Thursday, September 30, 2010

Receptivity and Sensitivity.

"If you try to keep an open mind, you will find help."

That sentence comes from Al-Anon's suggested closing to a meeting. I must have heard that hundreds upon hundreds of times, before I was able to begin the work of keeping an open mind. For me, it has been hard work. I lived in such fear that I was unable to be open-minded to anything which didn't fit my precise definitions or standards.

I was unable to take the time to challenge my thinking, because I was engaged in a precarious balancing act between obsession, control, and despair, continually cycling among those three states,  never managing to break free long enough, or feeling sufficiently safe, to be able to consider alternate viewpoints. I knew what I thought about things, and that was a done deal. I couldn't see far enough past my own misery, to understand what keeping an open mind could gain me.

When I was new in program, the book One Day At A Time In Al-Anon was the only daily readings book available, and I read that book the same way I did so many other things in my life - obsessively. In my case, that was a good thing, because it meant that I absorbed the wisdom almost without realising or knowing that I was doing so - I thought I was just finding comfort and solace. I didn't know that the readings in that book, and the wisdom of the meetings, were slowly slowly prying open my so firmly closed (also locked, and bolted with sixteen deadbolts and a motion sensor alarm) mind.

From the ODAT, page 49:

"If I take to myself each day, even one small new idea, heard at a meeting, or read in Al-Anon literature, I will make progress. Things may not work out as I want them to, but as my point of view changes, what I thought I wanted changes, too. My absolute contentment does not depend on having things work out my way."

What I have learned in my time in program, is that when I am fearful, I am less open-minded. When my mind is closed, partially or completely, I am turning my face away from the gifts life has to offer, and then complaining about the hand I've been dealt.

I cannot receive wisdom unless I am willing to stop long enough to hear, and consider, new information. I cannot grow if I am unwilling to let go of my old behaviors of judgement and condemnation.

I had an experience this week, in which I was grouchy and unaccepting because I was exhausted. As soon as I put the phone back down upon the charger, I knew that I had been in the wrong, and needed to make an amend.

Making an honest amend was a completely new idea to me when I was first in Al-Anon - before that, I might apologise, but the apology would be bracketed with justifications and rationalisations, and be a sparse and paltry thing. In Al-Anon, I learned that if I wanted to have a better life, I needed to become a better person.

That included being sensitive to the feelings of others, and being upfront about my own mistakes. I don't need to batter myself with my wrongs, but I do need to be receptive to needs and feelings of those around me, and if I lose my way for whatever reason, and trample upon those feelings, the road out of that morass is a clean and clear road I've travelled countless times.

Make a direct amend, and then sit quietly and accept the consequences - don't justify, don't rationalise, sit in silence, and listen. Hear the other person when they speak of how I have affected them - hurt them, irritated them, whatever it is. Be receptive.

And the last step to making an amend - forgive myself, and learn from the experience, so I don't repeat it; use what I have learned, to make myself more receptive and sensitive, more open-minded.

When I used to bash myself with my mistakes, anything was preferable to admitting to the damned things - once I admitted to them, they would overtake me, and give me hours of unhappiness.
I had to not only be willing to be more open-minded about the way in which I treated other people, I also had to be more open-minded about my treatment of myself. If it wasn't acceptable to berate and guilt-trip another person - well, I was a person too, therefore, the same rules applied.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Have You Ever Been To A "Bad" Meeting?

A newcomer asked that question when some of us were together for coffee, after a meeting. We asked for clarification, what did she mean by a "bad meeting?"

One where we came out feeling worse than we'd gone in.

For me, once. One single time in all the thousands of meetings I've attended. I've written about it elsewhere on this blog, but can't find it, and am not in the mood to hunt.

It was in a large city a few hours from here, and I've attended it several times over the years of travelling back and forth, and found it a positive and inspiring meeting. This night, it was a relentless recital of misery and hopelessness, around the room, one after another. I could feel myself slowly sinking, as another person spoke and was, in turn, negative and blaming.

When I was walking back out to my car afterwards, I had to make a concerted mental effort to shake off the weight of all that negativity. I went back to my hotel room and read my Al-Anon Courage to Change, until my usual more hopeful and positive mood reasserted itself.  I took my little dog out for her late night relief walk, and stood looking at the patterns of the streetlights shining through the trees and onto the wet road, as I waited for her to do her thing. I felt enormous, powerful gratitude, which was so strong it brought tears to my eyes, that the very first meeting I'd attended had been full of uproarious laughter.

