Foolish vs. Wise Selfishness in Recovery

Here is a truth I have come to know in Alcoholics Anonymous service work: I have never performed an act, whether a twelve step call, helping set up or clean up a meeting, carrying the message to a prison or detox institution when I did not feel better after.

On the one hand, a quote from the Dalai Lama in the Book of Joy might seem relevant:

“Then as we approached Patna, under a hut I saw an old man lying on the ground.  His hair was disheveled, his clothes were dirty, and he looked sick.  He had no one to take care of him.  Really, he looked as if he were dying.  All the way to the hospital, I was thinking of this man and felt his suffering, and I completely forgot my own pain” p. 47

But I know there is much more . . . again from the Dalai Lama in the same volume:

Foolish selfishness means you just think of yourself, don’t care about others, bully others, exploit others.  In fact, taking care of others, helping others, ultimately is the way to discover your own joy and to have a happy life.  So that is what I call wise selfishness. p. 48

This latter quote articulates well an understanding that I have come to know.  I expressed this to the family of Peruvian student who lived with my wife and I for two years while she completed a Masters Degree in the U.S.  When the student’s family gathered in our dining room for a meal at the time of the her graduation, I noted how they always thanked my wife and I for providing a home and watching out after their daughter/granddaughter/niece/sister while she was far from her Lima, Peru home.  I expressed to the family how it was my wife and I who wanted to thank them for allowing us the opportunity to be of service, to be in community with others – something that enriches the lives of my wife and I.   This is where the “wise selfishness” comes into the picture – or the very essence of the prayer popularly attributed to St. Francis  with the lines “for it is in giving that one receives, it is in self-forgetting that one finds, it is in pardoning that one is pardoned”

I found this logic flowing too in another recent conversation with a colleague.  I noted how they were overworked and that I could assist.  They responded that they had not wanted to burden me with additional tasks because they knew I was spending a lot of time in medical appointments and had a lot going on with my recent cancer diagnosis.  The “wise selfishness” came to the fore again.  I noted that if I had no reason to get up in the morning, then I might just as well lay in bed all day and think about my disease(s).  By the end of the day, the colleague filled my dropbox with sketches of field maps to digitize – relieving her of a task, and providing me with the opportunity to work on something I am good at and enjoy doing.

What more could I ask for?  Wise selfishness, indeed!

With a New Lease on Life, I Still Have to Pay the Rent.

Backyard lemons will be ready in the next month!

In 12-Step Recovery from addiction, sobriety brought me hope and a new perspective on life.  But I learned that knowledge was of little value without action.  I found that life could be a half-full and not half-empty existence if I took the steps necessary to live from a positive perspective.  I recollect well upon discharge after 30 days of detox, immediately getting a sponsor, going to 90 meetings in 90 days, and following the recommended actions to maintain my sobriety.  Though the practices changed over time, for the past three decades, the recovery road never failed me.  For example, although I have not been to an AA meeting in over a year, my recovery practices have only increased through time.  Though perhaps counterintuitive, the longer I remain sober, the more I take the necessary steps to maintain a sobriety.

I am coming to find the same attitude is needed for my life with cancer.  In my last post I wrote about the postponement of my chemo treatments until after the first of the year, the resulting sense of liberation, and a commitment not to waste the rest of 2017.

Last week I met with my nutritionist and had a couple of physical therapy sessions that laid out a course of action.  In my feeling of liberation from chemo, I chose to take too many liberties.  Two of my post-nutritionist meeting meals involved loads of pasta and blue plate special diner foods at odds with the recommended Mediterranean Diet.  I immediately fell into a lethargic state and procrastinated and put off my daily neck and back exercises.  By the time Sunday rolled around, I was pressed just to get myself to church in the morning.

In the same way that a relapse in sobriety is a process and not a single event, my dietary choices were a start down a slippery slope of enabling my cancer to strengthen. The experience provided a very solid kick in the ass!

