Not Regretting the Past

DSC_0502Early on in sobriety I had regrets over the time I considered wasted in a drunken state of existence.  Besides the path of chaos and upheaval I left along a good bit of the length of the Mississippi River, I used to think about how I was behind everyone else some 15 or so years, just in living life.  I got sober at the age of 32, which at that time seemed quite old.  Now at the age of 62, that seems young.

 I have posted before about how my specific recollections of the past are not really the same of other folks directly involved in those past experiences.  I have also reflected on the concept of the Wounded Healer in recovery and the true blessing and responsibility that entails.

I am perhaps more reflective on this as I lean toward my formal “retirement” from a 40 hour (make that more like 60-70) per week employment to an existence where I will be more selective in how I spend my time and energy.

I definitely consider my getting sober as a benchmark of change and difference.  In sobriety, I have never once just laid in bed, wishing I could just go back to sleep for the entire day because I could not face life – or immediately jumped up to look out the bedroom window to see where my car was because I had no recollection of coming home the night before.  Those are the simple gifts of sobriety.

The challenge of sobriety is living into the recovery of “practicing these principles in all our affairs.”  I thoroughly enjoy that today I have the opportunity to put back what I have taken.  Today, I have that choice.

Mardis Gras 1977, Mardis Gras 2015

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Mardis Gras 2015 in front of my wife’s store on Magazine St.

Before this year, the last time I was in New Orleans for Mardis Gras was in 1977.  I still had seven years of drinking and drugging to do before getting sober in 1984.  My most vivid memory of 1977 Mardis Gras was running down Magazine after the parades ended – I was running in a state of alcoholic hallucination – fearing that my brain was flying out of my head and if I stopped running it would get too far ahead of me and I would never be able to get it back.  I don’t really remember how that story ended as I blacked out somewhere and awoke some time later.

I have posted before about my experiences of living in New Orleans in the 1970s and my gratitude about being able to return now to my favorite city to live in sobriety.  Mardis Gras 2015 has been such an experience.  This year I stand on Magazine St. and hold up one of my granddaughters so she can have a better shot at getting some of throws from the floats.  I am grateful for the opportunity to do this all again.

 

My Alcoholic Eating Disorder

Josie at Themiraclesaroundthecorner responded to a line in my previous post: “I have opted instead for addressing my eating disorder in the same way as my consumption of alcohol and nicotine.”

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As you know, I struggle with food issues as well, but I don’t understand this sentence. Since you clearly cannot remove food from your life in the same way you do alcohol and nicotine, then how have you addressed food issues in the same way? Any insight you provide would be much appreciated!

First, I appreciate Josie raising this point as it required me to really think through that process more.  Here are my thoughts.  In addiction, the issue for me is less the consumption of the substance, but the attitude, the decision, the circumstances that lead me to consume.  I use substances to avoid living life on life’s terms.

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Granddaughter and me a bunch of years ago.

At the age of 6 or 7, I was a pretty unhappy kid.  I learned early on that food could make everything feel okay. I remember well climbing up on the step stool, and onto the kitchen counter, to shovel scoops of sugar into my mouth from the storage canister.  I would then make my way over to the bacon grease pot and eat scoops of that.  I enjoyed going to my grandma’s apartment or the home of my great-aunt where I could eat to my heart’s content.  It just always felt good.  In grade school I had a good petty thief gig going, but the only thing I ever stole was food or money to buy food.

I had my first beer on the 4th of July when I was 10 years old.  I got a release from my unhappiness with that beer that I got with food, only it seemed better.  That experience led me to focus more on alcohol for the next 22 years.  When I went into detox I weighed 165 pounds.  When I was about 13 years sober, I quit smoking.  When I was about 20 years sober I weighed 250 pounds and for the first time acknowledged/recognized my compulsive overeating.  For the past 10 years I have been doing this yo-yo thing with food and weight between 195, a good weight for me, and 230 or more pounds.

About 5 years ago I was standing in our kitchen listening to my wife have a rather disturbing phone call with one of our children – one of those deals where I could get the gist of the conversation from my wife’s words.  I was three hours drive away from our daughter and could not take any immediate  physical action to remedy the situation.  What I could do though was, without really noticing it, was eat an entire bag of cookies that was sitting on the kitchen counter in the 10 minute conversation.  After my wife hung up the phone, she asked me what happened to the cookies – it was then I realized I ate every one.  I could not deal with life on life’s terms, so I ate the bag of cookies instead, like I would have drunk a bottle of wine, chain smoked cigarettes or whatever.

I have been sober for some 30 years today.  There is no question in my mind that it is my behaviors and my attitudes that can lead me to relapse either with alcohol or tobacco – the refusal to live life on life’s terms and choosing to escape instead.  Although alcohol and drugs are my primary addiction, I consider the compulsive overeating as just another type of relapse.

