Here is a reflection I wrote about 10 years ago while on a “retreat” in New Orleans . . .
With my hands gripping the hot iron bars of the gate, I stare into the Washington Street Cemetery, looking for that brick wall where I used to sit and lean, drinking myself into oblivion when I lived in New Orleans over 30 years ago. I am not certain whether the oppressive late afternoon August heat and humidity or my failing memory keeps me from pinpointing the spot. I turn and walk down the uneven sidewalk jumbled and cracked by the roots of centuries old live oaks. The heat is so oppressive I feel faint. I approach the corner of Prytania and Washington and look toward the blue and white clapboard of Commander’s Palace and the Garden District mansions. I reflect on my changed vision with some 20 plus years of sobriety. As I turn on to Washington Street, a man in his mid-20s, dressed in a white t-shirt, blue jeans and ragged tennis shoes approaches. His hair and beard are cropped short. He gets to the point. “Hey man, can you give some money, I need a drink.” I am shaken from my reverie, caught off guard and silent. ‘I really need a drink,” he pleads. I get back in the moment, say that I am a recovering alcoholic, that I won’t give him money but I’ll take him to an AA meeting. I tell him about my recent reflections about 30 years past. He responds “Man, not drinking for 20 years don’t mean nothing to me, I can’t quit for a week – I’ve tried.” He offers excuses, and I remain adamant, reciting my recovery clichés. He relents, offers me a hip and overly complex handshake that I cannot quite get right, and heads down Washington St. I turn away to collect myself and hear his voice start his next hustle “Yo man . . . “ I turn to look and no one is in sight. The street is quiet and empty in the afternoon heat. Is this all an illusion, a daydream in my head, looking into a mirror from long ago? I continue on, now embraced and nurtured by the heat and humidity of the New Orleans that I have come to savor.
I have stayed friends with the woman with whom I had a relationship when I got sober some 30 years ago although we split up shortly after I was released from detox. We have seen each other maybe 5 times over that period and every six months or so will have a back and forth on email that will last for perhaps 4 or 5 exchanges. Most recently, I spent an afternoon with her and her husband while attending a conference in California, which then prompted a follow-up back and forth on email.
Our interactions today are about our lives today. Generally, we have made peace with the past, but we do have some constructive discussions on that long ago period. During our recent conversation a couple of things stood out. First, how much I really just do not remember from my drinking days. I have never been a big fan of the “drunkalogues” that often comprise 90% of an AA lead. I am much more interested in the what happened, and most interested in what it is like today. But in my recent conversation, I was amazed at how entire chronologies of events, pets owned, and so forth were completely forgotten by me.
More importantly, the second point that stood out was how I had blamed the individual for the loss of a pet cat. I could not even remember the pet in question, but importantly too, was the reflection of my old “blame game” approach. Needing to take accountability for my actions and not blaming my circumstances on others is an issue that I have dealt with throughout my recovery – whether employers, professors in school, family, and so forth. I am also pleased that this area of life – being accountable for my own actions – is where I believe I have and continue to take increased responsibility.
And then there is the line that when you are pointing your finger at others, there are four pointed back at you – explaining perhaps my low level of tolerance for folks who want to consistently blame others for their circumstances. I appreciate too that just by wishing it so, does not make it so. But I believe for all in recovery, there is a starting point – a ground zero as it were, where we make a commitment and choose to move forward, from which we cannot go back. I appreciate and am grateful that recovery gives me a choice where I can make a decision for taking responsibility for my own actions – imperfectly and flawed – and to share that experience, strength, and hope with others in a recovery that is truly a process and not event.
I have been reasonably quiet of late in blogging. I have just come through a rather hectic work life, my wife and my personal existence is chaotic to say the least as we both transition toward our retirements – although she has just opened a new storefront and I am lining up projects that will keep me nearly as busy as I am today.
In my 30 years of sobriety, two of my favorite AA clichés have been “Process not an Event” (hence the name of this blog) and “Progress not Perfection (the title of this post). Both concepts are mainstays of my recovery. They remind me that if I continue living into recovery, then I will continue to make progress every day. I should not expect perfection just because I no longer drink or drug. Rather recovery is all about process, the growth. I can very honestly reflect back on any period of time and see where that growth has occurred – consistently and without question. Like almost everything else in recovery, these sentiments permeate all aspects of my life.
That leads me back to the topic of this particular post – and I am wondering – when is it good enough? I don’t mean this as a matter of resting on our laurels and proclaiming myself “cured” of alcoholism. But as an employee in higher education, and I am certain this holds true in many or most careers these days, I am wholly bored with the notion that what we produce is never good enough – that there is always one more class to teach, one more article to publish, one more conference to attend – in that perpetual progression toward an unattainable perfection.
Instead, I am coming to see the process less as a conscientious move in a progressive direction but rather, simply being one with the progress. That is, perhaps it is time to stop pushing and dragging on the progress process, but simply and actively being the process along a nonlinear circuitous path. I am grateful that recovery has provided me with that opportunity.
Brick from St. Peter and Paul Grade School
Through Facebook, I tangentially keep up with the news from the grade school from which I graduated in 1966. None of my classmates from that year like the page, but some of the last names are familiar and I assume to be their siblings. Through the FB page, I learned that the school had been torn down a few years ago, nothing but a small pile of bricks left for the sentimental such as myself.
A couple of days ago on FB, a woman says she was thinking about my 6th grade teacher – Sister Loretta Rose. The woman said she knew that she had changed her name to Sister Margaret Zureick – and what’s that all about, new identities, life phases, etc.?
