What Comes Next

By: Diane Cameron

Diane Cameron is an award-winning journalist and speaker on recovery and personal growth. She is the author of two personal blogs: “Out of the Woods”—for women in long-term recovery, and “Love in the Time of Cancer”—for couples and caregivers. Diane teaches on topics related to the history and politics of mental health and recovery. Her newspaper column on popular culture appears in the Albany Times Union and in newspapers across the country. “What Comes Next” offers ideas, suggestions and provocative perspectives for men and women who have 10-plus years of recovery and reveals the continued emotional and spiritual growth that occurs with long recovery.

Focused Attention, Steps 6 & 7 and a Run with the Wolves

Nov 12, 2013

Today I found an old copy of a favorite book, “Women Who Run with the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. Maybe you, too, read this when it was new, underlined every page and passed it from friend to friend?

Yes, it had that kind of power. Pinkola-Estes is a Jungian, a psychologist, an expert on myth and languages, a storyteller and feminist extraordinaire.

On the page I read today I saw all of my own underlining and scribbles in the margin and I marveled at what I read and what, back then (1989) I thought was so important.
Here’s one section that stands out in the chapter on Vasialisa/Cinderella/the power of a woman’s intuition and libido:
Can a negative aspect of psyche be reduced to cinders by being watched and watched? Yes, indeed it can. Holding any part of ourselves in consistent, consciousness can cause the thing to dehydrate. Focused attention can reduce an aspect of the psyche we struggle with to cinders — it is deprived of libido.”
When I read that many years ago I was marveling at the exegesis of Pinkola-Estes with fairy tales and myths. I was just a few years into recovery and still not grasping the bare beginnings of Steps 6 and 7. But today when I read that I thought, “Of course, we need but pay attention, bring our focus to defects of character — or better, characteristics that are harmful -- and they can dehydrate.”
And isn’t “dehydrate” the perfect word? We can remove the “juice,” the power, from these defects/aspects of character, and they can be cinders. Steps 6 and 7 ask us to ask our Higher Power for help, but we are expected to do our part as well.
Bringing conscious awareness is our part. We do that through doing inventory, talking with a sponsor, making lists, identifying the opposite behavior and then practicing. That is paying attention, bringing “consistent consciousness” to that “negative aspect of psyche” as Pinkola-Estes said so long ago.

Purpose of life in recovery

Oct 24, 2013
Recently I heard a woman in recovery talking about “finding her purpose”.
She had been in recovery for a couple of years. She had good program habits — attended meetings and had a home group. But her purpose felt elusive.
It was so familiar. I remember having that feeling for years of my recovery too.  But what I have begun to learn — and still learn even now — is that our purpose is to be of service to others.
I know. It seems so obvious and maybe it’s a tad too obvious. It’s so simple that it slips off the tongue but doesn’t stick to my brain.
“Be of service to others.”
Well, of course, who wouldn’t want to be nice like that? And when you help others you are appreciated and liked and that’s always good. But there is so much more to this service thing.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D.,“The Father of Positive Psychology,” has written about what it takes to truly flourish in life. For years Seligman studied people with depression and anxiety and later he founded the school of  psychology that looks at why people are happy, positive and flourishing — kind of two sides of the psychological coin.
What Seligman determined is that “the number one thing you can do if you are depressed or anxious is to go out and help another person.”
Now look at that. People recovering in Twelve-Step programs have been told for maybe 70 years that the best thing we can do is to “be of service to others.” And when we are sad, mad or scared, “Go help another recovering person.” 
The folk wisdom of AA turns out, again, to be the science of psychology. It’s not just nice, it’s scientifically sound.
Doing regular service in and out of the rooms also means that we can lay to rest the question of, “What is my purpose in life?” It is to help others. Now that that question is resolved, we have the fun part of choosing how and where. 
In early recovery we learned that, “Service is gratitude in action.” We were prodded to get a service job and we signed up to make coffee, set up chairs, collect the money or recruit speakers. Through these basic service tasks, we met  other recovering people and we became part of a group.
Later we may take on leadership roles in our greater recovery community. Our  skills, honed by dealing with so many different kinds of people in our recovery program, allow us to rise as leaders in our greater community as well. In any phase of recovery we can help one other person or a group. Now we know we always have a purpose. And I have to keep reminding myself of this, too.
My purpose is service and I can resign, at last, from the debate.

Don't take it personally: And when you do, what to do

Sep 13, 2013

A few weeks ago I made a big commitment not to take anything personally. It made sense. And yet, my new mantra, “Don’t take things personally,” seems to have delivered an invitation to a party for my character defects.

Within hours of my new experiment I was taking lots of things personally. Someone from the past crossed my path and the intersection triggered tons of old stuff. I was particularly challenged by an old habit that I thought I’d dealt with ages ago: “What About Me?” And “I’m important, too.” Not at all attractive and miserably uncomfortable.

Then I realized, again, the value of long-term recovery: it becomes so hard to entertain those thoughts and feelings for very long. Not that they shimmer once and disappear, but it’s hard to pretend that all the flaws belong to other people and that I am the innocent and injured party.

In the same way that AA can ruin your drinking, AA can also ruin the pleasure of being right and the dark joy of holding onto a resentment. Even while my hand is on my hip and I’m starting to feel superior, a tiny voice is whispering,  “What is your part in this?”

So I reached for these tools as I found myself slipping into “poor me.”

First: I began to pray for help. The first prayers sounded like this: “Oh God what is this crap in my head? Help me. Yuck. I hate this. Remove this. Come on, come on, come on…get this out of me. Hurry up.”

Second: I knew I had to tell on myself, so I emailed my sponsor and a close friend. I told them my mean thoughts and the nasty burning feeling I was having about people. I admitted that I was wishing someone ill and that I was also sad and scared.

Then: I changed my prayer to, “Please help me. I think this is old family stuff and it's getting attached to someone who triggers old fear. I know this is mine, but I can’t see my way out. Give me courage and clarity. I want to be free. Help.”

Then the magic began. I got on the train to New York City and turned on my Kindle looking for some kind of distraction and there was the book, “Drop the Rock.” Perfect. It was all about Steps Six and Seven. Bingo. I began to pray the Seventh Step prayer.

Throughout the day in New York I kept saying: “I turn my will and my life over to you.” It wasn’t perfect. My yucky thought kept breaking through, but I just kept on praying. By the time I was back on the train to come home, the grip was lessening.

The next day, I went for a walk and took my IPod Shuffle along.  And what popped right up? A Joe and Charlie talk on Steps 6 and 7. Yeah, 6 and 7 again. By now I’m laughing.

I listened to the two old-timers talk about those steps and here’s what they had to say: God will remove what God can remove and God will do what I can’t do. But God doesn’t do what I can do. And, they said, what I can do is the very opposite of what I fear. Yes, brilliant but shocking.

“Do the opposite.” God will remove the defect if and when we start doing the opposite of the defect we want removed. Want lying removed? Start telling the truth. I wanted jealousy removed, so I had to start being really emotionally generous.

So here I am two weeks later. No, not fixed. But hyper-aware of a simple set of actions that I can take to shift a defect of character. And yes, I am still praying, “hurry up, hurry up,” because I hate discomfort just like you. But I can see my part now and I have steps to take and I know there is light at the end of this tunnel. And that, I am taking very personally.

The truth about the new year

Sep 06, 2013

Labor Day, for me, is the best holiday, coming with nice weather and no obvious
family obligations.

There is, however, a strum of anxiety that crosses those few precious days. This is the last call of summer and we want to order one more round of fun before the house lights come up on the day after Labor Day. In that harsh back-to-work glare we’ll have to take another look at the lists andthe lives that summer’s warm intoxication allowed us to deny.

There is something good for us though in this process around Labor Day. This is the time when many of us sort and discern and make our decisions for the coming year. The New Year begins now, and we know that in our bones.

For at least 12 years we started over on the first Tuesday in September. Back to school meant that we could try out a new identity forged over the summer. Maybe your look changed. Had you let your hair grow? Or cut it short? Would everyone sense the sophistication you gained visiting your sister in L.A.?

Back in June you were that same old kid, but every September a new you debuted the day after Labor Day.

There were inner changes as well. In September you promised yourself you'd be more
popular, more friendly, more outgoing. Or maybe you decided you'd study more and
hang out with the good kids. Every single year you could try something new. You could
be a scholar this year after a past as the class clown. Or you could be the friendly one
after years as the grind and curve setter. The opportunity for a re-do came every year the day after Labor Day.  And it still does.

No, January isn’t the right time for New Year’s resolutions. How could it be? We’re too
busy with the holidays and broke from gift giving. Are you really going to create a new
body or mind or spirit in the middle of all that? Come on.

September is the time to not only promise yourself a new exercise program, but to start
it. It's light after work and it's not too cold in the morning. September is also much better
than January for starting a diet. You are coming off a summer of fresh foods, and you’re
not bloated by 30 days of holiday treats and booze. As for a new look; who can afford
one in January? You wear your name off all your plastic just trying to get through the
holidays, and then tax time is creeping in.

No, the new look and image and relationships you have been promising yourself come
in September just as they did when you were a kid. Remember how it worked in Junior
High? You decided to wear a tweed jacket because that summer you discovered poetry
(or girls who liked poets). Or you promised yourself that you’d set your hair in a smooth
flip every morning to look like those girls in the magazines.

In September you could try out in public all the looks you had practiced in the mirror
behind your bedroom door. So what if the good intentions only last a few weeks. Some
part of it always stuck, some part of the “new you” was the real you-- and real change--
and that's how you moved on.

You still can. The new you begins now as it always has. Go get some new sox, a red plaid shirt, a book of poems and a haircut. This is the time to be kinder, nicer, smarter, to listen more, eat less and hang out with the good kids.

The trees show us how it's done: try new colors; shed the old layers. It's September. Happy New Year!

My Higher Power loves clothes

Aug 15, 2013

After these many years of working a Twelve-Step program, I recently began to think about this idea of “choose your own Higher Power.” Of course I 've heard that many times over the years.


You, too, heard about making the group your Higher Power or make Nature your Higher Power or in those blunt, old-timer voices, “You can make the radiator your Higher Power, just pick something and pray to it.”


Maybe this was the snob in me but I thought, “Well, if they have to do that I guess it’s OK but I have a God and that’s the best kind of HP.”


Yeah, I guess that is being a spiritual snob.


But a few weeks ago I heard a woman who has a recovery life that I admire talking about how she created her HP and it hit me, “They really mean it—we can choose.”


And I wrote this note in my journal: “Can I create my own loving, positive, supportive God and HP? What would He/She be like? How would I connect to them?”


I felt new freedom right away. Just pondering that helped me realize how much I had carried a childhood God into my recovery Higher Power. No wonder surrender is still hard. And no wonder I feel like I have to bargain and deal. But then another fear it me:


I like clothes a lot and I like art. I’m also a writer and I love to read. I spend a lot on books and clothes and well, beautiful things. That can’t be very spiritual, right? So the guilt again: Still not good enough for God.


But this morning looking at the new line of Eileen Fisher clothes — always joking that she must have designed for Thomas Merton and for nuns — it hit me: God loves beauty. God must love beauty a lot—look at all the beauty, design, color, style in the the natural world.


My God (literally),  I’d love to wear any color combinations I see out my window today. Wouldn’t you? And perfumes? Yep. And design, shape, line. All there.


And literature? Whatever faith you follow there is beautiful language and marvelous texts. And there are stories that have transcended thousands of years, and poetry — every religion has poetry. Religious poetry is the basis for all secular poetry. So God must care about language, narrative and words.


And my beach vacation? God. The way my heart leaps at a beautiful scarf? God. Beautifully designed and well-crafted shoes? God.


Now we cannot be without discernment here. If I want 20 scarves (and I do) that’s not really faith-filled. There is greediness and grabby-ness in that. And that part of me that searches for a new handbag and then as soon as I buy one starts to look again? --Oh that is my addiction and not my serene love of beauty talking.


But I’m going to try out this new Higher Power and believe that He/She is also happy with Eileen Fisher, and maybe has a hand in the social-justice-plus-fashion work that Eileen is doing. And maybe this Higher Power wants me to feel lovely and confident so I can write and speak to carry His/Her message.


Maybe when I pray I can talk about all of me: my recovery, my work, my relationships and the beauty around me, and I can ask this new HP, “New olive bag: Guide me on this too please.”


And then get really quiet.



Self-seeking: Will it really slip away?

Aug 03, 2013

We know that line about self-seeking from of The Promises: the freedoms, the attitudinal shifts and new perspectives that come to us after working the Twelve Steps.

 If you have been in recovery for 10 or more years, you know that these Promises do come true. Yes, just as it says in that section of the Big Book, they come, “sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly but they will materialize if we work for them.”

The “work” referred to is the Steps.

You remember the first time you had a sense of one of The Promises coming true. Maybe you were in a confusing situation and you remembered to pray or to surrender and then it come to you: You intuitively knew what to do. Or maybe you had an encounter with someone who always intimidated you and suddenly you could see their humanness and you realized that your “fear of people” had lifted.

The promise that I have been thinking about a lot recently is, “Self-seeking will slip away.” Certainly I have seen much of my selfishness shift. I do care about other people’s feelings and perspectives differently than before recovery. While I may have thoughts of “how will this work out for me?” I also have thoughts of, “Will he/she be hurt?” and best of all, “Is there a way to make a decision so everyone wins?” In that way I can say that some self-seeking has slipped away.

But then…

Then there is another kind of self-seeking that not only didn’t slip away; it has absolutely grown with recovery. And that is my desire for self-improvement. Yes, coming into recovery and wanting abstinence and sobriety were super self-seeking. It’s kind of the bait that Twelve Step recovery uses to get us here. I wanted my pain to stop and I wanted me out of trouble and I wanted other people to like and respect me again, and I wanted …Yep — it was all about me. And I got those things. And then I wanted more.

As recovery continued I wanted depression to lift and anxiety to decrease and I wanted my relationships to work out. So I did more self-seeking in other Twelve Step programs and in individual and group therapy. There were years in which I had some kind of self-help activity almost daily: therapy, group, meetings, chanting, yoga. And then the books!

I have a library of self-seeking, self-help books. I am so hungry to know how people work— our brains, our minds, and our psychological selves. And my body: exercise, nutrition, biochemistry. Isn’t all that really self-seeking?

Yes its true there is an aspect of that work that serves others; the healthier I get the less pain I cause for other people,  especially those close to me, but still…

This weekend I found myself obsessed with color. Colors, to be specific. I read the book, “Color Your Style” which is about using color in your wardrobe and in your home and workspace. It’s about appearances but also about psychology and mood management, and I loved it. I did all the “tests” and the exercises and I went to the fabric store and to paint stores to nail down “my” colors. And in fact, I had a ball. It was so much fun! And as I have seen recently I don’t allow myself a lot of fun: I tend to work a lot. A whole lot. But this color hunting was a blast.

But last night looking at my worktable covered with color samples and notes and swatches and pictures I thought to myself, “Has self-seeking really slipped away, or has it just taken on a new hue?”

We’ll have to see.

Salute to Freedom

Jul 15, 2013

With the July 4 holiday just having passed, we’ve been hearing a lot about freedom in and out of the rooms. Flags are waving, fireworks have been exploding and bells have been ringing.

In recovery, freedom is a popular topic because that is one of the biggest rewards of a long recovery.

Twelve-step recovery, in every program, offers freedom from obsession, destruction and the most pervasive, fear. In the same way that we are invited to pause in our holiday celebrations and offer a moment’s gratitude for our civic freedoms, we might also pause to be grateful for all the things we are freed from by our participation in recovery programs.

We might consider not just what we are freed from, but also what we are freed to.

Recovery —sobriety or abstinence, gives us the freedom to be present and to be aware and to show up in our own lives. In fact, recovery gives us the freedom to participate in a
family life, work life and in our civic life.

Here is one of my favorite quotes about freedom:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over
in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and
understanding how to think.”

--David Foster Wallace, Commencement address Kenyon College, 2005

When AA gets bashed

Jul 01, 2013

When we are new to recovery and the “Pink Cloud” is over our heads we can be zealous and protective and yes, even a little defensive about our Twelve-Step program. We are disdainful of other methods of achieving sobriety. In fact we don’t believe people who do anything but AA are really sober.


We may scoff at moderation, medications and cognitive behavioral therapies. That is, of course, because we have found The Answer and that’s all there is to it. And if someone criticizes AA … Well, can we really be friends with him or her anymore?


But that was in our early days right?


Actually, even after many years of recovery and after meeting people who changed their lives with the help of medication, meditation, yoga, religious faith or the strong support of family etc. we may still feel just a tad protective of AA and the Twelve Steps.


I found myself with these feelings this week after reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about women and alcohol. The article called “Why She Drinks” investigates the differences between male and female alcohol consumption; how metabolism affects intoxication and talks about “Mommy Drinking”—the increasing use of alcohol to manage stress among young mothers.


But the author also touches on solutions and here she writes about AA, a bit of history and also some challenges. She describes “thirteenth stepping” (“the tendency of old-timers to take advantage of fragile newcomers.”). Yikes! And she mentions that there are sex offenders and felons with violent backgrounds in AA.


Well, yes there are. We know this. But doesn’t it just sound so tawdry when you read that in the Wall Street Journal? I could just feel myself saying, “Well yeah, and there are also bankers, airline pilots, cardiac surgeons and nuns — lots of nuns in AA too.”


And I could feel that newcomer defensiveness in my old-timer self: “That’s my program you are talking about lady.”


But I had to find the middle. An old saying right out of the Big Book says, “We are not saints.” And that is not just a clever saying or a way to ease our own discomfort. There are people in our meetings who have been violent and committed serious crimes and yes, if you are around a while you know about the sleazy old-timers who hit on newcomers.


Hopefully if you are around awhile you quietly address that or ask your group conscience to take action. While we are not saints we are responsible; that’s an important thing that we say, too.


I find myself taking deep breathes and coming to terms with the imperfections of our program and simultaneously feeling so much gratitude that it worked, and still works, for me.

Going to the chapel

Jun 18, 2013

It’s June, a season of weddings, and there is a something quite special about attending weddings in recovery.

We all know the dilemma for newcomers when wedding season comes. There will be toasts and drinking and multiple bars; champagne might be passed. There is the danger of getting glasses mixed up and the added pressure of so many emotions that pour into weddings: all the family conflicts and old stories and personal feelings about current and past relationships get stirred up, too.

Newcomers are offered wise counsel by sponsors and recovering friends. They are told, “You don’t have to go”; and “Consider your motives”; and “Ask someone else to go to the bar to get you a soda.”

"If you sit your drink down, always get a fresh one so you don’t accidently pick up a drink with alcohol,” they are also wisely warned.

Other wonderful “first wedding in recovery” advice includes: “Make a plan with your sponsor,” and my favorite, “Don’t park in the driveway,” which means be sure that you can escape easily.

But then, after we have been in recovery for a while and we know how to manage staying sober in complex social situations, weddings can become a great joy.

If it is another recovery friend getting married, we are honored to be there and we’ll likely be surrounded by other recovering people. The odds are good that there will be an alternative to champagne for the toasts and no one feels out of place.

Even if it’s not a “recovery wedding,” we have a comfort level and we know how to discreetly shake our head to the waiter who is pouring champagne. We lift our soda or water glass for the toast. And we’re secure in knowing that, really, no one cares.

The benefits of long recovery make the rest of the event fun, too. We don’t need a drink to dance and often we are among the first on the dance floor. We know other people are just as good or bad at dancing and we are happy to celebrate. We are able to make small talk with strangers and we accept, because acceptance is such a big part of our lives, the people at our table, the menu for the evening, and the small details that fill all weddings -— even the silly Chicken Dance.

We also have gratitude, so much gratitude when we are at a wedding now. First of all, we are grateful that we have been invited. In our unsavory past that might not have been the case. And we can attend to the couple making the commitment. If we are married, we can use the occasion to reflect on our partner and our growth as a couple.

And we are especially grateful, as the reception progresses, that we are not the person who has had too much to drink who is being "managed" by some stressed-out family member.



Wisdom from Dale Carnegie, and Dad

Jun 10, 2013

Last week Dave and I crossed the street to look through piles of phonograph records and bins of old dishes spread across our neighbor’s lawn. They were having a yard sale. Just weeks before we’d taken our own boxes of similar things to the thrift store and felt pleased to have those odds and ends gone. Now we were looking through someone else’s stuff, and delighting to find treasures in their trash.

I found myself sitting on the neighbor’s porch sifting through boxes of books. There were the usual staples: mysteries and romances and a big pile of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I have a fondness for those; I grew up reading the great authors in those striped, four-in-one hardbacks.

In my neighbor’s stash was something else that I recognized from childhood; books by Dale Carnegie, the grand master of personal improvement. There was a copy of his famous, "How to Make Friends and Influence People," but the book that I reached for was "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living."

I asked a nearby teenager, “How much?”

“Ten cents,” the girl said.

I gave her a quarter and walked back to my porch to read the familiar text.

