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Sober Cum Laude

25 Jun

 

It’s graduation time. A time when so many young people move up and move on. Happy celebrations that mark one chapter in life that is ending and a new one beginning. I was delighted to celebrate some of these special occasions with dear friends recently and to be able to do so sober.

In the midst of the festivities, however, yet another friend in recovery went back out “to do more research”. They fell off the wagon. They went back out to their old world of drinking. Often, the action is facilitated by one particular thought: “I’ve got this now.”   However long they have been sober—10 days or 10 years—they think that they can now “control” their drinking. Sorry to say, that ain’t gonna happen.

If however, you are able to prove me wrong, my hat is off to you. No one I know or have met in my five years of sobriety has been able to do that. In fact, I’ve shared some pretty heartbreaking stories on my blog about people who went back out and never returned – they lost their lives to the disease before they could get back in to recovery.   Once a pickle, you can never go back to being a cucumber.

But many people who go back out come right back in. They get themselves back into a recovery program immediately. We are all human. We make mistakes. This disease is cunning, baffling and powerful, so kudos to those who get knocked down and get back up again. I hope that I won’t find myself in that situation but…

Recovery is not a program from which one ever “graduates”. But then again, neither is life. If we aren’t constantly learning, we are going backwards. I can honestly say that some of the most important and most helpful things I’ve learned have been in recovery. And they are pretty basic things that can help anyone, alcoholic or not.

Sobriety 101 teaches us “one day at a time.” Sounds so simple but yet often so hard to live by. When I first got sober, the idea of never having a drink again, EVER, was completely overwhelming to me. What helped the most was when someone would remind me that I don’t have to do it forever, just for today. Tomorrow is another day, and I will tell myself the same thing. In tough times, this may get changed to “one hour at a time.” Make life manageable for yourself. Break things down into attainable goals.

We also learn another crucial axiom: “do the next right thing.”   Again, alcoholic, addict or not, everyone can use this reminder.   When you come to crossroads, make the right choice. It’s not always easy, believe me I get that, but ask yourself what the next right thing is and find a way to do it. If you need to, ask for help.

In AP Sobriety, things get a little more complicated. We hear things like “change I must or die I will,” “attitude of gratitude,” “stinkin’ thinkin’” and, my personal favorite, “turn it over.” Again, all of these can be useful to non-alcoholics as well. Who doesn’t have “stinkin’ thinkin’” sometimes?   Many of us could use an attitude adjustment, and we can all stand to have a little more gratitude. I realize that is very difficult when times are tough. That’s where the “turn it over” part comes in. One thing I’ve learned on this journey of sobriety is to trust in my HP, my Higher Power. When things get really difficult, I have to remind myself to turn them over. Some things are bigger than I am, but not bigger than HP. Whatever your Higher Power, your Spirit, your God, remember to turn things over to It/Him. I know that without my HP, I wouldn’t be sober right now.

Whether you are in recovery or not, there are certain things in life that we could all use refresher courses in.   Sometimes we just need to go back to basics, like the lessons above. I’ve had 1854 days in sobriety school and I learn something new every day. Thanks to all of you who have taught me life lessons along the way. You have my attitude of gratitude.

“The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values.” William S. Burroughs

 

 

 

 

A Father’s Perspective

18 Jun

 

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. I am very fortunate to have a wonderful father and to have had the opportunity to speak with him this morning.

For my kids’ father, I decided a good present would be to de-clutter and clean our bedroom, which was starting to look more like a storage room. It’s nice to be able to actually walk around the bed now.

I spoke to another father this weekend who shared that he was also working on his sobriety and that he had recommended my book to a woman he met who was really struggling. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, as it’s not often that I get the male perspective on struggling to stay sober. We talked at length about the fact that our children are at that age where they are forced to make some tough decisions about drinking and partying. We shared that we had both talked to our kids and explained to them that they may be predisposed to alcoholism, having alcoholic parents.   They need to think extra hard before picking up a drink. We can do our best to teach them, be open and honest with them, but ultimately, they will be the ones to make the choice.

