A Christmas I Was Not Supposed to See

Our family at The Fly getting ready for the holiday.

In August of 2017, my gastro doctor told me that I likely had three to six months to live.  My oncologist suggested I get a back-up for the fall course I was teaching as I might not make it to the end of the semester.

So here I am 16 months later, feeling considerably better than I did back then.  I am riding my bike regularly, working in the yard, and going on a cruise in January in preparation for a longer stint of travel this spring.

My four rounds of chemotherapy in the fall were very successful.  My monthly x-geva injection has stabilized the bone deterioration of my metastasized cancer.  I have received excellent medical care from Touro Infirmary.  Now, my oncologist will not offer a prognosis for me as he notes that I have outlived all expectations to date.

But there is much more than the medical and physical to my being alive.  I have reasons to get up every day, one day at a time.  That understanding from my three decades of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous has proven absolutely key.  I thought about this when working in the garden over the past couple of weeks.  We had good crops this year and we are looking to expand in 2019.  As I have cleared for new beds and hacked through some of our tropical backyard jungle, I initially thought if my future chemo proved less effective and I was not able to eat again, then the garden produce might not be of use.  But then I thought too that we have family and friends with whom we already share our crops, and if we could not eat the future crops, we would just share more.  I thought too that our gardens are a small step we can take to support our earth in this time of environmental devastation and our government’s inaction.  But mostly, I thought, today I am able to work in the garden – I cannot predict what tomorrow will bring any more than when told in the summer of 2017 I had 3 to 6 months to live.

And there is more than one-day-at-a-time to my continued health:

  • My wife and best friend Emma has stood by me through the good and bad, particularly in the last year.
  • My faith community at Rayne Memorial is a key to my spiritual path and my cancer treatment.  I have many friends and opportunities for service that feed me physically and spiritually.
  • My weekly meeting with the School for Contemplative Living has led to friendships and a spiritual path that have led me down roads that I would never find alone.
  • The book studies that began at Emma’s store on the Artists Way and now moved into other creative directions also provide a community and insights to grow with.

A couple of weeks ago, Emma and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary.  Tomorrow, we will celebrate a Christmas that I was not supposed to see.  Now it is not so much a matter of just being alive, but also to live a life of meaning.  Being able to do so is the best Christmas gift I could receive or give.

I am truly blessed and grateful.

Letting God be God in Recovery

No, he said, he did not go to church.  “But you do believe in God?” I asked, hardly daring to hope he did not.  He paused for a moment and looked up at the sky, where big, spreading clouds streamed by.  “God isn’t the problem,” he said. – Patricia Hampl, Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life, p. 43

As I have posted before, when I got sober, I came to grips with God as a higher power, and am quite content with the direction and faith communities in which I seek and travel today.  In his new book On the Brink of Everything Parker Palmer writes (p. 105):

And why have faith, if God is so small as to be contained within our finite words and formulae?  To write and live in faith, we must let God be God – original, wild, free, a creative impulse that animates all of life, but can never be confined to what we think, say, and do.

This understanding resonates with me.  I well recall as an elementary school student being made to memorize the call and response of the Baltimore Catechism.  It seemed a perfunctory chore at the time without any meaning.  I could never memorize the responses correctly until put to the task by two matronly great aunts, who apparently I feared more than the nuns.  Though I got the lines in my head, the words still had no meaning.

My greatest “aha” moment on this journey came 7 or 8 years ago when I was sitting in an AA meeting and heard the Third Step read, though I had heard the same words at least 1000 times before: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”  My mind became completely focused by understanding this as an action step and one of liberation as well.  I was no longer confined by the Baltimore Catechism or any other dogma of my past.  As Parker Palmer mandates I must let “God be God” without any of the limits imposed by the baggage I collected over the years.

Like so much in my life today, whether dealing with cancer, maintaining an attitude of gratitude, or the liberation to follow a spiritual path toward true self, the genesis was found in the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.  For that, I am truly blessed.

