Cunning, baffling and powerful

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What happens to me when I take my foot off the gas? As described in the Big Book: remorse, horror and hopelessness… a terrible sense of impending calamity… terror and madness… declining moral and bodily health… loneliness and despair… that bitter morass of self-pity… annihilation of all things worthwhile… misunderstanding, fierce resentment, financial insecurity… a hopeless condition of mind and body… hopelessness and futility of life… pitiful and incomprehensible demoralisation… insanity… unhappiness… selfishness, dishonesty, self-seeking and fear… remorse, depression and inferiority…

Although this describes the still drinking alcoholic, it can similarly characterise the sober alcoholic who fails to practise the principles in all her affairs: ie. me. Of late I have been suffering from all of the above. It’s embarrassing to admit at five and a half years sober but it’s the truth and I need to be honest. I have worked the steps and continued to work the steps to a level sufficient to keep me sober and that’s amazing. There have been phases of my development during which I have been genuinely happy, joyous and free, consumed with gratitude, peaceful, a million miles from the girl I used to be – an embodiment of the promises come true. But the nature of my disease is cunning, baffling, powerful. It creeps back into my life like smoke under a door. I am oblivious to it at first until suddenly I can’t breathe.

Thankfully, there IS a solution. Which I have been taught and I believe lies in the steps. It lies in enlarging my spiritual condition. It lies in a truly honest appraisal of the gaps in my program. It lies in the application of the steps as outlined in the Big Book – with the help of a sponsor, without any wiggle room. It is taking the actions that keep my ego sufficiently at bay for sufficient power to remain in my life to keep me sober. And that is what I am currently attempting to do and have been for the last few weeks. The results in this short time are astounding and I am experiencing once again the POWER of this program. I can be lifted – by a power that is NOT me – from what felt like a deep depression without an antidepressant in sight.

Self-reliance vs. God-reliance

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What is self-reliance? It is my ego-driven attempts to attain happiness through inherently unstable externals: money, sex, property, prestige, appearance etc. Convinced these things will make me happy/ fill that hole I chase them, single-mindedly, only to discover through a lot of pain that they don’t deliver what they promise.

It means I depend on other peoples approval for my self-worth, which in turn can lead to dishonesty and attempts to manipulate what you think about me. It means paralysis into inactivity instead of risking making mistakes. It means staying in toxic relationships because I am afraid to be alone. It means bad decisions and horrible experiences. It means that from an observer’s perspective it looks like an idiot is running my life!!

It is to an alcoholic what kryptonite is to Superman. Yet whilst Superman accepts his powerlessness over kryptonite, the alcoholic will determinedly, persistently, unrelentingly wrestle with self-reliance and often refuse to accept its detrimental impact on his life. Ultimately the result is perpetual and inescapable fear.

The antidote? God-reliance. Which intellectually I am willing to do but emotionally I stumble. I frequently lack the humility to accept I don’t know best, to accept that my perception is distorted. I am frightened to move towards the unfamiliar – even if it’s better – because my ego doesn’t want to be wrong. But if I want to outgrow fear I must learn to move towards guidance – away from ego, towards God.

As someone who’s concept of God is fluid, who’s connection with God oscillates between non-existent and adequate (rarely strong), this is a difficult concept for me to get my head around, let alone apply. But Sandy B’s definition helps: God is a power source that restores me to a different perspective - one that is light instead of dark; kind instead of cruel; loving instead of hateful; hopeful instead of fearful.

This is a daily process for me. Practice. Practice. Practice. My ego is a powerful entity with an extremely loud voice. It creeps into my prayers and (feeble) meditation and can often be confused with the voice of God! For this reason I must repeatedly check in with others of higher spiritual development what I think I know. When I stop or forget to do these things, the delusion of self-sufficiency doesn’t just creep in, it swallows me whole and I am again left drowning in fear.

Kryptonite-thanks

Are you a turtle or a skunk?

