Aha

Sometimes I wonder why a piece of recovery wisdom exists.

And then I get it. I totally get it.

For instance, at the beginning of every meeting of my sober fellowship, the moderator reads a statement reminding us that our program:

Is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution, does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes.

For years, every time I heard these words, my inner toddler asked:

WHY?

My inner toddler can be a bit thick sometimes.

But I truly did not understand why it is necessary for a program of recovery to not allow any mention of outside issues at its meetings.

At the same time, I did find it remarkable that in my home city of Washington, DC—where debate over every imaginable topic and passionate advocacy is a way of life for many—my recovery gatherings were usually as serene and devoid of tension as a meditation garden.

I did not put it all together. Until today.

Someone calling into my recovery phone meeting ignored the group’s prohibitions against touching on politically charged issues or giving medical advice, and implied that COVID vaccines, some of which contain small amounts of alcohol, could cause relapses and were dangerous to alcoholics.

It is not my place in this blog or at a sobriety meeting to try to convert anyone to my belief that COVID vaccines are saving millions of lives, and that a small amount of ethanol in an injection (used as a stabilizer) is not going to put alcoholics in danger of relapsing. Nor persuade anyone of the enormous risk to oneself and others posed by refusing the vaccine.

I do know that the heart sickness I felt whilst overhearing someone at my meeting trying to frighten others out of getting a potentially lifesaving inoculation upset me to the point where I hung up. It ruined the meeting for me.

And made me grateful for the wisdom of my recovery program’s founders in designing their enterprise to be focused solely on the practical and spiritual aspects of staying sober.

And thankful for the daily sanctuary my sober program offers me from the bitter divisiveness so much in evidence in my beautiful city and my country in these trying times.

Whatever side I may be on, whatever advocacy may seem righteous, whatever actions I may want to take to rectify the world’s wrongs, I cannot do anything if I lose my sobriety.

So I get it now. I really do.

Steaming

When the weather sizzles, tempers heat up—and mine is no exception. That is why I must be especially mindful at this time of year to practice:

Restraint of tongue and pen.

With those words in mind, I would like to apologize in advance to any readers who feel that I should have refrained from sharing the following tale, which admittedly touches on a subject that would be unsuitable for polite conversation over a shared repast.

I will now return to the topic of restraining oneself when temperatures soar, and to the regrettably repugnant incident that inspired this post.

Was I ever ready to raise a ruckus yesterday when I exited my back door and discovered at the edge of my parking space a revolting oversized “present” from somebody’s oversized dog. Fuming, I rushed into my house, found a large shoebox and wrote on it in large print with a purple marker:

SHAME ON YOU FOR LEAVING THIS FOR YOUR NEIGHBORS TO STEP IN. TAKE IT WITH YOU AND THROW IT OUT!!!

Still incensed, I scooped up the “present” with a plastic bag, dropped it in the shoebox and placed the box on top of a small patio table. Next I positioned the table where anyone cruising the alley for a canine commode could easily view my impactful display and be shamed into removing any puppy “presents” from the vicinity. Or maybe, if I got really lucky, the person responsible for the unwanted “gift” would return and take it away.

Then I marched back into my house to sulk and harumph on the couch.

None of this made me feel any better.

Indeed I felt worse for escalating things. With my irate actions, I was embracing and perpetuating the negative nose-thumbing energy of the dog walker who had sullied my parking space. I was not, as recovery teaches me to do:

Living in the solution.

Nor was I following the sober advice to:

Keep my side of the street clean.

I decided to try a different approach. Rather than wait (in vain) for the culprit to return, view my sign and sheepishly dispose of the doggie waste, I resolved to solve the problem myself. I retrieved the shoebox, bagged it and dropped it into the trash.

Immediately I felt better. It seemed that cleaning up the mess, which removed an eyesore (to say nothing of a hazard for sandal-clad feet), was what we refer to in sobriety as “doing the next right thing.”

