Not Regretting the Past in Recovery

In my early 30s during my first year of recovery, I ran into my “best friend” from high school who I had not seen in over 10 years.  The encounter occurred as I mopped the floor of a factory where he was a senior administrator.  When he approached me, I pretended not to know him and said he mistook me for someone else. The names on our security badges made short work of that attempted ruse.  We had an awkward conversation, me faulting my memory, with a promise that we would get together at some point.  As the factory had over 15,000 employees I successfully avoided him after that first meeting.

Why the denial?  It had nothing to do with my blue collar vs. his administrative position.  Rather, as someone new to sobriety I was profoundly embarrassed by my drunken past – the inappropriate behavior, taking advantage of people, irresponsibility, and the list goes on.

About 25 years after that factory meeting, we both planned to attend a small reunion of the “gang” from high school.  Before the reunion I wrote him a letter on why I was so embarrassed at the factory floor meeting years before.  I cited and apologized for incidents of my drunken rage, spoiling planned events with my behavior, and so forth.  He graciously accepted my amends, and noted that we all did stupid things when we are young.

Today, although we live at opposite ends of the U.S., we occasionally get together for an evening of reflection and to solve the world’s problems.  Our divergent and convergent pasts are important parts of our conversation.

The AA Promise “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it” is increasingly true in my recovery.  As I reflected in last week’s post, accepting my past is an important part of who I am today.  Without the despair and self-loathing I experienced in my active alcoholism, I could not appreciate today’s blessings and opportunities.  Without taking responsibility for all the manifestations of my addiction, I could not appreciate today’s freedom and knowing that my “problems” are of my own making.  My horrific personal relationships of the past, have taught me how precious friends are today.  I understand too that I have lived on borrowed time for my three decades of recovery.  Were it not for my sobriety, I certainly would have been dead long ago.  I would not have lived long enough to be diagnosed with cancer or have my recent heart attack.  I write that not for dramatic effect, but as a statement of fact.

Today, I am not proud of my behaviors during my drunken past, but I am no longer embarrassed by them either.  They were the logical consequences of my substance abuse.  I am grateful for the 12-Step Program that allowed me to learn and grow in my recovery over the years.  I well recollect laying in that detox bed in 1984 thinking all I want is to be able function in today’s world.  My past has provided me with the experience, strength, and hope to do that and much more!

Healing in Alcohol and Cancer

Healing – My favorite painting by my wife Emma Connolly

This past Sunday, Marissa Sue Teauseau, our Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church preached a message that profoundly affected my understanding of healing as a recovering alcoholic with a cancer diagnosis.  She spoke of her experience ministering to a terminally ill young man and family and his healing.  Marissa then linked that healing to the scripture reading for the day in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus healed Andrew’s mother-in-law, she got up and served him.   (I note that our Senior Pastor, Jay Hogewood, asked me to be the lector for the reading that day at church, the significance of which just dawned on me.)

Marissa’s message kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire sermon as she deftly wove a web of healing and service.  As I walked home from church and over the next few days, the seeds her words planted grew to give me a more complete understanding of healing over my last 30 years.

I never viewed my recovery as an alcoholic as a healing, but I see now that is very much the case.  Marissa also spoke of her limited experience with the “miraculous” end of healing.  That statement resonated with me too.  I have long asked the question “Why Me?” in my remaining sober for over 30 years when relapse is a common experience for addicts. In recovery, I live into the Twelfth Step service mandate to “carry the message to others” about the gift of sobriety.  Being of service is important to my existence.

Since my initial diagnosis this past August, I tried to define my existence with cancer.  I am not a cancer victim, as I refuse to be a victim of anything.  I am not certain a cancer survivor is an accurate term as my oncologist has never backed off from saying my stage 4 cancer is incurable.

