Powerlessness in Hualcayán, Peru


Children respond to me pulling out my camera in a classroom in Hualcayán, Peru.

So, I have this new understanding of being powerless.  The power has been out since last Thursday in this remote northern Andean village where I have been for the past couple of weeks, and with a couple more weeks to come.  Turns out being without electricity really did not make a difference.  The only real downside was that all the laptops eventually went dead, meaning no more internet.  Solar charges were only good for iPads, iPods and other devices that could not hook into the tenuous 2G network up here.  I came to like it.    I got much more in tune with the village life where electrical outages are common and can last a couple of weeks.

It reminded me of a much simpler and enjoyable time.  When we were painting the inside of a building that will turn into the Hualcayán Museo in a couple of weeks, there was a tinge of nostalgia that was very satisfying about the experience.  The same with eating dinner by candle light, visiting other folks in their homes and shops illuminated only by candles or cooking fires.  Seems we outsiders were the only folks with flashlights and headlamps.  My solar charger was the only one in the entire village.  No one had a gas generator either.  The folks of Hualcayán simply take it one day at a time on this issue.

One of the most memorable parts of the experience was a conversation I had with a student who traveled to Peru from the U.S. on this project.  She was very self-critical of her work down here, second guessing herself way too much.  So we discussed how doing things the first time is messy and not precise.  We were able to talk about her work and let her know that she was doing an absolutely spectacular job.  After the conversation I took her aside and commented that I was not certain what led her to such intense self-criticism of herself.  I shared my experiences of dismal feelings of self-worth in my past life.  I noted that mine came from my alcoholism and that it has taken a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin. I was just wanted reassure her that she was a spectacular young woman doing phenomenal work.  She was quite appreciative of me sharing my experience, strength, and hope.

So here is my punch line for the day – I thoroughly enjoy that recovery is present in all of my thinking – whether in the loss of electricity, or someone in distress for who knows what reasons.

Now I am sitting in Caraz, a town with power where we will have meetings the next two days about collaborative projects on a new museum planned for this small town in the Huaylas Province.  I look at the chair next to my bed and see an iPad, cell phone, and iPod being charged with power.  Sometimes powerlessness is the better choice.

An Attitude of Gratitude in the Andes



I have been up in Hualcayán, Peru for the past several days. As I noted in my last blog post, the place is well off of the beaten path and does take quite a bit of effort to get to. So the trip took 28 hours to get to within a 90 minute further drive up an unpaved road. On my other blog, I wrote about that process.

Even though the temperatures get down into the low 30s at night, there is no heat, there is no hot water for a shower, we sleep in sleeping bags on a cement floor and the 3G wireless connection is tenuous, at very best (don’t know when I will actually be able to publish this piece) – but I am having an absolutely fantastic time.

  • The students I work with up here are truly fantastic. They want to be here, have incredibly positive attitudes in a less than ideal environment for Western creature comforts. I thoroughly enjoy working with them.
  • I am pleased that I have a real opportunity to not only apply my professional skills, but the project is also something that I believe in.
  • But the best part of my experience is getting out of myself and being able to engage with and learn from other folks. Here is a story about that: I was sitting in our lab with my coat and hat on for warmth last night doing some after hours work. A woman from the village and her daughter stopped by to have a conversation with the project co-director about various issues. I was downloading images from my camera taken earlier that day. When I looked up, I was startled to see Lorenia, the thirteen-year-old daughter standing beside me, looking intently at the photos as they flashed through iPhoto on my laptop screen. My first reaction was wanting her to disappear so I could continue with my work. That was not going to happen, as she pulled up a stool and sat down right next to me intent on my laptop screen. We ran through the limited conversation my Spanish allowed – age, family, school, the weather and so forth. She did not budge. So, I ran through pictures I downloaded of her classmates at the school celebration the day before, then photos from the village cultural heritage festival last year. Her mother was still in conversation and Lorenia was not going anywhere. I then went through photos of my nietos, nietas, esposa, hijos, hihas, perros, and more. I pretty much exhausted my iPhoto images that might be entertaining. I then booted my Rosetta Stone Spanish Language software and we played that game for a long time. The mother’s conversation ended and they left after about 2 hours. This is a story I will probably remember for a long time. Like many other experiences in life, I tend to remember those stories where I am able to get out of myself and relate to others. Of late, I have come to wonder if these events/stories will prove as memorable to other participants, like Lorenia.

Where does all of this come back to recovery? Last night the students were passing some sort of clear Peruvian brandy around the table where we eat dinner. The glass got to the person sitting next to me, a student I worked with previously, who knew I did not drink. She did not offer me the glass but passed it on to the next person. Another student suggested I might want some. I declined. No big deal to anyone.