Most mornings, one of the items I post on my gratitude list is the opportunity to make choices. Now I still have that opportunity to make choices and opted for actually reading and acting on the materials that the nutritionist provided me.  Since Monday I have made two pots of soup, that along with other healthy food choices, provided me with energy to function fully into the day including bike riding and work in my garden that I enjoy.

A graduate school professor of mine long ago talked about the “forgivability” for an error.  Around issues of sobriety, my errors were forgivable enough that I remained sober and did not get to point in the relapse process where I chose to drink or drug.  I am often torn knowing that sooner or later our own mortality catches up with the forgivability factor.  Acting on that knowledge is a critical factor in the choices I make today in living with cancer.

Again, I am grateful for my years of training in AA in both acquiring knowledge and taking action.


Mindfulness in Alcohol and Cancer Recovery

Emma, Grace, and I up at The Fly along the Mississippi River in New Orleans

I got some good news from my oncologist this week – the decision on beginning chemotherapy treatments will be put off till after the first of the year.  The reasons for the decision is that I remain largely asymptomatic, still not able to determine the primary source of the cancer, the relative density of the cancer in my bones, all balanced against my goals for life and treatment.  In terms of life goals, I want to continue engaging with my family and friends, ride my bike, work in the garden, and write.  I discussed with the oncologist when I got to the point I could no longer get out of bed in the morning and sit on the back porch, it was time to stop treatment.

I will have another round of scans after the first of the year to determine any changes in the cancer.  In the interim, my oncologist noted my need to vigilant for any sudden physical changes or new pains that might indicate further bone deterioration/fractures and emphatically reminded me that I have a Stage 4 cancer.  I will continue my routine of monthly bone hardening injections.

I came out of the office renewed and elated.  I realized when one has a total prognosis of 2-3 years of life, a three-month reprieve is a substantive chunk of that time.  When writing in my morning pages the next day I reflected on my general increased “attitude of gratitude” since receiving my first cancer diagnosis, but also something new.

The one-day-at-a-time perspective that I have lived in my sobriety over the years continues to take on new and profound meaning today.  I was certainly not looking forward to beginning chemotherapy, which I thought would be the outcome of my Wednesday oncology appointment.  Instead, after discussing the evidence from medical tests and my life goals, another  plan was set.  I have at least a 10-week reprieve from the chemo and those impacts on my day-to-day existence.  I wrote in my morning pages about how I don’t want to be sitting here after the first of the year under the influence of chemo, wishing I had done x, y, and z in the previous couple of months.

I thought how this is not a matter of a hyper activity, running a race to get things done.  Rather, I reflected more on the lessons from a current book study I am in (Right Here, Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness by Amy Oden).  I need only commit to being mindful of how I spend the rest of 2017.  If that means nothing more than a regular walking schedule with Emma (wife) and Grace (dog), that is good.  If it means sitting on the back porch and focusing on how green the vegetation is, that is good.  If it means, completing another journal article on our Peru work, that is good too.  And so forth.

I am interested only in being able to look back on any given day and thinking “I really enjoyed sitting on the back porch, hacking through more of our backyard jungle, watching the sun go down up at the fly, or working on the article” and not “Where did those 24 hours go?”

In this way, the one-day-at-a-time perspective I learned in Alcoholics Anonymous is the basis for my cancer therapy today!

Waking up Sober, Waking up with Cancer

Our rescue dog Grace when we first got her and today

Years ago when I first got sober, after a couple of weeks in detox, on waking up in the morning, I was filled with energy.  The same is not true today with cancer diagnosis.  I certainly don’t bounce out of bed and am now more apt to roll over for another fifteen or thirty minutes to doze.

