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.

 

Having Enough in Sobriety

Here is a confession.  For much of my life, I struggled with having enough.  In my addictions to alcohol and food, one drink or doughnut was too many and one thousand were never enough.  Through the 12 Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, I address the physical aspects of those addictions.  I have continued to deal with the many other manifestations of having enough.

For example, an area of life I focused on extensively in sobriety was my career.  In early recovery, I went back to school and ultimately earned a PhD.  Over the course of my studies, I received grants and fellowships for maintaining a 4.0 GPA and completing my dissertation in near record time.  But, for a host of reasons, largely related to my insecurity, I did not believe I had really succeeded.

In reflecting on the last 20 plus years of my career, I can say with confidence, I always left the place better than I found it.  But that never seemed enough.  I have published widely in my field, chaired committees for national professional organizations, done all the right things and more, but that too has often left me wanting.

Only in the last 5 years have I come to feel really comfortable in my own skin, as it were – where I have begun to experience having enough.  I had a strong “aha” experience over this Thanksgiving holiday weekend.  Here is some of what happened:

  • Our next door neighbors from Memphis, all of my stepchildren and their children were at our house for Thanksgiving Dinner – 18 total.  We never had so many family at our home for a holiday and I was grateful and appreciative.  I am comforted that I do not need anything else from family or friends to demonstrate our mutual commitment and love.
  • A dear friend drove from Austin, Texas to our home in New Orleans for Thanksgiving dinner.  We sat on the back porch after dinner and talked about how we met when she was a Team Leader for AmeriCorps NCCC, and how our relationship grew and continued over the years.  After our conversation, I do not need anything else to validate the value of my career.
  • On Saturday, I received a package from Suzanne Henley a good friend of my wife.  Inside was a creation and card titled Prayer Beads in Thanksgiving for Robert.  The card described the prayer beads (above photo) that contain pieces from Ethiopia, the Afgan Silk Road, Brazil, China, the Dead Sea, and more.  The prayer beads are now a very regular part of my guided imagery and centering prayer life.  After receiving these beads, I do not need any other material object to make my life complete.
  • On Friday evening, Emma and I strolled with our Memphis friends through the French Quarter.  Emma reminded me that such walks along Chartres St., through Jackson Square and beyond were how we spent our earliest days together as a couple.  After that walk, I do not need any more memories to know how wonderful my life has been.

The often quoted “page 449” of Alcoholics Anonymous statement on Acceptance is complimented well by Brene Brown’s understanding that:

Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.

Today, I have enough.  If I remain active in my recovery program, I am always rewarded with such profound understandings that enhance my life.  For this I am truly blessed, and grateful.

 

Working the Fourth Step, Again

I am repeating the Fourth Step process – the first time in a few years.  I am using the set of questions contained in the Overeaters Anonymous Twelve and Twelve.  I believe in working and reworking the Steps as a part of my recovery.  The process always reveals new insights and helps me to move along my recovery road.  I am intentional this time around about taking a “moral” inventory and not beating myself up mercilessly as I did some 30 years ago when doing my first Fourth Step in Alcoholics Anonymous.  I am mindful of the fact that over those three decades I have in fact grown and matured.  I am less a person completely governed by “self-will run riot.”  The Fourth Step process certainly informs me of many areas and behaviors of my life in need of a reality check.

So for many of the questions, I was pleased to recognize and write that yes, I have in fact grown in this or that respect over the years but those questions continue to provide new insights.  Here is one:

           Are we snobs?  Do we pay more attention to VIPS than ordinary people?

My knee jerk reaction was – of course not.  I am very salt of the earth.  You won’t catch me at a restaurant with 9 pieces of silverware at a place setting.  But I also got to thinking about the question some more.  For example, my memory has never been a strong feature for me, and I have learned to be very intentional when meeting folks to really concentrate on their names so I don’t forget them.  So when I began to attend a new group meeting on Wednesday mornings, I made a special effort to remember everyone’s name.  Also, I help with a meal through the Open Table program for the underserved every Tuesday afternoon here in New Orleans.  In a given month there might be 30 or so volunteers that cycle through to help.  This past week there was a fellow I had met several times before and had to confess I did not remember his name.  Partially because he is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, with a somewhat thick accent and I am not certain I ever really got his name completely.  But this past week, we re-introduced, acknowledged that both of us had forgotten each others names, and now his name “Artie” is forever impressed on my brain.

But then I got to thinking about those who come to receive a meal, a voucher for a night’s housing, and some toiletries.  I know none of their names. Many of these clients who come for the services are more regular than the volunteers.  In these types of situations, I am more comfortable mingling with the clients than hanging with the volunteers in the kitchen and dealing with the food.  But I have never asked any of the clients their name.  A bit of snobbery – paying more attention to the haves than the have-nots.  Nothing earth shattering, but a truth learned on the recovery road.

