Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Outside Issues: The Atlantic Magazine and Gabrielle Glaser

Oh, hold on to your hat and your folding chair in the church basement. We are tearing ourselves apart with the tussle over Gabrielle Glaser's article in the April 2015 Atlantic Magazine.

Glaser's article is called "The False Gospel of Alcoholics Anonymous", and she cleverly used the Affordable Care Act as a media/political hook to write about why AA may not work for everyone and to talk about other methods of treating alcohol addiction, including, moderation and medication.

Yes, I know that "we" collectively have some experience with moderation and with medication. But really, did we believe other people when they told us that abstinence was probably going to work better? No, we did not.

I don't think Glaser is a bad person and I don't think she is "abusing AA". She is asking questions. She just doesn't like it, didn't feel it was the right thing for her or other people she knew, so she wrote about that. And, because she is a journalist, she did her homework and dug deep to look at other methods of dealing with addiction. She writes about neurology, physiology, psychology and what other countries do.

I am really glad that she wrote about addiction and treatment, and yes even that she raises questions about what works and what doesn't. AA is not perfect. We know that. We admit it to ourselves and each other all the time. For years I have shared the rooms with people who have 25, 30 and 40 years of "recovery" and I don't want what they have. I want a whole lot more than abstinence form a substance. But that's my preference. Mine. Other folks are very happy to just not use. I want all the emotional and spiritual and personal growth that can come from our program and working the steps--and I include therapy and retreats and all kinds of other help in my program.

So why not let folks find what works for them?

Yes, I know the title of the article is dastardly provocative, "The False Gospel…" Well, that's what editors do to make us read newspapers and magazines. And does she say there's not a lot of science around AA? Uh huh. And is there  a lot of science around AA? Nope. So that's OK.

I love AA. I adore AA. And I'm beyond grateful that I found it and that it works for me. So I can only hope that other people in pain find what ever works for them, and that Glaser's article has kicked up the dust and the national conversation about addiction.

Here's a link to The Atlantic so you can read the whole article.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Trapeze of Recovery

My friend Meg shared this one from Vermont:

Pigeon:  "I don't know if I can get through this."
Sponsor:  "Hang on."
Pigeon:  "How do I do that?"
Sponsor:  "Let go."

(And smile for the camera.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Anxiety, Ugh!

Yes Anxiety—It may be the worst thing to happen at any stage of recovery. But somehow in later recovery anxiety feels worse because we feel like we should know better, or have worked this out. At least that’s what I think each time it hits me. Yes, that word “should” is there which should be a clue. But my pattern, when anxiety arrives, is the same: Resist, Insist, Deny, Distract and then Pray and Surrender.

This week it came again. Home from vacation. Lovely sun and sand and swimming in salt water. But an email from work and my head and heart tore away into worry and dread. And I am afraid. On the one hand I know this place; it’s a childhood mantra: “Diane is not wanted, not liked, not needed, a fool.”

But it’s that tumble-down, rolling-stone-picking-up-dirt, quality of anxiety that undoes me. It’s not just that I am not liked at work, it quickly becomes not liked at all, not by friends, not by students, and of course, eventually not by those who love me, whose love actually sustains me. And that delivers Anxiety’s Nasty Goal: I will be alone, left out, shuttered and shattered. That this happens in my head in less than 90 seconds, that it is fiction, and that in reality it already happened years ago and I survived--does not seem to dissuade my ever-creative mind. Anxiety whispers, “But this time it’s different…”

If you relate to this I bless you. I wouldn’t wish Anxiety on my worst enemy. If anxiety is not your thing come back tomorrow when I write about shoes or sugar or relationships. You won’t get this; you’ll think I’m talking about fear, which I’m not.

When Anxiety hits I do what I’ve learned to do: I pray, I read recovery literature, and words of faith and wisdom; I talk to someone who knows me well (I email my sponsor—anxiety always convinces me not to call her), and I write it out, with the hope of riding it out.

But really, is there anything as gross as Anxiety?

