Progress Not Perfection

monkeyOver the years, I have had many very good lessons on how our recovery is a matter of progress and not perfection. I realize how incredibly selfish I can be. I am good at casually, but intentionally, including in my sharing and stories things like “during the two years I drove Meals on Wheels 5 days a week” or “during one of my recent medical mission trips to Panama” and so forth. But I also realize that those are acts done on my terms, when I choose to do them. In cleaning out some paperwork the other day, I came across some notes from a few years ago where I certainly came up short.  Here are a couple of those stories from a while ago . . .

I was going to mail a letter on my way to a meeting. I pulled into the P.O. lot to the mailbox. Another car was parked there in front of me. They were fumbling with something inside their car, wasting my precious time. I congratulated myself that in the past I would have blown my horn to alert them to their being in my way. Instead, as I was running late, I got out of my car, walked beside the other car to the mailbox and put in my letter. As I was walking back to my car, from the other car, came a voice “Can you do that for me too?” I pretended not to hear. As I drove away, I saw the elderly person in the car extend their hand toward the mail slot but drop their two letters on the ground. Their car door opened and they started to try to pick up the letters. I drove off. I was a half block away when the full impact of my arrogance hit me. I was a block away before I thought I should go back, but was too embarrassed by my selfish behavior to do so. I was two blocks away when I ran through all the rationalizations on why it was really this persons problem and not mine, they should have pulled up closer to the box, and so forth. I was a couple more blocks away when the absolute arrogance, stupidity, and just plain inhuman nature of my behavior hit me like a ton of bricks. This was probably the most knowingly inhuman act I committed in a while. Not a big deal, one might think, but to me, it had all the characteristics of that “self-will run riot” of addictive behavior. I know that type of behavior is what will lead me to relapse. Bottom line, I did not go back, rightly or wrongly, figuring the issue was resolved by the time I processed this all through, but also convinced that I needed and absolutely must have a complete change in attitude. I learned something.

And . . . I came home from work and there were two dogs sleeping in our front yard. They were reasonably well fed but had no collars. Clearly, someone had gotten tired of the dogs and dumped them on our street. My wife wanted to do “something” for them. I immediately went into my “we already have three rescue dogs . . .” The larger of the two abandoned dogs was panting from lack of water. The little one incessantly barked at me. The larger would walk in front of the barking dog trying to quiet him basically saying “hey we are lost, these people are at least paying attention to us, I am thirsty, give it a rest.” Fresh from the mailbox incident, I was able to process through my selfishness a bit quicker this time. Our dogs were barking like crazy on the inside of the house. I got the strays a bucket of water that they drank up quickly. An hour later they were still laying in our front yard. We sent out an email to the neighborhood asking if anyone was missing the dogs. It was going to rain. I went to get a couple of kennels from our back yard to set in the front so the dogs could at least stay out of the rain.  By the time I got to the front, the dogs had followed someone else down the street. They have not come back.

Here is my point in telling these stories, even though from a few years ago. I am forever grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous for giving me the tools to at least process through my behaviors. I have been sober for a bunch of years. I thoroughly enjoy and am excited by the fact that I can continue to make progress, never achieving perfection. During my active alcoholism, I would never have gotten to the point of even questioning my motives and behaviors. I always started from the premise that I was right and it was the world that was wrong. I realize today, that self-righteous attitude often is still my starting point, but through the experience, strength, and hope of recovery, I am able to move beyond my own self-serving behaviors and think about others as well. That gift is what keeps me coming back. Two of my favorite sayings are “process, not an event” and “progress, rather than perfection.”

Be-liev-a-rex-ic – An Eating Disorder Story

believeI have never done a straight-up book review/recommendation on this blog.  Last week I came across a book Be-lieve-a-rex-ic by J.J. Johnson at the Peachtree Press exhibit at the National Council of Social Studies meetings in New Orleans.  The book is a more-or-less autobiographical account of Ms. Johnson’s two month in-patient treatment for her eating disorder some 25 years ago.  On the book’s website the author includes her journal from the hospitalization.  The website also has a set of resources for addressing eating disorders, along with affirmations, her own in-patient treatment plan, and a bunch of other related materials.

