Monday, December 26, 2016

Preparing for New Year's Eve

We are getting ready for New Year’s Eve. I’ll shop for yummy snacks and we’ll stay up late—or not. Go to parties, or not. We might dress in sparkles or just relax in flannel as 2016 officially ends. And then…

And then it is a new year and the very first day of 2017. A new year is a blank slate, and while we love that it is also just a little unnerving.

Maybe part of the over-drinking and over-eating we’ll indulge in later this week happens not so much because of what we are leaving behind but rather because of what lies ahead. Maybe, like me, you have been saying, “I’ll deal with that after the holidays.” 

And now, suddenly, January 1st approaches bringing this uncomfortable combination of agitation and malaise.  Expectation does that. The arrival of this delayed reality is also the arrival of what are, in the best sense, our ordinary lives.
In the Christian liturgical calendar the days that are not Advent, Christmas, Lent or Easter are called Ordinary Time. While we delight in holidays we know that our ordinary time is much more precious. Our ordinary days, though they don’t make it into photo albums, are the days in which we live our real lives. 

The older we get the faster time seems to move. We might assume that this is because we are more aware of our mortality, but there is also research that suggests that the shift in how we experience time is neurological and results from lowering dopamine levels in the brain which occurs as we age. On New Year’s Day we grab at time: If time is limited, and the slate is clean, how will I choose what goes into my new year?

Our fantasies run to perfection, and the new calendars we start now collude with us. A calendar is an organizational tool, but it is also a hedge against despair. For one day we enjoy the promise of those 365 empty, numbered squares. And then, pen in hand, we strike: How to fill it? (This is why using a phone calendar is so unsatisfying: there is no demarcation, no old versus new, and no regret versus hope.

Even if we don’t formally write out New Year resolutions, most of us hope for improvement to body, mind or spirit in 2017. Whatever our goals, what we hope for is always something better: better relationships, better health, better work, and we rail against the imperfect. But in ordinary time, and in our real lives, all that we have-- and that we can have-- is imperfection. 

Still, we try to wrestle time into submission. We talk about how we will spend time in the New Year and that metaphor is a good one: Time is precious. It can be served, stolen, borrowed and squandered. It flies and flows and runs out. Without time we can’t even tell the simplest story. All narrative depends on it. Beginning, middle, end. Past, present, future. 

When we choose a verb we are saying something about time. There is a bit of wisdom from the ancient Latin grammar that we can borrow for this day. It is the verb tense called “past imperfect,” used for actions still uncompleted, and for stories continuing to unfold. 

That is the tense--and perhaps the tension--of New Year’s Eve.   

And so for your New year’s Eve, whether in sparkles or flannel pajamas, let us welcome 2017 by relaxing our vigilance and allow our stories to unfold in blessed, imperfect, and ordinary time.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Ho Ho Holiday Party at Work

We are entering the time of year that makes seasoned managers cringe and human resource directors want to leave town.  Despite fine words to the contrary, there is little Peace on Earth at the office this time of year because we are getting ready for the office Christmas, oops, I mean “holiday” party. 

Yes, we’ve learned to choke on the word Christmas and insist that the December party where we dress in sparkles, bring wrapped gifts, and drink eggnog standing next to an evergreen tree is just a winter event. But language games are the least of it when management has to plan the annual
—“no one will be happy no matter what we do”--office holiday party.

Career coaches give us the guidelines: You must attend, you should not drink, don’t dress like a stripper, and do make an effort to talk to many people. The warnings should certainly be heeded. The annual holiday party is ground zero for what is known in Human Resources as the CLM, or the Career Limiting Move. CLM’s include Xeroxing body parts, getting tanked with co-workers, and making jokes about the boss to his/her spouse. But love them --or leave them early-- the office holiday party is a ritual of the workplace.

The list of issues is long: Do we go out on the town or stay in the building? Is the event during work or after hours? Will there be dancing? Music? And biggest bugaboo: booze or no booze? The tension produced along the way inevitably ends up in an annual review or with someone not forgiving someone else for months.

Divisiveness is in the details. One of the words tossed around liberally in the weeks leading up to the party is “they” as in  they don’t have kids, they don’t like to drink, they drink too much, or they don’t have to pay a baby-sitter. Preferences also break down by personality type: Extroverts love parties; Introverts want to die. 

