Monday, November 29, 2010

Getting to Recovery: Statement One

Note: This is the first in a series of essays on the 13 Statements of the Women for Sobriety program. These statements are copyright to WFS and I encourage you to see their website for more information.

Statement One: the Key to Sobriety

Often when we first come to WFS we are scared, confused, and unsure of anything save a need to quit drinking. We have not formulated a plan to implement sobriety, nor have we thought past the desire to remove alcohol from our lives. We may have tried to stop in the past, and found that we need more than our own willpower to succeed. We are searching for a framework within which to successfully defeat our addiction. The Women for Sobriety “New Life” Program provides such a framework.

Statement One provides the core belief that will enable us to move into the maintenance, or recovery, phase of sobriety. “I have a life-threatening problem that once had me. I now take charge of my life and my disease. I accept the responsibility”. The key to this statement are the words “once had me”. If we are to succeed, we must internalize these words and make them a part of our daily self talk.

We are not helpless over our addiction. We have it within ourselves to take control and eliminate alcohol from our lives, but we must be willing to take the responsibility for doing so. Taking responsibility is a major step at this point, as we often have used alcohol to escape responsibility for ourselves and our actions. The defining moment in moving from preparation to action is when we embrace taking charge of our lives, reclaiming the power that we had abdicated to our addiction.


Alcoholism is a life threatening problem. The damage done to the body by alcohol is vast and sometimes irreversible. Recognizing this is an important first step in recovery; once we accept this, we establish what is known as cognitive dissonance, an imbalance between two conflicting beliefs. In this case the belief that we are killing ourselves conflicts with the belief that we deserve to live. Unless we do not care to live, in which case treatment beyond the scope of any self help program is called for, our actions conflict with our basic sense of survival. This imbalance must be rectified internally, and the easiest way to do this is to commit to sobriety.

Most often, it is not as easy as this. People with addictions are characterized with rigid thinking, making it difficult to internalize change; it can, however, be done. What is required is for the knowledge of the danger to outweigh any habitual pattern of thought. This is one of the jobs of the addictions counselor, but can be accomplished by the individual themselves.

Once we have absorbed the knowledge that alcohol is poisonous and deadly, we begin a sometimes subconscious change in our thinking. Alcohol is no longer our friend; instead, it is a foreign substance bent on our destruction. It is this identification which gives rise to the imp, for unless we viewed drinking as a threat, there would be no conflict in the urge to drink. In this way, the imp can be viewed as a sign of forward progress. When it begins to arise, we have internalized the knowledge that we have a life-threatening problem. We have moved into the action stage where positive steps for controlling our addiction can be taken.


As I said before, these words are key in our ability to achieve and maintain sobriety. We accept the strength of our addiction, but empower ourselves by saying that we are stronger. Research has shown that people tend to believe what they say, and the more often something is said the more strongly the belief becomes held. Therefore, these words should be a mantra in the early action phase of recovery.

It is important to understand that in the early action phase, multiple attempts may be required for sobriety to “stick”. This doesn’t mean that statement one is not true until you have achieved lasting abstinence. Rather, it can be construed to mean a determination to overcome the addictive voice. Each failure can teach us something about ourselves and our triggers, and it is sometimes required that we make these missteps in order to fully embrace our desire for recovery.

The only failure in life is not to try. There are very few things worth having that can be accomplished without multiple attempts. These are learning experiences if we allow them to be. They must be if we wish to ultimately live an abstinent life. It is important to understand that how we react to failure has a great impact on our future success. If we denigrate our efforts and ourselves, we make it harder to succeed in our next attempt.

If instead we look for the positives in our actions, such as being able to ascertain our reasons for drinking and what thought processes led to it, we improve the likelihood of success the next time we are confronted with the urge to drink. As long as we learn from our experiences, addiction is a ‘once had’.


This part of statement one reinforces what I’ve said above. We are taking charge, learning what works and what doesn’t and moving ever closer to the maintenance stage where recovery begins. It cannot be emphasized enough that any amount of drinking is harmful. The fact that it may take more than one attempt to achieve lasting sobriety does not excuse or justify drinking. What taking charge means is that if we fail we have done so after utilizing all our knowledge to that point to prevent picking up.

