When the Going Gets Rough……..

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“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’    But…the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”  – Martin Luther King Jr.

As a member of a 12 Step program, I have often heard it quoted (in fact I myself have quoted it), that what we do in the program “we do for fun and for free.” While that pithy sentiment can indeed be instructive and while I would never want to live anywhere but smack-dab in the deep end of the pool in the program, there is a flip side to the work we do in carrying the message to the next suffering alcoholic/addict. The flip side of the coin is not something we discuss very often because it isn’t that pleasant. The flip side is–we do what we do while standing in the midst of frequent discomfort, significant loss, and tremendous heartbreak.

At times there is discomfort –despite our very best efforts and intentions there is harsh criticism, personality conflicts, gossip, embarrassment, failure and mistakes. At times there is loss—of relationships, vacations, finances, cars, privacy, jobs, possessions and a good night’s sleep. At times there is heartbreak—when people we care for do not take recovery seriously, do not recognize the grave danger of this disease and do not stay. It is heartbreaking to have to stand aside after being told that what you offer is unwanted and unwelcome. It is heartbreaking because you know many people do not get a second chance and many never make it back. It is heartbreaking to step over bodies.

There are many days when the discomfort, loss and heartbreak almost threaten to overwhelm me and I have to ask myself—Is this fun? Is this free? During those days I would say “hell no!” and please show me to the nearest exit. However, today I no longer demand that things be fun or free. Today I recognize the enormous price paid by the founders and those who have gone on before me—who led by example.  Today I appreciate that while we are definitely not a glum lot, our laughter and tears are often in concert.

Instead of expecting something for fun or for free, today I attempt to repay a debt that will never be paid; but I also seek peace, joy, self-worth, freedom and yes the “buzz”. To my great amazement I find all that and more when my focus is “what am I bringing?” instead of “what about me?”

In spite of frequent discomfort, significant loss and tremendous heartbreak this precious gift (along with all the unexpected side benefits) was passed to me by other and I can only keep it if I continue to give it away yet again. So for today I will continue to do just that.

Before and After

IMG956036747057175Leaning against the top rail of a fence on a cool mist filled morning I gazed over the green paddock grass, the still water of a small billabong, the dusty green gum trees and the small mob of kangaroos quietly grazing. In a few weeks I would be leaving my childhood home of Australia and flying to America. Somewhere in the young recesses of my heart I knew I would never be able to recreate that moment, that there would be no going back. I intuitively knew one entire section of my life was ending; nothing would ever be the same.  I was 17

The pungent bite of vodka mixed with orange juice gagged me as I swallowed. Genuinely stunned that anyone would willingly drink such fowl tasting liquid, I sputtered my disgust at my very first taste of alcohol. However for some unknown reason I continued to take a few more swallows.  As the burn traced downwards through my throat and hit my stomach I instantly felt the “magic.” The tumblers of an internal combination lock clicked—clicked—clicked into place and opened a portal into a new world where nothing would ever be the same.  I was 27

Fighting my terror and the urge to run I slunk through a doorway into a smoke filled room where people were sitting around drinking coffee.  Having repeated the process for the past 11 days I headed to my “usual” spot near the back of the room.  As the emotional typhoon swirled internally, I was sure the rage I felt was rolling off of me in almost visible waves.  The introductions coming around the room were getting closer to me as I sat there trying not to shatter into a million shards.  It was my turn to speak and with one last terrifying, thundering crash the dam inside broke and I conceded to my innermost self the truth. Without a shadow of a doubt I knew nothing would ever be the same.  I opened my mouth and after 17 years of drinking uttered the words, “I’m ___________, and I’m an alcoholic.”  I was 44.

