My Fugitive Ways

During a recent conversation with my sister, she asked me why I devote so much time to studying psychology.  “Don’t you get tired of staring at your own asshole?’ At first I was taken aback by the blunt crudeness of my sister.  Then I laughed and told her this:

 

For so much of my life I have run away from my own issues.  It started in high school when I used alcohol to separate myself from myself.  In that space, I was able to distance myself from that hurt, lonely boy that I disliked to become the carefree, outgoing person I wanted to be.  Drinking was like climbing into a superhero outfit.   The introverted, troubled Peter Parker became the valiant Spider-man.  If only temporarily.

 

For the next 30 years, I would use alcohol to live in a fantasy world where my problems couldn’t touch me.  The more my buried pain cried out to be heard, the more I ran away from it.  I became a fugitive from my pain.

 

Finally, with my business in the dumps, with my wife threatening to leave me, and with bankruptcy looming, I stopped running and I walked through the doors of AA. There I learned that I was only as sick as my secrets.  And I had many.

 

The Fourth Step was a miracle for me.  It forced me to face a life I had put together with bullshit and scotch tape.  Rather than running away, I ran towards my problems. I felt the power that honesty and fearlessness had in freeing me from my pain and from my lies.  Now, years later, I live a truth:  The degree of my liberation is dependent on the depth of my investigation.

 

I ended my reply to my sister’s question by saying, “So, no. When I am aware of what is coming out of me, I am aware of what’s inside of me.”

 

My Higher Power has given me the fearlessness to continue looking within.   As Carl Jung says, “Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens.”  When we run away from our Selves and try to avoid pain through our addictions, we are asleep to who we are.  When we embrace the Divine and open our Selves to the practical tools psychology has to offer, we can finally awaken from the false realities we have been living.

 

And to be wide awake in reality is to be wide awake in splendor.

 

Kind Regards,

 

RJ Handley

Five stress factors that can lead to relapse

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.  Oh, that wonderful vicarious feeling of the first drink as it melts away the stress of the day.

 

This became my routine, too, as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

 

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can see how it was my go-to stress reliever.  I didn’t look within for the source of my stress.  That would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living.  All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

 

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted.  So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work.  On and on.  Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

 

Sober now for more than a decade, I have revamped my personal creed to Sophocles’ original: Only the examined life is worth living.  In those 10 years, I have immersed myself in the Big Book as well as other psychological and spiritual literature. By looking within rather than away, I have finally gotten to know who I am.

 

But it’s still one day at a time. Stressors are still a part of the sober life. And I am very aware that if I don’t surface the issues in my life that cause stress, that I am very likely to relapse.

 

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood.   It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it.  When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it.  This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

 

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components.  The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

 

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power.  To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.  When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level.  I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad.  They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stressor is fighting change. There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.”  That was me until a few years ago.  Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering. During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.”  I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

 

The three external stressors are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

 

In my drinking days (and still to a much lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people.  Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation.  Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned.  I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

 

The second external stressor is lack of control.  That was a huge one for me.  I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it.  The desire is understandable.  Humans have an aversion to pain.  Yet, control is an illusion.  In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person.  Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

 

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it.  As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others.  People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power.  It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

 

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance.  It is a potent antidote to stress.  And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer.  When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its  three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation.  Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

 

The Glories of Gratitude

I first heard the phrase “develop an attitude of gratitude” in an AA meeting I attended in my first year of recovery.   My immediate reaction was “Isn’t that sweet.”  Then I dismissed it as one of those pathetic AA expressions.  Even though alcohol had totally kicked my ass Rodney King style, I was still carrying around with me this false bravado that placed me above gimmicky expressions.

Then, a few days later, I heard my sponsor say that he was “cultivating an attitude of gratitude.”  I stifled a gag and thought, “Hell, they’ve gotten to him to…although I like his word choice better.”

Here I am nine years later cultivating an attitude of gratitude.  What the hell happened to me?  Sobriety.  It works wonders—even on fools like me.  Yep, I’m kinda a gratitude junkie now.  I even got my girlfriend using now.  Before we turn off the lights at night, we take turns saying our gratitude out loud to each other.  I get a body rush of good feelings hearing each other go through the day, honoring the things that our Higher Power had blessed our lives with.

Gratitude softened me to life and strengthened my connection to it.  I was sleeping better and walked through my days with a heightened sense of appreciation.

About a month into it, the control freak in me raised its condemning head.  Alcoholism may really have a genetic link.  I thought of my drunken ancestor staring gloomily into the cavefire growing more and more irritated with his tribal homebuddies.   (In the picture above, my tribal ancestor is on the far left.)

“How long is she going to go on tonight?  That’s her seventh gratitude.  She’s like a gratitude relay runner who never passes the baton.”