I must confess, however, that since this unfortunate incident I have been keeping a suspicious eye on the folks walking their pups in the alley. I am even harboring a tiny hope that one day I might catch and scold a scofflaw in the act of letting his pooch leave a “present” alongside my car.

I can live with that. As it says in the sober literature:

We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow….

Cicada Season

There is no wiser piece of sober wisdom than this:

More will be revealed.

How resonant were those words as I stepped outside this morning and heard the otherworldly humming of the cicadas and saw all around me the remarkable drama of their mating and death. Every 17 years, millions of these giant insects tunnel out of the soil, fly or climb into the trees, summon a mate with their haunting music, lay their eggs in tiny twigs, then fall from the trees and die. Soon after, the cicada hatchlings descend from the twigs and burrow deep into the earth to start the cycle again.

I was thinking about the last time the cicadas appeared, which was the summer of 2004. It feels like a lifetime ago–before my alcoholic drinking, before my recovery, and before I had the self-awareness to know that I was a dry drunk on the way to wrecking everything I loved in my life.

The cicadas terrified me back then as they crawled slowly across my lawn and lurched into the trees. I was horrified by their blood red eyes and the way their corpses piled up on the sidewalks. It would be many years before sobriety taught me to strive for courage, patience and kindness.

In the summer of 2004, I was practicing self-centered fear in all my affairs. It fills me with shame to think of all the times back then when I should have been kinder.

I recall with particular sadness a garden party I attended during that long-ago cicada season with a man, now deceased, whom I will always love dearly. We were a passionate romantic pair engaged in the painful process of unraveling. I remember losing my temper with both the insects, which were flying into the summer hats and plastic cups of the party guests, and my beau, who was wounding my sensitive feelings with his sarcasm. I departed the fete in a huff. Later, my beloved knocked on my door and made an impassioned plea for my forgiveness and for our relationship. Foolishly, I turned him away.

We broke up soon after and in the wake of our split I watched myself evolve from a dry drunk into a real alcoholic. By the time I got sober and began to learn the gentler ways of recovery he was already involved with someone else. Now he is gone.

The returning insects have brought poignant memories today. But also gratitude for the revelations that have come with time and sobriety.

I felt pangs of sadness on my morning stroll. But I was comforted by the surprising patience and empathy with which my heart greeted the cicadas crawling up the crape myrtles to sing their sweet and fleeting mating songs.

Ouch Again

Sober sayings can come to mind unexpectedly. Here’s one that popped into my head, with a twinge of remorse, two nights ago at a hospital emergency room:

Easy does it.

I was sitting in an examining cubicle, watching my thumb bleed into a container of saline solution. A cheery young doctor had told me to soak my injured finger, which I had sliced with a kitchen knife earlier in the evening, and promised to return promptly to close the wound with surgical glue. I was gazing obsessively at the crimson water, thinking of shark attacks and people bleeding out on TV hospital dramas and wondering how long it would take before I fainted from the loss of blood.

Being a drama queen is not sober. But so hard to give up.

At any rate, the reason “easy does it” came to mind at that moment was that as I watched my bleeding thumb and mind-tripped morbidly, it occurred to me that the reason for my wound was a refusal to kick back and chill. Specifically, the weapon with which I had turned my thumb into chum was purchased in a rash and impulsive mood in which I had failed to notice the knife’s uncanny resemblance to the one brandished by Michael the slasher in the Halloween movies.

I ordered the knife a few weeks ago through an online delivery service. As an over-excited home-delivery newbie, I was thrilled to discover that the service would not only bring groceries or drug store items to my doorstep but also shop for me at my favorite home goods emporium. And I must confess that pan-addictive shopaholic that I am, I went a little nutty with my ordering, clicking on all kinds of kitchen utensils that were above my skill grade as a chef, including the deadly carving implement. Had I looked a little more closely at the size (large) and the sharpness (razor) of the utensil or perhaps calmed down long enough to realize that I had already ordered a set of smaller safer knives, and didn’t need more deadly weapons for my kitchen drawer, I might have spared myself the pain of injury and the anxious vigil watching my blood spill ominously into a plastic vial.

