Finding a middle way

“As we seek balance in our meditation practice as well as in our lives in recovery, one of the things we have to look out for is this tendency toward extremes.” (1)

When I first started to contemplate the 12 steps, I struggled mightily with language that I perceived as evangelical.  If you’re anything like me, you may have struggled with specific words too, perhaps God and Him.  I counted the number of steps that talked about something related to God and came up with 6 that used these words.  I gave Step 12 a pass even though I thought spiritual awakening sounded a little too much like being saved.

I saw things as absolutes.  Black and white.  On or off.  Binary.  And I was repulsed.  All I wanted was to stop drinking, I didn’t want to fall down some rabbit hole and become a holy roller.  People told me that I didn’t have to believe anything in particular.  I heard incredibly stupid things, like, “you can make a light bulb your higher power if you want.”

Seriously?

I’ve written before that I didn’t struggle so much with the concept of a higher power, but with undercurrent of fundamentalist evangelicalism that I found in the steps.  And I declared that I’d start looking for an alternative.  And I did.

I read the book Dharma Punx by Noah Levine.  Noah Levine leads a recovery program called Refuge Recovery, and I thought this book would be about how he came to form the program.  Spoiler alert!  It’s not about that.  In fact it talks a great deal about his experiences with the 12 steps and does not diminish them at all.  It also talks about his spiritual journey to Buddhism.

I’m going to level with you, while I enjoyed the book and initially gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.com, upon further reflection I’m not sure it’s as good as I first thought.  But, it did open my eyes to some things.  And as Amazon will do, I got suggestions about other books to read, which brings me to the book I’m currently reading, One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, by Kevin Griffin. This book is not a reinterpretation of the 12 steps in Buddhist language, rather it is a discussion of how the steps relate to Buddhist practice and I’m finding it immensely helpful.  While I’m not a Buddhist, there is a lot in Buddhist teachings to which I relate.

In a few short sentences, Griffin manages to sum up exactly what my problem with the third step has been.  He writes, “Language is always an issue in spiritual teachings. First of all, as I’ve talked about, these teachings are trying to explain something that goes beyond language; words are only an attempt to represent reality, they are not reality itself.” (2)

Over the years, I’ve struggled with the rhetoric that comes out of religious leaders.  And in most cases, I’ve turned my back on it, because it never really resonated with me.  It felt accusatory.  It felt dangerous.  It felt false.  Even if there was a grain of truth in the teachings, something in them made me react viscerally.  I think now that it is exactly that the language does not match my understanding.

Much of the language in the Big Book feels didactic.  Many times, I hear language at meetings that makes my skin crawl.  How is it that well meaning people who have a great deal of faith manage to make my skin crawl?  Well, I think it comes down to balance.

See I believe in a healthy debate.  I believe in healthy skepticism.  I believe that there is good reason to doubt.  It’s not that faith is a bad thing, but when I feel that something demands blind faith, that’s when I recoil.  And yes, sometimes I feel like that’s what I hear at meetings and find in the text.

Griffin writes, “With too much faith, we no longer question anything. We take everything at face value so that the nuances of ancient poetic and mythic teaching are taken literally and lead us to rigid, irrational, and destructive beliefs.”(3)  Griffin goes on to tell a story of a time when he followed a mystic around the country on nothing but faith.  And that at some point, he lost his faith in this mystic and everything fell apart.  Interestingly, Noah Levine has a similar story in Dharma Punx.    Just as it’s possible to have too little faith, it’s possible to have too much faith.

Often times, people like me, get accused of not having enough faith.  We are told things like, “become a yes man, and just do whatever your sponsor tells you to do” and “when you stop questioning everything, then you’ll know what true sobriety is.”  Wow.  Just wow.  What a way to turn someone off in a heartbeat!?!

But I get it.  Too much thinking can also be dangerous.

