Saturday, November 26, 2011

Common Denominators - Gossip

I heard someone describe her experience when very new to Al-Anon: after the meeting, she'd been standing in a group talking, and when she had a chance, had interjected some gossipy comments about  people in the group who'd already gone home. She'd expected the others to respond in kind, but there had been first a short silence, then one member started speaking about a major event which had taken place in his life recently, and the conversation proceeded. Until she got a sponsor, no-one had ever actually taken her aside and told her not to gossip. But she learned very quickly to feel the discomfort of the others in the group, and that is what stopped her from continuing this behavior - she didn't like being the cause of the discomfort.

No-one shamed her for it, no-one even laid down a boundary - which she freely admitted she would have trespassed, because of her character defect of defiance. She learned by example. She learned that no matter what, the members of her Al-Anon group would not gossip with her. She made us all laugh describing her astonishment that "these wierdos in this wierdo program" were all so nice -to one another, and to her.
From: "3 Obstacles To Success in Al-Anon,"

"Gossip. We meet to help ourselves and others to learn and use the Al-Anon philosophy. In such groups gossip can have no part. We do not discuss members or others, and particularly not the alcoholic; our dedication to anonymity gives people confidence in Al-Anon. Careless repeating of matters heard at meetings can defeat the very purpose for which we are joined together."

(Reminds me of an old AA guy who called Al-Anon "Our Ladies Of Perpetual Resentment." He'd coined that term when new to AA, and convinced that his wife sat around in her Al-Anon meeting telling terrible stories about him. His friend cut in with, "She had to, Al, it's an honest program.")

 I couldn't see the harm in gossip, when I was new to our fellowship - why did they fuss so much about interesting conversation? Then when I did begin to grasp the reasoning behind the no gossip or criticism suggestion - in order for us all to feel safe, we need to show each other special kindness and consideration - I would feel uncomfortable when listening to gossip, but had no way to set a boundary. I've learned to temper my response to the person - with newer members, I aim for the gentlest of explanations - with those who've been in program for a few years, I'm more direct.

I can't change other people. I can't make them stop gossiping, but I don't have to provide an audience. That's my part, to remove my ears from the equation, and make a "door and a bar" for my mouth. I'm much more content, and feel safer in the world, when I am as loving as I am able.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Common Denominators - Forcing Solutions.

When I consider the phrase "forcing solutions," I recall the sheer blind obstinacy I used to feel. I was a great debater, always prefacing my justifications and rationalisations with the same two words: "Yes, but..."  I marvel at my first sponsor's patience as she answered my smokescreen-creating questions, and listened to my self-pity and victimhood, as I tried to convince her that my case was different. She would allow me to speak, answer my questions, ignore attempts to lead her down a side-road (in an attempt avoid discussing my character defects,) and gently remind me that I was here because I was miserable, and that perhaps I could learn to be happier, were I to try to be more open-minded?

I'd listen (no, since this is an honest program, I'll admit that I wouldn't listen, I'd wait until she finished speaking, the two are not the same, as I try to explain to my own sponsees) then start up with another scenario I'd plotted, about how I was going to "make the alcoholic stop drinking." Or "make him see how his drinking is affecting me, his kids, his parents, his business." Or "make him realise that he's ruining his life." I was determined to make him ______,  and I exerted all my energy trying to force my personal solutions onto someone who had absolutely no interest in them.

20-some years later, my ex is still drinking.  10 years I tried to get him to quit, and I was spectacularly ineffective. Hours of plotting, time wasted on attempts to decipher his thinking, so that I could find a way to coerce him into doing what I wanted - ten years of my life slid past me relatively unnoticed, and definitely unlived. I may as well have slept through them.

One of my spiritual milestones, was the day that I first allowed myself to consider the miseries I had inflicted upon him, in service to my ego's belief not only that I could compel him to stop, but also that I had the right to try. Where did I get that idea? Most likely from having had the will of other people forced upon me, when I was a kid, and watching adults forcing their will upon other adults, and upon children. I think I grew up assuming that this was just what you did - manipulated and controlled, trying to get your own way.

When Al-Anon introduced me to the concept of powerlessness, I didn't like it one bit. I'd had enough of being at someone else's mercy, and I couldn't see how admitting that I was powerless, to the extent of not even trying to change the drinker, was going to bring me to recovery. Detachment sounded like lunacy - sit back and let him drink and ruin his life, my life, his kid's lives, his business? Detach what? My brain? My first sponsor and I had many conversations on this topic, with her patiently explaining one more time that if I couldn't stop him, I also wasn't "letting him."

