The Spirit and Mind in Recovery

A few days ago I came across the documentary Heal.  The film is about the nontraditional treatments of chronic illnesses such as cancer.  I have written before about my disinterest in the latest “miracle” cure opting instead for my oncologist’s recommendations coupled with my lessons in recovery from alcoholism and life in general over the past three decades.  But the documentary description caused me to give it a shot.

Here is what got my attention in the film.  Kelly Turner talked about her dissertation research of 1500 case studies of cancer patients who had gone into remission both with and without traditional medical treatment.  She recorded 75 different practices the 1500 individuals carried out.  She noted nine practices that all 1500 individuals held in common, as follows:

  • Radical change in diet
  • Take control of own health
  • Follow intuition
  • Use herbs and supplements
  • Release suppressed emotions
  • Increase positive emotions
  • Embrace social support
  • Deepen spiritual connection
  • Have a strong reason for living

This list got my attention.  All nine items I have either practiced for many years or began in the past year.  Examples of the latter are radical diet change and taking control of health.  The other seven items flow directly from my past three decades of 12 Step Recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Another reason the list got my attention is because my oncologist and other medical folks remain amazed that I am still so active despite a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  But when I follow my intuition in what foods are good for me to eat, when I am in community with my family and friends, when I take part in services and activities at my church and the School for Contemplative Living, when I am active in various projects, when I listen to positive affirmations and guided imagery related to cancer, to name but a few practices, I simply feel better, have more energy, less pain, and experience the peace that passes all understanding.

I know that without these practices, I will go deep into my addictions and be filled with misery and self-loathing – and I suspect that my original cancer prognosis (dead by last Christmas) would have come to pass.

Where do I go from here?  I will certainly continue the current treatments prescribed by my oncologist.  My monthly x-geva injections are working wonders.

But I also have a responsibility to act.  I often comment that a mystical truth for me comes from the Gospel of Matthew (7:7-8):

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Those steps all require action.  Over my past three decades of recovery from alcohol and drugs, without exception, when I have carried my part of the load, I have received, found, and the doors opened.    Will I be in remission one year from now? dead? or in the same condition as today?  I don’t know.  I have continued hope based in faith as discussed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

. . . hope is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction.  I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless.  Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable . . .  p. 122, The Book of Joy

This mystical truth is as valid to me and as well-tested as the latest chemotherapy or immunotherapy drugs.  The spirit and the mind are integrally linked to my being alive today and tomorrow.

 

Another Day, Another Procedure

Today, in a couple of hours, I will have a laparoscopic procedure and biopsy to try and determine the primary source of the cancer that has metastasized throughout my bones.  The procedure was supposed to happen two months ago, but I had a heart attack during that pre-op testing.

I am less than pleased about the need for another surgery.  I reflected on my contradictory reactions to the different medical procedures I have undergone over the past year.  I thoroughly enjoy going to my cardiac rehab sessions, now three days per week.  When I was having physical rehabilitation last year, I enthusiastically attended those sessions.  The dietitians at Touro Infirmary provide recommendations that improve my quality of life, immensely.  The monthly blood test and x-geva injection that stabilize bone loss are a highlight of my medical treatment.

On a mental and spiritual level, I know that my weekly meetings of the School for Contemplative Living, Enneagram Study, attendance at Rayne Memorial, and other small groups play a big part in my well-being.  Along with bike riding, gardening, and a relaxed professional role, I feel relatively normal.  My biggest physical symptoms are fatigue and controllable stomach issues.

Beyond the two-week recovery interruption to my regular schedule today’s surgery will cause, I know part of my negative reaction is a certain denial that I have a serious disease/medical condition.  I am inclined to leave well enough alone – no news is good news – why do I need to know the primary source of my cancer if everything is rolling along better than my oncologist’s best expectations?

The best place I am at today is just trusting the process, in the same way I have trusted the process in my recovery from alcoholism for the past three decades.  I know that just working the first three steps and never moving onto the introspection of the fourth step would not have allowed me long-term sobriety.  The ignorance is bliss approach does not work.  So, in a couple of hours I will once again be sedated, opened up, and explored.

When I think back to my prognosis last August, I was supposed to be either dead or in the final stages of cancer by last Christmas.  Neither of those events came to pass.

