Habits Can Be Unlearned

From Each Day A New Beginning, April 20:

“‘One has to grow up with good talk in order to form the habit of it.’ ~Helen Hayes

Our habits, whatever they may be, were greatly influenced, if not wholly formed, during childhood. We learned our behavior through imitation, imitation of our parents, our siblings, our peer group. But we need not be stuck in habits that are unhealthy. The choice to create new patterns of behavior is ours to make…We can find strength from the program and one another to let go of the behavior that stands in the way of today’s happiness. And we can find in one another a better, healthier behavior to imitate…I am growing up again amidst the good habits of others, and myself.”

I often say that I grew up in the rooms as well. I’m over seventy years old, so that’s a lot of years to look at and take inventory. But I’ve learned to “look back without staring.” Not to obsess about things that are over, that I can’t change now. To let go of what’s past and focus on what’s right in front of me.

The tools I’ve picked up in my recovery program have been essential for guiding me into new ways of behaving—“acting my way into right thinking.” And doing things differently now—whether it’s eating right, power walking, not drinking alcohol, or remembering to tell people I love them every day—are changing the way I think. And this, in turn, has the effect of elevating me—moving me away from old negative patterns that kept getting in my way.

It’s never too late to learn how to be happy.

The End Of Isolation

“Thank You For My Recovery”

I like to end my shares at meetings with these words. Why am I thanking the people there for my recovery? Because they and so many others are the mirrors I need to see myself as I really am. And grow from it.

Before my recovery in the rooms, I was depressed and very isolated. I still saw people, I worked, I had friends. But on what level was I operating a lot of the time? I was often very dishonest, with myself most of all. So I shuffled through life, bewildered, often feeling like a victim, sad, and unaware of the tools out there that, if utilized, gave me the power to be happy.

The 12-Steps and other tools I’ve picked up in the rooms are my guideposts for living. They encourage me to review my life, but not to stay stuck in the past. They ask me to look at my imperfections, ways I may have hurt others, make amends for them, and move on. This is where the mirrors I mentioned are especially critical, why it’s helpful to have a sponsor and other friends who can give me honest feedback about myself. Help me to be accountable. To grow. Up. Shed any illusions about myself that may have been getting in my way.

I got my life back in the rooms. Regardless of the storms whirling around me, and we all know what that’s like, if I have myself and my health and wellbeing to anchor me, I’m much stronger to weather any difficulties.

An Important Distinction

I was reading about one of my favorites, Naomi Judd, and how she sadly died by suicide recently. This is what her daughter, Ashley, said about her death:

“When we’re talking about mental illness, it’s very important to be clear and to make the distinction between our loved one and the disease,” she continued. “It’s very real … it lies, it’s savage.”

Hmmm…

I believe that. We all know how substance use disorder can change our kids: change their minds, change their lifestyle, change the values we taught them. In my daughter’s case, as long as drugs were flooding her system, she ceased to be the Annie I raised.

So yes, I make the distinction Ashley has called for. And I pray that someday the general public will have as much compassion for our lost children. I remember my daughter before this disease took her away from me. And I take comfort in those memories—because I can separate her from her disease.

Laughter Is Contagious

From Hope for Today, April 6:

“…Today my sense of humor is a natural reflection of who I am. I experience the world through smiles and laughter rather than through bitter smirks. I share joy with others rather than seek company for my misery. I help others heal rather than attack them. I allow my sense of humor to unfold naturally, just the way it was meant, and I watch the wonderful results as my Higher Power works through me toward a higher good.”

Choices. Life is chock full of them. Every day when I wake up, I have a choice about how to experience my life.
 
In the past, if I was sad, I ran with that feeling. At first, I guess I needed to experience those feelings. But when I allowed them to overwhelm me, it was the author of many bad choices.

Now I choose gratitude. Why??? The problem that brought me into the rooms of recovery hasn’t changed. So what am I grateful for?

Everything else. My world isn’t defined by my problems, by what is lacking. I choose to define it with the joy of my blessings. They far outweigh my losses, and I put my focus on them. In years past it was hard to smile or feel any joy at all. Time can heal us, and now I’m glad that it can.

I’ve had an attitude adjustment, and it’s working for me. Nowadays I seek out comedy and enjoy a hearty belly laugh at a good joke. It beats feeling unhappy all the time.

My soul is dancing when I laugh.

A Mother’s Story

In this month that celebrates mothers, I’d like to celebrate a memory of my daughter, Annie (Angie in this book). She was just 22 when she made this tapestry for me after her first rehab. She was always interested in Oriental art and designs. I think the simplicity fascinated her.

For a long time I couldn’t look at it. In my early recovery, I was still wedded to the “If onlys.” But over time, I’ve learned to let go of “might have beens” and accept what is.

I hang the tapestry proudly on my wall now. It’s one of many of my happy memories of her. I had twenty-one years with her as my daughter before substance use disorder hijacked and transformed her.

I’m grateful for the good years I had with my daughter.

I love her.

Memoir Excerpt:

“When Angie came out of that first rehab, she made me the most beautiful gift.

