Screen Tested

Were you a whiny child? I was. Sometimes I was too scared to voice my protests, but inside my head I was feisty as heck:

“Do I have to?” “I don’t wanna!” “You can’t make me!” “I’m not gonna!”

You can imagine my dismay when I grew up, became sober, and encountered the advice to:

Live life on life’s terms.

And inside my head I heard that old familiar rhyme:

“Do I have to?” “I don’t wanna!” “You can’t make me!” “I’m not gonna!”

Life on life’s terms could not be crazier than it is in these terrible times.

And one of life’s more irritating terms, at least to me, is communicating by way of Zoom.

For months I avoided facing the inescapable fact that the new way to stay sober, and sustain precious recovery connections, involved meeting via video. I am camera shy, technologically resistant and a perfectionist. If I was going to video conference, I wanted to look as cool as John Legend at his grand piano, or as lovely as one of those chic lady pundits with towering bookshelves and elegant bone structure. It couldn’t just be plain ole me on my couch, trying to hold my computer aloft for a flattering camera angle.

So for a while I attended meetings via telephone. I became quite fond of one particular gathering where people from around the country shared their experience strength and hope.

Unfortunately, however, I have an addict’s tendency to become restless, irritable and discontent. Before long I waxed dissatisfied with my telephone fellowship. A friend of mine who was attending Zoom meetings raved about the closeness she felt with her video homies and I reflected enviously that my phone group had not led to such bonding. I tried joining my gal pal’s favorite group via telephone, but none of her friends wanted to reach out to a disembodied voice. I listened to them banter affectionately and became increasingly miserable. It seemed that if I wanted to escape my Age of Covid isolation, I was going to have to face my fears and Zoom.

So I clicked on the link and set up my computer camera. Recovery zooming seemed like fun at first. I was proud of myself. I enjoyed seeing my sober peeps onscreen. Some were lying down. Some were upside down (a technical glitch, I assumed). It was nice to attach faces to words. But then I noticed that I could also see myself–and my decidedly un-sober vanity kicked in. My face looked to me like a featureless blob looming in the frame. My hair was flat and scraggly. And my expression gave new meaning to the term Resting Witch Face. Even worse was the way I came across when I tried to improve the way I looked by flipping my hair or attempting a fake smile or, finally and disastrously, holding my computer so far away from me that I yanked out the charger and disconnected myself.

Part of living life on life’s terms is practicing acceptance in all things. And as hard as it was to accept that I am a vain old thing, I had to do it. Vanity will be the very next character defect I work on. I will pray like heck to ask my Higher Power to remove it. And until I can make peace with that blobby creature on the couch, or hire a stylist who can transform me into a crisp and chiseled professor, I am going to return to my audio meetings.

And, yes, I can hear that little voice from my childhood:

“Do I have to?” “You can’t make me!” “I don’t wanna!”

But I’m gonna.

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Going My Way?

Today was one of those days–and then some.

Was it The Feast of St. Murphy? Everything that could go wrong, did.

The closing on the sale of my apartment was postponed at the very last minute, causing me to wonder how I would cope if it fell through since I have already rented and moved into another place.

A check that I was counting on to cover checks that I had written did not arrive.

And everyone I know in my hometown of Washington, DC, is understandably cranky, anxious and, in some cases, teetering at the edge of a nervous breakdown, as we watch 20,000 National Guard troops steel themselves for whatever disaster might unfold in our beautiful city on Inauguration Day.

And wondering how long we will have to hang on to shreds of what used to be our sanity and wellbeing.

Then, for a fabulous finale, when I took a moment to sit down outside and enjoy a socially distanced cup of coffee with a dear friend, my beloved pet Lhasa decided that my coat was a fire hydrant, and took aim.

I guess all species are off their game these days.

Stressful moments like these tend to bring out my control freak. Chronic anxiety and the need to manipulate are common among addicts and alcoholics.

If only my desperate attempts to get everything to work out my way worked out. They never do.

