Sobering Thoughts

Archive for the tag “spirituality”

Promises, Promises

“It is by going down into the abyss that we discover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”

Joseph Campbell’s words are true for anyone.  However, for the alcoholic I think he offers even more insights.  When we come into Recovery we hear for the first time that others have thought and felt like we did; this shared camaraderie allows us – the great “we” – to admit we are in the abyss and together we begin the slow climb out.  These “treasures of life” we call the promises.  Not only are these little gems hidden ( We can look the world in the eye is a promise made in the 5th step) throughout the first 169 pages of the Big Book which is our basic text for Recovery, there are specific, more well known 9th step promises on page 83:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development,
1. We will be amazed before we are half way through.
2. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
3. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
4. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.
5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
8. Self-seeking will slip away.
9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.
11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves (spiritual awakening).

When you face the abyss and see it for what it really is, you can begin to look the world in the eye. I have slowly found that the light at the peak of the mountain is made more manifest by the darkness at the bottom; the person I am today is a tapestry of dark and light.  I try not to judge either and find that the treasures of the abyss are aluded until I accept help from my fellow travelers and consult with a power greater than myself. We call these promises, but for me they are guarantees, when I work for them.


From the Gutter to the Curb

I have said for many years that there is not much distance from the gutter to the curb.  If I forget where I came from – not literally but figuratively – I can easily return to the comfort of the gutter where I would attempt to fix all problems with a bottle. Now that I have been around for awhile I see the problem; the view from the curb can be misleading as it can suggest you are cured.  Many folks sink into a pattern of behavior believing that they have all the answers and then impose them on others as “shoulds.”  When people say to me, you should, I often questions how they really know what is best for me or what God’s will is for me.  Many in Recovery have good intentions and sober experience, but they are still alcoholics and still capable of falling into old habits – a common myth exists that they are different than the rest of us. While I have benefited greatly from their insights, I have also seen their lack of humility – what I call the “you do this and I’ll do that behavior.” Image

They have more experience with sobriety, but our literature repeatedly tells us that sobriety is based on a daily reprieve and contingent on our spiritual condition which is generated by the hard work of climbing the steps.  The Little Red Book says we are “physically, mentally, and spiritually sick.”  This mental condition can exist long after we have recovered physically and no longer crave alcohol.  Today, my main goal in recovery is to achieve mental and spiritual balance and as someone who knows alcohol did serious damage to my nervous system,  I know that signifcant work must be done to restore the mental imbalance that resulted.  This is hard work, and at times seems unsupported by those who believe simply being dry is enough. Emotional sobriety requires that we honor our feelings, not just blame them for screwing us up.  When we know what we feel, we can change.  Our thinking about our feelings allows us to assess whether our feelings are accurate or based on old ways of thinking, usually patterns that began when we were young.  For me this was around 7 years old – to this day my first reaction starts as a 7 year old. In fact, many of us find that our alcoholism kicked in strongly when we had a marked emotional upheaval, a personality change as the result of prolonged negative thinking.  My go to response today is still negative and I have to stop and correct this.  Perhaps this is why I had such a hard time with gratitude lists… I need to be more pro-active and less passive.  I have found that a list of goals, a change list is much more powerful. One like this:

  • Try to experience life today, not judge it
  • When agitated reframe – remind yourself you are not a sinner but have a sickness
  • Elimate thinking that bases success on being a “good boy”
  • Stop validating the crazy stuff you believe is true in your head
  • Remember you have survived, the real goal is living…

Ironically, active participation in my own recovery makes me grateful. A therapist said to me recently, “you have a good spiritual life, but what you want to do is add to your prayer and meditation actual changes you want to see in your behavior.”  If I come to believe that my life magically gets better because I stop drinking, I begin a pattern of dilussional thinking that says I do not have a three fold disease – my physical addiction can go away but nothing then is restored in my mental and spiritual life. Sadly, it is the mental trigger that could lead me back to a drink if it is not treated daily to new thinking.  As I said, the curb has a view that can lead to spiritual arrogance.  Today I believe the only thing keeping me on the curb is my continued willingness to know that my thinking about who and what I am, must evolve.  The freedom from false-pride and an honest evaluation of how things are brings me the humility to see the world as it is in all its glory, not my limited view of its discontents.