The important thing here is that we must learn from our mistakes. If we fail to do this then we are merely active drinkers with periods of sobriety, not women seeking recovery. The first is merely going through the motions, and most likely will not succeed in long-term abstinence. The second takes error and from it creates solution.

There is a delicate balance between accepting a failure in sobriety as a learning experience and justifying continued drinking. We are the only ones who can make that distinction with accuracy. When we’re seeking support from others, we must demonstrate our commitment through expressions of what we have learned and rededication to sobriety. If we do not do this, we risk isolating ourselves from those who truly are taking charge of their disease and thus losing a valuable resource in our effort to gain a lasting recovery.


Taking responsibility is ultimately the single most important step in achieving sobriety. Others cannot make us sober; we are the only ones who can take ourselves into recovery. Support groups such as WFS are just that; they provide support. It is up to us to take advantage of the tools available, such as the statements, and to move forward in our search for sobriety. We must be willing to learn from others even as we recognize that others do not control our actions.

Accepting responsibility is in itself a sign of growth. In our active addiction we avoided responsibility for the use of alcohol. Our addictions were externally created and fueled; we told ourselves this in order to maintain our sense of the status quo. It is when we accept that we alone are responsible for ourselves and our disease that we move from a place where recovery is only theoretically possible to a place where it is real and ongoing.

Finally, the statement as a whole underpins the entire WFS program. Without embracing it, there is little purpose in participating in the group. This is not to say that we should not participate until we have internalized the statement into our core belief system; rather, we must accept it as a truth to be sought. This interpretation applies particularly for those in the preparation stage of change, those who recognize the need for abstinence but do not yet have a concrete plan for achieving it.

I have a life-threatening problem that once had me. I give myself permission to take control of my addiction and to create a plan that will lead me into recovery. I accept that I, and I alone, am responsible for my sobriety and empower myself to utilize all the tools available to me in seeking and maintaining a lasting abstinence.

Women for Sobriety is a powerful tool in our pursuit of recovery. We must be willing to open ourselves to the words of Jean Kirkpatrick and to the support of other women following the same path. We must embrace statement one and accept the awesome power that taking responsibility gives to us. It is when we do so that we truly begin the journey to recovery.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Substitute Addictions: Warning Signs

The holidays are a stressful time for many.  The excess of the season offers great temptations to overindulge, from our spending to our consumption of food and drink.  It is a good time to take note of the risk we face as women in recovery, that of developing a substitute addiction.  We can find ourselves becoming compulsive in everything from our consumption of caffeine, our internet use, eating, shopping, all the way through gambling, sex, working and even the use of other legal and illegal drugs.

We sometimes say, "It is fine for me to do x, as long as it keeps me sober."  There is some truth to this statement; there is also, however, danger here.  According to Terence Gorski in Understanding Addictive Disease, "You can be recovering from a chemical addiction and still act compulsively in other areas of your life."  He goes on to say that while these behaviors do not mean you are not in recovery from your primary addiction, "you will encounter problems in your recovery that you would not have if you were abstinent from both drugs and compulsive behavior."  In essence, the presence of a compulsive behavior in sobriety will put you at a higher risk of relapse to chemicals.

Even things that we might consider as good, such as exercise, dieting, and religion or spiritual seeking, may become problematic if done obsessively.  Anything which alters your mood has the potential for addiction.  These "good" addictions are as dangerous as the more obvious ones; more so, in some ways, because of their apparently benign nature.  We have all heard how we can change our mood with thought.  Behavior can also change our mood, and this is because certain behaviors actually alter the chemistry of our brain in a way similar to the effect of drugs and alcohol.  Using these behaviors excessively eventually interferes with the production of certain chemicals in our brain, says Gorski, effectively prolonging the damage done by our use of alcohol or other drugs.

The following checklist is from the above mentioned booklet, and contains warning signs that a substitute addiction may be developing.  If you identify with several of them, perhaps it is time to reassess your sobriety plan and to tweak it to allow you to continue your recovery in a positive, healthy manner.