When I was a kid, Dale Carnegie’s books were on the top shelf of my father’s bookshelf. As a quintessential first-generation, self-improving, Depression survivor, my father read these books over and over. And then, like the typical second-generation, take- achievement-for-granted, life-is-easier kids that we were, my brothers and I made fun of Dale Carnegie every chance we got.

But now I have to tell on myself. I am my father’s daughter. His drive for self-improvement and habit of worry was passed to me by nature or nurture. Over the years I’ve spent thousands of dollars on classes, courses, therapy and retreats.   

Now I have to laugh. I could have just read my father’s books. Opening "How to Stop Worrying," I skim the table of contents. The message is this: Change your thinking. Change your mind. Be in this day. Dale Carnegie knew what the Beatles learned in India: Let it be.

“How to Stop Worrying” was written in 1950. If Dale Carnegie wrote this today he’d be a guru and superstar.   

Though he was successful in his day, Dale Carnegie wrote his books for the post WWII, GI Bill, self-improving fathers of the '50s. His was a male message, since it was presumed that the man of the house was the one who was worrying about the bills and the bosses and how to pay for the babies. That, too, was my Dad.

My father is not around to thank today. He died before I started my journey of recovery. So I’ll claim this musty book as a gift from my father’s spirit. There is nothing new under the sun. Be here now; have faith in a Higher Power, live one day at a time, laugh at yourself and grow up.

Celebrating changed lives in recovery

Jun 03, 2013

This week I went to a wedding shower, a baby shower and two graduations; all celebrations for people in recovery, and all proof of the miracles we see and experience in long-term recovery.

It was at the baby shower that it hit me. I was witnessing big blessings. The shower was for a woman who came into recovery in her early 20s. I had seen her finish school, try two careers and several relationships — practicing the principles of recovery all the way. And then she met “this guy” and one date at a time they seemed to “click.” A few years ago they had a wedding and now, soon, they will have a baby.

The graduations were similar. People in recovery trying school again. Using the principles of the program to get through school. Making plans and sticking to them. Showing up. Asking for help. Raising a hand. Saying yes. Doing what ws asked. Being financially responsible. And all along the way talking about it with sponsors, sober friends and in home groups. A collective energy seemed to write those hard papers and take the scary exams.

This is the “extra” that we get when we stay in recovery and stay close to recovery for a long time. We stop using our additive substances and behaviors, but we also learn new skills in the rooms that we then can apply outside the rooms. We make new lives. We get to try again. We try school again, and parenting again and relationships, and even marriage again.

And perhaps the most surprising thing that we enjoy when we stick to recovery a long time is this: We celebrate other people’s lives as well. Out of our years of self-centered existence, we find ourselves cheering at the good grades, new jobs, engagements and pregnancies.

We make new lives and we learn to love.

Act as if ...

May 27, 2013

In 12-Step programs, we hear the phrase “act as if” often. We are guided to “act as if” we have courage when we are scared, and we are told to “act as if” when we feel like an imposter in our work lives.

Acting as if has helped me many times. It’s a great tool to shift from negative to positive thinking and it is a way to invite change to shift beyond being intellectual concepts to become fully embodied parts of us.

Act as if is closely related to, “Fake it till you make it.” I first heard this phrase in Alanon, where the “faking” I had to do was to act like I felt detachment when I was still clinging and craving. Today, there are still many times when I tell myself to act like a writer and teacher when my confidence is missing in action.

These ideas are not new and they are not unique to 12-Step thinking. Like most AA wisdom, the idea of acting or faking our way to growth and change has been around for a long time.

Aristotle wrote, “We acquire virtues by first having put them into action.”

Many years later the philosopher William James expanded on the connection between how we act and how we feel:

“Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together. By regulating the action, which is under the direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not,” he wrote.

It’s worth noting that early AAs devoured the writings by William James, especially his book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” AA co-founder Bill Wilson was enraptured by these ideas of the early psychologists in the James circle.

Then, translating for a modern sensibility, Timothy Wilson at the Universality of Virginia said, “One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change precedes changes in attitude and feelings.”

Look at that again:

“Behavior change precedes changes in attitude and feelings.”

If you don’t like how you feel, first change your behavior. It’s so simple but still hard to really get it. Don’t wait around to feel better; act as if.

Yeah, “act as if” is much easier said than done. But maybe make it an experiment. And here’s a bit of crazy contemporary proof: Research over many years has now shown that people who use Botox are less prone to anger, and it’s because they can’t make angry facial expressions.

One tiny caution: “Act as if” shouldn’t be used with your finances. Don’t spend money you don’t have, don’t charge yourself into debt. But even there you can act more generously than you feel by donating or volunteering and the feeling of generosity will follow.

So I’m making these notes to myself this week: Act like I love to meditate; act like my body craves yoga; and don’t wait to feel like writing. Just go do it and trust the feeling to follow.

Q & A on long-term recovery with Dr. Paul Hokemeyer

May 13, 2013

This blog “What Comes Next…” began with my conversations with women and men who have been in recovery for more than 10 years. It always began with my joke, “This is what we don’t tell the newcomer.” Often, the subjects involved times when we “long-timers” were struggling and someone with “younger” recovery was surprised to see that we were not all fixed and complete; or when we began to change in ways that surprised people in the rooms.

I started interviewing people with 10 and 20 years of recovery to see what changed for them. It was fascinating. Recently, I had the opportunity to ask my questions of an expert: Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, who is senior clinical advisor at Caron Ocean Drive.

It was eye opening to ask questions about which I have wondered. Here is an excerpt of my questions to Dr. Hokemeyer and his responses. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Q: Does the risk of relapse decrease with length of sobriety/recovery?

A: It depends on how diligently the person is working a program of recovery. In my experience, I’ve found the most effective treatment intervention for addiction is regular attendance at 12-Step meetings, and yet this is the very thing that people let slide after they enjoy a period of continuous sobriety. It’s also important for people in recovery to constantly focus on improving their physical, emotional and spiritual life.

Q: Does the look and shape of recovery change after 10 years? Or 20? Or 30?

A: Yes. Perhaps the most significant change comes in what I call “the pinball effect” -- the feeling of being overwhelmed by the options of life. One of the gifts of aging in recovery is the ability to ignore the noise and distractions of life. In long-term sobriety, people are able to focus on the qualitative aspects of their lives, like relationships, meaningful work and peace of mind, and let go of the neurotic pursuit for quantitative fulfillment, such as power, property and prestige.

Q: Why do we tend to see more people of 19 years and younger in 12 Step meetings? There are many people that have 20 or more years, but where are they seeking recovery support? Are they more at risk or recovering in different ways?

A: In my nearly 20 years experience in the field of recovery, I’ve found that by far the most successful recovery intervention is full participation and attendance in 12-Step meetings. I think that what happens to people in the 20-plus years is that they get caught up in the drama and anxiety that comes from this “launching” phase of their lives. They put romances, finances and status in front of their

Q: As we accrue more years in our recovery, should we address additional addictions, like food, work, TV, etc.?

A: Absolutely. I adhere to the concept of the Addiction Syndrome that was articulated by Dr. Howard J. Shaffer at Harvard University. This concept maintains that at the core of addiction is a personality that is pulled toward self-destructive behaviors. If you’re an alcoholic and you put down a drink, you will gravitate toward another self-destructive behavior, such as compulsive sex or distorted eating. It’s a concept that’s been empirically proven, and one that I see in my practice.

Caron has recently launched a new program to address the addictions that coexist. This process itself is called Addiction Interaction Disorder. This is why we refer to recovery as a practice that must be tended to every day for life. The good news is that this practice enables people to grow in a dynamic and rewarding ways.

A Message for All in Robinson Story

Apr 18, 2013

Recently we have been eeing and hearing a lot about Jackie Robinson.

There is a new movie; a TV special; and every sports commentator will celebrate this extraordinary man.  

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was not only the man who was the subject of  “baseball’s greatest experiment," who put a face on the color change in baseball, he also changed the chemistry of America’s pastime, as well as its color.

Sports writer Mike Lupica says of Robinson: “He played with flash and arrogance and made ferocity an art. Baseball did not look the same after Jackie Robinson.”

Still, we have to remember that history rarely happens in big events and single moments. There were other people who were critical to Robinson’s being able to take those courageous steps on April 15, 1947.


Jackie Robinson was not the first black to play professional baseball. It might be more correct to say that he was the first black to cross the color line who was allowed to stay. The very first black to play professional baseball in America was Moses Fleetwood Walker. Walker holds the dubious honor of being the first black to play pro ball and the last to still be playing before the final shut-out of blacks in baseball by Jim Crow.

Another amazing ball player who paved the way for Jackie was the Negro League star Josh Gibson. He now is considered by most baseball historians to be the greatest baseball player of all time. Gibson’s hitting prowess outshined Babe Ruth. Without Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson’s moment would never have come. Josh Gibson showed fans what black ball players could do and he showed major league owners what black fans could mean to the business of baseball.

Those sold-out houses were not lost on another important baseball man, Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.Rickey had been managing baseball teams all of his adult life, and when he came to the Dodgers he inherited an aging team and declining audience. He wanted to win a pennant and he knew that the hottest talent in the game was in the Negro Leagues. Rickey spent two years orchestrating Robinson’s first step onto Ebbets Field.

Ultimately Jackie Robinson had to step onto that field. Robinson agreed to Rickey’s terms. Robinson promised, “no reaction, no matter what” for three years. He put up with bean balls aimed at his head, spikes aimed at his shins and the ugly names aimed at himself and  his family.

Branch Rickey is a role model for showing us that winning and making a profit do not have to be separate from making important social change.

Looking at these others who set the stage for Jackie Robinson doesn’t take anything away from him and our celebration this baseball season.

What does it mean to us in recovery who have changed our lives?  Well, few of us will have the opportunity to publicly enact history in such a dramatic way, but we all have opportunities to be one of the unnamed others, who, though unrecognized, are necessary to building the momentum that allows the historical moment to happen.                       

Then What Do We Do?

Apr 10, 2013

We can be in recovery a very long time and we can feel like we really have made major changes in our lives, and then one day we do something that is so old or so unrecovered that we think, “Did I really do that?”

Then what do we do?

It’s happened to me a couple of time in the past month. I’m going along feeling oh so sober and oh so spiritual, and then… It is true that when I compare the me now to the me back then it’s a radical change. But there are those times that I’m in a meeting and I’m listening to a newcomer describe how they will get even with someone or how they are upset because life is not going their way and I have that slightly smug feeling of, “Oh I used to be like that.” And then, out of the blue, I am just like that.

Then what do we do?

The first one was being really bitchy at work. A whole day of saying critical things and insisting on having it my way. All the books on cooperative management may as well have disappeared from my bookshelf.

Ok we’re all entitled to bad days or speaking what we should have only thought — but this was a whole day and I was continuing to do it while thinking, “Jeez, look at what I’m doing.”

The next one was gossip. I hate gossip. Yes it is character assassination and it’s awful and I have been a victim of cruel gossip so I know better and I mean better but when the right person and the right juicy info conspired I was right there saying, “Well I heard that he.” and “I think its really because she…”


And yes, prayer and amends and calling my sponsor to say, “What the…?” And more prayer and a big note that says, Mind My Own Business, stuck to my planner.

But there was one more and it was all about greasy, yucky, sticky, self-centered
thinking. I was at a party for a friend and I had even prayed before I went asking to be of service and to be helpful and to bring good cheer to the party. I even said the words, “Help me to keep the focus on others” in my pre-party prayer. But then within minutes of arriving my head took over and it was a gushing stream of, "Do they like me?” “Why aren’t they talking to me?” “Am I her favorite friend?” and creepiest: “I don’t want her to have any other friends than me. Just me.”

I felt like a five-year-old with a serious emotional problem.

And this yes, after 30 years of recovery. Hmmmm. Yeah.

The compounding factor is the shame of having these breakdowns, and the challenge is turning them into breakthroughs. How do we do that? For today I think it’s in the original tool kit: call my sponsor, pray, write in my journal and go to a meeting — a safe meeting —and talk about it. And self-forgiveness and self-awareness. And, yes, accepting that it really is progress not perfection.



The Fountain of Youth vs. Reality

Apr 03, 2013

It has been said that the line between youth and age is the point when you stop yearning to look older and begin to hope you look younger.

The search for youth is an old, and timely, story. It was on April 2, in 1513 that Ponce de Leon, looking for the fountain of youth, claimed Florida. He was just one of many who had sought the secret of youth. The ancient story of the search for the Holy Grain was also a search for a way to stay forever young.

Today those with the same desire have an endless bounty of pseudo-miracles to prolong the appearance of youth. We have lasers, Botox and plastic surgery. There is some disappointment, however, as the pressure to be young intensifies.

A few years ago when the middle-aged “Baby Boom” was predicted, we imagined that having an older majority would mean a celebration or acceptance of aging. We were wrong. Rather than the demographic bulge offering us permission to de-babe, it instead created even more pressure to refuse to go gently into our wrinkles and gray hair.

How does this apply to us as people in recovery? Well, if you’ve been around awhile or you plan to be in recovery a long time, you’ll need to come to terms with your beliefs and choices around aging and appearance.
Sure we can blame media and marketing, but the focus on “them” ignores the fact that the search for youth is not really about looking younger. What Ponce de Leon and those who sought the Grail wanted was not a cosmetic fix, but immortality. They wanted not to die.

Of course many of us came into recovery because we didn’t want to die, at least not the way we were going to if we kept using. But the truth is that we will die and recovery offers us the chance to really think that through. Only when we understand that we’re going to die do we ask the crucial questions:  What do you want to do with your life? And with whom do you want to spend your precious time?

Maybe accepting death -- really accepting it -— is the best secret to living young.
As so many of us (and I’m in here, too) try to erase our age with lotions and lasers, we are trying to change reality. But that is also magical thinking, just like looking for the fountain of youth.                                                                                                                                                    

Having it All— in Recovery

Mar 13, 2013


Many of us came into recovery with lives that had shrunken so small they could fit in a walnut: We drank or used and maybe we worked or patched together a shaky relationship but that was about it. 

We might have had delusions of a social life: the friends at the bar who were no friends at all, along with the fantasies of what we’d do next week, next month or next year. But you know how that always turned out.

Then by some grace or awful intervention we entered recovery. We let go of the booze, drugs, food, whatever. And into the hole fell a fellowship. Suddenly we had an actual social life: meetings, coffees, service, retreats and gradually invitations to extend that life into the greater community, as well.

As we cleaned up and sobered up, and worked the steps, we got in touch with dreams, ambitions, curiosities, and passions. We took classes, courses, went back to school, said yes at work and yes at church and yes to the PTA and the Rotary and the Fresh Air Fund and more. 

Over time, and over many years of recovery, we find barely enough time to get to meetings. The gifts of recovery get in the way of doing recovery on a regular basis. But in ways that are more complicated than that, we also find that we don’t want to say no to anything. The feeling of being useful and competent is just so good. 

We complete things. We help others. We look better. We take on other issues. And we end up doing way too much. 

I am living this. Before recovery I fantasized about going back to school. Today I can’t stop going to school and the new ideas and new dreams just keep coming. I cherish the genuine friendships that recovery gave me and finally, slowly, I am learning to be of service both in and out of the rooms. 

And yet, I have started to ask myself: When do I say no and when do I say “enough.” And when do I say “stop” and accept that I have one precious life, but that even my great recovery life has to have some limits.

'You’ll Do Everything Sober That You Did Drunk'

Mar 06, 2013


I was two years sober the first time I heard someone say,“In recovery you’ll get to do everything sober that you did drunk.” 
I immediately blurted out, “I can’t be married that many times.”
I was ashamed of having been married and divorced twice. My dearest hope was that after I stopped drinking my problems with men would naturally and easily right themselves.
You smile. Yes, I did believe in the 13th promise; the one I thought said that we get love and husbands after we get sober. Not quite true, as you well know. So I did not warm to the idea that I’d go through all that hell again in recovery. But of course I did.
No, not two more weddings, but many relationships that didn’t work. In recovery I had several relationships in which I picked men just as bad as before —- with me behaving just as badly as I did before. In some ways that was even harder to accept and face up to in recovery. 
And then a good thing happened: I fell in love with a better kind of man. But in early recovery I still hadn’t worked through my family issues and I had not cleared up my own past, so I had a divorce in recovery. That hurt a lot. It hurt more because I was stunned that it could happen. It also hurt a lot more because by then I had no booze, no drugs, and no eating disorder to help mask the pain. 
And then there was the shame of the rooms. Not than anyone was shaming me, but my habit was shame so I piled on some extra. I had invited my home group to that wedding. We didn’t literally do it, but it was almost as if we had walked through the circle and the triangle from the altar. But two years later the marriage was over and I healed from the divorce with the same recovery friends who celebrated the wedding. 
That is a recovery blessing. But I kept learning and changing and yes, even risking new relationships, each one better as I got better and better over the years.
So it is true: You do get to do everything sober that you did drunk. Most of us will not rob a bank or steal from our employer but we will dance, shop, date, and have sex. And we will certainly lie, deny, fight, break up, be broken up with, get our feelings hurt and do a good share of hurting others, all while in recovery.  But we’ll have the chance to do it all differently. 

Should we regret the past?

Feb 27, 2013


One of The Promises from "Alcoholics Anonymous" says, “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” Yet we hear people with good recovery sometimes apologize and say that they still have regrets. 

Is that less-good recovery or is it good mental health?

We talk in and out of the 12-step rooms about not having regrets as a good thing. What I think we mean is that we don’t want to be trapped by or shamed by our past. But if we have been around a while we know we have some “stuff”: things we did and people we hurt. They are things from before recovery began and for most of us, also things that happened over the years of our long recovery.

We are not saints. (The Big Book says that, too.)

We often think of our regrets as mistakes but they are not quite that. Living without regrets isn’t possible. And maybe it isn’t even desirable.

A new book, “Missing Out—In Praise of the Unlived Life,” by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips presents this very provocative idea: We need regrets to shape our best lives. 

Phillips suggests that the regrets that we hold represent the options we didn’t choose and they are the mechanism that let us see the life we did choose.

This makes sense when I read the daily news. Life changes in a split second. We understood this after the Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Towers were attacked. WE realized it again with the Indonesian tsunami. On a smaller scale, we feel it any time we read about a terrible accident or a fire.

A couple of years ago my life had to change. Someone asked me, “But what about your career?” I answered, being flip but surprising myself with the truth, “I don’t have a career, I have a life.”

That insight had been incubating over time. When my brother Larry was just weeks from death and we finally, awkwardly got around to talking about that reality, I took a deep breath and asked, “Are you afraid to die?” 

There was a long silence. Then he said quietly, “Di, all I ever did was work.”

I love my work too. But the day that I see the water receding too fast at the beach or hear the terrible screech of tires, or notice the cough that won’t quit, I want to be more or less OK with my choices and with my regrets.

If we live a conscious and examined life, we should die with at least a few regrets. The goal isn’t to not have them; it’s to be fully aware of them and what they represent.

Recovery as a Rule of Life

Feb 20, 2013


Long ago, back in the 5th century, monks began to live and worship together in communities. They were called Monastic Orders and they followed various schools of thought on how to live a spiritual life. They called their plans or sets of instructions a “Rule of Life”.

A monastery’s “rule” organized the monk’s daily life and it dictated times for prayer, for meditation, for gathering together as a community, for meals and for how to behave during meals, among other things. The monastic rule of each Order also dictated how the monks should behave with each other. 

Some of those early rules have come down to us in church and spiritual practices. For example we know the Benedictine Rule — from Saint Benedict — and the Ignation Rule from Saint Ignatius. Some of the spiritual practices that recovering people use today are taught to us on retreats or by a spiritual director and they come from these ancient rules of life.

Recently I have been reading Margaret Guenther’s book, “A Home in the World,” which is about how to make spirituality a part of daily life. And I am seeing that recovery — via Twelve-step programs — is in itself one of the finest rules for life. Our steps and our traditions offer guidance on prayer, meditation, community life and a tradition of sponsorship and teaching. We jokingly say these are “suggestions” and they are, in the same way that the early monks received suggestions to pray five times each day. 

Over time in recovery we incorporate these practices into our sober/recovering lives. We also follow the suggestions to improve our relationship with God or a Higher Power. The reminder that this program of ours is ultimately about a spiritual way is noted in our Twelfth Step, which reminds us that the previous eleven steps are intended to result in a “spiritual awakening”. The steps are not to get us abstinent or clean or sober, but rather to get us to God. How often we miss that point.

It makes sense that we have ancient roots. Our 12 steps come from the six steps of the Oxford Group — the spiritual tradition that enabled Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob to get sober.  We do sometimes forget that Bill and Bob got sober through the Oxford Group, not in AA. It was after their recovery began that they adapted those six Oxford steps to be more inclusive, and more palatable, to men and women of wider faith. 

There is something lovely in realizing that we in Twelve Step recovery share a tradition that monks lived by ages ago. It is a rule of life costing not less than everything.