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In response to fear, are you a turtle or a skunk? The turtle retreats into its shell, the skunk sprays its venom over everyone else. Both are ways of dealing with fear. Both are undesirable. But the skunk has to make more amends.

This wonderful analogy comes from a Bob D. speaker tape and is one I can wholeheartedly relate to. As an active drunk I was without doubt a skunk. Consumed by fear yet oblivious to that fear, threatened by everything and everyone, most people with whom I came into contact became recipients of my criticism, demands and rage. As a sober drunk I am all too frequently a turtle – still consumed by the same fears (fear of being alone, fear of worthlessness, fear of failure) but instead of blaming others and lashing out I internalise it all, retreat, become paralysed and incapable of living my life fully.

Fear truly is an evil and corroding thread in my life. I have learned to an extent to avoid retaliation and argument (my previous mechanisms for dealing with fear) but until I can really begin to understand the ineffectiveness of self-reliance and the necessity for God-reliance, I will not commence to outgrow fear.

 

Greek Gods & Gratitude

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Something I seem to struggle to let go of is this illusion that things keep getting “better” if I keep working at them. I erroneously believed and desperately hoped that life after completion of the twelve steps would be pain-free. In my head, being “well” meant being happy ALL the time, and I thought with each step I took I was approaching a plateaued state of euphoria. Obviously, I was seriously deluded. I was seeking euphoric perfection in sobriety, the same way I sought it via drugs and alcohol. For me, the frustration I can still feel as a result of life failing to deliver (my expectations) is sometimes very hard to bare. I have to let go of the struggle and let go of the illusion, have that truly blank canvas of a mind I pray for, if I am to have any peace.

My delay in writing has largely been due to this. I so desperately want only to write positive and uplifting content and ignore my struggles, but I guess to do so would be to deny who I am, and I am supposed to be embracing all that I am.

I will get to those struggles, but for today I just wanted to share something that made me laugh and made me grateful.

Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of wine. “His reported behaviour, which ranged unpredictably from sentimental to savage, confirms the diagnosis (that he was a classic alcoholic).”* This made me laugh because it is quite possibly the most accurate description of my old self I have ever read! And it made me grateful, because I am no longer like that. I have my ups I have my downs. I have phases of thinking I am well and then boom! I’m back in my armchair with a blanket, movie marathon and only my solitude for comfort. But the difference is now I know it will pass. And the volatile, ferocious beast is gone (well, unconscious – never definitely gone).

* Quote from The Spirituality of Imperfection – Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham

Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands…

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…But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny.” Carl Schurz

Perfectionism. To write about this perfectly ;) I could be here for days, so I will attempt to do it imperfectly, and as concisely as possible. Defined by Wikipedia it is a “disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.” In its maladaptive form it “drives individuals to attempt to achieve an unobtainable ideal, and their failure to meet their expectations causes psychological distress“.

For me, these expectations extend to other people and I have always demanded perfection from not only myself but those around me. Setting impossible standards for myself and others has inevitably led to a lot of failure, discontent and pain. My first step 4 illuminated this in excruciating fluorescent white light.

Today I live in a very different place, wrapped up in the Serenity Prayer* like a blanket. It’s a very old blanket though, moth eaten and threadbare, holes threaten to destroy it. It is imperfect. (The Serenity Prayer is not imperfect, it is my thinking that pokes the holes. ) This prayer, and the integration of it into my being, is my protection from my own thinking, from my expectations of how the world should be. When I (attempt to) stop imposing my beliefs/ views/ expectations of perfection onto others and myself I am much happier. It really is that simple. Unfortunately, it is not always so simple to put into practise. Ultimately I believe perfectionism is (perhaps unconsciously) a resistance to reality, a refusal to accept very normal and very real flaws and limitations of the self and others.