‘Mom, I’m not quite finished with it. I just have a few more flowers to cut. You’ll need to find a 17-by-22-inch frame to mount it on. Sorry it’s such an odd size. Guess I wasn’t thinking. I copied it from one of my Chinese art books. I hope you like it!’

Right now it’s hanging in my room for me to see. Over the years I’ve taken it on and off the wall, hidden it in a closet, too painful for me to look at. Maybe it’s a sign of my recovery. Now I can leave it on the wall, look at it, and appreciate all the work she put into it. This was her way, I believe, of telling me she loved me and she was sorry, not for getting sick, but for what that sickness drove her to do to me. She never, ever, was able to express her feelings easily with words.  So she showed me, in countless ways, as she did once in December 1993.

“Where the hell is that $300 I put away for safekeeping? If you kids want any Christmas presents, you’d better help me find it now,” I shouted, panicking at the thought of losing my hard-earned cash. I was so scattered sometimes. I was perfectly capable of misplacing it.

“Found it, Mom! Don’t you remember when you hid it in this book? Well, here it is. Aren’t you glad I’m as honest as I am?”

“Yes, Angie, my darlin’ girl, I am. And thank you!”

Years are passing by, and sometimes it’s hard to remember her as she was. But when I look at the tapestry she made, I remember:

Angie had a fascination for all things Asian—Chinese, Japanese, it didn’t matter. She loved the grace and flow of much of the artwork. She copied a simple series of flowers. But she did it not with paint or pencil or pen; she cut out every pistil, not completely detailed, a few sepals in place, the rest scattered, all the ovaries in different colors for contrast, every leaf, in varying sizes and colors, every stem, and glued it all together on a piece of gold cloth. It looked just like the picture in her book. 

I treasure this gift she made. The tapestry is twelve years old, and sometimes a petal comes unglued and I have to put it back on. I should put it under glass to preserve it. I wish we could put our children under glass—to keep them safe.

 I would soon discover, though, that no matter what I did for Angie it would never be enough to protect her from the illness that was consuming her.”

From A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (pen name) (Amazon)

Walls and Bridges

From Courage To Change, January 22:

“Detachment is not isolation, nor should it remain focused on not enabling the sick behavior of the past. Detachment is not a wall; it is a bridge across which (we) may begin a new approach to life and relationships generally.”

I had a hard time at first understanding what detachment was. I thought it was an uncaring way to behave. How could I detach? I was so enmeshed with my daughter Annie and intent on saving her from herself that I couldn’t think straight. I was just being a warrior mom, and I had a lot of company.

It was only when I faced my (misplaced) guilt and recognized it as a stumbling block that I was able to get some emotional distance and see what I was doing.

I needed to get out of the way.

Walls vs. bridges. I used to think that detaching from another person’s problem was like putting up a wall: separating myself emotionally and physically. But I needed to establish healthy boundaries in my relationship with Annie. That’s what was missing.

I realized that it’s not okay to be overprotective; she would learn nothing otherwise. Instead of erecting a wall, I built this bridge, stone by stone, rail by rail, reinforcing it with the boundaries I needed to honor my own needs.

One of those needs was to try and be a responsible parent. I needed to stop enabling Annie to continue her behavior without consequences. I know she’ll do what she wants with or without me. But I have torn down the wall of shame and anger that separated us before.

As long as she’s alive, I have hope that she’ll walk across that bridge and face what’s ahead of her with the love and support of her family.

“Is It Working For You?”

From “The Forum,” June, 2015:

“The Suggested Preamble to the Twelve Steps have been the most helpful in my recovery: ‘We believe alcoholism is a family illness and that changed attitudes can aid recovery.’ That is to say, it is our attitudes, not our situation, that cause our unhappiness.
When I first came to Al-Anon, and heard these words being read, it was like listening to a foreign language that I did not speak. It was beyond my comprehension that I could find peace and happiness through a change in my own attitude. As I heard these words being read week after week and meeting upon meeting, I resisted the suggestion that I could find peace and contentment if I would become willing to change the attitudes that kept me a prisoner of pain and suffering.
First of all, I didn’t know that I had any particular attitude. My thinking made perfect sense to me. There was nothing wrong with my attitude. I didn’t even understand what my attitude was. Slowly, as I listened in meetings and began working the Steps with my Sponsor, my attitude did begin to change. I was not consciously aware of the change, but I did recognize that my life was less stressful and I was finding periods of happiness and serenity.
One night, a few years into the program, it hit me. I was leading a meeting and as I read the Suggested Preamble to the Twelve Steps, these words ‘…changed attitudes can aid recovery’ struck me. I wanted to laugh out loud and say, ‘Duh…do you think?’ It was so completely clear to me. I got it. I really got it!
Although up to that point, I had changed in many ways, I really believe that this singular, amazing, and powerful moment of clarity was the turning point in my recovery. Reflecting on that moment and remembering the words ‘changed attitudes can aid recovery’ during personal struggles and moments of frustration, kept me willing to continue my journey of self-discovery and brought me a spiritual awakening I would never have thought possible.”