So this week I did pray and then kept on doing my day which included reading the book I brought for the plane: It’s called, “Still” and it’s a memoir written by Lauren F. Winner, and in there, in her book, the tiniest bit of hope appeared. I read her story of her divorce and how she questioned her faith, and I saw that she is an honest, self-revealing writer—much like Mary Karr or Anne Lamott, and she has Anxiety. Hoorah!

 In fact, Winner is so much like Karr or Lamott because she is a smart, worldly woman, and a woman of faith like them who tells on herself over and over and by revealing the grossness of her feelings she invites others (Me!) to feel less lonely in their gross feelings. That, my friends, is generosity.

And I kept reading--in the car, in the airport and on the plane-while making deals with God hoping that my Anxiety has a purpose and some meaning but really just hoping it will Go Away Right Now.

But my prayers have been said and I turn the pages and here is Lauren Winner suddenly offering a chapter on anxiety. (Thank you Jesus!) and she writes about the crazy ways that hers manifests—a bunch of compulsive stuff—(brutally painful she says.) and she tells how she learned to count the “Ones”: One, one, one, one. ..and she explains some prayers that she has been taught to pray for her anxiety. (She is a professor at Duke, teaches in the Divinity School –Thank you Lauren for being a certified smart person and spiritual professional and still totally copping to Anxiety.)

Then she writes this: “Francis de Sales, a seventeenth-century priest and writer addressed anxiety in his “Introduction to the Devout Life”: “Unresting anxiety is the greatest evil which can happen to the soul, sin only accepted.”….Frances de Sales’s antidote to anxiety is two-fold, half positive, half negative: Do pray and do not do anything that might address the object of your anxiety (do not go online and check your bank balance: the action far from steadying you will just make you more frantic.) (Her words of course—de Sales probably said do not start counting your sheep)

This was great news: Frances de Sales says, “When you are conscious that you are growing anxious, commend yourself to God and resolve steadfastly not to take any steps whatever to obtain the result you desire, until your state of mind is altogether quieted.” 

The relief for me in that is two-fold: He gives an actual recipe for what to do and what not to do, but also, by the very existence of his remedy, and of Winner needing to quote a great theologian, is proof that anxiety is a common, and an actual (if not normal) part of the human condition, and it is something that even brilliant, educated and esteemed professors, theologians, saints and writers also struggle with.

Hooray! I’m not alone—the very thing that Anxiety swears that I am.

The good thing that Anxiety does—caught by its own trick—is send me back to God. And maybe, though it doesn’t quite seem fair, God uses Anxiety to get me look back in his direction? I’m not sure how I feel about that. 

But here is something else I thought about today: Why is it so hard to say, “I have anxiety today”? In talking with friends or coworkers we can say, “I’m sad today” or “I’m bummed” and I even hear people say, “I’m depressed.” But Anxiety has a bit of shame attached I think. Is it fear of contagion? Anxiety is fear attached to fear attached to fear. 

Sometimes I think that people who get mad easily, or who are deeply put-upon and victimy or who nip at people with their sharp tongues have anxiety too. But those other states are just Anxiety in prettier dresses.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Amateur Night

Saint Patrick’s Day, like New Year’s Eve, is often called amateur night. On this night people who don’t have drinking problems—and those who do—tend to drink too much. There are more DWI’s and more fights and more screaming at boyfriends on this night. And tomorrow I imagine that there will be more waking up with headaches, and scraped knees and with strangers.
Aren’t you glad you don’t drink?

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fashion and Faith

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

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

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

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

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

Even after almost thirty years it continues. And throughout all this recovery I’ve tried following each voice...each one to an extreme perhaps --and then I let that pendulum swing the other way.

William Merritt Chase
In my first months of attending 12 step meetings I went shopping for “meeting clothes”. All of my life I had medicated my feelings with substances—food, booze, drugs and always there was a corresponding adjustment to my appearance, so why wouldn’t recovery need its own attire? I heard many years later that some women had sponsors who told them to dress up when they went to meetings, they should look their best, and to work recovery from the outside in. “Suit up and Show up” they were told.

I suspect that for the addicted woman who got to the stage of never brushing her teeth or changing out of sweats that could be a good way to go, but I was of the other breed that was overly invested in my appearance. So rather than learning to wash my hair and put on lipstick I really needed to experiment with “come as you are” and even “come at your worst” to learn that I’d still be loved and accepted.

