Chemotherapy vs an Alcohol Hangover

Thirty-six hours ago I started my first round of chemotherapy.  After the first 4 hours at the Touro Infusion Center, I came home with a portable apparatus that continues to pump the chemo into my system.  I have spent my time sleeping, trying to sleep, being nauseous, watching the numbers go down of the remaining 5FU cocktail pumping into my system, punctuated by three rounds of reasonably intense vomiting.  As instructed, after the third regurgitation experience in less than 24 hours, I called the oncologist, who ordered another anti-nausea script and instructions if I vomited again before morning to go straight to the ER for a fluid IV to keep from dehydrating.

Suffice it to say chemotherapy has not been pleasant experience.  I expect feeling better by about Sunday, a couple of days after I am off of the pump.  Then the process will begin again in a week or so for three more two-week rounds.  The immediate side effects of the 8-week regimen should be over by the time of Emma and my 19th Wedding Anniversary on December 11.

My oncologist said from the outset that if I could not “tolerate” the chemo regimen, other treatments could be tried.  My response has always been that I was not opposed to chemo so long as it was doing some good and not simply a shotgun approach to treatment.  As I explained in an earlier post, the former is the approach after my recent biopsies.

Today while laying there I compared chemo’s physical side effects with hangovers from my years as a practicing alcoholic.  I thought of one of my last really bad hangover experiences some 30 plus years ago.  I had been working on a project that was very important for me to complete.  It was so important, I had not touched a drop of alcohol for nearly one week so that I could complete the task.  On the final day of the project, I knew that if I spent another 8 hours, the work would be completed to my satisfaction – something I could feel good about.  I got up that Saturday morning and started working.  After consuming a pot of coffee, I knew I only had a few more hours more work.  I would succeed and prove to myself and everyone else that I could function.  I was a bit tense and on edge from all the coffee and went to the refrigerator to find something to calm my nerves a bit.  There were two unopened bottles of beer.  I knew that I could handle two beers without deviating from my project plans.  I drank them.  The last thing I remember was walking to the corner store to get more beer, project unfinished.  I “came to” the next morning about 5:00 AM with my head pounding, gut wrenching, and most importantly, my mind screaming for my failure once again.  Later that day when delivering my incomplete project, I was sucking on antacids and soft drinks just to keep from vomiting while I spoke.  It would be several days before I felt “normal” again.

There are many similar stories I could tell.

While laying in bed just now, I compared that experience with my current physical condition with chemotherapy.  I certainly feel no worse physically today than I did back those 3 decades ago.  And more importantly, today the chemotherapy is based on a reasoned approach to wholeness whereas the alcohol only took me deeper into the depths of despair.

This morning my gratitude list contained the following:

Grateful today for:
– being able to truly appreciate one day at time, and one hour at a time.
– having the time and resources to take care of my illness.
– I keep saying that the best training I have had for dealing with my cancer today is my years of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous!

I do not know where this chemotherapy journey will lead me – perhaps to the ER room before the day is out.  But, one day at a time, one hour at a time, and one minute at a time, I am grateful for the opportunity to live life on life’s terms today, and for the support my community of friends provide on this journey toward true self.

On The Brink of Everything

I distinctly remember two years before I retired, my wife Emma said to me, “What are you going to do when you don’t have all those work emails to respond to all day?”  For about five minutes, I was terrorized by the truth of her statement.  But then, I actively began thinking about and planning my post-retirment life.  Today, exactly two years into my retirement, the title of Parker Palmer’s new book On The Brink of Everything precisely describes how I view my life today.

But life has not really gone according to my retirement plan.  As my retirement fling, I intended to spend 12 weeks in Peru during the summer (Peruvian winter) of 2017.  A serious bike wreck that spring cut my trip in half – and I was in considerable pain most of the time I was into Peru.  Into 2017 I had several field and teaching projects lined up that were abandoned with my cancer diagnosis, followed by a heart attack.  I spent less time at my wife’s store working/crafting and more time at Touro Infirmary in treatment.

But today, I am able to bring my experience, strength, and hope to my evolving life – and recognize, I am truly on the brink of everything.  Here is an example: I am a strong believer in the Abrahamic tradition of welcoming the stranger and radical hospitality.  I am disappointed that my fatigue precludes me from many activities around refugee support in Louisiana today.  I anticipate joining with the local Grannies Respond group in the near future and meet refugees traveling through New Orleans at the Greyhound Station.  However, today, from the comfort of my home, I am able to help coördinate a social media and fundraising campaign to support the work – something in which I have skills and there is a desperate need.