  1. Abnormal Reaction to Stress: I overreact or feel numb when I experience stress, pain, or problems.
  2. Urge to Self-Medicate: I feel an urge to use a substitute chemical or behavior to escape from or make my pain and stress go away.
  3. Short-Term Gratification: I use this substitute drug or compulsive behavior that makes my pain and problems go away and lets me change how I feel without having to change what I think and do.
  4. Long-Term Pain: I experience pain when I am not using the substitute compulsive behavior or drug.
  5. Obsession: I find it difficult to stop thinking about how good it feels to use the drug or behavior.
  6. Compulsion: I feel an irrational urge or craving to use the substitute drug or behavior even though I know it will hurt me in the long run.
  7. Increased Tolerance: I notice it takes more and more of the drug or the behavior to give me the same amount of relief or pleasure.
  8. Rationalization: I tend to make excuses for the pain and problems caused by the drug or compulsive behavior.
  9. Denial: I find it difficult to think or talk about the problems caused by the drug or behavior even when other people point them out to me.
  10. Other Problems: I begin to have problems (physical, psychological, or social) as a result of using the drug or compulsive behavior.
  11. Loss of Control: I am unable to stop using the drug or compulsive behavior even though I want to do so.
I recommend this book to anyone looking to gain a better understanding of addiction.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    You Can't Direct the Wind

    NOTE:  This essay is from my book, Moving the Mountain, available on the right.  It was originally written in 2007.

    You can’t direct the wind, but you can adjust your sails.
    --- Anonymous

    The reality of life is that it happens.  No matter how we may try, time continues to move forward and we cannot fully control the course it takes.  Sometimes that course is smooth, a peaceful sea stirred only by a slight wind.  Other times we find ourselves in a full gale, the wind buffeting us as it churns the water into mighty waves that threaten to capsize and sink us.  And sometimes there is no wind at all, and we are stuck in flat stasis with nothing external to move our ship.  We can't change the direction or force of the wind, but we can adjust our sails to keep righted and moving on the course we have chosen.  Even when the wind is against us, we can still move forward if we know how to tack into it. 

    In sailing, there are many maneuvers that allow our boat to move.  In opposing winds, we can tack, or move in a zigzag pattern, catching the prevailing breeze to keep us moving in the direction we wish to go.  In a storm, we can batten down the hatches and furl the sails and wait, or use the force of the wind to continue forward, although we know we will be heeled over and in danger of capsizing.  With skill, we can come through the gale unharmed.  In the absence of wind, it is up to us to move our boat, using the tools we have prepared for such an eventuality.

    So it is with our sobriety.  We have set ourselves on a course leading to a full New Life, and to achieve our goal we must be prepared to face the wind in all its incarnations.  When we first step into sobriety, the wind is often strong against us and the breakers are high. It takes preparation to launch into it.  This preparation comes first with the commitment to sobriety no matter what.  We will sail through the turbulence even though there may be challenges to our ability to move forward.  Knowing this, we can prepare our charts, choosing the paths to take when things are worst.

    At first, the best action may be to batten down the hatches, furl the mainsails, and move through the water cautiously and with great focus.  The first days of sobriety can be very difficult as our bodies detoxify from the chemicals that have poisoned us for so long.  The desire to drink is both physiological and psychological, and takes great force of will to withstand the temptations.  It is during this time that we first utilize our own power to move forward, assisted by others who help steer us away from the rocks and encourage us to continue fighting the ocean’s attempts at driving us back to shore.  Our plan will keep us sober and moving forward. The support of others both on the board and in face to face meetings, if we ask for and open to it, shows us how to navigate away from the reefs and into the calmer waters past the breakers.

    Once we survive this first storm, we find ourselves in more peaceful waters where the wind is at our backs and we can unfurl our sails to the degree that we move forward at a pace that is comfortable for us.  We begin to study navigation and to adjust our plans to take best advantage of the calm winds and to best weather the rough seas that will undoubtedly arise.  Our skills grow, and we can pass through the waves that at times may be slightly turbulent.

    At some point, the winds may shift against us, and we must adjust our course to continue on the forward path.  This involves setting smaller goals and moving to achieve them, even if they don't lead us in a direct line.  It is the skills we have cultivated that allow us to do this.  In sobriety, we have in place plans to overcome these times of temptation and to continue on the path to our New Life without moving backwards first.  We have friends both online and off that we can turn to for encouragement and support.  We know that we can post about our issues and receive feedback that can help us find the best path to take.  And again, we move forward until the wind shifts again.

