Friday, September 26, 2014

'Obedience To The Unenforceable.'

I've heard that phrase used to describe how 12-Step meetings work - we all agree to a loose framework of behavior which makes the meeting safe for everyone. But in truth, there is no-one in authority who will, or can, force us to abide by the framework of respect and consideration; we do it because we want the meetings to be comfortable, useful, hopeful, and a soft place to fall for each of us.

Now and then we will hear a newcomer, or less often, a member with some years in program, admonish a meeting for being a certain way - the member might feel that some people are laughing when they shouldn't, or perhaps topics aren't being addressed the way this member feels they should be.

In the book, "How It Works, for Families and Friends of Alcoholics" a group conscience is defined as "the voice of the majority of the members." This voice is reached through discussion, and then voting on the subject, with an agreement beforehand that we will abide by the decision reached.

I've seen group consciences where one member asked for a discussion and vote, on something about which he or she felt very strongly, and I've seen the discussion bring to the surface, aspects that other members hadn't considered, and which in the end, changed the way we voted.

I've also seen members ask for a group conscience because they felt that something wasn't right, and the vote went with the majority of the members voting against their idea. Some members can accept this as the voice of the majority, apply Tradition One: "Our common welfare comes first, personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity" and with good grace, understand that they are in the minority on this issue, and things won't change to suit them.

By contrast, I've seen members become more and more agitated about having been voted down, until their anger causes them to decide to attend a different meeting. I once worried that this was a bad thing, that in voting, and the voting going against their pet idea, we might be "driving them away."

It was my first sponsor who pointed out to me, that each of us has a Higher Power, and that maybe this person needed to move to another meeting, in order to be able to learn something he or she desperately needed to learn, in order to continue to grow.

Many Al-Anon members have spoken to me about how one person has said something in a meeting which was life-changing for them - I like to call these "startling revelations." I enjoyed the first meeting I attended, but it wasn't until I moved away, and began attending a new-to-me meeting, that I had a startling revelation about some part of my life. It was the result of hearing a member speak who had I not moved, I'd never have heard. She was a force for change in my life, but I had to go to a different meeting to meet that force.

Because of this, I believe it is vital for all of us to allow meetings to be run by our Higher Power.  The more that I can set aside my ideas about what should be being read, or discussed, or evaluated, and allow the meeting to flow with its own speed and power, the more I am uplifted, refreshed and granted serenity.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Am I Open To Constructive Criticism?

Today I was nattering to Robert about something, and he replied in his laidback way, with a grin, "Thank you for making me aware of those alternatives," at which I burst out laughing. That's his gentle way of saying - "I know that, I can think for myself, you're being controlling."

Constructive criticism used to make me squirm and writhe, with shame and anger. I had no way of understanding that criticism didn't necessarily mean that the person was condemning me as a human being, perhaps they were offering me a different way to do something, another viewpoint about a topic, or a new way to frame a problem, which reduced it to a manageable size, and allowed me to have a completely changed outlook.

I took criticism as an insult and a betrayal. I couldn't hear it, I wasn't interested in receiving it, I'd go miles out of my way to lay the blame at the feet of anyone else, so I didn't have to be told that what I had said or done was not the best way to do it.

When anyone would offer me even the gentlest of criticisms, my first response was first a hot anger, then self-pity, and then a seething resentment. How dare they? Didn't they know that I was already struggling with an unmanageable home life? That I'd had a rotten childhood? That I was exempt from the normal feedback because I was unhappy and depressed?

When I consider what it must have been like for my first sponsor, I have to laugh. That woman offended me more times than seems humanly possible for anyone acting from the best of intentions. She'd offer me a constructive criticism miles more delicate than the one of Robert's mentioned at the beginning of this post, and I would swell up like a puffer fish and take serious offense. I will never forget the day that she said gently to me, "Well, you know, righteous indignation is delicious, but it's not the best way to go about things."

I thought she was talking about the drinking alcoholic. I said, "You mean him."

She looked at me with loving eyes, and replied softly, "I mean you."

I was shocked and mortally offended. I wasn't righteously indignant! I had a darn good reason for my feelings. I was a martyr! I had a right to be obnoxious, because I was only responding to what I received with like behavior. And with my first husband, that may very well have been true. But it wasn't helpful to him or me, it wasn't kind, it wasn't loving, and it got me exactly nowhere at all in working my program.

That was one of the first times in which I slowly came to believe that what my sponsor was offering me was a way to see more clearly, and a way to change. It took a while from her comment until my grasping dimly what she was on about, but it did slowly happen.

When I can accept my character defects without blame, shame or guilt, I am free to behave differently. I can accept that I am not perfect, and never will be. I can clarify Step Seven for myself:

"Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."

