Monday, August 14, 2023

Playing with Anxiety

 [Note: While I just published this post today (8/13/23), it was actually drafted in December 2020.  I will write more on this recovery about what followed, but know that it took another two years of hard and daily work for me to eventually experience a significant breakthrough with my struggles with anxiety and depression. But I did make it thru that difficult period sober (today I’m 23 days, 9 months and 21 years worth of days sober)…and still married to my only wife of now 42+ years!]

I have been struggling with anxiety for the last couple of years - well before the beginning of this global pandemic. While I have been going this, I trusted in the process I’ve been “practicing” since waking up sober 14 days, 8 months and 19 years ago — and at times the process takes on the quality of “trudging”.  It’s hard, not easy. It requires lots and lots of effort — and even more surrendering and giving up on things, especially unhealthy habits of doing those things that simply no longer work. 

And, equally important, has been the need to reach out for gobs of support, raising my hands asking for help!  Both inside and outside the rooms of AA — in particular, to trained and skilled therapists. 

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Passing of Time

I’ve not posted to this blog for over 3 years and wanted to check-in about what has gone on with me since my last post. I know that when members of AA disappear from my regular meetings, I too quickly jump to assuming the worst: i.e.,they’ve relapsed, drank or used. And if so, they may be having a hard time coming back into the rooms because of the shame, whether from one or more others or from within themselves — with no outside help needed.

Personally, I’ve always believed that my premature death will not be a consequence of another drink as it would be from the resulting shame or the fear thereof.  To remove that theoretical obstacle to whatever natural longevity I have, I’ve tried to defang this known obstacle in a variety of ways:

  • Whenever a member comes back into the rooms after an admitted relapse and raises their hand as a newcomer, I do everything in my power to welcome them back and do what I can to avoid having them shamed in any way.
  • And I usually admit my selfish motive underneath my kindness:  I know that a drink is always a possibility for me and there is no absolute defense against that possibility (were that not true, the 1st Step would be a joke or a lie.  Having an absolute defense to relapse is, for me, an assertion of powerfulness over alcohol. So why kindness to the newcomer?
  • I explain to the newcomer that my kindness is selfish to the core: I want every recipient of my effusive kindness to remember my kindness at a future date and time when the hand raising newcomer is Me, Mike L, alcoholic. And the knowledge of this collective of others “like me” will return my earlier kindness in spades. 
But for the last several years, the main thing I do to keep my recovery “fresh” is to disclose my sober time in the order of Days-Months-Years. Today, for example, I know that I have two days, four months and 18 years worth of days. Technically, I don’t “have” that time — it’s not a possession. I can’t hold it.  I’m in this day, I don’t own it. 

This practice came about after someone in my home group talked about a guy in one of his regular meetings who drank again after 30+ years of sobriety. Luckily, he made it back to his home group and raised his hand as being in his first 24 hours. No one in the group shamed him in any way — they just welcomed him back. Several weeks later, one of his close friends sat next to him before the meeting began and leaned over to ask his friend, “What do you think happened to lead to taking another drink?”  There was no shaming involved - his friend was just curious.  The guy didn’t get defensive and just looked down at the floor — maybe while he was looking within — and then it came to him. “I think what happened is that I got used to counting years and eventually I forgot how to count days.”

I don’t ever want to forget how to count days. 

Take care!

Mike L. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Practice of Sponsorship

Over the years, I have learned certain ways to begin (and to end) my meetings with sponsees:  To begin, I start with:  Please share with me what you've done to stay sober since we last met?  I want a high level but somewhat detailed summary of the basics of whatever they've done since we last met with the intent to stay sober: e.g., number of meetings, instances of trying to help others, step work, prayer/meditation practices, gratitude list writing, physical exercise... whatever they've done with the intent to stay sober and improve the quality of their lives. 

When they've finished with that (it shouldn't take but a few minutes), I then ask them what I can do to help. If they are going through the step process, I check in with where they are with the step they are working on...

Usually, once the struggle of the week/month comes up, the issue of "wantingness vs willingness" inevitably comes up. Everyone (including me) struggles with something and who better to share that with than a sponsor.  

I don't like wallowing in the weeds of these struggles, but some of that's necessary in order to get to the deeper roots of these struggles. Most of us like to spend (waste) energy on what's wrong with others or what others should be doing and for me, that often turns out to be a total waste of time. I like to say those people are doing what they need to do -- the only question for them to ask themselves is: "now what do I need to do (or not do)?".

I find that most people already know what they need to do or not do, but they simply don't want to do (or not do) it!  So I usually just ask them, based on everything you learned so far in your recovery, what do you think/feel you should do or not do?  Once they tell me (and it makes sense), I ask them, "Well, what's keeping you from doing or not doing that?"

Inevitably, it comes down to them admitting that they simply don't want to do or not do what their gut tells them they should. I call this the notwantingness problem: where we end the analysis of what should I do once we get to the seeming roadblock of notwantingness. 

I usually confront the "I don't want to" statements with a gleeful Tony the Tiger: "Grrreaaattt!".  If they are a new sponsee, they look puzzled at my seeming inappropriate joy at their conundrum in life. I explain that the reason for my joy is that they have arrived at the Challenge of Notwantingness and that only when we get here can we practice the long tested and valued A.A. principle of Willingness.  

