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Thirty-five Years Sober

(Lessons Learned)

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

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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

Finding God In Nature and finding peace in the process.

( Guest Blogger:  Andrew C.)

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.

A voice.

“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.

Andrew C.

PatriotinRecovery.com

The Three Deadly D’s

Delusion=Denial=Deception

Delusion:      A false belief or impression.

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.

I need to change WHAT?

bare feet boy child couch

Yet another year, running neck and neck with my mortality, crosses the finish line and here I am, left scrambling in its’ dust, trying to get back up on the horse so I can enter the next race.

Where in the hell did the time go?

When I contemplate that unforgiving image in the mirror, the one that mocks me every morning, I feel compelled to try and piece it all together. It’s not that I expect to have some kind of an epiphany that will allow me to extend whatever time left has been granted me. I need to figure out a way to eliminate that gnawing habit of weighing what’s gone, against what remains, and feeling as if I could have achieved more. I would like to view my remaining years through the lens of anticipation instead of remorse and apprehension.

 I realize the fear of aging is paramount and is the driving force beneath this blanket of discontent. But in talking with others my age, I know that there is nothing abnormal about being emotionally unprepared to let go of my attachment to this life and all that it encompasses. So, I ask myself, what do I need to change in order to obtain my objective?

As a recovering alcoholic who has gained a new perspective through the working of the twelve steps of A.A., I am now reminded of another great tool that shares the initials A.A. In 1984 I adopted Hank William’s song “Attitude Adjustment” as a weapon to correct my kids’ behavior.

But I’ve always found that reconstructing my attitude is damned near impossible when I am in the middle of a dilemma. Especially if that dilemma is of my own making. Scraping the bottom of the barrel to reveal the blemishes that tend to ruin one’s complexion requires a certain amount of detachment and self-honesty. Not an easy job.

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Now that I’ve discovered the solution, it’s time to unearth those things that are standing in the way of my serenity:  The portions of my life that I repeatedly try to sweep under the rug; perceived failures, broken promises to myself, unrealistic expectations of myself and others, and those episodic forays into self-pity. All linked to my fear that time is running out and how will life go on without me? Oh, and did I mention ego? That is the element that suggests I am the center of the Universe and when I am gone my family’s world will literally spin off its axis.  It is also the task-master responsible for my obsession with searching for new skin tags, counting wrinkles, studying my reflection in my make-up mirror for nasal hairs, and wondering if everyone else is putting me under that same microscope.

I suppose I have a big job ahead of me. And I realize that by recognizing the solution before I successfully obliterate the problem is putting the horse before the cart, I am definitely heading in the right direction. Won’t be the first thing I ever did something ass-backward. Rounding the turn now, gaining on the front-runner, Attitude Adjustment.

Loss of Spirit

August 19th,1987.  Day one of a seven-day voluntary (well, kind of voluntary) stay at Chit Chat Rehab in Reading, Pa.  I wasn’t there, mind you, because I was addicted to anything:  I was there at my sister’s persuasion, whose monetary generosity made it possible.  The program was geared to those affected by a relative’s or loved one’s addiction.  That included spouses, significant others, children, parents, and everyone ese in between.

I qualified on at least two levels.  My oldest son had graduated three months before my arrival at Chit Chat from their thirty-day drug and alcohol program.  And, I had been attending, reluctantly, at my sister’s insistence again, support meetings for adult children of alcoholics.  Oh, and did I mention the fact that she herself had attended the thirty-day drug and alcohol program in 1984? 

I was feeling akin to the three river tributaries in Pittsburgh, all emptying into the same ocean of addiction and dysfunction.

The newbies were arranged in groups of ten and herded into a classroom.  We were seated facing a large chalkboard. I didn’t know about the others, but I was edgy as hell.  I could feel the corners of my mouth turn down succumbing to the familiar nervous twitch beyond my control.  A photographer was sandwiched in between two female counselors, serving as bookends.  The counselors flashed us a conciliatory smile and proceeded to introduce themselves.  We later learned that the function of the photographer was to capture and compare our morale before and after our shared experience at Chit Chat.

After the photo shoot, our attention was directed to a large white banner draped over the chalkboard.  Beneath the heading Alcoholic vs Co-dependent were two columns with words in bold black letters that literally mirrored each other. The counselor who introduced herself as the Flying Nun, used a long pointer for emphasis.  “These are losses attributed to both the addicted, and the co-dependents in their lives.” 

She paused, allowing enough time for what she had just said to sink in.   I scanned the expressions on the faces of those around me, unable to read what was going through their minds.  So, I focused on my own response to the list.

Loss of Trust.                          ‘Hm, trust in what or who?’

Loss of honesty.                     ‘I wasn’t dishonest, never stole anything.  My lies were just little white ones.’

Loss of faith.                           ‘Not sure about that since I had so little to begin with.’

Loss of integrity.                    ‘Don’t think so.’

Loss of self- respect.              ‘Maybe.’

Loss of hope.                          ‘Not sure.’

And so, it went. Until the flying nun, targeted her pointer on the final most egregious

deprivation, I wasn’t convinced that any of them applied to me.  Then thud.

Loss of Spirt

The impact was like a flashing neon sign, surging before it shortens out.  Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe.  The anxiety that so often drove me to drink gripped me.  I felt like someone had just plunged a serrated knife into my ribcage and was slowly twisting it, gutting my insides.

The lens through which I viewed the following seven days was drastically altered by a lingering ache produced by that revelation.  Had I lost my spirit to some kind of dysfunction I wasn’t even aware of?  Or did I ever possess one to begin with?   Did alcohol, manifesting a strong presence in our family dynamics, play a part?  I had a million questions.  The curtain had been parted and I needed to see what lurked behind it.

The program was intense. And by the time I left, I was willing to take a look at my own drinking patterns and incorporate AA meetings into my A.C.O.A schedule.  But As I progressed in recovery, I was continually haunted by that nagging need to quantify loss of spirit

The longer I grappled with the dilemma the more confused I became.  What I didn’t realize was that while I was busy spinning my wheels, my Higher Power was reconstructing what alcohol had impelled me to misplace.  He sent me a sponsor who stoked the dying embers of self-love, self- respect, and trust.  AA gave me a design for living.  Through working the twelve steps with that sponsor I was able to shed the cloak of shame that blocked the sunshine and fed the storms that defined me.   I began taking responsibility and accrued smatterings of hope. I made amends to people I had harmed and developed faith in the process of recovery.  In tiny increments I began to relax and become comfortable in my own skin.

By the time I celebrated three years sober, I realized that my spirit had been reconstructed.  It had developed from a tiny seed that was fed by the love, acceptance, and disciplines of the AA program.  And, like a giant sunflower, my spirit towered high above the many imperfections in the fabric of my alcoholic past.  Loss of spirit, though it no longer applied, was the impetus that began this phenomenal journey called recovery.