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.

 

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!

Is It Sadness or Acceptance in Recovery?

This past year, although I roll out of bed in the morning a bit less rested and slower, I continue to start my day with positive and affirming practices.  First, I write my morning pages – a sort of stream of consciousness where I record my dreams if I remember them, or reflect on life, most often on a very positive note.  Next I write a notecard to someone – to catch up with a friend or thank someone for their service or other action.  I then go to an Alcoholics Anonymous Facebook page and post three things that I am grateful for and scan and comment on other posts to the group.  All of the above takes 30-45 minutes and starts my day on a very positive note.

And then something hit me.

This past Wednesday my School for Contemplative Living meeting opened with an “analytic mediation” instead of our usual centering prayer.  The former process is thought focused as opposed to the thought-less centering prayer.

At one point, the analytic meditation suggested to focus on a point of sadness in our lives and our response to the issue.  In discussing the meditation afterward, I commented that the instruction caught me by surprise.  I had been quite intentional over the past year to focus on solutions, opportunities, lessons, and wisdom that could come from my stage 4 cancer diagnosis and my recent heart attack.  I intentionally corrected folks who said I was “dying” and said that I was “living” today.  Recently, I focused on the lesson I could learn from the heart attack, and how grateful I was that it occurred while I was at the hospital for an unrelated issue.  My positive outlook makes complete sense and flows from my over 30 years of recovery from alcohol addiction.

So, I am not certain about this sadness thing.

But in the past two years, my overall physical stamina has notably decreased, though today I was able to buy lumber and bags of soil and build another eight-foot raised herb bed for our front yard.  I then weeded the backyard gardens.  However, less than one year ago, I could not even lift my duffel bag off of the airport luggage carousel when arriving home from Peru.

Until one year ago I owned three bicycles.  I gave away my mountain bike a few months ago because I knew that my bones cannot really withstand the predictable wipeouts I experience on single track dirt paths.  I now think it might be time for me to get rid of my road bike as the days of century rides are likely past.  Instead, my remaining Trek hybrid is ideal for the 10-20 mile jaunts about town these days.  I accept that I will not likely bike the Great River Road from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to our New Orleans home. But I am not certain that these realities make me sad.   I am grateful today as I ride through the streets of New Orleans and smell the jasmine and honeysuckle in bloom – a scent that fills me with revelry of the beauty of creation.

With or without cancer, at the age of 65, my physical, mental, and spiritual life will continue to evolve.  With or without cancer, I discussed with Emma that when I am unable to get out of bed to sit on the back porch, then it is time to stop whatever treatments I am receiving.  I don’t know that I will be sad at that point.  I have a hope, based in faith, that I will be grateful for the wonderful experience I have had on this earth, living life on life’s terms.

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.

A Pilgrimage in Recovery

With my recent cancer diagnosis, I planned some “bucket list” places to visit.  One place on the list is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio as music has always been an important part of my life.  Another place high on the list in nearby Akron, Ohio is the former home of AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith.  The home is now an AA museum.  As AA is integral to my three decades of sobriety, I imagined that visiting the home of Dr. Bob would be a transformational experience of sorts.

As Cleveland is a 16 to 18-hour drive from our home in New Orleans, Emma suggested that I fly up north and rent a car to visit the area for a couple of days.  Of late, driving long distances wears me out and increases my back pain.  But I also thought about the folks along that route I had not seen in a long while.  To allow me to visit some folks, I came up with an itinerary that divided the driving into manageable 4-6 hour days.

As I pulled out of New Orleans, I envisioned a slow drive up north to Cleveland and Akron – the goals of my pilgrimage.

My first stop was Jackson, Mississippi where I visited an old friend also in recovery.  Our level of contact has ebbed and flowed over the years.  With his recent stomach cancer diagnosis we have had more communication of late.  My visit to their home produced an aura of serenity.  We talked about how our years of sobriety in AA proved the perfect preparation for living one-day-at-a-time with each of our recent cancer diagnoses.  Our visit was a strong confirmation of the 12 Step Program’s value.

My next stop was Memphis, Tennessee where Emma and I lived for 9 years after leaving Jackson and before retiring to New Orleans.  I stayed with our former next door neighbors and enjoyed catching up with them, and sharing our mutual experience, strength, and hope.  I was struck how after being in their home for less than one minute, it seemed we picked up our conversations as though we still lived next door and were talking over the back fence as our dogs barked at each other.

I met with several fellow faculty members, colleagues, and friends with whom I still regularly engage.  The highlight of my Memphis visit was spending time with former students.  It was wonderful to see how they were growing professionally.  I also had the opportunity to meet with a current student who I had only worked with in an online capacity.  She developed a very exciting project that we discussed implementing in Peru this summer.  In seeing how my former students were thriving, I left Memphis with a strong sense of validation for my past decade of work.

After an overnight stay, I arrived in Cincinnati, where I spent my first 20 years of life, and visited with a few family and friends.  On my way out of town I stopped to visit a friend I had worked with and had made recent amends to for incidents that occurred nearly 20 years ago.  We shared a meal and then I was off to Cleveland.

