Saturday, December 31, 2011

Common Denominators - Judgement, and Joy.

This morning I was thinking that for many of us, if we do not work against it, our character tends to solidify and become more rigid the older we get. Left unchallenged, our basic beliefs will harden like cement curing, setting into an impermeable foundation for our character defects.

Had I not been bailing against the tide for the last 26 years, I would be a very different woman today.

So much of my old judgement of other people was an effort to protect my insecure self - I kept people at a safe distance by judging, classifying, rating, was an exhaustive and time-consuming business, but it felt necessary.

When I was new to program, and began to slowly grasp the concept that it wasn't the world that was so cold to me, it was I who was cold to the world, and the world responded in kind, it felt like a formidable challenge to try to wrest my thinking around to that viewpoint. I didn't like the view from that particular outcropping, it made my self-pity an unwieldy and sharp-edged garment to don, rather than the soft comforting blanket it had always been for me.

Judgement, I thought, kept me safe. What it did, was keep me isolated. And when we're isolated, we don't get the necessary input to effect a change in our thinking; it becomes ever stronger, self-reinforcing.

I still have times when my internal dialogue is less than loving, and I most likely always will as long as I'm upon this earth. Al-Anon has taught me to be aware of that internal dialogue, and when I can't get up out of that rut, to seek help, whether that's to call my sponsor or a program friend, read some literature, or pray. I've evolved a little shorthand phrase for those times: "No judgement - God's love."

That little sentence blocks the negativity, and reminds me that I'm seeking to become more loving, and to have that loving be a pure and unconditional sort - no strings attached, no qualifications, no requirements. Love for the sake of love. Which brings me to the other topic - joy.

I believe that within each of us is a powerful expansive joyfulness, and we can tap into that joy through working 12-Step. You can see it in the faces of those who've realised that joy is an inner resource, not the result of the perfect exterior happening. It makes daily life a very different thing when we get there, because we become the spiritual equivalent of a self-righting boat. We aren't immune to the storms of life, and we may be swept under the surface by a wave of circumstance, but that inner buoyancy brings us back to the surface, and the "sunlight of the spirit."

Happy New Year, all.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Many Uses of 12-Step.

I'd forgotten what a bulldog arguer my brother can be. It slipped my mind, just how much he likes a rip-snorter of a debate.

Today in an email, I'd dodged one of his attempts to solicit an opinion from me, with a comment about not feeling comfortable making judgements about other people's beliefs. I'm sure it's very strange for him to be writing to me now, as I've said earlier in this blog, because when he knew me last, I was a very different, very opinionated woman.

He responded to my attempt to dodge the topic, with a strongly worded epistle about how if we don't judge and condemn other people when they are wrong, we are falling down on our job of protecting our fellow humans, upon whom they might prey.

I replied that I was only speaking for myself, about my discomfort with judging. I got another email in response describing the many ways in which I was wrong to not judge other people, because of this, and this, and that!
I read it and sighed heavily, wondering how I'd managed to elicit such a strong repsonse with my mild comments about my own discomfort with judging. I looked down at my little dog arranged in comfort upon my lap, and asked her, "How on earth did we get from me not being comfortable judging other people's beliefs, to whether or not it's ok to stone someone?" I know perfectly well how we got there - riding the tsunami of my brother's debating skill.

Sitting there, gazing at the screen, at a loss as to how I might reply,  I received the loveliest little nudge from my Higher Power. I wrote:

"You could be right."

and sent it off. I had been feeling slightly distressed by the force of his argument, (and his insistence upon having one) but after I sent that, I felt lighthearted, and free. I went to have a shower and go to a meeting. I don't have to argue just because he likes to. I don't have to step into the loop of rope lying on deck, and be swept over the rail into the ocean to wrestle with sharks. I can stop, detach, and avoid the "bite of the line."

I don't have to fall back into my old ways, not out of habit, nor to please my brother.