“The Rooms”

Most of us think that what lies “out there” beyond our reach is what we are really after.  We set goals and try to achieve them; it might even be said that because few people actually achieve these external goals we now reward everyone – on a stage recently every single child got a medal because he or she attended not because he or she had traveled over time and faced obstacles to reach the stage that day.  I was reading recently about Medieval Pilgrimages which became the model for what some call the hero’s journey.  If we have learned anything from these pilgrimages it is that as pilgrim’s traveled they had “the slow realization that the ultimate goal was not ‘out there’ but the awakening that of an identity that lies within.”  For an Alcoholic, coming to Alcoholics Anonymous is part of a similar journey.  When we arrive in “the rooms” we are able, through shared stories, to travel inward.  Many of us soon realize, by listening to others and working with a mentor (sponsor) that we had mis-perceived IMG_7635the whole point of living our lives, that, in fact, our instincts had “gone awry.”  When we enter  “the rooms” with regularity we begin to change; we are safe there as if we had returned home.  It is in “the rooms,” for the first time, that we are able to actually hear similar stories and the new message of Recovery.  Is is in “the rooms” that we dare to believe that we might have gotten it wrong and that we need to change something, in ourselves, that can right our relationship with God and other alcoholics.  In the hero journey this is called the “transformation” and in “the rooms” it is referred to as a “psychic change.”  In my experience real change comes when I stop thinking too much about outside solutions and judging others instead of getting honest with myself.  When I turn inward , I see the things that I can change and those that I cannot.   But it is the countless hours spent in “the rooms” of Alcoholics Anonymous throughout the country (meetings are everywhere!) that I have “ceased fighting everyone and everything.” When I take the action to stop fighting, I can feel the love and acceptance offered by all the Recovering Alcoholics around me.  When I get honest (Step 1), when I become open (Step 2), and make a decision (Step 3), I can take the necessary action toward achieve a  “psychic change” and live an emotionally sober life.  And when I go back into the real world , I can actually live and “practice the principles in all my affairs” which keep me from chasing those unattainable external rewards.  Then I return to “the rooms” to share this on-going story of triumph over failure that results from a psychic change, one I believe is initiated by the grace of a power greater than myself.  I must tell my story so “the rooms” witness that “I am in a different place from where I was yesterday” and sothey learn “Hope is born while facing the unknown and discovering that one is not alone.”  You are not alone today and finding “the rooms” will never leave you feeling hopeless again.

“No Opinions on Outside Issues”

Part of our Recovery  literature discusses the importance of avoiding outside opinions (political, social, etc.) during meetings; the 12 Traditions which are the guidelines for our groups and similar to the 12 Steps which are guidelines for the Alcoholic, make it clear that the group conscience not the individual conscience govern us. For obvious reasons this focuses the meetings on things pertaining to getting and staying sober by working the 12 Steps.  I suspect this is also why, when we share our “experience, strength, and hope” it is through the lens of our life with alcohol and our new life without it – with specific attention given to what happened during our “psychic change.”  The importance of our “common purpose” cannot be overstated here.  I have recently become concerned, however, that  because of social media and Facebook’s friends this concept is becoming harder to uphold. I used to have a Sponsor who said: “We must love everybody in Recovery, but we cannot or should not like everyone.”  I hear these words in my head repeatedly this last few weeks as I read the venomous filled posts of people I have allowed to call me their friends.  How can I possibly listen to them with any seriousness when they claim they will be there for me when I am going through a difficult time in Recovery? Yes, I too make posts, and what I haven chosen to post are opinions on outside issues.  In my defense, however, I read and research the facts first and do not ask everyone to be my friend. But the larger point here, is that we need to be careful. The larger question is why are we chosing friends based on acquaintance or affiliation (haven’t we learned this from the problems our kids face on these websites?).  We should be chosing friends because we trust and value them as people.  Social media, like Facebook, is a place to share ideas, thoughts, images, and stories. I have decided it is not a place to build trusting relationships for Recovery. In fact, I have unfriended people who will lead to the disintegration of my Recovery because they violate the fabric of trust that I need in place to stay “honest and open and willing” in my meetings.  In other words, when I go to a meeting it is important that I reach out to any and all newcomers; this action of service helps me stay sober.  The reality is that I do not need to know the beliefs of a newcomer to help them. However, I am now becoming aware that the longer someone stays sober and the more they share about themselves and their opinions on outside issues, the harder it is for me to believe or trust them.  As a therapist once said, you must discern in real life what you will let in.  I am for All people and for All human rights because Recovery has taught me we are all the same.  More importantly, I do not want to live separate lives anymore, I want to practice principles in All aspects of my life.  Recovery gives me choices and I have made the choice today to start choosing my friends differently. When I was in the gutter drunk someone stepped down from their perch to help me. I sincerely wonder if some of the people in Recovery speaking with such disdain for those less fortunate, would do the same.  Ask yourselves if reading these messages helps or harms your Recovery and act.

