Grateful for 34 Years of Sobriety

Thirty-four years ago today I walked into the Care Unit Detox Center in Cincinnati, Ohio to begin a 30-day inpatient alcohol/drug treatment program.  I have remained sober since that day.  In Alcoholics Anonymous, anniversaries are celebrated as a milestone.  Over the years, the significance of these events has hit me differently.  Just a few years ago, when living much more on autopilot, I completely forgot the anniversary until a few days after the fact.  Today, the date looms much larger in my mind.

I have posted many times how my years of recovery from alcoholism proved a perfect preparation for living with cancer over the past year when the speculation about my cancer probabilities turned into a firm diagnosis.  I recollect well-being told I had 3-6 months to live and wondering how to handle that.

The one-day-at-a-time lesson of AA kicked in fully last August as I sat in Audubon Park thinking of what I would miss most.  I thought about the time spent with my wife Emma, our rescue dog Grace, riding my bike, gardening, sitting in the Park reading, and so forth.  While sitting on that park bench It hit me – I best get busy with those things now while I am able.

Fast forward one year to today – although imperfectly, I have not wasted away the last year in dwelling in the problem.  I spent a good bit more time at Touro Infirmary than I planned, but I also had many fantastic experiences in that process.

Emma and I set priorities that are going in the right direction to enhance whatever time we have together on this earth.

My path toward what Thomas Merton refers to as “true self” has produced many wonderful and unexpected vistas thanks to my church home at Rayne Memorial United Methodist and the School for Contemplative Living.

I knocked off some “bucket list” visits like the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron, and a handful of other places.  I have continued my “institutionally retired” professional career with many rewarding experiences.

I truly tried to live into the solution and not dwell in the problem of my disease.  I attribute this perspective as the primary reason in my surpassing all of my doctors’ expectations.  Physically, mentally, and spiritually, I feel better than I did one year ago – even two years ago for that matter.

As true for everyone, I don’t know if I will be alive on August 4th of 2019 to celebrate my 35th Anniversary in sobriety.  I firmly believe that were in not for the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the starting point for my personal resurrection, I would not have received the gift of sobriety.  I am truly grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps of Recovery for the last 34 years of sobriety and each day yet to come on the road to happy destiny.

 

 

Self-Compassion and Cancer

Painting by Emma Connolly

I am currently enrolled in the eight-week Cultivating Compassion course offered through the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  The course leader is Dr. William Thiele, the School’s Founding Director and author of the book Monks in the World.  William went through a year-long Compassion Cultivation Training program at Stanford University in preparation to lead the local sessions.  Dr. Thupten Jinpa at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford developed the course.  More about the course development can be found in Dr. Jinpa’s book A Fearless Heart.  Dr. Jinpa is otherwise known for being the official translator for The Dalai Lama since 1985.

The course approach to compassion convinced me to spend my Sunday afternoons for the next couple of months in the seminar setting.  Dr. Thupten defines compassion in A Fearless Heart (2015:xxii) as “. . . a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”  Also, I was intrigued that one session would be devoted to self-compassion.

The self-compassion session took place this past Sunday. In the session, William encouraged the participants to consider a personal circumstance or event that caused us to be filled with doubt and self-blame.  I was somewhat surprised that what immediately came to my mind was my stage 4 cancer diagnosis of one year ago.  In fact, the session brought me to view an aspect of the cancer diagnosis I had not discussed with anyone, but only internalized.

Last year, during the initial speculation on the primary source of the cancer, I immediately focused on my complicity in the disease:

  • As I was a cigarette smoker from the age of 10 until my mid-40s, I felt assured that I had lung cancer.  That proved not to be the case – my lungs are in great shape.
  • My general practitioners first guess was colon cancer and I immediately felt guilt for procrastinating and never having a colonoscopy despite the recommendation of my general practitioner 15 years ago.  However, my colonoscopy last August revealed a cancer-free GI system.
  • Next my oncologist ruminated that perhaps the cancer originated in my liver based on some blood test results.  I immediately then experienced the shame and self-blame of my years of alcohol and drug abuse.  However, subsequent PET and CAT scans showed my liver is free of any cancer as well.