But as I sit here now and reflect, I think of how, with one drink, all of the wonderful experiences I had in the past few days would go down the tube. As well, I would never come back to Hualcayán. Had I not been sober, I would never have gotten here to begin with.   I would never have been in the position to have the childhood friend of my step daughter who is the director of the project invite me to participate in the first place.

For all of the above I am truly grateful.


Being Open to Possibilities . . .

IMG_1745Today I am heading to Peru for the next month.  I went last year for the first time and wrote about the experience.  That trip was a huge success and over the past year my colleagues and I have been busy arranging for next steps.  Here is the website for the project www.piaraperu.org.

The relevance to recovery is not the specifics of the trip.  Instead, I consider this whole adventure as an active part of recovery and being open to possibilities.  During my active drinking and drugging, I had a myriad of excuses/reasons why something could not happen.  The rationale usually focused on how I was being treated unfairly, was burdened by an oppressive system, and on and on.

In recovery I am often still reluctant to seize the moment and take advantage of opportunities that fit my abilities to be of service.  Too easily I can fall back into waiting for the other foot to drop, as it were.  In fact, with the Peru project I procrastinated for nearly two years before taking action.

I am not certain where all the self-doubt comes from.  I refuse to play the victim of my youth when my story has it that I was not good enough, smart enough, came from the wrong side of the tracks, and so forth.  I know I have come a long way from that space.  Like everything in recovery, I have consistently found that if I do my part of the work and trust the process, the rewards are great!

Abstinence vs. Control Drinking

up-treePlease indulge me for a bit of a rant.  I came across a blog the other day A Different Path to Fighting Addiction.  After reading the post, I was a bit disappointed* in the reliability of the cited studies.  Although I could quibble with much in the post, like unreferenced studies** that question the effectiveness Twelve Step Programs, such as:

A 2002 study conducted by researchers at the University of New Mexico and published in the journal Addiction showed that motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapy and naltrexone, which are often used together, are far more effective in stopping or reducing drug and alcohol use than the faith-and-abstinence-based model of A.A. and other “TSF” — for 12-step facilitation — programs. Results of an updated study have not yet been released.

Researchers elsewhere have come up with similar findings. In 2006, the Cochrane Library, a health care research group, reviewed four decades of global alcohol treatment studies and concluded, “No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or TSF approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems.” Despite that research, A.A.’s 12-step model is by far the dominant approach to addiction in America.

The article goes on to question the rigidity, religious base, and all-or-nothing approach in AA.  I tend to shake my head at such proclamations.  For 30 years now I have attended AA meetings that typically open with reading “How it Works” where the steps are noted as being “suggested” and meetings typically close with the “take what you like and leave the rest” line.

I am also a very strong believer in seeking a range of support and treatment options beyond the limits of AA rooms.  I am well aware that there are some AA members who are extremely rigid, as there are some politicians, animal welfare advocates, personal trainers, members of religious denominations and a very long list of other rigid practitioners in their own fields.  However, in all of my time in recovery, I have never felt pressured into an AA activity such as getting a sponsor, etc. etc.  In fact as I noted in a guest post Kristen invited me to write over at Bye-Bye Beer I have a rather checkered AA history in terms of following traditional best practices.

I do take strong issue with one point raised in the A Different Path to Fighting Addiction blog post:

His father, who drinks socially, told him that people either were alcoholics or were not. But L.S. was unprepared to accept that label and began researching moderation on his own. He found a New York branch of Moderation Management, or M.M., a secular, peer-led support group that takes a cognitive behavioral approach. In contrast to A.A., which stresses a drinker’s lack of power in the presence of alcohol, M.M. encourages personal responsibility for drinking. The group, founded in 1993, encourages members to start with an alcohol-free month, and then allows for the reintroduction of moderate amounts of alcohol.

I would fail miserably at Moderation Management.  I have just been down that road too many times.  During a solid year of therapy in 1983 I tried and tried to “relearn to drink” wanting only to go into a bar, have three beers like everyone else, and go home.  It never worked.  It did not work after weeks of prior abstinence either.  My experience is certainly not unique and is heard regularly both within and outside of AA.  At the same time, I do know folks from my younger years who simply quit drinking and moved on with life.

I realize there is a certain circular logic in all of this for the proponents of AA.  If one continues to drink excessively, they are termed an alcoholic.  If one drank excessively, then drinks moderately for long-term, they are viewed as a non-alcoholic heavy drinker.  For the proponents of AA this logic works well, assures a certain infallibility in diagnosis, and preserves their hegemony for “true alcoholics” recovery.