A Family Affair

I used to hear people say “I never hurt anyone.”  In retrospect it is clear that I needed to hear this and to believe this because it would have been overwhelming to accept anything else as I was beginning to figure out how to live.  “Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly” is a slogan that now makes perfect sense. The process of making amends to others and to ourselves is a long one; it is quite possible in early sobriety that we honestly believe we did not harm others.  Complex does not begin to describe how entangled our relationships are when it comes to unraveling the mystery.  Whether we are the Alcoholic who disrupts the family with our sprees, or the co-dependent co-signer of the Alcoholic behavior, in order for the family to heal we must all begin to see and own are parts in the mess.  However, this process can be laden with potholes as one member begins the journey of Recovery and others linger behind.  It is hard to be the first in an Alcoholic family (this does not mean they all drink, it is their kind of thinking) to begin Recovery.  As you begin to recognize the setting you grew up in and how you were shaped by it long before you took a drink, if you are like me you were relieved that you found Alcohol to survive.   But then an awareness comes that your means of survival backfired at some point and began to implicate you in the family affair – my behavior was as sinister and complicit was as bad as those I accused of harming me.  I needed to forgive them to forgive myself for not being perfect.  Once I had made my first amend, it became clear that this was going to be traveling on a new high way of reciprocal forgiveness – ironically, the forgiveness toward one family member often is reciprocated by a new-found relationship that arises because I am not living in past anger and resentment.  Remember the amends I make are because I have changed and want to do the right thing, not because the person I have harmed will forgive me.  Amends are not apologies. The Big Book has a chapter called “The Family Afterwords” and it says:

“The painful past may be of infinite value to other families still struggling with their problem.”

“We grow by our willingness to face and rectify errors and convert them to assets.”

Of course our “experience, strength, and hope” helps others when we have done the work of the 6th and 7th Step that these quotes speak to.  In the end, it is ownership that the Steps bring us to.  When we own our relationships, good and bad, we move from the sordid affairs of our families to the deep and loving relationships that we so craved by illuminating the dark corners of our past lives.  It is why we say “we shall not regret the past of shut the door on it.”

Who Left The Window Open?

“…and sometimes it feels like an intruder found a way in–those life-changing, habit breaking people and situations. But if you are honest with yourself, you can admit that you left a window open. Secretly hoping they’d creep in and disturb your restless sleep–shatter all you’ve ever identified with. As you lay there exposed, sacrificial style, its terrifying and breath-ta-kingly beautiful all at once. Something in you knows that nothing will ever be the same… if you do it right.”

These words are from a former “non alcoholic” student.  A grown up now, her words convey so clearly what happens when we give up or surrender to being victimized by our situations.  She recognizes “her part” in the mess of things (she left the window open) but then quickly realizes that it is this very place where transformation begins.  Ownership – if the program of recovery has taught me anything it is that I own my life, it does not own me.  When I work the Steps to identify and correct the patterns that have brought me anxiety, I own my defects and my assets, they do not own me.  When, in Step 7 I give everything to God for good use, I find a freedom from myself that is hard to explain.  I did know that first time I did this that “it will never be the same.”  The program of Recovery has shown me how to be honest about my life: I was harmed and “left the window open.”  Taking responsibility has taught me that it is the price we must pay to live full and purposeful lives.


Glorious S’s


Silence. Stillness. Serenity.  These words are foreign language to the alcoholic until here or she truly decides to live in Recovery. With the admission of addiction and the acceptance of a power greater than ourselves, the sweet, silky sound of the S’s can float into our lives.  Once we have tasted peace we will crave it as we once did alcohol or drugs and we will seek through prayer and meditation for the power to carry out anything that is set before us.  When I sat down to meditate this morning and image of water to clear and so clean came to my mind and I thought of these words by Edward Abbey:

There is something sweet,

calming and benign

in the general stillness,

a quiet never distrubed by any

sounds more harsh

than those of the wind

rushing through

the tall grass,

the music

of falling water,

the scream of a hawk.