The father also shared that his mother was an alcoholic, in recovery for 28 years, and went back out when she stopped going to meetings. Hearing things like that scare the crap out of me but they also make me more diligent about working hard at my recovery program.

So on a day when we honor our fathers, I reflect about my relationship with my own father.   With regard to my sobriety, my father shared with me that he was in denial about my alcoholism until he read my book, which was published nearly four years after I got sober. I guess I would have a hard time too accepting it if I found out one of my children suffered from the disease.   But I also realize how much power I hold —the ability to break the vicious cycle. Hence, my openness about my alcoholism. With the awareness and the work, the disease can be kept at bay.   Don’t get me wrong, once you’re a pickle you can’t go back to being a cucumber, but you can successfully battle alcoholism.

A special prayer to those of you who lost your fathers. I’m reminded today to count my blessings and to be grateful to be spending another Father’s Day sober.

“Being a role model is the most powerful form of educating…too often fathers neglect it because they get so caught up in making a living they forget to make a life.”  John Wooden

 

Respect

7 Jun

As many of you know, I tend to be very open, raw and honest in my writing. I know no other way. It is my strong belief that this is what I am being called to do—to share my story openly so that I may help others struggling with alcoholism, addiction or other issues. To turn my mess into a message. I am always so grateful when someone reaches out to me for help. So encouraged that they got something out of my writing and felt that they could trust me enough to open up and reach out their hand.   One thing they trust me with is their anonymity. I want to strongly emphasize to all my readers, followers, friends and fellow alcoholics that I would never violate anyone’s anonymity or trust.

 

I often struggle with the concept of anonymity. It has been suggested that I look carefully at Tradition Eleven of AA, which states that “our public relations policy is based upon attraction rather than promotion, we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films. “ I have done several radio, television and Internet interviews and have shared my personal story. I do not in any way, shape or form, speak on behalf of AA or anyone else. An AA pamphlet, conference approved literature, entitled “Understanding Anonymity” says the following: “AA members may disclose their identity and speak as recovered alcoholics, giving radio, tv and Internet interviews without violating the Traditions so long as their membership to AA is not revealed.” The pamphlet also says that “Experience suggests that AA members respect the right of other members to maintain their own anonymity at whatever levels they wish.” While it is my choice to share my experience, strength and hope very openly, I am very respectful of the fact that many people choose to remain anonymous and work their recovery privately. Again, I completely respect this and would never violate anyone else’s anonymity.

 

Step 12 says that “having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” I have always been confused by what seem to me to be contradictory statements (Tradition 11 and Step 12). How do we carry the message to other alcoholics without revealing ourselves as alcoholics who can empathize with what they are going through?  How can others get the message that they are not alone, that they do not have to suffer without help? How can I give someone hope by letting them know that 5 years into my sobriety, my life is so much better?   I can tell them that I am a mother, a wife, a sister, a friend, and I am also alcoholic. And if I can fight this disease and turn things around, they can too.

 

Perhaps the most important message to quote from AA is this one:
“Our primary purpose is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” Everyone’s story is different. Their recovery is different.  There may be many similarities, but your story is your own. The way that I stay sober is to give back what has been given to me—the experience, strength and hope that can help other alcoholics like this one.

 

Unfortunately the need for me to write this blog piece demonstrates just how much of a stigma alcoholism still is in our society. That there is a great deal of fear for many of being found out and labeled as an alcoholic. We have a disease. A very unfortunate, cunning, baffling and powerful disease. It is not a weakness. It is not a lack of willpower. But I get it, people can lose their jobs and more if their alcoholism is revealed. It’s so sad that this is how things are for alcoholics in our culture. To have to battle the disease secretly in church basements.   I am truly blessed to have a family and friends who support me and my journey. I realize that not everyone is so fortunate. And because they may not be, all the more reason for me to let them know that someone like me is here to point them in the right direction to get some help and let them know that they don’t have to do it alone.

 

Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well.” Pema Chodron

 

A New Way of Living

29 May

When I was younger (much younger), I used to eagerly count down the days until my birthday. I couldn’t wait for my special day when the sole focus was on me and I would anticipate all of the presents I would receive.   Ok so maybe I’m not so different today. Today, I counted up my days of sobriety, 1826 to be exact, and I reached my 5-year anniversary. Or 5-year birthday, as many in recovery like to call it.