Perfectionism is also an attempt at an antidote to poor self-esteem, yet paradoxically can exacerbate feelings of low self-worth. I was always filled with feelings of inadequacy, believing I was stupid, ugly, worthless etc and by striving to achieve perfection I believed I could eradicate these feelings. I was wrong. What actually resulted was a persistent, aching reminder of my shortcomings, as I was never able to attain my impossible goal of perfection. This failure to achieve led me to paralysis and the bottle.

Today I truly believe that as a result of being sober, as a result of working the steps, my increased self-esteem has contributed to a decline in my perfectionism. I am comfortable in my own skin in a way I never was before and consequently don’t feel the need to overcompensate with the perfect grades, the perfect job, the perfect relationship, perfect hair/ face etc.

Lastly, a massive issue of contention for me was how do I reconcile embracing my flaws/ defects with striving for perfection, as it is suggested in step 6? How do I pray for the removal of my perfectionism whilst striving to be perfect?! This really bent my head for a long time, still does if I’m honest. But an old sponsor of mine explained it to me beautifully, much in the same way that Carl Shurz did. Look at perfection simply as if it were a star – use it for guidance but know that it is unattainable.   Is perfection therefore the absence of perfectionism? I think it must be.

Perfect post-it

*God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

We claim spiritual progress….

Funny how the length of time between this and my last post is so long, since I am supposed to be examining my character defects! What was that I was saying about procrastination!?
 
Before I begin my exploration of these traits I would just like to express, yet again, my gratitude for AA. Yesterday I had my second session of CBT. The therapist was trying to establish where my problems lie and listed all the “thinking errors” characteristic of depression/ anxiety. As she went through them I listened to her describe the old me. My thinking used to be characterised by the things she was saying, but not anymore.
 
All or nothing thinking – I used to see everything in black and white, absolutely no shades of grey. I either loved you or I hated you. Everything was either terrible or amazing. Now, I try to visualise and accept all shades of the spectrum.
 
Should and must statements – I truly believed people should behave and think a certain way, myself included. The inevitable failure of myself and other people to do so led me to wallow in unfulfilled expectation and drown in resentment. Now, I believe the word and notion of “should” is just ridiculous, as essentially all it does it argue with reality.
 
Emotional reasoning – My emotional response to every person and every situation used to be my true north. The way I felt, I believed, was indicative of the truth. Now, I understand that feelings are not facts, and that feelings of eg. hopelessness, do not mean that I am hopeless.
 
Personalisation – Everything was always about me. My whole attitude was excruciatingly egocentric. Now, I understand that I am not the centre of everyone else’s universe (although acceptance of this is a little harder!) ;) 
 
Minimising or catastrophising – I used to exist in a whirlwind of catastrophe. Everything was a drama; I thrived on the rollercoaster ride of emotion. Now, the calmness and serenity I used to dismiss as boring is what I strive for.
 
All this negative thinking wildly distorted my perception in the past. Today, things are so different and it wasn’t until I sat in the therapist’s chair yesterday that the extent of this change was truly illuminated. 100% I credit this change to AA and the twelve steps. My “journey” (and how that word used to make me cringe!) however, is never complete and I will keep going, propelled by the gratitude I feel for my progress up until now.
 
“He who rejects change is the architect of decay.” Harold Wilson

The dead girl inside of me

Although I whole-heartedly embrace and encourage the concept of self-love and self-acceptance, this is something I apparently still struggle with! I know I am a million miles from the girl who spent years hating herself, feeling truly worthless and incapable of looking in a mirror without recoiling, and for this I am deeply grateful. My self-esteem is incomparable to what it used to be – that feeling of uselessness and self-pity did disappear. I have confidence in my abilities and am not afraid to pursue new ideas, whereas in the past I was paralysed by fear into inactivity. Procrastination has been replaced by inspiration.

However, the outcome of a mini step 5 yesterday revealed so much more! Self-acceptance is still a very big and painful problem for me, and it is my “defects” that I have trouble accepting. I am so disgusted by them that I pretend they are not there. Hypocrisy, jealousy, insecurity, judgemental-ness and perfectionism therefore all simmer seductively under the surface, and I struggle to truly love myself.

