Thursday, March 31, 2011

Getting Honest With Myself.

This is a process; most of us are not able to go from the denial and excusing/blaming/accusing of others, to personal honesty, in one fell swoop. Even after a spiritual awakening, there is still the heavy force of habit operating in our lives.

So how do I do this? I examine my motives. I take a moment to stop before I speak, and ask myself: for which end result am I aiming?

Am I attempting to give the other person a clear statement of how I feel, or am I trying to hurt someone who has just hurt me?

Am I setting a boundary, or punishing and rejecting? Am I so focused on the other person's character defects, that all I can feel is rage and frustration? Am I blindly lashing out in an effort to vent my overwhelming emotions? When I didn't know any better, that's how I behaved: like a heavy object in a high wind being blown "hither and yon." Now that I do know better, I can't make excuses for myself.

Getting honest with myself means I don't justify or rationalise. I don't bash myself if I make a mistake, or choose to behave in old ways, but I also don't pretend I don't know what it is that I'm choosing to do. I detach from my feelings and take my own inventory. I work Step Ten every day: "Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it."

A sponsee asked me why do we have to do it "promptly?" Why does that matter?

I replied, "Give me an hour, and I can rationalise anything."

So I don't give myself that hour to play those games with myself, of shifting the lines slightly inwards here, and kicking them out an inch or so there, and moving this just a tad, and pushing that slightly out of the way, until I've rearranged everything to my satisfaction, and it all looks very different from the truth of the matter.

I became very skilled at that mental rearranging, before I came to Al-Anon, and it may have satisfied my character defects, but it was a dishonest and unhappy way to live. When I get honest with myself, I give myself freedom. I don't need to hide who I am, or what I'm doing, because it's all out there on the table. I bring out the skeletons in my closet, and I act in a way which fosters my self-respect.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Miracles of 12-Step.

A few nights ago, I went to an open AA meeting, to see a good friend celebrate 20 sober years. The meeting room was packed full of people, and I only knew 3 of them - my friend, her daughter, and my husband. Yet I felt completely comfortable. That would not have been the case before Al-Anon. On the contrary, I'd have felt exposed, judged, insecure, and anxious. Al-Anon has taught me to be at ease within my own skin, because I know that, although I may be a flawed human being, I have value and worth. My Higher Power loves me, and I love myself.

I met one of my husband's sponsees, for whom I've made copies of AA speaker tapes. I put my hand out for a handshake; he pulled me into a big hug, and thanked me fervently. We laughed, talking about the latest speaker I'd copied for him; the woman had been absolutely hilarious in her description of what it had been like for her to work Step 9: "Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."
This man was one year sober last night, and he glowed with gratitude and joy. I'm going to see him take his one-year cake at the meeting on Monday night; I really wanted to be there, because this man has worked so hard to get where he is. He's proof that it is never too late to get sober.

My friend stood up and spoke about "what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now" and even though I know her story through our friendship, it was still intensely moving to hear her tell it. The openness and willingness to admit to who we truly were, and are, is one of the most powerful tools in 12-Step.

We learn early on in life, to hide and protect ourselves, from the judgements and criticism we face in the world. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open inside the safety of a meeting, something magical happens. When my friend finished speaking, we all roared our congratulations and applauded like mad - it was fun.

Then, there was a short period with first one person, and then another, calling out AA birthdays coming up in the next week: "Joe Blow is taking a one-year cake at the such-and-such meeting on Monday!" "Susan Doe is taking a nineteen year cake on Thursday at the meeting on Main St!"

After each announcement, there'd be loud applause, and whistles and hoots of approval. The man sitting next to me leaned over and said quietly into my ear, that when he was new, this was the part of the meetings that really gave him hope - hearing about all these people who had stayed sober for varying lengths of time.

After the meeting, my friend drove me home, and we sat in her car in my driveway, and talked for a little while. We spoke of the miracles of 12-Step, and of our gratitude. We talked until we were both yawning, and then we said good night, and I got out and walked to my door, turning back to watch her pull away, one arm out her window, waving just her fingers at me.

I have met some amazing and wonderful people in my years in Al-Anon, and I know I'll meet many more. My friend likes to joke that 12-Step is 'the gift that keeps on giving." Ain't that the truth.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Procrastination Techniques.