In very early recovery when I was on my holier-than-thou cloud I decided to give up make
up and hair color, to only shop at thrift stores so as to be the “real” me. Luckily I had a sponsor who spent the equivalent of my weekly salary on her hair each month. When I professed my spiritual breakthrough and austerity she gave me a long look and said, “You didn’t get sober to wear sackcloth and ashes. So go get some highlights.”

Then a few years later I was having some success at work.  I was in a good job and enjoying secular success and peace in recovery. I spent some money with a personal shopper who advised that I needed a power suit, a silky red dress and who came to my apartment and went through my closet with me. It was sort of a sartorial personal 4th step inventory. (I actually did tell her all my clothing stories so it was kind of a closet catharsis). But after buying all those shiny new clothes I felt a bit too exposed and well, too shiny. I found that most of those new “dress for success” duds belonged more to an idea I had about myself than to my actual self. So the pendulum swung again.

Back and forth it’s gone over these recovering years. I have a wardrobe I like now and most
of it looks like it belongs to the same person. I make those “shopping in pain” mistakes still. (The H.A.L.T. advice should apply to shopping as well as drinking.) But my stages of rock star; tweedy intellectual, corporate power leader and cute girlfriend have gradually integrated into a closet that, for the most part, reflects who I really am.

The hook to change my outsides is still there though. My first thought whenever I contemplate an inner change is always to wonder what the external equivalent should be. 

So what does a sober, sane, happy woman look like? I think she looks like herself --and her best self—knowing that even that very self is constantly changing.

I loved writing about shopping, clothes and recovery in "Out of the Woods--A Woman's Guide to Long-term Recovery."

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Wisdom and Willpower of Candy

As with many ideas and suggestions that were set out in the early literature of Alcoholics Anonymous, later scientific, medical and psychological research proved that our founders were onto very sound concepts.

We know that the guidance about prayer and resentment later turned out to be psychologically sound, and that the early AA structure also turned out to be the perfect sociologically to support changing habits.

But one piece of early advice that always seemed to get a good laugh was the suggestion that having a piece of candy could be helpful when trying to avoid a drink. I’m sure you have heard the laughter, or maybe you made a joke—I did for years. I even said pompous things like “Oh great, candy—isn’t it crazy to substitute one unhealthy substance for another?”  Maybe, also like me, you imagined that they were doing their best with what they knew, but really, “Who would give candy to someone trying to get healthy?”

Well, live and learn and get humble.

Today I’m reading the best-selling book, “Willpower” by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. Published last year, this book integrates the latest and most comprehensive research on self-control, self-regulation and willpower. (You will want to read this book first if you have plans to change anything in your life—like your diet, exercise, work habits etc.)

Baumeister, a pioneering research scientist, through years and years of study discovered that willpower has a physical basis and that it operates like a muscle—it can be strengthened with practice and yes, weakened by overuse. And his surprising discovery is that willpower is fueled by glucose. His book covers how we get willpower, how we can increase it and the careful ways we have to manage our lives to have the stores of willpower we need to make any life changes—even changes in our thinking.

So the knockout discovery in my reading today is that a small piece of hard candy does in fact, give your nervous system enough glucose to fuel an immediate boost of willpower. That means that a piece of hard candy can help you to not take a drink. 

Here is what is interesting, and certainly misunderstood: It is not that the candy is a substitute for the drink, but that one hard candy is the right amount of glucose to fuel the willpower to choose to not take the drink.

No, Bill and Bob did not know that bit of physiology. Baumeister's research has been done in the past 20 years—but the instinctive wisdom and solid advice to our early AA’s turns out to be medically and neurologically sound. 

Don’t you just love that? I do.

So maybe—especially folks in later recovery—you will want to study Baumeister's book along with the Big Book and use both of them when you want to tackle a new way of eating, a new fitness regimen, or even to begin a new meditation habit. 

Like it says in our favorite book, “More will be revealed.”