A lesson too that the Steps, if I choose to use them, always provide new insights and opportunities for growth.

Co-Creation in Recovery

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By and large, what human being want is resurrection without death, answers without doubt, light without darkness, the conclusion without the process . . . When the Spirit is alive in people, they wake up from their mechanical thinking and enter the realm of co-creative power.

Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, p. 146

 

In my professional life over the last 30 years I worked in the field of cultural heritage where I published a bunch of articles and some books.  A couple of years ago I noticed that the past half-dozen or so pieces I published had the word “co-creative” in the title.  I am rather evangelical about cultural heritage professionals co-creating with a community to meet the expressed need of that community.  When I see the word “co-create” in any context, I usually take note, such as the Richard Rohr quote above.

My sobriety and recovery in general is very much a co-creative affair.  My expressed need is sobriety/abstinence that is co-created with the support of other folks, organizations, or entities who can provide their experience, strength, and hope.  As in my professional world when working with communities, if I am not willing or interested in “co-creating” that recovery, it ain’t going to happen.

That is the obvious and simple part of lesson.

The more exciting part is the end product of co-creation.  In the museum world, when the process is truly co-creative and based in the community interests, and not what I perceive to be their interests, the end results are richer and more rewarding than anything I could dream up on my own.  In a similar way in sobriety, through living in the process over the years, and co-creating with the resources provided by so many others, and not just going on my own, I am amazed at the possibilities recovery has brought.  I so distinctly remember laying in that detox ward on August 4, 1984, wanting only to somehow function on a day-to-day basis in the real world.  The years have brought me so much more.

As the title of this blog clearly states, I too have learned that recovery is a process and not an event.  I remember an experience in my first year of sobriety.  I was desperately waiting for a situation to resolve itself.  At the time, I recalled that in the past I would have just gone out and drank over the issue.  But, I also thought that if I just stuck it out sober, I would learn from the experience and the next time would be easier to get through the same thing without drinking.  That insight in year one of sobriety proved so incredibly true, particularly in three decades of hindsight.

What I have learned over the years is that if I trust in the process, live into the process, not as an isolated being, but as part of a luminous web of interconnected co-creating humanity, I stay on the recovery road, with all of its blessings and responsibilities.

Mutual Interdependence in Recovery and Life

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Belonging is the innate human desire to part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown, 2010, Hazelden

Human strength admires autonomy; God’s mystery rests in mutuality. . . We admire needing no one; apparently, the Trinity admires needing. . . Needing everything – total communion with all things and all being . . . We’re practiced at hiding and self-protecting, not at showing all our cards.  God seems to be into total disclosure.

The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr, 2016, Whitaker House, pp. 59-60.

Like much in life, the obvious eludes me for a long period of time, and then it becomes clear. I have known for a while that much of my existence is a process of working out where it is I belong. Brené Brown’s quote, causes me to reflect on my past professional existence in higher education.  I wanted to be part of a team, but with egos, including my own, there was not an interest in team play but only maximizing individual benefit – what tenure track jobs in higher education demand. So, I spent years trying to fit in, but realized if I were going to align with True Self , I needed to go down a different road.

But the belonging of which Brown speaks remains – and where my life in recovery comes into play.  I have long known and thrived on the understanding that in 12-Step meetings, I do belong.  No one is turned away at the door because they have not done a 4th Step, met with their sponsor, relapsed 100 times, and so forth.  In fact, regardless of an person’s sobriety/abstinence, the most common refrain is to “keep coming back.”

Which is where the Richard Rohr quote comes in.  As a practicing addict, I believed I could do it on my own – so long as I could get everyone else to behave according to my plans.  I well recall in 1971, when dropping out of my B.A. program for the third time after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA, I told my academic advisor how I did not need his “bourgeois” education, that I would make it on my own.  In 1984, I had enough of my autonomy and made a decision to enter the mutual existence of a detox center for 30 days.

Looking back over the past three decades of 12-Step recovery – of mutual existence – I have begun to learn to live life on life’s terms.  In fact, that simple goal is the primary thing I have in common with the people sitting in 12-Step rooms.  Other than that we are a diverse lot.  The ability to live into that goal has little to do with any piece of demographic data such as age, race, gender, or academic degree.  I experienced a similar common goal when participating in medical or house building missions in Central America.  When I look around the room of those participants, we don’t have much in common beyond the goal of bringing medical care to the underserved.  As an autonomous person, I never got sober nor did I even consider medical care issues in Honduras or Panama.