 

 

Chemotherapy vs an Alcohol Hangover

Thirty-six hours ago I started my first round of chemotherapy.  After the first 4 hours at the Touro Infusion Center, I came home with a portable apparatus that continues to pump the chemo into my system.  I have spent my time sleeping, trying to sleep, being nauseous, watching the numbers go down of the remaining 5FU cocktail pumping into my system, punctuated by three rounds of reasonably intense vomiting.  As instructed, after the third regurgitation experience in less than 24 hours, I called the oncologist, who ordered another anti-nausea script and instructions if I vomited again before morning to go straight to the ER for a fluid IV to keep from dehydrating.

Suffice it to say chemotherapy has not been pleasant experience.  I expect feeling better by about Sunday, a couple of days after I am off of the pump.  Then the process will begin again in a week or so for three more two-week rounds.  The immediate side effects of the 8-week regimen should be over by the time of Emma and my 19th Wedding Anniversary on December 11.

My oncologist said from the outset that if I could not “tolerate” the chemo regimen, other treatments could be tried.  My response has always been that I was not opposed to chemo so long as it was doing some good and not simply a shotgun approach to treatment.  As I explained in an earlier post, the former is the approach after my recent biopsies.

Today while laying there I compared chemo’s physical side effects with hangovers from my years as a practicing alcoholic.  I thought of one of my last really bad hangover experiences some 30 plus years ago.  I had been working on a project that was very important for me to complete.  It was so important, I had not touched a drop of alcohol for nearly one week so that I could complete the task.  On the final day of the project, I knew that if I spent another 8 hours, the work would be completed to my satisfaction – something I could feel good about.  I got up that Saturday morning and started working.  After consuming a pot of coffee, I knew I only had a few more hours more work.  I would succeed and prove to myself and everyone else that I could function.  I was a bit tense and on edge from all the coffee and went to the refrigerator to find something to calm my nerves a bit.  There were two unopened bottles of beer.  I knew that I could handle two beers without deviating from my project plans.  I drank them.  The last thing I remember was walking to the corner store to get more beer, project unfinished.  I “came to” the next morning about 5:00 AM with my head pounding, gut wrenching, and most importantly, my mind screaming for my failure once again.  Later that day when delivering my incomplete project, I was sucking on antacids and soft drinks just to keep from vomiting while I spoke.  It would be several days before I felt “normal” again.

There are many similar stories I could tell.

While laying in bed just now, I compared that experience with my current physical condition with chemotherapy.  I certainly feel no worse physically today than I did back those 3 decades ago.  And more importantly, today the chemotherapy is based on a reasoned approach to wholeness whereas the alcohol only took me deeper into the depths of despair.

This morning my gratitude list contained the following:

Grateful today for:
– being able to truly appreciate one day at time, and one hour at a time.
– having the time and resources to take care of my illness.
– I keep saying that the best training I have had for dealing with my cancer today is my years of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous!

I do not know where this chemotherapy journey will lead me – perhaps to the ER room before the day is out.  But, one day at a time, one hour at a time, and one minute at a time, I am grateful for the opportunity to live life on life’s terms today, and for the support my community of friends provide on this journey toward true self.

Self-Compassion and Cancer

Painting by Emma Connolly

I am currently enrolled in the eight-week Cultivating Compassion course offered through the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  The course leader is Dr. William Thiele, the School’s Founding Director and author of the book Monks in the World.  William went through a year-long Compassion Cultivation Training program at Stanford University in preparation to lead the local sessions.  Dr. Thupten Jinpa at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford developed the course.  More about the course development can be found in Dr. Jinpa’s book A Fearless Heart.  Dr. Jinpa is otherwise known for being the official translator for The Dalai Lama since 1985.

The course approach to compassion convinced me to spend my Sunday afternoons for the next couple of months in the seminar setting.  Dr. Thupten defines compassion in A Fearless Heart (2015:xxii) as “. . . a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”  Also, I was intrigued that one session would be devoted to self-compassion.