The author defines believearexia as “a pervasive alternation between craving for and aversion to belief in one’s self.”  That definition leads to a story of which I can relate from the adage of being an “egomaniac with an inferiority complex” as a practicing addict and ultimately leading to a search for true self in recovery.

The first 50 pages of the book set-up the inpatient treatment – a very real experience of a fifteen year-old fighting the demons of bulimia with parents who are in denial that anything is wrong other than their daughter’s craving for attention.

I found the opening sequence particularly powerful:

Who is the girl with the eating disorder

if she doesn’t have an eating disorder?

Nothing.

No one.

A nonentity

I related strongly to the lead character’s complete consumption and self-identification through their addiction.

Besides being just a good read, I found the book very helpful on a couple of levels.  First, Ms. Johnson paints a vivid picture of the manifestations of an eating disorder and the treatment process.  Second, the book reinforced for me that in many ways addiction is addiction is addiction.   Her story of in-patient treatment for her eating disorder mirrored my in-patient treatment for alcoholism – from the Code Blue emergencies, interactions with staff, rebellion against rules and the workarounds created by patients, the period of self-discovery, and the regimentation and discipline of the experience – to the ultimate recovery road.

I also related to Ms. Johnson’s committing herself to the in-patient program in a sense of desperation and then “drinking the kool-aid” of recovery pretty early in the treatment when others in her cohort continued to fight the process.

For an addict, particularly with eating disorders, reading Believarexic is much like looking into a mirror.

I also enjoyed that the book is written by someone who has come out the other side – has met their demons and is now living into their true self.  In recovery, in addition to having a family, Ms. Johnson has received graduate degrees in education, worked as a counselor to at risk youth, and now the author of multiple young adult novels translated into six languages.  The book’s website also has candid updates on Ms. Johnson’s recovery over the past twenty-five years that includes some relapses.  The book is a real life story of addiction and the ongoing process of recovery, reminiscent of  Nicole John’s book Purge. 

I should add that the title is listed as a “Young Adult” book but will be of value to anyone who suffers from or knows someone who suffers from an eating disorder – or any other addiction disorder.

An excellent read.

Expectations Mess You Up

sand1I was having a conversation recently with a fellow addict and we were talking about our mutual eating disorders.  For the friend, food is their primary addiction, and alcohol a more secondary issue.  For me it is the reverse.

I relayed how after 30 years of sobriety, alcohol, dexedrine, and my other mind altering drugs of choice remain the furthest thing from my mind.  I have been nicotine free for coming up on 20 years.  But food – that is another whole issue.  I have written before about how just in the last few years, I realized I had a full-blown eating disorder when as a young kid I had to push the stool up against the kitchen counter to climb up to scoop sugar into my mouth from the storage canister.

And today, I can and often times do go into that same binge behavior.

As I was talking to my friend, I noted that losing weight was not a problem for me.  I can yo-yo up and down with some regularity.  As we talked, I had a huge revelation.  For at least the last 20 years, there has been a strong correlation between my binge eating and my career expectations.  Most dramatically, about 10 years ago I weighed more than I have ever weighed in my life – some 60 pounds overweight.  I was in a job where the expectations on what I was hired to do got shifted midstream and the job became miserable.  For a couple of years I struggled with trying to figure out what was wrong.  When I realized that I was trying to put my square skills and interests into a round job hole, the recognition was truly transformative.  My expectations were at odds with the new job demands.  It was irrelevant whether my expectations were reasonable or not, they were not going to be met.  When I realized this, my expectations shifted dramatically, my food got good, I became more physically active, and I lost 60 pounds in under six months.  I kept the weight off and had a good relationship with food for a couple of years.

Since that time, my eating disorder has been directly tied to my feeling of self-worth – when I have value and feel supported in what I am doing, my food is good.  When my expectations are not met, when I struggle to maintain a sense of self-worth and value in what I am doing in the world, my eating disorder comes to the fore.