Some offices give money to charity instead but then end up bringing in a deli tray on December 22nd because it doesn’t feel right not to do something. I think it hits us that if we don’t have some kind of party, then we’re admitting that this is actually work and not really our family or our best friends. It’s one of the passive deceptions we engage in to smooth life along.

So what’s at the heart of this holiday ritual? Well, for starters we have strong cultural memories and it’s dark this time of year and we are longing for light. Workplaces have their own kind of darkness so it’s human to want to brighten that up too.

But there’s more. The office party is really a throwback. Yes, that sushi with sparkles affair in the boardroom is a remnant from the Ebenezer Scrooge days. It’s a flashback to the days when Big Daddy Corporation rewarded its Childlike Workers with the decent meal and glass of bubbly that they could never provide for themselves. The company party was also a time to reset any drifting notions of who owned the means of production.

I remember that kind of event. At the box factory where my Dad worked, the assembly line was shut down once a year: the Saturday before Christmas. Hot dogs were served from the corrugator and Santa arrived on a forklift. There were no Bring Your Kids to Work days back then, so the Christmas Party was how you saw where Daddy went every day. It was understood that that place and those people held the key to our family’s survival.

Today, in our workplaces, we play out that past. And despite all the tension it takes to get there, we’ll toast our teams with hopes for prosperity and pray for peace at work.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Taking Recovery to Work--Does God Show Up?

Inside my day planner I have written these words: Laborare est Orare. It’s the motto of the Benedictine Order of Monks and it translates: Work is Prayer. But I hadn’t thought, until recently, about how many people are actually praying at work. 

It’s not uncommon to hear a co-worker say something like, “Pray that delivery gets there on time” or “I hope to God this deal works out” but most of us don’t suspect the number of colleagues who go to their offices and literally, “hope to God”. 

Last year Fortune magazine had a story called “God and Business” about people who bring their Sunday values into their Monday world, and according to Fortune there are a lot of prayers rising up from office buildings all over America.

What is our reaction when we think that someone might actually be praying on the job?
Do we roll our eyes? Feel a sense of quaint embarrassment?  Ask to join in? If we consider that more than 90% of Americans say they believe in God, and 89% say they pray every day, it makes sense that some of that prayer would be in the office.

But you’re not alone if that makes you uneasy, because it’s not a simple thing when God comes to work. Diversity training has taught us that best practice means not trying to whitewash the workplace or removing all symbols of culture and belief but to allow differences to be celebrated and respected. The hard part is that when God goes to work He or She often brings not just the New Age rainbow raiment of acceptance but very often the strident symbols of specific religions and cultures. Even with the best intentions warm and fuzzy spirituality gets poked by the sharp edges of organized religion.

It raises a lot of questions that may not have satisfactory answers. Federal law requires “reasonable accommodation” of religious practices in the workplace. But the trouble is that there are often inherent conflicts.  I have a friend who works with a man, a senior manager in her company, and she wonders if she’s right to worry that his particular religion could get in the way of promoting women. Another friend tells of major conflicts at her company where the deeply religious HR director advocated for a health plan that did not cover contraception.

But walk through the office again and look at office bookshelves or take a peek in your co-workers briefcase and you’ll see books with titles like:  “God at Work”,  “Jesus, Inc.” or “What Would Buddha do at Work”. These are just a few of the new offerings from the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry. The “Inspirational”, and more specifically, “Faith at Work” segments of publishing have grown 31 percent in the last four years. According to Publishers Weekly, the industry trade journal, we’re spending more than $900 million on these books each year.

Clearly we’re looking for some kind of help that the Employee Assistance Program isn’t offering. We want faith in something to get us through the week, and we want to know how to reconcile the prophets and the profits. But it may also be that we’re taking old values and giving them a new spin. 

When I read the individual profiles in the Fortune article I was a little dismayed. I had expected to learn how business people who were “out” as believers struggled with the legal and political aspects of their faith, but instead the stories were of people who are, well, simply good people: decent, honest and caring. What struck me was that they sounded kind of old fashioned until I realized that what they had was what we used to call good character.