In a couple of days, and maybe even by tomorrow morning, I will be sitting on the back porch looking out on my earthly kingdom.  In a few days after that, I hope to weed and water my gardens again.

I am grateful and blessed in my life today.

Not Regretting the Past in Recovery

In my early 30s during my first year of recovery, I ran into my “best friend” from high school who I had not seen in over 10 years.  The encounter occurred as I mopped the floor of a factory where he was a senior administrator.  When he approached me, I pretended not to know him and said he mistook me for someone else. The names on our security badges made short work of that attempted ruse.  We had an awkward conversation, me faulting my memory, with a promise that we would get together at some point.  As the factory had over 15,000 employees I successfully avoided him after that first meeting.

Why the denial?  It had nothing to do with my blue collar vs. his administrative position.  Rather, as someone new to sobriety I was profoundly embarrassed by my drunken past – the inappropriate behavior, taking advantage of people, irresponsibility, and the list goes on.

About 25 years after that factory meeting, we both planned to attend a small reunion of the “gang” from high school.  Before the reunion I wrote him a letter on why I was so embarrassed at the factory floor meeting years before.  I cited and apologized for incidents of my drunken rage, spoiling planned events with my behavior, and so forth.  He graciously accepted my amends, and noted that we all did stupid things when we are young.

Today, although we live at opposite ends of the U.S., we occasionally get together for an evening of reflection and to solve the world’s problems.  Our divergent and convergent pasts are important parts of our conversation.

The AA Promise “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it” is increasingly true in my recovery.  As I reflected in last week’s post, accepting my past is an important part of who I am today.  Without the despair and self-loathing I experienced in my active alcoholism, I could not appreciate today’s blessings and opportunities.  Without taking responsibility for all the manifestations of my addiction, I could not appreciate today’s freedom and knowing that my “problems” are of my own making.  My horrific personal relationships of the past, have taught me how precious friends are today.  I understand too that I have lived on borrowed time for my three decades of recovery.  Were it not for my sobriety, I certainly would have been dead long ago.  I would not have lived long enough to be diagnosed with cancer or have my recent heart attack.  I write that not for dramatic effect, but as a statement of fact.

Today, I am not proud of my behaviors during my drunken past, but I am no longer embarrassed by them either.  They were the logical consequences of my substance abuse.  I am grateful for the 12-Step Program that allowed me to learn and grow in my recovery over the years.  I well recollect laying in that detox bed in 1984 thinking all I want is to be able function in today’s world.  My past has provided me with the experience, strength, and hope to do that and much more!

Moving from an Intellectual to Gut Understanding in Recovery

Halloween display on St. Charles Ave & State St., New Orleans.

 

 

First we grasp this knowledge intellectually, and then finally we come to believe it in our hearts

Overeaters Anonymous 12 & 12 pp. 6-7

A substantive shift in how I have come to see addiction over the years is the move from an intellectual to a gut understanding.  When I first got sober, I spent a significant amount of time going through library card catalogs and journals in those pre-Google days searching out articles on the genetic predisposition to alcoholism, including twin studies, relapse treatment, and so forth.  One of my favorite books was the hot-of-the-press in 1984, Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism.  Fast forward to 2018, that information is pretty meaningless to me today and has little to do with my recovery.  Rather my understanding has moved from my head to my gut. My recovery has moved from a false self ego that refused to deal with life on life’s terms to one where I strive to move toward my True Self.

As I reflect often in this blog, my experience with an understanding of God similarly moved from the intellectual to the gut.  As a precocious youth, by the time I hit the sixth grade I proclaimed myself an agnostic, and by the eighth grade, an atheist based on my inability to accept a physical heaven, hell, old man with a white beard sitting in judgement, and so forth.  My approach to the spiritual realm has certainly moved from the intellectual to the gut today.

Now that cancer has come along, my intellectual understanding of the disease is of little importance to me beyond how I take care of myself with diet, exercise, maintaining my immune system and so forth.  My oncologist, who always refers to me as Professor Connolly, acknowledging my PhD and profession, is learning that my academic credentials do not reflect my ability to understand the biology of the latest immunotherapy treatments.  In fact, my comprehension level reminds me of being erroneously asked to judge chemistry student projects at Research Fairs on campus.  I could only smile politely, not having a clue at what the students were talking about.