The Secrets of Relapse

Feb 13, 2013


While those of us who have long-term recovery do enjoy the blessing of a certain comfort level, we do not have any guarantees against relapse.
In the July/August issue of Renew Magazine, I read an article about relapse by Renew's Editor in Chief Tracey Dee Rauh. The story stopped me in my tracks.
Within the report, "Returning From Relapse," were the voices of various experts and people in recovery talking about what leads to relapse and how to prevent it. There were also statistics, including this staggering one: In the first year of recovery, 90 percent of people will have at least one relapse. 
Ninety percent! That’s stunning and scary.
For those of us who have more than 10 years of recovery, here's an even scarier statistic: People with longer recovery time are less likely to return to a program after a relapse than those who are new to recovery.
This is a daunting reality. If we relapse, we don’t go back. That means we often die. And if we don't die, to be certain we live miserable lives of suffering and struggling again. 
You might remember this saying from the halls of 12-Step meetings: “While you are sitting here, your addiction is out in the parking lot doing pushups."
It turns out that this bit of AA folk wisdom is true and statistically valid.
In meetings we also often hear that the reason people relapse is that they stopped going to meetings. But I wonder if that is cause or effect? 
As I  research relapse and long-term recovery, it becomes clear 
that there are many people who come to meetings on a regular basis and still relapse. There are people, too, who stop coming to meetings and don’t relapse.
My gut feeling is that the real issue around relapse has more to do with honesty than with meetings. The first triggers toward relapse are keeping secrets and dishonesty. When we start to think, “I can’t tell anyone this,' whatever 'this' might be, then we have begun to isolate. 
We may be sitting in a room full of recovering people and we may be saying all the right recovery slogans, but if we have begun to feel shame and secretiveness, then we are on Step One of relapse.
Yes, we live real lives and there may be situations that need to be kept in confidence. And we do learn in long recovery that we shouldn’t say everything in a meeting; that some situations can’t be openly shared. In those cases, though, we need to talk to our sponsor or good recovery friends -- people with whom we have cultivated trust.
A woman I know cannot talk openly about her husband’s disability because news of his illness could impact their business. She does talk to her sponsor, therapist and close recovery friends about it, however. 
My friend is wise for making these choices, so that she is not alone with her secret. You shouldn't be either. 
Statistics prove, however long you have been in recovery, you have to stay on guard against relapse. 


Depression and Recovery: Yes, they can co-exist

Feb 06, 2013



Depression isn't talked about enough in the 12-Step rooms of recovery. And yet, it is so often part of long-term recovery, and critical to the process of understanding “what comes next.”


In fairy tales, heroines often go through tests and trials. So do people in recovery. One of these tests may be an episode of depression.


In the rooms, one reason we don't talk about depression is so as not to scare the newcomer. Plus, there's still some shame and stigma surrounding depression and other forms of mental illness.


I think it's important that those of us with long-term recovery become part of busting that shame and stigma. It's too easy to fall into the tendency to describe recovery as an upward and forward moving trajectory: I was worse; then better; then even better; and then best.


Alas, The Good Life.


With this thought process in tact, how could a person in long-term recovery not wonder how, after many years of recovery, she could one day start to feel really badly. People newer to recovery might see this and criticize her program: “She’s not going to enough meetings.”; “She needs

to work the steps the right way.” Anyone can find reasons to cluck about what someone else “needs to do” to feel better.


And yet, clinical depression isn't always related to the quality of the program we're working. It may be related to a life event: illness, death, grief, job loss. Or it may be a biologically based illness.


Thankfully, most people in recovery have learned how detrimental it can be to tell a person she's slipping if she uses prescribed medication. Anti-depressants save lives of people in recovery, not to mention of those who are not.


Somewhere between years five and 10, studies show that underlying ACOA issues come to the surface

with force, especially if any sexual abuse issues were swept under the rug. Whatever has not been talked about or dealt with will surface and, I have to believe, that is for the good.


When I went through a period of depression at year nine, one person told me it was “God or Grow”

time. Someone else called it, “Dig Deep or Die” time. There's some truth to this, too: The 10-year mark is about making another decision about faith, belief and sober life. By year 10, you know the program, have worked the steps, have reaped many rewards. Now what?


Depression? Well, it happens.


No, it’s not pretty and it’s not fun. But when depression surfaces, we cannot hesitate to get help of all kinds: medical, psychological, spiritual. And, we must dare to raise our hands and talk about it.


It won’t hurt a newcomer to know more about life in recovery. It won't hurt a newcomer to see that growth will just keeps happening.

What Comes Next….Saturday Night Widows

Jan 28, 2013

In long-term recovery we have a lot of gratitude for how far we have come and we are always thinking about “What Comes Next…”: What will come next in our relationships, in our careers, in our families. While we don’t often think that far ahead its true that what comes eventually is death and dying.

The old joke: “How do you get to be an old-timer? Answer: Don’t Drink and Don’t Die.” That’s true. Up to a point. People we love will die. That too is part of recovery.

Think about it. If we are going to stay in recovery a long time then we are agreed that we’ll experience everything that people do who live a long time: illness, injury, disability and death. I know, I know…but this does not have to be morbid.

I have just read a wonderful new book about this very human part of life: What can happen to us after our spouse or partner dies.

The book is called, “Saturday Night Widows.” Written by Becky Aikman who was widowed at 42 after her husband’s death from cancer, this book is startling in it’s positive approach to a subject many of us turn away from even in our recovery conversations. What is refreshing about Aikman’s approach is that she tried the traditional bereavement group after her husband’s death but it was a bust. Her “failure” in traditional grief work led her to do years of research and she discovered that a lot of what we have been taught about grieving is mostly wrong.

Aikman talked to grief experts who confirmed that the Kubler-Ross “Stages of Grief” were never actually stages of grief. They were, and are, stages of the dying process. Kubler-Ross worked with people who were dying but over time we told and retold those famous “stages” as grieving gospel. Not true. No stages. More like waves that diminish over time.

Another myth that Aikman debunks: You don’t have to talk, talk talk. In fact the over-telling of grief may be re-traumatizing. Turns out that new experiences and happy experiences are the real medicine for grief. This, I think, is a great reinforcement of our process in recovery groups.

“Saturday Night Widows” is also a very inspiring story of the women Aikman gathered and how they cooked, shopped, traveled, cried and laughed their way to healing.

This is the book for people in recovery who have had a death in their family. It is a perfect book for a woman in recovery who has lost a partner. The book is about widows but it fits men too and maybe siblings as well. Aikman offers hope that while we may fear death we can be, and we will be, just fine later.

Vanity—It’s Progress Not Perfection

Jan 22, 2013

There’s a story we tell in my family about my niece, Sharon. When Sharon was a toddler, maybe three or four years old, her parents brought her home to Pittsburgh for a visit. One of the attractions in our neighborhood was the Pittsburgh Aviary, a beautiful glass pavilion filled with exotic birds.

That Saturday morning we took Sharon to see the birds. The adults spent most of their time visiting and talking while the kids wandered through the rooms of tropical plants. I was supposed to be watching Sharon but I got waylaid, and when I looked up she was gone.

I ran to look for her, hurrying through rooms of peacocks and cockatoos, and finally, I saw her in a room just ahead. I stopped to watch her. Sharon was standing in front of a birdcage. It was the Aviary’s talking parrot. He was no big deal; he only knew how to say one line. He kept repeating, “You’re so pretty.”

And there in front of the parrot was Sharon, standing with her little hands folded demurely in front of her, chin dropped coquettishly to one side, her eyes lowered, and she was saying over and over, “Oh, thank you. Oh, thank you.” thought about Sharon’s story recently when I went to a fancy beauty salon for a make-up lesson. Trish, the make-up artist had been recommended by a friend. I spent the morning swathed in pink, listening intently as Trish spent almost two hours going through all the tiny pots and tubes on her counter. Trish recommended a lip mask, special scrub beads, facial vitamins and a four-part nighttime procedure. One hundred and sixty dollars later I had a made-over face, a pink tote bag of new make-up and some tricks to try at home.

Over the years I’ve had makeovers in department stores and at-home skincare parties with friends. Once I even signed on for the Erno Lazlo line. I actually became a member. Lazlo won’t just sell you their special black soap unless you take an oath – and pay $175.

I’ve even had my colors done. That cost $125. I was draped in silver and gold lame while bright lights were shined in my eyes. After much meditation, Suzanne, the “color consultant” declared, “Yes, you are definitely a spring.”

I emerged from her studio with a swatch book for my “spring” diagnosis. I had fabric samples in the muted tones that a “spring” like me should wear. That day I went to an outlet and bought $200 worth of cotton turtlenecks and spent $100 on scarves in my new colors. I was getting smarter. I wasn’t going to buy a whole new wardrobe so I got these things to make my old clothes “right.” A one-day total of $375 for “spring” training.

After she had finished my makeover, Trish, and all of her coworkers—and even the lady who took my check—said, “You look so pretty.” I simply said, “Oh, thank you.”

Telling Our Stories Heals Us

Jan 17, 2013

For several years I have been working on a book about Military Mental Illness—that fat collection of diagnoses, which includes “Battle Fatigue,” and “War Trauma,” “Railroad Spine” in years long past and known in our era as, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

ShayOne of the books that I return to over and over is Jonathan Shay’s book, “Achilles in Vietnam.” Shay is a psychiatrist who treats and writes about Vietnam era veterans, and he is a compelling analyst of how PTSD is created and how it can be treated. He writes beautifully about the importance of narrative as the key to healing.

As soon as I read his work on the importance of narrative for veterans I knew that he was absolutely right. The story must be told—over and over, and it must be heard by engaged and compassionate listeners. Those two ingredients enable healing.

In AA we tell our stories over and over and over. We joke about that sometimes and imagine that, at least in our home groups, people have heard our story before and must surely be bored. But that is actually very rare. It might seem like our story doesn’t change—for the most part the details are the details—but if you have been around for a while you realize that your story --and other people’s stories—actually do change. That’s the reason we can stand to keep hearing them over and over.

If you think about AA member stories you realize that what was told as tragedy in early recovery can over time gradually become a comedy. And what was told as comedy (those funny stories about what I did or what someone did to me) can slowly, over time, be revealed as tragedies. We have insight, we grow, and we start to understand who we were, and who we are, and what happened to us.  It might even be fair to say that we can even gauge the quality of one’s recovery by how their story does or does not change.

Working the Twelve Steps help us shape our stories. As we work through steps one to seven, we learn about ourselves, our motives, our underlying characteristics, and as we proceed through steps eight to twelve, we are stretched and tugged and persuaded and surrendered to even further growth.

By this work our narrative develops, and in this way we are healed by our stories.

Move a Muscle, Change a Thought

Jan 09, 2013

What happens to our bodies in recovery?

We know a lot about the brain and addiction. All those PET scans that show an addicts brain on drugs. Not very different than the public service announcements years ago meant to scare us away from drugs: “This is your brain on drugs” and the visual of a fried egg, scrambled in the frying pan.

We know that detox is about the brain and the body. And we get calmer as years of recovery tick by. Part of the effect is making better choices; putting ourselves in better situations and not around people that we want to fight with; we are sleeping and eating and exercising. And our brains get better.

But what else?

Bessel van der KolkThis week, I’ve been at a workshop with Bessel van der Kolk—director of The Trauma Center in Boston and considered by many to be the world’s top expert on trauma and PTSD. He talked about what happens to soldiers and veterans, of course, and also what happens to people that experience terrible sexual traumas and who are in horrific accidents. Those folks come to him for help.

He also spoke on the relationship between trauma and addiction. We’ve known about that intuitively, of course, and some recovery literature touches on that linkage. In ACOA work we talk about trauma, and we process those memories with lots of talking and sharing. But van der Kolk explained that we need to change the body to really change the brain.

“Calm the body to calm the brain.”

That helped me to understand why I can’t always talk myself out of my feelings, and why it’s frustrating and ineffectual when someone says, “You don’t need to feel that way” if we are mad or sad or scared. We can’t get at thoughts with other thoughts—we need to go through the body.

What trauma experts like Bessel van der Kolk recommend are breathing, yoga, walking, stretching, dancing (not any formal kind just moving around to some music)—movement. Now it’s been studied and documented: Changing the body can change the brain.

Read Natural High: The Healing Power of Yoga here.

Doesn’t that make you smile? It’s one of AA’s oldest slogans: Move a Muscle Change a Thought.

Searching for peace in my handbag

Jan 03, 2013

I have a favorite handbag that I’ve carried for years. It is perfect. It holds my files, journal, two kinds of pens, note cards, makeup and money. I love this bag. It cost less than $100. But when I went to the mall to Christmas shop I fondled designer bags. I pet the suede calfskin and dyed canvas trimmed with leather. One of these bags costs as much as a car payment. But I want one. It’s lust.

Thomas MertonThen at home I look at the books piled on my coffee table, bedside table and desk. Books about personal growth and making a better life and having a spiritual connection and at the top of the pile: Thomas Merton—monk, philosopher, writer. He had some things I want too: a life of contemplation, simplicity and, oh yes, renunciation.

How do I reconcile these competing and conflicting desires? What is a human to do?  Some of us are dashing around the mall wearing our name off our credit cards and others smugly announce they’re “making do with less” this year. I want both, always both.

Consumerism is based on the belief that problems have material solutions. We do it with bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger jobs. But we also do it by consuming more spirituality, trying more spiritual practices or teachers or even religion as “products” to fix our lives. 

Count me in: yoga mat, meditation pillow, charms, chimes, statues, wall hangings, a necklace—gold and expensive—to announce my belief in God; even recovery jewelry. I buy more things to proclaim my belief in simplicity.

Yes, we all use consumption to create our identity. But it’s equally flawed to create a self-image based on refusing to participate in the dominant culture or by disdaining those who do. The fundamental error is the same: whether we derive our identity from consuming or from not consuming we’re still focused on self. Spiritual wanting is still wanting.

How perfect that it’s a bag I’m craving now. I can look in my handbag—literally a sack to carry my identity—to see who I am. It holds my driver’s license, medical cards, reward cards for the stores I shop—my cell phone address book displays the details of who and what matters. But I still think the outside of this bag—calfskin would be nice—will change the inner me.

This post-holiday week we live at the intersection of spirituality and consumption. Could we choose peace in our hearts and at the mall? I am searching for Thomas Merton in my handbag and hoping for peace in my very human heart. 

In defense of late shoppers

Dec 20, 2012

This week, I’ll start my Christmas shopping. For a long time I was ashamed to admit that I begin with only a few days to go, but the truth is this is my favorite part of the holidays.

In defense of late shoppersNo, I did not procrastinate. I know the advice about how to make Christmas shopping easier. But there are some things that don’t get better just by being easier. I’ve read all the “How to Get Organized” books, but I’ve also lived through enough tragedy to know that trying organizing one’s life is an illusion. Recovery means giving up some control. And Christmas is one area I surrender. There are some very good reasons to go to the stores now.      

Those of us who begin our shopping this week get to enjoy the real spirit of Christmas. We get to watch humanity test itself and see kindness and patience and grace enacted—or honored in the breach—in toy stores and next to the stack of 30-percent off cashmere sweaters. We also know that the worst characters to run into at the mall now are the, “I was done in August” people who just learned they need one more thing and have to come out and shop with the rest of us. They are usually the ones cutting in line and sighing heavily and wanting others to share their misery.

Those of us who shop now are engaging in a holiday ritual that is much closer to the original: It’s cold out, traffic is as slow as a lane of donkeys, and we get to watch the young family with a triple stroller searching the mall for a changing area. It makes you want to drop to your knees and pray. Yes, shopping in July could make Christmas nice and tidy, but real life is anything but that. Consider the story of the Holy Family: There was no advance planning; Mary was days away from delivery when they went on a road trip, and she had to give birth in a barn. Not exactly tidy, neat or under control.  The crux of that first Christmas is that sometimes in the midst of mess and confusion and fear, angels show up and miracles happen.

Read Diane Cameron's piece "The season of intersecting spirituality and consumption"

But in order to experience that you have to be willing to join the fray and put yourself where humans happen to be. Relationships with people are like casinos: You must be present to win.

So, this week I will be where humanity is. I’m heading out to the mall, bundled up, grinning and bracing myself for encounters with my fellow man. I’ll be trekking in from the far outer loop of the parking lot, looking for a few gifts and the real spirit of Christmas.

The season of intersecting spirituality and consumption

Dec 13, 2012

We’re in the season of gift-giving holidays — Hanukah now, and Christmas soon. Some of us are at the mall; some are glued to the Internet and others are smugly announcing that they’re, “Just not into the gift thing” this year.

It’s begun to seem that there is an anti-chic sentiment in some circles, making it cool to bemoan the consumerism that has overtaken this holiday.

Materialism and Spirituality. Can we have both?While I have certainly bashed the rise of the consumer culture, I’m now wondering if it’s also possible for some people to enjoy austerity a tad too much? Yes, I am guilty of laughing at the “Jungle Bell Rock Santa” dolls and of rolling my eyes at holiday décor that has too many plastic figurines. But I’m rethinking.

I mean, where’s the fun in all white lights and no tinsel?

I know that simplifying our lives is a good thing but I also have to wonder about those who are so disdainful of shoppers, especially when non-shoppers cast their choice as spiritually superior. Yes it’s easy — especially when we can use recovery as a rationale to call shoppers’ superficial — but isn’t it possible that spiritual asceticism is just as shallow? 

Consumerism is based on the belief that all problems have a material solution. We see this in the quest for a bigger house, better car or newest technology. But for some people, spiritual practices can be used the same way — another “product” to fix one’s life. We know this in recovery. We have to be wary that recovery is not just another way to feel superior.

We know this as spiritual consumerism — when we keep the value of consumption but dress it up in higher-minded garb. One of the ways that this form of consumerism manifests is in collecting spiritual experiences: going on retreats, pilgrimages or studying with the best-selling teachers or the coolest guru.

We all do this spiritual superiority thing to some degree. Me too. But it’s equally flawed to create a self-image based on refusing to participate in the dominant culture. The fundamental error is the same: It’s about trying to be special. Whether we derive our identity from consuming or from not consuming, we’re still focused on our self. 

It’s kind of like humility: Just when you think you’ve got it, you don’t.

We’re entering a season that takes us straight to the intersection of spirituality and consumption. Can we be kind to our fellows whether they’re shopping or not? Can we choose peace in our hearts and at the mall? 

The best strategy may be humor.

We’ve just got to laugh a lot, and especially at ourselves. The Jingle Bell Santa can be our guru. After all, his mantra is, “Ho Ho Ho.”


Step Three is affirmative action

Dec 07, 2012

Take a Leap of FaithFor a really long time I had this idea of Step Three being an inner action, something interior, a moment when we surrender internally—maybe from a holy instance or maybe from hitting a wall of some kind. Sort of a loud "Uncle!" moment. I have had those moments and those surrenders. But this week, reading the Twelve & Twelve book, I see that it says, "It is only by action that we can cut away the self-will which has always blocked the entry of God into our lives."

Now, I have read this book many times. I still have my first copy and it is underlined, dog-eared and scribbled in—I bet there are tears soaked into those pages. But I had never grasped this part about Step Three being action. I’d always questioned: "How?" How do I take the Third Step?

But on Page 34 it says, "Like all the remaining steps, Step Three calls for affirmative action." It just goes to show how language and the meaning of terms can change over the years.

So what is the action? The next nine steps have us writing, calling, meeting, making lists, setting up chairs, going to meetings, confessing, sharing, praying, meditating, and lending a hand in many big and small ways. So what is the action of Step Three? We can't just think, or even feel our way through it; we have to act, and affirmatively.

What some of the actions might be, I think, are changes to daily behaviors. Things like not fighting everything and everyone; allowing others to be right; accepting situations and decisions that we don’t like; acting like a person with long recovery even when we don’t feel like one.

Yes, in Step Three we surrender. We take a leap of faith. Something that has helped me grasp what that leap of faith means is a scene from a movie that I love. I like to watch the Harrison Ford movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. Near the end of the movie, Harrison Ford, as Indiana Jones, has to leap across a too-wide void in search of the grail. As he stands on the edge of the great crevasse he looks down and he says, “Oh shit” before he steps into what he believes is pure emptiness. And then—then—the bridge appears.

Step Three is always inspiring and uplifting after the bridge appears. But it is also an  “Oh shit” moment when we decide to take the first action.

Step Three for the sober fashionistas

Nov 28, 2012

OK, as we all know Step Three says: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” And all of us who have been around a bit know that even though this says “made a decision” it really is a process of many decisions made over a period of time.

In early recovery we may have a ceremony or make a formal ritual and we “take” Step Three with our sponsor. That is a brave act of considerable intimacy. Later, often when life is hard, we take it again. Spiritual maturity teaches us that sooner or later we’re gonna turn it over so why not sooner rather than later. I like to say that instead of waiting to hit the wall, I like to take Step Three when I see the wall coming.

It’s a process and our spiritual growth deepens with each layer—each area of our lives that we eventually surrender. I have taken a Third Step on relationships, money, work, jobs and even cars. I learned this great phrase form a spiritual teacher: “Give yourself to God. Surrender your whole being to be used for His righteous purposes.”

