Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps back, one step forward.
“Progress, not perfection.”
It’s the striving—the journey—that matters. And though we get tired from all the struggle, it’s that very work that builds up our resistance to life’s challenges. Substance use disorder, whether it’s in us or a loved one, is a huge test of our mettle. And like many difficult things, we don’t always get it the first time.
I didn’t. With my daughter, I kept thinking that I needed to be in control because she wasn’t making good decisions. But what I’ve learned on my recovery journey is that I don’t have control over another adult’s life, and least of all while they are under the influence of drugs. As painful as that reality is, I do accept it now.
Do I waver? Am I human? Am I tempted to keep trying something else? Of course!
That’s why I keep coming back—to listen and learn.
I love this acronym because it shows how emotions can collide with rational thinking. It also shows that even when we are being rational, we sometimes say the wrong thing. As a writer, I’m aware of the power of words—how they can persuade, or repel, how they can win friends, or lose them. I’ve done them all! When I get too emotional, I’m sure to say the wrong thing. Experience has taught me to use this acronym to weigh carefully what comes out of my mouth. To ask myself if what I say is necessary, or am I just spouting off, releasing steam like Old Faithful in Yellowstone? Am I being honest, or are my words brutal and tactless? Do I care how my words might affect the other person? Am I so emotional, in the moment, that my words might appear unintelligible? And most of all, do my words demonstrate kindness towards the other person?
Of all those terms, kindness for me is the most far-reaching and important. No matter what happens to us in our lives, no matter how deeply we are humbled by our circumstances and shortcomings, if we can remain kind in the face of everything, then that says a lot about our character.
“First become a blessing to yourself so that you may be a blessing to others.” ~Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch
What a Sisyphean task that has been for me. In order to become “a blessing to myself,” I had a lot of work to do. I needed to clear away the debris from my past, clean up my side of the street, make amends to anyone (including myself) necessary, and move forward.
These words, all in a sentence or two, represent a lifetime of attempts at self-improvement, reaching for happiness. And just good clean living. It’s a daunting amount of work. Change is difficult for anyone. But I was determined, when I hit my bottom, to try to be a better version of myself.
It’s been my sincere love of all those around me—both friends and family—that catapulted me into what I hope will be a lasting state of recovery and the peace that goes with it.
And timing is everything in life. I’m ready to adopt an attitude of gratitude and enjoy the years in front of me. Life is good.
From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL, August 20:
“’Everything in life that we really accept undergoes change. So suffering must become love. That is the mystery.’ ~Katherine Mansfield
Acceptance of those conditions that at times plague us changes not only the conditions but, in the process, ourselves. Perhaps this latter change is the more crucial. As each changes…life’s struggles ease. When we accept all the circumstances that we can’t control, we are more peaceful. Smiles more easily fill us up. It’s almost as though life’s eternal lesson is acceptance, and with it comes life’s eternal blessings.”
This is a hard one for me. Hard because, like many people, it is hard to accept the pain of loss. Like a recent amputee, I miss what’s not there. I miss my childhood; I miss my daughter; I miss some friends who have passed.
And at times I resist. I go into fighting mode where I refuse to accept. But that place is not peaceful for me. It stirs up feelings, long set aside as harmful: guilt, longing, even at times the wish to punish myself.
Whoa! This is why I need my recovery program, to keep me, first of all, on the road and secondly, charting a healthy course. It will do me no good to dwell on the pain of my losses. But it will help me grow a great deal if I can accept them with grace and try to let go of the pain. It will lead me to love.
There are joys in my life that clamor for my attention. That I still have the heart to embrace them openly, not as a consolation, but as emerging gifts worthy of my full attention, is how my grief leads me to a place of love.
Acceptance is the answer for me. It prevents me from getting stuck, and gives me the freedom to move forward.
From Courage to Change, Al-Anon conferenced approved literature, May 30:
“As a result of living in a household where alcohol was abused, the concept of being gentle with myself was foreign. What was familiar was striving for perfection and hating myself whenever I fell short of my goals…If I am being hard on myself, I can stop and remember that I deserve gentleness and understanding from myself. Being human is not a character defect!
‘The question is not what a man can scorn, or disparage, or find fault with, but what he can love, and value, and appreciate.’ ~John Ruskin”
We pass on what was given to us. And so the three A’s—awareness, acceptance, and action—have helped me see clearly what I’ve needed to change about myself and, by extension, others.
As I have learned in recovery to love myself more and to treat myself with kindness, I have passed that on to family and friends all around me.
So often as adults we appear to be on automatic pilot, behaving in ways that make us cringe afterwards. Our caretakers were often our role models, and we learned how to parent from them. No one’s life is perfect, and few people have perfect parents. But however we fared growing up, the beauty of recovery is that we get to do things over—with more gentleness and compassion for ourselves as well as our caretakers. Especially those we learned from. We can do things differently now if we want to. These are “living amends.”
“We have two lives… the life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” ~Bernard Malamud
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.
“’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.
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.
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.
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.