Promises

I am insanely blessed. This is simple truth.

I did not always know this or live into it the way I do now. Years of self-pity, psychic pain & alcohol abuse kind of put a damper on my ability to receive and appreciate gifts from the Universe (or God or the Great Spirit or whatever). But now, now my gratitude has me belting out Taylor Swift tunes on the drive to my daughter’s preschool. Because I can. Because I recognize opportunities for joy. There is a current of gratitude that runs so deeply that daily circumstances cannot shake it. Okay, it may get ruffled just a bit on occasion, but I blame that on the complexities of living with a 4-year-old. Ahem.

This kind of gratitude isn’t my natural state of being. Left to my own devises, I am a fretful, self-centered mess. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous cracked opened a door for me to let goodness/God/gratitude into my life. I will admit, though, when I first got sober and heard about what AA calls “the Promises,” I thought that this might be just one more indication that the AAs’ were complete whackadoos. These Promises they spoke of seemed lofty and amorphous, like they would never have any bearing on my life.

Imagine hearing this when you still have the roar of a killer hangover in your head:

Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Whatevs. I just wanted to know how to make my life not suck. This stuff seemed all guru-sitting-atop-a-mountain. I wanted real stuff. So, the Promises irked me. And I tuned them out. For six years. Truly, I never paid one smidgeon of attention to them until last night, when my wife spoke to a room full of people about the Promises. Then I had to pay attention.

Turns out that I had, in fact, been unknowingly paying attention to the Promises, and talking about how they played out in my life, for years now.

Exhibit A: My wife and I wanted two kids. Although it took 2 years to conceive our daughter, I thought I would get pregnant with a second kiddo in a flash. Because I deserved two kids. I mean, there are completely shitty parents who have a litter of kids. Surely, I deserved two.

I went into the whole reproductive adventure with a chip on my shoulder and a gigantic sense of entitlement. You can imagine my surprise when I didn’t get pregnant the first time. Or the second. Or the third. But the fourth time—score! And why not? I deserved this kid. Moreover, I clearly knew what was right for our family. So, obviously, I was going to get kid #2.

Except that I miscarried at 10 weeks. And I was crushed.

But I did what I what the AAs taught me. I was rigorously honest. With God. I told God that this sucked. That I was pissed. At him. At my body. At the injustice of denying me a child I deserved. I explained this to God over and over, until he probably just wanted to pick up the remote, flip on the TV and drown me out every time I prayed. I was relentless.

And then something happened. I got pregnant again—and immediately miscarried.

But—here’s the magic—I didn’t feel like a victim any more. I understood, as clear as if God had sat down and explained the whole deal over coffee, that this wasn’t going to work. That I would not have kid #2. Not the way I had planned. Perhaps not even at all. And, moreover, I was seized with a tremendous clarity that I had been so focused on producing another child, that I had not been grateful (not truly) for the one I already had. She, after all, is a miracle. Out of 4 pregnancies, she is the only one that made it here to share life with us, in our family. But I hadn’t even taken stock in the miracle I had already been handed, because trying to produce what I was convinced was right for me had consumed me.

Remember the part in the Promises that says “We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” Yeah, me too. Because this acceptance, this gratitude didn’t come from me. I am a grasper. A control freak of epic proportions. But I know that I have been handed what is 100% right for me and for our family. I prayed for God to change my situation. He didn’t. But he did change my perspective, my understanding of who God (the Universe) is. And I know that the God (the Universe) only wants good for me. What I have been given is good. It is not what I expected or wanted. But expectations are just resentments waiting to happen (so say the AAs). If I stop attaching the label “bad” to situations that don’t seem to immediately go my way, I can be open to experiencing the events in my life as gifts—or at least as opportunities for growth.

I am often seized with excitement about what the future is going to bring, despite the fact that I am an anxiety-driven, control freak who obsessively worries about the future. How do I explain that contradiction? I can’t. Except that the AAs told me it would play out this way. I was just too irked to listen.

Darkness of Self

Toward the end of my relationship with her, I couldn’t quite find myself. No clear boundaries discernable between me and her. While it may seem like a romantic notion, this lack of boundaries, this bleeding into each other, I needed to be more clearly defined. I needed to know where I ended and she began. I needed room to move and think and breathe. But we were entangled. I was tangled. I needed.

