Mutual Interdependence in Recovery and Life

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Belonging is the innate human desire to part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown, 2010, Hazelden

Human strength admires autonomy; God’s mystery rests in mutuality. . . We admire needing no one; apparently, the Trinity admires needing. . . Needing everything – total communion with all things and all being . . . We’re practiced at hiding and self-protecting, not at showing all our cards.  God seems to be into total disclosure.

The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr, 2016, Whitaker House, pp. 59-60.

Like much in life, the obvious eludes me for a long period of time, and then it becomes clear. I have known for a while that much of my existence is a process of working out where it is I belong. Brené Brown’s quote, causes me to reflect on my past professional existence in higher education.  I wanted to be part of a team, but with egos, including my own, there was not an interest in team play but only maximizing individual benefit – what tenure track jobs in higher education demand. So, I spent years trying to fit in, but realized if I were going to align with True Self , I needed to go down a different road.

But the belonging of which Brown speaks remains – and where my life in recovery comes into play.  I have long known and thrived on the understanding that in 12-Step meetings, I do belong.  No one is turned away at the door because they have not done a 4th Step, met with their sponsor, relapsed 100 times, and so forth.  In fact, regardless of an person’s sobriety/abstinence, the most common refrain is to “keep coming back.”

Which is where the Richard Rohr quote comes in.  As a practicing addict, I believed I could do it on my own – so long as I could get everyone else to behave according to my plans.  I well recall in 1971, when dropping out of my B.A. program for the third time after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA, I told my academic advisor how I did not need his “bourgeois” education, that I would make it on my own.  In 1984, I had enough of my autonomy and made a decision to enter the mutual existence of a detox center for 30 days.

Looking back over the past three decades of 12-Step recovery – of mutual existence – I have begun to learn to live life on life’s terms.  In fact, that simple goal is the primary thing I have in common with the people sitting in 12-Step rooms.  Other than that we are a diverse lot.  The ability to live into that goal has little to do with any piece of demographic data such as age, race, gender, or academic degree.  I experienced a similar common goal when participating in medical or house building missions in Central America.  When I look around the room of those participants, we don’t have much in common beyond the goal of bringing medical care to the underserved.  As an autonomous person, I never got sober nor did I even consider medical care issues in Honduras or Panama.

I recently joined a faith community that nourishes and thrives in that mutuality with a rather simple mission of “Shining the Light of God’s Love and Grace.”  The congregation “is a community of faith and love representing, celebrating, and embracing all God’s children as persons of sacred worth regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, culture, tradition, sexual orientation or gender identity, personal and family history, or station in life.”  So, we do not need to debate all of that.  Rather, as mutual community, we can live into the mission.  There is no debate about the mission, rather consideration of how best to practice the mission.

Mutuality of community around a common mission seems of critical importance as we go forward in the world today.  Gaining debaters points on who did what and who won in electoral politics assures only that we will continue in a quagmire of inaction and decay where innocent people are slaughtered, the environment becomes more toxic and human dignity has no value.  Mutually agreeing on common goals around these issues and working toward the ends seems a more productive path.  The paths may be many, but they will only be accomplished through belonging within a mutually committed community.

Again, Richard Rohr (pp. 80-81):

. . . virtue of hope applies first of all to the collective before the individual . . . It is very hard for individuals to enjoy faith, hope, and love, or even to preach faith, hope, and love – which alone last – unless society itself first enjoys faith, hope, and love in some collective way.  This is much of our problem today; we have not given the world any message of cosmic hope, but only threatening messages of Apocalypse and Armageddon.

 

What Recovery/Sobriety/Abstinence Means to Me.

vinetreeFor the past 7 months I have been “abstinent” in Overeaters Anonymous.  I define that abstinence by not adding sugar to what I eat, not eating something in which one of the first three ingredients is sugar, and not bingeing on food.  I have been nicotine free following a 12-Step program for some 18 years.  In one week I will be sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for 32 years.  What does all of this really mean?  A few points:

  • I am reasonably in awe of the fact that were I not in recovery, most of what I do today would not happen.  As I write this, I am sitting in a colleague’s house in Lima, Peru.  The colleague was a childhood friend of the daughter of my wife.  I met my wife when I worked in Northeast Louisiana after receiving a graduate degree from the University of Illinois, where I had received a full scholarship after graduating with an MA from the University of Cincinnati where I had gone back to college in 1985 after waiting the recommended one year before making any major life decisions in sobriety.  As my pre-recovery attempt at college produced a whopping 0.7 GPA, I can reasonably attribute sobriety to launching me on the path that led me to sitting in Lima, Peru, today, where I type this post.
  • For alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, “sobriety” is unambiguous – I don’t put those substances in my body.  Abstinence from compulsive overeating is not so universally defined.  In OA the individual defines their own abstinence.  To some, such a self-definition is the equivalent of deciding to drink only beer and not hard liquor, etc for a self-defined sobriety.  I view abstinence as the same as sobriety in abstaining from those foods or eating behaviors that cause me problems.  Sugar is one.  Binge eating is another.
  • In recovery from compulsive overeating, a rigid adherence to a set of rules or regulations would be akin to a diet – something that has never worked for me.
  • I have learned in the past 30 years that recovery has little to do with actual substance to which I am addicted.  Putting down the bottle, the pill, the cigarette, the food only allows me the clarity to begin living life on life’s terms and a path toward discovery of true self that I masked with my various drugs of choice.
  • In this way, when I entered the University of Cincinnati in 1985 with one year of sobriety, being physically sober allowed me the clarity and the ability to take tests, write papers and perform the mechanics of going to school and being accountable.  But the process of recovery, an attitude of gratitude, a belief in hope, and a desire to live life fully enables me to take those steps forward and to climb out of the bottle of addiction.
  • In this way, recovery is marked less by the date I stopped using a specific substance to avoid living life, but rather the day I decided to move forward with living life fully on life’s terms and to begin the journey to discover my true self.

 

From Entitlement to Action in Recovery

entitleagencyEntitlement is “I deserve this just because I want it” and agency is “I know I can do this.”  The combination of fear of disappointment, entitlement, and performance pressure is a recipe for hopelessness and self-doubt.

– Brené Brown The Gifts of Imperfection

Dr. Brown’s quote is quite revealing.  I witnessed a dramatic shift from entitlement to agency in my recovery – and like everything, the shift is a process and not an event.  But I was not a total slouch, born with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth.  In fact, I had my first factory job when I was 16, and have been generally financially self-supporting my entire life – never unemployed for more than a couple of weeks between jobs.  But, I was incredibly resentful of my state in life compared to others.  I had a ready excuse to explain why my relative brilliance was not recognized by the world.  I recollect well, after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA during my first try at college, telling my academic advisor I did not need his bourgeois education – I was going to make it on my own.  All of which led me to a detox unit some ten years later.  I have posted about some of this before.

But in recovery self-doubt has remained.  I was about seven-years sober, finally earned BA and MA degrees and was awarded a full scholarship to a PhD program.  I distinctly remember driving across the Indiana cornfields to register for classes and thinking “who am I trying to fool” and “what will happen when they find out.”  As good as I could get on the agency thing at that time was convincing myself that I was going to give this my best shot, and also give myself permission to drop out after the first semester if I was clearly in over my head.

In less than five years I graduated, got my dream job, but again was incredibly concerned about being found out.  Fast forward 20 years and I am now retiring from a different dream job.  Over the years the “I know I can do this” has become a bigger part of my existence.  Take writing.  The “publish or perish” higher education mantra is impressed upon students along with the pecking order of prestigious publications.  I have published well above average over the years, but not until the last five years have I felt I truly found my writing voice.  My best writing is in my “professional blog” that would fill another four or five books but that is considered the lowest on prestige chart.  But I find everything except my blog writing to actually be a rather tedious unenjoyable process.  The only real exception to that has been my last edited volume.  I believe this is the case because the last book is one that most expresses my values and interests.

So, I might add to Dr. Brown’s definition that “I know I can do this and I want to do this

The process of finding and then living into true self has been the most exciting part of my life in recovery.  My “bourgeois education” provided some equipment for that process, but, without question what I have received through the 12-steps and other related recovery is where I have learned how to use that equipment . . . and I am always pleased to know that the process is never done!

True Self in Recovery

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I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self.  Why was that so very difficult?   – Hermann Hesse

 

In recent years, I have taken to tracking down the phrases that stuck in my head since my youth – to see if I remember them correctly, and consider why those phrases, and not others are perpetually imprinted on my brain.  One example is the epigraph above from the novel Demian by Hermann Hesse.

I read Demian in 1968 and don’t recollect picking it up after. About  7 or 8 years ago while roaming around in a used bookstore on Decatur Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, I found a copy, and proved to myself that yes, I remembered the quote correctly.  So why has that line stuck in my head for 45 years?

Obviously, the epigram is similar to the line on the Alcoholics Anonymous anniversary coins I collect (and Hamlet) “To Thine Own Self Be True” and reflect that perpetual trying to figure it out.  What I also take and enjoy out of this idea is that recovery, life, and self-discovery are truly processes and not singular events.

To me, this understanding is one of the fantastic blessings of living in recovery.  Each day is a possibility of new growth.  That growth is not just limited to a self-improvement perspective, but rather includes a sense of the discovery of true self.  When advising college students, I usually ask them “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and preface the question by noting I continue to ask myself the same question.

These are thoughts that are far from my mind when actively living into my addictions.