Finding My Comfort Zone

From Hope for Today, Al-Anon CAL, July 10:

“…I feel comfortable participating in…meetings because in them I find an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. However, I wasn’t always so open. There have been times in my life when I didn’t trust and I didn’t receive respect, so I withdrew. I didn’t allow myself to stay and work through the challenges offered to me. Now that I’m in recovery, I don’t want to limit my opportunities to grow by restricting my involvement with others, whether or not they are in the program. As always, (my program) teaches me to pray, look at myself and my attitudes, and then take action. For me, this action means detaching from people’s behavior and giving them the same acceptance, consideration, and respect for which I long…When I don’t expect perfection from others or from myself, I am free to participate and be a part of life.”

This quote really resonates with me. As I said in my new book: “Humility, I discovered, is a tremendous leveler, and it would bring me closer to what I’ve been missing my whole life: being part of a community of equals.” I’m so happy to be in a fellowship where we’re all on a level playing field. We try not to compare, just to support.

I’ve heard it said that “expectations are premeditated resentments.”  So I try to keep my expectations of others in check, aware of my tendency to control and manipulate. It takes a lot of discipline to remain detached, especially from a loved one. But I can’t control the behavior of (my adult daughter), and so I’ve learned to let go and keep the focus on myself and consider how I might be the author of my own discomfort. When I offer “acceptance, consideration, and respect to others,” the same gifts return to me ten-fold.

Our Human Resistance

From Each Day A New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, January 9:

“’The Chinese say that water is the most powerful element, because it is perfectly nonresistant. It can wear away a rock and sweep all before it. ‘ ~Florence Scovel Shinn

Nonresistance, ironically, may be a posture we struggle with. Nonresistance means surrendering the ego absolutely. For many of us the ego, particularly disguised as false pride, spurred us on to struggle after struggle.”

Well, I don’t do anything absolutely, but my time in recovery has strongly encouraged me to remain right-sized in my thinking. EGO—Easing God Out—is a useful reminder that I don’t always know what’s best in any situation. But my resistance often keeps me stuck.

Whether it’s wondering how to cope with my addicted daughter, Annie, or wondering how to face the loneliness of Covid isolation, or determining what to do about a barking dog in the wee hours of the morning, all of these problems require some level-headed judgment, which I don’t always have.

So I find the power of prayer to be a wonderful relief and solution to my thinking that I have to fix every problem.

If it’s a situation I can control, I’ll try to do something.

If it’s not something I have the ability to control, I’ll try to let it go.

And determining which is which, needless to say, is our biggest challenge.

Two-Stepping The Twelve-Step

Excerpted from my memoir, 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.”

The Domino Effect

From Each Day a New Beginning, Conference Approved Literature, May 22:

“’The change of one simple behavior can change other behaviors and thus change many things.’ ~Jean Baer

Our behavior tells others, and ourselves, who we are. Frequently, we find ourselves behaving in ways that keep us stuck. Or we may feel deep shame for our behavior in a certain instance. Our behavior will never totally please us. But deciding we want to change some behavior and using the program to help us, is a first step.”

Change is hard. The older we get, perhaps, the harder it gets. Our years—our habits—can trap us. I’ve been trapped by my own worst defects: “I’m gonna be fine;” “I can handle it on my own;” “I don’t need any help, thank you very much.”

Trying to figure out the why’s of things over the years didn’t help me. That question just kept me stuck. And it kept me from taking responsibility for my own problems. So the suffering continued. Until I learned how to put out fires.

When I’m in the middle of a fire in the woods, I don’t wonder who started it. If I am to survive, I just need to learn how to douse it.

I’ve been challenged by depression for much of my life, but nothing could have prepared me for losing my daughter Annie to the living death of heroin addiction. That was the major conflagration in my life, and I wasn’t fighting it effectively. I made it so much about me and my misplaced guilt that I often used poor judgment in an effort to help her. When I saw that nothing was working, I felt broken. And at my bottom, that’s when I found the courage to change.

Letting go of my feverish attempts to motivate Annie to seek recovery, and my wish to control events, freed me of the painful circumstances that were claiming my peace of mind. Letting go—so counterintuitive when it’s your child—was one of the first steps I needed to take—and accept what I could not change. That was the hardest: knowing that I had no power to change her. But I did and do have the power to change myself, my reactions, and my attitudes.

At some point along the way, we might find ourselves in a fire we need to put out. I learned that I needed to change before I could be truly happy with my life. I needed to pay attention to what was happening in my own hula hoop. Looking outside of myself for answers only distracted me; it did not help me put out the fire.

“One small change today, a smile at the first person I meet, will help me chart a new course.”

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.

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.”

Two Songs

For twenty-five dollars my mother bought a beautiful baby grand piano in the mid- 1950s, and my siblings and I took piano lessons. I forget when my brother and sister stopped their lessons, but I kept at it for quite a few years.

My own children took piano lessons on that same piano, but eventually lost interest, just as I did.

Somehow I kept two songs in my fingers for many decades. Edward McDowell’s “Scotch Poem” and “Improvisation and Melody”. What was I holding onto?