Another exercise in today’s session was to respond to “If anything were possible,

  • What would I love to find in my life?
  • How would I want to grow as a person?
  • What would I want to offer the world?”

An immediate and legitimate response to the first question seemingly would be to deal with my health issues.  But with a bit of reflection, I thought otherwise, responding to the questions, respectively as follows:

  • for my thoughts and actions to align with a direction toward my true self
  • to prioritize how I expend my time and resources toward that alignment
  • my true self

These response make sense to me when I consider the popular Biblical adage, (Mark 8:36) “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”

True self has been the trajectory of my recovery for the past three decades – coming to terms with what I am truly called to be and do in all of my relationships with self, family, friends, and the world.  I cannot imagine having traveled that path without my road out of addiction.  I expect that my current health issues will provide me the same opportunities for growth and direction toward that true self.  Being self-compassionate clearly includes fully embracing those possibilities on that journey.

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.

Another Day, Another Procedure

Today, in a couple of hours, I will have a laparoscopic procedure and biopsy to try and determine the primary source of the cancer that has metastasized throughout my bones.  The procedure was supposed to happen two months ago, but I had a heart attack during that pre-op testing.

I am less than pleased about the need for another surgery.  I reflected on my contradictory reactions to the different medical procedures I have undergone over the past year.  I thoroughly enjoy going to my cardiac rehab sessions, now three days per week.  When I was having physical rehabilitation last year, I enthusiastically attended those sessions.  The dietitians at Touro Infirmary provide recommendations that improve my quality of life, immensely.  The monthly blood test and x-geva injection that stabilize bone loss are a highlight of my medical treatment.

On a mental and spiritual level, I know that my weekly meetings of the School for Contemplative Living, Enneagram Study, attendance at Rayne Memorial, and other small groups play a big part in my well-being.  Along with bike riding, gardening, and a relaxed professional role, I feel relatively normal.  My biggest physical symptoms are fatigue and controllable stomach issues.

Beyond the two-week recovery interruption to my regular schedule today’s surgery will cause, I know part of my negative reaction is a certain denial that I have a serious disease/medical condition.  I am inclined to leave well enough alone – no news is good news – why do I need to know the primary source of my cancer if everything is rolling along better than my oncologist’s best expectations?

The best place I am at today is just trusting the process, in the same way I have trusted the process in my recovery from alcoholism for the past three decades.  I know that just working the first three steps and never moving onto the introspection of the fourth step would not have allowed me long-term sobriety.  The ignorance is bliss approach does not work.  So, in a couple of hours I will once again be sedated, opened up, and explored.

When I think back to my prognosis last August, I was supposed to be either dead or in the final stages of cancer by last Christmas.  Neither of those events came to pass.

In a couple of days, and maybe even by tomorrow morning, I will be sitting on the back porch looking out on my earthly kingdom.  In a few days after that, I hope to weed and water my gardens again.

I am grateful and blessed in my life today.

An Anniversary Celebration, of Sorts

This week I celebrate an anniversary of sorts.  One year ago I was riding in the bike lane at Audubon Park when someone I disparagingly refer to as a “Tulane frat boy” lost control of his skate board while doing jumps.  The board hit my bike and I went down, hard.  I knew things were not okay.  As I lay on the ground, my immediate thought was that I was supposed to leave for Peru in three weeks – that was going to be a problem.  After they saw I was not dead, the frat boy and his buddies took off, not wanting to hang around to take any responsibility.  Someone else passing by helped me get back on my bike. I shakily peddled home, got to the front steps of our house and collapsed.  I hobbled around on a walker and then a cane for several weeks.

And what a year it has been!