It looks to me like we’ve discovered some value in our parent’s values after all. But true to form, we’re now dressing up the stodgy old  “good character” in the hipper garb of being spiritual at work. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Relationships-All of It is All of It

When John was diagnosed with cancer shortly after we moved in together people said to me. “Well you have a fairly new relationship and now you are dealing with cancer too. How do you know where the relationship will go, and if it’s really OK?”

And when I thought about their questions I realized that, after a certain age, any time you enter a new relationship you are going to get a surprise—just like getting a prize in your Cracker Jack box. It might be stepchildren, bad credit, chronic illness, job dissatisfaction. It might be a crazy former spouse, or it might be cancer. It’s always something.
What seems to be crucial is that we can’t always separate the relationship from the things that come with it. Rather, it is about seeing those things as the factors you will deal with, or talk about, or maneuver around in the relationship. There is not “the relationship” and then also the cancer. It is folded together. Dealing with all of it is dealing with all of it.   

We don’t know who discovered water but it certainly wasn’t the fish. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Anger and Fear

This week I am feeling anger. The election has shaken me deeply. I am also shaken by the reaction of friends whose reaction seems to be, “Oh well…that’s too bad…big sale at Macy’s on Veterans Day."

What does long-term recovery teach me about this anger? It tells me “restraint of tongue (Facebook) and pen.” I find myself posting and deleting and finally pushing away from the desk. I talk to safe people. I write to my sponsor. And I pray. 

I do not pray for the anger to go away. I know that in every faith tradition righteous anger has a place and a power. But I also know I have to sort out what is truly righteous on behalf of vulnerable others, and what are my own personal fears.

I heard this at a meeting ages ago: Under Anger is Fear. That helps me to dig deeper. My thinking changes when I can remember that. If I catch myself feeling anger I can ask, “What am I afraid of?”  And make a choice on what I do next.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

An Open Heart

“My ability to be present in the world with an open heart depends on my ability to be present to myself with an open heart.”

             --Sylvia Boorstein

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Power of Rituals

A ritual is a way of ordering life. And so people in recovery—where it takes a long time to return order to our lives—often create and value rituals. Rituals have power. Our faith communities teach us rituals to help us find faith and meaning in our lives. Almost all professional athletes have rituals—the order in which they dress, the things they do on game day, the special movements or gestures that precede their competition. Performers and artists have rituals. Dancers are governed by ritual. And after many years of recovery our rituals help us too.  

Many of us have rituals for our prayer and meditation practices. I light a candle each
morning at my little altar in my bedroom—that altar is also part of my ritual. The altar makes it clear to me—only me—that this is prayer time. I’m sure my higher power does not care about the location or the accessories but having the altar, small prayer rug and that candle help me to pay attention to what I’m doing.

For meditation I have a small brass chime that makes a soft sound. I use the chime to start my ten minutes of meditation each day. It’s a reminder to my brain, “Oh that’s what we’re doing now.” Recently I began to use the timer on my phone to alert me when my sitting time is over. It’s a ritual and a helper: I don’t have to keep peeking at my watch when I’m meditating. 

Do you write a gratitude list? Do you write your tenth step inventory at night? Or do you say it out loud in the car as one friend does.  For many years in Overeaters Anonymous I called my sponsor every morning to commit my food. That external monitoring helped me get clear about my choices, and making the call was a daily ritual of commitment --and humility. I still write down my food every day. It is a ritual of  honesty with myself, and a commitment to my good health.

Do you have any rituals you use at meetings? I know a woman who tried to always sit in the same chair, and another who always sits in the front row to make herself pay attention. Years ago someone taught me to, “Always look at each person as they speak, it will help you hear them.” Do you have something you do as your gesture of being present at a meeting?

Rituals reinforce habits --and recovery is really a series of positive, healthy habits. Having a ritual erases any  question of, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” The renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp talks about her artistic rituals in her book, “The Creative Habit”. 

She writes, “Rituals are the mechanism by which we convert the chemistry of pessimism into optimism.”

More on creating good habits, practices and rituals in recovery in the book, "Out of the Woods" published by Central Recovery Press.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Fear of Financial Insecurity

Yesterday I had lunch with another writer. We were talking about our work, and aging, and the perils of writing books, and I said,  “I just always imagine I’ll end up a bag lady.”

She looked at me levelly and said, “Are you saving your good bags? I always save bags from the better stores just for when that day comes.”