Those women gave me hope, when they howled with affectionate delight, as a member spoke ruefully of the insanity of her thinking, and how she'd thought it quite reasonable at the time...reminds me of an AA tape a friend lent to me, in which the speaker recounts a story of that sort of loopy reasoning, and at the peak of it, the audience is laughing so hard the speaker has to stop for a moment, until they regain themselves, and when they do, says, "Normal people wouldn't find that funny."

I went to my first Al-Anon group every week, not only because the women were so loving and supportive of me, but because they laughed so much. I love to laugh, and somewhere along the path of living with active drinking, I'd lost my sense of humour. I was a bitter, blaming, resentful, angry soul, and those women folded me seamlessly into their positive and loving meeting. I'd never had that kind of acceptance, and it quite overpowered any judgements I  might have made otherwise. Love and acceptance work to thaw and grow us, where nothing else can. I've never forgotten how powerful that laughter was, and how it taught me that, as the suggested Al-Anon meeting opening reads:

"We, too, were lonely and frustrated but in Al-Anon we discover that no situation is really hopeless and that it is possible for us to find contentment and even happiness, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not."

I try to remember to be an example of that, when I speak at meetings, and write on this blog. I may not always manage it, but I try, the same way others have tried, in the countless meetings I've attended, and the blog posts I've read. A recital of misery may make the speaker feel better for having vented, but it's not exactly "sharing experience, strength and hope."

In a meeting or out, what I need, is for you to tell me about how you had a moment of clarity, which brought you to a place of gratitude. Tell me about the way you suddenly saw how crazed your thinking was, and how it made you laugh out loud. Tell me about how a piece of Al-Anon literature gave you serenity and peace, when you were struggling. Tell me of the way program has changed your life for the better, and you have "...contentment and even happiness, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

AA Rally.

My partner got home late last night from an AA rally he'd attended - he'd driven over to the town where we once lived, and seen many of the people with whom he'd started in AA.

One had only just gotten back in after a slip; he'd lost probably 50-60 pounds, was drawn, gaunt and shaky. This man had been someone with whom my partner had some of his first struggling to-understand-AA conversations, and he was shocked to see his condition.

A couple of days ago, a new man in one of my partner's meetings was encouraged to come to the rally, and he did. As it happened, he was the person at the rally with the shortest time sober in AA - 8 days, and he was called to the front to accept a Big Book from the man with the longest time - 48 years. My partner spoke movingly of how touched he had been by the response of this new member to being recognised and encouraged.

My partner has recently had one of those massively huge and stunning realisations granted to us by our Higher Power when we really work our program, and his face glowed when he talked of how much more connected he felt this time to the AA members at the rally - some roadblock to his heart has been removed, and he's much more open and willing. It's a beautiful sight.

Friday, September 24, 2010

When You Open Your Eyes, That Roaring Noise Isn't A Monster, It's A Mouse With A Microphone.

A good friend in program has recently had a major revelation. I love to watch these happen - to see someone halted mid-assumption, mid-step, mid-reiteration of long-held belief, and watch as the realisation slowly sweeps across their face, astonishment following closely behind.

I've said it as many times as I've heard it said: "How could I have been so blind to that? How could I have ever thought it was this way, when it wasn't?"

Denial keeps us safe when the truth would be emotionally devastating. We can't face the truth until we have something to hang onto, while that tidal wave sweeps over us.

For some of us, childhood wasn't the happy time it was for others - we lived in emotionally precarious situations, where the truth was just too hard to bear, so we re-invented and relabelled, until we could feel some comfort, where in truth there was none.

This works to get us out of childhood in relative emotional safety, but it then goes on to interfere with our ability to live our lives. We are encumbered by the coping mechanisms we developed as small children; without some form of therapy, we will still be using them to navigate our adult world, and therein the trouble lies.

Before I could grow, I had to let go of my detrimental beliefs about myself, other people, and the world. Before I could let go, I had to accept. Before I could accept, I had to admit. Before I could admit, I had to have that tidal wave of comprehension smashing through and washing away those structures which I had built when I was very small: so threatened, so unsafe.

I could not do it until I had a group of people who "loved me in a very special way."

Before program, I used to try to hurry other people out of their denial - this was an exercise in frustration and rising annoyance, because I was trying to force upon another, what I could not do myself.

In Al-Anon I learned that all I can do is offer my experience strength and hope. I can be available for phone calls, dogwalks, emails, coffees, whatever I can offer, I will do. The rest is up to the person's Higher Power. I cannot make them believe the title of this, and it isn't my place to try.