Lots more on longterm recovery and making life changes in my book, "Out of the Woods" from Central Recovery Press.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Change Your Story to Find Serenity and Lose Stress

Yes, it’s just like those paradoxes we know from recovery: “You have to give it away to keep it.” and “You have to surrender to win.” Now here is a new one –on stress--in a brand new book:
It’s not really stress that is stressing you out, it is the story of stress that you’ve been told, and that you tell yourself. But serenity is yours by simply changing your mind.  (And a couple of habits) And the stories that you tell yourself.

That is the message and guidance in a brand new book—published yesterday—called “Seeking Serenity—The 10 New Rules for Health and Happiness in the Age of Anxiety.”
The author, Amanda Enayati—is a technology columnist and wellness speaker but also and crucially—she’s a researcher. And what she has done differently from every other writer with advice on stress—Enayati went looking for the back-story on stress, and in making sense of the history she has created a map to wind our way out.

That’s pretty smart. And she is.

Enayati had a very stressful life. A big New York City attorney, a witness to 9/11, with the fallout depression afterward, then followed by a diagnosis of late-stage cancer, and then a total reevaluation of
her life (there is that cancer gift again)—and a complete remission. But she was left with soooooo many questions. And being a writer/columnist/researcher she went looking at the science of stress and discovered the cultural/business side of the issue du jour for all of us.

What she lays out for us in “Seeking Serenity” is that while we act like, and react like, stress is a real and tangible thing that we have to manage and defeat, stress is actually a cultural construct, a social construct, and sadly—and frighteningly—stress is a marketing construct.

You’ll either laugh or cry when you read Enayati’s revelations on the role Big Tobacco played in creating the concept of stress so they could market their best-known stress-relievers. (Yep, cigarettes) But the damage was bigger than lung cancer—it was also a kind of cultural cancer. Marketers of tobacco, alcohol, certain foods, and now even treatments, had to –in order to sell us their solutions—first sell us on the belief in stress.

Stress is a belief system. Think about that. That’s what Enayati is telling us in her new book: if we believe in stress, and that we are stressed, then we are perfectly pre-set to buy all manner of stress relief and stress remedies.

Of course, she doesn’t leave us hanging there shaking our heads. That would be cruel and just too stressful—so she also gives us The 10 New Rules—that is the subtitle of her book.

This is really a very smart book, and a very new way of looking at stress and personal belief and the simple choices we can make—actually without the huge life changes that we always think we’ll have to make. But which, in fact, stress most of into feeling more stress.

God grant me the serenity—to get smarter about stress and to make some pretty simple choices and changes.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Getting Up and Dressing Up in Recovery

Writer and poet, Mary Karr, who wrote “The Liar’s Club”—her memoir of growing up in a crazy family, and also “Lit” --my favorite chronology of getting sober—gave me one of my favorite lines about getting dressed. Karr credits her father with this comment as he observed her clothing choices:

“Mary, there’s a fine line between an outfit and a get-up.”

Isn’t that a perfect distinction?

Today I chose to wear a get-up: My pink, vintage Peck & Peck wool coat. (It has little fringes on the four perfectly placed Chanel style pockets). I added a polka dot wool scarf that is color-blocked in pink, green, yellow and red, and I added a rose-colored baseball cap, and my “Obama-Green” gloves, so named because they are the exact gloves that Michelle Obama wore at the first Presidential Inauguration (and which I had been wearing years before her stylist found them at J. Crew. No one wanted that weird green before she wore them with her yellow coat on that freezing day.)

I felt festive and happy—and smiling-- in this colorful get-up as I ran my errands. 

It is long recovery that lets me have this kind of happy, get-up day. There is so much freedom to both care and not care what I look like. And to know that tomorrow I can make another choice and feel peaceful in head-to-toe taupe, or a navy suit and pearls. Dress as me? I am all of them. 

We are told in recovery not to compare our insides to someone else’s outsides, but we also have to learn to align our insides and our own outsides, that is to allow ourselves to enjoy both “get-ups” and outfits as we dress for our wonderful, recovered lives.

There is a chapter on clothing and recovery in, "Out of the Woods--A Guide to Long-term Recovery" published by Central Recovery Press.