From Hope for Today, page 83:

"By applying the Serenity Prayer to the various situations that occured, I was reminded that my anger can be an attempt to change someone or something because I don't want to change. Being willing to change - to acknowledge my anger, identify its source, and express it lovingly - is a bit part of my Fourth and Tenth Steps. I gain self-worth when I change the things I can and accept responsibility for my reactions rather than blaming or shaming another."

How many times in my life have I done this? How much effort have I exerted, in my attempts to change my circumstances, or those around me, so that I don't have to move an inch? How far might I have been able to move, had I turned my efforts toward myself, leaving other people, to be moved, or not, as their Higher Power saw fit?

At one point in my recovery, I was so angry with myself for being angry with other people all my life, that I was twisted into a tight little knot of livid, agonising self-loathing. I got up the nerve to share this with my sponsor, who listened to my ranting on my stupidity until I finished, then after a moment's silence, asked, "Is this another delaying tactic?"

I didn't understand the question, and wondered if she'd been listening to anything I'd said. I repeated, "I'm furious with myself!"

She asked, "Where does that get you?"

I stared at her, uncomprehending. She asked it again, and urged me to detach from my feelings for long enough to consider the question. I just sat there. I had no idea how to detach from my feelings - my feelings ruled my every waking moment.

We had to back up a considerable distance, and reason out how to detach from our strong feelings. That required discussing how my internal dialogue affected my mood. I'd heard and read the phrase "internal dialogue" before Al-Anon, but had only a hazy grasp of the meaning. Another program friend uses the term "the stories I tell myself." What story was I telling myself about this? Let's see: I was a fool, I was an idiot, I had wasted years of my life I couldn't get back, I was a snivelling little whiner, I was... 

Derision from an exterior source provoked my anger, why did I think that casting aspersions upon myself, to myself, would have a different effect? It's akin to hitting our finger with the hammer, then becoming so annoyed with ourself for that mistake, we give our finger a couple more good whacks - this time, for punishment.

It prolongs and increases the pain, while doing nothing to improve our skills.

That was a blinding revelation for me. I was still aglow with that amazing concept, when my sponsor dragged me back to earth, by directing me to consider whether that punishment of self was another way to keep me stuck, so I was unable to make any decisions, which might then require to be put into action.

I didn't like that idea at all. It was the alcoholic's fault I was unhappy, it was most certainly not mine. No no nooooooooooo.

Persistent woman that she was, she asked me to go home and  until we met again, I was to pay attention to how often I was wanting someone or something outside myself to change, so I could continue on my way unimpeded, unhampered, unhappy.

I didn't get it, why on earth would I want to stay unhappy? Why? Because it's strong habit, and, it's easier. Left to my own devices, without the wisdom of Al-Anon to offer me an alternative perspective, I'll tread that same well-worn route, making sure to keep myself in the rut ,with a variety of procrastination  techniques, all explained and defended, in sentences beginning with the same two words:

"Yes, but.... "

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Is That A Worm Or A Snake? Fear And Control.

Sometimes what I fear, is a result of a previous painful encounter. Or I may fear because I've been taught to fear, without really understanding why. If, when I'm a small child, everyone else leaps about screaming upon sighting a small garter snake, there's a good chance I'll do the same. We can take on these kinds of fears, and carry them into adulthood, without ever stopping to question -  just how real is the threat? When I was adopted at the age of 6, I was terrified of snakes. My adoptive brother used to play in the marsh behind our house, and took me down into that wonderland to show me around. He taught me to recognise a garter snake, and to understand that they were essentially harmless. I lost that immediate fear response.

I used to hate and fear spiders, until I took up gardening, and began to understand what place they inhabited in the ecosystem - without spiders, we'd be overrun with other insect life. I slowly began to be able to see a beauty in spiders - the tiny palest of green ones, the color of the inside stalks of a celery clump, who were invisible against new growth, until they moved. I might start a bit, when a larger  black spider burst out from beneath a fallen leaf and took off for drier climes when I turned the watering wand upon that area of ground, but that startle reaction was no longer followed by fear, and the desire to eradicate by stomping.

I learned that my garden might have an infestation of aphids for a couple of weeks, but if I didn't interfere, I would then wake up one day, go out to do my morning wander about my garden, and find ladybugs everywhere, hundreds of them, all munching happily upon the aphid buffet. Once the aphids were gone, so were most of the ladybugs.

