Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Learning To Take It In

It doesn’t matter how many times I read the Al-Anon Promises, my heart skips a beat when I read over one in particular:  “We will love others without losing ourselves, and will learn to accept love in return.”  Something in my body knows that this is one of my sticking points.

I grew up believing that if I loved someone, I had to do whatever it took to make them happy, and if I didn’t, I risked being left behind.  Being secure in a relationship meant I had to earn my place in it and prove my value.  One doesn’t start off worthy, value has to be earned.  I learned about conditional love, with lots of strings attached, and I bought into it lock stock and barrel.  I even became quite good at it.  Maybe I completely misread the message as a young girl, but that message has been the foundation of my approach to relationships for my entire life, until Alanon.

If I care about someone, I give and give and give until I feel taken advantage of, then I slip into resentment and poison the relationship until it’s no longer functional.  It’s been a predictable pattern throughout my life, one that’s left me isolated for efficiency’s sake.  I over-do, and then I expect my giving to result in some kind of return, something I can stockpile for later.  But I know now that it’s a false expectation and the source of tremendous unmanageability in my life.

I have also struggled to accept the honest love that has been shown to me.  I simply don’t know how to take it in gracefully.  Maybe it’s because I am afraid that if I do let someone in, they’ll see that I’m really not all I’m cracked up to be and they’ll drop me like a hot potato.  Maybe I’m suspicious of the strings that affection may come with.  I fear my own limitations for giving, which leaves me reluctant to receive, and as I write this now, I can hear what a tenuous and fragile place that is to live from.

Al-Anon promised that I would learn to see love differently, and it’s taken me a long time just to get here, but I’m starting to see the shift.  I’m learning that love doesn’t have to be traded like currency, with someone always keeping score.   I’m learning to set healthy boundaries so that I don’t lose myself in pursuit of something I was never supposed to pay for in the first place.  Boundaries are not to keep others from taking advantage of me, they are to keep me from playing the twisted game I used to (and sometimes still) engage in, the game where I try to manipulate others into loving me and thinking I’m important.  I thought the boundaries were to keep others out, but they were really there to keep me focused on myself.

It is also this program that teaches me how to take love in.  When I practice the Steps, my busy hands are tied behind my back, rendering me unable to manipulate and “do” for others.  And when I sit in that completely uncomfortable place, unable to produce the result I need, I begin to see what love should look like, the kind of love I don’t have to pay for.  Love that is simply there to soak up like the sun.  It’s not currency, it is a precious gift from one human to another, and I am finally learning how to let it creep into my bones and warm me.  I am learning it in Al-Anon, and it's giving me the ability to see it elsewhere as well:  in the hugs we share at the end of a meeting, in the wet slobber of my dog’s kiss, and in the wink my husband gave me as we left for work this morning.

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal
Photo credit:  www.iStockphoto.com/01-23-08 © rehmno

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Beware the Clown

Yesterday's Courage to Change passage (Mar 24) began the same way my initial encounter with alcoholism did – logically and with a complete lack of understanding.  I was 100% convinced that every time my husband picked up a bottle, it was a choice, a willful act of defiance.  I thought it was simple: If you love me, stop drinking, and when he didn’t, I concluded that he must not love me. Then, when I was fully engaged and locked in for the ride, my mind took me to the next place it goes when untethered, “He must drink because of me”. But it was never all about me.  That isn't how the disease of alcoholism works. There’s nothing logical about it.

For a long time, I looked at the alcoholic like a bit of a kid, always wanting to escape responsibilities and hangout in the funhouse with the carnival clowns.   It wasn’t until I started going to open Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings and listening to other alcoholics speak that I began to understand the disease from a different perspective. Turns out, there is a clown that lures those alcoholics to the funhouse, enticing them a temporary escape from reality and the thrill of a fun ride, but as they step through the doors, that clown turns into a demon and duct tapes them to their seat.  Their disease takes an entertaining ride in the funhouse and turns it into an endless loop in the house of horrors.  Eventually, the alcoholic can’t find their way back out of the maze. Sound the dramatic trumpets and enter the Al-Anoners (that would be me!), who rush in after their loved ones and pick a fistfight with the clown.  One small problem.  Sometimes we forget that there’s a hostage involved, the one still duct taped to his seat by a disease.