How, for instance, was I suppose to force someone to sign closing documents who could not show up because he was hospitalized with a serious and sudden illness? And what was I supposed to do to hasten the wiring of funds I was expecting in my account, when I discovered they were missing after the bank had closed.

And tell me, I beg you, how I should correct in myself and my friends (human and canine) the plague of grumpiness and edginess that has seeped into our souls?

Seems like a sober saying would come in real handy right now. And, glory be to my HP, there is one that fits:

Let go and let God.

Easier said than done? Well, actually, the funny thing about letting go of things I cannot control or change is that it brings tremendous relief once I give myself permission to do it.

So I gave myself permission. I stopped fretting about the closing, the money or the hope that my DC loved ones and I were going to face the next few days with sunny, fun-loving optimism.

Instead, I decided to hand it all over to my Higher Power, and focus on living my life in spite of these disappointments and frustrations. Living in the present moment, one day, actually one hour, at a time.

Giving up is really grand. I recommend it.

That’s just a suggestion of course. Totally up to you.

Toxic

Some sober proverbs seem a little harsh at first. Then suddenly they make sense. Like this one:

Stick with the winners.

For years I thought those words were too judgmental and that they encouraged social snobbery in recovery circles.

And then, on an evening not too long ago, I decided that I was wrong. I began to appreciate at last the intent, and the beauty, of these words.

Or at least what they mean to me.

On that recent evening, I spoke on the phone with an acquaintance who is a drinker. She’s not a falling-down drunk but I’m pretty sure she is an alcoholic because every time I speak to her after the sun has set she acts like a quiet imbiber but a deadly one.

My acquaintance did not slur her words or scream nonsense. Her performance was more subtle. She was rude. She was resentful. She was even a little cruel. The conversation almost erupted into a fight but it didn’t because I am sober. I hung up before things degenerated into the squabble she wanted to have.

I got off the phone because I am in recovery. I used to act the way she does and I would be acting that way still if I were a drinker. Now I detest drama and squabbles.

Thank God.

And what of winners and losers? To me (and I am just speaking for myself) the aforementioned proverb is not directing sober folk to snub their fellows in recovery but warning me to stay away from alcoholics who are still drinking–unless I am engaged in escorting them to a recovery meeting. Alcoholics who are drinking are poisonous, and especially toxic if you can hear the clink of ice cubes on the other end of the phone. Trying to trust them or relate to them, outside of helping them get to a sober meeting, is a losing proposition.

And, one day at a time, with the help of my Higher Power, my sober friends and my program of recovery, I choose to win.

The Next Right Thing

In recovery we are advised to separate our sober journey from politics or causes. This does not mean that our lives cannot involve passionate commitments to political or social movements, but more that we should keep our sober meetings and meditations focused on the spiritual journey of recovery. Separating our spiritual life from our other involvements allows those of us who are blessed with the daily reprieve of sobriety to apply ourselves to our worldly engagements with greater energy, serenity and compassion.

I have to admit that it has been hard in light of recent events in my hometown of Washington, DC, to not feel overcome with outrage, and not wish to take some form of loud and impulsive action to express my views on the turmoil and terror that have invaded my city and our country. It infuriates me and breaks my heart to view the frightening scenes of violent thuggery and racist hatred.

It is challenging in the extreme to take time out from my intense feelings and center myself in recovery.

Yet if I am going to be of any use to my fellows and my country in these scary and enraging days it seems more important than ever for me to start by following the principles of my recovery program.

I feel incredibly grateful, in fact, to be committed to a program of recovery that advocates:

Restraint of tongue and pen.

as well as

Kindness and patience.

while at the same time extolling:

The courage to change the things we can.

and

Doing the next right thing.

I am especially thankful in this moment for the many prayers we say in recovery, especially the prayer of St. Francis, which helps me to be brave and hopeful and to help others on days when it is easy to hate and despair. I share it with you now in the hope that you will derive comfort and inspiration from it as well:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Power Tripping Part II

One of the most eloquent and profound sayings in recovery states that our fellowship is:

A program of attraction, not promotion.

