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.

From Entitlement to Action in Recovery

entitleagencyEntitlement is “I deserve this just because I want it” and agency is “I know I can do this.”  The combination of fear of disappointment, entitlement, and performance pressure is a recipe for hopelessness and self-doubt.

– Brené Brown The Gifts of Imperfection

Dr. Brown’s quote is quite revealing.  I witnessed a dramatic shift from entitlement to agency in my recovery – and like everything, the shift is a process and not an event.  But I was not a total slouch, born with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth.  In fact, I had my first factory job when I was 16, and have been generally financially self-supporting my entire life – never unemployed for more than a couple of weeks between jobs.  But, I was incredibly resentful of my state in life compared to others.  I had a ready excuse to explain why my relative brilliance was not recognized by the world.  I recollect well, after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA during my first try at college, telling my academic advisor I did not need his bourgeois education – I was going to make it on my own.  All of which led me to a detox unit some ten years later.  I have posted about some of this before.

But in recovery self-doubt has remained.  I was about seven-years sober, finally earned BA and MA degrees and was awarded a full scholarship to a PhD program.  I distinctly remember driving across the Indiana cornfields to register for classes and thinking “who am I trying to fool” and “what will happen when they find out.”  As good as I could get on the agency thing at that time was convincing myself that I was going to give this my best shot, and also give myself permission to drop out after the first semester if I was clearly in over my head.

In less than five years I graduated, got my dream job, but again was incredibly concerned about being found out.  Fast forward 20 years and I am now retiring from a different dream job.  Over the years the “I know I can do this” has become a bigger part of my existence.  Take writing.  The “publish or perish” higher education mantra is impressed upon students along with the pecking order of prestigious publications.  I have published well above average over the years, but not until the last five years have I felt I truly found my writing voice.  My best writing is in my “professional blog” that would fill another four or five books but that is considered the lowest on prestige chart.  But I find everything except my blog writing to actually be a rather tedious unenjoyable process.  The only real exception to that has been my last edited volume.  I believe this is the case because the last book is one that most expresses my values and interests.

So, I might add to Dr. Brown’s definition that “I know I can do this and I want to do this

The process of finding and then living into true self has been the most exciting part of my life in recovery.  My “bourgeois education” provided some equipment for that process, but, without question what I have received through the 12-steps and other related recovery is where I have learned how to use that equipment . . . and I am always pleased to know that the process is never done!

Results That Exceed Our Expectations

My HipstaPrint 4[2]Yesterday my wife and I drove a couple of hours south of where we live to what was billed as a nature festival of sorts.  The event was quite crowded and the nature part was rather minimal.  Rather the 15.00 per head admission and abundance of vendors suggested instead that fundraising was a primary motivation for the event.

We decided instead to head to a nearby small town for a visit.  The town contained a couple of museums, both of which were closed despite being advertised as open.

We found a place for lunch, checked out a cemetery, drove around a bit and then headed for home.

We both commented on the drive back how this had been a good day.  We reflected how we just have not been getting out of town enough and having “fun” driving on back roads like we have done during most of our lives together.  Our expectations for the day were completely unmet.  However the results were better than our plans had led us to expect.

You can make plans but don’t plan the results is a saying I hear a lot in recovery.  The message seems to be that things don’t always work out the way we plan – get ready for disappointment  Yesterday showed that results can exceed or expectations.  Upon reflection, I find that is consistently the case over time in my recovery.  As a totality, I could never have predicted the fantastic life I have lived since starting on a road to recovery.