Note: It says your whole being.

Looking good and feeling goodThis year I had a revelation about a new layer of surrender in front of me: What I look like.

I have always cared about my appearance. Clothes, face and hair. Superficial? Not very spiritual? Maybe, but in early recovery when I was becoming very spiritual and perfect— when I had taken that first ceremonial Third Step— I decided that I was too spiritual for hair color, make up and such superficial things.

Luckily, I had a sponsor who was tall stylish and very sober. She said, “God does not want you to wear sackcloth and ashes. God loves you; now go get some highlights back in your hair.” Turns out I was just using the “I’m too spiritual for makeup” as another way to impress and people please and try to convince God to like me.

My sponsor said, “Cut that out, this is about attraction rather than promotion. Do you want new women to think they have to look awful?”

But flash-forward 25 years and I am daily surrendering work and my artwork and my marriage and money and most aspects of my life. But also on most days I am agonizing over my hair. I still can’t find that gamine cut that leave me looking pretty and smart all at the same time, kind of like Susan Sontag in a bikini.

Check out Diane Cameron's piece, "Looking my best in recovery"

So it hit me: I have turned over everything else so why not how I look? Does that seem weird? I thought so, too. But it was just a wild enough idea and worth a try. So I’m doing it. Like most other surrenders there are two parts: God’s and mine. Like getting a new job, I have to ask for God’s will but then also rewrite the resume. In this case I have to do a modest amount of self-care and then let go of the rest.

The perfect Thanksgiving only exists on TV

Nov 21, 2012

Many of us are preparing for Thanksgiving. There is a lot of shopping and cooking but there are also emotional preparations to be undertaken. You may be torn between the happy anticipation of a good meal and seeing family, but also the dread of family feuds that leave you wishing to hide in a corner.

ThanksgivingAlong with the usual “issues” that each family faces around the turkey table—in-laws, sibling rivalries, and adolescents with attitude—we can stir in some raw feelings about national politics and a debate on the economy. That is Thanksgiving in the REAL America and nobody’s very happy.

So many of us want it to be the other Thanksgiving, the one we imagine that other families have, but which really only happens in made-for-TV movies. We think that Thanksgiving’s just not what it used to be. But then again, it never was.

It seems that we can’t shake our romantic idea about that first one with the grateful Pilgrims and the wise Indians, but it’s safe to say that most of us wouldn’t have been comfortable at their dinner either. Those Pilgrims, with their cute buckled shoes, weren’t innocent refugees from persecution. Rather they were religious zealots and not very tolerant.

We still have a bit of emotional resonance from those ancestors. Their vibe is still with us on Thanksgiving. So be prepared.

Part of the problem is that religion permeates this day directly or indirectly; someone or something is being thanked for the good in our lives, but there are political tripwires from the stuffing all the way through to dessert. Most of us will be sharing a meal with folks who not only mix their potatoes with their peas, but who mix politics with their religion:  Every current event, everything in the headlines—war, terrorism, same-sex marriage, the war and the Middle East—touches religion in some way. And that intersection of religion and current affairs will cut right through the dining room table on Thursday. 

Even saying grace is tricky. When the blessing includes a prayer for peace someone at the table will be listening for what kind of peace? Do you mean get-out-of-the war kind of peace or the bomb them into submission kind?

On Thursday we may be humming, “We gather together …” but in our heart of hearts we want to insist that OUR team should win, that OUR recipe for stuffing is the best, and that OUR candidate was right.

So if you find yourself dreading the doorbell, or if Uncle Harvey mentions the president when he says grace, you may want to retreat to the kid’s table or sit in the den to watch the game. But instead, give thanks that this holiday comes only once a year, and remember, it’s all in the spirit of the day.

Image courtesy of Thinkstock

The selfish side of sponsorship

Nov 14, 2012

SponsorshipWhen I was new in recovery, I heard this advice: “Find someone who has what you want and ask them to be your sponsor.” I laugh when I think of the ways that we give advice to newcomers. How would I know what someone had? So, the first woman I picked as a sponsor was tall, blonde, had a degree from Harvard and was a published author: I thought she had all the things I wanted.  God laughed though, because she also had a great program of recovery and she had grit! She took me to meetings and grocery shopping, came to my house and invited me to hers, and she took my phone calls at night on her vacation and while nursing her new baby. And most importantly, she made me read, write and work the steps.

Over the years I’ve had a number of sponsors. Each one the perfect teacher, and right guide for that stage of my recovery.

This week I had dinner with my current sponsor and I realized again, that this one is the perfect person for this stage of my recovery. We share long years in AA and Al-Anon, and she also has experience in building a creative business while working an engrossing day job. She’s an artist, wife, and stepmother, so I have a recovering woman who “gets” all of my issues and struggles.  

As I feel the gratitude for my sponsor, I am also grateful for the women that I sponsor. There are times that being a sponsor is a gift and it can even feel like a selfish bonus to my own recovery. Even though sometimes I have to make myself schedule the coffee dates, I am always, always the the beneficiary. I listen, I ask questions and then I hear another woman describing some feeling, situation or struggle in her life that I had—or have—in mine. When I offer a sponsee a suggestion for her situation I often realize that what I have told her is exactly what I need to try as well.

This week after working on Step Three with a younger woman, I looked at the notes I had made for her. I had suggested several things to read in recovery literature and I gave her a list of questions to answer to help her get clarity on her higher power and what surrender might mean for her. I looked at the list on my desk and I thought, “I should do this, too.”

Being a sponsor gets really interesting when I do the same homework that I suggest for another person. Am I calling my sponsor? Doing my meditation practice? Making my gratitude list? Taking my own advice?

We talk about the “gifts of sponsorship” and often mean receiving the generosity of a sponsor, but being the sponsor is a way that we can receive recovery’s gifts as well.

Image courtesy of

The many faces of service

Nov 07, 2012

In early recovery we learned that “Service is gratitude in action.” We were prodded to get a service job and we signed up to make coffee, set up chairs, collect the money or recruit speakers. Through these basic service tasks we met other recovering people and we became part of a group. we learn about other levels of Twelve Step service. Perhaps we become the intergroup representative for our home group, or we join the Alka-thon Committee to plan a holiday meeting marathon. If public speaking is our skill we might speak at a regional conference.

Doing these tasks and being in service roles in our Twelve Step community has benefits beyond the rooms. All those years of organizing meetings and marathons and conferences can make it easier to say “yes” when the PTA asks for our help. Our human relations skills, honed by dealing with so many different kinds of people in our recovery program, allow us to rise as leaders in our community. Years of speaking at the recovery podium makes it less scary to step up to the podium at a town meeting or at the business group or in our church. And taking responsibility for a home group’s finances or leadership prepares us to also accept a leadership role in the Rotary, Women’s Business Club or Chamber of Commerce.

It’s still gratitude and it’s still giving back. 

Some of us with long recovery still bake anniversary cakes and chair meetings for our home group while others have taken the slogan: “Service is gratitude in action” and extended it into the broader community. The words and settings may be different, and we may not read the steps out loud, but when we teach adults to read or mentor teens, or coach an adult with a learning disability to compete in the Special Olympics that is still service and gratitude.

Of course, it’s tricky. We want to be careful that our egos are not running the show—the recovery show or the community show.

As our recovery continues, and we get outside ourselves, we are able to recognize needs in the wider world where we can be of service. The combination of sobriety or abstinence, plus a comfort level with leadership can make us valuable members of our home groups and in the greater community as well.

Days of the Dead

Oct 31, 2012

This week on Nov. 1 and 2, I will celebrate El Dias de los Muertos, or The Days of the Dead. That’s not a holiday I grew up with but one I’ve borrowed from the Southwest— one that has become a favorite holiday because it’s a good spiritual counterpart to Halloween. Being scared of goblins and ghoulies lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. The dead just aren’t scary in the same way anymore. In fact, I’d welcome a visit from some of them.

Day of the DeadThat’s what Day of the Dead is about. There is a belief that on this day the veil separating this world and the next is thinner and so it’s a time we can be closer to those whom we love that are dead.

A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether Purim or Advent, hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us sort out our memories. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived. This kind of memory ritual isn’t a very American idea. Culturally, our preferences are for efficiency; even with grief we use words like closure and process.

Day of the Dead celebrations center on rituals for remembering our loved ones. We can visit them in our imagination or say a prayer or write a letter or look at old photos. The tradition that I use includes making an ofrenda, or altar; it’s as simple as putting photos and candles on the coffee table, and taking time to remember. We also have chocolate as a symbol of the sweet and bitter separation from loved ones.

I remember my frustration when I was grieving and well-intentioned friends would suggest I move along in my process. They quoted Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and the simplified version of her theory of stages: Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression, and Acceptance.  But it’s false to create an expectation of five discrete steps. It implies that a person can move from point A to point B and be done. That makes grief seem like an emotional Monopoly game where you go around the board, collect points and get to a distinct end.

I always thought that “losing a loved one” was a euphemism used by people who were afraid to say the word dead. But after losing my brother Larry, I know that lost is the perfect word to describe the feeling that follows a death.  

Though he died several years ago my feeling about my brother is that I have misplaced him; It’s that sensation of knowing that my book or that letter I was just reading, are around here somewhere … if I could just remember where I left him. 

So, tonight I’ll make cocoa and light candles; we’ll look at pictures and tell stories and we’ll laugh.

The root of the word grieve is heavy. We carry our dead as a cherished burden. Death ends a life but not a relationship. Who would want to close the door on that?

Running yellow lights

Oct 24, 2012

Last week I heard this great line: “Running yellow lights is not accepting life on life’s terms.” It’s so perfectly true—and it’s funny. got me thinking about all the ways that Twelve Step recovery is trying, trying, trying to teach us how to live life as it is—and on its terms—to limit our own pain, and the pain that we inflict on others.

Think about our sayings and slogans: “One day at a time,” “Be here now” and “Look down at your feet and stay where they are.”

I think about all the discomfort that I struggle with, and how much it’s because I want to be somewhere other than here so often. Yesterday, I had to walk several blocks from my office to another business and I realized that the whole time I was walking that I wanted to be a block ahead of where I was. Even though it was a beautiful day I wanted to be there rather than here. And, of course as soon as I got there, I wanted the next there not the here. It got my attention and I realized it’s a constant state of mind.

But it’s not just when I am walking. When I stop at an intersection I want to be on the other side of it, not on this side. When I read a book I want to know what happens instead of enjoying how the writer is leading me now. When I am listening to a CD I want to be on the next track or the next disc—not this one. No matter the form or place or idea, I want to be there. But when I get there I’m not really there at all; I’m still longing for the next there.

I do this with things too. I can long for a pair of new boots or handbag or coat, but shockingly soon after I get it, I’m thinking about some other thing that I imagine I’ll like. That thing will be the next right thing. I think it’s just another way of trying to get there instead of fully experiencing and being here.

As active addicts, we saw all of our grasping and craving and clinging, and now in recovery we have softened our behavior and changed our medium. But still. When I drive through an intersection and think, “Here I go,” or when I want to be over there and not here, or when I want another bag, or coat or shoes I’m not living life on life’s terms. Maybe, just maybe, I could let that next yellow light be my clear signal.

Image courtesy of CMSeter/

Step Seven is a retirement party

Oct 17, 2012

In the Seventh Step prayer, we humbly ask God to remove the defects of character that “stand in the way of my usefulness to you (God) and my fellows.”

That was something I always wanted. But it took me a long time to understand that there is a world of difference from asking God to remove the defects that limit my usefulness to others versus the ones that that I don’t like or the defects that effect how others think of me. I wanted Step Seven to be a kind of self-improvement process or like getting a makeover. What I have come to realize is that this is a place where that humility kicks in: I don’t necessarily get to choose the defects that will be removed. My Higher Power does. I don’t get to use the Seventh Step in a self-serving way, “Now I’ll get so good that everyone will like me.” Dang!

So, how to approach this step in a loving, and not self-bashing way?

Here’s a bit of Step Seven wisdom I got from an early sponsor with help from a very early therapist: We do not kill our character defects! My first therapist in recovery pointed out to me that my “character defects” were all things that saved my life growing up. Being a “high screener”— super vigilant — was a life saving skill in an alcoholic home. And being super organized (controlling) gave me a sense of safety and security as a kid. Being hyperaware of other people’s feelings and anticipating them made a chaotic world more manageable. Telling lies, stuffing feelings, being seductive or bossy or too compliant were all part of my survival.

And so my defects were once important assets.

Until they weren’t.

My sponsor pointed out that it didn’t make sense to hate these parts of me because they were, in fact, part of me and that I didn’t want — in recovery — to hate myself.

Instead, I could retire my character defects.

I love the idea of retirement. If we think of our character defects as workers whose skills no longer fit our company’s goals, then retirement is honorable and appropriate. Just as in a business we can say, “Hey, we are doing new things now and doing things a new way” but we honor the “retirees” for all they gave to our enterprise. Rather than shove the character defects out the door or pray that God destroys them, we could have a retirement party for our character defects.

Imagine that. We could list each defect and thank them for their contribution, and thanking them for their help in our early lives. There could be laughter and stories just like a real retirement party. And then we can walk them to the door, take their keys and parking pass and shake their hand.

 But we don’t have to kill retirees.

Here’s the thing to remember: Just like at our workplace, sometimes retirees come back to visit — and sometimes they visit at inopportune times — which can be frustrating. But we don’t kill them. We may say, “Hey, I remember you; remember how we used to work together?” And then, ever so gently, we might say,  “But you don’t work here anymore.” And we walk them to the door and say, “Thanks.”

Image courtesy of lraine/

Recovery is like doing emotional Pilates

Oct 10, 2012

A friend emails me and says, “I want new insides.” I laugh and say, “Me too.” We are both having one of those days where you just want relief from yourself, and from the voices of fear. After all this time I can still get blindsided by fear and unnerved by the nagging voices of doubt inside of me.

I decide to talk to this angel of fear who nags me. I think of this inner fear voice as an angel because I know that at some level, this is a part of me that wants to protect me, so she is always worrying and warning me, always sure that something bad is going to happen. So as I talk to the fear, I pray.  I begin to get some relief but the sensation I have is that my emotional muscles could be stronger. occurs to me that I need to do some emotional Pilates. I have to strengthen my core — my core beliefs.  My old habit is to succumb to the fear, not having enough strength to stand up to it.  It’s like my old habit of slouching at my desk — it’s comfortable but I‘ve learned in physical therapy that over time those “comfortable” habits are quite damaging to my spine.

I have been doing Pilates for several years. My posture is better and my back doesn’t hurt anymore. So why go back to Pilates? We wouldn't ask that question. My Twelve Step recovery is a lot like my Pilates.

This week in a Pilates class I found a new muscle. Apparently I’ve always had these really deep lower abs but I wasn't using them — other muscles were overriding them and doing all the work. But all of a sudden in one exercise I felt something way deep down and it was a muscle group I hadn't been able to isolate before. It was really hard to use them, and I was sore afterward, but it feels so good.

In the same way I can continue to identify my character defects, my fears, and those nagging  “you are not good enough” thoughts. And by sitting still and focusing I can isolate them and I can isolate my strengths and gifts. They are also way, way down there. Yes, it can ache to identify and isolate them too. But each time I do that and use those subtle emotional muscles, I can sense a bit more strength and I stand up taller and I am growing stronger.

Image courtesy of stockimages/

Work is also ‘In Our Affairs’

Oct 03, 2012 recovery we talk about “practicing these principles in all of our affairs.” And we try. We really do. And after many years of recovery we do learn that recovery matters most outside of meetings. We recognize that we most often come up short with the people we love. But this week the idea of practicing the principles of recovery — at work — has come up over and over.

The organization I work for has been so busy, and I have not been “practicing” very well. I felt fussy, cranky, judgmental and afraid. Then three friends called me this week with their own stories of behavior they were struggling with at work. And yes — the good part of a long recovery is that while we still struggle with other people in our workplaces we mostly struggle with our own behaviors. We know how we want to be; and more and more we become aware of how we really are.

That is humbling.

So, I started to think about where I get guidance to practice these principles (the Twelve Steps and recovery principles) in my workplace affairs and it led me to this: The best advice I have gotten over the years about how to be a recovering woman at work. Because I am always a reader a lot of that guidance has come to me from books.

So here is my list of suggested reading for practicing the principles at work:

  • Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A. World Services, Inc — yeah, the basic instructions.
  • When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron — I listen to her over and over and over.
  • Leadership is an Art, Max DePree — simply brilliant on how leaders think.
  • Seeds of Grace, Sister Molly Monahan — very revealing about AA’s and people politics.
  • Paths to Recovery: Al-Anon Steps & Concepts — even better basic instructions
  • Beautiful Swimmers, William W. Warner — a beautiful picture of people working hard.
  • An Autobiography, Anthony Trollope — the man knew how to write and how to supervise.
  • New and Selected Poems, Mary Oliver — breathe, slow down, it’s your life.
  • Getting Things Done, David Allen — half the battle is getting stuff done.
  • Drop the Rock, Bill Pittman — yeah, it comes down to this.
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Happiness is the new black

Sep 26, 2012

Happiness is making me miserable. No, I don’t want to wish away any good feelings, but this week I’m wondering if we are aiming too much good energy in the wrong direction?

In the past three months a dozen new books have been published which claim to help us get, keep or understand happiness. Happiness is hot. In the fashionable world of publishing, happiness is the new black.

And I read these books, I dig into them looking for tips, but this tsunami of happiness has left me feeling like I’ve eaten too much candy. I’m ready for the broccoli please—and some simple, plain good sense.

It does seem to be an American phenomenon to want happiness in this excessive way. And it’s not new; our Bill of Rights includes the “Pursuit of…” clause. Our dollar bill carries the motto, “annuit coeptis,” or “providence has favored our undertakings,” so we do have a kind of collective sense of entitlement.  But at this time when our country is in such rough shape with energy, environment and economy all teetering—is it really happiness we want, or something else? of the new happiness research looks at “affective prediction” which reveals that most people are not very good at predicting what would make them happy. That has to be especially true of people in recovery. I mean, look at our track record of making choices to make ourselves feel better. The studies show that, despite what we wish and hope for, we really don’t know what will please us in the long run. Yet, most of us insist on looking for that crucial something whether it’s a new car or job or relationship.

It turns out that we have emotional set points and that people pretty much feel the same degree of good or bad with only temporary ups and downs that come from things like winning the lottery or losing a loved one.  Happy people tend to rebound to being happy, and unhappy people return to, well, looking for something else that might make them happy.

If we reflect on the guidance of an older writer who was popular long ago we can get some clarity on our cravings. Aristotle maintained that happiness comes from the use of reason. That might sound dry, but he was onto something. If we stop to think through our desire for a nicer car, newer house or in my case, more shoes, we can see our patterns at play. A line from my daily meditation book often catches me in my own pursuit: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.”

Maybe we could just add some salad to our constant diet of happiness cake, and add a pinch of Aristotle: Happiness comes from the use of reason. We can use our minds; we can participate; we can make a difference. We can work and live and help our community. That should be enough to make anyone happy.

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The power of rituals

Sep 19, 2012

A ritual is a way of ordering life. And so people in recovery—where it takes a long time to return order to our lives—often create and value rituals. Rituals have power. Our faith communities teach us rituals to help us find faith and meaning in our lives. Almost all professional athletes have rituals—the order in which they dress, the things they do on game day, the special movements or gestures that precede their competition. Performers and artists have rituals. Dancers are governed by ritual. And after many years of recovery our rituals help us, too.  

Many of us have rituals for our prayer and meditation practices. I light a candle each morning at my little altar in my bedroom—that altar is also part of my ritual. The altar makes it clear to me—only me—that this is prayer time. I’m sure my higher power does not care about the location or the accessories but having the altar, small prayer rug and that candle help me to pay attention to what I’m doing.

For meditation I have a small brass chime that makes a soft sound. I use the chime to start my 10 minutes of meditation each day. It’s a reminder to my brain, “Oh, that’s what we’re doing now.” Recently I began to use the timer on my phone to alert me when my sitting time is over. It’s a ritual and a helper: I don’t have to keep peeking at my watch when I’m meditating.’d love to hear about your rituals in recovery. Do you write your gratitude list? Do you write your tenth step inventory at night? Or do you say it out loud in the car as one friend does? Do you email to your sponsor each day? For many years in Overeaters Anonymous I called my sponsor every morning to commit my food. That external monitoring helped me get clear about my food and making the call was a daily ritual of commitment—and humility. I have not gone to OA in years but I still write down my food every day. That is a ritual of self-honesty.

Do you have any rituals when you go to meetings? I know a woman who tried to always sit in the same chair, and another who always sits in the front row to make herself pay attention. Is something else your symbol of truly being present at a meeting?

Rituals also serve to reinforce habits—and recovery is really a series of positive, healthy habits. Having a ritual erases the question of “Should I or shouldn’t I?” The renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp talks about artistic rituals in her wonderful book, The Creative Habit. She writes, “Rituals are the mechanism by which we convert the chemistry of pessimism into optimism.”