I need help to change my behavior, I cannot do it on my own, because I have only my mind and my personality to do it - I need a power greater than myself to be able to stop, admit, accept, and then let go, and try a new way of responding.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Levels of Faith.

One of Robert's favourite jokes is a line from standup comedy, which he heard many years ago:

"I'm more the paranoid agnostic type - I don't believe in God per se, but I do believe there's some force out there in the universe, working against me."

I love that. I can relate to that. I was an unbeliever in anything positive, and a strong believer that the world was out to get me, when I was new to Al-Anon. It seemed as though no matter what ideas I came up with, or how hard I tried, I was unsuccessful.

I'm referring, of course, to trying to make the alcoholic stop drinking. I remember going for walks with my dog - I would stomp off, after an encounter with a sodden husband who was enraged and ranting, and I'd go to sit in the park near our house, while my dog ranged all over the park seeking out whatever it is that dogs look for, in the dark.

I'd sit on the swings and fume. I recall asking aloud, "What do you want from me?"  I didn't know of whom I was asking that question, it would just burst out of me in moments of intense frustration, and there is no frustration quite so intense, or so doomed to failure for those of us who are control freaks, as trying to make an alcoholic quit drinking.

My first sponsor asked me, "Who are you talking to, when you ask that question?" I was taken aback, and had to sit and think for some time, before answering haltingly that I thought maybe I was talking to God.

She smiled at me, saying "But you call yourself an aetheist."

I replied, "Well, I've thought I am, but...."

She smiled again, that irritating sponsor smile that lets you know that she's been through all this once at least, and probably more times than she could count. I was very God-shy when new to Al-Anon, and all those mentions of God, or a Higher Power, were almost more than I could stomach.

Where was the handout with the list of ten ways to make the drinker stop drinking? That's what I'd been expecting; I was completely unprepared for a total change of life.

But I kept going to meetings, and working the program, even when I wasn't sure what I believed. I just knew that my sponsor and other old-timers for whom I felt respect believed, so I decided to coast on top of their belief for a while, and see what happened.

And I kept having conversations with my Higher Power, although nowadays I'd call them complaining sessions or rants more than conversation. I was too emotional to have many rational conversations, whether with people or my HP.

My belief in a Higher Power has grown and ebbed throughout the years. I feel conscious contact when I am grateful and seeking humility.

I lose that feeling of conscious contact when I'm full of fear and anxiety, as I was shortly after being told by the surgeon that I was terminal. It's been a real mind-shift to accept that he was mistaken, I'm not terminal, and who knows how long I've got on this earth; it could be years yet.

My oncologist is very positive, and so am I. This last chemo, the volunteer came to take us in and asked how I was feeling. I replied honestly that I'm good, I feel good, and I feel happy. He passed his hand over his eyes and said, "I must still be sleeping."

It didn't register at the time, but he was commenting upon my ability to feel joy even as I walked towards the chair for another chemo treatment.

I give all the credit for this to Al-Anon, and the support and love of my beloved Robert, my family and program friends, and my HP. Life is good. I'm so grateful to be able to know that.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Problem Is What We Make It.

This past summer, Robert and I were walking downtown in a fairly busy area, and found ourselves face-to-face with an attractive young woman. We did that little dance to one side and then the other, trying to move out of the way, yet moving in unison, so that we were still unable to pass. Almost every other time this happens, I find myself laughing with the other person, and then one of us will stop trying to get out of the way, and wave the other by, with good feeling on both sides.

This young woman became angry, we couldn't believe it. We've talked about it since, laughing that if that is a big annoying incident for her, she must be doing very well in her life. I wonder how she'd manage if she were to lose a loved one, or get diagnosed with cancer?

It took me years in Al-Anon to realise that my problems had precisely the room in my head and in my life that I gave them. I was shocked by that suggestion the first few dozen times I heard it, and then irritated and then angry - were these people trying to say that my problems were minor?

I thought them enormous, insurmountable, terrible and depressing. That was my take on them, that was my description of them, that was the amount of room I gave them in my life.

When I began in my fumbling way to try to practise gratitude, I slowly but surely discovered that I had many things in my life for which I could feel grateful. And doing that regularly, searching out the people, times and facts of my life for which I could feel nothing but gratitude, changed my attitude completely.

"How Important Is It?" became my favourite slogan, and I used it on everything over which I became upset or even slightly annoyed. My first sponsor would ask me, "Will you remember this in a week? A month? A year? Will you be lying on your deathbed thinking about it, and wishing you had handled it differently?"