What I can do, is rejoice with them, when they begin to perceive how this enlightenment will enrich their lives, have they the strength and the courage, to follow where it leads.

I can also support and encourage when they can't face it, when they cannot bear to open their eyes long enough to get a real glimpse. I can answer the question a hundred thousand times, when they ask me, "Is it safe to open my eyes, really? When you opened yours, it was truly only a mouse? Honestly?"

I can laugh with delight when they call me, rushing to say that they did it! They opened their eyes, and it was a mouse, a mouse, can you believe it, just a mouse, and they've been running from this thing for years, thinking it was a devouring monster, and it was only a small furry frightened creature who couldn't hurt them if it tried, well, maybe a little bite, or if it carried a disease it could (some of us are so literal in our thinking) but it's so small, and all this time they've been so terrified...oh, man, why didn't they do this years ago?"

I think back to my first sponsor, who used to laugh with me when I would tell her about my revelations, and hug me tightly, and grin like crazy, and have to wipe her eyes. I knew that when I told her, she would be just as thrilled as I was.

That is a gift we give to each other, in Al-Anon.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Forcing Solutions.

Our Al-Anon welcome contains the phrase: "... our thinking becomes distorted by trying to force solutions..."

When very new to program, I was confident that I knew the best solution for my alcoholics, and I expended great amounts of time, energy and breath expounding upon this belief. I was constantly trying to force solutions.

It didn't work. My first husband, as a result of my endless nagging, once managed to stay sober for nine months, white-knuckling it the entire way, with no program, and no support. He finally succumbed to temptation when his nephew came for a visit, bringing gallons of booze. I arrived home from work to find them all drunk in my kitchen, and we shall draw a curtain over the scene that ensued, dear reader, because it is not one of which I am proud to have been a part. I acted abominably, shrieking and... well, as I said, never mind about that.

That was, to my knowledge, the last time my ex tried to quit drinking, and he is still deep in the addiction. I'm grateful to be able to say that what I feel about that now, is a detached compassion, rather than the self-righteous disgust I once felt.

When I try to force solutions, I have come to a decision that I know the correct thing to do, and that I have the right to nag, wheedle or coerce the alcoholic into accepting this, in complete dismissal of their choices.

I have placed myself in a position of superiority above the alcoholic. I have set my jaw, clenched my teeth, and rammed my way through. 

In my time, I have been shameless in this regard. I wanted it: he was destroying himself: I would make it happen.

Quite apart from the fact that I couldn't make him quit drinking with any more success than I could make it rain, was the effect this behavior had upon me, and my self-respect. On some subterranean level, I knew I had no right to do what I was doing, and my feelings about myself reflected this knowledge. I felt an uneasy shame just beneath the surface of my self-righteous indignation.

Al-Anon has brought that lurking awareness up to the surface, and granted me the strength and the wisdom to point out when my little piece of ground is being trampled, but then, when the trampling stops, to shut the hell up, already.

I've learned from personal experience that I cannot force solutions, and that I do not have the right to force solutions. A sponsee once asked, a long time ago, "What do I do if I'm not trying to get him to quit drinking?" and I gave same gentle reply I'd received, when I'd asked my sponsor the selfsame question:

"Live your own life."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

When To Stop Talking, Get Up, And Go For A Walk.

Even when it's drizzling slightly. The dogs don't care, they'll accompany me anytime. I've always loved that about dogs - they don't say, "Ohhh, I don't know, I'm tired, and it's sort of cold out, and my toe is bugging me.." They leap to the front door, mill around attempting to be first in line for the collar and leash attaching, and hurry me up with energetic and enthusiastic nosepokes to my leg.

I had to go for an extra walk tonight, it was the only way to maintain my serenity in the face of some determined provocation.
We went out into the cool night, and as I stepped from the driveway onto the street, I sighed with relief.

Just getting away from the stress and tension of working to keep myself calm, working to detach from the behaviors, working to relax, and pray for guidance - it felt good. I was grateful that Al-Anon has taught me how to self-soothe in these ways. I was glad that I hadn't given way to irritation or anger, that I'd remained calm and courteous.

A small satisfaction, but those small victories over my character defects build up to a life lived with dignity and kindness, regardless of how someone else is behaving.

So it goes.

Two of my favourite bloggers have lost their much-loved animals this week - I thought of that tonight, as I wandered along in silent communion with my canine convey, grateful for their non-judgemental, comforting companionship. Seems I've spent many tears this week, and I can accept that, as just a place I'm in right now. It's not forever - this too shall pass. I'm feeling rather dispirited tonight, but I can start again tomorrow.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Two Tiny Steps Forward, One Giant Step Back.