I learned to "leave well enough alone." I don't interfere with pesticides or attempts to kill insect life - I allow nature to take its course, and if that means my daylily bloom gets eaten by a caterpillar, I choose to admire the beauty in that living creature, and be glad for all the other blooms.  My husband was raised on a farm, and when we were first together, he would lunge wildly at pale butterflies with a dark spot on one wing, trying to kill them. When asked why, he said it was a "cabbage butterfly!" in a tone that expected me to understand. Further investigation revealed that he'd been taught by his parents to catch and kill them, because the caterpillars fed upon their vegetable gardens.

I don't grow food, only flowers, so I asked him to please leave them be. He insisted the garden would soon be inundated with them, they'd wreak havoc, and eat all the flowers. I asked again that he leave them be. He agreed, finally, although he said it went against the grain, because he'd been taught since he was a tiny boy that they were a disaster for the garden.

Nature has her own checks and balances - in all the years we've gardened together, we've never yet had a plague of that particular insect. We have, though, seen quite a few birds sitting with one captured in their beak, resting a moment before flying back to their nest to feed their young.

I learned not to tidy my garden obsessively in late fall, cutting everything back, because when I do, I remove a food source for the birds in winter - seeds.  I had been taught to deadhead to remove seeds, so that my garden wouldn't be "choked to death by all those seeds when they sprouted." That doesn't happen, because the birds consume most of those seeds. The few that don't get eaten, are easily pulled, or transplanted to another area. When I leave the seeds, we have avian visitors all winter long.

I'd originally been taught, another version of the same lesson my husband received: "You must control, or terrible things will happen!" When I am fearful of an outcome, I feel compelled to control. When I understand that my interference is not at all required, necessary, or even helpful or healthy, I learn to step back, Let Go and Let God. He's got it all beautifully organised. I don't need to be hyper-vigilant, I don't need to be obsessive, I don't need to control.

When I accept life on life's terms, it flows and cycles, eddies and swirls - trusting in my Higher Power not only opens the door to miracles happening, it opens the door to my heart. Which lets in some light and air. Fresh air, sunlight. Beautiful, and all done with no help from me.

Controlling keeps me rigid, unbending, unaccepting, unhappy.

Letting go keeps me flexible, willing to compromise, and delighted.

It's an easy choice, but only after I have decided not to let fear make my decision for me.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Am I Looking For Guidance, Or Sympathy?

How can I tell? In this, as in so much of Al-Anon, I need to stop and consider my motives. What is it that I'm hoping to receive, when I place this phone call, or open this conversation? In the past, what I wanted, was sympathy, and advice I could ignore. I felt that if someone cared about me, they'd offer me advice. I didn't want to take it, but I still wanted them to put the effort into the offering.

Also, sympathy. I loved it when someone would coo, "Oh, your poor thing, how do you put up with that?"

So when I was very new to Al-Anon, and would call my new sponsor, expecting her to give lashings of sympathy, and instead she'd suggest that I consider my powerlessness, and try turning it over to my Higher Power, I would feel frustrated, and angry. Furiously angry. I'd fall silent on the phone, stewing and fuming, and she'd let the silence extend for a while, then ask, "What are you feeling right now?" and I, of course, would respond brightly with, "Oh, I'm fine!" because I sure as heck wasn't going to tell her how offended I was by her response.

She would ask "Fine? You don't sound fine, you sound angry." And then somehow, instead of a nice satisfying (to me at the time) conversation about what a creep my alcoholic was, and what a great martyr I was, we'd be engaged in a discussion about my response to her suggestions, and why did that make me so angry, what was it that I thought she was supposed to give me, that I wasn't getting? Had I called her because I was looking for guidance, or for another reason? Did I want help, or did I want to continue in the same awful state I'd been in for so many years?

I used to come away from conversations with her feeling a mix of frustration, fury, bruised entitlement, and the dim realisation that she could help me, were I to keep trying. At the beginning of my time in Al-Anon, I didn't do what was suggested because I believed in it, so much as because she believed in it, and so did the other people in my meeting group. And I was desperate. So I would hang up the phone, and go do what she'd told me to do, whether it was to pray to a Higher Power I didn't yet recognise, or work my program in some other way.