This morning when I saw the above photo/quote I paused to reflect upon the few moments in my life that are divided into “before this, and after this.”  Mentally categorizing the events I tried to find the one pivotal moment. In an instant I had my answer.  Everything is now divided between BA (Before Alcohol) and AA (After Alcohol), which then led me to having a spiritual experience as the result of working the 12 Steps.  Why do I pick that moment in my life?  Well to quote someone far more gifted with words than I am: “My faith in and contact with, my Higher Power shines more brightly than I dreamed it could. Those promises I thought were impossible are a viable force in my life. I am free to laugh all my laughter, free to trust and be trusted, free to both give and receive help. I am free from shame and regret, free to learn and grow and work. I have left that lonely, frightening, painful express train through hell. I have accepted the gift of a safer, happier journey through life.” (page 543, Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous)

My name is _____________ and I’m an alcoholic

“Some day he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place.” (Page 151, Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous)

“Hi I’m _____________ and I am an alcoholic.” What a terrifying and dreadfully difficult sentence.

I will never forget my first few months sober and it still amazes me that I lived through it. The shakes, the overwhelming desire to drink, those white knuckle moments, feeling unable to breathe, my insides were twisted into knots and I wanted to crawl out of my skin. The chaos, the voices in my head, the continual mental arguments left me mentally and emotionally exhausted. I wanted to say “screw this!” on an hourly basis. I hated not drinking, I hated drinking, I hated feeling the way I felt, I hated life and I certainly hated AA.

Of course at that time I had no idea what the program of AA was and I had no idea what was going on in my body and mind as they adjusted through those first days without alcohol. I was not prepared for the physical, mental and emotional upheaval that removing alcohol from my system was going to have on me. I had never attempted to stop drinking before…why should I? I never thought I had a drinking problem. It was more like a life problem, which drinking made bearable. But for some still unknown reason I felt compelled—driven—to try AA. I was under the impression that it was some sort of self-help group that would help me figure out what was wrong in my life and how to fix it. So despite the fact that I didn’t want to stop drinking, despite the fact I hated AA meetings and everyone in the rooms, despite the fact that I was not an alcoholic, I would race to an 8pm meeting like the hounds of hell were nipping at my heels and slide into a seat near the door. The odd thing was that only then would the voices stop the chatter and for one hour I could stop holding my breath, unclench my jaw, relax and breathe. It was only then I felt “safe.”

During my first two weeks in AA I introduced myself, by my first name only. I would not finish the typical AA introduction with the phrase “…and I’m an alcoholic.” Personally deep down I knew that if I actually said those words there would be no turning back for me. Either, I would have to do what the AA people did, whatever that was, and never drink again–which was not a thought I could even comprehend–or I could pick up that first drink once again and continue with my lifestyle with the knowledge I would end up dead, or trying to die. Fortunately, as I sat in that smoked filled, dingy AA room night after night I could not escape what I was hearing in the meetings. Despite myself I began to identify. I heard a level of gut wrenching honesty being shared and it started sinking in through the fog. Never before in my life had I ever experienced people being that open, vulnerable and honest in front of total strangers. I heard people share about their experiences, which were every bit as bad as mine, or worse. I heard them tell my story as if they had lived and felt it. I heard about lives being changed and I heard about having hope. I could also not escape the fact that these people had peace, freedom, joy, they laughed and that they loved life.

One night I could no longer escape the insistent yearning to enjoy life as they did and the heartbreaking realization that I was an alcoholic. At that moment it was do or die. At that moment I chose the gift of the impossible, the unknown, a miraculous joyful journey through life.

I opened my mouth and said, “Hi I’m _____________ and I am an alcoholic.” What a simple, profoundly liberating and life-changing sentence.

RIP – Robin Williams

I was not going to write about Robin Williams passing, but when I woke up this morning it was still heavy on my mind….not because he was famous, funny, or a film star, but because he was one of us and we lost him.

Robin Williams suffered from alcoholism: a three-fold disease that is described as an allergy of the body, an obsession of the mind and a spiritual malady.

Yes I understand that Robin Williams’ cause of death is apparent suicide via asphyxia. His publicist said that he had been battling severe depression and insisted that his recent stay at Hazelden earlier this summer was nothing more than relapse prevention. I doubt we will ever know the full story, nor do we need to know. What I do know is, relapse or not, anyone suffering from alcoholism is in real danger if any of the three facets of the disease are not treated.