When I returned home from a wonderful Al-Anon meeting, his reply to my "You could be right" email was in my inbox; it read:

"Yes, but only partly."

That made me laugh, and wish that I could hug him. He's a dear man, my brother. I don't share his love of debate and argument anymore, but I do love him. I hope my love comes through clearly when I write.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Christmas

We're having some "orphan" newcomers in AA over for turkey dinner tomorrow, and the last few days, I've been madly burning cd's of AA speakers for them, so each one can have a little travel cd holder with a starting collection of 14 cds, and some empty slots for more later. It's been great fun.

Then I cleaned the house from stem to stern, had a nice long soak in some luxurious lavender foaming bath -with the most intoxicatingly heavenly fragrance. My little female dog kept standing up to peer over the edge of the bath and try to get me to give her some suds to eat. (What is it with some dogs and soap? My last big dog would nibble any bar soap left within reach.)

Now, I'm feeling utterly relaxed, joyful, and deeply grateful for all of the blessings in my life.

Happy Christmas to all of you.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Accepting What I Can't Change.

Earlier tonight, I was feeling angry, frustrated, and knew that I needed some input from a rational mind in order to calm myself down. I called my sponsor, and sitting in my office looking out the big window at the lights on the hill opposite, talked to her until I could feel my irritation and annoyance slipping away, and serenity returning.

I am so grateful for this program. Without it, I'd have spent all the rest of the evening, and most of the next day, seething and roiling with my anger and frustration. I wouldn't have been able to enjoy my own life for the next 12-24 hours, because I'd have been totally focused upon the source of my frustration. I'd have chewed the conversation over until I was in a livid boil of raging aggravation.

I used to begin by feeling mildly annoyed, work myself up into a fury, then go "deal with the problem" while I was in that state of rage, rationalising any bad behavior on my part by pointing to what the other person had said or done as my justification.

Al-Anon was the first place where someone suggested that perhaps what I was doing was having a temper tantrum. Or, to quote my first sponsor, a "hissy fit."

I was terrifically offended. I had been provoked! I had been mistreated! I had been offered the perfect excuse to "lose it" and had taken that excuse and run with it, as I so often did. I couldn't see that in doing so, I was damaging my own self esteem, because on some level, I knew that behaving that way wasn't acceptable, provocation or no provocation.

When I focus on someone else's behavior, and how they choose to behave, I am handing them my serenity on a plate. I am offering up my peace of mind, my ability to enjoy life,  everything which makes my life worth living I'm handing over, and for what? The momentary satisfaction of  of stating my own unsolicited opinion, or chewing over the wrong I decide that someone else has done?

It's counterproductive to spend my life that way. I want peace, and I want serenity, and I can find both of those in the same place they always wait - within me, when I'm in conscious contact with my Higher Power. I can't get there when I'm feeling angry or frustrated. I have to sit quietly, offer it all up, and be willing to have it removed.

I have to want to let it go, more than I want to be "right." Being right never did give me more than a bit of fleeting satisfaction - nothing like enough to sustain me in serenity.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Common Denominators - Impatience & Intolerance.

For me, these two character defects are closely linked. Intolerance leads to impatience. When I'm not being convinced by intolerance that I know better how someone should think, feel, or behave, I've got endless patience. Conversely, when I'm feeling impatient, it's because I'm viewing another person through a lens of intolerance, and deciding that, measured against my standards of behavior, they fall short.

I was told by a sponsor, that whenever I would exclaim "I'd never do that!" I was demonstrating  intolerance. I remember sitting thinking to myself that "all I was doing" was pointing out that my choices were vastly superior to those of the person against whom I was comparing myself. At some point, perhaps after repeated reminders, I vocalised this thinking. And was, as I was so often at the beginning, supremely annoyed to see my sponsor fighting a smile, as she explained that it was somewhat arrogant to describe my choices as "vastly superior."