    But what if there is no wind?  What if we find ourselves adrift on a glass smooth sea, our sails not stirred by the slightest breeze.  We can allow the current of the water to carry us where it will, let our guard down thinking that when the wind picks up again it will be favorable and carry us forward without difficulty.  We are drifting course-less.  This happens when we become complacent about our sobriety.  We assume that temptation is no longer a threat or that we can easily overcome it.  We lose sight of our plans and goals and think that we have achieved a full New Life.

    We may also worry that the calm precedes a storm and work ourselves into a state where when the gale strikes we aren't prepared and are overcome by it.  Either way, we are not acting to continue forward, rather allowing life to carry us where it will.  It is this period of calm that is the greatest threat to our sobriety, and the time that we should focus the most on moving forward under our own power.  Sailors use engines to push their boats forward through calm seas.  We can use our dedication to sobriety to move us forward without relying on the assistance of the wind.  We must force ourselves to be vigilant, to prepare for rough seas, but not to be so frightened of what might lay ahead that we lose sight of the fact that we can adjust our course and find favorable winds again.

    In the end, while the wind moves us, it is our own skill and determination which take advantage of it.  The statements provide a framework by which we can weather all faces of the wind and by living them we increase the likelihood that we can find favorable winds and avoid the storms that lie in our path.  Don't be afraid to launch into the storm that frightens us when we first choose sobriety.  It is our willingness to sail through it that allows us to the calmer, more favorable winds that wait on the other side.  We can enjoy our New Life with a pleasant breeze blowing us along, steering the best path forward, and knowing that whatever lies ahead, we can weather without fear.  In life, as in sailing, the great joy lies in moving forward. We may not be able to direct the wind that our external circumstances create, but we can adjust our sails to take full advantage of the opportunities that wind presents us.  Sobriety offers us this, and through the statements and our own willingness to grow, we can fully enjoy the journey.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    Being Mindful of the Journey


    WFS Statement 6 – Life can be ordinary, or life can be great

    I was driving home this morning after dropping my grandson off at school.  It is a nice, not quite crisp Florida day and I was in no particular hurry to get back to the house.  As I approached the spot on our main thoroughfare where the speed limit increases from 35 to 45, I noticed a new convertible sportscar approaching behind me.  In the lane next to it was a blue Camaro.  They seemed to be going faster than the cars around them, but I paid little mind.

    A few moments later, the white car (a Porsche Boxster) flew past me with the blue car close behind.  I glanced down at my speedometer; I was doing almost 55.  This meant that the two cars passing me were probably doing close to 70.  This, on a crowded four-lane city boulevard.  I slowed down, because I don't like going more than five miles over the speed limit, and watched them smoke off down the road, only to come up behind them a couple of minutes later at the next stop light.

    They were probably lucky that the light had turned, because sitting in the lot on the other side of the cross road were two police officers with their radar guns out.  A green light would have likely meant a nice three figure fine to go with the drivers' Starbucks mochafrappalattes.  I was turning, and went on about my business as the two sportsters continued forward at a slightly more sedate pace.

    I relate this story because, to me, it highlights the different attitudes we can take in our daily lives.  The woman in the Porsche wasn't wearing a business suit, so I doubt she was headed to work.  Even so, she didn't have the excited look of someone enjoying their fancy fast car on a beautiful morning.  Instead, she looked grim, driven, going fast because she didn't know another way.  On the other hand, I was looking at the pale blue sky, the slight changing of the leaves that indicates fall around here, and thinking about how great the day could be.  When I saw that I was going too fast, I slowed down.  I'm not sure that woman knew how to slow down.

    We are often counseled to be mindful in our daily lives.  What does that mean?  To me, it means opening yourself to an awareness of the (not-so) mundane details that surround us at every moment.  It means acting purposefully even in moments without purpose.  This might be a confusing concept, so I will explain further.  Consider a walk along a street.  There is no particular purpose to it - other than perhaps to get to the store, it is just a walk.  You can go along maintaining an awareness only of the cars on the road, or you can be purposeful.  You can expand your awareness to include all that comes into view.  You can be mindful of everything that surrounds you.

    By allowing yourself to see more than the sidewalk in front of you and the cars beside you, you will now also notice the little patch of yellow flowers sprouting on the side of the concrete, clinging stubbornly to life in a hostile environment.  You will hear the birds calling to one another, perhaps smell someone's charcoal grill being fired up for a steak dinner.  You will breathe in all of life instead of merely inhaling and exhaling air.  You will be able to revel in the fact that you are alive.