From my present perspective, I marvel at my sponsor's patience with the childish, stubborn, self-pitying person I was at that time in my life. I was a sarcastic, chronic complainer. All of those character defects were closely tied, to my inability to love or value myself. Through my sponsor's willingness to work with me, I learned that putting the program into practise, could revolutionise my life.
I learned that were I to behave differently, my self-image would also change. This may sound like pretty basic reality to some of you, but for me, it was a revelation.

When I could rise above my own wants, and give of myself to another, I felt good in a way I'd never been able to achieve before Al-Anon. This is one of the basic tenets of 12 Step - when we share with another, we receive an amazing gift ourselves.

When I treated the alcoholic and myself with kindness and dignity, I felt like a good person, and that was new to me, to feel that way. I could respect myself when I used the tools of progam to deal with his acting out. The very first time I refused to respond to his rudeness and unkindness with like behavior, and instead, tried another way, I was astounded to discover that it worked. And worked very well, too.

When I was new to Al-Anon, I justified my own behavior, by pointing to the behavior of someone else - they "made me do it, by making me so angry!" "They hurt my feelings, so I hurt theirs in return." This kind of behavior may have afforded me momentary satisfaction, but somewhere deep inside, I knew it wasn't a good or loving or kind way to behave, and when I acted that way, it only added to my negative self-image.

In order to be able to love myself, I need to act in a loving way towards myself, and those around me. When I can let go of the little thoughtlessness, or perhaps unkindness someone may direct at me, I don't take it on and stew over it. I see it, I recognise it, I decide if I need to adjust my boundaries with that person, or whether I can let it pass by, unremarked upon. I choose to concentrate on that which is good in my day, because when I do, my spirit fills with gratitude, and I feel calm, centered, and serene.

I cannot change other people; I can change myself. Let it begin with me.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Let It Be. (And If You Can't, Call Someone!)

For me, this has been one of the most continuingly difficult lessons of Al-Anon: detach. Let it be. Let go of the outcomes, let go of other people's choices, let go of what I want, what I think I need, what I feel, what I once felt, all of it.

Open my tightly clutching hand, and let it fall away. Turn my thinking to another topic, find a way to entertain myself, which will keep me not only off the gerbil wheel, but out of the room inside my head where that wheel is kept.

Don't go there, and stand in the doorway, wondering if I should just "go over, and dust it a little..." I know from long experience that in this area, I have much in common with the alcoholic - once I move that mental wheel even an inch, habit and compulsion will sweep me onto it, and before I realise it, I'll be running as fast as I can go, ramping up what might have begun as a slightly uncomfortable feeling, into a mess of overwhelming pain and frustration.

Last night, after the meeting, in the coffeeshop, we were talking about how hard it can be to call someone. That phone is the heaviest thing in the world when we are in the "I should be able to handle this myself!" state of  mind. Maybe we are suffering from false pride, not wanting to admit to others that we are in pain. Perhaps we are ashamed that we aren't further along in our program, that we don't have the answers right now, to help ourselves. Maybe we are afraid we will be bothering the other person, or setting ourselves up for an obligation.

I have been in all of those places, and believed all of those premises.  I have also learned to let those thoughts go through my head, and then go over and pick up the phone and start calling. 

If you decide to wait to feel comfortable, before your first time of calling a program friend when you need to, you will never do it.

It is going to feel wierd and uncomfortable. You will squirm and agonise, feel embarassed, and awkward. Everyone does. Call anyway.

There will be those who aren't home. Either leave a message asking to be called back, or go to the next person on the list. If you reach someone, ask if they have a few moments to talk. If they don't, thank them, and call the next person on the phone list.

Accept that these first few phone calls are going to bring up a host of feelings that you don't particularly like to feel. Look at it this way: you were most likely scared spitless the first time you went out onto the road in a car, learning how to drive, but the end result was enough to make you willing to suffer through that fear.

The end result of learning how to reach out, is the massive wealth of experience, strength and hope, just waiting for you to walk over, pick up the phone, feel what you feel, and plug into that source of help and comfort.

Think of it as learning how to drive your life down the road into serenity.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Am I Working Half The Program?

When I was new to Al-Anon, my personal misery loomed so large that I was quite unable to look past my own nose, to see how my behavior affected those around me. As I continued to attend meetings, and talk to my sponsor, I could see, dimly, that the 12 Steps were about doing something different in my own life, but the 12 Traditions were a blur of unfamiliar words, and lofty-sounding principles. I didn't get it. I didn't get it for many years, because although I was willing to attend a 12 Step group anytime one was available to me, I would always weasle out of any study of the Traditions - I couldn't see the point. I couldn't understand how they had any resonance in my life or my program.