Monday, September 26, 2016

Faith & Fear

Here is another AA heresy. One of the platitudes in AA is that “faith and fear cannot occupy the same place.” But it’s not true. We do people a disservice when we say that. 

People of faith also have fear.
Moses had fear in the desert.
Daniel had fear in the lion’s den.
Jesus had awful fear; he sweated blood at Gethsemane.

Faith is not the absence of fear. Faith is doing the next sober thing even while feeling terrible, awful fear.

Lots more on faith and fear in "Out of the Woods--A Guide to Long-term Recovery" published by Central Recovery Press.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Shopping for Clothes--Passion or Addiction?

More than two hundred years ago the poet, William Wordsworth, wrote, “The world is too much with us; getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” 

Many women in long-term recovery would agree with him. Long after we gave up the drink or pills or food we are still –maybe secretly—struggling with too many trips to the mall or late night online shopping carts--and painfully joking that, “My name is Diane and I am a
shoe addict.”

Yes, it may be true that no one dies from a shoe overdose but it’s also true that we are not “happy, joyous and free” when we are ashamed or afraid because of our money or shopping issues.

This time of year is a delight for those who love clothes, and maybe a minefield of triggers for those who over spend or who are still crafting an identity in recovery. The fall fashion magazines are fat with dreams and danger, and they, of course, luring us to shop.

In “Out of the Woods”, my book for women in long-term recovery, I write about clothes, and shoes and even how some women may use/overuse cosmetics in recovery. It’s light-hearted but also deadly serious. As our growth continues it can be easy to switch from a chemical addiction to a behavioral one. It’s all about our motives, and honesty, and self-care and how crucial it is to keep talking to other women in recovery.

(Yes, I too have spent time in a meeting checking out another woman’s clothes instead of listening to the speaker’s message.) 

I love clothes and that is no longer something I feel shame about. Style and fashion are art forms and passions, and like any other passion they have an exciting, enriching side and also a dark, worrisome side.  We need to have ongoing vigilance about all parts of our lives and that can mean both emotional and sartorial inventories. 

Shopping and clothing are women’s issues and that means they are issues for women in recovery as well. We are all included—my sisters who shop too much, and those who fear the mall and the mirror as well. The good news is that if we talk about it we can laugh and heal at the same time.


Sunday, September 04, 2016

Yoga and Recovery

Throughout my years of recovery I have always had a physical practice: I jogged, danced, swam, did aerobics and I walked, and walked and walked. I grew up doing yoga—My mother was a Lilias fan (the television yoga teacher) and we did yoga on the living room floor after school.

So it took me years to discover/rediscover yoga within my recovery. I mean, I had to let go of that old home-grown stuff right? Except that my mother, in addition to her Dexedrine habit, had a yoga habit too. (Yes, life and recovery have a lot of gray, and a lot of contradictions.) 

So I walked away and then I came back. 

I came back to yoga at about my 4th year of recovery. My friend Hilary was taking yoga
classes in our Baltimore, Maryland neighborhood and invited me. I went along and had some big surprises. This yoga teacher—Josephine—was doing some things that I had not seen before: she stopped after every couple of postures and invited us to close our eyes and “go inside”. Yikes—I was great at balance and stretch and the choreography but not so good at the “go inside” part. Yes, early recovery.

But on those Thursday nights I slept better and Fridays at work were always good, and when I went to therapy I talked about what I saw and heard when did “go inside” at yoga class.

Our yoga teacher would occasionally cancel her class to go to the Berkshires to study with her teacher. And that was news too—that yoga teachers had teachers, just like therapists had supervisors. It made sense. And when Josephine came back to Baltimore, each time she was a better teacher and our classes went deeper and there were new things to learn and try.

Flash forward thirty years. I learned that the place in the Berkshires was the Kripalu Yoga Center. I moved to Albany, New York and discovered that Kripalu Center was just a short drive away. I began to go there as a tourist—for classes and workshops and retreats. I loved it, and the yoga of years before, and the newer practice began to click.

Then this year I took a big—seemingly confusing—but inevitable step—I signed up for Yoga Teacher Training at Kripalu. And after nine incredible, scary, revealing, challenging and invigorating weeks I received my certification as a Registered Yoga Teacher.