"My sober-for-years-but-not-in-recovery-for-long alcoholic, it seems like the minute I give them any encouragement or support, they take it like a "get out of jail free" card, and start to treat me like crap again. How do I give any positive feedback, when they just use it against me?"

Oh, have I been in this writer's place - and it was a mystifying landscape through which to travel. One of my alcoholics is just this way, and I have had to learn that any support or encouragement I give has to be non-personal. If I put anything of myself into it, this person will then see me as vulnerable, and go on the attack. When I'm around this alcoholic, I feel as I might were a tiger in the room with me, waiting for the slightest sign of weakness, always ready to spring. That tiger never sleeps.

If this person says, "I have been trying harder," and I reply, "Yes, I've noticed that and I'm very grateful, and you are a good person..." I've just bought myself some mistreatment at their hands, because they see that the way a tiger might see me strapping some steaks to myself, and then walking back and forth an inch from its muzzle.

Sober is not recovery. Sober is sober, and while I can be grateful for the sobriety, if I see it and recovery as all of a piece/the same thing, I'm going to suffer for that misconception.

With this alcoholic, when they say "I have been trying harder," I have to reply with something along the lines of: "That's great; working your program will benefit you and those around you," and leave it at that. I have to keep myself and what I think, completely off the table. They will often try to put me back onto the table with questions like, "You've noticed, right, you've noticed I've been trying harder?"

And here I'm going to pause for a moment and point out that just because someone asks us a question, does not mean that we must answer that question. If we have a fairly clear idea of what's going on, ie the alcoholic is looking for a way in through our boundaries, and we want to keep them safely on the other side, we can repeat our original reply, or format a new one: "I try not to gauge my recovery on whether or not other people are noticing it, I try to do it for myself, and my Higher Power."

This can feel uncomfortable when I'm new to it - perhaps I feel
as if I am "withholding" some approval being sought. And that is precisely why it works so well against me.

I need to stop, detach, and ask myself:  what's happening in this encounter? What happened last time we had a conversation like this? What was the result of me giving encouragement and support which included how I thought or felt, rather than a more generic kind?

If I begin to see a pattern emerging, I can talk to my sponsor, pray, reason things out with someone else, and choose how I am going to respond. I have the right to deal with this in the kindest way possible, which will permit me to retain my boundaries.

I do not have to accept any unacceptable behavior, under any label whatsoever.

I just had an interesting conversation with another program member about this, and one point raised was: When I respond, am I expecting a certain result? I can trip myself up in this way, with this particular alcoholic, because I lull myself into believing that this time, it's safe to be more open. This flies in the face of reality, since it never has been in any other past conversation, why would I think it safe today?

Why? Because I'm in denial, and my expectations or desires that another person behave the way I want them to, are overriding my sanity for a moment. I want it to be safe, therefore I'm going to act as if it is safe.

Then when it turns out not to have been safe, who am I really annoyed with about it? I'm annoyed with myself; had I not tied that steak to my leg before walking up to the tiger, I might still have that leg as part of my anatomy.

So it goes. Live and learn. Some of us are slower learners than others.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Crosstalk, and Commenting Upon Someone Else's Sharing.

MrSponsorPants has a post about this today and it seems timely, as lately I've seen this same behavior demonstrated, on more than one occasion, by more than one person.

I find it excruciatingly uncomfortable to sit in silence while one member chastises another, under the guise of sharing. I'm intensely grateful that this was not done to me when I was new to program, or that if it was, it sailed right over my head. I was so full of self-loathing and self-disgust, that had anyone criticised me in a meeting, I'd most likely never have returned to Al-Anon. (Just considering where I'd be were that the case, gives me the willies.)

Meetings are meant to be a safe place for all, but as MrSponsorPants points out so well, we are sick people. He may be speaking more of alcoholics, but those of us who are codependent, are just as barmy in our own endearing ways.

Some meetings feel safer than others, because some meetings are more closely attuned to the Steps and Traditions of Al-Anon. I've sat in meetings where I felt that there were unspoken messages zinging back and forth across the table during sharings - and not gone back to that meeting, but found another one to attend. I've had enough of that sort of thing in my personal life, I'd rather find a meeting with a more comfortable feel for me.

In the last place we lived, meetings were few and far between, so I didn't have a choice, I had to learn to tolerate whoever attended, and "love them in a very special way." I grew because of it, in a way I wouldn't have, if I'd only ever attended meetings in which I felt relaxed and safe with all the members.

