Addiction to recovery; the forks in the road traveled by myself and other family members.
I am a recovering alcoholic who celebrated 31 years of continuous sobriety august of 2018.
In support of my book Shaking the Family Tree, a double genre memoir/poetry offering that looks at the genetic predisposition for alcoholism from a layman's point of view, I have decided to start a blog. By sharing my own experience, I hope to open the door of recovery for others affected by this disease. And that includes those loved ones who are hoping to gain a little insight into the mechanics of the disease and recovery.
New publication as of 3/31/20 Kaleidoscope a poetry book of random meanderings intended to touch the heart tickle, tickle the funny-bone, awake the imagination, and in some cases, give pain a voice. Published under Dallas Hembra. Available for order now at Amazon, Books a Million, Barnes and Noble, and Written Dreams Publishing.
I can be contacted on Facebook at authordallash; Twitter at Dallash01; Bookbub at DALLASHAUTHOR
One or the other, or both? Early on in sobriety, I used to think of a Spiritual experience as a massive explosion that changes one’s perspective immediately, having a life-changing impact as powerful as being struck by lightning. I visualized images of Moses and the burning bush. And, afraid, because It hadn’t yet happened to me, I began to worry that the gift of my sobriety was lost in the dust of those in the rooms who repeatedly described their own miraculous experiences.
But, as I patiently waited my turn, I tried to not focus on my dilemma, and instead, concentrated on a less dramatic course of action. I fine-tuned my approach to the essence of the AA program. And was delighted to discover that there were so many morsels of recovery available to me just for participating, that a spiritual experience ignited by a stick of dynamite may not be the sole prerequisite to attaining sobriety.
One baby step led to another: Getting a sponsor, attending meetings, and working the steps, were just a few. And as I walked deeper into the forest of sobriety, I discovered that my path was littered with a multitude of gifts, all unique to my own sobriety. Colorful gems like true friendships, the ability to face life on life’s terms, learning to be accountable without being burdened by useless shame, were generously scattered along my journey. And as I unwrapped each and every blessing along the way, I began to receive little nibbles of peace and serenity.
Waiting to be shaken by a thunderbolt receded into sobriety’s backdrop. My awakening was emerging. Maybe not as dramatic as a Spiritual Experience but having the same impact. Rather than fireworks, my Higher Power used an alarm clock with a few snooze buttons to awaken me.
Spiritual Experience or Awakening matters not, as long as we get it.
When the call came, I could feel myself being plummeted back into the throes of scathing memories. Recollections purchased at the expense of myself and my three sons’ victimization at the hands of my ex-husband, Louie. An onslaught of buried pain was suddenly being projected onto the silver screen of my hard-earned recovery.
Louie had passed, and not one of us could manage to shed a tear. All I could think of in that one split-second, was did he take our legacy of damage with him? Or would it forever remain, solely to be triggered by elusive recollections that continue to haunt me? Forgive me, God, for not being grief-stricken
Paging back thru time, the ruffled chapters threatened my resuscitated serenity. It is utterly amazing, how much the mind can store. Even, after decades, it is capable of bringing back to the surface the storms of the past.
I could almost touch the deafening silence that accosted us from behind that familiar fixed glacial stare. A foul stench of disdain oozed through pinch-contorted lips and a clenched jaw. The abuse vacillated between that, and angry, earsplitting outbursts that could shred what little peace and quiet we may have salvaged on those rare days when he wasn’t erupting; those days he was either getting his way or absent.
This was the volatile environment that smothered me and my children for almost 22 years. This was our normal. And I’d be damned if I were going spill phony tears at the revelation of his passing.
I managed to escape that incarceration over 35 years ago but scathed and splintered. Myself and my three sons still carry those emotional scars. At the time of the divorce, the two oldest, Jake and Dylan were already gone, each jumping at the chance to proclaim their emancipation at the young ages of eighteen and nineteen.
Jake, the oldest, was the primary target of his dad’s vehemence. And from the early age of fifteen, was already spiraling down the kinked, warped path of alcoholism. And Dylan, who had impregnated his girlfriend and married her at nineteen, left, what should have been a family nest, emotionally damaged and unprepared for life. Both, struck out on their own, not having a clue as to what it meant to be part of a healthy family unit.
Andy, the youngest, was the only one left at home. At thirteen, although he had been subjected touglier scenarios, he also benefited from living five additional years in a home where fireworks were not a nightly occurrence: A birthright his brothers had been denied.
