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!

A New Freedom and Happiness in Recovery

Quite worn, but I have carried this in my wallet for over 30 years!

I am thinking of how grateful I am for everything that I experienced over the past 65 years.  The payoff for me in three decades of recovery is contained in the section of the book Alcoholics Anonymous commonly referred to as the AA Promises.  The promises begin:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.  We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

Several years ago I wrote about this promise and focused on the freedom from not being obsessed with how I would get my next drink.  That freedom goes beyond the obsession with alcohol as a material substance.  As I wrote last week, sobriety today has less to do with the physical manifestations of being drunk and more the mental and spiritual recovery.  The same is true for the promised freedom.

I made the commitment in 1984 when checking into a detox rehab that I was not going to lie to anyone – I was going to tell my truth about life and addiction.  Since that time, I am consistently challenged to be more rigorously self-honest.  Freedom from self-deception and self-betrayal has led me on a path toward true self.

What is this true self?  Psychology and spiritual literature discuss this point in great detail.  I view true self as the opposite of an ego-driven false self.  A starting point for me is the line from Hamlet that appears on AA coins, “To Thine Own Self be True”.  I understand that first and foremost I got sober for me and not to keep anyone else happy.  However, in sobriety I am able to play a constructive role in community, and be in true relationship with others.  Self-worth is key.  Having self-worth is the difference between getting sober because I have treated all those around me terribly vs. getting sober because I have treated myself terribly and have not lived as a true member of humanity.

For me, the freedom in the promises allows me to take stock of who I am, what I have to offer, and how I might better be able to participate as one of 7 billion humans on this earth.  That is a tremendous freedom to explore!

 

Write What You Know in Recovery

alcoholism recovery“Write what you know.”  I attributed that statement to Flannery O’Connor, but my Googling suggests that Mark Twain or possibly Hemingway wrote the advice.  Regardless, I was thinking about that line and how it relates to what I post in this blog.  I know about recovery from alcohol addiction.  Yesterday was my natal birthday – I am now 66 years old.  I have been sober since August 4, 1984 – or a bit over half of the years I have spent on earth.

The physical manifestations of being drunk are a distant memory.  Today, my imperfect driving skills, forgetfulness, stumbling, and less than ideal health result from my age and not what I drank last night.

The mental and spiritual manifestations of being drunk are a different story.  I can very quickly get into pointing fingers at others as the cause of a problem – elected public officials regularly receive letters expressing my righteous indignation at what I perceive as their callous disregard for basic human decency.  I can get into self-will run riot – my wife Emma has well-documented this fact.  Too, I am wholly capable of getting into the “poor me” mindset when I perceive my offerings are under-appreciated.  The list goes on.

For the mental and spiritual manifestations of recovery I have the AA Promises:.

We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity, and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

To me, the AA Promises are where the action is in recovery.  None of the Promises address the physical manifestations of addiction.  Rather, the Promises focus on mental and spiritual recovery.  I have found that mental and spiritual recovery is truly a process and not an event.  To the extent I continue walking a path of recovery “sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly” all the promises “materialize” in my life today.

Today Emma and I worked in our backyard, planting a couple of avocado trees, weeding the vegetable and herb gardens, making some rosemary smudge sticks, tending to our new bed of okra.  Afterwards, Emma went to take a nap and I planned to sit on the back porch, read, drink some ice tea, and gaze out on what I call our “kingdom” of gardens.  Instead, I thought to drag a chair into the middle of my kingdom and be at one with and surrounded by our gardens.  Recovery is like that.  I can either observe it from afar, or get into the middle of it.  The latter is better and where the Promises are found.

Joy and Suffering in Recovery

I still carry this in my wallet, after all those years!

Discovering more joy does not, I am sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.
~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu

p. 12 The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

My Wednesday morning meeting of the School for Contemplative Living is reading the Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  The above quote from Archbishop Tutu caused me a good bit of reflection of late.  With my cancer diagnosis, I am finding a sense of peace and contentment unlike anything I experienced before.

At the same time, I accept that:

  • my back and neck pains will always be with me and likely increase through time.  Fatigue, nausea and all of those other cancer things are likely on the horizon too.
  • my doctor visits, medical tests, and medications of today will likely increase in the future.
  • and cancer or not, I cannot beat being mortal.

But I also accept that:

  • there is joy in watching my dog eat its food, sit on the back porch with me, or go into ecstasy at the sight (or sound) of me picking up her leash.
  • there is joy in walking to Casamento’s for half an oyster loaf for lunch.
  • there is joy in still easily biking 10 miles.
  • there is joy in seeing my winter crops of beets, spinach, and bok choy coming along.  We harvested our lemon tree just before the recent cold snap and the grapefruit made it through without freezing.
  • there is joy in coming up with an idea for a new ritual where we will be to buy a fruit tree each year to decorate as an indoor Christmas tree, and then plant in the yard after the first of the year.
  • there is joy in realizing I still do own a leather coat and wool cap that I could wear to keep warm when I walked to church yesterday morning.

I am joyful that the AA Promises (Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 83-84) are in my life, today:

1. If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. 2. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. 3. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 4. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. 5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. 7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8. Self-seeking will slip away. 9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. 10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. 11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

I know I got the better end of the deal when years ago I traded in the bottle of my addictions to plant the seeds of the joys I can harvest today!

Cancer and Recovery

I have a reasonably advanced stage of cancer.  I had mixed feelings about whether I would raise the issue on this blog.  I don’t want folks to feel sorry for me, psychoanalyze my attitudes, consider my writings as some self-promotion, or speak of my courage.  Fifteen years ago I gave an AA lead at a church on Recovery Sunday.  I was amazed at the number of folks who came up to me afterward and said they admired me for having the courage to tell so much about myself.  I thought about the deep dark secrets these folks must carry that could be relieved through a 4th and 5th step process.  There really is not much courage involved in my being an open book – it is what has kept me sober for over 30 years.  I don’t really have anything to hide.

But more importantly, I thought about the AA mandate to share our experience, strength, and hope.  There is not much about my life I have not shared in an AA meeting or on this blog.  And again, that has been a part of my staying sober all these years.  So too,  as the Promises state, our experiences can benefit others.  I have to assume that there are lots of others folks out there in my situation.  So, I want to learn from them and share with them too.

Immediately after my diagnosis all of those AA clichés, lessons, and experiences proved absolutely instrumental to my putting one foot in front of the other.  My immediate response was that I have been on borrowed time for many years.  Had I not gotten sober 30 some years ago, I would be long dead, for sure.  That I have been given these 30 years of sobriety is an incredible gift.

When I was riding my bike a couple of weeks ago, I stopped at a park to sit and read for a bit.  I thought about how much I really enjoy bike riding and sitting in the park and and just relaxing.  I decided I could lament that might come to an end sooner than I would like, or I could enjoy and be more mindful and intentional of the time I can spend in such activities now.

So, after one month of prodding, poking, scans and so much more, I know that I have a good bit of cancer in my bones, that my organs and blood seem clear, and the prognosis is considerably less than certain – from 6 months to many years.  And I certainly don’t want to pretend or in any way imply that I am not reasonably devastated by all of this.  HAVING CANCER SUCKS – and that is before even beginning any of the treatments which as I understand are their own kind of misery.

When my wife and I were talking about this earlier today, I noted that if I were not sober and in recovery, I would not consider our nearly 20 wonderful years together thus far, but only focus on how unfair it all is and how I never got my chance at life, and I would have just gone out and got drunk – my alcoholic m.o. to everything good or bad.

We talked too about how I really don’t have any place else that I want to go or anything else to do that I have not already done in life.  We did discuss cutting a lot of the extraneous things from our lives and focus on a quality of time together in our retirement home here in New Orleans.  As my post-bike wreck walking stamina improves, we will less drive somewhere and sit with the dog, and more take walks.  With the assurance of at least one more southern growing season, today I cleared out the okra and cucumber beds to prepare for the fall crops.  And so forth.

Life truly is a process and not an event – now being in both recovery and having cancer is a part of that process.  Didn’t see that one coming!!

What Do I Want From Life In Recovery?

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Stop what you are doing. Take several deep, cleansing breaths. Ask yourself: “What do I want for my life?” Listen for the initial responses. You can even jot them down. Keep asking yourself, “What is beneath that? What is my heart’s deepest longing?” When you finally hear the response at the bottom of your soul, write it down. Keep it simple. Say it in one sentence: “I want….”

Then begin to meditate on the phrase that comes to you. Do not try to figure it out. Do not get caught in the mind’s resistances, the many reasons why that life is impossible. Do not waste time wondering what people will think. Do not try to figure out how that life can work practically. The soul is not practical. The soul simply wants what it wants. Life will dance with the soul to find a way.              ~ William Thiele

 

The above quote is from a blog post written by William Thiele, the founding Spiritual Director of the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  If the above resonates with you, I urge you to read William’s entire post.

Here is why the exercise William proposed resonated so much with me – When working with young adults, I encourage them to think long, hard, and broadly, about how they envision their ideal career.  We go back and forth over multiple sessions examining possibilities of how to have their deep passions meet the needs of the world.  But for myself, I have not thought that through deeply for my life beyond career.  At the age of 64, my standard response to the question posed by William “to have meaning” is not adequate.

This question applies to my addiction recovery life too.  I have blogged before how the AA Promises have certainly come true in my life.  I recollect quite clearly laying in a detox bed on August 4, 1984 and only wanting to be a normally functioning member of society.  Since that time I received so much more.

But today in retirement, I find that I can replace my freedom from all those dreaded meetings and reports of my work life with a myriad of other tasks and projects that divert and frustrate me – and I wonder how I got into this or that commitment that does not really feed what I seek in life.

Here are some cases in point:

  • This morning I overheard someone of about my age who recently spent a couple of weeks in intensive care, now in full recovery, comment how for years he kept an Atlas under his bed and would take it out and dream of places he and his wife could go.  He noted it was now time to stop dreaming but doing.
  • My wife and I have had dreams, many that we have lived into and made real.  Yet we realize the continued need to be very intentional about how we spend our most precious commodity, time, as we live into the future.
  • Today in the U.S., there is a pressing need for action on a very broad range of social, political, and economic needs.  Where can my skills and passions be best used?
  • Living into my Christian values and responsibilities of justice for all of God’s creation certainly can take me down many paths.

And the list goes on.  I commit in the coming months to follow William’s exercise, to think mindfully and meditate on the phrase or thought that arises, and be willing to live into what comes forward when asking “What do I want for my life?”

What does all this have to do with recovery? Had I not started down a recovery road over 30 years ago, I would not be asking myself these questions today.  I fully suspect I would be dead.  If still living I would be in such deep throes of my alcoholism that such life affirming questions would be the furthest thing from my mind.

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!