I learned that those who are critical are often lonely in their pain, and that this criticism was modelled to them in their family of origin by being directed at them from the time they were tiny children - this made me more able to see past the facade, to the person crouched behind the barricades, lobbing grenades over their heads in a furious attempt to keep all at a safe distance.

As my friend Wilson once said, "Happy people don't act that way."

Some folks can grow and change, and some can't ever take the first step onto the ladder across the crevasse - their fear is just too great. It isn't up to me to decide how they should behave, although I will do, and then catch myself. I try to be warmer to those people, in an effort both to live my program, and to make the meeting feel safer for them, as well.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Why Should I?

"But why should I be the one to change? Shouldn't it be the alcoholic who changes? Why me?"

"Why you? Because you can't change other people."

I fought that truth for a long time.

I accepted many other truths Al-Anon offered, but that one - I just did not want to believe that "... all my efforts had been for naught, that I'd been doomed to failure before I've ever started, that it had been completely hopeless all along, that ..."
My first sponsor interrupted this litany of misery, to ask me, "Is there any other way you can look at this?"

We had many of these conversations sitting at her kitchen table; I did a lot of staring out the window at the trees, when I didn't want to make eye contact. That question, as did so many of her questions early on, brought me to a confused, somewhat resentful, silence. I hadn't a clue where she was heading with that question, and felt miffed that she had interrupted me while I was in full, self-pitying flow.

She smiled at me, and asked, in her crisp British accent, "How about viewing it as a gift of freedom?"

A gift? A gift?

This woman, to whom I was entrusting my most personal thoughts and feelings, was, obviously, barking mad. It was the only conclusion I was able to reach at the time.

I replied stiffly that I didn't quite understand how alcoholism could be viewed as a gift of freedom. I can just see myself, bristling at any suggestion that my thinking might be flawed, or confused, or self-defeating - I took offense very easily back then. I often drove home from these sessions with my first sponsor with nothing in my mind but anger and indignation -  she had said this, and that, and didn't have any sympathy!

The latter was true enough, sympathy she didn't have; empathy she dished out in generous helpings. When my self-pity and martyrdom receded enough that I once again began to be able to register anything apart from my all-consuming problems, I understood that she lived in much the same circumstances I did, but with considerably more peace and serenity.

Back to this "gift" nonsense. I sat in silence while my sponsor explained that what I could see as a gift of freedom, was the understanding that I couldn't change anyone but myself. Since that was the case, and it was an exercise in futility, I could stop trying to change my alcoholic first husband, and instead, learn to live my life fully and serenely. Wasn't that wonderful?

I eyed her dubiously, and made some sort of accepting murmuring noise, which, in hindsight, she must have recognised by my rigid posture and tight-lipped expression, that I didn't believe, or accept, for a nanosecond.

My desperation kept me coming back to Al-Anon meetings, and reading Al-Anon literature, and eventually, my desire for recovery overwhelmed my resistance, and I accepted that I couldn't change anyone but myself.

It is a gift of freedom - I let things go which would have obsessed me to the exclusion of all else, which would have caused me hours, days, weeks of angry chewing-over.

I can't change the alcoholic. I can't change other people. So, let it go, then. Instead, I can choose to play in my garden, paint, sew, walk the dogs, read a good book, spend time with friends, work upon changing myself.

Don't take even one or two steps down that lonely road - notice it as I'm passing, but shrug and keep walking towards my serenity - that's my goal.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Being Stuck.

A new member to Al-Anon, a woman who has embraced program heart and soul, and is making huge leaps and bounds, corralled me the other day after a meeting, and asked, "Have you ever been stuck? I'm finding I'm stuck on something the last couple of weeks, and I'm getting really angry and frustrated with myself about it."

I grinned at her. "A couple of weeks, hmm?"

She nodded, and seemed a bit embarassed, saying "I know it's a long time,  but ..."

I asked, "Have you got a minute? I'll tell you a story from my 4-5th year in Al-Anon."

"Oh, good, were you stuck, too?" she asked.

"I was; I was thoroughly stuck. Completely stuck. Welded in place, you might say."

She looked at me with hope in her eyes, and asked, "For how long? A few days? A week? As long as me - two weeks?"

I smiled at her, and told the unvarnished truth: "I was stuck for six months."

She looked at me, startled, then began to laugh, saying, "Two weeks seems quite reasonable, all of a sudden!"