In my case, I know that many of the punches I threw at the disease bounced off and hit its hostage square in the face.  The more I scrambled to control the situation, the more chaos I created, and the more I could hear the maniacal laughter of that demon clown.  I was angry, fighting back, and getting nowhere, and I definitely left some bruises behind.

It wasn’t until I got off the ride and stopped fighting that anything started to get better.  I knew that if my husband were to ever come out of that funhouse, he would have to deal with the demon himself, and he has.  And it had to have been a lot easier without me flailing about and adding to the chaos around him.   I have learned to see my husband as the hostage in the situation, not the clown, and it has helped me to let go of much of my resentment over what went on in the funhouse.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t have any responsibility for it, because he does, and he certainly has a responsibility to run from that clown every time it holds up a free ticket back to the funhouse.

Fortunately,  Al-Anon has helped me  to think of the man as separate from the demon, someone who is at times still held hostage by his disease.   It has allowed me to forgive,  and continue to love a man who admittedly has a very dangerous playmate.   And above all,  it has allowed me to take a good hard look at my own dance with that clown, because I have some responsibility for what went on in that funhouse as well.

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal
Photo credit:  www.iStockphoto.com/ 07-16-10 © fergregory

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Asking for Help

Somewhere along the way, I got this warped idea that self-worth and love could be purchased with favors, like some kind of twisted emotional barter system.  If you had a need that I could satisfy, then you would value me as a human being.  If I didn’t take care of you, I was worth-less, and someone else would sneak in and hold that place in your life.  It’s a good thing I was smart and resourceful because my emotional survival hung on this paradigm.  In fact, it’s fair to say that became an emotional hoarder. The more I did for others, the more important I was to the people in my life.  The more I sacrificed, the less chance there was I would be kicked to the curb.  More begat more, begat unmanageability, and we all know the rest of that story, right?

It wasn’t until I got to Al-Anon and did my Fourth Step that I realized how much this paradigm was ingrained in my psyche, and how flawed it was at its core.   One of the first things that I was told to do was to ask for help.  Pick up the phone and call someone, or engage a sponsor.  You might as well have asked me to light my house on fire.  To ask for help meant I had to give away some of my bartering chits and compromise my stockpile.  Clearly, I could do for others to buy their respect and love, but if I asked for someone to help me, I would have to pay for it, because that’s how the barter system works.  If I truly believed that doing for others would earn me something, then the converse had to be true as well.   Accepting from others would cost me.

The problem with this point of view is that it comes from a place of poverty and separateness.   It says that as a human being, I start with nothing.  I am worth nothing.  I have to perform and do for others to earn value in the world, and if I want love in return, I better pay for it.  Emotional currency.

But when I look at it in those very basic terms, I know I don’t believe that about anyone else. It comes down to intrinsic human value.  We all have a basic fundamental value as human beings, and are deserving of love and care.  I know that I believe that about you, the problem is that I hold myself to a different standard.

That is why learning to ask for help is such an important step in my recovery, as it is for all of us.  We come to Al-Anon because we are in trouble.  There isn’t one of us who doesn’t need help.  It has to be pretty big for us to admit it, but most of us are already there when we finally drag ourselves in the door.  Asking for help is the first step in acknowledging, to ourselves, that we are deserving of love and care.  We may say it differently.  It usually begins with “He won’t stop and it’s killing me!”  We feel like we’re taking a last ditch effort to save someone else, but what really happens is that for the first time, we say, “I have nothing left to give, but can you help me anyways?”

With those words, we begin to acknowledge our own intrinsic value as human beings, the kind of value we don’t have to earn or pay for.  And when we are blessed enough to find it, in Al-anon or elsewhere, it begins to replenish all that we’ve overspent and the false paradigm starts to melt away.

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal
Photo credit:  www.iStockphoto.com/09-09-09 © oyaboya

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stale Goods

A business owner watches his inventory for a number of reasons.  One reason might be to see which items need replenishing.   Another may be to determine the value of his assets at any given time.  He counts every widget on the shelf, multiplies the quantity by the value of each item, and the result is the measure of his assets on that given day. 