    Or, you can put on your blinders and walk to the store as quickly as possible.  You can focus solely on your task, forgetting that the moments which comprise the journey have as much value, perhaps even more.  Not only will you miss the beautifully restored car that drives by, the cute puppy playing in its yard with an excited child, the scent of baking bread from the store on the corner.  You will miss the self-discovery that may come from considering your place in this vignette.  At the least, you will miss a fond memory of a similar car from your teen years, a smile at the simple happiness of boy and dog, and all the pleasant emotions that come from smelling fresh baked bread.

    I challenge you to look at your speedometer.  Are you going too fast?  Slow down.  Expand your awareness today and look for the little treasures that life offers all around you.  Examine them, savor them.  Be mindful of your journey.  Life can be ordinary, or life can be great.  Embrace the greatness that surrounds you.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010

    Yes, But ...

    "Whenever you feel like saying 'Yes, but....`, try saying instead 'Yes, and....'"
     - Jane Revell & Susan Norman

    WFS Statement 5 - I am what I think

    I have been dealing with a bad back for almost a year now, and while it had seemed better, in the past week there has been a flare up which has left me almost incapacitated.  I finally broke down and spent several days confined to the couch with my feet up, and things seemed to be better.  So yesterday, I got up and went back to my usual routine.  The result was that at the end of the night, I was in as much pain as I had been before.

    My DP looked at me sternly and asked if I had put my feet up at all, and I sheepishly replied no.  The next question was, "Don't you want to get better?"

    "Yes, but ..."

    My "but" was that housework needed done, I had work to do on the computer (I have a laptop but sometimes I just think better at my desk), life was piling up while I was taking it easy.

    Think about this for a moment; I was willing to sacrifice my health in order to do a couple of loads of laundry, laundry that really didn't "need" to be done.  Does this sound familiar?  What about you and your recovery?  Have you ever chosen to deal with mundane, unnecessary things instead of focusing on your sobriety when it needed to be done?

    As women, we are raised to be caretakers.  We are taught early about cleaning, cooking, caring for a house and for others.  We aren't taught to take care of ourselves.  The result is that we can too often fall into a pattern of negating our own needs in favor of tending to others.  When faced with the decision between taking time to work on our recovery and keeping our house running the way we think it should, our recovery loses far too often.

    If asked whether we want to recover, we answer "Yes, but ...."

    So long as we take this attitude, our recovery will be a rocky road. When we use the word "but" we are really saying that we don't think we are worth as much as whatever the "but" is.  Our recovery is not as important as cleaning the toilet, or folding the laundry, or making dinner.  We are putting others first, and this is a recipe for disaster.

    What if, instead, we said "Yes, and ...?" Yes, and I am going to take the time that I need right now instead of at some undefined later date?  Would the world come to a flaming end if the family ate soup and sandwiches instead of a full course dinner, especially if you took the extra time to work on your recovery?  No, it wouldn't.

    It is especially important to replace "yes, but" with "yes, and" when we are talking to ourselves.  "Yes, but ..." allows us to make excuses, to justify avoiding the work we must do in order to grow healthier and more at peace.  "Yes, and ..." gives us the chance to replace that avoidance with positive movement, by affirming our commitment and immediately presenting a step that we will take towards our goal.

    Of course, this will only work if we then DO the "and".  This is the key.  "Yes, and I will get to it" is a cop-out.  The "and" must be immediate.  "Yes, and I am going now to meditate."  There will be time later to finish the mundane tasks.  If we don't make time for ourselves now, we will continue to be unhappy, both now and in the future.  We prolong our struggle for no legitimate reason.

    I encourage you to look for ways to replace "Yes, but ..." in your words and your thoughts.  You are worth far more than any "but".  Recognize and embrace your right to happiness, and take the steps now to grow it.  Say, "Yes, I want to recover AND I will begin right now."

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    Four Quadrant Problem Solving

    We are probably all familiar with the time-honored technique of approaching a problem by making a list of pros and cons.  This can be helpful in making a decision on how to handle things.  A recent article in Counselor suggested a way to improve this technique, allowing us to further refine an issue into its components.