I listen to taped affirmations around cancer on a pretty regular basis.  My favorite time is when walking to and from church on Sunday morning.  When I first began listening to the affirmations, I tended to gloss over the ones that spoke of white cells and medications attacking and destroying the cancer cells as I am not on chemo drugs or radiation therapy.  However, all tests show that the cancer is not expanding. I am in less pain today than two years ago and more physically active than one year ago.  More importantly, I am mentally, spiritually, and emotionally more alive than in many years.

Marissa’s sermon from this past week showed me how my cancer diagnosis is the opportunity to focus on healing and being of service.  There is much to do in our world today, and I am pleased that my understanding of healing allows me to take part.

And here is where Marissa’s words touched me with my current cancer diagnosis.  I have cited before affirmations from the  Health Journey Guided Imagery by Bellruth Naparstek.  Since Marissa’s sermon, an affirmation that has taken on new meaning, with some qualification on the self-reliance implication is:

More and More I can understand that I can heal myself and live or I can heal myself and die, my physical condition is not an indication of my wholeness.

In a couple of hours, I will have another CAT Scan to see the physical status of my cancer.  Tomorrow is Mardi Gras.  Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, and the date for the next appointment with my oncologist.  I am pleased to know now that my healing today is not dependent on the CAT Scan results.

A Thanksgiving in Recovery

Thanksgiving (today in the U.S.) takes on a special significance for me this year. My heightened awareness of life for the past three decades as a recovering alcoholic coupled with my recent cancer diagnosis has brought this Thanksgiving’s significance to the fore.

Since our retirement and move to New Orleans Emma and I have not settled on holiday “rituals” for ourselves.  This year we will have a full house of visitors – at least 18 – including friends and family here in New Orleans and from Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

This past Tuesday I had another CAT Scan to determine the status of the cancer in my bones.  The good news is that the spread over the past couple of months is very modest.  The other, perhaps good news, is that some cancerous lesions may now be present in my soft tissue.  The good news of that spread is that through another poking and prodding process, it will be possible to retrieve some of the growth to assess and help determine the primary source of the cancer.  Such a procedure can provide a more targeted treatment rather than simply throwing chemo at the problem.

My oncologist continues to be amazed that I feel as well as I do.  Bone cancer is supposed to be very painful.  I noted to him that because I had felt so good, I hauled some bags of soil and mulch in the backyard, resulting in some back pain, but well worth it.  The colder weather in New Orleans – highs only in the 50s and 60s – has also caused a bit more aching in my legs and lower back.

Emma and I talked again about how good I feel, despite the expectations of the oncologist.  I believe some of this simply has to do with my firm conviction of living with an attitude of gratitude as I have posted about before.  I know that the guided imagery, regular exercise, and decent diet also make a difference.

In my 12-Step alcohol recovery program over the years, I have always tried to stay somewhere in the middle – not being the zealot who refused to read anything without the AA triangle on the back of the book but at the same time, listening and taking very seriously the experience, strength, and hope of those with a quality of life in recovery that I sought.

I am thankful to be able to draw on that experience in my life today.   On this Thanksgiving in 2017, I am grateful for the opportunity to live life fully, one-day-at-a-time with family and friends in my favorite place in the world.

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.

 

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.

Still Having an Attitude of Gratitude

From a daily prompt on Gratitude, I typically end my share in 12-Step meetings with something like “I have no problems or complaints today that are not of my own making.”  I have tried to live my recovery with a glass is half-full approach and have generally been successful.  I am grateful that this attitude has continued with my cancer diagnosis.  I discussed that my initial thinking with the diagnosis was that my last 30 years would not have been possible were it not for recovery.  That thought prevails today.  Had I not checked into a detox unit on August 4, 1984, I doubt that I would be alive today, 33 years later, to receive the cancer diagnosis – nor would I have experienced my wonderful life for the past three decades.

This past Sunday I walked to church for the first time since my bike wreck last May.  I was grateful and look forward to returning to my Sunday morning strolls in the weeks ahead.  Here is a short video I made about all that.