If only I had reminded myself that the sober approach to shopping, and to everything, was to take it easy.

I am happy to report that all went well at the hospital. The doctor returned in a timely fashion and glued my thumb back together and today I am bandaged and my hand is pain free.

I am still, however, wincing with emotional distress from the lesson.

But grateful, as always, for the wisdom to be found at the end of any misadventure. And exceedingly glad to still possess ten fingers and ten toes.

Pawsing

Time to out my bad old self again. And express gratitude to my program of recovery for bailing me out once more.

I am thankful in particular for the following piece of sober wisdom:

As we go through the day we pause when agitated or doubtful and ask for the right thought or action.

Slowing my roll is a huge part of staying sober: Restraint and moderation, taking a breath before speaking or acting. When I act out impulsively, when I unloose negative emotions, I am likely to experience the resentments, relationship conflict and intolerable emotional pain that trigger my addiction.

And so I am very grateful that I paused when agitated recently and checked in with my Higher Power. It made all the difference.

Some of my readers may be familiar with my emotionally unsober antics on Amtrak’s quiet car, and the many lessons I learned there about trying to control a situation over which I had no power. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been unable to play Queen of the Rails, but my desire to take command and enforce justice where I have no business doing so is alive and well.

I have, as you may have noticed, simply switched the focus of my need to control from the train to the streets of my DC neighborhood.

And so it was that I found myself on a recent afternoon once again fuming on my dog walk, ignoring the sweetness of cool spring air and pastel azaleas in glorious bloom. The object of that day’s righteous wrath was another of my poor neighbors, whose crime, I noted, was not only a failure to mask up when out in his backyard but also, I observed from a distance as I embarked on my stroll, allowing his large doberman to run unleashed up and down the alley behind our houses. My tiny Lhasa, Kirby, correctly leashed as usual, would be no match, and perhaps even a quick snack, for this wild beast on the loose when we returned as we usually did via the alley.

But thanks be to sobriety no such scene came to pass.

As Kirby and I meandered down the alley on our return, I noticed that the gates to my neighbor’s yard were closed and the doberman was gamboling safely within. Not only that but when I paused in my agitation, conferred with my Higher Power about how to behave, and chose to greet rather than glare at my neighbor, he invited me and Kirby to join him and his dog in the backyard. We did, and the dogs cavorted around happily while my homie and I made pleasant small talk. After a few minutes, Kirby and I left, with a smiling invitation to come back any time for more off-leash play.

I returned home, humbled and relieved that my Higher Power had saved me from an unnecessary conflict with the fellow up the street. And observed that sometimes ’tis I who needs leashing.

I feel very grrrateful.

Triage

Not too long ago, I heard a reading at one of my sober meetings that addressed the pitfalls of getting overly proud of our sobriety–puffing ourselves up about how virtuous and clean our lives and our souls have become. Lately I have been learning that I need to be mindful of letting too much pride and ego creep into my recovery.

Specifically I need to be watchful about trying to be too helpful with others. Aiding our fellows is a pillar of every recovery program, essential in losing our selfishness. But when my pride and ego become overly invested in helping my loved ones, I tend to go too far, get too enmeshed, do too much, say too much. Usually I end up feeling hurt and used and under appreciated. And it’s largely my fault for allowing myself to become too invested in and proud of my role as caretaker.

These dilemmas bring to mind a story that was something of an urban legend among my friends and neighbors a few decades ago about a case of compassion that may have gone too far.

There was a doctor who once lived in my neighborhood, a lovely gentleman known for his brilliance, his empathy and his unfailing ability to make rapid and correct choices when it came to handling challenging cases.

This compassionate doctor lived next door to a sweet family that had a very old and very sick cat which they adored. As legend has it, one weekend, the family departed for a brief overnight visit with some friends, leaving their delicate pet to rest comfortably at home with an ample supply of food and water. While the family was away, the fragile feline somehow got out of the house and went to the doctor’s front stoop where it collapsed in evident distress. Upon discovering the cat, the kindly doctor donned his triage hat, determined that the kitty was in the throes of an agonizing demise and made the difficult but arguably compassionate choice to have it euthanized.