Beautifully spoken by Paula W. of Arizona. I can’t really add much to that, except something my sponsor told me to always ask myself when complaining about a situation that I find myself in: “Is it working for you?” I should always ask myself, and if it’s not, what can I do to change it? Often, it’s a change in my own behavior, but when that proves fruitless then sometimes a change in attitude is all I need to get a good night’s sleep. Is it a problem I have any control over? No? Then let go and let God. Go to sleep. Maybe other solutions will present themselves tomorrow. But for now, give yourself a good night’s rest—because you’re worth it.

Who’s Responsible?

From Susan Packer Swafford 

“My mom did not sleep. She felt exhausted. She was irritable, grumpy, and bitter. She was always sick until one day, suddenly, she changed.

One day my dad said to her:

– I’ve been looking for a job for three months and I haven’t found anything, I’m going to have a few beers with friends.

My mom replied:

– It’s okay.

My brother said to her:

– Mom, I’m doing poorly in all subjects at the University.

My mom replied:

– Okay, you will recover, and if you don’t, well, you repeat the semester, but you pay the tuition.

My sister said to her:

– Mom, I smashed the car.

My mom replied:

– Okay daughter, take it to the car shop & find how to pay and while they fix it, get around by bus or subway.

Her daughter-in-law said to her:

– Mother-in-law, I came to spend a few months with you.

My mom replied:

– Okay, settle in the living room couch and look for some blankets in the closet.

All of us gathered worried to see these reactions coming from Mom.

We suspected that she had gone to the doctor and that she was prescribed some pills called “I don’t give a damn”… Perhaps she was overdosing on these!

We then proposed to do an “intervention” w/my mother to remove her from any possible addiction she had towards some anti-tantrum medication.

But then … she gathered us around her and my mom explained:

“It took me a long time to realize that each person is responsible for their life. It took me years to discover that my anguish, anxiety, my depression, my courage, my insomnia & my stress, does not solve your problems, but aggravates mine.

I am not responsible for the actions of anyone & it’s not my job to provide happiness, but I am responsible for the reactions I express to that.

Therefore, I came to the conclusion that my duty to myself is to remain calm and let each one of you solve what corresponds to you.

I have taken courses in yoga, meditation, miracles, human development, mental hygiene, vibration and neurolinguistic programming and in all of them, I found a common denominator in them all…

I can only control myself, you have all the necessary resources to solve your own problems despite how hard they may be. My job is to pray for you, love on you, encourage you but it’s up to YOU to solve them & find your happiness.

I can only give you my advice if you ask me & it depends on you to follow it or not. There are consequences, good or bad, to your decisions and YOU have to live them.

So from now on, I cease to be the receptacle of your responsibilities, the sack of your guilt, the laundress of your remorse, the advocate of your faults, the wall of your lamentations, the depositary of your duties, who should solve your problems or spare a tire every time to fulfill your responsibilities.

From now on, I declare all independent and self-sufficient adults.

Everyone at my mom’s house was speechless.

From that day on, the family began to function better because everyone in the house knew exactly what it is that they needed to do.

For some of us this is hard because we’ve grown up being the caregivers feeling responsible for others. As moms & wives we are fixers off all things. We never want our loved ones to go through difficult things or to struggle. We want everyone to be happy.

But, the sooner we take that responsibility off of our shoulders & on to each loved one, the better we are preparing them to be MEsponsible.

We are not here on earth to be everything to everyone. Stop putting that pressure on yourself.”

As I’ve grown in recovery, I’ve grown in humility, too. My friends, I’m just not that important!!! God Bless all our children as they make their way in life. Whether we want to or not, we must do the same.

“Deal From Strength”

Self-Care demands discipline from us. And I haven’t always had a lot of that! But people can change. That’s the beauty of 12-step recovery. It helps me be the best human being I can be.

Physical Self-Care has many faces. For some of us it’s making sure we get enough sleep. Or trying to eat healthy foods. Taking enough vitamins. I do all of those things, and I try to walk a mile a day. Sometimes I do that just running up and down stairs in my own home. Gardening and putting plants in the earth is life-enhancing and gives me hope.

Spiritual Self-Care is equally important to me. I start the day with an entry in my gratitude journal. The old me, before recovery, would dwell on the sadness of losing Annie in my life. Next month it will be ten long years since I’ve seen her! But the new me takes joy in my other children and grandchildren. And my many friends. It’s where I put my focus now, if only because I have some control over these relationships. Prayer and talking to God is critical, too, because I don’t have power over some things, and I need His guidance in choosing my battles. And on a bad day, helping me feel the sunshine.

“Deal from strength:” I heard this many years ago, and I understand it now. I’m not in a good position to help others if I’m too sick myself. I will continue to care for myself so that my presence can be of benefit to others. The people in my life now will thank me for it.

Surrender

“The Journey” ~Mary Oliver
 
“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.”  

How eloquently she describes the convergence of conflict with awareness and resolution in our lives. As “the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds,” my world became brighter and more light-filled. As I shed the depression that used to be my constant companion, I embraced the idea that I could be as happy as I made up my mind to be.

The rest, as they say, is up to me!