I got good news from my oncologist this week.  My “quality life” is upped to 2-3 years and possibly longer from the original 3-6 months.  Also, this coming Thursday I will begin physical rehab on my fractured clavicle that has been a source of pain since my May bike wreck.

I am grateful to continue mentoring students and young professionals in my field – in fact, logistically, these are activities that will be ideal in the coming months when my mobility and ability to travel will likely be restricted.  The same is true for my work with Peruvian cultural heritage projects.

In a book study I am doing one of the prompts was to provide five responses to “If I had more time I would . . . ” I have thought long and hard about this challenge.  The only thing I can come up with is that I always wanted to ride my bicycle from Lake Itasca in Minnesota down the Great River Road to New Orleans.  Even before the cancer diagnosis, I began to question if I was physically up for it and willing to commit the six-weeks or so the ride might take.  But I realize even now, if I want to do the ride bad enough, I can.

As I noted in the first post about cancer, were it not for my three decades of 12-step recovery, principally through Alcoholics Anonymous, I would be considerably less prepared for the future.  I emphatically maintain that CANCER SUCKS, but I remain grateful for my many communities of support that provide me with the experience, strength, and hope for an attitude of gratitude today.

Thin Places in Recovery

My Chair for Practices, Casma, Peru

I am a creature of habit.  My current morning practices include journaling, writing a note to someone, recovery step work, meditation and composing a gratitude list.  For the past three weeks and through the first of August, I am in rural Peru.  Before leaving on the trip, I was certain to pack all of my necessary supplies, take into account the likely lack of internet service so that I could continue these practices.  All has gone well and I foresee no problem in maintaining my routine.

A couple of other recent practices I knew I could not continue during my trip.  Since moving to New Orleans last year, every Sunday morning I have come to enjoy walking to Rayne Memorial and participating in the service.  Obviously that was not going to happen while in Peru.

Another practice I picked up over the past several months is my Wednesday 11:30 AM meeting with my fellow pilgrims in the School for Contemplative Living.  At these gatherings we have a 20 minute centering prayer/meditation and discuss a spiritual text for an hour.  I committed to my friends that at 11:30 am each Wednesday, I would join them in spirit in a 20-minute centering prayer practice from Peru.  That has gone well.

I have come to understand that a good part of the experience of my Sunday and Wednesday morning practices has more to do with being in community and relationship with others than just the physical process of the practice.  That has been a meaningful insight for me in the same ways that I was never able to get sober just by reading the literature or thinking about my addiction, but by being in community and relationship with others.

This past Wednesday I sat down for my centering prayer in the courtyard of the house where we are staying here in Casma.   I had Russian Orthodox chant music playing in the back ground.  I am a novice at this sort of thing and generally tend to just try to focus on my breathing.  I often become rather restless about half-way through the 20-minute practice.

This past Wednesday, I quickly got into the rhythm of the breathing – the Spanish/Quechua voices from next door replacing the sounds of traffic at my regular practice space in the States.  Trying to empty myself as best I could and focus solely on my breathing, I was filled with a sense of well-being.  Knowing too that my fellow pilgrims in the US were practicing at exactly the same time came into my head and I emptied that as well.  The chanting caught my attention like never before for the sheer beauty of words of which I knew not the literal meaning but spoke to me fully.  A cool breeze flowed through the yard, as I continued to empty myself of all thought.  My eyes felt wet and I could feel tears moving down my face.  I entered a thin space.  And then I was back again.

I liken these thin spaces to pink cloud or mountain top experiences in recovery.  I have come not to expect them, but by putting one foot in front of the other, and following the next intuitive step on a path to true self, I can be ready to absorb the experience, the liminal space, when presented.  In the same way that the mountain top experiences of recovery can never be taken away, so to these liminal or thin spaces remain as well.  As certain as the “aha” moment when I realized that it was not that “I could not drink alcohol today” but that “I did not have to drink alcohol today” so too my Centering Prayer experience in the dusty courtyard in Casma, Peru, is now forever a part of me.  I am grateful for this gift.