I never saw that coming, just as I never saw a happy marriage coming, or a career that includes managing a nonprofit and writing three books, and three blogs. That’s the beauty of recovery, and a little bit of what we mean when we say, “Don’t leave before the miracle happens.” 

And now yoga is a central part of my recovery, and day-by-day they are integrated.

I see all the beautiful pictures that yogi’s post of elegant, elastic poses in nature—images on
the beach in tights and tanks, and balancing on one foot. And they do inspire me. But today I know that my truly powerful yoga poses are the pictures of me in a dress and blazer, balancing work and writing, and being stretched between marriage and the podium. That’s where I see the deepest results of my yoga—not on the mat, but deeply engaged in a teetering, challenging life. And I am so grateful.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Forgiveness--Letting Go of Revenge

It’s just so tempting to want revenge. Whether a supposed friend hurt you, or a partner cheated on you, or a coworker undermined your work—you want to get even. Betrayal is the
most awful feeling, and the thoughts and fantasies of revenge can indeed feel so sweet.
Certainly those initial thoughts of revenge may even be a little bit healthy. (I’m always suspicious of someone who forgives too soon, or who gets all gooey and spiritual the same day they get their butt kicked—I mean you gotta get mad first.) But that sweetness can become toxic after a while and that toxicity will end up hurting you much more than the one who caused the hurt.
In AA we learn a lot about the downside of holding onto grievances even as we hope to be forgiven for the things we did. (Yes, bumper sticker: “We are Not Saints”.)
When I get really stuck I go to a favorite book called, “How Can I Forgive You?” by Janis Abraham Spring, and read the questions that include:
*What am I really after? His destruction or my peace?
*Does it matter what happens to her so long as I restore my self-esteem and my good life?
*If he/she won’t acknowledge my pain, where else can I go for comfort and support?
And then I do a double batch of prayer and reading, and reading and prayer.
 Here is just one of the great things I’ve read this week on the topic of forgiveness: “Forgiveness is letting go of all hope for a better past.” –that’s from novelist Gina Berriault.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Two Roads Diverged…How Do We Discern?

You know the Robert Frost poem about the two roads. Often the poem is taught as if Frost meant to encourage the alternative path in life, even though he clearly says, “the passing there had worn them really about the same.”

Frost tells us that we have choices, and that we do wonder how it will look to us later, and that, yes; we will “look back with a sigh.” But how do we know which path to take? How, in our recovering lives do we discern—which means to choose between goods? How, as we come out of the woods with choices so luxurious once we are no longer using, how do we make our choices?

I like to remember this passage from Isaiah 30:21:
“And you will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the path. Walk ye in it.”

 That is why we have to get quiet at some point every day, or maybe more than once a day. That is why we need time alone, and time in nature. That is why we have to get still and quiet: so we can hear that voice saying, “This is the path. Walk ye in it.”

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Recovery Goes on Vacation

Well, of course recovery never really goes on vacation but recovering people do. Going to meetings while traveling is one of the smartest things we can do. It’s not just that we stay sober or abstinent longer and better, but vacations get better the longer we are in recovery.

One advantage of vacation recovery is that we learn to stress less about the “stuff” of travel. One of the best pieces of vacation advice I ever received from a sponsor is that “The trip begins when you are packing.” I used to be so miserable all through the process of getting to the place where I was going to be vacationing that the car ride and the airport and the
taxi rides were awful—for me and everyone around me. I wanted to get to the vacation place because I thought my adventure would begin then and there but that’s not true. Listen to the stories people tell about great trips…it includes the taxi and the airport and the train station and …

When I shifted my attitude—and it wasn’t easy at first—to say to myself, “This too is part of the vacation adventure”, then it became true and I began to have more fun. And then I could look for the good parts of that delayed plane and the weird taxi driver and the odd meal.

But the other reason that vacations get better with longer recovery is that 12 step meetings offer us an amazing resource: we have contacts in every city in the world.  People in twelve-step programs have instant travel assistance and access to great tourist advice anywhere we go.

Over the years I have been to meetings all over the United States and in France, Germany, Poland, Italy, England, Spain, The Czech Republic and Bermuda. I've gotten directions, restaurant advice, suggestions on local sites, invites to performances, guidance on public transportation, sometimes rides and always smiles, encouragement and patience with the language barrier.

