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.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

An Old Friend.

This week, I celebrated the milestone of 30 years in this life-saving, sanity-preserving program, by purchasing again, for probably the tenth time since I started all those years ago, the first piece of Al-Anon literature I ever read, the book entitled: "How Al-Anon Works, for Families and Friends of Alcoholics."

I've bought this book for myself many times, then lent it to one of my sponsees, or a newcomer who couldn't afford to get one for herself, and all but one time, it has never been returned. The one which did get returned, got lent out to another sponsee and it went the way of all the others. I've never minded not getting this book back, because I knew I could always get another one at any of the groups I attended, and because I was hoping that it could give to the reader some of the enormous comfort and calm that it gave to me when I was so new.

I love this book. I've read it dozens of times from cover to cover. I've read it in small sips of a few pages at a time, and I've read it like a novel, starting at the beginning, and continuing right to the last page. Either way, each time I read it, I find something new that had eluded me.

I'll never forget an old-timer at an Al-Anon meeting reading a page from the book aloud, and stopping partway through to exclaim, "I've read this 20 times, when did they put that paragraph in?"

That's one of the wonders of this program, and of Al-Anon literature - I hear what I need to hear when I am ready to hear it, and not before. When I'm ready, the wisdom washes over me in a wave of astonishment - I had never thought of it that way!
(whatever "it" is at the time.) 

With that new thought, my perception and my attitude shift: sometimes a few feet, sometimes only a millimetre or so, but there is movement, and with it, the world is new again, and possibilities appear that until now, were hidden in the shadows of my confusion.

I recommend this book to anyone who is struggling with the awful agony of trying to live in peace with another person's addictions without being swamped and swallowed up.  I also recommend it to those of us who have reached a peaceful place in our lives, and are dealing with other challenges in our lives. It's a great read, and it helps.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

When We Love An Alcoholic.

When we love an alcoholic, we may start off believing that with sufficient rational and careful thought, we will find the "right way" to explain to them, the damage their drinking is causing us and the family. We might think that because of our care in choosing our words and our tone, the alcoholic will be able to hear us.

Not so. We as humans all have the ability to deny, some of us to a level of what may appear insanity - that's addiction.

When we love an alcoholic, we may want to believe that what they are telling us is the truth this time - they won't ever behave like that while drunk again, we don't have to cringe in the face of screaming rage, because that was the very last time, it will never happen again.

But if they continue to drink, and rage is part and parcel of the intoxication process for that person, then we will face it again.

When we love an alcoholic, we may be stunned to discover that when we finally make up our mind to make the break, after perhaps years of suffering with the effects of their alcoholism, that is the time that they decide to stop drinking - once we are out of the picture.

I've seen that happen more than a few times, and the partner who has made the break may feel an overwhelming anger - "Why now? Why couldn't they do that when we were still together? I gave years to that man/woman, and begged them a million times to quit drinking, and they wait until I leave the marriage, and then they quit??"

When we love an alcoholic, we may hope that if we bail them out of a bad situation, provide them with money/ a place to stay/ groceries/ a vehicle to drive, they will be grateful, and will try much harder to get or stay sober. In Al-Anon, this kind of behavior is termed "enabling," because it makes possible the alcoholic's ability to maintain their balancing act for a longer period, before it all collapses around their heads, and they face the consequences of their own choices.

Enabling may feel loving and caring, but can often be more about us, than about the alcoholic. We may need to feel that we have "done all we can" or are "a good parent/wife/sibling" in the hope that our example will show them how their behavior is by contrast, destructive.

Perhaps we are caught up in a cycle of enabling, in which we believe that if we do not act to save them, they will be lost in their addiction forever, or even die.

The sad truth is that not every alcoholic is able to get or stay sober. Many of them are lost to addiction, and many die each year from the effects of drinking.

In Al-Anon we learn that we didn't cause it, we can't control it, and we can't cure it. This can be either a blow to our ego and self-image as a helper, or it can be a step towards freedom, when we understand that it is truly possible for us to have a satisfying, productive and serene life, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not.

Detachment is not cruel or heartless; detachment saves us from continuing to labor at that about which, we can have zero effect.  When we love an alcoholic, one of the kindest things we can do for them is to allow them control of their own lives. We may feel agonised by their choices and self-destruction, but when we honestly admit our own powerlessness, we have begun our own journey of healing.

I pray to continue to detach from the alcoholics in my life, and to be able to see without judgement, and love without blame.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Where Is My Focus?

When I came into Al-Anon, my focus was squarely upon the alcoholic. He seemed to take up all the space in our house, and in my mind. I didn't have to be with him to be obsessing about him and his drinking. He'd disappear for days on a bender, and I'd go to work, come home, feed the dogs and myself, worry for the entire remainder of the evening, then go to bed and toss and turn wondering where he was, what he was doing, and if I was going to hear a knock on my front door, and find police officers standing there, telling me that he was seriously injured, or dead.

It was a terrible way to live, and I did it for about 8 1/2 years, until I finally listened to my GP, and went to my first Al-Anon meeting.

I went to that meeting expecting all of the people there to be squarely focussed upon the alcoholics in their lives. When I was told that Al-Anon was for me, and that I needed to find a way to live in serenity whether the alcoholic was drinking or not, I was so surprised that I just pushed that concept to the side. It seemed clearly impossible.