My first medical visits were not promising.  The bone scans and blood tests did not look good – something else might be going on besides the impact of the wreck.  My primary care physician recommended additional tests to rule out cancer – but that could wait until I got back from Peru.  I ended up leaving for Peru four weeks later than planned, making my way through the airport with a cane. I was physically miserable for the six weeks I spent In Peru.  When I returned to New Orleans in early August I could not lift my duffel bag off the baggage return conveyor at the airport.

Then tests and more tests, and by late August my oncologist’s diagnosis was a stage 4 cancer metastasized throughout my bones with an unknown primary source. Three to six months of life reamining was the first prognosis.  I won’t rehash the next few months of medical process that I blogged about, beginning here.

By February of this year, six months after the initial diagnosis, with the exception of fatigue, I remained without the manifestations that cancer was supposed to bring.  My oncologist referred to the lack of my cancer spreading as a real “head scratcher.”

Then in mid-March of this year I had a heart attack.  And now in mid-May, I am in cardiac rehab and living with my somewhat ambiguous my cancer.

So how do I celebrate this one year anniversary?

  • Though I hate to admit it, the “Tulane frat boy” did me a favor by getting me to a doctor to begin the testing that revealed the cancer.  My monthly x-geva injections have stabilized the bone loss and brought all blood indicators to normal.  I have less back and neck pain than I routinely experienced two years ago.
  • My cancer prognosis remains uncertain at this point.  Taking all things into consideration, I feel good today, but realize that can all come crashing down pretty quickly, as I wrote last week.  The same is true for the heart attack, cardiac rehab, and whatever that future holds.
  • Emma and I reprioritized our lives, not putting off till tomorrow what we are able to do today.
  • Of importance, I continue to explore life’s existential questions and meet fellow pilgrims on that journey.  I particularly enjoy my small group meetings, whether the Enneagram discussion that Emma hosts at her shop each week, the Sunday Wilderness class at Rayne Memorial UMC, or the weekly gathering of friends in the School for Contemplative Living.
  • I have a strong and complete “attitude of gratitude” for my 30 plus years of sobriety that brought me to today.  I consider the folks I have met through my treatments at Touro Infirmary, the outstanding professionals (particularly the RNs) and patients facing the same issues as me, as a recent gift on that road.
  • Asking myself “What matters most?” as I live  each day takes on added meaning.  Today the answer mostly had to do with work in our gardens, sharing out our abundance of herbs, and feeling that wonderful New Orleans sun on my back as I planted a bed of wildflowers.

When Emma and I retired to New Orleans we each had plans about how our lives would go.  Substantive portions of those expectations are now revised.  But, as we celebrate this anniversary, we are certain to take the best of those plans with us as we continue on our happy and meaningful road to our true selves.

 

 

Is It Sadness or Acceptance in Recovery?

This past year, although I roll out of bed in the morning a bit less rested and slower, I continue to start my day with positive and affirming practices.  First, I write my morning pages – a sort of stream of consciousness where I record my dreams if I remember them, or reflect on life, most often on a very positive note.  Next I write a notecard to someone – to catch up with a friend or thank someone for their service or other action.  I then go to an Alcoholics Anonymous Facebook page and post three things that I am grateful for and scan and comment on other posts to the group.  All of the above takes 30-45 minutes and starts my day on a very positive note.

And then something hit me.

This past Wednesday my School for Contemplative Living meeting opened with an “analytic mediation” instead of our usual centering prayer.  The former process is thought focused as opposed to the thought-less centering prayer.

At one point, the analytic meditation suggested to focus on a point of sadness in our lives and our response to the issue.  In discussing the meditation afterward, I commented that the instruction caught me by surprise.  I had been quite intentional over the past year to focus on solutions, opportunities, lessons, and wisdom that could come from my stage 4 cancer diagnosis and my recent heart attack.  I intentionally corrected folks who said I was “dying” and said that I was “living” today.  Recently, I focused on the lesson I could learn from the heart attack, and how grateful I was that it occurred while I was at the hospital for an unrelated issue.  My positive outlook makes complete sense and flows from my over 30 years of recovery from alcohol addiction.