And then she was gone. Untangled.

Suddenly, without her tethering me, entrapping me, holding me, I drifted. Slowly at first. Just a bit further from shore than was comfortable. But I could fight my way back. I remembered how to swim. Until I looked up and saw only sky and water. No land. I didn’t know which way home was. I didn’t remember home clearly. I didn’t remember me clearly. I was ill-defined. Amorphous. Drifting away from my own self. My lack of self. Drifting.

Then I began to fight. Fighting the water and the drifting. Fighting the air and the breathing. I felt suffocated. All this struggle caused my sinking. Or maybe I didn’t struggle enough. I can’t remember. I gave in to the sinking, the disappearing. I aided in my own obliteration. Or did I try to stop it? It is murky now.

The murkiness morphed into darkness, the darkness into the blackest night. No stars. No light. Just inky blackness. My soul slumbered a restless and fitful sleep while I kept on destructing, self-destructing. Being destructive. Destroying.

I wakened to the manifestation of all my fears, the deepest ones, the ones that I harbored in the closest confines of my heart. The fear and I entangled. Intertwined in twisted, cruel intimacy–stolen, permitted, fractured. Pieces of me crashed back together. I eyed the fear and the destruction warily. Detachedly. I spotted myself, what was left of myself. It was enough to build on. I picked it up, clutched it closely and left that place. I’ve not been back.

Communion

From the start, God has been with me. Since that is rather unremarkable, because God is with everyone, perhaps I should start another way: I have always believed in God’s presence. God made his mark on my childhood for sure. My mother worked in a Christian bookstore; we attended church faithfully every Sunday. I had Christian pencils, knotted like a pretzel at the end that proclaimed, “Sin is KNOT in!” I had me some Jesus.

The God I believed in growing up scared me a bit. He seemed capricious; if I didn’t ask for salvation in the right way, if I didn’t mean it enough, then I might quickly be cast into the firey pits of hell. I grappled deeply with the idea of meeting Jesus in heaven one day; if heaven was my true home, like they told me at church, why bother with this meaningless charade called life, I wondered (I was 9 years old).

Thankfully, childhood doesn’t last forever. I grew up. I went to college, where my New Testament class systematically dismantled many of what I believed were core tenets of my faith. But really, what that class allowed me to do was shed the faith of my childhood and to begin the long process of discerning what I believed. Because an angry, jealous God who might cease to love me based on a somewhat arbitrary list of behaviors seemed too human, too small. The God I was sure was there (even when I was too angry to admit it) was much bigger than that.

Over the course of the next decade, I explored many faiths, many spiritual paths. They all intrigued me; I found each of them beautiful and mysterious in their own right. Yet, I was constantly drawn back to the faith of my childhood. I didn’t really want to be. I wanted something more esoteric, something that played better in intellectual circles. “Christian” wasn’t really the label I wanted to stick on the me I was busily crafting.

But for all of my searching, I had to admit that the teachings of Jesus resonated in my soul. And when I finally gave in, finally walked back into a church after all those years, sung the hymns with a reverence that shocked even me, I did what I least expected: I jumped back into church life whole-heartedly. In retrospect, it makes sense; I am an all or nothing sort of girl. I went to church on Sundays; I found an intensive Bible-nerd class that required at least an hour of reading a night. If I was going to be into Jesus, I wanted to to be a Jesus expert.

I feel like maybe, since this is a recovery blog, the spoiler is kind of evident. But here it goes: I was doing all this pious searching and studying while I was still drinking. Not just drinking, but drinking alcoholically. The result wasn’t pretty. I had full blown panic attacks in church, because I was hungover from the previous night. I’d finish Bible study on Wednesday night and meet my friends at the bar afterward; because one night without alcohol simply would not do. I tried desperately to rebuild my spiritual life while I was destroying my very self, night after night after night. I often cried late at night, after my 12th beer, after my partner had fallen asleep; I would put on music, lay in my bed and sob. I didn’t know why. But at my core, I was unbearably sad; only at night, when the alcohol had stripped me of my ability to fend of the encroaching sorrow, could I admit how broken I really was.