I can recall that time very clearly, because it was the most frustrating period I've had so far, in Al-Anon. I had reached a point in my recovery, where I needed to let go of some past happenings in order to move forward, and I just couldn't seem to do it. I had discussed it with my sponsor until we both felt like screaming when I brought the topic up - we'd sat in her kitchen one day, trying to do as she suggested, and "approach it from another angle, to see if it looked more palatable from that viewpoint," and after a few more revolutions, we were both feeling hot, frustrated, and tired.

We decided to let it go for now, and I'd sleep on it, and see if things looked different the next day. Later that night, I was lying in bed, wondering - was I going to be unable to progress any further in Al-Anon, because I was stuck on this one point?

I decided to think of something else, or I'd never get to sleep, so I began thinking about my dog, and how grateful I was to have her in my life. I was drifting in that heavy dozing state just before sleep, then - all at once I was wide awake, and starting to laugh.

I'd been thinking about a walk my dog and I had taken, when I was visiting my sister. We'd gone to a little park near the house; I liked it for the small stream running through it, and a picturesque bridge spanning the stream, more for show than necessity, since the stream was only a few inches deep. There were two metal posts about two feet apart, sunk into the concrete at each end of the bridge, perhaps to block access to motor vehicles.

My dog was a mad retrieving fiend - sticks, balls, fetching anything at all made her sublimely happy. That day, she'd found a fairly small willow branch, which was probably 5-6 feet long, with a tuft of greenery at one end, and was happily trotting along, carrying it. When we reached the bridge, she couldn't get onto the bridge because the willow branch was wider than the two metal posts. She tried and tried, then backed up, splashed through the stream still holding the branch, and tried to get onto the bridge from the other end, with the same result.

It was so funny at the time because she'd been fixated about "getting onto the bridge" and had lost sight of the purpose of the bridge - to cross the stream.

When that memory floated into my mind that night, and I sat up in bed, wide awake and laughing, it was because I had realised that I was doing precisely the same thing in my program - becoming fixated upon the process, to the point of losing sight of the purpose.

I had become so stuck in my steely determination to get onto my particular bridge, and being unable to, that it had never occurred to me to try wading through the stream, or -  putting down the stick I was clutching.

Al-Anon shows me that I always have options. When it's getting dark, and I can't see my way forward, maybe I just need to brush the hair out of my eyes.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Please Define " understanding and encouragement to the alcoholic."

That phrase comes from the "Suggested Preamble To The Twelve Steps" and the entire paragraph reads:

  "Al-Anon has but one purpose: to help families of alcoholics. We do this by practising the Twelve Steps, by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics, and by giving understanding and encouragement to the alcoholic."

I know that when I came to Al-Anon, the very idea of giving anything to the alcoholic stirred my resentment. I felt that he'd already received all of me I had to give, and wasn't entitled to a molecule more. I sometimes think of my resentment as a glass filled to the brim, with only surface tension stopping it from spilling over, which I was trying to carry through my daily life. I couldn't concentrate on not spilling a glass that full, and still move through my life with any awareness - the glass became my only focus.

Various dictionaries define understanding as being tolerant, aware of someone's feelings, being sympathetic, or co-operative.

Was I sympathetically aware of my alcoholic? No, no, no, not on your life. Was I cooperative? Not likely. I was intransigent, I was mulish, I was resistant, and I took nasty pleasure in being so - in this way, I vented some of my anger and resentment. In hindsight, I can see where I must have been a very tiring person to live with, always scheming to manipulate.

I had no tolerance left in me for him. And I didn't care at all about his feelings.

"Encouragement" is defined in various dictionaries as giving someone support, confidence, approval, assistance or hope.

By the time I entered Al-Anon, it had been quite a few years since I'd given my alcoholic anything even remotely approaching approval; on the contrary, I disapproved of almost everything he did, thought, felt, or expressed. I disapproved of him in every way humanly possible, and didn't hesitate to let him know it. Assistance? Given only grudgingly, with great lashings of complaint and self-pity.

I had no hope left in me, so I had none to give. I felt quite annoyed with the idea that I should give him anything at all. Shouldn't he be giving to me?

I had a bit of difficulty with the idea that it is what it is, and if I am to live with any sanity, I must accept that, and go from there. What would happen in a perfect world, might be a nice topic for a half-hour's daydream, but as this isn't a perfect world, in the end, this does me no good.

I had further difficulty with the idea that I needed to begin to be tolerant, accepting, loving, encouraging and understanding in the face of his continuing to drink,  that I did this for my own self, first, so that I could gain back my self-respect.