But a smart business owner doesn’t just count things up and do the math.  He looks at what kind of inventory he is holding carrying and whether or not that inventory is the kind that will profit him in his next selling cycle.   There’s nothing more detrimental to a business than a stash of product that just won’t move.  It takes up room in the warehouse and loses relevance in the market.   The longer it sits, the higher its cost and the lower its value.   That’s why retailers put everything on sale at such a deep discount after New Years.  No one wants to carry dead weight on their balance sheet after the holiday spending spree is over.

For me, this is one of the critical keys to my recovery: getting rid of the weight I carry that no longer serves me.    Something that may have looked sexy when I acquired it, may now do nothing more than take up space in my life and in my psyche.   This month, I was forced to take a good hard look at some of that inventory again. 

Six years ago, I was terminated from a job that I had held in various forms for close to twenty years.  As part of my compensation, I had been given a stake in all the assets we developed.  It was a small one, but over the course of few years, it grew to be worth a pretty penny and I was confident that it would serve me well as a retirement plan.  Then the recession hit, the value of the assets plummeted, and the most expensive person on the payroll was kicked to the curb - me.  At the time, my former employer tried to buy back my stake in the company at a ridiculously deep discount, but I held on tight. I felt betrayed and I was not going to give up what I’d earned without a fight.    Every once in a while, I’d get a tiny check in the mail from them and when I opened it, I would savor the revenge of making them sign a check to me, however insignificant or small it may have been.  And it’s been six years now, of dragging around that proof that all my hard work wasn’t for naught.

A few weeks ago, a financial situation forced to take a fresh look at that inventory again.   For the first time, I looked at what value it held for me today.  Would it benefit me going forward?  Finally, I was able to see dead weight for what it was.   I discovered that all the “assets” I held onto as evidence of my accomplishments, were simply stale goods, taking up space in my life and giving weight to my resentment.  It left no room left on the shelf for the things that are important to me today, and there was a clear price I was paying to keep them.

So I held a fire sale. I offered all of it up, at a deep deep discount,  and I offered it to those I resented for trying to take it away from me in the first place.   In one fell swoop, I cleaned out my stockroom and gave a huge heavy block of resentment back to its source.  I don’t know exactly how it’s all going to turn out yet, but I’ve let go of the results, and it feels good.  It feels manageable and light.  It will take me many years to pay off the debt that’s related to those assets,  and resentments, but I guess amends are something that just have to be chipped away at, at whatever pace we can afford, mentally and financially.  What’s strange is how holding on did nothing, literally nothing but keep me stuck in my resentment.   I wasn’t sticking up for myself, I was sticking myself to my past.  

I guess I’m finally learning that letting go is not magic, it’s just practicing my steps, and trusting in the process.  And thank God for that, because I know where to go to shop for that kind of magic these days.

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal
Photo credit:  www.istockphoto.com/07-02-12 © marekuliasz

Saturday, February 15, 2014


The assigned topic in my writing group last week was “Selfishness”.  I thought long and hard on the topic, and began writing a weepy passage about poor little me, working extremely hard, day after day, to take care of others who were being selfish by taking advantage of my stamina and generosity.   

Then I made myself ill, hit the delete button and started over.  I put my box of Kleenex down and got out my snarky pen – because snarky is usually much more honest than my tears. 

In case you didn’t already get the memo, I am a certified control freak.  I am getting better with a lot of things, but there a couple important ones that I continue to leave my claws fully embedded in.  I just can’t give up trying.  I am very well intentioned, mind you, but I am told that good intentions don’t necessarily excuse my behavior.  I am just supposed to let go, and in those few special cases, I can’t seem to do it.   

But what is being a control freak all about?  Really, it’s about selfishness.  I want what I want, when I want it, and damn it, if the universe doesn’t comply, then I jump in and get things done, in the way only I can do.   Because I’m special that way.  I applied for the position of Supreme Goddess of the Universe quite some time ago, and even though I have not been granted the position yet, I feel compelled to keep showing everyone all the good that I am capable of.  Why? Because if they could see it my way, then they would do it my way. 

And I get caught in that simple flaw every time I don’t get what I want.  For example, I want to love someone fully, but I also want him to be different than he is.  It’s too hard to admit that even though he can see it my way, he doesn’t choose change.  So I keep trying.  I keep banging my head against the wall, but nothing actually changes.  What I discovered is that he applied for the same position I did, and we are currently in competition for control over our shared universe.   