I strategically booked a hotel half-way between Cleveland and Akron.  I was certain to get a good night’s rest as I expected to spend the entire next day at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and fatigue has been my biggest cancer related issue these days.  Then the following day I planned to visit Dr. Bob’s home, the ultimate goal of my pilgrimage.

My visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was less than spectacular.  Here is my yelp review so I won’t rehash that all here.  I ended up leaving the place by noon and decided I might as well head to Dr. Bob’s Museum the same day.  Well . . . it is just a house with lots of ghosts in the walls and stories to tell.  The volunteers there made me feel very welcome and I enjoyed a tour with another couple in recovery visiting from Detroit.  The mystical experience I anticipated at Dr. Bob’s House simply did not occur.

In reflecting, two things struck me:

  • the process was the most important part of the pilgrimage – visiting friends along the way.  The people not the places of my life proved the most meaningful.
  • I recalled an incident that occurred many years ago.  In the late -1990s, I had occasion to drive from Baton Rouge to my then home in Delhi, Louisiana in the late afternoon once each month.  On one trip I was driving north on Highway 15 somewhere between Clayton and Sicily Island, Louisiana when I had a truly a mystical experience in seeing the beauty of the landscape across a flatland of a cotton field.  I pulled off the road to marvel at the place.  On  the next month’s trip, I was struck again by the same landscape.  I called the place Magic Land.  As I prepared for my third monthly trip, I had a camera, notepad, and audio recorder to document the experience.  But that time all I saw was a nondescript cotton field.  The fourth month, no luck again.  I never experienced Magic Land again.  I reflected on Magic Land last week as I drove south from Akron.  I thought about how I have learned to be present for the possibility, and when the time is right, the luminous will happen.  I cannot force the issue.  Two days later as I pulled onto a rain-soaked and chilly Magazine Street in New Orleans, I had a mystical experience of complete wellness and peace . . . of truly being home.  The pilgrimage was complete.

If every (alcoholic, cancer) breath I have ever taken . . .

In April of 2001, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Canal Street in New Orleans while in town to attend a professional conference.  I was in the coffee shop visiting with a former colleague from graduate school days at the University of Illinois.  He spoke of how his career and personal life were not going as he hoped.  After he spoke for a while, I very intentionally chose my words and said “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”  That idea had rolled around in my head for a while, but I never said it aloud until that day.  Today, I affirm the same sentiment – my life has perfectly led me to where I am today.

Let me explain.

Today, through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have a life that exceeds the best of any situation I can imagine.  I married my bride over 19 years ago and she is truly my best friend and confidant.  We have racked up some wonderful adventures together and have more to come.  I retired from a rewarding career with a job description completely aligned with my interests and vision.  Step 3 of AA launched me on a now three-decade long spiritual journey that continues to evolve.  My church home at Rayne Memorial UMC along with activity and friends in the School for Contemplative Living are the bedrock for my spiritual existence.  Today, I also live into a life of service consistent with the embryonic values I held over 45 years ago as an inner-city student teacher.  My life has a greater meaning than ever before.

An old friend from high school commented to me once that he never realized I had such a “rough life” early on in battling my demons and alcoholism.  But today, if I truly would not “change a thing” I am blessed by the lessons of my drunken alcoholic past.  Besides sharing my experience, strength, and hope, particularly with students in my classrooms over the years, I know too that those drunken days and the sobriety that followed provide me with the wisdom of how to live today.

Then, this past August, I received a stage 4 cancer diagnosis with a still unknown primary source.

I participated in a recent discussion where someone commented about the need to look for the silver lining in such adversities.  I think differently.  I don’t need to look for a silver lining for my cancer diagnosis.  In fact, the diagnosis was a wake-up call for me to prioritize those things that are important in my life.  When I retired in 2016, for the first year, I put nearly the same amount of effort into my career, but I was no longer drawing a paycheck.  My wife had retired from her full-time position to take on another full-time position in opening a business that had been her lifelong dream.  We both could have continued our separate retirement careers for years.

My cancer had other plans.  The original prognosis was that I might be dead by last Christmas.  That did  not happen.  I sat with my oncologist a couple of weeks ago and candidly discussed the unknowability of my prognosis, though he is very pleased with how I am doing.

Cancer has allowed Emma and I to focus on what we want to do in our lives.  We are all mortal and we don’t know when that mortality will be called in – as is clear for the 17 in Parkland, Florida.  So, I am not looking for a silver lining in my cancer diagnosis.  It is all silver and gold and is a wake up call for re-ordering my life priorities in the same way the massacre at Douglas school is an opportunity to take steps to end that carnage.  On a personal level, I will not waste the cancer wake-up call, as we must not waste the lives of the 17 in Parkland, and those before, as a national wake up call.

Alcoholism, cancer, mass murder – the only regret I can have is if I do not learn, absorb, and grow from the implications of these life events.  I must take the appropriate actions in living into the understanding that we are all truly made in the image of God and must treat ourselves and all those in our luminous web of life accordingly.  If I can continue moving in that direction of true self, I will be able to continue saying “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”