He put his neighbor’s cat to sleep.

The legend as I heard it did not include specific details about the cat’s condition nor how easy it would have been for the doctor to identify the kitty as belonging to his neighbor and thereby make the decision to return the cat to its own backyard and leave the timing of its trip across the rainbow bridge in the hands of the kitten’s own Higher Power.

I do know that the doctor was as kindly as he could be and the cat’s owners as devoted to their pet as is humanly possible. Relations between the two families were understandably strained from that day forward. The consensus on the block was that while the doctor’s actions were understandable he had gone a bit too far in trying to be helpful.

It is a truism that not all help is wanted, even if needed. If we go too far in trying to practice the recovery advice to help others without simultaneously practicing restraint, humility and moderation, if we take too much pride in our helpfulness and become too pushy about it, we may end up feeling wounded, resentful, or guilty of going too far and hurting someone we are trying to help.

Perhaps the doctor should have detached with love from the cat. Perhaps he should have gone around the neighborhood asking who the owners were until he found out, and then gently placed the feline back in its own back yard. Or brought the kitty inside and waited for the owners to return.

I am very grateful that my recovery program has a suggestion for what to do when I am feeling stuck or unsure about what action to take or refrain from taking:

We must pause when agitated and ask our Higher Power for a suggestion.

Call it spiritual triage. It makes sense when I am trying to do the next right thing, no matter what pressing problem or needy being knocks at my door.

Comings and Goings

One of the most basic pieces of recovery wisdom, and often the first one that we learn, is:

Keep coming back.

This gentle three-word suggestion is not as mindlessly obvious as it seems.

One of the subtler truths that I have learned from faithfully attending recovery meetings is that often at a sober gathering I hear exactly what I need to hear in order to stay away from my addiction or resolve a painful personal dilemma.

Today, for instance, the focus of my noon telephone meeting was the relationship troubles so frequently suffered by people prone to drinking, drugging and other deadly obsessions.

Someone read a passage from our sober literature that defined with simple brilliance the interpersonal problems of the addict: We either want to dominate and control our loved ones or clutch onto them with a desperate dependency.

Some of us, like this writer, have a tendency at our worst to do both at the same time–which tends to clear your social calendar and empty your life of relationships in about a minute. In my case, fierce dependency combined with tyrannical attempts to control invariably led to fighting, fleeing and goodbye.

I am grateful that I am learning in recovery to:

Not ask too much of my loved ones.

Practice:

Restraint of tongue and pen.

And remember that:

I have no control over people, places or things.

Putting into practice these sober sayings about relationships is not easy. It requires a lighter and kinder approach to others. One has to get used to requesting rather than demanding, understanding rather than judging, and taking care of one’s own feelings and needs much of the time rather than insisting that loved ones be our babysitters, psychiatrists or servants.

It also helps to follow the sober advice to pause when I am experiencing difficulties with another and take a step back rather than lashing out or making unreasonable demands and to ask my Higher Power for guidance or clarity when I am unsure what to do in a conflict with a loved one.

There’s even a sober saying for what to do when I blow it:

When I am wrong, I promptly admit it.

I hope you enjoyed this share. And I hope (but will never insist or whine about it, I promise) that you keep coming back!

Detaching From Fear

To my readers:

I am so grateful for the privilege of sharing with you. And in addition to expressing my deepest gratitude, I want to apologize for not posting very often of late. I am focusing my energies on another writing project and on a recent change of residence. These posts, however, and especially your visits to this page, are a huge part of my sobriety, my life, my thankfulness and my joy. I don’t take you or any of the blessings brought to me by this endeavor for granted and plan to devote as much time to this blog as I can. I am ever mindful of the sober saying that I am likely to lose anything I put ahead of my recovery. So, first things first.

