Write What You Know in Recovery

alcoholism recovery“Write what you know.”  I attributed that statement to Flannery O’Connor, but my Googling suggests that Mark Twain or possibly Hemingway wrote the advice.  Regardless, I was thinking about that line and how it relates to what I post in this blog.  I know about recovery from alcohol addiction.  Yesterday was my natal birthday – I am now 66 years old.  I have been sober since August 4, 1984 – or a bit over half of the years I have spent on earth.

The physical manifestations of being drunk are a distant memory.  Today, my imperfect driving skills, forgetfulness, stumbling, and less than ideal health result from my age and not what I drank last night.

The mental and spiritual manifestations of being drunk are a different story.  I can very quickly get into pointing fingers at others as the cause of a problem – elected public officials regularly receive letters expressing my righteous indignation at what I perceive as their callous disregard for basic human decency.  I can get into self-will run riot – my wife Emma has well-documented this fact.  Too, I am wholly capable of getting into the “poor me” mindset when I perceive my offerings are under-appreciated.  The list goes on.

For the mental and spiritual manifestations of recovery I have the AA Promises:.

We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity, and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

To me, the AA Promises are where the action is in recovery.  None of the Promises address the physical manifestations of addiction.  Rather, the Promises focus on mental and spiritual recovery.  I have found that mental and spiritual recovery is truly a process and not an event.  To the extent I continue walking a path of recovery “sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly” all the promises “materialize” in my life today.

Today Emma and I worked in our backyard, planting a couple of avocado trees, weeding the vegetable and herb gardens, making some rosemary smudge sticks, tending to our new bed of okra.  Afterwards, Emma went to take a nap and I planned to sit on the back porch, read, drink some ice tea, and gaze out on what I call our “kingdom” of gardens.  Instead, I thought to drag a chair into the middle of my kingdom and be at one with and surrounded by our gardens.  Recovery is like that.  I can either observe it from afar, or get into the middle of it.  The latter is better and where the Promises are found.

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley – A Review

A couple of months ago I received a package in the mail from an unfamiliar address in Midtown Memphis.  I opened the package to discover a set of prayer beads made by Suzanne Henley.  I met Suzanne once via my wife’s writers group in Memphis.  An enclosed card titled Prayer Beads in Thanksgiving for Robert describe the beads from Ethiopia, the Afgan Silk Road, Brazil, China, the Dead Sea, and more.  I was blown away by both the beauty and the significance of the creation.  Now, I carry the beads in my backpack and they go everywhere with me.  They are a regular part of my centering prayer and other contemplative exercises.

Suzanne has now published a book Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New (Paraclete Press, 2018).  The book is composed of three parts: an historical discussion of prayer beads followed by a set of prayer activities, and a final section where readers are “encouraged to draw their own set of prayer beads and, with discernment and prayer, label each bead. They then can keep and literally hold their life in their hands in prayer, gratitude, and awe.”

The book is all of that and much more.

In the introductory comments Suzanne notes “I have no idea whether prayer produces any external results. I have come to believe, though, if nothing else, it is where I most squarely meet myself.”  As an artisan who creates prayer beads, the Prologue to the volume lays out the intent and perspective in her creation.  The beads Suzanne uses in her creations include “handmade Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic prayer beads as well as rare Hebron beads of Dead Sea salt . . . replicas of third-century Ethiopian Coptic crosses and Stars of David, hand-carved Chinese jade pendants, or river rocks collected from my fishing sites.”  The anthropologist in me delights in her noting that when handling the beads “I am the latest in a long line to add the imprint of my hands’ oils to the human and earth-marked patina of all those who have come before me. I feel the weight of their histories in my palm.”

The abundant illustrations in the volume attest to the 800 individualized sets of prayer beads she has created, some commissioned for the likes of The Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, along with the holy, secular, and terminally ill across the globe.  (Suzanne’s gift to me was prompted by my recent cancer diagnosis.)  She observes that while formal worship in churches is on the decline, the increased popularity of prayer beads means people are “simply carrying their altars with them in their pockets” as they go through life.

After the introductory material there is a solid 20-page section of prayer bead history beginning with their several thousand year-old Hindu origins in Vietnam and continuing to the present day.  The comprehensive summary highlights prayer bead development, particularly for the Abrahamic faiths.  Suzanne highlights the 4th Century Desert Fathers who used pebbles to count the number of times they said a prayer, through to the familiar Roman Catholic Rosary and Islamic prayer beads that hold the 99 names of Allah, to the more recent evolution of  Protestant or Episcopal prayer beads.  The history section has many historical notes of interests, such as that the earliest recorded Roman Catholic rosary belonged to Lady Godiva of horse-riding fame.

My Prayer Beads Gift Created by Suzanne Henley

The next section considers the range of prayer types both with and without beads, drawing on the works of modern contemplatives such as Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr and the more ancient traditions such as the Celts.  Suzanne also discusses prayer bead use with chants, hymns and in silence.  Drawing on her personal practice, she broadens the tactile experience of prayer beads to include handling fruit in the grocery store.

The book could have ended at this point and been a worthwhile read.  However, Suzanne’s final sections of the volume are of immense value for the novice and experienced user of prayer beads.  With a good bit of autobiographical material she tells her story including recovery from extreme depression and a heart attack to a chance encounter exploring how the Holy Spirit is like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  These life changing experiences resonated with me as a recovering alcoholic.

As “homework” she invites the reader to construct a prayer bead activity based on their life experiences.  Suzanne provides ample guidance in the form of writing exercises and meditations to achieve this goal.   I found this invitation to be the punch line of the book.  The earlier sections on the history, tradition, and contemporary contemplative use of beads were interesting, informative, and certainly directing in terms of practice.  As well, reading Suzanne’s story provided grist for further considering personal use.  However, the homework allows the reader to completely contextualize and apply prayer bead practice to their experience.

The 20 color illustrations of prayer beads created by Suzanne are a welcome addition to the volume.  At under 100 pages of text, the volume is readily accessible to all.  The 9 chapters can readily be adapted to a group study where participants create their own set of prayer beads.  I look forward to working through the exercises included in Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New  to enhance my use of Ms. Henley’s gift to me.

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.

 

Hope or Optimism in Recovery

 

We feel optimistic, or we feel pessimistic.  Now, hope is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction.  I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless.  Hope is deeper and very, very close to unshakable. . . To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass . . . Hope is also nurtured by relationship, by community, whether that community is a literal one or one fashioned from the long memory of human striving . . . Despair turns us inwards.  Hope sends us into the arms of others.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, p. 122, The Book of Joy

We are reading The Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in my weekly School for Contemplative Living meeting.   The above quote resonated with me in my recovery from alcoholism and recent cancer diagnosis.

In recovery, I consider myself a “glass is half-full” person who aspires to live into the solution and not the problem.  For the most part, that is true since I walked into a detox center a bunch of years ago.  But I realize that my outlook has evolved over the years.  Perhaps some 20 years ago, the concept of hope entered more into my daily life.  In my gratitude lists, hope is always included.  In liturgical worship, when the congregation is invited to speak their gratitudes my list is “life, my spouse, and hope” and quite consistently.

The Archbishop’s quote solidifies in my mind what hope is in my sobriety.  After a time in recovery, I came to know and have faith that with the 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I could remain sober.  I know that today to the marrow of my bones.  I have had no desire to use alcohol or drugs in over three decades.  Today, not drinking or drugging is the easy part of recovery.

Hope comes through living life on life’s terms or “practicing these principles in all our affairs” as noted in the 12th Step.  For me, that road in sobriety has never been a linear path, but I do hope that my overall direction will continue forward.

My recent cancer diagnosis brings another dimension to the understanding of hope.  Although I certainly do hope that my cancer will not progress, my faith is that if I do the next indicated step, use the many tools at my disposal, I will continue to live fully and take advantage of the opportunity to make choices every day in how I choose to live.  That is my hope today.  My time as a recovering alcoholic has shown me that in community I can have that faith and not wallow alone in despair.

I am blessed and life is good.

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.

 

Mindfulness in Alcohol and Cancer Recovery

Emma, Grace, and I up at The Fly along the Mississippi River in New Orleans

I got some good news from my oncologist this week – the decision on beginning chemotherapy treatments will be put off till after the first of the year.  The reasons for the decision is that I remain largely asymptomatic, still not able to determine the primary source of the cancer, the relative density of the cancer in my bones, all balanced against my goals for life and treatment.  In terms of life goals, I want to continue engaging with my family and friends, ride my bike, work in the garden, and write.  I discussed with the oncologist when I got to the point I could no longer get out of bed in the morning and sit on the back porch, it was time to stop treatment.

I will have another round of scans after the first of the year to determine any changes in the cancer.  In the interim, my oncologist noted my need to vigilant for any sudden physical changes or new pains that might indicate further bone deterioration/fractures and emphatically reminded me that I have a Stage 4 cancer.  I will continue my routine of monthly bone hardening injections.

I came out of the office renewed and elated.  I realized when one has a total prognosis of 2-3 years of life, a three-month reprieve is a substantive chunk of that time.  When writing in my morning pages the next day I reflected on my general increased “attitude of gratitude” since receiving my first cancer diagnosis, but also something new.

The one-day-at-a-time perspective that I have lived in my sobriety over the years continues to take on new and profound meaning today.  I was certainly not looking forward to beginning chemotherapy, which I thought would be the outcome of my Wednesday oncology appointment.  Instead, after discussing the evidence from medical tests and my life goals, another  plan was set.  I have at least a 10-week reprieve from the chemo and those impacts on my day-to-day existence.  I wrote in my morning pages about how I don’t want to be sitting here after the first of the year under the influence of chemo, wishing I had done x, y, and z in the previous couple of months.

I thought how this is not a matter of a hyper activity, running a race to get things done.  Rather, I reflected more on the lessons from a current book study I am in (Right Here, Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness by Amy Oden).  I need only commit to being mindful of how I spend the rest of 2017.  If that means nothing more than a regular walking schedule with Emma (wife) and Grace (dog), that is good.  If it means sitting on the back porch and focusing on how green the vegetation is, that is good.  If it means, completing another journal article on our Peru work, that is good too.  And so forth.

I am interested only in being able to look back on any given day and thinking “I really enjoyed sitting on the back porch, hacking through more of our backyard jungle, watching the sun go down up at the fly, or working on the article” and not “Where did those 24 hours go?”

In this way, the one-day-at-a-time perspective I learned in Alcoholics Anonymous is the basis for my cancer therapy today!

Waking up Sober, Waking up with Cancer

Our rescue dog Grace when we first got her and today

Years ago when I first got sober, after a couple of weeks in detox, on waking up in the morning, I was filled with energy.  The same is not true today with cancer diagnosis.  I certainly don’t bounce out of bed and am now more apt to roll over for another fifteen or thirty minutes to doze.

When I first got sober, upon waking I would immediately read the daily devotionals at my bedside and perhaps an article out of the Grapevine magazine, just to get my head in a good space for the day ahead.  Today, I have a different routine but with the similar results:

  • The very first thing I do after, brushing my teeth, taking my morning meds, starting a pot of coffee and feeding the Grace is to write morning pages – a sort of stream of consciousness narrative meant to clear my head and get me rolling into the day.  I notice particularly of late the pages are more uplifting and affirming and focus on the goodness of life and the day ahead – less complaining and more gratitude.
  • I next respond to a question in my Overeaters Anonymous 12-Step Workbook.  I am now on Step 11.  This morning’s question was “In what ways does God speak to me?”  This is another activity that leads me in a solution-driven recovery direction.  As I only have about 3 weeks left of questions in what has been a six-month exercise, I am not certain what I will replace this activity with when I finish Step 12.
  • I then write a note to someone as described in an earlier post.
  • Next, I get a cup of coffee, take my laptop, and along with Grace, move my operation to the back porch where I post three things for which I am grateful to an OA Facebook group.
  • I am then mindful and prayerful and ask for the guidance on a path toward true self in the day ahead.

Then the rest of life begins.  There is a continuity in my waking up activities from the early days of sobriety to today – though the tools have changed over the time and I am certain will continue to change in the future.  I enjoy that every day, I start off by reminding myself that I am an addict walking a recovery road.  I am not certain where each of my current morning “rituals” developed, but I am incredibly grateful that they have been with me over the years, morphing to meet new circumstances and needs, but always there.  To me, this is just another example of how my past years in addiction recovery has prepared me to face my new life with cancer.

Today, although I do not jump out of bed with the same enthusiasm or as early as I did even just five years ago, I am grateful that ultimately, I am able to start my day with the same drive toward living into a solution on our never-ending path toward true self.