Abstinence (or putting the plug in the jug) is only one part of  recovery. For a person to live happy, joyous and free in recovery the mental and spiritual aspects must also be addressed. Addiction brings about high anxiety,  deep depression and overwhelming despair that are impossible to describe to people who don’t suffer with alcoholism/addiction. The impending doom, self-hatred and fear that tend to be byproducts of untreated alcoholism often don’t make sense to non-alcoholics especially when the alcoholic is not drinking and appears to have everything together. However taking of one’s own life is not an unfamiliar ending to those of us who battle alcoholism/addiction.

As this new day begins my heart breaks for Robin’s loved ones. There is absolutely nothing I can do to help him, his friends or family, but what I can do is get up and go to HM1 and HM2. I can sit with the two new women who came to the house yesterday broken and very sick: physically, mentally and spiritually. And one more time I can have the privilege of carrying the message to the next suffering alcoholic.

IPads and Mindfulness

Recently I purchased a tiny IPad to use for business and being a newbie to the world of IPads I asked the super duper smart computer geek dude (hereafter simply know as dude) to give me a quick rundown on the basics of operation.  One little feature caught my attention and I have been pondering it ever since.

The dude explained that once programs were open, even if you are not using them and even if you can’t see them, they remain running in the background.  He informed me that having multiple programs running in the background can cause the IPad to run slower, use power and not operate at full capability. To solve this problem the dude touched something on the screen, found one of the programs and with his finger flicked it up to the top of screen where it disappeared. In its place another program was revealed that I had no idea was running, secretly draining my power, and again he flicked it up to the top and it disappeared. The dude repeated this several times until all hidden, unused programs were exposed, flicked and closed out.

Why am I still pondering the whole silly IPad thing? Mainly because it struck me how awesome it would be if I practiced this in recovery with my thinking. Today, one day at a time I will expose, flick and shut down unhealthy, dangerous thinking.

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Additional Reading:

Significant lifestyle change in recovery can be very difficult to initiate and even more difficult to maintain over the long haul. A major key to success in this effort is mental discipline or “mindfulness.”  Our internal experience flows from where the attention is directed and old habits of behavior are unwittingly encouraged and supported. Mindfulness can break the hold of these destructive patterns, and the freed energy can then be used to firmly establish any recently learned and still fragile recovery habits/tools. Mindfulness is a skill that is easily learned and strengthened over time.  So, what is mindfulness? Well John S. Shealy, Ph.D., describes mindfulness is being 100% present with whatever is occurring to us or within us at any given moment. It is being present with what is in the now, not our perceptions, our judgments or our comments about what is happening; just what is happening with no elaborations, no overlay of judgment or commentary. It is being present with the endless flow of change in our life without becoming lost in reactivity.

However, after only a few minutes of silent, motionless sitting I clearly see that mindfulness is not an easy task nor is it my ordinary state of mind. When I try it my mind races chasing from this thought to the next and, at the risk of sounding nuts, my mind chatters to me endlessly.  It’s as if the mind has a mind of its own!

Why does this matter? Because a relapse begins in the mind and not with the first drink. The danger is that we react endlessly to the pleasant or unpleasant feelings associated with what is occurring in the moment and our mind grows more unmanageable and controlling of our attention.  And along with our attention, we lose control of our inner experience (the only experience we have). With this loss of control comes more anxiety and fear, which only fuels the mind’s need for relief that often is sought through alcohol or drugs. The good news is we don’t have to live like that and we can move into a life of recovery; of quiet, mindful observation, of peace.  In recovery goal is to make mindfulness my natural, habitual way of “Being” in the world. The development of this powerful skill requires determination and a balance of strict discipline and gentle kindness toward myself.

So how do I develop this way of thinking, mindfulness? For me the practice of meditation is a powerful tool for the development of mindfulness and if practiced brings me into a more mindful way of “Being.” As the mind continues to settle down, we begin to gain control over where we are placing our attention. With this focused attention, we can apply the tremendous power of the mind to the task of establishing and maintaining healthy and wise choices. As we become less trapped by old habits of thought and behavior, we allow new possibilities to open up.

For the life of me I don’t remember how the dude said to find, flick and close out the programs on the IPad, but I do know that through mindfulness I can find, flick and close out those unhealthy thoughts in my mind.