Two-Stepping The Twelve-Step

Memoir Excerpt from Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation:

 “’Marilea, why don’t you try a recovery meeting?’ my counselor gently advised me. She had heard me week after week moan about Annie turning into a monster I didn’t recognize anymore. It was terrifying; sleep eluded me.

‘Oh no, that’s not for me,’ I responded, echoing my mother from thirty years before when my sister tried to get her to do the same thing.

‘Well, I think it will help you to be around people going through the same thing.’

Thinking about it for a few weeks, though, I took her advice and started going to a meeting on Saturday mornings. Gene also felt it was a good idea.

And so began a long period of faithfully going to several twelve-step meetings, but essentially paying lip service much of the time, particularly to the first three steps, because I was nothing if not the biggest control freak around.

Step One: Admit my powerlessness? Never! I brought her into the world. It was my job to protect and save her.

Step Two: Believe that God could restore me to sanity? What’s insane about trying to save my child?

Step Three: Turn my will over to God? No way! I had to stay in control.

As a child, I took care of my own needs. I’d asked for company, hollered for attention, hoped for forgiveness, but was often ignored. So I became compulsively self-reliant: CSR, I humorously say at meetings. And much of that self-reliance, attempting to appear competent, looked like arrogance.

It took me a long time before I found the humility to get a sponsor. Part of me didn’t want to ask for help; an even bigger part thought I didn’t need help. It was Annie, I argued, who needed help.

Humility, I discovered, was a tremendous leveler, and it would bring me closer to what I’d been missing my whole life: being part of a community of equals.

But without being honest with myself and others, I remained isolated on the outside, looking in.”

My Glass Is Half Full

From Hope For Today, Al-Anon Family Group, CAL, January 23:

“One of the gifts I have received from recovery is learning how to maintain an attitude of gratitude. Before the program I didn’t really understand the true nature of gratitude. I thought it was the happiness I felt when life happened according to my needs and wants. I thought it was the high I felt when my desire for instant gratification was fulfilled.

Today…I know better. Gratitude is an integral part of my serenity. In fact, it is usually the means of restoring my serenity whenever I notice I’m straying from it.

Gratitude opens the doors of my heart to the healing touch of my Higher Power. It isn’t always easy to feel grateful when the strident voice of my disease demands unhealthy behavior. However, when I work my program harder, it is possible.

‘Just for today I will smile…I will be grateful for what I have instead of concentrating on what I don’t have.’”

Accepting life on life’s terms is hard. My daughter has been a substance user for nearly twenty years, and I grieve the loss of her in my life every day. The five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—I know them all, and not always in that order.

My path to recovery involved a lot of denial in the beginning and, as it said in the reading, “the voice of my disease demanded unhealthy behavior.”

So I’m grateful now for the serenity and peace that I have in my life. Acceptance is the gift I give myself every day when I let go and give Annie to God. When I remember that my glass is half full, it dulls the ache from losing my precious daughter.

She’s still alive, but I haven’t seen her in eight years. When they say that there’s always hope, I agree: as long as she’s alive there’s hope for her to recover. Many, many addicts do. But more importantly, there’s hope for me to move on with my life and focus on my blessings. I deserve to be happy, and that’s the only thing that I can control.

Taking That Leap

“’Joy fixes us to eternity and pain fixes us to time. But desire and fear hold us in bondage to time, and detachment breaks the bond.’ ~Simone Weil

We live both in the material realm and the spiritual. In our material dimension we seek material pleasures, inherent in which is pain. Our human emotions are tied to our material attachments, and joy, at its fullest, is never found here. Real joy lies outside of the material dimension while living fully within us too, in the secret, small place inside where we always know that all is well.”

That secret, small place that is easily hidden by the distractions of our (material) lives? Unless we are Buddhist monks living in Tibet, we are just humans like everyone else, wondering how to get the bills paid. We, in the human dimension, have so many concerns that keep our minds busy. And that is why, when our concerns weigh us down, the spiritual life is comfort and relief.

The first three steps are keys to getting me started on the spiritual journey.  The acceptance (of things I can’t control) that comes with Step One is humbling. But unless it’s fully taken and I put my ego and will in a back drawer, there’s no point in moving forward with the steps. Having admitted my powerlessness, then, I need help to carry the pain I have just assigned myself. So I come to believe that some power will restore my mind to a saner pace. And finally, of course, I take that giant leap of faith by asking that Being to carry the burden for me.