I recently joined a faith community that nourishes and thrives in that mutuality with a rather simple mission of “Shining the Light of God’s Love and Grace.”  The congregation “is a community of faith and love representing, celebrating, and embracing all God’s children as persons of sacred worth regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, culture, tradition, sexual orientation or gender identity, personal and family history, or station in life.”  So, we do not need to debate all of that.  Rather, as mutual community, we can live into the mission.  There is no debate about the mission, rather consideration of how best to practice the mission.

Mutuality of community around a common mission seems of critical importance as we go forward in the world today.  Gaining debaters points on who did what and who won in electoral politics assures only that we will continue in a quagmire of inaction and decay where innocent people are slaughtered, the environment becomes more toxic and human dignity has no value.  Mutually agreeing on common goals around these issues and working toward the ends seems a more productive path.  The paths may be many, but they will only be accomplished through belonging within a mutually committed community.

Again, Richard Rohr (pp. 80-81):

. . . virtue of hope applies first of all to the collective before the individual . . . It is very hard for individuals to enjoy faith, hope, and love, or even to preach faith, hope, and love – which alone last – unless society itself first enjoys faith, hope, and love in some collective way.  This is much of our problem today; we have not given the world any message of cosmic hope, but only threatening messages of Apocalypse and Armageddon.

 

Asking the Why Question, Part 3

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My late buddy, Buddy.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.Step 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous

When I got sober a bunch of years ago, the “God thing” was an obstacle to overcome, but I was willing and committed to addressing the issue head-on.  Over the years, I jettisoned the God of my youth for a spiritual path aligned to the basic approach of the 12 steps.  I have not opted for the secular sobriety route of God as a coffee cup, good orderly direction, or similar notions.  I strive for the conscious contact of “God as we understood Him” found in both the Third and Eleventh Steps.  While watching a video featuring Adam Hamilton, a pastor of The United Methodist Church, I was completely blown away to recognize that we each start our day in exactly the same way – simply praying to the “God as we understood” that God to direct our life toward his/her/its will for that day.

So here is where this “Why” question raises itself again for me.  I am not an intercessory prayer kind of guy and I really take this prayer business pretty seriously.  I see prayer as very much a commitment to action on my part and not simply some magical God thing.  Prayer is a commitment that I am going to do something about it and be in community with a True Self and get out of my ego-driven False Self.  I see no logic in praying to get a good grade on a test without studying for the test.  That would be just God magic.  Same thing if I prayed to remain sober but took no actions to accomplish same.

My intercessory prayers generally require action on my part.  The night I got sober, I was so wracked with spiritual, emotional, and physical chaos, I distinctly remember looking upward and saying something like “please remove the insanity in my head and the addiction in my body.” Then, as I was raised a Roman Catholic, I decided being on my knees might work better, so I dropped the tool I had in my hand – I didn’t want to be too obvious – knelt down to pick it up and repeated my prayer.  But sobriety has required me to take action and responsibility for recovery.

I don’t mean this all as some self-congratulatory reflection on my spiritual existence.  I still come back to the Why Me? and consider myself incredibly blessed in all aspects of my life.

But then . . . there was the time with intercessory prayer, I was in rural Peru, and got an email that said my favorite dog ever who had grown old was going down hill fast and had not stood up in two days.  I would not be back home for another 2 weeks.  I laid in my sleeping bag that night and asked for Buddy just to hold on until I got home.  The next day he was running around outside again, and lived for another six months.

 

Walking with an Attitude of Gratitude

cdmMy wife tells me that I am truly a creature of habit.  One habit I have gotten into is walking to church on Sunday morning.  At a leisurely pace, the trip takes about 15 minutes.  This past Sunday the sky was overcast and rain seemed likely.  I could have driven but I made arrangements instead to get a ride back home if a typical New Orleans deluge hit.

Despite the rain, I wanted to walk because I have come to value the entire church going process as a big part of my weekly recovery – an opportunity to escape my false self/persona for a bit and explore and live into my true self.

As I walked this Sunday I reflected how I traveled these same streets some 40 years ago as a practicing alcoholic.  Then my frame of mind was on how life sucked, everyone was out to get me, etc. etc. and if you had to deal with all that, you would drink too.  I compared that past with my standard line today – I have not a problem in the world that is not of my own making.  This Sunday, I felt an exceptional rush of gratitude that in retirement I am able to have a second shot at living in my favorite city in North America.  I had the same sense of well-being when I went to the French Quarter last night in the rain for some coffee and beignets, assured the Cafe Du Monde would be reasonably empty of the tourist crowd.  I thought about how my wife and I came to New Orleans on our first trip together, later spent our honeymoon here, and now have been able to return.

And I realize too that all of this only comes through continued recovery and it all goes away if I choose to drink, drug, or live into my addictions today.

For all that, I am truly grateful.