Sometimes I hear a piece of sober wisdom so powerful that it changes my day, my week, my year, and most importantly that stinking thinking to which we addictive types are so susceptible. The possibility of encountering such life-saving inspiration is one of many reasons why I try to attend without fail the two phone meetings that have miraculously entered my life as a result of the pandemic.

And today it happened once again. I overheard something at my mid-day meeting that flipped the negative script that my alcoholic brain was feverishly crafting from the moment I woke up this morning.

The topic for discussion was fear and in particular the fearlessness with which we in recovery are supposed to do our soul-searching inventory of character defects and our past and present misdeeds. The moderator read from our recovery literature (AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) about the role that fear plays in our resentments, our bad behavior, the destruction of our lives and our relationships and, ultimately, our alcoholic drinking. Then our meeting leader shared about the type of fear that has caused her, and many of us, the most trouble:

We need to be wary of the fear of losing something we have or not getting something we want.

Being mindful of this type of terror doesn’t mean trying to prevent the feeling of fear from cropping up. It is difficult if not impossible to completely preempt emotions from arising. What matters, our sober wisdom tells us, is how we deal with negative feelings when they do appear: how to detach from them and defuse them. The key is to use prayer and other tools we learn in recovery to restrain ourselves from acting on our fears in ways that will sabotage our lives and our relationships. I find that with any negative feeling, simply pausing long enough to be aware of it prevents me from the most destructive forms of acting out.

The wise words of the moderator really hit home today. In recent weeks I have been making myself miserable and putting myself in danger of wrecking some of my life’s greatest blessings by giving in to my fear of losing what is dearest to me or not getting what I most desire. Today’s epiphany about the destructive power of my primitive fears came just in time to save me from making some painful and regrettable mistakes.

Keeping in mind the power of fear, and specifically the fear of personal loss, goes beyond working on my own character defects and restraining my worst impulses. It helps me understand some of the incomprehensible, hurtful or even infuriating actions of the people I know, from those I love most dearly to strangers who pass me on the street. When I recognize that other people have the exact same fears as I do, and are equally vulnerable to acting on them in destructive ways, it helps me be more forgiving and compassionate, more empathetic, when my loved ones and my acquaintances behave in a fashion that strikes me as peculiar or crazy or even hurtful to me. And I am able instead of reacting in a negative way to say to myself these words from our sober literature:

God save me from getting angry at this person.

I hope this wisdom from my recovery meeting was helpful to you.

Thank you, as always, for visiting. And thank you for the blessing and privilege of sharing with you.

Growing Season

It’s that time again. Time to out my bad old self.

When I was new to recovery, I didn’t really get the connection between resentments and addictive drinking. Resentments? What resentments? I did not realize how many of them I had until I stopped drowning them in fermented fluids.

Now I get it. For some reason, the hermit’s existence I have been leading as a demographically vulnerable person ducking COVID-19 has made me cranky and crabby beyond belief. I have become a hoarder of pet peeves.

Thank goodness I have my beloved sober slogans to shore me up. Especially when they manifest themselves in my life.

For example:

My Higher Power will do for me what I cannot do for myself.

Every so often, when my spirits are most in need of lightening and brightening, HP relieves me of my resentments. I am so grateful for it.

Today was such a day.

As readers of my posts know all too well, I am not always at my best when strolling in my neighborhood. In spite of the awe-inspiring beauty of early spring–magnolia and cherry buds budding, birds trilling, patterned bark on crape myrtle trees evoking the fauvist beauty of a Cezanne–I wickedly ignore the sweetness and softness that surround me. Instead, I focus on the flaws in the scenery.

Today I was obsessing about the fact that some of my wealthier neighbors have hired landscapers to plant fancy gardens on the few public strips of grass where my dog can relieve himself. Not only have my well-heeled homies shamelessly annexed public property, and planted it pretentiously, but also posted signs reminding dog-owning commoners like myself to scoop the poop.

One set of neighbors made a big show of their appropriation of public land recently by bringing in a large noisy crew of gardeners to freshen up their purloined turf with a flurry of blowing, clipping and spreading expensive mulch around the elaborate plantings.

