What Recovery/Sobriety/Abstinence Means to Me.

vinetreeFor the past 7 months I have been “abstinent” in Overeaters Anonymous.  I define that abstinence by not adding sugar to what I eat, not eating something in which one of the first three ingredients is sugar, and not bingeing on food.  I have been nicotine free following a 12-Step program for some 18 years.  In one week I will be sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for 32 years.  What does all of this really mean?  A few points:

  • I am reasonably in awe of the fact that were I not in recovery, most of what I do today would not happen.  As I write this, I am sitting in a colleague’s house in Lima, Peru.  The colleague was a childhood friend of the daughter of my wife.  I met my wife when I worked in Northeast Louisiana after receiving a graduate degree from the University of Illinois, where I had received a full scholarship after graduating with an MA from the University of Cincinnati where I had gone back to college in 1985 after waiting the recommended one year before making any major life decisions in sobriety.  As my pre-recovery attempt at college produced a whopping 0.7 GPA, I can reasonably attribute sobriety to launching me on the path that led me to sitting in Lima, Peru, today, where I type this post.
  • For alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, “sobriety” is unambiguous – I don’t put those substances in my body.  Abstinence from compulsive overeating is not so universally defined.  In OA the individual defines their own abstinence.  To some, such a self-definition is the equivalent of deciding to drink only beer and not hard liquor, etc for a self-defined sobriety.  I view abstinence as the same as sobriety in abstaining from those foods or eating behaviors that cause me problems.  Sugar is one.  Binge eating is another.
  • In recovery from compulsive overeating, a rigid adherence to a set of rules or regulations would be akin to a diet – something that has never worked for me.
  • I have learned in the past 30 years that recovery has little to do with actual substance to which I am addicted.  Putting down the bottle, the pill, the cigarette, the food only allows me the clarity to begin living life on life’s terms and a path toward discovery of true self that I masked with my various drugs of choice.
  • In this way, when I entered the University of Cincinnati in 1985 with one year of sobriety, being physically sober allowed me the clarity and the ability to take tests, write papers and perform the mechanics of going to school and being accountable.  But the process of recovery, an attitude of gratitude, a belief in hope, and a desire to live life fully enables me to take those steps forward and to climb out of the bottle of addiction.
  • In this way, recovery is marked less by the date I stopped using a specific substance to avoid living life, but rather the day I decided to move forward with living life fully on life’s terms and to begin the journey to discover my true self.

 

The Honor of Being Asked in Recovery

dinner

My annual month or so trip to the rural Peruvian Andes usually ends around the time of my sobriety anniversary – August 4, 1984. Given the timing and circumstances, I tend to be reflective about life in recovery during these trips.

The other night my Peruvian colleague Elizabeth and I hosted a small dinner for a family with whom we have become quite close. In a week or so we will serve as Godparents for a baptism in the family and Best Man and Maid of Honor at the parent’s wedding. At the dinner, besides sharing a meal, kicking the soccer ball in the kitchen with the children, and general conversation, we also discussed the wedding and baptism plans.

The father expressed apologies for needing to change the date for the events.  Locating his baptismal certificate proved a problem, taking him to several nearby towns seeking out clergy who might have the record. You cannot be married by the Roman Catholic church in Peru without a baptismal certificate. Turns out that because the father was so ill as an infant he was given an emergency sacrament short of a baptism because he was not expected to live. I don’t get that theology. Ultimately though, a payment to the local clergy of 100 soles (about $30.00 US) was able to secure a baptismal certificate, without the need of the actual administration of the sacrament. I do understand that theology.

The mother who was raised by her grandparents did not remember ever being told she was baptized, nor did the grandparents have any recollection of the event. However, a visit to the church 2 hours away did produce a baptismal certificate for her.