Turns out Notwantingness is the essential prerequisite of Willingness: most of us don't need willingness to eat a chocolate chip cookie (or a drink of booze or other drug of choice). No, willingness is only called for when we don't want to do something. So, it's a good sign whenever we're confronted with Notwantingness!  That's where the real productive and life changing work begins!  Willingness!

Then I remind them of something one of my sponsors is still fond of saying: The secret to long term sobriety (he has 40+ years), is learning to do things you DON'T WANT to do, with people you DON'T WANT to do them with!  

Of course, they are the ultimate Deciders since it's their life and their responsibility.  Not mine.  I do share with them that their fear of doing X is based on the Seeming Problem of Incompetence: they are afraid not because they are incapable of doing X, but rather, because they've never done X sober. That just means they are incompetent and the only remedy for incompetence is taking action, making mistakes, getting up, learning what not to do, trying again....

At the end of our hour, I always close by thanking them for distracting me from what I thought were my real problems but are now either forgotten or less problematic than I thought they were. And ultimately, my problems are examples of my own Notwantingness calling me into The Land of Willingness. 

Take care!

Mike L

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The -ISM in Alcoholism Stands For "Incredibly Shortterm Memories"

A woman showed up at today's meeting and raised her hand as being in her first 30 days of recovery. Although no one asked her for an explanation, she quickly added that she'd had 20 years sober before this relapse. And that prior to this recent relapse, she'd been to only one meeting in the prior 16 years. And that the one meeting occurred the night before her last drink. 

Apparently, not only do we in AA not shoot our wounded -- we also don't interrupt them when they need to get something important off their chest. 

When she finished, we then welcomed her back with smiles and applause. And I think she became the unofficial focus of this group of misfit drunks in recovery. 

When she got to share again, she explained that during her first four years of recovery, she'd done all the things that were suggested: sponsor, Steps, service, fellowship -- even the "God" stuff. And it worked!  She loved it. 

The only problem was she also enjoyed certain other things in life that no one else in her group enjoyed doing, at least not as much as she did: hiking, nature walks, jogging,  etc.  So she and her non-alcoholic husband gradually found new friends who happened to be neither AAs nor alcoholics. These new friends liked outdoorsy types of activities and she and her husband fit in like a glove. 

And almost without thinking or decision-making, she shared that she then slowly drifted off from meetings and other AAs. From recovery. 

She stayed sober for 16 years. During those years, she walked through some really difficult experiences without picking up a drink. At first she was aware of the fact that she wasn't drinking after each difficult time. But then, gradually, she didn't even notice her own "not drinking".  

In the end, well before the relapse, all she noticed was the pain. And the hopelessness. 

And I think by the time it was too late, she decided to go to her first meeting in 16 years: the pain was too great. 

She sat in the back. Alone. Listening to everyone else's trivial issues and stories. 

But she just couldn't raise her hand and tell them how much pain she was in or how much she desperately needed their help. 

I suspect she was silent because she was ashamed of all these feelings: someone with 20 years of sober shouldn't feel such embarrassing feelings! She felt weak and needed to appear strong. 

Ultimately, she left the meeting without speaking a word of her truth. And the next day, she drank. 

The pain was simply too much. She told us that as she was taking that first drink, she knew that whatever was to follow was not going to be good. But she drank anyway. 

She didn't know one other thing to do.  

She'd forgotten who she was years previous to that first drink. 

She'd forgotten or had never learned the difference between sober and sobriety.  

Sober is a lifeless fact or formula: me less alcohol equals sober. 

Sobriety is life itself for the recovering alcoholic, one day at a time. With all the feelings, wanted and unwanted. 

When we're told early on to hang in there, that we'll eventually feel better -- few of us realize at first hearing that no one's suggesting that recovery work filters out all "bad" or "painful" feelings and leaves only the "good" or "pleasant" ones. For me, it took years of recovery to realize that the "feel better" encouragement meant that if I did the required inner work, I would eventually begin to feel the full and glorious range of human emotions and feelings "better!" -- both the so called good and the so-called bad. 

My 30 years of using alcohol as a technique to deal with or control feelings never really worked except in temporary and illusive ways. 

As I shared in this meeting, in my experience, when sober people forget who they are -- or, more accurately, when I forget who I am as an alcoholic and think of myself as simply "sober" or worse, as someone "who has stopped drinking" then what happens for me is I start thinking that maybe I'm not really an alcoholic. 

I've come to believe that the -ism in alcoholism stands for "incredibly shortterm memories."  For me, the memories of what drinking was like start to fade away after 24-48 hours. Sometimes quickly. Sometimes slowly. 

And once I go down this mental pathway of forgetting who I am as an alcoholic, the same thing happens.  Every. Single. Fucking. Time: I decide that I'm a non-alcoholic!  

And the first thing I always do once I decide that I'm a non-alcoholic, I start thinking and obsessing about drinking alcohol. 