Selfishness is defined as being “concerned with your own interests, needs, and wishes while ignoring those of others”.   It is my will run amuck, at the expense of my compassion.  Do I have needs?  Of course.  Should I engage in self-care?  Definitely.  But when does taking care of my own needs cross over into selfishness? 

I think it’s when the pursuit of my own needs gives me permission to try to control another person.  When it whispers in my ear that in the interests of self-care, I am allowed to manipulate the behavior of another, instead of accepting them for exactly who they are.  It’s a tricky line, but not hard to catch.  All I have to do is ask who am I trying to change?  Myself, or someone else?

If I have needs, I can make choices – for me, about me, in favor of me.  What I cannot do is make choices for someone else in an effort to get them to fit into my picture of how the universe should look.   If I do, then I have crossed over into selfishness.  

Even the pitiful martyr who started writing this piece is selfish.  She engages in martyrdom because she wants her sacrifice to motivate change in someone else.  It’s selfish, because she gets something out of it.   Something juicy and meaningful.  Something that feels a little like power.   But that’s not me.  

Or is it?

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal
Photo credit:  www.iStockphoto.com/01-30-14 © Thinglass

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Menacing Mail

We used to have a large countertop in our kitchen that drove me mad.  Everyone dropped their keys, wallets, newspapers, mail, change, whatever onto it until the entire counter was covered and not one inch of tile could be seen.  The mail was the worst.  One week of mail in my house could fill a bucket, and for some reason, instead of having one pile to go through, the mail was left in smaller separate piles, one pile for each day, until the entire counter was landscaped in it.  Realty flyers, Sudoku puzzles, receipts, and unopened bills multiplied like weeds until I would reach a breaking point and mow the whole thing down.   Then there would be one day of blessed control and the whole debacle would begin again. 

Everyone knew it was my pet peeve, but no one helped, no one opened the bills, no one threw away the junk mail.   And so it continued… on, and on, and on…..until I had the counter removed from the house.  Literally.  With the remodel complete, and only two of us left in the house, I thought I would finally be rid of this constant irritation, but much to my dismay, the piles began to appear on the kitchen table,  where they continue to grow to this day.

To me, the mail represents responsibility.  Every envelope that arrives is a reminder of money due, and opening it is part of taking responsibility for its payment.  When the mail is brought in day after day and left in frustrating little piles across the counter, it makes a very clear statement to me, “Hi, I brought the responsibilities in for you and I’ll just leave them right here for you to handle.”  My husband, who is currently struggling with unemployment, once asked me what he could do to help.  “Simple”, I told him, “If you could just open the mail, throw away the junk and leave only what needs to be paid in the basket, that would help keep my stress down.”  But he can’t seem to bring himself to do it, and so it continues.  I grow more irritated by the piles of responsibility sprouting on the table, martyred by a letter opener.

But I have to remind myself that not everyone looks at a pile of mail and hears the booming voice of responsibility.  To some, mail is just mail, and the kind of clutter that makes me cringe in disgust is usually no more invisible to a man than a dirty toilet.   We do, after all, have different standards about these things. 

I also get caught up in the “representative acts” that make small things into big things.  My husband isn’t in a position to take responsibility for paying the bills right now, but if he were to open them up at least, it would feel like a gesture of support to me.   But that’s my perspective.  I forget what that would feel like to him.  When you are feeling guilty about being unemployed,  sitting down day after day to look at the dollars and cents of it all would be torture.  For him to engage in the mail the way I want him to would be a daily flogging to remind him that he’s not where he wants to be right now.  Do I need to see him suffer to feel better?  Do I really need to read so much into the mail?  No. 

The mail is just mail and the responsibilities are falling where they are right now.  That’s just what is.   There’s no need to turn the letter opener into a righteous sword of martyrdom just to even the score.  That has no purpose other than to inflict pain.  I did consider having the kitchen table removed from the house, but we’re running out of places to eat, so for now, I’ll resist the urge.

(inspired by Courage to Change - January 27th)

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal
Photo credit:  www.iStockphoto.com/05-04-11 © T-STUDIO