The self-compassion session took place this past Sunday. In the session, William encouraged the participants to consider a personal circumstance or event that caused us to be filled with doubt and self-blame.  I was somewhat surprised that what immediately came to my mind was my stage 4 cancer diagnosis of one year ago.  In fact, the session brought me to view an aspect of the cancer diagnosis I had not discussed with anyone, but only internalized.

Last year, during the initial speculation on the primary source of the cancer, I immediately focused on my complicity in the disease:

  • As I was a cigarette smoker from the age of 10 until my mid-40s, I felt assured that I had lung cancer.  That proved not to be the case – my lungs are in great shape.
  • My general practitioners first guess was colon cancer and I immediately felt guilt for procrastinating and never having a colonoscopy despite the recommendation of my general practitioner 15 years ago.  However, my colonoscopy last August revealed a cancer-free GI system.
  • Next my oncologist ruminated that perhaps the cancer originated in my liver based on some blood test results.  I immediately then experienced the shame and self-blame of my years of alcohol and drug abuse.  However, subsequent PET and CAT scans showed my liver is free of any cancer as well.

Another exercise in today’s session was to respond to “If anything were possible,

  • What would I love to find in my life?
  • How would I want to grow as a person?
  • What would I want to offer the world?”

An immediate and legitimate response to the first question seemingly would be to deal with my health issues.  But with a bit of reflection, I thought otherwise, responding to the questions, respectively as follows:

  • for my thoughts and actions to align with a direction toward my true self
  • to prioritize how I expend my time and resources toward that alignment
  • my true self

These response make sense to me when I consider the popular Biblical adage, (Mark 8:36) “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”

True self has been the trajectory of my recovery for the past three decades – coming to terms with what I am truly called to be and do in all of my relationships with self, family, friends, and the world.  I cannot imagine having traveled that path without my road out of addiction.  I expect that my current health issues will provide me the same opportunities for growth and direction toward that true self.  Being self-compassionate clearly includes fully embracing those possibilities on that journey.

A New Look at Gratitude

I have posted many times before about the importance of gratitude in my recovery.  Having an “attitude of gratitude” is a platitude that I recollect hearing quite often during my 30-day detox program and in my first AA meetings over three decades ago.  I am grateful for my recovery from alcoholism, a better than expected cancer prognosis, and a strong reason to get out of bed every morning.  I touched on this concept of gratitude in my last post.  Today, a part of my morning ritual is writing down three things for which I am grateful.

In our School for Contemplative Living group we are reading Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks by Diana Butler Bass that articulates an understanding of gratitude I find quite important.  She writes (p. xxiv):

There is, however, an alternative structure of gratefulness, one that holds out the possibility of spiritual and ethical transformation – that of gift and response.  In this mode, gifts exist before benefactors.  The universe is a gift.  Life is a gift.  Air, light, soil, and water are gifts.  Friendship, love, sex, and family are gifts.  We live on a gifted planet.  Everything we need is here, with us.  We freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care.

I see this understanding of gratitude not from the personal circumstances of my life, but from life itself.  Viewing life, the universe, natural resources as gifts freely given is true grace.  Butler Bass continues (p. 20-21):

Gifts are not commodities.  Gifts are the nature of the universe itself, given by God or the natural order.  Grace reminds us that every good thing is a gift – that somehow the rising of the sun and being alive are indiscriminate daily offerings to us – and then we understand all benefactors are also beneficiaries and all beneficiaries can be benefactors . . . We do not really give gifts.  We recognize gifts, we receive them and we pass them on . . . We all share them.

In the Jewish tradition the Prophets held the people accountable for this gift.  For example, the Prophet Amos speaks less from the perspective of social justice, but our responsibility for the stewardship mandated by God for the earth in the Genesis creation story.

What will we do with these freely given gifts we all share without regard for ethnicity, gender, national origin?  How can we express our gratitude?  As stewards for the natural resources of our earth, how can we express our gratitude to this freely given gift that allows us to live and thrive?

Butler Bass notes (p. 22) that:

. . . if gratitude is mutual reliance upon (instead of payback for) shared gifts, we awaken to a profound awareness of our interdependence.  Dependence may enslave the soul, but interdependence frees us.

This interdependence is the very essence of what I have learned over the years in 12 Step Recovery.  To extend this interdependence to the world stage, gratitude will require us to build bridges instead of walls, welcome the stranger with the radical hospitality of Abraham and Sarah instead of detention centers, share in the bounty of resources, knowledge, and technology instead of selling to the highest bidder.  These are challenges to extend my gratitude beyond platitudes and lists.

Our interdependence is appropriate to think about as in the U.S. we celebrate Independence Day.

Having a Reason to be Alive in Recovery

Painting by Emma Connolly of Grace and me in our backyard

Over the years, on many occasions I asked “Why Me?” The question was not meant from a woe is me perspective, but from one of gratitude.  Examples include:

  • I have over 30 years of recovery from a debilitating physical and mental obsession with alcohol.  Long-term sobriety is greatly enhanced in those who remain abstinent for five years.  For many years, I struggled to even put together 30 days.  Why did I make it when so many others do not?
  • My oncologist continues to be amazed that I am doing as well as I am with a stage 4 cancer.  Last August, the prognosis was possibly death by Christmas or in six months.  Why I have surpassed these odds?

I wrote previously about the research of Kelly Turner and have since read her book Radical Remission.  A strong reason to live is one of the nine points Dr. Turner found for those who defy the normative expectation for stage 4 cancer diagnoses.  She distinguishes this reason as different from fighting to live or being afraid to die.

Her results resonate with me in my current cancer diagnosis.  In much of what I have written about cancer over the past months I note how the one-day-at-a-time approach of Alcoholics Anonymous has proven crucial in my life today.  Further, I know that were it not for my sobriety over the past three decades, I would have been dead long ago.

An exercise in Radical Remission suggests generating two lists.  The first is a list of activities one would do if they had an unlimited amount of money and perfect health.  The second list of activities is if one had their current financial situation, good health, but knew they would be dead in 1.5 years.  The “correct” answer is to have the second list overlap with the first.  I was pleased mine did.  My second list includes:

  • Take three months to ride my bicycle from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to New Orleans.
  • Emma and I take multiple cross-country road trips and spend more time exploring together.
  • I continue to blog my story as my unique contribution to share.
  • Complete two writing projects I am working on.
  • Continue gardening and working around the house.
  • Continue activity with the School for Contemplative Living and my faith community.

With the exception of the Mississippi River bike ride, I am currently working on all the other list items.  The long-distance bike ride is something that will take some creative planning.  But come September, Emma and I will embark on a two-week back roads meander reminiscent of our first trip together 20 years ago.  All of the other items on the list are what get me out of bed every morning.

To a very large extent, what I dream of doing is what I actually do. This might prove to be the answer to the “Why Me” question.  Since walking into the detox center in 1984, I have maintained a belief and hope that I have a reason to live and I have tried, quite imperfectly, to live into that hope.

Today I came across a blog post I wrote 5 years ago, long before I had any thought of cancer.  The title of the post was Living Sober Till I Am 94, One Day at a Time. The age came from a life expectancy test of some sort that I took.  But the essence of the post is having the reason to want to live that long:

 I didn’t think about how long I was going to live.  I got to be too busy living.  As we get closer to “retirement” my wife and I talk about that next part of our lives.  We will do anything but retire.  I have a bunch of projects lined up and my wife is already working on her art/consignment business  and plans with our children and grandchildren down in New Orleans. . . today I learned that my life expectancy is 94.  What I learned today seems less the accuracy of the measure but more, that living and living fully is what sobriety is about.  Had I not gotten sober at 32, I seriously doubt that I would have seen 40.  Staying sober one day at a time, the possibilities are without limit!

I am grateful and blessed to be able to live into my reasons to be alive today!

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.