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Who has what you want?

Sep 11, 2012 early recovery, I heard this advice over and over: “Look for someone who has what you want, and ask them how they got it.” That was, I was told, also how to pick a sponsor. It’s funny looking back. I mean how does a new newcomer know what someone has? Yes, you can hear a sense of humor or see who bathes regularly. But when I look around the rooms today it’s not always the shiny stars or fine talkers of AA who have what I want.

I’ve been thinking about this because this week I was trying to explain to a sponsee why she should do more step work. “I don’t drink and I don’t want to drink, and I’m really happy about that,” she told me. And I get that, but I tried to tell her that I want so much more than that from recovery, and from of my life.

I want so much more than abstinence from alcohol. And I even want so much more than no more “jackpots” or trouble. I want the whole enchilada that I believe is possible: peace, serenity and joy (not daily happiness, but real joy.) I also want great relationships: with my husband, friends and colleagues. And a great relationship with my Higher Power. And a great relationship with myself.

But here’s where it gets tricky. Some of that good, changed life comes with longevity—more time in recovery equals more exposure to new ideas, concepts and layer upon layer of the Steps—and willingness to look at layer upon layer of ourselves. But it’s not always a direct correlation with time in recovery. And not everyone in the rooms wants that kind of deep, continual life-changing recovery. I find that I still have to look around the rooms and ask myself, “Who has what I want?”

It’s possible to have 35 years of sobriety and be obese, angry, gambling, smoking, using some behavior or  “legal” substance and still be miserable. I see it and hear it. We share the rooms with folks who have been around a very long time and are unhappy at work and unhappy in their primary relationships. That’s not the recovery I want for myself.

I want deep change as much—or more—than I want long years. In a sense, that is where my deep joy comes from—knowing there is some character defect that two years ago I didn’t even know I had, that I then recognized in myself one year ago, and that I see gradually changing right now. I’m in awe of that process, and I can only want more.

But the pool gets smaller the further we go in recovery if we are committed to going all the way.

What do you think about this? If you have been around Twelve Step recovery for a while what kind of recovery are you working toward?

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How do I balance all that I want?

Sep 05, 2012

This week—the days after Labor Day— we are inclined toward a last hurrah before the new year begins. January may be the official start of a new calendar, but for most of us, September is the psychological start of the new year. With this though comes a carryover from our earlier back-to-school preparations bringing younger questions into our adult lives: Who do I want to be when I grow up? Should I work harder this year? Or try to enjoy myself more? and How do I balance all that I want? These questions have a special resonance for people in recovery.“Love and work,” Freud said, “are the twin capacities we must resolve to achieve maturity.”  Our life’s challenge is in his words, and there is contradiction at the heart of trying to sort that out.  With love, our task is to balance autonomy and intimacy: Can I join with another person and remain myself? Similarly, with work, we have to decide if it’s a delight or punishment. It’s a Biblical dilemma: When Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden his sentence was to labor all his days; that would suggest work as a bad thing, but in Proverbs is the beautiful line, “Labore Est Orare,” To work is to pray, signifying work as something holy.

This Labor Day week it’s fair to consider how we can love our work without sacrificing the rest of our life.

Some common advice from time management gurus tells us to look at our life as a pie that we should slice up giving each piece a separate place and weight and value. The good intention of this strategy is to protect our time and psyche. But, after years of trying that, I’ve come to disagree. Most of the stress so many of us feels results from splitting ourselves into these slices. What if, instead of carving up our lives, we could just be the whole pie?

Years ago, I heard this described more eloquently by the poet Mary Oliver. She advised us— graduate students who were worried about how to make time for our writing—that we should not compartmentalize our lives. Rather, she warned, “Your greatest loss of energy will come from trying to change from one sensibility to another,” and that, “The poet can make supper; the novel writer can drive through traffic, the writer of short stories can feed the baby and let the poet make the speech.” Maybe there is a parallel for our recovery as well? After all we know the admonition, “We practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Managing a busy, complicated life is the challenge of everyone I know. Most of us are working and caring for family members—young or old—and studying something and seeking some kind of spiritual life and having a good recovery life and trying to be an asset to the greater community as well. The tension arises when we try to balance it by holding those parts separate from each other—like those slices of pie.

Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Blessed is he who has found his work, let him ask no other blessedness.” My prayer for all of us is to claim lives filled with love and work as we celebrate this new year.

Practicing gratitude

Aug 29, 2012

When asked for topics in a Twelve Step meeting, the odds are good that someone will suggest gratitude as a discussion topic. Just by virtue of being in recovery we have plenty to be grateful for, and we know that having an attitude of gratitude makes everything we face so much easier. But how do we get that to stick? advice I have been told and that I tell others is to “practice gratitude.”

But did you ever stop to think about what that means. How – exactly — do we practice gratitude? I’ve been asking people how they actuallypractice gratitude, and I learned some great things.

First, and this seemed so obvious but gratitude is a habit. It’s a habit like exercising or smoking or not eating sugar or worrying.  Habits are repeated patterns of behavior or thought and they can be for good or ill. And we can learn or unlearn habits. I never thought of gratitude in quite that way. I just thought that gratitude was something that came over me occasionally, but wasn’t in my control.

Not the case.

So, how do you get a gratitude habit? It’s like the man in New York City who asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer: “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

Psychologists tell us that new habits require 21 days to form or to “take.” So we can do some kind of gratitude practice for 21 days to make the mind learn gratitude. Twenty-one days is a kind of magic number for new habit formation.

When I teach new writers I use this “21-day rule” to help people become regular writers. They do a mini-writing practice for 21 days, or write in their journals for 21 days. It’s the same with exercise or walking—commit to 21 days. One of my favorite stories comes from a fitness trainer who asks his clients to simply dress in their sneakers and exercise clothes every morning for 21 days. “Once they are dressed,” he says, “they mostly do some kind of exercise; we have created the habit of suiting up to exercise.”  I think that’s brilliant.

So, to give yourself a lasting attitude of gratitude you have to create a ritual—a habit and actually do a practice —for at 21 days. Here are some things you could try:

·        A daily gratitude list—you know this one. But do it in writing so that the hand and eye are involved. This makes the brain imbed the new habit faster. Decide on a number: Three items each day? Or five? Or 10? And stick to that number—in writing.

·        Set the timer on your watch to the same time each day. An odd number is good like 12:34 pm or 10:10 am. When the alarm rings you stop and quickly name three things you are grateful for.

·        Expand that idea to your phone. Teach yourself to have one grateful thought on the first ring of your phone, later let that grow to the first ring of any phone you hear.

·        At home: when you are shaving or removing make-up—begin by naming out loud one specific gratitude from this day.

·        When you throw something in the trash, tie that physical action to saying, “I am grateful for…” quietly to yourself.

·        What other simple habitual gestures can you link to naming a grateful thought? Taking out your keys? Starting the car? Taking your coffee mug from the cabinet?

The simpler, repetitive actions you can attach to specific things you are grateful for, the stronger your habit of grateful thinking will become.

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The best end-of-summer book

Aug 22, 2012

The end of summer count down has begun. We have maybe three weeks to push on to the finish line at Labor Day. The wish lists we made weeks ago now weigh on us: the outings, the trips, chores, projects and for many of us — the pile of books we promised to read this summer. books pile up on the coffee table and the bed stand, and the library list is dog-eared and scribbled. You too?

So, where to begin? You’d like a good novel, and maybe romance and some history, too. You’d like help with the relationship thing, and there’s also that stack of business management books you saved to read. And then there are all those recovery memoirs. What’s the story with women and men and addiction?

I have a suggestion. There is one book that you can read now that will give you everything. This is the book for the boat, the beach and the bed. There is one, beautifully written book that illustrates the insidious connection between women and men and appearance and addictions.

Hands-down, the single best, summer book for August is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. With Tolstoy’s tale you get everything: romance, history, a relationship how-to book and the best management advice you’ll ever read. You’ll see how tiny choices add up to good lives and how tiny choices also add up to disaster. You’ll see a woman, a complex, decent woman — like you or me — undone by a subtle combination of pride, fear, ego and restlessness. Don’t we know restlessness?

Don’t balk at the bulk. Yes, it’s a big book but every kid — and maybe you too — have just knocked off the three Hunger Games books. And by choosing Anna K. you only have to buy one book. Here’s why:

Anna K. is the best relationship book ever written. It has examples of how to make a marriage work and how to how to ruin one from the start. Worried about infidelity? This is the book that, well, wrote the book on that topic. Tolstoy shows how couples get into that terrain and how you can get back out. Robin Norwood’s famous, Women Who Love Too Much, doesn’t even come close to what Tolstoy writes about emotional dependency and the impact of addiction on a family.

As for new ideas about work: Tolstoy offers the most compelling and insightful analysis of how to motivate employees. Tom Peters has written half a dozen books trying to get at what Tolstoy packs into just a few scenes.

And addiction. It’s amazing how many years Anna Karenina has been dissected and most literary critics missed the fact that she is addicted — to drugs and alcohol, then her codependence. It’s all here. Tolstoy knew.

But, you may be thinking that fiction can’t help your real life. With all due respect, you’re wrong. Fiction gives us the assurance that the story that we love most — our own — is worthy.

What are you holding back?

Aug 15, 2012 all these years. After this many rounds of working the steps. After more than one sponsor, and more than one session of the “Bill & Charlie” tapes. After crisis, miracle, tragedy, miracle and learning to surrender before you hit the wall. After all of that, what part of your life are you still not surrendering?

I’m asking this because I saw myself not surrender this week. I’m sober more than 25 years with 30 years of combined Twelve Step recovery in all programs. I’ve had lots of sponsors and been to retreats, workshops, spiritual direction and worked the books till they are threadbare. Genuine miracles have occurred in my life directly connected to taking the Third Step and deeply surrendering.

But this week, in a casual conversation, my sponsor asked, “Do you think we could surrender our marriages?” And I felt the terror of a newcomer being told not to drink.

Yeah, I know. And yes, I say the words. Step Three every morning. And I mean it. Well, do I mean it? Really mean it? I think I do. But I knew when she asked that question that there was a part of me that thought, “Oh no, I don’t want to be a doormat and a 1950s obedient wife.”

Now, I get it that nowhere does it say that surrender means being a sap, but why then was that the first thought I delivered up to myself?

I had to remind myself of the many other surrenders that I celebrate in my recovery. The body and weight surrender: Almost 30 years ago I finally, after so much pain, got on my knees and said, “OK, I’ll take whatever body you give me just please remove my obsession with food.” In my heart I knew I’d probably gain 50 pounds overnight but I was ready to stop suffering. But the miracle: I stopped obsessing. I gained five pounds in two weeks, and then I lost 25 pounds, and I never gained another ounce. Today I weigh less than the weight I was fighting for in my worst food addiction.

Similarly with my work, I’d heard people surrender their careers and I wanted to do that. It was torture. I was sure, absolutely sure that if I surrendered my work that God would make me a missionary in some awful place. My sponsor had to point out that I wasn’t missionary material and was probably the last person God wanted to help out in Africa. Finally, I was so tired of fighting that I took the big career surrender. I got on my knees and said,  “Use me. Use my skills for your good.” And today? Today I’m a writer. My lifelong dream.

I’d always thought that surrender equaled some kind of humbling or humiliating punishment.

Clearly, I still have not shaken that thought. My fear this week about surrendering my marriage shows me that the crazy thinking is still at work. But—and here is the beauty of long recovery— I remembered those other surrenders, and I remembered how scared I was, and I remembered how those turned out.

So, I’m surrendering the marriage. I’m squinting while I do it. I’m braced for waking up in an apron and hair curlers and being overrun by stepchildren, but I am leaning on my own past, and on God, and I’m saying the words.

So, what is your area of hold back? What part of your life do you still need to really surrender?

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Moving — The Good Geographic Cure

Aug 08, 2012 early recovery we hear jokes about the “geographic cure”— the habit for some before recovery who think moving to a new city will give me a new life. And then, as the joke goes, “A week later I showed up.”

But there does come a time when the benefits of working a good program pay off in wonderful ways. We get a great job or we fall in love — and it means moving away from the town where we got sober. It happened to me and it was both wonderful and painful.

When I tell my story now, I let people know that moving from my home group in Baltimore was one of the hardest things I have done in recovery. Yes, I experienced divorce, and there were the deaths of loved ones but when those things happened in Baltimore I had the support of my home group.

But when I fell in love with a man from upstate New York I had two huge changes — a new relationship — but also the loss of the daily presence of a Twelve Step group who knew me well. I was challenged with making sober friends in a new recovery community. It wasn’t easy.

Here’s what I learned and what I’d do differently if I were moving to a new city today:

Recognize that you’ll be a newcomer again. There will be bumps and uncomfortable feelings just like in your first year in AA. It could even be a tad more uncomfortable because you have felt known and understood for a long time in your home group and home-city. No one in the new place knows your story or the jokes or your references. It used to be that you’d laugh and your old home group would laugh whenever you’d say, “and then I sold the car”… but these new people don’t laugh. They don’t know your joke — or you. And you don’t know them.

Also, if you move a long distance you may find that AA is done differently in the new place. The meetings are 90 minutes or 59 minutes and sponsees are called pigeons or babies and you have to be called on in meetings — raising your hand in frowned on — or vice versa. It’s very hard not to call your old sponsor and complain about how they do it all wrong.

You will need a local sponsor — don’t take too long. Again, like a beginner you have to go through the uncomfortable experience of asking a stranger to be your sponsor — and then actually calling them! It is too tempting to make long-distance calls.

That new sponsor will help you connect to meetings and that’s the primary goal. When we move in recovery it’s just too easy to drift away from meetings completely. What I wish I had done and what I suggest for next time is to commit to “90 in 90” and make new friends faster. Also, like in early recovery, volunteering to do service helps that to happen.

The paradox is that while pain drove us to meetings in early recovery we have less pain in later recovery so we don’t have that same urgent push to get connected.  But that’s the danger. A saying that I love and trust applies here:  People who don’t go to meetings don’t find out what happens to people who don’t go to meetings. We want to keep the good recovery that brought the good geographic change into our lives so we have to practice the humility of being an old-timer and a newcomer at the same time.

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Always Learning in Later Recovery

Aug 01, 2012

One of the wonderful parts of long recovery is that we begin to discover who we were (before addiction) and who we are (after recovery). After we have immersed ourselves in learning about addiction and personal growth we often find that there are new things we want to learn—or old things we once loved that we can now return to.

It’s very common to see people in recovery go back to school. Some finish high school; get a bachelors degree and even go on to graduate or professional school. Some folks try something new just to keep busy outside of meetings and they discover real joys.

Some discover they like music or dance and soon they are taking piano lessons or studying tango. I’ve watched friends become excellent photographers, serious ballroom dancers and award-winning painters, sculptors and jewelers. We move past saving our lives to having lives worth saving.

But how do we learn new things? Even with long recovery, sober people have “leftovers” – those character defects or characteristics that interfere. Just as we “practice these principles in all our affairs” we can bring our recovery lessons to our studies, classes and hobbies.

I’ve watched myself over the past few years and I’ve learned that I can apply recovery principles to my new interests.

A few years ago I noticed that many people in their 80s who had vibrant minds were regular Bridge players. I decided to learn to play Bridge. I talked to friends and they offered to show me the basics but I quickly became frustrated. The old messages in my head intruded: “I’m dumb” and “I can’t do this.” But years of recovery taught me that I could do a lot of hard things so I had to borrow a few recovery slogans and practices and apply them. I got a “sponsor”—a Bridge teacher—and I joined a “community,” a beginners Bridge class. I discovered that I can learn. It was slow and bumpy but we laughed a lot and made flashcards for practice and played for fun each week. And I learned to play Bridge.

Three years ago I decided to play golf. Being around golfers in AA, I knew I had to start by applying “principles before personalities”— especially my own personality. I made some decisions: I wanted to have fun; I’d be comfortable with gradual progress; and I’d be the judge of my own golf game.

Now, it’s my third season and I enjoy golf. When I start to swear I remind myself that I want to have fun and that I am competing only against myself. To my great surprise I discovered that I love to play alone. Early mornings on a pretty golf course is part of my prayer and meditation time.

Here are recovery principles that I’ve learned to apply to learning new things outside of AA:

One day at a time. This means one class, one hand or one hole at a time.

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That Sunday Night Feeling

Jul 25, 2012

If you are settling in to read some blogs on a Sunday afternoon it may have already begun. You have have felt its first symptoms, sensed the first wave of gloom spreading across your day. What is the cause of this odd feeling? Simply that it’s Sunday. call this the “Sunday Night Feeling.” It is a troubling feeling; not quite a real depression, but a kind of dismay or dread. It’s one of those discomforts that recovering people share with the rest of the population. It’s not just us who have this strange malaise and agitation on Sundays.

There is historic precedent for the melancholy of this day. In medieval times Sundays were holy days with no work but festivals, pageants, and public feasts made Sunday a joyous day. The Reformation knocked all the fun out of Sunday; there was still no work but holiness became a kind of labor. English settlers brought this Sunday custom to the colonies. In 1610 Virginia, all you could do on Sunday was go to church and study the catechism.

Of course we’ve lightened up over time but “Blue laws” – named for the blue paper on which Sunday edicts were written in New Hampshire, are not gone from our national consciousness. 

Part of the Sunday night feeling is regret. Once again the weekend did not live up to our hopes and expectations. The weekend we’d imagined never really comes. The frenzy of each week often feels like a roller-coaster ride. On Sunday night we are pulling out of the station; the cable engages to pull us into another week, chug-a-chug-a-chug. Monday morning we crest the hill and here comes the week’s wild ride: commuting, committees, decisions, difficult people, office politics and balancing home and work.

There are wild swings and sharp corners; no matter how many times you’ve been around this course that last whipping curve feels like a surprise each time. We fly through it and then it slows again … chug-a-chug-a-chug … you’re back to the station. It’s Friday and the attendant is saying, “Push the bar forward and exit to your left.” We are free.

Then suddenly it’s Sunday again and it feels way too soon to be back.

This is why Sunday night TV is so popular. We watch the big made-for-TV movies, the tear-jerkers and melodramas. We want distraction from what will come with the alarm we set so reluctantly tonight. It’s Monday we dread. And it’s not all in your head. Consider this: Almost half of all illnesses begin on Monday, and Monday is the busiest day in hospital emergency rooms. And most distressing, of all seven days of the week, Monday has the highest rate of suicide.

So, maybe instead of gearing up on Sunday nights we need to wind down. Maybe we could get up a little earlier and step outside to see the dawn or listen to music instead of the news. Maybe we can go more gently into this good week.

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Breaking through the Fear of Procrastination

Jul 18, 2012 learn early in recovery that fear is the root of our character defects. We also know—almost before we even read the Big Book—that fear was under our use of alcohol or drugs. We were afraid of people, social activities, responsibilities and maybe, sadly, of our own dreams.

So, facing and managing fear is a huge part of our recovery. It continues as long as we are recovering. What changes as we go further into a recovered life is that we recognize fears faster, we name them correctly and we have strategies that we use to manage it.

Fear has a lot of disguises. One of my fear defaults is procrastination. On a writing day I’ll find myself starting to clean drawers, sort clothes and write to old friends. I know now that this is my fear response. I’m afraid of the blank page but instead of calling it fear I had the habit of avoiding my desk and calling myself lazy. After years of facing this I finally learned: the fear doesn’t go away until I am well into the project so there is no benefit in waiting for the fear to leave; I just have to begin.

I see this at work, too. I have calls to make and people to talk to, but instead of starting I do paperwork or talk to a coworker. Finally I got it. It’s fear. So I’m learning to pick up the phone and dial and breathe. The fear goes away after I make the call not before.

But here’s the tricky part in long recovery: We have also learned to trust our gut. We have been trying to pay attention to our intuition and the “still small voice.” Often that still voice is our Higher Power trying to reach us. So, when discomfort about a task or an effort is present it takes some practiced discernment to know: Is this a sign to walk away and say no? Or is it just fear dressed up as some other thing? Not easy.

This is also why we have sponsors, Twelve Step friends and meditation. It’s why we need to make sitting still a habit. I haven’t done that yet, but I’m committing right here to habit making. When we do get really quiet and ask our HP to speak to us, we often get a subtle shift and can sense whether the discomfort is “no” or it’s just fear.

This week I read about taking baby steps when facing a challenge. Nothing new there; we’ve heard this before. Break your goal into manageable pieces. But what was new to me was learning that there is a neurological reason to take tiny steps toward a challenge. When we set a big goal, the flight or fight part of our brain is activated. Taking baby steps allows us to bypass the fear center of the brain—so it doesn’t react by scaring us into procrastination or into over-drive in the wrong areas. Isn’t that cool?

So sneak up on yourself. Try sitting still, and then take tiny baby steps to sneak past the fear.