Like so much in recovery, I don’t get down to the lowest of lows as I might have done in the more distant past before I start to climb out. But, like all else, my eating disorder recovery is truly a process and not a single event.  I consider myself blessed today to at least be aware of the questions and some of the answers that work.

Stories of What Works In Recovery

eckoOver my time in recovery, most of what I learned in support groups has worked but some advice turned out not to hold much water:

  • Story 1 – If I don’t go to AA meetings/have a sponsor/read the Big Book, I will get drunk.  Fact is I have gone for years without attending an AA meeting, haven’t had a formal sponsor in at least 20 years, and don’t read the Big Book that much. But . . . I do acknowledge every day that I am a recovering addict, I do relate and engage with other addicts on a regular basis, and I regularly read  about and study living into the solution.
  • Story 2 – If I do go into a bar, keep alcohol in the house, go to slippery places, I will get drunk.  Fact is, I go to a bar if I have reason to, we keep alcohol in the house for company, and what has been a slippery place in the past (Mardis Gras for example) in sobriety is a sober party.  But . . . I don’t go to bars to hang out, I have poured alcohol down the sink when it sat in the house for too long and started talking to me, and slippery places today are boring, obnoxious and loud.
  • Story 3 – As a recovering addict I should not take any mood altering drug under any circumstance as it would trigger the old addictive cravings.  I had some out-patient surgery about five years ago and was given some narcotics for pain after, just in case.  After laying in bed that night and not being able to get in any position where the pain was not excruciating, I took one of the pills, got through the night, in the morning went back to Motrin, and dumped the rest of the narcotics down the toilet.
  • Story 4 – just happened yesterday.  In January I had some oral surgery and opted not to given a general anesthesia because I did not want the drunken stupor effect.  I went with a local while the doctor hammered and drilled on my jaw.  It was not fun.  Though the after effects were not that bad, I got by with Motrin alone.  I had a repeat surgery yesterday.  The surgeon said it was going to be worse this time and he strongly advised me to go with the general anesthesia.  He noted too that with a general, the pain after would not be as bad – for reasons I am not certain.  He asked “So what are your concerns about this?”  I replied that I just did not want to have that feeling of euphoria while going under or waking up.  He noted that could be taken care of by the type of drugs administered.  It worked.  The last thing I remember was the anesthesiologist saying, now you might feel some burning on the iv . . . and me waking up 4 hours later and asking where am I.  A bit shaky, but after a two-hour drive we arrived home, and now 24 hours later, I am taking the prescribed antibiotic and Motrin, but have not touched the oxycodone prescription that got filled “just in case.”

Here is my takeaway on all of this – if I am living in recovery, that which would have led to a binge in the past is not a problem today.  I have posted before on my active addiction and recovery life in New Orleans, my favorite city on earth.  Forty years ago I experienced the worst of my worst blackout drinking and suicidal behaviors in the City That Care Forgot.  Today, I walk the same streets alive and with meaning, living into the solution.

But I know, too, that I am one drink and one drug from being back in the active addiction.  When my wife came home yesterday with the prescriptions for the antibiotic, motrin, and narcotic, she said “I only got half the prescription on the narcotic filled.  Even if you are in pain, that is some strong stuff and you are just going to flush it down the toilet anyway.”  And so here I am 24-hours later without any pain, and I thought about the time some 40 years ago when I had strep throat and was prescribed a narcotic for that pain.  I didn’t take the narcotic while I was sick then because I did not want to waste it while I felt bad.  I was going to save it for when I felt good.  That thought crossed my mind last night with my just prescribed narcotic.

I am pleased that the blessings of recovery that I have experienced over the past decades have insured that I will flush these pills as I have done in the past.  Today, being anesthetized is not my normative existence as it had been in the past.  It is now reserved for things like surgery.  Today the blessings of life are so abundant that I do not want to miss any in a drugged out state.  That is my story today.