Then, out of sheer neglect, not oiling the wood at all, the baby grand quite literally fell apart when I tried to move it.

Maybe that was my Higher Power’s way of telling me to let go of those two songs.

And a lot of other things.

What’s On Our Minds?

From Each Day A New Beginning, Karen Casey, CAL Literature, April 6:

“’Treat your friends as you do your pictures, and place them in their best light.’ ~Jennie Jerome Churchill

…Each of us is endowed with many qualities, some more enhancing than others; it is our hope, surely, that our lesser qualities will be ignored. We must do likewise for our friends. We can focus on the good, and it will flourish—in them, in ourselves, in all situations. A positive attitude nurtures everyone. Let us look for the good and, in time, it is all that will catch our attention.”

Was there ever a time to be tested better than during these days of health scares and uncertainty? Tested in what?

  1. Discipline and patience
  2. Creativity and resilience
  3. Keeping a positive attitude
  4. Holding onto our faith
  5. Trusting in HP’s plan for us

That’s lot to ask of ourselves all at once. I remember telling myself that losing Angie to substance use disorder was how I got into the rooms of recovery. And, even as I was thinking that, I felt it was a terrible betrayal of my daughter.

But then my tunnel vision got wider, and lighter, and I started to see more of the big picture. It convinced me that there was more to my life than my fight to save Angie from the nightmare of heroin addiction. Instead of letting that define me, I started focusing on other aspects of my life that brought me joy.

Changing my attitude about everything, I pivoted from hopelessness to hopefulness. And I felt my blood pressure returning to healthy levels. I started to understand the saying I had heard: “Thoughts become things; choose them wisely.”

I accepted that staying mired in any state of negativity—whether it’s grief, depression, or anger and resentment—actually made me sick. Not the soul sickness many of us feel from depression, but real physical ailments: chest pains, sleeplessness, migraines, and many stress-related illnesses. And as I made an effort to avoid negativity, fostering a more positive outlook both in myself and in those around me, I started to feel better.

Our thoughts do turn into actions, and I’m learning to monitor mine more carefully. It’s a conscious effort to defeat the unconscious thoughts that can defeat me if I let them.

Blossoms Becoming Fruit

The following is an excerpt from my new memoir, Stepping Stones: A Memoir of Addiction, Loss, and Transformation.                                                         

            “Gene had retired from teaching within a year of my retirement, and we opted for a change of scenery. I did the groundwork, and one weekend we flew to New Mexico to buy a little house between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We pooled our resources, pitching in together all we had. Gene and some friends cleared the back quarter acre of sagebrush, and he bought a dozen fruit trees to start an orchard. Over the years, he’s planted and nurtured a total of fifty trees—Rainier cherries, Saturn peaches, Challengers, Shiro plums, apricots, and many kinds of apples. One year we had so many peaches we had to give them away. It was grueling work but gratifying as we watched the blossoms turn into fruit.

            Throwing myself into full-time recovery in New Mexico, I began the process of new growth in myself, attending one or two recovery meetings a day. That became my full-time job, embracing a spiritual way of life. But it’s come with a steep learning curve.

In Virginia, when I first started going to meetings, the guidelines of the program were hard for me to follow. I felt responsible for what was happening to Annie (Angie) and couldn’t let go of my need to save her, unwilling to admit my powerlessness. Doing so seemed counterintuitive to me.

           Late in 2002, after we had sent her to her first rehab, she did well for a little while. I remember saying this at a recovery meeting:

            “I have no doubt that my daughter’s progress parallels my own.” The people at the meeting just nodded, recognizing that was where I needed to be in that moment.

            Still attached to my daughter with no understanding of the concepts of detachment and letting go, I thought I held all the cards—the magic bullet to her recovery. I desperately needed to believe that.

            In time, though, I accepted that addiction is a brain disease—still a matter of much controversy in this country—and not a moral failing. Annie (Angie) was sick. I had no more power over her illness than if she’d had diabetes or cancer.

           Through trial and error, following the road map that had helped many addicts and families of addicts since the 1950s, I learned to let go of the things no longer in my control…And I needed to get on with my life.”

“But For The Grace Of God…”

“There’s always going to be someone out there with far less than I have who is happy.”

It’s so important to keep things in perspective. Even though the compounding tragedies that bring us together in the rooms consume us, they needn’t. When I take a fully inventory of my life and recognize that my blessings far outnumber my losses, I know how much worse things could be.

And, for me, that makes all the difference.

Keeping things in perspective is a daily balancing act for me. Especially now, when everyone’s life is out of whack, it’s easy to get overly emotional and overreact to small things that we used to ignore. In a way, with all of our worlds reduced to the inside of our homes, we are living under a microscope. Families that used to send three kids off to school every day with husbands and wives sharing the car with public transportation are having to remain inside their home, constantly bumping into each other.

This is not something I’m experiencing, but millions of other families are, and results from this new normal will start pouring in. All anyone can do is try to make the best of a new situation. Hopefully many families will be stronger on the other side of this. My recovery demands that I remain grateful for my blessings because “there’s always going to be someone out there with far less than I have who is happy.” I’ll take a page from his/her book.