The children’s baptisms and wedding will take place at 8:00 AM on Friday morning –  a convenient time for the clergy. The mother noted the early hour would require leaving the village at 3:00 AM to get to the city in time to get the children dressed and the girls’ hair styled properly. We suggested instead that we go down the night before, pay for a couple of hotel rooms that would have hot water so everyone could be well rested and fully ready for the events. We will make a visit down a few days ahead of time to make all the necessary arrangements for the hotel, clothes, celebration, food, and other details.

Elizabeth and I have expressed and reflected on the honor in the roles that we are invited to play with the family. I have known the family for about 4 years now, more regularly and well for the past 3 – Elizabeth for the past 6 years. Several things about the family stand out to me. The mother and father always have friendly and playful conversations. The children are simply a delight – well adjusted, bright, caring, and friendly little people. Their home is a place of joy and comfort. Both the father and mother work very hard to build a future for their family.

I am honored to play a small role in their lives.

What does all of this have to do with my sobriety anniversary and recovery in general? Thirty plus years ago I was broken – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – I had nothing to give and only sought for my next drink. Were it not for my walking a recovery path, one day at a time, I would never have the opportunities I have today.  I would never have gotten to know Elizabeth or the Peruvian family. I am grateful too, though this is a one-day-at-a-time program, that the rewards of recovery continue to pile up to allow me to participate more fully as a human being in this world. I am blessed with over thirty years of recovery from alcoholism. I just realized that this year at the age of 64, with 32 years of sobriety, I have been sober half as long as I have been alive.  That too is a blessing.

The ultimate relevance of this story to recovery is what I remember reading in the AA Big Book during my 30-day detox program.  The goal of AA was to allow alcoholics to become functioning humans contributing to society.  That is all I ever wanted, and I have gotten that and so much more!

 

From Entitlement to Action in Recovery

entitleagencyEntitlement is “I deserve this just because I want it” and agency is “I know I can do this.”  The combination of fear of disappointment, entitlement, and performance pressure is a recipe for hopelessness and self-doubt.

– Brené Brown The Gifts of Imperfection

Dr. Brown’s quote is quite revealing.  I witnessed a dramatic shift from entitlement to agency in my recovery – and like everything, the shift is a process and not an event.  But I was not a total slouch, born with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth.  In fact, I had my first factory job when I was 16, and have been generally financially self-supporting my entire life – never unemployed for more than a couple of weeks between jobs.  But, I was incredibly resentful of my state in life compared to others.  I had a ready excuse to explain why my relative brilliance was not recognized by the world.  I recollect well, after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA during my first try at college, telling my academic advisor I did not need his bourgeois education – I was going to make it on my own.  All of which led me to a detox unit some ten years later.  I have posted about some of this before.

But in recovery self-doubt has remained.  I was about seven-years sober, finally earned BA and MA degrees and was awarded a full scholarship to a PhD program.  I distinctly remember driving across the Indiana cornfields to register for classes and thinking “who am I trying to fool” and “what will happen when they find out.”  As good as I could get on the agency thing at that time was convincing myself that I was going to give this my best shot, and also give myself permission to drop out after the first semester if I was clearly in over my head.

In less than five years I graduated, got my dream job, but again was incredibly concerned about being found out.  Fast forward 20 years and I am now retiring from a different dream job.  Over the years the “I know I can do this” has become a bigger part of my existence.  Take writing.  The “publish or perish” higher education mantra is impressed upon students along with the pecking order of prestigious publications.  I have published well above average over the years, but not until the last five years have I felt I truly found my writing voice.  My best writing is in my “professional blog” that would fill another four or five books but that is considered the lowest on prestige chart.  But I find everything except my blog writing to actually be a rather tedious unenjoyable process.  The only real exception to that has been my last edited volume.  I believe this is the case because the last book is one that most expresses my values and interests.

So, I might add to Dr. Brown’s definition that “I know I can do this and I want to do this

The process of finding and then living into true self has been the most exciting part of my life in recovery.  My “bourgeois education” provided some equipment for that process, but, without question what I have received through the 12-steps and other related recovery is where I have learned how to use that equipment . . . and I am always pleased to know that the process is never done!