For me, here is how I deal with food in the same way as with alcohol – my binge eating time is particularly strong at night.  I can have a very healthy diet until about 5:00 PM.  Without a great deal of trouble, I can often have just one plate of food for supper.  But the hours between 9 and midnight can be very difficult.  I can eat until I am numbed in the same way I could smoke or drink to numb everything else out.  The question is why?  With food, I don’t always know the answer to the question.  It’s often just the anxious feeling, the depression, the anxiety, the unmet expectations, or whatever, that can be filled with food.

What I know is that if my head is in a good place, in the same way I could be sitting in any bar with any favorite drink in front of me and have no desire to touch it – the same can be true with the favorite grease, sugar, or salt food.

Here is also how for me, food is like alcohol.  In early sobriety, my primary defense against taking the first drink was not necessarily knowing why I chose to escape into the bottle, but visualizing that first drink through to the logical conclusion – that I never just wanted one drink, and I consistently ended up drunk.  In the same way, today I don’t always know the answer to my binge eating, but I have come to understand that if when I go into the bedroom or living room with a book or my iPad for the evening, if I take a bowl of chips, cheese, or similar foods with me, I will keep refilling that bowl till the food is gone or I am stuffed.  On the other hand, if I eat a bowl of granola, that is all I will consume.  I know that is the way it will go.  I have “tested that hypothesis” so many times and have never refuted it.  But . . . why do I sometimes choose to go the binge route?  I think for the same reasons I kept drinking for as long as I did knowing full well the consequences.

Ultimately, I have come to understand why I chose to take the first drink – the self-sabotage, self-loathing, refusal to be accountable, etc. etc.  Today, I don’t completely understand the escape I get from binge eating in the same way as alcohol, but I do find the “treatment” is basically the same.

Some folks speak of “trigger” foods for their addictions such as sugar, white flour, bread, and so forth.  For me, my trigger food is food.  I can go through 6 apples or a quart of ice cream if my head is not in the right place.  But I also know that I can go out to the Mexican homemade ice cream store down the road, get a small dish, come home and eat it, and not even consider going out for more.

Again, to me it is like alcohol because through time and experience, I know the results.  We don’t keep half gallons of ice cream in the house.  I don’t buy pints of Ben and Jerry’s.  I go to the Mexican store to get a small dish maybe once every couple of weeks.  But then, I also make choices to violate what I know are the way things work.

Like with alcohol, when there are no good answers to the compulsion, to the craving, sometimes I need to just sit there and know that this to shall pass, whether I decide to binge with food or not.  But not using the food, like not using the alcohol takes me through an experience without actively practicing my addiction.  That makes it easier for the next time.

I am amazed that it took me over 20 years of sobriety to recognize that I was eating addictively long before I picked up the first drink, in the same way that I later consumed alcohol.  That was a total revelation to me!  I have often thought it would have been cool had the counselors talked about smoking and eating when I was in my 30-day detox in 1984.  However the line back then was something like “Hey, I came to AA to get sober, not holy.”

I can be a slow learner, but I think that I learn well.  For the last little while I have been feeling much better about my food consumption.  I also thoroughly enjoy that this whole thing is truly a process and not an event.

That’s what I have got.

My Scientific Recovery Process

recovery-scroll2When I went through detox a bunch of years ago, I recollect a fellow patient named Tony asked me how much I drank – I said toward the end, a couple of cases of beer per week was all that I could physically handle.  He responded that was not really alcoholic drinking and that he consumed a lot more.

When I first entered detox I hoped that a medical test could decide if I had the alcoholic disease.  As the complicated person I perceived myself to be, I envisioned that a spinal tap would be necessary.  (I really didn’t/don’t know what a spinal tap was/is, other than a mockumentary rock band.)

In my first year of recovery, as a second shift worker I attended a lot of daytime AA meetings.  I regularly attended one meeting in an upscale part of town composed largely of upper middle class white women.  I was a demographic anomaly at the meeting.  Once a 30-something woman expressed concern about her nightly single glass of wine and the problems that caused.  I could not get my head around her dilemma.

In the same way that many folks are certainly in denial of their addictions that are plainly visible to anyone, I suppose that the same is true on the other side of the spectrum.  The truth remains that much of the diagnosis of “alcoholism” or “eating disorder” is in the mind of the beholder.  My general practitioner wanted to prescribe an appetite suppressant for me.  I know that my eating disorder is better dealt with by a decision to live life on life’s terms.  I have opted instead for addressing my eating disorder in the same way as my consumption of alcohol and nicotine.  That approach is now working.

For myself, I have come to believe that if I question whether I have a problem with specific issue or thing, and that question comes up on multiple occasions, then I probably do have a problem.  I find the solution is often simply a decision to live life on life’s terms and not escape that life through a variety of addictive or dysfunctional behaviors.  And although perhaps not “scientific” to some, I find my years in living as a test for that hypothesis with the height of scientific rigor.  For example, when I recognize my powerlessness in a given situation and surrender to that fact, consistently and without fail, the anxiety I face over the situation is greatly diminished.  The testing to date fully supports the hypothesis.  This process works as effectively or better than any medication I have been prescribed.