Griffin addresses this too:  “With too much wisdom, the hindrance of doubt comes to dominate the mind. There is an unwillingness to accept anything that is not before your eyes or that can’t be “proved” through science or logic.  […] This particular attitude is very common in our contemporary, Western, materialist culture. It has the effect of narrowing possibility to that which has already been known or understood. There is no room for imagination or discovery.” (4)

As with most everything in life, the answer often lies somewhere between extreme faith and extreme wisdom.  The answer is in the middle path.  I’m coming to believe that there is a middle path that allows me to live in accordance with the 12 steps without trusting too much in faith.   As Griffin writes:

Balancing Wisdom and Faith means keeping an open heart and an open mind. Not closing ourselves off from the unknown, from possibilities yet unexplored; and not seeking quick fixes or supernatural solutions to our problems. Life is a mystery; the mind an enigma; the possibilities for spiritual growth endless, if only we are willing to explore. As human beings we have amazing abilities to think, to feel, and to experience wonder. Step Three sets us firmly on the path of freedom, connecting us to the great mysteries of life and the heart. Our job is to keep opening to the mystery, with joy, gratitude, and bright attention. (5)



Notes:
(1) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (p. 84). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(2) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (p. 73). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(3) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (p. 75). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(4) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (pp. 75-76). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.
(5) Griffin, Kevin (2004-06-09). One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (pp. 84-85). Rodale Books. Kindle Edition.

An Open Letter

I’m sorry, I don’t recall your name.

See, I wasn’t expecting you to jump into a diatribe about how God doesn’t exist and that willpower is the only reason why Erin was able to be celebrating her 4 years of sobriety last night and that we should all be mindful that this program only works for a very small minority.  You kind of pissed me off.  I kind of let  you piss me off.

But, I’ve been where you are.  Well, not exactly where you are — you said you were at the meeting against your own will and no one ever dragged me to a meeting — but I think we could find common ground.

I had a great deal of pain when I first came into the rooms.  There was a lot that didn’t make sense to me.  The trite little sayings — they were cliche’s that I didn’t need.  And I was convinced that “the program” might not work for me either.  I’d read the literature.  I’d also read the articles in the Atlantic and in the New York Time about how AA really doesn’t work for most people. And God, well God had nothing to do with keeping me sober.

What kept me sober was not going into the liquor store.  True story.

If I didn’t go to the liquor store, I didn’t have bourbon to drink.  And if I didn’t have it to drink then I was sober.  And miserable.

As I said, I struggled with the God thing.  Some days I still do.  And I won’t pretend that it’s not all over the literature, it is.  The literature was written in the 1930s by white men with largely protestant backgrounds.  It’s there and can’t be denied.

There were some, even then, who argued that the words needed to be tamed.  That’s how the words “Higher Power” and “as we understood him” got introduced to the text.  Oh, and those folks who talk about spirituality and not religion, but then go on to talk about a clearly Christian understanding of a higher power, yeah, they irritate me too.  Still do.

And yet, I’m six months sober.  And in those six months, I’ve explored a great many things related to recovery.

I’ve looked to see if there is an alternative to AA that might make sense.  And there might be some, but they aren’t as accessible to me.  Refuge Recovery looks great, but the closest meeting is 75 miles from my home.  And Smart Recovery, looks great, but there’s only one meeting a week and it happens to be at a time that doesn’t work well for me.  But AA, well, those meetings are everywhere.

I’ve looked into my understanding of a higher power.  I’m not sure that I’d call it God, or god, or anything that anyone else might call it.  But I know that there is something mysterious out there that’s bigger than me.  And that nugget of faith that there might be something more powerful than me, well, its terrifying and comforting at the same time.

Do I think that God is keeping me sober?  Hell, no.

Do I think I can do this by myself purely on my own will as you suggested last night?  Hell, no.

Will I keep coming back, as we suggested to you?  You better believe it.

Why, you ask?

I’ve come to believe that there are three components to my success at sobriety this go round: some sense of what’s right and wrong, my own actions and in-actions which lead to results and consequences, and the community of people with whom I surround myself.

I’ve come to believe that maybe, just maybe, these folks are on to something.  See, I couldn’t stop drinking on my own.  In the end, I drank against my own will.  I clearly remember telling myself while pouring my first drink of the day, “this might not turn out so well…” and it usually didn’t.

I said that often.

I haven’t said that in six months, and things are turning out a whole lot better for it.