When I surrendered, I was exhausted. I'd done everything in my power, and it had been like trying to bail the ocean with a spoon - kept me busy, but I could have been better occupied.

I try not to get in the way between people and their lives nowadays. It's not up to me to save anyone by trying to force solutions upon them. How do I know that their Higher Power hasn't arranged for precisely what I was trying to prevent, as a way to teach a lesson they desperately need to learn? It's freeing to step back, detach, and allow life to move along as it will. I can offer support, encouragement, hugs, love, and great ideas learned from those in program who went before me along this same roadway to emotional health.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Common Denominators - Envy.

I'm not a person who is particularly attached to things - I've moved so many times, and sold or given away or donated so much "stuff", that I have zero emotional attachment to furniture, dishes, clothing, any of that sort of thing. It comes, it goes, and one is equally as good as another. What I've envied is people. I've envied my friends and co-workers their loving parents and family.
I was born to alcoholics, and my mother walked out on us when I was two. My father turned us over to the Children's Aid, who separated my sisters and I and placed us into foster homes. When I met my sisters again in my mid twenties, I discovered that we had all been physically and sexually abused while in foster care. There were too many children, not enough foster homes, and a lack of oversight.

Back then, if the case worker thought a child was getting "too attached" to the foster parents, you were moved to a different foster home. I was in foster care for four years, and moved quite a few times. Then, at six years of age, I was adopted. I thought I was finally getting the loving family I'd always dreamed of, but within a very short period of time, I was once again being beaten - this time by my adoptive mother. Her rage terrified me, and she did an excellent job of convincing me that I deserved the abuse I received from her.

I looked at school friends, and their families, and I envied them with a desperation that was almost a physical ache in my chest. I was furiously angry and resentful that I had been "ripped off" when it came to family life. Why me? It wasn't fair.

Al-Anon has allowed me to make peace with my childhood.

That's something I wouldn't have thought possible when I was new to program. Now that I'm safely out of it, I can view my pain as compassion training. I understand sponsees who come into this program with a furious rage burning inside them, and I understand desperate loneliness. I've been there. I know how that feels. I also know that it is possible to heal. Friends in Al-Anon have told me that I have given them hope for themselves when I describe the person I was when I was new in program - vibrating with rage against the unfairness of life, resentful, depressed, despairing. They just can't picture me as that person.

I had to accept that my past was what it was, and I couldn't change it. My only choice was whether or not I allowed the past, and the people who had abused me, to ruin the rest of my life. I will never forget the moment when that idea finally registered with me: I felt the truth of it like a blow, and was staggered by the possibilities. (Until then, I'd been half hearing it, and giving it lip-service in a people-pleasing sort of way.)

I could go to my grave still raging against what had been done to me, or I could make a choice to let it go, start from this moment, and use that lessons of that old pain to be of service now, today. 
Now, when I hear people speak of their parents and family with love and gratitude, I can feel happy that they are happy, grateful for their gratitude, without wanting to exchange lives with them.
That's the difference.

Friday, November 18, 2011


A reader asked:

"So how do I begin to trust? I am very independent. My personal friends and acquaintances result in so much let down and are unreliable people. My famiy is entirely self absorbed. I have not begin to talk to others in the program at meetings beyond superficial hi and hello. I do not feel the need to call them on the phone or look for a person to be a sponsor.I conclude this is a trust issue.Need to change the isolation I am in. People = let down for me. I wonder, how can I get the support from people and a sponsor if I have a trust barrier? Any thoughts, suggestions or comments?"

My first thought is to notice the way you've written about the people in your life: your friends and acquaintances are "unreliable people,"  your family is "entirely self-absorbed."

I know that when I get caught up in judgement of another human being, not only have I lost my focus on myself and my own shortcomings, I've also put on a filter which has the strange effect of only allowing me to see the negative aspects of life and other people. And most people aren't saints, which means that if I'm judging and condemning them, always aware of their faults, and how they've fallen short of my standards for them, they aren't going to be rushing over to me, wanting to be supportive.

Our attitudes color our perception of the world, and other people.
We get back pretty much what we put out - that's why people who are positive and cheerful tend to have a better experience out in the world, than those of us who are negative, critical, and judgemental. I was all of those, and more.
How did I begin to trust? By deciding to. By deciding that I could handle it if this person wasn't perfect, or let me down. I decided first to relax, and then to let go of all of my standards of behavior for other people. I work to let go of my expectations, good and bad. When I have no expectations, I can't be disappointed when they aren't fufilled. If I want to have a friend who is loving, supportive and trustworthy, I need to be that friend first.