One might ask, what does this narrative about abuse have to do with a blog focused on addiction and recovery? In my case, they shared the same stage. Abuse and addiction are often intertwined. A common saying in twelve-step programs is that alcoholism is but a symptom of a deeper problem. And that problem is usually comprised of innumerable characteristics that evolve, due to the influence of drugs and alcohol. Many of those traits begin to develop way before the addict or alcoholic actually picks up. Growing up in an alcoholic home for instance contributes to a variety of evolving personality traits that later on in life might make alcohol look like an attractive escape from reality. In my case, when I started drinking at fifteen, I stopped growing emotionally. Full of insecurities, low self -esteem and a variety of other negative impressions I managed to accumulate living in an alcoholic home, I decided that my dad’s solution, which was to simply escape, seemed to work for him, so I began to see alcohol as an RX for my own problems.
The disease manifested itself over a period of years, in increments of despair, feelings of hopelessness, fear, and self-loathing. Unable to face life on life’s terms, as my situation continued to worsen, so did my consumption. I was spiraling down the rabbit hole, looking for solutions that never materialized.
When Louie criticized Jake at every opportunity, in front of others, I took a drink and told myself tomorrow would be different. When he accused me of infidelity, I took another drink. When he banged my head up against the wall and choked me, I drained the bottle. And when tomorrow came, nothing changed: Imagine that.
Alcohol had diminished, if it ever existed, my ability to deal with reality. I had absolutely no skills, as long as I was under the influence, to change either my situation or myself. Until I put down the drink, dove into recovery, and followed the things suggested in my twelve-step program, I didn’t see the connection between my problems and alcohol.
Today, I no longer believe that tomorrow will be better, or that change will somehow miraculously occur by escaping down that rabbit hole. Solutions require action. Actions based on a clear head, and a workbench full of recovery tools.
God willing, next month, I will celebrate 35 years sober. Some days, it seems like a lifetime ago when I wandered haphazardly into recovery. Yet,at other times, it looms as vividly as yesterday’s familiarities. Most of us, sooner or later, ponder what exactly is our purpose in life? Along that same line of questioning, I have been wondering what lessons I have learned in sobriety. So, I have attempted to list them. They are in no particular order, and not one carries more weight than the ones that precede or follow it. Like most lessons, many have been learned, forgotten, and relearned. As good alcoholics, one of our unredeemable characteristics is that we are remedial learners.
1. How to laugh: In my using days, most of my laughter was either forced or faked so I wouldn’t look stupid when everyone else was having fun. But, today, in sobriety, every deep belly laugh reflects a relaxed persona that, when divorced from ego, is able to recognize, enjoy, and even exude humor.
2. When not to laugh: Never at the expense of others or at anything that I find insulting. I no longer have to fit in by exhibiting those kinds of behaviors.
3. How to cry: Instead of ramming uncomfortable feelings back down the pipeline by turning the spigot off, I have discovered that if allowed to surface, tears become an important tributary that empties into an ocean of release.
4. How to listen: Getting out of my own head when another is sharing, worrying about how I am going to respond, or blocking out their message based on my biases or opinions, prevents me from learning. An open mind and heart are the best hearing- aids in the world. And they don’t cost a dime.
5. How to avoid self-pity: When wrapped in the familiarity of my own personal problems, I am blinded by what is going on right under my nose. The joys and sorrows of friends and loved ones go unnoticed. No room in my life for anything, or anyone, when I monopolize centerstage. But, if I can bow out for a brief period of time and allow the curtain to fall on me, my eyes and ears suddenly become attuned to the needs of others. And when that leads to extending a helping hand or providing a shoulder to cry on, or simply sharing in their celebration, my paltry problems begin to recede.
6. When to think: Something, someplace, or someone, triggers the thought of having a drink. Instead of romanticizing it or focusing on the fun times before alcohol turned on me, thinking through the drink by considering the consequences, and remembering what droveme to the rooms of AA in the first place usually stops me in my tracks. So, putting on that thinking cap is a valuable lesson.
7. When not to think: We alcoholics tend to overanalyzeeverything. Why this, why that, should I, shouldn’t I? And if not, why not? Often this monkey-minding is an excuse to either avoid or dispute something we need to accept. I can make up a litany of excuses for not working out., not making an apology, or sluffing off a variety of obligations. By the same token, I can convince myself that I should do the opposite of what I know I need to do in a given situation. Removing the thinking cap that now resembles a dunce cap enables me to just do it, or accept it, whatever it is. I can re -rout the mania by giving it a much-needed vacation.