It wasn't until I began to attend open AA meetings, and occasionally a different meeting from my usual one, that I began to hear people sharing about the 12 Traditions. The Al-Anon group I was attending at the time, never seemed to get around to the Traditions in our meeting topics.

At the "new-to-me" group, when members shared about the Traditions, I heard the same strength of feeling as when they shared about the Steps. This got me wondering if I'd been working half a program up to that point. I talked to my sponsor, and we began to study the Traditions together. Wise woman, she hadn't tried to force them down my throat, because she'd been well aware of my resistance, and knew that if she tried to push me toward them, I'd have exerted ten times her effort, to resist.

The privation of my upbringing, and then the years of living with a drinking alcoholic, had turned me into a self-obsessed person with little or no ability to empathise. It was all about me. What I thought, what I felt, what I wanted, what I needed....I felt ripped off by life and love, and my pilot light was fed by an inner seething rage. This does not make for a person who is much interested in other people. I may have been a rampant people-pleaser, but that stemmed more from fear, than any real ability to see the other person as a separate individual with his/her own rights.

Studying the Traditions taught me to stretch my consideration past myself, to encompass those in the meeting room with me. I learned:

1. I am no more, and no less important, than anyone else in the room.

2. There are no experts/bosses/supervisors in Al-Anon; we work to be open to a loving Higher Power in our group conscience.

3. I don't have to agree with anything I don't care to, and there are no tests I have to pass to be able to attend a meeting.

4. We can do whatever works for us within the loose framework, as long as we don't step on anyone else's toes.

5. The topic of this meeting is Al-Anon; come on in, and please, be kind.

6. We aren't buying or selling anything. AA is our friend.

7. We pay our own piper, so we can call our own tune.

8. We understand the necessity for a level playing field; we might need to pay someone to attend to the grass.

9. Keep the rules and regulations down to the absolute minimum to make it work.

10. All the stuff that gets in the way so often in life, doesn't matter here - it's off-topic.

11. Nobody will chase you down the street trying to make you join us; we don't gossip.

12. Miracles for everybody, happen when the greater good matters more than the me-mind.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Other People's Opinions, Ch 2.

Mr. Sponsorpants has  posted  on this topic today, and for me, this is always an excellent subject to revisit. I've become much more able to withstand other people's opinions, but there are some instances in which they will make me stumble. If I'm in HALT, or sick, or emotionally fragile, I may be caught up in the net of what someone else decides I should be doing.

Twice yesterday, in conversation, the person was advocating that "I take something" for this flu. I haven't taken something for a cold or the flu in many years, not since I discovered that I am allergic to most of the binders, artificial flavourings and colours, and preservatives commonly used in prepared foods and what my grandpa used to call "drugstore potions." They affect me in various unpleasant ways.

Some folks, when I say, "I have too many allergies, I don't take those things." will hear me, and stop advising me to use them. Others will barrel right on over me, telling me about how they find this stuff helps them to sleep/eat/breathe/feel better, and I'd recover much faster if I'd just take their advice.

A friend who was present during the second of these pressuring conversations, stood grinning at me as I attempted to politely withstand increasingly strong urging to rush over to the drugstore and buy this wonderful stuff which would cure me in a nanosecond, then turning to the person doing all the pressuring, asked, "Geez, Wilma, you own stock in the company, or what? Sales down, are they? Lost some points on the stock exchange?"

This, said with great affection, made Wilma stop talking, think for a moment, and start to laugh. She put her arm around my shoulders, and said, "Now you just go home and ignore everything I just said." 

"That," I said dryly, "is advice I will take."

She fluttered her eyelashes at me, and made a face. We had a few moments conversation about how the desire to control manifests itself in so many sneaky ways - Wilma has kids, grandkids and greatgrandkids, she's been mothering for a very long time, and she can slip into that mode without realising it. She was laughing over the way that resistance, whether in the form of refusal to follow her suggestions, or lack of enthusiasm, can cause her to ramp up her efforts to convince.