    This technique is called the Four Quadrant Method.  It is similar to the usual way in that a line is drawn down the center of a sheet of paper, but goes further in that a line is also drawn across the paper, creating four areas.  Each area represents a different take on the issue.

    The upper left quadrant is for listing things that are positive about keeping things the way they are, the upper right for things that are negative about maintaining the status quo.  The bottom left quadrant is for listing positive things about changing the current situation, and the bottom right about anticipated negative results of change.

    By addressing that we have reasons for not making a change, we make it easier to identify and address valid concerns regarding the change, as well as recognizing those reasons which are not valid.  We must acknowledge that something "works" for us in our current state in order to accept the need to change.

    Once we have filled the four quadrants, we can narrow in on one or two items from each list for further examination, whether in meditation or journalling.  We can consider whether each reason is valid or simply our minds trying to hold on to something we find comfortable.

    Here is a sample chart using the issue of whether to go out to a monthly dinner with our SO and another couple, with whom we have always shared a lot of alcohol.

    Positives About Going

    Negatives About Going

    Will enjoy catching up with friends     
    Will have a good meal  
    Will get out of the house

    SO and other couple will be drinking
    Will feel pressure to drink as well
    May feel left out if not drinking

    Positives About Not Going

    Negatives About Not Going

    Will not be tempted to drink
    Will be putting ourselves first
    Will save calories/money                 

    Will feel like a spoil sport
    May cause a disagreement with SO
    May insult other couple

    By looking at this chart, we can identify valid concerns (The possibility of drinking, the chance of causing an argument or insulting the other couple) as well as the benefits of going versus not going.  Further, we can weigh each issue to determine how important it is to our goal (maintaining sobriety).

    In this instance, it may be beneficial to assign each item a number from 1-10 to indicate how important it is to us, with positives being a + and negatives being a -.  This can help point out things we need to focus on.

    Each individual would need to determine how to proceed based on their own situation.  The likelihood of drinking may be so great that it outweighs the positives and other negatives.  Further contemplation might reveal that what is really at issue is a fear of appearing like a "spoil sport", which is something to be worked through and may not preclude going to dinner. It could even reveal insight into a deeper issue, such as a dependence on the perceptions of others in creating our own self image.

    This technique has a multitude of applications from the simple, as in the example above, to the more complex, such as understanding a resentment or deeper fear, and may be a good tool to add to your list in working through the issues that arise.

    A New "Day One"

    I have been struggling lately.  Actually, I have been struggling for a long time, but it is not in my nature to let the world see what's going on in my soul.  Several things have happened in the last week which have made me take a long, hard look at myself and accept the one thing I have been running from; recovery.

    I have been sober since 26 September 2006.  But I have to say, honestly, that I'm not sure I ever entered recovery.  I attended chats, I studied the disease of addiction, I wrote musings about how the statements could help us on our journey ... but I didn't apply a word of it to myself.  And so, as might be expected, I drifted away from my support group, telling myself that sobriety was "enough".  The things that were wrong with me were far too complex to be handled with a few lines of statements, a little journalling.  I needed heavy psychotherapy at the least; if I could be helped at all.  But at least I was sober, or so I told myself.

    I came back recently, as the weight of living the same life without the one coping mechanism I had known finally grew too burdensome.  And yet, I still couldn't breach the wall between "me" and recovery.  I was miserable, and growing more miserable by the day.  I had sunk so deeply into negativity and self-loathing that it was physically painful to hear about joy, enthusiasm, happiness.  I began to wonder if I was was simply incapable of feeling those things, if there was something pathologically wrong with me.

    Something finally broke.  I'm not completely certain what it was, but I stopped running.  I took, as a dear friend said in the chat that started the process, a small step.  I recognized that negativity wasn't a natural state and that I could make a plan to overcome it.  That's as far as I got, but the step had been taken.  And then, during another informal chat, I pulled out the information I had on relapse to answer a question.  It was reading this that made me realize not only that if I was reaching the point where my only choices seemed death, insanity, or drinking, but that I had never moved past the very basic stages of recovery.

    And so, I am committing myself to opening to recovery, to giving up the dysfunctional, negative coping skills I have used all my life.  There is a lightness in my soul that I'm not sure has ever been there.  I had cried earlier this week because I could only think of one time when I had felt what I thought of as pure joy.  Yesterday, I felt that joy again.  The first time was at 13, when I learned that my Mother, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, was going to recover.  This time, it's because I realized that I can recover.