But, I don’t get the need or desire for moderate drinking vs. abstention in the face of chronic alcohol abuse.  Were someone to offer me a pill or therapy and assured me that I could then drink moderately and successfully, I would not take them up on the offer.  What I have learned over the years, both within the Twelve Step Program, and outside, including years of therapy, from Day 1, my reason to drink alcohol was to escape.

I appreciate that for many others escape/getting drunk/wasted or whatever is not the primary reason for drinking.  I am not a Big Book Thumper or believer that AA is the only way.  However, I do find statements such as “No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA” akin to tobacco company lobbyists arguing that nicotine has not conclusively been demonstrated to be an addictive substance.

Would it not be easier to just say that AA does not work for everyone?  In fact, AA may only work for a certain type of alcoholic.  M.M. and the plethora of other possible alternatives are available too.  In my experience, AA seems quite happy to let everyone else in the world flourish in their recovery worlds.  I am surprised that those other recovery worlds do not reciprocate.

* Please note I am not taking issue with the individual who wrote the blog post, but the conclusions noted in the studies.

** If there is not enough information to track down the reference, and the vaguely reported data, as in this case, then it’s no better than the great anonymous “they said” authority.  The data reported leaves a myriad of unanswered questions.  The problem with reliance on such vague notions of authority is that one can find similarly reported studies that argue the exact opposite conclusion.  Then it gets to the devil quoting scripture and all that.

Reflecting on My First Drink . . .

luminoussunriseToday is the Fourth of July or Independence Day in the United States.

Recovering alcoholics often remember their last drink.  I also remember my first drink at the age of 10 years old, on the Fourth of July in 1962.  We were at a family picnic, it was raining and all the men were hanging out in the garage waiting for the weather to break.  In the garage was a cooler of beer.  My father consented that I could have one.  I remember that I did not particularly like the taste, but it was the manly thing to do so I drank.  But I also remember that by the end of the bottle, I felt a slight effect from the alcohol, and I really liked that a lot.  Here was the magic substance that somehow fixed my chronic depression and unhappiness.  For the next 12 years, I increasingly used alcohol and drugs as the medication to make everything okay.  For the next 10 years after that, alcohol stopped working for me and I struggled with my inability to control my drinking, constant blackouts, along with the physical, emotional, and spiritually bankruptcy.

This morning I reflect on the freedom from that insanity and gratitude for the possibility of recovery.  One of the AA Promises is that “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.”  Today, I often say that if every breath I have ever taken and ever drink I ever drank got me to where I am today, I would not change a thing.”

For living to see the fruition of that promise and freedom, I am truly grateful.

Trying to Make a Difference Each Day

swingI thought the other day about how I could try to actually make a difference in someone’s life each day.  I know this does not need to be a dramatic effort and can be as simple as a kind word to someone having a bad day – or one my favorites – when I see a real young person on a bike trail I always say “Hey, I really like your bike!”  I think of how cool that must be for someone who is struggling to stay up on two wheels to have some old person compliment them on their effort.

And the point is, it really does not matter whether I actually make a difference in someone’s day or not.  Rather the thing is about getting out of myself and at least attempting to connect with another human being.

Yesterday I spoke to a group of folks in a national community service project about going to graduate school when they completed their year-long project.  I believe I bring a helpful perspective on this topic because I have considerable experience in the area but also do not believe graduate school is necessarily the next progressive step in life.  Another perspective I bring to the discussion is one of redemption.  I am able to report that checkered academic pasts can be overcome.  I briefly tell my story of having an undergraduate 0.7 GPA during my first try at college, coming back 15 years later and achieve a well-funded PhD.  My point being, not that I am brilliant, but that redemption is possible.

So yesterday I told this story I have told so many times and the words clearly resonate with the group.  One person asks so do you think that the 15 years you took off helped you better figure out what you wanted for a career.  I hesitated for a moment and then candidly replied that yes, the 15 years off did make a difference, but the biggest difference was that I quit drinking when I went back to school.  My intent was not to talk about my recovery, but rather, honestly respond to a question.

After the talk was over, out of the group of 30 or so in the room, 3 folks approached me about their own addiction/recovery process and checkered academic pasts and thanked me for being truthful.

In this instance, my intent was not to “make a difference” but if I have that idea somewhere at least planted in the back of my mind, like having an “attitude of gratitude” I am better able to move in that direction.

I owe this blessing completely to being a person in recovery.  There is a difference in operating from a position of grandiosity and one of truth-telling.  I am grateful that recovery allows me to at least attempt to live in my truth.