 

 

On God Things in Recovery

jayber crowI posted the excerpt below from Wendell Berry‘s novel Jayber Crow before.  I was reminded of this quote once again when the person I loaned the book to a bunch of years ago returned my copy recently.  The excerpt is one of the best God pieces I have read.

For a while again I couldn’t pray. I didn’t dare to. In the most secret place of my soul I wanted to beg the Lord to reveal himself in power. I wanted to tell him that it was time for his coming. If there was anything at all to what he had promised, why didn’t he come in glory with angels and lay his hands on the hurt children and awaken the dead soldiers and restore the burned villages and the blasted and poisoned land? Why didn’t he cow to our arrogance?…

But thinking such things was as dangerous as praying them. I knew who had thought such thoughts before: “Let Christ the king of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Where in my own arrogance was I going to hide?

Where did I get my knack for being a fool? If I could advise God, why didn’t I just advise him (like our great preachers and politicians) to be on our side and give us victory? I had to turn around and wade out of the mire myself.

Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. And why not otherwise? Wouldn’t it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and the chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment he had come down in power and glory? Why didn’t he do it? Why hasn’t he done it at any one of a thousand good times between then and now?

I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, he hasn’t, because from the moment he did, he would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be his slaves. Even those who hated him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.

And so, I thought, he must forebear to reveal his power and glory by presenting himself as himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of his creatures. Those who wish to see him must see him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.

from Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry

Making a Choice to Live in the Solution

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. . . here is my point – you are about the same age as I was when I went back to school, only you have a good GPA and mine was abysmal . . .  You are obviously an intelligent, articulate, and passionate young woman about your future and there is no reason you cannot achieve your career goals.  If anyone tells you otherwise, the term for that person is a “dream stealer” or “dream killer” and they need to be ignored.

                                                – from my email to a student advisee

A big difference for me in recovery is being active in my life versus passively accepting decisions made about my life by others.  I see this in several ways:

  • by being in a state of perpetual numbness from alcohol and drugs, I abstained from making decisions about my life, except the decision not to decide.  Whether in relationships, careers, or other life decisions, I focused primarily on my need to escape decision-making and accountability.
  • When opportunities arose or decisions needed to be made, I was willing to settle for less, largely from my deep-seated feeling that I was not worthy and deserved nothing better.
  • The real flip-side to the above is my grandiosity about deserving nothing better.  I had a whole shopping list of grievances to explain why I was who I was and if you only knew it all. . . and tomorrow, my true potential would come to the fore.  That logic reminds me of a large outdoor sign painted on the wall of a bar here in Memphis “Tomorrow, hamburgers and beer free all day.”

In recovery, we learn to become active agents in our lives:

  • In recovery, for the very first time, I thought about issues from the perspective of what do I really believe?  what is truly the right thing to do in this situation?  However, I remain amazed at how easy it is to slip into self-serving logic in terms of what is really in it for me.
  • When I applied for the job I now hold, and the one before that, I was wholly confident that I would be the successful applicant.  The total skill set, experience, and vision I brought to the table was exactly what the jobs required.  I knew that truth as did the search committee for the positions.  There was little self-doubt.
  •  I have come to experience a greater balance in appreciating my past, present, and future.  I have come to understand how my shopping list of grievances from the past can actually be used as assets in the present and future.  I thoroughly enjoy that I can stand in front of a classroom of students, and tell about my 0.7 GPA during my first try at college, but that there is redemption for all, and I ended up my graduate studies with a 4.0 GPA.  That revelation always brings at least a couple of students to my office to discuss their own need for academic redemption where I can share my experience, strength, and hope.  Today, I have learned to act on my potential.

So . . . in the best Dana Carvey Church Lady voice one might respond, “Well isn’t that special.”  But here is the point.  In my pre-recovery days, I made some good choices, I did some good things, I was occasionally responsible.  In recovery, I can and do make bad choices, act in self-serving ways, and shirk responsibility.  But the difference is that in recovery, I know that I have a choice to live into the solution and can take action in that direction and not dwelling in the problem enabled by my addictions.  Knowing that I have a choice today in how I act out my life makes all the difference.

Being Grateful

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Luciana, Kevin, Robert, and Carla

Had a great week in my second, or is that my third home, in Hualcayán, Peru.  Was down to install some exhibits in the small museum that we opened this past summer.  But the real highlight was meeting with old friends, and especially seeing my new godson, Kevin, for the first time.  My Spanish now no longer completely sucks, and I am able to have some conversations with folks.  My Peruvian colleague and I were only up in the mountains for a few days, checking in with friends, lining up projects for the next year but we got a lot done.

I am grateful for this opportunity to give back and be in community with folks.  I reflect back some 30 years when I was trying to figure out how I could exist without alcohol.  And throughout the years, I could never have predicted what cool things that the past three decades of recovery would bring.  Five years ago, I had no idea I would end up on this new gig in Peru.

I have moved from a fear of drinking because of blackouts, job losses, insanity, to a knowing that with alcohol all the benefits of recovery go out the window.  I will climb back into the bottle and simply exist, not live.  I have learned, and firmly believe, that with recovery, all things are possible.  For that knowing, I am incredibly grateful.