The drunk surrounds herself with Jesus but remains broken. This baffles people. Shouldn’t God have helped me? Totally. But here’s the catch: I never asked.

A.A.s talk a lot about conscious contact with a higher power. That conscious contact, the openness and willingness changes us. Just opening the door a crack allows the miracles to begin. But I had not opened the door; in fact, I had deadbolted it. I read about Jesus and God ad nauseum. I talked a lot about theology. I never prayed. Never. God and I didn’t powwow. I did not supplicate myself. We did not have jam sessions. God and I did not talk.

Here’s my truth: I knew if I prayed, if I asked God for help, that he would indeed help me. I had no doubt that God was bigger than my addiction. But just like I avoided A.A. for so many years because I believed it could offer me hope of a life free from alcohol, I avoided God because I knew that he would relieve me of my intense desire for oblivion from alcohol. And, really, I didn’t want that. I wanted oblivion. Change seemed so daunting. I had no idea how to live without alcohol. So I didn’t invite God to be part of the solution; in fact, I didn’t even tell him there was a problem.. And since God isn’t known for going where he isn’t invited, I continued to suffer my own dark night of the soul: desiring God, seeking him, yet refusing to allow him in.

This profound spiritual confusion might be best exemplified with a story: During Lent, I gave up alcohol. On Easter, I went to church hangover free to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Then I went to brunch to celebrate the Resurrection… with beer! I had 2 or 3 or 6… somewhere in there. Just as I was getting ready to kick into some real drinking, I remembered that I was supposed to be back at church soon. And that I was scheduled to serve communion. So, the close of that Easter Sunday found me in church, serving communion… coming to experience the presence of Jesus… offering one of the most sacred rites… drunk.

Despite the cringeworthiness of the communion story, and the absolute horror with which I look back on it now, serving communion drunk wasn’t my rock-bottom-I-have-to-change-my-life moment. One day, I just decided I no longer wanted to feel worthless, hopeless, empty. And I changed. I finally attended those A.A. meetings that I feared would fix me. They did. But really, I didn’t change on my own. I believe that God chipped away at my stubbornness enough to help me find my willingness. And when I did, I could let the A.A.s show me how to get sober and how to live. And one of the very first things they told me to do was to pray. I did. And that is where I found God.

Staying with the Herd

True Confession: I don’t really do A.A. the right way. In fact, if A.A. & I listed our relationship status on Facebook, it would be “it’s complicated.”

Maybe I should start closer to the beginning of the story: I like to be the valedictorian of everything I do. When I first set my sights on getting sober, A.A. proved to be no exception to the valedictorian rule. I bought the primary A.A. text (a.k.a. The Big Book) before I ever hit my first meeting. The first year of sobriety, I behaved like a model A.A.er: I went to meetings. I got a sponsor. I did steps, all 12 steps to be exact. In fact, I was making the rounds through the steps again with a second sponsor… and then I quit. My own version of riding off into the sunset. No hard feelings. It’s not you, it’s me. I found myself in what I considered a complete conundrum: I didn’t want to go back to meetings. But I still wanted to be sober. I had been told over and over, often with a hapless relapsed drunk as the object lesson, what happened to people who didn’t go to meetings. And I was scared of meeting that same fate. But on the back of A.A. medallions, it says “To thine own self be true.” And if I was going to follow that advice, I had to admit that it was time for A.A. and I to see other people. So, we parted ways.

The split happened over four years ago, and still people react to my incredibly infrequent attendance at meetings in the same way they might react if, say, I had spinach stuck in my teeth. At first they seem vaguely uncomfortable. They seem to WANT to help, really they do. But it is so AWKWARD to tell someone that they have something in their teeth (or that they are going to wind up drunk under a bridge if they don’t haul themselves to a meeting soon). Soon they start looking everywhere but at me. And then they fidget a bit. Then they remember that their paper clip collection needs to be reorganized… and we part ways. Amicably, of course. But I am always bewildered and a bit put-off.