    If you are newly sober, take this message away: Sobriety will keep you alive, but it is recovery that will allow you to live.  I see that now.


    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    Clearing the Garden

    WFS Statement 8: The fundamental object of life is emotional and spiritual growth

    It's been an unusually warm fall so far here in Florida.  So much so that the idea of clearing the garden has been far from my thoughts.  Today, however, I was in the back yard and I took in the dead, brown stalks that were my herbs and tomatoes earlier in the year, and it occurred to me that I really needed to clean things up and get ready for winter.  As I was pulling the tomato cages and taking down the hanging pots, I realized how similar the process is to what we must do when we get sober.

    While we are drinking, our mental garden may remain full, lush and green.  We tend to the thoughts that grow with alcohol, using chemicals to maintain a thriving, seemingly healthy patch of ground.  What we fail to see is that we are growing weeds, thoughts that may comfort and sustain us but are, in fact, unhealthy and noxious.  We enjoy spending time in our garden and convince ourselves that ours is simply a different patch of ground, that what we so lovingly tend is worth the effort we are putting into it.

    The time comes, eventually, when alcohol overwhelms us.  Our garden is overgrown, the vines and tendrils of the beliefs and thoughts we have cared for running amok.  We realize that we have been growing things which are harmful to us, that our plants have become sentient, hungry creatures not unlike the beast from Little Shop of Horrors, crying "feed me" ever more loudly.  And so we put down the bottle, stop tending the garden, and turn our attention to sobriety.  It may take a while, but eventually, the garden withers and dies, and all that remains are the bent, brown stalks of false beliefs.

    In the early days of sobriety, we are so focused on not drinking that we can't imagine going out to clear the garden.  We let it sit, perhaps hoping the detritus will simply disintegrate, not wanting to face the things we held so dear in a time that we want to desperately to forget.  And so, the garden sits neglected while we plant pretty pots of Statements and positive thoughts to surround us in our new lives.

    Then one day we look out the window and see that patch of ground and realize that it can, and must, be reclaimed.  So much of our souls lies in that soil, so much effort and time that we cannot truly move forward while it sits abandoned.  Perhaps we see a tiny spike of green, an old thought that is growing back despite our not tending it.  At the same time, we are afraid of the past, of what we might turn up should we venture into the garden of our old beliefs.

    In order to move past sobriety and into recovery, we must take back the garden.  Keeping the Statements carefully tended in pots may be comforting, but they will grow so much more beautifully if we give them space, and space is what we find in that neglected patch of ground that represents our thoughts.  Our garden can be even more lush and vibrant than it ever was, but we must find new ways of tending it.

    First, we must remove the dead growth.  It can be a painful process, for the weeds we were growing often had sharp thorns, but it is something that must be done.  Our spade must dig deep to ensure that the deepest roots are removed; this may require that we spend time in earnest contemplation of why we planted a particular thought, why we felt it needed to be so nurtured.  At times, we may find roots wrapped around things we didn't realize were entangled, and we must decided whether to carefully remove them or whether it is best to cut more deeply.  This may happen with relationships we didn't understand to be so toxic, or with beliefs that seemed innocent by themselves, but which fed darker thoughts.  Clearing our garden will not be fun.  Even so, looking at the bright flowers of our New Lives we can imagine how much more vivid they will be growing in great mounds of color once our garden has been reclaimed.

    It can take years to completely clear the old debris from our minds.  We don't have to wait for a fully bare patch of ground before we start to plant, however, provided we enrich the soil with the Statements and our hard work. When we plant something new, we must be vigilant for old weeds that might sprout nearby; sometimes old seeds have lain dormant and are awakened by new thoughts and we must be careful that old habits don't return.  We should be on the lookout, too, for seedlings of good things that were before choked out by all the negatives.  These precious thoughts should be carefully nurtured so that they can once again flourish as they may have done before alcohol poisoned the soil.

    In the end, with effort and determination, our mental garden can become a thriving, healthy, glorious place where our dreams and wishes can flourish.  The fundamental object of life is emotional and spiritual growth; let us reclaim that most special of inner places to allow that growth to fill us with its rewards.