When I first got sober, upon waking I would immediately read the daily devotionals at my bedside and perhaps an article out of the Grapevine magazine, just to get my head in a good space for the day ahead.  Today, I have a different routine but with the similar results:

  • The very first thing I do after, brushing my teeth, taking my morning meds, starting a pot of coffee and feeding the Grace is to write morning pages – a sort of stream of consciousness narrative meant to clear my head and get me rolling into the day.  I notice particularly of late the pages are more uplifting and affirming and focus on the goodness of life and the day ahead – less complaining and more gratitude.
  • I next respond to a question in my Overeaters Anonymous 12-Step Workbook.  I am now on Step 11.  This morning’s question was “In what ways does God speak to me?”  This is another activity that leads me in a solution-driven recovery direction.  As I only have about 3 weeks left of questions in what has been a six-month exercise, I am not certain what I will replace this activity with when I finish Step 12.
  • I then write a note to someone as described in an earlier post.
  • Next, I get a cup of coffee, take my laptop, and along with Grace, move my operation to the back porch where I post three things for which I am grateful to an OA Facebook group.
  • I am then mindful and prayerful and ask for the guidance on a path toward true self in the day ahead.

Then the rest of life begins.  There is a continuity in my waking up activities from the early days of sobriety to today – though the tools have changed over the time and I am certain will continue to change in the future.  I enjoy that every day, I start off by reminding myself that I am an addict walking a recovery road.  I am not certain where each of my current morning “rituals” developed, but I am incredibly grateful that they have been with me over the years, morphing to meet new circumstances and needs, but always there.  To me, this is just another example of how my past years in addiction recovery has prepared me to face my new life with cancer.

Today, although I do not jump out of bed with the same enthusiasm or as early as I did even just five years ago, I am grateful that ultimately, I am able to start my day with the same drive toward living into a solution on our never-ending path toward true self.

Dealing with Surrender and Denial, Again

I find the words I have the most difficulty speaking – that cause me to choke – are when I talk to the oncology folks about what I have been doing medical-wise – supplements I have been taking, things I have read, trying to get answers for my back pain and other medical issues, related to my cancer diagnosis.  I think this difficulty comes in part from my academic training where I was taught to read another book or run another test to come up with a better answer.  And though there is some truth in that approach, there are limits.  I learned in Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous that I was “powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable.”  The same holds true for my cancer.  In the same way there is no magic bullet to allow me to consume alcohol as a “normal” person, I have some cancer cells with a mind and power of their own.  So modern science has done wonders with cancer treatment, but limits remain.  I am learning to accept those limits.

I have wanted to believe that my back and neck pain all result from my bike wreck this past May.  I wanted to believe when my fractured clavicle was treated the pain would go away.  So I am now having physical therapy and after a couple of sessions my therapist casually noted that a good bit of the pain is likely attributable to the cancer in my bones.  Again, that lump in the throat as all of my rationalizations and denials are shot down.  After all, even before the cancer diagnosis, I was diagnosed with osteopenia a step away from osteoporosis.  My back and neck issues are not all the fault of the frat-boy who lost control of his skateboard causing me the worst bike wreck in my 65 years of living.

I know that in the same way an “attitude of gratitude” is instrumental to my continual recovery process from addiction, the same attitude will help me prevail with cancer.  In these early stages, I find it is less about the amount of time I will live but what I will do with that time, beginning today.  Cancer notwithstanding, none of us are getting out of this game alive.  I was bike riding and thought about how much I really enjoy that activity.  I cut back more of the jungle in our back yard for fall crops and planted beets in one of our raised beds.  In terms of physical activity, gardening is second only to biking as my favorite.

My oncologist has not “operationalized the variable” of what it means that I have “at least 2-3 years of a quality life” remaining.  And with the inability to find out where the cancer is even coming from, and my denial, I prefer not to ask.  But I have to assume that even with continued physical therapy, the cancer in my bones will cause more pain.  I know too, even without a cancer diagnosis, someday before I die I likely will not be able to ride my bike or plant beets in the garden.    The one-day-at-a-time approach to life that I have learned in sobriety over the years certainly suits me very well today.