Similarly, I suspect that my work in the field with climate extremes are over whether in Peru or the U.S.  But I am skilled and enjoy developing the digital presence and overall coordination for cultural heritage work of Culture and Community in Casma, Peru, an organization I helped launch two years ago.

My gardens have certainly thrived this summer and Emma and I are particularly excited about travel plans with our new directions.  Not to mention the books to read, meals to cook, and so much more.

Truly, the possibility in life today is on the brink of everything.  It does not matter whether I live for another six weeks, six months, or six years, the brink is still there.

I am blessed and grateful for these opportunities on the journey toward true self.

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 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!

 

Giving & Receiving in Recovery

sun-house4

Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

The above words are commonly attributed to the 13th century Christian, Francis of Assisi though circumstantially, the attribution does not hold up.

The first half of the prayer talks about good and right things to aspire to sow.  But I have been thinking more about the “in giving that we receive” part.  And truly, without exception, when I take part in any “service” work in recovery, I am rewarded with a more meaningful existence.  I suspect this inherent desire to do service, to be a part of, to be in community with, or to share our experience, strength, and hope is something that is hard-wired into our True Selves.

Further, consider – when I deliver meals on wheels, serve food to the homeless, give money to a person in need, I always “feel better” after the fact.  My wife and I hosted a young woman from another country in our home for a couple of years while she was in graduate school.  Several of her family members attended her graduation.  They expressed very sincere and abundant thanks to us for hosting their daughter/niece/granddaughter.  I responded that I was very appreciative of their thanks, but needed to express my thanks to them for the opportunity to do the hosting and be in relationship.  I experience a similar sense of gratitude to the students I worked with over the years.

It is in giving that we receive.

I do not write this post to allege that I exude some sort of hyper level of altruism.  I don’t think that is the case.  I do believe that when we are mindful of “in giving that we receive” we recognize that basic truth.

The reciprocal situation is accepting from others so that they can experience the in “giving that we receive” as well.  My favorite Christmas card I received this year was from a man who “receives” where I go on Tuesday afternoons to help serve a meal and provide a night of shelter to homeless folks.  He handed me the card in an envelope.  Nothing was written on the card or the envelope.  When he gave me the card, he said, “This is not much but it is in the spirit of Christmas.”  I thanked him for the card.  I wondered if he was too rushed to sign the card.  I wondered if he had never received a Christmas card before and did not know that you were supposed to sign your name.  That is all pretty immaterial.  Accepting and thanking him for the card allowed him to be a part of the in “giving that we receive” equation.

The card sits on my desk today.

How do you take part on both sides of the “in giving we receive” equation?

On Success in Recovery

soberlivingIf I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this;  Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards, of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live.  If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.   – Thomas Merton, Love and Living, pp. 11-12

I like Thomas Merton a lot.  However, I both relate and take him with a grain of salt on the above quote.  I relate because like Merton and Augustine, I spent the first several decades of my existence living fully into practicing addictions – in my case drugs and alcohol.  By the time I hit early adulthood, I was completely fried and realized I simply would not be able to continue along that path, and opted for sobriety, as Merton and Augustine opted for a monastic environment.

For me, success then became measured by staying sober and that became rather rote after a while.  Next, I opted for education for a bunch of years to demonstrate my ability to further succeed, and escape having to deal with many life issues.  I knew how to do that.  Next, for some reason publishing a book seemed like a marker of success, but after doing that several times, that measure lost its luster.

For the past decade or so, the very concept of success has taken a back seat to my striving to live a life of meaning – with mixed success, as it were.  I find today that simply being on a path toward True Self seems to be a more worthy direction than past accolades.  The starting point for me on all of this is simply being on a recovery road.  An important piece of recovery is getting out of false self (ego/persona) and more aligned with True or Real Self that celebrates the potential of being a node on a luminous web of interconnectivity with all the world.

My resolution for the 2017 New Year is to be open to the possibilities that a True Self oriented life has to offer.  I know that resolve cannot be accomplished by making a list of measurable goals in my shiny new bullet journal, except to be following a recovery path.  As my short four months of retirement and living in a new city have shown, and abundantly so – had I made plans to measure my success this past September, I likely would have failed at what I expected to happen.  However, being open to possibilities led me on even more profound and meaningful directions than I could have predicted while on that six-hour drive south after my retirement party.  This experience is completely consistent with everything about my recovery over the years.  I can never stand in the present, look back five years into the past and say “I saw that coming.” In fact, what has always come has been far greater than what I could conjure in my head.  In this sense, success can mean just showing up and being ready.  I can’t wait to see where that leads me five years from now.  I don’t really have a clue at this point!