and take a minute (no more than a minute!) to see what it is I am trying to not feel.

Another one I have on an index card comes from a great novel: “The Mermaid’s Chair”. The main character in that book is an artist-writer, seeking her creativity and on an island retreat she begins an affair with a monk. Yes, a monk! And what her therapist says to her, as she pours out her grief and shame:

 “We fall in love with something we are missing or seeking in our self.”

Yes, ponder that one for several minutes. Look around at past and present relationships and see if that fits. It’s not a terrible thing really—if we stay conscious. In the book the woman needed to face her spiritual life so what’s better than a monk—a professional spiritual seeker.

That one has been true for me. I fell in love with men more ambitious than me—when I could not face my own ambition, and men who were more intellectual than me --when I couldn’t yet own that I am a thinker and writer, and always, always I love men who are more calm, collected and relaxed than me. (Yes back to that moving target thing.) What I had to learn though was to not punish those men for being who they are and what I chose them for.

And here’s another goody that I found in an old file yesterday:

“When ever you try to control someone else you are really trying to make yourself feel safe.” 

Hmmmm…that one needs to be on a Post-it over my desk this week. 

Any favorite unexpected wisdom you want to share?


Lots more on recovery slogans and unexpected wisdom in the book, "Out of the Woods" published by Central Recovery Press.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

AA When You Go Away

Do you take your recovery on the road? There are many ways to do it: Pack the literature. Make sure you have your sponsor’s number in your phone. Check the changing time zones and confirm that you can call her or plan to send texts back and forth. 

And of course—go to meetings in new places. Going to twelve-step meetings in new places is one of the joys of recovery—and it’s a travel pleasure that non-recovery folks just don’t get the benefit of. It’s been my experience over and over that AA trumps Triple A (the American Auto Association) for travel info every time.

Please ahead—Google “AA in _____(your vacation destination here)”. And you will get a meeting list and contact phone numbers. Big cities, beach resorts, international trips and in teeny tiny villages too. And always on cruise ships. Typically in rural areas you’ll get a personal contact and probably a ride to meetings if you’d like that.

Going to a meeting on vacation keeps your recovery fully charged, of course, and it keeps
you balanced against bad food, late planes, time zone tiredness, and maybe even the temptation of one or more addictive substances. Maybe a fancy beachside cocktail with flirty umbrella doesn’t tempt you but you are about to be undone by the chocolate in Belgium. Any good 12-step contact is going to be your sounding board and helpmate.

And speaking of Belgium, Paris, or Munich…it is a ball to go to a meeting in another country or language. You will be so welcome and welcomed. And if you raise your hand and say that you are visiting you’ll have a chance to ask for info on ticket lines, recipes, which ferry to take, and where the locals shop for those fabulous scarves. Twelve-step meetings are a treasure trove of tourism info…you might even get invited to dinner or a performance or a sale. I’ve done all that and more in other countries. We are a great big family—even on vacation.

And if you happen to be traveling with actual relatives (husband, teenaged kids, mother-in-law, sister-in-law!) saying “I have to go to a meeting” gives you a guaranteed free pass and a chance to improve your mood and shift your perspective. You, and they, will be glad when you get back to the hotel. 

Bon Voyage!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Sugar and Sponsorship--Ask Yourself This Question

A young man in India was suffering from health problems due to his love for sweets and sugar. His mother tried everything she knew to change his eating habits, but he could not, or would not, change. It seemed that the more she got after him, the worse his problem
Finally, at a loss for how to help him, she took him to see Gandhi, whom she knew her son admired. “Mahatma,” she said, upon reaching him, “my son is in ill health because of his love for sugar. Could you please tell him to stop eating sugar? Perhaps he would listen to you.”
Gandhi paused for a moment, thinking. Then he looked at the woman and said, “Madame, bring your son back in three weeks. Then I will speak with him.”
Three weeks later, the mother again traveled with her son to see Gandhi, whereupon he told the boy to stop eating sugar. “Why did we have to wait three weeks for that?” the mother asked, before leaving.
“Madame,” Gandhi responded, “three weeks ago, I was still eating sugar.”

I heard that story read last week in a class I’m taking. After we heard the story our teacher asked the class, “Where are you still eating sugar?”
And of course I immediately thought of the gummy fish, and licorice sticks that I love to gnaw on. But I also understood that Gandhi—and my teacher—was talking about something more than sucrose consumption.
This week I’m thinking a lot about sponsorship. I love having a sponsor and there hasn’t been much time in my years of recovery that I’ve gone without one. But again and again I have lapsed in being a sponsor. This week I am reminded why it’s really important to both have a sponsor and be a sponsor.
And it has a lot to do with Gandhi’s wisdom and the question: Where are you still eating sugar?
I have two sponsees right now and as they talk to me about their experiences as recovering women I do feel like I have a lot to share. I work at my recovery, love step work and I’m committed. But I was brought up short (sugar) twice this week by the advice I heard myself offer the women I sponsor.
In one case I was explaining the importance of Step Ten and actually doing a tenth step. Using pen and paper and writing a mini inventory at night—“We write…” I quoted, yeah, it says, “we write…” As a spiritual director I know that this practice we call Step Ten comes
from the Ignatian practice called The Examen. It’s that old—much older than AA. And there’s a reason we do that in writing or out loud with another person: we do it so we really hear ourselves.
So I was going on and on with that sponsee and suggesting a few short questions she might journal about each night, and after I got off the phone I thought, “Whoa—do I do what I am telling her to do?” And the answer was “not really.” So, I needed to start doing a nightly Step Ten both for my recovery and to have some integrity as a sponsor.
With another sponsee, I was talking about relationships with coworkers and trying to see each person as a person, how to be both caring and detached—to find that royal balance: care about the person but detach from, “Do they like me?” and “Is she wrong?” and I heard myself advise, “You have to pray for your coworkers.”
Yep, again I looked at my emotional self and I had “sugar” all over me. I knew I needed to pray for my colleagues.
Maybe I would have gotten there through reading recovery literature, or I might have heard those good suggestions in a meeting. But being a sponsor holds up a great big mirror and asks me, “Are you still eating sugar?”