Sister Margaret Zureick
So the woman does some sleuthing and locates this nun who ministers at the St. Joseph the Worker Mission in Elk Horn City, Kentucky. Here is a youtube link about the place. That all got me to thinking about a few things.
- If you do the math, the former Sister Loretta Rose was in her mid-20s and I was maybe 11 when she was my 6th grade teacher. I always thought of the nuns as being so old. In fact, looking back with over 50 years hindsight, we are much more of the same generation, nearly peers.
- Within 10 years of my graduating from the school, Sister Loretta Rose gave up the teaching gig and plopped herself into the economically devastated coal fields of eastern Kentucky. In fact, the urban blue-collar area of southwest Ohio in which I was raised was, and still is, largely a migrant Appalachian community.
- To a certain extent, Sister Margaret Zureick and I ended up in a similar places – she in Appalachia, myself in an underserved African-American community in Memphis, supplemented with my now regular gigs to the impoverished regions of the Peruvian Andes.
- I have taken a bunch of detours along the way. By the 6th grade, I experienced the freedom that alcohol brought from my childhood depression and angst. I bounced all over the country with my self-will run riot leading the way on a path of destruction for nearly two decades until I started down a path of recovery. Sister Loretta Rose seems to have started out as a young woman with a vision who has lived a life of service from the start – though I suspect the story is not really that neat and clean.
The woman on FB noted that Sister Margaret does not have an FB account, but she got the nun’s phone number, called her, and the good sister remembered fondly her time at our grade school and “talked her arm off.”
I feel a road trip coming on for the eight-hour drive to Elk Horn City to visit Sister Margaret Zureick at the St. Joseph the Worker Mission to find another piece of life’s puzzle.
I had an interesting convergence in the past few days. I subscribe to a regular post by Quora where folks respond to questions or prompts. One recent post was What images will change the way a person views the world after seeing them? There were several hundred photos posted and I scanned through a bunch of them. Many of the pictures were of the type that put me in the frame of mind that I really have nothing at all in life to complain about – my existence is really awfully damn good. Others were of normal people doing heroic things. I have been given much more than I need in all respects and really live a quite privileged and carefree existence. Despite my drinking and drugging in the past, because of my demographic and geographic location, my recovery has really been incredibly blessed.
And then this week, a couple of things happened that normally would have put me into anxiety mode, but they didn’t.
The simple lesson for me is that if my mind, body, and spirit are in a good place, then I am more able to deal with life on life’s terms. This is not just a matter of thinking that others have it worse off than I, but instead, that I live best when I am connected to and in community with all of creation – when I am not living above or below but with the world.
I am grateful for my recovery and the opportunity to be part of the luminous web of the world.
Note – I am not a doctor of medicine and have no qualifications to speak on the subject of prescription medicines beyond my own personal experience. Further, I DO NOT believe that being in recovery is inconsistent with taking narcotics or other mood altering substances in medical treatment.
I had an interesting experience this past week with prescription medications. I had some minor surgery where normally the patient is put to sleep. I talked to the doctor in advance and discussed my preference for local anaesthetic only. He agreed that if I could handle the sense of hammering and grinding – but with no pain – then a local could work.
The surgery went well – perfect procedure. We discussed prescriptions needed after the surgery – an antibiotic and pain medications. The surgeon wrote me a prescription for some sort of narcotic if I found myself in intense pain, but also gave me a script for 800 mg ibuprofen. I very rarely take any sort of pain medication, even aspirin. The only time I have taken a narcotic in recovery was after a previous surgery where the throbbing was so great I could not sleep – took one pill – and flushed the rest.
This time I got all the scripts filled, and did one of those 5 second – even though I am not in any real pain, maybe I will take the narcotic just tonight so I sleep well. I ended up just taking the ibuprofen and left it at that. I woke up the next morning and was amazed at the lack of pain. I took the ibuprofen along with the antibiotic and followed the proscribed regimen. After three days I decided taking the ibuprofen wasn’t necessary as I was in no pain, so I stopped – then a mild pain that started – nothing unbearable – more just a minor soreness to let me know I had some surgery and it was healing.
I did not start back on the ibuprofen but had a sort of “aha” moment. When I noticed the slight pain my first thought was – I wish I had not masked this with the ibuprofen before – I need to know to take it easy a bit. That is, it is good to be in touch with my physical self as I go through the healing process. That has also been my response over the years when therapists offered to prescribe antidepressants – which I have always refused. For me, depression is a signal that I need to make some changes in how I am dealing with life on life’s terms. Depression has been the motivating factor in me dealing stagnation and unhealthy life situations. My logic has always been that antidepressants would mask that reality.
I tend to think of myself as a reasonably carefree and content person who is good at what they do, responsible, and therefore find myself in work and personal situations that can be stressful. My line goes something like “If the job were so easy and enjoyable that everyone wants to do it, there wouldn’t have been the opening that I applied for.”
What I have come to enjoy in recovery is the recognition that like all life situations, surgery has its consequences that must be dealt with. I have come to appreciate going through those processes in a mindful and present manner – whether in recovery from a surgical procedure or the processes of daily living. I also appreciate knowing when prescribed drugs, professional therapy, or other measures are needed in that process, I can make the choice to take advantage of them.
Here is a fantastic link to a New York Times piece Not the Usual College Party (This One’s Sober) that reports on the activities of Collegiate Recovery Program. Really an outstanding piece!