On your “regular” birthday, you celebrate the fact that you were born. Let’s face it – you didn’t do much. Your mother did all the work. But it marks the day you came into this world. Your sobriety anniversary or birthday, on the other hand, marks the day your new life began. A better life. A second chance. Something you did have a huge role in. It celebrates the choice you made to live.

My emotions run the gamut today, but what I feel mostly is gratitude. I think about the last drinks I had in NYC on Memorial Day weekend five years ago. I think about how awful I felt when I woke up, how my hands shook until I had a drink in me. I think about how ashamed I felt when I admitted I was an alcoholic. I think about how insurmountable the concept of getting sober seemed. And I think about how much better I feel now that I am sober. How proud I am of the fact that I didn’t pick up on the many occasions when I felt like caving. How grateful I am to those who stood by me and helped lift me up when I needed it.

I’m very happy to have my shiny, new 5-year coin. But I am also trying to remember my need to stay humble and strong. This disease is cunning, baffling and powerful. Today is just another day in the battle. It’s always there, ready to pounce. I’m still just a second away from picking up a drink and going back to the insanity.   But as my sponsor says, it’s okay to give yourself and ‘atta girl every once in a while and pat yourself on the back.

While I celebrate my special day, I am also painfully aware of the fact that there are so many out there still suffering. I wish I could somehow let them experience how I feel right now and let them know that they can get there too. Yes it’s hard work, but it is oh so worth it. To my friends who are struggling right now, please try to stay strong. Life is so much better on the other side of this wretched disease. And it is a disease. It is not a weakness or a lack of will power. Reach out for help if you need it. Turn to your higher power, whatever that is for you. For me, that higher power (or HP) is God. And I couldn’t have done this without my faith in Him.

I heard at a meeting today that getting sober isn’t about thinking your way into a new way of living, but living your way into a new way of thinking.   I really like that. I am living a new way, without drinking, with much more gratitude and with a much stronger connection to my HP. Doing so has resulted in a new way of thinking for me. Thinking that life is good. Sobriety is wonderful. And each day is a gift. So on to day 1827….

And, God bless those who gave their lives for our country. Talk about gratitude.

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” John F. Kennedy

 

 

 

Just a Little More

19 May

You may have heard the recent news about the death of Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell.  While the story is still unfolding,  his death was reportedly a suicide by hanging.   Cornell was only 52 years old and a recovering addict.   His family is questioning whether the drug Ativan played a role in his death. Cornell had a prescription for the anxiety drug but may have exceeded the recommended dosage. The possible side effects for the medication are suicidal thoughts and impaired judgement.   Was it the addict in him that led him to take “just a little bit more” for added benefit?   Cornell went public about being newly sober with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous in 2003. He remained clean and sober for many years. And then this.  A tragic, preventable death.

But what you didn’t hear about in the news was the passing of a lovely, elderly woman who battled alcoholism for decades. I had the privilege of meeting her “in the rooms” and getting sober having her “experience, strength and hope” to guide me.   She was an animated Southern belle, who said the serenity prayer and Lord’s prayer next to me in meetings with her trademark slow, Southern drawl. Her death brings sorrow and grief to those who knew and loved her, but there is also a certain amount of peace surrounding it because she died a sober woman. She fought the “cunning, baffling and powerful” disease for decades. And won. I’ll always remember her humorous stories and infectious laughter.

So the contrast? A famous lead singer in a popular rock band. A little-known, elderly Southern woman. Two completely different worlds.   Suicide vs. natural causes. The common factor? Addiction. Supposedly both recovering alcoholics/addicts.   Vastly different people bonded together by sharing the same disease.  I guess Cornell’s toxicology report will shed some light on whether or not he was, in fact, still in the throes of his addiction. Regardless, I pray for both of their families and that they both rest in peace.

The death of famous actors or musicians tends to raise awareness about addiction, temporarily at least. But what about the millions of “normal” people who battle the disease valiantly out of the limelight but succumb to its power?   Their passing isn’t plastered on newspapers and magazines or online publications. Some die on the streets a horrific, lonely death without anyone even knowing. Not sure if that is worse or if being the loved one having to watch someone die from alcoholism is.