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Upside to Trauma--Post Traumatic Growth

The odds are pretty good that if you are in recovery you have either experienced trauma or were a participant in trauma. Many of us come from families that are "dysfunctional"--the euphemism for addicted, abusive, neglectful--all fine grounds for trauma.

We might have experienced trauma in our home as children or we used alcohol or drugs to cope with some trauma in our young lives. Some folks teeter on the edge of full blown addiction and then topple right over the edge after a traumatic experience. It's also possible that we created trauma for others. Drunk driving, bad parenting, erratic behaviors fueled by substances---sometimes the trauma we cause is, in it's own way, also traumatizing.

So we know the word and we've probably used it's cousin: PTSD--Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The work of recovery helps us with trauma. We admit powerlessness, we surrender, we grieve, we own our side of the street and we endeavor to change. But we also fear that constant hard work and vigilance is the best we'll get. Or that other word, "resilience". Not a bad thing, but still…where is the promised "happy, joyous and free"?

Except that sometimes we do feel that, and then maybe we wonder, "Am I in denial?" If I have a trauma background shouldn't I be struggling all the time? That's been the message for years--for those of us abused as children, as adults, or who faced military traumas or horrific accident or illness.

Now we have a new word for "happy, joyous and free" after trauma. It's this: "Post-Traumatic Growth" and it is the recognition--with very serious scientific backing--that some of us get stronger because of trauma.

We know that old quote, "stronger in the broken places" but that always felt like a platitude. Until now, tonight. Tonight I am tearing through a brand new book--published today! -that makes the case for a life even better than simple resilience following trauma.

The new book is called, UPSIDE, and the author is Jim Rendon.

Rendon spent years interviewing social scientists, physicians and survivors of trauma, and his book combines all of learning to show us that it is truly possible to thrive and not just survive trauma. This book is hope in hard-cover for so many of us, and it is validation as well, that being happy after trauma is not a sign of denial.

This is going to be an important book for therapists and coaches and counselors and especially for folks in addiction treatment, so we can back up our promises with science and research, when we say that no matter what happened, you can be happy, joyous and free.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Seeking Spiritual Fitness

I’m thinking about spiritual fitness this week. I’ve been in recovery a long time now and, as we’ve talked here, there are pluses and minuses. Being semi-sane most of the time is a huge plus, but not having the daily push to grab more recovery could be kind of a minus, right? 

In early recovery fear and pain kept me coming back. I was so willing! I never balked at six meetings a week, lots of service, two sponsors and the books were piled so high. And my commitment to developing my spiritual life was huge. It didn’t take very long for me to get it that this is a spiritual program and a spiritual solution and while I faked a lot of things in my life—I couldn’t fake that and get results.

So early on I began a prayer practice and tried many meditation courses. I had done TM—Transcendental Meditation --in my using days and then I discovered it worked so much better sober. Then as recovery progressed I learned about Matt Talbot retreats and did those for years—twice a year at Stonehill College with amazing Christian retreat leaders, and that led to having a spiritual director—and then to becoming a spiritual director. And still the books are piled so high.

But just as I keep exploring new kinds of physical fitness and adapting new movement and exercise styles—I’m re-learning that I need to keep adapting my spiritual fitness as well.

Just as I had to face that fact that running hurt more than it helped, and that while swimming was almost perfect I couldn’t manage the logistics on a daily basis. So I tried videos, classes, a trainer, yoga, dance classes, Zumba and on and on. For that last couple of years the physical fitness recipe is Pilates and yoga. But swimming is creeping back in.

On the spiritual front there has been daily prayer and almost daily journal writing, reading spiritual writings, talking to a spiritual director. I keep wanting church to be part of the mix and but so far it just doesn’t “take”. Too many times, so wanting to be a “church-goer” I sign up, start to attend, over commit and then bail. That left me feeling worse not better.

But here is what I do know: Enlarging one’s spiritual life must be a top priority for anyone in recovery. And maintaining spiritual fitness doesn’t mean doing the same things year after year. Just as our addiction is progressive and the solution is spiritual, our program of spiritual growth and action also has to keep progressing.

Just as we are learning that the heart of addiction may come from not having community and connection, our spiritual solution may also require spiritual community and connection. People who are part of a faith community have that—and maybe that’s what my repeating desire is all about. And maybe it doesn’t have to be Church in a formal sense but I think it is going to mean a regular commitment to some small group of folks who also want to practice prayer and meditation together. 

Years ago I came to know that sometimes the best way to learn something is to start teaching it-or “teach what you want to learn,” so I’m going to start the spiritual practice group that I need for myself. 

Let me know if this appeals to you and we’ll become the community we want.