I slowly came to the understanding that for me to live comfortably within my own skin, I need to give the alcoholic understanding and encouragement, and then let go of the outcome of this giving.

I don't hold it out, still firmly gripping it with one hand, and my other hand stretched out to see what I'm going to get in trade.

I hope this helps a bit.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What Should I Do?

I hate that question. I don't have an answer for anyone but myself, and many times not even then. I had one of these conversations recently, in which the questioner kept asking that, and I kept refusing to give advice, until both of us were rather frustrated.

This wasn't the kind of conversation in which another member of Al-Anon is asking that rhetorically, as a way to get the ball rolling in a discussion of options and choices, and what exactly do they they want, or what do they hope to achieve; this was a "tell me what to do" conversation.

I couldn't tell him what to do, it's not up to me. I've been in program long enough to feel a distinct shiver of unease when another person tries to pass off the responsibility for their choices into my hands. I do not want to be the person who said "Do This." when it all goes to hell in a handbasket, and this person comes out loaded for bear, looking for the idiiot who told him what to do when, as it turns out, it was the exact opposite of a wise choice.

This precise situation would have, pre-program, satisfied my controlling instincts to no end; I'd have been delighted to give my opinion in great detail. It would have been a good ego buzz.

Working my program has taught me that when someone else begins to try to get me to make their choices for them, I need to re-examine whether or not this is a healthy friendship. I'm not talking about the odd question asked here or there, I'm talking about that feeling one gets: it's almost as if they show up at your house with a moving van, and start carrying stuff indoors with just a cheerful smile and nod as they go by.

I'm more than happy to have conversations in which I try to offer any help I'm able to allow you to examine your choices in detail, but I don't want to adopt anyone, and I don't want to be anyone's guru. I'm too fallible. And let's be honest, lazy.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Twelve Step As A Different Culture.

Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with a woman I respect; we were discussing the way new friends who are not in a Twelve-step program, can find those of us who are, disconcerting. People who have seriously worked their program for a long time are different - we don't play the usual conversational games, we are much more upfront about our own faults, (that in itself can be decidedly unsettling) we don't gossip or criticise - my friend said, in a tone of dawning realisation, that Twelve Step almost sounds like a different culture.

I loved that. I think there's a great deal of wisdom in that remark.
When I look back upon difficulties I've had, communicating with new friends who aren't in a recovery program, and the problems which arose, that lens of "different culture" makes it all make sense.

I'll never forget a meeting I attended, during a trip to the city centre south of here, about 15 years ago.  A man spoke of coming to the meeting for the first time, listening in a bit of a daze, then going up to someone after the meeting, and using his usual conversational gambit, starting to gossip about a person at the meeting, whom he recognised from work.  He was gently stopped mid-sentence by his listener, who lovingly reminded him that we don't gossip or criticise one another.

He made us all howl with laughter when he recounted standing there wondering what kind of "goody-two shoes these idiots were?" He'd grown up in a family where slicing and dicing was the way you survived - the most vicious won. He'd married into another family with this culture, and all of his friends were this way.

He spoke movingly of how strange it was for him, to be in meetings, learning that pretty much all of his behavior was unacceptable, and yet to feel loved, even so. To feel that the same people who were stopping him as he began to criticise a third person, were greeting him with genuine joy in their faces when he walked into a meeting.

Al-Anon meetings can feel like a foreign country to newcomers; I pray to "Let it begin with me," so that I may be a warm welcome to those who may be exhausted from their travels, suffering the recovery equivalent of jet-lag, and for whom a smiling face, a
chair pushed back to widen the circle, and a silly joking comment to bring laughter and a little bit of comfort, feels like a warm bath of love.

We all need it, we all crave it. Let me be a person who also gives it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

June Bugs.

Our little male dog is pure black, and likes to do a silly thing - he lies down on the floor, rolls over belly up, and then bicycles madly with all four legs, while making grunting snarfling noises. He reminds me of a June bug trying to right itself. He was doing it the other day, and we were laughing at him. My favourite part, is when he all at once rolls over and springs to his feet, then looks around as if surprised to find himself still in the same spot.

I said to my spouse, "You don't get nearly as far, when you're running while upside down."

I've been thinking about that again this morning. I spent a fair bit of my life running while upside down - lots of noise and fuss and movement, no real progress.

I had a major realisation about the way I deal with conflict in relationships. earlier this year, and it seems as though my Higher Power is giving me the same lesson time and again, to make sure I learn it in the way I need to - so that it becomes second nature, in the way my people-pleasing has been second nature.

