Alcoholism, Cancer & Living on Borrowed Time

A typical discussion that occurs with family or friends I have not seen in while is being asked about the status of my cancer diagnosis.  After reporting the latest on poking, prodding, and testing, I conclude with the same ambiguous prognosis that my oncologist gives me.

Recently I had this conversation with a couple of newer friends who were over for dinner.  Typically, in the same way I don’t want folks to feel uncomfortable drinking around me because I am a recovering alcoholic, I too don’t want folks feeling sorry for me because of my cancer diagnosis.  So, in the same way that we served wine for our dinner guests, when running down my cancer status, I said something like “I don’t mean to sound cavalier about this, but I feel that I have been on borrowed time for the past three decades and that I would have been dead long ago had I not quit drinking – so it is all good today.”  The husband responded that was the exact way he felt after being sent to Vietnam because he never expected to come back to the U.S. alive.  He considers his last nearly 50 years to also be a matter of living on borrowed time.  His comment hit me like a ton of bricks!  This was the first person I stated my truth to who responded with  basically ‘yeah, I get that.’

In fact, I suspect there are many variations to the type of life experiences that produce similar thoughts.  For me, these types of experiences bring to mind one of my favorite quotes:

Death is not just physical dying, but going to full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control, fully beyond where I am now . . . When you go into the depth and death, sometimes even the depths of your sin, you come out the other side – and the word for that is resurrection.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond pp. xx-xxi, Josey-Bass

I recollect some 25 years ago a fellow student, then in her 50s, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  As a nontraditional college student at the time myself, we became friends.  I socialized with her family and became a bit of a confidant around her disease diagnosis.  She commented to me that being diagnosed with MS was the first bad thing that had ever happened in her life.  To that point, everything in her life had been picture perfect.  She could not cope with her diagnosis, opting instead to only rely on every newfangled medical treatment that might return her to the idyllic existence she had known.

I had a few years of sobriety by that point, really believed in the 12 Step Process and suggested she consider a support group to help deal with her diagnosis.  Her response was that there was no way she would associate with “those people” who also had the disease.  I was reasonably shocked.  I watched over the months and short years as she turned into an embittered victim filled with self-pity and loathing.

I am grateful today for the opportunity to surrender to that which I am powerless, have an attitude of gratitude, live one-day-at-a-time, and benefit from the many other lessons of the 12 Step Recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous.  I am very far from perfectly applying these lessons today, however, they are a constant source from which I can draw.  Cancer still sucks, but my 1984 resurrection in sobriety allowed me to begin an ascent from the depths of despair to which I had fallen.  I am truly blessed to apply these experiences in my life today.

Dealing with Surrender and Denial, Again

I find the words I have the most difficulty speaking – that cause me to choke – are when I talk to the oncology folks about what I have been doing medical-wise – supplements I have been taking, things I have read, trying to get answers for my back pain and other medical issues, related to my cancer diagnosis.  I think this difficulty comes in part from my academic training where I was taught to read another book or run another test to come up with a better answer.  And though there is some truth in that approach, there are limits.  I learned in Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous that I was “powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable.”  The same holds true for my cancer.  In the same way there is no magic bullet to allow me to consume alcohol as a “normal” person, I have some cancer cells with a mind and power of their own.  So modern science has done wonders with cancer treatment, but limits remain.  I am learning to accept those limits.

I have wanted to believe that my back and neck pain all result from my bike wreck this past May.  I wanted to believe when my fractured clavicle was treated the pain would go away.  So I am now having physical therapy and after a couple of sessions my therapist casually noted that a good bit of the pain is likely attributable to the cancer in my bones.  Again, that lump in the throat as all of my rationalizations and denials are shot down.  After all, even before the cancer diagnosis, I was diagnosed with osteopenia a step away from osteoporosis.  My back and neck issues are not all the fault of the frat-boy who lost control of his skateboard causing me the worst bike wreck in my 65 years of living.

I know that in the same way an “attitude of gratitude” is instrumental to my continual recovery process from addiction, the same attitude will help me prevail with cancer.  In these early stages, I find it is less about the amount of time I will live but what I will do with that time, beginning today.  Cancer notwithstanding, none of us are getting out of this game alive.  I was bike riding and thought about how much I really enjoy that activity.  I cut back more of the jungle in our back yard for fall crops and planted beets in one of our raised beds.  In terms of physical activity, gardening is second only to biking as my favorite.

My oncologist has not “operationalized the variable” of what it means that I have “at least 2-3 years of a quality life” remaining.  And with the inability to find out where the cancer is even coming from, and my denial, I prefer not to ask.  But I have to assume that even with continued physical therapy, the cancer in my bones will cause more pain.  I know too, even without a cancer diagnosis, someday before I die I likely will not be able to ride my bike or plant beets in the garden.    The one-day-at-a-time approach to life that I have learned in sobriety over the years certainly suits me very well today.

Emotional Sobriety in Recovery

three sistersA friend passed along a link to Tom B. speaking on emotional sobriety.  I preface this post by saying that I am also a big fan of the “take what you like and leave the rest” approach of AA.  In fact, on first listen I was rather put-off by the speaker’s good old boy, old-timer name dropping, somewhat sexist approach.  But about three-quarters of the way through I stopped listening because I realized I would need to come back and listen to the entire presentation again after putting my biases on the shelf.

