The Hunt for a Higher Power (February 18, 2014)

Just like the Alcoholics Anonymous program that led to the formation of its sister groups, Al-Anon and Alateen involve the working of 12 steps that will guide participants along the path of recovery.

I’m all over Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [and other addictions]—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I am more than ready to seek help, look for new tools and develop solutions for the codependent mess that my personal life has become over the decades. No more enabling, covering, fixing, lying and trying to control the broken dynamics that have existed between myself and those who struggle with addictions and impulse control problems. I can retain a fondness for these people and their good qualities without driving myself insane, or depriving them of an opportunity to experience personal growth and responsibility…or not.

Let go of resentment, detach with love, accept the things that I cannot change. All challenging concepts but fundamental to breaking with unhealthy patterns of the past and opening up vistas of possibility. I came to terms with Step 1 before I ever set foot into a meeting room. An understanding of the limitations of my historical coping strategies is what brought me to Al-Anon in the first place.

I’m only a couple months into the early stages of recovery. Like any program that depends upon consistency, commitment and human struggle, there’s no prescription for how long the process could and should take. Accepting the unknowable is part of learning to relinquish control. But I am really stuck on a concept that I need to work through if I am to continue to grow and change in the program. Take a look at Steps 2 and 3:

“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Here’s the rub. I am a resolute atheist. Though I have folks I love and respect within my circle who ascribe to a variety of faiths and practices, the idea of God is not for me. I am not militant about it, nor am I lacking in experience, having been confirmed as a Lutheran in eighth grade before studying and converting to Hinduism for the expedience of marriage in my late 20s. It’s more that a combination of soul searching, critical thinking and experience led me away from the teachings of all organized religions. Some might offer that this renders me an agnostic more than anything, but I refuse to indulge my own temptation to hedge bets. There are definitely forces of nature and the universe at work that I don’t understand, but I can’t get behind the idea of an omniscient/omnipresent being without some scientific evidence. It’s not the way I’m built.

I don’t begrudge the faithful anything. In fact, I’m often envious of the security and peace of mind that comes with the conviction that you are part of a grand design, a purpose. The storyteller in me also finds something attractive about the idea of humanity as part of a larger narrative over which we’ve no jurisdiction.

Perhaps I’d struggle less with these philosophical ideas if I’d been afforded the luxury of trusting the adults who were supposed to be raise me. But I never regarded my father as a superhero or my mother as a selfless caretaker. I understood at an early age that the road up and out ran through me – the very opposite of turning my life and will over to a Higher Power. It had to be “I.” The cavalry was not coming.

I’m decidedly lacking in answers and that’s ok. I’m more comfortable with my innate cluelessness than at any previous stage of life. If I knew it all, I wouldn’t be reading this lopsided version of my story to date: achievement-focused with empowering friendships and collegial give and take on one end, competing with a heavy load of self-inflicted martyrdom on the other. As one group member said a couple of weeks ago, those of us working the Al-Anon program have been guilty of “trying to buy bread at the hardware store” – a metaphor for demanding and expecting the impossible from loved ones battling illness.

But in order to retain a sponsor, work through the coming steps and really, truly foment a revolution, something fundamental has to break. I can recite the Serenity Prayer without the word “God” at the beginning. No one in group is judging me for a lack of religious faith, but I have to come up with my own definition of a “Higher Power,” that idea that allows me to turn over my will and my life, something I admire and respect as bigger than me. My therapist has offered that perhaps the very idea of community is the answer, as compared with the fruitless commitment of years past to go it alone. It’s a thought – one amongst so many competitors.

Banishing Resentment (January 16, 2014)

The theme of this week’s Al-Anon meeting was “Resentment.” It was examined and discussed from a variety of angles. But the larger lesson imparted was that holding onto it does no harm to anyone but thyself. As the great Nelson Mandela once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Before the meeting started, I joked with a friend that resentment was my life’s work. How could I be expcted to give it up? Keeping score was one of the family’s favorite activities throughout my formative years. We were competitive on the athletic field, at the game board and most of all, during arguments. The rules confused my sister and I but we certainly internalized the need to try and follow. Satisfaction points were awarded to the aggressor who delivered the lowest blow, drew the quickest and most plentiful tears and generated the most enduring shame. On the other hand, earning the title of “Most Acutely Suffering” also seemed to possess its own appeal.

