The Lessons of Solitude

2nd Place Prizewinner in Susan Wittig Albert’s Life Writing Contest, September, 2020

March, 2020:

My first awareness of a global pandemic underway.

The world had suddenly grown quiet.

Shock. Denial. Fear.

April, 2020:

More shock and disbelief. How could this be happening to us? More varied reaction to what was happening in our country: increased levels of fear in many places; bravado and disregard of science in others.

May, 2020:

Summer was coming. Many people were tired of staying inside. They pushed through their fear and opened their doors.

A policeman in Minneapolis killed George Floyd over a minor offense. The noise exploded onto the streets. Black Lives Matter protests occurred all over the world. The upheaval in our government was still looming ahead. The rising oceans are threatening our habitable land and Bangladesh is drowning.

I grow weary from the news. I close my doors and remain inside. I look within.

An extraordinary time in history is upon us, and the whole world is struggling to survive.

The everyday noises of living—traffic on the highway, baseball stadiums full of shouting fans, plays and concerts in packed halls—have lessened or been put on hold outright. Activities have stopped if they involved close human contact. Fear prevails.

How was it when the world grew quiet? When factories ceased production and the clouds of pollution dissipated? When, as a result of this, the sun felt warmer on my head while I was gardening? When bars and restaurants closed, when the theater company ceased production and returned my tickets? When I was no longer able to sing at the nursing home?

Life as we had known it was on pause, and we needed to learn how to live differently for a while.

We’ve put all of our habits and customs and dependencies under a microscope. Almost overnight we have had to prioritize everything. With a dearth of outside stimulation, I’ve started talking to myself more. And listening to myself. Without the everyday noise of living in our busy and crowded world, I search for and listen to, with intention, a calming inner voice. Hearing it comes to me more easily. It is a compelling instructor, as I reap the rewards of solitude.

The loneliness that often accompanies being separated from friends and family might have unsettled me more years ago. But now, with such ease and delight, I’ve been learning how to be my own best friend. I don’t feel lonely. That is the paradox of solitude. Much of the pressure of living—of being around people and confronting all those mirrors—has scuttled off for the time being. When we are alone, life is simpler. I revel in those moments, briefly, for the windows they open to me.

I’ve always wanted to listen to an inner voice, a positive and centering force that would sustain me as I made my way through life.  Ann Morrow Lindbergh wrote about this beautifully in 1955 in Gift from the Sea. As she grappled with her busy life raising several children and coping with the demands of a famous husband, she sought, long before it was fashionable, a sense of peace and independence within herself. Her search resonated with so many other women, and I often reread her short book full of wisdom to gain new insights.

Eliminating the distractions of life is not so easy. Our telephones ring now more than ever. The digital world has supplanted close human contact. And I have found that it hasn’t always been the outside noises that prevented me from listening to my best self. Sometimes there are inner voices competing for attention. Those voices don’t always serve me well, and it takes a certain amount of self-awareness and fortitude to rid myself of them.

Like weeds in my garden.

The rhythms of living, of course, continue to undulate through our worlds, and I wonder how many of us live really solitary lives. I do not. I regularly invite the voices of friends and family into my days, more appreciative than ever as I’ve learned to cope with so much time under quarantine.

These recent months of deprivation have brought into focus much of what my busyness had allowed me to put aside. I’ve attended to correspondence I had been avoiding for too long. This continues to be a silver lining for me in the pandemic cloud. My garden, too, needed tending, and I’ve been grateful that the worst of the social restrictions have occurred in the midst of our spring and summer weather.

Most activities away from my homehave been put on hold:volunteer work that had been gratifying to me; and the physical closeness of friends and family that I had taken for granted.With so much more free time,  I’ve found myself looking within more, and listening to myself. Not the kind of self-absorption that crowds out the rest of the world; but rather the sort of curiosity that often leads to clarity and, feeling renewed and refreshed, a welcoming of happy distractions into my world.

Awareness starts at home, in our minds, and listening to our own voices. This is where we begin, to use Ms. Lindbergh’s metaphor, to redefine ourselves on the hub of the wheel. “Woman must come of age by herself—she must find her true center alone,” she has said. And whether or not that is true, it is a most comforting and empowering idea.

We truly can be the authors of our own lives.    

Little Heroes

From Courage to Change, Al-Anon approved literature, May 31:

“Legends have often told of spiritual journeys in which the hero must face great challenges before gaining treasure at the journey’s end. As the heroes of our own stories, we…have also embarked upon a spiritual journey—one of self-discovery.”

I never thought of myself as a hero. What I am is a recovering addict/alcoholic with an AD who I haven’t seen in eight years. Those are the facts. Have I been challenged by the reality in my life? Of course! But I’m still here. I sleep at night. In spite of my struggle with Annie, I manage my life and relationships better than I ever have.

Before recovery, there were two Marilea’s: the outside one and the inside one; and they didn’t match. Like many people, I wore masks to keep up appearances. But I am learning in the rooms to face myself with more honesty, to let go of habits that weren’t working for me anymore, and in the process I discovered new things about myself, things that give me hope for the future.

People fear change, so it takes courage to do things differently. The biggest and most fundamental change in my life has been my ability to embrace an entity outside of myself (call it God, HP, or a tree) to guide me through the inevitable difficulties in my life.

Before I took the first three steps—the “God” steps—I was entirely self-reliant, feeling and appearing competent, but always frightened on the inside. My “solution” had always been excessive use of various substances—from food to alcohol—to deal with my fears. But that stopped working for me, and I needed help to implement the change I needed. I was desperate enough to accept that my best thinking got me into the rooms of recovery. I was probably my own worst enemy, and I needed help. I had tried so many things, from yoga to many self-help books.

But the one thing missing in all of my solutions was a healthy dose of humility. I still needed to think I was in charge, which, of course, is what got me into so much trouble. I was delighted, finally, to let go of my ego just enough to trust in God to help me manage my life. This was the piece of the puzzle I had been yearning for. My Spirit now fills in the holes that substances used to cover up, and I’m grateful.  

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.