Simple Words

“It is your day

Your way

And I am okay.”

This prayer was recited at a retreat I attended about 15 years ago.  I laughed and made fun of it when I heard it; of course this judgement took place in my mind.  Like all spiritual lessons, however, over time I have come to see the incredible insight in these simple words.  Prayers, it turns out, need not be beautiful or complicated.  I have come to believe that God is more interested in my getting in touch with him, than how I get in touch with him.  He does not seem to evaluate my communication – God just is.  I need a process – God just is.  Whether you believe in the group, a higher power, or anything that is not you, turning it over with these simple words can be magic.  So, try it: “God, it is your day, your way, and I am okay.” Darkness can turn to light, sadness to joy, and attitudes to gratitude with a daily prayer.

Pain. In-The-Neck?

Who can forget the oft repeated mantra in Recovery that “pain is the touchstone”? It is true, at least for me, that I rarely do anything until it hurts.  When the pain became so unbearable and alcohol could no longer provide the salve to cure it, my drinking career ended.  In many ways this has been true in all aspects of my life. Recently, I quit my job because I could no longer tolerate the pain my employer caused and it actually started to keep me from doing my work efficiently and effectively.  Once I quit working, just like when I quit drinking, the pain continued. However, I learned that If I am able to stop trying to “figure it out” and simply say I AM IN PAIN, it seems to lessen.  It is only recently that I have been able to truly recognize this power that pain has over us.  No matter what the source of our discomfort, we must accept it for what it is before we have any chance of being pain free.  I continue to live in awe of the minds ability to impact our bodies – I was a psychosomatic child having learned that it was okay to be physically sick, but not mentally.  Now in my early 50’s I recognize that I have a choice – pain seems to double its effect when I think about it too much – so I try to say things like this hurts, this doesn’t, and I am not sure how I feel in order to affirm pain is okay.  This seems true to me with other feelings like joy and sadness to name a couple.  But to my point, I have a pain-in-my-neck.  Not a person (although one can crop up quickly to distract me from the real pain), but an actual pain that started in my back a few months ago and has slowly worked its way into the bend of my neck.  It is sensitive to movement and can be prickly to the touch.  I have been fighting it, but realized in the last few days, a need to accept it.  I am obsessed and spinning over what it could be… the alcoholic insanity enters here to illicit all my worst fears. FYI –  If you have an on-going problem with your health, please go to the doctor and have it checked out!  But if you have a pain that is moving in your back and neck in accordance with your sick thinking (?)… try accepting it.  Practicing the 2nd Step and how you talk to yourself can actually offset the psychic pain that is triggering our physical instability.  We have a disease that is not just physical, but mental.  In addition, working the Steps like 4, to find out the deeper source of our pain, can help too!  It has become more clear with time, that my untreated insanity will create a feeling of pain that is so great that I might actually be tricked into believing I must drink again to alleviate it.  Vigilance against this kind of thinking is critical to my well being.  Perhaps then pain is a gift, a pain-in-the-neck that helps me focus on the spiritual discipline necessary to cure what ails me.


The Hardest Words

“Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is the infirmity of the will.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have always been fascinated with the connection between writers like Emerson and those of the New Age or Recovery movements.  It is intriguing to look at people who are ahead of their time; the ethic of America often promotes the individual and his/her ability to rise up and master destiny.  I do not read this quote as a historian, but as someone who knows that people’s ideas are often controversial.  When I read this quote, I see how fitting it is as advice in a modern world that still promotes rugged individualism and celebrates the individual will.  I can feel the trap that self-reliance sets for addicts and alcoholics who must give up self-reliance to survive.  If asked, I would probably say the only ingredient necessary for successful recovery is the willingness to let go of “self” and ask for help.  The hardest words in the English language for me to learn were “please help me.”  However, once I learned them I began to live in a state of humility that was completely foreign to me for awhile.  The more I asked for help the more I realized that I struggled to dominate others and this, in fact, caused a sickness or “infirmity” that eventually isolated me.  My will, my ego is a huge problem that can only be remedied when I step toward others.  I remember a friend telling me once that I would some day fill that hole in my soul if I could learn to connect with others in a deep and meaningful way. Today I know that I am healthy when I run toward others, instead of turning inward and trying to solve my problems on my own.


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