So, What is this Sobriety Anniversary All About?

bandI have given this sobriety anniversary business more thought.  A couple of folks here and on Reddit took me to task for my last post. They reminded me that sobriety anniversaries are less about me, and more a demonstration to others that the program works.  These responses are important.  I have posted before about how I “recycle” my sobriety coins at each anniversary.  I reconsidered the essence of my thinking on this point. I concluded that I wanted to double down on my sentiment, and the message I pass on to others as well:

  • My recovery has less to do with the fact that I have not engaged directly in my “addiction of choice” for a certain period, but more how I have lived through those years.  I have posted before that my behaviors in recovery have been less than ideal and sometimes I question if the appropriateness of my behaviors are commensurate with my length of sobriety.
  • Part of my thinking on this certainly comes from my eating disorder recovery process.  (For the non believers, I consider ED as serious/lethal as alcohol or drug addiction.)  In OA, everyone defines their own abstinence, and the definition can be a moving target.  For example, while I was up at 12,000 feet for several weeks this summer, I adapted my diet to include some foods I would not eat in New Orleans.  And so forth.
  • I am less interested that my sobriety anniversary is August 4, 1984, my nicotine-free anniversary is December 31, 1997, and my eating disorder abstinence date is December 15 (?), 2015.  What is important to me is that in August of 1984 I made a decision to begin living life on life’s terms instead of practicing my addictions to escape.  If I relapse on alcohol tomorrow, eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, or smoke a cigar that first decision date in 1984 will remain the same.
  • I have come to view not actively practicing my addiction as the opportunity to begin the process of discovering and living into true self.  I don’t believe I can do that while anesthetized with my addiction of choice.  I also know that from my experience over the past three decades, that my behaviors at times have not been ideal and have the potential to be filled with as much “self-will run riot” as when actively practicing my addictions.
  • I don’t want to be viewed primarily as an old-timer with accumulated experience, strength, and hope based on seniority.  Yes, over the years I have learned a lot about what works and what does not work in recovery, and can/do pass that on – in fact, that is my primary reason for writing this blog!  But I thoroughly enjoy, count on, and look forward to knowing that I can learn as much from the person with one week of sobriety about living into true self and recovery as someone with three decades of sobriety.  I want to stay “green” in that regard and open to those possibilities.

In the above contexts, I am not primarily interested in sobriety anniversaries.   More important than my length of sobriety is what I have chosen to do with that recovery opportunity.  For that, I am grateful.

No More Sobriety Anniversaries?

My HipstaPrint 4[2]I had an interesting experience yesterday.  August 4, 1984 is my sobriety anniversary.  Yesterday was August 4 marking my 32 years of sobriety – and I completely forgot about it!  I remembered only when checking my email about 9:00 PM last night and I received a congratulatory note from a friend.  My explanation for the forgetting is two-fold.  First, yesterday was a 21-hour marathon trip back to New Orleans from Lima, Peru and I was engrossed in that activity.  Second, and more importantly, of late I have been thinking about the significance of these anniversary dates.

It seems when I hit 1, 5, 10, and 20 years of sobriety, those were significant milestones for me – intervals that seemed good markers of time.  But the longer I stay sober, the less significant are annual anniversaries, and the more significant is each day and the entire thrust of my existence.  I find that as time passes, I am more reflective of my recovery process.  This reflection is reinforced by my finally dealing with my compulsive overeating addiction.  As I have talked about in the past, dealing with eating disorder is truly a day-at-a-time process and certainly requires more attention to the “isms” that I have eaten over well before I picked up the first bottle of alcohol on July 4, 1962.

So, I am finding that the longer I travel down a recovery road, the more I am able to focus on the daily process and find the annual events take a backseat.  More than ever before, I am coming to ascribe to the understanding that I have only as much recovery as I put into it, today.

