Saturday, June 28, 2014

Step Six: Letting Go of the Handrails

Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”  Al-Anon's Step Six

I have always been hesitant to change my habits, because I know that up until now, they have helped me to survive.  Being an over-achiever has helped me stay valuable to others.  Being hyper-vigilant has helped me to avoid dangerous situations.  These character defects of mine have come in quite handy, and they worked for me when nothing else in my life seemed to.  They have been the handrail on which I leaned whenever I felt insecure, but they have not made me happy.  They have made me stiff, and cold, and tired. 

My issue with Step Six is that I’m not inclined to loosen the grip on my handrails until you show me that there’s something else to grab onto.  To be “entirely ready” means I have to trust that whatever you’re asking me to do will work.  And I’m not a very trusting person.

But I’ve been in program for six years now, and although I have not yet seen a single burning bush, I have been slowly gathering evidence along the way.  Some of it has been heard in shares at meetings.  Some of it has been gathered by mining the literature for proof.  But the evidence that bred the most trust in me came when I found the courage or surrender to try things differently, and it worked. Evidence is a powerful thing, but only insofar as it helps me to develop trust.  Trust is the real key to Step Six for me.  Evidence leads to trust and trust leads to surrender.  

But there’s also that tricky God concept.   What does it mean to me to have God remove my defects of character, when my understanding of a higher power is a what, instead of a who?  For me, I know that life keeps throwing me the same challenges over and over again until I learn what I’m supposed to learn.  Maybe it’s not so much that it’s being thrown at me, but I keep bumping into the same brick walls over and over until I learn how to walk around them.  When I’m entirely ready to surrender my way of doing things, I suddenly see opportunities to do things differently.  When I learn to take that one step to the left and go around the bricks instead of thru them, I feel the ease and grace of that step, and I find the trust to let go of my old familiar path, the one that historically led to a whole lot of bruising. 

It’s the unfolding of life, with all its inherent challenges, that removes my defects of character.   I will be presented with every lesson I need to learn.  When I am ready to give my current character defects up, life’s challenges will look different.  I'll experience doing things a different way, and my need to hold onto those old character defects (my fear) will be removed.  I will develop the trust required to let go.

In the beginning, I wanted hard evidence to try things differently, but now, not so much.  I am learning now to trust my program, and with each passing year I am more willing to try things differently, even when there is little evidence that I can trust whatever challenge I face.  Trusting my program is helping me to trust life – life without my character defects.  And it’s getting to the point where I can say, “Well, I’m not sure how this will all work out, but the last ten times I followed my program, it worked”.  And that’s enough for me now.  

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal

Photo credit: © Ivan Bastien

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Carousel of Progress

If I don’t get too attached to any one way to approach life, I adjust to change with a lot less stress and strain.”  Courage to Change May 26th

There used to be an attraction at Disneyland called the “General Electric - Carousel of Progress”.  The audience sat stationary while the stage turned slowly around, each passing set marking a decade of progress in technology.  The clothes changed, appliances were updated, even the quality of the light adjusted with each passing decade.  It used to drive my brother crazy because it was so slow and methodical.  You had to be patient to see what each new turn of the carousel would reveal, and it gave the audience ample time to search out all the corners of the set to see what had evolved that decade.

I feel like I’m watching one of those set changes in my life right now.  Menopause has taken over my body.  My youngest son is about to be married.  We listed our home for sale last Friday and I spent the better part of the weekend watching other families wander thru my home, imagining their children growing up in my kid’s bedrooms.  Most importantly, I have changed considerably this past year because of the work I have put into my program.  But it feels like I’m between sets right now, waiting to see what the next turn of my life’s carousel will reveal.

When I first came to Al-Anon, there was a honeymoon period where every day felt different to me in the new light of program.  I was looking at my part in things for the first time, and learning how to let go of other’s behavior.  All the changes felt so enormous to me that I thought it wouldn’t be possible to maintain that level of transformation for long.  And it wasn’t. The honeymoon was eventually over and the real work began.  Since then, I have learned to see progress not in the big things, but the little things; like the subtle changes in the light, and the new toaster on the counter.  I am learning to be patient and lean into change. 

Each time I think I’ve experienced all the movement I could possibly make in a certain area of my life, life shows me that I have only scratched the surface.  More is revealed as the stage turns and I discover a character defect I missed before, or positive progress I hadn’t recognized until I watched myself handling some new challenge with greater ease. 