So, I am not certain about this sadness thing.

But in the past two years, my overall physical stamina has notably decreased, though today I was able to buy lumber and bags of soil and build another eight-foot raised herb bed for our front yard.  I then weeded the backyard gardens.  However, less than one year ago, I could not even lift my duffel bag off of the airport luggage carousel when arriving home from Peru.

Until one year ago I owned three bicycles.  I gave away my mountain bike a few months ago because I knew that my bones cannot really withstand the predictable wipeouts I experience on single track dirt paths.  I now think it might be time for me to get rid of my road bike as the days of century rides are likely past.  Instead, my remaining Trek hybrid is ideal for the 10-20 mile jaunts about town these days.  I accept that I will not likely bike the Great River Road from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to our New Orleans home. But I am not certain that these realities make me sad.   I am grateful today as I ride through the streets of New Orleans and smell the jasmine and honeysuckle in bloom – a scent that fills me with revelry of the beauty of creation.

With or without cancer, at the age of 65, my physical, mental, and spiritual life will continue to evolve.  With or without cancer, I discussed with Emma that when I am unable to get out of bed to sit on the back porch, then it is time to stop whatever treatments I am receiving.  I don’t know that I will be sad at that point.  I have a hope, based in faith, that I will be grateful for the wonderful experience I have had on this earth, living life on life’s terms.

Cheap vs. Costly Grace in Recovery

In my last post I noted that in The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. In our School for Contemplative Living group this week, we asked “which of these eight pillars resonates most with you.” In reviewing the book, the sections on the pillars of perspective, acceptance and gratitude contained the most underlines and column notes in my copy.  This focus is consistent with how I perceive life as a recovering alcoholic with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  I can explain very sincerely, intentionally, and with meaning why these pillars are integral to my daily existence.

But then . . . I felt a certain whack on the side of the head on the other four pillars.  I got caught up short when weighing the pillars of forgiveness, humility, compassion, and generosity by the same sincerity, intentionality and meaning scale.  The analogy that came to mind was that of cheap vs. costly grace as explained by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He wrote:

“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is a baptism without the discipline of community . . . Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of people go and sell with joy everything they have . . . Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 44-45.

(Bonhoeffer wrote his treatise on ethics while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for his role in a foiled attempt to assassinate Hitler.  He died shortly before Allied Forces liberated the camp.  Bonhoeffer has good street creds with me as someone who practiced what he preached.)

I found his cheap grace analogous to much of how I can live forgiveness.  For example the 9th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous offers that we “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”  Over the years I have made lists, personal visits and written amend letters.  I am careful not to include any “but” statements, only clean up my side of the street and not worry about the other person’s side.  I know that often times, those amends are rote, because I know that I need to do them – it is the forgiveness without the repentance or community of which Bonhoeffer speaks.

In the same way with compassion and generosity, I can serve in the soup kitchens, make the charitable contributions, speak out and defend the refugees, and so forth.  But these acts too can become rote responses with little personal investment of true self beyond the material and mechanical.

Again from the Book of Joy:

“One of the differences between empathy and compassion is that while empathy is simply experiencing another’s emotion, compassion is a more empowered state where we want what is best for the other person.  As the Dalai Lams has described it, if we can see a person who is being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling; it is to help to remove the rock.” pp. 259

I do not intend this post as an exercise in self-flagellation.  But in the same way that I view my AA recovery program as a continual process and not a single event, I find the eight pillars of joy are best approached in the same way.  I know that if I continue to work the 12 Steps of the AA program, that process enhances my recovery.  In the same way, I believe if I continue to examine and am mindful of my forgiveness, humility, compassion and the other pillars, that process enhances my joyful living and my ability to share that joy.  In the same way that I am a recovering alcoholic and not recovered, I continue to seek a life with more meaning and joy.  Everything I know about living is that if I continue to be active and seek, I will continue to find and to grow.  What an incredible blessing and opportunity!