I found her questions blasted my mind open to a way of living I'd never imagined. Why, I could let go of this stuff as soon as I decided to! It's my choice to decide that something may require thought or effort, but it only becomes a "problem," and only takes up room inside my head, if I choose to allow that to take place.

Let me say that another way - I may get stray thoughts flitting through my head, but I can sit quietly and watch them float by; I don't have to reach up, get a stranglehold upon them, and then spend the next two days obsessing over them.

I can watch them come and go, then turn my mind to thinking of that which gives me serenity, peace and joy. As with so much of this wonderful program, it's my choice. I do not have to give the committee of assholes any room at all inside my head. I've got the key to the lock on that door.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Letting Go Of Other People's Choices.

This past summer, Robert and I had a fantastic garden on the rooftop terrace - many residents of the building spoke about how much they enjoyed it.

In the last 3 weeks, someone has started stealing the plants, we've lost 6 very nice perennials, and who knows how many  more will go - it's easy pickings, we can't be out there 24 hours a day guarding the plants.  Last night, instead of taking both pot and plant, someone just dug up the plant, took it, and left the pot.

The first day I realised that plants were missing, I was shocked, but managed to let it go fairly quickly. The second time, about two weeks later, I was furious, frustrated, resentful, and all sorts of other unpleasant feelings. As I was walking down the hall to my apartment a short time later, I asked my Higher Power, "Please help me with this."

That has evolved to be pretty much the only prayer I use anymore, my HP doesn't need details, and going over them just brings up sad feelings for the realisation that some folks are thieves, and given an opportunity, they will steal. This is beyond my control. I can't change anyone but myself: if this person chooses to be a thief, I cannot stop them.

That's an unfortunate fact of life. What's my choice in this kind of situation?

I can either seethe and fume, thinking about it time and again, bringing my feelings to a boil and keeping them there, for hours, days, or weeks at a time, or I can ask my HP for help, and choose to let it go. Having cancer concentrates one's mind wonderfully in this kind of situation - I don't know how much time I have left on this earth, and I don't want to spend it in anger, resentment and revengeful feelings.

I choose serenity, and if I have trouble letting go on my own, I ask for help, and always, always receive it. After the second operation, I wasn't asking for help, I was in such shock from the terminal diagnosis.

As it turned out, I'm not terminal, I'm one stage before that, and people have lived with it for years at this stage. Robert's sister was terminal when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but with the help of chemo, had three good years with her family before nothing more could be done. So, I'm hopeful, as she was further along the path than I.

The surgeon made a second pronouncement about what I would and would not be capable of, and that too has proven incorrect, but we believed him, he's at the top of his field in this area, so it took me a couple of weeks to realise that I was shutting my HP out. It wasn't from anger or resentment, but a result of overwhelming pain and sorrow. I was obsessing, mourning and grieving, and I was trying to do it on my own.

I'd look at my beloved Robert and see the agony in his face, see how he had lost his usual peaceful, witty, relaxed attitude, realise that he too was grieving terribly, and it mirrored my own state of mind.

 We suffered from May 9th until June 6th, our first meeting with the oncologist I liked. The first one we met was not a good fit for either of us, so I'd asked to be assigned another doctor, and they got me into see her within a week. We both liked her immediately, and she was the one who said firmly that I am not terminal, it's not in any of my major organs, just my lymph nodes, and she couldn't understand why the surgeon would say I was terminal when he did the operation and stated in his report to Cancer Care that I had no metastases to any major organs.

I've talked to quite a few nurses and doctors since then, and it's fascinating to be told that surgical mentality is like no other, it's tunnel vision, they all seem to have enormous egos, and need them, in order to be able to do what they do.

As my GP said to me, in his inimitable British way: "If you had a small mole on your arm which was annoying you, I could give you a shot of local anaesthetic, and nip it off, but to take a scalpel and begin carving you up? I realised very quickly in medical school that I just don't have the temperament or the ego to be able to do that."

I've let go of my anger with the surgeon for scaring us, but I am going to send a letter asking him to consider referring people to specialists, rather than make pronouncements after a surgery, when the patient is first awake, which are taken to heart by the patient, but may be a mistake, as both  mine were.

I've ranged far afield from the start of this post, but it's all about lack of control, and the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
 the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dealing with Relapse.

A reader posted a comment about her long-time partner relapsing, several program friends have been going through this with their adult children. My own niece, who is at present, in rehab for the first time, has plans to rejoin her drug-dealing boyfriend when she gets out - my sister is at her wits end, and has finally begun to attend Al-Anon meetings, which she is finding helpful.

A relapse can be agonising for those of us who love the alcoholic. I know when my first husband had been sober for nine months and then relapsed, I was devastated. This was before I joined Al-Anon, and I felt somehow responsible, that if I'd tried harder, done something more, said something more, it wouldn't have happened.