It's a process.  Life, program, growth.  It’s all a process. I guess the one thing that program has helped me with the most is in being comfortable with that process and trusting of the unknown.  It teaches me how to sit in the audience and wait for the next quarter turn to reveal something new to me.  It is accepting that I am a member of the audience, and clearly not in control of how fast the carousel turns, or what the next stage will look like when it arrives.  And that patience is helping to foster the serenity I so desperately need.

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal

Monday, May 26, 2014

Receiving Grace

For most of my life, I thought of myself as a giver.  I took care of others.  But if truth be told, it was a good manipulation technique, one that kept me in charge of others. I used caretaking to earn brownie points, to be noticed, and extract from others some external confirmation that I was somehow important in the world.  It was like a drug to me and I’d say that I gave myself over to the pursuit of brownie points as fully as an alcoholic surrenders to the bottle.   Just a different drug of choice.

But the fix was never enough.  In fact, a wise friend pointed out that when genuine love, approval, or acceptance was given to me, it bounced off me like shrapnel.  I threw back downgrading rebuttals that said, “I’m not really good, and I’m definitely not worthy”.   And I realized that I must be a very hard person to love, because it’s difficult to show affection to someone who refuses to take it in.  

So I began working on my inability to receive, because that’s what we do here. We identify our character defects and we muster the courage to do things differently.   I needed to learn how to open up, be vulnerable, and risk interaction and connection with both my higher power and the people who really do care for me on some meaningful level.   

It began with trying to make amends to myself.  I agreed to stop punishing myself for not being what others wanted, and I gave myself permission to start engaging with the universe as me.  It was really just plain old vanilla Step One work.   I’m powerless over what others think, so I might as well drop the whiny shtick about unrequited care because it’s not going to change anything and everyone’s getting really annoyed.  I needed to let go of others’ thoughts and opinions, and start working on my own, because that’s where the problem was.

Then came Step Two, came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me.   For me, I needed to start thinking about myself differently.  I needed to know I was cared for, not make them care.  So I started paying attention, really paying attention. When I got a hug at the end of a meeting, I took two, three, four long seconds to really take it in.  When someone complimented me, I tried for once not to deflect it. Just take it in. And it started to work.  I stopped manipulating long enough to see that I was already cared for.   It started to change how I felt about myself, and slowly the restoration began.   Restoration that comes when when we learn to soak up the care around us, like a salve on damaged skin.

But like always, as I started to work this process and really surrender myself to it, my willingness was tested.  My higher power has a way of laughing at my half baked attempts at surrender and always seems to throw me a curve ball.  So right in the middle of my working on learning how to receive, and in the middle of my worst financial crisis to date, a once in a lifetime travel opportunity was dropped in my lap by my oldest friend.  I immediately wanted to deflect, all my instincts said you can’t accept this.  You don’t deserve this.  But I couldn’t deflect, because I knew it was a test of my willingness.  Then my boss and his wife offered to bolster the travel fund so that I could truly enjoy the experience without worrying about the cost.  More testing, more surrender.  I was overwhelmed, and wildly uncomfortable with all of this, but I leaned into it and tried to take it in.  

There have been lots of tears, and an incredible rush of gratitude.  Not for the money part of all of it, but for the message it sent me.  God was clearly pressing me to learn something here.  I will never understand the depth of my connection with others, or with my higher power, unless I open myself up to receive it.  

Gratitude isn’t about being grateful that I got what I asked for.  It’s about truly taking in the restorative power of connection.  It's about taking in the very thing I refuse to give myself and witnessing what it does to my heart.  

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal

Photo credit: © Olaf Simon

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Admitting Change

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Al-Anon's Step Five

I’ve got two methods of holding onto my version of reality.  One is to convince myself that reality is something other than it is.  This was always my family of origin’s specialty.  I called it the “Land of the Butterflies”, where everyone wears white pants and sports the perfect shade of lipstick.  There is no addiction in the Land of Butterflies.   Trust me, I grew up there. I’ve checked with the authorities, and no matter what evidence reveals itself, I’m told there is absolutely nothing to worry about, except maybe the truth.

I tried that method for a spell, but couldn’t stomach the necessary deception, so I crossed over to the dark side and took to a bleaker view. Holding onto my version of reality then was to claim my role as the righteous martyr, and grind out life blaming everyone else for my unhappiness.   Fierce resentment fit my particular brand of cynicism quite well, so it was a good place to settle until I was ready to take responsibility for myself.

When Step Four had me explore the ways in which I managed my life, I didn’t flinch from it.  It was an exercise in self-discovery, like a research project with my memories as the library.  I like research.  It was interesting, even a little fun, but the admitting part took it to a whole new level.  