There is something so fun and smart about asking a new twelve-step group for suggestions about where to eat, what to do, the best way to drive to the next city etc. I’ve been tipped off to bargain shopping, fabulous inexpensive restaurants, and the places to avoid. We don’t need a guidebook to tell us where the locals eat or shop—we have local “family” that we can ask. This is where AA and AAA meet up and it is such a bonus. We also learn that twelve-step principles always prevail regardless of location, politics or language.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Baseball as a Spiritual Practice

Sports, like religion, offer these consolations: A diversion from the routine of daily life; a model of coherence and clarity; a heroic example to admire and emulate, and a sense of drama and conflict in which nobody dies.  

In baseball we begin and end at home.  Home plate is not fourth base. Home is a concept
rather than a place. Our goal in this game is to get home and be safe. Home implies safety, accessibility, freedom, comfort. It’s where we learn to be both part of and separate.  The object in baseball is to go home, and to be safe. 

When a runner charges home we lean forward hoping to see the home plate umpire slash his arms downward signaling that the runner who may have crashed onto the ground in, in fact, safe. Isn’t that what we all want? I do. In my daily life I want whatever is bigger than me to see how fast I run, and how precariously I slide, and to say boldly, “She’s safe!”  

Those who believe, whose faith is strong, accept that umpire/God at his gesture and stand up relieved. Some, like me, despite wanting it still struggle to trust. I have --over and over-- sensed that “safe” signal, but I am often still unsure. It’s as if I go back and run the bases again, skidding and scuffing. Again he signals, “Safe!” but again I go to bat.

What baseball offers that life does not is the agreement that we will believe it when we are told that we are home and that we really are safe. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Bring All of Your Addictions

You have heard the jokes. Shopping addiction, chocolate addiction, TV addiction, shoes too. And they are jokes. But they are not. Twelve-step recovery has given the rest of the world and popular culture the idea of addiction and recovery, “ Hi, I’m Max and I’m a Shoe Addict.” 

But stay in AA long enough and you learn that there is truth in every joke. 

I’m re-reading “When Society Becomes an Addict” by Anne Wilson Schaef. Her ideas and concepts permeate our self-help vocabulary. One of her bold moves in this 1987 book was to describe Substance addictions and Process addictions. Substance—something taken into the body that is mood changing and almost always leads to physical addiction. Process--behaviors or interactions that can be used to change our mood.

We know this. Bill Wilson knew it too.  In early recovery many of us read that little pamphlet from Hazelden called, “Transferring Addictions.” I remember being so mad when a sponsor gave me that one but it hit home.

Here are some of the things Schaef lists as substance addictions: alcohol, drugs, nicotine
and caffeine, sugar, sometimes salt, (Betcha can’t eat just one.) and all food –which can be a substance and/or process addiction. And her list of process addictions includes eating, dieting, exercise, television, gambling, sex, work, religion, worry and spending or saving money. We can add Facebook, LinkedIn, IPhone, Words with Friends, Angry Birds and on and on and on….

Here’s the tricky part, and why I continue to need ongoing discernment with other people in recovery: the process addictions are often things that have very good qualities. Think about exercise. We get in shape, we get a good habit of running or going to the gym, but what happens when we miss a day or can’t work out for an hour? Are we furious? In a bad mood? Change our behavior with others to get that workout back? Are we afraid? I’ve been there with exercise. 

Shopping? Who doesn’t want to look nice or wear clothes that are becoming? But do we obsess? Spend money we don’t have? Wander the mall in a trance? I’ve done all that.

Ditto with food and work and worry. Does the behavior help me to not feel feelings I’d rather not feel? Feelings that, if I felt them all the way through, would help me to grow? Keeping very busy is my favorite and longest lasting addiction. My friend Brigid likes to remind me, “Feelings can’t hit a moving target.”

Here is something that helps me with this discernment: Marion Woodman, Jungian analyst and teacher said:

 “The natural gradient in us is toward growth. Whatever we use repeatedly and compulsively to stop that growth is our particular addiction.”

Much more on transferring addiction in my book, "Out of the Woods", published by Central Recovery Press.