It felt quite intimidating the first time I tried out new behavior, and is still a little scary, but I'm gradually seeing that it was my unwillingness to face the fear of standing my ground that caused me so much trouble.

I can deal with the conflict, and survive. What I can no longer deal with, is the consequences of the old behavior.

From the ODAT:

"What's the Big Idea in Al-Anon? What's behind these assurances that I do have the power to improve the shape and texture of my life?
It is this: Look to yourself."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Responding To What Isn't Said - Should I?

I had someone tell me today, "And then he said, "Nobody else has ever complained about this."

I asked how had they felt, upon hearing that remark?
After some thought, they replied, "I felt I was being given a very clear message that I was overreacting, because had my concern had any validity, it would have arisen long before now."

They added: "And then I was told that he did it, and nothing bad had ever happened to him."

More of the same message in the second sentence.

As human beings, it is possible for us to have one conversation on the verbal level, and another entirely at the non-verbal, using delivery, tone of voice, facial gestures, even a shrug, to make it crystal clear what we really think or feel, while leaving room, if challenged, to be able to reply that all we said was...

We can be dissmissive, mocking, insulting, negating, and do it all under the camoflage of a supposedly courteous remark. CIA director Allen Dulles coined the phrase "plausible deniability"  - a good way to describe this mode of communication.

In my time in recovery, I've moved from politely ignoring the subtext of a conversation, to just as politely remarking upon it, usually in the form of a question. I might say:

"Does the fact that no-one else has ever complained about this, or the fact that you've done it for years, and nothing bad has happened to you, make my concern invalid?"

My experience with those who use plausible deniability has been that if I ignore it, it only becomes worse. I am permitting them to treat me with a very clever form of rudeness. I'm not speaking up to make it plain that it is unacceptable to treat me this way.

I don't get into telling them what I think they are doing, I don't start arguing the point by reciting statistics to prove I'm correct, I don't induge in blaming, attacking their character, or taking their inventory. All I do is stop, think about what I believe is being conveyed in the nonverbal message, and address that with a calm, polite question.

I spent years trying to defend myself with the sharp blade of anger, often hacking off my own finger or toe in the process. I don't need a submachine gun to deal with an ant. God grant me the serenity to treat other people with the same level of loving kindness I'd like to receive. Not that they might give me, that I'd like to receive. The two are very different creatures. One is predicated upon the other person's behavior, the second is predicated upon my own choices for my own behavior. I don't always manage this, but I achieve it more easily as I live and work my program.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

People-Pleasing As Shape-Shifting

I've been thinking about this lately - how does it work for my friend/spouse/family member, if I am always changing myself to accomodate them?

One of the aspects of a relationship in which I draw comfort, is in knowing certain things about the other person. I can feel safe in the knowledge that this person is this way. That knowledge not only brings a feeling of safety, it also gives me a framework upon which to build the relationship.

If the other person is a rampant people-pleaser, so that any time I endeavour to make sure that I understand where their boundaries are, and the mere asking of that question of "Where?" causes them to shift them back twenty feet, and then another twenty feet, and another and another and another - it's like quicksand. There is no foundation, no firm base upon which to stand and say, ok, this is sold ground.

Some days, when they are feeling braver, I might be walking up to where I think the boundary is from last time, and find myself being charged ferociously, and shoved backwards violently, while they yell at me about overstepping myself.

So the time after that, I am very careful to advance to the stopping line pointed out to me on our last encounter, only to have them ask in surprise, "What are you stopping there for? Come closer, a lot closer, come on, don't be so hesitant about it!"

I know I go away from this sort of thing reeling in confusion, irritation and frustration; I cannot get a clear picture of just who this person is. Every time I ask, I get a different answer. My response to this, over time, will be to distance myself. I cannot handle that level of confusion in my life anymore. I choose not to.

So flip this over, and why would I imagine that my behaving in a similar manner would be any the less distressing for those with whom I interact?

Is it possible that those for whom I've been so craven in my people-pleasing, (in my attempts to gain intimacy and closeness,) are distant for precisely the reason of my people-pleasing, and the reality that this impermanence of my boundaries, leaves them feeling lost and confused?

Could I be creating the opposite of what I seek, by doing what I do?

Could it be that I will be far more likely to have the respect I wish for, if I behave in such a way as to register more as a solid person, than a nebulous emotional shape-shifter, always changing?


"It ain't what they call you, it's what you answer to."
                                                 W.C. Fields