Category Archives: Recovery

What graveyard?

Tuesday, I set out to do something that I have not attempted before. One of the reasons that I chose to have my surgery here was that I would have the support of my AA family as I recovered from my surgery and went through radiation. But with the exception of a small meeting we started on Sunday for my benefit, I hadn’t been to any regular meetings since I got out of the hospital. If I wanted to be with all the people I love it was only logical that I should go to them. That meant going to regular meetings, even if I couldn’t participate by sharing.

So with that worthy goal in mind, Charlotte and I got in the car and began driving to the 11:00 meeting at Church of Christ. But before I even reached the end of the driveway, I found myself crying and so full of ambiguous feelings that I was paralyzed. Where the hell did that come from? I hadn’t cried since the surgery. Suffering such a tremendous loss of function left me only two alternatives: to give in to the hopelessness that loomed always at the periphery of my consciousness. Or to adopt the attitude that it was all part of God’s plan, that good was bound to come out of it, and that He held me in His loving hands. It was the latter I chose, and continue to choose today. What benefit is there to say you believe in a loving, all-powerful God if, when the harsh realities of life present their formidable challenges, you derive no strength or comfort for so believing?

Yet at that moment, sitting in a pool of swirling inexplicable emotion, I wondered if I had, in fact, just been whistling past the graveyard. Had I just been putting on the brave face to win recognition for my courage, something I needed so badly at the time? It seemed like everything I had been saying and believing became a hollow shell, collapsing under its own weight. What was the source of this tremendous grief that had so thoroughly seized me?

So, as I was taught, I prayed, I meditated, I sought God’s will for my life. I became willing to do whatever was required of me to accomplish His purposes. But mostly I cried, curled up on my bed, asking “why me.” The answer came in due course and, like most of the answers that God gives us, it wasn’t quite what I wanted. The fact is, the nature of my relationships with others had been irreversibly changed. I wanted to go and be with people in the same comfortable way I always had, but I never would again. I was grieving deeply the loss of the familiar, of the easy familiarity that characterized my relationships with people stretching back decades. I would need to learn an entirely new way of relating. It seemed daunting, and I was horribly frightened that it would not be enough.

Originally, I was going to end here, but I made it to the 10:15 meeting today and it was great seeing everyone. It’s different, that much I can say. And I don’t have a way of communicating spontaneously yet, although that may change in the future. In any case, it’s another hurdle behind me. I certainly felt the love you gave me. I won’t let fear ever rob me of that again.

So you will be seeing me. We will share our friendship in whatever way we can. And God will create something new and surprising and just as wonderful as what we had before.

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Drinking From the Stream

If you have sat at AA tables with me anytime during the last thirty years, you have probably heard me use this analogy a hundred times. If so, suffer a fool to make it a hundred and one.

Before I came to faith in God, I was like a stone, hard and impenetrable. The grace of God was flowing around me everywhere, but my obdurate nature ensured that I would not drink from that stream. The fear of giving up the only security I knew, while subconscious, drove all my decision making. I was genuinely frightened by selfless people, people who had surrendered themselves to something higher. Yet that very vulnerability was also attractive and it began to slowly erode my protective shell.

As Bill W. puts it,

When we became alcoholics, crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. ~ Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 53

Ultimately , in that moment of ego deflation, I called out to a God who was at once both inconceivable yet essential. And like many in that condition, I became aware of the genuine presence of God. It was an awareness not of the mind but of the heart, yet no less unshakable for it. The grace of God had penetrated that shell at last.

I lived in that reality for some time, but came to realize that faith in God alone was not sufficient. Those people whom I had seen abandoning themselves to God had something greater than I. The grace of God had filled me, but at that point I was more like a vessel than a channel. God had gotten in, but I kept Him for myself. But quietly, almost imperceptibly, the Steps of AA began to lead me toward a path of unselfishness, of giving myself without any thought of benefit in return. The phrase “you have to give it away to keep it” became less and less an aphorism and increasingly a guiding principle. Still, there was a fear that abandoning myself like that might mean the loss of something I was not willing to give up. This was where the jumping off point for me came, the actual taking of Step Seven.

The grace of God had eroded the other end of that vessel and made me into a channel of that grace, just as we learn in the Prayer of St. Francis. And here is the paradox. I was not merely a channel but a recipient in a way I had not previously anticipated. A vessel can only hold so much, but a channel can carry an inexhaustible stream. And whoever allows himself to become such a channel finds he is  filled from that unending source.

This challenge I face today is, in any normal sense, insurmountable. I am in need not merely of a measure of grace, but an overabundance of it to give me the power to live each day as it comes. I always knew on a conscious level that I was being of service to those around me. But never over the course of those thirty odd years did I imagine what treasure I was laying up for myself. The outpouring of love that I have experienced these last couple of months has overwhelmed me. And you all, in giving of yourselves as you have, are no doubt drinking of that same stream. That’s the real paradox. No matter how much you surrender, the blessings you receive in return far outweigh whatever sacrifice was required of you.

My sincere desire is to be part of that blessing. Nothing would defeat me more than if I thought this trial was for no purpose. I am convinced that the joy that I experience in this time of difficulty will, in some unseen and and unknown way, lighten the burdens and gladden that hearts of those who face their own challenges.

[The Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. – II Corinthians 12:9-10 New American Bible Revised Edition.

May the Peace of Christ dwell richly in you.

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I need some input

Normally when I post to this blog, I do so in the role of one offering ideas, explanations, insights and sometimes humor. I don’t get many comments so I don’t think of this as going the other way. But I am at a point where your responses can mean a great deal.

I am nearing the point where decisions will have to be made regarding my choice of treatment, decisions that have major consequences for how I live the rest of my life. In its simplest form, it reduces to this: do I want to take the least invasive approach which will allow me to continue living as I am now, but with the likelihood of a shorter life span, or do I want to take a course that will probably result in a cure but may deprive me of speech?

If you know me at all, and many of you certainly do, talking has always been what I do. I’m a teacher by nature and my greatest joys in life have been those few but precious times when what I say has made a difference in someone else’s life. It’s hard to imagine me still being me if I couldn’t do that. So what would be the point of living longer if that was the condition? What kind of life would it be to not be able to tell people that I love them? How could I deprive my wife of the words “I love you?”

But of course, I would have to be alive to do that. So choosing to keep my speech but possibly die sooner has a similar effect. Do I go for quality or quantity? How does that affect those who love me? Do they get a choice in this?

I have just about worn out the “?” key on my keyboard. So many questions and no real answers. I’m really grappling with a big one here. I’m going for a biopsy on Thursday that will define the parameters of this decision more clearly and, while I want to think that I will know what to do, I fear I won’t.

Prayer is central to this. I believe there is a “God way” through everything and in all honesty I’m really at peace knowing that I’ll get both the guidance and the Grace to live in a way most pleasing and useful to Him. That for me really illuminates the decision. Which choice makes me a more useful tool in His hands? I don’t believe that death is a tragedy. I do believe that a life without purpose is.

Before all else, I am a Christian. Jesus said that there is no greater love than when one lays down one’s life for a friend. But what does it mean to lay down your life? It certainly means dying in one sense. But it could also mean laying aside the life I now have for another one, one that I do not choose, but one that nonetheless fulfills my vocation. Do I lay down my life by shortening it or by sacrificing an aspect of it? Again, more questions than answers.

This has been an unusual post. I always take time to craft my work, write it, set it aside, return to it, refine it, produce the very best I can with the talent I have been given. But this has been more of a stream of thought, musing out loud and not really attending to the craft, because the craft may very well be in my willingness to expose my fear, my confusion; to be something I rarely am, unpolished.

I am not asking for answers, though I will certainly accept them. As for pity, I can produce enough of that for both of us if I give in to that impulse, so none is needed. I’m not saying that I don’t need anything. I just don’t know what I need. All I know is that whatever I need, it will come from you whom I love. I would appreciate comments just to know you have read this. Maybe you are as baffled as I am. That would be good to know. Maybe you have some insight. Also, good to know. Maybe you feel compelled to offer advice because you feel obligated. I won’t object.

I hope that this hasn’t been to much of a downer for anyone. These are the kinds of decisions each of us will likely have to make. So the real irony of all this is that you may be answering these questions as much for yourselves as for my benefit. So let’s be joyful, and let’s be grateful for the love we’ve shared.

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A Resentment Averted

It’s all well and good that I share the things I have learned from my years in AA, but it is better still when I can relate the principles to things that are actually happening in my life.

Such was the case a few days ago. I was in Rochester Hills, my old AA home, sitting at a table with a few people I knew and I few I didn’t. (In Michigan, we break into separate discussion tables.) The table was small (six people) and everyone was indulging the luxury of not having to limit the length of their “share.” The person who spoke before me talked for a fairly long time and then it was my turn.

Those of you who know me well are aware that I am prone to speaking longer than I need to, or at least longer than people are willing to listen. I guess it was one of those days. I finished a sentence and before I could start the next one, the man who had just spoken said, in a loud voice, “Thanks Steve.” This is something only the table leader should say to stop someone from rambling, but he wasn’t leading and I (in my opinion) wasn’t rambling. He was wrong. I was insulted. And before the sound of his voice had echoed off the wall, I had the glowing hot seed of a grade-A resentment burning a hole in my normally serene and extremely spiritual self.

Here I am, loved by all, and in the bosom of my old company and this upstart was putting me in my place. I thought to myself, “Do you have any idea who I am? Have you never heard of Mr. A.A. and his triumphant return?” I do not say these things out loud for obvious reasons, but clearly if he knew who I WAS, he wouldn’t have done that.

So here I was, faced with some unsavory alternatives. I could take him aside, point out that he had no business doing what he did, and make sure he was just as uncomfortable as I was. But I know enough about the program to know that was a lose-lose, so I scratched that from my list of “to-dos.” I thought perhaps I should just walk away and say nothing. But I didn’t want to leave a meeting feeling that way. As I simmered, I tried to think what the best course of action should be, what the way of humility would be. In other word’s, God’s will.

