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.


Starting a New Recovery in Sobriety

Thanks to Jackie Stern for the beautiful bouquet!

After a couple of months of tests, innumerable blood samples, today I began treatment for my recently diagnosed cancer.  I find many parallels to when I committed myself to a detox center for alcoholism in 1984.  Perhaps the greatest similarity is the hope of moving into a recovery process.  I remember being in detox with a copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the only entertainment in those first couple of days.  I skipped the early sections and went straight to the chapter A Vision for You. I distinctly remember a line in that chapter about how AA’s goal was to make addicts functioning members of society.  Although my brain was fogged by the anticonvulsant dilantin all new patients received, I remember reading that line over and over and realizing that was the recovery I sought.

This morning I sat in the Infusion Center at Touro Infirmary here in New Orleans. I received my first injection of Xgeva to help prevent spinal compression fractures and to harden and slow the deterioration of my bones.   This will become a monthly process, complete with a blood sample two days before to decide if my calcium level is suitable to receive the injection.

The visit included much intake information about everything from my physical condition to mental state and did I have thoughts of suicide.  The latter discussion caused a well of emotion in me as I reflected how my suicidal tendencies and half-hearted attempts early in life had not surfaced in over 30 years of sobriety.  I explained to the oncology RN the liberation I found in sobriety.  She asked about my support network and contrary to my relative isolation in my 1984 detox, I smiled and simply noted that I could not ask for a better support network than I have today.  I am truly embraced and lifted up by so many.

After setting more follow-up appointments with a nutritionist and my oncologist to decide the treatments that will likely include rounds of chemotherapy, I rode to my physical therapy appointment at the Touro Rehabilitation Center on St. Charles Ave. (As an aside, I was pleased they actually have bike racks where I can lock my ride.)

At the rehab center, I tell my story again to my new physical therapist and fill out more forms.  And once again, I draw on my AA recovery experience to express the goals that I  want to set.  I note that in my alcohol recovery, I always tried to stay somewhere in a safe middle ground.  I was not someone who tempted fate by hanging out in bars, nor was I someone whose life never got beyond the walls of an AA meeting room.  In the same way now I wanted to maximize physical recovery stemming from my bike wreck this past spring, recognizing that I am 65 years old with a cancer diagnosis but I do not intend to sit at home afraid to move.  The therapist got that and went to work.

As in the detox center of 1984 where an attitude of gratitude was infectious among all the staff, so to the cancer recovery team at Touro are truly incredible.  They are knowledgable, kind, efficient, and just a bunch of really pleasant folks who already laugh at my very bad jokes and sense of humor.  And we will all be seeing a lot of each other in the coming months – it seems I will have some sort of medical appointment at least three times per week for the coming period.

And like there was the initial euphoria that came with being sober, followed by living life on life’s terms one-day-at-a-time upon release, so too, I have to assume that chemotherapy, and living with cancer will bring challenges I can not yet appreciate.  But as I have written before, my past 30 years of recovery from alcoholism has been the perfect training ground for what is to come.  I am truly blessed and at peace.

Community and Recovery

In recovery from alcoholism, I learned early on I could not do it alone.  I bowled on a recovery league at a local alley every Saturday night for my first six months of sobriety.  I attended the recommended “90 AA meetings in 90 days” when released from the 30-day detox unit where I got sober.  Over the last three decades, although the circumstances and settings have changed, every day I am mindful that I am a part of a 12-Step recovery community, along with supporters, friends, and family.

Today, I find the early days of my cancer diagnosis to be very much the same.  Nearly one year ago I formally joined Rayne Memorial Methodist Church.  At about the same time I began attending weekly meetings of the School for Contemplative Living.  Two weeks ago with a handful of friends we began a 12-week study of the book It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again by Julia Cameron.  One of these friends commented on the significance of my joining in with these three groups/organizations over the past year, then receiving my cancer diagnosis, and now supported by and being in community with these new friends/pilgrims on these roads together.  I could not agree more.