This is the relief I feel every time I take Step Three. This is the leap of faith I need to make to feel joy in the material domain. More prayer, more Eleventh Step, more peace and serenity  when I remember how small I am in the scheme of things. When my HP remains large in my life, I have faith that all will be well.

The Gift Of Life

From Each Day A New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, November 7:

“’…we will be victorious if we have not forgotten how to learn.’ ~Rosa Luxemburg

For most of us the struggle was long, painful and lonely to the place we are now. But survive we have, and survive we will. The times we thought we could go no further are only dimly recalled…Step by Step, we are learning to handle our problems, build relationships based on honesty, and choose responsible behavior.”

Probably the most important factor in my recovery is the ability to remain teachable. We can become set in our ways, “you can’t teach an old dog…,” and older people sometimes can be resistant to change. This is all fine for those of us who have a life without serious challenges.

And then there are the rest of us.

My years in recovery have, out of necessity, showed me how to open my mind and heart in an effort to be forever teachable, to be always willing to learn the lessons that life puts before me. Without such flexibility and the willingness to view things differently, to let go of ideas and patterns that were bad for me, I would still be stuck in a life that was fundamentally unhappy. I say “fundamentally” because on the outside many things looked good. But on the inside, I was screaming.

Eighteen years ago, I entered the rooms of recovery out of a desperate desire to save my daughter. But after years of trying, I ultimately couldn’t provide her with the magic bullet to free her of her substance use disorder. That magic bullet doesn’t exist. My daughter has and always has had the power to recover. That’s one of the many things I learned in the rooms. And, over time, as I learned to turn the mirror back on myself, I have learned to face a number of things that were getting in the way of my own capacity to live well.

What I’ve learned was that life is a gift, and nowhere has that been made clearer to me than by watching my loved one throwing it away. My first instinct, of course, was to put myself between Annie and her bad choices. But that only made me sick and forced me into early retirement. That was my bottom.

Well, at the bottom I had two choices: either stay there—or lift myself up. I’m happy that I chose to keep on living. There are other people in my life who rely on me, other ways I can try to be of service. I’m not the first adult child out there, not the first parent to lose a child to this cruel disease. There are millions of us out there, a vast community of equals reaching out to help one another. And we do, right here sharing with one another, a daily reminder that we are not alone.

“…a simple program, but it isn’t easy.”

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, Al-Anon CAL, July 27:

“’To keep a lamp burning we have to keep putting oil in it.’ ~Mother Teresa

Our spiritual nature must be nurtured. Prayer and meditation lovingly kindle the flame that guides us from within. Because we’re human, we often let the flame flicker and perhaps go out. And then we sense the dreaded aloneness. Fortunately some time away, perhaps even a moment in quiet communion with God, rekindles the flame.”

My daily practice of gratitude, reading program literature, and attending frequent meetings keeps my focus on those first three steps. When I do that, I am emboldened to proceed to Step Four and all the steps that come after. The life-enhancing nature of the twelve steps has given me the courage to live my life with much less fear than before. And though I’m far from Mother Teresa (!!!), I do try to live every day as a child of God, worthy of all the peace and happiness that comes my way—when I work for it.

Serenity is the gift that my faith gives me.

Ego, The Double-Edged Sword

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL, July 20:

“’It is ironic that the one thing all religions recognize as separating us from our Creator—our very self-consciousness—is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures.’ ~Annie Dillard

EGO: Edging God Out. A friend told me once that our ego is what separates us from God. And I didn’t know what she meant because I didn’t understand how our egos have the power to save us—but also have the power to destroy.

So  as I’ve come to know myself within the comforting fellowship of many recovery rooms, I’ve started to see more, and more broadly, the concept of “self” and how it can be lovingly managed within the context of substance use recovery.

“This division from others, the barrier that keeps us apart, comes from our individual insecurities.” As Annie Dillard alludes to above, we need no longer make comparisons between ourselves and others. When we ignore our differences, and focus on what brings us together, we come to see ourselves, over time, as a wonderful community of equals. What separates us IS our ego, and thankfully with the First Step we have learned to tame that tricky beast before it gets in the way of our progress.

The Child In Us

From Each Day A New Beginning, by Karen Casey, March 14:

“’The child is an almost universal symbol for the soul’s transformation. The child is whole, not yet divided…When we would heal the mind…we ask this child to speak to us.’ ~Susan Griffin

Perhaps “the child” is a metaphor for a spiritual guide, like our own higher power, that can help us in our journey toward self-acceptance.