Then I remembered a line in the Big Book regarding the Ninth Step:

It may be he has done us more harm than we have done him and, though we may have acquired a better attitude toward him, we are still not too keen about admitting our faults. Nevertheless, with a person we dislike, we take the bit in our teeth. It is harder to go to an enemy than to a friend, but we find it much more beneficial to us. We go to him in a helpful and forgiving spirit, confessing our former ill feeling and expressing our regret.

Step Nine is about restoring relationships, but it is also about creating healthy ones. Was he totally wrong and was I totally right? Did it matter? Even if I couldn’t find where I had been at fault, I certainly harbored ill feelings.

The table finished, we held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer and I turned to him. “I guess I may have been going on too long,” I said. “Thanks for keeping me on track.” He laughed it off and the problem went away. I may have made a friend when I might very well have made an enemy.

Lest you get the idea that I’m some kind of spiritual giant, let me be quick to point out that I was a millimeter away from storming out (or worse). But the more we attempt to live a life based on humility and service to others, the more natural these things become. The next time I am faced with a similar situation, I may not act as well. (In fact, I went off on a customer a few weeks ago and am still paying for that lack of restraint.) But I will go into it with the memory that I found a way through it before and, by God’s grace, I can find a way through it again.

 

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An Abundance of Pitfalls

Since most of us are born with an abundance of natural desires, it isn’t strange that we often let these far exceed their intended purpose. When they drive us blindly, or we willfully demand that they supply us with more satisfactions or pleasures than are possible or due us, that is the point at which we depart from the degree of perfection that God wishes for us here on earth. That is the measure of our character defects, or, if you wish, of our sins. – Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p.65

I don’t believe that God made any mistakes in creating my human nature. Bill makes it pretty clear in this passage that our desires are not our problem, but rather how we choose to satisfy them that drives our defects. Hunger is not a defect. Gluttony is, but so too is self-starvation. Sexual desire is not a defect, but harming others to satisfy it is. Our need to feel loved and accepted is good and God-given, but when we lie and manipulate others in order to feel loved we are clearly no longer in His will.

When we take inventory in the Fourth Step, we ultimately come to see that virtually all of our defects can be traced back to self-centered fear. When we discuss (actually confess) these things to another person, we have begun a process that will bring light to those dark and devious motives. But that in and of itself is not sufficient. If my problem is self-centeredness , then my focusing on my defects may not be the best means of ridding myself of them. Consider the compulsion to drink. Isn’t it true that the harder we tried to change that behavior the more uncontrollable it became? Can we assume that there is something inherently different in our other defects. Bill makes this point earlier:

Having been granted a perfect release from alcoholism, why then shouldn’t we be able to achieve by the same means a perfect release from every other difficulty or defect? This is a riddle of our existence, the full answer to which may be only in the mind of God. – Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 64

I believe the answer to the riddle lies in the Third Step and Seventh Step prayers.

God, I offer myself to Thee-to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always! – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63 [emphasis mine]

My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 76 – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63 [emphasis mine]

Note what the prayers do not say. We’re not asking God to take away our difficulties to make our lives easier. We are asking that they be removed as a demonstration to others of God’s power. We’re not asking God to remove the defects that stand in the way of our sobriety. Rather, we are asking to have them removed to make ourselves more useful. As we begin to see our recovery not as something for our benefit, but rather for the benefit of others, we lose that focus on self that was such a stumbling block to spiritual growth. In other words, our defects are removed as a consequence of selfless surrender to God’s will. It’s a flanking attack, not a head-on assault.

Yet we all continue to fall short. Does this mean we are not sincere in our desire to have God remove these things? Hardly. As they say, old habits die hard. All those things that I identified as defects were my best attempts at living. They were my coping skills. Having to give these up is frightening and and difficult. And we will often slip back into them without intending to. That’s why we continue to look at our behavior through the lens of our usefulness to others. Look at our evening examination on page 86.

When we retire at night, we constructively review our day. Were we resentful, selfish, dishonest or afraid? Do we owe an apology? Have we kept something to ourselves which should be discussed with another person at once? Were we kind and loving toward all? What could we have done better? Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of what we could do for others, of what we could pack into the stream of life? But we must be careful not to drift into worry, remorse or morbid reflection, for that would diminish our usefulness to others. After making our review we ask God’s forgiveness and inquire what corrective measures should be taken.

We have the means to gauge our behavior. Did we do anything that impeded another person’s spiritual growth? Did we behave in such a way that someone observing us would not want what we have? Did we do anything that might have driven a wedge between God and one of His children, or did we create an atmosphere of love and acceptance that mirrors our Father’s care for us? If we continue to see recovery in this light we have a good chance of maintaining it.

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This is my prayer as I begin this day

Lord, there is more to do today than I can possibly accomplish. I don’t believe that You spun the Earth too fast, so grant me the grace to do only those things You expect of me so that, when the day is over, I will know that I got everything done.

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