Thursday, May 28, 2015

This Girl's Life--Literature Can Heal You

I have long believed that literature has healing properties. And in recovery I’ve discovered that we need a lot of books, the “conference-approved” ones and the self-help experts and the classics including the dead white guys. 

A great book that I have returned to recently is “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff, who, in telling his family story, offers not advice or platitudes but the power of his story resonated so deeply in me that I felt seismic shifts –shifts in the strata where the
wounds live.

Here is a short excerpt from Wolfe:

“I missed my father…He had the advantage always enjoyed by the inconstant parent, of not being there to be found imperfect. I could imagine good reasons, even romantic reasons why he had taken no interest, why he had never written to me, why he seemed to have forgotten I existed……

This way of thinking worked pretty well until my first child was born. The first time I saw him in the hospital a nurse was trying to take a blood sample. She couldn’t find a vein. She kept jabbing him, and every time the needle went in I felt it myself…When I finally got my hands on him I felt as if I had snatched him from a pack of wolves, and as I held him something hard broke in me, and I knew I was more alive than I had been before. 

But at the same time I felt a shadow, a coldness at the edges.  It came upon me again that night, so sharply I wanted to cry out. It was about my father ten years dead by then. It was grief and rage, mostly rage and for days I shook with it when I was not shaking with joy for my son.”

Many times over the years in therapy and recovery groups I’ve listened as another adult has described how they too sat at the top of the stairs in their childhood home listening to parents who were drinking and fighting and hurting each other. I recognized the tense scene and the slumped, scared posture of the one clinging to the banister.

That recognition and recall was so easy and so visceral that I began to count these recovering adults as my psychic siblings. “Oh another one from my house,” I’d think, in a meeting. We, group members, might even say to each other and of ourselves, “We grew up in the same house.”

It was shorthand to acknowledge that we knew at the heart and soul and scar level what that person was describing. When I read Tobias Wolff’s paragraph above I thought, “Oh, he is one of us too.”
What moved and impressed me was his ability to tell this story without pointing out the psychological dynamics. “Show don’t tell”, writers are told. He shows.

My father also was the absent and perfect one in my family. He was at work, on the road, in West Virginia or New Jersey when the rest of our lives were being torn apart at home. I needed my father to be good so that I could believe that I had at least one good parent.

To do that I had, I realize now, to do some incredible emotional and mental gymnastics to absolve my father of leaving two children alone with a dangerous and mentally ill mother. I had to decide that he didn’t know. I had to decide that he would have helped if he had known, and I had to decide that he could be, at once, intelligent and competent enough to be a good father and incompetent and blind enough to not notice the craziness in his wife and the terror in his children’s eyes when he came home on weekends.

Almost ten years after my fathers death I married a man with children, two young teen sons who lived with us. I saw this man love me AND also care for his children and it nearly drove me mad.

I experienced the same shaking rage that Wolff describes: That a man could protect his children in a loving and decent way was almost too much to bear because it forced me to see what was possible. I was shattered by being that close to a caring father and it brought out feelings of grief and hatred and finally shame because I still was not ready to admit that my father had let me down. I did not know why watching Danny and Matt being loved by their father drove me out of my skin and finally out of their lives.

It took more years and more losses and hearing others in recovery describe this phenomenon, and it took good books like “This Boy’s Life” to understand what my pain was about.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Alanon--The Other Program--And Yours Too

Here is one of those changes that will happen when recovery becomes long-term: Many of us go to --or go back to –Alanon.
 Some times it’s a sponsor who sends us there or maybe we see men and women who have as many years as we do but they seem to be struggling less at home or at work, or even with themselves. Then when we listen to them, or ask what they are doing, we find out that they are “double-winners”—people who practice both the AA and Alanon programs.
It’s a funny thing about recovery. In the early days we had to learn to be less selfish. We learned to consider the impact of our behavior on other people. We laugh at the Big Book story of the man who comes out of the storm cellar, surveys all the damage and declares, “Look Ma, ain’t it grand the wind stopped blowing.” We laugh. Oh yeah, no one—especially those near and dear to us-- is applauding that we simply stopped drinking. 
So we learn to listen, to consider the needs of others, to concede, to compromise. We learn to give.
But then, if we stay with recovery past the five-year mark, we reach a point where we actually have to learn to be selfish again. You may hate that word and prefer “self-caring”, but really selfish can be a good thing.
It’s almost like we have to go back over the old ground again and say, “So what do I want?” and, “What do I need—even if it makes someone else unhappy?” And now, with some time in recovery, we can learn to take care of ourselves and even to let other people be unhappy—we can allow them to deal with their own feelings.  Yes, it’s another one of those paradoxes in the program. 
Part of the growth in those years may be finding out what we do want and prefer and need. Maybe we find that it’s hard to know what we want, or to ask for what we want, and someone near us—maybe our sponsor or a friend notices and we are invited—or sent—to an Alanon meeting.
It makes sense. This is also why we want to keep going to meetings even after years and years of recovery. We want to keep growing in every way—especially those that have little to do with consuming alcohol or drugs, but which have everything to do with living a recovering life.
And of course you qualify for Alanon—we all do. After this many years in any recovery program most of us have friends and probably partners who are also addicts of some kind. Yes, they may be in recovery as well, but just like us it’s the thinking not the drinking (or drugging or eating) that keeps all of us coming back.
Rules for beginners in Alanon are the same as in AA: try six meetings, try different meetings, raise your hand, listen to the people with experience, read the literature and even do service. And try not to compare. It’s hard to be a beginner again, but the payoff is that there’s a multiplier effect when you work both programs.
It really is the best of both worlds: To be able to care for yourself and for others with honesty and peace. Detaching with love. Continuing to grow. I promise you this: Alanon will make your recovery program so much better. One day at a time.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Join me in New York City--On Memorial Day