Tom B. defines emotional sobriety as when my feelings and beliefs about myself match the facts about me.  Emotional unsobriety is when my feelings and beliefs about myself do not match the facts about me.  Instead I always look for an outside source of approval.  This emotional unsobriety approach allows others tell me about how I should feel about me.

Tom B also talked about the lingering feeling of uneasiness and self-hatred over which some people relapse on alcohol. Although I have remained alcohol sober, I have instead relapsed with food through compulsive overeating.  For me addiction is addiction is addiction and I can practice whatever addiction to avoid dealing with life on life’s terms. Although I have been in recovery from alcoholism for over 30 years, perhaps, in some respects for me food/sugar is the primary addiction and alcohol/sugar, more of a secondary. In fact, I used refined sugar to escape years before picking up the first drink.  I well recall as a five-year old, pushing the step stool to the kitchen counter, climbing onto the counter to get to the storage canister and shoveling scoops of sugar into my mouth.

Tom B. states that self hate is a primary cause of emotional unsobriety.  He suggests that self hate comes from perfectionism instilled early on.  This point was quite revealing to me. A couple of examples come to mind that I never would have thought of in this way before. In the past I would have only remembered them as examples of unreasonable paternal or academic expectations.  First, I struggled with basic writing and mathematical skills in elementary school. My difficulty in part was not understanding the relevance in practical application and I was also acting out in all sorts of ways. I recall well in the 5th grade when we had to diagram sentences for an exam. I did not understand the process at all. But I studied very hard for the exam, in part because I liked the teacher, and in part perhaps to prove that I was not stupid. I ended up getting a 99.5% on the exam and was thrilled. My father criticized me for making the one mistake and not being good enough.

I must admit that the same “not good enough” uneasiness plagued me for years.  I was tracked into general education in high school as not having the aptitude for college.  Although ultimately earning a PhD in Anthropology, in that process, I was intimidated and resentful of being dismissed by professors in favor of students from more prestigious backgrounds. At the same time, I did not believe my 4.0 GPA or professors who were very complimentary and supportive of my work were meaningful.  I was the highest funded student in the history of my graduate cohort at two different universities, but still filled with a sense of self-loathing for my academic abilities.

I have always had a very difficult time taking compliments, but also tend to have a knee-jerk reaction against any criticism. I will say that in the past five years, I have recognized and made tremendous strides in this area.

Tom B.’s noting that having a negative image of a higher power goes along with having a negative image of myself makes complete sense. If we conceptually believe we are made in the image of God, then that negativity is obviously shared.

The solutions posed by Tom B. include:

  • surrender to my condition of powerlessness and my need to address my character defects
  • sacrifice to my higher power my needs to escape, be right, and self-centered
  • examine our behavior patterns based on false beliefs and fears that are contrary to the self observation of facts.

Tom B.’s presentation was extremely insightful to me.  He talks about a path I started to venture down for the past few years.  I found his confirmation and elaboration of that process affirming.  He argues that purity of the heart is the goal of sobriety.  For me this takes on the challenge noted in the OA 12 and 12 that “First we grasp this knowledge intellectually, and then finally we come to believe it in our hearts.  When this happens, we have taken the first step and are ready to move ahead in our program of recovery” (p.6-7).

Powerlessness in Hualcayán, Peru


Children respond to me pulling out my camera in a classroom in Hualcayán, Peru.

So, I have this new understanding of being powerless.  The power has been out since last Thursday in this remote northern Andean village where I have been for the past couple of weeks, and with a couple more weeks to come.  Turns out being without electricity really did not make a difference.  The only real downside was that all the laptops eventually went dead, meaning no more internet.  Solar charges were only good for iPads, iPods and other devices that could not hook into the tenuous 2G network up here.  I came to like it.    I got much more in tune with the village life where electrical outages are common and can last a couple of weeks.

It reminded me of a much simpler and enjoyable time.  When we were painting the inside of a building that will turn into the Hualcayán Museo in a couple of weeks, there was a tinge of nostalgia that was very satisfying about the experience.  The same with eating dinner by candle light, visiting other folks in their homes and shops illuminated only by candles or cooking fires.  Seems we outsiders were the only folks with flashlights and headlamps.  My solar charger was the only one in the entire village.  No one had a gas generator either.  The folks of Hualcayán simply take it one day at a time on this issue.

One of the most memorable parts of the experience was a conversation I had with a student who traveled to Peru from the U.S. on this project.  She was very self-critical of her work down here, second guessing herself way too much.  So we discussed how doing things the first time is messy and not precise.  We were able to talk about her work and let her know that she was doing an absolutely spectacular job.  After the conversation I took her aside and commented that I was not certain what led her to such intense self-criticism of herself.  I shared my experiences of dismal feelings of self-worth in my past life.  I noted that mine came from my alcoholism and that it has taken a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin. I was just wanted reassure her that she was a spectacular young woman doing phenomenal work.  She was quite appreciative of me sharing my experience, strength, and hope.

So here is my punch line for the day – I thoroughly enjoy that recovery is present in all of my thinking – whether in the loss of electricity, or someone in distress for who knows what reasons.

Now I am sitting in Caraz, a town with power where we will have meetings the next two days about collaborative projects on a new museum planned for this small town in the Huaylas Province.  I look at the chair next to my bed and see an iPad, cell phone, and iPod being charged with power.  Sometimes powerlessness is the better choice.