This isn’t one of my more upbeat blog posts. But it needed to be written. The death of an addict, famous or not, serves as a good reminder of why we fight the fight every day. As has been said many times, alcoholism is “cunning, baffling and powerful.” It takes strength and determination to win the fight. It takes discipline. It takes HELP. If you need it, ASK for it. Many recovering alcoholics or addicts, including myself, take prescription drugs for anxiety, depression or other things.   We need to remain diligent and not let ourselves go to that place where we may think “just a little more” will help.   Cross-addiction is something that we hear about all too often.

When I drank, it was always “just a little more.”   Just one more drink. Just a little more wine. Just another shot. And it always led to just a little more trouble. Now, it’s “just a little more” in a much different way. Just a little more time without a drink. Just a little more serenity. Just a little more strength. Just a little more help from my higher power. There are many things for which more is better. Alcohol and drugs aren’t examples of those.

I’m in NYC this weekend celebrating my upcoming anniversary of 5 years of sobriety. Back to the last place where I had a drink, Memorial Day weekend of 2012. I am so much stronger than I was back then. So much more grateful. And honestly, I’m just a little more proud.

“Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self- given. Be careful. “ – John Wooden

Cinco de Derby

7 May

Cinco de Mayo Friday. Kentucky Derby Saturday. To me, that used to mean Margaritas and Mint Juleps. Not anymore. I just hit 1800 days of sobriety. A good friend pointed out, ironically, that 1800 is also a tequila. So cheers to those of you enjoying those drinks, and cheers to me.

There was always a reason to drink. For me, it used to be just because it was a day that ended in “y”. Or Arbor Day—there’s cause right there to celebrate. The Ides of March also brought an excuse to party.   You name it—I could find a reason to drink. I was depressed so I thought a drink would help make me happier. I was stressed so I thought the drink would take the edge off. I was frustrated, angry, resentful – whatever – and always thought a drink would make it all better. It might have provided some temporary relief and distraction, but it never made things better. Usually quite the opposite.

But this year, I didn’t pull the covers over my head and hide from these occasions like I did early in my sobriety. This year, I went to a good friend’s birthday party on Cinco de Mayo and a Kentucky Derby party on Saturday. A few years ago, I wasn’t able to do anything of the sort.   Was there drinking at both parties?   Yes. But the wonderful thing for me was that being surrounded by alcohol didn’t really bother me. I had my own special drinks and enjoyed them. I could actually relax and not be overcome with anxiety about the temptation.   Progress. Lots of progress.

I know that I have to be grateful for the progress, which comes with a great deal of hard work, but not get too cocky. I need to remember what it used to be like. The miserable hangovers, the forgotten nights (and days), the drunken screw-ups. It is often referred to as “the gift of desperation”. We remember what brought us to admit our alcoholism and to get help. And became willing to accept our powerlessness over alcohol and the fact that our life had become unmanageable. I went to a meeting almost every day this past week. Meetings help keep me grounded. Often it is too easy to let life get in the way of working on my sobriety. I can’t do that. Without my sobriety, there is no “life” to get in the way.

I gave a talk at our public library last week. I was touched by how many people came out to hear it and support me. Despite the fact that the talk ended on a very positive note, one woman, whom I have known for many years, was in tears. She said it was hard to hear all that I went through and that she couldn’t believe she didn’t know or realize my struggle while I was in the middle of it. I’ve heard that from several people. I guess I was pretty darn good at putting on a happy face. But now you see the real me. Hopefully you see a humbled, grateful and genuinely happy recovering alcoholic.

Three weeks from today, God willing, I will be celebrating 5 years of sobriety. Memorial Day. And the weekend before, I’ll be in NYC, where I found my “gift of desperation” on the street corner at 4am. There’s a big reason right there to celebrate. Sparkling cider for everyone is on me.

 “The gift of willingness is the only thing that stands between the quiet desperation of a disingenuous life and the actualization of unexpressed potential.” – Jim McDonald

 

 

 

How Big is the Damn Onion?