Over the years that I have been in Al-Anon, I have become much better at aiming and focusing upon that which gives me pleasure, satisfaction, and hope. I have become more skilled at letting go of that which does me no good, only torments me, and over which I have zero control.

It's the same with cancer. I have a choice, I either obsess about it continually, ruining whatever time I have on this earth, or I let go of it, and live my live the way I would had I never had the diagnosis. I choose to do the latter, because I've learned how, and it allows me to take from each day enough to feed my soul and mind, and not open myself to worry, anger, stressful imaginings, and resentment.

Life is what I make it, to a great extent. This is true regardless of my income or social status. I am the one who gets up in the morning and decides whether or not I'm going to enjoy the day. Al-Anon has taken the furiously angry person that I once was, and transformed her into a woman who loves to laugh, and to make others laugh. That's an amazing feat, any way you look at it.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Humour Opens Our Hearts As Nothing Else Can.

I went for my 5th chemo treatment yesterday. I had just made myself comfortable in the chair, when a woman about my age, and her friend, were led to the chairs directly across the aisle. They were discussing IV's, and how the friend could not for the life of her watch the IV being inserted. Because they seemed open and friendly, I commented that I was the same, I can't watch, or I begin to feel a strange wooziness.

We began to joke  back and forth, and soon were laughing hilariously over each other's dog, family member, and doctor, stories. It was wonderful, the time flew by, while we kept ourselves vastly entertained for almost three hours, until Robert arrived to get me, and they too were finished, and going home.

I was thinking about it later, and realised that this time, chemo was fun, because these two women were funny, friendly, open, thoughtful, kind, all sorts of good things, and willing to share of themselves with me. It would have been very easy to have just been a group of two, I see that often in the chemo room - people may say hello and smile politely, but they don't want to talk, and I respect that.  So I read, or lay back in the chair and think of all of the things for which I am grateful, including chemo, or maybe even doze a bit.

Robert sat with me through the entire first chemo, but I've convinced him that I don't need him to do that, and he can easily drop me off, then come for the last 15-20 minutes until I'm unhooked and can leave. He feels guilty, as if he's abandoning me. I know I have his support, I don't need him to be stuck in there for 3 hours with me, I feel better if he goes off and does whatever he needs to do in the intervening time. I take books to read, and I have always been able to entertain myself when I'm alone, so if the people in the chairs around me don't want to talk, I read, or people watch.  He felt better this time, to meet these women and hear that we had been laughing for almost 3 hours together.

It was fun to enjoy chemo. I'm so grateful for all the gifts in my life.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Do What You Can And Let The Rest Go.

I told my GP when I was in to see him yesterday, that I felt as though I have had enough blood taken from me in the last two weeks, to fill a small dog. A Pomeranian, perhaps? We laughed together, and then had an excellent discussion on the way that serious illness can suddenly make clear to a person just what is and is not important.

Some of us are fortunate, and have had enough time in twelve-step programs, that we can already grasp to some extent, what matters and what truly does not. I find myself full of gratitude that I've had all these years in Al-Anon; I can just picture the roiling mass of anger, resentment and self-pity that I would be in this position, had I not had years learning to seek humility and serenity.

If I want peace, I need to do what I can, and let the rest go. I might be able to go out and walk in the park after treatment, but I also might only be able to come home and sleep for hours. It will be what it will be, and I have no control over it. What I do have are friends, my wonderful Robert, and a good solid program to help me get through whatever I am facing. I am content.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What We Fear Consumes Us.

I had a day recently of obsession, around and around inside my head, unable to get past it, unable to get by it, chained to that circular route of thought. Horrible. I haven't had a day like that in a long time. The only way to break the obsession was to go for a nap. When I woke up, I was no longer  obsessed. What a relief!

I find it hard to believe that I once lived my life like that, substituting one obsession for another, never being able to live at peace inside my own head. I think that may be partly why I read so much; when I was reading, I wasn't thinking about the current obsession.

And where did all that obsessing take me? To misery, time and again, but I hadn't any clue about how to break it, how to get out of it, how to avoid starting in the first place. I had to be in program for quite some time before I realised that some thoughts were just not good ones upon which to dwell - they were the opening bars to an obsession.

I was trapped inside a prison of my own thinking, with no awareness of that reality. I remember feeling very doubtful when anyone in a meeting would talk about "changing their thinking." I was so far removed from that, I couldn't even imagine it. My first attempts were more like pleading with my Higher Power to help me get off a road upon which I'd purposefully set out, hours earlier. I recall walking with my dog, and saying the first line of the Serenity Prayer repeatedly, anything to try to stop the obsessing.

There have been times when the only way I knew I'd been obsessing, was with the feeling of overwhelming relief that washed over me when I managed, somehow, to stop.

My fears consumed my life without me knowing - if anything, I would have considered my worry "prudent."  It was an awful way to live, and the only way out was with Al-Anon. I learned to control, to some extent, my own thinking. I learned that some topics were forbidden if I wanted peace. I couldn't say to myself "I'll just worry for half an hour, then the rest of the evening, I'll do something else." For me, it doesn't work that way, if I allow a fear headroom, it will consume me. I may appear to be living my life, but I'm not really there. My body is, my mind is miles away, trapped on a circular treadmill.