I've been asked by sponsees how I can describe myself as filled with self-loathing, when I was such an arrogant little snot individual. My arrogance was driven by insecurity, a secret belief that I was "not enough." Not tall enough. Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not rich enough. My car, clothes, house, none of these were expensive enough. Absolutely nothing in my life was enough. The only thing which ever escaped this incessant measuring-and-falling-short, was my dog. The dogs I've had through the years, were, to me, perfectly beautiful, and perfectly loving.

I had big dogs back then, not mini dachshunds, as I do today, but I've learned that the size of the canine package matters not, even the smallest of them have that amazing dog capacity for love; I think a dog is one of God's greatest gifts. I'd sit on the floor, hugging my dog, and my heart would swell with love and gratitude. I'd walk behind my dog through the woods, or beside the ocean, and feel a grateful contentment in that moment, long before I could identify that feeling.

I had what I once heard described in an open AA meeting as, "low-to-no self-esteem." The only way for me to deal with this, was to pretend first to myself, and then to others around me, that I was superior. I hid in plain sight, since the only person I managed to convince of this was myself - it seems as though it's fairly easy to identify low self-esteem in other people.

So, sneering at the choices of other people was the only way that I could feel a modicum of good feeling about who I was. But that passed off so quickly that I was always trying to find another way in which I could feel better than, superior, far above in knowledge, taste, attitudes, yada yada yada.

Intolerance led to impatience. Impatience tells me that I am being intolerant. And intolerance is never driven by a good feeling, a happy feeling. So when I feel impatient, I've learned to step back from the moment, detach, and ask myself, "What's going on? Am I hungry, angry, lonely, tired? If none of those apply,  what's lurking behind the impatience/intolerance? What am I not dealing with, elsewhere in my life?" 

It's never about the person cutting in front of me in traffic, or elbowing me out of the way to grab the last item on sale, or snatching away the precise head of lettuce I was aiming to get, or being rude in any one of the myriad ways of which we humans are capable. When I'm in a state of serenity, I can let that rudeness slide right on by, and just - notice it, without an accompanying rush of hot feelings. In serenity, I can wave them in front of me, get that lettuce for them; I can say with a giddy delight to my friend, "Guess I wasn't meant to have one of those sale items today, let's go have coffee," I can respond to rudeness with a calm courtesy that is sincere.

My state of mind affects the way I view my world. My world doesn't change - there's still the same percentage of lunatic misguided drivers on the city streets as any other day - but I'm driving with my Higher Power's love sweetening the air in the car, and I'm at peace with the world.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How Not To Argue.

Mr SponsorPants has an excellent post this year, about surviving the holidays.

One lesson I've had to learn time and again before it really sank in, (and over which I can still stumble when I'm not paying attention) was this one:

"5. Remember, don't expect Program responses from people who aren't in the Program." 

When I've been brought up short to hear a truly nasty comment made, as soon as a family member left the room, it was, I later realised, because I was carrying an expectation. I've learned that I really don't want to be around someone who choses to behave in that fashion; I find it distressing.

I may have friends not involved in 12-Step who do not behave that way, but if they invite me to a family function, there's no guarantee that their family members are going to abide by my personal standards of courtesty and kindness.

I need to accept that reality, before I accept the invitation, and if I'm not sure, I can ask: "How does your family get along?" If the reply is an amused snort and the quip: "Bring your own stun gun," I might choose to avoid that particular get-together.

I have a dear friend who is an elderly man, and as long as he's not talking about his siblings, he is the soul of kindness and consideration. But let him swerve onto the topic of the shortcomings of one of those poor souls, and he will undergo a transformation into a vessel brimming over with an acid brew of judgement, rage and victimisation. I've learned to change the subject. Repeatedly. I mention the weather,  tell him a funny story about my dogs, I ask after his arthritic knee. I do not respond when he throws out those bitter comments, trolling the bait across in front of me, hoping to hook me in. I see it, but I pretend that I do not - I let it pass by unremarked.