This wise exhortation points us away from willfulness and aggression. It encourages us to practice restraint and humility. And it makes exquisite sense.

Few of us would disagree that it feels better to attract positive people and things to our lives than to exhaust ourselves trying to force something to happen.

Attraction is not magic. It requires discipline and patience–and ultimately calls on us to feel grateful for the good things we attract instead of wishing resentfully for something else or something more.

I was reminded of this sage principle earlier today as I donned my invisible crown and pretended to walk my dog whilst surreptitiously patrolling my neighborhood for people flouting mask and distancing etiquette.

The need to be queen is a stubborn character defect.

This afternoon’s pedestrians appeared to be a considerate lot. I smiled at them approvingly from under my mask and greeted a few with regal hellos. Alas, my triumphant mood turned to exasperation when I spied an unmasked woman sauntering jauntily in my direction with an irritating grin on her uncovered mug.

Apoplectic with irritation, I tried to find words to chide this inconsiderate baggage–until I heard her say:

“OMG, I forgot my mask. I am so glad I saw you wearing yours. You reminded me. Thank you!”

My erstwhile nemesis scampered back to her car to don her face covering, while I, disarmed and chastened, reflected on the stunning truth of the attraction-not-promotion saying. Wearing my own mask was enough. Forget scolding my neighbors or issuing imperious orders. All I needed to do was set a good example.

Then I hastened home to once again bury my tiara in a dresser drawer. And observe that:

Sober proverbs rule!

Power Tripping

I don’t know what I would do without my recovery wisdom to guide me each day.

Yet there are some precepts I resist with every foolish fiber of my psyche. Even when I know to my soul what I oughter be doing, sometimes I just don’t wanna do what I should. I refuse to take that most fundamental of sober actions, which is to accept the truth of recovery’s truisms and the sagacity of its sayings.

Here is a sober mantra so obvious and basic I feel ashamed that I wrestle with it on a daily basis. But I do:

I have no control over people, places and things.

You may be familiar with my struggle. Or maybe you struggle similarly.

Every few posts I return to this topic and bemoan my penchant for believing that I have domain over the world around me, and my embarrassing attempts to install myself as queen of all that I survey.

This need to be regal tends to arise in situations where rules are not being followed. I perceive a power vacuum and believe it is my job to take charge over people, places and things. Readers of this blog may recall that my control freakishness peaked pre-covid whilst riding Amtrak’s Quiet Car.

You might think that because I have stopped using public transportation due to the pandemic, I might also have stopped trying to be hall monitor of any space I occupy.

Alas, no.

I had a chance to test this theory just the other day while walking my dog in my new DC neighborhood. I am sorry to say that rather than walk, I chose instinctively to patrol my new turf, if only inside my mind. I decided, unbidden, that it was my job to ensure that everyone on the street was observing the scientifically-based recommendation, if not legally enforceable law, to wear a mask over nose and mouth and maintain six-foot distancing from other pedestrians. Everywhere I looked people were flouting those lifesaving rules: young people, old people, babysitters, fellas with leaf blowers and one chatty postal worker who sauntered up to every door running her mouth sans masque.

As the self-appointed doyenne of street etiquette, I grew despondent. What should I do? What could I do? I considered my options.

The first scheme that popped into my head was to approach those not wearing masks and suggest that they do so. The problem with this idea, I reasoned, was that I might run into an irate anti-masker who would rip off my facial covering and sock me in the nose while showering me with toxic-droplet-laden vocal expletives. Not a good plan.

A kinder, gentler and less provocative approach might be to carry a supply of paper masks in my pocket and hand them silently to all offenders. This strategy, however, might still trigger a violent reaction. Someone might ball up the mask and strike me with it.