 

 

What Recovery/Sobriety/Abstinence Means to Me.

vinetreeFor the past 7 months I have been “abstinent” in Overeaters Anonymous.  I define that abstinence by not adding sugar to what I eat, not eating something in which one of the first three ingredients is sugar, and not bingeing on food.  I have been nicotine free following a 12-Step program for some 18 years.  In one week I will be sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for 32 years.  What does all of this really mean?  A few points:

  • I am reasonably in awe of the fact that were I not in recovery, most of what I do today would not happen.  As I write this, I am sitting in a colleague’s house in Lima, Peru.  The colleague was a childhood friend of the daughter of my wife.  I met my wife when I worked in Northeast Louisiana after receiving a graduate degree from the University of Illinois, where I had received a full scholarship after graduating with an MA from the University of Cincinnati where I had gone back to college in 1985 after waiting the recommended one year before making any major life decisions in sobriety.  As my pre-recovery attempt at college produced a whopping 0.7 GPA, I can reasonably attribute sobriety to launching me on the path that led me to sitting in Lima, Peru, today, where I type this post.
  • For alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, “sobriety” is unambiguous – I don’t put those substances in my body.  Abstinence from compulsive overeating is not so universally defined.  In OA the individual defines their own abstinence.  To some, such a self-definition is the equivalent of deciding to drink only beer and not hard liquor, etc for a self-defined sobriety.  I view abstinence as the same as sobriety in abstaining from those foods or eating behaviors that cause me problems.  Sugar is one.  Binge eating is another.
  • In recovery from compulsive overeating, a rigid adherence to a set of rules or regulations would be akin to a diet – something that has never worked for me.
  • I have learned in the past 30 years that recovery has little to do with actual substance to which I am addicted.  Putting down the bottle, the pill, the cigarette, the food only allows me the clarity to begin living life on life’s terms and a path toward discovery of true self that I masked with my various drugs of choice.
  • In this way, when I entered the University of Cincinnati in 1985 with one year of sobriety, being physically sober allowed me the clarity and the ability to take tests, write papers and perform the mechanics of going to school and being accountable.  But the process of recovery, an attitude of gratitude, a belief in hope, and a desire to live life fully enables me to take those steps forward and to climb out of the bottle of addiction.
  • In this way, recovery is marked less by the date I stopped using a specific substance to avoid living life, but rather the day I decided to move forward with living life fully on life’s terms and to begin the journey to discover my true self.

 

The Honor of Being Asked in Recovery

dinner

My annual month or so trip to the rural Peruvian Andes usually ends around the time of my sobriety anniversary – August 4, 1984. Given the timing and circumstances, I tend to be reflective about life in recovery during these trips.

The other night my Peruvian colleague Elizabeth and I hosted a small dinner for a family with whom we have become quite close. In a week or so we will serve as Godparents for a baptism in the family and Best Man and Maid of Honor at the parent’s wedding. At the dinner, besides sharing a meal, kicking the soccer ball in the kitchen with the children, and general conversation, we also discussed the wedding and baptism plans.

The father expressed apologies for needing to change the date for the events.  Locating his baptismal certificate proved a problem, taking him to several nearby towns seeking out clergy who might have the record. You cannot be married by the Roman Catholic church in Peru without a baptismal certificate. Turns out that because the father was so ill as an infant he was given an emergency sacrament short of a baptism because he was not expected to live. I don’t get that theology. Ultimately though, a payment to the local clergy of 100 soles (about $30.00 US) was able to secure a baptismal certificate, without the need of the actual administration of the sacrament. I do understand that theology.

The mother who was raised by her grandparents did not remember ever being told she was baptized, nor did the grandparents have any recollection of the event. However, a visit to the church 2 hours away did produce a baptismal certificate for her.

The children’s baptisms and wedding will take place at 8:00 AM on Friday morning –  a convenient time for the clergy. The mother noted the early hour would require leaving the village at 3:00 AM to get to the city in time to get the children dressed and the girls’ hair styled properly. We suggested instead that we go down the night before, pay for a couple of hotel rooms that would have hot water so everyone could be well rested and fully ready for the events. We will make a visit down a few days ahead of time to make all the necessary arrangements for the hotel, clothes, celebration, food, and other details.