I never cared much for developing my skills as a verbal pugilist. The debilitating firsthand pain offered by domestic and external bullies alike led to resolution. I would not wittingly subject another to ritual humiliation. It’s cruel, bad karma. But oh how the martyr title fit just right. I often wore the cloak of the persecuted – and I wore it well. It provided excellent cover for withdrawing into my own little world, furiously journaling about how they’d all be sorry one day.

With very little consciousness, I carried this habit forward into adulthood. I found comfort in a familiar pattern. Step 1: Deplete my own energy by giving everything I had without consideration of the worthiness of the task or subject. Step 2: Experience the special kind of misery only available to those with a determined lack of self-respect and the good sense to say “Enough. I’m done.” Step 3: Bask in the masochistic glory of knowing I had been utterly wronged. Step 4: Wait vigilantly and patiently for my assailant to receive their comeuppance.

String 35 years or so of co-dependent, destructive relationships together however, and it becomes impossible to hide from the reality that for all your perceived virtue, you are definitely part of the problem. In the first place, Ms. Naïve Version of Social Justice, there is no mathematical certainty that someone who’s injured you will come to regret it, either through self-awareness or ironic retribution. It is in fact frequently the case that those who move through the world without conscience, remain untouchable. Life isn’t fair. And in the second place, if you’re repeatedly drawn to this dynamic, maybe you’re just as broken as the person you’ve deemed a horrible monster. Repeatedly casting yourself as a victim under circumstances designed to end up with that result, is nothing short of pathological.

While I have not been successful in knowing when to say, “Enough. I’m done.” to others, I figure the quickest way to improve is to start with myself. And so, I am taking off the cloak of matrydom. It’s scary but it must be. Recovery is of course a process and I am bound to risk a step backward now and again, but I am resolute. All those years of cocooning myself in bitter resentment has yielded insomnia, autoimmune diseases, depression and two divorces. Who is the bully in my world after all? Letting go and detaching with love is not a habit that comes naturally, and I can think of two people toward whom I’ve not evolved far enough yet to forgive and compartmentalize. But I’ve put the scoreboard away. The game is over. Team Martyr has lost repeatedly. It’s time to stop blaming my parents for impulses I now have a choice to control.

Saying Yes to Less (January 3, 2014)

So it’s a New Year and I’ve been nursing a broken heart for a month. It’s getting a little easier everyday to wake up alone and accept the fact that my ex-partner was, in many ways, not who I thought he was. I knew enough to be wary of the drinking when we first got together (though ultimately, that spared me nothing) but he caught me by surprise in other areas where I expected more maturity and personal responsibility, perhaps wrongly. The losses I’ve been mourning are related to those disillusionments as much as his actual flight.

I am also coming to terms with the idea that when a relationship fails, there is always shared blame. I wanted to control and fix where letting go and letting be would have been healthier and saner. Furthermore, the Al-Anon meetings I am now attending do not solely revolve around my experiences with my ex – not by a long shot. Co-dependent relationships with addicts began in childhood but somehow, long after I had other choices and the cognitive ability to recognize the patterns of attraction, followed by self-esteem crushing rejection of me and my “help,” I stayed the course. Al-Anon is helping me figure out why, and since I’ve decided I no longer care to define insanity (performing the same action over and over, yet anticipating different outcomes), how to fortify myself against the natural draw to “projects.”

It is owing to this drop of self-awareness and insight that my loyal and faithful therapist suggested that it was time I start casually dating. I know. I was as surprised by the recommendation as you are. But her thinking went like this: I’ve only been on dry dock for a month, but there’s a fine line between reflection and taking time for yourself, and becoming a hermit who stays in bed watching marathons of Law & Order (original recipe and SVU). She also theorized that I haven’t really ever done casual dating, at least not very well. Usually some form of pressure (self-inflicted or external) has led to quick decisions about whether or not to hitch myself to another’s wagon. I remain an undetermined length of time away from relationship-ready, but Dr. T challenged me to really make a go of disinterested acquaintance. See a bunch of new people. Enjoy fresh neighborhoods, places and activities. Maybe there is a second date, maybe not. Be ok with that and keep the mind focused on an individual’s potential compatibility with me, rather than fixating on intractable personal flaws that could lead to repudiation of my company. Historically, I have been famous for Sally Albright logic: “I knew [so and so] was all wrong, but why didn’t he want ME?!” That, as the great Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley might have said, is stinkin’, pointless thinkin’.