Finally I considered setting up a little folding table outside my house, piling it high with masks and placing a polite sign encouraging passersby to take one and use it. This seemed to be the best option until I remembered that if you leave objects with any value curbside they are likely to be snatched up and sold online.

In the end I had to admit that I still have no control over people, places and things, and if I wish to preserve my serenity and sobriety I might want to retire my crown.

Well, sort of.

If and when I return to the Quiet Car, post-covid, the temptation to don that tiara might be too seductive to resist. Which brings to mind another saying:

More will be revealed.

Stay tuned, loyal subjects.

The Daily Reprieve

What is it with that perfectionism thing? Where does it come from and what does it want from me and why do they say addictive types are prone to it?

And why did I want answers to all these questions (and many more) on my first night in a remarkably sweet and lovely new home?

In recovery we are taught to aim for:

Progress not perfection.

And yet I find I struggle on a daily basis to embrace people, places and things that are (like the writer of this post) clearly flawed.

A few nights ago, I arrived at my cozy new domicile, where a team of amazing movers and a remarkable friend had set up my things with such thoughtfulness and grace that it made me weep with gratitude. My furniture fit. The windows opened easily, allowing a fresh breeze to wash over my travel-weary soul. My kind friend had put food in the fridge and placed yellow roses on the dining table. I felt blessed to have a home and food and such kindness in my life in the terrible last days of 2020.

Yet that evil addictive twin spirit, the one who used to need to punctuate and enhance every moment with a bracing cocktail, for whom nothing was quite right, and more was never enough…that person afflicted with the curse of perfectionism popped up and tried to spoil my serenity and quash my thankfulness.

Under her influence, I fretted about how to work the unfamiliar thermostat, obsessed about the fact that I could not discern how to raise the blinds, once lowered, and worried about the water pressure in the kitchen when the water flowed but did not burst out of the faucet. And I became disconsolate about a faint smell of paint in the freshly painted rooms–until I remembered the sober admonition to:

Live in the solution.

I opened a few more windows, feeling grateful that not one was painted shut, and allowed the air that rushed in to whisper some additional words of recovery wisdom:

Don’t quit before the miracle.

Buoyed by the evening breeze and my success in dissipating the scent of paint, I called my kind friend, who explained with exquisite patience that the blinds could be raised with a gentle push, and promised to stop by in the new year to demystify the thermostat for me.

And restored my faith that wondrous things can happen, and evil twins be banished, if I stay sober and aim for imperfect miracles.

One day and one problem at a time.

Home

Not all loves that we abandon are willing to take us back. In my experience, this rarely happens, especially after a bitter fight, although I have prayed and pleaded to be forgiven and embraced anew more than once in my life.

The rapprochements with which I have been blessed are among my happiest recollections. How joyful it is to remember, after a period of separation, how much you love a friend or cherished romantic partner. A precious moment of return and renewal is also an opportunity to practice one of the most basic sober precepts:

An attitude of gratitude.

I am thankful and humbled indeed by the opportunity to return to my dear adopted hometown of Washington, DC, after an eight-month sojourn in Vermont. My kindhearted and generous son welcomed me, during the frightening and early months of the pandemic, to the tiny Green Mountain village where he lives. I am boundlessly thankful for his kindness and companionship. I will miss our frequent visits sorely.

But it was time to come home. So here I am three seasons later in the familiar and comforting arms of a city I have inhabited for more than three decades, a city whose human scale, lovely neighborhoods, and pace far slower than the amped-up gait of my natal city of Manhattan, seem at odds with the power lust, prevarication and skullduggery that have become lamentable trademarks of our nation’s capital.

I am grateful to remember why and how much I love this place, still green and relatively temperate in early winter, with shoots of spring flowers and returning birds due before March, its broad boulevards and grand museums, its cultural diversity and liberal spirit, its history of righteous protest. DC is so much more than a dreary seat of government. It is spirited, graceful. It has courage and heart.

