Monday, January 30, 2012

A Question About Staying In the Moment

"My sponsor keeps telling me to "stay in the moment, live in the now," but is never able to tell me how to do this - can you help?"

The only way I have found it possible to do this with any sustained success reqires that I first become aware of my internal dialogue - what's going on inside my own head. Am I worrying about the future? Chewing over the past? Am I rewriting an argument, making my part vastly more intelligent and mature than it was  at the time? Am I projecting? Having imaginary conversations?

When new to Al-Anon, I was impatient with any suggestion that I try to be aware of my thoughts as they floated through my head; I didn't believe it was possible to change what went on up there, so couldn't see the point of the exercise. I did it anyway, under duress, and with much moaning and complaint.
It was illuminating to discover just how negative was my thinking.

So, try to be aware of your internal dialogue. When you catch yourself thinking about the past, or projecting into the future, bring your mind back to the present. You could try the exercise of describing to yourself what you are doing in the now - "Now I am washing dishes. I'm in my kitchen standing at the sink, with my hands in hot sudsy water, cleaning up after a meal." (For those of you who will say, "But I've got a dishwasher, I don't wash dishes!" - describe to yourself the loading of the dishwasher, and the general clearing up.)

The point of that exercise is to anchor yourself in the present moment, by keeping your mind occupied with what you are doing now. You may find that this is like trying to grasp smoke when you first try it, because it's a hard habit to break when we live anywhere but in the now.

I might tell myself, "No projecting, no recreations." and turn my mind again to what I'm doing right this minute. If you find music helps you to stay in the present moment, use that. Reading works for me, as does creating - sewing or painting.

Your sponsor, as are we all, is fallible, and they may have difficulty describing how they do this - ask other people in Al-Anon, and be open-minded and willing enough to try their suggestions, no matter how silly they may sound. Be gentle with yourself, this isn't easy, but it's like anything else, we get better the more often we practise.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Common Denominators - Martyrdom

A martyr creates an identity built around one central idea - suffering. Before Al-Anon, I was deeply committed to my vision of myself as a martyr. I'd had a hard early life, and here I was, married to an alcoholic, and still suffering. That vision of myself was rather rudely put to rest during the working of my first Fourth Step, as I slowly became aware of my own character defects, aided by a sponsor who couldn't be manipulated - she knew exactly what I was doing when I was doing it, because she'd done all of it herself.

I would be full-rant about the latest terrible thing the alcoholic had done or said, and looking up, would find that she was watching me with a loving gaze, and that blasted eyebrow slowly climbing up her forehead. When it began the ascent, I knew I was about to be challenged. In time, I had only to see it rise enough to create the tiniest suggestion of a wrinkle, and I knew I was in for it.

I hated the way she seemed able to see right through me, and could be deeply irritated that she wasn't interested in providing me an audience while I elucidated the minute details of my martyrdom. One day, when her eyebrow was at its peak, and I was still defiantly whining and moaning about how hard my life was, I glanced at her, and without knowing I was about to, stopped, grinned and said, ruefully, "Nobody knows the trouble I done seen."

She responded instantly with, "Gotta suffer, if you want to sing the blues."

We howled together, one of those laughing fits that leaves you gasping and wiping your eyes, and wondering afterwards why that was so funny, but smiling again at the memory. I doubt I recognised at the time that I'd just experienced one of those massive shifts in understanding which can forever change us for the better, if we are willing to quickly follow through with more excavation of self.

Without further work, I have learned that I will forget the lesson and have to relearn it at a later date. It will be a more painful lesson that next time, and even more so the next -  experiencing that truth has not been pleasant, but it's the "sure and certain" outcome when I've been obstinate in my refusal to accept.

My Higher Power will give me what I want, and if I want opportunities for martyrdom, and to be a victim, I'm going to get them. When I decided once and for all that I had had enough of that, and I wanted change, that's what I received.  It's that simple.

12-Step is a simple program. All my efforts to complicate so as to have a good reason not to do it have served me about as well as you'd expect. When I surrender, when I accept, when I let go, life is good, and I'm at peace.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Common Denominators - Lying.

In Al-Anon, I've learned that dishonesty takes many forms. I lived 28 years believing I was an honest person because I didn't try to cheat on my income tax, or shoplift, although that may have been motivated more by a fear of the consequences than from any high moral ground, since in my personal life, I lied continually. I lied to the alcoholic about my true feelings. I lied to friends that I was "fine
I was a craven people-pleaser. I lied to myself through the use of denial.

It was a long hard haul uphill to be able to get to a place of acceptance about my dishonesty, forgive myself for it, and try a different way to live. As so many of us may do, I swung to the other extreme, and began speaking up when I should have said nothing, because my motivation wasn't good. Slowly, I settled into my comfort zone - when giving my opinion wouldn't be appropriate, I will either remain silent, or make one of those noises that mean, "Yes, I'm listening, please continue." If pressed to give an opinion when I don't wish to, I will say that I "don't have an opinion worth sharing."

I try to be honest with myself about what I'm doing - my motives.

I don't pretend to the alcoholic that I like what I do not like, or accept that which I find unacceptable. When I feel the necessity, I can say what I think, or feel, in a way that does not challenge or invite an argument, but is a simple statement of fact about me.

 Until about 3 years ago, the latter was not the case. I had good recovery in some areas, but I had a massive denial going about my relationship with my alcoholic spouse. During the many years we've been married, I had gradually allowed my boundaries to be shoved a long way back. I had accepted a lot of "jokes" that were nothing of the kind. I'd fallen into some old habits, and I was unhappy and frustrated. When the time came, and my Higher Power revealed this to me, I was stunned. I had entered this relationship when I was still quite new to Al-Anon, new enough to believe that sobriety was the same as recovery, and denial took over when I started to realise that the two are not synonymous.

Since we can't change what we don't acknowledge, facing reality is the first step on the path to change.
My rededication to honesty in my marriage caused a lot of hassle and stress, as the other person tried to force things to go back to what they had been, through a fair bit of acting out and manipulation. That was rough, but with the help of my sponsor, and my program friends, I made it through without capitulating, and things have been vastly better between us. He's very involved in AA, now, and that's a good thing.

None of that would have happened, had I not been willing to be honest with myself.

Friday, January 13, 2012


Angry responses to posts seemed to be going around yesterday. To what I wrote yesterday, l add three things:

In Al-Anon, we learn to pay attention to our gut feelings and reservations, rather than dismissing and negating them to please another person.

We are under no obligation whatsoever to say yes to everyone who asks us to sponsor them. It's an intimate relationship, and we all have the basic human right to choose our relationships.

Even in sponsorship, we are permitted personal boundaries.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Question About Recognising Unhealthy People.

"Somebody asked me to be their sponsor, but I'm not sure I want to. They never get to a meeting on time -usually they come in half-way through. They talk for twenty minutes, or talk 2 or 3 times. They never talk on topic. They're always in a crisis. They're not very good friends with another person I sponsor, and there's a lot of drama going on there. Is it okay to say no when someone asks me to sponsor them?"

Yes, absolutely. I wouldn't sponsor someone who won't come to a meeting before it's half over.

I'm not going to speculate about what that may or may not indicate about the person who's always late, because this isn't the place and I don't think it matters - the motives behind the actions may be completely obscure to the person themselves. Dealing with only the result of the choices, the following is happening:

The meeting, and whoever may be speaking when this late person arrives, is interrupted. They avoid sitting in silence, listening to the readings common to the opening of an Al-Anon meeting - the greeting, Preamble to the Steps, the Steps, Traditions, 3 Obstacles to Success.

They "hijack the meeting"  by ignoring the topic and speaking instead of the (most recent) crisis in their lives. They talk for so long that they leave little or no time for the other people who might like an opportunity to share.

An AA friend would describe behavior of this sort as: "There's a lot of "me-me-me!" going on.." 

I think most of us could be described as self-absorbed when we come into program, because we're so caught up in our own problems that they "fill the screen." Even that being so, most people are still able to detach for the sake of politeness and offer courtesy and some space to other people in a social setting. If someone won't do this even in an Al-Anon meeting, which is grounded on giving each person room and space - well, I said I wouldn't go there, so I won't. Suffice it to say that if asked to sponsor someone who is always coming into meetings half an hour late, I might reply that I would be happy to do so, after they'd shown me that they could be on time to a meeting, and once there, respectful to the other members, for a period of 3 months.

I consider sponsorship to require a serious committment of time and energy on my part, and after this many years doing it, I have a good idea of my own limitations. I know that I don't want to work with someone who is  disrespectful of both program, and the other members of the group.  I don't want to embark upon a caretaking relationship thinly disguised as sponsor-sponsee. I can't make someone want to change. I can't love someone into wanting to change. I don't want to work with someone who is more interested in acquiring another spectator for the drama of their lives, than in working their program - I've made all these mistakes in sponsorship, and learned the difficult lessons therein.  Hope this helps.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Common Denominators - "Knowing"

Conversation between my sponsor and I when I was new to Al-Anon:

(Me:) "Well, I know she ...."
"How do you know?"
"I can just tell."
"How can you tell?"
"I just can."
"Ok, I hear you saying that, I'm asking for an explanation of how you do that."
"Well, by the way she looks at me; her tone of voice."
"Have you asked?"
"I don't need to, because I already know."
"I'd like you to try asking."

Next conversation on the subject:

"Did you ask?"
(Laughing) "She had no idea what I was talking about."
"So what happened was that you saw an expression of some sort on her face, a tone in her voice, decided what that meant without checking that out first with her, and then spent two days chewing it over, ruining your mood, getting ever more upset, only to discover that it was all inside your head... would you say that's an accurate description of what went on?"
(Pause) "Well, sort of."
"Sort of?"
(Really laughing now) "Yes, okay?  Yes, that's exactly what I did."

I have had this conversation, in various forms, repeatedly. I've been the sponsee who "knew" and I've been the sponsor challenging that "knowing."

We may have developed this as a way to keep ourselves safe when we were small children dealing with unhealthy adults, it may have not have started until we were in an alcoholic marriage, but this assumption that we "know" what's really going on inside someone else's head, this is a form of arrogance,  and it devours time - devours my life.

Not only does this "knowing" allow me to disregard what someone else is saying, in favour of my own interpretations, it gives me a focal point upon which to obsess. I have an obsessive sort of mind. If I open that door even slightly, there's a good chance it will be ripped out of my hands, slammed open against the wall and I'll be carried off by a tidal wave of obsessing.

This is the habit. How do I avoid this? By not opening the door. Not even enough to peer through the crack to "just see what's in there today." I know that if I don't want to waste my time obsessing, it's a good idea not only to avoid looking through the peephole, but don't even go into the room in my mind in which that door is set.

Stay out. Let go. Live in the moment. If I want information, or interpretation, I can ask the person themselves.

What if I don't receive what I consider an honest, or satisfactory reply? Let it go anyway. Turn it over.
Get out of that dark damp creepy room, and into the light. Find something else with which to occupy my mind. If I can't get myself off the gerbil wheel under my own power, ask for help. Read some program literature, call a friend or my sponsor, ask my Higher Power to take it. It's my choice. I know what obsessing over someone else feels like, I've spent a great deal of my life doing it. I have obsessed over a parental figure, friends, coworkers, husbands - the list goes on. I've wasted hours, days and weeks, "knowing" what someone else is thinking, and ramping myself up into a state of unmanageability because of it.

All that I can know for certain is what is happening with me. The rest, I must take on faith, because whatever I may like to believe, no, I can't read minds. And if I could, it'd be an invasion of privacy. Let go. Let it all go. Stop wanting to "know" and accept that I am fallible, human, and limited. Trust my Higher Power in the same wholehearted way my little dog trusts me - she "knows" that she is safe in my arms.
Let that be enough.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Reader Question

A reader of yesterday's post asked, "...where the line is between creating peace and being a doormat."

An excellent question. I experienced continued recurring abandonment as a small child.
I learned not to trust, and to believe both that I was unlovable, and unable to love. This, with the various abuses of my childhood, also made me a person who was vulnerable to accepting unacceptable behavior in the name of "love." As long as someone would regularly declare love, I would accept appalling behavior, as I did with my first husband.

In Al-Anon, I heard it said that I have an intrinsic value - I matter because I exist. The first hundred or so times I came across that idea I shrugged it off, because it felt so far removed from my reality. When I heard other members speak of unacceptable behavior, and how it damaged their self-esteem, I couldn't relate because I couldn't begin to grapple with the concept of self-esteem, I had only self-loathing.

It was through being accepted and loved by the other people in Al-Anon, that I could try to treat myself with love and respect. From page 51 in Courage to Change:

"...I suddenly realised that there was still one person from whom I regularly accepted unacceptable behavior - me! I was continually berating myself and blaming myself when things went wrong. I never gave myself credit for my efforts. I told myself I was homely, thoughtless, lazy, stupid. I would never say those things to a friend. I realised that until I started treating myself like a valued friend, I would be standing in the way of my own recovery."

I had to believe that I was a valuable person, and that I didn't have to accept unacceptable behavior in order to receive love. This was not an easy process, because it meant dismantling all the ideas about myself learned as a very small child, and it meant being willing to let go of my anger.

Nowadays, when I'm thinking of saying nothing, of letting it go, I need to check my motives. Am I making this choice because I know I have no control, no power? Or do I have something that I'd like to say about my feelings, or a boundary, but am afraid to state it aloud for fear of retribution in the form of a scene, coldness, or more bad behavior?

What will I gain from saying this, and what will I gain from letting it go? I can't change other people, and I lose my serenity when I try. Repeated efforts to "make someone hear " only result in frustration for me. If a boundary has been crossed, I can speak up, and make it plain I won't tolerate that, but if another person is determined not to respect my boundaries, perhaps I need to re-evaluate the relationship.

I will not tolerate certain behaviors from the alcoholic, and there has to be a consequence for the continued trespass of my boundaries, or they become meaningless. I choose what those consequences are going to be, and I try to choose wisely, with the help of my sponsor and other program friends.

If you aren't sure, ask someone else in program, "What do you do when your boundaries are continually ignored? How do you deal with it?"  Ask for their experience, strength and hope. I have found that in order for the alcoholic to have respect for my boundaries, I must, too. I must be willing to take the flak, hassle or grief I know I'll get, and keep going. My self-respect has to matter to me first, before the alcoholic will respect me.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

How Has My Thinking Changed In Al-Anon?

Yesterday, before returning a phone call to someone in need, I asked for help from my Higher Power, closing my eyes for a moment, and saying quietly, "Please make me worthy of this person's trust." And then, in one of those wierd little detached-from-self moments, heard what I was saying, and was for a moment, astounded at the ways this program has changed me.

And then, as is the way of these things,  this topic came up in the coffee meeting-after-the-meeting last night - the ways those of us in Al-Anon for many years have changed so dramatically from the person we were when we walked through the door of our first Al-Anon meeting.

Al-Anon may be presented to us at the start as a way to become healthy whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not, but it will also, if we truly take it up and work it, bring about massive changes in our personalities. I was a woman distant from others, carefully locked away in my shame and my secrets. trusting no-one and nothing, with no hope for the future. I was unremittingly negative in my worldview - resentful, frustrated, anxious.

I still get those times, but the difference is that they are periods in my life, now, not my life. I may be feeling like that for an hour or two, or even a day or two when I do some backsliding and don't work my program or forget the wisdom I've been offered, but that is not the essence of me anymore.

Peace has become more important to me than getting my own way in all things. I might be talking to someone, and hear one part of my mind insisting upon being right - perhaps I feel that little rush of irritation I've learned to recognise as a road sign to my character defects. A sign that reads, "Don't go this way, or you'll regret it!"

When I get those messages from myself, I can do the mental equivalent of pushing the complaining insisting part of myself into another room, and gently closing the door, so that my better self can respond with love, respect, and encouragement.

Al-Anon brings out the best in us. Together, we are a powerful force for personal change. Last night, as we stood to say the Serenity Prayer at the close of the meeting, I got a shivery rush up my spine with the combined power of all our voices asking for acceptance, courage, and wisdom.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Old Dogs, New Tricks, and Fireworks.

Our little male dog was always utterly terrified of fireworks, thunder, any loud noise, but fireworks were the worst, they'd send him to his bed to shake for hours. It was a dreadful sight, and we tried everything to comfort him, but nothing worked. Our little female dog wasn't afraid when we adopted her, but followed his lead - if he was so afraid, there must be something to fear, and she became terrified of fireworks herself.

One day I was watching the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan, and he spoke of distracting a dog when they are afraid. I thought - how do I do that? I decided to get my dog a new toy, and keep it until the night of the fireworks. When the first one went off, I reached behind the couch cushion, brought out the new toys, and handed them out. He didn't know what to do - his fear was telling him to rush down the hall to cower in his bed, but he had just been given a new toy - he compromised by taking his new toy into his bed, and huddling with it there. Over time, we've worked on distracting him with retrieving whenever there's a loud frightening noise. He's a crazed retreiver dog.

Last night I was overjoyed when the first very loud firework exploded, and he rushed into the livingroom, grabbed his newest toy, brought it to where I was at the kichen sink, dropped it at my feet, and stood eagerly waiting, tail waving, ears up. He has learned to associate fireworks with play. It brought a lump to my throat and the sting of tears to my eyes - his terror was gone, as if it had never been.

If a 10 year old dog, (that's 70 in human years,) can learn to get over a life-long fear, can't we do the same?