Animal Planet finally helped me decipher this puzzle. Turns out our pastor watches his fair share of Animal Planet, and, this past Sunday, he went into great detail about stalking prey. Wait… please note that HE isn’t stalking prey. No, he described the way animals, specifically lions, stalk prey. If lions plan to make their next meal out of a herd animal, their mealtime strategy involves separating one lone animal from the herd. Once they achieve separation, then the animal is vulnerable. All the lions gang up on the animal and WHAMMO! The animal becomes a lion entree. Most of the time.

The only chance the lonely, separated animal has for salvation is the return of the herd to rescue it. And sometimes the herd does return. They reintegrate the lost one, protecting it and reasserting the strength of the herd. The lions skulk away, hungry and defeated…and the 8 year olds watching Animal Planet make it through one more day without needing therapy.

As the pastor eloquently tied his lion/herd example back to how the church treats its members who have strayed away from the community, things began clicking in place in my head. Not things about lions and prey, but things about my interactions with A.A.ers. Here’s my revelation: The A.A.’s weren’t concerned about meetings, so much as they were concerned about my straying from the herd! They cared about me! And they didn’t know that I wasn’t isolated, that my church community helped me stay spiritually fit, and that recovery remained top on my list of “to dos,” like breathing and checking facebook. The A.A.s and I weren’t at odds; we simply had a breakdown in communication!

If, as Johann Hari posits in this new book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, addiction stems from isolation rather than the addictive substance itself, the A.A.ers are right to be concerned. One of the things A.A. does best is fostering connections between people. In A.A. meetings, people reach out to help each other. Members reiterate time and time again the dangers of isolating; they insist that reaching out to help others who are suffering breaks the cycle of self-centered obsession. They insist that connection heals.

Unfortunately, when someone walks away from the fellowship of A.A., they often become victim to their own broken way of thinking, trapped in a mindset that breeds self-absorption and lends itself to epic ego trips. If they do not replace the A.A. fellowship with another kind of community, they are left vulnerable. But some of us DO have communities that support our recovery other than A.A. And, unsurprisingly, those of us who remain successful at staying sober often pick communities where the higher power is something other than ourselves (faith, yoga, meditation).

When I stopped going to A.A. meetings, I became more involved at church (in intensive small group Bible studies, to be exact). The folks in those groups committed to experiencing life together, to sharing joy & pain, to talking through what we might otherwise hide from the outside world. This worked for me. I wasn’t isolating; I was integrating into another herd. It is also worth noting that I spent a lot of time in my groups talking about recovery and A.A.

But just like when people return to church and they get the sideways glances, the curious “what sin have you been in” looks, the passive aggressive questions, folks get that when they’ve been absent from A.A. meetings, too. Although those sentiments are well-meaning (sometimes), they aren’t very helpful. They make people defensive; they imply that some of us are in, and some of us are out.

But just like God needs to be a “We are ALL in!” proposition, so does recovery. I may do my recovery differently. And I may do it in a way that some people don’t like. But I am doing it. I am putting in the work, and it works for me. We need to champion recovery, freedom from addiction, for everyone, no matter how they choose to obtain it. We can’t push people out of the herd for not doing it exactly our way–there is strength in numbers, especially if we encounter any lions.

Time

My first few weeks of sobriety, the amount of time I had available to me in a day overwhelmed me. Sure, I was busy from 8:00 a.m. until about 4:00 or 5:00 p.m.… but then what? Should I go out for coffee immediately after work, like I used to go out for beer? Should I go home and… I don’t know.. what did normal people do? Cook? But, if I went home, it felt so final. Like putting a period at the end of my day, when really, I just wanted a semi-colon. I wanted something to DO. But what? I wanted to talk, but I didn’t have anything to say. I wanted to engage, but I was disconnected. And just as I would finally settle in each night, finally finish wrestling with the vast expanse of time looming before me, it would be time to head back out to hit a meeting. I felt out of sync. Frustrated. Restless.

After a couple weeks of existing in a state of pure time suckage between work and a meeting, I began to perk up: I had TIME. Time that wasn’t consumed by frantic efforts to grade papers so that I could get to the bar. Time that didn’t involve trying to piece together hazy memories of drunken conversations, wondering what mortifying things I had said this time and to who. I could use this time to leaf through recipes, purchase ingredients and actually cook. Or to go for a run. I could read a book if I wanted—and I didn’t have to buy it from the discount section in Barnes & Noble; I had enough cash to buy any book I wanted, since I wasn’t spending it all on cheap beer & Taco Bell. These things, such mundane things, drew me in. I was finding a rhythm. Comfortable. Peaceful.