I am so happy to invite you to visit in person in New York City--next Monday night--May 25th. 

I will be at The Cornelia Street Café –a fabulous place to eat and drink, and a generous, welcoming place for writers and performers.

The themes of the night will be addiction and recovery, cancer and caregiving and relationships and love and sex--(of course sex!) --and of course at least one essay on my China Marines—for Memorial Day. 

Some former classmates from Bennington College will be reading as well--so talent and inspiration galore. I’ll be reading from “Out of the Woods” and  “Looking for Signs” and from the new book that’s in progress—and I’ll be trying out some goodies that I only dare read in New York City.:)

If you are in the City please come—I would love to meet you. Tell your friends—it will be such a pleasure to meet Facebook friends and blog followers in three dimensions. I can promise you a lovely summer night.

The evening begins at 6pm.

Cornelia Street Café is at 29 Cornelia Street—between Bleecker & West 4th. The subway stop is West 4th Street.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Are you Craving? Desiring? or Wanting?

I had a conversation with a friend this week about desire. It’s actually one of my favorite things to talk about because in recovery—and in life—we encounter the dilemma and the paradox of desires.

My friend was asking about the Buddhist teaching that suffering is caused by desire. “So”, she asked, “Should I try not to desire anything?” And I thought, and then said, “What a dull and purposeless life that would be.” And it’s true. But I get the question. I do. It’s not unlike a newcomer asking about surrender and ambition, or when I, in early recovery, confused self-care with vanity and thought that having a spiritual life meant no hair color and not dressing well.

My wise sponsor quickly straightened me out with, “You did not get sober to wear sackcloth and ashes.”

So with that in mind here’s is what I said to my friend this week about the difference—as I see it—between desire, craving and wanting:

There is a world of difference between craving, desire and wanting. Desire can be wonderful: love, art, beauty, libido in it’s truest sense, true work. But it gets distorted when it becomes a demand or an obsession or an insistence. (Or I’d now say, when it becomes a refusal as well.)

Desire is distorted when it becomes a MUST: the belief that I am not enough without this man/purse/house/job etc. There is a felt quality to wanting, “I want that kind of work; I want a loving partner, I want to feel great. Versus, I have to have that job, I must weigh 108 pounds or I’ll die if he doesn’t love me.

The measure may be in this: Where is the rest of your life? And, am I at peace now, without this thing? 

Here is one area of desire that I can relate to. I work many hours each week--many, many more hours than most people. If you looked at the number of hours you’d say “Workaholic!” But there is more to it. 

Some people who work a lot are addicted, and definitely workaholic—there is a kind of suffering and not being good enough or fear attached to that work. They are afraid of what might happen if they don’t work. But for another person—think artist, entrepreneur, activist, advocate, creator, teacher—might work many more hours than the “workaholic” but their work is a joy, creative, exciting, fun or a challenge they just love to chew on.

Another way to think of it: Some people eat candy every day and they are not addicted, while others never eat any candy but they are craving candy all the time. Which one is suffering?

Ask yourself: Do I have a want? a desire? or a craving?


Lots, lots more on desire and wanting (and good sponsors) in the book, "Out of the Woods" published by Central Recovery Press.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Play Another Card

This week, at a business event, a woman—who was a complete stranger to me--said, “I’m a two-time breast cancer survivor.”

All day I thought about what she said, so out of the blue, and I wondered at her need to introduce herself that way. I don’t know if she’s married, a mom, has cats, belongs to the Libertarian party, hates the sound of chalk on a blackboard, or loves raspberries, but I know about her breasts and her health.

What I also know is that the experience of cancer has so colored her life that it has become her primary identity. That seems as great a tragedy as the surgeries and treatments she has been through. I know this happens not just with cancer but with other illnesses, divorces, losses even—and sometimes with our recovery too.

How are we defining ourselves and how are we allowing others or things that happen to us to define us.

Many years ago Mary Fetting, a wonderful therapist in Baltimore, helped me to make some big changes in my life. She saw how my thoughts were keeping me stuck, and she would say to me, “Play another card.”

She explained that we are each dealt a hand of cards—we get maybe seven to 10 cards each—both good stuff and bad stuff. “But, she would say, “Some people just play the same card over and over.”  “Look at your hand,” she would say, “and play another card.” 

I wanted to say that to the woman—whose name I never learned --but who believes that the most important thing about her is cancer, “Please, for the sake of your life, play another card.”