As with alcoholism, I am coming to a gut-level understanding and acceptance of my cancer diagnosis.  I am not really interested in trying to figure out whether my monthly x-geva injections, increased calcium intake, exercise, diet, daily affirmations, weekly centering prayer group and book discussion, service at the Open Table feeding ministry, or any other factor is the primary reason the cancer in my bones is not spreading as rapidly as expected or that I remain reasonably pain free.  Rather, I see it all as a package deal.  I am comfortable leaving the hard science questions to the medical personnel who have proven themselves truly exceptional on those issues.  I am grateful for their expertise and will continue to focus my energies on that path begun many years ago toward true self.

 

Cheap vs. Costly Grace in Recovery

In my last post I noted that in The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. In our School for Contemplative Living group this week, we asked “which of these eight pillars resonates most with you.” In reviewing the book, the sections on the pillars of perspective, acceptance and gratitude contained the most underlines and column notes in my copy.  This focus is consistent with how I perceive life as a recovering alcoholic with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  I can explain very sincerely, intentionally, and with meaning why these pillars are integral to my daily existence.

But then . . . I felt a certain whack on the side of the head on the other four pillars.  I got caught up short when weighing the pillars of forgiveness, humility, compassion, and generosity by the same sincerity, intentionality and meaning scale.  The analogy that came to mind was that of cheap vs. costly grace as explained by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He wrote:

“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is a baptism without the discipline of community . . . Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of people go and sell with joy everything they have . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 44-45.

(Bonhoeffer wrote his treatise on ethics while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for his role in a foiled attempt to assassinate Hitler.  He died shortly before Allied Forces liberated the camp.  Bonhoeffer has good street creds with me as someone who practiced what he preached.)

I found his cheap grace analogous to much of how I can live forgiveness.  For example the 9th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous offers that we “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”  Over the years I have made lists, personal visits and written amend letters.  I am careful not to include any “but” statements, only clean up my side of the street and not worry about the other person’s side.  I know that often times, those amends are rote, because I know that I need to do them – it is the forgiveness without the repentance or community of which Bonhoeffer speaks.

In the same way with compassion and generosity, I can serve in the soup kitchens, make the charitable contributions, speak out and defend the refugees, and so forth.  But these acts too can become rote responses with little personal investment of true self beyond the material and mechanical.

Again from the Book of Joy:

“One of the differences between empathy and compassion is that while empathy is simply experiencing another’s emotion, compassion is a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person.  As the Dalai Lams has described it, if we can see a person who is being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling; it is to help to remove the rock.” pp. 259

I do not intend this post as an exercise in self-flagellation.  But in the same way that I view my AA recovery program as a continual process and not a single event, I find the eight pillars of joy are best approached in the same way.  I know that if I continue to work the 12 Steps of the AA program, that process enhances my recovery.  In the same way, I believe if I continue to examine and am mindful of my forgiveness, humility, compassion and the other pillars, that process enhances my joyful living and my ability to share that joy.  In the same way that I am a recovering alcoholic and not recovered, I continue to seek a life with more meaning and joy.  Everything I know about living is that if I continue to be active and seek, I will continue to find and to grow.  What an incredible blessing and opportunity!

Evolving Perspectives on Cancer and Recovery

In The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.  I find all eight pillars are relevant to my recent cancer diagnosis and my years as a recovering alcoholic.  I generally view myself as a “glass is half full” kind of person, but the Dalai Lama’s discussion of the “perspective” pillar presents a more complex and holistic approach:

We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back, from the sides, and from the top and the bottom, so from at least six different angles.  This allows us to take a more complete and holistic view of reality, and if we do, our response will be more constructive.  – The Dalai Lama, from The Book of Joy, p. 196

Even from a simple dualistic approach, I find that considering alternative perspectives provides incredible “aha” moments.

Why me? vs. Why me?

I took to sobriety pretty much from the day I committed to a detox unit in 1984.  Although relieved, I asked “Why me?” even though accepting that I was an alcoholic and unable to drink like “normal” folks.   In early recovery, alcoholism became my burden to bear or my lot in life.  When I was 20 years sober, I had an “aha” moment.  I began to ask “Why me?” again.  But now I asked the question because I maintained my sobriety for two decades where so many others had relapsed.  Why was I so fortunate?  I know sobriety does not rely on intelligence, depth of alcoholism, or many other factors.  Since my “aha” moment, I have maintained a new perspective on the “Why Me?” question.