Monday, July 04, 2016

July 4--It's About War

“Well, it’s one, two, three. What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me; I don’t give a dam; Next stop is Viet Nam. And it’s five, six, seven open up the pearly gates; Ain’t no time to wonder why. Whoopee! We’re all gonna die”.

That song by Country Joe and The Fish was my introduction to war. It made me laugh and it gave me the cheap thrill of having an opinion without having to trouble with actual thought. Another song of that time asked, “War; what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” 

I was in high school then and memorizing facts about wars: The French and Indian, Revolutionary and World Wars. I filled blue books with wordy essays about the causes, winners, losers and political implications. Now, more than 30 years later, I remember few of the facts, but more troubling I still know little about why we really go to war.

This weekend is ripe with war’s resonance. July 4th
we celebrate the American colonists bold declaration of their independence and their willingness to kill for it. On these same few days, later in our history, was the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest battles of our Civil War. This is the 150th anniversary. We alternate fighting others and ourselves, but the constant in this is that we fight.

I’ve always liked the idea of pacifism but it’s not my truth; I fight too many things.  I hate that war is about killing but what else could it be? We talk about rules and conventions but isn’t the point to hurt the enemy so badly that they quit? No one surrenders because the other side has a better idea; we quit when the losses are too great.

In his book, The History of Warfare, John Keegan explains how man’s proclivity for violence evolved, and the benefits accruing to mankind from war. He writes about war’s contributions to agriculture and the relationship between the domestication of animals and the needs of war. Keegan explains that before anyone ever rode horses they were just food like cows or pigs are today. It took years of breeding for horses to support a rider.

Similarly early horses were not tractable—they couldn’t be harnessed for work--until they were bred for warfare. So even My Friend Flicka and the summer season at Saratoga owe something to war. Keegan’s list is extensive: advances in medicine and science, and the developments of metallurgy are among the secondary gains of war.  Of course, the moral gains and losses are another matter.

In our American wars we often fight in the name of democracy. But democracy is not a condition, it’s a process. And like any process or progress it’s often achieved by taking three steps forward and two steps back. In some instances a particular war may represent a step forward but in another case it may be a step back.

What is troubling is that we can’t know which it is until we have the benefit of perspective, of time passing. That’s what makes war and the political process terrifying and exhilarating. We have to make our choices based on the past and what we imagine of the future.

What we are missing is the courage to say that we don’t know.

The rhetoric of war—pro and con—allows us to shortcut having to think, and to escape living in the vast expanse of the imperfect present. It’s so much easier to be for or against than to sit with the messy, heartbreaking gray of war’s reality. But posturing any absolute truth makes us all prisoners of war.

This weekend, in the midst of picnics and parades we need a moment to honor this imperfection, and while surrounded by red, white and blue we need to leave some room for the gray.


And yes, there is more on war and what we have learned about our military and trauma, and cultural attitudes about war in my new book, "Never Leave Your Dead", published by Central Recovery Press.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

What Changes in Long-term Recovery? Willingness!

Among the true markers of long recovery is a life with more peace, more compassion and more acceptance. When I hear folks with long recovery talk what impresses me most is their willingness. I hear, and I see—because it’s behavior that counts --their willingness to use the tools of recovery; their willingness to admit they are wrong; and their willingness to say, “I don’t know” and “You may be right.”
Our friends with strong recovery have a willingness to believe in a Higher Power, and a willingness to surrender their lives to that Higher Power. Yes, there is still that swing of giving and taking back our will, and no one does this perfectly, but I do admire the willingness of people in recovery who do more than just give up or go along with what is
happening. Instead they practice a kind of active willingness.

Seeing that kind of deep and amazing change is what prompted me to write about long-term recovery in the book, “Out of the Woods.”

I think of it this way: Willingness is more than just gravity. An apple falling from a tree may or may not be willing. But a person who tries sky diving, bungee jumping or slipping into the deep end of the swimming pool is demonstrating willingness. Acceptance requires willingness, and forgiveness is the product of willingness. And, as we’ve been told over the years, you only need a little bit of willingness to do any of this. Just a very little bit. 

Some of my favorite sayings about willingness are these:

“Willingness is a grace. It is a softening. It is leaving the door slightly ajar.”

“Willingness is showing up. It is showing up and letting go.”

“Willingness is a freedom and it is a step toward freedom.”