This is just not the case.

 We have no control. We don't cause it through our behavior or actions, we can't control it with any amount of talking or decisions, and we can't cure it by sacrificing our own happiness.

Letting go of wanting to fix the alcoholic is a process learned slowly by most of us, myself included.

I was raised with the family myth that if things aren't going the way you want them to, you just need to try harder. Increase your effort, put in longer hours, talk your way into what you want. So when I encountered alcoholism, I put all of myself into the effort of stopping the drinking, and I failed spectacularly. 20 years after the end of our marriage, and my first husband is still drinking.

All of my years of trying to make him quit had no effect. I ran into one of his children during the last year I was in my second marriage, and she told me he was still drinking, and had never quit. I was saddened to hear that. I'd let go of all of the misery of that marriage many years back, and have no hard feelings towards him.

I felt sad that he was still in the grip of the addiction. He has an uncanny skill when it comes to anything mechanical. He can take apart something he's never seen before, discover how it is supposed to work, and then fix it.  He was in high demand as a mechanic when his drinking was still somewhat under his control, when he was what I've heard AA members call a "high-functioning alcoholic."

By the time I left that marriage, his business was failing because he'd begun to drink during the day, something he hadn't done for years. He was beginning to move into the final stages of alcoholism.

I couldn't stay with active drinking. Some people can live with active drinking and manage to have a good life of their own. I was too new to Al-Anon, and the trust between my first husband and I had been shattered by an affair he engaged in shortly before I left the marriage.

When he relapsed after nine months of sobriety, I didn't realise that during those nine months, his sobriety was what an AA friend would call the "white-knuckle" variety - he was hanging onto it through sheer force of will, with no help or support from AA.

What retrospect has granted to me, is the ability to see that although during the marriage I may have believed that I had a part in his drinking or not drinking, in reality, I had as much effect upon it as the kitchen table might have.


I was incidental, really. That was a blow to my ego when it fist became evident to me. Now, I feel a little sadness for the young woman I was, who felt responsible, and was struggling to survive, in a situation which would bring most of us to our knees.

Accepting doesn't mean condoning. When I accept that the alcoholic is going to do what they are going to do, and I am powerless, I set myself free from the hopeless battle. When I turn towards that which I can change - myself, I set in motion a powerful force for serenity in my life. There's always room to work towards making me a better person.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Active Listening.

In one of his July emails, my brother mentioned that when his father (my adoptive father) was a small child, he thought there was a holiday by the name of "Forchuly." He was raised in the Bronx, and that's how everyone sounded to him, when they were talking about the Fourth of July.

It started me thinking about how difficult it can be to understand someone at a meeting, when they have a very soft voice, or don't enunciate well. Over the years, there has been the odd person who may as well have been speaking another language, for all I was able to understand a word of their share. At first, this annoyed me. Why didn't they speak clearly, or raise their voice a bit? Time and experience has taught me that for some people, that is all they can manage; fear, or a wobbly self-image, inhibits them.

I may not be able to hear what they say, but that doesn't mean I can't project the same acceptance and love towards them as I would to anyone else - we are equals in the rooms of Al-Anon. 

When I chose many years ago to volunteer for the local Crisis Line, I was trained in what they termed "active listening." It requires effort to learn to listen with our focus and attention solely upon the other person, and not upon what we want to say next, what we need to get for dinner, what happened at work to cause us anxiety.

I'm grateful that I did my stint on the Crisis Line before I joined Al-Anon; I think it helped me to listen more carefully than I may have been able to otherwise. When I was a newcomer, I had no concept of how to go about implementing the wisdom imparted to me, and, many times, I was in such a state of anxiety, anger, depression or frustration that I heard what was said at the meeting, then forgot it all the moment I walked out the door to go back home to the alcoholic.

But that early training in focused listening has stood me in good stead. I believe it has helped me in my sponsorship, in relating to others at meetings, and in being empathetic to those who still suffer.

Listening to newcomers takes me sharply back, to the terrified and confused woman I was when I was new.

I try to extend a warm welcome. I don't leap upon them to fill their ears with all the advantages of Al-Anon, because I was so shy and self-conscious that I found all that warmth and love a little too much to take at first, and would rush out the door after the Serenity Prayer, so as to avoid being hugged. I had no trust, and hugging relative strangers made my weird meter leap to "overload."

Listening well is an art. I think many old-timers in program are good listeners. We all need a safe place, and someone with whom we can speak, knowing that our privacy is assured, our sorrows are shared, and we can unburden ourselves in the knowledge that we won't be interrupted.

 An Al-Anon meeting is a safe place.