I don't have to attend to every comment offered. I can smile and murmur something vague and noncomittal. I can remark upon the briskness of the air today. I can compliment the lovely sweater the person is wearing.

I can LET IT GO.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Last night we attended a celebration at the local John Howard Society's treatment and recovery house for men. One of my husband's sponsees is going through the program there, and he'd invited us to join him as his "family" because his birth family lives far away. This man has been in and out of treatment many times, and as the saying goes, "around AA" for a lot of years, but this time, something has changed. We had a few moments quiet conversation amidst the noise of happy chatter and laughter, when my husband went to speak to another friend. I could sense the difference in this man; his restlessness has gone, and so has the sarcastic and critical facade - he's found serenity.
Later, we all gathered in the main room and sat in peaceful communion, while the men in the house stood up one by one, and spoke of what it meant for them to be in recovery, to be clean and sober at this time of year, to have their family there to celebrate with them.  Many had to stop and swallow several times to regain their ability to speak, because their gratitude brought such a powerful wave of emotion. (I'm hopelessly emotional in these gatherings, and used to try to be circumspect about wiping the tears from my eyes - I gave that up years ago. I know I'm going to weep throughout, and I accept that as just the way it is.)

When my husband's sponsee stood up to speak, I glanced at my husband beside me - his eyes, too, were full of tears. He loves this man the way he loves them all, wholeheartedly, with no judgement or reservation, through their disbelief, their anger, their frustration and despair - no matter what is going on for them. He's a rock of calm to which they can cling, he makes them laugh, and because he is an alcoholic himself, he heads them off at every attempt to justify or rationalise.

One sponsee came up to me last night and said laughingly that he finally had to start working the program because my husband was the first guy in AA he'd ever met who was just that tiny bit more stubborn than he was himself. He said to me, "He wore me down!" I hugged him and replied, "Oh bullshit, _____, you wore yourself down, he just kept you company while you had at it."

He grinned at me, and said, "I forgot - you've been in Al-Anon since I was 10."

I love these 12-Step celebrations; for days afterwards, I find myself remembering, and smiling.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Health And Attitude.

I've been sick with a wierd flu the last few days, and apart from some sniffles, and for one day only, the slightest of coughs, the main symptom has been an overwhelming exhaustion, and a hard time getting warm enough - I've been sleeping in a fleece sweater for about twenty hours a day.

It's been interesting to notice that since I've been ill, my attitude hasn't been the best - as though my ability to let go is down with my physical health; an extension of hungry, angry, lonely, tired, I suppose.

Yesterday was particularly maddening, it seemed as though each time I awoke, my mind would leap immediately to assure me that something terrible was about to happen, and I needed to be worrying full-speed in order to forestall this. It took until a middle-of-the-night awakening and a desperately exhausted plea to my Higher Power to "Please take this from me," that I was able to feel that lovely peace once more, and fall back to sleep.

This morning, I'm not feeling much better physically, but my mental equilibrium seems to have been restored.

This has been an uncomfortable reminder of how life was for me before program - I'd  be on the gerbil wheel of obsession about one thing or another almost every waking moment. No wonder I was "irritable and unreasonable;" it's a dreadful feeling. I'm even more grateful this morning, for all that I have gained and learned through 12-Step, and for the peacefulness I've been granted.

A long-time program friend laughs when she talks about these little reminders we receive now and again. She says she thinks of it as her Higher Power asking, "Are you really complaining because "you aren't moving fast enough in your recovery?" Here, have a day of what it once was like inside your head."

I'm still feeling lousy in the body, but today, I'm not projecting or worrying or obsessing, I'm relaxed, and grateful. Amazed that I ever managed to survive in that awful welter of negativity and fear that was the person I was, before Al-Anon. Deeply, wondrously grateful. I don't think I'll be doing any more complaining about how "boring" it is to be sick with the flu. Yesterday, I felt hard done by, being ill.  Today, I'm thnking it's a pretty fair indicator of  how good my life is nowadays, if that's my biggest complaint.