Instead of demanding that I get, I want to be a person who is delighted to give. I want to be open-minded, accepting, and a generous giver of love.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Common Denominators - Dwelling & Domineering.

My first sponsor used the description "chewing over" to describe the choice of dwelling upon, to the point of insanity, a passing remark made to us by another person. Seems to me that we members of Al-Anon tend to be dedicated dwellers - we can haul out a comment made weeks past, and commence a spirited and instense chewing, like some supercharged ruminant with their cud.  I know I'd go for hours, trying to work myself into the person's head, to decide if I could figure out "exactly what they meant by that.." and feeling more resentful and angry the longer I chewed it over.

I heard an AA speaker describe the start of each and every day for him before his Fourth Step - first thing he did the moment he opened his eyes was to turn on his "resentment replay machine" and replayed every perceived slight he could remember receiving. Hearing this, I was laughing, but it was with a painful sense of identification - I'm sure that were I to add it up, I've spent literally years of my life feeling that terrible, grinding resentment.

As I've grown in Al-Anon, and learned how I have been the architect of my much of my own misery, I've been able to let go of all of my old resentments. When I think of my childhood, and my first marriage to a drinking alcholic, it's with a calm detachment. I don't fill up with that hot anger and resentment anymore. It happened, what can I learn from it?

Now, when I catch myself starting to dwell upon something just said or done that I don't like, I stop and pray to my Higher Power:

"Please take this from me, I don't want to feel this way. I want to feel your love, and be loving. I want to let go of my anger, resentment, judgement, and be filled with your love."

This works for me, each and every time I choose it. I can be loving, patient, tolerant, compassionate and maintain my serenity. I can speak with loving calm to the person, if I need to reset the boundary. I can let it go if I don't. Let it fall from my hand, and be swept away downstream, so that all I can see is the sparkle of light on water.

Domineering: my dictionary defines this as to "oppress; assume authority."

Did I oppress? Did I assume authority? Absolutely I did. I tried with all of my power to oppress the alcholics in my life. I assumed authority which wasn't mine to take, and commenced to browbeat, hound, rant and rave. I justified this behavior by pointing to the wrongs they had done to me. I transferred all blame to them, and could see myself as being purely innocent. When I began to work my Fourth Step, I was shocked to realise just how "selfish, dishonest, self-seeking and inconsiderate" I had been. I didn't want to see myself in that honest light. I wanted to blame, and slide out from under. I wanted to continue to be domineering and get my own way, because that was the only way I could see to get what I wanted in life.

I've noticed, through my time in Al-Anon, that I become less and less focused upon what I want in life, and more open to the will of my Higher Power. I don't fight and squirm for weeks and months, trying to force solutions. I try to let myself be guided.

I can't work to be open to guidance from my Higher Power, and at the same time, be domineering. I no longer have that strong belief that I know the right way. I see that I have my way, and you have your way, and I don't have the right to try to force you to live your life according to my rules. I don't even have the right to try to force myself to live by those damn rules.

It's like trying to force jello through a straw - I've got things I'd rather do, such as live in peace and serenity.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thoughts about Sponsorship.

To sponsees:

A sponsor isn't doing their job if they aren't irritating you on a regular basis. This might be because they're harping at you about getting together to work the Steps for your first time, or it might be because they insist upon pointing out certain annoying facts, such as, "Isn't that the twelfth job you've had this year?"

Don't pick a sponsor who reminds you of a family member. Ditto for accepting a sponsee. I did that once, and found myself gritting my teeth when she'd use the same phrases which made steam erupt from my ears when I heard them issuing from the alcholic's lips.  It's good to have a little detachment in this relationship.

Be willing to listen, if you want to learn. Allow yourself to be teachable.

To sponsors:

Remember how afraid you were, when you were very new. Be as kind and loving as you are able - dish out love in great heaping armfuls. Be willing to repeat yourself endlessly without getting angry if the message isn't getting through - it took you a while, didn't it? Make them laugh. Laughter helped me to swallow some difficult realisations about myself, when I was working with my first sponsor.

Pray to be a conduit for their Higher Power. Read the books so you can say, "Courage to Change has a great reading on that," and find it to show them. They're going to need that reading some night when it's too late to call anyone, and they can't find their way alone.

Open yourself to the wisdom of humility.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Old Men And Poppies.

Today, I had one of those moments in which our soul connects with that of a complete stranger, and we feel such a rush of pure love, it's almost painful.

Before I start, you need to know that apart from a feeling of gratitude for the lucky accident of birth which allowed me to be born in this country, I've never been particularly patriotic, and I consider myself a pacifist in every way.