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Maintaining Self-Care as a Caregiver

Jul 11, 2012

I’m writing at the kitchen table of a beach house on Cape Cod. We have enjoyed coming here each summer, but this visit will not have long beach walks or lobsters for lunch. We are here today because my mother-in-law is in the hospital — again. Each time her stay is longer, each time her breathing more labored and each time the doctor’s concern more pointed. We come to help, advise, persuade and finally to make the decisions for her. is another thing that comes with long sobriety. We stop being the one that others had to care for and we become the caregivers. We go from being the one that our family avoided in times of crisis to being the one who is available, capable and responsible.

But it’s not easy.

It’s an uncomfortable process to take over a parent’s life. First it was the car keys, then her checkbook, even the teakettle had to go, boiled dry one time too many.

There is comfort in numbers. The group of Americans caring for elderly parents is a growing crowd. Seven of us turn 50 every minute. And we are caring for aging family members who will live longer, with more needs. AARP reports that an estimated 22.5 million households – that’s one in four — provide care for someone over 60. Combine that with the news from the National Center for Health Statistics which reports that life expectancy has risen from 69 years in 1960 to 78 years in 1998.

We have met the elderly and they are us — and ours. The generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30 is now over 50 and caring for folks over 70. More and more of us who have long years in recovery are now family caregivers and we have to find ways to blend caring for others with our ongoing recovery and self-care.

The good habits of recovery can serve us in this situation. Before I left home, I got the AA meeting schedule for the Cape. Over the years of visiting here I always included meetings as part of my vacation. That has given me summer AA friends and a comfort level in meetings so I am not too shy or new and I can raise my hand and talk about what is going on.

As always there is laughter about even these difficult things. As folks in recovery we may have had more than one marriage so that brings more than one family who ultimately will need us to lend a hand.

But the habits of long recovery are our blessing and strength.

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In Sickness and in Poor Health

Jul 04, 2012

The old joke goes like this — Question:  “How do you get to be an old-timer? Answer: “You don’t drink and you don’t die.”

But we are human beings and the sad truth is that while we may not drink again, we will — in time — die. So in a sad but funny way, the farther we are from our last drink the closer we are to, well … sickness and death.

So, how do we deal with those things in recovery? How do we manage health problems, illnesses, injuries and the chronic conditions that come with aging? There is nothing shiny and sparkly about this part of long sobriety, but there can be some powerful spiritual growth, and we can experience some very concrete measures of just how sober we are.

One of the reasons I keep going to meetings is quite selfish. Over these 25-plus years I have heard so many stories and seen so many people deal with hard, hard things and NOT drink over them. That’s a daily reminder that the regular stuff of daily life is no reason to drink, but it also tells me to stay in shape spiritually and emotionally because I want to go through the hard things in my life as a very sober and relatively sane woman.

The difficult things that we see folks go through are the illnesses of children, spouses, parents, siblings and friends. We see our sober colleagues in AA rooms deal with cancer, heart disease, dementia, with injuries and illnesses that improve, and with disabilities that worsen over time. We watch our sober friends confront and deal with death — the deaths of the people they love, and also finally their own death. That, I think, is recovery on steroids.

I’ve always been a worrier, so I have to balance this idea of preparation with the real fact that we can never be prepared. As a kid in a challenging family I developed the “What if…” habit. It was a strange kind of comfort, I suppose. As a powerless child it gave me a measure of control. I could mentally rehearse the bad things that might happen hoping to never be surprised again. It didn’t quite work then and it doesn’t now, but somehow that hypothetical thinking persists.

But maybe now as a sober woman I can make it work for me in a different way. Maybe now I can keep sobriety a priority so that it will be at the center of my life when those inevitable challenges come. I can prepare my mind, and heart and spirit to be as sound and open as possible so that when illness or death show up I can do this as a sober, loving woman.

Marriage: How much together? How much apart?

Jun 27, 2012

I was talking to a friend this week about marriage. In recovery many of us have the opportunity to do relationships and marriage differently. We also know that many of us do different marriages — some more than once — or twice. For this reason, many of us in long-term recovery also read about relationships and we try counseling and workshops and “couples work.”

I said to my friend that I wished for more time alone at home. My husband is a teacher and he is off in the summer so I miss my mornings alone in the house. My friend’s husband travels for work and so she has lots of alone time but she misses those daily dinners they shared when his previous job brought him home every night. is true that the grass is always greener, but it’s also true that we each have a preference for how much autonomy and how much dependency we like. It’s almost as if we each have a set point. That’s also why many of us couldn’t be married to someone else’s spouse.

I remember in early recovery a therapist explaining to me that the hardest work a couple has to do is learn their preferences and negotiate the middle. I know that I was a “distancer”— always pushing away, making space and when I was in the midst of addiction I was the one who left. But I also learned that being a distancer gets challenged when I meet another person who likes a lot of space, too. What I learned over time was that my distancing simply hid my own need for dependence. When a new guy stayed away, or walked away first, then I got to feel that yucky, dependent, needy, caring feeling.

That’s part of what we get when we are sober a long time. We learn about ourselves and what is underneath our first or presumed reactions. I was a distancer until a man took more distance, then I would I tip toe back toward coupledom and closeness. It’s similar for my sober friend who says she likes to be very close and have lots of time together. When her husband was laid off for eight months and was waiting at the door each night she took longer and longer to get home from work each day.

We contain all of it.

I have come to believe that when we say of any other person’s behavior, “Can you imagine!” that in fact we actually can. And that’s what upsets us. We all have it in us to be dependent and to run away. Psychologists talk about “reaction formation” where we do the very opposite of what we want or fear. My fear of being dependent, or having someone dependent on me, is very likely some of the fuel in my “independence” and distancing.

The gift of long recovery is learning about ourselves. And then, if we have the courage to face what we learn, we can create or re-create great relationships with our partners.

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So Sari, A New Me

Jun 21, 2012

After years in recovery — teamed with years in therapy — you can begin to believe that you have a handle on yourself. You might start to think that you are onto your own tricks.

Part of this is about transferring addictions and if you’ve been around awhile that’s no surprise. I quit smoking, and then overeating, then under eating, then drinking. After most of that felt manageable I began to see the relationship issues that were there all along. It meant more therapy and some Al-Anon. Addiction by any other name is addiction.

But here is the latest peek at myself. I love handbags and about a month ago in a chic, high-end catalog I saw a tote bag that was described as being made from old Indian saris — those traditional wrap dresses that Indian women wear. The photos showed the bags in vibrant colorful prints and it had a long leather strap that could be worn across the body. It was only $98. Of course that’s over $100 with tax and delivery, but I had paid much more for a handbag and there was something about the soft fabric of the old saris; I mean it would have some other — older Indian — woman’s karma right? And for spring/summer ... this soft bag across my body with khaki skirts and jeans and sandals. A nice look. I ordered the bag. The website said it would take seven days. I told myself, “Expect it in 10. I was already trying hard to manage my desire. I wait the week and three days. I pass up other purses when I shop, “Nope, the old sari bag, slouched just so across my body, with its worn leather … I can feel it all.” — I was living that new bag and UPS hasn’t arrived yet.

But then it does. I come home to “the box”. It’s here! I’m excited. But then I open the box and there is a lumpy, kind of laundry-bag looking sack. It is made of old fabric yes, but the bag is huge and droopy, and the strap is cheap, shiny leather. I sling it across my body and I recognize the look. I demonstrate for my husband: I bend and scoop, bend and scoop. It looks like the kind of cloth sling that women wore to pick cotton. This is not chic, not cool, not very nice. It has no Karma. I’m disappointed.

But it’s what happens next that surprises me. I know that I don’t want THIS bag, and I want my money back. That is clear. My husband says, “Send it back and get something you like.” Yes, of course. That makes sense, but something is holding me back. I try on the sari cloth bag again. I empty my current handbag and put all the contents into the new sari bag hoping that somehow my things inside will transform this into MY purse. Nope. It just looks even droopier like an old laundry bag.

So what’s holding me back? It’s not until I am filling out the return form and packing the sari bag in the return carton to that I realize what my trouble is. It’s not just the bag I have to return, it’s the new identity that I’d constructed in my head. In the 10 days from ordering the bag to receiving the bag I had created a new me to go with the bag: I was going to be causally chic, I was going to be the kind of woman who wore old sari cloth with khaki and denim and simple sandals, I was going to be the slightly bohemian, somewhat hippy-ish chick, that tossed a bag like this across her body and … and ….

And what? Maybe I imagined that I’d laugh more, worry less, be more comfortable in my body. I’d sit in coffee shops and I wouldn’t sweat the small stuff.  I’d be at peace and love stillness and be relaxed. In my shoppers imagination this sari bag was going to bring that to me. In 10 days I had created a new me and done a kind of geographic cure without even leaving my house.

And then the UPS man took my bag and delivered reality right back to me.

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Daddy and the Diving Board

Jun 13, 2012

He was there at the end of the diving board. He would tread water for hours watching while I practiced my dives. For years it was our Sunday afternoon ritual. I was 4 years old when we began. Daddy was there in the deep water, waiting for me. On those Sunday afternoons I believed that if he was there at the end of the board I could do anything.

He would wait, treading water, off to one side. He would look around and give me the sign that it was OK to dive and I would stroll to the end of the board, tugging my stretchy lavender swimsuit, and bounce in the air before I dove in.

I would rise to the surface sputtering, and look for his face. He would hesitate a moment to let me right myself. I would cough and beam. He would grab the back of my suit and give me a push toward the side. “Swim to the ladder,” he would say. And he would stay out at the end of the board waiting.

I remember the feeling as I paddled to the ladder. The world was perfect: I was diving in the deep end of the pool; there was no pain, and no evil in the world. There was no need or want in my life.  I was a perfect, grinning, sunburned, waterlogged 4-year-old, in love with the world, herself and her daddy.

He died when I was 18. In the intervening years life happened to me and to Daddy. By the time I was 13, he was traveling a lot, and when we did spend the occasional weekend together we did not speak of personal things. There were no talks about plans or dreams. As a teenager I felt awkward with my father so I would interview him about his job.  I know a lot about industrial engineering. It filled our time. By then my addictions had begun.

On a July evening, when he was 56, my father had a stroke and died.

Has it affected me? Of course. To have had that closeness and to lose it; to have had those timeless moments of being safe and special and then to lose him when I still needed to ask what happened.

It took years of my life, of other relationships, addictions and even years in recovery for me to wrestle with those two men — the daddy who waited in the deep water and the man who left suddenly, without a word, when I was 18.

Somewhere inside, that 4-year-old still wears her lavender bathing suit. She is at the end of a diving board and leaning forward to hear someone say, “You are so special.” There is a deep hunger for those words.  Can I ever get enough?

I’ve learned a lot from listening to that little girl. I know that in romance we get some of that need met, but romance has its own path and after a while no one wants to admire us every day. Another way to meet this need is with an affair.  Having an affair is a way a 4-year-old can twirl in a 40-year-old body and hear again, “You are the only one.”  

In the first five years of recovery I practiced healthier solutions. I practice in the mirror: “Diane, you are very special.” But all the praise and promises in the present cannot fill a hole that exists in the past.

Later I learned to meet this need in a spiritual way. In the rooms I began to meet people who had a connection with their God or higher power that helped them to live believing that God smiles warmly on them.

So what is the gift from a father who left when we were both too young? It’s this: For a long time I resented the missing memories; no father-daughter chats, no drives to college, no adult conversations. But I have this other thing — a picture in my brain and in my heart of my father still there at the end of the board, smiling and waiting.

Today I believe in a God who looks around my life and says, “Hold on a minute. We don’t want anyone to get hurt; then, “OK, go for it, I’m here.”

I have a God at the end of my daily diving board who says to me, “OK now, catch your breath. I’m here.”                                            

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Resentments Redux

Jun 06, 2012

There are some things that come back again and again no matter how long we have been in recovery. Resentment is one of them. It’s not so much that we are slow learners and more that we are just human beings. And that the other beings all around us — at home, at work, at the mall, on the golf course — are human, too.

So, we get resentments and yes, we create resentments for others. In the May 21 posting in this blog I wrote about the prayer to be free of resentments. It does work. But don’t you find that you have to be reminded of that over and over again also? If letting go and forgiveness were as easy as the many platitudes about them, there wouldn’tbe so many books on those topics.

So to speed things up we have sayings and slogans. I think some of the pithiest, funniest and most pointed gems in AA are about dealing with resentment. And even though resentments will still haunt us even at the 10-, 20- and 30-year mark, the good news is that we are able to shift them faster. And these sayings help us catch ourselves before we have done too much damage. And always with resentment that damage is to ourselves.

Here are my favorites:

Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.

Resentment is like setting yourself on fire and hoping the other person dies of smoke inhalation.

Resentment is like letting someone live rent-free in your head.

Expectations are pre-meditated resentments.

And the best preventative medicine:The cure for resentment is having boundaries.

I know these sayings to be life and sanity saving. Please add to the list by replying or adding a comment with your best slogans or lessons on dealing with resentment.

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A Partner with God

May 30, 2012

My addictions began early in my life, but looking back I can see that my search for freedom and faith began early, too. Is that true in your story as well? Even as I was eating compulsively, exercising excessively and worrying obsessively I was also searching for ways to feel better. Of course our addictions are, in themselves, misguided attempts to make ourselves feel better.

In my 20s I returned to college as an older student. I had no money, and I lived on school loans. I sold my car, clothes, stereo and records to be able to go back to school. I was awarded an internship in Washington, D.C., and said yes even though I had no money. I borrowed some money for housing and ate as cheaply as possible. Every week I would measure out my peanut butter and crackers and instant oatmeal packets. Other women in my dorm who had family support and paid internships would bring me doggie bags from the Georgetown restaurants they went to at night. I was scared and hungry but I was happy. I was happy to be in school, happy to have an exciting internship, happy to be in D.C. and to be able to visit all the free museums and go to free lectures and concerts every weekend.

What sustained me in those months was a series of pamphlets from Norman Vincent Peale. I must have picked them up at a church or signed up for the mailing list in one of my attempts to “get good.” The little pamphlets were all about personal stories —testimonies — of positive thinking and faith in God. I hung onto them for dear life.

In some ways my recovery and my faith in a higher power were beginning then even as my addictions were sending up their first shoots and starting to take over my life. was one message in one of those pamphlets that really struck me. I copied it and carried it around with me. I carried this in my wallet and sometimes cried reading it, especially those times when I was really scared because I was almost out of rent money or when I didn’t know how I’d get back to Pennsylvania. I had to change the word “man” to “woman” and “him” to “her” but here it is.

I still keep this in my daily meditation book and read it often. Looking back I can see that my Higher Power was reaching for me even as my addictions and fear were pushing back. Here is the paragraph that carried me for years before I found the 12 steps:

A woman who works in partnership with her God becomes self-reliant, positive and optimistic and undertakes her work with the constant assurance of success. She therefore magnetizes her conditions. She draws to herself the creative powers of the universe.”

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What Comes Next … is Willingness

May 23, 2012

Among the true markers of a long and strong recovery is a life with more peace, more compassion and more acceptance. When I hear folks with long recovery talk what impresses me most is their willingness. I hear, and see —because it’s behavior that counts after all — their willingness to use the tools of recovery; their willingness to admit they are wrong; and their willingness to say, “I don’t know” and “You may be right.”

Our friends with strong recovery especially have a willingness to believe in a Higher Power and a willingness to surrender their lives and will to that Higher Power. Yes, there is still that giving and taking back thing; no one does this perfectly, but I admire the willingness of people in recovery who do more than just concede, give up or go along with what is happening. Instead they practice a kind of active and, well, willing willingness.

I think of it this way: Willingness is more than just gravity. An apple falling from a tree may or may not be willing. But a person who tries sky diving, bungee jumping or slipping into the deep end of the swimming pool for the first time is showing willingness. Acceptance requires willingness, and forgiveness is the product of willingness. And, as we’ve been told over the years, you only need a little bit of willingness to do any of this. Just a bit, just crack open the door.

Some of the wisdom I have gathered about willingness over the years includes the following:

“Willingness is a grace. It is a softening. It is leaving the door slightly ajar.”

“Willingness is showing up. It is showing up and letting go.”

“Willingness is a freedom and it is a step toward freedom.”

“Willingness is a movement of energy. My energy joined to God’s.”

Another statement about willingness that I love comes from my friend, Tammy, who says, “I became willing to consider the possibility that I may not be right.” That always makes me laugh.

One of the finest messages we get in The Big Book is about willingness. It is in the story called, “Freedom from Bondage” and it describes the author wanting so badly to be free of a terrible resentment. She gets some help from a magazine article and she describes the practice this way: “If you have a resentment you want to be free of, if you will pray for the person or thing that you resent, you will be free.” The prescription suggests that we do this praying for two weeks.

The writer goes on to say, “It has worked for me many times, and it will work for me every time I am willing to work for it. Sometimes I have to ask first for the willingness, but that too always comes.

In many ways it couldn’t be a simpler suggestion. We can seek willingness and even the willingness to be willing.

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Learning from Boundaries

May 16, 2012

Boundaries — when we were using we had none. As we recovered we learned to set them and we also experienced them being set around us.

A former therapist explained boundaries this way: Imagine yourself as a house. If the house across the street burns down, you feel bad, but you have not burned down. But if your roof leaks that is your issue. Similarly, if the house next door gets remodeled, you can be happy, but that’s not yours to brag about or take credit for. Similarly you get to decide who gets to come into your yard, who gets to sit in your living room and who gets to see the bedroom. Having good boundaries means having people where you want them and not where they want to be.

You get the idea.

It also applies to emotions.

For years I kept a sticky note on my calendar that said: “If it doesn’t have your name on it, don’t pick it up.” In early recovery that meant don’t snoop in other people’s medicine cabinets or file drawers. But later, and still now, it means that I should not pick up other people’s fears, worries, or emotions of any kind if they don’t have my name on them. And almost none do. I don’t have to fix anyone’s life, and I can’t fix anyone’s problems. If someone has an addiction or a problem behavior, that is his or her property, not mine. Yes, this takes discernment. I can care, and I can offer resources, and I can always offer my experience, strength and hope, but other people’s emotions are not mine to fix.

Good boundaries are the best way to prevent resentment.

Recently I heard a spiritual teacher say: “Being compassionate requires strong boundaries.” It makes sense. When a person has good boundaries you know that their “Yes” is really a yes, and their “No” is really a no. That makes it possible to ask them for help, because you can be sure that if they give it there are no strings --and no guilt --attached.

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What Comes Next … Transferring Addictions

May 09, 2012

I remember, early in recovery, reading the Hazelden pamphlet “Transferring Addictions.” It was scary, but it was also helpful because it let me understand that my long recovery — and I wanted it to be long — was going to have a lot of layers.

I also heard early on. “We will give up our addictions in the order in which they are killing us.” That is why some people enter recovery first for food issues and someone else for alcohol or drugs, and another person enters to deal with family or relationship problems. But after many years, we are sitting in the same chairs and saying things that are remarkably similar.

My entry into recovery brought me face-to-face with transferring addictions. Before I came to AA, I was dealing with problems with food and relationships. So I went to OA and Alanon. Then I began to notice that my romances that went bad had alcohol in it. My food stories did, too. I told myself that I was “just having dessert.” But I was “eating” Irish coffees and anything with sugar and cream and alcohol. I always had a spoon in my hand. It was the perfect denial. How bad could it be? You didn’t see drunks with whipped cream mustaches did you?

So, I had to deal with food and men and booze. Under it, of course was a messy family history of still more addiction and abuse, but that took years to accept.

In recovery from food addiction we use the analogy of owning a tiger. It goes like this: A recovering alcoholic has to put their tiger in a bottle, put the top on it and keep it there.  A food addict, on the other hand, has to take their tiger for a walk three times a day.

That was my experience. When I took the booze away and took the sugar addiction away it got harder to delude myself that certain other behaviors were still OK. And without the alcohol and the food, the hole in my heart showed and my bargain basement self-esteem gapped open. I needed soothing.

Here is a place we get into tricky territory and where the best advice is “Check your motives.” Lots of people in recovery become physical fitness nuts and most of them do it for all the right reasons.   But another group of us take up exercise in the same way and for the same reason we used booze: FIX MY FEELINGS.

This requires discernment. This is also why at a certain point in our recovery we need to find meetings where we can talk about a wide swath of topics. It doesn’t help my growth if I am only attending meetings where the leader says, “We only talk about alcohol here.” By year 10 we might be far from our last drink but we could be killing ourselves with food, gambling, workaholism or a sex addiction. We have to do more than just stop drinking. That can make recovery feel pretty hard sometimes. But we have all seen the old-timer with 30 years who is smoking, eating a plate of cookies and talking angrily about a miserable marriage.

Can we ever get to the bottom of addictions and compulsions? Will we ever know what’s under it all? As someone said when I was newly sober, “If you want to know why you drank, just stop drinking and you’ll find out.” It was good advice. Stop the addictive behavior and the source will reveal itself.

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Prayer and More Prayer

May 02, 2012

Today in my morning prayer time it hit me: One of the women that I sponsor is struggling and I thought, “She needs more prayer.” Things are not going her way, and she’s mad. I thought, “OK, how do I explain to her that it’s going to be a lot easier to surrender sooner rather than later.” Then I thought, “OK Diane, can you take your own advice?”