My friend says that for a long time, she wouldn't admit to these reminders, but now she does, to let the newcomers know that even those of us with a fair amount of experience, strength and hope are still on the same playing field as anyone else around the table; we're all in this together. And if for no other reason, let's be honest about ourselves, and give someone else a good laugh.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Forgiving Ourselves

A reader left a comment about the difficulty in forgiving oneself for past wrongs inflicted upon family members.

I used to be a person who couldn't let go. Of anything. Not what others had done to me, nor what I'd done. I carried my memories (of miseries received, and those I'd dished out) like a ratty old sweater which I'd come at last to understand I didn't like, both for its ugliness and lack of ability to warm, but which I grabbed and donned without a thought, because every day when I arose, I put it on. It was just part of my morning ritual: wake up, get up, put on that guilt sweater.

I was disbelieving when it was suggested to me by other Al-Anon members that I could choose not to wear it. I remember wondering, what could I wear instead? It seems as though we Al-Anons are creatures of sustained, intense habit, and any presentation of options to replace our habits can be met with considerable rationalisation and justification of why we do the things we do, even as we admit to the unhappiness they cause us.

I was recently introduced to an idea I've been mulling over - we argue for our misery and our limitations so strongly, because it gives us the excuse not to change. If it's ferociously complicated and entangled and convoluted, why, no reasonable person could expect us to change much, could they?

Whereas, if it's quite a simple process, we have not much excuse. Simplicity can be done. If this 12-Step truly is a simple program, then I'm not practising it because I choose not to. I can say "It's so hard!"  for as long as I decide to; there are no "musts" in Al-Anon, and nobody is going to tell me that I'm doing it the wrong way. I'm left to work at my own speed, and arrive at my own conclusions. I choose recovery, or I choose otherwise.

I used to believe that when I'd been in for many years, I'd be "fixed." I don't think that nowadays; I've got a greater understanding of the way this program works for me - what I get is directly proportional to my willingness to let go. I've given up trying to know why that is, and have accepted it as my personal truth.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An Exercise In Humility.

Since having reconnected with my adoptive brother, we've been emailing back and forth several times a day, and the conversation ranges over a wide landscape. I've missed my brother's humour, it was always a delight, and we share a sense of irony.

It's an exercise in humility, reconnecting with my brother, because he thinks of me as I was before Al-Anon; that's how long we've been estranged. So he's talking to that person, and I can feel his confusion when it isn't that person who replies. In one email, he asked what I thought about how some people behave - this would have been an opening to a ranting diatribe of snarky humour on my part, all those years ago. This time, I replied mildly that I'd given up thinking that I knew best how the world should be run.

Because we were so close for many years, our reconnection was immediate, and the comfort is still there for both of us, but I think he's having a hard time wresting his mind around to the massive changes in my ways of thinking. He's writing to the person that I was, and it's the woman I've become who's writing back.

I was a furiously opinionated, sarcastic, self-centred, judgemental person when he last knew me. I get the feeling from his emails that he might be finding it rather astonishing to have the woman he thinks is still that person reply to his question soliciting my "opinion," with the statement "I try hard not to have "opinions;" they interfere with my efforts to achieve humility."

He's poking at me a bit now, with his questions and his teasing, and I can watch it happening - where is the person he remembers as his sister? Long gone to past history, thank God, and thank Al-Anon. I know we'll find our way to a peaceful relationship, once he realises and understands who I've become - he is an "old soul" with a kind and loving heart. I'm so grateful to have been granted the chance to make my amend to him, and to be able to answer all of his questions, and ask my own of him.

Love is a gift. I've been blessed in my life,

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Common Denominators - Hounding.