And then it happened…Somewhere between 30 and 60 days, I became obsessed with time. For starters, there wasn’t enough of it. The day only offered me 24 hours. 24. That was it. And part of the time had to be spent sleeping. And then, if I went for a run, I had to waste time getting dressed to run and showering after a run. I needed those wasted minutes. I wanted them back! I needed each second to make up for all the time I had sat in a bar and hadn’t read, hadn’t been involved in politics, hadn’t cooked dinner, hadn’t LIVED. Shit. How as I going to make up all that time? How?

Here’s the rub: I can’t. I can’t make up the time I spent staring into the bottom of a Miller Lite can. Nor can I be frantic about it, consumed by regret. I can only start again from here. Right now.

People in meetings are forever telling newcomers to stay where their feet are. This used to frustrate me immensely. I mean, what the hell? It is physically impossible for me to be anywhere other than where my feet are. But I finally got it (sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, they say). While it may be impossible to physically be somewhere other than where my feet are… psychically, I can be just about anywhere. My mind can whir faster than a hamster on a wheel; it gets just about as far, too. So, I have to reign it back in with prayer, meditation, hugging it out… whatever it takes. I have to bring myself back to the now. Hamster brain makes me feel hopeless, like too much of my life has been wasted for me to even try to make a difference in the world. And that is a lie, pure and simple.

Each day I get a choice about how I will spend my 24 hours. I can get bogged down in regret, overwhelmed by the future (and the never-ending pile of laundry in my house), or I can embrace what I am doing in the moment. I can relish the book I am reading (even if I haven’t read every book on my reading list). I can listen to my preschooler’s epic school adventures (instead of mentally ticking down my to-do list). And I can reach out and share hope; because for all the things I haven’t accomplished yet, I know this: WE DO RECOVER. Tremendous hope and power exists in that message, and I can use this moment to share it.

That is Okay

I glare at the dishwasher, which needs to be unloaded AGAIN. I am living on some rung of hell in which I finish emptying the dishwasher, only to turn around and find it full again. I have a working theory that my family takes spoons out of the drawer, licks them once, and puts them into the dishwasher. That is the only reasonable explanation for the number of spoons that our family of three uses in a day. And why am I the only one who seems capable of emptying the dishwasher? Sure, one of the family members isn’t even 4 years old yet… but come ON. Self-sufficiency is a noble goal.

The dishwasher seems to be winning our staring contest, so I begrudgingly begin to unload it. On an intellectual level, I realize that my ire falls somewhere between petty and gross ingratitude. I can easily parse out that I should feel grateful to have enough plates to fill a dishwasher; to have a dishwasher at all; hell, even to have running water to operate the dishwasher. But I don’t feel grateful. I feel annoyed. And that is okay.

When I was newly sober, I sat in plenty of meetings in which people explained that they were alcoholics, so they were selfish and self-centered. It almost sounded immutable…and definitely sounded hopeless. Wasn’t the point of recovery to move past being selfish and self-centered? I didn’t want to sit in meetings, sip bad coffee and painstakingly examine my character defects so that ten years down the road I could look at my own behavior, shrug and note that I was simply a self-centered alcoholic.

After spending a bit more time being sober and actually participating in the world around me, I noticed something remarkable: alcoholics have not, in fact, cornered the market on these particular defects of character. Many people are, to a degree, selfish and self-centered. Some people find themselves completely stymied by their own inward gaze, too caught up in themselves to even grasp the magnitude of their astounding self-absorption. Other people gain a bit of perspective, acknowledge their tendency toward self-centeredness, and take steps to surmount it.

But when I was newly sober, I didn’t have a terrific grasp on human nature… or on anything really. But I did find a tremendous amount of comfort in knowing how I “should” feel. I envisioned a gold standard of emotional maturity, and I was determined to intellectualize my way into feeling “right.” Poor, misled, over-caffinated newly sober me. Shoving down feelings, needing to be right, and obsessing about my emotions (commonly known as mistaking feelings for facts) had already led me to a dark, lonely place where I needed to a drink simply to be around myself. I didn’t need that in sobriety.