Note to me: More prayer.

It seems so obvious, but now I also know why the “Twelve and Twelve” says “We should not be lax on this matter of prayer.” It is like that old juice commercial that reminds, “I could have had a V-8.” So often after struggling, musing, wondering and making myself miserable trying to control something, I think, “I could have prayed — or maybe prayed sooner.

Put prayer first.

Yesterday I had a cranky day. Not quite relaxed, not quite working, slightly bored even though there was plenty to do; it was just an off day. When I did my 10thstep at night (I use the Ignatian Examen as my Step Ten format) I realized that I had skipped my morning prayer time, and from there the day was just unsettled. Note to me: Put prayer first.

Gratitude and Compassion.

I read this ages ago, and I keep a sticky note in my planner that says, “Pray for a grateful heart and a compassionate heart.” It’s a great piece of guidance and an all-purpose solution to things that bother me. Gratitude shifts my attitude. Gratitude reminds me of the good. Gratitude shows me that there is growth, change and recovery in my life when my feelings try to convince me otherwise.

A compassionate heart softens me. Compassion helps me to see other people — even people who I think are bad or wrong — are mostly broken or troubled people. And often they are broken or troubled in ways that I am too or that I have been. Having a compassionate heart slows me down. I am more inclined to practice “restraint of tongue and pen” when I have a compassionate heart.

But to get there: More prayer.

Years ago I thought that people who had years of recovery must be doing all the right things, all the time. But I don’t; we don’t. But we do have a couple of things that come with time. One is good recovery habits. So I pray each morning and I do a 10th step at night that closes with a prayer. If I skip either one I feel crummy, kind of like not brushing my teeth. So even if I’m rushed or even not feeling very sincere I’ll get on my knees and read the Third Step Prayer. I say the words out loud. Even if done without complete sincerity, it helps.

The other thing people with long recovery have are stories. We have our own stories yes, but even better; we have other people’s stories, too. If you go to meetings for years you accumulate stories. So when times are hard I can lean into someone else’s story. I can recall what they said about the time they prayed; the time they yelled at God, the time a prayer was answered in a miraculous way; the time they let go of what they wanted and got something so better instead. 

And each time the reminder is this: More prayer.



Baseball and Spiritual Life

Apr 25, 2012

The first thing I learned about baseball is this: If you raise your hand a man will bring you food. I learned this at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, and in my first year as a fan I spent most of the game facing the wrong way. Raise my hand; get ice cream; raise my hand; get popcorn; raise my hand; get peanuts.  It was 1958.

Two years later, I understood it was a game. On summer afternoons I’d beg my brothers to take me with them to the ballpark. I was falling in love with baseball.

John Gregory Dunne wrote, “Baseball is the couch on which we examine our psyches.” George Will said, “Baseball is the universe.” And catcher Wes Westrum said, “Baseball is like church, many attend but few understand.”

We have these sayings and many more because baseball is one of the greatest sources of metaphor in American life. Maybe only Twelve Step recovery has more sayings and code words than America’s Game.

You may not think you are a fan of the sport but listen to how you talk about your life. Listen to others share in meetings.  Have you ever said: “I’m still in there pitching.” “You can’t even get to first base with him.” “She’s out in left field.”  We talk baseball all day long.

Baseball is one of the few sports that remain timeless. In this one area of our lives, we surrender the clock to the event.  But there is something else in this game that asserts the spiritual: In baseball we begin and end at home. The goal is to get home and to be safe. That’s also the goal for us in recovery, too. We drank because we thought we’d be safer socially or we’d be more comfortable. Then alcohol turned on us and we were out in left field feeling unsafe and we feared we’d never ever get home again. Then each of us experienced the miracle of recovery. Something happened. We found our way to a meeting. Many people say that when they came to their first meeting they knew they were home.

We all want that. Home implies safety, accessibility, freedom, comfort. Home is where we learn to be both with others and separate.  We crave this in baseball. We experience it in AA. We are keeping the faith.

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Newcomer Envy

Apr 18, 2012

After many years of sobriety I can feel shame when I do this. It happened again this week. A man in my home group celebrated six months and he was glowing. His life was transformed, he had found a deep faith in his Higher Power, his surrender was complete; he had completed his step work and was quoting the Big Book. His “share” was more lecture than personal story, but I bit.

I was jealous.

I know better. I knew better. But I could feel myself become envious and annoyed. I knew that I should be happy for his pink cloud and changed life but my own smallness reveled my envy. After all these years and all this work—I’m still trying to surrender, have absolute faith and be a perfectly perfect person.

I know, I know.

These are the moments I wish for a meeting for people who have ten or 15 or 20 years. Not to leave behind the other meetings but so that I can say, “Does anyone else feel like this?” Is anyone else with long recovery secretly ashamed of their own petty reaction when someone with a year or so tells the group how perfect their life is and how they have incorporated all of the wisdom of the 12 steps?

I know better. I really do. But still.

I’m sure I did this too. No, I know I did this. I was the girl carrying AA literature home to family holiday dinners and passing it around like hors ‘dourves. I was the one who lecturedevery friend about the “principles of the program” and yes, I was the one blowing my anonymity hither and yon because I was so wise, so very wise.

So you’d think I’d have more compassion.

And in my heart of hearts I do. I much prefer that this new man be here and feel the guru than be out there drinking his life away. And I’d rather he lecture us in AA than his own family—which only delays their ability to hear about this marvelous thing we have. It’s just that when I look at my own “progress not perfection” life, and I see the intractable character defects and the amount of fear that is still underlying so much that I do I have to fight my snarky inner commentator who wants to say to the perky, pastel-hued newcomer, “Oh, just wait.”

But what I know is that life happens to all of us, and that we need those pink clouds and happy days to give us the ground under the harder parts of our recovery. The pink cloud days help us to make friends with other newcomers so that we have a gang to hang out with, which means we’ll have peers to call when the harder parts of recovery inevitably happen.

My red-faced humility is this: When I hear those newcomers speak of their transformed lives and the perfect peace that AA has given them I still want what they have. So, I keep coming back.

Reading, Writing and Recovery

Apr 11, 2012

Self-help reading sometimes takes a beating in AA. But I’m ever grateful for self-help books because that’s how I got here. Even before I stopped drinking I knew something was wrong with me. I read advice columns and self-help books. I know now that self-help isn’t much help if I am numbing my feelings with any substance, but I look back at my younger self with compassion. I was stumbling around trying to figure it out.

Courtesy of stock.xchng.

After many years of recovery I still depend on sources far outside the “conference approved literature.” In fact I owe my recovery to a self-help book: “Women Who Love Too Much” by Robin Norwood.

Robin Norwood’s book led me to AA, OA, ACOA and Al-Anon. In that book about codependent relationships I recognized myself. And so did many other people in my life, who knew nothing about my drinking, but they handed me copies of the Norwood’s book.

That book was so singularly important to opening my eyes to my addictions that I use this shorthand for the title: “WWL2M.” That book, ostensibly about relationships, also contained this challenge: “If you find yourself connecting to the ideas in this book you may also have a problem with alcohol, drugs, food or other substance addictions.” Robin Norwood gave the 800 numbers for all the anonymous groups. I qualified for many of them. And I made the phone call.

I still keep my first copy of WWL2M in a place of honor with all of my AA literature.

But we do hear people say that no one gets sober because of a book and that is, I think, only partially true. Many years ago a very smart therapist helped me understand the value of reading about personal growth this way: Some of us need to sneak up on ourselves in order to make major changes. We may need to go into difficult places in our psyche and we may need to swim in some troubling emotional waters in order to heal. By reading about these things, while we work on them, we are building a “cognitive life raft,” an intellectual base, on which to safely travel the challenging emotional waters that lead to growth.

So yes, books — lots and lots of books, and lots and lots of reading as part of a joyous and continual recovery.

I also find writing and keeping a journal a crucial part of recovery. It was another book, “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron that led me to daily writing as a recovery habit. Cameron uses some recovery concepts to talk about freeing our creative selves and it’s a perfect way to work through the steps as well. My copy of “the Artist’s Way” like my copy of WWL2M is scribbled in, dog-eared and worn out.

I carry a small journal with me all the time and I keep a bigger one on the table where I do my morning prayer and meditation. Sometimes when I can’t feel a connection with my Higher Power I write my prayers. And, just recently, I’m back to writing my Tenth Step every night as well.

So, though we don’t talk about it so much in meetings, I think that reading and writing are crucial to recovery. So please share: Do you read and write as part of your recovery? What books helped you?What books do you recommend to friends?


The Easter Brother

Apr 04, 2012

I consider the following to be quite telling about my own personality: I never believed in Santa Claus. I never, even as a little kid, imagined or believed that a man would go house to house in a red suit and bring toys to boys and girls.

I did, however, believe—until I was 10 or maybe even older—in the Easter Bunny.  In my own defense I have to explain that we lived near the woods and I saw all kinds of rabbits, little baby bunnies and distance-covering jackrabbits, all the time. But more importantly I had two older brothers who, as only big brothers can, facilitated my belief in The Easter Bunny. Bert and Larry would talk just slightly out of my earshot about The Bunny. “Don’t let her see him,” and “Did you see the basket he left next door?” They also, to make it more convincing, put bite marks on the handles of our Easter baskets.

Photo courtesy of

My brothers died when they were 42 and 48. Now, I’m the oldest. At Easter I miss them. I miss having an Easter basket from Lar who—even as an adult—made me one that included the bunny’s teeth marks to remind me just how naïve I had been. And I miss our sibling tradition of finding the family “King Egg.” As Easter approached we would each decorate our own hard-boiled egg, fortifying them with dye and crayon and competed (Bert and Lar were both went on to become engineers) by ramming our colored eggs together to see whose broke first.

I also miss dressing up for Easter services, complete with new dress and corsage. The three of us continued to go to church on Easter even when we had walked away from organized religion. We kept this holiday because we all liked the uplifting Easter hymns like “Up From the Grave He Arose.”

I kept going to church on Easter even as, and after, Bert and Larry were dying because those Easter hymns gave me a weird hope.  It was not a hope of miraculous recovery for either brother, or necessarily for a reunion in the “Great Beyond,” but hope for my own  “arose” from the heartache of losing my brothers, my playmates, co-conspirators and occasional torturers.

One of my final conversations with Bert was about my car. I was 40 years old and well into my recovery but still easily defeated by car worries.  Larry, who was then sick, was caring for Bert who was dying, and I called their house in tears to report the impending death of my car. Larry, who was on the phone with me, relayed the mechanic’s opinion to Sig who was lying in what would soon be his deathbed.

Lar said to me, “Bert wants to talk to you.” I was surprised because Bert’s speech had become painful and very difficult for him. I waited until Larry positioned the phone for Bert to talk.

“Here’s what you tell them …,” he began, and he proceeded to dictate a set of car repair instructions to convince any mechanic that I knew a nut from a bolt, and that this girl had a brother who would not see his sister taken for a ride.

Apart from any theology, and because of years in recovery have let me see so many lives saved, Easter lets me believe in the resurrection of my family, of my all too gullible girlhood self, and in a life that rises, falls, rises and dies over and over as we each cycle through layers of loss and gain.


In Defense of an Unbalanced Life

Mar 28, 2012

Over and over, almost like a mantra, so many of us are saying, “I need to balance my life.” Toward that end we fill our calendars outside of work with quality time with loved ones, and commitments—sometimes against the grain—to meditate or do yoga, to take classes or to volunteer. So many of us find ourselves doing little bits of lots of things and not feeling good about much of what we do.

I realized this week that “Balance my life” is just another item on the big to-do list in my head, and it’s another thing nagging at me that I should do.

Well, I’ve decided that balance is overrated.

Think about it. People we admire, those who have made a difference or a contribution or who have a clear vocation lead remarkably unbalanced lives. Consider the greats in any field: Einstein? No balance at all; he was actually quite a weird guy. Thomas Edison? He never left the lab. Ditto for Marie Curie. Venus and Serena Williams? Tiger Woods? For serious athletes their entire family has to live on a tilt-a-whirl.

It’s true for creative types too. Emily Dickinson? Edna St. Vincent Millay? We love their poems, but look at their lives. And statesmen? Saints? You get the idea.

So while in early recovery we needed to get some balance—we ere seriously unbalanced in a bad way—in later recovery we need to find the good unbalance that celebrates who we relay are and what matters in our lives. It might be home and family or a big career, or our creative work—the things we could never have done when we were using, or in early recovery when we were unbalanced in favor of learning this new way of life. But now, with spiritual and psychological ground under our feet we get to find our true place.

The theologian Fredrick Buechner—who had a seriously unbalanced life—defines true vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the worlds deep need.” Now it doesn’t make sense that deep gladness will come from ticking off a long to-do list or that the world’s deep need is met by doing tiny bits of this and that like rote do-gooders.

But the idea of balance so appeals that we run faster and faster to balance our social and emotional portfolios; we take yoga and meditate, try to eat well, call friends, see the latest play, buy if not read the latest bestseller, attend the school play and send emails from the car and leave voice mail at midnight.

How much energy we waste striving to balance our lives.  What if we celebrated a tilting life, one in which we gave a primary commitment to kids or a job we love or making art or seeking spirit?  We do have to make choices but they are not for all time.

I don’t think it’s balance that we really want at all. What we want is to feel good and to have peace, and that mostly comes from feeling well used by life. That doesn’t happen when we are running around doing little bits of many things.

Here’s a radical idea as we move into spring: Give up balance; don’t go to any store, party or event unless you really want to. Read what you like even if it’s not “good” books, and choose the couch over the gym, and the woods over the party if that is what your soul craves.

Stop and look into the world’s deep need that’s in your community. Find the source of your deep gladness that runs near by. Allow yourself to lose your balance. And just fall in.

Photo courtesy of

Defiance and Resentment

Mar 21, 2012

This week I had a bad attack of resentment. The good news of longer recovery is that I have more skills to keep it under wraps and so I mostly just think nasty things and not say them. But the other side of having these feelings in later recovery is the awful feeling of “What is this yucky stuff?” and the shame that I add on to feeling bad by feeling that I should be “over that by now.”

But though it is “progress not perfection” and also “welcome to the human race” as my sponsor says, these feelings are real so I set out to dig under them.

That is the good thing about having gained some time in recovery. We certainly are not saints, but we are experienced. I know that uncomfortable feelings like the ones that glommed onto me this week are not forever, and are not the real me; they are material to mine for new growth. Always, always, if I do the work, the feelings will resolve and will resolve in a way that helps me to grow. Sometimes the work I need to do is reading AA literature, sometimes it is talking to a sponsor or other women in recovery, and sometimes—most often— it is prayer and listening to God. (I always tend to pray like mad but forget the listening part.) Sometimes it is all of those things plus time with a therapist or counselor.

I love that at times like this a slogan will flash into my mind. This week while grumbling in the car and talking to people who were not there with me, I heard this lesson from Alanon: “Holding a resentment is like giving someone rent-free space in your head.” Oh, yeah. Later I remembered that, “Resentment is like setting yourself on fire and hoping the other person dies of smoke inhalation.” (I really love that one, don’t you?)

Those slogans gave me the slightest bit of humor for my situation. But I still felt very stuck. There were two people I could not shake. They were both part of my work life so I needed to be careful with how I proceeded. A great lesson I got from my very first sponsor was, “Don’t do anything you are going to have to make amends for.” I love that one too—having just enough pride in this situation I knew that the only thing worse than what I was feeling would be the additional agony of having to make amends to someone I already resented.

But still, I wanted the feelings to shift and I was doing everything: writing in my journal, texting my sponsor, admitting my ugly thoughts to a close friend, reading the Big Book like it was the I Ching with a secret message for me. (I was literally clicking through The Big Book on my Kindle like a maniac—I know the answer is in here. Where is it? What step? What story?

No relief.

Then someone said, “Acceptance” and I thought, “Do I have to accept these people? Or these feelings?”

But here is the gift of making AA a habit: I kept doing what I know to do. I drove to my home group meeting. In the car I prayed, “Please let me hear what I need.” At the meeting I raised my hand several times but didn’t get called on. Instead of resenting that I thought, “OK, this means that I’m supposed to listen.” So I listened and I heard “defiance,” and “ego-maniac with an inferiority complex” and I heard “alcoholics struggle with authority.” And I heard a big “click!” inside of me.

I was struggling with having things my way. I was resentful that someone else was getting attention. I was afraid that I wasn’t important. I was afraid that I wasn’t respected. I was scared. I was just really scared.

And I knew then that my prayer could change to, “Help me to feel safe and to feel loved,and please God, help me to be of service.”

And the crazy, mad feelings began to melt.

Spiritual Direction in Recovery

Mar 16, 2012

Thhigher_powerough we talk about AA as a spiritual program, we don’t often talk about spiritual direction in our AA meetings. But outside of meetings, people with many years will talk about their retreats and experiences with a spiritual director. After all, when you have 10 or 15 or 25 years you “get it” that this is a spiritual program. How many people reading this blog have tried spiritual direction?

It occurred to me more than once (in that way that we keep seeing new things in the Big Book over time) that the wording of Step 12 says, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps…” and that it does not say, “having stopped drinking as a result of these steps.” It’s not about not drinking; it is about a spiritual awakening and then in that awakened state we see our lives changed and we begin to have a relationship with our Higher Power.
Right now, as I write this, I feel the vulnerability. Our spiritual lives are very intimate. In the same way that we don’t talk in detail about our sex lives with many people, we often don’t talk about our spiritual lives in detail either. So who do you talk to about what really goes on between you and your Higher Power?
I’ve come to see that a spiritual director is not a sponsor and not a therapist and may or may not be a professional clergy person. Over the years I have worked with three different spiritual directors. One was a nun, one a former minister and the third a really compassionate and spiritual woman who had training in spiritual direction. All had some experience with the Twelve Steps or recovery programs.
There are spiritual directors in every faith community—it’s not necessarily a Christian thing. Most many faith communities offer spiritual direction for anyone in their congregations or communities. It’s not just a recovery thing. But what a big help it is to people in recovery.
In a way, a spiritual director is somewhat like a couple’s counselor. I think of it this way: If I am trying to have a genuine relationship with my Higher Power then anything that might come up in a human relationship will come up in this relationship as well. Similar questions and expectations also apply. My spiritual director asks me, “Are you talking to Him?” “Are you listening to Him?” and she’s reminds me that I can express all of my feelings—even anger—when I am in a genuine relationship with HP.
The best gift I’ve received in working with a spiritual director along with an active AA program is receiving reassurance that I am doing “it” right. The “it” can be prayer, meditation, decision making. And I love learning about new spiritual practices as well. Just as I need to keep mixing it up in my physical fitness exercise I sometimes need to try new things with my spiritual practices as well. The past month I’ve been working with The Examen, a form of prayer taught by Saint Ignatius to his followers and which, I was delighted to learn, is the basis of our Step Ten daily inventory.
I love the anecdote we hear in meetings of the newcomer who asks about the “spiritual part” of the program and the old-timer replies, “There is no spiritual part—the AA program is spiritual.” So I’m glad to have the special assistance of a spiritual director to keep me moving forward and fresh in that part of my life.
How about you? How do you keep your relationship with your Higher Power growing and intimate over the years? Have you worked with a spiritual director? How did you find them? What was that like?
Image courtesy of razvan ionut/

Rules of Love in Later Recovery

Mar 16, 2012

snow_heartIn early recovery the rules of relationships are pretty clear. Not that we follow them necessarily. We all know the stories that are funny when told years later. The ones that begin with, “My sponsor told me not to date in my first year, but…” That “but” is always a prelude to some disaster or heartbreak. Later we understand why “no relationships in the first year” makes sense. It turned out to be much better to not date or marry or maybe even get divorced in that crucial first year. But we moved on.