Elizabeth and I have expressed and reflected on the honor in the roles that we are invited to play with the family. I have known the family for about 4 years now, more regularly and well for the past 3 – Elizabeth for the past 6 years. Several things about the family stand out to me. The mother and father always have friendly and playful conversations. The children are simply a delight – well adjusted, bright, caring, and friendly little people. Their home is a place of joy and comfort. Both the father and mother work very hard to build a future for their family.

I am honored to play a small role in their lives.

What does all of this have to do with my sobriety anniversary and recovery in general? Thirty plus years ago I was broken – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – I had nothing to give and only sought for my next drink. Were it not for my walking a recovery path, one day at a time, I would never have the opportunities I have today.  I would never have gotten to know Elizabeth or the Peruvian family. I am grateful too, though this is a one-day-at-a-time program, that the rewards of recovery continue to pile up to allow me to participate more fully as a human being in this world. I am blessed with over thirty years of recovery from alcoholism. I just realized that this year at the age of 64, with 32 years of sobriety, I have been sober half as long as I have been alive.  That too is a blessing.

The ultimate relevance of this story to recovery is what I remember reading in the AA Big Book during my 30-day detox program.  The goal of AA was to allow alcoholics to become functioning humans contributing to society.  That is all I ever wanted, and I have gotten that and so much more!

 

From Entitlement to Action in Recovery

entitleagencyEntitlement is “I deserve this just because I want it” and agency is “I know I can do this.”  The combination of fear of disappointment, entitlement, and performance pressure is a recipe for hopelessness and self-doubt.

– Brené Brown The Gifts of Imperfection

Dr. Brown’s quote is quite revealing.  I witnessed a dramatic shift from entitlement to agency in my recovery – and like everything, the shift is a process and not an event.  But I was not a total slouch, born with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth.  In fact, I had my first factory job when I was 16, and have been generally financially self-supporting my entire life – never unemployed for more than a couple of weeks between jobs.  But, I was incredibly resentful of my state in life compared to others.  I had a ready excuse to explain why my relative brilliance was not recognized by the world.  I recollect well, after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA during my first try at college, telling my academic advisor I did not need his bourgeois education – I was going to make it on my own.  All of which led me to a detox unit some ten years later.  I have posted about some of this before.

But in recovery self-doubt has remained.  I was about seven-years sober, finally earned BA and MA degrees and was awarded a full scholarship to a PhD program.  I distinctly remember driving across the Indiana cornfields to register for classes and thinking “who am I trying to fool” and “what will happen when they find out.”  As good as I could get on the agency thing at that time was convincing myself that I was going to give this my best shot, and also give myself permission to drop out after the first semester if I was clearly in over my head.

In less than five years I graduated, got my dream job, but again was incredibly concerned about being found out.  Fast forward 20 years and I am now retiring from a different dream job.  Over the years the “I know I can do this” has become a bigger part of my existence.  Take writing.  The “publish or perish” higher education mantra is impressed upon students along with the pecking order of prestigious publications.  I have published well above average over the years, but not until the last five years have I felt I truly found my writing voice.  My best writing is in my “professional blog” that would fill another four or five books but that is considered the lowest on prestige chart.  But I find everything except my blog writing to actually be a rather tedious unenjoyable process.  The only real exception to that has been my last edited volume.  I believe this is the case because the last book is one that most expresses my values and interests.

So, I might add to Dr. Brown’s definition that “I know I can do this and I want to do this

The process of finding and then living into true self has been the most exciting part of my life in recovery.  My “bourgeois education” provided some equipment for that process, but, without question what I have received through the 12-steps and other related recovery is where I have learned how to use that equipment . . . and I am always pleased to know that the process is never done!

Hope in Recovery

hope in recoveryI was shocked to discover that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process.  Emotions play a supporting role, but hope is really a thought process made up of what Snyder calls a trilogy of goals, pathways, and agency.  In very simple terms, hope happens when:

  1. we have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go).
  2. We are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again).
  3. We believe in ourselves (I can do this!)