A lot of talk about “rigorous honesty” flies around recovery circles; the most difficult part of honesty for me is simply acknowledging how I feel, even when it isn’t “right.” Even when I don’t look like a saint. Even when how I feel is ungrateful, angry, self-righteous. Acknowledging my not-perfect feelings is central to my sanity and my sobriety. Because as soon as I acknowledge them, they lose their power. And because, sometimes, I just need to bitch about the dishwasher.

I think about all of these things: the selfish, self-centered alcoholic; the newly sober self-righteous me; acknowledging and moving on as I empty the dishwasher. As I stretch to reach the top cabinet shelf, I notice the smooth finish on the plates and their newly-washed shine. I reach for another plate to put away, but I’ve already finished. My resentment about unloading the dishwasher seems to have magically dissipated.

I look over the kitchen counter to the family room, where books, toys, shoes and various and sundry items are strewn about the floor. I glare at the family room floor. And that is okay.

Finding Balance

She waits for her turn on the balance beam. My heart clenches. She’s only four years old; the beam stands as tall as her head, and she is afraid of heights. In fact, she asked to quit gymnastics because of this very beam. 

She waits for her turn on the balance beam. My heart clenches. She’s only four years old; the beam stands as tall as her head, and she is afraid of heights. In fact, she asked to quit gymnastics because of this very beam. 

As I watch my daughter standing in line, waiting her turn, I realize that I spend a lot of time hoping that she isn’t like me.

Maybe I should amend that to read: I spend a lot of time hoping my daughter isn’t like original me.

When people find out I am in recovery, they often start poking around in my childhood trying to figure out what drove me to look for my solutions at the bottom of a Miller Lite can. Truth is, there isn’t a lot to find. What they really want to know is what my parents DID to make me this way. While their investigations used to be a sort of morbid curiosity about my sordid descent, now there is a desperation to the questioning… because now most of my friends have kids. They want to know how to spare their kids from the complete demoralization of addiction… and who can blame them? Addiction destroys. And they want their kids to live fully. I get it.

But here’s the rub: my parents didn’t DO anything to send me running to hide in the buzzy bliss of a drink. They loved me, provided for me, encouraged me, and cared for me. They were not abusive, neglectful or cruel. But I did somehow manage to grow up devoid of any coping mechanisms. I never really grew out of the egocentric stage—not in that I thought that everything should be mine, but I believed the world was always thinking about me, always laughing at me, always rejecting me on some level. I was constantly on stage, naked and ashamed, a dream I could never quite shake. These thoughts consumed me to the point that I could not find room for compassion, empathy, and big, radical love for the world. Instead, my love was always a tight, clenching love that craved constant approval, approbation, attention. This constant striving and reaching created original me: an overly sensitive kid, prone to anxiety and hopelessness. It created the perfect internal environment to brew an alcoholic.

So, yeah, I kinda don’t want my kid to be like that. Before she arrived in this world, I had these intense hopes that she’d be born with an adventurous spirit, kind but not too sensitive, with a deep desire to simply be her own person. In short, I wanted her to be exactly the kid I was not. But, either way, I knew my partner and I held a secret parenting weapon: we could teach our daughter to practice the principles of AA without ever having to learn them in a meeting. This is a perk no one tells you about when you walk into the rooms; but it has incredible value in the topsy-turvy world of parenting.

We talk to our daughter often about trying her best. In the preschool world of always wanting to run the fastest, to be first in line, to win the game, we try to remind her that her best is all she can give. That she isn’t defined by her successes or failures. That kindness and bravery count more than a perfect soccer kick. Just trying is sometimes the biggest win.

She climbs up on the beam. She teeters a bit. I can see her arms shake as she holds them out from her sides to balance. Then she takes one step. And another. And unlike last session, she doesn’t freeze and wait for an adult to help her. She talks halting steps … all the way across the beam.

She breaks into a huge grin, waving like a maniac at me. Her mother. Who did nothing more than encourage her to let go of her fear and to really live.

And she owned that beam.