My dictionary defines hounding as "to pursue or harass without respite."
It doesn't matter why we do it - whether we are driven by fear or anger - our reason for doing this has not the slightest importance, although I've used that excuse to justify my constant pursuit and harassment of the alcoholics in my life.  I've done it when I had no idea that I was being verbally abusive to keep repeating and repeating and repeating myself, and I've done it when I knew better, but was so angry I was unwilling to stop. I've hounded because I wanted to punish and control.

It was supremely difficult to learn to say it once, and then stop talking. I felt as though I wouldn't be heard were I not to pound my message home with repetition. And therein lies the truth of hounding - we are beating on the other person with our words. I'm sure we've all seen a dog cringing before a furious voice and menacing tone - we don't need to hit to be abusive. We can strike just as vicious a blow with "only words"  - so did I defend myself to my first sponsor. The fact that we don't raise our voice, doesn't justify the use of words to hurt or shame.

I've had sponsees ask me, "But how do I make him see, if I don't repeat myself?" And I've given them that same blunt answer I received when I asked that question:

"You can't."

The 3 "C's" - We didn't cause it, can't control it, can't cure it.

Giving up the illusion of control can be threatening. We may feel as though we're stepping out onto uncertain ground. What we need to understand is that it's not our place to try to walk for someone else. We each walk our own path in this life, and the sooner we grasp that basic truth, the sooner we will be free of illusions which keep us stuck in pain and fear.

Reconsider - do you really need to say what you're thinking? Is it kind? Is it helpful? Is it loving? If it is all of those, then say it once, and stop. If you're afraid you won't be able to do that, either don't start, or when you finish, remove yourself. Go for a walk, have a bath, read your program books or any other, finish a task; whatever works for you, go do it.  Pray for peace - ask your Higher Power for serenity.

Let go. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Catharsis - A Deleted Post.

I wrote a post two days ago, with the title "Catharsis," then went back later and deleted it, because I felt too raw and vulnerable. I'm not sure why, perhaps because what's happening is so precious to me that I want to guard and protect it? A moment of superstition? No matter.

This week, I've reconnected with my adoptive brother. We'd had a blowout (my fault) and didn't speak for a while (my pride and stubbornness - this preceded my joining Al-Anon) then later, he'd moved to another country, and I'd lost touch with him completely. After some time in program, I'd tried to reconnect, but my adoptive parents wouldn't give me his contact info, or him mine. Later, I tried to find him online, with no luck. I've tried many times since then to search online, with no result. My first sponsor suggested since I couldn't make the amend to him directly, I do it by writing a letter and reading it to her, and I did that, but I just could not lay it to rest. I've had no peace on that one thing for many years. I've tried to forgive myself, I've prayed and meditated, but I couldn't get there. I've tried and tried to let it go, but it's always been there, underneath. We were very close as children, and I've grieved the loss of that relationship a hundred thousand times.

For some reason, this week, a few days ago, when I did an online search, I included his middle initial, which I'd never thought to do before, and up it came - he's a member of faculty on a university in that country. I clicked on the link, and there was his picture, and an email address.

I prayed for guidance, wrote an amends letter and sent it off, heart in mouth. He responded within about 3 hours, warmly, thanking me, "surely accepting" my amend, and signed his response with "Love."

That undid me completely.

I cried so hard for about the next day or so, off and on, that, as I wrote to a dear program friend, "my eyes looked like little boiled cherry tomatoes."

I've carried the desire to make that amend for about 24 years. I've been afraid that he would die before I could find him, and make that amend to him.

I believe that this has happened at last, because I've moved forward in my spiritual growth of late. I've been doing what one AA speaker calls "seeking more" - making a concerted effort to work Step 11, and improve my conscious contact with my Higher Power. I've learned some painful lessons about myself and the way I still think and behave. I've grown in humility, and I've wanted that humility with all my heart and soul.

I think it was finally time for the reconnection with this wonderful man, my brother. My joy is like a  heat in my chest, and the tears are washing out 24 years of close-held pain and regret.
"Gratitude" seems like such a small word to describe what I am feeling.