13 Apr

Peeling away the layers of the onion. A common phrase heard in recovery rooms and plastered all over self-help books. Stripping away the surface layers, getting to the core of the problem. After almost 5 years of sobriety (God willing I’ll hit that milestone on May 28th) and peeling many, many layers of the onion, I have started to wonder when I’ll ever finish peeling. Or IF I’ll ever finish peeling.

In order to achieve and maintain sobriety, you have to take a hard look at the things that led you to drink in the first place. Some of these are obvious. Some come after peeling back layers of the onion. Just like when you peel a real onion, peeling the metaphorical onion can lead to tears.

It’s hard work. And usually not fun. There are things that we all wish we could forget. And sometimes we do forget them. For a while. And then they start bubbling up to the surface. We peel back the layers to reveal them. Often painful memories. But with the peeling comes growth. Working through the layers and getting to the root of things may be painful, but it can facilitate a great deal of personal growth and betterment.

It seems like my journey into sobriety and recovery has been nothing but peeling away the layers of the onion.   The peeling goes hand in hand with working the twelve steps. Starting out with Step One, “Admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable,” we throw away the crutches of the booze and rip off the surface band-aids with one fell swoop. It is the ultimate first peel of the onion and waving of the white flag. But there are often deep scars underneath the bandages. And yes, you guessed it, the more we peel and unravel the bandages, the deeper and deeper we get.

The peeling continues with Step 4 when we make a “fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves”. That’s some serious peeling. Taking a look deep inside yourself and recording both your character defects and your personal assets. Often it’s the listing of the assets that is more difficult for people. Why do most of us find it easier to point out our faults rather than shine the light on our strengths? Human nature?

In Step 5 we get to share the peeling process. We admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Ouch. This part feels pretty damn raw. It feels like we are completely exposing ourselves and it is the ultimate in vulnerability.   After doing Steps 4 and 5, I thought I was done with my peeling. But no! There’s more. Much more. In Step 8, we make a list of all the people we had harmed during our drinking days and become willing to make amends to them all. Again, ouch. Not exactly a fun exercise. This step takes more soul-searching and memory bank withdrawls.

Step Nine is where we actually make the amends. I’m on this step now. So if you’ve been waiting for an apology from me since I got sober, get ready. And if you don’t get one, it means that perhaps I haven’t peeled back enough layers of the onion to remember what I may have done to you that merits an apology.

Step Ten is even more peeling. We continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong, promptly admit it.   Just when you thought you had all the fun taking personal inventory back in Step 4, you get to do it again.   Digging deeper. Peeling more layers away. But the exercise leads to a great deal of freedom. Promptly admitting we are wrong about something allows us to learn from our mistakes and move on quickly. And to grow.

In Step 11 (“sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”), our peeling of the layers of the onion brings us closer to the God of our understanding.   We are reminded to pray for help and to meditate in order to connect with our Higher Power, both allowing us to dig deeper to get to the core of the onion.

According to Step 12, “having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Does the spiritual awakening come once we have peeled away all the layers of the onion? Have we reached the core and lightened our load? 
Are we done??   No. I’m not sure we are ever done. The key word in Step 10 is “continue.” And we can go right back to any step we need to at any time.   In Step 7, we “humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.” This is something we can do on a daily basis. I know I have a long list of shortcomings. But I also have a long list of assets. As I mentioned, let’s not just beat us up for our character defects, but give ourselves a pat on the back for our strengths when we do all this work.

So I believe the onion is pretty damn big, and that it takes a great deal of hard work to get to the core.   But it is possible to get there. And maybe, just maybe, what you find at the core isn’t so bad. Or if it is, hopefully you have built up your strength through all this hard work and have found solace in your prayer and meditation to handle it. And if you have had a spiritual awakening, you’re in even better shape.

Peeling the layers of the onion and working the steps aren’t easy tasks. But they are so worth it. We get rid of what we no longer need. We get rid of the guilt. We let go. We allow the good stuff to come in. Peel away the layers and open your heart and your mind. So how big is the damn onion? As big as your life is.

“Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time and sometimes you weep.” – Carl Sandburg

 

 

 

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