Well ok then. I am ready to cause a fulsome breach with the old habits of my past and to that end, what feels foreign and uncomfortable might be completely necessary. Challenge accepted Dr. T. So when I haven’t been working, at the gym or spending time with the fabulous circle of friends and family I’ve no desire to short change, I have gone on two very brief first “dates” with men I might have rejected in the past for various, self-defeating reasons. A couple of cocktails with a former U.S. Senatorial press secretary here, a cup of coffee (tea for me) with an environmental project consultant there. No immediate sparks flew and the best part was, I didn’t feel compelled to create them or cross the guys off the list for eternity. 2014 is all about the slow build.

I am being treated like a lady, enjoying diverse and enlightening conversation with…get this people: no internal or external pressure to turn the experience into more than a satisfying moment. Who knew? It still feels weird but a girl could definitely get used to this.

Al-Anon, Theater, Michael Jackson & Trivia (December 20, 2013)

The experiences and diversions of which I availed myself this week, in an attempt to put back together the pieces of my shattered heart and move on with my life, were nothing if not diverse. As is the case with the dissolution of any toxic relationship, receding from crisis mode offers the benefit of perspective. I am slowly becoming aware of how many opportunities I declined or avoided in a futile effort to manage my partner’s temptations, to lavish him with enough attention and support to keep his thoughts and inclinations far from wasting time in a bottle. That these exertions of attempted control over an appetite and force larger than myself were destined to fail, now seems pitifully obvious. So much lost opportunity and energy.

Obviously, there’s nothing I can do to change the past, to rewrite history in order to let go when I should have. But I don’t have to keep making the same mistakes. I don’t have to remain in the fetal position lambasting myself for my time as “that girl,” the one who fell into the logical fallacy trap of believing that loving enough could foment change in one who made his choices years before our first encounter. And since I rarely do anything at half-throttle, I launched myself head first at every novel occasion.

Monday: The first of many Al-Anon meetings. As an atheist, I found myself more than a little uncomfortable with the recitation of the Serenity Prayer which opens and closes each meeting, as well as the frequent mentions of God or a “higher power.” But another friend of mine working the program gave me some great advice that I will endeavor to apply. Frame the “higher power” idea as the energy of the universe, your sponsor, or your own inner strength – whatever speaks to you. I can also see I’ll struggle with the forgiveness elements of the curriculum for the forseeable future, as well as the explicit instructions that what you place at the top of your priority pyramid should not be another person (obviously) or even the distracting intoxicants of work (dammit!). Somehow, some way, I’ll have to learn to put my own emotional and physical well-being there – a notion antithetical to my essence. I suppose that’s why I need to be in these meetings. I’m committed to change and that is never easy.

Tuesday: Back in my comfort zone taking in a production of Nina Raine’s Tribes at the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre. The play grapples with questions of communication and inclusiveness. Do we need spoken words to convey layered meaning or can we navigate the enormous depth and range of human emotion with visual symbols alone? What does it mean to be within or without a personal communication system, and what effect does that inclusion or exclusion have on one’s self-image?

This gets me thinking about my ex’s daughter and granddaughter. The friendships will be maintained but the terms of our relationships have changed and over time, shared experiences and inside jokes will accumulate without me. I will become more of an outsider, a “Somebody That I Used to Know.” This awareness fills me with bottomless sadness, but I don’t push it away. I take it in.

Wednesday: Major gear shift to attend the holiday party of my employer for the first time. Decent conversation, good food and drink and OH SHIT IS THAT A MICHAEL JACKSON IMPERSONATOR!? I jump on the seat of the nearest booth, so I can witness every crotch grab and moonwalk over the heads of my colleagues and everything else disappears. I don’t care that I am singing at the top of my lungs along with someone who only approximates the King of Pop, or that the wait staff gives me strange looks when I bend down from my perch for a wine refill. I am lost in the moment. Right now, right here, I am joy.

Later Wednesday Evening: As the great Ernest Hemingway would have observed, I am a little “tight” when I meet two of my best galpals for an Illinois Woman’s Press Association strategy session followed by a round of bar trivia. Fortunately I am 35 and appear to have learned a lesson or two about pacing. I switch to water, sip the half-price wine slowly and intermittently take mental steps back to appreciate the fact that I am out and about using my brain alongside two women I love, respect and admire. A broken, competitive and abusive relationship with my mother controlled my interactions with the other members of my sex for many years, and time was I could count close female confidantes on one hand with a couple fingers left over. No more.

These musings inspire me. I am capable of learning through a combination of self-awareness and frustration. Maybe that is my “higher power.”