Or, as I've found when analyzing the half dozen drinking dreams that I've had over the last 14 years:  I just end up finding myself alone. Looking down at my hand.  And in my seemingly disembodied hand is a half empty glass of alcohol. What then happens are two simultaneous events: (1) someone, an authority figure in my life (for the last 35 years, her name has been Nancy!) or my son, walks into the room and (2) I realize where the other half of that drink is.  "FUCK!"

Dream over. Cold sweats. Shame. 

Today, I'm so grateful for this woman telling her relapse story to us today. I identify with her because, like her, I know with my whole being that "I" cannot stop drinking. That I'm an alcoholic. And that while I can't stop drinking, what I can do is stay sober "one day at a time" and that "that" day is always called "Today!"

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Interview of Dr. Earle Marsh (Author of "Physician Heal Thyself" in AA's Big Book)

I recently uploaded to YouTube an interview my sponsor did with his sponsor, Dr. Earle Marsh, a few months before Earle's death on January 13, 2003. The interview is called "Discoveries" and lasts about an hour and a half (I broke it up into three 24 minute segments, Parts I, II and III). 

Earle got sober June 15, 1953 -- two days before I was born.  Like I have mentioned here in the past, I met Earle very early in my recovery, I was 48 years old and he was 90 years old, 48 of them sober. I was scared that while AA and NA had helped my 15 year old son get sober, it was probably not going to be something that would work for me because it was too much like a cult and I'm just not a cult kinda guy. 

The fear that AA was a cult vanished the first time I heard Earle share at a meeting. He was his own man, spoke what he believed and seemed to have no concern about whether people agreed with him or not. It was only important that it rang true for him when he was sharing it. 

I've come to believe that when Earle got sober two days before my birth, he began making this particular world safe enough for an alcoholic like me to be born. And I consider it the greatest of all circumstances thst the night of Earle's death, I was there holding his hand as he took his last breath. 

Below, I've posted links to the three parts of this amazing interview of one of AA's greatest and dedicated members.  Enjoy!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Serenity Prayer: From Petition to Trickery

Almost immediately after getting sober a little over twelve years ago, I began practicing a daily morning routine: after I got in my car to begin my 65 mile commute to work, I would begin my drive by reciting out loud the Serenity Prayer.  It's one of many daily habits that I now do with little thought or decision-making. 

It's not something anyone told me to do or even suggested that it might be a good idea. It sorta just seemed like a good idea that might occupy my mind with something other than drinking. 

This deceptively simple prayer, which some people refer to as the AA prayer---one of two we stole from the Christian tradition---has started off most all of my days with a solid foundation. It was though only after years of daily practice, that I discovered several important truths hidden within this deceptively simple prayer.  This, by the way, is a common experience of mine when I practice a new healthy behavior for prolonged periods of time!

And so the most important truth was discovered only after several years of consistent daily practice: this prayer wasn't a prayer of petition as I first thought it to be when I started hearing it in most AA meetings I attended. That is, it wasn't really prayer where I petitioned (asked) God for something I wanted, something I didn't think I had or could get under my own power. 

It was only after hundreds of recitations of this seemingly simple prayer that I discovered that the Serenity Prayer is far more than a prayer of petition. It's a special kind of prayer different from all other familiar types of prayer: thanksgiving, praise, despair, etc.). Instead, it's become a unique form of prayer I call a "trick" prayer: it tricks me into a unforeseen or sought after experience of awareness where I gradually discovered that I don't get Serenity first (as a gift from God or anyone else) so that I can then accept the things I cannot change!  

Instead, I repeatedly discover after the fact that only after I accept the things I cannot change---usually after a long painful process of trying to change it!---and only then, that I then experience Serenity, a sense of peace.  Serenity isn't a prerequisite for acceptance of things I cannot change, it's the consequence!

I also discovered after hundreds of repetitions of this prayer that I don't get Courage first so that I can then change the things I can change. Rather, I fearfully and doubtfully change the things I can and then and only then can I look back and see the expression of a courage I didn't even know I had in me!  

The Serenity Prayer has tricked me thousands of times before I discovered the subtle Wisdom hidden in this prayer.  

Maybe this whole gradual awareness is a simple answer to the last request or petition made in this prayer, where we ask for "the Wisdom to know the difference" in terms of what we can and can't change. Maybe for me at least, the wisdom is discovered only through therepeated and sometimes mindless action of reciting this simple prayer. 

The other important truth I've learned about this and other prayers is that I am always free to change the wording so that the prayer more adequately expresses my thoughts and feelings, my truth. I'm free to make any prayer "mine".  Here are several of my favorite versions of the Serenity Prayer:

Serenity Prayer (My version): 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, wisdom to know the difference and the love to do the next right thing.

This added phrase, "and the love to do the next right thing" helps me re-enter life after this short moment of contemplative prayer and focus my attention so that I'm looking for opportunities to do the right thing, or more accurately, the loving thing. 

Another version I stole (permitted and even encouraged in AA!) from someone else, the "people version":

God grant me the Serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the Courage to change the people I can and the Wisdom to know that I'm those people!

I wonder what other truths I'll discover as I continue this daily routine?  Can't wait to find out. But if I do wait, I'm sure I will!