Each day, as I amble grumpily past this particular family’s stolen piece of paradise, I sometimes fantasize about allowing my little dog to leave a large “present” at the center of the perfect plantings and painstakingly laid hardwood chips. And today seemed like the ideal opportunity to do so.

As luck would have it, my dog decided to choose for his commode-du-jour my fancy neighbor’s pampas grass. And I thought to myself, “Should I just leave it today instead of picking it up? It would serve them right for stealing public property and showing off about it.”

But I didn’t. I could not ignore that my Higher Power was faintly but audibly imparting to me the sober wisdom to be kind and patient to everyone, especially those who test my kindness and try my patience.

So I cleaned up after my canine. And then received another and totally unexpected gift from my HP.

As my pooch and I resumed our stroll, I noticed that someone was unrolling the window of a shiny new van parked beside the pampas grass. Inside the car was a pleasant looking woman who smiled sweetly and said:

“Thank you so much for cleaning up after your dog. I am so grateful when people clean up after their dogs in front of my house. Not everyone does.”

Ashamed, I mumbled a sheepish, “You are welcome,” as I realized that this lovely soft-spoken lady was the very one whose designer grass I was dreaming of sullying with the help of my pup. I was so thankful that I had not surrendered to my resentments.

And grateful for the graceful way in which my Higher Power always plants (and when necessary replants) me and my attitude exactly where we need to be to thrive and grow.

Rubble Trouble

I am so grateful that my recovery meeting today focused on a saying I have not yet shared in this space. It’s a wonderful one:

Drop the rock.

The metaphor is fairly simple but the message is profound. Staying sane and sober means letting go of heavy emotional baggage: our resentments, our remorse, our fears and traumas, our character defects. It means asking our Higher Power to give us a hand in unburdening ourselves–which brings to mind another great slogan:

Let go and let God.

Letting go sounds a lot easier than it is. We addictive types can be tenacious when it comes to clutching onto everything that is weighing us down. I suspect there’s a part of me that finds my psychic luggage to be protective, even comforting. I can hide behind it, lean on it. It gives structure to my identity and my life.

It also holds me back and drags me down.

Drop the rock? I have a bulging sack of boulders. They are not unlike the collection of minerals I prized as a child. I like to dump out my bag of big rocks at least once a day and gaze at them. I ponder their essence and their mysteries, hold them in my hands and feel their weight. They enthrall and exhaust me.

One of my favorite collections of metaphorical rocks consists of every important relationship I have had in my life: Friends and family, men and women, even pets. I love to sit myself down with a weighty pile of connection boulders arrayed in front of me and consider each tie. Are we still in touch? Is our association happy and healthy? What occurred and who is to blame? What was my part in our undoing? I gaze with enormous relief at the bonds I know I can still count on, and a few I hope to revive with a call, email or reunion after the relationship-crushing pandemic has been vanquished by vaccines. I contemplate with sorrowful affection those loved ones who have departed this world. Then I turn miserably and remorsefully to face the rubble of my ruined alliances.

How to drop these rocks?

Fortunately my sobriety program is designed to help me let go of the things I need to jettison, no matter how weighty or ancient my emotional burdens.

Our Serenity Prayer, for instance, tells me to accept what I cannot change. For instance, I could stop dragging around memories of hopeless past relationships and torturing myself with them. This lovely incantation also exhorts me to take actions that are available to me. I could, for example, focus on reviving friendships that can be renewed instead of holding onto loneliness or fearing abandonment. More boulders unloaded. Finally, I am encouraged by my sober fellowship to make amends to loved ones I have hurt, instead of endlessly shouldering sentiments of remorse and self-loathing.

Just imagining these helpful actions makes me feel lighter. And ready to collect, in lieu of emotional stones, something airy and spiritual and uplifting.

Like love.

Or prayers.

Or a sense of rebirth.

Or hope that springs.

‘Tis definitely the season for dropping the rock.