In the same way the meetings and activities in my early days of sobriety were less about drinking and more about living life, while today my friends ask for my health updates, our community is more about living in our own God’s World.  I am blessed by a spouse and inherited family over the past twenty years, combined with my birth family, and that new community of friends to share life today.

Alcoholism is often called a disease of isolation.  I am incredibly blessed to have years of sobriety to unlearn that isolation and to build relationships and be in community.  Community in my living with cancer has already shown its value.  I am grateful to in this web of interconnectivity, putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, not just in disease recovery, whether cancer or addiction, but in a celebration of living into our true selves as our Gods intended for us.

This week I get some final testing done (PET scan and MRI) with a treatment plan soon to follow.

As I noted in my last post, were it not for the 12-Steps of Recovery, if I were even alive, today I would be drunk and cursing my misfortune.  Instead, today I have choices – next on the list being a review of the book I just bought The Louisiana Urban Gardener, in preparation for the fall sale at the New Orleans Herb Society’s in two short weeks!

An Anniversary of Sorts in Service

This week marks an anniversary of sorts.  For the past 365 days, I have written a card and mailed (USPS snail mail or hand-delivered) to someone about something.  My reason for launching this project was because I wanted to let folks know how much I appreciated their role in my life from family members, friends, and colleagues.  Importantly, I wanted to include the clerks and service workers we engage with every day.  As the year went on, I added public officials and civic leaders to express my concerns over local and national issues.  Lately, a number of my daily notes included a recent round of 9th Step amends.

In the first 100 or so days of the process, I was reluctant to admit to anyone what I was doing.  I did not want to be taken as grandiose or holier than thou for stopping to thank folks.  As well, I didn’t want the recipients to perceive the notes as a part of an experiment or my need to come up with someone to write to on a given day.  I was pleasantly surprised that I never ran out of people to write!

Over time, I have come to view the note writing differently:

  • From a selfish perspective, I know that my relationship with many has been enhanced by the simple note.
  • I am more mindful to consistently thank folks on the spot for service issues – bank, car repair, stores since writing the notes.
  • A relative I wrote expressing my admiration for her dedication to her family responded, telling me how much the note meant as she was filled with self-doubt about her role as a parent.  I thought about how today criticisms so often exceed the affirmations of our worth.
  • My expression of thanks to others for their contributions has on several occasions brought about a mutual reflection of our time together professionally.  Importantly too, in a 9th step way, the notes to colleagues and friends allows me to clean up my side of the street.
  • I enjoy just being in relationship with people, going to the Post Office to see the stamps available and to the bookstore for cards to personalize my notes.

What I have gotten most out of this process is having an enhanced attitude of gratitude for the people in my life and taking an active step to build those relationships.  Although distance is bridged in the virtual world, and perhaps this reflects my age, but I find a handwritten note a qualitative leap above an email or Facebook post.  Apparently many of my recipients feel the same.

Sobriety is self-serving to my very existence, but so too sobriety allows me to grow in community, relationship, and responsibility to the world.  In the same way that being of service, carrying the message, offering support to those in need allows me to be in community with those in recovery, that service, message, and support reaches beyond the fellowship to everyone in my life.

I have an intense “attitude of gratitude” for my recovery over the past 30 years.  The gratitude is the reason I write this blog.  The gratitude is the reason for the past year I have written and mailed the notes.  You have to give it away to keep it.  I am truly blessed.

Having an Attitude of Gratitude in Recovery

The Sunday School session I attend at my church is called The Wilderness.  We discuss books and topics from a more social activist and progressive end of theology.  I was a slightly put-off when the title of our current study book was first announced  Happy: What It Is And How To Find It by Matt Miofsky.  Each of the four week’s of study is accompanied by a 10-minute presentation on the week’s chapter.  I got past the title to learn the book is really about finding serenity in our lives – albeit what I perceived as a rather basic discussion.  I must confess to a smugness because of what I perceived as my advanced training in this area after 30 plus years of sobriety through the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Steps.