I've learned that when I get a certain rising feeling of irritation, because the other person isn't listening, or agreeing, that's my cue to back off, and be quiet. Let go. Say it once, and then stop. (Very difficult for those of us who love to talk.)
I don't have to be right. It's not my place to tell someone else how to behave, whether they are dealing with alcoholism, or the flu. I can offer what works for me, but I don't have the right to force my opinions on anyone. When I say it once, and then stop, I am respecting their boundaries, and their ability to live their lives as they see fit. I pray to be aware of this, and to practise it in all my affairs.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

We Understand As Perhaps Few Others Can.

I've been sick with the flu for a few days now, so please forgive me if this post is garbled, my brain feels rather cotton-woolish at the moment.

Every time I hear someone in a meeting talk about how they felt they had "come home" when they found Al-Anon, I remember with a rush of feeling, just how powerful that sense of being understood was for me, when I was new.

Until then, I could try to talk to friends or family, and they could give advice and whatever help they could offer, but I felt like I was lost and alone in a world full of aliens, because nobody, but nobody can understand the loneliness of living with an alcoholic, (especially a charming one,) but another person who has been there.

Until you have driven home from a satisfying day at work, with the maelstrom in your stomach growing larger with each block that passes, you will not understand why the spouse doesn't just "tell him you want him to be nicer to you when he's had a few drinks."

Until you've walked the floor in the wee small hours of the night, with every siren slicing through your numbness to expose the fear beating within, you don't get why the partner doesn't just "tell her you want her to come home on time."

Until you've begged, pleaded, reasoned, argued, manipulated, tricked, expostulated, yelled, threatened, or any of the other ways in which we've tried to control the drinker, you don't understand why co-dependents don't just "tell him you want him to stop drinking."

Until you've been on the receiving end of a conversation in which the other person is re-writing history, denying, weaselling or being verbally abusive, you don't know why we don't just "talk to her about it."

Until you have sat with a person whose denial is operating at warp ten, you do not understand how it can be utterly impossible to reach them; you don't know the way we know it, what true "crazy-making conversations" are. You lucky souls believe that all it takes is some rational conversation, and the problem is on its way to being solved; you don't have experience with the addicted brain.

By the time we've broken the secret enough to speak out about what's happening at home, we've talked and talked and talked to the alcoholic. We've spent hours on the gerbil wheel inside our heads, having imaginary conversations in which we present again the reasons they need to stop drinking, and they (responding in a way they never  do in real life) agree to get help. We've bored ourselves and the alcoholic senseless with our reasoned arguments against their continued use. We've counted drinks, hid the booze, stormed and shouted, we've made every effort possible, except the one which can save us: to detach.

I remember so well, the feeling of having come home to a group of people who could help me, who wouldn't judge me, and who would show me how to save my own sanity, if I were willing to expend the effort. I believe it's very important to welcome newcomers, to approach them after the meeting for a chat - that ten minutes of empathetic listening, and the giving of my phone number and/or an email address, if they prefer that method of communication, can be huge comfort for someone living with alcoholism. When I was new to Al-Anon, my self-image was so bashed and degraded that even though I wasn't comfortable at meetings, in any sense of the word, I went back week after week, because I felt that I was seen, recognised, and understood.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Step Groups - Why Join One?

Before I forget, here's the link for Al-Anon podcasts on the 12 Steps - great resource.
I love Step groups - the intimacy which results from an in-depth look at ourselves and the 12 Steps, can be powerfully uplifting. I've noticed that when many members of a meeting join in working the Steps together, the regular meetings will seem to take a leap forward in depth of sharing.

It never ceases to amaze me how I can be in a Step group, and working the Steps with one or two or three sponsees all at the same time, and get something different from each encounter. I once had a newcomer ask me if it didn't get boring, reading the same things over and over again? How could I stand it?  I did go through a stretch when I was new and very impatient, when I used to tune out at the beginning of a meeting when the opening, Steps and Traditions were being read. I didn't see how I could possibly get anything from listening to something I'd heard dozens of times already, so I'd sit and daydream through it.

My first sponsor  asked me after a while of this, if I was finding it irritating to have to listen to the same opening words, and preamble? I admitted that I was, and asked if she'd ever felt that way? She said that yes, she had, but over time, that changed. She turned the topic to something else, and I quickly forgot that conversation.

A long time later, I found myself at a meeting, listening to the opening readings and really hearing them again . Without my realising it, they'd evolved from something I just sat through, to a calming, comforting, centering reminder of why we were all in this room together. They've remained that way ever since, doesn't matter how many meetings I attend in a week, I sit in gratitude to hear those readings.