Word geek that I am, I looked up the word “admit” in the dictionary, and it said:  (1) acknowledge truth, (2) allow somebody to enter, (3) confess, and (4) offer possibility. 

To admit is to acknowledge truth.  I do this differently when I’m alone.  I’m a fabulous spin doctor when I’m all up in my own head, but it’s much harder to fluff up the gaps in my story when I’m telling it to someone else.  I can hear the bulls!*$! in both the butterflies and the martyrdom stories almost as quickly as they leave my lips.  But the funny part is, I don’t want the person I’m telling to think I actually buy it, because that would be even more embarrassing!  For me, having someone else on the other end of the conversation has kept me honest with myself.

To admit is to allow somebody to enter.  I admit my sponsor, my friend, my Alanon fellowship and my higher power into my head, into my heart, my story.  It’s an opening of the door behind which I stand in fear.  Fear of the truth.  Fear of being held accountable for my own happiness.  It’s excruciatingly difficult to walk through that door alone, but when I allow someone to enter and help me, it’s easier. 

To admit is to confess.  They say we are only as sick as our secrets, and this step – more than any other – gives us the tool we need to offload them.  When I start getting honest about what reality is, my secrets start coming to the surface.  Life is dirty and we make mistakes, mistakes we try to justify given the twisted reality we usually find ourselves in.  But strangely enough, sharing these mistakes with others allows me to let go of them.   Guilt can only survive to the extent we hold onto it.

And my favorite: To admit is to offer possibility, possibility of change.
It is the beginning of the transformation.  Step Five says, “This is where I live.  It’s messy, but please come in anyways.  I need your help to pull open the curtains and take some boxes out of the basement.  And then, in the light of day, maybe you could help me decide if I just need to rearrange the furniture, or move altogether.”    After all, the first step in charting a new direction is to figure out where you’re starting from. 

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal
Photo Credit: © Anna-Yarullina

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Writing it Down

Sometimes the things we consider our greatest weaknesses prove to be our greatest strengths.”  Courage to Change - April 28th

In social settings, I am a painfully shy person.  If I’m not sure how it will turn out, I don’t take risks, so toss me in a room full of strangers and I instantly become a quiet sponge; absorb everything, and let nothing leak out.  I shut my mouth, open my eyes and ears and pay close attention to the people and events around me, but I engage in none of it. 

So you can imagine what my first Al-Anon meetings were like.  Lots of interesting stories to soak up, with no intentions of sharing my own.  I might say the wrong thing, reveal something I wasn’t prepared for you to know, or god forbid, expose my unrehearsed self to the group. My greatest weakness was my inability to engage in the world as myself, and yet in Al-Anon, I was told it was the shortest path to healing.  Vulnerability may not my strong suit, but I love efficiency, and the truth is that this program doesn’t work without vulnerability.

I attended an open sharing Al-Anon meeting for a while, but decided to try a writing group in my area.  I was writing every week, but I don’t think I read out loud in the meeting for a long while. Something about the writing allowed me to drill deeper into myself and get to the meat of things, instead of constantly posturing and protecting myself.  It was more honest.  It was something between me and myself.   The more I wrote, the more I was able to work through my issues.  I rearranged the words and edited my stream of consciousness until things made sense to me, and a clear, simple message was able to emerge from the noise in my head.  Only then was I able to squeeze that sponge and let a piece of myself leak back out into the conversation.  Only then was I able to start sharing out loud.

At first, it felt like standing naked in the middle of a crowded room and I seized up, but my words were already down on paper, right there in front of me and all I had to do was to let my voice keep reading.  My voice shook, so did my hands, and I held my breath as I read, until lack of oxygen forced me to gasp in some air and breathe to continue.  The only way to engage in the group as myself was to lean into that vulnerability, drag myself to the table, and say something – something true about myself.  Writing it down first let me do that in a way that wouldn’t have been possible for me verbally.

My greatest weakness has been my inability to engage in the world as myself.  It is at the root of so many of my character defects – perfectionism, withdrawal, judgment, even resentment.  In an effort to overcome my shyness, I turned to writing.  My Al-Anon writing group gave me the venue to try my hand at it.  I wrote because I could not say it aloud.   I wrote because in the crafting of each sentence I was able to peek into the dark corners and examine what was there. I was able to take the time to find the right words to express all the noise in my head.  I was able to find my voice and my craft.  My fear of connection took me to the solitary act of writing, but in that, I found so much solace and strength.  I am so grateful to the members of that group for holding my hand through it, for listening,  and for giving me a safe venue in which to exercise my newfound voice. 

© Copyright 2013 al-anon journal

Photo Credit: © gautier075