But this past Sunday’s chapter Beyond Circumstances particularly intrigued me as of late I have been dealing with my own particular circumstances.  The classmate who led the discussion this week passed out pieces of paper because in reviewing the video presentation for this chapter, the author provides a list of things of which we might want to take note.

Here is the list the author suggested in the video for not letting circumstances adversely impact your serenity and peace:

  • learn to live in the present
  • change your perspective
  • live a life of gratitude
  • keep track of what I am grateful for today
  • let go of control.

Now anyone with a modicum of familiarity with the 12-Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous has heard all of these list items hundreds of times in the meetings they attend, the literature they read, and the steps that they work!

The discussion in our class was far-reaching and insightful.  Out of the 20 or some folks in the room, only three kept a gratitude journal.  There was a rich discussion on the conflict of letting go of control in a variety of situations.

I am incredibly grateful to the 12-Step Program for the peace and serenity in my life today.  And as Step 12 suggests:

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (or fill in the blank of other addictions/issues), and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

What an incredible gift of sobriety!!

Did God Love/Forgive Judas? A Recovery Parable.

Okay, so the answer is an obvious yes, but the story is far more interesting.

At church this morning (Rayne Memorial) senior pastor Callie Crawford’s message was to be “Loving Judas” apt for Palm Sunday.

(For those not familiar, in the Christian Gospels, Judas betrayed Jesus causing him to be handed over to the Romans for ultimate crucifixion.  Judas got thirty pieces of silver for the deed.  Other of Jesus’ followers did not do much better.  Peter denied/betrayed Jesus three times – and apparently the other disciples left Jesus on his own after his capture and execution.)

Callie is an exceptional preacher and storyteller and as always, I looked forward to hearing her preach. A sermon with this title could have included how we are all broken, in need of forgiveness, and loved, regardless.

But the sermon took a twist that caught me completely by surprise.  Callie asked us to consider the difference between the role of Peter and Judas – each who had betrayed Jesus.  Was either betrayal worse than the other?  What was the difference between the two?  She suggested a big difference was that Peter came back and continued to be in community with Jesus, to follow him, to discover the empty tomb. Judas at first tried to undo his betrayal, but ultimately committed suicide instead.

As a recovering alcoholic, the story had considerable meaning.  I always equated my drinking to a slow form of suicide.  My grief over betrayal, dysfunction, pain – I completely relate to being the Judas and just wanting to make it go away.  I am eternally blessed that by grace, ultimately, I followed Peter’s example, toward recovery, to travel the road, to experience a personal resurrection.

But the end of Callie’s sermon caught me short.  She talked about a mythical Second Coming where all the folks are walking into heaven and Peter is there to close the gates after everyone is in for the party.  But Jesus stands outside the gate and Peter tells him to come on in because the party is going to start.  But Jesus stays outside the gate looking into the distance.  When Peter asks Jesus what he is waiting for he replies “I am waiting for Judas to come on up.”

And I could so relate to being that Judas when steeped in my addiction.  The self-hate and loathing – only wanting to be anesthetized with alcohol and drugs so I had to feel nothing – so that I lived only in a perpetual coma.  Unable or unwilling to just surrender to my powerlessness and walk through the liberating gates of recovery.

I am forever blessed that on August 4, 1984 just before midnight when I got off work from the paper bag factory, I chose to check myself into a detox unit instead of getting drunk, my norm.  I was finally able to walk through the gates and join the party.  Today’s sermon left me with a profound gratitude for that event and a sadness for those still wallowing in the muck.  I walked home from church with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, and a renewed commitment to life.

By the time I got home, my wife had already packed our picnic lunch and along with our reasonably insane rescue dog, we went up to the Fly along the Mississippi River, spread a blanket and had lunch.  I felt at home.


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.