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.

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.

More Hope in Recovery

I heard the words “Robert is dying” spoken for the first time the other day.  The context was that we are all dying but that my death is accelerated by cancer.  Although the statement was made in a wholly appropriate manner and one of great concern, it struck me as odd.

I do not think of myself as dying.  In fact, and particularly since my cancer diagnosis, I consider myself to be more intentionally alive.  Today, the genesis of much of my thinking about life stems from getting sober in 1984.

While in the detox unit back then, I came to appreciate the dying process I lived for years through my addiction to alcohol.  I went through life completely anesthetized.  For example, instead of grieving when my maternal grandmother died, I got drunk.  I noted the highway to my job had several bridge abutments I could crash into should I decide to act on my suicidal fantasies.  I recall running down a road in an alcohol induced hallucination, firmly believing that if I stopped running, my brain would leave my head and I could not get it back.  And then, there was the regular isolation and alienation I experienced.  Then, I was truly dying.

But in the summer of 1984, there was a spark of hope and desire to try to live.  I laid in the detox ward only wanting to function as regular member of society.  I wanted to do things like go to work every day; remember going to bed at night and not be hungover in the morning; or have an honest conversation with someone where I was not trying to run a scam.

As I wrote previously, since then, my recovery path has not been linear – more like a spiral – but the overall trajectory is intentional, choosing to live, and having hope in the process.  That hope is the absolute bedrock of my existence today.

So am I dying today more than any other 65 year old mortal?  I think not.  As I have posted over the past few weeks, I am choosing to more intentionally live my time each day, whether that is riding my bike, cooking a pot of soup, digitizing maps, watching Netflix, writing an article, or sitting and relaxing on the back porch with my wife, Emma and dog, Grace.  I do not just exist, waiting to prove that I am mortal.

Today Emma and I talked about changing a spring couple thousand mile bike ride along the Great River Road for a few hundred miles of the Natchez Trace – a more realistic possibility.  But then I have another CAT scan scheduled and a visit to the oncologist on November 22nd that could result in chemotherapy and disrupt those best laid plans.

In my morning gratitude list, I often write “the opportunity to make choices for another day” – that to me is a big part of why I am living and not dying, today.

These are lessons I am blessed with from living one-day-at-a-time for many years through a 12 step recovery program.

 

With a New Lease on Life, I Still Have to Pay the Rent.

Backyard lemons will be ready in the next month!

In 12-Step Recovery from addiction, sobriety brought me hope and a new perspective on life.  But I learned that knowledge was of little value without action.  I found that life could be a half-full and not half-empty existence if I took the steps necessary to live from a positive perspective.  I recollect well upon discharge after 30 days of detox, immediately getting a sponsor, going to 90 meetings in 90 days, and following the recommended actions to maintain my sobriety.  Though the practices changed over time, for the past three decades, the recovery road never failed me.  For example, although I have not been to an AA meeting in over a year, my recovery practices have only increased through time.  Though perhaps counterintuitive, the longer I remain sober, the more I take the necessary steps to maintain a sobriety.

I am coming to find the same attitude is needed for my life with cancer.  In my last post I wrote about the postponement of my chemo treatments until after the first of the year, the resulting sense of liberation, and a commitment not to waste the rest of 2017.

Last week I met with my nutritionist and had a couple of physical therapy sessions that laid out a course of action.  In my feeling of liberation from chemo, I chose to take too many liberties.  Two of my post-nutritionist meeting meals involved loads of pasta and blue plate special diner foods at odds with the recommended Mediterranean Diet.  I immediately fell into a lethargic state and procrastinated and put off my daily neck and back exercises.  By the time Sunday rolled around, I was pressed just to get myself to church in the morning.

In the same way that a relapse in sobriety is a process and not a single event, my dietary choices were a start down a slippery slope of enabling my cancer to strengthen. The experience provided a very solid kick in the ass!

Most mornings, one of the items I post on my gratitude list is the opportunity to make choices. Now I still have that opportunity to make choices and opted for actually reading and acting on the materials that the nutritionist provided me.  Since Monday I have made two pots of soup, that along with other healthy food choices, provided me with energy to function fully into the day including bike riding and work in my garden that I enjoy.

A graduate school professor of mine long ago talked about the “forgivability” for an error.  Around issues of sobriety, my errors were forgivable enough that I remained sober and did not get to point in the relapse process where I chose to drink or drug.  I am often torn knowing that sooner or later our own mortality catches up with the forgivability factor.  Acting on that knowledge is a critical factor in the choices I make today in living with cancer.

Again, I am grateful for my years of training in AA in both acquiring knowledge and taking action.

 

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!!

My Many Recovery Tools

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I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail – Abraham Maslow (ref)

 I have not been to an AA meeting for about six weeks, and I am not feeling bad about that.  My recovery is based in trying to live the Twelve Steps of AA – none of those steps mandate regular meeting attendance.  Yet I also know that in the future, I will attend AA meetings, perhaps with a good bit of regularity, as I have done in the past.

I view AA meetings as a recovery tool.  Other recovery tools include writing this post, commenting on other folks blog posts, being of service to other addicts, being of service to non-addicts, reading recovery literature, reading non-recovery literature, being accountable for my actions on a daily basis, being mindful and intentional, going to church, not going to church, writing a gratitude list, to name a few.  A common theme I find in all of these recovery tools is that they allow/force me to get out of myself.

I enjoy knowing that there are many tools that are essential for my recovery.  On my recovery road there are many that are tried and true, like:

  • Whenever I go to a recovery meeting, I learn something, whether for the better or worse, that is useful in my life.
  • Whenever I have perform any type of “service work” my recovery is enhanced.
  • Whenever I start reading the Twelve and Twelve on page 1, the solution to any issue I face is addressed before completing the Twelfth Step reading.
  • Whenever I write anything, whether a gratitude list, blog post, comment on a blog post, journal entry, essay, or fiction I receive insights on my recovery path.
  • Whenever I share my experience, strength, and hope, whether directly in recovery, or simply living life on life’s terms, my recovery is enhanced.

Sometimes the hammer works, but sometimes another tool is needed.  What are your go to recovery tools?

Gratitude List

luminoussunriseToday ten things I am grateful for (in no particular order):

  1. another day in recovery
  2. a spouse, family, and friends with whom I have a true relationship
  3. a sense of purpose in my career
  4. the opportunity to give back for what I have been given
  5. enough material resources that I do not “need” anything
  6. music
  7. living into the solution and not dwelling in the problem
  8. the possibility of putting myself in another person’s shoes before acting
  9. content with where I am today
  10. looking forward to the future process.

And perhaps the bonus is that knowing that today the AA Promises have all come to pass in my life of recovery.