Some of us came into recovery not wanting any romance. We had given up relationships to drink alone, so after a couple years of sobriety we had to be coaxed into dating. Others had to learn the difference between dating and wedding planning. Three dates is not an engagement. But we learned how to date. We passed around the audiotape of recovery speaker Terry Gorski talking about how alcoholics date. We laughed. We learned.
Some of us married or remarried. Some sober marriages lasted and some did not. But we stayed sober. In our home groups we held each other’s hands and passed the tissues. We endured the heartbreak. And hearts do break harder when you are sober because you feel everything a lot more. Sometimes we felt an additional layer of pain and shame because we were sure that we’d be wiser in recovery. We felt the frustration of believing that surely after all the step work and maybe even therapy too that we could make a relationship or a marriage work this time.
But those of us who stay sober for a decade or more do get to laugh—and sometimes cry—later on. We find many ways to heal and grow in this part of our lives. Sometimes we learn that no matter how committed we are that one person can’t make a relationship work.
Some of us do have new marriages, some decide never to marry; some stay with the same person they were with when they got sober and they do the heavy lifting of marriage counseling and therapy. Sometimes people discover that they were drinking to cover up a different sexual preference and they have the pain and joy of coming out in recovery. They also have to learn how to date. Some of us decide to have serial but intact and decent relationships. We take responsibility for the sex and the money, those tricky issues that bogged us down in our previous relationships.
So what are the rules for love and romance for a woman or man in later recovery? Well, we know now that some of the things we thought in early recovery aren’t necessarily true. We know by now that there is no 13th Promise (After I work the steps I’ll meet the love of my life.) We’ve grown enough to realize that our partners don’t have to be Twelve Step people. We don’t have to only date or marry people who are in AA. (Though it doesn’t hurt if they know about Al-Anon—after all, being with us they qualify.) But even though a new partner doesn’t have to be wrapped in a Twelve Step package, it does help if they value personal growth and are interested in their own growth and spirituality. After all it’s a language and relationships are about communication.
We do use our sponsors to talk about our relationships. We talk about our “side of the street.” We value the men’s and women’s meetings where we have a place to talk about sex and relationships with others.
We discover that having ten or more years of recovery gives us a much-improved sense of humor. And that goes a long way in relationships. We learn that The Promises come true, even if the 13th promise doesn’t, and we learn that we can have a wonderful life in a loving community even if we don’t have romance in our lives.
Image courtesy of Tina Phillips/

Counting Down February’s Cold

Mar 16, 2012

I new_york_snowwake up in the night and listen. The reassuring rumble tells me that the furnace is still on. It’s good news and bad. It means we have heat but at this hour I visualize the dollar bills that might just as well be fuel. I don’t fall back to sleep easily. I have a glass of water and check on the dogs, curled like Danish pastries on their pillows; I’m awake and afraid in the cold night.

Even at 28 days—and 29 this Leap Year--February always feels like the longest month. February is to winter what Wednesday is to the workweek: If we can get through February, even snow in April won’t rock us.
But my fear of cold has an ancient echo. I listen for the furnace at night the way my Polish ancestors woke in their huts to check on the fire. In many wedding albums there is a picture of the groom carrying the bride over the threshold. That odd custom is also about staying warm. In ancient times when a woman left her father’s home and was set down on the hearth in her new house, she was in the most important spot in any ancient home. She literally kept the home fires burning.
Temperature is part of my own married romance. Coming to New York from Baltimore—where there is just one decent snowstorm each year—I too was set down on a new hearth. I was grateful to AA for the changes I could make that led to new love but I married a man who came from Northern Ontario where winter runs from September to May and wind chill is scoffed at. So I had to learn to dress for cold. I bought new boots and a long down coat and kept extra gloves in the car.
But physical acclimation is real. That first winter, living in upstate New York, I thought I’d die. My boots were good below freezing but my fingers could barely tie them. Each year it gets easier. I still complain about the cold, but no longer imagine myself part of the Donner party.
But there is also an emotional acclimation to cold. A quote from Camus is taped inside the cabinet where I get my coffee mug each morning. It says: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” The word “invincible” that reminds me that living cold does indeed build character. It’s like another part of my recovery—adaptation and gratitude.
But having a warm house is important. I can’t swear that my first marriage ended solely over the thermostat setting, but for years I never went on a second date with a man whose response to my “I’m cold,” was “Put on a sweater.” My tundra man had to learn that cold hands do not mean a warm heart, and that a big oil bill is better than roses. But in recovery I’ve grown too. I am willing, in this new life, to go and put on that cost-saving sweater.
The word comfortable did not originally refer to being contented. Its Latin root, confortare, means to strengthen. Hence it’s use in theology: the Holy Spirit is Comforter; not to make us comfy, but to make us strong. This then is February’s task. We may not be warm but we are indeed comforted; we are strong and we have made it through another one.
Image courtesy of Maggie Smith/ 

Recovery is a Subtle Game

Mar 16, 2012

My favorite bumper sticker has always been, “I didn’t quit, I surrendered,” and I loved sayings like, “Give time time” and “Trust the process.” But now, at 25 years sober, I feel a kind of sadness that time has indeed passed and that the doors that opened so widely and generously years ago to welcome me into AA now open again and deliver me—sober, sane, healed and still healing—back into the world. It’s like one of those elevators that open on both sides, you get in, and it goes up but you have to turn around and face the other way to get out. This is what it feels like to be a sober woman who is in recovery more than ten years.

There is, and this is the nice part, an ease and grace to it. It’s what the newcomers mostly see when they say, “I want what you have.” Not that there aren’t days that I hurt like hell, or act like a brat or can still find myself breathless with emotional pain. The difference is that on those days—like when my brother died or when I learned that my husband was very ill—even then, crying and lying on the floor, there was a part of me who could watch and say, “Go ahead, cry, it’s OK; you’ll be OK.”

Another plus of having longer recovery: I no longer automatically assume that when something bad happens—and recovery doesn’t stop life from happening— that I did something wrong or that I am being punished or that God is testing me.

Years ago, before I came into these rooms, when something bad happened it was very likely that it did have to do with something I had done. I drank to excess, lied about it, made crummy decisions about everything and drank more to tolerate the shame and guilt. On top of that, I swung back and forth between compulsive work and sloth, tried bulimia and compulsive eating, got into fits of financial trouble and made a mess of most relationships. My first attempt at fixing what ailed me was men. I tried hard to make people love me. But even love and romance were of little comfort.

I remember going to see a therapist in those painful days just before I got sober. She listened to me pour out my pain, asked a few questions and then looked me in the eye and said that I would need to do a lot of work. She thought I ought to be in therapy twice a week and maybe for about five years. I left her office in tears. Something she said did get through my defenses but I was hopeless with her prescription. I thought I might as well just die because I couldn’t possibly do anything for five years. Five years? Just shoot me.

Then one day at work I heard some women gossiping about a board member, a woman I admired. I didn’t know her well but she seemed smart and kind and had a refreshing sense of humor. The gals at work were whispering, “Well, you know she goes to AA.” I know they thought they were saying something awful about her, but I thought, “Oh my God, she goes to AA, she goes to AA!” It was my first experience of “If you want what we have…” I wanted what she had and I hadn’t even been to a meeting yet. I think of that experience whenever I hear someone say, “You may be the only Big Book someone reads.” It was a gift. I was Twelve-Stepped by gossip!

And so I went to my first AA meeting. In a church basement, of course, and the rest is history. My history, actually. I remember how in those first months I would hear people with three years and five years talk about their lives and “working a program.” I could see that they had so much that I wanted: they smiled and laughed and told stories about themselves.

I look at my friends today. So many years later I am gifted with a group of women friends who are all in the 20 to 30 years of sobriety class. Sometimes when we have dinner or take walks we talk about the changes, the tools we still use and those we depend on less now. We talk about what stays the same and what doesn’t.

I notice how subtle recovery can be. After a period of ten years we really are different people. Sometimes we tell stories about the things we struggle with today—yes; struggle remains as long as our commitment to growth remains. I laugh about how shopping has replaced all other drugs. I see that my ways in the workplace still have the echo of the addict. The big glaring chunks have been removed, shifted and rearranged.

What remains? Questions. There are still so many: how do we keep growing? The good news and the bad is that with double-digit recovery there is a lot less pain. The bad news is that pain has always been what motivated me. Motivated me to change, toward truth, to spiritual growth and motivated me to just plain cut out the crap. So when we get better, and life is easier, and there is less pain, we just might drift in a way we might not have done in early recovery.

There is also the subtlety of separating what we know from what we feel or believe. It’s very easy for me to think on a given day that I am “over” my shame or guilt. I certainly have a lot more knowledge about it now. I’ve read so many books and spent time in ACOA and Al-Anon—and I did way more than that original five years of therapy that sounded impossible 30 years ago. I have a good understanding of the difference between guilt and shame, and humility and humiliation. But I forget—and I get caught in this trap so often—that just because I understand something doesn’t mean it no longer affects me.

In earlier stages of recovery our shifts of mind and attitude were mirrored by external changes. We saw people gain or lose weight or cut and color their hair. We dressed differently, dated differently, took jobs, quit jobs, changed fields, got married and got divorced and sometimes got married again. Change was obvious and dramatic. If you laid the photos of our first year next to the photos from year five and seven you could see that growth and change had taken place.

In later recovery the work we do is less obvious from the outside. In a sense we find our stride and our style, but if we could X-ray the mind, heart and soul of a woman in later recovery we’d see that dramatic change still continues and now more than ever, it’s an inside job.

Looking My Best in Recovery

Mar 16, 2012

hairMaybe this is a recovering woman’s issue. Or maybe men have a version of it and I don’t yet know about it. What I do know is that throughout my recovery, I’ve had a running internal debate that goes something like this:

Voice One: I’m becoming a spiritual person now so my clothing and make-up and hair color does not matter.

Voice Two: But I’m a happier person now, too, because of recovery and I’m confident and I’m feeling good about myself, so I want my outsides to match my insides.

Voice One: But God doesn’t care about your hair color ...

Voice Two: God does care about beauty and happiness so if being a blonde or having “warm” highlights makes me happy, what’s the big deal?

Even after 25 years this internal debate continues. And throughout my years of recovery I’ve tried following each voice ... each to an extreme perhaps … and then let the appearance-pendulum swing the other way.

In my first months of attending Twelve Step meetings I went shopping for “meeting clothes.” I had this idea that I needed “outfits” for meetings. All of my life I had medicated with substances—food, booze, drugs and every relationship required a corresponding adjustment to my appearance, so why wouldn’t recovery need its own attire?

Over the years I have met women who began AA in areas where sponsors told sponsees to dress up to go to meetings— “suit up and show up” was the slogan. They were taught to “comb your hair and put on lipstick” when you go to a meeting” —to work recovery from the outside in.

I suspect that for the addicted woman who got to the stage of never bathing or leaving her sweats, that’s a good suggestion, but I was of the breed overly invested in my appearance. So rather than learning to “suit up and show up,” I really needed to experiment with “come as you are” and even “come at your worst” and to see that I’d still be liked and accepted.

In very early recovery, on my pink-holier-than-thou cloud, I decided to give up all make-up and hair color, shop at thrift stores as some weird penance or way to reveal the “real” me. Luckily I had a sponsor who spent the equivalent of my weekly salary on her hair each month. When I professed my spiritual breakthrough of giving up self-care she said, “I don’t think so … you didn’t get sober to wear sackcloth and ashes. Go make an appointment for a haircut.” Oh.

Then, a few years later I was in the throes of some success at work. Promotions came and I was in a good job and enjoying secular success as well as success in sobriety and recovery. I spent some big money on a personal shopper who advised that I needed a power suit, a silky red dress for dating and who went through my closet with me in a kind of sartorial personal inventory. (I did get to tell her all my clothing stories and it was a kind of closet catharsis.) But after buying all those shiny new clothes I felt a bit too exposed and well, too shiny, and found that those new items belonged more to an idea I had about myself than to the real self standing in front of the mirror. So the pendulum swung again.

Back and forth it’s gone over these recovering years. I have a great wardrobe and now most of it looks like it belongs to the same person … the stages of rock star, tweedy intellectual, corporate power leader and cute girlfriend have gradually integrated into a closet that—for the most part—reflects who I really am 90 percent of the time.

The hook is still there though. My first thought when I contemplate an inner change is always to wonder what the external equivalent would be.

What does a sober, sane, happy woman look like? I think she mostly looks like herself and her best self. And sometimes that could mean high heels and great hair highlights.

Love in the Time of Recovery

Mar 16, 2012

Even after all these years of recovery I catch myself having expectations for Valentine’s Day. How many resentments it has caused. Dates, boyfriends, husbands. Even knowing that Valentine’s Day is a commercially created day, the cultural pressure exists.

heartHow do recovering people practice loving kindness for ourselves and others on Valentine’s Day? How does sobriety guide me into making a Happy Valentine’s Day in or out of a romantic relationship? What does love really mean in the context of recovery?

One of the joys of sobriety is watching other people grow. For me, it has been particularly moving to observe sober men as they change their lives and beliefs.

Early in recovery—just shy of two years and at that point where the fog is clearing—a man named Fred who was in his early 60’s came to my home group one morning. It was his first day out of treatment and he was in pain. His “bottom” involved devastation at both work and home. He hurt. I listened as he spoke and I recognized his grief. After the meeting ended, I watched as the men in our group surrounded Fred, gave him phone numbers and insisted he came to breakfast with them. I watched as the men gathered around him, taught him and loved him.

Even though others in the group had done that for me, too, it was then, with Fred, that I was just sober enough to understand that I was seeing love in action. I hold that moment as one of my sobriety treasures. It was the day I could also see the love that surrounded me and I felt my heart open enough to want that love to surround another person.

Maybe it’s because one of my own wounds is about my father that this touches me so deeply.

This morning at my home group I heard men talk about how recovery changed their lives. Tough guys were softened, fathers recommitted, lost men were found, partners tried again, new romances began and they were trying to do it all differently.

It makes me happy to see men change. To know that under different circumstances my father and my brothers might have changed, too. To know that there is an endless supply of love in these rooms and that we are changed by that love.

In early recovery I used to hear, “Let us love you until you can love yourself.” It felt like a puzzle, a bafflement. I didn’t think you could love someone into change. Hadn’t I tried that all those years before with disastrous results? I know now that I didn’t really love; I was just trying to control someone or to make him take care of me. In romantic relationships, and sometimes as parents, we mistakenly try to love people into changing. It generally doesn’t work.

But in AA it does. We can be loved by our AA fellows until we can love ourselves. And when we have learned to love ourselves, we can then truly love others.

The Other Program

Mar 16, 2012

Al-anonHere is one of those changes that happen when recovery becomes long-term: Many of us go to—or go back to—Al-Anon. Sometimes it’s a sponsor who sends us or maybe we see men and women who have as many years as we do but they seem to struggle less at home or at work or with themselves. And then we find out that they are “double-winners”—people who practice the AA and Al-Anon programs.

There is a funny thing about recovery in AA. In the early days we had to learn to be less selfish. We learned to consider the impact of our behavior on other people. We laugh at the Big Book story of the man who comes out of the storm cellar, surveys all the damage and declares, “Look Ma, ain’t it grand the wind stopped blowing.” We laugh. Oh yeah, no one—especially those near and dear—is applauding that we simply stopped drinking.

So we learn to listen, to consider the needs of others, to concede, to compromise.

But then, if we keep at our recovery, we reach a point where we actually have to learn to be selfish again. You may hate that word and prefer “self-caring,” but really, being selfish can be a good thing. It’s almost like we have to go back over the old ground again and say, “So what do I want?” and, “What do I need—even if it makes someone else unhappy?” And now, with some sober time, we can learn to take care of ourselves and let other people be unhappy—or deal with their own feelings. Yes, it’s another one of those paradoxes in the program.

And when we find that it’s hard to know what we want, or to ask for what we want, someone near us—maybe a sponsor or a friend in our home group—notices. They see that we don’t take care of our needs and we are invited—or sent—to an Al-Anon meeting.This is another reason why we want to keep going to meetings even after years and years of recovery: We want to keep growing in all the ways that—on the surface—have little to do with consuming alcohol, but which have everything to do with living a sober life.

And this too: After many years in AA most of us have friends and probably partners who are, yeah, alcoholics—they may be sober but it’s our thinking as much as our drinking that keeps all of us coming back.

The rules for beginners in Al-Anon are the same as those in AA: Try six meetings, try different meetings, raise your hand, listen to the people with experience, read the literature and even do service. And try not to compare. It’s hard to be a beginner again, but the payoff is that there’s a real multiplier effect from working both programs.

It really is the best of both worlds: To be able to care for yourself and for others with honesty and peace. Detaching with love. Continuing to grow. One day at a time.


The 10-and-Older Club

Mar 16, 2012

Family_circleWhen we were “younger” in recovery, we heard the disclaimers about length of time. Things like: “The person who got up earliest this morning is the one with the most sobriety,” or “All anyone has are these 24 hours.”

We were cautioned to not be fooled into false security based on the number of years sober. They said, “While you’re in meetings, your addiction is over in the corner doing push-ups,” or “The longer you are sober the closer you are to a drink.”

These sayings are intended to remind us to not take stock in days or numbers. We were warned against hubris and pride. So why make a point of the ten-year mark in recovery? Why a special blog for men and women who’ve been sober ten, or 15, or more years? Because while the basics remain: “Pray,” “Don’t Drink” and “Work the Steps,” some things, after ten years, really are different.

Those of us in “double-digit” recovery have learned that the Twelve Steps and a recovery program are part of a good life but that even these do not protect us from illness, job troubles, problems with kids and family, all manner of loss—the things that fall in the basket called “life happens.”

Plenty of “life” still happens to recovering people and sometimes, when you have a few years of sobriety, it can feel like life hits harder or hurts more simply because we have fewer “helpers” to ameliorate our pain. We also know, in our wiser moments, that not having painkillers—either the chemical or human kind—helps us get through things faster even though we can still hurt like hell some days.

What people in long recovery have, however, is a set of skills and a richness of sober experience to fall back on.

We recognize our patterns; we are able to cut through our defenses sooner; we learn not to fight the inevitable. We surrender when we see the wall approaching, instead of waiting, as we did in the past, to slam into it.

We are also able to see the things that happen to us with just a tiny bit more perspective. By the time we reach double-digit recovery, most of us have had at least one or two experiences of something we were sure wasn’t supposed to happen. And in many cases, we have the experience of finding that these turn out to be spiritual lessons or stepping-stones to something really great.

But ten-plus years can have glitches and questions. This blog is to help all of us compare notes, to see that there is common ground, and to reassure ourselves that there is no one right way to be recovering.

Some of us still go to three meetings a week while others go once a week or once a month, and yet others simply attend retreats a couple of times a year. For some of us meetings take place in new ways. Yes, that’s officially unofficial, but we know it happens.

Recovering folks meet for lunch or dinner or take walks together. While these gatherings lack the preamble or a prayer, the conversations offer the continuity of community with other recovering people.

But what about service? Giving back? All those things we did to get well or that we aspired to when we were “growing up” in AA?

Some of us do bake cakes and chair meetings for our home group while others have taken the slogan: “Service is gratitude in action” and extended it out into the broader community. The words and settings may be different and we may not read the steps out loud but when we teach adults to read or counsel teens after school or coach someone with mental retardation to compete in the Special Olympics, it’s still service and gratitude.

The God question, which was there on our first day in recovery, remains. We learned early on that we had to figure out who, or what, we were turning our lives over to. That desire has led us down some pretty interesting paths. You can find Twelve Step people in Quaker meetings, yoga classes, meditation workshops and in every kind of church or synagogue. We’re probably disproportionately represented in alternative forms of worship and New Age studies: we pray, meditate, chant and participate in rituals. We’ve taken many a road less traveled on our way out of the woods.

When we were new to recovery, we measured time much like parents do with a new baby. We gave our recovery “age” in numbers of weeks or months, and then we turned two and began to count in years. Very likely, in those “younger” years of recovery someone with more time said to us, “It will take three to five years to get out of the woods” and we wondered how we’d ever survive. As we closed in on that crucial five-year mark we realized that while we had more stability and a new set of habits, that “edge of the forest” we’d been hoping for was still a long way off.

In the five- to six-year stage we begin to understand that it actually takes five years just to get into the woods. At that stage we can start to tell “forest from the trees.”

The newcomer might be surprised to learn that “old timers” still have problems and struggles.

At the same time, our lives outside of AA grow. Our careers develop, we have kids, become better parents and reclaim relationships with family. We find ourselves welcome at holidays and sometimes we are even the hosts for special family events. Humor returns for us and for those around us. Enough of our amends are done so that we can laugh when we talk about the past with those who witnessed it up close. Our lives are rich and full.

Many of us change jobs and sometimes careers in these years. Going back to school is not uncommon. It’s a consequence of learning more about ourselves. We choose new careers—and new fields—based on who we really are and what we really like, rather than what would please or impress someone else.The day comes, however, when we realize that the world outside is as engaging as the one inside the rooms.

Our confidence in chairing Twelve Step meetings allows us to say “Yes” to chair the PTA or the Rotary. Our comfort at public speaking, developed from years of standing at the AA podium, has prepared us to speak at meetings and conferences of our professional groups. Our human relations skills, honed by dealing with so many different kinds of people in AA, allow us to rise as leaders in our business or community. Life gets bigger thanks to AA, but at the end of our first decade in recovery we use these keys, which we cut in Twelve Step rooms, to open the door leading out of them.

This is not an easy stage. But it’s important to remember that it is in fact a stage. We wonder if we’re bad or wrong. Certainly there are people in the rooms wonder: “Where are all the old timers?” and “Where are the people with ten or 20 years?”

When we hear those questions we wonder; we doubt ourselves; we feel shame. But when we look closely at our lives, we seem okay. It’s true we don’t go to as many meetings and we don’t make coffee at our home group anymore, but life is good. We want to be sure that we’re not kidding ourselves, that doing our recovery differently is a move toward growth and not toward denial or relapse.

This blog is for you—enjoying your recovery and the blessings it brings—but also enjoy the challenges of “practicing these principles in all your affairs” years later.

Join me at every week as I raise questions, share my story and ask for your wisdom on a life of recovery and What Comes Next.


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