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 drove me 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 overanalyze everything. 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 supply by 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 were always 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 ritual steeped 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