I was at the grocery store late this afternoon, just as dusk was falling. Near the exit, were two elderly men in uniform, war veterans, standing behind a table with a donation box, some literature, and poppies. As my purchases were being rung through by the cashier, I realised that I was being moved to go over and speak to them, urged along by something greater than myself. I get these nudges now and then, and oftentimes it's when I'm feeling least like connecting and most like being a comfortable island unto myself, but I've learned to pay attention, and do what I'm being moved to do; it's always an incredible experience.

 I walked up to the table, and was greeted with a friendly detachment. They smiled politely at me as I dropped money into the box and chose a poppy, then thanked me nicely, and glanced away. A second later, when they realised I hadn't moved on but was still standing there, they really looked at me, making eye contact, and when they saw that I was struggling to speak through a wave of emotion, they both went very still, and waited.

I swallowed hard over the lump in my throat, and said, "I'd like to thank you gentleman, for what you did for us."

Their faces lit up, and they smiled brilliantly at me, each man's eyes suddenly wet with tears, as were my own. I reached my hand out first to one, and then the other, and when each man grasped my hand, I said softly, "Thankyou."

It was a powerful moment of connection, love and gratitude.

Common Denominators - Caretaking & Control.

Not sure how far I'm going to run with this, but please feel free to suggest any topics you'd like to see addressed.  A reader asked about "balance."

Prior to my finding Al-Anon, I had none. Over the years, I'd heard it suggested that it was a good idea to have balance in life, but I had no concept of how that might look, or feel. My emotional life was stunted, and largely negative - very rarely did I feel happy, and never, ever content. I was lonely and depressed when I was isolating myself, or put-upon and hard-done-by when I was trying to fix someone else's problems. (More on caretaking later in this.) In order to find balance, I needed to work the first four Steps. I had to admit my powerlessness, accept the concept of a Higher Power, turn my life over to that power, and do an inventory.

I smile with recognition, when I hear people talk about how they didn't work the Steps for a long time, because they "already knew they wouldn't work."  AA's Big Book has a quote about that precise attitude:  'contempt prior to investigation' and I was a master at it. I used that attitude to keep myself stuck in that awful place inside my head. I hated being in there, between my ears, but do any of that silly stuff my sponsor was suggesting to me that I try? I knew it was a waste of time before even hearing what exactly it was that she was trying to express. For someone in such terrible mental shape, I was deeply arrogant.

The first 4 Steps put us into position to rocket off into another, better world. If we don't do them, we never achieve ignition.

On to caretaking. Whenever I was involved in caretaking, I'd start out feeling empathetic and compassionate, (and judgemental) which would trigger my impulse to help (and try to control) and soon I'd be enmeshed in the person's life and problems, trying to make them do what I thought they should, feeling utterly infuriated at the way this person was "taking advantage" of me.

Madness. Complete madness, and I did it time and again, year after year. Before Al-Anon, that's what I thought I was supposed to be doing, but I hated and resented the person I was trying to "help," for their (as I saw it) use of me, and myself for not having the courage to say "No." I'd get caught up in another's problems, because I thought I could see so clearly what the best solution was for them, and also believed that could I just make them see that I had the perfect solution for them, they'd leap to implement it, and their life would be so much improved! Why could they not grasp this simple truth, that I knew better than they did how they should order their life?

When I caretake, I am deciding that my opinions, ideas, attitudes, and habits are superior, and should be implemented.

My own life was a wasteland of rage, resentment and self-pity, but I thought I had wisdom to offer - an excellent example of the insanity of co-dependence. I thought I needed to stop caretaking in order to be free of someone else's unreasonable expectations. I couldn't yet grasp that what I most needed to let go, was my own misguided belief that I, emotional wreck of a person that I was back then, had any useful life advice to be ladling out.

When first introduced to the idea of "caretaking" I didn't get it. Aren't we supposed to be loving and caring and do for others? Loving and caring, yes -  do for others, well, that depends upon the situation, and when I'm trying to force solutions upon someone, I'm caretaking. Enabling is caretaking. Putting someone else's needs before my own is caretaking.

Notice that I said "needs" not wants or desires. I need to eat, sleep, pray, exercise my body and mind, enjoy life, have time alone. I'm a person who needs time alone, to reflect, talk to my Higher Power, think, meditate. If I don't get some time alone in a day, I can feel myself becoming irritable and unreasonable. I used to think that this was selfish of me, when I was involved in caretaking of others. Now, I understand that this is how I am made - I need time alone. I desire it, and I deserve it - it's my right as a human being. I don't have to give up every moment of my time to other people, in a confused belief that being 'selfless' is either attainable or desirable.

