Having a Reason to be Alive in Recovery

Painting by Emma Connolly of Grace and me in our backyard

Over the years, on many occasions I asked “Why Me?” The question was not meant from a woe is me perspective, but from one of gratitude.  Examples include:

  • I have over 30 years of recovery from a debilitating physical and mental obsession with alcohol.  Long-term sobriety is greatly enhanced in those who remain abstinent for five years.  For many years, I struggled to even put together 30 days.  Why did I make it when so many others do not?
  • My oncologist continues to be amazed that I am doing as well as I am with a stage 4 cancer.  Last August, the prognosis was possibly death by Christmas or in six months.  Why I have surpassed these odds?

I wrote previously about the research of Kelly Turner and have since read her book Radical Remission.  A strong reason to live is one of the nine points Dr. Turner found for those who defy the normative expectation for stage 4 cancer diagnoses.  She distinguishes this reason as different from fighting to live or being afraid to die.

Her results resonate with me in my current cancer diagnosis.  In much of what I have written about cancer over the past months I note how the one-day-at-a-time approach of Alcoholics Anonymous has proven crucial in my life today.  Further, I know that were it not for my sobriety over the past three decades, I would have been dead long ago.

An exercise in Radical Remission suggests generating two lists.  The first is a list of activities one would do if they had an unlimited amount of money and perfect health.  The second list of activities is if one had their current financial situation, good health, but knew they would be dead in 1.5 years.  The “correct” answer is to have the second list overlap with the first.  I was pleased mine did.  My second list includes:

  • Take three months to ride my bicycle from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to New Orleans.
  • Emma and I take multiple cross-country road trips and spend more time exploring together.
  • I continue to blog my story as my unique contribution to share.
  • Complete two writing projects I am working on.
  • Continue gardening and working around the house.
  • Continue activity with the School for Contemplative Living and my faith community.

With the exception of the Mississippi River bike ride, I am currently working on all the other list items.  The long-distance bike ride is something that will take some creative planning.  But come September, Emma and I will embark on a two-week back roads meander reminiscent of our first trip together 20 years ago.  All of the other items on the list are what get me out of bed every morning.

To a very large extent, what I dream of doing is what I actually do. This might prove to be the answer to the “Why Me” question.  Since walking into the detox center in 1984, I have maintained a belief and hope that I have a reason to live and I have tried, quite imperfectly, to live into that hope.

Today I came across a blog post I wrote 5 years ago, long before I had any thought of cancer.  The title of the post was Living Sober Till I Am 94, One Day at a Time. The age came from a life expectancy test of some sort that I took.  But the essence of the post is having the reason to want to live that long:

 I didn’t think about how long I was going to live.  I got to be too busy living.  As we get closer to “retirement” my wife and I talk about that next part of our lives.  We will do anything but retire.  I have a bunch of projects lined up and my wife is already working on her art/consignment business  and plans with our children and grandchildren down in New Orleans. . . today I learned that my life expectancy is 94.  What I learned today seems less the accuracy of the measure but more, that living and living fully is what sobriety is about.  Had I not gotten sober at 32, I seriously doubt that I would have seen 40.  Staying sober one day at a time, the possibilities are without limit!

I am grateful and blessed to be able to live into my reasons to be alive today!

The Spirit and Mind in Recovery

A few days ago I came across the documentary Heal.  The film is about the nontraditional treatments of chronic illnesses such as cancer.  I have written before about my disinterest in the latest “miracle” cure opting instead for my oncologist’s recommendations coupled with my lessons in recovery from alcoholism and life in general over the past three decades.  But the documentary description caused me to give it a shot.

Here is what got my attention in the film.  Kelly Turner talked about her dissertation research of 1500 case studies of cancer patients who had gone into remission both with and without traditional medical treatment.  She recorded 75 different practices the 1500 individuals carried out.  She noted nine practices that all 1500 individuals held in common, as follows:

  • Radical change in diet
  • Take control of own health
  • Follow intuition
  • Use herbs and supplements
  • Release suppressed emotions
  • Increase positive emotions
  • Embrace social support
  • Deepen spiritual connection
  • Have a strong reason for living

This list got my attention.  All nine items I have either practiced for many years or began in the past year.  Examples of the latter are radical diet change and taking control of health.  The other seven items flow directly from my past three decades of 12 Step Recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Another reason the list got my attention is because my oncologist and other medical folks remain amazed that I am still so active despite a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.  But when I follow my intuition in what foods are good for me to eat, when I am in community with my family and friends, when I take part in services and activities at my church and the School for Contemplative Living, when I am active in various projects, when I listen to positive affirmations and guided imagery related to cancer, to name but a few practices, I simply feel better, have more energy, less pain, and experience the peace that passes all understanding.

I know that without these practices, I will go deep into my addictions and be filled with misery and self-loathing – and I suspect that my original cancer prognosis (dead by last Christmas) would have come to pass.