I've gone off-track here - I'd started on the topic of Step groups. It has been my experience, that they may start with 10-15 people, but within a few weeks, people begin to drop out, and soon we get down to those who are serious about it. That core group of people who show up each week to work the Steps, gain a bond which transcends all the cultural, or traditional differences between us.

I've heard newcomers speak of the way their understanding and ability to work the Steps improved considerably after they participated in a Step group. Another aspect of them that I adore, are the laughing fits that ensue when we are bluntly honest about our character defects, and how they effect our thinking. Insane thinking, which has been the cause of untold amounts of private pain, when hauled out and plunked down on the table for shared examination, can reward us for our willingness to be honest, with the kind of laughter that leaves us all gasping for breath, and each inspired comment from another member sets us off again.

When we can laugh like that at our own craziness, we can never again take it quite so seriously. It opens us to a more reasoned view, of that which may previously have had an iron grip upon our emotions. It seems much easier to go on to detach, once we can laugh at ourseves.

Once we realise that the monster in the darkness is nothing but a raincoat on a mop, we never again feel such fear to see its shadow.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

You Can Be A Good Example, Even When You're Struggling.

Since I'm a great believer in taking my own suggestions, I'm going to try to write today, even though I'm feeling that I have nothing useful or helpful or even halfways intelligent to say. I believe that we can be of service to newcomers and those who are really battling, when we admit that we don't have the energy or the desire or anything much to share, but we show up anyway.

I've had a rough few weeks - some childhood stuff with which I've never dealt, is now demanding to be processed, and I appear to have reached a point at which my ability to say "Not now/later/some other time," and successfully shove those memories and feelings back into their closet and shut the door, has reached an end.  (It's with some irony that I remember writing a post quite some time ago, about letting go of the past, and realise that this is only possible if it is first acknowledged for what it was. I can't let go of that which I won't even admit happened.)

My family doctor suggests that it's not uncommon in midlife, for those of us who suffered severe physical abuse as a small child, and have reached a place of overall mental stability, to have to go through this process - now it's safe for the pain to come up and be felt, it won't destroy us. I like that "overall mental stability" description; with what I've been going through, it's comforting to think someone else sees me that way. My sponsor has said the same thing in different words; I'm strong enough now, to sift through that which has never been hauled out of the cupboard, laid out on the floor, and examined.

I'm trying to stay open to the process, accept that something in me is being worked out, and that if I keep wading, clutching my Higher Power's hand, I will reach the other side of this river of pain and seemingly endless flow of tears. I'm trying to let the memories and the feelings flow through me, with no editorial comment on my part.  I'm trying to accept that for this, I can't force myself to feel better. I can only show up, and be willing.

Friday, March 4, 2011

You Can't Get Blood From A Stone.

When I was new to recovery, and still trying to understand why my alcoholic ex-husband did what he did, I began to notice a pattern in our encounters. I realised that some of his behavior was directed at keeping a measured emotional space between us - not too much distance, not too much intimacy. I started to call these manipulative behaviors "advance/retreat games."

If I "advanced" by opening a discussion about the way we communicated, asking to have my wants or needs met, or speaking of my feelings for him, he "retreated" by changing the subject to what he'd done at work that day, pretending I hadn't spoken, or if I continued to press him, insulting me as a way to get distance.

If I then "retreated" into a hurt or angry silence, he would "advance" by giving me a hug, asking me what was wrong, and telling me he loved me.

If I took that as encouragement, and "advanced" again by once more trying to speak about my thoughts or feelings, he'd "retreat" by pushing me away, saying something rude, or changing the subject again.

We all have emotional safe zones; strangers are only allowed at the outer edges, friends are closer, spouses and best friends closer still. Some of us have very large safe zones, we only feel comfortable with other people kept at quite a distance - alcoholics can be this way, but so can many of us badly hurt as small children - we don't trust.

What I've learned in Al-Anon, is that I can ask to have my wants and needs met, but if I demand, I am trespassing upon another's safe zone. If they can't give me what I want and need at that moment in time, I must respect that, and go elsewhere to satisfy my emotional needs. I can call a program friend, talk to my Higher Power, take the dogs out for a walk by the sea.

If a person plays advance-retreat games, it's not because they've decided that they want to be maddening to me, it's because they don't feel safe with that level of intimacy. If I keep trying to force them to either move closer themselves, or allow me to move closer, I will damage the fragile delicate thing that is trust, and that's self-defeating.