So…my goal is to try and learn to love these fabulous flaws, until they are removed! I’m going to utilise this blog to explore and understand them, and maybe in the process help anyone else “suffering” from these same afflictions ;)

The dead girl inside of me is how I perceive my alcoholic self. She is an indispensable reminder of who I used to be and a motivator of change. If I don’t love her as well, she starts to throb and before I know it she might wake.

“To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” Oscar Wilde

This post is a direct quote from Shaun http://ilovemyself.net/ which I found to be truly inspiring:

Why do you need to love yourself?

Fully and truly loving yourself will never lead to anything less than complete joy.  With full belief in yourself and who you are you will have the confidence, internal power, and endurance to not only reach your true potential, but constantly exist in that state, and be able to make any dream or goal become an accomplished reality.  No longer would you seek, desire, nor need the approval, acceptance, or love from an outside source.  The only purpose for that is the intention of bringing it internally to repair and patch the obviously missing pieces.  The action itself is a clear and obvious statement something is missing internally.  Your life should not be based on the dependency of others to fill your voids.  You may be happy so long as the source keeps providing, but what happens when that stops? What happens when the fake “self-confidence” supplier goes out of business? That is not life. That is not living.  That’s a crappy attempt at survival.  You need to make the choice to be the change that you deserve.

Why would you choose anything else?

Love for the self is the ultimate source for joy, success, and truth.  Lack of love for the self is the easiest source for pain and misery.

“Taught to drown but told to swim…” The Bluetones

How do I keep swimming? Sometimes I just don’t know. I am embedded in a reversal process, unlearning all  my self-destructive patterns. AA and the gratitude I feel for it seems to slowly rewire my thoughts. I am able to transition from feeling that my world is collapsing around me, to feeling OK again within a day or two (as opposed to weeks or months, like when I was drinking). My “problems” are still there, but they no longer swallow me up. It reminds me of that scene in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, in which all Jim Carey’s surrounding elements burst into blackness, one by one, leaving him alone and exposed in a black hole with no protection. Just like that, my external environment can evaporate and I exist solely in the recesses of my mind, the “problem” magnified to such an extent that it is my only thought my obsession. No exit…

…Until I practise what I’ve been taught in AA. Pick up the phone. Write an email. Write an inventory. Look at my part. Pray and work at removing my character defects. Go to a meeting. Remind myself This too shall pass. Feel what I’m feeling and don’t run away, conscious that all this makes me stronger, flexes those under-developed emotional muscles that I need to cope with adversity. Be aware of the lesson being presented to me. And maybe most importantly, for me, evaluate my HALT status. Hungry. Angry. Lonely. Tired. If any of these components are ignored I am guaranteed to feel off balance. Address this. Do something about it.

When I do all these things the results truly astound me. I find my feet moving to where I need to be (whether it be work, social, or a meeting) and HP takes care of the rest.

F**k growth!

Having moved countries recently and therefore AA fellowship, I was struggling to find someone I connected with. However, last week I found myself sitting next to the same woman for two consecutive meetings and what a blessed coincidence that was. She has nearly 17 years and like me, got sober in her late twenties. Straight away I liked her, felt very comfortable and was able to talk to her with great ease. I was delighted and hugely relieved. Since then she has already been an invaluable help to me, and I wanted to share some of the reassuring things she has written to me.

“What I would say is that I have revisited feeling broken and raw many times in my recovery and bounced back.  In fact it is a right of passage.  It shows growth is happening …. (I know…. f**k growth – who needs it…lol)  Now, I know that will give you no hope at all right now!  And in fact – I’m not saying I love the experience either!!  But, it has given me faith that all will be well in my world…. eventually – that I will be ok, no matter what.  And it’s built my emotional muscles for dealing with my feelings.  Unfortunately because we by-passed a lot of this emotional growth as kids, it comes back with a wallop when we experience it as adults.”

So much hope. So much strength. Just what I needed to hear.

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