8. How to smile: An easy one: Plug into some positivity, synchronize it to the rhythm of my heart, and turn up the corners of my mouth. Pretty simple.
9. How and when to give: Keeping my own jellybean jar full is a must. I can’t give away what I don’t have. So, replenishing my own supplyby stocking up on meetings and surrounding myself with people and places that produce good vibes allows me to be of service to others. Honing my skills to recognize a need can best be improved when I take the cotton out of my ears and truly listen to what might be a cry for help.
10. When to receive: In my family, giving and receiving werealways a game of tit for tat. If someone gives you something, not only were you obligated to return the favor, but often, it became a game of one-upmanship. The psychology behind this response was two-fold. There was the fear that we would be seen as tight or unappreciative. Or, we would be indebted to that person forever. It wasn’t until someone suggested that I was robbing that person of the joy of giving. Aha, a unique perspective.
11. How to set boundaries: This one takes practice, practice, practice. And the slips are numerous. If you happen to be a people pleaser, like most of us in recovery, it is an ongoing tutorial, and we are tested routinely. I had to learn to trust my own decisions, to like who I was becoming, and to understand the meaning of the phrase to thine own self be true, before I tasted even a morel of success. My favorite definition of boundaries is how far I allow another into my space.
12. When to set limits: How far am I willing to insert myself into the problems of friends and family members? My tape measure here is can I be of help, is it any of my business, and is it taking a toll on my own sobriety? All tough questions, especially when it comes to those I care about. Guided by what I have learned about ego seems to be a good barometer for me. Am I playing God, and what are my motives? Will my arduous meddling put their problems to bed and relieve me of my worries? Or am I concerned about how their problem reflects on me? I’m not always sure when my efforts need to end and when it is time to turn it over to God. But I have learned to stop, access, and peruse the index in my lesson plans.
13. When to let go? Refer to the above.
14. When, how, and why to accept? When and how, again, refer to the above. Why? To give me a break.
The lessons are too numerous to calculate. So, I will close with my three significant imperatives.
15. How to pray: Praying is a very personal exercise. For some, it is a carefully executed ritualsteeped in sacred tradition. On bended knees and bowed heads, there are those who are only comfortable when poised in supplication. For others, the rote prayers repeated in Churches and schools that we attended as children are the answer. But for me, being spiritually connected means that I have a friend in God. A friend who not only protects me but who understands me, warts and all. So, I have all kinds of conversations with him. At night, I reference the standard prayers that I learned growing up. In the morning and throughout the day, I throw some at him that I learned in recovery, as well as a number of general blessings and requests for the health and well-being of friends and family. Some conversations are specific, while others are generalizations. I bring him an array of concerns and observations. But they are always gift wrapped in a collage of gratitude. The bottom line is that there is no right or wrong way to pray. The approach that I adopted in recovery works for me. And it works for God also.
16. How to meditate: Meditation requires silence. And I don’t mean the silencing of noise in a physical environment. Meditation requires a state of listening that enables God’s messages to penetrate my being. I may never get this exactly right because it entails clearing my mind of all the busyness that is constantly erupting in my mind. There are a variety of tools readily available to assist in this discipline, but I have a long way to go. So, until then, I will ensure that my ears and heart are open to the vibes being sent my way.
17. How to obtain serenity: Serenity has always been my goal in sobriety. And in recovery, I have experienced that pure sense of calm many times. It usually visits me when I am sheltered in the moment. When I am astutely aware of what is happening around me, not focused on what was or what will be. Nature usually provides the backdrop. It can be anything from working in my garden to listening to the rain ricochet off the garbage lids to musing over the variety of birds sharing the seed in the feeder or by tuning into Youtube to access the baby videos. The opportunities that comprise serenity are never-ending. I’ve found it in something as simple as a steaming cup of coffee, a good workout, or a job well done. And appreciation and gratitude are the two threads that weave these precious moments together
It would be impossible for me to list all of the lessons learned in 35 years of sobriety; my seventy-nine-year-old memory isn’t capable of retrieving that many. But hopefully, this summary will give you an idea of just how enlightening recovery can be
I came into recovery brimming with anger, fear, resentment, and being totally broken. I hated myself and I hated God. God was to blame for the problems in my life and the things that didn’t work out according to my plan. After working on Step 4, during Step 5 my sponsor let me know that God wasn’t to blame. “God didn’t cause these things, but God allowed them to happen.” After Step 5, my anger towards God (and many things) melted away.