Where do I go from here?  I will certainly continue the current treatments prescribed by my oncologist.  My monthly x-geva injections are working wonders.

But I also have a responsibility to act.  I often comment that a mystical truth for me comes from the Gospel of Matthew (7:7-8):

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Those steps all require action.  Over my past three decades of recovery from alcohol and drugs, without exception, when I have carried my part of the load, I have received, found, and the doors opened.    Will I be in remission one year from now? dead? or in the same condition as today?  I don’t know.  I have continued hope based in faith as discussed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

. . . 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 . . .  p. 122, The Book of Joy

This mystical truth is as valid to me and as well-tested as the latest chemotherapy or immunotherapy drugs.  The spirit and the mind are integrally linked to my being alive today and tomorrow.

 

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.

Happy Birthday & Happy Deathday

Outside the Circus School in Lima, Peru

After celebrating her 66th birthday and receiving lots of Happy Birthday greetings, my friend Mary Brown pondered in a recent post whether she would receive Happy Deathday greetings when that time came.  Her post got me to thinking . . .

. . . with my stage 4 cancer diagnosis last year and my heart attack this spring, I have reflected a bit more about being dead.  My initial cancer prognosis of 3 – 6 months was a bit hard to swallow.  Having outlived those expectations to a revised 2 – 3 years quality life, and perhaps longer, gave me with a bit more breathing room to ponder everyday events.

  • I spent several hundred dollars on sorely needed “Sunday go to meeting” clothes as I figured with the revised 2-3 year prognosis I would get a good bit of use from them.
  • The avocado trees we just bought are to remain above ground in aerating pots for a couple of years before being planted.  I realize that may be a job that Emma will have to complete.
  • Emma and I are more intentional about wrapping up loose ends on some projects so that we will be able to travel this fall, and spend more time on all those things we have put off for lack of time and competing commitments.
  • I am quite cautious about further commitments in my post “institutional retirement” era in favor of weeding the garden, participating in community based projects, and in small group meetings with friends.
  • A friend wrote me a couple of months ago that I seemed driven to do more stuff.  He said I had done enough and that I could stop and rest.  That statement got me to thinking more broadly than the scope his comments intended.

There remains considerable ambiguity and unknown factors in my cancer diagnosis.  Emma has joked about my “so-called cancer” because I continue to defy all expectations.  But I know that can all come crashing down pretty quickly.  I procrastinated rescheduling the exploratory surgery that was postponed because of my heart attack, opting instead to revel in feeling healthy and a ‘no news is good news’ mentality – but I did make the call to reschedule.

And, as my heart attack showed, it might not be cancer that gets me in the end.  Or maybe it will be the car that nearly hit me while riding my bike on St. Charles Ave. two days ago.  Or this morning, I heard from a couple of yards over the shouts “drop the gun and get down on the ground.”  We simply do not know.

So coming back to Happy Deathday . . .  Today, I am prepared to not be here tomorrow, if that is how things work out.  My life has been incredibly blessed.  As I often note, had I not gotten sober over 30 years ago, I would have died long ago.  I thoroughly enjoy my life today, but also wholly accept that no one gets out of this game alive.  I am very hopeful that the last day I spend on this earth, I am able to fully embrace a Happy Deathday celebration.

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!

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.

A New Freedom and Happiness in Recovery

Quite worn, but I have carried this in my wallet for over 30 years!

I am thinking of how grateful I am for everything that I experienced over the past 65 years.  The payoff for me in three decades of recovery is contained in the section of the book Alcoholics Anonymous commonly referred to as the AA Promises.  The promises begin:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.  We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

Several years ago I wrote about this promise and focused on the freedom from not being obsessed with how I would get my next drink.  That freedom goes beyond the obsession with alcohol as a material substance.  As I wrote last week, sobriety today has less to do with the physical manifestations of being drunk and more the mental and spiritual recovery.  The same is true for the promised freedom.

I made the commitment in 1984 when checking into a detox rehab that I was not going to lie to anyone – I was going to tell my truth about life and addiction.  Since that time, I am consistently challenged to be more rigorously self-honest.  Freedom from self-deception and self-betrayal has led me on a path toward true self.

What is this true self?  Psychology and spiritual literature discuss this point in great detail.  I view true self as the opposite of an ego-driven false self.  A starting point for me is the line from Hamlet that appears on AA coins, “To Thine Own Self be True”.  I understand that first and foremost I got sober for me and not to keep anyone else happy.  However, in sobriety I am able to play a constructive role in community, and be in true relationship with others.  Self-worth is key.  Having self-worth is the difference between getting sober because I have treated all those around me terribly vs. getting sober because I have treated myself terribly and have not lived as a true member of humanity.

For me, the freedom in the promises allows me to take stock of who I am, what I have to offer, and how I might better be able to participate as one of 7 billion humans on this earth.  That is a tremendous freedom to explore!