‘I may not be perfect, but parts of me are excellent.’”

I love the freedom in this quote. For so much of my life, I’ve been a slave to appearances, to perfectionism, to measuring up to someone else’s arbitrary standards. But my outside never matched my inside, and what a relief to be able to shed my masks and just be who I am, warts and all.

This journey toward self-acceptance has been a long one, and I’m grateful. The twelve steps, in my mind, are terrific character builders. Once I muster (with difficulty) taking the first three steps, the “God Steps,” my work is cut out for me. This is where many people leave. It’s hard work to look in the mirror and look at my defects. Holding onto resentments, too, one of our biggest Waterloos, and our difficulty with accountability blinds us to what we need to change. But once we get over that hurdle and start clearing out the wreckage of our past, the final steps seem like a welcome refuge from the storms of our lives.

The child in us is kind and forgiving. “When we would heal our minds,” we can listen to the voice of the child in us.

And this voice has set me free.

Keeping An Open Mind

From Each Day A New Beginning, September 13:

“’Nobody told me how hard and lonely change is’ ~Joan Gilbertson

…Honest self-appraisal may well call for change, a change in attitude perhaps, a change in specific behavior in some instances, or maybe a change in direction…(But) We find some comfort in our pain because at least it holds no surprises…Courage to change accompanies faith. My fears are telling me to look within to the spiritual source of strength, ever present but often forgotten.”

When I joined my recovery fellowship, my focus was firmly on my daughter. She had a life-threatening disorder, and I wanted to help her. So I helped. And I helped. And I helped…I had the best of intentions, but I needed to step back and reflect upon what, besides protecting her, was motivating me. My fear was getting in the way.

I needed to get help so that I could manage the situation better. It took me a long time to realize and accept that I was making a bad situation much worse. And this was happening because of my own unrecognized problems. Once I saw them and how they affected, not just my relationship with Annie, but with other important people, I found the willingness to work on myself and improve my relationships with others.

One day at a time, I’m still trying. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying to be my best self. At the end of the day, that’s the only self I can control.

A Different Lens

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more I important than the past, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than success. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day…We cannot change the past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way…Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” ~Charles Swindoll

I joined Al-Anon to help my daughter with her substance use issues. But I ended up helping myself so much more. It wasn’t my intention, but I’ve grown a lot in my efforts to heal from a lifetime of living around people with substance use disorder, including myself.

Growing up around alcoholism, and surrounded by a plethora of negative attitudes, I’ve had to unlearn those scripts and rewrite them, as though I were reparenting myself. It is certainly true that our attitude can move mountains…or level them.

I have had a difficult situation with my daughter for years. Early on I was either in denial or hardened in my grief at the loss of Annie. But if I try to keep a healthy perspective on it, if I don’t obsess about it, it won’t control me. I try to keep my heart open to the gifts of this program. Therein lies my happiness. And so, one day at a time, I try to keep a positive attitude, keeping the focus on myself, with gratitude and joy in all I have.

This is a miraculous program that “works if I work it.”

“Stealth Bomber”

“One weekend before we left the country, telling Angel he was on his own with the kids, I drove East to be by the sea. In Ocean City, I got a cheap hotel room, a cheap bottle of vodka, and spent my time numbing myself. Instead of walking on the beach at the ocean I love so well, instead of grabbing a bag and adding more souvenirs to my beautiful collection, I lay on my bed, drank vodka straight out of the bottle, and passed out.

I might as well have stayed in a cheap motel near my own house.

In a fog most of the time, eating junk food from the boardwalk, I ran away from my life. I left my “shell” for the weekend, ventured off by myself, as empty coming out of a bottle as I was going into it.

I learned nothing, gained nothing from escaping for a few days other than missing my children terribly. I was still as hollow as the bleached whelks waiting to be snatched up by grateful collectors.

I would discover, many years down the road, the sneaky and devastating nature of addictive disease: how it stalks you, dupes you into thinking you’re okay “if it’s just once in a while.”  It’s like any virus: it needs a host to take root. And grow.

To flourish. And continue.

Addiction, like any cancer, wants to survive. It filled my empty shell, opportunistic disease that it is, with false-confidence, false promises, false hopes.

Maybe I’ll be happier in Greece…”

Excerpted from my recently released, award-winning memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation