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.

Community and Recovery

In recovery from alcoholism, I learned early on I could not do it alone.  I bowled on a recovery league at a local alley every Saturday night for my first six months of sobriety.  I attended the recommended “90 AA meetings in 90 days” when released from the 30-day detox unit where I got sober.  Over the last three decades, although the circumstances and settings have changed, every day I am mindful that I am a part of a 12-Step recovery community, along with supporters, friends, and family.

Today, I find the early days of my cancer diagnosis to be very much the same.  Nearly one year ago I formally joined Rayne Memorial Methodist Church.  At about the same time I began attending weekly meetings of the School for Contemplative Living.  Two weeks ago with a handful of friends we began a 12-week study of the book It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again by Julia Cameron.  One of these friends commented on the significance of my joining in with these three groups/organizations over the past year, then receiving my cancer diagnosis, and now supported by and being in community with these new friends/pilgrims on these roads together.  I could not agree more.

In the same way the meetings and activities in my early days of sobriety were less about drinking and more about living life, while today my friends ask for my health updates, our community is more about living in our own God’s World.  I am blessed by a spouse and inherited family over the past twenty years, combined with my birth family, and that new community of friends to share life today.

Alcoholism is often called a disease of isolation.  I am incredibly blessed to have years of sobriety to unlearn that isolation and to build relationships and be in community.  Community in my living with cancer has already shown its value.  I am grateful to in this web of interconnectivity, putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, not just in disease recovery, whether cancer or addiction, but in a celebration of living into our true selves as our Gods intended for us.

This week I get some final testing done (PET scan and MRI) with a treatment plan soon to follow.

As I noted in my last post, were it not for the 12-Steps of Recovery, if I were even alive, today I would be drunk and cursing my misfortune.  Instead, today I have choices – next on the list being a review of the book I just bought The Louisiana Urban Gardener, in preparation for the fall sale at the New Orleans Herb Society’s in two short weeks!

Cancer and Recovery

I have a reasonably advanced stage of cancer.  I had mixed feelings about whether I would raise the issue on this blog.  I don’t want folks to feel sorry for me, psychoanalyze my attitudes, consider my writings as some self-promotion, or speak of my courage.  Fifteen years ago I gave an AA lead at a church on Recovery Sunday.  I was amazed at the number of folks who came up to me afterward and said they admired me for having the courage to tell so much about myself.  I thought about the deep dark secrets these folks must carry that could be relieved through a 4th and 5th step process.  There really is not much courage involved in my being an open book – it is what has kept me sober for over 30 years.  I don’t really have anything to hide.

But more importantly, I thought about the AA mandate to share our experience, strength, and hope.  There is not much about my life I have not shared in an AA meeting or on this blog.  And again, that has been a part of my staying sober all these years.  So too,  as the Promises state, our experiences can benefit others.  I have to assume that there are lots of others folks out there in my situation.  So, I want to learn from them and share with them too.

Immediately after my diagnosis all of those AA clichés, lessons, and experiences proved absolutely instrumental to my putting one foot in front of the other.  My immediate response was that I have been on borrowed time for many years.  Had I not gotten sober 30 some years ago, I would be long dead, for sure.  That I have been given these 30 years of sobriety is an incredible gift.

When I was riding my bike a couple of weeks ago, I stopped at a park to sit and read for a bit.  I thought about how much I really enjoy bike riding and sitting in the park and and just relaxing.  I decided I could lament that might come to an end sooner than I would like, or I could enjoy and be more mindful and intentional of the time I can spend in such activities now.

So, after one month of prodding, poking, scans and so much more, I know that I have a good bit of cancer in my bones, that my organs and blood seem clear, and the prognosis is considerably less than certain – from 6 months to many years.  And I certainly don’t want to pretend or in any way imply that I am not reasonably devastated by all of this.  HAVING CANCER SUCKS – and that is before even beginning any of the treatments which as I understand are their own kind of misery.

When my wife and I were talking about this earlier today, I noted that if I were not sober and in recovery, I would not consider our nearly 20 wonderful years together thus far, but only focus on how unfair it all is and how I never got my chance at life, and I would have just gone out and got drunk – my alcoholic m.o. to everything good or bad.

We talked too about how I really don’t have any place else that I want to go or anything else to do that I have not already done in life.  We did discuss cutting a lot of the extraneous things from our lives and focus on a quality of time together in our retirement home here in New Orleans.  As my post-bike wreck walking stamina improves, we will less drive somewhere and sit with the dog, and more take walks.  With the assurance of at least one more southern growing season, today I cleared out the okra and cucumber beds to prepare for the fall crops.  And so forth.

Life truly is a process and not an event – now being in both recovery and having cancer is a part of that process.  Didn’t see that one coming!!

An Anniversary of Sorts in Service

This week marks an anniversary of sorts.  For the past 365 days, I have written a card and mailed (USPS snail mail or hand-delivered) to someone about something.  My reason for launching this project was because I wanted to let folks know how much I appreciated their role in my life from family members, friends, and colleagues.  Importantly, I wanted to include the clerks and service workers we engage with every day.  As the year went on, I added public officials and civic leaders to express my concerns over local and national issues.  Lately, a number of my daily notes included a recent round of 9th Step amends.

In the first 100 or so days of the process, I was reluctant to admit to anyone what I was doing.  I did not want to be taken as grandiose or holier than thou for stopping to thank folks.  As well, I didn’t want the recipients to perceive the notes as a part of an experiment or my need to come up with someone to write to on a given day.  I was pleasantly surprised that I never ran out of people to write!

Over time, I have come to view the note writing differently:

  • From a selfish perspective, I know that my relationship with many has been enhanced by the simple note.
  • I am more mindful to consistently thank folks on the spot for service issues – bank, car repair, stores since writing the notes.
  • A relative I wrote expressing my admiration for her dedication to her family responded, telling me how much the note meant as she was filled with self-doubt about her role as a parent.  I thought about how today criticisms so often exceed the affirmations of our worth.
  • My expression of thanks to others for their contributions has on several occasions brought about a mutual reflection of our time together professionally.  Importantly too, in a 9th step way, the notes to colleagues and friends allows me to clean up my side of the street.
  • I enjoy just being in relationship with people, going to the Post Office to see the stamps available and to the bookstore for cards to personalize my notes.

What I have gotten most out of this process is having an enhanced attitude of gratitude for the people in my life and taking an active step to build those relationships.  Although distance is bridged in the virtual world, and perhaps this reflects my age, but I find a handwritten note a qualitative leap above an email or Facebook post.  Apparently many of my recipients feel the same.

Sobriety is self-serving to my very existence, but so too sobriety allows me to grow in community, relationship, and responsibility to the world.  In the same way that being of service, carrying the message, offering support to those in need allows me to be in community with those in recovery, that service, message, and support reaches beyond the fellowship to everyone in my life.

I have an intense “attitude of gratitude” for my recovery over the past 30 years.  The gratitude is the reason I write this blog.  The gratitude is the reason for the past year I have written and mailed the notes.  You have to give it away to keep it.  I am truly blessed.

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!!

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.