A program friend started out by saying about her alcoholic husband, "You can't get blood from a stone." and over time, changed that to, "He wasn't comfortable with it." She describes the process as, "moving from judgement into acceptance."

When I'm taking another person's inventory, I have lost my focus. It's not my place to decide how someone else should act, think, or feel. I don't have to like it, but if I don't accept it, I will lose my serenity.
It is what it is.
People will do what they will do, and I can't control that. I can only control me, and some days, when I'm hungry/angry/lonely/tired, (H.A.L.T.) that can feel like driving a car with iffy brakes.

I pray for the strength and wisdom to keep my mouth firmly closed for a moment or two: give myself time to respond appropriately: to respect other's people's emotional safe zones: not to judge them for not being where I might want them to be. I pray to be loving.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I Am More Than The Sum Total Of My Character Defects.

Many of us have developed coping mechanisms in our dealings with alcoholism, which if "reasoned out with someone else," can lead to the discovery of our individual character defects.

If we are new to Al-Anon, and this process, it can feel devastating to realise for the first time, that we are manipulative, or judgemental, or deliberately punishing, or whatever it is. Opening the door to that closet of self, reaching in and yanking out one item, can cause a deluge of realisations about the way in which we move in the world.

I know that this was how it felt to me, in the beginning of this process. When I began to open my mind to the possibility that I was the creator of my own unhappiness, and embarked upon my first Step 4: "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.", I would be swept with great waves of shame about my character defects. I'm grateful for my first sponsor, who would listen lovingly to my hesitant (and heavily edited) attempts to get some clarity about a character defect, and when I finished, ask baldly, "Is this something about which you feel ashamed?"

I'd nod, unable to meet her gaze, and afraid that if I used my voice, it would crack and break, and I'd collapse into tears again.

"Why are you ashamed?"

I hated that question, and would mumble and mutter and sidestep and wiggle and squirm. My sponsor allowed this for quite a few weeks, before one day saying firmly, "You're evading my question; come on now, it's not so terrible, why are you ashamed."

I gritted my teeth, fishing around in my head for something to satisfy her, and finally replied, grudgingly, "Because I feel like a horrible person."

She stood up, reached for my hand, and pulling me to my feet, walked me out into the hallway, to stand before the full-length mirror. She told me to look at myself, and say, "I am more than the sum total of my character defects."
I thought this was extremely silly, and would have argued, but I trusted her; if she was asking me to do this, she had a good reason.

I mumbled through it, as quickly as I could, looking anywhere but at my reflection.

She said, "Nope, you need to make eye contact with yourself, and say it as if you mean it."

I did. It felt strange and uncomfortable and wierd. We went back to the kichen table, and carried on with my Step 4. As I was leaving that day, she hugged me warmly, and said into my ear, "I would like you to do that mirror affirmation every morning when you first get up."

I didn't argue, just nodded, and I did as she suggested. It continued to feel wierd for a while, until one day when I was headed down the hallway in my house, and caught myself giving myself  hell, for whatever real or imagined wrong I was lashing myself about. I stopped walking, struck by the sudden realisation that it was true, I am more than the sum total of my character defects. I just hadn't ever thought of it that way, because I was so used to bashing myself.

Admitting "the exact nature of my wrongs" to myself, had been a frightening and shaky endeavor, because it triggered some vicious self-talk about what an awful human being I truly was. Admitting them to another human being, my heart would pound like crazy. My sponsor was trying to gently point out to me, that there was more to me than what was wrong and needed to be fixed. That day, I went straight to a mirror from my startling revelation, and repeated the affirmation, gazing into my own eyes, truly feeling and believing it for the very first time.

I may not like what I discover about my character defects, and I may have to go through a process of detaching from my self-talk, before I can reach a place of acceptance about them. If I continue to remind myself that they do not make up the entirety of my nature, I am more willing to admit to them.
I am no better and no worse than the other people in the fellowship of Al-Anon.
I am only human, and I possess the normal human frailties. Hard as it would have been to believe, back when I embarked upon this process of self-discovery, our individual character defects have been the subject of some of the best laughing fits I've ever had with program friends. For me, once I've seen myself through the lens of humour, I can never again take myself quite so seriously on that topic - always a good thing.