– from The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

I have always counted Hope as an important guiding principle in my recovery.  Brené Brown, in her book the Gifts of Imperfection clarified my thinking on this.  Basically, my adherence to Hope is based in part on a “glass is half full” mentality. I wholly attribute this state of mind to the extent I am living in recovery.  Flowing from the trilogy presented by Dr. Brown:

  1. The one-day-at-a-time, process not an event, approach of 12-step programs has taught me to be proactive and solution oriented.
  2. I have learned to make plans but not be too terribly attached to the immediate results.  However, I also know that I learn from results and am able to alter my plans the next time around.  I ultimately achieve results that are more aligned with my true self.
  3. Belief in self is one of the greatest blessings in recovery.  As I go through time, I am more comfortable in my own skin.  I am also more confident in who I am and the vision to which I aspire.

Without question, this understanding of Hope is integral to my existence today.  Without recovery, Hope goes out the window.  And perhaps most exciting is that my understanding of Hope, leads to new surprises and opportunities as life continues forward.

Recovering from Compulsive Overeating – Five Months In

monkeyHard to believe that it is just a bit over five months since I began to work a 12-step program – Overeaters Anonymous – to begin the recovery process from my compulsive overeating addiction.  So, to date, I have lost a bit over 40 pounds, but more importantly, I know that I have truly begun dealing with my food addiction as opposed to being on a diet.  Besides the simple value of dealing with food addiction as a 12-step program of recovery, as I have discussed in earlier posts, here are some other takeaways 5 months in:

  • in consultation with some basic nutrition information, I am learning a lot.  Knowing what normal food consumption looked like was one of my biggest concerns when I started down this road – that yes, I could lose the weight, like so many times before –  but as in the past, if I only dealt considered coe from a dieting perspective, when I did not need to diet, I would not know how to eat normally, and binges would soon follow. Five months in, because I am working this as a step process, those fears are considerably less.
  • One bit of nutrition wisdom I am following is moderation in what I consume, and staying away from the low-fat diet game.  Here is something of interest to me. For the past few months, I have rigorously avoided dairy products with fat, opting for the 0% fat variety.  Basic nutrition guidance says that we need some fat in our diet, and that nonfat milk is not necessarily a good idea.  And I tend to find that when I use the nonfat, I am left still craving something after.  Of late, I have used reduced fat (2%) milk products and have found they are much more satisfying and filling.  I am not left wanting or craving for more.  A bit of evidence to support that we do need some fat in our diet.
  • The one substance I am not attempting to consume in moderation is refined sugar, as I have discussed before.  I have not consumed any recreational or refined sugar in the past 5 months.  Three times during that period I have gotten a serving of no sugar added frozen yogurt without any cravings or thoughts of follow-up binges.  Ditto, twice my neighbor has made a cheesecake and substituted Splenda for white sugar, with the same results in terms of after effects.
  • I did have an interesting experience of late.  I have read many in OA warn against the artificial sweetener routine as it could lead to relapse on sugar.  Some nutritionists argue that artificial sweeteners are inherently bad because of the chemical additives.  The only time I really miss the refined sugar sweetness is in the very strong Turkish hot tea that I make – and I tended just to stay away from the tea instead.  I decided to give the artificial sweetener a shot with hot tea.  I was quite surprised that although the Splenda did the trick in terms of adding the sweet taste I had previously gotten from refined sugar, I found that after 5 months I really did not like the sweet taste so much any longer.  This is an ongoing experiment, but instead of the one to two packets of sugar I had put in a full cup of tea, I am now putting less than a half packet of the Splenda and only once a day.  Other times I drink tea without any sweetener of any sort. I am comfortable with that.

But mostly, I am not dealing with this issue any longer as a diet.  I am down somewhere approaching an ideal weight and am now beginning the process of maintenance – of balancing food consumption with physical activity with what is healthy overall for mind, body, and spirit.  I am not thinking of when I hit that magic number I will reward myself with a mess of fried chicken or pint of Ben and Jerry’s.  If I choose to eat those things, I need to choose to eat them now and not as a reward for something.

So, this all feels much, much different from any past “diet” as it is something entirely different as well.  Dealing with my compulsive overeating from a recovery perspective, as I do alcohol and drugs, is the foundation.