 

 

Remember, there’s more to Irish culture than drunkenness

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

— James Joyce 

“The Dead”

Dubliners

It works — 45 minutes in a 5 minute read

Blood boiled in my veins.  My spinning head felt hot.  A rushing sensation in my tightening chest.  No doubt about it, I was angry.  I was on the edge of explosion.  It was time to leave the house.

A quick exit would have been too much to ask for.  I had my keys and was out the door, but I didn’t have my wallet or my phone.   Turn around, go back inside.

“Dad, why are you so angry?” my son asked.  Perfectly legitimate question, I thought as I told him that it was nothing.

Leaving the neighborhood at 4:45 and getting into the afternoon traffic wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I knew that I wasn’t going to keep my cool.  As I drove to the Starbucks to get a cup of coffee, I saw Goska’s Liquors.

That was the immediate reaction.  Go get a bottle.  I’d thought better of it and was determined to go to Starbucks.  Why the fuck did they have to be right next door?

Just get coffee.  Booze isn’t going to help.  A new mantra.  Repeat it over and over, turn right not left.  Don’t go to the liquor store.

Don’t. Go. To. The. Fucking. Liquor. Store.

Success — coffee achieved.  Now, make a phone call.  Head for a quite park.  The hell with dinner.

It isn’t even like you actually have to dial the phone, dude.  Siri can take care of that.

Success — my sponsor answers the phone.  I unload.  He reminds me not to “awfulize” and live in the wreckage of my future.  He reminds me that my problem is really a “high class problem.”

Something about talking relaxes me.  I see my part in it.  I realize that I made mistakes too and start to see that maybe, there will be a way out.  Do the right thing.

When I get home, I find out that I’d looked at a signed contract from the year before, not the one for the coming year.  No commitment had been made yet.  Everything was cool.

I’d pole vaulted over a mouse turd.  The future wasn’t going to be awful.  Everything would be okay.

Take the family to dinner.  The boy has a blast seeing his friends.  I make amends for being losing my shit and leaving the house in a huff — I could have made it worse.  I could have gone to Goskas.  I could have screamed at my family.

But I didn’t.

It works.

 

 

First Ride of 2016

There are times when I think that I didn’t lose anything during my drinking, but the fact is that I didn’t lose anything big. I didn’t lose my job, my house, or my family. But there are things that I did lose:

1. Fitness
2. Health
3. Interest in many things, including cycling

s t e a d y

12806050_10209755952441842_73562242598076417_nI got back on the bike today after being off it since October and it felt pretty good.  I was definitely not strong, but it still felt good to be back on two wheels and spinning the legs. I decided that I would take it relatively easy and rode about 30 minutes at about 13 mph.  I logged a little over 8 miles.

I’m certainly not in the shape that I was  a few years ago but that’s to be expected.  I simply haven’t put in the time on the bike and I made some choices in lifestyle that severely impacted my fitness.  With that behind me, I am looking forward to making slow but steady progress toward rebuilding my fitness.

An eight mile ride is a start.

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Migraines — Back with a Vengeance

I’ve suffered from migraine headaches most of my life. They started in puberty, though they weren’t immediately recognized or diagnosed. I can remember days in high school when I could barely focus because the pain was so strong. For years I thought that these episodes were shoulder and neck tightness, it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that a doctor suggested that I pay close attention to where I first noticed the pain (in my temple) that I discovered that the stiff shoulder and neck were part of the migraine.

No drugs have every worked with these headaches — at least not long term. Over the years I’ve tried all manner of remedies ranging from over the counter NSAIDs and Acetaminophen to prescription drugs such as Imitrex, Zomig, a cocktail of Reglan, Benadryl and NSAIDs. When I was in high school, the theory was that migraines were caused by constriction of capillaries in the brain, and so I was prescribed a drug called Inderal that I took daily which was a vasodilator.

Sometimes these have provided minimal relief, but they’ve never addressed the issue. Most of the relieve came as a result of being knocked out by the drugs and sleeping for a while. That meant that they really weren’t an option unless I was at home and could afford to take a nap.

The only thing that kills the pain is sleep. But even that is not a sure fire path to relief.

Several years ago, I started going to regular acupuncture appointments to treat these migraines. Astonishingly, a weekly treatment of needles in my feet, ankles, and ears seems to provide a great deal of relief and protection from the migraine. Over a period of about 6 months, the frequency of these attacks faded from at least one per week to maybe one every three months. A dramatic improvement.