With the patience that 10 years of sobriety can bring, I said to her, “You know, it might be better to just keep our gratitude to our top three for the day.” Realizing that I was sabotaging what I had created (What a surprise for an addict!), I decided to soften my comment with, “That way we can…uh…go into a little more depth.”

Fortunately, by the grace of God, I have been blessed with a girlfriend who laughs easily about herself and has taught me to do the same.  Just after the “more depth” comment, we both burst into laughter.  Yes, one of my most enduring gratitudes is for her.

Bill W. spoke of gratitude in the 12 x 12 suggesting a “genuine gratitude for blessings received and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we shall seek.”

Many times Bill W’s name has come up in my gratitude.  It’s like a verbal hug to Bill and to all my fellow travelers who have helped to “relieve me of the bondage of self.”

If you don’t already set a time aside during each day to practice gratitude, consider Bill W’s words.  Consider spending a few minutes in gratitude with your partner before turning the lights out.  Life can become pretty chaotic.  When it does, my girlfriend and I occasionally need to remind ourselves of the commitment we have made to each other by saying, “Let’s do some ‘tude.”

If you’re a single traveler at this point in your life, try writing in a gratitude journal before lights out.  When life grows dark, it will be a great way to realign your thoughts and heighten your awareness of just how blessed your life really is.

Well, night night to you, my fabulous fellow travelers.  May your path be illuminated by the radiance of God’s grace.

We Make Our Own Misery

Sometimes a simple question can change you.   In answering it, my life was transformed.  It was like seeing my world with a new pair of glasses.

For me the most radical changes that occurred in my stepwork was the 4th Step: “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

It forced me to stare unblinkingly at the suffering my own diseased thinking had caused me and all those involved in my life.

With that insight, I was able to rebuild my life, not from my own blueprint but from the one my Higher Power drafted for my life.  This rebuilt engine has powered me through the best years of my life.  Just recently I celebrated 10 years of sobriety thanks to God and AA.

As I cast my mind back to the first few months of my sobriety, images appear that are as clear as yesterday.  One of those images involved the step work my sponsor guided me through.

My 4th Step was fraught with illusion, but I still see clearly my sponsor and me sitting in his apartment going over my 4th Step Inventory sheet.  I had no problem coming up with people I resented.  I came up with six people and many situations that had caused me resentment.

Sponsor:  You did a good job filling out all the columns of the sheet.   It’s real thorough.  All except for the last column.  There’s nothing written for any of these people.

RJ:   You mean the column about “Where Was I to Blame”?

Sponsor: That’s it.

RJ:  A stock form doesn’t work for everybody.  That column doesn’t apply for me.

Sponsor: Why?

RJ:  Because these are the people who pissed ME off.   Why should I blame myself for their bad behavior?

Sponsor:  You have here that you resent your boss because you think she is incompetent?

RJ: Yes

Sponsor:  Did you talk to her about it?

RJ:  No, I didn’t think I should have to.  I did talk about her to my colleagues who I trusted.

Sponsor:  So you bad-mouthed her behind her back?

RJ:  Well, I guess. Yeah.

Sponsor:  Could it be that one or two of them told her what you said?

RJ:  Maybe.  That’s possible.

Sponsor:   If you didn’t like the way she led, why didn’t you just find another job?

RJ: What?

Sponsor:  Yeah, maybe you would have found a job with a boss you could get along with.

I was struck silent.  New light dawned.

Bill W. talks about the insanity of our thinking when we were in our cups.

I sat dumbfounded in my chair.   I had been miserable for three years working under that woman.  Why the hell didn’t I think of that solution?  I could have just applied for another job!  It would have been that easy.  Instead, I remained in that job suffering and causing my colleagues to suffer because of my own issues with my boss.

Although this would seem to be a minor revelation to non-addicts, it was like the heavens opened and God spoke to me a colossal truth.

Aware of the magnitude of the moment, my sponsor turned to page 133 of the BB and read: “We made our own misery.”

New light was cast into the corners of my life.  I thanked my sponsor for this revelation and set off determined to re-examine my 4th Step Inventory and to find the part I played in my own misery for each resentment.

That moment changed my life.  In fact, it is one of the most important shifts I have made in my 10 years of sobriety.  It rewired my brain and changed the way I respond to life.

It is incredibly liberating to take responsibility, even if my part is only 1 percent, for the people and events in my life that have caused me to feel resentment.  As long as I blame others for the wrongs I perceive they have done to me, I do not have to change.  But to grow, I must change.  The snake that cannot shed its skin will die.  And I will die if I do not follow this Big Book truth:  that any disturbance I feel is because there is something wrong with me—something that needs to change.

Thank God for this lesson!