I am so thankful I have the chance to begin life anew in this sweet metropolis at the start of a hopeful new year and the end of a horrifying one. I am grateful that my Higher Power has conspired with my sobriety to make me appreciate how much I love this city and its people, including the friends I look forward to embracing when the terrible scourge of covid starts to recede and the trees are in full bloom.

Pour Me? No Way!

Recipe For A Pity Party (serves up to a bazillion):

One excruciatingly sentimental holiday. Christmas is an excellent choice.

One (and only one–solitude is essential) alcoholic, addict or highly sensitive, neurotic or emotionally compromised human.

One television, computer or smart phone.

One highly triggering video according to taste (for me this would be an Episcopalian church service but there are tons of options).

One couch or chair that is not very comfortable and not at all comforting.

Assorted pathetic, small, faded or cheap looking holiday decorations that create an atmosphere that is on the spectrum from dismal to hopeless.

One roll of paper towels for clumsy nose-blowing (be sure to be out of soft tissues).

Et voila!

I was all set to have myself a miserable little pity fest as the sun rose wanly on a gray and rainy Yule. All the ingredients were in place. The Canterbury boys choir was singing on my smart TV and I was slumped in a lumpy armchair, sobbing about all the jolly Christmases I have enjoyed with all the sweet Episcopalian men I have loved and lost.

And then I remembered one of those pesky-but-invariably-true sober sayings:

Poor me, poor me, pour me a drink.

Yes, friends. There is only one place where the sweet sadness beloved by addicts the world over leadeth, and it ain’t to the holy creche of Bethlehem or the still waters of the 23rd Psalm.

It’s the firewaters. And the misery they wreaketh upon us.

And given the choice, after celebrating 9.5 years of sobriety on Christmas Eve, I realized, as I reached for a scratchy paper towel and muted the TV, that I would choose recovery over relapse any day. Even on a wrenchingly nostalgic holiday I am spending mostly alone this year.

Which brought to mind another sober saying:

In recovery, we never have to be alone.

Yes indeed. The sober community offers a wonderful alternative to wailing and wassailing our way off the wagon. On supercharged sentimental holidays, many recovery groups hold meeting marathons. Sometimes every hour on the hour. Even during a global pandemic you can gather with friendly recovering folks by zoom or phone.

And that my friends is the antidote to the poisonous pity party recipe I have posted in this space.

Sober Voices is a venerable recovery group that has been meeting by phone for years. They have a meeting at noon today, US Eastern Standard Time, which is about 30 minutes from the time of this posting. Anyone can join by phone. All are welcome.

The number is: 712-432-0075. And the access code is: 654443#.

There will also be phone meetings on this same number today at 2pm, 4pm, 6pm, 8pm, 10pm and midnight US Eastern Standard Time.

You don’t need to be alone. You can have yourself a merry and sober Christmas. And I wish that for you and me. And thank you for the lifesaving privilege of another year of sharing with you on this website.

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Hugs and Love.

Your friend and faithful recovery blogger.

Mary Ellin L.

Grateful

There is probably no sober saying more famous than the following:

This too shall pass.

When I think of those comforting words, they usually bring to mind situations that are painful in obvious ways.

Like illness. Or financial troubles. Or even the petty frustrations and minor conflicts of daily life.

“This too shall pass” is not a proverb for festive occasions. And yet right now there is nothing I want more than for the Christmas holiday to be over. I am clinging to this venerable sober saying like a life raft.

The fall and winter holidays are often difficult times for we addictive types. Feelings churn and swirl. Inner children throw tantrums Nostalgia and sentiment snap our heart strings. And everywhere we go people are puffing on cannabis or raising glasses.

Holidays are triggering as heck.

And never more so than in this year of paralyzing fear and unfathomable loss.

How I wish that I could rush through this grim and lonely Yule, in which millions of us find ourselves barred from loving fellowship by a cruel and terrifying plague.

I feel grateful beyond measure for the warm welcome of my recovery meetings and the comforting embrace of the sober words that will sustain me, and many others, through this sweet and sorrowful season.