“Willingness is a movement of energy; my energy joined to God’s.”

One of the finest messages we garner from The Big Book is about willingness. It is in the story called, “Freedom from Bondage” and it describes the author wanting so badly to be free of a terrible resentment. She gets some help from a magazine article and she describes the practice this way: “If you have a resentment you want to be free of, if you will pray for the person or thing that you resent, you will be free.” The prescription suggests that we do this praying for two weeks.

The writer goes on to say, “It has worked for me many times, and it will work for me every time I am willing to work for it.”

In many ways it couldn’t be a simpler suggestion. We can seek willingness and even the willingness to be willing. 

"Out of the Woods--A Guide to Long-term Recovery" is published by Central Recovery Press. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

The True Cost of Change

“I want to change this thing about myself.”  I say things like that, maybe you too? We want to change beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes. We “work” on ourselves, we read books, talk to smart friends and therapists, and we get better. But then, it’s still kinds there.

So is there something about the process of change that we’re missing? 

I’m in the middle of an intense Yoga Teacher Training. When I signed up I worried about getting hurt—would my body be able to handle it? Would I have enough endurance and flexibility? Well, guess what? It’s not about the body. The center piece and challenge in this Yoga Teacher Program is about being willing to change, and willing to learn.

Here are two things I have learned about change in the past few weeks:

One: Change is betrayal. Yes, betrayal. To make changes in your life you have to betray habits. We are loyal to our habits whether they are physical or mental or emotional, and to make deep, lasting change means we have to betray ourselves, and betray our habits. That’s part of the charge and what gets stirred up when we get close to real change. Now, I can say, “I am willing to betray my habits, to make new ones.”

Two: Here is a metaphor for transformation. If you put paper near a fire the paper will get really hot. But if you put paper directly in a fire it will be transformed. Most of us, when we are attempting an important change, get near the fire, but we don’t get the fire, and then we wonder why we are not transformed. Most of us miss the last 5% of commitment. So we have to go all the way into the change.

Chew on these along with the things you most want to change: your thinking, your diet, beliefs about yourself, your work. And then betray your habits and roll right into that fire.

Read more about recovery and change in my book: "Out of the Woods-A Guide to Long-term Recovery" published by Central Recovery Press

Sunday, May 22, 2016

AA Prayer Works…and Now a Study Shows Us

Early in recovery we are often given the instruction to memorize the Serenity Prayer and to use it as often as possible. Over the years that prayer and others like the Prayer of St. Francis and our own
Seventh or Third Step prayers become tools on long-term recovery.

I  have wondered if those prayers are just good cognitive habits or spiritual tools or a kind of magic, but I always love the stories we hear in meetings about a man or woman in recovery encountering a tough situation and then, they say, "I prayed, and then …" And then something happened. The situation changed or it didn't change , but says the speaker, "I didn't drink."

So now we have the start of some real research looking at the power of prayer for people in long recovery. And it turns out that the early evidence shows that using prayer to resist or decrease cravings works:

Here is what the researchers at NYU are finding:

“Our findings suggest that the experience of AA over the years had left these members with an innate ability to use the AA experience — prayer in this case — to minimize the effect of alcohol triggers in producing craving,” said senior author Marc Galanter, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at NYU Langone.
Like me, you may want to share this bit of encouraging spiritual and recovery evidence with folks you know, so here is the link to the full article at PsychCentral. A gratitude prayer may also be in order after reading this news:

More news: My new book, "Never Leave Your Dead" will be published by Central Recovery Press in early June.  It's the story of  military trauma and family trauma, and the long but possible road to
recovery for veterans and families. It is a story of resilience and redemption. I hope you'll take a look.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Happy Mother's Day, Medea

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t talk about bad mothers without mentioning Medea; the mythological woman who killed her kids to punish their philandering father. But Medea got to her breaking point after a world tour of abuse, abandonment and humiliation. After being dumped in a strange country with no way home, she lost it and she killed. Medea’s story is a myth but, as with all myths there is universal truth being revealed.  Nobody starts out wanting to kill their children; nobody starts out thinking scalding is reasonable discipline. It’s baby steps all the way. 

When we read about women who hurt their kids a healthy mother has to stop and ask herself, “How did that woman get there?

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

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

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