So dramatic, that I stopped going. And the problem did not manifest itself again for several years. Until, that is, I quit drinking.

Since I quit drinking in September, I’ve had migraines with increasing frequency. This is, understandably, troubling.

I am confident that the frequency of the migraines is tied to the fact that the chemistry of my brain is normalizing. I’m confident that this is all for the better and that drinking isn’t going to solve any thing here. But it is troubling.

I’ll be making a point of scheduling regular acupuncture appointments starting this week. I’m hopeful that they will help.

I’m curious, if you’re a migraine sufferer, did they get worse when you got sober? If so, how did you manage them? Did they get better over time?

Please drop me a note in the comments if you’ve got suggestions.

Thanks.

— Damien

 

Twitter in Recovery

You may be expecting this to be a treatise on anonymity and social media or an argument for recovering out loud.  It isn’t.  Sorry to disappoint you.

I’m writing to share my experience, so that you might avoid it if you’re newly sober.  See, when I got sober, I didn’t give my social media much thought.  I just started following people in recovery and tweeting from my original account.  Same thing with Instagram.

And then, I got scared.

I thought about the stigma associated with being a recovering alcoholic.  I thought about future employers, my child’s friend’s parents, the AA doctrine on the internet.  I wrote about all this in a post shortly after I changed my username on twitter.

I went through the process of anonymizing my details on the net as best I could and decided that I would be “good” with just one account on various services.  I also consolidated this blog with another blog that I’d been writing for 10 years.  And I went on my merry way.

Problem solved.  Or so I thought.

As my tweets began to focus more on recovery, I lost a few followers on twitter.  No worry, I don’t get wrapped up in how may followers I have.  And they were mostly people that I didn’t really interact with any way.

But those unfollows did make me pause.

Maybe the people who had followed me before I was a sober guy weren’t really that interested in my struggles with the steps.  Maybe they didn’t want to read my blog posts about sobriety.   Maybe they wanted to see more of what I tweeted about before I got sober — Riding my bike, cooking, fatherhood, technology.  Maybe I was disappointing people.

But that really didn’t bother me too much.  Twitter is a two way street, but it doesn’t have to be bidirectional.   I post content that I find interesting – people follow me – sometimes I follow them, sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes I follow people who post interesting content who don’t follow me, because <gasp> I’m not that interesting.

However, as I got more and more involved with the recovery community on Twitter, I began to find that I was missing a lot of what I liked to read on twitter.  Not that I don’t enjoy the recovery tweets — I absolutely do — but they were starting to overwhelm my feed.  I was having a hard time finding the good tweets on my other interests in the mix.

And so, I created another twitter account and started a process that I don’t advise.  See, apparently I’m still not thinking clearly.  I really liked my sober handle @soberboots and didn’t want to lose it.  So I created a non-sober handle and then began trying to convince all my non-recovery folks to follow it.

That hasn’t worked out so well.   I’ve had many, but not nearly all of the people who followed me (roughly 1/3) of the followers take note and make the switch – even after sending multiple tweets and even DMs to people.

If I’d thought that through a bit more, I might have changed @soberboots to another handle and asked all the recovery folks to follow a new handle (which very well might have been @soberboots…)

So, I leave you with these thoughts:

  1. It’s probably best to start with a dedicated handle for recovery from the start. This gives you the following:
    • Complete separation of your recovery vs non-recovery interests
    • Zero stress about who knows that you’re sober or not
    • Zero stress related to trying to sanitize all your previously integrated services
    • A safe handle that you can make private if you want
  2. If you don’t do that and you want to make a change, give it some thought and think hard about which group you want to ask to follow you on the new handle.  I’d advise asking whichever group (recovering folks vs normies) is smaller to make the change.

I’m certainly not losing sleep of any of this, but I do feel like I probably could have managed all this better.  As I tweeted this AM:

https://twitter.com/soberboots/status/705389756759150592

If you want to know where to follow me for my other interests, read my tweets, you’ll find the handle mentioned several times.  Or tweet to me and I’ll respond in a DM.