Every time I refuse a request which would strain me to my limits to fufill, I am choosing not to caretake. I'm getting a much clearer idea of my own boundaries, and give as much as it is in me to give. Then I stop, and take the time I need to recharge. Doing this allows me to give with my whole heart, joyously, instead of grudgingly, seething with resentment.

When I don't give advice, I allow the other person to find their own way to sanity.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Alphabet of Common Denominators - "B"

A reader asked "what would 'B' stand for?" in a list of shared characteristics of many of us in Al-Anon. First word that sprang to my mind was: blame. Right after that, boundaries. I've written quite a few posts on the subject of boundaries, they can be found in the topics list, so I'm going to write about blame today.

I grew up in a very blaming household, and I internalised the message that whenever you're unhappy, frustrated, angry, find someone on whom you can lay the blame, and if they are within earshot, let them have it! If not, berate them vigorously behind their back.

I have a friend who is going through some problems of her own making right now, and she can't see this, yet. She will rant and rave to me about it, and if I suggest that she has the choice of changing her attitude, since she can't change the situation without making some rather drastic choices, she will reply, starting each time with those two words (which when I utilise them, I've come to realise mean I'm justifying,) "Yes, but..."
She's becoming more and more unhappy with her blaming of another person, demonising them, sliding out from under any idea that she has control over how she deals with that which she doesn't want to change. She's starting to become rather annoyed with me continuing to suggest that she adjust her attitude. I remember how irritated I became when I was new to program, and people would offer the same suggestions, and I'm swept with a powerful feeling of gratitude that they continued to repeat themselves for my good, and I repeat myself to my friend, with lashings of love and encouragement.

When I'm blaming, I can't see clearly. As MrSponsorpants writes so beautifully today, I'm determined to be a victim. When I've been in that headspace, I've been in a box of detemined misery, crunched uncomfortably in there, yelling and screaming about how miserable I am, meanwhile, I'm the one who taped the box shut from the inside, with blame.

When I'm blaming, I am handing my power, and my very life, over to another person, and saying, in effect, "You decide whether or not I have a good day, I'll wait here for your decision."

Last night, I'd made new curtains for our livingroom window, and when I brought the first one upstairs from my sewing room, my husband said, "I broke two branches off your favourite plant." I said, "Doesn't matter in the slightest; can we hang this and see if it's okay for length?"  When I went back down and was working on the second curtain, I realised that at one point in my life, I'd have been really angry with him for breaking the branches off the plant - I'd have blamed him, labelled him careless for not thinking to move it out of the way, and ruined the evening for both of us. Over a plant. That confounds and amazes me, now. I felt almost gleeful to realise that what I'd said was nothing but the truth, it hadn't mattered one little bit - such freedom! The more I seek my Higher Power, the more I feel comfortable inside my own head.

It's a signpost of how far I've come with the help of this wonderful program. Let go of blaming. Pick up the reins of your own life, and take responsibility for it - only you can change your mood. Nobody "makes me feel" anything. I feel what I feel, and then I decide whether to nurse a grievance, lay blame and stew in that poisonous feeling, or let it all go, and be happy. Lighthearted, and content. Serene. If you can't let go on your own, ask your Higher Power to take it.

Blaming others kept me feeling victimised and desperately unhappy.  When I stepped back from that, looked at it, and decided to go another, more loving way, I was rewarded with serenity and peace. The more often I chose this way, the less of a choice it became.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"Can Al-Anon Help Me With Anxiety?"

I've added "anxiety" to the list of topics, and attached it to several posts, because anxiety seems to be a common denominator in Al-Anon. From today's reading in Courage to Change, page 306:

"Likewise, when my thoughts race out of control, I need to stop. I may do this by breathing deeply and looking at my surroundings. It can help to repleace the obsessive thoughts with something positive, such as an Al-Anon slogan, the Serenity Prayer, or another comforting topic that has nothing to do with my problem."

I learned how to head off panic attacks with the help of a kindly intern at a hospital, years before Al-Anon, but it wasn't until I got into program that I learned how to quiet the mental turmoil. A popular AA speaker in the States uses the phrase "ravaged by thought." An excellent description of what we do to ourselves. If I don't want to be ravaged by thought, I must be willing to let go of my worries, and not be chewing them over like a cow with its cud, all the while running like a madwoman on the gerbil wheel inside my head.

I need Awareness of what's going on in my internal dialogue, Acceptance of what it is that I can and cannot do, and then I must take Action by using the program tools I've been taught. It's up to me, in the end, because nobody can surrender or let go for me, I must be willing to do it myself.