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Grow Your Own Mother

I’m reading the book, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” by Karyl McBride, PhD.
It is about healing and recovery for daughters of narcissistic mothers. McBride writes about the patterns of behavior, the persistent feeling of never being good enough and the invisibility that accrue to women whose mothers were on the continuum from self-absorbed to full-blown narcissist. Part of the recovery that McBride describes is developing an internal mother who is all the things one’s real mother was not able to be.

So today at the beach I began to envision what that new, inner mother might be like and I began to borrow parts of other women—and some men—to grow my own mother. To be fair I did include a lot of my real mother and her best qualities: passion, curiosity, charity, physical energy and humor. But, as I walked the beach, I began to name the people who I would include as I grow my internal mother.

I added in bits of Georgia O’Keefe, May Sarton, parts of good friends whom I’d want to have as part of my eternal mom-in-me. I also added in my two grandmothers: Josephine and Sophia. I never met them, but I knew of them. But could I pass up a grandmother named Sophia—wisdom—in building my inner mother? And Josephine, my maternal grandmother) who was a professional a poker player and the neighborhood “reproductive health advocate”
(she helped women in poverty to limit the size of their families.)  As I walked the beach I wrote the names of these woman in the sand, physically co-signing the new mother-in-me.

I picture this mom-in-me growing kind of like one of those pills you drop in water to delight a child. After soaking up lots of water they blossom into a seahorse or dragon. Now, soaked in lots of saltwater--ocean and tears, I am growing my own-new-mother.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Celebrating Life Changes in Recovery

Last week I went to a wedding shower, a wedding, a baby shower and a college graduation. They were all celebrations for people in recovery. And each one more proof of the miracles we see and experience in long-term recovery.

It was at the baby shower that it really hit me that I was witnessing big blessings. The shower was for a woman who came into recovery in her early twenties. I had seen her finish school, try two careers and several relationships—practicing the principles of recovery all the way. And then she met “this guy” and one date at a time they seemed to “click”. A few years ago they had a wedding and now—soon—they will have a baby.

The graduation was similar. A man in recovery trying school again. Using the principles of the program to get through school. Making plans and sticking to them. Showing up. Asking for help. Raising a hand. Saying yes. Doing what was asked. And being financially responsible. And all along the way, while doing his schoolwork, he was talking about it with sponsors, sober friends and in his home group. A collective energy seemed to write those long papers and take the difficult exams. 

I write about this vicarious blessing in my book, “Out of the Woods”. Witnessing events like these is the “extra” that we get when we stay in recovery for a long time. We stop using our substances and behaviors but we also learn new skills in the rooms that we then learn to apply outside the rooms. We make new lives. We try school again, and parenting again and even marriage again.

Perhaps the most surprising thing that we enjoy when we stick to recovery a long time is this: We celebrate other people’s lives as well. After our years of self-centered existence we find ourselves cheering at someone else’s good grades, new jobs, engagements and new babies. It is a pleasure to celebrate our dear friends in recovery.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous

This is not news. We know that the wording of the Third Tradition hinged on a request by, and conversations, with men and women who identified as Gay or Lesbian in the earliest days of Alcoholics Anonymous. And we know that Bill W. was very supportive of listing the gay groups in the early AA Directories. 

But the story—and AA’s history—is not without controversy. Our Traditions were not codified until 1950—surprisingly late in our story, but they were first developed in 1946 by Bill Wilson in a series of articles in The Grapevine called, “Twelve Points to Assure AA”s Future.” The Third Tradition (the only requirement…) was one of those important points. The focus is on inclusion and removes attempts at exclusion. 

But, while I did know a little of that backstory to our Third Tradition, and the role of gay men and lesbians in assuring inclusivity, I did not know that the history of gay people in Alcoholics Anonymous had been written.  And that it had been published.

It was this spring while visiting my mother-in-law at the inspiring St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Lake Worth, Florida that I got my history lesson. This is the same church that introduced me to the Episcopal Recovery Services of the Episcopal Church USA, and its Twelve-step Eucharist Program. It turns out that The Episcopal Church USA also offers a program for its churches called “Integrity” –a program which assures that Episcopal churches are similarly inclusive to all people regardless of sexual preference or gender identity.

On our visit to St. Andrews with Mom we attended the monthly Integrity Service, which includes a Eucharist, a supper and a speaker. And that night the talk was based on the book, “The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous” by Audrey Borden --published by The Haworth Press.  That night, back at my mother-in-law’s home, I whipped out the I Pad and ordered the book. 

If you are a member of the LGBTQ community and not in recovery—this is your book. If you are LGBTQ and in recovery—this is your book, and if you are straight or undecided and in recovery this is also your book. If you consider yourself knowledgeable about AA history, and have not read this, hurry up.

Researchers and academic folks—you will love Borden’s work. Her timelines, bibliography, chronologies and footnotes will help you in your work.

I promise you many surprises, many moments of grace and gratitude, and many moments of happiness as you get to see parts of our “family” story click into place. And you will be so inspired by the acts of courage and wisdom revealed by this history.