After a two-year relapse, my general attitude towards God was veering back towards, “I hate God.” Or more simply “I hate…” This was the chatter in my head, along with hurling insults (mentally) towards others. My former sponsor called that stuff “mental masturbation,” but he told me that thoughts can’t harm others. The only way they can harm others is if I turn them into actions.
My current sponsor encourages me to meditate and practice awareness and to try staying present and mindful. I do yoga a few times a week, along with my gym and walking routine, and the other day it was warm and sunny outside, so I put my mat down on the deck. I did a basic yoga session on upper back tension. At the end of the session, the teacher had me on my knees with palms face to face over my heart. I had quiet meditation. My thoughts of “I hate” things or “I hate God” were there in that inner space.
Then, suddenly, a thought that I didn’t create, came to mind.
“Do you hate nature?” No.
“Don’t you realize Nature is a form of God?”
“If you can love the birds, the wind, and the trees and sky, can’t you also love God and yourself?”
Now, when tempted to let negative thoughts take over, I go towards my inner quiet place, outside with nature, and love myself and God.
Denial: The refusal to accept something unpleasant.
Deception: Deceiving. A trick, or a ruse
Most of us alcoholics and addicts, at one time or another in our bourgeoning desire to appear ok, have practiced all three of these self-destructive, sleight of hand ruses. It’s how we coped with a life, out of control. Like a chameleon, at the drop of a hat, we could change our personas by slipping in and out of a variety of roles, as well as beliefs, that we thought would make us acceptable. I, personally, had delusion down to a fine art.
Four years into recovery, I fell in love with a Viet Nam Vet who was plagued by combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and was hauling around plenty of other baggage. I had witnessed, time and time again, the manifestation of that P.T.S.D. The off-the-chart anger that could skyrocket from zero to ten in a heartbeat: The trigger could be anything from a loud noise to an inconsiderate driver, to a humid rainy day that catapulted him back to the Jungles of Viet Nam.
But it was the periodic, unannounced, dashes cross country that rattled me the most. They were erratic and unpredictable. The first time it happened, I received a call from one of the salesmen at the Buick dealership where he was the manager. It was 8:00am.
“No, Randall’s not here.” He cupped his hand over the receiver, but I distinctly heard the remark made to another employee. “What do you mean he’s on the run again?”
“Sorry, ma’am.” His tone was conciliatory. “I just meant this isn’t the first time Randall has left us in the lurch. When we came in this morning his keys were hanging on the rack but not a trace of him anywhere. The last time this happened he ended up in North Dakota.”
That was his response to overload. Pack up Old Blue, (the fifteen- year old station wagon) and disappear for weeks at a time, often to wherever his daughter and ex-wife resided. His nickname at the dealership was Ramblin Randall.
As the relationship deepened, I sought all of the information I could garner about P.T.S.D. I joined Vet support groups, spent hours online researching, and prayed for understanding. But the behaviors continued. Then one evening, fraught with confusion, as I wrestled with the decision of whether or not to jump in with both feet and tie the knot, I took the dilemma to an AA meeting and shared what was ballooning into a gnawing fear, with the group. An older member, a preacher who I admired very much, and in fact, I was going to ask him to officiate, approached me after the meeting.
“Dallas, his voice was brimming with concern, “You’re not assuming that you can fix him, are you?”
I flinched at the mere suggestion. Surely, my friend realized that I had four years of sobriety and therapy under my belt. How could he suggest such a thing? Wasn’t I exhibiting the very essence of emotional maturity and recovery by sharing my concerns?
Years later, when I reflected back on what transpired that night, and my bizarre response to that question, I’m not trying to fix him, I’m just going to provide an atmosphere where he can feel safe, I came to understand the power of denial, delusion, and deception.
In the first place, I minimized the situation by avoiding some of the major issues and inserting all of those tricky little words intended to downplay and excuse his behavior. Words like: if, only, but, and because drove my narrative that evening.
And yes, you guessed it. I married him anyhow, just as I had intended to do all along. Our marriage lasted a total of two and a half years. A true testament to my not having paid attention to the three D’s.