I can’t drink alcohol today vs. I don’t have to drink alcohol today

I vividly recall walking out of my 30-day detox program with a fear that I would be drunk within 24 hours.  However, I stayed sober then one-day-at-a-time with a commitment that I “won’t/can’t” drink for that today.  In the first six months of sobriety I had an another “aha” moment.  I was driving home from my sobriety bowling league feeling good about being sober at 11:30 pm on a Saturday night.  I thought about how I would not wake up hungover the next morning and could spend the day doing something enjoyable.  Life was good.  And then it hit me – if I chose to drink alcohol I would lose that good life.  I no longer had to drink to escape a life I despised.  I came to accept living life on life’s terms.  The I “won’t/can’t” drink today changed to I “don’t have to” drink today.

I am going to die vs. I am alive today

I have stage 4 cancer with an ambiguous prognosis.  The chances are good that cancer will be my cause of death. Today, I look out over the rooftops of the same neighborhood where 40 years ago I stomped the streets in anger, despair, and drunk.  Today the cold snap broke with temperatures in the mid-60s.  I spent the morning raking leaves and branches from our backyard, planted two trees, and began to get ready for our spring gardens.  I am in no pain and my body is functioning as normal.  As I sit on the back porch writing these words, I look out over our backyard which is my kingdom, my Garden of Eden, my heaven on earth.  The sky is incredibly blue today.    I cannot imagine a better way to live my day in my favorite city in the world.  I am at peace and having cancer means nothing to me as I am alive this day.

I am not certain my oncologist agrees with me, but I believe one of the reasons my cancer has not progressed more than it has to date is because I am blessed with a perspective whose seeds were planted over three decades ago when I entered a rehab for my addiction to alcohol and drugs.  Consistently since that time, I learned that feeding the solution and not the problem produces a meaningful and joyful life.  Today I accept the problem of having cancer but also have come to appreciate the lessons and wisdom that my response and solution to the disease has brought me.

2018 and a New Perspective in Cancer & Recovery

I write this on December 31st, after a day of tying up loose ends, relaxation, and reflection.  The tying up loose ends primarily involved preparing for the hard freeze over the next couple of days.  I harvested our winter crops of lemons, grapefruit, bok choy, spinach, annual herbs, and brought in our new fruit trees we have yet to plant.  Relaxation included New Year’s Eve dinner with Emma, watching a movie, and reading.

Reflection occupied a good bit of the day. I had several health challenges in 2017 – an increase in my chronic back pain, a serious bike wreck, and a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  As posted on this blog, I spent a good bit of time coming to terms with these new realities.

I commented often how my three decades as a recovering alcoholic prepared me well for dealing with the health challenges, particularly the cancer diagnosis.  I have new lessons on living with an attitude of gratitude, one-day-at-a-time, and into the solution and not dwelling in the problem.

I did a lot of growing up, learning, introspection, and prioritizing in 2017.  Besides family and friends, I benefited from the insights of my faith community at Rayne Memorial UMC and the School for Contemplative Living.  A fellow contemplative noted the synchronicity of the gifts of community coming at the precise time I faced new life directions.

Today I note a subtle but substantive shift in my perspective as we enter 2018.  The best way I can articulate the shift is to compare the past six months as a time of intensive study and growth akin to my experiences during graduate school.  Upon completing my formal academic coursework, I did not stop the lifelong process of being a student and learning.  But upon graduation, I did make a shift where I began to apply in the real world what I learned in my formal training.

In 2018, I want to move from understanding my cancer diagnosis to fully applying and living into the solution.  In so doing, there is a subtle but substantive shift in perspective.  Instead of thinking, “I plan to do X but have contingency plans if I start chemo, etc. etc.” I will shift to “It is reasonable for me to commit to doing X.”  This latter perspective holds true whether I live for another 10 weeks, 10 months, 10 years, or longer.  In fact, no one, whether a 21-year-old or a 65-year-old has a guarantee of living one minute longer than I.

I am blessed to have the lived as a recovering alcoholic for the past three decades and to have a wonderful group of contemplatives to explore life with today.  I am committed to a 2018 that will be a time of continuing meaning and fulfillment.